Nicaragua. My first trip to the land of a thousand lakes occurred in 2012. At the time, Nicaragua was still years away from being on the New York Times “52 places” list. And while now, there are backpackers, retirees, and all-inclusive resorts, the Nicaragua that stole my heart is still very much removed from the tourism scene in the west.
To understand why, at 18 years old, I was traipsing through some of the most remote and lawless jungles in Central America, we first need to backtrack to 2011. I was working as a stewardess (basically a glorified cleaning lady) on a private yacht, sailing from the Caribbean through the Panama Canal, up into the Northern part of Costa Rica. The yacht set anchor for the night off the coast of Bahia Honda, Panama – a tiny island where I met a single father in a dugout canoe with two little girls who were looking to trade coconuts for fishing hooks. I talked to the girls, who told me they were super excited to be starting school.
I was curious as to why they were only just starting school as they looked older than the traditional age you or I would have started primary school. The girls told me there was a new underwater pipeline supplying their home island with clean water, so they no longer had to spend all day paddling to the mainland to collect water, allowing them the time to attend school. Access to water was something I had never really thought about, and I was shocked to discover that one in eight people don’t have access to clean water.
Genuinely horrified by this, I started researching the water crisis, purely out of my own nerdy fascination, and found that there were not many water companies working in remote communities, like the one I met the two young girls in. I thought this was bizarre because often that was where there was the most need. To make a long story short, I was determined to help bring access to clean water to communities that other companies had written off as too remote. And by “too remote” I mean places that take at least three days of hiking, horseback riding, and paddling in dugout canoes to get to from any sort of road access. Quintessential pith helmeted adventure coupled with attempts to build a more sustainable and just world.
But society is seductively good at telling us no - almost everyone around me told me I was too young, too female, and that I didn’t have the experience. All of which were correct. But sometimes you have to ignore the conventional wisdom and follow your gut. Perhaps due to my young age I had an overly-healthy dose of self-confidence and believed my non-profit idea was possible. I began working day and night to make my dream a reality. Hence, AquaAid International was born – AquaAid’s mission was simple: water for all, no exceptions. Since then we have provided nearly a thousand people with sustainable access to clean water by working with communities to design water filtration solutions with materials found around the village. We have also taught thousands of kids about the importance of water in the environment.
Now that makes it sound relatively easy. But as any of you who have been in the startup world know, an endeavor like this is no small feat. And this challenge was doubled in complexity by my own lack of experience and the fact that it was all going down in Nicaragua. A place that, according to the prevailing rhetoric in the USA, was a banana republic with loosely organized terrorist groups in some of the densest jungles in Central America and even entire “autonomous regions” where no one really knew what was going on. Clearly, I know how to pick a stable country to start a company in!
Any sensible person would skip over Nicaragua entirely and go to their far more developed neighbor to the south, Costa Rica. I, however, was naïve enough to rent a horse and voluntarily trek into a Sandinista occupied territory, yet old enough to know that what I was attempting to do was worth the risk. In these places, I found that what was actually happening on the ground was often the opposite of the prevailing stereotype. Communities are not their governments, and more often that not, the world is far less scary than the media makes it out to be. In Nicaragua, I found a warmth and community so kind that their generosity has yet to be replicated.
Being gifted a roasted chicken and homemade tortillas from Tia Victoria, hands down the most generous and best present of my life.
But let’s keep in mind that, at this point, I did not have any expeditionary or “explorer” experience. While I had a passport full of stamps, as privileged as it sounds, I had traveled in the comfort of the super-yacht I was working on. I’d never slept in a tent or rode a horse, and I hadn’t the slightest idea how to build a fire (that didn’t include turning a knob on a stove). I knew nothing about running a project or company in a developing country - I was 18 after all. I was immersed in a new and unfamiliar world where I could either let fear incapacitate me or do my best to exude a cool, calm, and collected façade, and put one foot in front of another to step out of my comfort zone into the great unknown. And I chose the latter.
Terrified and winging it…
From the capital of Managua, the journey to the village we were collaborating with, Karahola, took three days. One day was spent in an expedition truck bouncing around on roads with elephant sized potholes, 1.5 days were spent on horseback, 1/2 a day took place in a dugout canoe, all topped off with a final three-hour hike.
Given that I had no “roughing it” travel experience, I learned a lot in my first trip to Nicaragua. The first night outside of the capital, we stayed in a thatched hut divided in half: One half for humans, one half for horses – with an unfortunate placement of humans on the downhill half….use your imagination. That night I left my jeans hanging over my pack. The next morning, I awoke to this seemingly romantic notion of life on a remote farm with a symphony of roosters, and cows mooing, I slipped on my jeans and mounted my horse. As if the chafing was not going to already be enough, shortly after, I realized that fire ants had taken up residence in my jeans during the night, and I was about to start a 12-hour horseback ride with ants literally in my pants.
