Monday, December 28, 2009

A few more thoughts

Here are my latest musings, conveniently divided into three sections.

DR-CAFTA: Free Trade from a Nicaraguan Perspective
Alice assigned us this reading on the Dominican Republic and Central American Free Trade Agreement. Although the article used a lot of fairly complex economic reasoning, I still managed to understand several disturbing outcomes CAFTA causes. One particularly perverse result is "dumping." The United States can now sell its agricultural products to Nicaragua at such low prices the Nicaraguan products can’t compete. As a result, Nicaragua ends up buying staple foods like rice. Even though Nicaragua can produce its rice more cheaply than the United States, the U.S. rice is subsidized so it can sell it cheaper than the Nicaragua rice producers. This puts already struggling Nicaraguan farmers out of work, and makes Nicaragua dependent on the U.S. for food. At the same time, CAFTA encourages Central American countries to switch from producing staple foods for their own people to growing cash crops like coffee and sugar for export. This puts the economies in Central America vulnerable, if the cash crops do not produce well one year, or if the foreign demand drops. There is something very sinister about this transformation; although Nicaragua has plenty of fertile land and experienced farmers to feed its citizens, CAFTA forces it to import staples and become dependent on the United States.

Micro-loans for Christmas

My brother got me a wonderful Christmas gift this year, especially in light of the upcoming Nicaragua trip. He hung on our tree a piece of paper reading “To Nora and the world.” I unfolded it to find a picture of “El Grupo Renacer,” a group of women in Bolivia working in such jobs as selling groceries, cosmetics or providing cleaning services, who need to be able to take out loans to fund their enterprises. (When I read the description aloud in Spanish, my brother asked, to my amusement, “Can you actually understand that?”) The money my brother donated will go to fund loans to this group. Unlike the OSCA-funded micro-loans, the loan money gets repaid to the donors, but my brother told me he will just continue to reinvest it. I was very pleased to receive this gift instead of some object that would collect dust in my house. It seemed like the perfect way to celebrate the “Christmas spirit” of generosity.

The Challenge of Host Gifts

Also on the topic of gifts, I’ve been facing the challenge of what gifts to bring to my host family, and other people I meet. I spent a lot of time brainstorming with my mom. We would think of a gift, and then debate its usefulness and/or cultural appropriateness for rural Nicaragua. In the end, I decided on getting a bunch of different gifts, since I don’t know exactly who I’ll be giving them to. The gifts I chose have a few common characteristics: useful but attractive, and small enough to easily pack. Here's what I'm bringing: two decks of cards, two nice soaps in reusable boxes, a pair of nice cotton pillowcases, two solar-powered calculators, and a package of colored permanent markers. I hope I made good guesses. I think the OSCA and Oberlin gear the group is bringing will be great for gifts, too.

Yesterday and today I enjoyed the winter weather by going ice skating, and I’m appreciating eating salads and drinking tap water. I’m also trying to go to as many contra dances as possible before I leave. With any luck, I will make it to three this week. I’ve really enjoyed being at home, which is comfortable and relaxing, and I think I am about ready to venture out.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Breaking Rules

Alice asked us to read an article written by an Oberlin student in one of the college magazines called "Making Peace." The author talks about her experience traveling abroad in Honduras and reflects on the rules and restrictions for Peace Corps volunteers. In both instances, she struggles with balancing safety and the freedom to interact with people. Many delegations and abroad programs enact rules to ensure the safety of their members, and often times more expectations are discovered in the foreign community. For example, a program might tell students not to eat food from street vendors while a community might discourage girls from walking around alone or from interacting with men. It is hard to discern which rules are necessary to follow and which ones can be adjusted in certain situations. On my last trip to El Salvador, one of my issues with the leadership was all the rules they threw at us before even arriving in the village: no eating anything uncooked, no walking around alone, no wearing certain clothes. It bothered me that they were restricting my experience before I even arrived and could evaluate the situation for myself. It made me feel uptight and cautious immediately upon arriving to our destination, as if my primary goal was to protect myself from the hazards of a foreign place. I know they were doing this for our safety and so that we could be perceived in a positive light, but I wanted to happily accept any food they offered us rather than create this boundary that implied I was fragile and different from them. After the trip, one of our leaders told us that when she lived in the village for several months, she did not observe any of the same rules that were imposed on our delegation and that honestly she thought the rules were a little overbearing.

