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 ínferior´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!
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