More kids, clowns and pieces of things part 2

I realize that these kids have a pretty strong incentive to lie and say that their mothers gave permission even if they didn’t.  So I decided to walk to see the mothers and make sure.  They were pretty shocked that I was willing to take their kids to the circus, but I think that they were also a little unsure as to whether or not they should let me.  One mother agreed pretty quickly and sent her kids along with me.  I say to her, “Uhm, do you want my phone number or something, just in case?”  “Oh yes, that’s a good idea.”  “Uhm, do you want to give me your phone number of something, just in case?”  “Oh yes, that’s a good idea.”  Damn, lady.  I should kidnap your kids just to teach you a lesson.

To be fair we weren’t going very far, just a little over a half-mile down the road.  But the show was starting at 7pm and the parents don’t know me all that well.  So while I think that they were justifiably a little nervous, they really didn’t want to spoil the chance for their kids.  I also somehow ended up with a group of 4 kids instead of 2, but that’s how these things go.  So once every got their permission, we all pile into a pedi-cab and head up-town.  The kids were all very excited and during the ride we were talking about what we hope to see and all that good stuff.  Their eyes widen as the point of the circus tent comes into view and they start rushing out of the tricycle towards the entrance.  This is the first moment I start to get worried that I’ll have trouble keeping 4 over energized kids in check.  We go up, buy our tickets and walk in. 

The place is completely empty.  0 people are in this tent, excluding the sound guy.  I go back to the ticket taker.  “Hey, what time does the show start?”  “8 o’clock.  Sharp.”

Eight o’clock.  Not seven.  Not even seven thirty.  And thus began the longest hour of my life.  Maybe I should say the longest hora Nica of my life, because it most certainly did not start at 8 sharp. 

We all settle up on a high part of one of the rafters and the sound guy indulges me with some music to entertain us while we wait.  This will obviously not suffice.  I start getting worried, I need to entertain these kids for an hour or it’ll get ugly.  I didn’t bring anything with me, because why would I?  I struggle to think up games we can play.  First we play telephone, which is a hit.  That peters out.  Uhm…..I spy!  This was a hit for a second until I realized these kids can’t spell to save their life.

“I spy with my little eye something that begins with the letter ‘que’”.  What?  ‘Que’ isn’t even a letter.  Do you mean ‘q’?  No ‘que’ as in ‘queso’.  Fine whatever.  No one could get it, because, seriously very few words begin with ‘q’.  I even guessed ‘quetzal’, just to guess something.  We give up.  “Computadora!”  Ok, we’re done with I spy.

I check my watch.  7:10.  Jesus Christ.  Uhm…uhm…damn what did I do as a kid? I start texting my friends for examples of possible games.  I get back Out of State License Plate, Punch Buggy, etc.  Perfect.  The other tough part of these games is that one kid is 5 while the others are 9-10, so it was hard to keep them all entertained with same game.  Anything I came up with would be boring for some or too complicated for the other.  To make matters worse the engineering of the circus tent wasn’t going to win any awards.  If you stepped on the wood plank of our row it would lift on the other side.  There wasn’t even a guard rail on the other end of the stands.  And this for some god awful reason attracted the 5 year old who decided to try and go up and down the stands at this edge. 

I decide to get them some popcorn. At least eating will distract them for a little.  I go down to the little popcorn stand.  I ask the shady circus guy, “How much for a bag of popcorn?”  “20 cords.”  “No, no.  Just one bag, please.”  “20 cords.”  Now, I won’t embarrass myself by saying how much 20 cords is in dollars, but it’s suffice to say that a bag of popcorn on the streets costs 2-3 cords a bag.  Fortunately there was only one bag ready, so I just bought the one.  They can learn to share, because I’ll be damned if I buy more than one of those.  Here’s an image of the littlest one when he realized he wouldn’t get his own bag of popcorn.



Hanging on the ledge no less! 

