My Site Visit

He told me the island was magical and, at first, I didn’t believe him. It was the day before I headed to my site and a current volunteer heard where I was going, looked me in the eye and told me with a straight face that there was something magical in that place. The assurance came back to me the first time dusk settled over my new host family’s house and the fireflies lit up the backyard. I gasped, but my host mom barely blinked an eye. “Oh, yes. The ‘chonas.’ They’re all over. Nice, aren’t they?” Then there was my backyard during the day. At first it looks like a plain enough place, banana and lemon trees growing among countless vines and flowers. Howler monkeys bellow in the distance and ‘urracas'(bluejays with longer tails and a mohawk) dart from tree to tree. Then the dogs from the house next door wandered over. Nothing odd there. Then the pig trotted up, grunting softly. I went back to my breakfast of rice, beans, eggs, and fried plantains. Next came the chickens, then the ducks, then the goose. They were never all there at the same time, but this seemingly endless stream of domestic animals (and some not domestic) constantly kept me guessing about what could appear around the corner of the house or the next bend in the path.


The larger, active volcano on the island (not the one I live under)


I left Managua at 8 AM Wednesday morning and made it to my site by about 3:30 PM after a ferry ride, a taxi and three buses, the last of which was over such terrible roads that I could feel the floorboards of the bus twisting and warping with the punishing boulders that it had to do to climb over. When I stepped off the bus, my host mom was waiting for me and showed me around the house and into my comfortable room. It wasn’t long before I headed out to meet the English teachers with whom I’d be working for the next two years. Luckily, the principal of the school cheerfully invited me in and called the teachers to his office to meet me. I felt immediately positive about how the next two years would work out when my counterparts turned out to be easygoing and open people eager to work with me. I was introduced to all the teachers and eventually welcomed by all the students at an all-school assembly. I’m continually stunned by my good fortune here, and it certainly hasn’t let up yet. My third counterpart, a few towns over, is equally pleasant and friendly and when I visited that school the following day, I ended up playing a few rounds of volleyball with the students and professors. My height gave me an advantage that about counterbalanced my embarrassment at sweating so profusely that the sweaty shirt stuck to my back and sides like wet plaster. Such is the plight of we ‘cheles’ or ‘white folks’ as we’re referred to here.

The town is quiet and built mainly around one street. To the north is the shore of the lake and there are various roads that head south, towards the volcano that rises out of the landscape immediately upon turning off the main road. Up these roads are various resorts, hotels and hostels that will be most convenient for anyone able to visit me. I was surprised at the number of tourists that I saw even in what I am told is the low season for tourists. Under the tranquil surface of the town, however, is an energetic people working hard to improve their lives and the opportunities of their children. I met a great number of leaders in the community as well as from international organizations opening new businesses with microcredit loans, building a community kitchen, working to stock a new public library, working to get internet access for a new computer lab, and teaching community classes at a new center. I’m excited to jump into the fray and be helpful where I can, but it will take time to build confidence and relationships with the people there and learn how I can best contribute to the already substantial work going on.

The rest of my five days during my site visit were a mix of meeting new people, walking around town, meeting up with fellow volunteers in nearby towns, hiking a waterfall on one of the volcanoes, and relaxing and reading at home. I feel comfortable in my site already and am excited about the many opportunity for work and exploration that surround me there.

I am already developing a theory about why the island has this mysterious and alluring quality that the volunteer referenced before I arrived. I think it has to do with the contrasts that permeate and surround the people and the geography. Contrasts create a perception of division and tension between two dissimilar components, emphasizing the extremes. My site is full of these tensions and I think that’s what gives it its magical qualities. To begin with, there is the contrast of water and land inherent in every island. Then there are the volcanoes that tower above the slopes and plains where most of the people live. The hot sun tempered by a generous breeze off the lake. Darkness pierced by lightning bugs, green fields dotted by rich, black volcanic rocks. Material poverty surrounded by a natural wealth of animals, plants, water and land. I sense that my life at the site will likewise be full of these juxtapositions. Hard work interspersed with relaxing afternoons on the beach. Freedom of activity within the context of significant isolation from the outside world.

I can also foresee in these oppositions some of the struggles that I will contend with. Isolation may end up being the most obvious, but like all volunteers, I will have to create my own sense of purpose and make a place in a community that is accustomed to seeing Americans come to spend a few days hiking around and then leave. There will be only two buses that leave my town for the outside world each day, one at 5 AM and the other at 1 pm. Any travel off of the island will take the better part of a day, and cell phone service is patchwork at best. I should have regular access to internet, but it won’t be as secure as it has been during training. Also, the peer group that has been so supportive during training will be spread far across the country. I’m lucky to have my family, friends and Amanda to support me as well, but much of the first six months in my site, I’m told, will be a personal struggle to fit in, to develop the kinds of sustainable projects that give our work meaning, and to stay sane surrounded by what is still a foreign language, foreign culture, and all new people. Good thing it’s got such a nice view!

Overall, I’m feeling very good about my prospects, and if my first five days there were any indication of how the next two years will go, then I have it better than I could have possibly dreamed.

I’m starting a new photo album to start sharing what my site and its surrounding areas look like. Here’s the link:


One response to this post.

  1. Posted by Janet Boddy on November 15, 2010 at 7:51 pm

    Andrew – great pictures of your site, and as usual a wonderful description of the situation and challenges you will be facing. Thanks for sharing in such a descriptive manner!




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