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Those of you who know me well, know that I’m a person who usually tends to veer away from any sort of risky or dangerous behavior. I think I’ve always been like that – a “follow the rules” type of girl. Plus, Tess has always been the rebellious one between the two of us – the one who marches to the beat of her own drum. However, ever since joining the Peace Corps, I’ve done some stretching in this area. I’ve definitely grown more confident in pushing myself to experience new, uncomfortable situations and to not be so hesitant when it comes to embracing the craziness that comes with life and enjoying the moment for what it is.

Just the other week, I was venturing out to one of my rural schools up in the mountains of Estelí, which requires a super early wake up at 4:45am so I can make the 6:00am bus, which is full of all the tobacco fabricas (cigar factories) workers. I hate waking up that early. It’s been over a year of making this weekly commute and I still moan and complain to myself every time my alarm goes off – “Uggghhhh do I have to???? Yes, Khalan. You have to. Get up.” I’ve fallen into a routine though, which has helped – I make my tea to-go in my Swell thermos (which keeps it hot for up to 12 hours!), fix my breakfast mason jar mix of oatmeal and chia seeds (so good!) and grab one of my unread New Yorker magazines to take up with me for the day. The buses only pass through the town twice a day – once in the morning at 7:00am and then in the afternoon at 2:00pm. While the bus ride tends to be noisy with the radio blasting “Noticias ABC” news radio, I usually pop in my ear buds and zone out to some mellow music, watching the morning mist rise up from the valleys to the mountain tops.

I was actually looking forward to this particular Tuesday at school because it had been so long since I’d been in class. The last time I was there was three months back in June before the school break and before I left for my medical evacuation in the States. So, suffice it to say, I was looking forward to seeing my counterpart, Prof. Myrna, and all my kids. Once 8:00am came around and the school bell rang, I found myself still sitting in the teacher’s lounge waiting for Myrna to arrive. Her morning commute consists of walking about an hour through the mountains and across a river to get to school every day – talk about a morning commute! I waited and waited. My mind started to race with thoughts about her not showing up. It hadn’t been raining so she should’ve been able to cross the river. If she didn’t show up, I’d be stuck at school all day with nothing to do (it’s happened before and it’s not fun). “Oh, please show up,” I thought to myself. I then saw the directora who then proceeded to tell me that Myrna was sick and wouldn’t be coming to school.

Damn. Damn. Damn. WTF am I going to do?!?

I had two options. I could camp out at school for six hours until the afternoon bus arrived or I could try and catch a ride back to Estelí. The problem was that I didn’t know anyone leaving the town. There were a few motos and trucks passing by, but I didn’t know them. After a few minutes of contemplation, I came to the conclusion that I was not willing to sit around all day with work to be done, and would have to hitchhike. I know that sounds a bit crazy, but it’s not out of the ordinary to catch a ride in developing countries, especially in rural areas. I’ve caught a ride before with my mom and friend when we missed our bus and were stranded in the mountains, but never have I hitchhiked solo. So, I knew I was in for an adventure that would test my risk taking abilities.

My goal was to start walking out of town and catch a ride with anyone who was heading in the direction of Estelí. I was a little uneasy at the thought of riding with a stranger, but honestly, after living in Nicaragua for 18 months, I had grown quite used to uneasy, uncomfortable and awkward situations. So, to my surprise, I just kinda shrugged my shoulders and told myself this would be another wild experience to add to the books of my time abroad.

I had only been walking for a couple minutes when a truck with two men approached me – one was maybe in his 50s and the other was older in his late 70s. Now, I know that it sounds unwise and NOT a good idea for me to take a ride from two men who I don’t know, but I did feel relatively safe in this small community where everyone knows everyone. It’s definitely not something I would want my friend or daughter to do, but it’s the Peace Corps and it happens. I looked at both of their faces to take in their energy – they didn’t give off malas vibras (bad vibes) so I decided that this would be my ticket out of town and when they said they could take me to Estelí, I jumped at the opportunity. I could have hopped in the back of the truck (probably the smarter move), but opted to sit inside instead. Here we go…

I introduced myself to both of them and explained that I’m a Peace Corps volunteer working here in the schools teaching entrepreneurship education. The man driving introduced himself as Bismark and then presented his friend who was called Don Santo. Bismark was originally from Honduras and lived in Nueva Segovia working in the coffee business. Don Santo was from town and owned a farm close by. Bismark did most of the talking. Similar to most Nicas I’ve met, he was very curious as to what I thought of Nicaragua. I shared with him how beautiful I thought his country is and how much of a positive experience I’ve had here, how much I love Estelí and it’s cool weather (the northerners feel very proud of their weather compared to down south where it’s hot and humid…not like it’s theirs, but you get my drift). I shared how friendly the people are up north and how “tranquilo” the lifestyle is. He smiled a big smile, his eyes twinkly, and agreed with the nod of his head. The rest of the ride was all small talk. It was a gorgeous, sunny day and the wind was blowing in through the windows of the truck. After sitting quietly for most of the 20 minute ride, Don Santo began to chime in talking about the horse farms in Estelí and the different horse breeding families he knew. I was happy that he had decided to join the conversation.

