Last we left off, I told you all about the bridge that the team from my company built in conjunction with Bridges to Prosperity and our awesome local volunteers. To be sure, the main reason why we went to Nicaragua (specifically, we were in El Zarzal, about 45 minutes from the city of Matagalpa) was to build this bridge, and that’s what we spent the vast majority of our day doing. There was more than one day where it felt like all we did was work, eat, and sleep, but there were also plenty of days where we got to really interact with the local residents and kids and have some fun!
Right off the bat, we were welcomed with open arms by the people of the village. Our bridge provides safe crossing for 383 families, but the people that we got to know the best were the residents of “la colonia,” a small grouping of about twenty houses that was located about a mile up the road from our campsite. The first night we arrived, we were invited to play soccer with the locals on their absolutely gorgeous field.
Playing sports was one of our favorite ways to connect with the locals, and especially the kids! Members of our team had brought frisbees, soccer balls, footballs, and baseballs and gloves, so there was no shortage of opportunities. The kids there love soccer and baseball, but they had never seen a frisbee or an American football, so we had a blast teaching them how to throw them. Eventually, they started running into our camp at 6 am hoping that we would play with them!
Sometimes our whole group would get together and head down to the field, but a lot of times, I would just play with the kids alone or with one or two other people. As tired and sweaty and mentally exhausted (from translating) as I was sometimes, I tried to be really, really cognizant of not letting any opportunity slip by during those two weeks. I knew I would regret coming home knowing that I had passed on an opportunity to make one of the kids smile, or to talk to a local, so I tried to seize every single one.
There was probably not better example of “seizing the moment” than when we were invited to the village for a concert. Our whole team made our way down and were given a tour of a couple of homes, and then we settled in a room in someone’s house with about half of the village. Everyone else was peering in through windows and doors! The villagers started playing, and it wasn’t long before one of the locals grabbed me and led me out to the dance floor.
I had earned quite a reputation for myself by this point as the blonde gringa who spoke terrible Spanish but was always willing to talk to everyone and play with the kids and was always kind, so our team had started making jokes about my cult-hero status. No one else on our team wanted to dance, so it was just me out there for song after very sweaty song (imagine 50 people packed into a tiny room). There was the occasional bump-and-grind attempt but as I twirled around and around that room, feeling half ridiculous and half elated, I just tried to soak it all in. I mean, when is the next time I’ll be dancing to a ranchero band in a village in Nicaragua? The only thing to do was embrace the awkward and enjoy it.
My cult-hero status was definitely cemented from that point on. Throughout the trip, I had been receiving cute little notes, drawings, and poems from some of the local kids (I was particularly popular with the 11-year old boys, for some reason), but things really ramped up. I came back with a gallon-sized ziploc bag full of drawings and poems, and some of them are pretty intense! It works out well because I collect local artwork from everywhere I travel, and what is more local than a hand-drawn picture from a child?
I’ll talk more about this in a future post, but the kids really had a huge impact on me during this trip. I don’t spend a lot of time with children (the younger they are, the more they terrify me), but the kids I hung out with in Nicaragua were anywhere from 5 – 11 years old, and they were SO much fun! They were curious about everything, loved playing sports and games with us, and always wanted to hold your hand or dance or talk to you about anything. They loved teaching us different Spanish words and learning words in English, and it was just so much fun to watch their minds expand!
Many of the kids were shy at first, with a couple of girls being the primary exception. From Day 1, Yamila and Melani wanted our attention nonstop and were not shy about that! The boys took a few more days to come around completely, but once they did, they stuck to us like glue. Kevin, Elbin, Alvin, Jorbin, Edgin (are you sensing a theme?!) were always running around with us.
Elbin ended up being my favorite little dude and I cried leaving him behind, because I didn’t get to say goodbye properly since he was in school on the morning we left. He was curious, playful, funny, cuddly, and smart – and he loved helping us on the bridge! I probably have a thousand pictures of this little boy on my phone, so you might be seeing him on my Instagram for the next year or so… #sorrynotsorry.
Although it is hard to imagine living in a community that is so small, I really enjoyed learning about what life is life in El Zarzal. You really got the sense there that “It takes a village,” and they have an amazing village! We got a sense for the dynamics within the village and even learned about the little feuds between community members, but ultimately, it really just came across as an incredibly supportive place where everyone helps each other out and is part of the same team. You definitely don’t get that same sense in bigger cities, and I found it very refreshing.
One of my favorite moments happened when we were walking back from the dance party early on in the trip. I started speaking with one of the locals, Juan Carlos, who was in the band that had just performed for us, and we talked about the different types of music that we listen to and what I thought about Nicaragua and all sorts of different things. I understood most of what he said, but then he made a statement that I thought I didn’t understand, so I asked my friend to translate. He said “You have captured the hearts of the community in just a few short days,” which was one of the best compliments I’ve ever received.
The whole trip, I focused so much on engaging, interacting, and really putting myself out there to connect with the locals. I wanted them to remember not only the fact that a bunch of Americans came to their village and built a bridge, but more importantly, that we all got to know each other and share about our lives. I wanted them to know that I cared about them as people and not just as a project, and to know that they saw that was so important to me. By the end of the trip, everyone was laughing, dancing, and playing sports together and it felt like one big happy family!
