An End to Silence

Disclaimer: I have truncated peoples’ names to a single letter out of respect to their personal lives and stories. I do not ask you to pity them and/or harbor their sadness. This is an account of the last week in my town. Injustices happen here, as they do all over the world. The injustice of the Chagas epidemic, and epidemics caused by other neglected diseases, are felt all over the Global South with limited affordable treatment options. The treatment for Chagas that is available in Nicaragua is the best of what exists in the world, but it is not good enough.  I am not asking you to take any action, yet, but if you are compelled to do so, I recommend donating to Drugs for Neglected Disease initiative (DNDi) a collaborative, patients’ needs-driven, non-profit drug research and development (R&D) organization that is developing new treatments for Neglected Diseases, including Chagas: http://www.dndi.org/donors/donate-support.html

An End to Silence

I just left a vela. It was for the brother of a friend of mine. Let’s call her H. He was 20 years old with a congenital heart condition that, despite doctors’ words of encouragement and reasons to hope, failed him far too young. My friend, 24, has a 4 year old son, and a younger sister who studied nursing but is currently unemployed.  Their dad spends most of his days drinking and/or perpetually drunk (the messy kind); though he occasionally dances with sobriety, he always returns to the bottle.  He attributes his lack of restraint to agonizing flashbacks of his suffering during the civil war and time as a refugee in Honduras, memories too painful to relive without mental lubrication. The mom is a school teacher.

I arrived at the vela just after 9pm, with 5 girls from my house. H. had given a few charlas to the girls in the past year so they wanted to pay their respects as well. We came late because we were making rice krispy treats (the girls can’t get enough sugar!) for C., “the Chaparrita” (colloquial for short), to celebrate her 17th birthday. The girls roared with laughter at the stickiness and stubbornness of the marshmallow paste, while I maintained a wide grin watching them find so much enjoyment out of such a simple task.  The night before I suggested we make C. a card. I lovingly laughed, to myself of course, during the hour art-session it took to write what resembled a solicitude to the alcaldia: We write to you today because it is the anniversary of the day that you were born. Then they drew a picture.

I was surprised to see that the vela was packed at such a late hour.  At 10 pm, the mourners were still handing out food to countless community members that came to show solidarity. Yes—the grieving distribute food to all who come, though close friends and family may help with some of the expenses.  I asked if there was anything I could do to help and was given a bag of miniature muffins. I followed in the procession of the grieving, trailing the platters of food and keeping closely behind the coffee purveyors. We walked like cocktail servers from the back patio through the house and to the main street where neighborhood kids congregated with the grieving family and townspeople, all sitting on donated plastic chairs and under tents — one from CEPS, a reproductive health education NGO, and the other from the European Union –as they recounted the boy’s last moments along with the day’s gossip. After hugging H. once more, we said goodnight and the girls and I left to return to our house.

The next day I offered the Health Center assistance with activities for International Chagas Day. I replicated the popular “Pin the Tail on the Donkey” and made “Pin the Pico (mouth) on the Chinche”. Chagas disease, caused by a parasite found in the feces of a chinche (the kissing bug) after it bites, is endemic in Nicaragua (especially in the Northern region where I live) and left untreated can cause serious and often irreparable damage to the heart and other vital organs. According to Drugs for Neglected Diseases initiative, a non-profit that works to bring greater attention and mobilize resources to the epidemic, there are more than 14000 Chagas deaths annually in the 21 endemic countries in Latin America, far surpassing deaths from other parasitic and vector-borne illnesses and disproportionally affecting people living in poverty, especially children.

Chagas is considered a silent disease for two reasons: people afflicted are often asymptomatic during the acute phase when treatment is (most) effective in killing the parasite, and in spite of being the leading cause of infectious cardiomyopathy worldwide, the international community and pharmaceutical industry have done little to address the disease with minimal investments for improved prevention, diagnosis, and treatment options.

In Nicaragua, much of the charge behind Chagas prevention and intervention is championed by JICA, Japan International Cooperation Agency, through means of technical assistance to the Ministry of Health and volunteer health promoters, similar to Peace Corps Volunteers.  Although the Health Center had coordinated an activity at the primary school for International Chagas Day with materials donated from JICA (in Nicaragua the day is marked 3 months after the official date), the boy’s death changed previously agreed upon commitments. Since his mother was a school teacher, both the primary and secondary schools were closed for the day and everyone was encouraged to attend the Church Misa and subsequent burial.

Ironically, I walked to the Health Center with one of the girls from my house, M., who was told not to go to school (before it was officially canceled) so that she could do follow-up blood work. M is one of my favorites; I often catch her staring and smiling at me from the reflection of the house mirror. She is 19 and in her final year of secondary school, a tremendous accomplishment, especially coming from her community. She is roughly 5’ tall and weighs less than 90 lbs.  She lives in extreme poverty with her parents, brothers, and sisters in the mountains of Mozonte. I asked her once if she had enjoyed her birthday the previous day. She responded, “we’re poor”, meaning nothing­­­ out of the ordinary was done to celebrate and with no extra resources to make the day special, coupled with a culture of indifference, the day came and went as any other day in the year.

M. stood waiting at the Health Center for the lab technicians from Ocotal, who arrived nearly 2 hours late. Several months ago, M. recounted to the responsable of my house that when she was 8 she was picked by a chinche and her ensuing blood test came back positive for the Chagas parasite. The community’s solution to the chinche problem in her adobe house (the bugs typically live in houses made of adobe and other materials most commonly employed by the poor) was to assist the family in building a new chinche-free home. Typically the antiparasitic medication for Chagas is (most) effective (60-85% efficacy) during the acute phase of the disease. M. was never put on treatment. The responsable, in dismay and horror of the events described, insisted that all the girls in the house be tested. M.’s exam came back positive. That was three months ago and over ten years since initial infection and the acute phase of the disease.  She was now returning to the Health Center to confirm the results so doctors could then determine the irreversible damage that has been done to her heart. Did I mention she was 19?

While I was waiting for M. to finish with the technicians, I stood chatting with the doctors and showed off my foam-board chinche with attachable mouth-and-all that I had made for the now cancelled activity. Taking me by surprise, the Health Center Director, a Nicaraguan from Leon, remarked that he didn’t understand the culture surrounding death in Mozonte, and perhaps the traditions in all of Nicaragua. He questioned the closing of schools and businesses – claiming it was a wasteful use of the limited resources that exist in the country.

His commentary reminded me of a passage from the non-fiction book Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty, which I had read earlier in my service. This is the reference:

In South Africa, social norms on how much money to spend on funerals were set at a time when most deaths occurred at old age or in infancy. Tradition called for infants to be buried very simply but for elders to have elaborate funerals, paid for with money the deceased had accumulated over a lifetime. As a result of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, many prime-age adults started dying without having accumulated burial savings, but their families felt compelled to honor the norm for adults. A family that had just lost one of its main potential earners might have to spend something like 3,400 rand (around $825 USD PPP), over 40% of the household annual per capita income, for the funeral party. After such a funeral, the family clearly has less to spend and more family members tend to complain about “lack of food,” even when the deceased was not earning before he died, which suggests that funeral costs are responsible. The more expensive the funeral, the more depressed the adults are one year later, and the more likely it is that children have dropped out of school.

