I almost cried the first time I saw the house I was meant to live in for the majority of my time in Nicaragua. I knew I was to share a room with four other people, but I didn’t realize just how many rooms of four there would be (nearly 20 people lived in the house). It wasn’t that realization that brought tears to my eyes that day though. It was the state of the place: dust, guano, and mouse poop covered almost every surface – including the food preparation areas and the beds. And there was a bigger problem: no one seemed to care.
I turned 26 while living in Granada, and I can honestly say it was probably the first time in my life that I felt old. The backpacker scene in Central America seemed to be ridiculously young, and the volunteering scene even younger. The vast majority of travelers I ran into were taking gap years after high school or a semester off in undergrad. And while the difference between 20 and 25 doesn’t seem too huge in the grand scheme of things, our experiences so often felt worlds apart.
“How old are you guys??” I demanded of the two boys present to observe my meltdown upon coming to terms with the mess I was supposed to call home.
“19,” they both responded.
I seriously considered leaving that day.
For the record, those two guys turned out to be some of my very favorite people at La Esperanza. Once I was able to get over the ‘number’, I found many of these youngsters were wise beyond their years and much more mature than I was at that age.
But there were also plenty of young travelers that were just that… young. And I often struggled to find ways to live and work with so many people that hadn’t yet learned the lessons that shaped my travel personality.
It was hard to sit at a table and watch my coworkers give handouts to the children who, high on glue, came to beg. My experiences taught me that that did more harm than good. But that’s not a lesson many tourists learn unless they really do their research, and these guys hadn’t had the time or interest to do that just yet.
It sucked to walk down the street with young girls who responded to the constant heckling from local men. These girls were lucky/naive enough to not understand the implications behind that kind of attention. They didn’t recognize the invitation their smiles could be interpreted as.
I hated the culture among my fellow volunteers that permitted skipping school to sleep off hangovers. Meanwhile, needy children sat in class unattended. A lot of people, for whatever reason, did not feel a responsibility to the local communities.
And probably most frustratingly of all in the beginning: it drove me absolutely crazy that no one cared about the literal shit that covered our house. I mean, it’s one thing to be messy… but shit? POOP? How did these people not understand how sick this stuff could make them?
Because they were 18 and 19 and 20. I didn’t think about those things at that age either.
I solved the problem of poop by moving into a smaller, cleaner house shortly after my arrival in Granada. But in the beginning, I fought a lot of these other behaviors hard. I sent beggars away, told girls not to smile, gave angry lectures to those who slept in, and washed all the dishes in the sink. It didn’t take very long to earn the nickname ‘casa mama’ – house mom. I knew the majority of people used it in an endearing way, but I also knew that there were some who rolled their eyes while they muttered the words.
“We have to learn these lessons for ourselves,” one person told me after what was probably a long, rum-fueled lecture on my part (hey, I didn’t say you couldn’t drink, I just said you still have to go to school if you do).
I thought about that a lot. She had a point. I lacked a certain respect when I came into this situation for the time that I had that these guys didn’t. I didn’t travel like this when I was their age, but if I had, I probably would have done many of the same things. Who was I to judge?
But at the same time, I had already learned my lessons. Who were they to make me stand by and watch as they unknowingly put themselves in situations that also affected my own physical well-being or conflicted with my moral standards?
I didn’t travel at their age for a reason. I wasn’t ready. And there were a lot of people who I encountered in Nicaragua who weren’t ready either. They weren’t getting out of the experience what they could have. And that’s really too bad.
Travel isn’t all about just getting out there and doing it. There’s an aspect of that, I guess. But timing is important too. I think it’s very rare that travel is a bad thing. But I think you have to be ready for the particular challenge you’re heading towards in order to take full advantage of the lessons available to you.
I met a lot of remarkable young people in Nicaragua who were doing just that – they were mature and totally engaged in their environment and soaking it all in. But I also met many who probably would have learned the very same lessons on a road trip in a first-world country or a college dorm room as the ones they were choosing to engage in in Nicaragua.
As travelers we have ethical responsibilities to the places we visit: basically, don’t leave a place worse off than you found it. But what about our responsibilities to ourselves? There are countless locales on this beautiful planet ready for us to explore. But I think when planning travel, especially the kind of long-term travel that volunteering abroad lends itself to, it’s also important to consider:
Am I ready for this?