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well, go grab a snack and cry about it in the bathroom

I wake up in my new house… painted green walls and a real tiled floor. There is a bathroom in the inside of my house, I can pee indoors now. Life is good. Joni Mitchell plays on my tiny pink speakers and flies are scattered around my camping stove I was too lazy to clean the night before. I sit on a plastic chair in my make shift outdoor kitchen; have my coffee and whatever food smells slightly less than questionable.  I throw on clothes that will forever have a smell of humid, warm butter and I unlock the padlocks from my thick, barred walls and head out the door. The contrast of the sun hitting the concrete houses and tin roofs somehow make the polluted water colorfully shimmer in the dirt roads. I am heading to the health center, praying they will not make me give a charla. Charlas, or lectures, make up a large portion of the health position, but after a year they are still the bane of my existence. You stand awkwardly in front of a room of people forcing them to listen to your broken Spanish over topics in which I have not been educated. I am not a nurse, though people still think I am. I have learned my way around the pharmacy like the back of my hand, but still have not learned the prayers, songs and hand gestures of the numerous religious fiestas that have overtaken the town. I just mouth the word ‘watermelon’ repeatedly and somehow end up performing a petite version of the ‘YMCA’ dance instead of the Hail Mary.

Everything is more intense here… life is a big ball of bipolar and I am trapped inside.  Your extreme highs turn into painful happiness hangovers, your dreams of changing or improving anything are constantly shattered by lack of communication and cultural differences; just because something is important to you, does not mean it’s important to somebody else. I just heard from a man that the drunks, or bolos, have been going into my garden at the Casa Materna nightly and destroying the plants because they can. Watching your hard work be destroyed by an ugly disease that you can’t change is both disheartening and maddening. However, Altagracia is an amazing and progressive town. There is a gay/ transgendered community, the women know how to party and the Nurses put full effort into promoting HIV/AIDS testing, Pap smears, and STD testing… all of which can be extremely taboo in various parts of the country. Many women refuse to take the pap as it will allegedly give them diseases and rob their virginity. There are so many myths that surround this culture, it’s like were living back in the 50s when cigarettes were prescribed as a stress reliever. And the things that get you sick are of course the obvious; not believing in god, not wearing shoes, and mixing hot and cold… never, ever take a cold shower or a cold drink after working in the fields, this leads to cancer and arthritis.

I ran into my ex and his family the other day, Tarzan. There’s a whole other story there, but we will leave that and many others for my post PC blog/telanovela series on Lifetime. He saw me walking by his house and called me over; he was sick and pretty frightened as the men here do not get ill, or least rarely admit to those feelings. His stomach was in agonizing pain and he had admitted to me that the night before he had drank enough to kill a horse… a mixture of beer, rum and homemade liquor, which is known to be lethal. He is a fully committed alcoholic, like so many men here, and I feel like I have been watching a man I once thought I loved, slowly kill himself. He truly is beautiful when he’s sober, but unfortunately he doesn’t see the same. Dating an alcoholic — another experience I never expected to go through. Sitting on the ground, holding his hand as he lay in his hammock with a bag of medicinal herbs made by his mother, his parents suddenly start screaming at each other because his mother let him eat watermelon. The boy consumes five bottles of toxic Guarro the night before, his organs are potentially failing because of this, but it was the slice of watermelon that caused him to fall ill. I just sat there pretending I didn’t understand the conversation and wondering how I constantly put myself in these situations. It was painful to leave him behind in that state, but if I stayed he would’ve pulled me down with him. I hope he finds a balance in his life, but I do fear I will hear his name one day on the public announcements that travel through the town by a man and his bullhorn.

The one phrase almost any PCV will state or agree with is that ‘the highs are highs and the lows are lows’. My energy has been drained the past few weeks, like a sleeping pill I can’t shake. I feel like my Spanish is somehow regressing and I wonder if I will accomplish anything of extreme value in my short time here. There is so much to be done; finding a reason for the alarming rate of kidney disease/failure, breast cancer screening, youth projects, water campaigns, health fairs to promote…everything, but the most simple of tasks can take months or years to complete. Sometimes it feels like I am a kid in this beautiful, sparkling candy store, but the floor is made of broken glass and I misplaced my shoes.

