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A Chance Encounter Far From Home: Robin Donaldson

Duane Conder catches up with “Bird” Donaldson in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua.

I enjoy talking to people, but when I meet a random person in some remote place that happens to have some connection to where I’m from or have been, that’s extra special. Most likely, you have heard the term “it’s a small world” many times. Well, it really is.

Take my family’s recent trip to San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua, for instance. On our first evening there, we attended a book signing at the El Gato Negro Bookstore Cafe. The second person I was introduced to there was Robin Donaldson, and she happened to be from Carlsbad! So needless to say, what a small world it is indeed.

Donaldson grew up in Carlsbad in the ’60s and ’70s on Highland Drive. She says those years were really magical because Carlsbad was such a small community.

“I could ride my bike around town and knew most of the people. You could ride motorcycles on the beach, ride horses on the beach, surf in the jetty. … It was a great place to grow up because you had a lot of room to move around and explore.”

It wasn’t all two-wheelers, hooves and shortboards for “Bird,” as she was known back then. At age 14, by saving her babysitting and yard-work earnings, she and her mom bought a house in the barrio area of Carlsbad. Her mom tasked her with managing the property and keeping it rented. They sold that property in 1976 when she graduated from . With her earnings, she bought the lot at the corner of Carlsbad Village Drive (then Elm Street) and I-5.

“Then I turned around and sold it to Texaco and that profit allowed me to buy a house in Chico and pay for my education there at Chico State University,” she said proudly.

While at CSU in the late ’70s, Donaldson met Mardi Mastain, who is her life partner and was the first person that greeted me that day in the El Gato Negro. Gregarious, outgoing and quite the comedian, Mastain excitedly yelled across the room to get Donaldson over to where we were when I told her I hailed from Carlsbad.

After graduating from CSU with a degree in industrial technology in 1980, Donaldson headed off to China to visit Mastain, who had taken a teaching job there.

“I had no interest in China,” she said. “I was just there to visit Mardi.”

That was just the beginning of a life of worldwide travel, work and adventure together. After a year in China, they went to Taiwan to study Chinese, the year after that they were in San Diego getting their master’s degrees. In 1986, Donaldson joined Mastain’s manufacturing startup based in Shanghai, and by 1989 it was Quicksilver’s largest menswear producer. By 2000, they had offices in Cambodia, China, India, Taiwan and Vietnam that serviced the U.S., European, Japanese and Australian markets. Later that year, they sold their interest in the company in order to retire and explore Africa.

Between 2001 and 2004, Donaldson was lured out of retirement and took various jobs back in China, which afforded her the ability to start investing in property in Nicaragua.

Today, Donaldson and Mastain spend several months out of the year in and around San Juan del Sur, surfing most everyday at Playa Madera beach. They had just taken a break to honor their friend, author and philanthropist Jean Brugger at El Gato.

So there, in a hot little bookstore cafe in Central America, some 2,500 miles from Carlsbad, I met someone who was not only from this town; I met someone whose life adventure began here thanks to her upbringing. Donaldson’s humble work babysitting, cutting grass and managing a property in Carlsbad during her formative years some 40 years ago was indeed the foundation of her drive, perseverance and aptitude for international business that has successfully taken her around the globe several times over.

Bob Donaldson April 21, 2011 at 09:44 PM
As an early inspiration and mentor to my little sister, I'm proud that she has surpassed "the master." Bob Donaldson, Anchorage, AK
Duane Conder April 21, 2011 at 09:54 PM
Hi Sally, I enjoyed visiting with Robin & Mardi and hope to catch up with them again. Like she said to me, and like I repeated in the article, it was your influence on her in the years here that has made her the success she is today. She's certainly a daughter to be proud of! //dc
Evelyn Weidner April 22, 2011 at 06:45 AM
Hi Robin and Mardi, My two favorite people! robin I can just picture you in Carlsbad in those early years. Having fun but still working and making deals.. Life's lessons that you, Robin live and learn by every day from way back then with your Mom to today. "Don't be afraid of taking chances, don't be afrain of making mistakes, don't be afraid of asking someone else for advice but then make your own best decision Evelyn Weidner, Encinitas, Ca
Paul Martinez April 24, 2011 at 02:54 PM
Robin and Mardi story inspires me, on a personal and professional level. when I am working on a project or I am in a tuff situation I have been lucky enough to have them in my life. Love you Robin I am so proud to know you. Paul Martinez
Joi Riley April 26, 2011 at 03:20 AM
If there was a Hall of Cool Robin and Mardi would be the first inductees. It would actually be the alphabetically correct Mardi Mastain-Robin Donaldson Hall of Cool. Joi Riley Talent, OR.

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