Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Home, again

I've been meaning to write this update for a while (I think every one I've written starts like that), but I've been in and out of a sunshine and percocet haze (more on that later).  I am, however, home, again.  It's been over a month now and I'm finally starting to get used to it.  Big NYC crowds are still a bit hard for me and I tend to shout at pedestrians and drivers in my way (whether I'm walking or driving), but that's normal...right?

In continuation of my last post, here are some highlights from the second part of my trip:

1. Nicaragua's Solentiname islands - a beautiful refuge in the south of Lake Nicaragua filled with interesting homegrown artists
2. Spending some time with Anais in San Jose :)
3. Dancing, meditating, yoga-ing, and beaching at the fantastic Envision music festival in Uvita.  I now want to go to so many festivals this summer!
4. The Cloudbridge Nature Reserve.  I cannot even begin to explain how much I loved it, especially having been sent there by Julia!  That whole region was gorgeous; also fantastic was spending the night in a treehouse in nearby Pueblo Nuevo.
5. Chilling with sloths (GAHH SLOTHS!!) and other fun animals at the jaguar rescue center in Puerto Viejo
6. Fearing for my life while going over a decrepit bridge at Costa Rica and Panama's sketchy Caribbean border crossing.  Arriving at Bocas del Toro was a treat.
7. St. Patrick's Day and the other days I found myself unable to leave the Lost and Found eco hostel
8. Snorkeling off of Isla Boca Brava in Chiriqui's national marine park
9. Unsuccessfully searching for quetzales on the Sendero Los Quetzales (at least it was a gorgeous hike)
10. Beaching it again in Santa Catalina and snorkeling again off of Isla Coiba - I have to go back and spend a few days on the island!
11. Exploring Panama City's colonial Casco Viejo (I was a bit obsessed) and seeing the Miraflores canal locks
12. Enjoying a few more days of beach time on a tiny sand island in the indigenous San Blas archipelago
13. Meeting some fun PCVs during my final stay in Panama City

So as you can tell, it was amazing and I didn't exactly want to come home.  However, with only $80 left to my name, it was time.  This last month home has been great - seeing lots of friends and family, going to shows, having my Guatemala copy of Eva Luna signed by Isabel Allende :)  I've been working part-time (and just got hired for the summer at a day camp!) and had a cyst removed (hence the percocet...I was relieved to have the cyst gone, but sad to part ways with one of my bodily souvenirs from Guatemala).  I've even lost some weight, which is nice - adios, tortilla tummy!

The most exciting thing actually happened within two days of arriving stateside: I accepted my offer of admission to The New School.  I'll be starting my MA in Economics (with a focus on development) at the end of August.  A swanky admitted students reception, the convenience of a nearby octogenarian's bachelor pad, and a merit scholarship swayed my decision and I could not be more happy about it!

I met some of the other admitted grad students, but I hope that the campus is filled with friendly people.  Because that's one thing that has been terrible about coming back - New Yorkers (and most are not even native!) are such assholes!  If it wasn't hard enough returning home from my Peace Corps service and restraining myself from shouting "Buenas tardes" at everyone I passed, now I have to remember that smiling at strangers will not in any way be well-received.  I loved the total openness of all the backpackers I met; even though I was traveling alone for 2.5 months, I could count on one hand the number of times I felt lonely.  This trip definitely made me become more in tune to others and definitely to myself.  I can't wait for the next one - when will I have at least 4 months with nothing to do and money to burn??

Here are some photos from Central America:

my Rasta guide in San Ignacio, Belize
getting ready to board down Volcano Cerro Negro outside of Leon, Nicaragua
fun times at the Envision festival
as close as I could get to a SLOTH (!) in Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica
the view upon arriving at the Lost and Found
a little taste of my obsession with Casco Viejo, Panama City :)
And here are the rest:

This might be the last post, so thanks for reading!


Friday, February 22, 2013

Travel Blog pt. 1

Jan. 17

I meant to compose a whole piece reflecting on being home and life in America, but I somehow ran out of time.  Let's just say that while I love stinging-hot showers, milk and butter, and fios internet, I am sufficiently bored enough here to return to my querido Central America.  I leave tomorrow (Friday) morning for Guatemala, the starting point of the backpacking adventure I never got to do upon completing my Peace Corps service.  From there, I'll visit Belize (maybe), Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama before flying home from Panama City on April 1st.  If I have some extra time, I may even get to Colombia and finally touch South American soil!

