What went wrong in Nicaragua? This is the post I’ve held off on posting for some time. This is the post at some points where I was like “nah. Maybe I shouldn’t.” However I feel like honesty and sharing stories are quite powerful things. And if I can help a few travelers, do-gooders and people seeking out the expat life, then even better. So here’s my story. Here is what really happened in Nicaragua.
I was 24
It all starts a few years before I actually went to Nicaragua. I had decided to work as an AmeriCorps member at a neighborhood center in my city of Cincinnati, Ohio (USA). I have always been someone drawn to more rewarding and less-paying work. The year before that I was interning in Washington, DC. And while I loved life there, I felt like I needed to come back to my city and work to better the community there.
My AmeriCorps program was sponsored by a Catholic organization. Each February they had a a conference for all the members in this particular program. Once such optional presentation at the conference was about their international volunteer program.
“An international program?” I remember thinking. “I think it would be neat to volunteer overseas.” At that time, I had a basic understanding of US poverty. Furthermore, my international experience was limited to a short European school trip at the age of 18 and several family trips to Canada. I really wanted to really experience a different culture and live simply amongst them. After the presentation, I was ready to do this after my year of service ended. One of the options was Brazil and I decided that one was the one.
I was given a timeline. I was told I needed to send out fundraising letters to help offset the overall cost of funding a volunteer for a year. I was under the impression that I would help with that side of fundraising and then the rest would be taken care of. I was told wrong.
My leave date was supposed to be in January. I was told to go to the Brazilian consulate in November to apply for my visa. The flight and visa costs were not covered. In addition to having to raise $3,000 on my own, I had to pay these costs myself.
Then I had training. Training was in Baltimore, which was also a roundtrip flight that I was expected to pay for. They told me that these receipts would be deducted from that $3,000. If it had been phrased to me that way in the beginning, I would not have even signed up. Who exiting AmeriCorps just has that money lying around? I sure didn’t because I was not expecting to pay these costs. So I charged this stuff to a credit card. Good? No. But I really had no other choice. I had already committed. I had already written my letters. And I wanted to go.
When I went to training, I was told to just return home and wait until whenever my visa would end up being processed. Another thing I was not informed of from the start. The coordinator of this program had also volunteered in Brazil and he said it took them 6 months. He left for Brazil in June. Again, if this was told to me from the start, I would have decided not to go. But that was not the case.
The other difference from him and me was that the international program office hired him to do paperwork while he waited. He was given employment. Pretty sweet, right? He could just take a train down to the consulate whenever he wanted. He could also save. I did not have that option. So I moved back in with my parents and worked odd jobs … for a year. It was hard to find something steady when you had no idea when you were leaving the country. So it was hard.
I would e-mail them about once a month to check in. I will say that the visa was not their fault and that of the Brazilian government. However any organization that does not give you the facts from the beginning is not one to trust. I wish that I had been told at the conference that Brazil can take some time. But I was not told this.
Throughout this whole year, I kept thinking “okay what if I didn’t have a free place to live? Not everyone has that option. What would this organization have done with a volunteer who moved out of their apartment, quit their job and showed up to orientation like `I’m ready and I have nowhere else to go.”?
How about Nicaragua?
It was September. This time my response from them looked a little bit different after my regular check-in e-mail. The visa was fruitless and now Nicaragua was an option. However I was tired of waiting around. I needed to make some money. Since I still wanted to live overseas, I asked if I could go in the summer. I had found a job at a school, so that timeline worked perfectly for me. I was told sure.
When the summer rolled around, I was debating going for just the summer or the entire year. I told them this. When I decided I wanted to go for the year, they told me I needed to wait another year because another volunteer was going. That felt crappy. I’m the one who has patiently been waiting over here, but no … by all means just let someone jump in line in front of me.
But I took it with some positivity. This year would give me time to really learn and practice Spanish. This year would allow me to save more and really prepare myself. At times I felt crazy for holding out this much hope. But for some reason, I did.
I found an ad for Coffeeshop Spanish at my local cafe. This is one good part of my story. My Spanish tutor Daniel was a big help in my journey with Spanish. He is someone I consider a friend and who I still keep in contact with. He is a big reason why I live in Spain. So short plug … if you want to learn Spanish, he’s your guy. He gives lessons in-person and online.
I studied with him for 6 months before packing my bags and heading to Central America. I was by no means a perfect speaker. However I had a foundation and could hold a conversation.
