Islamic terror ... Lanta style

Islamic terror ... Lanta style
My neighbour Hutyee Boat
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Thursday, December 30, 2010

The A to Z of my incredible year

Back in April, a group of us boarded a truck, armed to the teeth with water pistols and huge drums of back-up ammunition. Our mission was to spray everyone in sight as part of Thailand´s Songkran, or New Year, celebrations and it was one of the most joyous days of my life. Throughout the whole land, the biggest water fight in the whole world was taking place and it would have been impossible not to get involved.

Suddenly it dawned on me that I had a whole host of new friends on a beautiful island, Ko Lanta, a place which I had approached with a little trepidation as I began the PADI Divemaster course back in early January. Songkran reminded me of the importance of just having FUN for the sake of fun, without any need for alcohol or drugs.

And that was perhaps the dominant theme of my gap year ... to go out and live life to the full, to enjoy experiences such as learning Spanish, working with wonderful young Nicaraguans (for free), or turning the hobby I´ve loved for 12 years into a career or at least a professional qualification.

Along the way, I have met incredible people and renewed my faith in humanity, as well as in myself. On the night before I went to Central America, I had panic attacks and could not sleep. I wanted to cancel the last third of my trip. But facing my fears, and overcoming them, has been hugely rewarding in 2010. There really is nothing to fear but fear itself, as the saying goes.

Anyway, as we face into an uncertain (and what promises to be a less soaky, even in Galway!) New Year, I thought I would compile an A to Z of my wonderful gap year. It´s been a chance of a lifetime and I think I´ve learned that people who pass 40, or 30, or any milestone, should never think it´s too late to get away from ´reality´ and follow their dreams!

A is for ACCEPTANCE ... things don´t always go according to plan, and you have to learn to adapt and accept. Such as when a Skype link fails in a Nicaraguan school or you find yourself deserted on a Caribbean island, due to stormy seas. It´s also for ACCOMMODATION, I really did learn that I can live in a simple beach hut, without creature comforts, and just one rucksack worth of belongings in 2010.

B is for BASQUE COUNTRY ... I was there for the entire World Cup and to say that they didn´t exactly share in Spain´s glory is a bit of an understatement. They showed me how divided Spain is, with a language which was suppressed under Franco just as the Brits tried to kill off An Gaeilge here in Ireland. It´s also for BANGKOK, a city I´ve never liked and which was, sadly, engulfed in flames on the day I left Thailand in May. Another country or city which is deeply divided.

C is for COURAGE ... Such as that shown by my fellow DMT Jane, who decided to leave her safe job and become a diving instructor after successfully battling against cancer. She inspired me in the first few weeks of my gap year, when I wondered what the hell I was doing in Thailand! And I guess I needed a little dollop of courage myself, to leave my home town after 18 years in the same job. It really is never too late to change!

D is for DIVEMASTER ... or living my dream. Working in a gorgeous tropical island paradise, heading out on the Blue Planet boat every day to the world class dive sites of Hin Daeng, Ko Haa, and Ko Bida. I will be dreaming of those dream days when I´m back in my office next month. It was great to learn so much about my hobby over four or five months and to work with such a great team on Ko Lanta.

E is for EAR INFECTION ... which I picked up at the end of the diving season in May. The low point of my year came in Malaysia, when I was sick, reacting badly to antibiotics, and staying in a kip of a hotel in Georgetown. I never felt so low and I wanted to go home. Within a day or two I was trekking through the Cameron Highlands, loving it, and I guess part of the challenge of a gap year is simply facing challenges or obstacles on the road. You can´t be on a high all of the time!

F is for FEAR ... I was afraid I was too old to become a Divemaster, that I wouldn´t fit in, that a year away was too long, that I would feel alone and not make new friends, and, especially, that I would be a victim of all the criminals I had read about in Central America. And, guess what ... I was wrong on all counts! There was no need for such fear at all and the part of the year I feared most, volunteering in Nicaragua, proved to be the most rewarding.

G is for GRATITUDE ... to my employers, the Connacht Tribune, for giving me the chance to take a year off to explore the world; to my close friends and family for encouraging me, or at least recognising that I needed a change, and especially to all the wonderful new people I met in Thailand, Spain, and Nicaragua this year. The world is a fabulous place if you open your heart to the possibilities and cultures out there.

H is for HOME ... I paid two short visits home to break up the year, which were important as I come from a close and loving family. And home was never far from my thoughts during the economic and political crisis which engulfed Ireland late in the year. Funny, too, how I was most fearful about my travels when I was home in the ´safe harbour´of Galway. Once I travelled, the fears disappeared. And the bizarre moment of the year was when a Nicaraguan told me my country was fecked.

I is for the IRISH ... there are a lot of things which drive me crazy about my home country (the weather, bankers, politicians, general gobshites with big necks); but I genuinely loved meeting Irish people on my travels in 2010. The Irish Embassy in Koh Lanta was my local, for God´s sake, as was O´Shea´s in Nicaragua. Great people from a small land, spread out all over the world.

J is for JANE ... and her husband Chris, who inspired me in the first few weeks when I was finding my feet in Thailand. They were older than me and they had the courage to go out and chase their dreams instead of settling for a ´safe´life back in England. Respect!

K is for KNOWLEDGE ... it was so good to learn new things, good and bad, about the diving industry and life in Nicaragua. And of course my Spanish improved no end after lots of classes and seven months in Spanish speaking countries. It really is good to learn.

L is for LANTA ... still my favourite tropical island, after living there for four months. It´s also for LA ESPERANZA GRANADA, the organization I worked with for ten weeks in Nicaragua. Thanks to LEG I met wonderful volunteers from all over the world as well as the incredibly welcoming local staff. It´s also for love. Maybe I didn´t meet the woman of my dreams, but I sure as hell fell back in love with life and the world!

MALAYSIA ... I spent a few weeks there, doing visa runs from Thailand, and loved the people. It was great to explore this new country and especially to meet like-minded solo travellers in the Cameron Highlands just after my bout of the blues. That place really lifted my soul!

NICARAGUA ... What can I say about the land of volcanoes, lakes, and wonderful (but extremely poor) people? Well, I love the place, and hope to go back some day.

ONE DOLLAR ... If I had a dollar for every time I was asked for one on the streets of Granada, I really would be a millionaire or wouldn´t need to go back to work in 2011. Poverty is a fact of life in Nicaragua and you do have to steel yourself in the face of it.

PUBLIC ENEMY ... Fifteen years after I saw them rock Dublin, I caught up with the US hip-hoppers again on an incredible night in Vigo. I went out on my own, but had a fabulous weekend at an amazing festival. P is also for silly PANIC ATTACKS, such as when I missed my ferry on the Corn Islands, and PEOPLE. I met some truly wonderful people in 2010. I also loved my four weeks in PANAMA, a gentle (but wet) introduction to Central America.

QUALITY ... I was cynical and tired when I left Ireland in January, but such was the quality of the people I met through my travels, including my fellow DMs in Thailand, the language students in San Sebastian, and the volunteers, staff, and kids in Nicaragua that I´ve a whole new appreciation for people in the world. Strangers are only ´strange´ until you chat to them and open your heart to new experiences and conversations.

REVOLUTION ... the heroes of the 1970s mean a lot more to the poor people of Nicaragua than the Irish martyrs who fought to get the British Empire out of our land. Perhaps, as I´m hearing since I came home, Ireland needs another revolution. R is also for REAL SOCIEDAD, whose promotion gave pride back to an entire city in June, and RAFAEL in Panama. A lovely man who lost his wife tragically this year, who can´t face moving back home with his seven year old daughter, and who dared to share his life with me over a few beers. There is pain everywhere, and wonderful people everywhere too.

S is for SAN SEBASTIAN ... my home for five weeks, while I studied Spanish at the Lacunza school. It´s one of the nicest cities in the world, with fantastic beaches, bars, and old streets. It´s also for SPANISH, a language I loved learning this year, and SANDINISTAS, who deserve admiration for standing up to the imperialism of Uncle Sam.

T could only be for THAILAND ... it might be a tropical paradise, but it is also a land of troubles and divisions. While we dived and enjoyed a peaceful life down in Ko Lanta, 16 hours north people were being killed in the dispute between the Government and the Red Shirts. I love the place, but don´t know if I could live in a country which does not have a high opinion of foreigners.

UNDERSTANDING ... or the lack of. It was incredible to hear the expats in Nicaragua, many of whom could not speak a word of Spanish, moan so much about the locals. No wonder people hate other races when they make no effort to understand each other.

VIGO ... I loved this city, which had a hip-hop, heavy metal, skateboarding, and pirates´festival when I arrived. I had been on a downer, all panicky about what lay ahead of me in Central America, and the people of this ´rough and ready´city in Galicia, in NW Spain, reminded me of the value of fun and not taking life too seriously. It´s also for VOLUNTEERING, my ten weeks in Granada which proved to be one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life.

W is for WRITING ... I´m a journalist, I can´t get away from it, and I wrote for magazines in Thailand and Nicaragua throughout the year. This blog was a great way of sharing my experiences with friends and family all over the place and thanks so much to people who gave me positive feedback, especially on the few ´down´times. Thanks for reading my rantings! ... It´s also for the WORLD CUP, which meant little to the Basques. Strange, I lived in Spain when they won it for the first time, but nobody around me wanted to celebrate. Instead, we went mental over Real Sociedad.

X is for X-MAS ... and the synchronicity of coming home to snow and ice, just as I found it so tough to leave Ireland in January, when I was stranded in Dublin for 48 hours. It´s good to see old friends and family again, even if I´m not thrilled to be back in Galway. But the year ended in a natural cycle.

Y is for YEARNING ... a few months into my gap year, I realised that it all made perfect sense. I had been yearning for a change in my life for years and only had headaches and a pain in my heart because I didn´t listen to my heart. It really is important to change when you feel a need to change, to try out new things if you feel ´stuck´in a rut. If you are true to yourself, incredible things happen every day.

