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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I never thought I would feel so proud to have such a gangster cobrador (bus worker). Every Tuesday, I take the same bus to the small town of Regadío, which is located about 20 minutes (45 min by bus) outside of town.

I can’t even begin to tell you how many different types of items people transport to and from the city center of Estelí. I’ve seen everything from animals, bicycles, furniture, large bags of grain/rice/beans/vegetables, buckets of cuajada cheese, bushels of wood…the list goes on and on. For some of these local folks, this bus (which comes into town 3 times a day) is the only form of transportation they have so often times they aren’t traveling light, especially when they are buying and selling goods in bulk.

So where does all of this stuff go? The roof. But how you might ask…well my friend Ramiro (he doesn’t know we are friends) carries every item up the side of the bus. img_8320See, they have these metal ladders bolted to the sides of the buses for this very reason. And I’ve seen Ramiro do all sorts of acrobatics to get these things up to the top. Just today, I was watching him load two massive bushels of wood…like MASSIVE. He threw a small hand towel over the back of his head and neck and proceeded to load the wood (which had to have weighed a at least 100lbs) on top. He then began to climb the bus (I’m in complete awe secretyly taking photos out of my side window like a tourist), up the ladder and onto the roof without any help. Afterward, he made his way back on to the bus dripping in sweat and no one even blinked an eye (except for me of course!). There’s absolutely nothing he can’t do. It’s like magic! It amazes me every time.

And it’s not just Ramiro who works his magic, but all of the cobradors across Nicaragua. These guys are usually small in size but have the strength of an ox. I want to give a big shout-out, not just to Ramiro, but to all the cobradors who bust their asses every day to make our lives easier. Muchísimas gracias!

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img_9079No one likes Plan C, especially when you have Plan A and Plan B. Plan C is like the last resort, when everything hits the fan and you have to rely on your least favorite option. To say it lightly, I’m someone who prefers Plan A, someone who enjoys having control over the situation knowing exactly what’s going to happen in the order in which it’s planned. But we all know that’s not how life works…ever. So what better way to get more practice in this area then to live in a country where advanced planning and prep isn’t very common. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure there are many planners who live in Nicaragua, but culturally, advanced preparation isn’t really a thing here. Most people here plan everything a day or two before, which for someone like myself, is an absolute nightmare. Being the perfectionist that I am, I like to plan at least a week ahead of time, but as I began to prepare for competition season, I quickly learned that my approach to planning would need to…how should we say it…adapt a little.

Luckily, my experience working at NBCUniversal gave me skills in the area of strategic planning and crisis communication — in other words, how to plan for the worst case scenario with the flip of a switch. I can’t tell you how many strategic plans I worked on with multiple scenarios…A….B….C….D. And many times they actually came in handy. So, as I’ve been planning and organizing the city and state-level competitions, I’ve FINALLY accepted that my good ol’ Plan A probably wouldn’t happen and that it didn’t make much sense to worry. Over the years I’ve learned that worrying is like praying for what you don’t want to happen. So why give it the energy to begin with, ya know? And here in Nicaragua, the mentality that many people have is that it will all come together at the end of the day, in one way or another. So instead of worrying, I’ve just come up with other possible scenarios to plan for so that I’m not blindsided by chance.

But, this type of planning is hard for me. And it’s been hard not to judge others right off the bat because they operate differently than I do. I’ve had to work really hard not to approach situations all high and mighty with my corporate NYC background, but rather open and willing to learn how to achieve the same results, just by using a different approach. Because, as I’m quickly learning, most countries around the world don’t operate the way big U.S. corporations do. So, if I’m planning to do more work in international development on a community level, it would be best to know how to get things done under all sorts of circumstances. I hope that once I finish my service and return back to the states, I carry with me the skills to not only work better under pressure, but to work with limited resources because that’s real life. Having this type of outlook has helped me shift my perspective from a place of irritation and frustration to that of gratitude and appreciation — a tough lesson, but one that I’m grateful for.

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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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I never imagined that I would be comparing my schedule here to that in NYC. I had this vision that I would be spending more afternoons in hammocks reading books or sitting on front porches chatting in Spanish. And while each PCV has their own unique experience, mine is definitely not even close to my vision. 

