Saturday, December 01, 2007

No, Gracias.
Nicaragua: Rainforests and Reality
MSU Study Abroad
March 4-12, 2006

Nicaragua crumbles upon you as you first emerge from the fluorescent glow of the airport. A towering, quavering, saturated wall of green. The night air is filled with the rumble of ancient engines, shouting of harried drivers, and the hum of everything out beyond the lights of the airport driveway. A full day of traveling, compounded with the loss of our luggage, made this new country seem altogether too overwhelming for even just one week. Where were we, and how had we ended up here?

Nicaragua, sandwiched in Central America between Honduras and Costa Rica, is a country roughly the size of the state of New York at 129,494 sq. km. The largest of Central American countries, it lays claim to coastal plains on both the Pacific and Atlantic sides, with mountains dotted by volcanoes residing within. Tropical forests fight to retain their ground as people attempt to make livings farming small tracts of land spread throughout remote areas. Nicaragua is a bright, bustling country marred by poverty and political strife. Colonization and occupation, followed by internal strife, corruption, civil war, and finally interference by the United States has left the country economically scarred, though work goes on to reverse that trend.

With only a week’s worth of time to experience such a big and diverse country, the group with whom I was traveling soon realized that we would be attempting to jam two or three days into each precious day we had. The MSU Study Abroad trip for which we had signed ourselves up was named “Rainforests and Reality,” and we left with what must have been wildly differing ideas about what our week would entail. I expected rainforests, of course, but what I really hoped for was a glimpse into a life completely different than my own in most imaginable ways, and some unimaginable. Here I was in yet another country whose language I did not speak— leave it to me to take years of French, and not visit a French-speaking country. I spent a good part of the week worrying that, in a moment of blind panic and reactivity, I would respond to someone’s Spanish inquiry with a rusty response of my own. That never happened, though I thought to myself in French some of the time. Some part of me, the world-conscious part, needed to prove that I did in fact speak a language other than just English. Someday I will.

My story actually began the day before departure.
I was in Ann Arbor, situated in a coffee shop while my boyfriend attended a meeting. I had homework to do and chai tea to drink, and a steady stream of jazz occupied the right side of my brain. After quite some time, a man sat down at the table next to me who was clearly down on his luck. Long disheveled beard, thick and well-worn leather jacket (not those shiny black ones yuppies wear), gloves and a hat, heavy boots, a small plastic bag filled with things. His fingers were wrapped around a coffee and he said a prayer before taking a sip. At the time I was immersed in a science textbook, but I soon finished my last chapter and moved on to my next subject. From time to time he mumbled to himself, but for the most part he sat in silence, working on the coffee. At 9:43 p.m. he asked me for the time, then began counting his money intently. “Miss, can you spare me a dime? I’m eleven cents short.” I started digging through the front pocket of my backpack for change. Finding none, I handed him a dollar. “Thank you and God bless.” I responded with the appropriate knee-jerk “you’re very welcome,” and he asked me what I was reading.

“This is for my sociology class. It’s pretty interesting.”

I began to flip to the front cover; it’s a reflex of mine. As the traffic-light yellow binding began to appear, I stopped short. The book I had been so intently reading was entitled Experiencing Poverty. I began to flush red, but he didn’t seem to notice. “Sounds like heavy stuff,” he said.

“It is. I mean, it can be. Err, it is.” He began to talk about something, but I was so flustered I don’t remember what. He told me he had been in the shop earlier that morning, and I replied that I had been there going on five hours. “What can I say,” I quipped, “I like the music.”

“I like the fireplace. It’s warm over there. That’s where I was earlier.”

We talked a bit more, and then he left. My boyfriend showed up just minutes later and found me with tears in my eyes. Here I was reading Experiencing Poverty while a homeless man counts his change and comes up eleven cents short for a cup of coffee. In less than 24 hours, I would be in Nicaragua. Deep breath.

