Flaccita, Maktoub, and Bad Decisions

Flaccita. This is a term I’ve gotten used to hearing when I’m being described by my host family, coworkers, and even strangers on the street. Flaccita literally translates to “little skinny”. This afternoon we went to a medical supply store to buy supplies for the clinic, and after a 20-minute walk, one of the nurses turned to me and asked if I was tired from the walk. I said no, why? And she said because of the fact that she was gorda (fat) she can walk a lot, but because I was a flaccita (little skinny), she wanted to know if I found physical movement tiring. I laughed and said no. Just one more thing I’m going to miss about Nicaragua: constantly being called out on my physical appearance.

Friday was a big day for our project. At this point, we had all the materials we needed: bricks, the metal pieces, and finally—the cement! Except we had one problem: no one knew how to mix cement. We had researched several methods online on how to mix cement…and it seemed really easy—except at this point in the trip, we’ve faced so many roadblocks and challenges, that I was really nervous about there being some trick to this and our whole project would just crumble to pieces. Literally. We arrived at the Bombanaci community at around 8 AM ready to get our hands dirty (and also ready to finally finish what we had started nearly 5 weeks ago!) Today was the day we’d put our theories to the test. The leaders of the community were quick to rally neighbors in their efforts to learn and understand how to mix cement. Well, turns out, our calculations and observations via YouTube were correct! Mixing cement was quite easy; and a task that didn’t end up taking as long as I anticipated. For the remainder of the afternoon, the families mixed, evenly distributed, and cemented all of their respective stoves, together! It was really interesting to see where and how each family decided where they wanted to build their new stoves. Some wanted it to replace their old stoves, while other wanted them in obscure nooks or crannies within their houses. A fellow intern from FSD once described the goal of sustainable development as “doing as little as possible”. This philosophy proved true on Friday. The project was completely in the hands of the community members and families—making our project 100% sustainable. As frustrating and tough as this entire process has been…Friday (aka cement day) made it all worth it seeing how incredibly supportive and inspiring the collaboration between the community leaders, community members, and the 5 families played out in making strides towards developing a healthier cooking methods and a cleaner environment through our air quality stove project. I left work on Friday with an odd mixture of emotions: excited about our progress, nervous about if it would all work as planned, and sad about only having 1 week left. I was concerned that something would go wrong, and that all of our hard work leading up to the final stages of this project would go to waste…. which takes me back to how I felt at the very beginning of this journey: uncertainty about just about everything. Its during moments like this when I begin to remind myself of a concept I introduced in my first blog post—maktoub. What’s meant to happen, will happen. If these stoves were meant to work and function, it would happen. And if not, we would pick up where we failed, and simply try again.

This weekend I went to León with Laurel, her little brother, and his friend Hannah. We decided to give volcano boarding another shot since the last time I was in León I got deathly sick after not having pooped for 6 days. Such a great memory. After experiencing a dead car battery, and many random and uncalled for run-ins with the cops, we finally got a working car and made our way to León! While everybody took naps, I decided to explore León a bit. I made a really bad decision of withdrawing over $200 USD while in León, and then proceeding to explore the shops and markets with over $200 USD and my debit card (which I normally never carry) in my wallet. I was sure nothing would happen….until I noticed a man following me after I left the ATM and as I perused through the market. I then became incredibly paranoid. I got really nervous and starting to make strides towards returning to my hostel until he saw me trying to leave and ran after me yelling “De donde eres tu?!” (where are you from?). I decided that he was simply trying to spark conversation and was totally aloof to the fact as to how much money I had. I responded with where my family was from…and as luck would have it, he noticed my hijab and explained he was Muslim and had just moved from Palestine to Nicaragua and had a wife and 4 children. I was shocked. He asked which hostel I was staying at, and then insisted that I should come meet his wife, have dinner with the family, and stay the night with the family—for free. SubhanAllah, its crazy how you can literally go anywhere in the world and the concept of the Muslim Ummah still remains true. Perhaps the best part of this entire conversation (aside from the offer of a free dinner and bed) was the fact that he spoke both Arabic and Spanish…but no English. Therefore, when I didn’t know a word in Spanish, I switched to Arabic…and when I didn’t know a word in Arabic, I reverted to Spanish. Linguistically, one of the most confusing, yet intriguing conversations I’ve had in a long time. I politely denied the invite (as tough as it was to refuse a free meal, and a place to stay!), and asserted then that I should probably head back to my friends at the hostel, until he mentioned that there was another Muslim lady who worked at a hostel just down the road. I eventually found the hostel he mentioned, and spent the rest of the afternoon chatting with a 67-year old Palestinian woman about the controversy over the masjid in Managua (apparently the government was really upset about it because it was built by Iran). I still don’t quite understand the controversy, but I think she was just so happy to have met an American Muslim that she didn’t care to discuss Nicaragua and wanted to hear about my family roots and what in the world I was doing in Nicaragua.

