Nicaragua: Thursday

Thursday came as a free day for our crew. Today Javier and his crew were left alone with Catherine and her family to work on the house while we went exploring into the deeper regions of Nicaragua.

As soon as we were ready, we set off for San Juan de Oriente, a countryside village in deep Nicaragua. The trip was long and bumpy; the village was about 25 miles from the outskirts of Managua with ill-maintained roads to lead the way. I didn’t mind so much. The smell of the clean, fresh air and beautiful green landscape was enough made my trip relaxing. Along the way we began to see lots of farmhouses. Some had goats mowing the grass, and some had chickens that looked like they wanted to cross the road. As we were getting closer, we started to see more family business shops, most of which turned out to be furniture stores and pottery shops.

When we finally arrived in town, we stopped in front of a potter’s shop with which HHM usually does business. Like all the other shops in San Juan de Oriete, the shop is privately owned and family managed. The proprietor took my group back into his shop and began explaining how he creates his clay crafts.

After our lesson on the effort that goes into each pot, we were given the opportunity to buy from the vast selection of colorful clay art. There were simple clay pots with elaborate designs of fish, birds, lizards, or butterflies in bright earthy colors. There were small cups with decorative borders. There were blowfish pots for incense, sea-turtle flutes, and clay lanterns. I had to temper my enthusiasm with caution when making my selection. So as to (1) not to break anything in the shop and (2) ensure that it could survive the trip through airport security and the ensuing flight.

It was times like this when I wished I had a bottomless inventory pocket like you would find in a “point-and-click” adventure game, the kind where you can store any amount of absurd knickknacks within a coat pocket without fear of being destroyed by an outside force. We gathered and wrapped our new fragile belongings and begun to make our way to our next destination: Mombacno.

Mombacno’s attraction of was its high-ropes zip-lining course, a physical sport that I have had no practice in. If I had, I would have known beforehand how terrifying it was to be 50 feet in the air, walking on a rope bridge from one zip-line platform to another, and have the possibility of being stranded mid-flight

if I applied the brake for my line too soon! Well, despite all of my fearful gripes I could make about my experience, I still had a good time. It was almost liberating to be able to fly through the trees at soaring speeds that I could only experience in a dream.

It was nearing lunch time when the last person in our group rocketed down the last leg of the zip-lining course. We crowded back into the bus and set off for Granada, a bustling metropolis off the coast of Nicaragua Lake. For our first stop in Granada, was lunch. Our leader chose a serene café for its relaxing, open-aired garden and for its tasty lunch specials. This town also proved very accommodating to tourists. Despite that, it seemed like every corner had a vendor trying to pawn off something to an unsuspecting passerby. We did stop for some locally made goods, but not with the street merchants. Our last stop in Granada was the market place, where a multitude of sellers gathered to sell their finest wares. Some sold clothing; others, mugs, wood sculptures, knifes, hammocks, ships in a bottle and other things you would come to expect from a tourist market. It was here I chose to buy a communal present for my family. The other members of my group had similar interests in mind.

The day was not over yet. We still had one more stop to make before going home for the day: Masaya, the home of Nicaragua’s Masaya Volcano. For the next hour we traveled through green valleys and on dirt roads. The area surrounding the volcano has remained barren of human encroachment or attraction, and the closer we got to its epicenter, the fewer trees and greenery we saw. Never had I seen a place so vast and so empty.

At last we came to the volcano’s open mouth. Although the volcano has stopped gushing forth lava years ago, it was hard at work billowing white clouds of sulfur dioxide like a factory chimney. The discharge also made the air a little hard to breathe. The only signs of any human influence on this place were the volcano’s warning signs for tourists, the stone remains of a small building, a large metal cross placed high above the smoky crater, and a dirt walk path that leads up and around the opening’s edge.

After some pictures in front of the opening, we started to take the dare and walk around the edge of the volcano to get a bird’s eye view and maybe even see any lava remained in this volcano. The dirt trek didn’t sound so bad at first. As a Boy Scout, I have been on rough hiking trails before with 50 pounds of gear strapped to my back. And as a runner, I have been in races that have uphill courses. So this should be easy! Eh, not so much. The further we went, the more treacherous the trail became. The ground got softer with loose gravel and soot. The path got steeper with 45 degree angle climbs. And the air got thinner and thinner as we climbed. By the time we reached the top, the sun had begun its descent behind the other side of the volcano. It was a beautiful sight to behold. Our missionary group, on top of the world, over an active volcano, and witnessing a sunset that you cannot find anywhere else.

Nicaragua: Wednesday

After each day at the work site, our crew and Javier’s crew reconvenes at the HHM youth center for lunch before continuing with the rest of our day. Today was little different. We still had lunch at the usual place, but this time we had some company, the children of the youth center. Today was our day to play and interact with some of the local kids that HHM helps on a daily basis.


The festivities started with the kids reading their favorite books to us. Some chose simple picture books that had more cartoon illustrations than words while others showcased their fascination for bugs by reading the contents of an encyclopedia. Through it all, I had a nagging sense of guilt for not knowing how to talk to the little ones. Although I had two years of Spanish under my belt from high school, none of it helped me in this time and place. My little one was reading to me a story about Princess Rosa and that was the only part of her book I understood. I tried to follow along as best I could, but only recognized bits and pieces of the words and I only followed what little I could make out from the few pictures the book had. From my time in Belize, the local’s English/Spanish dependence ratio was about 50/50, and I figured it would be the same here. I was wrong. Dead wrong.