Nicaraguans like to compare their quality of life to life in Africa in a blend of “one-upmanship” and empathy. To be fair, this is not uniquely Nicaraguan; people all over the world make comments about life in Africa – a particular pet peeve of mine. Africa is a continent not a country with many diverse countries and independent territories undergoing different phases of development. Tangent aside, Nicaragua is the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere after Haiti, and perhaps there is less reason for the superiority complex than one might think:

  • Although the African continent bears a disproportionally large burden of worldwide HIV cases, according to the CIA World Factbook, six African counties (out of the 54 African member states recognized by the UN) have an HIV/AIDS adult prevalence rate lower than the 0.02% in Nicaragua, notably the lowest in the region, although it has trippled in recent years. Those countries are: Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Comoros, and Cape Verde. Madagascar, the 15th most populated country in Africa (nearly 4 times larger than Nicaragua) and located in Sub-Saharan Africa, the intended region of comparison, has a prevalence rate just slightly higher than Nicaragua’s, though in the next census who knows how the two counties will fare.
  • Furthermore, according to OXFAM International data “the salary of Nicaraguan doctors (between 200 and 500 dollars depending on the area of specialty) barely exceeds that of that of these same professionals in Malawi, an African country with 80% lower income per capita than that of Nicaragua. In Honduras, which has a comparable per capita income to [Nicaragua], doctors earn nearly three times more than their Nicaraguan colleagues”.

The expense of funeral activities in South Africa, a country with one of the greatest burdens of HIV/AIDS, is not entirely congruent to the costs spent by families of the deceased and communal resources deployed for funerals in Nicaragua. But these examples shed light on some of the many systemic development challenges Nicaragua faces. Both funerals in South Africa and Nicaragua speak to a trend in the Global South:  silence through life and loudness in death.  Unless too poor for noise altogether.

I often hear people say that the lives of the poor are cheap. Although Nicaragua has socialized medicine “available” to all, many in the United States suffer without access or cripple savings accounts for a chance at treatment. Although it happens in Nicaragua as well, I think it’s to a lesser extent. People die. The angel of death has taken people I know and love in recent years and has left behind residual vacancy. Sometimes there is peace in death, other times there is injustice.

This is injustice.

As I fight my denial, I pray that M. is not truly in the symptomatic chronic phase of Chagas, where treatment and management of the condition may be beyond hope.  I pray that she has not listened to the countless charlas about Chagas and does not know her potential fate. I pray that the system will not make another potentially fatal error and fail to put an infected child on treatment immediately.  I pray that the uproar of sadness and solidarity in death can raise the volume for action in life. I pray for no more silence.

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ChatSalud: Coming Soon to a Cellphone Near You

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ChatSalud: Coming Soon to a Cell Phone Near You

Check out an article in the Nicaragua Dispatch I wrote with Lauren Spigel on ChatSalud, a project I have been working on with Lauren and other Peace Corps Volunteers in Nicaragua. There will be much more to share about ChatSalud in the future, or so I hope!

“Who run the world? Girls!” …but B, what if they don’t know it?

Far too much time has passed since my last post. For me and perhaps my one loyal reader out there (Are you there mom, its me Chloe (Victoria)?), this absence is palpable.   With these somewhat monthly deadlines, my mind has been conditioned to process events, extract themes, and harvest them until I have appropriate time at an internet café to divulge a semblance of formulated thought to family, friends, and the strangers who disappointedly stumble here. My desire to keep all of you informed has allowed me to better process my own experiences, observances, and tangents of all sorts. However, in the last few months, I have been living so many new experiences and anxieties that blog-worthy introspection didn’t fit into the agenda. I believe it was Socrates who said “the unexamined life is not worth living”. Although his words are wise, sometimes living leaves little time for reflection… and he must not have been enamored with a boy. Or maybe he was enamored with a few too many.  Either way, with honesty and hopefully a bit of integrity, that explains one of the reasons, along with some work/housing stresses, for my brief hiatus from blogging. But now, I’m back!

Quick update: I have moved from the porcine butcher’s family to the Casa de Estudiante, a boarding house for girls from the poorest families in the farthest communities. This year, 16 girls ages 12-17 live in the house during the week so that they can attend secondary school, receive class reinforcement, eat three daily meals, and have a childhood (admittedly, I am guilty of ethnocentrism). The house is supported by a wonderful Spanish family that believes that those who have should share. They also understand that to combat teenage pregnancy, girls must stay in school.  I have just finished my first week with the girls and will focus this blog post on what I am learning about the experience of girls living in poverty.

Last year, the Casa de Estudiante was amongst my most rewarding and most challenging work experiences. At the time, 12 girls lived in the house, including three sets of sisters, all from communities 2-5 hours on foot away from the town’s only secondary school. Their greatest commonalities: poverty and pena, meaning embarrassment/shyness.  Last year I came to the house a few days a week. Sometimes I gave a charla about a health theme and other times I entertained the girls with some type of manualidad (arts and crafts).  Unlike what you would imagine of a house full of girls, the corridor and rooms always felt hollow – devoid of sound and laughter. In discussions with the girls, they were silent and avoided any eye contact, no matter what dynamicas I attempted. Originally, I attributed this non-participation to my being foreign, but quickly learned that even with the Nicaraguans that spend day and night in the house, the girls’ behavior is the same.

In a previous blog post, The Faces of Motherhood, I described being with a doctor in the house of a 15-year old girl from one of the communities, informing her that she was pregnant. Her expressionless complacency in the life-altering situation she faced gave me chills that I still feel to this day. I later learned that this girl was previously a student living at the Casa de Estudiante, before she “got bored” and “got a boyfriend” (a euphemism for “got pregnant”).  More recently I discovered that two other girls who left the house ended up pregnant as well; one pregnancy resulted in a miscarriage and the other in a neonatal mortality. With this information, I made a promise to myself: to the best of my ability, I would focus on doing everything I could to keep these 12 girls from facing the same fate as their peers.  But how do you prevent teenage pregnancy?

In Nicaragua, 1 in 3 girls will become pregnant before reaching the age of 18 — the highest rate of adolescent pregnancy in Latin America. Adolescent pregnancy is endemic here, yet prevention is at a crossroads: Can the health facts (Girls 15 – 19 are twice as likely to die from complications in pregnancy and their babies chance of dying in the first year is estimated to be 50-60% higher than babies born to women age 19 or older) win over the prevalence and subsequent normalization of teenage motherhood?  Young girls are often looking after their younger siblings or relatives and when faced without competing future priorities like education and/or job opportunities, if sex means pregnancy, what compelling reason do they have to abstain?

Since these girls are already studying, I realized that their biggest obstacle to a future was pena, which I am told is of a greater extreme in this area than in other parts of the country.  Mozonte is recognized for its indigenous heritage, but the greatest reminder I see of this cultural ancestry is the history of ostracism and isolation of poor communities which have been kept at arm’s length, resulting in fear and debilitating shyness – especially in girls. And if a girl cannot assertively communicate, how can she learn to say “no” to sex or to negotiate condom use?

Last year my goal was to fight the pena and promote communication through new experiences. In groups of two, I took girls who were not good friends at the time to Ocotal, the nearby city, to spend the afternoon stepping outside of their small comfort zone. Some of them never go to Ocotal, and the ones who do go accompany their mothers to buy or sell produce. But I wanted this experience to be different. I took them to cafes and encouraged them to try new food and order for themselves. Most were incapable of speaking to a waiter and when asked what they wanted, their faces dropped to the floor.  When I walked into stores to show them art or clothing, I expected them to follow. Instead they waited outside the door until I escorted them in. With their feelings of inadequacy and discomfort in the most basic stores, their sense of shame reminded me of Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman after she was kicked out of the high-end boutique on Rodeo Drive. Had they ever been asked to leave because they didn’t belong or was it only their fear that the dreaded day would soon come?

