By 1:00 A.M. last Friday, September 18, I was back in my own home here in the United States. Over the course of two weeks, I had peered over the edge of a volcano to watch the smoke rise; played at the beach, a lagoon, a lake, and a private resort pool; seen wild monkeys, pigeons, geckos, and other animals; and spent an hour asking questions of a former Nicaraguan Secretary of Defense. I have never done so many things in such a short period of time.
Returning to the States left me in "culture shock" for the first day or so. After passing through customs and immigration at the airport in Miami, I headed straight for a juicy slice of pizza coated in grease. I devoured it at record speed and shoved down a dessert, too. My stomach, disoriented from receiving something other than beans, rice, or chicken, immediately rebelled against me and began moaning and growling as if I'd swallowed a poison. I guess that, as much as I might have disliked eating healthy food every day, it was probably healthier than what I would have been eating back in the States.
I moved into my dorms at UC the afternoon following my return, so I've been too busy to mentally "digest" everything I learned on the trip. In just a few days, I've moved from living quietly with my small host family to meeting my much larger "family" at UC. I do know that, by the end of the 16 days of our trip, I had managed to settle in to Nicaraguan life; switching back to English as my primary language has felt a bit weird. (Luckily, my new roommate is fluent in Spanish. Late-night conversations en español with him are helping to keep me sane.) The dreary weather in Cincinnati has also been a shock: in Granada, rain never seemed to last more than a half hour. Here, it can rain all day long!
I'll be completing one final blog posting with a "photo essay" of the trip. My Internet jack at my dorm (Turner) is now finally working - I'd been relying on UC wireless for the first few days of my college experience - so I now have a fast enough connection to upload plenty of photos, something that was difficult to do from Nicaragua. Until then, my thanks to everyone who has read the blog entries and followed the progress of our trip.
After a week or two of living in the same place, falling into a routine is inevitable. Everything, from the food to the classes, begins to look and feel more or less the same as it did the day before. This has more advantages than disadvantages. With the monotony comes both continuity and familiarity, two elements essential to creating a sense of belonging. Having a full "work week" this week from Monday to Friday gave us students the chance to adjust to Nicaraguan culture and our individual host families.
The sun comes up shortly after 5:00 A.M. here in Nicaragua, and by 6:00, it is already bright as noonday. Roosters, church bells, honking cars, and host family members wake us up each day long before our alarm clocks chime. The quality of each student's respective breakfast experience varies from host family to host family. My best breakfast consisted of pancakes served with bananas and papaya, but in general, breakfasts are more mundane than that. Gallo pinto (rice and beans) with tortillas and green cantelope is about average for most of us.
Many of us faced our biggest challenges adapting to our host families this week, and mealtimes have occasionally proved problematic. Popular student government leader Kyle Quinn described one of his experiences this way: "Every morning at breakfast, my host family would give me this bowl of fruit. I didn't want to offend them, so I always ate every bite of it - and then the next morning, they would give me an even bigger serving. By the fourth day, the bowl was so huge that I just couldn't eat it all. I finally had to break down and tell my family that I didn't even like cantelope in the first place!" By the end of this "routine" week, however, we students had either successfully communicated our eating preferences to our families or have made peace with what is put on our plates.
Classes with Dr. Bryant begin around 8:00 in the morning. A typical class contains a discussion of Nicaraguan legends (often involving headless Spanish priests and gigantic golden crabs), a discussion of Nicaraguan history, presentations on notable Nicaraguans by the students, and a lesson in colloquialisms and local vocabulary. Our next two classes of the day feature authentic Nicaraguan professors and focus on improving our Spanish. All three classes are taught entirely in Spanish, and we finish up shortly before noon.
The rest of the daylight hours are spent eating lunch with our host families and doing volunteer work in the afternoons. One group of four students works every day at Carita Feliz, a school with hundreds of local students, while the other group plans art projects for students at Los Pipitos, a school for children with mental or physical disabilities. These afternoons are hectic and taxing but ultimately rewarding. In the following photo, students are working together to build a paper chain at Los Pipitos.
Evenings are typically quiet and consist of homework, host family downtime, or cruising the local cafes with other students. It gets dark shortly after 6:00 P.M., so during the work week no one stays out much later than 9:00 P.M. or so.
Despite all of the good that comes with routines, however, by the weekend, everyone was ready for a change of scenery. In my next blog post, I will write about our next series of weekend adventures.
The typical Latin American diet consists of three key ingredients: rice, beans, and chicken. Recently, I've had the luxury of switching things up: after losing Saturday's "traditional" lunch to a bout of sea sickness on Lake Cocibolca, my diet officially changed to one of jello, oatmeal, and papaya. I've spent much of the last couple days sleeping and rehydrating, two things easier said than done in the intense Granada heat.
My case of "mareos" excepted, however, Saturday's boating trip was in every way a success. The group was given a splendid tour of Lake Cocibolca's nearly four hundred islands, stopping at two along the way. To the "Island of Hope," owned by the extended family that inhabits it, we brought a "Winne the Pooh" pinata. I had the chance to operate the pinata while the children of the island beat the stuffing out of it: using a rope fastened in a tree pulley, I managed to maneuver Pooh safely out of harm's way for only a handful of songs before he was ripped to shreds.
