When we filtered into a second-floor classroom at the Jaqua Center, 10 weeks before our trip to Central America, we saw a room filled with faces we passed shyly every day. Football, Acrobatics & Tumbling, Lacrosse, Basketball, Track & Field, and Softball athletes — as well as staff from several branches of the athletic department — comprised this unique group. They were fellow student-athletes we knew, but not well in most cases.
After weeks of awkward ice-breakers and small talk, our group narrowed to 20 people ready to conquer a Courts for Kids trip to Los Hatillos, Nicaragua. Derek Nesland, the President of the non-profit, briefed us on the work and preparation necessary to complete a concrete, multi-sport court in a developing country with limited resources and an unfamiliar culture. On Saturday, June 17th, 2017, we boarded a plane, heading for foreign soil.
The town of Los Hatillos is a modest, underdeveloped community. The people shop second-hand, live in cement houses, and stroll through streets of dirt. Their shops are often in the living rooms of the locals’ homes. People spend Cordoba, the national currency, on knock-off Crocs and recycled glass bottles of orange Fanta and sweet Coca-Cola. Life is simple, and the people seem satisfied with that.
To we Americans, the difference between our lives and cultures was immediately shocking. Upon landing in Los Hatillos, we walked through the village and took in the echos of animals oinking, barking, and mooing. Our eyes widened at the sight of two roosters fighting, and a starving dog begging for attention. The sound of Spanish filled the air, between the roar of motorcycle engines and roosters clucking.
Peace Corps volunteers graciously helped us bridge our language barrier. Up the road, emptied classrooms from the community school waited to be filled with our luggage. Thirteen girls lined thin mattress pads on the red tiles of the schoolroom, while the three boys and four chaperones did the same in the classroom next door. These floors would tuck us in each night, and this community would be our home for the next week.
In preparation for our arrival, the community graciously planned daily meals that would respect and accommodate our American diets. The people of Los Hatillos typically consume some form of protein once a month, so it was generous of them to collect limited supplies and cook some at every one of our meals. A major contributor to this protein was a large pig, who we named Wilbur for about five minutes — before he was brought to our local host Ligia’s back porch and turned into pork.
Several of us watched his transformation from living creature to lifeless weight. Everyone, whether absent or present from the porch, took it differently: shock, intrigue, appreciation, and pure disturbance were among the reactions. However, most enjoyed “la comida Nica”, or Nicaraguan cuisine, and respected the sacrifice of the pig and the significant efforts of the community at dinner that night.
In addition to dinner, the people organized a welcome celebration for our group. We sat around a classroom, considerably humbled by the songs, speeches, and poems recited proudly before us. We exchanged our national anthems, signifying a mutual respect for each country. That night will be etched upon our hearts forever. Coming down from the beautiful celebration and delicious meal, we realized that five days of daunting physical labor lay ahead. Many of us began to panic about the situation we got ourselves into. We all crawled under our thin sheets, laughed over our common fears and built upon our new foundation of friendship.
We had our work cut out for us if we wanted to complete the court within the allotted five days. We formed a united front to work together and conquer the building of a multi-purpose sport court. Monday, at 6:15 a.m., we awoke to the tapping of bird feet on the tin roof and roosters crowing at the risen sun. Our heavy eyes blinked slowly at one another as we slipped into the day’s work attire. Trees had been cleared to make room for the court, but the land had not been leveled, resulting in strenuous labor to prepare a flat surface to build upon.
Working together as an integrated team of students, faculty, children, workers, and local men and women, we formed a human conveyer belt and began heaving buckets of sand, rocks, water, and concrete and pouring them into our plot of land to lay a foundation for the sport court. In the moment, the day’s time passed slowly and the work seemed like it may never end. However, our group forged on until the first slab of cement was completed long after the sun set.
Proud and tired, we had no energy to acknowledge our differences, so we chose to embrace the group’s unique personalities. We girls laid in bed that night and, again, laughed about everything under the night’s moon. From then on, we spent nights in bed learning a little more about each other’s upbringings, insecurities, and embarrassments. Although we learned that everyone’s childhoods were unique, we found it was easy to relate about the common blunders of life. Those stories helped our team evolve into so much more — the close quarters and pure exhaustion brought out sides of each person that most friends never see in one another.
We also depended on each other in ways we never imagined. Ivan Faulhaber and Joe Delgado helped everyone comprehend the kind words the locals wanted to share; staff members Callie Wagner, Kenny Farr, Anna Poponyak, and Rob Moseley pushed us to keep working when the end seemed so far away; and August Raskie taught everyone a little something about hard work in the face of adversity, by working through uncomfortable illness. Everyone’s individual personalities made us whole and shaped us into the family we had become by the end of the trip.
Among our favorite memories was Tuesday night, when we bonded with the community through several sporting games on an old, open field. Men, women and children of all ages participated in the competitive games: Nicaraguans versus Americans. People were scattered throughout the entire field, some playing softball, some playing soccer, some learning gymnastics with the Oregon acrobats. Others played leap frog and ring around the rosie, and some chose simply to spectate, gazing from afar while sitting on their motorcycles. Each personality helped bridge the way to compassion and understanding. Love resounded, and yet again, the community continued to welcome us while exuding generosity and offering new, unique experiences.
Our journey was truly beautiful because of the way so many different people and personalities merged. We will all be silently grateful for the tight sleeping quarters and unique meals because whether we know it or not, those and many other moments bonded us to form new friendships that we hope last a lifetime. While building the court, we, as a diverse group, were able to conquer adversity to find unity and partnership.
Fully investing ourselves in the beauty of the Nicaraguan culture, we were able to connect with the community and respect a different, simpler lifestyle. The late-night laughs, the grueling work, the painful dehydration, and the finished court, are all pieces of the friendship that twenty student-athletes and athletic department staff share. Although we parted ways since Nicaragua, and we live comfortably in our own beds, the experience is something we will never forget and it is a bond that only our twenty faces can smile about. To Nicaragua and the community of Los Hatillos, we owe it all.