I arrived and lived with a Catholic sister who had a community organization that I would volunteer with. We will call her Sister Karen (not her real name). She seemed nice at first.
I settle in and have all the normal frustrations with practicing a language. I have moments where I cannot understand. I have moments where I say the wrong thing. And she’s not very helpful. I have a moment where I break down crying at the house … in my bedroom. Things like this happen when moving to a new country. And yet I felt faulted for them.
We decide that maybe I should go live with a Nicaraguan family for a week. Do sort of a homestay. I would volunteer in the afternoons during this week and spend my mornings with the family. One day I’m in her office and say something like “well hopefully by the end of this week, my Spanish will be a lot better.” She just looks at me and goes “You don’t speak Spanish. You know Spanish but you don’t speak it.” She tells me that I’m asleep apparently and some other stuff. I end up bursting into tears and going back to the house where I would sob for about another hour. I was trying my very best to speak. I was trying to understand. I was trying to get to know the community. It felt like I could do nothing right.
Then my mom goes to the hospital
About a week later, I receive a text from my brother telling me that mom had been airlifted. I booked a flight and packed a small bag, leaving my laptop and other things of mine in Nicaragua. The plan was to return.
A few weeks into me being home with my mom, Sister Karen tells me that we should skype. In this conversation (that I had to have at a Starbucks because my brother also had to skype with someone), she tells me that “God is telling her I should not come back.” That … that is just … you can say that about anything you want to do. As the conversation went on, it was clear that it was more than just that. She tells me that I’m apparently a burden to her staff and that my Spanish is “not up to snuff.” She’s just very cold and heartless. I end up hanging up on her, going to my car and sobbing.
The thing is looking back, me staying was the right thing to do as my mom’s health did not progress and she ended up passing away. However the way that she presented it to me and how she insulted me was just not called for.
Enter Su Casa Hispanic Center
The funny thing about her telling me that my Spanish was not up to snuff was that several weeks later, I got a bilingual job. Su Casa Hispanic Center needed a Bilingual Education Coordinator to organize adult education classes like ESL and GED. I got the job and started within a few weeks.
The funny thing about Su Casa was that my Spanish didn’t change at all from what it was in Nicaragua. And yet no one was critical of it. I worked with a lot of native speakers and they were just happy that I made a good effort. It’s crazy … in a supportive environment, your language skills can improve like crazy.
Life is funny. I originally learned Spanish to help people. That was something that the universe definitely had planned for me. However instead of it being in Nicaragua, it was with the Hispanic community right in my hometown. I met so many wonderful people at that job. And not a soul made me feel bad about my Spanish. They all knew it was my second language and just appreciated the effort I made with a smile on my face. That job showed me that when communicating, it’s more than just language. It’s how genuine you are and the energy you put out there.
Then I moved to Spain
After a year of working at Su Casa, I moved to Spain to teach English. Throughout that year, I spoke as much Spanish as I could. I lived with Spanish roommates and made Spanish friends. My time at Su Casa really helped me to be able to communicate at a fluent level upon arrival in Spain. Throughout my entire year, I was always getting complimented on my Spanish. It still by no means is perfect. However it is really cool to think about where my Spanish is now and what it was when I started. What a journey.
What I learned
Oh my gosh, I learned so much through all of this. Here’s just a short list.
- Ask questions. Questions questions questions. If I had really probed, I could have gotten more details out about the international program, the timeline and the costs. And I would have decided against it.
- Keep a positive attitude.
- Don’t let the past affect the present. If I had chosen to let Sister Karen’s words really affect me, I would not be where I am with my Spanish. I now look back and just laugh. I think “well if I can’t speak Spanish, how did I get a bilingual job? How did I move to Spain? How did I live with three Spaniards for a year who all speak basically no English?” Sometimes a simple look around and you see that some people are just delusional.
- At the end of the day, my Spanish is for me and for the community. Who cares what negative people say.
Oh yeah and after she told me I was not welcome back, I started this blog. That’s another plus, isn’t it?
I think about Nicaragua frequently. I met some really wonderful people there. I saw some really cool places. Some days, I just really want to go back. One day in the future, I want to return to Granada, Nicargua. I want to go to the beach and the Corn Islands. I want to explore Leon and return to Ometepe Island. And I know one day I will.
I share this not to dwell on negativity but rather to be real with my readers. You should all go volunteer abroad if you desire to. But you really should be careful when choosing the best opportunity for you.
Have you ever learned a skill for one thing and used it elsewhere? Have you ever signed up for something that was not as it seemed?