As we neared Estelí, they pulled over to let me out as they were taking a turn down a side road off the main highway. I thanked them both again repeating their names – they had remembered mine too – and hopped out of the truck. I was about a mile or so outside of Estelí and decided that I would just walk into town. It was a beautiful day anyway and I wanted to take in the moment of just having had a lovely conversation with two strangers. I was only walking for about five minutes when a red truck pulled up alongside me. I was about to get my guard up until I realized that it was Don Santo! Bismark had dropped him off at the farm to pick up his truck. He was smiling a sweet smile and opened his door offering me a ride the rest of the way into town.

Upon reaching Estelí, I couldn’t help but walk home with a little pep in my step and a smile on my face soaking up my sweet little exchange with Bismark and Don Santo. What began as an annoying start to my day, ended with a lovely, shared moment. I love experiences like this because they show me that small acts of kindness still do exist in this world. These are the moments I live for. This is why I came here. To connect with others, to make a positive impact, to explore, to grow and stretch as a person and to see how beautiful life can be.

So, to Bismark and Don Santo – thank you for the ride! Fue un placer. Saludos.

 

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Birthdays have always been a big deal in my family, so it only felt right for Tess and me to travel home to celebrate together, something we were unable to do last year because of our obligations in the Peace Corps. And, as many of you know, when it comes to our birthdays, Tess and I are quite inseparable as we’ve been celebrating our birthdays side by side since Tess was born seven years and one day after me.

Being home together this time around felt extra special for me not only because of the fact that we live so far apart and aren’t able to see each other as frequently as we have in the past, but also because I felt an even stronger feeling of gratitude and appreciation for the little things that I took for granted before moving abroad to live in a developing country.

With another year of life under my belt (am I really 34?!?), I can’t help but look back on this last incredible year and reflect on all of the highs and lows that I experienced and the lessons learned that I am carrying with me into this next year. So, why has this last year been extra special for me? Well, first and foremost, it was the first time that I’ve lived outside of the U.S. It was the first time that I’ve spoken more Spanish than I have English. And it was a year that brought with it the opportunity to stretch and grow in ways that I never imagined. I have strengthened and cultivated a clearer understanding of my values and what matters most to me. My perspective on life and what’s important has shifted so much. I look at situations with more open curiosity and less judgement. And I feel a stronger sense of humility than ever before. Having grown up privileged in many ways, it’s been quite humbling to live a simpler life with a lot less than what I’m used to. It’s encouraged me to reprioritize what’s important to me. I’m also more present in the moment and have an immense appreciation for the beauty around me whether that’s in nature or in the love that people share with one another. And most importantly for me, I feel so much more grounded in my sense of self.

As I was beginning my service last year, I was told by someone that serving in the Peace Corps is like a self-growth boot camp. Here, we are challenged in many unexpected ways which lead to the discovery of new aspects of ourselves at a pace and in ways that many never experience in their lifetime. So, I went in knowing that there would be many highs and lows that would impact me in more ways than one. But, it wasn’t until I hit my one year of service and celebrated my birthday that I really slowed down and reflected on what this last year has meant to me. While the majority of my experience has been rather positive, I’ve caught myself, at times, falling into the compare and despair mode where I compare myself to where my friends or other acquaintances are in their lives. There’s a notion of feeling “behind” in some ways. At times, I catch myself bothered by the cultural pressures I’ve received here in Nicaragua to settle down and start a family because I’m technically “old.” “You’re not married? You don’t have kids? Do you want to marry and have kids?” are the questions I constantly get asked when I meet many Nicaraguans. Sometimes it gets to me and I question where I’m at. But then, I check and right-size myself and realize that I’m exactly where I need to be, where I’m supposed to be. And I remind myself that we all have our own path and journey – there’s no one right way. I’ve tried to “follow society’s rules” of what a “successful” woman should accomplish by the time she’s 30 — graduate college, find a great job, marry and have kids — but it didn’t work for me. I’ve always felt a calling to be adventurous and to live my life in an unconventional way, and now I’m doing just that. So, with that said, I’m going to follow that feeling and see where it takes me.

