We loaded into the back of the small, dilapidated whiteToyota pickup truck. No safety restraints were in sight, unless the roll bars along the top counted. Eight children aged 6 to 14 years couldn’t believe their good fortune. Eight adults searched each other’s faces for solidarity. This went against all our instincts, but so did waking up in a Nicaraguan compound with an armed guard standing at the door.
It seemed like a good idea at the time. Although native English speakers, my kids had only ever attended school in Spanish. They had no choice about it – from kindergarten on, they attended a public Spanish Immersion elementary school and quickly became fluent.
At first, the road started out dusty but flat. As we pulled out from behind the large black iron gates, I knew I was embarking on something that would take me far, far out of my comfort zone. Dressed in shorts, t-shirt, sturdy shoes, bandanas, and hats to protect us from the blazing sun, I wondered how hard could it be? I had plenty of fresh water and granola bars in my backpack. Two bottles of hand sanitizer – one in my pocket and a backup in my pack – would prevent any illness
. Our daily doses of malaria medication and enough industrial strength DEET bug spray to kill all the bugs in Nicaragua would keep us from insect driven disease.
As the pickup truck left town, I relaxed a bit. Beaming smiles of bliss radiated from each child – there was no fear on their faces. Moving slowly down the dirt road we waved as we passed children and parents beginning their days in their humble, dirt-floored homes. Cement walls created a shelter for them, and chickens and skinny dogs sauntered in and out. Wisps of smoke rose from the outdoor fire pits. Broad, white grins mixed with confused countenances met our white-skinned faces and shouts of greeting – not many ‘chelles’ in this part of the world.
The tiny truck wound its way down the road, the homes spreading further and further apart. A caballero and his companion greet our driver as he slows to a halt, carefully avoiding the emaciated cows on the road. Relationships are key to survival in this part of the world. The adults grab their cameras and snap away, most never having seen a real cowboy at work before. The kids smile broadly in disbelief.
Sparse, green grassland dotted with the occasional tree line both sides of the road. Every few miles family home vegetable gardens interrupted the rocky outcroppings. Undeterred, the farmers work around them.
Slowing to a halt, we notice a wrinkled old man on the side of the road. Victor, our driver, calls out a greeting and waves him closer. The man approaches the back of the truck, and I realize he intends to squeeze in with us. As he throws one arm over the side and carefully enters the pickup bed, his two-foot long machete enters with him. Our young American sons’ eyes widen in disbelief at the weapon within arm’s reach. The old American parents’ eyes widen in momentary panic.
Continuing up the road, local Nicaraguans looking for a ride repeatedly greet us. No one turned away; we realize the amazing opportunity to meet them up close and personal as we squish back to back and side to side in the shrinking truck.
The truck takes a sharp left turn and wheels begin to spin. Victor, unphased, eases it into low gear and we begin to climb a hill. The flat road has disappeared, replaced by small rocks at first, then enormous boulders. The adults begin to bark safety directions and plan for the eventual rollover. The truck lurches to the right, and I yelp in terror. The boys fist pump in jubilation, and we find ourselves right side up.
After an eternity, we make one last turn and the tiny pickup groans and lurches to a halt. As I wait for my brain to stop spinning and my heartbeat to ease, a sound like thunder reaches my ears. Children, teens and adults begin to crowd around, pulling on the doors and grinning widely. The entire community is cheering and screaming as if Justin Bieber has just walked on stage, when in reality it is just us, 16 Americans about to continue the ride of a lifetime in Nicaragua.