This past reading week, I had the opportunity to travel to Nicaragua in Central America with a team of 11 other students and 2 supervisors from Western for the Alternative Spring Break program. I had no idea of the situation I was walking into, and I could never have imagined the experiences that I would have.
I am lucky to come from a family that values travelling, and I’ve had many chances to visit new countries and experience different cultures. However, my previous travels were solely for leisure. This was the first time that I struggled with a language barrier as my knowledge of Spanish went little beyond greetings and introductions. However, my lack of ability to communicate made little difference to the locals. I was embraced (quite literally) by the community and felt welcome.
We stayed in the municipality of La Dalia, about a 4-hour drive from the capital city, Managua. While driving to La Dalia, it was clear to me how much Nicaraguans valued nature. As we drove up a windy, mountainous road, all I could see in any direction were different kinds of trees and plants. Although we were staying in La Dalia, our service work took place at a school in a small community known as Casas Blancas; if you search for this community online, you won’t find it right away ̶ that’s how small it is. The size of the community did not make it any less significant; in fact, being around the children and elderly taught me about the core values of a true collectivistic culture ̶ a society which values the good of the community over the welfare of the individual. From the moment we arrived, the group established a strong, emotional relationship with the locals. We were never treated as outsiders; instead, the children included me in their games and read to me, while the adults taught me about the fruits and vegetables that grew in the area.
In addition to working at the school, our group also had the opportunity to visit a few coffee farms to witness their impact on the local economy. It was remarkable to learn about the years of hard labour and planning that goes into making a single cup of coffee. On one farm that we visited, I counted 15 steps in the process, and those were only the initial stages. When we visited the coffee refinery, I witnessed the last stages of coffee production, which included packaging the final product. One thing I learned is that only high-quality beans are sent to large retailers in North America, whereas lower grade beans are kept in Nicaragua for local consumption.
The payoff for the locals is minimal considering the amount of labour that is involved in coffee farming. On average, workers begin work at 4 AM and continue until 11 AM, right before the heat becomes too exhausting. However, I never heard a single complaint from the labourers.
Time stood still when I was in Nicaragua; I have never experienced such a feeling in my life. I couldn’t seem to care less about my academic commitments, even though I had a math exam about two days after coming back. Whenever we weren’t hiking up to a beautiful waterfall, spending time at the school, learning about coffee farming, or meeting the mayor of La Dalia, I spent time reflecting. So much happened in one week, and I still find it difficult to put the experience into words ̶ nothing can capture exactly how I felt on this trip. Now, I feel like I have a better understanding of global development, as well as a greater appreciation for nature. Someday, I would like to go back to Nicaragua and reconnect with the friends I made while I was there. When I arrive, the first thing I would do is thank them for helping me understand the world a little better.
I can’t wait to see where my travels will take me next.