On my first day in Nicaragua, the door of my taxi fell off while we were driving. The driver, seeming irritable, got out, forcefully kind-of reattached it, then said grumpily to me ‘you need to hold it’.
Welcome to Nicaragua.
No doubt about it, Nicaragua is the most chaotic country I’ve been to on this trip. Every day seems to have brought new and unexpected challenges, perhaps more so in reality because this time I wasn’t just here as a tourist, I came to stay for three or four months and volunteer, live in a local barrio and try to understand the culture better. It’s a country which has made me feel inspired, bemused, and sometimes just frustrated in turns, as I’ve tried to adjust to living in a very different culture, and always standing out as an extranjero, or as the locals call white girls, a chela.
I started living in the small town of Ticuantepe, which is on the outskirts of Managua. I was lucky to have been given a home for the first few weeks with a lady who has now become a close friend, and her four cats. I spent three weeks trying to improve my Spanish at the fantastic La Mariposa school in La Concha, a very tiny pueblo which seemed worlds apart from the capital city of Managua I now call home. Every day I caught the local interlocale microbus for the 20 minute terrifying break-neck journey up through the green hills and valleys to get to La Concha on narrow, winding roads. Locally, the busses are referred to intermortales- literally, ‘between deaths’, or as I came to think of it, ‘the death bus’. You hailed it down wherever you were, and it would barely slow to a stop as you launched yourself through the doors, desperately trying to reach a seat before falling into your neighbours lap, and if not, trying to stand up with nothing to hold onto in a bus so small even I, at the height of 5ft5, had to crouch. Sometimes people would have whole vats of produce, mechanic tools, live animals with them- you name it. (In a later adventure with a friend, we brought her two cats on the microbus- and tuk-tuk- and regretted it.) What was nice was the way people would help each other- they would hold my bag for me if they got a seat and I didn’t- or even hold each other’s babies or children, and pass them forward when it was time to get off. That would never happen at home. When it was my stop, you had to yell out bajar aqui or grab the attention of the guy hanging out of the window, who took the money, to get it to stop, before being somewhat bodily thrown out again.
Bringing a cat on a tuk-tuk- NOT recommended.
The school was fantastic; sustainable tourism at its best. It was also an eco-hostel, built sustainably into the green tropical valleys, but which uses its proceeds to fund a huge array of community development projects: an animal rescue shelter (these things don’t generally exist in Nicaragua), a school for disabled children, a kids ‘breakfast club’ to help make sure children received adequate nourishment, extracurricular activities for children, solar power initiatives, clean cookstoves for people who lacked adequate technology for cooking, reforestation, and were also building a medical centre in a very rural region which lacked one. Apart from that, they had an impressive cultural and political program through which I got to go on trips to get to know the surrounding area, and got a thorough history of Nicaraguan politics. Phew.
Most importantly, I learned to understand better the reality of people’s lives in developing countries. I’m not going to go all patronising/ Barbie Saviour on you, but even though I’ve seen some of this before through travelling, actually living somewhere which lacks those amenities I take for granted at home has given me a whole new appreciation of privilege, and what a lack of it means. According to one of my teachers, most of the people in La Concha did not have access to running water. Instead they collected water from a municipal source for ‘bucket showers’, and used a latrine-style toilet where waste was collected from underneath (rather than a plumbed system where you can simply flush your- er- deposits- away). Even now where I live in the centre of the capital city, we only have proper running water in the evenings- in the morning it’s just a dribble, and during the day nothing at all. That’s what a lack of infrastructure means in reality- and my experience is relatively plush compared to others. Power cuts were frequent, sometimes lasting twelve hours at a time. Sometimes the water goes completely: you always have to have some stored in case. Cars are too expensive for a lot of people, and it’s not uncommon to see people using horse and carts as a main method of transport.
One day, relatively early on in my time here, I was sitting in the living room doing my homework when I glanced up and nearly jumped out of my skin. There was a chicken on the coffee table. A real, live chicken, looking right at me.
Where have you come from? I implored her. As I slowly got up, the cats awoke from their slumber and clocked her. Oh boy.
Then began a frantic chase to see who would get the chicken first- as I and the cats literally ran in circles, cartoon style, around the poor bird while it hopped back and forth out of our way, until I was eventually able to cover it in a bucket (to the utter confusion and uproar of the cats), scoop it up, and deposit her somewhat unceremoniously outside, where I assumed she had wondered in from one of the neighbour’s back yards.
Another time, not thinking about the fact a second-hand clothes pop-up in Nicaragua might be less substantially built than a regular clothing shop at home, in the changing room I leaned against the wall for balance while trying to wriggle out of my trousers, only to discover the walls are made of cardboard when I crashed sideways through three stalls, ending up a sweaty beetroot mess, half undressed on the floor with my ankles still tangled while a gaggle of Nica women pissed themselves laughing and pointing at me. I laughed with them as they helped me up, trying to act as though I wasn’t dying inside from humiliation as well as from the pain.
The pace of life in Ticuantepe seemed very tranquilo and for that reason I felt very safe there, but perhaps this was naive and I was still far removed, because I was completely shocked when an incident occurred which I only found out the true nature of later. Coming back from eating out one night, my friend Judy and I encountered a police blockade in the road. It was unusual to see police at all. There was a woman crying, with blood on her face, and two legs sticking out from a motito (tuk-tuk). We didn’t know what was going on so got out of the way. I’ve since learned that we had stumbled into a murder scene. After a minor collision, an argument had spiralled out of control, and another very young motito driver, who was not even involved, was shot and killed by a drug-dealer. The legs I had seen poking out were the legs of a young man who had been murdered during the time we’d been eating dinner.
In this way, the first few weeks were a good introduction to life in Nicaragua; a place which is full of warmth and fun, but also one in which people’s lives are shaped by the harsh realities of a country which has come out of revolution, civil war, natural disasters, and for many, poverty.
After living in Ticuantepe, I moved to the capital city of Managua, to volunteer with a fantastic local organisation called CANTERA and continue to learn more about Nicaraguan life.
With thanks to everyone who made me feel happy and welcome when I first arrived here.