It’s a slow time of year with all of the fiestas and school vacations, so I have been giving English classes to one of the boys at Si a La Vida. He’s picked up a few phrases, but it will take him a long while to catch on. Whenever he gets confused, I simply explain everything clearly in Spanish. I realized that we did not learn this way. There was no English allowed during our training, if we were confused… well, go grab a snack and cry about it in the bathroom. I thought of how awful it would be for him to fly to North America with such little English, be thrown in with a host family that he won’t be able to understand, and after three weeks, throw him to the wind and make him give lectures in a local health center. My first thought… I could never, ever do that. My second thought… that is exactly what I did and am living every day. No wonder I feel like a hot mess that can’t get out of bed somedays.

This shit is hard.

The days are flying by, I have a weird lump in my left armpit, my feet and home-performed haircuts are just offensive, and some of my moles have started to bleed. I am still struggling with Spanish and have made numerous fatal blunders… accidentally calling my overly religious host mom a lesbian, asking my 6th grade class if ‘we were all on the same vagina’, telling nurses that a boy ‘turned off’ in the emergency room, and while trying to be sexy and coy, accidentally telling a boy I just met that I wanted to sit on him. I’ve realized at the end of the day that the rather uncomfortable underwear I was wearing, were in fact, not mine. I have a site mate that provokes unforeseen adventures through a chain of bad decisions, but we somehow keep each other sane at the same time. She has found me raccoon-eyed and crying on my floor, drinking spoiled wine right out of the box, while playing ‘Hold On’ by Wilson Philips on repeat. It was a sight no one should’ve seen, yet she is somehow still friends with me. Not everyone is so lucky to have a friend that will bring over beverages and video clips of Full House to cheer a girl up.  I give a high five to the people without site mates who are completely detached from society. I really don’t think I would have lasted.

Though my honeymoon phase of the Peace Corps has ended, you would still have to pull me out of here kicking and screaming. The past year has been one of the most emotional, random and exciting times of my life.  The things I have experienced most people only read about in books and it still seems surreal that this is both my job and my life. Last night, as three of us sat on a front stoop watching our town light things on fire in the name of the virgin, we were joking how it feels like we were all cast in a Nicaraguan version of the ‘Truman Show’. As we pondered living our lives under the microscope of our community we remembered the guy that rides around the park in circles all day, the women that sit peacefully in their rocking chairs day in and day out, and all noticed another man that had just walked by for the 3rd time, holding 4 ice cream cones that had still not melted. Maybe we are on to something…

Nana emoticon…ready for hot water and the holidays.

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"Now I’ve been happy lately Thinking about the good things to come and I believe it could be something good has begun"

I don’t know when it happened, but somewhere between finger painting naked in the sand-box and pretending to be an established doctor in Central America, I turned 30. It hit me pretty hard. I am nowhere close to settling down, I’m fairly certain my biological clock didn’t come with batteries, and I still can’t find a man I want to have coffee with – nevermind children.

Under the influence of a perfect spring day in Boston, with the trees blooming and the children riding their bikes under the undulating shadows of the colonial brownstones, I came close to buying a house. I was 28. That’s what you do at 28; you buy overpriced things you can’t afford because it gives the illusion you are established and responsible.

So, I went in that week and I asked for a $20,000 raise at work to buy aforementioned house.

They said no.

I did what any normal girl would do thereafter; I took the leap I had been waiting to take since I was a mini-fro and took a job offer in a country I knew nothing about. This job led me to an island and culture I knew nothing about. It was the scariest decision of my life; I left my friends, family, and a decent salary to come Nicaragua – it was worth every penny.

There is a certificate on my wall from an NGO here in Nicaragua, thanking me and my sturdy nursing skills for my assistance with ultra-sounds. This month I have been working in the pharmacy, I wear white so I look legit.  While I was doling out life-saving drugs in the clinic, a chicken was standing in line behind a patient. Before I could ask if it needed anything, it just bobbed its head and meandered off behind a lost dog – this has become the norm.  Last month I was working with a doctor from Yale with Natural Doctors International trying to investigate if a local fruit can cure parasites. I give lectures to over one hundred 6th graders each week covering STD’s, early pregnancy and somehow just gave a charla on the reproductive system. I can’t find my own ovaries on a map, so how I gave a 45 minute lecture in Spanish on this topic is beyond me. I think I just kept calling all the bits ‘huevos’ when I got confused.

I am an older sister here to three adorable, yet fiery, children, my hair is approaching the danger-80’s zone and I have officially survived my first tropical disease – dengue. Aside from the pounding hammers in my head, the body aches, and the feeling someone was pressing their index fingers on my eyeballs for eight days, it wasn’t so bad. However, I will be pouring a potent dose of bug spray into my morning coffee from now on.

