339 days

I meant to write this post like a month ago, but y’all know I’m a mess on the blog these days.

We’ve been in Nicaragua for 482 days. That’s 3 months of training and 13 months in our sites. That means that we have less than a year left in our service, and I honestly can’t believe how the time has flown. At the time, those 3 months of training felt incredibly long, but now it’s just a (critically important) blip on the radar, and the year since swearing in is a blur. There was a time before I started Peace Corps when I naively thought that one year would be enough time. Well, we’re 16 months in and have 11 left, and I gotta say, it’ll never feel like I’ve had enough time here. I have so much more that I want to accomplish.

Anyway, to celebrate a year since swearing in, a group of us went to the Laguna de Apoyo and swam in the warm water and ate expensive food and generally enjoyed each other’s company. Then some of us went back to Matagalpa because we had STEP class to teach.

Sorry, but I took exactly zero photos during that trip.

Last week, a few of us had Friendsgiving (which I also took no pictures of). I saw a couple friends who I don’t see often, and a few I see all the time, and we made macaroni and cheese and sangria. Thomas had a high fever and unfortunately couldn’t really enjoy the food, but it was still a good long weekend, and now the school year is officially over and I’m almost in the U.S.

This month, I may even see some of you in real life!

Flaquita, flaquita

“¿Jade, por qué sos tan flaquita?” – my host family, constantemente.

I think most people have heard unsolicited comments about their bodies from people, whether it’s from strangers, family, or friends. Sometimes it doesn’t bother us. Sometimes it does.

I’ve always been skinny. I was born at a healthy 6 lb, 5 oz (over a pound bigger than my twin sister) and throughout my life, I’ve always been seen as skinny, but not quite as skinny as Jasmine. If there are categories of skinny, Jasmine was more lanky-skinny and I was more athletic-skinny. As adults, I usually weighed about ten pounds more than her, not that that’s super relevant.

Anyway, we were blessed with our father’s high metabolism, and no matter what my food intake or exercise regimen was, Adult Jade was always within 4 pounds of her typical weight. No more, no less. When I arrived in Nicaragua, I was weighed by Peace Corps doctors, and I was my typical weight on the dot.

I didn’t have a scale in training, so the first time I weighed myself after the initial weigh-in was at a farmacia in Matagalpa last December. I’d (unsurprisingly) gained about 3 pounds, so I was pretty close to the heaviest I’d ever been, but still well within what I’d consider my normal weight. (I mean, I’m the person who weighs herself before and after Thanksgiving dinner just to see how many pounds of food I can consume in one sitting. Fluctuating 3 pounds is pretty easy to do in one day.) Also, we’d been told that most women gain weight when they come to Nicaragua. The diet is high in starch and fat, and a lot of women alter their typical exercise routine in some way.

Anyway, fast forward to February. I’d done some exercise in my room in December/January (very occasionally. nothing regularly, and nothing since). Anyway, in (mid? Late?) February I put on my Beyoncé pants that I worked out in, and I looked in the mirror and felt different. My pants seemed like they fit differently. I felt less muscular. And like there were places I used to be able to grab some fat, but now I couldn’t get a handful.

I recognize that this is a ridiculous problem, and that I have (and always have had) a lot of advantages because I have this body. People assume that I’m healthy because I’m thin. I’m not seen as lazy or gluttonous, even when I eat junk and don’t exercise (as I have for most of my life). I never diet, and nobody ever suggests to me that I should do certain things or lead a healthier lifestyle.

Anyway, this day I looked in the mirror and suddenly saw a change. A change I didn’t want. But I thought maybe I was imagining it. I didn’t know how it had happened. I sent some pictures to my sisters (a picture from December and one from February) and asked if I looked skinnier. They couldn’t say for sure. I thought maybe I was imagining the weight loss. When I went to the Peace Corps doctors in April, I mentioned that I felt like I’d lost some weight. They weighed me, and I was 3 pounds less than my August weight (6 pounds less than my December weight, which they had no record of since I’d weighed myself in a random pharmacy.) The doctor called a 3 pound weight loss “insignificant,” which is true. I was still within what I’d consider a very typical weight for Adult Jade.