This next year, while I’m working on expanding my projects and developing deeper connections within my local community, I also hope to work on improving parts of myself. I have an incredible opportunity to continue building amazing connections with others, to live life with spontaneity, to continue to discover where my passions lie and determine what makes me feel the most alive. I have a real opportunity to repaint my own picture.

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As is usual, this post is long overdue, but Tess felt it only fair that we give Mexico its rightly deserved spotlight and share/expose stories from our latest girls’ trip in Mexico (what happens in Mexico, does not stay in Mexico apparently). Anyone who knows us Boyer ladies knows that we love, love, love to travel. We travel together well and we try to do it often. So, as much as we love Peace Corps and are grateful for the experience, it has kinda thrown a wrench into our mother-daughter tradition of bi-annual vagabonding. For this reason, this trip was exceptionally important. It was our first trip with the three of us ladies since Khalan and Tess left for the Peace Corps, AND Khalan’s first time to Mexico with Tess as the tour guide, muahahah. We had a lot on the agenda and only seven days to do it all. This is how it went…

Part I:

As is true with any large country, there are many aspects – cultures, traditions, cuisines, dialects, and political, social and economic situations – that differ between regions and states. To get a true and honest sense of Mexico, and not just the touristy Cancun-like experience, we started our trip in the heart of Mexico, in Tlaxcala, arguably one of the least travelled and touristy states within the country. This also happens to be where Tess lives. Having her own Peace Corps experience in a large city in northern Nicaragua, in the lush mountainous region, Khalan was curious how Tess’s site differed. She’d seen the pictures and videos, and heard the old-western like soundtrack of wind and old church bells ringing in the distance, but like only having a few pieces of a puzzle, wasn’t able to imagine it.

Our day started with food, as is only right and is terribly predictable for us. We got up early, dressing Khalan much to her dismay, in “layers” fit for this unpredictable Mexican weather, and took a walking tour of the town. It was unreasonably bright and crisp, a perfect day for walking. And naturally, Khalan who loves her small, quaint towns was “oo-ing and aw-ing” at everything – from the flower carts, bread bakeries called “panaderias,” the ranchero music coming from every passing car, her perfect Chai frappe from Tess’s favorite cafe and the crowded zócalo, or center/park, which was packed with affectionate couples, kids playing, food trucks for the upcoming fair, and of course, the best of Mexico’s street dogs. Walking around, waving and saying hello to all of her local friends, while visiting all of her go-to spots, it was really evident that Tess had made this town her home. It was such a treat to see and a reminder just how unique the Peace Corps experience is!

And then, the most Mexican thing happened. We bought tamales. And while that is quite the Mexican thing to do, it was what happened next that was fitting for Khalan’s first experience. We were walking through the park and a local store owner, who happens to be the sister of Tess’s landlady, invited us to her home for a “snack.” Unable to say “no,” which would be rude, we went with tamales in hand. Tess knew what they were in for, unlike Khalan and our mom, Felicity, who were happy to meet an acquaintance of Tess’s and experience a new aspect of her community. As is custom for small town Mexico, she treated us like family, which meant sharing her hearth, and home, and food…four courses of it. BIENVENIDOS A MEXICO!

After indulging in way too much food, food with tons of chili and spice, which greatly differs from that in Nicaragua, we did the only thing we could…sleep. And sleep we did, or tried to as Tess’s dog Sirius had a rather fetching time jumping from one sleeping body to the next. And round and round he went. Upon awakening, to Sirius’ excitement, we decided to venture out of town to visit Tess’s other site, Lagunilla, which is much more of the old school, ranchero cowboy vibe. Arriving by bus, we entered town walking down the dusty unpaved roads while being greeted by passing cows, horses and chickens, waving to Tess’s students (one of which was a very persistent four-year old), looking at some of her projects and seeing where she works. But most importantly, we met Don Pollito, the local chicken vendor who jokingly embraced Khalan and our mom, while calling them sister and mother-in-law (Tess clearly has made quite an impression with those little dimples of hers!). Very charming man. But it was the community that was so charming. And it was perhaps the smallest, country western-like town Khalan had seen. Dusty, with a downtown about 2 square blocks big, and with more farm animals than humans. It was quite a different experience than Tlaxco but charming in its own way.  We only had one full day in Tlaxco and Lagunilla, but it was…something, something truly special all on its own.

Part II:

While we were very, very sad to say goodbye to the rapidly growing Sirius, Tess’s #1 pal, we packed up and headed on to the next leg of our adventure — Puerto Vallarta and Sayulita.We welcomed the sun and sand (Khalan and Tess were more than gleeful to rid themselves of the “layers” in exchange for a towel and swimsuit), good food (like salads, good salads are a rarity here) and divine piña coladas (Tess was in heaven, really) that one finds in Puerto Vallarta, a resort town located on the Pacific coast in the state of Jalisco. Unbeknownst to all three of us, we learned from a very chatty taxi driver (former boxer and singer), that it wasn’t until its debut in a Hollywood film in the 1950s that it became a hot spot for North Americans, drawing many artists and writers.

