When our team of 21 students from Portland area high schools, one mother and the entire Nesland family stepped off the panga (20 person speedboat) into Bluefields, Nicaragua, it was as though we were stepping into a different country altogether. Bluefields is a town of 30,000 people accessible by either plane or a two hour boat ride down the Rio Escondido, a river named for the pirates who used to hide there. Colonized originally by the British, the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua is populated by six ethnic groups: Creole, Garifuna (people who trace their ancestry to a group of escaped slaves who settled on St. Vincent), three indigenous groups, and Mestizo (Spanish speaking). The Mestizos are recent arrivals, coming over from the western side of the country during the tumultuous Civil War between the Sandinistas and Contras, and this does not feel like their home. Creole competes with Spanish for the lingua franca of the street, a few wooden buildings on stilts that survived a major hurricane seem more at home in Louisiana than Nicaragua, and the Moravian church (not the Catholic church) is the major building in town. Taxis dominate the streets (why have a car in a town with roads that don’t lead anywhere?), and the buildings harken back to a time when this was a bustling center of trade, primarily with New Orleans and Jamaica. That era was a long time ago, and the town shows its age.
Our team made its way to La Escuela Ruben Dario, a primary school named for the most famous poet in Nicaragua, possibly Latin America, and a true national hero, which would be our home (sleeping in three classrooms with mattresses and mosquito nets), kitchen (eating delicious coastal food prepared by a local family) and site of the court construction for the next week.
Before this trip continues, we must talk about the rain. This was not the Portland drizzle our team was accustomed to but a tropical pouring that would make anyone run for cover. That is unless you are in the open water in a panga, in which case your only hope is to hold tightly onto a plastic tarp and let the rain pound your back as you make your way downriver. This was our first introduction to the rain. Bluefields had not yet received much rain this rainy season. But when it came, it came with a vengeance, and this unfortunate circumstance happened to coincide with our team’s arrival.
In our pre-trip training, we talk about cultural values that embody the US. One of these is personal control over the environment. We believe that no matter the circumstance, if we grit our teeth and work hard enough, we can make the impossible possible. With this typical mindset, we attempted to control fate and work through the rain. The community was on board as well. Parents of the children in the school had donated numerous hours preparing the land. Some parents who couldn’t take the time to work on the prep work, paid a day laborer in their stead. The court was ready, the supplies were on hand and we started to work immediately upon stepping foot in the school, the baggage could be unloaded later.
Early in the process, we began to realize that the rain had caused such damage to the subgrade, that moving forward with pouring the concrete on the existing base would create major problems for the structural viability of the court. We faced a choice as a team that was not a choice at all. Either we could rush the completion of the court in order to finish on our original schedule, or we could slow down, rebuild the base, create tarps to cover smaller sections and try to finish half the court prior to leaving, but in a way that would still create a long-lasting court. Although disappointing to our group, we were encouraged by the community’s strong motivation that would ensure the quick completion of the court after we left. And so we labored on with a new goal in mind. And labor we did.
On a typical project, a dump truck will back up to the court site and deliver sand and gravel in nice clean piles. On this project, sand and gravel were delivered in bags, weighing approximately 130-150 pounds that needed to be transported by having two people lift it onto someone’s back, who would act as the human mule trucking it to the court site. This task was undoubtedly one of the most grueling in Courts for Kids history. The sand also needed to be sifted, water carried bucket by bucket, and other tasks that made what is normally a challenging project even more challenging. In spite of this, the team showed great resilience, inspiring the local community with their dedication. No one expected the group of US students to work this hard. The community also inspired our group with parents and kids alike jumping in with eager participation.
In addition to the court work, our group was able to learn some traditional latin and coastal dances, visit local resident’s homes, hear about issues facing the community from a professor at a local university, and share talents through a talent show/opening ceremony. All cultural interactions were made possible by a team of stellar Peace Corps Volunteers who helped coordinate, translate and fully participate. The lead PCV was Clare Pillsbury who worked closely with the director of the school to facilitate the project.
On our last day in the community, we had a ceremony with some speeches and artistic expressions followed by playing sports with some of the balls we brought. It was amazing to play with the kids on the court, to see their enthusiasm and passion for sports, yet their seriously limited space in which to play. It made us all realize that this court is going to get a ridiculous amount of use. On our bus ride back to Managua, we received word that the community was making great progress and expected to finish the court in the next day or two. It was hard to imagine a better way to end the trip.
“What I learned about the word from this trip is that despite cultural differences people really aren’t that different from each other. We all have dreams; hopes, desires, and hardships. The people have big dreams and want the best for their families, just like in the US. The world is a big place, but Courts for Kids taught me that we’re all connected.” – Lisa Peterson
“My favorite memory from this trip was playing with the Nicaraguan kids like basketball, soccer, volleyball, chess, and checkers; and me and Bryton would like play tag games with the kids. The kid locals smiled and laughed to me and Bryton! I also liked meeting the locals, they were really easy to talk to (thanks for the translators)!” – Channing Nesland, age 8
“The community changed me by making me realize how fortunate I am to have what I have, and it really changed my outlook on what I want to do with my life, and my view of how to help people and feel truly satisfied and good about what I’ve done. I want to make a difference the most I can and the community surrounding me opened up my eyes about how can make a difference.” – Savannah Harris
“Over the course of my service I have learned that you don’t need material things or comforts to find happiness. Happiness is present in the people you surround yourself with.” – Maria Parker
“I learned that I don’t need material objects to be happy. Happiness resides inside of people, instead of the things we buy. The language barrier doesn’t make connections impossible. We can connect through sports, smiles, and even high fives.” – Maya Webb
“My most important lesson has been there is joy in all things. The Nicas face poverty, lack of protection, and injustice, yet they smile and show incredible kindness to everyone they come across.” – Grace Becker
“My favorite part of the trip was creating relationships with the community and working not just alongside them but WITH them. The hardest part of going home is being able to take what I’ve learned and apply it to my day to day life. Reminding myself to not just ignore the hardships of the world, since they aren’t in my face, but to do my part to make a change. I don’t want to be a bystander any longer I want to be a part of the solution.” – Lilly Linder
“Throughout the last week of service I have learned many life lessons. I have learned to stay positive through hardships, and smile often. I have learned thateveryone worldwide has the same goal of being happy. The Nicaraguan community shows strength and hope, which I believe is something everyone should live by.” – Megan Foesch