Credit: Kaitlin Solimine

Redefining Travel

The impact of visiting a local school on the Granada Isletas in Nicaragua

“When I travel, I want to be moved and I want to be transported and I want to be sent back a different person.” — Pico Iyer, travel writer

“What’s your favorite subject?” we asked the shy girl wearing the Beauty and the Beast t-shirt and tattered navy school-issued uniform pants.

“Matemáticas,” she said, suddenly more confident.

“So then,” we said, egging her on, “uno yi uno es…”

“Dos!” a chorus of young voices replied enthusiastically.

We stood at the entrance to the open-air classroom on the banks of Lake Nicaragua. There were no maps on the wall, no fans recirculating the humid air, nor even light bulbs hanging from the ceiling, but the students who stood before us were ever-eager to learn from the goofy foreigners who had arrived at their school by boat.

Our Jicaro guide, Jorge Luis, introduced us to the school’s two main teachers who then gave us an introduction to the school, including the number of students here—more than 80—and the connection to Jicaro Island Eco Lodge, the hotel from which we’d arrived that morning.

While we talked, a group of students listened in, a few of them introducing themselves with a firm handshake and a smile. Nearby, several rambunctious boys made ample use of a small concrete platform—a makeshift soccer field, one limp and tattered ball skittering from foot to foot.

Jorge Luis explained what he’d brought for the school today on behalf of Jicaro. “This paint was donated by hotel guests so the school can repair and paint old chairs,” he explained, noting that through a fundraising campaign, this school, as well as two others, will one day have a water filtration and solar energy system to provide the 200-plus students with safe drinking water and electricity—necessities forming the basic foundation of any student’s access to education.

For those of us who have grown up in westernized societies, we live in a world in which travel is something we do regularly, or at least aspire to incorporate into our lives—but what is the difference between a tourist and a traveler and how can we become the latter?

Places like Jicaro Island Ecolodge are providing just that opportunity—a morning journey across Lake Nicaragua (the stunningly majestic Mombacho Volcano shrouded in clouds behind us) is exactly what Pico Iyer was referring to when he wrote that travel requires a kind of physical and personal transportation. The connections provided by programs like Jicaro’s sustainability programs and social outreach also embody the true spirit of geotourism, the introduction of tourism that doesn’t hamper a place but buoys it—as a result, we bring back with us from this experience the sense that a true connection has been made.

As we left the school, the most vocal of the schoolboys, Jorge, shook our hands and waved us good-bye when we followed Jorge Luis into the boat. Our visit had lasted less than an hour, but in that short span we felt as if we were leaving the school much different than how we’d arrived—what had changed in those brief moments of seeing behind the cloud of “tourism” and to the heart of “travel”?

We may not be the engineers who can construct the solar energy panels for the school or run the pipes that will provide fresh drinking water on campus, but the very act of participating in Jicaro’s tours and supporting the sustainability programs the hotel initiates allows guests to have an active part in this process, one that breaks down old barriers of arms-length tourism and reengages both the traveler and the local in a critical relationship.

Professor Ilan Stevans recently wrote of the act of travel that “our wandering is meant to lead back toward ourselves. This is the paradox: we set out on adventures to gain deeper access to ourselves; we travel to transcend our own limitations.” We can think of no better place to do this than through the meaningful travel experiences of a place like Jicaro.