The contents of my blog [including opinions, ideas, and adverb arrangements] are mine alone and do not reflect the views of the Peace Corps organization, nor the US Government.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Nuestro Pueblo: Unido Siempre

“I bet you’ll be happy to be back with your family and friends in the States.” “You must be sad having to let go of your whole life here in El Salvador.” “So what are you going to do now?” Leaving Peace Corps is many things: expected, too accelerated, exciting, nerve-wracking, tranquil. I am anxious, laughing, planning out trips to see people I’ve missed intensely, holding hugs tighter, holding back tears a little longer. I will forever be indelibly connected to Caserío El Tejar, Municipio de Yayantique, Departamento de La Unión, El Salvador. Love so huge it’s suprising. On April 30th, 2012, I will turn in my final reports and ring the bell in the San Salvador Peace Corps office, striking the end of my time as a Peace Corps Volunteer. The future is vague: a week-long trip to Honduras for one final wander, then a plane ride landing in North Carolina at 10:06 PM on May 7th, and then: ?. Applying like mad for jobs like a kid fresh from college (EPA, NPS, NFWS, TNC, WWF, ABC soup of possibilities). Backpacking away with my dad. Road trips through AZ, VA, DC, NC, (Chicago?!). I know I’m not the same. El Salvador taught me how to make environmental science interesting to 50 7th graders piled into an open-air classroom simmering at 100˚F+; how to connect the guy in town who deeply cares about trash pick-up (who empties trash cans full of smelly waste into garbage bags before the garbage truck comes every Friday, voluntarily and selflessly) with at-risk kids who are dying to get involved in some sort of after-school activity they can be proud of; how to give impromptu speeches in front of hundreds; how to deal with the pain and cruelty of machismo without scars; how to enjoy eating things I don’t want to eat; how to nurse a scorpion sting and other afflictions without the distracting comforts of ice cream or TV or internet; how to be patient and calm and lead when necessary or let go into repose. I hadn’t done these things before. El Salvador, if remembered at all in the world realm, is known for violence, gangs, and stagnation. But the Salvadorans of El Tejar opened their arms and homes and hearts in wide gestures of kindness that I had never before experienced. Doors open, chairs on porches ready, whatever work being done could wait: a friend is here to visit. That’s the most important thing, and time doesn’t really tick past on clocks here anyway. The cows go out in the morning, kids go to school, sun wanders upwards and down again, cashew season then mango season then time to plant the corn; the most important moments were never the ones that were planned on calendar pages. And yes, eventually a family gets internet, air conditioning, their child goes away to the city for college: life is changing, certainly, but the rhythm still remains. As for me: life is changing, certainly, but the rhythm still remains. And, as a close to this blog: the question shouldn’t be “to where do they fly?” but “please tell us all, how do they soar?”

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Time Flies and/or Squawks

Time is a chubby, down-covered thing that waddles and grows and eventually gets curious, jumps from high heights, flies, soars, crash-lands, and occasionally spontaneously combusts and/or leaps through microscopic black holes that swoop it forward by months or minutes.

See: May 2012 to September, 2012. Actually, in all serious sincerity, my time here in Peace Corps has been officially shortened. Due to security changes and consequential restructuring of the Peace Corps El Salvador office, as mandated by PC Headquarters, my volunteer group is being shipped home early. The security situation here has been reviewed and, from a protective governmental perspective, is too risky to continue as is. [*No worries: I am very well taken care of and feel safe in my community!] The Peace Corps program here will be cut in half as far as volunteer numbers—from 115+ to under 50—and those remaining volunteers will be moved to the “safest” zones in the country as soon as a Security Survey is finished. My group of 30 volunteers is being forced to leave by April 30th, 2012, about 5 months earlier than our original Close of Service date (September 14th, 2012). I looked for every possible loophole to continue serving in my community until my original date of departure in September, but found that the chances of being granted an extension are basically nonexistent.

