Rachel is an emotional rock.

If she was homesick or personally struggled with anything we saw or did during these two weeks, it didn’t show.

An inspiring blend of logic and compassion, the Rossville, Kan. resident is a biology pre-medicine major who seems to love the stuff we are learning here as much as she enjoys the relaxed sight-seeing.

Rachel wasn’t too shy to use the high school Spanish she remembers during our time in El Limon. When I saw her with her family she had her dictionary at the ready but didn’t turn to it until she needed it. She woke up early enough to learn to make tortillas and helped chop vegetables and wash dishes, too.

“Our family is awesome, they’re so sweet,” she said during group reflection time in El Limon. “I made tortillas this morning. Mine are always smaller than hers. I don’t have enough dough apparently. I was really excited about making tortillas.”

The next day, when Rachel realized the family wasn’t able to sell the non-uniform tortillas she made, she decided not to make as many. She appreciated the opportunity to learn, but didn’t want to put the family at a disadvantage in anyway.

She relished the time she was able to spend with her host family. She got to know them on more than a superficial level because she chose to stay with them rather than venture into town or visit other students.

Her only request on the trip: Visit a hospital. We’ll go today when we get back to Managua. She hopes to work in either the emergency room or in family medicine.

If her reaction to the emotional challenge of the last two weeks is any indication, I can’t wait to hear in a few years how she’ll end up helping her medical school classmates keep it together. After that, she hopes to work with Doctors Without Borders.

At tonight’s final reflection she put it plainly: “This has changed my life.”

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

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

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Our work is done. When the center’s windows, doors, gate and trims were painted by about 11 a.m. today.

While several students spent time raking the front yard and sweeping the community room, three students helped Teo and Ishmalle, two community leaders, construct a concrete structure around the community water pipes.

The concrete will protect the pipes from erosion-related collapse and ensure access to the shut-off valve for years to come. In the coming days, a lid the two men will construct a lid to ensure animals — or children — don’t fall in the whole.

Travis, left, and Teo, center, work on the concrete structure to protect the water pipes.

Travis, left, and Teo, center, work on the concrete structure to protect the water pipes.

After the work was completely finished, several of us walked to Esteli to purchase thank you gifts for our families. Most of us chose treats such as cake, pastries and cookies.

In the evening, the community gathered at the communal for a dance and chance to share our mutual appreciation for the work and hospitality. For some of us trying to express our gratitude was emotionally difficult. For Suzie, the third-time visitor, it was especially difficult. “I have a second family here in El Limon,” she told them. And as she wiped the tears from her cheeks we knew she meant it.

The dance lasted for about three hours and everyone had a great time. It was fun to see the good dancers in the group get down — including Aldo, Lucy and Ashonte especially.

Three rows of people, outside in front of a window.

We did it! The group, after the work at the community center is finished.

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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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Matagalpa is a community with a population about 20,000 fewer than Topeka. Local residents seem much more surprised to see us and the street-side shops sell daily necessities rather than tourist souvenirs.

Two guests of Casa Materna resting in the craft room with a mural of the center's founders.

Two guests of Casa Materna resting in the craft room with a mural of the center’s founders.

At Casa Materna, the 14 women currently staying there are from communities outside Matagalpa city. (Matagalpa also is the name of a district in Nicaragua.) The organization, funded primarily by donations from the United Staters, works to prevent maternal and infant mortality by providing education in many communities and the casa itself, which houses and provides health care to woman in the final weeks of pregnancy.

One woman, preparing to have her second child, lives an eight-hour bus ride away. She told us she already has been at Casa Materna for 15 days and is expecting her child in late January. Her local clinic encouraged her to come early the first time and she’s returned this time because she said she appreciated the care she received, and the rest from the toil of housework and other responsibilities.

Many of the women appreciated the rest of the Casa, and “the attention” they receive, including nutrition, regular care by a doctor, midwives and nurses. Nearly all of them had nicely painted toenails, a sign of the papering they do receive.

When a woman staying at Casa Materna goes into labor she is transferred to the local hospital to deliver the baby. Nearly all of the woman had received an ultrasound exam and 11 of the 14 knew the sex of their babies. The other three wanted to be surprised. In 2012, for example, 638 women were served at the Casa. Each of them, and their babies made it home.

Literature from Casa Materna suggests the women are experiencing high risk pregnancy. But when we spoke to them, each said they were referred because they were between 38 and 40 weeks pregnant. So, we looked into it. The CIA Factbook estimates that in 2013 the infant mortality rate in the country was 21.09 per 1,000 live births. We took that to mean every woman here has a high risk pregnancy.

We were able to ask all of our questions. Babies born as late as 29 weeks may not survive here, even if the mother is in the hospital at delivery. Most of the woman being served at Casa Materna now have some type of formal medical care in their communities. Each of them said their communities are well aware of the services provided.

Rachel said afterward she was glad to know the women were pampered and well cared for. She enjoyed the chance to hear from so many of them during our visit, too.

