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Author: Molly

ABOUT THIS BLOG

ABOUT THIS BLOG

After spending more than a little bit of time daunted by the thought of actually starting this blog, I’ve decided to structure it a little differently than I have in the past.  It’s been over 3 weeks since I’ve had any access to internet, and 5 weeks now that I’ve been in Nicaragua.  Too much has happened to recount it all chronologically, so I’ve decided to separate my posts into topics.  This way you’re free to read about whatever might interest you (and ignore my musings on vegetarianism in Nicaragua or the details of how to make corn tortillas from scratch – food post spoiler alert) if you so wish.  The official Raleigh blog will be updated much more frequently than will this one, so if you want to read more or catch a glimpse of me in action visit https://raleighinternational.org/blog/costa-rica-nicaragua/.  If you’d like to send me a message (highly encouraged), you can also use the form at the bottom of this page https://raleighinternational.org/contact-a-volunteer-costa-rica-nicaragua-expedition/ or email raleighcostarica@raleighinternational.org.  Sorry I won’t have the chance to post many photos until next changeover (11/25-11/28).  You’ll mostly have to take my word for it that it’s absolutely beautiful here!

 

Love,

Molly

(Sunrise near training center in Catarina)

 

(View on our overnight hike during training)

 

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(Catarina training camp)

 

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(Swimming in a volcanic crater lake after training hike)

 

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(Fellow Project Managers!)

Food

Food

I´ve just finished eating lunch, so it seemed like an appropriate time to write about food.  A lot of people asked me before I left whether it would be difficult to stay a vegetarian here.  I knew rice and beans were a major staple, but I really wasn´t sure what else to expect.  I´ve been pleasantly surprised that not only is it easy to be a vegetarian, it´s partially… required.  Even the carnivores aren´t being fed much meat here.  Not only is meat expensive for the families that we´re living with to afford, Raleigh as an organization only provides one meal per week when we´re at field base that includes meat because of the environmental, anti-humane, and other negative impacts of animal farming.  Did you know that roughly 2,400 liters of water goes into the production of just one hamburger (150grams of meat, one bun, one slice of cheese)?  Considering how precious water has become lately, given that our community has a limited and inconsistent supply (hence our project), it´s surprising to me that raising cattle is one of the main industries, alongside farming mainly corn (maíz) and beans (frijoles).  Cattle farming is also one of the biggest detriments to the rainforest.  Over 80% of rainforest destruction in the Amazon is a direct result of land being cleared to raise cows (http://www.fao.org/docrep/ARTICLE/WFC/XII/0568-B1.HTM).  As trees are a major necessity to water systems like the one we are implementing here, deforestation also means less access to drinkable and consistent water.

Most of the venturers here are used to eating meat at least once per day, if not with every meal.  While some of them are occasionally fed meat here in the community, they do all seem to be enduring the tough physical labor on the food they´re given without mention of being hungry.  Rice + beans, when eaten together, create a complete protein that is cheap, filling and tasty.  In addition to being better for the environment and animals, it makes sense that rice and beans central to the diet here in Nicaragua (and much of the rest of Central America).

Gallo pinto

This brings me to gallo pinto (pronounced “guy-yo pin-toe” for those of you who missed my last post)!  Gallo pinto is essentially rice and beans fried together in a pan.  It sounds simple, but something magical happens when the two are combined with a bit of oil.  I´m generally most hungry at lunch, since I usually eat a smaller amount at breakfast and then do physical work all morning.  (This is relatively speaking of course, as I feel like I actually eat quite a lot here compared to at home, although I snack less).  It´s silly, but I´m typically just the slightest bit disappointed at lunch, because it tends to be the only meal where Maria Elsa serves us our rice and beans separately, instead of gallo pinto, which I find so much tastier!

Plantains

After gallo pinto, the next biggest part of our diet is plantains.  I get particularly excited about plantains – I absolutely love them in all their forms.  Plantains were the first thing that I begged Maria Elsa to teach me to make.  They´re incredibly simple, once you have the plantains – it turns out that the hardest part is picking the right ones to cook!  By this I mean if you want to make plantain chips (salty like potato chips and thinly sliced), you have to use green ones that are still very firm.  If you want to make sweet ones, then they need to be soft and nearly black on the outside before you prepare them.  Once you´ve selected them, it´s only a matter of slicing and frying them, to which there is a little technique, but I won´t bore you with the details.  I´m fairly convinced I can do it on my own now, and I am extremely excited to try this one at home.

Tortillas

One thing I don´t think I´ll be making on my own any time soon are corn tortillas from scratch.  Also a staple here, as one of the major crops, making tortillas takes patience, perseverance, and love.  I still don´t quite understand all of the steps in the process, but once the corn is cleaned, cooked, and left to soak so that it is soft (potentially in that order, although not necessarily), it is ground into a paste using a hand cranked machine.  This is a workout.  Maria Elsa has to be a strong woman given the number of tortillas she makes.  Water is added to the corn paste, and then a small chunk is smoothed around the edges, smooshed flat onto a table, and alternately patted and rotated on a piece of wax paper until thin and circular.  Each tortilla is then individually fried in a slightly curved pan over the wood-oven fire.  You know it´s ready to flip when the back of your fingers sticks to the dough enough to lift the cooked side away from the pan.  After both sides slightly brown, only then is the process complete.  I´ve only helped crank, pat and flip so far, but I´m hoping to get some more practice in before I leave here.

