Tuesday, March 25, 2014

My last days (daze?) in Nicaragua

Well, my time here in Nicaragua is almost over. Time flies when you you don't have a concrete job and only work 3 days a week. But as my time here is coming to a close I guess I should let you know about my daily life here in Nicaragua.

First off, there is no hot water for showers. That is annoying but not terrible. Just unexpected. Also, I wash all my clothes by hand which means I don't wash my clothes very often. I sleep in the office which is free but noisy especially with all the different groups coming in and out of the office. My coffee/breakfast habits here are persistent and still a hold over from before Peace Corps (one egg, 1/3 cup oatmeal and a cup of coffee) which is rather comforting. We figured out how to make toast and I will send a picture of me making some pour over coffee. Otherwise, life here is really relaxed. It feels a lot like Peace Corps. Mainly because one of the people we hang out with most often is a current Peace Corps Volunteer and she happens to live across the street from the office. But beyond volunteers I met a woman named Amanda who does green buying for a company called Thrive Farmers. She is very knowledgeable about coffee and just an overall very intelligent woman. We have been spending a lot of time with her and her boyfriend Erick, who is from San Ramon and a great artist. 

In regards to work, we help Marisol out with her English class as well as hold our own. She is teaching English to people working in the tourism sector and local artisans while we hold English class for local kids 3 times a week—twice in Matagalpa and once in San Ramon. The kids are great and we have fun but it isn't anything like China (seriously, the realia room with Disney was amazing). Also, with only 5 weeks it is hard to really establish class routines without a native speaker in the room and losing a whole week to nothing but classroom English. We would have gone into the routines if we had more time, but alas, 5 weeks it was just enough time for kids to learn some simple phrases and play a lot games. But the kids seem to really like Whitney, and since Whitney likes me they seem to tolerate me. One girl really likes punching me in the stomach. Sounds like my classes in China, there was always one kid who really likes to hit me. Oh well, I guess I am just very hittable.

Other than teaching English I am not sure what we do. We hike a lot, hang out with other volunteers. We spend most of our time with an Irish volunteer names Aine, the PCV Marisol, and a very cool volunteer from Vermont names Julia. Julia works with the same organization as I do, Aine works down the street and Marisol lives across the street so I guess it makes sense that we all hang out. We seem to have gotten into the habit of getting ice cream every afternoon around 4. I don't know why or how it started, but it seems to be a habit we picked up. I guess there are worse habits to have.

In regards to random stuff we did in Nicaragua, we can add releasing baby turtles into the sea to the list. Which was pretty awesome. We also got to visit another ecolodge, Selva Negra, this one on a much larger scale than Finca Esperanza Verde. And we got to hear howler monkeys but they managed to allude us so we didn't get a chance to see them.

As you can see, life is life. Whitney and I are doing well. Preparing for our time in the US and Alaska for the summer. We land back in the US on April 3rd and from there have no solid plans. Right now I am working on a blog post about “Voluntourism” but it needs some editing and little bit more research. 

my coffee tools

Julia and I with baby sea turtles

Making toast

Making coffee

Making English

They respect Whitney more than me


Coffee blossoms

The church at Selva Negra

P.s. It should be noted that I look disheveled constantly because there is no mirror in the office so I have no idea how I look.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

2 years worth of crap pt. 4

Email 7:

Well, this is my first update from Nicaragua and it is my birthday! YAY ME!

Anyways, Nicaragua has been great. I am meeting a lot of great people and organizations. Within my first few days of being here I got to see my first coffee farm. It was pretty awesome. The person we met, Marvin, was very knowledgeable and his farm and open to share his knowledge. The name of the farm was La Hermandad (The Brotherhood) and they do a lot of amazing things. They have no electricity but they have a school to for the local kids which is a positive. It was a kind of low altitude farm (between 900 and 1100 meters) so not all the coffee was specialty grade but they do have some specialty plots. They also have some certifications which they were proud of but weren't sure if it really paid off in the end. They have one direct trade account which they love and want more because they get better prices for their coffee but they usually end up selling their coffee to a middle man because it is easier and more of a guaranteed sale. I will send some pictures when I can. But it was right after picking so there aren't a lot of cherries on the trees and this year was a pretty bad year for leaf rust disease. The next farm I talked to had lost 70 to 80 percent of their crop to leaf rust.