The next morning we were going volcano boarding with a company called QuetzalTrekkers. I had felt a sore throat and stuffy nose coming along….no surprise. I am always sick.  We barely woke up in time to eat breakfast and make it to the QuetzalTrekkers office before 8 AM, so we decided to buy cookies off a vendor from the street and call it a day. After we got our volcano boarding gear, piled on the back of a truck, and rode for 50 minutes, we made it to the base of the volcano. From there, it was an hour hike up to the top of the volcano. The higher we climbed, the more force and power the wind had to push me over…after all, I was carrying a wooden plank the size of my body. On our way up, we checked out the air vents where sulfur dioxide gets released into the air. I made a really good (but really, horrible) decision to put my face smack dab in front of where the sulfur dioxide was spewing out (thinking it would clear my congestion in my nose)…Nope, not the case. The sulfur dioxide was so potent…yet so cool. One of my favorite things about Nicaragua has been the incredible landscape and great variety of different landforms to explore: lagoons, islands, volcanoes, mountains, beaches, etc…For some reason, I thought it would be a really good idea to spend my time playing with our QuetzalTrekkers jumpsuits and frolicking around the sulfur dioxide air vents that I completely missed the entire spiel about what to do when boarding down the volcano. I’m talking everything. The first few people in our group went, and by the time it was my turn to go, I didn’t even know how to maneuver the board. I flipped over the board the correct way, planted my butt on the top, gripped the cord, and used my feet to help get some momentum rolling so I’d start sliding down the volcano. I scooted my board using my feet for the first 3 minutes. I still hadn’t made much ground. Frustrated and ready for an adrenaline rush, I dug my right foot into the ash and threw my entire body to the front of the board as hard as I could. Yet again, another bad decision. And also the completely wrong way to start your trek down the volcano. My board gained so much velocity this way, and I had no idea how to control my speed, direction, or board. If only I had listened earlier on. The rest of the group looked like ants from the top of volcano. After 5 minutes of rocketing down the volcano uncontrollably, I figured out that you control the balance of the board with one foot, and steer with the cord (duh). Once I thought I knew what I was doing, I ended up veering too far to left, and flew off my board followed by taking many hits to my unprotected arms and also swallowing a mouth full of volcanic ash. Be careful what you wish for: I wanted an adrenaline rush…and well, I got one. I eventually got back on my board and continued to follow the same maneuverings that I discovered earlier on….The company we went with provided us with gloves, goggles, and a jumpsuit. The goggles would’ve helped, if only I had thought to tie my scarf inside my jumpsuit to keep it from blocking my goggles. In reality, my scarf was flying wildly in front of my face, ultimately obstructing any and all vision. At this point, it didn’t really matter, considering I already had no idea what I was doing….a common themed I’ve found during my time in Nicaragua.

After the last person in our group successfully made it down the volcano, we ate lunch at the ranger station, and headed back to the QuetzalTrekkers office to pay and clean off all of the collected volcanic ash. I needed to head back to Masaya alone because Laurel was staying in León for another night. After packing all of my belongings and saying goodbye, I was midway to the bus station until I got a panic attack, feeling like I forgot my glasses and contacts back at the hostel. I do this ridiculous, yet uncontrollable thing when traveling, (and sometimes even at UNC during the school year), where halfway while I’m en route somewhere, I start to think that I forgot something important (homework, wallet, phone, etc…) and have to stop where I am and search through my belongings just to triple check that I do, indeed, have whatever I thought I forgot. This panic attack couldn’t have happened at a worst time: I was in the middle of an obscure, deserted road in the middle of León. I knew that I had packed my glasses….but if I didn’t stop and triple check, I would have spent the rest of my walk itching to search for them. So I dumped my bag open on a street corner and hastily tore through the pile of clothes and toiletries only to realize that yes, I did have my glasses and contacts packed into the deep pits of my backpack. False alarm. I repacked my bag on the side of the street, made it to the bus stop, and after a series of bus and taxi rides… I finally made it back home to Masaya.

PS: I keep having really awkward encounters with my host family lately. For example: the other night I was making Wudu (for my nonmuslim followers, this is the Islamic washing of the body done before praying) outside of the bathroom using a bucket of water. The last step of Wudu is rinsing each foot 3 times…so as I was finishing up wudu, washing my feet, my host grandpa sees me washing my feet, grabs a seat next to me, and begins to wash my left foot. I didn’t know what to do….so I just let him finish washing my foot, went to my room and waited until he went away, went back to the bathroom, and made Wudu all over again.