Visitors are more than welcome.  I have no plan (no really, I'm not lying when I say I ran out of time), but I will have access to email, so hit me up!  I'll hopefully send some exciting mass emails throughout the trip :)

Oh also I did succeed in submitting all seven of my graduate school applications (most of them even waived the application fees on account of my poverty level!), so yay for me!  I should hear back from them mid- to end of March and then I'll make my decision once I'm back.  I'm really, really hoping that I'm accepted into more than one and that I'll have a decision to make!

Feb. 22

It's been a little over a month of travelling now and I meant to write earlier, but never got around to it.  Since I had a bunch of time to kill yesterday (on lovely Ometepe island, Nicaragua), it seemed appropriate to finally pull out the notebook I bought a few weeks ago (I'm transcribing what I handwrote).  Incidentally I bought the notebook for its cover art: a stick drawing of a girl with curly hair under the caption "shorter, but smarter."  Fitting, no?

Anyway, as I write this, I am preparing for my last leg of my time in Nicaragua.  Then it is off to Costa Rica for the fourth country of my adventure (or fifth or sixth, if you count a night in San Salvador and a bus ride across Honduras without getting off.  So far, it's been totally awesome (ugh, I'm even starting to sound like a backpacker haha).

Some highlights:

1. Spending a week in and around Antigua, Guatemala catching up with good friends
2. Waiting in Guatemala City for the bus to Puerto Barrios when into the terminal walked Frank (PCV from my group) and we just smiled at the coincidence of it (we were no longer smiling when the ride was extended for 4 hours due to traffic)
3. Swimming in waterfalls at a reknowned Belizean jaguar reserve
4. Being shown around San Ignacio, Belize by an insane Rasta man
5. ATM caves.  Oh my God incredible (and incredibly dangerous...gotta love Central America).
6. Crossing back into Guatemala to Flores, overnight bus to Guate, and picking up a chicken bus to El Quiché at 5am...good thing I'm no longer a PCV
7. Seeing more friends in Quiché and having a blast at the Cunén those Conejos!  Also I accidentally went into a cantina and was the only female patron...good thing I no longer live there lol
8. Romantic Atitlan getaway with Hilary
9. 6-hour bus ride from Guate to San Salvador (btw papusas at the border are gross), hanging out with a Mexican hippie who got questioned and searched at every border crossing, and then 12+ hours the next day to Matagalpa, Nicaragua
10. hiking in a not-so-cloudy cloud quetzales was a disappointment
11. Chilling with awesome people in León and going to the nearby beach for one night and staying for 3 because we loved it so much
12. Getting accepted to Indiana University and LSE's MPA programs!
13. Volcano boarding in León - I went all of...13km/hour downhill!  Definitely a record for slowest descent
14. Taking local transportation to Managua and getting picked up in a Mercedes-Benz (mind was blown.)
15. Crazy weekend in and around Managua - Cultura Profética concert, ATV riding, private beaching - hosted by Walter, member of the Eskimo family dynasty
16. Fancy hotels in Granada and Ometepe with Matt and Mike

And now?  While writing this, I was getting ready to leave the fancy hotel for an overnight boat ride across Lake Nicaragua.  Having completed it, I have seriously welcomed myself back into backpacking reality.  I still feel like the floor is moving below me lol.  I'm currently waiting for a boat to the Solentiname Islands :)  Oh also I have a hair wrap with a shell tied into it...I'm praying it doesn't turn into a dread!

Photos and more to come later.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

A selection of photos for those who don't stalk me on Facebook

sex education workshop with the Paz Joven youth group

Mayan candle ceremony at the first of three cocktail parties associated with the Antigua artisan fair
full circle: hike to the Nebaj cheese farm

...and the surprise we found there eeee!

El Quiche bus terminal

"Zumba" in Cunen!

