Mar’n, a Nicaraguan friend, walked beside me. We were en route to the local pantorria in search of a Coca-Cola. I decided to take a break near a rusty sign that read 'Obras no Palabras' (works, not words). The sign was my assigned rendezvous point in case of an emergency.
I detached a shabby blue water bottle from my day pack and gulped down a quarter of the iodinated solution in hopes of stopping the diarrhea I had been experiencing all week.
'Deseas un poco de agua?' ('Would you like some water?') I asked Mar’n.
He smiled but refused the offer. Mar’n is more interested in hearing about the United States. He says the United States is different from Nicaragua because work in Nicaragua is scarce, yet he's content to have earned a position registering voters this fall.
It was July. I had been quiet for most of the walk while Mar’n was talking politics. But because I felt obligated as a foreigner to be engaged at all times, I decided to ask him a question about Hurricane Mitch.
'QuŽ hiciste cuando lleg— el hurac‡n?' I asked him. 'What did you do when the hurricane came?'
His wide brown eyes locked on to a blade of grass beside the road. It was easy for him to yank a single blade from his slouching position Ñ a habit he resorted to when feeling uncomfortable.
It was apparent my question had surprised him. His voice came out crackling, and his entire body tensed for a moment. I was sorry I had brought up the subject. But as his story went on, Mar’n began to tell me of the hardships that he, his wife and their newborn daughter had faced after the storm ripped through this country.
'Fuimos a las monta–as, porque era m‡s seguro all’,' he said. 'We went to the mountains because we were safer there.'
Over the next few hours, he told me the story of the hurricane and how it had affected his life. How the rainwater had formed a giant lake that stretched for miles. Periodically, he would find corpses floating in the water; sometimes there were only detached limbs.
'Todo el pa’s estaba en desesperaci—n!' he shouted. The whole country was in desperation.
Since returning from Nicaragua, I've relived that scene over and over again.
My wish is for others to understand what it is like to embrace another culture. I would like to use my experience abroad to help people, even my own peers, demolish the cultural barriers that exist in the world today.
When I traveled to Nicaragua, I was a gringo. I was unaccustomed to the food. I felt insecure greeting people with a kiss on both cheeks. I constantly forgot to use the expected formal manner when greeting people older than I.
After a couple of weeks, when I began to settle in, I grew accustomed to what I had considered strange before. I advanced in my linguistic ability; the formidable language barrier no longer hindered me. Being immersed in the Nicaraguan culture expanded my awareness and helped me appreciate the difference between our two cultures.
My volunteer experience has motivated me to be a more open-minded individual to others of different nationalities, races and backgrounds. As a citizen of the world, I would like others to realize and cherish the value of connecting to different societies.
I believe that if we all had the opportunity to immerse ourselves in another culture, we would better understand each other, and our differences, allowing for a healthier society.
Evan Hughes is a senior at Cleveland High School in Southeast Portland. He traveled to Nicaragua's state of Le—n last summer with Amigos de Las Americas, a volunteer organization. He plans to attend the University of Oregon.