How Not to Miss Nicaragua: A Short Guide

isabelby Isabel, Tufts 1+4 Participant

Don’t be surprised by all of the different smells. The pine and grass and carpet instead of dust and mango and the cleaning fluid everyone used.

When you hear the sound of a lawnmower don’t mistake it for the fumigation that happened regularly in León.

Try not to die of hypothermia in the 70 (or 80… or 90) degree weather. And don’t talk about how cold you are. Just be glad you’re not sweating out of your clothes.

When you walk down an empty street don’t remember how in León an empty street meant it was probably raining. Or like 2 in the morning or something. Don’t think about all the street vendors and school children and abuelos you would see on your walk to the bus station. Don’t long for that extra human factor added to the landscape that made it so much more interesting and vibrant.

Don’t speak in Spanish to strangers. Also try and remember that strangers who overhear your conversations in English can now understand you.

When you put your laundry in the washer don’t think about the lavendero where you washed your clothes for nine months. Don’t remember the clothes lines loaded with colorful shirts waving in the breeze, and how you could tell who was doing the washing by the way it sounded.

When your mom wants you to try on some new earrings try not to overreact, refusing because the earrings you have in now are from Nicaragua and you’ll never take them out because that would mean you had moved on. Try on the new earrings. Your gap year experience is more than just a pair of jewelry.

Don’t listen to all the Spanish songs you love and cry because they remind you of how your host family always had music on, of how they used to sing karaoke, of how they would sing and dance.

Don’t think about all the Nicaraguan food you won’t have anymore – the gallo pinto, the nacatamales, the repocheta and cuajada and pithaya and sopa Indio Viejo. Don’t think about Sunday mornings in the kitchen with your family, or squeezing oranges for juice at work. Do remember all those times you longed for American food and appreciate it now that you have it.

Don’t let the deafening silence keep you from falling asleep. And don’t strain your ears for the sounds of reggaeton, the neighbors baby, the dog down the street, or your family doing the washing, all of which were simply a part of your life not too long ago.

But mostly, ignore all the dont’s on this list (except for maybe the Spanish one. That’s kind of important). Do them anyways. Miss Nicaragua. Miss it with all your heart. Talk about it till your friends are tired of hearing about it. Then talk about it some more. Cry. Sob. As much and long as you need. Don’t be afraid of that horrible lonely aching feeling – that just means that what you experienced was real. And don’t, don’t, don’t ever let anyone tell you to get over it. It will get better – maybe not soon but someday. So until then look at all your pictures. Remember and try to write down the best stories. Laugh. Cry. Take some deep breaths. And take it one day at a time. Or one hour. Or ten seconds.

Hygge+Growing Pains= Height

by Madeline, Tufts 1+4 Participantmadeline

This jacket is my bear. My bear was bought for 16 euro on a sunny Sunday morning to the music of the bustling Rastro market. The Rastro is a flea market where everything from hammers to artisan pottery to bear jackets are sold. Every Sunday in Madrid, the streets of Tirso de Molina and La Latina are filled with Europe’s finest strolling up and down the crowded calles. You can find anything your heart desires for a relatively reasonable price. But back to my bear.

Madrid’s city symbol is a bear leaning up against a tree because Madrid used to have tons of bears roaming around its fields and forests. Other than the enormous statue in the center of the city that everyone uses as a meeting spot before going out, you’d never really know to care. For me, after I brought my new jacket home to Calle Los Mesejo, my roommates immediately began calling it the bear. It definitely had something to do with the fact that it is absolutely giant, fuzzy, and black. For me, it symbolizes my back and forth love affair with Madrid. When I am wearing my bear I am the warmest and coziest I can be. There’s a word in Danish, hygge, that goes far beyond our definition of cozy. It’s cozy X10. That’s how bear makes me feel. But, that is not always how Madrid has made feel. There have been many days throughout the year where I have longed for the warmth of my bed in Buffalo- the comfort of my childhood home and family. Madrid was foreign. My friends weren’t here. I only half understood the language. Work in the foster home challenged me every day. I felt far, far away from hygge. But then I would realize, that is the challenge of growing.