Fast forward to June/July. I went home on emergency leave, and Jasmine immediately commented that I looked skinnier. She took my measurements, but I couldn’t remember what they were before Peace Corps so I had no comparison to my previous body, and I had to just compare my weight to hers. She’d gained a few pounds, and I’d lost a few more (now putting me at about  8 pounds less than August, 11 pounds less than December, if I’m remembering the numbers correctly.) This also meant that, for the first time in our lives, I weighed less than Jasmine (by about 5 pounds) and I weighed less than I ever had as an adult. I bought new jeans (a size smaller than I can recall buying in the last…12-14 years.)

I got back to Nicaragua a couple weeks later (after going to town on alllll the food) and one of the first things my host family said was, “you’re so skinny! You’re too skinny!” Now, I understand that I’m skinny. I’ve always been skinny. But I’d lived with them since November and this was the first time they seemed to have noticed. And in the 3 months since I’ve been back from that first emergency leave, I’ve gotten a barrage of questions.

“Jade, why are you so skinny?” (I don’t know.)

“Did your mom ask you why you were so skinny when you went home?” (No, she said my butt was flatter but I still look healthy.)

“[A previous volunteer] engordaba mucho y ella caminaba y corría. ¿Por qué sos tan flaquita?” (Ok I know that she walked/ran like 7 miles a day when she lived here and that I am both lazier and skinnier but I don’t understand metabolism? My sister is skinny without trying, Dad was skinny without trying. It’s a thing I can’t explain.)

“You need to eat more.” (I mean, I’m trying but all I eat is beans so I just poop it out 5 minutes later.)

“Why are you so skinny?” (I still don’t know.)

“What did the doctors say? Did they say you need to eat more?” (I mean, it would probably be good if I didn’t lose more weight, but the weight I’ve gradually lost so far doesn’t concern them. I’ve only had diarrhea twice in over a year so that’s not the problem and they’re really not worried.)

“Comé bastante. Los doctores dicen que necesitás comer más.” (Ok.)

I understand that these comments come from a place of love. I appreciate that they want me to be healthy and that they want to feed me well. That said, it is frustrating to be so out of control of my diet and my body. When I’m in site, I eat what they give me. I can’t exercise in the ways that I’d like to, because that would require running at 4 a.m. (probably dangerous) to beat the heat. 

I love this family, and I don’t ever want to move, but the hardest thing about my living situation is being so out of control of what and when I eat. When I finish Peace Corps, I will be thrilled to have a crock pot and an oven and to cook all the things I want.

I know that much of this blog post has felt like I’m complaining, either about losing weight or about my family’s comments on it. Now that I’ve rambled for a while, I’ll try to articulate my point. The weight loss itself isn’t that big a deal. I’m still a healthy weight, and I still weigh more than Jasmine has for much of her adult life. The constant comments and questions aren’t hurtful. I think my biggest frustration is just not knowing how to answer them. For my entire life, no matter what I did or didn’t do, my weight would stay fairly stable. Now, I’m seeing a gradual, inexplicable change, one that is opposite of what most people here experience or expect. My family doesn’t understand how I can be so skinny while eating these foods (and they have at least some understanding of nutrition, because my host sister has cut out some of the starch in an attempt to lose weight). That’s why they ask the questions. They don’t understand why I’m so flaca and they assume that I have the answers. The problem is that I don’t get it either, and I don’t like being so out of touch with what’s going on with my body.

I tried to explain this to them, that in the States I ate a lot (“and you got fatter, right?” they interjected.) No, I never got fatter. My sister eats a lot and she doesn’t engordar. My dad ate mountains of food and él no engordaba tampoco. 

El metabolismo es genético, o algo así.

Anyway, I’m looking forward to Christmas. Mom, please bake all the holiday sweets and all my favorite winter foods. I’ll make you a list.

September/October recap

I’ve been putting off writing for so long that now I have to give you a recap of what I’ve been up to for the last two months (much of which I’ve forgotten.)

September started off sad. Less than six months after being diagnosed with cancer, my stepmom passed away. I flew back for the funeral. I was glad I had a chance to be there, but I didn’t want to stay long. I flew back to Managua, where all of my favorite people were gathered. I can’t stress enough how thankful I am for the friendships I’ve built here. These folks were my rock during training and after we got scattered around the country. (Thomas took this photo and is obviously included in the aforementioned “favorite people.”)


