To the ubiquitous question asked at wedding receptions, cocktail parties, Church, and literally everywhere we’re forcecd to talk to someone we don’t already know, we all answer in pretty much the same way. “What do you do?” may as well be said, “What do you do to earn money?”
If I forget about that for a second, and answer more literally, I do a lot of things.
I build fences.
I hang out with my wife.
I take care of my dogs.
I spend a ridiculous amount of time laying down trying to avoid doing anything productive.
I eat food. I then poop it out.
I talk to strangers about what I do and give far more literal answers than they were looking for.
I have a better qeustion.
What do you do with new information?
I’d love to know.
Myself? I ask more questions, but it’s never that simple.
The problem is I am rarely satisfied with incomplete answers: nuance creeps its way into every opinion I have, if by the end of my process it can still be called an opinion.
And that’s why . . .
I have little for you but questions, at this point. I process new information by writing, but by writing privately first.
Letting it ferment
One of the books sitting on my “Favorites Of All Time” shelf is Travels with Charlie by John Steinbeck. In it, he takes a three month trip around the United States in order to understand America again. It’s fantastic.
He, like me, brings too many things he knows he won’t use.
“I thought I might do some writing along the way, perhaps essays, surely notes, certainly letters. I took paper, carbon, typewriter, notebooks, and not only those but dictionaires, a compact encyclopedia, and dozen other reference books, heavy ones. I suppose our capacity for self-delusion is boundless. I knew very well that I rarely make notes, and if I do I either lose them or can’t read them. I also knew from thirty years of my profession that I cannot write hot on an event. It has to ferment. I must do what a friend calls “mule it over” for a time before it goes down. And in spite of this self-knowledge I equipped Rocinante with enough writing material to take care of ten volumes.”
This trip to Nicaragua has brought the curiosity I’m used to, but a much greater reluctance to come to conclusions. I have a separate notebook for each trip, each filled with thoughts and questions and profiles of the people I meet. This trip’s book is the same, but it holds few conclusions. If there is one conclusion I’m happy making it is that poverty is complex and solutions are incredibly difficult to come by.
I’ve had the pleasure of being forced to make decisions about programs to begin, and in that decision-making process I’ve had to refine my philosophy toward philanthropy. I’m excited to relay those thoughts, and the results of those thoughts, but can’t do so yet.
Over the next few weeks I’ll be “muling it over,” and making sure I don’t let too much time pass so this trip falls into the shadowland of memory, so I can continue to ask questions about the things I saw and learned.
To do that, I have to write. To think clearly, I have to write privately, for myself. Once I’ve dealt with the issues enough privately, I’ll be able to publish them publicly, receive feedback, and further adjust my views in response to what you all have to say.
That is my process: writing to myself first, and then to you, and then back to myself again.
Some people are Prayers, others are Talkers, others are Runners, or Gymers, or Cryers, or Gossipers.
I am a Writer, dear reader, but not yet to you. We have so much to talk about, and I hope we’ll be able to do that soon.
I kind of missed the point at the end of this article, which is perfect because it illustrates what my process is. It’s not always true that I don’t come to conlusions. Without temporarily accepting an idea, it’s hard to test it.
Writing helps me express temporary conclusions, then balance those conclusions with opposing thoughts, and eventually, perhaps, come to some clarity.
Phase 1: write to myself
Phase 2: wait some time, then write to myself some more. Edit, refine.
Phase 3: write to others
Phase 4: receive feedback, further explore ideas I missed.
I’m a Writer because I wouldn’t process information nearly as well without the four steps of this process. That’s why blogging is important to me. #3 creates a challenge to think things through clearly in #2, and the existence of #4 helps me learn from others perspectives and find more to write about.
The trick is in the waiting. If I post early, I’ll often wake up the next morning and think, “Well that wasn’t very true, was it?” If I wait too long, I lose the energy of the idea, and it all fizzles incomplete.
It has been a long time, and time creates distance. Some of you may be trying to place me in your memory, to remember why this blog sounds familiar. Allow me to help.
I’m a guy who travels and writes when he can, exploring the world and asking questions to those who give. I’ve been to Nicaragua twice, and some of you came with me. Together, we did some pretty cool things. We got a wonderful man a new bed along with some baseball swag from his favorite team, we placed four (now five) kids through private school for the last three years, we bought and sold jewelry made by the women of La Chureca to help them create a new source of income, we bought a bike for a girl with Polio so her dad could take her to her therapy sessions, and we did a lot more as well.