Treats & Sweets

Every once in a while, Victoria, Maria Elsa, some other locals or the panaderia (bakery) in Salales (the closest town, roughly 30 min walking) will surprise us with some new and delicious food item.  In addition to tortillas every which way (plain, folded over and fried with cheese inside called “repocheta,” torn into pieces and fried with chile sauce and lime, etc.), it is amazing how much they do with corn here.  For example, there are a number of desserts involving corn.  We´ve gotten to try a cakey, sweet version of cornbread and authentic tamales.  The tamales are soft corn mixture on the outside with a sugary, cheesy corn mixture on the inside and baked in banana leaves.  They make for a really interesting combination of sweet and savory flavours.

My favourite of the dessert-like items so far has been a sweetbread call pico, which is triangular in shape, flat on the bottom and puffy on top, filled with a cinnamon, sugary, slightly cheesy and buttery spread in the middle, topped with more sugar and then baked.  So phenomenally good.  Pico is followed by “arroz con leche” (essentially rice pudding) as a close second in my book.  Victoria made it the other day, and it was all I could do not to have 3 helpings.

Victoria also makes different flavors of “ice cream,” which I put in quotes as it´s not exactly Ben and Jerry´s (or what you would normally think of when I say ice cream).  It´s a flavoured, milky mixture that is poured into small plastic bags, which are tied shut and frozen.  You eat them by biting a small hole in one of the corners of the bag and melting the area around it to suck the ice cream out.  Sometimes there are crushed up cookies inside.  My favourite so far has been plantain, of course, although I´ve found them all quite nice – even the chocolate.  It´s no surprise I do have quite the sweet tooth, and no wonder the “treats & sweets” section is the only one to be 3 paragraphs long!

Coffee

I think I mentioned before that coffee is served with every meal in Nicaragua, and pretty much available, if not expressly offered, at all other times during the day.  It is customary to be offered some kind of refreshment upon entering even a stranger´s home here, and most often that refreshment will be coffee.  I wasn´t initially excited about the prospect of having to drink much coffee here (if not because I wanted it, at least some out of politeness), but it has actually become my preferred drink next to water.  That could be because coffee here is served excessively sweet – even for my tastes.  One of our first days I tried to ask for just a little bit of sugar.  Maria Elsa asked me how many spoonfuls, to which I responded just one, thinking it was the least I really could ask for.  I didn´t realize that one still meant the tablespoon-sized mound that I got! It´s become like a little dessert at meals and each sweet sip nicely compliments and breaks up a very salty or savory meal. I always save some for after my last bites.  There´s also nothing I enjoy more than coming back from a morning of work, washing up after lunch, and sitting all clean with a cup of coffee, a cookie and my book in my hammock… which now that it´s nearly stopped raining, I think I´m going to go do… right… now.

A Typical Day in Los Bordos

A Typical Day in Los Bordos

Los Borditos Martínez is the name of the community where I will be spending all 3 phases of my Raleigh Expedition experience (around 9 weeks in total).  We are implementing a water, sanitation, and health (WASH) project here, which I´ll write about in more detail later on.  Right now, I want to attempt to give you a taste of what it´s like to live here with a typical family in Los Bordos.

(My favorite view in the community)

I´m sitting on our concrete porch, at the only table my family owns, in one of the ubiquitous plastic chairs that every family has so they can easily rearrange and provide more or less chairs depending on the number and configuration of guests who may happen to drop by at any given moment. Although the sturdy concrete and brick houses often have spacious central rooms, a table or so and these plastic chairs are generally the only furniture (other than the beds) that one is likely to find inside.  (*Disclaimer: We started this project with a survey of each of the 42 houses who will be receiving clean water from this project.  While I will make some generalizations, they are meant to apply to this community, and occasionally Masaya, both places I have spent significant time exploring at this point.)

I woke up this morning, under my mosquito net, half in my sleeping bag (sometimes it gets chilly at night here – chilly meaning maybe 70 degrees…maybe) in my bed (recently upgraded to one with an actual frame and thin mattress) in the room I share with Atata, my co-Project Manager and “brother“ here in Maria Elsa´s house, to the sounds of roosters crowing, cows mooing, and pigs… they don´t really oink – more of a snort I would call it.  First things first, I generally grab the toilet paper roll (or “loo roll“ as the Brits call it – I´m the only American on my expedition), and head to the latrine around the back side of the house.  The latrine is essentially a long drop, with a seat over it, a bin for TP next to it, and 3 walls plus a door surrounding.  It is smelly, and there are usually flies, but it´s not close to the worst toilet I´ve ever had to use.  Mostly I´m grateful that it has a roof overhead, since it´s been raining quite a lot here recently.  Next we have to call the office for a message check every morning at 6:55am (and every evening at 5:30pm).  Atata or I will grab the cell phone and walk over to our neighbour Victoria´s house (Maria Elsa´s daughter), where we can get usually one bar of signal to make our call if you stand just behind the well in the corner of the property on the edge of the rock wall next to the stony path that is the main thoroughfare through the community.  These twice-a-day message checks are really the only opportunities we have each day to get any news from the outside world… and they usually last anywhere from 1-3 minutes long.

After the morning call, Maria Elsa usually has breakfast ready for myself, Atata, and Itzel (Maria Elsa´s 10-year-old granddaughter who also lives with us while her parents are away working in Costa Rica).  Breakfast usually consists of some form of rice and beans (often in a form mixed together called gallo pinto “guy-yo pin-toe“) with either friend plantains (YUM) or repocheta (fried tortilla with cheese in the middle) and sweet coffee.  Most meals actually consist of combinations of these ingredients, and are always served with sweet coffee, but I´ll get into the specifics of food in a later post.  Chickens are usually running around our feet about now, the cat often comes to beg for some food, and there are always a couple of dogs (never sure if they´re stray or domestic) hanging about in the yard.

