Inside a Managua Police Station: Theft, Perspective, & Helping One Another

A tickle. My eyes remained closed. A familiar tiny sting, followed by a tingling sensation. I looked out between lashes, groggily coming to consciousness. Rain pattered on the tin roof and blooped on the pool. I rolled my head to the side towards conversation in accented English. German. Unmistakable. I turned back and closed my eyes again. I scratched at my ankle, then my bicep, my knee. I became increasingly aware of the multiple sources of tingling with each moment that passed.

Finally, I gave in and opened my eyes. I sat up in the hammock to survey the damage. I counted seven and acknowledged this battle lost. I made a mental note to resort to chemical warfare before future siestas and looked up to the gray sky. Nicaragua. I am in Nicaragua, I thought to myself. A smirk emerged with the thought.

“Buenos días”, the German voice announced.

“Buenos días, indeed.”

“I am sorry if we disturbed you.”

“Oh, no. It’s all good. No worries. I mean, está bien.”

The German voice belonged to a young woman, who sat in a red plastic chair against the wall. On the wooden picnic table sat the Australian man I passed upon my entrance. His shoulders drooped a bit, but he spoke eagerly with the woman.

“So, yeah, it’s official. I can leave Nicaragua! That’s why I tell people it makes a difference to work through a travel agency, and to get to know them. I am going to have send my girl some flowers or something!”

“Congratulations!” The woman responded with a smile.

I pulled myself out of the hammock and walked to the table. I plopped down and straddled the bench.

“I take it you have had quite an experience here?” I asked.

“You could say that, mate. I was supposed to leave Nicaragua about two weeks ago. I finally get to leave tomorrow.”

I laughed.

“Okay, this sounds like a good story. What happened?”

He sighed, then went on to tell the tale. It was a prime example of a traveling nightmare: Tica bus. Stolen bag. Everything gone.

“Oh shit! Damn, man. That sucks. So why did you have to stay?” I inquired further.

“Well, I was supposed to travel through the States. But the new temporary passport I was issued via the Australian embassy in Mexico did not have the US Through Visa. I need that to pass through the States. Your country, no offense, is not the easiest to deal with when it comes to traveling. I asked if I could still enter to catch my connection and they wouldn’t talk to me about it. They said come back and see us in two weeks. They didn’t care that my flight was in a couple of days. They basically said, ‘It’s not our problem’. So I missed my original flight home. Since then, I’ve been back and forth with my travel agent to book me a new flight that doesn’t go through the U.S. I just found out they booked it for me. It has something like four layovers, and I don’t even want to think about how much it cost.”

He took a deep breath and chuckled.

“Well, you seem to be in fairly good spirits,” I noted.

“Yeah, mate. I really don’t care at this point. I’m just glad to be going home. When it happened, I wasn’t shocked or upset or angry. I was just a little annoyed at myself for allowing it to happen to me. But, I understand why it happened.”

“Why’s that?”

“Well, I was on the Tica bus, you know the locals bus. I had my bag in the rack above my head. I was holding onto it. But then I started talking with the person next to me and dropped my arm. Two minutes later I put my hand back up and my bag was gone. Bam! Just like that…” He snapped his fingers.

“Wow. Damn.” I replied open-mouthed.

“But, I mean, it was merely opportunistic. In a country with this much poverty, I should have known better. And I’m not condoning stealing, but I also understand it.” He concluded.

He continued, “I think the worst part is going to be explaining to the guys back at work how I lost my badge.”

“Wait, you’re a police officer?!”

Laughter all around.

“Yes, yes I am a Federal Police Officer in Australia.” He admitted and hung his head with a smile. “I am sure I won’t hear the end of this for awhile.”

“So it goes…a humbling experience, no doubt.” I added.

“Now, I just have one big task left. In order for my insurance to accept my claim for my stolen items, I need to have an official police report. And I need to have it before I leave tomorrow. And I don’t speak any Spanish.” He said, and drew out the ‘and’ each time.

“Damn, well good luck with that!”

I laughed at the notion. I imagined this guy walking into a Managua police station without being able to speak the language. On top of that, he needed to have something done quickly. He laughed along with me.

“Yeah, I don’t have my hopes up too high. But, the guys at the front desk here said there should be at least one person at the station who speaks English. And it’s supposedly just a few blocks from here. So I am about to head out for that. Wish me luck.”

