Tomorrow morning we leave for the rural community of El Limon. It is only 2.5 miles from where we are right now, but it may feel like a world away.

There is some apprehension among the group about spending the next four days and four nights with families we don’t know.

The primary concerns include:

  • Will I be able to communicate with my host familiy?
  • What will the food be like? What if it makes my stomach upset? (That is a particular concern because only outhouses are available in El Limon.)
  • What will our service project be and will my skills be useful? (The community chooses what they want our help with and we will learn the task tomorrow morning.)
  • Will my host family like me and will I like them?

In order to address some of those anxieties, our guides and a community leader from El Limon will determine who will stay with which families. That will ensure those with some understanding of Spanish will be spread among several homes, for example. We’ve discussed the importance of staying hydrated and communicating openly with someone you trust if health issues arise.

We’re signing off for now. Although there is electricity in El Limon, there is no Internet access. We’ll check in again on Sunday, Jan. 12 from Granada.

Today we visited the Gallery of Heroes and Martyrs of Esteli. The local memorial museum honors those from Esteli district who died fighting the oppression of the Somoza regime in the 1970s.

We had the opportunity to hear the personal story of Dona Mina, whose only son was gruesomely executed by Somaza’s U.S.-trained special forces. He was 14 years old when he left to fight with the Sandonistas. After he was killed, Dona Mina picked up a gun and fought in his place.

Portraits of fallen fighters

Dona Mina’s son, Juan, has red behind his name. He was 14 when he left to fight with the Sandonistas.

No official records were kept, but it is believed that thousands died in the Esteli area alone. When the Sandonistas took Esteli — the day known as The Triumph, July 19, 1979 — the Somoza family fled the country. (They tried to go to the United States, but President Carter refused them entry. They went to Paraguay, where Somoza was later assassinated.)

After the war, Dona Mina was one of four mothers who began working to create a memorial to the lost loved ones — the heroes and martyrs. Those four mothers knocked on doors and grew to 3,000 mothers, each who shared a photo or memento of their son or daughter who was killed. Today, more than 400 mothers remain active in the association that runs the museum. The center receives no government support and nearly all visitors are foreign tourists.

The center focuses on the insurrection, rather than the contra war period. Dona Mina said a few other communities began similar projects but most did not result in a permanent memorial. She believes preserving the memory of those who died is crucial for several reasons. The most important: Education.

Between 1990 and 2006 Nicaraguan public schools were not allowed to teach or discuss the insurrection, the triumph or the contra wars. When the Sandonista FSLN party was re-elected in 2006 those laws were changed.

It was clear that this conflict touched every family in Nicaragua. Our guide, Aldo, who grew up in Esteli, had an uncle who fought and died in the Sandonista army. We were able to see his picture, too. He was the brother of Aldo’s mother and we were all struck by how much he looks like our friend.

A picture of Oscar Olivas Jarquin under a glass case.

Oscar Olivas Jarquin, the uncle of our guide, Aldo Marcell, was killed in December 1978 while fighting against the Somoza regime. He was 32 years old.

Although each of us is processing what we learned in our own ways, we were all touched by the personal stories shared by Dona Mina and Aldo. It made what we have read and heard feel more real, more important and more heartbreaking.

Nathan immediately saw connections to his studies at Washburn.

“I learned more today than in any history class I’ve ever taken. I’m a history major. I didn’t know any of that stuff,” he said. “I was actually kind of ashamed.”

Many in the group felt a sense of shame or guilt at the role of the United States in supporting the Somoza regime. When presenting Dona Mina with a small Ichabod sun catcher, Meghan told her we would “like to apologize for the role of our government.”

Dona Mina told us all not to feel responsible because what a government does is not the responsibility of individual citizens. She encouraged us to learn and question, but not to carry guilt or shame.

Later, Sam said what many of us were thinking: “It’s strange that the people of the country don’t seem as interested. And it blows my mind that those weren’t even all of the people who were killed.”

Dona Mina said it has been a struggle to get the young people of the community interested in the history of the insurrection and revolution. She works to preserve the memory of what happened and the memory of her son and all the others.

Tonight, as we reflected as a group, we were left with some important questions: What is our role in preventing something like the Somoza dictatorship and decades long civil wars in Nicaragua from happening again? What difference can we make and what responsibility do we have related to our government and its actions? What other injustice is occurring that government — in any country — is trying to hide, downplay or ignore? Would we be willing to sacrifice everything for what we believe in?

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There is a small cigar shop across the street from our hostel in Esteli and this afternoon we popped in to see the process from tobacco leaf to cigar for ourselves.

There were fewer than a dozen employees in the family-owned business, which sells its cigars locally and in one shop in Chicago. (The building has a small outline of the Chicago skyline, too.)

Nicaraguan tobacco leaves in a crate, ready to be used.

Nicaraguan tobacco leaves.

Cigar bundles stacked on a shelf.

Cigars ready to be packaged for sale.

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Aldo Marcell

Aldo Marcell

Aldo Marcell welcomed us to his home town of Esteli, Nicaragua today with a special opportunity.

We’ve gotten to know Aldo this week as he has guided us along our journey. We knew that the 35-year-old is the youngest child in his family and has two passions: plants and origami art.

Everywhere we have gone, Aldo has told us the names of the plants, flowers and trees. The Nicaraguan government recently tapped his knowledge for an environmental impact study related to a potential canal project and he is widely recognized for his skill in botany throughout the country. It’s been fun to watch him collect plants for his garden as we travel around the country, too.

“If I see something at a good price I act quickly,” he told us. He’s in the process now of planning and developing a garden at his family’s farm.

We’ve heard and seen a bit about his origami before today. But at his family home, just a few blocks from the hostel where we are staying, we were able to see the work of a master. (Aldo is very humble and would never call himself a master.)

“I am an enthusiast,” he said. “There are many people better than me.”

He was introduced to origami at age 10 and became serious about the craft at age 19. Now, he is invited to conferences and collaborates with other origami artists on projects. Suffice it to say we were all blown away by what our friend can create with paper, patience and skill.

Some of our favorites included original designs.

“I have seen Aldo’s origami five different times now. It gets better every time. I don’t know how he does it,” Rick said during today’s reflection. “I think it’s amazing. You have so much knowledge. You amaze me and I’m so glad to be your friend.”

We couldn’t agree more.

A table featuring a variety of boxes and vases made of paper with intricate origami.

Each of these items — and dozens of others we saw today — were made by Aldo Marcell.

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