This past weekend Peace Corps Nicaragua held its first Diversity Affinity Group meeting which brought together 25 diverse Peace Corps Volunteers from all over the country. The purpose of the meeting was to come together to safely share personal experiences around specific identity markers (such as race, gender, sexual orientation, class, age, etc.) and to have discussions revolving around being a minority in the Peace Corps and how to better support these groups.

One of Peace Corp’s goals is to help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served. While we are serving abroad and integrating into our communities, we are also sharing about our life and culture in the United States with local Nicaraguans. What I’ve discovered is that there is a misconception here of what it means to be an American. There’s an assumption that all Americans are white and have blond hair and blue eyes. And if you don’t fit that mold then you must be from somewhere else. For example, at first glance, many people here think that I’m “una costeña” — from the Atlantic coast on the Caribbean side of the country. The region consists of six indigenous and afro-descendent ethnicities, each consisting of their respective language: Mestizos, Sumu, Rama, Miskitu, Garifuna, and Creole. As a result of co-existence, the majority of the Coastal populations are multilingual, usually with a dominance in Spanish and Kriol.

When I explain to Nicaraguans that I was actually born in the U.S. and that I’m a mix between a few different ethnic backgrounds they find it incredibly fascinating. Many don’t realize that the U.S. is composed of many different types of people from various ethnic backgrounds, and I’m finding that I have an opportunity to educate and share more about what it means to be a multicultural, multi-ethnic American.

What I’m also realizing is that many of us here are navigating unchartered waters. Not only am I living abroad in a developing country speaking a different language, but I’m doing that while also facing challenges as it relates to my ethnic diversity. And who would have thought that that would have even been a challenge. What I love about this Diversity Affinity Group is that it creates a safe space for me to connect and share about my experiences in the Peace Corps. It’s also helping me to better communicate sensitive topics in Spanish. Each of our experiences are filtered through different lenses, and I feel that we have a responsibility to create a learning space wherever we go, recognizing our differences while also using our similarities to connect us.

Many people have told me that while serving in the Peace Corps I would discover more about myself, and I must admit that with only five months under my belt, I’ve already done some serious growing.

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So this was a tough week for me. I had my first official site visit by my Peace Corps program manager and while it was incredibly productive, it left me feeling beyond overwhelmed. We met with my counterparts to discuss my upcoming work over the next two years. I will be working on a few big projects that relate to community economic development in Estelí.

A few people have inquired about what exactly I will be doing here so I thought I would break it down for you. The purpose of my work here in Nicaragua is to support community economic development with two main goals:

  1. Youth Employability and Entrepreneurship: The focus here is to provide youth with entrepreneurial skills and the values and attitudes that prepare them for the world of work. I have three core objectives that support this goal which are —
    1. Teacher Training: I will lead teacher trainings so that teachers/facilitators will be prepared to effectively implement the Entrepreneurship curriculum using a participatory methodology.
    2. Youth Entrepreneurship: I will train youth in schools, vocational centers, youth centers or youth out-of-school to develop their entrepreneurial skills to increase their economic security.
    3. Youth Employability and Vocational Skills: I will facilitate employability and/or vocational skills trainings to improve youth opportunities in the local job market.
  2. Economic Opportunities: The focus here is to work with community members to improve their capacity to advance their family economic well-being. Below are the following key objectives I will need to complete —
    1. Financial Literacy: I will work with individuals in the community to improve their financial literacy skills to better manage their finances.
    2. Business Development: I will work with businesses to assist in improving their profitability by conducting a baseline management assessment and through coaching, trainings, or other means to facilitate the improvement of business management skills, including planning, operations, customer service, marketing, negotiations and financial management.

So suffice it to say, there is a lot of work to be done. What was great about my site visit is that we were able to set the stage with my counterparts to make sure we all are on the same page with my work, and also to manage expectations. There is a lot of opportunity to do some impactful work here with the Ministry of Education (MINED) and with the nonprofit I will be working with, the Institute of Human Promotion (INPRHU). I am beyond excited because this is one of the biggest challenges I’ve been given to date – a challenge that will help me grow beyond my wildest dreams and a challenge where I can make a positive impact.

