Monday, June 12, 2017

A Collective Celebration


As I reflect on my past four years at Stanford, I am overwhelmed with gratitude. While I have put in some of the effort, the upcoming graduation a week from today is the collective accomplishment of the countless people and circumstances that have come together with Jeje’s blessings.

There are so many people who contributed to this milestone, some who I have met and many others who I have not met but who have made the opportunities that I have enjoyed possible. I am grateful to the indigenous communities to the places where I have lived for their careful stewardship and care for generations. I give thanks to the courageous civil rights and women’s rights activists who made it possible for women and people of color to get a good education in the US. I give thanks to the people who work so hard in the fields, factories, and stores around the world to give me food, clothing, and luxuries that I have grown up with. I give thanks to my ancestors in India who have passed down wisdom, values, and knowledge through generations that continue to guide me.

While there are hundreds of teachers, family members, mentors, acquaintances and friends that I give thanks to, most of all, I give thanks to my inspirational grandparents and parents for all of the sacrifices they have made with love so that I could have the best in life.

Sneha means friend in Telugu, and is a symbol of my parents’ deep friendship and love for each other. They model unconditional love every day through their patience, wisdom, and selfless devotion to our family. I give thanks to my Amma for her selfless devotion to creating a life of peace, opportunity, and learning for me. To quote an essay that I wrote in 2016:
Sneha thinks about her mother, a woman with five university degrees who could create detailed financial analysis of the real estate market, who had won the school’s parent volunteer award, who could know exactly what someone needed before they even knew they wanted it. She thought about her mother’s hands which would wash dishes, write daily inspiring text messages, plant bougainvillea plants, and turn pages of her favorite Indian philosopher, Jiddu Krishnamurti. She thought about her mother who would cook three meals for every meal: one for her in-laws, one for her and Prabu, and one for the kids. One with chili one without. One with cilantro and one without. She thought about her mother who would spend hours on the phone listening to the challenges of her friends and who would drop everything to help them. She thought of her mother who had sacrificed her career for her husband and her childrens’ success. She thought about her mother who she had never seen frowning or angry, of the woman who had never yelled even when Sneha had spilled milk on the table almost every day of kindergarten. She thought of the woman who had taught her to multiply and read, write, and speak two languages before the age of 4.


Figure 1: Amma and I at the Dallas Arboretum. Seeing her makes me feel peaceful and joyful

I give thanks for my Baba for being the joyful, adventurous, gentle, brilliant, and selflessly reliable human he is. He shifted careers and spent weeks traveling to give us a stable and comfortable life. While he has worked so hard to provide for us, he was always there for us, attending every school function, reading to us, and sending postcards. He infused me with his passion for learning and I am amazed by how he seems to know something about just about everything. I remember days coming home from the library with a heavy bag filled with too many books to comfortably carry. We would all on the floor of the living room as he held read aloud in a dramatic voice holding up the book with one hand while massaging my aching shoulders with the other.  He taught me that everyone is my family, and I internalized this to the point where I didn’t realize that everyone I met were not literally my uncle, aunt, grandparent, or sibling until I started school. He made it a priority to take me to travel whether we were crossing troll bridges in Grapevine Park or traveling thousands of miles, he prioritized experiences that filled me with joy, wonder, and connection. To quote 10-year-old Sneha:
Baba is so wonderful! He is so warmhearted, smart, funny, strong, caring, and way higher than an average dad. Out of a scale of 1-2, I would give him a 100100.


Figure 2: Baba is glowing as I give him a hug in one of my dorm rooms at Stanford.