I had time. I could have dug out my old Spanish books. I could have downloaded a learning app on my phone. But I didn’t. And know I will never know what happened to Princess Rosa nor truly appreciate this little girl’s story-telling skills.

After a while we moved on to a different activity, finger-painting. This was an activity I could help with my limited local vocabulary. The kids had their choice of rojo, azul, or amarillo (red, blue, or yellow) to be painted on their hands to make hand-print butterflies and tree leaves as is or they could squish their hands together to make verde, anaranjado, or morado (green, orange, or purple) for their creations.

The last activity for the day (after clean-up, of course) was bubble chasing! A common question that pops up every time I’m on a mission trip that involves a children center is whether or not we could bring the kids something fun to play with. I don’t mean start up a multi-thousand-dollar toy drive, just a few inexpensive gifts (cars, dolls, puzzles, etc.) to show how much we want to be there and how much we care. HHM’s only recommendations were bubble wands and candy, which puzzled me. Even if money or the number of kids weren’t an issue, surely these children would want to play with other kinds of communal toys, like marbles, chalk, plush animals, or wood blocks? As a kid, the cheapest toys I played with were much more intricate than soap and water, and I’m sure lots of other people’s toys were, too.

Such doubts left my mind as soon as a reached for the first wand. I was swarmed with 7-10-year-olds wanting me to either drop the wand or initiate the first wave of sky born suds. They finally settled down somewhat when other members of my crew started blowing bubbles in the more open areas of the center. The children jumped and cheered as they raced to catch as many bubbles as they could before they float to the ground.

These kids didn’t need expensive video games, the latest cellphone, or the most popular toy on the market. They were content with running crazy with their friends and chasing bubbles. Another lesson from Nicaragua.

Nicaragua: Tuesday

Conventional wisdom among vacationers is to always pack their ugliest clothing for the trip. The reason being? If their baggage was ever lost, no big deal. A better reason being is so they can ditch the old clothes to make room in their travel case for more foreign souvenirs. It sounds wasteful, but trading some old socks for some once-in-a-lifetime keepsakes sounds like a good trade to me. That is until this trip.

In preparation for this trip I have been searching various salvage stores for cheap easy-breathing shirts that I could leave behind in Nicaragua and maybe donate to a local clothes drive. However, during the trip’s orientation, my group was told that any clothing (and any other personal property) that I bring into the country I had to take back out of the country. At the time I didn’t understand why till I watched a certain movie on Tuesday evening.

The movie was called Poverty Cure, a series of videos that depict the different nuts and bolts of poverty and what kind of help is needed for each instance. The episode we watched had to do with charity that provides more harm than good. Up till now, I had assumed that any organization that aided the underprivileged was a good organization regardless of name or origin. Never did I realize that a free handout of goods could cause a foreign addiction.

Let’s say, for example, an American organization donates a thousand shirts to a community in Nicaragua. This is a noble gesture, of course. However, this donation in turn eliminates the need for Nicaragua to plant their own cotton crops and make their own shirts and kills the local small market in textiles. They become dependent on a foreign resource and they become addicted to your wallet, which does nothing to help anyone. Instead of healing a wound, you only put a Band-Aid on a broken arm. As it was said in the movie, “A nation cannot rise out of poverty by relying of a foreign resource.”

After watching this video, I have come to understand why the coordinators did not wish us to abandon our own resources for the locals to find. He did not want the locals to become addicted to an income that MIGHT come and he did not want the locals to start calling dibs on our discarded underpants! I have also become warier of which organizations I choose to devote my time and money to. Am I making a long-term resolution or a short-term solution? Will what I do give a man a fish or teach a man how to fish?

Tuesday morning, before getting started with our job at the house site, our coordinator decided to take a short stop at Adrián Rojas Narvaez, a small public school for elementary school students. Though the school itself was small, it’s class size was not. Close to 500 students eagerly come to class here, and they are shared with only ten teachers. Yet despite the complete imbalance of power here, the children come to learn and know what an honor it is to be to come to school each day.

Our visit was met with excitement and enthusiasm. The children greeted us with classroom carols and hugs. They were so excited to be able to meet with American foreigners from another land and greeted us enthusiastically. All too soon we had to say our goodbyes and head back to the work site and add just a little bit more to the house, and bringing it one step closer to being done before we have to leave.

We came, we worked, we left. In a nutshell, this is how our work day goes for the week. We come, we mix more cement, we stack more blocks, we weave more rebar, and the walls get a little higher. I really can’t add much more than that. It’s a slow-moving process. Just like any stone artist would tell you, we can only reach our goal by chipping away at it one piece at a time.

