Saturday, September 28, 2013

Travels : Miscommunicating in Nicaragua

This was not like vacations we've taken in the past. It wasn't white sandy beaches and posh restaurants and boutiques. It wasn't room service and English and towel animals on the bed with a mint.

It was slow lines through customs at 1 a.m. with a heavy backpack. It was finding our name on a handwritten poster, then walking through the doors into rain and people shouting "taxi! taxi! taxi!" inches from your face, while the humidity curled your hair. It was sweaty and colorful and sometimes hard to look the kids in the eye. It was green and lush and kind. It was electric and beautiful in its rawness.

This was very unlike our past vacations, but it was so much more of an adventure.

When we stepped off the plane, English stopped being my primary language. We failed (FAILED.) to do much/any studying of our Spanish before we left, so what I could recall from my 3 years of high school classes were what we relied on. That, and the kindness of strangers and a sign language we made up on the spot. It was hard.

It made me think about all of the people around me every day in Dallas who don't speak the language well. We sometimes tend to look down on them and get frustrated when they can't communicate with us. "This is America! Speak English!" we say. But wow, it's hard to be on the other side. Harder than I would have thought. And isolating.

Can we please all agree to be kinder to people who are struggling to communicate?

No one said to me, "This is Nicaragua! Speak better Spanish!" I was met by kind smiles at best and confused ones at worst. They asked if they could practice their English. They helped me use the little bit of Spanish I know correctly, so I didn't sound like a dang fool. They were patient and wanted to understand.

It occurred to me while I struggled to string basic sentences together that it is nearly impossible to convey your personality, your intelligence, and your heart when the language isn't your own. You become sort of generic, and very gringo-esce. It feels like you've lost your identity a bit. That you have to boil yourself down to the phrases you know, and speak the rest with your body and your smile.

My husband (a talker to the core) struggled even more because, when we arrived in the country, the extent of his Spanish vocabulary was "yes," "no," and "beer." That resulted in our taxi driver stopping at a convenience store on the way to our guestroom (at 1 a.m.) to get him a beer to drink in the car on the way to the room. My sweet husband had, in fact, told him he wanted a cervesa, but didn't know enough words to clarify that he didn't need one right at that moment. By the end of the week and with a lot of tutoring - a little from me, but mostly from waiters and tour guides - he didn't feel quite so mute. I rely on him for a lot of things, but he was forced to rely on me that week to negotiate taxi fares, order food and translate costs. Hard for both of us, but it probably wasn't a bad thing in the end. Although it was terrifying to think that my poor Spanish skills were being relied upon so heavily!

In all, I felt that Granada was a city of contrasts. Contrasting colors in the doors and walls and streets, contrasting lives of the rich and poor, and the contrasting purity of nature and grime of the markets. (Check out the short video below to see the bright and shiny part of the market.)

As we walked down a road, nicknamed Gringo Alley, a couple of blocks from our room, we almost felt like we were back in the states. We saw white faces and blonde hair; we heard English in varying accents. It was really comforting for a while. There were restaurants and boutiques and storefronts hawking tours. But looking around and talking to locals, we discovered that there weren't any local Nicaraguan restaurants because Nicaraguans don't eat at restaurants. They can't afford it. The whole street scene had been set up for the gringos. The locals tried to sell us wooden birds and bracelets while we ate the food they couldn't buy.

It was a place full of strange contradictions. At first glance it was overwhelming and dirty, but everywhere we went, we found smiles and were greeted with a wave and a "buenas!" Nicaragua stole my heart and reminded me that comfort is overrated and that adventure will almost always take you out of your comfort zone.

I have more stories to tell, y'all, but I'm still processing everything and getting ready for a trip to Hong Kong next week. (Gah!!!) There will be more to come on our adventures in Nicaragua, like biking back to Granada from Laguna de Apoyo with Bicimaximo, and zip lining over the trees and hiking the Puma Trail on Volcano Mambacho with Nahual Tours. Stay tuned! We had a blast!

