Six days into the new year I boarded a plane and headed to Nicaragua with 12 others to "build a road." I had little idea of what this trip would entail and when people asked what I would be doing in Nicaragua, "building a road" was my answer, because honestly I didn't really know. All I knew was that I wanted to travel to a new place, experience their culture, and take amazing photos. Well, we did build a road, but we also met the most amazing people and had incredible experiences that we will never forget.
We started our trip in the capital, Managua. Here we learned about the history and politics of Nicaragua. We visited the capital center where they were setting up for the inauguration of their president and there were only three security guards and we walked right in! Which was weird considering our country was doing the same thing and probably had the area under high security for a month. We posed for a group photo in front of the Catedral de Santiago and hit the road to travel to our home for the next week!
We arrived in the city of Ocotal, which would be our home base for the rest of our trip. We split up and went to stay with different host families in the city.
Everywhere we went we rode in the bed of a Toyota Tacoma. It was a rough ride at times, but we had the best conversations in between yelling in pain after hitting a big pothole. Based on the stares we got, it must have been quite a sight for the locals to see a group of gringas riding in the back of a truck, but we just smiled, waved, and said, "Hola!!" to literally every person we passed.
From Ocotal we would head to the small village of El Cacau waaaaayyyy up in the surrounding mountains to work. The views from the steep dirt road to El Cacau were incredible and a camera just didn't do it justice. Plus, it was a really bumpy ride and all the photos I got were... uhh.. not that great. But luckily we have the luxury of iPhones and you can take a zillion photos and hope that one comes out! In the photo below you can see part of the road from Ocotal to El Cacau. This road is dirt with a lot of steep ups and downs and big curves. During the rainy season, parts of the road are washed out and the people of El Cacau are essentially trapped on top of the mountain. When there is an emergency ambulances can't get to the village and injured people, or women in labor have to be carried to a place where the ambulance can reach them. This road is about 8 miles long and there is a lot of work to be done. The people of El Cacau have been working on the road and have made a lot of progress, but this was the first time a group had come to help them.
When we arrived to El Cacau we were greeted by some of the community members and school children. They played music and performed traditional indigenous dances for us. The man dancing started building the road thirty years ago from just a dirt trail to the wide dirt road it is now.
We were able to see some of the homes in El Cacau when we were gathering the tools for work.
We worked on our little section of the road alongside some of the people from the village. And I have to say... I've never worked so hard in my life! The only equipment they had were buckets, shovels, sledgehammers, and cement. I can't image what these guys would have done with some CalTrans equipment! The process of building a road in El Cacau goes like this: Dig trenches, smash rocks, carry rocks to fill trenches, smash rocks, carry rocks, smash rocks, carry rocks, smash rocks into smaller rocks, dump rocks on rocks, cover with cement/sand/gravel mix.
Here is our progress from the first day! (and Jenna smashing rocks like a boss!)
We were exhausted the first day after trying to keep up with the amazingly hard working guys in the village. Driving down from El Cacau made for some amazing views.
Thankfully the next day was a Sunday and that meant rest and baseball! We stopped in town in Ocotal and went through the market area for some fruit and snacks before we headed to watch a baseball game. We parked right in front of a photography studio and I felt so at home!
The market was kinda crazy so I didn't take my camera out, but luckily someone snapped these photos!
Of course, I did have to stop and take a photo of this beautiful girl who followed us through the market. I started speaking with her in Spanish(and was soo impressed with myself, if I might add! ha!) and asked to take her photo before we left. She was so shy and just smiled when I showed her the photo. I honestly loved this moment.
We left Ocotal and drove out of town to a baseball field. On our way we stopped at a pottery shop and got to go in and look at all the works in progress. If I didn't fear everything getting smashed in my suitcase I would have bought a huge pot!
To our surprise when we showed up to the baseball field we saw the guys of El Cacau playing! If you think Americans love baseball, you are wrong! These guys love baseball! They love it so much that they walked 3 hours from the top of their mountain to this baseball field to play a few games. And they were so good! Oh, and of course they walked 3 hours back... I don't think I love any sport enough to walk 3 hours for it..
