Monday, June 28, 2010
So, I mounted a mini campaign to let other Peace Corps know about the result of my request. To their credit Chaco USA responded within a few hours saying the email was a mistake and inaccurate. So, I'm now in touch with their Consumer Relations Manager and it looks like we're on the right track.
Thanks Chacos for staying true in your commitment to Peace Corps volunteers! I'll definitely be getting a pair now. I'll let you all know when they get in.
Their recent letter to me four months after asking for a pro deal discount, which is still possible on their website:
Dear Matthew Lyttle, Thank you for your interest in the Chaco Pro Deal program. Unfortunately we cannot extend special pricing to you at this time. Retailers are our livelihood, so we limit the program to select outdoor industry professionals and employees of Chaco retailers. A list of retail partners can be found on http://www.chaco.com/.
Thank you for your understanding. We wish you the best with your outdoor endeavors.
The Chaco Team
And, my response:
Dear Chaco Team,
Thank you for responding to my request, albeit 4 months later. I am disappointed to hear Chaco no longer feels that Peace Corps volunteers are a valued group of customers and, more importantly, promoters. The 8000+ Peace Corps volunteers wear your products all over the world and offer invaluable exposure in otherwise impenetrable markets. In fact, the main reason I am looking to purchase a pair of Chaco sandals is the ardent praise I hear from my fellow volunteers.
Many of your outdoor gear competitors including Marmot, The North Face, Keen, Merrell, and Teva recognize the value of Peace Corps Volunteers' product support and offer significant discounts as a sign of that recognition. Please note that I will now be purchasing from one of these companies as opposed to Chaco.
I hope your team finds the time to update the various websites that promote a Peace Corps discount when purchasing Chaco footwear. For your reference, those sites include http://www.peacecorpswiki.org/Volunteer_discounts, http://www.43things.com/entries/view/1930455, trip,buttermouth.com, and even your own http://www.chacoprodeal.com/. That particular site still includes Peace Corps as a "User Type." I have already updated my networks to this change.
Thank you for your attention and please note that Peace Corps volunteers in dozens of countries around the world will readily welcome Chaco's renewed support.
Sunday, May 23, 2010
Walking around on Mombacho, the volcano overlooking Granada
A barn at a coffee farm on Mombacho
From there, we headed to Managua to take a plane to Big Corn Island off the Eastern Coast of Nicaragua. It was the first time that matt and I had the pleasure to visit the east coast and it was a phenomenal experience (aside from the stomach issues experienced by nearly all). The island was a picture of what Carribean islands must have been before cruise ships and five store resorts made their way ashore. Funnily enough, Nicaragua had one last present in store for us on this trip, and it was a good one for a change. Our hotel plans fell through completely (it was holy week and so I had made reservations; however, the word reservation is a lot less firm in Nicaragua than in the US and when we arrived the rooms were not the ones we had wanted and were not suitable for staying in unless you were of the rodent family). Oddly enough, we had met an American in Grananda who happened to have a house on Corn Island. He was renting it to a group of Italians who were on the island helping to film the Italian version of the TV show Survivor, but they had bailed at the last minute. A quick phone call to him, a cab ride and one local tour guide later, we had ourselves a beachfront house for an amazing price. Not a bad way to see ourselves out of the country.
Our crew, in front of the plane that took us from Managua to Big Corn Island
Corn Island as we were approaching to land
The boys trying to figure out how to string up our hammock
The view from the front porch of our rental house...breathtaking
Richard and Matt...manly as ever
Waiting for the bus to Somoto
Chatting in Somoto
We returned to mainland Nicaragua with our friends and headed up to Somoto to show them the place that we had spent two years of our lives. A few last meals, a goodnight’s sleep and a free truckride later, we were on our way out of town to the airport to make arrangements for them, our animals and ourselves on our way back to the US of A.
The last few weeks in Somoto were tough. Matt and I spent a lot of time saying our goodbye’s – to our host family, our neighbors, our colleagues and other Peace Corps Volunteers. As much as we had tried to make sure that all of our projects were done, we ended up working down to the end. It felt weird to be in Somoto and not go to work, so that’s what we did.
