For the past three weeks, I spent my time volunteering with Growth International Volunteer Excursions (GIVE) in various locations in Nicaragua. Before I embarked on this adventure, I had never so much as been to Canada, let alone any other country, so naturally I experienced quite a culture shock upon my arrival.
Much of Nicaragua is currently facing a major fresh water shortage, making drinking water scarce for many. Although I never had to worry about having enough water, opportunities to shower were much less frequent than I was accustomed to, and the ones I did take were brief. Air conditioning and Wi-Fi were virtually non-existent aside from the airport through which I entered and left the country.
I was panicking my first day. What had I gotten myself into? How was I going to go without showering for days in 117 degree heat? And most importantly, what would I do without access to my phone? The list of First World Problems was quickly forming in my brain, and I was beginning to worry.
But I quickly realized that these small problems would majorly hinder my experience if I let them. I gave myself a pep talk that day, and resolved to immerse myself completely in my surroundings and the volunteer work I would be doing. I had come to help others, but I had also come to learn.
And learn I did. I learned far more than I could’ve ever imagined not only about the world outside my little bubble in the midwest United States, but about myself as well. When I decided to travel to Nicaragua, I went with the intention of changing others’ lives. In reality, the people living in the communities I visited changed my life more than I ever could’ve dreamed.
The people I met live simply. They do not have the luxuries we consider necessities in the U.S. However, they have something that I feel many of us have lost in the U.S. It is not material. It cannot be bought. But it is something more beautiful and more fulfilling than anything money can buy. It is a genuine love and appreciation for their fellow humans.
In America, we are constantly faced with distractions, particularly in the form of our cell phones. That buzz in our pockets signaling a text or social media notification too often takes precedence over real conversations with real people who are sitting right in front of us. How often do we attend social gatherings but looking around the room we see only the glow of screens instead of genuine exchanges between friends?
The people I met abroad know the value of each others’ company. The smiles on their faces don’t come from earning 100 likes on a photo or getting 10 retweets. They come from the people around them. The joy in their lives is shared with others through real, genuine interactions, not words and images on screens.
I was lucky enough to get to share that joy. Children my volunteer group and I had never met would break into the most radiant smiles and leap into our arms the moment they saw us. When our truck would pass through the village, everyone we saw would wave and call out to us. When we walked to our worksite, locals would quickly join us, happy and eager to work alongside us.
We did not come with tangible gifts for these people. We weren’t bringing them shiny new electronics or clothes. What we brought was our company, and that was enough for them.
And so, one of the most important lessons I learned during my time abroad was the impact humans can have simply by sharing their love. There is no substitute for our company, our companionship and real conversation.A friend told me that when we travel, we don’t look to each other to see how we are different; we look to each other to see how we are all the same. No matter where in the world we call home, and no matter our differences in race, religion or otherwise, we are all on the same team. Team Human. And we should love and care for our fellow teammates in all facets of our lives, because nothing money can buy can replace the feeling of being loved.