When presented with the opportunity to live in the house with the girls for my second year of Peace Corps service, I was elated. I knew there would be challenges – but not what you might think. Since the girls are so shy, I didn’t imagine encountering difficulties maintaining personal space. The difficulties I envisioned involved the sluggish speed of building relationships with them — having them trust me and feel comfortable interacting together. The addition of 5 new girls, 12 and 13 years old, made the challenge that much greater. As these girls are so young and unaccustomed to staying away from their parents for four nights a week, it is this group that typically breaks their commitment to study and live in the house, consequently closing the door for one of the greatest opportunities they will receive to secure a different future. With these challenges, I enthusiastically began my new role as Victoria, the live-in “RA” at the Casa de Estudiante.

In my first week, I found myself taking many mental steps back in order to relish the joy of this experience. The twelve original girls reacted so positively to my living in the house… in their own way of course, with a few smiles and looks of fascination to see what I was doing as I unpacked my room. One of the girls from the previous year celebrated her birthday on Sunday, and on Monday I asked her how it went. She responded, “we are poor”. Although gifts and costly items do not make a birthday, it’s easy to forget that the act of making a day “special” is a luxury to some. Beginning a new tradition in the house, I made non-bake cookies with her and another February birthday girl. Later we sat down as a group and for the first time ever, every girl, led by the original twelve, spoke up about their hopes for the year: excelling academically, taking on new responsibilities, and moving forward to graduation. The following night I suggested we paint nails, thinking that they would paint each others. Instead they asked me. In spite of my blindness and podophobia, I gave 16 manicures and a virtually equal number of pedicures on their little tiny toes. As they gave me their hand or rested their foot on my leg, I felt the confianza growing. I bought a beach ball globe to show them a map and teach them country names. For the first time ever, I saw them playing and laughing in the house, as you would expect of children. And when two of the new girls came and sought me out to further introduce themselves, my heart warmed. These two cousins live 5 hours up a mountain and on Monday morning at 4:30 am, they climb on their father’s bicycle and with him ride down to get to school. One later asked me what was on my desk. She was pointing to my lamp, something she had never before seen. For the first time they are seeking me out for English homework help, when before I had to beg if I could assist them. I have waited nearly a year for these small and seemingly trivial moments; I am delighted to imagine what the future will bring.

The lessons I am learning and perspective I am gaining here is of inestimable worth to me. Among the take-aways, I am realizing the importance of individual and personalized relationships to effect change. There is no charla on teenage pregnancy I can give that would be anywhere as effective as simply spending time with the girls and making them feel their lives are of value.

In global discussions on teenage pregnancy, a lack of sexual education and access to contraception are usually deemed the greatest impediments to change. However, I firmly believe that is an oversimplification of the issue. Although depth and breadth of sex-ed could be greatly increased and improved in Nicaragua, access to contraception is mostly available; the main obstacle for safe sex begins with a pharmacist or medical professional or within a relationship — it is pena that inhibits girls from demanding more of their lives. Pena and not knowing what their lives are worth.

Monday through Friday will be my only opportunity to make an impression on the girls: to make the house fun and school enjoyable as well as to teach them about responsibility and fill the gaps in their reproductive and sexual health education. For the weekends they are home enjoying their families, but also living with threats and temptations to steer them off course. For instance, the lack of water in most of their houses means they bathe in a river without privacy, capturing the attention of men who prey on young pubescent girls. For this and other reasons, like their parents’ discouragement of their studying, the girls’ time away from the house will always worry me. However, I know what I must do to mollify my concerns: I must put my faith in them as I am trying to teach them to put faith in themselves.

Dr, Dengue! or how I learned to keep worrying and hate mosquitos

I stop mid forkful of beans with a blinding headache. No, this is no ordinary headache, neither cluster headache nor typical frontal migraine, but excruciating pressure originating in my eye sockets. Like they were zipped in a vacuum-tight sealer, sucked dry and lifeless like preserved meat.

Solution? Mid-day nap.

Ignoring the chickens and dogs, I lay my head down for a few hours.

Eyes open.

Headache?

Headache?

Freedooommm!

No.

WAIT. What is this pain in my legs? This is not that twitch that supposedly means I’m down on potassium or dehydrated or something … THIS is different and it ain’t good.

Dengue, Day 1.

I was lucky. I was very lucky. I had a case of classic dengue that lasted about a week, uncompromisingly painful, especially since the only analgesic permitted is non-Aspirin pain reliever so as not to damage the liver, which turned out to be important. Unfortunately however, Tylenol doesn’t quite do the trick when your hands and feet feel as if they have been robbed three layers of skin and simple exposure to air resembles shards of glass jabbing into the sinews of your raw being. But in time, the pain passed and although the recovery has been slow with some impediments along the way, I am on the road, or so I hope.

Besides permanent antibodies to the virus that remain in my system, I am walking away (mostly pain-free) from the experience with some insights and a broadened perspective about Nicaragua’s healthcare system and how being sick from a common illness here made me feel simultaneously more integrated and more ostracized from my community.

Dengue Fever, caused by the dengue virus, is endemic throughout Nicaragua, where the mosquito-vector Aedes aegypti lives and thrives.  This year we have seen a serious epidemic of the virus, boasting higher rates than usual across all regions of the country. While mosquito prevalence increases during the wet season (winter) from May – November, this year’s winter has been rather dry, meaning there is more standing water in populated communities, thus allowing the mosquitos to quickly breed and spread the virus.  In addition to upping the numbers of dengue and malaria cases (thankfully malaria is not prevalent where I live and there are only a few cases in the country, so Mom, take a breath), a dry winter wreaks havoc on food security which has been the cause of some civil protests regarding the market price of frijoles, not to mention less advertised protests of children silently fighting the unmet demands of their rumbling tummies. But, back to Dengue.

Since treatment of classic dengue is only symptomatic management, most Nicaraguans suffer in their homes and once strong “enough” continue about their lives. Some patients presenting symptoms visit the health center where their blood is taken and sent to a lab, and then they are whisked away with a handful of acetaminophen and rehydration salts, free as part of the country’s socialized medical program. While my town has reported the highest number of suspected cases of dengue fever in Nueva Segovia, vigilance is still a problem: blood samples are often sent to the lab after they are viable and patients are not informed as to whether the virus was ever confirmed. However in my case, after suspecting and confirming dengue at a private laboratory, I was sent to Managua to consult with Peace Corps doctors, where I could have access to the best hospitals, specialists, and laboratories in the country.

Many Nicaraguans have never been to Managua, just like many Americans have never traveled to Washington, DC (although you should!), or New Yorkers to Albany (but let’s be honest, NYC is the real capital — no offense Bobby Beach). But I often wonder, what are the implications of Peace Corps Volunteers maintaining a vastly different understanding of Nicaragua than many Nicaraguans, who for reasons of culture, finance, or competing priorities don’t leave their small pueblo or travel much beyond? Many Peace Corps Volunteers have the travel bug; eager to save Out Of Site Days to explore different parts of the country, and while this understandably separates us from our Nicaraguan colleagues, my experience with the dengue bug proved to have a similar effect.

I explain my absence from town. “Tenia dengue – I had dengue”, which is received mostly as a line of solidarity with Nicaraguans – mosquitos don’t discriminate foreign vs national blood when they go in for a feeding. In fact, the majority of Nicaraguans I have spoken with have had dengue once in their lifetime (twice means trouble), but when/if I continue to explain that I stayed in Managua, confusion inevitably arises. And here is the truth:  in a condition without real treatment, I was treated differently; and in a country where medical services are free, money still talks.

Although there is a hospital 10 minutes from my house, it is not a Peace Corps approved facility. Why, exactly? I am not sure, but I can use my imagination:

Of the two infant mortalities in my town in September, one was a tragic tale of a 2-month old presenting symptoms of pneumonia and respiratory distress. Hours after the call for help was made from a Brigadista (community health worker) to the health center, an ambulance was dispatched to retrieve the baby from the mountainous community. The baby was brought first to the closest health post with a doctor attending before it was sent to the hospital. In route, the baby’s breathing worsened. Mozonte’s one ambulance, like most in Nicaragua, donated from an NGO or another country, is essentially an empty van with two long benches across either side: no straps, no stretcher, and no equipment. When the medical staff arrived at the hospital with the baby in severe respiratory arrest, in need of supplemental air, there was no infant bag valve mask to be found… in the entire hospital. The baby died.

