One Year (kind of)

Last Thursday marked one year since I touched down in the Agusto Cesar Sandino International Airport in Managua and walked out into the thick, exciting Nicaraguan air. I remember very clearly meeting my fellow trainees and pressing my nose to the glass as we drove down the highway. I was so eager to start soaking up my surroundings that my brain was practically buzzing with observations and questions. That has never really let up, though the urgency of my thirst has evolved into a steady soaking in of the life here. What follows are a few reflections about this first year, mostly focused on things other than my service because my one year anniversary in service isn’t until November(when we arrived we had three months of training before becoming full volunteers). I’ll have more to say about my work at that time.

The first picture I took in Nicaragua. We are standing right outside the airport.

One year in books

This year has been the best year for reading of my life, without question. Reading has kept me challenged, entertained, informed, and sane through down times and up. The more I read, however, the longer my to-read list seems to get. Too many books, too little time, as a popular saying goes. I have enjoyed many fiction and nonfiction books this past year and have tried to keep a good balance of light and heavy, modern and classics. Here are my top five from each category. Would love comments if you’ve felt similarly about any of them or are thinking about picking one of them up.

Top five fiction books:

  1. The Corrections – This book blew me away with its pacing, tension, intelligence, and depth. It explores many facets of modern and ‘postmodern’ life mainly through five razor-sharp characters living out their messy lives.
  2. Ana Karenina – I picked it up because I felt like I should, but then found myself gripped by the power of the writing, the characters, and the story. I always forget that classics are usually classics for good reason.
  3. A Prayer for Owen Meany – Definitely owe Amanda for suggesting this one. I had seen the movie (Simon Birch) and was not excited about reading the book, thinking I already knew the story, but I could not have been more mistaken. The book is four times as good as the movie(and I liked the movie) and ten times as beautifully done.
  4. Lolita – Disturbing, yes, but sooooooo well written. I have never gotten such joy from simply seeing words put together so masterfully. I must read more of this Nabakov fellow.
  5. Lamb – The funniest book I have ever read. It’s the gospel according to Jesus’ boyhood pal, Biff, who tries to help the son of God discover what it is that ‘Dad’ wants him to do on earth. (Warning: sexually explicit at times)

Top five nonfiction books:

  1. The Social Animal – I relished reading this book so much probably because it describes a worldview that I very much agree with. Our social environment is more than just the backdrop to individuals; it shapes us in amazing and complex ways. For more, check out my review.
  2. The Warmth of Other Suns – This book is the most artfully written nonfiction book I have ever read. I never would have thought from the topic, the great migration of blacks from the South to the North, that it could engage me so much, but it’s one of those rare books that you never want to end even after 700 pages.
  3. The Good Soldiers – The gritty day-to-day of war and post-war life that I don’t get from newspapers or on television(especially not from enrolling in the Peace Corps). I have never felt so close to an American soldier’s psychology before and the author does an incredible job of taking us there and not imposing his own conclusions.
  4. A History of God – One of the most intellectually interesting and challenging books I’ve read. Definitely not light reading, but the idea that religion through the ages has adapted to human culture, history, and technology (and vice-versa) is fascinating and powerful.
  5. The Tipping Point – Super fun and right-on all the way through this quick read. Would go well paired with The Social Animal and some lemonade.

One year in Nicaragua

I consider myself incredibly lucky to be serving in Nicaragua. The country is full of natural diversity and beauty, the people here are kind and generous, and the language and culture are fascinating. I’ve spent the last year becoming accustomed to speaking Spanish, using latrines, coexisting with animals and bugs, adjusting to the climate, and gaining new perspective on just about everything. Nicaragua also has its share of challenges, mostly stemming from poverty and the complex consequences it has for the society, education, politics, and the economy. Alcoholism, single-parent families, and a weak education system all contribute to the problems facing Nicaraguans, but I have been amazed to see the vibrant and pleasant lives that people have here as well. It reminds me that humans are above all a flexible, creative, and cooperative species. We make the most of our life wherever we live it.

Who am I now?

Answering this question is always difficult because we have only our current self as a reference point and all past selves have dissolved into our current self in imperceptible ways. Still, reflecting about my thoughts, opinions, and habits when I arrived and comparing them to now has helped me see some of the changes. For example, I now write my sevens with a little perpendicular line through the vertical line.