Z is for ZEST FOR LIFE ... I regained it in 2010, when I was in danger of becoming a weary cynic. To work as a Divemaster, to learn Spanish in three different countries, and to help the poorest of the poor kids in Nicaragua brought me fulfillment beyond my wildest dreams.

Thanks everyone for reading my rantings and a very happy 2011. Muchas gracias a todos!

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Monday, December 20, 2010

Back to the old country . . .

"When you suppress your wild longing and opt for the predictable and safe forms of belonging, you sin against the rest of nature that longs to live deeply through you. When your way of belonging in the world is truthful to your nature and your dreams, your heart finds contentment and your soul finds stillness" - Irish author John O'Donoghue.

It seems rather churlish or mean to return to a homeland which is deep in crisis and announce to your friends and family that you have just enjoyed the best year of your life in 2010.
But that's how it has been for me over the past few days, as I adjust to the cold while Irish people genuinely worry about their jobs, mortgages, emigration, and what the future holds.
After a year in which the country went bankrupt, the severely cold weather only seems to match the national mood.
And here I am, all full of gratitude for the adventures I've experienced and friendships I have made in Thailand, Malaysia, Spain, and Central America, and wondering how I'm going to turn my new found optimism into some sort of long-term change.
It was thanks to the 'crisis' that I was offered a 12 month career break and after 18 years in the same job it really has been a joy to get a chance to go out and explore the world.
For the first time in my life, I left the 'safe' and 'predictable' behind ... and I had a truly joyous year.
I became a Divemaster, learned Spanish to a decent level, and enjoyed the most fulfilling part of the year when I volunteered among the poorest of the poor in Nicaragua.
While people at home were arguing over pay cuts or who should work on Bank Holidays, I was bouncing into work every day with a smile . . . and not getting paid a cent for my labours.
I hope that my time with La Esperanza Granada has changed me, as it was certainly the most rewarding period in my whole life. It was possibly the first time in my life that my heart found contentment and my soul was still for days on end.
Perhaps I have been lying to myself or settling for too little all along.
In the beautiful city of Granada it felt as though, finally, I had left the tragedies which defined my early 20s, and the subsequent bout of self-pity and hard drinking, behind.
When you see how happy Nicaraguans can be with so little, it makes you think a lot about how Irish people have chased after big cars, big houses, holiday homes abroad, etc., over the past few years.
Do we really need so much? And do these things really make us happy?
So I'm home for Christmas, due back at work in January, and the place is reeling with anger from the economic mess our politicians, bankers, and developers have plunged us into. I wonder if I even belong in my homeland.
But in the first few days at home, I have had reminders of what makes Ireland so special, the genuine warmth of the people which can't be bought out by the International Monetary Fund.
On Thursday, after two long flights, I was met at Shannon Airport by a friendly face. Old friend Hugo didn't mind getting up at 5.30 a.m. in the depths of winter in order to make sure that a friend had a smooth passage home after 12 months on the road.
On the following night, a big group of us gathered in a Galway pub to pay tribute to my best friend, Joe, almost 20 years to the day from when he died in a tragic accident in India.
Joe was Hugo's younger brother and it's only in the last year or two I have realised that I have now known, and been friendly with, the older brother a lot longer than my 'best' friend.
Seeing so many old friends, some of whom had made a great effort to travel on an ice cold night, reminded me of what great hearts so many Irish people have. One old schoolfriend even came up from Cork for the night.
It was lovely to talk to old school friends, Joe's brother, and three sisters, and to realise that the awful shock and despair which surrounded his funeral had given away to a form of acceptance and a warmth about the life of a 24-year old man who was 'larger than life' in some ways.
We celebrated a life which ended too soon, whereas 20 years ago we were just engulfed in the tragedy and grief which surrounds a sudden or violent death.
Joe died 11 and a half months after my little sister Cliona and, for me, Christmas was a time of great sadness, despair, and too much heavy drinking for years. When others celebrated, I just wanted to get blotto at this time of year.
Now, after seeing so much poverty in Nicaragua and meeting so many good people on my 2010 travels, I realise that the tragedy or self-pity which has defined much of my life has evaporated.
I've learned to let these two key figures in my young life rest in peace and move on, even if it has taken me an awful long time.
And I've seen the goodness, the sheer soul, of Irish people who can come out on an awful night to share their memories of a young man who lost his life in awful circumstances.
My 97-year old granny, meanwhile, was 'slagging' me off on the phone for all the cards and letters I never sent from Thailand, Spain, or Central America, as only an Irish granny can.
Like the Nicaraguans, Irish people have soul and a wicked sense of fun.
The country is in turmoil right now, but amongst all the anger, pain, and frustration there seems to be a genuine appetite for renewal and change, if not downright revolution.
To hell with the corrupt politicans, greedy bankers, and developers who have got us into a mess and run the country into the ground. They are no better than the British, who colonised us for centuries.
But when you see the real warmth of people who take the trouble to pay tribute to a fallen friend, long after he's gone, you realise that there are some things in this country that even the IMF can't buy.
And that's why Ireland will rise again.

Monday, December 13, 2010

From Nicaragua to Panama

Ah yes, Panama. The city of skyscrapers which has been called the 'Miami of the South', a city of extremes in which SUVs dominate the streets while the ordinary people pile onto those mad looking Red Devil buses.
I made it! The last stop before my journey home and just to make everyone back in Galway feel good about themselves it's been pissing rain here for the last two days, and probably a lot longer.
I shouldn't joke about it, really, because Panama, Colombia, and Venezuela are all in the middle of a crisis brought about by weeks of heavy rain, flooding, and people being displaced from their homes.
Here the papers are full of stories about how selfish people are to be obsessed with the materialism of Christmas while so many of their brothers and sisters have lost their homes.
It reminds me a bit of the annual 'season of goodwill' back in Ireland, which always leaves me cold. I don't believe in all that Catholic crap for 11 and a half months of the year, so why get carried away by a mad materialistic splurge?
Bah, humbug, and all that. We should treat Christmas as the midwinter Pagan festival which it always was and not a silly excuse to go crazy on booze, food, and shopping sprees.
Panama is like an American city in many ways, because there is so much extreme wealth and poverty side by side. There are parts of the city where it is not safe to walk in the middle of the day, and parts where you'd swear you were in Manhattan or Miami, surrounded by skyscrapers and beautiful women dressed to kill.
But today, as I struggled through the rain, I missed Nicaragua. I treated myself to a few afternoon beers to watch my enemies, Man. United, defeat Arsenal and then went to the cinema for the first time in months ... it's impossible to find a decent cinema in Granada.
But all I could think of is how much I love Nicaragua. Panama gave me a gentle welcome to Central America back in August, but Nica stole my heart ... like those of so many people I have met over the past four months.
The people are poorer, things just don't work, and yet they have so much soul, and the simplest of things such as a bus journey can become a huge adventure. Somehow, the place just gets under your skin and every volunteer I have known since September found it a hard place to leave.
Funny how the dirt poor country seems so rich in terms of soul compared to its much wealthier neighbours to the south. I even flew back here to avoid the 'gringos' of Costa Rica! Oh, and the 27 hour bus journey.
Don't get me wrong, Panama has a lot to offer, including friendly people, gorgeous countryside, and lovely beaches on two oceans. But I would never consider moving here from Ireland, given that it rains a hell of a lot. I wouldn't move here permanently just to get soaked for months on end.
Nica is the place which has captured my heart this year. I'd love to go back and help them build a canal to rival the one here, to see the place take its deserved place among the most wonderful destinations on earth.
Maybe I could become a propaganda officer for Daniel Ortega, to counter all the Americans'false claims about his poor but wonderful land. Or maybe not!
Panama has far more money, but Nica has far more soul.
Still, it's a nice place to finish my Central American adventures, despite the constant rain. Hard to believe I will be home in just a couple of days. Regards to all!

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Corn Islands ... a world apart

