Tess

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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img_1608I am 26 years old and never have I missed a Halloween or chance to sport a costume. It is one of my absolute favorite holidays, smack in the middle of my favorite season, all of which just feels so magical and festive. I adore it.

I knew this year I would miss it, and miss it I would…terribly. Here in Central Mexico, where it is always cold, it feels a bit fall-esque but without the foliage of home; it doesn’t really compare. Not to mention that these past few weeks have been harder than normal…so I figured I might be suffering from my own seasonal affective disorder. And to my horror, I didn’t have a costume nor would I be celebrating my dear, dear Halloween.

Or so I thought.

img_1585Everyone knows or at least has heard of Día de Los Muertos. It is one of the more celebrated of the Mexican holidays, which takes place over the course of several days, from Oct 31 – Nov 2, and has over the years become more intertwined with Catholic holidays, All Saints and All Souls Day. During this time, it is believed that the divide or barrier separating those who are alive from those dead is temporarily lowered, allowing deceased souls to return and be with their families and friends for a brief period. Some also believe the rituals that take place during these days serve to help those who have passed on cross over onto the other side.img_1584

Interestingly enough, it mirrors a lot of what Halloween or All Hallows Eve used to be. Originally a Pagan holiday, Halloween was known as Samhain, a festival and time to celebrate the transition from one season to another, symbolizing the transition from life unto death and also a time when the boundaries between the worlds of the living and the dead overlap allowing deceased souls to return.

Yet somehow, the original nature and significance of Halloween has been lost, turned into a superficial holiday where people dress up, collect Candy and drink too much. And while I love it, for the historical reasons as much as the current, it simply does not compare to the richness and authenticity that, to this day, after centuries, characterizes Día de los Muertos.

img_1606To celebrate those who have passed, each family or community carefully and with such attentiveness creates altars or ofrendas dedicated to those individuals. You’ll find mounds and mounds of flowers, specifically Marigolds or cempasúchil, delicately placed on the ground surrounding the altar, around pictures, and encircling all other symbolic ítems. The person’s favorite dishes and drinks are provided (usually looking something like Mole and Mezcal or Pulque). Articles of their clothing, candy and sugar skulls, pictures and usually a mirror are included as well. These altars are truly a beautiful spectacle.

You’ll also find people dressed in costumes, usually (but not always) representing the famous La Calavera Catrina, a popular icon of a female skeleton which in the early 1900s became associated with the festivities.image2-1

I always knew what this holiday was and what it represented, but I am overwhelmed by the actual experience of it. I was invited by a local community to join its community leaders in judging a student costume contest, an altar contest and a calavera contest (paper skeleton decorating contest). I was also invited by parents within this community to feast with them after, where we ate the traditional Mole, drank Pulque, and indulged ourselves in traditional Día de Los Muertos desserts like camote on hojaldras (purple sweet potato spread on a special type of bread or pan de muertos) for hours.

While costumes and candy are an aspect of this holiday, it vastly differs from what we experience back at home during Halloween. Far from commercialized, it has maintained its integrity and provides an opportunity for unity, between those living, but also between those who are no longer with us.

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So I’ve been in site for nearly 4 months now (sorry for the lack of updates –I suck, I know) and if someone were to ask how I’d describe it or how I feel being this far in, I’d say it’s a lot of everything. I feel like being here every emotion is intensified. There are a lot of good days, mixed with some bad days, amazing moments, interspersed with those which are incredibly frustrating. I’ve felt nearly every emotion under the sun, and with such intensity.

While aspects of living here have definitely become comfortable and part of a routine, there is still so much newness that disrupts the comfort I cling to. Really, so much has happened. For one, the nature of my job feels as if it is changing with the seasons. For example, for the majority of my time in site, the first 3 months, school was out of session so I primarily was in my office in the town of Tlaxco, which is small-to-medium sized town of 14K. I focused most of my efforts building relationships here — a.k.a the integration aspect of Peace Corps, which, personally speaking, is my favorite. Yet now, just as I had built my routine, school started back in session and it’s time to get to work. Work now consists of a lot of travelling to another community, Lagunilla, which is tiny with about 1K people and about 30 minutes outside of Tlaxco, via combi (a little bus). Now, my primary goal is to integrate and work with schools there. And here is where I find myself getting most stressed. I am now teaching a class and doing projects at the local middle school, teaching 3 kindergarten classes, doing projects with the primary school and on the verge of starting something with the high school…all in addition to doing small projects with my host country agency CONAFOR in Tlaxco.  img_1142So, while this is all well and good, and I’m doing my Peace Corps duty to bring environmental awareness and appreciation to the youth within my community, this does not alleviate my little problem of still being very uncomfortable with any form of public speaking in Spanish, which is still very much an insecurity and work in progress, regardless of how much I am improving (I really hate myself sometimes haha). But truly, it is frustrating, especially when you’re trying to teach a class and everything goes to hell because all of the little boys decide to start karate kicking each other and end up crying on the floor after accidentally kicking themselves in the nether regions. I mean, honestly, I am not yet equipped with the language and confidence to shut down a situation like that, as hilarious and hideous as it was.

In addition, I’ve also moved out of my host family’s house and after so many months of living with two different families, I finally have my own personal space. My house is beautiful, from the late 1800s, at least. It’s two levels with a courtyard in the middle and a backyard with apple trees, a lime tree and an orange tree. It’s truly a little sanctuary that I have to pry myself from some days, although I’ll admit it can be a bit lonely during the very cold nights. This, not surprisingly, is usually when I am confronted with the fact that I miss home and my old life in the big old beautiful city of NYC and my tiny apartment on the Upper West Side (cats, sister, and endless delivery options included).