Following our late-night arrival to the country, sans luggage, we bounced down roads in various states of disrepair into a volcanic crater, the site of our first hotel. I use the term hotel loosely, as we actually stayed in an ecological project center perched over Laguna de Apoyo. The crater lake directed your eye straight to the towering Volcano Mombacho, a dormant but impressive formation we would be visiting later in the week. After a deep sleep interrupted occasionally by falling forest objects, we awoke to a new world. I had realized the night before, even in the pitch black surrounding us, that we had found our way to some version of the Garden of Eden. I had not prepared myself for the waxy banana leaves and tree limbs snaking in and amongst themselves, nor for the exotic sounds of birds and humming insects announcing the morning sunshine. After slathering on sunscreen (fortunately I possessed the foresight to pack that into my carryon, as well as a clean pair of socks, a toothbrush, etc.), I made my way from our room to the main deck and kitchen. Wary of traveler's diarrhea, or “t.d.” as we affectionately came to call it by the week’s end, I avoided the eggs and gallo pinto, or rice and beans, offered in favor of granola and a banana. Plus, as an American, it had been deeply ingrained into my head that gallo pinto did not constitute a breakfast food. How little I realized then what I would learn in one week.

After breakfast we boarded the bus to our first destination. After stopping along the way to ooh and ahh over, or actually in the direction of, howler monkeys, we were soon winding our way towards a volcano in the Masaya Volcano National Park. The landscape changed from foreign to positively extraterrestrial as the road cut through lava fields populated by scrubby brush and the occasional wind-twisted tree. As we exclaimed and snapped pictures, what was truly alien— the land, or us? Grinding down through lower gears, the bus shrugged its way to the top. As we exited the air-conditioning, the wind immediately grabbed at our hats, shirts, backpacks, anything. Here we were in Nicaragua, staring down into a large pit, from which thick mucus-colored sulfuric clouds emanated.

After observing the volcano’s visibly violent history, we went spelunking in a nearby volcanically-formed cave. Some of the girls supremely enjoyed the bats flying about, while the rest of us listened to our guide recount its history of high priestesses and human sacrifice. We later lunched in a pleasantly shaded restaurant. Excited to buy beer, excited to see the cute little caged monkey kept near the bathrooms, we probably filled any available positions for “obnoxious American tourists.” No matter. It was our first day in a country so foreign to our mindsets that we could not help but exclaim over every single thing we noticed.

On a quest to find clean shirts for the luggage-less, we stopped first in a swanky mall clearly servicing people with more money than we possessed. How anyone in Nicaragua could afford to shop there is, and shall always remain, beyond me. We cut out in favor of the nearby central market. I suppose the images of poor people remain mostly the same no matter your location in the world, at least to some extent. The rambling market reminded me of a market I visited in Athens, Greece, minus the smell of meat cooking. The wares vary somewhat to fit the locale, but the hungry-looking shopkeepers use every mean within their power to attract you to their merchandise. Children swarm, hawking small trinkets and tokens bestowed upon them by their parents— supplemental income with big brown eyes and a sweet smile, trying to solicit our sympathy and our Cordobas. You don’t want to say, “No gracias,” to so many children, but to say yes to one is to invite a stronger advance from those who remain. We clutch our things closely against our bodies, avert our eyes. No, gracias.

That night a group of us went for a swim under the silent watch of Mombacho. Heading into the water as the sky’s dusky glow faded, we waded through ten feet of razor-sharp volcanic rock until meeting with sand. The water had a slight funk, but it was the perfect temperature for stargazing. We felt so far removed— but removed from what? Our mostly carefree lives in the States? Or the poverty through which we earlier cruised with the A/C on full-blast? Our luggage arrived late that night. Clean clothes at last!

