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Tears and Tears and Tears

Listening To: “I Second That Emotion” – The Manhattan Transfer [Feat. Smokey Robinson], Tonin’
The Gettysburg Heston Interns have been doing our best to support each other’s activities all summer, and going to Miss Aleks’ ESL classes at the LIU have been one of the best parts of this experience. Laura and I have been joining Aleks every Tuesday and Thursday, and Cam and Emily come along whenever they can, and it has been absolutely fantastic to be able to make a relationship with the parents of some of my students from summer school, as well as just the adults in the area who are in need of support.
Today was the last day of classes for the Heston interns. I had the pleasure of going to the morning class, to which I had never been before, and Cam, Laura, and I were all able to help Aleks out at the evening class. It was clear how much the classes meant to Aleks as she said her goodbyes to the students and couldn’t help but cry as she told them how much she appreciated her time with them and would make sure to visit, and the students (as well as Jorge) were incredibly appreciative of all of the effort that she had put forth.
The best part of the night, though, was not only seeing how much Aleks had been influenced by her time spent with these students, but also how Cam, Laura, and I were all affected by the experience. Even though the ESL classes had not been our personal placements, we couldn’t keep from crying as Aleks made her final speech telling the students that they knew more English than they thought they did and that they were the best people she had ever met. I have truly been inspired by the students who attend these classes – their eagerness to learn the language, to persevere even when they clearly have no idea what we are saying (and we are unable to translate or explain in a more effective manner), and to welcome us into their lives. Every single student told me that they would see me tomorrow at the Campus Kitchen/LIU picnic, and they all left tonight wishing us luck in our future and inviting us back to lessons and even to their houses for dinner or to learn how to make tamales (with chiles!).
I feel like I am on the verge of crying at all times – either because I am sad that I am leaving and because I know that there is no possible way that my life can stay like this forever (although I truly wish that I could be a Heston intern for years to come), or because I am so inspired by the people I have met, relationships I have created, and the work that I have seen my fellow interns and all of our community partners and community organizations do. This has been an incredible experience and I know that tomorrow, our last day, will be an extremely emotional one. I am glad that so many of the students tonight wished us luck, because it looks like we are going to need a lot of it tomorrow to make it through in one emotional piece. I’m just glad to know that I have the support of the community and my fellow interns to help me through the day.



Listening To: “Long Walk Home” – This Day & Age, Always Leave the Ground
All summer I have been reading the blogs of the Heston interns in Uganda and Nicaragua and thinking about how terrifying it must be to go to another country and try to make friends, learn the language, understand cultural norms, maintain a job…the list goes on forever. Obviously the other interns did a fantastic job of making the most of their experience (your blogs were great, guys!), but I never really thought too much about how their stories and struggles really fit into my work here in Gettysburg. Last night I was thinking about this and realized something that I hadn’t really put together throughout the summer – almost every one of my students and all of the students with whom Miss Aleks teaches have gone or are going through this same situation. Only here, it’s not as easy.
The Heston interns had the privilege of being welcomed to Nicaragua and Uganda. Of course, there were many hardships, and the interns had plenty to overcome and I’m sure they did not feel like they were done when they left (because the Gettysburg interns certainly don’t feel ready to leave). But even though the interns who went abroad went through a very intense cultural experience and had to make many adjustments and even face some issues and events that they didn’t want to, they were still supported by many of us here in the United States, they were sent to people in their respective countries who welcomed them, gave them a place to stay, taught them about the culture, and appreciated the work that they were doing (please, if I am over-generalizing, I apologize).
My students come to the United States with their families and are not given the same treatment. But we know that already – immigrants, especially from Mexico and Latin America, are not really welcome in the United States, and therefore are not given the same “open arms” treatment that the interns received in Nicaragua and Uganda.
After trying so long to imagine how hard it was for the Heston interns trying to make the transition in Uganda and Nicaragua, I can’t even begin to imagine what it is like for immigrants moving here.
Some of the students wrote about their experiences in the United States for a workshop. It is clear that the majority of the students at summer school are very happy here, especially because they are given support through the LIU MEP21C program, where they can [often] interact with others from their culture and are not treated like outsiders. But many of them still miss the country from which they came. Many of the students wrote about how they would like to return to Mexico, a trip they once took to Mexico, or about family they left behind in Mexico. One student from Saudi Arabia wrote a heartbreaking unsent letter that was only four sentences long to the family he was forced to leave behind in Saudi Arabia about how he cannot see them or talk to them but he “need[s] to see them, need[s] to talk to them”.
I wish I could think of a way to make it easier for them.

