This year, as I’ve mentioned earlier, has been a crazy amount of ups and downs. The month of my grandfather’s hospice was made even more difficult by the dengue. I wasn’t so sick from the dengue any more, but I needed so much emotional strength to be there for my grandmother and take care of the logistics, and I just had no reserves to draw upon. I was exhausted from the moment I got up. Even sleeping ten hours wasn’t enough. I felt like the heaviness of exhaustion behind my eyes would never go away.
But in that first week of hospice, just as I felt so sad and so physically ill, so adrift and not knowing what came next for me in life, I got an incredible email. While I was in Nicaragua, I had spent one full day at an internet cafe sending off resumes for possible short-term jobs to get back into the world of journalism. In the course of a day, I had applied for jobs in Africa, New Mexico, and Russia. All of them were reaches, especially Russia. I saw a Facebook post on group for people who’ve worked at Outside Magazine for a job as a reporter at the Winter Olympics. Fat chance, I thought.
Then, while I was sitting in my grandfather’s hospice room, I got an email from Sochi 2014, asking when I’d be available for an interview. And would I be interested in covering the Paralympics as well?
My Skype interview was a week later, 2 AM Philadelphia time, 11 AM Moscow time. Somehow I convinced them that writing one blog post about Lindsey Vonn five years ago during an internship at Outside Magazine qualified me with “extensive experience” to cover skiing and snowboarding. Before I knew it, I was assigned to the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park – freestyle skiing and snowboarding, including aerials, moguls, halfpipe, and a whole lot of bragging rights. Here’s the hilarious uniform I’ll be wearing:
I’ll be working for the Olympics for their in-house wire service, providing extensive coverage of my events for journalism outlets that won’t be able to send reporters to all of the qualifying rounds for each event.
The job came at an absolute perfect time. The mid-January start date meant I got to spend plenty of time with my grandmother after the funeral, helping her get settled. Financially, I’ll be making more at the Olympics than I made in my salary for the Jerusalem Post, so that was a huge weight off my shoulders as well. I find it hilarious that I quit my job, traveled for ten months to five continents, worked for two months, and will end up richer than I started.
Also, my grandfather was still conscious when I got the news. I waltzed into his room that day with the Olympic theme song playing, a piece of paper with the Olympic rings, and a big grin on my face. It was all the more special being able to share the news with him while he was still able to appreciate it.
It also gave me something to look forward to during a difficult time, to know that my life had some direction just as I was dealing with a lot of unknown relatives wanting to know when I’ll settle down. “I’m working at the Olympics” doesn’t inspire the same Jewish naches as “I’m marrying a doctor/lawyer and we’re going to have 2.8 beautiful babies and a white picket fence,” but it sure sounds cool.
And the best part? When I was out in Philly, going up to the bar and ordering a bunch of Russian vodka shots for me and my friends. And I told the bartender the truth: “I need them, you see. I’m training for the Olympics.”
Among the things that my family most loved about Grandfather were his dietary rules. “Butter is unhealthy, you should never use butter, you should only use olive oil,” he would tell us when we were served bread at a restaurant, while he was smothering his roll in enormously massive amounts of olive oil. “I’m on a diet, I always eat very healthy,” he would tell us at the height of seriousness in the morning, over his bowl of Trix sugary cereal, the neon colors the artificial fruit reflected in his glasses. But in the end, Grandfather was mostly healthy and certainly happy until the age of 91, so he was obviously doing something right.
The things I most closely associate with Grandfather are his insistence on backing into parking spaces – so as not to run over little children – and the way he would know exactly what he wanted at all of his favorite haunts. “I don’t need to see a menu,” he would boast to us, and the hostess would always greet him by name and already know his order.