After breakfast, I´ll brush my teeth outside using purified water from my bottle (no sinks and no running water here), change into work clothes and boots for the day, and wait for the volunteers to gather at our house, before heading up to the construction site.  Things rarely happen exactly on time here, so any breaks in the day are consumed by either playing cards or buying snacks (since we happen to live at the only pulperia – like a little convenience store, one shelf of goods – in Los Bordos).  Occasionally I´ll also use any free moments to wash and hang a few pieces of clothing by hand, using the open, large concrete tank (also at Victoria´s house) that holds the family´s water.

Our work site is a 15-20 minute hike to the top of the community.  I say hike, because the path that leads up through the community (that main “thoroughfare“ I mentioned before) is really a rocky, fairly steep, somewhat muddy path covered in tree roots and large stones.  It crosses back and forth across the river that also runs the length of the community.  If there is a lot of rain, like there was our first week here, the river will overflow to the point that you have to walk in about knee deep to cross it.  This path is also the only route of transportation the community has to the nearest town, called Salale, which is only walkable either by horse or 20-30 min on foot.  Salale is the closest health center, bus stop, church, and place to buy or fix anything that can´t be bought or fixed in the community.

Now that we´ve finished the “captacion“ (or water capture – I still don´t know the English translation, but essentially the place where the water is captured and filtered from natural underground streams), we´ve moved on to digging trenches from the captacion to the tank that will hold all of the community´s water before sending it down to each of the individual homes via more trenches and tubes. The physical work is hard.  In the last week, we have spent each day from 7/8ish am to sometime between 12-3ish pm carrying wood and tubes uphill, collecting stones from cornfields and rivers, washing rocks (yes, washing.rocks.), passing buckets of concrete and sand, and using pickaxes to dig ½ meter deep trenches in rocky countryside.  Thankfully, my back has been fine, and the physical work actually makes me feel great mentally too.  There´s something about shoveling dirt with a gorgeous view of the mountainside under the sun that just makes you forget about everything else in the world for a little while.  The view up there rivals the view on my desktop from Rio.  On days that we work through lunch, families will come up around noon to bring us hot food.  Locals and volunteers working hard and taking breaks and joking all together throughout these days make them some of my favourite.

(I told you the view was gorgeous)

 

After we´re done with physical work, everyone heads down to shower and take a break for 2 hours or so.  Our shower is a wooden platform surrounded by 4 posts and some black plastic with two buckets inside.  You use a bowl to fill up one or both buckets with water from the tank nearby, and then strip down inside and pour water over your head as many times as you need to to soap up and rinse off.  The water is chilly, but usually feels refreshing after the first two icy bowls or so.  Washing thick long hair was a bit tricky at first, but I´ve gotten the hang of it now and sometimes make a game out of seeing how little water I can use for a full shower.  These couple of free, quiet hours in the afternoon are blissful.  Occasionally I´ll snooze or read in my hammock, but mostly I´ll sit and listen or chat with whomever happens to be around.

The volunteers will wander back up in the early evening to plan other activities we need to get done during the week, like blog posts for Raleigh´s website, active citizenship sessions where they discuss things like the Global Goals, or Actions Days we have to raise awareness within the community about our project and topics related, and to do a daily review of our progress and how we´ve been working together.  This usually devolves into card games and chatter after a few hours, and everyone heads home for dinner with their families between 6-7ish after dark (which falls now around 5:30).  Sometimes we´ll meet up after dinner to watch a movie at one of the houses with a tv, or to have a small bonfire and play games, but mostly we´ll sit and chat or play cards with Maria Elsa, Itzel, and Jimmy (Victoria´s son nextdoor), before brushing teeth and heading off to bed well before 9:30pm.  I think I´ve gotten the most consistent sleep I´ve ever had here in my life.  There´s still really no chance I´ll ever actually catch up to all I´ve lost, but it feels good to have this kind of routine and not constantly be exhausted.

Today as I´m writing this (although I´ll be posting it later, when I have internet) isn´t a typical work day, as Sundays are designated to church and rest.  I haven´t been to a service here yet, but I might go out of curiosity at some point.  Today we´re also celebrating one of the venturer´s birthdays, so Atata and I are going to town now to pick up a cake that we ordered.  We only have 5 more days until the end of Phase 1, when we´ll head back to Masaya and return to Los Bordos with a whole different group of volunteers.  I´m glad that I´ll be staying here the whole time to finish out the project and get to see the final product, even though I´m a little sad I won´t be doing one of the 19-day treks.  I´m excited to get back to field base and hear how everyone´s first phase went. It´s going to be absolute craziness at changeover, but hopefully I´ll have the chance at least to catch up with the other PMs who I became really close to during training.  Maybe I´ll even be able to squeeze in a couple of Facetime/whatsapp calls home!

Resfeber

Resfeber

Resfeber (n.): the restless race of the traveller’s heart before the journey begins, when anxiety and anticipation are tangled together; the nervous feeling before taking a journey

And so it begins… for those of you who have been eagerly awaiting (Dad..), this is first blog post of my next adventure! I’m about to fly down to Nicaragua to spend 6 moths working with an organization called Raleigh International, taking a sabbatical from my job at Deloitte.  I have had a few adventures in between now and my last post at the end of my trip to Brazil in college – including travel to and work with nonprofits/social enterprises in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Jordan and Uganda through a social impact fellowship called D2international (D2i) at Deloitte.  Hopefully someday I’ll get around to writing about those experiences, as they have each informed my career in ways I never anticipated and propelled me into this new experience on which I’m about to embark.

There is a lot I still don’t know about what my next 6 months will look like, but I’ll do my best to tell you a little more about what I’ve been told so far.  Also, apologies in advance if any of you have been to my fundraising page, as some of what I say here will repeat what I have written there.