Of course there are rules that are necessary and important to uphold. While the author of the article was living in Honduras, she ignored many of the program's rules because they were limiting her from relating to people. When her host mother prohibited her from walking alone or talking to men, she rebelled and did it anyway. This decision had horrible ramifications, however. By the end of her visit, the community looked down upon her and judged her for being a promiscuous American. When one is so restricted by so many rules, it seems easier to neglect them all and discover the way for oneself. However, there are many cultural differences that we, especially as females, must be aware of when we travel. In many Latin American countries, women work at home and men have professions. The women cook all the meals and serve their husbands first. They are expected to maintain the house without any help and should not walk around alone. This seems odd and is frustrating to us, especially coming from Oberlin where we don't even like limiting people by defining gender (that's why our bathrooms are "gender neutral" and our big dance of the year is Drag Ball). However, I think it is important to be aware of these cultural differences and respect them while we are in Nicaragua. I'm excited that this trip does not have many rules already in place and that I will be able to make those decisions on my own. However, I plan to be very observant when I arrive in the country and want to fulfill the expectations that the community has of me, even if they limit me in some ways.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

A Meaty Discussion

One aspect of the trip we've all had to grapple with is whether or not to eat meat. All four of us keep a vegetarian diet at Oberlin (something easy to do in the mostly-vegetarian co-ops) but I know from the last trip that we will be offered meat by our hosts in San Juan de Limay, and it could be seen as rude or hurtful to refuse it. I had all of us read this article I found about trying to stay vegetarian while abroad, and all the uncomfortable situations it could bring about. I don't agree with everything the piece says (especially the part about travelers pushing locals to incorporate more vegetarian dishes in their usual diet) but it does raise some good issues and make some good suggestions.

After a lot of reflecting, both on the previous trip and since, I've decided that while I'm a dedicated vegetarian, and will keep vegetarian while we're traveling on our own, I'm going to eat meat in Limay when it's served to me by my hosts. It's more important to me to be a good, gracious guest and connect with my hosts, who usually have a diet of rice and beans but serve meat on special occasions (like our visit!) Out with the families I remember only having meat maybe two or three times. It's mostly rice and beans (and tortillas and cheese). But even though they're almost entirely vegetarian by default, they view actually BEING vegetarian by choice as crazy.

I believe we will have enough barriers to overcome already in connecting with people we meet (language, culture, economic class, education, etc.) that I don't want food to become another barrier, another thing that separates me from others. Instead, I want to look at food as what brings me closer to my hosts and helps me connect with them, which is what food should always be--something that brings people together.

Also, my main reason for vegetarianism is concern for the environment (factory farming contributes to climate change more than all transportation combined) and concern for the quality of life of animals raised for meat. These concerns are basically eliminated in the Nicaraguan campo, as everything is done in the most natural, sustainable way possible, and animals live a visibly free and happy life before they become food.

On this trip we represent not just OSCA, but Oberlin and even the U.S. in general. Many of these families have never met someone from the U.S. before, so we want to make sure to leave the best impression possible. I believe that eating meat, like using an outhouse or cooking with firewood, is a hardship we must cheerfully endure in order to bond with our hosts. I even ate pork on the last trip even though that doubly violates my Jewish-vegetarian beliefs.

Also, I'm lucky that I have a strong stomach and wasn't bothered by eating meat after years of vegetarianism. I know that's a big concern for some.

Anyways, those are my rambling thoughts on the issue. I'm glad we're all being forced to think about what we eat and why, which everyone should always meditate on but few do.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Hi, I'm Marlee. I'm a sophomore at Oberlin and the fourth member of the Nicaragua 2010 delegation. Slightly embarrassed by being the last person to introduce themselves on the blog, which I have no excuse for since all I've been doing since I got home is sitting on my couch and eating ethnic food, I'm excited to begin this blogging experience and share it with whoever is reading. Besides being a waste of life in front of my tv, I've also developed a cold recently, and by being lazy am really just attempting to restore my health and save my energy for Nicaragua. This past semester was rough for me illness-wise (I got both swine and seasonal flu a week apart bridged by a solid case of bronchitis) and I'm hoping I've paid my sick dues and will therefore be healthy for the month of January.

After getting over my illnesses, I spent a lot of time at the end of the semester planning and partaking in fundraisers for our trip. My main event was a concert at our dance club, the Sco', featuring a rock band and live salsa band (killer combination). I was pretty disappointed when I showed up to the Sco' the Saturday night before finals, the only available time slot for our fundraiser, to see about 20 people standing in a line bouncing to the rock band. By midnight and the debut of the salsa band, however, many more people had showed up. And anyways, by that time I was so enveloped in my own dancing that I didn't notice anyone else around me, resulting in some accidental booty bumps. In the end, I had a lot of fun, we made a good amount of money, and it made me really excited to go dancing in Nicaragua. I also learned how to book bands and coordinate a concert, a skill I will probably never need again but is nonetheless useful. I am more than ready to be done with the planning process and actually get to Nicaragua where we can enjoy all our hard work.