While Puerto Vallarta has much to offer, we opted to venture a little way north to spend some time in the nearby beach town of Sayulita, a little hipster gem with a big surfer vibe, which is tucked away in a beautiful cove along the coast. We were in heaven, a picturesque heaven, and couldn’t believe we had never heard of this place. While there were many travelers (and even spotted a celeb or two) visiting from all over the world, this bohemian beach town maintained its relaxed, down to earth vibe. We walked back and forth and up and down (10k feet to be exact, thanks to Felicity’s step app) the colorful little streets, snapping pictures and admiring as many charming stores and art galleries our feet could handle before we ultimately stopped at a cafe for chai lattes (of course) and then a beach front restaurant. Really, what could be better than food with a side of beach? A beach full of jewelry vendors, surfers, locals and travelling hipsters. A place where there are no high-rise hotels like those one finds in Puerto Vallarta, but rather boutique hotels and bungalow style buildings with thatched roofs – quaint like that. It was almost as if you went back in time, a vacation spot unlike many other touristy coastal spots. We cannot wait to go back, and if you’re reading this, we hope you have a chance to experience it yourself!

Part III:

The last leg of our trip brought us to the one and only Distrito Federal, also known as Mexico City, the largest city in Latin America with over 20 million people! Tess has been several times, making it her unofficial “getaway” spot when in need of a taste for an urban setting, and after this trip, we all understood why. We stayed in a beautiful boutique hotel in Condessa, a neighborhood that made all three of us so nostalgic of our old hood in NYC, the Upper West Side. There were cafes, restaurants and dogs galore. And people walked quickly! It’s really the little things that you miss. We ate to our hearts desire, bouncing from cafe, to restaurant and dessert/hookah bar until Khalan’s pants were bursting and Tess could hardly walk. We definitely overindulged but everything was so satisfying (the truth of any true foodie). And this occurred on not one, but two days. After visiting two very different Mexico’s prior to this, it was such a contrast to see this city center, one of the largest in the world. We couldn’t help but imagine ourselves living there – the best of both worlds…a foreign country, exotic with so many cultures, in a quaint neighborhood and yet with a taste of home. And it got us thinking about what life holds for us after we finish this next year of service…. only time will tell!

Viva Mexico!

 

 

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As an environmental volunteer, I typically work with the various levels of schools in both of my communities, Lagunilla and Tlaxco. This means everything from those adorable little kindergarteners you might have seen me post pictures of, all the way to university students. I’ve focused the majority of my projects on bio-intensive garden construction, such as the incredibly efficient Keyhole Garden, garden competitions between groups of students, little reforestation projects and very cool medicinal gardens.

That said, my most recent project was a bit of a tangent. Eco-Benches. Who would have thought they would be such a challenge, at times literally the bane of my existence, yet also incredibly satisfying?

You might be thinking…Tess…the Tess that I know?…built benches?…so what? What is this city-loving, decently street savvy girl even doing down there? Benches? Well, let me tell you, these mighty little benches are a lot more impressive than they sound. They fall under the “eco-tecnia” category, which essentially is the construction of a technology using completely sustainable means, thus providing the same function minus the danger to the environment or our health.

An eco-bench, or ecological bench, is just that. It provides the same function as a bench, but does so much more. The structure of the bench is mainly composed of dozens or hundreds of plastic bottles, depending on the size, which are filled to the brim (and then some) with trash. Once filled, they serve as an incredibly sturdy eco-brick, which can be used to build any number of things including a house! So not only does this project get kids out and about, running around town, collecting plastic bottles and picking up litter along their way, but it teaches them that it is possible to reuse trash and turn it into something useful, even beautiful.

And that’s just what we did. Once our bottles were collected and stuffed, we then moved onto phase two – getting that pile of bottles to resemble not one, but THREE benches. Let me just stop you here and tell you that to attempt to build three benches at once is kinda a big deal. And even more so, to build these benches as part of a competition between three groups of ten rowdy 11 and 12 year olds? AKA running back and forth, monitoring and assisting 30 kids at once…not easy, and certainly not easy for someone with my level of patience.

Anyway, before this turns into a story of Tess vs 30 mud-covered 6th graders in a midst of a water fight after accidentally hitting (and bursting) the school’s underground water pipe with a shovel, let me continue.

