Travel is full of teachable moments, whether you want it to be or not. American popular culture is saturated with tales of transformation in which Joe or Jane Stressful travel to an exotic destination and learn x,y, or z about him or herself. It is as if the act of placing oneself in an unfamiliar environment would magically distill a sort of personal awareness from the trappings of their cultural or personal circumstances.
Celebrated travel writer Paul Theroux explored this territory in one of his travelogues, The Old Patagonian Express, which I will confess to having read before embarking on our own South American adventure. Theroux finds travel most stimulating in the company of extreme characters and wayward situations. At a certain point in The Old Patagonian Express (I forget which city), he describes a dismay at being surrounded by normal looking people doing normal things such as going to the bank or bringing their children to school. To paraphrase, Theroux wonders why he left home and begins to feel suffocated by a nameless anxiety when confronted with the same scenes playing themselves out in another corner of the world.
After a fair shake on the road, I am prepared to offer a counter-theory and suggest that the “regular-ness” of others, as opposed to their perceived exoticism, is the best window into gleaming insight from the travel experience. If I may step into the ANTM way-back machine and link to a post from Argentina, what struck me most about the footage of the military coup was how plausible the whole thing seemed. After spending time with Argentine people who remembered the day, the images of soldiers marching through Buenos Aires no longer seemed foreign or sensational to me. It was a terrible thing that happened but one that could just as easily have happened to me in my own country. Was I really so different than the man standing before me who was in Buenos Aires that day?
This perspective is, of course, easier to arrive at in a country like Argentina which is much more similar to Europe than it is to its neighbors to the north in Bolivia. When we first arrived in Bolivia, I felt a distinct sense of “otherness” in my surroundings. It took weeks of traveling and interacting with Bolivian people before this sense of the other began to fade. As the bizarre (i.e. llamas EVERYWHERE) began to feel normal, I found myself being able to experience the “Bolivian perspective” on life (if there is such a monolithic thing) with better clarity. As you learn and share another’s perspective, so begins to change your own.
This morning I am writing from Leon, Nicaragua, a city which has born witness to many historic upheavals in the distant and more recent past. Yesterday afternoon, we took a trip to the Museum of the Revolution, in the central square of Leon. The “museum” is located in a burned-out building that used to house a variety of administrative functions serving the Samoza dictatorship. The Samoza regime, spread through multiple generations, ruled Nicaragua for nearly 50 years and is universally despised by all Nicaraguans. The museum celebrates the history of Augusto Sandino, Nicaragua’s original anti-Samoza revolutionary hero, and the ensuing “Sandinista”movement which ultimately liberated Nicaragua from the Samoza regime in 1979. I use the word “museum” in quotations because the exhibits consist of not much more than photocopies of old newspaper clippings and dusty pictures stapled to some cardboard and spread from wall to wall in two of the building’s ground-floor rooms.
We were lead through the museum by one of the middle-aged guys hanging out by the entrance of the building. Our guide was a regular looking fellow in his late 40’s who shook hands in a regular way and smiled a regular smile. He explained to us the history of Nicaragua and who Augusto Sandino was. Over the course of our time, we learned a little more about why characters such as Che Guevara are revered in this part of the world. Che, as was explained to us, was really more of a symbol. The real heroes in Nicaragua and here in Leon are not widely remembered outside the country. As an international figurehead, much more is known about the life of Che Guevara. Summarizing with my own perspective—Guevara, who evolved from a young idealist in Argentina to something more akin to a violent enforcer for the nascent regime in Cuba by his later days, was no prince. What is remembered is that he gave up a middle-class upbringing to fight for the poor and overthrow corrupt regimes. Yesterday, we learned about more people from privileged backgrounds who turned their back on more comfortable lives to join the struggle to rid Nicaragua of the Samoza regime. Most of these people did not survive the war or their teenage years and are revered by the people who fought beside them. As our tour through history entered into the decisive battles for the liberation of Nicaragua, we learned about all sorts of unfathomable events that happened in Leon. Our guide showed us pictures of the actors and explained to us where in the city each moment transpired.