We stumbled onto the bus at 4:30 a.m. and headed for the airport. Our flight to Bluefields, a small town accessible only by boat or plane, was short, though for some the unpressurized plane was just a little too daring. A few motion-sickness tablets and green faces later, we landed and made our way to the hotel. A brief walking tour around the main market revealed faces underscored by years of hard work, crippling injuries resulting in a betrayal by the body during those years, and polite smiles from which cheerful greetings issued. “Hello, my children,” one woman said quietly as she moved around and past us using a twisted crutch. “Good afternoon and God bless.” Here we could find almost anything— bananas, shrimp, rice, baskets, hammocks, cheap McDonald's toys, ice cream advertised by sharp choruses of bells, shy dogs looking like they’d been kicked one too many times. It is amazing how, without the “help” of facials and creams and sunblock, a person’s face is so capable of telling a story. I will never forget that. Each smile, each wrinkle, each scar told of a different day and a life more different than I could even begin to imagine. I took pictures as my camera hung at my side, hoping no one would notice. I felt guilty, because my face had no reply to give. I hid behind glasses, sunblock, and my daily skin care regimen.

Stopping in a little restaurant for something to drink, I noticed that our group of about twenty people had amassed a small following of kids. Some of them had come with us, “old” friends of our group leader Dr. Urquhart, but the others had probably been confused by the sight of twenty Americans herding protectively around a couple of scraggly Nicaraguan children. As they sipped delicately at the sugary drinks we placed before them, the other kids hung at the door, shifting their gaze back and forth from the kids to us. “They” and “we.” Isn’t that how it always goes with Americans? We’re separated by more than just our nationality; it’s our clothes, our position in the world, our wealth, our fancy cameras, our passports, our endless opportunities. It’s their poverty.

After finishing the drinks, we were cut loose to wander around in small groups. Every town carries its own distinct smell, and Bluefields smells of overripe fruit, dust, car exhaust, and stale sea breezes. Upon reaching the end of a road, we ventured into a long dark building filled with tables and tables of fresh produce stacked neatly. A little boy helping his mother took note of our wanderings, and sidled towards us. Taking notice of our cameras, he began pointing things of interest out to us. Over there, see that chicken? his eyes seemed to ask. Do you see that funny old man snoring? He ushered us out the back of the building to a wharf with many docked fishing boats. I gestured to my camera and he smiled; I took a picture of him. In it he looks solemn, but there is a faint smile playing at his lips. His hands are pressed tightly to his sides, and he is wearing a St. Louis Cardinals t-shirt.

After rejoining the group, we headed to a nearby community to visit more of Dr. Urquhart’s friends. The children just kept coming and coming, from all directions. They smiled shyly, pointed to our cameras. The resulting flurry of picture-taking and oohing and ahhing over cute little kids produced plenty of giggles as we showed them their pictures in the preview screen of our cameras. They pointed to themselves and their friends, covering their mouths with little hands. Reality set back in once I actually stopped to look around. The families who occupied this little neighborhood lived in one-room houses built out of wooden slats and corrugated tin. Brightly dyed clothing flew in the breeze as it dried on lines, and smoke from cooking fires poured out of openings in the house walls. One little girl started playing in water, or at least that’s what we Americans assumed. We soon realized she was actually washing clothing. Where was this place? This is the reality of life in impoverished countries. Quick childhood and a lifetime of work.

We made a second trip later, this time to the community center to pass out clothing and toy donations. The structure was distinguishable by its size and also the fact that it had been more-solidly constructed of poured cement, in addition to the wood and tin. I will be frank, and perhaps disappoint the reader by revealing this experience to be one of the least satisfying of my life. We had limited resources to distribute, so the door to the center was closed and locked. I had brought two dozen hats along with me, but they went fast and there were many disappointed faces once they were gone. Children gathered outside, peering in through the metal grating which constituted a window. While certainly we were doing good by donating clothes, much of it was frivolous given its intent. Although some of the kids could hardly contain their elation upon receiving a toy, others had twisted looks of disappointment on their faces. What the hell am I supposed to do with this? I could see them thinking. Children’s faces hide very little. I realized that many people must riffle through their toy boxes and think, hmm, I don’t like this toy, maybe I’ll donate it to some poor kid in Nicaragua. That is some of what we had to offer— cheesy fast food trinkets and other oddities. Even then, the kids were gracious to us. The worst was the cameras. Here these people were, being given much-needed things, and my group could not contain themselves from taking pictures. Not just regular pictures, but pictures with the flash turned on. Full blast, no matter where you turned, flashes going off in the face of these humble people. It sickened me; I must admit I was embarrassed to be a part of it. Americans will be Americans.
Later that night we had the chance to see Garifuna dancers perform. In addition to glimpsing a bit of both local history and culture (the dances remain as part of slavery’s far-reaching legacy), each of us had a chance to embarrass ourselves in front of everyone. A good bonding experience, certainly. I was told I looked like a Hula dancer. It’s a start.

