Managua, Nicaragua.Ten-thirty p.m.
I sit in a cab crawling through a dangerous city in a dangerous country traveling solo. Rubble litters the streets, years after natural disasters devastated the city. Vendors crowd the roads, reaching into the cab. It is stifling, and I will suffocate if I roll up the windows. I’ve wrapped the straps of my bag so tightly around my hand thatif someone grabs it, he’ll take a finger with it. I am so tense my shoulders ache.
Why so anxious now? I’ve hurdled greater fears to get this far. First, I’ve volunteered with Habitat for Humanity to build a house in Nicaragua, never having hit a nail with a hammer. I have no construction skills and am terrified of looking foolish to the team. But I want to ‘stretch myself,’ see if I’m up to the challenge. I have pushed that fear away.
Second, everyone at home has fixated on the civil war in Nicaragua—Sandinistas, Contras, violence, killing. Never mind that the war had been over for years. My friends weighed in: You’ll be kidnapped. Don’t walk around by yourself. Don’t talk politics. Avoid Managua. Forget Nicaragua and go someplace safer.
Third, tomorrow I will travel alone to an isolated village, live with a local family who speak no English, and study in a language immersion. More comments: I can’t believe you’ll live there alone with the locals. What if the family steals your stuff? What if the house is filthy? Imagine how nasty the bathroom will be. No one speaks a word of English, and what if your Spanish isn’t good enough to communicate?
If I were a twenty-year-old college student no one would make these comments. I am, however, fifty-six years old, and no one expects this of someone my age. No one, that is, but me.
How did I get to this place—not this country— but this place in my life? My father died, my mother started fast down the slippery slope of dementia, my only child had gone off to college, my career of thirty years in public education was morphing beneath me, and retirement loomed. What was I going to do with the rest of my life? One day in the mail I received an unsolicited copy of Habitat World, read an article on global builds, and checked out the website. I had been an avid traveler all my life, had done a volunteer gig in China the summer before, and had just completed two years of a new language, Spanish, and wanted to use it.
At a stoplight in Managua, the taxi driver sees the hands reaching in, notices my anxiety. He says, “Está bien, Señora. Está bien. These people are poor, just making a living to support their families. They are good people. You are safe.”
I gulped, and to this day can feel that knot of fear slide down my throat and dissipate.
Nicaragua was more than a decade ago. I have volunteered on five continents, often traveling on my own. I have completed thirteen international Habitat builds, studied in seven language schools, and lived with local families who spoke not a word of English. I have taken a sleeper train across China and a cargo freighter to Patagonia. I have watched the sun set over the Gobi desert and drop behind clouds on the Island of the Moon in the Andes. I have slept with giant cockroaches in Madagascar and communed with the gods at Angkor Wat.
I have learned too many times to count that the taxi driver in Managua was right. People the world over are good. I am safe. And most important of all, I have learned that age is merely a number, and I have never been good at math.