Anyway, so I went back to my site and got back into the swing of work as much as I could. I taught more STEP classes and classes in the secondary schools in my town. One of my counterparts has started giving me lunch during our co-planning sessions, and it’s always delicious. I enjoy spending a few hours at her house every week (even on days when it turns out class is cancelled.) Her two-year-old daughter is awesome, even though she’s still not so sure about me.

¿Qué más? 

I’ve traveled to Matagalpa and Managua recently, where I unashamedly blow all my money on food. I just got back from a doctor’s appointment in Managua. I got my teeth cleaned, got two corazón suckers for being so great with my checkup and shots. I’m now realizing that I only ate one of the suckers, and I’m not sure where the other one is.

Panic panic panic.

Just kidding, no need to panic. I found it in my purse.


So what’s next?

The school year ends in November, and in December, Thomas and I are headed back to the States for vacation. We’re excited to see family and friends and eat good food. We’re less excited that everything in the U.S. costs dollars, and we don’t have dollars 😬

I plan on posting at least 2 more updates between now and then though, so stay tuned!

STEP

I’ve been semi-busy for the last month, but I thought now might be a good time to sit down and tell you a little bit of what I’ve been up to.

As TEFL volunteers, one of our responsibilities is to serve as English teachers in a program called STEP (Striving Towards English Proficiency). This program givesNicaraguan English teachers in different departments the opportunity to study English on the weekends so they can improve their English proficiency. Peace Corps Volunteers teach 2-12 classes per semester, depending on how close they live to the STEP site. Because I live in the department of Matagalpa, I was assigned to teach 3 classes in August and will teach 5 or 6 more between now and December.

The Nicaraguan English teachers took a proficiency test to determine what level they’ll start at, and STEP Matagalpa is currently teaching 3 of the 5 levels. Students who start in the first level will take classes for 2.5 years before they finish the program, so it’s quite the commitment. Many of these teachers already teach 5 or 6 days a week and give up their only free day to attend STEP classes. Many of them have to travel long distances (4+ hours on the bus) to get to class. It takes me 2.5 hours to get to the department capital where we have STEP, and I’m exhausted every time I make the trip! I feel incredibly lucky that these students are so committed and that they show up full of energy, excited to practice their English (from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. every Sunday!)

I teach the third level, so my class already has an intermediate high English proficiency. I’ve had so much fun, because we can have discussions completely in English, but it can also be a little challenging because I have to teach more complex grammar (some of which I’ve never had to think about because I’m a native speaker and it comes naturally for me). We are encouraged to use a lot of dinámicas, games, and different methods to teach the content. It’s more fun for all of us, and the students get ideas for activities they can implement in their own classrooms.

It typically takes me a good 10 hours to plan for one day of STEP class, but I feel incredibly accomplished when the day is over and when my class does well on their tests. 

Here are a couple photos from my class last week. We have a lot of fun!

1 Year

August 10th marked one year since our Nica 68 group got off the plane in Nicaragua and became Peace Corps trainees. We had three months of training, which went pretty slowly, and then 9 lightning-fast months in our permanent sites.

A lot has happened in the last year, and I’m so happy to be here. 

A brief list of things that have changed since August 10th last year:

  • I always write the number 7 with a line through it, lest it be mistaken for a 1.
  • I exclaim “¡Que calor!” about a dozen times a day.
  • I walk in the shade whenever possible often crossing the street for just a few seconds of slightly-cooler temperatures.

Most importantly though, I’ve formed friendships that have sustained me in good times and bad times. My Niquinohomo squad, who pushed through training with me every day and came out the other side



All the other volunteers, especially in TEFL 68, who have made this experience so incredible.

(I’m sure I have some pictures of you all but I can’t bring myself to look for them. Please forgive me but I’ve had a 101 degree fever in a tropical country and it’s been an interesting week.)

Of course, I can’t end without giving a special shout out to Thomas, whose unwavering friendship has given me immeasurable strength. He’s the biggest blessing of the last year, hands down.


I’m so excited to see what the next year will bring.

The return to the training town

For some reason, even though I’ve written a fair amount in the last few months, I haven’t been blogging. I’m going to start posting old stuff and try to get back on track with keeping y’all updated on the goings on in my life.