So, phase two…this involved creating “Cob” which is basically a mixture made from soil, sand and water, which hardens into clay rock. We outlined where the benches would go, laid down a layer of gravel to act as a filter for rainwater, as well as a hard base in case the soil softens under rainy conditions, and laid on a thick slab of this muddy clay mixture. Using this mixture, we were able to stack 36 3L Coke bottles per bench (in case you didn’t know, Coca-Cola is a mega-popular phenomenon in Mexico) to form the structures. After waiting a week for drying, we returned to apply two layers of eco-cement (made of sand, “cal,” pulverized bricks and water), smoothed those babies out, let them dry another week… and finito!

In the end, we had three benches, which took about five days to construct (two organizational days, which included running around their pueblo of 1,000 people with wheel barrows collecting sufficient soil and sand, and three construction days).

After the project, I did a quick evaluation of the students to find that all of them, every single one, felt that they now had the knowledge to build eco-benches on their own and were comfortable with this construction technique. They all also expressed interest in constructing more of them around their community. To me, that is the biggest success.
Not only did they have a greater understanding of how trash, one of the most profound environmental issues we face, could be reused, but they also know how to create and utilize eco-cement as a replacement for normal cement, which releases 1 ton of CO2 per ton of cement created. That’s a win-win in my environmental handbook.

Furthermore, these benches were built in an area in front of the school, which was previously used as a dusty underutilized dump site for trash, but had the potential to serve as a beautiful entrance to the school and lunch spot as kids wait for their parents to bring their snacks. All it needed was a little love. So now, we have 70 little trees growing and three benches in that area, all with the hope that students will use and appreciate it – giving them more of a reason to be outside and providing an outdoor space to enjoy!

(I need to reiterate that trying to control and keep 30 kids on task for multiple hours a day for five days was fun and a lot of hard work. These kids were champions and loved the dust, mud, sweat and tears that this project involved. But I must also say that lord, oh lord, the boys in this class tested my patience to the fullest! I’d like to think I came out a better person because of it….:p)

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The topic of Diversity has always been of interest to me and it’s no coincidence that it’s presented itself during my service in the Peace Corps.

Growing up as a bi-racial and multi-cultural woman has shaped my life experience in more ways than I can describe. I remember what it was like to grow up “mixed” in the 80s when there weren’t many kids who resembled me. There were more times than I would like to count when adults and children would ask me, “That’s your mom!?” as if there was no possible way that a woman with fair skin and blue eyes could have conceived me. As I grew older, people started to ask me, “What are you?” trying to make sense of my identity like I was some zoo animal they had never seen. In high school and college I was always asked if I felt more black or white. That question in itself implied that I needed to CHOOSE between my two ethnicities. But how could I do that when I’m BOTH? In college, I never felt like I really fit in and I was confronted by many people who didn’t welcome me in their circle because I was different and not like them. They consciously or subconsciously found my racial ambiguity or “unlikeness” a reason to separate themselves from me, treating me differently or acting like I’m the one acting different, and ultimately placing me under a period of observation to see if I could fit in. During those younger years, I struggled with that feeling of not being a part of, shifting from one group to another, back and forth, letting other people’s determinations of my identity impact how I felt about myself and how I existed in the world.

Fortunately, both of my parents were very aware of the cultural sensitivities during that time and made a conscious effort to pick a school for me that would embrace diversity and help better prepare me for the challenges that I could face around my self-identity. I had the privilege of attending Burgundy Farm Country Day School, the first school to be integrated in Virginia after being founded in 1946. A diverse and very liberal elementary and middle school, Burgundy was composed of the most diverse, eclectic mix of students and teachers from a variety of different backgrounds. At school, I was constantly encouraged to cultivate an open mind and spirit towards other people and cultures, as well as with the environment. I never felt like I stood out or didn’t belong. Looking back now, I realize how unique an experience that was to be educated among others with such diverse mindsets. I am so grateful for having had that foundation. It equipped me with all of the tools I needed to face the many challenges I would later encounter regarding my identity.

As a result of these life experiences, I have actively participated in diversity groups and attended different conferences centered around leadership and diversity. After swearing in as Peace Corps Volunteers last June, my sister Tess and I were both eager to join the Diversity Committee in our respective host countries. As members of our Diversity Committees, we are involved in supporting PCVs in a variety of different areas that relate to self-identity and intercultural understanding in both our host countries and in the United States. Today, we would love to see if we could create a bridge between our country’s diversity initiatives and further broaden the learning experience. Serving as a member of this committee has been a highlight of my service. It’s provided a space for me to do some deeper self-identity work and to connect with others on topics and issues that oftentimes don’t come up in everyday conversation.

