Wednesday, August 28, 2013

To get you through until next Sunday.

If you're like me, you live every 7 days between new episodes of Breaking Bad in a fugue state, obsessing about what just happened, wondering what will happen next, worrying to death about poor Jesse. Here are two videos to help ease your pain. No spoilers involved, in less you count how Hank and Marie react to Miley Cyrus at the VMAs or Walt's AMAZING rolling skating abilities a spoiler.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Monday musings.

-Disclosure. There was a time in my preteen existence when N'Sync was probably in the top 5 things I cared about. I had posters of them on my walls. I used to have in depth conversations with my best friend, MK, about the five of them, as if they were our close, personal pals (we always wondered about Lance, even back then; Joey was the funny one we'd love to have as a friend; Justin was dreamy; Chris we didn't talk about as much). I attended two N'Sync concerts consecutive years in DC at the Verizon Center with group of middle school girlfriends. Both times we screamed so loudly we all sounded like 30 year smokers the next day. We made posters and waved them madly as we danced in our seats (of course we had spent the entire previous MONTH memorizing choreography from watching music videos on MTV (how old does THAT make me sound?), which we just knew in our hearts would impress the band all the way from our nose bleed seats to the stage. To this day I can honestly say they were the funnest, most joyous, silliest concerts I have ever been to, or probably will ever go to.

Their break up, even though I was getting older and should have been past boy band related things, was...difficult. And though I've enjoyed watching JT's career grow and blossom, a piece of my TRL loving, Bye Bye Bye choreography memorizing heart has missed them dearly. I knew they were done, would never really reunite ala the less superior BSB (there was a legit rivalry amongst our 7th grade class between BSB girls and N'Sync girls, obvi the N'Syncers were correct).

Which is why last night's brief little snippet of a reunion still managed to bring me so much joy. There's only one window in your life to love a band as much as only a preteen girl can love a boy band. It's a love that is pure and without abandon, a love that has nothing to do with being cool or hip or ironic. It's just earnest, scream your head off, cry when they descend from the stage on giant strings in a cloud of pyrotechnics and dry ice love.

-The US Open started today and that brings me almost as much joy as N'Sync. I love this tournament.  I've explained at length on this blog that night matches at the Open are what solidified my deep and abiding love for tennis. There just is nothing like it when a night match creeps toward midnight and then past it, past the point when you should be asleep but you could care less, could not possibly think of turning the TV off, because you're in it, you're there in that moment, in that stadium in NYC just as much as all those people who are physically there, on the edge of your seat, living and dying with every bounce of the ball. 

Plus, Nadal is healthy this year. Which makes me a very happy fan. 

-I'm seeing the Beach Boys this Wednesday in Charlottesville, which I'm pretty stoked about. It's not so often you get to see living legends play a concert, and seeing them outdoors at the Cville downton mall is just the icing on the cake. Plus this concert is the first of three incredible ones I have scheduled for the next few weeks. The other two are Fun. (!) and Frightened Rabbit (!!). You may not have heard of Frightened Rabbit, because they're not that well known, but they are one of my favorite bands. Their songs are raw and gorgeous in the way it seems British bands just excel at, and I cannot wait to see them live. 

-My first day of clinical immersion in a critical care unit was last week, and as much confidence as I gained this summer doing med/surg during my externship, I kind of felt like I started over there. Which is good. The best way to build confidence is to start off feeling completely overwhelmed (right? isn't that something people say?). My preceptor is a total super nurse, and I know I'll learn oodles from her. She's on the code team which means that every time someone in the hospital's heart stops, she drops  everything and runs there (which means I run behind her trying to keep up). I'm sure that will become somewhat more natural with time, because right now, when I hear a code called out, it feels a lot like this:

I haven't literally hidden in a closet yet, but I know it's only a matter of time :)

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Winos in the 'Ville

This past weekend five of my lovely friends and I headed an hour up the road to Charlottesville to do what any sensible group of women in Charlottesville should do, DRINK LOTS AND LOTS OF WINE!!

We had ridiculously unseasonable weather for August, and it was perfect for sitting outside sipping yummy wine, even cool enough to make me crave red wine (just one sip of red wine and I got all giddy about fall). I've done a good number of Charlottesville vineyards, but this was the first time I brought picnic stuff.

I made two types of baguette sandwiches:

Turkey, sharp cheddar, and granny smith apple

And prosciutto, arugula, and mozzarella

We also brought along lots of other yummy things, cherries, grapes, trail mix, etc. to keep our wine soaked selves steady enough to power through four wineries.

We hit King Family, which was absolutely beauitful. The wines were really good too, especially a really refreshing and crisp Viognier although the tasting only included five. But you got to keep the glass! Always a bonus in my book.

Next we went to Pippin Hill, which may be my pick for most beautiful winery in Charleston (which is really hard to pick, because they're all so ridiculously gorgeous, all rolling hills and idyllic rural tableaus.

We went to Jefferson and picnicked

This was MK's face when I told her to "act natural"

Our last stop was Trump, which I want to hate because, well, it's Donald Trump. And maybe if I was a wine snob I would hate it, but I've been twice now and have thoroughly enjoyed it both times despite the giant golden T's all over the place. The wine is yummy, the view is great, the tasting includes like 13 samples (two sneak attacks that aren't even on the tasting list), and they have two sparkling wines that I love. So as much as I hate to say it, I like your winery Trump. I am still highly skeptical of you in general.

After a couple hours de-pickling in our hotel, we headed out for dinner at the Whiskey Jar (had a bangin' barbeque sandwich that was perfect after a day of drinking), where the boyfriend managed to swing by and grab a bite with us after work (we graciously allowed him and his cooties to sit with us). We made a stop at Commonwealth Sky Bar, where the scene was somewhat....less than friendly. Mostly it made me feel like an old fart, because I remember a time in my life where weekly I went to bars that were packed with people and I had to stand in line for 20 minutes just to get a drink, and I could last until the bar closed.

We were out of there my midnight. But in our defense we'd been drinking since 12pm! It's not just due to our steadily advancing age.

We did revisit our youth in one major way though, the late night junk food pig out stop. We hit up the Cook Out driveway (full disclosure, I've never been to Cook Out, now I wonder what is wrong with me to have waited so long). Their milkshake menu is INCREDIBLE. There are like 50 flavors and you can combine them, and it's just one of the happiest places in the world I think.

I got peanut butter, banana, with Reeses Cup. BOOM! Do you not want to go get one of those right this second? I wanted to find a way to live inside of that milkshake. Sadly I just ate it. All 5,000 calories of it right before bed.

And I'm not even a little bit sorry about it.

So to sum up, a weekend drinking wine (and milkshakes) with some of my favorite people on the planet in one of the most beautiful parts of our state=the perfect way to end summer before school starts (tomorrow, eek!!!)

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Some things.

Back from Belize. And it was as gorgeous and relaxing and beautiful as it was last year, if not more so. More on that later. But first some (random) things.

-I may be a little late to this party but Florence and the Machine's album "Ceremonials" just completely crushes me. I downloaded it a week before Belize and I almost can't handle how good it is.