The following morning brought fresh-squeezed orange juice and pancakes for breakfast. In groups of three we headed to the market clutching a dollar each— the amount most Nicaraguans live on per day. Our mission was to buy food for the next 24 hours. While it sounded daunting from the outset, the cost of living is lower than I originally imagined, so my group came back with far too much rice and beans. We also bought plantains, a diet staple in many countries, and mangos with our leftover money. I noticed many of “my” hats from the day before bobbing along in the marketplace. What a strange feeling it was— Hey, I gave people those hats! It was not enough, but you contribute what you can. It seems that this is how most Nicaraguans fashion their lives, and it’s a shame that more people around the world do not follow suit.

We reconvened and soon everyone was packing up their duffel bags. We set out on two rented panga boats to our next home-away-from-home. These boats sit low in the water, unless you are moving, in which case you had better hope you put enough weight into the bow to see over it. We headed upriver towards a rainforest farming cooperative. As we zipped through miles and miles of jungle, the boats cruised beneath birds and frightened sunning turtles from their perch on logs. We passed the rusted-out hulls of shrimping boats destroyed by Hurricane Mitch, as well as the occasional pair of people paddling in dugout canoes.

Our drivers docked, and suddenly the noise of the rainforest was upon us. It’s an oppressive mix of birds, insects, and heat (most who live in warm climates can attest to the noise a hot day makes). The group spread out daintily across a network of logs laid into thick mud; each tried harder to grip with their toes through sneakers after seeing one unfortunate girl step off the trail. One by one, each piece of luggage, tent, and jug of water was passed through the line until it cleared the mud. We collected our things and headed to camp, by way of a deceptively harmless-looking hill. Instantaneous sweat. It’s amazing to think how soft American bodies really are. We lift weights, jog, eat healthy food (or at least have access to it), and receive a plethora of medicines for a trip such as this one. And still we sweat, we find ourselves out of breath, we become stricken by t.d. (which I avoided, thankfully). We must really be a sight to see for people who have spent their entire lives living and working there.

After swift introductions to the family on whose land we would be staying, we fanned out into a field carved out from the forest to set up our tents. I was startled to hear something crashing through the brush— it turned out to be a sweet-faced cow. There were about a dozen of them, and they paid us no heed. We sweated and set up our tents, and after applying bug spray once or twice, headed to a building for a lunch of either peanut butter and jelly, or tuna. Smashed Wonderbread has never tasted so good. A jar of mayonnaise which had been left out for an alarmingly long period of time was divvied up among three extremely skinny dogs. I led the movement, even though I knew I probably shouldn’t. The dogs I have at home are extremely well-loved and well-fed, and there is a side of me who will never be able to fully accept that cultural difference. It seems silly to expect people who have enough trouble feeding themselves to feed a dog; in fact, it is downright unreasonable. But I, along with another woman, could not help but extend the plastic spoon of peace to these dogs. You contribute what you can.

We had boxes for this family as well. Clothes and toys, mostly. It received little fanfare on the part of my group, because there were only two children to witness this American “Christmas.” Nonetheless everyone was very grateful; for them it is not just a façade.

As sunset neared Dr. Urquhart led us away from the camp on a path which skirted the rainforest. He identified the bold flashes of colors we saw streaking before our eyes easily; to him each color and call meant something. We were on visual overload. Toucans, parakeets, exotic-sounding things I had never heard of— this was really it! This was the rainforest! The canopy looked surprisingly similar to what I had imagined from years of nature magazines and Hollywood movies. As it grew dark we headed back, and dinner, the dinner we had so carefully purchased earlier that day, was served. That meal was easily the best of the trip. Doña Berta, our obliging hostess, cooked gallo pinto in coconut milk, fried some yucca and plantains, and had fresh cow’s milk sitting in a pail for us to try. No one spoke as we dug into our plates. The family gathered and stood near, silently watching us, thinking.

