“The greatest risk in action is the risk of revelation, and that is also action’s greatest joy. No one can know us fully, not even ourselves, but when we act, something of our inner mystery often emerges, and it can shock or delight us when it does.” –Parker Palmer
I knew it would be a challenging experience, but I could never have imagined the extent to which it would push all of my boundaries, and how it would ultimately expand my mind and soul.
From March 9-18, 25 people—from various parts of Ontario, Canada—travelled to Nicaragua to work in Granada, one of the poorest neighbourhoods of the capital city of Managua. Ten adults and 15 teens coming together for a common purpose.
The trip was led by Companeros.ca, a social enterprise that improves the lives of the people there. In 10 years, more than 1,000 participants from Canada, the US, and beyond have made this trip to Nicaragua, still one of the poorest countries in the western hemisphere with most people living on less than $2 per day.
In the six months leading up to the trip, our group talked about what to expect. But nothing could have prepared us for the complete assault on our senses that would occur, challenging our reality and everything we were accustomed to. Young kids sleeping on the street. People living on garbage dumps. Barbed wire everywhere. The heat. The smells. Most people live on next to nothing, on dirt floors and in tin shacks. Natural disasters, corrupt governments, and wars have torn this country apart over the last 40 years.
We were divided up into groups of three or four and hosted by various Nicaraguan families, interacting with our hosts mainly over meals. Despite the language barrier, we managed to communicate, with lots of effort on both sides. We were divided into smaller groups and assigned specific jobs in Granada, based on our experience and how we could best contribute. Some were put on house-building teams. Some taught English. Some painted huge, colorful murals. Others went to work building a security wall around the school—digging trenches, mixing cement, laying stones, and building reinforcement bars.
After short stints chipping stone, moving rocks and debris, and building re-bar, I finally found my niche—building book shelves and room dividers with Jack, a retired minister and experienced carpenter. We all worked alongside local Nicaraguans. They—and we—were somewhat guarded, skeptical, and distant at first. It is human nature to distrust and fear what you don’t know. But within a day, once we got to know each other, the language and cultural barriers just melted away. It didn’t take long before we were laughing and joking together, and making real progress on all fronts.
Perhaps the most powerful moment of the entire trip for me was when we first arrived at the school on the first work day. All the school kids, families, workers, and teachers were gathered to greet us. As I sat with these people—the bright-eyed school kids smiling up at me, fascinated, watching my every move, trying to connect—it really hit home why I was there. I felt love and goodness in an almost dizzying way, unlike anything I have ever known.
The schedule was intense and relentless—between the job site, group outings, discussion, preparation—we were on the go for 15 hours a day. I would discover that the total cultural immersion and letting go of “my” ways of doing things would lead to incredible growth.
On the fourth work day I decided to stay late to prep for the next day, when the local workers began to congregate around me for some reason. Against my usual nature, I forced myself to stop planning, and simply be in the moment with the others, and just hang out with them. Turned out to be one of the most communal and connected moments of the trip as we let off steam, laughing and joking with one another as if we’d been friends for years. It’s amazing what happens when you are present and paying attention.
Although both cultures seem so different at first, once you scratch the surface I discovered that there is a commonality that binds us together. We all respond to love, kindness, enthusiasm, and smiles. The more you put yourself out there, the more you get back. If nations and governments were to put the same kind of effort into listening and understanding each other, perhaps the world would be a different place.
At the end of the final work day, we toured all the projects to see the progress that had been made. Three houses had been built and about 400 feet of the security wall erected. Two beautiful murals had been created. Six shelving units and four room dividers were completed. But most importantly, a whole lot of love and respect had grown between two very different cultures in a very short time.
When it was finally time to say goodbye, it was an incredibly heart-wrenching experience and it hit me much harder than I expected. In a few short days we had become so close with these people. Lots of tears all around.
On the final night with our host family, they threw a goodbye party for us. A simple and modest affair by our standards, but they all make such an effort and are so proud. It is not what they have, or how much they have, but rather the people and relationships they value the most. Unlike North Americans, this culture values living in and for the moment. They have so little, and have been through such hardship, yet they seem happy and hopeful.
After the group left, I ended up staying another week to see more of the country. But how empty, self-indulgent, and meaningless it all seemed, sitting on the beach or walking up a volcano, compared to the intense and rewarding time I had with my co-workers at the work site. Paradise, no matter how beautiful, is not a place, and can only be found in your heart, through meaningful interaction.
A few other things struck me during this trip.
In North America, time seems to move very quickly, days and weeks merging into the next as we go about our routines. But 10 days in Nicaragua felt like two months. The continuous assault on my senses, with nothing routine or predictable, seemed to slow everything right down. I felt like I was squeezing every last drop of life out of every day.
We spent a lot of time driving through the streets of Managua, to and from the worksite and other locations. If you think driving in North America is bad, a few hours on these roads makes our drivers look like angels! Yet not once did I see or hear anyone honking in anger, or giving someone the finger! There was patience, understanding, and peace amidst the chaos.
I travelled thousands of kilometres to help a small community in need. But there are so many people in need everywhere, it’s almost paralyzing as I think about where to start. It also makes me wonder if I am doing enough for those who need help closer to home. The simple lesson for me is to become involved in some way, any way. Separation breeds indifference, unity produces compassion. And when I serve others, I do not hurt them.
I know these experiences will fade, but I also know that I have become more conscious—I cannot simply slip back to life the way I knew it.
While I was in Nicaragua, I felt hyper aware and in the moment. I have never felt so incredibly alive. I know I brought the best version of myself on that trip, as well as openness, enthusiasm, and a willingness to stretch way beyond my usual comfort zone.
And above all, I will remember the incredible power of people coming together for the common purpose of doing something positive.