Saroja comes my maternal grandmother, Sarojini Devi. Saroja is one of the many words for lotus, a symbol of strength, beauty, and purity. She approached her life with a patient and overflowing expression of love. As one of the first women lawyers in India, she led with grace and tenacity, advocating for women and minorities with compassion and strength. Thanks to her efforts and kindness, numerous families have gotten the opportunity to attend school. While I have only spent a few days in her presence many years ago, I remember her vividly. I remember the way her elegant hands guided mine across her violin bow, the way she would gently care for my grandfather, for the way she fussed over Raga when she got stung by a bee and got us enough ice cream for days. My grandfather was also a smart, charismatic, and funny person who encouraged my mother to study. To quote an essay I wrote in 2016:
The thin blue letter arrives in the mail. Lakshmi peels away the layers of papers gently. ప్రియమైన ప్రభు, లక్ష్మీ, స్నేహ, రాగా (Dear Prabu, Lakshmi, Sneha, Raga) the letter always starts. Lakshmi reads the letter aloud at dinner. Sarojini Devi has received the videotape of Sneha and Raga’s piano recital and their drawings and she has shown them to everyone who stopped by. She tells Prabu that he is a person of “extreme goodness” and Lakshmi that she is proud of her. She asks Lakshmi to put Raga in art classes and to ask Sneha to send her another story. Warmth resonates from those thin blue pages and she is in the room although she will never leave India.
Sneha looks at the letter, but she can’t read her Ammamma’s handwriting. Later that night, Lakshmi calls Sarojini Devi. After they talk briefly, she hands the phone to Sneha who knows by now to hold the phone a few inches from her ears.
“AMMAMMA LOVES YOU!” Sarojini Devi shouts.
“I love you too Ammamma,” Sneha says and then passes the phone back to Lakshmi as she runs off to play with Raga.
Ayyagari is my family name, and I think lovingly to my paternal grandparents. I had the privilege of living with my Bamma and Tata for most of my childhood, and their love and presence in my life shaped me in many ways. I followed Tata around the garden and learned from his love and care for living creatures. He would teach me about the plants and insects as we crouched over the vegetables. When I came home from school, I would look through his catalogues full of fruits and flowers and he would order some of the ones that I got excited about. I remember when we ordered Sally, our fruit salad tree, that according to the brochure was supposed to grow plums, apples, peaches, and pears on the same tree. While we would usually get only one of the fruits each year, I enjoyed getting to see how he cared for plants at all stage of life. He also has a love for learning, and his room was always full of stacks of books. Despite having to leave school to support his family, he has worked hard to continue to study throughout his life, and he will graduate soon with his PhD in Indian philosophy. I would grow up hearing his stories and I appreciate his wisdom. To quote an essay that I wrote earlier this year:
                        “Tata, tell us another story!”
My twin sister Raga and I sat on my grandfather’s knees, gazing into his wise and creased face. His serious demeanor always melted when he tried to satisfy our undying thirst for his stories.
“Have you heard the story of the squirrel who helped Rama pave the path to Lanka?”
We had heard the story many times before, but it was one of our favorites, so we listened with rapt attention to the story of the Indian squirrel who pushed sand into the ocean to help Rama build the bridge to Lanka to reach Ravana’s kingdom. In his gratitude, Rama had lovingly stroked the squirrel’s back with his fingers. This explains why Indian squirrels have stripes on their backs whereas other squirrels did not have this honor.
After he tired of telling us stories, my parents would often turn on one of our family’s favorite cassettes, Balamurali Krishna’s rendition of Thyagaraja’s famous compositions which described his incredible devotion to Rama. While he does not have stripes on his back like the squirrel in his story, my grandfather is a deeply spiritual person, and he shared his devotion with us by introducing us to Thyagaraja’s music.
Figure 3: Tata is telling Raga and me a story on day when we came home from high school

My Bamma is an incredibly warm and intelligent person who expresses her love for her family in everything that she does. A gifted teacher and lover of language, she would teach me something every day. I remember flipping through the pages of the 3rd edition of Webster’s International Dictionary which weighed upwards of 10 pounds with her and poring over the tiny font with delight. She worked so hard and with so much joy throughout her life, balancing her job and family to provide the best for my dad and for Raga and I. Whether she is solving Sudoku puzzles or reading, she keeps her mind active, and I feel so grateful when she shares her words of wisdom with me.

Figure 4: This picture expresses more than an essay could. I love you Bamma!

I am so grateful that I get to share the day with my sister and best friend, Raga. It is a beautiful to have a person who has known me from the first moment of our existence, and I think that sometimes she knows me better than I know myself. She has been there for me countless times. This time last year I was recovering from a particularly physically taxing illness, and it hurt to look outside and even the thought of getting out of bed was exhausting. I would not have made it through without her constant support and care. Whether we are giggling about the ridiculous emails we wrote to each other in 2006, smiling at any dog we ever see, or talking about our deepest fears, I am so grateful for our friendship.
Figure 5: Raga and I are wearing Amma’s saris that were given to her by Ammamma and Bamma, our namesakes

June 18 is a day that will celebrate the many people who have supported me in ways that weave together the beautiful life that I have enjoyed so far. Thank you.






