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Sunbathing in Haiti, Surfing in Nicaragua

Nicaraguan-flag-lake-and-volcanoesIt was the summer of 2010 – one of my all-time favorite travel memories. A small rowboat carried me and my friend to a pristine beach cove, as beautiful as any postcard from a tropical paradise anywhere in the world. We had the entire palm-lined shore to ourselves, to sunbathe, look for shells, and swim in calm tepid water. At some point a man with a sack of fresh mangoes rowed up to the cove and sold some to us for about ten cents each, then rowed along to his next stop. The day couldn’t have been more perfect after an exhausting week of hard work and heartbreak. I should mention, we were in Haiti, six months after the devastating earthquake of 2010.

The earthquake measured 7 on the Richter scale and devastated a country already described as the poorest in our hemisphere. News cycles broadcast collapsed buildings, rescue efforts, then the raising of tent camps and influx of donations. Reporters spouted numbers on who promised how much aid money, which countries responded most honorably, and which NGOs warranted donations.

I wanted to see Haiti with my own eyes once travel re-opened for regular folks like me, as opposed to journalists and medical teams. Amy Bracken, a long-time reporter and radio producer specializing in Haiti, connected us with locals and provided tips for our potentially ill-conceived venture. The destruction proved worse and farther-reaching than I’d ever imagined, but I documented it with photos, and learned about Haiti from Haitians themselves. We ended up helping a group of locals clear the rubble of their collapsed three-story church by hand. The trip moved and changed me; the beach retreat was a bonus. The best (albeit minor) thing we did to “help” Haiti was to visit, learn, and put some tourist dollars into the local economy.

Flashback to spring of 2006 – another favorite travel memory. We lounged on hammocks surrounded by flowers all colors of the rainbow, watching exotic butterflies flutter by. It seemed as though each took its turn hovering over us, like a supermodel on a runway, then darted away making room for the next in line. My friend and I walked to the beach on a calm lake, and again, had the place to ourselves, aside from three horses who meandered down to sip some fresh lake water, then sleep on the sand. This happened on Ometepe Island, Nicaragua.

After that trip I returned to Nicaragua year after year, and started contemplating retiring there some day. I led groups of students to work on humanitarian projects such as building water filters, and helping out on a bookmobile. In-between work assignments we made excursions to some of the best surfing beaches in the Americas and zip-lining courses among howler monkeys, distributing our fair share of currency among the local businesses. I made connections with U.S.-based non-profits: the Newton/San Juan del Sur Sister City Project (on whose board I served for a decade), and the Hester Hodgdon Libraries for All Foundation, which partnered with my library-school alma mater, Simmons College. The true heroes I grew to know and admire were local leaders – the Nicaraguan organizers and activists who ran programs bettering their own communities, who called the shots and whose direction we followed.

During those years I fielded many calls by concerned parents of students, reluctant to allow their children to travel to a “war-torn” “third world” country. Understandably, they associated Nicaragua with the Iran-Contra scandal, the war between the Sandinistas and Reagan-backed Contras, Ollie North, and the Cold War threat of a Latin American revolution too close to home. Truth be told, we met dozens of locals who lived through those dark days and shared stories from their own memories, unfiltered by the news media, and students learned more than they could have from textbooks. When my own family expressed concerns over my choice of a second home, I assured them I felt safer on the Nicaraguan coast than at home in Boston, where I lived at the time amid the dangers of gang violence, break-ins and muggings.

Haiti and Nicaragua memories keep coming back to me lately as I anticipate two upcoming programs at the library. Haiti: Then and Now will feature journalist Amy Bracken, to discuss the country before the earthquake, in its immediate aftermath, and the state of things today. Nicaragua: Then and Now will include Dr. David Gullette, President of the Newton/San Juan del Sur Sister City Project, who has gone to Nicaragua every year since 1988, and offers expertise on the country’s history from the Sandinista revolution through the present day, including over 300 recent deaths of protesters. I plan to join both presenters to chime in as a tourist to these unlikely locales, and to advocate for the transformative experience of setting fear and assumptions aside to travel “off the beaten path.”

To learn more about Haiti and Nicaragua, please attend the following programs, or enjoy these recommendations:

Haiti: Then and Now, Morrill Memorial Library, March 11, 2019, 6:30-7:30 pm

Nicaragua: Then and Now, Morrill Memorial Library, April 22, 2019, 6:30-7:30 pm

The Country Under My Skin: A Memoir of Love and War, by Giaconda Belli

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, (Chapter 11), by Jared Diamond

John Pilger’s film, Nicaragua: A Nation’s Right to Survive

The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster, by Jonathan Katz

Lydia Sampson is the Technical Services Department Head at the Morrill Memorial Library in Norwood, MA. Look for her article in the March 7, 2019 issue of the Norwood Transcript.


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