Piano Man

by Eugene, Tufts 1+4 Participant

On the Global Citizen Year packing list under “other recommended items” is “small musical instrument (if you play one, can carry it, and can tolerate possible damage — music is a great way to connect cross-culturally!)”.  I realized that a grand piano was out of the question.

What about the Henninger-Voss family upright? 0/3 was not a passing grade, so that didn’t fly.   The old keyboard that no one really touched since we got the upright 14 years ago? It passed all of Global Citizen Year’s requirements, but unfortunately it didn’t fit in a suitcase and I didn’t have room for such an enormous extra carry on.   But man, I couldn’t bare the thought of not playing for a year.

After much deliberation, a few visits to local music stores, a little premature heartbreak, I remembered a midi-keyboard that hadn’t seen sunlight since we moved 7 years ago.  Again, it seemed too big, but the genius I call my mother found that if you took our largest suitcase, stood the keyboard on its side, stretched the suitcase as far as it could go, pulled back the cloth a bit, then stretched it a bit more, you could wedge the keyboard in diagonally from corner to corner as securely as a brace.  Bingo.

Now for those of you who are unsure of what a midi-keyboard is, it is a keyboard with no speakers that is incapable of producing sound, only a certain type of electronic signal that when interpreted through a software like “garage band” can be made into noise.

Maybe not an elegant solution, but I could play a piano wherever I went.

And I’ve played a piano everywhere I’ve gone.

It wasn’t just that keyboard that I’ve played, but pianos everywhere.  Being a pianist is great, because whenever someone else has a piano a) you find out pretty quickly and b) in my experience they always let you use it.  Pianos are also almost the lingua franca of music: almost every musician, and many other people too, can play at least a little piano. So they show up all over the place.   When they do show up it is magic.  The piano allows me, far from home in unfamiliar places with unfamiliar faces and incomprehensible languages, to connect both with myself and those around me.

Whatever I am feeling when I sit down at the piano, once I start playing, everything becomes tranquil. It’s hard to explain what it feels like to play.  Maybe “get in the zone.”  I loose myself in the music and that grounds me.  Wherever I go, playing the piano is the same.  I just need to sit down and tinkle those ivories and I am home, I am where I belong.  I always get up feeling more relaxed and confident than when I sat down.  Wherever I can find a piano, I know I can find myself.

It may be trite, cliché, and overused (and as someone who has spent a lot of time with high-school music programs, I can tell you it is definitely overused), but music is an international language.  It doesn’t matter who I’m with, if I can communicate “Eu toco piano” and they let me play, then I can share with them a part of myself, I can give them something.  Almost literally, where words fail (such as, per say, when English words cease to convey meaning when directed at a Portuguese speaker), music speaks.  When I first got to Brazil, all I could do was introduce myself and listen, but if I played the piano then suddenly I could speak for 20, 30, 50 minutes and everybody would listen.

More than being able to play music, being a musician has helped break down the barriers between myself and the people I meet.  Solely because I am a musician I have made friends, had long conversations, and gotten numbers from other musicians.  From pre-departure training, where during introductions I mentioned I played piano and a minute later a kid I had never met before said that he played the saxophone and that I was in his band, to just yesterday when I talked to my capoeira teacher after class, and on finding out that I too was a musician he handed me one of his band’s CDs, simply being a musician has handed me opportunities I would not have had otherwise.

Just look at the keyboard.  Just like my musicianship, after a lot of hard work I was able to bring it with me.  Remember that band I was drafted into? If I hadn’t been able to jerry-rig a portal keyboard both my band and another act would have been out of luck when the talent show was held at the ball-field, no where close to the baby-grand we all had practiced on.   At my apprenticeship at O Sitio when my mentor/boss found out I was a musician and had my instrument with me he thought that it would be in everybody’s best interest if I played and gave the house some music for two hours every day.  So now for my job I get to do what I want to do on weekends and weeknights anyways.  That keyboard has allowed me to do things I could not have otherwise.

For me, all of this leads to two main takeaways. First, it further cements in my mind that music is more than just an activity, and is not in the same league as other hobbies but is so much more.  Music has done something for me that I do not think model airplanes, sports, or even debate and theater could.  Nothing else I have ever heard of centers you, opens doors for you, and speaks for you as easily, quickly and accessibly as music.  Secondly, go after what you want to do.  I bent over backwards and bent my suitcase wider to get that keyboard to the other side of the equator, and I have been more rewarded for that bit of preparation than I have been for almost any other single action.  It seems like we should not just be ready to seize opportunity, but actively put ourselves in a position to seize the opportunities we most desire.  I wanted to play the piano, and I put myself in a position to, and as a result I have played, and will play, the piano again and again.  Next time you are packing for a trip, maybe an eight month trip to a different country, I recommend you bring whatever you are passionate about.  It doesn’t matter how small it is if it is big enough to you.

