Happy #WorldTeachersDay! Here’s how you can help Nicaragua’s Hope Bilingual Academy.

Happy #WorldTeachersDay! Here’s how you can help Nicaragua’s Hope Bilingual Academy.

Happy #WorldTeachersDay!

As part of the GoAbroad.com Writer’s Academy I completed, my final assignment was to write about a piece for the GoAbroad Foundation‘s blog. I pitched to write about the Hope Bilingual Academy because of the amazing work Patricia Shronce has done with her retirement money to fund an entire school public school.

Read all about what makes Patricia a one woman army and how you can help here!

It’s no wonder she’s the Philanthropist of the Month. Corey Haynes, TEFL 64, invited me to come write about the school months ago, and I’ve continued to write about it because I haven’t found any other schools quite like it. Hope is the Go Abroad Foundation’s Pledge Beneficiary of October, which means any donations that go through this blog post will go to the school. We’ve all have amazing teachers we haven’t thanked enough, and here’s a chance to help out an amazing teacher, principal, mother, and more! Anything is appreciated! Thank you ❤

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Hiking Peñas Blancas, Matagalpa

Hiking Peñas Blancas, Matagalpa

If I could describe hiking the cliffs of Peñas Blancas, Matagalpa in three words, they would be: misty, exhausting, and dreamy.

Peñas Blancas is part of a nature reserve that’s just a three-hour bus ride from my site. Despite it boasting some of the most beautiful views of the surrounding land and waterfalls, it took me nearly two years to make the trek. When you’re living in a tourist area, you tend to blow of the tourist options and hold off until the last minute to enjoy them.

Jen, my hiking buddy, and I boarded the El Cua-Bocay chicken bus ($2) from Matagalpa’s North Station (Guanuca) at 7 a.m. She caught me up on her recent half marathon near Liberia, Costa Rica, and I told her about the new sign language class I’m taking on Saturdays. Jen and I have hiked Cosiguina Volcano and we’ve cliff-jumped through Somoto Canyon, and I was excited about our new adventure.

We chugged along the windy road (the first two hours were paved) and I noticed how lush the outside of my city was. I live in the mountains, but with the amount of buildings, car horns, and smog, it doesn’t feel like it. It feels too domesticated. I do appreciate having more consistent access to wi-fi and air conditioning than many volunteers, but before joining the Peace Corps, I never imagined I’d live in a place I’d love but that I’d also need to escape from for some fresh air.

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Around 11 a.m., the bus dropped us off at the entrance to Los Guardianes del Bosque (The Guardians of the Forest), a coffee cooperative. There were only a handful of small, wooden houses and locals starting at Jen and I as we stretched our legs. We’d be staying with Don Chico (505-2770-1359), who I read about in my Moon Guide to Nicaragua. I’d reserved the day before over the phone with his wife, whose melodic accent was 100% norteña.

An old man with a fixed grin and dark, beady eyes came to us and extended his hand. “Buenas, I’m Francisco,” he said. This short, stout man wore rubber boots, jeans, a black quicksilver cap, and a blue and green plaid shirt. “Oh, so you’re the famous Don Chico!” I exclaimed, and he nodded, repeating what I’d said. He did this a lot. I didn’t mind the affirmation.

To call Don Chico a jack-of-all trades doesn’t do him justice. He’s a 77-year-old medicine man, farmer, tour guide, naturalist, great grandfather, trail builder, and musician. His neck sunk into his shoulders, and he walked with a purpose. I didn’t see him frown once. He seemed so happy to be alive. Continue reading “Hiking Peñas Blancas, Matagalpa”

The Joy of Handwashing My Clothes

The Joy of Handwashing My Clothes

Before joining the Peace Corps in Nicaragua, I imagined I’d be roughing it. I even bought a solar-powered shower that was on sale because I thought I’d be camping in a hut for 27 months.

I knew there would be mosquitoes, humidity, and delicious mangoes in a bag, but there wasn’t much else I knew to expect– just like anyone who is about to jump into a new life.