Taeko (Japaneses health volunteer with whom I worked), Rubenia (my primary colleague), me and Noehmi (head of nursing)
I finally finished up my Partnership project, spending hours and hours on end working with teachers who volunteered their time to review my books and painstakingly explain the finer points of Spanish grammar to me. The books are at the printer as we speak and will be helping Nicaragua secondary students in the coming academic year. Thank you again to all of you who contributed financially and emotionally to making the project a reality.
Matt spent the last few weeks making sure that the transition of projects would go well for the volunteer that will be replacing him at the health center when we leave. This involved a week showing her the ropes and a week coordinating on the coming year’s project with the Irish University group that visits Somoto annually. For those of you who read the blog regularly and know of Los Quinchos, you will be happy to hear that they have decided to make themselves a more sustainable center and are going to be setting up their own garden and chicken shed to help cover the costs of feeding their students. The Irish group will be helping them to build these things in July and the new Peace Corps volunteer will help them coordinate with local contractors.
The last meal that we made for our host family - an American-style breakfast to say thanks before going away.
So our work wrapped up, Matt and I set to packing up two years of our lives for a transition back to the states. But after our time in Somoto, of going through really tough times and really special times, it was harder than we thought to pack up and leave. In the end, we didn’t actually pack much. We left the vast majority of our Nicaraguan possessions to other Peace Corps volunteers, to local schools, libraries and neighbors, including English/Spanish dictionaries, children’s books, clothes, shoes, the futon that we had built by hand, the eggplant and chile tire gardens, the bed and fridge, sheets and plates. All of it was left to someone to be put to good use. We packed a suitcase a piece, two guitars a dog and a cat. Our last two days in town, we had a number of despedidas or going away parties. The health center and health department where I worked gave us both certificates and appreciation and said heartfelt words. Tears were shed, hugs given and email addresses exchanged with promises of staying in touch forever. It was hard. But it made us realize that we had impacted people and we knew that they had impacted us.
Matt and Aknatito saying goodbye (in their own special way)
With things packed and ready to go we set off to bridge our two worlds, spending our last week in Nicaraguan showing it off to great friends from home.
Ringing the bell, a Peace Corps Nicaragua tradition for all volunteers who have officially finished their service
Tuesday, March 2, 2010
As our service continues to wind down, I imagine these last few posts will be mostly in list format with just a sprinkling of narrative. There is so much we are trying to mentally process on our own that it is difficult at times to think of material that all of you will find interesting and relevant to your own lives.
In order to remedy this I've decided to post a list of 15 common Nicaraguan beliefs along the vein of "everything I ever learned about life a kindergartner taught me." Some of these apply 100% to life in the US of A. Others might seem quirky, unreasonable, or down right wrong. You, the reader, also might find some totally irrelevant or not the least bit interesting due to lack of context. For that I apologize. For better or for worse, however, many Nicaraguans spend their entire lives in a world where these beliefs hold true.
- When meeting the girl of your dreams, it is always better to confess your love immediately and as wholeheartedly as possible. If you save it for later, you'll have to explain your previous lack of enthusiam.
- On a hot day it is more refreshing to drink a hot cup of coffee than a cold glass of water.
- Pregnant women and old people always go first. Always.
- You should always look your best, even when digging a latrine.
- All food, no matter the ingredients, should only be described as either "rich" (rico) or "ugly" (feo).
- There is always time for chatting on the porch.
- Going fast is very fun.
- CocaCola from a glass bottle tastes way better than CocaCola from a plastic bottle.
- When riding on a school bus, a seat over the wheel is better than no seat at all.
- Cell phones are overrated. So is electricity.
- Children need to be educated. They are the future of tomorrow. (note: this is written on a very large sign near our town. We're still trying to work it out. It's kind of like looking between two mirrors.)
- Horror movies are the highest form of art known to man. Horror movies and the accordian.
- When walking long distances it is better to get the whole thing over with before the sun comes up. Therefore, 4am is frequently "a late start."
- Toilet paper is a luxury, not a priviledge.
- Politics are for rich people.
Thursday, February 18, 2010
Yes, yes, we realize the apparent mistake in this blog’s title. However, when in Nicaragua it’s remarkable how some of the wildest situations imaginable make up a normal week of our lives.
