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.
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