We did what we could with a little of what we have, and we were all lifted because of it. Those who received our gifts got something special – care and love from strangers thousands of miles away, in ways that helped them in their daily lives. And we, in return, learned of their stories, received some of their strength, gained inspiration from their courage. We connected, and we were all made more happy because of it.
And now it’s time to do it again!
Britney and I leave for Nicaragua in a couple of days, and we’d again like you to come with us. With $250 on the first trip we did some great things, with $775 on the second we did even more. My goal for this trip, like last time, isn’t to raise a certain amount of money, but to involve as many people as possible. On our last trip we were joined by 33 people. This time, let’s shoot for 40. Donate $5, 10, $25, $100, it doesn’t matter how much. Remember that 100% of your donation goes straight to a Nicaraguan.
Share it on Facebook, email, or whatever you want. Let’s see how many people we can get involved with this! Something like “I donated $25, you guys should check it out and donate too!” with a link to this article so they can read what it’s about.
Subscribe to this blog, if you haven’t already, to receive the followup articles about the people you helped.
Thank you for everything!
Jefferson, The Weekend Philanthropist
“My mission is to experience the world of charitable giving through study and direct involvement in order to find an under-served people and arrive at a clear, informed, and bold focus that will define the organizations I help create. Oh, and to have an amazing time while doing it.”
A few months ago, I wrote an article that I was really excited about, spammed it all over the web, and crossed my fingers. What happened over the next few days affected me more than I’d like to admit, but here we are at the confession booth. I guess it’s time to drop my ego and do some self-expression so I can move on.
What went down
After writing my article, I posted this picture to Reddit and imgur of a girl I had met in La Chureca, who I had written about in my blog post:
I love this picture. This moment, caught on camera, expresses something I felt throughout this trip – a close connection with the people I met. Here is a happy little girl smiling shyly after I said she was very pretty. She lived in the largest landfill in Central America, “La Chureca,” with over 1,000 other people. They collect and sell trash every day, making an average of $2 a day. Their homes are made out of materials they find, they bathe in a toxic lake, many of the girls enter prostitution, and drug abuse is high, among many, many other problems.
Yet here is this little, smiling girl; shy, but happy to have heard me say she’s very pretty. Little things like this inspired me to do more to help–and to do so more urgently–if I could find a way.
One way was to tell her story. So I wrote the article, posted some pictures, and linked to Reddit and Imgur with a short, but attention-grabbing title that would quickly express the story that made this picture meaningful to me.
Others thought it was meaningful as well and my photo received a lot of upvotes, enough to move it up to the front page of one of the biggest forums on Reddit: a forum that has about 7 million subscribers.
Not everyone logs onto Reddit every day, and pics is a forum every Reddit user is automatically subscribed to, but we’re still talking about a massive audience of people. My picture was viewed more than 670,000 times, received more than 10,000 upvotes, and on the day I posted it 833 unique people searched for my blog and looked around (for a total of 1,225 page views). I was feeling pretty great about it!
But . . . 6,397 people down-voted it. No big deal, but it was still shocking to me since I thought it was such a harmless and cute picture. And then there were the comments.
Sometimes, negative things drown out the positive.
“Yeah have you ever read a more pretentious title than “The Weekend Philanthropist”? Trash dump? This is just oozing sheltered hipsterism.”
“The weekend philanthropist? I can smell the thinly veiled narcissistic smug from here. These are people, not animals in a zoo. If you feel you need to help, do so and shut the fuck up. Don’t run around snapping 1000 pics for Facebook in a weak attempt to seem like a good person.”
There were a lot of others, some of them more laced with cynicism than others. Some people were offended that I called her home a trash dump, thinking I was just using that phrase euphemistically and not realizing that she literally lives in trash. Some people were just trying to be funny. Others attacked me pretty hard, pointing out specific phrases I used in my article and showing how pretentious or naive they were. At first, these negative comments were getting the most up-votes, and therefore were seen by more people. As usual, for me, I responded in a cool-headed way at the time, but the negative comments stayed around, bouncing around in my head and annoying me for a while. I couldn’t get them to go away and they began to affect me.
