11:30 a.m. 20 de marzo, 2010. Managua, Holiday Inn Hotel.
"Ochenta córdobas." Para una Toña?* Clad in a short black dress and heels thrice as high as anything I've ever worn, the casino waitress gave me a nod. Si, why not? I was a pre-21 year-old American in Nicaragua, incensed by the fact that my own government was depriving me of alcohol, but could possibly send me to my death fighting in another one of its imperialist encroachments into impoverished Latin American countries. Claro, another Toña sounded about right.
I received the ice cold bottle of beer, simultaneously proud and disappointed at how effortlessly I could get my hands on alcohol. The casino waitress responded with a look of sadness in her eyes, “De nada.” Instead of being home with her children, she was stuck here serving obnoxious Americans who ordered drinks in the middle of the day, Americans who stayed in exclusive enclaves of marble pillars and already made beds while she stayed in dark, damp casinos, Americans whose pretentious travelling tendencies she unfortunately depended on to make a living.
And that's when I did something I slightly regret. I played the haughty anthropologist. Thinking myself a considerate human being, I attempted to “observe” the cultural mannerisms of this woman’s society as if she were a specimen to be studied, not realizing my pompous nerve to show off my Spanish-speaking skills. Pen and paper in hand, I asked her if she liked her job. I asked her if she had any family, if she wanted to travel outside of Nicaragua. I asked her if she was happy, and finally, I asked her if she liked Americans. She laughed politely and answered most of my questions. “Sí, me gusta mi trabajo. Tengo dos hijos. No quiero viajar, y sí, estoy feliz.”
5:00 p.m. 23 de marzo, 2010. El Mercado de Granada.
Today, we went to the souvenir market outside the Alahambra, our hotel in Granada. Granada, also known as la Gran Sultana del Gran Lago -- as it borders Lake Nicaragua -- possesses much historical beauty and cultural aesthetic. Rocky roads of pebble stone, uprooted by sparse and scattered vegetation; quaint abodes of soft salmon pink and warm mustard yellow, situated in close proximity to the local marketplace; and grand exquisite cathedrals towering over the city, asserting their long-established Roman Catholic influence. No casinos, no air-conditioned malls, no large-scale discotheques.
At the market, Enrique, a skinny boy in a blue shirt and broken sandals came up to me and asked me for money.
“Señora, tiene córdobas? Tengo hambre y no he comido nada desde la mañana.”
Naturally, my first instinct was to reach into my pocket and spare just enough money to be selfless but still have enough to buy gifts for friends and family. (Paradigm of the cultured and kindhearted tourist?) Now Enrique was smart. He latched onto my friend, Neda, burrowing his head into her shoulder, obviously having practiced this tactic on many a naïve visitors before. Needless to say, we knew that begging was a way for the children here to opt out of school and pursue a vagabond way of life roaming the streets. It was understandable. Education was a long-term investment, while begging provided an immediate source of money.
We denied Enrique, big round eyes and all. Considering he followed us around for an hour before returning to his parents’ water-vending booth, it wasn’t easy. It certainly wasn’t gratifying at the moment, as every other tourist he targeted seemed to have no internal moral dilemma of slipping him a 20-cordoba bill.
But it was the best thing to do, for Enrique, and for la juventud de Nicaragua.
3:00 p.m. 28 de marzo, 2010. Al orfanato en Granada.
She reminded me a bit of my mother. Helen Ruiz was a 5’3”, middle-aged, goofy-smiled woman. I met her at the orphanage. She had the likes of a chubby squirrel, bushy-tailed, a bit disheveled, chattering away at any chance she found. She was also a skilled seamstress, sewing designs onto pillowcases and selling them for only 60 córdobas a pair.
“Sabes coser, mija?”
“Sí. Siempre me ha gustado coser.”
“Bueno. Puedes completar esto, si quieres.”
She handed me a light yellow pillowcase with a half-finished floral pattern, every stitch handled with the utmost care. In an attempt to display my nimble sewing skills, I approached the pillow with confidence, swiftly piercing it with the delicate needle. Needless to say, with thin pieces of thread sticking out, the stitch did not hold half the amount of care she had put into hers.
“No, mija, esto es la manera correcta de hacerlo.” With that goofy smile, Helen carefully taught me how to stitch up the last scarlet rose petal. Mano en mano, I felt a fleeting sense of spirituality tingling in her fingertips as she guided mine.
I asked no more questions, I no longer felt the need to regurgitate the Spanish words I happened to remember from class. I saw Helen as a maternal figure.
“De nada, mija.”
2:00 p.m. 29 de marzo, 2010. Saliendo Granada por autobús.
VIVA LA JUVENTUD! VIVA EL FSLN. LA REVOLUCION.
I saw the words scrawled in big black letters across a somber pine green fence straddling one of the main streets of Granada. I am not a revolutionary of any kind, or a starry-eyed nationalist, nor am I the least bit Central American. I am American, the same kind of American that forcefully imposed a despotic military general onto Nicaragua’s throne years ago and set up counterrevolutionary forces against the Sandinistas; the same American that had a week ago, been the sophomoric progenitor of “culture”, asking hollow questions and observing, but not absorbing.
I am still that American. I want to travel up, down, and across Central and South America, exploring and soaking in the ambiance of foreign societies. But I no longer wish to play the role of the pretentious anthropologist. After a week in Nicaragua, I’ve realized the best way to understand human culture is not through quizzical inquiries and observations, but rather through encounters:
Encounters with the casino workers.
Encounters with the Enriques.
And most certainly,
encounters with the Helen Ruizes.
Y eso es la trayectoria de una turista.
(La Gente Newsmagazine)