Before things got completely out of control, the show finally starts, albeit late.  And in the true fashion of a child they manage to go from completely discontent and downtrodden to ecstatic in seconds (remember Stalin was on the point of a complete breakdown just a few hours earlier than night while apologizing to me.  Being a child must be an emotional rollercoaster). 

The circus is pretty standard fare.  There is a juggler, a balancing act, a girl hanging from a dangling metal ring.  The exotic dancing was a bit of a unique touch, but hey, that’s Nicaragua.  And of course, what circus would be complete without clowns.  The other shows weren’t that impressive, but I didn’t really expect it to wow me.  The clowns, however, were actually quite good.  It’s obviously targeted towards kids and the humor is slapstick combined with butt and fart jokes.  Very low brow stuff.  They even played Benny Hill music to bring them on and off the stage.  But that’s OK.   I appreciated their showmanship and was seriously impressed by their craft. 

Things were going well and the kids were enjoying themselves up until intermission.  And thus began the longest 15 minutes of my life.  The music stopped, the show is paused and the kids go berserk.  I thought the usury had stopped with the popcorn, but these circus folk are professional sadists.  Suddenly these kids realize they need ice cream, food, light up swords and all sorts of other trash.  During the show I was stricken by how much this circus resembled what I imagined a circus to be 50 years ago.  I was pleased by how it the whole thing felt so traditional and, well, very American.  But I had forgotten a part of the American tradition of the circus that had also been adopted.  Circuses don’t sell tickets, circus folk trade in children’s tears. 

This circus has modernized its extortion techniques somewhat.  Now, some depressed looking circ-underling walks around at the start of the show and snaps a picture of each kid with his digital camera.  During the show they print out a little picture and make a keychain out of it.  Fortunately they didn’t try too hard to sell me on this one.  Remember these kids looked like I had just told them I disemboweled Santa before the show started.  So when they came around to offer me the keychain I think the guy realized no one wanted a bunch of pictures of crying kids.  In retrospect I think I would have liked one of these, it would have been kind of funny.

I’m really not such a cheap person, but I’ve been pretty poor in Peace Corps.  I’ve depleted my savings over the 2 years in order to travel in Nicaragua, make my life easier with projects and eat more than rice beans and vegetables three times a day.  I had already set aside the money I had left for a going away party for my friends in the community.  They’ve treated me to so much food that I wanted to pay for them to all come and eat and drink at a pool in town.  Going to the circus alone was already outside that budget, much less 4 kids, even worse 4 kids who want a lot of overpriced garbage. 

I’m also really stubborn.  I realized it wouldn’t have been so excessive to buy them each one ice-cream or something at some point, but I had already said no and I wasn’t going to be pushed around.  As I was often quoted saying in high school, ‘it’s the principle of the matter’.  But so far, so good, I was fending off the attacks and firmly holding my ground.  But then they sent in the clowns.  Those daffy-laffy clowns. 

Clowns are supposed to be loud, eccentric and ridiculous.  I get it.  It’s part of the act.  But these guys were selling this garbage by screaming, “¡Paleta! ¡Paleta! ¡Paleta!” all around.  These clowns are no amateurs either.  They spotted a gringo in the audience with 4 kids and heard a big old cash register ring.  I still have to say, I respect the craft.  One clown came and stood next to me in such a way that his box of paletas dangled precipitously over the kids like it was the Sword of Damocles.  But like I said, I’m stubborn.  These things look tasty, but they’re actually really gross and I won’t be bullied by clowns or children into buying some marshmallow crap.  To hell with you clown!  Finally, the two minute warning comes over the PA and the show is going to resume.  Just then I get a call from an unknown number on my phone.  “The kids come home.  Now!”  Jesus. Alright, lady.  It turned out to be the aunt of one of the kids, who I guess wasn’t keen on them being out this late with me.  It was almost 9:30 and I was planning on taking them back early, but I wanted to get at least one act in for having suffered through intermission, but her tone told me otherwise.