Day 57: Epitome

I had an epitome last night when I heard the sentence “People just don’t care” about four times in the course of twenty minutes.  I thought that this summer was about my aiding in changing the social climate of Gettysburg and Adams County.  I thought what I was doing was learning about the social issues in this community and how I can educate others and help in instigating positive change.  What I realized, though, is that that was not what I was doing.

I feel like my job has been to show people that I care.  I care about whether a family can put food on the table, about the single mom who is struggling to support her family, about the senior citizen who is bruised from her fall last weekend, about the man who cannot defend himself against racial discrimination at work because he can’t speak English.  My job has been to make these people realize that I care about them and what they’re going through.  Without sounding full of myself, my job has been to give them hope.  In showing that we care, I hope the other interns and I have started to break down this feeling of disconnect between members of this community.  I hope that they realize they are not alone in their struggles, that there will always be people who care, want to learn and are willing to help.  I hope they also realize that what they have to offer is just as important.

As the end of the summer draws near, I’m not ready to say goodbye to the relationships I’ve developed.  Because I will still be in Gettysburg after the summer, it feels really awkward to let these relationships go.  However, there is not enough time in the day during the school year to fulfill all my academic and extracurricular obligations and still maintain these relationships.  It’s hard to justify this summer experience as not just a summer experience if I’m unable to continue the work I’ve started and the relationships I’ve built.  I don’t want to be another college student who comes and goes without really involving myself in the community.  But as classes begin, how can I show the people I’ve worked with this summer that I still care?  How can I still remain a part of their lives if I’m not actively involved?  How do I make this not feel like I’m abandoning them?

A Little Progressive Failure

Current Book: Grapes of Wrath
State of being: Toasty warm, in need of a fan.

Hello er’body.

I’ve been MIA for the past few weeks for various reasons, the most recent being my week-long vacation to North Carolina for some much needed family time. But now I’m back and ready to see out the last three weeks of this internship.

The things that have been on my mind recently:
1. Squash
2. Squash
3. The failure that was my CKP cooking activity plan for the Fair Share families these past three weeks
4. Squash

There’s a lot of squash.

I have a whole new knowledge set devoted entirely to zucchini preparations. The coolest recipe? A “Zucchini Dessert” that tastes almost exactly like a baked apple crisp (Yup– it happened, and it’s tasty). Why? I’m not really sure. It’s like magic. And –fun fact– peeled, chopped zucchini has the SAME consistency of a baked apple. The cup of sugar, 2/3 cup of lemon juice, and a good dose of cinnamon don’t hurt, either…

As for the fail that was my cooking activity.

We decided to offer 4 different sessions for the participants of the Fair Share project (people were chosen to recieve “vouchers” that they could redeem at the farmer’s market, guaranteeing access to fresh produce). The coordinators of the Fair Share project (including myself) thought it would be a good idea to offer two hour sessions where we take produce that would be found at those farmers markets and walk participants through a few different recipes that showcase what they have access to. Come sign up time, we had about 6 out of the 25 families show interest (3 English speaking, 3 Spanish speaking), but, thinking positively, I was just grateful we had people sign up! The first two sessions went well– 2 out of the 3 families showed up. Today’s session, however, was not so successful. 3 families were signed up to come, and no one came. No one. I was really depressing to spend a good few hours just on planning how to fit 3 families, their kids, and our translator (and my favorite woman ever) Audrey Hess, in our tiny kitchen only to end the day making a tiny casserole just to use up some of the zucchini and stick it in the fridge. With no home to go to. That poor casserole…

Audrey and I had a good chat, though, while we cooked. We talked about how the recurring theme of the Fair Share project has started to become “lack of participation,” even if people said they were interested. And why is that? Is there some “hidden” reason/barrier that makes the families feel that they can’t say “no” to us when we offer these things? Are the cooking opportunities set up in an intimidating way? IS there a need for this? Or are we to focus on other avenues of food education? I don’t have the answers, but what I do now know is that even though it’s disappointing, this is still progress. We now know what factors to be aware of when “next time” rolls around. I think that we might require a “lowering of expectations,” and with that we might be able to better focus on the small things that need to be tweaked in hopes to better reach the Fair Share goals. And it will happen. It will. Just not today. But what I can be happy about is the fact that we do have a casserole ready to go tomorrow.

