A week working in Nicaragua: Lessons learned

By Caitlin Kelly


Have you ever been to a place with no electricity — or refrigeration or candles or kerosene lanterns?

No running water?

No postal service?

A place where ham radio or a transistor radio are the one reliable link to the rest of the world?

A place where the bus comes past twice a day, and a trip in it to the capital takes 24 hours — a 90-minute prop plane 12-seater flight?

We spent one night in Ayhua Tara, a village of 10 families in a part of the country called RAAN; an autonomous region of isolated villages near the northern border with Honduras. To get there meant traveling a washboard road of red dust so thick I wore a kerchief every day to keep my hair clean. (It worked, sort of.) The road was in the best shape it had been for a few years, freshly graded with gravel, but still had multiple dips probably several feet deep for most of our journey, slowing us and jolting us all.

We rode in a small van: a team of five people and all our backpacks and video and camera equipment and lots of cold water.

The families we visited live on land granted to them as members of the Miskitu people. They live in wooden houses high atop stilts, their animals snoozing beneath and around them in the shade — a muddy piglet, a snoozing dog, a hen and and her tiny chicks, a goat or two.

We were welcomed as family. We brought our own food, which they cooked in the dark — with one small boy holding up a flashlight as they cooked on their small clay woodstove, waist-high at the back of the large kitchen.

A few moments:

We met new animals, like the coatimundi chained up at a Bilwi restaurant where we ate lunch one day. Or the turkey at Linda’s house who followed us everywhere, desperately showing off his fluffed-up feathers. And the pavon, an endangered species of birdย  — with a brilliant lemon-yellow beak and what looks like a very bad black perm — that perched on the wall over the stove while Linda was cooking.

The pavon.
The pavon.

When traveling in hot/dusty places bring plenty of clean cotton bandanas: use as a napkin, towel, mouth-covering, (useful when we visited a live volcano in Managua and the foul steam started to hurt out throats), neck gaiter, blindfold, pillow cover, carry-sack, head covering, neck covering (soaked in cold water as often as possible) — and a bit of style!


Lifesavers are the best! My bag of mint Lifesaver candies were the hit of the week when we were all feeling weary/hungry/thirsty/tired — offering a portable bit of sweet, saliva-producing relief.


Kindness and generosity know no language. We stayed in a home where no one spoke much Spanish, only Miskitu. We worked through an interpreter, but their welcome to a bunch of strangers was warm and touching. We walked through the forest one morning with Linda, her mother-in-law and grand-daughter.

Jennifer was handed tiny orchids and some beans by Exelia, the little girl, while Ailita, 69, wearing rubber boots and a torn, repaired man’s shirt, gestured to me to wipe down my bare legs and arms in case I’d brushed against something noxious.

Water is heavy. Many people here carry buckets of it back and forth every day, multiple times, from a well or river. When you see a tiny child of four or five, (their growth stunted by chronic malnutrition, so they might well be seven or eight), with a filled plastic bucket in his head or in her arms, straining, you’ll never leave a tap running again.

Accessing water takes time and physical energy that might be better used for earning income or being with your family. When you need water in a place like this for any purpose, and you need to get it from a well, that means six cranks of the wheel to get enough to fill a small-ish cup. I watched a youngl girl straining just to reach and turn the wheel; I’m a strong adult and it still took energy — in 98 degree heat, direct sun and humidity.

Then you have to fill an entire bucket, if only for your own use. Now add the needs for cooking, bathing and cleaning clothes for a family of six or more who work in muddy fields and hot sun all day.

Traveling pleasantly and efficiently for a week in a multi-cultural, multi-lingual, multi-national team — two Americans, two Canadians, a Mexican and three Nicaraguans, (driver, interpreter and community contact), means being flexible, calm, gentle and fun to be around. I had met Alanna, the communications director, in New York but none of us had met before or worked together until we raced off together on our very first day.

Our team! Jennifer Barbour; blogger; Alanna Imbach; media director; me; Rodrigo Cruz, photographer
Our team! Jennifer Barbour; blogger; Alanna Imbach; media director; me; Rodrigo Cruz, photographer

I was happily surprised to see how quickly and easily we fell into a rhythm, sharing water, sunscreen, Lifesavers, nuts. Maybe because we’re all professionals. Maybe because we’d all traveled, and worked, in fairly tough conditions before. Even pushing the dust-encrusted van to get it started every time wasn’t a big deal as long as we were still laughing about it. I heard no whining, despite hot, 10+ hour workdays starting at 8:00 a.m. or earlier.