Aside from a low-platelet count that nearly warranted a blood transfusion and my parents closing in on boarding the next flight to Managua – I have never felt so alive.  Every day profound emotions are running through me like an electric current: there are days of extreme frustration, confusion, and the inability to communicate a simple idea, surprise when everyone in town seems to know your name like some Latin American version of ‘Cheers’, laughing at 2am with dancers you just met from Brazil, singing alongside acoustic drums on a deserted beach under the light of a bonfire and a full moon, feeling intense desire for a man that will look into your soul and swear you are the one and only woman in his life, cursing that same man’s soul when you see him with his wife the very next day, feeling a sense of family 2,000 miles away as a four year old runs into your arms and kisses you when you come home,  the internal stress that comes from the inability to measure your accomplishments, and wonder if your work is even worth it when you see another 13 year old moments away from knowing the life-long journey of motherhood. Every day is a blank page in which a circle of hope exists, where something will be lost and gained.

My casita is a small, pink garden-shed with a single barred window. It is nestled in a beautiful garden with flowers that can only be found in science fiction movies. It sits peacefully below an incredibly wrathful volcano, Volcan Conception. The Island is a floating hour glass in between Lake Nicaragua, formed by two volcanoes competing with one another in what seems like a never-ending beauty contest. There are parts untouched by the hands of time – only the shirtless farmers with their roaming horses and trusted machetes stray there. The sunsets can take your breath away and like an old friend, a full moon lights the plantain fields and follows slowly behind me to make sure my bike and I arrive home safely if we stay out too late.

The island also holds a strong air of mystery and romanticism. When I arrived I had heard stories of locals wooing women and showing them parts of the island with belleza that is only read about in fairy tales. I soon found myself being offered ‘tours’ around the island by many locals, but politely declined. I wasn’t here to date and was worried about my reputation and the fact that the island is small and the men are married.

This thought process and all reason left me when I briefly caught the dark eyes of a man through a cracked bus window. Something sleeping inside of me suddenly awoke, but my 1970’s chariot rode off and with the dust he was gone.

Later that month while at a fiesta on the volcano, surrounded by reggae music and the opaque mist of the rainforest, he reappeared.  We danced all night in the mountains and the next day in the sands of a private beach.  As I walked ahead of him to descend towards the water, I stepped over the barbed wire fence into the freshly mounded fields and walked over the narrow dirt path to the water. The ground shifts north and to my left a giant, beautiful beast of a volcano suddenly appeared as if we were playing hide and seek. She is the largest, most perfect cone I have ever seen. Her billowing smoke points the way to the beach, but I stop to listen to the faint-barking in the back-round. My head floats past the fields and horses, back around to where I began; the perfect morning sun behind me with the volcano holding my hand — I glance up to see two galloping dogs floating towards me over the acres of freshly planted rice fields. As if in a dream, in that single perfect moment just before you wake — I look slightly further into the neon jungle and see a man wearing a halo gifted by then sun; a man with dirty ripped shorts, medusa-esque black curls with eyes darker than the devil, mocha kissed skin and a soft, cunning smile that could melt a diamond. It had been a long time since a man both terrified and enraptured me. All reason told me to leave before I fell for him… but listening to reason never made for a good story.

His life was beautiful, uncomplicated, and full of passion.  He showed me things no one else ever had and took me to hidden places I have only dreamed about.  It wasn’t meant to last long, but the memories are some of my most romantic. I think it was the only period of my life in which I was actually rendered speechless.

When my bosses were interviewing us for our sites, I had said I wanted somewhere I could build a life. I didn’t want this journey to feel like a two year lay-over.  In four short months, I feel like I’ve made that happen. My job, though stressful at times, is incredible, I’ve made friends that I feel like I can be myself with, I have a support network of people here and also the staff at the Peace Corps, and when the weekend comes around (though still professional), I can truly say that I am enjoying life. All aspects of it – I think I’ve been trying for 30 years to create that kind of balance and will appreciate every moment as nothing can last forever. 

