By Conor Sanchez
When I first told my host-dad back in our training community where we’d been assigned to serve for two years, his eyes widened as he let out a long whistling noise and dragged his finger across the sky to demonstrate the long journey we’d have to make just to get there.
“Lejos,” he said. “Muy lejos de aqui.” Far. Very far from here. My host-mom asked if we could request to change our assignment.
Nicaragua is about the size of Iowa, so it’s tough to imagine any distance within the country justifying this type of reaction. But it was the same reaction we got over and over again from locals in our training communities about an hour outside of Managua. The irony in all this was that Volunteers placed in the northwest corner of the country, like Madriz, were not getting these reactions even though it actually takes longer to reach their towns from Managua than it does to reach ours.
As Michaela and I enter our fourth month in country, we are quickly realizing there are two very distinct Nicaraguas; Western Nicaragua, where the vast majority of the population has always lived, and Eastern Nicaragua, which includes basically anything east of Lake Nicaragua. The West was colonized by the Spanish and is almost uniformly mestizo, whereas the Caribbean Coast was occupied by the British for part of the 19th century and includes sizable indigenous and Afro-Nicaraguan populations. Nueva Guinea is located just east of the divide so culturally-speaking it probably has more in common with the West, but it’s also in RAAS (Región Autónoma del Atlántico Sur) and to most that might as well be Timbuktu.
If it’s obscure domestically, you can only imagine where that leaves it internationally: pretty much nonexistent. Pick up any travel-guide book on Nicaragua and you’ll be hard-pressed to find our city on the map. Look it up on Google and you’ll get a blurry satellite image that looks more like a close-up of a Monet painting. Search for major NGOs in Nicaragua and not one is based here. Of the few things you can read about it online, very little is in English and the Wikipedia article gives unverified information.
And it’s a shame. Not only is this a beautiful place with an abundance of tropical fruits, stunning waterfalls, and AMAZING yogurt, in just 50 years it has grown to be the thirteenth biggest city in the country. And yet, somehow it seems to fall off everyone’s radar. Most people we talked to in Masaya either knew very little about Nueva Guinea or remember it as it was twenty or thirty years ago; very rural with cattle roaming around through the center of town. Although agriculture and livestock remains the biggest source of income here, there is so much more.
With three universities and the prospect of the Grand Canal passing through here, the community is super motivated to learn English. And by super, I mean falling out of their seats. Michaela and I have been asked several times to attend English festivals in some of the surrounding communities. Next year, URUCCAN will start requiring all of its graduates regardless of their major to have over 900 hours of English practice. The departing TEFL Volunteer, Isabel, successfully established an amazing English Community Center in the city’s central park alongside her counterpart, who Michaela will continue working with to ensure the center’s long-term viability.
The city is also surprisingly connected; the central park has free WIFI and everyone seems to carry a smart phone. Running water might come for only two hours a day, but Facebook is always an update away.
The other thing we’ve noticed is how young everyone is here. Even in a country where 67% of the population is under 30 years old, it’s markedly more pronounced here. Since so much of the city’s population is made up of people who were escaping something (religious persecution, the civil war, and a volcano explosion that displaced thousands), their seemed to be a huge baby-boom of sorts following each resettlement. Just three weeks into service, we’re already mulling secondary projects that focus on youth, ages 14 to 18, giving them an opportunity to do something outside of the classroom, something that inspires them and utilizes the resources that already exist within the community.
These are some of the bigger observations we’ve made in our first few weeks at site. Truth be told, the majority of our time has been spent on much smaller, seemingly insignificant tasks. Part of getting to know our new community has been trying to achieve a basic sense of functionality in one of the most foreign environments either of us have ever experienced. I can’t claim to have done anything major but to me, simple things like figuring out where to buy a decent lunch have felt like huge accomplishments.
For now at least, there is no such thing as running a short errand or preparing a quick dinner. Going to the locksmith to get a key copied turns into an adventure that takes you up a ladder and into a tree house-like apartment where you’re asked to sat down and watch Japanese anime in Spanish. Washing your own clothes brings stares and a few giggles from your host-family, who secretly wonder how you survived on your own even in the United States. The first time I tried cooking in the kitchen we share with another family, I was asked by the mother to go sit and watch the Spanish-dubbed Chuck Norris movie with her husband while she chopped the cucumber (because apparently I don’t know how).
Day by day, and sometimes even hour by hour, we feel ourselves taking in and learning a lot. Right now it feels like we’re just barely keeping our head above water, but it’s amazing how much more sure-footed we feel compared to our first few days. This place continues to surpass our expectations in large part because we had nothing to base those expectations on besides, “Far. Very far from here.”
Fortunately, there is so much more to this place than how far it is from the capital.