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NicAire

This has been an eerie week for us all. Garrison and Onyema were both sick on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday; I also received shocking news on Monday night that a best friend of mine from high school died in a rock climbing accident. Monday night I wanted nothing more than to simply come home and be done with my work here. I was already beginning to get a little homesick and frustrated with the cultural clashes and language barriers…that the news of Eric’s death just reaffirmed my longing to be back in Cary. Unfortunately that’s not the way life works. I couldn’t just get up and leave from the progress we’ve made here…. I’ve never been one to give up when things get rough. It’s been really hard to deal with being alone, and so far from home, but I know that with great difficulty comes great ease. If you didn’t know Eric, he was a wonderful human being who made such an immense impact on those close to him. Here are a few articles on just how special he was, and you can also find a tribute I wrote and published online as well. For now, there’s not much I can do but pray for him and his family and for the rest of my loved ones at home.

http://obits.dignitymemorial.com/dignity-memorial/obituary.aspx?n=Eric-Metcalf&lc=4234&pid=158482446&mid=5166419

 

On Tuesday when both Onyema and Garrison were sick, I spent the afternoon working in a quaint little café near my house called Café du Parc where I ran into some 33 year old Nicaraguan man who also had Palestinian ancestors. When I initially asked if he was Muslim, he said no; and then returned 5 minutes later saying that he was in fact, Muslim. He was awfully sketchy considering he then sat outside of the café and continued to stare at me through the window. Before I left he asked me if I had Facebook or a Yahoo Chat (can you say FOB???). I laughed and sad no, but that my dad did. I’ve never seen somebody look so scared so quickly. He hasn’t bothered me since. During this same day, while I was on my way home from the café, somebody on a motorcycle stopped me in the middle of a busy, 7-way intersection asking me where he could Garrison Gordon. Most of the streets in Masaya are parallel and straightforward…except for the infamous 7-way intersection. Never before in my life have I had to look 7 different directions before crossing a street. Ever. To give you a precursor, a few weeks ago some man stopped us on the street and said that he wanted us to befriend his kids because he wanted them to have American friends. The man asked for our phone numbers and where we lived. I told him I didn’t have a phone and that I also didn’t know where I lived….Garrison, on the other hand thought it would be a good idea to give his number. Later that week, the man called Garrison’s house looking for him….which is typically what happens when you give strangers your number. To give Garrison some credit….he was just being really polite (and also pretty naïve). Anyways, so we haven’t heard from the man since….until I was stopped in the 7-way intersection by the man’s son…who yet again wanted to befriend us and also wanted to know where I lived. Once again, I lied saying I still didn’t have a phone and still didn’t know where I lived (even though I was on my way home). He then said his name was Cedar and that his dad had told him to be on the lookout for the “Arab girl with the scarf on her head”…and as luck would have it, he found me. It was scary knowing that I was so easy to find…Even though I will admit it is a little hard for me to blend in here. Cedar asked me to give Garrison his phone number and to please call him so that we could all be friends. I said sure and walked around the block 4 times to make sure he wouldn’t follow me home and finally know where I lived.

On a less creepy note: as we close in on our 7th week here in Masaya, we have made considerable progress with our air quality stove project…so much progress that we actually decided to coin our product: NicAire.

Our metal surrounding pieces were finally finished (Alhamdullilah!) on Thursday afternoon, so we picked them up and transported them to the Bombanaci community that afternoon. The pieces were a little larger than we expected, and it took us a while to decide how exactly we would transport them across town. We eventually hailed down a taxi who was Nicaraguan, but his grandparents were Palestinian and Muslim, so he was interested in hearing where I was from. After dropping off the pieces to the community, we returned to Masaya to work more on the NicAire manuals and also the pamphlets we are making for the health clinic.

Today we finally got to cementing the stoves together, and I will post how that went later on, but for now I have to hurry and pack for the weekend to ensure that I catch the last bus to Managua! Nicaragua only has one masjid and it’s in the center of Managua. I’m hoping to catch the bus in time to make for Maghrib, but if not, I’ll definitely make it for Ishaa! I’m so excited considering I haven’t been to a masjid for the past 8 weeks.

A Moroccan, A Shoulder, & A Cop

It all started when we had to chase and jump onto the back of the last bus leaving for Las Rivas, only to sucked into a lagoon of bodies on the back of an already overcrowded bus. The bus was so packed that at one point my feet were no longer touching the ground; I was being held up by the body mass of all of the Nicas surrounding me. After about an hour, the bus unloaded—slowly but surely and some kind man eventually offered me his seat. 2 more hours into the ride a creepy guy sat next to me who then proceeded to ask for my number, and when I asked why he wanted it, he responded with: “so we can spend time together.” At this point I immediately pretended like I didn’t understand anything he was saying and that I no longer understood Spanish even though we had had a conversation earlier on in the bus ride. Needless to say, he got off the bus on the next stop.