Never, ever underestimate the power of nature ... it´s a lesson I learned in the very first week of my gap year, when the ice and snow at Dublin Airport prevented me from leaving Ireland for 48 hours, and a lesson I learned again during the last week of my travels.
Way back on January 6, my gap year got off to a terrible start when Aer Lingus dumped me in dirty old Dublin, without a taxi, hotel, or bus. And almost 50 weeks later, the savage seas of the Caribbean almost prevented me from getting home.
After almost three months of living and enjoying voluntary work in the beautiful old colonial city of Granada, I decided to treat myself to a week on the Corn Islands before leaving Nicaragua.
They really are a world apart, two islands in an isolated corner of the Caribbean which have none of the crass over-development you would expect from the region were you to visit countries such as Mexico, Belize, or Honduras.
Maybe it´s down to the political situation, but it felt like some sort of wonderful secret to be among the couple of dozen tourists on the two islands which have a population of about 7,000 between them.
To say that the place doesn´t feel like Nicaragua would be an understatement. Most of the people are of West Indian descent, families have names such as Turner, Kelly, and Wilson, and the local radio station pumps out reggae, even Christmas reggae songs, every day.
People talk English in strange Jamaican style accents and the islands, because of their location, are infamous routes for international drug traffickers.
During my week on the Corn Islands, the US Coast Guard paid us a visit. With them they brought a confiscated boat, with no name and three huge outboard engines. Thankfully for the dealers, they managed to offload the loot before Uncle Sam prowled upon them at night.
I know drugs are a huge problem in the Americas, but it sickens me that the US feels free to pursue boats through the seas of sovereign states such as Nicaragua. Then again, the US sees itself as master of the whole of the Americas and Nicaragua hardly has a navy to scare them away.
A trip to a place such as the Reggae Palace will soon show the traveller that white powder is in steady supply on the island, as is the green herb.
Fuelled by rum and coke and God knows what else, there can be a manic energy about the place at night.
I decided to base myself on the big island, which has roads, bikes, cars, a couple of towns, and a dive centre.
The diving was world class. I was overwhelmed by the quality of the coral and the amount of big fish (nurse shark, eagle rays, lobsters), even if the centre´s safety standards left a lot to be desired. On my fifth dive, I found myself breathing what could only be described as impure air.
My lungs felt uncomfortable and it was clear to me that the owner did not take proper care of his hired equipment. Having been forced to use a faulty regulator throughout my fifth dive, I decided not to continue diving over my last few days.
Which meant that I had more free time than I expected, so I got to enjoy a couple of nights of madness with Danish woman Nina and her two friends. Socialising with them was good fun, but also reminded me of why I enjoy travelling alone ... as I had no desire or interest to keep up with their manic drinking.
The Danes really are as mad as the Irish and these three 30-somethings had become quite infamous by the time I left!
I took a panga over to Little Corn, the smaller island which has no roads and just a pathway around it, a day after them. It was one of the scariest boat trips of my life, as we crashed headlong into two massive waves and the boat almost overturned. The Caribbean can be a cruel beast!
Packed only with a day bag including my swimming gear, a banana, a small amount of cash, and a book, I was then shocked to discover that the boatmen had no notion of returning to the big island that day, and possibly not the next day either. The sea, mon, the sea.
So I went into a bit of a panic, or a tizzy, thinking that I would miss my flight back to Managua the following day and then my trip to Panama for the start of my journey home.
Apparently tourists get stranded on the small island quite regularly, due to high winds and dangerous seas, but they don´t tell you that in the guidebooks!
The result was a heavy drinking session with the Danes, who missed at least three cancelled boats home, a hotel room for US20, and a sleepless night before I managed to get the only boat back the next day, at 7 a.m. Phew!
The Danes, who were nowhere to be seen at 6 a.m., love their nights on the rum and looked set to be stranded for another 24 hours, as the sea was very rough indeed, the waves crashing in upon us, for the return journey. The boat didn´t travel in the afternoon.
I was so overjoyed to reach Big Corn that it put all my panic and worry throughout the previous night into perspective. Yes, I had virtually no money or no change of clothes on me, but people were good and trusting and I had met two Polish lads who were willing to share a chartered boat (and trust me to pay them at the other end) if the ferry didn´t run.
To be honest, I failed to be impressed by the smaller of the islands, which gets more tourists than its bigger brother. It´s a bit like a Caribbean version of Koh Phi Phi, with paths, beach bungalows, lovely snorkelling beaches ... but very few tourists.
Apparently, there is far less wind on the Corn Islands during certain times of year such as April to June, and I would love to return to dive there again some day, because the people and the marine life were fantastic. I also think the two dive centres on the smaller island are better run, but I will make sure to give myself a day or two back on the big island before heading home. Little Corn can be cut off for days at times.
I will treasure my time at Hotel Morgan on the big island, where Kerry and the staff made the three or four guests feel right at home. The hotel had the best restaurant on the island and wonderful sea views, with a reef just across the road.
Glad to be back on the mainland, I will remember my silly panic attacks in my dump of a cheap hotel, even though I knew they were silly at the time.
Sometimes in life, s--t happens. A storm blows and your boat won´t sail, and you have very little money or clothing . . . and you just have to deal with it.
A good metaphor for life, I think. Things don´t always run smoothly when you are far from home and, when they don´t, you just have to try your best to deal or cope with the situation.
So, farewell to the Corn Islands, in this month of emotional goodbyes. The end of my trip looms on the horizon and today I enjoyed an absolutely fabulous trip across Nicaragua in a small propeller plane.
If I had let fear rule my life, I probably wouldn´t even have boarded the plane as the wind howled across the little airfield at Big Corn.
But if I let fear rule my life, I would not even have left Galway or Dublin back on January 6. And if I had stayed at home I would have missed out on the best year of my life.
Panama beckons, and the dreaded return to wintry Ireland. But already I´m full of gratitude for all the adventures, and even the little scares, which have made this a year to treasure.
The highs are higher and the lows quite low ... but I sure feel ALIVE!

Monday, December 6, 2010

Farewell to Granada

It was with something of a heavy heart that I piled into Felipe´s taxi with my year´s worth of belongings on Saturday morning, for the one hour trip to Managua Airport and the last treat of my gap year, a week´s diving on the Corn Islands in the Caribbean.
For the previous 11 weeks, this wonderful old colonial city had been my home. I had grown to love this city, with its lovely Parque Central, enchanting cathedral and churches, the belltower with the enchanting views, the lovely lakeside walk, and nearby islands and volcanos.
Granada is the main tourist centre of Nicaragua for a reason, because it has so much to offer the foreigner.
I have to admit that I was nervous about what lay ahead of me when I got off the bus from Costa Rica way back in September. After an eight hour journey, I was not quite prepared for life in the second poorest country in the Americas or my first ever full-time volunteer job.
Since then, I have made incredible friendships with people from all over the world, including Spain, France, Nicaragua, the United States, Canada, Germany, even Ireland, and God knows how many other countries.
I´ve managed two hour Spanish conversations with people like Francisco and Benoit, great guys in their 30s who have given their time to helping poor children, without even realising the magnitude of how much my grasp of the language has come on over just a few months.
Looking around me on my last night at O´Shea´s Irish bar, where so many lovely volunteers turned up to wish me good luck, I realised how the time in Granada had passed all too quickly and also that it had been one of the best experiences of my life.
For two and a half months, I got to work day by day with the local ayudantes, gifted young people from dirt poor families who would not get the chance to attend University, or work, were it not for La Esperanza Granada.
I went out to the schools, to see the magic in the eyes of the children when they got to use computers, learn one-on-one in workshops with our brilliant team of 35 volunteers, or talk to kids in the USA via our very first Skype link. What an exciting day that was!
I got to share a house with lovely people from New Mexico, Germany, and Holland, and can now thank Matt and Navi for changing my opinion of Americans. They are not all war-mongers intent on bullying around the little guys, some Americans are really genuine people who want to give the less fortunate a helping hand.
I really hope they turn up in my house in Galway, with their backpacks, and I can bring them on a good Dominick Street pub crawl or a trip to the Aran Islands some day.
I met Bonnie, a widow of about my own age, who has given a chance to a young Nica child called Israel to attend secondary school for the next five years. Bonnie could be forgiven for concentrating on bringing up her own two sons, alone, but she really cares about the less fortunate out there.
The American Government has been responsible for some awful crimes against this impoverished country, but individual Americans have done wonders down here too.
Of course, there has been a dodgy underbelly to life in Granada. Half of the expats are dirty old American men, in their 60s or 70s and with military pensions, who spend all their time drinking beer and rum, sleeping with prostitutes, and talking down the locals.
Having moved up from Costa Rica, where the cost of living has become too high, they have taken advantage of the poverty of the Nicas. And yet, without respecting them or even talking their language, they feel compelled to call them ´stupid´or √≠nferior´every day.
I´ve seen how poverty drives Nicas to rob cameras or laptops whenever they are left in the wrong place and how young women feel they have to sell their bodies to make a living.
The world is not a fair place and Nicaragua is a country of extremes.
On my second last night, one of our volunteers had a disturbing experience when two little girls, aged about 10 or 12, called to his front door. One gestured to him that the other, her friend or little sister, was available for sex. So I have been appalled by suggestions that there are even paedophile rings, organized and run by American ´veterans´ in the heart of this beautiful city.
Poverty and inequality has made this a desperately unfair world. Men who spent their careers fighting unjust wars have moved to Nicaragua just because their money goes further in such a poor place and they can take advantage, sexually, of people who have nothing.
Back in Ireland, I left a newspaper office which had its quota of bitchiness and infighting last December and certainly didn´t expect to find the same things in an organization with as noble a set of ideals as La Esperanza Granada.
But it seemed to me that idealistic young people with bright ideas were vilified and excluded, for daring to suggest changes which might actually improve the organization.
There is no other way to describe how I felt about the volunteer accommodation or the back-biting and bitchiness relating to departing volunteers who sought to change or improve things .... appalling.
So I won´t miss the people who run the organisation, but I will miss the wonderful staff, volunteers, and children.
And, at the end of the day, it´s fantastic that they are putting 11 young people through University, 90 through secondary school, and giving a chance to hundreds of younger children in eight extremely poor primary schools.
I won´t miss most of the expats I have met who have decided to make Nicaragua their home, despite bitching about the locals all the time.
But I will miss the Nicas, such as lovely 20 year old single mum and ayudante Belkys, whose sense of irreverance and zest for life reminds me of my 97-year old granny.
The Nicas could teach us all a thing or two, about the importance of community and friendship, the extended family, the need to take your time, and simply have fun with friends and family.
Kids here have more fun with baseball bats made of sticks or twigs than Irish children do on thier Playstations.
So what if they have to go around on horseback or bicycles? Because at least they have fun, share time with each other, and enjoy life. They chat on buses and in ´collectivo´taxis and don´t understand the concept of ´strangers´. Life here is a bit like Ireland 50 years ago in some ways.
Yes, living in Granada has been both frustrating and exhilerating. Life in Ireland right now seems dull and predictable by comparison.
So thanks to all the wonderful people I have met over the past three months. You turned the part of the gap year I feared most (volunteering and living in Central America) into possibly the most rewarding experience of my life.
Adios y gracias a todos!