I think the fact that I recently spent an incredible week reuniting with my sister in Nicaragua also adds to the sadness. Sure, we stayed in boutique hotels with views for days, and ate endlessly…seriously, an endless buffet would not have sufficed…but just the mere act of reuniting I think served as a reminder of home or at the very least being together and the comfort that comes with that. I know transitioning from that trip back to site was very hard on Khalan. I, instead, went off on another trip to Queretaro for a week-long training with all of my PCV friends, which served as a bit of a buffer back to the reality. But as soon as I arrived back here, I think I plunged down into the furthest depths thus far on my Peace Corps emotional curve. Time moves fast here, but I definitely found myself thinking ‘oh dear God, two years is a long time.’ Add this to the fact that my parents and some of my closest friends at home have recently had enough of the social volatility that occasionally erupts here in this beautiful country, and have started to question if I want to come home and if I feel safe here… well, all in all, it’s a lot to manage.

img_0788But, as I write this, and as I continuously adapt, I realize that there is also so much to be grateful for amidst the remaining discomfort. Not everyone gets or chooses to embrace an experience such as this. At the end of the day, not only am I living abroad and experiencing the cultural depths and richness of this country, but I am dedicating 2 years of my life to service, which is something I will forever be proud of. And the truth of the matter is that some of the people I’ve met here are some of the best I’ve ever come across. My host family, who helped me adjust to Mexico and embraced me like one of their own, my local friends who helped me at my worst and gave me a sense of belonging at site, and my awesome co-workers, who’s office culture beats that within the U.S. ten times over…I don’t know but personally speaking, I think maybe I can stand a little more discomfort, as long as I’m surrounded by such great people and happen to learn a thing or two from them in the process.

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It is always stunningly depressing how quickly a trip passes when you’re having fun. And that, we were…so very much of it. As we were packing up our bags, yet again, and readying ourselves to check out of the amazing Buena Vista Surf Club, we found ourselves feeling like we wish we just had one more day…rethinking our itinerary a bit. Carrying on with our plans, we moved slowly, walking down the ever steep mountain, luggage in tow, to the bus stop in order to catch our ride into town where we would then catch another bus to Rivas. img_8303Piling our luggage in (more like watching it be thrown in the back of the bus along with 20 or so other suitcases which belonged to our fellow surf travel buddies) we climbed in and before we knew it, we were in route to Granada.

Heat. Absurd heat was the first thing we felt when we climbed out of the taxi and made our way to the town center in order to get our bearings. Anyone who knows Tess knows her and this type of heat is an awful combination, one people should fear, so we walked briskly to the hotel. Unfortunately, for us, this hotel was not the easiest to find, nor was it as centrally located as we originally thought. Using Khalan’s magical, extra-sensory orienting skills, we made it to our hotel, Tribal, in one piece (albeit covered in deliciously smelling sweat and panting) and immediately dropped our bags. Greeted by a very nice gentleman, we walked to the desk, desperate for AC, and informed the man that we had a reservation….to which he responded (without even looking at the computer) “no you don’t.” We stalled, Khalan repeated our name, the gentleman looked, and then silence…the reservation was never confirmed.

We froze and my (Tess) stomach dropped. WTF are we going to do NOW…in this scorching heat, with our luggage?!?! Of course we could walk to another hotel and see if they had an availability but this meant we needed to exit this wonderful AC and walk again (explore is more like it) which, in that moment was an unacceptable thought. The situation seemed to deteriorate when the owner said, “well you can stay here. We do have rooms available but it will be 4x the cost”….

More silence…

img_8016img_7990Then he admitted it was a joke and, although our reservation was actually never confirmed, they did have rooms available and we could pick whichever we wanted! Success! We’re not sure how we did it, but we’re fairly certain we hit the jackpot when it came to hotels on this trip. We did not think we could beat or even equal the Buena Vista Surf Club, but Tribal Hotel, was just spectacular.  Boho chiq to its core, with a charming pool, cabanas, palm trees and all the natural elements that just enhance any ambiance. It only got better when we went up to our room, which had its own private alcove balcony overlooking the pool, an amazing bedroom with double French doors and robes, yes robes (which, according to Khalan is how you identify a worthy hotel experience).

Completely content and giddy in our new found paradise, we worked up a hunger (shocker!) and went to a local spot Khalan had been to once before called Garden Café. On cloud 9 from our hotel experience, one would think we could not be happier. But if one were to think that, they obviously don’t know us at all. I think we peaked once we opened up the menu and were overwhelmed with a plethora of delectable options…options we wouldn’t normally find in our sites and have missed sorely. img_7783We ordered two mint lemonades, a steak chimichurri salad, a pesto chicken sandwich and bruschetta (because no meal is complete without it). We highly recommend this place to any and everyone. And, of course, we had to top it all off with some more gelato!

The remainder of the time spent in Granada consisted of hanging out at the hotel, lounging at the pool, hanging out with some PCV friends who came to visit, doing facials, smoking cigars, watching a scary movie or two and testing out other restaurants. Admittedly, we were home bodies during this portion of the trip, but if you had seen the hotel, you would have understood. We did, however, leave for food. Another delightful gastronomic experience was Espressionista, which was a bit on the pricier end but so worth it. Ironically, when we entered, the restaurant was nearly empty and the only other patrons there were two couples from our hotel. One could infer that it was not a popular spot for locals. But everything we ate, down to the garlic gazpacho with watermelon to the chocolate tort with vanilla-jalapeño ice cream, was a creative sensation and absolutely divine. We left beyond content, which was the theme of our time in Granada. 

