The plane arrives at Augusto Sandino airport a little after nine in the morning. We have been flying all night and have slept little, but despite being dead tired, our bodies are coursing with energy, ready to begin a week that none of us will soon forget. Just a few short hours ago, eighteen of us, three adults and fifteen whole hearted high school students, left our comfortable lives behind to travel to rural Matagalpa, Nicaragua, on a service trip with Seeds of Learning.
Seeds of Learning is a non profit organization dedicated to improving educational opportunities in Central America. The work consists of building schools and learning centers, providing training opportunities for teachers, scholarships for students and a wonderful cross cultural exchange between the communities it serves and the volunteers from the United States. But that doesn’t explain the half of it.
This is our third trip with this organization. Each time we are treated to a week of challenges; physical labor, cold showers, very large insects, unfamiliar food, a language barrier, more very large insects, and a general feeling of disorientation that comes from being so far removed from life as we know it. We are surrounded by abject poverty. Dirt floors. Tin roofs. Houses made of adobe and scrap wood and bamboo. Children without shoes. Mothers and fathers, their weathered faces show a life that has aged them beyond their years. A child watching over the frijoles, his body framed against the thick black soot that paints the walls of a small kitchen.
Garbage lines the streets of Matagalpa. The traffic is insane. Scooters dart in and out of the cars. Old school busses, no longer useful to us in the US, are painted in bright colors. They carry passengers up and down the streets, their roofs piled high with fruits and vegetables and baskets of supplies. There is no grass in the city. No resplendent lawns or manicured trees. Bougainvillea juts out from a concrete wall offering a spray of color to an otherwise dingy tableau. As we drive through the town, piled into the bed of a red pick up truck, the people wave at us. Sounds of “gringos” pierce the air.
We head out of town, up a long dirt road, past the town of San Ramon and up into the hills of La Laguna, a small community tucked into the mountainside. The wind blows all around us, the dust flies, circling the bed of the truck like a cyclone and within minutes we are covered with a coating of Nicaragua. The children line the covered concrete patio. Dressed in traditional costumes, they are here to welcome us to their community. The teacher turns on the old portable cassette player and for half an hour we are treated to a variety of dances. In my functional but imperfect Spanish, I thank them for their welcome and I tell them that we are happy to be here with them for the week.
At the worksite, on top of a hill, the beauty of the Nicaraguan countryside comes to life. Pastels of blue and green paint the vistas. Mountains and trees as far as the eye can see. Intermittent splashes of color; the yellow of an acacia, the red epiphytes that cling to the avocado tree, the orange blossoms of the malinches. Mangoes drip from branches. Football sized guanabana, a fruit used to treat cancer, hangs heavily from a nearby tree. Below us, the sound of the children’s voices breaks the stillness.
We get right to work, digging trenches and busting concrete. We work hard in the hot sun and no one complains. Large blisters form on the hands of a young woman who, in the fall, will attend UC Davis on a soccer scholarship. Taping over them, she continues to work, unwilling to let this small inconvenience sway her from her commitment to this community and to each of the students she has come here with. The students sing as they mix concrete, plastering each other with the grey gritty soup that will soon fill the trenches for the new structure we are here to build. The community works with us. Each day, three or four men, women and children work side by side. This is their community. Their learning center. They are committed to improving their community, of creating something different for the children here. They inspire us with their dedication.
Some of us speak Spanish. Many do not. Language is not a barrier here. Smiles and laughter go a long way. Hand signals serve as a universal language. Hugs and photos and games build relationships between us all. Raw emotion pulses through our bodies. As we work, we are forming a community; with each other and with our Nicaraguan neighbors.
In the evenings we gather together and share reflections of the day. The students talk about poverty and richness and begin to understand that there is more to this concept than material possessions. They begin to understand that happiness is possible without “things”. That relationships are what matters. The simplest things. The sound of laughter. The warmth of a smile. The blue of the Nicaraguan sky. They think about the contrast of their lives at home and they realize they have a choice to do things differently. To feel differently. To act differently.
They begin to understand what it means to be truly alive.