Shake it Out is one of those songs I can listen to again and again and again. Do you have those songs? That one you just hit play on as soon as it's over, that you almost get a little irrationally sad over during its last few seconds, because it's that ridiculously good that you don't want it to end, you just want it to continue, be permanent. The whole album is like this. I am head over heels in love with it in a way I haven't been in love with a CD in a long time. It is a CD (does it make me old that I still call it a CD?) designed for car rides, for driving around the block a few extra times just so you can catch the end of a song.

-On the topic of soul crushingly good pop culture, Breaking Bad's last eight episodes started Sunday. I watched the first of these episodes two nights ago since Sunday night I was stuck in the Atlanta airport for 5 hours. And you guys. You guys. I just can't. Television shouldn't be this good. The last few minutes of the episode, I straight up sat upright on the edge of my bed, leaning forward, holding my breath. A unicorn wearing a poncho could have wandered into my room and I just would have given it a glance and then gone back to watching that last scene of Breaking Bad, because Breaking Bad would have been the more captivating of the two.

And Aaron Paul's Jesse Pinkman. If he does not make it through the end of the show alive I don't know if I can emotionally handle it. I don't know how Vince Villigan has made me so desperately care about a character who has made and sold meth, murdered, and done some other very bad things. But I do. Oh all I want is for Jesse to make it out of this series somehow intact.

-Tom's has tempted me all summer with its crochets and its wedges, but I've been uncharacteristically frugal and resisted. But no longer. Tonight I splurged.

So these Ikat print Toms are very similar, yes I admit. But one is light blue! And the other is gray. TOTALLY different. For example I could not wear those light blue with say, a pink top. Gray on the other hand...

Whatever. I just gave not one, but two barefoot children in Africa shoes (probably not Ikat print), so I completely justify buying both pairs.

And to my delight, I got a cool Alice in Wonderland tote bag because I spent over $75. I love me a free tote.

-Last but not least Hardywood just came out with a Blackberry beer.

I had some the other night, and it is as whimsically delicious as I hoped. I love a good fruit beer. Last year Hardywood came out with a strawberry beer so good I wanted to swim laps in a giant barrel of it. I think Abita strawberry beer is one of the most fun beers to drink in the world.  Don't even get me started on the subject of pumpkin beer. So I was so excited about this blackberry business that I may have had its release on my calendar. And it did not dissapoint. The blackberry taste is actually not that strong, but it's just present enough to be a delightful little surprise in the midst of a traditional Belgian white ale

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Belize bound.

This is what it looks like when I pack for a week long trip.

You do not even want to know the state my room was in when I packed for 6 months in Thailand.

Overpacking issues and all, I'm pretty flipping excited about spending another week in Caye Caulker in Belize. I can't think of many places on earth more relaxing or beautiful. Last time I was there I also swam with a sea turtle, which I'm 99% positive is my spirit animal.

I also drank lots of cerveza, ate lots of ceviche, and did fun things like paddleboard, kayak, snorkel amongst coral reefs, and climb around on Mayan ruins.

I hope to do those things again this week, although honestly, I would be pretty stoked just to lay in this swing for hours and hours.

See you all in a week :) I'll be the tan and Zenned out one reminiscing about more magical memories with sea turtles.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013


I finished my nurse externship last week, an 8 week, paid experience where I basically got to pretend to be an RN (carefully supervised by a real RN of course).

Before summer, we found out our placements. We had been given the option of listing our preference in units, and I listed ICU, Pediatrics, and Oncology. I was then given another option to list even more preferences, and I added Labor and Delivery and ED to the list.

I can tell you where I did not want to be. I did not want to be on a Med/Surg unit.

I realize that for a non-hospital speaking person, Med/Surg doesn't really paint a very complete picture. I use the term so frequently now that I forget that once, not too long ago, I wouldn't have known what it meant either. The easiest way to explain what a Med/Surg unit is is to tell you what it's not. It's not Critical Care/ICU or the monitored step-down units that people sometimes go to after an ICU stay. It's not the Emergency Department or the OR. It's not pediatrics or L&D or mother/infant. It's not psych. It's the decidedly un-glamorous, bread and butter of hospitals, a place people go when they have pneumonia or a kidney infection, when they have a GI bleed or are experiencing weakness or dizziness. It's not specialized and it's not high acuity. And for those reasons, among nursing students at least, it's not exactly desirable for an experience like an externship.

It doesn't have the fast paced excitement of the ED, the critical machine filled high drama of an ICU, the cuddly babies of Mother/Infant. It's not glamorous. It's just where the majority of people go when they need to be in hospital.

And course, if you haven't already guessed, when I got the call about my externship placement, I was told that I would be placed on a Med/Surg unit. The unit also has a few hospice beds, but it's mostly Med/Surg, full of people with UTIs, diverticulitis, unexplained fevers and infections, and a whole host of other "Med/Surg" issues.

I was less than pleased. The majority of our junior year clinicals were Med/Surg. I knew I didn't want to work on a Med/Surg unit after graduation. I was done with it. I didn't feel like it's where I would benefit the most from over a summer there. I resigned myself to it, put on the best attitude and outlook I could, but I was disappointed and deeply envious of the externs I met at orientation who were going to be in the ICU or ED or some other far more exciting sounding unit than mine.

8 weeks later, and I can say definitively that I was more wrong about my outlook on this unit than I have been about almost anything else in nursing school. 8 weeks later, and I can say that I am deeply, deeply grateful for my placement, for where I've been this summer.

Part of it was my preceptor, who was fabulous. She's a tremendous nurse, for starters, the kind of thorough, warm, efficient nurse I hope to be. But she's also the kind of personality I learn best from, someone who is kind and encouraging, who teaches firmly but is nowhere near the drill sergeant/pit bull/stereotypical nurse who eats her young model. I don't learn best when I'm scared and intimated and sure that any second someone is going to yell at me. That's why I didn't go into the military. Well that, my total lack of upper body strength, fear of bullets/bombs, and maybe a few other reasons.

But it was also, to my great surprise, the unit. This place I had dreaded turned out to be one of the best learning experiences of my life, and by far the best learning experience of nursing school so far. I think back to where I was in early June and where I am now, in terms of my confidence and skills and it's shocking. I'm not there yet. I still have a long way to go. But I feel closer in a way I never felt even after an entire semester of clinicals.

I realized something this summer. Med/Surg, that scary phrase that I used to find so unappealing, is the backbone of nursing. There's a reason our year-long junior level class is called Med/Surg in most nursing schools (we call it Adult Nursing Science, just to be fancy). It's the foundation of nursing. It's all the things that can go wrong with the human body, not catastrophically wrong enough to go straight to the ICU, but wrong enough to be in the hospital, enough for patients to be sick and miserable and scared, and in need of someone to care for them. It's young people and old people (okay fine definitely more old people). It's patients who are absolutely nuts, patients who are mean and angry, patients who are wonderful and grateful.

