Rick Ellis has made seven of Washburn’s eight trips to Nicaragua. But this year will stand out in his mind even if he makes dozens of trips in the future.

A professor and director of Washburn’s Learning in the Community, Rick originally was interested in Nicaragua because of personal experience as a student activist in the 1960s and 70s. He was connected to ProNica to develop the Washburn delegation partnership through one of his sons, who volunteered with ProNica while attending college in Florida.

He often told the group before we left Topeka that we would “leave as Kansans and return as Nicaraguans.” He was open about the challenges that would make us question what we thought we knew, things that would make us appreciate what we have and why we have them. And he told us about the friendships he’d made on his repeated visits. About how those friends showed some of the most genuine care and compassion he received during his treatment and recovery from colon cancer, for example. And how he was certain he would be welcomed with open arms, as we would be.

We saw those friendships in action when Rick and Philip Montalban met at Quaker House, when Carlos from Los Quinchos told us Rick was “more Nica than North American now,” and when “Dona Mina at the Gallery of Heroes and Martyrs welcomed her friend with the hug of a family member.

And we saw the pain Rick felt when we arrived in El Limon to learn that the village leader, Don Philipe, is dying. Rick always stays at Don Philipe’s house. It’s a sign of respect for the professor to be invited to stay in the home of the village patriarch. But this year the 95-year-old man was bed ridden and receiving oxygen.

Rick said his farewell to Don Philipe in Spanish and walked away from the house knowing it would be the last time he would see his friend. It was a tough thing to stay in the house (Wyatt and Nathan stayed there, too) knowing Don Philipe was so ill. But seeing him one last time allowed Rick to pay his respects in person, an opportunity he treasured.

We all learned so much from Rick because he wasn’t afraid to share what he really felt. When he talked about the history of Nicaragua and U.S. involvement in the insurrection and then the Contra Wars, you could hear his frustration. When he talked about how caring and loving the Nicaraguan people are, you could hear his admiration. And when he challenged us to dig deep into ourselves and really understand what we were experiencing each day, you could hear his hope for each of us and for the future. Everything we did every day mattered to him and so did we.

“I always have an alterer motive for taking this trip,” he told us during our final reflection. “How can you look at the world and make a difference? The only way to do that is through action. If all you do is tell a friend: ‘You can’t believe what I learned in Nicaragua’ (and tell them just one thing) … I’ve done my job. I’m going to do it one person at a time if I have to.”

We will gather as a group a few more times on Washburn’s campus, to continue processing what we’ve learned and experienced. And most of the students will prepare presentations of some type to meet their Washburn Transformational Experience requirement. (More about that in the coming weeks.) And Rick will keep tabs on each of the students, what they do with their remaining time on campus and what they do with their lives.

He shared many stories of students from earlier delegations who are now married to a trip mate, working for nonprofits and government groups, working for justice and for change, with Nica in their hearts.

Man in cowboy hat, jeans and cowboy boots carries a 5 gallon bucket.

Rick hauls water to the community center in El Limon.

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I think we all wish we could have spent more time with the children being supported by Los Quinchos.

Our last activity of the trip was both heavy and light. Learning about the circumstances that got each child into a Los Quinchos program was heartbreaking. It made us hurt and angry and frustrated that we couldn’t make it stop. But spending time with them made an impression that won’t soon fade.

As Los Quinchos in-country director Carlos Vidal explained, nearly all of the boys at the Finca San Marcos site we visited were at one time addicted to sniffing glue. They either had no homes and lived on the streets or were sent by their families to beg for money and turned to the streets later on. Nearly all of the girls staying at Yahoska, also in San Marcos, were sexually abused and suffering in silence until a brother receiving help from Los Quinchos — or the Ministry of Family — told someone to help them.

Los Quinchos was started 23 years ago by Nicaraguans and an Italian woman to help children of the streets get clean and learn the skills for a productive life. Former Quinchos have become painters, doctors and employees of Los Quinchos. ProNica is one supporter of the organization.

Two boys at the Los Qunichos farm in San Marcos, Nicaragua.

Two boys at the Los Qunichos farm in San Marcos, Nicaragua.

We brought a pinata filled with candy to Yahoska. It was a great idea and courtesy of Kasia and Meghan. The girls loved it. So much laughter, joy and love! At Finca San Marcos, the little boys held our hands, gave us hugs, shared fruit from the trees and wanted to play. There were circus-style stunts, backflips into the pool and futbol with us.

