Category Archives: Werd Travels

Long Distance Relationships & The Peace Corps

I met my soulmate before I left for the Peace Corps and, at the time, the thought of being anything more than casual associates was farfetched. Now, three months away from finishing my two-year service, we’re planning to get married.

Long distance relationships in the Peace Corps is possible, contrary to traditional belief, and I want to tell you how I make it work.

So, what keeps you over the distance for someone you barely know?

My boyfriend and I met six months before I was to leave my home country for Nicaragua for two years. He was the first man to express happiness and encouragement when I told him I joined the Peace Corps instead of acting like I was going to live on a different planet.

Like any other relationship, there had been issues between us and, with the distance, we really had to want to resolve them. Whenever there was a problem, we addressed it immediately instead of letting it fester. So we had to constantly ask ourselves if the relationship was worth it. You have to know why you’re doing what you’re doing. Is it worth the cost?

I wasn’t always sure it was. We started as friends and, with time, we decided we wanted to be more serious. Once we became exclusive, our relationship became that much harder.

Sometimes, I had to choose work over talking to him.

Some days, the community lost power and there was no internet to call him.

Often times, I would be too tired to talk to him when I finished work for the day.

I had to be completely honest, admit when I messed up and give him assurance that even in my failure, my heart still wanted him.

But. It. Was. Worth. It.

Ask yourself, is he or she worth it?

A long distance relationship in the Peace Corps is not only possible but I think it is necessary.

Why? Because I am a better volunteer as a result of my relationship with my significant other. It has made our friendship even stronger.

It was an emotional journey. Yes, we did have fights. Jealousy did strike a few times and there were several nights when I chose him over sleep. Occasionally, my relationship weighed on my social life BUT through it all, progress was made.

He got to know me as I evolved and became a stronger volunteer and a better woman.

Now, we’re moving towards marriage and I only have a few months left of my service.

Here are a few key ways that I think help make a long distance relationship in the Peace Corps work:

  1. Want it. We wanted to be exclusive and I wanted him.
  2. Be transparent. Tell everyone you have a boyfriend. Hold yourself accountable. Being in close confines with other volunteers is tempting. These people understand exactly what you’re going through and will always get it, sometimes more than your significant other BUT remember number 1.
  3. Make time for your partner. Show him/her that no matter what, you’re willing to prioritize your relationship even though, at the moment, your job comes first.
  4. Be honest about your needs and don’t be intimidated by the distance. The hundreds or thousands of miles between you won’t matter so much if your hearts are close.
  5. Visit. My boyfriend visited me in Nicaragua and I visited him when I went home for Christmas.
  6. Make plans. Know that the distance can’t and shouldn’t be forever.
  7. Use technology. I don’t know what I would have done if I was in a country without Wi-Fi. For the first few months of my service, there wasn’t any Wi-Fi in the park or my house and it made talking a real effort, but thankfully that changed after a few months of integration.
  8. Be on the same page. We both love to travel. We both love art. He is a musician. I’m a writer. He’s in a fraternity. I’m in a sorority. We’re both black. Sure, there are differences between us, but one the most important things in life is that we’re always on the same page.
  9. Support each other. There were times when being so far away made me cry. There were times when I felt frustrated because I was going through something only a Peace Corps Volunteer could understand. There were times when he felt like I didn’t have enough time for him or he was worried because I was sick and far away. But we both stepped up in those feelings and supported each other through it.
  10. Pray. My boyfriend and I are Christians and praying is an important component of being together. We pray for each other every night and try to pray together. I have a devotional life on my own, but knowing that my boyfriend is praying for me and for us to be in God’s Will gives me even more peace knowing that we are doing this together. Whether you believe in God or not, it definitely takes something higher than yourself to sustain in a difficult situation.

It’s a common belief, theory and some say fact that 70% of volunteers find love in the Peace Corps. Whether with a local, a fellow volunteer or, like me, back home.

Was it easy?

No.

Did I miss him?

A whole bunch.

Was it worth it?

