Kasia had more work to do to prepare for this trip than the rest of us.
None of of it gave her the slightest hesitation.

Originally from Warsaw, Poland, Kasia has a Green Card and needed a visa and some other documents that those of us with U.S. passports didn’t. She also flew on her own because of a holiday trip to Florida.

The Lawrence, Kan. resident is a senior majoring in human services. She has an interest in gerontology and took the opportunity to ask specific questions at the community center we visited.

In El Limon, she worked hard during work time and enjoyed every minute of being pampered by the young girls in her host family. They intricately braided her hair daily, gave her a manicure and a pedicure that rivals any salon and made sure the coffee enthusiast always had a tasa de cafe (cup of coffee).

“I’m having a great time. It’s better than watching television,” she said during reflection time in El Limon. “I’m under the shock of experiencing what’s going on. How much labor everything requires! They’re leading very basic lives, but they are living all together, supporting each other. Everyone seems happy.”

At the end of our trip she was still reflecting on her experience with the family: “They play with nail polish because they have nothing else.”

Kasia would be a wonderful travel companion in any environment. And her willingness to share her European perspective on government and history enriched many discussions among the group.

Kasia paints the new gate at the community center in El Limon, Esteli, Nicaragua.

Kasia paints the new gate at the community center in El Limon, Esteli, Nicaragua.

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We had the opportunity to have dinner on Tuesday night at the Cafe de los Mimos, a project of the School of Comedy and Mime (website in Spanish). The school provides opportunity to homeless children in the Granada area, teaching them acting and circus-style performance.

The performance we saw was similar in style to Cirque du Solei with beginning skill. There was contortion, juggling, stilts, tricks of strength and wonderful acting with facial expression.

After the play, we heard a band perform. There was a lot of dancing. Music and dance are a big part of the culture here. As we saw in El Limon, even young children learn the basic steps and moves of several dances. There were very few wallflowers at the cafe. And there were professional dancers from Costa Rica who had come from a performance still wearing face makeup.

The show was a great end to a day exploring an amazing city. Our guides, Lucy and Aldo, have gone out of their way to make sure we learn about the country by visiting service groups as often as possible. For many of us, that way of exploring communities may become standard practice.

The band at Cafe de los Mimos.

The band at Cafe de los Mimos.

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Ashonte was raised by a military family originally from Louisiana and in high school she participated in JROTC. You could probably guess that much about her background if you listen to her talk for even a few minutes.

“Miss Lucy,” “Dr. Ellis,” “yes ma’am” and “no sir” are her default responses. She’s hard-wired to speak formally, and many of us still aren’t used to hearing it.

She’s the youngest in our group at 18-years-old, so she’s been taught to use a courtesy title for each of us. She’s outgoing and well-traveled. She likes to sing and spent our first day in Granada reading The Great Gatsby.

Ashonte likes to stay active and is quick to trust. At the waterfall near El Limon the non-swimmer agreed to climb on to a piece of driftwood that served as a makeshift raft. Meghan, Laura, Sam and Jenna surrounded the raft to keep her safe as they pushed her out to and underneath the waterfall. She smiled and laughed the entire time.

The biology major who lives in Topeka plans to become a veterinarian. Her mom, who is studying human services, wanted to go on the trip but encouraged Ashonte to go in her place. She took careful notes on the history presentations to share with her mom when we get back to Topeka.

Ashante jams

Ashante sings “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” at Quaker House.

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Deanna is a mother of five so she comes by the title “the mom” quite honestly.

True to form, her carry-on bag rivals only Mary Poppins’ endless bag of necessities. She’s got stuff to make you go, stuff to make you stop going, stuff to relieve inflammation, drain your sinuses, stop a cough, wrap an injury and who knows what else.

When someone needed nail clippers and she realized she didn’t have any, she bought some. She is prepared for any situation and ready to share. She doesn’t even wait for you to ask, she just gives you what you need so you can decide what to do with it.

Deanna is a senior majoring in human services who lives between Ottawa and Williamsburg. Her son, Nathan (the second oldest of five), also is on the trip.

Deanna visits in El Limon.

Deanna visits in El Limon.

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We spent lunchtime yesterday at an amazing place. In 2012 a Spanish man named Antonio decided to invest in Nicaraguan youth who are differently able.

Originally, he imagined supporting an already existing effort. But he discovered there weren’t such groups that provided job kills to blind, deaf, hard of hearing and young people otherwise unable to communicate. So he started one.

Centro Social Tio Anonio, a hammock workshop, and Cafe de las Sonrisas in Granada, are that place. While there, several students were able to help make hammocks. We met a young blind man who made a hammock for Pope Francis. We met another who is fluent in English, Spanish and Nicaraguan sign language. The language has a lot in common with American Sign Language (ASL) but is its own unique language.

And we tested our communication skills yet again during lunch. Our waiter and waitress were both deaf. Signs on the wall of the cafe and a laminated placard with useful signs were available to help.

Several group members purchased hammocks, available in several sizes, to support the Tio Antonio’s. Others marveled at two efforts underway at the center. One: An ongoing fundraising drive to support hurricane relief in the Philippines. The other: turning discarded plastic bags into an “endless hammock.” The bags are tied together and woven to create a hammock that will continue to grow. No end date has been set for the effort that is cleaning up plastic by repurposing it.

Yet another lesson about Nicaraguans: We may think generally about how they have little themselves, but so many selfless acts we have seen show their concern as global citizens. May we remember this lesson always.

Learn more:

The endless hammock, multicolored.

The endless hammock in progress.

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It is widely known here that there are 365 isletas (little islands) near Granada, created when Volcan Mombacho erupted thousands of years ago, spewing lava into Lake Nicaragua. On Monday, Jan. 13, we saw a few dozen of them.

