For any U.S. resident as inexperienced with international travel as myself, the thought of traveling to a foreign country such as Nicaragua evokes a diverse range of emotions: excitement, fear, eagerness, and not a bit of trepidation at the thought of being immersed in such an unfamiliar nation’s language, food, and history. Such was my mindset when I arrived in Miami on September 15th and met my fellow Dragons group members for the first time. As we convened and prepared to board our flight to Managua, I could tell that many of my new travel companions shared my feelings — each introductory conversation was punctuated repeatedly by statements such as “we’re ACTUALLY going to Central America for three months” and “is this really happening?”
This feeling of elated disbelief persisted as we arrived in Managua and made our way north to the community of La Garnacha, a farming association that produces coffee, bananas, and cheese, where we would spend our first week. We milked goats, played soccer with the locals, watched stunning sunsets, and began to work on our Spanish when we had the chance to do so, all the while attempting to internalize the thought we’re in Nicaragua…we’re in Nicaragua…we’re in Nicaragua. We departed La Garnacha for the nearby city of Esteli (which afforded us an exciting opportunity to explore some exotic big-city culture) where we prepared for the three-day, 22-kilometer trek to the farming community of El Largartillo, the location-to-be of our first homestays and intensive Spanish lessons.
Trudging into El Lagartillo (minus Sarah and Lauren, who had become sick and traveled ahead from Esteli by car) on September 25th after three days of muddy, wet trekking, we were closer-knit as a group, eager to meet our homestay families, and overjoyed by the prospect of warm food and an opportunity to do laundry. After reuniting, we were introduced to our homestay mothers and fathers and began to explore the village and converse with the people whose homes we will be sharing for the next two weeks.
The morning after our arrival in El Lagartillo the reality of our presence in Nicaragua hit home for many of us, taking the place of our wide-eyed international travelers’ wonder. Our five new Spanish teachers began our first class with a striking presentation outlining the community’s Contra-war era history, highlighting the death of 6 community members during an attack on the town by over 200 Contra soldiers in December 1984. Almost all residents of El Lagartillo are Sandinistas, like most Nicaraguans, and during the Contra war of the 80s the town was one of many farming communities targeted by Contra soldiers.
One of these community members killed in the attack was the brother of my homestay father. Several others belonged to other families housing Dragons students during our stay in El Lagartillo. Hearing the pain and anger stirred by these deaths and by the conflict that prompted them lent a jarringly human face to a war that, for me, had never amounted to more than Wikipedia entries, old news stories, and U.S. history textbook passages. The conflict, the pain, and the death are suddenly very tangible. I suddenly feel just the slightest bit uncomfortable, knowing that I’m visiting Nicaragua as a citizen of the country that directly supported the Contras themselves and this led to deaths in the families with which we are living.
We returned to our families after the presentation overwhelmed with questions: how do you feel about Ortega? How has access to public services changed over the years? Do you think it’s okay for Ortega to have a shot at a third term? Is it difficult for you to house Americans, knowing their role in the years of conflict here? The answers to these question were consistent (for example, almost all Nicaraguans embrace Ortega as a symbol of stability) but just varied enough to paint a picture of Nicaragua’s history, as well as its present state, as a melting pot of more perspectives, opinions and personal experiences than could possibly be accounted for. There is no central storyline here, but it is through asking questions such as these that I’m hoping to take steps towards wrapping my head around the wealth of narratives at play that have shaped this beautifully complex country in which we are traveling.