But what I’ve realized is that while this is a great challenge to be faced with, it also brings up a lot of my own issues. As a follow-up Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV), I will need to carry the torch of what the previous PCV accomplished here in site. And with that, I feel an immense pressure to fill some pretty big shoes and do really well. Having always been a competitive person, this job kicks up my need to go above and beyond. I’ve placed a crazy amount of pressure on myself to deliver and show strong results. A part of me wants to be perfect and look for external recognition because there is a belief that if I don’t do this job perfectly then I will fail. And as I’ve been processing over the last few days, I’ve come to the conclusion that when I have a strong desire to be the best, I slip out of a place of humility and into a place of ego. And that is not my purpose here. At the end of the day, my purpose is to awaken the possibility in the lives of individuals, one at a time, which can be done quietly as well as brightly.

If I can leave someone with a brand new idea of what’s possible in their life, then I will be doing my job.

 

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So I’m officially into the swing of things here in Estelí. I’ve made a conscious effort to adapt to and embrace the local ways in Nicaragua while also carrying with me all of my life experiences living in States.

I will forever and always be grateful for my work experience at NBCUniversal. I grew exponentially during my time there and was so fortunate to have worked with some of the best and brightest people in the business. They believed in me and gave me chances to stretch and push myself outside the realm of what I believed was possible. By the time I left NBCU I had earned a seat at the table in the corporate boardrooms with top executives in the company. I had made it and it felt great. Until I realized that I needed to acquire more skills that couldn’t be obtained in corporate America.

So here I am in Nicaragua. And while I absolutely dislike waking up before the sun at 5/5:30am during the week, I kind of look forward to my commute to the rural schools. There’s something amazing about traveling into rural communities to teach that continues to have me in a state of awe. I’m writing this post as I travel to my school in San Nicolás and every time I look out the window I can’t stop thinking about how surreal this experience really is. Every day I pass by cows laying in the pastures, spot hawks flying at eye-level, see cowboys riding by on their way to work and kids walking to school. Did I really make the leap from corporate life in NYC to a more simple and service-oriented life in Nicaragua? Yes, I did. And here I am.

Everyday I am so grateful that I was matched with Estelí and given the responsibility to work in rural schools in the surrounding communities. I don’t think my experience would be the same if I taught in the urban schools. In the “campo” there is a simplicity and a sweetness that I haven’t found anywhere else. The people are so generous and the children have an innocence about them that I find incredibly refreshing. I especially love working at the schools that have all grades together in one location because the little ones are so fascinated by me and always wave and giggle with bright sunbeam smiles as they walk by me.

I’m really starting to get into a rhythm here in the schools. At first I was extremely intimidated by the nature of my work. Could I really teach/train in the classroom? This isn’t my expertise. However, I’m realizing that the answer is, yes, because I am bringing a level of business knowledge that is applicable to the Entrepreneurship Education course. It’s becoming clearer with every class that my role is not really to teach the class but to train the teachers in the business material and help convey the information in a way that the kids can understand. That is how our work will become sustainable after we leave.

While I do greatly miss my morning commute walking from the Upper West side through Central Park and down to 30 Rock, I have to admit that the mountainous view I see every day on my way to school takes work travel to a whole new level.

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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.

IMG_7725                                                                       Family

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.

 IMG_7849                                                                       PCM 18

IMG_7829                                                                 Tlaxcala Crew

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I never imagined that I would be giving the same oath to my country as the President of the Unites States or the Supreme Court Justice. To raise my right hand and repeat the words stated by the Ambassador of Nicaragua was by far one of the most surreal moments of my life. I’ve always felt a feeling of pride for my country when singing the national anthem, but to publically swear to serve my country definitely takes the cake. It gave me goosebumps.

