At long last, we boarded our flight to Miami, managed to cram our too-large packs in the overhead bins, and lift off the tarmac at 1:30 a.m. The red eye was not the most glamorous start as the noisy windows mixed with knee-crushing seats made it a tad difficult to sleep (Marissa successfully slumbered, somehow ending up in the fetal position). Of course, it was only after most of us had followed her example and managed to doze off that the lights were suddenly flicked on and the loudspeaker rang out “Are there any medical personnel onboard?” An individual in first class was having medical mystery issues and we were going to have to put down for an emergency landing in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The paramedics assisted the individual in crisis off the plane.
Much to our relief, we landed in Miami with time to unwind and grab some much needed cafe con leche. New friends were made all around; the international terminal proves to be a much friendlier place than your typical airline waiting area. After about an hour of layover, we hopped on our final flight to Managua. Sleep deprived and caffeine induced, the second flight proved to be much more enjoyable.
Upon arrival, it was clear that we were not in Kansas anymore. Instead of dry and cold, the air was warm and wet with a breeze that was instantly soothing. Our trip leader, David, and our in-country contact, Francisco, along with Driver Freddie met us outside. Soon we were loaded into the taxi van and started our trek north to the city of Jinotega.
It is surprisingly hard to describe the landscape, nothing what we expected, yet beautiful none the less. There are large mountains painting the horizon and their complimentary valleys lined with colorful, flowering tropical brush. Lining the road are lush farms, coffee and vegetables, dusty fields with donkeys and colorful ramshackle houses, always surrounded by and handful of stray dogs. It seems like a truly undiscovered place.
Halfway to Jinotega we stopped for our first meal of the trip. You could tell when the food arrived as the minute the complimentary salads were served the table of 13 went silent. Jet lagged and hungry, we devoured our arroz con pollo, tostanos (fried savory plantains) and papas and left the restaurant completely satisfied.
The city of Jinotega itself was filled with character and color, much more so than what we got to see of Managua. We stopped and checked in at our guesthouse and were shown to our quaint rooms with an ideal outdoor patio only a step outside the room doors. Gabby, the guesthouse owner’s niece, a lovely and friendly young woman, made sure we were all set up in our rooms and walked us to dinner. It turns out that Gabby is studying industrial engineering in Managua and was excited to show us her town. Perhaps the best part of the night was the surprise firecrackers after dinner! Gabby explained that in Nicaragua they celebrate the Virgin Mary with lit up nativity scenes, songs and candy, and street firecrackers! Sitting on our patio we had the perfect view, the fireworks were exploding right over our heads. It has been an exhausting yet unbelievably awesome introduction to Nicaragua… let the adventure begin!
The Next Day –
The first full day in Nicaragua couldn’t have started off more picturesque. The team awoke just in time to see the beautiful Caribbean sun rise over the misty hills from the balcony right outside the rooms. Just like a light switch, as soon as the sun broke the horizon, the hustle and bustle began. Everyone was up, bright-eyed and excited for the day’s work.
We began with a typical Nicaraguan breakfast – rice and beans, tortillas, huevos revueltos, and an interesting salty cheese-like substance called queso seco. Some of these items were familiar, others not so much, but regardless the whole meal was delicious and filling.
Immediately afterwards, we hopped back on the bus and drove to the headquarters of local Invictus Initiative partner La Cuculmeca, a Nicaraguan non-profit that truly grasps the concept of sustainable development. After spending much time assessing a wide variety of connections with leadership in various communities throughout northern Nicaragua, the Invictus has been working with La Cuculmeca to develop relationships in the village of Yagualica, which is a 30-minute drive from our guesthouse in Jinotega. Our introduction to this organization consisted of a tour of the modernized facility. One thing that is evident regarding La Cuculmeca is that they certainly know how to capitalize on every resource – from their headquarters, they not only operated a non-profit community development program, but also a school for agriculture, a school for learning how to teach agriculture, a hotel, a ballroom, and an outdoor community brick oven.
Then it was down to business. The Invictus and La Cuculmeca teams gathered in one of the ballrooms to discussed the ideas that the community of Yagualica had proposed as most important. After a lengthy discussion with the project leaders of the community, we learned that in addition to their school being in much need of material supplies and repair, there was a problem getting enough clean, safe, and drinkable water for the community. We chatted back-and-forth about possible solutions to these issues, but ultimately the team just needed to see the community in action to identify all the issues and work together to brainstorm solutions. So we loaded up into two pick-ups, all 13 of us plus the three or four La Cuculmeca representatives, and departed on the 30-minute journey over a dirt road and through several brooks.
The ride into Yagualica was both exhilarating and slightly terrifying. The curvy dirt road was not well paved, but rather a rollercoaster of deep ruts, steep inclines, and sharp turns around cliffs with no guardrails. Our driver was obviously an expert though because we were able to navigate the treacherous terrain as easy as if we were on a residential U.S. side street.
Arriving at the school slightly after midday, we had formal introductions with the community leadership and immediately launched into another lengthy discussion. From the look and sound of things, the school was not the main issue at all; rather it seems we may need to focus on securing a consistent water supply for the residents.
The people of Yagualica are some of the nicest, most welcoming folk we’ve met – everyone was standing outside and waving as we passed by. Yagualica’s youth stole our hearts immediately and most of the team members couldn’t wait to learn more about these unconquerably cheerful kindred spirits. The community members proceeded to give us a short tour of their village, taking pride in their ingenious “leaf-to-bucket” method of tapping into the cleaner groundwater, although it was apparent to both parties that a more effective solution was needed.
The result of our experience inside the community helped the team understand several fascinating components to life in Yagualica. Walking beside our new friends and taking the time to actually listen to the things they care about, and learning about the type of life they want to see for their families and friends was extremely valuable. For instance, the village currently has a few hundred people living without access to a reliable water source. With nothing more than several makeshift wells that are barely sufficient to maintain life, Yagualica has been waiting for over 15 years for government intervention. Only recently has a road been built to the village.
Another negative impact of the limited access to water is the small variety of agricultural options available within the village. The frustration of the community leaders was apparent, and so is the need for guidance and direction. The Invictus Initiative will continue to build the relationships we are making within Yagualica. Developing a true partnership rooted in mutual understanding of expectations and trust takes some time, but it is time well worth taking. We all understand the importance of the community standing on their own two feet while they take the initiative to install a reliable source of water. With our partnership now in place and relationship expanding, we will use the Invictus model to understand the skills and resources available within the community, as well as those that must be sourced from the outside, to empower the community with what they need to be successful. Before this community can run, it must walk. We are in the infant stages of this project, but it is obvious the community members, La Cuculmeca, and The Invictus Initiative are excited and willing to take the walk together.
Once making final arrangements to return to Yagualica in two days time to work together at identifying more details for a water project, the team began their trip back to Jinotega. Having only an hour or so to explore the town of Jinotega, the team quickly returned to the guesthouse to get ready for a fiesta at La Cuculmeca.
La musica! Baila, baila! Nicaraguans certainly know how to celebrate. As the team arrived we immediately found ourselves in the middle of a typical dance circle. The entire experience was an absolute blast! To show our thankfulness and appreciation for the successful meetings and connection of the day, the team ended up bringing a massive, ten-pound cake to the party to share with everyone. After all the dancing and fraternizing, everyone worked up a significant appetite and said their goodbyes. Making our way to a local restaurant, we had a superb dinner to top off the night. With everyone in food coma status, it was late and time to return to the guesthouse and get ready to call it a night.