There are islands with public restaurants and homes to rent. Islands with palm trees. Islands with monkeys. Islands with some of the fanciest homes in the entire country. Islands for sale. And islands with some flora species only found here.

Seeing it from a boat with an experienced isletas guide — and Aldo, who is always happy to share what he knows about local plant species — was more than a treat. Michaela took 250 photos of the incredible, ocean-like views, monkeys, bats, birds and the contrast of homes from Rum magnates and subsistence fishermen.

We were able to see Mombacho from a different point of view, and visualize the power of the eruption that created the islands. We saw historic Granada’s cathedral — a landmark that identifies the central square from anywhere in the central city. One particular flower made an impression: it reminded us all of a firecracker. It had a sheath that made it look almost banana-like, but when slid down a striking flower with fuschia tips on each of dozens of fingers.

Volcan Mombacho from the boat on Lake Nicaragua.

Volcan Mombacho from the boat on Lake Nicaragua.

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Travis has served in the U.S. Army for the past 11 years. Prior to this trip, his only travel outside of the country was on deployment, in Iraq and Egypt. His unit maintains security for dignitaries visiting conflict zones.

Given his training, Travis has naturally fallen into role of protector for the group. Not only because his girlfriend, Suzie, is on the trip, but because it’s what comes naturally to him.

Each time we travel anywhere as a group — and we’ve done a lot of that — Travis brings up the rear. He walks with his head on a swivel and has quickly assessed every situation that seemed odd, unusually or potentially awkward or dangerous. These have included drunk men on the street making cat calls to a strange scene on the walk back to El Limon where a car was parked in the middle of the street and oddly surrounded by large plastic soda bottles filled with water.

The group, walking down the street, from the back.

Travis brings up the rear of the group on a walk in Granada.

Travis graduated last May with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice. He is finishing a second degree in psychology now and plans to work in a rehabilitation capacity with juvenile offenders.

After our visit to the Gallery of Heroes and Martyrs in Esteli, Travis reflected on the experience of Dona Mina and her son, who left to fight at age 14.

“As a person who joined at 17, I understand him wanting to go. But as a parent, I know how hard it must have been to let him go,” he said. “It’s ridiculous. I feel like, we didn’t do it, but our government is who killed him. It makes me ashamed. It was the most emotional day I’ve had so far. It was so hard.” (Travis has a five-year-old son.)

His experience as a member of the U.S. armed forces has brought important and valuable perspective to the group during history lessons, as well. He has told us he joined when he was 17 to protect the ones he loves. He does what he does, he says, so others don’t have to not because he blindly supports the actions and decisions of the government.

“I don’t fight for a government. I fight for my family,” he said. He plans to remain on active duty until he is eligible for retirement.

We are grateful for his service and his willingness to share his experience with us, in the form of protection and information that has enriched our own understanding.

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Meghan has an amazing laugh. If you’ve never met her, you would still be able to pick out that laugh that is so full of life and joy in a room.

Since we arrived in Nicaragua Meghan has entered every new experience with the eyes of a child — soaking it all in with wonder and excitement. Her emotions are raw and powerful and she comfortable enough in her own skin to share them openly.

In El Limon, she and Christian, a 7-year-old from the village, were attached at the hip, both laughing and loving every minute in spite of limited ability to communicate verbally. Just watching them interact was a blast.

This trip has changed Meghan, who is preparing to graduate with a degree in human services. It has opened her mind and heart to professional possibilities she had never considered before. Originally from Atchison, she has had several conversations with Lucy about living and working abroad.

Whatever she decides to do, Meghan will bring valuable perspective, zest for life and the valuable skill of adaptability.

Meghan, center, has Christina on her shoulders.

Meghan, center, has Christina on her shoulders.

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We packed a lot in today. Too much to post tonight in detail, but here’s a quick preview:

  • Breakfast at a waffel house! With BACON!
  • A boat tour of the islands in Lake Nicaragua created by the erruption of Mombacho Volcano several thousand years ago. This included some amazing wildlife (MONKEYS!) and plants.
  • Lunch at a cafe focused on providing employment to Nicaraguans who are blind, deaf and hard of hearing. Many of the youth who work there make hammocks, while others work in the cafe.
  • And afternoon exploring the history of this colonial city, including museums and a church constructed in 1536.
  • Dinner at a cultural cafe, including a show by children who live in a group home that teaches them circus acts.

Tomorrow we climb Mombacho!

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Rolando's reflection in the outside mirror of the van.

Rolando, our driver.

Rolando understands about as much English and most of us do Spanish, but he has endeared himself to all of us with his impeccable comedic timing and unmatched skill in the driver’s seat.

He works for the bus company hired by ProNica to get us from place to place during our stay. He picked us up from the airport and expect for our family stays in El Limon he hasn’t missed a beat.

Some of us were holding our breath when he backed the bus into a very tight space at Cayotepe. Some of us felt just a bit safer when he jumped out of the bus to guard the door after someone cat-called at the bus. And we all were impressed with the “Dad face” he put on when he had to shoo some neighborhood children off the back of the bus in Managua. (He has an eight-year-old daughter.)

There have even been suggestions that he teach us how to drive, or open a driving school. He’s excellent at his job and we are lucky to have him.

UPDATE: Last night (Jan. 13, 2014) we found out Rolando is the new driver for the Taiwanese Ambassador to Nicaragua! We couldn’t be prouder of our new friend. He will start is new job in two weeks. It will mean better pay and Monday through Friday reliable hours for him. Congratulations, Rolando! And congratulations to the Taiwanese embassy on the wonderful hire.

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