I couldn’t help but overhear them, and I didn’t try very hard not to either. The first thing they said repulsed me, I wasn’t entirely sure why. The second confirmed my feeling: these people don’t understand Nicaragua.
I don’t much, either, for that matter. The first time I flew to Nicaragua, airplane thoughts became goals in my journal, scribbled questions I might be able to ask people I would meet. I wanted, above all, to leave with an understanding of what it was like to be a Nicaraguan.
“What’s your passion? What do you love to do?”
“What’s your greatest difficulty? Your greatest hope?”
“How much do you make a day?”
“If you could change one thing about your life, what would it be?”
At the bottom of the list, I summarized the questions: “If I were born a Nicaraguan, what would I think like, aspire to, fear, and regret?”
As it turns out, those answers don’t come easily from a conversation with a stranger on the street. My ambition was admirable, but understanding a people requires much more than ten days of curious questioning. I wanted to see behind the mask of everyone I met, to see others for who they were.
We do not travel as empty vessels. We do not see the world as it is. We see the world through our own history, our own country’s standards, our own myths. We see the world as outsiders. The goal of good travel is not merely to compare what we see with what we’re used to, but to see the world through the eyes of the people we meet. Good travel is not easy.
I found myself eavesdropping shamelessly on the Australians next to me and scribbling the agitated thoughts their conversation guided.
“Don’t take any pictures that are too terribly sad,” one counseled the other. They talked of the great suffering of these people, and how sad it was. I recoiled at the tone of it. Feeling certain they saw more suffering than existed, Western eyes grading a developing country by Western standards, giving the people a test they don’t care to take.
Later, “It’s so beautiful here.” “I know,” another responded, “I’m reluctant to put pictures on Facebook because it looks like I’m in a tropical paradise.”
The contradiction of these two thoughts was apparent to me, and I seethed at their attitude towards this place. On one hand, they saw a great suffering but didn’t want to express it by photography or words so they wouldn’t depress others who saw and read. On the other hand, they saw great beauty but didn’t want to express it so others wouldn’t think they were having an easy time in paradise.
Why not just express the truth?
Ah, but the truth isn’t easy to come by. To find the truth we have to become a Nicaraguan, learn their history, lament for their losses, revel in their revolution, awake in terror in the night for fear of assassins, glorify the jungle rebel who fights against all odds. We must smile at the beauty around us.
We must not carry our own country with us, but walk naked through the streets and allow those we meet to clothe us.
That’s what I aim to do.
Here are some upcoming articles I’ll be doing about Nicaragua. If you have any questions you’re curious about, send them to me.
- Anger towards America
- Contras and Sandinistas
- History Timeline
- The Jaguar Smile, a book review
- With the Contras, a book review
- Blood of Brothers, a book review
- Transition from La Chureca to Villa Guadalupe, what it was like for the people
- Economics – wages of bus drivers, taxis, what tourism does to a city
- Writing from Villa Guadalupe’s students
Please subscribe, share, and let me know you’re reading!