SYRV Adventure IX in Nicaragua

Late August 2011, I traveled to Nicaragua to volunteer with SYRV, an organization dedicated to providing clean water for the rural residents of Nicaragua. The global water crisis is more serious than I knew and this trip was an eye-opening experience. Many ask how I ended up volunteering in Nicaragua. And it goes a lil' sumthin' like theeeeeeees...
After the 2011 earthquake in Japan, I yearned to visit and volunteer in the devastated areas. I contacted a volunteer group that did not return my call however, after perusing, I came across an article featuring Keala Kennelly, who volunteered with SYRV, in Nicaragua. Further research uncovered that clean water was a major issue in Nicaragua (as well as other Central America countries), and many of the citizens suffered from ailments such as kidney disease, associated with drinking tainted water. Nicaragua does not have sophisticated sewage, sanitation, water, or electrical infrastructures and so, many of the families' and schools' water wells are contaminated with E. Coli and other bacteria. Nicaraguans who choose to purchase clean water, spend up to 1/3 of their family's income, truly a far cry from drinking water straight from the tap, here in Hawaii.

I researched SYRV and discovered that they not only donate and distribute water filters for the communities in need, SYRV's adventures include interacting with the kids and families at schools, orphanages, and at the notorious "dump yards" where the government places families on welfare; and SYRV is dedicated to making each of the adventures an experience for the traveler. If you have a special skill or passion that you would like to share (eg: medicine or health care, art, musical skills, working with kids, architecture, Information Technology), SYRV allows you to use your skills.

I contacted the founder and Executive Director of SYRV, Monique Evans, and she notified me that she planned to move forward with the adventure however, needed more people to be on board. After a few weeks, Monique verified that the adventure was a go and my journey began. A few weeks prior to the trip, we began fund-raising. Those who donate $30, purchase a water filter for a family and those who donate less, provide food for the families in the dump villages and sustain the community center in Jiquilillo. Monique also asked that we bring a duffel bag or suitcase full of donations for the kids and families in the dump yard. I brought toys, although it would have been better if I brought some of my old clothes as well. Oh well, next time. =)

Monique Evans, Jackie Messinger, and I met at the Houston airport, and when we landed in Managua, we headed straight to a beach lodge in Jiquilillo called Monty's Surf Camp, where we would spend the first 3 nights. Denlin Doty, Jud Birza, Jordan Cohen, and Diane Nguyen were expected the following evening. It was a 3 hour drive from Managua to Jiquilillo, and we made numerous stops at Esso gas stations in search of the notorious fried chicken that Monique raved about. Unfortunately, at 10PM, they no longer fry chicken, but for the record, a few days later we attained a few of said, fried chicken, and it was devine. Chickens in Nicaragua, apparently, aren't fed the hormones and crap that they are fed in the U.S. and as a result, the chicken was tender and tasted pure. That evening, we patronized each of the Esso gas stations and purchased Tona beers and Flor De Cana rum, which would be staple for the following 2 weeks.

The following day, we met with some of the locals who would inform us about those who had and those who needed water filters. Later that afternoon, we walked through the neighborhood to speak with the families, to make sure that those who received water filters, in the past, were using them properly. We discovered that a few of the families were not and a re-instruction was in order. It's great to see that SYRV not only distributes the filters but, is active in making sure the filters are used properly.

The neighborhood was very intimate. The saying, "a stone's throw away," would be overkill in describing how close each of the neighbors were, to each other. Properties were close enough that you could probably hear your neighbor whispering and/or doing other unmentionables. Most of the residences were one room units, cobbled together with plastic, 2x4s, corrugated steel, cardboard, and palm tree leaves. Kitchens and shower units (with no running water) were outdoors and I don't recall seeing outhouses. It was hard to imagine a family of 4 ~ 10 living in a single room, like that. Clothes hung on string tied between trees and dogs roamed the neighborhood, trespassing on properties. Children didn't have modern gaming technology or dolls or bikes or anything like we have in the states but, made use of materials such as cardboard and bottle caps to fashion a checkerboard. They knew of no other lifestyle. They weren't distracted. They were happy. They were beautiful.