Like most stories, I am certain there is more to what happened than solely the sequence of events I know and recounted here. But as an outsider, learning of unjustifiable* tragedies, I must fight the desire to place blame on someone or something: a mother who has more mouths to feed than she can because of a lack of family planning, a health system that prioritizes using ambulance gas money for community messaging over medical emergencies, hospital administrators who either have not demanded enough of the right equipment or poorly manage what they do have, etc. There are countless reasons why infant mortalities, like this one, are happening nearly monthly in Mozonte. I am also told that this baby had a pulmonary birth defect that would have proven insurmountable regardless of supplemental air, but whatever the truth(s) may be, poverty is the pervasive obstacle — manifesting in different forms.

*As a health volunteer I am regularly exposed to the country’s public health system: clinics, hospitals, vaccine campaigns, sanitation campaigns, etc. The last 9 months in Nicaragua left me with the impression that a certain quality of healthcare exists in this country, but in my recent experience in Managua, I realized that this reality is not everyone’s and perhaps some of what I am seeing here is truly unjustifiable, not only in the global context but with respect to what is available in this country, albeit in the private healthcare system.

The Peace Corps Medical Office sends Volunteers to a private hospital that in terms of construction and cleanliness alone, seems on par if not rivals some hospitals in the US. I am not qualified to speak to the level of care and treatment by medical personnel but can say that the environment seems highly professional, organized, and equipped — a world-away from my nearby hospital. The hospital accepts private insurance or cash, and as a Volunteer, I am fortunately covered under Peace Corps medical insurance. Looking around the hospital, a few things are strikingly evident to my jaded “campesino” eyes: people are well dressed in expensive tailored clothing and the majority of patients are light skinned. Even the hospital brochures and signage are adorned with smiling white faces.

Seeing a pregnant woman in the lobby having just left an appointment with her OBGYN, I couldn’t help but compare this attention to the controls done in San Antonio, a community of Mozonte where the club of pregnant women successfully meets monthly. Some women walk hours in broken shoes to do their controls with a generalist/social service doctor, but I always thought they were mostly motivated to attend because my doctora friend passed out some food and newborn essentials after she visited a few houses and found that the babies either went without clothes or donned adult-sized t-shirts. I imagined this woman in Managua, decorating her baby’s room with items she and her husband purchased, stuffing drawers with adorable color-coordinated outfits with matching booties, and finding spots around the house for the overabundance of gifts they have been accumulating from family and friends.

Before my adventure with dengue, I was convinced that Nicaragua was a country of the “have-nots”, at least in terms of health. Sure, I know Latin America is infamous for the inequity of wealth, but Nicaragua’s wealth is even more concentrated in the hands of a few families than many of its neighboring countries.  Despite what many may think and some may say, we have similar inequality in the States.  Prior to this experience, I would have said that the inequality in America is less extreme since our public programs can and often do fill some of the infrastructural gap. However, now living amongst the “have-nots”, I am increasingly aware of the effect that my surroundings can have, acting as a blinder to the other side. Now I doubt my ability to adequately assess the disparities back home – maybe I have always been blind? While the old axiom, you cannot judge a man until you have walked a mile in his shoes, rings true, I question if it is ever truly possible to experience life like the man, no matter how long you walk.  The fact is, I will always be different here; my American passport does not just grant me access to a country many qualified Nicaraguans struggle to visit legally, but also it grants me access to a part of their country they likely will never know.

In my continuing quest to understand the happiness of Nicaraguans, I wonder if ignorance is bliss – maybe not knowing what opportunities evade them is a blessing after all. But for now, I know more than I did before. And that’s how I learned to keep worrying and hate mosquitos.

Sticking the Dismount: The Emphatic YES!

As a notoriously unathletic person, I am surprisingly adept when it comes to the Olympics, the summer Olympics that is (winter, what?).  I even go as far to say I like to high-five because it makes me feel athletic; however, during the Olympic Games, I can pass like any A-student in phys-ED without the sideline games. Every 4 years I ride the tsunami wave, along with the lethargic spuds of the world, devotedly tuned in to NBC or gasp… ESPN, divulging sports jargon beyond my comprehension and eye hand coordination. I have memories of incalculable worth watching the 2008 Olympics Games with my grandfather – in our one-upmanship of sports terminology, we both critiqued the athletes on TV from the cushion of his feather-bed, as if we were the coaches leaning on the edge of our hard stadium seats, rooting for our team.  As you might imagine, the experience of watching the Olympics here in a country that has 6 athletes competing is quite different than it is around bar tables and living room sofas in the United States, where we zone off when the US National Anthem plays for the um-teenth time, that day.

With limited access to television, let alone cable, I was extra attentive to the few minutes I caught of the women’s gymnastics floor routine, always a favorite of mine. Watching the girls like windup dolls, exerting unimaginable effort to appear effortless, I was, like everyone else, dumbfounded how a routine of such force and velocity could end still and soundless.  In the back of my head, like clothing pounding in a washing machine, I knew how the feat was accomplished: they committed to sticking the dismount.

In this experience, the thinker is in perpetual play – pontefication knows no limits. But the games began before Nicaragua. I have been, for a longtime now, actively committed to a quest that many like-minded souls undertake, though uncertain that the goal, happiness, lies within the journey or the destination.  A few years ago, an unlikely source – a prophetic cashier at a bodega in DC – handed me my groceries and set off a chain reaction in my mind, like a law-abiding adrenaline lover’s dream of poorly-wired streetlights harmoniously flashing green immediately after each preceding light. It was her four simple words, “be good to yourself” that have since caused countless speckles of crystallizing epiphanous color. She initiated my steadfast belief in personal responsibility for personal happiness, and now in the vast and solitary mental forest that is the Peace Corps experience, I am exploring the path of personal decision-making.

In true American spirit, I have been accustomed to making decisions that favor instant gratification but come with a side serving of guilt for not having opted for long-term success.  Guilt, amongst other unproductive emotional bi-products, is the nemesis of joy and its cumulative reach often extends beyond the consequences of a short-sighted decision. For example, if you have a scoop of ice cream but feel guilty for the caloric cost, you might not enjoy your treat and find yourself hours later craving more. I have come to realize that a precursor to happiness is being happy with the decision one makes. However, in order to be happy with such decisions, one fact must be acknowledged: everything shy of an automatic anatomical response is a decision. Not until we fully understand the control we wield can we accept the decisions we make and learn to make other decisions that better align our short-term and long-term interests to meet our needs. I am still working out the kinks of this theory before I resign it to the box of other Theories by Clew.

Nevertheless, the point that per usual I struggle to make, is that for the first time, I am embracing responsible experimentation through owning the “emphatic YES!”.

The verbal equivalent of sticking the dismount, the emphatic YES!, as in “hell yes”, a synonym says the Urban Dictionary, may be an essential part of my personal happiness, but does this mini-revelation apply beyond me and my assumption of the psychological state of gymnasts at the Olympics? In Western culture, freedom of expression (a form of decision-making) is practically an addendum to the 10 Commandments, but how do Nicaraguans view decision-making, happiness, and their connection, if they consider there to be one?