Sunday, May 7, 2017

Repainting my shell

As I reflect on the many emotions that I feel as I approach graduation soon, I have been reading my old reflections, some of which resonate with my current thoughts. Here is a slightly edited version of a journal entry that I wrote in June 2015:

"Sometimes in this world of contradictions, I feel that I am a tortoise, lumbering slowly, lugging a large shell as the world whirls by. I am a million years old, my soul full of wisdom and pain that  extends beyond my own short twenty years of experience, but at the same time, I see the world through the eyes of a child, bright and idealistic. I look at how messy the world of politics and foreign policy is where no matter what is done, there can be no good outcomes. I look at people with good intentions causing more harm than good - who are paralyzed by their ideas and the constantly shifting immediacy of the world's problems. I see so much beauty and at the same time feel so much pain. My imagination spirals out of control, portraying hypotheticals and slippery slopes that lead to dark abysses. In all of that thought, a lot of energy is lost, and the shell grows thicker. 

Sometimes I lay on my back, exposing my belly to the world without a second thought, gazing at the sparkling dew on the spiderwebs in the green leaves that are caving slightly in the sunlight. I trust and let my guard down so completely, like a little child, that I forget that people like to collect shells and make tortoise soup. And suddenly, I flip back over and slide on my leathery legs, dragging my thick shell across the sand, my eyes fixed on the creases of the ground. 

How can I be trusting, but not naive? How can I decorate my shell and find the e/D * value that optimizes the flow of my breath and the essence of my life without leaving myself exposed or aching under the weight of my own fears, doubts, and worries?...

I want my shell to be simple and elegant. Light enough to carry and mold to my skin, but hard enough to repel predators gracefully. I want to give myself the freedom to make mistakes and embrace those ambiguities and uncertainties. I want to be the best friend and student of life that I can be. I want to be innocent but strong - exude strength and warmth and love. I want to inspire and be inspired. I want to make my shell a work of art - vibrant and beautiful - a mosaic of gratitude dappled with the gently jagged shapes of healed scars glittering in a veneer of fresh enthusiasm. I want to paint it green - alive, harmonious, and healthy. 

It would be gentle enough to dry a tear and strong enough to weather a tsunami. 

I am grateful for all of the loving people in my life and for all of the opportunities that I have to live and learn about myself and the world. I am grateful for this space to relieve the weight of my shoulders and coax the fatigue out of my eyes."

*e/D = pipe relative roughness factor (I was studying fluid mechanics at the time)


Friday, September 11, 2015

Nos vemos

Today is my last day in the Asofenix office, and I am spending the day bringing closure to what has been one of the most fulfilling three months of my life. Last week was very emotional as I said goodbye to my family and friends within the community. I will always remember that week and the little acts of kindness that filled my stomach and heart. I will remember the care with which my host father wrapped up my boots to take with me, and sitting on a rice bag chatting with my host mother late into the night as she baked me cosas de horno to bring back with me. I will remember brushing my teeth the last night under the sparkling night sky to a chorus of barking from the neighborhood dogs. I will remember getting drenched in a thunderstorm while we hiked up the mountain to collect bright yellow berries called nalcites. I will remember the bright smiles of the children who came to play with me, and also their long faces as they begged me not to go. I will remember the kind notes that my friends sent me and our parting hugs. Even if it is challenging, I will try to stay in touch and I sincerely hope I can visit again.

This week I have been spending most of my time in Managua working on final reports and projects but Tuesday and Thursday I left the office. Tuesday was a fresh breath of mountain air as I got to visit Green Empowerment's other Nicaraguan partner ATDER-BL in the city of Matagalpa. I had a bit of an adventure in the morning sprinting to the bus station just as the bus was leaving, but I made it just in time. I spent the day wandering down the busy streets, reflecting in the beautiful churches, and appreciating the flowers and steep mountainous roads. I ate a breakfast of only vegetables (what a luxury!), and the director of ATDER-BL made my day by giving me a fruit cup complete with a slice of apple. I bought a handful of fresh jocotes and bananas from a street vendor, but as I walked down the street, I ended up giving them all away to the homeless people I passed with a smile. I treated myself to a smoothie and a fresh guava for lunch and tasted some pitaya sorbet at a charming ice cream shop. I chatted with an artisan and bought some of her work to bring back as gifts. I sat and reflected in a local park smiling at babies as they waddled by and helping an elderly lady read phone numbers in her phone. I enjoyed chatting with Caitlyn on the bus rides and learning more about the challenges and rewards of work in the non-profit world.

