Volunteer in Nicaragua
Choose From a Range of Post-Revolutionary Options
“Hola. ¿Cómo estas?” A neighbor greets me on the street in San Juan del Sur. My improved Spanish now means I can answer with more than just “muy bien,” but the noon heat makes the thought of standing in the sun unbearable. I give only the local gesture of acknowledgment, the head-lift and smile, and continue moving along in the shadows.
Avoiding the skinny dogs eating splattered mangoes, I pass the mural of Sandino that states: “Jámas Nos Venceran.” (They will never conquer us!) A revolution of sorts continues as people continue to help each other, and volunteers are welcome.
Today is “family day.” Jean Brugger has invited to lunch the families whose children have been supported by the Fundación A. Jean Brugger. The tables fill with guests, laughter, and good smells. After some shushing, a tape deck plays traditional music and some of the children do a folk dance to much applause.
After several months of working in Nicaragua, my experiences have brought me closer to the people, culture, and history of the area. The following advice is for those interested in an immersion experience in Nicaragua.
You can participate in local volunteer projects even if you speak no Spanish, but I immediately attended a language school. There are several options in town, but I chose Nicaragua Spanish School because it provides one-to-one instruction, afternoon trips to nearby locations and cultural events, and a homestay with a family, which resulted in my rapid improvement in Spanish. My family, the Granjas, made me feel right at home.
There are two seasons: dry and wet. From November to April everything becomes brown and dusty. Usually the temperature is spring-like but by April the heat melts anything, including people.
The wet season starts in May and goes until October, and suddenly the green returns. The sacuanjoche (frangipani) trees put out delicate white flowers and the wind disappears as humidity increases.
Living in Nicaragua
If you are not in a homestay San Juan del Sur has many inexpensive hospedajes (hostels). However, if staying long-term then renting is a better option. I paid about $150 per month for a small, furnished suite. It included a bedroom with a good bed, private bathroom with running water, and kitchenette with decent appliances (new fridge).
Avoid Semana Santa (Easter Week). To accommodate the huge influx of people who arrive for the fiesta locals build shacks on the beach. If you cannot avoid this holiday, be certain your rental agreement includes stipulations for that time. Landlords will often evict tenants for that week unless they pay five times as much.
If you like crowds and pandemonium make friends and go out with a group. Throughout the week foreigners are targets for thieves. Traffic stops, people pack the streets, and the party goes all night.
By comparison, Christmas seems peaceful even with its fireworks, children’s band waking the faithful for 4 a.m. mass, and Saint parades through town.
Women Traveling & Living Alone
If you are a woman alone and you leave the house you will experience the hiss (men who sound like a punctured tire). A man with his group of friends sitting on the corner has to try to get your attention or he loses face. Get used to it. If you look or respond, it may escalate.
Other than Semana Santa, the town is quite safe, although I still wouldn’t walk around alone after dark in areas where the grandmas are not sitting on their front porches.
The best guidebook for the country is Moon Handbooks Nicaragua by Joshua Berman and Randy Wood.
Some good websites include: NicaNet at www.Nicanet.org; Habitat for Humanity at www.habitat.org; the Spanish-only newspaper: www.laprensa.com.ni.
Getting Started as a Volunteer
For those looking to volunteer the presence of expats in local nonprofits makes it easier. They arrived during the Sandanista era and stayed on to continue assisting people in this economically stressed country. Organizations often have English-speaking contacts and some structure to assist volunteers.
Depending on your interests and the time you have available there are several places to volunteer in San Juan del Sur and in nearby communities.
Student Assistance: Fundación A. Jean Brugger, www.piedrasyolas.com/brugger_eng.htm, supports children with school supplies, uniforms, and tuitions; it also assists with weekend projects or student vocational training. Contact: Jean Brugger, email@example.com.
Literacy: San Juan del Sur Biblioteca Móvil, www.sjdsbiblioteca.org, is one of the first lending libraries in Central America. It takes on volunteers to help with its mobile book project and for teaching English to local children. Many books (in English) are available about the revolution and the history of Nicaragua.
Coffee Harvest: Finca Magdalena, on Ometepe Island, is an organic coffee cooperative of 800 acres. It can use up to five Spanish-speaking volunteers in the harvest season (Oct.-Nov.). Contact: www.coop-cdc.com or www.fincamagdalena.com. Finca Magdalena exports coffee with the help of Bainbridge Ometepe Sister Islands Association (BOSIA) in Washington. Contact: 505-880-2041 or BOSIA at firstname.lastname@example.org, www.bosia.org.
Global Exchange (a nonprofit based in San Francisco) also runs educational Reality Tours in different areas of Nicaragua. Check out www.globalexchange.org.
Orphaned Children: Nuestros Peq-uenos Hermanos, www.nph.org, is a Christian organization begun during the revolution when many children were orphaned. Volunteer at Casa Asis in San Jorge or Casa Santiago on Ometepe Island, where recent eruptions mean more assistance than ever is needed. Contact: 505-883-0586 or email@example.com.
Do as much research as you can before you leave; don’t just take my word for it. Wherever you end up, volunteering means you will meet more local people, feel part of the community, and come away with a deeper experience than any tourist. If you are in San Juan del Sur, at the end of a long day head for Joseline’s beach bar to watch the sunset.