Living conditions and volunteer lifestyles in Nicaragua
- 1 Communications
- 2 Housing and Site Location
- 3 Living Allowance and Money Management
- 4 Food and Diet
- 5 Transportation
- 6 Geography and Climate
- 7 Social Activities
- 8 Professionalism, Dress, and Behavior
- 9 Personal Safety
- 10 Rewards and Frustrations
Relative to the service in most developing countries, mail between the United States and Nicaragua is dependable. Airmail takes about two weeks; surface mail can take months. Packages sometimes mysteriously disappear in transit, and sometimes they are opened and the contents stolen. It is best if packages do not exceed two pounds. Padded-envelope-sized packages work well. Don’t have money, airline tickets, or other valuables sent to you through the mail. Sensitive items should be sent via an expedited—and insured—courier service such as DHL or UPS. You can consult with in-country staff on how to do this, if necessary.
It is usually not worth the effort to have large packages sent from the United States. Volunteers are responsible for paying customs fees on larger items, which may exceed the value of the items sent. Retrieving a package often means an entire day’s travel to the city. There are modern supermarkets and other well-stocked stores in the capital that should supply all your needs.
Your address during training in Nicaragua will be:
“Your Name,” PCT
Voluntario del Cuerpo de Paz
Apartado Postal 3256
Once your site has been identified, you will be responsible for sending the address to family and friends if you decide to have your mail delivered directly there.
International phone service to and from Nicaragua is good relative to service in other developing countries. ENITEL, the Nicaraguan telephone agency, has offices in most municipal centers and in all cities. International telephone calls can be very expensive; however, Internet cafes throughout the country offer good communication services at more reasonable rates. For telephone communication to the States, most Volunteers use Internet cafes or have family and friends call them at a local number. Others call home collect, using international calling cards from companies such as AT&T, MCI, and Sprint or the local version from ENITEL.
Many of the families who host Volunteers during training have telephones in their homes. If not, there is public phone access in all of the training communities. Nicaragua also has two extensive and growing cellular phone services, Claro (Enitel) and Movistar. All Peace Corps staff members have cellphones, as do all Volunteers (nowadays most volunteers buy their cell phones while they are still in training). Cellphone service is available in all departmental capitals, but because of mountainous terrain and scattered populations, limited service reaches the more remote areas. As a result of fairly wide coverage, or at least accessibility in the departmental capitals, nearly all of the Volunteers choose to have cellphones. However, differences in technology make many (mostly Verizon) U.S. cellphones incompatible with the Nicaraguan system. Where cellphone service is unavailable, local communication methods are sufficiently reliable for Volunteers and are compatible with the Peace Corps’ view that Volunteers should live modestly at the level of their local colleagues.some people living there have gotten used to the fact that cellphones can only be used in case of emergencies and need of help.
Computer, Internet, and E-mail Access
Local Internet providers exist in the capital, in nearly all major cities, and in some smaller towns. As a result, cities and towns throughout the country have Internet cafes that offer access to the public by the hour (for a small fee). Connectivity charges in some towns may be higher than in cities if they do not have a local server and have to make long distance calls to connect.
Most Volunteers have regular (weekly or monthly) access to e-mail. For most Volunteers, e-mail is the primary form of communication with friends and family in the States. Additionally, the Peace Corps office in Managua has four computers with Internet access for Volunteers to use.
Housing and Site Location
Housing options and site locations vary greatly depending upon your project. TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) and Business Volunteers tend to live in towns and cities throughout Nicaragua ranging from 1,000 to 100,000 residents. The location of health and environment assignments varies from medium-sized cities to remote rural communities. And agriculture Volunteers generally live in small, remote communities (as few as 200 residents) concentrated in the northern region of the country.
Most(but not all) Volunteer homes have electricity, and most have running water. However, both electric and water service may be intermittent. A few homes even have telephones and, rarely, access to cable television. Volunteers in very rural sites may have to haul water to their home from a communal pump for their daily water supply. Your Volunteer assignment description provides greater detail about potential housing and site realities for your project.
Peace Corps/Nicaragua’s site and housing policy guides the selection of safe and accessible locations for all assignments that have viable work options. All Volunteers are required to live with a host family throughout training and during their first six weeks at their project site. Due to remoteness, and/or few housing options, some sites will require Volunteers to live with families for the duration of their service. The Peace Corps recommends that Volunteers live with a family throughout their service, as it enriches Volunteers’ Peace Corps experience while enhancing their safety and acceptance by the community. When independent housing options are available, Volunteers are permitted to rent homes that meet the Peace Corps’ housing criteria. While some sites have two or more Volunteers, only married Volunteers can share housing during their service. Most Volunteers live within a one- to two-hour walk or bus ride from another Volunteer.
When you are sworn in as a Volunteer, you will be required to submit a site locator form that will enable Peace Corps to locate and communicate with you throughout your service. Peace Corps staff will periodically visit you at your site to provide personal, professional, and medical support and guidance.
Living Allowance and Money Management
As a Volunteer in Nicaragua, you will receive four types of allowances. The first is a living allowance to cover your basic living expenses, such as rent, utilities, food, household supplies, clothing, local travel, recreation, and entertainment.
The living allowance is reviewed once a year through a market survey to ensure that it is adequate. The amount of the allowance varies based on the cost of living in different regions of the country, and is paid in local currency. It is deposited once a month into a Nicaraguan bank account that you will maintain. You are likely to find that you receive more remuneration than your Nicaraguan counterpart or supervisor.
If the Peace Corps asks you to travel for either programmatic, medical, or other reasons, you will be reimbursed for hotel, transportation, and meals. The administrative officer (AO) will determine the appropriate amount and method of payment. Volunteers used to receive a vacation allowance of $24 a month deposited into a separate bank account in U.S. dollars, but Peace Corps Headquarters no longer allows this, and the $24 is supposedly deposited in with the normal monthly living allowance.
Most Volunteers find they can live comfortably within the monthly living allowance, although some bring money from home to help pay for out-of-country vacation travel. Volunteers are responsible for managing their own resources. The Peace Corps expects Volunteers to maintain a lifestyle similar to that of the people with whom they live and work.
To obtain cash (in córdobas or U.S. dollars), a variety of ATM machines are available in Managua and in select large cities throughout the country. However, it is more difficult to use a MasterCard, as the two major banks (BanPro and BanCentro) are Visa only. Citibank is also more prevalent in Nicaragua. Travelers checks are increasingly more inconvenient to use, and can only be cashed for a fee at a few banks in the capital. U.S. dollars are accepted at most businesses in Managua and other major cities. Credit cards are accepted in many establishments in Managua and in some major cities throughout the country; they are useful for vacations and travel.
Trainees and Volunteers are responsible for the safety and replacement of their own property and personal documents. The Peace Corps provides information about personal property insurance at staging and will, upon request, arrange a withdrawal from your readjustment allowance account to pay insurance premiums. Insurance should be renewed every year.
Food and Diet
The staples of the Nicaraguan diet are beans, rice, eggs, dairy products, meats, and foods made with corn (e.g., tortillas, nacatamales, and pinolillo, a popular beverage made with ground corn and cocoa). A wide variety of fruits and vegetables are grown locally, from cabbages and carrots to pineapples and papayas. Their availability varies by the season and access to markets. As a result of the endemic poverty in Nicaragua, most Nicaraguans’ daily diet consists of gallo pinto, a mixture of red beans and rice fried in vegetable oil, which might be accompanied by corn tortillas, cabbage salad, a small amount of meat or chicken, or locally made salty cheese. Most dairy products are made in a traditional fashion in rural settings and thus are not pasteurized.
The food generally is not spicy, and many Volunteers find that Nicaraguans use too much oil, salt, and sugar for their taste. Many Volunteers enjoy frescos—a concoction of freshly squeezed fruit and vegetable juices mixed with water and sugar that comes in many distinct flavors. In coastal areas, Volunteers find fresh fish and occasionally even lobster or shrimp. Beef, pork, and chicken are widely available throughout the country, but cuts of red meat differ greatly from those found in the United States. It is difficult to find meats that meet U.S. standards for flavor and quality.
It is possible to maintain a vegetarian diet in Nicaragua. However, there is greater variety and availability of certain foodstuffs in Managua than in outlying areas. It is important to note that Nicaragua is a beef-producing country, and some Nicaraguans, particularly in rural areas, will not understand vegetarianism. As a vegetarian, you will need to develop a culturally sensitive approach to declining to eat meat.
Since you will be living with a Nicaraguan family during training and the first six weeks at your site, you will be immediately exposed to Nicaraguan eating habits and methods of food preparation. Host families receive information regarding any special dietary concerns Volunteers have but are not expected to prepare U.S.-style meals for them. Although the families are generally quite accommodating, you should be prepared to have less control over your diet while living with a host family.
