Sunday, March 05, 2006

My First Love

Many of you know my first love and may not even know it. He's an elusive partner, often requiring high maintenance and certainly a lot of planning any time you wanted to do something with him. His name? Travel. I discovered traveling early in life, and have luckily been able to do my share of it so far. A few of my trips stand out more than others:

Going to Mexico when I was 15 with my best friend's family and 5 other friends. It was my best friend's quince, and we were ALL treated like princesses. That was only part of it, though. Going to Mexico was my first time in Latin America, and I truly fell in love with the cultures and attitudes within it. I drank in the history of Teotihuacan, the sights of Xochimilco, and, unfortunately, the odors of the subways in Mexico City. I'll never forget that week. My first foray into Latin America shielded me from its negative aspects. It showed me what I had to see to appreciate it in a way that I'd never been able to from afar.

The next time I went to Latin America, it was far different. Skip forward three years, and you'll see an 18-year-old Cathy getting off the plane in Nicaragua to volunteer at a non-profit prosthetics hospital. Driving through Managua and the Nicaraguan countryside was a lesson in what real poverty is. Sure, I'd read about it and studied it and been horrified at the injustices resulting from it, but nothing you read in a book will prepare you for the horror of seeing it, and meeting those who can't get out of it. One of my unofficial roles in that trip was to serve as a translator for others in the group. Because of that, I was able to bond extra with the patients we interviewed, some of whom lost a limb to a landmine decades after the Nicaraguan Civil War. Years ago, most fields with landmines had been marked as dangerous, but Hurricane Mitch came along and shifted many in its torrential rains, category 5 winds, and catastrophic mudslides. In addition to helping at the clinic and meeting patients, we did a bit of sight-seeing. Not tourist-type, though. Real traveling. Talking to people, going to places most foreigners don't, etc. I feel like I became a world citizen on that trip. I'd never felt so close to those I'd just met before. The Nicaraguan openness and hospitality astounded me. Many had next to nothing, but were happy to share it with us, out of sheer friendliness and goodwill. I've longed to go back ever since, but it hasn't been possible yet.

Another 2 years in the future: something I dread to say aloud in Miami. I traveled to Cuba, on another humanitarian aid trip. People who have overheard me saying this in Miami have accused me of being a "dirty communist" or a "Castro lover," but I fail to see how helping people who are in need is catering to any political party whatsoever. And I'm certainly not a fan of Castro and definitely not a communist, so their accusations always made me giggle. Cuba was also a lesson in poverty, but different than Nicaragua. Nicaragua is the second-poorest nation in our Western Hemisphere (Haiti is the poorest). Cuba is a land of opposites, where newly-restored arquitectural masterpieces from the early XX century have dilapidated, crumbling neighbors. Where some people proclaim their dedication to the Revolution in the streets and others quietly criticize it in their homes. You can envision the Cuba of yore by sifting through its ruins. Yet according to older people I talked to in the street, their lives did not significantly change after the revolution. It was a thoroughly intriguing trip, especially for a Miami girl like me, and I still can't process exactly what I think of Cuba, even though I've been back for three years.

I think I'll post anecdotes rather than paragraph long overviews with some pictures later this week from each of these trips, and maybe some from Italy as well. I haven't been able to travel as much in the past couple of years, so reliving old experiences is soothing for my mind. I hope you enjoy my stories as well.

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