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!