As my family and I travel, I have happened upon a phrase that has been used with regularity. I would bet you have heard it or maybe even said it yourself. The phrase is as follows: “Too touristy”. This is a very in vogue thing to say amongst those who fancy themselves travelers. For example, my family and I were thinking about going to San Juan Del Sur and they statement we kept hearing was that it was “too touristy.” After the tenth time I heard the phrase, I began to consider what it meant. The phrase obviously carries a negative connotation. It implies that it is fake or non-authentic. Perhaps it means that the area or town is catered to the outsider and not a true depiction of the native culture. I suppose on the one hand I understand such a notion. My wife and I have traveled to Jamaica before and been hounded at markets. This is certainly not an enjoyable experience and most likely what I would classify as “too touristy.”
Recently though, I have been confronted with other realities of what raw culture truly feels like. There is a nearby fishing village around seven minutes from Rodanda Bay called El Gigante. The town faces the same pacific ocean as the resort I am staying in and has an equally lovely beach adorning the shore, however, there is a palpable difference between the two areas that could be summed up with one word: poverty. The resort we are staying at has deluxe villas that are tree house style retreats. They are ultra private and a luxurious escape in the midst of the deciduous rain forest of Nicaragua. The town of El Gicante (pronounced Higante) has many houses; some have walls, some do not. The ones that have walls are made of everything from plywood to masonite (a dense cardboard). There is no AC, the walls are not sealed, and quite truthfully it looks more like a scene from Africa where population has made shelter out of whatever they could find. The roofs are mostly rusted corrugated metal. I can only imagine that the paltry shelters provide little in terms of protection against the elements or insects. They are certainly not private.
I don’t think this town would fall under the criteria of “Too Touristy,” however, I have to admit, I have come to a conclusion: There is a certain degree of poverty that is uncomfortable to be around. On our second visit to the town we played a card game with some local children. It was fun to see our boys interact with children from other cultures (true to form, they showed off as much as possible in front of the girls). We ended up on the beach and Peyton took off his flip flops for a few minutes to run in the ocean. When he returned, they had been stolen by a local boy. A few things crossed my mind at this point. One, it was quite understandable why the local boy would steal Peyton’s flip flops. He has next to nothing. He looks at us and thinks we have considerable excess, why wouldn’t he take from us? My second thought came as Peyton looked at me and asked if he could get new flip flops. My almost immediate answer was, “yes.” But then I had to ask myself a question, “Can you buy flip flops here?” As it turns out, the answer is “yes”, they happened to have Peyton’s size in some knock of Mickey Mouse flip flops. However, there are plenty of things that are not available. Some of it has to do with a lack of resources; some of it has to do with the fact that it is an hour by dirt road to the nearest market.
When my family and I went to “San Juan Del Sur”, or the “too touristy” city, their were tons of local markets and restaurants. My flip flops broke as well and I was even able to find a pair of size twelve’s at one of the markets. As an aside, being over six foot tall in Nicaragua is tantamount to being a giant. Every time I walked into a shoe store I felt like Shaquille O’Neal at a footlocker as the woman pointed to my feet and said “mucho grande” while disappearing to the back where they keep the “giant shoes.” This got me thinking though, if “too touristy” is code for “they have what you need” than I suppose I am a tourist. There are basic things that I have grown accustom too that I hadn’t even realized until they weren’t there. Things like the ability to get on the internet, buy aloe Vera gel, by an item of clothing if needed, make a phone call, etc…
The other issue revolves around this very real human poverty that I see here in Nicaragua. I am ten thousand words into my third book, The Business of Being Free. It is a book about how to follow your dreams and achieve what you want in life. I wrote a chapter yesterday and it occurred to me that my book wouldn’t do much for the people in that village. They are where they are. As an American I have the luxury to philosophize and analyze not just how to live, but how to live to the fullest. I don’t get the feeling they are afforded the same choice. This got me thinking, are there basic minimums by which human beings should be allowed to live? If so, what are those standards and who should define them? Should every person have a house with walls? Should they have access to nutritious food? Then I remembered the look on the faces and the conversations I had with the locals. They didn’t seem particularly bothered by their situation. They maybe even seemed happier than a typical suburban neighborhood. Does it make me an elitist that my first thought was to help these people and their situation just because they were different from me? Yes, or at least something close to it.
One of the chapters of my book deals something called Axioms. In case you are pulling up google for a definition, an Axiom can be defined as follows: “An assumed truth that requires no proof.” You see I believe that a person needs a house with walls and access to goods because that has been my reality. I don’t have proof that what I think is true. That notion of basic human needs is my culture and my background; it is my truth. Who the hell knows if what I believe is true or not? I don’t believe it because I have done research or because of logic, I only believe it because it is what is comfortable to me and it’s what I know.
Maybe I’m right, maybe I’m wrong, but I think recognizing that I could be wrong or at least that there is another way is important. I can honestly say that I am so excited that my family and I are traveling the world to help us broaden our perspective and check our premise on all of our assumed truths that we believe unconsciously. My hope is that our travels will help my boys have fewer axioms than I and have beliefs based on reality instead of simply what they know or have been told. This trip has already opened my eyes on my own prejudices and assumption on human existence. My approach has already shifted from trying to notice differences (which is easy) to trying to notice what is beautiful and unique(harder). I have no doubt that our travels will prove eye opening to myself and my family.
I am so thankful that we are here together, experiencing the world together as a family. I am having a blast spending time with my family and participating in my sons’ education (as well as receiving a heavy dose of education from my wife and sons’ as well!). I am glad we went on our journey with Trek. It wouldn’t be right for us to have waited and I cannot tell you how much it feels perfect that all five of us are here. Your kind words and thoughts through blog comments, emails, letters, paintings, and more are a huge help to Chelsea and I during this time. Thank you for the love you are sending my family’s way and please continue to do so. More is coming on the books, they are closer to completion every day.
Until next time,