Volunteering in Nicaragua: The Good, The Difficult, and The Beautiful

Perusing travel guides or reviews of tourist hot spots might make Nicaragua seem like paradise (and it is!). However, the reality for many struggling residents is far from the idyllic picture a brochure might paint. Nicaragua is a diverse country filled with rich culture and vibrant landscapes. It is also a country stricken with political corruption and poverty. That is what drew me to volunteer in Nicaragua.

A decade ago, I traveled to the Nicaraguan village of Las Enramadas near the Ochomogo River to help build latrines for the villagers. It’s not a village that tourists would know about. A quick search on Google reveals that the village shows up as only text on the map; no photos of the village appear. The same holds true for numerous other villages along the river and throughout the country. For fellow travelers and volunteers, this is a sobering reminder that Nicaragua is much more than just the tourist hotspots.

 The Good

With unique experiences, delicious cuisine, and amazing photo opportunities, Nicaragua has a lot to offer volunteers and tourists alike. During my time there, I swam with cows and rode in the back of a pick-up truck filled with plantains. One of my favorite places to visit was Lago Cocibolca (commonly referred to as Lake Nicaragua). It’s a huge lake with soft, undulating waves that made it seem almost like a giant wave pool. The beach surrounding the lake is sandy, soft, and dotted with a few loose cows who also enjoy relaxing along the shore.

 

While at the lake, locals approached us to give a warning. They told us not to swim past the drop-off, as the deeper waters of the lake are home to bull sharks. Fortunately, they don’t often swim into the shallow waters closer to the beach, so it is safe to swim in. A quick search once I returned home revealed that there have only been three recorded shark attacks at Lake Nicaragua. The most recent took place in 1944.

Another highlight of the trip was traveling to the volcano Concepción, where we hiked along trails, completed a zipline course, and had lunch. This is a popular site for tourists to visit, and for good reason. The view of Nicaragua from the top of the volcano and the surrounding lush forest was breathtaking. The zipline course was a lot of fun… while in motion. Unfortunately, the zipline was up in the canopy of trees and swayed in the wind. I spent most of my time clutching the tree trunks for dear life. However, if you are not as faint of heart as me, I highly recommend this experience!

The Difficult

Everyday life for many Nicaraguan citizens is often hard due to extreme poverty, with most citizens living in small villages scattered across the country. I went on a volunteer trip to Nicaragua in 2013 to help build new outhouses. One of our hosts had an old TV that received a few channels. Yet at the same time, they did not have a functioning indoor bathroom. Instead, they had an outhouse and outdoor shower cubicle where we could take a bucket of water to wash ourselves. This same house was considered the wealthiest in the village, because they could afford a cement floor instead of one made from hard-packed dirt.

 

Despite their hardships, the villagers themselves were very welcoming and generous. Even though most could barely afford to keep food on the table, they still offered us refreshment as thanks for our volunteer work. When we weren’t working, it was eye-opening to speak at length with some of our hosts and learn about what life was like for the locals of Nicaragua. In particular, I remember one young woman who had barely turned 20 telling me a story about how she had twice thought about marrying. Tragically, her first boyfriend died in a farming accident, and her second died of a snake bite. She dreamed of moving to Managua, the capital, to become a nurse, but she couldn’t afford to travel there, much less the schooling involved.

 

The hard truth is that Nicaragua is a country whose citizens struggle with poverty and hardship on a daily basis. Of course, there are many tourist hotspots and wealthier areas that you can visit. Nevertheless, there are also many small villages that live in a very different reality than what tourists experience. These smaller communities need assistance the most. I strongly encourage anyone looking for volunteer opportunities to consider Nicaragua.

The Beautiful

There is always hope for a better future, and there are many opportunities for anyone willing and able to help. If you are looking for a unique travel experience and would like to see a side to the country that is often overlooked, there are many volunteer programs that work in Nicaragua and throughout Central America, such as ONG and Adventure Volunteer.

Nicaragua is, without a doubt, a beautiful country with a lot to offer the world. My experience there, while vastly different from the usual tourist one, was unforgettable. Even after a decade, I have not forgotten the people of Las Enramadas. It is my hope that I will be able to return there one day. At the end of the day, as picturesque as a place may be, it’s the people who make a place beautiful.

