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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I remember thinking during a group meeting before we left for Nicaragua that Tara might have a tough time “roughing it” here.

“I can’t do that,” I heard her say several times. She doesn’t like certain things, is apprehensive about some unknowns and downright scared of others.

But she knows what those things are and she did what it took to minimize the influence of those things on her experience here. I’ve been throughly impressed at her adaptability.

I had the privilege of staying with the same family as Tara in El Limon. As roommates for four days I got to know her well. We ended up together at her request — a great example of her finding solutions to her anxieties.

I’m vegan (eating no animal products). She was uncomfortable with the idea of eating meat that she didn’t prepare herself. Her solution: Stay with the vegan lady so she didn’t have to make a big deal of things.

Once she felt comfortable, she dove in to experience new things. She tried every vegetable, and liked many of them. She ate beets on a salad the other day, even though she swore off beets as a child. She shaved her legs standing up, even though she’d badly cut herself years before. (She cut herself this time, too, and said it could be years before she tries it again. But she did it.)

“I didn’t feel comfortable there the first few nights,” she said of El Limon. But that changed. “Our family loved each other so much.”

Tara could have chosen to complain and take a negative view of the dozens of things here that were out of her comfort zone. Instead, her true colors shined and Tara has relished the opportunity to explore a new country, get to know some of its people and learn its history. Tara has been a positive force for many in the group and already is talking about returning to Nicaragua next year.

Tara is from Lancaster, Kan. She is majoring in elementary education and special education. She works as a tutor at a school in Topeka and was especially touched by her interactions with Nicaraguan children.

Tara, standing in a window, holds the bars with her left hand and scrubs a bar with sandpaper with her right.

Tara scrapes rust on a window.

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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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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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