After work, we were given a tour of downtown Managua and get a brief glimpse of Nicaragua’s history, culture, and recreation centers. Some of the places we visited included the Sandino Museum, a memorial site that illustrates the rebellion between the repressed citizens of Nicaragua and their rich oligarchs; the Botanical Gardens that house every known tree in Nicaragua; Revolution Square, a large plaza that has been the site of several iconic historical events in Nicaragua and the resting site of the Old Cathedral that survived the earthquake of 1972; the Managua Mini City, a scale replica of what downtown used to look like before the earthquake of 1972; and finally, the city’s sports park, the very modern and very clean recreation park for the public that features playing field for nearly every sport imaginable.

If time were not an issue, I would have loved to take the tour of each museum and art gallery. Although we weren’t able to take the grand tour of each site, it was still wondrous to see so many of Managua’s iconic places at one time.

Nicaragua: Monday


            Falling asleep that night was no problem; knowing when to wake up was a little trickier than you would think. By five o’clock, the sun had begun to rise. Where I’m from, seeing the sun in the morning meant two things: (1) you slept in and (2) you’re late! It took me a while to get used to the idea of waking-up with the sun instead of waking up ahead of it.

My mornings start out peaceful and relaxing. Wake around 7am at my own pace with only the sun to greet me. As I walk into the open-aired living room, I am washed over with a bath of cool fresh air and tempered with warm light of the morning sun. Casa Nica sat on top of the hill and so it was on a prime spot to catch some natural cool fresh air.

Breakfast was served shortly after by a local catering group that HHM has hired to take care of our meals for the week. Breakfast each morning was usually varied between eggs, pancakes, and French toast along the daily papaya, watermelon, white pineapple (Highly Recommend!), yogurt, and toast. After we have had our fill, it was time to head out to the work site to fulfill our daily task.

Our newly formed crew consisted of 14 individuals, including myself. While waiting between flights, I got to know some of my new friends. Most of them were new graduates from a local prominent high school for girls. Others were experienced travelers from California, Nevada, and Massachusetts, which impressed me how wide spread HHM influence was. Some were well versed in Spanish because of their day job back home, which came in real handy on more than one occasion, while others had interests elsewhere in the improvement industry, such as forensic science. I had also learned that some of them had also been in the warehouse industry, same as me and had managed to climb the ladder to a prominent manger position and seemed happy with their progress. Not my first choice of dream job, but it was something to consider if my current path leads to another dead-end.

When we arrived at the work site for the first time, we were greeted by the rest of our work crew that week. We met with Javier and his associates. As project coordinator, Javier and his team have been working with HHM for a number of years and were very familiar how each house was to be put together. The crew was also very familiar on how to teach new guys like me how to build project houses. Our tools of the trade this time around included shovels, buckets, and spades. There were no electrical tools to aid us this time. Everything was done by hand and the sweat of our brow. Some of the guys were taught how to mix concrete, while most of the girls were taught how to build the walls, and then some of us were taught how to weave the rebar poles for the house’s support. Nicaragua was prone to earthquakes and without these poles; these houses would have crumbled like a child’s building-block tower.

Working alongside all of us were Catherine and her two kids. The three of them worked as much as we did. I was honestly surprised by their devotion to the project. I was half expecting the mother to only offer assistance by providing drinks to the workers or something. But even barehanded and in her best sandals Catherine hauled cement blocks, shoveled sand, hauled bucket after bucket of sand and water for the cement mixers. At the same time, her kids were helping hauling more blocks, weaving rebar, mixing cement, and laying down layers of mortar and stone for the wall-all before they needed to leave for school that afternoon!

Around one o’clock or so, it was time for my crew to head out for the day. You see, because of the physical endurance needed for this project, we were only allowed to work half days each day. That meant that we work for five hours and played for the second half of the day. After each day of work, the Nicaragua crew would reconvene at HHM Youth Center and have lunch before heading out again. The youth center is a HHM-sponsored learning area where kids from primary to elementary school can learn to read, write, and have fun.

While going on tour to the different schools around Managua, I began to notice something heartbreaking. Here in the US, it seems like all of the kids are fighting to get out of school, because they’d rather go watch the latest movie, play video games, socialize with their friends, or do anything else that is important to a kid. More often than not, American kids do not understand how privileged they are to be able to read, write, and do math. In the meantime, in Nicaragua all the kids are fighting to get into school. A lot of kids in this country cannot afford to go to school and can only attend if they are sponsored by an American client. Those who cannot afford to go to school often become laborers and have no chance to excel in life or fulfill their own ambitions.

When we visited some of the schools, we got a chance to see a glimmer of hope that someday Nicaragua may one day rise out of poverty. Such was the case when we met Mauro. Mauro was a high-school student who our project leader was sponsoring from the States. Because of his hard work and ethics, he managed to earn a place in Instituto Loyola, a local private school. The place was large, clean, and organized. The shape of the school was like a large hollow square and at first glance the building looked like a three-story apartment building, each class room was accessible through an outside walk path. All the class rooms were open and the center of the school had a spacious community area.

Our last stop for the day was visit to a blacksmith’s shop. The shop itself was a class that was offered at Nicaragua Christian Academy, a different private school in Nicaragua. The class taught the students there how to forge iron art pieces for both hobby and profit. My group was given a live demonstration to the art as the blacksmith transformed an ordinary piece of metal into a small leaf destined to be used on a building’s window grate.