 

Volunteering in Eswatini with the Peace Corps

 

It is no secret that an increasing number of young adults have pondered the idea of living and working abroad. It’s exciting. It’s something new. And above all, it’s rewarding. Countries in Europe, South America, and Asia tend to get the most attention, especially for those wishing to teach English. However, there are many small, developing nations all around the world where one’s hard work could have a great and lasting impact on families and communities, especially if you join the Peace Corps.

Rachel Albright chose the Peace Corps. A mental health counselor from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Rachel felt a calling in her mid-20s to go abroad and make a difference. Through the United States Peace Corps, she found herself in the southern African nation of Swaziland (now Eswatini) in 2015, unaware of what a life-changing experience it would turn out to be. I sat down with Rachel to learn more about her time abroad and what it was really like to be a member of the Peace Corps.

What inspired you to join the Peace Corps?”

Growing up, I remember being so curious about the world. I felt this intrinsic need to explore it, even in its most remote areas. Other cultures, particularly those in less-developed regions, intrigued me. I always wondered what it would be like to immerse myself in a completely foreign culture and society. Hailing from a predominantly white, conservative, small town in central Pennsylvania, few shared my longing to be elsewhere — somewhere more exciting, more interesting, more diverse, and more open-minded. 

While in high school, I met someone who had served in the Peace Corps and was mesmerized by his stories. At that time in my life, a goal of serving seemed so unachievable and unheard of. I didn’t feel like I’d have the support and understanding from my family. Plus, I was still discovering who I was as an individual. 

Other Avenues

So, I put this dream on hold and instead chose to explore the Dominican Republic during my freshman year of college. And that only served to spark my passion for international development. What I felt after the plane landed in Puerta Plata, and what I observed through the window as our group rode through the impoverished countryside to our luxury resort, has stuck with me to this day. 

Dominican Republic
A beautiful view of the Dominican Republic

The disconnect between the rural, developing areas and the upscale resorts shocked me. I could not understand how that level of poverty could exist while multi-star hotels lined the coast. How many vacationers have driven past these struggling communities and quickly forgotten about them once they reached their destination? When we got to our gated “Americanized” resort, I couldn’t help thinking how much I wanted to be on the other side, exploring the real Dominican Republic. Once home in Pennsylvania, I began to explore opportunities to travel to more developing countries. I returned again to the Peace Corps.

Why did you choose to work in Swaziland?”

When I applied for the Peace Corps, applicants could not choose their post. I spent a whole year applying, interviewing, and obtaining clearances and vaccinations. Finally, someone at the organization contacted me about a potential post in El Salvador. Shortly after, the Peace Corps ended up closing this post due to high levels of crime and gang activity in the capital, San Salvador. 

They then offered me a position in Cameroon. After about three months of preparing for Cameroon — giving up my apartment, selling my car, and quitting both my jobs, I received a call informing me that the Peace Corps was also closing its post in Cameroon and I would need to reapply if I wanted to serve. I felt absolutely devastated. Luckily, a few days later they offered me a post in Swaziland. I accepted it without really knowing much about the country aside from its location and the fact any foreign-language skills I had obtained (Spanish, French) would not be helpful there.

Ezulwini Valley In Swaziland Eswatini With Beautiful Mountains and Trees

What work experience did you have to take before traveling there?”

There are six sectors within the Peace Corps: agriculture, community economic development, education, environment, health, and youth in development. In Swaziland at the time, there were only two of those sectors in operation: health and youth in development. They assigned me a youth-in-development posting based on my educational and professional background. By 2015 when I joined, I had obtained a master’s degree in developmental psychology and had five years of experience working with teens as a mentor and counselor within various mental health settings.

What language do they speak in Swaziland? Did the Peace Corps offer classes to give you a basic understanding of the language?”

In Swaziland, both English and Swati are national languages. However, the majority of Swazis speak Swati and only very limited English. So, during pre-service training (the first two months spent in the country), I took intensive daily Swati courses.  They assigned me a language and cultural facilitator. After three-and-a-half years, two of which were spent in a rural village, I tested intermediate-advanced in the Swati language.

Rachel with community leaders during her time with the Peace Corps
Community matters in Eswatini

What was it like to live in a small village? How would you describe your accommodation?”

