It happened the first time in Honduras, where my organization had sent me to document programmatic success. We had rushed around all day, flinging wires and lights around, lugging our cameras and backpacks from interview to interview, scribbling notes and shaking hands. When we collapsed for lunch at 3:30 we were exhausted. And there it was. Right across the street. With all of its 31 flavors. A Baskin Robbins. The kind of American chain I had promised myself I would never, ever patronize on a trip to another country.
A few months later, I was in Panama. And so was a Subway. I don’t know how to say “sandwich artist” in Spanish but I listened to the man in front of me say “con todo” as he gestured toward the row of excruciatingly familiar washed-out tomato slices and leaking pickles. So I said it too, and walked away with the sinking, guilty sensation that I was having the same groaning sandwich I might have had on any Wednesday in my hometown.
What was I becoming? I had gone to so many countries where I railed against being a tourist, and sought instead to be a traveler. Where I insisted on experiencing the culture, the food and the people even at some cost to my ego, wallet and digestive tract.
And yet here I was after lunch, in a taxi in a country I might never return to, listening to the driver tell me the Panama Canal was five minutes away and hearing myself respond, “Just keep going, we don’t have time for that.”
As a communications writer for an international development organization, I love that my job lets me occasionally travel the world. And yet it’s not the kind of traveling I love.
Instead of following a gap-toothed stranger through the curling stone streets of Lamu, Kenya to find the house of the man who sells heart-shaped labania, I check my watch from the backseat of a seatbeltless sedan and calculate the minutes until we are officially late to a meeting.
Instead of playing a game of pick-up soccer with barefoot neighborhood kids, I’m silently urging the photographer to hurry up and capture their carefree smiles for the cover of our next case study.
As I rush around checking items off my to-do list, I rarely get the chance to cross things off my bucket list.
But maybe I’ve been writing down the wrong things. Sure, on that trip to Honduras, I never got to snorkel in Roatán or see the Mayan ruins near Copán. But I laughed with my local film crew over a bean-and-mayonnaise sandwich I didn’t quite mean to order, and felt inspired as I followed a grandmother around the barrio she was trying to save from gang violence.
I never got the chance to buy any of the famous metalwork when I went on a work trip to Haiti. But a local woman taught me all the gestures to a lilting folk song as we motored a small fishing boat into the Atlantic, and my mouth filled with decadent sweetness as I squished a fresh chunk of honeycomb that a young beekeeper slid to me atop his machete.
I never did visit the Panama Canal. I guess I’ll have to go back.
And when I do, these frantic trips spent focused on work will allow me to bring a deeper understanding than I would have gained from trying to find the most authentic experience on my own.
I’ll know that just around the corner a bunch of kids whose parents are in opposing gangs are playing a ping pong tournament together, and learning about nutrition from a volunteer husband-and-wife duo who dress up as clowns.
I’ll know that there’s an old woman in knee socks who comes to feed the pigeons out of a floppy woven basket in the square in front of the Iglesia de los Delores, and that a group of retired soccer referees meet on the Parque Central benches every Thursday morning to gab.
And I’ll know that when I get sick of bean and mayonnaise sandwiches, or whatever other local delicacy I’ve ruthlessly hunted down, and when doing my job has left me haggard and overheated, there will probably be a Baskin Robbins just around the corner.
By Jennifer Brookland