Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Building Homes and Making Friends in Nicaragua

Greetings from Jinotega, Nicaragua   (photo: Bridges to Community)

By Lauren Morales

To say that traveling to Nicaragua was a life-changing experience would be an understatement. It’s hard to even put into words and begin to reflect on how influential and beneficial this trip was on my life in general. It changed my overall perspective on what should be valued and not taken for granted, and really opened my eyes to reality. Before going to Nicaragua I knew that so much would be happening around us and it would be overwhelming at times, so I decided to bring a journal to record anything and everything happening around me.

I wrote my first entry as I was laying in a bunk bed, covered with a mosquito net surrounded by people who were still somewhat unfamiliar. We had arrived in Jinotega that day and I remember thinking how I could not even express in words how incredible it was. I really enjoyed the bus ride from Managua to Jinotega because it was just simply peaceful. The huge windows that slid open, allowing us to really see the beautiful mountains and coffee farms were something I’ve never seen before. I would say that at certain points throughout the drive we were probably doing less than 10 mph, but the feeling of being so content in the moment and having all the time in the world was so peaceful. The beauty of simplicity was truly amazing.

Not even being in Jinotega for 24 hours I wrote that I had already learned so much, knowing that my appreciation for the community and people within would only grow. Earlier that day we went to the community where we would be building and welcoming ceremony was held. I knew it would be moving to actually meet people from the community for the first time but it was even more than I had expected. I was nervous to meet them because even though I was assured otherwise, I thought that they may have feelings of resentment towards us because they know we have a lot more than they do and I felt that you couldn’t blame them. It only took a few seconds of being there for me to realize how wrong I was. Every single person was smiling from ear to ear and were exceptionally welcoming.

Sense of Community

One thing that I wrote about and know I could not forget was the old man that came up and individually shook each of our hands and smiled at us. Without even exchanging words I knew how genuinely thankful he was. The sense of community within was something I truly admired. It was as if they were one big family and even though they didn’t have much they still seemed to be happy. During the ceremony there was one little boy that really stood out to me as I was observing my surroundings. A few of the children that were a little bit younger than him were making a lot of noise in the background while they were playing as the adults were speaking to us and it was bothering him. He would subtly try to tell them to be quiet, and I think this portrayed how important he felt it was and the level of respect he had at such a young age. That night we had dinner with the two beneficiary families and were fortunate to be able to converse with them through translations.

The next day we finally started to build the house for the families and the site that I was placed on was actually beautiful. The house where the beneficiary family was currently living was sheltering four families with not nearly enough room for everyone. It was surrounded by high plants of tropical colors, animals they had as pets, and a lot of smiling faces. I was surprised by the amount of community members there to help us as we mixed cement and laid down the foundation of the house. The young boys did a lot of the manual labor and were exceptionally strong despite their size. The boys were all so humble and genuinely hard working, which in a sense is the opposite of the children that age in our society. Maybe not as a whole but I do believe that kids in America take a lot for granted and are handed most of the things they have. The kids in Nicaragua worked so hard for nothing in return, potentially stripping them of their childhood. The younger kids were all adorable and always smiled when we tried to interact with them.

Reflections: ‘Rose, Bud and Thorn’

After every day in Jinotega we would all sit together and reflect on the day we had, which I thought was extremely influential. To talk about the things we were doing, the people we were engaging with, and the community in general from different perspectives enhanced the experience. One night we each had to describe our “rose, bud, and thorn” of the trip so far and then share with the group. My rose was the people of Jinotega and their sense of community; I felt that even though they had much less than us, in a way they almost had more. I think our society lacks communication and I envied their sense of unity and the importance of family. Sometimes you have to step back and realize that it isn't materialistic things in life that are important but the relationships and people you have in your life. My bud was being given the chance to help these people and build relationships with them and also being able to build relationships with the people I was fortunate to have by my side throughout this experience.

Even though we all came from the same small school, we probably would have never taken the time to or gone out of our comfort zone to get to know each other. Each one of them are genuinely amazing individuals and I would not have chosen to have gone with any other group. The diversity amongst each other made it even more interesting, as we were all intrigued by each other and interested in learning from one another. One night we played a game called “Never Have I Ever” and it was a good way to break down every wall possible with nothing but laughter. My thorn for the trip was not being able to fully communicate with the people and getting to know them on the level that I would have liked to.

One of my favorite things about the site we were on was that it was right next to the school, so we were fortunate to be surrounded by the kids once they were dismissed. Also, every day there are new faces and new helpers. I thought it was really nice that even some random kids that were just passing by would stop in a pick up a shovel and help out for a few, when again were getting nothing in return. I think that goes back to their sense of community and that even though it may not have directly benefited them, it benefited a family in their community and that is enough for them. The labor we did was hard work as everything is done from scratch. At some points I thought to myself, “I wonder if they know about the advanced technology and machinery we have in the United States… hopefully not.” Could you imagine knowing that the extremely difficult work you are doing to hand mix cement could be done with the push of a button and be produced a thousand times faster than doing it by hand?

It’s really sad that these men, and even kids, work so hard every day for little or even no money while in the states workers are not doing half as much as there but earning a remarkable amount more. On the site one day we had a conversation with some of the boys working who were around the same age us. We asked them approximately how much money they made working in a week. Junior, one of the beneficiaries, said about $15 US Dollars a week.