“Well, I speak a bit of Spanish. How about I join you? Maybe I can help with the translation. And I am curious to see how this saga comes to an end.” I offered.

“Yeah, mate. That would be great. You ready to head out now?”

“Yep, just lemme go change out of my board shorts and put my stuff away.”

As we walked out of the hostel, he extended his hand.

“Oh, yeah. By the way, my name is Anthony, or Ant.”

“Jameson, mucho gusto.”

This was my first adventure more than one block away from the hostel. I took in my surroundings.The sky still threatened to rain. We hung a right onto a smaller side street. Two men clambered to the top of a tree, machetes and handsaws in tow. They hacked and sawed furiously. The limbs and branches fell down into the street without warning. I walked through some of the debris, avoided a passing car by inches, and falling branches by a few feet. I laughed nervously and watched Ant walk below the men. We took another left at the next street. The sidewalk was under construction. An excavator moved mounds of dirt. Three men with pick axes dug away at the remaining concrete. I swung out into the street, around another pile of tree limb debris, stopped short and turned sideways to avoid a passing produce truck.

We rejoined where the sidewalk remained intact. We struck up the usual traveler conversation about current and past travels. Ant explained the current trip was a two week vacation, a “quick getaway or vacation as you Americans call it”.

He explained he had been traveling for 15 years. He had done a number of round-the-world trips lasting months on end. He had lost count of the number of countries he had visited.  He told me about adventures of swimming with sharks and rays in Belize, playing with unchained tigers in Thailand, climbing the base camp of the Matterhorn in Switzerland, kiteboarding in Bali, volcano trekking in Nicaragua, and on and on. He also was deployed with the U.N. to conflict torn areas near Australia like East Timor. I asked if he had ever encountered anything like his current problem. He had not. This would be the first time he needed to use his traveler’s insurance. As we chatted, we approached a busy intersection. I noticed a squat building with faded light blue paint on the opposite side.

“I think that might be it.” I announced.

We stopped and watched traffic careen through the intersection. Staccato beeps of motos and deep bellows of truck horns filled the thick mid afternoon air. The cross traffic stopped. We began to cross. We stopped abruptly. Perpendicular traffic plunged into the intersection and veered off to the left. At each open interval of the turning traffic, the cross traffic advanced. We stood firm, rocks diverting the flow of water. I looked behind me, and then to the right, and made a run for it. I turned around to see all traffic stopped as the two women nudged their way across the street. Ant walked along with them, a huge grin on his face.

“I see you. Do as the locals do, eh?” I remarked.

We walked up to the smudge-streaked glass door covered in noticias and walked into a crowded waiting room. I felt the familiar, uncomfortable feeling of being the object on display. We approached the only desk in the room. A man in a plain short sleeve blue button down shirt sat at the desk. He spoke rapidly with a woman. Once the woman reluctantly took one of the few remaining available seats, it was our turn.

“Hola. I need to file a report,” Ant declared to the man.

His brow furrowed, well worn wrinkles spread across his forehead.

“Hola. Buenas tardes. Necesitamos una persona se habla inglés, por favor.” I interjected.

“No hablo inglés.” He shook his head slowly.

“Nadie aquí?” I persisted, despite the intuitive sense that he would not be eager to oblige us even if there were someone around who did speak English.

“Nadie.”

“Mañana?”

“No. Nadie. Todas días.” He shook his head with each response.

“Okay. Vamos a volver con una persona que habla mejor español.” I relented.

“What did he say?” Ant asked.

“He said he doesn’t speak English and that no one here speaks English. Not tomorrow, not ever. And I said we would come back with someone who speaks better Spanish.”

“Do you think you could try to speak to him in Spanish and try to get the report?” Ant hopefully inquired.

“No, man. My Spanish is rusty to begin with, and I don’t have the vocabulary for this specific context. And given how many people are here, I don’t think they are going to go to great lengths for some extranjeros who had their shit stolen, and cannot even speak their language fluently. I suggest we go back to the hostel and find someone who speaks fluently, maybe one of the guys working there, and have them come back with us to help with translation.”

“Yeah, you’re probably right. Okay. Let’s go.”

