Friday, March 23, 2018

Peace Corps Volunteers Separated by 10,000 Miles and 39 Years

On the ferry boat to Ometepe Island with Jasmine & Nati
We're glad we got to experience the beauty, geographic wonders, people, and culture of Nicaragua.  But as friends and family asked, “Why Nicaragua?”  We wondered, too, as we thought nothing could top our Tanzania trip last month.

It was never on our bucket list, but it should have been.  The main reason we went to Nicaragua was to make good on a promise we made to 27-year old Nati Zavala from Salem who said he joined the Peace Corps because of us. 

We said we’d visit him after he’d been there for at least a year. A promise is a promise, and with 60-pounds of requested school supplies, hot sauce, herbs, spices, maple syrup, and Trader Joe’s cookie butter, we headed SE to Nicaragua. 
60 pounds of School supplies & special food requests
for Nati and Jasmine

We’re so glad we went!  Visiting him, his co-workers, three of his PCV friends, and Jasmine—his girlfriend he met on their way to Peace Corps training—were the absolute highlights of our trip.

Frankie (Jasmine) Williams in her
small & very hot bedroom in
southern Nicaragua
We met him through a Rotary mentoring program when he was a six year old pip-squeak at Richmond Elementary, and we stayed with him all through secondary school, Willamette University, and his brief work world.  He said the stories and photos we shared about our experiences as PCVs in Malaysia 1978-80 inspired him to join.  But we think he would have joined just because of who he is.

Dinner in Managua with Karen and Airlie,
PCV friends of Nati
We are so proud of him and his fellow volunteers!  Most are involved in education in one way or another.  It brought back a lot of good (and not so good) memories of our experiences 38 and 39 years ago, 10,000 miles away in Malaysia.

They seemed interested in our stories and intrigued by the lack of technology back then, but mostly we were just awestruck by them and what they do, and the difficult conditions in which they do them.  The heat, dust, humidity, bad roads, loneliness, language, insects, and Peace Corps ethos were our common denominators.  And still the main question among all PCVs is "What are you going to do afterward?"  
With Denise Hollingsworth, a fascinating retired patent
attorney, Now working with English teachers

Since 1961, 230,000 PCVs have served in 141 countries.  Today 7,376 serve (or are in training) in 65 countries, and 63% are female.  The average age is 28.  Each year about 23,000 apply, but only 3,600 are accepted.  Many elite colleges have better odds! Nicaragua currently hosts 162 volunteers.  Malaysia, where we served 1978-80, hosted over 4,000 from 1962 to the late 1980s.  

So, what's it like being a volunteer?  You'd probably get 230,000 different answers.  The most enduring PC slogan remains "The toughest job you'll ever love."  About 11% don't make it through the first year.  For us it was a love-hate relationship that keeps getting better with each passing year.  We were in a predominately Muslim country, and it was very hard for Kathy.  We'd say that Nati, Jasmine, and their fellow volunteers really love it, despite the hardships.  And we believe that Nicaragua needs them far more than Malaysia ever needed us.  Malaysia's schools 40 years ago were much better equipped, funded, and staffed than are Nicaragua's today.

Nati's newly painted home in
Postegales, northern Nicaragua
His back yard with shower, sink, and
outhouse.  He gets water between
5:00-10AM each day

Proud of his stifling-hot kitchen.  Constant dust every
day is a challenge.

They have much more structure and support from the PC HQ in Managua and from the US ambassador, and perhaps more HQ  oversight than we had. They are all issued simple Peace Corps cell phones and required to carry them at all times.  We can't remember how big the PC HQ is, but we were surprised to know how many regular and medical staff it has, compared to ours in Kuala Lumpur.  PC also has several vetted taxis on contract for volunteer use in Managua, which is fairly crime-ridden.  

Their living conditions seem very hot, dusty, and claustrophobic.  They often toggle back and forth between two or three other schools training teachers to teach English, plus do community volunteer projects outside their jobs.  

Walking to one of his schools.  Sometimes the
river crossing is hard to cross in the rainy season.
His other commute is more scenic
One of his three schools
 Money seems to be a struggle, with an income of about $250 per month--similar to what the lower middle class earns.  Rent consumes much of that.  Unlike our diverse and dispersed training group of about 25, they seem very tight-knit and well connected to home and each other by social media.  Our hats go off to them (but not too long in this hot sun), and to PCVs everywhere.  

Yet another way to a third school through a typical village

Jasmine's home near Rivas.  She rents a small room
and shares the family's kitchen

Our termite & ant-ridden
home 1978-80

In many ways, we had it easier during our service, except for the very first month with language dialect difficulties, finding a place to live, and a couple of night-time police 'visits' (or raids?) at our temporary hotel housing until we befriended the local Raja, who pretty much became our protective godfather.  Perhaps it was our ambiguous job with lots of freedom and the higher rank we held in the Malaysian hierarchy as bureaucrats in the morning and village development organizers in the afternoon.  

