The plane trembled below me, jolting my stomach into awareness of the fact that I was thousands of feet above the Earth. Breathing deeply and gripping my armrest, I felt the familiar and unwelcome sensation of motion sickness take hold. Enviously, I glanced at the other passengers around me, unaffected and even bored by the descent as they lazily flipped through magazines or readjusted their neck pillows. I gritted my teeth. I’d take bored over nauseous any day.
One thing did manage to distract me as the plane eased downward, though. The open window to my right revealed my first glance at Nicaragua. For months I had planned for this trip, trying to arrive as prepared as I possibly could.
But no packing list could make me prepared for the way I would feel when I saw the country sprawling out below me in the darkness, noticeably lacking the grid of lights I was used to in the States. Faint trails of light stretched across the ground like delicate veins, occasionally meeting up with clusters of stronger light in small cities and then fading back out again.
A thrill rose up in me as I peered out of my little window, taking in Nicaragua for the first time. I felt the magnitude of my privilege from my seat in the plane when I recognized that the vast expanse of darkness below me had a lot to do with poverty and lack of electricity. I lost myself in speculation, wondering about all the millions of people we were flying over and what their lives might be like. Soon, I would know.
That first ride through the streets of Managua in an open-air truck left no sense unstimulated. Horns were used generously, almost losing their significance and ending up as more of a greeting than a stern objection. My hair whipped around my face, momentarily obscuring my view of the city whizzing by. Everywhere I saw little vignettes of Managuan life playing out before me: souvenir stands parked by the side of the road to make a quick sale; a basketball game surrounded by kids in the middle of the night; families sitting out on their front porches and talking in the evening air.
Everyone noticed the trees immediately. Ginormous electric trees lined the main road, standing taller than houses and glowing neon orange, green, pink and blue. They were fascinating to us, casting light over the city in more varied color than the typical yellow streetlight. My group later learned of the resentment those trees ignited among Managuans, an initiative of the first lady. Each tree represented thousands of dollars spent on beautification in a country that needs infrastructure, healthcare and education far more urgently.
The fourteen other students in the truck with me were all just as observant, caught up in the rush and liveliness of the traffic. We were pretty wide-eyed and quiet. I’m sure everyone felt as amazed as I did that the trip we’d planned on for so long was finally the present reality.
This was the first of sixteen days in Nicaragua – full of colors, sounds, sensations and uncertainty. By the time we pulled into our home base, the nonprofit called AMOS, I felt eager to find familiarity and get to doing the learning and service this trip would entail. The next two weeks unfurled endlessly before us, blank and ready to fill with new memories.