Family Budget: Rice and Beans

Later that night while reflecting on our day, we did a budget activity. Kelly and Elizabeth gave us a sheet with actual numbers based on a Nicaraguan family of five. We were told you create a budget based on a particular situation and family lifestyle, using the numbers we were given. My group and I went through the list of costs and wrote down the things we thought were necessities. After adding what we thought were necessities together we were all shocked at how much we were going to have to eliminate as we were immensely over budget. To think that these families can only afford rice and beans for months at a time, while the average family in the states is generally spending hundreds on groceries a week creates a feeling of guilt and really made me realize how much we take for granted. Learning about poverty and third world countries is one thing but to create a relationship and have the ability to put a face to someone living in conditions like this is heart wrenching.

Being with the people of Sassle for 5 days I observed various little things that I will never forget. As I mentioned during reflections one night, I noticed that one of the little boys was wearing the same pair of underwear for all 5 days of working. Its sad to see that and realize that that they were most likely the only pair he had. It reflects that their hardships are not just what we see on the surface; theres small things that we would do not even consider and take for granted that some are dealing with every single day. Even though it was not much, being able to leave some clothing behind for these people gave us a feeling of hope. Hope that there are little things we can do to help and hope that it will make them smile.

After finishing the house, we had a goodbye ceremony with the families and people of the community while standing inside one of the houses built. To be able to look at the house and see the excitement in the faces of the beneficiary families was hands down the most rewarding thing I have ever experienced. Fatima, the mother of the beneficiary families whose house my group and I built, spoke at the ceremony, along with others. She was so appreciative of us and the work we had done and one thing she said to us stuck in my head. She said “You’ve made my dreams into reality and I thank you so much.” As we were leaving she gave each of us a key chain in the shape of Nicaragua and wrote “Love Fatima” on the back. This simple act triggered a lot of emotions as it becomes apparent how much the house we built truly meant to them, and how amazing it is to have been a part of such a great community with good hearted people for the short time we were there. The family told us that we are always welcome, their door is always open for us, and they hope we come back and truly, I hope I do go back someday.

After leaving Sassle, I think it is fair to say that we were all experiencing a whirlpool of emotions. All of us had created relationships within the community, and the most influential week of our lives was coming to end. We didn’t know it yet but we were on our way to being exposed an even more heart wrenching environment.

Coffee Plantation: Hard Work, Low Pay

Our itinerary included a tour of the largest coffee plantation which was fair trade. The plantation was secluded in the mountains due to the fact that coffee must be grown at a certain elevation. As we rode on the back of a crowded pick up truck to the top of the mountain we saw some things that were not easy to look at it. Almost every animal we saw throughout the country was malnourished as their ribs were prominently sticking out. On our way to the plantation we saw a dead calf on top of a pile of hay and it only got worse from that point. Arriving at the top we saw the housing for the workers and their families and I could not even put into words the feeling I felt at that moment. The conditions they were subject to resembled those of a concentration camp and knowing that they were working countless hours for very little amount of pay was heart breaking.

A man that seemed to have authority on the plantation took us to a spot where women, each holding machetes, were cutting down coffee plants that were no longer producing coffee beans. As a privileged American, just simply observing these women working, I could not help but feel uncomfortable, unwanted and extremely guilty. Although at that given moment I had knots in my stomach and would have done anything to escape what I was seeing, I can look back and say I’m glad I saw that. I’m not glad that these women were working in these conditions, or living so horribly, but glad that this experience gave me insight and an overall taste of reality.

I’ve always learned about things like this but I think that it is important to see for yourself what is really going on in the world we live in. This can be perceived in a greater sense when talking about third world countries in general. Not only I am a glad I saw what I did that day on the coffee plantation, but I’m glad to have seen and experienced an underdeveloped, poverty stricken country. Anybody can learn about poverty from a distance but to actually witness it for yourself and be engaged in the culture it truly learning about it. There’s one thing that Kelly said during reflections one night that will always replay in my head when it comes to recalling the community and the people of it. She said “I guess the best way to put it is that you guys won the birth lottery.” It made me realize just how fortunate we are as Americans to have the opportunities and freedoms that we do, simply because that’s what we were born into.

Traveling to Nicaragua and helping families in need was the most influential and rewarding thing I have done in my life yet and the memories and lessons I have taken from it are something I will always carry with me. The things that I have learned are applicable to everyday life and have changed my overall perspective. It may be the little things but I believe in the long run it made me strive to be a better person and want to help more than I ever had. I truly admire the Bridges to Community organization and would like to give my sincerest gratitude towards them. I think the organization in itself is an incredible development and will continue to prosper as it benefits citizens of third world countries, while also benefiting those who seek to learn and help in any way they can.

World Beyond the Classroom

I strongly believe that in order to grow as individual you must experience the world by stepping out of your comfort zone and gaining knowledge that can not necessarily be taught in the class room. It is truly amazing how much this world has to offer and how much one can learn just by simply being emerged into a foreign culture. I’ve realized how intriguing unfamiliar cultures, values, and beliefs are as I gained a new perspective on many aspects of life. In my opinion, it is not until you are actually surrounded by and engaged in different places and cultures that you can fully respect and understand others way of life and rid yourself of all ignorance.

After returning to New York City after being in Nicaragua I was experiencing a little bit of a culture shock. I was also talking a lot about my trip as everyone was genuinely curious and intrigued about how it was. It was difficult to express through words and stories the things I had to say such as how beautiful the country was, the physical work we endured, and the absolutely amazing people we met along the way. The one thing that I did stress to every person I discussed the trip with was how strongly I recommend going on a trip of this nature, being as it is life changing and one can only know the feeling after seeing the happiness, which you contributed to, of someone much less privileged.

Lauren Morales is a Communication Arts student at St. Thomas Aquinas College. She also works as a production assistant at Yonkers Raceway. 

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