On our last day of this reunion trip, we decided to end it exactly how we started…with the amazing company of Khalan’s volunteer class, Nica-67. img_8193There is a famous lake in Nicaragua called Laguna de Apoyo, which is located in the crater of a volcano. Apparently, Khalan’s PC class would spent many free weekends there during training, staying at the local hostel Paradiso, and enjoying the natural beauty and pizza Laguna de Apoyo had to offer. Many of these volunteers Tess has not yet met, so it was another great experience to connect with more like-minded individuals and expand her international family, which is one of the highlights of the Peace Corps experience.img_8304

With one night left, we returned back to Managua and checked in at another of Khalan’s favorite spots, Intercontinental Managua, which was nearer to the airport and allowed Tess to more easily make her 6am flight back to Mexico. There was a subtle sadness to our last night which lingered in the air resulting from the end of an amazing vacation and having to return to our sites. It is not that we don’t enjoy our Peace Corps experience in our sites, because we do, but to momentarily step out of that world and be reminded of our life back in the States and various things we would normally be accustomed to, makes it hard to shift gears and dive back into service. In a sense, the two experiences are extremes which, yes, is challenging, but is also a gift. To compare our Peace Corps experiences, something we are doing together as sisters and yet aren’t, was a unique experience. And to share all that we have learned personally, and how we think this will impact us, long-term, was a pretty powerful moment. We might not necessarily know what we both want to do post-Peace Corps and in the future, but one thing is clear, and that is that we are eager and excited to begin the process of figuring that out. Together, most likely (and not surprisingly)!

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It feels like just the other day that we were excitedly making our way to Managua to begin our epic adventure in Nicaragua — Tess venturing down from Mexico and Khalan from the northern part of the country in Estelí. Neither of us knew how memorable (by memorable, we mean food-filled, sandy, beach days with the most amazing sunsets, beautiful hotels, crystal pools, great friends, hilarious snap-chat filled moments, family FaceTime sessions and even more amazing food) an experience it was about to be. We were beyond overjoyed at the thought of seeing each other, but little did we know that this trip, and our first Peace Corps reunion, would soon inspire us and cause us to think about our careers and what we want to get out of life.

After reuniting, a.k.a. making a scene with our obscene delightful squeals, at the Augusto Sandino airport, we quickly made our way across the street (ran across highways) to grab a big breakfast (five minutes right before the buffet deal ended) before our trip down to San Juan del Sur, Rivas. I insisted that Tess had to taste the gallo pinto — a mix of rice and beans — which Nicaraguans consider a key staple to their diet. Although, I (Tess) was definitely more impressed with the delicious but ridiculously bright pink beverage, which I later learned as made of dragon fruit and was 100% natural although the pinkness looked blindingly artificial. img_7625-1After snapping some initial “we are finally reunited photos” and catching up over breakfast (which mostly consisted of Tess’ awe in the difference between Nicaraguan and Mexican Spanish), we hopped into one of the Peace Corps taxis (also an “awe” moment because designated PC taxis do not — but should — exist in Mexico) and made our way to Huembes bus terminal. Now, the bus terminals are always bustling with people so one is guaranteed to have some type of experience while venturing through there, but little did we know that Huembes is one of the main terminals frequently traveled by tourists. The moment we stepped out of the taxi to grab our bags we were instantly swarmed (SWARMED) by bus workers, eager to convince us to take their bus. They were trying (and succeeding) to grab our bags and carry them for us (run away with them), however, each was trying to take them in different directions! We quickly composed ourselves (slapped ourselves out of shock) and took control of the situation (just kidding, this was all Enrique, our taxi driver, who used his manly arm muscles to steal our luggage back — he was our savior). Then…all of a sudden we get to our bus and find ourselves in another unique situation…to put our bags beneath the bus or to carry them onboard with us…that was the question. Unfortunately, “they said” the bus was too full for us to carry our stuff and that Tess’ bag was too large so we naively opted to load our bags below causing extreme paranoia that they would not be there when we arrived. It’s very easy to feel overwhelmed as a tourist in these types of situations where you know you are likely being taken advantage of for an extra dollar, but Khalan’s six months in country was evident and she was able to stay cool, calm and collected, making sure we weren’t ripped off entirely.

Our bus ride to the department of Rivas was pretty quick and easy (if you count Tess getting smacked with bags and a rotund butt in her face while people stood next to her) until we had to catch a taxi to San Juan del Sur (SJDS). The taxis there are pretty accustomed to racking up the travel price for tourists, but Khalan, having experienced this before, was wellll prepared and wasn’t having any of that. They initially quoted $10.00 USD a person (which is like $300 cordobas) when it should really be around $2.00 USD ($70.00 cordobas)…mind you, there were four of us since another PCV friend joined us and we picked up a very nice Aussi gentleman along the way. Ready for battle, Khalan gasps at the original quote, yelling “Que barbaridad!” (new favorite phrase for Tess), which is basically saying this is insane, ludicrous and beyond reproach. She then countered with something absurdly low (bargaining on Canal St. in NYC certainly trained her well). They went back and forth for a little bit during which Khalan proceeded to say that this price is for tourists only and that she (proudly, I might add) lives in Nicaragua (and therefore is cooler and not a tourist) and knows what the real price should be (a.k.a. cut the shit). He then lowered the price to S5.00 USD. This, to Tess, is a success. But no, Khalan, the fierce Peace Corps warrior she is, still wasn’t having it — her bargaining skills were in full effect and there was just no calming her. It was clear that he was starting to get upset (I, Tess, thought he was going to leave us on the side of the road with our ass in hand). But surprisingly, some money is better than none, and in the end, she got the price down to C$70.00 (that magical and previously unattainable $2.00 USD) per person. It was quite the show and just exemplifies that no matter where you are traveling in the world, the ability to bargain (like a fierce PC warrior) is critical.

