NICA2012, Days 1-2: Bienvenidos!

I could easily write every day for two weeks and not tell all of my Nicaragua stories, but I’m going to try my best! Stories will probably trickle out for months, and I promise to not try and bore y’all with my Nica talk! I’m gonna post summaries of each day, a couple days at a time. At the end, I’ll sum up my thoughts and revelations from the trip, if I can manage to put it into words.  To start, here’s a pic of the team and a map of Nica, so you can kinda follow who and where I’m talking about.

(L to R) Me, Danielle, Jenna, Lindsey, Seth, Kevin, Emily, Evan, Brittany, Karen, and Katie
Kneeling: Natalie and Casey (Not pictured: Pavel, country coordinator, and Marta, team leader)
Blue dot is the hotel! El Crucero, Masaya, and Granada are all important places in this (rather long) tale.

Day 1 (Travel) – I knew my suitcase was going to be heavy, since I could barely lift it.  When Dad loaded it into the car, he said it was 80 lbs, easy.  I thought he was exaggerating, but he wasn’t.  I got to the airport the next morning and put my bag on the scale: 84 lbs.  I was then that person at the ticket counter, frantically pulling items that could be left behind out of my bag. I was allowed 70 lbs of luggage, so after leaving behind baby formula and vitamins, I finally got my bag down to 68 lbs.  Keep in mind that bag was nothing but donations and scrubs – all my clothing was in a carry-on duffel.  I finally got my bag checked and boarding passes printed, and security was a breeze.  Since I flew out of Shreveport, I was the only one in line.  We were late leaving for some reason, and by the time I got to Houston, I had 15 minutes before my next flight boarded – 3 terminals over.  I got in a little too much of a hurry and tripped coming up some stairs (that airport has so many stairs!), but I made it to my gate just as boarding started.  After they scanned my boarding pass and checked my passport, I had to go into a hallway and put all my bags on one side and stand on the other.  Once 5 or 6 people got there, a drug dog was brought through to sniff all our bags. Not us though, just our bags.  Once we boarded, it was an uneventful trip to Managua.  The couple next to me helped me fill out my customs and immigration forms. 3 ½ hours later, I was on the ground in Nicaragua.  I had my passport and forms in hand, and got in line at customs.  The first checkpoint was getting my visa (first stamp in my passport!!), and I managed to speak to the officer in Spanish. The next step was getting my bag at the baggage claim. After seeing lots of surfboards and other baggage come through, mine finally came. A gracious man next to me helped me with my bag.  I then had to go through customs, which was putting everything through an x-ray scanner and handing in my declaration forms.  Since I wasn’t selling any of the medicine and supplies, I didn’t declare any of it, so they didn’t check my bag.  Random: The power went out briefly while I was in baggage claim. No one was phased, and it would turn out that this was a common occurrence!

Customs forms and passport!

When I exited customs, the heat and humidity hit me like a wall.  I found Marta, our team leader, right away.  There were a handful of other students already there, several who had been on the same flight.  We found a place to camp out with our luggage and get to know each other while we waited on one more person to arrive.  I noticed that there were a few guys with us, and we discovered that the Well-Child team, with 7 members, was with a General Health team, with 6 members, for a total of 13.  The two teams would work together the whole time.

After a few hours in the airport, we finally loaded up the bus.  First stop was the mall to change money and eat a late lunch.  The exchange rate was 22.03 cordobas to the dollar, so I exchanged $120 for over 2000 cordobas.  That was a little difficult to wrap my mind around for a while, especially when my Subway sandwich and drink was 105 cordobas.  Marta must have had faith in our Spanish skills, because she let us loose in the food court to get something to eat.  We helped each other out and all managed to get basically what we wanted.

We finally got to the hotel, and had several hours to kill before dinner.  Some played cards, and I went with a group on not one, but two runs through the surrounding area. It felt good to stretch my legs after traveling all morning.  I can see the red flags going up for some of you – don’t worry, we always ran in groups and asked the hotel workers where was safe to run.  I guess it’s uncommon to run like that, or they could just tell we were not from there, but we attracted a lot of honks, yells, and whistles any time we walked or ran through the city.

The hotel is, like most places in Nica, very open. The only completely inclosed spaces were the rooms. We ate dinner at the hotel, which was delicious. We all decided pretty quickly that the hotel food was our favorite.  I roomed with Katie, Natalie, and Brittany, in a room with four twin beds.  In our first room, the sink broke the first time we used it.  Then, as we were all laying in bed reading and journaling, the ceiling above Katie’s bed started to drip. It was storming outside, and you could see the ceiling tiles bulging. The guy working at the desk didn’t speak much English, and he looked a little flustered when he came to look at our room.  He left and came back in, and asked us who understood Spanish.  Between the four of us, we understood that he had called the jefe (manager), and that he couldn’t do anything that night, so he needed us to pack up all our luggage and he would move us to a new room.  He wouldn’t let us carry any of our own suitcases, or even tell us what room we were in until he moved everything. We finally got resettled, and kept on journaling.  I was excited to see that I wasn’t the only one writing!

Quote from my journal on day 1: “There are children in the streets selling tootsie rolls and window washes. I just want to give them all money…I have no idea what kind of health issues we’re going to see. I feel like there is a lot of need and darkness in this country, and I haven’t even seen the tip of the iceberg.”

And that friends, was just day 1.

Day 2 (Orientation) – Not quite as adventurous as day 1, but still a day of getting used to each other and our surroundings.  We started the day with an early run, then what we would learn was a typical Nica breakfast – gallo pinto, toast, eggs, and fresh fruit. The rest of the day was full of seminars – first an intro to ISL and a brief history of Nicaragua. The unemployment rate is 48%, which would become more obvious throughout the trip. The government offers free health care, but not free medicines, so people often go without. At this point, I still had no idea what to expect.

We collected all of our donations in one place before lunch.  Once it was sorted and itemized, we repacked it into suitcases, filling mine and two others.  I hope someone else got a picture – it was an impressive amount. We ate lunch at the hotel, then met with one of the doctors we would be working with, Dr. Cerrato. He presented a seminar on ethics and the basics of giving a physical exam. We practiced diagnosing cases, and taking blood pressure. He finished early, so Karen pulled out her Insanity DVD, and some of us did the ab workout. Between sweat and humidity, we were sliding all over the tiles! I’m pretty sure there are pictures of this hilarious event.

We ate dinner out, at a Nicaraguan restaurant.  I was able to order without using a translator, which was exciting! Some people tried tongue, but I stuck with the garlic shrimp.

Rice, beans, plantain chips, and garlic shrimp! A yummy Nica meal!

We had Spanish lessons after dinner, and our skill levels range from basics to fluent. Poor Kevin though, he had studied only German, and kept getting the hardest words and phrases! We reviewed basic pronunciation, body parts, and conversational Spanish.

Side note: The tap water is not safe for outsiders to drink, so anything we took in had to be purified water.  This meant even brushing your teeth over the sink with bottled water, which was the hardest to get used to! I accidentally used a little tap water once, but I was ok!

Journal note: “My favorite moment today was sitting outside during free time with all the other girls, all of us reading our books.”

Hopefully I haven’t lost anyone yet! Keep checking back for the next piece of the story.


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