On December 14, 2013, a group of 7 Auburn students accompanied by our super cool, camera-savvy advisor started our journey to Nicaragua for a week that we would never forget. Once we took off from Atlanta, we had a plane ride of about 3 hours. We met a group from the University of Alabama who were also traveling to Nicaragua and some very nice Michigan State fans who we thanked for sending us to the National Championship! Once we arrived at the airport in Nicaragua’s capital city of Managua, we were greeted by employees from Panorama Service Expeditions, an organization that creates, develops, organizes, and manages global service projects for colleges and universities. None of us had ever been to Nicaragua before, so we knew that it was going to be a week filled with new experiences.
Day 1 (Dec. 15)
Day 1 was our excursion day and this was definitely the longest and most tiring day of the week. Something that stood out to us on this day is how beautiful the country of Nicaragua is. No matter where we went, we could look around and easily see an amazing view with an ocean, mountain, or volcano that was just as incredible as the last. We had a full schedule planned, and we had a very energetic and outgoing tour guide that led the way.
Our first stop of the day was at the Sanchez family’s home, which was built by the ASB team that went to Nicaragua last year! It was a pleasure to hear Culbert, the owner of the house, speak about the history of Nicaragua and give us some basic knowledge before we explored the city. He also told us how grateful he was for what the Auburn group did for his family last year, and he was happy to welcome us back. After we left the house, we traveled to Managua to begin our zip-lining excursion. This part of the excursion was really exciting, because we were essentially zip-lining over a lake. And while some of us were daredevils and did cool tricks and spins on the zip-line, a few of us stayed conservative and had only one goal… which was to overcome our fears of heights (or maybe that was just me…). Our next destination was the Volcano Masaya National Park, where we got to visit the active volcano. After visiting the volcano, we ate lunch in Granada and tried the local cuisine. Granada is a beautiful place with lots of families, beautiful architecture, horse and carriage rides, and local vendors. One of the cool things we learned about Granada is that around the same time every afternoon, locals from the town move their rocking chairs to the front of their house or by the main square and socialize with people who are visiting. After we left Granada, we went to Catarina where we got to visit a popular market strip and sight-see some more. We ended this very exhausting day with a boat ride on Lake Nicargua, the largest lake in Central America. We saw many islands and beautiful houses. One of these islands was home to 4 monkeys, who loved the cookies that we offered them. We were warned they might try to jump onto our boat, but thankfully they were happily content on their island. Day 1 was a blast, but we were definitely ready to start working!
Day 2 (Dec. 16)
Day 2 was our first work day. We found out that we would be working with the community of Santa Julia. Santa Julia is the home of 65 families, where everyone knows each other’s name and the community members are extremely tight-knit. The people of Santa Julia were extremely welcoming, and we immediately felt right at home. Our main job for the week was working with the all-female coffee cooperative and helping them with the harvest season. On this day, we picked beans on a slope that was 700 ft. above sea level. The work was definitely not easy, but it was extremely motivating to see how hard the women work. It was also nice to be able to get to know some of the children this day, as well. I found out quickly that the women of the cooperation can pick many MANY more beans that I ever could. It also wasn’t a rare occurrence to stumble or trip down the mountain (at least for me, anyways). For the women, days are long and very HOT. It is now the dry season in Nicaragua, so temperatures were about 85-90 degrees everyday. Everyday we ate lunch in Santa Julia. After lunch was usually very relaxed and this is when we really got to know the kids better. Once we got back to the hotel every night, we would usually stick our feet in the pool and relax until dinner was ready, which was provided by our hotel.
Day 3 (Dec. 17)
Day 3 was another 7AM wake-up call. Breakfast everyday included red beans and rice (gallo pinto) which was a Nicaraguan favorite, eggs, toast and cheese. However, I remember this day was extra special, because they introduced the infamous waffle-maker, something we were very thankful for by the end of the week. Every day we would ride a van to an area near Santa Julia, then we would ride in the bed of the truck up the mountains to Santa Julia, which was always very entertaining. Today, we worked with the cooperation again, but instead of picking red beans, we picked beans off of the coffee trees. On this day, we also helped make the organic fertilizer. Making the fertilizer is a very tedious process, and it takes many months for the process to be complete. After the fertilizer is completely settled and ready, the cooperation packages it and sells it for profit! This day was also incredibly special, because it was the FIRST time that the community members were able to use their new donation from PSE – a motorized industrial de-pulping machine! This was an incredible milestone for not only the cooperation, but the community of Santa Julia as a whole.
