Nicaragua is ranked the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Guess who the poorest country is? Yes, Haiti. Both are third world nations, recovering from political turmoil and a number of devastating natural disasters. So I expected Nicaragua to be much the same as Haiti.
In ways, I was right. Housing conditions, inaccessibility to water, availability of health care, variety of food were all very similar to Haiti. But in other respects, I was shocked to see the differences. In the village near Campo Alegria, the children in 1st to 4th grade could actually read and write capably, a skill many Haitians cannot claim even though they're in equivalent grades. I didn't see any children with the red hair that marks protein deficiency or the swollen bellies and tiny arms of general malnutrition. People did not call me "gringa" (white person) the entire time I was there, and though I can't be sure no one cussed me in Spanish, I can say that no one cursed me in English as they do daily in Gonaives.
In Rivas, the small city near Campo Alegria that is perhaps a third the size of Gonaives, there is a Maxi Pali, the Nicaraguan version of Walmart. Walmart! Need I say more?
The real shock came when we spent time in the capital. In Haiti, the capital is not much better than the rural areas, but in Nicaragua, the capital seemed to me like a first world city! There were MacDonald's and Burger Kings, Subway, Payless Shoe Source, TGI Fridays, a Hilton, a Holiday Inn, a Best Western, a cinema, a Sbarro's and a Papa John's pizza. Roads were paved, traffic laws were respected, fast food restaurants had children's play areas, and buildings were actually built, not half-constructed relics like Port-au-Prince boasts. Only one man hit on me and most people acted unfazed to see Americans strolling around.
I was riding up an escalator in one of Managua's two malls eating frozen yogurt when I officially decided, "If this is third world, than Haiti must be fourth - no, fifth world!"
It was an interesting mix of modern and pleasantly old-fashioned. Horse drawn carts and bicycle taxis instead of the choking fumes from Haitian taptaps.
Baseball gloves for sale in the city! Baseball being played on real diamonds with stadium seating!
Colonial architecture that has survived earthquakes, hurricanes and volcanoes.
And some industry. In the fields by Campo, acres and acres of sugar cane are harvested and carried by horse cart, ox-cart, and huge tractor trailers...
...to this factory that processes it and produces sugar for export. I wish I knew how many jobs that provides.
And just when I was feeling comforted by how Haiti-esque the sugar cane harvesting is, I noticed the huge sprinklers that water the fields. That's third world??
Haiti has lots of goats; the part of Nicaragua I was in did not. Instead there were cows everywhere and men herding them on horse back like old-time cowboys.
Out of everything, what struck me most poignantly was the greenery. Nicaragua has not ruined their own ecosystem by deforestation and erosion. I live in the most barren region of Haiti so the change was more marked than it might have been for someone else, but I couldn't get enough of the trees and the grass and the water.
No Haiti-Nicaragua comparison will be complete for me until I have seen their dump ghetto, their Jubilee. And honestly, how can I make any judgments until I've lived there for 6 years and speak the language fluently, like I do in Haiti? What I can say confidently is that I loved the 18 days that I spent there - loved them for what I saw but even more so for who I was with, because, let's be honest, relationships are what life is all about. When I'm with these kids, my heart is always cheery.