Recently, we held our first-ever Diversity Affinity Retreat for PCVs which centered around the theme of Intersectionality, looking deeper at our self-identities and recognizing when social dynamics come together — the overlap of our identifiers such as race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, class, ability, etc. I was also asked to co-facilitate a session on diversity with the new group of Peace Corps trainees and led an activity on Identity Mapping. At both events, we spoke about the complexity of our identities, and how often times we can’t see all of a person. Certain parts of our identity are hidden, by choice or because people don’t see certain aspects of who we are. As a result, we have the tendency to create a single story of others — our perception of that person based on what we see and how we make them out to be in our minds. And it’s at this point, we have the tendency to judge others and categorize/label them. I will be the first to admit that I’ve done that…many times. It’s something that I’ve grown more aware of since moving abroad and integrating into a completely different culture.

Every day here in Nicaragua, I am constantly having to check and right-size myself when I move into a place of judgement. I’ve found that when I am feeling discomfort (which happens a lot), I can quickly resort to a place of ego which I think can be a fairly common response to someone making you feel like you’re different or don’t belong. And when I’m in that place, I’m not as compassionate with others. And this can occur anywhere, both outside of the U.S. as well as within. It’s been so eye-opening for me as I become more aware and conscious of how I choose to perceive the world around me.

They say you learn so much about yourself while serving in the Peace Corps, and I’m realizing the truth in that. Every person I come across, every interaction I have, every challenging situation forces me to grow in some way, to stretch my understanding of others as well as of myself. At the end of the day, the self-growth I seek is an inside job. It’s up to me to choose to perceive things in a way that will help me become a stronger, more open-minded and authentic person. Little by little, I’m getting there.

*For those of you who are interested in learning more about the concept of a single story, feel free to watch this Ted Talk “The danger of a single story” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

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Can you believe that I’ve been living in Nicaragua for a year already!? Because I can’t. Last week, I celebrated one year in country, and I can’t even begin to tell you how fast time has flown by. It feels just like yesterday that I was stepping off the airplane, clueless as to how my life would unfold. So much has transpired over the last year that has changed me for the better and has shifted my perspective in more ways than I could have imagined.

What made my anniversary even more surreal was serving as a greeter for the new group of Peace Corps Trainees (PCTs) who arrived last week from the U.S. to begin their 3-month training. Instead of walking off the plane with way too much luggage (we all know I overpacked!), I was excitedly waiting outside the airport with some of my fellow PVCs waving a big welcome banner. I felt so honored to have been selected to represent the Entrepreneurship Education Program (EEP)/Small Business Development as well as the Diversity Committee here in Nicaragua. This new group, which we refer to as Nica 69 (the 69th Peace Corps group to serve in Nicaragua) is comprised of 35 PCTs, 15 in EEP and 20 in Health. These two groups will add to the current 135 PCVs serving in Nicaragua.

After waking up at 1:30am to begin their journey from Washington, D.C. to Managua, the group arrived eager, excited and nervous to kick off their 5-day orientation retreat. Similar to our orientation last year, the week was jam-packed with activities – welcome speeches from the U.S. Ambassador of Nicaragua and the Peace Corps Nicaragua Country Director; Safety and Security, Medical, Program Overview and Language trainings; as well as PCV-led sessions providing tips on surviving Pre-Service Training. As PCV greeters, our role was to represent the PCV community and our sectors in Nicaragua and to serve as a resource for trainees.

I knew going in to orientation that a big part of my role was to answer their questions to the best of my ability, and, boy, were there a lot of questions! I remember what this experience was like for me. As incoming PCTs prior to training, we were only given a certain amount of information about our job description — the rest was left to our imagination or to PCV blogs, Facebook and Instagram! We also spent almost a year wondering and trying to envision what our Peace Corps life would be like so once we finally had the opportunity to actually speak to a real PCV, the questions were neverending. At certain points during this last orientation it felt like a rapid fire Q&A. Just about any and every question that one could conjure up was asked. It was pretty wild to be on the other side this time. What was more incredible was to realize how much I’ve learned and adapted to over the last year. To have the opportunity to connect and to share my experience, strength and hope with others who are beginning this new journey has been priceless. What a terrific group of incoming PCTs they are — I’m excited to get to know them better and to see how their Peace Corps journeys unfold.

Little do the trainees know that they will be creating everlasting friendships during their service — bonds within their group, sector, across sectors and with the PC staff. Moving to another country, learning another language, integrating into a new culture, learning new customs and traditions, growing through the many discomforts, sharing an abundance of TMI stories and leaning on each other for support during really tough times, among others, are what connect us on a completely different level. We begin our PC experience as strangers from all parts of the U.S. and grow to become some of the best of friends living one of the wildest adventures of our lives.

