Charleen Johnson Stoever.

Site and Sector:

Matagalpa, Matagalpa, TEFL

Project assignment: 

Co-plan and co-teach English with 3 Nicaraguan English teachers.

Project reality: 

Practicing how to pronounce “three” differently from “tree,” coming out to strangers and colleagues, and having meaningful discussions about race, class, sexual orientation, gender, mental health, and destigmatizing  these discussions. I also explained that I could be white and Mexican and that not all Americans are white, blonde, and with blue eyes.

I also led STAR’s LGBTQ Safe Zone Trainings for Peace Corps Nicaragua staff, taxi drivers, hotel staff, and host families. These trainings were incredibly rewarding.

I also used my social media skills to fundraise thousands of dollars for Camp Glow for Girls and blogged about the effects this amazing camp had on Nicaraguan girls, and I also reflected on what we could do better for the next camp. Camp Glow was my favorite week of my service.

Did you have an apodo during service?

My host family called me “Cherly.” I liked it.

Most and/or least useful thing/experience brought into country:

The least useful thing I brought was my constant need to be busy. I used to view being busy as being productive. I’m still learning that my value should not be based off of my productivity.

What do you wish you had done here? 

Gone to Pearl Lagoon. I went everywhere else I wanted to, though. Nueva Segovia and the RAAN were the only departments I did not visit.

Most creative way you killed time in your site:

I painted:
The locals I’d meet, self-portraits, and I painted different things that represented my Peace Corps service.

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The Piggy Banks of Parque Dario, Matagalpa. My first piece in acrylic, ink pen, and colored pencil. What do these piggy banks mean to me? They remind me of the sense of belonging I felt in this park, on this bench. I didn't quite feel this anywhere else in Nicaragua. I never felt I belonged as much in the classroom as I did here. My friend Abigail paints these piggy banks and I'd come by and visit her. She'd push her paintbrushes aside and make room for me to sit while her radio played a baseball game or commercial. My feet would dangle off the floor and she would rest hers on a stool, her hands clasped together on her belly. Sometimes I'd walk up to her and she'd be laughing with friends, whether they were old customers or alcoholics with no place else to go. Or, she'd cradle a delicate piggy bank in her strong yet elegant fingers and long nails. She made it seem like that pig was the only thing that mattered. She'd paint some one whole color. Others would get a meticulous makeover. First, a coat of bright green. Then, intricate brown vines and flowers sprouting from a tail. Or maybe another pig would be covered in stars or dollar signs. "Como me le va, mi amiga querida? Se mira más gorda. Será que engordo?" She'd ask me, with motherly concern. She'd always seem to notice if I'd gain wait even if I didn't. We call each other friends, but sometimes she feels like a mother to me. She's only a year younger than mine, anyway. When I broke up with my ex, she bought me blue Powerade and ritz crackers to comfort me. Then, she'd share her romantic woes with me. I'd feel less alone after that. She didn't have much, but she was never afraid to share what she had with me, even if it was a piece of tortilla. These piggy banks represent safety, belonging, and friendship during one of the most isolating yet liberating two years of my life.

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I also blogged about mental health, solo travel, and about my travels to Colombia and throughout Nicaragua. I interviewed a ton of Nicaraguans and published their stories on my blog.

I also journaled a ton to decompress.

What books/podcasts/shows/movies did you get hooked on during your service that you would like to recommend to other volunteers? 

Books:The Country Under my skin by Gioconda Belli, The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle, Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

Podcast: This American Life because I learned so much about how much farther we have left to go in the world with regard to social justice, whether it’s talking about school desegregation or learning about the struggles of a persecuted Somalian man trying to get to the U.S.

Most Nicaraguan habit you’ll take home with you: 

Valuing relationships over my schedule.

What will you miss six months from now

Being able to stop by unannounced at my counterpart’s house and spend the day over there doing nothing at all except eating gallo pinto, drinking dragonfruit juice, laughing, and watching TV.

What will you not miss six months from now

The fear/nervousness/anger I felt walking in the street and being stared at, hissed at, yelled at, and gawked at by street harassers.

How have you changed during your service? 

I used to love having predictability in my life, but Nicaragua taught me that plans change, so scrap the plan and go with the flow. Life is more exciting that way.

Did you ever want to ET?

Yes, after my assault on a run and after my sexual assault, and after the street harassment felt like it was too much.

Big plans for your readjustment allowance? 

Travel to Guatemala, Mexico, and hopefully South Africa. I want to keep blogging on my own blog, The Vulnerable Traveler, and for Go and Travel Latina.

What’s next? 

I want to be a full-time travel writer and I want to continue promoting Wanderful, the amazing women’s travel startup I’ve had the pleasure of working with during my service. I’m also going their the Women in Travel Summit in Milwaukee in March, and the Dinah Shore Women’s Music Festival in Palm Springs (no, not “Dinosaur”), then my five year Wellesley college reunion (Wellesley was an all-women’s college, but that is changing because many students there identify as female-to-male transgender individuals, or they identify outside of a gender binary).

2017 is about to be a beautifully queer year and I cannot wait to immerse myself in all-women’s spaces again.

Final words of advice: 

When you’re on your deathbed, you won’t think of how busy you were nearly as much as the people who were in your life. You’ll think of how they made you feel and how you made them feel. Thanks Maya Angelou for the inspiration!