Jess was in Managua these past Thursday and Friday nights, so that left me alone in the house with the animals. Ian, who you may remember from such exciting blog posts as “A trip to Los Limones” and “Making a Tire Garden,” came down from his mountain roost to keep me company Friday night. We went out for a hefty dinner of bistec con salsa jalapeña at a new spot on the highway. Afterwards, we headed to a local pool hall to shoot a few games. Pool halls are an interesting place in Nicaragua. It’s very taboo to see women at a pool hall, but most men are there at least one night a week. Nicaraguans normally bet 2 or 3 córdobas per game and come up with all sorts of crazy rules that I can’t even begin to explain. The most popular game is a form of 9-ball, but instead of racking the balls for an opening break, one of the players gathers up all the balls in his arms and pushes the whole lot across the table. The other player starts from wherever the cueball stops.
Ian and I just played good old stripes and solids, which confused the Nicaraguan spectators as much as their games confuse us. Overall, it was a good evening out. On Astro’s final walk of the evening Yoda decided to follow us out the door. While I was trying to herd Yoda back into the house (not a very simple task) Astro managed to live up to his name and step through some time portal into another universe. Or, at least, that’s the only explanation I can come up with. It was the middle of the night and nobody was out and he just up and disappeared. I jumped on my bike and started riding larger and larger circuits through the streets around our house, but to no avail. Sometime around 2:30 am I decided to call it quits. I slept on the floor right next to the open front door in case Astro came back. He didn´t, so I set an alarm for every 45 minutes and, each time it went off, got on my bike for a ride through Somoto. Finally, on my 6:15 bike ride, I found Astro in front of his dad’s house 6 blocks away and absolutely covered in mud. I was mad, but also very relieved and exhausted, so I went to sleep (in my bed this time) until Jess got home at noon. The rest of Saturday was spent housecleaning and such.
Sunday, we made our way to Ocotal for the annual Peace Corps Super Bowl Party at La Yunta, a fairly decent restaurant with satellite TV. As fun as it was to be with many of our fellow volunteers, the restaurant only got the game with Spanish speaking sportscasters and Mexican commercials. It was still a good time, though. There happened to be a bunch of American and Canadian doctors also at the restaurant. The group was in Nicaragua for about 2 weeks doing pro bono medical check-ups and basic surgery. We run into a lot of groups like that up here, and it’s always great to have the opportunity to fill them in on local customs and culture.
Now, on to the cow hide. As several of you know, Jess and I have been bringing some very nice leather products back to the States each time we make a trip. We met a great guy in Condega, a nearby town, who has 20 years of experience working with leather. He does baseball gloves, belts, wallets, bags, briefcases, and pretty much anything else you can think of that can be sewn from leather. Francisco, “the bag man,” as I call him; lives very simply and has never really had a chance to get wild with his trade. Jess and I are trying to promote his products amongst volunteers here and friends at home. Below you’ll find a few pictures of a big leather tote he does.
So, Tuesday morning I went with Francisco to Estelí to see how he gets his leather. We met at 7:30am to await a bus arriving from León. León is cattle country, so it makes sense that a lot of leather tanning is done around the city. Francisco always buys his leather straight off the bus from León because it’s cheaper and you get to pick the colors and qualities you want. So, there we were catching 50 pound rolls of leather as they were tossed off the top of a school bus. Things stayed pretty civil until the rolls were untied. Then it became a free-for-all between everyone looking for the best leather. Each piece is the size of half a cow, about 9 feet long and between 2 to 4 feet wide and varies in weight, depending on the thickness of the leather. The colors I saw ranged from really bright yellow, like a baseball glove, to shiny blacks and maroons, perfect for boots. Each cowhide is tanned one solid color, but it was still easy to see brands and other marks from the skin’s previous life.
Francisco and I bared our teeth and dove into the fray in search of 3 perfect pieces with which he makes his bags. We came out with 2 yellowish pieces and one matte black piece. The two yellows were 21 and 18 feet square. The black piece was 25 feet square. I had my eye on a lovely peanut butter brown hide, but some jerk with a bushy mustache snatched it from my grip.
So, how much is a leather hide of this size, you ask? Since Francisco bought the hides right off the bus, they were 15 córdobas, or about 75 cents per square foot. All of our hides came in at just under $50 dollars.
