Cedro Galán Homestay Experience

Late Tuesday night, after teaching my English Level 1 class, I packed my things and set out in our microbus to Chepita’s house, nestled near the top of one of the hills in the semi-rural community of Cedro Galán. When I showed up through the driving rain, typical of the Nicaraguan rainy season, I was welcomed by the whole family. Mamita Chepita, Lisseth, Omar, Genesis and Diego were all standing by the entrance of their property, ready for the homestay week to begin. The six days I spent living with Mamita Chepita were my most enjoyable days thus far in Nicaragua.

From the moment I arrived, I could tell the week would be a blast. Within 15 minutes of being there, Diego had already planned our weekly activities and I had already gotten another taste of Chepita’s fantastic cuisine. Although there are so many different activities and intricacies of the week that I could write about, the two that I will focus on are the relationships I made with Diego and Genesis and the homemade Nicaraguan cuisine.

Familia. Diego, the 10 year-old grandson of Chepita and the son of Lisseth and Omar, was the person I spent the most amount of my time with. Throughout the week, we played X-Box and Wii, football and baseball, watched movies, played monopoly and hangman. We did it all. The video games were unexpected. I did not have a great idea of what to expect for the week, but I certainly didn’t anticipate playing "Need For Speed" and Wii Sports every night. Looking back on it, I realize how incredible this relatively simple experience was. We were sitting on the couch, playing a video game in English, having a conversation in Spanish about school and sports. In many ways, that reminded me of my relationship with my brother and reinforced how close I became to Diego in a relatively short period of time.

Genesis, Diego’s older sister, was slightly more reserved at the beginning of the week. However, by the end of the week, she opened up significantly and I was able to connect with her much more. Every weeknight, she would watch her favorite TV show, La Sultana, at 8:00 PM. Even though this was her TV show, the whole family would gather around the television set to watch with her. I really enjoyed that. Many times in the United States, I would watch TV shows alone and when other members of my family would watch a TV show, the rest of us would all disperse and do our own things. There was something really fun and unique about the whole family being invested in a TV show together, where they would discuss all the details during every commercial break.

My relationship with the two children was punctuated on the weekend with a series of fun activities. One of my favorite moments was teaching all of the children in the surrounding houses, including Diego and Genesis (and their cousins), how to play American football. My other favorite activity occurred Saturday morning, when I was taught how to do a balloon-twisting activity. The two kinds of balloon objects we twisted were roses and monkeys, although mine looked more like grass and a donkey.

 
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Comida. Mamita Chepita and Lisseth, her daughter, are incredible cooks. Not only was every meal rich in flavor, each was so unique and different from the others. By far my favorite Nicaraguan food that I tried throughout the week was the dessert we had on our last night. The dessert is called Buñuelos and it is fried cheese served with honey. Although it might sound unappetizing, it was incredible and I look forward to the next time I visit their house (they already promised me they would make it again during my next visit). 

The reality of many homestay scenarios is that they are unpredictable and can sometimes feel forced. Although I can truly say it was an unpredictable experience, it never felt forced, nor did I ever feel uncomfortable around them. They genuinely embraced the opportunity to welcome another person into their family and show them the hospitable and loving attitude that Nicaraguans are all about. For this, I am truly grateful and appreciative of the homestay experience that they provided me. Not only did I have a family for those six days in September, I formed a relationship that will last the rest of my time here, and hopefully, beyond.

Group Trip to Leon!

In honor of the Battle of San Jacinto and Independence Day, we had September 14th and 15th off for a long weekend. We seized this opportunity to take our first multi-day trip independent of Manna Project. Holidays like these give us a chance to visit places and do activities that we otherwise would not have time to do in the normal span of a weekend. Thus, we decided to visit Leon and stay 3 nights at the Surfing Turtle Lodge, which is located on a stretch of empty beach in Isla Los Brasiles. Surfing Turtle Lodge was highly recommended to us by the previous group of Program Directors and is “One of the coolest spots in all of Central America” according to Lonely Planet. We were all excited to check the place out and see if it lived up to its name!