We picked up our conversation as we returned to the hostel. We talked about our families, life on the road, and the mutual passion for exploring unknown worlds and people. Upon our return, we considered who we could enlist to help us. After a few polite rejections, Ant’s face lit up.

“Oh, Rolando! The guy from Peru.”

“I have not met him. Who is he?” I replied.

“He is a great guy from what I know of him. But he does not speak much English, so that has made it kind of difficult for us to talk at length. Maybe we could talk to him and between your Spanish, and his English, explain the situation?”

“Sure. Sounds good.”

We found Rolando sitting in the first outdoor courtyard. He typed away at his laptop. He looked up when Ant said Hello. Ant explained his predicament in English.

“Entiendes?” I asked once Ant finished.

“Si, si, si. I will help. It is no problem,” Rolando responded.

“Really, mate? Are you sure? It’s okay if you don’t have time.” Ant replied.

“Claro. It is good that I help. Si te ayudo, vendrá de nuevo a mí. How do people say in inglés? Karma? Si? I finish my work. Then we go. Está bien?”

“When? How long?” Ant inquired.

“Porque la estación de policía cierra a las cuatro.” I added.

“Ah, si, si. En una hora y media? Está bien?” Rolando offered.

Ant looked at his watch.

“It is 2:00 right now. Could we maybe leave in an hour to make sure we have enough time? Is that okay?”

“Si, si. Está bien.” Rolando replied without hesitation.

We bid him goodbye and walked to the second outdoor courtyard. Ant found an open hammock and announced his intention to take a siesta. I thought of his plight. Despite all he had been through, he had remained upbeat. I recalled the first time I noticed him. I sought to distance myself from him. Why was that again? The phone call! He had been clearly frustrated. I had sensed that. Yet, since that point I had heard nothing but optimism, passion, and humility. His actions spoke loudly when you considered what he had been through these past few weeks. That positivity was palpable. I spent the next hour reading as the rain softly fell around me.

“Si, si, si. En cuantos minutos? Si, está bien.”

I looked to see Rolando on the phone as he entered the courtyard. He nodded at my wave. Ant slowly opened his eyes and looked up at Rolando, who now stood over him. Soon, he was off the phone.

“So, I talk…um…with a person I know. We will go meet him. He will help us.” Rolando explained.

“Okay, great. Right now? And where do we meet him?” Ant sat up.

“We go now to a different police station. I think, maybe a short cab ride. Está bien?”

“Yeah, of course. Está bien.”

We hailed a cab down the road from the hostel. Rolando spoke in rapid Spanish to the driver. The driver nodded his head. We hopped in. As we traveled cobble-stone and concrete streets in varying degrees of disrepair, we passed more barrios. Men stood outside on street corners. Their conversations paused to gaze at us as we passed. I peered through an iron bar fence that ran along the street. Children ran barefoot along dirt alleyways, with huge smiles attached to their faces. Our driver beeped intermittently at other traffic, pedestrians, and the occasional dog or pig that blocked our way. The steady beat of Reggaeton played quietly from the radio. We turned onto a wider street that teemed with pedestrians of all kinds. Each side of the road was lined with street vendors and stalls. I saw goods and foods of all types. The car slowed in order to snake its way through the river of humans, dogs, chickens, and pigs. Eyes peered in through the open windows at us. The car stopped. Directly ahead the road veered right away from a narrow walkway. A large sign hung over the walkway which I could not translate but interpreted as an entrance. Past the sign was nothing but tiny stalls, outside of some were different frutas y verduras.

“Mercado Orientale”, Rolando pointed ahead. “We are here.” He also announced.

Ant paid the driver the 60 cordobas and we got out. Rolando pointed to the left, towards an enclosed compound, replete with armed police. Beyond the barbed wire adorned gate and fence were several one story, drab buildings. Parked outside were a number of motorbikes, trucks, and police cars. Uniformed officers milled about the courtyard. As we walked towards the compound, a man waved to us. Rolando and the man embraced. They spoke with smiles on their faces.

“Anthony, Jameson, this is Mendoza.” Rolando led the introductions. After the formal greetings, Mendoza led us to the gate where an armed guard awaited us.

“Hola. Buenos días.” The guard extended a hand, shook firmly, and then closed the gate behind us. Heavy metal clanked together.

