A Collection of Reflections

How do you convince a mouse to leave the printer into which it has just scurried? Also, how in the heck did it climb straight up that wall to get on the table anyways? Impressive. Then it simply disappeared. Never did find it in the printer, so maybe it was only a small mammalian optical illusion that I thought it had leaped into the paper tray slot. Still a puzzling conundrum.

Instructions for making Nica rice:

  • Buy your rice from one of the local convenience stores. Don’t forget to bring your container to hold it in. They scoop it from a bucket and weigh it, then dump it in your bowl. 1 lb costs about 40 cents.

  • Get the chaff out of the rice. Do this by getting a second bowl and pouring the rice from bowl to bowl from as high as you can without losing the rice. As the rice falls from one bowl to the other, the chaff will float off in the breeze. Try blowing on the falling grains to speed the process.

  • Pick through quickly and find all the small rocks and pebbles you can. Get ’em out.

  • Wash the rice by filling the bowl with water and straining off the water. Repeat until strained water runs fairly clear. Strain as much water away as possible.

  • Light the stove or start your fire and put on a big pot. Add a little bit of oil to the bottom and chop some onion to begin sauteing. Saute until soft, then add the rice.

  • Fry the rice for 3-6 minutes, or until you are confident that all of the water has been evaporated.

  • Add water until the rice is covered evenly by about half of an inch.

  • ADD SALT TO TASTE! Don’t forget this part. Tastes crappy without salt.

  • Heat to a boil, stirring infrequently.

  • Cover and let it simmer for 20 minutes or so.

  • Keep cooking until the rice is soft. Add water by sprinkling it over the rice if it becomes too dry.

  • Eat with everything.

 

I have yet to get the exact desired results, but I’m getting better. When my host sister taught me this, she did the steps with me and the rice came out incredibly well. It was perfectly soft, but not too sticky or mushy. If I learn any more tricks of the trade, I’ll pass them on.

 

Bananas are more complicated than I had expected. To begin with, the word for banana is ‘banano.’ This threw me off for a while, because I had learned the word ‘plátano’ for banana. What asking for a plátano will get you is a plantain. Plantains are larger in size and more common than bananas in Nicaragua. Bananas are small, sweet, and about five cents apiece(same price as the larger plantains). They have a richer, stickier flavor than the bananas in the states. Reading a recent New Yorker article about the threats facing the worldwide banana export market(diseases attacking the popular Cavendish variety), I learned that there are hundreds of different kinds of bananas. Cavendish are not particularly flavorful, but they are big, cheap to produce, easy to transport and chemically ripen-able. I don’t think most common type of bananas here are Cavendish, but there are also short, stubby and sugary-sweet bananas called apple-bananas (bananos manzanos).

Fruit bowl featuring ripe plantains.

The plantains serve a very similar function here as potatoes do in the states. When they’re not yet ripe, they’re cooked either by boiling them (yuck) or frying them (yum). The peel is about three times as thick as a banana’s and is more akin to tearing open a padded envelope wrapped in layers upon layers of packing tape than peeling a banana. Usually a knife is required to peel it, otherwise the stringy peel will weave its way under your fingernails and tear up your soft tissues. Don’t underestimate green plantains. Once you’ve got the skin off, you can slice them length-wise and fry up thin chips or chop them into cylindrical segments (like thick coins). If you brown these for a bit, then take them out and squish them into pancakes with the bottom of a mug, then fry them a second time, they’re called tostones and they’re delicious. If the plantains are allowed to ripen, they become significantly more awesome, in my opinion. They are fried in slices and turn out like baked sweet bananas. Someone needs to import these and start serving them at state fairs. They’d fit right in, taste-wise, and be pretty inexpensive.

 

The more time I spend here, the fewer differences between the US and Nicaragua stand out to me. This makes perfect sense, considering how adaptable we humans are. The material conditions of a new environment become normal and cease to be noticeable, same as in the states. Moved into my first college dorm and a month later it felt like an old, comfortable shoe. It takes a while to learn the little things that are different, like how and where to buy beans(see following story), but ss I learn these little patterns and how things work they become natural. Feels like drawing words on the beach that stand out like miniature trenches against the uniform background only to be smoothed over through the natural process of time and tides. It’s normal to me now not to have any hot water. Normal for the power to go out periodically. Normal to sleep in a mosquito net. Normal to speak Spanish. Normal to hear howler monkeys and chickens and loud music blasting from the nearby church at 5 AM(I don’t even notice it any more, in fact). It’s sinking in that the material differences between countries and cultures are not very important. This seems fairly obvious when stated; that there are more commonalities between people than substantive differences; that beneath the surface we all have similar wants and needs. However, this focus on material circumstances is how much of development work seems to be done. Donations of books, school supplies, money, roads, and schools are common, and relatively easy. Additionally, they’re all needed in developing countries, but what I’m coming to believe is that without a focus on the non-material needs, the material resources fade into the background and lack the power to change the institutions they correspond to. Education is not found in backpacks or school buildings, it’s found in teachers and parents who believe that education will expand their child’s opportunities. Health is not found in medicine alone, but in the combination of medicine and those who know how and when to administer it. Governance doesn’t automatically improve with aid, but with renewed and sincere commitment to transparency and public service. An understanding of the sociopolitical institutions and perceptions of those involved is needed for the approach to and supply of sustainable change. A tangential point would be that pointing to differences between developed and developing approaches to common tasks like cooking and transportation as proof of inferiority is an incomplete argument for change. It’s only inferior if it’s limiting chances for a happy, healthy, and fulfilling life compared to an alternative. So it takes longer to cook things and get from place to place. This doesn’t meant that their lives will be improved by doing them faster or with less effort. This, of course, is a cultural relativity perspective, which has its own failings, but without shedding the false sense of superiority and way-things-should-be-done attitude we can’t open our minds to the possibility that what we think others need or want may not be what will improve lives. I haven’t done much reading on development theory, but the sense that I get is that in the last decade there has been a real shift in many organizations toward this more holistic approach to development. We make too many assumptions based on what we can easily see(but not interpret), which is largely the material circumstances of people living in developing nations. People here may not have hot water, but does that mean they’re less happy or fulfilled? Nope. Kids have fewer resources in the classrooms, but is that the reason for poor education? Well, it’s a factor, but more important is how the teachers teach, what the incentives for them to learn are, what their perceptions of education are, and how their family situation is. Without a holistic approach to development, we’re just building sand castles as the tide is coming in.

