Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Forgotten Questions

One question the Bonderman panel asked me was how I would handle my encounters with people who asked me for money since I would be traveling to many impoverished countries. I said something along the lines of focusing on the macro level and dedicating myself to something that would make more substantial change because giving money here and there wouldn't make a big difference. This was honestly one of the more difficult questions because it was one of the only times I felt like I wasn't speaking from my own mind, one of the only times I didn't believe my own answers.

I've been hanging out with different types of people in Bogotá, usually between couchsufers and human rights workers, but the one commonality I notice is how both will blatantly ignore, at times even laugh, at panhandlers. I could sense how uncomfortable it all made everyone feel, how it killed the jovial conversations about travel, how everyone just wanted it to go away. Yesterday a Danish traveler, Miguel, vehemently remarked how "he hated beggers". I wish I would have just asked, "Why?"

One thing I admired about my Guatemalan host brother Sergio was how he never turned down a panhandler. He always gave anything if he had it, but usually he had nothing. Miguel would change his accent to sound more like a foreigner when he said, "No entiendo Español," (I don't understand Spanish) but when Sergio would say, "Lo siento, pero no tengo nada" (sorry, but I don't have anything), he really meant it.

Sergio told me it wasn't his business what the person did with the money, didn't even care if the person's story was true, he just told me if he had something, he'd share it. It's funny because he was actually quite conservative, very supportive of the right-wing, "Mano Dura" ideology of former presidential candidate Otto Molina, yet he was more compassionate than these "liberals" I've come across, who could quite easily pretend the people who asked for spare change, didn't exist. Now some people would call Sergio foolish, an easy target for street-smart swindlers, but to me he just had a big heart.

Another friend I met in Guatemala, Alex, would tell me that giving away money was re-enforcing dependency, that giving money to kids would teach them to beg rather than work. From then on whenever someone would ask me for spare change, the two opinions would battle in my head, like the angel and devil on my shoulder, because I saw validity in both views, and because I never really knew which of the two was the "right" thing to do. But I've learned there really isn't one.

I remember one time Sergio and I were waiting for a bus and a young shoe-shiner approached us to ask for a Queztal, equivalent to about 13 cents. Lugging a backpack literally as big as himself and carrying a wooden tool box full of polish, it reminded me of how angry Sergio would get at the stories of young working kids getting robbed of their day's work due to their small size. Sergio had asked if he could get a shine to help earn the kid some more money. He didn't actually have the money, but he looked over to me and I nodded in silent understanding. Exhausted with face and hands covered in dirt and shoe polish, the young boy search vigorously but eventually told us he didn't have the right color. He looked like he was about 9 years old.

I kept thinking that he shouldn't be working, shouldn't have to do this. He should be out playing, at home studying, in bed sleeping, should be anywhere doing absolutely nothing like 9 year olds are supposed to be doing. I gave him the Quetzal and he used it to buy a bag of water. I wish my friend Alex had been there so I could have asked him, "You think that kid won't learn how to work?"

Friday, May 23, 2008

Gone Studyin'

I know the Bonderman specifies that recipients are prohibited from conducting research on their travels, but being in a country as complex as Colombia, and also being fortunate enough to be taken in by human rights lawyer who lives in a virtual archive of knowledge, one can't help but crack open a book.

I spend most of my day studying, reading anything from poetry to books on fruit. After learning the invaluable importance of language, I've also been attempting to teach myself Portuguese to prepare for my eventual arrival to Brazil. And of course I've been catching up on Colombian history.

Knowing the history of a country completely changes your perspective on it. It explains the racial makeup, the structure of social classes, explains why people are the way they are.

I'm currently reading "More Terrible Than Death" by Robin Kirk, a well-written account of a human rights worker's decade long sojourn exploring the development of contemporary Colombia; though the title should not be confused as to how I have been living, which has been in the nicest apartment I've ever seen, let alone stay in (and yes, that includes the US too).

I've had access to any tea I could fathom, a pristine kitchen that has re-energized my old passion for cooking, and an indoor hammock (which really doesn't need further explanation). But that doesn't mean tranquility is permanent. Like most circumstances in the world, things could change in an instant. The bombings that resulted from the after-effects of internal conflicts between government armies, drug cartels and guerrilla factions could still find their way to Bogotá as they did in the past. Nothing in life is guaranteed. Strange how we too often forget that.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

A Small Request

"It is paradise here." What most travelers forget to add to the end of that statement is "for tourists."

In most third-world travel destinations, the local residents often do not have the resources to enjoy the same scenic splendors of their own country that tourists do, but few travelers ever acknowledge this, probably because they've never talked to them. I think the reason I've been unable to integrate myself with the traveler's circuit is because I feel amongst them a sense of mistrust towards the local population, but I prefer to believe what my Nicaraguan roommate Amparo once told me. She said, "En cada lugar es lo mismo. Hay poco gente malo." (In every place it is the same, there are few bad people).

