In a region of Central Nicaragua, the sultry air of Muy Muy town put us into a sweaty daze. Rebecca and I took turns swinging on an indoor hammock and sipping warm Toña beer in the musty interior of my friend Angus’s Peace Corps abode, a one-room home constructed with cinder blocks. We swatted flies, sorted beans, and lazily let time pass. Earlier in the day, I had walked the town’s dusty streets in search of a vendor selling shirts sin mangas–without sleeves–because I had to do something to remedy my perpetually dripping back sweat. This was spring break 2011.
Later that evening, or was it another one?, we walked up to visit Muy Muy’s most prosperous hacienda. Angus’s friend, apparently one of the wealthiest men in town, was patriarch of the spread, which contained a significant amount of land, some cattle, a sweeping one-story wooden home fronted by a rickety and undulating front porch.
I remember plenty of giggling as I tried to make corn tortillas in the hacienda’s indoor kitchen, smoke billowing from little ventilation and open flames. The owner’s young girlfriend and her sister barbecued fatty cuts of beef. We sipped homemade hooch served from a plastic gasoline container, which turned out to be fitting given its taste and potency. When we got a ride home, we hopped in the bed of a pickup truck and the man’s girlfriend came running out of the house with a shotgun; we learned the property owner had recently killed a trespassing man, igniting a family feud, so it was best to leave the property armed. Especially at night.
I’m grateful that Rebecca is an adventurous traveler; otherwise, aspects of this trip detailed above–and other detours–could have proven fatal to our relationship: the American school buses sent to Central America to be converted into colorful passenger caravans, bus after bus packed full, bumpy roads, blaring horns, passing and being passed on blind corner turns; the two hour “cab” ride in a man’s personal vehicle from Matagalpa to Leon and wondering if we had just gotten suckered into being kidnapped by these two men; pickup trucks, shotguns, and head lice in Muy Muy.
But overall we certainly learned a lot about each other, about Nicaragua, about local culture, all while solidifying and reflecting on our own values. While we did end up chilling in Las Penitas, a quaint coastal town on the Pacific Ocean, overall it wasn’t a relaxing trip. It was enlightening, adrenaline-inducing, frustrating and sweaty, all rolled into a messy nine or so days.
There’s travel or vacation to escape, recharge, and relax. And then there’s travel containing trials and tribulations, rife with uncertainty and the slight increase in pulse when trying to navigate through new situations. Personal growth or transformation, of course, is likely to occur during the latter. Prolific vagabonder and traveler Nomadic Matt writes, “Traveling forced me out of my routine. It helped me become independent, take more risks, be ok with change, get better with people, learn more, and be more versatile. Travel is not some panacea. The baggage you have comes with you on the road. There is no place far enough away to escape your problems. But what travel does is give you the space to be someone else and improve your life.”
But there’s a whole lot in between traveling to get away and travel to transform. It’s not like you can’t escape to relax and also gain insights about people, places, and self. I happen to think a combination makes for the most memorable and satisfying sojourns. And as we are in the midst of long-term traveling, we’re experience the range of possibilities inherent in breaking free from home.
In Dubai, I learned that I will never choose to live in such a manufactured place, with daily life revolving around escaping heat and over-the-top modernity, where an absurd strain on limited natural resources is par for the course. But I also began learning about the staggering diversity within the Muslim world. And what a different version of a “melting pot” society can be like. And how many people can live satisfying lives within an absolute monarchy.
In Oman, I was reminded that human decency and warmth can be an aspect of a place that trumps all other potential attractions. I learned that sometimes GPS is overrated; we had to navigate the country with maps, roadside advice, and signage. Gasp! To imagine doing this in 2018!
In Georgia, we learned how nationalism can be a double-edged sword–it can easily breed resentment of the other, but it also can be used to celebrate the best things about a place. Georgian language, food, wine, and history is rife with unique utterances, flavors, and lore.
While on a luxurious family cruise about six or seven years ago, I don’t think I learned anything too meaningful or underwent any personal transformation. And that’s perfectly cool. It was about creating memories, some serious family bonding, shared meals. We basked in the sun on the top decks, snorkeled and drank spiked fruit punch, and I remember sampling so many different foods at the over-the-top buffet spread that I kept a journal, thinking how absurd this abundance was.
Now we’ve been in Tanzania for a few weeks. I’m writing this enjoying the breeze at my back from the Indian ocean, hanging out with our British expat hosts. It’s pure escape in many ways. But when I leave their compound, abject poverty and the vividity of being here offers a constant reminder of what it’s like being an outsider, in addition to thinking more deeply about ethical travel–what are the consequences of spending your money in various ways as a privileged visitor to a place so impoverished?
But however you may choose to travel–whether on a cruise ship or in a village in Nicaragua–there’s little doubt experience and ensuing memories will likely enrich your life, possibly by imparting some wisdom or insight, or simply providing a respite and dreams of the next escape.