Manna Project International – Vanderbilt (MPIV) is an organization dedicated to connecting Vanderbilt students with service opportunities through a range of local and global initiatives, both in the Nashville community and internationally with our Thanksgiving and Spring Break Service Trips. This year, Vanderbilt students are focusing on raising awareness of a healthy lifestyle by participating in sports and group activities. Manna’s mantra is “Learn to Serve. Serve to Learn.” By serving others, we benefit ourselves just as much as the communities in which we engage through the life lessons and global perspective we earn.  Follow along as students from Vanderbilt University share their day to day reflections from the MPI Nicaragua Site. 

Day 6/7

The morning of day 6 started off with a reversal of day 4. The group that went to La Chureca on Tuesday went to Lacrosse the Nation, and vice versa. After our morning of volunteering we had our second day of Comedor, the feeding program. It was a great cap to our time in the community and it was tough to say good bye to so many of the friends we made. We took a group picture with Lorena, one of the many welcoming community members who invited us into their casas and made us feel so at home in Nicaragua. 
After a brief swim and respite back at the Manna house, we crammed back into the micro and headed off for our excursion to Leon. After a drive of a little more than an hour, we reached the historic city. We dropped our gear off at the Bigfoot Hostel, and after reading the reviews on the wall that proclaimed volcano boarding to be on the top 5 lists for death defying travel destinations and thrill seekers bucket lists our excitement for the following day grew even more. We trekked out into the city and explored a little bit before grabbing dinner. After dinner we continued to explore the nightlife of Leon and enjoyed the festivities all the way into the morning.
As we gathered ourselves the next morning we knew that we would definitely need a large breakfast to prepare us for the volcano boarding that awaited us. As each of us ate our weight in food we mentally prepared ourselves for what awaited is. Back at the hostel we loaded onto a giant canopied truck and began the 40 minute drive out to Cierro Negro (The Black Hill). We are pretty confident that the ride out to the volcano was riskier than the actual volcano boarding. Our driver barreled down narrow Nicaraguan backwoods country roads at breakneck speeds with seemingly no regard for bumps or branches. As we got ever closer to a tractor driving in front of us he laid on the horn but suddenly we heard a thud and realized we had run directly into the back of the tractor. A few minutes later and we were happily on our way again. As we got to the base of the volcano we were each given a satchel and a wooden volcano board and we embarked on our hour long hike to the top. Along the way we learned that Cierro Negro is the most active volcano in Central America, and has erupted over 20 times since the mid 1800s. The hike up was extremely windy, and we were at risk of blowing right off the mountain. When we finally reached the summit we put on our orange jumpsuits and formed lines. As our driver signaled us from the bottom with his radar gun, we made our way one by one down the side of the active giant. There were a lot of wipeouts, and lot of volcanic ash accumulating all over our bodies, and definitely a lot of fun. Jake set the record for the day with a top speed of 68 km/hr. At the bottom we were all in agreement that we wished we could go again. A cold celebratory Tona (Nicaraguan beer) awaited us back at the truck and we braced ourselves for the "exciting" ride back to Leon. Once back we loaded up the micro for the ride back to the Manna house. We stopped at the supermarket on the way home to load up on food for a cookout. We had burgers and great guacamole and some members of the community came over for a pool party/lively karaoke session. We had no idea that our manna trip leaders were such songbirds. It was a really relaxed yet fun night and a fantastic way to end our final night here in Nicaragua. After cleaning up the party everyone dragged their mattress to the roof for a final roof extravaganza. Falling asleep under the vast and starry Nica night, we were all in unanimous agreement that this had been one incredible trip. Our time in Nicaragua had exceeded even our most extravagant expectations and there was an overwhelming desire to return here for more. Everywhere we went we were greeted with such hospitality, and beyond the service, we were shown an incredible time in this country. We are sad to head home, which is truly the sign of an amazing trip. Thank you to JJ and Jamison, who did a fantastic job leading our group this past week, as well as ALL the Manna PDs who made our time at the house as fun as it was. Thank you to the community here who took us into their homes and made us a part of their lives for this one week sliver. Thank you to all of our team members who stepped outside of their comfort zones, opened up and exposed themselves to a new culture and a new environment and made the most of it. This was truly a once in a lifetime trip and we are all better for it.

