Finding Community

by Brenna, Tufts 1+4 Participant
“I have largely underestimated the brevity and depth of this experience… what if this isn’t worth it?”
This was the first line of my bridge year journal, written by a version of myself who was scared, uncertain and had no idea what this bridge year would bring. And I was right, I had underestimated what this incredible and challenging experience would bring. However, I can say with certainty that it was worth it. I would do it again even with every hardship and bout of homesickness. I would not trade this experience for any other. Nicaragua will forever hold a special place in my heart and I am grateful for everything it has given me.
Here, I have found a community of friends within the other 1+4 fellows who are more like family than friends. They have seen me through my lowest moments and some of the most incredible experiences of my life.
I have found friendship in my internship boss, Chepe, who is quiet yet kind.  We could talk for hours about his interests in biology and conservation. He showed such passion for the work we got to do together.
I found understanding in my Spanish teacher. Zoleyda was patient and understanding of all my questions and mispronunciations. I loved hearing stories about her life, gossiping and gaining confidence in my own Spanish. She is one of the best teachers I have ever had and one of the kindest friends I have made.
I gained an appreciation for my host mom in her patience with me, and willingness to open up her family to me. When I was homesick and crying, Rosa was there for me to listen. She made me my favorite foods and reassured me that I can do this. I admire how she runs her family with such strength, raising both a strong daughter and granddaughter.
Finally, In this family, I gained the little sister I never had. Maykeling is seven and loves to be the center of attention. She taught me how to dance and be a kid again, and how to be a big sister.
That sentence I wrote in my journal all those months ago was right, I underestimated the importance of this bridge year experience. Making the decision to come to Nicaragua was not a mistake. This year I found a completely new community and a home away from home.

On Being Mexican in Nicaragua

by Nadia, Tufts 1+4 Participant

All my life I have been Mexican. Through the years, I have had to grapple with what that means, globally and otherwise. I have had a rough time shaking off stereotypes, but my identity was always on the defensive- I was always proving that I was Mexican, or that Mexicans did belong.
When I was a child, I spent most of my time trying to fit into a crowd that did not know what to do with someone like me. I always felt that it was a personal failure when the other kids rolled their eyes as I talked about anything that happened in my home and when they laughed when I used a word in Spanish. I learned that it was easier to just pretend I was a shallow outline of whatever the other kids believed a Mexican to be. All I ever did was hurt in my home state because no one acknowledged me for who I really was.

Continue reading “On Being Mexican in Nicaragua”

An Angel

by Linnea, Tufts 1+4 Participant

“Here is your food, my queen.” Doña Violet beamed to a child who stood barely taller than her knees. Her voice held such a tone of reverence that it seemed she was truly speaking to royalty. The child responded with a goofy smile, showing the gaps in their mouth that outnumbered the teeth.

This woman, Doña Violet, is an angel. She works nine hours everyday making food from scratch for over seventy children at the youth center where I work. Despite this, every morning when I enter the kitchen, she drops whatever pot she’s stirring or pan she’s scrubbing and spins around to greet me. If I forget my water bottle in the refrigerator over the weekend, she freshens it with new water before I get to work on Monday. When she cooks something that has meat in it, she makes me a vegetarian portion. When I don’t wear my glasses, she notices and asks me where they are. In an environment swarming with people, she not only makes me feel like a valued individual, but manages to devout attention to each and every child. When the food is hot, she will sit for an hour at the preschool table, reminding each kid to blow every single spoonful so that they don’t burn their tongues. When kids are running late for lunch, she will stand in the kitchen as she eats, waiting to serve the remaining children. On the day of the third and fourth grader’s play last semester, she made a special lunch of fried shrimp to celebrate.

However, despite her shining smile, her eyes are tired. She has been working at the youth center for over a decade. The heavy lifting, working on her feet all day, and the daily temperature above 100℉ in the kitchen are taking a toll on her physical health. When I offer to help her with simple tasks such as cutting vegetables or lifting a heavy crate, her face warms and softens as if I had just volunteered to carry her several miles. Only once or twice has she admitted to me that her arthritis has been bothering her. “I’m doing well today…but my wrists hurt,” she’ll say. And with that, she’ll brush off her apron and begin serving the seventy plates of food to her awaiting kings and queens.

Indio-Maiz

by John, Tufts 1+4 Participant

The Indio-Maiz Biological Reserve (IMBR) is what some people call “The Lung of Central America.” For good reason too: the reserve covers some 110 million acres (only slightly smaller than the state of Delaware.) Indio-Maiz has also been heralded as “the gem of Central American nature reserves” by biologists at UCLA. It was once seen as an “untouchable” reserve, protected by the national government with military stations all around the border registering all visitors, examining what fishermen catch in the river, and restricting access to the vast majority of the reserve. Even with all of this apparent protection, according to the Central America University the region has shrunk at a rate of 350,000 acres per year due to deforestation. What is happening here?
Ten years ago, IMBR was a densely covered rainforest, with a soaring canopy and wildlife around every tree trunk. My host dad worked as a cartographer in this time and spent time along the coastal border of the reserve. He walked along the entire eastern edge of the reserve, gathering census data for the local government. He explained what the reserve used to look like: an endless jungle as far as the eye could see, an uninterrupted, green ocean. At this time, the government had enacted laws to protect the reserve, including a buffer zone law. That is, it is prohibited to develop any ranch or farm within 100 meters of the reserve itself. Nowadays, the reserve is encroached on all sides by cattle farms and empty land waiting to be developed. The buffer zone continues to shrink without any response from the guards “protecting” the land.

