Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Travis 2.0

Lots has changed since last year, so short post to get through it all, then a bit more on the future.  Peace Corps ended early due to medical issues.  Bummer. Back in Ann Arbor for a bit. Fun.  Going to Brooklyn at the end of January.  To live.  Awesome.  Going to seek my fortune in event planning services .  Gonna start working the minute I hit the pavement, so look out NYC!

Also looking to get involved in various cool things in the area.  Free schools, urban gardening, Co-ops, community projects.  While Peace Corps has helped me move away from volunteer and non-profit work as a profession, I still bleed co-op and there's no question I will be staying involved in community and co-operative projects no matter where I am.  I just won't be basing my life around them.

I've upgraded my life significantly in preparations for this move.  New technology, new outfits, new haircut. I am now at the cutting edge of 21st century communication channels and am feverishly working to master my new tools before putting them to work in the wild fields of the concrete jungle. 

I am starting a new business.  Many have been eager to hear details of this, and I have now solidified my thoughts into something concrete enough that its vision can be articulated on the public forum.  The business will start as an event planning contract service, offering base packages for weddings, anniversaries, reunions, graduations and other momentous family and life occasions.  I will also be offering event planning services for businesses and corporations, for events ranging from meetings and parties to conferences and presentations. 

Why am I diving head first into an arena in which I have minimal professional experience, you might ask?  Well, the answer is simple:  appearance.  Success in areas such as this require the professional to appear as valuable as possible.  Of course, charisma, ambition, persistence and hard work are all important, but those are all requisites to even considering becoming a successful event planner in New York. The fact of the matter is, when in the presence of bears, one must make oneself look as big as possible.  What will set me apart from the rest, I believe, are my values, my beliefs, and my age. 

My personal values are very important to me. I value all voices equally, I take all opinions into consideration.  I am a socially conscious person.  I will work hard to ensure that all events I put on will be appropriate to the context in which the event takes place. 

Time holds a prominent place on my list of values, as it is very important not to waste.  I am not an idle person.  I work very well under pressure.  I am an ideas man, they come to me constantly.  I value hard work and I do not tolerate irresponsibility in the workplace.

I believe that events should be an extension not of the person who plans it, but of the community it is being put on for.  For that reason, I will strive to solicit as much input and creativity from members of that community as possible to give every event I put on a personal touch that participants can relate to and connect with. 

I believe in the power of personal connection.  I strive to create strong professional relationships with any person or group I believe could offer a valuable resource to my business.  Because of this, as I become more established in New York I will be able to offer more and more personal reccommendations and references, which in turn will increase references back to me.  I believe in the network, and I believe in friends.

Finally, though you may not think it, I plan on turning my age into a positive aspect as well.  At 25, I am just starting the prime of my life.  I'm not going anywhere any time soon, and there is no question that my business, assuming it is successful, will continue without me in NYC once I do decide to move on to my next project.  Therefore, those who contract with me now will get the assurance of a reliable, long-term connection that delivers with the utmost focus on quality and satisfaction.

I am currently calling the business Context Event Planning Services, or Context Events for short. 

So there it is.  I'm going pro!  Bring it on, world, I'm ready for ya.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Sauce Thickens

Here I am, not even a month into service, in my cozy little casinera north-west of El Sauce, León, and I’m happy to say that things are going very well for me so far. I have gotten used to the pace of life down here, and it is great to feel like you’re accomplishing things and getting started on long-term visions so soon in the game, even though on an average day I do no more than three or four hours of real work. The concept of “work” has changed significantly for me as well. Good advice from current volunteers has gotten me scheduling only one item of business per day, and it’s been great. Not only am I feeling like I’m getting things done, having meetings with important collaborators, going to various local social functions and getting buddy-buddy with the local producers, doing my best to ask around and find the women’s group and local semi-government that supposedly exist, and working with parents and students to put together the vegetable garden at the local primary school, but I still have hours and hours of free time during the day, in which to read, write, play with the kids, and even watch the occasional telenovela or Dragonball Z episode with my host chavalos.

