The primary reason for my trip was the culmination of an international service-learning course I had gotten into at school this past August. Each year, a professor in our Occupational Therapy department takes four students to Managua for a week to work at Tesoros de Dios, a wonderful school for kids with disabilities who otherwise would not have the opportunity to go to school. While staying in Managua, we were hosted by the Manna Project International, a volunteer-based organization that enlists the help of young adult volunteers who spend 13 months living and working with under-served populations in Nicaragua (they also work in Ecuador and Guatemala).
Before I joined up with my classmates and got to work at Tesoros de Dios, I met up with Lauren and her sister Nadine for some fun! We spent the better part of our first two days in Las Peñitas, Leon, a cool little fishing village on the Pacific coast of Nicaragua. For me, the adventure began when we got to the bus station, la UCA. It felt crazy and hectic to me, with people everywhere trying to get you to take their cabs or their bus or their minibus. It also didn’t help that not only were we three gringas, but we were three gringas with fairly large suitcases, so I felt like we stood out just a bit. But la UCA was also decidedly not the scary place I had been reading about on the internet. People were friendly, and there were women and kids everywhere, and I didn’t feel like my pasty New England skin and blonde hair was attracting as much attention as people had been telling me it would. People were squeezing into buses to get to work, or to visit family, or to go to the beach, just like we were. And it was on this morning that I learned my first Nica lesson: there is no such thing as a bus that is too full.
Our weekend in Las Peñitas was awesome. We had delicious fresh fish fillets for lunch at the hostel, Barca de Oro (highly recommended), went horseback riding on the beach at sunset (fun and terrifying at the same time), and went on a fun eco-tour through coastal waterways (baby turtles!). After Las Peñitas, we headed back to Managua for a night, and then on the last of my three days with Lauren, we went to La Paz.
Our day in La Paz was really special. Lauren took me to meet her host family from her time as a Peace Corps trainee. Doña Petrona, her host mom, and her family were so kind and warm, it was easy to see how Lauren had stayed so close with them even two years later. I learned that Petrona had pulled herself and her family out of poverty when she was a young single mom, and that she told other young women her story in hopes that she could inspire them to do the same. Petrona’s family and extended family were equally as gracious as she was, and Lauren took me on a tour of the little town where she spent her first three months in country. We went to Petrona’s son’s house and sat and visited with his family and neighbors who were passing through. We followed a festive church parade that was walking around the town in honor of a Catholic holiday that I wasn’t familiar with. I learned about bombas, which are very loud firecrackers, without any of the pretty lights. Our day in La Paz was one of my favorite parts of my trip. It was a new experience for me to spend time in another country, very different from my own, and just be in the community. I was doing what the locals did, eating what the locals ate, just spending a Sunday afternoon socializing, visiting, talking–just going with the flow of the day.
Even though my time in La Paz was brief, I was sad to go. Petrona’s sons had been very adamant about me not wasting any opportunity to learn Spanish, and I was really touched by both their pride in their language and their country, and their effort to share their language with me. But alas, it was already Sunday night, and my classmates and professor from Worcester were about to arrive.
For the next five days, my school group and I spent our days at Tesoros de Dios. Tesoros de Dios is a ministry in Managua that serves over 80 children with disabilities and their families. The school and clinic are staffed with physical therapists and special educators who are as good as they come. These women get a good salary and a compassionate work environment in return for their unconditional affection for the kids they work with. We were there to assist with the therapy and to learn about the work they do with the kids. Most of the kids had cerebral palsy, and they ranged in age from two to around 15 years old. Our time at Tesoros was a very unique experience. It was interesting to learn about how Nicaraguan culture views disability (not too positively) and to see how the mothers managed the care of their children on a day-to-day basis, without many of the services that we take for granted here in the United States. You’ve got to give huge credit to these women. They do such an outstanding job of taking great care of their kids, in spite of minimal resources and a lack of social support from the greater community.
It was a really neat experience to work with the women at Tesoros.
I arrived on day one expecting them to be looking to us for answers, and I could not have been more wrong. These women were well educated and competent in their skills, and they were kind to let us spend our week learning from and working with them. At the end of the week they presented each of us with a handmade card, signed by all of them, which I’ll keep for a very long time.
One of the more profound experiences of my trip was the morning we spent at La Chureca. La Chureca is the largest municipal dump in Central America, and it is home to over 150 families who live along the outskirts of the landfills. Residents of La Chureca make a living picking through the trash (residential, industrial and medical wastes) that is brought in from all over Managua. The Manna Project volunteers help to run a health clinic in La Chureca, and they also recently started a women’s jewelry cooperative, where women can use new and recycled materials to make jewelry, and the profits from the sales help to pay each woman an hourly wage, so they don’t have to pick through trash to earn money for themselves and their family. The Manna project also sponsors a milk program for 50 at-risk children under the age of five who live in La Chureca. Once a month, the mothers bring their children in to get weighed (to ensure that they are growing normally), and get powdered milk, rice and beans for their kids.
Our trip came to an end with a weekend in Granada (with a quick stop at the Masaya Market on the way–best smoothies ever!) and at the Laguna de Apoyo. Granada was a really fun city, and the Laguna de Apoyo was the most beautiful place I’ve ever been. We spent the day at Abuela’s, a small hotel on the edge of the lake. They had seating and lounging areas along the water where people can lie out on towels and get some sun, and docks to jump off, and of course, the lake to swim in.
I feel so lucky to have been able to do so many cool things in Nicaragua. The people I stayed with and the experiences we shared really made me feel like I got to experience a slice of life of the local people, and that is what made this trip so special. Nicaraguans are warm, and proud of their country, and happy to share it with outsiders. I can’t wait to go back.