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Posts Tagged ‘Peace Corps’

During the last two months of my Peace Corps service, I began to collaborate with CIASPE on a rooftop garden in a day-care center (t.e.p.e). The students in the Center are at risk of childhood labor and/or at risk of living and working on the street. The school garden was to serve as a way to connect the children with nature, learn a useful set of skills, and offer a break from the regular classroom routine. Sandra, my co-worker, and I were to facilitate sessions with 3 different age groups ranging from kindergarten to high school. The planning of each session was complex, as each age group was very distinct, but the planned activity for each day was to be the same.

We began with the base – soil and composting. The high school boys weren’t too happy about using a shovel or getting dirty. The middle school kids really liked soil, so much so that they found it fun to throw it at classmates. The kindergarten students were content simply running their hands through the soil. After Day 1, a day full of trying to maintain control, attention, and in-tact fingers, Sandra and I went back to CIASPE exhausted. We began to pick apart the session to see what went right, what went wrong, and how we could move past incidents like “soil in the face of a friend” and the resultant hysterics. We knew we had to change our approach and come to an agreement with the students about appropriate guidelines. That’s when Guideline 1 was created: No throwing soil at oneself or another student.

With each session, the list of guidelines grew. We utilized guidelines rather than rules to avoid becoming potentates. We wanted to create an environment in which the students had control over one another, the sessions, and the activities. After all, it was their garden. Sandra and I were not going to water it daily. They were. We were not going to decide what was planted. They were. We knew how important it is that the participants’ have a sense of ownership of the garden, because experience has shown that school gardens are everyone’s when there are pretty butterfly visitors, but when it comes time to weed it is no one’s. We needed the students to be excited and more importantly, invested.

The chaos boiled down. That was until they found a frog. That session was a ruckus. But instead of fighting it, Sandra and I abandoned seeding to learn more about frogs’ habitat and what they need to survive. So, things were going along pretty swimmingly and the rooftop garden was growing. We had some beets ready to harvest, some chard, and the herbs were doing great with Queretaro’s full sun. Many students were still learning the names of many of the veggies, so we wanted to keep the excitement growing and actually have them taste the fruits of their labor. To experience earthy beets, distinguish chard from lettuce, and bite into a crisp carrot is to fall in love with a garden. To give the students that experience, we designed a cooking class.

We were scared, yes. Little kids with knives. Little kids with blenders. Older kids with knives. Older kids with blenders. But we threw caution to the wind, and the result was pure beauty. The kids, of all levels, were the most behaved they have ever been. We chopped up some beets, and prepared them with tajín and lime – they wanted to lick the plate! We prepared water with swiss chard, lime, basil, and chia – they held out their cups for more. We made a big salad with lettuce, carrots, beets, onion, amaranth, and pear tomatoes – they began planning to seed more carrots. As a foodie, I was elated to watch their excitement as they bit into the beet and commented to one another, “this tastes different than the one my mom buys,” and “we need to plant more of these.”

As Sandra and I discussed the session, we realized that we didn’t need any new guidelines that day. All along, we just had to give them some green juice.

the twigster,

Josephine

PS: I am now a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer back in NYC planning for the next adventure. Stay tuned!

Watering the Garden

Can't Get Enough of those BEETS!

Future Foodies!

Future Foodies!

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This Mexican culture that mocks death and celebrates it at the same has inspired me to write the following calavera. Calaveras are full of subtle or not so subtle wisecracks that criticize the living.  With that said,  please don’t take my poem too seriously…

In dedication to the dedicated Peace Corps Volunteer

Here lies a good Peace Corps Volunteer,
Who died of grief
From being stood up at community meetings,
Left alone at each meeting;
She has died of a defeat
Received a blow too big
And such was her foolishness
That she was already in the tomb,
Turned into skull and bones
And waiting for community members
to join for the meeting
of the dead.

the twigster,

Josephine

PS: Today was the last bio-intensive garden lesson in the communities. People are growing veggies!

Death by Diabetes: Dedicated To Those Who Loved Their Sugar

From Death to Compost

From Death to Compost: Dedicated to Those Who Have Fought For the Natural World

Diamond Encrusted: Dedicated to Those Who Die in Vain

Diamond Encrusted: Dedicated to Those Who Have Died in Vain

Hand in Hand: Dedicated to Those Who Have Died of a Broken Heart

Hand in Hand: Dedicated to Those Who Have Died of a Broken Heart

Cempasúchil: Dedicated to Those Who Have Not Given Up on Life and Her Beauty

Cempasúchil: Dedicated to Those Who Have Not Given Up on Life and Her Beauty

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Today I paid close attention while Yolanda made salsa. You see, a few years back my friends and I decided to throw a party. A Tulane party. It might be my italian background, or just my love for food, but every time there is talk of a party, my mind jumps to the food planning. As a college student, my budget wasn’t large by any means so I planned on contributing salsa. Chips and dip. Party classic. I chopped at least 20 tomatoes, sprinkled in a bit of cilantro and red onion, and called it a masterpiece. I lovingly set out this large quantity of salsa, and awaited the praise.