Let’s chip away at decision-making. If you spend 10 minutes listening to a Nicaraguan, amongst the “bueno” y “dale”, you will most likely walk away with one expression: Si Dios Quiere. In a country devastated by natural disasters (earthquakes, hurricanes, volcano eruptions, etc.) and years of dictatorship, “If God wants it” creates a quiet subtext of apathy for a politically charged nation. “Hasta mañana, si Dios quiere”. But what does the excessive use of this expression reveal about the Nicaraguan perspective on decision-making? Two immediate options come to mind: Nicaraguans are a pious people and believe only God has the power to make decisions or Nicaraguans are realists and recognize that there are factors outside of their control like any good AA cardholder (which many people here are). Both possible outlooks can be used to frame current social conditions in Nicaragua, take for example, the teenage pregnancy epidemic, through the eyes of the fatalist and the agent:

The Fatalist: There is one instituto in my town. Girls from the rural communities must trek hours in the black of night down a mountain to arrive at 7am for 4 hours of class before making the return journey home. Oftentimes, class is cancelled last-minute for meetings or a teacher does not show and there is no substitute replacement. Chances are the family of this young girl deems it more important that she help with the house work, including taking care of younger siblings, cousins, nieces or nephews. If the girl is capable of resisting the sexual advances of a male, what is her incentive to wait to have children? Love and the prospect of a nuclear family? Not the norm in Nicaragua, at any age. Physical health? Unfortunately increased risk of maternal child morbidity/mortality is not as compelling an argument as one might hope.  Pursuit of a better life? Even if girls can make the physical and mental commitment to finish high school with the best marks to obtain a scholarship for University, manage to secure funding for accommodations to study (i.e. travel costs), withstand family pressures to reside at home, abstain from consensual unprotected sex, and be lucky enough to avoid non-consensual advances by family members or other men in the community, the staggeringly high unemployment rate and often politically guarded jobs guarantee that a University degree does not make an easily life. So, in reality, poor girls from rural communities feel they are not meant to study, and if an educated and professional life is out of reach, why not have a baby (or rather, why not have sex, since for many young girls, birth control is not widely used and their first sexual encounter can and often does result in pregnancy)?

The Agent: Unfortunately the more rural the community, the less agency a girl tends to have to plan her life. However, there are still cases of girls, and women, who despite significant cultural and infrastructural barriers find a way to persevere. For instance, the Casa del Estudiante, where I work, houses and feeds 12 girls from rural communities who have committed to studying and therefore choose to live away from their families during the school week.  While this is not a permanent solution to the problem, it is one of the mechanisms that exist in Mozonte that girls can choose to take advantage of, albeit at a sacrifice.  And the sacrifice is clear: the house is capable of providing for over 20 girls, but every year beds lay empty as girls and their families decline offers to participate. Although academic and professional goals are repeatedly cited as the greatest deterrent from teenage pregnancy, there are girls that with or without studying, initiate their sex life at a young age but with precautions to avoid unwanted pregnancy. Given the machismo and religious Latin culture, condom negotiation is a serious challenge, and in many cases, male partners refuse to permit the use of any contraception in the relationship, but nevertheless, there are still girls that manage to protect themselves and their future.

As far as happiness goes, unfortunately my current Guru and happiness cartographer, Eric Weiner, overlooks Nicaragua on his journey to find the happiest country in the world in his book, “The Geography of Bliss”, thus leaving me to come to my own conclusions… How Rude (Stephanie Tanner, anyone?)!  While I investigate the question, are Nicaraguans happy, one vignette surfaces in my mind:

I once asked a group of Nicaraguans, how does it feel to know that your country is the second poorest in the Western Hemisphere? A few responded as expected, “it saddens me”, “everything is challenging here”.  However, one response triggered a different reaction. “I think we are a rich country”, she said, and went on to poetically explore the wealth of natural resources and culture that to her carried more weight than GDP.  Maybe choosing optimism is the first step towards happiness?

It’s hard to imagine that my link between happiness and the emphatic Yes! applies here, since choice often appears to be a luxury: there is one road, you can choose to take it or not, but there is no other. On one hand, it’s quite possible that I am riding the jargon wave of positive psychology with all the self-help book readers in the world and applying my theory broadly without consideration for cultural nuances. Or perhaps Nicaraguans find happiness in the same way I do, only they often have a shorter gymnastic routine — there are fewer options but nevertheless, they can commit to sticking the dismounts they have, emphatically! I may never understand what happiness is and what makes people happy, sorry Eric, but one thing I am sure of is that I will continue to ask questions attempting to discover where my culture ends and this one begins. That’s the decision I’ve made and I am sticking to it!

To be continued…  Are Nicaraguans Happy?

Searching for Home and Other Clichés

Recognize this speech from the 2004 instant young adult classic? I’ll give you 10 points if you do (you’ll collect in 2 years…):

“You know that point in your life when you realize the house you grew up in isn’t really your home anymore? All of a sudden even though you have some place where you put your shit, that idea of home is gone…. You feel like you can never get it back. It’s like you feel homesick for a place that doesn’t even exist. Maybe it’s like this rite of passage, you know. You won’t ever have this feeling again until you create a new idea of home for yourself.”

Recognize the feeling? Then you don’t need the points.

After paying a small visit to home, the States that is, I have been hovering over the significance of home– treading through the waters of societal pressure and personal need that muddle the term.  A few years back I pointed out to my mom, who perhaps due to her trade or nomadic childhood, her tendency to refer to our home in Brooklyn as “the house”.  This struck me as peculiar because I, quite the homebody, have always placed enormous sentiment in the place that I reside. But in transitioning to college and life as an early-twenty something, I exhausted my mental and financial resources trying to construct a home that reflected my philosophies and penchants.  As a cliché enthusiast, yes, I own up to all of my sappiness, I would have agreed even back then, home is where the heart is. But now I am learning, home is where the learned heart is.

On the first leg of my trip, in navigating through Customs, both legal and societal, I found myself uneasy. I didn’t know with whom to identify. I locked eyes with a short professionally dressed Latino man as we both exhaled the overwhelming airport chaos.  I stared in bewilderment at a girl in boxer shorts and UGG slippers, chatting with two friends equally dressed. My mind raced back to an encounter on a bus in Ocotal where an unfamiliar man greeted me by name. I didn’t recognize him with a clean shave and stiff pressed clothes because our first and only meeting prior had been at his house in a rural community, where he baths in a river and up until recently, had said goodnight to light with the setting sun.  The pride Nicaraguans take in their appearance is profound; if they have only one dress it will always be their Sunday best.  And to the contrary, Americans, who typically possess every accommodation to be presentable, present themselves as if they lack everything they have.

My critique of American fashion is not to exempt myself from Joan Rivers and the Fashion Police, as I have committed countless faux pas as a victim of the homeless-(chic) look.  But now, with a learned mind, my admiration for this culture affects how I relate to my own. In discussing these observations with a friend back home, I was taken aback by his comment that in the States our identities can be based on who we are and not what we have, a good thing…right? His opinion, completely of sound judgment, kick-started my eternal debate: should we fight to stay in the fight?

Let me explain: I have always been comfortable. I have never felt that I could not hold my own opinions and that I was not entitled to my self-worth. I have never suffered. And for this, sometimes, I feel guilty. I remember one day, with this same friend, encountering my first bout of anti-Semitism during a late-night escapade at Coney Island. I fail to recall how the conversation with this beach custodian began, most likely I prompted some argument, but I can instantaneously evoke the determination I harbored to make this conversation an everlasting memory in all of our minds. My friend, also Jewish, like me had been fortunate to evade the oppression of discrimination and thus had never had to defend his heritage. For many Jews that live in a diaspora, and in an environment of tolerance (or unspoken intolerance), it is a challenge to feel that there is a fight going on, let alone to participate in what does not feel like it is yours to participate. One of the downsides of being fortunate is living with indifference. My sister and I were raised to remember the fight that my grandparents fought, but the privilege to practice in peace does not come without the burden of Jewish guilt. My friend is right to say that people should be judged on the content of their character and not the content of their wardrobe, but his argument also shows the inevitable detachment from poverty that we “the haves” have.

