And all thou touch and all thou see, is all thy life will ever be (Granada, Ometepe & San Juan, Nicaragua)

Published: September 1st 2010
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(Day 880 on the road)Let's start this blog with a guest paragraph written by my dear travel companion and friend Tino, giving us the definition of what we have termed "hiluxing", "hiluxen", or "to hilux":

To Hilux: Hitch-hiking at the most comfortable level, on the back of a massive and powerful Toyota Hilux pick-up truck ("A legendary workhorse - built for the toughest jobs"). A Hilux is commonly used here in Central America by the more wealthy part of the population for driving on the often dismal roads, but is also a feature of many of Asia's rough routes. In comparison to similar trucks, a Hilux is characterised by good safety-aspects (high sills at the load floor, relatively new cars), but more importantly it features all the comfort aspects the demanding hitch-hiker tends to look for these days (good views of the surrounding landscape from the elevated open back where one sits, enough space for backpacks, ability to wave to passing cars and children). Hitch-hiking with style, so to speak.

So, in short, we hiluxed (and occasionally bussed) down the western Nicaraguan coast a good bit, meeting all kinds of interesting people along the way. Our first stop after disappointing Managua was the amazing Masaya volcano, the most active volcano in the country, and certainly an impressive sight by any standard with its deep and smoking crater hole.

After a couple of days in the White Villages (Los Pueblos Blancas) and the Laguna de Apoyo, next up was the pretty colonial city of Granada. We had been warned how busy and overrun the city was supposed to be, but were all the more happy to find a cosy hostel with all the amenities where we were the only guests. The town held our attention for quite a bit, despite (or maybe because) its high level of gringofiedness.

The boat tour on Lake Nicaragua was nothing special, but the city with its brightly painted houses, its many grand churches and the variety of food on offer (think thin-crusted Italian pizza and pink dragon fruit ice cream, awesome) was well appreciated by us weary travellers. We weren't so happy however by the very misleading if not to say dishonest practice of understating the prices on their menus by an average of 26,5% (15% tax plus 10% service charge added afterwards). Not acceptable at all.

But Granada is also a city of contrasts, as a short stroll away from the picturesque city centre with its hip bistros and restaurants demonstrates forcefully. Gone are the beautifully restored colonial houses, in come the rotting wooden shacks that sleep a family of six in a single room. It is a stark reminder that in the second poorest country in Latin America 50%!o(MISSING)f all Nicaraguans live below the poverty line, in a country that boasts the highest per-capita debt of all nations worldwide. Not surprisingly, un- and underemployment stand at 50%!,(MISSING) and some volunteers we met told us that very few people in Nicaragua have any hope to ever get out of it.

I wonder if this feeling of hopelessness is the reason why the majority of the people here and in neighbouring countries seem to have no sense of investing or saving for the future. Hotels are literally milked as much as possible, with not a single dollar re-invested into the property, until it all falls apart. Once beautiful places are thus slowly rotting away all across the region.

A small hole in the roof? No need to fix it, let's just wait and see what happens. A few years down the line, the once small hole has evolved into a major issue. Of course there is no money to repair the whole roof, so nothing is done again, and the situation deteriorates even more (not so funny if you wake up in the middle of the night because the roof of your room is patchy). Countless times we have witnessed similar things. It really seems that no thought whatsoever is given about tomorrow. Make your money here and now, no need to think about the future.

For us, our next stop was the volcanic island of Ometepe, in the middle of Lake Nicaragua, the largest fresh-water lake in Central America, with Ometepe even being the largest fresh-water island in the world. With everything spread out considerably and transport thin and expensive, we were lucky to find a lovely and reasonably-priced hostel right by the water, from where we both explored the rest of the island (where I managed to break my second-smallest toe during a slippery hike - very painful!) and our books in the comfy hammocks in the hostels' garden.

It was also my first encounter with proper long-term volunteers on my trip. Costa Rica is the hotbed for volunteering (and more and more voluntourism), with Nicaragua not far behind, and I must say that I have pretty strong reservations against certain aspects of the whole volunteering thing. Whilst I certainly salute the people who sacrifice their own time for the greater good of people in need, I have never liked the whole concept from a macro-economic point of view. And talking to the many volunteers at our hostel on Ometepe only confirmed my feeling.

Think volunteering. Sounds pretty good. Bringing much-needed expertise and hands-on experience to developing countries, whilst asking for nothing in return. There is much criticism of volunteering of course (many focusing on the unwanted outside help, where the one being helped never really appreciates the imposed help, but also on the effectiveness and usefulness of unqualified volunteers), but I am thinking more along the macro-economic effects of volunteering:

A typical volunteer needs to pay between 1600 and 2000 US$ per month (no, that's not a typo) in order to volunteer here in Nicaragua or Costa Rica. In a country like Nicaragua, with immense un- and underemployment and an average wage of 326 US$ per month, 1800 US$ could employ five and a half local people for a whole month. Even if you take 1000 dollars to travel in Nicaragua for yourself (where the money still ends up in the local economy) and only donate the remaining 800 dollars, you could still pay the monthly wages of 2,5 locals.

