I was expecting bananas and ugly, but I got neither.

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I want to only write delightful anecdotes but you probably need a little bit of substance about what I’m supposed to be doing and how I am supposed to be surviving and things such as that. So this post has a lot of a little bit of everything. It’s like potpurri, or something.

The bare bones:

Being a health volunteer means that I will be working with Hogares Saludables (“Healthy Homes”) and Escojo Mi Vida (“I Choose My Life”). These are my two main initiatives, but there are so many other elements that I can focus on in terms of health or development in general.

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I don’t have any other volunteers in my site but luckily there is a youth volunteer who lives about an hour walk from me down a long unpaved road.

Instead of working directly with a volunteer, we have project partners. These are our counterparts from the community whom we will collaborate with, and most likely, are responsible for our being there.

My site:

My project partners are two incredible women. Nuris is on every committee and knows everyone and everything. Beata teaches literacy and works tirelessly to better her community. She’s impressive. For example, we were visiting houses to speak a little bit about various topics related to health someone mentioned the importance of getting rid of trash (which can attract rats which can cause leptospirosis), Beata added, “But it’s not good to burn it.” I assumed she would say because it is so bad for one’s health but then she went on to say, “It’s really bad for the Ozone layer.” That’s when I thought to myself, Okay, I need to step up my game. I was never planning on mentioning the Ozone layer and here she is on the first day, like it’s nothing! Above all, they are humble, loving mothers and wives.

The town itself is made up of such competent people who are so united and more motivated than I ever imagined or hoped for. I have high hopes and expectations because I believe they can handle it. There are already established Hogares/Escojo groups (on my last day visiting the community five Escojo groups graduated) so I’ve had to revisualize my role. I will probably be working mostly behind the scenes, strengthening curriculum and teaching how to facilitate.

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Our ‘table of honor’ at the Escojo graduation.

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Aimie Lisa posing with all of the cakes we made for the graduation!

There are about 1000 people in my community. It is very rural, yet the houses are pretty close together because it used to be a batey. We’re in a valley surrounded by lush green rolling hills, rivers, trees, and mountains in the distance. I find it beautiful (but I had pretty low standards coming from a suburb in the mid-west). And the stars are incredible. You’ve never seen anything like it, especially on nights without electricity! I can’t wait to lay under the stars and look for comets, hike out into the hills, and swim in the nearby rivers.

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My home:

I live with Ana. She’s been wonderful. She’s in her 60s and we basically live alone except for the ex-husband who is allowed to sleep at our house only because “He’s the father of my children,” and her son who eats at the house.

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My room is very comfortable!

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And as far as latrines go, ours is pretty nice. Very clean.But that cleanness doesn’t mean that cockroaches don’t crawl out of it when it gets dark. But you can just tap the hole with your flashlight and they get nervous or something and that buys you some time.  One night when I was peeing before bed, hovering over the hole, I noticed a rock on the wooden beam I was reaching out to steady myself with. But then the rock was a frog and I would have pissed myself if I hadn’t already been peeing anyway.

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There is no water in the house but we have a spigot out back that works for a few hours in the early morning or late at night (That’s why a volunteer who lives about an hour-and-a-half-drive away is working with me and my community to fix the water system (which was installed 3 years ago by a volunteer through the help of a Rotary club in Minnesota. As far as foreign aid projects go, I’m impressed. They checked in and that’s how this water system update came about!))

I made a llave casera so that we can wash our hands easier. It got old real fast having to go off in search of water and soap every time I needed to wash my hands. I shower at her mom’s house which is across the street and three houses down. She has a room with a drain in the ground so I fill up a bucket, drag a chair in to set my things on it, and light a candle because there are no windows or any light source. I am just WAITING for the day when I light my towel or myself on fire.

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The house my host mom is building – for me!

“No, I’m a different American girl”:

There was a volunteer here 3 years ago who, let me tell you, was amazing. I can tell you a long list of all that Kenzie did. People told me with tears in their eyes about how Kenzie brought water to their community. “We used to not eat breakfast. We had to find water! How could we worry about food when we didn’t have water?” I almost cried just hearing them talk about it. But that’s not all Kenzie did! She ran a marathon, had a dog, started youth groups that still assemble out of respect to her, gave a cooking course, and taught an art class. Most people greeted me as Kenzie and after explaining, No, I’m Laura, they would ask me how my sister Kenzie was doing. Then I would say, Oh she’s not my sister. And then they would say, OK, well tell her I say hello. I’ve stopped telling people I don’t know her. It’s too hard to continue to let them down. The good thing about being compared to the person they look up to most, second only to Jesus, is that they take my being here very seriously.

Living simply:

Besides the whole, I don’t have paper or art supplies or sports equipment or money for any activities, there are shortages of vegetables (they get some one day a week, if the guy comes) and cell phone reception. I only get reception outside of Beata’s house on the hill leading down to the street. My community, I’m sure, assumes I’m very wealthy, but I’m very much so the opposite. I was walking with Beata when I saw a broken hanger on the street. I picked it up, cleaned it off by candlelight, and it is now holding all of my dress shirts. The limited resources lead to such creativity.

For example, the higuero tree  gives fruit that can be cut, hollowed out, and used as a bowl.