And it will find it’s way to a family.

Peace out.

Last Blog Post

So, I’ve cheated a bit and I’ve already left Nicaragua.
It isn’t really a big deal, I was ready to get out of the country for a bit
and since I’m going back in August, I didn’t really say goodbye to many people.
More like see you soon. The internship was definitely not an easy one in terms
of finding stable moral ground in my head, the manuals are still works in progress
due to the pace things take in Nicaragua, but I plan on finishing them up when I get back.
I don’t know how to do a good job summing up my experience right now since I just left, so I’ll just talk
about what I’ve been thinking since leaving. So, for people who don’t realize it. Nicaragua is a poor country.
I mean. Really poor. I didn’t realize it. I was there, and it was normal. My travel to Central America prior to about two days ago was limited to Nicaragua. In my mind Central America is obviously not on the economic level as the US, Europe or Mexico. Cuba has poverty, but isn’t exactly the standard country to compare with is it. In my head Guate, Honduras and El Salvador were like Nicaragua, just with more guns and drugs and Latino thugs gang banging. I was quite wrong. Yes, I did know Nica was the poorest country in the region, but it doesn’t hit you until you leave after living there for a bit to see the region that is supposed to be so similar. It’s all I can think about. So rather than reiterate the “Wow, Nicaragua is poor” revelation over and over again like what has been going through my head, here are other thoughts of the same vain.

“Wow, the guys don’t pee everywhere here”

“Wow, that barbed wire is new looking”

“Was that a Porsche?”

“I haven’t seen one cardboard hut yet”

“Where do people throw their trash if it’s not on the ground?”

“Does that chicken bus have chrome?”

“Does that soldier have an M16?”

I do understand that there is poverty in all parts of all countries, but when you start wondering where the poor people are because you miss them, then it might be a little bit of a problem. I was relieved to see poor housing when we first arrive in Guate because I didn’t recognize where I was. Poverty isn’t just present in Nica, it’s normal to the point of being comforting, almost to the point of being part of what is Nicaraguan.

Basically people talk about culture shock between your home and where you are headed,
but I am kind of going through culture shock for my 2nd home with a new place.
I have no idea what to tell friends and family when I get back in Leon. There isn’t much I can say.
My friends, my family there, they live this, have lived this, and will live this for the rest of their lives.
So, hate to end on a sad unfulfilling note, but I don’t know what else to say.

Thanks to Jim Heston, CPS, and PGL for giving me this great opportunity,


2 More Weeks…

Tomorrow the Heston interns in Gettysburg start week 8… I am still trying to understand how time passed by so fast. I feel like we just moved in yesterday and I am not ready to start packing and be done with the job…! At the same time I realize we’ve all been through a lot and this makes the situation even more confusing. Anyway, living and working together here proves to be a lot better than we thought it would be. I am still so pleased that we are trying to be involved or at least aware of each other’s work and not just engulfed in our own duties. Moreover, the feeling that you can come home and share what the good and bad of the day with a friend who will listen is so precious. I’ve never expected to be so secure and happy at a home different than my own back in Bulgaria. I didn’t even refer to my dorm room as home during the year and now I am not ready to leave the Heston home yet….

At the same time I think about my students at the LIU and I don’t want to stop working with them. With me this summer there are 3 teachers for the English classes and now we have 3 groups of students at different levels. Because the beginners group was too big we decided to divide the people and now I mostly work with 5 adults who needed to begin learning from scratch. My other concern, however, is that I’ve taken full responsibility for the morning classes and I am the only teacher available. Typically we don’t get more than 4-5 people in total and they don’t have regular attendance, but I am still there ready to teach even if I get one person. I don’t know who will take over once I have to leave but I know for sure that I’ve grown so attached to the students that I don’t want anyone other than I to do so. I am just starting to pick up more Spanish, I already know my students well, I can see they are so eager to learn, I am friends with their children…and I’ve always wanted to teach and witness the whole process of giving knowledge to someone and seeing them advance. As a bilingual speaker myself I can hardly imagine living here and not being able to communicate freely. Imagine the feeling of not knowing how to process basic daily life things because you cannot speak or you feel embarrassed that only talk and understand a little bit of this and that. Imagine being a parent and not being able to talk to your child’s teacher because you don’t know enough English. Thinking about all possible similar situations makes me not want to leave. Now I understand how hard it is to leave when you know that you can help and at the same time you have to go.

