Mr. Shaw, Ms. Young and 15 students traveled to rural Nicaragua over Spring Break to “Stay, Play and Change the World!” Getting to Jiquilillo was an adventure in itself but when we first laid eyes on Monty’s Beach Lodge we knew it was totally worth the travel! Greeted by the sound of waves and Spanish-speaking parrots, we entered our tropical home for the next 10 days that would prove to be an amazing blend of nature, community involvement, warm people, and unique experiences.
After settling into our cabanas and filling up on our first of many rice meals, we headed down to the estuary to clean up the beach and then go for an ocean swim. We were excited to learn that Monty’s has a turtle hatchery on-site and we all helped carry newly hatched turtles to the ocean to help improve their survival rates. (It is estimated that only 1 in 1000 baby turtles will make it to adulthood.) Hatcheries are necessary because predators, egg poaching, fishing nets that entrap adult turtles and a severe pollution problem in the country are decimating turtle populations.
The first weekend, our host Monty took us to a village baseball field beside a small school made entirely out of 4-litre plastic bottles! The local baseball team challenged us to a game, and after being totally destroyed by young players who were not even breaking a sweat, we handed out hot dogs and drinks. One of my favourite memories from the trip was a little boy who was so happy when I gave him two big bottles of juice that he ran off in excitement with both bottles nearly weighing his pants down to the ground!
The next day we traveled to a soup kitchen for families living near the Chinandega dump where we helped prepare huge bowls of soup for hundreds of children. We took turns chopping vegetables and playing with the excited children who loved getting piggyback rides. I was amazed at how happy and fearless they were. If one of them fell on the hard floor they would just bounce back up with a massive smile on their face.
It was quite humbling to see their living conditions. The dump was filled with rags, garbage and broken items from which families would scavenge for their everyday use, such as clothes and tools. Beside the dump were two towering mango trees and we enjoyed watching local kids shoot down fresh fruit with their sling shots! Afterward, we toured a nearby school where some of the poorest children get their education. The school has classrooms for drama, music, a theatre, a classroom for the blind, and a museum where one of the students gave us a tour and taught us some history about Nicaragua.
The following week we started work on our main service project, which was to help build a house for a local mother and her three children. Armed with pickaxes, shovels and Mr. Shaw’s music, we worked long hours in the burning sun alongside the family and other locals to remove clay for the house’s base. As the week progressed, our blisters multiplied but we successfully removed all the clay and eventually filled the base with heavy rocks. Even though it was insanely hot and we knew that we would not be there to see the finished product, it was a great feeling to know that the family would soon have a house to live in.
One afternoon, we went to a community centre to help teach English and read stories to local children. The children were always so upbeat and they eagerly asked us how to pronounce words or to act them out. Another morning, Monty took us on a boat tour of the estuary to show us the endangered mangrove ecosystem and point out rare birds. We learned how mangrove trees are being illegally cut down to build hatcheries and for cooking fires because their wood burns very slowly. We even had time for a swim in the warm waters – that is until Monty informed us alligators frequent the area.
During the hot afternoons or after a hard shift at the construction site, we would come back to the Beach Lodge to surf, swim, play cards on the shaded hammocks, or sip tropical fruit smoothies sold by local vendors. At nights, we learned salsa dancing, watched a talent show by local children, and often played a game of beach soccer against the local boys who quickly became our friends.
On one of our last mornings, we climbed up an active volcano, Cerro Negro, and surfed back down on a wooden sled. True to his newly shaved lightning bolt hairdo, Mr. Shaw flew down the hillside in record time while the rest of us fought the friction of the black rocks and were considerably slower. That afternoon we also travelled to nearby Leon, the second largest city in Nicaragua, where we explored the impressive architecture and bought some souvenirs.
Overall, this trip was not only an incredible opportunity to visit and learn about a part of the world many of us have never seen, but it also allowed us to work on meaningful projects alongside our school peers and the Nicaraguan people who are always so happy and friendly.