The day after returning from an exhilaratingly exhausting week at Access Camp in Managua, I asked myself if setting out on an 11 hour, 50 kilometer trek from Estelí to El Sauce, Leon with the brothers of Emily’s counterpart was a good idea. Emily was exercising wisdom, and made the tough decision to stay at home and recuperate. She piled into the family’s pickup truck on Sunday morning to meet the walking crew in El Sauce for the first day of the town’s patron saint festival. I, however, with all the unbridled curiosity of a Nilsen, and perceived pseudo-invincibility of a 20-something, couldn’t say no to this integration opportunity. Sore feet and sleep deprivation be damned!
I loaded my CamelBak with a full water pouch, a triple decker PB&J sandwich with the last of the raspberry jam from Mamma’s wonderful X-mas care package, two granola bars (from Paige & Jenn’s care package), Extra-Strength Gold Bond, and two head lamps. Although we set out at 2pm on Saturday afternoon, William and Lorenzo Vasquez assured me that we would be walking the majority of the journey through the night. I met them, along with their nephew Hugo, at the “corner of the banks” and we set out.
Within the first hour of the journey we must have passed over one hundred people. The Black Christ (or Señor de los Milagros de Esquipulas) in El Sauce is one of the most venerated Catholic sites in Nicaragua, with people from all over the country and Central America paying respects on the third Sunday of January. Thus, the road from Estelí to El Sauce was very well traveled that day. Most of the people we came in contact with were coming from Estelí, but others had been walking for a week or more from towns much farther away.
We walked and walked.
Our group of four chatted amicably with passersby, sharing in food and coffee along the way. We passed through natural reserves, up and down hills, and reveled in the gorgeous sunset over the peaks of Nicaraguan volcanoes.
We made it about 30 kilometers and 5 hours before it was completely dark and we stopped by a house on the side of the road for dinner.
And then we walked some more.
The second half of the journey was definitely more challenging. I started to develop a pretty nasty shin splint in my left shin in addition to the few blisters I’d acquired during the first half of the trip. You want to talk about resiliency? The small act of putting one foot in front of the other required a continuous faith that I would indeed make it to our destination. In truth though, while it was physically difficult, my spirit was continuously feed.
To ignore our various aches and pains we swapped stories, told jokes, and talked about Nicaraguan culture. Lorenzo (the oldest sibling of the family at age 51) reassured me that if Emily and I ever needed anything, regardless of the hour, that they were only a phone call away. I thanked him for all of the warmth and support they have shown us over our time here so far, and that the love they’ve shown us has helped us feel not so far from home.
At 1:00 am on Sunday morning we hobbled into the town of El Sauce, a mere 11 hours after we set out the afternoon before.
As we made our way towards the church to pay our respects to the Black Christ we passed through blocks of a makeshift market set up for the festival that was bustling with activity, despite the fact that it was the middle of the night. In addition, there were scores of other pilgrims settled down to sleep for the night in sleeping bags, tents, or hammocks. I was stunned by the sheer number of people come to share in this tradition.
We entered the sanctuary through a winding path of barriers that would later hold the massive queue of people come to pay homage, pray, and begin/complete their spiritual promise. The statue itself was quite small, less than a foot and a half tall, but the sense of reverence in the mostly empty room was palpable. Not exactly sure what else to do, I walked over in front of the sculpture and knelt next to my traveling companions.
As I knelt, I reflected on our physical journey and felt thankful for the opportunity to grow closer to these men, grateful for their generosity in inviting me to join them and for feeding me along the way, and in awe of the importance that so many Nicaraguans placed in this space. Although I am not Catholic, being invited to participate in this ceremony was incredibly meaningful. I left the sanctuary with a renewed desire to continue living out my service as humbly, curiously, and sensitively as possible.
Later, after a few hours of sleeping on the sidewalk, the sun rose again in the sky. The rest of our crew (including Emily) joined us around 10am for the celebrations and services during the day. I returned to the church to see the image again, this time waiting in line for an hour and a half. In line, I realized there were four generations of the Vasquez family waiting with us. My sentiments of gratitude and awe returned, as we shared in the ritual together.
There have been a few times here at site that Emily and I have felt very lonely and somewhat powerless. It’s hard to integrate, to make new friends in a new place, to forge connections. After this journey though, I know that connection can be found less than a phone call (or 30 miles) away.
We would love to hear what you think about this guidepost:
+ In what ways do you experience numbing and powerlessness?
+ How can you cultivate a resilient spirit?
Read/join the discussion here.