Lessons From Central America
This past trip to Fuego y Agua was my fifth trip to Central America and my eighth if you would like to include Mexico into Central America. I still remember my first trip I took solo at the age of 22 down to a surf camp for a week at one of the most southern parts of Costa Rica. It was spring 2006 and I had already traveled to Europe, Australia, South Africa and many times to Canada. I had also seen all but about 7 states in the US. However, upon my first trip to Costa Rica I was in a culture shock and at the same time felt immediately at home.
I write this post because every time I return to Central America I am reeducated in the way of the world, and in many ways how it could and I argue should be. My last night in Managua Hills Hotel/Hostel this year I posted this to my Facebook Page:
I feel like I need to elaborate on this list as these conclusions I did not come to overnight and have learned over time. Over the years these lessons have been taught to me, not given starting with my very first trip to Costa Rica.
Rule 1 – even if you plan something, don’t expect it to work out that way.
In 2006, I had the chance in January to learn to surf in Australia while on a coaching trip. I was hooked and went home and googled and found a surf camp in Pavones, Costa Rica for women. It was cheap and based off a homemade webpage, I paypaled a deposit and booked a trip. I stayed at their recommendations for hotels and spent a night above San Juan prior to flying to Golfito. This was my first real taste of Central America. I got off the plane in San Juan and exited the international terminal to a swarm of men/taxi drivers trying to give me a ride. My spanish was worse than it is today (which is still terrible) simply the scene was overwhelming and the shuttle to the hotel was nowhere to be found. Luck was on my side and other people at the same small hotel were waiting for the shuttle and I was able to hook on with them.
Rule 2 – Normal is only a washer setting.
This same trip the very next day taught me more about travel in Central America. I got a ride to the domestic airport next to the international one the next day. This was little more than a grungy concrete building, no english was to be had, and they didn’t give you tickets, instead cards which were color coded by where you were going. Also they not only weighed your bag but also you. Once I got a look at the plane I realized why, the whole plane sat about 15 people including pilots, it was a cozy ride. No drinks or inflight movie. Landing in Golfito made the San Juan domestic airport seem like luxury. It was little more than a landing strip, a tin roof covered area, a bathroom you had to pay to use, and a one armed man, his son and three legged dog. The one armed man pulled the bags from the plane loaded them in a wagon or small truck and pulled them to you.
A cab driver was there to pick us up, arranged by the surf camp. Over the next couple of hours we drove down roads or what seemed to be roads, through a stream in which the water came scarily high in the SUV, and to a “ferry” which was little more than a floating metal rectangle, chains to guide it, and a smelly diesel engine which chugged out black smoke as we made our way across the river. For those taking the bus, one bus was on one side of the river and the other one opposite. However the lady with the cooler definitely had the best ceviche around and my second year I had enough courage to listen to the driver and get one.
Rule 3 – This is not the USA
It all seems so silly to state this rule but it’s different in Central America. For one hot water is not a norm it truly is a luxury. It was not until my third trip to Costa Rica that I encountered hot water from showers. In Nicaragua on the island of Ometepe I still have yet to have a hot shower, although I know they exist. I will never like cold showers but it makes me appreciate our tiny hot water heater at home that much more (our water heater fits under the kitchen sink). Toilet paper is not for flushing. In many places in Central and other parts of the world sceptic systems are not the same as they are in the US. It is normal to have a waste basket and throw the used paper into it. As well even in America I have used composting and sawdust toilets where you cover your business with sawdust sometimes in outhouses that are basically a 5 gallon bucket with a seat on them. Also have been places where leaves and ferns are toilet paper (mostly on hikes). The one tip I give people traveling for the first time to Central America is remember this is not the US.
Also, if you really need things like in the US don’t stay at the cheap places. In Nicaragua a couple stayed in a hotel room with hot water, a/c, and all that good stuff for about $90 a night, expensive on the island but really cheap when you think of what you get for that in the US. On the other hand if you stay in a place that’s $7 a night don’t expect the water to be on all the time, and if it is it won’t be hot. Don’t expect perfection. My light switch for my bathroom in Nica this year was two wires and the shower never turned all the way off, we had a fan and it worked, really no need for a/c. A nightmare to some but for me, no biggie. You just adapt and enjoy the experience.
Rule 4 – Slow Down
Central America and pretty much most of the world runs at a different speed from the US. Upon my first couple trips I was always worried about missing ferries, missing rides, and not being somewhere early. What you soon learn is things are slower and people are not in a rush everywhere. A 3:00 ferry might leave at 3 or might leave at 3:30 and you learn to expect it. It was maddening when I first got to Costa Rica and the meals took forever to get to me. Meals take an hour to two hours, trust me every time they are well worth it, typico plato’s are my favorite meals; rice, beans, salad, plantains, and a large piece of chicken, fish, streak or other meat. Filling and delicious. Also watch the people around, see the pace they move and adapt. You will enjoy your experience more.
Rule 5 – Less is More
Whether it be hanging with locals or expats through travels in Costa Rica and Nicaragua what you actually need to survive is a lot less than you think. Looking around my first trip to Costa Rica I felt bad for some of the people I saw who lived in little more than a concrete box with a tin roof and no windows. I said poor them, they have nothing. Then upon more trips was able to look further and see they may have nearly nothing, but always seemed to be happier than when I looked around at home. Life is a struggle for many but in many ways they are wealthier than we in the US will ever be. It took a couple trips for me to see this, and today in many ways I am envious of the simplicity of life. They live life not to get stuff but to live.
Finally, to bring this back to the beginning, I love Central America. I love to people, I love the culture, I love the food, and I love the lifestyle. It saddens me a little when I see these countries try to be more like ours. I am not sure striving to be like the US is really a good goal. Sure things like a/c, hot water, internet, cars, iPods, and such are great but once you meet some basic essentials is the 2nd and 3rd car really needed? Do we actually need all the crap in our house, what do the extra rooms really show? Everyone should have the availability to clean water, education, a house, and a chance to make a life, but at what point is it excess.
I think the greatest thing for me is traveling back home after a trip to Central America and finding it easier to purge with the excess and truly appreciate the things I do have and the extreme luxury we all in North America live in. In the scope of the world we are the 1%. A powerful lesson to bring back each year from these trips.