Thursday, August 4, 2011

Understanding Wealth Abroad

For the past several weeks I have been in Nicaragua. The people are nice and friendly. The country is somewhat open in that as a foreigner I'm not secluded off to the resort section. I can wander freely and often see Americans and Europeans in the mix with Nicaraguans in the markets, living alongside them in the slums, and jogging in the jungle with their iPod as if it was Central Park.

Ironically this freedom of movement has made me more aware of the creeping realities of wealth and privilege. In most 3rd world and even many 2nd world countries, there is that buffer between tourist and reality. As an American sitting here writing on a thousand dollar laptop, worth probably 20,000-40,000 cordobas (someone's salary in these parts) there is this invisible internet of wealth. It's there all the time, 24 hours, I just have to turn on and plug in. It's clear and as real as gravity. In this internet of wealth there are several dozen people whose job is, in some way, to take care of your immediate needs. And most of these helpers don't look anything like me, nor do they speak the language. This is not the life of a rich American. This is middle-class to lower-class Americans. The wealth that is indivisible from my passport isn't related to money. It's a cultural and social wealth.

America is still the nation that dominates people's imagination, TV, and internet. It is still the place of education In the general world, America sits at the top but in the Western hemisphere it's even more dominant. There is a trickle down effect with being associated with the country known for fun, dreams, hedonism, and generous tipping.

The dollar is accepted everywhere as was expected. It's worth about 18 times the cordoba roughly. Merchants sell bootleg copies of all the latest movies and TV shows on the streets. Americans wander around here with almost no fear, wrapped in a shield. And yet all the Americans I've met are nice, young, energetic, and appear to be doing creative things out here. They take the time to know some words in Spanish, are generous, and well-liked. Many are artist and philanthropist who have found working abroad easier. Perhaps these are the flocks of people who would have lived in Greenwich Village 30 years ago or Haight and Ashbury.These are also the people who might have been in Costa Rica 10 years ago when Americans started flooding in. Now Costa Rica is high-end. Honduras and Nicaragua are next on the list.

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