Sunday, May 26, 2013

Nicaragua Part Two: The Characters

(Team Lightning aka half our group, I don't have a full group picture yet unfortunately) 

There was a recurring joke within our Habitat group about starting a new business called "Stranger Vacation", where the point would be to send people on vacation with total strangers. And if you've never been on a trip like this, you might think that was the most God awful idea possible. To me that's why I personally have serious doubts about how "fun times" a cruise would be. Because why on Earth would I want to be stuck on a boat with hundreds of people I don't know?

But the thing is, and I cannot stress this enough, some of my best and most lovely travel memories, the ones that rest in a special place in my heart, are from trips with total strangers.

This trip was not a total stranger vacation for me, because I went with my best friend, Mary Catherine, which was great because we haven't traveled together in years. But aside from her, everyone on this Habitat trip was a big question mark until the moment we arrived. We sent out bios and pictures and exchanged a few emails. I spoke on the phone with our trip leader once. But I didn't know any of these people.

Depending on your worldview that might sound like the worst possible idea, going to a foreign country with a group of anonymous names and faces. For all I knew there could be serial killers or sociopaths or something really terrifying like mimes on the trip. But if I've learned anything it's that in situations like this you just trust the universe and jump in. So far I've done some variations of a "stranger vacation" in Paris, Thailand, and Africa; and I've left every one of those experiences with new friends, people I never would have met otherwise who will always be important to me for sharing these places. And I have never once had to share a room with a mime.

So after all that preamble, I present to you the 12 strangers (plus some more)...picked to build a together and have their lives not find out what happens...when people keep being polite...and start getting smelly

(On a boat on Lake Nicaragua for our R&R day)

Edward: Our fearless leader. Irish by birth and current Californian. Edward had the fun job of getting the same question asked by 12 different people several times a day (most recurring ones, "When is dinner?"and  "Can we get a McFlurry?". He also was responsible for our team selection, and he ensured that no crazies (or mimes) got included in the group. I imagine that being a team leader for Habitat is some weird hybrid of camp counselor, drill sergeant, and travel agent. Edward handled all his responsibilities wonderfully and never once seemed stressed out by it (must be the California thing). Plus the man understands the importance of a delicious ice cream treat.

David and Joey: Lovely father and son team from Philadelphia. Joey is 19 and I am always amazed when 18 or 19 years olds go on these trips. When I was 19, I had never traveled internationally and I got lost regularly in Charleston, SC (it's a city on a peninsula, water is literally where you end up in three directions). Joey did as well as any adult on the team, and I credit his dad, David, a lot for that. David was also my partner in rebarring one day and together with our other teammate, John, we came up with an ingenious strategy to cut three pieces of rebar at once (it shall henceforth be known as the David, Liz, and John Method).

Lyn: Fabulous LA producer with a glamorous life. If I were a fabulous LA producer I would be the biggest diva in the world and shout out demands for caviar and champagne at my peons. Lyn was open, down to earth and completely ready to shovel or tie rebar or so any of the other very non-glamorous, non-diva tasks we had to do. Plus she brought 50 pairs of eyeglasses with her (she's not really blind, her friend runs a charity that gives away reading glasses to people in developing countries), and she affably and good-naturedly put up with those glasses first being a day late (along with all her luggage) and then being held hostage by Nicaraguan customs. The end result, when she gave out those glasses to women at the home of a community leader, was absolutely beautiful.

Lisa: NYC lawyer and mom of the group. One of the few lawyers I've been around (and I say this lovingly as approximately 90% of my family is lawyers) who doesn't act or talk like a lawyer. She has asthma and the perpetual cloud of dust we worked in (my lungs are coated with dirt) took its toll, but she hung in there like a trooper. She's traveled and lived a lot, and I loved listening to her stories of exotic safaris in Africa or meeting Joe Biden (slightly less exotic but a really great story).