De-pulping machine in action:
Day 4 (Dec. 18)
On this day, we headed back to the fields to help the cooperation pick more red beans. However, this field was much, much larger than the one they introduced us to on the first work day. Something that always helped us get through the long, hot mornings was each other’s company along with Peter’s speaker that always had a nice selection from the Nica playlist. After we finished picking beans in the morning, we headed back to the house, where we learned how to do the cha-cha and played soccer. Lots and lots of soccer. The kids of Santa Julia were some of the most energetic, positive, care-free children I have ever met. I think I speak for all of us when I say that the children made us feel very welcomed throughout the week, and it was nearly impossible not to smile whenever we were around them. This was also an exciting afternoon, because the children (and ourselves) got to hit some piñatas. Watching the kids interact with each other made us realize that these children are just like children in the U.S., except they are much less fortunate. However, I never saw them fret on anything. They were thankful that we were there to keep them company and they definitely know how to have a good time! On this night, we checked out one of the nicest shopping malls of Managua. After we left the mall, we went to a local carnival which was exciting to say the least. However, we immediately regretted getting ice cream prior to getting on the rides… still a great time, though!
Day 5 (Dec. 19)
On Day 5, it was back to harvesting the coffee beans. We got to see the de-pulping machine in action again. The members of the community stressed how important this donation was by telling us that it saved them so much time. The addition to the community is a symbol of them moving forward and creating a better life for their families. Once we got back to the hotel on this night, we went through all of the donations that were going to be given to the Santa Julia community the next day. Many donations were brought from Auburn, but Panorama brought multiple suitcases full of anything and everything. Donations included clothing for all ages, shoes, books, arts and crafts, board games, cards, soccer balls, a scooter… and the list goes on. We were going to be giving these donations to the community the next day as Christmas gifts. After we finished separating the donations, we had plans to go out to eat and listen to a local band. The restaurant had a very laid-back atmosphere, and the entertainment was so great. The band sometimes had a boy who was no older than 12 sing and he was AWESOME. It was fun to get to see how much fun the locals have there. The dinner included steak and chicken kabobs, rice and beans (duh), fried cheese (yes, this exists and it’s amazing), chips and salsa, and plantains. I really enjoyed this night because it was almost like a celebration for all of the hard work that had been done throughout the week. And of course, it was nice to be around each other laughing and having a good time, as always.
Day 6 (Dec. 20)
This was definitely the most bitter-sweet day. The final day with the community of Santa Julia was so difficult, but we made the most of it. We started the day with picking beans, but then the bottom fell out. And it didn’t just rain… it rained HARD. Once it stopped, we headed back to the main house for lunch and to lay out all of the donations that were going to be given out. We created a system where everyone had a job – included separating different sizes of clothing, packaging the clothing for the families, or writing names on the packages. After a couple hours of getting the packages ready, playing soccer and tag with the kids, and lots of dancing, most of the community had arrived to this central location for the distribution of the gifts. On this day, we saw many news faces, which was really great because we got to know many more members of the community! After all the gifts were given out, we had a few more hours to hang out, so we started a dance party.. obviously. It started raining again, harder than earlier – but if you think that stopped us from having a good time, you’re very wrong. Becca made a good point that this rain symbolized so much more than we could even imagine. The rain symbolized all of the hard times that this community has had, but none of this has ever stopped them from becoming a stronger community. No matter what their trials and tribulations are, they always seem to make it through with a smile on their face. I think I speak for all of us when I say that this part of the trip was definitely the most rewarding, and it is something that we will NEVER forget. And being college students, we obviously taught the children how to Wobble. The leaders of the community spoke to us about how thankful they were for all of our hard work and always having positive attitudes. Tears were shed, many hugs were given, and we eventually left the community – but I think the most precious thing was seeing all the kids hanging on the back of our truck telling us how much they will miss us.
On Day 7, we headed back to the US where we took back many memories that would last us a lifetime. We also took back all of the things that Nicaragua and the members of the Santa Julia community taught us. I know that it was a week that none of us would ever forget, and there is no other way that we would have rather spent the first week of our Christmas break. We are all thankful to have learned about the Nicaraguan culture, and we can’t wait to see how the community progresses in the future.