Heck. Yes. I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world. These two years have allowed me to fall in love with the best friend I didn’t know I needed and now we’re getting ready for marriage.

If you’re considering the Peace Corps and you have a significant other, don’t count the relationship out. Distance makes the heart grow fonder and you may find that distance makes the love grow deeper as well.

Reverse Culture Shock

I’d been home twice during my Peace Corps tenure in Nicaragua. The first time, I went after serving just a little under a year and the second time was after living in Nicaragua for a year and nine months.

What I remember about the first trip was worrying about not staying too long so my Spanish wouldn’t revert while I was gone. I didn’t worry too much about anything else and when it was time to return, I remember hugging my parents and leaving again with no difficulty at all.

This second time however was beyond difficult. I remember with distinction the moment I set foot in New Jersey. My layover in Houston was easy. I spoke in Spanish the entire time I was there from ordering food to returning to my terminal. But New Jersey felt foreign, from its artificial lighting to the incredible amount of white people and the absence of Spanish. I remember thinking to myself, “I want to go home” and I didn’t mean North Carolina. I meant Estelí, Nicaragua with Madre Vilma and my little cement bedroom where I’d been living for almost two years. That home.

I ended up missing my flight and having to spend the night in the airport. No, that wasn’t fun, but it gave me silence to think. I really consider Nicaragua my home now and the thought made me instantly feel guilty, like somehow I had betrayed my country.

How could the country of my birth feel like a too tight skin? It was itchy, uncomfortable and hot. I didn’t like the way all the air was controlled. I felt either too hot or too cold. I hated how everyone was on their phones and not interacting. I kept forgetting there was a sewage system and it was safe to flush my toilet paper. There wasn’t any smell of food I recognized or Latin music playing in the background. The entire country felt eerily quiet. And the one that is most selfish is that I missed how people acknowledged me.

In Nicaragua, I am seen. Whether for my foreignness or the respect I received for my membership in my community, there is no time when people walk past me and ignore me. But in the United States they do. Here, I feel valued and accomplished. I am both respected for being here, working hard in my community, having a degree (which 90% in my community don’t have) and my intellect.

In America, I’m just another black girl.

Going back, I felt the coolness of being a nobody again and I didn’t like it. I don’t think that makes me egocentric at all. It’s just the truth.

My family, on several different occasions, looked at me strangely while I was home. Or told me, “You are not Nicaraguan.” But I feel like I am. From my Nica-isms like pointing at things with my lips to not understanding American pop culture references to the random times I would try to translate something directly from Spanish to English and it didn’t translate well. For example, we were talking about me knowing someone and, to try to remember, I asked, “Is she pale?” My family immediately looked at me strangely and laughed. “Pale? Do you mean is she light-skinned?” I felt embarrassed and tried to explain. Being pale-skinned in Nicaragua is a way of identifying someone. They’re chele. It’s more than being black or white.

But how can I explain an entirely different culture? Or how much that culture means to me?

My holidays have been spent somewhere between feeling like an imposter and feeling guilty for using things that are of minor convenience like taking a bath, knowing that amount of water could give my family in Nicaragua clean water for a month.

I’ve embraced the Nicaraguan ways. Pointing with your lips is faster than pointing with your hands. Saying “how” (como) instead of saying “what?” (que) is more polite when you don’t understand something. Knowing your actual neighbors and being a large family is economically better and it means you don’t ever have to worry about not having enough to live on.

Things in Nicaragua makes sense to me while the only other place I’ve known in the entire world is starting to make none… and I have to reconcile that with myself in the next three months because I’m about to close my service. That makes me scared and nervous. How will my first home welcome me? How will I feel knowing I won’t return to my second home for, at the very minimum, a year?

I have heard from other Peace Corps Volunteers that your community never forgets you, that serving gives you a permanent home in the country of your service and I am both grateful and heartbroken that I will be leaving soon.