Sunset on the island.

Unless I want to spend about an hour boiling dried beans, I try to find them cooked. My host mom pointed me to a house that sells them sometimes, but they didn’t have any. I went to the store down the way. Nope. Went back to mom. Try this other family. Walked down to them, and found that it was the family of one of the guys I work with at the local community center. He apologized that they had so few left and gave me maybe 130 beans free of charge. Now I felt like I had asked a family to give me some of their last few beans, when I really wanted to just be able to prepare my own food. I’m still working on this, but I think I just need to figure out how to reliably cook my own dry beans. Everyone does it, and there’s not much of a market for cooked beans, and what market there is, is awkward.

 

I think I’m entering into a new psychological phase of my service. In training, everything was exciting and new. As training progressed, we all became a bit worn out with the constant activity and stress of requirements and organized activities. Then we swore in and were released to the blissful freedom of our sites with virtually no structure. That excitement lasted about four days before I started to feel lazy. I would try to accomplish one small community-related goal each day, but then I would spend five hours reading. I ended my days feeling useless and like I was wasting resources. The next few weeks were a process of creating the structure in my life to feel like I was accomplishing something and getting to know the community. Slowly but surely I met people, got involved with teaching a few English classes to small groups of kids, and socialized with my family more. After about four weeks, I felt much more comfortable with a few minimal, but stable, commitments. I was feeling productive and like I was on the right track towards becoming integrated into the community. Also in my mind was the fact that I had limited time before my work picked up with the new school year in February. When I wasn’t teaching, I liked to find my hammock and read or listen to podcasts. What I’m realizing now is that this new sense of justified laziness was keeping me relatively isolated and was not in keeping with the larger goals I have for my service. I want to challenge myself, learn as much as possible, and find ways to effect meaningful and positive change in my community. Now I’m working on re-committing to engaging in the community and searching out people and information in the community. I’m glad that I have the ability to switch into happy bookworm mode when I don’t have as many opportunities for social interaction, but I think more valuable will be finding ways to break out of my comfortable bubble and actively create those interactions. That’s the current pursuit. I’ll see if I can keep track of my phases during my Peace Corps service. So far:

 

  1. Thrill of newness and challenges (7 weeks)

  2. Getting worn out from constant newness (3 weeks)

  3. Freedom of no-structure site (1 week)

  4. Feeling useless and guilty due to inaction (1 week)

  5. Engagement with community and creation of structure (4 weeks)

  6. Feeling of justified laziness in substantial free time (3 weeks)

  7. Re-engagement to find balance again (in progress)

 

Looking back at this list, it seems pretty obvious that it’s a wave above and below a balanced midpoint and that the turning points came when I was reaching extremes of one position or another. Fairly predictable, but never easy to pinpoint exactly where I am on the curve. Such is life, I suppose.

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4 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Cindy Salo on January 26, 2011 at 9:23 pm

    Andrew,

    * I’ve heard of computer bugs causing trouble, but mice?
    * Rice is nice; I eat a lot of it. I should try adding the frying step.
    * Ahhhh, fried platanos in the Yucatan -sigh-
    * Peace Corps lore includes “The Three-Month Blahs.” Hang in there; re-engagement is just around the corner.

    Cindy

    Reply

  2. Posted by Meg Nimmo on February 3, 2011 at 11:07 am

    Andrew, on this slow day at work at the library I’ve finally read through your whole blog. Your adventures and how you communicate them is captivating. The way you write makes me experience a roller coaster of emotions and I love it. You seem to really enjoy you PC experiences so far. A kind of enjoyment for life and your adventures that is obvious and infectious. You may be changing lives a continent away but you are also touching our lives here with what you write. Thank you.

    As to your enthusiasm for reading, it is something shared! I have a slew of books here that I can mail to you. Some are fiction and others are non-fiction. You can do what you want with them when you are done with them. Do I just mail them to your address you have listed up above?

    Also, as someone with no Spanish experience (but knowing Italiano well), your lesson have been helpful in getting me into the groove with learning spanish.

    Miss you!

    Meg

    Reply

  3. Posted by Meg Nimmo on February 3, 2011 at 11:08 am

    Oops, also do you want me to mail you an ankle brace?

    Reply

    • Thanks, Meg! I really appreciate it, and I’m thrilled that you’re enjoying the blog. I really am having a great experience here, and I’m glad that comes through. I would definitely welcome any books you could send! In fact, one I had read them, I could donate them to my local library, which is very new, humble, and being supported by NGOs. How’s life been for you? You should start an I’m-in-the-libe-and-here’s-my-life blog!

      Miss you!

      Andrew

      Reply

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