After Hurricane Otto ravaged IMBR in 2016, the government  opened the reserve for fallen lumber extraction. This move caused further environmental damage as roads were carved through the reserve. Additionally, even after the legal lumber was extracted, lumber companies continued to use these roads to cut and extract protected trees from deep within the reserve. The military presence around the reserve, MARENA, did little to stop these actions. Their lack of action was often motivated by the money and governmental ties the companies had.

The most recent blatant invasion of IMBR is the Finca José Solis Durón, a 625 acre cattle farm located in its entirety inside the reserve. Living within the the reserve is illegal, even for the indigenous Rama-Kriol people–who have lived there for hundreds of years. The local Rama-Kriol government has legal power over the region, but with minimal power to enforce the law, they struggle to protect their lands from invaders like José Durón. The tribes have tried to remove Durón from the reserve, but he has resisted and claimed he is not breaking any law. Durón has acknowledged that he owns the ranch, but claims that he bought the land legally, even though national law prohibits the sale or purchase of land within the reserve. To effectively enforce their laws, the Rama-Kriol people rely on support from the national government and military agents. In the case of Durón, however, he has multiple high-ranking friends in the military rendering it unlikely any action will be taken against him.

The most recent onslaught against Indio-Maiz comes in the form of a forest fire that started in early April of 2018. The exact cause of the fire is not known, but environmental experts agree that it was most likely caused by someone entering the reserve and starting a fire. Whether this was a mindless accident, or a malicious attack on the reserve is unknown. The fire spread rapidly and devoured over 10,000 acres in less than a week. The government called for international aid and received help from countries through Central and North America. Even with this aid, the fire continued to spread uncontrolled. Many cite the lack of protection in the region as a source of the fire and blame the national government for not taking the preservation more seriously.

The Indio-Maiz Reserve is a magnificent, resilient body of tropical rainforest. It is one of the few (relatively) untouched sections of rainforest left in Central America, and in the Western Hemisphere. However, there is only so much destruction the jungle can take without unraveling. Between the lumber farming, introduction of cattle ranches, and natural disasters, the area is under incredible stress. Sadly, the government is more concerned with developing their economic future, a future that continues to focus on benefiting the politicians in power, than conserving the incredible natural resources that they have. If the current trajectory doesn’t change soon, the Indio-Maiz Biological Reserve will be left in history as another abused and bygone rainforest.

On Expectations And Jobs

by Nadia, Tufts 1+4 Participant

From when I first arrived in Nicaragua, I was set in my expectations of what my work would be. I expected to be doing what some would call ‘’busy work’’- an extra helping hand for my organization so they could focus their efforts on bigger projects. Efficiently doing menial labor for the good of a larger community was what I was ready to perform, and I opened my conversations with my bosses and supervisors saying exactly that. I would be working with kids to help them with their homework and help with the after school activities to keep them entertained. I could definitely do that.
Yet, when I entered, I only got a few days of that work. Once my half-days of work wrapped and I began my routine of full shifts, it happened. My boss sat me down and basically told me that my job was to convince the kids that reading was good.
Reading Corner time with the kids!
Now here we are, 7 months after that moment. It took 7 months to get to the point where I feel like I genuinely have done a lot of good, but I did not have all the resources I have now. The timeline of the evolution of my responsibilities began with a once-a-week hour long class. All I had to do was fumble my way through a few games and books that were unpopular.
Right before the winter break, as I was preparing a trip that would be two weeks long to take advantage of the break, my work load changed. As it got lighter because of the coming break, it also got vaguer. I had heard mentions of extracurricular classes I might have to teach, but only faint whispers. I had mentioned it casually to some co-workers and received shrugs in reply. My boss waved it off and I could not tell what was a natural change in the way my host agency worked and what was being dropped because there were not enough people to make it happen.
The central market with my supervisor, where I am trying to take pictures and also lend books out at the same time.
I was not sure what to do. These classes that I would theoretically be teaching would be 3 hours long with the same group of kids for about a week and a half. The curriculum I was planning was all baseless- I had no idea who the kids would be. I only knew their ages, certainly not their reading levels or interest levels. I knew I wanted to do debate classes, but did I have the skills to teach that to kids younger than who I typically taught, and with a clunky, sparse vocabulary?
In the end, the kids told me they enjoyed class and were wondering if I would be implementing some of the lessons when we came back from break.
Since then, I have gained confidence in my ability to teach subjects more complicated than ‘’reading is good.’’ I have taught poetry classes, gone to conferences about implementing complicated literature and poetry into curriculum, and am planning to make a book with stories the kids will write themselves.
A theater storytelling event I set up with a nearby school.
I had expectations when I walked into my host agency as everyone does (and shouldn’t). In the end, I am glad that my expectations were broken. Had I just been filing papers the whole year, I do not believe I would have learned or helped nearly as much as I am now. Plus, some highly-specific skills ended up being more useful than I thought.

What is Barrilete

by Sophie, Tufts 1+4 Participant
When I sat down to meet my boss on the first day of work, all I could see was her lips moving as she barreled forward in unrelenting, full speed Spanish. I came to Nicaragua not knowing any Spanish, and, it turns out, it takes a lot longer than two weeks to get up to speed. I nodded nervously during pauses, though pretty much all I understood was that I needed to wear my hair in a bun because they were having a lice problem (I only got this because there was a visual demonstration). 
Before coming I had received a brief information sheet from my supervisor. It gave little information other than “Barrilete, children ages 0-18.” Google Translate came up with “keg” for “barrilete,” which even then I knew was incorrect. My first two weeks I saw what seemed to be dance classes and chaotic homework time. When I showed up for my first full day, I was surprised to see nearly 90 new faces in little gold and brown uniforms, and taught the word “preescolar.” On my second full day I ended up standing in the back of a pickup truck, driving down mud roads and watching Margarita have conversations in floor less houses that I couldn’t understand.

Continue reading “What is Barrilete”