I can remember first arriving in Nicaragua and feeling like a sticker that has been awkwardly pasted somewhere it’s not supposed to be. I remember confronting how I felt about my blackness, people touching my hair and never being able to hide. But those things have made me face myself and now, I feel more myself in Nicaragua – from my natural hair, my looks and my acceptance of two tongues – than I have ever felt in the United States.

Who knew reverse culture shock would be this hard?

 

Affinity Groups

One of the biggest markers for success in any organization is to not only be diverse but acknowledging and supporting those differences. Peace Corps, as a global organization has since it’s conception has made strides to stay current, be aware of the growing diversity within volunteers and support those who are in need of support.

One example of that was the approval of an affinity group within Peace Corps Nicaragua. An affinity group is a group of people who come together to safely share experiences around specific identity markers (such as race, gender, sexual orientation, class, age, etc.). As a member of the Diversity Committee, we’ve seen and discussed the diversity that happens within our race, gender, sexual orientation and life experiences within Peace Corps. Unfortunately, that’s not always highlighted.

Our first affinity group  was centered around race and how volunteers identify. We hope to have more in the future around sexual orientation, class, religion and even more. It was hard to plan and a lot of time and effort went into the invitation, the activities, and the overall spirit of the event but in the end, it was worth it. It was a huge success. We started with an icebreaker called, “What I want You To Know.” Each identity group had to write on a flip chart: 1. What we want you to know about our group, 2. What we never want to see, hear or experience again as a member of this group, 3. What we want our allies to do. Here’s an example of what the black female group wrote because there was no black male in attendance.

IMG_63602After that, we created norms/rules to govern the conversations and interactions for the entire day and every affinity group we’d have in the future. Of the rules, my favorite was “send love” and “address not attack”. We defined words and acknowledged the purpose before getting into reflection activities. Separately, each identity group discussed 4 topics: Identity, Discrimination, Ally, and Support. We asked questions like how they identify, what experiences led them to that identity marker, what the word ally means, what does support look and feel like within Peace Corps. After that, we had lunch together and overall relaxed, even more, getting to know one another. After lunch, we came together as one group and discussed the difference answers  from each question. Then we created an action plan from the answers. If this is what you need to feel supported, what can Peace Corps do and what can you do as a volunteer? We invited two Headquarter representatives who were in Nicaragua to lead staff through a week-long long diversity training, to attend the action planning. It was great to share ideas and come together with an actual plan to propose to PC Nicaragua and PC as a whole. Afterward, one young lady brought her keyboard and sung Hello – Adele, Change is Going to Coe – Sam Cook, Woman’s Worth – Alicia Keys and more. We sang along and ended the day with greater bonds than we had before the event.

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I am overwhelming proud of those who attended and thankful that my voice was used as a change agent. I am so proud of everyone who showed up and all the voices we heard. I am proud of my agency and I am proud to have been here to see the beauty in so many volunteers feeling heard, supported and empowered. Peace Corps’ main purpose is to promote peace and friendship between host country nationals and the United States. I don’t know a better way to do that than to acknowledge the differences amongst Americans, learn about the different cultures and share it with every Nicaraguan we encounter.

#squadgoals

#mypeacecorps

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Half Done Service

If this what life looks like from the halfway mark, it looks great!

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If you’ve have made it this far you really are the chosen few! By this time you have probably gotten sick, experience some form of depression, visited home or experienced the holidays the Nica way, lost several of your fellow PCVs to ETs, Med Evacs, and more. Most likely several of your fellow PCVs are in relationships or have had relations with Nicas and other PCVs. So let’s take a moment and reflect. What have I learned so far?
Amongst many other things, I learned selflessness, problem-solving skills, appreciation of my own culture and most importantly a better awareness of myself.