In April, most of the volunteers from my training group returned to their training towns for Spanish class. I’ll be honest, I wasn’t looking forward to the Spanish classes nearly as much as I was looking forward to seeing my friends in our old stomping grounds. We traveled together from Managua to our little town in the department of Masaya, and it was such a surreal feeling. I hadn’t been back since I swore in as a volunteer, and it simultaneously felt like no time had passed and like an eternity had passed. I still feel very much like a new volunteer, but I feel like I’ve grown and learned so much since I got to my new home. I’m still the same person, but kind of a different version.

Surreal.

We stepped off the bus on the side of the highway we’ve walked and driven down a thousand times before.

It felt like home. I was immediately overwhelmed by my love of this place. I’ve been out of this town for twice as long as I was in it, but in some ways, it still feels more like home than my permanent site.

Training was crazy and a little stressful at times, but my town was tranquilo and my host family was wonderful. Above all, I had friends close by who I could talk to and lean on when I needed it. We all supported each other and became each other’s family. We try to get together when we can, but we live all over Nicaragua and it is difficult to go weeks and months without seeing each other. I didn’t really realize how much I missed hanging out as a group. Getting tostones and batidos after a long day, watching the sun set over the laguna.

When we visited one of our favorite restaurants in town, the owner recognized us and said “a couple of you are missing” and she was right. Maddie was in the U.S, and Thomas (honorary member of our training group) was in a different town.

We have such memories tied to that town. We had our regular spots and routines, and that’s where we grew into Peace Corps Volunteers. That’s where our friendships grew, where Adrian walked me home every night even though I’d never felt unsafe.

Returning made me reflect on all the ways in which my life has changed, both in good ways and bad ways. I still have the support of my friends in my training town, but now that we don’t see each other every day, we’re really forced to reach out to each other, and we don’t always succeed at doing that. 

I really do feel like I have a lot of different homes. Some of them are places, and some of them are people, but I’m thankful for all of them.

Nica 68 squad: I’m going to try to be better at keeping in touch, even though we don’t live close. 

There and back again

It’s been a month since my last blog post. I have no excuses. I’ve been putting off writing every day. A lot has happened, but I haven’t really wanted to try to put it into words.

At the end of June/beginning of July, I went home. I say “home” but to be honest, home doesn’t really feel like the right word. These days, I feel like I have a lot of homes. Maybe that’s the subject of another post.

Anyway, I went back to the U.S. for two weeks on emergency leave. If an immediate relative has a terminal illness, Peace Corps will fly you back to see them. I was glad I was able to go, even though it was difficult. For those two weeks, I was able to see family and get their support, even when they may not have realized the extent to which they were supporting me.

I saw my nephews and nieces, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and sisters for the first time in a year, and it was wonderful. 

I don’t really want to talk about illness and sadness and all the definitions of “going home” right now, so I’ll throw a few photos from my trip in.

On that note, as happy as I was to go back to the U.S, I was definitely ready to leave by the end of the trip. When I caught my first glimpse of the lake as the plane made its descent, I was overwhelmed by a feeling of homecoming. I’m happy to be back.

Dear Diarrhea,

Dear Diarrhea, what to say to you?(Please sing that to the tune of “Dear Theodosia” even though I was too lazy to write more of the song.)

Last night, I was watching “My Conventional Wisdom,” an episode of Scrubs in which J.D. and Turk go to a medical convention. One of the things they see there is Dr. Toilet, which gives a diagnosis after a patient has a bowel movement in it.

That was my roundabout way of starting this conversation on self-diagnosing my grief through poop.

I’m going back to the United States for a few weeks. I hadn’t planned on leaving Nicaragua until Christmas vacation, but a few months ago I learned that my stepmom had been diagnosed with cancer. I’m allowed to take emergency leave to go see her.

Now, I could have taken this leave a long time ago, really as soon as I found out. I told myself I had a lot of reasons for waiting: the situation was time sensitive but not necessarily emergent. From what I gathered, not a lot would change between April and June. I had a lot of stuff planned for April and May, and I didn’t want to go home unless I could see Jasmine while I was there.

Passable reasons for staying here, but still excuses.