I knew Nicaragua is Latin America’s most impoverished nation, so I assumed there were things like cooking that I’d be doing myself. I loved cooking anyway, so it would be no problem for me to whip up breakfast tacos or pasta (little did I know that my host family would prepare pasta with rice on the side). I didn’t expect my host family to cook my meals-I wanted to be in control of what I ate.

While I did expect to cook my own meals, I didn’t expect to wash all of my clothes by hand. When I was a teenager, my mom taught me how to hand wash a shirt here or there on top of which I might’ve spilled some mustard. I can still remember that bright pink bar of soap and how she taught me to squeeze out all of the soap from my shirt after I scrubbed and rinsed it. Then, we’d stick it in the dryer. Drying our clothes outside for most of the year in Washington State was a joke. 99.9% of the time, we relied on our washer and dryer.

Washing clothes by hand may seem like a hassle, but I’ve grown to accept it as a mundane task I don’t mind doing. It’s meditative. I’m in full control of how and when my clothes are washed in my washbasin. Well, I’m not actually in full control of when I can wash my clothes–that depends on when there is running water. Although I live in one of the largest Peace Corps sites, my host family and I frequently go for two to three days without any water, especially during the dry season. I never imagined I’d live in a place where the water that washed my clothes depended on the rainfall.

Sometimes, as we wait patiently for water, we’ll leave the water valve twisted open, even though no water comes out. Eventually, it will. We’ll sit and watch trashy telenovelas (soap operas) when suddenly, we hear the trickle of water droplets falling.

Ya llego el agua!

The water’s on!

Then, it’s a mad rush to fill every bucket, barrel, and empty 2-liter Coke bottle with water. We hear our neighbors doing the same. It turns into a big cleaning party, and I channel my inner Cinderella as I wash my clothes and mop my tile floor.

Que alegre que hay agua!

How nice that the water’s on!

My host grandma, Mita, reminds me of the little joys in life when she says this. The water comes and goes, and washing my clothes myself becomes so much more than a mundane task. It becomes an exciting routine that makes me appreciate running water–something I’ll never take for granted again in the states.

And no, I have not used that solar-powered shower once in the Peace Corps. When I’ll leave, I’ll give it to my host family, and they will probably bestow some sort of practicality upon it, like using it to store beans.

Featured image by Unsplash user Caspar Rubin. Posted originally on Wanderlust Life Wellness Magazine

To The Wheelchair Dancer

Dear woman in the wheelchair last night,

Last night I went out at Caramanchel in Managua, and there you were, on the dance floor in a wheelchair, surrounded by your friends. I fell in love with the way in which your wheelchair essentially disappeared.

Your friends took turns spinning you around and dancing for you. Your face was lit up as you jived to the beat. I went up and danced with you, then high fived you. I asked if it was your birthday. It looked like such a celebration. “No, it’s my coworker’s birthday!” I think you said. I couldn’t hear much, and as I write this, my ears are still ringing from the music.

Then, I shared a cold Heineken with you, which you passed off to your friend. She promptly it held against her cheek to cool off.

What a beautiful sight. Being here has taught me that even when you cannot stand, you can still dance.

That Time We Spoke About Street Harassment on the Nicaraguan Radio

That Time We Spoke About Street Harassment on the Nicaraguan Radio

Last week, I walked to the Women’s Collective of Matagalpa, which I’ve been to multiple times for their spontaneous theater shows. The collective has a theater program, health and education outreach, and a radio station.

April is Sexual Assault Awareness month. April 10-16 is International Anti-Street Harassment Week, so I thought I’d see if the collective was having an event to raise awareness. I’d just written about kick-ass organizations in Egypt, Mexico, the U.S., and India fighting against street harassment, so I thought I’d ask.

I asked Machú, a woman who works there and documents all of the spontaneous theater shows. “No, we haven’t planned anything, but maybe you could talk to Argentina. She’s running the radio program right now since Leo is in Europe on the theater tour.”

