When I returned about a month ago from spending some time in the second poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, I was emotionally drained. I had only spent a little over a week in Nicaragua, but that experience was deeply affecting. I felt a measure of sadness about the poverty I witnessed, along with a deep affection for the people I spent time with. I spent the first few days after my return looking up Nicaraguan charities that I could give money to. I just wanted to help more, to make more of a difference.
After a while, of course, as the everyday, mundane details of life here in the US begin to occupy my mind, I slowly but inevitably returned to something akin to my pre-trip emotional stasis. I am not sure if that is a good thing or a bad thing.
The thing about short-term voluntourism trips is that one’s contribution tends to be rather limited. We worked on a project that was mostly managed by professional masons. We did help in ways whatever that we could–hauling bricks, helping with the laying of bricks–but a lot of the serious work was done by professionals who were hired for the project.
In some ways, our assistance was more about emotional support and making connections. Some of my most memorable moments include the conversations I had with the people of the village. For example, there were the brother and sister, ages seven and nine, who seemed tickled to death to converse with strange foreigners from a land far away. They knew their own ages but not their birthdays–a jarring bit of cultural shock as I came to learn that in poor communities there, people often didn’t know the day they were born.
There was Fabio, the mason who three of us volunteers worked with over a few days, who would address Phil, a fellow voluntourist, as “Fili”. There was Ofilio, an older man with a leathery tan who wore shoes with holes in them, but managed to dress up a little more for the final fiesta before we parted. Ofilio asked me at that fiesta if my camera was expensive. It pained me and embarrassed me to realize that I was holding in my hand a device that would cost most of those people several months’ salary.
I was as affected by the poverty these people lived in, with unsanitary water and in many cases without even an outhouse, as I was moved by the gentle and kind spirit they exhibited.
Spending time, even a short period of time, in a developing country in the tropics is a trying experience that affects you in significant ways. The time has passed now since I came back, and I am settling into my routine as a more privileged citizen of a developed country. Of course, even in the US, privileges and wealth are not equitably distributed, and in many ways the inequality here is getting worse. Poverty is a problem that plagues all present and past human societies, and it is one that should not exist if we had the will power to address it.
I said earlier that I am not sure if it is a good thing or a bad thing that I settled back into my routine. On the one hand, I think it is pretty hard to go on perpetually in the sort of emotionally affected state that I was in when I came back. Life does go on, after all. On the other hand, maybe we who are more privileged should be a little more plagued by the suffering of others, maybe we need not to compartmentalize things so much, and maybe we need to be prodded and inspired to do more than we do.