One thing that I find quite interesting is that despite my original plan and the encouragement of fellow volunteers to spend the first three months just getting to know the area, the people, the potential projects, et cetera, I have already surpassed that goal and then some. I’ve met lots of people, yes, and I hope to meet more, especially in the area of women, who I’m supposed to be working with on patio management and food processing techniques, but I’ve met lots of producers, made friends with several of the more important members of the sesame seed co-op, and, probably most concretely, I’ve gotten together a youth group made up of fifth and sixth grades in the primary school, had a meeting and begun work on the vegetable garden. Granted, the school parents had already decided to make the vegetable garden and, in all honesty, they are the ones doing most of the work to get it together. However, me coming along and organizing the kids will be a great help in maintaining the garden, as well as giving me a chance to build relationships with them and teach them about everything from garden creation and maintenance to nutritional values, commercialization and added-value food processing techniques. Hooray for youth groups!

If this one goes well (which I’m sure it will), I plan on starting another youth group at the secondary school in Las Palmas, though probably not until the end of the rainy season, at which point the opportunities to do agriculture-related activities will drop dramatically. That’s ok though, I’m looking forward to just playing games, teaching them how to dance, maybe even sing and read music. I guess it all really depends on what they want.

The one area that’s lacking my attention at this point is the women. At times I feel like it’s almost insurmountable. When working with the moms on the garden, they barely talk to me, and answer my questions and comments with very short and quiet replies. I know that the more time I spend with them the more open they will be, and in order to really build confianza I have to go out and meet them at their own houses and spend time shooting the shit with them, preferably while the male is out of the house. Several times when I’ve been at someone’s house I’ve wanted to talk to the woman but she always bows out of the room when the male sits down, and I fall into the SOP of men chatting with men, women chatting with women.

They emphasize the difficulties for female volunteers working with men in the community, but they never really talk about male volunteers working with women, which seems strange. The program itself is designed around working with women in the patio, and youth in the schools and patios. A female volunteer really doesn’t have to work with men if she doesn’t want to, and from the stated goals and objectives of the PC Nicaragua Ag program, they really shouldn’t be working with men anyways. Maybe give the occasional charla on contour lines and live-/dead-barriers, organic fertilizer and other methods to curb soil erosion and other environmentally nasty issues, but the regular work, family and school vegetable gardens, value-added food processing, patio management, all revolves around the “ama de casa,” the doña. I’m finding the most challenging part of my job is gaining confianza with the women. If there already is a groupo de mujeres like my documents purport, this would be very helpful in overcoming this challenge for me, as it seems building confianza with women around here is easier done in a group setting than individually, as they have a chance to talk behind my back right in front of me, getting the whole talking-behind-my-back step out of the way immediately. But if it doesn’t exist, and Peace Corps expects me to organize one myself, I may be up a bit of a creek…

But honestly, if I have two active youth groups and a sesame seed cooperative that I’m working with on a regular basis, does that not seem like enough to keep myself busy? If I do end up building an oven here at my host mom’s house I will invite women across the land to come see us build it and learn about it’s great benefits, and maybe more will want one. Any project that I do that may be a benefit to the women I will invite them to, but I just can’t see myself organizing a group of women around anything from scratch right now, I just don’t think I have enough capacity to do that without a female counterpart who wants to help—which I don’t have. The only female counterpart listed in my information is the treasurer of the sesame seed co-op. Sure, I’ll talk to her about some ideas eventually, but she might already be too busy with keeping her house and the house of the co-op to do any outside organizing. I guess that remains to be seen.

Anyways, enough complaining about women. Three weeks in and I’m getting stuff done, that’s all that matters to me. I’m surpassing expectations, as far as I see it, and by the end of these three months I’ll not only have a thriving vegetable garden at the school, but I will have a functioning youth group who already know the benefits of vegetables, have begun learning rudimentary English and know how to salsa. With any luck I’ll have come across some added-value techniques for sesame seeds that I’ll be able to teach to the co-op members, and maybe I’ll even get that older kids youth group started down the road. Eat your heart out, Peace Corps.


My host mom just got back from a six hour long meeting with the alcaldia (municipal mayor’s office) about empowering women, and after talking with her a bit I have found out that there is in fact no grupo de mujeres, but she seems somewhat committed to at least putting an organizing meeting together and getting things started. Small at first, of course, but hopefully if we can get our act together (read: if I can get them to want to put effort in) we can organize an official bono productivo and get some funding from the government, maybe to build ovens or some other way to make value-added products. It is a long road to glory, isn’t it?

Friday, July 17, 2009

3 months down... 2 years to go!