The moment we arrived in SJDS — which appears like a charming surfer town full of shops, restaurants, bars and hostels for its many foreign visitors — it felt like our vacation had officially started. SJDS is one of the most popular destinations in Nicaragua due to its beautiful beaches and crazy waves. The beach town is just a few miles north of the Costa Rican boarder so they also get a ton of surfers traveling from all over the world wanting to try out the waves. A little less developed than some of the other beach towns in Costa Rica, SJDS has the charm of a small beach community with all of the restaurants and touristy options one would want. There are a significant number of expats from the States who have settled there and have created all types of businesses from surf shops, hotels and resorts, restaurants, clothing, eco-tours and more.

img_7686We ended up spending our first night in an Air B&B house with a bunch of Khalan’s Peace Corps friends to celebrate a few September birthdays. We spent the majority of the time just hanging out at the house and at the beach, shopping in town at some super cute boutiques and jumping from one restaurant to the next trying out all of the delicious food. We had some of the best pizza ever at La Terraza on the beach. It was so good that we went back for more. To our delight, we also had access to some of the best gelato. Gelato every day? Yep, you bet. And it was sooo good! It was so much fun to start this vacation with other PCVs, who are just some of the best people. To compare notes, the differences in programs, how Mexico compares to Nica…it brought it all into perspective of how unique and amazing it is to be part of the Peace Corps organization and to know that all over the world we are part of a larger family who more or less just “get” you and what you’re experiencing. With all of the vastly different types of individuals and personalities (from recovering frat boy, to the posh-loving fachenta girls, to the comedian and the cutely couples), it was guaranteed to be a good time.

After brunch at La Cervecería (an awesome bar/restaurant, if anyone is interested), we made our way to Buena Vista Surf Club in Playa Maderas for the second leg of our SJDS trip. And boy, oh boy, were we in for quite a surprise. We knew that we were staying at a nice boutique eco-hotel up on a cliff outside of town (with good food because that’s key), but we had no idea that it was going to be one of the most beautiful, rustic locations on our trip. TripAdvisor just didn’t do it justice. When we arrived, we were greeted by two lovely couples who managed the hotel and who made us feel so welcome. They gave us a tour of the property and wow, it was like something you’d see in the movies. img_7792The facility was just beautiful. It was all open to the outdoors with an incredible view of the ocean…polished wood floors and furniture with plush, cozy giant pillows to lounge on, tons of little nooks to curl up and read a good book, shaded hammocks, and howler monkeys for neighbors. The kicker was the massive sundeck with a killer view overlooking the trees and ocean. A perfect spot to do some yoga, watch the sunset or star gaze at night.

Our little bungalow was perfection. Referred to as the Treehouse, it was nestled in the trees, and was made of dark, polished wood as well. The moment we started to unpack (Tess was slacking in this regard and opted to enjoy the view instead) Tess saw an unusual movement in the nearby trees below. Drawn to the sight which was then accompanied by a bizarre howl and quick movements that were getting nearer and near to our bungalow, we realized there was a family of howler monkeys passing by. That doesn’t happen every day! Another highlight was dinner — of course because being the foodies that we are we look forward to each meal with excitement, but also because dinner was family style. So all of the guests staying at the hotel sat together at the dinner table which was very sweet. In addition to great conversation, the food was so delicious! The first night we had Mexican (Tex-Mex to clarify) and the second night we had Italian (complete with garlic bread!).

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Our full day at Playa Maderas was spent on the beach. Tess was determined to soak up the sun since she hadn’t had any access to the beaches in Mexico (more like, her site is freezing and she wears layers upon layers and was looking pretty pasty in comparison), and she sure did get her dose of sun! It was a clear day and pretty intense, and lo and behold, she ended up sorely burnt despite copious amounts of lotion. Between laying out, eating and swimming, we also went searching for what we call our little treasures, otherwise and more commonly known as seashells. The beaches were just covered with shells — shells of all shapes, sizes and colors. Needless to say, our seashell collections were pretty impressive by the end of the day and worthy of an instapost! We also stayed to watch the sunset. 2016-09-17-photo-00006292It was so beautiful that words and photos can’t really capture how incredible it was…although we sure did try! In the end, we were so happy that we decided to spend a few days in the outdoors. There’s something to say about vacationing in places that are a bit more rustic and off the beaten path. Being off the grid for awhile did the trick for us and we left feeling very relaxed and ready for the next stop on our trip — Granada!

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It sounds selfish, but one of the main reasons I sought out the Peace Corps was for myself. I felt I was at a point in my young life where I had some significant accomplishments, having just finished my Masters, and wanted to stray from the “straight and narrow” path I have always been on, full of education and a mentality for ladder climbing. I wanted to do something big and bold, something out of left field, something life altering and something that would cause me to grow and grow some more as a person. I sought perspective. I sought good days overflowing with gratitude and hard days that would make me take a good hard look at myself and see all the good, bad and ugly. I wanted to come to terms with myself and gain a level of independence and confidence I had not yet known. I wanted to break down some personal walls and thought processes previously constructed. Long story short,  I wanted to do some serious self work and I wanted the Peace Corps experience full of beautiful people and authenticity to be the agent of change in my life.

I’m only 3 months in, and I’ve just started my service as a volunteer last week, but already so much has happened to facilitate this desire.

I spoke in my last post of highs and lows, and how meeting Peace Corps Global Director Carrie Hessler-Radelet was a turning point, something which re-kindled my drive for serving as a volunteer. That was incredibly accurate, but I had yet to experience what turned out to be two pivotal moments which, unbeknownst to me, solidified exactly why I’m here.

