Are you feeling uncomfortable with your child’s attachment to her cell phone or the latest fashion from Abercrombie? Is your son constantly texting friends instead of getting outside to run around? If so, I would like to suggest you try a “Self-Guided Mission Trip” to Nicaragua, and you will give your child a good dose of Third World reality while having, perhaps, the best family vacation in years.
We started to plan our family vacation as a knee jerk reaction to our twelve-year-old’s input—her choice was to travel to New York to visit the Juicy Couture shop! Some friends told us about their trip to the coastal fishing of San Juan Del Sur where they studied Spanish and I had converted our miles to tickets within weeks. While Nicaragua is one of the poorest countries in this hemisphere, it is also one of the safest in Central America. It has beautiful Pacific beaches with warm water, lush green valleys, and the famed warmth of the Central American people.
Our two hour drive from the airport took us through tropical farm lands dotted with small villages of thatched roof houses, which were made even more colorful by their laundry drying in the hot tropical sun. We saw many horse drawn carts filled with produce, men riding horses through the fields, women walking with plastic tubs precariously balanced on their heads. You could see children playing in and around the houses … “tag” seems universal. Having finally turned up a dirt road beside a river the sign I had been looking for came into view: “Spanish Ya- learn Spanish by living it.” My husband asked the driver, “How far is this from ‘el Centro?’” ”Esto ES el Centro,” came the reply. And indeed, San Juan Del Sur is very walkable as it is roughly five or six blocks long in any direction. A main street fronts the bay which is filled with fishing and sail boats anchored, bobbing in the hot sun. Although, “it is so hot” would become a common refrain, if you could just sit in the shade and enjoy the breeze it was lovely.
By opting for a home stay with a Nicaraguan family it fit into our slight budget, but more importantly allowed us to live and eat as do the Nicaraguans. This meant cold water showers (believe me—in the tropical climate you won’t suffer!), meals built around the native staple of gallo pinto (a combination of rice and beans), and allows you to experience the rhythm of life in a small Latin American town. My daughter’s natural rhythm is slow, I mean slower than molasses. But strolling along the streets of San Juan to or from school it felt natural to move at her “tropical” pace. Within a few days we were stopping on the street corner to greet acquaintances, pet kittens, talk to the many pet parrots that sit outside the San Jaunerenos front doors. Our host family included the parents, Martha and Chico, and four daughters ranging in age from twenty to one and a half. We had requested a family with children hoping my daughter would connect with and start to speak with girls her age. Frances, the thirteen-year-old was as hesitant to speak as was our daughter. But the sixteen-year-old, Yaoska, took Coralie under her wing and gently coaxed some Spanish out of her. Since returning home they have emailed each other and at Yaoska’s urging she writes in English and my daughter in Spanish.
Twice during the home stay the electricity went out in the town, apparently common place. When the electricity goes out, so does the water and all the plumbing. This is one of example of how you will give up some of our usual comforts by choosing a home stay. But I believe we came closer together as a family as we worked together to support each other whenever an obstacle appeared.
The language school, Spanish Ya! was instrumental in making our experience wonderful. The owner, Yahaira, did everything possible to set up the home stay, organize transportation from the airport, organize tours in the area, and even got us a discount on the hotel we moved into for our last few days. We studied in an open air patio enclosed on three sides by brightly colored walls, as vibrant as the tropical flowers that poured from the many pots around our classroom. The fourth side opened to, well, nature! When I got tired of verbs, I could gaze over the river up to the jungle covered mountains. For our breaks my daughter and I ambled down the path to a café where we got iced coffee or smoothies. We each fell in love with our teachers. Mine, Juana, had the most lyrical laugh, and we spent lots of time laughing. My daughter’s teacher Edwina was very patient and gentle.
We had written to Jahira months ahead of time to ask for help in finding local schools that needed supplies. My daughter had fundraised both at her school and church, and with Jahira’s guidance we identified the needs of two classrooms; one at the public school in town, and the other at a small county school in the periphery. The school in town requested “geometric sets” for their sixth graders. So we took a big bag filled with thirty-six sets of compasses and protractors and one very large set for the teacher to use for demonstration. I wish you could see the teacher’s eyes light up when she realized we had a gift just for her! The director of the school, Centro Escolar Emmanuel Mangalos y Rubio, was a tall, thin middle-aged woman with a warm smile and boundless energy who proudly took us to each classroom to present Coralie and explain why she was at school that day. As we entered each classroom the children would leap to their feet and shout in unison, “Buenas Dias.” In one classroom the Directora wrote a big heart on the blackboard and explained it was Coralie’s heart and that inside was the Nicaraguan students. We were touched that she did such a good job of explaining what motivated Coralie and her friends to want to share with their Central American neighbors and I was happy that these children would get a different picture of North American children than the one they get on the sitcoms that are sent overseas.
Now for full disclosure I have to admit we did spend the last few days in the town’s nicest hotel, Pelican Eyes, which is set on the hill overlooking the town and boasts three pools (one a lap pool so that I didn’t even miss my workout!), an elegant but reasonably priced restaurant, and a philosophy to give back to the community. Brick stairs and paths wind their way up the hillside under the jungle canopy. The accommodations all include a kitchen so we cooked many of our meals ourselves, enjoying the experience of shopping in the market or near by “Pali” supermarket. The hotel is beautiful and used ecologically sustainable building techniques.
The Jean Bruger Foundation associated with the hotel assists the area youths by funding education and also supports Stones & Waves Veterinary Clinic and Wildlife Center which provides a wide range of animal rescue, animal healthcare, rehabilitation, and wildlife services and experiences. My daughter spent hours at the Wildlife center, “the zoo,” getting to know all the animals, petting the many kittens, and making friends with Bonsai the monkey. This is one resort well worth the splurge, especially if you prize sustainability.
Our last night in our home stay as I lay in bed waiting for sleep and reviewing our days in San Juan Del Sur I felt a physical blush, a heat that started in my head and pulsed down the length of my body—much as the waves that were breaking in the Bay just blocks away. I was flooded with gratitude. I wasn’t feeling thankful because I realized how fortunate I was compared to Nicaraguans; on the contrary, it was gratitude that I had been allowed to be here, to be a part of this community even if for just a short time. I spontaneously put my hands to together as if to pray, looked heaven wards and whispered, “thanks.” This has never happened on our traditional vacations, and I have had some great trips in the past. This feeling was much more: it was gratitude that I had gotten the chance to connect with and understand something foreign, and for me that is the reason to travel.