It has been quite a while since my last post, and for that I am truly sorry. But what an adventure it has been! I’ve barely had time to send the occasional email home to the parents and update my facebook status! On top of the daily intensive language classes, agricultural training sessions and bouts with various types of sickness (granted only a couple, and nothing warranting a trip to the pharmacy, gracias a dios), I’ve had the opportunity to visit several large cities (including Masaya, Jinotepe, Diriamba, and, of course, Managua), an active volcano, a volcanic lagoon, the pacific ocean, the mountainous terrain of Nueva Segovia. I’ve learned about how to grow all different types of plants, including how to graft citrus and mango together to make some really crazy hybrid fruits, where cashew nuts come from (and how to make wine from its fruit), all about basic grains, their various plagues and how to combat them, vegetable and tree farms, how to make ovens and wood stoves out of bricks, mud and a metal barrel, and even how to make tofu! I’ve roasted coffee beans, made friends with the director of the local school, joked with my 80 year old host grandmother about compost made from human waste, attended a catholic funeral procession with nearly the entire pueblo—while carrying a shovel and watering bucket, nonetheless—and I’m even in the process of adopting a little kitten that was born right around the time we arrived in Nicaragua. And all of this in 8 short weeks! It’s hard to believe that this could all happen in such a short amount of time, but at the same time it has gone by all too fast. In only 2 more weeks I will be saying goodbye to my training town, to my lovely compañeros, Jeffrey, Danielle and Pamela, to my host family, to the training team, and, for all intents and purposes, to the peace corps corporate structure in general. It’s hard to say goodbye, but after the past five days, I now have an idea of what to look forward to, and it’s looking pretty damn good.

Last Wednesday was the day of our site assignments. Apparently it has been tradition in the Small Business group for everyone to put brackets together guessing who was going where and all put some pesos into a pool. We didn’t know they were doing this until the weekend before the assignment day, so it was too late to do a pool of our own, but nonetheless our jefes decided to turn it into quite the fun little guessing game.

First, once we were all assembled, they had us all stand in groups by region, based on where we thought we were going. For us Aggies, there were only two regions to choose from: The Pacific region (León/Chinandega) and the central region (Nueva Segovia/Jinotega/Estelí). Once we were all where we thought we should be, Bayardo, our Program Director, told us how many people weren’t where they were supposed to be, but not who. So, being thoroughly confused for the entire process, we ended up with one person in the Central region that should have been in the Pacific region, but we couldn’t figure out who it was (I was almost certain I was going Central at the time).

Then came the announcements. They started with the Pacific region, and after a few rounds they came to the one Ag site where the assigned volunteer wasn’t already standing up there, a tiny pueblo near El Sauce called Los Panales, in the northern part of León. The description of this site included a fair amount about a recently formed cooperative based around sesame seeds that needed help building organizational capacity, and so, being the co-op fanatic that I am, I put it down as one of my top three sites, but I also told them I’d rather be in a larger city, more concentrated and whatnot, so I wasn’t really expecting that to be my site. But once it came up and no one was called at first, people began guessing random other aggies (someone said my name first but the person presenting the site didn’t hear her) and my smile began to rise as it became more and more sure that this was going to be my site… and sure enough, it was!

So hooray, I’ve got my site, song and dance, too-rah-loo. Now to see what it’s really like. Two days later, after barely enough time to read the more complete site description (in Spanish) and get my bags packed, we head up to Estelí for our meetings with our community and INTA (National Technical Institute of Agriculture) counterparts. We get there in time for lunch, and after a delicious meal of chicken and cabbage salad (along with the obligatory beans and rice), we meet together in the conference room with all the community and INTA people. Of course, we don’t know who any of them are, and they don’t know us, so of course we have to play another guessing game!

I start roaming around the room asking people if they knew anyone from the El Sauce area or Los Panales and everyone gives me blank stares and passes me by. After a while of this, I locate Fran, who is the ag volunteer from my group assigned to the city of El Sauce (living with her husband, Richard, a small business volunteer). Fran has already found a couple of people, so I go ask them if they know where my counterparts are. As it turns out, one of the people she was with was Witmar, my INTA counterpart/technician. Jolly fellow, seemed to enjoy talking and joking around a lot but also seemed fairly serious about his job (good stuff, but not that surprising. He’s only been with INTA 9 months and it seems he’s already gunning for his boss’s job). The other person was one of Fran’s counterparts in the “programa de amor,” which works with women to build vegetable gardens in their patios to increase nutrition and add a little income to the family budget.