The kids put up less of a fight than I thought when we left.  I think they were tired and were ready to go.  Honestly, who starts a circus show at 8pm?  Riding back on the pedi-cab I asked them, “So what did you like most?”  “The clowns were funny”  “Yeah, I liked the clowns.”  “Yeah, the clowns were my favorite.”  The girl didn’t say anything; she’s too cool for that already.  “Ha, yeah.  Me too.  I liked the clowns.”

I dropped the kids off.  No one really thanked me, and we all went home to go to sleep.  I lied down exhausted and tried to think what I thought of that experience.  Was that worth it?  Was that worth it for me?  Was it worth it for the kids?  I think they enjoyed it, but like I said, kids are fickle and they may not even remember that a few weeks later.  So there I am lying down thinking about all that and realize I’ve been doing the same thing practically this whole month with regard to my service in general.  I’ve been asking the same questions about whether or not I think Peace Corps was worth it and have been trying to put the whole two years in perspective. 

And I’ll save what I’ve decided for part three.


More Kids, Clowns and Pieces of Things pt. 1

More kids, clowns and pieces of things

This will be my last post in Nicaragua, so it’s going to be a little bit special.  It’s long, and I’ve decided to split it into three parts that I’ll release over the week.  It starts where I left off in my last post with Stalin and the neighborhood kids.

As I mentioned in the last post, I had created a store in which kids could buy prizes.  The absolute end-all be-all prize was a gift from my cousin.  It was a little red plush pouch with the words “SANTA BOWLING” embroidered in gilded lettering.  Inside were 10 little white pins and one oversized marble representing the bowling ball.  Before the store, I had tried to show the kids how to “actually” play the game, setting up the pins, strikes, spares, etc.  They didn’t care much for the orderliness of regular bowling but it didn’t matter, the games they made up with it were just fine with them.  This game was like a better version of marbles and marbles is huge for little kids here (sometimes Nicaraguan tastes really make me feel like I live in the 1950’s).  They even called the bag “chiboles-chibolines” which I understand as “marbles-marblies”.  To be fair, I didn’t know the word for bowling and just called the bag of pins and ball a “chunche”, thingy.  It turns out the word for bowling is ‘bolos’ which here more commonly means ‘drunks’, so it’s probably just as well that I didn’t use the right word.

So given its reverence, when this prize entered the store, it had to be assigned the highest price.  It served as a great incentive.  There is a maximum possibility of earning 7 points on a good day and the marblies cost 15 points.  The idea here is to teach the value of delayed gratification, saving, etc.

Once again, Stalin is the focus of this story.  He didn’t seem to be getting this notion of saving and regularly spent every point he earned the minute he earned it.  Then he would ask for chances to earn more points.  When he can’t earn anymore he asks me, “Why are the marblies so expensive?  I think 6 points is a much better price.”  And so it went.  I was perfectly happy to never give anyone the marbles to teach them a lesson.  I regularly encouraged them to save the points but always left the decision in their hands.  I think he assumed he would get everything in the store when I leave.  I realized that he might be upset when I leave and this illusion is shattered, but sometimes a little heartbreak is the best way to teach a lesson.

Recently, I was away for a few days and wasn’t able to play with the kids.  When I got home it was late in the evening and I went straight into my back patio to start washing dishes and prepare my dinner.  Not two minutes later a group of kids are at my door.  Sometimes I think they set up patrols.  I tell them that we can’t play today, that I’m too tired and so I shoo them out.  I go back to washing my dishes but shortly after Stalin and his little brother return and walk back into my house.  Stalin says something to me from inside the apartment like, “Hey, Juan, can we come back later and play?”  “No, pipe.  Qué sea mañana.”  Stalin agrees and rushes out the door, but his little brother has stayed behind and is playing with my chess pieces.  “C’mon, Yovani, it’s time to go.  Go find your brother.”  “And the marbles-marblies?”  “Don’t worry.  They’re there in the store.  You can try for them tomorrow.”  But as I’m saying this I turn and look at the shelf and sure enough there is a big glaring space where the bag should be.  The bag hadn’t been moved for at least 3 hours so there was of course a very clear layer of dust indicating where it once stood.