That evening, Denlin, Diane, Jud, and Jordan arrived.

The next morning we drove around and tested the water in a few of the wells for contamination and salinity and discovered that all were contaminated. Later that afternoon, we sped out to the estuary to visit the turtle sanctuary and swim. The estuary was amazing, and while we putted around, under the mangroves, we shared stories of crocodiles and alligators (which supposedly lurked in the estuary) and sharks.

While swimming at the estuary, I met a little guy, Charles. I didn't understand his Spanish and he didn't understand my English but, we managed to gesture-communicate and ended up challenging each other to a mangrove seed, rock, and seashell throwing contest. In the process, I nearly forgot about lunch as my peers were calling me to eat. We ended up treating him to lunch and throwing more seeds, rocks, and shells, in the water. As with many of the other wonderful children I would meet during the trip, I calculated if it would be possible to smuggle Charles to Hawaii in my surfboard bag, so that we could have many more throwing contests.

Another lil' fella who stopped by with his little sister, as we combed the estuary, was Antonio. On a previous adventure, the SYRV adventurists were volunteering and a curious Antonio stopped, put his things down, and without saying a word, started helping. The adventurists were taken aback by Antonio's warmth, kindness, and inability to frown and to this day, each time she returns, Monique checks in on him. Antonio's familial story is a sad one but, he maintains positivity and I hope good things will come to him.

The following day we visited an orphanage where one of the adventurists, Denlin Doty, provided a Kid Power presentation. I will label this day, "The day Denlin almost brought me to tears." I was told that a few of the kids found their way to the orphanage, post volcanic and earthquake activities that decimated their towns. Some of them walked far distances and upon arrival were covered in mud and soot and lost all of their family members - truly a sad story but, they are well cared for at this establishment. As I watched Denlin speak with passion, thought about what the kids went through, thought about how fortunate I was to have all the things I have and had in my life, and thought about the gift of compassion, I was inundated with a potpourri of emotions that upon reflection, was very introspective and positive. After the presentation, we spent some time coloring and talking with the kids. As we were leaving, they had no hesitation in hugging each and every one of us and it was definitely a moment when I got a little choked up. How can someone have so little yet, have so much?

That evening I surfed in front of our beach lodge, and to be honest, received some good ol' fashion surf beatings. What I didn't realize that up and down the coast, the villagers were watching the "gringo" surf. After speaking with Elizabeth, a yoga instructor and volunteer who was staying at the beach lodge, it seems the villagers were impressed and didn't see the beatings. *whew* Normally, the surf fronting Monty's Surf Camp is mushy, doesn't barrel, and is, in my humble opinion, perfect for beginning longboarders/bodyboarders but, a large swell in the Pacific caused unusual surf conditions.

The beautiful Nicaraguan sunset that evening...

The following morning, we awoke to a beautiful, clear, blue sky and a Nicaraguan breakfast consisting of fresh eggs, veggies, fruits, and seafood. If you go on a SYRV Adventure for the food alone, you'll definitely be happy. Denlin was so stoked, she put on her best Breakfast Pirate impersonation.

After breakfast, we traveled a few minutes to a local school where Luis and Denlin spoke about trash and how it affects the environment. Jerry, a local philanthropist, started off with introductions and asked the kids how they greeted Americans. The kids response? "YO!" Classic! Again, the kids were not afraid to give a round of hugs to the gringos and I was amazed at their warmth and positivity.

That afternoon, we visited a "dump village" in Chinandega, an hour drive from Jiquilillo. The Nicaraguan government places those on welfare next to dumps where they rummage for food, shelter, clothing, and other possessions. This experience would provide many mixed emotions for the adventurists, including myself. It was here that I understood that a human being can be deprived of all worldly possessions and dignity and yet, still smile. I was angry at myself and the world for all of our wasteful and fruitless behaviors. I was sad about the conditions. I was confused about why people were subjected to this. I was scared for those who met with the gangs of the dump villages. I was happy knowing that no matter what, if a person wills it, he or she can't be deprived of hope.

