By Katelyn Colwell

“Chinandega, Chinandega, Chinandega!”  The middle-aged Nicaraguan man cries while he needlessly holds my arm and I take my first step onto the old bus. I hold my breath as I walk up the worn-out stairs for the first time – I try not to inhale the foul air of the bus terminal that reeks of garbage and sweat.  I scan the rows of seats but all I find are blank stares from unfamiliar faces.  How do I ask if I can sit with them, again?  I am mindful not to touch the railing – who knows what sorts of bacteria have made this bus their home.

I point to the empty seat beside a woman on the bus, she shakes her head.  Dismayed, I look to the next row and point to the empty seat, the man shakes his head.  Why doesn’t anyone want to sit with me?

“No, they mean the seat is free!”  I am told.  I take a seat next to the man.

The sun beats down on me through the bus window; the air is hot and stagnant.  Sweat drips down my face, though I have barely exerted any energy.  We are going into La Isla for the first time – a small community just outside of Chichigalpa, also known as “La Isla de Viudas” or “The Island of Widows” due to the high mortality rates of men employed as sugarcane cutters in the community.  Thousands have died from Chronic Kidney Disease of Unknown Cause (CKDnT), which research suggests is linked to the severe working conditions of the sugarcane fields, especially the long hours of strenuous labour combined with chronic dehydration.

I am a newly arrived volunteer at the La Isla Foundation. Just yesterday I had my orientation and received a briefing on what I would be doing over the next three months. Upon arriving in the community, we are given an armful of flyers to hand out door-to-door.  I walk along the dirt roads with the other volunteers.  San Cristobal Volcano can be seen over the horizon of barbed-wire fences and tin homes.  Chickens scurry by my feet and a child on a horse gallops past us.  It is clear to me that this area is stricken with poverty.  For a second, I imagine a terrible storm passing through the area.  Do these homes made of garbage bags and sticks hold up against the harsh rainy season of Nicaragua?

“Hola!” I walk towards a small tin home with dirt floors and I find a woman that looks about 20 sitting in a hammock with a child in one hand and a paper fan in the other, fanning herself.  I recite a sentence, telling her that I am a La Isla Foundation volunteer and hand her the flyer.  She smiles, nods, and I am on my way.

As I make my way through the community, I cannot help but feel a sense of guilt with each person I interact with.  I am clearly foreign – light skinned, wearing expensive bright green shoes.  I will be in Nicaragua working with La Isla Foundation for a short three months, after which I will fly back to Canada. I will probably buy a new pair of shoes when I get home.  Meanwhile, the families in the La Isla Community struggle to afford the bare necessities.  The average wage of a person living in this community is $7 a day.  Suddenly the daily concerns I had at home in Canada seem so insignificant.

“Gringa!”  the children shout at me.  I have the opportunity to help out the other volunteers with Kid’s Club – an after school program where we do arts, crafts and play sports with the children of La Isla.  I am the only female playing soccer with the male children and other volunteers.  I fall in the mud and run into a tree, but the students think it is hilarious so I feel less annoyed about my dirty clothes and the scratch on my forehead.  The children are a handful from the start, but as the weeks go by, I get to know them by name.  As my Spanish improves, I can talk to them about school and their families.

We are playing “school,” except I am the student and a child is the teacher.  The fifth grade girl writes Spanish words on the white board and I copy it onto a sheet of paper.  She teaches me some words in Spanish.  I have a sudden flashback to my childhood when I used to play “school” with my sister, giving her pretend homework and notes to copy out.  It amazes me how similar children are all around the world. Growing up in a developed country or not, every child just wants to laugh and play.

We found a location for the Community Garden late into my second month at La Isla Foundation.  A team of volunteers formed and headed out into the community to weed the garden and build a barbed wire fence around the perimeter to keep out the wandering chickens and pigs.

“Cat-a-leen!” One of the young girls I know from Kid’s Club calls to me from the street on her bicycle as I tend to the Community Garden. She is disappointed when I tell her I will be working in the garden today and not attending Kid’s Club. I tell her to come help us out with the Community Garden. It is amazing to see so many community members enthusiastic about helping out with this project. The children are especially fun to be with – barely ten years old and they know more about building a barbed wire fence then all of the volunteers put together!

Each time I pass through the bus terminal, the smell remains the same.  But when I hear “Chinandega, Chinandega, Chinandega!” I cannot help but feel excited.  I thank the man who tries to help me onto the bus, and take a seat where I can find one. I feel the Nicaraguan sun on my skin and embrace these beautiful moments – when I return to the Great White North in a mere two weeks, I will not have opportunities like this. I love the travel time between my home in León and Chichigalpa, taking in all of my surroundings along the way. A volcano can be seen in almost every direction, and observing the people interacting on the bus can be quite amusing. I like to think about why they are making the trip to Chichigalpa and what they do in their daily life.

The more I spend time in the community with the children and adults, the more I realize that these people are quite happy.  In the more developed Western society, I often find that we live day-to-day, rushing, meeting deadlines, complaining, being ungrateful and not appreciating how lucky we are to have what we have.  Living in poverty has not broken the spirits of the Nicaraguan people; they celebrate life.  They may not have been given the most ideal living situation, but they are happy because they have each other: they have love.  These people celebrate small victories and have festivals and parades throughout the city on a weekly basis. Despite the hardships, Nicaraguans always take the time to enjoy and live in the moment.

Although the devastation of the CKDnT epidemic has ripped through Central America – children live without fathers and brothers, women without husbands and sons – I have hope for the future.  My time at La Isla is coming to an end, but I know that more volunteers will be taking my place, and that the work done by all of the staff members and volunteers will one day save the lives of thousands of people employed by the sugarcane companies.  I wish and hope that incoming volunteers are able to take a few things from this experience that I have  – feel every moment, embrace the culture, learn from the community, build meaningful relationships, be grateful for everything you have, and be happy because you are alive and well.

Katelyn Colwell is an undergraduate student specializing in Global Health in the Bachelor of Health Sciences (Honours) program at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada. Outside of her studies, Katelyn enjoys spending time with family, participating in sports, traveling, running, eating, and laughing.

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