Living in a small village with a host family was the part of service I was most nervous about beforehand. I wish I knew then that becoming a part of that host family and part of my host community would be the most rewarding, incredible aspect of my time in Swaziland. In Swaziland, I stayed in a village called Msengeni. There were 78 families and it was located in the northeast corner, about five miles from the border of Mozambique.

Life in the rural village took time to get used to. My accommodation was located on my host family’s homestead (a group of dwellings belonging to individuals within my immediate and extended host family). They gave me my own stand-alone house. Essentially, this was a tiny room made of rocks and concrete. A corrugated iron roof and burglar-proof bars on the door and windows prevented rain and intruders from getting in. 

African living quarters
Home sweet home Eswatini style

I was lucky enough to have electricity wired in with an outlet and light. There was no running water in Msengeni. To gather water, we harvested rain running off the slanted roofing into buckets. We also walked and fetched water from the river, about half a mile from my home. 

After gathering water, I would treat it with bleach or boil it before drinking, cooking, and bathing. My bathroom facilities? Well, my family had an enclosed pit latrine, which is essentially a long-drop hole in the ground. In terms of life in the community, it was simple. 

Day-to-Day Life

Most of my host community members were farmers. They worked in the fields and cared for livestock early in the morning when the sun was weaker. During the day, women would sell homemade goods on the main road. The road received a decent amount of traffic from travelers coming back and forth from Mozambique. 

The children whose families could afford their school fees went to classes during the day and then studied, helped with the cooking and laundry, and played in the evenings. The other children would attend the Neighborhood Care Point, which my host mother helped run. There they received a hot meal and occasional education.  Men typically stayed indoors during the day, resting. Homestead life was full of chickens, goats, donkeys, and cows, free-range at all times. It was not uncommon for the animals to wander in and out of my house on a daily basis. 

A free-range chicken

How did you adapt to the local diet?”

The Swazi diet is pretty bland. The staple food is maize which is ground up into mealie-meal and used to make lipolishi or pap. Pap really does not have much flavor and is close to the consistency of grits. 

They typically pair pap or rice with beans or some sort of stew. On Sundays, and when it was available, we would have meat — usually chicken. During celebratory events, beef, goat, or pork would accompany the occasional salad (beetroot, cabbage, or lettuce and tomato). I adapted to this diet pretty quickly. The food was natural and for the most part, it was grown in the village. My stomach handled it pretty well.

What was the hottest temperature reached during your time there?”

In 2015 on Christmas Eve, I remember the temperature reaching 108 degrees Fahrenheit. During the summers it usually ranged from 85-95 degrees. What a lot of people do not realize though is that it can actually get pretty cold in the winters. During a Swazi winter, you can wake up to frost on the ground. Because we had no heaters or fireplaces indoors, the inside felt just as cold as outdoors.

A campfire in Swaziland

What were your responsibilities as a member of the Peace Corps?

The Peace Corps has three main goals volunteers work towards during and after their service: 1) to help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women; 2) to help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served; and 3) to help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans. In Swaziland, the main mission was to address the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Swaziland had one of the highest rates of HIV/AIDS in the entire world. In working to address the epidemic, my role as a youth in development volunteer in Msengeni included teaching daily at the local high school. Alongside my counterpart, I designed a course for life skills, sexual reproductive health, and career guidance. 

Every day, I would walk about half a mile to the high school to teach. Within the high school, my counterpart and I built a library and started a variety of youth clubs. Outside of the high school, I helped to develop the Neighborhood Care Point and to establish a pre-school. In addition, I was involved in a variety of other projects such as building playgrounds, income-generating activities, handwashing awareness, and condom distribution, among others.

What were your expectations prior to moving abroad? To what extent were they met after you arrived?”

I am glad I went into the Peace Corps with limited expectations. My recruiter told me to go into service with this mindset. Initially, I expected service to be tough and a huge adjustment, which it absolutely was. I expected to form bonds with the people in my community, which I definitely did. I think all Peace Corps volunteers want to “change the world” and they find out quickly after arriving at their post that Peace Corps service will not accomplish this. 

Instead, I feel I made impacts on a tiny scale — on the individual lives of my students, host family, and community members. While I can only hope the projects I worked on were sustained, what I honestly hope for more is that my community remembers me for being me. I definitely feel my host community members made a far larger impact on my life than I ever could on theirs.

What was the biggest challenge you faced as you acclimatized to your new life?”