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It’s also reflected in kids’ toys: A kite made out of a grocery bag and twigs or a tire pushed around by a plastic jug handle attached to a stick. Speaking of, there are an absurd number of empty glass beer bottles. Do you have an idea for a craft? 

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The way people make things last or try to use what is available can at times create a very surreal scenario for me. As a meeting started one afternoon I found myself looking between these two elderly men wearing recycled American clothes: a hat that said ‘Ride the Wake’ and an old track shirt proudly announcing, ‘I’ve Got the RUNS!’ They have no idea.

And then I cried and peed and stuff:

What I really don’t want is this blog to make it seem like my life here is always perfect and that I only have good days.Things here change so quickly. One bad thing happens and, whatever, you shrug it off, that’s normal, but then another thing happens and if awkward moments or misunderstandings keep happening, they compound and suddenly the lovely morning or yesterday, which was good day, seems so far away, and that’s what happened on Saturday night.

The visit had gone so well. And by that I mean everything was fine, not bad at all. But then Saturday I tried to have a meeting with women from Hogares but while I was in the middle of giving a brief introduction of myself and why I was there (I’d planned it to be so precious. These women were going to have to love me. But then that’s not what happened) these young guys leaned in the windows and started hissing and catcalling me.  I was so shaken and I couldn’t ignore them . I tried to keep going but suddenly what was going to be this sweet shared moment felt dumb and irrelevant. I didn’t believe anything I was saying; I couldn’t get into it.  I struggled to find the Spanish words to tell them to leave, but then I couldn’t get nerve to say anything to them. It was so frustrating because I couldn’t assert myself, or defend myself at all. “Um…” I faltered, “Well, that’s about all. If you have any questions you can ask me.” But the guys came over instead of the women to ask me, ‘Do you like to dance?’, ‘Do you know you’re really pretty?’, ‘How are you?’ “Look I’m fine,” I said, gritting my teeth, “but I was trying to have a meeting with these women. Now isn’t the time to try to talk to me.” The smiles never left their faces. It didn’t even register and I felt my blood rising and my face flushing but then suddently Beata appeared, smiling, “I’m going to take you to my friend’s house now!” I followed her blindly, clenching my fists, blinking back the hot pricks behind my eyes that come before tears. She stopped in front of the house of an adorable old woman who told me that one morning her and I will go see the cows together. I could barely find my Spanish. I was a thousand miles away. So I just tried to smile a lot. Beata was watching me. “Want to go to some other houses?” “Um, actually I think I’m going to go home…I’m pretty tired,” I lied. On my way home instead of turning left I turned right and headed to cell phone signal. Which, if you were paying attention earlier, only exists outside of Beata’s house on the street. Well, they were burning trash by my small circle of cell phone reception. To inhale the smoke of burning trash feels like I’m eating cancer. But that’s how desperate I was. I plugged my nose and called my friend who lives about 8 hours away on the other side of the country. She didn’t answer. I decided to try my parents and crossed my fingers I had enough money on my phone to make the call. They didn’t answer. I left a message asking them to call me and that I’d be waiting there for another ten minutes. They called me back in three and by this point I’d managed to make my way up the hill a little bit, inhaling less smoke, with one bar. “What’s wrong?” they asked immediately. They’d heard it in my voice. I started to explain my frustration and couldn’t help but cry. “I felt so worthless,” I explained, “Who is ever going to take me seriously?” Suddenly I felt someone grab me, “HIIII!” It was the youth volunteer who lives about an hour walk away. She’d come to visit me and brought her host family along to meet me. I stared at them holding my phone, crying and they stared back looking uncomfortable and then after a long beat crossed the road to stand awkwardly in a clump across the street. I was so embarrassed and frazzled that I didn’t even care that I now literally had an audience. After a few more minutes talking to my parents I hung up and walked with the volunteer and her family as they headed to a nearby community. But then it started pouring. They caught a ride on a truck and I walked home to Ana soaked through my clothes. I wasn’t allowed to go the latrine because our ‘backyard’ had become a mudpit. I reluctantly pulled the plastic bowl out from under my bed and tried to aim. But the force of my pee was hard to prepare for and some urine landed on the floor. I just kind of stared at it and felt really sad. It was just something I was not prepared for. It’s mostly just a pride thing, but it really shook me up to have to clean up my own urine off the floor. When I was done I picked up the bowl and looked around my room trying to find a place to put it. I’d never had to find a place for pee before. Maybe next to the fan, or by my suitcase. Somewhere I wouldn’t trip over it. At this point, everything was starting to seem very funny and I was laughing for awhile by myself but then I thought about how insane I would look to anyone and it kind of sobered me up.

I think I can handle a lot of what’s going to come my way, but things really have a way of coming out of left field here and just slapping you across the face, to put it delicately. Like when you’re at a meeting of 100 people and then someone turns to you and yells, “Laura! Why don’t you lead a song? Or a game? Or give a speech!”

Ah, shame. I won’t have an ounce of you left in two years. I’m gonna get back to the U.S., move into the first apartment I see because IT HAS A DOOR? THAT LOCKS? RUNNING WATER? and pee in bowls and on my own floor. I’m going to be weirder than I already was.

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