On my trips in Nicaragua I was completely in over my head and terrified the most of the time, but I never let the fear keep me from doing what I wanted to do. I had guns pointed at me, contracted unknown parasites that landed me in quarantine, had to bribe government officials, and was doing it all in my second language. The job I wanted required a fortitude I wasn’t sure I had, but I grew into it. …and did my best to wing it along the way. Because no matter how carefully you plan, you can never truly know where you are going. There are ups, downs, lefts, and rights, and full on circles with punctured tires. At times, there were things I loved, and at other time I faced situations that were jarringly uncomfortable.
En route to the village, there was a military camp. Simon (my dear friend and the man who introduced me to this world) always ensured me that the military would never bother foreign tourists. But there seemed a forced confidence in his words. In spite of his assurances, I knew that drunk, money-hungry young men with guns, and a young dirty-blonde American girl (presumably with cash) could lead to unfortunate events.
I had told my mom that the threat from the Nicaraguan military was overblown. But one night, after a series of fairly bizarre events involving punctured tyres and hitch-hiking a ride in a four-wheel drive full of quesillo (cheese) heading out of the jungle towards the nearest market, I was standing in a semi-developed village that sprung out of the lush jungle surrounding us.
View from the truck bed hitch-hiking out of the jungle.
This was the kind of place where there is a paved but pot-hill riddled road with are more cows and horses on the street than cars. A place where there is partial electricity, and an excess of cheap beer and prostitutes. We were only passing through to get the tyres repaired. But somehow, I ended up with a gun pointed at me by a drunk boy in an official looking uniform. He couldn’t have been more than 20. His fellow uniformed colleagues/comrades ravaged the contents of our four-wheel drive while the driver and other passengers were patted down with guns pointed. I felt my global optimism fading. I felt stupid. I felt like this could be the moment everyone had been warning me about and that I had naively brushed off.
In the beginning, I reveled in peoples astonishment surrounding my four years of escapades in Nicaragua and I felt brave for founding and running a company in such a challenging environment. But now the public’s astonishment made sense. They knew something that the naive 18 year old didn’t. I was a nervous as a bag of cats at a greyhound meet. My heart was beating out of my chest. What the hell was I doing here?!
I attempted to play it cool and decisively show my humanity, simultaneously wondering if I’d be shot by accident or on purpose. I spontaneously offered the man a cigarette, and this gesture almost instantly changed the mood. It was better than finding Willy Wonka’s Golden Ticket. And since then, I’ve always travelled with at least four packets of Marlboro’s.
What I value most about my time in Nicaragua was an appreciation for a level of genuine human connection, that I was unaware existed, and the importance of slowing down (although I would not internalize this lesson until some 5-10 years later). In the world I came from, it was almost a badge of honor to be overly busy. In Florida and NYC, my life felt superficial and frantic. Everything was a transaction. Every moment of everyday was scheduled. We want to be quicker, more efficient and more productive - a catch up with friends involved a quick coffee with each person discussing their busy life. Speed was rewarded by career advances, praise from peers, and even our own personal belief that we were doing something right. Value is generally measured on a physical scale, but culture opens a possibility for value to be determined beyond those constraints.
In Nicaragua, speed was not rewarded. Time slowed. Connection with each other and enjoyment of life was prioritized. Although the communities I lived with didn’t have much, most families were “campesinos,” meaning farmers with large families that lived on roughly two dollars a day. There was no running water, no electricity, and the “bathroom” was a latrine or a field on the other side of the house. In spite of the lack of material possessions, there was a joy I have yet to experience in the lives of those with ample material possessions.
The sound of a million insects and frogs filled the night, while roosters and babies heralded the breaking sun. Mornings began early with milking cows and household chores. I tried my hand at farm life, learning to milk cows for my own coffee.
We raised chickens that we would later roast, and grew our own beans. I wore dirty, sweat-drenched and mud spattered clothes with rubber boots, and I had never been happier. People smiled like I had never seen before. What happened in America? Why didn’t I have this happiness in my hometown? Evenings in the Southern Autonomous Region were spent playing baseball with the kids with bats made from tree limbs, or singing along to Vicente Fernandez on a staticky radio (think Frank Sinatra but Mexican Ranchera).
Evening baseball games.
After my first time to Nicaragua, I returned back to the USA and I got sick. Not just your run -of the- mill travelers diarrhea, more like in the hospital, quasi quarantine with doctors and nurses giving you every antibiotic under the sun in an attempt to stop the loss of fluids. Everyone wanted to know why I had subjected myself to the depths of Nicaragua’s jungles. It was so dangerous, and I was so young, shouldn’t I be in school?! My mother was worried about my health but also irritated about the situation I had gotten myself into. She thought she would teach me a lesson that would deter me from ever venturing somewhere I could contract a tropical neglected disease….The doctors needed a stool sample. An unsavory task that normally the nurses undertake. However, my mother insisted, that since I had gotten myself into this near death illness, no one would be taking my poop samples except for me. Mind you, I was as weak as a newborn giraffe trying to walk. I could barely bring myself to get out of the bed to give the sample, let alone hold myself up on the hospital floor to put it in a biohazard specimen jar. Comically, the poop scooping nor the disease deterred me from going back. In fact, to everyone’s dismay, I went back six times after the illness. Because if you go where others don’t, and spend time genuinely listening and feeling what is around you, magical things can happen.
Edited by Eliana Arian