After serving lunch and donating our old clothes, we said our goodbyes and rode on the back of a flatbed pickup, out of the village. As we were driving out, I took off my shoes and noticed a man approaching the truck, who was not wearing a pair of socks. I looked at my socks that I had worn for about an hour. They weren't exactly "clean" according to our standards but, were probably worth something to this elderly man. I quickly rolled them up and as the truck passed him, I reached out and gestured to him to take my socks. He obliged and smiled as we drove away. I imagined myself giving away every single article of clothing and all of the belongings I had and eventually explaining to the TSA, at the airport, why I was standing in the x-ray line, naked. I shook that thought and vowed to keep at least a pair of trousers. As we continued on the same unpaved, bumpy, dusty, and trash-laden road, a gang of teenagers jumped on the back of the truck. As I looked into the eyes of each of the teenagers, I knew they were individuals hardened by their environment and were living primarily, in survivor mode. The driver stopped the truck, got out, toting his gun, and told the kids to step away. One by one, the kids slowly stepped off the truck, eying the driver and his gun. As we drove away, the kids continued to stare at us with no expression except that of need. I wondered what would ultimately become of these individuals. It was painful to watch.

On our way back to Jiquilillo, we stopped by a supermarket and after checkout, I watched as a little girl asked her mom for ice cream. I didn't understand their Spanish but, realized that her mom was explaining to her that they didn't have enough money. She looked saddened and as Monique stepped up to the ice cream stand, I offered to buy both of them, a cone each. The little girl instantly lit up and I will never forget the look on her face as she reached up to grab her ice cream cone. I think Monique was stoked too, for her free ice cream. =) We hopped back on the truck for our one hour journey back to our beach lodge in Jiquilillo, and on the way back, it began to storm. Everyone was delighted. We considered it a blessing - a nice and refreshing shower after spending most of the day under the hot sun. Tony offered swigs of his Flor De Cana and we joked, laughed, sang, and talked story the entire drive back. As we approached our hostel, we picked up a few locals who looked to have just gotten off of work. They were grateful and we chatted with them until it was their time to jump off. We later learned that the woman Denlin was chatting with, had 14 children. I'm not one to push my opinions and ideals upon anyone and realize that having as many children as you can possibly handle is something of value in Nicaragua but, there is something to be said about overpopulation being the fundamental cause of many of the world's strifes.

After a very intense day, we were glad to wind down with a beautiful sunset, great food, and wonderful conversation.

...and of course, shenanigans. C'mon, you didn't think we were a bunch of stiffies, right? Right?!

The following morning we woke up early to drive 3 hours to a small town called Gigante. We arrived at another surf camp, Camino De San Gigante. The setup was ingenious! Our rooms were upstairs; workers' quarters were downstairs, dorm room style; the restrooms and showers were downstairs, next to the dormrooms; and the beach was steps away from the bar/restaurant.

We each settled into our rooms and feeling the need to get wet, I took my board out for a few playful beachbreak sets. It was nothing spectacular but, at least I wet my gills.

That evening, like all evenings, we had great food and drinks, and talked the night away sharing our stories from our respective "homes" and also our feelings about the trip, thus far. I crashed out to the calming sound of the shorebreak and pitter patter of raindrops on the tin roof, during the early hours of the morning.