Some were shy. Many looked tired, even haggard. In some cases we were surprised at 10-year-olds who could pass for six or seven because malnutrition had stunted their growth. In other cases, it was surprising that a boy of just 10 could have the face of a much older man, because of the effects of the shoe repair glue he used to dull his hunger and escape his reality. That glue is made for shoe repair by American adhesive company H.B. Fuller. By law, it is not sold in the U.S.

Los Quinchos programs are voluntary. The program’s first step — Filter House in Managua — is open to children who want to give up glue. As with any addiction recovery process, it is difficult. There are setbacks. And the reality is some children do not escape that life. But the staff of Los Quinchos — about 15 people after substantial budget cuts in 2012 — stay focused on their motto, which translates to “Never again a child on the street.”

The children we saw had finished the Filter House phase and were now in school and learning skills while receiving intensive therapy. During holiday break (summer vacation), most children are placed with Nicaraguan families so some Los Quinchos staff can have some time off. The children we met were not placed with families.

Our minds raced during the day we spent with those children. Now in our own homes, their faces, laughs and hugs are part of our memories, part of what will nudge us to make positive changes in our own lives.

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We’ve seen Mombacho from a distance for days. On Tuesday we stood on it.

The biology majors — especially Katy — took the time slowly after we got off of the safari-style truck. There were so many things to see and hear in the Mombacho Cloud Forest.

Light and shadow danced on lush green leaves. Neon green moss clung to trees. Howler Monkeys howled. Exotic birds sang. A sloth eluded everyone but Travis. And the flowers! Orchids of many colors and sizes, tiny buds reaching for light, poinsettias, bogenvelia, hibiscus and more welcomed us at different heights in the forest.

Some of us were continuously amazed that we were WALKING IN A RAINFOREST, only to be speechless again at the next lookout point. At the top of what was actually a volcanic crater now covered with plant life we could see many of the places we’ve been:

The view was truly breathtaking. We all enjoyed the opportunity. Nicaragua’s natural beauty is so rich. The country may be impoverished but this nation is rich in so many ways. Imagine if the U.S. government had invested in its potential rather than making the decisions it did in the 1980s.

Las Isletas from Volcan Mombacho

Las Isletas from Volcan Mombacho

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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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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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So much of our trip would not happen without Lucy.

Lucy

Lucy Dale stands with the Cayotepe tour guide just before the tour begins.

Lucy Dale’s earliest memories are of life in El Salvador in the 1980s. Her parents were missionaries there when she and her sister were young. She moved back to Chicago during elementary school and “was the only white girl in ESL.”

Her connection to and passion for Latin America did not waver. She studied Latin studies and Portuguese at the University of Wisconsin and worked as a member of the Peace Corps in Honduras (Nicaragua’s northern neighbor) before getting a job in Nicaragua.

Now, at 27 years old she runs a cultural center and club called Cultura Quilombo with two partners and works with North American delegations. We are her first delegation with ProNica and all though she knows the history of this country much better than we do, she has been open about how much she is learning, too.

Lucy describes herself as bicultural, feeling as comfortable here as she does at home in the United States. Her story has been an inspiration to some in the group, who have asked her dozens of questions about the Peace Corps and how they can make service to others a life’s work as she has.

“It is important to me to be that cultural bridge,” she told us on one of our first days in Nicaragua. She’s not only an interpreter but a trusted friend who is there when we have questions about manners, what would be acceptable to wear, how to politely refuse food and so much more.

Thank you, Lucy, for always having our backs.

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Work went quickly today. The group painted a second coat on each window and prepared the trim on both buildings — the preschool and community hall — for tomorrow.

Travis and Suzie paint a window at the preschool building.

Travis and Suzie paint a window at the preschool building.

While the students and Lucy worked with community leaders at the center, Rick, Michaela and Aldo walked to Esteli to meet with Lillian Hall and her husband, Ricardo Esquivia. Lillian was the in-country director for ProNica when Rick first began Washburn’s partnership with the organization.

Lillian and Ricardo live in Columbia, where Ricardo works as a human rights attorney and activist. Together they operate a non-governmental organization called Sembrandopaz, which translates to Planting Peace. (The information on its website is available in Spanish.)

