Note: this is, in effect, three-blog-posts-in-one, detailing a summary of my time in Nicaragua’s impact on my life, my nomadic adventures at the end of it all, and a small bit of my experience returning home.
“How was Nicaragua?”
Despite my urging of my students to plan a well-thought out response to this question that adequately sums up and communicates the impact of their experience abroad, I still find myself blurting out a lame, one-word answer, like “it was amazing.”
Now that I am home after 13 months in Central America, I am finding it difficult to assimilate all of my experiences into a concrete summary. How am I supposed to sufficiently explain the many lessons I learned and the deep impact imprinted on myself during a casual bar conversation? I’m finding it impossible. So, I will attempt to detail them here, considering this blog post has been brewing within me for several months anyway.
“Nicaragua” was life-changing for me in several ways, and it’s hard to believe that I’m actually home. My goal in going there was to learn and grow as a person, which I’ve certainly accomplished. Some of these lessons are easy things to implement on a daily basis, and there are others that I will probably be working on for the rest of my life.
Be present. There were times when I had the chance to visit somewhere and I knew I may never be there again. It forced me to truly enjoy the moment. And if I did happen to end up there again, it was that much more amazing – I was a different person than I was previously, and I was able to reflect on what had happened since.
Go with the flow. Nothing ever happens according to plan, especially when things run on “Nica time.” It is ever-important to be flexible, more so when the culture is not accustomed to promptness.
Live simply and enjoy the little things. A big recurring event for me that made different moments stand out was this: watching the clouds go by and the birds fly high in the sky from different vantage points during different stages of my time there and places around the country (usually from a hammock). Oh, and eating a meal in a hammock is one of the biggest joys there is. Also pretending to have use for a machete.
Be grateful for everything. There were times when I’d come home sweating (actually I always came home sweating whether it was from living in the eternal heat of León or working up a sweat climbing the hill to my house in Matagalpa), and the water had been cut. Luckily we usually had reserves – but you don’t realize how much water it takes to live comfortably until you must utilize the precious filled bottles to bathe, cook, wash dishes and your clothes. I learned to appreciate every. little. thing.
Release expectations. You’d think that when you order a coffee and add that you want a little bit of milk, they wouldn’t bring you a large steaming mug of milk with a small bottle of iced coffee al lado. Think again.
Find balance. I feel like balance is a giant part of understanding this life. This verbage is borrowed from my one of my previous blogs, but some balances that I grappled with include: embracing adapting to cultural norms vs. rejecting your own, being grounded vs. being a nomad, relationships with locals vs. foreigners, and connecting with my tribe at home vs. building a local tribe.
Appreciate family. In Nicaragua, it’s typical to live with your family (and your grandmother) until you get married. Some of the happiest people I have ever seen have almost nothing in terms of material possessions, but they have the health of their family members, and that is something I deeply admire about their culture.
Be patient. The patience thing is a hard one for all of us, but I feel I’m hard-wired to be impatient. Sometimes it literally produced a physical reaction that was me writhing in my seat. But when you’ve chosen the wrong bus from Rivas to San Juan del Sur after 10 hours of car/bus travel, waited for 30 minutes for it to leave, and then endured the bumpy, dusty “longcut,” when the bus driver stops for an ice cream, you have to just laugh and roll with it.
Less is more. When you’re forced to hand-wash every single clothing item you own, and wait for it to dry on a line during rainy season, you realize that maybe you don’t need to wash something after every wear, and maybe you don’t need three black tank tops, and maybe you don’t need so many pairs of jeans.
Another thing I learned from my time there is that I want to be a mother. I’ve not seen many more beautiful things in this life than a Nicaraguan woman toting or guiding her child. Now, I’m certainly not ready to do it on their terms and be a young mother of many, but eventually I’d like to take that on.
Además de all of these lessons, there are also un montón de skills I’d never thought I would need that living in Nicaragua will bring right out of you. (Sorry for all of the Spanglish. I bet you can figure it out.) These include… Adapting the Nicaraguans’ cultural facial expressions and hand movements to communicate (after first figuring out that its even a thing). Hailing a taxi and paying at the right moment, sometimes without saying a word. Figuring out the right way to use “pues” in a sentence. Understanding that the common response to “gracias” is just “bueno,” not “you’re welcome” or anything. Knowing the proper way how to drink liquid from a plastic bag. Washing your hands with a full sink of clean water and a bowl (without getting the water dirty!). Taking a bucket shower (and loving every minute of it). Flushing the toilet using water reserves. Squatting to pee over a toilet with no seat (or in a covered dressing room-like apparatus in the “backyard” of a comedor at the beach). Throwing away toilet paper in the trash bin as a reflex. Lighting the gas stove with matches, and using burned matches to light a second burner at the same time (that one took me a few months to figure out). Riding the bus and paying the money collector (there are numerous skills associated with this one – I could write an entire post about riding a bus in Nicaragua, but it’s the kind of thing you have to experience to believe, so I’ll leave it to your imagination). Being aggressive at the pulperia (never mastered that one). Wiping the top of every beer bottle you drink with a napkin. Eating with your hands and being okay with not having table manners (that one came pretty easy ;)). Finding the light switch for a bathroom… it could be anywhere! And one of my favorites: cleaning or dusting with a trapo (rag), which consists of slapping the dust away until it looks okay.