Simply put, volunteering in a poor country takes away the much-needed jobs from the local economy and gives them to foreigners, who are not only willing to work for free, but are actually willing to pay huge amounts of money to work. Why employ someone for a job when some volunteers will do it for free, and even bring their own materials along? That is not to say that all volunteering is bad, by all means, but I feel that many of the people out there volunteering do not quite consider the overall true impact of their well-intended actions on the local economy.

Further, potential volunteers are regarded by the companies organising their placement as lucrative customers, and individual volunteering organisations are working hard to portray their respective opportunities as more meaningful, authentic and helping that the competition's programs. As this study by the University of Miami International Studies Journal puts it: "The idea that one must pay a certain price to help others is quite counterintuitive to the volunteer philosophy. Implied is the idea that those who can afford to pay high prices will come away with more valuable service experiences." Well said. Or maybe I got it all wrong, and doing something is still better that doing nothing at all (like myself)? I must look more into this interesting topic.

What made me really object to the volunteers we met on Ometepe however was their strong Christian affiliation. In effect, their objective was not so much to volunteer and to help the people here, but to "know God and to make Him known", as they explained to us (and as their shiny website proclaimed in colourful letters).

I have no problem with people believing whatever they choose to believe, but I do have a serious problem with active missioners who try to impose their believes on other people, especially when they are trying to manipulate and influence the often lesser educated and disillusioned people in developing countries. After all, I don't go around telling people that God simply doesn't exist, that they should finally wake up to the truth and that they should stop wasting their earned money and time on false ideas and hopes, but should rather spend it on education for their children. There is a good reason why these people don't try to convert people in Western societies but focus on developing countries. "Finding God amid the garbage"? "Travel to South Africa to introduce soccer fans to Jesus"? "Evangelism - Training - Mercy Ministries"? What ever happened to "To each their own"? And all thou touch and all thou see, is all thy life will ever be...

Two other volunteers from a different organisation, who had just arrived a few weeks ago for their year for volunteering in Managua, had, as the only fixed rule laid down by their organisation (read: church), the requirement to attend church three times a week. They had no idea or guidance what to do during their year. The 18 year old girl was thinking about giving flute lessons to children. I am sure that there are no more pressing needs in this poor country than to attend church thrice a week and give flute lessons (or, for that matter, to spend the money that she received from the German development fund who sponsors her year here).

Anyway. Our last and final stop in Nicaragua was the surfer beach town of San Juan del Sur (SJDS), near the border with Costa Rica in the south of the country. We hiluxed down with a lovely couple from Costa Rica from the ferry terminal after leaving Ometepe, and were soon a little overwhelmed by the atmosphere in San Juan: Lots of young and retired American tourists driving massive SUVs and Jeeps and spending their money on the city's many slick bars and restaurants wasn't quite what we had come here for, but renting an All Terrain Vehicle (ATV) and blasting through the muddy roads along the coast certainly was! Thus, we reached some pretty secluded beaches that rewarded us with massive waves, one of them being so forceful that the wave literally tore my swim suit in half right across my butt. Not bad at all, and quite to the amusement of everybody as I had to walk home with my bare bum shining through!

Apart from that, what remains to be said about Nicaragua? Whilst we were impressed with many of the sights and natural attractions we were able to see, we were much less happy about how often we were ripped off and taken advantage of during our two weeks in the country. This was quite a novum for us here in Central America; just a few blog entries ago I wrote how relaxed travelling is in the region compared to Asia, where you can never let your guard down for fear of being taken advantage of big time.

A few examples: The bus driver who (tried to) charge us four times the going rate for a ten minute ride, the boat from Granada to Ometepe where we were not allowed to purchase the cheaper second-class tickets ("too dangerous for tourists, amigo"), the taxi driver who wanted 45 dollars for a 15km trip, the girl we met who had 200 US$ stolen by child pick-pockets at the border, the security guards in Managua who asked for a ridiculous bribe to walk along a public road. Etc etc. Not much maybe if viewed as isolated cases, but as the pattern evolved we soon realised that the care-free and trusting days of travelling were over. What a shame.

For now, that is. Let' see what popular Costa Rica has to offer on that front.

Next stop: Monteverde (Costa Rica).

To view my photos, have a look at And to read the full account of my journey, have a look at the complete book about my trip at Amazon (and most other online book shops).