As June creeped onward, I realized that I really really needed to get a move on and go back. I started to feel resentful, because of course I want to see my family, and of course I want to visit my stepmom, but I truly love my life here and I don’t want to leave it, not even for a couple weeks.

More than that though, I’m not ready to face more grief. Here in Nicaragua, I have the luxury of ignoring it, but emergency leave is exactly what it sounds like, and no matter how I spend that time, the purpose of my visit is abundantly clear.

I’m feeling a lot of things that I can’t fully articulate: guilt, grief, anger, excitement, sadness…

Stress.

You may recall that I got sick (and by that I mean diarrhea and vomiting) on January 26, one year after the last time I saw Dad before he died. That sickness was short-lived, and I assumed that it was caused by stress. 

On Wednesday night, I talked to Thomas about all of my feelings about going back to the U.S. Once I get there, I think my feelings (at least some of them) will change, but the act of leaving and actually packing and getting on a bus and going to the airport and getting on a plane…thinking about that made the whole thing real all of a sudden.

All of a sudden, I wasn’t telling people, “Yeah, I’ll probably go home in a few months” or “I’ll probably go home sometime in June” or “I’ll go home after Jasmine is back in Missouri.” 

All of a sudden, I heard myself saying, “I’m probably going home next week.”

All of a sudden, it was real. I was going to have to face the grief.

Anyway, I woke up Thursday morning with diarrhea. For a lot of volunteers, diarrhea is a pretty common occurrence, but for me, I’ve had exactly one bout of diarrhea: as my body’s way of commemorating Dad’s death.

I had agreed to help judge an English singing competition at one of my schools, so I sent a text to my counterpart to tell her that I was feeling sick and didn’t think I could help. 

She begged me to help, so I told her I’d come.

I sat at school for about four hours, praying that I could, at the very least, not poop my pants.

God provides.

For those four hours, I was present, breaking out into a sweat, either leaning back in my seat or leaning forward with my head in my hands.

At one point my counterpart asked if I was asleep. I was miserable, but she’d been asking me to help her for weeks and I wanted to at least give it my best effort.

I feel like I did that. I made it halfway through the day. I took a drink of water. My body was so hot that I felt like I was about to pass out. My counterpart tried to talk to me and it sounded like I had cotton in my ears. I told her that I felt like I needed to get air. I walked outside and puked in the grass while the loitering students watched me.

I told her that I really needed to go home.

Yesterday, I felt fine. I packed my things to prepare for my trip back. Today I feel terrible again. I’m writing this while I sit on the bus. It’ll be okay.

The other day, I mentioned to a few other volunteers that I was sick but I didn’t really know why. They assumed I have a parasite (because honestly everyone does) but I disagreed.

I don’t need a stool sample or a Dr. Toilet to know that I’m stressing myself out to the point of physical illness. 

I still don’t know exact details of when I’ll be back, but it’ll probably be within a few days. Hopefully I can at least keep my shit together until I get off the plane in Missouri.

I’ll see some of you soon.

What Comes Next?

Since I’ve been back in site, I’ve found myself feeling like I don’t have anything to write about. My primary job—co-teaching English in the secondary schools—doesn’t start until the beginning of the school year in February. We kind of got here at a weird time, just as school was wrapping up. So what are we doing for the next couple months?

Mostly, we’re trying to integrate into our families and communities. We’re trying to form relationships with our counterparts before we start teaching together. We’re assessing the needs and wants in our communities.

Personally, I have two main things scheduled for the break: Access Camp in a couple weeks and teaching English at the university. The other day, I went to the local university to express interest in teaching there on the weekends, which I assumed would start in January. I was wrong. My first day is tomorrow, and every Sunday for the next few months, I’ll be teaching English. I kind of blinked and found myself roped in and committed.

Okay, so we’re doing this.

Nothing more to say on that front, so I’ll dive very shallowly into one of the questions the people in my community ask me the most: What are you doing after?

I understand how this keeps coming up. When I meet new people, I try to explain why I’m here (to teach English) and that I’ll be here for another two years. I am trying to help them see that I’m not just passing through or staying for a month. I’ll actually be living and working in the community.

And then comes the question, which I never quite know what to do with.

Will you go back to the United States in two years?