After paying the man in charge (I´m not sure of what he was in charge of, to be honest) we made our way to the buses heading back to Somoto. I was at work by 10:30, despite the morning’s adventure. As Francisco makes his next set of bags we’ll try and get some photos of him in his workshop.
Thanks for reading!
Wednesday, February 3, 2010
Today, we would like to announce the opening of a brand new restaurant in Somoto: Cafetín la Milpa. During our two years here we´ve seen several restaurants come and go, most of which only offer the classic Nica fare, but this little spot deserves special recognition.
The reason we´re so excited about Cafetín La Milpa is that they have somehow managed to create a diverse menu even though every single dish´s base is corn. A “milpa” in Spanish is field of corn ready to be harvested, so it makes sense. Not only does the cafetín have the old standbys like enchiladas and tacos. They´ve branched out into some foods that we´ve never even seen in a restaurant before.
That doesn´t mean we haven´t seen them, though. You see, there are several different categories of foods in Nicaragua. Food can be broken down into food cooked at home, food purchased at a restaurant, and food purchased on a bus or in the street. Home foods are simpler, one pot dishes usually based on veggies. Restaurant fare is a little more complicated and almost always includes meat. Bus and street food includes everything outside and in between those two categories and is usually fried. I suppose the same applies in the US of A: I wouldn´t buy meatloaf at a ball game and I wouldn´t normally cook shrimp scampi at home on a Tuesday.
So, back to Cafetín La Milpa. The food that they have introduced to Somoto that was previously only available on a bus is called Güirila. Phonetically it sounds something like this: Gwee-REE-la. If you want to get it absolutely right you need to roll the “r” a little bit. Now, I suppose you are asking, what is this lovely dish that has so captured the attention of Somoto´s resident gringos? The truth might surprise you.
Güirila has one ingredient and only one ingredient: sweet corn. It’s pretty much a big corn pancake, but when prepared right it is fantastic. Here´s the steps:
- Cut up a banana leaf and wet one side.
- Scoop about a ½ cup of puréed sweet corn kernels onto the wet banana leaf.
- Spread out the mush so that it´s between ½ and ¼ inch thick.
- Cover with another wet banana leaf.
- Place the whole banana leaf/corn mush sandwich on a hot griddle.
- After about 5 minutes, remove the top banana leaf, flip the Güirila, and remove the now crispy bottom banana leaf.
- Cook for another 3 or 4 minutes, or until the pancake is nicely browned.
You have to throw out the crispy banana leaf after each pancake, so you´ll need quite a few leaves to make güirila in quantity. Since the güirila is a pretty healthy snack, feel free to eat with salty, fatty stuff to make sure you get the full experience. We recommend eating it with avocado, sour cream, or a crumbly cheese like Feta.
Here in Nicaragua we eat our Güirila with cuajada, which is a soft homemade cheese. We also use cuajada cheese for stuffed shells and lasagna. Jess and I actually saw it for sale at a latino supermarket when we were home over Christmas. If you are looking for a truly authentic Güirila con cuajada you can find the cheese at Twin City Supermarket in Finderne, NJ.
We'd love to get some feedback from all of you out there. Is anyone brave enough to give this recipe a shot? If so, how'd it go? Also, if you like hearing about the food, we can try and put up some similar posts in the coming weeks...
Looking forward to hearing from you!
Wednesday, January 27, 2010
One of our New Year´s resolutions is to be sure that this blog is updated fairly regularly over the next 3 months, so here it goes!
It´s been a fairly busy week for both Jess and I. She´s working on her partnership project, which we´ve written about a few times on this blog. Things are really coming together and I think she´s going to have a very functional, professional-looking final product. I finally put my calculus class from last semester to bed. I needed to college credit as a prerequisite for the graduate program I am starting in the fall, so I tried online classes from RVCC (New Jersey) in the Fall. For the most part the coursework was very straightforward and easy to follow online. I did run into some problems at testing time, because both professors wanted the exams to be monitored by a university. That took a bit of coordination, but, as of yesterday, it went off without a hitch.
We´ve also been spending a lot of time looking for jobs we´d be interested in and we´ve even started sending in applications as of a couple of weeks ago. I actually got a bite, believe it or not. I had a phone interview and everything, but in the end they decided to go with someone else. It was good to find some interest, though.
