Sunday, March 25, 2007

Culture Shock? What Culture Shock? For Now.

I think there is a good chance that I am alone on this one, but I think it is so funny to watch Alaskan fishermen on the Discovery channel's 'Deadliest Catch' dubbed in Spanish! Almost the only word I've really understood so far is cerveza.

Time after time I've been surprised at how little there is for me to adjust to here. The language issue is huge, for sure, but there's not that much else different. Or maybe I've just been here too long already :) The apples are even grown in Washington! Last night, a few volunteers and I went and saw the movie Asi (which had English subtitles and was like plenty independent movies I've seen in Seattle). Afterwards we went to dinner at a great Italian place after we found out the Indian and Chinese places we checked out weren't serving dinner anymore. The main thing that was different from Seattle is that there aren't as many Thai restaurants!

Ashley and I were in charge of cooking dinner for all the volunteers and directors of the houses last Thursday, so we went to WalMart Wednesday night, picked up frozen pizzas, ingredients to put on top and some frozen blackberries for dessert. Ok, this next part is going to be about food, so if you don't care about dessert, now is the time to skip ahead. I was pretty happy with how it turned out. I made lime curd from eggs, lime juice (there's always plenty of limes around), sugar and unsalted butter. I made pie crust with flour, a little sugar, a little salt and more unsalted butter, then I glazed the blackberries with a boiled water/sugar mixture. To plate it, I baked the pie crust in three inch rounds, then sandwiched the curd between two of the rounds and drizzled the berries over the top. I really wish I had taken a picture of it now, but you're probably glad I'm not spending any more time on this topic than I already have :) I was especially happy with how it turned out since I don't have any measuring cups or spoons and except for stirring the curd and the berry glaze with a spoon, did everything by hand, literally, there are hardly any utensils around either. I'll get pictures next time :)

Today, a few of the volunteers and I went with the girls at the orphanage to Tepoztlan today. It's a little town that has a hike up to a temple that was built around the same time as the ruins I visited last weekend. The beginning of the hike and the end of the market run over the top of each other as market stalls are built partway up the trail. It's only about 2 km to the temple, but it has an elevation gain of over 1,300 feet, so since I'm already starting at about a mile about sea level, it certainly took a little bit of effort. The picture at left isn't the most beautiful landscape I've ever taken. But it's at least impressive to me when I think about the fact that it's the town that we started the hike in. I was also very happy with how the girls did. The idea for the hike came about because Ashley and I both come from backgrounds that taught us we were capable of anything we set our minds to, and we've both taken it to heart. Here, however, the girls have virtually no examples of women doing anything other than having children, maybe running a shop, often doing whatever she needs to to support the children herself. While neither one of us will be around all that long, all we can think of to do is showing the girls that they can do things that aren't necessarily traditional for women to do in Mexico.

The current plan is for me to leave for Nicaragua around April 9th. This next week is my last week of language school here. But the week after that is Holy week ending with Easter during which time everyone at all the orphanages are extremely busy. I decided I would rather go to Miacatlan for the end of that week than go and hang out by myself in Nicaragua. That way, when I do go to Nicaragua, Marlon, the National Director will have more time orient me to the situation there and I can get started working right away.

We really need to get the land resurveyed, the only topographical survey we have so far is only to the 5 meter level of detail. To actually design buildings, we need something much more detailed. We also need to get some soil testing done. I've spend a fair amount of time on the Internet trying to find companies, but they really don't have a presence on the web. The only exception is the PaginaAmarillas (the YellowPages), but I'm not at a place with my Spanish speaking ability that I can just call up someone in Nicaragua and tell whether they'll be good for the job or not.
All in all, week three wasn't to bad! I got an email from Jesse, he's doing well and may even get to come home from Baghdad on time at the end of June, although the Army doesn't share things like deployment extensions too far ahead of time. I'm not quite sure how the latest happenings in Congress might affect the whole thing.
Have a wonderful last week of March!

Saturday, March 17, 2007

When will I know what I'm doing? When I'm doing it!

I need to remember not to write too much about what I think is going to happen, because I'll just be rewriting it later :)

Saturday night I went dancing in downtown Cuernavaca with several other volunteers. Just like in South Africa, the clubs are pretty much the same as in the US. The main difference is that the words are more often in Spanish (although not always, there was this weird Michael Jackson video at one point). We had a great time, and the other volunteers who have gone before knew what they wanted to do. I didn't have to drive, park, decide where to go, when to go, pay, or wait in line. It was actually relaxing!

