I traveled through Atlanta on my way back home last week after another motivating trip to Nicaragua. By the time I passed through immigration and security lines and then made my way to the final concourse, I decided that I was pretty hungry. But airports are nothing if not packed with food vendors, so I spotted one that was less crowded than the familiar franchises. It was a small sandwich outlet, stuck off to the side of the main food court. As I approached the counter, a young woman emerged from behind the cash register and, wrapped in an enormous smile, offered me a boisterous welcome. “Good afternoon!” she bubbled, “I’m here to help the hungry traveler!”
I knew that this transaction would be anything but mundane. (There are not too many occasions when an airport vendor has shown any enthusiasm for life, let alone a desire to make mine a bit better.) I replied that help was precisely what I needed, and I gave her my order. With great energy and purpose, she made up the sandwich right in front of me, smiling and humming as she did so. And since we were the only people at the kiosk for the moment, she took the risk of asking me where I was headed and where I had been.
I’m not too sure what she might have thought about my destination of Iowa. But when I told her that I had spent the past week in Nicaragua, her eyebrows first arched straight up in surprise, then dropped low as she considered what kind of a place that might be. “Ooh,” she inquired, “what kind of a place is that?” The question was innocent enough, but the tone in her voice made it clear that she already possessed a less-than-favorable mental image of the place. “What were you doing there?”
And quite automatically, without conscious intent or sense of obligation, I spoke of Nicaragua, telling her of the work that Winds of Peace does, the immense beauty of the country, and the remarkable resilience and perseverance of the Nicaraguan people. I described the terribly difficult circumstances of many Nicaraguans, what they do to scratch out a living, how they aspire to improving their conditions in the same ways that we all do, although starting from a reality far different from those of us in the U.S. I even got around to backgrounding some of the causes for Nicaragua’s current status as the second-poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.
And then suddenly, I was aware of the intensity of my response to her questions. With some embarrassment, I brought myself back to the moment, at the sandwich bar, talking with a young woman about Nicaragua, rural cooperatives, people in need and the privilege of such opportunities. To a sandwich barista. I might have expected her to roll her eyes at my soliloquy to her questions, as I’m certain she never bargained for such an impassioned lesson on the topic of a small Central American country. But she listened with actual interest and an emphatic, “Wow!”
At that moment, I was Nicaraguan. Challenged by the frequent misconception about the country and its people, I mounted a defense of both. I defended the reality of Nicaragua like a sports fan touts the honor and integrity of a favorite team, without hesitation or inhibition, and true to a total identification with its best players. In this case, my connection is with the many remarkable individuals I’ve been privileged to meet over the past eight years; for that moment, they were my “team,” and I took great pride in speaking of them.
For perhaps the first time in her young life, the woman behind the counter heard something positive and uplifting in connection with a country she knows little about. She even thanked me for my brief travelogue, still with that big smile that invited my sharing in the first place.
I walked away from the counter strangely uplifted. For about three minutes, I was Nicaraguan, and it felt good….