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.
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.
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 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.
The tout and driver looked at one another and spoke rapidly.
“No. It should be $15. Quince.”
Once again, they exchanged looks.
“Diez y siete.”
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.
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.
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.
It is interesting to note that when we—people in general—bridge a time span of communication, we tend to begin with a reference to the length of that gap. Maybe it is because we can fathom something we can quantify. It gives us perspective that we can easily comprehend. What I really think we are remarking about, at least subconsciously, is change. What I want to reflect and remark upon is change. The qualitative changes that occur over time, the changes within and around us, can be difficult to grasp, but it is the only constant of life, as the adage goes. Life is change, change is life. All cliches are truisms, and all truisms are true. (Indeed, Jack, indeed.)
When I began my travels, I had the intentions of keeping a journal and blogging regularly about my experiences on the road. I soon found this to be an overly ambitious task that got in the way of actually traveling. Clearly, I was and am not an experienced writer with great habits. But here it is, two years since I left behind the old way of life and hit the road, and I have not told my family and friends much about my trips, other than the general updates while on the road, and superlative laced summaries upon my returns. More than that, there is much left untold about the inner personal journey I have been on, which has always been what this is about. The places I have been, the people I have met, have all been the settings and characters intertwined with the big story that is unfolding, still being written.
I am continuing to sift through the memories, reflecting on the experiences, revisiting photographs. One thing has become clear. Today, my previous travels, and my future adventures are not isolated wanderings, but a manifestation of who I am, and who I am perpetually becoming. Maybe this is the coming of age portion of the story…I don’t know. But I do know this is not something I am “getting out of my system” like some disease (or if it is, I will be glad to be ridden with Wanderlust for the rest of my life. In fact I hope to die from it.). This is not an escape from the real world. I take that back. It is. But I have finally learned to stop associating escape with the pejorative connotation others have put on it and instead see it as an escape from a trap, a liberation from a cage in which I was confining myself. That trap I set for myself which was trying to be happy living a way that was not for me. I only had to see that the cage wasn’t locked and all I had to do was open the door to get out. I began to realize these things on my trip across the U.S. in the summer of 2011. The road led me back to Southwest Florida, Ohio, and then on to Southeast Asia. It continues to zigzag across the unparalleled landscape of the United States and will no doubt take me across oceans to foreign lands again, soon.
A friend asked me today if I was getting sick of living this way or was going to keep on going. I thought about it for half a second before responding. “Not one day goes by that I am sick of this or wish to go back.” The answer was roughly the same sentiment when I first quit my job. The difference today was that it was founded in a sense of rightness, not defiance. This all feels right. It is no longer rooted in rebellion. Maybe that’s how it was all along, and it has taken me this time, these experiences, to realize all of this. I have realized there aren’t compromises to be made with your own heart, your own passions, your own voice, your own destiny. By following this I have come to find my place in the world. I don’t know what I am doing here and I don’t know where I am going. I still don’t know the meaning of this life, and could potentially not be any closer than I was before all of this. I am living one day at a time, simply trying to become better at living it. Maybe that’s all there is to it.