Thinking about my new normal

My parents and one of my brothers will be arriving in two days for their first visit to Nicaragua and I’m thrilled. They’re coming at a time when I’m really feeling steady in my site. I bounced back from Amanda leaving a few weeks ago and I have been surprised to realize how comfortable I feel here. Thought I’d reflect on what my new normal has become. (Interested in the idea of ‘New Normal?’ I stole the phrase from a Radiolab show. Check it out, if you have time!)

Animals/plants: I’ve stopped getting nervous at the shuffling sounds outside my bedroom at night because I know it’s the neighbor’s pig rooting around for food. I don’t notice the roosters crowing any more, nor the howler monkeys whose low hooting carries for about a mile. I don’t think twice about the village dogs that have no owners and wander about like independent scavengers. I’ve learned how to step around ducks and chickens in the yard, to distinguish between children calling and a parrot imitating them. I have learned how to lock the kitchen and tie the (nonworking) fridge closed so animals don’t eat my food. Banana, plantain, and palm trees are as common as pine in the Midwest. I jog without fear between bulls, cows, and horses being moved from pasture to pasture on the road and people riding horses are much more commom than people driving cars. Bugs are an ever-present fact of life. I swipe ants off my skin and clothing without thinking and undoubtedly dozens of times per day. I don’t think twice about how animal and human life here is fundamentally intertwined. I really value many parts of this.

Commonplace yard scene

Climate: Sweat is the default condition between 9 am and 5 pm. Hankerchiefs have become second-nature and donning my cotton or polyester dress pants, undershirts, and shirts no longer feels uncomfortably heavy. I am getting quite good at throwing a raincoat in my bag when there’s likely to be rain and I’ve become an expert at stepping on stones to cross the dozens of small rivers that criss-cross the road during the rainy season. My eyes have become incredibly efficient at tearing up to wash out dust particles that whip up at every step or with each passing vehicle or breeze. I have developed a sense of the cycles of insect birth and death to brace myself for the thick clouds that swarm into your every vulnerable orifice.

Routines: Washing clothes and dishes in rough concrete basins using buckets of water rather than a running faucet is now second-nature. Food storage and preparation no longer require detailed planning or multiple trips to the stores. I no longer have to stop by five different stores to find what I need, but can choose the one that I know is most likely to have what I need. My mosquito net has effectively disappeared from my consciousness and I mindlessly untuck before stepping out of bed and tuck it in as I lay down to sleep. I know the bus schedules almost as well as the locals and know which bus is honking down the street and wave to the drivers with familiarity. Work is eclectic but has stabilized and become routine (in a good way). My community English classes have a satisfying rhythm developed over 8 months of trial and error and my planning with counterparts is increasingly efficient and normal. Mondays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays are soup days, Fridays, Sundays, and Mondays I have time to cook. Tuesdays and Thursdays are coffee, oatmeal, and Ramen noodle days.

Material surroundings: Cold showers no longer sink into my mind with hesitation before I turn the faucet. They are the only thing I remember and even a welcome escape from the sweat beading on my back and face. Latrines are more common than toilets and don’t phase me any more. Ants, spiders, scorpions, mosquitoes, beetles, moths, and all other types of creatures are a fact of life inside my room just as much as they are outside. There is also no keeping separate the mud and dust outside and the surfaces, both floor and tables, in my bedroom. The walls deteriorate, spiders make silky tangles of bug corpses that litter my clothes on my dresser, which is made of concrete blocks and two wooden planks. Electricity is not a constant and I have no refrigerator. What’s air conditioning? I think I remember fans, but it’s been a long time since I’ve felt one in action.

I rotated this picture, but he was cralling vertically down my wall near my desk one night

Food: Fried plantains have replaced potatoes and chips. Rice and beans have replaced pizza, pasta, and salads. Fresh fruit juices have replaced milk. Plain bread has replaced cereal and toast with jam. Yogurt and granola bars are a treat for a snack. I eat tajadas con pollo five days per week. I treat myself to two breakfasts out each week when I go into town to download podcasts and skype with home. Dessert is usually a sugary apple-juice box.

Language/culture: Spanish is my default language. I don’t have to think about it 80% of the time and I’ve adopted not just the vocabulary but the speech patterns, filler words, and accent of Nicaragua. Reading is still slow, but that can be a goal during my second year. I can deftly navigate street greetings spanning many different social situations. I am rarely ever stressed out any more. I haven’t been in a hurry (except to hail a fast-approaching bus) in about half a year. I have become passable at the glacial pace of social interactions, conversations, and Sunday afternoons, though I won’t become as talented as many of my fellow volunteers because I jump so readily into books. Animals have become more utilitarian in my internal valuation (as they are in this culture), and dealing with town drunks has become second-nature. I have made friends and enjoy spending time with my host family and especially with Kenneth, the sixteen-month-old in the house.

Kenneth lookin' cool

Wellbeing: I’m happy here, most of the time. It isn’t always easy, but I’ve learned a lot and acclimated well. I like what I do, I like what I eat, I don’t mind the things that might sound uncomfortable to those not accustomed to them. The material and physical surroundings have faded into the background and the socio-cultural ones have become largely second-nature. I have found a balance where I can look forward to being home AND look forward to the time I have left before I get there. I’m excited about what post-Peace Corps will bring, but I’m not interested in speeding up what I’ve got here. Kenneth and my family brighten my day. My students make me feel I’m welcome and helpful. Books keep me challenged and podcasts keep me informed. My family and Amanda keep me connected to home and my stable foundations. No real complaints here.

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2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Allie on August 7, 2011 at 4:35 pm

    Love the picture of Kenneth! I would have a hard time with the scorpions though… Thanks for the update (and for reminding me that A/C is definitely a luxury). Hope all is well!

    Reply

  2. Posted by Carolyn Spargo on August 7, 2011 at 8:02 pm

    I so understand what you are talking about after being in Nicaragua two times. That was a cultural shock to my Nordic roots. I look forward to going back, yet again at some point. I could feel the sweat and the bugs as you described them. Rice and beans have become a treat in Minnesota! I miss the pitaya juice! You are a living testimony that humans can adapt to anything. I am proud to tell people how well you are doing in the Peace Corps in Nicaragua. What a life changing, awesome experience you are getting! I’m proud of you!

    Reply

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