I think over the rest of our posts you´ll find that we´re focusing more on getting home and starting back up in the US of A. It´s interesting, because we still have more than two months in Nicaragua, but it seems like all conversations, not only with Americans but also with Nicaraguan friends, always focus on our trip home. Clearly, there´s planning that needs to be done and all that, but I for one feel a little guilty about it. It´s pretty much 100% certain we´ll never find ourselves living in a Spanish speaking country again, let alone a third world country, but it´s tough to keep focused on the day to day.
I think one of the reasons why is because Nicaragua feels so normal to us. Standing on a bus for 2 hours pressed between 30 other people is easy. Cold showers are a daily occurrence. Even speaking Spanish 8 – 12 hours a day is second nature. When we got back to Nicaragua from our vacation over Christmas we fell right back into our routines without any of the grumbles or gripes we had upon returning from our trip in June.
The interesting part is that our time home over Christmas also felt everyday and regular as well. To drive your own car, to eat out, to wear winter clothes was a part of our entire lives before Nicaragua, so it wasn´t too surprising to fall right back into it. I have to admit, I was still completely blown away by Wegman´s Marketplace and I hope I will be every time I go for the rest of my life. All those cheeses!
I think that when we get back we´ll be able to find a happy medium between the comforts of life pre/post Nicaragua and the simplicity of Peace Corps life. Hopefully that means a better appreciation of things that are in short supply in Nicaragua. Just to name a few: family, stable government, seasons, safe food, general prosperity. I think we´ll also work to maintain the discipline we´ve developed here around household chores, exercise, sleep, and inexpensive healthy cooking.
I, for one, am looking forward to the next step. Wherever and whatever is will be the closest Jess and I have come to permanency since college. After HWS we felt like we were always skipping between internships, schools, jobs, and answers to that all important question, “So what do you do?”
So, without getting too philosophical, we hope that this blog will allow all the readers left to see into our lives and thoughts as we transition out of Nicaragua and into the wilderness of the US…
Here are a few pictures to be sure this blog stays interesting:
Here´s the cat reading E.O. Wilson´s Consilience. Go figure.
The latest puppies from Astro´s old family. They are 50 days old. This one is Benji.
This is Astrito, or Little Astro.
Astro meeting the mini Astros.
Astro practicing for his trip home.
Yoda bothering Astro while he´s locked up.
Thursday, January 14, 2010
As Matt mentioned in the previous post, we had a huge event in Somoto for World AIDS Day (December 1st). Working together with my sitemate, we applied for money from a program known as VAST. VAST funds are funds made available to Peace Corps volunteers through the United States PEPFAR program, or the President’s Emergency Fund for AIDS Relief. The “largest commitment by any country to combat a single disease in history,” PEPFAR was enacted in 2003 during the Bush Administration and provides funding internationally to HIV/AIDS prevention programs worldwide.
Me, working on the banner.
Using funding from VAST and local organizations, we helped to organize a World AIDS Day Concert in Somoto with a well-known Nicaraguan artist, Perrozompopo. The band agreed to donate their time for the event and we set to work organizing a health fair the likes of which had never been seen in Somoto, including games like dart and ring tosses, informational health booths, cultural acts and our own, home-made condom mascot suit. We had roughly 300 adolescents attend the concert and health fair, and were able to measure before and after results, finding that they actually did learn from the event. It was the first time that local organizations had seen an event like this, the first time they had ever thought to evaluate to see if it actually work, and most importantly the first time that they realized the benefits of multiple organizations working together. All in all, a great success.
The start of a long weekend....it eventually becomes a large, man-sized condom suit.
And here it, looking more like a crayon than anything else...
But in the end, he turned out pretty well!
The health fair was a success.
And the concert also went over well (with our banner in the background!)
Just after that, Matt and I headed down to the beach for our Close of Service Conference. It was three days chock full of information about the logistics of leaving Peace Corps and how to deal with the inevitable of returning to the States and finding jobs. While the conference was very useful and the setting beautiful, I unfortunately spent most of it in bed with the worst chest cold of my life. I managed to lose my voice completely for the first time in my life the day before our final language interviews (where they evaluate our progress over two years). Needless to say, I had to postpone mine. We did however get to see some adorable baby sea turtles hatch at a hatchery right in front of our room and head out to sea! And in the end, Matt and I both ended up with a Spanish level of “Advanced-Mid”. Two levels down from native speaker, so not too shabby.