Being married opened a lot of doors for relationships with other Malaysian couples, but it also kept other single locals from reaching out to us.  We were lonely, but at least we had each other and Voice of America broadcasts every night at 7:30.  We missed the seasons and our privacy.  I'm not sure if either of us would have made it the whole way by ourselves.

Our weekly splurge of barbecuing a
chicken on our back porch 

Kathy hard at work on our morning
office. Our motorcycle and the
villages were our "office" in the afternoons.

Kathy in our kitchen.  We ate very well.

The PC HQ in Kuala Lumpur and the cabinet minister overseeing us pretty much left us alone, which was fine with us.  Our boss (then the economic development director, and now governor of our province) was a big supporter of our program and viewed it as a tool for his political advancement.  

As a couple we could pool our expenses and weren't always broke, once we got our home furnished.  We had a motorcycle (purchased with our own funds) and could get around, even going to Southern Thailand or Penang now and then.  Other PCVs were long distances away.  We had no phones, and never called home in over two years--it was too expensive and technologically difficult--even calling the PC office in KL.  At least the US and Malaysian postal services were excellent back then.

Sometimes you feel like your on the top of the world.
(Nati near rim of Volcano Telica at sunrise with us)
Both then and now, Peace Corps volunteers were generally (but not always) held in high esteem by their neighbors, co-workers, and host countries.  A former Kenya PCV and a good friend we knew warned us that we should "get used to being weird for the rest of our lives," and that nobody back home will really understand what it was like, nor care about it for more than a few minutes. He was right.  We’re weird and see things with a global and developing world perspective. Just about any returned PCV will tell you that coming home was a bigger culture shock than going. 

Our experience is a good part of who we are and why our marriage has endured for nearly 41 years.  We’d do it again for the first time, but not again for a second time.  After running our own business for 35 years, we just have a problem with large organizations, no matter how effective, well-intentioned, and organized like the Peace Corps is.  That said, we’re proud of our service and our roles as ambassadors of the United States and its values.

Sometimes you feel hung out to dry. (Village at Ometepe)
Again, it was a pleasure and an honor to hang with Nati and Jasmine, and to have dinner with Karen and Airlie in Managua, and Denise in Leon.  You make us proud.  Thanks for making it a most memorable and heartwarming trip!  We love you we and get a little emotional just thinking about you.  Hang in there!
Logo of Peace Corps

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Ometepe Island--Costa Rica and Bali 40 years ago

We've been privileged over the past decades to experience some cool places before they became mainstream and overrun with tourists, cruise ships, high-rise resorts or war.  Nepal, Burma, Bali, Afghanistan, Iran, and parts of India,Thailand, Costa Rica, Greece, and Malaysia, come to mind.  Facilities were minimal and catered to
View for our deck each night
mostly  backpackers. These places retained their unique character and culture in spite of the few tourists who visited. We thought there weren't any more left.

Then we discovered Ometepe Island in Nicaragua, which takes about an hour by ferry boat to get there. Shaped like an hour glass defined by a volcano on each end, it's about half the size of Oahu, Hawaii (but shaped like Maui) on Lake Nicaragua, which is about 1/3 the size of Lake Erie.
Ometepe is he island in Lake Nicaragua

The ferry to Ometepe
Mt. Conception--the larger one

Volcan Maderas, the smaller inactive one,
as seen from our kayaks

A road of paving bricks covers a small portion of the perimeter, but the roads are mainly dusty dirt with rocks the size of small Yukon gold potatoes.  A number of small resorts line he shoreline here and there, sporting one to 15 rooms.   The taxis are mostly four-wheel drive pickup trucks.  But you can also flag down a crowded "chicken bus" (which we did) with everyone and their chickens and goats on it.
Hot, crowded, but fun "chicken bus"
Ometepe sports three ATM's, a very small port town, lots of 20-somethings in short-short and tank tops with backpacks, and a good number of  grass shack cafes serving delicious food, smoothies, and cold beer.  We stayed in a wonderful two-room B&B on Via Verde Organic Farm, pioneered 17 years ago by Eileen and Darren from California.

Via Verde Farm, Home sweet home for
three days

Our common area deck with a killer
view of Mt. Conception

They slept in a tent the first three years while they built a home and planted trees, shrubs, and crops.  We shared a common bath and deck area with a spectacular view of Mt. Conception, especially at sunset.  (Check out their website link above for more photos).