Later on in the bus ride, we met a Moroccan guy named Mohammad who had just about the wildest story. For one thing, he told me he lived in China, where he met his newly-wed Costa Rican wife (apparently named Maria) whom he couldn’t marry in either Costa Rica or Morocco, so the two of them came to Nicaragua to get married and that he was on his way to the Costa Rican border to pick up his wife so that she could translate for him in a meeting he had in Managua the following day. He also tried to vouch for how great of a country China was and how incredibly safe it was to live there. Oh, and did I mention he didn’t speak a lick of Spanish? I’m talking not even the basics…and he had been living in Nicaragua for the past 6 weeks and was married to a Costa Rican woman? It just didn’t sound right. I got off the bus convinced this man was a pathological liar because his story was so extremely bizarre. Anyways, we ate dinner at some overly priced restaurant and then convinced a taxi driver to take us to San Juan del Sur where we would stay for the night and then catch the ferry to the Island of Ometepe the following morning. Around midnight, we went on a stroll on the beach and ran into 2 people we never thought we would ever see again. First was a little black boy who lives in Masaya and is friends with Onyema because he shared a smoothie with him once. Mind you, that San Juan del Sur is a good 3.5 hours away from Masaya, and for us to run into this little boy at the same beach so late at night was so incredibly uncanny. Within 20 seconds of running into our little friend, Mohammad (the Moroccan from the bus ride) came out of the shadows. My jaw just about hit the ground at this point. I could’ve sworn this guy was the biggest fake until he led us to his table at the restaurant and introduced us to Maria….his Costa Rican wife…whom he had just married in Nicaragua…and had met in China the previous year…..and who was going with him to his meeting in Managua in the morning to translate for him…because he didn’t know any Spanish. Mohammad had been telling the truth all along. We left the restaurant laughing in hysterics at the series of events that had taken place that night and decided to return to the hostel to sleep.

Well…the hostel we stayed at was less than ideal considering I was awakened at 4 AM to what sounded like a cat giving birth….it sounded like an animal was whimpering in the corner. Since I didn’t have my contacts on, I was still really confused as to what was happening, so I searched my bag for my glasses…..and then realized that the sound wasn’t a cat giving birth, but a couple fornicating in the bed under mine (I was on the top bunk). I couldn’t believe it so much that I fell off the top bunk and stumbled out of the room in utter disgust. I’m not sure if I started feeling sick from what I just witnessed or from the tacos I had the night before, so I hung out in the kitchen for a while with a couple of cats and fed them cat food…until a man came in and commented on how creepy I looked feeding cats at 4 AM in the kitchen. I sassed back at him that I was being sexiled from my room. He apologized for calling me creepy and left. Laurel came to pick us up to take us to the ferry in order to get to the Island of Ometepe. All 15 of us piled in or on her car and rode to the ferry stop. After waiting 2 and a half hours for the ferry to arrive, we got on and spent another hour and a half riding the actual ferry. The wind blew my scarf everywhere and I loved it. Immediately when we got off the ferry we all had to pack into Laurels car to begin looking for our hostel for the night. We were true Nicas simply because of our seating arrangements for this hour and half car ride. 2 were in the front, 3 in the middle, 3 in the trunk, 2 hanging off of the left ledge of the car, 2 hanging off of the right ledge of the car, and 3 hanging out of the trunk door. We settled in our hostels, ate lunch, and headed to a swimming hole for an afternoon swim. The swimming hole had a rope swing that looked awfully appealing….so after some encouragement from Garrison, Christine, and Regan to give it a try, I climbed up the steps and held a firm grip on the rope and swung myself off of the ledge of the ladder. As soon as I let go of the rope and landed in the water, my left shoulder felt like it was on fire. It was a familiar source of pain; I had dislocated my left shoulder and needed to pop it back into place. This is one of those moments like when you have a loose tooth and realize you need to pull it out, or when you have a splinter in your toe and need to get it out…except for this was my shoulder out of place and I needed to pop it back in. I got out of the water, clenched my teeth, and popped that bad boy back into place. It was sore for the remainder of the day. As a result, I have added “visit a chiropractor” onto my list of things to do when I return to the States. After the swimming hole, we returned to the hostel just when the sky began to fall and it started storming. Remember the seating/standing arrangements we had earlier when leaving the ferry? The one where we had 7 people riding completely outside of the car? Well once it started storming, those additional 7 bodies had to join the 8 already existing bodies in the car once it started pouring. And we were all still soaked from the swimming hole. The car ride back reeked of wet dog, wet bodies, and wet luggage.

When we got back to the hostel, the power was out… so we all showered, changed, and got ready for dinner. During orientation 6 weeks ago, we were warned that things in Nicaragua take a long time and that a sense of urgency or rush didn’t exist. It wasn’t until this day that I really understood this concept. We ordered dinner at around 6:15 PM. I ordered a salad….something that should take no more than 15 minutes to prepare. 6:30 came: nothing. 7:15 came: still nothing. 7:45: nada. 8:00: zift. I got so tired of waiting that I actually fell asleep while waiting for my food. Around 8:45 Garrison began nudging me to wake up and that our food had finally made it. With one eye open and still dozing in and out of sleep to the left and right, I scarfed down my food and completely passed out for the night.