Before I left, I mentioned that I wasn’t planning on running while in Nicaragua, but I actually did end up bringing one set of running gear “just in case.” Well, as you can probably guess, I didn’t run at all. I actually didn’t even think about it. As much as I love running, one minute spent with the villagers was far more valuable to me than an hour on the roads. Every single second with them was time well spent, and if I could do it over again, the only thing I would change was finding even more ways to engage and connect than I already did.
If you asked me what the most special part of this experience was, I wouldn’t hesitate to say that it was the people. Yes, building the bridge was amazing, but for me, connecting with the locals and our team was by far the most rewarding part of the experience.
“This is the true story of seven strangers, picked to live in a house, work together and have their lives taped, to find out what happens when people stop being polite… and start getting real.” If you remember the opening lines of MTV’s The Real World, as I do, then you’ll soon understand why they were running through my head for two weeks! Our team was 12 strangers, picked to camp in Nicaragua, work together, and have their lives taped. I’d like to tell you that we found out what happens when people stop being polite and start getting real, but we actually had a pretty amazing time together despite conditions that were sometimes pretty challenging.
I didn’t know what to expect from our team, but whatever I was expecting, they completely exceeded anything I could have imagined. For starters, the vast majority of our team was very young – in our 20s and 30s. I definitely wasn’t expecting that! I’m 30 and I was basically the “middle child” on the team. Regardless of whether you were 24 or 50, though, we all got along like we had known each other our whole lives. The dynamic of the group made things really fun from the very beginning, and it never felt like we had those weird “getting to know you” moments.
If you ever plan on doing a trip like this (or any type of humanitarian project with non-hotel conditions), you have to be pretty much up for anything. On the days when it rained non-stop and it seemed like everything we touched was covered in mud, or when some people got sick from a restaurant and were puking outside their tents at 2 am, or when you’re sweating through your clothes and covered in sawdust – if you’ve got a bad attitude, it makes things a lot more difficult. Although it was sometimes challenging to stay positive, everyone really banded together to keep our spirits up, and we felt like family by the end of the trip.
I think the best thing about our team was that we supported each other and helped make each other better. Everyone had different strengths and weaknesses. For example, I know next to nothing about camping, and I had some rough days early on with water in my tent and then one of my tents (I had two – it’s a long story) collapsing in a storm. Brian, Chris, and Jay were all so helpful and didn’t hesitate to help me put them back up and get everything sorted out, even when they were tired and wanted a break. On the other hand, I was definitely the most outgoing and tireless person when it came to interacting with the locals and playing with the kids, and I think that rubbed off on the team over time, too. We all brought different things to the table but worked together so well. I don’t know how John, our group leader and the brains behind this whole concept, picked our team so well, but he totally nailed it.
My favorite team story actually started out as my least favorite. One day, I was driving one of the 4×4 trucks to pick up a bunch of wood, as I did often on the trip. The trucks are stick shift and the terrain was very hilly and, on this day, particularly muddy. We had loaded about 2000 pounds of wood in the back of the truck (not an exaggeration) and I was driving back to camp up the steepest hill and needed to make a hard right turn on a blind corner. I started to make the turn and all of a sudden, there was a herd of cattle right in front of the truck on the middle of the road. I had to slam on the brakes and stop on the hill with all of that wood in the back of the truck. By the time we got going again, we were at a complete stop and the back of the truck was totally weighed down. As I hit the gas to make it up the hill, all of the wood fell out of the truck and clattered onto the road, denting the truck and breaking one of the tail lights in the process. I was absolutely traumatized and shaking, so upset about messing up the rental car, feeling silly about dropping all the wood we had just worked so hard to load, etc. The people in my car could NOT have been more reassuring, kind, and compassionate in that moment, and even when we got back to camp, everyone was so nice about it and assured me over and over again that it wasn’t my fault and it would have happened to anyone. Eventually, it even became a big joke among the team and with our foreman, Carlos, who had been in the truck and thought it was the funniest thing he had ever seen. He took every possible opportunity to bring up that moment in conversation (in Spanish) and would get the most devilish look on his face whenever he managed to work it into a sentence. It was pretty excellent.
With 12 people from my company, plus 3 local foreman, 1 local engineer, and 2 Bridges to Prosperity employees, and 2 cooks, it actually seems amazing, looking back, that we all worked so well together. Each night, after we worked all day and played with the kids and ate dinner, we would go back to camp and sit around the table drinking and talking. We heard stories about other teams who didn’t talk to each other after work each day and would just go to their tents after dinner, and that makes me so sad to think about. Bonding with everyone was one of the best parts of the experience!
I have to give some of the credit for how well this experience worked to our awesome B2P staff members – Alex and Kenny. Alex is from Australia and Kenny is from Scotland, and they are spending a few years in Nicaragua working with Bridges to Prosperity. Their relentless positivity, amazing senses of humor, and love of Nicaraguan rum brought so much to our team and made everything feel easier.
I feel so fortunate to say that I went into this experience with 11 strangers and left with so many lifelong friends. The people I met on this trip, whether local or from my company, really stuck to my heart, and we shared some incredible experiences. I’ll never be able to tell all of the stories or share all of the memories, but they will be with me forever. I’m an introvert by nature, so pushing myself to really connect with everyone around me was definitely not always comfortable, but it was always worth it. This was truly two of the best weeks of my life.