Category Archives: Gaining Perspective

Departing Nicaragua: A Short Rant

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On the plane from Managua to Texas, I was unhappy.  I was not ready to leave the country and was even further annoyed by our traveling companions on the flight.  Being the mature twenty-something that I am, I plugged in my headphones and scrawled a two page rant in my journal:

taking off from Boston at the beginning of the trip. We’ve come full circle.

Ugh, I can’t believe we’re leaving already.  I could definitely stay for at least another month – we’ve seen such a tiny piece of the coutnry and I’d love to see the Caribbean coast.  Part of me thinks that if I didn’t have obligations for work next week, I’d absolutely arrange for a longer stay.  Sara and I are already trying to plan our next trip.

There was a security check before we boarded the plane.  The person who searched my bag was perplexed at first by the overall style of my backpack, so I had to help him get it unclasped enough to open it – and even then it was so tightly packed that he could barely get a hand in.  Re-closing it was another struggle.  I handed him my purse and told him I’d take care of the backpack.  He opened and dug through my purse, pulling out my copy of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.  He flipped through it, looked at the cover, looked at me, and looked back at the book as if I was weird for having such a thing in my possession.  I felt judged but, it’s all good, I read what I want.

Let’s be real here for a second. How could you not want to read this?

Something I noticed about Nicaragua is that it seems to get a lot of missionary groups.  Sara and I aren’t together on this flight and I am surrounded by one such group with t-shirts that say “Involving People to Inspire Nations for Christ.”  Consistering the missionary spirit is part (there were many factors) of what turned me off to Catholicism, Christianity, and organized religions in general, you can probably imagine how I felt about this turn of events.  I realize Nicaragua is a Christian country, so it’s not as though they’re telling the people that their native religion and traditions are worthless and wrong (that damage was done when the first conquistadors arrived centuries ago.  Admittedly, it was not all bad, as the natives stopped sacrificing their daughters to volcanoes, but still.).

The issue I have with such missionary groups is that it appears they go into the situation with (conscious or subconscious) feelings  of superiority, maybe even a degree of white supremecy and definitely a ton of privilege.   This is theoretically made more harmful by the fact that they believe they’re being humble and helpful to the natives because, in the U.S., we do things the right way.   I am not at all saying that I’ve never been guilty of this.  In fact, I’m fairly certain I had a similar self-concept on the alternative spring break trips I participated on in college and even perhaps when I first arrived in India – that self-confident, self-assured idea that could change the world and make things better for peopel in these places where the society was not like our own.  How naive it was to believe that a week’s trip to a place can make any kind of lasting difference!  One cannot possibly make any change until he or she has learned the culture and understands what motivates people in the area and how society functions.  Learning takes years and committment and dedication to your chosen task.  As I’ve said before, it is so easy to flit in and out of a country.  You “live like the natives” for a week or a month or a year, but then it’s back to what you’re used to.  One week provides barely a peek at a culture that has been a millenia in the making.  When I left India after a year of working and living with the people in the area, I barely felt like I had a handle on the culture.  I was more comfortable, to be sure, but I was still just learning.

It is wildly selfish and conceited and irresponsible of us to walk into a situation with which we are unfamiliar and uneducated (because no matter how many books one reads on the subject, experience is infinitely more important (if you, like me, are a Harry Potter fan, then you might be thinking of Hermione’s disagreement with Umbridge’s claim that reading about defensive spells will be more than enough to get them through their practical exams.  Geek moment over.).

No, but really.

Without being intimately familiar with a culture and a people, attempting to stir up any kind of change in a limited period of time is nearly impossible.  Factor in your imminent departure and all your good intentions are even less likely to succeed.  Think about how you might feel if someone from South America, Asia, or Africa walked into your neighborhood, started making changes, and then left.  Attempting to impart change without being aware of one’s own biases and using strategies based in one’s home culture is ineffective, unsustainable, and inconsiderate.  It is so much more important to first learn the culture and then to give the people themselves the tools and skills to be their own agents of change.  Don’t go in as a savior, go in and empower.

I don’t know how to stress all that enough.  Nor was I anticipating going on such a tangent.  Essentially, the traveler, the potential do-gooder, must accept that they travel for themselves alone – to experience new cultures and to allow themselves to grow, to be changed by the people and cultures they experience – rather than to change what they see.  Accept that you are but a temporary, fleeting moment in the daily routine of the people you meet.  They may even remember you years from now, but if you’re in a touristy area, they’ve probably seen many like you.  The best thing the traveler can do is to meet each person as a fellow human, regardless of language or station, learn their story if possible, and remember that they, themselves, represent an entire country.