Focus is energizing. We never touched, or needed to touch, money: our week was sleep, work, eat, repeat. We wasted no time on shopping, laundry or cooking. If we wanted to Skype with our loved ones, we did so at 6:00 a.m., since they were all two hours ahead in time zone.

Passion is galvanizing. Journalism is a desperate business these days, rife with insecurity and peacocking, whining and competitiveness. To spend a week with a team of smart, warm people passionate about social justice, and wise in its folkways, was deeply inspiring to me.

Pre-industrial life has a rhythm we rarely, if ever, live. When it is dark by 6:15 and there is no light beyond a headlamp or flashlight, and your day has been hot and physically demanding, you go to sleep early because you’ll rise before, or with the sun. The soothing chatter of the transistor radio hung on a nail, or the indignant gobbling of a turkey are the sounds lulling you to sleep.

When you walk through the field to weed your crops, why wear a watch? The work itself will tell you when you are finished.

I read Facebook and Twitter, posting when we had Internet access — freshly struck by how many of our “conversations” are purely trivial. That was instructive.

There is beauty in simplicity. I will not romanticize poverty. But I appreciated the smooth, wide wooden boards of Linda’s scrubbed, swept hardwood floor beneath my feet, the children’s tiny stuffed animals hung from nails (no shelves), a bright yellow flower growing in a blue plastic tub, the region’s purple, turquoise, emerald green and mustard yellow painted houses.

In a poor country, concrete and glass are luxury materials. In a week of travel through several RAAN villages and Bilwi, I saw perhaps six houses with glazed windows and few homes made of concrete, let alone two-story ones. Ironically, the most pristine, spotless, freshly-painted building I saw anywhere — new red metal roof, fresh banana yellow walls — was a large church.

Our host, Linda Felix, paddling her canoe
Our host, Linda Felix, paddling her canoe

We all work. We all struggle. Watching Linda and Ailita head off to work in a dugout canoe, whacking their way through the fields with a machete, claiming the hard-won prizes of enormous white squash and sun-warmed cucumber, felt familiar, even though all of it was new to me.

Work is work.

Fear of economic loss — while theirs is truly dire, and means not even lighting a cooking fire in the worst months because there is no food to prepare — is not unique to the beleaguered American or European middle class.

The Mexican freelance photographer with us told me he’s waited up to five months to see his invoices processed. That, too, was familiar.

I spoke for an hour, in Spanish, to a woman whose 25 year old sister stopped speaking for 18 months. She sold two cows and went to a curandero, a traditional healer, whose ministrations didn’t help. Then they went to a psychologist in Bilwi, then to a psychiatrist in Managua; health care is free, but the cost of distant travel hammered their ever-fragile finances.

“If you want to eat,” she finally said, “you have to work.”

Managing your emotions — and the roller-coaster of beauty/squalor — is…interesting. It was a week of truly dire poverty, with many people living on $1/day with six or eight children in a one-room wooden shack with a rusted, patched corrugated tin roof or walls; Haiti is the only nation in this part of the world poorer than Nicaragua.

You want to cry, but you don’t. It will all be there the next day as well and you’re there to observe and interview, not indulge your feelings and reactions.

Then you stare into the deepest, darkest silent sky-full of stars and want to weep at its beauty, lost once you return to the town filled with light and noise.

A shy, tiny girl hands you an orchid as you tramp through a field of pumpkins with her. Another little girl lets you comb her hair into a ponytail.

You crawl into a narrow, muddy, tippy dugout canoe and pray you don’t tip out into the river.

You sleep under a mosquito net and hope it works; malaria is no joke and the region you’re in is the country’s worst for it.

Fear, joy, awe, anxiety, exhaustion, guilt, inspiration, confusion.

Yes to all of these, and more.

Trust is key. Trust that the van will start. That the water won’t make you sick. That those weird itchy bites on your ankles are nothing, really. That the food is safe to eat. That the very small plane won’t crash.


That your outraged bowels will calm down soon. That all those long, hot tiring days filling our hearts and heads and notebooks and cameras have gathered valuable useful insights.

That your team is as smart, funny and professional as they appeared to be. That you won’t want to tear each others’ throats out after a super-intense week. (We didn’t, nor did we want to.)

