Final Reflections on Nicaragua

It has been two weeks since I left Nicaragua, and I've finally found time to pen the final post in this series, an overall reflection of sorts.

Traveling in Nicaragua was a real adventure for me. I spent a year before college backpacking around the world by myself, so I'm no stranger to traveling alone, but this short trip of just 35 days was exhilarating just the same. I traversed the entire country, visiting Granada, Isle de Ometepe, San Carlos, El Castillo, San Juan de Nicaragua, Juigalpa, Managua, Great Corn Island, Leon, Matagalpa, Esteli and finally Masaya.

I engaged with nature in as many ways as I could, kayaking down pristine, jungle-laced rivers, trekking up volcanoes, riding horses across grassy fields, hiking through cloud forests and even skinny dipping in a deserted crater lake.

I also got more than my fair dose of urbanity, visiting several towns and cities. I drank one of the best cups of coffee in my life at Matagalpa, visited cathedrals in Leon, and admired colorful mural paintings in Esteli.

But it was the people that left the deepest impression on me. They were incredibly genuine, warm and friendly. I have never felt so welcome in a foreign country before. Everywhere, people waved and said hi, and were curious to learn more about me and my culture. At first, I couldn't even understand their questions. But being fully immersed in a country does help one pick up a language quickly, and by the time I was about to leave, I was able to speak halting Spanish without resorting to too many hand gestures.

From the friendly demeanor of the people I met, I wouldn't have been able to tell just how hard their lives were. But everywhere I went, I was confronted with widespread poverty in the form of homeless people, torn clothing and slums. Almost 80% of Nicaraguans live below US$2 a day, and the country's infrastructure is inadequate and crumbling. Perhaps it is most telling that 1 block away from the plaza at the heart of the capital Managua, was a large ghetto, beset by problems such as poverty, crime and violence, and where I saw shuttered storefronts and fires burning in the middle of the street in broad daylight.

Traveling in Nicaragua has made me even more thankful of where I am today. When I was in a taxi in Managua, I saw a young boy, who must have been no older than 6, furiously dashing from car to car with a bucket of soapy water and a cloth in his hand, working hard at scrubbing the windshields of cars stopping at a busy intersection in the city. It was noon and baking hot and I couldn't help but wonder why he wasn't at school. Maybe he didn't have a chance to go to school? Maybe he's not old enough to go to school yet? Whatever the case, there he was, sunburnt, working hard and sweating profusely, at the tender age of 6. And he was also barefoot.

I beckoned for the boy to come over and pressed a US$1 bill into his palm. He looked at me confusingly for half a second before a huge smile spread across his face. Then he jumped in happiness and ran back to his mother, who was also hard at work on the median strip, selling bottled water to passing motorists. The little boy waved the $1 bill high above his head, the picture of George Washington fluttering in the air. Still smiling, he described to his mother what had just happened and pointed excitedly to me.

I guess I should have waved back. But I didn't; I was deep in thought.

I've led a sheltered life since I was born, had access to good education, and never had to work to support my family. Like many in my generation, I never had to worry about getting by in life. And there I was, in one of the poorest countries in the world, making the day of a little boy just by giving him a US$1 bill. It almost felt too easy.

The lights turned green and as our taxi drove off, I turned back for a last glance. The boy was still smiling and pointing at me.