Except maybe a grand piano.


Living on Nica Time


by Mateo, Tufts 1+4 Participant

As of today, I have officially lived in León, Nicaragua for a whopping two weeks! Granted, that’s not all that much time in the scheme of things, but I’m already beginning to notice so much about the culture that exists here. From the food and the language, to basic things such as how people greet each other, it’s truly the myriad of rich cultural differences that add up to make life here so unique. However, with that being said there are also a lot of differences that aren’t necessarily all that great, or rather are just—different. For me, the most difficult transition has been accepting the way that time functions here in Latin America.

As an individual, I am the type of person that has to have every aspect of my day organized. I wear a wristwatch, have two agendas (because let’s face it, one is not enough), and you can bet I have a five-year plan. However, here in Nicaragua, if you ask someone what they’re going to be doing later in the day, chances are they won’t even know the answer to that. Everything here is done in the moment.

At first this was very hard for me, especially when I’d go into stores and expect workers to come rushing to help me as if they’d been anticipating my arrival for several days. However, I was sorely disappointed and found out that things here run more on an “eventually” schedule. This attitude spills over into all aspects of life, and coming from the land of ‘everything on-the-go,’ I even had trouble learning how to sit and enjoy my own breakfast.

Interestingly enough, somewhere amidst this paradigm shift, I think I had my first ever existential crisis during my Bridge-Year. I was reading in the living room late at night with my host brother nearby, and stopped for half an hour thinking about what it meant to ‘be’. Before then, it never occurred to me how important it was to be mindful of what I was experiencing right in the moment.

Just before going to bed, I wrote this in my journal:

“I want to BE, to be present, to exist in the here and now. I want to take in each and every breath as it is, and to feel the swelling in my lungs as my chest expands and fills with life!”

If being in Nicaragua has taught me anything thus far, it’s that life is happening right now. It isn’t just some aspiration or goal that you hope to achieve far off into the future. When I leave this place I hope I can remember how to exist in the present, but as for now I’m not too worried, because in this moment I am here.

León Scavenger Hunt

by Sawyer, Tufts 1+4 Participant

Today we were given some time to explore what León has to offer on a poppin’ Saturday afternoon. The objective was to get to know the city through a series of monumentally derived activities. Take a walk in my shoes, get lost with me, and witness the wonders of a vibrant city. León, Nicaragua, I am starting to fall in love with you.

Rubén Darío Statue
Rubén Darío Statue

As the leader of the Modernismo literacy movement, Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío made a generational influence on Spanish literature. Mr. Darío even has his own street, coined Calle Rubén Darío, littered with many dedications throughout. Below is a plaque in the Rubén Darío Museum, commemorating him by his original nickname “Poeta Niño,” or Boy Poet in English.



If you happen to ever get lost in León, look around until you find the nearest church. Trust me, they’re everywhere! I don’t mean lost as in finding Jesus, however, in such a Catholic based community that may be an option, but rather utilizing these feats of architecture to navigate around the city. Take a look at a few of these beauties below.

San Francisco Church
The Recollection Church
Marching band at The Cathedral


In León, it’s too hot to spend your time walking around a museum. That’s probably why they have so many historical monuments outside. No matter where you are, there’s history waiting to be heard. These dedications add to the ambiance of the local squares. Below are some examples.

sawyer6 sawyer7One word: Raspado. I learned from a local tonight that there are two seasons in León, the summer and the harsh summer. I am currently living in the summer and it’s already unbearable. Can it really get worse than this? Luckily I learned about Raspado, which is basically shaved ice. You can get it from a local vender in Central Park, which is right outside of the Cathedral. There are also different flavors you can choose from, I got dulce de leche, or caramel. This is the best snack to cool you down internally, I think it will become my best friend over these next 9 months.



Looking for artistic inspiration? That muse will not fall short in León. Adding to the atmosphere of the city, there are random murals to gaze at. Part of the scavenger hunt was to pose in front of them. Check ’em out.

sawyer9 sawyer10 sawyer11All in all, my experience scoping out León was very successful. The people here are so welcoming, though I think they overcharge me at the market, most likely because I’m chele. As I continuously get more eager to move into my host family, I have to complete my training with Amigos de las Americas over the next few days. I hope to check back in as soon as possible. Adio. (Nicaraguans don’t usually pronounce the s)