So, Raleigh International is a UK-based sustainable development charity. They challenge and inspire young people around the world to work with communities living in poverty to create lasting change. Last year over 100,000 people around the world benefited from Raleigh’s programmes. In Costa Rica and Nicaragua (where I’ll be headed), Raleigh’s work focuses on youth entrepreneurship, access to basic services and water/sanitation systems for indigenous communities, and natural resource management.

In Nicaragua, the majority of the 6 million population live in poverty, many in rural communities that lack access to basic health, water, sanitation and electricity services, in addition to being heavily affected by climate change. In Costa Rica, 22% of the population live below the national poverty line, and rural communities depend heavily on natural resources for their livelihoods. Costa Rica also hosts 5% of the entire world’s biodiversity. I will be aiding communities to improve access to safe drinking water, and raising awareness about the importance of hygienic practices. This could involve building a clean water source or running awareness sessions on hand hygiene. I will also be working with communities to use their natural resources for food and sustainable incomes, in addition to assisting in the protection of areas of biodiversity. This could involve building infrastructure in national parks or awareness raising on sustainable livelihoods.

Volunteers can apply to come on board for between 8-13 weeks to work alongside and support young people to empower communities to create lasting change through expeditions and community projects. Support for programmes come directly from funds that volunteers help raise. For a 13-week experience, each volunteer is expected to raise £2350 (~$3,075 depending on Brexit…). In addition to the typical 13-week volunteer experience, I will be staying on with Raleigh in Nicaragua for an extra 2-3 months to provide skills-based service focused on fundraising strategy and program evaluation. To support my contribution, plus cover the costs of backpacking gear and round-trip flights from the US to Nicaragua, I estimate I’ll need about $5,000 (hence my goal) before my trip coming up soon!

Raleigh expeditions are said to be challenging, inspiring, and impactful. I can’t wait to experience it for myself, and I am so grateful to all of those contributing to help get me there. Thank you for taking the time to read about how I will be spending the next 6 months of my life, and for supporting me (whether financial or otherwise) on this journey.  I will only have access to internet about every 19 days or so for the first 3 months, but I will do my best to keep everyone updated through future posts!

Love,
Molly

The Adventure Doesn’t End Here.

The Adventure Doesn’t End Here.

Day 170

I’m writing this from an airplane a few thousand kilometers up in the sky over South America on my way back to the States, and no kidding, the song “America” by Razorlight just came up on my iTunes shuffle.  Once I get in to Washington D.C. I still have a bit of traveling to do before I can really say I’m home.  Charles is picking me up at the airport and tomorrow night we’re starting the drive with his family down to Florida.  As for my blog though, this is the end of the adventure for the mean time.  I’m glad that those who have been reading it have enjoyed it.  I’ll try not to leave you with any cliff hangers at the end of this post, except for of course, the whole “okay, so what’s next?” question that I have yet to answer myself.

Just like I knew it would, the last week passed in a whirlwind of ups, downs, and all over the place events and emotions.  The beginning of the end had us focused in on finishing coursework for our most important class.  MLG had always been our most important class for only one reason: if we didn’t pass it, MLG isn’t offered at UVA in the Spring, and that meant that failing it could keep us from graduating on time.  Two exams and a project were all due within 6 days of each other, and based on the entire class’s performance on the first project and exam, we felt the possibility of failing becoming a reality.  Grading in Brazil is on a 1-10 scale, for which a 5 is passing, but for which UVA will only accept a minimum of a 7 for credit.  Since the class average on the first exam was a 3.5, we were only just hovering above 7’s with the first project, and grading in Brazil isn’t on a curve, there was no choice but to do well on these last assignments.  Needless to say, the baristas at the Starbucks with free wifi in Ipanema started to recognize us when we walked through the door.  The exam went better than we imagined, but still wasn’t quite enough to raise our averages above a 7 (which would also exempt us from the final exam happening 2 days before we left).  Everything then was resting on the second group project we had to turn in a few days after the exam.  Joe, Keia, and I were all split up and put in groups with Brazilian students for these projects.  The idea was that they had more experience with R and could edit the Portuguese we contributed to the formal report.  It was a good idea in theory, but the group I ended up working with didn’t really contribute much.   Since I needed the grade, and I guess they.. maybe didn’t?  I was sort of left to do the work and write up the report by myself.  While it took a lot of will power and determination to get through, turning in a 13-page report (okay, so there were lots of graphs) on statistical analysis in Portuguese felt like a pretty big accomplishment even before I found out the grade was good enough so that I didn’t have to take the final exam on Monday!

Joe, and Keia were home free as well, so all that was standing in our way was a final presentation and luncheon with Professor Orlando.  One might think that the presentation would be cause for more stress than churrascaria, but the lunch was taking place on our last day in Rio.  While we knew Orlando would probably be late, we got a little antsy since we couldn’t have imagined that we’d be waiting on him for more than two hours.  Marcos, Bernardo, and Bernardo were there as well, and they are unbelievably excited for their upcoming semester abroad in the United States.  I keep forgetting that they’ll be joining us up at UVA in January, and I’m so glad we’ll have a few people to keep practicing our Portuguese with.

Delicious as lunch was, we had plans to meet up at Joe’s apartment with our friends that night for one more get together and goodbye.  We had seen a few of them the night before since Lu’s band got a permanent gig at a bar in Lapa every Monday night!  They are so much fun to watch, and I’m going to miss that good ol’ rock and roll of hers.  With everyone together on Tuesday, we had planned “Amigo Occulto” (Secret Santa) amongst our friends, meaning everyone had been given the name of someone else in the group for whom they had to buy a present and could only spend a max of R$20.  When it was time to reveal the gifts, the first person started by describing the person for whom they bought their gift without mentioning their name.  When everyone figured out who it was, that person accepted the gift and then described the person for whom they had bought a gift, and so on until all of the gifts had been revealed and everyone had a present.  Gift-giving went in a circle until it turned out that I had Luciana and Luciana also had me!  We both drew pictures of our favorite places in Rio on our cards for each other, we both gave each other bracelets, and we both cried when we opened it all.  In fact, I think almost everyone cried that night.  Later on as Leo was driving us all home, we stopped for a group hug as our one last goodbye.  The taxis passing us must have thought we were a pretty strange sight, this group of people in the road all crying and laughing and hugging at 4 o’clock in the morning.  Thinking about it is sad, because I don’t know if we’ll ever have that family all back together in the same way again.  I’m going to have to get better at Facebook so that I can keep in touch.

