“The line to see Santa stretched all the way to Terra Haute, and I was at the end of it.”
This famous line from A Christmas Story rang through my head, as I waited in the far back of customs in Managua, Nicaragua. I peered around the baby strollers, hot pink luggage, and a man with a missionary shirt on and anxiously awaited my passport stamp – and my admission to the country I knew little about. Expecting a relatively easy passage from the airplane to our luggage, I was surprised at the crowded room, made to look even more compact with its low ceilings and even lower lighting.
Like Ralphie, I waited what seemed like ages to get to the head of the line. Once I got my luggage (I was carrying two rolling suitcases, a purse, a laptop and a 10 foot flagpole) I took a second to take it all in. And I felt…well, like I was in a zoo. Armed guards patrolled the doors of the airport, faces peered into the baggage claim area, and hands grappled at the clear airport walls, an obvious indicator of the pandemonium we were about to enter. There were hoots for taxis, grumblings of late arrivals, and tons and tons of little Nicaraguan children trying to sell roses made from palm tree leaves.
When I made it outside, careful to stick with the other members of my Wake Forest group, I watched one particular child for a while and was impressed at how he worked the crowd.
Step 1: Make your presence known.
Step 2: Make your sadness known.
Step 3: Hang around – make eye contact – even brush your hand along an arm.
Step 4: Be patient.
Step 5: You’ve made a sale.
Eventually half of our group caved. I did not. Later, we would learn that this type of “entrepreneurial spirit” is quite normal, albeit awkward to encounter. Our tour guides tell us not to pay them, because it only reinforces their behavior.
Riding from the airport to our hotel was filled with bright neon signs and dark dingy bars. We passed a few groups of people huddled around make-shift campfires and tons of bars with Wal-mart style white plastic chairs. There were all kinds of little shops, almost shanty towns, with barred windows selling who knows what. Mostly junk food, I would imagine.
And then, we got to our hotel, which had a fountain, a wonderful overhang entrance and potted plants. A doorman greeted us, a receptionist with impeccable English told me about the continental breakfast (they serve smoked salmon), and a bellhop took ALL my bags… and the flagpole to my room. I have a mini bar, a robe, and wireless. Am I back home?
Tomorrow starts off at a civilized hour – 9:45. (Breakfast before). We’re getting a tour of Managua, dining at a local favorite, and then heading to a few non-profits that Wake students are working with. One is a soap-making factory and another is NicaHOPE – an organization dedicated to getting children in school and providing them with after school activities. Then we’re off to a local market and a dinner hosted by President Hatch at a restaurant called Los Rancheos.
I can’t believe I’m actually here.