 Day 5

 Today was the day where we put it all on the line. We trekked over to El Salero for some good old fashioned manual labor. The chicas were tasked with repainting the fence around the baseball diamond. As men, we are used to talking ourselves into holes, so now we had the chance to actually dig some. Half the chicos started digging an irrigation ditch along the outfield fence, while the other half dug an enormous drainage hole. The scorching heat had dried the dirt so much that it was flying everywhere. After 2 hours of digging we were all covered in a thick layer of brown dirt that most likely won't dissipate for at least a few weeks. It was a nice change of pace to engage in some physical work and it was nice to tangibly see the progress we made at El Salero. We then conducted a brief class at a local school where we tried to get the kids to think about their lives 10 years down the road. It was amazing to see how many of them had never truly considered their futures, and it was nice to see those who wanted "algo mas" or something more. Many hoped to one day study in the United States, and it was a great reminder of how lucky we are to have the opportunities that we do. Afterwards we had a break back at the Manna house where we were able to cool off in the pool and get our tan/nap on. It was extremely refreshing and exactly what we needed. After our brief respite, we returned to El Salero for some more English classes. The kids are starting to recognize us and remember our names which is always nice. After class, Jamison, Josh, Connor, and Jon picked up some fried pieces of pig face from a roadside stand. It was extremely greasy and had a firm but gelatinous feel. Jon spit his out immediately because he is a big baby, but Josh and Connor ate the entire bag like champs. Jake and Garret returned to work on the ditch at El Salero, the girls assisted with another class, and the remaining boys helped procure some supplies. Everyone returned back happily to the Manna house, looking forward to a chill night before we leave for Leon. Hasta luego.

Day 4
Day 4 was another exciting day for us in Nicaragua. We got up early and split off into two groups to make the most of our time in the community. One group went to La Chureca, which is the town dump. This area has changed a lot recently, and people have moved from shacks into small houses in a group development. The dump is being turned into a landfill so many of the people who made a living picking trash have had difficulties transitioning into a new life. Manna operates a jewelry cooperative and a health clinic, and we were able to see the facility and walk around and talk with some of the members of the community. While half of us explored La Chureca, the other half of us went with Javier to a local school to help teach lacrosse as part of Lacrosse the Nations. There was a lot of running around and fun, and the kids managed to defeat the gringos despite a stellar effort from superstar Cassidy Hurwitz, who manned her 1 foot spot on the field with tenacity and ferocity. After a break for lunch, we regrouped and headed back out to run Comedor. This is a program that provides free lunch to kids in the community and it was great to see many of the kids we met earlier in class. On our way back from Comedor, we encountered one of our best adventures of the trip. Some kids had captured and detained 

 an iguana on the side of the road. After chatting for a bit we decided to buy it off of them to cook for later. We walked it up to one of our friends in the community who operates a small restaurant, and she agreed to prepare a tasty dish or us. We left Cornelius in her very capable hands and headed back to the Manna house. The girls split off to go do womens' exercise class, where they engaged in Zumba moves and cardio blasts. We met them back at El Farito (the little school in the community) and enjoyed our iguana. Unfortunately a neighborhood cat stole the skin so we couldn't manufacture the classy belts and shoes we had all imagined. The iguana had a very unique taste, but it was delicious. It was gamier than chicken but tough to place. We then assisted with evening English classes before the boys branched off to go play basketball at El Salero with some local missionaries. We balled so hard for a few hours before heading back to the Manna house to conclude another great day. 

Day 3

Our day started early with a change of plans. We were initially scheduled to take a tour of Managua, but our trusty leaders JJ and Jamison called an audible and thought we would have more fun hiking around Lake Xiloa. We all packed into the micro and pumped some absolute jams through the portable speakers, bringing a little American flair to the streets of Nicaragua. The lake was beautiful and we set off on a trail to take us up one of the surrounding peaks to a great vantage point. A little excitement was added to the mix when the guides at the lake told us there were a lot of "culabras", which after a quick search online we learned was another word for snake. Undeterred, we set off in the face of danger, armed only with our snake beating stick and our wits. Thankfully we had a safe hike and saw nothing out of the ordinary, except for a femur on the side of the trail, a few pairs of ripped jeans, and a lot of empty plastic two liters. After a brisk hike we reached the look out point and could see over the entire lake and part of Managua. It was a breath taking view, and we were all tired and covered with sweat and definitely looking forward to the water that awaited us at the bottom. We pulled out the speakers for the walk down, and the lyrical genius of Kendrick Lamar helped encourage us down the side of the mountain. Upon reaching the beach it did not take long for us to rip off our t shirts and jump in the refreshing water. We all purchased ice cream cones from a small vendor and were able to relax on the beach for a bit before we had to pile back into the micro for the trek back.