Thursday, I spent the day running errands around Managua with Dona Norma running across the highways and swaying in the crowded city buses. After a couple unsuccessful visits to the bank, I found an ATM that worked, and I was really excited to be able to buy her some new shoes which I hope will help with her foot pains. I also mustered the motivation to get my report done after everyone had left for the day. It is rewarding to see that I actually have done a significant amount of work this summer, and that I could write up a report of about 50 pages. I hope that it is helpful to Asofenix and future interns as well.

Ultimately, this fellowship affected me deeply at a personal level. This experienced pushed me out of my comfort zone, and I learned more about my own values, goals, and talents. I embraced the opportunity to work more independently, develop proficiency in communicating in a different language and culture, and present in front of a variety of audiences and age groups. Having the opportunity to teach reinforced my passion for education and my resolve to continue to take every opportunity to learn from and share experiences and skills with every person I meet. I gained insight into the many dimensions that contribute to a sustainable energy project. Working on both the educational and technical aspects of the work allowed me to see how all of the projects fit together into an integrated and transformational program. I also made a number of deeply meaningful friendships with the families in El Bálsamo, and I feel that I have another family here in Nicaragua. I was deeply moved by the opportunity to learn from and share the stories of the resilient and loving people I worked with. I have enjoyed learning the nuances of Nicaraguan language and culture, and I have become so immersed that I have even started dreaming in Spanish. This fellowship reinforced my desire to couple my technical skills and interest in science with my passion for teaching and community building to create a more just and sustainable world.
 
I am so grateful to Stanford, MAP, Green Empowerment, and Asofenix for making this experience
possible. I am thankful for my friends and family who encouraged me to take this opportunity and
have supported me throughout the experience. While I have to say "nos vemos" to Nicaragua, I take
comfort in the dual meaning of the phrase. While it means goodbye, it also means we'll see you again.

 

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Faldas and Friends

The past three weeks in Nicaragua have been both challenging and rewarding in ways that I could not anticipated. I am grateful for a healthy body and mind. I spent a week recovering from a mysterious stomach bug, and I am so thankful for people who supported me Managua while I was getting better. I got a first hand experience of health care in Nicaragua, and the experience was certainly very different than my visits to Stanford hospital. I have a greater respect for the difficulties of operating a clinic with limited resources, and I have confirmed yet again that I would not be very happy being a doctor.

After a few days of day long naps and numerous shots of intravenous antibiotics of different varieties, I felt well enough to accompany some of the Asofenix staff on a trip to a couple of other communities. In the morning I went to Candelarias, a community with dry and rocky terrain to help repair a solar powered water system. I started off doing a little work with the wires and screwdrivers, but I ended up succumbing to the shy smiles of the children and playing instead. We practiced writing letters and making stories in the dirt and tracing our hands in the mud as the wasps buzzed around our faces. One of the families thought that I was the daughter of Gustavo, the hardworking, intelligent, and always smiling Asofenix engineer. We all laughed because we are too close in age, but it also reminded me of how early children grow up in the communities that we are working with.  In the afternoon we went to El Bejuco, a lush and mountainous region. After spending most of my time in the dryer parts of the department, it was refreshing to see the forests and even feel a little bit cold. We were greeted with delicious corn patties, cheese, and coffee. I got to help out Dona Agueda, the education and agriculture expert in Asofenix with a workshop on the relationship between gender and energy. It turned out to be a bit of a touchy topic, but hopefully the workshop got a discussion started to empower women to have an equal say in energy decisions in the community. I thoroughly enjoyed getting to spend time through thoughtful conversations with Gustavo and Agueda and get to know different communities. 

After a restful weekend, I was eager to get back to Balsamo. Getting to the community felt more like going home than a long journey. During my long layover in the Teustepe bus stop, I decided to make an uncharacteristic impulse buy. I bought a knee length pink falda. When I was waiting for the bus, I saw several familiar faces who asked me where I had been and if I was feeling better.

The week that I was sick, the kids apparently waited and waited for me to come, and they were very happy to see me get off of the bus. When the bus driver dropped me off, they were hiding in their usual places giving themselves away by giggling. I pretended to be scared before my face melted into a smile, and they enveloped me in a hug.

