Reflections on Central America, Part II
Somewhat recently, I went on a ten-day journey to a country in Central America to visit my ex Jessie, who moved there in January from the United States. I had never been there, didn’t remember a lick of my high school Spanish, and was utterly lost in terms of what I was expecting/what I wanted from the experience. I just showed up and said, Alright, I’m here. Show me why Jessie fell in love with you.
Because of this go-with-the-flow, nonchalant attitude I’m warning you that my impressions of this particular country in Central America is nothing close to expertise—after all, I was there a little over a week and stayed primarily in one city…a mere glimpse into what this place and its people could offer. So these observations should rightfully be taken with a grain of salt. That being said, here’s what I learned:
I want to go back. I got on that plane and felt remorse in my heart for the lack of time I had to get to know this place…but I knew it was beautiful. In the central valley, mountains surround cities like endless arms, reaching high into the clouds and reaching outward to wrap the citizens in a protective hug. They are green, silent giants that seem endless, and can be seen from virtually any spot in the city. The natural beauty was on the outside, and inside the cities was a different kind of beauty. Loud, compact, and dirty are three words you could use to describe the cities there, but in this busy chaos I found beautiful treasures of culture. The people were friendly, with warm smiles and confident questions. “What do you think of [this country] so far?” they would ask. “How does it compare to America? Tell me about where you come from. Let me tell you why I like it here…” They didn’t seem to shy away from talking about themselves or showing their pride, and they weren’t afraid to acknowledge my inability to speak the first language. They are frank and realistic, but far from impolite. Jessie’s roommates and friends all were very welcoming to me, whether they offered food, paid for my drinks, or did the courtesy of speaking English for my benefit. The warmth of the people was indeed a treasure of the culture. I could see the importance of family everywhere—at parks both parents would play with their children or push them on swings, at markets fathers held hands with their children and kept them close, in conversation children (even when they were adults) spoke highly of their parents and longingly talked of home… Families take care of each other, and it shows. But even strangers seemed to show a sense of camaraderie and affection. On street corners, it is not uncommon for the person next to you to put their hand on your shoulder/back if you’re about to walk when a vehicle is approaching, or when it is time to cross the street. When meeting someone, you greet them with a kiss on the cheek and hand on the shoulder. There is less of a fear of touching, and if you bump into someone on the street slightly they might not even notice. Because people walk everywhere or take the bus, there is more of a sense of community and interaction than in American suburbia. The city has a rhythm and energy to it that makes it just as wild as the forest or sea. Car horns howl and motorcycles roar at another as if they were jungle cats in a brawl. Rightfully so, because the driving on the streets would make the hair on the back of your neck stand up… Stop signs are merely suggestions so drivers would blare their horn to alert others they were passing through an intersection. Blinkers are a joke as well; drivers zip in and out of lanes quickly, barely missing a brush with the closest car. The fearlessness of the streets didn’t seem to alarm citizens, but rather give them confidence in their knowledge of the city. There was an unspoken mentality of learn fast, and you will find things here you won’t anywhere else…but learn slow, and this city will leave you in the dust. Drunk on the energy of the city, I spend many days following Jessie on the haphazard sidewalks, remembering words in Spanish I heard that day and clarifying what they meant.
This country in Central America could be considered “3rd world” by some American standards—there is no air conditioning in most places, the majority of people don’t own a car, and hot water is only possible in the shower, and only if you have an electric shower head. (Also, fun fact: all toilet paper is thrown in the trash instead of flushed.) Personally, all of these “inconveniences” were quickly forgotten by me, with the possible exception of air conditioning because my body hates heat. Yet I know many Americans would find the apartment I stayed at to be too lacking to live in: there were only 2 bedrooms, a bathroom, and a kitchen that consisted of a sink, refrigerator, and hot plate. Something I never thought realized about America prior to this vacation was the abundance of space everywhere—in between buildings, in our houses, the wide roads we pave, and the large yards found in suburbs and countryside. The modesty of homes in the Central American cities showed that its citizens were less concerned with space and stuff to fill it with, and more concerned with the people in their homes.