The police officers who stood inside the courtyard talked and laughed with one another. Their faces turned serious. They nodded their heads as we walked by. Once we entered the compound their conversation and laughter resumed. Mendoza approached an open office, knocked, and saluted the man at the desk. Following a brief conversation, he returned and spoke with Rolando. Rolando nodded, and said “Si, si.”

Then, Mendoza walked down the hall to another office. Again, he saluted. Officers strolled in and out of the offices. They greeted one another warmly each time. One officer entered, curtsied, and effeminately said “Hola jefe”, to a course of laughter from the others. I laughed quietly to myself.

Five minutes passed before Mendoza returned with another man. He introduced the man as the lieutenant that would take the report. We followed the man down the hall. The hall was dimly lit by the sunlight streaming in from the narrow windows that lined the top of each office. I peaked into each office as we passed. 

The walls of the offices stopped two feet short of the ceiling. This gave a sense of openness. It also meant you could clearly hear each conversation. The second office to the left contained a man who pecked away at a typewriter with his index fingers at his desk. The next office housed a man in a white tank top undershirt, with jean shorts that drooped below his waistline. He flailed his arms as he spoke. The large female officer looked at him with raised eyebrows. She cut him off and told him to sit down. In yet another office, two female officers sat behind desks that were perpendicular to one another. One lazily watched a television in the corner of the room. The other folded items into a plastic bag as she listened to a third female, a civilian, wail on and on about her hijo.

We turned into the last office on the right side of the hall. Inside were two desks, one where the lieutenant took a seat facing a turn of the millennium IBM desktop computer, complete with a tower next to it. Sitting on the other desk was an antique typewriter turned up on its end in an apparent state of perpetual disrepair. Rolando stood next to the lieutenant, with Ant by his side. Mendoza and I stood next took one another near the door, all forming a half circle around the lieutenant.

Office in the Managua Police Station

Office in the Managua Police Station

“Pasaporte.” The lieutenant declared.

Rolando turned to Ant and asked for his passport. Ant handed his newly issued temporary passport over to Rolando, who handed it to the lieutenant. He opened it up, and pecked away the information on the keyboards with only his index fingers.

“Edad?” The lieutenant asked sharply.

“He wants to know your age.” Rolando explained to Ant.

“Thirty seven”, Ant responded.

“Treinta siete”, Rolando interpreted.

This process continued on for an hour. The lieutenant barked out questions, Rolando translated them in English, Ant answered, and Rolando interpreted them into Spanish. At times when Rolando struggled to translate the Spanish into English, I assisted. The room turned very somber when the questions turned to the items stolen.

“He needs to know each item that was stolen and how much it was worth.” Rolando explained to Ant.

“Okay. Olympus camera. Three hundred dollars.” He started.

Mendoza raised his eyebrows.

“Canon 7D with three lenses. Probably around $8,000.”

“Ochocientos?” The lieutenant asked for confirmation that we had said eight hundred dollars.”

“No, ocho-cero-cero-cero.”  Rolando and I responded in unison.

“Qué tipo de cámara?!” Mendoza exclaimed.

“Cámara professional.” I explained. I grabbed my imaginary lens far out in front of me to mimic the size of the lens.

“Ohhhh. Cámara professional.” Mendoza gritted his teeth and sucked in air. He turned to the lieutenant and explained.

Ant continued to list the items. Wallet with $200 U.S. dollars. Passport. Driver’s license. Samsung Galaxy 4s. Police badge.

“Policia también?” Mendoza asked and pointed excitedly at Ant.

“Yes. Yes, policia.” Ant responded again with his head down, a smirk spread across his face.

Mendoza turned and chatted excitedly with the lieutenant. Both burst into another fit of laughter. Rolando and I both laughed at the entire scene.

“Mañana los titulares en el periódico: Oficial de la policía de Australia robaron en Nicaragua”, Mendoza exclaimed while he held his imaginary newspaper.

The lieutenant, Mendoza, Rolando, and I all laughed loudly. I clapped my hands and heaved forward in another round of laughter.

“What did he say?” Ant asked.

“He said tomorrow the newspaper headlines are going to read ‘Australian police officer robbed in Nicaragua’”, I explained to him.

Ant laughed.

“Yeah, I knew that I would never hear the end of this. I am glad everyone is having a good time with this. I am just doing my best to bring a little more joy to the world.” Ant replied with a smile.