The next day, Dave Sasson, a friend of Monique's, joined us as we rallied to a nearby school to speak with the kids about trash and how it affects the environment, and donate water filters to the families. Dave is interested in giving back to the community he lives in and wanted to see what SYRV does. At the school, Denlin, once again, led the charge with Mateo, a Nicaraguan transplant from California, and after she presented, we cleaned up the school yard. As I walked around with a garbage bag, encouraging the kids to pick up the trash and put it in the bag, many of the kids, at first, didn't understand that a wrapper, bottle cap, lollipop stick, or trash, was trash. They had become so accustomed to throwing their trash on the ground that they didn't know what trash was. After the schoolyard was cleaned, we distributed the toys, snacks, and refreshments to the kids, and boy, were they stoked! After that, it was time for the adults. We distributed 25 water filters to the families, all of who were stoked to have access to clean water.

Late afternoon, Dave and I surfed small shorebreak right in front of Camino De San Gigante, and it was fun. I told him about my extra days in Nicaragua, after the adventure was done and asked him if he had any suggestions on where to stay. He immediately offered his couch to me and I was stoked! Aloha does exist in more places than Hawaii!

That evening, we had a wonderful dinner at La Gaviotas and like all of the Nicaraguan meals I had, we had fresh and delicious seafood. We strolled the beach back to Camino De San Gigante, hung out for a bit, and retired for the evening.

The following day was a free day and we planned to catch a bus to San Juan Del Sur, at noon. Dave departed for his home at Rancho Santana and I told him that I would call him once I figured out my plans, post-adventure. For the morning, I opted to hang out at our hostel while a few of the others chartered a boat to go fishing. When they returned, they had 1 mahimahi and 2 small tuna. The captain prepared the fish and we had sashimi and ceviche, instantly. Jordan had expressed, during the first few days, that he wanted to go fishing and eat fresh sashimi, and he was stoked with the experience. Soon after, we made our way towards San Juan Del Sur.

The volunteering portion of the adventure was complete in Gigante and we were scheduled for some heavy yoga, rest, and relaxation in San Juan Del Sur. San Juan Del Sur is a thriving community and recently, developed into a port city where some of the major cruises dock. It was reminiscent of Lahaina, Maui and even had a "Pau Hana" restaurant.

That evening, we ventured up to Pelican Eyes to have a few drinks and enjoy the sunset, and later, we had dinner at Colibri. We stayed at Hotel Isabella and it was the first time we had hot showers (some of us barely showered, including myself) and air conditioning, in a few days. It was awesome to be in rural environments where showers, cleanliness, and distractions were minimal, and one had no choice but, to appreciate the creature comforts of home. On the same token, it was nice to return to the spoils of civilization.

The next day, we had a date with yoga and Playa Hermosa. It was my and Jordan's first time doing yoga, and we were treated to a wonderful setting with Nica Yoga at El Camino Del Sol. Yoga was pretty gnarly, especially for the beginners, but after I felt great and understood why many athletes and surfers include yoga in their workout regiments. At the end of our yoga session, we laid out and relaxed. I dozed off a few times and my neighbor, Diane Nguyen, told me later that she heard me snoring. I definitely got my money's worth.

In case anyone is interested, they are selling property at El Camino Del Sol and it looks to be a wonderful community. It is a 10 minute drive from the San Juan Del Sur port city, felt safe, peaceful, and is set in a very natural setting.

After yoga, we shipped off to Playa Hermosa to spend a few hours. I brought a board and unfortunately the tide and winds weren't cooperating. The swell had considerable size and most of the waves were stacking however, they were all close-outs. Never the less, the beach was a wonderful setting and everyone laid out, consumed fresh food, had a few Tonas, and got to know one another more, as if we hadn't already done so by this time. Jud spoke a little more about his adventures as a contestant and winner of Survivor Nicaragua, and it was only then that I really understood the magnitude of his involvement and accomplishments on the show. Sorry Jud, I didn't watch it! His stories were totally classic and he's a truly cool and humble cat. Diane and Jordan also spoke about their preparation for and concerns about the California Bar exam, prior to traveling. I know that whatever the outcome, they will do well.

That evening, we were all pretty tired and Jackie, Diane, Jordan, and I mustered the strength to eat at Bambu, on the beach. The food was devine. Content, we hobbled back to Hotel Isabella and on the way, stopped by Eskimo for ice cream.

