“It’s not scary to walk around there. Not like it is here.”
After a deserved short-vacation to Ometepe and Granada this week, I found myself taking a “mochilero shuttle” or backpacker’s shuttle back from Managua to Leon. Of course, no one there assumed I had been living in Leon for six weeks at this point, no one cared. But after six weeks here, I don’t feel much like a tourist anymore. I’m not a local, but I’m not quite a visitor. I live somewhere in between. Just as Nicaraguans wonder what I’m thinking, I found myself asking, what do these crazy foreigners say about us anyway? So naturally, I eavesdropped.
“Where have you been so far?” “Panama, Costa Rica… we skipped Honduras because it is so dangerous right now.” “Oh yeah, Honduras is dangerous, but we made it. How do you feel about it here in Nicaragua?” “It’s a pretty country. The beaches and jungles are so nice. Not as nice as Costa Rica, but much cheaper. Then again, it’s not scary to walk around there. Not like it is here. This country is a little messed up.” And with that my heart dropped. I started thinking. What do you mean, “It’s not scary to walk around there. Not like it is here.”? Are you perceiving the children selling souvenirs on the streets as dangerous? Are you perceiving the families sitting outside as dangerous? Would it be safer if Nicaraguans weren’t present in your vacation to Nicaragua? Would you prefer to be at a separate resort that they could not afford to stay at? What do you mean, “It’s not scary to walk around there. Not like it is here.”?
I understand the worry of foreigners. I understand in poverty stricken countries there are often reputations of robberies and kidnaps and pickpockets. These certainly exist in Nicaragua. But they also exist in Costa Rica, in New York, in Germany, in Paris, in Beijing… There are bad people committing malicious actions everywhere. And while there are certain cities where these are more prevalent, in my six weeks here I have never been robbed or threatened or forced into an uncomfortable position. In fact according to UN crime statistics, robberies per 100,000 people in Costa Rica is almost double those of Nicaragua. I certainly exercise caution as I would at home in New York, but I walk around during the day, I have walked some at night, I have taken taxis in groups and alone and I have rarely felt unsafe.
So I addressed the group. I asked them, “Why don’t you feel safe here?” And they answered “Well people are always talking to you and about you, calling to you. They’re always coming up to you trying to sell you things. They always seem to be watching.” As I didn’t want to start an argument I agreed to understand their perspective. I thought to myself instead, “Why don’t you think it could just be they are interested in you? Maybe are interested in who you are, what you are and where you come from. Maybe they’ve never heard someone speak your language before. Maybe they’ve only seen a handful of people with bright red hair. Wouldn’t you be curious if a Nicaraguan with a big backpack was walking down your street? They’re not all out to get you, to scam you, to take your money. In fact, most Nicaraguans I know aren’t materialistic, they don’t want more than what they have worked for. And in a country that thrives on tourism, why wouldn’t you expect people to try to sell things to you, the tourist?”
I understand the foreign perspective, I understand the nerves. It is always better to be cautious. So yes, I hold my bag a little tighter. I check for my wallet a little more often. And no I certainly don’t trust everyone I meet. But rather than feeling like Nicaraguans are “messed up,” I just feel bad that any of them would be in such a position as to feel tempted to see what I have. I was hurt that some foreigners are not open to learning about the modest and kind people I have met since living here. Just because they do not have much, does not mean they want your stuff. Maybe they just want to say hi. And if they are interested in robbing you, there is most likely an important lesson about poverty, development and cultural perceptions in there as well. I think the more pertinent issue to address with foreigners is this tourist-local power dynamic. Out of every dozen tourists I meet, only one or two speak Spanish in any real capacity, yet many have the audacity to be mad that Nicaraguans don’t speak English. They want to go on “cultural excursions,” but they don’t want to talk to the local drivers they hire to take them there. They want to buy souvenirs for their families and brag about how cheap they purchased them for, calling any higher price a scam, yet in the next sentence that same tourist will be frustrated that so many people here are poor, failing to understand that souvenirs are many vendors sole source of income. Who’s scamming who there?
While certainly not everyone who visits Nicaragua is ignorant or close minded, if I could I would challenge all foreigners to consider thinking from the perspective I have been challenged with. If I could, I would remind them all: “There aren’t just beaches and jungles here, there are people too. And their lives matter. They’ve opened their home to show you those sights, they deserve an open mind in return. They deserve to be part of your experience, not hidden away while you enjoy their “paradise.”
So honestly, do you not feel safe here because it is dangerous? Or do you not feel safe here because you haven’t tried to understand the culture? Where does the blame really fall? I bet you it falls closer to our side than you would like to think.”
Rebecca Duffy ’16