The first was my practicum.

My group of Environmental Education volunteers spent 4 days in a small rural community called Chiteje de la Cruz, about 90 minutes outside of Queretaro. The official goal of this venture was to conduct our practicum, much like a test, and put to use all the tools we’ve gained throughout our training. In small groups of 2-3 people, we were supposed to give a training of sorts on an environmental topic, such as composting and biointensive gardening, water decontamination, reforestation, waste management, etc, to two groups of parents (40 give or take) and monitor their perceived level of knowledge before and after our lesson. Later in the week, we did this again, but with 6 classes of children, ranging from kindergarden to 6th grade (roughtly 20 kids per class). It was a big week, probably our most important week during training thus far, and we were to  be evaluated and critiqued by multiple staff members to better prepare us for doing similar activities in our individual sites. Needless to say, I was a bit of an undercover wreck. I had a great group with two friends and our topic was composting/gardening. The school was incredibly excited for our lesson and had asked us to build a very unique form of biointensive garden during our lessons. I was excited to put to use my new knowledge from training and more than a little bit nervous to see how building this garden would go, considering we had very, very limited time with each group.

Did I mention all of these lessons would be in Spanish? It’s no surprise, but this tiny little detail and all the insecure and self-criticizing thoughts in my head could have easily ruined this experience for me. There was a very low point somewhere during those four days where I just thought so badly of myself and my ability to speak Spanish off the cuff and comfortably in front of a group, compared to my two project partners who appeared to do so with ease.

But as I said before, you can expect a high after a low, and that’s exactly what I got. During these four days, each volunteer was assigned to live with a family in the community. I was fortunate enough to live with a young couple, who lived in a very rural environment (no running water and bucket baths) with 4 young children ranging from ages 3-6 (roughly). Honestly, I wasn’t over the moon about living with a family during this time because I thought it would feel awkward, full of semi-forced and uncomfortable conversations. But boy, was I wrong. These people, this family, and these kids especially, were my saving grace and my source of optimism. Every night I played with the kids for hours and hours, running and hiding, chasing, twirling, and carrying them around, playing soccer and baseball, and of course, pretending to be animals in our own version of charades. These kids, despite my very short time with them, were my source of light and joy. And their parents embraced me for it.

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IMG_7358                                                             Family in Chiteje

What I did not expect was that these relationships built under the roof of their home would so easily translate to the practicum at the community school. I called them my brothers and sisters, and whenever I saw them at the school, I instantly felt relief and happiness…who knew our secret handshakes would mean so much?! Before I knew it, I was friends with their friends and surrounded by bright, smiling and inquisitive faces. I didn’t think it could get any better…but it did, as it commonly does in these unique Peace Corps experiences. My sessions with the kids, and with my brothers and sisters, were better that I could have imagined. So what I was nervous, made a few vocab mistakes and used my notes to speak? How could something so senseless as an insecurity matter when you have 20 kids running, smiling and screaming at you, hugging you so hard that they pull you to the ground and clobber you with happiness?

Nicole FBT _3 photos_136                                                         Group Hug Part 1 of 100

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IMG_7940                                                                        Success!!

Nicole FBT _3 photos_184                                                                   All the kids

When the time came to end our practicum, I had to give one of the thank you speeches to the community for their time, patience and energy. Yet again, I was nervous and mistake adverse, but the ending ceremony was so full of gratitude and raw joy (partially from it being over) that it was impossible not to be overcome with it. The school’s director gave an incredibly touching speech, bringing many of us to tears, the head of their PTA serenaded us with his guitar, the kids gave us flowers and tokens of appreciation and again, I was pulled to the ground by a stampede of hugging children…nearly an entire class full of them, led by my two adorable brothers and cousin.

I didn’t know my heart could feel so full. I don’t think it ever has. It was such a new sensation that I was brought to tears, very ugly tears I might add, completely vulnerable and unable to find balance and neutrality, which I so easily hide behind. It was an incredibly raw experience and a high I did not know I was capable of feeling. That moment sealed the deal…which was again sealed by the hundred or so hugs and the one innocent “te quiero” I received on my way out.

IMG_7941                                                      Closing ceremony with the kids

IMG_7943                                                                 THE Serenade

Several weeks later, as we were ending our training and nearing our swearing in ceremony, I was back to my old self again, worrying about Spanish tests and my ability to perform to my own ridiculous standards. I was getting anxious to leave, like a pendulum swinging back and fourth between being scared to leave Queretaro, my new PC friends and my host family, and dying to leave so that I could reclaim my sanity after having almost zero personal time for 3 months and being in an environment where I was prone to compare myself to others. I’m a Gemini and a Boyer so naturally I’m an over-thinker…that said, my head is perpetually swirling thoughts, thoughts and more thoughts. I tell you though, being in your head that much is exhausting and is sometimes more of a hinderance than helpful.

So again, finding myself in a bit of a rut, overcome with so many thoughts that I unconsciously switched into neutral, semi-numb mode, guess what happened? My so beautifully perfected and poised facade was shattered, yet again, as I was overcome by another one of these uniquely beautiful Peace Corps experiences.

Swearing in day had arrived. Unlike my sister, I did not necessarily receive goose bumps upon taking the pledge. I knew it was a big deal and I was happy, nervous, and relieved. But more than anything, I was grounded and going through the motions. It wasn’t until friends and newly minted volunteers started leaving that reality struck. But what ripped away my composure and any sense of the word was saying goodbye to my Mexican friends and family. I walked over to say goodbye to a close friend of mine and his host sister, who is the definition of innocence and generosity and someone who I’ve come to care about immensely. Hopefully, she won’t mind me calling her a bit of a cry baby, but as soon as I hugged her and saw her tearing and felt the authenticity of friendship between us, I, too, lost it. I’d only been there 3 months and already she felt like a younger sister to me, someone I’d do anything for because she is just such a good person. Saying goodbye to her and her brother, my friend, was what brought me into the present. Before I knew it, I was, again, overcome with such gratitude for these relationships that when I went to say goodbye to my host mom and her granddaughter I was unable to speak through all the tears.