“I’m gonna go ahead and apologize to you for those people who lack the moral and ethical backbone to apologize to you for the stupid things they’ve said. “I’m sorry”. There. They feel better now. You’re doing good work, stranger. Don’t let fools on the internet bother you.”
“It’s nice to see people covering aspects of my country. It’s a wonderful photo! And to people getting all uppity these people literally live on a dump site that was exacerbated by the earthquake in the 70s. But they’re usually the most humble, caring people you can find.”
What I told myself
Despite myself and the things I said to keep myself positive about it, and despite all the positive attention and comments my post received, the negativity affected me. I started editing my blog posts more closely, thinking about how anyone might interpret it in the wrong way, and taking a longer time between writing and posting. That can be good, but it can also paralyze you if you let it go too far. It took a couple of months to finish the travel memoir that I was going to finish in a couple of weeks, and even then I continued to hear the echos of some of those negative comments.
I created a story, a story that is very probably true, that the online world favors satire and pessimism. Being positive comes off as naive. Now I knew that philanthropy not only doesn’t have shock value, but it can actually be more controversial than many of the other topics. In America we admire the entrepreneur. I can start whatever kind of business I want and be applauded for my ingenuity, even (and especially) if my business is based on a clever sales gimmick. The second I start to work for free, though . . . the accusations roll in on how I could do it better.
I was a small, untrained voice on a corner of the internet that thought too highly of the affect anything I write will have.
Yeah, it was negative.
It paralyzed me from writing in the confident and easygoing way I had before, over-analyzing everything I wrote so it couldn’t be attacked. I thought no one wanted to hear about what I had to say anyway, that they’re too busy watching videos and easily-consumed media (kitty kats, yay!) to sit and read a long-text article.
But that’s not true. Not completely true, anyway.
The Party is Life
This analogy comes from How to Stay Sane, which is a friggin’ fantastic book by Phillipa Perry about the stories we tell ourselves and how that affects us.
If I walk into a party with my head held high, with the optimistic attitude that everyone is pleased to see me or would like to meet me (and I them), I will catch someone’s eye even if, hitherto, everyone in the room was a stranger to me. I will ask them about themselves and they may ask me about myself; we will probably find some common ground and I might learn something from them as a bonus. But more than that, I give myself the chance of forming what feels like a connection. It might last just a few minutes, or it may be the beginning of a long friendship, but in that connection I feel deeply nourished.
If, on the other hand, I walk into a party with my eyes on the ground, neither interested in meeting anyone nor thinking that anyone would be interested in meeting me, I will not catch anyone’s eye and I will not enjoy the party. I will be thinking about ways to leave it. I will not be fully present at the party. Instead I will be present only with my prejudices; I will be projecting a fantasy, or an experience of the past, onto the present, and relating to that, instead of to what is going on around me.
The party is life.
At first I read this and thought, “Meh, I always walk into parties knowing I’m going to meet some cool people. I have my head high, I know I’m interesting and I know others are as well.” But then I realized that my online view wasn’t the same. Over the last few months I’ve been “walking into the party” with my head down, feeling like I don’t have a voice, like others will be critical of it, that it’s easier to not say anything than it is to say something that might be used against me.
I’m done doing that. Yes, I’ve told myself to not let others affect me for my whole life; it hasn’t worked before and it won’t work now. What others say does affect me, whether for good or bad. But I’m recognizing that the story I’ve told myself about writing on the internet is just a story, that it has lead me to stop expressing myself, and that I don’t like that. By recognizing it as a story instead of a fact I have the ability to change it.
To focus on the negative is to ignore all the positive things have happened as a direct result of writing – all the people I’ve met, all the conversations I’ve had and the ones I’ve started, the money I’ve raised, the trips I’ve taken, and so much more. I met Leo, Travis and Sophie, Jon Thompson, Liana, became more involve with Tab’s nonprofit and Chuck’s yearly donation event, and had great conversations about philanthropy with so many others. I raised over $1,000 that went to many people in Nicaragua, started selling jewelry in partnership with a women’s cooperative and have purchased $1,100 of it from them so far, and so many other things. A great business, Blush Box, just purchased 100 pieces of the jewelry to add a little philanthropy to their summer box! (More details to come on that!)
And that’s just this blog. On my philosophical blog many other things have happened.
So, the internet doesn’t suck as badly as I’ve been telling myself it does for the last few months. The party is life, and I’ll walk into it with my head held high.
