Nicaragua is a country full of wonders for travelers. The natural beauty is never-ending, no matter how many times one might have the pleasure of taking it in. The history is both enchanting and haunting; it is a past of great cultural beauty, spirituality and perseverance. But the real asset of the country is its people, of course, and I feel remarkably blessed in having opportunities to come to know many Nicaraguans. I wish that I could know more of them. Especially the kids. As an adoptive parent myself, I have little difficulty envisioning any of the beautiful Nicaraguan children as my own.
So maybe it wasn’t that unusual for me to think long and hard about a boy I saw during my travels in January. I saw him, literally, on top of a bus. We were traveling along a road under construction, one that desperately needed the makeover. The depths of some ruts and holes of this road might have been more easily measured in feet rather than inches, and traveling it was a slow process even without the construction work. The bus wended its way directly in front of us, tossing its passengers up and down with each bounce from the road, stopping suddenly with each construction interruption, likely desperate in its search for a flat terrain. And standing atop the lurching yellow bus was this boy.
Whenever the construction traffic controller would halt us with red flag, the boy scampered down the back of the bus in order to chat with construction workers or others watching the process of road-building. It seemed as though he knew everyone along the route. Laughing and engaging in horseplay with apparently anyone who would reciprocate, he seemed the embodiment of that ebullient mixture of energy and exuberance that so often identifies 16 year-olds. As soon as the bus would start on its journey again, the boy would scamper back onto the back end and climb back up to the top, like a cowboy astride some mammoth, rocking bull. Rarely did he sit or even kneel. Nor hold on to anything to steady his ride. His message to all who could see was that he had conquered the bus to ride it his own way. With each new bounce from the road, I expected him to be catapulted off the top and onto the dirt below. But the ride never bested him, a fact which perhaps added to the width of his smile as we navigated the construction zone. Mark and I both commented on his risk, his perceived invulnerability, the danger of such an adrenalin rush as this, and we might even have added a shake of the head or two. It was dangerous, foolhardy and exciting to watch, all at the same time.
At the time, I wondered to myself whether the boy might represent a sort of Nicaraguan “everyman” of youth. I mean, here he was, clearly a youngster, deep in the countryside, headed who-knows-where on the bus, seemingly carefree and maybe even responsibility-free, out of school, perhaps with little or no work to demand his attention. I thought to myself that, whether my attributions were correct or not, here could be a profile of many boys of Nicaragua: someone full of life and liveliness, with untold and untapped potential, a kid who might conceivably hold the key to unlock decades of impoverishment and economic hurt, or perhaps discover the cure for some deadly disease. Watching him cavort on top of that bus, I imagined that he might well have possessed the courage and the vision to withstand bumpy rides of an important sort. But I also recognized that he would likely have few chances in his life to realize those possibilities, that like so many other uneducated or undereducated boys of Nicaragua, the potential would have few opportunities to bloom. Riding atop the bus could be the most exciting and notable event of an entire life. I mused this way for the better part of an hour, and long after we had bypassed the bus with the boy on top.
My impression of that boy has returned to my consciousness several times since January. Always, I begin by recalling his air of immortality, his utter belief in his ability to withstand each and every jolt that the bus encountered. Then I invariably reflect on the wasted potential which he embodies. But over time, I have shifted my understanding of what he represents to me, to that of someone more deeply representative of not only underprivileged Nicaraguan youth from the countryside, but of a broader base of humanity. I’ve come to see myself on top of that bus, along with every other person on the face of this earth. It turns out that we are all riding along that bumpy road, trying to maintain our balance in the face of ruts and holes while showing our contempt for its consequences. We live as though we can be immortal, never-ending, and in that mindset we miss the opportunities that are absolutely within our power to embrace. The missed opportunities of a young life are no different in content or importance than the ineffective stewardship of our own lives.
When we’re not careful, not thoughtful enough, myopic visions can lead us time and again to condescending conclusions about people we never even knew, while blinding us to the reality of our own condition. I find myself tickled at the memory of the boy on the bus, also hopeful that his destination is reached in safety and with full purpose. And it’s the same fervent hope and vision I have for all the rest of us, who sometimes aren’t even aware that the bus has left the station….