Madrid - Puerto del Sol
Madrid – Puerto del Sol

Do you remember laying in bed when you were little suffering from evil growing pains?  The aching and the soreness that seemed like it would never ever end. But then one day, you’d look in the mirror and think… wow, maybe I have gotten a little taller. Or grandma would measure you against the growth chart and there would be a huge gap from your last spurt. Right now, I am looking in the mirror with my life measuring me, and I cannot help but see that I really have grown. It’s all the obvious things… I’m more confident. I can speak with much more fluency in Spanish. I feel needed and useful at work. I can travel Europe with ease. I maneuver my way around an enormous city all alone. I went from high school SAT prep to Europe adapted, adult social work in real time.  At the beginning, they asked us how we wanted to change and grow from this year. My BS answer was always “I want to be fluent in Spanish.” I didn’t know what to say because I just wanted to experience it without a plan. Traveling as much as I did had a huge impact on my growth. Mostly, however, it was the social situations in Madrid and the work with the girls that gave me growing pains and, in turn, the height.

Moving to a new country, making friends and adapting to a completely new work environment were crucial but hard.  For both of these challenges, I was incredibly fortunate to have my bear, but mostly Eva, the seven year old girl in the foster home. Because of scheduling, she is the one I tend to spend the most time with. Before this September, she had never been to school, the doctors,  or the dentist. Her father passed away from an overdose in February 2015, and she was left  an orphan because no one knows where her mother is. She didn’t know how to read. She’d never done a math problem. She was a seven year old four year old. This year, Eva has become my best friend. We have both grown so much this year, and we’ve been able to do it together. We learned to read in Spanish together. When I teach her something, she teaches me something. We love dancing around to flamenco music and drawing princesses. We can talk about almost anything and we love to go on the swings. She has brought out my inner kid every single day while still shocking me with her natural maturity and sassy intellect. She is soo bright, hilarious and innocently pure. She made my transition through my growing pains bearable on the days that I really struggled. And I think I helped make her transition into living in a foster home and education a bit smoother. I am so lucky to have made a best friend as beautifully as I have with Eva.

Leaving Spain in two and a half weeks doesn’t seem real. I am going to miss Eva and all of the girls so so much. I am going to miss being hygge in my apartment with my roommates who are now my family. I am going to miss everything about Madrid and yet am so incredibly thankful for this experience. And even though the growing pains hurt like hell some days, I have a lot of height to show for it. I am so lucky to have spent time in this city, in my bear.

El Fin

by Gongga, Tufts 1+4 Participant

It’s May, the month when I’m supposed to go home, even though it feels like I don’t have a very vivid concept of where home is anymore. I don’t know if I should consider Tibet my home, where all my family’s from, or Chengdu, the place where I spent most of my childhood. Maybe it was New York, where I changed under massive cultural shock, or Somerville, where I  spent three years of high school and am about to spend my college years. In some ways, every single one of those places were home to me, yet none of them really stands out as strongly anymore as Madrid does – the one place where I felt the happiest, the most comfortable and have experienced the most growth.

I don’t want to go back home. I hate saying goodbye, I don’t want to have to change lifestyles all over again. I’ve never been good at saying goodbye, and never have made strong attachments with loved ones, because I’ve always had to move so often in my life. That made me become a little closed off from others so I never would get hurt. But now I want to experience everything as much as I can, to live, not to regret having missed out.

This is why I chose 1+4: to once again change my current concept of life, to not just feel comfortable where I am, but to challenge myself to do something I’d only ever thought about, but never had the courage to do. Madrid is the place where for the first time I felt free, independent and alive. I did so many things that I never felt capable of doing. I experienced such a diversity of culture in my year abroad in Europe that I’d never encountered when I was in the U.S. It is true that the U.S. is the melting pot of cultural diversity, but the difference for me between the U.S. and Europe is that I was “stuck” with a similar group of people in the U.S. who resembled me, like Asian students or even just high school students. This was one of the reasons why I loved to volunteer in high school, so that I could have an opportunity to meet people outside of my comfort zone.

