More difficult than the work, however, was fitting in. This essay discusses how I finally managed to do that.
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I am 5’9”, blond, and have blue eyes. I could not look more different than Nicaraguans. The average Nicaraguan woman is 5’2”, brunette, and somewhat rotund from the deep-fried foods that are consumed with abandon. The average Nicaraguan man can’t be taller than 5’5”!
During my four month stay in Nicaragua, I could not have become more painfully aware of these simple physical differences. However, I found that the barrier to “fitting in” wasn’t the presence of the physical differences, it was my attitude towards them. I had to accept that I was different and acknowledge that I would never be able to camouflage myself. Only then was I able to feel and act like I really belonged.
The first few days in
After my vision cleared and I learned how to breathe, it became evident exactly how different I appeared. The people of
Everywhere I went, people pointed and commented. More than once, children poked or slapped any part of my body that they could reach, to see if the “doll” was real. With all of these constant reminders, how could I help but concentrate on how different I was than “those people”?
Spending time with Aimee, a tall, blond Peace Corps volunteer who had been living in
Looking back on my trip, I realize that this was the turning point. After I accepted my physical differences, I made a few Nicaraguan friends. More than one told me, “You’re different than the other gringos. You speak, you listen, and you understand.” We talked about music, parents, favorite foods, best friends, and what exactly the mayor was thinking when he proposed dumping the city’s trash in the nearby volcanic crater.
I will never take for granted how much easier life is when you physically fit in. I will never forget that in order become part of a culture different than your own, you must acknowledge that you are a fish and everyone else a mammal.
This is not exclusionary, pessimistic, or close-minded.
Robert Reich, who at 4’9” is one of the shortest politicians out there, starts every speech with a joke about his height. By acknowledging his physical difference, he makes it possible for everyone to stop concentrating on his stature and start concentrating on what he has to say.
Once you get the elephant in the room out of the way, it is possible to start forging friendships, really learning what it’s like to live within the new culture, and creating an experience that you will never forget.
Nora, Aimee (the Peace Corps volunteer) and two of her friends at a park in Granada. The photo is a scanned in negative because back in 2003 I didn't have a digital camera.
Photos courtesy of Casey.