After each plate had been emptied we headed back to the boats, this time to hunt caimans. These reptiles are related to alligators, but apparently far more docile. After spotting one and zeroing in on it, one merely needed to be lowered from the boat far enough to snatch it out of the water. They submitted meekly to our many photo ops, and were duly given back their freedom. The river at night was a beautiful, if somewhat frightening, mass of dark green plants, various shadows, and strangely full and bright moon. Every noise not identifiable as either human or engine-made resulted in ten lights flailing around wildly into the raven-hued night. We didn’t know what was out there, and perhaps preferred not to find out. That would involve more “rainforest reality” than we were prepared to experience in one short week. Our tents that night provided us enough separation from our surroundings that I slept soundly.

The next morning brought an early wake-up call in order to spot a greater variety of birds. With dew still heavy on the ground we clomped back out towards the rainforest, leaving little trails in the grass behind us. A breakfast of gallo pinto and mangos later, we headed back out, this time to venture into the rainforest itself. By that time the sun was up and the dew was quickly dissipating. Sadly, what I remember most about being deep in the jungle is the mosquitoes. Despite all the bug spray (which was probably all sweated off), the steady hum of mosquitoes was inescapable. We zigzagged back and forth to points of interest, slapping at our faces, necks, and any other exposed place. After leaving the forest we visited a cleared plot of land where Don Avelino, our host, raised a few staple crops. Banana trees, yucca, and beans were interspersed with a few stray stalks of corn here and there. We argue that cutting down the rainforest is wrong, yet how can one deny a man the chance to produce a living for his family? He was proud to show us his work.

After our walk through mosquitoes’ paradise, we headed for the river. Despite knowing of the caiman lurking who-knows-where, we jumped in and swam for the opposite bank in earnest. Questionably dirty river water had never felt so good. Everyone felt refreshed after climbing back out, and started back to camp to change into fresh clothes. We had forgotten about The Hill, and by the time we reached our tents we were once again dripping in sweat. No matter. Soon we found ourselves once again in the boats, zipping breezily along farther northward toward Pearl Lagoon. The little fishing village felt very friendly, and we made our way to our newest lodging. The hotel was a beautiful, understated, open building and we settled in quickly. A little boy wandered through, carrying a basket filled with small biscuit-like loaves of bread for sale, fresh out of his mother’s oven. Women with babies clutching at their skirts hung crisp white laundry out to dry, and kids in uniforms passed by on their way home from school. After a short downtime, we set out to find a swimming hole. The sidewalk we followed meandered through neighborhoods and turned out onto a marsh. We continued to the sea, passing people hard at both work and play, and swam in a place where the sandbar extended out hundreds of feet. The water was perfect— not too warm, not too cool, a mixture of both saltwater and freshwater. Walking back to the hotel, my hair curled like it never has before. After dinner a group of us converged in the hotel’s little bar area to recount the day and week’s adventures. Later on, we passed through the hotel gate in hopes of a local bar, which we found. Talk about conspicuity! The locals seemed both amused and intrigued by us, but fortunately the girls in the group were outnumbered by the guys who had accompanied us. We danced our feeble little American hearts out, until power was cut to the entire area. Our signal for bed.

The next morning found us piling back into the boats, and this time heading out to the Pearl Keys. One very rough boat ride later, we beached on a little island of paradise and were turned loose for a few hours to snorkel, wander, or even sleep. (By that time people had started to get sick.) The island did not fit into the rest of the Nicaragua picture; it was the stuff of glamorous movies and people with more money than they knew what to do with. I’ll admit it was a nice change of pace, but I felt guilty doing the tourist thing in the middle of such an experience. We had a chance to observe the reefs around the island, sip coconut water, eat more peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and accrue sunburns. It really was a fun few hours. Soon our time was up and we headed back to Pearl Lagoon, packed, and then began the trip all the way back to Bluefields, and then Laguna de Apoyo.