The flirting palms

2/10/12

Nicaragua. I’ve been here for four weeks or four years, it’s hard to tell the space in between when your head is so full of information that you can’t quite comprehend.  I live in El Rosario, a small town about an hour outside of Managua. It’s extremely small, but packs character, drumming evangelicals, and the occasional confused bull.  Horses pull men that sit atop steeps of hay, sipping the local beers under their sombreros and the equators glare. My host family is as spunky as they come, and although we can’t fully communicate verbally yet, there are still words passed to one another and many laughs. They’re incredibly caring, hardworking and family-centric.  The days are filled consuming Spanish for breakfast, a 6 hour language class and then a heaping plate of Spanish and gallo pinto for dinner. We entered the country during a period of religious festivals, so ferris wheels and street vendors were shared from one pueblo to the next.  No one here is a number and there are no street names. Your address is the name of your family or ‘2 cuadras norte del centro de salud’.  No numerical codes and a GPS needed, go figure.  My host mom holds my hand when I walk down the street, makes sure she knows where I am after dark, and parades me around when we’re in church. They’re about one step short of implanting a locator-chip in my neck while I sleep — I feel like I’m 5 again, but It’s sort of adorable.

We’re almost half way done with training, and though I can hold a conversation and divulge a 15 minute charla on self-esteem to the locals, I still have mountains to cross before I will feel comfortable communicating. I haven’t quite felt the whole ‘culture shock’ thing yet; I’m not sure how, but it’s already starting to feel like home, which is somewhat unfortunate considering we head to our permanent sites in just a few weeks.  I still can’t decide if I would rather be placed in a large city or somewhere far out where your closet neighbors are the stars above.  All I know is that I check my phone once a day, email twice a week and thoroughly enjoy being free from the chains of constant communication. You would always see the people in a crowded location or on public transportation talking on their cell phones and wondering what was so important they had to annoy you on your morning commute. Then my phone would ring and I would do the same damn thing. I would walk to work, texting, on the train, checking emails.  I stopped taking the time to see the world around me, to talk to the person on the train next to me—probably because they were on their I-phones as well – but here, you see everything. You talk to the person selling bananas, you ask the cab driver how his day is going, you smile at the children walking by, and for the love of god if you text and walk here a bull will absolutely head butt you in the face without warning or in my case, fall into a large garbage-filled hole in the sidewalk.  I almost decapitated one of my youth with a soccer ball that same day, it was a rough week.  I realized post-decapitation, that I was getting paid (and I use the term ‘paid’ loosely) to interact with mankind.

It’s something so many of us have stopped doing.

It’s hard to find a moment to yourself here (coffee, wine and chocolate as well), and when you are alone you’re thinking about giving your next charla, training session, program interview, language progression, will I have to shower in a dark bucket for the next 2 years, is it illegal for that hombre to be texting while operating his tractor, did I sound like a 7 year-old having an aneurism during my talk at the health center,  is that 6 inch centipede going to crawl into my mouth when I’m asleep tonight if I let it live, will my bra explode on my way to the city if I try to fit my wallet, cell phone, notebook, and credit cards in there, why does my deodorant refuse to work here, why are all of my bras suddenly so oddly misshapen, why does the small old lady in the market like to slap me on the wrist when I walk by her, what kind of meat is floating in my soup, why am I eating soup for the 4th day in a row when it’s 98 degrees outside, how do you say ‘degrees’ in  Spanish, whatever happened to Nick Lachey, did Jessica have her baby…? And so on.

While attempting to distress and minimize those thoughts on a walk, I somehow found an opening between pueblos, which hosts nothing but open sky, a faint outline of the mountains and almost every type of tree you can imagine. The palm trees gently flirt with tall outlined brush reminiscent of an African Serengeti.  Every time I visit, I hope a giraffe will peek its neck around the corner, but I’m realizing the odds of that happening are somewhat low.  I walk the narrow, unkempt, dirt road to a hidden opening in the barbed wire fence just before sunset; I put on the Youngbloods, my mind quiets down, the first star makes its debut…and the world starts to make sense again.  

As I started my trek home and stepped back onto the dirt road at dusk the other night, ‘Learning to Fly’ shuffled its way into my headphones…

Well I started out
down a dirty road
I started out all alone
and the sun went down
as I crossed the hill
and the town lit up 
and the world got still

Sometimes the universe just sort of gets it. 

Nana emoticon for the day: I got this. 

Adventure is a path. Real adventure – self-determined, self-motivated, often risky – forces you to have firsthand encounters with the world. The world the way it is, not the way you imagine it. Your body will collide with the earth and you will bear witness. In this way you will be compelled to grapple with the limitless kindness and bottomless cruelty of humankind – and perhaps realize that you yourself are capable of both. This will change you. Nothing will ever again be black-and-white.