For Travis, the reality that problems easily addressed at home are major crisis for women here was difficult.

“These women are like my hero,” he said in a discussion afterward. “It’s crazy to think it’s 2014 and this stuff still happens.”

The Casa Materna logo, a baby held up in front of the sun with two doves flying above.

The Casa Materna logo, at the entrance to the center.

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painting of Augusto Sandino

This painting of Augusto Sandino fills an entire wall at the memorial museum.

After a few hours of rest time — for napping or going to the nearby grocery store — we headed out for the rest of our history adventure.

First stop — a lookout point and Augusto Sandino memorial museum on the site once occupied by the personal palace and home of the Somoza family. (Three different Somozas, the father and two sons, ran Nicaragua as dictators until the Revolution.) Somoza family members fled and the palace and all of their land and businesses were claimed by the country.

The employee at the Viva Sandino museum explained the gallery of photos and information to us, with the help of our guide, Lucy, who interpreted for us.

Sandino was killed by Somoza supporters in the 1930s after agreeing to a truce in the guerrilla revolution he led. Sandino and his supported fought against policies that oppressed the poor and against the government’s reliance on the United States. (“North Americans,” as we were told at the museum. Everyone we have met is carful not to saddle us with any blame.)

The Sandinistas in the 1980s took the name to honor the spirit of Augusto Sandino. The national hero is memorialized in many ways, including images of his silhouette and straw hats.

light tree and Sandino silhouette

One of the new “Tree of Life” lighted trees and the iconic Sandino image.

Next, our bus took us to the central plaza to see the National Museum — filled with artifacts, painting, sculpture and parakeets chirping in a courtyard.

The city’s center was badly damaged and basically abandoned after an earthquake in the 1970s. Recently, work has been done to reclaim the space as an attraction.

group

The group in front of the National Museum.

On the way back to Quaker House, children tried to climb on to the ladder of our bus. Rolando, the driver, got out of the bus and put on his dad face.

The group is staring to experience some mild culture shock. There was a lot of talk of pizza, fried chicken or some other sort of “American food.” But most of us are enjoying the traditional food prepared for us while at Quaker House.

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Congratulations to the following Washburn students who are traveling abroad during winter or spring 2014:

Semester and short-term programs

Belgium

Michaela Lazzo and Ashley Russell will spend the semester at PXL University College, Hasselt. They are studying fine arts.

Finland

Caitlin Beckman, Sara Burton, Kelli Gramlich and Sarah Hayden will spend four weeks at Mikkeli University of Applied Studies in Savonlinna. They will also complete a clinical nursing experience.

France

Paul LaCount will spend the semester at University of Blaise Pascal, Clermont-Ferrand. He will study French language.

Ireland

Danae Nelson will spend the semester at National University of Ireland in Maynooth studying general education.

Netherlands

Rachel Catlett will spend the semester studying law at Maastricht University in Maastricht.

Faculty-Led Programs

Belize

Judith McConnell-Farmer, professor of education, is leading Brooke Brennan, Garrett Fenley, Chandler Hillebert, Natalie Jones, Lauren Journot, Courtney Kesselring, Jacob Lewis, Erin Macaronas, Ashley Murrell, Brittany Schuman, Rachel Seuell, Lon Talbert, Ryann Vobach, Mary Webb and Tasha Whittington.

During two weeks in and around Belize City, Belize, students will volunteer at orphanages and the Caye Caulker Island School. They also will attend the Belizean International Symposium on Education.

Belize1

Members of the delegation to Belize at the study abroad awards ceremony in November.

Costa Rica

Randy Pembrook, vice president for academic affairs at Washburn, is leading Joanna Becker, Ty Buschbom, Edith Jimenez, Rachel Klaus and Taylor Moore.

During their time in and around San Jose, Costa Rica, students will volunteer at a retreat camp, local orphanages and in dental clinics.

India

Andy Vogel, international student recruitment and retention, will lead Robert Florence, Kristen Hearrell and Jordan Mills as well as a number of community members.

During nearly three weeks in and around Pune, Maharashtra, India, the group will explore Indian culture and history through general study of ancient and contemporary traditions at Simbiosis International University.

Nicaragua

Rick EllisĀ  will lead Rachel Beiker, Travis Bussen, Kathryn Davis, Suzie Fields, Samantha Finley, Jenna Frick, Deanna Goracke, Laura Highland, Meghan McGuire, Tara Phillips, Katarzyna Potocka, Nathan Robertson, Wyatt Robinett and Ashonte Tell.

During just over two weeks in Nicaragua, students will explore the history and culture while engaged in service both in Managua and rural communities. Explore this blog to learn more about the students involved in this particular trip and their experiences in Nicaragua from Jan. 1-16, 2014.

members of the group

Meghan, Tara, Katy, Nathan, Deanna, Travis and Suzie at the awards ceremony in November

Rick Ellis

Rick Ellis talking about the upcoming trip at the ceremony in November