Fuck, man.  I mean just fuck.  Fucking fucking fucker fuck!  What a fucker!

I haven’t actually said anything.  Jovani squeaks out, “Stalin took it”.  Yeah, I know he did.  “Go tell him to come back here.”  I sit fuming in my house.  I don’t even know what to think or say.  Lots of volunteers get robbed.  It’s just part of being gringo in a poor community and having things that other people want.  Usually it’s cash, electronics or anything more valuable than some marbles-marblies.  But obviously it’s not the value of the item.  The marblies weren’t even the most valuable thing in the store, and I was fine with giving it as a prize anyway.  It’s the breach of trust, and the fact that he did it right under my nose.  Stalin hasn’t showed up.  I need to go look for him, and I could use the walk anyway.

I find him and his brother about halfway between our houses.  “Where are you going, Juan?”  To which I respond, “I’m looking for you.”  He quickly shouts back, “I didn’t take anything!”  Now, I realize I can’t actually be 100% sure it was him.  Other kids were in the house and Yovani is only 5; he’s not a credible witness. But still, methinks he protests too much.  I give a general scolding while only referring to the thief in anonymous terms.  I talk about how it’s wrong to steal; it needs to come back, blah blah blah.  We’re both bored by my tirade.  “No more games, and no more store until the marbles-marblies come back.  I don’t care who it was.  If it wasn’t you than you go and find out who it was and bring them back.  They just need to come back.”  Well, that got his attention.  And off he goes.

I get back to my apartment and realize that’s bullshit.  I definitely care who it was, and this isn’t going to be one of those times when you just say “All’s well that ends well”.  If it was something valuable I would only care that it comes back.  But there needs to be some justice here.  This is a moral crime and the restitution of property simply isn’t enough.  Stalin comes back maybe an hour later saying how he went to everyone’s house and turned up empty handed, but assured me George (A quick aside.  Although this is how the kid told me he spelled his name, everyone, including his mother, calls him /yon-BLO-ki/.  I don’t know how to reconcile this.) was the culprit.  Stalin thinks this is enough to appease me, and it is most certainly not.  No marblies, no games.

I’m in a bad mood the whole next day.  I really liked these games and put a lot of time into them.  I’m not sure I’ll even want to play should the marblies come back.  I’m thinking that if Stalin doesn’t bring me them of his own accord within 24 hours of having taken them, I’ll go talk to his mother about it.  He lets the clock run down to the wire and shows up just when I’m getting ready to go find him.  He comes to my door as though nothing was new, with the marblies in hand.  “Hey I found this in my brother’s bed.  Here you go.”   Man that’s spineless.  I know you’re 9, but still.  You’re going to frame up your little brother?  My dad told me once that when I was 9 I tried to pick a fight with some teenagers because they wouldn’t let my brother play “Streets of Rage” in peace.  I definitely wouldn’t sell him out for some marblies.  I thought Nica families were supposed to be tight.  I eventually got him to admit it was him.  “Go home.  You stole from me and then lied to me.  There will be no games today.  Maybe tomorrow.”  He’s bummed, but not destroyed.  I don’t think he really cares that he hurt my feelings.  In fact, he never even apologized or asked for forgiveness.

As Stalin leaves I undue the Gordian knot this kid tied in the bag (practically everything in Nicaragua comes in plastic bags and deftly tying strong knots is as much a national pastime as baseball.  Almost as impressive is their ability to bite open the corner of bags containing liquids and pour them out into a cup, while simultaneously using the other hand to drive, text, hit a dog, etc.) and it dawns on me that something seems wrong.

