I know that after we got back from climbing Kilimanjaro, I was too tired to want to blog about it, but looking back now, I'm so grateful to have those memories in writing so I can relive them. It's enjoyable now to relive them because I don't remember feeling crappy and the pictures bring me joy rather than reminders of being cold or nauseous. I know I'll regret it if I don't document my trip to Nicaragua even though I haven't really felt like writing about it. So, I pulled out my "journal" from the trip to record some of the lasting impressions. I give you the top 5 highlights of the first annual Catholic Young Adult Sports mission trip:
1. Our group of "misioneros": For a random sampling of CYAS, we had a pretty darn amazing group of missionaries from Denver and San Diego (and a Miami straggler who was involved with CYAS when she lived in Denver). I was a little worried initially about the group dynamic, given what I knew and didn't know about the people going, especially since the prep meetings were sparsely attended. But God knows what He's doing. And I felt like we really went from a set of individuals to a unified group very quickly. There were enough of us that we weren't sick of each other and few enough that we got to know each other pretty well. We traveled together, ate together, prayed together, played together, napped together, struggled together, laughed together, attempted to translate together, learned to surf together, and I think were a little bit of God for each other in a foreign place. Even though I haven't seen anyone from the group in the last few weeks, I feel like they are family.
2. Our families in Nicaragua: I hit the jackpot with my host family. Each of the girls was partnered with another to stay with host families in pairs. Except me. Seven girls = one odd woman out. Meeting our host families on day one, after a super long day and a half of travel, a cultural performance, dinner in the spotlight, and essentially having been awake for 40+ hours, was a little intimidating. I don't know much about anyone else's families, but I know that we all were touched by their generosity. And they were all happy to have us if it meant smiles on the children's faces. On the plus side, my host sisters were our true hosts for the week, and were going to be doing everything with us. They spoke decent English and were generous with their accommodations. On the minus side, I was all by myself and had to sink or swim. Zindy, Bianka, and Carmen (sisters and mom) turned out to be the best host family I could have asked for. They were attentive, chatty, funny; they fed me well; I got to sleep in my own bed, etc. Of course, when I say chatty and funny, I mean chatty and funny in Spanish. Which brings me to number 3.
3. Speaking Spanish: It had been 10 years since I'd spoke Spanish for longer than a single sentence or two, joking around with Laura. Ten years since any class, ten years since I'd learned vocabulary or verb conjugation. And while my host sisters both spoke enough English that I probably could have survived, I told them from the start that I wanted to only speak in Spanish within the house. English with the group was great, but when it was just us, we were all in on the torture of making me speak Spanish. Turns out you can have some pretty decent conversations with the vocabulary of a 5-year-old. I had forgotten A LOT of vocab and most of the verb tenses. But my sisters were patient and excellent at speaking slowly and using words they knew I'd understand. And I got pretty good at speaking around words I didn't know. Our conversations were able to go beyond favorite colors and animals and how many sisters I had. We talked about the church in Nicaragua and in America, why people leave it, and why I haven't, and how Pope Francis is reaching people. We talked about the poverty, and how families are broken because parents leave their children to try to make money for a better life but it leaves them poor in other ways. We talked about my "sister" Bianka's trip to America, and my job, looking for love in American and Nicaragua, the joys of Colorado, and my dog, and food, and other typical things you might talk about with new friends and old family. And as the week progressed, my Spanish got better and better. I stopped having to wait for our wonderful new friend Nola to translate because I understood what was being said, and I stopped having to wait for Nola to translate my instructions for the kids because I could just say it in Spanish. I learned new words and phrases and put them to good use. I regressed pretty quickly once we returned, but it's nice to know that knowledge is lying dormant in there.
4. The Universal Church: A couple things struck me about the mission trip. It was people-oriented, not task-oriented which basically meant that we didn't really have much to do other than be with the people and play with the kids. But our presence was enough for them to feel God's love through the Universal Church. It had been 16 years since Catholics had come to the town of Condega, and they'd never seen an American priest. We got to celebrate daily Mass with them and hand out rosaries and prayer cards and participate in their parish festival. They had felt like the Church had forgotten them, and we were able to show them it hadn't. And we were blessed in return. Even though the Church is the same everywhere, it's also really cool to see the differences. Kids wear rosaries to school. The Church bells ring through the entire town 10 minutes before Mass starts to give you time to head to the church, and then again as Mass is starting. Father Scott was basically a celebrity. The adoration chapel always had someone in it (even the dogs came in to adore Jesus, but that's another story). And there were little things that were different that I really liked. When the priest elevates the body and blood of Christ, and in some parishes in America, the altar server rings a bell and people bow their heads, in Nicaragua, everyone says "Senor mio y Dios mio" (My Lord and My God). Everyone knows every song and they all sing without songbooks. Everyone is involved in the Church. When we introduced ourselves, they asked us to say our names and our age and our role in the church. It's a foreign way of viewing things when most of us are content to attend Mass and pray in our homes. They wanted to know what else we were doing, or how we volunteer.
5. The Culture: Of course I enjoyed the food. We had everything from pinto gallo (lots and lots of pinto gallo, and rice, and beans, and rice and beans) to repocheta (fried tortilla with beans and cheese) to malanga (tropical root vegetable that looks like a purple potato) to rompopo (a drink with rum, egg, and sugar) to nacatamales (like a giant tamale with masa and pork). Bacon is different there. Milk is flavored with spices and served in plastic bags, where you bite the corner off the bag and suck the milk out of the hole. Toast was topped with yogurt and bananas. There are these fabulous little scone things that they call bread, served with coffee. Other than the food, we learned about the strange cultural custom in Condega of cracking an egg on someone's head when it's their birthday (I don't get the feeling that it was a Nicaragua thing, just a weird town tradition). We celebrated the festival of the Divino Nino (Divine Child) with the town, walking all the way through town behind a statue of the child Jesus in a pickup, with a guy accidentally setting off fireworks into random houses. Every community performed songs and dances for us, reinforcing the concept that America has no culture. Power outages were commonplace. Showers were cold. Nothing starts on time. Everybody rides in chicken buses (pickups tricked out with frames in the back to hold 15-20 people). Roosters and dogs wake everyone up at 5am. But all these things really added to feeling like we got the real Nicaragua experience.
I could add more about teaching kids to play "Pato, Pato, Pollo" (duck, duck, chicken), or the Human Knot, or kickball, or relay races. I could talk about making mashed potatoes and peeling dozens and dozens of apples for apple crisp in an attempt to cook a "traditional" American dinner for our host families. I could talk about the wonder of being able to buy any and every drug over the counter (works well when you need antibiotics for a dental infection). I could talk about the days at the beach with the barbed wire and the guys with machine guns and the spear fishing and horseback riding and crabs and toads and lizards. But I'm exhausted and if I stay up any longer, I'm going to crack open a beer that I don't need.
So, there it is for posterity sake. Some accounting of my trip so I'll remember it later. And realized how many blessings God packed into 9 days.