This summer I took care of patients at the end of their lives as well as their families (I realize now that at the end of people's lives, you care for them of course, but at a certain point, near the end, they don't need you anywhere near as much as their families do). I took care of young kids, younger than me, with chronic illnesses, kids who despite the shitty fortune of having to be sick on and off their whole lives and having to face fear the likes of which I cannot understand, were also still kids, 20 somethings who could be silly or sweet or petulant, and who liked to watch Netflix on computers and stockpile snacks in the patient kitchen. I took care of 90 somethings whose minds were taken completely by dementia, who were sometimes sweet and affable and sometimes frighteningly angry and mean (you would be surprised the strength a 90 year old can have). I also took care of 90somethings who looked 20 years younger, who were sharp and bright, and at that age, didn't suffer fools lightly. I've cared for people who within minutes of entering their room would suddenly be sharing these intense, deep memories or feelings, who opened up to me utterly and completely.

I've seen really unfair things, people too young with terminal diseases, and I've also seen infuriating things, people who destroyed their own bodies, who were dying because they were never able to overcome addiction. I've laughed with patients. With others I've tried to hold back my own tears. I've comforted and taught. I've cleaned so many bottoms and changed so many diapers you would not believe. I cannot even begin to emphasize just how much poop I was involved with this summer. Mountains of it. But I also realized, over 8 weeks, that it is nothing for me to change a diaper or sheets. And for someone who is trying to hold onto some dignity, it is so much more for them, to be clean, to be taken care of and not forced to wait because I'm hoping a PCT will do that job for me. Nursing is so much more than changing bedpans and sheets, even though some people may not realize that. But that doesn't mean that changing bedpans and sheets is below a nurse. Those may be "tech" jobs, but they're also nursing jobs, because they are so fundamental to caring for someone, for making sure someone has dignity and a healing environment. I hope to God that no matter what kind of nursing I do, I never feel like I am above that.

They're have been moments this summer that have been infuriating, patients who confuse the word "nurse" with "waitress", and use their call bells over and over again with requests like they want their lunch tray moved or their pillows rearranged, ignorant of the fact that a nurse on a Med/Surg unit has FIVE patients, sometimes more, and that down the hall we might have a patient who can't breathe or who has a stat lab due that could affect their treatment plan. (please if you are in a hospital, please, please, if it's something that can wait, something that is truly not affecting you, please just wait until the nurse comes in your room to ask instead of using that Godforsaken call bell).

Nearly every shift this summer has been hectic and crazy. After 13 hours spent almost entirely on my feet walking from room to room, I sometimes barely had the energy to shower when I got home, much less make dinner. I've had victories (getting an IV is still exciting) and I've also failed at things (missing an IV still stings). I've connected with some patients instantly and wonderfully, while others I've struggled to reach. As a nurse people tend to drop down barriers for you. Whether it's because you have to disimpact them (I'm not going to explain that, if you don't know you don't want to) or if you're just in the room while they're having a family discussion, people tend to be so much more vulnerable around you if you're a nurse. And sometimes that can be painful, like when you witness family members say goodbye to loved ones, and the rawness of it all just feels like too much. But often and usually simultaneously with the pain, it's a privilege, to see people in a way people rarely are with each other.

The whole point of all of this is to say that I'm grateful, in a way I did not expect, for where I've been the last 8 weeks. I was a nursing student who thought I knew what Med/Surg meant, who thought I would learn so much more somewhere more "glamorous" or "exciting" like an ICU or ED. But I can't imagine now spending this summer anywhere else. Even with all the poop, with all the patients who were nuts or who were mean and demanding, with all the insanity and sadness, I'm so thankful for this experience. I'm not a nurse yet. There's so much about it that still scares the crap out of me, so much I still have to learn. But I'm closer. These 8 weeks brought me so much closer, and they made me understand that what's important in a hospital isn't the unit name on the wall. It's the people you work with, the patients, and the care you put into it.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

You're welcome.

This youtube video came up during a conversation at work today and we all immediately needed to see it. And it was as awesome as it sounded.

Happy Tuesday.

Monday, June 24, 2013


Unsurprisingly summer break has absolutely flown by and I cannot believe it's almost July. The last three and next five weeks are going to be crazy busy because I'm doing my nurse externship (full time shadowing an RN basically), continuing my tech job at VCU, continuing my freelance work with, and somewhere in there trying to have a life and do fun things (and you know, sleep).

Even though it's busy it's been really good. Some of the things that are making my summer happy right now.

-My externship. I cannot stress how physically and mentally tough this has been already (I have to be super vague thanks to my paralyzing fear of the HIPPA police), but in two weeks I've had my first experiences with "after care" (if you don't know what it is, just think about it for a while), physically combative patients, verbally combative patients, and so, so much poop (to be accurate these are by no means my first experiences with poop in the hospital, approximately 50% of nursing school is poop related). I've worked my first 13 hour shifts (they're techincally 12s, but not one of these have I actually been at the hospital less than 13 full hours). But it's also been wonderful and challenging and engaging. For the first time I get to really be the nurse (nursing students are about half nurse, half tech). And even though it's been so, so hard it's also been so, so rewarding, and I've feel like I've learned so much already and it's only two weeks in. Also my preceptor and all of the nurses on the unit are fabulous and incredibly welcoming and supportive. I was so anxious when I found out what type of unit I was going to be placed in for the summer, and now I couldn't be more thankful for it. 

-Wimbledon. My second favorite tennis tournament starts today (those night matches at the US Open tip it just slightly past Wimbledon), and even though I'm going to miss a lot of it, when I do have a day off my priority will be to soak up as much tennis as possible. I love Wimbledon, and it just exudes the feel of summer to me. It's like watermelon, tied inextricably in my sense memory to hot, humid days and fireflies and the smell of bug spray. Wimbledon was in the background of so many beach trips in my childhood, green grass on the television during rainy days stuck inside, watching Agassi and Sampras during lunch breaks from the beach, with wet hair and sand on my toes. I love it for the tennis, but I also love it for that perfect, undiluted feel of summer it carries.

(Also side note. I HATE how the media has thus far turned the focus of this epic, historical two week tennis tournament into a gossip fest about Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova. It's a cheap, tacky topic and it doesn't deserve to be the main headline here)

-Breaking Bad on Netflix. Holy shit you guys. I mean really. Holy shit. That is the only way I can think to describe this magnificent show. I watched the first season once upon a time and always pledged that I'd get caught up after I missed the next few seasons. I took my sweet time, but now that I am finally watching the entire series, I cannot believe I've lived the last few years without watching this show. I am prone to hyperbole yes, but I think this may be one of if not the greatest shows ever put on television. The writing, the acting, the way it's shot. It manages to be pitch black but still have this raw heart beat of humanity in every scene. You still hope desperately for these characters, even when they do horrendous things. It's just magical. And Aaron Paul as Jesse. I've never been more concerned or heartbroken over a fictional character as I am about Jesse Pinkman. 

-Looking forward to Belize in August. June and July this summer are all about work. August will be about a last few weeks of relaxation (with a little work) before school starts again. One of those weeks will be spent here:

Doing a whole lot of this:

Rob and I are going back to Belize for a week of sun, swimming, relaxing, plus lots of cerveza and ceviche. I think it's just right that my summer will be bookended by two Central American vacations, one full of backbreaking labor and volunteerism and one the polar opposite, all about taking it easy and relaxation. I love both types of these vacations, but after 8 weeks of lots and lots of hospital time, I think I'm going to be in desperate need of beautiful, sunny Belize. 