Living within another culture, my vision has changed; now I see the fight, daily. It took this trip going back home to realize that although the distance has not lengthened during these 6+ months in Nicaragua, the emotional distance between here and home has grown immensely. Whether I am in the States or in Nicaragua, I am happy and homesick. This is not a case of “the grass is always greener on the other side” but rather, I am homesick for what no longer exists, because I no longer exist in the same way.

Creating an identity is tantamount to creating a home. Both are a luxury and an interminable process. Questioning who we are and what we want in our home is undoubtedly the greatest luxury of them all, with the expectation that we are free to execute our choices as we deem fit. This experience further reinforces my fortune, not the material wealth that American citizenship might promise, but the intellectual wealth, being the ability to question, experiment, and grow that is unique to a developed country and particularly germane to this stage in my life.

Many might recall the cover story of NYT Magazine a few years back, “What is it About Twenty-Somethings?” that hit newsstands and kitchen tables with ferocity. This article became a holy grail to my age group, explaining why we have pandered in recent years from the direct ladder of success that was once expected of us and we once expected of ourselves. Our pandering, or growth, depending in which way you care to view it and whether or not you are the financial safety-net for a Twenty-Something, further proves the fortune we live.  This disparity I see clearly in Nicaragua.

A true teacher once told me that the great art of the world was produced in a time of wealth, when people could produce the non-essentials. Every day, I come to understand the meaning of her words. Although I spend my days in awe of the naturaleza, I find myself frequently dissatisfied by the art and architecture of the country. In Nicaragua there are no career tracks for merchandise buyers and interior designers, why study what you cannot practice?

In the US, it has taken commercial success from generations before mine to permit personal experimentation. Even now, with economic fears, the greatest threat we face is the defeat of the American Dream:  that creativity, determination, and reinvention can bring prosperity. And with economic insecurity, young adults, the ones searching for home, are wobbling through the disenchanting intersection of the dreamer and the pragmatist.

In this journey, I am traveling far from home, so far that I will never be able to return. But yet I am reminded that in questioning my home and my place in the world, I feel even more connected with my American values that enable me to question. And then I find my answer, I realize that I am exactly where I should be: at home, homesick, and constantly in search of what will be my home.

Faces of Motherhood

May 30th is Mother’s Day in Nicaragua, debatably the most important holiday of the year and that’s without the bias of a mama’s girl. So it’s fitting that in this monthly blog post, I have three (lengthy) anecdotes to share that all showcase different faces of motherhood. Along with that, these narratives made me reexamine what I had intended to do here: disentangle the competing perspectives that formed the knots of the every day experience. With the name puntos de vista, or points of view, I had hoped to think critically and examine kindly my surroundings, reserving judgment and appraisal for someone far more qualified. This was my intention. At times I may have drifted away from my original design, however, here I am brought back to where I began.

1. At quarter to 9, I propelled myself into the back of the Centro de Salud’s donated ambulance with todo el mundo (all the world) as they would say: nurses, doctors, dentist, new mothers with their new babies, and NGO workers. Together, shifting back and forth as if on one of those adventure park rides that repeatedly deceives equivocating thrill-seekers with its approachable altitude while masking the prospect of oppressive nausea, we clambered up the inclines and clawed down the pits in the hour long journey to the furthest communities of Mozonte. One of the doctors and her nurse counterpart were informed by town gossip to investigate a few potentially pregnant teenage girls in her sector. While in the ambulance, they caught eye of a girl with a protruding belly carrying firewood and added her to the list. Later, when I met up with the doctor, all previously rumored girls had produced negative test results, but there was one more test to do. The doctor signaled for me to come inside a house with her and wait for the last girl to return. I limboed through the barbed wire caging in their calf, and entered the kitchen of the two-room dwelling housing seven. Unlike other houses I have visited with dirt floors, this house stood on a slanted mountain rock with walls of adobe blocks held together with sticks of wood. I sat on a tree stump with the doctor, across from the girl’s mother standing idly by the entrance. Chickens gnawed at my feet and our lungs filled with smoke from the beans cooking on the wood fire, as we waited for the girl to enter. In time, she came through the door: 15 years old in a form-fitting t-shirt and jean skirt, disguising her small belly and baby fat. The doctor asked about her last menstrual cycle. She said it was 9 weeks ago. The doctor asked why she didn’t go to the health center. She didn’t respond. The doctor pulled out an at home pregnancy test and asked her to urinate in the plastic bag casing the test. The girl left and came back with the bag full. The doctor inserted the pregnancy test in the urine and waited. The doctor showed me the probe. It was positive.

From the second hand accounts I have seen or heard, a positive pregnancy result normally warrants one of two reactions: jubilation or panic, albeit sometimes the reactions are not mutually exclusive. However, the girl was blank, absent of all reaction to the situation. I tried desperately to read her face but my search was inconclusive. Her quiet passivity shepherded an unsettling calm. As the doctor completed the standard forms and explained the next steps to the girl, the girl’s mother asked the nurse to have her blood pressure tested, as if it were an attraction at a carnival and someone were guessing her weight. When the doctor had all the information she needed, she gave the girl instructions to come to a pregnant women’s club in a nearby community the following week. The doctor encouraged the girl to have a family member attend as well to help her with the problem responsibility. She showed up on time for her first prenatal control, with her mother by her side.

2. I live in a small municipality. There is an expression, “pueblo pequeño, inferno grande”, small town, big fire, that indicates everyone knows everything. And given the size, it is of no surprise that everyone in the health center remembers cases of particular consequence. I had heard nurses mention in passing the baby from Las Cruces, but I had not connected that the malnourished baby I had obsessed over for more than a month (mentioned in the post “Just the Toes”) could be the same case in which they were referring. Under different circumstances I would have quickly associated the remark with the baby I met, but because the medical staff that attended to the baby acted as is if malnutrition was a phenomenon sad but prevalent within the communities, I interpreted my shock to the situation as naiveté to the health realities confronting Nicaragua. However, last week, I learned that the 9 month old baby had died. She died of leukemia and her hallow physique was the result of her body’s inability to gain weight, not because of her mother’s negligence or ignorance, which both had been alluded to during that doctor’s visit.

The death of a baby snatches at all the morsels of your humanity. I am told that the survival rate for infants suffering from leukemia if caught early is actually quite high. But remission, we all know too well, is a long battle even with all the arsenals of modern medical marvels. I was convinced that this mother and baby who haunted my dreams were the products of Nicaraguan poverty. I had not, nor had the doctors at that initial visit, considered the probability of plagues of another kind.

3. I work with the Ministry of Health (MINSA), a federal agency of the central government. As I have quickly learned, there is a performance-based financing component to MINSA’s operations. There is pressure, as there should be, for every health center to reduce maternal and child mortality. I presume that this pressure comes from many sources, including UN donor agencies working aggressively to further the Millennium Development Goals: reduce by two thirds, between 1990 and 2015, the under-five mortality rate and reduce by three quarters the maternal mortality ratio. Thus, when I learned of a horrific event in a nearby municipality, my reading was slightly more limited than others.

Last week I heard from another volunteer who lives in my neighboring municipality, Dipilto, that a woman was battered so severely at the hands of her husband that it rendered her into a coma. Across the country the brutality of domestic violence enslaves women to their boyfriends, husbands, and family members. One of the greatest health concerns for women in Northern Nicaragua is intra-family violence, not to mention sexual abuse for young girls. Despite knowing the facts, I was deeply disturbed and sadden after learning of the trauma.

