Many people – friends, folks who have encountered my blog in a search, friends of friends – contact me when they are planning a trip to Nicaragua or other latin american countries asking for advice. This post attempts to summarize what I often tell people, and I’ll keep adding to it as I remember what I have told people in the past, and what I wish I had been told before my own trips! I will try to start with the most general travelling information and then become more specific to the area of Nicaragua that I know the best. Please feel free to add your own travelling advice as a comment; the more information, the more that future e can sift through and be better prepared for their own unique experience.
Read, read, read! And not just the guidebooks. If you are taking a spring break trip and staying in hostels, a guide book might be just fine. But if you are coming to live, volunteer for a few weeks or months, or want a deeper understanding of where you will be, I would recommend more memoirs and novels than guidebooks and Wikipedia.
Creative writing from a personal voice – whether written by a foreigner or a translated national author – can lend itself to a deeper visceral understanding of a country. In the application process for a Fulbright, I read many textbooks and academic papers about Nicaragua, but after arriving I found that snippets of the personal reflections of John Brentlinger in The Best of What We Are and Gioconda Belli’s The Country Under My Skin were what I drew on for a better understanding of the way Nicaraguans continue to live their historical experiences. And if you have the time, watching movies directed and produced in country is a fantastic way to get a pre-glimpse of a culture – although keep in mind that just like in Hollywood aspects of the culture may be greatly exaggerated for dramatic effect!
After you read everything you can find, tell yourself you don’t know anything. My way of saying, keep an open mind. It may be the most important piece of advice you always get, and is by far the hardest advice to follow. You can read everything you can find on the Nicaraguan Revolution or farming in Nicaragua, but you aren’t learning about what you will encounter. All you can do ahead of time is create a context to place your future experience in, and help speed your learning and acculturation process in country. When you arrive and discover the nuances and circumstances in the particular community you stay in, your previous reading will add layers of context and understanding to the personal stories you hear, but they won’t have revealed them to you ahead of time!
Try to understand how you like to travel, and treat yourself well. If you aren’t comfortable crashing on the floor of your college friend’s apartment for a weekend and always prefer to find a nearby hotel, then a homestay in a foreign country might not be the best plan for the first week of your trip. If you can’t stand waiting for a subway or the crowds on rush hour trains in your home town, than spending a little extra to set up private transportation in a foreign country might be worth it to you. Don’t expect that your comfort levels will all of a sudden change because you are telling yourself it’s an adventure!
Talk to as many people as you can. That goes for before and during your trip. I am always happy to talk about my experiences in Nicaragua to folks who are hoping to come. Once you are in country, don’t be shy about talking! You can and should be wary of putting too much confidence in people you just meet, but there is a huge difference between having a conversation with a woman at the market and getting into a cab with her. Think about how an upbeat, short conversation with the cashier at a store can change your whole shopping experience there – the same can be true of a day trip in a foreign city. Relax a little and don’t be afraid to laugh at yourself as you make mistakes in Spanish! Most folks are very encouraging and delighted that you are learning their language.
Expect to be different, expect to be a novelty! You may have spent months preparing for your trip, researching the history, culture, food, and climate of where you are going so you feel prepared to not make unrealistic judgements or assumptions. But it’s almost guaranteed that the people you will meet have not spent months reading up and educating themselves on your culture! If you have chosen to travel and volunteer with an organization that has a well established history of working with foreign volunteers, the leaders you work with should be familiar with your culture and be respectful and understanding of things you may struggle with. But that may not extend to the other people you encounter – the children you tutor, the farmers you visit, and the families you visit may have not expected to have a foreigner walk into their house, and may be surprised and curious. Of course they will ask you lots of questions. Think about what kinds of short anecdotes about your family or your town you would like to tell to illustrate who you are and where you come from, and try to enjoy the attention.
