After a leisurely breakfast, I shared a cab to the bus depot with my Canadian pals from volcano boarding, Alli and Sandy. In order to get to Granada, I'll have to take a chicken bus to Managua, then pick up another bus to Granada. The line for the Managua bus is depressingly long, which was unfortunately coupled with the oppressive, sweltering heat. Of course, I end up standing in line next to a woman who is grilling meat on a grill. The cold shower I took less than an hour ago has already been negated. Judging by the length of the static line, I estimate that we are in for at least an hour wait IF the buses comes every 30 minutes. The girls are anxious because they have a flight to catch in Managua. We start figuring our limits - at what time do we give up, pool our money and hire a private cab? About 20 minutes later, a bus pulls up and fills up. Despite the shocking number of people that cram into the car, our status does not much improve. A few minutes later, two buses pull up. For reasons that we never quite figured out, after about 10 people got in, the manager of the bus turned to us and motioned us over. We looked around incredulously, hardly believing that he was inviting us to jump the line. We silently weigh our option of dashing to the bus with the possibility of being lynched by the rest of the people ahead of us, but oddly, no one blinks an eye. From what I could gather, this was a really shitty van, and the rest of them wanted to wait for the luxury chicken bus behind us. I cannot fathom what that means - air-conditioning, maybe? No matter. We hurriedly cram into the seats and hush up about it, glad to be on our way. There's a nice breeze from the open windows, anyway.
By the time we get to Managua, my clothes are literally soaked through with sweat. Travel days are always grimy, exhausting, and uncomfortable, but they also tend to be some of my favorite experiences for their sheer authenticity. If you really want to peek into a culture, don't bother looking for it in a fancy hotel or restaurant. Local public transportation, however, never fails to reveal snippets of daily life. It's also humbling: I dare you to put on airs while you are crammed four to a seat with your backpack between your legs, sitting next to the nursing student who drifts in and out of sleep on the hour plus ride home to a town in which houses and shops are made seemingly entirely from tin and do not exceed 100 square feet.
(I'd like to elaborate on my observations of global poverty for a moment, so if you are not in the mood to be ethically agitated by any mention of real-world problems, I invite you to skip the following paragraphs and pick up where I start talking about shiny, happy things again. You've been warned.)
If you have ever traveled outside the first world comforts of America or Western Europe, it's likely that you have seen (at least from a distance) what third world poverty looks like. I would say it's highly probable that you've peripherally scanned stretches of shantytowns - seas of corrugated metal and plywood, rudely assembled into structures that more closely resemble the play-fort you made with scrap materials when you were eleven than your actual home, stores, etc. If you are like me, you are hauntingly mesmorized by the sight of these settlements that stretch as far as you can see on the horizon. If you are like me, you are overwhelmed by the guilt of having ever taken luxuries like indoor plumbing and electricity for granted, when so many people - a billion, at least - are surviving (let's not call it living) in a space just slightly larger than your queen sized bed, shared with a family of 6 or 8 people. If you are like me, you are struck by the realization that even though you are pinching pennies at the end of the month to pay the bills, you are outrageously wealthy on a global scale.
How cliche. How obnoxiously trite: White guilt. RIch girl goes on vacation to third world country, feels bad about starving children, blah, blah, blah. But let me ask you this: if you saw the world outside your home, if you were struck by the pervasiveness of poverty, if you thought somebody had really ought to do something about all that suffering - did you? In the words of my favorite slam poet/educator Taylor Mali: If not you, then who? But, boy is it unpopular to go around proselytizing about global poverty - talk about a buzz kill.
So as I stare out the van at the patchwork of metal roofs dotted with flames of street fires (for warmth, trash, cooking, light), I think about how irritatingly didactic this blog entry will be. And then I wonder: if it's so cliche - if the guilt is common and the depth of the poverty problem is acknowledged - why do we still fail to act in a transformative, collective way? So then I wonder if the problem is ignorance or avoidance, because if you are like me, you probably shifted uncomfortably in your seat, went to the beach and took pictures with a camera roughly equivalent in value to the average per capita income in that country. Guilt is uncomfortable, but thus far it's failed to ignite any significant action with the exception of a few bleeding hearts in the NGO world. If we truly want to eradicate poverty in the world, we're going to need something slightly stronger than a guilt trip. (But in the meantime, I hope that if you have read this far, you will at least send a silent wave of gratitude into the universe for all the necessities and luxuries we are both privileged enough to take for granted. We are very lucky.)
***End of Ethical Musings (for now)***
I loved Granada almost immediately. The bus stopped at the central park - a charming collective of horse-drawn carriages, refreshment carts, souvenir stands and al fresco dining spots, punctuated with a large white gazebo and a number of inviting benches. The park is surrounded by buildings that are reminiscent of classic Spanish colonial architecture. The colors are bright and bold - a canary yellow cathedral, an aquamarine hotel.
Maybe it's the 13 years of Catholic school, but I am fascinated by churches and cathedrals of the world. They are some of the greatest architectural marvels of the world, and there is something wonderfully unifying about places of worship.
All over the world, people prostrate themselves in prayer and meditation to give thanks, beg for forgiveness, bargain with God, mourn the dead and just generally praise a higher power. We have different names, different rituals, and different rules, but at the very core, religion is the same everywhere: a collective human hope that there is somebody or something out there with a grand plan to justify the course of events in human history, because it might be unbearable to accept this life - happiness and tragedy, in turn - as merely random. People go to places of worship seeking comfort, guidance, acceptance, and love. It would seem that every human being in the history of the world is seeking the same things. Cool, huh?
I reverently walked into the cathedral and approached the center aisle. As I began walking towards the front, I crossed paths with a small, elderly woman, with deep life lines running across her face - a labyrinth of rivulets representing a long lifetime of joy and sorrow. She has a peaceful countenance and a gentle, soulful smile. When she reaches me, she stops and gently, purposefully touches me on the forearm, then looks at me with a smile and nods before continuing, wordlessly, on her way. I am stunned by this simple act of affection. I am shocked by her tenderness, then saddened by the fact that such a simple gesture is so rare that it's paralyzed me in place for a full two minutes. Why don't we do that for each other more often: stop in our tracks to acknowledge each other's presence? All day, I wondered what motivated that woman to honor me with such a pure extension of recognition and kindness. I'd like to think that she has lived long enough to be able to detect a kindred energy in our souls, and just wanted to stop and say, "Hey, I know you." Or maybe she sensed that I hadn't been to church in a long time and wanted to tell me, "It's ok. You're welcome back anytime." Perhaps she could tell just by looking at me that I am a bit of a tortured soul and was just empathizing, "Oh, child. Stop thinking so much." And then again, maybe there was just a bug on my arm that she was softly shooing. I'll never know. But I do know that her simple gesture has stuck with me, fillling me with warmth every time I think about it. What if we could all make a new habit of appreciating and recognizing each other: taking the time to stop and smile, wave, shake hands, tip hats, and lightly pat each other on the arm, conveying through these genteel gestures my favorite Hindu expression, "Namaste, I honor the light in you."