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Island of magic

There is ´something´indescribable about life on a small island and I have to say that I have been enchanted by the wonders of Ometepe over the past few days.
I came here on my own, sprained an ankle hopping from one bus to another on the way here, and bruised both my leg and ego during an ill-fated motorcycle trip around the island´s infamous roads.
So I could be feeling sorry for myself, but instead I love the pace of life here and really wish I could stay another ten days.
Once the last boat goes, there is a real sense of peace here. A bit like Inis Meain in a way, in that the locals see themselves as being different from the people over there, there being the mainland.
About 30,000 people live on the island, which has just two major towns and some of the worst roads I´ve ever seen.
It´s as close as I have come this year to Koh Lanta, the place where I spent the first five months of 2010, and it has the same tranquil charms. In fact, it is far more peaceful than my favourite Thai island, with far less traffic on the roads.
People wander around at a slow pace, even the buses pull up at a really leisurely pace, and they sit around the town squares, chatting with each other, as though they haven´t a care in the world.
It´s great to be in a place with no TV, because all of the news from Ireland was depressing me in Granada over the past two weeks. Here, the only news that counts is who came in on the boat from San Jorge or who crashed into a cow, or pig, or goat, or hen, or monkey on the roads.
Legend has it that the island was formed from the suicide of a young woman, who fell in love with a man from an opposing tribe. After they both decided to slash their wrists, her breasts swelled to form two huge volcanoes, and so much did she cry that her tears formed the massive Lago Colcabolca (Lake Nicaragua).
The indigenous people believe there is something truly magical about the place, and to enjoy its charms you have to get out of the towns and experience the sheer peaceful bliss of its countryside.
When the bigger of the two volcanoes erupted in the 1950s (and it´s still simmering today) the locals refused to be evacuated to the mainland. They claimed it was better to die on Ometepe than to leave their beloved home and I´ve witnessed real pride in their place among the people.
I´ve been told that the Spanish colonists mostly left the islanders, indigenous fishermen, to their own devices.
Which is why you see far more Native Americans here than on the mainland and why the place really does remind me a bit of the Aran Islands . . . not just the slow pace, but the fact that the British hardly touched our western isles during their conquest of Ireland, because the land was so poor.
It´s no coincidience that the Irish language is still vibrant in the areas which were virtually untouched by the British, just as it´s no coincidence that the locals on Ometepe look completely different than the Nicas on the mainland.
The views here are incredible, as is the whole topography of a place which is really just two huge volcanoes and a little isthmus between them.
Even though I´ve stayed in Moyogalpa, the capital and biggest town, the pace is really relaxed here at night. People greet each other on the street and it is surely one of the safest places in Central America.
A friend of mine, Grace, met a crazy, hard-drinkin´Irishman on Playa Santa Dominigo three months ago. Apparently, he owns a little hotel by the lake. We Irish really do get around, but I didn´t feel compelled to give him a visit, with my need to stay off alcohol in order to nurse my ankle back to health.
I´ve met a few of the usual obnoxious ´gringos´(Americans who live here, but can´t speak the language and talk down the locals whenever they get the chance) but I´ve been overwhelmed by how friendly the locals are during my cycles around the island.
When my motorbike broke down, I couldn´t believe the (free) offers of help I got on the side of the road, until I managed to dust myself down and crawl back to town.
The place has its problems, too. Unemployment is quite high, some of the roads really are appalling, and quite a few of the lovely beaches were wiped out during a particularly bad rainy season, just three months ago. Some hotels and bars remain closed.
I visited one of the abandoned beaches today, and met some local youngsters climbing trees and jumping into the lake. Near us, monkeys were playing in the trees.
The kids were full of curiosity about the travelling Irishman and hit me with a dozen questions, but never once did they ask me for a dollar as many of their counterparts would do in Granada or San Juan Del Sur.
Yes, Ometepe is an incredible place. It has one of the most relaxing vibes I´ve experienced anywhere on earth and even a 45 minute power cut this evening only seemed to add to its charms.
Just take it easy on the roads or avoid climbing the volcanoes . . . and you´ll be fine!
Take it from me. I always fancied myself as a careful biker until, in slow motion, I found myself tumbling towards the ground yesterday.
But I have swam in lovely lake water, met incredibly friendly locals, soaked in the finest sunset I´ve seen in my life, and I have slept at night here as though I haven´t a care in the world.
I will leave tomorrow, battered and bruised, but with only fond memories of the place. And a desire to return some day!

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Learning from the Nicas

It was kind of appropriate that I had organised a trip to Leon,the city of the revolution, for the week in which the collapse of the economy of my country made headlines all across the globe.
For it got me to thinking that we Irish have a lot to learn from a country as poor as Nicaragua.
In our rush to progress, to SUVs in Salthill driveways that were never needed and apartments in the sun which were rarely used, we have lost some of the community spirit that still thrives here in the second poorest country in the whole of the Americas.
In Nicaragua, people pass children around on buses and take strangers' kids on their knees because they don't have the Irish or European, or especially North American, concept of 'strangers'.
Here you see whole families of five or six enjoying a Sunday outing on a bicycle. A man in Managua or Masaya doesn't feel shame when he brings his date out on the crossbar of a bicycle on a Sunday afternoon. Imagine asking a Galway girl out for a lift on your crossbar in 2010!
Yes, the people here are poor, but they are not ashamed of the fact. Like the Irish, they are able and willing to emigrate for a better life, but unlike the Irish they have never experienced a boom or full employment in their own land.
Now that the bubble has burst back home, maybe we could learn a thing or two from the Nicas.
They love sitting outside their homes on rocking chairs, chatting with friends and neighbours as they watch the world go by. Part of it is boredom or due to unemployment and a lack of hope, but they still have time for each other.
Their children play baseball with sticks cut from trees or football with plastic bags which have been wrapped together. They aren't locked up inside with their Playstations.
How many Irish people living in cities even know their neighbours?
How many waste their time obsessing about the lives of vacuous so-called 'celebrities' instead of engaging with the real-life people around them, as the Nicas do every day?
Nicas know that money doesn't make people happy, even if they wouldn't mind even a fraction of the riches the Irish have enjoyed through the past 15 years.
Leon, the scene of so much fighting during the revolution, is far poorer than Granada, the city I've been based in for the past ten weeks.
Throughout history, the liberals and revolutionaries of Leon have fought against the conservatives and wealthy of Granada. That's why the Nicaraguans eventually located the capital in Managua in the 1850s, as a compromise between the two.
What struck me most about Leon last weekend was the genuine pride of the people in their city and their land, even if a host of lovely buildings were destroyed in the fighting of the 1970s and some of the remaining buildings are crumbling.
They got rid of a fascist dictator and his corrupt sons, who were backed by the Americans for 50 years. Economically, their lives haven't improved immensely since then, but they still value the memory of the young people who gave up their lives for a just cause in the 1980s.
In the Gallery of the Martyrs and Heroes, I met two old ladies in their 80s on Saturday morning.
Both of them lost sons, who died fighting Somoza's State terrorists, in the 1980s. One of them lost both of her sons. In a dignified way, these old ladies keep the memory of their sons and daughters, and their friends, alive in a simple museum which has 300 photos of fallen heroes.
Two blocks away lies the Museum of the Revolution. A once fabulous old colonial building, it overlooks Parque Central and has seen much better days. If it was in Europe or America it would probably be a fabulous luxury hotel. But here in Nicaragua it's the scene of a very primitive museum, with newspaper clippings sellotaped onto the walls.
I was struck by the pride of the guides and staff in the museum. They might have no money, but they believe in what they are doing ... they believe in the need to remind people of what their brothers, sisters, and friends died for back in the 1970s and '80s, when they dared to take on Somoza and the USA.
I climbed to the roof of the bell-tower of the Cathedral, the biggest in Central America, and soaked in the incredible views of all the volcanoes around the region. That Cathedral looks like it hasn't been painted in two hundred years, but it is still the pride of the city.
The vendors on the street, less used to tourists than their counterparts in Granada, greeted me warmly every evening ... and suddenly I remembered how fearful I was, stupidly, of even coming to this beautiful country three months ago. I was in terror that I would be mugged or robbed.
In Nicaragua, they have genuine pride in their revolution and its legacy. Even if it hasn't led to prosperity, at least Somoza's henchmen don't torture, maim, or kill innocent people on the streets of Leon any more.
The main prison, with its torture chambers, is now a quirky little museum full of witches, dwarves, giants, and legends.
These people have pride, but it's not false pride. And right now, I guess, six years before the 100th anniversary of our own 'revolution', Ireland also needs to regain some of its own pride.
Not 'pride' in the fact that we own ten houses or big cars or material things that don't make us happy.
But the pride that comes from a small land with a big heart which has survived centuries of oppression and bullying, and which will rise again because of the spirit of its people. Just like Nicaragua.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The shame of it all

