What I Learned in Nicaragua

I traveled to Nicaragua in July 2016 to build a bridge as part of a humanitarian partnership between my company and Bridges to Prosperity. Check out my posts about the project and the experience!

This is the post about Nicaragua that I’ve been dreading writing, in a way. This is the one that forces me to confront the fact that it’s really over. But it’s also the one that gives me hope and a clearer vision for what my future might look like and how it might change.

13723957_10104782036647078_2757760696516199889_o-1024x768-1-2 Me and my favorite, Elbin.

Can I be totally honest about this trip, for a second? When I applied, of course I wanted to help people. Of course I wanted to make a difference. But also? I wanted to travel to another country and have most of it paid for (my company was extremely generous and sponsored most of our travel expenses). I wanted to get extra time off work and experience a new place, because we all know travel is my passion. I can’t say that my motivations were entirely unselfish. I’m not that good of a person.

13738148_10104782024346728_1507386452046671373_o-768x1024-1-2 Really good people drink less rum than me, probably.

And maybe that’s why this trip hit me so hard and affected me so deeply. Perhaps that’s why I was so humbled by the experience, and why leaving was so hard on me and why I continue to struggle with the fact that I’m not still there. The experience was honestly totally different than I could possibly have anticipated. Here’s what I learned:

1. Kids aren’t so bad.

If you’ve been reading my blog for more than about a month, you probably know that my attitude towards children is one of general unease. I don’t feel comfortable around kids. I don’t know how to interact with them or what to say or do with them. The younger the kids are, the more terrified I am of them. Babies? Forget it. Literally, I felt my pulse increase as I even wrote the word “babies.” That’s the level we’re talking about here.

So imagine my surprise when I realized that I was not only tolerating the kids in Nicaragua, I was actually looking forward to spending time with them. No, they weren’t babies – most were about 5 – 11 years old – but playing with those kids turned out to be one of the best parts of every day. It turns out, kids are curious! They are funny! They are smart! And they’re really cute and cuddly in a way that isn’t weird, but is actually just very nice and makes you feel like you’re doing something right. I suppose I have never really had the opportunity to interact with kids like that on such a prolonged basis, but I enjoyed every second. OK, maybe I didn’t love the parts where they fought over the ball or would incessantly scream “DANIELA! DANIELA! DANIELA!” outside my tent at 6 am. But other than that, they were adorable.

dscn1417-1024x768-1-2 The primary screamer of “DANIELA!!!” but also one of the cutest kids I’ve ever seen.

I am 30 years old, and I have long been resistant and even actively terrified of having kids. To be clear, I am still very ambivalent about physically giving birth to a child, or interacting with one that is too young to speak. But I can honestly say now that I do get some of the appeal that kids have. I loved teaching them new things and watching their eyes light up when they learned a new word or caught a ball for the first time. I loved experiencing the construction of the bridge through their eyes.

dscn0606-1024x768-1-2 Their absolute favorite thing was riding in the back of the truck.

I cried as we left El Zarzal, in large part because I didn’t get to say goodbye to the little boy I had grown the closest with during my time there, and also because I knew I won’t be able to see him grow up and know the person that he is going to become. I hope those kids will remember me, because I’ll never forget them.

img_0847-1024x683-1-2 Please ignore my hideous “safety” glasses – my real sunglasses broke on the first day.

2. Money isn’t everything.

Ah, privileged white young professional goes on a humanitarian trip to a poor country and comes away with a newfound appreciation for everything she has. How touching! How cliché. Eh…not exactly. That’s not really what happened. See, in case you haven’t noticed, I work my ass off. My life is spent constantly trying to earn more money, but not necessarily so I can buy more stuff; I’m primarily concerned with doing more things (and visiting more places). As embarrassing as it sometimes is to admit, my personal definition of success is a monetary one, although I don’t define other people’s lives that way.

13710486_10104782060519238_7415125313306672528_o-1024x768-1-2 This girl is the most dedicated hand-holder in all of El Zarzal

Still, I struggle with that definition and always have. I have constantly gone back and forth between spending my time doing something more “meaningful” or spending it advancing my career and financial goals. As a consultant, it can sometimes be hard to feel connected with the work you do – at least, it is for me sometimes. This trip provided real, tangible evidence about how work can be meaningful and how it can make a difference.