Monday, September 23, 2013

1,000 words: Granada, Nicaragua

We're back!! Exhausted and happy. My favorite way to come home from an adventure.

Nicaragua was not what I expected. It was amazing and exciting and little scary, but not really in the ways I thought it would be. Nicaragua didn't go easy on us and didn't change herself to make us comfortable. She was raw and real and beautiful. The poverty in Nicaragua broke my heart. And the people stole it. But more on that later.

My mind is still reeling from the trip and the traveling, so until I can process it all, I wanted to share some of my favorite photos from the trip. There will be many stories to come!

The city we stayed in, Granada, was a photographer's dream. The bright walls and doors with intricate details were commonplace to Nicas, but stunning to me. A short, rattling ride outside town took us places even more stunning. The wild volcanoes that smelled of sulfur made my eyes go wide and sting. The lakes more clear than any I've seen mirrored the sky and made my mind wander away. And the overwhelming markets made my eyes go wide and sting for different reasons and carried me to a world I didn't know what to do with.

Granada from above.
The Cathedral in El Parque Central

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Travels: Nicaragua!

Three days from now, my husband and I will be in Nicaragua, a place neither of us has been before. My favorite. (Burglars, calm down. We have house sitters.) Hopefully, our days will be full of tromping through the mud, riding bikes through the old city streets, and hiking to the tops of volcanoes. We haven't planned much of our trip, because we tend to make ourselves so busy we collapse. So this time, we're going to go where the wind blows and see what Nicaragua has for us.

I really hope it has cervesas for us. And lots of dulces. And naps.

Leon, Nicaragua. Photo from here.

Before we booked our tickets, I knew pretty much nothing about Nicaragua except that it is in Central America, is Spanish-speaking, and that we could fly there on Spirit points. Ding, ding, ding! Sign me up. Why not?! But as I've been doing some research on the area, I'm learning that Nicaragua is a beautiful country - one about the size of New York state - but also one that's been wracked by civil wars and political strife since its beginnings in the early 16th century. Those wars, plus natural disasters inevitable with its location and presence of volcanoes and earthquakes, have left Nicaragua in a perpetual state of recovery and rehabilitation. Cities have been rebuilt over and over, and communities have returned again and again to survive on land that doesn't seem to welcome them.

Nicaragua is one of the poorest countries in Latin American, and is second only to Haiti in the Western Hemisphere. Income distribution is very uneven, leaving the rich and the poor in entirely different worlds. Here are a few facts according to the Nicaragua Initiative for Community Advancement:
  • Just 29% of children complete primary-level education
  • Adolescent pregnancies account for 1 in 4 births nationally
  • 33% of children have some degree of chronic malnutrition, and 9% suffer from severe malnutrition
  • 45% of all income goes to the richest 10% of the country's population, while only 14% goes to the poorest
This picture of Nicaragua breaks my heart, but it's not the whole story. While it has definitely fought and struggled, the country is also known to be the safest in Central America, having some of the best coffee around, and (obviously) being beautiful beyond belief. But really, the people are its gem. For all the bad press it gets, I'm so ready to find the good and the hope in Nicaragua.

Our host sent us recommendations for things to do while we're visiting, and in the process, I learned about several organizations working hard to provide jobs and rehabilitation to the community. A search for a tour company has now led to the opportunity to write several stories while I'm there, and I could Could not. Writing is a job, but it's also what pumps fire into my veins, so if I was excited to go on vacation before, I'm now so far beyond that. I can't even handle it right now. Are we there yet?!

In my research, I also discovered we will be arriving on the country's Independence Day. Don't worry, Nicaragua, I'll help you celebrate.

Stay tuned in the coming weeks. I'm sure we'll have lots of stories to share about our adventures when we get back!

In the meantime, I will be sequestered in my home trying to figure out how to pack stuff for two people and seven days in one backpack. Challenge accepted.

¡Hasta luego mis amigos! Mucho amor para cada uno de ustedes.