I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of boyish adventure. Outside the airplane window, sharp mountains were silhouetted against a background of white night, each flash of lightning turning blackness into a three-layered image–dark cloud, white sky, jagged horizon–gone as quickly as it came.
My glossed-over eyes came into focus, if momentarily, as we entered a cloud of our own. Shocks of white pulsed rhythmically as red and blue wing-lights reflected through the cloud, the sudden flashes mimicking the lightning I had seen before. The wing bounced fluidly over turbulent pockets of air that rattled the plane’s body with much less grace. I had complete faith in the pilot, who had complete faith in his instruments and training. The cloud lasted for 20 or 30 minutes, my glossy eyes letting my thoughtful mind go wherever it wanted, much like when sitting around a campfire and looking into the flame.
The best time to travel anywhere new is at night–the darkness lets you fill in the unknown with your imagination and you find out if you were wrong in the morning. The ground below my plane was alien. Cities stretched in unfamiliar directions, unconnected by tidy lines of brake-lights on freeways. One city had a gridded infrastructure, more organized than the others, but was still irregular and skewed. Street lights surged together once every second as if power sources couldn’t handle constant use.
A Land of Violence
I was going to a foreign country for the first time, by myself, for 11 days, and had little planned; the storm welcomed me ominously and I was piqued by the danger of it. Nicaragua is a land of violence–not its people, but its geology, its weather, and its history. It is home to 50 volcanoes, yearly torrential storms, and recent, terrible wars caused by dictators within and supported by imperialists without. Its people have been at the mercy of larger competing forces for centuries.
This I had learned from books and late-night Google searches before I left, but the storm and the airplane put me in a philosophical mood where every little thing takes on a meaning of its own. Flight has always been a spiritual experience for me. Though I’m an atheist I can’t think of a better way of describing the humbling smallness I feel every time, the burning re-commitment to accomplish something meaningful.
That Little Red Car
Maybe some day I’ll be desensitized to it; for now, I still ask for the window seat every time I fly. I love looking out as the plane rises so I can watch cars and people and all our human structures get smaller and smaller. It’s amazing how long I can distinguish the red car from the others as it moves down the freeway. Soon I’m thinking about the driver of that little red car, wondering if they’re speeding, if they’re late, if they’re chatting on the phone or listening to music, if they think they’re as important as I think I am.
I’m sure they do. That’s the great delusion each of us entertains, challenged every time we look out an airplane window or open a world atlas and see a truly massive city. There are an incomprehensible amount of people each working towards something. We’re all convinced of our own importance, yet there are too many of us for that to be true.
Yet I’m interested – perpetually interested – in the lives of each new and different person, each driver of each little car below my airplane. My interest increases when things are different than what I’m used to, and I think that’s why people travel. We get used to the way things are done, our curiosity itches and pesters, until we finally overcome frugality and buy a plane ticket or submit the request for vacation-time. We get tired of seeing the same type of person each day, uncomfortable with the uniformity of it all, and leave to see something new.
A Reader’s Curiosity
I’ve always been curious. I think it has something to do with growing up with a book in hand. It is curiosity that pushes us through each page. We’re given a piece of the picture–a character reacts to the scene and we get a small look at their motivation and personality–and we keep reading because we want to see more. A reader will go into a diner on the middle of a road-trip, look around, and notice things a non-reader won’t. They’ll see the middle-aged waitress and wonder what kind of life she has lived, what her home is like, whether she’s a cat-lady or has grand-kids living close by.
Maybe non-readers can become this curious by watching TV, but it takes more effort to read than watch, more commitment to curiosity to consume 800 pages of a fantasy novel than to sit for three hours and watch its condensed version. Our imagination does more work and grows as a result. Of course, I can say what I want about non-readers here – this is a written blog and I have no risk of offending them. I wonder what the non-curious people do while traveling. No doubt they take out their proverbial check-list and make a few marks. Then they can tell people where they went when they get back, as if going to a place is the main goal in travel.
A reader’s curiosity is what impelled me to go to Nicaragua. It’s what caused me to talk to a Sandinista militant for hours in his home, sit and read war history at ocean-side diners while sipping on a Toña, say “yes” to stay with my taxi-cab driver’s family for the night instead of going to a hotel, and “yes” to traveling eight hours by bus into the jungle terrain of central Nicaragua, and three hours more on top of another bus to stay with farmers in the mountains. It’s what let me have a genuine, non-artificial, non-guided experience of a vibrant, happy, and beautiful people.
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