SIGHT AND INSIGHT

SIGHT AND INSIGHT

From Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul IV

Sight and Insight

A moment’s insight is sometimes worth a life’s experience.

Oliver Wendell Holmes

On the back of a flatbed truck, probably meant for lumber, we hold on for dear life and sing “La Bamba” with our Nicaraguan compatriots. This is the fifth time we are singing it, so the foreign lyrics have finally seemed to stick—”Yo no soy marinero, yo no soy marinero, soy capitan soy capitan soy capitan” (I am not a sailor, I am a captain)—and we feel like just that: the captains of this day as we steer toward hours full of song, beach, friends and ocean. It has been a long week of clinics, and today is our day to relax. I feel comfortable, proud and lucky to be here.

I had come to Nicaragua with my father, a professor of optometry, and my older sister, Rachel. We were part of a group, an intrepid bunch of middle-class New Englanders, who had taken on the task of setting up an optometry clinic in the town’s small elementary school.

My father had wanted to give Rachel and me a chance, as volunteers, to use our Spanish and to see a new place. This was a completely new experience for us, and for the first few days, I think we must each have swallowed dozens of bugs with our jaws constantly dropped in wonder at everything we encountered. It was exciting. We had done a bit of traveling in our lives; my parents would take Rachel and me on long cross-country trips when we were little, exposing us to the rest of the country, the many landscapes, the people and the different ways in which they lived. Along with our little sister, Kate, we had been to Europe. This trip to Nicaragua, however, wasn’t a standard vacation.

Almost immediately upon arrival here, I noticed how our new experiences differed from person to person. There was Kurt and Shelly, the seasoned professionals, who moved through the days with the graceful familiarity of skilled veterans. They have the history of many other clinics under their belts. There was Cynthia and her husband George, a nervous couple who refused to eat any of the food and brought suitcases of nonperishable snacks, so they wouldn’t have to touch the local food. They even brought gallons of their own water.

During the week, working with local nurses and teachers, we saw nearly three thousand people. We had personally met all of them, given eye exams, dispensed advice on keeping their vision protected, and fitted them for prescription glasses. I met hundreds of other kids my age. The other sixteen-year-olds there had lives fairly different from my own. Many of them had jobs and were helping to take care of their families in ways I never had to. Some were farmers, working in the fields all day; others were fishermen, working on the trawlers day in and day out. There were some taking classes to become doctors and some headed off to the university in Managua for other types of education. Some had never even been to school before, and some had already started families of their own. Their lives were quite different from my own, but that did not make their lives abnormal.

A large part of what we had to do was help our patients understand what we were doing and why we were doing it. Many of them opened up and shared with us their lives, their experiences and their beautiful country. It was an amazing education.

I was always taught to respect people in whatever situations they are in, especially if I don’t understand them. Some of those in our group seemed not to subscribe to that belief. People like Cynthia and George, who treated the people like exotic creatures, got only what they were looking for, an anecdote to take home to their friends. They felt fine—they had helped these people. They had missed the point. Those of us who approached the trip as a learning experience and a cultural exchange, and came to treat our Nicaraguan counterparts as equals, got just that.

On the beach, we eat lunch with our new friends, the local nurses and teachers. We smile and tell stories of the clinic, about how the old ladies were in shock when they could finally see their hands in detail, allowing them to sew as precisely as they had when they were teenagers. And of the babies who with their strong new glasses correcting a lazy eye, turning it forward, making them giggle.

Off in the distance throngs of gulls are swarming the fishing trawlers. We sit in the shade underneath the palms, tossing our leftovers to the vultures, large and sluggish with the heat of the midday sun. Hermit crabs leave tiny highways in the fine sand, crisscrossed patterns reminiscent of the major arteries and overpasses we temporarily left behind in Boston. I finally allow myself to close my eyes. I think about how Cynthia and George refused to go on this excursion. They didn’t want to get dirty on the back of the flatbed truck. They had their anecdotes already and were ready to go home. I was okay with that. It is only what we are open to that we receive. Our initial motives might have been simple altruism, but I will admit, when we come back again it will also be for reasons a bit selfish. We give glasses and eye exams, yes, but what we get in return is so much greater; while we may give the gift of sight, we receive the gift of insight in return.

Eric J. Moore

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