In June 2012, our group leaders Jeff and Stelli Munnis organised a mission trip to fly to Nicaragua. Through the Seeds of Learning, a non-profit organization supporting the education projects in Latin America, we worked on the school building project in a small town of San Ramon, situated in the beautiful mountainous area, not far from Matagalpa. Chamba and Mina were the local leaders, responsible for the project’ completion and our well-being. 🙂
Our group arrived to the country to complete the interior and exterior wall painting, the construction of a separate kitchen (Nicaraguan mothers volunteer to cook lunches for their kids daily), and the building of some pathways with benches around the school. I must say that our expectation how the school is supposed to look like has nothing to do with the ones build in Nicaragua. Those are small, simple buildings with few rooms and fenced windows.
Since I came back from Nicaragua, I’ve been asked a number of questions that I’d like to answer here in my blog post.
What did I bring from my trip?
I bought a few handmade pieces from the local artisans that included a couple of handbags and some jewelry made of real, colorful seeds. But what I really brought from my trip were the intangible things. Mainly, a change in my attitude about life. It was an intense period in my life when I had to look inward to understand myself and my needs, to clarify my goals and purpose, and to just appreciate life a whole lot more than I used to.
How much was it?
In short, $2100 including the ticket … Some questioned my decision to spend my money on this kind of a trip that didn’t include the luxurious accommodations and a beach resort, rather made me look at the incredible level of poverty, made me sleep in a hot and humid room with a bunch of strangers (our group members were the strangers to me at first). I also took cold showers (there was no hot water in the houses), drove over the pitiful roads, had stomach pain, sweated for hours under the blinding sun, inhaled the paint fumes with the dusty, polluted air, missed out on my daily intake of the NPR news, as well as running, baking, drawing, painting, and not drinking the hot Earl Grey tea. I can go on and on.
What did I gain?
A lifetime of raw experiences and a change in perception… I saw the pure joy and happiness derived from simple pleasures – the interactions with friends, family and strangers that reminded me of my native country. The Nicaraguans had no access to infinite shopping, the Internet, gaming, or workaholic lifestyle. I didn’t encounter the unspoken, spiritual emptiness often observed in the West. As many choose to live the American dream owning a house, two cars and a dream vacation each year both good and bad comes with it. Owning a house often defines our identity. We work for it. When the house is lost due to fire or other accident, it feels like everything is gone.We feel as a failure. It happens as we often focus on getting the nice things, become the slaves to our endless need to work to support our lifestyle. This is the exact opposite of the Nicaraguan culture. Their focus is family, the cultivation of relationships and friendship.I was never interested in possessions or the accumulation of stuff, coming from the former USSR where everything was rationed, and in this country I found a similar to my culture focus on friendships.
Of course, Nicaraguans also have problems. Poverty is one of them. Yet, diving into a different culture was like breaking out from a shell that guarded my settled world. It was refreshing to look at the sincere enjoyment people had in their daily interactions with each other. It became the time to acknowledge their struggles that often involved hard, manual labor, and to appreciate my lucky existence living in the U.S. It was about seeing the humanity in simple things and actions, finding value in life, and accepting myself and therefore others.
In Nicaragua we all had some rough times that reinforced our gratitude for having the very basic things back home, like warm running water, electricity, air-conditioning, and the rudimentary appliances that cut on our time doing the housework.
But most importantly, I woke up from my sleep, redefined my beliefs and habits, stopped being so self-destructing that settled me on a path to my emotional freedom and peace. If you follow my art @ www.Veronicasart.com , you will see some of the artwork that features the Nicaraguan children.
+ Originally published in the summer of 2012.
To learn more:
- Stelli Munnis http://www.stellimunnis.com/about/ and Veronica Winters talk about their art installation Eyes to See, filmed by WTAJ TV, State College, PA on Nov.2, 2012 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NNBNSozqy4Q
- To see a video of the trip, go to YouTube and type in “Americans in Nicaragua” https://youtu.be/V4JWJ0X8P-M
- To donate to the Seeds of Learning or to go on a trip like mine, visit: www.seedsoflearning.org
- All proceeds from the book sales go to the Seeds of Learning. To support the education of Nicaraguan children, please consider buying a book: http://www.amazon.com/Eyes-See-U-S-Volunteers-Nicaragua/dp/1478305924/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1445094181&sr=8-1&keywords=eyes+to+see+nicaragua+book
Eyes to See: U.S. Volunteers in Nicaragua, photo book, 160 pages
In this beautifully illustrated book, Stelli Munnis http://www.stellimunnis.com/about/ and Veronica Winters share what it’s like for Americans volunteers to travel to Nicaragua with the nonprofit organization, Seeds of Learning. Although volunteers travel to Nicaragua to build or renovate a school building, the real work happens when things are torn down. As the barriers between people are removed, and the walls individuals erect inside themselves are torn down, they become authentic and caring with one another. Volunteers return to the U.S. feeling different about themselves, others, and the world. They can’t help but feel deeply moved and touched by the hearts and spirits of the Nicaraguan children and people. The book contains over 100 full-color photographs that capture the spirit of what it’s like from the perspectives of volunteers, the children and people of Nicaragua.
My pictures represent a journey to a country with little means yet abundant friendliness. It is a place filled with strong women, free-spirited children, and laid-back men. The Nicaraguan way of life is slow-paced, hard labored, and dedicated to familial relations and friendships. It’s also a place where coffee growers, farming communities, and local co-ops harvest the land and live simply.
Images of children take a special part in this book. They had a natural, unspoiled ability to pose for my Nikon without any preconditions or special arrangements that others typically require when being photographed. They were neither rude nor aggressive; rather, they were kind, well behaved, and loving. I was drawn to their natural beauty and eagerness to communicate with our group of strangers and foreigners. This experience was deeply touching and filled my heart with love and gratitude.
The lush tropical landscape, verdant mountains, and blue skies with billowy clouds provide the backdrop to many of my photographs. It was my intent to capture the spirit of the Nicaraguan people and their rustic lifestyle, while also showing the architecture, housing, and utilitarian objects used in everyday life.
My sole purpose for creating this book is to let curious hearts see and understand the country. It’s a powerful and transforming experience to travel to the second poorest country in the western hemisphere and witness how people there live. It my sincere desire that my photographs will inspire many Americans to travel to Nicaragua with Seeds of Learning or donate to their organization. They are committed to providing children and communities with a tangible opportunity to improve their lives by having greater access to education.
Thank you for your interest in our work and for supporting this project!