When I tell people I've been to certain countries for upwards of two months and only visited one, sometimes two places, they think I'm crazy, think I'm wasting my time and money, but I've realized that's how I prefer to travel. I get addicted to the people and through them I get to know a place. Through them I learn to trust again.

I've found myself doing many things I could very well be doing back at home. Last week I went to an amusement park and rode bumper cars. Afterwards I went bowling. But sharing these moments with new friends changed these ordinary activities into unforgettable memories. Seeing people enjoy themselves, look over to you and laugh at the same things, made me feel connected to a place despite all its differences.

The one thing I've learned is that most people around the world generally want the same thing. Everyone wants to smile. Everyone wants their own version of happiness. And what touches me the most is how sometimes just your friendship can be more than enough. I asked my friend Islay if I could mail him anything, like shoes or clothes and he said to me, "Si tù puedes, bueno, pero si no puedes, no te preocupes. Solo quiero que tù me escribes de vez en cuando. Dejáme saber como estas." (If you can, good, but if you can't, don't worry about it. I just want you to write me once in a while. Let me know how you are).

I try to empathize from the perspective of most travelers and maybe the desire to interact with the people is there. Maybe they just haven't been as fortunate as I am to have the capacity to. Maybe the few travel horror stories that have been conflated to misrepresent a country has gotten the best of them. I really don't know. Therefore I no longer feel anger or irritation towards travelers that appear to ignore locals, but instead I feel sorry that they are missing out on such wonderful experiences. There is already so much in this world meant to keep us apart that we need not hold ourselves back even more from discovering one another.

Sometimes I just want to stop people and plead with them: Sit down and talk with people, share a few laughs, dance a few songs, hug each other. Just give it a chance. Who knows, you might find something beautiful. I know I have.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Package Pending

(Lianna, Leòn, y Claudia)

Me: ¿Te puedo mandar algo afuera del pais?
(Can I send you anything from outside the country?)

Leòn: Libertad.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

The World Turns

My time in Nicaragua has simultaneously been the worst and best times so far on this journey. The near death motor accident has taken a serious toll on my body, but the thing that has made the difficult moments bearable, what has made all the misfortunes really only seem like a small sacrifice for all the beautiful memories I've received, has once again, been the people.

I "lived" in two different parts of the country, meaning I was able to consider two places "home" for the first time. Also for the first time I actually wanted to do some touristy things. My last weekend here I had a variety of choices. I could have climbed the Massaya Volcano, enjoyed the tranquility of the Ometepe Islands, or appreciated the revered colonial structure in Granada, but instead I went back to León, to visit some old friends.

Stepping back onto a bus and asking, "¿Va por San Felipe?" (Do you go to San Felipe?), the neighborhood of the boxing gym, was like smelling the nostalgic scent of of your childhood clubhouse, like the feeling the familiar fabric of your favorite lost shirt, like you had to let it go, but never wanted to in the first place. It was nice to walk around and for once be aware of the routes, be acquainted with the streets, for once not to feel lost. It was even nicer to recognize old faces and catch up on the last two weeks that had felt like more. I got to see the fighters from the gym and be informed on all their past and upcoming bouts. I shared a few laughs with my friend Sam, whom I honestly believe is my British counterpart. And Gloria. Wonderful Gloria.

My injuries made my body susceptible to catching a fever from a one-year old infant that was sleeping in the bed I shared with four others, which actually made me feel cold in the hot Nicaraguan weather. Fortunately, she had some chicken soup for my arrival, probably the best remedy for my sickness. Then she made me the most bitterly salty lemon elixir I had ever tasted, but it cured me immediately. We spent the rest of the day catching up, watching bootleg DVDs of newly released movies, and classic episodes of Chavo de Ocho. We had a great time. It was like old times again, but that also meant another goodbye, this time for good.

I almost cried when she asked me when I was coming back, even more so when she said it with a tone of futility, like the question had been pointless to begin with. Whatever response I gave, she knew the truth was, "probably never". I wanted to say that I would be back someday, hopefully soon, but she deserved more than a comforting lie. Instead I just smiled weakly and told her that I really didn't know. It would have been almost mockingly insulting to ask when she would come visit me since the privilege of travel does not work equally between us. The world just doesn't work that way.

I said I'd miss her but she smiled and shook her head. She told me I'd be traveling. I'd have adventures and stories to occupy my mind, but she'd still be in León, alone once again. It pained me for her to be so right and aware of the future, furthermore to have the strength to cover it with a polite smile. I wish that she could also have a ridiculous amount of money thrown at her to travel. Hell, I just wish she didn't have to wait in line for a whole day in an embassy, provide evidence of job stability, sufficient funds, convince the government she wasn't going to illegally immigrate and still get rejected from going to a place that most US citizens can just waltz into with a passport.

When I left I embraced her so hard, like I wanted to squeeze out her essence and selfishly take it with me, like I've wanted to do with every person that has touched me abroad and at home, like the memories I've wanted so desperately to hold onto, but then again, the world doesn't work that way either.