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.
House building project Families for Families
1 month ago