Fanny, one of my the most expressive, lively actresses, happened to be there and listened in. She said hello to me with the typical kiss on the cheek and jokingly said, “Hi, Charlotte-I mean, Charleen!” because it took her a while to get my name right. We giggled, then she walked me over to the radio station, where I spoke with Argentina about my spontaneous question-turned-project.

“We don’t have anything planned to raise awareness, but street harassment happens every day, not just one week of the year. I can reserve a slot for you to come chat at 8 AM on Monday if you’d like. It would be good if you brought a friend who is from here.” I agreed that it would be important for a Nicaraguan woman to talk about it, so I called my friend Rosa right away. She agreed to send her daughter, Amy, whose quinceañera (15th birthday party) my mom and I attended last Christmas Eve.

Fanny’s son, Marlon, was also there, and I asked if he could come. He agreed because street harassment affects everyone, not just women. In November 2015, Gerardo Cruz was stabbed and killed in San José, Costa Rica after he caught a perverted man following a woman from behind and filming up her skirt. The video went viral, but he lost his life for speaking against street harassment.

Street harassment affects everyone. It’s so important to talk to boys as well as girls about actions that dismantle gender equity. These kinds of workshops will be done at Peace Corps Camp CHACA for boys in Nicaragua this July.

Street harassment also hurts economies. I often wonder how much more tourism dollars a country’s people could earn if women weren’t afraid of traveling because of feeling uncomfortable in public. I’ve decided against traveling down the street or to different countries because I don’t want to be hissed at or groped in public.

On Monday, I walked with Amy to The Collective. “Are you nervous to be on the radio?” I asked her. “No,” she said. “Well, I am! I’m glad you’re not nervous. What you’re doing is so important because many people don’t have a chance to share their opinions and to be heard. I’m nervous, but excited” I replied. I’d been on the radio before in Ecuador when I went with La Poderosa Media Project in 2011, but that time, I just spoke about who I was and where I was from. This time, it would be a more meaningful topic that I’d hoped would begin more much-needed conversations about unintentional (and intentional) gender oppression.

Amy and I got to the station and arrived before Argentina did. I don’t know about Amy, but I was squirming in my seat! In order to kill time, we chatted about her experiences with harassment.

Then, it was time to start once Argentina and Meyling arrived. We introduced ourselves and Argentina began the interview. She talked about how street harassment is becoming a more violent issue. The older men she’s talked to say that back in the day, they used to “seduce” women in the street by saying “sweet” things to them (las enamoraban), but never being disrespectful to them. Now, men are being more and more vulgar, forward, and disrespectful. With that background knowledge about the history of cat calling, we began.

Argentina (our host): How does street harassment make you feel?

Meyling: If you walk down into the city, and on the way down, you hear ten cat calls, then on the way back up, you’ll hear them ten times again. It’s exhausting for women to feel like they are constantly being objectified, or worse, groped. If men yell vulgarities at me, like “hey mamacita, you look delicious today,” then I tell them that what they’re doing is punishable by the Ley 779, and that I have the right to report them to the police. Once, a man in the street threatened to beat me up because I didn’t like him! He tried hugging me to feel my chest, but I had to use a self-defense move I learned in a jiu jitsu class on him.”

Meyling ended up thrusting her palm against his chin, causing him to fall back as she ran away.

Me: When men cat call me a “delicious white woman” in the street, I feel uncomfortable and objectified. I’m not a coconut popsicle! (The women in the room covered their mouths and laughed at this one) I’m not a food. I’m not an object. I’m a person. It’s interesting to point out that back in the day, men talking to women in the street was seen as a civilized, polite affair. Enamoraban a las mujeres (They seduced women).

“Enamorar” has the most positive connotation. Then, it was and is called “cat-calling”, or tirar piropos. We cannot see it as this innocent act any more. It’s violent, it’s unsolicited, and so we need to call it what it is: street harassment.

Amy explained that she’s experienced street harassment for as long as she could remember, and she brought up the important issue of child raising. By sharing her experience about her father trying to get her brother to talk to women as a boy, she made it clear that we need to think about how we raise our children. We need to teach our children how to be respectful to others.

