Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Nicaragua - Blog Post 4 - The Volunteer House

Life at the Volunteer House (Sunday through Friday)

Besides our time in the classroom and out sightseeing, the volunteer house provided many memorable moments.  Because of safety concerns, Outreach360 stipulated that volunteers could not leave the house without a chaperone.  Granted, there were many occasions in which guided activities got us out of the house.  But, at night we were stuck.  It was not such a bad thing.  We became extremely close as a group, playing games for hours.  Most evenings we also had to prepare for our lessons for the next day, which involved lots of construction paper and markers.

Bonding with Volunteers

I had come to Nicaragua with ten other IU students.  None of us had met prior to October, when we convened for the trip logistics meeting.  At midweek in Nicaragua several of us admitted to being anxious about the trip.  Some worried that because none of us knew each other well, the trip would be awkward and uncomfortable.  However, not long after our arrival we became extremely close.  I attribute the environment in the volunteer house as one reason we bonded.  Locked up for the evenings with limited internet and television, we resorted to games for entertainment.  Of course, it helped that Kristin, our site leader, was “obsessed” with games.  Everyone bought in because of her enthusiasm. 

“Catchphrase” became the game of the week.  It allowed everyone to participate, and its “hot potato” dynamic fueled laughter and competitiveness.  It is funny how personalities heighten during games.  It also helped other volunteers apart from the IU group to come into the fold.  The Outreach360 administrator, Coco, was also sold on playing.  The game united us.  By the end of the week we were also playing “Mafia,” a role playing game that was even more fun because we had become so close.  All of us were saddened by the prospect of leaving.  But, I anticipate future reunions on campus this spring.


One of the best surprises for me was discovering two Nicaraguan mothers working as the volunteer house cooks/maids.  They made us homemade Nicaraguan meals three times a day.  Since we knew they used purified water in all of their cooking, all of the tropical fruit and fresh vegetables were assured to be free of parasites.  The coconut and watermelon we ate were the most flavorful I had ever tasted.  We were introduced to one native vegetable, the "chayote," which looks like the flesh of a kiwi yet tastes like squash.  Above all, we indulged every day in the region’s most delicious food: the plantain.  We ate them as long-thin chips, fritter patties, and fried sweet in slices. 

Among the native dishes we enjoyed, three stand out: First, we had “pinol” for breakfast one morning.  It tasted like hot chocolate, but made with corn water.  Second, we were treated to local delicacy “yacatamal.”  It is a tamale (cornmeal with rice, vegetables, and pork) cooked in banana leaves.  Third, the corn tortillas were outstanding, especially when combined with fresh salsa and freshly squeezed lemon from the lemon grove in the backyard.  Of course, most meals incorporated local rice and beans (and at times, fried eggs, a personal favorite of mine).  I had wanted a cultural experience when it came to the food.  With our Nicaraguan mothers taking care of us, it could not have been better. 

Reading "Unfinished Revolution"

Every time I travel I become fascinated with the history and culture (and food) of the place I am visiting.  Nicaragua was no different.  Prior to leaving IU for vacation I borrowed a library book on the modern history of Nicaragua: “Unfinished Revolution: Daniel Ortega and Nicaragua's Struggle for Liberation.”  It examined Nicaragua’s colonial past, its period of dictatorship under the Somozas, its 1979 “Sandanista” revolution, and its continued struggles with democracy and corruption through 2009.  The book made the entire vacation more relevant and relaxing.  I hardly noticed the time pass on our travel days to and from Managua.  And, since I could not leave the volunteer house during our hour-long daily siesta, I sat on the patio and read my book instead. 

Topics discussed by the book were all around me.  Throughout Jinotega the Sandanista red and black colors decorated street posts and tree trunks.  Propaganda-like campaign posters of Daniel Ortega, the country’s revolutionary leader turned president turned pseudo-dictator, dotted the highways.  The sustained poverty and absence of capital investment were evident with every personal encounter.  I have since been introduced to other issues in Central and South America.  Had I not gone to Nicaragua, I would have never been interested enough to care.  Given that I would have struggled to point to Nicaragua on a blank map prior to the trip, it is amazing how much I have learned.

For picture from my entire Nicaragua trip, see me "Nicaragua 1-1-2012" web album here: