Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Nicaragua: where is the Before part?

The ¨Before¨ portion of the following two posts is found in the July archive, and is titled, ¨The path from Chacocente to the highway¨

-And, here's a link.

-helpful editor david

Nicaragua: the view from the edge of the Project (another After of a Before/After set)

Back in February or so, I biked to the edge of the Project, stopped, and took photographs in panoramic fashion. The countryside has changed so dramatically since the rains came (and the corn was planted and grew), that I have taken approximately the same shots again today to share with you the contrast.

The old path out is now a corn field, along the edge of a fence. That´s Diane standing on the other side of the barbed wire, because behind her is the new, non-corn-field exit. Diane is a volunteer teaching English in the school, and exercise classes after school.

Nicaragua: the path to Chacocente in winter (now)

Nicaraguan winters are defined as the rainy season between May and October. All the dust from the summer turns into mud of various textures, some of it the kind that most ideally cakes onto bike tires. Let´s just say that I took my fenders off because the mud caked so much between tire and fender that the wheel would not turn. That´s right, it was completely braked by mud. In which cases a woman pushes her braked bike through the mud, a more aerobic workout than normal bike riding, although not the ideal prelude to a day teaching school. It´s very humid.

And completely beautiful. I tried to take the same shots I did in the summer so that you can see the contrast. I just love the way the countryside looks right now. Not pictured are little yellow, white, and orange butterflies. It´s absolutely beautiful here.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Harry Potter+Bill Clinton=awesomeness

I know I haven’t updated in a while and I think it is because I depend on these simplistic yet deep experiences to inspire my writing. I can’t just write about the amazing Mission Trip I took this summer, or my summer job, or the nervousness/excitement for my new teaching job…I have to find something deeper, something interesting, something…story-like and maybe even preachy.

With friends abroad and in seminary, I often feel like I have to be amazingly thoughtful or witty in order to hold some interest. Well, working at a theater and building a deck isn’t that thoughtful or interesting. But I’m going to talk about it anyway. Welcome to a blog entry I like to call “The First Summer Megan Is Not Anticipating Returning to Oberlin.”

I would have to say that my summer started back in April. Though I was far from finishing my semester of hell in the Kansas City Missouri School District, I had orientation for my summer job working at a theater. I work in ticket-sales with many other teachers, school nurses, and other seasonal employees. It’s a very positive environment and I have had very few “bad” days. It’s also very flexible which has been good for all of my summer activities.

In early May, I was hired for an opera pit orchestra. Gilbert & Sullivan’s production of “The Mikado” was sung by opera singers but acted with life-size puppets. It was an amazingly fun experience and really put my playing to the test. Though the music wasn’t too difficult, I had never been hired to play in an orchestra and I felt the pressure of needing to play to perfection to really “earn” my money. The best result of this experience is that I am now a part of that orchestra and should get hired several times a year to play.

June 12, I served my last day as Music Teacher of K-8 at Trailwoods Elementary. I know I will miss the children, but I left on good terms and I am really glad that I did. I appreciate my cooperating teacher’s advice when I was student teaching in Ohio: Never stay where you are unhappy. Get out as soon as you can, because otherwise it’s not fair to the children.

After June 12 I went back to having one job. I realized that since I started college, I’ve always had more than one thing going at once…school + job, school + job + job, job + job…never had I really spent time just doing one thing. And I entered into a state of mind that was foreign to me: boredom. Not that I didn’t still have tons to do to prepare for the Mission Trip and help with my family, but I wasn’t running from place to place nor was I anticipating returning to Oberlin to be a busy college student. I don’t know if this is how summer is supposed to feel, but I feel healthier and more frustrated. I’m well-rested, well-fed, and there are days, horribly dull days, when I don’t even have a set schedule. I watch Primetime in the Daytime on TNT and ::gasp:: read for fun.

On June 30 I left with 11 other members of my church to do a Mission Trip in Cosby, Tennessee. It’s a Presbyterian run mission really addressing issues of economic justice and poverty. The project we chose was the help a woman with a degenerative disease build a wheelchair ramp on her deck and paint her house. When we arrived, the project became bigger as we chose to build her a brand new deck and bleach her house because it wasn’t of a material that could be painted. It was some of the hardest work I’ve ever done in most uncomfortable circumstances. I am not used to being in 100 degree heat around bugs and trees…heck, I’m not used to being outside much at all. However, it ended up being an incredible experience, both difficult and enjoyable. The finished product is something I am very proud of…not really because I helped build the deck, but more because I’ve been planning this trip since last June and considered this a big accomplishment. This was the first Mission Trip my church had taken in several years and now we are on a quest to make it an annual event.

I wasn’t home for long before I was immersed into the fabulous world of Harry Potter. My parents, brother, two church friends and I saw the movie in 3D at the IMAX theater which was so worth the extra money and the two-hour wait in line. The book came out so soon afterwards that I barely had time to process the movie. My father has read books aloud to us since I was a young child and Harry Potter is no exception. He read the first through fifth books out loud, but my brother was in California for the sixth, so we read that one on our own. We were determined to read the last of the series of a family but were worried that we wouldn’t be able to afford enough time to read a good amount and beat the media hype that was likely to come after people started reaching the end. Thus came the Harry Potter/Bill Clinton Vacation.

I got the book at midnight on Friday and we got up early the next morning to drive seven hours towards Little Rock, Arkansas. My dad read aloud in the car, at the hotel, at restaurants downtown, and in between beer-tastings. My favorite reading spot was right outside the Clinton Presidential Library where I admired both Harry Potter and President Clinton at the same time. My dad had to leave on a business trip for the Monday of our vacation and it was all my mother, brother and I could do to avoid reading ahead in the book. We resisted the urge and during the entire vacation, my father read over half of the 700+ page book. He is continuing to read at least two chapters every evening and we hope to finish this weekend. No spoilers on this blog, please.

I start at my new job on August 8. I really feel like this is my dream job (for now) but am trying not to expect too much. It’s one of the best districts in the region and still amazingly diverse. I will still be at a school with a high Spanish-speaking population only this time, I won’t have to speak Spanish in secret. The district encourages the children to speak their native tongue while also learning English. I will be back teaching K-6 and I’m sad to say I don’t think I’ll miss teaching middle school that much. One of my mother’s best friends works in the building and I know several other teachers in the district. I’m trying to force myself to take the GRE so I can apply to an Educational Administration graduate program next summer, but I keep thinking of better things to do with my time.

No matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, I miss you (yes, I stole that from the UCC). Please feel free to email me at megan.highfill@gmail.com to stay in touch. I’ll post some pictures from my Mission Trip soon and I hope everyone is well.


Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Nicaragua: not enough

I just found out that the reason the families didn´t receive groceries on Friday, and why there was no school lunch for 6 days, is because Chacocente was scraping the bottom of the donations that keep it afloat. It just makes me want to go home, get a job, and eat only peanut butter and tuna fish to be able to afford to send all kinds of money back here.

On the other hand, I´ve discovered how important self-care is. The Bible says that if we sell all we have and give it to the poor, but have not love, we are nothing. And the Bible says, love your neighbor AS YOURSELF.

So I am planning to eat tuna fish, peanut butter, and also go out to the movies and for ice cream... and send as much as possible back to Chacocente.

Folks have been raising money for my kids and I´ve been telling them, we can buy chapter books, we can buy legos; but now I´m going to say, send it to general funds and they´ll use it to buy food. Some of my kids live far enough from the school that there isn´t time for them to walk home during the one-hour lunch period, eat lunch, and walk back in time for school. So they just go hungry. Or they buy a bag of chips, which costs one cordoba.

I biked and walked the bike and pulled the bike through the mud on the way from Chacocente to the highway today. The rain ran down my face and felt so appropriate. Everything was so beautiful, green and grey and rich dark earth. New tender plants are thriving in the winter storms, Nicaraguans are repainting their internet cafes and buying refrigerators. Benjamin bought me peanut M&Ms, and one of my students was absent on Monday because there was no food in the house.

It just does not compute.

I don´t have answers, but I truly do feel amidst my grief, anger, frustration, and disquiet, the peace that passes understanding. God´s presence is a real mystery. Which is to say that in my life, God´s presence is REAL. And it is mysterious.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Costa Rica

Here are pictures taken in March of my weekend trip to Costa Rica to visit Beth Peachey´s sister Rachel. My host brother came with me, and when we went to the beach Rachel brought her Guatemalan friend living in Germany but visiting Costa Rica. I had a grand time.

Here are views of the hills between the Costa Rican capital and the coast, a shot of a volcano in Nicaragua on our way south by bus, a picture of the actual bus we took to Costa Rica, photos of us eating dinner on the beach and of the sunset afterward, of Isaac´s Costa Rican passport stamp, of my passport stamp, an iguana, a monkey, a shot of the sunset back in the hills in Heredia on the last day, and pictures of the beach looking like the movie set of Pirates of the Carribean. It was the most beautiful beach I´ve seen in my life.

One of the coolest things about my time there was that all four of us were bilingual. We could switch between English and Spanish as wanted or needed, which was really fun. Rachel´s friend actually spoke four languages: Spanish, English, French, and German. Once we got through the gates of the national park on the beach (where all the iguanas and monkeys and sloths are protected), I asked a man to take a photo of us. He was pale skinned and we were around a lot of tourists, so I asked in English. He said something I didn´t catch, so I tried again in Spanish. Again he replied, and she smoothly intercepted in another language, in which the man instantly understood her. He was German. How cool is it to be able to flip through that many languages and end up successfully communicating in the third one?

The photo the man took of the four of us is included as well.

Nicaragua: I´m leaving in September

After much prayer by myself and others, I have decided to leave Nicargua on September 19th, instead of on December 17th. On September 19th I fly to Guatemala City to visit Beth Peachey, and from there I will go to the States.

There are many reasons I started praying about this, the chief one being that I often feel overwhelmed, isolated, and unsupported in my work as preschool teacher.

However, through prayer I have discerned a call to leave early that seems to surpass my actual reasons for wanting to. Even if my work situation improved, as it already has since I got back (thanks to lots of conversations with and advice from friends and family), and hopefully will continue to do, I would still feel called to leave in September.

So, here in Chacocente, Nicaragua, there is a volunteer position available for a preschool teacher. If you come at the beginning of September, I´ll train you before I go. School ends November 25th and the older ones have a ceremony on December 5th where they graduate to first grade (which I´ll be sorry to miss!). I believe this three-month volunteer is out there, because otherwise I don´t think God would call me to leave early.

The funds I would have used to live here in October, November, and December, will be donated to Chacocente, or tithed to my Nicaraguan church.

Nicaragua: the path from Chacocente to the highway

I would like to explain why I commute two hours to the Project and two hours back.

When I got picked up from the airport on January 9th, I asked the driver, ¨Where are you taking me?¨ He took me to the Tellez-Romero house in Sabana Grande, home of my host family; Pablo, Janet, Isaac and Belén. It turns out that the US preschool volunteer before me had stayed with them and raved about them. They knew Ted Andersen. They were connected with Mission of Peace, a Methodist youth project out of the Eastern Jurisdiction. They were friends with Charito. All these connections made them trustworthy in a country where I knew exactly zero people, and that counted for a lot.

Then I bonded with the family. They were my first friends. They were the home I was most familiar with and the first place I belonged. So when I got an offer to move in with the first grade teacher who lived an hour nearer to the school, I turned it down. I was overwhelmed, wanted consistency, and needed to live with the family whom my US friends could vouch for.

Instead of moving out, I compromised by starting to spend two nights a week closer by: on Monday nights I stay with one of the families in the Project, rotating families each week; and on Wednesday nights I stay with Yamileth, the first grade teacher in my same school. That cut down my weekly commute by 40%. :)

It is only now, six months after moving here, that I am ready to start spending more nights near the Project. I´m going to experiment with where and how much. I´ve gotten pretty close to my Wednesday night host family, and I trust them and feel comfortable with them and love them. So we´ll see.