The lieutenant asked Ant to look at the screen to confirm the details. Then the lieutenant spoke to Rolando and Mendoza.

“We are finished. It is printing in another office. Let’s go.” Rolando motioned towards the door.

We followed the lieutenant across the hallway into the office with the two female officers. One of the officers stood up to allow the lieutenant to sit at a desk with a printer. The printer hummed loudly and beeped as it printed, and then whizzed as it returned to the next line. The paper had perforated edges and was connected in one sheet, with perforations also separating the pages.

I remembered seeing these printers when I visited my father’s business as a kid. A bit of nostalgia washed over me. When the noise settled, the lieutenant ripped at the last perforation, and handed a copy to Ant. We shook hands with him and thanked him. Mendoza led us back outside into the courtyard and to the gate. The officers all solemnly nodded once again. The guard at the gate shook our hands once more. Mendoza told us to wait as he walked further down the street to get a cab for us.

“No es seguro aquí.” Rolando explained.

“Yo se. Yo se. I figured that.” I responded.

Mendoza walked up with a cab rolling along next to him. As we approached the cab, the driver said something to Mendoza, and then left. He shrugged his shoulders. He turned and whistled for the next cab he saw. It pulled up, he spoke with the driver.

“Okay.” Mendoza declared.

We shook hands with him and thanked him. We hopped in the cab, shut the doors, and weaved through the river of people and animals back to our hostel.

“So how do you feel?!” I asked Ant.

“Mate, I feel so good. So relieved. I never thought I’d actually be able to get this thing.” He said as he held up his report. “And I would have never been able to do it without the help from you guys and Mendoza. I owe you all big time. So thanks again.” He continued.

“No worries, man. Glad to help.” I responded.

“Of course. It is what makes the world go around, to help one another.” Rolando explained.

“Well, beers on me when we get back to the hostel.” Ant offered.

We all laughed.

“Sounds good to me. What do you think, Rolando?” I asked.

“Está bien. Todo está bien.”

Granada: 5 PM on a Work Day

The streets are lively and colorful at 5:00 on this weekday in Granada. Volcán Mombacho looms in the background.

The streets are lively and colorful at 5:00 on this weekday in Granada. Volcán Mombacho looms in the background.

GRANADA, Nicaragua is known for its colonial architecture, cathedrals, and rich history. The city was officially founded in 1524 by Spanish conquistador Francisco Hernández de Córdoba. It was the first European city in America. It also served as the historical sister capital of Central America with Antigua, Guatemala. It was also the home of William Walker, the American lawyer and adventurer who usurped the power from the natives and established himself as President of the Republic of Nicaragua in 1856. He was overthrown by a coalition of Central American armies in 1857 and subsequently executed in Honduras. One of his generals, Charles Frederick Henningsen, set the city ablaze before escaping, destroying much of the ancient city. However, what was preserved and rebuilt did survive much of the Revolutionary fighting in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. It is widely considered the tourist hub of Nicaragua. Given its tranquility, beautiful colonial homes and surrounding geography, and inexpensive cost of living, there is no doubt as to why it has also become a popular destination for ex-patriates from the United States and Western European countries.

Managua: First Impressions & Reflections on Traveling in a Developing Country

“HABLAS inglés?”

I overheard the heavy Australian accented Spanish coming from the man on the telephone. His face was red, his brow furrowed, and his body rigidly leaned on the desk. The cord stretched across the desk to where the Nicaraguan employee was sitting. We exchanged glances. I raised my eyebrows. He shook his head. I widened my eyes and waved goodbye. I walked through the open courtyard, where the midday sun once again wrapped me up in its oppressive embrace. Once I saw the translucent blue of the pool, I knew how I was going to spend the rest of my day, my first day, in Nicaragua.

As I floated, I stared at the sky. Brilliant blue and fluffy white was being encroached upon by various shades of grays and black, a drifting sorted out puzzle whose focal point was increasingly menacing. I reflected on my first impressions of the country, of the capital city Managua, and my journey. I arrived with little more than my 60 liter pack and small daypack. I did little research in preparing for the trip, other than learning the basic geography of the city, and how to arrive at my first destination–Managua Backpackers Inn– where I had booked a one night stay. I did not want to be loaded with ideas gleaned from the experiences and prejudices of others. I did not want have a constructed image of Nicaragua and its people in the shape of my expectations. Nor did I want a list of places to see and things to do that would dictate the course of my days and travel. Rather, I wanted to approach Managua, Nicaragua, and the trip as a whole with an all encompassing emptiness.

