Traveling between worlds can give you whiplash

By Caitlin Kelly

The first thing I did upon my return from a working week in Nicaragua — the second poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere after Haiti?

I took a long, deep, hot bath. In our time there, we only encountered heated water once, in the Best Western Hotel in Managua.

It was the first of multiple culture shocks…

The morning after my return to suburban New York, I got into our 12-year-old Subaru and drove; I hadn’t driven once, as we had drivers there, or took taxis in Managua.

Jose Luis, our driver; Alanna, our team leader -- and our push-to-start-it van
Jose Luis, our driver; Alanna, our team leader — and our push-to-start-it van

The road at home was smooth and paved. I had never thought to question, or appreciate, that.

Our old car started smoothly. That, too. Here’s a push, in 98 degree noon-time heat:


I drove quickly and easily to my destination, with no bumps or potholes to dodge.

Here, I travel by foot, public transit or car. The bus ride from Bilwi — a 90-minute flight by Cessna — takes 24 hours.



Here’s the dugout canoe in which we crossed the river to watch Linda work her fields.



Now that's a commute!
Now that’s a commute!

Here, I walked into a white tiled bathroom, with metal stall walls; this is the toilet at Linda’s home in the countryside.


Try climbing those steps in the dark, wearing a headlamp!
Try climbing those steps in the dark, wearing a headlamp!


Normal work for me, and many of you, means sitting at a desk, indoors. Here’s our photographer Rodrigo Cruz working in the Wawa River:



I got into the elevator at my destination this week to ride up five floors — I hadn’t used an escalator or elevator in a week; most Bilwi buildings were made of wood, and two storeys high at most.

Across the street from our hotel in Bilwi
Across the street from our hotel in Bilwi


The streets here in New York have no animals on them, unless they’re road kill; on our final morning in Bilwi, a brown horse ambled past our hotel, riderless, unaccompanied. At Linda’s house in the countryside, we were always surrounded by them: a gobbling turkey, a contented, muddy pig, a flock of cheeping chicks, the Brahmin cow who wandered over to the well at sunset and kept me company while I bathedand many piles of fresh dung!

We saw very thin dogs everywhere, but only two cats. Life without the companionship of animals feels lonely!


Buildings and houses here in New York are black or white or gray or brown, a sea of blandness. The houses we saw, everywhere, in Bilwi and the countryside of RAAN were painted in glorious colors: turquoise, emerald green, fuchsia, brilliant yellow, often using wood cut into patterns or laid on the diagonal for visual interest on a verandah. Beauty relies on imagination, some tools and a can of paint.


Instead of breakfast alone at my dining table, we ate together from containers on our laps. Here’s a typical lunch:



Here are Joshua, WaterAid’s country director, Jennifer Barbour and Alanna on Linda’s porch; she has a separate building next to her sleeping quarters for the kitchen.


Here’s Linda’s (typical) stove/oven:



Because it is still winter here in New York, the landscape is dull — still brown and sterile. The morning we left Bilwi, the town on the Atlantic coast we stayed in, brilliant red hibiscus glowed in the morning sun, as did wide, green palm fronds and lilac bougainvillea. Pale yellow butterflies flitted past us.


The tropical rain forest glows green with towering banana and coconut palms and curved, feathery bamboo. It felt like walking into a painting by Henri Rousseau.

This painting in a Managua museum captures it
This painting in a Managua museum captures it

On our final night in Bilwi, the team went out to a disco, where men and women — 80 percent of whom live with no running water in their homes — arrived in stilettos and make-up and sequined tank tops. As we stood on the sidewalk afterward, a young man, clearly high and ill, drooled and begged and dropped to the pavement to caress Joshua’s shoes. The national police, rifles slung over their shoulders, cruised past us in a black pick-up truck.

My breakfast blueberrries in New York came from (!) Chile. One afternoon our rural RAAN hosts chopped open some coconuts from their tree with a machete — fresh juice and meat!


Our view here is of other buildings and the Hudson River. Here’s the view from Linda’s home.


We ate lunch in Managua in an upscale cafe, its prices marked in U.S. dollars, ordering food common in the U.S. — panini and cappuccinos. After a steady diet of Nicaraguan food: rice, beans, plantains, fish, a bit of meat — no green vegetables and very little fruit — it was disorienting. There was a case filled with cupcakes and cheesecake and cookies; no restaurant we had been to, in a poor town, had ever offered dessert or sweets on the menu. I’d never considered fruit, vegetables or sweetened foods a luxury or oddity. They are, for many people.

At home I work alone, all day every day. Here are Dixie, our translator (in the hammock) and Laxi, WaterAid’s community liaison, on Linda’s porch in the village we visited. Working with a dedicated and easy-going team is a blessing.