The week went by really quickly because I fell into a routine that I like. School was pretty much the same each morning. Same teacher, same other student as last week. We had a great week which culminated in that great Spanish class tradition, making guacamole and eating together. Jean also brought some chocolate for all of us, so that didn't hurt either! The picture is of Ashley between the girl's dormitory and an administrative building as we're leaving to go to school in the morning.

Work was also every afternoon as usual. Tuesday, I went with Alejandro to Miacatlan which is about an hour from the Cuernavaca house. This is where all the kids under 15 stay. It's a small town with a big NPH campus. The original structures are all left over from the time it was a sugarcane hacienda. The chapel with the graveyard, the 100 ft smokestack, the sugarcane warehouse out of brick with a beautiful barrel vault roof that is now the dining hall. Alejandro was very thorough in the tour showing me the dormitories and their structural problems, the fish ponds near the livestock and the waste treatment facility. He would love to fully restore the buildings, but often the cost would be prohibitive for the return. He also mentioned that the archaeological group that had been part of taking care of the nearby pre-Colombian ruins had inspected the hacienda and verified that when it was built in 1890, some of the stones used had been stolen from the ruins.

The Nicaragua project is definitely a priority for NPH to begin quickly. We're a bit behind, however, in that we don't have an architect, engineer, or contractor. Originally we had been using an architect who had helped us on the Bolivia project, but because of slow production and rising fees, it was decided that we wouldn't continue to use him, for now. Between working in Latin American countries and that NPH is a non-profit, the hurry up and wait experience is compounded. Fortunately, it's not any real surprise to me. I've had enough experience with both of those that I would have been surprised if it wasn't this way! So I sent out the call to everyone I thought might be or know an architect that would be interested in the job (the engineers and contractors really need to be local). Fortunately I've gotten a few responses and have hope that something will work out.

In the meantime I've also been working on projects for other countries as well. When I talked to Father Phil on my first day of work he mentioned that in the month since I had started planning on coming to NPH, two other engineers had been offered for the project. One of them he accepted (because you can't say no) and then gave the condition that he would come and review everything once a month. The other is being sent by the Germany office. His wife is Nicaraguan and he's already fluent in Spanish. They're in India at the moment and except for a two week visit in April, he'll be there until June.

No one here seems to know quite how things will work between the two of us, so Father Phil wanted to know how I would feel about working in other countries in case there wasn't enough work for both of us. Now, if you remember me at all, you know how much I dislike not knowing what is going to happen. I would be willing to bet there are about a thousand (literally) possibilities of what could happen from here on out, both because of the situation I just mentioned, but also just in the progression of me and this project in general. Some of them aren't that great, some of them are fantastic. I'm certainly doing what I can to steer events towards the fantastic possibilities, but when it really comes down to it, the only time we get to know what will happen is when it happens. That's life in general for everyone.

This last week has been a little difficult in that I caught a really really bad cold on Tuesday. Nelly very sweetly gave me some medicine (like Theraflu) so I could sleep. It's still hanging on some, but I'm definitely better than I was. Of all the ways I expected and prepared for getting sick, a bad cold wasn't one of them!

On Saturday morning Sabrina and I took a bus to Xochicalco. It's the pre-Colombian ruins that are near Miacatlan I mentioned earlier. Established between 700 and 800 A.D. (for comparison, Baghdad was established in 762 A.D.) it rose to prominence in the area after the fall of Teotihuacan. This isn't for a test later, it's just that Xochicalco was a very war centered society. War, science, astronomy, math and building were all tied together. Sabrina and I went to the museum where I got to work on my Spanish reading skills and then to the site where the plaques were in Spanish, English and Nahuatl (the indigenous language of the era). The temple of the plumed serpent was the most carved and decorated where priest performed rituals meant to inspire fear and obedience in the people they depended on. And where, on Wednesday (spring equinox), the placement of the sun in relation to the buildings will supposedly cause a shadow of a serpent to appear as though it is descending the steps. We were able to skip ahead of a class of 40 kids and we were really glad we did when we got to the observatory. The observatory is a cave where tunnels were dug up at specific angles and locations until they opened to the sky for astronomical observations.
Even though after awhile, all the buildings started to look alike, it still was incredible to walk up to these buildings, walk on top of them, touch the carvings, have something physical connect you to a society so foreign and so impressive (although certainly not in a friendly way). The destruction that happened during the 19th century was amazing. Pictures of the ruins at the beginning of the 1800's and those in 1910 when restoration began shows how much colonization (like the building of the hacienda at Miacatlan) took from the culture of the area. Today metal frames and plastic corrugated roofing protects the especially vulnerable carvings from the threat of the next era, acid rain caused by pollution.