The next day I wore my skirt and a light sweater. With my weathered black flats and braid I looked like the other women in the village. While all that had changed was my dress, suddenly I was perceived less as the gringita and more as a member of the family. When I was not working, I made tortillas, went to church with my friend, stopped and chatted with different families, and played with the children.

The educational work as well has been coming along well, and I am enjoying the role of bringing people and ideas together and starting discussions. Times continue to be difficult without rain, and despite the challenges, people are finding ways to stay positive. I have been making so many friends, and I am growing by learning of their strength and resilience.

Last week, I brought my computer to show some pictures, and it was delightful to see their faces light up. We went on a hike in our flip-flops looking for internet signal, and although we didn't find it, I enjoyed the cool mountain air and panoramic view. It was beautiful chatting and joking in the steep descent as they all took care to make sure that I didn't fall by putting their arms around my waist and holding my hands.

There are so many special moments and people that make each day so rewarding, exciting, and peaceful. I am still sifting through the numerous beautiful memories I am making and struggling to find closure with the rapidly ending experience here. I have really fallen in love with the people and work in El Balsamo. While I am excited to return back on Monday, I am very also sad because it will be my last week and I am not ready to say goodbye. I am grateful for everything I am learning and feeling.

Friday, August 7, 2015

One large family

In the past two weeks, El Balsamo has become more like home and family to me. Now that everyone knows me, I can sit down in plastic chairs outside people's houses and chat for hours about anything and everything. I am attuned to the subtle nuances of life, and now I can participate more fully. I can sense the eager eyes of the pig when she wants to sneak into the house and shoo her away. I know the back ways to get through the village, and I can walk through the steep rocky trails in flip-flops.

The community has also warmed up to me, as the realize that I am here to stay for a bit longer. I was invited to make a surprise birthday cake for a quincenera using one of the improved cookstoves in the community that Asofenix installed. It was good fun mixing batter and chatting with my friend and her parrot in her kitchen. The next day I went to the birthday party for dinner, and it was fun chatting and celebrating. They know me well and are very considerate, so they even gave me juice instead soda and fished the vegetables out a soup so I didn't have to eat the meat. I felt like part of the family chatting with the ladies and playing with the kids.

I have really enjoyed getting to learn new things including how to ride a horse in flip-flops and make perfectly round corn tortillas. Whenever people want a laugh, they ask to listen to my pathetic attempts to whistle. I am determined to learn before I leave, and they assure me it is really easy although I still haven't had much success so far. I am also learning a bit how to dance, and they even threw me a dance party where I self-consciously danced in the dim light of flashlights with a surprisingly large number of people who came to watch. Some people have even taken to calling me "Chenita," an affectionate manipulation of my nickname.

Getting to know people better has also given me insight into the struggles and difficulties that the people are facing. It is a particularly dry winter here, and because the bean crops did not come out, most people are out of work and are struggling to make ends meet.  I heard about one lady's struggles with an oppressive mother. I listened to a mother grieving for her son who died suddenly, and talked to his wife who is now working several jobs to support her children. I listened to people who were planning to go back to Costa Rica early to work the back-breaking night shift coffee plantations to make enough money to support their families. A friend told me how before the dirt road was constructed, she would have to wake up at 3 am and hike 2 hours by foot to take a 3 hour bus to go to secondary school, and how everyone dropped out of school to avoid the walk except for her and on other person from El Balsamo.

I am humbled by the strength and resilience of the people, and I am honored to be able to listen to their stories. One of the gems came from a discussion I was having about learning and development with one of the leaders in the community. Roughly translated, he told me that "development is when people grow their conscience." He told me how it doesn't matter how much people have or don't have if they do not care for and care about what they have. The way he put it in Spanish was so eloquent and struck a chord with what I have been experiencing and learning about the practice of care.

I have loved spending so much time with children. My workshops in the school continue to be a learning process, but the kids are more comfortable with me now and I was invited to start working with another community as well. It was a beautiful hike up the mountain with the other school, and my experiences have reinforced how much I enjoy rewards of the beautiful challenge of education. I also visited 36 households with cookstoves to start working on a digital registry of the cookstove projects in El Balsamo and enjoyed chatting with the women. I have been working on planting trees and am helping plan a workshop about biofertilizers and pesticides to help combat the tomato plagues that have been affecting the patio gardens.