Needless to say, this was a lot to take in and I was honesty quite floored by the stories I heard. The whole thing seemed so extreme and so foreign that I wasn’t quite sure what to say to our guide when he asked if we had any questions. It is not uncommon in Nicaragua to see middle-aged men, veterans of the revolutionary or civil war, with missing limbs or other physical scars from their battletime. Our guide seemed quite normal in both his disposition and physical appearance. There, standing before a normal-looking guy recalling an almost unbelievable history, I was at a loss for words.
“Do you have any questions?” he asked in Spanish.
“Well uhhh,” I mumbled, “Where were you . . . during all of this?”
“Oh,” he said, with a matter-of-fact expression and pointing to an old picture on the wall. “This, right here, is me. I am 14 years old in this picture.”
There, before us, was a photograph picturing a gang of ragtag-looking guys standing on a streetcorner in Leon, some with guns and others with more improvised weapons. As I looked back-and-forth between the man standing before me and the boy pictured on the wall, the sense of “other” that I felt listening to the history of Leon whisped away.
It is beyond the scope of this humble blog to summarize or comment on the Nicaraguan civil war that followed the revolution and dragged on for nearly ten years. Although the spirit of the liberation from Samoza is a shared national story, the civil war that followed presents a far more complicated narrative. If people speak of it at all, it is generally a comment on the post-war reconciliation and a reinforcement to foreign ears—and, perhaps, their own—that Nicaragua is a nation of peace now. But what is salient is that as more and more money and weapons entered Nicaragua during the 1980’s, it became impossible for young men to avoid being drawn into the conflict. War swallowed the nation and everybody inside of it.
If you wander the streets of Leon now, you do not find lasting bitterness or a sense of bottled resentment and fury over the history this city has known. People of all ages are generally pretty nice. Late yesterday, when the skies opened into a deluge, a random guy offered us shelter in his home to wait it out. People look each other in the eye and treat each other with humor, deference, and respect.
Where I am going with this is the general question of why? Why, in America, after we endured the national trauma of September 11th, is there no desire for us to find some peace—not with our enemies but with ourselves? With the tenth anniversary of 9/11 soon upon us, I can only picture the righteous fury that will flow alongside flags in the wind as political opportunists stir the county-fair crowds with their bombastic speeches. What are the “Never Forget” bumper stickers on our oversized cars supposed to mean? Never Stop Being Angry?
Here in Nicaragua, reconciliation with their neighbors was really the only road forward. We are not talking about a foreign enemy but, rather, the guy from the town just next to their own. This is certainly much different than religious despots from the other side of the world flying planes into a building in your home city. But there is a common line, which is the question of what one does when political or religious violence enters your personal history? Why here, and in so many other parts of the world, are people able to rebuild themselves into peaceful beings after years of conflict and trauma? Why is this not the case in my own country, where “peaceful” somehow connotes “pacifist” in the firey halls of public discourse and the long reach of our national anger seems so much more justified and real than that of anybody or anywhere else? What makes us different?
The answer, it seems to me, is that nothing makes us different. Nothing makes me different. Nothing makes me different from the guy I met yesterday, who was throwing molotov cocktails at armed soldiers at the same age I was worrying about the transition from middle school to high school.
We are all just ordinary, regular people with ordinary fears and ordinary happiness. If I may disagree with the great Paul Theroux, it is this sense of The Regular that is travel’s greatest gift.
(some pix from Lex)
this is a freakin fantastic post. If you guys don’t do some professional writing upon return… well – its a great post. Can’t wait to see you soon.
what you’ve written is very deep and very moving.
can’t wait to see you both
Profound and beautifully written thoughts on the meaning of travel. Agree with anonymous: literary talent is there. This should be published somewhere. Peace and reconciliation must happen—-but sadly happens only after a war has ended, not while it’s ongoing….
Love, Dad W
I agree. Fantastic article.
I agree. Can’t wait to further discuss this with you.
Soon, soon, soon.