Have you been to a place that changed how you see your world?

Tell us….

51 thoughts on “A week working in Nicaragua: Lessons learned

      1. Exhaustion is always a major pain.

        But, I think going without showers is always my biggest challenge. Haven’t done the mosquito in Malaria, or Yellow Fever areas …. that might bother me more. But, I still love my showers!

        Glad you had a lot of fun.


      2. Fortunately, I was able to shower (or dump a bucket of water!) once or twice a day as needed. I had to be very aggressive sometimes in racing to the nearest well (very little time for our own needs) and just soaping up. We also used wet-wipes and stuff like that…

        We spent our nights in a hotel (one night in the village) and it had showers.

      3. I’ve interviewed soldiers — and it’s GROSS what they/you have had to endure.

        It would have been a much different (and much less pleasant) experience without the ability to get clean — esp. sharing a small van with six people. ๐Ÿ™‚

      4. I hope you need a short story.

        “Sarge? Wait up?”

        I yell back over my shoulder, “It will have to wait about 90 seconds.” The key makes that sound that tells you it is a government lock as it turns. The door opens, I jump in grab my shower gear, and laundry soap. Pull a laundry bag from the top of my ruck sack.

        Slide on my shower shoes, lock the door and turn to private Johansen.

        “Make it quick.”

        “Well, I just wanted to know why you are always the first in the showers and washing clothes when we get back in?”

        “‘Cause, I hate to stink.”

        Names have been changed to protect the guilty ….


    1. It was.

      I am very eager to do another, as is Jennifer. This is the sort of work that is actually worth doing…not just chasing income. I was paid for this work, but it was deeply satisfying and I believe wholeheartedly in its value. So much of what I produce now is just…money-making.

  1. Sounds like a life-changing trip! I cannot fathom the heat, never mind the labor and poverty. Kudos to you for doing something I wouldn’t dream of. You relate the kindnesses so well. And I just loved that bird with the bad black perm!

    1. It was.

      All of it was of a piece, if that makes sense. The heat just meant sweating a lot (I had plenty of clean clothes to change into) and it cooled off deliciously every afternoon at 4pm.

      The labor and poverty are how they live — which is how you can see the powerful impact of getting them clean/accessible water. We met a woman who once lost 4 hrs (!) every day gathering water from the river. Now she has a well.

      The pavon was a hoot!

  2. There are two places that have really changed how I look at the world. The first was when I went to Israel the summer before senior year of high school. It was such a fantastic trip, connecting with a bunch of total strangers as well as with the homeland of my people. I came back so changed I couldn’t read magazines for a while because they all seemed too trivial compared to what I’d been through.
    The second is going to college and attending classes. Ohio State has expanded my worldview and changed me for the better. It’s also been a huge boost to my career and my writing, and I’m so glad I was able to come here.

      1. Allow yourself time to process it; and when you’re there take a LOT of photos and notes! Every little detail is something you will very quickly forget but adds up to a tapestry…e.g. one morning in the village the transistor radio was playing Christian hymns in Miskitu. I wrote that down as it happened.

      2. Just take a large notebook and a lot of pens. Don’t put yourself under the pressure of making sense of everything so quickly (i.e. for public consumption, which a blog is.) Just PAY ATTENTION.

    1. Great point.

      Although I blog fairly often on issues of social justice, I had never done a project this intensely focused, nor in so poor a place; I was paid for my work, but I was so deeply honored to be a part of this…it is really important work and we saw it firsthand, and how it changes lives. That’s the sort of story I live to tell! The whole team was like this; the media director, Alanna — built a school (!) in Rwanda, raising $700,000. I feel like a moron compared to people like her.

      So much of what I write these days for pay is utterly banal. It pays bills, but I feel little personal passion or pride in it.

      My Spanish is good; I worked in it most of the week (but also had an interpreter to make sure I did not miss nuances); in Miskitu, I needed a translator!

  3. this is an amazing piece, catilin, about an amazing journey. not just to nicaragua, but within yourself, that is very clear from your writing. i am in awe of the people, their resilience, and their refusal to give up. one of my goals is to work on a human aid project somewhere, be it domestic or foreign, and to help in whatever way i can. your article has inspired me to actively seek out this opportunity, sooner, rather than later. )

    1. Thanks! When I arrived back in Atlanta yesterday, (2 flights home from Managua to NYC) and started to tell Jose some of it (the first time we’d spoken in a week) I started crying. To catapult back into noisy, materialist USA after a place like that is one hell of a culture shock, even after only a week. I took a bath this morning and marveled at the ability to simply (or not) surround myself with clean water. Hot water!

