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Julie Pokela of Northampton, MA with a friend in Ometepe, Nicaragua.
Julie Pokela of Northampton, MA with a friend in Ometepe, Nicaragua.

Giving Back in Ometepe: Entiende's Life Changing Travel

EcoService Tours Offer More than Sightseeing

Hard at work under the Nicaraguan sun a group of men and women, aged 20 to mid 70’s works, bent over, beating soil filled bags together as they build a home. This isn’t what you think, these people may be working hard but they are also on vacation.

If travel has become nothing more than sight-see, shop, eat, repeat as necessary, then you might be in the market for change. Many people travel but few people really get to understand a culture, a place, or even themselves. For many what is missing from their travels is purpose.

Entiende EcoService Adventures is all about purpose, determined to give back, get connected and get inspired, this is a different sort of travel, a travel where you learn more about yourself, the culture and help others, all in the name of fun and the spirit of adventure.

Life Changing Travel

“When we do this work we are blowing our own minds” Co-founder Georganne tells me. She says that the core of service travel is that being of service is profound, “we’re making real connections and meeting real needs.”

Entiende has been working with a family on Ometepe, an island in Nicaragua, helping to improve their standard of living. “When we first got there, their homes were very basic” co-founder Julie tells me. “Just black plastic held up by four wood posts. They do have an outhouse--for 34 people”

Volcano in Ometepe, Nicaragua. photos by Entiende.
Volcano in Ometepe, Nicaragua. photos by Entiende.

Over the course of a week using environmentally friendly technology and locally sourced materials the group worked with the family and was able to build a one-room earth bag home. It wasn’t much but it was a huge step up and the family was thrilled. The participants were thrilled too, and that’s what Georganne and Julie want, happy people connecting to each other, inspiring each other.

How it all Began

It all began when one of Georganne, a Unitarian Minister at the time, urged by one of her congregants to come and visit his hometown of Ometepe. It would take a few more years and meeting Julie to create Entiende. “When we finally figured out what it is we wanted to do together I suddenly realized ah!, that’s what Ometepe was about,” Georganne recalls.

Entiende aims to create a group bonding experience, so you get to know the others you are working with as well as the family. They have structured meetings so group members can get together and share. “It can be good to have somebody to share the experience with, especially when this is the first time you are confronting poverty on this level.” Julie says.

Entiende wants you to push yourself and your boundaries to explore your own limitations and your own judgments, and then let them fall away. “The purpose of the trip is to help them, but it’s also about helping ourselves, opening ourselves up and inspiring ourselves.” Georganne explains “ Travel helps us see the ways in which we limit ourselves, and the strengths and weakness of other cultures as well as our own.”

Working with Families

Entiende is working on a two-stage project with the family in Ometepe. In January they will be building Rocket cooking stoves. Though it seems simple its actually very important, the Ometepe family, like many other third world families cook over open flame. Because there is little to no ventilation in homes the smoke becomes a serious health risk, especially to women and children. Cooking fires are also hurting the environment, as more people live closer together they put more pressure on local forests and deforestation is widespread.

The Rocket stove helps in two ways; first it allows the cooker to conserve firewood, second by having a chimney pipe Rocket stoves cut down on the smoke in homes, improving the health of family members.

Volunteers helping build an earth-bag house in Ometepe.
Volunteers helping build an earth-bag house in Ometepe.

The second stage will be building more earth-bag houses. Using local materials (dirt and empty rice bags) and barbed wire, unskilled workers can quickly construct strong structures that improve living standards, and families can trade plastic tarp for walls. The technology was first pioneered in Mexico and since has been used throughout South and Central America.

Susan Rice, a participant on the first Ometepe trip says that working with the family was “ an opportunity to connect with the family in deep way, particularly the women, I learned that although we lived world’s apart our hearts could be heavy in the same way.”

“We are taking the sort of work that is usually associated with missionaries and making it available for everyone.” Georganne says. She hopes that the spiritual nature of the work is implicit not explicit and that people find meaning in their own ways.

What’s It Like?

It’s not all work and no play for those on an EcoService vacation. There is scheduled work time on four of the ten days, but there are also sightseeing trips to local monuments and museums as well as shopping at local markets.

The accommodation is in a renovated monastery, simple and serene. “ They are perfect for those of us who are past the age of roughing it (in backpacker hostels)” Julie says with a smile, though she also adds that though comfortable they are basic, “think monks” she tells me.

The location can’t be better “ Ometepe is a jewel” Georganne explains, with two volcanoes, beaches and few tourists, Ometepe is a tropical paradise. Susan concurred saying Ometepe was magnificent and that she would return just to hike up one of the volcanoes (the dormant one I hope).

Entiende is a great option for both the seasoned traveler and the one’s on their first trip. “I would definitely recommend this trip, especially for somebody who is less likely to do something like this on their own.”

For those who are looking to spend some time giving back or those who want to step outside their comfort zone but still want a hand to hold, Entiende EcoService Adventure are a good alternative to regular tours.

Next Trip Dates:

January 20th-29th 2012 and Jan. 28th- Feb. 5th 2012 (you can join one or both for a longer stay)

$1,000 per person, airfare not included

Sample itineraries as well as FAQ’s can be found along with other information at their website.

Kathleen Ahamed Broadhurst

Kathleen Broadhurst is freelance writer and photographer. She writes Travel Vicarious a blog about alternative travel for funky people.

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Tags: storySection: Helps
Location: Central America,Nicaragua
author: Kathleen Broadhurst
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