While this news was devastating at first, the changes are being made with good intentions and there are fortunately a couple months left until we leave. Thus, it’s time to flap my wings furiously and finish as many projects as sustainably as possible! And to vaguely start thinking of the future! And to start saying goodbye slowly—a sad but very loving process. I feel so comfortable and happy in my community. I am thankful to have gained so many new families and friends.

I’m also excited to see old family and friends—so watch out! I may soon be coming to crash a couch near you.

Love, hugs, and mangos,
Nicole Wooten

P.S. Also thankful that I’ll still be here as time settles itself down on a branch and squawks contentedly through the mango, cashew fruit, and jocote season! Does anyone else picture time less as a graceful eagle and more as an overweight and temperamental sci-fi chicken?

Sunday, January 15, 2012

¡Feliz Navidad!

“¡PON PON!” Petronila yells, hands flying up and fingers flailing in imitation of the last deep-decibel booming firework she set off. Justin and Josway swirl their sparklers carefully in circles, screaming when a spark tickles their hands until Cindy or Marisol or Yanci take them away, motherly, laughingly. Don Tacho stretches back, telling stories of a wild bull, napping on and off, saying he won’t set off the big lights a moment before 11 PM, while his tiny old farmer friend asks to dance with me after he finishes off another sandwich. Imperatriz gives me a teddy bear—Merry Christmas!—and everyone sends a thousand thanks to my Mom for their presents, while Nina Victoria, matriarch, sits back and can’t stop smiling at everything. This is my second Christmas in El Salvador.

Christmas here is family, making big chicken sandwiches (a special treat), fireworks the whole evening of the 24th, trying our hardest to stay up until midnight. Christmas is not homemade Christmas cookies, passing out presents, cutting paper snowflakes: that’s what I was able to share.

My favorite part: visiting with my three families (in which I have been adopted, more or less) here.

1) The first home I felt loved in, with four generations of women (great-grandmother, grandmother, mother, and child) and one quiet old man, who all are sincerely welcoming, very religious, and kind.

2) My newest family: an old lady and her grandchild whom I started visiting when, running past her house in the morning, I asked the lady how she was doing and she started crying, explaining how scared she was that her husband was dying. I kept visiting for many weeks, until Don Mateo finally started healing, and now I go for the love and the lively conversation the little girl, Brenda, and her grandma spark off each other.

3) My wonderful host family (scene one, above).
Less than 9 months left. Peace Corps in Honduras and the 150+ volunteers there were just evacuated due to security issues. No new volunteers are being allowed into El Salvador or Guatemala currently. I feel for them, and I’m grateful Peace Corps—El Salvador is staying stable otherwise. Cities are dangerous, but I feel safe tucked away in this rural farming town, where dry season flowers and mango trees are blooming, and everyone is a familiar face, and we all laughed at ourselves for being too sleepy to stay up ‘til midnight and joked about sleeping in—til 6 AM, or maybe even 6:30!—the next morning.

New Year’s Eve: Guatemala or bust!

(P.S. Photo above & below of climbing volcanoes in Antigua, courtesy of Bri.)

Love and Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Life Update (Year 2 Begins)

Time flies and blogs get neglected!
I am now (more than) half-way through my PC service, and
many, many things have been happening
(I suppose that statement is, in a world-persepctive, never false).
Pick your chronological interest (Past, Present, Future):


...I visited Nicaragua! Wandered the lovely vaguely-colonial streets and wondered about the prevalence of giant cathedrals in Granada; zip-lined through the tree canopy, listening to howler monkeys, above a lovely coffee farm; visited the old artisan market in Masaya; saw monkeys while climbing mid-way up one of the two volcanoes that formed the Island of Ometepe; dashed through Rivas and Managua. Differences from El Salvador: very little evidence or rumour of gangs, and therefore an existance of night life, of people who walk through city streets after dusk without fear. Poorest but safest country in Central America, or so they say.

...El Salvador (and surrounding countries) experienced intense rains which led to flooding, bridge and road wash-outs, and land slides. School was canceled nationally for a week! In my town it rained for 9 days straight and I watched a bit anxiously as the river in my backyard crept closer and closer. Thankfully, my town sustained little direct damage, although crop failure (corn) may be imminent for many.

