Welcome back to Earning Abroad! In this series I’ll introduce you to some inspiring and ambitious friends I’ve met on the road — friends who have found viable work away from their home countries.
I met some truly fantastic humans on recent travels through Central America. One of my favorites was a girl named Noelani Anderson, who I just so happened to meet on one of my favorite days of the whole trip. She was soon headed back to her native Hawaii after years working at a women’s surf camp in San Juan del Sur, and we quickly bonded over everything from aloha to yoga.
The girl would give you the shirt off her back — or the sarong off her hips, as she did one afternoon when we were on a catamaran cruise and I gushed over the one she was wearing. She insisted I take it, with the simple explanation that I loved it and so she wanted me to have it. And it’s been with me on my travels reminding me of that kindness ever since! I was so inspired by Noelani in our short time running around San Juan del Sur together, I knew that you guys would be too, and so I asked her to share her story. This interview made me want to forget this whole blogging thing and run away to teach surfing… though I do suppose not knowing how to surf could potentially be a wrench in that plan. Over to Noelani!
AB: Walk us through a typical day on the job.
NA: Our camps at CHICABRAVA ran Saturday to Saturday, so my work week essentially began with welcoming a new group on Saturday afternoons and saying goodbye the following Saturday morning. Groups range from six to sixteen people and generally range in age from twenty to sixty years old – but we’ve had guests as young as twelve and as old as seventy-three! Saturdays were a little rough, as you tend to get really close to people over the week… everyday of which was full of surf, eat, adventure, laugh, sleep, repeat. And started with coffee.
No matter where I am in the world my day starts with coffee. Lucky for me Nicaraguan coffee is legit, grown in the northern climates of the country and served in various cute cafés in San Juan del Sur. So depending on the tide, which our surf schedule is based around, I would typically do my yoga practice early and get some ‘office’ work done, then go rally the chicas (otherwise know as ‘guests’). We have two locations where guests sleep, the town location and our Cloud Farm location nestled up in the hillside outside of town. Regardless of the location the day always starts with a solid breakfast and surf theory, then we get ready to spend the majority of the day at the beach.
Occasionally there would be time to fit in extras like a catamaran tour or horseback riding. I always strived to do my email and coordinating work in my down moments so I could join in on these outings, which were always a blast. One of us would do dinner with the chicas, either at the camp or at our favorite restaurants in town. But again, I always had a hard time missing out on anything so even if it wasn’t my night you’d often find me taking the girls to my favorite restaurant or happy hour. Full days warranted full sleeps, so bedtime was usually right after dinner… except for Friday nights. Going out on Friday nights is pretty much a CHICABRAVA tradition!
How long did you have this position?
I started out as an instructor/host, which I did for six months, and then I transitioned into a position I helped develop called the ‘Camp Operations Manager’, which I did for nearly a year and a half. So I was with the company for about two years… although I’m currently back in Nicaragua and just finished working a camp as a host, surf instructor and yoga teacher. So I guess you could say I never stopped!
How did you come to teach surfing in Nicaragua? What inspired you to find work in this field?
My journey to working with CHICABRAVA is a long one. When I was 17 I left Hawaii to go to school in California, and realized pretty quickly that I needed to learn Spanish. But I really sucked in the classroom — we’re talking C’s and D’s. So I decided to study abroad and Nicaragua seemed to fit my criteria; Spanish speaking, and near surf. Turns out that maps can be a bit deceiving, and the surf wasn’t all that close to the city I was studying in. But somehow I landed a job working at a surf lodge called Los Cardones on the weekends, getting there by bus, ox-cart, or dedo (hitching rides). That was when my love for Nicaragua began, but it wasn’t until years later that I moved back.
Fast forward from 2007 to 2012, I’m living on Oahu and getting antsy in my school teaching/waitressing routine (I was an assistant teacher for a first grade classroom catering to kids with learning challenges), so I decide to pack up and go on a three month surf trip to Chile. There I am, doing the hostel travel thing, having a blast, when a friend of mine emails me from Honduras to get my opinion on her NGO expanding their work to Nicaragua. Within a week I got another email asking me if I wanted to come and help. Soon I was back in Nicaragua, living in the mountains, helping launch a sector of Global Brigades. It was wild — just the two of us, very little resources, and a big project. I did that for about a year, and as challenging as it was it was also incredibly rewarding. Whenever I had a chance I’d slip out of the mountains to my beloved sea, and that’s how I originally ended up in San Juan del Sur.