Some Volunteers who are living on their own cook for themselves to have more control over their diet. Volunteers who cook enjoy exploring new ways to use the local foods available, and often share these recipes with their Nicaraguan friends and family. Other Volunteers may pay a local family to take meals with them.
Most Volunteers travel in Nicaragua on commercial public buses; a very small number of sites are accessible by ferry or panga (passenger only) boats. For the vast majority of Volunteers, traveling to and from site entails a ride in an old school bus, which may be overcrowded, slow, and sometimes unreliable. At more rural sites, Volunteers may be required to travel in converted flatbed trucks, as the rough terrain makes bus passage impossible. Volunteers are not permitted to own, drive, or ride on motorcycles or to own or drive other motorized vehicles at any time during their service. Only when Volunteers are on authorized vacation may they drive, should they choose to rent a vehicle. Violation of these policies may be grounds for termination of service.
Most Volunteers get around their site and visit nearby communities on foot or use locally available transportation methods. Some Volunteers find that travel by bicycle is the most practical way to get around at their site, and purchase them with their settling in allowance. Though bicycles bought locally are not of the same quality as those available in the United States, they are more than sufficient for Volunteer transportation needs. Volunteers may bring a bicycle from the U.S. if they pay any additional air freight costs. (Note that bringing a bicycle from home is not recommended for several reasons: 1) it is impossible to know the realities of your site and transportation needs until you actually get there—a bike may not be appropriate or necessary; 2) it may be difficult to find the appropriate parts for maintenance; 3) owning a bike that is not available locally will set you apart from your host country colleagues and friends; and 4) it can make you a target for crime. If you choose to ride a bike, helmet use is mandatory. Noncompliance with Peace Corps’ worldwide mandatory helmet use policy can be grounds for administrative separation.
In very few instances, Volunteers also own or rent horses to travel from home to isolated communities and farms. You should familarize yourself with your site and consult your program manager regarding appropriate methods of transportation.
Geography and Climate
Nicaragua can be divided into four geographic areas: the coastal area between the lakes and the Pacific Ocean; the Great Rift, a low depression in which Lake Managua and Lake Nicaragua lie; the central highlands to the north and east of the rift; and the Caribbean lowlands, which account for more than 40 percent of the land area but only 10 percent of the population. The climate varies with the region, but Nicaragua generally is hot and tropical, with cool, comfortable nights and a very short dry or cool season. The eastern third of the country, composed of the eastern slopes of the central highlands and the Caribbean lowlands, has a wet, tropical climate, with little or no dry or cool season. The climate of the central highlands is locally variable because of its ridge and valley topography, but generally it is an area of moderate temperatures and year-round rainfall. The Pacific area experiences a distinct tropical wet season (May through November) and tropical dry season (December through April). Temperatures there are more comfortable in the dry season because of lower humidity.
Social activities will vary depending on where you are located and the size of your site. Nicaraguans are generally kind and open, and thus celebrations of all types are common. You are encouraged to become a part of your community and participate in family celebrations, local dances, and folkloric activities as long as they occur in safe environments. The U.S. Marines introduced baseball to Nicaragua in the early 1900s, and it is now the national sport. Most communities have baseball teams and weekend games. Soccer and volleyball are growing in popularity throughout the country among both men and women.
You will be expected to fully integrate into your community. This means you will spend the vast majority of your time in your Peace Corps site, including weekends and most of your free time. Volunteers occasionally visit nearby Volunteers or go to a regional center to watch a movie, use the Internet, have a special meal, buy needed supplies, or just relax in a place with air conditioning. Volunteers are discouraged from spending leisure time in Managua because of the heat and security concerns. Peace Corps/Nicaragua maintains strict policies regarding trips away from site.
Professionalism, Dress, and Behavior
A Volunteer assignment is a professional position. Although a few of you might work in informal settings, you will be expected to act and dress professionally. Almost all Volunteers spend some of their time working in local schools, and thus are seen as community leaders and mentors. More specific information on dress codes and teachers’ roles is available in your Volunteer Assignment Description. You will receive an orientation to appropriate behavior and cultural sensitivity during pre-service training. As a Volunteer, you will have the status of an invited guest and thus must be sensitive to the habits, tastes, and taboos of your Nicaraguan hosts. Your effectiveness as a development worker, satisfaction as a Volunteer, and safety as a foreigner living in a community will all be enhanced by professional behavior. Behavior that jeopardizes the Peace Corps’ mission in Nicaragua or your personal safety cannot be tolerated by the Peace Corps and could lead to administrative separation—a decision on the part of the Peace Corps to terminate your service. The Volunteer Handbook provides more information on the grounds for administrative separation.
