Making Sense of Wealth and Poverty

After the wonderful time spent with my fellow volunteers at a beach-side resort receiving information about the remaining months of our service and what the transition back into the US would look like, I decided to stay an extra day to reflect on the end of my service and relax for a while. I took a taxi to the town about 5 minutes away to look for an inexpensive hostel to stay at. I wasn’t having much luck, and I only had 250 cordobas in cash with me (about 10 dollars, 24 cords=$1). I hopped on a bicycle taxi with a 16-year-old driver named Vladimir (he hadn’t heard of Putin) and he took me to a couple of places he thought might be cheaper. One was closed and the other was asking $40 per night, so he said that he had a friend who was caring for a beach house that could rent me a room for a good price. I was feeling slightly adventurous, and I liked the kid, so I said sure.

He took me through the quiet, pretty streets of the beach-side town and to the entry of a walled area with a small house in the middle and access to the beach. He called out to his friend and Oscar came out to meet me. He smiled quickly and shook my hand, explaining that they had an extra room that he makes available for people who want to rent one because the owner hardly ever comes from Managua to stay there. We decided that 300 cordobas was a fair price for the night, and that I could go to the ATM at the Barcelo resort about three kilometers away to take out some more cash. Oscar also owns a bicycle taxi, so he offered to pedal me out there for a total of 60 cordobas. Money has been tight this last month, however, and 300 cords was more than I had planned on spending already, so I told him that I didn’t mind walking.

I asked his wife for directions after she cooked me lunch (70 cords) and soon found the highway that she had described that would take me to the entrance. As I walked through the neighborhood I waved and said hi to a few of the families in their yards, chopping wood or boiling beans and rice over smoky stoves. It had rained two days earlier, so the dirt roads were pretty muddy, but it was a very pretty, quiet little area. After about 10 minutes I started seeing some walled compounds with fancy houses and tall water towers behind razor wire. Soon the road met the ocean and I hear the slow, booming waves coming from the bottom of a 30-foot dropoff. I almost took a bicycle taxi who offered to take me the rest of the way for 20 cords, but I realized that I had come that far already and 20 isn’t much less than the 30 that Oscar had offered.

I could see a skinny, two-story house next to the road ahead and a line of Nicaraguan flags at the entrance to the resort, but what really took me by surprise was when I glanced to the right and saw an airstrip stretching off into the distance. The resort had its own runway.

What the heck kind of place was this?

I kept walking, past the entry tower, and soon saw a small open parking space with two outlets and two separate guard stations. I walked up to one of them, greeted the young uniformed woman working there, and asked where the ATM was. She said that they charge a 100 cord fee for using the ATM and that I could follow one of the roads straight until I arrived there. She must have seen my face fall as she told me about the fee, because she asked quickly ‘Didn’t they tell you that?’ No, I replied with a sigh, they hadn’t. There was nothing for it, however, and I pushed onward.

After the guard station the road curved through beautifully kept lawns with trees and manicured bushes and palm trees lining both sides. I couldn’t believe how pristine the grounds were, and there still wasn’t a single hotel building in sight. After a couple of minutes I came across a sign indicating the direction of about 10 different places:

‘Reception, Pool, Casino, Convention Center, Restaurant, Bar, Staff Only, Shopping Center’

I just shook my head and kept going in the direction of the reception. Every so often a flashy car or taxi would pass by me, but I felt like that scene in Jurassic Park when the cars on the tracks run out of energy or something and they have to walk through the abandoned theme park. As I came around another bend and saw an enormous parking lot I saw the roundabout that led up to the reception center and felt as if I were walking onto a movie set. I wondered if these people standing around, laughing and with colorful drinks in their hands, were just extras. There were fountains and the wide, luscious lobby was open in the front. There were lots of people waiting in line to check in, so I just wandered over to the nearest informational sign and saw that the bank was in the convention center and that the convention center was just around the corner. I wandered over there and, seeing that there didn’t seem to be anyone paying me any attention, withdrew money and wandered back to reception. I decided to have a look around the grounds before I left, or at least until someone told me to leave. When I walked past reception I saw some of the rooms and saw that the building was on a hill and that the land drops away in back to reveal a chain of pools, bars, and palm trees behind.

