Journey2Ocotal

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Hot off the Press

We haven't written much about our parent's visit to Nicaragua, since we were so busy traveling in the weeks following it. Anyhow, it was an amazing visit and we had a week filled with adventures. We went horseback riding, kayaking, climbed Volcan Mombacho, ate lots of great local food, and spent time with our host family and other Nicaraguan friends. Oh, yeah, and our dance instructor, Natan, gave a special merengue lesson for them, which was definitely one of my highlights! Impressively, they picked it up pretty quickly!

Anyhow, the visit along with current immigration policy debates inspired my Dad to write an op ed that was published in last Sunday's Pittsburgh paper. Check it out at:
http://www.pittsburghpost-gazette.com/pg/06148/693544-109.stm

Megan

Monday, May 29, 2006

La Esperanza

So, we´ve been back studying at our school, Pop Wuj, in Xela for a week. Last week was a rough one for me--more illness. The good news is that after being mildly to moderately sick for well over half of our time in Latin America, I´m learning to enjoy life despite some physical pain and discomfort. However, I admit that I am eagerly awaiting being back in the US where I can have clean water and other health-promoting comforts.

The big news is that we have found a United Methodist Church just outside of Xela. We love the church and actually moved in with the pastor and his family yesterday. They already feel like family to us! The are very warm and loving! Also, they are acutally generous with food--which has been a slight issue with other families we´ve stayed with before. Not only that, but they keep sincerely insisting that if we don´t like any foods, just tell them. Whew! We like most of the food here, but when we don´t, it has put us in some very awkward situations.

One of the most comforting characteristics of the church here is that they are very socially conscience and willing to engage in dialogue about differing opinions. Guatemala, as most other Latin American countries, has been primarily Catholic since Spain colonized it. However, there has been an insurgence of ¨Evangelical¨ churches in the past few years. Here, this catagory is considered to include pretty much all the churches that aren´t Catholic, be they protestant, pentecostal, idependent, etc. The members of these churches that I´ve met have been very caring people, however their churches tend to focus primarily on matters of salvation and have rather narrowly defined doctrines. However, in our Iglesia Evangelica Nacional Methodista, yesterday´s adult sunday school topic was caring for the environment. Also, we joined their youth gathering where they discussed relationships, and it was soothing to hear differences of opinion expressed freely.

Aside from the pastor and his wonderful wife, our new family includes their 5 vibrant teenage and young adult children, as well as several street children whom they have taken into their home. There´s a whole lotta love and laughter in this house! We excited about what living in our new town, La Esperanza (translation: Hope)¨, will bring.

Hope you all are well!
Paz, megan

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Sunrise from a Mayan Temple

Buenas Tardes,
We just got back from an incredible week of traveling with Kari, Toya, Yasmine, and her cool cousin Nana-Yaw. I could probably write a tome about the week and our adventures (and misadventures--Yasmine´s wallet and passport were stolen on the bus to Tikal), but for brevity´s sake, I´m going to focus on our time at Tikal, an ancient Mayan city in the north of Guatemala.

We arrived late last Tuesday afternoon and proceeded to hike into the park to catch the sunset fron a temple called ´the lost world´. When we arrived at the temple it began to sprinkle. There was also an annoying guard (with a gun) on top of the aforementioned temple who told us that the park was closed for the day and that we would have to leave. After begging him to stay for awhile, we politely disregarded his request and climbed the next closest temple.

When we reached the top, a brilliant rainbow appeared on the horizon directly over the lost world temple. It was breathtaking and stretched across the entire horizon! We stared in awe for 15-20 minutes until another guard (also armed, but a tad friendlier) came and repeated the request to leave the park. We took this as our cue and left. The rainbow had been an incredible blessing, especially in light of us not being able to watch the actual sunset.

The next morning, we awoke at 4am and walked to the tallest temple (about 200 feet) to watch the sunrise. It was probably one of the two best sunrises I´ve ever seen! When we reached the top of the temple, it was about 5am and still dark (and chilly). We couldn´t see much of anything, but after about 20 minutes, we began to hear the jungle wake up below us. At first birds started chirping and squawking and then howler monkeys began barking to each other across the park. It was wild being able to overhear this daily ritual.

After some time, the jungle grew quite again. It began to lighten some and we became aware that there were 4 other temples protruding from the vast jungle below. Pink poked through the horizon, but there were also many clouds. It grew lighter still and I began to realize that we were not going to see much of the sun that day. Then, below a patch of clouds, the sun emerged. It was bright orange and seemed to burst forth with incredible power, taking the collective breath from us and replacing it with awe!