We woke up the next morning and went on a 3 hour muddy hike up the side of a volcano. My shoulder was still pretty sore, and the amount of mud that accumulated on, in, and around my shoes was overwhelming to clean, so after our hike, we headed straight for the ocean to wash our mud-stained clothes. On our way down the volcano, our guide taught us how to clear through the forest using a machete and also proved to us that he is able to communicate with the monkeys that lived on the tops of the trees in the forest. After cleaning up as best as we could (which didn’t mean much), packing the car, and finally boarding the ferry to head back to the mainland, it started to pour rain. Christine, Garrison, Carlos, Onyema, Laurel and I decided to sit inside of Laurels car in the garage area of the ferry instead of sitting inside of the actual ferry like all the rest of the passengers. As her car began to fog up from the rain and concentrated body heat from the 6 of us, the men collecting the fares for all the passengers didn’t realize that they had neglected to charge us for riding the ferry since we were hiding in Laurels car (which cost 70 cordobas, roughly $3.50 USD). We got paranoid every time they passed by our fogged up car in fear that they would spot us and realize that we hadn’t paid for the ride. After 90 minutes of riding in the car on the ferry (with windows rolled up), it the smelt just wonderful after everything we put it through that weekend…and as soon as the ferry reached the mainland, we gestured to the rest of the group who had ridden inside the ferry to hurry into the car before we got caught. Needless to say, we had safely smuggled ourselves back to San Juan del Sur in preparation for a long car ride home and with an additional 70 cordobas in our pockets….Score! The Tola group caught a taxi back home while Laurel drove the rest of us back to Masaya. But the adventure didn’t stop here.

After about 2 hours of making progress back to Masaya, we got stopped at a random checkpoint. He asked for Laurel’s passport, license, etc… and kept peeking into the back of the car and squinting his creepy little eyes at me. Laurel and Garrison were in the front; Josh, Regan, Rachel and I were smushed in the middle; and Onyema and Christine were completely hidden in the trunk because that only would’ve made the situation worse. Laurel tried to lighten the situation by making flirtatious jokes and being ridiculously nice to him. He then told her to get out of the car and took her inside of the police station to interrogate her. At this point, the cop was on a power trip. He came back and demanded we all take out our IDs. We got nervous as to what was happening to Laurel inside the police station because we were all advised to stay inside the car. After 20 minutes of nervously waiting for Laurel to return, she has bribed them with $20 USD, got back in the car, and we immediately sped off. After the police had been harassing her about how much better she looked now than she did in her passport picture, asking where she lived, what her phone number was, and worst of all, asking her how many girls she had sitting in the car. Gag me. This was probably the first time I had felt unsafe in Nicaragua, and it was only because of the corrupt and disgusting law enforcement. Now I understood why at orientation they had told us to A. stay away from police and B. never get into a police car. This incident left a bad taste in my mouth for many reasons: it reminded me how much I disliked machismo culture, and was also a huge reminder that I should be very mindful and alert of my surroundings because of the simple reality that I am, in fact, a complete foreigner in this country and stick out like a sore thumb. Dislocating my shoulder, riding on the ledge of a Toyota 4-Runner, getting smuggled back onto the mainland, and bribing cops to leave us alone: just another weekend in Nicaragua.

PS: Current cravings of mine (include, but arent limited to): shawarma, falafel, hummus, chocolate, milk, yogurt, grapes, cold water, cherries, fudge, brownies, chocolate cake, donuts, cotton candy, apples, raisins (why? I dont know), strawberries, wheat bread, bagels, cream cheese, and poptarts. That’s it for now.

PSS: In a matter of the past 3 weeks, I’ve managed to: break the lock on my iPhone, completely break my Nicaraguan phone, break the screen on my camera (it still works though!), dislocate my shoulder, destroy my running shoes, lose my umbrella, break my camelback (HOW DOES ONE BREAK A WATERBOTTLE?), lose my toothbrush, and break my glasses. But I still have a pulse…so all is well, alhamdullilah!

Limitless

This past week has been a whirlwind as our air quality stove project is finally lifting off! Here is how the breakdown of events have played out:

Monday morning I got sick. Nothing new. After spending the weekend in Tola and the Rivas, we got home really late Sunday night and I went straight to bed. I woke up Monday morning ready to hit the ground running with our project, but in reality had to stay home because I couldn’t get my head out of the trashcan….I’ve gotten sick more times in Nicaragua than I have for the entire past year. I tried fighting how crappy my stomach felt by going to work anyways, but around 9:30 AM I couldn’t fight it any longer and decided to catch a taxi home. My family was surprised that I came home so early, but wasn’t surprised to hear that I was sick….because I get sick almost every week here. It’s ridiculous. I spent that morning napping in my room under my fan, until the electricity went out…and at that point I was napping in my room in a puddle of sweat. My host sister woke me up telling me lunch was ready. After a hot, sweaty morning of doing nothing but sleeping and barfing, (yet at the same time, sweating immensely), I was met with a nice steaming bowl of soup for lunch. So just in case I wasn’t sweating enough, I could sweat more on top of the already existing sweat.

My host mom does this new thing during every meal where she sits next to me and explains the nutritional value of everything on my plate (because she is convinced that I don’t eat enough—even though I am stuffed to the brim after every meal). So as I’m trying to down this scorching soup, I’m also trying to not look completely miserable while listening to her explain just how much protein, vitamins, and minerals this bowl of zucchini soup has. Okay, I GOT IT, but that doesn’t erase the fact that I keep getting sick. She means well, and I truly appreciate everything she does for me. Later that afternoon, I met up with Garrison and Onyema and learned that they had bought all 55 bricks (11 for each of the 5 families) and successfully delivered them to the Bombanací community. We spent the rest of that afternoon lounging around central park, snapping photos of our surroundings and also trying to nail down our metallurgico…..except he was no where to be found. No 2 days in Nicaragua are the same. Ever.

