When I returned from my first visit to Nicaragua, I connected with all my new friends via facebook. Facebook is a strong networking tool, and I like to use it as a way to keep in touch with interesting people I encounter in my travels in the hopes that we’ll connect again in the future. So there I was, back in Austin, posting info about all the fun yoga things that happen in Austin. Whoo, and there are a lot! Austin is a city that supports a strong and healthy yoga community.
One day, I received a short note from the owner of the yoga studio I’d visited here in Nicaragua mentioning that I made him wish he were in the States, what with all the fun yoga happenings occurring in Austin. I responded that my desire was to return to Nicaragua and explore the side of life available here. That’s when he made an offer I couldn’t refuse. He said that he’d like somebody to help manage the studio for about a month while he went on vacation the following May.
When I read those words and considered what was being offered, I felt in my heart that it was the next step on my journey. I looked at my life – filled with friends, music, and yoga – and thought “if not now, then when?”
I feel that so often in life we are confronted with “game changers.” Choices that have the ability to transform what we know about the world and what we know about ourselves. It’s sometimes hard to take life up on what it’s offering. Many of these choices force us to confront an edge. In rising to meet this edge, we’re often stepping beyond our comfort zone. I believe that it’s in these moments, as we begin to find discomfort, that the real learning of life’s lessons can take place.
It wasn’t until I left the country that I realized what I DON’T need to get by. I don’t need a car, I don’t need air conditioning, I don’t need my two closets worth of clothes and shoes, and I don’t need status. Inevitably, this exploration of what I do and do not need on the material level extended to the spiritual level. What is left when you begin to peel away the layers? When you begin to take away the identity that you’ve established in your home town or city and become simply another traveler? Simply another human being walking this earth and finding the way. Finding A way?
For me, it’s put me more in touch with what we all have in common. Rich or poor, living in the opulence of the US or the barrios of Nicaragua, we are all faced with the same problems in life. We all have stress and must find ways to deal with it. We all must find ways to connect and relate to the people around us – to family, friends, acquaintances, perceived enemies. We all must search for personal identity within the culture we find ourselves, and we must reconcile our personal identity with our cultural and historical identities.
I’ve found travel to be a fast path to understanding more about what kinds of cultural and historical identities I carry with me. I remember reading an article on white privilege in my early college or late high school years, and it was one of the first times I was confronted with the concept that I carried all these assumptions and privileges with me due to my skin color and status of a US citizen. Reading that article began to open my mind to exploring those concepts, and in as my consciousness grew, I became more aware of the inequalities that surround us and that can be unconsciously utilized by those who are not aware.
This small seed of awareness had been growing throughout my adult life, but it really blossomed from an awareness to a gut-wrenching knowing through my travel. For example, I had no idea of how easy travel is for those with a US passport versus those with passports from other countries. People here in Nicaragua must apply for a VISA to visit another country. That part is not so out of the ordinary, but in order to be granted that VISA, they must have a letter of invitation from somebody who is not a family member inviting them to visit. Further, in order to be granted that VISA, they must prove that they own their own car or home, have a job, and have a certain amount of money in the bank – the amount of money differs depending on which country they plan to visit. The cost to apply for a VISA and then to pay for that VISA are exorbitant given the local salary – often the equivalent of one, two or three months income at the local level. When I wish to travel, I simply look up visa fees, buy my plane ticket, and go. Aah the freedom!
I witnessed another example of class privilege this morning as I sat and sipped coffee at a cafe here in Granada. A Nicaraguan woman, her daughter and young son stopped in to use the bathroom. They were turned away by the staff because they weren’t customers. This policy is not unheard of, but it is something that I manage to sidestep with my assumptions of service – and I get away with these assumptions very much because of my appearance as an extranjera. Were I to need to the services in an establishment, I would simply walk in and begin looking for those services. Chances are, I would not be questioned for my presence.
These assumptions and privileges are not something that every extranjera is aware of. The rest of the world can clearly see them. It’s why locals look to the extranjeras for handouts, why the out-of-towners are allowed to flout the rules of polite society without consequence. Giving up these rights is a tougher challenge, and perhaps not something that can be done cleanly and completely. I can conduct myself in a way that supports local culture and does not demand treatment different due to my status or expectations, but I always have an out. I’ve got the US citizenship and passport in my back pocket, and I can leave when I wish. As much time as I spend exploring and knowing this culture and living on the level of the locals, I still have an option that other people don’t have to leave and search for resources elsewhere.
Circling back to the idea of relinquishing identity, then, we first need to cultivate an awareness of what identities we carry. The privilege-identity that I’ve described is a collective mantel worn by many individuals in more developed countries. Beyond these collective identities, we each carry more personal identities. And beneath this heavy shroud of collective, individual, and historical identities lie our pure spirits shining through. As we practice awareness through meditation and through meeting life with an open and humble heart, we’re able to disentangle our identification with these labels. As we untangle these heavy knots, we’re able to get access to a universal heart that beats within us all. In that knowing, in that feeling, grows compassion and understanding. As we understand our own hearts and our own struggles, we are able to understand the hearts and struggles of all people, whether those people live in the barrios of an undeveloped nation or in the wealth and convenience of the developed world.