I guess any good story involves romance. I ended up going back to San Juan frequently to visit a boy, a fellow expat who’d been living in San Juan for years and managed a hotel near some good surf. It was on one of those visits that I met a couple of girls who were working for CHICABRAVA at the time. When they told me about their work, and that they were actually transitioning out and positions were opening up, I applied immediately.
My work with the NGO was wrapping, so the timing was right and after a series of interviews it seemed the fit was right too. The boy and I ended up breaking up as soon as I moved, but we still keep in touch. I’m thankful that our paths crossed because who knows if I’d had ended up teaching surfing if it hadn’t been for those visits to San Juan. Two years of good times, endless laughter and some incredible friendships was worth a little heartache.
Was it easy to find a job?
I guess I wasn’t really looking for a job, but once it found me the hiring process was slightly rigorous. These chicks don’t mess around; we work hard and play hard. Any girl that can live by that philosophy and is passionate about surfing and teaching would be a great candidate.
How did your family and friends react to your initial departure?
My friends and family know that my decisions are often a bit random and my life’s path is filled with curves. Whenever I declare I’m moving home they just laugh and say ‘we’ll believe it when we see it’. It’s incredible, though, to have supportive family and friends, I could never have spent so much time abroad if it weren’t for my strong roots and support network.
How much money did you make? Was it enough to live on?
I did well working with CHICABRAVA, and it was a really nice shift from the non-profit world where I was living month to month off a stipend. Often times jobs abroad provide room and board in exchange for your work, I’m not so into that model as you never get your own space.
With CHICABRAVA, I was able to have a nice apartment, eat out, and even save a bit and travel as well. Rent in San Juan is between $150-300 per month depending how nice a place you want, the latter being with air conditioning, and food should cost around $200 per month even if you’re eating out a lot. Other than that, you don’t have many expenses so if you’re working regularly you can actually end up saving money. You also have the opportunity to make tips, and with big groups that’s a super bonus.
What kind of legal hoops did you have to jump through?
I was on a tourist visa as a visitor to Nicaragua, which is the primary option unless you decide you’d like to get your residency — a relatively lengthy and expensive process. The tourist visa is good for 90 days at which point you need to leave the country, but if you look at it as a mandatory vacation to Costa Rica or to visit family in the states it’s not such a big deal. And if you’re in a bind you can also renew your visa in Managua for a minimal fee once every six months. Needless to say I’ve got a load of Nicaraguan stamps in my passport to attest to my time there.
What skills did you need for this job?
Surfing experience, a good attitude, an adventurous spirit and an authentic desire to make sure everyone around you (yourself included) is literally having the time of their life. An understanding of the importance of making goals, accomplishing them, and understanding how important camaraderie is for that process to successfully happen is also key. You better be stoked on girl power and women’s empowerment too.
Spanish is not necessary, but helpful; you gotta know how to drive stick, and most importantly have an open mind and be willing to learn new things everyday, because situations you never would have anticipated come up all the time. Personally I thought that’s one of the things that made the job so fun. I actually had never taught surfing before, so as long as you like to teach and love to surf yourself, you have the capacity to be a great CHICABRAVA instructor. (Find an application here!)
What were the best and worst things about teaching surfing?
I’d say the best things are often paralleled by the worst things, they just fall on different ends of the same spectrum. For example, the friendships… I met some life sisters through this experience, especially the ladies I worked with and a handful of clients that I know I’ll stay close to for a long time to come. On the other hand, when you don’t get along with someone, or everyone seems to be having a bad day on the same day, it can be tough. But that was pretty rare, and always made for either a good story or a good laugh.
Also, the surf! One of the best things about the job were days with perfect conditions — offshore winds, fun size, sun, nice shape waves… so epic! But then those days when you had a window to surf and conditions were poor could be a bummer — or when it was firing and you had to teach. But jeez! Surfista can’t have it all, right!?
What would your advice be to someone seeking to do the same?
My only advice is to do what feels good and follow your gut. If it’s the right fit the universe will work things out for you. And don’t let anyone persuade you this way or that — make your own story, it’s bound to be different than whatever experience someone else had.