My roommates hassled me about the salsa. I assured them that yes, everyone was going to eat it. And no, 5 bowls of salsa wasn’t overkill. The party ended. The salsa didn’t. Needless to say, whenever another party plan came up, I was always mockingly asked if I would be making the famous Josephine salsa. As I said earlier, I paid very close attention to Yolanda today as she was making authentic, Mexican salsa. Today I have reached my one year mark working in the Peace Corps, México.  After a full year, I can tell you this much. My salsa will never be ridiculed again.

Here are the secrets..

– Put the tomatoes and a jalapeño(s) on the stovetop until the skin is a little charred

– Add the tomatoes,  jalapeño(s) half a clove of garlic, salt, and cilantro to the blender

DONE.

the twigster,

Josephine

PS: New Orleans, you are in my heart today and every day. 504.

PPS: Check out another volunteer’s reflection on her one year mark here in Mexico.

PhotoBooth helped me to capture some important moments over the year…

Adventure Beginning

Red Lips, Always.

My own place! … after living with two host families.

Hospital Visit: Food Poisoning. Early In-Service Training.

Hospital Visit: Food Poisoning. Early In-Service Training.

One of the friends I have met along the way.

One of the friends I have met along the way.

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Within the first hour of your journey from Puebla through the hills of the Sierra Norte the environment has transitioned from stained graffiti buildings to endless emerald green valleys. The views and vibrant jewel tones are enough to discount the four hour journey, and keep your gaze fixed on the foggy bus window. As you wind and weave through the hills, you pass small town after small town. You see steam in the air from wood-burning stoves. You catch sight of women dressed in traditional, embroidered clothing tending to the stoves, and adding to a stack of warm tortillas. Handwritten signs posted on the casitas entice you to buy locally grown coffee, and allude to the hot cup of dark coffee that awaits you in town. As you continue, your stress evaporates into the clouds you seem to be joining.

The bus pulls into another pueblo. You have arrived. As you step onto the rain-weathered cobble streets, you soak in the romance of the quiet town, and the humidity of Cuetzalan warmly embraces you. You walk into town passing restaurants boasting regional dishes of pipián and mole poblano, and you fall deeper and deeper into a trance. You forget the day, the month, even the year. Following the winding roads of the town, you have indeed joined the clouds. You wonder if you will find your way out again. You are enchanted.

the twigster,

Josephine

PS: Cuetzalan is known for beautiful waterfalls. I went in the middle of a tropical storm, and was unable to make it out there, but I hear they are absolutely breath-taking.

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I have struggled with the incongruous factors of wanting to grow vegetables, but not having a place to do it. For that reason, I began to look into urban gardening, and visiting such places as the Eagle Street Rooftop Farm in Brooklyn, NY. When I saw the more than ample rooftop space in my apartment here in Huimilpan, México, I knew the time had finally arrived to experiment with rooftop farming, or more specifically, container gardening. Over the past few months, I have found that it is indeed possible to grow a significant amount of food in containers and my roof is transforming from a concrete wasteland to my lush Eden of edibles. Ok, I haven’t quite reached Paradise yet, but I do have fresh lettuce, cilantro, rosemary, arugula, swiss chard, lavender, dill, basil, and baby tomato plants. I have definitely come a long way from where I first started.

The same principles of the biointensive gardening method in earth gardening can be applied in container gardening. That is to say, that the association of the crops is also important in the containers and companion planting can help plants to fight and keep away plagues and even improve the plants’ flavor.  Check out examples of said “companions” here. You also want to add the flowers not only for the aesthetics but also to attract pollinators. This little garden is helping me to produce organic and locally adapted seeds to share with community members, helping me to clear my mind, and helping me to avoid drinking Coca-Cola for Breakfast.

the twigster,

Josephine

PS: The little pup’s name is Canela or Cinnamon. I found her abandoned about a month ago, and took her in with the intention of finding her a good home. We haven’t had much luck yet, but still have hope. Isn’t she adorable?

PPS: Worm compost is also great to have on the rooftop or urban garden. Those worms work hard turning your kitchen waste into great humus for your seedlings.

