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.