Quinnipiac University College of Arts and Sciences

Sabbatical in Nicaragua

In Faculty, Research on October 27, 2011 at 3:40 pm

Sabbatical Journal from Nicaragua

by Seán Duffy, Associate Professor of Political Science

I was granted a sabbatical leave this fall, and have travelled to Nicaragua for two months to learn Spanish (I want to be fluent) and to follow their national elections as they unfold over the next several weeks: the election is November 6th. I have travelled here, to León, many times before – with Albert Schweitzer alternative spring break trips (2006, 7, 8, 9, 10) and with political science classes (2009, 10, 11). Nevertheless, those had always been short trips, a week or maybe a few days longer. My hope is to truly immerse myself in this place.

Following is a recent entry from my blog:

Well, at the end of my second week here—and after seven days of Spanish class—I can honestly say the language has totally taken over my life. I wake at night with random words and conjugations running through my mind. I find that the words I had struggled so hard to remember on my vocabulary list (parts of the body, articles of clothing, verbs in the infinitive form, adjectives) randomly come to me in my sleep, and when I wake up I remember them—the word that is. Then I look it up and remember the meaning. The same thing happens during the day. All of a sudden that word I couldn’t seem to bring to mind is there—it happened with Cinta/Cintillo (sash) just this afternoon—it’s on the list of articles of clothing. Who the heck wears a sash?!! Yesterday, our teacher suggested we “get the rhythm” of the language by reciting conjugations audibly as we walk down the street—so I tried it on the way to dinner last night. This is part of the method, too—just getting the tongue (la lengua) used to the language, and the body accustomed to producing the words without thinking. I took my first salsa lesson last night, and learned the same thing there—I need to practice the steps until they’re automatic. So I’ve decided to try combining the two. After practicing Yoga this morning, I plugged in my iPod (RIP Steve Jobs) and practiced the salsa steps to the Beatles, while reciting: soy eres sos es somos son; soy eres sos es somos son… it wasn’t easy, but perhaps it will help on both accounts!

Bit by bit, though, we’ve made a lot of progress. The introduction I learned seems old hat by now, and new skits (like the one where we memorize an exchange coming through immigration and customs) seem easy to grasp: they use what we’ve already learned and, rather than pure memorization, can simply be created from meaning when it’s time to recite. Today we thoroughly worked over the tiempo presente de indicativo of ser/estar (the verbs: to be), and then proceeded to the tiempo presente progresivo (I’m working: estoy trabajando) and started tackling the tiempo futuro inmediato (I’m going to work: voy a trabajar). Although we haven’t started addressing them, the past tense forms are right there on our verb sheets, and I’m starting to recognize in conversation what always had confused me once interlocutors had moved out of the present tense! I’m even compelled to start using some past verb forms (and easy future ones) myself (mi mismo) as I struggle to communicate with friends here via IM or text message. While I always have my google translator turned on, it’s getting so that I use it to check my instincts, rather than to give me words and phrases verbatim (if often suggests really weird stuff anyway).

Yesterday, after coming out of the comedor where I had my lunch, I was approached by a woman on the street. She had a story about her four-month-old baby who was sick in the hospital. She didn’t have money to buy the baby formula (hospitals don’t provide those things here, the patient’s family must provide). She didn’t want my money, but she asked me if I would accompany her to the store to buy it for her. We had quite a conversation—in Spanish—she even told me she had fed her baby coffee because it was all she had, but it wasn’t good for the baby—she really needed formula. I’m pretty sure I got that part right…

Anyway, by the time we learned that the price at the farmacia was more expensive than she could get it at the bus station (farther than a walk away), I was so thrilled at having had a conversation more or less free of the awkward moments of miscommunication, that I gave her the money even though I was starting to question the veracity of the whole thing (I’d rather be wrong on this one…).

So at this point in class, I have successfully presented my personal introduction, the alphabet (go for speed!) and vowels, days of the week/months of the year/hours (telling time I get tripped up by the articles), vocabulary of the human body, colors, cardinal and ordinal numbers (and simple math) and seasons of the year. Some of it has been strongly ingrained from 1970s Sesame Street—so it wasn’t as challenging as it could have been. I can also describe (in Spanish) what a noun, article and adjective are—and use them. I hope early next week to get the articles of clothing and the first list of verbs behind me. I also need to practice my personal, direct and indirect object pronouns—those ones really trip me up when everything but the verb and a whole string of pronouns has been eliminated from the sentence.

Yesterday, I moved into my new home: Hotel San Juan de Leon. It had been my conviction that I was too isolated in Hotel El Convento. The place really was a convent—and I was secluded behind high walls and surrounded by quiet, contemplative spaces (I was also the only one in the place for a few days). What I’ve given up in space (now I truly am in a “cell”—with barely enough room to roll out my yoga mat), I have gained in contact with the outside world. While I still have beautiful spaces around me and a wonderful garden to eat breakfast in, I step right outside the front door/gate and find myself on a busy street—the market just a half block to my east, and Alianza Americana two blocks to the west—the Parque San Juan and Iglesia San Juan just across the street. There must have been something to my conviction, since I ran into three old friends on the street yesterday. I suppose this shouldn’t surprise me—I am somewhat noticeable here: I’m a good head (or more) taller than most people, and I’m usually a bright shade of red (from the heat, not the sun) and soaking wet (also from the heat).

Marta & Sergio passed me in their bus, which I recognized immediately. Like most buses here, it’s an old U.S. school bus—but it’s been attractively painted in rich colors of orange, tan and brown. Marta & Sergio used to transport and accompany all our Quinnipiac spring break delegations: I plan to meet them for dinner on Sunday. Then, at dinner last night, I ran into a man who had been my translator the second year I came here (2007): I had received a grant to explore possibilities for bringing students down here, and had struck out on my own to discover more about Nicaraguan politics. While this time I’ve been determined to get the language under my belt a bit before I strike out to explore the politics, I may consider asking him to come along as “training wheels.”
I will send a few more posts over the semester to Creative Minds in Action; if you’re interested in following my blog, it’s at http://nicasabbatical.wordpress.com.

Hasta pronto!

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