The next day, in a conversation with health center staff, the medical gossip came my way. But this time, a doctor added another detail to the case. The woman, now in treatment in Managua, is pregnant. The doctor stressed that if the woman dies, it will be considered a maternal mortality. The strong emphasis on the categorization of this nightmare surprised me. Morally, of course we feel, if even possible, that much sadder if another innocent life is lost. But for me, the public health label is of a no consequence in regards to such a horrific atrocity.

These three accounts, heartbreaking for many reasons, give light to different health phenomena facing mothers in Nicaragua. All three have incited a slew of emotions: sadness, anger, disappointment, and motivation rest on the apex of my consciousness. The closer I have come to seeing first hand the statistics I was originally bombarded with, for example, Nicaragua has the highest teenage pregnancy rate in Latin America and the Caribbean, and adolescent girls between 15 and 19 account for more than a quarter of all births, the more fragile my sensibilities. Facts create a silhouette, but people add the subtle gradation of color. In hopes of making the smallest positive sustainable change in my town, I will have to disentangle the competing points of view, including my own, in order to engage with people in color whose vibrancy and complications may at first throw me off balance.

Changing of the Guards: Mozonte

The provisional 3-month sojourn ended and for the last few weeks I have begun to sweep away the surrounding debris, mapping my mold for service in Mozonte. In a scene resembling the “Changing of the Guards”, and practically unheard of in the Peace Corps circle, my training host family, graciously chauffeured by my cousin the Mayor, spilled into the flatbed of his truck and turbulently soared for hours through the northern half of the country with me to retire responsibilities to another family. With their approval of my new quarters, the guards changed. However, unlike the protection of the Royal Family, the benevolence of this wonderful group has not ceased in off-duty hours. In all my pontification on this blog, the truth of the matter is that I was blessed with my first Nicaraguan host family, whose warmth laid the framework for all my future prosperity here. Consequently, and to my own cognition, I have developed high standards for a Nicaraguan host family, but thus far my new family promises the same good fortune.

My new family, in many ways different than their predecessors, captures a unique essence of Nicaraguan culture: assiduously entrepreneurial. I have three host siblings: 17 year old Ana, studying in Managua, 11 year Oscarito, diminutive in name and character of his father, and 4 year old Alicia, boisterous as they come. The father, Don Oscar, is a butcher by Saturday, and odd-task man every other day. The mother, Doña Yamilet, a self-instructed cook, runs the butcher shop during the week, sells freshly-made donuts at the highschool, and caters lunch in her house for the doctors and town hall staff. Any venture that neatly nestles into the spare moments of the day, instantaneously becomes a part of their métier. You might say they wear many sombreros.

The tireless efforts of these padres to provide more for their children is juxtaposed against the very real social landscape of Mozonte: extreme poverty (and strong indigenous roots). As mentioned before, these two characteristics do not exist autonomously, but rather have a deeply established effect on one another. I have been actively engaging conversations on this theme and hope to illuminate some various perspectives in the future. For now, to further illustrate these apposite subjects, I give you two vignettes:

Several times a week I travel in the health center’s ambulance (donated by a Spanish NGO) to the health posts in the mountains. Many of the communities take hours to reach by foot; automobiles and motorcycles may cut time but pose other risks. Three out of the 15 communities have health posts, and others have a “casa base” where a volunteer community member guards some basic medical supplies to assuage situations while waiting for proper medical attention. In the community of San Antonio, I visited houses surrounding the health post with the center’s  hygienist, who tested water quality and gave short charlas on chagas and leptospirosis . The water in most cases was contaminated, but many continued to drink it despite health consequences and free chlorine tablets at the health post. The sanitation policy requires people to burn their trash, in turn causing severe respiratory issues; however, unfortunately for the environment (and breathing capacity), without a system of collection, the risk of epidemics caused by rat/roach-born illnesses present a peril too grave for Nicaragua’s health infrastructure to combat. During this house by house lecture circuit, one family was a bit more distracted than the others. This family, a mother approximately 40 years old, with 8 children ranging from 11 months to 25 years, including a 6-month pregnant 17 year old, listened inattentively to the warnings about potential heath maladies. Instead, she was thoroughly distracted by her newly installed electricity.  Mid-speech the mother and one of her sons ran to the light switch after the “electrician” gave the okay. They hit the switch on and off, mesmerized by the instant current of light.  We celebrate many trivial things in life, but a multigenerational family finally knowing light is an occasion truly worth celebrating.

In the urban center is the Casa of the Pueblo Indigena, a center for meetings and mediation, and one of the two cyber’s in town.  From what I have gathered, the Pueblo Indigena is the first stop for most business transactions in the municipality. They collect taxes and issue mandates. It is not permitted to buy or sell land but rather one can buy the right to construct property on the communal land, and the Pueblo Indigena oversees the exchange. Resources are communal as well, and thus special permission is required and a tariff is levied to cut down any trees in the municipality. In trying to piece together the activities and authority of the Pueblo Indigena,  I was eager to start my week with a reunion of indigenous leaders from the various communities in the Casa Artisiana, a large meeting space of the Pueblo Indigena. The space is quite stately and filled with professionally-crafted vertical signage of culture, history, and legends of the Indigenous group, Chorotega, in Mozonte.  Over an hour after the meeting was supposed to start, three distinctly dressed Nicaraguans representing a local NGO entered the house. After greeting the crowd of 20+ community members like local politicians, and aiming a projector to a chart-board, they began to sermonize a 23-page document of the bylaws of the Pueblo Indigena, including the rules and responsibilities of the Counsel of Elders. The Counsel of Elders, a group of 14 men from the communities, is requested to advise and decide most matters, occasionally with input from other constituents. The three hour meeting, introduced by prayer and only slightly interrupted by refreshments of tamales, cuajada (fresh cheese), and mango fresca, was essentially a capacitation for the indigenous to better understand their own autonomy. With nods of approval and soft spoken remarks from the Counsel, the disquisition ended.

These memories resonate with me for several reasons, but primarily because they explore the themes of Mozonte while excavating the complexities and idiocincroies that entrench them. With the passing of time, there is a push-and-pull of the pendulum to maintain historical and cultural identity while embracing the alluring spell of modernity. Similar to most stories of globalization, there are benefits and detriments to change. In the next two years in Mozonte, we will likely observe both.

Breaking First Date Etiquette

At some point, you’ve probably heard the stale first date advice: Avoid politics and religion. Well, in Peace Corps, in some ways the longest first date EVER, simmilar advice is prescribed. Although an entity of the US Government, Peace Corps affirms and reaffirms that it is an a-political organization. This directive reinforces security for volunteers and provides a basis for cooperation with country nationals, both governmental and non. This is particularly important in the context of working in Nicaragua, since the relationship  between the two countries’ governments has been very contentious at times, and Nicaraguans are well-versed in their history. For this reason, I am not permitted to express political opinions (in-country nor on this blog) and thus I will do here what I am learning to do best: reflect and ask questions.

I have found it easier to maintain an a-political stance than avoid conversations of faith.  I am only slowly learning the landscape of Nicaragua and the reasons why people devoutly support President Daniel Ortega (and/or his wife, Primera Dama Rosario) or fiercely ally with the hodgepodge of liberal leaders. However, I have quickly learned that you can send a message inadvertently through your behavior, including who you spend time with and how you compose yourself: when I wear red and black together people accuse me of having a predilection for the Sandanistas. Such political wrangles can be pacified by reiterating that Peace Corps is a-political and that I am not a spy for the CIA (which is actually prohibited).  However, my identification as a practicing Jew has been less escapable through parroting Peace Corps-prepared language.  And surprisingly enough, by breaking first date etiquette, I have had some truly unique and wonderful experiences.

