All photos courtesy of the author.

Brave New Travelers: Finding the Truth With a New Perspective

Nicaragua Travel Matador Youth Scholarship Essays
by Evelyn Villanueva Dec 5, 2011
Evelyn is seventeen years old and a junior at Berkeley High School in Berkeley, CA. She was one of six students who received the Matador Travel Scholarship and traveled to Nicaragua this summer with a non-profit organization called Global Glimpse.

THIS SUMMER, I was privileged enough to go to Leon, Nicaragua. I got to experience 21 days (July 27-August 16) in the beautiful country with 18 other Global Glimpsers. I feel very blessed to have been given the honor to spend those 3 weeks in another country at the age of only 17. Being from Berkeley, California, I don’t get to experience much of how the world really is. Not that California isn’t real enough, but in Leon, it just felt more human. In the US, I feel like everyone has two lives: their electronic life and their human life. Over there, I got to leave my electronic life behind and it was amazing.

Before we left, I was super anxious. I couldn’t sleep for my last two days in the States. Since my freshman year in high school, I remember walking through the hallways and looking at the pictures on the hallway of the seniors who had just returned from their trip to Nicaragua. I’ve wanted to be on the 2011 trip ever since I started high school but I never really thought it would happen. It seemed like too much of a blessing then, even a week before departure.

I wasn’t looking forward to a lazy summer getaway; I wanted to experience a new culture.

Being able to represent my high school, Berkeley High, felt like such an honor, but it was a little terrifying because I knew we would have to meet 17 new people from different schools. But, the blessings kept coming. I found out a month or so before we took off, that I actually knew 6 other people that were going to be on that same trip. I had spent the summer before in another amazing program called Coro Exploring Leadership, in which I met Christina, Isaac, Rosely, Yan Hua, Cecilia, and Jose – my new Global Glimpse travel buddies. It was very exciting and I couldn’t wait to be reunited with them and share another great experience with them.

The reason I wanted to go on this trip, was for the experience. I wasn’t looking forward to a lazy summer getaway; I wanted to experience a new culture. I wanted to learn how to live away from my family. I wanted to get real and see how other people lived. I needed a reality check.

When we first arrived in Nicaragua, I couldn’t help but notice how incredibly hot it was. The sky was grey but we were melting. The people at the airport were so friendly and as we were on the bus heading from the airport in Managua to the hostel in Leon, I was looking out the window and realizing I was far from home. Everyone was riding on bikes, kids were in uniform, school buses were everywhere (only they were being used as public buses), there were vendors everywhere, small businesses on every corner, mostly women and children walking the streets, posters of the president-elect everywhere, churches everywhere, dirt roads, bright colored walls, and not a stop light in sight. It was so different.

One of the days I remember most was Poverty Day. We were challenged to spend the whole day without our iPods, internet, lights, and running water. We went to a small community where most of the families there got by earning around $1 a day. We were split into groups and sent off into different directions to people’s homes to help them with their daily chores.

It really opened my eyes to see how different people live over there.

My group was sent off with a lady who spent most of her days alone at home. She didn’t have much shelter, but she had a big piece of land. We helped her with her yard work, which was kind of hard. Michael and I got to use machetes to cut down a large section of plants in the hot sun. We felt so accomplished when we were done, I felt like we helped her a lot.

Later in the day, the clouds rolled in and the warm rain came pouring down as we were cooking on the outdoor stove. The lady talked to us about her life and how her husband and sons were working in Costa Rica, and how she spent most days alone. It really opened my eyes to see how different people live over there. She was only 34 years old and already had two grown sons and grandchildren. She would stay home, waiting for her grandchildren to visit and she looked older than she was. When I think about the 34 year old women in the States, I think of working, independent women who can go out to the movies and to the park, to the coffee shops, and can plan their own life out.

It was sad to see her there, but she seemed happy so I learned a little more about perspective and how we were in another world. Things aren’t the same everywhere but I really wish she could experience some of the rights and opportunities women have here. Poverty Day was very memorable also because the 19 of us grew a lot closer that night. We all circled around the candlelight at the hostel and just talked. We played games, shared funny stories, and just laughed.

A few other moments I’ll never forget, were at the beach. One night, we walked for hours and miles, looking for sea turtles along the beach. The stars were out, the water was still warm, it was dark, the sand was smooth, and we were all together. We all bonded with different people in the group. The whole time, I was thinking, “It’s midnight, and I’m on a beach in Nicaragua.” That night, I got to sleep on a hammock in a beach house. The next day, I got to surf for the first time and although I didn’t stand up all the way, it was really fun. Later on, I was tackling the waves with everyone and having a great time.