The next morning we met with the first 5 families who we will be working with, and distributed the bricks to each of the family’s houses. Towards the end of our day delivering bricks, I took the wheelbarrow filled with bricks, and began wheeling it down a steep and rocky path towards the last house. One of the ladies began to laugh when she saw me wheeling the barrel alone said “somebody help the girl” (talking about me). With a huge smile, I turned around and said “las muchachas pueden hacerlo” (girls are able to do it). Just as I said this, I hit a huge rock on the path, losing control of the wheelbarrow until Onyema came to help me slow down the wheelbarrow. I might’ve looked silly introducing the idea of girl power at such bad timing, but I’d rather it happen sooner than later. After unloading the bricks at the last of the 5 family’s houses, our stay was extended longer than we had expected. The family is a grandmother, her daughter, and the most adorable 14-month old baby in all of Nicaragua. Initially, I thought the baby’s name was Chino (not sure why I thought this—but he was so adorable my heart just melted when I saw him). His name is actually Emanuel Francisco and has the ability to imitate coyotes and dogs on the drop of a dime. Anyways, after unloading the bricks at this family’s house, they had promised us a taste of the cajeta de coco that they sell on the streets of Masaya. We accepted their offer as they pulled out chairs us to sit with them. She gave the 3 of us plates full of this bright pink and brown mushed coconut sweet. I’m not exactly sure how they make these sweets, but they involve using open fire stoves—the very thing our project is working against. I don’t typically enjoy coconut in the States, and that still holds true here in Nicaragua….so I ate as much as I could without dry-heaving and then asked  if she could put it in a bag so I could take home to enjoy later on (except not really). The gifts didn’t stop there. She ran back inside and grabbed avocados and coconut lollipops for the 3 of us. People in Nicaragua are so incredibly kind to strangers, for absolutely no reason at all. After only knowing these women for a grand total of maybe 2 hours, they had invited us into their houses, fed us sweets, given us fruit, and wanted to hear about our lives and our studies in the United States—so amazingly caring and sweet. As we said our goodbyes and left the Bombanaci community Tuesday afternoon, I began to get really excited about how the rest of this project was going to pan out.

Thursday morning we got down and dirty in some of the first stages of our project: cutting the bricks to fit the dimensions necessary for the inner chamber of our stoves. Thursday was a big day for our project as it took an entire day to measure and cut the bricks to appropriate sizes, and then construct the inner chamber. Here’s how the first 5 family dynamics worked:

Family 1: Only the women and children worked in this stage of the process, as the men were busy building a hammock. It took a little encouragement to get them completely invested in getting their hands dirty in the cutting process, but after showing them how to maneuver the chisel and hammer, they had no problem getting to work. Upon noticing that one of the bricks wouldn’t fit after getting cut, one of the women went inside the house for a second, and returned with a long, sharp machete and began hacking away to smoothen the surface. I was startled they owned a machete and even more alarmed that she was using it so loosely around the young kids. Tools used: machete, hammer, & chisel.

Family 2: Only the women worked in this stage of the process as well (there were no men at home). This family was the grandmother, her daughter, and my favorite baby, Emanuel Francisco. Again, the 2 women seemed hesitant in starting—but after showing them the necessary steps to take measurements and work with the tools, they took control of the project right away. After working, they bought us refrescos that had mammones (a rare fruit found in Nicaragua), loads of sugar, and even salt in it. I pretended to enjoy it, as it was the saltiest refresco I have had during this trip yet, and thanked them graciously for buying us a cold drink. Tools used: hammer & chisel.

Family 3: This family dynamic was a little more interesting. All men, women, and children were home, but only the men worked in this stage of the process. The younger women were busy washing dishes, clothes, and caring for the children, while the older woman was hurt as she had a huge Band-Aid on her forehead from falling and hitting her head on a chair. The older dad was sick, so his son and grandson assisted in this process. During our time with this family, we did absolutely nothing. And by nothing, I mean the men completely took the bricks into their own hands and got to work as soon as we arrived. They also didn’t see much use in the chisel or hammer, and simply used another brick when they wanted to smooth the edge of a brick to make it fit. Tools used: other bricks, an axe, and a ruler.

Family 4: Man, woman, and children were home in this family, yet the man did the majority of the cutting and constructing. We started off with having his wife do the cutting and constructing, but before long, he jumped into the process and did the entire construction in about 5 minutes using only a metal gardening tool. Given, he is a construction worker and was already really familiar with how to use the tools and materials we had. Tools used: hands and metal gardening tool.

