At 5 a.m. on May 28, I began the journey to the most unforgettable place and experience of a lifetime with my teammates on the St. Thomas volleyball team. Every three years the team gets to take a trip, and this year’s destination was Nicaragua for volunteering, excursions and a little volleyball.
Upon arrival to our first stop, Managua, I was in awe of how completely different the lifestyle was from my own. My eyes focused on people selling goods in the streets, malnourished animals and homes stacked up next to each other made simply of metal slats and a few nails. My teammates and I realized how fortunate we were to experience such a different culture, so we wanted to take as much of it in as we could.
I knew the native language was Spanish, but I didn’t realize how difficult it was going to be to communicate. Having taken four years of Spanish, you’d think I would be able to hold a five-minute conversation, but I learned I am far from fluent. I mainly stuck to short phrases, ordering food and drinks, and saying, “No, gracias” to the street vendors selling sunglasses.
Most of our trip was spent in San Juan Del Sur. There we got to play local Nicaraguan teams, zip line, surf, hike, relax and, of course, eat amazing food. We played a total of four games and went 3-1. This volleyball game was nothing like one played in the U.S. We played on an outdoor court that was made of concrete and we had a rain delay. It was so out of the ordinary for volleyball as I knew it, yet it was such a cool experience that I didn’t even care.
Our excursions were above and beyond my expectations. We went surfing and horseback riding at Playa Hermosa beach, zip lining through the mountains, and visited Monkey Island on Lake Nicaragua, where I saw wild monkeys 5 feet away. We went to a beautiful crater lake in Grenada, and I can’t forget about our favorite place to eat in San Juan Del Sur, Simon Says, for smoothies and sandwiches. You could say we became regulars by the end of the trip.
For our service experience we went to three different schools, all in San Juan del Sur, to volunteer. Los Pipitos, a school for the disabled was first, then Carisol, a bilingual school, and Barrio. We got to help the kids do homework, read, paint, make bracelets, play soccer and, of course, play volleyball with them. Believe it or not, we are not soccer superstars and got crushed in every single game, but it didn’t matter because the kids thought it was really funny and seeing them laugh was priceless.
Los Pipitos was my favorite school because we got to spend one on one time with the kids, which gave us an opportunity to bond with them. After making connections with a few students it was hard to say goodbye, but I was so thankful for the experience. I caught myself surprised time and time again about how happy the children I hung out with were. Whether they had a disability or they were living in poverty, it didn’t matter to them.
The people in Nicaragua taught me that life is not something to go through complaining about or feel sad when things that aren’t going well. I know people say this all the time, but it hit me more than ever that taking a step back and enjoying life is one of the most important pieces of advice you can receive.
I met a 9-year-old girl named Caylee who was my reading partner at Carisol. Since it was a bilingual school Caylee knew basic English so we bonded through teaching each other our native languages.
After we left the school I was sad that I would never get to see her again, but amazingly I saw her two other times throughout the trip. The first time she was riding in the back of a pickup truck down the streets of San Juan Del Sur. We met eyes, instantly smiled, and both waved to each other.
The second time was at Playa Hermosa beach where we went surfing. She was running down the beach with her friend Jessica, with the biggest smile on her face. She ran up to me and gave me a hug and I knew right then that I had made an impact in her life and she in mine. Those are the moments that I will remember for forever.
I’m so grateful to my coaches, parents and teammates for making this trip possible. I know I can speak for my entire team when I say that we are forever changed and will never forget the people, experiences, and amazing memories we shared while in Nicaragua. Nicaragua has not seen the last of me; I will be back.
Whitney Abrahamson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.