I loved my travels alone in Europe which at the beginning surprised many of my peers. I’m no longer that shy Asian girl who only cares about her grades; I’m no longer that quiet Asian girl who only speaks out loud in class, but not to her peers; I’m no longer that hesitant Asian girl who only had ideas in her mind yet never really tried to make them happen. Traveling in Europe gave me the opportunity to meet so many different kinds of people from a variety of backgrounds and ages. I learned so many things from them that I would never have learned in school. I gained so much more than I could ever have imagined in this gap year. I have a clearer mind set about the future that I want to have. I feel more motivated to work even harder to achieve what I want in life. I realized that life is for living now and not for worrying about things that might happen. I also gained a family, my Los Mesejo family and my 1+4 family. The three Spain Fellows and me are now just like family. I feel comfortable enough with them that I can just run into them casually and give them a big kiss on the cheek when I see them and share with them about my work and my travels. Though I only spent one short week with the other Fellows, even then, we grew so close as a group, and the bond that we had is even stronger now because we all went through this transformative period in our lives together in different countries.

Lastly, I just want to say thank you to all the teachers, the mentors, and counselor in Somerville High School. I don’t think I would be who I am today without their help. Their encouragement, understanding and passion for teaching helped me transition well from New York to Somerville. Two cities that are so different in terms of size and culture. I also want to say thank you to Jessye and Mindy for making this program possible. To thank them for always being there to support us in good and bad times, and for giving me this opportunity to do something that I believe is the best decision that I made so far in my life.

Al final es un nuevo comienzo, the end is a new beginning. My ending in Madrid is my beginning in Boston. I’m glad that I started this journey here, and now, forever in my heart, Madrid will always be waiting for me to come back home.

Semana Santa in Nicaragua

by Isabel, Tufts 1+4 Participant

My Semana Santa was split between some Caribbean islands and León. The one a tranquil blue and green paradise, the other a vibrant colorful city, bursting with culture and traditions.

I spent five days in the Corn Islands with five other volunteers, from Saturday to Wednesday, although the first and last days were taken up with travel, which looked something like this: Taxi to the bus station in León (20 cordobas) bus to Managua (54 cordobas, make sure you tell the driver to let you off at UCA, because that’s not the last stop), taxi to the airport (shouldn’t be more than 100 cords), flight to Big Corn Island ($197 round trip), taxi to the docks (20 cords), panga to little corn ($6), and finally a short walk to the hostel. We stayed at The Green House, a nice little hostel close to everything. When we had revived somewhat we went out to dinner and thus began our Caribbean adventure. The next few days were a whirlwind of relaxation. A contradiction in terms, but an accurate description. We hiked around the tiny island, swam in the clear blue tropical water, went snorkeling, and drank and ate everything coconut. We also got very thoroughly sunburnt, despite applying what felt like gallons of sunscreen, but it was worth it.

I also got to experience a little bit of the backpacker life – cooking my own food, completely creating my own schedule – and it was nice. But definitely takes some getting used to. Something else that took getting used to was the English/Spanish dilemma. Most islanders are bilingual, and some actually prefer English, it being their first language. If I was spoken to I would respond in the same language, but when initiating a conversation I never knew which language to choose. Often I would try Spanish, only to get a response in English. But between the two we all managed to cobble together an understanding. The whole trip was an amazing experience, filled with friends and laughter, and, like all good vacations, it felt far too short.

If you go:
• Get coconut bread from Esther’s – the sign saying best coconut bread on the island doesn’t lie.
• Electricity only works between 1pm and 6 am, so get internet things done then.
• Make the hike to Yamaya beach – the little slice of paradise connected to the $400 a night hotel. Don’t worry, it’s free.

is1 is3 is4But what I came back to was amazing in its own way. Semana Santa in León is full of processions. Long events where people walk the streets carrying ‘floats’ with depictions of Jesus or the Virgin Mary, and are accompanied by a very somber band. These processions can last for hours, and in my opinion are best witnessed as they pass by rather than as an active participant. The main event, however, are the sawdust carpets – intricate drawings on the streets made entirely of colored sawdust. While you can find the carpets on different streets every day of the week, the biggest turnout is on Friday, and it just so happens to be in my neighborhood! I took a walk around with the Tufts fellows first during the day while the carpets were still being constructed. We got to see the amazing intricate work in action. I was amazed at how detailed some of the carpets were. And so many colors! Later in the evening I went with my family, by which time all the carpets were finished. It felt like a carnival – half of León must have come out to witness the spectacle. I was surrounded by people talking and laughing, the smell of cotton candy or soda, and the brilliant sawdust carpets drawing everyone’s eyes. We all ooh-ed and aah-ed appropriately, the works of art made all the more impressive by the fact that they were made in a day to be destroyed by the procession that night.

is5 is6 is7 is8 is9 is10 is11My two halves of Semana Santa were probably as unalike as two experiences in the same small country could be. One was filled with foreigners, the other with my Nicaraguan family. One with the sea the other with sawdust. One with an island, the other with a city. And one with blue, green, and white, and the other with plentiful reds, yellows, oranges, and purples. Yet both came overflowing with friends and laughter. And really, what more could I ask for?

