Arriving in Bluefields by air for an English Teacher Conference! Images courtesy of Char Stoever.
What counts as ‘authentic’ travel to you?
Last week Kristen posted this question on Wanderful’s facebook page:
“Hey everyone, I’m hoping you can help me with a question about finding places to travel and write about. What sort of research/where do you look to find “authentic” experiences? What counts as “authentic” travel to you?”
I was in my Caribbean Dream Hotel room in Bluefields, a city on Nicaragua’s Atlantic Coast. It was my first time there, so my senses were on overload, trying to understand everything. My room smelled just like my grandma’s house in Mexico.
I was there for the first time to hold workshops on classroom management for Nicaraguan English teachers, many of whom speak English Kreole, English, Spanish, and Miskito.
Well, I’ve never had a “fake” travel experience, I thought.
I’ve been more present in some places than others, though.
For me, authentic travel means engaging with locals and connecting with them. As an introverted traveler, I tend to focus more on seeing the sights. After having lived abroad for long enough to see the sights in Nicaragua, I’ve engaged more with strangers.
Authentic travel can mean feeling at home in a new place.
My latest authentic experience?
When I spent the afternoon with a taxi driver, Amilcar. On my first day in Bluefields, I went to buy a water. The vendor spoke in Spanish with Amilcar. I commented on how differently they spoke than Nicaraguans on the Pacific Coast. Instead of “buenos dias,” I’m used to hearing “bueno dia.”
I asked the vendor about getting some coconut bread, and he asked Amilcar to take me to the place with the “good” bread, while gesturing as if he could feel the dense weight of the loaf in his hands.
We got in the cab. Amilcar was in his 50s. He wore a black baseball cap. We connected because he’s traveled to more places than me. He worked on a cruise ship. I was jealous of his stories. I was also relieved that we’d have more to talk about than the fact that I wasn’t married, and, yes, I was still traveling alone.
Amilcar got out of the cab, and we walked to the back of a bakery. He asked the tall, Afro-Caribbean, shirtless baker, “Hey mon! De bread ready?”
The baker wiped the sweat off his brow and replied, “Like Freddy!”
We paid 90 cents for the densest loaves of bread I’ve ever held. The scent of warm coconut filled my nostrils. We walked back to the cab.
On the way to the park, Amilcar asked me, “Are you married?”
“No, and I’m a lesbian. I’m not allowed to get married here.”
“Oh, so you’re bisexual!” he said.
“No, I only like women.” As he processed this, we parked on the side of the road. I bit into my coconut bread. It didn’t taste much like coconut, but it was sinfully fresh.
“It tastes better with butter. Let’s get some,” Amilcar said.
We swung by a store, and I exchanged 40 cents for a stick of margarine. We sat on a park bench. I ripped out pieces of bread for us and slathered margarine on them.
“Have you ever tried a pink pear before?” Amilcar asked.
No, I hadn’t. He brought me one. I bit into its white flesh. It smelled like a rose, and I thought of trips with my mom to Portland, Oregon’s Japanese Gardens.
We chatted about traveling and heartbreak.
We both loved seeing new places at the expense of our romantic relationships. We had been single for three years, and he said he was still working on his self-esteem. This was the first time I’d heard a man in Nicaragua admit this.
“So, you don’t ever want to get married?” he asked.
“Not right now. I want to travel the world just like you did. Traveling has taught me to get to know more people. Back home, I would never sit on a park bench with a cab driver. Americans are so rushed all the time. Besides, I’ve heard of so many married people who are unfaithful anyway.”
Marriage doesn’t stop people from traveling, but I enjoy my freedom, and I don’t want to be judged for being single.
While Amilcar and I had different views on marriage, we still connected in unexpected ways that afternoon.
After an hour I asked, “How much do I owe you?”
“Nothing,” he said. “Our contract ended once we sat in the park. It was great meeting you.” We shook hands, then I walked off.
I felt grateful for having run into this man.
Once I landed back in Managua’s airport, I texted him to say that I’d recommended him to some friends. I wanted to thank him for showing me an authentic travel experience in Nicaragua.