The next day was the official last day of the adventure and we woke to the 6AM drumming of school children in a parade. Upon waking up, I remember thinking, "how obnoxious is that??!!" and as I walked outside to see what the commotion was about, it was the children and I thought, "how wonderful! Carry on, kids!" Times like these, I am glad I spend some time thinking before I speak. After all, I've had my foot in my mouth, countless times.

Once again we made our way up to El Camino Del Sol for a 9:30AM yoga session. We had a wonderful time, I fell asleep and dreamed that a baby elephant wearing a bellhop cap was dispensing cash from the local ATM (Yes. I did.), and post-yoga, realizing that the truck wouldn't start, we hitchhiked back to our hotel. People stop frequently for hitchhikers in Nicaragua, another indication that Aloha does exist in other countries!

That afternoon, Denlin, Jud, Jordan, and Diane moved to a cheaper hostel. They still had a few more weeks of traveling in South America and understandably so, they would need to ration their cheddar. Monique, Jackie, and I headed out for our final lunch before Jackie's departure to Managua that evening. We shared some serious and heartfelt stories about one another, including the death of family members, other volunteer endeavors, and relationships, and had a ton of laughs. It was great to be with others who weren't afraid to be honest, self-deprecating, transparent, and who were truly, genuine individuals. In this day and age where Facebook, blogs, texting, and Twitter heighten narcissism and the need to overcompensate (as well as offer positive outlets), it was wonderful to have met and interacted, face to face, with people who had very little to hide.

After our meal, we caught a cab to Pelican Eyes to check out the pools and views of San Juan Del Sur and Jackie left, late afternoon.

Early, the following morning, Monique left for Managua and just like that I was alone. I was ecstatic to be traveling to Rancho Santana that afternoon, to hang out with my new friend, Dave, and surf some impeccable waves but, I was missing my new friends, who I shared many wonderful experiences with.

I decided to step out and venture around the boardwalk. I ran into Jordan and Diane and we rooted on the beach to watch the surfers in the bay. It was great to see them, one last time before they departed for Brazil. We chatted and laughed about food (one of Jordan's passions), surfing, my plans for the next few days in Nicaragua, and more. (The rest of my non-SYRV Nicaraguan adventure will follow in another blog.)

I returned to my hotel room at Hotel Isabella and as a sat at the foot of my bed, AC humming and people conversing on the street, I reflected. I smiled knowing that life would continue to offer me these experiences and that I'd get to see my new homies once again. In the 9 days prior, I had whipped through a tornado of emotions and experiences; laughed so hard my abs ached for days; connected on a rare level, with people I had not known before; reinstated a much needed appreciation for life and all of the non-material things I have; learned about people who had nothing, yet had everything; and progressed as an individual. This trip, like surfing, in and of itself is not my passion, but certainly had all of the key elements.

I've been on one SYRV adventure and have plans to sign up for future adventures. For those of you who are curious, the volunteering is loaded on the front-end of the trip and towards the end of the trip, one is treated to less rural environments and the closest thing to "civilization". It is a wonderful transition and will leave you reeling with thoughts and introspection. The trips are not rigidly scheduled and Monique is willing to accommodate everyone's needs (within reason). I have been told that accommodations and locations may change in the future and to keep abreast of the schedules, refer to Some of the Surf Camps, hostels, and haciendas in Nicaragua don't have hot water; you may encounter bugs, bats, and the occasional crab will join you at the bar; and you will probably be dirty and sweaty most of the time, but IT IS SOOOOOO WORTH IT. You will forget all about those "little" things. So, set aside your ego and insecurities, go with open mind, grab tight to the handlebars of your emotions, and get ready for a ride that will entice your soul. Make Good Happen.


  1. Good stuff brutha. Sorry I couldn't make the sojourn with you this time but I know this experience was enhanced by the fact that you met a whole new group of awesome individuals. There are more journeys for us in the future.



Post a Comment

Popular Posts