After a delicious lunch, we headed out into the community and sat in on some of their English classes. It was great to see so many dedicated students of all ages, and we were all able to help administer their oral exams. The children all love having us around, and are constantly jumping on us and hanging off our arms in eager anticipation for the play that awaits. After helping with another class we picked up some supplies at the supermarket and came home for dinner. After dinner our entire group retired to the roof again and played some lively games into the early morning. It was a great end to another fantastic day in Nicaragua!


Day Numero Dos (aka Day 2) 

Day 2 started off with a very gracious sleep in allowance. After awaking from our first night of slumber, we headed poolside. Some swimming and some sun are a great way to start any morning. Connor and Josh showed off their Chopped skills and made eggs for the entire clan (helpful cooking tip: adding Italian spices to scrambled eggs can make any amateur cook seem like Gordon Ramsay!) After breakfast, we headed off in the micro to El Salero, which is a community complex that hosts many athletic fields. We played non stop with kids for four hours-it was both extremely exhausting and extremely rewarding. Josh was able to grab rim and almost dunk, making him the most talented white basketball this side of Brian Scalabrine. We had many stations going at once, including indoor soccer, basketball, outdoor soccer, tag, swings, and many other varieties of games. The kids were very energetic and enthusiastic, and were cute. 

After using all of our remaining stamina and covering every inch of us in a thick layer of dust and dirt, we broke up for community dinners. Each of us split into groups of 3 and headed to a member of the community to partake in an authentic Nicaraguan dinner. Some of the dinners included homemade soup, a ride in a horse drawn cart, extra finger skin in a jar, dancing, and much more. It was truly amazing to be welcomed so openly into the community and we greatly appreciated the hospitality of our hosts. After dinner we headed back to the Manna house for our night cap. After getting ready for bed, the entire group trekked to the roof for round 2. While sharing some delicious boxed wine, we continued to get to know each other. As we lay gazing up at the stars, it was easy to lose sense of time and place. There are so many more stars here in Nicarauga, and it is refreshing to step away from our hectic lives at Vanderbilt to experience something so different, yet so beautiful. As everyone headed back inside for bed, Josh, Connor, and Jon pulled their mattresses up on the roof to sleep under the stars. It was an interesting night that mixed everything from biting wind, to sweltering sun, from barking dogs to chirping birds, but in the end it was a very unique experience. That marked the end of Day 2, but we all knew Day 3 would continue to possess even more surprises as we keep getting to know and love our new country.

Day 1
HOLA! Estamos en Nicaragua. Whoops, sorry. We forgot that all you gringos dont espeaka espanol. We have been immersing ourselves in the culture of the native people here, and have been having a bit of fun as well. After an early 3:30 am start in Nashville (which most of us just pulled an all-nighter for), we (Car) shambly waddled our way into the airport to begin our journey. After a clutch breakfast from Noshville, we departed for Miami. A long day of travel placed us in the heart of Managua. After rudely (but inaccurately) being accused of smuggling drugs by Nicaraguan customs, we met our two sturdy anchors, JJ and 
Jamison. As our trusty tour leaders, they packed all 12 of us (plus luggage) into the tiny "micro"bus. We found out first hand that size does indeed matter, as it was quite the cramped trip. Each one of us was in instant peril as a small shift on the road could send a piece of luggage hurtling towards our heads, resulting most likely in instant death. Just kidding mom and dad, we are being so safe!!! We arrived at the Manna house after about a 40 minute drive and it was a little piece of heaven. After getting acquainted with Roscoe and Sydney, our two watch dogs, we settled into the house. We were very excited to find a huge pool out back, complete with a slide. After dropping off our luggage we crowded back into the micro and headed to a restaurant that had a swimming pool. This was our first experience with Nicaragua time. It took forever to order and get our food, but a few Tonas helped ease the wait (along with some great conversation). After dinner we came back and made our first trip to our roof deck. It was clear from the beginning that this magical oasis would be our home for much of the week. Some icebreakers, and an introductory game of mafia helped ease the tension. And that was the night that concluded day one, and we headed off to sleep tired but happy.

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