After brief introductions Witmar informs me that my community counterpart, who also happens to be the President of the sesame seed Co-op, and whose name is Ángel, couldn’t come because, according to Witmar, his house was also the local health center and he was needed to help out there, or something. Also, the counterpart of Fran’s who was supposed to come didn’t show up either, for one reason or another, so I started pondering the various ways everything could go horribly wrong, or at least be horribly difficult to get started (no one in the community understanding what Peace Corps does, or how to relate with someone from the States, et cetera…). Whoopee, freakout time! But “no te preocupes” says Witmar, and whatever, as much as I like having plans and planning, I can work just as well by the seat of my pants. Just a minor setback, it’ll all work out fine in the end, I’m sure. It always seems to, down here in the land of Lakes and Volcanoes.

The next day we set out on our journey to the municipality of El Sauce. Some guys from INTA were kind enough to give me a ride most of the way, at least to the highway that splits off in León to head north up to El Sauce, while Claudio led the way in the Peace Corps Mobile full of other León-based volunteers and their counterparts (including Fran and her program of love lady). We sat down at the bus stop there at the intersection and eventually boarded a bus jam-packed with Nicas. They threw my big backpack up on top of the bus and I had to find space in the overhead compartments for my other two bags, both weighing more than an 8-year-old boy. Hooray, already going against the suggestions of Peace Corps about keeping your bags close… something’s going to get stolen for sure. It took us an hour to get up that one stretch of road, through a whole lot of campo and not much else. Talk about remote! But still, once we got there, there was a fully functioning town at the end of the road, complete with electricity, a bus station with posted schedules, plenty of stores to buy clothes, plastic housewares, food and what-have-you. Even full-bar coverage of both cell phone providers and at least three internet cafés! The only things El Sauce is lacking, as far as I can tell, is a post office and an ATM, two things I, unfortunately, am unable to live without. Looks like I’ll be making occasional trips out to León city after all…

So thankfully my site isn’t anywhere near Managua, or any of the other tourist centers, for that matter, so thieves are pretty much unheard of up there. What’s the point of robbing other poor people, right? All my stuff made it to El Sauce intact and together, but of course, being the campo, no one can really be trusted to keep a schedule. Not to mention the fact that last Saturday was the national “celebrate liberation from Somoza” day in all the municipal heads, so everyone was drinking and dancing and shooting off bottle rockets and having a generally dandy ol’ time.

We were supposed to meet the head of the INTA office there when we arrived, but of course it was all closed off and he, along with the rest of the INTA staff, was at the party getting borracho, instead of answering their phones. Thankfully, our program de amor lady (whose name is really weird and I’ll probably never remember) knew where Juan José (the INTA director) lived, so we walked over to his house, all our stuff in tow. We got there, sat down, exhausted, and waited for probably 20 or 30 minutes until an INTA truck carrying Juan José and several other people, who may or may not have worked with INTA, arrived. Whether he had forgotten that we were coming or not was hard to determine, but he clearly was not happy about having to do work-related stuff on this day of festivities. So I throw all my stuff in the back of the truck and get in with him and the driver. We head off down the road and Juan José first informs me about the party and then tells me that we need to go drink beers, but that I have to pay for them. 10 dollars, he tells me. 10 dollars! May not sound like much to you, but that’s 200 pesos and nearly a third of all the money I had for that week. Not to mention the fact that I didn’t want to be totally trashed when I arrived at my host family’s house for the first time. So I told him I didn’t have that kind of money and he seemed a little disappointed. Once we got to the town square where the party was (apparently it was over, everything was being packed up as we drove by), Juan José got out, gave directions to the guy driving the truck and bid us farewell. We drove along and chatted for a bit about the area and his job and whatnot (he, also, seemed like he didn’t want to be there), but we managed to make it out to my house, and all things considered, the journey went quite well. I only ended up spending about 17 pesos on travel, when I had been budgeted something like 110, so that was nice. And I got to see a bit of El Sauce, the only city-like location within at least 70 kilometers.

Now a bit about my host family in Los Panales. It turns out my host dad is the secretary of the Cooperative, and on very good terms with Ángel, el presidente, who we went to meet Sunday afternoon. He and his wife, Petrona, live in a three-house compound with a whole host of children and grandchildren. All in all I estimate there are between 10 and 13 people who live in the three houses, not including myself, and they range the gamut from somewhere around 4 little kids under 10, 4 youth between 11 and 15, a 23 year old guy and a woman I’m guessing is around 27 or 28. It’s quite large compared to the family I’m with here in my training town, and I absolutely love it! The kids are always around to entertain and be entertained by, there are always extended family members coming to visit (their compound is right in the middle of the community), and Doña Tona, as she likes to be called, even went out and bought limes to make lime and jamaica fresco with for me when I told her I liked frescos! They’ve got all kinds of trees, flower bushes, a vegetable garden, chickens, dogs, a cat, and plenty of space for more in their patio. Tona wants to plant coffee trees under the big trees she planted 12 years ago (there were no trees or anything on the land when she got there). I told her I’d get my friends up in coffee country to donate to the cause.