Day 1: We took a micro bus to Leon and spent some time walking around the beautiful colonial city. Among some of the historical sites we saw was the famous Lady of Our Grace Cathedral. Unfortunately, the roof access was closed that day due to construction so we were unable to go to the top, but we still enjoyed walking around the rest of the cathedral. After getting our fill of sights in Leon, we took a taxi to a beach area where we got a boat to the Surfing Turtle island. Upon our arrival at the hostel, we settled into our dorm room and relaxed on the beach for the rest of the day. It was so beautiful! 

 
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Day 2: We swam in the Pacific Ocean, walked on the beach, relaxed more, and played volleyball with the hostel staff and other guests. At night, I went on a hostel-organized walk with the site’s marine biologist to learn about the sea turtles that frequent the beach and see if we could spot any. I, unfortunately, did not see any sea turtles. However, after walking a short distance away from the hostel lights, I did see the multitude of stars sparkling in the night sky. Though I was not able to see turtles, seeing the spiral arms of the Milky Way and the stars with such clarity was just as memorable and awe-inspiring.

 
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Day 3: We headed back to Leon for volcano boarding at Cerro Negro! Cerro Negro is about a one hour drive from Leon. It is the only place in the world where you can slide down an active volcano! We began to feel a bit intimidated when we saw how steep the volcano was, but our resolve remained strong. We had to do this at least once while we’re in Nicaragua, right? The hike up the volcano was the hardest part for me. Heat radiated from the volcano as I trekked up with my gear digging into my sunburnt shoulders from the previous day on the beach. In the end, it was well worth it. We all slid down the volcano successfully with no injuries (though I can’t say that none of us fell off of our boards).

That night (our last night at the lodge), there were turtle hatchlings, and we watched baby turtles go out to sea! I would have felt unfulfilled if I wasn’t able to see the hatchlings. I am happy and thankful that I was lucky enough to have that chance.

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Day 4: We packed up at Surfing Turtle, took one last look around Leon, and headed back to the Manna House. 

All in all, Surfing Turtle did not fail to impress. It was a trip of many firsts for me. It was the first independent trip we took as a group in which we stayed somewhere overnight. It was the first time I needed to take a boat just to get to my lodging. It was the first time I went sliding down an active volcano, and the first time I saw baby sea turtles crawl out into the ocean. While my phone’s camera could not capture everything my eyes could see, my memories of this trip are still in my mind’s eye. The feeling of wonder from our travels is still with me. I can’t wait until our next adventure!

Learning to Teach

Being a Program Director comes with many new experiences and many opportunities for acquiring new skills.  The one that has challenged me the most is teaching English in Farito, our community center in Cedro Galan.  I don’t come from a strong teaching background; all I had was a semester of being a TA in college to go off of.  I teach English Levels 1 and 2, which are some of the bigger classes we have in our community center, El Farito. Level 1 ranges from 80 students to 120 students and Level 2 is usually around 60 students. This was one of the first challenges that presented itself: commanding such an eager, but large group of people and teaching all of them as effectively as possible. I could use the curriculum and stock of resources from past years to figure out the grammar portion of teaching, but making it engaging for everyone was something I had no idea how to tackle.

 
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However challenging it may be on a given day to command the attention of students, it comes with just as many rewarding surprises. It wasn’t until we played Jeopardy in class that the students were unable to contain their desire to participate. Adults coming after a long day of work alongside kids just out of school jumping out of their chairs to share the right answer. That day will always serve as my reminder that without interest in the subject, commanding the respect of so many people is significantly harder. While there will always be the inevitability of structured grammar lessons, throwing in some activities and games makes fun for everyone.   Walking down Farito road after class, one of my students even took the time to tell me how much she enjoyed days like that because everyone left class with a smile on their faces.  I know I can’t be friends with all of my students, but if I can make their experience learning English even slightly more positive, I’ve achieved my goal as a newly minted teacher.