The next “farm” we visited was Finca Esperanza Verde and it is an ecolodge located about a 3 or 4 hour hike away from San Ramon. They have done a lot of work creating a beautiful nature reserve full of hiking trails, coffee fields, and vegetable gardens. It was started by former Peace Corps volunteers in 1999 and was a non-profit for a long time. A year ago it was bought by a lovely couple and they are making it for profit but using it to enrich the lives of the locals by only hiring locals and mostly females to work. They only hire women to pick their coffee because they tend to be more deliberate than the men in their picking. Their words, not mine. They also had won a Cup of Excellence long long ago (2007) and are trying to regrow the coffee side. A lot of the trees were old and needed replacing, they lost a lot to the leaf rust, and they wanted to try different varietals. They came in knowing nothing about coffee and are getting a crash course in the producing side. It was great to sit and talk with them about their experience.

Email 8:

Hello y'all! Well, I guess I should tell you about the last couple of weeks.

First off, thanks for the birthday greetings. My birthday was awesome! We spent the evening in Matagalpa and hung out and drank (quite a bit, I might add) and had pizza. It was a karaoke night so the crowd at the bar was very into the evening. We had an entire section to ourselves as we were the loud, drunk foreigners. We drank a lot of really nice, local rum called Flora de Caña which tastes much better than the national beers here. That was really all that happened.

The next day embarked on a long mission to get to Honduras. Yes, I went to Honduras...and I DIDN'T get shot. We spent the next week in Danli hanging out with Kevin's family. They are wonderful and very open I understand much better than I had before. I am very grateful that he was willing to introduce Whitney and I to such an intimate part of his life. We were supposed to go to the Mayan ruins in Copan but we ended up changing our plans because the cost was extremely high. A round trip bus from the capital was $76 USD then it would have been another $15 USD to get into the ruins. Plus, we would have had to get a hotel for 2 nights because it would be 1 day of travel from Danli to Copan. That is $91 USD just for transportation to Copan and the entrance fee not including the cost of a hotel. To put it in perspective, over the course of 8 days I spent less than $150 USD for all my food, buses, taxis, and plus allergy meds. So, going to Copan was a bit outrageous. As such, we went on several day hikes around Danli and just relaxed. It was great. But it feels good to be back in San Ramon (mainly because that is where my computer was).

Now that we are back work has actually started. Right now, because of our (mostly my) lack of language skills we are teaching English to kids and adults. We hold about 3 classes between San Ramon and Matagalpa. On Mondays and Fridays we have 2 classes and Wednesday we have 1 class. Wednesday nights we are going to start helping out a Peace Corps volunteer with her English classes too. Despite not being very busy with teaching we have been helping out their Bookmobile with some activities. Also, a group of high schoolers have been here for the past week and we have been hanging out with them too. So, we are keeping busy, when the high school group leaves I am sure we will help out the Bookmobile more.

Speaking of the high school group, San Ramon is very saturated with volunteer groups and NGOs. No, seriously. It is almost ridiculous with the amount of people who are here volunteering. Besides Planting hope and their 4 volunteers living in San Ramon, there is a group of Spanish students doing some sort of educational project, there is an Irish volunteer working here doing HIV/AIDS outreach with a local NGO, an organization for soon-to-be/new mothers, an NGO called Sister Communities of San Ramon, and finally Peace Corps volunteers—well, there were 2 until last week when one COSed (finished her service) and a couple others that I probably missed/don't know of. All of these organization serve a city of about 2,800 people. But, there is approximately 30,000 people in the municipality, in regards to the municipality that isn't much, it just feels like a lot when the urban population is only 2,800 people.

I think that brings us up to speed. Thanks for reading! When I get pictures of my students I will email them. Until then, enjoy these lovely pictures of Honduras and Nicaragua. Take care!

Holy crap! We are all caught up! The next post will be a real, honest update and not me pasting in old emails. Weird, what am I going to do? What will I say? I might have to take some time to go over some topics to discuss. 

Anyways, thanks for sticking it through the hard times of reading old emails. Hopefully the next post will be a bit more engaging. 

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

2 years worth of crap pt.3

This is the last email from China, after this it will be the 2 emails I have sent from Nicaragua.

Email 5:

First off, Whitney has now arrived in Beijing and is staying. She is living with me and working at a different center. One of my roommates broke her contract and left China so we had an opening so Whitney just filled that spot. She has been here about 12 weeks and it is going very well.

Remember how I mentioned I was thinking of getting a bike? Well, I did. It is fantastic. Riding in the beautiful, sunny weather is great...I am just covered in sweat constantly. Seriously, I am so sweaty. Beijing summers are hot and humid. They average is about 30 C (find a converter online) and about 40% or so humidity. But, back to the bike. I do have a helmet, and 2 locks so I don't join the legions of people who have had their bikes stolen in Beijing (knock on wood). But also remember how I was afraid of getting hit my cars? Well, no longer afraid of that...I have been hit...twice...and 1 scooter. Don't worry, the bike is fine and so am I. :D The first time I had a car turn right and hit me. I hit the ground, picked myself up, picked the gravel out of my hand and kept riding home. The next one I was riding and a car pulled into the bike lane, going the wrong direction on a one way street in front of a police station and I hit the car while it was turning into the street. I pulled the glass out of my shoulder and continued on. I met my friends and went rock climbing. The scooter was just stupid. I was passing the scooter. There were some low hanging tree branches--it was a weeping willow tree with long, droopy branches that seem more like vines and branches. We were riding next to each other in a narrow bike lane when he hit one of those branches (by the way, you could clearly see that we were going to run into them) and I did too. The difference between him and me is that he freaked out an swerved into me pinning my ankle against my pedal and the small fence separating bike from car traffic. Once again, I was fine, just a small limp for a couple of days, and a couple cuts around my ankle and calf. My bike pedal got slightly bent but otherwise it is fine. So, that was the worst accident. And I must reiterate, I AM FINE!

Got the chance to ride with with an amateur bike racer. He took Whitney and I on a “short” and “quick” ride one morning...through the busiest part of Beijing. Whitney and I left our house at 6:30 AM to meet him about 10 Km from our house, waited about 10 minutes for him. When he got I was a little scared because his legs were the size of me—not to mention hairier than me—and had a lot of the expensive gear that I don't. Such as clip in shoes, a very very expensive, light bike frame, racing uniform AKA spandex from head to toe, etc. Whitney was in better shape than me, she has bike shorts (they are padded) and gloves because she has done this sort of thing before and rode regularly in Ningbo. I, on the other hand, have never done a ride like this before in my life and therefore I had on my gym clothes. We rode with him for 1 hour, at his pace, and it was obvious that he wasn't pushing himself. I was sweating and swearing after the first 10 minutes. When Whitney and I decided it was time for us to turn around because a) we were tired, b) we didn't want to hold him back anymore and c) my butt hurt we had ridden around 20 Km...after 50 minutes. After riding for about 30 minutes, we saw Adam (the guy we were following) pass us at a speed I can only judge as inhuman. But we made it home safely and by 9:30. So, if we are doing the math, in 3 hours, Whitney and I rode approximately 60 Km. Which isn't much until you consider it was on 2 of Beijing's busiest roads, dodging pedestrians, other cyclists, buses pulling in and out of traffic, and taxis who think the bike lane was made for them. The funny thing is, this is the “slow” guy that another group suggested when Whitney couldn't keep up with them.

Life here is good. I am enjoying China very much. I also got a second job. Not because Disney English isn't paying enough but because that work isn't fulfilling to me. I love working with kids, my coworkers, but the top-down organization of such a large company doesn't agree with me and doesn't work well for the business of education. My second job is, surprise, making coffee for a company called Ocean Grounds—that name is changing because of arguments between the previous owners over trademark ownership. They do direct trade (relationship coffees), small batch roasting, public cuppings (stop giggling), espresso, hand pour-over drip coffee, some amazing specialty drinks, whole sale—green and roasted coffees. I work only 16 hours a week, on my days off, and primarily work to help with some training issues, machine cleaning, cupping, and overall taste quality. My hand pour-overs are still a little off, always a little on the bitter side. My milk texturing (steaming) needs a lot of work. They consider it too thick. I have also been talking with them about other avenues of employment with them. Learning how to roast, possibly moving into green buying after some work on my cupping skills, and training their barista team on proper techniques and drink building to increase efficiency and decrease chance of repetitive stress injuries. But I am really enjoying my job there. Working with coffee and customers is really something I enjoy. I really think food service is where I will find a”career” (wow, that is a scary word...better not think about it too long, let's change the subject)

Otherwise, life is life. I keep getting pressure to extend my contract so they can give a promotion. But my sense of...pride?...maybe self respect has a hard time dealing with that with working for the mouse for too long. I like my job, I like the people I work with, I like working with kids, but the mouse and working for a heavy handed top-down company hurts my soul. If 24 year old Ryan met 29 year old Ryan, I am sure he would punch me in the face. That said, I will still be extending my contract for 3 months so that Whitney and I can finish our contracts together. Then I will hopefully travel a little bit on my way back to the US. I have a couple of friends in Manilla (the Philippines) and want to stop by Hawaii—it has been a long time since I visited them.