Sunday, the day after I arrived in town, I went out to the baseball field with my host brother-in-law Bernardo, who also plays for one of the local teams, to watch the game. It was a team from Los Panales against a team from El Sauce proper. Bernardo was fully immersed in the game, so I went about myself, introducing myself to various people and meeting them in return (and then promptly forgetting their names…). I met a guy who works for the one of the cooperatives in El Sauce, I met several guys who lived in the area and worked the land, including a couple cheles (nica for white people) who apparently grew up there, several teenagers, the local gay, and a drunkard from El Sauce. Several people invited me to come out and play soccer with them the next afternoon. I told them I would come if I could.

Monday morning we had a meeting with INTA at 10. There are only two buses that pass by my house to El Sauce a day. Once at 8am and once again at noon. If I want to get back to my house from the city after noon I have to take a bus to the intersection of the highway to Achuapa and the road that goes off towards Panales and walk the last 2 kilometers or so. So I show up at 8:30 in El Sauce and call Fran up, and low and behold, she’s got a stomach sickness! I make my way over to her place and we call both Witmar and Juan José and leave messages with both of them, but neither call us back. Well, we figure, if they can’t get their act together to call us, then what’s the point trying to meet with them? They probably won’t even be at the office.

So instead we head out to the local laboratory where Fran took her stool sample earlier that day to get analyzed to pick up the results, relay them to the peace corps medical staff, and then head over to the pharmacy to pick up some antibacterial pills and rehydration salts. In the process of all this I meet Fran’s host family, which seems to be equally as large as my own (including one daughter who seems pretty keen to catch my eye), we run into the local small business PC volunteer (who was in a panic trying to get all her stuff together before moving out on Thursday), we meet another local gringo who works for some New York university teaching English classes and doing educational activities up in the mountains, find the local Eskimo ice cream shop, and thoroughly miss our appointment with INTA.

I headed out at 12:15 to catch the 12:30 bus back to Panales, only to find once I got there that the 12:30 bus had left at 12:10 and the next one didn’t leave until 7am the next day. The next bus to Achuapa left at 2, so I decided to wait around for that one and called my host mom to tell her to meet me at the bus station at 2:30. Well, the 2pm bus actually left around 1:45 and got to my bus stop a little after 2, but as I began walking up the 2 km stretch to my house a couple guys on bicycles came along and one of them offered me a ride on the middle bar of his bike. So an hour walk turned into a 10 minute bike ride that only hurt my butt a little, and I not only got home before anyone had even left to meet me at the station, but I also got to meet a couple more teenagers who could end up being part of my youth group! My family was all surprised and seemingly a bit relieved.

So after a bit of relaxing at the house, playing spin-top with the boys and chatting with the girls, an INTA truck comes up the driveway. Oh no! They’re going to be so mad we missed the meeting! But oh yeah, I’m in Nicaragua, this kind of stuff happens all the time. No one seemed all that angry, and I got to meet a couple more program of love ladies and talk with them a bit about how we were going to go about setting up family vegetable gardens in the community, while Witmar joked around with the family. We set up a meeting time for the next afternoon at 5pm, since I was going down there anyways.

Which brings me to Tuesday. Tuesday morning I pretty much just chillaxed and read until after lunch. I had to travel back to my training site on Wednesday, and the easiest way to get to Managua was to take one of the Achuapa-Managua route buses. Only problem with that was that there were only two, once that passed by the 2km bus stop at 4:00am and left El Sauce at 4:45, and another that passed by around 12:30. If I wanted to sleep in Los Panales Tuesday night I would have had to leave my house at 3am and walk 2km in the middle of the night to the bus stop. To my great fortune, however, Fran has an extra bed in her house (which I will probably end up taking advantage of a fair amount in the future, considering how infrequently those busses to Los Panales run), so I decided to head out to the Sauce Tuesday afternoon. After getting out to the bus stop (the driver of the local bus was sick that day) and taking the bus into town I headed over to Fran’s and hung out a while with Evelyn, until Fran and her husband Richard (who has temporarily changed his name to Ricardo, much more suave, ¿verdad?) returned from their little walk around the block. After they came back we went around getting to know the town a little better and met one of Fran’s host sisters (Linda) who runs a hardware store just a block away from her house. It turns out Linda’s husband has a finca out in Los Panales, and he also has a truck, so maybe I’ll be able to bum some rides from him in the future, which would be nice. They also offered the extra bedroom over there to me if my place with the familia grande doesn’t work out, so that was extra nice. We’re gonna go over there sometime and have a barbecue. And on top of all that, Linda has offered to help me find someone to build a trunk for me to keep my valuables in! Don’t want those little kids in my house playing with my expensive computer, now do we? Thank god for confianza and family connections.

