Gringos in a Van

Excerpted from a much longer work that may yet see the light of day:

Granada street

DECEMBER 2009 – After retrieving my bag and smiling my way uncomprehendingly through customs (I was amused to see that the airport police were sponsored by a cell phone company and all sported large red ‘Claro’ logos on their backs), I boarded a shuttle to Granada, accompanied by an American couple close to my own age. They were typical college kids: blond-haired, ivory-white. The guy wore a giant backpack with a Nalgene bottle peeking out of a side pocket. Leaving Managua they were a such a happy couple, fresh-faced and excited to be in a foreign country. By the time we got to Granada 20 minutes later, their relationship was in ruins.

The argument started when the guy kept calling the Nicaraguan countryside ‘primitive.’ His girlfriend took offense, maybe because that’s an ignorant thing to say about a country when you’ve been there a grand total of half an hour, but the issue ran deeper than that. She wanted him to stop calling her father ‘Crazy Pete.’ He countered that if she wanted him to stop calling her father ‘Crazy Pete,’ she should stop calling his friend Kevin a ‘douche bag.’ She responded that Kevin was a douche bag, and so were most of his other friends.

It was hardly 6PM and the sun was already setting. The pungent smell of woodsmoke was almost overpowering, and the cones of distant volcanoes emerged from the haze, only to disappear again. It was, somehow, not at all what I had expected.

“Be quiet!” the girl whispered at the top of her lungs. “The guy’s going to hear, is that what you want?” I was the only other passenger, so I assume she was talking about me. She could have been referring to the man behind the wheel, but she struck me—perhaps unfairly—as the type who wouldn’t necessarily realize that there was someone driving the van.

It wasn’t long before the silent treatment began. It was mutual, and it was brutal. Whatever love they had once shared was gone forever. And all because of some douche bag named Kevin. That son of a bitch. As for Crazy Pete, he wasn’t crazy so much as eccentric, like the time he tried to barbecue a whole pig and nearly burned the house down. His idiosyncrasies were endearing, not like the deeply disturbing habits of the mentally ill. This girl loved her father, and her boyfriend should be able to see that.

Outside the van, a man sitting with a goat in front of what might loosely be defined as a ‘home’ utterly failed to note the significance of what was happening inside the passing vehicle.

If pressed on who was the victim in this argument, I would have to side with Nicaragua. In days gone by, the Nicaragüenses would have toiled under the thumb of Somoza, or been exploited by the fruit and textile companies. Instead, times being what they are, they’re forced to put up with people like the two sitting beside me—and, of course, me. In a world before the almighty tourism dollar, we would have been confined mostly to large American universities, where we could breed among our own kind without spoiling the world for everyone else.

Granada is a popular destination for gringo expats from Europe and the States, and there are a whole host of them living here. It’s cheaper than Costa Rica and more developed and stable (for now) than Honduras or El Salvador. The gringos are the ones who run the hotels and the restaurants and so, in a cruel twist of globalism, they are the ones who wind up with all the tourism dollars, all the while bemoaning the exploitation that Nicaraguans have suffered in the past at the hands of foreign economic and political interests. They of course do a public service to the impoverished people in the city by hiring them as fry cooks and housekeepers. If they’re really generous, they might donate a portion of their income to an understaffed clinic or an overcrowded school.

This is the real tragedy of a tourism economy. On one level, yes, Granada has all the makings of a tropical paradise with a quaint local charm. On another level, though, the introduction of a tourist-class supplants the very quaint local charm that so many people have come in search of. If things continue as they have, it won’t be long until a sea of impoverished barrios form a ring around a central cluster of hotels and bars and restaurants for the affluent traveler, and people like my friends from the shuttle van will never have to venture beyond the thin ribbon of hostels that form the border dividing “charming Central American travel experience” from “homeless glue-sniffing eight-year-olds.” Private security firms will be hired by the chamber of commerce to keep beggars out of the central plaza. The street vendors will be licensed, and all their wares will be priced in U.S. dollars. It will be marvelous.

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