Speaking of vacations Whitney and I are heading to Guangzhou and possibly Hong Kong for the national holiday—the first week of October. That would be exciting. We are looking at staying at one hostel right next to the pearl river in Guangzhou, but everything is very expensive in Hong Kong so I am not sure if we will make it there. Also, looking forward to eating a lot of dim sum while in the region, that is the region where it comes from. I have learned to make a couple of dim sum dishes: 烧卖 (shao mai),麻团 (ma tuar/tuan—fried glutinous rice balls with red bean filling, the sesame balls Jonny and I like), 芝麻虾土司 (zhi ma xia tu si, sesame shrimp toast). But I won't be able to attend many more cooking classes because I am now working almost every evening. But oh well. This vacation should be fun. It is going to be warm and humid there. Tropical. Also, I will be very close to one of the coffee growing regions of China. There are lots of options in the region. It is supposed to be very beautiful and the city is supposed to be nice. So, we will see what we can do.

In other news, my Chinese name is 萧文昌 (xiao wen chang). So that is pretty cool. 昌 means prosperous while 文 has a lot of meanings, mostly revolving around language or culture. Here is the translation table from google translate (so take that as you will):

certain natural phenomena
formal ritual
literary composition

That is all I have for now. Yes, I am still working on getting to Nicaragua to volunteer sometime next year, the details are unfolding slowly and I will let y'all know more when I have a more concrete idea about what is happening. Sorry that was sooooooooooooo long. I hope you found some time to read through it. I hope this message finds you all in good health and spirits.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

2 years worth of crap pt.2

Well, for those of you have made it through the last "wall of text" thanks. Here is another. HA!

Email 3:
Well, seems like it is time for another email. It has been way too long and I apologize for that. Life here is always moving, always busy. Since I last wrote I have seen the Summer Palace and it is amazingly beautiful, and I took a weekend trip to Shanghai. I will go to the summer palace many times while I am here, I would like to see it covered in snow.

Speaking of snow, it we had our second snowfall this week. It was only a centimeter and wasn't a heavy, wet snow. So it isn't a big problem. The temperature has been very cold, and it is also very windy which just makes it worse. It hasn't been as cold as Bulgaria but it is still very early in the winter. Apparently the worse month is also the one where I get a 2 week vacation. YAY! February is going to be very crazy.

My birthday falls directly in the middle of the 2 week vacation schedule. I am hoping to go to Chongqing and Sichuan for my birthday. It is supposedly very tropical, and therefore WARM. Time to keep up the tradition I started in Peace Corps of going someplace warm during February. Best part of this one is that I don't even need to leave China. Sichuan is the area of China where the great panda is indigenous to. Near the city of Chengdu there is a large nature preserve for the pandas. There are also lots of hiking and monasteries in the area.

In other news I am learning a lot about cooking. I had a dinner party with a former colleague and her family and I learned how to cook duck leg, Chinese eggplant, Lotus root, and a fish they call “river fish”, and a couple other dishes. Everything was very delicious. I also learned about hot pot. It is just a pot of boiling, or near boiling broth (usually very very spicy) and a lot of raw vegetables and raw meat. To cook them just put them into to pot and viola, they cook. Then you dip it into a sauce which seems similar a Thai peanut sauce. I wish there were hot pot places in the States, but I am sure that it would be a very expensive place to insure because the customer cooks everything. If someone gets food poisoning it would be difficult to find out who was the cause. Additionally, I taught a couple of coworkers how to cook pancakes. They turned out alright. I think I bought the wrong kind of flour. They tasted alright, they just didn't look like white, fluffy pancakes. I think they will be getting a toaster oven and then I will teach them how to make chicken pot pies, regular pies, Mousika (a Bulgarian dish), some other dishes as well. And if we have a day of doing nothing, perhaps I will even teach them a couple of soups, such as leek and potato soup, split pea soup, and simple chicken noodle.