One of the best swimming
holes, ever!
It was so fun hanging out with Peace Corps Volunteers Nati and Jasmine, both fluent in Spanish and willing to compare their Peace Corps experiences with ours, separated by 6,000 miles and 39 years.  More on that in our next blog.
A nice 3-mile hike to
a refreshing waterfall

We hiked to a waterfall, kayaked in a fresh water bayou, and played Tarzan and Jane at a crystal clear 
swimming hole.

kayaking in a fresh water bayou

An Ibex and an Egret from North America

Eileen gave us a tour of her farm and
 Jasmine some planting starts and seeds
for her school garden.
We enjoyed spectacular sunsets, walked star-light roads at night and hot dusty ones by day to great meals (including pizza!).  At night we got into some cutthroat pinochle games over beers and the local rum.

Lunch on a tropical island with chickens underfoot

Pinochle, rum, beer, and going "set."
Catching the sunset from our kayaks

We hated to say goodbye to both of them and Ometepe.  We're spending our last three full days in a five-room inn at Laguna de Apoyo, which is inside a volcanic crater, about 200 meters from the rim.  The crystal-clear fresh water lake is three miles across and 525 feet deep.  It's a nice place to just chill, which--for those of you who really know us--is hard for us to do.  But we're coping, and the food is amazing.
Breakfast, lunch, happy hour, and dinner hangout
at Casa Marimba
Overall, it's been a very fun trip--much better than we thought it would be, especially after spectacular Tanzania. But connecting with five Peace Corps volunteers and getting the back story on the country has made it all worthwhile. We're so proud of them! We get to go home to get out of the heat, humidity, and dust, but they still have to (or get to) stay for eight more months.

This is an extremely poor country, still recovering from years of civil war and a corrupt kleptocracy by the politically-connected ultra wealthy. But the Nicas are very friendly, hospitable, and laid-back; not as reserved as Asians we've met in our travels and living abroad.  Although the countryside is somewhat dusty, barren and extremely hot at the end of this dry season, it's still beautiful.  Believe it or not, the water, ice cubes and food are relatively safe, and we've had no health problems.  And we've felt very personally safe the whole time.  See Nicaragua--and especially Ometepe--while you still can, while it still retains its charm.  It's Costa Rica 40 years ago.

Panoramic view from our beach

Our last sunset at Laguna de Apoyo

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Colorful Granada, Nicaragua

At the crater of Mt. Maysaya.  We could hear the
lava rumbling below the sulfur cloud.
We ended our last evening in the town of Granada the same way we started it four nights ago: a nice meal and drinks on a street closed off to vehicles.  Lots of locals were also there to enjoy the cool(er) 85 air with a breeze, people watching, dining, and live music.  Just a block or two off the main street, the ordinary townsfolk watch TVs inside their sweltering two room homes from the sidewalks outside where it is cooler.
A typical side street

Granada is one of the most colorful and tourist user-friendly towns we have  visited in quite awhile.   Founded in 1524 by the Spaniards, it is one of the oldest cities in the New World.  It was burned in 1856 by William Walker, an American filibuster (one who conducts unauthorized warfare), then rebuilt and fairly-well maintained ever since.  It has many huge haciendas, now mostly converted into hostels, B&Bs, and hotels.
A former hacienda that's now
a good restaurant 

It's too hot after lunch to hustle stuff

The people are friendly, but pretty much ignore the tourists unless they have something to sell, and even then they take a polite "no" for an answer and move on.  We wish we knew more Spanish (or even some Spanish) to strike up conversations with them.

With so many 20-something travelers in short-shorts and tank tops sporting backpacks, we're probably in the upper age demographic here. (But, hey, we also have backpacks.) But every now and then we see a procession of older tourists being herded around by a tour leader, and occasionally families or older couples in one of the many fine eateries here.
Fishing among the islets of Lake Cacibalaca

Cruising among the small islands

Granada sits beside the huge Lake Cacibalaca, conveniently located to volcanoes, island resorts, and the Pacific Ocean.  In fact, it was the main overland transit point for the California Gold rush.

We visited the Mombacho and Masaya volcanoes and enjoyed a boat ride among some small islands that were created by Mt. Mombaco belching giant boulders into the lake.  We also briefly visited the town of Masayya at the foot of that active volcano.

Mt. Mombacho.  We hiked partly around it

An old fortress in Masaya, now an artisan market

It's been a pretty laid back four nights here.  It is so unbelievably hot and humid here that we basically accomplish one big  thing per day, then retreat to our $50 per night hacienda and it's plunge pool, read, and rediscover the lost art of afternoon naps.

A slot canyon near
the rim of Motombu

The overgrown Mombacho crater

On Thursday we finally get to meet Jasmine, a Peace Corps volunteer (and Nati's girlfriend) an hour south of here.  The four of us will take the ferry to the Ometepe Island and stay at a B&B on an organic farm.

Ahhhhh!   The plunge pool
in our $50 per night hacienda.
Most hostels and hotels have them