An eventful couple of weeks! It blows me away how quickly time passes here. I need to stop blinking so much, or it will be December 22 tomorrow.
Last weekend our Lafayette group took a three-day trip up to Nicaragua. Unfortunately, when I say a three-day trip, I mean that two of those days involved eight hours of bus travel and border crossings. Still, we had a full day and a half in Nicaragua. The highlight of the weekend was our trip on Saturday to see yet another active volcano – and this was the most active one yet. There were signs all over the place warning us that we were visiting at our own risk. We had to wear hard hats (in case of flying rocks!), and we were only allowed to stand next to the volcano for twenty minutes because of the quantity of gases. The view was incredible and the feeling of standing right next to such a powerful and ancient force of nature was awe-inspiring.
Apart from that morning of tramping around the volcanic mountains, I think the rest of the weekend was a good lesson for me in what it means to study abroad. Up until that weekend, every excursion we had gone on had been a succession of fun and exciting experiences, each one better than the last. But, apart from the volcano, I didn’t particularly enjoy the Nicaragua trip. It was exhausting and very hot, and I felt sick and sleep-deprived for most of the weekend due to the anti-Malaria medication we needed to take. I also, personally, got hit by my first wave of homesickness that very same week.
We witnessed a lot of poverty in Granada, Nicaragua. I already knew that Nicaragua is a poorer country than Costa Rica, and this fact was immediately evident upon our arrival. There were homeless and sickly-looking people everywhere in the streets and parks. Many streets and parks were packed with vendors and people that would not take no for an answer as they sold food, jewelry, sunglasses, hammocks, and more. On Sunday, we visited a food market, expecting to see something similar to the markets in San Jose – sidewalks lined with fresh fruit and vegetables of every shape and size. What we found was quite different – a street lined with wooden shacks that reeked of raw meat and old food. Most of the stray dogs walking and limping around the sidewalks looked sick and starving. There were people everywhere, shouting and selling things, and my friends and I received an unwelcome amount of catcalls and whistles. The smell alone was enough to make us leave minutes after we arrived.
I never know exactly how to react to negative cultural experiences. I could not find many positive things to take away from the morning. It didn’t help that we were all very hot and very dehydrated. But, in retrospect, the best way to view it is as a learning experience. There’s no question that I come from a life full of luxury in the states. Although I’ve always known that most people in the world do not have those luxuries, it is a very different thing to witness this reality first hand. It really cements the fact into your brain that, yes, people do live this way.
I have seen and spent time with homeless and poverty-stricken people in New York City before, but I have never been approached by so many beggars. For the most part, I took the advice of just about everyone whom I’ve ever asked about this issue, and I said no to their pleas for money. And it is good advice – when you give money to someone on the street, you have no way of knowing where that money is going. Nicaragua has a problem with children that are addicted to sniffing glue, so you really cannot be giving money to children that are going to use it to feed their drug habits. But if I can’t give them money, what can I give them? As a tourist, visiting the country for only three days, there’s so little that I can offer, apart from the money that I inevitably spend as a tourist. It is frustrating to want to help all of these people when I do not have the necessary resources or knowledge to do much of anything for them. When I have the time, I think I will do some research on what humanitarian projects are going on in Nicaragua, and specifically, in Granada. In the meantime, I will just remember to be thankful for comfort and safety that I live in.
A study abroad experience that is perfect from beginning to end might be nice, but it’s the low points and difficult experiences that force us to learn and grow and become stronger and more understanding and compassionate people.
On a lighter note, I spent this past weekend back in Puerto Viejo with four incredible friends, and we all agreed that, apart from one unpleasant hostel, the weekend was perfect from beginning to end. We rented bicycles and rode south, past Puerto Viejo, and on to a beach called Punta Uva. For some reason, the ocean was completely still this weekend – so still that it looked and felt like a lake. So the conditions were perfect for snorkeling, and snorkel we did! We then rode on to the tiny beach town of Manzanilla, where we spent the night in a little, affordable cabina.
I’m sure some of you remember me ranting about bioluminescence a month ago. Well, this Saturday night topped that one. We went for a midnight swim in Manzanilla and there was bioluminescence EVERYWHERE. Every move you made in the water caused a thousand tiny lights to appear all around your body. The night was clear and still, and we could see thousands of stars stretching across the sky in every direction. Stars in the sky AND stars all around us in the water? The very definition of “Pura Vida.”
So, like any other life experience, studying abroad is a mixture of ups and downs. But lying on a gorgeous beach, surrounded by the kind of paradise that you usually only see in calendars, is the kind of up that lets you feel at peace with just about everything else.