2012 has been a year of blogging – I’ve started five blogs this year (OK, so . . . maybe six or seven), but have only consistently contributed to two: The Weekend Philanthropist and The Accidental Atheist.
For this blog, I traveled to Nicaragua twice, interviewed six philanthropists (abroad and local), and did a lot of reading. I’ve found a lot of joy in learning to express myself more clearly and look forward to another year of writing in 2013.
As a cap to the year, here are the 2012 articles from this blog I’m the most happy about, along with an annual report from WordPress down below. Enjoy!
1) The 3 Donation Projects Funded By You! and 4 Donation Projects Funded By You! Two days before my first trip to Nicaragua I had the simple but powerful idea to have others donate through me. $10, 25, or 100 at a time (or whatever they wanted), we pooled together $250 on the first trip and $775 on the second. I looked for chances to use that money for donation projects while in Nicaragua, and the result was amazing. I feel like I’ve learned so much from those experiences and have gained lifelong friends in Nicaragua as well. What started as a simple and random idea has become the best part of traveling and has given me, donors, and recipients some of the best memories from 2012.
2) A Plane, a Reader, and an Alien Country. I’m always trying to get better at expressing my wonder for nature and for the people I meet in a way that captures my feelings and thoughts in a sincere and meaningful way. This article is one of my favorites so far. Writing the first draft was very clunky and disjointed, but I gave it a few days and was very happy with the result.
3) Travis and Sophie – Hippie Capitalists – PW #3! Half-way through the year I decided to dabble in some quasi-journalism. I wanted to give a spotlight to people who were doing great work as well as have a good excuse to ask them a million questions. The first article I wrote was so difficult. I sat with writer’s block for about an hour-and-a-half with the fully transcribed interview and notes in front of me before the words finally started to flow. As I did more of these interview articles it became easier and more fun. This one, on Travis and Sophie’s business, Teysha, was the most popular by views. They and the other philanthropists I wrote about have become great mentors and friends, full of great advice as I approach the launch of my first nonprofit.
4) Chapter 2 – Volcanoes, Drunks, and Polio. When I got back from my first trip to Nicaragua I had a lot I wanted to write about. Life and distractions slowly but surely distanced me from the memories, and I never got around to writing my experiences down in full. I didn’t want that to happen again, so on my second trip I pushed myself to do a five-chapter memoir including interesting and boring detail, I’m sure. In my fixed pursuit of the goal to write it all in a week, I went too quickly and didn’t make the memoir as good as I would have liked, but it still turned out OK. This chapter was the reader favorite (and yes, I still have one more chapter to go to finish it).
As 2013 approaches there are many new exciting plans I have for this blog. Thanks for being a part of it! Please let me know what you think about it, what you’d like to see, or whatever else you’d like to say. 🙂
Flight is completely different when you’re in the aisle seat. Last time I flew into Nicaragua I looked out of the window for almost the whole flight. The sun was setting by the time I was over the ocean, slowly dimming until there was only blackness below. Once over land, darkness was punctuated by sporadic cities visible by their pulsing lights. Mountainous horizons and faraway storms gave the cities perspective, and my imagination filled in everything unknown with whatever it wanted, feared, or hoped for.
Adventure. Danger. Need. A million secret lives below with secret ambitions and untold stories. Nicaragua lurked below me, ominously heralded by lightning and turbulence.
This time, though, I was stuck in the aisle seat of a packed airplane and missed out on the deep thought that comes from being high above the earth. Instead Britney and I read our own books and alternated naps, biding time until we arrived – a much less dramatic arrival.
The airport in Managua, compared to everything I’ve seen in the States, is very small. We made our way down a narrow hallway until reaching a common room for customs and immigration, paid $10, picked up luggage, had it scanned for illicit materials, and were ready to leave, all quickly and over little distance. The easy pace found in the airport is forgotten when approaching the double glass doors that open to the outside world. Dozens of people press close to the glass: taxi drivers, waiting parties, and family. We set our packs down before leaving the peace of the airport, put a little cash in our pockets, made sure our mace was easily accessible, and went out into the hurried noise of Managua.