Where the Heart Is

elaineby Elaine, Tufts 1+4 Participant

The wind was, as it is in the summer, hot, dry and dusty, whipping through the cab as we wove through Managua’s constant traffic. I was late to pick up my parents, hence the taxi driver’s urgency as we chatted. The conversation turned to, as it has with many Nicaraguans, different cultural attitudes about family.

It’s common here for children to live with their families through adulthood-three generations in one house, supporting each other. Ricardo for instance, lives with his mother.  “If I wasn’t there to look after her, she wouldn’t have anybody.  Does your family live together?”

My closest extended family, grandparents, live a good two hours away in New Jersey, and the rest are scattered.  “No. Most move away for work and school.”

He tells me he’s got a sister in Atlanta.  “En los Estados Unidos, la vida es dura.  Trabajo y familia después. No una casa completa” He looks at me in the mirror and I hum my assent.

It’s interesting, I think.  That to him, life in the United States, often written in the narrative as a land of opportunity, is harder, with it’s overarching emphasis on work and success over family.  That we don’t grow up in a true home, with family scattered far and wide. They say home is where the heart is, and in that sense, technically my heart was scattered across the states of the Eastern Seaboard.

But here I do have a home. Ricardo, with his kindness and hilarious one-liners.  Juan, who works crazy hours as a pediatrician and still comes home with a big smile and hug for Carlos.  Giraldine who runs a department at the university, studies into the wee hours of the night and is an amazing mom.  Carlos, the feisty but adorable two-year old who enjoys my piggy back rides and fluorescent-colored water bottle.  Andrea, my little sister.  She’s eleven, sassy, smart, thinks Superman is cute (which I will never stop teasing her about) and plays a wicked game of air hockey.

And my host mom. Mi mama who has the biggest heart of anyone I’ve ever known. You can’t help but fall in love with her hilarity, her kindness, her strength.  She rescues stray animals, and opens her home to host people from around the globe. She has dozens of children around the world, and I am so glad to be one of them.

Moments with them are the real heart of my time here. Of watching movies, and going out for pizza with my sister. Of playing peek-a-boo with Carlos, and sharing my day with Giraldine.  Of evenings at the dinner table with my host mom, talking about movies, politics, philosophy or just laughing at each others stories. When Andrea told me she would miss me, when my mom calls me hija.

And I understand now, what the cab driver meant. Most might think a Nicaraguan life would be considered harder.  But these past eight months have been characterized by an aching amount of heart, an overflowing richness of soul in one small, bright orange house.

If home is where the heart is, then I think I’m finally home.

Convergence and Divergence

By Gongga, Tufts 1+4 Participant

Passion, the official definition from Webster’s Dictionary, is “a strong feeling of enthusiasm or excitement for something or about doing something.” This is certainly something that everyone has had. I, however, have had a hard time finding my own special passion because I didn’t know what it was that I really wanted to do in life that was truly enjoyable and worthwhile.

For the past 18 years of my life, like many of our other fellows, I fought for something that I thought I wanted, yet later on felt confused. I wanted to prove something to other people in my life, yet I also struggled because I wasn’t happy with myself. It was as though I knew exactly how my life should go one week, and then every other week was just a cycle that repeated itself. I didn’t know what I was looking forward to in life and it was scary. This is why I wanted to come to Madrid for a gap year instead of going to college directly, so I wouldn’t be so lost.