John: At the end of the week, we all got superlatives and John was absolutely a non-brainer for "Best Team Player." John is a retired LA fireman and former military, and just an all around great human being. He made sure we were all safe and okay in a fatherly way, translated for us (his parents are Mexican so he's bilingual), worked his butt off in the 98 degree weather (he was my partner in ditch digging), and even brought candy and pencils for the kids from home. Just a really awesome guy.

Robyn: Robyn is a high-powered NYC banker, and in my mind, that is incredibly scary and intimidating (I picture lots of yelling in board rooms because my only real banking reference point is movies and Monopoly). But in yet another example of how you can never get a sense of a person on paper alone, Robyn turned out to be a warm hearted, fun, and hilarious girl that was in no way intimidating or scary. Plus she's traveled all over the world and competes in dance tournaments. And she could talk for hours about dessert, which is always the mark of a good person.

Sam and Shwan: Another set of friends on the trip. Both just graduated with Harvard MBAs, and so clearly ridiculously intelligent and ambitious, but also really, really funny and easy going. Sam is also a giant in Nicaragua (the men there are generally not very tall and he is very tall), but a gentle giant who struck up an adorable friendship with one of the little boys on the site named Samuel. Sam is also the one on our trip who got locked in the bathroom on our slightly disastrous dinner I wrote about in my last post (doesn't that story become even funnier when it's a very tall man locked in the bathroom?), but he took that and everything else with good humor. Shwan went to Berkeley and so has that easy going Californian thing to offset what I'm sure is scary intelligence. Both of these guys are engaged and could not have shown more adorable love than when they talked about their fiances back home.

Mike: An engineer and another very smart person (Habitat Global Village trips draw in some really ambitious, driven personalities, with some creative, free spirit, quieter types thrown in for good measure (can you guess which one I fall into?). Mike was one of the first people MK and I met when we arrived  and he was the last one we said goodbye to at the Houston airport (after dinner at Chile's when we all got really excited about being able to drink tap water again). He was our group photographer, one of the hardest workers (and best at all that technical construction stuff that I kind of just winged until our mason corrected me), and one of the funniest people on the team.

Sahana: Sahana was MK and I's third roomie, and I absolutely love this girl. She's 19 but so together than it makes me a little ashamed of my 19 year old self. She's a lifelong vegetarian, child of Indian immigrants, and doesn't drink (and she goes to University of Georgia, you practically get drunk there just walking around). She seems to be completely herself, which again is no mean feat at 19 years old (or any age). She competed with Robyn for biggest sweet tooth on the trip, and as her roomates we had access to a ridiculous assortment of yummy food. She was also hands down the best shopper on the trip, especially since our two market trips were timed (15 minutes for the first and 45 for the second, as Sahana joked it was just like the Amazing Race). MK and I are already planning a trip to Athens to see her again, and pretend we're 19 year old college students again (rooming with a 19 year old also made me realize how old I am, because I was ready for bed at like 9pm every night, and when I was 19 9pm was when I started to get ready to go out for the night).

MK: Okay so this "stranger" I've been best friends with for more than 20 years. But this was the first time I'd done a trip like this with Mary Catherine, and her first trip to any "developing" nation. And for her first trip like that she did absolutely awesome. It's hard now to remember, but I know the first time I went to a non-Western, poor country it was a shock to the system. It's hard to adjust to a place that is nothing like anywhere you've ever been. MK did fabulously and jumped in with enthusiasm and flexibility (or flexibilidad, as was our trip logo). I'm very proud of her.

The rest of the characters were not part of our American team, but were Nicaraguans who worked with Habitat and quickly became a part of our group by the end of the week.

Juan: The foreman at our site (we split into two build sites for the week, with a 3rd and 4th added by the end of the week because we were just. that. good.) Juan was everything a foreman for a Habitat team needs to be, helpful, gentle, and incredibly patient. I'm sure the temptation is there to call us all imbeciles on a regular basis, but he never did, even when we messed up. Juan was a big bear of a guy, and a ball of positive energy. And from what I've heard an excellent salsa dancer.

