By Dan Tulchin, KF12, Nicaragua
I have always been interested to learn the local perceptions of the United States when living abroad. On a recent night, after jumping in a cab, I spent some quality time with Jauro, a loquacious taxi driver with an opinion on just about everything. For contextual purposes, I must provide some information about the taxi experience in Nicaragua’s capital. Firstly, as in many developing countries, there are no streets or number signs. Directions are all relative to a common park, cemetery, rotunda, mall, you name it. In Managua, al lago refers to the north (where the lake is), arriba marks east (where the sun rises) and abajo west (where the sun sets). A typical direction might read “de la rotunda de Plaza Inter, una cuadra al lago, una abajo, al frente del cementario.” Executing a flawless taxi ride to your planned destination can be a feat in and of itself. Secondly, taxis have proved to be a potential danger for many foreigners. As most taxis are collective rides, many foreigners have found themselves in a precarious position in the back of a cab after the driver picks up a couple of his associates, who then promptly demand any and all valuables. There are many precautionary measures that people take to protect themselves: pretending to call a friend and repeating the license plate number, sitting in the front, only calling certain drivers, snapping a picture of the license plate, and only employing older drivers, to name a few. Making friends with a taxi driver can be very shrewd.
Within minutes of picking me up, Jauro definitively stated his three favorite things about my homeland, which I believe was very telling for how many Nicaraguans view the United States.
Number 1 – the almighty USD$. “Anywhere in the entire world, you can carry the dollar; it’s not quite the same for Nicaraguan Cordoba.” Astute point, Jauro. Indeed, the USD$ is actually legal tender in Nicaragua and his point underlined the broader theme of the extent of American economic influence in the country. It’s important to note that while Ortega and the top brass of the Nicaraguan government have at times used less than flattering rhetoric toward the U.S., the two countries work closely on development, infrastructure, tourism and trade issues. The level of remittances and the number of secondhand goods (think cars and buses) coming south from the states also greatly affect Nicaraguans.
Number 2 – the Los Angeles Dodgers. Nicaraguans are crazy about baseball, more so than soccer. There are scores of serious Yankees, Red Sox and Phillies fans, in particular, and the sport can be a great icebreaker and topic of conversation in many social settings. At CEPRODEL (http://www.ceprodel.org.ni/), where I am currently stationed, the CFO and I frequently debate baseball and lament the Yankees’ recent playoff exit.
Number 3 – Jennifer Aniston. This probably elicited the most animation from Jauro – to say that he was a big fan would be an understatement. American movies and television shows are piped in to the few cable channels here and are often the nighttime entertainment for many families. Action heroes like Bruce Willis are household names. More generally, the pervasiveness of American music, movies and fashion is stunning. It’s hard to truly appreciate the cultural reach of the United States without living abroad.
Generally, this is the prism that Jauro, and many others, see the United States. While it may be somewhat distorted, it certainly leaves me with a newfound appreciation for how the United States truly influences everyday life for many Central Americans.
Dan Tulchin (KF12) is enjoying his last few days in Nicaragua and looks forward to life back in the Big Apple.