The most difficult thing to get used to was the gender differential. Men are viewed as above women in society and this was difficult to process coming into service as a female and a feminist. During community meetings, only men could stand or sit on chairs while women were on the ground. In addition, women were rarely given a chance to voice their opinions on matters within the community. 

There is also an overwhelming level of gender-based violence in Swaziland. Many of the cultural celebrations can be viewed as degrading to women. Learning to accept this was the most difficult aspect of service.

Umhlanga, the Reed Dance, a National Ceremony that Rachel observed during her time with the Peace Corps
Ceremonial Swaziland

Which special relationships did you form while living and working in Swaziland?”

I formed so many incredible relationships during my three-and-half years in Swaziland. The bond between myself and my entire host family, which included many brothers, sisters, cousins, grandparents, aunts, and uncles, was extremely close. The most significant would have to be the bond I formed with my host mother, Sibongile Magagula or Make (mother) for short. 

Make is undoubtedly the strongest person I know. She taught me the ropes — how to speak the Swati language, cook over an open fire, wash my clothes by hand, wax my floor, slaughter chickens, herd cattle, and carry a 25-liter bucket of water on my head. Make also taught me a lot about what it means to truly be part of a community. 

Rachel and Make during her time with the Peace Corps
Rachel with Make, her host mother

We could talk about anything and she went from knowing very little English to being completely fluent during the time I spent with her. Make kept me safe, healthy, and always entertained. For that, I am forever grateful.

How much were you able to use Swaziland as a base to explore the wider area in your free time?”

During service, I traveled to South Africa quite a bit — KwaZulu Natal, Durban, Cape Town, Johannesburg, Kruger, and many areas in between. I was also able to visit Mozambique during my service. Peace Corps volunteers receive leave time and can travel a decent amount on their Peace Corps issued passport. The Peace Corps only requests that volunteers report their whereabouts for safety reasons. I mostly explored within Swaziland, which is tiny but incredibly diverse. 

What advice would you give to someone interested in joining the Peace Corps?”

Although I am definitely grateful to the Peace Corps for allowing me the opportunity to see so many amazing things and meet so many remarkable people, I cannot say I completely agree with its mission — something I learned gradually during my time serving. I feel the idea of the Peace Corps perpetuates “white saviorism.” This promotes the idea that white people, or people from a more developed area, know best and can solve the developing world’s problems. Since returning to the States, I have struggled with how I feel being associated with such ideas. 

I have learned to accept it and learn from it. The good news is that the Peace Corps is currently discussing a reform to become more diverse in itself and to rethink its framework of sustainability. So, my advice to anyone interested in service is to do it, but be open to learning. Be open to the fact that you do not have the answers and you are not going to “change the world”, but you may change someone’s life, and that could very well be worth it.

Antelope in Swaziland National Park

How has it helped you since returning to the States?”

My time in the Peace Corps and simply immersing myself in a foreign culture has definitely changed my perspective on many things. Now I am more mindful than ever of other peoples’ adverse experiences, diversity, and politics in general. These days I am more aware of how change needs to happen from the grassroots up if it is to be sustainable and that we should be putting more focus on preserving culture in that process, by celebrating differences within each other. 

I think the biggest takeaway that I have found from traveling anywhere is that people are the same intrinsically, no matter where they’re from. We all laugh and cry at the same things. We all are striving towards happiness and the only real difference is that we may speak a different language or look different from each other. I feel being mindful of this has only strengthened my ability to form relationships and relate to others.

Finding Clarity

Rachel remains in contact to this day with her host family and many of the friends she made in the Peace Corps. She continues to utilize everything she has learned abroad in her professional and personal life, striving to make the world a better place one person at a time. Her feeling of wanderlust has never been stronger, and she hopes to travel as often as she can when it is safe to do so. 

No matter what route we take to live and work abroad, one thing is abundantly clear: we see the world more transparently. Moving abroad doesn’t have to be a pipe dream, and joining the Peace Corps is one of many viable options to be able to expand your mind and gain international experience within a developing nation. In today’s climate, experiencing life from a different lens may be more important than we realize.

*The content of this article belongs to Dreams Abroad and does not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Government, the Peace Corps, or the Eswatini Government.

