On Giving Back in Nicaragua

May 19, 2015
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A month after I had moved to León, Nicaragua, my 24th birthday was approaching. Being away from home, I was worried that I would feel lonely or that it wouldn’t be special if I couldn’t be with my friends and family. I had lived abroad before, but I had never been quite so on my own, nor had I been alone on my birthday. I tried not to place any expectations on the day so that I couldn’t be disappointed.

It occurred to me that this might be the perfect time to implement my first “BEarthday.” BEarthday is a concept that was pioneered by some friends of mine. The principle is to implement a BEarthday wish for yourself, your friends and your family that improves the lives of another or the well-being of the world. According to those who gave birth to the idea, “BearthDay is a new concept encouraging us to celebrate our birthdays in a different way. The main focus is to shift the idea from being a receiver to being a giver. On a day normally focused on ourselves, the idea is to make your birthday about gratitude, giving, and doing good for others.”

I first participated in a golden BEarthday wish that requested that I pick up 222 cigarette butts off the ground. I had been studying in Bilbao, Spain at the time, so I carried out the mission on my way to class one afternoon, and for each salvaged cigarette butt I received just as many stares from Spaniards thinking, “What is that crazy foreign girl doing?”

Giving Back in Nicaragua

BEarthday: How I Spent My Birthday Giving Back in Nicaragua
Riding a horse in Nicaragua

This inspired my own BEarthday wish and I decided to turn my day around and make it about the earth and others. I had just begun volunteering with La Isla Foundation in León, and took the day off – if I was going for a non-traditional career path, why spend my special day in an office? I begged a BEarthday wish of my Facebook network- that instead of buying me a gift or a drink or whatever, that they donate to La Isla Foundation. And if they didn’t have the money, that at the very least they read up on the cause and get informed about chronic kidney disease of non-traditional causes in Central America. The main idea was that in honor of my birthday, my friends, family and acquaintances would do something for others and the Earth.

Okay, I had my wishes manifested – but how was I going to spend my time? I took my own BEarthday measures by creating good wishes on small pieces of paper, expressing things like “You are as beautiful as a flower,” “Smile today,” and “Believe in yourself.” Hopefully I got the Spanish translations right.

On a day normally focused on ourselves, the idea is to make your birthday about gratitude, giving, and doing good for others.

I bounced around the streets of León, one of my favorite activities on a normal day, enhanced by the joy of passing a big smile and a good wish along to complete strangers. Oftentimes I passed too fast to see their reactions, but some people stopped to share a smile or ask what I was doing. The simple act of spreading smiles to strangers filled me with a bubbling joy that immensely exceeded what could come of sharing birthday drinks with familiar friends or receiving material gifts.

So, I had achieved a spin towards others – next it was Mother Earth’s turn. Inspired by the weird looks I got in Spain and the trash-infused streets of my surroundings, I set out to collect litter that afternoon. This part was not so glamorous, but it was rewarding and I hope it inspired some people to stop and think twice about their impacts on our Mother Earth. Two of us only made it about six blocks and six full bags of garbage – but it was enough to make a tiny impact on the environment as well as on the locals who noticed and appreciated what we had done, commenting on their bad littering habits as a culture.

Relaxing in gratitude
Relaxing in gratitude

Giving Back in Nicaragua

Amidst all of this do-gooding, I did treat myself to several personal indulgences throughout the day – a therapeutic yoga class, pan de chocolate at León’s famous French bakery Pan y Paz, and a trip outside the city to ride horses, one of my greatest passions in this life.

Luckily I didn’t have to spend the whole day alone, and I was accompanied by my fellow foreign friend Monica, for whom I was – and still am – extremely grateful to have by my side. Post-horseback ride, we were treated to a typical Nicaraguan lunch at the eco-lodge, after which the cutest little girl served me pio quinto, my favorite Nicaraguan dessert of custard, cinnamon and rum-soaked raisin cake, and the family sang me a Spanish happy birthday. I was awe-struck by the generosity of these people whom I’d barely met and who went out of their way to share their cultural customs and make me feel at home and celebrated.

The simple act of spreading smiles to strangers filled me with a bubbling joy that immensely exceeded what could come of sharing birthday drinks with familiar friends or receiving material gifts.

At the end of the day, I had spoken with my family and heard from my friends back home, but I didn’t feel as if I’d spent my birthday away from home. Between converting the day into a meaningful BEarthday, having a good friend to help me make it special, and experiencing the kindness of the Nicaraguan people – all complemented by the outpour of love that I did receive from my network – I was beyond overwhelmed with gratitude and love, to the point of tears. Honestly, I felt the opposite of selfless. Trying to make the day not about me ended up backfiring into feelings of immense compassion, joy, and and personal satisfaction.

Spending my birthday abroad turned out to be the best birthday I’ve ever had, and it will stand out to me forever. No matter where you are, there’s always a way to make the most out of your surroundings and turn a normal day into something special.


Top photo by Unsplash. 

About Chelsea Johnson

Chelsea is a Colorado native who loves discovering new corners of the world. Her quest to conquer the Spanish language has taken her throughout Spain and Latin America and she currently resides in Nicaragua. When she is not exploring, you can find her reading, writing, creating art, listening to music, doing yoga, or eating chocolate. Follow her adventures on her blog.

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