Tomorrow morning, at a time when I’m usually in deepest sleep, I will be departing with my compañeros for a trip north to Nicaragua. We will be spending ten days there, hearing from speakers, studying the Nicaraguan context; its tumultuous history, successes, and the current economic and political problems it is suffering from. But mainly we will be living; learning and living with the real people of Nicaragua in various communities around the country.
After having been in Costa Rica for six weeks, far too short a time to be able to claim any real understanding, I can say that the things I have seen and heard are giving me trepidation about this trip. I am excited to be sure, possibly more than I have been at any time since arriving, but there’s subtleties in Costa Rican culture and speech that hints of a very negative stigma towards Nicaragua. In Costa Rica I’ve heard Nicaraguans been described as “very violent people”, I’ve heard “No seas Nica” (“don’t be an idiot”, Nica being slang for Nicaraguan), I’ve seen the Nicaraguans working the pineapple fields under a glaring sun and pesticide spray, I’ve seen the banana plantations where the Nicaraguans labour and live under conditions much worse than the average Costa Rican. I’ve heard tell how Nicaraguans are “ideal” for these jobs because many are here illegally so can’t form unions to prevent the requirements of working twelve, fifteen, twenty, or twenty-four hours straight. Even the wonderful woman we all love who helps to clean are house once a week is from Nicaragua.
I’ve read too. Read of the American adventurer and usurper William Walker, US marine control in the country, the rise of the cruel Somoza dictatorship, the brutality of the National Guard, the Sandinista violent revolution to overthrow the Somoza’s, the “Red Scare” this posed and ensuing US response to fund a civil war backing their puppet army the “Contras” (“those against”), economic alienation by the US and her allies including Canada, and the resulting poverty, crime, and economic depression that still plagues Nicaragua today. There is no doubt that Nicaragua’s history is more than a shade darker than here in Costa Rica.
But the biggest effect on my Nicaraguan awareness have been the conversations with Tico family and friends and the connotations that ripple around the edge of our conversations. Advice to not eat the food if I don’t want to, to put on bug spray everywhere, to be extra careful, to take lots of medicine, to be conscious that Nicaragua is totally different than Costa Rica all rings of sound advice and it is to be sure. But there’s a certain way it’s said that cannot be intoned in writing only pointed out. I feel that there is a sentiment among Costa Ricans that Nicaragua is dangerous, that the people can be untrustworthy, and that Nicaragua in the general sense is an inferior place with inferior people and customs. Many, most in fact, of the Costa Ricans I’ve talked to about it have never been to Nicaragua, a country whose border is less than six hours away from Costa Rica’s central capital and which has a diaspora of around 500 000 living in Costa Rica, a country of less than 5 million.
I am in a difficult situation. One thing I consciously try to do when I travel, especially here in Central America, is to not judge other customs, traditions, and beliefs and rather try to adapt myself to them. I think this is good advice for anyone traveling, to observe and experience before passing criticism which should only come much later if then. I’ve been trying to adapt rather than make the other adapt to me. But now after six weeks I find myself mulling over critical and harsh questions in my mind: Am I experiencing racism? Are Costa Ricans wrongly prejudiced against Nicaragua? Why? Are Costa Ricans as suspicious of their neighbors and immigrants as they seem to be? Do they have reason to be or is that my happy Canadian mind telling me to be accepting? Do I even have the right or ability to evaluate and critique these things after having been here for six weeks, a white, privileged, North American myself?
What is truth? What do I believe and how do I go about choosing what to believe? Perhaps my determination to refrain from judging as long as possible is giving me the false idea that despite the problems I have seen and heard of the people around me are relatively free of the imperfections, flaws, and skewed values I see us North Americans inundated with as a society. I’ve begun to realize just how out of context I really am.
Again this is not to say I have found the right or the understanding to critique. But part of me feels like if I don’t be critical of attitudes, at least going into this trip, I will have a tainted perspective upon entering Nicaragua. Perhaps I do already. Its also possible that Costa Ricans do have good reason for speaking and thinking of Nicaraguans as they do. But I think I’ll try to observe and experience and criticize that for myself.
On a different note, thanks to you readers for your constant companionship and support. I love getting messages of encouragement and word of what is going on at home and many of you (who I think are reading) I think of everyday. But don’t worry, it’s not too much that it incapacitates life here. And in case you were wondering, yes, I will be away from my computer for the next two weeks so there are unlikely to be forth coming updates until after the first weekend in March.
“Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment.”