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!

2 comments:

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

    Michelle - This question brought me back to a passage from An Alter in the World (Barbara Brown Taylor) that I read just this morning. It pierced my heart when I read it and again when your actions demonstrated the concept in real life. Thank you for your continual life lessons. I learn much from you...

    The hardest spiritual work in the world is to love the neighbor as the self, to encounter another human being not as someone you can use, change, fix, help, save, enroll, convince or control, but simply as someone who can spring you from the prison of yourself, if you will allow it. All you have to do is recognize another you "out there" - your other self in the world - for whom you may care as instinctively as you care for yourself. To become that person, even for a moment, is to understand what it means to die to yourself. This can be as frightening as it is liberating. It may be the only real spiritual discipline there is.

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  2. Like... And looking forward to more!

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