Like the other girls, I am excited for the weather (I check on the daily just to admire the 90 degrees awaiting our arrival) and of course for the fruit. And the monkeys on the volcano-filled island of Ometepe, who will distract us from the possibility of volcanic eruptions under our hostel. I've traveled Latin America a little bit; last January I went to El Salvador with an Oberlin delegation, where we spent about a month living with host families in a small, liberal village called Santa Marta. I think that experience has prepared me for this upcoming trip, the most that one can be prepared going into a situation like this. Living without everyday amenities that I take for granted, such as running water, flushing toilets, warm showers, and food variety, takes getting used to. However, my biggest challenge in El Salvador and my biggest fear about Nicaragua is a) knowing enough Spanish and then b) being confident enough to communicate and develop relationships with the local people. Hopefully my practice from last year will help me adapt more quickly this year and let me be shameless in butchering their language. Besides, I can always just dance with them if I'm at a loss for words (dance is a universal language).

Since getting home from school, I've also been looking into Study Abroad programs and subsequently planned my future. I found this really cool SIT program in Chile called Global Health, Traditional Medicine, and Community Empowerment. And then I looked up the requirements for Oberlin's Latin American Studies major, which is looking more and more appealing. So it's all fitting together: I'll travel Latin America, be premed and major in Latin American Studies at Oberlin, apply my interests by going abroad in Chile, and then become Paul Farmer (the most amazing doctor of all time, if you don't know him look him up!) Now that I've worked out the next 50 years of my life, I can relax in Nicaragua, salsa dance to my heart's content, eat fruit til it's coming out my ears, sleep on hammocks, and of course learn about the history and politics of the country and meet the people that we microfinance through the OSCA Nicaragua Sister Partnership. Hopefully this experience will confirm the interests that I'm developing in medicine in a Latin American context. I also can't wait to connect with the Nicaraguan people that will so graciously let me into their lives, as well as with the three great new Obies that I've just met and will spend lots of quality time with in the next month. Until then, I'll be picking up some anti-malarial medication, reading some required texts for the trip, going skiing, and watching telenovelas in preparation.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009


Hello! Alice here. Besides getting my shots and anti-malaria medicine, packing, e-mailing like crazy with our various contacts in Nicaragua and assigning more required reading, I've been preparing for this trip by going back through my diary from the last delegation two years ago.

Here are my co-delegates on the 2008 delegation (minus one, Paia, who we met up with a few days into the trip)

I wrote extensively on that trip, chronicling what we did, what I learned, my ideas for the future and anything I wanted to make sure to remember. Going back through the many pages I scribbled has been extremely helpful, and alternately depressing and entertaining. Here are some notes I pulled out:

First, some very specific vocabulary that came in handy on the trip. Nicaraguan Spanish, besides having a different accent and pronunciation, also has different vocabulary.
  • socio= co-op or union member
  • cascada= waterfall
  • varon= man
  • hembra= woman
  • atrasado= backward, like a region without industry
  • ordeñar= to milk (a cow)
  • maní= peanut
  • cosechar= to harvest
  • chiwín= child
  • tortillar= to make tortillas
  • hortaliza= vegetables
  • pulpería= general store
  • El Señor= Jesus Christ
Then some "good-to-know" notes on culture and custom:

At meals, the men are served first. But we as guests are served even before them. Men also interrupt/speak for their wives. It's uncomfortable sometimes!

People are very proud of their hospitality. One woman said: "Así somos. Recibimos a cada persona que está lejos de su casa." ("That's how we are. We receive anyone who is far from home.")

People will ask you for your phone number. It's good to give it at least as a gesture of connection. They will call you maybe once, if at all.

"Visits" are formal and important. You're expected to dress up a little even to visit a neighbor.

Then there were anecdotes in my diary that, while probably not practically useful for this trip, made me laugh and remember some of the best moments of that trip.

One favorite was when I asked my host mother, Doña Juana, if the people in the village thought it was important that I was there. I was anxious about my usefulness and my place in their society, and felt like a burden. "Of course!" she replied. "Everyone thinks it's very important that you're here." She paused. "Except the neo-liberals. They don't care about anything."