Currently, I am...

...working with a grant-funded (thank you, Returned Peace Corps Volunteers of NC!) project to bringing, assembling, and painting trash barrels for my school and community, where burning and dumping are still the primary methods of trash disposal.

...teaming with Laura, my distant neighbor and similarly an Environmental Education PCV, to bring sustainable trash education to our municipality by A) teaching at least one trash management class to each student in the municipality (6 schools with 100 to 400 students each) and B) assuring the teachers have the resources and committment to continue giving interactive trash managment classes each scholastic year. We gear each class specifically to the age group, and focus on both the effects of contamination (on our and the environment's health) and on empowering ways they can change these habits.

...finalizing details with a publisher to print 150 or 200 copies of my four environmental storybooks. Carol Simonson, a previous PCV, wrote one of the four stories and the grant (thank you, USAID - SPA!) for the publication costs. Excitement!

Futuristically, I'm...

...Eagerly awaiting the arrival of my family! Mom, Dad, and Jesse (brother) shall be coming to visit for 9 days, starting Novemeber 4th. We'll mostly hang around my site so they can get to know the food, family, friends, and flavor of this place, as well as whatever it is that I do. And of course Mom will be teaching a dash of yoga, Dad will be introducing the kids to American Sign Language, and Jesse will be chatting it up with the locals (if only we had a guitar here too!). AH fun!

Hugs and Sincereness,

Friday, July 22, 2011

One Year

July 19, 2009: Hands gloved to protect from cold and mosquitos make substitute birthday cake out of brownie mix and oatmeal fried over a campfire in the high Sierra Nevadas

July 19, 2010: Hug Mom and Dad goodbye at the Charlotte-Douglas airport in NC, with a one-way ticket to LA for Day 1 of Peace Corps training.

July 19, 2011: Thank you all for the lovely birthday wishes! and the inappropriate/Japanese-themed cakes and crispy enchiladas and handkerchiefs and love. One year ago yesterday I arrived in El Salvador. Things have changed, developed, grown.

Today I voluntarily eat beans and rice and fried platanos for breakfast, I drink coffee, I know the lyrics to the songs that blast on the bus rides to the city, where I sit in McDonalds or Wendy's and use the internet once a week or so.

Today I can converse with neighbors and strangers with (relative) ease and an accent, knowing when I get to a part of the conversation I don't understand I can ask for clarification, and only have to nod my head vaguely, lost in language, sometimes.

Today I am different, like everyone is every moment. But. It's interesting to notice today.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Good Reasons to Get Your Jeans Soaked

One: arrive at the gorgeous, lush, chilling cascaradas—waterfalls—of Juayua [why-OO-ah] in western El Salvador, and while your mind takes it in and deeply sighs a bright and tranquil peace, the policemen who guided you and your friends (upon request) mention that the large pool in front of us, into which the waterfall pours along its gravity-drawn journey, has a man-made aspect: narrow concrete tunnels built by the hydroelectric company which attaches this pool to two other waterfall-fed pools further on. The tunnels are about 5.5 feet high, and there’s anywhere from a foot to nothing of breathing room at the top. And you can go see for yourself.
But I’m wearing jeans!” And it’s a long walk back home, and this is one of the coldest areas of El Salvador (or so it feels with the shivering water and refreshingly icy mist).
A friend goes first. And another comes with me as I am scared out of my mind and dive under and behind the waterfall, into freezing clear waters and the dark, tiny tunnel, so intensely claustrophobic—but I look back, and am suddenly very alive. Swirling wet chaos and darkness become the highest peace I’ve felt in a long time. I laugh, and scream, and do not at all regret it.

