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24 Years online
••• The International Writers Magazine -
Travel With Purpose

Lighting Up San Jose El Paraiso
• Tyrel Nelson
GRID Alternatives in action


The wheels had just hit the tarmac in Managua, and my jaw hit the floor. The first text I read as the plane slowly approached the terminal of Aeropuerto Internacional Augusto C. Sandino proved heartbreaking. My wife informed me that a dear friend of ours had died in a traffic accident in Spain the night before. My eyes welled up. The rows of seats in front of me became a blurry, dark gray mess.

I don’t recollect exiting the avión, nor waiting in the customs line. What I do recall, however, was the perplexed look on the airport agent’s face when I told her I was heading to San José El Paraíso for a few days.

“¿Adónde?” To where? Clearly unfamiliar with the rural hamlet, the lady waved the man over from the adjacent booth.

 “Ni idea,” he responded. No idea. His expression mimicked hers.

I pulled up the GRID Alternatives website on my Samsung. I showed them the project page. They nodded with approval after I explained I would help install solar panels for 15 families in the place they never knew existed. The next sounds I heard were the pages of my passport flipping and the loud tamp of the stamper, deeming my visit to Nicaragua official.

The interaction with the agentes aduaneros brought me somewhat back to reality. But my mental fog remained thick. Memories of my late amigo spun around in my mind while I watched the suitcases ride the conveyor around and around. I eventually recognized my bag, scooped it up, and walked in the wrong direction.

“I saw you,” GRID’s program coordinator said when I finally exited the building. “Where were you going?”

I realized Islena must have seen my left turn through the glass windows in front of the luggage claim … and then watched me cross her field of vision again after I corrected my mistake.

“Uh, I was looking for the bathroom,” was all I offered. I chose not to disclose the reason for my distraction, as I only thought about Alberto's death.

I was at Hotel Camino Real moments later. My wife and I consoled one another on the phone the second I shut the door to my muggy room. After getting settled into my habitación, I got acquainted with my six teammates (from the Midwest and both coasts of the U.S.) and two GRID leaders over dinner. Breaking bread with this enthused bunch brought me back into focus—I decided that this solar project was happening despite my distress. I had to concentrate on it someway, while grieving, too. The time flew by rapidly from that point forward.

Nicaragua The following days were both exhilarating and exhausting from a physical and emotional standpoint. For example, fear consumed me when my mule went rogue on my initial approach to the host village. The animal veered off the path, fighting uphill through my desperate tugs on the reins to reach its homestead atop a trailside slope. My pulse still raises when I dwell on that failed ride. Yet the adrenaline rush I experienced as I rode mulas up and down the jungly ridges between project sites every día thereafter was thrilling.

The hotness of the midday sun, not to mention the fatigue I endured after sweating buckets on the aluminum roofs, was soothed by the fresh bucket baths I took under the starry sky before bedtime each night. Witnessing the lights turn on inside a casa after we completed all the electrical connections made me happy. But sadness swept over me when I bid farewell to the same homeowners on our last day in San José.

Sadness, in truth, is the sentiment that instantly surfaces whenever I reflect on this trek. I believe this depression is represented in all the pictures I didn’t shoot, which is uncharacteristic of me. I have been on dozens of these excursions in my life and I normally can’t remove my finger from the shutter button. Yet this jaunt to the mountains of Matagalpa was unlike those prior. I struggled inside. I’d never dealt with a loss so raw immediately before a volunteer project, which is the type of endeavor I expect to pour my heart and head into. So I did everything I could to hone in on the task at hand rather than focus my camera lens away from the scattering of photos I somehow snapped.

Still, melancholy isn’t the only sensation that is evoked when I ponder Paraíso. Despite the emptiness caused by my grief, I became fulfilled in other ways. (See photo of me playing guitar)

This adventure fueled my soul. Not only did it give me a purpose, but it also pushed me physically and emotionally, which is what I search for on volunteer trips. To live in the comunidad in a manner similar to its inhabitants provided me with a sense of connectedness to the Earth that I rarely get to experience on account of the luxuries I enjoy daily in the outskirts of Minneapolis, such as indoor plumbing. I won’t forget the cacophony of bugs buzzing, cows mooing, dogs barking, and roosters crowing while I lay on a flat tijera, staring at the metal ceiling of a classroom through the matrix of my mosquito net during the wee hours.
Tyrel playing guitar

Moreover, I’ll forever flash back to the people I encountered for their generosity. The families with whom we collaborated welcomed our group into their homes, fed, and guided us along the challenging bridle paths of their region. The GRID staff meticulously planned out our days, taking care of my teammates and me every step of the way. With respect to my fellow travelers, I shall remember them for their authenticity. I continue to replay many of the songs, laughs, sincere stories, and candid chats we shared. Everyone I got to know on this viaje made it special for me. Even though we are no longer close in distance, and the separation from our time together grows on, I will always have a high regard for these unique individuals because they enriched my journey. And like my friend, Alberto, I am better for knowing them.

© Tyrel Nelson 8.18.23

GRID Alternatives International Program
San José El Paraíso, Matagalpa, Nicaragua
March 11-18, 2023
*For more information on how to join a GRID Alternatives International Program, visit their website here.

If I Could Only Find the Words
Tyrel Nelson

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