To finish the day, the entire crew decided to decompress in Casa Nica’s pool. We were tired, we were overwhelmed, and we couldn’t believe we accomplished so much in just one day. We had done so much and we had seen so much; now all I wanted to do was to relax and ingest all that has happen that day. And to think, I still had six more days to spend in this place and I loving every minute of it!

Nicaragua: Sunday

♪ Give a little bit — give a little bit of your love to me ♫

♫ I’ll give a little bit — give a little bit of my love to you ♪

♪ There’s so much that we need to share ♫

♫ So send a smile and show you care ♪

♫♪ Give a little bit — I’ll give a little bit of my life for you ♪♫

♪♫ So give a little bit — give a little bit of your time to me ♫♪

Roger Hodgson

These were the lyrics I woke to one day in early June 2015. A pleasant tune to hear on the radio first thing in the morning. Nice enough to stir me from a restless night’s sleep and motivate me to my feet. Not to mention fitting, given the awesome task that awaits me that day. This would be no ordinary Sunday morning. This song would be the start of another adventure with HHM. This time to Managua, capital of Nicaragua.



Just like my last adventure in Belize, the air traffic commute turned out to be the most stressful part of the trip. If you weren’t crammed into the smallest jet they could find surrounded by complete strangers with no elbow/leg room, you had less than 20 minutes to board your connecting flight, watch your stewardess fly down the isle via turbulence, and worry if your fragile vase you bought at Managua’s pottery village is going to survive the trip. However, against all odds, my new crew and I made it safe and sound in Nicaragua’s airport.

It was dark when we arrived. Dark and humid. There was much I wanted to do and see when we arrived, but that had to wait. The head coordinator of our project, Ed, met us at the airport with a bus ready to take us to our new home, Casa Nica. On the way there, Ed began his orientation of what exactly we will be doing during our stay.

Ed began to explain that the house we will build is for a single mother, Catherine, and her two children, José and Kelvin (ages 10 and 11). Catherine’s brother has recently built a home for his family behind their parents’ house. This, in turn, displaces Catherine with no place to sleep but a well-worn couch in the alleyway between the brother’s house and their neighbor’s house. Yes, you read that right: outside! On a coach that a dog wouldn’t sleep on! The alleyway did have roof and a door for protection, but no room or privacy for Catherine or her kids.

Unlike the Belize project, the new house will be built out concrete blocks and mortar instead of wood and nail. There is a small lot behind the brother’s house surrounded on all sides by other buildings. The only way in or out is through the alleyway Catherine has been sleeping in. This also meant that construction would be slow moving and without any real goals for accomplishment. Our role, Ed described, in this construction project not to finish the house, but to help ease Javier, the project coordinator, and his freelance construction company’s burden. The house will be finished with or without our help; the money we spent on this mission trip has already paid the construct crew’s commission. Our job is only to help speed up the progress as much as possible.

Meanwhile the bus ride to new home was quite colorful. Out the windows, we saw lights displaying private contractors, new products, election campaigns, and stores like that of a modern town back home. I was not sure what level of poverty I was expecting from Nicaragua, but I was sure I was not expecting advertisements of industry and commercial restaurants like Pizza Hut and burger joints. Clearly, Nicaragua has its problems, but it was industrializing and may even outgrow the need for Hand in Hand Ministries.

At last we arrived. Casa Nica, our home for the week: An enormous house, a spacious yard filled with healthy green grass and fruit trees, and a private pool. Casa Nica was once the property of a high-ranking politician and was built in a residential area. No sooner than we walked through the door than we all shuffled wearily to our beds after the long day of traveling and anticipating a longer day of work tomorrow.

(Left: Casa Nica. Right: Neighbor’s house)

I Don’t Care

“Whaaa!?” he responded, like I just gave him an impossible answer.

“I. Don’t. Care.” I repeated.

It was almost like an anniversary now. Right before a mission trip, I have to have words with everybody’s favorite Box Troll.

Ever since the conflict we had a year ago, I kept a wide birth from this guy to avoid another needless confrontation. No talking, no pranks, I even go to a different breakroom than him. This day, however, I was unlucky enough to be assigned as a box maker and he was working as a stock guy, a worker who ensures that the outbound packers and box makers have enough supplies for their jobs by wheeling dozens of pallets of unfolded boxes and other office supplies into designated areas.

Sometimes a box or two would have too much glue and cannot go through the box machine. When that happens, it jams the machine and someone has to manually extract the box. Sometimes we get an entire pallet of flat boxes that can’t go through the machine. In this case, I would pull the entire pallet off to the side to be recycled and open a new pallet and start again fresh. This was the way I was trained to handle these problems and have been doing so for years.

But the Box-troll did not approve of this method. As he was doing his rounds, he saw what I was doing with the problem boxes and decided to instruct me the “proper” method of dealing with the problem. He grabbed the boxes I had thrown out and ordered me to tape them by hand later and to go through the hundreds that were still on the pallet I put aside and check each box for its ability to go into the machine. Having been a stock guy myself, I know how time consuming his job can be. I rarely had time for idle chit-chat. When I make deliveries for box-making, I just drop off the box-maker’s cargo and leave them to whatever method they wish. Why should I care, as long as the job gets done?

