Week 16: An Intrepid Expedition: Nicaragua [Score +62]
[If life in Nicaragua is new to you, check out this easy-to-read primer I wrote on the country for some background.]
I enjoy traveling and exploring new places, but I generally keep it on the conservative side of the adventurous scale: decent hotels, comfortable Airbnb rentals, nice neighborhoods, countries where English is the primary language.
So when I decided to go to Nicaragua this summer, my friends’ and family’s jaws dropped open, eyebrows shot up, and “What?!” was the first word out of their mouths.
Let me start from the beginning.
If you’ve been with me on this intrepid year for a couple months, you’ll remember that I helped my friend, Kristin Van Busum, write and deliver a talk at TEDxIndianapolis about the nonprofit organization she founded, Project Alianza. Project Alianza is working to bring structured, high-quality education to children living in poverty on private coffee farms in rural Nicaragua.
Kristin and I met in college, and I’ve long considered her one of my bravest, most intrepid friends. I’ve known her to book plane tickets to far-off countries with just a couple weeks’ notice simply because the deal was good and it sounded like fun. After growing up in a rural town in central Indiana, like me, Kristin moved to New York City (and got her master’s degree in public policy), then landed at RAND, a think tank in Boston. It was in Boston that she met a family from Nicaragua, visited their coffee farm, and came back inspired to leave corporate life and start a nonprofit organization in the second-poorest country in the western hemisphere from scratch.
Is that intrepid, or what?
Since founding the organization in 2014, Kristin has been splitting her time between doing on-the-ground work in rural Nicaragua, and fundraising and speaking on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. Her approach to listening to local ideas and building the organization through alliances has worked: Project Alianza served more than 550 kids in 2016, and that number will increase substantially in 2017. After building their first school, they saw attendance rates increase by 10%, and graduation from one grade to the next at that school was 100%—an astounding number when you consider that 6 of 10 children in rural Nicaragua will not complete primary school.
Project Alianza today has relationships with five schools—whether it’s in a fully-run capacity or hands-on support—and two more are in the works.
Making My Brave Decision
Kristin has been gently inviting me to go visit and see her work firsthand since the beginning. Each time, I’ve politely declined or given a non-committal, “Oh, yeah, that sounds cool, maybe…” answer (that she totally saw through). In early April this year, over dinner at my house, she invited me again. I more directly said, “Kristin, you know I’m one of your biggest supporters, but that is SO far outside my comfort zone.”
Her direct answer in return? “I can make it where you’re comfortable.”
Oh, man. I was running out of excuses.
We moved on to other topics (bless her, she knows how to be patiently persistent but not pushy), but that sentence stuck with me over the coming weeks. “I can make you comfortable.”
At the same time, I was still listening to few other podcasts except the Tim Ferriss Show, and his interview from August 2015 with Brené Brown came up in my feed. She is a research professor at the University of Houston who specifically studies vulnerability, courage, worthiness, and shame. (She has a great TED Talk on this topic with more than 30,000,000 views.)
Something she said in that interview struck me right in the gut (I’m paraphrasing): “Each day, in both small and significant ways, you get to choose: do I want to choose the comfortable option? Or the courageous one? You can do either, but your life will change and be much richer if you embrace your vulnerability and choose courage over comfort.”
Within moments, I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to stop being a chicken and support my friend. I wanted to choose the courageous option, push myself outside my comfort zone, and go to Nicaragua.
All the things that made me anxious about the idea were still noisily taking up space in my head: How much would we be “roughing it”? Would I be able to sleep? Was it safe? Would I have to go without a shower for days? How many vaccines would I have to get (I hate shots)? I don’t speak the language, would that be difficult? What’s the bug situation like (Kristin had some harrowing stories of tick and scorpion infestations, and what about malaria and zika)?
And the biggest concern I had: what if I get sick? The thought of becoming ill from contaminated water while in a developing country where quality healthcare was uncertain and I didn’t speak the language was really nerve-wracking. Kristin’s stories of parasites and food-borne illnesses over the years, plus my own parents’ personal tales of getting sick in Mexico, made me really uneasy. It didn’t help that there was one very memorable scene in the first Sex and the City movie that kept running through my head…
At the same time, though, after making that conscious decision to be courageous, the encouraging internal voices became louder and more prominent: It would only be for a week, I could tough out any inconveniences for that long. I could be super careful about drinking purified, bottled water and safely prepared food. And I could be a big girl and get whatever shots I needed to get.
Kristin was the first person I told about my decision (see the conversation to the right).
Her response was appropriate.
We talked and decided that the optimal time for me to go would be in just six weeks’ time, because their third Alianza Advocates trip was approaching: a group of English speakers would be traveling together to see the work of the organization. Kristin and her team had volunteer activities planned with the children at three different schools; we would tour a successful, small coffee farm; and we would also get some time together to do some sightseeing.
I liked the fact that this four-day trip would include some volunteer time with the Project Alianza schools. While faith-based trips often seek to convert local people to the missionaries’ religion, the purpose of our volunteering on the Alianza Advocates trip—an organization not tied to religion—was simply to interact with the kids in a positive way. We would bring joy to their lives and show them the possibilities of life outside their coffee-farm community. If you ask these kids what they want to be when they grow up, they most frequently answer, “a coffee-picker.” It’s just what they know. Visitors from outside can open their eyes to more possibilities.
Project Alianza’s work and support are not contingent upon the kids and their families doing or believing anything in return. Kristin and her team are simply focused on providing high-quality education and preventing child labor. This transparent mission is one of the things I most love about this organization.
In the end, seven intrepid travelers joined the Alianza Advocates trip: a board member making his third trip to the country; a lawyer-turned-aesthetician from San Francisco; two fellow Salesforce colleagues from the U.K. who turned their trip into a multi-country expedition; a twelve-year-old young woman whose parents want her to be fluent in Spanish and be exposed to new cultures; her former nanny, a woman from Colombia who teaches children in Spanish in San Francisco; and me.
Over the coming days and weeks, I’ll share stories and photos and do my best to capture the experience. To give this the Intrepid Introvert weight it deserves, I’m also adding two new scoring categories: Ventured >50 Miles from Home (+10 points), and Left the Country (+40 points).
Until next time, I’ll leave you to ponder Brené Brown’s question again:
What will you choose today: comfort or courage?
- Did something outside my routine: +1
- Left the house: +1
- Ventured >50 miles from home: +10
- Left the country: +40
- Did something entirely new: +1
- Activity benefits my health/wellbeing: +1
- Burned real calories (so I got some exercise): +1
- Had a conversation with a stranger of at least 30 seconds: +2
- Had a conversation with a stranger beyond basics (i.e., work, hometown, what’s your dog’s name): +2
- Learned someone’s name: +3