The end of year tour might be second nature to primary school children in Europe and North America. But, here in Nicaragua, such treats were unheard of around Granada until La Esperanza Granada began to bring the children from half a dozen schools on annual excursions three years ago. CIARAN TIERNEY joined the second graders from the Angela Morales and Juan Diego schools for the first of this year's excursions, which will take place on 12 separate days.
My God . . . what excitement! As the big, old American styled bus pulled up outside the gates of the Angela Morales school, on the road between Granada and Rivas, the sense of anticipation in the air was palpable. As the 11 youngsters piled on board, even their teacher seemed to be excited by the prospect of a day out and a break from the schoolbooks.
Joining us were a group of young volunteers, from Peru, Germany, England, France, and the United States, reflecting the variety of nationalities who come to work with La Esperanza at any one time. It was clear that some of them already had special bonds with some of the children, having worked with them in the homework club for some time.
Then it was on to Juan Diego, or as close as the bus could get to the second school along the rural, pot holed road. This school, which has 350 students when full, is one of the biggest in the area and 32 more second graders, mostly seven year olds, were lined up on one side of the road when the bus arrived.
Piling in excitedly, sometimes three to a seat, they began to point out landmarks as we made our way back down into Granada. It was clear from the look of wonder on their faces that even going on a bus with their friends was a special treat for some of these children.
The bus driver, Pablo, brought us back into the city, where a small army of five of us had gathered at 8 a.m. in order to make a host of sandwiches for the children. We had been a few minutes late leaving the office due to the late show of one of the ayudantes, Belkys . . . but, hey, this is Nicaragua and nothing is every supposed to run exactly on time!
Belkys is a former student of one of the rural schools where La Esperanza (Granada Hope) have been helping out for the past eight years. She works with the organisation from Monday to Friday, goes to University at the weekends, and still has to find time to bring up her five month old daughter. She could be excused for being late (or a little tired) from time to time . . . even though she is usually the 'Joker in Chief' in the La Esperanza office!
Belkys is studying tourism, which is why she is set to guide all 12 school tours this year, including the fourth graders' tour of Granada city centre and the sixth graders' trip to Las Isletas, the beautiful collection of 365 volcanic islands on Lake Nicaragua (Lago Cocibolca).
Pablo drove us through one of the poorer barrios of Granada, a part of the city the tourists never see, and then the bus came to a halt almost in the middle of nowhere. We piled out one by one and the volunteers began dividing out the sandwiches (or bocadillos), juice drinks, potato crisps, and fruit which we had prepared for the tour.
It was at this stage that I became really impressed by the commitment and dedication of the ayudantes, who are seen as role models for the primary school children. Basically, these are gifted youngsters who would not be able to go to University but for the generous sponsorship of all the donors who provide funds to La Esperanza Granada throughout the year.
They led the youngsters through a forest trail, away from the road, before we found a path which was virtually hidden from the road. Slowly, we began the 30 minute ascent towards the summit of Lomas de Posintepe, a little-known hill under the shadow of Volcan Mombachu, the area's main landmark, which boasts stunning views of the city, lake, and islands.
Driven on by their youth and enthusiasm, some of the children bounded on ahead of their guides towards the hilltop, while some of us volunteers began to regret the bottles of Tona we had consumed in O'Shea's Irish bar during La Esperanza's weekly pub quiz the previous night. And the blistering sun did not help!
But, just when we wondered when the climb would end, the summit, which is dominated by a big white cross, loomed. And we spread out across the hill-top for three hours of relaxation, games, soaking in the incredible views, and the much anticipated picnic.
I was hugely impressed by Donald, an ayudante and former student of the local schools. He took charge of the children and insisted that not one piece of rubbish would be left behind on the hillside. The few transgressors he managed to catch were quickly summonsed to put their left-overs into a big bin-bag which we brought back down with us after the excursion.
It didn't take long for the curious children to start asking questions of the volunteers they were not familiar with, from the other schools, as we pointed out landmarks such as the Granada Cathedral, the pier for the Ometepe Ferry, and the Isletas down below us.
Soon informal friendships were being made all around the hill-top as we sat in the shade during what was a beautiful, sunny afternoon, and then the excitement rose again when the sandwiches, treats, fruit and juices were produced and the children formed an orderly queue.
Some of the children wanted to know all about my country, Ireland, and others just wanted to practice counting from one to ten in English. Suddenly, I was glad I had gone back to school to improve my Spanish in Panama before I came to Granada to volunteer.
Thankfully, the trip back down from the hilltop proved to be a good deal easier than the climb, and we arrived back down to the rocky road, and crossed the impassable bridge at the bottom, to find that Pablo had returned to the meeting point just on time.
So, reasonably orderly, and a lot more tired than in the morning, we piled back into the big old bus for the journey home. Some of the volunteers hopped out of the bus when we got back to Granada, but the rest of us stayed on board to accompany the children back to their home villages.
All in all, a wonderful day out, and a reminder of the importance of the simpler things in life. These lovely Nicaraguan children reminded us foreigners of the beauty of a simple picnic, a hilltop with a good view, and the value of treasuring good friends. You don't always need to go to Disneyworld or a massive theme park in order to have a good time!