Nicaraguans consider personal appearance an important individual characteristic. Proper dress can help establish your credibility as a professional, and it reflects your respect for the local customs and expectations of the people with whom you live and work. Inappropriate dress, like inappropriate behavior, is something that can set Volunteers apart from their communities.
The best guideline is to dress as your Nicaraguans colleagues do. Nicaraguans dress professionally casual: neat, clean, ironed. You should bring casual professional attire for all venues when you are working. Appropriate attire may include cotton pants (nice khakis are acceptable), nice cotton shirts and/or blouses (not T-shirts), and as much as possible, cotton skirts or dresses for women (not mini length). Neat blue-jeans (dark and not bleached out) are acceptable but can be hot in this weather. Neither shorts nor faded T-shirts are appropriate for male or female Volunteers in the workplace. Dresses or shirts that are tight or spaghetti-strap tank tops are also not appropriate work attire. Comfortable walking shoes or sandals are suitable; however, Nicaraguans view “Teva” or “Chaco” style sandals as inappropriate for the work environment. Shorts and tennis shoes are acceptable sports wear but should not be considered appropriate for work.
During training, you will be expected to observe the same clothing guidelines. Shirts and shoes must be worn at all times. Shorts and spaghetti-strap tank tops may not be worn at the Peace Corps office or for any official Peace Corps activity. Visable body piercings are not permitted for trainees, nor are they appropriate for Volunteers at schools or other workplaces. Earrings, dreadlocks, and ponytails are not permitted for male Volunteers during service.
Keep in mind that conforming to local norms is a small sacrifice for the great adventure and lasting friendships that await you.
More detailed information about the Peace Corps’ approach to safety is contained in the "Your Health Care and Safety in Nicaragua" section, but it is an important issue and cannot be overemphasized. As stated in the Volunteer Handbook, becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer entails certain safety risks.
Living and traveling in an unfamiliar environment (oftentimes alone), having a limited understanding of local language and culture, and being perceived as well-off are some of the factors that can put a Volunteer at risk. Many Volunteers experience varying degrees of unwanted attention and harassment. Petty thefts and burglaries are not uncommon, and incidents of physical and sexual assault do occur, although most Volunteers complete their two years of service without personal security incidents. The Peace Corps has established procedures and policies designed to help you reduce your risks and enhance your safety and security. These procedures and policies, in addition to safety training, will be provided once you arrive in Nicaragua. While we provide you the tools and information to minimize risks, you are expected to take responsibility for your safety and well-being.
Rewards and Frustrations
Being a Volunteer in Nicaragua can be both highly rewarding and terribly frustrating. This is one reason why serving in the Peace Corps is often called “the toughest job you’ll ever love.” A trainee often arrives with idealistic notions of wanting to save the forest, find new ways to increase food production to decrease hunger and malnutrition, or develop new local products that will make a community or business owner rich. But then frustrations often arise over the difficulty of getting things accomplished, the lack of support from local counterparts, and the obstacles of poverty and poor education.
You might struggle to perfect the language, adapt to certain Nicaraguan customs, or find sufficient financial resources. The family or church just down the street from your house might play loud music every night, or the rooster next door might begin crowing each morning at 2:00 a.m. You are certain to miss your family and friends back home.
But over time, your initial idealism is likely to be replaced by a sense of practicality. Saving the forest becomes planting a few trees to protect a watershed. Feeding a nation becomes feeding a family. Revolutionizing a business becomes helping a business run better. One hopes that you will not see this as a loss of idealism but, rather, a realization that development comes from small but significant steps taken in partnership with your community.
To be successful as a Volunteer, you will need to be flexible, resourceful, and patient. You will be given a high degree of responsibility and independence in your work—perhaps more than in any other job you have had or will have. You will often find yourself in situations that require an ability to motivate yourself and others with little guidance from supervisors. You will learn to take joy from the little things: the smiles and laughs of children walking to school, the welcome sound of rain on a zinc roof, the sparkle in a child’s eyes when he realizes that saving a tree means saving a bird, the comfort in a mother’s face when her baby is healthy and well nourished, the satisfaction of a business owner when she is able to pay her debts and save money.
When you complete your service in Nicaragua, you will leave knowing that you have not only overcome frustrations and obstacles but also made lasting friendships and helped people build better lives for themselves and their families. If you are committed to integrating into your community and working hard, you will be a successful Volunteer.