Tourism raises prices in developing countries like Nicaragua, and places like the airport attract a lot of businesses who want to make an easier dollar – visitors to their country exit the airport willing to pay American prices for Nicaraguan services. We heard, “Taxi? Taxi? Taxi?” as we passed through the crowd, until finally a driver caught our attention. The most assertive drivers get the most business – the rule of small business in Nicaragua is to ask loudly and ask often. The man who had won our business passed us off to a coworker named Esteban, who charged us $20 to take us to a hotel. American prices, but he had a polo shirt on – he was part of a cooperative and could be trusted. With all of our bags and at the very beginning of our trip, $20 was a bargain for peace of mind.
We told him which hotel to take us to, one that was suggested by a friend. It was nice, but also expensive. We had air conditioning, a pool, good beds, and clean sheets – hardly the kind of thing that could be bragged about to friends. Britney was having a soft introduction to what was supposed to be a rugged trip.
One of my favorite compliments to hear from a Nicaraguan is in question form: “Are you from Spain?” or “Do you live here in Nicaragua?” I heard that at breakfast after opening a light conversation with the people next to me, Nicaraguans from outside of Managua here for work. I try to use every opportunity I can to get advice from locals who aren’t going to receive any money based on the decisions I make, so I asked them questions about Ometepe, Rio San Juan, Estelí, and other areas. Locals like to brag about their country, so advice is easy to obtain.
We decided to go to Ometepe that morning and try to hike some of the volcano before dark. It took us about five hours to get there, by express bus to Rivas, a taxi to the ferry, and a ferry across Lake Nicaragua to the volcanic island. In Latin American countries there’s a special tax for white people. I’ve heard other travelers call it the “gringo tax.” We were asked to pay it often. Sometimes we did.
When we arrived at the bus station our taxi pulled up next to a few guys in polos who “helped” us get onto the right bus. Their business is probably solely funded by tourists – I couldn’t imagine that a native Nicaraguan would fall for it, though certainly they must. It’s based on the psychological tendency we all have to feel obligated to do something in return for a kindness. Three of the men in polos grabbed our bags for us (which is always comforting), opened our doors, directed us to the right bus, and even helped us find a seat.
“Propina, propina,” one of them said, repeating it until I gave in. I handed them a 100 Córdobas bill and hesitated for a fraction of a second too long to ask for change. One of them quickly said, “That’s good, that’s good,” and with that they walked away. As I sat down I heard the man next to me chuckling with the passenger in front of him: “He just gave that guy five bucks!”
Determined to not be a typical gringo traveler–lost and easy to dupe–I donned my skeptical face and got ready to challenge the next person who asked me to give them money. We arrived in Rivas after a few hours of napping and reading on the bus, and Britney scrambled off of the bus first, surrounded instantly by five taxi drivers who were asking her where she wanted to go and giving her unsolicited prices. Later she’d start responding to these types of people by saying “El hombre!” and pointing to me, but for a few seconds she was left to fend for herself, looking very annoyed and frustrated by the time I got off behind her. I walked away from the taxi-drivers, scowling, but they still followed us and started directing their petitions at me instead.
I said, “We’re going to Ometepe and just need a ride to the ferry.” If I hadn’t been in this town before I might have accepted his next offer, not realizing how close the ferry was.
“Five bucks,” he said. “Five bucks each and I’ll take you right there.”
“Ten dollars?” I asked in an unbelieving tone. “No.” We walked away, set down our bags and packed in the books we had been reading on the bus. About a minute later a smaller guy came up to us and said, “60 Córdobas.” It was probably still 20 Córdobas too much, but my traveler’s pride was satisfied – I had talked them down from $10 to less than $3. We accepted his offer and he took us the mile and a half to the ferry. I gave him a dollar more as a tip, partly because he was a cool guy and partly because I wanted him to tell his friends back at the bus stop.
Across the lake
If I’ve learned one thing in Nicaragua, it’s an appreciation for the comforts of traveling at home. I’m amazed at the the patience and pain-tolerance of people in Nicaragua, at how spoiled we are in the States. Take an American and stick him on transportation of any sort in Nicaragua without telling him where he was and he’d be outraged. Spurts of “I want to speak to your manager!” would sputter out from behind the clenched teeth of accomplished men, harumphs of “Well this is ridiculous!” would follow exasperated intakes of air from indignant middle-aged ladies. It wouldn’t be pretty, but there is little I wouldn’t give to see it.