Ask for References for Volunteer Organizations. Unless you have personally met the people you will be working with, or know several people who have volunteered with them recently, I always recommend asking for a reference to speak with someone who has volunteered in the past. Even if you find the project through a network that is well-known (like WWOOF, or Idealist), the networking organization often doesn’t have a personal relationship with all the projects, and even if they did couldn’t guarantee that you will agree with their philosophy or work ethic on the ground.
What to Take: Everyone asks me what they should take. The guidebooks for the area you are going to should be the best reference, make sure the edition you have is recent. Here are a few things I tell people who are coming to the pacific or northern Nicaraguan regions:
- Don’t over pack Pharmaceuticals. In my experience, over the counter drugs such as immodium, aspirin, even vitamin C are easy to find and abundant (sometimes it feels like there is a pharmacy on every corner of León!). A small amount of what you would want on hand is a good idea, but you don’t have to bring a year’s worth of painkillers because you know you use it for migraines. Do bring sufficient amounts of any prescription medications, and any alternative supplements you want. My staples that I carry with me from the states are non-refridgerated Acidophilus (I take them on a regular basis), zinc and echinacea for colds, and activated charcoal (a natural anti-diarrheal that is gentler on your intestines than immodium). I have also met travelers who recommend different natural digestive aids such as grapefruit seed extract and bentonite clay that may be difficult to find outside the US.
- For Women Only. You are probably already aware that in Latin America most women use rags or disposable menstrual pads, and you shouldn’t expect to find tampons in the corner drugstores. Personally, I highly recommend the diva cup or moon cup. It may take some courage and extra care with hygiene (which can only be good anyway), but it gives me a lot of freedom. It has also, on several occasions, been an interesting conversation piece that has helped me to understand Nicaraguan women’s views of their bodies!
- Clothing. In my experience, Nicaraguans care a lot about their appearance and dress very nicely. That doesn’t mean formal attire, but it does mean clean, un-stained well fitting clothing. Clean jeans and nice T-shirts, when they fit you well and are not cut offs or torn (unless of course they are the pre-torn designer jeans) are ubiquitous clothes that are acceptable on nearly every occasion. Shorts are not often worn in public, although in the cities young girls and women will wear very short tight shorts to go out dancing at the clubs. Some women in Evangelical or other religious groups do not wear pants either, but I have never met anyone who was offended by me wearing pants. For farm work and any outdoor activities, I generally choose to cover up to protect myself from the sun with long jeans or light pants, a t-shirt, and light cotton button down blouse with long sleeves. If you are doing home stays or travelling in the rural areas, you will very much appreciate having some bathing clothes! (Different from a bathing suit). Bathing often takes place outside, sometimes next to the well where you draw buckets of water to then scoop over your head, or sometimes behind a screen made of a sheet, sticks, or plastic. I have seen women and men washing themselves out in the open, soaping both themselves and the clothes they are wearing before going inside to change and hanging their laundry out afterward. Don’t expect privacy, and you will be happy you remembered those plastic flip flops, quick drying shorts and t-shirt or tank top to shower in.
- Small gifts. It’s nice to have some small things to leave behind as thank you’s when you travel. Don’t spend lots of time stressing about what would improve the quality of life for your homestay family or have a big impact – there’s no way to know that, and it’s not expected. The organization you work for may know if there are certain things that would be appropriate, but in general any gesture will be appreciated. Some of my favorite things to carry around that have been fun to give away are: small packs of crayons or colored chalk for kids, printed photos of my family to show, postcards of my town to leave behind, frisbees, wall calendars with interesting pictures, jams or hard candies (nothing that can spoil or melt), chinese puzzles or “get the ball in the holes”-type games, “I heart NY etc.” type mugs, kitchen towels and good sturdy reusable cloth shopping bags (the ones that Whole Foods sells are super popular – I’ve had friends request I bring them back!). Unless you know the family already and have spent some time with them or are given a list from your organization, try to avoid bringing a bag of dry rice or something that could potentially be interpreted as “I know you’re poor and need charity.” If you aren’t sure exactly what you will encounter, keep it light and fun and small.