Circus Act

I met Annalise over breakfast in Costa Rica's dreary capital, San Jose. She was Asian Australian with a bright smile, a shaved head, and a ready laugh. I was wrapped tightly in the Indian shawl that accompanies me everywhere, that helps me either blend in or stand out depending on my mood and where I am. 

San Jose was dramatically colder than the Pacific coast, where I had just spent a week at the beach. I told Annalise that I’d had a cold shower that morning. Having been there a few days, she explained which showers in the hostel spurted cold water, which were lukewarm, and which were just right.

I told her I’d lived in Kathmandu for a year. “My water was heated by solar panels, so in the winter, when there wasn’t much sun, I had to boil water on the stove and have bucket showers for two months.”

“Wow, you were committed!” she laughed. “I just put up with the cold water in Honduras. And what came out of the tap was usually brown.”

She explained that she was touring Central America after a stint as a volunteer development worker in Honduras. She was relieved to be in Costa Rica. “In my mountain village, it was like the circus had come to town,” she laughed, rubbing her lightly-stubbled head. “The men were absolutely vile!”

I squirmed at the thought of brown water and obnoxious men. “It wasn’t that bad in Nepal. The men are fine. You couldn’t drink the tap water, but it came out clear. Although in winter, sometimes there was as little as two hours’ power per day.”

“Our internet in Honduras was solar powered, so often we didn’t have any connection to the outside world.” She laughed again. “Look at us, one-upping each other! Nepal was worse! No, Honduras was worse!"

I laughed, too, although one-upping wasn’t my intention. I was just pleased to be talking to an Australian woman, missing my own kind. A new transplant to the US, I still felt more of an connection with Antipodean sensibilities than North American. I was also thrilled to be talking to someone who had an inkling of what life in Nepal must have been like, with whom I could drop the inevitable introductory justifications and get straight to the heart of things. Although this didn’t appear to be what we were doing. I had to come clean.

“Apart from the hot water thing though, I had a pretty comfortable life in Kathmandu. I lived in a nice flat with good power back-up and a decent landlord. I certainly didn’t live like a local. I was on a local salary—$300 a month—but that was a very good local salary. I was living like a rich local, maybe.”

“I know what you mean. As a foreigner I felt quite protected. Although…” she backtracked, “the only bank was a three-hour drive from the village. So all banking was a hassle. One of my colleagues, an American, was held up on the way back from the bank. And I mean, held up. They stopped his motorbike, took everything he had—money, clothes, even his shoes—tied him up and left him in a ditch in the middle of the day. It was really bad. He went home soon after that.”

I was amazed he’d survived, but with the pace at which this conversation was progressing, I didn’t get the chance to ask how he’d escaped.

I was completely fresh in Latin America, the region not as accessible for us down under as Asia, where we swarmed. I’m not a nervous traveller, but I had a little apprehension about this first trip to Central America. I knew Costa Rica was meant to be a breeze, for travellers but friends had reassured me with claims like, “It’s like the fifty-first state of the US.” As if states one through fifty were devoid of problems. And not just that: as if states one through fifty didn’t comprise the most violent developed country in the world. In travelling through more than thirty countries I’d never been pickpocketed, seriously harassed, robbed, or been the victim of any crime whatsoever. But I’d never travelled in the Americas before. Being like the fifty-first state of the USA didn’t fill me with confidence.

And Honduras? I’d heard it was bad, but what did bad mean in this part of the world? I’d picked up a ten-year-old “Central America on a Shoestring” guide at a hostel and flicked through it for inspiration. Honduras, it said, had just gone through some political turmoil but was still the safest country in Central America. Yes, it was outdated.

“San Pedro’s the murder capital of the world!” Annalise laughed when I asked her about Honduras’ general safety. I missed the ability to openly laugh at the tragic, the sordid, the brutally unfunny. I took especial care not to offend in the US, where earnestness is a virtue, where the word “virtue” can be said with a straight face. “Ten massacres are reported there every month!”

I spluttered on my coffee. “What counts as a massacre?!”

She shrugged. “A lot of people getting murdered all at once.”

Ok, she won. There had been a decade-long war in Nepal, army and rebel brutalities, massacres, disappearances. But nothing in peacetime came close to this. Walking home drunk after the bars shut at 11pm sharp, my European friends and I would revel in the fact that the only danger on Kathmandu’s midnight streets are the dogs. In the day, it is the traffic. Never the people.

I told Annalise I’d been working illegally in Nepal, that it was necessary because the government made it really hard to do otherwise. That most non-Nepalis I knew who didn’t work for the UN or an embassy were working illegally, or had done at some point. Annalise understood, and articulated something that I and my colleagues had often marvelled over: the topsy-turveyness of well-educated Westerners working illegally in a “least developed nation,” as they call it. I thought I’d won that round.

“I was people-smuggled into Honduras!” she beamed. I asked how that had happened.

“I don’t know. Wrong stamps in my passport or something. I was at the border and they weren’t going to let me in. But then I met this people-smuggling guy. He was a really nice people-smuggler, even paid my bribe.” She knew the absurdity of this statement; she was Australian, after all, where people-smuggling is a political swearword. “It’s ridiculous how hard it is to help. I was made redundant at home, as a social worker. The language they use is barbaric. I’m not redundant! I’m a productive human being! I just want to help.”

But I could tell she wasn’t naïve. She knew that this helping was only partly about helping the unfortunate: it was mostly about helping yourself grow, about adventure and not settling for a regular life. I didn’t even have an altruistic excuse like Annalise did, like so many of my Kathmandu friends. I travelled to collect experiences, not to give them away. There is a fine line between travelling to save others and the travelling to save oneself.

Photo by Nan Palmero with copyright permission.

Elen Turner is a Kathmandu-based writer and editor, with plans to divide her time between Nepal and India. She's into good literature, street art, white-water rafting and pretty Indian textiles. Her personal blog focuses on travel in South Asia: