Rationalizing Long-term Travel in Central America

Trip Start Oct 04, 2009
Trip End Nov 20, 2010

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Flag of Nicaragua  ,
Monday, January 11, 2010

I'm just going to say it. So far, Nicaragua has not appealed to me. I have missed El Salvador since the moment we were cut in line at border crossing. People here either do NOT like tourists or are just not that friendly. And no one waits in line fairly! We were cut in line waiting for the next bus to arrive, while buying circus tickets. It's my least favorite thing about China all over again - only this time I can actually say something in protest in their language! You can tell they are usually not expecting that. Spanish attitude, very liberating.

We received some pretty strong cautionary tales about Managua's unsafe taxis, even though the Lonely Planet guidebook claims that Nicaragua is the safest country in Central America. DOUBT IT.  Regardless, we've met the most people that have been mugged or robbed here. Zen, our Aussie hippie pal was mugged in Leon. The bartender from Semuc Champey drained his ATM account in Managua at machete point. Tania, Dutch spanish school friend from Antigua met a traveler with machete scars on his arm for not forking over his dough. A french guy in our hostel in Granada was robbed by a prostitute on the street late night (This story is peculiarly suspicous)!

These accounts got me thinking about how people can get to a point in their lives where they can rationalize face-to-face armed robbery. Is it desperation or entitlement or their version of fairness? It's obviously not right to take what isn't yours, especially by force, but think about it: locals here see hordes of tourists come through their cities everyday with giant cameras and clearly enough money to travel for travel's sake. To them- how is it fair that they are struggling to live in their own city with so little?

The mentality of stereotyping tourists as overindulged and rationalizing theft is freightening and dangerous. It breeds this sort of dishonesty without remorse. My least favorite part of traveling has always been the act of traveling. I love new places, but travel days to reach them aren't highlighted just by nausea and headaches. It's a day that I'm lied straight to my face all day long. About the price of food/transport, the frequency of buses, border crossing requirements, transport connection options, extra fees for large backpacks being charged after the journey is over, etc. It's the feeling of being powerless and uncomfortable and taken advantage of. Even if it's only a dollar, it's the feeling I hate. I'd rather pay a foreign price than feel tricked into it.

One Nica told us that if we didn't take his shuttle to Granada, there wasn't going to be another for 2 hours, when in fact we found that they leave about every 20 minutes. We had refused anyway as I was feeling sick from the taxi-driving style of the previous bus and wanted to sit with a ginger ale for a little between connections. Picture being bombarded with salesmen when you arrive at the bus stop. They try to make deals through the windows, not even letting you get off the bus. They give you anxiety because they are so urgent-sounding and rushing you around- trying to grab your bag off your back and put it in their shuttle bus or taxi or pull you in the direction of his (so far, always male, actually) business operation. This particular guy was really angry at us maybe for wasting his time without a sale, but kept shaking his head like we were idiots for not believing him. Not two minutes later, the same guy offered us a taxi to Granada for $30, when we know it should cost more like $10-$15. (Thank god for the travel bible of Lonely Planet for the price references, saved us from countless rip-offs) The getting there and away sections with price approximations alone make it worth it's cover price. Besides, the taxis are super unsafe except at the airport and why would I trust this guy after he just lied to me about the bus connections?! When we refused his taxi service, he continued to hassle us with comments like, "What's $30 to you?" and to Andy "Your tshirt probably cost you $30." ha, this is amusing because Andy's tshirt happened to be this sweet LLBean tshirt I got him and it happened to be true. Andy deflected extremely well by offering to trade his tshirt for a taxi ride. Tension dissipated into laughter.

This will happen with young, dirty, shoeless children, begging in the street, or with their thin parents begging for you to buy handmade jewelry.  When your homestay family doesn't have enough money to properly celebrate Christmas or needs you to make your weekly payments early.  When instead of watching the baseball game, young kids wander the stadium collecting redeemable aluminum cans.  When working families are struggling to send their children to school.  Or the extreme, when an earthquake hits.

Moments and stories like this make me feel one thing for purposeful-ishly traveling Central America: selfish.

Is it fair that I can travel like this? That I had opportunities that allowed me to work and save, and then spend it all on myself with the freedom to explore how I want to live my life. Did I really earn this? Did I deserve it? Did they deserve it?

It reminds me of a quote commonly stenciled on the public buses in El Salvador, always religiously charged & decorated. The eloquent Archbishop Oscar Romero's assassination in 1980 for speaking out against the repression marked the beginning of the civil war and he remains a hero of the people and frequently quoted. He said, "God did not want for some people to have everything and others to have nothing."

This tugs at me whenever I read it as I sometimes feel very extravagant for my choices. My life savings could have gone a long way for many people's basic needs. I don't want to live in guilt for my lifestyle, but I want to find an in-between place to remain in, where my traveling isn't only about me. It's about how I want to live my life, and how that life will affect other people.  For me, it's about not forgetting the people you meet and the struggles they faced when you finally go home.

Internationally, wealth becomes relative. At home in Boston, I am not the same spender as elsewhere when the prices are much lower, my money is going farther, and I want to support the local businesses.  But when your money goes farther, it's harder to not give.  Like when the cost of going to the gym for one day sends a child to school for a year.

Nationals see foreigners on vacation and spoiling themselves like they maybe only do once a year and even though tourism is providing more income and jobs and possibilities, it is also fueling the crime.

Even just walking around in dirty jeans and sandals, I am given privileges and unearned distinction by my skin color based on the assumption that I am wealthy. It's often uncomfortable as it seems so undeserved. I don't like my visit implying I have a lot of money and treated differently as such. I have never had to wonder if someone was being kind & friendly........or had dollar signs in their eyes and looking for a free lunch. It's an awful feeling.

Here though, I spend freely.  I buy sodas (haha, whoa!), I buy waters if I have too. I buy street vendor sliced fruit. I take taxis (in safer cities, at least) or sometimes special expensive buses. I eat out almost every night, although hostels with kitchens are my first choice, but the food is half the fun of traveling. (Derrick, I'm coming around on your style.) All things the average local doesn't do just as I don't do them in Boston. and it sends a message I'm not too keen on.

It makes me want to stay focused on the things that are worth my money to me: experiences. Balancing active ones and continuously learning & helping those I meet when I can so I don't feel so unnecessarily lavish or frivolous. To the locals I meet, how can I not seem that way??

No matter how I dress/eat/live in Central America, I can afford to be here. (For a year at that, but I typically withold that detail.)  That is enough of a message. Back home, I hate being called lucky for having this year of travel, because at home, anyone could do what I'm doing if they prioritize it. But here, the opportunities are not equal. Here, I am lucky, and more uncomfortably, why do I deserve it?  I am no more deserving than anyone I meet.

With stronger Spanish, maybe I could communicate my traveling & career intentions better, try to share what it is like in Boston, but it's nearly impossible, as there is no equivalent of the opportunities and options I had here in CA. This trip would simply not be an option. Many times, your career path is chosen for you here. It's almost embarrassing to try to explain my choices by saying how hard it was for me to save, to "earn" this trip, this freedom, this luxury....because comparatively, it did come easy for me.  I merely had to decide to work for it.
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