Monday, January 23, 2006

¡Feliz Cumpleaños!

WHO: Essa (aka Vanessa)
WHAT: Peace Corps, Environmental Education
WHERE: Nicaragua
WHEN: Sept '05 - Nov '07
WHY: La vida es un carnaval

This past week was a busy one - Gregg from MTU came to visit and to make sure I'm actually working. I guess he thought I wasn't working hard enough because he made me sit down and do volcanic cloud emissions stuff with him. On my birthday, at that!

We did go to Managua to meet with the Peace Corps office about the future Michigan Tech students and Peace Corps Nicaragua. And we also visited INETER, what would be the equivalent of the US Geologic Survey, to get maps and discuss potential collaborations. We also got sushi (that was my idea).

I had a few more meetings last week with the environmental commission and the watershed subcommittee...but no one showed up in the latter. It was better for me though, because I had the oportunity to talk one on one with the committee-head about what projects they are doing, what they want to do, and ways I might be able to help. There is lots of talk about protecting the Rio Mayales watershed, in which the city is located, and which feeds Lake Nicaragua. And it seems that the efforts are concentrated in rural areas, where agricultural activity, erosion, and deforestation have impacted the river.

This week was also my 30th birthday - (January 19th, so you can put it on your calendar for 2007). Unlike many 30 year olds, I'm pretty happy about it - I hear it should be a good 10 years... Patricia planned a party for me, which consisted of her family, Gregg, and Celine. My day started off with a bouquet of flowers the family gave me as I was leaving for my 8 o'clock meeting - the rest of the day the boys came by giving me flowers...

A troop of kids came up to my house to sweep, wash windows, and decorate with palm fronds and balloons. All the while Gregg forced me to look at graphs and satellite images...

Around nightfall, they brought up a grill to my patio and Patricia cooked up some tasty carne asada that we ate with corn tortillas and cabbage salad.

The boys avoided a candle crisis by performing a search of my house that would make any DEA agent proud. A reminder to me that nothing's sacred, nor private.

Gigglia and Willie, whose house I used to live in, came to the fiesta too - the next day they moved to Managua, though. Looking for work...

Celine and yet another Michigander trying to learn the latin dance moves...

They did like my music, salsa, merengue, bachata - the fact that I only had 2 Nicaraguan songs didn't bother them...we just played both of them every 10 minutes.

On Friday, Gregg and I walked about an hour and a half to some local hot springs. Do I live in paradise or what!? Our first exposure was scalding, so we had to go down stream. Which was good because we found some nice mud pits. Tell me I'm not glowing after the mud mask...

Thanks to everyone for the birthday greetings - Lacey, I got your package!

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Marathon meetings and arachnids

WHO: Essa (aka Vanessa)
WHAT: Peace Corps, Environmental Education
WHERE: Nicaragua
WHEN: Sept '05 - Nov '07
WHY: I like spiders

Things are picking up workwise, as I attended the first environmental commission meeting of the year (which lasted 7 hours!) on Tuesday. There were representatives from the mayor's office, ministries of health, agriculture, natural resource management, various local NGOs, the army, different neighborhods, and your friendly Peace Corps volunteer.

At times the frustration was palpable - at one point one of the engineers launched into a 20 minute diatribe against the community and their lack of participation in the government-led environmental awareness campaigns. The most evident, and one that gets on everyone's nerves is TRASH. No one seems to be aware of what trash is and why it should be placed in a trash can. Everywhere people throw their plastic bags, broken bottles, candy wrappers, and whatever else that can't possibly be re-used in the street. Certain parts of the city are worse than others - still struggling a bit on my approach to the subject with my friends - I guess example is the best.

The longest presentation was given by a lawer drawing up new legislation for the local sanitary landfill (which was constructed a few years ago, but needs to be re-hauled). In it, there are provisions for separation of trash, organics, and recyclable materials. It was exciting to see that being considered here in Nicaragua...but I can't help wondering if people still don't seem to recognize trash long enough to put it into ONE receptacle, are they ready to discern different types of refuse to be thrown into one of four receptacles? For now, the plan is to have a pilot project in the city center - with the young environmentalists club leading the education campaign, and then going out from there. They are still considering the idea of separation at the landfill as well... (Thanks to Alex and Jim at MTU for assigning theTesopaco landfill design project last spring so I could participate in the conversation.)