Unlike many volunteers, I had never been outside of the country before. Therefore, I didn’t know what to expect. I couldn’t speak another language, although I took many Spanish classes in the States and I was unsure of proper behaviors in respecting other cultures customs while maintaining my own. It was tough for me but not as tough as it could be, because I kept an open mind. I learned how to see life through someone else’s eyes. There is a lot of poverty here. Suddenly, things like brand new shoes lost their significant meaning when I could have my old shoes repaired for cheaper good as new. I began to understand my grandparent’s beliefs of using things completely up. I also found contentment in the little things. I never knew I would prefer the smell of fresh air in my sheets from drying on a line than the downy sheet used in the dryer. I also never knew having little can make a family have much. What I mean is that even though my family had to share the same towels and could only afford to eat three times a day, no more, they were happy with that. They were happy with a TV that was ten times bigger than a flat screen TV and content without a radio or iPhone. Their phones worked just fine and without many things to do in the town, the friendships grew deeper. You have to start over as a PCV, beginning as a foreigner, untrustworthy and without a true understanding of the language. Then slowly you became a part of the family and apart of the community. Little kids know your name and you know the hidden gems of your town. Without noticing, you’re referring to Nicaragua as home. You speak like a Nica and even foster many Nica gestures. Life becomes simpler, easier and altogether more worthwhile because you are accepted and appreciated. This is life at the halfway mark. A slow infusion of yourself with others and another Country to call home. You realize just how fast a year went by and realize the second will fly even faster. But all in all, you are happy and content in the moment should be appreciated as it is often very hard to achieve.

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Leon Cathedral. You’re not allowed to wear shoes up there.

Here’s to one year down and another one flying just as fast!

Palo de Mayo

The end of May is an exciting time in Nicaraguan culture. Every last weekend of May, this year May 27-29th is Maypole or Palo de Mayo. Palo de Mayo is a festival and an old Afrocaribbean dance (with sensual movements) that forms part of the culture of several communities in the current RAAS area (Región Autónoma del Atlántico Sur). Bluefields is the most important scenario for this event.  Vibrant Caribbean rhythms and colorful processions, marks the start of the Palo de Mayo festival, a tribute to Mayaya African goddess of fertility. This celebration dates from the early nineteenth century, is an adaptation of the British tradition who celebrated the first day of May with a feast.

It is considered the highest expression of culture and tradition of the Caribbean of Nicaragua, the first of May starts with a presentation around a tree which is decorated with colored ribbons and around which dances are performed as welcome to the rainy season , production and new life. Throughout the month, there are festivals, dances, and presentations. Then on the weekend, each neighborhood dresses up and dances in the street on the absolute last day of May is Tululu. This year, I reached out to other Peace Corps volunteers who live in the area for a connect because I wanted to dance in the parade. I was given an official handmade outfit and a few days prior learned the traditional dance. It was amazing. We walked around the entire city and danced in the streets for about 3 hours. It was fun and exciting to be with people who look like me.

 

Oven Building

This month, in the Adventures of Janae, I built an oven.. wait for it… FROM SCRATCH! Yep, sure did. Oven building is a project we often do in rural areas to help prevent smoke inhalation. Women are expected to be the sole cookers and usually families who can’t afford gas use wood. That’s dangerous in a small room and as a result rural women die early from smoke inhalation. The oven is built outside and it’s more efficient in wood burning. You build it using, horse manure, dirt, a sticky glue mixture made from soaking dragon fruit leaves in water, clay bricks, and one large barrel.

The process is as follows:

-dragonfruit leaves, soaked for two days in water is used as glue, mixed with a little water, horse manure and dirt.

-Bricks are cut into the necessary size and often times clay bricks break

-a base of two layers of bricks are built first and it must be level

We had the additional obstacle of building on a hill. The women we worked with lived in a very rural area and were unable to get proper notification. So they had to scrape the glue material from the leaves by hand.

It was messy and hard. You have to use a leveler for every brick laid. Often times we had to cut the bricks with a machete to get the right fit. The dirt mixture smells a bit, but only when it’s wet and the sun is disrespectful in Boaco, Nicaragua. Still, the people were overjoyed to have an oven. A cooperation of three families will be using to sell bread in their small community. This oven is literally a means to have money to put food on the table. It’s great to know, one small oven changed these women’s lives.

