Mikayla Mott takes a seat outside the Ding Repair Cafe on a recent Monday morning, a warm winter breeze tousling her long blonde hair and dancing with the wind chimes nearby.
Under the basking sun, she and the restaurant are sheltered from the noise and traffic and throngs of people at the bustling heart of San Juan del Sur, a coastal town in Nicaragua that the 26-year-old East Hampton native has called her second home for nearly three years.
Here, it is mostly peaceful and quiet, just three blocks from the bay.
A month ago, it was an entirely different scene at the unassuming cafe, which served as a staging area following a pair of hurricanes, Eta and Iota, that landed within days of each other and devastated countless communities across the country. Here, Ms. Mott and her team of volunteers raised over $10,000 in donations and collected countless supplies, which they sorted, divvied up and delivered to those in need.
“I’d never done anything like this before. I didn’t have any knowledge whatsoever on how to properly do it, but I was like, ‘People need food. We need the necessities, the essentials,’ and we got so much feedback,” recalled Ms. Mott, who had made her final delivery two days earlier. “Being able to live in a place where something happens and everyone wants to help and support each other — and make sure everyone’s happy and thriving and living and enjoying — for me, that’s what’s important.”
The vibrant, creative energy and communal culture of Nicaragua is what first attracted her to the country during a visit in December 2017, after following a group of her new friends home from surf camp in Costa Rica.
All it took was three days and two nights for her to fall completely in love, she said.
“There’s this beach called Maderas, and we were surfing for sunset there both days and I was just like, ‘Wow, this embodies thoroughly enjoying and living life,’” she said. “The culture here and the values for the community of people, everyone’s really just happy for each other. Everyone’s supportive of each other’s businesses, everyone’s just enjoying, doing their own thing.”
Ms. Mott wouldn’t stay away for long, flying straight back to Nicaragua after attending a yoga teacher training in Thailand. That was February 2018 and, two months later, she would buy a house there, committing herself to summers on the East End — where she runs SwimHamptons, which offers private swim lessons from Westhampton Beach to Montauk — and winters in Central America.
And, as such, she had been back in San Juan del Sur, learning how to run the cafe — where she is now a partner — for just four days when Hurricane Eta unexpectedly made landfall on November 3 as a tropical storm.
Hurricane Iota followed less than two weeks later, marking the most powerful storm to hit Nicaragua in the country’s history. And while San Juan del Sur escaped nearly unscathed, towns as close as 20 minutes north were demolished.
“The infrastructure here is not that strong to begin with,” Ms. Mott said, “so people lost everything in Eta and then they didn’t even have time to recuperate before Iota hit — and Iota ended up being way worse because the ground was so saturated from the rain that it received from Eta.”
Before the hurricanes even landed, Ms. Mott got to work. She posted a call for donations on the cafe’s social media accounts — and that call was answered in spades. Supplies came pouring in, from water, rice, beans and coffee to soap, diapers, baby formula and toilet paper. Donors from the United States wasted no time in giving money, allowing Ms. Mott and her team to fill the gaps at the local grocery store, Maxi Poli, where they would fill 10 carts at a time to the brim.
“Maxi Poli would open up a lane to check out for just us, and we would divide and conquer,” Ms. Mott said. “‘This cart is rice and beans, go pick up as many rice and beans as you can. This cart is soap and laundry detergent, this one is coffee and sugar.’ We’d pack it into our trucks, go to our friend Courtney’s house where a bunch of people would meet us, and we’d basically assembly line it.”
But before making the deliveries, the crew had to wait for the severely flooded rivers to become passable. Bridges had been ripped from their bases, redeposited 100 feet downstream. Videos circulated of people trying to ford the waterways in their trucks, only to make it halfway before they were swept into the current.
About a week later, it was finally time — and Ms. Mott, with a group of 10 volunteers in five trucks, seized the opportunity.
“You’d go up there and all these cars are lined up on the side of the road and everyone’s cheering each other on to get through the river,” she said. “My truck was full of the 5-gallon water jugs. We passed through and pulled over and convoyed, to wait for all the trucks that were with us. And there’s other people in their trucks and everyone’s clapping and waving and hooting and hollering as you go by.”
Navigating pothole-ridden roads, the trucks stopped at ravaged towns and villages up the coast, driving until the mud got too deep. Some locals walked as far as four hours to gather supplies, only to turn around and walk four hours back.
“The first day that we actually finished, we go to the bar after for a beer, everyone chills out and hangs out and just relaxes, and we saw a bunch of Red Cross trucks going by,” Ms. Mott said. “That was really, really cool to see, just knowing they’re here with us, they’re trying to help. It was nice to know that everyone was in it together, trying to help out.”
The team continued to make deliveries over the next two days, expecting that to be the extent of their efforts — but the donations kept coming, and so they kept at it, pivoting from groceries to mattresses to clothing and shoes.
“Our goal was really to try to help the people who needed it the most, so each day we were trying to go farther and farther past the other rivers that had flooded, and we were able to reach two neighborhoods first — so no one had gotten to them before,” Ms. Mott said. “One neighborhood was completely destroyed. You could see the tiling from the floor of this house and there’s just nothing. What almost looks like a desk is the only thing standing in what used to be this house. I have goosebumps talking about it.”
Despite the level of dire need, Ms. Mott said she watched neighbors helping neighbors, whether it was a man passing feminine hygiene products to a woman, or a childless family giving their diapers to a mother. But she also had to navigate difficult conversations when it came to limiting donations to one bag per family, even if they begged and pleaded for more.
“It’s hard to be the person to be like, ‘We’re here to help, but also we can’t help,’ you know what I mean? So that was kind of hard,” she said. “And it was also like, who am I to decide who gets a bag and who doesn’t get a bag? And who are we to decide who we help and who we don’t help? That, for me, was really hard. Like, why are we the deciders on who we can help? That stuck with me a lot.”
She sighed deeply, the wind chimes tinkling in the background. “But then it was like, ‘Okay, we’re doing the best that we can and we are helping in some way,’” she said. “I was trying to remember, yes, we can’t help everyone and we do have to make some hard decisions and say some uncomfortable things, knowing that overall we are helping — I hope.”
Ms. Mott and her team will use the remaining funds to buy concrete and hire builders to assist with reconstruction, and anyone interested in donating can reach out to Ms. Mott via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Looking back on this entire effort, Ms. Mott said she will return to the East End as a changed person next summer, forever affected by what she saw and experienced over the last month.
“It just makes you appreciate all the little things and makes you be so incredibly grateful for everything,” she said. “And when you’re having a bad day, you can change it with your mindset — and then you think back to all these people who are smiling and laughing, and their houses just got washed away, or their furniture just got washed away.
“The country here is so resilient and they just bounce back from everything,” she continued, “and I think that’s taught me a lot. It’s always gonna work out, everything’s always going to be okay. You just have to work on it.”
As published in the Southampton Press