When I think about all the trips I’ve taken in my life, it was three weeks in a village in rural Nicaragua that taught me what we’re really looking for when we travel:  a place you can call home, and a family you can become a part of.

The trip didn’t have an unusual premise.  About 15 progressively-minded students from a small liberal arts college in Portland, Oregon raised funds during the year to do a service project in a small village “off the beaten path” called Jalapa.

I was 22, had just finished a slightly traumatic senior year of college, and had really not thought much about the trip until I was actually on the plane.

The first week, we stayed in the capital in Managua with host families.  There we saw poverty on a scale we had never seen before: small children begging, unsupervised by adults; men with no limbs, asking for change.  We toured a landfill where families lived and subsisted.  We were followed around by kids who were addicted to inhaling small glass jars of glue.Witnessing these things was important and necessary.  But it wasn’t until we arrived in the countryside that we began to see what was beautiful and amazing about Nicaragua.

We got to Jalapa, a town made up of one dirt road and a series of small rustic houses surrounded by farms.   The town had one water source, called “La Fuente” and it was a waterfall several miles up in the mountains.

My host's little girls.

I stayed with a beautiful family with two young daughters. They lived in a small house with a dirt floor and chickens in the yard.  They had an outhouse and no running water.  Their meals consisted of rice, beans and sometimes chicken.

By day our group built stoves,  which at the time we thought very useful; now  I think it was probably just a way for us to be included (having untrained college kids build stoves, no matter how basic, isn’t exactly the pillar of carpentry).  By night, we gathered at one house and listened to the village elder and founder tell us about Nicaragua and its history.  We were fascinated by stories of the Sandinista-Contra conflict and learned about the United States’ involvement with Nicaragua in the ‘80s.

I became closer with my Jalapa host family in three short weeks than I had been with my host family in Costa Rica during my entire semester abroad (which is a story for another time).  We ceased to be passively observant tourists. My host mother instantly trusted me with her two young daughters.  I remember one night a traveling circus came to town and we all went.  For some reason the parents didn’t want to go, so I took one of the daughters myself.  I carried her through the darkness.  “I’m scared,” she said.  “It’s OK,” I said and shortly we were back under a streetlight again.

One of my most beautiful memories was visiting one of the village residents at his home, a small house far away from the rest of the town.  We walked very far to his one bedroom house, which he shared with his wife and eight (!) children.  This guy was an old school cowboy, a farmer.  I remember walking for miles through his amazing pineapple farm.  It was some of the most beautiful country I’ve ever seen.  The bluest sky, the darkest nights, the twinkliest stars.  And none of it ruined by city lights or pollution.

Village store in Jalapa.

One of the worst ironies of living in Jalapa is that no one had access to fruits or vegetables.  For reasons that were unclear to me, even though this was a farming community, the fruits and vegetables grown were exported to other places and the village didn’t have access to them. We fantasized about eating ‘real food’ again.  I remember walking a mile to a small store just to purchase a Coke.  It was the best Coke I ever tasted.

This one deficit did nothing to negate the love and community we felt living in Jalapa for those three short weeks.  I’ve never felt anything quite like it, and probably won’t ever again. Nicaragua, mi familia -- you will always have my heart.