In this last difficult month of hospice, a hospice rabbi gave us a book called “A Book of Jewish Curiosities.” The random collection of Jewish knowledge wasn’t exactly the comforting liturgy I had in mind, but there was one section that grabbed me. In the 12th century, the rabbis published a book dealing with the intricacies of the physical body called Sefer Shaashuim. This is what 12th century Jewish mystics had to say about the eye: “Of all the nerves in the body, the optic nerves are the only ones which are hollow, to allow the power of light to pass through them from the brain to the retina.”
I read this tidbit as I saw Grandfather, a source of light for so many people, lying in the hospice bed. I’ll never understand optometry as intimately or as deeply as he did, but those 12th century mystics captured something in that verse: that vision, or learning how to correct vision, is about harnessing that power of light.
One of my favorite stories about Grandfather that I heard from Nana during this past month was when she went to have him check her eyes at a Sears store in the Willow Grove Mall, where he was filling in temporarily. As she waited her turn in the waiting room, a patient came out of Grandfather’s examining room beaming. “Does everybody come out of there laughing?” the patient asked the secretary.
For so many people, Grandfather was the power of light. With his corny jokes, and their punchlines all written in precise and minute handwriting on a 3×5 index card he kept in his breast pocket. The way he continued working with joy, until the amazing age of 89. Neil calculated that over the years, Grandfather has done approximately 250,000 eye exams. That’s an astounding half a million eyes that see better thanks to Grandfather. When I emailed the staff of the Philly Inquirer and suggested they do an article about his retirement at 89, the columnists were so impressed they started fighting via email over who got to do the story.
Though sometimes his stubborn habits and viewpoints were vexing, and his relationship with my family was never perfect, Grandfather brought so much light into our lives.
And most of all he brought light into my Nana’s life. Throughout this last terrible month I have seen their love hold strong right until the very end. Even when he lost the ability to speak, he would purse his lips just slightly and she knew he was looking for a kiss. His whole face would brighten whenever she came into the room. Even as he got closer to the end and seemed more and more gaunt, that irresistible smile and those beautiful blue eyes, full of light, didn’t change.
Nana told me over and over again how lucky she was to find true love not once but twice in her life. There was always enough room in both of their hearts for Rhoda and for my Pop-Pop Richard, and that never took away from the love that they had for each other. They had space for everyone.
“We knew every single day was a gift,” Nana has told me over and over. “I mean, who gets married at 75?” From their cruises and railroad trips, to frequent trips down the Shore where they basked in the perks of being treated like rich people at the casinos, they squeezed the most out of each day. “Or even when we were just sitting in the family room watching TV, we’d say to each other, you know, there is absolutely nowhere else in the world I would rather be right now,” Nana says. What I learned from Nana and Grandfather is the beautiful things that happen when you take that risk to live each day full of light and love.
So I want to thank you, Grandfather, for teaching me how to see things in their full light. I want to thank you for bringing so much light into the lives of the people around you, your patients, your friends, your family.
On Friday morning, after they called to tell us you had passed, I sat at the table and poured myself a big bowl of Trix in your honor. And you know what? It was terrible.
Grandfather always loved pictures – his apartment was full of them. He loved when I took pictures of him with the family his last month, and always had a big smile and looked right at the camera. For me, making this project was a way to distance myself from some of the emotional pain of watching someone you love die slowly, to look at it as I would approach any story, with a bit of distance and neutrality. Here’s what I made.
It’s only half-time and already they’ve dubbed this football game “The Snow Bowl,” calling it “a game for the ages,” four hours of watching the Philly Eagles and the Detroit Lions frolic like boys in a schoolyard through half a foot of snow on the field. In a beige room in a strip mall 21 miles from the stadium, the snow falls and clings to the window in the same pattern as the helmets of the football players. We watch them slip and slide with wide grins on their faces as my grandfather clings to life, watching his beloved Eagles play for one last time.
Sanitizing the dying process at a spotless hospice with soft lighting, soothing hallway carpets, and Christmas carols piped into the dining room doesn’t make it any easier. Even a comfortable goodbye is still a goodbye, 91 years ending in the indignity of Depends and Nectar® food thickening paste after liquids become too difficult to swallow. Each day, we come in to find a little less of grandfather and a little more hospital bed, a slow decline as autonomous parts of the body fail one by one, a heartbreaking process with only one outcome.