We PCVs in the business sector are currently in the midst of our competition season. And what exactly does that entail you may ask? Well…

Towards the end of the year, all of the schools who currently have a business/entrepreneurship education PCV or who have had one in the past participate in the Entrepreneurship Fair and Business Plan Competition. During the year we train teachers in the Entrepreneurship course by working with senior high school students. In each class we focus on a part of the business plan (Market Study, SWOT Analysis, Finance, Accounting, Marketing, etc.). The students then have the opportunity to apply what they learn in class in the development of their own new, innovative product or service. Ideally, by the end of the year we should have completed the entire course and the students should have a complete business plan. 

We kick off the school-level competitions at the end of September. You can feel the anticipation in the classroom as the teachers try to get through all of the material and as the students consolidate all of their learning into a comprehensive business plan. I can even feel my own anxiety! This is my first year so I’ve been feeling a lot of pressure to complete the course and prep the kids for the final stage — the competitions. All teams have the chance to compete at the school level, and it’s great practice for them to present and defend their product/service in front of a series of judges. 

img_8556Last week my three schools in Regadío, Isidrillo and San Nicolás held their competitions. Overall, they went very well. Since I teach the classes, I wasn’t able to be a judge; instead, I felt like a proud parent on the sidelines. The winning products included an organic peanut butter, a coffee flavored chocolate and a honey treat. While we typically don’t encourage any foods or beverages, these teams had the best business plan and presentation. These three teams now advance on to the municipal-level where they will compete against the other schools in the city of Estelí. Since my schools are new to the competition, they are less experienced when it comes to the competition prep so my job has been helping them modify and improve their plans as well as prepare for their big presentations. 

img_8659In addition to prepping my teams, I have been serving as a judge at the other school competitions and have been working around the clock organizing and planning for the city and state competitions, which are close at my heels. And there is SO MUCH to do!! I’m working 12-hour days waking up at 5:00am before the sun. Now, I do have some experience in event planning, but this takes it to a whole new level. I pride myself on being a proactive planner, and coming from corporate America in NYC has made me well equipped to multitask and work with tight deadlines. However, that’s not how they operate down here. Planning ahead isn’t really a thing here. I’ve quickly discovered that no matter how much I plan, delays are normal and things miraculously come together at the last minute. I know that part of my experience here is to adapt and to adjust to other ways of doing things, but damn, this is hard. The perfectionist in me is just NOT having it. So I’ve had to do a lot of work around letting go of my vision of the competitions going perfectly. And, during this process, I’ve had many people tell me to have a Plan B and a Plan C because often times Plan A never happens. So, with that, I will push forward doing all that I can and turning over all that I can’t control. 

I also have to remember that, at the end of the day, it’s not about me. It’s not about me being the perfect PCV (as much as I would like to be haha). I am working with these teachers to better equip the students with new skills that will help them confidently and successfully do well in their future careers, whatever they may be. This experience is a stepping stone in their lives, so if I can encourage their excitement and passion to learn, and give them a little hope in the process, then I’ve achieved what I came here to do. 

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This week has been tough. I miss home. I miss my old life. I miss my friends. And most of all I miss my family. And while I’ve felt so much joy and excitement being here in Nicaragua, I’ve been feeling sadness too. I know that this roller coaster of emotions is part of the process, and the best thing for me to do is to reach out and connect with those close to me. I also know that I need to remind myself that this feeling will pass…that it won’t last forever.

img_5703When I’m busy — which has been almost all of the time lately — I don’t feel the sadness as much. It’s when I stop moving that it hits me. I wanted to write about this because this is a reality of my life here, these feelings. This funk that I’m in is part of the journey, I know. It’s in these tough moments that I need to dig deep and remember why I chose to be here.

I knew this wasn’t going to be easy. But I didn’t fully grasp how challenging it would be for me at times. While I’ve always been a creature of comfort, I was ready to take this leap. I had outgrown the shoes I had been wearing. I took a risk leaving everything I knew behind, but it was a risk I was willing and eager to take.