It was late when we finally got home, and our flight was so early that we didn’t sleep.  We showered, finished packing our bags, and hopped in a cab to the airport around sunrise.  The flight to Bogotá, Colombia went smoothly, and we had booked a hostel there since our layover was going to be around 20 hours long.  At the same time that we are all pretty eager to get home, it was nice to actually have enough time to explore the city a bit.  The hostel was across town from the airport in a district called La Candelaria.  We converted our leftover reais to Colombian pesos, which are about 1,800 to the US dollar!  Money is South America is way cooler than American money from my experience so far.  We took a taxi to the hostel, which was a beautiful little place bordering the historic district we were staying in.  After getting settled, taking a nap, and finding a place to eat some Japanese-Colombian fusion type food, we still had quite a bit of time to walk around and see the city.  We bought scarves, since up in the Andes the temperature drops to around 40 degrees Fahrenheit at night, and hopped on a city bus to Zona T, where we heard there were a lot of bars and movement.  It was lively as we walked around, and we were appreciative of the real beer warming us up on the insides, compared to the iced down watery light beers we’d been drinking for the past 6 months.  It would be neat to have some more time to get to know Bogotá, but we headed back early since we knew we had to get up in the morning and do the same thing all over again.

We slept like babies, and woke up early to shower and return to the airport.  Things are still going fine, and it’s weird to think that I’ll be back in the United States for the first time in six months in just a couple of hours.  Everyone that I have talked to says it is a shock to go back after you’ve been away for so long.  I can’t really imagine it, just because the States is where I grew up for the first 21 years of my life.  How could I be shocked to be in my own country?  I guess I’ll see soon enough.

To wrap up this post, I’ve been keeping an ongoing list of things I have learned, things I will miss, and things that will be a part of my next adventure.  The most important things on it are here:

  • Patience, patience, patience.
  • Flexibility is adaptability.
  • Friends become family abroad.
  • Say yes more than you say no.
  • Açaí always.

Stay tuned for the next one 😉

Com Amor,

Molly

Os Finais.

Os Finais.

Day 160

With just more than one week left, we are closing in on the end of our experience here in Brazil.  All of us hope to come back one day, but none of us are sure how it will happen or what it will look like.  All of our friends hope we’ll get to see Réveillon and Carnival at the very least someday.

Last week the experiment in Rocinha well.  We took a bus into Rocinha which carried us up, around, through, and back down some of the most unbelievable mountainside architecture you could imagine.  It also did so at a much higher speed than you would think that a bus could.  We have yet to analyze the results of this experiment, and we have one last experiment to run tomorrow at FIOCRUZ.  I had been in touch with one of the developers of the UN Stop Disasters Now game that we have been having the children play.  We are interested in specializing this game to Rio de Janeiro, but the UN (who provided funding for the game) have been hesitant to search for more money for this project.  I got an email earlier in the week, however, that the UN has been receiving a lot of interest in updating the game and positive feedback lately.  The developer I am in contact with said that if we sent some of our findings showing the utility and potential for the game, it could help push the UN to agree to look for funding for further development of the game that could be specific to our project!  We’re not sure what will come of it, but it’s exciting nonetheless.

The rest of the week passed like it normally does, which is to say never in quite the same way, but I ate and slept and studied and ran and bought lots and lots of presents for everyone back home!  I felt more like a tourist, shopping around the fair for souvenirs and such, than I had felt in a really long time.  Keia and I were talking about whether we’ll feel a shock coming back to the United States.  I didn’t think so originally, but I live here now.  All of the things that we do and see every day have become the norm, but I know they are not so back home.

Since we have final exams and projects coming up and due in this next week, I didn’t really go out at all over the weekend.  Sunday, however, Joe was finishing up his “Startup Weekend” and Keia and I went to see all of the final presentations.  I was a little bummed that I hadn’t planned far enough ahead to take part in it.  It seemed like it would have been a really cool experience, and probably a unique one in the scheme of my own life, but who knows.  Afterward, Luciana’s band was playing in public for the second time outdoors at the praça in Largo do Machado.  Since the presentations ran a little long and Lu got cut off a little short, we only had time to catch the last two songs of her set.  They were the best ones though!  Alguem robaram minha garrafa de whiskey and her rendition of Livin’ on a Prayer are my favorites.  We all grabbed a chopp after the show to celebrate, which felt good since I hadn’t seen our friends in quite some time.  We have a secret santa exchange planned for the day before we leave.  It’ll be a chance for everyone to get together and say goodbyes too.  We came home and worked on our projects until pretty late into the night, and we’re back at Fundão with a full day of work and class and difficult conversations ahead of us.

Until the next (and maybe the last one).

With love,

Molly

Festas and Foodstuffs

Festas and Foodstuffs

Day 153

This week passed by like a whirlwind.  Despite the rain, I really didn’t accomplish much so I have my work cut out for me over the next couple of weeks.  I think I function better this way anyway, but I guess we’ll find out!