Down by 14-0 at halftime, the Eagles seem poised to lose, though I desperately want them to win for grandfather. Each touchdown takes on more urgency because you never know if that’ll be the last of the game and perhaps the last one ever for my grandfather the optometrist, who’s lived in Philadelphia his whole life and loves the Phillies even more than the Eagles.
They’re both in shortsleeves – the football players, their bare muscles rippling against the snow, and my grandfather, in a patterned blue polo that matches his eyes. Each day his skin gets thinner and thinner and now you can watch the blood pulsing through each individual vein. It’s strange to see the same snow covering both scenes – snowflakes on those strong vibrant football players and snowflakes on the bare tree outside my grandfather’s dying room.
Does a long goodbye make it any easier? A person is wired to get used to anything. Two weeks in and you’ve already acclimated to the new situation of “dying” – even normalized a bit to get into a “dying routine” of visiting the nursing home, chatting with the cleaning staff, taking breaks to pillage the salad bar at Whole Foods. But even as you’ve absorbed this new change somehow it’s just not possible to grasp the idea that at the end of the dying comes the death.
As the snow comes down, my grandfather, agitated now, even though the Eagles have won, struggles against the bed and the blankets and the indignities of slowly dying. Perhaps the next time the Eagles play this room will be empty – a harsh December wind tearing at a window looking in on an empty bed, where just last week a 91-year-old optometrist watched the Eagles play in the snow like children.
This year has been an incredible rollercoaster of events – going back to Egypt for the third anniversary of the Jan 25 Revolution, quitting my job, packing up my life, going back to the US with no plans for this coming year except to travel. Jetting off for Australia, basically on a whim, checking off a life bucket list by WWOOFing and taking an incredible solo hike for my birthday. Biking in terrible weather through Australia’s monsoon season (who knew Australia even HAD a moon season?) for some stunning coastline with my best friend from college. Then meeting a stranger online and biking through Vietnam together – then challenging myself to bike by myself through Laos and Cambodia. Back home for my grandparents’ 70th anniversary, and then, again on a whim, heading to Nicaragua for more WWOOFing.
My last week on the farm was bittersweet. I was frustrated that physically there were so many things I couldn’t do, and I felt so weak doing things I had been able to do easily just a week earlier, like use a machete to chip off kindle for firewood or bring water from the well. Still, it was wonderful to be back on the farm, I really felt like there were so many wonderful relationships I made there, with the workers and Miguel and the people who live in the village. I decided to donate school and art supplies so that hopefully when future volunteers come to the farm, they will have the materials to easily lead recreation for the kids. Matagalpa doesn’t have the best selection of books (most of them are poorly translated Disney knockoffs where the plots don’t even make sense – in Pinnochio, the nose doesn’t even grow!). Still, the kids gobbled them up. We’d start every day with a few games like “Red Light/Green Light” London Bridge is Falling Down (made more culturally appropriate by ‘Matagalpa bridge’) or some songs with funny hand movements. But eventually the kids would start complaining. “Can we stop playing and start reading already?”
Even more exciting, some of the teenagers started showing up as well, at first just to watch from the sides, and then they started asking for books as well. Some of them can read at a lower level, so even though I had only bought children’s books it was a good fit for them. The kids also went nuts over two puzzles I brought, though I doubt those will keep all their pieces for long.
Starting these recreation sessions is definitely the achievement I am most proud of this year. With the materials, I’m hoping future volunteers at Miguel’s farm will be able to continue the “classes” so it will be sustainable. I’m not expecting these sessions to make a huge difference in their lives, but these kids have so little stimulation I think any kind of organized recreation will at least make them happy and encourage them to learn to read.
For my “despedida” (goodbye party) I bought a chicken to kill for a big meal for all the farm workers. The owner Miguel also donated a chicken so we would have enough to eat. The chickens, however, had other plans.