Inauguration Day for the onion warehouse

cutting the ribbon

me and the association ladies...I'd always thought of them as such big, strong women because of all the struggles they endure, but they're so tiny!

the association and their new warehouse

with the teachers in Los Trigales after they threw me the most wonderful goodbye party!

my ageless xeca neighbors

last morning in Cunen

I. Miss. This.

view of the volcano in Antigua

romantic evening with Stephen :)

ringing the bell officially ending my service

Day 1 of El Mirador hike

view of El Mirador in the distance (goal for Day 2)

beautiful nature

we made it!

our group at the ruins

the top of La Danta...the largest structure in the Mayan world

heading back

last night in Guate

all my luggage ready to go!

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Returned Peace Corps Volunteer

So…I’m home!  I’m sure you’re all very confused and thinking, “but Nicole, you said you were planning to travel forever and never come home?”  While that was indeed the general plan, I was extremely busy and stressed up until my Close of Service date on October 17th (which is why I haven’t written an update in so long and I’m now overwhelmed getting ready to write this).  Throw an infected cyst into the mix and I kind of broke down and decided to go back to New York for a while.  The new plan is to get my grad school applications in (I only had time to put together my Fulbright application while in Guatemala) and then do the Central American adventure I had planned.  Or maybe Asia instead?  That is to be determined when I can get my head around traveling again.

I’m not really sure where I left off in the last update.  My last two months of service were kind of a whirlwind.  I went hiking a few times in Nebaj.  I helped out with sex education workshops with the Paz Joven youth (young adult) group in Cunén (they gave me a bunch of pretty sweet t-shirts).  I volunteered as a translator for an artisan fair in Antigua hosted by Agexport, the national exporting association; we didn’t work very hard but made lots of new friends and went to many fancy cocktail parties!  While there, I saw a volcano exploding.  I enjoyed the festivities of my third Independence Day in Guatemala.  I taught a bunch of kids some dances in preparation for that day.  My dream came true when I got to ride on top of a micro because there were no seats inside.  I bought some traditional clothing.  I helped give sensitivity trainings to Peace Corps staff.  I evaluated the schoolchildren on what they’d learned from me.  I facilitated the construction of a warehouse for storing onions.

That last one was pretty awesome, though definitely the biggest stressor.  Getting things done in Guatemala takes a lot of time and an immeasurable amount of patience.  Construction began late and was behind schedule the entire time.  Most of the materials were delivered on time, but the cinder clock guy was missing for a while and then he ended up not being able to complete the whole order.  Then we needed more things that we hadn’t originally budgeted for, like double the amount of cement.  True to form, I was running around like a crazy woman, this time in a country where no one is ever in enough of a rush to run anywhere.  But I am very happy to say that it all worked out, more or less.  We inaugurated the warehouse on one of my last days in Cunén and the only thing they had left to do was to finish putting up the shelving units.  And it was a great inauguration!  Lots of speeches, food, and dancing :)  I had shown up wearing a traditional Cunén huipil (blouse) and dress pants; the ladies all looked at the huipil admiringly (it is beautiful) and the pants disapprovingly and quickly whisked me away to dress me in a corte (traditional skirt), which they generously gifted to me.  (I didn’t buy a corte on my own because I didn’t think I would ever wear it again, but the one they gave me is made of a wonderful wool that could be very useful for the New York winter!)  The highlight of the afternoon may have been the photo shoot of me and every person in attendance individually, during which my smile rapidly faltered lol.  At the end of the party it was very difficult to say goodbye to everyone.

There were a lot of goodbyes all around.  I had the artisan groups, the other farmers groups, and the schools (the kids in Los Trigales bought me a bunch of adorable presents).  Host family, extended host family, Zumba ladies, friends, neighbors.  I was surprised how many people cried (though not me because I am emotionally stunted).  Though I did surprise myself by freely handing out my American phone number.  We’ll see who actually cares enough to buy saldo to call me, but I will welcome those calls.  As ready as I was to leave Guatemala, I was not willing to leave it all behind. 

And how can I?  Two+ years there have affected and changed me in so many ways.  Physically, my legs are stronger from hiking, my stomach and lungs weaker from everything polluted that I ate and inhaled, I have innumerable scars, I have a tattoo.  I became one with nature…well, maybe not, but I actually experienced nature and liked it!  I’ve grown up a lot in the way that seeing so much poverty and suffering will do to you.  I’ve become much more independent and confident, fulfilling many personal goals.  (It’s funny; I used to hate doing adult things by myself, like going to the doctor or jury duty.  I mentioned that recently to a friend and said that I still hated doing that.  And then I realized what I’d done over the last 2 years and just shook my head.)  I’ve also made lasting friendships and conquered Spanish (well, almost – advanced medium!).  Please keep this all in mind when you see me in person and I’m super awkward and weird because I don’t know how to translate all that to life in the U.S.