The first time we clashed, we resolved our differences by chucking insults at each other and were one step away from killing each other. This time I did my best to keep a lid on my explosive anger in favor of a civil confrontation.

After he ordered me to waste time checking each box for quality, I argued.

Me: “That would take too much time.”

Troll: “You can’t throw out an entire pallet just because of 1 or 2 bad boxes.”

Me: “What about 4 or 6 in a row?”

Troll: Gestures to the pallet itself, “Do you know how many boxes you would be throwing away?”

Me: “I don’t care.”

Troll: “Whaa?!”

For a moment I looked at me like my pants suddenly caught fire.

When I am set to work on something, I always aim to do my best. Even if I do hate said job. I pride myself on diligence, efficiency, and most of all, flexibility. The Troll’s method, however, was borderline obsession. Between my work-rate, bills, and other responsibilities at home, I had no time to ponder the fate of some lone boxes that can’t go into a folding machine easily.

“Why are you even working here?” The troll continued. “If you don’t like working in box-making, say something to the managers.”

Me: “I did. And they still sent me over here.”

Troll: Left to complain to the managers. Undoubtedly to report that I don’t deserve to be in box-making like he usually does. When he came back, he continued to rant.

Troll: “I can’t understand you. If you are so unhappy here, why don’t you get another job elsewhere?”

Me: “If it were that easy, I would have left ages ago.”

Troll: “Anyone can get a job!”

Me: “What about a dream job?”

Troll: Starts cackling like a villain from a cheap cartoon.

Me: Looking bemused. “What’s wrong with having a dream job?”

Troll: “All you need are the benefits.” Still amused by my optimism, he finally walked away.

He was a jerk then and he was still a jerk now. This man was truly my enemy. In fact, my opposite in a way.  He was lame, hopeless, and completely without ambition. In other words, a tool. A minion would raise an eyebrow at this guy.

If this job makes him happy, fine. But the only opinion that the Box Troll respected was his own and he fights to share his dismal existence with the world. He can rot in his cardboard coffin for all I care. I’m going to embrace the warm sun and experience life when I can, while I can.

Nobody has the right to laugh at another’s dreams. Hope and dreams are what fuel our reasons to live and urges us on to continue forward on our journeys. Without those dreams, we would become the pessimist who complain about everything and accomplish nothing with their lives.

Fellow Exiles

No sooner, the party ended than my life returned to its usual self. I went back to my job as a warehouse associate, missing absolutely nothing. Waking up at five in the morning, work for ten hours a day, and I’m still not social worker.

Unfortunately, my situation was not uncommon among my peers. Scores of my coworkers were also college graduates not working in their field study. As much as I can complain about the unfairness of it all, I knew for a fact that my fate could have been worse. I have heard of stories about individuals struggling through life because of a bad luck of the draw. I was lucky; I still had my parents’ support and my job offered insurance and benefits.

It didn’t really sink in that I was not alone until one day I was helping Hand in Hand Ministries with a load of donations from a popular toy store-chain. The task required at least two trucks to go collect the bounty from the store and bring it back. Libby recruited a volunteer with an SUV, and I volunteered with the Ford Ranger that I bought right before my Belize trip.

As we were waiting for the toy-store manager to gather the goods, one of the cashiers struck up a conversation asking who we were and what we did. After we explained the HHM mission, the cashier revealed that she was social worker and worked part time with an agency I applied for years ago. After explaining I was a social worker, too, the cashier started to tell me that her introduction into the field was no more forgiving than mine. She had a diploma, but she was not given a free ride. She had to jump through all sorts of hoops and difficult entanglements before she for just a part-time gig.

These notions alone made me feel much better about my own vocation circumstance. It proved that autism was not the only thing that was tying me back and that there are others in my field that struggling just as much as I.

This chance meeting had convinced me that my efforts in college were not to be in vain. I would just need to do a little more work to convince my future employers that I have something to offer them. If a Bachelor’s degree in social work won’t open a door for me, maybe a Master’s degree will. It would take a while yet before I could take on such a challenge. I still had thousands of dollars’ worth of loans from my first go through college, and I wanted to kill off three of my four loans before I try again.

But before I settle down to my studies, I was still restless and wanted to add some community service points to my resume.


The Stories I Could Tell

It was Sunday morning again. Our stuff was packed and, it was time go home. After indulging in Caroline’s cooking one last time, we made one last sweep around the house to make such we didn’t forget anything and then we started to say our goodbyes to Caroline, James, and Mr. Panton before departing for the airport.

The airborne trip was not exciting now that the trip over. Ahead was the 3 hour flight from Belize City to Atlanta’s international airport, and the tedious custom’s inspections. We still have some time to kill before our connecting flight to Louisville. And I still needed a nap when we finally arrived to our destination.

But before that nap, we had a welcoming committee to greet. Friends and families alike waited for us at the gate. After the much-anticipated hug from Mom, I began shaking hands with the family members of my Belize crew and exchanging contact info so we can meet again in the near future. When the pleasantries were done and my bags were collected, my parents were eager to hear about my trip. You see, it was an agreement between my parents and me that we would retain radio silence while I was abroad so I could focus on making memories. On our way home we stopped a restaurant for some milkshakes while I showed my family the photos I took in Belize, showing what I did, who was who, and what I accomplished with my new friends. As much as I explained each event in detail and though I had pictures to illustrate the events, my previous statement still stands: “You NEED to be here to know what it is like!”