I stayed as late as I could at the farm, heading back to Matagalpa at the last possible second. I did, however, have enough time in Matagalpa to do a few medical tests. While I tested negative for Chagas (thank god) I did discover that I had a parasite (I mean really, given the events of the past year, that’s not a big surprise, just a pain in the ass). When I got those results back I just threw up my hands and was like, “Ok, Nicaragua, you’ve got me. I’m going back to America to get healthy. I give up.”
When I got back to Matagalpa and finally called my parents, there was some terrible news waiting at home. During my last week on the farm, my grandfather’s prostate cancer had metastasized. He’d been struggling with pain in his lower spine for the past six months, and they finally realized that the cancer had spread to his spine and through the rest of his body. My mother had desperately been trying to get in touch with me while I was on the farm, but I was unreachable. After some difficult decisions in the emergency room, the family decided to move my grandfather to a nursing home for hospice care. Doctors gave him a few weeks to live. I decided rather than staying in Boston to figure out my next step, I would move in with my grandmother in Philly to help her during the hospice and after the funeral.
So within 72 hours, I had hiked out of the farm, gone for a few goodbye beers in Matagalpa, flew back to America at a terrible 2 am flight, missed my connecting flight from Florida to Boston due to a nasty TSA official in customs getting back into the US, had a nervous dengue-inspired hysterical breakdown when I realized I’d have to pay $400 for a new flight to Boston (you suck, TSA), eventually made it to Boston, slept in my bed for 13 hours, and got on a train for Philadelphia. The shock of changing cultures so dramatically and so radically smacked me around even further when I saw my grandfather, emaciated, in the hospital bed in the nursing home.
It sure has been a rollercoaster of a year – highs and lows, life-affirming happiness, and now struggling to deal with the terribleness of a slow decline towards death.
THAT’S JUST THE DENGUE TALKING.
At first, it just felt like a regular head cold. I’ve spent most of my time in Nicaragua dealing with one health malaise or another – if it’s not some stomache problem from the food or the water, then it’s a cold or a sore throat from being constantly damp and never drying out, or some weird skin reaction to an insect or plant or impenetrable rubber boots from living in the campo or life in general.
So when I started getting sick on Saturday, the day before I was supposed to head back out ot the farm where I am volunteering in rural Matagalpa, I didn’t think much of it. I popped some vitamin C, guzzled some fake orange juice, and continued about my night. Throughout the course of the night, I started feeling worse and worse. But we were making a feast at a friend’s house, and I figured I could just tough it out.
When I finally stumbled into my bed that night, I knew I was seriously sick. I was feverish, I had a pounding headache. Oh great, the flu, I thought. I rummaged in my mold-covered medicine bag and extracted the last two generic sudafed from Bangkok that hadn’t disintigrated with the Nicaraguan moisture, and hoped I’d feel better in the morning.
Plans the next morning to make French toast were cancelled. “I can barely move,” I told Anna and Tracy the next morning when I still hadn’t sent them smoke signals at the ungodly late hour of 9:30 AM. “I can’t do anything.”
I’ve never been sick like this before. I spent the day shivering in bed, as my fever would alternately rocket through the roof and then break, leaving me drenched in sweat. Lying still hurt my bones, a deep ache that I had never experienced before. I cancelled plans to go back to the farm. “Are you hungover?” the farm owner asked me via SMS. “God, I wish,” I replied. The pain seemed to originate in my bones, then travel up towards my head, gathering strength and steam before exploding outwards.
That night, my friends came over to the hostel where I was staying to cook me dinner, concerned by my state of health. “Does it feel like you have pain shooting out of your eyeballs?” Tracy asked at one point. “Oh my god, that’s exactly what it feels like!” I exclaimed. “Yep, it’s probably dengue,” she replied.