13775619_10104782101407298_1016143429762849149_n-3 I mean, we BUILT this!

Does that mean I’m considering quitting my job and starting a non-profit or making a career change? No. But what it does mean is that I’m looking at my life and trying to figure out where I can “trim the fat,” so to speak. I’m trying to figure out what the best uses of my time are and what helps me feel fulfilled. I don’t have those answers yet, and I don’t think they’ll arrive in a day or a week. But I can’t ignore the fact that I want to feel like I’m making a bigger impact on the world, and I want it to be tangible. So, as a start, I decided to volunteer to mentor an at-risk child at a local elementary school once a week. I figure my little niños back in Nicaragua would be proud. I don’t know where else this will lead, but it’s not an aspect of my life I’m going to continue to ignore.

img_1264-1024x683-1-2 When you dance so hard that you can’t get a clear picture

3. You get what you give.

This trip, more than any other, showed me that what goes around really does come back around, and that you and you alone are in control of the richness of your experience and your relationships. The highlight of my experience was the relationships I built with the people in El Zarzal, but those relationships didn’t come for free. They meant struggling to speak Spanish even when I was tired and didn’t think my brain could possibly translate another sentence. They meant getting up early to play with the kids before we went to work and putting off a shower for a few more hours at the end of the day so I could throw the ball around. They meant dancing when I felt totally ridiculous, going out of my way to be patient, kind, and understanding even when I didn’t want to be, and forcing myself not to let my own selfishness or exhaustion steal a single second away from that trip and those people.

13692921_10104782017265918_8066276495561542888_o-1024x768-1-2 One of many, many, many games of catch.

At some point during the two weeks, I found myself asking why I only act like this when I travel. Why don’t I say “yes” to more experiences when I’m at home? Why do I have less patience with the people around me? Why do I worry less about being kind and more about myself? I started wondering what my life would look like if I treated the people back home the way I treat people when I’m abroad. While I recognize that it’s impractical to give 100% of yourself all the time, there’s always room for more love, respect, patience, and kindness. Nine times out of ten, I will probably be ok if I make myself a little less comfortable in order to make someone else a little more comfortable and a little more happy. In fact, I’ll probably find more happiness myself.

img_0169-1024x768-1-2 They thought tickling was hilarious and would run up and tickle us constantly.

4. It’s ok to be really, really sad when a trip is over.

I have been home for a little over two weeks as I write this. I have had an incredibly difficult time adjusting to being home, and I know that I have not been myself or been easy to be around. I am completely broken-hearted that this experience is over. I have never really had this experience after a trip, and it isn’t because they weren’t amazing or life changing or wonderful in their own ways. I think that this one has been harder because I know, realistically, that it can’t be recreated. It’s not really possible to go back. For any of my other trips, it’s more or less as simple as just booking a plane ticket to go back to the same city. While obviously the experience wouldn’t be exactly the same, I don’t really have the option of doing that this time. What am I going to do – book a flight to Managua, drive myself 3 hours and just show up at the village unannounced and say “Hey guys! The gringa is back! Is it ok if I sleep on your floor?” Since I’ve been home, I’ve really mourned for the end of the experience, but I’ve learned I’m not alone. Not only is post-travel depression apparently rather common, it’s also something that almost the entire rest of our team is experiencing, too.

13781706_10104804641391988_5033732873270650260_n-2 We miss each other and Nicaragua a lot, I guess you could say.

If you ask me, that’s a blessing. I love that this trip and this experience meant so much to me that I’m mourning it like a death. As someone who has a hard time connecting with people and things a lot of times, it is truly an awakening to really feel and experience something this way. It’s been profoundly powerful, and I am beyond grateful. As they say, it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. You know what? They’re right.

13697175_10104778946864028_4292550365833690763_n-1-2 Nicaragua, te amo.

“And if travel is like love, it is, in the end, mostly because it’s a heightened state of awareness, in which we are mindful, receptive, undimmed by familiarity, and ready to be transformed. That is why the best trips, like the best love affairs, never really end.” – Pico Iyer

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