Appropriately, Gotye’s “Somebody I Used to Know” is playing right now.

I hate that we’re taking off right now.  I also hate having an aisle seat.  I can’t help wondering when I’ll be back (I refuse to think “if”) and how this beautiful country will have changed in the interim.  I hate leaving new places and I dislike returning to regular routines.

Also, the flight attendant just suggested over the intercom that people shut their shades if not enjoying the view so that others can better see the TV monitors.  Gross.  That isn’t what this is about!

Final thought:  I should not wear white because I will inevitably draw on myself.

 

Musings on Graffiti

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Sandinistas

On our way back from Masaya with Roberto, we passed a group of people wearing shirts in support of Daniel Ortega, the current president, and riding motorcycles.  Roberto informed us that they were Sandinistas, a political party named for Augusto Cesar Sandino who fought against U.S. occupation of Nicaragua back in the 30s (I feel rather hypocritical linking to Wikipedia, as I once told my students that if they cited Wikipedia as a source, “they would make me cry.”).  I believe the current Sandinistas are supporters of the Ortega, who was also a member of this group.

As we drove by the Sandinista biker gang, I couldn’t help but notice that they were all pretty young, roughly around my age.  This observation made me think of something David, our Granada tour guide, had said.  He was of the belief that this govenrment, these politicians, create evenets that suck in the youth and use them to make it appear as though they  have a lot of support.  More often than not, the youth aren’t aware they’re being used in this sense.  (On a related note: I just finished Game Change, a fascinating book about the 2008 election, that alluded to similar strategies used at conventions and rallies to make it seem as though the candidate is extremely popular.  Perception is everything, but that’s another rant.)  I also noticed that there was a black and red flag on the back of each bike.  After that, I started noticing that there were red and black swatches painted on walls and around telephone poles.  I’d seen them before, but now I started connecting the two as being Sandinista symbols.  Further (Wikipedia-based) research revealed that the red and black colors come from a Mexican anarchist movement that Sandino was involved with in the 1930s.  Additionally, there were many slogans painted on the cement walls that lined the main road into Managua such as “Viva Daniel!” “Viva la revolucion!” “Sandinistas” and “FSNL.”

Sandinista graffiti in Managua

What was interesting about all this, however, was that as we got closer to Managua, more black swatches appeared on the walls, as if someone had attempted to paint over the pro-government phrases.  On the city line was a phrase, “menos propaganda, mas informacion” that remains imprinted on my memory.  I feel as though we’re in a similar situation in America – most of what we hear is essentially propaganda, paid for by those with the money and power.  It’s becoming increasingly more difficult to separate what’s real from what’s contrived.  This makes it even more important to pay attention to what the media is saying and to attempt to read between the lines.  Critical thinking and reading skills are more essential than ever (I’m not just saying that because I’m an English teacher).  We can’t peacefully accept what the media and the politicians spoonfeed us, because everything they say is a means to an end.

That being said, make sure you’re registered to vote!!

In Case of Rock Expulsions, Protect Yourself Under Your Car

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On Saturday, Sara and I had found ourselves with the pressing question of what to do on our last day in Nicaragua (there was also the ever present question of,  “WHY did we think one week would be enough time!?”).   We ultimately decided to hire a driver and leave Managua to go see the market and the volcano in Masaya (this is the same one that had an “expulsion” a month prior), a nearby town.

We had been expecting something along the lines of a tourist vehicle, so when our driver pulled up in a beat-up little red taxi with Korean writing all over it, we were a little surprised.  We also learned quickly that he spoke Spanish and only Spanish.  Challenge accepted.  As previously mentioned, Sara speaks no Spanish and I have sad, caveman Spanish (my speech is wrought with grammatical errors and it kills me).  However, I managed to translate the rundown of the day for Sara.  He gave us the list of options for what we could see and informed us that if we went over on time (we had 3.5 hours), then we would have to pay 7$/hr.