Family 5: Only women were home and only women took part in this stage of the process. She was prepared to get to work when we arrived, and was very careful and meticulous in her work. Afterwards, she too, bought the 3 of us the same salty mammone refresco (that is unfortunately not very pleasant to drink)…and again, we thanked them for the kind gesture, and did our best to drink as much of it as we could without looking like we were in pain.

At the end of the day, we were all very proud of the high level of productivity we had achieved and also pleased to see just how invested the families were in ensuring the success of their stoves. Although Nicaragua still has such a strong machismo culture, it was really rewarding to see a lot of the women take this project into their own hands. While this project revolves around improving public health and the environmental conditions of the Bombanaci community, I also strongly believe that another one of the underlying benefits of this project is, in fact, women’s empowerment. From the cutting of bricks to the placing of cement, to (inshaAllah) the final construction of the stove: we truly hope that the women in each household gain the necessary knowledge in constructing more of these stoves in the future (and perhaps even on her own!). Through empowering women in not only building their own stoves, but also choosing to lead eco-friendly lifestyles while improving the respiratory health of their families—we see the benefits of our project to be ultimately, limitless.

“But that’s for the boys”

In addition to the air quality stove project, we are working with a local school teaching health seminars and starting a girl’s soccer program in order to encourage healthy and active lifestyles. We are teaching topics such as self-esteem, body image, drugs, mental health, HIV/AIDS, sexual health, and also preventing teen pregnancy. Our girl’s soccer program is targeted towards the 12/13 year olds because this is the earliest and most common age that girls in Nicaragua become pregnant. Teen pregnancy is a huge problem in Nicaragua for many reasons. Talking about sex is taboo in society; therefore parents don’t talk to their children (more importantly, their daughters) about the consequences of having sex or even methods of protection. There is no open dialogue about the matter; and as a result, there is an influx of pregnant teenage girls, who are then left with no choice but to drop out of school, depend on their families, etc. Our girl’s soccer program focuses on mobilizing and motivating the young women in the Monimbo School to get excited about sports and developing healthy, positive self-esteems.

Our first day of working with the school was actually 2 weeks ago. During our first week with the kids, we opened the floor to talk about their goals, ambitions, and dreams to get them thinking about steps they need to take with their schooling to achieve goals with their future careers. In my group, I got a lot of responses ranging from future presidents, teachers, nurses, and even some doctors. It was a great way to form the foundation of my relationship with many of the kids. During our second week working with the students, we split the 5th grade class into boys and girls. Garrison and Onyema worked with the 12/13 year old boys, and I worked with the 12/13 year old girls. Originally, I was only planning on working with 20-30 girls…. but apparently I can’t count because I ended up working with 55 chavalas (young girls). After splitting them up, I led them into the computer lab/library area and they all scrambled for chairs, forming a circle around me in a very tight space. This was beyond overwhelming. Our second lesson was on drugs…and I was expected to teach this in Spanish. I can barely hold a 10-minute conversation in Spanish—how am I supposed to teach a 30-minute lesson on drugs?

I spent the afternoon/night the day before looking up terms, words, and ways to teach the lesson in another language all the while scribbling questions to ask the class on notecards. I began the class by asking all of the girls what their names were. This would’ve been helpful if I had heard any of them. They were all incredibly shy and chose to mouth their names to me…so in reality I still had no clue what any of their names were. After pulling out my notecards ready to teach, I asked them all an open-ended question: “Qué son las drogas?”. I flipped over the notecard ready to read the response in Spanish….until I realized that the other side of the notecard was blank. Frantically, I flipped over all of my other notecards only to find that they were all blank. Somehow I had managed to forget to write the responses to all of my questions. I couldn’t let the girls see that I had absolutely no clue what I was doing at this point….so I did what I do best: winged the entire lesson. From blank notecards to blank stares, I started encouraging the girls to share what they knew about drugs…after all, the best types of lessons are learned through an open discussion. I ended the lesson with having them sign a pledge that they would never try drugs and that nobody would leave the room until I had 55 signatures on my drug pledge. Overall, the lesson went well. One of my students asked me to sing America’s national anthem, and we compromised that the only way I would sing it for her was if she’d teach me Nicaragua’s national anthem. She agreed. The exchange is expected to happen next week.

After our lesson, it was time to play soccer. Something that had irked me in particular upon visiting the school prior to last week was the fact that during recess, the soccer court was consistently occupied by all of the boys. All day. Everyday. When I told the girls to get ready to play soccer, I received nothing but puzzled stares. “What? We get to play on the soccer court? But that’s for the boys.” Nothing frustrated me more than hearing those last 5 words. I let them figure out the answer when all 56 of us marched onto the court, divided into 2 teams, and started playing. As usual, I had no idea what I was doing. I am not a soccer player, nor will I ever be one. Needless to say, I got my butt kicked. And I’m completely okay with that. The absolute highlight of my entire trip was seeing the girls’ faces light up when they realized that the soccer court was designated for them to dominate and no one else. The boys kept creeping onto the court trying to play and getting in the girls way, but it wasn’t before long until they were met with an angry hijabi yelling at them to get off the court because it was reserved for the girls’ soccer game. After several rounds of games, the girls began screaming about “el finale! El finale!” Confused and exhausted, I followed their lead about this “el finale”. They formed a circle around the goal post, placed the ball at my feet, and motioned me to kick at the goalkeeper. El finale = penalty kick. The girls wanted to take turns taking penalty shots, and I was the lucky chica to go first. Onyema and Garrison joined the circle and encouraged everybody to start chanting my name as they waited for me to take my shot. As expected, I missed the shot. By a lot. I’m talking a whole 4 feet above the goalpost. I didn’t care, I was having a blast and no penalty kick was going to keep me from making an even bigger fool of myself via soccer.