Here I am with Juana and her sister Reina. I promise Juana smiled a lot, despite the difficult life she's lead, but never in a photograph.

Basically, as wonderful as the last trip was, I've resolved to use what I learned then to make this year's delegation even better.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Why I'm SO EXCITED for this trip

Hi! Like Nora, I've never been much of a blogger, but I'll do my best to convey some of who I am and the things I've been thinking about related to our trip.

Winter is sunny in Texas, though nowhere near as warm as Nicaragua will be. It's been nice to be able to do nothing here at home, especially before this trip. I'm just beginning to realize how intense this is going to be!

We're planning to do so much in such a short amount of time, and we will be in a drastically different environment than I've ever been in. I've spent significant time in Latin America, but that was mostly in Peru where my family lives, and in my experience traveling to visit family is drastically different than planning your own itinerary. Although I love Lima, whenever I travel there I always feel sort of like I'm in a bubble; most of my time in Peru is divided between hanging out with relatives in their extra-barricaded homes and visiting the exclusive Regattas Club with its private beaches, swimming pools, hair salons, sport fields, and restaurants. Even when we go downtown, I feel unnecessarily sheltered. I love my family and I am extremely grateful to them, but I want to be able to chat on a beach with people who didn't have to pay a fortune to get there. I guess I'm excited for the more genuine travel experience that I think Nicaragua will be. I definitely don't expect to "understand" Nicaragua after one month there, but I hope to have met and, hopefully, befriended some of the country's people from all walks of life.

Reading The Jaguar's Smile before embarking on the trip is a really great step to doing this. (Props to Alice for the required reading!) Although by no means a complete history of Nicaragua, the book is really insightful and makes me curious to learn even more. I'm also looking forward to the tour with Witness For Peace.

It's also good to know that every step of the way we will be reflecting on our actions and making at least a small difference to a few women in San Juan de Limay. These are the reasons I'm so excited to be part of this delegation.

I'm also looking forward to the more obvious things, like the beautiful countryside and the FRUIT!! While I was picking up my malaria pills today, and the pharmacist pulled me aside and engaged me in a 10 minute conversation about how his teenage years living in Central America, where his dad was a pharmacist, were some of the best in his life. The descriptions of a slower pace of life, lush greenery, and kind people, and most of all his genuine excitement at being able to share these memories with another person, warmed my soul.

Thinking about the people, the history, the landscape, the good and bad surprises, the food, and a million other things, I can already tell this is going to be a trip I will never forget.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Looking ahead

Hello everyone. Nora here. I am not a blogger by nature; I am intimidated by the prospect of publishing anything to the World Wide Web, but I'll post something in anticipation of the fast-approaching Nicaragua trip. First, a little about me and what I've been up to lately. I'm an Oberlin first-year student. I'm studying a bit of everything this year: fiction writing, relativity and quantum mechanics (for non-physics majors), Gandhi, language pedagogy (and teaching a first grade class Spanish). Next semester I'm planning to delve into some Latin American history and literature, environmental studies and West African dance. I'm undecided about a major, but Latin American Studies certainly looks appealing.

More about my Oberlin life: I was fortunate enough to get into my first choice dining co-op, so I'm eating in Old B this year. I have been working as Old B's Nicaragua Committee Representative all semester, as one of my co-op "hours." Our committee meetings are always thought provoking and industrious. We've gotten a remarkable amount done, for a small group of over-committed students. I have to give a lot of credit to Alice, our fearless, well-organized leader. We put up a photo and fact gallery in the science center about our partnership. We gave presentations about our partnership (in English and Spanish) to several Oberlin classes. We showed a documentary made on the past delegation in the All-OSCA Film Festival. We wrote a statement on the political and environmental issues with banana production to be read at co-op food policy discussions. We brought a speaker to campus to discuss the School of the Americas and the annual protest against it. And, of course, we did lots of fund raising. After all the planning, the trip is finally within sight.

Monday was a big snowstorm in Massachusetts, and by the time I woke up, we had about 8 inches on the ground. The shoveling was made much more fun by my brainstorm: I should take pictures to bring to Nicaragua!

I documented all of my family members clearing our driveway, as well as sitting in front of our newly-decorated Christmas tree, wanting to have some distinctly New Englandy pictures to bring with me. I've been imagining taking with my Nicaraguan host about my life here, negotiating the challenges of the Spanish language as well as the cultural differences. How easy will it be for me to ask them about their lives, and the struggles they face as rural farmers? I've been thinking a lot this holiday season about all the privileges I have, and what that means in light of my upcoming trip to Nicaragua.