What a horrible, horrible week for the Irish, even for those of us a long way away from the wet and windy isle.
It´s been a shock to the system to see BBC World News, CNN Ingles, CNN Espanol, and even the local Nicaraguan news dominated by the revelation that Ireland is bankrupt and threatening the whole future of the European Union.
To think that a country which people fought for through 800 years of colonisation has been put out of business by our own rotten politicians with their lack of any vision other than sheer greed.
I haven´t missed Ireland at all this year, apart from family and good friends, and now I relly wonder what the hell I am going back to.
For the past three months I´ve lived in the second poorest country in all of the Americas and all I´ve hoped for is some hope for the Nicaraguan people.
They were pillaged by the Spanish, lived for 50 years under an appalling dictator and his family, and when they finally got their freedom they were discarded and neglected by the great Uncle Sam.
I´ve been sickened by the injustice of it all, how the Americans feel like messing around in their own back yard and how some of the American expats treat Nicas like pieces of meat simply because they have far more money than the natives.
But looking at Ireland from this vantage point makes my blood boil even more.
We kicked Farmer Jones (the rotten, racist, tyrranical British Empire) out of the farm in order to be ruled by pigs (there is no more apt way to describe them) of our own. The names of Haughey, Ahern, and Cowen will be remembered as the disgraced, greedy b''stards who filled their own pockets while allowing the country to drift down the drain.
The party was all too short and all too insane.
I come from a land with a troubled past, which gives me a bit more understanding than most Europeans I think, and that´s why Irish people seem to be hugely welcomed (and loved) in troubled lands like Palestine and Cambodia. We have big hearts and root for the underdogs, thanks to our own f''ked up history.
And we have a tendency to feel sorry for ourselves, and for other underdogs in the world, because 800 years of being treated as second class citizens, robbed of your language and the right to vote, can do untold damage to your self esteem.
And that was something we thought we got back in the so called Celtic Tiger years, when young Irish people were not forced to emigrate for a better life.
All through the 19th century, and the 1950s and 1980s, we lost generations of good people who were spat out by our British masters or our own so called leaders who didn´t have enough imagination to turn our fortunes around.
And then when they got a chance, they went into a frenzy of greed. Which is why one Galway TD owns more than 20 houses or our former Taoiseach, Ahern, urged the doubters to kill themselves just a few years ago.
We deluded ourselves into thinking the days of seeing thousands of Irish men lining either side of the Kilburn High Road, in search of any labouring jobs going, were dead and buried.
Or the way we brushed real, painful Irish stories such as the arrival in Ellis Island, the building of the Panama railway, or the poverty of Hell´s Kitchen or South Boston under the carpet, because those stories were too painful to acknowledge.
Well, so much for the SUVs in Salthill and the pads in Marbella, the party is over and the hangover is all our own fault after we elected some of the most incompetent politicians in Europe.
We let bankers, politicians, and auctioneers (amazing how many Irish politicians are auctioneers too) drive us into a frenzy.
Here in Granada, there are five resident Irish, seven if you count myself and Fidelma, the two La Esperanza Granada volunteers who are here for just a few months.
Well, we all found ourselves gravitating towards O´Shea´s Irish bar in shock midweek, wanting to share our despair over the news from home.
In their own way, the resident Irish sum up a land which has continued to reject its own people down through the years.
The three older lads (Tommie, Billy, and Jimmy) are all from a generation who were forced into exile, choosing the United States before moving on to Costa Rica and Nicaragua.
Gerry, who is my age, came and bought a beautiful colonial house after being made reduntant two and a half years ago. And Fidelma is a teacher in her 30s who, despite her training and experience, can´t get a job back home.
Thanks, Ireland, for letting them all down.
But right now I think they are all wise to have left the sinking ship, even if they live in a country as poor as Nicaragua.
Economically, the revolution here, just as justified as Ireland´s uprising against the British, has not led to a huge change in the nation´s fortunes. People are still extremely poor.
But at least they haven´t been sold out by pigs of their own.
And that´s the most galling thing.
In Nicaragua, these lovely people are crying out for hope, and a chance of a real change in fortunes.
Ireland had its chance, but it was blown by greed.
And, suddenly, I´m embarrassed to be Irish. When I meet travellers from Sweden, Holland, or France now they want to talk about how messed up the economy of my country is.
For just a few years, we had national pride. We could backpack through Thailand or Spain and stand shoulder to shoulder with the best of them, confident in our own land.
Well, not any more. We´ve been pushed to the brink and it´s about time the FF and Green bastards gave the people democracy and stepped down.
Sorry for not writing about Nicaragua this week, but it´s hard to enjoy my weekend away in the beautiful city of Leon when there is so much worry about the mess at home.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Adventure on the roads

In Nicaragua, even the smallest thing can become quite an adventure. Provided you are relaxed enough to go with the flow and you don't let your experiences be overshadowed by fears.
Such as a weekend away. After eight weeks of living in the beautiful colonial city of Granada, I figured it was time to head down to the coast and check out the country's main beach resort, San Juan Del Sur.
A few weeks ago, on the internet forums, I had read about so many people who had been robbed on buses or in 'collectivo' taxis (which pick up passengers all along the route) that I had considered becoming a 'Gringo' for a weekend and going on one of those express shuttle buses reserved for foreigners.
The price? A whopping US$46 return for a two hour journey.
Well, after a few months of living in Nicaragua I've come to the conclusion that the country is not as scary as all the forums make out. People do get robbed in cabs or buses, but usually they've been just unlucky or fallen asleep and left an expensive camera or piece of equipment as too easy a target for an impoverished opportunist.
There have been people held up at knife-point after getting 'collectivo' taxis, forced to go to ATMs and take out money by a driver and accomplices who target foreigners at the side of the road.
But, feck it, you would never go outside your front door in Ireland if you listened to all the scare stories and people's fears.
It is a fact that Nicaragua is not as dangerous as most other Central American countries. In fact, they say that only boring old Canada is safer in the whole of the Americas, and I'm sure that there are parts of LA, New York, Chicago, etc., which are a lot more dangerous for the unsuspecting visitor.
So, anyway, armed with a rucksack and my diving gear, I found myself at Granada's bustling bus station last Friday morning. It was hot and sticky as I climbed on the bus for the start of an adventure.
The first thing that hits you is the amount of vendors who pile onto the buses in every town and city in this country, as I had discovered during a trip to Masaya's famous markets (about 40 minutes away) the previous weekend. They sell fruit juices, tortillas, cakes, sodas, a huge variety of things.
And, because there are so few cars in this poor country, people think nothing about bringing a car battery or a bag of cement or even a live chicken onto a bus here. It just adds to the fun.
Beside me on the first bus was a teacher from one of the schools we work with, who shared a brilliant conversation with me about his work. Then he hopped off in the middle of nowhere, as the road south climbed towards the spectacular Volcan Mombachu.
Having told the conductor, who hollers out the destination at every stop, that I was going to Rivas, he roared out for me mid-trip as he had sourced another bus for me to change over on the highway. I needed to be quick to grab my rucksack and change over, but it was all part of the fun.
In Rivas, I had an hour's wait, where the woman selling meals for about $1.50 a go wanted to know if I was single. She was a single mum, about my age, attractive and great fun, and I was tempted to stay on ... if I hadn't booked a day's scuba diving for the following day!
I was approached by a taxi driver, who wanted to bring me to the coast for 200 cordobas (about $10). When I made it clear I wanted to travel by bus, he sat down beside me and talked about politics for half an hour.
There was no pressure on me to pay for his cab and every now and then he would jump up to approach passengers descending from a bus on the highway. Then he'd come back to my table and resume talking about the current border dispute between Nicaragua and Costa Rica.
Suddenly, I was really glad that I had improved my Spanish so much over the past couple of months.
Then my third bus, packed to the brim, pulled up and I was on my way to the gorgeous resort town of SJDS, with its lovely horse-shoe bay.
I checked into my accommodation, the beach front Hostal Esperanza, where I had a private room for $20 per night and then headed off to find the dive centre and meet Fidel, the owner, to arrange a time to meet up for the following morning (a ridiculously early 7.30 a.m., but that's diving for you!).
I ate a lovely meal in a comodor at the market for 40 cordobas, for just over a euro, and walked the scenic promenade at sunset. It was simply gorgeous!
The day's diving proved to be a bit of a disappointment, it was like tumbling around inside a washing machine, so strong were the currents.
But the weather was glorious, I met a few local divers from Managua, and saw some of the most amazing, deserted beaches I've come across in my entire life, including one where turtles are hatching this season. We saw a huge turtle on the way to the dive sites and a school of enthusiastic dolphins kept us hugely entertained with their antics as they danced around the boat, leaping out of the water, on the way back to the deserted beach.
I had gone to SJDS alone, just to dive, but managed to meet eight people I know from Granada, including six of our volunteers. Three were on their way home for a visa run to nearby Costa Rica, it really is a small world!
You learn that in Central America ... there are places on the travellers' circuit where you tend to run into people a few times.
Glad to have been back underwater after a seven month break from diving, I was really tired after swimming so hard against the strong current and was in bed, asleep, by 10 p.m. I could never imagine that happening on a Saturday night in Ireland!
That meant an early start on Sunday, and a trip to the huge statue of Jesus which is up on a hill overlooking the town. Again, the weather was glorious and Ishmael, the friendly hostal manager, advised me to leave all my valuables in my room. Even at 8.30 on a Sunday morning, it seems that rich foreign tourists can be targets for local hoods.
But nothing bad happened to me during a wonderful two hour walk to the summit. I even met a friendly bulldog on the beach who accompanied me all the way up the deserted steps to the hill, where I had to jump over a gate which said 'private property' in order to reach the clifftop statue.
Meeting the bulldog was another one of those strange coincidences that have happened to me so often this year. Suddenly, I had a big security guard and I felt the Gods were on my side.
After meeting a few volunteers on the beach, I decided to head back to Granada quite early and found myself at the bus-stop at midday. Then a 'collectivo' pulled up and the driver offered to take me to Rivas for 50 cords (just over $2).
Already in the cab were a woman in her 50s and a man my age in the front seat, so I stored my rucksack in the boot and sat in beside the woman.
When we got to the edge of town, the driver stopped to pick up a woman and four children at the side of the road. I couldn't believe it when they all piled in on top of us, but that just added to the fun.
Soon, I was reminded of how sociable and downright friendly the Nicas can be. The woman beside me took a seven year old girl she had never met onto her knee and then proceeded to weave her hair into a lovely design as we made our way towards Rivas.
The other woman to my right told me that two of the children were her own, and the other two were nieces who had been abandoned by their mother. Again, I was so glad to have improved my Spanish as we laughed and exchanged stories in the glorious sunshine.
In front of us was the amazing Volcan Conception, rising out of Lake Nicaragua at a height of 1,610 metres. I felt I would be too much of a 'gringo' to point out the scenery while these beautiful but poor people interacted so warmly with each other and with the big, lanky Irish man in the middle of the back seat.
At Rivas, I hopped on a bus to Managua, and got in the good books when I offered my seat to an 80 year old woman, who took a five year old boy from another lady on her knee. The bus was crowded and I was the only foreigner on board, but I never felt threatened or in danger of being robbed.
In the middle of nowhere, I jumped out of the bus and ran across the highway to catch my Granada connection, one of those old American-style school buses, for a cost of seven cordobas or about 25 cents (in euros).
Soon I was back 'home' in Granada after a lovely weekend.
The diving had been disappointing, with poor visibility and choppy seas.
But it was the fun I had in getting to San Juan and back, experiencing the warmth of poor rural people, which made this a fabulous weekend.
Thank God I didn't take the advice of some richer expats by taking the 'Gringo' shuttle direct from Granada to San Juan Del Sur. If I had, I wouldn't have experienced half as much of an adventure!

