“Deja tus zapatos, por favor.”
QUARTER-FINALIST 2015 FTF TEEN TRAVEL WRITING SCHOLARSHIP
I left my shoes, as requested, near the steep stairway we had just ascended, and stepped through a stone doorway onto a wide expanse of blinding white stucco. My travel-wearied feet appeared filthy compared with the pristine purity of the “techo” upon which I stood. Below me, I could picture the cavernous grandeur through which we had passed, filled with elaborate depictions of saints, impressive altars, and prostrate worshippers. Ahead of me stretched a series of rounded domes rising softly from the roof under my feet. Passing magnificent statues and a bell framed by an opening in the front of the building, I stepped to the edge of the roof. Standing atop the “Catedral de la Asunción de María”, the city’s pride and joy, I gazed across the rooftops of León, Nicaragua, accentuated by a backdrop of volcanoes in the distance. I imagined I could see the tin roof of the home where I resided with my “familia Nicaragüense” and smiled wide, filled with an indescribable feeling of utter contentment. I saw, from above, the church I walked past everyday, with its devotees no doubt gathered inside, the marketplace I visited often, with its vendors no doubt haggling out of sight, the central park I passed through daily, with its visitors mingling in the open. The school I visited to interact with native students was one of the obscure roofs to the north and the building where I took my Spanish classes (la casa salud debayle) was the yellow streak just around the corner. I could see the city, and the experiences I’d had within it, in their entirety.
“¿Hablas español?” The tour guide atop the cathedral asked. Do you speak Spanish? I had heard the same question countless times already in the week I had been in the country, and would hear it countless more times in the four weeks that remained. Nicaraguans noted the bright paleness of my skin, the unabashed wonder and curiosity in my eyes and the consistent presence of a camera in my hand and correctly assumed I was a foreigner, unfamiliar with their language and customs. However, unlike many visitors to their country, I did not travel simply to ogle at their churches, climb their volcanoes, or surf their waves. I came with one goal: to be able to answer “yes” to the question the tour guide asked me.
To accomplish this goal, I traveled with a program, specifically tailored for high school students, called Nicaragua Summer Exchange[i]. Run by Nicaraguans, with a director well known in the community, the program gave me access to opportunities I would not have been able to find on my own. I stayed with host families in two different cities, León and Granada, who truly immersed me in Spanish. I visited schools to interact with peers my age who accepted me as a new friend. The program took me on excursions. I took non-traditional Spanish classes that took me into the city to learn the language. I met local artisans who taught me how to make pottery, art, and tortillas. I visited the Masaya Volcano, San Juan del Sur, the “isletas” of Lake Nicaragua, and the crater lake “la laguna de apoyo” that showed me how intricately Nicaragua’s geography links to its culture. I visited the museum of the revolution, the museum of myths and legends, and the house of poet Rubén Darío in León that taught me Nicaragua’s history.
Thanks to these experiences, I could respond “sí” to the question, “hablas español?”, or at least admit that I was still learning.
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