When we weren't in town or in El Cacau we stayed with our host families. Natalie and I stayed together with a small family that starred this sweet little boy, Dominic. He played with us every morning while we waited to be picked up and then somehow convinced us to play with him after a long day of work. I think the language barrier worked more to his advantage than to ours when convincing us to play. He loved playing "caballitos"(horseback rides) and using SnapChat filters on my phone.
Oh, and he loved a good morning photoshoot!
Back to work again in El Cacau! This was one of my favorite days. I had taken photos of the guys playing baseball the day before and I was able to show them all the photos. One said that he had never seen himself in a camera before. I would take a photo of them and show them and they would laugh, slightly embarrassed; and then they started posing! I may not have been able to carry as many bags of sand or rocks as them, but at least I bring something to the table with photos, right?!
On another day off we took an overnight trip to Somoto Canyon. This was a "surprise" from the people who were leading our group and we weren't really prepared to swim a mile through a canyon, but hey, what are you gonna do? I wish we would have been more prepared because it was really beautiful and an amazing experience, despite the soggy shoes and wet clothes.
The view of the canyon as we walked back to our rooms for the night was incredible. We spent the night by a campfire being serenaded by some of the locals. We, of course, serenaded them right back with our own rendition of Bohemian Rhapsody and a few Beyonce numbers. I don't think they were impressed.
Back we go to El Cacau! Another work day in the books, but this time a half day because they guys have invited us to play baseball! Now we are in the finishing stages of the road. The trenches have been filled with rock and cement and now they sift the sand to create a more smooth cement to go on top of it all.
The guys from El Cacau led us on a hike to the very tip top of the mountain to see their home field. This was quite the hike.. and considering by this time we were all a little sick of rice and beans and not eating much it was pretty difficult. Oh, and you just spent the day hauling rocks. Anyway, despite them renaming the mountain, "Gringo Killer," we made it to the top and holy moly! As I came over the edge of the field I threw my fist in the air and had a Breakfast Club moment because I felt like I had just climbed Everest except for without the snow. So just picture me on the edge in the photo below with my fist up, because I'm pretty sure it was iconic and there is no photo to prove it.
Playing baseball on the top of a mountain with the indigenous people of Nicaragua was never something on my bucket list, but it should have been. As I stood at second base hoping the ball wouldn't come to me, I thought about about how once-in-a-lifetime this moment was and how amazing it was that I got to experience it. And then the ball came to me and I actually got an out!! I also hit the ball every time I was at bat(didn't make it to base though) and if you ask my middle school softball coach he'd say that's pretty impressive!
On our last day of work, we worked a half day and then we had a little fiesta with the community.
This was the first time we were really able to interact with the kids and it was so fun. I brought my little polaroid camera and was taking photos of the kids and families and they were so excited! In many cases these will be some of the only photos they have of themselves and knowing I could give that gift to them makes my heart so full. They loved taking photos on our cameras and I'm sure Valerie had about a hundred pictures of feet on her camera. And just look at the girl in the bottom left photo looking up at her. My heart melted as soon as I pressed the shutter.
And what's a party without a piñata?
That night we went out with our host families for dinner and danced the night away! This photo is grainy and kind of blurry, but it is one of my favorites from the trip. We started as a group of strangers and on this night we were family. Also this is what happens when a group of white girls are trying to salsa and then the DJ starts playing "Happy Birthday." Oh, and did I mention beers were only a dollar there???
The next day we packed up and left Ocotal. Saying good-bye to this little one was so hard and he wasn't having it. So we just ended up tickling him and giving him horseback rides until our ride came like always.
We ended the trip with a day at the beach and the most amazing sunset. It was the most perfect ending.
I am so grateful that I was able to go on this trip. When I told people I was going, they looked at me like I was crazy. I went into the trip with no expectations or prejudgement and I am so happy I did. Experiencing the people of Nicaragua and how friendly they were was something I'll never forget. In the United States if you say, "Hello" to someone on the street they glare at you. In Nicaragua, you can pass 20 people on the street and each one of them will say, "Buenas" as you pass. If you try and talk to a stranger in the states they ignore you and look down at their phone. In Nicaragua, they are patient and try to speak with you and understand your kindergarten level Spanish. I'll never forget the people we met in Ocotal and El Cacau. They welcomed us with open arms and hearts, and gave us the best memories. So I'll end this with a quote from our guide for the trip, Junior.
"If I have to sleep on the ground, I enjoy the smell of the soil."