In a similar fashion, people there tend to work all kinds of jobs, and seemed unconcerned with the impressiveness of their professions. People work because they have to, and seem happy to do it, no matter how blue-collar. While a college education is desirable, I didn’t notice the same pressure to obtain it and career climb as I’ve felt in America. Over all, I noticed that people there seemed happier than Americans, though they generally have less and earn less. Where Americans have ambition and obsession with wealth, the people in Central America have richness in their relationships with family, friends, and God (the majority of the of the population is Catholic). As I looked around the cities, in their chaotic system of maintenance, transportation, and services, I realized how greatly they contributed to happiness, not wealth. They were filled with an understated beauty that most Americans would miss if passing by. Honestly, I could see myself getting very accustomed to this country if not for one big obstacle: Spanish.
Because I can hardly string two words together, most of my social interaction came from Jessie and a few of his friends that knew English. In all other situations, I was helpless. It was strange to follow Jessie around like a puppy dog or child—waiting for him to translate or tell me what was going on. Doing simple things, like paying for the bus or ordering food became impossible, and it was strange to carry money and not know how much it’s worth. I was definitely a foreigner, but it didn’t always show.
The citizens, while Latino, varied much more in appearance than I imagined. In the US, the reference point I had to Latinos were generally Mexicans, so naturally I assumed that everyone in Central America would have cinnamon skin, dark brown eyes, and shiny black hair. In reality, people in this Central American country range from dark brown shades of skin to nearly white. One woman I met even had freckles! Lighter eyes are indeed uncommon, but eye shape can vary from almond-shaped to round to small to big. Some people have straight hair and others have an afro of curls. But one over all trait that everyone seems to possess is shortness. There, being under 5’5 is completely average and expected of both men and women. For once in my life I felt relatively tall. And for once in my life I stepped into the role of a minority.
Like most white people, I have lived a life of privilege surrounded by others who look just like me and talk just like me. But for those ten days, I became aware of my skin color almost all the time. I was the typical white person—couldn’t speak Spanish, dressing in shorts and tank tops because I was unaccustomed to heat, and having the general assumption that everyone knows about American culture. I stuck out like a sore thumb, and sometimes felt like I had the word Tourist! tattooed on my forehead. Not only did I not understand what everyone around me was saying, but I didn’t understand the culture, and I didn’t fit in. This bothered Jessie more than it bothered me, because while I’m fine playing the role of the tourist Jessie was busy trying to play the role of citizen, something he has trouble with because he is also white, and whiteness in general has a connotation of tourism in this country. For the first time in my life, I realized that someone was ashamed of my race for me, and that a person of my race was ashamed of themselves for that same reason, too. The second people saw me, questions popped up in their minds and showed on their faces… Questions like, “Why are you here? Where did you come from?” and assumptions like, “You don’t speak our language, you don’t understand or appreciate us.” It was a strange experience to be an advocate for my race and my culture when I’ve lived all my life in America, where whiteness is shoved down everyone’s throats. For the first time, I got a glimpse of what life might be like for minorities in the US, rather than relying on personal accounts of that experience. After my week in Central America, I definitely wish more white Americans would travel and experience being a minority, even if it is temporary… It brought to my eyes one aspect of privilege that I hadn’t previously considered, and that is the expectation that everyone knows about my culture and race, even though I do not know much about so many cultures and races myself. In my experience, the white stereotype holds true: many white Americans don’t take the proper time to appreciate culture that isn’t theirs.
There’s so much more I could say about this country and my experience there, but I’m afraid the rest isn’t as organized as what I’ve written above. Like my first vacation abroad, this ten-day journey awakened my hunger to understand realities outside the US… I ache to taste food across the world, to understand customs and traditions I’ve never heard of, to gaze at natural wonders I’ve only seen in pictures, and meet people I never dreamed could exist. While I know I belong in the US for now, I believe that my travels are far from over and that I want to commit to learning and practicing other cultures and languages in the future. Ten days wasn’t enough. I want more from this Central American country, from the world, and from myself.
Life’s too short to stay in your comfort zone.