And that is only the beginning of my culinary exploits. I found the best coffee in Beijing last week and am now composing this email there. It is run by a couple of guys from California. The place is called Ocean Grounds and is run by two Q-Graders named John Lewis and Jim Lee. I finished a cupping class (coffee tasting class) here about an hour or two ago. They are an awesome couple of guys. They focus on relationship coffees (direct trade) and roast in house. It is amazing. The coffee is top quality and roasted very well and always to best suit the coffee. I got some Ethiopian coffee that was roast just past what is called a cinnamon roast and it bursts with lemon blossom, blueberry, buttery mouthfeel and crisp finish. It is the best coffee I have had since I left for the Peace Corps. The class felt a bit abbreviated and rushed, though. Mainly because the man leading the cupping was flying to Panama and Nicaragua to search for new coffees. After finding this place I am so jazzed and excited by coffee again it feels great. I am looking forward to spending a lot more time here (they even have beer on tap, if they served lunch and dinner I would never leave) and talking with them about the current state of the coffee industry and learning more about what is going on at origin (where the coffee is grown) and about more opportunities for work, or volunteer work, at origin. I am very excited about this.

Email 4:
Sorry it has been so long since my last email. I have been very very busy. Work has been work. Teaching and working with kids is fantastic. If it weren't for them I would have quit long ago...in fact I probably wouldn't have even taken the job in the first place. I recently went through a 2 day training on how to be a “Disney Trainer” which basically means that I get to teach other people who work for Disney how to do their jobs better. Which is nice and an honor, I guess, because I have only been working for them for 7 months. Because of that I have been working on developing a training for how to deal with cross-cultural relationships with a specific focus on working relationships and communication styles. It seems very similar to the trainings I went through in Peace Corps...in fact I am stealing a lot of ideas from those trainings. I am also organizing the second Academic Idea Exchange for Beijing as well. So, my plate is pretty full with extra work on top of my 10 classes. Also, I recently had one of my classes observed by our Regional Language Learning Director (RLLD) as part of a promotion from “Foreign Trainer” (foreign teacher) to “Senior Foreign Trainer.” The promotion is basically being a Shift Leader where others would come to me for advice and instruction on aspects of their job as well as leading official trainings at the center and being the person in charge when my boss is out of the office. Weee. I am not really holding my breath about this promotion because it usually means a year extension on my contract and I don't really want to continue working for Disney longer than I have. But we'll see.

Outside of work life has been...well, stressful inasmuch as I would like to be with Whitney and it looks like I won't be able to do that before my contract is up. The location transfer process is long and frustrating. It is always difficult when you want to be with someone and you cannot. It is also frustrating because it seems like I have been in this situation for the last 3+ years. But we are working on it and we are both being positive and hoping for the best. Otherwise, I am doing fine. I think I will be buying a bicycle soon. As the weather is getting nicer I am finding myself wanting to be outside more but in order to get to anywhere I have to go to the subway and therefore not be outside. Don't worry, I won't die (famous last words, right?). I will buy a helmet.

As for my vacations (yes, plural) they were great. My first one was to Chengdu and Chongqing. This was with Whitney for the Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) back in February. Chengdu is a great city and I hope they are doing well there. In case you hadn't heard, they were hit with a 7.0 quake last week and I am not sure how many people died or are injured. Anyways, while I was there I got to see the Giant Panda reserve, and ancient village, the Sichuan Opera, and Mt. Qing Chen—or something like that, it is the “birthplace” of Taoism. The giant pandas are cute but not as cute as red pandas. Seriously, they look like a panda and a cat had a baby—well, they are more like racoons, but whatever. Chongqing was fun as well. There was less to see outside of the city but the city itself was very beautiful. We went to an ancient portion of the town and it was so crowded we could barely walk. We ended up finding a little tea shop and drinking a lovely pot of Pu'ar and playing a lot of табла (backgammon). Overall is was a wonderful trip and I found it hard, not only to say goodbye to her, but to head back to Beijing in general (it was still winter and very cold).

My second trip was to the lovely city of Ningbo. The city itself is very nice and small (only 8 million people. HA!) and has a beautiful lake within a short (45 minute) bike ride from it. Also, the lovely Whitney lives there. This trip was only for 4 days. But it was great to leave the still dead looking Beijing and go to a place that had flowers and I could wear shorts. There weren't any adventures, just lots of bike riding and getting to see all the places she goes to regularly so I can get a feel for her life there. It was very nice and comforting. For being a “small” city it has a strong ex-pat community.

Lastly, I figured out what my last name is in Mandarin and how to write it in a simplified for. So, Siu is Xiao (first tone for those of you who know what that means) and is written like this . I hope you all can see that okay. Now the trick is to get mom and dad to send me a picture of my middle name (the characters, duh) so I can know what my full Chinese name is in Mandarin. Man Cheung doesn't mean anything in Mandarin, plus the way of writing Chinese with Latin letters has changed a lot over the years.