The meeting with INTA was interesting, if fairly uneventful. Juan José and Witmar sat there with their cigarettes and whenever Fran mentioned something specific they were quick to blow it up into more general terms. And whenever they started talking specifics, Fran would counter with her desire to just spend the first few months getting to know the area and the people and whatnot. It was kinda funny. I didn’t say much.

That evening Fran and Ricardo went to look at a fridge that the former business volunteer was trying to get rid of and Evelyn managed to convince me to go out with her to meet a couple of her best friends. We took a mototaxi over to one friend’s house and hung out for probably 10 minutes or so, but I was tired and had to wake up before the crack of dawn the next morning so we didn’t stay long. Her friend had a son who looked to be around 5 or 6, and her husband was off in the states working “mojado” in Miami, but I guess things were going alright so far, since she had a pretty nice house all to herself. They’re going to throw me a birthday party there with dance music and a piñata and everything! But they’re evangelical and, from the looks of it, don’t drink, so we’ll have to make sure my birthday party in Panales is hosted by some less morally sound individual. The other friend didn’t make it in time, but we saw her as we were driving back in the mototaxi and got the driver to wait a minute while we introduced ourselves to each other and she apologized profusely for taking so long to put her clothes on. Oh girls…

I went to bed early that night and fell asleep pretty promptly, even with the loud pool hall right across the street. Every time I go to bed I think “man, I could use some ear plugs,” but then I just fall asleep anyways and by the time I wake up again all I hear is the dogs and the roosters. Life could be worse.

So the next day I spent all morning traveling. 3 and a half hours to Managua, another 2 to Masatepe. Once there I was famished, so I walked down to the bakery and had some pineapple bread and Fanta naranja, then headed over to the cyber but the internet all over town was out, alas. No internet, no phones to the states, all that was left was to buy some toothpaste and toilet paper and head back to my pueblo. I got home around 10:45am and, after unpacking the few things I came back with and bucket-bathing myself, I hit the hammock and read the newspaper. Tonight I’m going to see how everyone else’s visits went.

The one thing that struck me most was that the information packet I got about Los Panales said it only had 400 people living in it. As it turns out, there are actually 2 Los Panaleses, and between the two of them there are actually more people living there than in El Sauce city! The other thing is that it is SUPER campo. There’s at least a kilometer between each house (or cluster, as the case may be), and if you want to walk anywhere you’re going to be walking for at least half an hour. So I’m going to have to buy a bike. Or maybe a horse. Bike’s are cheaper, but horses are cooler. I guess we’ll have to wait and see. Spread out and small feeling, but several communities to work with, so there is lots of potential. The next few months are going to be fun.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Nueva pais, nuevas experiencias

Well here I am, only three days into training and already loving it. They've got wireless here at the orientation retreat, so I'm going to write a post now, seeing as how we're leaving tomorrow and I may not have this reliable internet access in quite a long time. Where to begin.....

Nicaragua is amazing! Staging in DC was intense and brief, and we will never again interact with the people who trained us, though we did get a chance to meet all the big wigs in the central Peace Corps system, which was kinda cool. Other than that, I would say it was fairly useless. Everything that directly applied to us was repeated within the first couple days of our retreat here in Managua, but more applicable and valid. The DC trainers pretended like they knew what they were talking about, the Nica trainers actually knew what they were talking about. But whatever, they gave us all $120 for our one night out on the town and the travel to Nicaragua, along with the $60 I got as reimbursement for the plane ticket to DC (sorry mom and dad, I asked them if they could reimburse you, but they gave it to me in cash so that wasn't really an option), so I suddenly had a ton of money that I didn't need, leading to several extravagant and unnecessary purchases, including an expensive dinner in Georgetown and several snacks for the plane ride that I haven't even opened yet. And I still have $85 american dollars! I suppose once we're set up with bank accounts I'll be able to deposit it in there and translate it to córdobas (nica currency) so I can actually use it here.