God. Fucking. Damnit.  You gotta be kidding me.  This stupid piece of shit.  Does he think I’m fucking stupid?  He didn’t give me the whole set (you could say it was only a tuco de la chunche).  The goddamn ball is missing.  That’s the most fucking important part!  And it’s goddamn huge!  Of course I’m going to fucking notice it.  Fucking hell!

The next day, the whole cadre shows up, bright-eyed, smiling and ready for game time.  My gate-door is locked but the solid door is open.  “¿Vamos a jugar?” The gall of it all just gets my ire up.  Yea, right.  Maybe we can play the “me punch you square in the face” game.  He even denies that he kept the ball.  This time I go off on him.  It’s cathartic for me and painful for him.  Neither one of us are bored by this scolding.  “When you tried to trick me you stole from me again.  You’ve lied to me three times in three days.  Why on Earth should I trust you to come into my house?  Worst of all, you won’t even admit what you’ve done or ask for forgiveness.  Friends don’t treat each other like that, and I can’t be friends with someone who steals from me.”  And so on.

He starts crying a lot and takes 10 steps to the side of my door where we can’t see each other.  I continue to talk to “George”, because I know Stalin can still hear me.  I explain the whole thing to “George” and why it was wrong and what needs to be done, and so on.  “George” steps aside and talks to Stalin, then comes back and tells me how sorry Stalin is.  “No way.  If he’s really sorry, he can tell me himself.”  “sorry.”, peeps out from behind the wall.  “No way.  If he’s really sorry, he can say it to my face.”  This was a long step.  I start thinking that maybe I’m being too hard on the kid.  He’s only 9 after all.  But then I think, “No, to hell with that.  He knows right from wrong, and he knows how to say he’s sorry.  I can’t give forgiveness to someone who doesn’t ask for it.  And to ask for forgiveness is to admit to a mistake.”

Finally he comes to the door and between hiccups and sobs a little “perdón”, chirps out.  I press him to say why he’s sorry, what he’s sorry for, but he’s frozen.  He can’t move or say anything besides that.  I realize that I’m just torturing him now.  Fine, enough.  I give him a typical spiel about how I hope he’s learned something, blah blah blah and we’re both appropriately bored again.  We talk it out a bit and eventually I tell him he’s lied to me again, so no games today and that maybe tomorrow he can come back.  Tomorrow, however, is the last day of school, he reminds me.  He’s going to spend winter vacation with his father and by the time he gets back, I’ll be gone.  So today is really the last day.  While contemplating this he asks, “Do you hate me, Juan?”

Maaaaaan.  That’s an awkward position.  I don’t want this to be our last encounter, but I also won’t be strong-armed into playing.  I still don’t even have any desire to do so.  I also still legitimately don’t trust them to come into my house.

I thought about it a bit and a solution struck me.  The circus was in town, and I had already made plans to go with some friends of mine.   I told him I would treat him to a night at the circus to show him there were no hard feelings.  He’d need to get his mother’s permission, but I’d pay for him to go.  I won’t give him the marblies; that would ruin the lesson.  He should feel bad and upset about what’s happened.  Sometimes a little heartbreak is the best way to teach a lesson.  But I should reward him for (eventually, sort of) owning up.

The notion of the outing further cements that 1950’s feel I have of Nicaragua sometimes.  Even just saying “the circus is in town” seems like something out of Boardwalk Empire (I know, not the 1950’s).  It just seems like everyone should be trading baseball cards and playing stickball in the street while the girls play with jacks.  Oh wait, yeah they do that too.  Still this retro activity seems like a nice way to put some closure on this one aspect of my life.  It’ll be a special treat for the kids and a nice way to say goodbye.

This may have been one of the most imprudent decisions of my life.

To be continued in part 2.