I know that in order for me to grow, I need to feel. I need to feel everything — the good and the bad, what makes me happy and what makes me sad. I need to remember that I am here to be of service to others, to make deep connections with the people of Nicaragua, and in the meantime, to learn more about who I am, who I want to be and what’s important to me in my life. And the only way to accomplish all of this is to experience it all.

 

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Yesterday was one of those days. A day full of activity and a lot of demands. I’m in the thick of the business competition season and have a serious load on my plate. Until I get through the departmental competition in late October, I won’t really have a minute to spare in the day.

It was 2:30pm and I was riding the bus back from Regadío after a long day at the school. I was thinking about everything that needed to get done once I got back to Estelí. I needed to pass by the Ministry of Education (MINED) to speak with the delegada to have her approve and sign a document which would allow me to start meeting with potential sponsors for the competition. I then needed to drop by some locations to meet with these potential sponsors…try and make my Spanish tutoring…finish writing my community analysis…and on…and on. My mind was racing through my “to-do” list…shit…I have A LOT to get done and this list just keeps growing. There’s simply not enough time in the day.

fullsizerender-2And then, as I was quietly panicking, one of the sweetest profes I work with offered to buy me cajeta (a little sweet treat) from the vendor on the bus. I picked the peanut brittle which was loaded with sugar (I knew this wouldn’t help my cavity situation, but took it anyways). You should have seen my grin! It was soooo good. And it was in that moment when I felt my energy shift. A shift from a place of stress and anxiety to a place of gratitude and appreciation. And I instantly felt like everything was going to be ok.

A small act of kindness can go a long way. We may not even think anything of the act or gesture — a smile, a wave, an offering or even a text — but little do we know how impactful or uplifting it can be for someone. And for me, that little piece of peanut brittle sure went a long way. Who would have thought!

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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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Recently, I attended the annual Entrepreneurship Congress, or as we here, el Congreso de Emprendedurismo. It was by far one of the highlights of my time here in Nicaragua since I arrived in country about 6 months ago (wow, has it really been 6 months!?). The theme of this year’s national congress was “Constructing a Better Tomorrow: The Importance of Social Entrepreneurship,” which really captured my attention given that I have always had a strong interest in social responsibility and doing socially responsible work. The contribution of entrepreneurs to the development of communities is invaluable because they have the ability to identify needs and contribute to their local communities. Recognizing this, Peace Corps emphasizes the importance of entrepreneurship to generate social impact beyond just creating economic profits for their owners.

Twenty-one qualified teachers and 90 highly motivated students were selected to participate and share this opportunity for professional development to deepen their knowledge on the topic of social entrepreneurship in this congress. The goal was to prepare this group of young men and women to implement new strategies and methodologies in their lives and pass on the lessons learned to people interested in their communities. In this way, they will be agents of social change and contribute to a positive and sustainable development in their communities. The congress included a series of presentations given by Peace Corps staff and volunteers, as well as with several successful Nicaraguan business owners who are positively contributing to their communities in one way or another. I was asked to give a presentation on public speaking. Now, I have given many speeches and presentations over the years, but never have I presented at a national conference in SPANISH. I’m happy to say that it went really well! Another box checked off on my list of “first time” moments.

This event was such an inspiring experience for many reasons but mostly because many kids in attendance had never traveled to the capital before, had never stayed at a hotel or gone swimming in a pool. Many youth in Nicaragua rarely leave their communities or have the opportunity to meet new people and establish new connections with others in different departments. Given that reality, many of us PCVs were asked to travel with the students from our departments, so I traveled with six kids from Estelí. Side note: Now, I know that I’m 33, but this experience made me feel extremely old. Never have I had to chaperone a group of high schools students, let alone be given the responsibility to travel with kids who had never left their home city. I can’t tell you how many times I counted heads to make sure I had everyone on and off the bus. By the end of the trip I felt like a mama hen with her little chicks.

All in all, I had such an amazing time at the Entrepreneurship Congress. It reminded me of why I quit my corporate job to join the Peace Corps — to step out of the safety of my comfort zone and give back to a community in need. This event opened doors for many youth, shined a light on what they are capable of and encouraged them to be the positive change agents their communities so greatly need.

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