We marched through the airport in a single-file line, like an army in training. It was appropriate, because that is how we felt. We were mighty soldiers in matching shirts on our way to Nicaragua to rescue people from poverty and hunger.
I arrived in Nicaragua’s airport and was immediately surprised; it looked just like the ones at home. As I stepped out of the doors, however, I began a totally new experience. Children clamored around us, begging for change. Attendants competed to see who could carry the most bags and earn the most money. Skinny dogs roamed the streets for garbage. This was the city. I boarded the bus and stuck my head out of the window. For the remainder of the 4-hour ride, I stayed that way, mesmerized by the sights and sounds.
We arrived in Leon, our first destination, tired and sore from the ride on the “streets.” The smells of the kitchen were enough to wake us up, though. The workers laughed and sang as they cooked, while the children from the orphanage next door played soccer nearby. It was quiet, relaxing, and cool, much unlike the city. Our relaxation was short-lived. We hiked across the field, my army and I, prepared to paint and pour concrete at an elementary school. As we approached, children rushed to the gate with shouts of “Gringos! Gringos!” They flooded us with questions, hugs and thanks. They didn’t know who we were or where we were from. They only loved us. As we painted and labored, the children stayed close by, dancing and singing for us. Over the next few days, we were met with the same enthusiasm and love at each school or church we visited. We eventually had to leave Leon, but I will never forget how the children waved and chased after the bus as we pulled away.
Another long, bumpy bus ride brought us to Selva Negra, a small village in the mountains of Matagalpa. The sounds of monkeys and birds filled our ears, the scent of the rain and the trees captured our senses. This was the tropical rainforest, and it was our own private paradise. Yet every day as we rode down the mountain and into the surrounding villages, we were met with poverty and ruin. Houses made of shirts were acceptable lodging, anything that could be eaten was. The faces of the children were completely different, however. Smiles and hugs was all I ever saw from the children in Nicaragua. Again, as we worked, they watched and encouraged us, brought us fruit and beans from nearby to eat. Our mighty soldiers received support and nourishment from the people we had come to save.
Our week ended with a worship service at the church we had been working with in Nicaragua. Again, as we entered, we were met with excitement. “Thank you for loving these children!” I heard. Then the congregation prayed for us. Seeing that community of believers made me realize that our mighty army had not done anything miraculous. The food we had prepared, the songs we had taught, might soon be forgotten. It was the love we had shown these children that they would remember, that truly made a difference in their lives. It was the love they had shown us, too, that I still remember to this day.
I have returned to Nicaragua every year since then, but with a completely different attitude. I no longer march as part of an army, but as a part of a group. I no longer go to rescue these people, but to serve them and show them love. The love I am given back is payment enough. I now consider Nicaragua my second home, it’s culture my culture, and it’s people my family.
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