Travel is usually something I look forward to. New sights, people and experiences engender a certain manic drive. I need less sleep, I become hyper-organized as I try to figure out how to get the most out of a city, state or country within a given amount of time, and my enthusiasm can be a bit off putting to those I am traveling with who may want to simply relax and see what's there to be seen.
Most of my travel has been domestic. Usually I have driven to new places. There are exceptions - I flew to Europe with my grandmother and same aged cousin when I was twelve and I wandered Mexico by train and bus shortly after graduating from college. But preparing for this Jesuit inspired trip to Nicaragua has been a very different experience. I have been scared. Excited? Well maybe, but primarily scared.
Nicaragua is a Central American country that the state department characterizes as the poorest in the Western Hemisphere. I find that hard to believe - Haiti has got to be poorer - but it is poor, thus the reason for the trip. I am a member of the Ignatian Colleagues Program, an effort on the part of the 28 Jesuit Colleges and Universities in the US to help lay administrators and faculty understand what it means to be Jesuit. Since there are fewer fewer priests, the Jesuit Identity of the Schools is increasingly entrusted to lay hands. Nicaragua, in addition to being poor, is also a post revolutionary state with a dictator, a former revolutionary, who rigs the elections to stay in power. I anticipate being the Gringo from up north - a foreigner in a foreign land (perhaps a little bit of how I feel as an agnostic at a Jesuit Catholic Institution).
Part of my fear comes from feeling out of control of the trip. This is not a trip that I planned - and it is with a group of people I do not know - faculty members from 12 or so other colleges and universities. That was true of the trip to Europe, when we went with a tour group, but actually, now that I think about it, my grandmother made sure to include my cousin and I in the planning - we chose the countries and worked on a list of things that we wanted to see in each city. So part of it may be a sense of loss of control. This was planned by someone else - but so was the initial retreat for this thing - we went to some retreat center in way western suburban Chicago and I wasn't worried about that in the least. It was a mild irritant to take time away from family and work, but I wasn't scared. Control is not all of the answer.
Some of the fear comes from talking with one of the guys with whom I play basketball. He used to live in Venezuela and he experienced that as a terrifically violent place; so much so that he wouldn't return, and his belief is that Central America is much worse. He has expressed genuine concern (and given me spanish lessons), which has been both very touching and somewhat unsettling. He is most decidedly not a wimpy guy and he is not prone to maudlin displays of affection.
But my fear predates the interaction with my basketball buddy. It is partially a fear of violence, but it is also a fear of illness. I got shots three months ago, but have been worried about malaria, deng, and everything from the touristas to some kind of bacterial crud. The environment in the form of the sun has also been promoted as a potential harm agent - one of my fellow travelers claimed in an email that permanent retinal damage can be done in just a few minutes. Certainly, as a fair skinned Gringo, I am also concerned about sunburn.
As reasonable (or unreasonable) as all of the above fears are, I don't think they are the heart of the matter. Oh, they are very real. This week I wrote up a quick and dirty will - something that I have been meaning to get to in a more formal sense with a lawyer for some time - but I did it because I fear that I won't return from this trip.
But I think the heart of the fear is something different. I am going to meet people who are not like me. They are poor - some of them live at the Managua dump - and they are revolutionaries - we will be meeting Sandinista guerrillas who were fighting, among others, Ollie North's armed Contra army - and I am scared to engage with them. I am scared that they will infect me. That they will contaminate me. With ideas? Perhaps. I don't know. The feeling is visceral - it feels deeply and powerfully determined. And therefore its source is difficult to apprehend.
Another component of my fear has to do with my sense of privilege. In addition to dying, I fear being robbed. I have left my rings and watch at home, along with my wallet. I am wearing a money belt and have made copies of my passport in case it is stolen. While this fear may be somewhat reality based - it turns out that Nicaragua is the safest Central American country, but there is a lot of petty theft. But I think I fear being rich. Having power. Knowing that my freedom is not shared by all, but is something rare and special. I like living in my cocoon worrying about whether I will be able to afford Ivy League Schools should my kids be lucky enough to get into them - worrying about a birth control policy that doesn't personally affect me, worrying about whether I can leave the University and survive in private practice.
Survive. I have always felt myself on some primitive and not reality based level to be in survival mode. Where will my next meal come from? This comes, I suppose, at least in part from being the child of parents who were depression era kids and squoze every penny when I was a kid. Well, I'm going to be meeting people for whom that is a legitimate current question. Will that give the lie to my experience? Am I, as my friend who travels in Central America a lot, the weenie she accuses me of being for my fear of traveling in this safest of Central American countries, but for a host of reasons she (and I) can only guess at?
Today has been an interesting day. My bug juice and sun block were confiscated at the airport. I put them in the carry on luggage because they were so important to have that I didn't want to lose them if my suitcase was lost, not thinking that they were in containers that were too big for Federal regulations (the terrorists won again today). So I found some sun screen and some insect repellant at exorbitant prices in the airport. I spent as much as I would have were I to have checked the bag, which the Federal agent told me was the only way to keep the goop.
But there is also a strange sense of freedom. I'm not carrying a wallet, which gives me pause when I don't feel its bulge in my back pocket, I'm not carrying a cell phone or keys. I have met a few people getting around the airport in Atlanta who have told me about their lived experience of the revolution. I am still scared of bugs and thugs and whatever it is on the floor that makes them recommend that you always wear sandals, even in your hotel room, but I also feel a bit excited as we descend through the night towards Managua.
To access a narrative description of other posts on this site, link here. For a subject based index, link here.
To access additional posts about this trip to Nicaragua see:
Fear and Loathing in Nicaragua First day in Nicaragua
In The Hall of the Incest King Daniel Noriega and Day two in Nicaragua
Mass in Nicaragua Day three in Nicaragua
Dora Maria Tellez Day four in Nicaragua
Talking with Peasants about Birth Control Day Five in Nicaragua
Talking Business in Nicaragua Day Six in Nicaragua
Nicaragua on the Couch Processing the trip as a whole