A recent trip to Nicaragua has me mulling over one simple question: Can you really put a value to an experience? If diving into the unknown is the ultimate adventure, is it possible to put a price tag on that experience?
Enter a website called The Adventures Of X(TAOX)! Through this little known website, I was invited to partake in a service trip to two cities in Nicaragua – La Paz and La Primavera. I knew that Nicaragua is one of the least developed countries in Central America, but nothing prepared me for the experience. I witnessed firsthand how shocking, especially in La Paz, the degree of poverty truly is. I was told beforehand that “an important part of the service trip is experiencing life as the extremely poor experience it, and you should approach this with understanding and humility.”
The emergence of responsible tourism as a niche market presents a whole new way to tackle travel and tourism from an entirely different perspective—that travel and tourism only really requires two basic things: an open door and an open mind. Governments, of course, play an integral role in that they must have an open sky policy. This fact aside, a service trip is really an exercise on the part of a traveler to fulfill their need to do something good while they travel – to be precise, to be a “voluntourist.” For my Nicaragua trip, it entailed a day of digging a ditch (in La Paz) for a bio-gas system (animal manure converted to cooking gas) and spending a few days with the Women In Action project (in La Primavera). On the backdrop of this volunteer work was a detailed sightseeing itinerary that took me to some of Nicaragua’s most popular tourist attractions – the Masaya Volcano, Revolutionary Plaza, National Palace, Sandino Statue, to name just a few. The most significant aspect of this service trip, however, had nothing to do with the actual tour itinerary or even the volunteer work that was required. It had to do with accommodation. I was assigned a host family to stay with in both La Paz and La Pirmavera. Simply put, I had to live like a local for the time that I stayed in both places. This meant I had to eat the same food and sleep in the same manner that my host families did.
There I was, lying on a fragile makeshift bed on my first night in La Paz, Nicaragua, and silently deliberating whether I was cut out for the “voluntour” (or service trip) that I had signed up for. I was now immersed in an experience where I was “living” the life of an impoverished Nicaraguan – the guest bedroom where I stayed was separated from the host’s bedroom (shared by a family of four – parents, a one-year-old boy, and another boy who was six years of age) by sheets made of rice sacks that were sewn up together to form a curtain/divider. The door was partially covered by a thin cloth; privacy was virtually non-existent. Trading in the conveniences of a hotel accommodation to stay with a host family was a core requirement and an integral component in the service trip experience.
Despite my blank canvas, I was blown away by this experience in almost every way one can be–the level of culture shock was intense; the language barrier, profound! In spite of the differences encountered between our Nicaraguan hosts and my fellow adventurers, this undertaking leveled the service trip group as a whole. Some members of the group left in tears, not out of sorrow for the Third World status quo as much as mourning the separation from their newly discovered Nicaraguan “family.” What became the most difficult task in the entire journey to Nicaragua was parting ways with fellow human beings who opened their doors and their minds to care for us during our brief stint in their household.
This trip was put together by the partnering of two companies – Manifest Foundation and Compass de Nicaragua. Manifest Foundation is a NH 501(c)3 non-proﬁt organization. What’s significant to know in this case is that the Manifest Foundation has already completed many voluntourism trips and is keen on adding more itineraries to its already vast list of trips to Latin America and parts of Africa. In the near future, the non-profit organization will be expanding its outreach to every continent around the globe with a very clear objective: to provide the opportunity for life enhancement through community service. Meanwhile, Compass de Nicaragua is a NH 501(c)3 non-proﬁt organization that formed in the 1990s. The mission of this company is to promote cultural exchange and improve lives through service trips and sustainable community development in both urban and rural Nicaragua. Manifest Foundation is reaching out to organizations such as Compass de Nicaragua to make these services available to many more.
On my service trip to Nicaragua, the ages, lifestyles, and cultural experience among the group was diverse, to say the least. However, all were on the same playing ﬁeld, and the game didnʼt belong to any of us. A Manifest Foundation representative looked out for the safety and interest of our group and a photographer worked diligently to capture the experience. It was amazing to see that these two seasoned individuals were struck by the experience as much as the rest of us. During the end-of-trip discussion, which took place on the night before our group’s departure back to the US, there was a consensus among the members of the group that the experience was profound and can only be described as life-changing. Everyone who took part in this trip wants to do more for the Nicaraguan people and they want to inspire others to take this expedition by sharing their stories and pictures.
Kudos to the Manifest Foundation. Its presence comes at a time when greater emphasis on responsible tourism is being felt across the globe. The Manifest Foundation, based on my service trip to Nicaragua, is clearly bringing socio-economic change to the world one journey at a time. While there is a definite price tag for this exercise in altruism, the experience in its entirety is truly priceless.
My Nicaragua experience is by no means a product that I would recommend for everyone to take. Not quite. The trip can undoubtedly take a toll on a traveler’s physical and mental limit. Simply put, taking on this service trip means you are prepared for the worst in “adventuring.” This said, The Adventures Of X has a vast array of travel itineraries to fit every lifestyle. Whether you want to take on a service trip similar to my Nicaraguan adventure or just want to go on a vacation, I’m certain that TAOX has a suitable itinerary to cater to your needs.