For all you tax payers out there, you might be interested to know just how a tiny, itty-bitty, almost non-existent portion of your hard earned cash is being spent in Nicaragua. We can’t speak for all the Gringos here, but here is what goes down on a day-to-day basis in León.
We wake up when our cell phone alarm rings at 6:30 am. One of us starts the coffee while the other waters the plants with water we store in 2-liter bottles, and picks up Pasa’s poop plastic-bag-over-the-hand style.
Let’s pretend it is a Wednesday, which means we don’t have class until 9:00 am, so we have a little time to read, tie-up the loose ends of our lesson plans, wash a few pairs of undies on the washboard and sweep and mop our dusty floors (it is an interesting fact that in Nicaragua no one walks bare foot, not even in their own home or shower. This is the case because houses are very open and not protected from the outside elements. Even though we mop 3 times a week, our house is also not fit for bare feet). Once the coffee is ready, we clean out two coffee mugs and kill the thousands of ants feasting on our seemingly clean countertop. Most mornings we drink our coffee in the back of the patio because the wall keeps it shaded until about 9:30ish, and our potted-plant garden is the best part of our house.
At 8:00, regardless of how many chores are left undone, showers must be taken. Get out, towel off, and what do you know, instantly sweaty again. By this point the thermometer inside the house reads 90+, so the right-leg-left-leg ritual of putting work pants on is a bit of a struggle. 8:40 and we are out the door with water bottles and rolled up flip-chart paper to teach at UNAN, which stands for Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Nicaragua, easy translation, University of Nicaragua. We walk about a third of a mile and catch the bus (an old American school bus) for 15 cents each. We both teach in the English department to students who will become English teachers. Adam teaches US History and Culture to third year students, and Lara teaches Techniques in the Teaching of English to fourth year students. We both finish at 11:00, and if we are lucky, our boss will drive us home for lunch. In Nicaragua, lunch is always eaten at home. Mostly, we have eggs, beans and toast or some variation of the food we eat in the US like pasta or tuna sandwiches. If we are lazy, we split a set lunch at the air-conditioned supermarket for about $1.50-$2 US.
Back at home, we finish whatever cleaning we didn’t do in the morning before Lara’s teacher friend, Sadia comes over to lesson plan, at which time Adam begins his 20 minute walk to a public high school called John F. Kennedy, or El Jon. By the time he gets to school, he has soaked through both his undershirt and work polo, but despite his disheveled appearance, begins co-teaching with his counterparts.
The public schools are painted blue and white, and consist of rows of cement block rooms with tin roofs and a central, flat, court-like outside area where students do what students do. Some schools have modest libraries and internet labs. Adam’s school is an elementary school in the morning and a high school in the afternoon. It is small, and there are one or two rooms for each grade, with about 40 students per room. Lara’s school is large, and each class has between 45-60 students. Students only go to school half day, either during the morning shift from 7-11:30 or in the afternoon from 1:00-5:30. Some public schools have a night and weekend shift for students who have to work all day. Many teachers work a morning shift at one school and the afternoon shift at another, which is a tough job because prep periods are not built into the daily schedule. Many teachers can only work one shift because home duties truly take a lot more time here. It is common for anyone who can afford it to hire domestic help. Prepackaged food is not affordable to the working class, and neither are washing machines, so everything is done by hand/from scratch. Many sectors in our city only have water from midnight until 5:00 am, so water gathering is a chore in itself. Just to give you an idea, a high school teacher earns from $150-$215 per month for one shift, an elementary teacher makes from $115-175 per month. A principle of a large high school (3,000 students) earns about $300. A full time domestic employee makes around $75 per month.
At 6:00 pm we meet at our Spanish class and take lessons from 6-8:00. Why do we take Spanish lessons you might be asking your self… well as you can see, not much Spanish is being spoken during our day.
This is a Wednesday, which tends to be more structured that say a Friday when we give a 3-hour teaching workshop twice a month to a group of about 35 English teachers from León and neighboring department, Chinandega. On Fridays we spend most of the day (with the exception of Adam’s 9-11:00 class) planning and making materials for the workshops. On the off chance that it rains heavily (like during the entire month of October for example), we abandon the day’s plan and frantically sweep water out of our home while the streets empty of people and animals and fill with rain and sewage. Where do the street dogs and horses go?
Recently, UNAN had a severe budget cut of 1 million cordobas. The English department was forced to lay off 34 adjunct English professors who taught all over campus in a program called English for a Specific Purpose. These teachers were responsible for teaching content specific English to the medical, law, business, tourism and science students. As a result of the layoffs, the department is using 4th and 5th year students like TAs to fill the positions. This has added an extra teacher-training component to Lara’s week, and she has postponed some of her duties at the high school to help with the increasing demands at UNAN.
Truly, our days are full. Even when we don’t have a lot scheduled, between meetings, planning with teachers, and the house work, we are always doing something. It is hard to explain why everything takes so much time here, but most of it has to do with limited resources and having to create a lot of what we do, eat and teach from scratch. Throw in a foreign language and a hot, sticky climate, and the days can get pretty exhausting (gone are the afternoons of swinging in our hammock... unless you are Pasa, who sleeps, poops and drinks water all day long). It has been a great learning experience, for example, to design workshops based on the assessed needs of teachers, but when the internet connection goes down in the entire city, and every printer within a mile radius is out of toner, it becomes a frantic game of back-up plans. Fortunately, people here are so forgiving and understanding that when trial and error leans more toward error than trial, we are still encouraged and supported by our Nicaraguan colleagues.
It’s not all work though, don’t think for one minute we don’t enjoy our 20km proximity to the Pacific Ocean, Nicaraguan hospitality or the occasional teachers’ karaoke night at the Malibu bar. At the least, when nothing else is going down, we spend the evening in our patio with a cold liter of Toña, a thick coating of deet mosquito spray and a cutthroat game of bananagrams.
This is all quite different than the Peace Corps experience we pictured (thatch houses and digging latrines), but we play the card’s we are dealt, and at the end of the day feel pretty good.