At a touchy feeling Peace Corps meeting a while back we were talking about the things that we will miss about Nicaragua in the States and the things that will seem strange to us.  One of the comments was that “you will no longer be immediately interesting to children.”  It’s true that by virtue of being gringo kids often want to come visit my apartment and ask me all sorts of ridiculous questions (“How do you ‘Michael’ in English?”, “Are you sitting down right now?”) , rearrange everything in my apartment or just kind of mill about.  Most every volunteer I know has a cadre of ‘neighbor kids’, who, for better or worse, have defined a large part of their service.  I am no different, although anyone who knows me can guess that I’m not great with kids.

It’s not that I don’t like kids. I just have a hard time pretending to be interested in things that I am not.  When a neighbor kid starts listing off all of the kinds of fish he knows it might sound like it could be sort of interesting.  That is, it would be interesting if he actually knew the names of the fish and didn’t simply describe every kind of fish he knows.  Some people find this kind of stuff adorable, cutesy children style speech impediments and all.  I have a problem where I start talking back to the kid like he is an adult and ask him something like, “Sure, but don’t you think it’s such a tragedy that the sport culture of fishermen is leading to overfishing of that particular species, potentially eliminating it forever?”  To which I get a very appropriate blank stare.

The thing about kids in Nicaragua is that, in the best case scenario, they are in school five hours a day, five days a week.  Although in reality school is cut short or outright canceled regularly making that number a bit inflated.  Some kids work at the family business or have chores to do when they get home, but the vast majority of them are just free to do whatever.  They’ll often roam around the neighborhood without much supervision.  The phrase “it takes a village to raise a child” is particularly relevant in my community as it is pretty acceptable, and almost expected for everyone to take care of everyone else’s kids.  There isn’t much wrong with a stranger castigating or explaining manners to someone else’s child.  Despite my lack of paternal instincts, I have been no exception to this rule.  I’ve had to teach kids to share, not touch mouse traps and step in for all sorts of pseudo-parent roles for kids in my neighborhood during their visits.  These visits sometimes make me think I’d actually be a great dad.  Then I remember that when the kids bore me, annoy me, or I feel like doing something else, I can just shoo them out of my apartment, close the door, pretend I’m not home, and forget they ever exist.  That’s not a technique I’d like to rely on in a real life parenting situation. 

I’ve briefly alluded to a lack of certain skills and abilities present in the average Nicaraguan adult with regard to common math and language skills.  My experience working in the high schools have led me to believe that this is ultimately a failure on behalf of the primary school system, which doesn’t prepare the students with a base to learn these skills.  If I were to ask a primary school teacher what they think the problem is, they would probably say the responsibilities fall on the secondary school teachers, or perhaps on the parents.  Towards the end of my service, I’ve become more inclined to agree with putting the blame on the parents.  I think kids simply don’t receive enough attention, stimulation or encouragement during their developmental years.

I was talking to a colleague of mine about a time when he was getting his car fixed in Nicaragua and was watching a young apprentice mechanic trying to fit a trapezoidal piece into a trapezoidal slot.  The youth was holding the piece incorrectly and needed to turn it in order to make it fit into the slot.  He couldn’t seem to quite figure out how to reorient the piece to make it fit.  “This is the kind of fundamental skill that just is never developed among a lot of the youth here.  It’s the kind of thing we take for granted in the States that can have a dramatic impact on the youth.”  I was watching two kids playing Mario Brothers 3 the other day and they were lucky enough to reach the mushroom house that lets you play a basic memory game to earn extra lives.  The player is presented with 3 rows of 8 cards.  The player gets to select a card, which is then revealed, and then has to try and match it with a second card.  If the player fails to make a pair twice, the game is over.  When the kid I was watching tried to play this game he selected one card, a mushroom, and a second, a star.  That’s one strike.  He only has one more shot to make a pair.  He immediately selects the mushroom again (a card of lesser value no less), and then tries to match it.  The strategy is all off.  There is no reason to select the card that has already been revealed unless you can be sure you have already found a match.  Obviously, the best strategy is to pick a third unknown card.  If it is a mushroom, select the mushroom that was already found; if it is a star, select the star already found; if it is a new object (say a flower) select another unknown card.  Not only was he not utilizing his memory in a memory game, he couldn’t even realize that he was supposed to try and use memory to succeed.

