A month ago, I returned from a journey that simply changed my life. After many days of letting the trip digest, I have summarized it (not so briefly, I’m afraid), illustrated it, and now offer it for your literary entertainment (or pure curiosity…yes it is okay to only browse the bold words and photos). Enjoy and namasté.
Seven days of Stories
I passed through the JFK airport in a groggy haze and slept almost the entire flight to Miami, where we connected before our flight to Managua. Aside form spending an astronomical amount at the Miami airport (which, by the looks of the designer gift shops, twelve variations of coconut waters and a plethora of chocolate covered açaí berries, was the most luxurious airport I have seen yet) the trip progressed much like my other flights in the previous weeks. It wasn’t until I put down my novel and peered that the tattered corners of my passport as I filled out my customs form, did I realize that this was REALLY happening: I was on my way to Nicaragua, a country that I probably could not immediately identify in Central America (between Honduras and Costa Rica for those who are interested). This would be my second international experience in the year (our return date was EXACTLY the day I left for Spain the previous year…is the irony freaking you out yet??) and I was totally prepared to be unprepared: to take the experience as it would come, like a wave crashing over my head and then retreating away from the shoreline. This would be total immersion into something completely new and removed: with no Internet access and no phone service, I would have the simultaneous trepidation and luxury of separation from everything within my everyday reality.
Not even two steps out of the plane, I was enveloped by the warm stickiness of balmy, tropical air. I was already a happy camper. We walked out of the airport and were greeted by smiling drivers sent by El Coco Loco Resort, the eco-lodge that we would be staying at during our time in this place. As we passed through Managua, I gazed at the total vibrancy of it all: storefronts and homes in bright oranges and pinks, school busses splattered in rainbow colors, the advertisements painted on buildings blended so seamlessly with the building colors that they looked less commercial and more artistic. People sat in the beds of trucks and blasted music as they waved to those that passed. It seemed like the whole city was awake, engaged, alive.
About an hour outside of the city, we stopped to see Momotombo and Momotombito, two of Nicaragua’s active volcanoes. The spectacular views were just a taste of what we would experience just a few miles northwest. After three hours of two-lane, but paved, asphalt, we turned right down a one lane, bumpy dirt road. We arrived at an open space dotted with a few trees and a few lights peering out in the distance from behind branches. Ben, one of the founders of El Coco Loco, helped us unload our bags and showed us to our cabins. He explained that although it wasn’t much, it was the essentials: beds tented in mosquito netting (which was, in fact, more for gecko poop than mosquitoes), one light per cabin, a communal cold-water shower and a compostable toilet (see more on that here…or research on Tree Hugger for some fascinating articles). The essentials, it turned out, ended up being plenty, and I experienced simplicity as refreshing rather than inconvenient. After unpacking, we headed up the hill towards an open cabana at the peak of property that included a lounge area, long dining table for communal meals, a gift shop wall, a pool, a covered lounge and a “relaxation space” with hammocks and rocking chairs. While I sipped on a bubbling club soda while enjoying the first of many incredible meals, I was struck by El Coco Loco’s organic seamlessness. Open spaces blended organically with the open landscape of the coastline. As we meandered back down the hill to our cabins, and fell asleep to the sound of crashing waves, there was a profound sense of calm settling over the group.
We rested and rose with the sun, which meant getting up at 5:30 the next morning to the sounds of squawking birds and palm fronds ruffled by the breeze. I crawled out of my princess-canopied bed, and got ready for our Sunday adventure. Today, we would be climbing Cosigüina, a dormant volcano that was Central America’s tallest volcano before two thirds of it blew off in 1835 during the most violet eruption in Nicaragua’s recent history. Before we left, however, we had a delicious breakfast at the main cabana up top. Everything was fresh: homemade granola with local cacao beans, fresh eggs, bread and fruit…not to mention amazing coffee.