Around 7am that morning, Megs, Nana-Yaw, and I walked to a remote part of the park. On the way, we saw approximately 25 monkeys--including both species found in Tikal: howler and spider. One of the most memorable sites was watching a mother monkey place it´s baby on it´s back and swing through a particularly treacherous patch of trees. During our time in the park, we also saw a great variety of colorful birds including: toucans, parrots, and red-headed woodpeckers.

Later that day, we went on a guided tour of Tikal that was super informative. From walking around on our own, it was evident that the Mayans were incredibly advanced. The tour, however, filled in a great number of blanks and demostrated just how important the Mayans are to history. To be brief, some of their contributions include an intricate system of canals and cisterns for storing and transporting water for a city that once had a population greater than 100,000. Beautiful and complex architecture including temples, residential areas, and administrative buildings (that have lasted for between 1300-2000 years). And an intricate system of mathematics and astronomy that shaped their spititual practices.

As I mentioned, I could go on for awhile about this experience. If you want to learn more, please feel free to e-mail us, or check out the following website which also has some great photos: http://www.tikalpark.com/.

Enjoy,
Paz,
Brit

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Adios Nicaragua, Hola Guatemala

Hola,
I can´t believe it´s been nearly a month since we last wrote. Sorry.....no one is probably even checking this anymore it´s been so long! If you are, we promise to start writing more frequently again.

Anyway, we arrived here in Xela (pronounced Shay-la), Guatemala last Friday evening. Xela is the second largest city in Guatemala (pop: somewhere around 150,000 people) and is located in the western half of the country in the highlands. We actually left Nicaragua last Wednesday, taking a chartered bus from Choluteca, Honduras through El Salvador (spent the night in San Salvador), before arriving in Guatemala City Friday around noon. You can check out the trip route by visiting this website: http://www.ticabus.com/mapa.php.

It was quite interesting to see the differences between the different Latin American countries as we passed through. Probably the most obvious difference was in each country´s infrastructure. For example, both El Salvador and Guatemala´s major highways are far more advanced than Nicaragua´s and even Honduras´. There is still a great deal of poverty, but these countries seem more developed in that sense.

The other glaring difference was the amount of green we saw while traveling northward. There are literally farms everywhere here. On the sides of hills, in between houses, even in fairly populated areas. It´s honestly been very refreshing to see such life and vibrancy again in our environment. As we have mentioned, Nicaragua was in the midst of its dry season while we were there, so the contrast--though probably more than normal--has been refreshing.

Tne ironic part of our trip is, although we left Nicaragua, it just didn´t want to leave us. Our last day there, we went swimming in a canyon. It was a beautiful, isolated place, but we now believe that it also wasn´t very clean. Just two days later, Megs got sick with a parasite and I developed an infection on Monday due to a parasite. Gracias a Dios, we´re both better now and it´s certainly nice to know that Nicaragua liked us so much. I just wish she´d found a gentler way to express her fondness.

Anyway, we´ll write more about Xela soon. We just started classes Monday and we´re still settling in.

Hasta Luego,
Paz,
Brit

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Immigration Insights

Feliz Pascua, or Happy Easter!

For us, one of the most enlightening parts of our Nicaraguan experience has been gaining a deeper understanding of the desire emigrate to the states. From seeing various news clips, we understand that immigration policy has become a key issue in the states (millions marching!), so it´s probably a good time to share our new perspective. We´d love to hear your reactions to this entry.

A Life and Death Issue
A common conversation topic here is people´s desire to travel to America to work. It seems that the majority of people we know here have expressed a desire to travel to the US for work—not necessarily permanently, but at least for a few years. A close friend of our host mother recently quit her job and paid a $3,000 fee to be successfully transported to the US. Last week, she called Karelia from Mexico to tell her that she had been caught and that her transport had made off with the money!

We also know of at least two people who were deported after living illegally in the US. Additionally, we know of several families of whom the father or father is currently working illegally in the US. One of these men entered through Mexico and went for nearly a week without eating. To be very clear, we never realized the degree to which people here view immigration as a life or death issue.

Standard of Living
To give you a deeper understanding of why people are willing to risk so much to get to the States, let us give you an idea of the financial situation here. Approximately 85% of Nicaraguans live off of less than a dollar per day. School teachers here make anywhere from $30-60 US dollars per month and other full time jobs and store workers earn around that level too. A professor makes about $100 a month. The hospital doctors here make around $200 a month--which is why they´ve been on strike for the past three months. (The only people working at the hospital are nurses and doctors who take only urgent emergencies).

So, you can begin to understand why working for a minimum wage in the States would be so tempting. In one day, a person could earn what the average Nicaraguan earns in a month! In just a few months, you can make enough money for your family at home to live far more comfortably and enjoy greater opportunity for financial/personal success. Many people therefore view emigrating as a necessary sacrifice for supporting their family.