The restful evening ended with me passing out my gifts to my family and a glowing feeling that I have accomplished a major goal in my life and done something worthwhile with my life.

My time in Belize and the plane ride home was not the last time I ever saw the Belize crew. A couple of weeks later after we had a chance to settle down, it was decided that we would hold a Belize crew reunion, a chance to reconnect with our new friends and revel in our accomplishments in Belize. To celebrate the occasion, I began working on a scrapbooking project as a party favor. Getting the supplies I needed was no problem. There was a hobby supply store close by my house. During my trip, I had taken plenty of photos with my phone’s camera but they alone could not capture everything that we have seen and done. I decided that the book would be even better if everyone had a contribution. My friends had already loaded their own photos on Facebook to share with their own circle of friends; all I had to do was ask for their permission to use them and print them.

With all of the photos gathered, I began to place them into chorological order. Though it was my first time engaging in such a project, I was having fun. It was fun rooting through all the pictures, reliving each frame, then placing them into a collage that told our story more clearly than words alone. After a few days of organizing, raiding the scrapbooking aisle, labeling, and placing humorous stickers, the project was done. And soon after, the party came as well.

It was great to see everyone again. The party took place a few weeks after we returned home and the crew had already started to go back to their normal routine. School, jobs, social life. But despite the short time that we have been apart, it was great to see everyone again. As the party started to roll, I revealed my party favors; a bowl of chocolate chip cheese dip with Teddy Grahams and my scrapbook of our time in Belize.

Everyone at the party was excited to see my book. The crew took glee as they rooted through the pages and relived each moment as if it were yesterday. Family members and friends who weren’t on the trip enjoyed the book, as well. For them, I had some explaining to do and retold our story page by page. Having a photo album on your phone is convenient, but there is something special when your memories are preserved in a collage you can share with your friends.

All too soon, it was getting late and I had work in the morning. I said my goodbyes and one last hug all around before I had to return to my own life. But before I left the Belize crew vows to meet again one day.


Party Island!

Belize was a place of wonder. I came to learn about its culture, to admire its natural beauty, to bestow some good to the people who live there, and not be some passing stranger. As much as I gave for the house-building program, I got back a lot more in return. Every day has been adventure. I do something new, I see someone new, and all the while have been outside my comfort zone every step of the way and have been grateful. But my trip and my times in Belize are not yet over, and there was just enough time for one more adventure.

It is now Friday afternoon and the Belize crew is running late! Spending so much time admiring the Maya temples we were going to be late for our water taxi to our last vacation location, Caye Caulker. Caye Caulker is one of the many islands in reach of Belizean shores. Unfortunately, for us the boats don’t take requests or reservations. Either you are on board during business hours, or you are not. Coupled with the fact we were about an hour out from Belize City on a bumpy dirt road did not help matters. Thankfully, we already had our overnight bags loaded in the car before we left that morning.

It was a long, bumpy trip, but we made it safely to dock with time to spare. When it was time to board, some of us took a seat on the upper deck, where we got a clear view of our boat ride. As we sat on the deck, we took in the scenery like none found in Kentucky. As we traveled, we admired the crystal-clear ocean, and the scenery on the islands we passed. We enjoyed the jet blast of clean, cool ocean air as our boat rocketed toward our destination.

An hour later, we had arrived on Caye Caulker. As our crew disembarked from the boat and walked down the rocky streets, several words came to mind about the small community there: peaceful, scenic, serene. The main street that made up most of the community had rows of shops of various sorts and touristy attractions to keep visitors occupied. Just in our first pass in the street, I saw an open-air movie theater, a small library, convenience stores, restaurants, souvenir stands, and high-class hotels like the one where we were going to be staying for the night. That’s right! We were going to spend one night and most of the next day on this tropical island to relax and have fun.

Before we did anything, our crew checked into our hotel to drop off our stuff and then have some free time before having dinner at our first restaurant in a while. I choose to reserve my own room and decompress for a while after the long boat ride was over. After I was rested. I joined up with members of my crew to see what the Caye had to offer us. We saw lots of souvenir shops with lots of incredible keepsakes, but I wanted to browse my options first. I still had a plane ride home to consider so couldn’t get something as delicate as a sculpture made from a conch shell or something too big to fit in my bag, like a hammock. My group eventually came across the edge of the island the locals call The Split. The Split is the area of Caye Calker that was affected by a hurricane a couple of years back. The storm was so mighty, it split the island in half, dividing the Caye like a sliced birthday cake. One side was reserved for tourists while the other was reserved for natives. On our side, the residents erected a party shack where party-goers could enjoy the beach, have something to eat and get something to drink. Alcoholic, preferably.

The whole crew got back together and ended the night by going out to eat at a restaurant for the first time since we had come to Belize. The restaurant specialized in seafood, naturally. But the unique thing about the menu here was that the customer could choose exactly which fish, crab, or lobster was to be cooked for their dinner from their catch-of-the day display.

