Bold, red font

I was a few years older than both of them- old enough that the words ‘El Salvador’ and ‘Nicaragua’ evoked a deep-gut sense of danger and violence.  I vaguely remembered a news story of nuns and priests being killed, and there’s a hazy memory of men in khaki uniforms with machine guns.  Maybe that’s why, when I devoured guidebooks before we departed on our ten day bus trip, the travel warnings that were written in bold, red type stood out to me.  The ‘places to go’ and ‘things to see’ were intriguing, but it was the red warnings that I really paid attention to.  Of course, like in all places, you shouldn’t walk alone down dark alleys.  But the more I read about Central America, the more it seemed like we were heading into one really big, dark alley.

I had considered myself a seasoned traveler, having spent the previous six years zig-zagging my way through almost all fifty states.  And while sometimes I worried whether I had enough money to get to my next far-flung job location or worried that a wheel on my van would fall off and literally go rolling down the road (again), I had never thought too much about my personal safety.  This road trip was going to be completely different and somehow I just knew that I had to go.

Our first stop on the trip was Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras. This strange-named place either meant “in the hills of silver” or “in the home of sharp stones”, depending on whose linguistic and historical interpretation you read.  I read both, and neither made sense to me.  We arrived well into the dark of night at a cement bus station surrounded on all sides by an eight foot wall of rusty metal bars; reminiscent of a cage.  I found it odd that we were in the capital of the nation, but there were no street lights.  As we peered out into the blackness, we could see that the bars were not meant to keep us in, but to keep everyone else out.  Shirtless, wide-eyed men stood outside the perimeter, gripping the fence, and glaring in at the new arrivals.  At this stop, it was just the three of us. We grabbed our backpacks, secured them tightly onto ourselves, exited the cement building toward the gate, and emerged.

Immediately, we were swarmed by the men, each yelling at us, yanking our arms to take us to a “very nice hotel”.  We had memorized the map in our guidebook and headed swiftly with feigned confidence to our “hospedaje”- a home that offers rooms for rent.  It was only about a quarter of a mile away from the bus station, but my heart raced like we were in a marathon.  The men refused to leave our side no matter how many times we said “no.”  One pointed at my water bottle.  I offered him some, casually, as if I wasn’t petrified.  He took it and didn’t give it back; I did not protest.

We finally arrived at a tall wall of cement, topped with embedded jagged glass and saw the hand-painted sign that read ‘Hospedaje’.  After passing in through the gate, we arrived at the door, which was also barred, and waited for our host.  The shirtless men remained behind the glass-topped barricade.  She led us through two more solid doors to our room:  three twin beds, one lamp, and a small window near the ceiling, which was sealed shut. I was relieved to have arrived, relieved to be residing deep within bars and cement, relieved that we were safe.

Quickly, we got used to either eating dinner well before sunset, so we could walk home in daylight, or not eating dinner at all.  We followed all the other red-type travel warnings as well: we didn’t wear jewelry or nice clothing, we didn’t wear any army or camouflage colors, we strapped our passports to our bodies under our clothes, and we carried only small bills and change in our pockets.  I used a small black plastic bag as a “purse” and hid my camera in it.  We avoided being flashy and visible.  I mostly avoided eye contact.  But our pale skin and wide eyes must have given us away because we were often approached.  I rehearsed a sharp, determined “no.” and repeated it until it was second nature.

We spent our daylight hours visiting town squares with ornate old churches and museums that had seen better days.  I took pictures of the empty, crumbling buildings and wondered what had happened.  What did this mean about the people’s faith and the people’s history?  They were just relics of something that might have been, but wasn’t anymore.  We rode dilapidated buses around town along with live chickens and women with baskets of baked goods on their heads.  On one of these bus rides, a few days into the trip, probably in Nicaragua or Guatemala, I can’t remember which, I was sitting with my nose pressed against the window, staring out at the rubble on the other side of the foggy glass.  What was I doing here?   I was hot and uncomfortable, breathing exhaust fumes and waiting for another day of taking pictures of old buildings.  Then I felt a tap on my foot.

I looked down and saw a cupped hand, stretched up from the floor of the bus.  And then I saw his eyes; bulging and desperate.  He made a noise, not really words, but I understood what he meant.  The red warnings flashed into my head: do not give money to beggars.  So I shook my head quickly and looked away, more comfortable to look at a devastating sadness out of a window than the one at my feet.  From the corner of my eye, I could see him moving away from me.  He was crawling on his forearms down the center aisle of the bus, his legs wasted and limp, dragging behind him.  It was difficult to tell whether he was a man or just a boy because his body was so emaciated and dwarfed with sickness and hunger.  I watched as he tapped the feet of the other passengers, all locals, all poorer than anyone I had ever known.  And they each bent over toward him, touched him, and placed coins into his cupped hand.

I was struck by their kindness and immediately I was struck by the harsh reality of my own coldness.  Even as I write these words today, I shudder.  His eyes still haunt me.  I am ashamed that I was so insulated by fear that I did not give change to a starving man.  I did not deserve to be taking pictures of churches.

I realized then that I had been robbed- not by the people here, but by the travel warnings that I had allowed to cloud my experience.  I had lost days of my life staring through windows and not actually looking at anyone.  And for as much as I thought I knew about the world, I had never seen it as acutely as I did that day on the bus.  Nor had I ever had to come face-to-face with the callousness that could exist inside of me.  It was not just fear; it was privilege.  That man on the bus gave me more insight than any guidebook could have delivered.

That is the day I stopped taking pictures of abandoned churches.  I started taking pictures of graffiti and people and flowers.  I bought watermelon slices from the woman who carried them on her head.  I tried to speak Spanish to the people who approached me, which often made them laugh.  I made eye contact.  And I was unharmed.  I realized that you do not have to abandon your humanity to be safe.  I wished the guidebooks had written that in bold, red font for me to read.

I, of course, still never walk alone down dark alleys, but from that day on, travel became a way to understand myself and the world better, even when the lessons came through uncomfortable means.  Travel is not just about what you see, but how you look at it.  Sometimes you see the sharp stones.  Sometimes, however, you see hills of silver.

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