On the way back we took a different bus. It was headed first to the pueblo of Cuentepec to turn around and go back to where we already were. We could have waited until it got back, but we figured we might as well go see the town. It's a very rural area and on the way there the view was mostly very skinny cows. One group of them had gathered under the shade of the only tree around. The town itself is very simple, houses of red brick (rich people), concrete block (middle class), mud brick (lower economic status families, to use American terminology). Of course this was just in relationship to each other, they'd all be poor in the U.S. The women all had long braids and wore dresses with aprons and shawls. On the way back, the cows had managed to get themselves into a tighter group as the shade under the tree had shrunk. Due to using a more local bus, having several "mercados" and "el centros" in Cuernavaca and the fact that just because a bus is the same number as another one doesn't mean that it has the same route meant that the trip back was three hours instead of the one hour it had taken to get down there. We were glad we went, we were really glad to get back.

Tomorrow is the birthday of Benito Juarez, so I don't have to go to work or school. I don't think you should either!

Friday, March 9, 2007

Week One! What an interesting title!

There's plenty to write, but I really hardly know where to start, so I suppose the beginning would be best.

I got into Mexico City last Saturday evening and was picked up by Ivan. He was a pequeno (someone raised at the orphanage) and drives for them on a regular basis. He's currently studying at a nearby college. I gave him the unenviable job of carrying a 50 lb duffel bag and he kindly took it to the car completely without complaint. At least I'm pretty sure, I don't really know because he doesn't speak much English and I don't speak much Spanish :)

He drove me to Jose Luis Guzman's house who is assistant to the National Director for NPH Mexico. Guzman's little boy was turning seven, so Ivan and I stayed for his birthday dinner which was raucous and fun. After that, we came to the orphanage in Cuernavaca and I settled into my apartment. I was absolutely exhausted, so I just went to bed.

On Sunday I went to Mass and met Father Phil. He's the main priest at NPH Mexico, but also the head of NPH. I caught phrases during the service here and there, generally followed along, but it certainly wasn't a Sunday at Wedgwood Community Church where I normally go. I have a lot of questions about Catholicism, it's not until I do something like go to mass that I realize how incredibly protestant my upbringing and general community is.

Sunday night my roommate moved in. Her name is Nelly, she's from Switzerland and has volunteered with NPH in the past. Her English is better than my German, but her Spanish is better than her english, so that's what we speak in the most. She's a grandmother and loves being with the kids.

Later that night Sabrina and Ashley stopped by. Sabrina has been here for about two months and is a social worker from Germany. Ashley had gotten there that day and was beginning 5 months of volunteer work with the older teenage girls. She is in between her job with Lehman Brothers on Wall Street and starting Stanford Law School in the fall. The other volunteers I've met but don't know very well are Melanie and Emily, both from the US.

On Monday I met with Ross, the person I've been working with on coming to NPH. He introduced Ashley and me to everyone at the NPH Mexico and NPH International offices. They're both located here at the Cuernavaca site. This campus houses about 170 kids from 15 to 18. There is another site about an hour south, Miacatlan, that houses about 600 kids from 0 to 14 years old.

On Tuesday morning Ashley and I took the Ruta 12 (a bus that looks kind of like a bakery truck with windows seats in various states of disrepair, repair, disrepair and rerepair) to our language school which is about 45 minutes away in southern Cuernavaca. We took an exam (which didn't take long for either one of us, and not because we knew all the answers!) and were put into different classes that had one other person each and a teacher.

My teacher (or maestro) is Luis, after our class he goes to a nearby primary school and teaches there in the afternoons. Jean, the other student, is from Montreal. French is his primary language, but he's absolutely fluent in English. He's an actor, some TV, mostly stage, freelancing writer, play translator. We're very close to the same ability in Spanish and our classes have all gone really well. Luis is a very good, creative teacher. We've had some interesting conversations while we practice speaking. Today started with an article on Xochicalco, a nearby pre-Colombian ceremonial site. It then went through a discussion on the evolution of cultures in Central America, Canada and the US and how they were affected by local climate and settlement patterns. None of the conversations, of course, sound quite the same when you have the vocabulary of a kindergartner.