I have found that when I am unburdened with expectations or structure, I can experience a completely unknown place and people with total flexibility, a child-like naïveté. That openness engenders present-mindedness, which in turn promotes an embrace of any and all experiences. It’s an opening up to the world so that the world will open up to you. In short, it’s a method to living in the now.

The thunder rumbled. I noticed the storm was directly overhead. I dried off, laid in a hammock, and watched the storm roll in.  Lightning lit up the sky, but without a visible strike. A brilliant yellow-green breasted bird dove from the starfruit tree to dip in the pool. It swooped back up over the barbed wire atop the red cement wall and onto its perch. There, it sang its song, which brought mockingbirds to my mind because of the boastful boisterousness.

I continued to reminisce on my experiences to that point, which were all of my arrival to the airport and taxi cab ride to the hostel. The descent into Managua had been visually stunning, and intellectually perplexing. The simultaneous sight of Laguna de Apoyeque, Isla de Momotombito, and Volcán Momotombo was too much for words. Hugging the coastline of Lago de Managua was the city of Managua, a grid of tin and clay roofed homes, a mosaic glinting in the sunlight and affixed to a dense green backdrop. The highlands surrounded the verdant valley, like a natural gate, with Momotombo as the ultimate sentry. I remembered thinking, “How could this be the capital city? Where were the skyscrapers? Or at least, a cluster of buildings taller than two stories? How could two million people be living down there?” Those immediate reactions had led me to the conclusion that Managua was going to be altogether different than anything I had experienced.

Laguna de Apoyeque, Isla de Momotombito, y Volcán Momotombo

Laguna de Apoyeque, Isla de Momotombito, y Volcán Momotombo

Managua: Home of two of the six million living Nicaragua

Managua: Home of two of the six million living in Nicaragua

During the landing, I had noticed multiple towers strung along the perimeter. Guards in military fatigues stood at attention with rifles slung across their shoulders. This exception aside, the airport reminded me of Akron or Tallahassee. It was an unimpressive gray building, with one terminal. Customs and baggage claim were located on the bottom floor. I had breezed through customs and made my way through dozens of families awaiting loved ones and touts awaiting people like me, the gringoes, when the first economic transaction experience happened (the $10 Entrance Fee notwithstanding). When traveling in developing countries, these experiences draw out the uncomfortable reminders of the economic disparities between traveler and local. It brings about critical questions that we more easily avoid in our day to day. It’s much easier to remain in a bubble of your own relative comfort when you have at least a basic level of Western wealth. (Basic: You can provide the basic necessities without incident on a consistent basis). Throw yourself into traveling to a developing country (or the impoverished neighborhoods of your own city/town, for that matter) and you must face your intuitive sense of wrong and injustice. These experiences force self-reflection upon the traveler, and/or trigger a return to the comforts of ignorance and escapism. It hadn’t been long after officially entering the country that I was considering this exact dilemma.

- -

“Amigo! Taxi? Necesitas taxi?”

“Señor, te gusta surfiar? San Juan del Sur?”

Eyes fixed straight ahead, I made my way through the initial wall of offers. I had learned via the hostel’s website that the taxi should cost between $10-20 US, depending on negotiation, and should take approximately 30 minutes. With that in mind, I collected myself, and accepted the first tout I found in open space.

“Cuántos?”

No response.

“Cuántos para el taxi?”

I waited patiently as I knew he wouldn’t discuss figures until he had me damn near in the car, thereby gaining leverage in the situation. I followed him outside where I was then introduced to the taxi driver. He greeted me with a smile and an extended hand. Once my large pack was stored in the trunk, we began the negotiation process.

“Veinte dos. Vamos!” The driver made the initial offer of $22.

“Noooo. Quince.”

The tout and driver looked at one another and spoke rapidly.

“Veinte.”

“No. It should be $15. Quince.”

Once again, they exchanged looks.

“Diez y siete.”

“Quince.”

A heave of shoulders and harder looks followed my stubborn response.

“Diez y siete”, the driver said, and horizontally swept his arm across the air between us.