Break time rolled along. My Nicaraguan counterpart teacher, Claudia, tapped on the door and came in a bit late because she’d gotten lost. Claudia and I are runners, so we both know what it’s like to have our workout routines disrupted by harassment. I was assaulted on a run last year because I wore headphones to avoid harassment, and my attacker thought I had a shiny iphone in my pocket, but I didn’t. I simply wore headphones to trick men into thinking I couldn’t hear them, but I still experienced physical violence. I’ve mostly recovered from it, as I ran a 10k later, but it’s undeniable that street harassment has shaped my experience here.

Claudia goes running at 5 AM to avoid the crowds. Once, on a run, a man began to take of his clothes and masturbated in front of her. She threatened to report him if he ever did that again, but the next day, she was too shaken up to go running.

After Claudia shared, Argentina asked our listeners whether they thought cat-calls were innocent compliments or harassment. No one called in to participate, but oh well- the five of us had more than enough to say! We moved on to talking about how women dress. No matter how you dress, you’ll get attention. Harassers seem to think that women dress in order to please the men, not themselves.

“I’m a lesbian, so I’m not attracted to men,” I shared. “If I wear shorts it’s because it’s hot outside and I want to avoid sweating profusely (It’s always in the 80s and humid around here). I don’t wear shorts to please men.”

I almost didn’t come to Nicaragua because I was afraid of having to be in the closet, but here I was, coming out on the radio!

Before we knew it, it was 9 AM. We wrapped it up, and I gave a shout out to Amy’s mom, Rosa, for sending her brave daughter along to chat about street harassment. We’d all been pretty nervous to be on the air, but as the show progressed, we ended up laughing, giggling, and nodding our heads at one another.

We didn’t feel alone that morning, and I’m sure our listeners didn’t either. By having conversations like these about the misconceptions and effects of street harassment, maybe someday we’ll put an end to it.

Amy was such a boss that Argentina asked for her contact info to come back for another show!

Have you experienced street harassment? If not, do you know someone who has? How has it affected you or them?

Hope Bilingual Academy: A bright present and uncertain future

Hope Bilingual Academy: A bright present and uncertain future

“Dilo con orgullo,” (“Say it with pride”) Patricia to a student speaking during a morning motivation meeting. Patricia is the founder of the Hope Bilingual Academy in La Concepcion, Masaya, Nicaragua.

I would quickly learn that it’s not just a school-it’s an unofficial homeless shelter for kids who come from violent homes. I came to visit to see why Patricia, a teacher, decided to open an entire public school with her retirement money.

Not only is Patricia a teacher-she’s biological mother of three, and a mother to so many more in this small town. One of my friends and colleagues, Corey, teaches English there. She is passionate about education and social justice, and is currenty púrsuing her Master’s in Education. Oh, and she shaved her head to fundraise for the St. Baldrick’s Childhood Cancer Foundation. She works and lives with Patricia.

Patricia was born in Nicaragua and moved to Waco, Texas with her family as a girl. Two of her children live in the United States where her husband lives, but she spends most of her time in Nicaragua.

I’d never stayed in La Concepcion, otherwise known as La Concha(The Shell). Corey had asked me to visit to blog about the school so that more people could find out more about it. I didn’t have high expectations, because I’ve been so used to the lack of support the public school system has in general. When I enter a school and the light switches actually work and the toilets flush, then I immediately think it’s a nice school. I teach in one of three nice schools in my city. It’s no surprise that the nice school is a partially subsidized, partially private school.

I took a packed microbus from Managua, passing through rolling, emerald hills that boasted gargantuan banana trees who shaded our path. I got out at La Concha and a moto taxi hailed me (that’s how much of the public transportation works here- taxis honk at you to let you know they have room). I jumped in and cradled my blue Osprey backpack and book bag as we transitioned from the relatively smooth cobblestone streets to a wobbly dirt road on the outskirts of town.

“Where are you from?” the driver asked me. As I answered, I couldn’t help but cough to exhale the dust I’d inhaled. He just chuckled and looked at me as if to say “You ain’t seen nothing yet.”

