Nĭ hăo and Adiós: Lifeguarding in China and Nicaragua

This past April, I had the unique opportunity to work as part of back-to-back project teams for the International Lifesaving Association (ISLA) to China and Nicaragua. The projects took me across two completely different continents, time zones, climates, languages and cultures. Amongst the clashing differences between these two communities and my own, we remain united in our love of the water and passion to promote public safety through drowning prevention and lifeguarding.


“Out of a deep passion for open water and a strong desire to prevent drownings, ISLA aids people in championing the aquatic safety situation in their own coastal communities. They do this through lifeguard training programs, lifeguard exchanges, equipment donations, purchasing connections, and utilizing the latest technology to sustain a global network of lifeguards that share information, techniques, stories, and culture. Their wish is to see friends and partners around the globe have the necessary tools to keep their water safe.” – ISLA Website (https://www.islasurf.org)


As a Watch Commander for ISLA, I assist in planning the logistics for projects, interacting with the local host, and supervising operations while in-country. Amid my Spring semester Master of Public Health studies, this threw my schedule for quite a loop; however, being in USC’s online MPH program and reaching out to my professors months in advance, made this more manageable.


My first obstacle came in packing. How do you prepare for two conflicting climates and project plans? March in Shenzhen, China, is similar to Southern California, mid-60’s and chilly at night (Yes, I am from California and I consider it chilly below 50˚F); where Nicaragua is much warmer nearing 100˚F, high humidity, and blistering off-shore winds all day. It doesn’t help that I like to be “prepared for everything” so my bag grows quickly. Additional to my personal gear, I had to bring rescue equipment, medical supplies, CPR mannequins, and educational materials for the training courses.


This was my first time to Shenzhen, China. The never-ending, high-rise buildings gave way to the world’s second fastest growing mega-city of 10-15 million people. As one of China’s specialized economic zones, Shenzhen is an epicenter of manufacturing, industrialization, and international trade. If there wasn’t already a skyscraper in a location, there were printed plans to build one. There was a definite turn from the historical city into a newfound industrialization. With the rapid population growth of the city, the local beaches have become flooded with people. The current capacity of emergency services to secure the beaches with trained lifeguards was not readily available. In response to a local request, ISLA formulated our team to help partner with the local Chinese rescue agency to train and certify members of the community as lifeguards.


The basic open-water lifeguard class consisted of 115 local Chinese participants. Across the three-day training period, we put the participants through a demanding 30-hours of classroom-based instruction and further application in the water. Through this time, both instructors and trainees have oppurtunities to learn from each other; improving their rescue techniques and medical skills. Some of our favorite memories come from laughing together as we ate chopped duck, sang along to beautiful local songs in mandarin and other local dialects, and jumped inview for endless selfies. The hardest part of the project is always saying goodbye to our newfound friends! Yet, I know my global family of first-responders and lifeguards is growing and through their hard work, the beaches of Shenzhen are now a safer place.


After 26 hours of transit, I finally landed in Nicaragua to meet my new ISLA project team. Stepping off the plane, the extreme temperature difference and humidity sent sweat pouring down my face; while the change in time-zones and jet-lag drained what energy I had left. In this state, I managed to get pick-pocketed somewhere in the airport baggage area and lost my wallet, money, and passport. To say the least, I was in HUGE trouble if I didn’t find these being the project supervisor. After spending an hour at the airport speaking with security staff in my broken Spanish, I recruited my Costa Rican co-leader, and dear friend, from the ISLA group to try again. With some incredible luck, we were able to track down my wallet, fully intact, and check-in at the hotel.


This was my third time working in Nicaragua, and ISLA’s tenth project collaborating with the Cruz Roja de Nicaragua. The Cruz Roja (national chapter of the Red Cross) primarily operates the disaster preparedness and response, ambulance operations, and lifeguard staffing in the country. Their lifeguard personnel are all volunteers. They take time away from their families and friends to protect the beaches during the busy time of Semana Santa, the week-long cultural celebration of Easter. During this week, the ISLA project team assist in logistics, staffing of the beaches, and on-site training.


The Nicaraguan people are very proud of their culture and the beauty their country has to offer. The vibrantly colored buildings shine in the warm sun, the cheerful locals greet you with a firm embrace, and the painted sunsets never disappoint. After touring Grenada and other parts of the country with our friends in the Cruz Roja, our team was split into two groups to assist in North and South Nicaragua.


The southern team and I spent five days in San Juan Del Sur, located near the southernmost region of the country. This little town, known for its great surf, beautiful beaches and wild nightlife is a peak destination during Semana Santa. To secure the 2km of beach and estimated 15-20 thousand beach patrons, we had five ISLA lifeguards and four Cruz Roja lifeguards. Alongside the local EMS agencies and municipal government, we collaborated on drawing emergency action plans and rolled out safety measures in the event of medical/traumatic emergencies. At night, we slept in the police headquarters alongside members of the national police, fire service and civil defense. We shared the same delicious meals of gallos pintos, plantains, and quesillo; clung to each other while being transported in the back of trucks each morning; and sang loudly in the darkness of night to the same passionate Latin music. Much like working in China, I was sad again to say goodbye to my new and old friends.

I returned home missing my global lifeguard friends, and wishing I could return. I was distraught over the news of the recent civil unrest and turmoil in Nicaragua, as the local Cruz Roja were the primary responders to the violence and injury. Words do not express my feelings towards wanting to aid during this struggle. I was elated to see photos of medical equipment that ISLA donated being used in treating afflicted patients.

I cannot take credit for the work of these trips. These projects are organized and run through the resources of the International Surf Lifesaving Association (ISLA) and their global network of volunteers. The project teams are championed by professional lifeguards who are not only volunteers, but also the donors of the projects. Each volunteer puts their money to work by funding projects, purchasing needed equipment for donations and spending their time to partner in training programs. Special thanks goes out to the ISLA Project China team and to Tommy, Laura and Alannah for their leadership and to our Chinese translators for all of their hard work. Also, to the ISLA Nicaragua Project team, my co-leader Ariel, and our dear friends in the Cruz Roja.

Here are some interesting differences I observed between the two cultures. My favorites were the differences in tailored public health messages within the communities.



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