After we were comfortably full, two white Humvees pulled up and we were on our way. The hour long ride was a little bumpy, but nothing too frightening….until we started driving up the volcano and our right wheels got stuck in a ditch, and our large white box of a vehicle started teetering to the right. Fortunately, leaning to the right meant we were leaning away from the edge of a cliff. Unfortunately, it took us a good fifteen minutes to get out of the roadside’s firm grip. After driving another half a mile, the other Humvee experienced a similar teetering dilemma and we all decided that we were just fine with walking a few extra kilometers to reach the peak. As we climbed, the jungle-like climate at the base transformed into a more arid woodland. Spectacular views of the plains of Nicaragua enveloped our sights.
At the top, we reached el mirador de los tres paises, or the view of three countries, where we saw the volcano’s crater and lake, and stunning vistas of Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador. We stood in awe of the spectacular views as we noshed on banana corn muffins (probably my favorite thing that I ate the entire trip…I’m still working on recreating the recipe, although the key ingredient was by far the candy-sweet bananitos grown on site at El Coco Loco).
After a less threatening ride down the volcano, we stopped in Pontasi for a traditional hacienda meal. Pontasi is a small, quiet town and because it was Sunday, most everyone was in the streets leaving mass before a Sunday meal with their families. Before we sat down, a few students and I stopped into the sherbet colored church across the street. I was enthralled by the architecture, a style that blended traditional Spanish elements with a distinctive twist. Our meal was wonderful and reminded me a lot of a traditional Mexican plate: pollo asada, refried beans and rice. The difference was incorporation of more root vegitables, like yucca, and a different flavor to the salsas. While sipping peach juice and casually transitioning between English and Spanish with many members of the table, I was excited and surprised by comfort level speaking in this manner. After lunch, we packed the car and headed to a beach about 15 minutes away. We had all been itching to get in the water, especially after our hike in the hot sun, so when we stepped foot on the beautiful black sand and dipped our toes into the seventy-five degree water, Northern Nicaragua seemed like the clearest definition of paradise.
We were swimming in the northern gulf, just below the volcano, from where you could see Nicaragua from the shoreline, and Honduras and El Salvador in the distance. It was spectacular and refreshing. While most of us were lounging in the water, a few courageous characters jumped off of the pier into the water. We were all immediately inspired to do the same and spent hours jumping in and climbing out, a patterned that reminded me of my childhood summers when my siblings and I would cause tumultuous waves in our pool by springing off of the diving board one by one by one, over and over again.A bit later, a few of us started talking with the local kids who taught us chelitas (gringas in Nicaraguan slang) about chichcastes (or jellyfish… there were quite a few moon jellies in the water) the names of local fish, and other chunches (things) like how to stay cartwheel (vuelta de estrella, which translates to spinning star).
After many excited waves goodbye, we returned to our beach at El Coco Loco around sunset for a meal of fresh local fish and the first of many stories about El Coco Loco, our eco-lodge, and Waves of Hope, the non-profit organization so inextricably linked to the lodge, that the missions of each seemed to be one in the same. As Ben explained how in the world the birthplace of both was found in rural Northern Nicaragua, he was careful to highlight the essentiality of community within both the eco-lodge and the non-profit. Of the 24 families that were a part of the Manzano #1 neighborhood, 22 were somehow involved with the lodge, the non-profit or both. What characterizes El Coco Loco as unique is that the non-profit and lodge share the same space and community. While an aunt may be cooking the grilled fish taco dinner for the eco-lodge guests, her niece may be at kids club, practicing English and playing soccer with El Coco Loco’s guests. The commitment to maintaining this socio-cultural interaction is the foundational groundwork for all of the projects “Waves” has been able to create and implement.
Their most recent project, and one that we were heavily involved with during our time in Nicaragua, was the construction and establishment of a high school for the residents of El Manzano. Waves raised funds to purchase the land, construct the school in accordance with national code and create a reading center to develop literacy among members of the community. What is so incredible and inspiring about this organization is not just the construction of the school, but the founder’s continual involvement with its functionality. What many people do not realize is that in order to cause real development in education, recognition and compliance with national standards must be observed. This requires months and months of continued involvement, representing the NGO, the community, and even the construction team in legal meetings at the regional and national level. Because the founders of Waves and El Coco Loco live in the community, they are able to commit themselves to a cause on this deeply interpersonal level. Besides the adventurous anecdotes about riding motorcycles up and down the Pacific Coast of Central America, Ben’s story brought a new level of awareness to my understanding of how successful community organization projects are initiated. It takes more than an idea, more than passion and more than money: involvement beyond the project’s fruition is what guarantees its sustainability.