Monday, November 8, 2010

Life as a volunteer

Without a doubt, one of the highlights of my gap year has been the opportunity to come to the second poorest country in the Americas, Nicaragua, to work with fabulous people and to do just a little bit to improve the lives of impoverished rural children.
Living here has revived some of the 'revolutionary' spirit in me. I feel a bit like Che Guevara in the 'Motorcycle Diaries' when I contrast the poverty, hopelessness, but sheer loveliness of the local people with all the rich, obnoxious, right-wing Americans in the world.
Suddenly, I feel like I'm 17 again. Passionate about issues such as the treatment of the poor in Latin America or the annihilation of Palestine. No longer a cynic, but keen to do even a tiny bit to make the world a better place.
I'm only here for three months, and I wish I had a lot more time. Because I've fallen in love with this country and its wonderful people, despite the poverty, lack of hope, and lack of interest in education among the older generation.
It's a crime that people here believe there is no future, when there is so much potential in this beautiful land of volcanoes, lakes, fabulous weather, and youthful people.
I've grown tired of people who demand one dollar from me, simply because I look like a 'Gringo'. But I get really emotional during computer class or when I go to a concert organised by Ritmo en los Barrios, another wonderful volunteer organisation.
They allow children from dirt poor communities a chance to perform for their friends and families, and you leave their Sunday sessions in Casa De Los Tres Mundos with nothing but a sense of joy. Seeing the confidence 50 children get from performing on stage is far more rewarding than spending a Sunday afternoon watching football in a pub.
Nicaragua is not exactly a 'failed state', but its economy is in tatters and the dependency on outside powers, such as the EU, for funds for the most basic of projects is startling. The Somoza family raped and pillaged this land for generations and outside forces have made progress difficult ever since the popular uprising of 1979.
Amazing, too, how it's the Europeans such as the Germans and Spanish who are helping out here, when the USA has been so guilty of so much recent criminal activity almost in its own back yard.
Volunteering is so much more rewarding than travelling around from hostal to hotel with a rucksack. After two months in Granada, I feel almost like a part of the community and that I've made just a bit of a difference to some people's lives. That sure beats ticking off sights along the route of my travels.
I get to visit schools in which the facilities are unbelievably primitive. Yet the children turn up in perfectly cleaned uniforms, despite the fact that some of their families live in galvanized tin huts in which the heat is unbearable during the day.
During the past two months, I've been overwhelmed by the welcome of the children and the teachers in the schools. I've been writing blogs, making films, coordinating volunteer meetings, and almost bounce into work in the glorious sunshine, full of expectation, every day.
When I go out with the computer class, the children are so grateful to be given the chance to play on a computer for 40 minutes a week. Playstations and the likes, things which Irish kids take for granted, are the stuff of dreams. Imagine.
The organization I work for is small, local, and engaged with rural communities at a very basic level.
We have 35 volunteers here right now and I've been overwhelmed by their desire to help these poor communities for anything between two and six months. Most of them are in their early 20s and build up great bonds with the children who need a little extra help in school. When I was their age, back in Ireland, I just wanted to drink myself into oblivion.
We work with 11 local ayudantes, dirt poor young adults from the local schools who work with us five days a week and have been given a chance to attend University. If it wasn't for La Esperanza, none of them would have made it to third level education.
They have generous sponsors in the US and Europe, and earn just US80 per month for working from Monday to Friday.
If La Esperanza didn't exist, they would never have got the opportunity to extend their education. And they are improving their 'life skills', learning English, organising the office or computer or English classes, or guiding foreigners on tours, every day.
Whenever I lose hope, I think of what this organization means to them, and I think of what great role models the ayudantes are for the children in the schools.
Given the opportunity, these young people themselves would make brilliant business leaders, office managers, bankers, or administrators, if given the kind of chances they would get in the developed world.
Living here has been a sheer joy and I could easily see myself staying for six months more, if I didn't have to go back to the 'reality' of life in Ireland.
Strange, isn't it? I was paralyzed by fear about what lay ahead of me in Nicaragua during my travels in Spain, Panama, and Costa Rica.
People told me I'd be robbed, held up at gun-point, that it was unsafe to go out at night. I even had panic attacks in a hotel in La Coruna and, on my last night in Galway, even considered cancelling this part of the trip.
Instead, the part of the year I feared most has turned out to be the most rewarding of all. I've made brilliant friends, done hugely rewarding work, and love life every single day.
The man who was so fearful of life in Central America now wonders whether he really wants to go home at all!
And that, I guess, has been the main lesson learned during my wonderful 'gap year' of 2010. Once you confront your fears, there is little or nothing to fear after all.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

What does revolution mean to you?

Living in a country in which the scars, glories, and hopes of a revolution are so fresh or raw has got me to thinking of what the hell does ´revolution´ mean to an Irish person in 2010.
Here in Nicaragua, taxi drivers or people you meet in the pub are keen to talk politics. They are divided, they are passionate, they fight on the streets when the elections come around, but they don´t just sit around moaning in the pubs like people do back home.
The current President, Daniel Ortega, was one of the revolutionary heroes. Anyone over a certain age can remember vividly the struggle against the right wing dictator Somoza in the 1970s or the fight against the US-backed ´Contras´, who had no mandate from the people, in the 1980s.
All Brian Cowen is currently famous for is his love of a pint, a cigarette, and the destruction of an economy.
Ortega is by no means an angel, but I´ve become tired of all the Americans I´ve met here who condemn him for all this nation´s ills.
When he started, he fought against a Fascist Dictator because he believed in change and giving the people a chance. Can the same be said for your average FF County Councillor or US Republican?
It was the good old US of A, after all, which responded to a rebellion of the people by sending marines into Nicaragua as far back as 1912. It was the USA who spent the next two decades installing presidents it favoured and ousting those it didn´t like, namely those who wanted to give some of the country´s wealth back to the people.
It was the US that signed a treaty to build a canal through Nicaragua, to link the two oceans, even though they never had a notion of building a canal here. Already, they had their eyes fixed on Panama, a country they invaded as recently as two decades ago.
Yes, they messed around with a little country in their own back yard so that nobody else could get the rights to a canal project which would have made a huge difference to one of the world´s poorest nations.
It was the USA which backed the awful Somoza regime for decades and then supported the Contras after the Somozas had been overthrown in a popular rebellion. And it was the USA who imposed a cruel embargo on the Sandinistas in the 1980s, ensuring that Ortega lost power because the economy was wrecked by outside forces in the years after the war.
As a ´lefty´teenager in Galway in the 1980s, I wanted to come to Nicaragua and join the fight against the world´s biggest imperial power. Over two decades later I finally got here and, while I´ve been disheartened by the poverty and lack of hope, I have developed a huge admiration for the revolutionary spirit of the people.
So what makes me think about Ireland so far from home?
Well, as a white, European former colony, people in countries such as Nicaragua and Palestine look to us for inspiration and hope for a better future.
Little do they know that we replaced the Brits, who ruled our isle with an iron fist for 800 years, with corrupt b--tards of our own.
Even going back to 1916 and our own rebellion, the nice middle class people of Dublin hurled abuse at Padraic Pearse and his cronies when they dared to attack our British rulers. It was only when the Brits executed our revolutionary leaders in cold blood that Sinn Fein gained massive support throughout the land.
After our civil war, we got two right wing parties who were no better than Maggie Thatcher and the Tories, the only difference was that the FFers and FGers spoke with Irish accents and didn´t oppress the Catholic majority.
But, apart from which side they were on back in the 1920s, can anyone tell the difference between the two parties?
Instead of visionaries and revolutionaries, we have people like Frank Fahey TD, who loved to collude with the property developers and bankers during the so-called ´boom´ years. A man who, somehow, manages to own 20-plus properties.
A man who told the young people of Galway in January 2009 that there was ¨never a better time¨ to buy their first home. I sincerely hope that nobody was listening to Frank, because prices have tumbled ever since then.
Yes, Ireland from far away looks just like George Orwell´s Animal Farm. It took us 800 years to overthrow our British masters, but we just replaced them with pigs of our own.
And instead of offering hope to the people of Palestine, that cruel oppressors and invaders can be overthrown; or to countries like Nicaragua, that former colonies can eventually develop their economies and bloom; we became a greedy, self-centred nation, obsessed by property, cars, and material things.
Instead of fighting in the UN for the rights of poorer former colonies, the Irish became the ´cute hoors´of Europe with tax incentives to attract the big American multinationals into the country and tax breaks for our own developers.
Ireland, after all of its troubles, should be a beacon of light for less fortunate lands, but in our rush for wealth over the past decade and a half our nation of mass emigration even became racist against Eastern Europeans and Africans.
The people who once stood on the Kilburn High Road, looking for any work they could get, instead wanted ´pads´in Marbella, SUVs in Salthill, and cappucinos in overpriced cafes, as they discussed how immigration had blighted the land.
In six years time, we will be commemorating 100 years of our own revolution, but we´ve forgotten what people like Robert Emmett, Daniel O´Connell, and our so-called ´terrorist´grandfathers struggled for down through the centuries.
Here in Nicaragua, at least they know who the ´terrorists´are, that they can just as easily wear the uniforms of the State as join clandestine organisations in the back rooms of Derry or Tyrone.
For me, Ortega is far less of a terrorist than Ariel Sharon, Ronnie Regan, or George W. Bush were, with their vast military strength, wealth, and power. And Martin McGuinness had a justified 'war' after what the Brits, the authorities, did in Derry on Bloody Sunday when they murdered 14 innocent people.
Perhaps it´s time for another revolution back home!