Dos: Elegant clambering on a volcanic rock wall—a loose rock—an unintentional plunge. Or: Guillero (and member of our adult Municipal-wide Environmental Committee), leads his niece, Laura (my neighbor PCV), and myself to “Las Currcintas,” an arch of caves rumored to have been used by the Mayans so many years past, which are now full of honey bees and strange waters.
Imagine: scrambling over protruding volcanic rocks, past mango trees, and through just-sprouting cornfields with the Chaparastique Volcano rising in the distance to a worn-through, high-walled crevice. Follow to the end, where above a dark pool of clear, ice-still water sits a long high boulder capped by a life-defying tree growing straight from rock. As Laura and I gasp, a huge snowy-white owl powerfully and silently emerges from behind the rock, watching us with searching eyes before it swoops and disappears away. Bats circle the boulder, tadpoles defy the stillness from beneath the water’s surface, and quietly Guillero tells us tales of the ancient dwellers of Yayantique, of fantastic animal sightings here, of mysterious nocturnal lights.
Eventually we leave---and, presented with the choice, I want to climb the rocks/rock wall and scale/climb our way out rather than follow our beautiful but already-beaten trail. Guillermo floats across a flat wall with elf-ease. I go slowly, but forgetting the warning that volcanic rocks are not sturdy, I heave my weight onto a small handgrip and feel the fall: specifically, the moment of “oops” and “inevitable now.” My mind flashes thousand-year-old Mayans, animal bones in old untouched waters, Spirit of the Ghostly Owl Protector 1,000,000 tadpoles unexpecting: I fall down into a cold, inertia-caused messy loud splash-down.
Unfortunate to disturb the peace, but I walk (slosh) away only scraped and soaked, and we all walk away (the flatter path this time) laughing.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Turkey Transport and Grocery Store Superstar

Sometimes it’s not until describing my day to a friend that I realize my normal life here can be funny from another perspective. Ejemplo 1:

I was about to call my States-side friends Callie and Emily when I was interrupted by a girl from my host family, Yanci, asking me to walk her over to her aunt Florida’s house. She had to bring a turkey over there and was too embarrassed/scared to walk alone. *[Side note: turkeys here are called “chumpas” for the explosive baritone grunting noise people make to call them to gather. Female turkeys are so awkward looking in real life that I assumed for a while that chumpas were a species of bird native to Central America.] So down the road we walk with a live turkey wrapped in a plastic shopping bag and tucked under Yanci’s arm.

“Why are we bringing it to your aunt? Will she eat it?” I ask.
Yanci smiles, glances away with laughing eyes, and says, “No. It’s lonely. It wants a boyfriend.”
Confused? Me too.

We arrive at Tia Florida’s, and lo and behold there’s actually a turkey boyfriend awaiting our chumpa (and he looks like a traditional, Thanksgiving-tastic turkey). And while Yanci and I stand there, Tia Florida proceeds to hold down the girl chumpa so the boyfriend can… well… begin the process of blessing this world with new baby turkey-lets.

And there’s not even a word in Spanish for *awkward,* so we giggle and life proceeds.
Grocery shopping (in a store! Not even in the market!) is not safe from hilarity either. I’m standing in the Dispensa de Don Juan, deciding between brands of raisins, and a smiling man asks me brightly (in English), “You are not from here, yes?” This question hits me pretty much every time I go into a city, along with a slew of other predictable questions and comments. And usually I enjoy hearing about people’s experiences in the United States, their desire to learn English, their curiosity about my existence here, but I was in a bad-mood and a hurry.

So I answer briskly, “I’m from the United States.”

We talk—the usual conversation, although surprisingly this man has actually heard of Peace Corps—and I notice he’s holding a microphone. *[Side note: most large grocery stores here have DJs on the weekends: men who announce sales and encourage shopping over the loud pumping background music.]

As we say adios and walk away, I hear blaringly loud over the grocery store loud speakers (in Spanish): “…and a special shout-out to my American friend, Nicole! Thank you for your visit, all the way from the United States!”

The other shoppers glance up at the only fair-skinned, blonde-ish-haired, blue-eyed girl who is trying hard and failing to look inconspicuous. Then on the way to the bus I hear a guy say the usual to his friends: “Hey look! An American!”(in Spanish) and “Hello!” (in English) as I pass. Who would have thought I’d ever be a minority? Or so obviously different? Granted, it’s not at all close to a minority’s experience in the US, but still: makes for an interesting day.