Building a Foundation, One Rock at a Time
On Monday morning, before my “work week” began I took a picturesque morning run on the beach. As my walk to the shoreline increased to the steady rhythm of a jog, I chuckled as I passed heard of cows accompanying me in my post-dawn exercise. Cows on the beach is nothing new in this part of the country and reminded me once again that I was in a place where raw simplicity permeated cycle of each day. From the beach, it was easy to become more acquainted with the topography and differentiating economic status of the residents of this community. Although I could be biased by my interactions with the locals, the grandeur of large homes seemed not only separatist but also foolishly unnecessary: the large homes on stilts seemed to self-consciously scoff at the beauty of nature which was, quite honestly, just wait out if their league.
After reaffirming just how much I loved Nicaraguan bananas at a breakfast of banana pancakes, we left for the high school worksite in the back of a blue pickup truck. Before we reached the high school, we stopped at a tour of one of Waves of Hope’s first projects, the elementary school that though originally constructed by NGO Save the Children, was abandoned and taken over by Waves to provide infrastructure and national compliance. (Fun fact: All schools in Nicaragua are blue and white, colors of the state flag. This school was originally painted a purplish pink and although repainted, the plaque certifying that Save the Children did, indeed, build this building, has been left on a side a wall.) We learned that the elementary school students are in better compliance than El Coco Loco’s when it comes to using the compostable toilets, and that running water for the school is donated by a local grandmother’s well. Once again, I was reminded of the amazing power of community in displacing the importance of physical possession and ownership. At the high school site, we divided into several rotating groups to work on digging trenches for the septic system, painting the insides and outsides of classrooms and creating the rock and gravel foundation for the reading and literacy center. I spent most of my time lifting and tossing these foundational rocks and even found myself enjoying the physical labor. During our lunch break, we took turns sharing how inspiring this collaboration was in creating something bigger than ourselves. We were building for others, with others and for the freedom and boundlessness of education.
Later in the week, we found out that over 200 volunteers, some students, some celebrities, some just passing through, had worked on the construction of this place. It was a collective cause of solidarity based on our mutual and transcendent belief in the good this place had to offer. After a few more hours of “good hard work” we returned back “home” (it was already feeling like it) and took a dip in the ocean before our cultural exchange activity. In this exchange, we learned the bachata, a Latin American dance that required less compliance with the rules and more understanding of the movement. Nicaraguans from the age of 5 to 25 were dancing and moving better and faster and smoother than the whole lot of us Americans combined. Nine year olds exhibited how they were experts at twerking long before Miley made it cool, guys who were tossing rocks with us early in the day were now spinning their dance partners with flawless grace. It was hilarious and embarrassing but filled with so much compassion and excitement to share that even the natural wallflowers were up dancing, spinning and having a great time. The night concluded early with the already comfortable pattern of ocean swim, dinner (chicken with jalapenos and…wait for it… a banana split :)), reflection and walk to the cabana under the stars. I went to bed feeling like a five year old, out like a light the second my head hit the pillow.
Namaste in Heart Waves
Waking up on Tuesday was a lot more challenging than previous days and I thought it would be a perfect morning to work on a stretch yoga practice at El Coco Loco’s studio. I have intentionally not mentioned this studio yet in order to attempt to succinctly explain just how much seeing this place was one of those “aha” moments of love at first sight. On Saturday night, right before we ate dinner, Nuria walked me over to the corner of the hammock space from which a path jutted off towards a raised cabana yoga studio. I couldn’t see much, but it already looked like just about the coolest place I could possibly imagine to practice. We collectively agreed that the Monday afternoon yoga class just wasn’t happening after hours in the hot sun, but Tuesday morning, I was determined to get a closer look.
I woke up around 6:30am and marched up the hill towards the lofted studio. White shells filled the path from the main cabana to a staircase that lead up to a lofted hardwood studio. From this perch, the blue horizon was dotted by the occasional white-capped wave. Banana trees and floral bushes trickled towards me from the coastline and the lush green foliage behind me ensured that this spot really was out of the reach of everyday existence. About thirty minutes into my practice, the sun peered in from under the palm frond roof and painted warm zigzag shadows across the ground. An hour afterwards, my usual post-vinyasa hunger pains started surface and I noshed on a bowl of granola and yogurt and bean covered chips shaped like half moons.
