“I never thought I would say it, but I fell in love with the beauty and charm of the little city of León, Nicaragua and I have no doubt you will too.”
Written by Stephanie Wilson.
Where did it all start? In reality, it started a few years ago, when I started to feel as though I wasn’t living my life true to myself. I’ve always been a dreamer, fortunate to be bilingual and with the opportunity to travel from a young age. I wanted to do and be and experience so much. I’ve always envisioned an “ideal self,” and suddenly, I found myself at 24 years old feeling like I wasn’t moving forward as fast as I wanted.
I don’t even remember how I found out about TEFL, but I’m so thankful that I did. I stumbled across it through a blog, and my mind raced from there. I chose to complete my course online and take advantage of the Hybrid program (An add on to ITA’s online TEFL course with observed teacher practice.) and Volunteer Program that ITA offers in Leon, Nicaragua.
Within 10 days of stumbling across ITA’s website, I had quit my job and began my online course. Quitting my job was not necessary, but I was dying to travel again and my normal day to day live just wouldn’t suffice. I devoted all of my time and energy to studying, planning, daydreaming, and selling my personal belongings. I knew this was my ticket out of the country and my excuse to do what I have always wanted to do- live my life outside of the United States. I knew I wasn’t coming back.
I started my online course on February 27th and completed the last few weeks of the course in May while visiting my family in Mexico. That’s the beauty of the online course – you can complete it anywhere that you have Internet access!
By the time June rolled around and it was time to head off to Nicaragua to complete my teacher practice or practicum and Volunteer Program, I couldn’t believe it. The time had finally come!
The truth is I really didn’t know much about Nicaragua when I made my plans.
I just knew I wanted to go somewhere new, I love Latin culture and speak the Spanish language, and I’m always up for an adventure. I’m a backpacker! Nothing could phase me. I was on my way with a smile on my face bigger than my backpack (and trust me, my 55 liter backpack is not small one).
Don’t speak Spanish, read this related article: No Spanish, No Problem.
When I first arrived in León, Nicaragua, my immediate surroundings hit me hard. This was my first time in the country and my first time in Central America at all. Nicaragua is the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and let’s just say the “sidewalk quality” left me dumbfounded. My immediate first thoughts – I need to make friends at International TEFL Academy and quickly, because I don’t know if I can get through the next 6 weeks on my own.
My Hybrid orientation was the next day and I met the two other girls who were completing the Hybrid Program with me. We hit it off immediately! Heather the onsite coordinator had emailed us a few weeks prior, and connected us with all of the current 4 week TEFL onsite students. She suggested we all head to the beach for the weekend, and get to know one another over the next few days.
Orientation started at 9:30 am, and by 11:30 I was back at the academy with a packed bag and at least a dozen new friends, laughing and having a blast as we headed for the beach in the back of a truck. We passed cows walking on the side of the road, motorcyclists zooming in and out of traffic, and people everywhere, selling, buying, conversing, and just going about their everyday lives. I spent my first two nights on the beach, and I was astounded by the immediate friendships I made and the new views I got to experience.
The Hybrid program started the next week and kept me busy. It was difficult and stressful and challenging, but by the end, I got through it effectively with the help of my instructors and I felt more confident in my ability to prepare, plan, and execute a successful class. The Hybrid program gave me the real time practice I needed to start a successful career teaching English as a Foreign Language. The help and practice I received was irreplaceable. I graduated at the end of the week alongside my peers.
Even with all of the help and support from the Academy, life in Nicaragua was difficult and new. The streets were hectic and loud. People stared.. hard. My features stood out against the norm. I walked quickly, kept my head down, and sweated profusely. I was an absolute grump my first week.
In Chapter 3 of your course, you’ll learn about the five phases of culture shock. The Honeymoon Phase – when everything is wonderful, new, and exciting. The Rejection Phase- when your surrounds begin to frustrate and irritate you. The Adjustment Phase- when you begin to accept your new environment and relax. The Adaptation Phase- when you begin to feel a new sense of belonging to the host culture. The readaptation phase- when you come “home” and have difficult time re-adapting to your normal environment.
Now I’m a seasoned traveler. Culture shock? Not me! I rejected even the notion of culture shock, not realizing I was in the midst of it. I spent my first week asking everybody if they liked León, and they all did! What?! How?! They talked about the charm and authenticity and beauty of the colonial little city. They talked about how wonderful the culture was and how amazing and accepting the people were. Are we talking about the same place? León? Nicaragua???