August 2017 Despedida/Bienvenida

At the beginning of August, we held our bi-annual Despedida/Bienvenida (farewell/welcome party) at Farito, located in Cedro Galan. This event gives community members a chance to celebrate the past year with the veteran Program Directors (PDs) and to welcome the new ones. It officially marks the transition of program leadership by outgoing PDs incoming PDs.

The Despedida began with speeches from the veteran PDs. One of these speeches that particularly resonated with me is below, by Rachel Zolotarsky:

A year ago, I stood at the back of Farito listening to Program Directors saying their goodbyes. I stood at the back because I did not know anyone. I did not know my coworkers, and I did not know any of you. What I did not realize was that in this year of time, I would start as “the gringa” become “profe” get called “flaquita” and eventually be referred to as “family.” Originally, I came to work with Manna Project because I loved Nicaragua, but now I know that, while I may love Nicaragua, it’s all of you that hold a piece of my heart . Because you all are my family. I leave having learned so many things from you all, like how to cook gallo pinto, when I should say “maje” or “no me jodas”, and how to be unconditionally welcoming. I only hope that I can love other people as much as you, as individuals and as a community, have loved me. We might be standing up here at the end of a year, but know that this is not my goodbye, it is simply a see you later.
 
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After speeches, us new PDs introduced ourselves and shared what we are most excited about for the coming year in Nicaragua. Introductions were followed by a picture slideshow of the work MPI has done in the community and the fond memories that were made throughout the past year. During the slideshow, us new PDs were helping out behind the scenes, slicing cake and pouring cups of soda for all the party guests. 

The Despedida was a fun-filled evening with some tearful moments and many hugs, laughs, and smiles. Looking back, Rachel’s speech strongly resonated with me as a new PD at the Despedida. I also did not know my fellow PDs well and barely knew any of the community members. I hope to be in Rachel’s shoes by that time next year, building strong relationships in the new home that I will have come to love!

 
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2017 Cedro 5K!

This year’s 5K for the Cedro Galán Clinic took place here in Nicaragua this past Saturday, March 18th. As a Program Director, this is an event I have heard about since beginning my work with Manna in July. From fundraising and crazy Program Director challenges, to training our women’s exercise team leaders and watching local community members pass the finish line the day of, the 5K is one of Manna’s most exciting and engaging events! 2017 marked the fourth year for our 5K, and was our most successful one to date.

The day began with an early start – registration for the event opened at 7:00 am at a local sports and recreation center. Race participants lined up the morning of to get their names checked off and receive their Manna 5K bandanas! Race participants included English students, local volunteers for our programs, Lacrosse the Nations’ players, health students, health promotors, and more! It was amazing to not only see participants from all our programs race, but also to see them bring new friends to support the cause!

This year we had 168 participants finish the race alongside family and friends. The overall winner for the day had an impressive time of 18:09. He was followed by our female winner of age 12. After all participants passed the finish line, they were greeted by music, games, photo booths, and food! It was a fun-filled afternoon where community members and staff of Manna got to spend time together in support of a common cause. Through their participation in the 5K, people living in Cedro Galán were able to directly serve their communities and their access to affordable health care.

A highlight of the day was partnering with local businesses who sponsored the event. This was the first year for many businesses in the surrounding area to show their support for Manna’s clinic. Whether it was through monetary donation or gifts and prizes for our winners, our local engagement was higher than it has ever been!

As our fourth annual 5K, we had high expectations for the event. Each year, the 5K has been an amazing way of supporting our clinic – bringing international communities together to practice, learn about, and celebrate health. Last year the race brought in $7.5K for the Cedro Galán Clinic. This year, thanks to the generous support of our sponsors, Program Directors, and Manna followers, we raised $10,362!! With all the incredible donations, we raised above and beyond our dream goal. This is the result of the passion and support of all our donors, staff members, and race participants. The success of this year’s event speaks to the growth of our clinic, both in its capacity to provide care and its potential to grow in the future. This year’s 5K was a success in every aspect, and we are so excited to see the progression of the event in years to come.

Participants gather after passing finish line on Saturday in Cedro Galán, Nicaragua

Participants gather after passing finish line on Saturday in Cedro Galán, Nicaragua