Anyway, soul-searching aside, after COSing together on October 17th (and after a fancy pit stop in Guatemala City), Stephen and I headed to the jungles of Peten for a week of hiking.  I’m not sure that I was ready for what I’d signed up for.  Leaving from Carmelita, the last village on the edge of the forest, we walked about 100 kilometers over 2 days to reach the archaeological site El Mirador (“the lookout,” so named because it is home to La Danta, the Mayan world’s largest pyramid).  We were accompanied by a lovely German couple and an Italian guy, which astronomically decreased the chances of Stephen and I killing each other!  The jungle was beautiful and the site very cool, though largely uncovered, unlike other Guatemalan ruins like Tikal.  I was disappointed that we only had one day to explore the site, considering that the other 4 days of walking were so exhausting.  Let’s just say that by the end, covered in blisters and bites from all kinds of insects, I was very happy to be back in civilization!

Now I find myself back in FREEZING New York City.  Stephen got me sick and I arrived last Thursday with no voice and have been fighting a cold on and off since then.  My parents were away in the U.K. when I got back (they had planned the trip far before I changed my travel plans), so it didn’t really feel like home until they got back on Sunday.  Then came Hurricane/Superstorm/Frankenstorm Sandy, which luckily pretty much skipped over our part of Queens, but left billions of dollars of damage in other parts of the city, Long Island, and New Jersey.  As a result, I haven’t left my house all that much and I don’t have too much to say about readjusting to life here.  I shower less than everyone else and still get overwhelmed when hot water comes out of the faucets.  I had to train myself to use tissues rather than toilet paper to blow my nose.  I’m still getting used to living with other people.  I almost had a meltdown in Whole Foods (though to be fair, I’ve always hated supermarkets).

With various social events coming up, I’m sure I will have many entertaining stories of my new life that I will probably share with you.  In the meantime, thank you for following my crazy Guatemalan adventures!  Photos to come later because there are way too many.

Monday, August 13, 2012

2 years have flown by

Wow.  No seriously, wow.  Saturday was my 2-year anniversary in Guatemala.  I read on another Peace Corps blog that we volunteers actively keep track of our time in country and count down the days left.  Because I have yet to set a final ending date, I cannot accurately say how many days I have left, nor am I sure I want to.  But I do think 2 years is a significant anniversary for any occasion.  These have not been an easy 2 years.  However, I would not trade them for anything.

Surprisingly or unsurprisingly, this past month has seen huge advances in work productivity and community integration on my part, to be continued until I leave Cunén.  “Zumba” classes with my sitemates are a massive success: at least 30-35 women have been showing up every week ready to dance and sweat their butts off.  I have since been asked to help choreograph dances for youth groups, been invited to participate in community events with a youth association I hadn’t known existed, and met many new people.  I’ve attended more children’s birthday parties.  I went to Mormon church and (mistakenly, in hindsight) invited the missionaries over to dinner.  I fulfilled a personal goal of mine to visit the tropical and electricity-free Zona Reyna of Uspantán, 5 hours away from the town center on a windy dirt road through the mountains in a cramped microbus.  As painful as the journey was, it was definitely one of my favorite weekends here, celebrating my friend Laurie’s birthday.  Work-wise, the school kids and I harvested radishes and made healthy salads; I conducted a market visit to Antigua with Allan, my Save the Children coordinator, and scored some business for my artisan groups; and most excitingly, received approval for my onion warehouse proposal!  While waiting to receive the money, I’ve begun workshops with the association on proper post-harvest handling of their product.  Construction is set to start in September :)

at my host brother Fernandito's 5th birthday
Last week I was in Antigua for my training group’s Close of Service (COS) conference.  Peace Corps put us up in a nice hotel and more or less prepared us how to say goodbye to people and wrap things up in site, how to plan for the near future, and how to prepare for the shock of re-integrating into American culture.  It was a surreal experience; one that I’d anticipated for a long time but couldn’t believe had finally arrived.  Further bringing home the realization that the end was near was the fact that 3 of my close friends are COSing between this week and next, a couple of months early.  In true PC/Guatemala-fashion, we had a memorable (or not so memorable, depending on which way you look at it…) send-off and post-conference celebration weekend.