Semana Santa

During Holy Week or Semana Santa in Spanish, Christian cultures like the one in Nicaragua commemorate the death and resurrection of Jesus. Since pretty much the entire country is religious, Holy Week is a nationally recognized holiday! It’s hard for me not to overwork myself but aside from one small conquest to see a famous man in my department, I mostly read.

My small vacation consisted of me visiting The Natural Reserve Tisey Estanzuela and meeting Alberto Gutierrez, also known as the Stone Man, in his beautiful home deep in the Tisey Estanzuela Natural Reserve. He is 76 years young and has been carving stones on his land for over 40 years. He lives on rural land and it’s a bit of a hike but meeting him is half the fun. Not only does he show you his humble home but he makes you sign his book. Only about 1,000 people have met him. He loves taking pictures and showing what historical moments he’s commemorated in stone. Among the birth of Jesus Christ, 9/11 and many cities in Nicaragua. The view was spectacular. You could tell just how much Alberto loved his piece of Nicaragua and the stories it told. His attention to detail was apparent in the fruits, flowers and animals he pointed out at different times during the tour. Despite all the stones he already has, he continues to find mew places to carve drawings and inviting all who will listen to hear his stories.

How to Integrate

I’m one year in this thing! Three hundred sixty-five days in Nicaragua and it feels great!IMG_0733

I figured I’d share some insight on how to integrate (since I’ve clearly been doing it, and doing it and sometimes doing it well).

How to Integrate
NUMERO 1. Talk to everyone and I do mean everyone. Your host family, the street dog. The drunk men on the corner (you can always say adios.) Your fellow PCVS, your counterparts, your host niece. EVERYONE. If not to improve your language, then to learn yourself something.
2. Play with children. Children are God’s way of laughing at and with us. Sometimes it will be awkward and other times your spirit animal will roar.
3. See the world from another person’s perspective. Self. Explanatory.
4. Consider the merit of different values. Again. Self-explanatory. This is your time to think outside your own self-constructed box. Question your values and where they came from.
5.Listen. I have heard birds I never knew exists, music I love and can sing along to without knowing the artist. I have heard roosters, buenas, bachata, babies crying and hissing to tell me how beautiful I am.
6. Try. Don’t say you can’t before you even try. Effort can take you a long way.
7. Ask. How can I help the community? How can I meet more people? Will you introduce me to your friends? I’d like to go to the next birthday party?
8. Say yes. When someone ask’s for help, say yes. When someone invites you to a party, say yes. When someone’s asks do you want to learn how to milk a cow, say yes. Keep on saying yes.
9. Teach. Teach your culture, your language and ways and others will readily share theirs.
10. Never assume. There’s always some part that we don’t understand, whether it be the language, the culture, or the people.

Incorporate these tips into your daily lifestyle and no matter where you are, you’ll integrate! Go forth dear reader and be great. Get to know your neighbors and try one of these tips a day. Just one, I’m not asking for much.

Nica Taught Me Podcast

This has been a long time coming. I came up with the idea to record a podcast interviewing Nicaraguans who spoke English, talking about my experiences and sharing a few Nicaisms when I first came into Peace Corps. I was a newbie, excited about everything and over-enthusiastic. I made a few episodes, but not many and now in my final year of service, I don’t have much time to make many more. Still, I want the few I made to be heard. Give it a listen! 🙂 Here is the first episode of Nica Taught Me podcast. Hope you like it!

10 Reasons You Should Do the Peace Corps

I remember, before turning in my Peace Corps application, the hours I spent googling, “why should I do the Peace Corps” or “reasons to do the Peace Corps.” I have to say, in the time I applied and have been a year in Nicaragua, the search results haven’t changed that much. Even googling the most positive words, the majority of the words were reasons to NOT join the Peace Corps. As usual, I felt the need to rectify that. I asked my fellow volunteers, “what reasons would you cite to tell someone to join the Peace Corps?” I summed it up to this nice list.

Continue reading 10 Reasons You Should Do the Peace Corps