Keia and I decided not to participate in Startup Weekend, but we bought tickets to watch the final presentations on Sunday night.  It should be a really interesting experience, and I’m excited to go.  I think Luciana’s band is playing in public for the second time that night too, so it looks like we’ll have to get all of the studying for our MLG exam on Monday done over this week and the weekend… along with our POII project due next Tuesday.

This past weekend, there was a choppada at UFRJ on Friday.  A choppada is essentially a big, sponsored, outdoor party on college grounds (in this case, at Fundão) with live performances and free beer from late afternoon on through until midnight.  We considered this a part of our “study of Brazilian college culture” and although it took two hours to arrive (by bus during rush hour… you would have thought we’d learned by now), it was worth it to go.

On Saturday, Keia and I went to get haircuts.  I can’t actually remember the last time I had gotten one, but since I know I’d never had one in Brazil, it had to be at least 5 months.  I was at the point where I could tie my own hair in a knot and it would stay, if that gives you any idea of how long it must have been haha.  Saturday night it was the birthday of one of our friends from ENCE.  Jessica had been one of the first students to really reach out to us, and she invited us to a place called Mixtura Carioca in Lapa that had live samba music all night long with DJ breaks in between.  Our old roommate Silvana came with the three of us, and I feel like I really got the hang of samba!  We’re trying to start to collect the names of songs and artists that we like here so that we can bring them back to the States.

Sunday came and finally so did our churrasco at Leo’s house in Campo Grande!  Keia and I are becoming quite the pair of chefs lately.  We haven’t been cooking so much at home, but I feel like we’ve successfully put together a few amazing meals for a lot of our friends.  Of course this time having Nayra to tell us what to do and Leo’s Mom to make us delicious farofa… plus the guys down the street who sell ready-made garlic bread, it wasn’t that hard to turn out a delicious product.  Campo Grande is neat because although it’s about 40 minutes by car outside of Central Rio, it’s yet still part of the city proper, but feels much more like a neighborhood.  There are many more family homes there and the suburban feel that comes with getting away from the high rises of the big city.  After eating to the point of explosion and still having enough leftovers for an army, we headed back to Copacabana and I passed out fairly early last night.

Tomorrow we’ll be running our second experiment at a library in Rocinha (the largest favela in Brazil, and one of the largest in the world).  Don’t worry though, Rocinha has been pacified for some time now.  We’ve changed our experimental design a little to include an interview with the children after they have played the Stop Disasters Now game that is supposed to teach them about flooding.  It should be really interesting, and we have another experiment marked for the following Tuesday as well.  I feel like this gives us a more solid basis for our Capstone than we have had yet.  I have also started to conduct interviews and make a questionnaire for Brazilian and American engineering students and professors as a part of what I will write about for the individual part of my thesis.

Time to get crackin’!

Molly

Better Late Than Never

Better Late Than Never

Day 147

Thanksgiving dinner didn’t end up happening until Sunday night, but better late than never, right?  Keia and I got up and worked out on Sunday morning, planned a menu and then went grocery shopping to hunt down all of the things we would need.  Three supermarkets later we had our hands on some brown sugar, but unfortunately cranberry sauce never showed its face.

The Menu:

  • Roasted Chicken (it’s tough to get your hands on a turkey here)
  • Green Bean Casserole
  • Southern Cornbread Stuffing
  • Mashed Potatoes and (sort of) Gravy
  • Warm Apple Crisp with Vanilla Ice Cream

Our friends all gathered at Joe’s apartment, we put some “futebol americana” on the TV and made everyone go around the circle to say what they were thankful for before we ate.  The food all turned out pretty well, if I do say so myself, and it might have been the first Thanksgiving I’ve ever had that there were NO leftovers. (That is to say we ate a LOT.)

The days after our trip and leading up to Thanksgiving were filled with catching up on schoolwork, getting back into a workout routine, and hitting the beach to watch Joe do some surfing and Ribamar in a volleyball tournament.  Joe ended up participating in a surf competition down in Barra, but Keia and I didn’t make it out there on Saturday and on Sunday the rain came.  It hasn’t stopped yet either.  We’re looking at the sky to open up on Thursday at the earliest, and then there are some more specks but a fairly clear next week.

Fortunately, I kind of like to run in the rain, which is what I think I am about to go do next before I sit down to think about the projects we have coming up.  I need a topic for my simulation project and to come up with some interview questions for my personal research.  We’ve started to learn Arena, which is really neat simulation software that is great for statistical visual modeling.  We were supposed to be running another experiment for our Capstone project today, but the organizers at the library we were going to work with in Rocinha haven’t gotten back to us about scheduling a specific time.

Coming up in two weekends is an event called Startup Weekend here in Rio de Janeiro.  This coming weekend it’s in São Paulo, and they have these weekends all over the world.  The idea is that all of the participants and organizers gather together on a Friday evening either with ideas for a startup company or the will to help start one up.  No products or formal research are allowed to be in the works yet.  Those who have ideas present them, and teams are made based on where your interests lie.  Each team is given 54 hours and some resources to essentially kick start this company, and everyone comes together on Sunday night to present demos and be judged.  I’m sure one company wins a prize, and maybe some others win smaller prizes, but I have to do some more of my own research before I decide whether I want to participate or not.  Joe has already signed up, but the weekend it’s happening in Rio will be the 3 days leading up to an exam in our MLG class, and both our simulation and MLG project deadlines.

As of tomorrow, we only have 3 weeks left here, so send your Brazilian souvenir requests this way!   On our list of things we still need to do before leaving Rio are seeing a “jogo de futebol” (soccer game- the season is ending though, so hopefully we can find tickets for this Sunday) and climbing Pedra da Gávea (preferably for sunrise, but I’d be happy just to get up there).  I’m off to run, drop off my laundry, and do some grocery shopping before I get down to work.  It’s a lot easier to get things done in this city when the weather is bad, and I can’t just say “Forget it!  To the beach!”