In the law discussed, we also talked at length about fines for dumping trash illegally. Some thought the lowest fine of100 Córdobas (or about $6) was way too steep. (To put it into perspective, one of my friends worked for a while at a local bakery - he worked a 12-hour shift for just over $2 a day.) So that was lowered to 50 Córdobas (almost two days labor with the example given). The real question is, does the city have the personnel to enforce these laws and ensure the fines are actually paid? It seems to me that the government is progressive, but enforcement and manpower are severely lacking.

There was also a presentation on the no-burn campaign led by the ministry of natural resources. It's common here for farmers to burn their fields in the summertime to prep them for planting (I still haven't really figured out why - to rid them of weeds and pests, I guess - and doesn't ash add potassium or something to the soil??). The burning leads to quicker soil erosion rates, and puts forested land in danger if the fires get out of control. Not to mention it's bad for air quality.

These were the two topics covered in depth, besides that there was an evaluation of the commission's activities for 2005, as well as the call for new ideas for the coming year. That meeting seemed to be the jumping off point for me, as now I am signed up on the watershed and environmental education subcommittes, and I am now a member of the young environmentalists group, (though now that I'm pushing 30, do I still qualify?).

I also attended a meeting with the Mediateca - the natural science library. We are coordinating environmental educational activities with a rural school about 8 km away. I hope to be involved with them in planning activities for earth day, arbor day, and other tree-hugging related holidays.

That was a lot of talk and no photos - sorry, but I'm happy to finally being doing something work related besides just introducing myself. My participation is minimal at this point - have lots to learn about how things work...

I moved into my house - Julito, 11 years old and son of Patricia, is my right-hand man. He is still helping me organize stuff and do minor repairs. He is also teaching me to play cards and helping me learn to make Nicaraguan food- in this photo he's preparing tostones, a type of fried starchy banana.

Julito, Jeffery, Keren, Juliver - all Patricia's kids, on my front porch cracking open almonds (that the bats drop - they only eat the fruit on the outside), and coconuts. They are all lamenting the fact that summer vacation is over and school starts in 17 days...

I also have finally located a drum teacher! I met Mario (far left) when I came for my site visit (his family and I went to the hot springs). He is in an Evangelical contemporary band that includes a conga drum. So Gamaliel has agreed to help me. I had two lessons this past week and have been playing an hour at least every day (no doubt much to my neighbors' chagrin).

This is my most recent houst guest...I hesitated in posting this photo in case it dissuades any potential visitors...but it's pretty spectaular.

TP for scale -

Muchas gracias everyone for the Christmas packages - they finally arrived! A note...thanks to Grandpa Crill, I have enough chocolate to last me until next Christmas ... so if you're going to send me something, better send books instead.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

It's a very Reggaetón Christmas

WHO: Essa (aka Vanessa)

WHAT: Peace Corps, Environmental Education

WHERE: Nicaragua

WHEN: Sept '05 - Nov '07

WHY: La vida es un carnaval

Almost the entire Nica-39 group met in Granada to celebrate Christmas together. We had about 3 days for vacationing and found that Christmas is not the big deal it is in the States. So, it was a relaxing break in a hostal where the only unexpected visitor we got on Christmas morning was a roach. Noemi is good at taking care of them, though...lucky for me.

The owner of the hostal we stayed at hosts a free Christmas dinner for all the guests - meat, rice, bread, salad and a typical Christmas dessert called "sopa borracha" or "drunken soup". It's cake swimming in rum. The food was great, but I can't say I was a fan of the dessert - I would've rather had pumpkin pie.

One of John's parting gifts from Boaco was a bottle of Nicraguan hooch (rum based, of course) called "morir soñando" which means "to die dreaming". He generously gave me half the bottle, so I spread the Christmas cheer with the other volunteers. In true Nica style, the dinner party soundtrack included lots of Reggaetón - a mix of rap-hip-hop-reggae with an unmistakable rhythm and whose videos always feature scantily-clad-gyrating women.