When I am not working, I am usually playing, and the three kids that I play with every day have become little siblings to me. They come to me to settle their fights about whether there "owl" (out) or "saaf" (safe) in our games of baseball. They have commandeered my camera taking hundreds of pictures of themselves and me when I am not watching. They are trying to set me up and find a boyfriend and it is amusing to see how excited they get when I talk to teenaged boys. They taught me how to make origami using bean shells, and love to sneak up to me. Yesterday, they took 30 minutes to say goodnight to me because they kept tickling me and then hugging me and telling me not to leave them. They told me "hasta Lunes," but they ended up waking up early anyway to see me off in the cattle truck this morning. I don't want to think about when I have to say goodbye for real.






 

Friday, July 24, 2015

Machetes and Mamones

I am back to the office in Managua after another rewarding week in the beautiful village of El Balsamo. There is love in people's hearts, food in their bellies, and smiles on their faces. People are growing accustomed to my face and it is gratifying to hike up the hilly dirt road and hear my nickname called from little boys riding horses in flip flops. I am no longer completely new, but it will still take a good amount of time (probably my  whole lifetime!) before I truly become a member of the community. Hovering between my life at Stanford and life here is liberating because it gives me a chance to observe and learn in a completely different context. However, it is a little alienating at times being so far away from my friends and family, and being an outsider in a very close-knit community.

I arrived to the community in a truck with the material to build cookstoves. I was sandwiched between the rotund and jovial driver and Xobeyda, a student that was returning back home after finishing her last exam for the semester. We lumbered along at 30 kph, the stick shift digging into my leg as the driver changed the gears of the groaning pickup. I was grateful for a small body that can fit in a surprising amount of places, and for the nice company for the ride.

This week, I helped construct 4 Joco Justa cookstoves. Each stove takes about 5 hours to complete, and I had fun learning, working hard, and getting dirty. It was satisfying hacking at cement bricks with a machete while imagining that each blow was breaking off a little bit more of the poor health and poor education in the world. It was hard work laying bricks, filtering rock, mixing and laying cement with a local artisan, Darvin. I was followed by an entourage of children. I gave them my camera to take pictures of what they wanted to, and I got some pretty interesting pictures of the community. It was interesting seeing their narratives through the pictures they decided to take, and they took some candid shots of me working in unflattering angles which made me laugh. While I was helping with one of the cookstoves, I was followed by a 3 year-old-boy who was completely enamored by me. He kept insisting that I play in the piles of rock and cement with him, using a bent piece of metal to etch designs into the dirt floor. Whenever I would stand to lift a brick or help with the stove, he would yell my name until I sat down with him again and drew another line in the dirt. At another home, I was watched by two very tiny kittens who burrowed in the dirt.

I taught another lesson in the school this time about how solar panels function. I think they liked it ok, but I felt that it went over their heads a little bit. They were interested in learning more English words. I am learning, but it is a little bit of a struggle engaging all of the students, especially some of the rowdy boys. I am trying to balance the constraints of limited materials, teaching in a language that I am not completely fluent in, and a different style of learning. This summer has definitely got me out of my comfort zone speaking to all sorts of audiences from young children to professors. I am learning not to take everything personally if every student doesn't understand 100% of what I say or is not riveted by what I am saying. I am adapting to the reality of a culture in which education consists of copying what the teacher says for a couple of hours without any application or real expectation that the students really understand or enjoy what they are learning. These challenges make me all the more grateful for my wonderful education and the love of learning that I inherited from my family.

This week, I took my iPhone to the community. It was an interesting experience showing them pictures of my trips to Europe and Canada sitting in the dim light of their stone homes. They loved looking at the pictures, but it made me a little uncomfortable seeing how different the opportunities I have are than the kids that I was talking to. They discovered a video that I took a long time back of Mrs. Woods playing piano, and it brought back so many memories for me, amplifying the feeling of floating between the life I am learning about the life I have lived so far.

I am starting to feel the physical wear and tear of 3 weeks of physically active and rigorous days. My muscles are very sore, and my head hurts from chronic dehydration. However, the small pleasures of life in the village far over weigh my tiredness. Eating mamones, a green lychee like fruit straight from the tree, and planning lessons with a baby puppy napping on my foot fill my heart with joy. It rained on Thursday, and it was beautiful getting wet in the rain that would nourish the crops.

