Nicaraguan Adventures with the Outdoor Program | St. Lawrence University

Nicaraguan Adventures with the Outdoor Program

Emma Brandt

I’m lying on a surfboard paddling into an oncoming wave. I reach it just as it crests and I slide over it into calmer waters below. Turning around, I paddle back to India, one of our instructors, so she can help me time the next wave and give me a push into it. My hair has slowly been pulled out of its ponytail over the course of numerous falls into the water and my eyes sting with salt. India points out to sea and says, “That one, you’re going to go for that one. Okay, start paddling now!” I pump my arms, pulling myself away from the wave while I prepare to pop up. As the wave reaches me, I push down on the board, bring my torso up, and sort of get my feet into position along the centerline. I straighten up and my eyes go wide with excitement and astonishment as Lauren snaps a picture of me riding the foam into shore. Bailing into the water, I can’t contain my grin. I actually surfed!

This past winter break I went on a week-long Outdoor Program trip to Nicaragua. It was a Women’s Surfing and Yoga Retreat but also introduced us to the Nicaraguan culture and gave us time to reflect and discuss what it means to be women in outdoor recreation. The Outdoor Program’s mission is to educate students in outdoor leadership and skills, instill an environmental ethic, and empower students through outdoor and wilderness exploration and experiences. They accomplish this through trips, clinics, and their guide training program which is a course you can apply to take in the spring and prepares you to guide for them. They also offer an outdoor studies minor and the Adirondack Semester, an off campus program in the fall where students live in an off-grid yurt village in the Adirondacks without technology. I’m currently in guide training, did the Adirondack Semester last fall, and will complete the outdoor studies minor this semester.

On the trip to Nicaragua, there were seven other students and we were accompanied by Anna Carpenter, one of the Outdoor Program staff. We lived in a house in a gated community on the beach called Hacienda Iguana. We also worked with the Papaya Wellness group, a trio of incredible women who instructed us in surfing, lead daily yoga sessions, and were our cultural ambassadors. We started and ended each day with yoga and indulged in delicious meals cooked by India’s mother and bursting with local flavor. Our day to day adventures varied, but included visiting surf spots, a day hike, a trip to a local market, and a journey on horseback and by ox cart into the jungle!

One of my favorite days was when we went on a day hike up Giant’s Foot. Giant’s Foot rises a bit above the surf town of Gigante and resembles the foot of a giant, hence the name. The trail up was steep and rocky but each new outlook afforded us better and better views. At the top we marveled at the sheer drop down, the smudge of Costa Rica in the distance, and the puffs of water from whales breaching. Afterwards we walked the beach and picked up trash. Our instructors were of the mindset that if we were going to be using the beach we ought to do our part to take care of it and we agreed. Later on we met a few local dogs the instructors knew and went swimming. Our afternoon ended with fresh squeezed juice from a local restaurant.

Another incredible afternoon consisted of a rural tour into the jungle on horseback and by ox cart. One of the local communities provides these rural tours to help tourists understand the culture and how they coexist with the jungle. Our guide stopped us occasionally to show us medicinal plants they use and we also got to see a sloth with a baby hanging out in a tree! When we returned to the village we made our own tortillas in the traditional fashion and ate them with the community’s own cheese. We also got to meet their animals and learn how they make the tools they use for farming. We returned to Hacienda Iguana in time to see the sun set on the beach and watch evening surfers catch some waves.

While our days were bustling with activity, we used evenings to relax and reflect before turning in early. Dinner was full of passionate discussion and we got to know each other and our instructors better. One thing we decided to do ourselves was a nightly dinner question. We all loved this so much sometimes we would do multiple dinner questions or ask lighter questions at earlier meals. Our questions ranged from “how would you design your own island?” to “who is your female role model?” and “what has your experience been like as a woman in outdoor recreation?” These discussions for me were the highlight of the trip. This trip was unique because it was all women, and it provided the space for us to delve into our personal experiences, listen and swap stories. These nightly dinner talks brought us closer together as a group and helped us work through things on our minds.

The Outdoor Program, in my opinion, is one of St. Lawrence’s most influential departments. All the staff in the Program are committed to pushing students, helping them build confidence, giving them a space to explore who they are and what they value. My experience with the Outdoor Program has challenged me to think critically about society, who I want to be, and how I want to build relationships with others and the natural world. It’s taught me to get to know others and myself in a way only an outdoor trip can.