This morning I returned from tagging along on a trip to Nicaragua to see “Rotary in Action.” For the better part of the past year, there’s been a passion growing in my belly for the work the worldwide service organization does and I wanted a chance to fuel it. In the weeks leading up to the trip, I was alive with excitement and anxiety. Of course, my narrow worldview resulted in a romanticized and grandiose picture of our trip: we’d swoop in, bestow our donation upon the masses, and wander about sightseeing… part service trip, part vacation.
As we prepared to land in Managua, I leaned across the isle to Floyd, a fellow Rotarian with whom I was traveling, and said “Do you like it here?” He has visited several times to check on our project at Cenao, the ophthalmology hospital that we have equipped with diagnostic and surgical supplies. He paused, smiled and said, “It’s not a place you set out to visit.” I was taken aback by his answer. A world traveler I was not, having only once traveled out of the country. Before embarking, I had pictured the city and what I’d encounter there, but my visions could not have been further from reality…clouded by naiveté. What awaited me in the heart of Managua was not a city as we would define it in the states. There wasn’t a downtown or skyline, nor were there suburban neighborhoods nor sidewalks nor shops, but rather an impoverished population center long since devastated by wars, rebellions and natural disasters.
When the plane door opened, a gush of hot, humid air greeted us, and as we deplaned, we found ourselves amidst throngs of people inching slowly towards the terminal. Apparently, most international flights arrive at the same time in Managua and we were caught in the ensuing chaos. Somehow, amidst the noise and confusion, Noemi (pronounced No Amy), our translator, spotted us and helped us navigate our way through the small and crowded airport, which was completely absent of modern conveniences and technology. The baggage claim area was simply a hallway in which suitcases from incoming flights were piled high, and we waded through the mess to retrieve our bags. We breathed a sigh of relief when Dr. Walker, the retinal surgeon who introduced Anthony Wayne Rotary to Managua several years ago and who insisted I call him Jon, found his suitcase containing medical supplies for the hospital.
We had two more hurdles to jump before we were free to enter the country: immigration and a final baggage screening. I learned later that, if not for Noemi, the process would have been more painful. Jon explained that he had waited hours to be cleared on previous trips. But, Noemi led us quickly through the long lines and congested hallways to the VIP lane, which we moved through effortlessly after paying $10 to enter the country. We were met with only a minor delay when Jon’s bags had to be searched and the proper documentation for the medical equipment had to be presented to the customs agent. We were saved by the preparedness of Noemi, who had foreseen such problems and went to great lengths to secure the additional “proof” that the equipment was approved for importation. Chances are, without her help, we would have spent the day negotiating with agents to free the bag.
As we made our way towards the exit, Noemi warned us: “Hang onto your bags. Don’t let anyone touch them. They will take them.” Panic surged through my body. Was she serious? I looked to my travel companions for reassurance, but they only fueled my fear by nodding in my direction- conveying to me that the warning was necessary and I should remain alert. As we emerged into the oppressive heat outside, men offering to assist with our bags swarmed. Noemi shouted a few indistinguishable words in Spanish and waved them off, semi-successfully as they kept their distance but continued to follow us towards the truck.
“Here!” Noemi said handing us some rope, “Tie the suitcases down in the back. Make sure you loop the rope through the handles several times. If they aren’t secured, they will be stolen.” My mind reeled. This was her reality and now mine for the next few days.
With baggage successfully secured, we crammed into the truck, two in front and three in back to begin our trek to Cenao. We had arrived just moments ago in Nicaragua, but already, the overwhelming sense of how far from home I was engulfed me. And our journey had only just begun.