I feel so honored to have been selected by the Peace Corps to dedicate the next two years of my life to be of service to the Nicaraguan people. I’ve always felt a calling to do more for the better and it’s never felt clearer that this is where I’m supposed to be at this exact moment in my life. I miss home and the U.S. dearly, don’t get me wrong, but I know that the type of work I am meant to do requires that I make this commitment.

Ever since I was asked by the Peace Corps to give the speech on behalf of the Entrepreneurship Education/Small Business group at the swearing in ceremony, I’ve taken a lot of time to reflect on why we are here, why I am here. And when I gave the speech on Friday it all just came together. I was so moved by everyone’s positive words and appreciation. I was extremely humbled when the Ambassador commended me and said that my words captured the true spirit of the Peace Corps. And I must say that I surprised myself at my ability to communicate words of inspiration and motivation in Spanish. That was definitely a big first. For those of you interested, I’m including below my speech, both in English and Spanish.

image1 (3)The icing on the cake was being asked for an interview by the national newspaper El Nuevo Diario. Having worked for many years in Public Relations prepping my executives for interviews, it felt beyond surreal to be on the receiving end of the interview and to be the one quoted in the newspaper article. Here’s to another first!

As I sit here in my new home in Estelí, I can’t help but feel a mix of excitement and nervousness. I’m no longer a trainee, I’m a Peace Corps Volunteer. It’s official. Time to get to work!

Peace Corps Speech (English)

I’m a big believer that there are no accidents. Doors open and opportunities present themselves when the time is right…when we are ready. There is a reason why each of us are sitting here today in Nicaragua about to swear in as Peace Corps Volunteers. For some of us, the Peace Corps may have always been a part of our plan while for others it may have just been a recent interest over the past few years, but I believe we all have been guided to be here, together, in this exact moment.

For me personally, I chose to leave my corporate Public Relations job in New York City so that I could do more meaningful and fulfilling work. I wanted to make a positive impact and to be of service.

I’ve been told by many how courageous we are to take this leap of faith and move abroad to join the Peace Corps. To give up our old lives and leave all that we know to come to a foreign country much different than our own and build a new life based on service.

We all may be here for different reasons, but I believe that one common thread is that we strive to make a positive impact in the world. We as Entrepreneurship Education volunteers are here to offer a new perspective on business and to invite a new perspective on one’s own capability. There are many brilliant minds within this country ready to be challenged, encouraged, motivated and inspired.

I believe that to create positive change, it needs to start on the ground level, out in the field, by the hands of those who are actually working in the communities that need assistance. And to create change that is sustainable, we need to empower others in our communities. We are the learners. We are the teachers. We are the facilitators. We are the change agents.

We are also global citizens. What does that mean exactly? We are a part of a larger global community promoting a better understanding between cultures. To create global change, the action must start on a smaller scale, within the communities we serve, connecting directly with the local people. As global citizens, we are learning how to use the tools and resources at our disposal to support a bigger, global vision. We all are interdependent – we are all connected. And it’s about sharing our knowledge and experiences with each other to create a space of understanding that’s based on compassion and respect and that will make a positive, measurable impact on each community we serve for years to come.

Over the last two months our eyes have been opened and our consciousness has been raised. We are embarking on an experience of a lifetime. And as we prepare for the next two years, I’m sure that many of us are feeling a lot of fear. Fear of uncertainty and fear of the unknown, because we are stepping outside of our comfort zone. And by doing that we are stretching ourselves. And when we stretch we learn and when we learn we grow. I believe that is a main reason why we are here. To grow into stronger, more respectful, open-minded and compassionate people.

So here we are about to embark on this exciting journey. And maybe we can’t save the world, but we can touch the lives of the Nicaraguan people and their communities. We have an opportunity to empower, inspire and motivate many lives around us. We are the spark that’s being ignited to bring hope, possibility and opportunity.

