observations about life in Central America

I feel comfortable in Mexico. I still don’t use their slang (I don’t use it from anywhere but Peru, really), but the money is not foreign to me and I enjoy the people, the food, the street vendors, everything. I like it here and could probably live somewhere in Mexico, most likely San Cristobal de las Casas – there’s a lot of life here, especially with live music and theatre, lots of cute little cafes, a good climate, etc. But there’s still a lot of exploring to do, first!

I have been meaning to sit and wrote a bit about each individual country that I have spent time in. unfortunately, Nicaragua and Honduras will be a little shorted in that respect, as I’ve spent the least amount of time there. One of these days I’ll get to know Nicaragua better; Honduras doesn’t greatly interest me. And El Salvador I will have to fit in on one of my weeks off (when I’m not trying my hardest to get to South America), especially since I know someone from there who can give me a great, inexpensive route to follow in 5 or 6 days, which would be perfect. Since I’m not much of a beach girl, I don’t need to (or want to) spend my time off just lounging around the sand. Bo-ring! I much prefer wandering around and getting to know new places.

Something I notice that is different here in Mexico and throughout Central America, especially in comparison with Peru, is the humility of the people. Not to say there aren’t beggars on the streets and kids selling their wares in the streets of Peruvian cities, but I am referring more to the way in which people in restaurants, internet cafes, hotels – anywhere – talk to foreigners here. Instead of replying to my “gracias” with a simple “de nada” (you’re welcome), they embellish with “para servirle” (to serve you) or “mucho gusto” (a pleasure). They speak more formally, using “usted” (the formal version of “you”) much more commonly, and overall offering much better service. There are always exceptions, of course, like I mentioned about the Christmas dinner. But if you go in somewhere with a small group, the service is almost consistently top notch.

I believe this humility and humble service has to do with decades and decades of civil wars in this area, affecting all of the countries. In South America, we read about Pinochet in Chile and the violence the ensued, or any of the many Argentinean, Venezuelan, Peruvian, Chilean dictators, but it wasn’t so much a class war like it was here. (Anytime I say “here”, I am not referring just to Mexico, which is where I am at the moment, but also Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua). The indigenous groups throughout this entire area have been condemned and treated like animals and slaves since the arrival of the Spaniard in the mid-1500s. There were mass killings and entire populations and cities wiped out.

The violence didn’t stop there. Google any of the above countries and you will find that, in many cases, there were civil wars until the 1980s. Political scandals, failing economies, mistreatment of local, indigenous villages and people, corrupt governments and aid on various occasions from the US has led to a massive imbalance between the people. This isn’t to say that you can’t find mistreatment and an extreme difference between the rich and the poor in other countries, but the poor here are SO poor, and the rich are SO rich, and the populations generally so small that a distribution of wealth should not be as difficult as in other, larger, more populated countries. But that’s another can of worms.

After generations and generations of struggle and loss, the workers in these countries are, from what I have gathered, so content just to work, that they aren’t going to rock the boat in any form. They consider themselves to be inferior to the rest of us because it is so ingrained in their history and their culture. Wouldn’t you feel the same if you came from hundreds of years of being treated like dirt? No matter how far you went in life and how much you achieved, there would always be that part of you that was simply eternally grateful for finally having an opportunity to make your life better. Or even just to live.

Instead of recognizing this, however, many tourists take it for granted. They don’t leave tips for the women who clean their hotel rooms, or the people who pour their coffee, or the guide who gave them a 2-hour tour. They (generally speaking) feel that they somehow deserve to be waited on hand and foot, because – after all – they have “made the effort” to come all the way to another country. Don’t get me wrong, I am making a MASSIVE generalization here, and I have been lucky to not travel closely with these kinds of people. But it doesn’t mean I don’t hear them in the restaurants or snidely commenting about how no one helped them with their bag upon check in at the hotel. No, the service here is not exactly what we find in “the west”, but isn’t that the whole point in traveling?

It is essential to appreciate the differences and the generosity of these people. Jason mentioned it in his blog, and I think it is a perfect example: One night, in Nicaragua, Jason and I were going to the circus. We started talking to the family behind us, and the woman was just adorable. At the spur of the moment, Jason and I decided to surprise this family and buy their tickets to go to the circus. For us it was less than $5, but for them it was most likely something they had saved up for to treat their kids. They were thankful, and just seeing their smiles was enough for us (we didn’t do it for any gratification or reward, just a random act of kindness). As we sat down, the woman came up to us and handed us each a can of Pepsi, which probably cost more than the ticket price! We smiled and said thank you and were very content to have something to mix with our rum! The next morning I was with my group, herding everyone onto a chicken bus, when Jason walked up and told me he was going to grab some fruit for the trip. He came back with oranges and bananas, telling me that, as he was wandering around looking for food, the same woman from last night saw him, ran up to him and told him not to move. She ran off and came back with a whole bag of fruit for us!

There is such a feeling of warmth and community and sharing that we completely miss out on back in our condos and giant houses. No one knows their neighbors, and there is no longer any trust amongst people. Down here, though, one act of kindness leads to another, and so the chain continues. Perhaps they feel that, after having been as low as a human can get, they have nothing left to lose by opening their hearts and homes and sharing what they have.

Have a wonderful Valentine’s day, everyone! In Latin America it is not a day just for lovers, but the day of love and friendship. Keep in mind that love comes in all forms, and isn’t only romantic! So give your friend or neighbor a hug or a wave, tell that special someone that you care, and take a moment to appreciate the people you have in your life, from friends and family to the barista who always makes you the perfect latte or the bartender that knows how you like your martinis. Even people you may see only in passing once a week are familiar faces, and just as you would notice their absence one day, so might they notice yours. Extend a hand and help someone, participate in a random act of kindness, give your lunch leftovers to the beggar on the street. If any day is a day to show your humanity and generosity, why not make it today?

Much love and many hugs,

Joslyn

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