hanging out at the volcano museum

As we neared Masaya, he seemed to warm up to us.  We bonded over the fact that  none of us wanted it to rain (so, obviously, it did).  We stopped at a museum halfway up the volcano, where he helped us to arrange for an English-speaking tour guide to show us around the craters and cave, then gave us his personal tour of the museum.  This was unexpectedly hysterical because my Spanish vocabulary is lacking in the area of volcanoes, plate tectonics and animal species.   Therefore, situations arose such as when he was explaining how the parakeets who lived in the volcano survived the toxic fumes.  I didn’t grasp what he said the first time around but, as I’m a little proud, I was unwilling to admit that I had no clue what he just said.  After his speech on birds, I turned to Sara and said, “Parakeets.  Birds.”  Clearly she was on to me.  There were many mistranslations on my part, but somehow they all got sorted out.  He was a very funny tour guide.  He took a piece of lava from one of the displays (ignoring the rope placed in front of the display that implied visitors were not supposed to touch the exhibits) and pretended to steal it by hiding it in Sara’s purse.  I really can’t do justice to his character, especially since he became progressively more awesome as the day went on.

This. Is. Terrifying.
Also terrifying is the mark on the glass that appears to be a large spider.

Also, did you know there is something called “Aa” Lava?  I kid you not – it is the original Hawaiian name.  Apparently, aside from the fact that if lava is coming, you should yell “AA! LAVA!” and run away (makes sense to me), it’s so named because when it hardens, it becomes spiny and sharp.  If you step on it with your bare feet, you would then exclaim, “Aaa!”  Kind of like stepping on Legos, I’d imagine.

I’m not making this up.

By the time the three of us left the museum, we’d learned that he was quite the photographer, hence the many pictures of Sara and I attempting to look cool while wearing what appeared to be the equivalent of a child’s hard hat.  The hard hats were required because Masaya is still a very active volcano that, as previously mentioned, had a minor explosion on April 30, which closed it for a month thereafter.   Our driver stopped every so often to point out how far the lava had come down the volcano (remnants of an explosion in the 1600s).  It was seriously cool – much cooler than Volcan Mombacho, which has been nearly dormant for so long that you can’t see the lava anywhere).  He had also learned about our fear of bugs back at the museum (imagine, a whole display devoted solely to the nasty crawly things), so he kindly stopped to point out where we might find certain key insects.

because this will save you in the event of an actual explosion.

Up at the crater there was a parking lot with painted yellow curbs that warned all visitors to “park your car facing the exit.”  Comforting.  The only advice the park pamphlet gave us in terms of safety and survival was, “in case of rock expulsions, you can protect yourself under your car.”  But… what if you drive a motorcycle?  What if your family of ten squeezed into your tiny car and came to visit the volcano?  What if your car is really close to the ground?  WHAT THEN?!  Fortunately, however,  nothing was expulsed while we were there, so we may never know.

if you look at the fog in the center of the picture, you can just see the curve of the deepest part of the crater

We went over to the crater (wearing our super-safe hard hats, obviously) and peered down into the depths, which was seriously cool.  It had just rained, so the crater was steaming profusely and you could just barely make out where the gaping hole to the center of the earth was.  We could also see the previously mentioned parakeets, who’ve adapted to the toxic gasses spewed forth by the volcano, flying in and out.  Humans, on the other hand, are not supposed to breathe in said gasses for too long, so we took a few pictures and wandered over to a point on the other side from which we could see all of Managua and Masaya spread before us.

pretty, isn’t it?

While soaking in the view of the countryside, we realized, rather shamefully, that we didn’t know his name!  So I asked and he informed us that his name was Roberto.  Somewhere in all the excitement of going to a volcano, we’d missed out on common courtesies.  Once he’d learned our names as well, he said, “After all this time, now we learn our names!”  There’s an important lesson to be learned here, but I’ll let it be implied.

delightfully noobtastic.

Chocolate – Snow Patrol

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Since I just turned 25, I felt it was the time to share the song that inspired the title of this blog. You’ll understand after 58 seconds in, but I encourage you to keep listening because they’re a great band and it’s one of my favorite songs.

(Funnily enough, it has nothing to do with chocolate)

The Traveller’s Effect?

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Our last full day in Nicaragua was Sunday, July 2nd.  We were up at some ungodly hour to take Courtney to the airport, then Sara and I returned to the hostel where we discussed future travel plans and got some advice on traveling in Mexico from John.  (The more I hear about Mexico in my travels, the more intrigued I am…)

After a four hour catnap, we went in search of breakfast and ended up back at the mall, in a coffee shop with connections to the coffee plantation we’d visited on Volcan Mombacho.  I really enjoyed the music that was playing there, so I asked our waitress whether there was an album I could buy or if she could tell me the name of the artist so I could go get my hands on the music myself.  She said the music was streaming off the internet, so she didn’t have any answers for me, but she was more than happy to write down some music recommendations for me.