I have taken a special shine to one neighbor kid of mine, Stalin (“No!  I’m named after my father”, he quickly corrected me).  He visits me more regularly than any of the other kids and is politer and quieter than the others so I tend to respond to him more warmly.  One day he spied my chess set and I offered to teach him how to play.  He’s 9 years old, and as with most kids his age that I’ve tried to teach, I can keep his interest only long enough to explain pawn movements.  Seeing I’d lost his interest I told him that we’ll finish the lesson another day and asked him to put the pieces away.  As it turns out this was enough of a challenge for him.  It was like that game Perfection.  I was fine with it, as it kept him really busy.  But he wasn’t even satisfied just putting the pieces away.  After he put them all in their spots, he took all of the pieces out and put them back in.  He did this so many times that I eventually felt obligated to time him.  After his first attempt, I wrote his name and his time up on my whiteboard as though it were some sort of scoreboard.  I told him, “Every day you can come and try and beat your time.  Every time you beat your time, I’ll give you a prize.” 

I should take a step aside and draw attention to the fact that this would be a wholly unacceptable and presumably criminal situation in the US.  This kid had been coming and hanging out in my house for hours, without outside supervision for a long time before I ever even met his mother.  Just imagine this situation in the US.  I am a foreigner, living alone in a dark musty apartment.  I spend most of my time in my apartment wearing no shirt, mesh shorts in desperate need of a wash and dirty flip flops.  I have a huge stack of empty liquor bottles in a box near my door (glass is too valuable to throw away here, they just sort of accumulate over time) and I either have a scraggily beard or at times a creepy mustache and I’m offering candy to a little kid.  Obviously I know I’m not a dangerous person, but what parent in their right mind would let their child in a house like that without at least meeting the owner?

I digress.  This challenge has become a regular thing with us, and I’ve had to come up with more games since then.  I made some flash cards with simple math on them as well as some English vocabulary cards.  There is also a clock reading game, pattern recognition, among others.  He gets one chance to beat his time/record for each game each day for which he earns points.  The points can be redeemed for prizes of varying value.  I was talking recently with friends about the potential real benefits to things like Luminosity, Brain Age, Sudoku or crossword puzzles.  While I can’t really be sure how useful those things are in increasing brainpower or offsetting Alzheimers, I have to believe that they are having an impact on this kid. 

Stalin has been pretty funny about what he does with his winnings.  I set up the ‘prize store’ in my house, mostly filled with little things of low value that I don’t plan on taking back to the States.  This includes a water gun, hackey sack, a ruler, some Post-It notes, some gel I won in a raffle, etc.  When I first showed the kids the idea of the store and explained how they could earn points the buy things from it, they seemed more excited to put things in the store than to win them.  They scoured my apartment looking for more things to add to the store.  They picked up everything they could saying, “¿Va a ocupar esto? ¿Y esto? ¿Qué tal esto?”  Are you going to use this?  And this?  How about this?  This ran the gamut from rubber bands to my desk back down to pieces of trash on my floor.  One kid actually went out, bought two pieces of candy, brought them back put a price on them and put them in the store.  He made them really expensive too (and even had different prices from each other). 

Before I had started the whole store scenario there were fewer kids and fewer games, so I just said I would give one prize, usually a piece of candy, for each win.  The first time a kid won I had forgotten to actually go and get prizes for him and when he crushed his time I felt guilty that I had nothing to reward him with.  “How about a coin?” he asked.  I thought, “A modest request.  Fair enough” and gave him one córdoba, less than a nickel.  He dashed out of my house and came back with a single piece of jelly filled gummy candy, ripped it in two and gave me half.  I doubt many nine-year-olds in the US would do that.  Things like that make me think it’s going to be harder to leave here than I thought.