What do you know about Nicaragua that you wouldn’t have learned as a tourist? How did working in Nicaragua change your experience there?
Spending more than about three months anywhere opens your perspective to that place up incredibly. If I hadn’t lived and worked here I wouldn’t know the slang, I wouldn’t know the cultural quirks and what a fresh tortilla and freshly cooked beans taste like, and most importantly I wouldn’t have a reason to come back. Nicaragua holds a piece of my heart that only time, and having a real life here could have carved out. I call it a second home – you simply don’t make that kind of a connection to a place as a tourist.
My best friend that I moved here with also ended up marrying a Nicaraguan and having a baby, so I became a godmother on Nicaraguan soil, and if it hadn’t been for working and living here I wouldn’t have nearly as many great stories. Even just writing this post is making me realize how rich my experiences have been.
Are there differences between working in your home country and in Nicaragua?
There are definitely differences between working in Nicaragua and Hawaii, but in the end, no matter where you work, it’s up to you to bring a good attitude. Nicaragua is no different. I will say, though, you learn a lot of patience, and develop a different perception of time. Things can get a little hot too. And when you’re living abroad your work becomes your life, so too your co-workers become your family, and that’s pretty special. Oh, and at home you’re not allowed to drink on the job, whereas we usually celebrated our days with a few cold beers. People are on vacation after all!
Have you had other experience working abroad?
Yes, I have had other experiences working abroad, teaching yoga, helping out at surf camps, working in hostels and restaurants, and also going to school abroad, but this was the most serious job I’d ever taken abroad and along with the NGO work I did, certainly the most educational. I grew up at home in Hawaii, but it was in doing this job that I became a woman. I know that might sound cheesy, but it’s true.
What made you leave your position here? How did you know it was time to move on?
Good question. You know, you can only have so much fun before you need a little break and a chance to catch up. After three years of living in Nicaragua my gut told me I needed to go home and check back in with my roots. And let’s be honest, I’m a damn lucky girl to go home to Hawaii. If home was anywhere else I’d probably have applied for my Nicaraguan residency at this point. I also have a nephew who was just turning two when I left CHICABRAVA — I wanted to make sure I didn’t miss those special terrible two moments and make sure he knew who Aunty was. I guess I also left so that I could come back! And sure enough, I just spent the past month working with CHICABRAVA both as a surf instructor and a yoga teacher. I never thought it was an option, but this trip made me realize that splitting my time between two places is a potential reality… so ya, I left, but now I get to keep going back!
Was it difficult to transition home and re-enter the mainstream work force?
The transition back to Hawaii definitely took a few months, but I pretty much hit the ground running and found some cool jobs right away, got an apartment with some girlfriends and created a life. I also knew that I’d be visiting Nicaragua within a few months, so I didn’t have to say good bye quite yet. Now that I’m here and working again I wonder… is this chapter over, or will I keep coming back once a year to surf and work a few camps? Who knows! I guess it all depends on the next love story 🙂
What are you doing now? What are your plans for the future?
At the moment I’m back in country, but I’ve set myself up pretty much full time back at home on the Big Island of Hawaii, where I work at a phenomenal brewery that serves some of the best beers in the islands (we are ranked among the top ten breweries in the U.S). I also teach yoga at some of the hotels on the coast, including stand up paddle yoga which is a blast, and I substitute teach during the school year. I’m also enjoying being near my family and helping my mom out with her photography business and dad in his wood shop every so often.
I’d like to eventually get a master’s degree in public policy and do work with non-profits, maybe even develop my own non-profit based around volunteer tourism, the ocean, and women’s empowerment. I’d also like to explore some new places, and I have a feeling I’ll be coming back to Nicaragua every so often as well. In terms of plans, I’ve always lived a bit more day to day than long term.
What question should I have asked instead?
What was my favorite food! Fresh tortillas or tostones (mashed and fried plantains) with cuajada cheese and fresh beans cooked on the comal (traditional open fire). As far as drink, Nicaragua is the land of rum, and my go-to drink was a fresh mojito, no sugar, extra mint and soda. I used to order them to go at one of the local restaurants on my way to evening yoga… perfect way to unwind in the tropics.
Let’s leave Noelani some love in the comments! As always, please let me know in the comments if there are certain questions you’d like to see asked, or a certain job you’d like to see highlighted in Earning Abroad!