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I’d read blogs about volunteers becoming close to their host families but I never dreamt that I would feel both gratitude for having been taken in and cared for by complete strangers and also such loss for having to leave them. I said time and time again that I should write a blog post about my family here and it never came to fruition. But they are some of the kindest people I have ever met. They might not have been the social type who had parties or who took me out to explore nearby attractions, but our conversations from day one were some of the most authentic I’ve had in my life. We talked about things of depth, abstract topics about life, social issues and global injustices…very profound conversations that I never imagined I’d have with people I just met…and in Spanish! Our energies were very much in sync, as were our outlooks on life in many regards. I appreciated our differences and learned a tremendous amount about Mexico, Mexican pride, it’s culture and about many social issues and generational changes underway here. But most importantly, they created a safe and comfortable environment for me during this integration process.

Saying goodbye to them was so challenging.  My host dad hugged me tightly and told me I have a home whenever I need it. My host mom, referencing my new PC pin with both an American and Mexican flag, told me the American flag represents who I am and where I’ve come from, while the Mexican flag represents my new life here in Mexico, including her family, which is now my own. And their granddaughter teared up, said I would always be an aunt to her and sneakily hid a goodbye note in my bag for later. I can’t count how many times we embraced before I left and how many tears fell between us, but it was surprisingly tender and had removed any barriers I had prepared to facilitate this departure. I was both vulnerable and humbled by the sheer amazingness of these Mexican friends and family of mine, and so grateful for these relationships and the experience which has made them possible.

IMG_7823                                                                  Family, Part 2

After three months in Queretaro and four days in Chiteje de la Cruz, one thing became clear. This is exactly the experience I had hoped for. I am being pushed continuously, I feel awkward nearly always, I am overly self-critical and worry that I am not good enough or doing well enough. I am learning more and more about myself, recognizing habits and thought processes that I need to change, and all the while becoming a stronger and better person for overcoming the daily struggles that arise when adjusting to living abroad. More than anything, I am learning to welcome the vulnerability that it brings and loving every second of the joy and gratitude I am able to receive from doing so.

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IMG_7829                                                                 Tlaxcala Crew

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If what goes up, must come down…then what goes down, must come back up again, right?

This has most certainly been the case with regard to my emotions of late. People say that in the Peace Corps you experience the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. Well, it hasn’t been quite that dramatic for me, but I will say that it has been a bit of a rollercoaster recently as we near the end of training.

In my last post I described my week-long Future Site Visit in Tlaxcala. There were a lot of high points and reasons to be grateful. But there was also a lot of doubt, insecurity, and frustration, mostly with myself, which cast a dark cloud on the fact that I will very soon be moving into and integrating into this new community.

Up until that point of my visit, training had been relatively easy and not as stressful as other volunteers and PC blogs made it out to be. For that reason, it was a shock to my system to experience my first real “down”. But take note, especially for anyone who is reading this because they have an interest in joining the Peace Corps, those lesser than ideal days don’t last, and they are always followed by something miraculous.

For me, this miraculous event was meeting Carrie Hessler-Radelet, the Peace Corps Director, who more or less inspired the clouds away. For one, the fact that we even had the chance to meet her, the most prestigious of Peace Corps celebrities, was enough to add a little bounce to my step. But then we had a chance to eat lunch with her, listen to her own accounts of being a PCV in Western Samoa, gain some precious words of advice, and eventually sit down for our own personal story time of inspiring PC stories, which we had heard was her most awe-inspiring party trick.  Our meeting was far too brief, but the time she spent talking with my training class and the stories she told practically recalibrated my mind and reminded me why I am here in the first place.

For this reason, I am compelled to share one of her stories. I know there is no possible way I can do it ANY justice, but what the heck…it’s amazing and goes something like this.

Carrie (if I may be so bold as to use her first name), was invited by President Barack Obama to attend the inauguration of Ernest Bai Koroma as the new President of Sierra Leone. While seated next to President Koroma, she discovered that not only did he have a strong affinity for Peace Corps and its mission, but he also attributes part of his success and his ability to lead to a Peace Corps encounter. Turns out, when he was a young boy, there was a Peace Corps volunteer serving in his community who had made it her job to work with kids of all ages, at school and even after, at her own house. This volunteer, named Sharon, lived next door to his family, was friends with his mother, and one way or another, directly or indirectly, influenced young Ernest to apply himself more in school, as well as in leadership opportunities outside of it.

Touched by his story, Carrie so generously (and as she says, “foolishly”) offered to reconnect President Koroma with Sharon should he ever visit the States.

Well, surprise, surprise, one week later, on a blissful afternoon, Carrie received a call from President Komora himself, where he informed her that he was indeed coming to Washington D.C. for a Speaker Series and he was looking forward to seeing Sharon again. Mentally and silently kicking herself, Carrie did what only she could do. She waved her magic Peace Corps wand, and with the help of several departments, was able to find “a Sharon” who happened to have served in Sierra Leone during the late 60s. Mind you, the only information Carrie and her team had was a first name and the town/country of service…no last name, no years of service, etc.  You need to understand, records back then were kept so differently that it was indeed a miracle to find any Sharon at all from Sierra Leone. Blessing the sweet Peace Corp Gods that any Sharon was found, Carrie called and invited her to the event, doubting that she was even THE right Sharon. After some persistent pleading, Sharon, who had just moved to Florida, agreed. But she was hesitant and didn’t think she was the right person either.