I have acquired a Nicaraguan accent.

I have lost some weight and gotten out of shape compared to what I was, though I’m working to change both these.

The books and articles I have read have given me new ideas and perspectives about life and people, though I’m not sure I could begin to untangle them.

The rhythm of life here has made me both less dependent on planning and, paradoxically, also more organizationally focused than before. I used to plan things out ahead of time and stick closely to those plans, but now I plan less and ‘go with the flow’ more. I hurry and stress out less; I walk a bit slower. In the absence of a very structured job, however, I have found better ways to organize my work, track my progress, reflect on how things are going, and make adjustments as I go.

I have become a better listener and organizer of information as a byproduct of having to focus a great deal more to understand people.

My understanding of development has become much more nuanced and my sense of my own responsibilities in the world have settled down somewhat. Before spending time here, I had vague but energetic beliefs about spending all non-essential energies to improve a world that I thought was tragically flawed. I still see a world that has big problems, but seeing those problems up close has convinced me that they are incredibly complex and that people have adapted extremely well to their environment. I have a new context for understanding what poverty means and what I should and can do about it. I still see service being an important part of my life, but I no longer think my life needs to be mostly about service to others. The weight of responsibility that I felt myself under has diminished, not by feeling like I’m ‘paying my due,’ but by a different understanding of what it means to be an individual in a complex system and how people find and create their own happiness. I’ll have to elaborate on this more clearly someday.

My relationship with Amanda has become even more important to me and I value more than ever our conversations, mutual support, her sense of humor and adventure, and our shared interests. Maintaining a relationship in the Peace Corps is not easy, but it’s simplified when the fundamentals are so solid.

Having had to carve out my life here I understand my own mind and tendencies better than ever before. I have learned that I’m a more introverted person than I expected. I turn to books and reflection very quickly and easily, even though I feel very comfortable socially. I value time to myself more than I realized, though I see more clearly than ever what I want and need socially, too.

I have improved my ability to say ‘no’ to further commitments in order to preserve my sanity.

I’m still figuring out how I want to design my life upon returning, though. I don’t know how to make sense of the material extravagance that I know awaits me. The US I remember is covered in concrete, asphalt, carpets, hardwood floors, streetlights, libraries, air conditioning, heating, tightly sealed houses, and technological gadgets, compared to the world I live in here. I’m not sure exactly how I feel about all that and how I will want to moderate and choose how much material comfort I want to embrace. I like the simplicity of my life here, but I do miss some of the comforts, the opportunities, and the resources I had back home. I’m not sure what the balance between working for myself and working for others will end up, either. I want to make a comfortable living, but I’m not sure what I feel I will owe to others who have had fewer opportunities.

I’m not sure what I want to do when I get back, either. I love reading and communicating, which makes journalism seem like the ideal job. Still, I think I’ve found some new talents in teaching and organizing that I could apply in any number of ways, maybe through a Masters in Business Administration. I want to spend lots more time with Amanda, friends, and family, but I still want to travel and see more of the world. Lots of questions remain that I will probably spend the rest of my life answering, but my perspective on life, people, and myself has certainly evolved in new and positive ways, which is what I hoped for when I left from Minneapolis more than a year ago.

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One response to this post.

  1. Posted by Janet Boddy on September 9, 2011 at 9:22 am

    Dear Andrew, I love this post! You are so honest with us and with yourself. You mention “tightly sealed houses” and I am, this very moment, obsessing over the noise that a cricket is making in my house somewhere, wishing to get it out! One bug! Also, I don’t think you “owe” anyone anything, other than yourself and life in general, to be a good person and live a good life–whatever that means. I know you are in the process of defining what the good life is; and aren’t we all and will be for the rest of our lives. “Owe” sounds like a burden (that I’d rebel against) while “do” and “be” seem more relaxed, breathable, liveable. You are good and your struggles within yourself will always be a part of that goodness. Just don’t be too hard on yourself; at the end of each day, say, “I lived a fine life today. I look forward to a good life tomorrow.” Love you always, Mom

    Reply

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