Nicaragua: A Different Kind of Paradise

Dispatches from the Road, Nicaragua — By on July 9, 2010 at 2:00 pm

By Brittany Gowan
Special to the Lost Girls

Before my trip to Nicaragua, all that I knew about the country was that it was the focus of the Oliver North hearings that my parents had watched during a family reunion in 1987 when I was just a year old. After college, a good friend and native Nicaraguan asked me to visit his country and I took him up on his offer.

Though concerned about his country’s political system, extreme poverty and questionable corruption, the explorer in me booked a ticket before I could reevaluate. I was excited, a touch nervous, and ready for some hot tropical weather and the beach. I packed sunglasses, swimsuits, and sun block.

Boarding the plane, I quickly realized that this flight had a distinct clientele. There were locals who had moved away and were coming back to visit family, a few artsy people who probably had expensive cameras in their carry-ons, an overwhelming majority of do-gooders coming to improve everyday life for the locals, to build a church or school, and then there was me, the blonde American girl coming to visit a friend. I was a group of one.

I sat in a window seat and stared out into the night’s black nothingness for the majority of the trip. My rowmate, a frequent church builder, informed me that I wouldn’t be seeing much out my window until we reacted the capitol city of Managua. Being used to the bright lights of NYC, this was quite the change. Finally, on the last bit of our flight, I spotted lights in the distance. As we got closer, I concluded that this little blob of light would only make up a small section of Brooklyn. Slightly wary of the remoteness of it all, I stuck with my new friend and his group as we waited at customs.

I found my passport and looked up casually to discover a sign being held up in front of all my fellow passengers. It read “Brittany VIP”. I looked around. Could be another Brittany? Wrong. I waved to the man, “Hi!” “Welcome Brittany,” he said with a slight accent. “Come with me”. Every eye watched me walk by. I could sense them wondering, “Who’s she?”

Meeting my friend at the car, we joked about the special treatment. Connections are everything but in a smaller country, they can make a very dramatic difference. Riding through the city center, I tried not to seem alarmed by the dogs roaming aimlessly, children out in groups way past the time they should be, and men trying to convince each passing car that their windshield needed washing.

However, all of that vanished as we made our climb up hilly roads and away from where most of the people lived. Pickup trucks and older buses gave way to American cars and homes with pools and hammocks. It seemed like all the houses had gates, large gates that surrounded the entire property, laced with barbed wire on top. The houses were not squeezed together but every fence backed up to the next and lacked a front and back yard.

My friend lived the lifestyle that only a small percent of the country were fortunate enough to enjoy. In America, these people would be considered well off but in Nicaragua, house aides, drivers, and pool boys were reserved for an even more elite group. In Nicaragua there are only two groups, those with money and those without.
My week in “Nica” was amazing but challenging. At times I found it very difficult to enjoy all that I was seeing and learning.

At a stoplight, a woman and her children were trying to sell watermelons to buy food. They watched us ride by. I saw the looks on local faces as we drove through the streets. With my blonde hair and blue eyes, I was clearly American, an outsider. The poverty in “Nica” was very evident and widespread. However, the smiles of children walking to school or hanging out at a local gas station provided a glimmer of hope. By my third day, I had giving away my stash of snack food to these wide-eyed youngsters. The look on their faces when seeing Goldfish was precious. To say I was humbled would be an understatement.

In any country, a native is the best kind of tour guide. My friend and I traveled from Managua to San Juan del Sur, a beach town a few hours southwest. The countryside was lush, deeply green, and underdeveloped with multiple volcanoes, rice fields, and sugarcane patches. It was a beautifully different landscape than anything I was used to. Nearing the ocean, the darker blue water sparkled in the sunlight. We were headed to their beach house at Playa Maderas to the north so we swung by San Juan. Its crescent shaped bay was filled with white boats of varying sizes. I thought it was pretty but once I saw Playa Maderas, I knew little else would compare. The beach was deserted except for a few vagabond surfers, a local, and wandering beach cows. This scene was almost unfathomable for a girl accustomed to the populated beaches in Florida, California, or Cape Cod.

For a week, I soaked in the tropical landscape and the people. I rode surf boards through waves at pristine beaches, walked the streets of Granada with its brightly colored buildings, and took a boat ride on Lago De Nicaragua, a huge lake with numerous islands that is home to freshwater sharks. Nicaragua was a unique experience. I had never traveled to a location where such beauty and untouched landscapes temporarily overshadow third world deprivation.

I left Nicaragua feeling grateful for my life and for what I have been given but also glad that I was able to see firsthand how others who live in incredibly hard situations can survive and even smile. Back in the states, it was hard to relate my time there to others. Yes, I had visited “paradise”. But this paradise didn’t include paper umbrellas in frozen drinks and, on the return flight, when I could see the lights of NYC from my window seat, I was glad it didn’t.

*****

Brittany is a lover of travel who thrives on learning about different cultures and people. With an adventurous spirit, Brittany believes in new experiences in unfamiliar places. Having lived in Rome, Italy and now residing in NYC, she enjoys big city life, where every neighborhood offers a different group of people and interesting cuisines. Two weeks of vacation time is rather slim but to escape the world of advertising sales Brittany grabs her passport and books a flight to visit friends close to the equator or hops the pond for a European excursion.

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