We boarded the ferry by walking across a wooden plank that bridged the dock to the shifting deck of our boat and stumbled to a place where we could sit by a guardrail. Unfortunately we chose a spot on the back-half of the boat – we’d soon be breathing in fumes from the exhaust pipe located conveniently in the center. They used the same shifting plank to board two motorcycles, and backed a truck as close as they could and somehow unloaded an engine without losing a man or dropping it 25 feet below into the water.
Lack of comfort is part of the magic of traveling in a third-world country. Sitting on the deck, laying back on someone else’s luggage, right behind a motorcycle, we rode for an hour and a half to the island. Our butts may have been sore, we may have been breathing fumes, but we were smiling. Rugged, painful trekking makes for good memories and better stories.
About half-way across the lake I realized I had absolutely no clue what to expect on the other side. I had been trying to get a hold of someone a friend had introduced to me by email, too late due to my perpetual procrastination, but hadn’t received a response. The extent of my knowledge of the island was pathetic, actually. I had talked with a lady from Ometepe on my last trip, I knew there was an annual race for charity there, and I knew that in order to hike up the volcano you needed to hire a guide. I also knew it would make a great spot to propose to Britney. That was about it. I struck up a conversation with some other Americans to see if they had suggestions of where to stay and what to do, but they were as novice as I was. My rule of getting advice from people with no monetary interest in my decision wasn’t going to work this time – I would have to ask a local once we landed. I donned my skeptical face again and prepared to haggle.
It turns out I didn’t need to. We were greeted by a friendly English-speaking taxi driver. “Do you need a ride?” he said. “No,” I said, “Solo vamos a explorar por un rato,” responding in Spanish as I usually do. “Would you like any information about the island, then?” Britney, unable to speak with many people so far in the trip, took the opportunity and asked some questions about the island and for a suggestion of a cheap place to stay.
“Well, you can talk with this guy if you’d like. He runs a good little hostel.” He pointed to a guy standing in a doorway, but didn’t stop with that suggestion: he was a taxi driver and wouldn’t make any money if we stayed in this town. He went on, “But, there isn’t much to do here. If you want, I’ll take you across the island to a better city. Otherwise, this guy can help you.” We thanked him and went up to the guy he had pointed to, and that was that.
If you’ve ever traveled to Ometepe, you’ve probably met the guy we talked to next – Robinson. If you talk with anyone else who has traveled there recently, they’ve probably stayed at his hostel. He is a funny guy who spoke good English and offered to give us a ride to his hostel so we could check it out. I rode on the back of his motorcycle and Britney rode with his sister, and we chatted for a couple of minutes while he drove. By the time we arrived we were friends – I couldn’t have said no even if his hostel was a dive. Luckily the beds were new, the sheets were clean, there was a pure water filter, and the common area looked like a really fun place to hang out. Almost more importantly, we now had an English-speaking friend who could give us unmotivated tips about the island. We chatted about our plans until he had to go greet a new shipment of ferry passengers, and I began to see how good Robinson’s setup was on the island.
A few years ago Robinson convinced his dad to buy a motorcycle so he could rent it out in the day. Robinson had a girlfriend on the other side of the island; if his dad bought the bike he could make good money in the daytime and ride across the island to visit her more often. Since then he’s done very well, using savings and loans to build up his business to 15 or 20 motorcycles, a few 4-wheelers, and even some bicycles. He used some of the profit to buy this hostel a few months ago; his empire of tourism continues to expand.
He rented us motorcycles for a couple of days at a great price, connected me with his friend, Cory, who does some nonprofit work on the island, and would have connected us with tour guides for the volcano if we had the time. Our stay in Ometepe was twice as good because of his help, and many other travelers have found the same thing. I hope he does well and Ometepe doesn’t develop too quickly – large developers and heavy-pocketed investors could make Ometepe unoriginal within the decade. For now, though, if I ever go to Ometepe I’ll stay at Yogi’s in Moyolgalpa, Robinson’s hostel.
Finding the right spot
The night was coming on quickly and I had to get to a place with a good view quickly so I could “pop the question.” I wanted to ask Robinson for a suggestion, but since he was speaking English fluently I couldn’t do anything without potentially tipping Britney off. Luckily, Robinson didn’t come to the bike shop when we were renting motorcycles and his sisters don’t speak English as well as he does. I made sure to speak in a good accent so his sisters would keep the conversation in Spanish instead of their halted English, and about halfway through I tried to slip in the question.