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Feelings of guilt

It is kind of hard to live in a country as poor as Nicaragua without experiencing feelings of guilt from time to time.
Only Haiti, currently in the midst of a deadly cholera outbreak, is poorer among all the nations of the Americas. Here in Nicaragua, meanwhile, the local TV stations are dominated by news of an outbreak of leptosporosis, caused by rodents contaminating the water supply. So far, 16 people have died from a disease which could be easily avoided if they had the resources to deal with it.
Poverty is a fact of life, even in the most 'touristy' city in the country.
About 15 young volunteers live in the house next to my office and it is quite common to see impoverished local men rummage through their bags of waste on a week day. The young volunteers are by no means rich by European or North American standards, but some men think it's worthwhile to go through their left-overs in search of food or valuables.
Every day in town, you are bombarded by people selling cashew nuts, ceramics, clothes, CDs, or cigars. Even worse, loads of youngsters approach the foreigners on the Calzada, the pedestrianised street, looking for one dollar.
You harden yourself, you try not to encourage begging because it just makes them more dependant on the whims of foreigners. The 12 year old who wants money to buy glue could be the prostitute of tomorrow and there is a seedy underbelly to this place where North Americans enjoy extremely cheap holidays.
The locals think that all white people are rich, and relative to them we are. Not for your average Nicaraguan the chance to leave their country, even once in their life, for a holiday in a foreign land.
Already, I have grown used to people shouting at me, seeking a dollar, as I cycle around the streets.
Something as routine as visiting a family home to get a bike repaired can turn quite menacing, such as when a young man (also waiting for his bicycle to be fixed) demands money from you for looking at the Che Guevara tattoo on his arm. You try to laugh it off, show a sense of humour, but you know there is a hint of a threat in his demand.
It's the lack of hope that is most striking, the way so many people spend the entire day sitting outside their homes in groups, watching the world go by. The economy just doesn't work here and those who do find work often do so for just US$5 per day.
Just imagine what they think of people who can afford to spend the equivalent of two days' wages on a meal in a touristy restaurant.
Foreigners cannot do much to change a country that seems so broken, in which parents have no incentive to send their kids to school because they can't see any jobs or prospects for them on the horizon.
But, I guess, as a volunteer you just try to do a little bit to help out.
It's great to see some of our volunteers working one-on-one with the children over a number of months in the schools. They build up bonds and, more importantly, give the kids an interest in learning.
And it's magical to see the excitement in the schools when we go around with computers once a week. The children only get to use them for 40 minutes every seven days, but it's a wondrous experience for them.
Helping an organisation such as La Esperanza Granada is a richly rewarding experience, and has far more benefit than giving a dollar to a beggar on the street.
Quite possibly, it is the best thing I have done in my entire life.
When you see all the children who sniff glue in the heart of the city, you thank God for the handful of students who our volunteers might just encourage to stay on in school . . . or even to go on to University.
Our organisation has 11 'ayudantes', young people from dirt poor families who cannot afford to go to University. Thanks to our sponsors, they do so every weekend and they get paid US$80 per month for working for La Esperanza from Monday to Friday.
Every day, though, poverty is a fact of life and you rarely forget how well off you are compared to the locals.
For a white foreigner, it is not safe to walk home from the pub after 10 p.m. We stick out like sore thumbs because, relative to most Nicaraguans, we are really rich. My private Spanish language teacher only charges volunteer students US$3 per hour and considers that to be a decent wage.
That's not to say I have had any bad experiences in my five weeks so far in the country. I did up an old bicycle and have had no problems cycling home from O'Shea's Irish bar on a Wednesday or Saturday night.
But I've been told off by locals for daring to go home on my own at night, without taking a taxi.
Then again, as I've said in quite a few posts this year, too much of our lives is ruled (or ruined) by fear.
If I had listened to all the negative comments and predictions in Panama and Costa Rica, I would not even have come to Nicaragua.
Yet I have found that the poorest country I have visited in all of my gap year travels has also been the most enjoyable.
The Nicaraguans have a great sense of humour, a great joy for life, an ability to have fun and slag each other off which seems quite familiar to an Irish person.
These people are incredibly warm-hearted and, after all my doubts, I am so glad I came here and that I'm getting a chance to do something so rewarding.
Poverty might push people towards crime, as it is simply unfair to put temptation in the way of someone who struggles to put food on the table every day.
But I've found that, contrary to all the negative talk in neighbouring countries, this is actually the safest country in Central America.
Now if only someone, somewhere, could give them some hope in terms of the creation of jobs, so that they would not all have to dream about emigrating to Costa Rica or the USA, countries in which many of them are treated as second class citizens.
In a way, this country is like Ireland in the 1950s, when our parents' generation grew up without shoes to go to school in overcrowded rural homes.
Hopefully, the Nicas, too, can taste some of the radical change which allowed Ireland to become rich, if only for the briefest of times.
Because it must be very, very hard to live your whole life without some hope for the future, some hope of a job or a better life.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Beware of obnoxious Americans

Beware of loud Americans with obnoxious opinions, as I learned again tonight when I was approached by a seemingly friendly New Yorker (while having my dinner in an outdoor restaurant) who just would not stop talking.
After regaling me with some interesting tales about life on the east coast of the country, where the locals speak a curious language (Moskito) which has been compared to Pidgin English, the internal alarm bells rang when he switched to politics.
Before I knew it, this tall, geeky type was explaining to me 'why' the Americans had sent the 'Contras' into Nicaragua in the late 1980s. I couldn't believe the arrogance, this assumption that the good old US of A has a right to mess around with and abuse every little country in its own back yard, and I nearly exploded when he got on to calling the current President of Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega, a 'war criminal'.
Unfortunately, due to a busted foot, I was unable to kick the man. But when I countered that good old Ronnie Raegan and George W. Bush could also be perceived as war criminals, he told me this was "only an opinion". Only an opinion, after I had listened to his tripe for half an hour? I could sense the pointlessness of the conversation and got out of there.
I'm no apologist for Nicaragua's current leader after a month in the country, but I am full of admiration for a tiny country (with a population similar to Ireland's) which staged a revolution to topple an awful, right wing dictator (Somosa) in the late 1970s, and dared to stand up to the might of Uncle Sam and its rotten Contras.
There has hardly ever been a 'war' in which atrocities were not committed on both sides ... for 'Bloody Sunday', internment, or Maggie Thatcher's response to the hunger strikes, which gave the IRA huge legitimacy in the eyes of thousands of Irish people for years, we had 'Omagh' and 'Enniskillen'.
But it shocks me the way some Americans go about their daily lives in Nicaragua, full of their own self-importance and not a bit conscious of the fact that fate has been kind to them (economically, if not mentally!) by virtue of where they were born.
It's low season in Granada, so it doesn't take long to get to know some of the expats if you are into drinking along La Calzada, the only pedestrian zone in the entire country.
To generalise, most of them are male, in their 50s and 60s, divorced and retired, and enjoying life here because their dollar will allow them to buy the company of pretty girls in their 20s.
That's all fair enough, I've seen their likes in Thailand (mostly Brits and Germans), even if it is a sad reflection on the entire world that people feel to compelled to sell their bodies in order to get out of extreme poverty.
But what sickens me is the way these North Americans sit around the same bars every day, drinking Flor de Cama rum. They show nothing but contempt for the street vendors who approach them selling ceramics, cigarettes, cashew nuts, or a countless variety of trinkets.
These 'gringos' don't speak Spanish, so they dismiss the local traders, loudly, in English; and then complain among themselves about how annoying the locals are.
This is in a country where a huge per centage of the population struggle to put food on the table every day, where they dream of doing crap jobs in Costa Rica or the USA.
Daniel Ortega is no Saint, I have learned, just as my first (and only) trip to Cuba ruined my illusions about another revolution 11 years ago.
But the poverty in both countries has only been exacerbated by the terrible foreign policy decisions of the Americas' only superpower down through the decades.
Just imagine, if instead of arming the Contras to the teeth, what this country would be like if the USA invested in its education and its infrastructre.
Nicaragua needs hope and investment, as there is huge potential in this youthful country which has so much poverty and unemployment.
What it doesn't need is more and more North Americans, who only come here because their dollar can go further in the poorest country in the Americas. I don't care if they are drinking themselves to death on Flor de Cana, as many of them are doing each day, but it annoys me as a fellow 'gringo' (in the eyes of the locals) to see them insult the Nicos so regularly while they plonk their fat asses outside a handful of pubs.
There but for the grace of God, any of us could have been born a Nicaraguan. And hundreds of dollars will buy you a prostitute in any impoverished country, no matter how fat, obnoxious, or ugly you are.
Sadly, the New Yorker in his 60s still hasn't come to that realisation, as he abuses the locals in a language they don't understand. So it's probably a good job he is too dumb or lazy to learn Spanish!
I don't mean to put down all North Americans, because I have also met some incredible Americans and Canadians during my time here, many of whom have given up their time to help out those in need through charities and NGOs.
But Nicaraguans have a distrust of loud North Americans ever since a man called William Walker came down here from the USA, staged a coup, and took over the country for a brief time in the 1850s. From what I've seen here so far, they are dead right!