But the next morning I awakened feeling much better, still with a fever and aches but much less intense. I tried to convinced myself that it was just a 24 hour flu, but decided to get it checked out at the clinic just in case. A long day spent in the Clinica Santa Fe waiting room, however, dashed my hopes.
De-de-de-dengue, the results came back. Apparently it’s typical for the disease to back off in the second day before it restrikes with a vengence for the rest of the “critical period” of approximately five days.
I spent most of the next few days in a horizontal position. I think as a defense mechanism my brain has blocked out memories of how bad the dengue pain was, but I vaguely remember lying in bed and whimpering because it hurt to lie down.
But the symptoms passed, as symptoms do. I believe my dengue was much milder than it could have been, as already on the fourth and fifth day I was starting to feel better, just incredibly exhausted. A half hour trip to get batidos at the Palacio de Batidos suddenly necessitated a three hour nap to recover. Walking to the Supermarket La Matagalpa required mustering energy for an entire morning beforehand.
I was lucky, both with the relative mildness of my dengue and my access to medical care and ability to pay for it. A same-day doctor’s consult at a private clinic, bloodwork, and medicine to deal both with my fever and cold symptoms set me back a whopping $13.75, a laughable amount for any Westerner. Returning to the farm, when I explained to the members of the community that dengue had caused my unplanned absence, I heard horror stories from other residents about their own dealings with the disease. One mother matter-of-factly told me that the year before her youngest son had had hemorrhaging dengue, a much more dangerous strain of the disease. With little emotion she described watching blood pour out of every orifice on his face as his fever shot up, but not having the means or the money to get out of the community to get medical help. Luckily, the boy survived.
While I was certainly on the mend, what I wasn’t prepared for was a side effect of the dengue: homesickness. Back on the farm, I sat under my mosquito net in the mud floor hut and felt a little guilty as I wished hard for Indian food and hot showers and everything that America offers – pizza and central heating and access to a car. The dengue hit during my last two weeks in Nicaragua, and I spent my last week in the country mobile but with an overwhelming exhaustion settled behind my eyes and deep in my bones. That, I knew, was a result of the dengue. But inside the dengue was a small voice whispering something I had barely heard in a decade of travel: “I want to go home.”
I haven’t spent longer than a month in America in five years. I’ve been on the move since I was 18, chasing one adventure after another and cobbling together odd jobs in my free time to supplement this obsession with travel. I’ve lived on four different continents, traveled 10,000 km by bicycle through eight countries. I’ve been thoroughly lucky to have avoided strange and tropical diseases until the dengue of Nicaragua started up with this strange chorus: “time to go home.” Perhaps the dengue is right? My grandfather is dying. I’m worried I don’t even know my brother anymore, and that my family doesn’t think they can depend on me.
And then I’m confused. How much of this is the dengue talking, and how much of this is the real Melanie struggling to get heard, her defenses weakened by a tropical virus to the point where she’s actually listening to her body struggling with the exhaustion of constantly moving?
Five days into the dengue, I met a volunteer with a gorgeously illustrated shark tattoo and asked what it meant. “It’s because I love travel,” she explained. “And sharks can never stop moving, or they will die.” “Even when they sleep?” I asked, incredulous. “Even when they sleep.” A month ago I would have loved that explanation, would have thought about incorporating more shark imagery into my own wanderings. But suddenly her tattoo exhausted me. Perhaps that was the dengue talking, moving quickly through my veins in the early days of the disease. Because I can’t suddenly be ready to settle down just because of a nasty mosquito bite.
I write this just a few hours before my plane takes off from Managua to Florida. In less than 24 hours, I’ll be wrapped in a comforter in my childhood bed outside of Boston. According to the experts, the virus will still be wending it’s way through my body for the next two to four weeks, even as I enjoy the perks of washing machines and Keurig coffee makers. So I’ve promised myself no big decisions, just time in limbo to sleep, reconnect with my family, rest, eat Indian food. There will be a time to make a decision about what comes next in my life, whether I trade my backpack for a steadier job, or my life abroad for American familiarity. But I’m not rushing anything, because I want to make sure that it’s the real me making the decisions, and not the dengue talking.