I save everything.

The music was awesome.  I’m currently obsessed with Fonseca, whose song “Arroyito” I shared in an earlier post.  I’ll share “Enredame” now because it’s also excellent:

 

I wasn’t sure how I felt about Camila y Frank Reyes’ song “De que me sirva la vida” until I listened to it a few times, because I usually have to be in a certain mood for a power ballad.  So, listen to it a few times and it will suck you in.

 

The thing I love about foreign music is that you really don’t have to know the language in order to enjoy it.  I tend to sing (terribly) along to Hindi, Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese songs and know very little of most languages.  Of course, if you turn the sound off, it’s obvious I’m only making the sounds, but I choose not to see that as an issue.

Back at the hostel after breakfast, Sara and I met Roberto, a 19-year-old employee at the hostel.  He had a larger-than-life personality, describing himself as having once been good looking “before the gringo food.”  We learned that gringo/a is a term used mostly just to describe Americans.  I had previously assumed it meant anyone from Europe or North America.  He had some strong feelings on the dancing skills of the American females, explaining that he’d been dancing with an American girl once and “was confused.  I didn’t know what she was doing.”  This was pretty funny, as I imagined the girl as doing some kind of crazy booty dropping or hippie dancing.  He also said, “I think the blonde hair, blue eyes people, they don’t like us.”  He was speaking in terms of romantic relationships, but I thought it was an interesting statement nontheless.  As a tourist or a traveler, you visit a place, you make friends, and you have an awesome time that you then go home and tell friends and family about.  It’s hard to keep in touch with people you meet and then leave behind.  If they’re other travelers, then they understand that this is how it goes.  Sometimes you’ll meet again, but more likely you won’t.  It’s all up to serendipity, really.  But, if you bond with someone who isn’t a traveler, a native in a place you’re visiting, what effect do you have on them when you leave?  Travelers are very good at flitting in and out of places without setting down roots.  I understand this:  roots are scary.  Personally, I’m more afraid of stagnating than I am of chaos.  The thing is though, it’s very easy to get caught up in you and in your adventures.  For you, every interaction you have, every challenge you struggle through is part of the bigger picture of your life.

I’m pre-coffee at this point (and a little jittery), so bear with me if that became nonsensical.

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“But, even when faced with the most disorienting travel disaster, movement is still better than the alternative: treading those familiar and known paths, with confines that have the pressing numbness, of living in a cave.”

-Wayward Betty, an absolutely fascinating travel blog: http://waywardbetty.com/

Another Good Reason to Travel

An Eye-Opening Perspective (Repost)

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Some of you may or may not have heard about Oprah’s trip to India.  If you hadn’t, well, she filmed it and it’s being aired on TLC.  I hadn’t heard about this until one of my students from India (currently studying at my undergraduate college) sent me a link to an article on an Indian blog reacting to the first episode of the special.  Always curious to see what foreigners think of Americans parading around their land, I read the article.  As I read, I found myself becoming more and more dumbfounded by the way Oprah was purportedly reacting to Indian culture and to the Indians she met.  It made me want to curl up in my skin and die out of shame for this awful representation of our country.

Admittedly, I haven’t seen the episode.  I don’t have cable and I couldn’t find it online (at least, not anywhere that wouldn’t riddle my computer with viruses).  I did, however, find a few other articles discussing the rampant stereotypes portrayed in her series.  One in particular from ABC compares American with Indian reactions and, I’m sorry to say, the American reactions are more positive.

But, don’t take this from me.  Read the side of the story given by another one of my students from India who is also currently studying at my alma mater.  He addresses not only the Oprah episode (which he did watch), but also what it’s like to be a foreigner in America.  This will change how you think.

If you’re interested in more related reading, this article from the APA discusses D.W. Sue’s work with microaggressions, which he defines as being “everyday insults, indignities and demeaning messages sent to people of color by well-intentioned white people who are unaware of the hidden messages being sent to them.”  As we discussed this in my Multicultural Issues class in fall of 2010, microaggressions can also be produced by anyone who benefits from a position of privilege, such as Oprah.  The key word there is “well-intentioned.”  If you’re familiar with the old adage, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions,” then you can probably understand how someone can think they’re saying the right thing, but because they’re unaware of their own personal biases, actually end up inadvertently causing harm to the other person.  It’s some of the most interesting, thought-provoking research I’ve come across during my time in grad school.  This class changed how I thought about a lot of things and I promise, if you read more about it, it will change you too.