Monday, June 10, 2013

Nicaragua Part Three: The Build and The End

I've set up the location and the characters of my Habitat trip to Nicaragua, but I've saved this third and last post for the part that mattered the most, the reason we were there, the build. I've had people ask me why I would choose to spend my "vacation" along with a good amount of money to go perform manual labor for a week under the hot sun in a developing nation. I've gone on builds three times now, and each of them has been hard and exhausting and dirty and blister provoking. But I can say without a shadow of a doubt that I would do it again, and again, and again after that.

I've been really freaking lucky and blessed when it has come to travel. From 18 to 24 I traveled a lot, from studying abroad in Paris to a graduation present trip to India to 6 months in Thailand to many more trips between. I did all of this travel for me. And these places and experiences gave me everything. They gave me so much that at a certain point, I realized the scales were tipping dangerously. I had been given so much by travel, but I had given so little back in return.

And so I made a decision and a promise that I would start to give back with my travel. It would still be partly selfish of course, because I would be able to go see new and beautiful places and make lovely memories. But at least there would be some balancing of it all, some contribution on my part. That promise began with Haiti, and as hard and tremendously sad as that trip was, it flipped a switch in me, almost an addiction. There's so much poverty and suffering in this great, wide world, and the more you see of the world the more you realize it. And for someone who has a hard time accepting those truths, who finds it so profoundly unfair that so many people have so little while others have so much, there's nothing more satisfying or soothing as being able to physically put a dent into that poverty and injustice, even if just a tiny dent.

I'm not sure I would even know how to travel to a place like Haiti or Malawi or Nicaragua without sifting sand or mixing cement or hauling cinder blocks. Habitat uses the phrase "sweat equity" to describe what is expected of the families they build houses for, but it also applies to us, the "unskilled laborers". What we do on a build is not heroic or even particularly grand, but it's something. It's something you can feel and touch. It's the blisters on your hands, sweat in your hair, and a layer of caked on dirt on every inch of your skin. It's simple and small and honest, but it's something. And for the rest of my life, I will seek out trips like these. For the rest of my life I will be a proud supporter of Habitat.

People in the US know Habitat. I knew what it was before my first trip. To be 100% honest I've never volunteered with Habitat domestically (although I hope to soon!). I knew its general mission and thought it was great. But what I've seen that Habitat does internationally makes me a fervent believer. It's international aid done in a way that it's not always done. First of all Habitat has branches in each of the countries it works in. These branches are not staffed by Americans, but staffed by locals. They have local CEO's, local coordinators, local everything. They run the show. Habitat is organic in the sense that each country runs it slightly different. The houses built are different, and even the way the houses are built is different.

Too often international charity is impatient and arrogant, even if it's well intentioned. It's a mindset that NGOs or non-profits can go into a country on a white horse, independently hand out whatever is needed, whether it's money or supplies or religion, and leave as heroes. That sounds great, but it isn't sustainable. It doesn't really fix or change anything. For an NGO to make an impact in a country it has to become a part of that country. It has to slowly and patiently put down roots and make partnerships and develop and grow in sync with the culture and environment.

From what I've seen in Malawi and Nicaragua Habitat excels at that. Other than our team leader, every Habitat person we worked with was Nicaraguan. Because Nicaraguans are the only ones that are going to really understand what Nicaraguans need. This build was different from my Malawi build in that we didn't go in and work on an entire house. One of the ways Habitat Nicaragua has developed is by realizing that the way people in Nicaragua build homes is not all at once. People build as they can, as the money allows, in increments over years. Our build was in a neighborhood in Managua that Habitat has a large project in. The two primary sites we worked on were homes of two families who already had one Habitat "room" built on their properties. Houses in Managua are often clusters of small buildings around a central courtyard. Each of these families had original homes (really just one or two room structures) that fit the international standard of inadequate (dirt floors, scrap metal walls). Habitat houses are not just gifted to the families but rather offered as an affordable, no or very low interest loan. Both families had been able to pay off their first Habitat structure and so were ready to add on another. In this slow and incremental way, the families could eventually have homes that were solid, dry, and safe. It's the kind of aid that would frustrate some people, because it's very slow. But it's what works in Nicaraguan culture, and so it's what Habitat found a way to provide.

Our big team (13 people) split into two teams, and each took a different site. Ours was for a large, multi-generation family (a mother and a father who had several daughters ranging from early 20something to little kids). One of those daughters (who could easily have been 18 or 19, Nicaraguan women start families early) was married and had two young children. All of these people lived in the "compound."

The start of the family's new room in the walled in compound. The scrap metal structure right behind it is the latrine.

Justin, little hellraiser and grandchild of the older generation couple who lived here at the door of the family's original

More of the family on our site

The other half of our team worked on a house for a similar, multi-generation family. The type of construction that Habitat does in Nicaragua is cinder block homes that are very, very reenforced. As I mentioned before Nicaragua is very seismically active, and there was an incredibly destructive earthquake in Managua in 1972. For this reason it's very important that the houses Habitat builds are solid and secure. The type of work we did on this build was very different and a lot more physically demanding than my Malawi build. In Malawi we used brick and did not do anywhere near as much rebar work. We also didn't have to mix the cement ourselves, because there were a dozen teenage boys around at any time who would do that for us. For this house we sifted the sand, mixed our own cement (by hand thank you) and spent a very large amount of time tying rebar (for non-construction minded people, a single row of rebar is composed of two long metal rods side by side that runs the length of the four walls of the house, the two rods are tied together with smaller bent metal rods).

Mike and Sahana tying rebar like champs, after it's tied the rebar goes into a row of cinderblocks and which is then filled with concrete, this reenforces the house

Cutting rebar, despite my thrilled expression this was really, really hard

Mixing cement using child labor

Bending rebar, this was also much harder than my happy expression would suggest

We also helped our mason, Dellis, with the actual construction of the house. I didn't put any cinder blocks on the rows, because to do that you had to balance them precariously in the air and thread them through a vertical piece of rebar (I so would have ended up knocking myself out with a cinder block). But I did fill in the gaps between the cinder blocks with cement. Once the house got tall enough they put up the world's most precarious scaffolding, and so filling in cinder blocks became even more adventurous.

Sahana and Edward mortaring away

Up on the scaffolding with Dellis, trying to make him proud as always

If you know me it may not come as a surprise that I don't do a ton of manual labor. I work out yes, but I do not spend my days lifting heavy objects and shoveling and bending metal. Habitat build days are exhausting. We worked our butts off every day. In fact we worked our butts off so much and so fast that we ended up ahead of schedule (that's why we owned our name Team Lightning). We did as much as we could with this house (it still needed a roof and a floor but both of those had to wait for Dellis to finish up the fancier, more technical things we couldn't help with), and so we ended up starting work on two more build sites.