Rounding the corner to Matagalpa (the regional capital and big city near the farm) on the bus after my second stint on the farm, I was overcome with love for the city on the level that I used to feel about Jerusalem. As I began to recognize some buildings, I had the same feeling of familiarness and excitement I used to get as I was heading up Highway 1 on an Egged bus as Jerusalem first comes into view on the hilltop. Matagalpa doesn’t have Jerusalem’s ancient beauty, but the city is nestled among shockingly green mountains and is a perfectly manageable size for exploring and living. Plus the beer is a lot cheaper.
After deboarding the bus and spending the obligatory 20 minutes of sitting on the sidewalk dumbstruck at all the colors and sounds and stimulation in the big city, I waved goodbye to Paho and Blanca, the other volunteers, and I skipped off to the Harvest House, where I knew the most amazing thing awaited: a hot shower. Hot, I mean really, really hot.
I think it’s been a good year when I’ve spent the majority of my time in places where you can’t flush the toilet paper. But on those few chances where I’ve gotten to experience really fantastic plumbing, well, I am just so grateful that it exists.
Coming back to Matagalpa, I was ecstatic: happy to take a break from the farm but know I’ll be going back, happy to hang out with some North Americans (there are quite a few Canadians in my little Matagalpa friend group, so see I’m being culturally sensitive by adding in the North), happy to eat some Italian food at Matagalpa’s pretty decent Italian restaurant, happy to see friends and know they will be happy to see me. “I’m back in civilization!!” I yelled when I got to the Harvest House, a long-term hostel/house for volunteers and generally people bumming around, and was greeted with hugs.
Although I’m really in Nicaragua for such a short period, I’ve really come to feel like Matagalpa is a sort of home. The volunteer/expat community here is so wonderful and friendly, I’ve fit right in and always have people to go out with at night or eat gallo pinto (beans and rice, but refried in a way to make it not boring) the hangover of the morning after. There’s always a steady stream of Peace Corps volunteers coming through Anna’s house (the friend that Lauren Spiegel, my friend from college, put me in touch with) so there are always more people to meet. As proud as I am of my time on the farm, I’m also proud that I’ve carved out a little niche for myself in Matagalpa, and have friends to come back to when I need a breather from campo life.
The whole trip back to Matagalpa had really been a pleasure. Instead of leaving at 4 AM and walking an hour and a half to the 6 AM bus in the dark, we left at 6 AM and walked three hours to another spot that has more frequent buses. Since I’ve only hiked from the bus stop to the farm in the dark (and the rain), it was the first chance for me to see what kind of landscape surrounded the farm. Lots of coffee plantations, lots of banana trees, but a lovely hike. And thank god it wasn’t raining, otherwise that would have been a miserable three hour slog.
This also enabled me to say at various points during the weekend, “I hiked three hours out of the Nicaraguan jungle to get to the Thursday night poker game! How am I still single?!”
Once in Matagalpa, I immediately set to the task of getting clean, trying to remove the mold and mildew from everything I own (how do drybags get moldy?!).
So I cranked up my tablet real loud, and with Bon Jovi’s “It’s My Life” echoing off the bathroom tiles, I turned on the water. It was hot, and it was wonderful.
The daily recreation program for the kids started as an accident. During my first two weeks on the farm, I had attempted to revive literacy classes at the suggestion of Miguel, the owner. He said in the past that he had tried to teach some of the workers to read by turning the last half hour of their work day into classroom time. I was inspired by the idea and decided to give it a try.
Jhonny, the worker in charge of the animals, who works closest with the volunteers, said that they’d actually prefer a longer, sit-down lesson at 4 pm rather than a throwaway lesson at the end of their workday when they were all tired. I had my doubts that anyone would show up back at the farm for class after a long day at work, but if that’s what they wanted, then sounds good to me. It took a few days to schedule the first class, as Jhonny and Ovel (another worker) kept having community meetings.
