When I stepped into O’Hare International airport after spending nearly two months in rural Nicaragua, I had one of the most unexpected and unnerving realizations of my life. I was back to air conditioning, internet, hot showers, and all the other conveniences I had taken for granted seven weeks earlier. There would be no chickens clucking outside my window at four in the morning or spiders as big as my hands in the corners of my room. There would be no daily afternoon thunderstorm, no dirt roads, and no rice or beans for breakfast. There would be nothing of what I had come to know as home. I thought I was going to cry.
When I was training to spend my summer with AMIGOS de Las Americas, a non-profit, non-religious, and non-governmental volunteer program, I thought I had the whole experience figured out. I was going to spend seven weeks in Boaco, Nicaragua, one of the thirteen locations where AMIGOS works in Latin America, volunteering to promote community development, youth leadership, and cultural exchange. I would stay with a host family in a rural community with one or two partners. I would probably get sick a little, learn lots of Spanish, and get a horrible farmer’s tan. People said it would be a life changing experience. I would laugh and agree enthusiastically, but in retrospect I had no idea what that meant.
My first few days in Nicaragua were spent in Boaco, the biggest city in the project region, learning about health and safety protocol and the goals of the project, as well as getting partner and community assignments. The air buzzed with excitement and anticipation from the 64 other volunteers also eager to find out what the next seven weeks had in store. I met my two partners, who I loved from the beginning, and was assigned to a community that sounded spectacular. It looked like my summer was going to be a breeze.
The reality of the situation did not sink in until the first night in the community. One of my partners and I were sharing a bed in an area sectioned off from the rest of the house by a tarp and some wooden rods. The space was barely big enough for the bed and our bags, yet we took up nearly a quarter of the area previously inhabited by six people. To get to our family’s latrine, we had to climb up a hill, over two fences and a fallen tree. There did not seem to be a place to bathe, and we were covered in the mud we had trudged through to get across the river and field to our house. It was pouring outside and our mosquito net was surrounded by bugs the likes of which I had only ever seen in glass cases at the nature museum. I had supposedly been prepared for these conditions in the long hours spent in training, but it was at that moment that I realized that no amount of learning about something could ever be the same as the actual experience.
The next day, our host mother suggested that we move to a house that was more central in the community, and that was not located across a river and muddy field. Our new house was much more spacious and posh, astonishing us with indoor plumbing and an actual tile floor. Despite this newfound luxury, I could not shake off the memory of that first night. As rich, northern guests accustomed to modern conveniences, we had the option of moving to a new house where conditions were comfortable. But what about the community members who had spent their whole lives in conditions like those of our first housing situation? That has always been their way of life, and when we left 7 weeks later to return to the comfort of our American homes, they would stay right where they were, never imagining another lifestyle existed.
When this thought first came to me, I had an overwhelming urge to change things for the members of the community, and all those living in similar conditions. Everyone should be able to enjoy the comforts of an American lifestyle, should they not? Though this thought seemed completely reasonable to me at the time, and no doubt to many others from similar backgrounds, I later realized that view is highly shortsighted and close-minded. It takes into account only the inadequacies of a less modernized lifestyle, ignoring all advantages such a lifestyle brings.
This new realization came to me gradually and went unnoticed until I returned home to Chicago. Without even realizing it, I had become completely converted to the laid back, easy going mindset of rural Latin American life. When my siblings started arguing about whose turn it was in the bathroom and my mother rushed to make the green light, I was baffled. I could not fathom why they would bother worrying about such trivial problems. Our house seemed vast and overpowering for our family of five, and I felt so alone in my room at night without three others to share it with. I missed being constantly surrounded by people to the point where I had no room to be upset or to worry about things. In my Nicaraguan community, if I had a problem, finding a solution was an exciting challenge that was welcomed and soon overcome due to the constant support of my family, friends, and partners. People were never in a hurry and always took the time to stop for a chat and simply to enjoy each other’s company. This made the community much more close knit and content overall than any I have seen in the US.It has not been easy to let go of the life I led in Nicaragua, and in many ways I still cling to it. I have not yet been able to muster a sense of urgency, which no doubt will become problematic once school resumes, and talk on the phone with my Nicaraguan family and friends almost every other day. I spent the majority of the past two days purging my life of four garbage bags and three boxes worth of unnecessary clutter, which is probably more junk than my host family will accumulate in their lifetime. But I have recently come to grips with the fact cringing from all things American and pining for my community in Nicaragua is not doing any good for me or them. Despite all the aspects of their culture that I fell in love with, there are undeniable benefits to the American lifestyle. The best thing I can do for all of us is to take what I have learned from this experience and put it to use. I can get a quality college education, an experience denied to the majority of the Nicaraguan youth I encountered. I can change my lifestyle to be less wasteful, less consumptive, and more conscious of the world around me. But most importantly, I can pass my experience on to others. As I said before, no amount of learning about something could ever be the same as the actual experience, so I can only hope that hearing how this summer enriched my life will motivate others to go out and experience it for themselves.