I climbed into the front seat, “Me llamo Oscar,” he introduced himself, a friendly smile on his face. “Abbie” I responded pointing to myself, “No habla Espanol.” It turned out Oscar knew as much English as I did Spanish, so we shared several short sentences and many smiles throughout the ride on the way to La Mariposa getting ready to begin my time in Nicaragua volunteering and learning a new language. A warm summer day with no AC, the windows were down and we bounced along the dusty road, the cement feeling more like a cobblestone sidewalk, unlike smooth paved US highway roads. With Managua in the distance and Spanish music playing in the background, I gazed out the window taking in rural views and small towns along the way. Dilapidated homes with colorful walls, men sitting on the street corner and women setting up fruit stands. The familiarity of life in a developing nation mixed with the unknown of Central America, it was a new adventure and Central America felt like home.
We arrived at the school and eco hotel, what a little oasis. La Mariposa is just south of the capital, Managua, in La Concha, which is a typical Nicaraguan town. The students at the program ranged in age and nationality, all staying for different lengths of time, all here to have a deeper experience, develop language skills and leave with fonder memories. The building is surrounded by lush vegetation, with rescued dogs and chickens roaming about the property. The classrooms are dispersed outside throughout the property so you’re learning Spanish in what feels like a jungle, with birds chirping in the background and a little dog resting at your feet. I was so impressed that each of us had our own one on one grammar and conversation teacher, it made learning quickly along with retention that much easier. It was also a quiet but powerful representation of the good this school does for the community. Each day there would be dozens of locals here for work, whether it was on the property, in the kitchen or in front of a whiteboard, I was happy to see how small but mighty La Mariposa was for San Juan de la Concepcion.
There are several different opportunities for volunteering while at La Mariposa, in addition to the Spanish classes it was such a rewarding way to get to know the people and culture better. I chose to work at the finca, an organic farm that grows produce for the school and community. Mornings were peaceful, I would water plants, tend to the seedlings, prep the beds and the soil for new growth. The sun shining down while working, I didn’t mind being sweaty and I looked forward to the walk each morning from town to the farm, having the time to take in nature around me, it was unhurried and freeing. Working alongside the staff was the best part of the experience, getting to know new friends while having the opportunity to brush up on my Spanish.
The first day I realized how far from fluent I was, when my morning ended, Natan had told me our work for the day was finished. Turning back to the garden, I had thought he was asking me to follow him so I quickly walked behind him towards the back of the garden. He stopped, turned around, and looking puzzled repeated what he had already said and turned again. After a third time of not understanding what he had said, we played a quick game of Pictionary amongst the veggies. Speaking slower, he motioned to me with his two fingers, mimicking two little legs walking across his hand, than pointing towards the front gate. Aha! Ok, I realized my morning flew bye and it was already time to go. On my last day as an inside joke, Natan made the same hand gesture before we hugged goodbye and said our farewells.
As the days went on, my Spanish came easier and our conversations filled the quiet spaces of the garden. I dubbed myself “la reina de la regadera” which got a chuckle out of Natan. I reigned over the flowers and veggies for the rest of the week, at lunchtime leaving my loyal subjects to head back to the school for afternoon lessons. It was only my kingdom for a short time but it was one of my favorite parts of my trip.
Riding the microbus is an adventure all on its own, so even transportation in Nicaragua comes with a story. The bus was my excitement for the morning the first couple of days but then quickly became routine. You flag one down from the side of the road and hop in, cramming along with lots of other commuters. Think if Uber had a shuttle system that drove around town and you could hail them down like a taxi, pay almost nothing and squeeze in with about a dozen other strangers to get across town. There’s a guy who usually crouches in the back next to the door, opens it, collects the roadside riders and then as the van gets rolling he hangs from the side, sliding the door shut while in full momentum, collects our fares as we continue on.
Mariposa is a well oiled educational and responsible travel machine. The programs in conjunction with classwork were diverse and valuable to the local community. Many of the other visitors were working at the nature reserve, local schools, a bakery cooperative or helping through rehabilitation programs with horses. You could easily tell we all felt we were making a special connection with the people and the town when we all reconvened at lunch time and shared our volunteer stories. For those just interested in the study program they had activities for everyone to participate in after classes, nature walks, horseback rides and day trips.
Nicaragua is known as the country of lakes and volcanoes and we had a great vantage point of one of those big beauties, Masaya. It just so happened that while I was there, several of the active volcanoes were awake, with a few erupting within the past few months. Masaya volcano at night was wondrous, standing in the midst of the Jurassic Park landscape, the full moon brightly shone, casting shadows over the large banana trees looming over us, creating a picture postcard with the smoke billowing into the star filled sky, it’s quiet crimson hues above the mountain only a few miles away.
Thank you so much to Unearth the World for the opportunity to connect me to such a remarkable place. It was such a treat to give back a bit and to feel like I received all the more in return. For an opportunity to volunteer, visit Unearth the World or check out La Mariposa Spanish School & Eco Hotel for a further glimpse into the work they do and what kind of vacation with a positive impact awaits.