“Okay. Diez y siete.”

As they parted ways, I wondered if I saw them exchange an eye roll and knowing look. Once I was in the taxi, my guilt set in. I had heard statistics that painted a bleak picture. Seventy five percent of Nicaraguans living on less than $2 a day. Nearly half living below the poverty line. Without knowing the source or veracity of these statistics, it was easy to remain uncertain about the depths of the poverty. But once the taxi wheeled me towards my hostel, it was impossible to deny the reality I saw through my window. The term dirt poor was evoked. Here, it was not an embellishment. Families hunkered under porches, away from the hard gaze of the sun, and watched the world pass by in front of their eyes. Street vendors hawked items in the median or alternatively walked in between the thick midday traffic. Children, barefoot and in tattered clothes, played in dirt alleyways. Though, their huge smiles indicated no worries about their economic plight. A young woman adeptly balanced a basket of sliced mangoes on the top of her head in between lanes at a busy intersection. Another man, whom we nearly hit, walked by with sandwich sized plastic bags of water. These were not the street vendors of Khao San Road in Bangkok hustling to sell cheap souvenirs to drunk tourists and backpackers. These were people selling basic items to their own people. And if many were in the same economic boat, how much could they possibly be making? What were they living on? And I bartered to save $5 on a taxi ride?

I struck up an intermittent conversation with the driver, Mario, as I often do on my taxi rides, to humanize the experience. I learned that he had two children, ages 18 and 13. I wondered if they went to school. How much did groceries cost? How much was rent? Mario easily navigated the traffic and its accompanying chaos (or at least it was chaos to my Western eyes). Passing barrio after barrio with more of the same scenes, I decided I would tip Mario.

Thoughts intruded in on any sense of self-satisfaction or peace of mind.

Does it help? Is this the embodiment of white guilt? Would it be patronizing to do so? My so called generosity demonstrating I could have paid the full price all along? 

“Estamos aquí.” Mario announced.

“No recuerdo. Has dicho que el dolár esta bien?” I asked.

“Si. Cordoba. Dolár. Esta bien.” He replied with nonchalance.

“Diez y siete…y dos para tus niños.” I declared as I handed him the negotiated fare, along with two extra dollars.

“Ok. Gracias.”

Was that the sign of a smile? Appreciation? Or did I imagine what I wanted to see? Did my presence here help the people? Should I have just dispassionately accepted the interaction as normal economic exchange? Or was I contributing to the systemic injustices by exploiting the value of the dollar in an impoverished country where goods and services are significantly cheaper by comparison? How was it all tied together? Could all of these things be true?

- -

I took a deep breath and pulled myself back to the present. These thoughts, the mental wandering. If I do not let go and sit with the discomfort, accept the inherent contradictions and confusion, the questions will pile on top of one another, with no conclusions, and often no resolution. Maintaining a healthy perspective that’s focused on now is the only way to preserve any shred of a peaceful mind. So I continued to take deep breaths, closed my eyes, and reminded myself.

Just as a wound will not heal in an instant, these questions will not be answered in one moment, and these problems will not be solved in one day. Everything is here and now. Do not try to flee this moment. Let these thoughts, feelings, and experiences be. Accept it all. These experiences are for you. Receive them openly and embrace any feelings. If it moves you in a different direction, go with it.

I wanted an end to the anxiety, a permanent resolution.“Yes, my tourist money helps these people.” would have been ideal. At minimum, I wished I could conclude that, “No, my presence here is negative”. But, I had to let go of that desire. I needed to see the process as the goal, not the end.

I have run from personal and interpersonal conflict or sought easy solutions. More often than not these solutions were selfish and brought about a conclusion that was best for me, at the expense of someone else.  Too often I have classified struggles, setbacks, obstacles, and challenges as negative that are to be avoided or quickly and decidedly resolved. Too often I have sought out only what is classified as positive: joy, contentment, exhilaration, triumph. My desire to avoid the former and have the latter ignores the power of vulnerability. It denies the human fact of my limitations and ignores the necessity of my humility. I have wanted to have the answers to my questions. I wanted them to be ones with which I easily agreed.

The fact of economic disparity begs the question for the traveler: Is responsible travel in developing countries possible? If so, what does that look like? What are the attitudes of a responsible traveler? What are the actions? On a grander scale, questions of economic and social justice as a whole naturally follow. And ultimately, your own personal fate is inextricable tied with those you see through a taxi cab window, or those you pass by on the street of your major US city. So what do you do?