the final 13 (of my group's original 32) at COS conference

the celebratory happy hour...
Now I’m back in site, planning out the limited time I have left here.  I’m anticipating a lot of self-reflection, to which I’m sure you will all be treated to as it comes.  GRE-studying is well underway, to varied degrees of success, and grad programs are picked out.  Crazily enough, I even have a job interview lined up for when I get home, with the tech company Dropbox in San Francisco.  I’m really excited about it and waiting to see how it goes before sending in the Masters applications.  Expect a phone call soon, friends and family in the bay area!

Monday, July 9, 2012

Recovering my sanity

Not only is this the first moment I’ve had to write an update since the last one, but it’s also the first chance I’ve had to sit down and breathe since then.  To say the past month was busy is an understatement.  I’ve emerged from it with the following lesson learned: I seriously prefer my months of doing nothing.  Well, the ideal would be limited productivity, but this is Guatemala (TIG) and my life here knows no happy medium.  Sighhhh haha

What occupied most of my waking hours (of which there were too many) was putting together the project proposal I mentioned, to build a warehouse for the Trigales onions.  I managed to get all the basic paperwork in before I left for Costa Rica, but my vacation was rudely interrupted by an email asking for more supporting documents (at which point I almost decided to talk the group out of it…I warned you about my predilection towards doing nothing).  So I returned from my incredibly relaxing week in paradise only to wind my body up with stress once again.  The group and I got everything else together in record time, but due to confusion over the deadline, I submitted the whole proposal too late to be considered this month and now have to wait until August to find out if the project will be approved for USAID funding.  I hope it will be.  I’ve also been working with my ag leaders group on a far more basic project proposal for producing mushrooms, which will have to be majorly amped up if they’re serious about applying for a $25,000+ grant from the Inter American Foundation we learned about!

The other main thing keeping me busy was getting together the GAD (gender and development committee) raffle for our annual 4th of July party (held on the 3rd this year, don’t ask me why).  I spent a weekend hounding and cajoling last-minute donors, and then doing the same to poor PCVs so they’d buy tickets, and I’m proud of it, and of my awesome committee.  We raised about Q5,300 ($684ish), which is only about 75% of last year’s raffle sales, but with half the number of volunteers and amount of prizes.  Idk I’d call that a success :)  The party was fun even without the presence of all the friends who’d left.  It was just too bad that this was the second year I’ve worked the party without getting to fully enjoy it (read: I was sad because I was too tired to dance the night away at the after-party lol).

Now that I’m finally done with all that, get me back to COSTA RICA!  I flew in a day earlier than my parents to hang out in San Jose with Anais and Melissa, who made a special stop on her Central American post-PC journey to meet up with us (I also had the very lovely pleasure of sending her off from Guatemala when she finally said goodbye on the 3rd).  We bonded over the terrible acting and direction of Prometheus (seriously?) and the wonders of Costa Rican supermarkets :)  And then it was off the next morning to the airport to meet mumsyyy and daddyyy!  I hadn’t seen them since Thanksgiving, but time had really flown this time.  So basically I was equally excited to see them as I was to see the hotels mumsy had booked for us ;)  Let’s just say she knows how to do her job…fantastic (look here and here)!  Two nights at a private waterfall park/botanical gardens/exotic petting zoo close to San Jose and four nights in the wonderful combination of beach, mountains, and forest known as Manuel Antonio National Park.  Horseback riding, whitewater rafting, ATV-driving, forest-walking…all great (with the exception of horseback riding – never again) yet strangely dangerous.  I knocked my dad out of the raft while falling out myself, rode my ATV off the road and into a ditch (so much for proving to my parents that I still knew how to drive…quote of the trip was mumsy’s “where’s my hija??”), and gashed open my toe before even stepping into the park.  I think I’m channeling the combined forces of both Darren and Kate’s klutziness lol.  Nothing a good dose of sunbathing, sleeping, and eating and drinking couldn’t cure :)  And of course the daily sightings of sloths (I want one…I want to be one), monkeys (adorable), and Jesus Christ lizards (we saw them running across the top of the pool!) didn’t hurt – I must get back!

