Guest Blog: Claire Mongo Valdivia does Nicaragua

She came, she saw, she wrote a blog post.  Here is Claire Mongo Valdivia’s (my college roomie’s) account of her time in Nicaragua.  I have inserted my own comments periodically.  You will recognize them, [because they look like this.]

It’s been about a month since my 3 week shebang in Nicaragua.  Seems like long enough to be able to write a post! SO. In short, my trip had two phases:

Phase 1: A.K.A. Volunteer-at–a-Library-Hang-Out-on-a-Beach-and-Re-learn-Spanish Phase

I was in San Juan del Sur for 10 days. I picked this location for the San Juan del Sur lending library. I had heard about it through the study abroad program that the UMD iSchool had held in previous years. Though the program through the iSchool only ran for a couple of years, the library still takes on many volunteers throughout the year.

First, a bit about the SJDS library: the library is such a cool organization with staff that does great things for their community and other communities in Nicaragua. The SJDS library runs a mobile library, which serves schools in the surrounding areas in order to get kids engaged in the library and reach those who may not be able to access the library in town. Library staff and volunteers do short activities with the kids and also give them each their own library card. Whenever the mobile library visits the school, the kids can return books and check new ones out. The library also gathers and packages start-up materials that people can buy to create a library in their own community. Apart from these two services, the library also provides free internet, workspace, and resources including a nice collection of books in English and Spanish to check out. [By comparison, the library in my town is more like a graveyard for old computers.  There are some books, but they’re locked up in a tiny closet. The SJDS library, while similar to libraries in the States, is truly unique in Nicaragua.  I was amazed at all the books they had.]

I won’t go too in depth, but while I was there, I created a basic outreach activity template that staff and volunteers could use while on school visits.

It’s true. She did.

A lot of this documentation was of activities they currently do but also has links to online resources to find new ideas. After speaking with some library staff about needs, I also began an online research resources guide based on subject. This was mainly targeted at kids who come to the library to do research for school. The goal was to begin some resources for the SJDS library as well as new libraries, which the library staff could edit and add to as needed. I had a good time doing it and hope it will be useful.

San Juan del Sur was also a beautiful place to spend a week. With the beach two blocks from my homestay house, I was able to walk/run/swim at the beach almost every day and it was just lovely.  The town itself was also a bit different of a vibe than I’m used to. Though we traveled to many touristy places in Nicaragua, this was one of the only small towns we went to that was very distinctly touristy. [It’s such a weird little make-believe town—like a themed “beach town” would be at Disney World.] In large cities, you’ll see natives and travelers, but San Juan had many foreign residents and a huge amount of young travelers like me. It seemed so bizarre to me, for example, that when I went to one of several yoga places in town, the instructor was from New York, the class was taught in English, and everyone in the room spoke English. Weird. Not to mention that I ran into an aunt of an acquaintance from undergrad there. Double weird. Still, I got to experience a bit of what Nicaragua was like through the food, the people, and the traditions. With some other library staff and volunteers, I went to part of a Fiesta de los Torros (a rodeo-type event), a parade for the Virgin Carmen (boats were included in this), and fell asleep on the beach trying to see sea turtles lay eggs (turns out you can’t see them with your eyes closed). [Weird.] It was a great 10 days in which I got to know Nicaragua just a little, see the great work of the library, and start to re-learn some Spanish.

Phase 2: A.K.A Go-on-a-Honeymoon-with-Lauren Phase [A.K.A. The Best Phase]

Okay, so as you may have guessed, Lauren and I were not recently married, but it was as close to a fake honeymoon as you could get. We watched sunsets, went for walks on the beach, hiked, swam, ate lychee, took pictures of said lychee, etc.

As Lauren can attest, my time in Nicaragua sent me down memory lane—specifically, the lane that took me back to when I studied abroad in Mexico. First, there were broad things that reminded me of Mexico—the feeling of learning and re-learning Spanish, throwing your toilet paper in the trash can, trying to be conscious about when to tip and when not to, the fact that bargaining is acceptable in many places, etc. etc. etc. But it also made those (many) things that are different between the two countries stick out to me.  Some examples of this:


  • Why does no one want to give me a pluma? When I first went to Mexico, I used the word “bolígrafo” for pen for a good long while before people started to tell me that no one calls it a bolígrafo. It’s a pluma! So here I am in Nicaragua asking for plumas, and it turns out that here, it’s a lapicera. Of course, people usually get what you mean anyways [wild gestures help] but it doesn’t make you sound like you know what you’re doing.
  • The meaning of “Fijase que”—The closest English translation of this phrase that I use is “The thing is….” when you’re about to tell someone something that maybe isn’t what they want to hear. I learned it a couple times when the library was closed twice during the week I was there.
  • ¿Mande? ¿Mandemandemande? In Mexico this is what you say when you don’t understand something or need something repeated or rephrased. In Nicaragua you don’t say mande. [In Nicaragua, you scrunch up your nose in disgust. “¿Cómo?” also works.]

Cities and landscape

  • There were some cities, or even specific streets, that felt like de ja vu from my days in Mexico. Granada looks a bit more colonial—while some of the streets in Granada reminded me of some streets in Guadalajara, the city square reminded me of a larger version of the southern Mexican city, Oaxaca. The housing in both cities is also similar with their bright colors, iron gates, and structure.
  • The quick change from city to nature was a familiar experience. One second you’re in a city and there’re tons of people and everyone is moving and you’re a bit overstimulated and then BAM! You’re in a forest. Or a countryside. Or next to a volcano. Still, nature in Nicaragua was different from anything I’d ever seen before. In just three weeks, we went from beaches with mostly flat land all around to cities with volcanos on the outskirts to the hilly, cool, almost tropical feeling area where Lauren lives.


  • Definitely one of my big stereotypes going into this trip was that I thought that food would be similar between Mexico and Nicaragua. It is not. Now, there are some similarities—both countries make good use of rice and beans. But whereas in Mexico they are served separately, the Nica dish of choice is gallo pinto—a combination of the two, along with some other spices. The cheese is different. I saw the biggest avocado of my life in Nicaragua. [She made me stop to look at one in the market.] I also became mildly obsessed with dragon fruit juice [It’s bright pink] and leche con banano. YUM. I also ate my first fresh lychee. It was glorious.


This is a lychee.

In short, travelling is great, new places are great, and remembering other places is also great. Nicaragua is an amazing place and seeing Lauren’s life there was really wonderful. I could write a whole other post about how great the things she’s doing is but she probably tells that story in her posts better than I could. [Note to self: write about great things…]

[Mongy: thank you so much for visiting—it was such a pleasure showing you around.  Everyone else: I hope this post convinces you to come visit me too. Think about it…]

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