Let’s not forget…IMPRINT… who will make all of the kids write and read when they only want to be on a computer and when I am most surely bothering them when I try to make them learn something. I can say for sure that I’ve been the strictest teacher during this summer and probably they don’t enjoy it a lot. Every time someone complains I tell them that we are going to finish the task because “I am here this summer to work with you and we are all here to work hard”.

Maybe I will conclude in a similar way my blog for today… “I have two more weeks left, but I am still here and I am here to work hard and give the best out of myself!”

Enjoy your Sunday!


Wrapping it up.

I figure that I’ll mesh the last two weeks together because they are both one big blur at this point. It’s 6AM and today I am leaving Masaka in five hours. I’ve said my goodbyes and thank yous. Three weeks ago I would have told you I could easily come home. Today, my thoughts complicate and I don’t know how to feel about leaving.

Lets recap, these past two weeks I: helped build two more water tanks, ate a ridiculous amount of free matooke, saw a traditional healer (or professional burper), got some bruises, went to Jinja, white water rafted with elderly Dutch men, rode horseback on the Nile, ate food that my stomach didn’t remember how to handle, got peed on by a monkey, ate a feast, and became a “son-in-law”. Whew, I can fill in more of the details later.

Warning, the following paragraphs are self reflective and probably pretty sappy. Okay, the challenge of this post is that it is hard to leave things you are invested in. I left my home with caution but ease knowing I will be back. Here, I am pretty confident that one day I’ll make it back to this beautiful country. The plans are indefinite though and it may be a while. Still, isn’t that exciting? Isn’t it something to look forward to? In the end, it seems that advice we talked about in the beginning is the most truthful. The strongest part of your experience will be the connections to the people you meet. Although we all try to be our best and contribute sustainable projects and be conscious of our impact here, no one can be perfect. After this experience, I feel like the work I did here did help and strengthen Tulina Esuubi HIV/AIDS group. What was more important is the self-worth and confidence that emerged from my group, as well as me. They appreciated that someone was willing to work with them and not for them. My last day with the whole group we conducted a follow up workshop on proper hygiene and how to take care of the water they collect in the future. It was grand. Everyone appreciated the workshop and after it was over and I hinted about saying goodbye, they stopped me. “No, no, no, no…you’re not leaving. We have prepared!” What could this mean? We sat down in an empty living room with simply a table and chairs. The meal that came out next was a feast for at least 8. I was so humbled by their thanks. They cooked a special meal for us called ‘mpombo’ which is chicken cooked and steamed inside banana fibers. Apparently it is served to the potential groom at an introduction. So now, I am Grace’s (woman we built the tank for) son-in-law. Following there was singing and dancing and prayer. I couldn’t have thought up a better goodbye. 

Now, I feel like I’m stretching. Do I want to go back to America? Heck yes. Oh, how I’ve missed some of the simple things that make life sweet like cheese and refrigerators. Still, there are simple things everywhere that make life so awesome. Leaving my family was hard. When you first went to college it was hard to call your dorm your home. After a few weeks though, when someone asked you where you were going you would answer with “home”. After two months in Uganda, the plot next to Muwonge Pork Joint (as I would tell bodas day) has become another one of my homes. Pretty quick right? So where is home? I like think the more you travel, the more your home becomes everywhere the people you care about are. I’m proud to say I have homes in two continents.

Sitting in the airport finishing this post doesn’t feel real. Seriously, I feel like I am dreaming. Yesterday, I was in my village eating dinner, playing cards and thinking how everything can change so quickly. Like taffy, I’m now stretched between two places and eventually I’ll have to break. Slowly I’ll lose my orientation and regain it again. Most likely in the next few weeks I’ll find myself scowling at prices, attempting to bargain in inappropriate places, saying “yes please” a lot, and gazing at supermarkets and/or bathrooms (maybe supermarket bathrooms? Sound appealing?) Anyway, I don’t really know how to wrap this up. Thank you to all who have been supportive. Mr. Heston, CPS Staff, Heston Interns, FSD interns, all who donated to the project, and FSD it’s been real, you all are wonderful. I can’t wait to share a beer and some stories soon. And, thanks to my mom and dad for having a strong heart. Uganda, you are beautiful and I hope to be back one day.

Maybe this is a good way to end this cultural experience:

“We spent a lot of time talking about Africa, as we should. Africa is a nation that suffers from incredible disease.”
          -George W. Bush

See you soon Mom!

Mike Altman