Will you be a teacher in the United States after being a teacher here?

What do you want to do after two years?

The answer to all of these questions is a *shrug* because I have no idea what I’ll be doing in two years. I can’t even say with certainty what country I’ll want to be living it. One decision I made when I decided to come to Nicaragua was to just allow myself to be here in this experience and not think about the future, and not think about where this leads. I have always been a planner. My parents think it’s hilarious, because I’m a pretty disorganized person, and even my best-laid plans usually change. The planning has never been about the end result, it’s about the process.

Here, in Nicaragua, I really don’t care about the big What Comes Next. This is obviously a time of massive change and adjustment, and all of my focus is on the short-term. I have to take all of this in baby steps and push the details of my many five-year plans to the back of my brain.

So, I’ve composed a list of certainties about 2018:

  • I’ll be 27.

That’s it. That’s the only thing I know. Right now, it feels foolish to assume I’ll know what I’ll want or how I’ll change in the next two years. Before I started grad school, I wanted to go into publishing. In the middle of grad school, while I was working for the Honors College, I developed a passion for higher education. I’ve changed my mind many times since then, and I’m sure I’ll continue to follow that pattern. There’s something really wonderful about not being sure, and I’m excited to just keep figuring things out as they happen.

Thanksgiving with Otto

In my last post, I mentioned that some friends and I were planning on going to a beautiful location, hiking, and eating cheesecake.

Turns out, none of that happened.

On Tuesday, I received a text from the wonderful safety and security team, who said that all volunteers would need to leave their sites and consolidate in Managua on Wednesday. Tropical Storm/Hurricane Otto had slightly changed course, and there was a chance that it would affect some of our sites in Nicaragua. They wanted us to all be together to ride out the storm, so to speak.

I’ll be honest, I wasn’t at all upset that I had to ditch my plans and go to Managua. Embassy families had invited us to spend Thanksgiving with them, but I’d declined because I didn’t want to pay out of pocket and go to Managua, and I really didn’t want to sit on a bus for ten hours over the course of a couple days. So a few of us had made our own plan, and we were excited about it.

When Otto destroyed the plan, I was a little bummed that I’d miss out on homemade cheesecake (like, they make the cheese there) but I was pumped that I’d not only get to see five of my friends, but ALL of them, and have an actual Thanksgiving meal. 

Apparently, this is the only time in about six years that all of the volunteers from around the country were together in one place. I think there are over 150 of us currently in country.

Anyway, thanks to Peace Corps and the awesome people at the Embassy, I got my name on a list so I could have Thanksgiving dinner. I ended up at Ambassador Laura Dugu’s house with about 40 other Peace Corps volunteers. Thanksgiving started when she greeted us at the door and we were immediately offered an assortment of beverages. (I chose white wine, because red would have been an invitation for disaster.)

Thanksgiving continued with food that rivaled my mom’s (which is really saying something.) I was honestly impressed that  they could cook so well for so many people.

Plate #1

The ambassador sat at my table, and maybe a minute after we started eating, I felt the table shake, and very calmly realized that we were having an earthquake. (Apparently, it was a 7-point-something in El Salvador. We had a tsunami warning in Nicaragua for a while, but all is well here.)
I ended up eating a couple plates of food. There was no pumpkin pie when I went for dessert, so I ended up eating some sort of delicious apple concoction and drinking cafe con leche out of fancy gilded cups.

Before we left, all of the guests took a picture with our gracious host.


Then, when I got back to the hotel, I sent my sisters some maternity-style photos of my food baby, as one does.

I spent the rest of the weekend with friends: Playing Cards Against Humanity, playing ERS (I lost, so Thomas is now a game up), and talking Harry Potter with Adrian.

Hurricane Otto made landfall on the coast, but it mostly missed Nicaragua. There may be a little damage, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as it could have been. All we got in Managua was a little bit of rain, so on Friday we were allowed to go home. 

Most of us ended up staying an extra night in Managua and going to a fancy mall where we couldn’t actually afford anything. The prices were so high that they were in dollars.

We saw Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and then we got some sushi that was waaaaaay over our budget.

I’m back in Matagalpa now, but I’m very thankful that I was able to spend my first Thanksgiving away from home with people who feel like family.

68, see you all at New Year’s.