Some highlights from the week:

the Bohrers on horseback...
...and at the beach...
...and on ATVs
SLOTH! (a.k.a. Darren)
And now?  Can you believe in one month I will celebrate my 2-year anniversary here?  I don't think I ever actually imagined completing the 27 months, yet here I am.  Tomorrow I start Zumba classes in town with my sitemates, in a few weeks I may begin the onion project, in a month I have my COS (close of service) conference.  And I guess in October I'm done.  (The third-year project doesn't look like it's going to work out.  I'm secretly glad.  Except that now I actually have to open my GRE book and look for real jobs.  Luckily I've got lots of free time back on my hands!)

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Yet another year older

I write to you no longer as an irresponsible youngin’, but as a mature woman of 24.  Yeah, right.  Either way, with the passing of another June 7th in Guatemala, I have only spent one birthday in my 20s in the States.  Next year I’m planning on a quinceñera + 10 in New York :)

Luckily the international celebrations have been far from slacking.  I spent a week in Xela for Spanish classes and a GAD meeting (my first as Coordinator – success!).  The crazy new group kept me up until 3am when I had to wake up at 6:00 to get over to Antigua…to pick up Sam at the airport!  We had a great week together until June 3rd: eating in Antigua, visiting schools in Cunen (I forget that traveling to the middle of nowhere through winding mountain roads is not for everyone…sorry again!), shopping in Chichicastenango, and chilling out at Lake Atitlan :)  During that time I also received an awesome birthday package from Whitney with various favorite snacks and Guatemala-survival tools (like straws and rubber bands and Purell that only kills most germs!).

hiking Volcan San Pedro on Lake Atitlan
The week of my birthday was fairly slow and disappointing (some “why am I here?” despair moments, followed by further despair at the fact that I’m still experiencing such moments), so the best present I could’ve asked for was a wonderfully productive birthday day.  In the morning I met with my ag leaders in Cunen to start planning a mushroom-growing project, which has a lot of potential.  Then a lovely lunch with my neighbor ladies – the grandmother felt so bad that she forgot to wake me up at 5am with firecrackers outside my window in accordance with Guatemalan tradition – but I was like, THANK YOU!!!  It is a terrifying experience and I was glad to escape it once again :)  Finally, in the afternoon I met with the Trigales group to plan a project using USAID funds to build a warehouse for their onions.  Because of the timing of my upcoming vacation, we have to get the proposal together in 1 week (rather than the 1-2 months it usually takes volunteers), but it looks like we’re going to do it!  I’m also still trying to get Walmart to buy their product.  If both succeed, I’ll feel very satisfied that I’ve had a successful service, so here’s to hoping!

In continuation, I had a fun little party at my house on Friday with some Peace Corps friends (with lots of wine and a 3-tiered cake that I spent all day baking in my toaster oven!) and then this afternoon I cooked lunch for my host family.  I may have discovered a new favorite recipe: carrot croquettes!  Sounds weird and I never particularly liked ham croquettes, but my modification was delicious, just saying.  The celebrations will finally conclude with a trip to Costa Rica with my parents (and a night with Anais) starting on Saturday.  Let’s just say my mom picks far nicer accommodations than I am used to and it will be amazing :)

And despite the last few days of beautiful summer weather (for my birthday, obviously), we are undoubtedly in rainy season right now.  Things I hate about rainy season:

1. the various animals (i.e. frogs) and insects (i.e. gargantuan beetles) that seek refuge in my house
2. carrying around a cumbersome rain jacket and/or umbrella for days in beautiful weather and getting caught in a downpour the day I’ve decided to leave my rain gear at home
3. the moldy smell and damp feeling that penetrates everything
4. the streets that turn into rushing rivers in antiquated cities like Antigua (hence the name) and Xela
5. the streets that turn into mud in Cunen

What I like about rainy season:

1. the disgusting humid heat that blankets Cunen until the rain starts in the afternoon reminds me of summer in NYC? 

There’s some comfort in that although this is my third rainy season in Guatemala, it is my last.  Maybe.