I really did not have great expectations on Nicaragua. I hardly knew anybody who had been there before me, and those few persons were not particularly enthusiastic about it. For whatever reason, I had the impression it was a characterless country. I remember asking them: “Was Nicaragua cool?” And their answer was: “It is not really that great”. I certainly did not mean it to be the highlight of my backpacking trip through Central America. But it turned out to be.
Truth be told, before visiting Nicaragua I did not know much about it. My knowledge was limited to the fact that it is the second poorest country in the Americas and that it had once been under the influence of the United States, that got seriously involved with it to the point of being sued to the International Court of Justice for breaking its obligations under customary international law. Even though I used to be a human rights lawyer, I knew nothing about its current political situation and its human rights issues.
So, when I arrived in Nicaragua, I figured all there was to do there would be going to some beach, try to surf if I had the guts to do so, and just chill out till I continued on to Costa Rica. Soon enough, my plans were all cancelled and I had to reconsider all my misconceptions. I fell in love with Nicaragua on a long lasting affair that has brought me to visit it two more times after my first one, and to hope I can go again.
Yes, I had a really good time in Nicaragua. I found the country to be incredible: gorgeous beaches, beautiful colonial cities, lakes and volcanoes, diverse wildlife and all of this at unbeatable prices. I managed to do so many things in Nicaragua, that I had never done before – such as volcano boarding. But most of all, I fell in love with its history of resistance and revolution, and with its proud people, who chin up and never give up despite all the difficulties that life presents them with and always have a smile on their face. Yes: for as poor as Nicaragua is, I found its people to be happy. And that happiness was contagious. It made me reconsider many aspects of my life, and put back into the right perspective what I thought were some majour problems I was facing.
I happened to be in Balgüe, the most rural village on Ometepe Island, on Christmas day. I had arrived there the night before, and my Christmas eve had been a very low key dinner at the hostel. I have never been a big fan of Christmas, you see. I just can’t stand all the frenzy: people going crazy with the preparations; all the traffic due to shoppers who rush out to get the ultimate useless gadget to put under the Christmas tree; and the long, unbearable meals with the family and relatives. To me, it was just such a waste of time and money.
Then, I just ended up spending Christmas (well, part of it) with a random family in Balgüe. I had gone out that day for a walk in the village (no more than a few houses along the main road), and got caught in a thunderstorm. It was pouring, I had no umbrella, and the hostel was a good hike away – it would take me a good 45 minutes under the incessant rain, on an uphill path in the forest to get to the secluded Finca Magdalena. As the rain was getting stronger, I started running to find some shelter. I literally walked in the first place I found – and this happened to be a private house, where people were gathered on a covered patio and played guitars and sang along to celebrate Christmas.
All I did was open the gate, wave my hand and say: “Feliz Navidad!” That’s when I realised that I was standing in someone’s house. In any other place on earth, the owners would have called the police, chased me out, yelled at me. Here, they just stared blankly at me, surprised at first, then handed me a chair so I could join the celebrations. It was a modest house, really: a bare clay pavement inside and out, no more than 2 rooms; children, dogs and chickens all running about, inside and outside. I doubt they had potable water. And I am sure they did not have any fast internet connection, a flat screen tv, a luxurious shower and any of the commodities that we seem to can’t live without at home. I doubt they had had an endless meal to celebrate their Christmas. Yet, they looked happy and they surely seemed to be having a great time in their celebrations, much more than I would do at home when eating the best delicacies that one could find on the table.
How could these people be so happy, even though they were so poor? I finally understood: they had each other; they could count on one another. And more than anything else, they did not fall into the materialism trap: they did not have an insatiable desire to own things, thinking that they would finally feel happy once they managed to get their hands on the latest gadget – be it a smart phone, a new pair of shoes, or a flat screen tv. And since they were not materialistic, they did not turn into selfish and excessively competitive human beings who felt envy for anybody who owned more than they did, including the stranger who had just walked through their gate; they had not lost faith in the human race, thinking that they could not trust anybody.
I am sure that they faced difficult times – times in which they wished for an easier life, for more comforts and simply a bit more money. But this did not turn them into cynical, sour and cunning people who would try to take advantage of others to make whatever little extra that may make their lives a bit easier. It was quite the opposite: they embraced life, and whatever it brought them, in a hopeful way and with a smile on their face. That very smile that had disappeared from mine, because regardless of how lucky I may be, I felt overwhelmed to make money and buy things so to prove others and – most of all – myself that I was really accomplished.
These people helped me put my life back into perspective. They helped me understand what really counts for me. Sure, there have been many times in which I wished I had more money to buy things that I feel I need in order to have a better life: a new laptop that performs better; a smartphone that doesn’t freeze any time someone calls me; a pretty dress to wear at a party. But owning things will never make me feel accomplished, because things perish, they get old, they become useless. What I am truly happy for is that I have a mother that still comes with me when I have a doctor’s appointment and I am terrified of what may happen to me; a father that thinks I am a hero because I can swim really well; and a sister that values spending time with me and is the best friend I could hope for. And I have a few, close friends that support me, whatever crazy thing I do – including jumping off a 12 meter cliff.
I am quite sure that lovely family in Nicaragua forgot about me. I don’t mind. I never even asked for their names, but I will never forget their smiles, their singing, and I will never stop thanking them for teaching me what really matters in life.
Today, when people ask me if Nicaragua is a good place to visit, I say it is – the most underrated country in Central America is gorgeous and its people are truly amazing.
Have you been to Nicaragua? Do you love it as much as I do?