I’m really excited about continuing our work here just because the students are always so excited when we come every Wednesday for lessons and soccer. It’s obvious they really respect us and truly want to hear what we have to say; I can really see our time spent at the school as one of the most beneficial uses of our time simply because we have such a powerful, positive influence. They often form massive circles around us asking questions from how many children we have (0 in case you were wondering) to if we know how to salsa.

Here are the stats for the frequency of questions I received from my girls in just one day:

Q: Why do you cover your hair? (11 times)

A: [Insert religious spiel]

Q: Do you have a husband/fiancé/boyfriend? (9 times)

A: No, I’m just a student

Q: Do you have any children? (a whopping 12 times)

A: No, I’m still just a student

Here’s a picture of my El Finale. It pretty much sums up my entire trip in Nicaragua: me not having any clue what I’m doing, Nicas wildly entertained by me, and Onyema and Garrison laughing at me.

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Green & Clean

After five weeks of planning, discussing, disagreeing, failing, replanning, rediscussing, reagreeing, and finally coming to a consensus: we have ourselves a project! Alhamdullilah!

The idea was planted during my second week of work when we did home visits with the enfermerias (nurses) around to the community regarding how to care for chiquitos (children from ages 0-6). One of the houses that we visited sticks to my memory in particular not because of the appearance of the house, or even how many children were living in a single room—but because of all the excessive smoke that occupied the kitchen area. After taking a closer look at the family’s kitchen set-up, I then realized that the women in these families had been using an open fire in an old trash bin as their stove, with a large, metal pot placed on top to cook the food. Upon further investigation, it was brought to my attention that in fact, many rural Nicaraguan families use this method of cooking for a number of reasons:

1. Tradition—Nicaraguans have used open fires to cook for generations and generations.

2. Simplicity—it is just a fire in a trash bin, right?

3. Double Function—not only does it cook their food, but it also allows them to burn their trash, plastics, and bottles as well.

As a result of using open fires to cook 3 times a day, everyday, they are exposing themselves (and their families) to dangerously high levels of soot, smoke, and other toxic fumes without even realizing it. The same communities who use these methods of cooking often contain the same families with cases of asthma, troubles breathing, and even respiratory diseases such as lung cancer. From an environmentalist’s perspective, these open stoves also plummet the air quality of the surrounding community to exceedingly poor levels not only through the amount of smoke released, but also from burning plastics. Many of the families in rural Nicaragua do not realize the risks involved with indoor smoke hazards and continue to use these open fires when cooking meals throughout the day. This is where our project comes in. After additional research on ways to make Nicaraguan cookstoves more green, and better for the respiratory health of the Bombonací community—we have modeled our project after something called Rocket Stoves. The idea is simple. Concentrate the fire in a contained space….and the benefits are countless. Concentrating the fire leads to using less firewood (leña). The need for less firewood leads to the women having more time to use efficiently because they don’t have to spend as much time as they normally do gathering firewood in areas surrounding their houses. Less time spent searching for firewood leads to more time at work, which inevitably leads to more income for the family. Have I sparked your interest yet?

On the financial aspect of things, the project is in fact, viable. After rampaging the streets and markets of Masaya, we eventually found all of the places/factories for the necessary supplies. Our supply list is simple: ladrillos, cemento, y un metallurigo (bricks, cement, and metallurgy to help us design the outside of our stoves).

After meeting with Geovani Mendoza (a great asset to the clinic), he linked me up with Erwin Lopez—the leader of the Bombonací community. The Bombonací community lies right outside of the Centro de Salud clinic and is our target community for the cookstove project. After meeting with the leaders of the Bombonací community (Erwin and his wife Maria), they understood the parameters of our project (sustainability, our work plan, and other loose ends). The most rewarding part of this entire process hasn’t been running around town looking for bricks, cement, or even sitting in a complete stranger’s house asking about measurements for the metal part of the stove—but has been the excitement and genuine interest in improving the environment’s air quality and the community’s health conditions from the Bombonací community itself! Originally, I was apprehensive about addressing an issue such as cooking methods in these communities because I wasn’t sure how the community would respond to altering such an important aspect of their daily lifestyle…when in fact, this wasn’t an issue at all. Perhaps the most satisfying stage of this project has been helping the community identify that cooking with open fires is, in fact, a problem and being there to assist them in the necessary steps to make a positive change for the future of the environment and the future of their children as well. Sustainable development at its finest!