One of those build sites was literally a field. Nothing had been started. And two other guys on our team and I (that's right, I was the only lady) got the lovely task of starting the foundation. Now I know squat about construction, but I figure that in the US digging foundations is done by some kind of machine thingy. Not so in Nicaragua on a Habitat build. We were there to be unskilled labor, and by God did we Labor with a capital L on this project. I'm pretty sure that ditch digging used to be a sentence for criminals. I don't think I've ever done anything more exhausting other than run a marathon. In about two hours, in 98 degree weather and absolutely no shade, we took this plot of land:

Those are all Habitat houses in the background

To this:

I'm not sure if the picture can convey what literal back breaking labor this was. To give proper credit the three of us had ample help from Selim and another Habitat worker. Basically one person (this I did not attempt) would hack away with a pick axe (because soil is not soft despite what you may think) and then three of us would jump in and shovel the shit out of it. The only way I didn't collapse or have to stop is because what I lack in arm strength (a lot) I make up for in sheer stubbornness. 

The next day we also got to experience the joys of manual tamping (you have to tamp down the soil of a foundation to make it even, also something that I think is normally done by machines). The tamper is basically a giant metal tool that weighs at least 50 pounds that you repeatedly smash into the ground with force. Not easy. When I went to take the tamper from one of the Habitat guys, he looked at me with skepticism (he hadn't been there to witness my incredible shoveling skills) and said it would be too hard. One of my proudest moments on the trip is that John (the 30 year veteran LA fireman and former Marine), looked at the Habitat guy and said "oh no, she's better than most men." Again I have almost no arm strength (I'll never forget the health fair in high school where there was a machine that gave you a numerical reading for how strong your grip was and one of the seemingly frail, elderly teachers had a higher score than me), but when I go on Habitat trips I am absolutely there to work my butt off. It's exhausting and dirty and so, so sweaty, but I can't describe the exhausted sense of satisfaction you leave with after working so hard all day. Every time I come home from one of these trips I briefly consider switching careers to something involving outdoor manual labor like construction (and then I remember who I am).

(Funny side note: On one of our first days of the trip we were all working doing various tasks, and the family was doing their usual domestic things. Our team leader Edward said that his favorite politically incorrect joke to make on Habitat trip is that it is a complete role reversal from what it's like at home, all these "white" people doing construction while the Central Americans watch from inside their houses).

You may have read up until this point and thought Sweet Jesus, why would anyone go on a trip where they physically exhaust themselves in extreme heat for a week? But there was so much more to our trip than shoveling and tamping and tying rebar. I can't believe I've written this much without talking about the kids.

On volunteer trips like these, I think the kids are always one of the best parts. And no matter where you go there will be kids. We didn't have quite the horde of children here that we did in Malawi, but there were still plenty of them. Most of them were part of the family but they also had various little friends and neighbors over. They didn't speak any English. Most of us spoke very little Spanish. Yet when it's kids you usually realize quickly that it doesn't matter much. Games and coloring and songs and being silly are universal.

And you guys, Nicaraguan children are ridiculously cute. Most of the week we tried to think of discreet ways to steal a few of them and take them with us.

By the end of the week I think we all felt bonded and connected to these families. Even with the language and cultural barrier, there's no way to leave a week like this and not feel a connection. Some of the older members of the families were a little shy at the start of the week but on day 5 they were right there next to us, shoveling cement and laughing at funny things that happened. I think I forget on these trips just how much these houses mean to the family, because selfishly the house and the build mean so much to me, are such a gift to me, that it's easy to forget who it's really impacting. But I was reminded forcefully of what it means to these families during the dedication (a Habitat build always ends with a dedication). For both of our sites one member of the family was given an opportunity to speak, and both women who did got choked up when she was saying what that week meant for her family. One of the coolest part about the dedication is that both families asked each member of our team to go inside the new houses (with brand new spanking floors on our last day-we mixed like 10 batches of concrete and cement for those floors) and write a word or phrase on the walls.

I was so surprised and touched by this, that they would want a word written permanently on their house from a bunch of American strangers who they'd only known for a week. They'd welcomed us, in every sense of the word, into their homes and their lives, and I'm so in awe of that welcoming and generosity. I know we were there to "help" them, but on trips like these it's not that simple or straightforward. It feels so much more mutual, because everything we give we get back exponentially.

Gracia for grace in Spanish, Elisa is my Nicaraguan name given to me by the kids

The nearly finished house with our super snazzy decorations (we spent hours trying to get these to work, let's just say it was extremely windy

Once we'd finished with the dedications and blessings and tears, we ended the week as any good week should end, with a dance party, games, and a pinata. Nicaraguan kids go nuts over pinatas. And they are so good at it! Even like the two year olds knew how to hit the stuffing out of it with a blind fold on.

Dancing, to Gagnam Style, naturally

I write about these trips, and I wonder if I come close to really describing them, to a true explanation of what they are and what they mean. I'm not sure if I have or if I even could. But ultimately the word I took away from all of this, the word I would write on my own little internal cinder block wall, is gratitude. I am so grateful for this trip, for the people I built alongside and played with and learned from. I bring a lot back from trips like these, but I also leave a piece of myself. It's not a choice. You can't go somewhere like Managua on a Habitat trip and not lose a little sliver of your heart and soul. Although maybe lose is the wrong word. Because I know exactly where that piece of my heart is. I feel it as it beats. It's in every cinder block of that house, in the mortar, the people I met. It remains there, always. And so much of there, so much of Nicaragua, remains with me. Always. 

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Nicaragua Part Two: The Characters

(Team Lightning aka half our group, I don't have a full group picture yet unfortunately) 

There was a recurring joke within our Habitat group about starting a new business called "Stranger Vacation", where the point would be to send people on vacation with total strangers. And if you've never been on a trip like this, you might think that was the most God awful idea possible. To me that's why I personally have serious doubts about how "fun times" a cruise would be. Because why on Earth would I want to be stuck on a boat with hundreds of people I don't know?

But the thing is, and I cannot stress this enough, some of my best and most lovely travel memories, the ones that rest in a special place in my heart, are from trips with total strangers.

This trip was not a total stranger vacation for me, because I went with my best friend, Mary Catherine, which was great because we haven't traveled together in years. But aside from her, everyone on this Habitat trip was a big question mark until the moment we arrived. We sent out bios and pictures and exchanged a few emails. I spoke on the phone with our trip leader once. But I didn't know any of these people.

Depending on your worldview that might sound like the worst possible idea, going to a foreign country with a group of anonymous names and faces. For all I knew there could be serial killers or sociopaths or something really terrifying like mimes on the trip. But if I've learned anything it's that in situations like this you just trust the universe and jump in. So far I've done some variations of a "stranger vacation" in Paris, Thailand, and Africa; and I've left every one of those experiences with new friends, people I never would have met otherwise who will always be important to me for sharing these places. And I have never once had to share a room with a mime.

