11/21/2005 at 01:00 AM EST
I needed to escape," says Jessica Simpson
, reflecting on her recent 10-day trip to Kenya. "I needed to get away from life and surround myself in that which is good." For the pop princess, that meant getting some hands-on experience as a goodwill ambassador for Operation Smile, an international charity that provides free reconstructive surgery to kids born with facial deformities. Simpson, 25, rode a bus from Nairobi to the town of Nakuru in western Kenya, where she sat in on a cleft lip and palate operation for an 18-month-old girl, one of 158 procedures that Smile's plastic surgeons performed during her visit. Though husband Nick Lachey
, 32, was in Sweden recording a new album, Simpson stayed in touch by cell phone. "I told him, 'Nick, you would be so proud of me. I had spiders in my bed, and I didn't even care because I was so tired.' I told him I really roughed it." Toward the end of the trip—which "Simpson and her group paid for themselves," says a Smile executive—she fell ill for a day. Simpson, who left Nov. 1, says, "It wasn't a big deal, just a high fever." But the journey was worth it. "It's crazy, to go there to bring blessings to these kids," she says, "and they end up blessing you more."