The next morning the crew and I woke up bright and early. We were eager to enjoy our limited time on this island resort. To start our day, our leader scheduled an underwater snorkeling trip in the Belizean coral reefs. To those of use that had the stomach for the adventure, we set off to Caye Caulker’s coral reefs, untouched for years. A good thing too for our tour guide has warned us that the reefs themselves were razor sharp. The three hours we spent on the tour seemed to pass as fluidly as the crystal clear water we swam in. We spent hours swimming, looking down, and admiring the natural underwater artistry that no fish tank could ever reproduce. We got to see several kinds of the fish that call the reefs home, including rainbow trout, barracuda, and fish I have never seen before. Given that I’m no marine biologist, that’s no surprise. Before it was time to go back a shore, we spent the remaining time free swimming and interacting with some of the local stingrays and nurse sharks.

After our tour of the ocean, it was for lunch and time to review our game plan for the rest of the day. Our water taxi was due to pick us up around 4:30 pm. What we did until then was up to us. So after we ate, the crew split up again and went about doing whatever we felt like we needed before heading back home. My group started going through some shops, taking pictures, buying souvenirs to remind us our time in Caye Caulker, and rescuing a baby hermit crab that accidently wandered from the water the to the busy streets.

Before we knew it, it was time to go. With much reluctance, we loaded onto the taxi and set off for another hour-long trip back to Belize City and the Starfish House.

Before we settled in for the night, Mr. Panton came by once more for thank us for donating our time, money, and backs to make HHM house #243 a success. Mr. Panton was also there to take part in a so-called Thorns and Roses evaluation for the trip. Thorns and Roses is just another way of listing an individual’s best experience (the Rose) and the individual’s worst experience (the Thorn). The idea is to make improvements for ensuing work crews. Everyone in the crew got a turn recalling their experiences of what did work versus what didn’t without being deemed selfish. When it was my turn, my rose was that I was given to opportunity to come into another country and leave behind some good. My only complaint however, is the amount of time I had to spend looking for something to do on the work site. I hate being useless. I hate not being part of the solution. And I hate it more when I see something that can be done, but I don’t know how. When my group was done cutting all the parts we needed at the time, we were left hanging because we didn’t know what the next step next. Nobody sat down with us and explained what the steps in the project and how it was to accomplish them. Again, I remind you that I am not talented in curbing my opinions.

My complaints were not without a suggestion or two. My suggestion to Mr. Panton was that maybe the build team could have some blueprints to know which planks went where and the saw team could have a list of lumber to cut.

With our praises and our grumps noted, Mr. Panton thanked us again and left us to prepare for Belize Crew 2014 last trip, the flight back to Kentucky.

Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end, and we reluctantly began to pack up our belongings. Packing up to go to someplace was the easy part, but packing up what we own and finding safe place for all of our souvenirs was a bit of a challenge. I was in a different country; I couldn’t help but spurge a little! My bag was heavy with personal effects and memorable keepsakes to remind me of my times in Belize. Some of the memorabilia weren’t just for me; some were for my family as well. I bought hand-woven purse for my mom, two bottles of Belize’s local beer for my dad, a tea set for Katie (my sister is a collector of sorts for tea and porcelain), a fabric wall decoration of a cat for Sara (my other sister is a fan of cats and cute things), and a hand-carved cross from Frank’s shop for my grandparents.

Among my collection of things for me was a Y Cross from Frank’s place, a stone-carved Mayan calendar from the Caye, a small artistic knife, and one of my favorite pieces, a House Memorial Board. Each member of Belize Crew 2014 collected a leftover plank from the house we built. We painted it with our house’s colors, glued a group photo and then decorated it with all of our signatures. Truly this was a treasure among all the other knick-knacks that I have collected over the years.


My stay was only a week, but my visit felt like I have been there longer. I wish I could have stayed longer. But I know I’ll be going on an expedition like this again.


Putting the Pieces Together

Normally, Wednesdays are a lazy day for me. My normal work schedule in Kentucky allows me to have Wednesday off to laze about or get some much-needed chores done. But I’m not in Kentucky anymore, and today was going to be everything but lazy. At the worksite, we left the house with its pieces on the ground. Today, they were going to be putting everything together at last.

We started by raising the back wall assembly into place. Then we raised the right-hand wall to stabilize the first wall. After we put in enough nails between the two walls to secure them into place, Alfonzo then instructed us to build the center wall that will hold the front and back walls together and split the house into two rooms. With the practice we got from yesterday, it took little time to assemble and put into place. We then continued to haul the remaining front and left-hand walls into their places before securing them into place for good into each other and the floor.

It truly was a magical moment to behold. To see the culmination of our sweat, strength, and teamwork evolve a two-dimensional pile of wood to a three-dimensional structure. Like a child’s pop-up book. But our task was far from finished for the day.

After a quick break of lifting the heavy parts into place and lunch with the children of HHM Outreach Center, Alfonzo divided our workforce into different teams: one team to build the tin plated roof, another to build steps for the doors and install window blinds, another for touch-up paint, and the last group to finish building the bathroom.