The next day’s adventure included Volcano Mombacho, an organic shade tree coffee plantation, and ziplining through the forest canopy. The volcano’s position is such that it “collects” clouds, and the resulting cloud forest is what most people picture when they think of “the jungle.” Huge trees carpeted in ferns, bromeliads, and orchids, and green absolutely everywhere. There were also massive vents in the ground from which steam curled up, and all the while clouds were blowing just overhead. A short trip down the mountain led us to the coffee plantation. Although the plants weren’t fruiting, we witnessed workers sorting through beans, manually picking out the good from the bad. We had a chance to try the coffee, whereupon we all bought bags to bring back home with us. After everyone’s purchasing needs had been fulfilled, we walked a little ways down the mountain to the ziplining. Each person was outfitted with a secure harness; once you climbed the stairs set up by the first tree, they hooked you in and off you went! We coasted through the tops of the trees, going from one tree to the next and jumping off again. My ears were filled with the steady drone of cicadas— it completely absorbed all of the silence which should have surrounded us. Once everyone finished their first-class tour of the canopy, we headed for another market for our last purchasing binge of the trip. While this one had the characteristic kids tagging along behind each group of people, it was clearly aimed more towards tourists than the first one we visited. Bright hammocks, woven clothes, and non-threatening slingshots punctuated the bustling square. One old woman brought to my attention a basket balanced on her head, and pushed a plastic bag into my hands. “Cocoa,” she explained. I smelled it and smiled. She pushed another bag into my hands, this time a spice I could not identify. I smiled again, and she whipped out a plastic bag to put the bags in. “N-no, gracias,” I stuttered, shaking my head. She snatched her bags back, threw them in her basket, and muttered something that made me glad, for once, that I could not understand Spanish.

That night we ventured back to the lake for another swim. The moon was even brighter than it had been earlier in the week and the waves churned up cool water which soothed our somewhat (read: significantly) burned skin. I tried to find more constellations in the sky but the moon drowned many stars out. “How many people can say that they’ve been swimming in a volcanic crater lake in Nicaragua,” we mused. “How many people can say they have even been to Nicaragua?” We broke into fits of exhausted laughter before heading back to the hotel to shower and collapse into bed.

On our last full day, we did the tourist bit. A drive through wildly varying terrain of dry plains and small jagged mountainous hills ended at Pochomil Beach. The sun was out in full force, so much so that it was impossible to make it across the hot dry sand to the water’s edge without sandals. The glassy beach stretched into pounding surf, and groups of kids chased after soccer balls. Teenage boys whipped skinny horses up and down the beach trying to attract takers for a horseback ride down the beach. While that has always been a goal of mine, I couldn’t bring myself to ride one. After testing out the water, I eventually settled into a hammock to absorb the surroundings. We were once again a target, as women and young boys and girls passed by offering necklaces and bracelets to us. We were so tired. “Why won’t they go away?” we complained. Yet, past our annoyed exteriors, we all knew that these people were merely trying to make a living. Buying rice and beans in the markets of Bluefields had been a game to us; the same cannot be said of the people we encountered at any time during our trip. The familiar sharp sound of bells alerted us to the ice cream in the area. There were two carts jingling their wares— a middle aged man, and a boy who was probably our age. He stopped ten feet from the long table around which we were centered and leaned against a support beam of the thatched “tiki hut” we were in. His eyes passed steadily over everyone, a lingering look which did not give itself away to any specific emotion. I wonder what he was thinking about. I will always wonder.