After that, it was back to the high school for a day of painting. A fun fact about all Nicaraguan public schools: they are all painted white and blue to represent the colors of their flag. More than just a symbol for national pride, these colors reflect the hues that appear naturally throughout the country. Nicaragua, which roughly translates to country surrounded by water, is home to white sandy beaches and gorgeous blue coastlines. As I moved my blue-soaked sponge roller up and down the concrete exterior, I thought about this relationship with the water and how the ebb and flow of exchange between the members of this community and us was very reminiscent of the tide that governed their waters. The connection of this place to the waves and the rhythm Mother Nature dictated for this land was fascinating to observe and experience.
Our workday ended early today, and we headed back to El Coco Loco for Kid’s Club. This program that takes place on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, allows all of El Coco Loco’s guests to actively engage with the local community…and when I say active, I mean that literally. We spent the first part of this afternoon learning the words for body parts in English by playing “Simón dice/ Simon says and beach volleyball. Just as the group decided that a soccer game would be the next move, Nuria asked me to accompany Katia, the wonderful Waves of Hope program coordinator, and a few other students to walk around Manzano Uno and invite local female community members to our Wednesday Woman’s workshop. A few minutes later, we were off. We passed through lush gardens on the cliffs above the ocean and arrived at a dirt road. Along the path, pockets of land with little residences appeared. With each home that we stopped by, I learned so much about how simply people live and how poverty can be looked at from many paradigms. As we stopped to chat with families, many graciously invited us into their homes and showed enthusiasm for our educational workshop. Between visits, Katia would share anecdotes about the neighborhood, funny stories about friends, and the details about her upcoming wedding (in case you were curious, girls chatting about wedding details can be universally translated as a series of excited awws and squeals). One of the most captivating things that she spoke about was how the range of apparent poverty didn’t really seem to affect the spirits of many people in the community. We would stop at everything from palm frond topped cabanas with black plastic trash bag walls, to plywood cabins, to concrete buildings, and Katia explained that there was not a noticeable socio-economic distinction between the residents of each. People wore the same bathing suit and shorts many days in a row. One pair of tennis shoes was sufficient. “I’ve got all I need,” she explained, “I see no need for lots of material things…better to be happy with friends and family.”
We experienced this blissful, welcoming energy first-hand while walking past the home of a El Coco Loco staff member. A tiny, smiling woman stopped us and asked how we liked Nicaragua and if we would like to see her mapachín. Grateful for her offer, but totally unsure of what a mapachín was, we entered her humble home. She proudly pointed out photos of her and her children holding academic awards. After a few minutes, we entered the back room of the home and lounging across the pink bed was Pachi the mapachín…..a domesticated RACOON! As we as laughed hysterically, the little creature crawled up the arm of the tiny woman, settled on her shoulder and posed. It was an ironic example of paradox: we see raccoons as wild and plastic walled homes as underdeveloped; but what I began to realize, as I watched Pachi behaving much like a pruning kitty, is that maybe our definitions of “underdeveloped” and “uncivilized” are not as developed as we really think. Once again, the simplicity of this community’s wisdom was blowing my mind and warping my interpretation of social paradigms. We concluded our walk with 25 or so confirmed attendees and noshed on bites of Katia’s relleno, a sweet corn meal treat that seemed like a Mexican tamale filled with dulce de leche. Returning to El Coco Loco at sunset, we just couldn’t resist the opportunity to jump in the ocean right away fully clothed and full of smiles and laughter from the day’s once-in-a-lifetime activities.