Ricardo, with Lillian as interpreter, told us about the ongoing conflict in Columbia and what he knows from press reports about private peace talks currently underway.

When we get back to Washburn, Rick plans to discuss the possibility of a partnership in Columbia. He plans to reach out to Washburn’s women’s studies program, the School of Law and others with the possibility of an exploratory trip to develop a program — or programs — similar to our journey in Nicaragua.

By the time we returned to El Limon the day’s work had finished and students were preparing to have lunch with their families. In the afternoon, many students walked to the river for a bath. Others took naps or visited with their families.

We’re getting more and more comfortable with our families and the reality of life here. There is one house in El Limon that is vastly more modern than the others, with a running over-head indoor shower and indoor bathroom. Most of us are using outhouses and showering by filling buckets with water and using a bowl to wet and rinse ourselves. Very different than we are accustomed to at home, but extremely refreshing.

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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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This banana palm is part of the self-sustaining permaculture system at Vicente Padilla's organic coffee farm.

This banana palm is part of the self-sustaining permaculture system at Vicente Padilla’s organic coffee farm.

Kasia summed up today best during our reflection time during dinner.

“I loved today. It was wonderful,” she said. “The owner of the farm — that small farm — was able to educate all of his children. It’s hard to believe.”

That farmer is Vicente Padilla, who has operated an organic, permaculture coffee farm for the last 20 years. Padilla has one son who is preparing to graduate medical school, another who works as an attorney, another working with a non-governmental organization, another studying to be an agronomist and a 14-year-old daughter who performed a traditional dance for the group.

Padilla took about 30 minutes to explain his family’s history on their land, too. During the Somoza regime, the land of indigenous Nicaraguans was taken and given to more powerful people. After the triumph in 1979, the process was begun to return land to its original inhabitants. At that time, the land owners who were being displaced were compensated. But, that didn’t stop the man who had owned land where Vicente and his family had purchased their land (about three acres total) from trying to intimidate them into leaving.

It got so far that armed military surrounded his house because they were told (by that wealthy man) that the Padillas were armed. He and his family, including his then young children, walked out hand-in-hand and he explained to the armed men that the family had no weapons.

“We had the truth,” he told us, as interpreted by Lucy. “We had no reason to fear.”

After we understood what the family endured to be able to have their farm at all, we got to walk through it. We saw several sloths climbing in trees, dozens of different types of fruit trees and hundreds of coffee bushes. We walked through the mud — and some of us fell — to see the permaculture farm up close.

And for some of us, it brought out our inner Kansan.

“It was a nice shift to be out in the countryside,” Wyatt said. “It smelled like good dirt. I didn’t realize how much I missed the smell of being on a farm I guess.”

We left the farm and visited a community organization in the rural community of San Ramon. Known locally as Casa del Nino, the religious-based community center provides health programs and educational opportunities for all ages. Art classes and other activities for young children and adolescents are active most of the year. Children here are on summer vacation from school so they center was fairly quiet, but we were able to talk with the director and meet the art teacher. Several in the group purchased paintings, as well.

We also had the chance to meet two women who run a recycled paper business out of the center. The women explained, demonstrated and let us try to make pieces of the paper. Their gift items are sold at the center and in two hostels in Matagalpa, including the one where we are staying.

When we returned to Matagalpa, most of us rushed to a pottery shop before dinner. Aldo said he thought it was important to bring us to the shop because of the significance of black pottery to Nicaraguans.

“It’s part of our identity,” Aldo explained. The art form, the same technique used by indigenous people in New Mexico, is passed down within families through the generations and is making a resurgence here. (This website explains some about the pottery, but is not affiliated with the shop we visited.)

Rachel, posing with a small piece of black pottery she bought today

Rachel, posing with a small piece of black pottery she bought today.

The consensus within the group is that each day has been better than the one before. Rick took some time during today’s reflection to remind everyone to think broadly about our experiences.

“Things are building and coming together,” he said. “The experiences endured by those at Ceyotepe enabled Vicente to be able to have his coffee farm. Think about those things in sequence. There’s a reason the trip is done this way.”

Tomorrow morning we leave for Esteli. We’ll spend one night in a hostel — which may or may not have Internet access — and then we head to El Limon for our family stays.

We’ll be in touch when possible.

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