The first five photos are more or less a panorama of my view of Chacocente from the edge of it as I´m leaving in the afternoon. There are a lot of other farmers whose property separates Chacocente from the highway, but there are little private roads for horse-drawn carts or motorcycles or, in our case, bicycles. Every afternoon I bike through Chacocente from the school to the edge of the property, and this is the view I have just before ducking under the barbed wire to bike through other folks´ farms. You can see the four houses that are farthest away from the school. On clear days you can see the school over on the far hill. That is my bike.

These photos were also taken in February, in the dry season. Soon I will put up photos from now, the rainy season. It´s changed a lot; the fields are all full of baby corn, beans, yuca, plantains, and some vegetables. I think it´s a lot prettier now, but we have had to revise our route as sections of the path got ploughed up to be planted. It is very, very hard to walk through newly ploughed soil.

The next two photos are of other parts of the path. The last shot is one I took just to show how much the landscape reminded me of pictures of African desert.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

on providence

I've never been much for providence. Especially after reading Calvin this semester- it just seems to end up with too many terrible consequences, to imagine that God is controlling everything.

And then today. Today I went up to my floor, intent on starting my rounds, when the charge nurse directed me to a room. "She wanted a Bible," she said, "But she's going to surgery right away." I started to go downstairs for a Bible, but figured I had better go to the room first.

I introduced myself to the youngish woman on the bed. "Oh, are you here to pray with me?" she said. There was already a Bible in the room. As we began to pray, my beeper went off, but I put it aside for the time being. Then, together, we prayed fiery prayers, about God's presence and King-ness, God being on the throne in the operating room and showing the surgeon His power. She led, mostly.

When I finished, I wanted to offer her my best wishes for her surgery. "Well," I said, "I hope-"

She interrupted me: "What'd you say? Hope? What's hope? Hope is doubt. We don't doubt, we know. We know that God is in control, and God led you here, and God will lead me through surgery. His will be done. He predestined you to come through that door, and it's all his will."

"Okay," I said, smiling. "Take care."

Now, as you might know, this is not really my theology. But I am trained to accept patients where they are, problematic theology and all, and to not shoot holes in their precious resources.

But it was time to answer that page. I had heard at lunchtime about the stillborn infant, the deceased child whose parents wanted a blessing. Now, according to my page, they wanted a Baptist.

I was the only Baptist chaplain in the hospital at the time. So I got paged. And I went.

I've never done an infant blessing, dedication, or baptism before. I once blessed a storage locker. But they wanted a baptist. And so I showed up in their hospital room, the dad, and the cousin, and the mother, holding her beautiful tiny tiny red red child. "A____ R_____." she said.
"A____ R______. That's a beautiful name." I said.
And we gathered together and together we prayed a blessing on A____ R_____. I stumbled over my words, and after I left I thought of all kinds of things I could have added. I started to say to her, "I bless you," but I went back and said "we bless you." But together we blessed her, in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, One God Mother of us All.

And the family was thankful. And the mom wanted a picture. And so there's a picture or two, there on the hospital's disposible cameras, of me, and of mom, and of A_____ R_____. And they didn't want anything else from me. But they had wanted a blessing, and they wanted it from a Baptist.

Now, you also know that I'm not really one with a great love of my denomination. Don't get me wrong, I love Baptists and I love Baptist theology, but I also love all kinds of thing about all kinds of denominations. I probably wouldn't be Baptist if I didn't live next to Carrie Broadwell, freshman year. If I hadn't been randomly assigned next to her room in the dorm, I wouldn't have asked her what a cool church in town was. And she wouldn't have gone with me to Peace Community Church, the Baptist church she was raised in and had left for a few years.

So, through complete happenstance, I ended up a Baptist. I love being a Baptist- I love the history, and the contemporary diversity. But when Alicia Renee's parents needed a Baptist, I was around. And they got a Baptist.

Now, I definitely don't believe in providence. Not in the predestination, God controls it all.

