Return to Nicaragua
A spring break service trip wasn’t enough. So three U.Va. students decided to walk across the country.
Photo courtesy of Kyle Boynton.
Two hundred and five miles. Sixteen days. Three U.Va. students.
In retrospect, it becomes a lot about the numbers. But when Kyle Boynton (English, Psychology ’06), Justin Belcher (Engineering ’06) and Eric Kelley (Studio Art ’06) first brainstormed their “Walk across Nicaragua” trip, their thoughts were elsewhere.
Fresh from the Nicaraguan Orphanage Foundation’s 2005 spring break service trip to Veracruz, Boynton and Kelley knew they had not seen the last of Nicaragua.
“You go on a trip like that and you’re just on such a high when you get back. I looked at the pictures I’d taken and I wasn’t satisfied,” says Kelley, an aspiring professional photographer.
Their return trip came up far sooner than the pair expected.
The master plan materialized in the Corner Starbucks a mere two and a half weeks after spring break. They would raise money for Nueva Vida, a refugee feeding camp they visited during their spring break trip, to continue serving the country they had grown to love. Unsatisfied with their short glimpse of Nicaragua, they decided to intensify their travel experience by walking across the entire country that summer.
“There’s just an incredible amount of need there. So much poverty and yet there was so much wisdom in the people we met. It made sense to do something that invoked reciprocity,” Boynton explains. “I got a lot out of the spring break trip, but I didn’t feel like I did much. [The idea was] to put a lot of energy, heart and soul into moving across the country.”
Nueva Vida — translating to “New Life” — was an unused facility outside Managua when Boynton and Kelley first found it during their weeklong service trip. The pair was captivated by the facility’s potential: Intended to feed 200 kids, twice a day, every day, the refugee feeding camp was destined to remain an unused resource unless it secured the $16,000 needed for yearlong operation.
“We raised $4,000 to help with that. Another group raised $12,000, but they didn’t walk,” Kelley says. “[Nueva Vida] is like a cafeteria basically, with a kitchen facility and dining area. These kids have nothing to eat. Over 50 percent of Nicaragua is under the age of 16, so they’re the future leaders of Nicaragua. It was important to open up a central location to feed the kids.”
Boynton echoes these thoughts, highlighting the feeding center’s potential impact on the kids he had so recently met.
“It’s taking care of the basic necessities: food, safety, education and housing. It’s really just giving these kids a chance,” he says. “These kids are the most marginalized kids in the Western Hemisphere. Within the second poorest country, they are the poorest of the poor.”
Bolstered by ideals of adventure and service alike, the pair turned to the less glamorous aspect of their journey: logistics. Finding a third and final companion, Justin Belcher, incidentally the only — and much-needed — Spanish speaker of the group. Check. Contacting friends and family to raise the targeted $4,000 donation for the feeding camp. Double check. Purchasing machetes the first day in country, to discourage potential threats during their two-week-long trek. Done and done.
Despite their preparations, the distance between Nicaragua’s east and west coasts held numerous surprises for the travelers. First there was the rain of Nicaraguan tropics. Pouring persistently every day, the rain made their 50-pound backpacks even more inconvenient to carry. Ultimately, they devised a system for transporting their luggage — hitchhiking ahead to deposit their bags at a hostel and then backtracking to walk the entire distance.
Then there was the reality of walking over 200 miles in a little over two weeks. While Boynton had designated Highway 7 as their pathway of choice — largely with the help of old maps — the actual task of trudging a busy highway wearing hiking boots proved tiring and hard on the feet. Nights were spent journaling, resting and performing makeshift surgery on their soles.
Finally, the three had not anticipated the impact their physical presence would have on the Nicaraguan landscape, so different from the U.S.
“I didn’t realize what walking across the country meant,” Kelley says. “We were the first white people some of them had ever seen. I’m sure someone could go back and people would remember us.”
Despite the surprises and hardships, Boynton, Kelley and Belcher — all three photographers — emerged with roughly 4,000 images of their travels, capturing a trip that began to seem like a distant dream almost as soon as they completed it.
“I think I’m still processing it. It’s surreal. It’s just such an insane experience; so inconsistent with anything I’ve ever done in my life. It was like another person was walking across Nicaragua,” Boynton says.
With language barriers often making conversation a challenge, photography became particularly useful.
“I feel like I’m connecting with people in a different way when I take a picture. They get attached to me as a photographer,” Kelley explains. “I wanted to connect other people with these people that I was connecting with. I wanted to share stories of my experience and the people of Nicaragua through photography.”
View a slideshow of images from Nicaragua.