There was so much dust.

The driver kindly waited for Corey to open up the gate. There was no doorbell, but Dogs began to barked from the inside once they heard me. Corey opened up, and we walked to her house. “I feel like I’m in a compound and that I’m about to drink the kool aid,” I said to her. It felt like her own private jungle that was closed off from society. I dropped my things off in her house and we walked to school.

Elementary aged kids ran up to us, giggling, to hug Corey and to examine me. “Wow, these gringas really do love having short hair!” I imagined them thinking as they stared at me with wide smiles.

We walked along a dirt path to the school. It was not a cult, and there was no kool-aid. Instead, I stumbled upon the safest, most productive public school I’d seen in Nicaragua.

School was getting out early because of a parent-teacher meeting. I met Patricia and we chatted over grilled-cheese sandwiches. We rocked in our rocking chairs. I asked what role the government plays in managing the school, since it is still a public school. The only thing that the Ministry of Education provides the school is rice and beans to feed the kids. Everything else comes out of Patricia’s pocket and small, private donations from people like her daughter who believe in the academy.

As I learned more, I asked myself how sustainable it was for Patricia to fund the school with her retirement money and inconsistent donations. Conceptually, the school was an amazing idea. A free, bilingual school for underprivileged students? I’m all about that.

At the same time, I wondered what would happen once Patricia’s retirement money runs out. Would enough people donate to keep the school afloat? Patricia has definitely asked herself this question herself, but for now, she says “I need to do what’s right. I couldn’t not open this school.”

In order to understand why Patricia felt so strongly about investing all her money in this school, I knewI need to observe the students. They were happy and disciplined. They raised their hands and waited their turn to speak-a procedure that takes a lot of work to reinforce, even in my adult English classes.

While the students seemed happy, they’ve come from rough backgrounds. I had no idea how many homeless boys lived with Patricia.

One boy’s mother had him at a young age in order to encourage the father to stay with her. Once the boy grew older, the boy’s father would beat him, telling him he would beat him so that he wouldn’t be a “fag.” He thought that beating him would “cure” him of being gay.

As a lesbian, I haven’t faced as much homophobia because many people assume that I’m just “confused” or that I’m still bisexual, which is more acceptable because that means I’ll still have a chance with a man. I’ve noticed how much more harshly male sexuality is policed here, especially from father to son. It comes from the pressure men feel from machismo to be “manly”, and in order to prove their sexuality, they feel the need to reinforce the idea that the ideal man isn’t a submissive “cochon” (fag).

Whether the students lived with Patricia or not, it was stories like this one that made me understand why the school’s name began with “Hope.”

Corey and I made an afternoon trip to the neighboring town of Jinotepe. My feet were covered in dust. The heat prevents me from wearing close-toed shoes, but now I’d wished I wore sneakers instead of my Teva sandals. We got off the bus in Jinotepe and I asked a woman if I could use her water spicket to clean my feet.

After having lived here, I’ve become even more aware of my presentation. Many Nicaraguans ask me why so may foreigners roll up in their oversized backpacks and look as if they haven’t showered in 5 months. I reassure them that not all foreigners are dirty. I’m just confused as the locals. I don’t understand why people who have the money to travel abroad don’t take the time to shower, either.

The woman whose water I used gave me a rag to wipe my feet off. I thanked her profusely then Corey and I pressed on. As we sat inside of Paris Café, we soaked up the luxurious air conditioning and chatted more about how to sustainably fund the school. There must be grants or USAID funds, I thought. Corey’s thought about staying after her Peace Corps service ends to stay with the school. Everything just seems up in the air, but for now, Patricia and Corey are providing a quality education to underprivileged kids.

Patricia has had reservations about registering the school as an NGO. She’s heard stories about people manipulating one another to gain control of NGOs, and she doesn’t want to deal with the mistrust or drama. I wouldn’t either. For now, though,  it seems like the most viable option until she gains more visibility and partners with an organization or individual who could donate consistently.