So after all that preamble, I present to you the 12 strangers (plus some more)...picked to build a together and have their lives not find out what happens...when people keep being polite...and start getting smelly

(On a boat on Lake Nicaragua for our R&R day)

Edward: Our fearless leader. Irish by birth and current Californian. Edward had the fun job of getting the same question asked by 12 different people several times a day (most recurring ones, "When is dinner?"and  "Can we get a McFlurry?". He also was responsible for our team selection, and he ensured that no crazies (or mimes) got included in the group. I imagine that being a team leader for Habitat is some weird hybrid of camp counselor, drill sergeant, and travel agent. Edward handled all his responsibilities wonderfully and never once seemed stressed out by it (must be the California thing). Plus the man understands the importance of a delicious ice cream treat.

David and Joey: Lovely father and son team from Philadelphia. Joey is 19 and I am always amazed when 18 or 19 years olds go on these trips. When I was 19, I had never traveled internationally and I got lost regularly in Charleston, SC (it's a city on a peninsula, water is literally where you end up in three directions). Joey did as well as any adult on the team, and I credit his dad, David, a lot for that. David was also my partner in rebarring one day and together with our other teammate, John, we came up with an ingenious strategy to cut three pieces of rebar at once (it shall henceforth be known as the David, Liz, and John Method).

Lyn: Fabulous LA producer with a glamorous life. If I were a fabulous LA producer I would be the biggest diva in the world and shout out demands for caviar and champagne at my peons. Lyn was open, down to earth and completely ready to shovel or tie rebar or so any of the other very non-glamorous, non-diva tasks we had to do. Plus she brought 50 pairs of eyeglasses with her (she's not really blind, her friend runs a charity that gives away reading glasses to people in developing countries), and she affably and good-naturedly put up with those glasses first being a day late (along with all her luggage) and then being held hostage by Nicaraguan customs. The end result, when she gave out those glasses to women at the home of a community leader, was absolutely beautiful.

Lisa: NYC lawyer and mom of the group. One of the few lawyers I've been around (and I say this lovingly as approximately 90% of my family is lawyers) who doesn't act or talk like a lawyer. She has asthma and the perpetual cloud of dust we worked in (my lungs are coated with dirt) took its toll, but she hung in there like a trooper. She's traveled and lived a lot, and I loved listening to her stories of exotic safaris in Africa or meeting Joe Biden (slightly less exotic but a really great story).

John: At the end of the week, we all got superlatives and John was absolutely a non-brainer for "Best Team Player." John is a retired LA fireman and former military, and just an all around great human being. He made sure we were all safe and okay in a fatherly way, translated for us (his parents are Mexican so he's bilingual), worked his butt off in the 98 degree weather (he was my partner in ditch digging), and even brought candy and pencils for the kids from home. Just a really awesome guy.

Robyn: Robyn is a high-powered NYC banker, and in my mind, that is incredibly scary and intimidating (I picture lots of yelling in board rooms because my only real banking reference point is movies and Monopoly). But in yet another example of how you can never get a sense of a person on paper alone, Robyn turned out to be a warm hearted, fun, and hilarious girl that was in no way intimidating or scary. Plus she's traveled all over the world and competes in dance tournaments. And she could talk for hours about dessert, which is always the mark of a good person.

Sam and Shwan: Another set of friends on the trip. Both just graduated with Harvard MBAs, and so clearly ridiculously intelligent and ambitious, but also really, really funny and easy going. Sam is also a giant in Nicaragua (the men there are generally not very tall and he is very tall), but a gentle giant who struck up an adorable friendship with one of the little boys on the site named Samuel. Sam is also the one on our trip who got locked in the bathroom on our slightly disastrous dinner I wrote about in my last post (doesn't that story become even funnier when it's a very tall man locked in the bathroom?), but he took that and everything else with good humor. Shwan went to Berkeley and so has that easy going Californian thing to offset what I'm sure is scary intelligence. Both of these guys are engaged and could not have shown more adorable love than when they talked about their fiances back home.

Mike: An engineer and another very smart person (Habitat Global Village trips draw in some really ambitious, driven personalities, with some creative, free spirit, quieter types thrown in for good measure (can you guess which one I fall into?). Mike was one of the first people MK and I met when we arrived  and he was the last one we said goodbye to at the Houston airport (after dinner at Chile's when we all got really excited about being able to drink tap water again). He was our group photographer, one of the hardest workers (and best at all that technical construction stuff that I kind of just winged until our mason corrected me), and one of the funniest people on the team.

Sahana: Sahana was MK and I's third roomie, and I absolutely love this girl. She's 19 but so together than it makes me a little ashamed of my 19 year old self. She's a lifelong vegetarian, child of Indian immigrants, and doesn't drink (and she goes to University of Georgia, you practically get drunk there just walking around). She seems to be completely herself, which again is no mean feat at 19 years old (or any age). She competed with Robyn for biggest sweet tooth on the trip, and as her roomates we had access to a ridiculous assortment of yummy food. She was also hands down the best shopper on the trip, especially since our two market trips were timed (15 minutes for the first and 45 for the second, as Sahana joked it was just like the Amazing Race). MK and I are already planning a trip to Athens to see her again, and pretend we're 19 year old college students again (rooming with a 19 year old also made me realize how old I am, because I was ready for bed at like 9pm every night, and when I was 19 9pm was when I started to get ready to go out for the night).

MK: Okay so this "stranger" I've been best friends with for more than 20 years. But this was the first time I'd done a trip like this with Mary Catherine, and her first trip to any "developing" nation. And for her first trip like that she did absolutely awesome. It's hard now to remember, but I know the first time I went to a non-Western, poor country it was a shock to the system. It's hard to adjust to a place that is nothing like anywhere you've ever been. MK did fabulously and jumped in with enthusiasm and flexibility (or flexibilidad, as was our trip logo). I'm very proud of her.

The rest of the characters were not part of our American team, but were Nicaraguans who worked with Habitat and quickly became a part of our group by the end of the week.

Juan: The foreman at our site (we split into two build sites for the week, with a 3rd and 4th added by the end of the week because we were just. that. good.) Juan was everything a foreman for a Habitat team needs to be, helpful, gentle, and incredibly patient. I'm sure the temptation is there to call us all imbeciles on a regular basis, but he never did, even when we messed up. Juan was a big bear of a guy, and a ball of positive energy. And from what I've heard an excellent salsa dancer.

Dellis: The mason on our site. Dellis did not speak much English, but that didn't stop him from speaking in long torrents of animated Spanish when he showed us how to do something (it is amazing how you can learn to do something from someone even when they don't speak your language). For both of my Habitat trips thus far there's been a similar relationship with masons; grudging and a little impatient at first (like when we fill the wrong hole with cement or have to be shown how to tie rebar 7 times), growing to bemused by mid week and finally what I perceived as affection by the end (that or they're just really happy we're leaving). It must take a lot of patience to be a mason on a build site staffed by unskilled gringos. Half the time I'm sure all he wanted to do was kick us all out and redo everything. But Dellis let us try and learn, always watching over our shoulder to make sure we didn't make any real mistakes. He was an excellent boss.

Dellis in the middle, patiently bemused as ever

Vittoria: One of the lovely Nicaragua Habitat employees who took us to Granada at the end of the week. Vittoria is one of those Latin women that is so gorgeous you kind of don't want to stand next to her. But she's also a sweet and fun lady who is crazy about her two beautiful daughters, and someone who clearly loves her country and is trying to do everything she can to make it a better place.

