I knew from the beginning that my itinerary would not consist of sunny days spent lounging by the pool, coconut slushy in hand and sunscreen smeared sunglasses perched on my head. Despite my frequent need for such relaxation, I spent several days prior to the trip spraying a few tee shirts and pairs of cargo shorts with mosquito repellent. My tee shirts were old and stained, ones I knew I could free myself to ruin, and the shorts had been picked up from my local thrift store. Our team would be travelling to a remote village in Central America and spending two weeks building a library and helping cross jobs off the to-do list of a couple who runs a school. Nothing glamorous, but I couldn’t help but be excited. Adventure is seldom available in my hectic life.
We arrived and embraced the humidity—something we rarely experience in rain-drenched Seattle—after a flight over the gorgeous landscape of Central America. Nothing beats open hills of lush green rainforests and tall grasses. We spent our days at the Academy, half building the library and half playing Uno with the kids. At the time, I had been studying Spanish for only two years. With my limited knowledge of the beautiful language and the “universal language of fun” (a term a team member coined, that I strongly agree with) I made many friends. We attended a concert together, played soccer, braided each other’s hair, wandered through the village, chased chickens and pigs in the school yard, split open coconuts with machetes, and cheered for spontaneous baseball games in the streets.
I remember falling asleep sweaty and exhausted one night, still wearing my thrift store clothing and dusty socks, pondering the pure fun I was experiencing. Sure, my nails weren’t painted and my tan lines were weird. Sure, I hadn’t seen a cold pool since I left home or drank a refreshing glass of ice water. Sure, my suitcase didn’t contain endless souvenirs or ticket stubs. But I had gained something more than a tourist experience. I had given up the tourist hat and instead worn the hat of a local. I relinquished what can sometimes be considered false experiences of a culture, and was thrown into the genuine life of a Nicaraguan.
Our three week adventures in the remote village ended, and I said goodbye to the leashed goats and rose bushes. I ate my last meal of plantains, beans, and rice and drank my last cup of dragon fruit juice, ladled from a utility bucket. We squeezed into a van—a common mode of mass transportation in that particular village—and sped dangerously fast down the too-narrow highway. When we arrived in Granada, everything was different. Tourists walked down the cobblestone streets wearing bikinis and nothing else. Market stalls sold souvenirs. Hotels advertised air conditioning, wifi, and American food: three things I had grown used to living without.
Our team had chosen to spend a few days in the popular tourist city, but I found myself missing the genuine culture of the remote village. The pool was nice, and the coconut slushies will be missed, but I never practiced my Spanish or cooked in a one room house during our stay there. I came to realize that I truly would have enjoyed my vacation in Granada, had I not first spent time in Dario. Experiencing the authenticity of Nicaragua in Dario opened my eyes to the breathtaking experiences one can partake in while wearing the hat of a local. It’s important to remember that there is more to a new country than the hotels that offer wifi and the shops that offer shipping to the United States. True life changing experiences come from a vacation well spent, and a vacation well spent comes from willingly giving up the hat of a tourist. Yet, I warn you, it leads to a vacation so outstanding, you just might not want to ever be a tourist again.
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