Separation of Church and State exists in Nicaragua, but Christianity is omnipresent and penetrates all aspects of society. The official Presidential/FSLN (Sandanista party with a super-majority) slogan declares “Socialist, Christian, and Solid(arity)”, and the signage is EVERYWHERE. In a perfunctory Wikipedia search before coming to Nicaragua, I read that there were approximately 50 Jews in the country. I am convinced half the number represents Jewish Peace Corps Volunteers, and when the decimal consensus is conducted again, the number will probably be reduced by two thirds. Thus, in my second week of training I was overjoyed to find a bookstore in Jinotepe with a large vertical sign reading, “Jerusalem” with a Star of David. I walked in armed with my handful of Hebrew phrases including, “I like Chocolate”, adrenalized to meet the ONLY Jew in Carazo. But when the glass door shut behind me, my heart sank just a little with the realization that it was a house for scholars of Christ and the Apostles. I should have known better, but the thought of having a shared system of belief superseded any form of logic.

A paramount component of integration is sharing and this week was the epitomization of such: the overlap of Semana Santa (Holy Week) and Passover. I already had noteworthy exposure to religious events: my mom held weekly Evangelical prayer groups in the house (I ran the under 5 drawing class our of my room) and I accepted a gracious invitation to dine with my cousin and two Catholic priests for the first night of Lent. Out of curiosity and excitement, in these experiences my family did not randomly mentioned my faith, but rather it was my introduction. Cue M.C: Presenting, Senora Chloe Victoria Lew, Brooklyn, New York, Jew. Over lunch one day my mother even told me that I was not a Gringa but rather a Nicaraguan Jew. Fine by me! So in an effort to maintain my identity and tradition, I planned to host my own Passover Seder. I spent a day in Managua searching for Matzo, which as to be expected, was no where to be found. My host cousin told me that Communion wafers from the Church were unleavened and could be used in lieu of Matzo. Not sure if the Rebbi would approve, but I was flexible.  I revised a Spanish Haggadah I found online to include only prayers and readings I could explain with my limited Spanish/religous vocabulary and violated intellectual property laws by stealing illustrations from Yale’s online Judaic library.  Despite trying to be flexible, I became so farklempt with the whole ordeal that I marked the wrong dates in my calendar and held my Seder the day before the holiday officially began. By 7:30pm on Thursday I set on the table apricot chicken and a completely botched potato kugel, which my sister-in-law “saved” by frying it with ketchup. And then, with last minute hesitation, I scrapped the Haggadah and attempted a grandiose speech about how we can enslave ourselves when we make decisions based on fear, and that liberty can be found in the attainment of our dreams. I referenced my finally joining the Peace Corps. The speech was a flop and the whole evening I forgot to take the Charoset from the fridge.

While I was rearranging the dates of Passover, my Catholic cousin and Evangelical mom were highly aware of their commitments throughout the week. The town was desolate since the non-religous folk fled to the beach (a Peace Corps Volunteer discovered that there was a significant rise in births 9 months after Semana Santa), except for the Orthodox who participated in the various ceremonies.  Marching bands played in the street at 2am as a crowd of people emotionally and/or physically carried  a statue of Christ in a slow procession around the town.  On Good Friday I watched the reenactment of the meeting of Jesus and Mary, beginning with the Roman Soldiers and Jews in blackface (video below).  On Easter Sunday I stood inline at the Pali helping a Nun carry her weekly groceries. When I told her I was Jewish she smiled and said my faith was the basis of hers.  In spite of the rules, the week was saturated with religious discourse.

I have felt for a long time now that as the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, it is not only my responsibility to guard my faith internally, but also to proudly express it externally. That said, it is not my character to proselytize, but instead to politely demand a respect that I give to others without thought or hesitation. I was undoubtably disappointed by my failed Seder and my inability to keep the holiday made me crave my family more. I do however feel a greater sense of connection to Jews who do not have the convenience of Kosher for Passover products and ample resources to convey their faith. Every year the aim is for improvement: next year in Jerusalem, or in my case, in Nicaragua but with a bit more foresight and planning. Furthermore, inspite of feeling unsatisfied with my first Passover Seder in Nicaragua, I was beyond pleased to receive warmth and acceptance of my faith from such reverent worshipers in a country where Jew´s are at times grotesquely depicted.  In my experience, the more religous the person, the more respectful s/he was of my beliefs.  Contrary to my preconceived ideas about Nicaragua, I now wonder if the pius have paved the road of religious tolerance. Only time will tell. But for now, I am grateful for the experience and will continue to break some first date rules in hopes of that perfect second date.

This clip was filmed on Good Friday in El Rosario, Carazo. I was given permission to film the procession.

Lost But Not Alone: I am a Peace Corps Volunteer(!)

When I was young I developed a VERY debilitating fear: getting lost at Costco. Fortunately, the promise of delicious free samples easily prepared at home persuaded me to confront my anxiety and opened my mind to the glorious world of bulk shopping, in which you MUST HAVE a lifetime supply of three-bean salad.

I wasn’t always afraid. I would tag along with my dad and sister in pushing the super-sized shopping cart, or as I knew it,  “home-base”; I felt a sense of security and purpose as we navigated the tall aisles stocked with “As Seen on TV” gadgets and other things I tried to convince my dad I needed. But then one fatal day everything went awry: I was left to guard the mobile home-base…ALONE.

I felt lost. Should I freeze mid-step and wait for them to find me or chase their smell and retrieve them myself? Should I surrender to a maternal figure at the Lost and Found who could give me a Jolly Rancher and  announce over the cruise-ship like intercom, “Attention Please. Child Discovered: dark frizzy hair, albino skin, multi-colored braces, drooling with anxiety”.  As I weighed my options, each second seemed like hours; my heart thumped as if I were partying with the cast of Jersey Shore  to amplified house music. Then, eventually, we would find each other, somewhere near the food samples. No surprise.

This HORRIFIC childhood narrative is what comes to mind when I think of being lost, an essential component of the Peace Corps journey. Others might conjure up a different image of lost: off-course, alone, disoriented, and with a destroyed internal compass which, despite fatiguing efforts to reset, cannot latch on to an ounce of familiarity in sight, smell, sound, taste, or touch. This is being lost.

Who would seek out such a feeling? Well, for one, the dare devils known as Peace Corps Volunteers.  With all seriousness, I have realized that one commonality within the diverse group of Peace Corps Volunteers is a desire to steer through obscurity. There are of course many other commonalities, usually and hopefully, a desire to serve. Nevertheless, I cannot deny that I also craved the rush of adrenaline that comes from being out of your comfort zone and independently finding your own way. But that which I yearn for also petrifies me.

This past Friday, with my host mom in attendance, I was sworn in as a Peace Corps Volunteer. The moment was divine. Everyday I rise feeling truly blessed not only for the opportunity to serve in the Peace Corps, but also for the profound sense of personal sovereignty I feel in realizing a lifelong dream. I wish that everyone experience such a moment of euphoria in life. With tears in my eyes and my right hand held high, I repeated after the Chargé d’Affaires of the US Mission the same oath that Volunteers for over 50 years have pledged. However, towards the end of the oath, one segment, swearing to serve “without any mental reservations”, captured my attention.

…OF COURSE I have mental reservations! I am transitioning into completely unfamiliar territory and fear that I will be simultaneously my own home-base and utterly lost. You would be crazy not to have reservations! But with a seconds more time I realized that I am not the only new volunteer to have such trepidation. Over 200,000 people have served in the Peace Corps and  in joining the history of adventurous Americans who set out to share of themselves in hopes of improving the human condition, I found solidarity in a solitary life.  It is a unique experience to feel concurrently alone and yet deeply connected to others. That in itself is the Peace Corps experience.

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