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 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.