This week, Steve Jackson is guest-blogging for This Just In from Granada, Nicaragua. Steve is the winner of Budget Travel's Blog-Off Contest. By a large margin, readers voted his essay -- titled "Dear First-Time Vietnam Visitor" -- their favorite of the four semi-finalist essays.
From Vietnam's KOTO to Nicaragua's CafeChavalos
Some time ago, when I was still living in Vietnam, I was approached by a journalist who was keen to write a feature on KOTO.
KOTO is the Hanoi street kid charity where I volunteered for over two years. It is a humbling place and it's fair to say it broke my heart on an almost daily basis. The idea behind it is simple -- we took kids out of extreme poverty, we housed them, we paid them, we covered their medical expenses.
And by working and training in our own restaurant they learned about the hospitality industry while customers' bills would help cover the charity's costs. Eventually, after 18 months, trainees graduated to a job at the likes of the Hilton or Sheraton. Graduation Day was the blubbiest of blub-fests.
What KOTO achieved was miraculous. Simply put, working there changed my life, just as it changed the lives of 250 young adults it had saved from the streets.
But, anyway, as I was saying, a journalist rang me wanting to do a feature on KOTO.
A few questions later she wondered if I knew of any other similar restaurants. She said she knew of Friends in Phnom Penn and she thought she had heard of one in Granada, Nicaragua.
My ears pricked up at this point. You see Nicaragua was always unfinished business as far as I was concerned. An around-the-world trip in 2002, a precursor to volunteering, had included stints in South East Asia and Central America.
For me, nothing touched Vietnam in Asia. I spent six weeks there falling hopelessly in love with the place. Later in Central America, Nicaragua was the only country to come close, even though a tight schedule limited my stay. It meant spending only one day in Granada, which I remembered as a beautiful colonial town, before I headed to Ometepe -- an island of adjoining volcanoes in the massive Lake Nicaragua. It was the most beautiful place I had ever seen.
It also had the most incredible sunsets. Later, this picture became my desktop wallpaper, my blog header, and a constant reminder of that place. It never failed to remind me of my emotions at the second it was snapped -- sheer wonder at the magnificence of my surroundings.
A quick Google proved the journalist was right. There was a restaurant run along remarkably similar lines in Nicaragua. I emailed them to say hi and "we do what you do," and "we're in Vietnam," and "I once went there," and all those things you might imagine.
It was the first point in striking up a conversation with Donna Tabor the founder of CafeChavalos.
To make an already long story no longer, I invited myself to volunteer and here I am.
Nicaragua is as beautiful as I remember it and CafeChavalos is an incredible organization. Unlike KOTO it's still finding its feet. Like KOTO its first class of young people will shape the future of what happens next.
The Chavalos (Spanish for kids) are a tough bunch. Their backgrounds are a mess of crime, gangs, drug addiction and prison. CafeChavalos has been the catalyst to get them away from that world and inspire them to think about a positive future.
More on meeting the Chavalos in tomorrow's blog post.