      Jennifer and I hope to start a scholarship program for the at-risk teens that WaterAid is working with.

      I think you, of all people, would be terrific in that role. I have done few things in my life as challenging or satisfying; by Day Two, Jen and I were begging Alanna to send us somewhere else. I really hope that can happen.

      1. and i’m not surprised by your tears. the contrast is startling. when i was first divorced i rented a flat in a house with a young man, who had been a beekeeper in africa in the peace corps for the last 3 years. he was having a very hard time readjusting to life in the material world. your new offshoot project sounds like a wonderful idea, and i can see why you are hankering to go on and on. thanks for thinking that of me, i really hope to do some good in the world, beyond my own four walls.

      2. If I am this disoriented after a week…I am sure it would be very bizarre after three years. Having been friends with many expats over the years — and being one — I’ve heard this as well, that re-entry is often tougher, partly because no one here has any real idea what you have seen, heard and lived.

        There are trips one can take, volunteer things…not sure what they are like. Most of the Americans on our flights into Managua and back were college students or people doing charity projects like Habitat for Humanity. The people I worked with pointed out that these can be feel-good for first world participants — while robbing locals of paid jobs. Not good.

      3. yes, it must be quite an undertaking to be able to live with all of our excesses again once you’ve experienced something like that. i really have no desire to be a vacation/tourist helper, or to take a job from any local, just to go and truly help in some way where and when i am needed. i’ll know it when i see it, i feel the opportunity will present itself to me, and i’ll know it’s right to take it.

      4. It’s also depressing to come home to cranking out banality that separates ads in newspapers and magazines. That’s the bulk of what I do professionally and that’s an ongoing challenge I struggle with. I’m good at it, but bored to tears by its formulas and lack of depth.

  4. Amazing stories Caitlin! You definitely put so much of the trivial pieces of life in the 1st world in perspective. Thanks for sharing your stories with us.

    1. Thanks…

      I just drove along a paved road and took an elevator. Big deal, right? Yes, after a week like that one, with neither, except in Managua. You feel like an alien in your own culture. Which is, I think, a useful experience.

      1. Thanks for sharing this.

        It was interesting how much use I got on this trip from one bucket of water: washed and rinsed my (very short) hair and conditioned and rinsed; washed most of my body and used the water to rinse out my filthy muddy sneakers. In Africa, in my 20s, we got barely one mug of water a day with which to stay clean or brush our teeth and it was very hot and dusty there.

        It’s a very powerful exercise…but standing at a well in the heat of noon and having to crank every drop you need is even better…:-)

  5. Pingback: [BLOG] Some Tuesday links | A Bit More Detail

    1. NOT — repeat NOT!!! — a vacation. I appreciate the link, but this was a working trip, paid reporting and interviews, on behalf of WaterAid. In seven days there we had one NON working day.

  6. I love this post. I agree that trust is key. Reminding myself of this has helped me smile and take in some situations that, otherwise, may have caused some minor stress ๐Ÿ™‚ Sounds like a wonderful experience. Thanks for sharing!

  7. Beautiful post, Caitlin. To think of all your pre-trip jitters. I suppose it could have gone wrong, but I had a feeling you would have an amazing experience. Your lovely, kind, life-loving energy could only have brought about the same. And it sounds like you had a great team! Makes all the difference in the world. Thank you for sharing the details and images so vividly. So glad you did this!! xo

    1. Thanks! I was nervous as hell, that’s for sure….so many things could have gone wrong: illness, injury, not enjoying the team…But it went so smoothly it really surprised us all very pleasantly. I think having a shared passion for this work makes a big difference.

  8. I don’t even know where to begin. You covered so much in this blog post (love the bad perm on the black bird!) I enjoyed following the adventure this week, and I really learned so much from the twitter chat. I know it’s not going to save the water crisis, but I was impacted enough by the information I’ve learned from you and Jennifer that I have told my daughters they may only take baths every other day (unless they are gross, of course.) No reason to waste all that water just for them to play around.

    And yes, I’d say my trips to the Middle East, my trips to Europe, my time in the military in general changed my whole life.

  9. Pingback: Seven years of Broadside… | Broadside

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