After school we take the same bus back, I grab a bite to eat at the apartment and take the short walk from the apartments to the offices for work. I share a large office with Mark, the IT guy (he's from Holland, his wife is from Haiti and we have a lot of fun, sometimes we like to talk a lot, I'm doing my best not to bother him when he's working on important stuff). The other person in the office is Alejandro, the Project Manager for all construction project in all nine of NPH's countries and my boss. He's been wonderful, really wants to introduce me to all that is going on. His English isn't fluent, but between him trying English, me trying Spanish and the online dictionary, we're doing fine.

My first assignment from Father Phil is to work on the 5 year Capital Projects Plans for all nine countries. While I'm doing this, Alejandro and I are also getting ready to fly to Nicaragua for a few days to meet with the architect from Bolivia and the National Director in San Jorge.

The kids eat dinner at 8 every night and most nights I try to join them in the Comedor. It's rice and beans or potatoes and beans, bread and fruit every night and then there is usually something else (hot dogs in the beans or something like that). I've been practicing speaking Spanish with them, but if it comes to it, many of them know a fair amount of English. They go to school, come home, study, play sports, don't have much to say when you ask them what they've done that day, just really normal stuff for a teenager.

The area the orphanage is in seems a lot like what it would be to live in the Rainier Valley in Seattle to me. Some houses are really run down, some are really nice. There's a fair amount of noise at night between the dogs barking and the trucks braking as they go down a nearby hill. The kids go to bed pretty early during the week, but play music through the whole complex until midnight or so on the weekends (or so I hear, I've always been asleep before then so far). So both Nelly and I wear ear plugs because we'd rather keep the windows open and the air circulating.

I hasn't been that hot, I think in the afternoons it's in the 80's. In the mornings it can get a little chilly, but it warms up quickly with the sun. The air is pretty dry (even right now with a thunderstorm outside), so even when it's hot, it's not that uncomfortable. The buildings at the orphanage all stay pretty cool with their thick concrete walls anyway.

We were without water for about half hour today. It's no big deal, just a little bit of a surprise when I come from a run at the local track. They're also doing some repair on some waste water pipes that run under the orphanage's sports courts (the pipes were damaged when the ground settled because it hadn't been properly compacted and the water is going straight onto the neighbor's property below). The power also goes out about once a day. Generally it's for less than 10 minutes, but it's one of those things that surprised me at first, but is rapidly becoming completely commonplace (Mark and I are both working off of laptops, so it's not a big deal with our batteries, the others however, have a little while to save there stuff and then even the battery power is gone).

Every place I go, there are always lot's of people. Mexico City is nearby and has about 20 million people. Cuernavaca isn't nearly as big, and there's a lot of trees everywhere, but always houses and buildings too. One very nice perk of the apartment I'm living in, however, is that I can watch the closest volcano, Popocatepetl, steaming in the morning while I eat my breakfast. It looks about as far away as Mt Rainier. Sabrina, Ashley and I are planning on taking the girls on a hike next weekend to Tepoztlan. It's a nearby town and national park with some ruins as well. Sabrina and I were talking today about making sure the girls know to wear comfortable shoes or else we're sure there will be some trying to hike up in heels.

All in all, things aren't at all rustic, everyone has been very welcoming and I'm really enjoying the work. There are plenty of challenges (especially the language at this point), but I know that I'll get past them.... eventually :) It's hard to be patient, I want everything to come now, but this has been just the first week of many to come.

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Want to see for yourself?

I just wanted to let everyone know that the NPH video for Nicaragua is up. You can either click on the link at the right, or this one - Go to the link - Love without limits and then Nicaragua. The other countries are really interesting too and I'm currently working on the 5 year master capitol projects plans for all of them, so who knows, maybe I'll be headed there too!

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Actually leaving the country

I'm leaving on Saturday! I can hardly believe it.

I started getting a little anxious yesterday, and it's a little more today (and I'm sure there will be plenty more where that is coming from).

I am so looking forward to what is ahead of me, there is so much for me to learn. I have so many questions about the new project I can't keep track of them as each additional one now shoves the previous questions out of my head.

I'm in contact with a woman named Katja who works in the Germany office and oversees much of what goes on in Nicaragua. She took care of my international health insurance yesterday and is wonderfully helpful and responsive.

As I get closer to leaving, however, the finality of leaving friends and family and all that is going on with them is sinking in. Whether it's missing the birth of a baby, not being with a friend during a stressful life transition, having communication be that much more difficult with my boyfriend who is in Baghdad for at least four more months, or simply missing the little everyday trivial things that people I care about are going through, I wish I could be there.

I'll miss you.