Rooftop Garden

Lettuce, Arugula, and a Street Dog named Canela

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When I am in the big city of Querétaro, and stop in the Peace Corps office, the first thing I do is head to the metal mailbox and frantically check for letters and care packages. I often leave empty-handed cursing my family and friends and crossing some names off of the guest list for my self-thrown welcome home party. So this week, I walked into the Volunteer Lounge reminding myself not to confuse the usual stack of bank notices for handwritten greetings from the homeland. But, my stubborn hope glanced over to the mailbox, and spotted a box jutting out. Exhilaration peaked.  Dropping everything, I ran over to find that a high school in Missouri sent me a care package. I ripped open the box to find Dove dark chocolates, Burt’s Bees face wash, Kashi cereal, granola bites. Heaven. It didn’t take long for the other Peace Corps volunteers to surround me, ready to pounce on the coveted American goods. It’s an unwritten rule to share, so I did. Begrudgingly.

While contently snacking on my salvaged personal stock of creamy, rich, decadent dark chocolate, I began to read the letter from the teacher, a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer who served in Honduras.  One paragraph in, and I found her words touching my soul – almost as much as the chocolate. It is true that there is no bond like that between Peace Corps volunteers; it is a bond of frustration, hope, mishaps, and adventure. I think it might even beat that fraternity bond those bros brag about. This girl got me, and we had only met one time before in the lovely St. Louis, Missouri when I was in the middle of my Peace Corps application process and asking her just what the hell the Peace Corps was about. Life is beautiful sometimes.

Here are some points we both agreed upon…

The SHOW: I live in small community of about 2,000 people so more often than not, the people I work with are the people I see at the taco stand, at the flower shop, at the market, in the plaza, etc. For that reason it is tricky to go to roll out of bed to buy some fresh mangoes and not have at least 5 people take note that you have not yet brushed either your teeth or your hair. So, us Peace Corps volunteers often need some alone time, free of worry about the show us gringos are putting on for the Mexicans or the host country. This, inevitably, brings on the guilt.

The GUILT: Combine a long day of speaking in language that is not your own, being culturally sensitive, and trying to follow plans that change upon the hour, and you too would find it is necessary to sneak into the house and read a book in English alone. While you may finally have your coveted alone time, the words on the page of your book cannot and will not diffuse the nagging in your mind to go out to the plaza, meet up with some friends in town, or go to that carne asada. You should be integrating into your community!  You are a bad Peace Corps volunteer, just awful, I mean really.

The ISOLATION: Since you have been indulging yourself in some alone time, you feel a bit disconnected from your town. Now you are having a bad day, and all you want to do is call someone from home. There have been times when I have done this, to get it out, to vent a bit. After about five minutes, I realize that the person on the other side of the phone line has no idea what I am talking about. The trials and errors of Peace Corps are hard enough for me to explain to myself, how am I going to explain rural Mexico to my friend working on the 23rd floor of a building in Midtown Manhattan.

The 2 LIVES: This gap in personal understanding between myself and friends and family leads to the panic that I am living in a completely different world, and life at home is moving on without me. Which life is the real one? – my Mexican life? my American life? Can they be combined? Who am I and what the hell am I doing with my life?

The MOOD SWINGS: That same day that you may be having a nervous breakdown about your personal direction and the person you have become/are, may be the same day that you have the best moments of your Peace Corps service. It has happened before that I am on the brink of tears at 9:00 AM, and by 5 PM I could not imagine my life if I did not have this experience in Mexico. The women in the Mexican campo can change your attitude with some homemade tortillas, and an hour chatting about their gardens and what they harvested to cook today’s comida.

Now you can see why us Peace Corps volunteers really, really love the care packages and the words of inspiration from home. I send a big thank you to the students of Maplewood Richmond Heights High School in Missouri and all my friends and family for taking the time to think of me, write me beautiful cards, send me Orion magazines, Thai noodles, and all the other reminders of home.

the twigster,

Josephine

PS: If you have friends or family in the Peace Corps, send them a letter or a care package. I promise you, it will make their month. I know this one did.

PPS: I connected with this high school through the Peace Corps World Wise Schools.

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Good Day in the Peace Corps: Working with students at a local high school on a compost pile

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Good Day in the Peace Corps: Seeing the growth in a nopal garden

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No two houses are the same. There are those built mainly out of cinderblock and concrete, fortresses in the midst of the campo. There are those made with the beautiful natural stones that are also used to establish the winding fences to contain their roaming cows. There are those that sprawl, growing as the years come and go, growing with the family, growing with money availability. There are those built in the picturesque US style, spurting up in Mexico upon migrants’ return to their hometown. One thing is a constant, however, in these homes, you will always find a kitchen with a fresh stack of warm tortillas and  some chickens roaming on the property, picking at some corn kernels.

the twigster,

Josephine

PS: Check out how to build a cob house, a natural and environmentally friendly alternative to home construction.

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