Selim: I saved the last spot for Selim, because he deserves it. Selim is the Nicaragua Global Village in-country coordinator, which basically means that for the Habitat groups, he takes care of everything, from lost luggage to feeding us to our security to chaperoning late night McFlurry runs. He was there with us almost the entire week, from the airport on (the guy doesn't get any time off). Salem is the kind of guy who is part-bullshitter, part utter sincerity, and you honestly don't which version you're getting but don't care that much. He's 25, a volunteer firefighter, and has studied law (in addition to his almost 24/7 job with Habitat). He was that teasing, comforting camp counselor presence, but he also could switch to body guard mode in an instant. On our first full day when we went to a baseball game, we needed to use the bathroom, and a few steps behind us was Selim. When we went to the market, he herded us like children and you couldn't go a few feet without seeing him standing there, making sure everything was okay (I swear there were 5 of him). Everywhere we went he knew people (he might have actually been the mayor). He was our fixer (when the restaurant undercooked chicken and locked Sam in the bathroom, Selim was displeased to say the least-as a result we got a free shot of rum). He was also our translator, medic, historian, tour guide, and friend. I've decided that if you want a list of some of the best examples of incredible human beings in this world, look up the Habitat Global Village coordinators in each country. Our one in Malawi, Jacqui, was equally spectacular. They're people who are passionate for the betterment of their nation, and who are willing to work in the trenches, in a not so glamorous job, to do that.

Selim with two of the adorable girls who lived in the house we were working on

So those are the characters, the people I spent the week in Nicaragua with. I'm a relatively shy person, and you would think that would make me avoid situations where I'm thrust into a situation almost entirely with strangers. But I love it. It is ridiculous how quickly you bond in these situations. By the second day we all already had inside jokes. By the end of the week I felt like I knew these people, really knew them, in a way that in the outside world sometimes takes months or even years (there are people I've been in school with for almost three years who I know less about their lives than some of these people I knew for a week). It is one of the reasons I will always be eager to join a Habitat trip or a trip like it, because these trips and these people stay with you. You can't share this kind of experience and not be connected.

I obviously love traveling with family and friends as well, but there's something about "stranger" trips (or mostly stranger trips). My memories from these experiences are different, a little more vivid and enduring. Maybe it's because the experiences feel so different from every day life, with people who aren't in your everyday life, that when you come home, those memories feel more contained and resilient. You aren't just remembering a place or an experience, but a group of people, strangers who improbably become friends. It becomes this collective memory, because you know that there are 12 other people out there who shared their experiences, who are remembering it too. The memory and the people become inextricable, tied together always. And I am so thankful for that memory, and for these people.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Nicaragua Part One: The Setting

When I flew to Managua, Nicaragua for a Habitat for Humanity Global Village trip, I had no idea that the city I was flying into, for all extents and purposes, no longer exists.

The center of Managua, the city it began as, was all but destroyed in a 1972 earthquake. This is not all that surprising. What did surprise me was that this Managua was never rebuilt. Part of it still stands, most strikingly a beautiful, empty, ruined Cathedral in the old and empty part of town. But instead of rebuilding the city from the center out, Managua rebuilt itself in neighborhoods, groupings of homes or businesses clustered village style around a steep rise in the middle of the sprawl.

I had no idea about any of this, because the reality is I knew very little about Nicaragua. That's part of the reason I chose it for my second Habitat trip. My first Habitat trip was to Malawi, Africa, a country I knew even less about. And that nation now lies so deeply embedded in my heart that it's hard to believe I could have so easily lived my whole life without it. I felt like I discovered a secret, a little gem that most of the world rushed past. Nicaragua is nowhere near as remote or as quiet a corner as Malawi, but it still intrigued me precisely because of my ignorance.

There's something terrifying and thrilling about flying off to a country that doesn't really exist in your head. Even if we haven't been to a place like Rome or Athens, those cities exist in everyone's conscious. We all have an idea of what they are like, images and feelings, whether that idea is accurate or not.

Nicaragua didn't really exist for me, not except for a few fragmented pieces from history classes and cursory Google and Wikipedia searches. It was uncharted territory until the moment our plane touched down.

Due to a last minute change of plans, our Habitat build took place in Managua. Originally we were supposed to build in a little community close to the Pacific Ocean. However the need changed, and so our build location changed. On our first day after we landed, we had some extra time so we drove the hour to the ocean to swim or dip our toes in (surprisingly enough this was the first time I touched the Pacific Ocean, I've flown over it, swam in seas and gulfs fed by it, but I had never actually stood beside it until that moment our first day in Nicaragua).

While we were at the ocean, we saw the hotel we would have stayed in, an adorable little beach resort complete with a pool, full bar, and only a handful of feet from the sand. And of course, there was that moment of "really?" as we loaded back up to drive back to our actual hotel in Managua. We could have had a week of sand and surf. I could have been sipping margaritas in the pool for 7 days.

But now that the week is done, I am so happy that our plans changed and we stayed in Managua the entire week. Because I got to know a city that I don't think many tourists ever do. Managua is like a lot of Central American capitals, a place you fly into and then get the hell out of on your way to an island or beach or rainforest. Like I said before, there's no center except for a creepily empty square surrounded by damaged buildings.

The old center of Managua, completely vacant and never rebuilt after the '72 earthquake

The only other capital city I've spent time in in this part of the world was Port au Prince in Haiti. I had that city (which hurt on a visceral level to spend time in) in my mind along with some guidebook warnings about Managua as well as what some people who had been to Nicaragua already had told me. I didn't have much in the way of optimism about what the city would be, and I was fine with that because I wasn't there as a tourist. I was there to serve and build houses.

I was ready for Managua to be sad or hectic or over crowded. I was ready for begging at every street corner and dirt. But the thing about Managua is that, at least in the parts of the city we saw, it didn't seem to get the memo about its less then sterling reputation. The traffic is a little insane (but nowhere near the levels of some cities I've visited). There's a good amount of trash on the sides of roads. There are a lot of houses that look inadequate. There's not much in the way of grand boulevards or quaint historic districts.

But for a city that literally crumbled 40 years ago, Managua felt surprisingly solid to me. And safe. It felt like a place people lived and worked, like a place where families raised children, and people went to school. Sometimes when you travel you go to these places that feel almost like Disney World. Everyone and everything there seems to exist to serve tourism. Everything is in English. You can't cross a street without seeing a hotel or internet cafe. Everything seems a little too shiny and rehearsed.

Managua felt like a real place. It's not a city that stuns you or overwhelms you (either with beauty or sadness). It feels like a city that simply is itself, take it or leave it. And I love it for that.

We stayed at the Hotel Colonnade, a cute little hotel tucked away on a quiet road near the main financial district. The hotel was small but clean and nice with lovely and helpful staff. The rooms were spacious and air conditioned and led out onto a cute central courtyard with a handful of tables and chairs and a little pool. It may not have had sea views, but from my second floor room you did catch a little glimpse of Lake Managua and the volcanic hills around it.