Look at how tiny the turtle is!
Another guy just trying to make his way to the sea.
Finally, at the end of December we headed home for the holidays to spend some much needed time away with family and friend in the states. It was a whirlwind trip, chock-full of movies, bowling, chatting and lots of food. (Matt managed to gain 10 pounds over the course of 10 days. Still not in the positive though – he lost 25 when he first got to Nicaragua!). Thanks to our families for a wonderful trip home (and to Mrs. Lyttle’s class for letting us come and share our experiences with them for a morning).
But we know who the real professional is....
Some New Year's Eve fun.
So, December was a good month. We’ve now settled back in to things in Somoto and are frantically trying to finish up projects and begin to make plans for the readjustment back home. It will be harder than it sounds. Two years is a long time to spend in one place and I think that we are both starting to realize how much it feels like home. We’ll see what the next three months bring us. Probably a lot of hard work and a lot of mixed emotions.
Sunday, December 6, 2009
- Health (us)
- Small Business
- Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL)
Jess and I were able to walk around and see the kind of work these sectors are doing and imagine how their projects could be incorporated into the work of the health volunteers. For us, some of the most exciting projects are being done by the Agriculture sector, where improved stoves and ovens, biodigesters, and drip irrigation are all the rage. If anyone is interested in those ideas, let us know and we´ll put up a separate post.
The theme of AVC was “Food Security in
Another big piece of AVC was professional development. We had visitors from all walks of life who talked about their careers and the possibilities that lie ahead for returned Peace Corps volunteers. As you can imagine, that was particularly interesting for our group, as we´re all starting to polish up our resumes for March.
After AVC all volunteers had the option to spend Thanksgiving with an American family that works at the US Embassy. Jess and I, and about 15 other volunteers, ended up at the house of Richard Sanders, the Deputy Chief of the US Embassy in
- Mashed Potatoes
- REAL cranberry sauce
- Eggplant Parmesan
- Pumpkin Pie
- Lemon Meringue
- Ice Cream
- And more that I can´t remember but can still taste…
Friday morning Jess and I got up super early (4am) to get back to Somoto in time for work. We also had a lot of house cleaning to do. Saturday was Somoto´s famous Carnaval and we wanted to make the most of it. We invited a bunch of volunteers to our house for the weekend. Saturday morning we all went to the Canyon, and for the first time ever Jess and I made it through all 7km of hiking and swimming. It took about 7.5 hours in total. After the Canyon we all took a rest and got ready for Carnaval, which is a very famous Somoto tradition. Every November Somoto invites some of Nicaragua´s most famous bands to an all night music fest. 6 city blocks are fenced off and 8 separate stages are set up for the bands. The music started at 8 and didn’t end until somewhere near 6am. Jess and I only made it to
These are the signs that were recently put up at the different canyon entrances. Hopefully they are the start of better protection of the area.
This is our Gringo Train just starting to enter the canyon. We walk for about 2.5 hours before finally cooling off in the river.
Here's Jess and our sitemate, Katie. Looking good, ladies!
This is fellow Nica 46er and married man, Kory, contemplating the route ahead.
You have to scurry your way back and forth across the river. A lot of fun, but it gets tiring!
This is our Peace Corps group, Nica 46, minus 3 people. We came into the country with 19 and now we're 14. With four months left, it's safe to say we'll all make it!
Here's a video from inside the canyon. This is the last part of the hike and the first part of the swim. You can see we had the option of lifevests or innertubes. The little boats were just for bags. Pretty exciting!
After a long day in the canyon, here's the group getting ready for carnaval. You can see the white blur of Astro, who was upset he didn't get to do the canyon. No doggie lifevests here...
Good friends were made at Carnaval, here's Kory and I with a couple of Nicaraguan friends.
So, as you can see, we´ve been very busy. Tuesday was a huge day for Jess. It was World AIDS Day (all over the world, surprisingly) so she organized a concert here in town. Jess was able to get a fairly famous Nicaraguan group to agree to come to Somoto and give a concert for free. We had an informational fair focused on HIV and then a concert from 5 to 7. Overall, we had an attendance of about 400 people. Look for more on this event and pictures later in the week!
Here´s some more photos for the Astro and Yoda book: