Although I went to Nicaragua in March 2014 and I completed my service in May 2016, the complete journey feels a bit longer than that. Just before Labor Day 2013 I was presented with a choice. I could stay with EY, move to a bank, or join the Peace Corps. I was doing well with EY and getting raises. I liked my job, although certain aspects of the work had prompted me to apply to the Peace Corps. The other option, the bank, would have meant a move to Chicago and a raise as well. I also had to consider that I had had a great summer in DC. Things were going well. Leaving EY or going to Nicaragua would be a huge change.
Needless to say, I chose Nicaragua. This “adventure” truly began on Labor Day, 2013. At that point, when I accepted the invitation to serve, I began preparing myself to go. I semi-moved out of DC and back in with my parents in NY. However, I still had work obligations in DC, plus a longstanding client in Chicago and a brand new project in Manhattan. I had medicals to get done, tons of other Peace Corps paperwork, and a best friend’s wedding and bachelor party.
The project in Manhattan, my last with EY, was extremely challenging. However, I managed to time things perfectly so that I left EY right as the project was ending. However, my life from Labor Day to December was very hectic. I was shuttling between DC, NY, and Chicago, among other destinations. I was living between my parents’ house, couches in DC, and hotels. I was working ceaselessly to manage a turbulent project. This was all while I was trying to see all of my friends and family to say goodbye before the end of the year.
By the end of December the project was wrapping up and I bid farewell to EY. That left me with two and a half months of free time before Nicaragua and a whole lot of airline miles. From late December through late February I went to Colorado, Florida, Ireland, the UK, Sweden, Mexico, and Australia. Then it was time for Nicaragua.
Yesterday, after all of those experiences, I felt like the journey was truly over. Labor Day, September 2, 2013 through June 8, 2016, the day I get back to NY. 1,011 days. Two years, nine months, and one week. I am certainly not the person to say that “I have changed so much!” or that it was a “life changing experience.” I definitively did not “grow” in any sense of the word. In many respects I think I am even more Eric than I was before. I am a more confident person and have refined skills and began to learn new ones. I also have new elements of patience. That was just part of adapting to the Nicaraguan culture, I suppose. That does not mean I became passive though. I was assertive – maybe I am even more assertive now, and it got me results in León.
Another lens through which I can evaluate my service and if it was worthwhile is to ask if I was successful or what impact I made. I did not go into Nicaragua thinking that I would change the country. I now see that true development will only be achieved through political changes. However, I did have some success, some in the traditional sense and some otherwise, which I will explain. I am very competitive. I hate losing. However, in my work in Nicaragua hard work, preparation, and practice were not a proven recipe for success. All Peace Corps Volunteers want to be successful and have a lasting positive impact on their host countries. However, there is a human element.
All of the work that I did was with counterparts or clients. Sometimes my hard work, preparation, and practice were not met equally by my work partners. Sometimes I was not successful in convincing them of my ideas. Sometimes we needed more time that we did not have. In one instance I put in a lot of effort trying to convince a baker to work with me on coming up with a business plan for the future of his successful business. In the end he decided not to work with me. I do not see that as a failure at all. I put in all of the effort that I could. I feel very similarly about the stagnation of my work with ETCA. In the case of the baker, it was up to my work partner to manifest success, and in this instance he did not do so. I do not blame him. He certainly had his reasons, and I am just as proud of this effort on my part as some of my more traditionally “successful” projects. Of course I am disappointed that things did not work out with these businesses, but then again not all businesses succeed, even in an extremely positive business environment.
Which of my projects were more successful in the traditional sense? I can highlight a few:
- Teacher trainings. I gave a series of teacher trainings with the same group of teachers over the two years. They have made a lot of progress in terms of understanding content, and when I visited their classrooms they were also doing a nice job teaching the classes.
- Telica Community Tourism Cooperative. This Cooperative has come a long way since I met them in December of 2014. Certainly they are a motivated group that would have made great strides on their own, but I do think that my support has helped them come up with a vision and helped them through the more difficult times that they have experienced over the last year and a half.
- Fish Processing Cooperative. When I met this Cooperative they were cast adrift without a paddle. They continue to struggle with revenue among a multitude of problems, but I worked hard with a local university to come up with a viable business plan for the Cooperative, and they continue to work on implementing the business plan even though I have departed.
- LGBTQ Safe Zone Trainings. I wanted to do these trainings, but I also wanted to do them with my site-mate so that she could continue them on and build on the foundations that we would set together. She is now networking with LGBTQ organizations all around Nicaragua in the hopes of starting some very innovative projects.
In addition to my “successes” I have new “perspectives,” mostly on poverty, culture, Latin America, my birth country and its position in the world, oppression, and development. Most importantly, I think I have a new perspective on failure as well, directly based on my experiences with success. My Spanish is also much better. I’m actually quite concerned that now that I am not speaking Spanish regularly my conversational ability is going to deteriorate. I am hoping to find regular speaking abilities sometime in the near future. I am thinner. I am a vegetarian, which I am very happy about. I feel younger than when I went to Nicaragua. I got sick, a lot. I have great new friends. The question remains, did I make the right decision between EY, the bank in Chicago, or Peace Corps Nicaragua? I could have developed substantially with EY or in Chicago as well. I addition, I would likely be in a better financial situation had I stayed in America working.
Those are of course hypotheticals and impossible to validate or explore. On reflection, I feel like I made the right decision. I love experiences of all kinds and the Peace Corps, all 1,011 days of the adventure, was an excellent experience. I’m not judging the experience based on the progress or lack thereof that I made with counterparts and clients. First of all, the effects of my service will hopefully be realized over many years. It is like a Scotch – better with time. Furthermore, like I said, you cannot measure success in the Peace Corps conventionally. I do know that I tried. I tried hard, even though at times I was unseasoned or made mistakes. I am proud of my effort. I am not an altruist either. I did not feel an obligation compelling me to join the Peace Corps. I was simply motivated by a desire to help, and in that I think I was successful.
There were many days in the Peace Corps that I wished I had stayed with EY. Peace Corps work was far more challenging. Consulting was fairly linear. There was a template or flowchart for everything. The human development aspect of Peace Corps made it far more challenging. There were multiple times I was meeting one-on-one with someone, we had hit a wall, and I just sat there and thought to myself, ‘Think Eric. You are an intelligent person. Think of a solution. Think of an alternative.’ I can’t recall that sort of challenging cognition with EY. Consulting was all about taking what worked somewhere else and making it work with a new client.
The Lion Sleeps
When I applied to the Peace Corps I did not expect to be put into a city like León. I figured that most Volunteers around the world were in small cities, towns, and villages. Even though León is the second largest city in Nicaragua (that makes it equivalent to Los Angeles in the United States) it is nothing like American big cities. There are no tall buildings. Horses still haul construction equipment around the city. There is no subway, light rail, or trolley line.
As time went on, the ex-pat culture of León really started to get to me. There were constantly foreigners streaming through the city. There are tons of foreign operated NGO’s. There are students coming from all over the world, as well as student groups that come down for a week or two. Some of these groups do things right, in my opinion. They use the trip as an opportunity to learn about a new culture. On the other hand, other groups wanted to come down and help in a very short amount of time, which I find troublesome. It is difficult to make a profound impact in a short amount of time, and this sort of short-term assistance can lead to dependency on the part of the beneficiaries. NGO’s were also always tripping over each other and fighting silly little turf wars because they often had narrow focusses on a few communities around the city and region. There is one community outside the city, Chacraseca, with four NGO’s working in it. For every community like Chacraseca that has multiple NGO’s assisting, I can think of five or six that get no assistance. Seeing this was disheartening and turned me off further to the number of foreigners that were always around the city.
Foreign tourists could also get on my nerves. I really hate hostel culture. It just breeds an inbred view of entire regions of the world. “Where are you coming from?” “Where are you going?” “What did you do?” Guide books and the shortsighted experiences of other travelers replace genuine experience. I often met travelers that are developing ideas and misconceptions about Nicaragua and Central America after having only been in a country for a day or two. I don’t want to play myself off as an expert, but a two-year experience is far more enriching and immersive than a few days, weeks, months, or even one year.
Nevertheless, León offered a lot. Due to its size, its university presence, and the tourists, there are lots of bars and restaurants. In addition, there are tons of activities, such as concerts, shows, and theatre performances. There were lots of young people to become friends with. It has history and culture and attractions all over the city. It is also hot, dirty, and noisy. But it is my hot, dirty, and noisy city, and I love it. I was out on Friday night and all I could think was, ‘I really wish I were back in León right now.’
Recommendations for Future Volunteers
Getting things done in the Peace Corps is all about knowing people. You need to know people to find good clients to work with. You need to know people in the Ministry of Education to promote your ideas. You need to know local leaders to support your ideas and projects. Volunteers need to network. Network-network-network. Spend the first few months of service focused on getting to know people. Walk around town and introduce yourself to new people. Make that phone call no matter how self-conscious you feel about your language skills (or lack thereof). Go on a 10-hour odyssey around the region with a woman you barely know simply for the purpose of getting to know her and other people better.
Many Volunteers in Nicaragua are sick of hearing me say, “No Camps, No Grants, No Committees.” Some of my friends have even facetiously started the Camps, Grants, and Committees Committee. Many Volunteers plan national camps for youth. They ask for applications from Volunteers all around the country and bring together 40 – 60 kids for a few days and nights of education and fun. I do not doubt that they are fun. I don’t doubt that they are worthwhile for the kids either (they usually only have to pay C$ 100 anyway, and the camps are held when there is no school). However, the planning and coordination effort is immense. Groups of Volunteers spend months meeting in Managua and planning every aspect and detail of the camps. Then they get the kids for a few days before they all disperse, back to their communities. One of the main aspects of Peace Corps that make it different from other development organizations is that we live in our communities. We make connections and relationships, people trust us, and we can follow-up for a period of two years with our counterparts and work partners. This is not possible with camps. Sure, one Volunteer may do one follow-up with some of the kids, but for the most part this critical element of our development work is lost when Volunteers plan a national camp. The return on investment is far too low for Peace Corps Volunteers to be planning national camps.
As for grants, I also do not feel that they are in the proper spirit of the Peace Corps. The mission of the Peace Corps is to provide trained workers to countries in need, and we work hand-in-hand with local counterparts, sharing and exchanging skills. Money perverts this relationship. Dependency is a serious issue in international development work. Communities expect donations and handouts rather than work for their own betterment. Although I just wrote about my positive experience with the cooperative at Telica, I actually highly regret applying for the grant. I should have told them that the community tourism project is their own initiative and that they are extremely capable of being successful without external funds. In fact, I wonder if all of the cash that they put into the restaurant would not have been better spent on marketing to attract more clients. Then they could have used their savings in a few years to build out their infrastructure. Furthermore, as I was on my way out the Cooperative asked me if I could continue funneling money and clients their way when I am back in the US. By shifting the focus away from marketing and toward external funding I may have actually hurt the Cooperative, not helped them.
Dependency on Telica Volcano reaches much further back than my short time working with the Cooperative. One NGO that I know has been working continuously in the communities for the last ten years, mainly on water access. Other NGO’s and international organizations also work with the communities on the volcanoes. Despite all of the work and efforts I am not sure how much better off the communities are. For instance, currently Nicaragua is in a prolonged drought. Water is hard to come by on the volcano because it is a volcano. There is no natural aquifer. This is why the NGO has been working so hard on water for the last 10 years. Nevertheless, with this drought the rain fed springs have dried up and there is a water emergency for the communities on the slopes of the volcano. Who is up there helping combat the emergency? The NGO. It just seems like a never-ending story to me. After 10 years and hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars of work we are right back where we started. However, the community members have become so used to working with the external help that all of their ideas require external assistance to be realized. It is a real shame. Sometimes I wonder if all of the money would have been better spent relocating the communities to more stable and productive farmland elsewhere in the country.
Not only do grants create a sense of dependency on behalf of our beneficiaries, it also creates dependency on behalf of Volunteers! Many Volunteers use grants for special trainings and workshops: training midwives, training teachers, environmental workshops, etc. These specially funded trainings reinforce a belief among Volunteers that they cannot train people without funds. They think they need money to reimburse attendees for transportation and lunch, plus they want money for materials. They say that otherwise the teachers will not come. This is simply not the case. I held a monthly teacher training for two straight years. Some of the teachers lived across the street from the school where I held them. They of course came. Others lived out in the countryside miles away. They came too, some even on bicycles. I offered nothing more than a small chocolate for arriving on time and/or staying until the end of the session. If I had to make copies or occasionally buy materials I used my own money, which was more than sufficient.
I firmly believe that if a Volunteer starts small and focuses on the content of their trainings then attendees will come and value the workshops. In addition, when you take money out of the picture it becomes easier for a one time training to turn into a series of trainings, and the Volunteer will have more of an incentive to follow-up with the participants and work with them wherever they come from. I believe that this type of activity is far more beneficial than one-off activities.
“If you build it, they will come.”
Lastly, there are the Peace Corps committees that Volunteers join. First of all, a lot of their work is primarily working on camps and grants. Furthermore, committee membership is based on applications that the committees themselves then evaluate. I don’t like this because it insulates the committee from new ideas. If you write what a committee wants to hear on the application you will likely be accepted, and then the committee does not do anything new or inject any new ideas into their development work. This isn’t 100% true of all of the Volunteer committees in Peace Corps Nicaragua, but I really did not like the way that the committee system operated and I was much happier just working on my own projects in León and focusing less on national stuff.
There are a few projects that I wish I had done during service, or I would have tried to get done if I had stayed in León longer:
To no one’s surprise I love the idea of value-added production. To easily process some food you can use a food dehydrator. I have the instructions for some easy to make solar dryers in English and Spanish, and I would have loved to have made one and used it with some motivated students to see what kind of great stuff they could dehydrate and possible sell for a profit (I personally like the idea of chocolate covered dried mangoes).
From working with so many businesses I have observed that one of the main deficiencies of new businesses is in marketing. Owners do not know how to do marketing properly, or they barely do it at all. In addition, they do not use computers much and they do not know how to use computers to promote their businesses. I would have loved to partner with the local government or a university to offer a free marketing course. It would go over markets, market studies, digital marketing, and designing promotional materials.
The participants would learn how to use computers effectively to create printable materials. It may have to have a tourism focus to start, but I could do it for other types of businesses as well. Ideally, I would find a co-facilitator that does some of the graphic design instruction, and additional instructors would be participants in the course the first time around so that they could replicate it in the future. Lastly, to be effective I would have to schedule at least two visits with all of the participants to do private consultations and help them with their new skills. I’m delving deep into the details of how this would work, but bottom line I think it could have been a very successful project that is rooted in the needs of León.
Local Food Emporium
For local processed food producers it is very difficult to make sales. Selling through the supermarkets is an expressive undertaking. On the other hand, selling in a standalone store is also unfeasible. Many producers only have one product, and rent is expensive for prime real estate in León. Seeing these challenges, I got the idea of opening a local food emporium. Producers would band together, rent a space in a good location (maybe near La Colonia?), and all sell their value-added products from that one store. It’s not exactly a project for a Peace Corps Volunteer, but if the City of León or an NGO wanted to start the emporium then a Volunteer could help producers meet requirements and manage finances and inventories in the first months of the producers’ participation in the emporium.
Lastly, although the journey has only ended today, I have been in the States for more than two weeks and the need to readjust is real.
The first thing about America that smacks me in the face is the cell phones. Everyone is using them. Everywhere. Always. People are looking down as they cross the street. I see tons of people use them while driving. People use them on public transit, or any moment in which they are waiting. I went to a club with a friend and everyone who was alone without a friend in sight was on their cell phones. I even saw two people dancing and both of them were using their cell phones. The woman sitting next to me on the train right now – watching Downtown Abbey on her tablet and playing a game on her phone.
I feel like I am in a movie or TV show where they transport a character to an alternate reality, and no one can see me or hear the character. Ironically, I am the one that exists in the real universe. It is everyone else who does not exist anymore.
Here are some other things that I have noticed:
- A lady in Florida flipped out at me (through her car window) for accidentally blocking a handicap parking spot for about 15 seconds. It was my first #FirstWorldProblems moment.
- Why do we set up communities in America for driving, not for pedestrians?
- Everywhere is completely over air-conditioned
- On the same note, when I went out dancing I didn’t get home and have to hang my shirt up to dry
- It’s not that White people can’t dance, it’s just that the music we dance to is awful
- When I left DC Uber was more expensive than a cab, now it is cheaper
- Uber Pool is not all that innovative
- $13 for a wedge salad! 1) That is overpriced, and 2) even if it were half of that we would need to think of a better way to responsibly feed ourselves, because if it costs $7 to get lettuce to a plate we have got to be doing something wrong, for ourselves and to the planet, along the way.
- When I wake up and the bedroom is a little chilly and I am under a blanket and I can’t see the blue of the sky out the window it reminds me of snow days in New York
- I got a mosquito bite and I was not mortally terrified
- Young guys in suits during the summer look silly; old men in suits look sad
- No one is ever around, especially on weekends. My friends are constantly on the move.
- I can’t help but calling Metro Center in DC Metro Centro