With only one ear

As an actor, I know how to fake it until I make it. Or at least, I like to think I do.

In the days leading up to my departure to Nicaragua, a lot of faking was at play.

Of course I was excited. Of course I was ready to go. Of course it was no big deal.

At the non-profit in which I work, MEDA, my colleagues are routinely boarding flights to far away places in the world. When I logged my flight on our company-wide “Travel Tracker,” I noted scouting trips to Tajikistan and Indonesia and month-long excursions to East Africa.

Nicaragua? No problem.

Beneath the faking, however, was a thick, sticky layer of apprehension. My mind was certain disaster was imminent.

“See you never,” I told my housemates upon departure.

This would not be a solo adventure, but it would be a single adventure. I was not traveling with a buddy or a boyfriend, and other than two colleagues much older than I, I did not know the other participants.

I was off to adult summer camp for the first time. Who would I sit with? What if I wanted to explore–who would I go with? What if I didn’t fit in?

Yet the one characteristic stronger than my anxiety was my supreme dislike of dependency. Completing this trip felt like an important marker in proving personal competence.

I popped a Pepto for my stomach, zipped up my lightweight backpack (Let it be known, I am an excellent packer.), and left my winter coat in the car. Onward.

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Upon late-night arrival in balmy Managua, something was off.

A brooding cold paired with multiple flights proved a bad mix. I swallowed, I yawned, I stretched. My left ear was completely clogged. I took Advil and every cold medicine I had with me, an impressive and colorful assortment.

Try though I did, lefty would not recover.

Poor hearing does not discriminate, though it will make understanding a foreign language pretty tricky. Despite the disorienting reverb and constant crackle, I was thankful for the handheld microphone on our small bus amplifying our tour guide’s accent-coated voice.

Off the bus, it was less easy to disguise my struggle. It was a continual guessing game as to whether I was talking at the right volume.

“HELLO!” I announced during introductions. “I AM VANESSA. I’M SORRY, I CAN’T HEAR YOU. HOW ARE YOU?”

I hate to think how many times someone asked, “Are you feeling better?” and I replied, too loudly or too softly (who knows), “What?”

Luckily, it was a forgiving crew. I was travelling with MEDA supporters interested in seeing our work in action.

MEDA uses business solutions to eliminate poverty. Rather than temporary fixes or immediate relief, we specialize in sustainable systems that spur lasting growth for the most vulnerable (often women and youth, often farmers).

MEDA has been active in Nicaragua since 1990. In 2004, we invested in a microfinance institution (MFI) called MiCredito. MiCredito is a true MEDA success story: In Nicaragua, the company is one of the country’s top 10 MFIs, providing financial services to 4,500 clients with small businesses. MiCredito’s ever-growing loan portfolio includes 6,100 loans totalling $6.8 million. They’re opening new branches every year–including one in Costa Rica in 2018.

On this trip, we visited loans recipients to hear their stories. (We also visited some MEDA projects outside MiCredito. Another blog for another day, perhaps.)

Insert here a story about a white girl realizing, again, how ridiculously privileged she is, by no merit of her own.

Irritated, stuffy and fake yawning (thank-you-ear), here I was, being told about God’s abundant blessings from a shoemaker whose bustling shop had only half a roof and rooms divided by tattered sheets.

Here I was, visiting a dusty pupusa restaurant managed by El Salvadorian immigrants who didn’t want pictures taken because they were afraid of the gangs they fled from back home.

Here I was, surrounded by dozens of handmade piñatas, miniature superheroes, dinosaurs and princesses. Each piñata–and there were hundreds–so carefully made that the business owners will travel to your home to personally install.

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The testimony was clear and strong: They had nothing. MiCredito provided essential capital at a reasonable rate that they otherwise could not get. Their lives were changed.

Now they were paying for their children to go to school. Now they were providing employment in their neighbourhood. Now they were increasing the reach of the services they provided. On and on.

What a privilege to be welcomed to their homes and businesses.

Oh the lessons here.

By some incredible coincidence, I was reading “Emotional Agility” by Susan David while on this trip. I finished the last chapter while my ears were prickling like needles on the final leg from Atlanta to Harrisburg.

David talks about living your values as “walking your why.” She warns that this type of walking isn’t always comfortable: “If you’re socially anxious…and a friend invites you to a party, the easiest response might seem to be to send your regrets.” She continues, “But if you truly value friendship and let these values guide you, you’ll make a forward move instead and says yes.”

Going won’t necessarily feel awesome. At least, not right away.

“But this initial discomfort is the price of admission to a meaningful life,” says David.

I was invited, don’t ask me how, to a party in Nicaragua, of all places. Despite my travels to many countries and cities, anxiety kicked in. When I got there, the party was, as Ms. David predicted, pretty uncomfortable. (I still can’t hear out of one ear and clearly need to go to the doctor.)

In going, I found meaning. And it didn’t take two ears to hear it.

In the spirit of the wise Winnie-the-Pooh, I am ‘braver than I believe, stronger than I know,’ in ways I can’t say are either good or bad. I felt my privilege as I stood in thriving businesses forever grateful for $100. I felt my power as I traversed Nicaragua, single. What I do with this strength, in its many forms, is a lifelong challenge I must continue to explore relentlessly.

“Choose courage over comfort by vitally engaging with new opportunities to learn and grow, rather than passively resigning yourself to your circumstance,” David advises. “Courage is not an absence of fear; courage is fear walking.”

I couldn’t hear everything, not there, not now. Today, though, I see a little more clearly.

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