Raincoast conservation foundation
Travel Itch logo
The travel itch, travelling with children

Language Adventures in Nicaragua

By Charlotte Mann

Language Adventures in NicaraguaHomework at Casa Xalteva © Charlotte Mann

The key to making a longer trip successful is developing connections and, if you don't speak the same language as the locals, language school makes settling in much easier. Learning a new language opens up many doors, both during your trip and afterward, and it's easier to do as a kid.

In the past two years, I have had four weeks of one-on-one Spanish classes, and while I am in no way fluent, I can get by. I may not be able to have deep philosophical conversations with native speakers, but I can buy food at the market and talk to the other passengers on the bus. When my family started our five-month trip to Nicaragua two years ago, I only knew a few basic pleasantries and how to count to ten. I have certainly come a long way.

We spent a morning traipsing around Granada, the Nicaraguan city we'd chosen, checking out different schools and talking to the teachers. We needed somewhere that would work for my mum, who just wanted to polish her somewhat rusty Spanish, for me, the complete beginner, and for my older brother, who had done a bit at high school. At last we found Casa Xalteva, a place that looked promising. As we entered, we were swept up in a rambunctious game by a group of local children, who I remember finding slightly intimidating but who would soon become close friends. After we found out that we could volunteer in the school's educational program for Nicaraguan children, we knew that we had found a fit.

Language Adventures in NicaraguaSoccer at Casa Xalteva © Charlotte Mann

I spent the next Monday afternoon learning a ton and being completely overwhelmed at the same time. I was taught some basics of Spanish, and by the next morning I was teaching math with my mum. It was wonderful: all I needed to know was my numbers and some essential math terms and the children were learning from me.

Soon the first week was over and we decided to keep volunteering, but not take Spanish classes. The kids were great at helping me to improve my language skills, and soon I started having conversations with them. During their recess time, I got creamed over and over playing chess, though I managed to win once after some Internet research. I did another week of classes, this time with a focus on verbs, and I spent hours conjugating the present tense of this one and the past of another one. In all we were at Casa Xalteva for two months, and then we left to see the other parts of the country.

The second language school we went to was another world unto itself. It took us four hours to get there, first by school bus, driving through rivers and potholes, then by foot, walking a half-hour to El Lagartillo, a little village in the mountains. We stayed with an older couple who seemed to be the centre of the community. My Spanish classes this time were held in my teacher's kitchen. We talked about farming and the countryside, as well as the usual verbs and adjectives.

Language Adventures in NicaraguaPicking Beans in El Lagartillo © Charlotte Mann

Even when we weren't doing language school, I still learned a lot. We walked an hour each way to pick beans for our supper; we cleaned out the weeds around the communal coffee plants with machetes; and I learned how to milk a cow. We spent one evening singing around a small fire in a neighbour's house (only a few houses had solar panels for electricity). We learned of the peoples' suffering during wartime and of their struggle to save water for the dry season. My brother and I did both end up getting very sick, but even that doesn't spoil the memory of our rural language school.

We returned to Casa Xalteva for the last three weeks of our trip and spent the time volunteering again. A year and a half later, I convinced my parents to take me back as a Christmas present to spent another blissful three weeks meeting new kids in the program and re-connecting with all of my old friends. This time, I was in charge of three kids on my own, and I was helping with Spanish homework, as well as math. I managed to listen to two children tell different stories at the same time and help them when they got stuck with the reading. We played soccer and kickball in the heat of the day, but even that was enjoyable. On my last day I promised to come back again, maybe after high school.

Language school is the best way to get settled into a community, especially if you can combine it with home-stay or volunteering. Doing language school wasn't always easy, but it was a great experience, and how else could I be well on my way to becoming a polyglot?

Charlotte Mann spends her days at high school, reading, dreaming about her next trip and learning new languages. Her story “Getting There is Half the Fun” was published on author Laura Resau's blog (lauraresau.blogspot.com/2009/12/my-dad-and-me-at-my-reading-at-poohs.html).

For more information about Casa Xalteva visit casaxalteva.org. If you're interested in a rural Spanish school visit hijosdelmaiz.net/eng/vision.

My Mexican Fiesta

By Ella Bronstein

When I went to Mexico for the first time last December with my mom, Sue, and my brother, Eland, I had no idea what was in store for me. Little did I know my trip would be even greater and more interesting than I could have imagined.

My arrival in Mazatlan was an entry into another world. We got off the plane and were greeted by sweltering heat and harried people. As we looked around, transportation representatives shouted from what seemed like a thousand booths. We endured a crazy taxi ride through narrow streets, frightening horses and goats along the way. At the hotel, there were no main doors to enter or exit through, only giant empty doorframes. We headed up to our room, and I gasped at the view: a gorgeous, pinkish sunset glowed on the horizon. I could hardly believe it. I had arrived in paradise!

We immediately dumped our stuff and ran to the beach. As soon as I set foot on the sand a man began to show me dresses. He was unlike anyone I had ever experienced. The smooth-talking salesman showed me a lot of pretty things, but with the help of my family, I was able to say no and walk away. I was completely swept away by the Mexican culture and wished I had a million eyes to take it all in. Everywhere we went sales pitches were thrown at us from all angles.

That night I went to my first real Mexican restaurant. I ordered coconut shrimp. My meal came with the heads still on! I'm gagging just thinking about it! The next day, while we were eating at a little place a few blocks from our hotel, a man sat down and began to make us a deal. He was funny, so we allowed him to talk and talk and talk. In the end we agreed to go to the Mayan Palace to watch a presentation. Our new friend hoped we would purchase a time-share type of thing. In exchange for our being at the presentation, we would get free tickets to Stone Island (regular price: $35 per person); three free margaritas; a plate of guacamole; and a free buffet breakfast. I'm pretty sure it was the free drinks that sold my mom. Either way, we couldn't refuse.

The presentation wasn't much of an adventure, but the trip to Stone Island was. The water was choppy and the tour was basically cancelled. We wouldn't go to visit the sea lions or go snorkeling. We did, however, get to go boogey boarding and banana boating. The waves weren't great for boogey boarding, but whenever I did catch one it sure felt great! Banana boating was also a blast. It's kind of like tubing. There's a banana-shaped inflatable boat with straps to hold onto so you don't go flying. It's tied behind a motorboat, and once you're on, you're on! We went bouncing over waves until the driver tipped us at sea. I bet he regretted it because our group was particularly crippled at getting back on board.

After the fun we rode back to town in a big, rectangular wagon, with wood strips for seats, pulled by a tractor. We met some lovely people back at the hotel and listened to good music. The open bar seemed to have put everyone in good spirits. I still wasn't sure what the legal drinking age was; or even if there was one. Apparently there was as Eland, age 17, was only allowed to have a virgin margarita. This was at the same place that a waiter had asked how old I was and, on discovering I was only 13, brought me another margarita!

So Mexico was a successful holiday, though I missed my friends. I passed for a Mexican may times and grew up in a way I had never experienced before, or so my mom says. Spending endless days on the beach and just experiencing Mexican culture made for the best trip ever.

Ella Bronstein is an avid writer and reader. Her works of fiction include "The Chronicles of Roxanne." She wrote this as a grade 8 student at Gulf Island Middle School on Salt Spring Island, BC.