I hope everyone had a Happy Thanksgiving themselves, and I can’t wait to see you all soon!

Love, Molly

On the Road.

On the Road.

Day 142

What a week it has been.  We got back from our road trip through Minas Gerais around 2am this morning.  It was definitely something different, and definitely a lot of fun.  Last Wednesday before we were about to leave I realized that our car rental hadn’t been finalized.  We hadn’t thought about the fact that car rental shops would also be on holiday that Thursday and following Tuesday for the feriados, so no, we could not rent nor return cars on those days as planned.  Keia and I ended up just finding a place by walking around and grabbing the last car they had for the cheapest price.  So there might not have been any power steering, but it had air conditioning, and that was better than what our pousada can offer. There were five of us going on the trip including Keia, Joe, and myself plus Leo (resident carioca) and Nuno (another exchange student friend).  It was a tight fit in the little four door sedan, but we managed to cram all of our luggage and some groceries inside and set off for São Thomé the next morning.

São Thomé das Letras is a small, mountaintop town in the south of Minas Gerais (the inland state bordering Rio).  It takes about five and a half hours to get there… if you don’t stop for an hour long lunch and take the small dirt road the last hundred kilometers.  7 or 8 hours after we set off, lots of biscoitos, a very dirty car, and a karaoke version of The Proclaimers famous song “(I’m gonna be) 500 miles” later, we arrived safely in São Thomé.  Really it was a miracle, because our little “shortcut” took us down some roads that car should just never have been able to make it past.  Once we finally arrived, we found the pousada we had booked for 3 nights, settled in, and went to explore.  The town is known for stone mining, extra terrestrial sightings, and cachaça.  We didn’t see any aliens, but the streets and nearly all of the homes there are made out of the local stone that is mined in the area.  We found a bar on the main praça that we deemed our own.  It had the best cachaça any of us has ever tasted in Brazil.  We all bought bottles of the Pinga de Figuinho (Fig Cachaça) to bring back home to the States, and we might even think about sharing some.  The next morning – our first real day in São Thomé – we walked to the praça again to find out what there was to do.  Because of the terrain in the area, the best way to see anything is by jeep or ATV.  We quickly decided to rent a couple of quads for the afternoon and a guide to show us around.  He took us to see four different waterfalls, which was perfect since we could pick out which one we liked the best and plan to go back the next day.  São Thomé is known for having a lot of caves (“grutas” in Portuguese) too.  Day 3 of our trip, we drove out to one – Gruta do Carimbado, to the end of which no one has ever gone and which legend says runs all the way to Machu Picchu – only to find that it was closed down and we couldn’t go inside.  Instead, we stopped by a grocery store on our way through town to fill up a bucket with some beer and a bag of ice, and drove out to one of the waterfalls we had been to the day before.  The water was chilly, but the sun was hot, and we spent most of the rest of the day lounging near the cachoeira and enjoying doing nothing.  At night and in the early mornings it got really cold in São Thomé.  On the last day there, I decided I wanted to see the sunrise.  Even the view from the roof of our pousada was gorgeous, so I knew the sunrise from the pirâmide or the cruzeiro (a couple of touristy monuments that sit atop the highest points in the city) would be well worth it.  Keia agreed to come with me, so we bundled up just before 6am and made it just in time to see the first rays of light peeking over the edge of the valley.  We climbed to the top of the pirâmide and watched the world wake up for a little while, then we found a padaria with some warm, fresh bread for breakfast.  The boys pretty much refused to wake up before 11am, so we went back to sleep for a couple of hours before waking the troops and leaving for Belo Horizonte.

Belo Horizonte is the capital of Minas Gerais and the 3rd largest city in Brazil.  There aren’t a whole lot of touristy things to do there, but our friend Amanda is originally from there and had gone home for 3 weeks to visit her mom.  After the 4+ hour drive there, we were so grateful to have a place to stay and to eat some real home cookin’.  I can honestly say that Amanda’s mom’s stroganoff is the best one that I have ever had.  We took it easy that night, and the next day drove about an hour and a half outside of Belo Horizonte to a historic, old mining town called Ouro Preto (“Black Gold”).  Back in the day, it was either the biggest or one of the biggest cities in Brazil because of its natural gold resources.  After all of the gold was gone, all of the people left, as they tend to do, and now the town thrives mainly on tourism and some other less-precious stones.  It turns out that Mondays aren’t the best days to visit the city, because most of the churches and museums are closed.  We were okay with that since the boys had a strict “no church tours” rule.  Instead we found a guide who took us to a R$13 all-you-can-eat restaurant, a slavery museum down one of the prettiest roads in the city, and an actual mine that we could enter across the city toward the top of one of the mountains.  The food in Minas is more stewed meats (often served in hot cauldrons atop a bed of flames) and the beans are lighter.  I liked it a lot.  The mine was neat, although a little anti-climactic.  It didn’t go very far into the mountain, and was safe to walk through pretty much standing upright.   Every picture I took in that town could be a postcard though.  We bought some gifts at the end of the day and went up to the “mirante” (overlook?) to get a view of the whole city before driving back to Amanda’s for the night.  Back in Belo Horizonte, we went to a samba rock bar with a live band playing in Centro.  Samba rock is so much fun!  Some of the songs were like samba versions of popular songs in the States right now, and others were just edgier versions of normal samba songs.  Either way, it was a lot of fun to listen and dance to.

On Tuesday we got a late starting heading back to Rio.  The drive is 6 or 7 hours long, but with rain, hills, having to turn around because no one had cash for the road tolls, stopping for dinner, needing to get gas and find a car wash, we didn’t make it home until around 2am (~12 hours later).  Today we had to snap back to real life and hit the ground running, now that we only have one month left before we go back to the States.  Keia and I are going to try hard to quit speaking so much English, and we have a lot of schoolwork to get through before the semester is up.

