“You’re not saving anyone’s life by being here.” This comment came to us from the leader of the organization Champlain had collaborated with to make the trip possible. Although I had good intentions going into the trip, it was nice to hear the blunt reality that addresses a misconception with many college students who go on service trips. You know who they are. Young American students who graciously give up their spring break to travel to poor countries to make a real world difference – and in some cases, add to their resumes and Instagram feeds.
I really don’t want this piece to be about how I learned soooo much when I went to Nicaragua, and how I’m soooo thankful for all the things I experienced. I’m a young, liberal, white, college student from a middle-class working family. The privilege I had to even be able to go on this trip is worth recognizing.
When I traveled to Nicaragua this past spring break I can honestly say I wanted to do more than take pictures on my iPhone. I wanted to do something greater with my time than sit on a beach and drink margaritas all day long. I do that in Burlington enough. With that being said, I’m not sure if I was prepared for all the global awareness I was exposed to during and after everything was said and done.
As Curtis Chin, former ambassador to the World Development Bank noted in a New York Times article, “studying abroad is not essential to a good education or to helping one better understand the changing world we live in.” Ouch.
I knew beforehand what our living situation was going to look like, but it wasn’t until I arrived to Chacraseca that I realized how good we had it compared to the locals. We had meals prepared for us everyday, access to modern showers and toilets, we lived in a house with four walls, a full tile floor, individual cots to sleep in, potable water, electric outlets, and a full fridge and freezer. A large portion of the service work that we were doing was helping a local family build a new home. Throughout the week we dug a foundation, soaked bricks, made cement from pataya leaves and horse manure, built a stove from recycled glass bottles, and dug a hole three feet deep that would serve as the base of a bathroom. I realized then how good our living situation was. After completion of their home, this family would have a cement floor, an outdoor latrine, and a tin roof at best. Even in another country, we were served with the greatest accommodations.
I struggled with the idea of my privilege in relation to my emotional reactions. At first I felt guilty about my privilege when I realized how others who have lived in Nicaragua their whole lives and will continue to live there forever because they do not have the financial means to move anywhere else, don’t have access to half of the things I did when I was only living there for one week. After further reflection, I realized that feeling guilty for my privilege or feeling pity for the locals wasn’t going to solve anything. People all around the world live their lives under different circumstances. Yes, not having access to potable water is an awful situation. Everyone should have their basic living needs met, but just because a person does not have access to something that another does, doesn’t mean they are any lesser. It all comes back to the idea that “you’re not saving anyone’s life by being here.” Trips like these are about talking to the community, learning what they need, and serving with them to reach that goal. We can’t just march our privileged white asses into another country and build a giant water tank because if the locals don’t need it, it’s gonna sit there and rust and serve as a reminder that without communication, privilege means nothing.
When I first arrived to Nicaragua I initially felt kind of out of place. I didn’t speak much of the language, and it was pretty obvious how much I stuck out (red hair and septum piercing). Although my appearance and behavior was different I was treated with the utmost respect – though given American’s involvement in Nicaragua and Central America in general – ahem, Contra scandal anyone? – the locals had every right to treat me with indifference at best. They didn’t.
Everyone was nice to me – like nicer to me than anyone’s ever been nice to me. They were so nice to me it almost felt weird. At first I thought I might be a sort of condescending, post-colonial politeness, passive aggressive courtesy hissed through gritted teeth. But I’m pretty sure it wasn’t – it was genuine.
Maybe this shows the beautiful hearts of the people of Nicaragua. Regardless, it became pretty clear to our group what kind of privilege we had by being where we were from. The kindness I received, and my initial feelings of being out of place as an American now seems unfair as I’m a member of a country whose front running presidential candidate has very publicly voiced his negative opinions on immigrants in the U.S. If the roles were reversed it’s pretty easy to say the people of Nicaragua would have been treated differently if they were in our country.
The small taste of what it’s like to be in a country where you can’t relate to anything was humbling enough to shut my whiney ass up for a week and appreciate the things that are so easily accessible to me back home. For example; clean drinking water, being able to flush toilet paper after I use it, food supplies, etc. Fuck dude, the privilege we even have as Americans to joke about moving away from the U.S. if Donald Trump becomes president screams volumes alone. Kind of fucking ironic.
My service trip to Nicaragua taught me a lot more than I expected it to. I learned the lessons you expect to learn, to appreciate where you come from become others have it less than you, but I also learned that life is unfuckingfair and sometimes the only thing you can do is roll with it. I met people who have nothing and still wake up everyday with courage just because they have another day to be alive. Although our problems are valid because they’re happening to us, I learned the cliché but honest truth that someone out there does have it worse off than me. I met those people, and if they can go all day with a good attitude, you and I can too.