A Heart For Habitat In Nicaragua

A guest blog by Gabi Eichstaedt

I don’t know how it’s possible to get more than you give when you volunteer to help build a house for someone, but that is exactly what happened to me when I joined a Habitat Global Village trip to Nicaragua earlier this spring.

As a woman in my 50s, married 24 years with two children, traveling alone was something I had never done. But a recent divorce and empty nest left me yearning for something new. I wanted to start my next chapter with a meaningful journey outside my comfort zone, a trip that would challenge me physically, mentally, and emotionally. And the idea of combining my love for travel with a desire to be of service persuaded me to join a Habitat trip to the second poorest country in the western hemisphere.

Upon arrival in Managua, I met my 16 fellow volunteers and our team leaders, Sara and Sally, who first met as Syracuse freshman in 1969. This would be their 12th time leading a trip. They were traveling with Sally’s husband, on his eighth Habitat build, and two other college friends. Tom, a New Yorker who had never before left the U.S., and his adult son Brian were along for their first build. Tom was using half his vacation to build a home for someone in need. Barb and John from Minnesota collected trips like I collected Jimmy Choo shoes. Married 53 years, they’ve been building with Habitat for two decades, and have visited 120 countries. A couple from Ireland who had built with Sara and Sally before in Cambodia flew 23 hours to meet us in Nicaragua. Cathy, my roommate, had just retired from a 40-year career lobbying for public housing authorities in Washington D.C.

The rest of our group proved similarly diverse. Some had multiple Habitat builds under their belts, while others were just starting, like me. As my fellow volunteers talked about service trips they had taken in the past, I marveled silently at how small my world had been in comparison. I was so envious of their stories and accomplishments.

We departed the next morning for Esteli, a city of 130,000 people in Nicaragua’s Central Highlands. My anxiety started to wane, replaced by an eagerness to get to work. We dropped our bags at the hotel, a rustic but utterly charming collection of modest wood cabins with tin roofs and daylight peeking between the wall slats.

As we drove to the build site, I noticed how colorless things appeared: streets of hardened mud, homes with gray cinderblock walls and gray metal roofs, gray electrical wires crisscrossing the sky. Every house seemed cut from the same mold, except for the occasional brightly painted door.

Our leader from the local Habitat affiliate introduced us to the two families we were building for. Cecilia, the matriarch of the first family, greeted us with her two sons, their wives, and her four grandchildren. They all lived together in a collection of wooden shacks covered by plastic tarps. Cecilia had lived on the property for 30 years. She welcomed us into the kitchen where she made tortillas and took in laundry for her neighbors for $2 a day. Across the street, we met Reina, who lived in a similar property with her husband and 13-year-old son Christian, who was sporting dimples and a Lakers hat.

For the next week, we kept a strict schedule. Off to work at 7:45 am, drinks and snacks at 10, lunch at noon, cleanup at 3:45, and back to the hotel at 4 pm, dirty and tired from the long day. Hand mixing concrete and mortar is back-breaking work, but I found the physical exertion deeply satisfying. Each bag of cement weighed 100 pounds, and the buckets full of sand, rocks, and water we mixed into it were almost as heavy. There’s a tempo to mixing concrete: the scrape of the shovel on the ground under the heavy mixture, a beat of silence as you lift the shovel, followed by a PLOP as you invert the shovel and drop the mixture into a mound.

On our last day, we blew up balloons to decorate the homes for the dedication, complete with games and a piñata for all the kids in the neighborhood. When it came time to leave, Christian, who had spent all week posing with us for pictures, hugged each of us goodbye as tears streamed down his face. I will never forget that moment.

After returning home, I realized how deeply bonding the experience had been. I expected to see poverty, dilapidated housing, trash-strewn streets, and children running around in dirty clothes. What I did not expect was how much I would fall in love with the work and my fellow volunteers. Before I left for Nicaragua, people were surprised to hear I was traveling alone. What they—and even I—did not understand at the time is that I would end up part of a family of 19.

We were an immensely diverse group of mothers and fathers, 20-somethings and grandparents. We came from long-term marriages and recent divorces. There were the bossypants and the followers, the storytellers and the listeners, the groaners and the ones who worked silently without a grimace, but never a slacker. I have never experienced anything more deeply satisfying. I could almost be accused of being selfish, feeling that I got more from my experience in Nicaragua than I gave, but I don’t mind. I cannot wait for my next build.

If you are interested in volunteering for a Global Village trip, click here.