Seeing this flooded me with nostagia for the original Granada - in Spain, and where I lived for two years and learned Spanish. It is located in the Alhambra - originally a mosque and where the Muslim's ruled Spain, and converted into a Christian summer home when Isabel and Ferdinand took over. Fortunatley, much of the original architecture has been preserved. The plaque says, "Give him a dime, lady, for there's nothing sadder in the world than being blind and living in Granda."

The contemporary art scene is alive in Granada - these pictures were taken at the Casa de Cultura. Besides these studios, there are also photography exhibits and a small concert hall.They host summer art programs for children, as well.

A couple of artists - the top one is also in a heavy metal band. Most of his art materials are sent to him by his mom who lives in the States.

On Christmas morning, a group of us got up early and hiked around Volcan Mombacho. There's no record of eruption in the history of man, but there are small fumaroles where steam is constantly emitted. It's pretty close to the Volcano Zapatero on the island of Omotepe (located in Lake Nicaragua), which did erupt a few months ago. Here's Volcan Mombacho from Granada:

We were lucky to find a family living at the bottom of the volcano that didn't mind feeding us Christmas breakfast - bread and butter, rice, a chicken salad of sorts, and coffee. Their house is actually an old bus that they built around. They also offered us the leftover pork from Christmas dinner for lunch.

The visitors center near the rim. It's also a hostal and restaurant. It was obligatory to have a park guide to take us on a 4-hour tour of the rim and cloud forest. He was really good and even located one of the smallest species of orchids in the world - it was maybe a half centimeter tall and has a bigger leaf growing behind it to protect it from strong winds. I tried to get a photo, but I lack the photo equipment. Mombacho is home to howler monkeys, tree frogs, rare birds and sloths. Unfortunately for us, none of them like to be seen.

Noemi and our guide - much of the hike was like this - walking through a verdant tunnel. It was cool, damp, and mossy.

Here's a view from the top - these are the isletas (little islands) of Lake Nicaragua - just outside of Granada. There's supposed to be a great boat tour of the isletas - saving that for my next trip...

A view of volcan Zapatera, on the island of Omotepe. This is the one that erupted not too long ago.

Though the fauna was scarce, the flowers were abundant...

Didn't get to see any sloths, but there we lots of spiders and insects.

I thought this ant's girlfriend would be happy to see him..

Back home - I think I've found a place to live - just down the street where I'm currently renting a room, and part of the same family. Patricia (there's a picture of her with John and I on a previous post) and her family live in a house close to the street, and the house I hope to live in is located on the same property, but set back aways. Its been abandondend for a few years and needed lots of cleaning up. I was astounded by how much Patricia's kids wanted to help out. They must have spent about 25 hours in all helping me sweep, scrub, shovel, haul, and cement in holes. Still have to get the ok from the Peace Corps security officer, but I can't see how he'll shoot this one down. It even comes with a guard dog, that evidently they won't let me refuse. Pictures of Ursalito next time.

Julito playing with the family deer... besides this pet, there are a number of doves, parrots (but they're not too noisy), dogs and puppies, 2 geese, and 2 huge pigs. Seems like it would be noisy, but I think the key is that there are no roosters.

On the 30th, I went to visit Celine in her town - about an hour or so away. It was her birthday so I thought I'd take her some cookies - there's one one public phone in her town so I couldn't let her know I was coming (besides, I wanted it to be a surprise). Turns out she woke up not wanting to spend her birthday alone and got on a bus for my town. So we missed eachother...when she got to my familie's house Patricia told her I had gone to see her - so she jumped on a bus for home, just as I had the end we met up en-route as our buses skidded to a halt to let me change buses and join her.

Here's Celine on the overlook of her town - it's got about 1400 people, and I would guess 5 times that number of poultry. Can't believe the din all those birds make - we could hear them from here!

Some random pics...

So, you all will have to stay tuned til next year for pictures of New Year's festivities - I was too tired from hiking all over Celine's town to stay awake until midnight. Sorry.