In November I crossed through Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua. Most people are aware that poverty is a serious situation in Central America, and I have touched on it in recent blog entries. This month I have been exposed to the many levels of poverty that exist between borders of this region.
I spent several months living in Quepos, Costa Rica before I ever branched out to experience other countries in Central America, and I thought I knew poverty based on my time there. In hindsight, I could not have been more wrong. Costa Rica is another world in comparison to the other countries that I have visited such as Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua especially. For example, while education in Costa Rica is not heavily encouraged among the entire population and high school graduation rates are low, the children in Honduras did not seem to make it to school at all. Instead, it was typical to see young children helping their families at home, working, begging, or selling things on the street. It is amazing how drastic the differences of situation can be between two countries that touch. I cannot help but wonder about Costa Rica’s booming tourist industry and the series of events that took it to such great heights.
Upon crossing the border south into Panama, I was immediately greeted by a tiny, frail child with deep-set eyes that hid a beautiful sparkle behind puzzled shadows, apparently ready to burst at any moment or even disappear completely. He came to ask me if he could have the meager bag of potato chips that I was eating. Instead, I bought him a new bag and some cookies from a pulperia (mini food mart). The boy ran off without a word and shared the food with two other small boys across the street. Upon exiting the airport to beautiful Guatemala, my attention was grabbed by a handicapped child seated on a skateboard with rags on his hands to push himself through the streets. These are children that I will never forget.
There is a reason that the faces of those children stuck. The aspect of my travels through Central America that I feel most connected to is the multitude of people that I met along the way, to whom I will attribute one word: inspiring. The majority of people that I have met have very little, materialistically speaking, compared to the average teenager in the United States. Yet, the general attitude that I experienced was one of liveliness, genuineness, kindness and positivity. Where I expected animosity, I was welcomed with open arms. At one point, the mother of a close friend of mine in Costa Rica, named Candida Lopez, took me in to live in her home with her family for a small period of time.
Her house was made partly of wood, and partly of sheet metal. Windows were not screened or covered, but rather open rectangles left uncovered in the building process. Part of the floor was land, there was no refrigerator, and the shower was a pipe that pumped out freezing water onto a concrete floor which drained directly outside under the crease left at the bottom of the exterior wall. During my time there, the family treated me as if I were their own. Candida did my laundry without asking as if I were her daughter, and cooked every meal for me. Not once did they ask me for money, nor accept what I tried to give them. They were always laughing; the house was warm with their stories. While poverty was a definite struggle, it did not define them the way that money defines a millionaire.
Like Candida, there were many inspiring women that empowered me. In Guatemala, I sat down on the side of the road to rest after walking uphill for too long. A woman and her daughter in traditional clothing were seated next to me, and began speaking to me. After a few minutes we were sharing stories and laughing. They asked me how long I had been traveling, what I thought of Guatemala, where home was and about my family. They told me about the men in their family and taught me a few words in their Mayan dialect. I gave them sharks teeth from my beach at home in Florida and they gave me banana bread, then we parted ways.
Despite poverty, the brotherhood and positivity among many people that I crossed paths with in Central America was inspiring and something that I truly believe is lacking in our society in the United States. There are indeed very many levels of poverty in Central America, but there is so much more than that; there is spirit, hope, and spontaneity. There is togetherness, appreciation, and tranquility. There is love and there is peace of mind.