A green volcano, its peak shrouded in mist, loomed in the distance. To me, Ometepe sounded like a place from a storybook: an isolated island, created by two volcanoes thousands of years ago, in the middle of a lake so huge I couldn’t see to the other side. From Costa Rica, it was a simple 5-part journey: a 2 hour bus ride to the border followed by a hot, confusing, and dusty border crossing that took another hour, then a packed yellow chicken bus to Rivas, a subsequent taxi to the port, and a final $2 ferry ride to the magical island.
The sun reflected brightly off the white trimming on the third floor of the ferry, where two Swiss backpackers and I were putting on sunscreen. We had met during the hectic border crossing, and I was ecstatic to have company to make the uncertain journey with. We got to know and trust one another other on the ride to the island, but upon arriving, realized we were staying at different hostels. I disembarked on my own, bidding my newfound friends goodbye.
I began to walk toward where my maps.me app said my hostel was, my face glued to my phone as I wondered for the umpteenth time how people traveled before the Internet. After I was completely certain I was headed in the right direction, I lifted my head, and realized the clouds were illuminated by the rosy glow of sunset. I couldn’t wait to see how beautiful it would be from the shore of the endless lake. I walked down a few blocks, through streets of colorful, rundown houses, still wearing my big green hiking backpack. People passed in bikes and tuk-tuks, calling, “Taxi lady taxi!”
I smiled and said “hola” or “no gracias” to those I passed, having learned my first week in the Dominican Republic that it’s far preferable to smile and say hi, usually receiving a greeting in return, than to be called or stared at silently by a stranger. There’s no big city sense of anonymity here, no safety in the numbers of foreigners – here, I was the stranger, and I tried very hard to be a nice one.
The barely-paved streets ended, as I followed a dirt path the rest of the way down to the shore, where small waves were lapping at discolored lines of dark sand. The water level was higher than normal, as marked by the tall weeds submerged beneath brownish-blue water. A number of small wooden fishing boats bobbed further out. I left the path and walked on the sand all the way down to the water.
I wasn’t alone. There were two middle-school-aged girls playing what looked to be a pretend game in a tree on the shore. I smiled and waved hi, as they did the same. I kept walking. Further down, there was a group of maybe seven young boys, around five or six years old. Seeing kids play makes me feel so comfortable – I have a ton of experience working with children, and if somewhere is safe enough for kids to play, it’s usually safe enough for me to walk. I smiled said hi to them the same way I had addressed everyone else.
Fortified in their numbers, the boys’ responses were far more elaborate. “Hola gringo!” They called, one after another, laughing raucously. They kept talking, saying other things about “gringo” that I could not understand . As I walked past, I felt something come up and slap my butt. I whipped around, but by the time I turned the boy who had done the deed was far from me – the weight of my backpack had slowed me down. My glare didn’t faze the others laughing on the ground.
I felt so violated and out of place, like no matter who I was or how kind, these children wouldn’t see me as a person deserving of the respect they gave others in their community. They didn’t understand that I had feelings just like them or their parents; instead, they just saw me as a lone “gringo” girl they could use for entertainment.
On my way back, I took a different path past the area they were playing, walking quickly so they wouldn’t pick on me again. Even though, rationally, I knew they weren’t going to hurt me, that they were just playing, I felt so uncomfortable.They weren’t bad kids, they just didn’t understand that their fun was being had at the expense of another person.
More than anything, I wished I had the words to express to the children how their actions had made me feel. My kids at camp would never have behaved this way – respect is everything to me. But this wasn’t camp, and these weren’t my kids, and most frustrating of all was that I just didn’t know the language well enough to express a sentiment so complex. That’s always the worst aspect of a difficult situation to me – the part that is my own responsibility. I didn’t have more than a basic grasp of Spanish, and I was so self-conscious about reinforcing their idea of a traveler too inconsiderate to even know the language properly.
These kids weren’t the least of the disrespectful encounters I had in Nicaragua, either. There were so many men, of all ages, who called at me on the streets. Why a plethora of men were free to inhabit various street corners with no explicit purpose, I’m still unsure – maybe their houses didn’t have enough space, maybe they didn’t have work to go to, or maybe they just had nothing better to do.