Finally I asked Jhonny what the community could possibly need to meet about every day. “Well, we plan one, but then no one comes, or only five or six people, so we have to reschedule it the next day,” he said matter-of-factly. “But then no one comes to that one, so we have to reschedule it again. It usually happens five or six times before we actually have the meeting,” he explained. But Jhonny, bless his heart, would go to every one.
Eventually we found a day with no community meetings. I showed up at the manager’s house, the place where we arranged to meet, at 4:00 with Noel. “No one is going to show up,” said Noel, ever the optimist. No students. 4:15, no students. 4:30, no students. I went to go fetch water, frustrated, not wanting Noel to be right. Lugging my water jug back up the hill at 4:45, I heard voices. Jhonny had come back! I gave my first lesson to Jhonny and Noel, where we read an article about Sinead O’Connor telling Miley Cyrus to stop being a whore. It was awesome slipping some feminist information into my first literacy class. Unfortunately, it was hard to explain who Sinead O’Connor was, and no one had seen the recent Miley Cyrus video debacle (including myself). But the meaning was there!
We had a few more of these adult literacy classes, reading articles in the paper and then I would ask them questions to make sure they understood what they were reading. Eventually I moved the class from the manager’s house to the pulperia (convenience store) of Dona Guillermina, so that anyone from the community could attend. This was an excellent move. People would arrive to buy candles or cooking oil, and stay to hear the rest of the article. There was nothing else going on in the village, and this was the best entertainment.
Some of the adults can read, but they have no reading comprehension, so if you ask them simple questions afterwards they come up at a loss. The majority of adults, however, cannot read. Some of the teenagers can barely write their own names.
In the beginning, I was just working with the adults who could read a bit. And although the articles were short and fairly easy, the vocabularly proved quite difficult. During one class I spent 20 minutes trying to describe what the word “monument” is. They understood the basic premise: an important statue or building that has historical or cultural significance. But they couldn’t grasp the difference between a definition and an example. How could the statue in the middle of Matagalpa, the biggest city near the farm, be a monument, if a statue of a different person in downtown Managua was also a monument?
Still, the articles prompted some fascinating discussions. Reading one article about child prostitution in the tourist city of Grenada, a few men started discussing the cycle of poverty that causes desperate families to turn to prostitution in the first place. There were definitely some moments of light among the frustration of trying to communicate and teach.
This is the first time in my life that I am starting to grasp what “rural isolation” truly means. It’s the first time I have spent a large amount of my day with people who are illiterate. Reading and writing are such a large part of my life it’s hard for me to understand how people subsist without it.
“I can’t read, and I’m fine, so why do my kids need to read?” is the general consensus among adults in the village. There’s no overwhelming drive that education will bring a better life for their kids, because frankly, it won’t. Even if their child does attend school up until 6th grade (a very rare occurance), the only possibility of continuing afterwards means walking two hours every morning and then taking the bus for an hour to the regional high school. And then repeating that on the way home. Additionally, the bus costs about 25 cents each way. In a community where most families are living on approximately $1 per day, this is an exorbitant amount.
There is a school in the village, taught by one poor overworked teacher named Erick. Erick lives in the municipality of San Ramon and was assigned to this school, even though he lives a three hour walk away. For the first six months, he was walking THREE HOURS EACH WAY to get to work. Often in the rain. So when he had little energy to face 45 students from preschool to 6th grade all in one room after getting up at 4 am and walking three hours up a mountain, can you blame him?
And even if the kids get an education, the jobs in this region are all agricultural and do not require literacy or an education. Economically, it makes much more sense for you to send your five-year-old to chop wood for the entire morning rather than sending him to kindergarten. Some families try to balance this out by allowing their older children to switch off every day which one goes to school and which one stays home to do chores and watch the baby.