I can already tell how different my life will be while I'm traveling in Nicaragua than it is at the moment. The temperature in Estelí is in the 80s, compared to the 20s here. I will have to rise with the sun to help my hosts with farm chores, instead of sleeping in as I have been since I got home.

As the trip nears, it's becoming more real to me. I have already gotten annoyed at myself for leaving an excellent pair of traveling shorts in my Oberlin dorm room. Fortunately, I have the most essential things: my indispensable red backpacking pack, and my passport. I'm sure everything else will fall into place. I'm getting my vaccinations, and thinking of gifts to bring for the people who will generously host us.

On the plane ride home from Oberlin, I read the Nicaragua guidebook, and was glad that so much sounded familiar. The trip I took to Nicaragua last summer with a group from my high school was one of the main reasons I immediately sought out the Nicaragua Sister Partnership Committee when I joined OSCA. I was thrilled to get the chance to return this January, to get to know the country better and make all the issues we talk about at our weekly committee meetings real.

Judging from my experience on my last visit to Nicaragua, as well as everything Alice tells me, this trip will certainly have its ups and downs. As someone who likes everything to go as planned, I will have to adapt to the unpredictability of travel. My stomach will inevitably have some adjusting to do to the Nicaraguan diet. I may become disillusioned and feel like I am unable to do anything helpful. However, I know that this trip will let me make connections with people and learn things that I simply could not do from a classroom in the United States. I can't wait to see how it unfolds.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Who we are, why we are

Saludos! My name is Alice Ollstein, and I'm the coordinator this year of the Nicaragua Sister Partnership Committee of the Oberlin Student Cooperative Association, or OSCA. Our committee facilitates the relationship between OSCA and the National Union of Farmers and Ranchers, or UNAG, in San Juan de Limay, Nicaragua. Specifically, we've maintained a micro-loan fund for unionized female farmers in that area. Members can take out small loans to buy livestock, seed or other necessary items like school supplies for their children. When the loans are repaid, the money can be taken out by other women.

The relationship started with a cooperative in Vermont, which had set up a revolving micro-loan fund. The Vermont co-op dropped out of the relationship in 2002, leaving OSCA as the sole supporter of the project.

Every year the entire membership of OSCA — 620 members this year — must vote on whether or not to donate money to this loan fund and how much. Just last week, the students voted to give $5,000, and $2,000 of that will come from donations from each student's refund check. Because mail is so unreliable, the Winter Term delegations hand-deliver the checks to the women.

San Juan de Limay

San Juan de Limay is a small, rural town to the northwest of Estelí. It is the hottest, driest municipality in the region and has the highest poverty rates. Due to the scarcity of rain, farmers struggle to grow enough on the land to support their families and any livestock they own. The effects of global climate change are taking their toll here, with droughts making the land increasingly difficult to farm. Hurricane Mitch devastated the region in 1998 and many homes still show signs of destruction.

The U.S.-backed Contra Wars also hit San Juan de Limay especially hard because of its proximity to the Honduran boarder. Many have traumatic memories of the violence they witnessed.

Since it is so hard to make a living in San Juan de Limay, many of the men and women emigrate to Costa Rica or the United States. As a result, San Juan de Limay has almost no local industry. The people of San Juan de Limay make their living mostly through agricultural work, cultivating corn and raising cattle. Communication and travel is difficult. Few buses go to San Juan de Limay, so most travel by hitch-hiking. Some UNAG members in San Juan de Limay have told the Nicaragua Sister Partnership that UNAG is the only organization to have helped them.

Our Trip

Every other January Winter Term, OSCA sends a small group (4-5 students) down to Nicaragua to deliver our funds by hand and to strengthen and improve our relationship with the UNAG. The trip, planned by the delegates themselves, usually involves one week traveling and learning about the history of Nicaragua and two or more weeks with the UNAG, living with host families and learning how we can improve our partnership and the Loan Fund. Before the trip, the delegates fundraise to make the trip accessible to anyone.

The trip is not a service trip. We aren't going to impose any project on a community or tell them what we think is best for them. We are going to learn, to strengthen a long-standing relationship and to facilitate mutual understanding. On the trip two years ago, the delegates realized how poorly we understood the UNAG and how it functions, and how little the UNAG members knew about OSCA. The trip is important for fixing that, and for making sure they don't just see OSCA as this faceless organization that sends them money. We want to practice solidarity, not charity.

Please check back often as myself and the other delegates chronicle our trip!