They never did anything more than make gestures and stare, calling at me in simple Spanish or rudimentary English. The older men I passed would say things like “Que bonita!” Or “ Hey pretty lady!”, while a group of twelve-year-old boys made kissing noises. Cars on the street would honk and drivers would slow down to whistle, but no one ever touched me again, though I had no doubt that if they wanted to, there wasn’t anything I could do to stop them.
I was so uncomfortable at being addressed by so many strangers, all of whom seemed like they wanted more than a word or a look in response. Kids who I would smile and say hi to would respond with “one dollar.” These people didn’t seem to be looking for connection with me – they were looking for money, or power, or some other acknowledgement of which I was uncertain and fearful of being forced to supply.
I couldn’t have been the first backpacker they had seen – Ometepe wasn’t exactly off the beaten path. Despite Nicaragua’s position as the poorest country in Central America, it’s safer than many surrounding countries and full of undeveloped natural beauty, creating a haven for backpackers looking for a cheap stay. Meals were the equivalent of $3 USD, and they mostly consisted of rice, beans, plantains, and meat. Cheap? Sure. Beautiful? Yes, definitely. But so poor, and dirty. The word most people use to describe Nicaragua is authentic, and it was undoubtedly that.
Nicaragua ardently reflected the political and social undercurrents of a country ravaged by colonialism with its resultant anti-capitalistic atmosphere. Instead of the driven urban workaholics that crowd the roads from morning to evening in the States, I would see people relaxing with family and friends on sunlit porch steps. Kids played baseball while dodging the motorcycles and tuk-tuks that sped through rudimentary streets. Stray dogs padded down dark alleys at night, as streetlights were few and far between.
There was trash in every gutter, surrounding the parks, lapping at the shores of the lake. You couldn’t get away from it; it was everywhere. Poverty, too – streets lined with rundown aluminum shacks, threadbare clothes hanging from lines, broken streets in the places where the road had actually been paved, and sidewalks mostly composed of dust and stones.
A middle-aged German backpacker told me that Nicaragua was a place full of natural beauty, whose people did not take care of it. Though there were a few companies that ran tours of Nicaraguan attractions, the tourism industry had nothing close to the infrastructure of neighboring Costa Rica. Nicaraguans were fiercely independent, and it felt like almost everyone you talked to was trying to hustle you.
In their experience, gringos had a lot to give – travelers in Nicaragua are far and above the privileged minority. Even in the little I carried on my back, I had more than so many of these people. I was absolutely astounded by how much better off I was than the children who would scamper after me, simply because I was lucky enough to be born in a place and to parents who had made this life possible for me. I had absolutely no idea what their life was like, and I wished I could sympathize, but I felt so guilty and threatened, I didn’t know what I could do.
I hated walking alone through Nicaragua. Even though, logically, I knew it was safe, I hated standing out so strongly, feeling so small and powerless. It was very rare that I saw Nicaraguan women on the street, and they were never alone – usually surrounded by other women and children. There weren’t many foreign travelers in the town, even fewer foreign girls, and an infinitesimal scattering of lone female travelers. Of those, not one person I met on my trip was as young as me.
Despite my vast discomfort on the streets, there is so much I would not have been able to experience had I not been a privileged young girl traveling on her own.
Three days after leaving Ometepe, I was standing in a yellow school bus packed with people and their belongings, headed from Granada to Rivas on a busy Thursday morning. They packed us in tight, fitting in at least 5 people more than I had thought possible. I was late enough that I didn’t get a seat; I was standing in the middle of the aisle in the back of the bus, the seat to my right occupied by a grandmother with a young girl and a middle school-aged boy.
After striking up casual conversation with two European backpackers standing behind me, I realized the grandmother had put the young girl on her lap and motioned that I could sit. I thanked her, and sat quietly for a minute, before deciding to continue being talkative. I asked her a few small questions: where they were headed, where the boy’s colorful backpack was from.