“Ok, tengo una pregunta” I said.
I hesitated, stumbling over a few words as I tried to figure out how to phrase the question without using any words that sounded like their English counterparts – Spanish and English share Latin roots, so a lot of words are similar. The break in fluid conversation lasted about 30 seconds – it was too awkward, too obvious, and I tried to back out, deciding that I could bring it up later when Britney wasn’t focusing on me.
“Oh, no es nada. Está bien,” I said.
Robinson’s sisters wouldn’t have it. They and Britney, luckily, just thought I was tripping up in my Spanish, unable to translate my thoughts. Britney laughed and said, “They’re all laughing at you” and Robinson’s sister tried to be helpful by saying, “You can say it in English.” I knew they wouldn’t drop it, so I spoke quickly and in a thick accent: “Pues, es un secreto, pero voy a perdirla a casarme. ¿Donde sugiere que vayamos?” (“Well, it’s a secret, but I’m going to ask her to marry me. Where do you suggest we go?”)
The older sister reacted well, understanding not to show any reaction, and showed me Charco Verde on a map. That is where we had been planning on going anyway, so we headed out of the shop with no incident. Later, Britney would comment about Robinson’s younger sister, “Yeah, I thought they were just really happy or something – she was smiling huge and waving excitedly as we left.”
There are a few types of proposals that make great cocktail-party stories and ensure “Ooohs” and “Awwes” from friends and family. There’s the Big Surprise, where the girl’s emotions move from shocked to melted in a few seconds, caught on camera to make the story better. There’s the Creative Ring Drop, where the ring shows up in some random place – the girl is eating a piece of cake and bites down on something hard, cleans off the object with a napkin and slowly realizes what it is. Then there’s the Embarrassing Speech, where the guy makes a public, verbose, drawn-out speech and everyone knows what’s happening from the second he picks up the microphone all the way through the three minutes until he finally asks the question.
Those are all great options, but I was in another country, didn’t know anyone else, and couldn’t get someone to record the proposal. If I had to choose between the three I would probably choose the embarrassing speech, but clarity and poeticism don’t always grace me with their presence – the speech could have been cut short with unimportant re-utterances of “I love you so much. Um. I love you. From the second I saw you” and other clichés. Or my body may have betrayed me half-way through: when I get emotional my mouth turns grotesquely down at the edges, as uncontrollable as it is strange, and my throat grows lumps until I sound like a post-pubescent Kermit the frog. If I had been worried about saying something important or meaningful for my proposal–something that would rival The Notebook for dramatic delivery–it could have worked or it could have failed depending on my mood at the time.
Instead I went with the Such An Amazing Place It Doesn’t Matter What You Say Or Do option. Here are the ingredients, in case you’d like to try it.
Take a romantic motorcycle ride through a foreign countryside. When you’re in a foreign country almost everything has a hue of romance for the first week or so (after that fatigue starts to set in, the “new” becomes the “normal,” and you’re less doughy-eyed while traveling and more bored). We rode for 12 kilometers before reaching the beach, passing through quaint little towns, saying no to a group of kids who wanted us to play volleyball, and seeing a beautiful countryside as evening approached. The angled sunlight of evening makes for great views and good conversation.
Get into the middle of the water while the sun is setting. The only thing that makes a sunset better is when it’s reflected around you as well, especially if that reflection is moving and glimmering. When we arrived at Charco Verde (Green Lake), I approached the restaurant and asked them for a bottle of wine and a few glasses, which they lent to us, trusting we’d bring them back afterwards. We rented a double kayak, which proved to be an awkward choice – we were both facing the same direction (forward) and it was very unstable.
Add volcanic Islands. Ometepe is an island formed from two volcanoes, impressively tall, vibrantly colored, and almost always shrouded in cloud at the top.
After getting out into the water Britney managed to turn herself around without tipping us over and we made a toast to our trip and our life together. I casually brought up our relationship and how unlikely it was. We had met two months before I moved to Texas and I was not looking for a relationship. Previously I had been very “afraid of commitment,” as the cliché goes, and relationships hadn’t lasted for longer than three or six months. I wasn’t ready for anything serious, apparently not having met the right girl for me. The conversation was natural, she was speaking as much as I was, I was just calmly directing the conversation the way I wanted it to go. She couldn’t have expected that anything was coming – this is a conversation we’ve had many times before.
