By Caitlin Kelly
We’re fortunate indeed to ever have a truly life-changing experience — in a good way!
Six years ago, I did, flying from my home in New York to Atlanta and there boarding a three-hour flight to Managua, capital of the second-poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere — Nicaragua — after Haiti.
If you’ve never visited or lived in a developing country, especially one reached so quickly, it’s a huge shock.
The air just feels different.
It smells different — of mildew and roast meat and undefined vegetation. Bird calls are unfamiliar.
Horse-drawn carts clop along the streets of the capital.
That $15 you just blew for a sandwich and a drink at the Atlanta airport takes on a whole new meaning when
Nicaraguans’ annual per capita income is just over $2,000.
I went there with WaterAid America, hired and well paid to produce three feature stories about their work, joining a multi-national, multi-lingual, multi-generational and multi-talented team: a blogger from Maine, Jennifer Iacovelli; the WaterAid communications person, Alannah Imbach, and photographer Rodrigo Cruz from Mexico, even from the very city I’d lived in at 14, Cuernavaca.
We had never met before.
We had no idea if we would. work well together or even like one another.
But we did and we did.
We even had such a powerful experience that, when we said goodbye in Managua to the country director, fellow Canadian Joshua Briemberg (a dead ringer for Hagrid!) he cautioned: “No tears!”
What an adventure!
To reach the coastal town of Bilwi, we rode the tiniest commercial aircraft I’d been in so far — they weighed us, not just our bags!
The van we traveled in for hours every day often needed a push. The heat was intense and we were working hard, 12 hours a day, seeking shade wherever we could find it. The van was stocked with plenty of ice water, and we needed it!
The goal there was to teach locals how to build their own toilets and wells.
Until you’ve been in a country where you sweat all day every day — and access to running water is a luxury — you can’t imagine it.
One of my favorite memories, when we visited a village without electricity and running water, sleeping on cots under mosquito nets, was bathing at dusk while trying to pump enough water from the well.
A cow stood nearby.
Just as I finally took off my sports bra…a little boy on a bicycle rode past.
We worked in Spanish, which I speak, and the area’s regional language — Miskito — for which we had translators.
Food was whatever was available, sometimes cooked over indoor wood fires.
The wooden house we stayed overnight in one night was typical — smooth, shiny, spotless wooden floors, painted a bright color, with open windows, and on stilts, allowing storage, shade and room for animals below.
Their turkey (!) followed us through the woods to the river, gobbling happily, until Jen and I got into a dugout canoe there, a first for both of us! Good thing this Canadian knew how to paddle a canoe!
Our host’s mother whipped out her machete (!) and sliced two nearby stalks of bamboo on an angle — boom, seats!
As you can imagine, the week was filled with revelations and kindness, new experiences and the joy of doing some good work in a team of fabulous, easy-going professionals. No one whined!
In the years since, Jen has stayed in Maine doing non-profit work and Alannah now lives in her native Washington State, running Vibe, a gorgeous co-working space she designed with her Swiss husband, Marcel. And they have lovely twin daughters, Noemi and Chiara.
We are still in touch and I’ll forever be so so so grateful for their trust in me and my skills, allowing me to learn so much so quickly.
Have you had an experience that changed you or your worldview?