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.