Once lunch was served, a man came over to play songs for us on his guitar. All listened intently, few tipped. He smiled and thanked us for listening. No one seemed to notice he was gone. I spent a fair amount of time that last day wondering if that was how the trip would be for some people— out of sight, out of mind? With the advent of digital cameras it’s so easy to take pictures, but of what substance or significance are they if no further thought is invested in them? Everyone’s heart breaks when they see those commercials on television asking viewers to “sponsor a child for less than a dollar a day!” but how many actually take the step and pledge their support? Not enough, not nearly enough. We were worn out that day, some had fallen to the intestinal ills of LCDs— Less Developed Countries, the politically correct term for Third-World Countries— and saying “no gracias” is so easy. As the day began to wane we clambered back into the bus and headed to Managua, to a Best Western hotel literally right across the street from the airport. We vied for the showers — “I call first!” “Well then I get second!”— and enjoyed controllable temperatures and “real” water pressure. Clean and refreshed, each of us donned the nicest of the clothes we had packed and made our way to dinner. No one ate much though. Whether because of a protesting stomach or perhaps because of a somewhat smaller one than had first arrived, we nibbled at our food and consumed vast amounts of water. There had been many “three-liter-plus days,” when no amount of water seemed to quench our thirst. At home I’m a non-water drinker, but this wasn’t home, was it? We joked about our sunburns, our tangled hair, the first thing we would do when we got home the next day. Sleep! Brush my teeth using tap water! Eat chocolate! Watch television! My mind flickered back to the boy with his ice cream cart, watching us as we played and lounged in hammocks drinking cold bottles of water and Coca-Cola. After dinner we convened near one of the hotel’s pools and shared some Nicaraguan rum. Our last night together! we half lamented, half rejoiced. One by one people lost interest and headed to bed after saying their goodbyes.

My flight departed early in the morning. I meant to spend it thinking and writing about the experience, but instead I slept. My father picked my up from Detroit Metro airport, and we stopped in Ann Arbor’s The Prickly Pear for dinner. It’s a southwestern-style restaurant, quite good. I ordered buffalo enchiladas, and when they came, I could hardly eat any. Too much cheese. Too rich. Too much food. Too too much. In addition to the main dish, it was served with a heaping portion of rice and beans. Gallo pinto, my home away from home. They weren’t nearly as good as Doña Berta’s, but they would do. I ate them all.

When I got home that night, after a long shower, I settled down into my big bed and felt completely overwhelmed by guilt. But as days passed and I mulled the experience over, I began to see things differently. The guilt remained, but it was of a lesser sort, a different sort. I am no more responsible for having been born in America than any of the people I encountered during our week were for having been born in Nicaragua. I did not choose my parents, they did not choose theirs. I believe that is an important distinction to make. There is a broader social responsibility those of us carry who have been born into positions of automatic influence. I may not have name-recognition or anything along those lines, but I have voting power and a modest, college student’s amount of money which I can use to make my voice heard. While Nicaraguans have little say over the direction of their country (at least as long as the World Bank and other such organizations are involved), I can choose not to buy certain products or not to support certain people. I can exert my influence over friends and alert them to situations of which they may not be aware. I can show them pictures and tell them about what I saw, and how I interpreted it. I can do so much. The Western world has reached a point where people in positions of major political or monetary power can no longer be given the benefit of the doubt. Change starts from the bottom up, with people like me going on trips like this one. A step out onto a fragile-looking limb sometimes creates a fall, but if I’m going to crash down out of the American tree of power, wealth, and greed, I would rather have it be for a good reason. In order for someone like me to last a week in Nicaragua, I “needed” to be up to date on all vaccinations, such as Tetanus. I needed a Hepatitis A shot to ward off food-borne malaise. A live oral Typhoid vaccine, kept refrigerated and out of any and all light, taken four times, every other day. Anti-malarial pills taken the same day once a week for 5 weeks. A powerful antibiotic just in case of any t.d. Pepto-Bismol as a preventative measure against the same thing. I have never been so heavily medicated in my life. I have never seen so many small rectangular houses. I have never seen so many skinny dogs or thirsty-looking people or children in sandals many sizes too big for their feet. I will never forget the faces of the people I passed on the street, or the people of whom I took furtive pictures. Rainforests and Reality. The world needs a booster shot of both.

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