Texas customs officials (Are you independently wealthy? Are you sure you’re just a student? Why have you been to Guatemala 3 times in the past 4 months?), a slumping economy, and the start of grad school and reduced student loan availability with astronomical interest rates (thank you, Mr. President) stand ready to embrace me as I prepare to reenter our land of plenty.
On the upside, I have just mastered the language of the demographic that will constitute 1 in 4 Americans within the coming years, and these people share my sentiments re: US customs.
After finishing my Spanish lessons, I left my host families and set off via bus for Nicaragua and El Salvador. This was supposed to be a relaxing end to a journey in which $853 USD had been stolen while I was on an airplane home to CO to attend to pressing matters. In some respects, it was, and in some respects, I spent nights translating for assaulted German tourists who decided it would be safe to use an ATM in Managua after 6pm and couldn’t understand why you don’t contact police in Central America. Excepting idiots and misfortune (poof! previously accumulated karma from that good deed disappears), the journey was revealing and troubling in a way I haven’t experienced since Africa two years ago.
A visit to San Salvador at 3pm shows prostitutes who somehow strangely manage to look more offensive in the little clothing they are wearing than if they were just strutting around completely naked. The moniker “El Conquistador” is, however, +10 points to the marketing department of that establishment. A visitor entering Managua, Nicaragua is greeted by a city of 2,000 people living in cardboard boxes, red and black striped Sandanista flags proudly flying. You can still see the bullet holes in the colonial architecture of Granada, and Parque Central, like any other in Latin America, moves to a distinct, laid back rhythm with an aggressive undercurrent of price hustling and potential suckers (hint: they’re all white) as Cuban beats drop and Flor de Cana ron flows.
Final observations would be that Americans, second only to Israelis (a people surrounded by nations committed to their imminent destruction) are the most aggressive people I have encountered anywhere on this planet. Our sense of entitlement is astounding. Some would argue that Central America is violent, and in sectors not overtaken by Western commerce (e.g. diplomatic zones of capital cities), this is certainly true. And yet, there is something comforting about the “violence” in these countries as opposed to the violence in the US. The violence here is largely physical and has, for the most part, easily understood motivations (e.g “I have no roof over my head, shoes on my feet, clean water to drink, food to eat, or clothes to wear–this idiot shouldn’t have worn a $1K Nikon to brunch”). The violence in the US, on the other hand, tends to me more of a psychological and intellectual nature: it takes the form of lawsuits, nationalist regulations, and other far more insidious (and difficult to understand) evils that seek to destroy a psyche and a complete person rather than to just take a possession, or even a life.
In Benjamin Barber’s excellent book “Jihad vs. McWorld” he eloquently argues that both the concept of “jihad” (be it by extreme Muslims, Christians, or any other kind of fundamentalist) and McWorld (e.g. capitalism that manufactures wants to create profit rather than addressing existing needs (clean water, etc.) to both profit and serve) are two seemingly opposed extremes of the same evil. Both feed on each other in a never-ending, cyclical pattern, and the argument is strong that there may be equal amounts of freedom in a Taliban controlled society as in one in which people are kept ignorant via exorbitant interest rates on education and consumer goods. In one, however, we are allowed to have just enough, to be just satiated enough, that the incentive to question and fight disappears until well beyond the “Oh Shit” point of realization.
Over the 35 hours spent sitting in buses, I knocked out Richard Bangs’ “Adventures With Purpose: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Earth” in which the famed explorer and Expedia founder wrote a book lauded to be, “not about providing thrillseeking joy rides or mindless ego tripping moments.” This is clearly not my brand of travel blogging, and an apology isn’t forthcoming. The things we do to challenge ourselves in our respective lives–the limits we push in our sector of this planet, hopefully to better ourselves and those around us–these are the thrillseeking joy rides, the ego tripping moments, the Kerouacian ride that makes us seem either larger than life as when tempting fate or blissfully insignificant as when standing on a beach at night, the few moments that we actually live; these are the thrillseeking, ego tripping instants that shed light on how life was meant to be pre fluorescent lights and mortgages and xenophobia. Thinly veiled civil norms cannot cure the primal realizations in each of us once the fire is stoked. It’s a cool thing to watch a scorpion crawl across your path, to hike a jungle in the middle of nowhere with someone you met on a bus that almost rolled, to swim/kayak a lake that is the crater of a sunken volcano, to ride on top of a goat on top of a derelict bus, to cram as much as possible into your time before it’s stolen back from you.
It was a good year. When I’m 80 and my nephew wants to know what his uncle did, I can tell him I was one of the last Americans to see Cuba under Castro, the “terrorist” Maoists in Nepal, the Sandanistas, Everest before global warming started to wreak havoc on the mountain (already) and my advice will be to follow your path and don’t believe the hype.
The consummate expat and mi mejor amigo, “Jungle” J. Sermos, said it best: “Whenever you see these things, think back to everything you’ve been taught, think back to the excesses you see where we were born, and remember that our successes and aspirations are built largely on the backs of the broken dreams of entire continents.”
Everything I say is my own form of propaganda–don’t believe it. My greatest aspiration would be that people are motivated to seek the experiences and questions for themselves and ask “Why?” Whatever different answers we come up with are infinitely better than the current ignorance. We live in a country, in a world, in a global marketplace, that relies upon–plans strategies around–our ignorance. Education via real life experience in the largest, most interesting teacher in the world, our planet itself, will always show people different individual experiences and recurring themes, no matter what corner one inhabits.
I’m down to the last 8 hours of my trip, and the lyrics to “Eurotrash Girl” by Cracker playing in the background are fitting:
“Called my mom from a pay phone, said ‘I’m down to my last.’ She said, ‘I sent you to college, now go call your dad.'”