I walked down the stairs and started walking among the people there, almost all of them seemed to be Nicaraguan, or at least were all speaking Spanish, and seemed to be all ages. There were strong-looking lifeguards watching over the pools, which were all connected to each other and filled with the clearest, crisp blue water I have ever seen. There was an island bar in the middle of one and a chess set on the floor with pieces the size of toddlers, the beginning of a game played out and abandoned. I kept walking, working my way to the ocean, and saw paths lined with green bushes, palms, flowers, and dirt meticulously kept free of fallen leaves or trash. I could see the tracks left by rakes used to tidy up the space between carefully planted foliage.

The paths intersected roads with signs indicating where the shuttles would pick you up to take you to another part of the resort. As I heard the rumble of the ocean growing stronger I came across a massive dining area about half-filled with families and couples eating. Nobody took a second look at me, maybe because I still had the wristband from the hotel we had stayed at previously on my wrist. I finally made it down to the beach and walked out on to the sand, passing a line of lawn chairs stretching a hundred meters. The beach was picture-perfect. Powerful waves warned against casual swimming, and indeed only two young people were in the water at all. Only one other lone figure was sitting in the sand. I stood there, wondering what world I had stumbled into.

It’s not that I resented the people or the resort for being so wealthy and ostentatious. I could actually sense in myself a desire to take Amanda or my parents there on a vacation, if we could save up the money for it. It was a beautiful place where people could forget the imperfections of the world, the messiness, the discomforts, and have even the dirt between the bushes raked to conformity. Yet it made me feel uneasy. Something didn’t feel quite right, and I supposed that it was the sharp contrast with the community that I had just come from. Families chopping wood for their cooking fires, water pooling in the dirt roads and breeding mosquitoes, electrical wires splintering overhead in a dozen directions, and no resources but the roof over their heads and the plastic chairs in their house.

It occurred to me that these two places could not inhabit the same mental frame of reference simultaneously. If I had come from the US, this resort would seem tropical and beautiful and luxurious, sure, but not grotesque in its opulence. If someone from the resort were to be plopped in the village nearby they would be appalled to see the animals wandering among the children, the emaciated dogs in the streets, the (for them) undrinkable water and thick smoke that permeates the kitchens. They would likely feel supremely uncomfortable, saddened, or angered. I doubt that human minds and cultures are equipped to conceptualize the kinds of disparities in material conditions that are a hallmark of an modern, globalized world. We don’t know how to make sense of these differences and deep parts of our brains register dissonance or injustice or even disgust when they are brought into such sharp relief. I think that this will be part of the challenge of re-integrating in the US, but I value the stretching that my frames of reference have undergone and how I have acquired multiple reference points that I can use to try to piece together the disparate lives of people on this planet.

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3 responses to this post.

  1. Thanks for the post giving your impressions while bridging the two worlds. Sometimes I have felt the same feelings in the US, but with comparisons that aren’t quite so stark. We have some of the same discordant perspectives here even in Adams County going from the shacks in, say, Big Flats for example and the condos and bar/restaurants at Northern Bay. Did you ever go with Mom to Gertie’s house?

    Dad

    Reply

  2. Great post! Your description of the day sucked me in and carried me along–would he find a place to stay? Would he be safe? Would he get to the resort? Find the ATM? What else would he find? Great description of the resort. (I think I saw the same place…in Senegal.)

    Reply

  3. I have to agree with your dad that unfortunately, it’s not just here where the blatant disparities between the lives of the very rich and the lives of the very poor are so noticeably harsh. However, after living here for two years, I have really come to analyze my own opinion about what is excessive and what’s just enough. It’s something I’m sure we’ll all struggle with as we head “home” into that far away world of materialism and rampant capitalism. I just hope we all remember how little we’ve gotten by on here, while having some of the richest experiences of our lives.

    Great post by the way! Your descriptions were so vivid and reminded me how much beauty we are really living in and among here in our own little corners of Nicaragua! =)

    Reply

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