Oh so much to talk about! Everyone in my training group is super awesome, very outgoing, friendly, easy to talk to, it's just great. Interesting fact: along with being the 50th training group in Nicaragua since the program restarted in 1991 (equipo de oro! woo!), our Ag group is the first to be trained in May (instead of September), the first to go through training with Small Business Development trainees (used to be with environment peeps), and the first to do our PST (pre-service training) in villages to the south of Managua (instead of in the north, near Estelí). What this makes me think is that our posts will probably be in the south as well, since they've been talking about expanding the ag program down there instead of being focused in the northwest and north-central. This is a bit of a double-edged sword, in my opinion. On one hand, I'm excited that I'll probably be starting my own program, instead of picking up where some other volunteer left off. On the other, I have a feeling my site will be in the south (maybe in the same area as my training town), which means no horses. Sadness.

So I just got my training family assignment, and how exciting it is! My mom's name is Fanny, I've got a 23-year-old brother named Eduardo, and 2 sisters, one 25 and one 16 or so. An 80-year old grandmother and no father (one of the volunteers guesses he either lives in Costa Rica or the States) evens it out. They live in a small village in the south of Masaya department, about half an hour south of Managua (sorry, can't post specifics here, for fear of stalkers and whatnot). I'm definitely gonna get Eduardo to show me the local hotspots and teach me some sweet soccer moves. It's gonna be awesome.

Que más.... we went on a tour of Managua today, and now I'm thinking the reason they waited until our last day to give the tour was to make us realize how crappy this town is and get us even more excited to get the hell out. It truely is quite a sight, there's a huge shanty town right next to the capital, that apparently was constructed by a bunch of protesters a long time ago and just stayed up. Buses packed to the brim with commuters, taxis with 3 or 4 families squashed inside, motorcycles weaving between cars, official-looking guards with big guns around anything that looks valuable or governmental, sandinista graffiti and billboards all over the place, trash in the streets, cows and donkeys roaming about, urban poverty at its best. I can't wait to get out to my training site. I think I'll be able to handle the bucket showers and latrines.

Okay, I have to wrap up this blog now, got some euchre games awaiting. Por fin, I'd just like to reiterate how damn excited I am about all of this. The next three months are going to be ridiculously busy and intense, but once I get to my site I am going to rock some worlds. Woohoo booyakasha!

Oh, PS, it turns out regular post is much more reliable for packages than FedEx or DHL, according to the volunteers. Just get a flat-rate box from USPS and pack it as full as possible. Here's my mailing address for the next three months:
Travis Jones
Cuerpo de Paz
A.P. #3256, Managua


Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Home Again...

I'm back in Ann Arbor! Well, I have been since Saturday, but it's been super busy and I haven't had time to post. Even now I should be doing other things, so I'm going to keep it short. I'm back, and sad that I had to say goodbye to the open road. But it's for the best, I've got a bunch of stuff to take care of before I leave for the Peace Corps. 27 months is a looooong time!

So yeah, now I'm spending time with friends, getting paperwork done for Peace Corps, sorting out my wants and needs for the next 27 months and getting everything settled and ready to go. I'll report on the rest of my road trip within the next week or two, I just wanted to shoot out a quick holler so y'all aren't worried I've forgotten about you.

Talk soon!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Plans Changing...

I'm going to take another pause from the normal blogging updates to write about a very significant event that happened yesterday and the ramifications it will have on my trip. Yesterday, my invitation to the Peace Corps finally arrived! The low-down skinny is that I will be a "rural development extensionist" in some super-rural community in either the north-central highlands or the pacific lowlands of Nicaragua. Orientation starts on May 12th and, from the looks of it, I'll be heading out to Nicaragua on the 13th or 14th to begin the three-months pre-service training. The service period will be August 1, 2009 through July 29, 2011. So if you want to come visit, do it in between those dates (plenty of time, right?).

From what I can gather, rural development extensionist basically means I'll be working with families to develop their agricultural gains, build community, teach lifeskills to kids, and generally help them improve their quality of life. According to the pamphlet, it's an "overarching approach" that involves everything from value-added techniques to agribusiness to integrated patio management, and I'll probably be responsible for working on all five project areas at the same time (which hopefully doesn't mean I'll be spread too thin to actually make meaningful change...). There are currently 35 volunteers that work on the project, so I'll have 34 americans around the country to keep me from going totally native.