However, US visas are nearly impossible to obtain. It´s rumored that over 100 Nicaraguans go to the US embassy in Managua to apply for a visa every day . On average, only 2 or 3 are approved. Approved or not, you have to pay a $112 application fee! Our question is, what does the embassy do with all this money? That´s approximately 4 million dollars a year! The cost is obviously supposed to act as a deterrent for applications, but when you consider that people here view immigration as a survival issue, it´s not surprising that so many still apply. Apparently it is just a little easier to get a temporary work visa for Spain.

Solutions?
Obviously, the best thing would be if Nicaraguans could receive more reasonable wages in their home country. Therefore, the US could help fund the sustainable development of Latin America—to use our dollars and expertise to help improve the infrastructure here so as to better equalize the standards of living between the US and LA. We´ve now been to several locations around the country and everywhere we go, we see signs explaining how Japan and the European Union are collaborating with local governments to build roads, reforest, improve water systems, ect. The US is notably, and for us, embarrassingly absent. It´s true, there are over one hundred peace corps volunteers here, but we could be doing so much more. Japan and the EU don´t even share the same continent as LA and they still see the value of supporting the development here.

This further highlights the irony of the money the US embassy earns from visa applications every year. If we poured half that money (2 million) into Nicaragua, it would be a good start. Besides, after how the US-backed Contras bombed their towns and killed many thousands of Nicaraguans in the 1980s, we owe them.

Besides the financial situation, it makes us reallize what a privilege an American passport is. We can travel just about anywhere in the world if and not worry about getting a visa. Here, they can travel to bordering countries, but if they want to go to a more developed country, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible. Speaking of traveling to other countries, our Journey to Ocotal is about to come to an end. After a week of traveling with our parents, we are headed to Guatemala on May first to continue our studies and experience another part of Latin America. Our new address will be:

Centro Pop Wuj
Primera Calle, 17-72, Zona 1
Quetzaltenango, Guatemala

Daly Pues,
Brit and Megan

Friday, March 31, 2006

We are the Champions!

Last night was definitely a night to remember! The final game of the series lived up to the usual hype of all deciding games and, when it was finished, we found ourselves the champions of the Ocotal Adult Bball League.

I´ll spare you some of the details and say that the first half was not our best effort. The Spookers had clearly strategized after their overtime loss and came with a solid gameplan for victory. They outrebounded and outplayed us, leaving us behind 60-50 at halftime. As I mentioned previously, because they are so experienced, the Spookers are a very tough team to beat from behind.

We started the second half more aggressively, but it didn´t pay off at all with the score. Halfway through the quarter, we were actually down 16 points. Our defense was shabby and they were beating us down the court for easy baskets. We called time out and decided to start forcing the ball underneath to me to try and take advantage of our size advantage. We also switched defenses from zone to man-to-man.

Both strategies proved fruitful and we cut their lead back to 10, 84-74 by the end of the quarter. We remained hopeful, but knew that we had a huge gap to close and not much time to do it in. That said, let me pause and say that the fourth quarter was one of the most magical I have ever played!

As I recollect, it seemed like every whistle, every ball, every shot went our way. For example, I think I collected at least 15 rebounds just in the final quarter, many of them offensive, which led to easy put-backs. The crowd was also overwhelmingly on our side (rooting for the underdog) and roared with every basket we scored. And our defense was superior.

We pulled even midway through the quarter and it was neck and neck the rest of the way. They were in foul trouble, and we ended up sealing the victory from the free throw line. The final score was 106-101. We were estatic and met at midcourt to celebrate. We´d swept in and stolen the game in the last possible moment!

Afterwards, we gathered at the captain´s house (his family owns a fritanga, or restaurant) for a celebratory meal and rum. It was a blast and we didn´t return home until 1am! The perfect end to a March filled with basketball madness.

Hope you enjoyed it as much as we did, we´ll get back to regular reflections on Nicaragua next week.

Ciao,
Brit

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Quick Updates

Two pieces of very exciting news!

1) First, the most important news--we just learned that Megs received a full scholarship to study at Erickson! Thank God! We are now even more excited about Chicago being our next stop!

2) As promised, a basketball update. Last night was a big game. We lost game 2 on Thursday evening and then while I was gone for a weekend trip to Leon, we lost again, putting us in a 2-1 hole. So last night was do or die. Somehow, we ended up winning 111-106 in overtime! A crazy and very intense game. That leaves tomorrow night as the deciding game. We´ll have to see how it all plays out.

Hasta Luego,
Paz,
Brit