Nicaragua • February
I have struggled for a long while to find the words to adequately describe the epic and transformational journey that was my trip to Nicaragua. I came back with hundreds of stories and moments that will remain etched in my heart for a lifetime, but deeper than that - I'm just not the same girl I was when I left for the trip. I have been forever changed from the experience.
Setting out on this great adventure with a group called "Journey," I was thrilled beyond measure to have raised the funds to build a home for a Nicaraguan family - and to actually have the opportunity to get hands-on and dirty building it with a team of volunteers over a couple of days. I had no prior experience with this sort of thing, but knew I could learn and had enthusiasm to spare.
What I was nervous about, however, was being the only person on the trip with Type 1 diabetes, and trying somehow to fit in and be "normal" along with a group of strangers who I had only just met. While others could be somewhat cavalier about their preparations, I made sure to have every immunization I needed in order to stay safe (knowing that my immune system is crap and having a medical issue in a third world country was not something I wanted to experience!). I packed a full gamut of diabetes supplies: a back-up insulin pump, extra rapid and long-acting insulin, infusion sets, cartridges, syringes, sensors and test strips. I had communicated to the organizers about my condition and took every precaution to make sure I was prepared and that my supplies would be secure, as this for me was a life or death scenario and I couldn't afford to take any chances.
THE HOME BUILD
We met the volunteers from TECHO the morning of day 1, and traveled to a community called El Panatal where our big group would be building 12 family homes in 2 days. TECHO (which means "roof" in Spanish) is a non-profit organization that mobilizes youth volunteers to fight extreme poverty in Latin America. On my team, there were 3 of us "Westerners" from the Journey group and 4-5 Nicaraguan students who were responsible for showing us how things got done, and ultimately making sure the home was completed by the end of the second day. The team couldn't have been more welcoming or kind, and they spoke excellent English which made communication much easier.
My team was building a home for the Velasquez family. Sandra is a homemaker and prepared the meals for us on each day, and her husband Cristian is a farmer. Both were on-site throughout, and even though neither of them spoke a word of English - we did our best to communicate through the student volunteers, or using hand gestures, and when all else failed - just a nod and a smile.
The first day was a spectacular amount of physical labour, digging deep holes and levelling posts that would form the foundation for the floor of the home. I certainly wasn't strong enough to be making much of a dent in the dirt for the digging part, but I was an enthusiastic "scooper" and got right down into the holes the length of my arm deep to scoop the dirt out of the holes so the posts could be put in and then secured with rocks and levelled against all the other posts. Fifteen posts were necessary, and by the afternoon when we were in direct sunlight with no sign of shade and 30+ degree heat - it took some spectacular teamwork, patience and humour to survive. It didn't look like much yet at the end of the first day - but we were covered in dirt and sweat from head to toe, and filled with anticipation for how everything would come together the following day.
The second day was a lot more dramatic and exciting than the first, as once we got the floor in place and each wall came up, it became very real, very quickly. It's not a fancy home, but certainly a far cry from the 1-room corrugated tin structure the family was in before. Now, they would have an actual floor made of wood, windows, and a roof to protect them from the weather. And most importantly, a lock and key to protect their belongings. I think one of the things I didn't know/appreciate is that in third world regions like this, if you leave your shelter/stuff in order to go and run an errand - you are enormously vulnerable to theft, so in effect, somebody ALWAYS has to be at "home" in order to ensure the security of whatever meagre belongings you have. It had never occurred to me before. So the idea of giving a family a structure with a lock and a key - this meant freedom for them!
I think one of my favorite parts of the build was when we put the last "post" in before the floor came on, and we all stood in a circle around that last post and did a blessing ceremony. Each of us took a rock and as we placed it around the post, we shared out loud (with a translator) what we wanted for the family - health, prosperity, safety, love, opportunities and a bright future. I cried puddles of tears, of course, as it was so special to think that that kind of energy and intent was going to be secretly hidden as part of the foundation for the home and their new life in it. It was beautiful.
Things moved quickly after that, with other volunteers coming seemingly out of nowhere to help secure the roof and make sure everything got done. They even let me hammer some nails to secure walls together, but mostly I held things in place while others far more skilled than I made sure the structure was sturdy and safe.
THE KEY CEREMONY
As the sun was coming down and we were packing up to leave, the most emotional part of the day was the part where we got to hand over the lock and key to the family. As the fundraiser for the home, I got to speak (with the mighty Rodrigo as translator). I told Sandra and Cristian that there were 19 other people from Canada who were all a part of making this home happen, and that their well wishes were being carried with me - and I handed them the framed sign from us which they could put up in their home. Dios bendiga este hogar - means "God bless this home." Sandra was visibly moved, and we hugged and cried together. It was the first time she or Cristian had shown any emotion over the course of the 2 days, but our connection at that moment was palpable and went far beyond words.
I had some sense of what this home could mean for their lives, but beyond just a physical structure with walls and a roof to keep them safe - I think an even bigger message was that there was a group of 20 strangers half a world away who came together to make a dream come true for a couple whom they would never meet. I believe that the kindness and generosity of strangers gives us all hope for humanity, and that there is a lot of GOOD out there after all.
THE NEIGHBOURHOOD KIDS
An unexpected little piece of heaven came to us on Sunday afternoon in the form of a group of local children who seemed very curious about what we were all doing there. In the absence of having language to communicate, there was a lot of smiling and waving and playing peek-a-boo for pure entertainment. I was blown away by how affectionate they were, as I opened my arms to motion for a hug and they ALL decided to rush me at the same time, almost knocking me over! Anyone who knows me knows that I am a tireless and enthusiastic hugger, and these kids just couldn't get enough. They were fascinated by the camera and enjoyed hamming it up and looking at the pictures afterwards.
