Laura missed her hairdryer. She was attentive to what we were doing but she may have had the toughest culture shock.

During our reflection in El Limon, her wry humor came through. “I’m from Kansas City. This was really, I think I’m adjusting well — I’m not crying everyday.”

But each day she learned something new and was surprised.

“Everything that has happened I haven’t expected,” she said one day. “Each palce we learned something more.”

She especially enjoyed visiting so many different nonprofit organizations.

And it was Laura who got the group of 14 students, one professor and one staff member talking about how we will stay in touch. How people you never even knew existed can change your life forever.

A member of Zeta Tau Alpha sorority, Laura is a senior majoring in human services. She plans to work with special needs children and their families.

Laura, with cards fanned in front of her face.

Laura, playing cards in the Atlanta airport. We’re almost home!

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Suzie comes to Nicaragua to see her “second family.” Although graduation will prevent her from returning with the Washburn group for a fourth visit, she says she knows in her heart she will be back.

Reserved and thoughtful, the senior in psychology from Cummings, Kan. signed up for the trip to Nicaragua for the first time three years ago at the suggestion of her then roommate. She says Nicaragua is the reason she had to meet that woman. This year it was her turn to suggest the trip to someone else. She talks about Nicaragua and the people of El Limon so often that her boyfriend, Travis, had to see it for himself.

Rick says he was shocked when Suzie told him she wanted to go on the trip a second time. He’d thought she had been pretty miserable, actually. This year, he knew she would be back.

“You’ve been a pleasant surprise,” Rick told her after our final reflection. “I’m so glad to know you.”

In many ways, Suzie’s three visits to Nicaragua are merged in her mind. But she says each has changed her for the better.

She has learned you don’t have to speak the same language to laugh and play with a child. A hug from a woman you haven’t said more than a few words to can make a place feel like home if she hugs you like your mom does. And those who have the fewest material possessions often share the most.

“Life’s not what I thought it was,” she said during our last reflection at Quaker House. “The first trip, I was so far from the person I am now. I was in a bad palce. This has helped me figure out who I am. Seeing Aldo’s passion for origami, El Limon and their passion for family … it helps you figure out what you want your passion to be.”

Suzie knows she’ll feel strange this time next year when the trip happens and she’s working or in graduate school. But she’ll be planning and saving for a return trip to see her Nicaraguan family.

Whatever she does, Suzie will carry in her heart the community of El Limon and the lessons she learned in Nicaragua about the world and herself.

Suzie and Travis

Suzie and Travis

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I joked with Sam during the trip that she was combatting the stereotypes of what it means to be a “sorority girl” more and more each day. It is true.

Sam, who is from the Kansas City area, came to Nicaragua with two fellow sorority sisters. The members of Zeta Tau Alpha spent time together but also got to know the entire group.

Sam has just one semester left of nursing school. Her priorities and interests aren’t about appearance or a social calendar. (She is covered in bug bites because she didn’t think about using her repellant.) She wants to help people, to make a difference. And through this experience she has discovered new ways to do that.

“I should register to vote. When I get back, that will be my goal,” she said during our last reflection.

She said she feels like she knows more about Nicaraguan history than she does U.S. history and she plans to pay more attention to what is going on in the world.

“It has been an eye-opening experience.”

Jenna, center, and Sam, right, watch geckos on the ceiling at Mona Lisa Pizza in Granada.

Jenna, center, and Sam, right, watch geckos on the ceiling at Mona Lisa Pizza in Granada.

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We will get on the bus and head for the Managua International Airport in just seven hours. This time tomorrow we may be crawling into our own beds.

In so many ways it is hard to believe our time in Nicaragua is drawing to a close, but we are ready to return to our homes and families.

Posts to this blog will continue — we’ve done things at such a pace there is still much more to tell! And we will continue to meet as a group back on campus as well.

If you’re tracking our progress closely, we will return to Kansas City on Delta flight 2400 from Atlanta and are scheduled to arrive at 6:50 p.m. Thursday.

See you soon!

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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