Sunday, April 12, 2009

To be or not to be (a tourist, that is)…




This past Thursday-Sunday was the famed “Semana Santa,” or “Holy Week” for many Latin American and Catholic countries. What this translates to in Nicaragua is a long weekend full of cooking, going to the beach with family and friends, watching religious processions, and basically relaxing. The tourist hubs in Nicaragua (León, Granada and San Juan del Sur) apparently spill over with visitors from both Nicaragua and abroad. My host family didn’t have anything very special planned for the weekend, and I finally convinced my partially introverted, quiet, yet very sweet 22 year-old host sister, Mercedes to accompany me to visit the city of Granada. She had only been there once previously, for a school trip, although the picturesque church-filled city is just a 45 minute bus ride from her town, situated on Lake Nicaragua. Granada is supposed to be “the oldest city in Central America,” and is famed for its colonial atmosphere, the 364 little islands “isletas” that are right offshore, and also for its many cathedrals and churches. I had heard of Granada from fellow Peace Corps volunteers and other tourists passing through and knew that there were some nice hostels to be found there (with free internet, hammocks and coffee) and also a delicious restaurant with the inviting name, “Kathy’s Waffle House.”
Mercedes and I planned to stay just one night in Granada, and we stayed at a nice hostel called “Hostel Oasis.” She was the only Nicaraguan in the entire hostel. We met some of the dirtiest backpackers I’ve ever seen (no wonder people from Central Americans think that us Westerners don’t shower). They hailed from France, Denmark, Poland, Russia, England, and Panama. Hostels were virtually on every corner of the city, and I felt myself walking around and seeing more “gringos” than Nicaraguans - for the first time since I’ve left the states! It was a surreal trip, and it was quite a contrast to the “pure” Nicaragua that I have been experiencing during training, and the living conditions that I’ve been used to. I overheard Americans complaining about the horrible diet of Central Americans, how Nicaragua was just like Costa Rica (they obviously had not been outside of Granada), complaining about the heat, the beggars, the men, and also marveling over how cheap everything was. This was pretty funny to me since now as a volunteer, I am paid in córdobas, not in dollars, so my view of money and reasonable prices has drastically changed. The prices in Granada were astoundingly higher than in most of Nicaragua, although to an American they would be very thrifty: $10/night in a hostel, $4-5 breakfast at that Waffle House, $1.50 iced coffee, $1 for a loaf of whole wheat bread.
However, despite the huge differences, it was clear that I, as an American who is used to traveling, staying in hostels, and meeting people from different countries was without a doubt more comfortable in Granada than my host sister, despite being in her own country. When we first arrived at the hostel, I had to explain to her how to use the luggage locker, and also how to climb up and down her bunk bed since it was her first encounter with one. “It’s so weird not to hear my own language in the streets here…” she mused as we walked down the street, being passed by Americans and Germans talking animatedly about a boat tour they were planning on taking later. For the first time, I felt like I knew more about our surroundings than she did. I found myself, for a change, doing a lot of the talking and business transactions wherever we went, while she simply gazed around, wondering, I think, if she was still in Nicaragua.
This says a lot about Nicaragua. For one, most Nicaraguans don’t travel much outside of their home town, because of money, and lack of curiosity. Mercedes has all she needs in her home town, attends the university once a week in a nearby city, and in her spare time, she helps around the house and gets ice cream with friends. None of her friends were doing anything as “adventurous” as us for Semana Santa. Secondly, Nicaragua has not yet felt the shock of mass tourism. This is supposedly one area that the government and universities are trying to push in the future, especially “eco-tourism” which is so popular in Costa Rica. Travel here is not popular due to safety and security issues, lack of transportation, and frankly, an environment that is not always welcoming to the westerner. It would also be very difficult to travel down here without knowing the language.
Although Mercedes and I were both “tourists” this past weekend in Granada, I, strangely felt more at home than she did. I came away from the weekend feeling refreshed after speaking a little bit of English, eating some real granola, and not being the only blonde in the city. I think our little trip disturbed her a bit, making her feel out of her element, and “different” – something that most Nicaraguans never feel in their own homogeneous culture. However, I think the trip has sparked her interest for traveling more in her home country, and opened her eyes to the fact that these foreign countries that oftentimes feel so far away and separate from Nicaragua, are actually more accessible than once imagined.
I am reminded, as I write this, of a man that some other volunteers and I met in a café one evening a few weeks ago. He was English, and alone, and as we started into conversation, I was shocked to find out that has been traveling with his wife and three children in Central America for the past three months. The children’s ages were 12, 9, and 1. (Wait, it gets better) And they didn’t speak Spanish when they came. Yes, he was backpacking with a one-year-old infant in developing countries. He was extraordinarily nonchalant about the whole thing (as English people tend to be), saying that the trip has been pretty uneventful in the sense of emergencies; that they had only been robbed once, and the baby had only suffered a minor rash for a few days. The other volunteers and I were left with our mouths open. Was he crazy?! This country felt dangerous enough to us at times, let alone traveling with children. In one sense, I simply shook my head and wished him luck as he winded-down his trip, but also I was left with a sense of jealousy. What did he have that most people didn’t? He and his wife seemed to possess some sense of adventure, of wanderlust, or perhaps craziness that the majority of the world doesn’t. I really admired their attitudes and also their determination.
So, on one extreme we have my host sister, Mercedes, and on the other, this English guy and his wife. Where do I fit? Somewhere in the middle, although unquestionably more towards the adventurous couple…

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