By Morgayne Mulkern
I never knew much about fair trade organizations. I had been oblivious about the daily lives of poor farmers, struggling in a world where the market and environment could determine what food is put on the table. I knew nothing of the diseases and impending illnesses brought on by inhumane working conditions. I was unaware of all the steps, effort and hard work that go into making a chocolate bar, alcohol, or a cup of coffee.
However, when I was in Nicaragua as a member of the BSU Winter Study Tour, I learned about all of those things.
I lived with families and attended lectures that opened my eyes in wonder. I experienced first-hand how hard coffee farmers worked every day, and how their livelihood, their next meal, all depended on varying conditions.
For example, market trends, consumer desires, environmental conditions, global warming and climate change slowly impacted the coffee industry. I listened to their worried tones as they discussed the unpredictability of the future and their harvests. I picked coffee beans with my own hands, roasted them, and visited the wet/dry mills where they are processed into a finished product.
I smelled different coffees and learned how taste testers identify them with the matching palate and region of the world so as to maximize the coffee’s chance in the market. In one particular lecture, I learned that the workers were exposed to such poor living conditions that it was causing them to have kidney failure. No matter, they were willing to pay that price just to help their children have a better future.
The families I stayed with had limited to no running water and electricity. We lived with a constant layer of dirt on our clothes, and slept with bug nets over our heads at night.
The farmers took pride in their farms and shared everything generously with us. They truly knew how to make the best of every fruit and plant they grew. They were a true community who helped one another, with families sharing crops and watching the neighboring children.
Their positive attitude and lively community spirit was startling, compared to the conditions they were living in. The children would happily play with a stick and the dirt from the dirt floor to make up games. I was told how their eyes lit up when I brought Braille Uno cards for us to play with. It was touching to know how much one simple gift could mean, and we played for hours together.
Their self-sufficiency was noteworthy. When we asked how to open a can, one woman sliced it open with a cleaver. When I was injured with a twisted ankle, they told me how they are capable of almost anything medical, right down to stitches. It was like taking a step back in time. I gained a true appreciation for their culture: the way they shared with one another and made the most of everything they had.
Much of our trip also incorporated nature hikes and exploration. My lack of sight did not compromise my experience. I was able to feel butterfly wings the size of my palm and hear howler monkeys yelping above me in the trees while I hiked through a cloudy forest.
I felt the heaviness of raindrops in the rainforest, crossed rickety bridges, and climbed slippery rocks to stand beside a waterfall. I felt the hot ash of a volcano, and my legs sinking into the mountain of dry sand as I climbed to the top of the volcano.
One time, I was afraid I would not be able to slide down with the other students on sand boards, so someone volunteered to go with me on the same board. We flew down the volcano and it was a thrill like no other. My teammates and I formed an incredible bond as they encouraged me to take on each hike; they were always willing to guide me and cheer me on. I was grateful for their help and support.
Even though I didn’t go on a Winter Study Tour that explored castles, ate at fancy restaurants, or sun bathed at a beach, I was experiencing things with all of my available senses. It was truly an adventure that I will never forget.
I encourage you to take advantage of opportunities that force you out of your comfort zones. Explore things that you might not otherwise choose to. Perhaps you may also find yourself on an adventure of a lifetime like the one I did. College is a time where you should take advantage of the resources available, the ones that offer the opportunity to go to new places you may not have imagined before.
Morgayne Mulkern is a Comment Staff writer.