As I reflect back on this last year in Nicaragua, I can’t help but feel a deep sense of awe. I’m amazed at how far I’ve come thus far having enjoyed all of the highs and overcoming all of the lows of being a PCV. To think that I actually left my comfort zone, have created this new life in another country, speak a second language, engage in meaningful work and continue to discover new aspects of myself is mind blowing. I can’t help but wonder what the next 15 months will entail!

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One of the reasons why I quit my corporate job and moved abroad to join the Peace Corps was because I wanted to do more meaningful work and to be of service in a way where I could directly impact the lives of others in a positive way. I especially wanted to work with youth in the area of leadership and empowerment. So when the opportunity arose to work with my fellow PCVs at the Youth Leadership Camp (YLC), I leaped at the chance.

The Youth Leadership Camp 2017: Be the Change, was a four-day camp for 54 Nicaraguan youth who have demonstrated themselves to be outstanding students and peer leaders. Kids arrived from all over the country, proudly representing their communities. It was incredible to notice how diverse they all were.

We organized the camp around the Design for Change model, which focuses on creating projects that address problems or challenges that currently exist in communities.
The majority of the kids were selected in groups based on their city or town, so the idea was to have them implement these projects back in their communities. They started out in the feeling stage where they noticed how they felt when looking at pictures of social/environmental/health/infrastructural challenges that exist in society.

They then had to imagine a world without this problem and how life would be. The idea was to have them list a few issues that they see in their community and to select one on which to focus. From there, they went through a number of exercises and activities to plan out their solution to this challenge and to develop a step-by-step action plan to bring back to their community.

The camp wasn’t all work, however. In addition to designing their projects, we did a number of fun, bonding activities like an Olympic Games, ropes course, bonfire and talent show, to name a few. I think what I loved most about the camp was seeing the transformation in all of the kids. Many of them arrived not knowing anyone and were unsure of their own strengths and abilities. By the end, solid friendships were formed, memories were created and self-confidence was developed. I think one of my highlights was hearing from another PCV how as the bus arrived back into the capital city of Managua, all of the kids were yelling out the window, “We are leaders!” They truly felt empowered.

For many, this camp was life changing. It instilled in them a feeling of empowerment and responsibility. Responsibility not just for themselves, but for their country. Nicaragua is in need of more youth leaders who can carry their country forward and bring about positive change. These kids are the catalyst to create a future full of possibility. I feel so honored to know them.

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Happy New Year! Wow. I can’t believe it’s already 2017. This time last year I was in a state of transition before leaving the country to serve in the Peace Corps in Nicaragua. Now, I’m already 10 months in. Incredible to think how fast time has flown by. So much has happened over the last year that I want to take a moment to reflect as I shift into the next chapter of my time abroad. For me, it’s been very important that I acknowledge the gifts and the lessons from 2016 so that I can not only carry forward what has been helpful and insightful, but also let go of what has held me back or distracted me from focusing on myself and my work here.

I took a huge leap this last year. Huge. Anyone who knows me knows that moving abroad in my early 30s was not “part of the plan” that I had envisioned for myself. I thought I would be settled down by now, married with kids in a house in the burbs of D.C. somewhere. But I guess that’s part of the beauty of it all, right? To think outside of the box of what’s possible, shake things up and step outside of my comfort zone. I had reached a plateau, so it felt. So leaving my corporate job, moving to Nicaragua and joining the Peace Corps so that I can truly be of service while also learning another language was that next step.

Looking back now, my Peace Corps experience has been full of many ups and downs. They don’t lie when they tell you that in the Peace Corps the highs are high and the lows are low. Once I got through the honeymoon phase of being a Peace Corps volunteer, I had to work hard to let go of parts of my old life. Living in NYC for the last decade was incredible, but I quickly realized that while that chapter was amazing in so many ways, I needed to truly embrace my experience here. I was holding on to certain things that I needed to let go. It’s been hard, I’m not going to lie. There’s so much about it all that I still miss, but I’ve grown to appreciate the simple, beautiful moments that I’ve encountered here. And that’s what I’ve had to focus on — the present moment that’s in front of me right now. Not the past, nor the future, but the here and now because that’s all that I truly have.

So what have been the gifts this year? Well, I can now say that I’m comfortable living abroad in another country. My Spanish is improving, and while sometimes I feel like it’s getting worse, I know that being immersed in the life here has drastically improved my fluency. I’m also comfortable being on my own and have accepted that while my journey may look different from many of my friends, I’m exactly where I need to be.

Going into this year, I want to let go of my fear of the uncertainty that I find myself carrying. I always want to have it all figured out and that’s just not how life works. Also, the perfectionist — she’s gotta go. She served me well in the past, but I’ve quickly realized that perfectionism has not been my best friend here. Doing my very best and showing up is all that I can do, and that’s enough.