Jaime, the founder of Asofenix, came to give a talk about environmental issues in El Balsamo yesterday. I attended and observed how people responded to the lecture, and I feel grateful to be working with an organization that has so much trust and support from the people. Alba was telling me how people love to attend any events put on by Asofenix whereas they are vary of other organizations that come take pictures, promise grand projects, and deliver nothing. It makes me sad that this type of exploitation happens, and I am learning how projects based on trust and confidence are made at Asofenix.

Yesterday, I returned with Don Jaime which was very comfortable. At 80 kph (more than twice as fast as the buses), the cool breeze after the rain whipped across my face from the open windows. The ride was breathtakingly beautiful with a double rainbow, and sunset colors over the verdant rolling hills. It was such a luxury having my own seat and just taking in the ride without any of the stress of traveling in a bus.  I feel grateful to have a clean, safe, and friendly place to return to in the Asofenix office. The other interns came back as well today, and I am looking forward to hearing about their experiences over the past few weeks as well. I am looking forward to a relaxing weekend to let my muscles and mind relax a little bit and catch up with friends and family.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Bastante

Bastante has become my favorite word in the Spanish language. It has two definitions that are often used interchangeably: enough and plenty. This nuance in language describes my first month in Nicaragua well.

I am working for Asofenix, a grassroots organization that works to develop and improve the lives of rural Nicaraguans in the villages in the hilly Boaco state. They focus on saving and utilizing natural resources with projects in renewable energy to bring electricity, potable water, irrigation systems, clean cookstoves, education, and sustainable agriculture to communities. They work directly with leadership within the communities, and individuals within the community provide the labor, materials, and part of the cost of each project. After reading about, experimenting with, and discussing the idea of working with communities as a student and TA in ME 177, I have enjoyed getting to see the rewards and challenges of working with communities in practice.

Casa 374 is my home and office in Managua where I share a small apartment upstairs and a large table downstairs. Its rose colored walls and slightly overgrown lawn greet me as I come back from the community on the weekends. Its many non-human denizens including Charlie the Cricket, the many geckos, stray cats, ants of varying size, and mosquitoes are my companions here. I fall asleep to the cooing of the mourning doves, whispering of the bats that I have been told live in the roof, and the chatter of the neighbors jamming to upbeat dance music. In the office, I work with Dona Norma, Dona Agueda, Don Jaime, Dona Lilia, and Dona Joasca, the other interns Nick and Kirsten if they are around, and the many people from the communities that come here to work occasionally. As the youngest member of the Asofenix team, the staff takes good care of me. Everyone works very competently, but they take some time to chat, gossip, and drink coffee in the mornings while I prepare my oatmeal. While I am at Managua, I am usually planning my work and lessons for the week, reading reports, or taking on odd jobs and tasks for the staff. In the evenings, I take a refreshing cold shower, cook dinner, and relax.

For the past two weeks I have been commuting to El Balsamo, a small mountain village in the state of Boaco. I am slowly mastering the crowded and slow buses in my long commute. I am getting used to the cramped seating (or standing) on the bus. I am peaceful now with my head pressed against someone's chest and someone's arm sticking into my side in the bus. It has been an interesting way to observe that space and cleanliness are truly commodities that I had taken for granted. As a part of living independently in a foreign country, I am learning about and pushing my own boundaries. The sweaty closeness to others has forced me to become more assertive and less self-conscious. Even the long bus rides can be tiring, I have been using them as opportunities to learn and relax. Small moments stand out. A woman next to me was dozing with her young son in her arms, and he rested his head on my arm and started snoring. When the woman woke up and realized that he was sleeping on me, she smiled before going back to sleep. Another time, I saw someone with the same water bottle that I had gotten from the Clinton Global Institute University conference I had attended in Miami, and I wondered about her story. It is interesting to read the safety instructions in the bus that are written in English, a language that most people in Nicaragua do not speak or read.

I am loving my time in El Balsamo. I am living with a family of 5 who have welcomed with loving arms into their home. I am eating abundantly from their farm starting my day off with black coffee, a warm corn tortilla, and a hunk of cuajada, locally made cheese. I am enjoying waking up chuckling at the pompousness of the roosters who are asserting their self-perceived profound importance early in the morning. I have been more active than I have ever been in my life playing many hours of soccer and baseball with sticks and stones with the neighborhood children and working with the men in the community. I am enjoying taking hundreds of pictures with children, letting them pack and unpack my bag several times, and the curious smiles of people as I walk down the rocky dirt road. Diana, the 5-year-old daughter of my host mother, leads me everywhere with her insistent call of "Shena, venga!" since we bonded after hopping on one leg around the corners of her stone and mud home.

