Sojourn in the Land of Poets, Lakes, and Volcanoes

Selwyn Chu
J.D. Candidate 2012, UCI Law

From April 2007 to July 2009, I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Ticuantepe, Nicaragua, working in the area of small business development. The following is excerpted from an essay written in late 2008 as I approached the last several months of my service.

On a dreary Tuesday in early October, I wake up with the masses, dragging my body out of bed with the weary reluctance and routinized proficiency that comes with being regularly conscious at such an hour. It is true I do not—to use the local parlance—“dawn” well, but I sleep well enough. It helps that the nights are quiet where I am. No confused roosters crowing throughout the madrugada. No dogs howling and roaming the streets like a canine mafia.

After going through the motions of my morning routine, I carefully gather my materials for class: a whiteboard eraser; several acrylic markers, half of which are already drying up; a manila folder containing my lesson plans; and thirty strips of oaktag representing fifteen shares of stock and fifteen shares of dividends for the imaginary bakery Don Pan. The topic for today? Acciones.

The typical public high school in Nicaragua is an open-air collection of rectangular classroom buildings arranged around the perimeter of a central courtyard. The blue-white tri-band of the Nicaraguan flag is somewhere prominently featured and eminently visible, as are images of the revolutionary hero Augusto Sandino and the country’s poet laureate Rubén Darío—on murals, posters, bulletin boards. Aesthetic details vary of course, but the template is consistent and Ticuantepe’s Instituto fits it comfortably. Upon setting foot in the school, I become, as always, privy to its other characteristic traits—the absence of schoolbooks, the cracked and peeling whiteboards, the dilapidated desks, and the fifty or so students in blue-white uniform seated snugly in a twenty-three-by-twenty-six foot classroom. Time has so muted these actualities that they have seemingly lost their power to affect me. Yet time has done nothing to diminish my continuing marvel at the vitality of this place, a fullness of life that daily pours out of the classroom doorways and streams through the glass-blind windows like audible sunlight. It permeates the very air, condensing it with a vigor made tangible by the sheer force of presence of 500 jóvenes.

Well over a year into my service, the act of walking into the classroom is no longer a noteworthy event, neither for me nor my once-curious students now accustomed to my weekly presence. Several greet me warmly as I enter: “Buenos días, profe!” “Qué onda, teacher?” “Cómo amaneció?” We exchange pleasantries and make small talk. The rest regard me with a respectful indifference, one my Nicaraguan friends and fellow teachers at the school would perhaps recognize, and continue with their conversations until whenever I deem it appropriate to get started. Standing there before these kids for the umpteenth time, calmly collecting my thoughts and waiting for my counterpart to arrive and for everyone else to settle down, the early days of my service, with all their fear and uncertainty, feel far-removed. Things are different now. Habit has a way of making ordinary what had once been novel; benign what was once daunting. Eventually my counterpart arrives, and together we begin the class.

 * * *

 Time and again, I am asked if I believe in God—by friends, by acquaintances, by the Jehovah’s Witnesses that show up on my doorstep every other Sunday. It seems to interest a great many of them when I say I do not—at least, not in the way they do. Some mistake the Peace Corps for a missionary group. I correct them, but even I am sometimes at a loss to explain just who it is we are and what it is we believe in. The more I think about it, the more I come to believe that we too are a product of faith, albeit a different kind of faith. Not a faith in God or in miracles—no world, no countries, no people to be saved—but merely a faith in human volition, a faith that what we do has meaning and what we intend will one day be. I suspect our two years here is just that: a trial of faith. It may be that reality has no affirmation to offer that faith, but reality, I have learned, is often wrong: it represents only how things are, not how they should be. Even when right, its moments tend to come in flashes, not flourishes—there for our acknowledgment if not always for our taking. But they are there. As true as chance. As real as gravity.