As we canoed the Wawa River in a dugout, we sat on seats freshly-hacked from a piece of bamboo by Ailita’s machete. How refreshing to watch her casually, quickly — and generously! — make it herself. That sort of self-sufficiency is something so many of us now lack.

Every day, The New York Times — even as it runs front-page stories about poverty or income equality — runs ads from luxury purveyors like Chanel ($1,500 shoes) or Tiffany or Seaman Schepps, an old-money jeweler; recently offering a gold bracelet at $18,750.

The currency is the cordoba; 25 = $1 U.S.
The currency is the cordoba; 25 = $1 U.S.

That’s eighteen years’  of an average Nicaraguan’s annual income.

The head spins…



34 thoughts on “Traveling between worlds can give you whiplash

  1. It is head-spinning to remember that the things we take for granted in our everyday lives are things which aren’t commonplace for others. It reminds me of a quote I saw on Facebook a while ago: “one person’s reality is another person’s dream” (or vice versa). It must have been even more head-spinning to experience such a culture shock first-hand.

  2. Wow, amazing photos, and perspective on how we live day-to-day vs. others. Thanks for sharing. I think it would be a pretty amazing lesson to all of us to see. I liked how you added in the point about advertising from the NYT’s as well. I have consistently noted the unrealistic advertising in the NYT’s, and about the opposing goals of the US in general–people are in debt and made to feel bad if they don’t have “stuff” but then if they don’t buy “stuff” companies advertise, our economy goes to pieces. I’m naive- yeah, I know, but it’s a shame that’s the case. Again thank you for sharing your experience-I enjoyed your posts from the trip.

    1. Thanks!

      Those ads drive me insane. They are so ugly and useless to 99% of people in this economy; put ’em in Town & Country, for heaven’s sake.

      It was also very interesting to be in a home (Linda’s) with very little furniture and no decoration yet there was so much natural beauty all around…that really sharpened my eye to my own environment here. I really miss the brilliant flowers!

  3. I wish more Americans would travel abroad to some of the poorer countries. Then they might realize just how good we have it at home.

    When you see how poor some of these people are it makes your situation in the US not as horrible as your might have thought before.

      1. Allen — what a powerful image. Thanks for sharing that. Only by fleeing our consumerist cocoon do we really really get what it means to be buried in stuff here. And wanting even MORE of it.

    1. Thanks…I really appreciate your interest in it all. It’s very weird to re-enter “normal” life here…as Grace said so eloquently in her comment, it’s only “normal” for a narrow slice of humanity.

      1. so true about what ‘normal’ is and is not. i love reading about this and hearing about the contrast, as it is something i’m very interested in doing at some point. my son in law is leaving for 2 weeks in haiti in april to work with children and my daughter is headed to kenya in june to work with orphans and women to help them with a project that will help both groups.

      2. thank you, caitlin. it makes me proud and happy to see my family embrace the world and to do things in an active way to make it an easier place to live for others who don’t have it as easy. even with the kinders, we begin with a discussion of the needs vs. wants concept and what they can do to help in the world, even at their young age. it’s an important thing to grow up with and learn, i think.

      3. If you don’t see and hear it — and watch others modeling it as a desirable behavior — how can we see it as a choice? My mother did some work like this when I was about 12, and it certainly left an impression on me.

      4. i’m certainly an advocate of the modeling approach to teaching. it’s easy to talk the talk, but to see someone walk the walk has much more impact.

    1. Thanks, Anne. Much appreciated!

      No plans for the moment — awaiting word on a fellowship application; if I win it, off to DC in June and Australia in July. If not…have to find another funded adventure soon.

  4. Kaitlin, I like the way you approached this story and your visit there. All that we have here at home and what we don’t; and all that the Nicaraguans don’t have but we do have (some of which is comforting and some of which is obscene). Thanks for this perspective.

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  6. Catching up with your Nicaraguan assignment blog posts today. I’ve been in chilly Copenhagen in this time, just recovering after yet another encounter with chest infection. It’s not been much above zero celsius here lately, although today is awash with sunshine.

    I loved reading about the contrasts between everywhere you were and NYC. So much of what you said should ring with anyone who travels from developed to developing world and back. Just how much we do have, and how much we could, if we had to, live without. And to be so, so grateful for all of the simple things we would otherwise never even consciously acknowledge.

    Sounds like you did good work. Is the team’s output going to be published somewhere online?

    1. Sorry you are ill! I’m chewing on Pepto-Bismol and taking cider vinegar in an attempt to get my ravaged bowels back into working order…

      Thanks for weighing in — I’ve missed you. Yes, this sort of journey (in every sense) is a resonant one. I am very, very grateful for it and hope to do more.

      Jennifer Barbour, my team-mate there — here’s her website below — did a lot of blogging from there, which was her role. I’ve been assigned to write three stories, which I haven’t even started yet. Not sure when or where WaterAid will use them, as they are works for hire for their own use.

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