April 6, 2016

LEUNG | For Better

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One of the things I find most difficult is describing experiences. Every experience is so unique to the individual going through it, and every emotion is so deeply felt. In my past article, “For Better or For Worse,” I wrote about my upcoming spring break trip to Nicaragua with Bridges to Community and my skepticism with service trips in general. It was only after a tearful Skype session with my parents after my return when I had to abruptly log off because the culture shock I faced was too overwhelming, that I finally understood how much the trip had impacted me.

After spending just over a week in Siuna, Nicaragua, I cannot emphasize enough how important and meaningful a short-term stay can be. I had trust in the program I was going with, but at the back of my mind I couldn’t help but question the extent to which our work would really help and support the community. Was it enough time? How much work could really get done? Would the beneficiaries be appreciative of Americans coming to their community? Did they want us there in the first place?

I figured out soon enough. Every morning, we woke up at 6 a.m. and chose which work site to go to. After the second day, I started going back to one work site with a family who had a daughter named Daniela. Just like I find it difficult to describe how meaningful this trip was — devoid of any clichés — I find it hard to explain the connection I had with this little girl. Seeing as she only spoke Spanish and I spoke very little of it, I thought a language barrier would hinder our interactions greatly. I didn’t know how it was possible to be so invested in a relationship where words were completely irrelevant and useless. But after Daniela got comfortable with me, we became attached at the hip. In between working on the latrine for her family, I would play “kitchen” with her, using rocks as food and leaves as plates. I taught her handshakes and games while she taught me words in Spanish. We played thumb war and built mini houses together using pieces of wood she found lying around (originally used to build the structure of the latrine). She would run around the house, put on a pair of one of our working gloves and help pick up cement bricks or shovel dirt into buckets that were used for structural purposes. On top of that, she still had the energy to laugh and play with us. I don’t think I ever stopped smiling.

What surprised me the most was how much her family appreciated our connection. Her mother would bring her camera out and take pictures of us, and whenever she saw me arrive in the morning, she gave me the warmest smile. She knew I wanted to contribute in helping her family have a latrine, but she also knew how much Daniela meant to me and me to her.

These connections we form with people in the community make the experience visiting the country unexpected, but more impactful. For anyone who has visited a developing country, it is one thing to learn about the country in school or read about it on the internet and another to actually visit it in person. Sleeping in 90 degree weather with no pillow or sheets, making sure my mosquito net was tucked in at night but realizing bugs would still find their way into the bed and “bathing” in the river because there were no bathroom facilities or running water was quite an experience. But so was playing card games at night because there was no Wi-Fi and technological distractions, learning dance moves from community members, realizing how beautiful and untouched the landscapes were and interacting with families everyday. Their lives are different from us, but not inferior. The people I worked with and the others I got to meet are some of the most hardworking, inquisitive and loving people I’ve ever encountered.

It was hard coming back to campus and hearing people complain about their breaks. I didn’t want to seem conceited or act as if I was superior — if I hadn’t gone on the trip, I may have been the one complaining about what I know now are trivial things. But when I heard someone saying that they didn’t have enough time to buy new spring clothes back home, or complaining about how they didn’t have enough space in their car to bring back more luggage, I couldn’t help but think about where I had just come from. On one of the work days, a Nicaraguan I was working with asked if he could try on my work gloves. Earlier, I had realized none of the workers wore them, even though everything was done by hand and the labor was intense. He put my gloves on and looked at them with an expression of awe and appreciation. He then told me how expensive gloves were in the country, and how hard they were to even come by in the first place. It’s difficult to fathom just how much we have. We complain so frequently about what we don’t have or what we want to have, that we don’t realize the extent to which we have. Gloves are items I pass over in a store, not because I can’t afford them, but because I don’t need them. The amount of consumer goods we have available for us is overwhelming. Yet some of the simplest products are unavailable or unaffordable to people who need them the most. And here we are, constantly complaining.

As Oliver Wendall Holmes said, “A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.” In a short period of time, I was able to see how much our work affected the lives of the beneficiary families and community members. I saw the importance of the relationships we built and the long-lasting impact of them. We have the ability to touch the lives of every person we interact with in a positive way and return home with a new perspective and view on life that we can use to promote change.

Gaby Leung is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached atgl376@cornell.edu. Serendipitous Musings appears alternate Thursdays this semester.

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