And so it begins

January 2, 2012.  This year I can say with full certainty will be quite different from any other. On Tuesday, January 10th, I will throw myself off a ledge and head to into the complete unknown. This point in my life feels like Bob Barker just offered me what’s behind door number two and then dropped dead without warning. So now I wait in the dark with an audience waiting to see what happens next. I’ve been offered a position through the Peace Corps to direct public health programs for the Nicaraguan Ministry of Health (pretty sure they used the word ‘direct’, I like it anyhow). All I know is that it sounds great to say at cocktail parties, but what it actually means is beyond me. I figure I will be giving lectures to the country’s youth on safe sex, STD’s, HIV/AIDS, etc., walking barefoot 20 miles a day to assist in the birthing of babies to impoverished women in thatch huts, or perhaps traveling via horse tossing condoms at teenagers while preaching messages of Nica’s liberals; like a sexier, yet confused, Paul Revere. The only thing I’m fairly certain of is that when the plane lands on the humid earth of Nicaragua— the faint sounds of Michael Jackson’s ‘Man in the Mirror’ will play from the skies and we will all give each other high-fives in an organic slow motion-like dance.

I applied two years ago while spending Christmas at the bottom of the Foothills in Colorado as a singleton with my family. Seemed like an appropriate place to gather my thoughts on why I would want to leave everything I know and a job in which I was just promoted to pursue something so blurry and incomprehensible. I couldn’t tell if I wanted something bigger and to catapult into a new health career, or if I just missed the sun and had a horrible case of ADHD. After a year and ½ of waiting I gave up, deciding that I could be happy in Boston and make a life for myself there even though I’ve always felt it was just more of a layover.  I was beginning to enjoy the constant gray, overcast weather that I wrapped around my sadness each  morning like a wet blanket, basing my entire life around a job I accidentally fell into, and dating men that took me to the lawn department at Sears — asking me if I wanted to come in after to see their ‘AM radios’. Then, while on vacation on my 29th birthday in a flat in London, received an email asking if this would be something I would consider. Seemed like too much of a coincidence to turn down; so 6 months, 4 panic attacks and 2 cartons of cigarettes* later I find myself packing for Managua, Nicaragua. It’s humorous for a few reasons: 1) I have an art degree 2) Como se dice,  ‘I do not speak Spanish’ ?, and 3) wtf am I doing? I am also whiter than an albino ghost in February, so if I don’t burst into flames by the third month I will consider the relocation a success. I will also be sure to keep in contact with my Dermatology friends back in Boston, as they have eased my worries by letting me know that I will most-definitely, absolutely, be getting melanoma in the near future.

I’ve been this muddy, turbulent stream of emotion the past few weeks – it’s sort of like when you blend all of the colors of the rainbow together, you get this questionable brown color and wonder how it ended up on your carpet. There’s too much to think about, question, get excited about that I just short of shut down and turned on auto-pilot. I don’t like to over think things like this, so the endless waiting is finally getting to me.  So far I’ve heard all good things about the program, the country and the people. I’ve been told to ‘stay cool’ if I get kidnapped for ransom and bring a few dummy wallets for those pesky midnight-muggings. My favorite comment about me leaving thus far came from a German PhD at Mass General during our holiday party. He questioned my decision and told me to be weary of Nicaragua’s dark past and unrelenting dictators… Really, Germany? You of all people want to give me a lecture on evil dictators and dark government periods… he didn’t have much to say after that except that the holocaust was ‘centuries’ ago. I guess Harvard’s alumni have stopped donating to the university’s math program. All I could do was shake my head and help myself to more crackers to spread my confusion on.

My only fear, well, besides tarantulas laying eggs in my ears as my malaria pills put me into a night-tremor induced coma, is that I hear the men are vertically challenged. For a woman of 5’9 all I can really do is hope that I have received historical data and by now our northern, birth-control / anti-depressant / hormone infiltrated waters have calmly floated downstream and given those men the healthy growth-spurt they needed.

Now, I am by no means joining this program to meet someone one; however, when I look back on all the men that have felt like home to me, one would think I grew up in a halfway house. All I’m saying is that a change on that front would be most welcome.

I’m looking forward to the upcoming challenges, new friends, and after ten years of trying – actually getting to learn Spanish. So all Mayan calendars aside, I’m looking forward to living out the next two years and documenting as much as I can – sans muggings.

I’m hoping to portray my current state of emotion with my various nana-emoticon images. Today’s pic is the ‘my futures so bright, I gotta wear shades. Also don’t touch my martini’

 

*Organic American Spirits. More like vitamins, really

 

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