Dellis: The mason on our site. Dellis did not speak much English, but that didn't stop him from speaking in long torrents of animated Spanish when he showed us how to do something (it is amazing how you can learn to do something from someone even when they don't speak your language). For both of my Habitat trips thus far there's been a similar relationship with masons; grudging and a little impatient at first (like when we fill the wrong hole with cement or have to be shown how to tie rebar 7 times), growing to bemused by mid week and finally what I perceived as affection by the end (that or they're just really happy we're leaving). It must take a lot of patience to be a mason on a build site staffed by unskilled gringos. Half the time I'm sure all he wanted to do was kick us all out and redo everything. But Dellis let us try and learn, always watching over our shoulder to make sure we didn't make any real mistakes. He was an excellent boss.

Dellis in the middle, patiently bemused as ever

Vittoria: One of the lovely Nicaragua Habitat employees who took us to Granada at the end of the week. Vittoria is one of those Latin women that is so gorgeous you kind of don't want to stand next to her. But she's also a sweet and fun lady who is crazy about her two beautiful daughters, and someone who clearly loves her country and is trying to do everything she can to make it a better place.

Selim: I saved the last spot for Selim, because he deserves it. Selim is the Nicaragua Global Village in-country coordinator, which basically means that for the Habitat groups, he takes care of everything, from lost luggage to feeding us to our security to chaperoning late night McFlurry runs. He was there with us almost the entire week, from the airport on (the guy doesn't get any time off). Salem is the kind of guy who is part-bullshitter, part utter sincerity, and you honestly don't which version you're getting but don't care that much. He's 25, a volunteer firefighter, and has studied law (in addition to his almost 24/7 job with Habitat). He was that teasing, comforting camp counselor presence, but he also could switch to body guard mode in an instant. On our first full day when we went to a baseball game, we needed to use the bathroom, and a few steps behind us was Selim. When we went to the market, he herded us like children and you couldn't go a few feet without seeing him standing there, making sure everything was okay (I swear there were 5 of him). Everywhere we went he knew people (he might have actually been the mayor). He was our fixer (when the restaurant undercooked chicken and locked Sam in the bathroom, Selim was displeased to say the least-as a result we got a free shot of rum). He was also our translator, medic, historian, tour guide, and friend. I've decided that if you want a list of some of the best examples of incredible human beings in this world, look up the Habitat Global Village coordinators in each country. Our one in Malawi, Jacqui, was equally spectacular. They're people who are passionate for the betterment of their nation, and who are willing to work in the trenches, in a not so glamorous job, to do that.

Selim with two of the adorable girls who lived in the house we were working on

So those are the characters, the people I spent the week in Nicaragua with. I'm a relatively shy person, and you would think that would make me avoid situations where I'm thrust into a situation almost entirely with strangers. But I love it. It is ridiculous how quickly you bond in these situations. By the second day we all already had inside jokes. By the end of the week I felt like I knew these people, really knew them, in a way that in the outside world sometimes takes months or even years (there are people I've been in school with for almost three years who I know less about their lives than some of these people I knew for a week). It is one of the reasons I will always be eager to join a Habitat trip or a trip like it, because these trips and these people stay with you. You can't share this kind of experience and not be connected.

I obviously love traveling with family and friends as well, but there's something about "stranger" trips (or mostly stranger trips). My memories from these experiences are different, a little more vivid and enduring. Maybe it's because the experiences feel so different from every day life, with people who aren't in your everyday life, that when you come home, those memories feel more contained and resilient. You aren't just remembering a place or an experience, but a group of people, strangers who improbably become friends. It becomes this collective memory, because you know that there are 12 other people out there who shared their experiences, who are remembering it too. The memory and the people become inextricable, tied together always. And I am so thankful for that memory, and for these people.

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