Normally families that move into homes like these cannot afford luxuries like electricity, running water, gas, or simple indoor plumbing. Despite not having these American essentials, these families are content that they have a new sturdy home in a safe neighborhood. Most families in Belize have to make do with what they can find and afford. Some families live in shacks made with any spare parts they can find in the most dismal of places. Others find shelter underneath other people’s homes and sleep alongside the rats and fire ants. On rare occasions, the recipients of HHM Building for Change program can afford things like plumbing and electricity. This time around however, an anonymous donor provided enough money so Pappy and Janet could afford indoor plumbing.

The design was not that difficult compared to the rest of the house. In addition to the 16-by-16 main structure there was a separate room that was going to serve as an indoor toilet area. All we had to do was build the 4-by-8 room. The plumbing was to be done by a different group at a later time.

When we returned home that evening, everyone was understandably sore and tired but undeniably proud. We had done what we thought was impossible. We built a house in three days! For the remainder of the evening, we stayed up as long as we could and partied over our greatest achievement.

Thursday morning, we headed out to the house one more time with our tools to do some last-minute additions, such as putting up the border trim, installing the front and back doors, adding some touch up paint, putting up our tools, and cleaning up any leftover lumber. After the work was done, we returned to the Starfish House to have some lunch. Later that afternoon, we changed into our new HHM T-shirts for the house-blessing ceremony, a sacred event in which the local priest came by and blessed the new house and welcomed the family into their new home. Several of us had bought some house-warming gifts to start off Pappy and Janet’s new life. I brought a horseshoe, a symbol of my home to bless their home and a Kentucky tote bag to help them bring in supplies and food. Another group brought a new Bible with all of our signatures in it. The next group brought some basic groceries to start the couple’s pantry. The next gift was a small fabric dog with the word Dreams stitched into the side. Our motto that week was “Teamwork makes the Dream work” and that dog was to symbolize that notion. Lastly, but not least, were the keys to the house.

Pappy and Janet were the happiest couple I have ever seen in my life. They cried, they smiled, they laughed, they were grateful, and they hugged each and every one of us. Despite the scorching-hot weather, the mosquitoes, the hole in my bank account, the setbacks during construction, and the pain from our sore hands, feet, and back. Seeing the joy on their faces made it all worthwhile. The couple was happy, my mission group and I were happy, and just as grateful for the opportunity to make a difference. The mission trip was an absolute success!

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The house was done. I have been to another country. I have seen another part of the world with an unfiltered lens. I had made a difference for a family. And the best part? We still had two more days till our week was up. After some group shots and some group hugs, we began to say our goodbyes to the happy couple and the other volunteers as we climbed back into the HHM van and drove off. We stop by the Starfish House just long enough to gather our things for the remainder of the day. Now that the work was done, it was time for some much deserved R and R.

After grabbing a quick daypack, we quickly made tracks to the Old Belize Museum. The place had a lot to offer to make their guests feel welcome: restaurants, gift shops, a large pool, and a Belizean history museum. The entire place was decorated with artifacts from the Pre-Columbian and Colonial of Belize. Such as old tools, rusted machinery, stone ovens, and other historic pieces that have survived the ages. Being a collector of such artifacts myself, I took great delight in just wandering the halls and admiring the craftsmanship from so long ago.

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When we came to Old Belize, my crew discovered that it was currently the off-season for tourism, so we were practically alone in the park. The museum was closed, but that was OK. We were far more interested in swimming in the pool, anyway. After working on a house for three and a half days, it felt wonderful to relax and play in the cool water of Cucumber Beach. After a few hours of swimming and going down the four-story waterslide, we dried off and ordered a couple of drinks from the bar before going home for dinner.

It was morning once again. Morning proceeded as normal. We wake up, get dressed, yoga stretches, pray, sit down for breakfast (eggs, bacon, johnnycakes, fry jacks), clean dishes, and assemble a daypack for the day’s appointments. From the beginning of the week, our daypacks were usually loaded with things for house building project. But today, they were geared for the exact opposite direction. VACATION!! With the work of the house done, the 2014 Belize Crew is now in full vacation mode!

Today we were going to do nothing but relax, explore, splurge, and create fond memories to say: This was the best week EVER!

Today, we started our retreat by journeying to the Altun Ha Maya Temples (not ruins); the site of an ancient civilization that once inhabited Belize. The civilization is most noteworthy for the large temples and monuments of stone they left behind. I am sure we have all read about such places during our time in school in time and didn’t have an opinion one way or the other about a bunch of old rocks in the middle of nowhere. It is not until you are face-to-face with these achievements that you can fully appreciate the size, scale, engineering brilliance, and mysteries of places like the Maya temples. You could never appreciate how big one temple is until you see that any one stone from its design could easily obliterate a modern SUV and then fully comprehend the significance of the question, how could the ancients build something like this? Photos in a travel or scenes in a travelogue cannot prepare you the sheer immensity of these temples. Really! I can tell you all I can and I can show you all of the photos I have taken, but you NEED to be here to know what it is like!

After touring the last temple, it was time to go. We were now on a strict timetable. Our final destination for today lies on an island, and the ferry waits for no one. We had to hurry. We hastily made our way back to the van, stopping only to pick up our wood carved-souvenirs from Frank Lizama before we leave for the best part of our holiday.