Not taken from the hotel, but same view, only a little farther away

The hotel was perfect for our group, because we were practically the only guests there except for a few random tourists who spent some nights there. We spent every evening and night hanging out in the courtyard, enjoying a Victoria cerveza or two (or three) and talking. 

Besides the build (which will have its on post), we ventured out a lot more than I expected. On our Malawi trip we mostly stayed at the hotel, because there wasn't really anywhere else to go. In Managua we had several outings, aided by our wonderful driver, Nelson, who was ready with his van 24/7. There was a little Mexican/Nicaraguan restaurant two doors down that had the best corn tortillas and chorizo sausage I have ever tasted. We took a tour of the city on Sunday and stopped at a baseball game (apparently baseball is HUGE in Nicaragua, even more popular than soccer).

We were there for the first game of a double header, and while the crowd was small, they more than made up for it with noise. A lot of the people there had those noise makers, vuvuzelas (remember at the World Cup when they had to ban them because they were just that annoying?) and they used them when their team (the Boers) did something good, when the other team did something bad, hell when literally anything happened. There were drummers who sat about two rows behind us. There were touts who walked around selling the Nicaraguan version of baseball food. No hot dogs or nachos, but instead giant pork rinds with slaw on top, ice cones topped with thick, syrupy liquid, and lots of other delicious and weird looking snacks that we were warned not to eat. A television reporter interviewed Mary Catherine about what we were doing in Nicaragua on camera, and so somewhere in the vaults of Nicaragua television is footage of me sitting next to her, grinning like an idiot, with a wall of noise behind me. My favorite part of the game was an older man behind us who was dressed head to toe in baseball getup. He shouted the entire time, more than likely crude and shocking obscenities aimed at the other team. But my Spanish comprehension doesn't go that far, so it was delightful. The home team won after a late in the game rally so go Boers!

After the game we toured more of the city, including the old Managua I mentioned before. The old Cathedral is gorgeous even in ruin.

Our Habitat coordinator Salem (more on him later), was the perfect guide, filling us in on Nicaragua's crazy, tumultuous political history as well as its geographical history. Apparently it's not all that strange that Managua was destroyed by an earthquake in the 70s, because Nicaragua is not just one of the most seismically active places on earth, but one of the most disaster prone in general (seriously name a natural disaster and it has happened in the past, earthquake, tsunami, hurricane, VOLCANO eruption). His advice to us in case of an earthquake (apparently little ones happen here almost constantly) was to not panic. My plan for almost any natural disaster is to do exactly that, and panic my head off, because it is one of the few occasions in life where panic is warranted and you might as well run around in circles screaming right?

We went to the very top of the city, where you can see the clusters of neighborhoods that make up Managua as well as the lake and mountains surrounding it. On the top of the hill is also a giant statue figure of Sandino, a Nicaraguan revolutionary hero famous for resisting the bad guys, aka US military occupation (awkward right?). His name also was the inspiration for the Sandinista group, who led a revolution in the late 70s and are the current political party in power.

His silhouette is all over the city, along with lots and lots of political posters of the current President Daniel Ortega (apparently his current presidency is unconstitutional because it is his second consecutive term and third term total, which the constitution says is not okay, ummm, so minor problem that a country's president is actively and openly breaking the constitution right?)

Aside from touring, we also got out a few times for little jaunts during the week. There was a McDonald's a few blocks away from our hotel on the main road, and let's just say a few of us got a little obsessed with the idea, enough to convince Salem to let us walk there( walking anywhere at night in Managua being the one thing Habitat generally tried to avoid us doing). The good news, I, nor any of my companions, did not die in pursuit of a McFlurry. We were propositioned by "ladies of the night" and nearly run over by buses, but we made it there (and probably gave Salem a minor heart attack). And that McFlurry was so worth the risk of bodily harm. In Nicaragua, they put caramel in their McFlurries. McDonald's of the US, get on this.

We went to a local market in the middle of the week, which was the less expensive, less touristy version of the craft market we had planned for our weekend R&R. This market reminded me a little of some Asian markets I've been to, in the sense that you could find almost anything there, no matter how crazy or random it is. There were new shoes, colorful hammocks (one of Nicaragua's famous products), pinatas, pinata candy, electronics, clothes, a vast section of produce and meat (including eyeballs! just eyeballs hanging out on a table, no idea what animal they belonged to nor do I want to know), pottery, jewelry, kitchen goods. We left there with like 10 hammocks between us (I did not get one sadly, because the only place I have for it right now is my bedroom, and I don't need another temptation for napping in my room).

There were also a few restaurant outings and grocery store runs. It was nice to be able to get out into the city a little, because my last Habitat trip didn't really allow for that. The restaurants were almost across the board great (except for one slightly disastrous night where half of us (who wanted to share) ordered a boatload of food, half of us (the non-sharers) didn't get their food until our side of the table was literally sagging under the weight of all the plates, a few of us ate chicken that turned out to be raw inside, and one of us got locked in the bathroom for 10 minutes while the confused, non-English Nicaraguan staff tried and failed to get the door open). Shockingly I was not the one who got locked in the bathroom, even though normally that would be me 9 times out of 10. 

Other than that things in Managua went smoothly. Maybe it was naiveté or the fact that I wasn't allowed to go anywhere alone without being followed by our anxious and protective coordinator, but I felt safe in Managua. I also didn't feel like a space alien, which is how I've felt in some other non-touristy towns or cities I've been to. People were friendly and helpful but they weren't all that fascinated by us. They spoke to us in Spanish, because we were in a Spanish speaking country. They handed us Spanish menus. They passed us without much notice on their way to work or school. 

If you are a tourist, it's true there is not a lot in Managua to keep you. And if I had gone to Nicaragua as a tourist, without a group and without the support of an organization like Habitat, I'm not sure I would have lingered there either. I think that's one of the things I love so much about Habitat, is that it allows you to travel to a place that is, to use such an overused phrase, "off the beaten path." Managua is not going to show up in travel magazines. It's not going to attract the jet setters and the fabulous.

And maybe that's one of the things I loved most about it. It didn't feel like somewhere you visit. It felt like somewhere you live, an imperfect, flawed city, with its share of problems, but with the calm and nonchalance that maybe comes from being passed over or dismissed by the outside world. To put it crudely, I don't think Managua really gives a shit about what the outside world thinks of it. Can you blame it? It's been leveled by an earthquake, shaken by hurricanes, threatened by volcanoes, and gripped by decades of political violence and unrest. 

There must be a kind of weary honesty that comes after all that, a lack of concern about vanity and the surface of things. 

 I've been to a lot of beautiful places where I've wondered where everyone lives, the people who own the restaurants or serve the drinks or man the front desk. That authentic, lived-in world is so separate that you can't even see it. And that hurts those places, because even though they are so gorgeous and lovely, there's an emptiness that you can't really shake. Managua isn't like that. I feel like I saw the people there. It's may not be the most beautiful city on earth or the most glamorous, but it doesn't feel like it's missing something. It feels whole. 

And so that is the setting for my week, Managua, the kind of city people don't usually stop in, the kind of place I'm so happy that we did. 

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