I don't know what else to say about the assignment right now. I've got a lot of reading to do about the country, the program, the preparations and whatnot, maybe once I get through all that I'll have formed better opinions on the whole plan and hopefully will be less anxious about what comes next. My dad overnighted the packet to my cousin at Stanford, so I'll pick it up there for further reading.

Which brings us back to this road trip I'm on now. Seeing as how I ship out eight weeks from today, I need to get back to Ann Arbor asap to get all my preparations ready, tie up my loose ends and say goodbye to all my homies. So it looks like I won't be able to make it all the way up to Canada, much less the Pacific Northwest more generally. Instead, the plan now is to spend the weekend in the Bay area and start heading back East on Monday. So the planned drive back will start with a night in Vegas, a night at some national park in Utah, then Boulder, Omaha, and Chicago before heading back home (maybe visiting my bro in Allendale on the way). I'm gonna try to keep at a fairly quick pace too, since I would like to be home before the end of March. Gotta get my ducks in a row!

Oh and also, now that I know I'm going to a spanish speaking country, I really gotta get back to working on my Spanish. So I'll actually listen to the Michel Thomas CDs I put on my iPod on the drive back. Español, here I come!

Ok, my computer battery is about to die so I'll leave it at that for now. Wish me luck, and if you have any advice for stops along the drive back, let me know! Ciao for now...

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Ode to a Cactus

I found my poem, yay! I wrote this in the middle of the Sonoran desert. It's deep.


Ode to a Cactus

Cactus cactus, touch the sky
Desert Organ, sing so high
Though at times you may get lonely
Don't forget the other cactii just nearby

O sir Cactus, rising high
I can chart my last two weeks on your body
From nub to root.
Like a treasure map, x marks the spot

At the top of your head,
Where the needles are softest, fresh and clustered close,
Where the view is the best.
I can see deserts, painted with god-sized brushes.
Red, yellow, orange for miles on end.
Canyons, grandest as can be
Cutting deep into the earth,
For feet both innocent and worn to trod down and back up.
Ancient trees, long dead and fallen,
Uncovered from Earth to reveal
Gems and crystals unique from all others.
A snow-capped peak, ripe for alpine fun.
And just below, a cozy town only few call home.
The rest call it Flagstaff.

Oh look! Three little birds have perched on your head!
Mama bird Heidi, watching out for her flock.
Sings a warm and beautiful song until she senses danger.
Best make sure you're not on the end of those talons.
Industrious Kelli, wings of an eagle.
Flying miles along riverbeds,
Just to feel the wind in her feathers.
And then there's the crazy little sparrow, Leigh.
Spunky little thing wants it all and takes what she can reach.
Beat your wings fast, little sparrow,
But don't get confused.
To get anywhere you must first point in one direction.

Moving down the spine we find
A spot of red, strange and foreign,
Full of riches, we shall call it Sedona.
What could be compunding parasites
Erupting from the surface,
Only to wear away in the wind.
This must be where the aliens landed.

Just below, a ring called Prescott,
Old and worn, battlescarred and raw.
Two ravens have made their nest here:
Reuben and Jourdie.
Friends to plants and animals alike
This majestic pair has built its next from recycled plastic string.
One day they will leave this ratty old Cactus
And fly somewhere even more desperate,
And their presence will move mountains.
In an eco-friendly way, of course...

Near the base the cactus swells,
Other plants, furry, prickly and hardy alike
Swarm around the ground, basking in
The protection of the Mighty One.
We shall call this mess Phoenix,
Though its many parts would beg to differ.
In the middle is Pam,
A pine tree from the north
Whose roots transplanted many years ago.
It recently started bearing oranges.
The tree is much happier here.
A two-headed Prickly Pear, recently re-seeded from the East
Named Nick and Brian, respectively
Bring with them the comfort of home.
Until an angry coyote called Chino
Rips a hole in them.
Good thing plants heal.
Coyotes only get shot.

A kind-hearted roadrunner named Isabel,
From a pretty little place called Tucson,
Drops us some water to help us along.
This, in spite of the many problems
She is dealing with herself.

And here we come to the root.
Dry, old, waorn down and grey,
But beautiful still, empty and quiet as it is.
I have found my heart,
And it lies in the center of a cactus
In the middle of the desert.