By Tara Phillips

Michaela Saunders has worked in the University Relations office at Washburn since September 2011. She was raised in Grand Forks, N.D. and it is very noticeable. She was blessed with the “Dakota Accent,” as Wyatt called it. She is married to Jeremy Wangler (who also works at Washburn) and has an adorable almost 2-year-old son named Clark. We all had the pleasure of meeting them both when she would FaceTime them. You could tell that it was hard for her being away from her son. On one occasion she was telling Clark “take your fingers out of your mouth, Son.” However, this was very hard for her to enforce from all of the giggles in the background.

With her work in the University Relations office, she was informed by Dr. Rick Ellis about the trip he does every January to Nicaragua. He explained to her about all of the heart and dedication required for the trip and the community interactions. She decided she wanted to be a part of it and then remembers Rick saying “let’s figure it out!” The process worked out perfectly and plans where put in place.

A woman in a coral shirt taking pictures. Light shines on her shoulders but shadow covers the rest of her.

Michaela, taking pictures during dinner in Granada.

Michaela’s purpose on this trip was to be the blogger; however, it turned in to much more than that. I had the privilege of living with Michaela during our stay in El Limon and I am so glad to have had her by my side. Personally, she became my inspiration and a wonderful person to confide in. She helped me through many of my questions and troubles, as well as letting me help her along the way. Whether it was helping her up our hill or saving her from the dogs at our house, we stuck together.

As a group we all experienced many different emotions, both good and bad. It was always nice to have Michaela there with us. We all found comfort in being with Michaela because she was so outgoing and always open for discussion. We loved the fact that she was not just “the blogger,” she actually participated.

One of my most favorite and by far the most emotional memories was La Galleria de Heroes y Martires (Gallery of Heroes and Martyrs). It was amazing how much passion Doña Mina had and how all she wanted was to inform the people about what had happened in her country. As Doña Mina shared her story, Michaela not only captured that in writing but was clearly moved. It was then that the group embraced her and I believe became aware of how each and everyone one of us were in the same place. It was at that moment we all realized she was not she was not just another “chaperone,” she was one of the group.

This 2014 delegation had come so far in the last 5 months, we started out as strangers and now we all have become our own little family.

On behalf of the 2014 Washburn delegation to Nicaragua, we would like to give thanks to everyone that was a part of allowing Michaela to come. We would also like to give thanks to Michaela, for being so supportive of all of our adventures. We love you!

Wyatt Robinett and Rick Ellis collaborated with Tara on this post.

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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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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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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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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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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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nicaragua-map

We will visit the highlighted communities including the capital city of Managua, Estelí, the third-largest city, Matagalpa, home of Universidad del Norte de Nicaragua, and Granada, one of the oldest cities in Central America. During our visit we will also stay in El Limón, not from from Estelí.

By this time in 26 days, a small group of Ichabods will be en route to Managua, Nicaragua. Just in time for the spring semester here in Topeka, we will return “as Nicaraguans,” says Professor Rick Ellis, who oversees Washburn’s Learning in the Community and established the partnership that allows the trip.

“We leave as Kansans. We come back as Nicaraguans,” he has told the group. Washburn partners with the non-governmental organization ProNica, which was established to build “sustainable cross-cultural relationships between the people of Nicaragua and North America using Quaker values.”

The delegation from Washburn will spend time in five cities. We will study the country’s history and the impact of the United States upon that history. We will work with residents of each community we visit, helping them to complete tasks that already are underway. We will live with families in the rural community of El Limón, learn about their lives and culture and, since most of us aren’t Spanish speakers, we’ll learn a lot about non-verbal communication.

iPhone with countdown app

Tara’s countdown app.

“I’m so excited! It’s going by so fast,” said Tara Phillips, who is a sophomore majoring in elementary special education from Lancaster, Kan. Tara has an app on her phone that counts down to our departure time by the second. “I’ve been ready for this since before I came to Washburn.”

About Nicaragua

  • The Republic of Nicaragua sits between Honduras (north) and Costa Rica (south).
  • In 2012 the country’s population was estimated by the World Bank at 5.992 million people.
  • President Daniel Ortega has lead the country since 2007. He also served as the country’s leader from 1979 to 1990.
  • Nicaragua’s currency is the Nicaraguan córdoba. As of Dec. 6, 2013 one córdoba oro was worth $0.04 in US dollars.
  • The weather in Topeka is frightful this time of year. While we’re gone, the high temperatures in western Nicaragua, where we are staying, are expected to be in the 80s. Overnight lows in the 60s are common. (Check for today’s detailed forecast.)
  • Learn more about Nicaragua from Lonely Planet
Nicaragua's flag

Nicaragua’s flag