But I believe that God has some tricks up her sleeve. And one of the tricks I'm caught up in came to fruition today. And it was sad and beautiful and important and sacred.

Peace be with you.


ps- I sent this out as an email to a few folks before posting it. I got this great few lines back from another David, a pastor-type who's a fellow member of my church in chicago:
"I don't believe in providence either; what I believe in is improvisation. And our God, she is a mighty improviser. An Ella Fitzgerald, a Doc Watson, a John Coletrane, and you sound like a most eloquent axe in her hands."

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Nicaragua: Benjamin´s Piñata

These are the pictures taken by Leanne BEFORE the gradeschoolers poured through the doors. Don´t think that I think this many kids counts as a crowd.

Today is Benjamin´s birthday. Benjamin is a fellow volunteer in Chacocente, and he´s from my home area code, which combined with his winning personality makes us instant friends. Yesterday he and Esperanza and some of the kids and I made a piñata, which is a new skill I´ve half picked up in Nicaragua. When I say half picked up, that´s because I learned a bit here and a bit there, but never the whole process all the way through.

I did get the right materials.
We cut the crepe almost the way it´s supposed to be cut.
I successfully boiled yuca flour into piñata glue.
I successfully created a star piñata out of newspaper.
I remembered to dangle streamers from the corners.

So what if one of the points was a good four inches lower than its sisters? So what if we didn´t let it dry all the way before putting the crepe on? Did it dash our
spirits that the piñata was still wet with yuca glue the next day when we wanted to put the candy in? Not at all. When the wet newspaper started giving way, we bravely bandaged it all over with clear cheap tape and stepped back grinning and clapping each other on the back. The gaping whole causing 5/6ths of the piñata to fall away from the other sixth was not allowed to follow through on its threat; disaster was averted.

The last thing I expected to foil our plans was the rope INSIDE the piñata.

This afternoon, I let preschool out early to give us time for me to climb a tree to hang a thick jumprope over a high branch, tie the piñata rope to the thick rope, and lie in wait with the preschoolers, ready for the rush of gradeschoolers to pour through the main doors and try to bat through my layers of piñata tape. We got them to stand in a circle. We chose the first batter. He was blindfolded and spun around. It was a particularly long stick, so I was taking pride in dangling the piñata down, and then quickly pulling it out of reach high in the branches, when one such maneuver resulted in a snapping, tearing sound and the piñata abruptly hit the dirt. Immediately there was a mash pit of children, screaming and literally lying on top of one another, scratching for the candy. We grownups stood back, laughed at the intimidating spectacle apparently our responsibility, and after a couple minutes started bodily pulling students out of the mound. Two kids turned out to be on the bottom, hugging the intact (if a bit mushy from the wet glue) piñata to their chests. They took off running.

Well, we said, standing back and recovering from the shock (and taking note of the tip of piñata clinging to the frayed end of the piñata cord-- the entire piñata had simply detached from the rope and fallen), there you go. That was your piñata, Benjamin. Quite an experience! Wasn´t that a good story to tell.

But then the more demure kids complained to us: they had stayed out of the mash pit, and therefore had no candy. I was inspired to justice. Were the most aggressive and greedy kids to be rewarded by their behavior, while those who had stayed out of the mob remained candy-less? I took off jogging after the culprits.

I went through the school, where the teachers pointed me in the right direction. I caught sight of two kids with a suspiciously bulging backpack carried between them.

I have learned by chasing pre-adolesent culprits of various crimes, that I can run faster than they can. I picked up my speed. I overtook the kids just leaving the school yard, and recovered the backpack. I made the kids line up and Benjamin (who had kept a stash of candy out of the piñata for the less aggressive kids who never get any) and I started handing one candy to each child. Well, then they started wheedling, bargaining, I want more, I want this flavor. So the two of us ended up grabbing the remaining handfuls and tossing them as to birds. I even started singing that song from Mary Poppins, grinning at Leanne who was the only one I could expect to recognize it (since Benjamin was busy throwing candy to his half of the kids). ¨FEED THE BIRDS! TUPPENCE A BAG!!!¨ Laughing and yelling. It was great crowd control. Wherever kids weren´t, I threw candy. That kept them from rushing my person.