What struck me so profoundly was that here were these kids who have absolutely nothing, experiencing more pure joy in a moment of connection than I had seen anywhere in a very long while. I can still hear their laughter when I think back to that day, and have these photos framed to remind myself about the importance of joy, play, affection and love. I don't think I've ever felt more alive.
THE INSULIN DRAMA
In spite of all my preparations, there was some pretty significant drama related to my insulin which I felt must have been an enormous test from God on "how does she hold up in a life-and-death crisis?" The Journey & Techo leadership teams had made arrangements with a local store owner to keep my insulin cold while we were out during the build, but never in a million years did I foresee coming back to pick it up and discovering that it had been put in the freezer and frozen solid. Obviously, there had been some miscommunication, and I don't think we ever imagined that asking (in Spanish) "Would you please keep this medicine cold for us during the day?" would result in someone putting it in the freezer. Nevertheless, it happened.
My worst case scenario had just come true. I knew I had enough active insulin still in my pump to get me through the next day, but not beyond that. I wasn't going to die, but it did mean that if I didn't find any 'fresh' insulin within the next 12 hours, I would have to board the next plane home and hope like hell there were no delays or further mishaps that could literally put me into a coma or DKA (diabetic ketoacidosis) on the way home. The Journey leaders went into full-on "crisis management" mode.
Meanwhile, I had to carry on as this all happened just before the key-giving ceremony at the end of the day. Reciting the Serenity prayer to myself, I knew there was nothing I could do to change/fix the situation in that moment, and getting hysterical wasn't going to solve anything. I had a little cry from the sheer stress of it all, but pulled myself together with the reminder that this big moment we had worked our asses off to reach was about THIS FAMILY, not me. And I didn't want to cheat them out of that. I feel spectacularly proud to have found the composure to go on under the circumstances and make the moment unforgettable, filled with love.
ANGELS AND MIRACLES
Out of all the people on the trip, we had with us an emergency room physician who confirmed that insulin cannot simply be "defrosted", and a pharmacist who knew that the NovoRapid insulin I was taking is medically known as "insulin aspart". We had no idea what kind of insulin would be available in Nicaragua, but I knew that if I couldn't get my hands on any "rapid" insulin (ie. Not "Regular" or "NPH") - I was pretty much screwed. After many phone calls, a pharmacy was located in a city over an hour away that said they had rapid insulin - and it was actually open late on a Sunday night!!! I guess I wasn't meant to go home after all.
The Journey group was unbelievably supportive, and even though I don't think they quite understood what was at stake for me, they were all willing to help and put up with the detour that night to make sure I could stay in the country. After a few surprises and miscommunications with the pharmacist behind the counter bringing out the different types of insulin they had, we eventually came across "Apidra" - which I knew to be a "rapid" type of insulin, but which I had never used before. I was nervous as hell as I had no idea how my body would react to that, but what gave me the confidence to say "OK, let's do this" was the fact that I have a Dexcom CGM (continuous glucose monitoring) system. Without that, I would never have been able to roll with the change as well as I did, or to feel safe going anywhere without knowing what my blood sugars were doing. It salvaged the rest of the trip for me!
I was very lucky, all things considered, to have come through that situation safely and to have had such an out-of-this-world leadership team to take charge and do what was required, even though they didn't know how it would all turn out. I will be forever grateful to the Journey team for having my back, as my worst nightmare became their problem - and they handled it without complaint or drama. Words are just not enough to express my gratitude for their kindness, professionalism, and resourcefulness.
WHAT I LEARNED
Since my return to Canada, I have done much reflection on what this trip has meant to me, and how it has impacted my life moving forward. Words just seem inadequate to describe how I am different now, but what I have learned and what I know for sure is this:
1) I don't need as much. I can be just as happy with a whole lot less "stuff".
2) Laughter is the elixir of life.
3) A smile as you look in someone's eyes is the universal language to say "I see you. I honor you. I love you."
4) You can do a whole lot of good, even if you only have a little. Making the world a better place and leaving a legacy begins with small acts done with great love.
5) You don't have to do it alone. If you let them in, people may surprise you with how much they care.
My eyes overflow with tears as I write this, as this trip came at a particularly opportune time for me - desperately unhappy and filled with anxiety, searching for answers to some of life's big questions. I'm so happy and proud to share that I got the clarity I was looking for, and a new chapter and personal reinvention has begun.
What I want to say to everyone who was part of supporting this project and allowing me to have this experience: you will never know how much your contribution has meant, not only in terms of what it has done for me, but also what it has done for a family who will never be able to thank you for giving them a new life. You should feel very, very proud. We did a good thing.
Most of all, to the Journey leadership team - Taylor, Rachel, Lauren, and Amy - I want you to know that this work you do matters, and goes so far beyond just the communities you impact. You will never know the full measure of how the people who go on your trips are impacted by what they have experienced, or who they will go on to become - but rest assured that you have had a role to play in making us better humans and more compassionate global citizens. What you did for me goes beyond what I can describe here, but I can assure you that I will pay it forward for as long as I live.
I remain as inspired as ever to use my life to make a difference, and hope to inspire others to do the same.
With Great Love,
Inspiring others to live inspired lives
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