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.