I keep forgetting that tomorrow (now today) is Thanksgiving!  We three Americans might try to pull together a dinner for our friends.  I hope everyone has a good one, we’re all missing you here.

Love,

Molly

Finally Making Lemons into Lemonade

Finally Making Lemons into Lemonade

Day 134

Shout out to Keia on her birthday! (technically yesterday, because now it’s the 14th..)

I’m pretty sure that last week was more or less relaxed, as I predicted it would be.  There was a jazz festival in Leblon on Saturday and our friend premiered DJing for the first time at a tiny venue in Botafogo while Sunday was another perfect day on the beach with friends.  I can’t seem to remember out-rightly much of anything before that though, because the last two-three days have been absolutely insane.  I once again remember what it is like to be so busy that you forget you had to pee, and I also remember how much better I function at that level of activity, weirdly enough.  I don’t know if it’s because I am more productive or social or too tired to care, but I always seem to be in a better mindset when I’ve slept 5 hours a night a few nights in a row after 10 or 12 hour days away from the house.  If that’s any indication as to what kind of job I’m going to have (or should have) I don’t know, but I’m still really torn about the decision I have to make for Deloitte by the end of this month.  My offer deadline was moved to November 26, which gives me just over 10 days to make up my mind.  I feel like there are still a lot of options I haven’t considered.  I feel like I have to choose between money and security versus certain skills and newness that I want.  Speaking of those skills and newness though, we were supposed to register for classes for next semester this past week.  I am not able to just yet since I have to work out a hold on my account, but I only have two more required classes to take for my degree so I got permission to take accelerated entry level French!  I can’t remember if I already mentioned that I started listening to Pimsleur audio tapes in French, but I am really excited to learn more languages now that I’ve seen how entirely possible it is to communicate without the need to be fluent.  The fact that learning a new language opens up the opportunity to communicate with a whole new culture of people is absolutely amazing to me.

As for this week, we got up early Monday morning to head to Fundão since we had a meeting with Professor Orlando and now have to attend his class on Mondays and Wednesdays.   We talked over our Capstone project, and today we had our first chance to make contact with kids here in Brazil and test some of our ideas!  Just for a quick re-cap:  our project deals with emergency preparedness and disaster risk reduction specifically related to urban flooding and landslides in high risk (generally favela) communities in Rio de Janeiro.  We want to develop a game (computer or mobile) that teaches principles of emergency preparedness to children ages 12-16.  A game called Stop Disasters Now (www.stopdisasters.org) was already funded by the UN for this very purpose, and the company that actually created the game has gotten lots of positive feedback about it over the years.  Our idea was to take this existing game in to schools and design an experiment to test whether this game actually accomplishes what it was set out to do by evaluating how much the kids learn while they are playing and what they like and don’t like about the game.  With an audience, some data to back the positive feedback, and a plan to expand the game to include Portuguese and a landslide scenario (currently only has flooding, wildfire, etc., but no landslide), we think there might be an opportunity to work with the UN and PlayerThree on this project in the future.  Fortunately for us, Bernardo’s mom is the director of the oldest school in Brazil (the emperor’s school).  She managed to pull a class for us into the computer lab there today so that we could test our plan, and it went really well.  We had to translate all of the instructions to Portuguese and print up a sort of pre-test and post-test survey for them to take.  (Printing and making copies is not only expensive here, it is difficult.  You know that when you almost cry because the guy who made your copies after you spent an hour getting them to print gets mad at you because he misunderstood you and you don’t know the word for stapler.)  We let them play the game, screen captured some of their play to analyze their decision making later, and interviewed a few of them afterward.  They all seemed to really like it and were very interested and cooperative.  We’re thinking we should probably go with less kids for the next run since our 33 was a bit much today, but it was an awesome first run and I finally feel like we are going somewhere with this project!

Tomorrow we have class with Professor Orlando and will share our results of the experiment with him.  We also have one more night class for MLG before the feriadão!  We have officially decided to go on a road trip and booked a car for Thursday through Tuesday. We waited a bit too long to book flights anywhere without paying an exorbitant amount of money, so I researched a little bit and created a sort  of loop we can take around Minas Gerais so that at least we will see something different and get to explore another state of Brazil.  The first stop is São Thomé das letras.  It is a city of stone and mountaintops and waterfalls and mystics that sounds really interesting and is highly recommended by the people I know who have been there.  We don’t know where we’ll go right afterward, but our friend Amanda lives in Belo Horizonte (the capital of Minas Gerais) and will be home that weekend so on Sunday we will travel there for stay with her.  From Belo Horizonte it is easy enough to go to the old mining town of Ouro Preto and back in a day.  On our way home Tuesday I think we’ll stop by the city of Tiradentes and explore a bit before making our way back to Rio.  We still have 3 nights of hostels to book and packing to do, but it will have to wait for tomorrow.  We were assigned a new project on simulation for Pesquisa Operacional II that we’ll need to look into when we get back and real life commences again.  Right now we just need to get through tomorrow.

Another random yet exciting occurrence is that one of Joe’s roommates will be moving out of his apartment the first of December.  I think Keia and I will probably move in, avoid having to pay a full month of rent at the pousada only to stay two weeks, get to see what it’s like being in an actual apartment for a couple of weeks, and have a laundry machine and air conditioning in-house!

I feel like I’m definitely missing some things from this post, but it      s around 4am here and we have another full day tomorrow.  I’m sorry that it’s been so long since my last one.  I’ll catch back up after the trip and make sure to include anything I forgot!

Love, Molly