I am working directly with the leaders of the community on Asofenix's projects. With Eustebia, the entrepreneurial cookstove promoter, I visited all of the kitchens in the community two weeks ago and learned about the various new types of stoves that will have huge health, environmental, and economic benefits to the women. I experienced the thick waves of smoke first hand, and after only a few hours of visits, I got a cold from the smoke. I have so much respect for the women who constantly wipe smoke out of their eyes as they lovingly prepare rice and beans for their families. Last week, I pounded gravel and shoveled concrete for the foundation of 4 cookstoves with Darvin, the master constructor of the cookstoves. Knowing that every heap of dirt was helping improving the lives of the women and children in the house was rewarding. It was also refreshing to do manual labor, the work traditionally done by men. I have never considered myself a physically strong person, but doing this kind of work has given me confidence to challenge gender stereotypes and appreciate my body for all of the weight it can carry given the opportunity and motivation.

I have also been learning quite a bit about sustainable agriculture and reforestation through my work in the patio gardens with Vidal and Socorro. I enjoy the feeling of the dirt under my nails as I plant seeds of tomato, pepper, onions, and cabbage that will provide families with nutritious fruits and vegetables to enjoy. Working on farms has been a dream come true for me, and I enjoy the sweaty and meaningful work. Fingering the dirt has filled me with gratitude for the soil, the source of all of my food, energy, and prosperity. As I eat a tomato or cucumber in the community, I savor it knowing the hard work and energy that went into producing it.

One of the most challenging and exciting parts of my work has been planning and implementing an environmental education program in the school and for adults. I taught my first lesson last week about different types of waste and how to dispose of it, and it was generally well received, and I am learning and adapting. It is a huge challenge teaching in such a resource constrained area, and I am even more grateful for the wonderful educational opportunities that I have had. Teaching in Spanish has also been an interesting challenge, and I am learning to improvise and make the most of the situation in the moment. I am enjoying connecting with the children as I play soccer and baseball in the dirt path outside the school. I follow the lead of the school's girls, ducking out of the way as a cowboy pushes his herd across the road and scraping cow feces off of the ball with a green leaf when the ball goes over the barbed wire fence. It is fun go back to elementary school with all of its innocent idiosyncrasies where the biggest arguments are about whether the goal should count or not.

In the past month, little things have changed. My fingernails are adorned with a layer of dirt. My hands are dotted with blisters, hardened by the metal of the shovel and hammer. My toenails resemble a Disney princess themed Jackson Pollock painting, the handiwork of some of the girls who have befriended me. My legs are spotted pink and red from mosquito and insect bites and healing scabs. My ears are attuned to the lilting cadence of the rural dialect. My nose smiles with the smell of Earth after the torrential monsoon rain and tolerates the stench of the pit latrine. My heart is full with a sense of abundance and gratitude in a world of bastante. My mind is patient and peaceful.

This experience is allowing me to explore and overcome my desires and ambitions. After the pace of life at Stanford, the unstructured climate of the organization and culture came as a bit of a shock. Accustomed to the structure of weekly p-sets and countless meetings, the open ended and largely independent nature of the work challenged my desire to always be doing something helpful. Redefining success and progress has helped me be satisfied with whatever comes my way. Abandoning the need to feel in control all of the time has been liberating in other ways as well.

Living and working on my own in a different language and culture has taught me how to become an adult. Whether it is knowing how to navigate public transport or cook for myself, relying on myself has given me skills that in the safe confines of the Stanford bubble or at home I don't need to do. Being on my own has also forced me to solve problems as they come with a level head and ready head. Episodes such as mopping up ankle deep filth from my regurgitating toilet, rehanging my sopping wet clothes after it rains on my clothesline, and scooping out bucketfuls of water from a moody washing machine have taught me patience and humility. I am so grateful that thanks to the the hard work and good fortune of my family, these types of problems are not my daily realities back home.

Through my growth and increasing independence, I have been incredibly blessed by all of the love and support of my family and friends back home and my new friends in Nicaragua. With their love, no matter what I have, it is bastante.