I’m excited to see what’s in store for 2017. I hope to continue to serve my country to the best of my ability while growing and expanding my life experiences. I’m on the journey of a lifetime so I plan to soak up every moment that I can because I know it will all be over before I know it.

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One of my favorite parts about living here in Nicaragua is being surrounded by so much warmth and generosity. Just about every day I come across someone who surprises me with their kindness.

When I began my service with the Peace Corps about 10 months ago (wow, has it really been almost a year!?) I had heard that Nicaragua was the safest and friendliest country in all of Central America, but I had no idea the true nature of that statement until I was able to experience it first hand.

I’m writing this on my bus ride to Matagalpa after having had such a sweet exchange with an older Nicaraguan lady. We began chatting after paying the bus fare — she commented that my ticket from Estelí to Matagalpa was very expensive (we’re talking $1 here). I agreed that it was a bit pricey even though I had just been thinking about how cheap of a ride this is. From there she proceeded to share with me that she was traveling with her grandson from Wiwilí to visit some friends. She asked me where I’m currently living and we began to chat about my work here in Estelí with the schools and with entrepreneurs in the community. Of course the weather came up because when doesn’t it ever come up in conversations with Nicaraguans — they love to talk about the weather! We are in the midst of our summer season here where it’s a bit cooler in temperature and very windy. While I agreed that it’s been very cool I informed her that where I’m from in the U.S. it’s so cold that it snows! Many people here have never and will never experience snow. I can’t tell you how many times I have shown pictures of times we’ve had snow at home — the shock and amazement on their faces is priceless.

After about 10 minutes we arrived at her stop and she proceeded to de-board the bus, but not without turning back around and waving farewell, to which I responded, “Mucho gusto!” It was such a pleasure. These are the exchanges I live for. No wants, needs or agendas, just real, authentic kindness.

This woman is one of many friendly strangers I have come across during my journey here in Nicaragua. And I know that I will meet many more along the way. That is the beautiful thing about this experience — making unexpected connections with incredibly kind and humble people.

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This past weekend I had the pleasure of venturing further north in Nicaragua to Somoto, a beautiful little colonial town in the department of Madriz just south of the Honduran border. An up and coming destination for many tourists, Somoto is most commonly known for its beautiful canyon, one of the oldest rock formations in Central America with its vertical walls extending for roughly 5 miles. If you’re an outdoor person and love wildlife, then this is definitely the place for you. Somoto Canyon offers a variety of activities from hiking to rock climbing, camping, horseback riding and more.img_9891

I traveled with a small group of friends who were running in a race through the canyon on Sunday and who wanted to tack on some extra free time to rock climb. Considering that I hadn’t traveled north of Estelí, I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to explore more of what this beautiful country has to offer.

After joining with the crew in Estelí, we hopped on a quick hour and fifteen minute bus ride to Somoto, dropped our bags off at the hostel and made our way to Namancambre Tours to pick up our rock climbing gear. Considering that I haven’t rock climbed since I was in eight grade, I knew I was in for a special treat. Fortunately, one of my friends Michaela is a serious climber so I knew I was in good hands.img_9870

We made our way out to one of the best climbing spots and made camp along the river for the afternoon. It was bliss – such a beautiful, sunny day. We picnicked on one of the big rocks, went swimming in the fresh water of the Rio Coco and climbed the nearby cliff. I was definitely in for a rude awakening when it came to the rock climbing though — easier said than done. Boy was that hard! I’m starting to feel all the soreness in my upper back. After spending most of the afternoon in the canyon, we ended the day with some delish carne asado from one of the best spots in town and then crashed by 9:00pm.img_9767

Sunday was off to an early start as most of the group was up at the crack of dawn to participate in the race. And this wasn’t just any race, this was basically like one of those ultra marathons you hear about. There were three difference distances – 35K, 20K and 10K – that started right outside of town and then cut into the canyon up through the mountains. At one point in the race, the runners had to swim down through the river to the other end of the canyon. What was so cool was that 8 PCVs participated! My friends Siri and Michaela won first and second place in the 20K. It was incredible and inspiring. I may have to try and push myself to participate next year! What an experience that would be.img_9922

All in all, our weekend getaway was perfect. I just loved exploring a new part of this country, and even better to be in such great company. But before making our way onto the bus, I, of course, had to make sure we stopped to pick up some fresh rosquillas and hojaldras (crusty cornbread rings and crusty cornbread with sugar). Considering that Somoto is known for making the BEST rosquillas, I just couldn’t pass up the opportunity to indulge. Yum.

Thank you, Somoto. I will be back!

 

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