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Settling into Nicaragua

Life here in Nicaragua is certainly different to anywhere else I've lived in. The reality of poverty faces you daily as you negotiate the picturesque city of Granada, and I don't need reminding that this is the most 'touristic' city of the country so I haven't even seen the real Nicaragua yet.
People approach you looking for one dollar, and no matter how you deal with them the reality is that you are rich compared to them.
In Nicaragua, there is a desperate need for hope. The organisation I am working for, La Esperanza Granada, send a team of 30 volunteers out to help provide education in crowded rural schools and, once you get out there, far off the beaten track, the living conditions are a real eye-opener.
Most tourists never see the primitive tin huts our volunteers visit after school each day.
But, after just over two and a half weeks in the country so far, the reality of life in Nicaragua has exceeded all my expectations.
In Panama and Costa Rica, I was warned that I would be robbed or assaulted here, and a big Irishman with blond hair and blue eyes does stick out in this impoverished country. But so far, so good ... I actually feel safer here at night than in Costa Rica.
That's not to say there are no problems, because Managua is reputed to be a nightmare of a city for foreigners and there are parts of Granada in which it is just not safe to walk alone after dark.
There is a small expat community here, mostly Americans, many of whom make little or no effort to integrate. They drink in the pubs along the Calzada, the beautiful main pedestrian street which links the huge lake with the city centre, starting early and finishing early.
Used to walking home from the pub in Galway, Thailand, or Spain, the idea that I need to take a taxi as early as 10 p.m. at night takes a bit of getting used to. But once the streets get quiet there is no other option, and foreigners definitely cannot walk down the darker side streets in which the poverty is more acute.
I've seen huge families living in squalid tin huts, been called a 'Gringo' more than a few times by bored young men in dodgy areas, and watched the mad street life where 70 year old Americans walk around with 17-year old 'girlfriends'.
I didn't think I'd encounter the kind of sex tourism which has given parts of Thailand such a reputation all over the world, but I guess there's poverty everywhere and the disparity manifests itself in different places. For all the Germans and Brits in Pataya or Patong, there are plenty of Americans here.
Who am I to tell the 65-year old hard drinking divorced American that the 25-year old model under his arm is only after him for his money? He knows that anyway, and he doesn't care, and he will probably be with someone else tomorrow night anyway.
It's an intriguing place, a mixture of loud obnoxious American bars and decent local spots where I can even catch a Barcelona or Liverpool game on a weekend morning.
On my first weekend, I even caught a live heavy rock band in Kelly's which, despite the name, is locally owned.
There is one Irish bar, owned by Tommie from Dublin, and it's a real social hub for the European expats. O'Shea's is where we host our pub quiz every Wednesday night. There are three other Irish people in town that I know of, and at this stage I have met all three!
And as for the work? I don't think I have ever worked for nothing before, but I am also pretty sure that I have never had such a rewarding job.
Seeing the joy which playing on a computer or interacting with a foreign volunteer brings to a child has reminded me of the value of the simple things in life.
Right now, life in Nicaragua is incredible.
I'm not getting to scuba dive in pristine waters, or drink until dawn in a beach bar, and I haven't fallen in love with a Latin supermodel.
But I've fallen back in love with life and the world and I am full of admiration for all the young volunteers in their early 20s, who have come here just to try to provide a slightly better life to impoverished children.
When I was their age, all I wanted to do was party all the time and the idea of volunteering for months so far from home never crossed my mind. That was a self-destructive period of my life and I think I am much better prepared for this experience now.
Yesterday, I edited a video about our volunteer programme after bringing a sponsor from the US and a representative of a volunteer website in the UK around to a number of our projects.
And today, under the blistering sun, I walked into work with a relish at 9 a.m. I can't remember feeling like that at home for quite a while. I am still only scratching the surface of this place, but I am meeting lovely, genuine people who only want a chance in life everyday.
Already, I feel really content here, and I just don't want to think about going home at the end of the year.
And to think that for weeks, especially when I went home, I had built myself up into a frenzy of fear over the thought of coming to Nicaragua.
Sometimes the reality can be totally different from our fears.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Hope and acceptance

Sometimes in life, things just don't go to plan . . . and this week I think I learned a lot about hope but, especially, the need for acceptance.
And I've had a few of my own prejudices challenged by someone way younger than me.
This week, my first as a volunteer with La Esperanza Granada, saw me visit rural primary schools outside the city on three different days.
During the first two, the rain bucketed down and many of the children were absent, unable or unwilling to make the journey through potholed roads. In Nicaragua, there is no compulsion on parents to send their kids to school.
On my second day, I met Barbara, a primary school teacher from the United States. She spent eight months volunteering with La Esperanza (Hope) last year and is back in Granada on holidays for a couple of weeks.
Not for her a trip to laze around or a chance to just lie by the lake during her break from her school in St. Louis.
Instead, she busied herself trying to set up a Skype link between her school in the USA and a small, impoverished school here in Nicaragua.
She purchased one of those mobile internet connections from Claro, one of the mobile phone operators here, and together with me and one of the 'ayudantes' headed to the school to instigate a link between the two classes.
My God, talk about excitement! The children were absolutely thrilled at the prospect of talking, in Spanish, to kids in the USA. Nervous and overjoyed, they sat down in front of the computer and roared out 'Ole' to the kids in America.
And then the connection died.
For the best part of an hour, Barbara tried to get Skype going again. But to no avail. Quietly, without any fuss, she accepted her lot, told the kids to write down their hobbies, a bit about their families, etc. for their conversations the following day. She got in touch with her counterpart in the US and organised a link up again for Wednesday.
It was raining on Tuesday, but gloriously sunny on Wednesday. And Barbara hoped that the weather was a factor. But this time she got no signal at all. The kids lined up again in front of the computer, and managed to mask their disappointment when nothing happened.
Barbara has another week of holidays and, after intense discussions with the mobile phone company, hopes to set up the link again. I sincerely hope it works out, for a bunch of kids who have never had access to the Internet in their lives.
My point? Well, Barbara taught me the value of quiet, stoic determination, and acceptance when things went wrong, even if she is probably 15 or 20 years my junior. Quietly, she accepted the disappointment, packed up the computer, and went back to Granada in the truck. But determined to do the link again.
In third world countries, things often go wrong. People put up with things that would result in endless moaning in first world countries like Ireland. The teacher and the kids shrugged their shoulders and got back to business in their class.
And Barbara taught me that it's too easy to make judgments about races or nationalities. Here was an American who gave up a year of her life to help out far less fortunate people in the second poorest country in the Americas. And she's back, a year later, on a break from her steady job to help out those children again.
Meanwhile, back in Ireland, from the little bit of news I am getting through the Internet and BBC World, all the talk is of doom and gloom, and the bankers, politicians, and developers who have wrecked our economy.
But every day I see poverty and levels of unemployment which would be unthinkable in Ireland, and yet - aside from the odd 'Gringo' comment - Nicaragua seems to be one of the safest countries in Central America.
I would love to see these people, who stood up to brutal colonial powers and corrupt right wing dictators, get even a fraction of the opportunities which were available to most of my generation (and certainly the younger generation) in Ireland.
They put up with crap and stagnation every day, but still manage a smile or a friendly gesture.
These people deserve more hope but, like Barbara, they can teach the first world quite a bit about acceptance.
Recession? Back home, nobody I know is sleeping under a tin roof or forced to work for just US$5 per day.
In recent years, as a single man with a good job in Ireland, I've probably managed five trips away each year to places like Spain, Thailand, Egypt, and France. In Nicaragua, they dream of getting out of the country just once ... in order to take up a crap, low paid job in Costa Rica or the USA.
Despite all the negativity I'm hearing from home, when I look at the lack of opportunity facing the lovely people of Nicaragua around me, I realise how fortunate I was to be born in Ireland.
And how unfair the world is. Just imagine if the American Government had the same outlook on life as Barbara, helping the less fortunate in their own back yard rather than spending a fortune on pointless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Enough of a rant, because this week I learned more than a little about about acceptance in the face of frustration.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

And on to Nicaragua...

At the border, it only takes seconds to realise that you are crossing into a much poorer country.
A host of useless ´helpers´hover around, attempting to grab your bag as you stumble off the bus, or waving wads of cash which they offer to exchange at rip-off conversion rates.
Red and black flags, the symbol of the Sandinista (FSLN) revolution, are as prominent as the blue and white national flags and the road looks worse than the route up from Costa Rica.
Welcome to Nicaragua!
Since I was a teenager in the 1980s, I have always an interest in this troubled land. A land that dared to stand up to the might of Uncle Sam, a land of revolutionaries in which pictures of El Che (Guevara) are more prominent than football stickers on parked cars.
This is a land in which politics are discussed every day, in which people´s lives burn with a sense of injustice, against imperialism, against corrupt dictators, against greedy landowners.
Perhaps Ireland right now could learn a little from the spirit of the Nicos, another small land with a weak economy which has been bullied by bigger neighbours.
I´ve only been here a few days but, already, I love Nicaragua.
I´ve been amazed by all the warnings I received from people in Costa Rica and Panama. They wondered why I wanted to go to such a poor and troubled land.
They told me I´d be robbed on the bus or held up by muggers and yet here in Granada I feel perfectly safe walking home from the pub in the early hours.
The poverty, the prostitution, the restlessness and lack of opportunity are all around me, and yet I wonder what potential there must be in this land of poets and warriors if they hadn´t been bullied, mined, and mistreated by Ronnie Reagan and his cronies back in the 1980s, and still treated like the ´second class citizens´of Central America right through to this day.
In Nicaragua, the stagnation is palpable. The unemployment rate is colossal and this land of five million people has 1.5 million living overseas, mainly in Costa Rica and the USA.
Crossing the border was like going from Thailand into Cambodia, in that the higher level of poverty and lack of opportunity were palpable.
In Costa Rica, where Nicos do the crap jobs, the Ticos look down on their neighbours to the north. Yet San Jose is an unsafe city in which tourists are warned not to bother going out after 6 p.m. at night.
They haven´t that much to brag about and Nicaragua does not have the gang problems which have troubled virtually all of its neighbours.
Nicaragua today is a bit like Ireland in the 1980s, a basket case of an economy in which the young are forced to emigrate (in the main, to the land of their worst enemy) in search of a better life.
San Jose has enclaves of Nicos, just as Kilburn and Cricklewood were full of unhappy Irish emigrants (who hardly moved to London for the love of the place) in the 1950s and again in the 1980s.
Every day in Granada, I am approached by beggars, but they are rarely insistent or threatening.
I have already met the other three Irish residents of the town and enjoyed a night out in the city´s only Irish pub, O´Shea´s, which is run by a Dubliner called Tom.
I know it is poorer than Panama or Costa Rica, but in the main I have found the people to be incredibly honest and friendly. Relative to most of them, I am virtually a millionaire.
For US10 a night, I have an en suite room and a swimming pool just outside my door. I am staying with an Irish man called Gerry, who is the same age as me. He was made redundant back home last year and decided to head off, buy a gorgeous old colonial house, and live a new life.
I´m going to be in Granada for the next two months, working for an organization called La Esperanza, which means Hope.
What an appropriate name and organisation in a beautiful land of volcanoes and lakes which is crying out for a chance to take its place in the rich modern world.
So far, I´m delighted with the charity I have chosen. I´m going to relish the work, the challenges, and the opportunity to learn.
I´m so glad I came, and that I didn´t pay too much attention to all the vicious rumours and scare stories. Nicaragua isn´t dangerous, just like Ireland wasn´t dangerous during the troubles when people in London would tell tourists to stay away from the Emerald Isle.
Nicaragua is a beautiful land of beautiful people which, like Cuba or Venezuela or must Latin American countries, just needs to be given some hope.
Children need to learn that there is a point to going to school, that at some point along the way they will get jobs or a chance to travel or use a second language.
La Esperanza? If I can only give a tiny bit of hope to a few people during my two months here, then I think this will be the most fulfilling part of (and a perfect end to) my gap year.