O’Hare Airport, Chicago, IL
9:44 am, Feb. 20, 2011
Finally the time has come! We are but mere hours away from setting foot in Nicaragua. But meanwhile, in the bustling mist of the Chicago terminal… Beside me a woman in the tender throes of old age bops her head to the beat of her IPod headphones, which are fixed over a shock of red hair. She takes a long drag from her personal vat of diet soda – a cup roughly the size of a small car. She removes her lips from the straw, but only long enough to fill them with a breakfast burrito leaving the unforgettable aroma of fried bacon and… apricot? wafting about. Across the way, a suitcoat sits, his visage basking in the blue glow emanating from his IPad screen. It’s barely 10 in the morning, but his workday is already in full swing. With the speed and precision of an Olympic athlete, he hurtles between his various modes of communication, his fingers doing a mad dash between the dance floors of his Blackberry and computer keyboard, while his head – headphones swinging wildly about – attempts to take it all in. A coffee cup lays absentmindedly at his feet, empty long ago, but something he can’t help but keep forgetting – evident by the fact he continues to perpetually reach for it in the midst of his communication crusade.
To say that I am thrilled at the prospect to leave this world of mass consumerism, premature technology stress (PTS), and Uncle Sam’s promise that more is always better is a bit of an understatement. My time on Latin America Term last fall was the first catalyst to provoke me to cast a serious, critical eye on the American lifestyle – a lifestyle which is more often than not bolstered by a co-dependent relationship with a myriad of technological gadgets and an almost religious bowing down to the alter of consumerist values. But my excitement to return to South America is not only due to a longing to flee the trappings of 24-hour convenience stores and the mantra of “more, more, more,” but also to engage in a trip that is by and large less about souvenirs and more about service.
When our citizens visit foreign countries on tours and vacations, there is always the threat that they will take less of an integration approach and more of an anomaly status – often a fact that isn’t helped by parades of souvenir t-shirts and wildly emblazoned sombreros that herald their arrival to luxurious hotels, flashy night clubs, and markets heralding almost exclusively to the trinket-fetish of incoming tourists. And although these experiences are undoubtedly life-changing and unforgettable, it isn’t necessarily ideal in terms of foreign relations. Unfortunately flashy trinkets and the obtrusive “tourist” status we Americans sometimes tout with us when we visit foreign countries often just end up reaffirming a lot of the already present stereotypes of America in the minds of the natives.
So my hope is that with the very nature and description of the Nicaragua medical missions trip, we will not only be able to gain new experiences for ourselves, but that through our time immersing ourselves in the culture and volunteering in the clinics, the Nicaraguans will gain a better view of us as Americans and will be left with a more enriching and personalized interaction between our two cultures. I will admit, I am oftentimes guilty of too readily stereotyping our American culture as not the right way, but for hundreds of poverty-stricken citizens of Nicaragua who are forced to subside with little to nothing to call their own, clearly neither is theirs necessarily the “right way.” And with this parallel in mind, I believe both cultures could stand to grow from this experience.
Oftentimes short-term service projects such as ours are viewed as “quick-fix” type of volunteer effort. However, the real value of a trip such as this is the hope that it will not only change us, but we will be instilled with the spirit of service for the rest of our lives. We are only here for a mere two weeks so we certainly can’t lead a crusade of change in such time, but we can at least plant a seed of service, which will hopefully branch out and grow.
So as I always say, “que sabrosa!” Or “how delicious!” In normal daily life, one would use this only to describe, say, a particularly delicious meal. However, I don’t see it as a problem to extend this description to other daily facets of life. So indeed, I’ll say que sabrosa! – Let the journey begin!