We want to thank the Peace Corps staff for preparing us to be the grassroots source of inspiration. Thank you so much for everything you have done – to the Training and Programming departments, the Medical team, the Safety & Security department, and the Executive and Administrative teams. I also want to thank all of the training families who took us in as part of their own and who supported us as we experienced all of the ups and downs of training. It is because of all of you that we are ready to embark on this exciting journey. Each of you has helped prepare us to take on this challenge and we are forever grateful.

Peace Corps Speech (Spanish)

Soy una gran creyente de que no existen coincidencias. Las puertas se abren y las oportunidades se presentan cuando es el momento adecuado… cuando estamos listos. Hay una razón de por qué cada uno de nosotros estamos sentados aquí hoy en Nicaragua a punto de juramentarnos como voluntarios del Cuerpo de Paz. Para algunos de nosotros, el Cuerpo de Paz siempre ha sido una parte de nuestros planes mientras que para otros puede haber sido un interés reciente de los últimos años, pero creo que todos hemos sido guiados a estar aquí, juntos, en este preciso momento.

Para mí personalmente, decidí dejar mi trabajo corporativo de relaciones públicas en la ciudad de Nueva York en búsqueda de un trabajo más significativo y gratificante. Quería hacer un impacto positivo y de servicio.

Me han comentado varias personas que tan valiente que somos por dar este salto de fe y trasladarnos al extranjero para unirnos al Cuerpo de Paz. Por dejar nuestras vidas anteriores y dejar todo lo que conocemos para llegar a un país muy diferente al nuestro con el deseo de construir una nueva vida basada en el servicio.

Todos podemos estar aquí por diferentes razones, pero creo que un hilo conductor que tenemos común es que nos esforzamos por hacer un impacto positivo en el mundo. Los Voluntarios de Fomento al Emprendedurismo estamos aquí para ofrecer una nueva perspectiva de negocio y propiciar un espacio de nuevas perspectivas de sus propias capacidades. En este país hay muchas mentes brillantes listas para ser desafiadas, animadas, motivadas e inspiradas.

Creo que, para crear un cambio positivo, es necesario comenzar en el nivel del fundamento, en el campo, agarrados de las manos con los que realmente trabajan en las comunidades y que desean nuestra colaboración. Y para generar un cambio sostenible, necesitamos empoderar a otros en nuestras comunidades. Somos los alumnos. Somos los profesores. Somos los facilitadores. Somos los agentes de cambio.

También somos ciudadanos del mundo. ¿Qué significa eso exactamente? Somos parte de una comunidad global que promueve una mejor comprensión entre las culturas. Para crear el cambio global, la acción debe comenzar en las comunidades que servimos, conectándonos directamente con la gente local. Como ciudadanos del mundo, estamos aprendiendo cómo utilizar las herramientas y recursos a nuestra disposición para apoyar una visión más grande y global. Todos somos interdependientes, todos estamos conectados. Se trata de compartir nuestros conocimientos y experiencias entre sí para crear un espacio de comprensión que se basa en la compasión y respeto y hará un impacto positivo y medible en cada comunidad que servimos durante los años que vienen.

En los últimos tres meses se han abierto nuestros ojos y nuestras conciencias han crecido. Nos estamos embarcando en una experiencia de toda una vida. Y mientras nos preparamos para los próximos dos años, estoy segura que muchos de nosotros sentimos muchos temores. Temores de la incertidumbre y temores de lo desconocido, ya que vamos saliendo cada vez más, afuera de nuestra zona de comodidad. Y al hacerlo nos estamos acomodando nosotros mismos. Y cuando nos acomodamos aprendemos y cuando aprendemos crecemos. Creo que es una razón principal por lo cual estamos aquí. Para convertirnos en personas más fuertes, más respetuosas, abiertas y compasivas.

Así que aquí estamos a punto de embarcarnos en este emocionante viaje. Y tal vez no podemos salvar el mundo, pero podemos tocar la vida de los nicaragüenses y sus comunidades. Tenemos una oportunidad de empoderar, inspirar y motivar a muchas vidas que nos rodean. Somos la chispa que se encendió para despertar esperanza, posibilidad y oportunidad.