 

Work Experience Abroad: Volunteering in Costa Rica

Alexandra Cintrón JiménezDuring my undergraduate studies, I decided to broaden my horizons by volunteering in Costa Rica. I came upon a scholarship for students in the College of Education at the Universidad de Puerto Rico who wanted to pursue a teaching experience abroad. As soon as I saw this, I decided to apply and start researching for possible opportunities. In the course of my research, I found We Are Bamboo and applied for their teaching volunteering program.

We Are Bamboo had many options for positions in Asia, but I decided to go to a place where I was comfortable with the language. At that time, I barely had international experiences abroad, let alone by myself. I decided to go somewhere close to home, which is why I thought volunteering in Costa Rica would be a good idea. After applying for the volunteer program, I was lucky enough to be awarded the scholarship from my college. I felt very excited about this opportunity and could barely wait to go. 

Arriving in Costa Rica

Even though I applied through We Are Bamboo, the company was affiliated with Maximo Nivel, who were in charge of the program in Costa Rica. I will be honest with you. As I was traveling alone, I was nervous because the communication from the program was vague. They notified me that once in the airport, I needed to look out for a yellow flag held out by the member of staff picking me up. They did not send me information about my host family beforehand. I found out about where I would be staying when I met the staff at the airport. 

Nevertheless, once there everything went smoothly. There were other volunteers who were there for varying projects such as healthcare and sea-turtle conservation. Once all the volunteers arrived, we drove to the main office for check-in and then I met my host family. I stayed with my host mom Cindy, her partner, and kids. They were very friendly and when they found out I spoke Spanish, they felt thrilled. There, I met another volunteer from New Zealand. She only spoke English, so even though she had only one week left, I helped them understand each other better. Below is a picture of me with my host family; their daughter was with her grandparents when we took the picture.

Alexandra with her host family while volunteering in Costa Rica

Teaching

On the first day, I had a training session and found my placement. I met Alice from Alaska who was fluent in Spanish, which I felt very impressed by. We both were assigned the same placement, Fundación la Mujer. After we were assigned, a guide from Maximo Nivel showed us around to familiarize us with the route we needed to take to get there. Our assignment was teaching adults in San José, the capital of Costa Rica. It was an adjustment for me since all of my schooling so far had been at the K-12 level, but I really enjoyed it. The smaller group meant that we could provide a topic they felt most interested in. 

Alexandra teaching while volunteering in Costa Rica

Living as a Costa Rican and Gastronomy

One of my favorite things about this experience was that I lived like a Costa Rican. I took the bus and walked around to get where I wanted to go. Spending time with people gave me first-hand insights into the culture. The program included breakfast and dinner, so I sampled typical homemade food from Costa Rica. 

For breakfast, I tried gallo pinto, a main course that can include rice, beans, eggs, toast, and fruit. As a Puerto Rican, eating rice and beans for breakfast was a new experience. We usually ended our lessons by 2:00 PM and then went for lunch at restaurants nearby. We’d sit and eat while working on our lesson plan for the next day. For lunch or dinner, Costa Ricans love tucking into casado, which includes rice, beans, sweet plantains, salad, and a choice of meat. After finishing my “work” day, I toured the city. I visited museums such as Museo Nacional de Costa Rica and Museo de Arte Costarricense.

The National Museum of Costa Rica, which Alexandra visited in Costa Rica

I took this photo at the National Museum of Costa Rica.

Exploring Costa Rica

During the weekends, I went on a couple of tours. I visited Volcán Arenal, La Paz waterfall, and the hot springs in La Fortuna. Spending my birthday there was so much fun. Although I am not a coffee lover, I still had to try it since I was in Costa Rica. So I visited Heredia for a coffee tour. During this, I tasted different types of coffee beans such as light roast, poás, and tres ríos. They explained the whole process the beans go through while showing me the plantation. 

These pictures show the volcano and coffee tour. The basket and hat is what they use to pick up beans. 

Saying Goodbye

I wish my volunteer program had been longer. The reason being that I believe I could have made a better impact as a volunteer if I had stayed more than two weeks. Volunteering abroad is an experience anyone can have, especially because you can choose the time commitment and it allows exploring another country from a different perspective other than a tourist. You can connect better with the culture and its people. Now that I am writing this, I wished I kept in touch with people I met while I was there. I am longing to go back. There are many places I still want to explore in Costa Rica. 

¡Pura Vida!