Fast forward a few days, Sharon arrived the the PC HQ in Washington D.C. with a photo album in tow. When the time came and she met President Koroma in Carrie’s office, she was still unsure she was THE Sharon. She did not recognize this man standing in front of her. But then they began looking through the photographs and tears began rolling down the President’s cheek. And suddenly, everyone realized the miracle that was unfolding within that room. After 50 some years, a teacher and student, one American, one African, after living vastly different lives, were being reunited and cast under the same spell of their shared history. Together, they studied the pictures, pointed out old friends, and reminisced about time spent together. Ironically, Sharon remembered Ernest as never paying attention to her. But, though this was her perception, it was not reality. He grew intellectually from her, yes, but more importantly, and unbeknownst her, his horizon for potential grew exponentially more. And as the story goes, they sat together for awhile longer, both emotional and unfolding the amount of influence those few years in Sierra Leone had on both individuals. You see, Ernest was not the only one who had been so altered from that time. Because of her experience, Sharon dedicated the rest of her life to working with underprivileged youth in Chicago’s South Side and has been honored on numerous occasions for her excellent work.

And that, more or less, is the story. An amazingly heartwarming story (when told correctly), that had me and several others in tears. I was just completely captivated, not only by Carrie (of course), but by her words and this story which exemplifies the depth of human connection…that one person can so completely affect another…that even indirectly, someone can so utterly change the course of someone’s life for the better. And even more amazing, to think that everyone, including myself in Mexico, has the potential to do this, to be this change. I have goosebumps thinking about it — just the potential of it all.

Forunately for Sharon, after all those years, she was able to learn of her impact. The reality is, most of us Peace Corps volunteers probably won’t be so lucky. But, boy, oh boy…if this story is any indication, never say never.

And that, just that potential, is all I need to keep on marching onwards and upwards! 🙂

(Thank you, Carrie!)

 

 

 

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Let’s recap!

I’ve officially ended week 7 of “capacitacion” (training) and I never thought I’d say this but I kinda, sorta, maybe want time to slow down!

Much has happened since I last posted but the biggest event of all has been my Future Site Visit (FSV).  But before I pop open that can of goodness, I should explain that the Mexican Peace Corps process is a tad different than all the other programs. Don’t ask me why, but this year PCM decided to let all of us trainees in on a monumental secret…a secret of epic proportions…THE secret of a peace corps lifetime: the location of our future sites. Anyone who is familiar with the Peace Corps process knows that trainees usually don’t find out where their permanent site is until about 2-3 months into the training process (see Khalan’s most recent post for evidence of this). Well, this year, my program piloted a new process of telling us BEFORE we even left the States.

So, in case you didn’t know, I’ll be going to the State of Tlaxcala, living in a small city of ~15K and also working in a nearby community of about 1.5K.

And just like that, the secret is out!

Here’s the so called catch (not really a catch, but more of an opportunity)…because we knew our sites going into this process and have been able to research and prepare, our program not only moved up our Future Site Visits, but also extended it, so I was able to scope out my future home for a full 7 days. I’m not kidding when I say I’ve never been more mentally, emotionally and physically exhausted…those days were jam packed and solomente en español. I got to meet my counterpart, who is not so much a boss as he is a colleague/mentor/guide for cultural and community complexities. After spending nearly every day with him (and Mickey, a friend and volunteer living 15 min away, who you’ll likely hear a lot about) and I’m so, so grateful I’ll be working with him…he’s incredibly patient, and kind, and very, very laid back (thank heavens, just the type of person I need to deal with my language skills, or lack thereof). I’d been told by past volunteers that he was “the best” but after my own experience, I am now a believer. I also met and stayed my new host family, not to be confused with my host family I’ve been living with for 2 months now in Queretaro and who I ADORE and need to write a post about.  Everyone seems really nice, especially the mother, who I can tell really wants to “mother” me via mandatory breakfasts (because you need energy for the day) and an endearing curfew/preference for me to be accompanied whenever I leave the house. And as for the last few items on the agenda, Mickey and I visited our future communities, including local and municipality presidents, and presented ourselves to Tlaxcala’s CONAFOR (Comision Nacional Forestal/equivalent to US Forest Service) team who we’ll be collaborating with for a number of our projects. 

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                                                                       On our way to our future sites!

Visiting my future site and getting the lay of the land was easily one of the highlights of my week. I went into it not knowing what at all to expect and my primary emotion was subtle/tempered panic, which I didn’t know was possible before that moment. I was told “we will present you to the community” but I had no idea what that meant…was that a small group of community leaders? Teachers we’ll likely work with? A small group of interested community members? I didn’t know what to expect but I was kind of hoping for a small and very non-intimidating group of people…but boy was I wrong. We were greeted by 50-60 community members of all ages! The room was packed and people were standing outside watching though windows. Talk about being nervous to make a good first impression, a concept taken very, very seriously in Mexico. But all went so, so well, better than I could have ever expected! I don’t know why this surprised me so much, but many people, including teachers, students and community members, expressed interest in collaborating on environmental projects and seemed genuinely interested and happy to have me. To top that off, we quickly made friends with the community leader and a group of volunteer forest fire fighters who offered to take us on a community tour. Everyone we encountered along they way was just so friendly and welcoming…I was overwhelmed by how kind people were. A gentleman I saw at the event stopped us to buy us ice cream at the local stand, and the leader of the fire fighters refused to let us pay for lunch or see us sit without a cerveza in hand. I didn’t think it could have gotten any better, but just as we were readying ourselves to head home, the community president invited us to a community dance, complete with mucho mas cerveza, tequila and sweat (because boy, can these people dance). Two hours later, I’m pretty sure I danced with every able body in there including women and children. Mickey’s running complaint of the night was that she was smiling so much her face hurt. And I felt her pain, which was a wonderful problem to have.