De parte de todos nosotros, queremos agradecer al personal del Cuerpo de Paz para prepararnos para ser fuentes de inspiración. Gracias por todo que han hecho – a los departamentos de entrenamiento y programación, el equipo médico, el departamento de seguridad y el equipo ejecutivo y administrativo. También quiero agradecer a todas las familias del entrenamiento que nos incorporaron como su propia familia y quienes nos apoyaron cuando experimentamos todos los altos y los bajos del entrenamiento. Es por ustedes que estamos dispuestos a embarcarnos en este emocionante viaje. Cada uno de ustedes ha ayudado a prepararnos a afrontar este reto y estamos eternamente agradecidos.

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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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So I found myself standing stranded on the side of the road after a series of unfortunate events. How did you end up stranded on the side of the highway you might ask? Well…

Every Peace Corp Volunteer has had some crazy transportation story. And I guess it was bound to happen to me eventually. I was traveling back from my site visit in Estelí. The first leg of my trip was super easy. It was a two and half hour drive to Managua and I secured a nice window seat on the bus — enjoyed the beautiful countryside with the breeze blowing and music playing in my headphones.

Now, the second leg of my trip from Managua to Masaya was a different story. First off, I went to the wrong mercado (market) to pick up my bus. As they were yelling out the names of the destination towns, I heard them say Masaya so I hopped on the small microbus, at the very last minute, happy to have secured a ride to my area of the country. We were cruising and I scored another good window seat in the back away from the rush hour crowd in the front of the bus. As we neared Masaya, I noticed many people disembarking. However, there were a ton of people boarding as well. I couldn’t really hear what the ticket guy was saying, but I knew we were going to Masaya, which is where I needed to go. I didn’t realize there was a problem until he asked me where I was going. I told him Masaya and then…the entire bus turned around to stare at me. “What!?” I thought. “We already passed Masaya. We are on our way to Granada!” echoed the ENTIRE bus in Spanish. Granada is about 45 minutes away from where I needed to be.

So, the next thing I know, the bus has pulled over to the side of the highway and the ticket man runs outside and around to the back of the bus and slides open my window. He motions for me to jump, since the bus is so packed. So I throw my big duffle bag out the window and proceed to do acrobatics to squeeze myself through the window. All to the viewing pleasure of the people on the bus. He then hands me $10 cordobas and tells me to cross the street and take the next bus going back the way we came. So I then cross the highway with all of my bags and stand there at the deserted bus stop. I wait, and wait, and wait, and wait until I finally flag down a vacant taxi who then takes me back to the bus stop that I had originally missed.

Thankfully, this super nice Nica man, who was riding with me in the taxi and heading in the same direction, explains to me exactly what I need to do to get to my home town. We hop into another micro bus, which then fills up with more people like a can of sardines — there must be 30 people in a 15-person bus. Before this man disembarks, he re-explains what I need to do, and then proceeds to speak with the driver regarding my situation. I’m then counting down the stops after having yelled out which one I need. We are finally approaching my stop, and then we just sail passed it… “Wait! Wait! Stop!” I yell in Spanish. I literally almost missed my stop again! The bus comes to a screeching halt and the passengers on the bus then help pass my bags forward as I push my way out and onto the side of the road. I can’t tell you how relieved I felt to FINALLY be standing in my little training town.

I can laugh about it now, but I was close to tears when I was standing on the side of the highway with no idea how to get back home. And as I reflect on this crazy travel experience, I can note a few lessons to carry forward.

Lesson #1: Always check the bus schedule and make sure you know what stop you need to get off at. And remind the driver/ticket guy as you get closer to your destination.

Lesson #2: Don’t space out listening to the music on your headphones. And if you don’t hear the name of the stop that the driver calls out ask someone. And if that person doesn’t give you a good answer, ask someone else.

Lesson #3: When traveling, make sure you have enough cash. Thankfully, I had JUST enough to get me home after some unexpected, additional travel expenses.