Oh gosh, I miss it so much! What I miss the most: being able to walk everywhere, the convenience of things, the simplicity of life, and the people. And more than anything, speaking Spanish. Also, how cheap things are and receiving $5 pedicures in my kitchen.
The end of my time in Nica was the epitome of bittersweet. After finishing up with Global Glimpse, I had a few weeks to say my goodbyes, enjoy my time with my Nicaraguan family and the friends I had made, and even embark on some new adventures. Finally the day came where I had to pack up all of my belongings into a suitcase and a backpack and say goodbye to my beloved porch where I had greeted each day and watched the world go by. Luckily my best friend Nathan was by my side to aid me in transition, and we packed into a friend’s truck, Nica style, to head to León and explore other parts. I still remember my last glimpse of Matagalpa, just as well as I remember my last glimpse of Bilbao, Spain when I left over three years ago.
Then I was a nomad for two weeks, and learned what it’s like to be a backpacker. That is an amazing thing of its own that presents many different situations and challenges. I learned some good skills from that too, skills you would never think you might need until you find yourself in a dire situation. Climbing down a ladder from a treehouse with a backpack on your back and a sack of clinking beer cans at 6am, balancing and attempting not to wake your sleeping dorm-mates. Washing your feet in the back kitchen of a café. Leaving your best friend and all of your things on a ferry while you run back to that very café to get your phone charger and back before the ferry leaves. Trusting that the bus driving away with all of your belongings is going to return to pick you up at the gas station he just dropped you off at to use the restroom.
When you’re sharing an outdoor bathroom with 16 other people, grooming and self-maintenance become more difficult and less important, which really can be a beautiful thing (besides the fact that you are perpetually sweating). I wish I could detail all of my travels but it’s taken me two months to even produce this blog so I’m going to highlight some of the best things and call it good. I got to explore even more of my precious host country, with the last stop being Isla de Ometepe, which was the epitome of everything I love about Nicaragua. It was breathtakingly beautiful, palm trees, lake, volcanoes, amazing people, farms, slowed-down life, and just sheer beauty everywhere. We swam in spring water, climbed to a waterfall, had morning yoga with a beautiful Mayan god (exaggeration), ate delicious farm-fresh organic food, toured the island on bikes and scooters, and almost walked on water. We had to hike about twenty minutes just to get to our tree-house dorm, and met some really cool people from all over the world.
Bus rides, ferry rides, broke-down taxi rides, shuttle rides, five border crossings and multiple well-deserved piña coladas later, we made it north to Guatemala. When entering the country, we were with other people from Israel, New Zealand and Mexico, and we compared passport stamps which really inspired me to keep traveling and exploring new places. Although I had spent time in Costa Rica on several different occasions, for the most part it had had more or less the same feel as does Nica, despite the elevation of prices. But Guatemala had a totally different vibe and it was really cool to spend some genuine time in a different part of Central America. When I say genuine, I mean five days, so not really, which means to say I’d love to spend some real genuine time there. Highlights: strolling the cobblestone streets, trying roasted nuts, eating chocolate covered frozen strawberries, seeing women with beautiful textiled outfits I wish I could pull off, men selling pastries from the trunk of their Volvo, babies and happy families in the neighborhood bakery, daily morning mochas and croissants at that bakery, spending an absurd amount of Quetzales on souvenirs, taking boat rides on the lake, getting lost after a clueless tuk-tuk driver dropped us off while looking for a yoga spot and having a Guatemalan child ask us “Qué es yoga?”, paying less than $5/night for a private room, and trying to learn their slang. Differences from Nicaragua: people actually slow down for pedestrians there, there’s a European feel (at least in Antigua), the climate is amazingly and wonderfully cooler, and the people are extremely smiley and happy and nice (that part’s not that different from Nica).
So that is 2.5 weeks’ worth of adventure in three paragraphs, and my life has been extremely boring ever since. Just kidding. But reverse culture shock is not a myth, and it’s hard to explain everything I’ve been going through since returning home. My mind plays tricks on me, and sometimes I have to do a double take when I think I see a stray horse in the Cold Stone parking lot, Denis’ red truck with the faded Ometepe sticker driving past me, or Sandino’s shadow in the corner of my eye at a bar. Then there is the fact that I must drive everywhere I want to go, and deal with bureaucratic processes in renewing my license and registration. And more frustrations: not being able to have a real live bank teller help me or not being able to simply walk into a local copy shop to get something printed. I realize these things would probably frustrate me had I not just lived in a developing country for over a year, but it’s been a bit overwhelming. Not to mention the fact that there are a million options for running shoes, face lotion, yogurt, and everything else. All of this on top of the fact that I’ve changed as a person and have returned to a place that hasn’t changed much, and my experience has been intense. This is not to say that it hasn’t also been wonderful, and there are so many things about living in the States that I’m enjoying. Maybe one day I will be better prepared to articulate the full effect of re-entry.
So I guess this concludes the blog titled “Chelsvivenica,” considering that Chels does not, in fact, vive en Nica any longer. Thank you all so much for your support and readership on this long journey. I’ve truly enjoyed pouring my heart out into words and I appreciate the fact that it’s at least been read by some. Thank you for sharing this meaningful and life-changing experience with me!
Hasta la próxima // until the next adventure…
besos ~ chels