That’s how Dona Reina’s family works – her 6 and 8 year old get to go school only on alternate days. Except when Dona Reina, the village baker, is making food. Then she needs both girls home to help her cook enchiladas or hornados (baked goods) or whatever is coming out of her well-tended stove that day. Dona Reina’s baking days were always great days for us volunteers because it meant that we had one less meal of struggling with the fire. But it also meant that by buying up enormous quantities of her hornados – cookies made with corn that made me yearn for my dad’s sugar cookies – we were helping to keep her kids at home.
Of course, there’s always the possibility that the kid could move to the city and work, but the odds are stacked so enormously against him or her that it’s almost impossible.
So when I left the farm after my first two weeks and came back to the city for a breather, I purchased a few supplies to help me with the adult literacy classes. An abridged version of Pinnochio, at first grade level, a level appropriate for my advanced readers.
The first day back I showed up at Dona Guillermina’s pulperia at 4:00 pm with Blanca, a volunteer from Spain. No one else came by from the village for class. We ended up hanging out with Dona Guillermina the entire time.
“Tomorrow, my grandson will come,” she promised, mostly, we believed, because she was worried she’d have to entertain two gringas every day for an hour and a half while they hung around her store.
The next day, sure enough, Gabriel showed up. Both of us sat down to read with him, ecstatic that we had a student. A few minutes later, a 12-year-old girl named Evelyn came by with her mother to purchase some things from the store. We practically forced her to sit down with us and read. It took her a while to be comfortable, stealing glances at her mother every few minutes.
But Evelyn, I’ve got to give her a lot of credit. It seems that Evelyn spent the entire next day telling the village she went to class with the gringas. When Blanca and I started heading towards the pulperia the next day, we saw a group of kids waiting in the main path outside the farm. “Oh, great, kids!” I said to Blanca. “Maybe we can convince them to come to class with us!” Though we had originally planned on teaching adults, if the kids wanted to come, that was wonderful as well.
When we got closer, we saw that the kids were all clutching notebooks and pens. Wait, were they here for class? Arriving at the pulperia, we couldn’t believe our eyes: more than 30 kids were waiting for us, notebooks poised, screaming, yelling, being kids. Suddenly our plan to play hangman and read a book with a few kids needed to be changed dramatically.
Uh, red light green light! Simon says! Racking my brain for more children’s games, I decided to go for the perennial favorite “Head Shoulders Knees and Toes” which became an instant classic. Now whenever the kids see me in the village they yell “HEAD!!!” which ironically isn’t too far off from the awful days of middle school when people used to yell “FRO!!!” when I walked down the hall.
Thus began our daily recreation programs, flying by the seat of our pants, trying to entertain anywhere from ten to thirty kids with something mildly educational. We played games, we sang songs, we tried to get them writing and reading every day. I read Pinnochio at least three times a day to various groups of kids.
But even teaching the alphabet was an illustration of the challenges facing this community. On every illustrated chart of the alphabet, most of which are from Spain, there are difficulties. L usually stands for lavadora, or washing machine, something these kids have never seen in their lives. F is almost always for foca, or cute little seal. These kids have no idea what a seal is, and it’s difficult to try to explain when they don’t have any concept of the ocean or the fact that there are animals besides fish that live in the water. I had to give up when trying to explain the word “ola” or wave crashing on the beach, I just couldn’t figure out a way to get the concept across.
F is for foca – kids who don’t know what a seal is – for me, this is the symbol of the power of isolation. How do you even begin to combat that? There’s no TV, no internet, no electricity. Some of the kids have never even been to the city. The isolation is so complete they’re not even aware of the world out there that they’re missing.
In one of my first conversations with Jhonny, he was telling me about a family of volunteers that came with their two year old son (they didn’t end up staying – but man, that’s badass). “Can you believe it,” Jhonny said to me. “The kid didn’t speak Spanish!”
“Well, why would he speak Spanish if his parents speak English?” I asked him.
“I didn’t know that babies were born speaking any other language,” Jhonny said.
The world is so big and yet so limiting at the same time.