My Spanish was (and still is, if I’m being honest) very rudimentary. Though I love to practice with people, I would often need them to talk slowly and repeat themselves a few times, and I had an enormous amount of trouble understanding her thick Nicaraguan accent as the bus bumped over many a pothole. My response to her questions would flow, until I got stuck on a word I didn’t know the Spanish equivalent for, and would attempt to mime the sentiment. I often nodded and gazed solemnly in her eyes while she talked animatedly, as I tried to understand words for which my brain registered no meaning. Despite the difficulties, I really felt like I got the essentials of what she was trying to say.
She asked where I was from, where else I had been, what it was like there. I tried to explain that I was American but I had moved around my whole life, that I had been in the Dominican Republic and Costa Rica before taking a bus to Nicaragua a week ago. She said she had never been to Costa Rica. I balked – even though it’s a mere three hours south of where she lives, she has never crossed the nearby border. She has never been outside of her own country.
Of course, it makes sense – many people both in Nicaragua and elsewhere barely have the wherewithal to travel within their own country to visit family, much less the financial freedom to travel somewhere further for no purpose other than curious leisure. To her, the places I described were a dream, an idea – the U.S. wasn’t a real, tangible place, just a big bad political power that had fucked Central America over time after time again in the past.
It’s a different experience to cognitively know something than to emotionally feel it. I’ve always known I was lucky to travel so much – my parents would constantly tell us that our experience growing up around the world was vastly unusual. Despite having acknowledged my unique upbringing most of my life, I still, subconsciously, took traveling for granted. Perpetually surrounded by privileged international kids at almost every school I went to, I would forget that most people don’t get to board planes over school breaks.
Most people don’t get the chance to know what the rest of the world is like. They know it exists, but it’s not a tangible place like the one they’ve always inhabited. They have no idea that their reality is not the only one – myself included. I had no idea how lucky I really was to live this life I did nothing to deserve, except be born in the place and to the people I was. And it’s scary to confront things you can’t understand because you’ve never experienced them – it’s uncomfortable and hard and unrewarding, unless you really take the time to try to make a connection.
The abuela told me her name was Gloria, and her grandson glanced up shyly, introducing himself as Milton. This made me think of the famous English writer, whose name is immortalized in my neighborhood in Montreal. The granddaughter on her lap whose dark hair had a pink bow in it was named Diana. “Como la Reina,” I said.
They wanted to learn their names in English. I pronounced them with my American accent – though the difference was negligible to my ears, they seemed amazed. I translated a few other words at their request. The boy asked me about numbers in English. I had him repeat after me, “uno, one. Dos, two…” And so on, but I realized that it would be easier to learn if he saw the numbers written.
The family didn’t have any paper, but one of the backpackers behind me did, and she handed me the blank back side of a city map. I got out one of my pens and wrote out the numbers and their equivalents in English, along with a few basic phrases that would be good to know. Milton repeated them after me. He said he would study the words and learn them. He would be in middle-school in our system, and he had barely been taught how to read. Gloria told me the education system was not good, and the kids learned very little English. That was why the kids would call “one dollar” as they ran – they didn’t know much else.
Their stop was a half hour or so before mine – the kids were going back to the village where their mother lived. The grandmother said she wished they didn’t have to leave. She thanked me profusely, saying she had not known strangers could be so kind. This made me feel so warm inside.
I was equally grateful to them for having interacted with me, despite my broken Spanish, to have cared about and acknowledged me as a person. I was so glad I had been able to provide a good example of a foreigner to that family, to show that we are people too. But it also made me wonder how shitty other travelers must have been – how many entitled people had come to their country to see the natural sights, but ignored the people. Who hadn’t made the effort to create a connection, to understand who these people are and what their life is like. Who didn’t care that they are people just like us, the exact sentiment I had been so resentful of a week earlier.
In Nicaragua, I learned how much I valued things I had taken for granted much of my life: respect, communication, and safety. I learned that I didn’t always embody the values that I believed I prized so highly, especially when I felt threatened. And most importantly, I learned how little I actually knew about the world.