That evening we sipped on club soda and chowed down on delicious veggie lasagna while Christine, Ben’s fiancé shared a story about Nicaragua and how she ventured away from the stereotypical path and has found nothing but joy and fulfillment. As a accounting student in Toronto, Christine was on her way to a high paying job in the finance world when was introduced to the Manzano Uno community through her then-boyfriend Ben. She fell in love with the culture, rhythm and people of the area and decided to trade the corporate world for oceanfront country living. She moved to Nica, transformed her part-time yoga position into a full-time gig, and openly offered herself to the needs of the community. Early last year, she noticed the beautiful, hand-made jewelry and clothing crafted by the women of Manzano Uno and had an idea. Using her accounting skills and expertise, she started a craft club for women in the community who wished to produced their stunning crafts as souvenirs for El Coco Loco’s guests. The crafts were an instant success and the club transformed into jewelry making and sewing groups that supply of the souvenirs for the eco-lodge.
Christine handles the finances and marketing, in addition to finding beads and fabrics for the women. She always keeps an open mind and is excited to see what kind of ideas will allow this micro-finance initiative to grow sustainably. Like everything else associated with El Coco Loco/Waves, sustainability is a core tenant of this project’s philosophy. While the club is growing, it is still operated on a volunteer basis that trusts women to take raw materials and produce artisan products at their leisure. The club is meant to be a space to empower and provide opportunity, not to create a powerhouse for profit. This means that sometimes, multi-layer shell necklaces are plentiful; other times, beaded bracelets or rompers may be stocking the shelves. While we stayed at the eco-lodge, there was a consistent level of product inventory available, and as 20-something girls, we certainly were excited to shop! What was interesting, however, is due to the individual uniqueness of each product and to the story of empowerment that we all grew to love so much, we weren’t rushing to collect bracelets for 20 of our closest friends; instead, we saw each piece for its own distinct worth and only brought home a few baubles each for ourselves or those close to us. This type of conscious-consumerism was particularly inspiring to me because it positively infuses sustainability, art and conscious-consumption. Since I have returned, I am even more aware of the fact that with each item that I purchase, I have a choice. Particularly in regard to clothing, this choice can make a huge impact. Covering Fashion Week in Madrid last spring showed me one, that fashion is truly an expressive art form, and two, that art forms are an emotional expression of society. The clothing that I don says a lot about who I am, what I support, and how aware I am of global trends in both hemlines and hemp production. As I look forward and the post-grad world becomes closer in reach, I am eager to utilize both my passion for and awareness of these choices to actively challenge public perception and transform society through celebrating more sustainable trends.
Leadership, Beauty and Almond Fruit: Wednesday Women’s Workshop
Wednesday was, by far, the most transformative day of the entire trip. As the midpoint of the week, it cinched together all of our hard work and collective effort, created a beautiful, safe space for conversation and reflection and left all of us inspired, challenged and a little bit more deeply culturally competent than we thought we would become.
Just another little bit of back-story before I begin: The group members consisted of all females except for one male student and a course instructor. When Nuria spoke with Jamie, he suggested that as globally engaged female learners and leaders, we had a wonderful opportunity to share our passion for female empowerment in a way that would be sensitive, compassionate and would spark creative conversation. We immediately got to planning and created a day-long workshop that used painting, games, jewelry making, photography and story-circles to talk about inner beauty, financial independence, sexual autonomy and pursuing dreams. It was a big challenge, but we were excited and determined to make the day a success. Fast-forward back to that Wednesday morning when we met with all of the girls and migrated to the yoga studio, our space for activity and reflection that day. We gathered in a circle and began the introduction activities. My group was responsible for this first activity, and cautiously I began explaining, in Spanish, just what I meant when I said we would be introduce ourselves by “dancing our names.” My instructions, it turned out, were well understood and my outlandish flailing-hand-dance-move seemed to be a laughable success (particularly with the younger crowd). As the day progressed, we painted images of natural beauty, took pictures of what was beautiful around us and told stories of empowerment, failure, inspiration and success all from this lifted perch. Looking back, our safe space was much like a nest: we nurtured and nourished our souls while growing to be more inspired and supportive of the women around us. We all left the nest at the end of the day in a state of sympathetic joy. We were strong, collective and inspired. Confused and conflicted, but more aware. It was a day of growth for everyone and although we were the “experts,” we concluded the day learning much more than we could have ever imagined. That night, after a perfectly blissful sunset surf session we all surrounded the pool and reflected on the most powerful moments from the day’s activities: creative name tags and silly photos, defining the age of deteriorating optimism, child support and “daddy issues”, national pride and professional dance moves…every moment had its own essay-worthy importance, but the underlying achievement of the whole thing, as one particularly brilliant and aware peer pointed out, is that this workshop was “sustainable.” Acting sustainably, it turns out, is more than just recognizing the awesome efficiency of compostable toilets or micro-financing fashion. It’s about how efforts are implemented and relationships are made, and maintaining the mindfulness to make sure that each action has positive long-term consequences. Humbled and happy we all went to bed glad to be wonderful women with hearts open to the world.
