by Diane Wojtowicz

After only a few days at La Mariposa Spanish School and Eco-hotel in La Concepcion, Nicaragua, I had the the very real sense that if every person in the developed world spent two weeks of their life at La Mariposa, world peace would be a tangible possibility. We need to be creative, ambitious, and subversive in our methods to change the world and make it a better place. It's not easy these days to get people to stop for a moment and listen. It's even harder to get them to think.

I remember when I was a teenager and started writing poetry that went beyond pure angst, sometime after first reading Whitman and being stunned by e.e. cummings. Soon my words had a message to be delivered, but the words were trapped in a certain substrata of society. It was the greater general public, zombies in name brand attire, whose reality was reality TV, that I wanted to shake up. These are the people I needed to reach to raise consciousness of world issues, but how?

A dear friend of mine paints beautiful murals. They draw attention from all types of people off the street. At some point, I had the idea of including my words in paintings and charcoal drawings. Later, I dated a musician and observed how people became groupies for his self-composed music. I taught myself how to play basic rhythm guitar and began putting melodies with my poetry. Looking back, I realize that my strategies were both ambitious and subversive, two crucial components to making a real social impact.

...After spending just shy of a month in Nicaragua at La Mariposa, I look back on these beginning years of my creative life and realize that developing a subversive model to widen one's audience is a great tool for creating social change or making anything that we believe in really happen.

That's exactly what Paulette Goudge, director and creator of Mariposa Spanish School and Eco-Hotel in La Concepcion, Nicaragua has done. She has mastered what I have dubbed, “The Subversion Model for Social Change.” How does she reach all types of people from around the world and draw them in? Know your audience.

It begins like this: You are a hard working person in the developed world. You decide you need a vacation. You need to get away, preferably somewhere exotic and not yet inundated with tourist traps or tourists themselves. Going to a non-English speaking country would be nice, but is a little intimidating. You begin to search the Internet and eventually come across La Mariposa.

Browsing through its website, you get the feeling that it's much more than a Spanish School.The lure, of course, is to learn Spanish, while exploring a beautiful country off the beaten track. Excursions are already arranged for you. Heck, they'll even pick you up at the airport. But after one day at Mariposa, you realize that you've been duped. What's really happening around you is so amazing that you want more than to polish your Spanish-speaking skills or snap photos of the beautiful volcanoes. You want a stake in it, to be part of it. Most people agree the best way to learn a new language is to immerse yourself in a culture that speaks it. At Mariposa guests are not only immersed in the language, but also in a greater message waiting to be discovered by each visitor.

A typical day for me at Mariposa went as follows: I'd wake up early to the sounds of tropical birds and often rain, since I visited during rainy season. I would then walk or jog though the trails behind the ecologically-friendly hotel that go up a small mountain and lead to a gorgeous view of San Juan de La Concha. At least four or five of the seven rescue dogs would accompany me on this grand excursion through coffee and banana trees. (The surroundings and environment are reminiscent of Avatar or being Lost in a Survivor episode, but much better — because you are actually there.) Next, I'd return to the hotel and fill a bowl full of granola and fresh fruit in the kitchen. The amazing local cooks would bring out authentic Nicaraguan breakfasts to all of the students, an eclectic group of people from all over the world that heard of Mariposa by word of mouth or on the Internet.

Next, my friend Megan, a fellow teacher, and I would have two hours of grammar and two hours of conversation class. The instruction for the most part is one-on-one, though in our case, we traveled together and so took classes together. This intimate immersion model deserves an article of its own, but I will say that I will never forget conjugating irregular verbs under a straw cabana with roosters cockadoodle-dooling as they walked past, and parrots imitating the monkeys, making it sound like there were ten instead of four. And, I will never forget gaining the confidence to converse with my teachers as we strolled through the barrios of San Jaun or hopped on a microbus to visit one of the local cathedrals for our conversation component.

After class, we'd eat a wonderful lunch of fresh veggies, fruit, and Nicaraguan specialties that always included the popular gallo pinto, rice and beans! Then, I'd let my food settle siesta style in one of the native hammocks scattered throughout the eco-hotel.

Soon it would be time to go on an afternoon excursion or get together with a local for a charrla to discuss Nicaragua's history or the news. Mariposa has a monthly calendar of arranged activities for each afternoon you stay. You can go on the trips or stay at home. There is no extra charge for the trips during the week, except for the occasional entry fee into a museum or church. What I loved about the daily activities offered through Mariposa is that I could maximize my time immersing myself into the real culture of Nicaragua, whether it be hiking through the Chocoyero National Reserve Tropical Rain Forest or visiting the homes and businesses of artisans in San Juan del Oriente without having to spend a second of my time planning the logistics. Mariposa made it so easy ... just hop on the hotel's microbus and open your eyes. Blink and Nicaragua's opened your mind.

After a week or so, you return home to Mariposa from the daily adventure with thoughts of volunteering on the organic farm or in the school, with the innate desire to give back somehow ... you go to the bathroom and think before you flush, so as not to waste water. You consider the value of energy and resources more than you've ever before. And ... all of this thinking is in Spanish. How did this happen? Of course, all of this thinking is also taking place while you savor one of Mariposa's homemade delicious desserts, like handmade donuts dripping in organic honey.

(Pause for a moment while I recollect the moment ... ah, muy sabrosa!)

When I asked Paulette Goudge what she most valued about Mariposa—from the solar energy initiatives, animal rescue, and organic farms to the local schools that they help fund, she told me that she is most proud that Mariposa is a place where between 40 and 50 Nicaraguense are employed whom she can pay fair wages. "Send people our way in September and October, so I can avoid laying people off." I realized in this answer that Paulette believed in something—justice and equality—so she found a way to put a dent in the injustice of development in third world countries from the bottom up. Duh. Her dream wasn't to teach a bunch of Yankees, Brits, Canucks, and Aussies how to speak Spanish, but what an innovative, subversive way to generate income to do what is right for local people. Also, her guests leave not only with a new tongue for language, but equipped with a new consciousness that they are ready to speak about when they return home.

One can learn from everyone they come across at Mariposa, not just the Spanish teachers. Learn to cook authentic cuisine from Melba, or take a walk with Ishmael through the organic farm. He'll wear his pride in his smile as he picks a cacao and teaches you about it or explains the complex process of harvesting and producing coffee. Ride through San Juan on horseback up to the top of a mountain to view Volcan Masaya and speak with Franklin, who tends to Mariposa's 13 horses. Or, have Oscar take you to feed the monkeys or toucans, just a few of the many animals Mariposa has rescued. Every minute is available to learn something new from one of Mariposa's amazing staff, all in Spanish!

There is something for everyone at Mariposa. For me that something was the Mariposa pack. When I read on the website, "Don't come here if you dislike animals," I knew that Mariposa was the place for me. As Paulette said, many people who come to Mariposa are animal lovers and the dogs get a lot of attention. I was immediately interested in each of their stories and moved in general by the symbiotic relationship between the dogs and people all over Nicaragua.

But the story of the Street Dog Project is for another time; the lesson for making the world a better place is for right now: Widen your audience. Be creative. Start small. Find a way to lure people from within their comfort zone. Let the ambition of your dream fuel the rest. If you're having trouble, visit La Mariposa Spanish School and Eco-Hotel to get a kick start. You will leave not only with a new language and friendships from around the world, but a rejuvenated sense of what's good and right in this world.

© Diane Wojtowicz, 2010