It’s been almost seven months that I have been in Madrid, Europe “alone.” Well, not exactly alone; I’m here with the support of my Los Mesejo family and Tufts 1+4 big family from all over the world. How much seven months can change a person is really hard to tell day to day, but even just by looking at myself in the mirror, I’ve noticed a bigger, and stronger, Gongga.

gonggaMy physical changes are also comparable to my internal changes. It was only seven months ago that I was still on the field at Tufts, talking with my fellows about our fears and aspirations for this upcoming adventure . Like some other fellows, I was scared that I wouldn’t change or wouldn’t realize that I changed until many years later. Now, looking back, I laugh at how naive I was at the time. I have changed more than I could ever have imagined before. I would never have dreamed about traveling everywhere in Europe by myself, randomly making friends all over the world and challenging myself both physically and mentally. With each of my travels and the little mistakes that I made, there were experiences that I gained. I faced my fears through walking alone in the dark streets of a foreign city to speaking broken Spanish to ask for help when I was lost.

Nine months ago, if you walked into Brazilian Cafeteria in Somerville High School, I was probably the weird one you would have spotted who didn’t blend in well with any of the other students in the cafeteria, but who also would have fit really well with a stereotype of a typical Asian student. When all the other students were enjoying their short thirty minute break from tedious school work and constantly gossiping about their exciting high school life, I was there obsessed with my school work and preparing for the next test.

Honestly, if I hadn’t applied to 1+4, probably that version of Gongga would have just moved from the Brazilian Cafeteria to another cafeteria in Tufts University with exactly the same persona. If you ask me what I learned from these six months living in Spain, I’d answer now that there is so much more to life than just school. Even though education is critical and it is a rock foundation for the future and job opportunities.

I have to be honest with myself, in that when I first came to Madrid, unlike everyone else, I had no idea about what I was going to do or if I would really like to work with young children because I had never done that before. But, reflecting on these six months over and over, it seems as if my mood was on a constant roller coaster, with all of the unexpected twists and turns in the lives of the foster children. I now have such a strong bond with all those children that the experience made me realize that it’s not whether I love or hate what I’m doing in the moment, it’s more the necessity of just doing it and then discovering the joy that comes as a result of that effort. In the beginning, I felt I was not being accepted at the foster home where I was working, because I constantly felt like an outsider. Now, I feel like part of the family. The children are so comfortable with me and they constantly come running toward me and hug me, telling me how much they love me. They tell me secrets that they don’t want to share with others, or play silly games with me like re-arranging my hair. Still, I learned more from these children than they probably learned from me. I learned the value of family when I saw what strong bonds these children hold with each other despite being separated from their real parents years ago. I learned forgiveness by talking to some of the children, who held no vengeance despite how much pain their parents had caused them. I learned the genuine humanity of caring for each other even if society is unfair to you.

Despite the fact that we fellows in Spain don’t have a host family like the fellows in Brazil and Nicaragua, compared to them, who experience the real culture of the local people up close, we don’t miss out at all on the real culture of Spain,and through our travels in Europe, we had the opportunity to experience different cultures as well. We also experienced the freedom of being a youth in Europe, in a melting pot of diverse cultures.
Our relationships with the children and educators in the foster home is also similar to their integration into their host families. In the beginning, due to language barriers and cultural differences, many of us had a hard time feeling accepted, or blending in. Later, as time progressed, we created strong bounds that we are forced to break when we return to the States.

We, the fifteen fellows, are so different now even with the similarities that bound us together in this gap year program. I love learning about everyone’s daily lives through reading their blog posts. I learned so many great facts from reading Isabel and Daniel’s funny and educational blog posts about Nicaragua and Brazil. Sometimes, I also find it shockingly surprising how many similar emotions I share with some fellows. It feels great to find out that I’m not the only on who feels like I do.

I don’t know what kind of effect the next two months will have on me and I’m actually quite excited to find out. I hope I can find the state of mind that I wanted to accomplish. This gap year made me realize that there is so much more to life. It made me feel brave and adventurous and what’s more, it gave me a purpose and made me see myself more clearly. An old Chinese saying is “when the boat arrives at the turn of the river, it will know where it’s going.” This reminds me of my routine run in Retiro Park in Madrid. I have no idea where I want to go every time I start my run, then I will run up to a turn and see two or more ways to go, which seem just like the choices that we face sooner or later in our lives. But instead of being practical, I don’t choose the path to run that’s a shorter distance, or that has better views, but I choose the one that feels good in the moment. I like the unknown factors in life, yet I’m scared to face them sometimes. I don’t want go back to Boston, yet I do want to go back, at the same time. I want to show everyone that I used to know that I’ve changed. Or maybe I haven’t changed much, maybe I’m finally finding the real me.