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                                                            Some of the CONAFOR Forest Fire Fighters

                                                      After the amazing introduction to my community!

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                                                                                      Dance Party!

Another highlight was hiking one of Mexico’s many “Peñas”, which ended up being one of the largest peaks within the state of Tlaxcala. I thought, you know…”why not get out and explore the environment a bit. A hike sounds like a great idea”. WELL, this “get out and explore” business turned into a 10 hour trek from hell where I pretty much started wheezing within the first 30 minutes and would have collapsed had we not paused every 10 paces for the last hour. It was awful…and ironically beautiful at the same time. The view at the end of our 4 hours upward climb was purely breathtaking…enough so that it was worth every second. And despite the fact that I couldn’t move for two days after, I will absolutely be making that trek again…to work off the tacos and tortillas, if nothing else.

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                                                         The horrifically beautiful hike from hell.

We met so many other people and did so many other noteworthy things, but for your sake, I’ll stop there and let the pictures speak for themselves. I will say that overall, it was a pretty great trip. The reason I mentioned above that I wish time would slow down is because I literally only have a month left of training, and as good as this trip was, and as kind as everyone is, I won’t lie…it was a bit of an emotional “mixed bag”. Going away for 7 days, being surrounded by all new faces 24/7, internalizing the vast differences between cultures, living with a new family with new rules, and speaking another language 95% of the time/realizing that I have a loooong ways to go before I feel comfortable communicating and socializing (which btw is kind of important for a successful Peace Corps experience)…it took a toll, which should come as no surprise. And I’m sad to say that although I started the week on such a high, I left feeling depleted and slightly defeated. I was way too hard on myself, feeling disappointed in my lack of language abilities, which became even more pronounced in the “real world”, and felt overwhelmed thinking about leaving the comfort of Queretaro with all my friends and family to go live in a new community by myself, all the while building community ties, implementing projects, and answering to a Mexican government institution. Those last few days in Tlaxcala, and the now acknowledged reality of the newness that is rushing toward me at record speed, might have even been the catalyst of my first “dip” on the Peace Corps emotions scale (which is an actual thing, with an actual graph).

But regardless of any ambivalence, the countdown has begun…I have LESS than 30 days left and then I’m off to begin the next two years of my life!

And so the adventure continues…

 

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                                                           Cheers! (with my first glass of pulque)


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Good News Folks,

I am fully recovered and gleefully back to eating everything (but cheese, because f-that)

Week 3 of PST is in the books, which means I’m only 7 or so weeks away from freedom! And by freedom, I mean they big, dark, murky, “training-wheelless” abyss that fills me with just as much dread as it does excitement.

So far PST has been fairly great. The staff I’ve personally worked with thus far is A-grade. I feel like I’m slowly but surely progressing in Spanish, although this remains my biggest cause of anxiety. The endless training lessons, though exhausting and sometimes a bit tedious, have been relatively easy to get through. We’ve met a number of current volunteers and now have a better grasp of what some of our work might look like.  I had my first check-in with my PST manager, who pretty much told me keep up the positivity and good work (woohoo!). I really like the other volunteers and look forward to getting to know them even better and more personally. As I’ve mentioned before, Queretaro is charm encapsulated within a city. My love of food has been satiated by amazing Mexican food, including enchiladas, tamales, taquitos, tacos, gorditas, and tortas…and for when I want to switch it up, some of the best crepes, cappuccinos, chai teas, and pizza I could ask for.  Some volunteers and I have stumbled onto some great night-life spots with amazing Cumbia music. We’ve just been cleared to make day trips around the region and I just visited San Sebastian Bernal, a “Puebla Magico” and home to apparently the third largest monolith in the world, yesterday. And in general, while the days feel so long, time also feels like it is flying. It’s a bit of an odd sensation to be in what feels like a time loop and warp at the same time.

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SONY DSCImages from San Sebastian Bernal

So all is, for the most part, well…just peachy keen…a great introduction to PC Mexico.

And I say that knowing that this is the transition point…the point of no return…the brink of what could very possibly become PST hell. As of this week, I’m pretty sure my honeymoon will be over. My training manager even indicated as much, saying we will get much more work on top of our Spanish lessons and in-Spanish-only environmental field training, which we are just starting this next week. He even showed us the (very turbulent) graph of “typical PC emotions”.

Khalan has already taken her first dip…mine could very well follow shortly. And my hope is that by avoiding denial, things might not be as bad…? It might not work but a girl can hope.

Anyone who knows me knows I’ve had some bouts of pretty severe anxiety in the past, particularly around trying to be perfect while performing in some regard…usually at work (i.e. my advertising days). Well, I gotta break it to myself that sh*t might hit the fan if I don’t cut this “perfectionist” crap because that will compound any and all stress I will feel from future PST activities. Pretty soon PST and my environmental training will only be in Spanish. I’ve been progressing but I’m talking baby steps here…not like some other volunteers that majored/minored in Spanish. And next Wednesday I will be visiting my future site in Tlaxcala for a week…that’s a week with my new family, my new boss, a new environment and full steam ahead with a another language…without the training wheels of PST. Did I mention, first impressions are kind of like a make or break thing here?

So…that said, the last thing I want to do is manifest anxiety and stress by worrying about it…but I’m just warning you guys…

Sh*t could get cray.

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