1st September 2010

Another interesting and eye opening blog entry. Thank you. Since I will be following in your footsteps in 1 months time, I find this useful. Though, I myself am considering doing some volunteer work while there, I will not be paying any money to do it, and I most certainly won't be spreading any religious bullshit about. The most I am hoping for is to work on a farm in exchange for board and lodging. While Nicaragua is far down the line on my route, your previous entries have been good reading too. I hope you don't have any rip-off incidents in Costa Rica and enjoy your travels! You know what, I bet we bump into each other! See you then. Jonny
1st September 2010

Been there, done that
Hello, been there, done that, very cool! Don't miss a tour on the rio san juan until San Juan del Sur on the other side. And then to Costa Rica by boat ...
1st September 2010

In most cases "jobs" are invented for volunteers willing to pay for the experience, rather than them actually taking "jobs" from locals. This is massive industry along with NGO┬┤s and development in general. After all The "Third World" "needs" "developing". With "all" "civilizations" "expertise" and "resources" it is "our responsibility" to "help" "them"! Latin America has slipped from New World to Third World... Shoddy workmanship...
2nd September 2010

To come back on your last point, hiluxing doesn't come with rip off practises? I would assume that one would say, hop on and as soon as you hop off that they'd say, that's than 50USD my friend. I feared these practises in Asia all too often! About the Volunteering, I totally share your opinion on that front. A friend of mine paid 5000 euros to give English lessons for 4 months in China. This excluded living expenses (room was included but he needed to share). Imagine you would arrange this by yourself. let's say 1500 euros for the ticket. 100 euros to get to some rural area, which leaves 3400 euro to spend on anything. You'd prob get a good deal as you're teaching English to local children. And then you apply for jobs in holland and everyone is impressed by your volunteering work. They even have more chances to be invited for an job interview than I have.... I got turned down once because I hadn't done such a thing!
4th September 2010

A near and dear blog to my heart and mind...
Hi stated, a blog from you that is near and dear to my heart and mind as I also walked the very same streets as you (at least for the most part) in Nicaragua. I have an almost identical picture of the cathedral, was actually on the roof of Iglesia la Merced, walked the streets of SJDS - didn't make it to Ometepe, however. And, yes, it is such a difference in sights when you leave the square to the less pretty streets. I too walked those streets beyond the square in Granada Your perspective on "pay-for-volunteering" is an interesting one and, to be honest, a perspective I hadn't thought about. I realized there are volunteers who pay for the privilege, but the angle of whether it actually takes jobs from locals is what I hadn't thought of. The question I'd throw out there generally (and don't know the answer) is this: is the volunteer actually taking a job from a local, or did that job really not exist anyway without the volunteer going there with his/her cash? If the job would have otherwise existed and now the volunteer is now "taking it" then it poses a big dilemma regardless of whatever good intention may have been behind it. If the job didn't really exist because there was no money or ability to make it happen without the volunteer, then it would seem to do more good than bad. Does the cash they pay (hopefully) bring some investment into the local economy to cause the job's existence to occur, and hopefully bring other economic development? That would seem to be the bigger questions I can think of offhand. As far as the religious missionaries, I might take some exception that generally people should not be "pushing" a belief. I would agree that the execution of a mission is too often not well-thought, but the probably easy answer to whether it is appropriate (in my humble opinion) would be this: if I see Ben (or anyone else) engaging in drugs or alcohol that will eventually cause great harm to themselves, would I not have some obligation to point it out in the name of being a generally caring individual - even if one thinks it should be only their own concern and nobody elses? Admittedly, if someone insists on engaging in a destructive behavior I cannot truly stop them from harming themselves but I feel I need to propose an alternative. I once heard that either the Pope or a Catholic priest suggested Christianity (and I suppose most religion) should always be there to PROPOSE, though never to IMPOSE. Admittedly, that ideal is not always practiced but my hope for these missionaries to Nicaragua and elsewhere. Keep in mind I say these thoughts in a libertarian viewpoint - I would say on some level, yes, we should live and let live. I just always hope that people will care enough to try to stop someone's destructive behavior and this is my hope that this is the vein of thought ultimately behind the missions. There is the big question, however, why do some of the churches feel the need to travel thousands of miles to evangelize? In most or all American (in my case) cities, there's plenty of unchurched and troubled individuals down the street to care for... Okay, enough philosophizing. Your blogs are always great to see. I still someday want to live my own dream and do the RTW trip. Time and money...those two intertwining obstacles...
6th September 2010

Hey Ben
I was just updating some back blogs and uploading some pics, I'm in Costa rica now my 3rd month..and was looking at recent blogs about Nicaragua and came accross yours, I just HAD to write you and say THANK YOU for your spiel on religion and volunteering!!!!!!! I am the same exact way! it's truly terrible what these missionaries and "volunteers" do to vulnerable people, anyways Just thought that was great what you wrote!! P.S. be ready for american prices here in costa rica ( except for lodging, cabs and cigs lol) I CANNOT wait to leave lol!! happy trips man, add me if you would like as costa rica was my rest period from the states before I start my travels... Greg
8th September 2010

travelling costa rica
hi ben, ich wollt euch wissen lassen, dass ich grad in montezuma bin, die plaene hatten sich kurzfristig geaendert. hatte leider auch keine e-mail um dir / euch zu schreiben. wo seid ihr? in costa rica? lasst was von euch hoeren :) viele gruesse, julia
12th September 2010

I think the verb 'to hi-lux' contains a hyphen.

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