We then stopped at a private island for lunch and kyaking. In hindsight, it would have been better for me to have done a little bit less of both, but I was living in the moment and savoring life. Ancient petroglyphs, tools, and indigenous statues graced the island resort - seeing these objects outside of a museum made for a rare treat. One particular island we passed on our tour sported at least a dozen monkeys. In our one encounter with another tourist boat, we watched with childlike glee as a monkey swung from a tree branch onto the neighboring vessel. It ran up and down the length of the ship several times, both frightening and amusing the passengers.
On Sunday the group took a "canopy tour" (that is, a zipline tour) of the Mombacho Volcano. I was still suffering the effects of the "mareos," so I had to pass on this amazing trip. My classmates have just started to fill me in on what I missed, so I'll be sure to report more on it as the information becomes available. For now, I'm looking forward to getting back into our weekday routine of classes and volunteer work: my host family helped me correct the Spanish grammar of the anecdote I'd written for one of my classes, so I'm excited to see if professor Bayardo (one of our local teachers) approves of it!
Finally, reaching back in time all the way to this past Friday, we took a morning tour of Granada. We saw the famous churches, the historic armories and military fortifications, and hundreds of indigenous artifacts. We even all posed together with one of the last remaining railroad engines - if I recall correctly, the trains shut down in the early 90's after a government initiative to sell the old engines and buy new ones failed. (Only the first half of the plan was carried out, leaving the industry rather handicapped.)
Eight UC Honors students and their professor, Dr. Carl Bryant, are spending two weeks in Nicaragua as part of the UC Honors Nicaraguan Culture and Social Services Program, a 3- or 6- credit hour course that takes place immediately before the start of fall quarter.
Landing in a third-world airport beats a trip to the local theme park anyday. Those of us who weren't soundly asleep as we flew over Nicaragua were treated to a magnificent landscape full of lakes, rivers, islands, and volcanoes before experiencing the touchdown onto the actual runway; those of us whose heads were buried in our pillows experienced only the whiplash and the sheer terror. With a loud and sudden "boompf," American Airlines Flight 969 smacked the Managua runway like an Olympic snowboarder about to lose his footing. The plane bounced twice for good measure, as if to say, "Welcome to Nicaragua -- now pay attention!"
And pay attention we have. We've been in the country for only a day and a half now, and already we've done enough to fill pages. Our first meal was in the house of Irene, a cheerful hostess and the owner of the oldest building in Granada, constructed in the 1500s. The house had belonged to her grandparents but was confiscated during the Sandinista regime. For many years it was the headquarters of the chief of police, but eventually it fell into decay. Five generations' worth of paintings were looted, the century-old piano was taken for an officers' club, and the structure itself eventually began to give way. When it was finally in ruins, Irene was able to regain the house as the rightful heiress; these days, it's a breathtaking Nicaraguan dwelling featuring impressive collections of paintings, artwork, sculpture, and other manifestations of culture. We were treated to an amazing pork dinner served on fine dishes. All of us were overwhelmed by the generosity and hospitality we were shown.
A student holds one of Irene's puppies!
Today was the first day of classes. For our first class, the eight of us gathered around a monitor as Dr. Bryant, our heroic professor, lectured in Spanish over the history of Nicaragua. The U.S. has a long history of intervention in this country, from the Monroe Doctrine to manipulating Nicaraguan politics in the era before the Panama Canal. Many actions have been taken by the U.S. Congress to defend the interests of businesses located here. By the end of two weeks, I hope to have gained an appreciation of the long history between the two countries, and what can be done to improve relations. To this day, the U.S. is often referred to as "El tiburon," or "the shark."We broke up into groups of four for our next two classes. My group was with Senor Bayaro first, who had us participate in conversations. Then, we went over the grammatical corrections he had for us -- never the mistakes, only the corrections. That way, we will forget out mistakes entirely. The second class was with Senora Cecilia, who taught us the legend of "la chancha bruja," or "the pig witch." Apparently, a famous witch once brought a small big out into the street and made it expand until no one could cross. These days, children generally don't believe these stories: when she tried to teach it to a group of young children, they all responded, "No hay una chanca bruja!" ("There isn't a pig witch!")
This afternoon I headed to Los Pipitos, a school for children with disabilities, with three others in my group to do volunteer work. Most of the children are only able to communicate in a limited fashion, so there was a gap to bridge at first. I'd brought my favorite Spanish-language magazine with me -- "Winnie el Pooh" -- and read to a couple of the kids for a while. We also played ball and did arts and crafts; I taught one of the kids how to peel the backs off of stickers and stick them to papers. He was soon hooked. I think we went through at least thirty alphabet stickers, though we didn't quite manage to spell anything today! My job for the two weeks is to build a website for Los Pipitos (I brought my laptop, and I'm staying with the owner of a local Internet cafe) so I'm excited to try my hand at that.
I've been too busy living my schedule to take much time to look it over, but in a couple of days I know we'll be off to do some turisty things. One weekend we're going to the beach; another, we're going to go off a zipline on a volcano. (There are volcanoes everywhere here, and the natives have told us they're still active. I can't determine if they're serious or not, yet.) I should be able to write again soon, so stay tuned!