I spent the next day observing the morning motivation session. Dozens of kids, from the post-toddler age, to hormonal teenagers, filled the largest space in the small school. Patricia asked students to spell different words in English. “Samuel, deletrea la palabra ‘fortaleza’, con gusto, si!” (“Spell the word “strength”, with enthusiasm, yes!”) she would say. Samuel’s peers waited respectfully and quietly for him to be heard.

After the morning meeting, I went off to observe Teacher Dionisio’s math class of 14 students. In the small, dimly lit, blue classroom, he held his math book, a marker, and erased the whiteboard by hand.

Dos entre que? Cinco. Dos por tres? Seis.

The students huddled under one light bulb and scribbled down notes. As in any typical classroom, the students in the front participated the most while the students in the back chatted with each other, as if I wouldn’t notice. Overall, though, I was impressed by how much more engaged the students were in a smaller classroom. I’m used to teaching classes with an average of 50 students crammed into a room, often without enough decrepit desks for everyone.

How wonderful it was to see students engaged in class. The Hope Academy reminded me of when I taught at Brooke Charter School in Boston.

Both of these schools had dramatically different levels of funding, but they had one thing in common: they were safe places for learning.

 

Check out my photo album for more adorable munchkin photos and like the Hope Bilingual Academy facebook page!

My love-hate relationship with “Fijese que…”

My love-hate relationship with “Fijese que…”

Lately, I’ve had an obsession with the Spanish words “Fijese que…”, which roughly translates to “Pay attention that (insert statement/excuse here).”

Why am I so intrigued by this saying? Because there’s no better way in Spanish to get one’s attention as easily. It’s as if you’re saying “Hey you. You better listen to this like you’re life depends on it. Or else.”

Other Nicaraguans take it only slightly less seriously than I do because they’re used to using it 93 times a day.

I have a love-hate relationship with this term. On the one hand, it’s a delightful little transitional phrase to give an underwhelming statement some pizzaz.

Even if you’re saying something like “There’s been no running water all day,” which is no big deal in my large city. If my host grandma were to begin this statement with “Fijese que”, then I’d be more likely to listen in. It makes mundane situations sound more dramatic and enticing.

This reminds me, if you think what you’re saying should be important, even though it’s not, and you forgot to say it at the beginning of a sentence, there’s a solution. Just say “fijese” at the end.

For example, here’s another dramatized situation: “Se fue la luz, fijese (The power’s out, believe it or not).” I’ll still think what you’re saying is more alluring, but the amount of anticipation I’ll have by using it at the end will decrease. It’s a science.

Now, when does “Fijese” make my eyes roll to the back of my head? When people say it before an excuse.

Well, I don’t actually roll my eyes, but I want to. Being emotionally intelligent means adapting your facial expressions to different contexts so you don’t make an ass of yourself.

I’ll explain. Say I’ve spent three hours prepping for my community English class, and none of my five students show up. When I ask a student why they bailed, I’m most likely to hear an excuse along the lines of “Fijese que tuve que hacer un mandado y no andaba saldo para llamarla (Pay attention that I had to run an errand and I didn’t have minutes of my prepaid phone to call you).” This one is a double whammy.

The “fijese” in his context is a fluffy replacement for “I have a lame excuse, but I’m going to soften the blow eloquently and politely.” Saving face and appearing non confrontational is very common.

The “hacer un mandado” just means that A. I didn’t feel coming to class or B. I didn’t have the mental energy to come up with a unique excuse. Why would I? I should just keep it vague to avoid an interrogation.

Finally, the most classic and undeniably convenient of all excuses: I didn’t have minutes on my phone to call or text you. Why would I if I could just stand in front of a café or go to the park and use the wifi there to whatsapp you? Oh, you don’t have a device that supports whatsapp? That’s your problem, fijese.

So, fijese que you should take up this expression as soon as possible , or maybe you already have. It’s a great way to integrate into Nicaraguan culture. It will soon be the term you’ll love and abhor the most.

What’s your most memorable use of the Spanish term “fijese que”? Is there an equivalent in another language?

Featured image taken in Esteli, Nicaragua, by Erica Saldivar.