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.
Ayudante Profile #5: Concepcion
2 months ago