We began our Thursday morning with a yin yoga class with Nikki, Jamie’s partner and another yoga instructor at El Coco Loco. The yin class was perfect: a gentle reminder to stay open after yesterday’s emotional activity. We spoke about “seva” or selfless service and reflected upon the concept as a tool for seeing our world and ourselves differently. As we returned to the high school for our final day of work, I kept returning to the idea. Scrubbing splattered white paint shatters from the black-barred windows made me aware of the kindness and compassion of the many people whose hands have helped shape this high school. Construction of the bars, welding, painting, placing, cementing, and painting again were all a part of the life of this project. As a white paint scrubber, I was acting as a final puzzle piece: a testament to the workmanship of many and I chose to actively participate in this activity with kindness. I have since tried this exercise a few times, and have surprisingly discovered that the amount of positive energy in the world that can be attributed to seva is incredible!
When we returned to the beach for Kid’s Club that afternoon, most of the young girls from the day before…and their brothers…showed up to play and celebrate our last kids club of the week. We spent hours and hours playing ball games, dancing, singing, drawing and reading. My favorite part of the day was reading Un caso grave de rayas (In English, A Bad Case of the Stripes) to some of the girls, a book that my grandmother gave to me when I was around their age that remained a favorite of mine throughout my youth. It was another absolutely spectacular day (I’m suspicious of the reality of any bad weather here) and we all went down to the beach. After a few refreshing hours in the water, a delicious filling Thai meal and great conversations around the pool, I went to bed completely comfortable with my simplistic surroundings. No technology, a few changes of clothes, three simple meals and lots of activity created such a sense of completeness that I began to question the necessity of so much “fluff” I was preoccupied with at home. My roommates and I concluded that this detox from “real life” was exactly what we need before returning to school for another semester. Proud of the work we accomplished, and excited for Friday’s celebration activities, we went to bed, dreaming of what sort of concoctions we would create during tomorrow’s “chocolate making workshop.”
Friday morning began with a wave of sweet smelling incense passing our noses as we heard the story of the kind sage. A Wiseman who explained that he was kind simply because, “kindness is what I am.” Kindness has both outward and inward applicability. We must be kind to ourselves to be kind to the world, in the same way we must offer our kindness to the world in order to receive and enjoy it as a gift.
This week, for me, was a perfect expression of the complete symbiosis of giving and receiving. Although a large intention of this trip was to make ourselves available to work, assist and teach in whatever ways we were able, the other side of this intention was to stay open to opportunities to learn, receive and let go. During our chocolate making activity, we learned about harvesting cacao beans and peeled and ground up our own to make tasty chocolate treats. As Nikki lead us through the production process, she told us the story about her relationship with El Coco Loco and how she determined that this opportunity for abundant happiness resulted from listening to the ever-present voice of the universe. Staying open and flexible for what life (or God, or the universe, or whatever you want to call it) is the key to successfully pursuing dreams, accomplishing the goals you are passionate about and finding a balanced will power that grounds your success. After a day of cooking, chocolate crafting, surfing, Spanish speaking, dancing, hugging, swimming, learning, laughing and loving all that life had to offer, I wrote down the following in my reflection…
Nicaragua, you have taught me reflection, symbiosis, energy, community, sustainability, partnerships, friendships, to be the good, to appreciate and live my dreams and most importantly, to think simply: to be Kind, the essence of I am.
Although it has taken me exactly a month to put these jumbled words into cohesive thoughts that span the length of many a page, I am still, a month later, so grateful for this experience and how in its unprecedented simplicity, it has allowed me to uncover and understand so much about the beautiful, mystifying complexity of our world.
A few more photos…