These are questions for which I do not have the answers. There are no easy or pleasant conclusions. I do know that I am again provided another opportunity to turn the course of my personal history with regards to difficult problems. I do not have to run from these challenges or find a comfortable solution. I can sit with them, internalize them, and keep doing the work on myself. I can sit with them, ground myself in love and empathy, and be open to receive more wisdom. I can embrace the process and relinquish the desire for the end.

I took this journey with the intention of being open to any and all experiences. Two hours in, and I had been given the experiences. Two hours in, and I was being challenged. Indeed, I knew this country, the people, and this trip would challenge me to see more, learn more, to change, and grow. Here was the opportunity to align my actions with belief. These challenges are life and thus beautiful. With the afternoon thundershower underway, I closed my eyes, and escaped into a siesta.

Love Lost, Los Angeles, and a Return to the Road

THE last time I was on the road was two years ago. I left the U.S. with few formal plans in September 2012 to travel throughout Southeast Asia. By the time I returned in December, I had visited Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines (and China, briefly). I also had scrapped plans to return to school for a Ph. D in philosophy in favor of a free-floating existence. In May of last year, I was once again scrapping plans. This time it was a trip to Costa Rica and Central America. I was in the midst of planning my next trip when I accepted a truth that terrified me. I had fallen in love and was ready to settle down.

So, I packed up and moved out west to Los Angeles. I had been visiting friends for years and surprisingly liked the city a lot. I felt at home. I also had a goal to live in a cultural epicenter of the U.S. while in my twenties (I identify four: LA, New York City, San Francisco, New Orleans). It was on one of these trips that I met her. It was before I left for SE Asia. I knew I fell hard, but was fully committed to my wanderlust and in no way ready to change my plans for someone else. We kept in contact over time and distance. I finally pushed aside my long held fear of commitment and took the leap of faith to follow my heart, albeit in a drastically different way. Similar to my travels, I had no idea what would come of the move. I simply jumped.

Though I moved to the home of Hollywood, real life isn’t like the movies. The love did not work out as I hoped. I experienced heartbreak for the first time. I was ready for love, a deep commitment. She was not. I knew that position well. It was humbling to be on the other side. True love is relinquishing the hold your ego has in order to create the mental and emotional space for the unconditional consideration and care for another into your life. Simply put, it is giving yourself to another without expecting anything in return. I am grateful for the experience, the challenges, and the love that was shared. I learned much from it all, most importantly, that I I am capable of loving wholly and truly, and that I am deserving of being loved the same in return. I learned to let go of myself, and then I had to learn to let go of her. Life is very much about letting go.

Faced with an apparent dead end, I contemplated where to go next. I considered planting my roots deeper and remaining in Los Angeles. I began a job search for a career change, with an idea to get out of education to try something new. Going back to a career appealed with the material comforts and social security that could give my life stability, inherited meaning. Los Angeles was a great place to live. However, I could not shake the feeling that I was trying to convince myself of this path.

No decision so important should hinge upon self-persuasion. The freedom of choice liberates us only by our courage to choose, instead of having chosen for us. That path still felt like a cop-out, a compromise of my life. I awoke one Saturday morning with a brilliant clarity. I threw away the job applications. I did not have to make up my mind, but instead had to trust my heart, my gut, my soul, my…whatever that ineffable spirit that resides within us that gives unspoken guidance on what matters most. I put faith in myself, the universe, and went my own way.

I once again purchased a one way ticket to travel to a place completely unknown. I am often asked the dreaded question:  Why?  It’s a question I don’t mind answering, but I find myself cringing when asked because my answer never seems to suffice for the inquirer. For wanderers like myself, I don’t think there is an easy answer. It’s a question I have never had to ask myself.  I do it because it’s what I like to do and it’s what feels right.  I don’t think it can be answered any better than that.

The road leads to Nicaragua. Tomorrow morning I board a plane in Fort Lauderdale. I will arrive in Managua with nothing but a backpack, a camera, and a faith that wherever I end up, it’s where I am supposed to be. It doesn’t always turn out as I hope, but it will turn out all right, no matter. It always does.

Us-passport