English lessons were the best, though. I got to teach a class of about 12 students with Atsina. The students were awesome and I couldn’t have asked for a better partner to have been paired up with to teach them. They were always open, extremely friendly, and quite the comedians. Every day with them was a great day. They were very outgoing and every single one of them holds a spot in my heart. For their graduation, which was also our talent show, they wanted to sing a song with Atsina and me, which made us very proud and we all had a lot of fun doing it.

Another amazing moment, which was actually on our last day in Nicaragua, was when we went horseback riding. We went through a beautiful forest with trees that had branches that wrapped around each other so sweetly. There was a light shade of green everywhere and it was quiet and peaceful. These were my favorite scenes of the trip.

For me, I think the biggest challenges were when I had to be assertive. I was pushed way out my comfort zone when I had to be leader of the day. I had trouble asking people for help so I tried to do everything myself and stressed out even more. I realized that it’s ok to ask for help and leading the group has a lot to do with asking something of the group first. By letting myself get stressed, I radiated the feeling throughout my group and learned that it was my responsibility to set the scene and feel. It was tough trying to get to the whole group but we made it through.

Another challenge was turning down pushy vendors. I wasn’t used to having people in my face trying to sell me something and I felt terrible when I had to say “no.” I often had to have my travel buddies accompany me and help me turn vendors down. It was very tough and it broke my heart every time we had to walk away because I knew that that was their form of income, but the Glimpsers helped me understand that everyone had their selling strategies and that it wasn’t up to me to pay their bills.

I learned some lessons that I expected to come back with, but I also learned a lot about things I never really thought of. First of all, I learned about the culture, the city, the people, the history, and the relationships they all had with each other. People there were really tight and could rely on each other for anything. It was nice seeing such a close community. I learned how to appreciate the simpler things, like a regular walk. Here, in the States, a walk around the neighborhood meant walking to the bus stop ignoring everything with my iPod on blast.

In Leon, walking through the streets was so much more. The streets were so bright, there was music in literally every corner, and the people were so nice. Everyone smiled at us and people were everywhere. The streets were packed during the day and it was nice taking a walk, getting to say hi, getting familiar with the people and businesses. I learned that we take things for granted at home: running water, clean water, air conditioning, easily accessible electronics, education, freedom of speech, women’s rights. We have beautiful parks and trails here, but since we have phones and internet lives, we ignore the nature and don’t acknowledge the breeze or the colors.

I learned a lot about myself in Nicaragua as well. I had no idea what I wanted to do career wise as an adult, but my vision got clearer. Through the English lessons, I learned that I might be interested in education as a career. I felt so good seeing the students receive their diplomas and I really want that feeling again. I loved teaching them and answering questions and seeing that look of understanding on their faces. I’m not sure if I want to be a teacher, but I want to work with people, I want to help them and be involved in education in some way. I’m definitely considering it. I also learned that I like being away from home. I was kind of sad when I learned this about myself but I think it’s a good thing at the same time.

Sometimes the truth is kept hidden and one can’t see it until they look at it through another perspective.

I like being away and learning things on my own and being on this trip made me realize what kind of global citizen I want to be. I want to study abroad for college and I definitely want to travel after. I don’t plan on leaving the States for good, but I just want to be aware of my surroundings and what goes on beyond this country. Sometimes the truth is kept hidden and one can’t see it until they look at it through another perspective. I want to keep learning so I could have stories and lessons to bring back to my family and friends.

My first week back home felt so unreal. Being in my own room again, I felt so spoiled. Going back to work the very next day after I landed, I felt like I had to go back to this routine but I just couldn’t fit the same way as I did before. I’d gotten so used to living in a simpler way. I woke up early every morning, made myself breakfast, and I was ready to leave. The problem was, there was nowhere to go. I felt alone when I didn’t wake up to breakfast with 18 other faces. I didn’t have them to walk around with. Every day, I woke up and wanted to go out now, not to the store or to the movies. I just wanted to go on a bike ride or walk around the block. That first week back was definitely confusing and I think it was harder adjusting from Nicaraguan life back to life in Berkeley, than the other way around.

Being back and paying more attention to how things are here, I feel like I’ve grown so much. I would definitely recommend this trip to anyone my age. It’s really eye opening and especially in this generation where most teens are high maintenance and addicted to technology, I think getting in touch with nature and real life will change their perspective on the world and encourage them to step up in their communities and teach what they’ve learned. It’s done this for me.

Thank you to Global Glimpse, Coro and all of the people that donated to make this amazing opportunity possible for me and the other students!

Continue your support of Matador’s Youth Scholarship Fund while traveling smart by purchasing travel insurance from Waterman & Company, a Travel Guard Insurance Broker, who is donating 20% of the net revenue from each Travel Guard product purchased to Matador’s Youth Scholarship Fund. Click here to purchase.

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