Last weekend I visited a fellow Nica 63 returned Volunteer. She is in medical school just an hour and a half away from me, and she found time in between anatomy lab and phlebotomy practice to spend a day with me. O how we reminisced. We started talking about all of the things that happened down there, both to us and to others. The first question that came to our minds was can you believe that we did that? That crazy two-year adventure. But that’s not the right question. The right question is can you believe that all of that just became normal?
She worked with doctors who would get on horses and look for women in the countryside rumored to be pregnant. I argued a few times with the Director of Security to permit me to go to a community in the shadow of an actively erupting volcano. She used to squeeze herself into a repurposed American school bus and hunker down for the five-hour trip to Managua. When I needed citrus for cooking or juice I would just pick a sour orange off of the tree in my house’s courtyard.
All of that felt very normal to us. So very pleasantly normal. These activities seem so foreign for an American lifestyle, which is what provokes the question, how did this all become so normal? I suppose the answer is that humans adapt. Peace Corps Volunteers in many countries serve in conditions far more arduous than I served under in Nicaragua. Nevertheless, they adapt and grow comfortable with their lifestyle. In my MBA class of 299 there are only two Returned Peace Corps Volunteers. The other served in Benin and lived a two-day trip from the capital. On many days sinkholes left the road to his town unpassable. Nevertheless, he wants to go back. He’s working extremely hard to find a job in Africa.
I miss Nicaragua incredibly. I want my normal back. Chapel Hill sucks compared to León. A lot of people ask me if I like living in North Carolina. I lie through my teeth. Lincoln should have let them go! I feel like Ray Liotta in the Witness Protection Program at the end of Goodfellas. No matter how comfortable the new normal is it does not feel right. I’m a New Yorker that lived in a very vibrant Washington DC after college and then the soul of Nicaragua. North Carolina is boring. It lacks excitement. I now live in a climate controlled townhouse. I worry about being frugal, my budget, and debt. I rely on a bicycle, public transportation, and the kindness of others for rides, just as I did in Nicaragua; the difference being, my house is near nothing. I can walk to the supermarket in 20 minutes. Mangoes are a buck each and they suck. I can’t walk to the clubs and bars. I can’t stroll to the park and be sure to see a few people that I know. I miss my neighbor a block up the road who sat outside her house with her family and gave me a hearty buenas noches every single night that I passed by. I miss being able to stick my thumb out and being at the ocean 30 minutes later. None of that is normal here, and it sucks. When I left Nicaragua I felt two years younger than when I got there. Now I am just re-aging at an accelerated pace.
So why did I come back? Thousands of foreigners have made their home, quite happily, in Nicaragua. I could have stayed in the Peace Corps for at least another year and found myself opportunities afterwards. First of all, I believe I was quite fortunate to have been looked after by the US government. This included free healthcare, courtesy visas, and a stable living stipend. Without these amenities life certainly would have been more challenging. I also have aspirations in life, and I need to be in my country right now to help them come to fruition. I missed my family and my friends. I also did not want to become just another expat.
I never felt like an expatriate in Nicaragua. At times I was lumped into the expat group, but I didn’t feel like I belonged. I knew I was there for a predetermined period of time as an external volunteer, and that remained my mindset the whole time. Expats live a very ironic life in my opinion, bridging cultures, but seizing so strongly to their native shore. They love how integrated they are and laude their cultural sensibilities, but yet they retain a strong foreigner attitude. They often criticize local politics, culture, and attitudes. I was certainly known to do this, although I gained an appreciation for cultural and even political deference that marinated over time. I don’t see how an expatriate can criticize and comfortably fit into a foreign culture. Even if a foreigner maintained purely objective measures of the country and used experience, investigation, and academic theory to explain culture and politics, doesn’t that simply betray their separation from the natives? True locals do not need to analyze. Their subjectivity is their authentic belonging. Critical and analytical mindsets assume some degree of superiority. It is arrogant without trying to be or even wanting to be so. Even being in aid, development, and non-profit service assumes that the country needs help. This wasn’t the philosophy of life that I wanted; it wasn’t how I wanted my normal to evolve, so as planned I simply let my service lapse and left Nicaragua as planned.
I don’t see how after a few years of residing in a foreign country you don’t become a member of that nation by definition. When I encounter immigrants to the United States I address them as Latino-Americans, or African-born-Americans, or Asian-Americans, and so on. Anything less would be disrespectful and wrong. They intend to be here for many years, just as I do. Considering them expats or just perpetual immigrants banishes them to the ironic limbo of the out of place expat in a foreign country, like Nicaragua’s expats.
Maybe one day I will feel like I want to live in Nicaragua, but despite how badly I want my normal back, it is not in the stars. I certainly want to visit. I desperately want to visit. There’s more of the country I want to see and so many people that I want to visit. Truly, I will never get to travel around the country much because of all the people that I will want to visit.
I want to sit at a bar with my friends, split a media of Gran Reserva, then go to the club and soak my shirt through with sweat. I want to have to run outside when it rains to take my clothes down off the line. I want to get one flat tire a month on my bike. And where the hell is Pipé at 11:30 peddling his mom’s fresh corn tortillas for three cents?
The pleasantness of the Nicaraguan normal is extremely hard fought. Nicaragua battled through centuries of anguish to attain peace in the early 90’s. It is tenuous, and it brings me to the verge of tears that forces inside Nicaragua or externally may disrupt an equilibrium that has allowed for the alleviation of human suffering. The infant mortality rate in Nicaragua has dropped by nearly 62% since the Contra War ended! Those doctors need to get on those horses looking for those women, and that was not possible when a guerilla war was raging in the countryside. It would be devastating if anything approaching the insurrections of the 20th century once again plagued Nicaragua. However, the political and social situation in Nicaragua has taught me invaluable lessons about what life is truly like in different situations, adverse and otherwise, from our own situation in America. I lived with living and breathing Sandinistas: the devil incarnate if you believed Reagan. The truth is they do not sacrifice their first born children to Lucifer or all steal money from public coffers. I can report that they do in fact love their children, are studious, and appreciate music, philosophy, and literature. Sandinistas keep faiths despite their Marxist roots, and many of them work extremely hard for the betterment of their fellow citizens. That’s an important lesson, because Clinton and Trump supporters are both going to keep on coexisting in two weeks’ time, despite the winner of the election. Just like the Sandinistas, both Clinton and Trump supporters love their children (I can’t say the same about Gary Johnson supporters. For God’s sakes get a grip! Do you even know what Libertarianism is, or do you just like that it has the word liberty in it and think that supporting a third party is “cool?”).
It also bears mentioning that my experiences and reflections in Nicaragua have taught me that intervention is not an ideal policy. Nicaragua has numerous problems that need fixing, but I can say in no uncertain terms that sanctions and other forms of social and political subterfuge are not how foreign countries should go about helping.
I’ll end the reflection there. I hope it’s coherent, but I sure am glad to have finally crafted a few words about how I have been feeling.
I do apologize for the dormancy of this blog and The Economics of… The first quarter of business school was extremely time consuming and I was not able to complete any articles. I have a few articles in various stages of (de)composition, and I do hope to get them published… someday. I also have many thoughts about business school itself, but I’m trying to decide if now is the right time to start reflecting on my graduate experiences, seeing that I am only approximately one eighth of my way into the program. I suppose my final message is to simply say, “Stay tuned for more folks.”