It took me about two weeks. Then one day, I stepped outside and something, everything, was different. The streets were beautiful, the architecture was elegant, and the colors were vibrant. The people were friendly, the smells were enticing, and everything was brilliant. I walked down the street slowly. I looked left and right and up and down and at everything my eyes could find. For the first time, I saw where I was.
Later that day, I sat down to eat with an Austrian friend, Flo, who had arrived just a day before I did. He told me he finally felt comfortable walking down the street- not from a security standpoint (I never once felt unsafe in León) but he finally felt like he fit. He finally felt like he was no longer a stranger, or someone that didn’t belong. He put into words what I couldn’t. I realized at that moment what was happening. I was adjusting. I was thriving. I was unbelievably happy. This is what everyone had been talking about since the moment I arrived, and I finally saw it.
As the weeks progressed, I only fell more and more in love. I was in a picturesque place. I was accepted immediately into the community that is the International TEFL Academy Nicaragua. I realized bit-by-bit that the locals had always accepted me as well. It was just a matter of me accepting them, and once I did, it was beautiful.
On the rooftop of the Cathedral of Leon, the Largest in Central America. Officially known as the Basílica de la Asunción, you’ll enjoy an amazing view of the city and the volcanoes in the distance that surround it.
Now let me tell you a little bit about the Volunteer Program. It consisted of teaching students (6-13 years old) for three weeks at a local afterschool program called Nicaragua Education Culture and Arts Trust (NECAT). I can’t count the number times I was knocked over by a giggling gang of kids as they hugged and hung on to me, pleased to see me each and every day.
My “niños” meant the world to me, and I continue to hold every one of them in my heart. Their love and curiosity and desire to learn filled me with joy. The center needs volunteers, and they were accepting and grateful to have us there. They threw us a surprise party on our very last day, and being the emotional goofball that I am, I cried and laughed the entire time. I realized that I cannot wait to have my own classroom of children, and by far it was the best part of my experience in León.
Included in the Volunteer Program, ITA Nicaragua sets up three excursions for those who participate. The first of which was day trip to León Viejo, a World Heritage Site that was the original location of the city of León, and included a hike and a swim in a crater late.
The second was a beautiful dinner at Cucaracha (also known as Mississippi) one of León’s oldest and most authentic restaurants in the city. The food was incredible, and I tried many different types of foods including their famous soup that has been cooking for over 50 years!
The last of the excursions was the Beach Weekend. The academy rented rooms at a beautiful property located right on the beach. We had the option of inviting whoever we wanted and spending our time as we pleased. Naturally, we invited several of our closest friends from ITA Nicaragua and spent the weekend together, as a family.
My 6 weeks in Leon flew by. When I first arrived, I was determined to leave the city the moment I could. A few days before my Volunteer program ended, I started to panic. I realized I wasn’t ready to leave, and I extended my stay for just a few more days.
I’m now in a different part of Central America, very much missing León and they family and community I grew to be a part of there. Flo said something to me one night that resonated hard in my being. He looked at me very seriously and said, “Stephanie, no matter where you are in this world, you can make an amazing life for yourself out of it.”
My experience in Nicaragua taught me a lot. It taught me to slow down in order to appreciate something different. It taught me to open my mind in order to enjoy my surroundings. It taught me to accept a world different from any other that I’ve ever known before.
Don’t get upset with “Nica time” (similar to island time!). Don’t get frustrated by the fact that everyone walks slowly on the sidewalks, stands too close to you in line at the grocery store, and stops to chat with friends and family wherever they are. Don’t be surprised by the sudden violent downpour of rain. Don’t mind the heat, and the fact that you’ll sweat all day. Don’t get upset when you’ve planned to sit down at your favorite café and they’re closed for whatever reason. Don’t look for your favorite stores or restaurants- they don’t exist here; instead, try something new!
Enjoy what’s different. Enjoy what’s strange. Take your time. Laugh it off. Sit on a bench and watch how a different culture goes about everyday life.
Traveling isn’t always wonderful or glamorous or easy. It’s difficult. But that’s what makes you grow and mature and flourish as person, physically, spiritually, and emotionally. I never thought I would say it, but I fell in love with the beauty and charm of the little city of León, and I have no doubt you will too. It’ll challenge you. It will make you question why you’re there, and what you really want out of life. You’ll open your eyes and heart to a whole new world and I promise, you will never be the same.