Building a dream in Nicaragua

Muffadal SaylawalaWhen I heard there’d been a hurricane in Nicaragua (paired with a 7.2 earthquake in El Salvador on the same day), I immediately thought to reach out to Muffadal Saylawala. I wanted to make sure he was okay, and at the same time learn more about what he’s up to there.

Turns out the town he lives in was evacuated to higher ground, but the hurricane did more damage on the Caribbean side of the country.

I caught up with Muffadal on a Saturday night. As we spoke, there was the sound of fireworks bursting in the background. Just another Saturday night in Nicaragua.

So Muffa, where are you exactly?

I’m in San Juan del Sur, in the south of Nicaragua, on the Pacific side. It’s the only real town on the southern coast of Nicaragua, with a population of about 15,000. To the north and south there are amazing beaches; there are offshore winds all the time. It’s paradise. It’s a really beautiful part of the world.

It used to be a fishing village, but it’s kind of a boom town right now. It’s developing very fast. Tourism continues to pick up every year; there’s like double-digit growth. Everyone is remodeling, upping their game.

How did you decide on Nicaragua?

Muffadal on the landNicaragua chose me. It wasn’t that conscious; it just happened. I was someone who liked to go new places, but for some reason, Nicaragua is one of the first places that I  ever returned to.

I feel like it’s an opportune time to be here. The country has a rough history, with resilient people. The travel industry is helping to bring along a new dawn of Nicaragua. The area attracts the backpacker crowd, the surfer crowd, the party crowd, plus the ultra luxury crowd.

By being here, I’m able to influence how it develops. To help it not become like Cancun, party central, but to preserve the spirit of the place. Being in a small town in a small country allows me to have a disproportionate impact on how things happen.

What are you working on there?

Circulo Initiative, which is the umbrella project of a collection of four businesses dedicated to regeneration in all senses of the word: economic, environmental, social, communal and the human spirit. We want to create experiences that blow people’s minds with hospitality, food, and adventure travel.

Casa Oro is the bread and butter of the project. Right now I spend most of my time there. It’s a building in the center of town that used to be a big family house. We gutted it and renovated it, and now it houses the hostel, a surf shop, and a restaurant with a lounge bar. We’re still renovating, adding another floor, so we’re not renting beds in the hostel right now. But we opened the restaurant two weeks ago.

We have two bed-and-breakfasts with six bedrooms each on the hill above town. They have a really views, a pool; they’re more like a honeymoon or retreat place. We’re also a vendor for all of the tours and activities in town and some in other towns as well. We also run tours and a shuttle service.

And then there’s the farm that’s about 6 kilometers south of town. It’s our lab where we’re beginning to develop infrastructure. I see us using the land to grow food and to incubate small cottage business, and maybe build an ecolodge.

I work with a lot of people. My dad and my uncle are the elders, the investors. I’m the visionary on the ground. Plus I’ve hired different teams of people: drivers, admins,  accounting, a legal person, all the normal business stuff.

It sounds like you’re working on a lot of projects.

I’ve been here two years full time. I really didn’t plan for all of this. I came here to lay in a hammock on a hill! I was planning to build everything with my own hands. Now there’s like a 100 sets of hands, so it’s gone a lot faster. We’re moving at a blockbuster pace — way faster than I’d ever imagined.

It’s a network of businesses; it’s not just one business. This is not for the faint of heart. I work 15-17 hours a day, every day. Am I always working or am I never working? Am I working or am I socializing? Because I’m always in this mode, the people I work with are the people I hang out with.

One of the tragedies of our society is this specialist mentality where people think they can only do on thing at a time.I like the mess of it all, the clusterfuck. One of the tragedies of our society is this specialist mentality where people think they can only do one thing at a time.

I try to explain to people what I’m trying to accomplish, but a lot of times the “aha” moment is when I take people up to the hill on our land. You climb up and you see the view; somehow from there, it becomes easier to visualize how it all comes together.

In a forest, you’ve got all these trees, fungi, roots, and vines. All of them are interrelated; none of them can exist independently. If that tree isn’t there, what’s the vine going to climb up? If the tall trees don’t make the canopy to create shade, how would the shade-loving plants grow? These things are super dependent on one another for life to be able to thrive. They can maybe survive, but to really thrive, they work together.

What if we could design an ecosystem of businesses where they start working together in a similar way? One plus one could equal a million.

In an ecosystem where businesses are interrelating with each other, one project’s trash is another project’s treasure. For example, we started a composting program for our houses and some other businesses. We’re working to expand it town-wide. But it was only possible for us to start it because we also run a shuttle service that goes around town anyway.

What’s your biggest challenge right now?

Nicaragua is the second poorest country in the western hemisphere. People here are not accustomed to high-end stuff. I’m a detail-oriented person with very high expectations in terms of quality. The biggest challenge is translating that in a way that’s understandable to and executable by people who haven’t had the same experiences in life that I’ve had thus far.

Low and high level corruption is a normal way of doing business here. I’ve been blessed to have traveled a lot and experienced a lot. So coming back to real work, the regeneration idea: changing the work culture, treating people with respect, hugging everyone. Things that seem so trite have made such a big difference.

Do you speak Spanish?

I don’t think we would’ve been able to do what we’ve done if I didn’t speak Spanish, especially for this price. At this point, I think and dream in Spanish. I speak it better than I speak Gujarati and Hindi, which were the first languages that I learned.

What’s next?

Next is putting more onda, more of our vibe, into what we’re doing. We’ve rooted and invested. We’ve done the process of reimagining and redesigning and remodeling. Now I’m excited to finish the construction in Casa Oro and really make it a hub of awesomeness,  really establishing it as the spot in Central America.

All of that comes after creating the space and putting energy into it every day. Then  finding the people who can keep it going, building more spaces. I’m curious about doing more stuff out on the farm or maybe getting more property. I’d like to do more building, but from scratch, rather than renovating an existing property.

We’re just getting started. I think about doing more of this in more places, around the region and around the world. If we go other places I’d want to develop it in a similar style. I’m also working with some friends to organize a surf / yoga / meditation retreat. Stay tuned!

Where to find Muffadal

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