I brought up my reservations about marriage – how I only wanted to be married once, how I had seen divorce personally and with many friends and didn’t want the same thing to happen, how I was afraid of that and wanted to be certain before I got married. She agreed.
I said, “I’m over that fear with you,” and she asked me what I meant. I pulled out the ring box and asked her to marry me. The ring was handmade by my sister from hemp and turquoise – a temporary place-holder for the real thing and a perfect hippie ring for our trip. The sun was setting behind her, a golden yellow reflecting on the clouds above and the waves below, she said “Of course,” and we bent forward in our unstable double-kayak and kissed, chatting until dark.
I rowed back to the island, which took a lot longer than I hoped–the wind had picked up in the middle of our conversation and pushed us out a long way–and chatted some more while I hoped I wouldn’t accidentally hit her in the head with my oar and ruin this story forever. When we got to shore the barkeep who had sold us the wine and rented the kayak greeted us. He had been closed-off before–just a guy doing his job–but when we told him about our engagement he became as excited as an old friend. He told us he had been married on this beach last December, I asked him how it was going, and he said “¡Super bién!” If you want to compliment a foreigner, get engaged while in their country. For the rest of the trip if we wanted to open someone up to conversation I’d tell them we had gotten engaged a few days ago on Ometepe, point to Britney’s ring, and watch them smile.
The ride back to town was even better than the ride out. Night had fallen completely, the air was warm, the wind cooling, and we talked excitedly about random things. She held on close and I could feel the warmth and pressure of her hand on my stomach, her head leaned against my shoulders. When we weren’t talking we were smiling.
In a faraway country on a brick road, a recently-engaged couple rode slowly on their motorcycle, blanketed by darkness, unknown to all the locals, smiling and talking, hugging and thinking deep thoughts.
In writing, the temptation to be dramatic is always there. I feel that temptation more than ever after returning from Nicaragua, where the ingredients for embellishment are plentiful. The story-teller in me wants to take advantage of that – to use Nicaragua’s reputation to make profound statements or important-sounding conclusions.
But I don’t have any. I saw and felt a lot of things on my 11-day trip: I spoke with and interviewed people who have lived off trash for generations; I helped a girl with polio buy a bike so her dad can take her to treatment twice a week; invested in a jewelry cooperative that will help some of Nicaragua’s poorest women have a new source of income; I proposed to my girlfriend on a large lake at sunset with two volcanoes behind us; I danced with her on a mountain farm deep in Nicaragua’s interior beneath undiluted stars and above a shifting blanket of lightning bugs; I interviewed taxi drivers, farmers, surfers, hostel owners, those who love the government and those who hate it, volunteers, and nurses.
I won’t strain to give conclusions where I don’t have them or pretend to know things I don’t. At the end of 11 days I have more questions than answers and even now the experience of this trip begins to fade. As I settle back into my routine, get used to paying high prices, taking warm showers, and sleeping in trusted beds, I feel the urgency to get my thoughts onto paper before they become diluted and insincere. Nicaragua is a troubled country. It has been through earth shaking changes over the last 50 years. It is also complex and difficult to understand. My only task as a writer is to say what I saw. I’ll introduce you to the people I met, show you the sights, and paint of vivid picture of some of the issues that confront them.
Steinbeck had the same approach when writing about the South during the time of segregation:
With all the polls and opinion posts, with newspapers more opinion than news so that we no longer know one from the other, I want to be very clear about one thing. I have not intended to present, nor do I think I have presented, any kind of cross-section so that a reader can say, “He thinks he has presented a true picture of the South.” I don’t. I’ve only told what a few people said to me and what I saw. I don’t know whether they were typical or whether any conclusion can be drawn. But I do know it is a troubled place and a people caught in a jam.
– Travels with Charley
I bring you the honest observations of a curious man: a short travel memoir about my second trip to Nicaragua.
A short overview of the trip:
We were in the country for 11 days, visited Ometepe, San Juan del Sur, Managua, Rio Blanco, and a few towns around those areas. Our goal was to experience Nicaragua and its people, find some people to help with donations given by readers, and learn something new. We arrived in the country with few fixed plans, leaving the trip open to spontaneity. The result can be found in the pages to come 🙂