Lesson #4: Trust that the Nicaraguan people will help you and come to your rescue when you’re in a jam.

I can’t stress enough how amazed I am at how helpful everyone was during this fiasco. From explaining what I needed to do, to helping me climb out of a bus window, to walking me to the correct bus, to reminding the bus driver of my stop, to passing my bags forward and off the bus…I couldn’t have gotten home without them. I feel so grateful to be a part of such a beautiful community of people who, without hesitation, will offer a helping hand to a stranger in need. There is something to learn here and visitors to this country should take note.

Thank you to the Nicaraguans who helped me get home tonight. I am forever grateful. Muchísimas gracias!!!

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Estelí!!! I am so excited to share with you all that at the beginning of June I will be moving to the department of Estelí. After all of this this time, I can finally start to paint a picture of my life for the next two years. The last two months have been quite a whirlwind with a lot of anticipation so I can’t even begin to tell you how much of a relief this is.

Estelí is situated in the valley below the foothills of the surrounding highlands of the Northern region of Nicaragua and is known as “El Diamante de Las Segovias (The Diamond of the Segovias).” Due to its higher elevation, Estelí has one of the most agreeable climates (that means I won’t be sweating like crazy!). There are a ton of amazing restaurants and cafes in town, and we all know the best way to win my heart is through food! 🙂

So what will I be doing for the next two years? Well…I will be working closely with the Ministry of Education (MINED) on the Entrepreneurship course, working with three different schools in rural communities. I will also be working with an NGO that promotes human rights. In addition, I will be in charge of organizing teacher training workshops for the entrepreneurship course in all of the cities in the department. I will also be responsible for organizing and executing the local, municipal and regional business competitions at the end of each year. There will also be opportunities to create secondary projects in the community. So needless to say, I will have a lot on my plate!

I’m super pumped about my site visit coming up. I’m eager to see what it will be like – I have a feeling that it’s going to be a really great fit. Estelí, here I come!

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We are nearing the beginning of winter here in Nicaragua which is the rainy season. I typically hate the thought of it being winter, but in Central America, with the arrival of the rain, all that was once dead and dry, becomes green and lush. I hear that everything just bursts with color!

Nicaragua has been experiencing a sequía – or drought – which has left many farmers at a loss when it comes to crop production. And I guess that’s somewhat typical during the dry season which begins in March. The days are extremely hot, so hot that you can barely move. Nicas actually carry around their umbrellas to protect themselves from the strong rays of sun. And I really enjoy the heat, but to sweat constantly even when I’m not doing anything is no fun. Everyone just walks around talking about how hot it is – ¡Que calor!!

I didn’t realize how drastically the weather would change with the rain. As the rain begins to roll in, so does the humidity. It’s so sticky it’s like a cloud. And we know how crazy my hair gets with the humidity…imagine it’s ten times worse!! Ya. It’s a never ending battle here with my hair…but anyway…back to the rain. When it rains it pours. The water comes down so hard it’s like a constant torrential downpour. And I haven’t even seen the worst of it yet! The streets become flooded with water, sometimes with fast currents. During this time of year schools are often canceled because the children can’t cross the roads to get to school.

The other night we had a pretty bad storm and lost electricity. It was past midnight and I was trying to fall asleep – I had had a really busy day and was gearing up for another long day. And just as I was dropping off into a deep sleep, I started to feel sprinkles of rain through my mosquito net. Initially I thought, oh this is quite refreshing, but then I realized that water was coming through the roof! Everything happened so fast and the next thing I knew I had a little waterfall in the middle of my bedroom! My host mom and sisters came to the rescue and we proceeded to move all of my things out so they wouldn’t get soaked. But the floor was completely covered in water. I hear this type of thing happens often due to the strength of these storms; the force of the water is incredible.

I’m excited to see what this next season will be like because I’ve always enjoyed the summer rain. However, I hear that when it rains the insects come out to play. I just pray that the spiders don’t find me. Let’s hope I get placed in a city and not in the jungle!

 

 

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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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