Maybe I should always carry handfuls of candy for just that purpose-- protecting my person from being rushed by mobs of kids.

I wish to conclude by saying that as infuriating and illogical and person-rushing as these kids may tend to be, they are wonderful and I love them so, so, so much.

Guatemala #9: Photos!

So, I just discovered a crazy thing, that you can make Facebook photo albums available to the general public!

This means that you can all now see a somewhat ridiculous number of photos from the past 3 months since I got a digital camera. Many of them are scenery shots but they're pretty cool. And some of them are silly, but also pretty cool. I tried to write some explanatory captions, as well. Click on the first photo to make it larger, and then click on "next" to see the rest. Enjoy!



Costa Rica #1

Costa Rica #2


Saturday, July 07, 2007

Nicaragua: old photos

These are photos I thought I had put up long ago. They are from February. The first is a view from the old path we used to take biking in to the Project from the bus stop on the highway. Visible are chickens in the foreground and a little field of plantains farther back.

Here is the big multipurpose room while still unroofed (isn´t it pretty to see clouds through the reddish metal bars?), the kitchen with four Project parents inside, and the first grade room where two teachers are chatting.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Rachael in Machu Picchu

I just got back to Nicaragua after almost three weeks of visitors followed by two weeks with various members of my family in Ecuador and in Peru. I am feeling rested, affirmed, hugged, and restored. At the end of May, David came for two weeks to Nicaragua. Then three days after he left, Mom came for three days: she met my host family, helped me teach preschool, and held a clinic for the folks at Chacocente. She also brought hundreds of shoes collected in Idaho as donations. Since the previous week one of my students, unsupervised during non-school hours, threw a piece of concrete at the foot of one of my other students, the shoes were much appreciated. The injured foot had been barefoot, and the girl belonging to it had been limping around ever since. Now she is properly shoed, which is both a healing and a preventative measure. The health nurse also came in and scared all my kids with stories about all the potential horrors of going barefoot. And now that I´m back, the little girl´s foot seems to be better. So some good has come of it.

Anyway, after her day of clinic my mom and I packed our bags and the next morning we flew to Quito, Ecuador. Two and a half years ago I spent my last Oberlin College January term working in a music school there, and lived with a host family. We visited my host family, drove all over the city having exciting and fun adventures and REALLY enjoying my Ecuadorian family´s company, and I have begun dreaming of moving there someday for a few years. My host brother would be a lovely uncle for my future children who would be gaining fluency in Spanish. It´s a rosy picture, especially when you think about the mountainous views all around...

After five days Mom and I flew to Peru and crept late at night into the hotel rooms where the rest of our family was sleeping, having just gotten off the plane from the USA. My aunt, stepdad, brother, sister, mom, and I visited all kinds of Inca ruins over the next week and a half, the pinnacle being Machu Picchu.

Because of the limits of time and technology, here are pictures only of Machu Picchu. And because Sarah kept whining about taking every group photo with each person´s camera (¨we can just EMAIL copies to each other!¨), I don´t have a single picture with all six of us in it. The one that was taken the first time she whined is on the other memory card. To be fair, she does have a point.

I don´t have words to describe Machu Picchu. It was incredible. I will offer this pitiful phrase: You´re at eye level with the tops of the other mountains.

Now that I´m back, it´s school vacation for my kids, so I will go back to teaching on Monday truly feeling that I am starting the second half- of my time here, and of the school year. The time with family and the school vacation have been incredible blessings, as were the efforts of my faithful substitute teachers while I traipsed across South America. Thank you Ben, Monica, and Leanne!

Oh, that final picture in the airport on the way home was too funny not to take and show you all. The time is several minutes after the flight is scheduled to leave, and the sign says ON TIME. Just one example of the situations I find myself confused by in my life here in Latin America.

The nice thing about going away is that people are abnormally warm and demonstrative when you get back. You find out who seems to have missed you and can deduce that they care about you :)