A Day In The Life Of Me — June 1980s — Realities Meet

By now, the conversations are predictable. Sometimes, it’s the woman shopping at the market. Today, it’s the curious man on the bus.

“So you’re American. What brings you to Honduras?”

“I’m a graduate student in archaeology, working with my advisor at his site.”

“How interesting. When are we being invaded?”

She holds back a smile, shrugs, and says she didn’t vote for Reagan and doesn’t know what he’s planning.

Seeing her country from outside, from the view of others, is another new experience this summer. Her two weeks in France as a high school junior count as little more than a vacation.

She may be book smart, but she’s still naive in so many ways, even if she doesn’t know it. So at first, the internal logic of these “friendly chats” eluded her. But she soon recalled her advisor’s warnings.

Don’t talk politics. Don’t wear red and black. When people find out you’re an archaeologist, they’ll assume you’re CIA. Get used to it.

Sandinista 003

Cold War politics have made Central America a battleground. Nicaragua, to the south of Honduras, is no exception. The country’s socialist ruling party, known as the Sandinistas, is supported by the USSR. The US backs the Contra rebels. The US provides the Contras with financial and military support and has established bases for them in Honduras. After further US support is banned by Congress, the Reagan administration continues with covert aid.

Even before US actions go covert, the CIA is involved. She understands this. Before coming to Honduras this summer, she watched the news regularly. And she knows the Agency’s and US government’s actions are unwelcome by many in this part of the world. Hondurans don’t appreciate being used as pawns in a political chess match. She sympathizes with them.

Still, she has a hard time with their assumption that all archaeologists, missionaries, and Peace Corps volunteers are US intelligence agents. After all, she and her companions are in western Honduras, not along the southern border with Nicaragua. And she’s a twenty-two-year-old girl from the Midwest. She’s never even been to Washington, DC, for a school trip or vacation. How can anyone think she’s a spy?

But for the man on the bus, his life’s experiences in this part of the world at this point in history shape his thoughts and beliefs, just as hers in the American Midwest have done. And so even as she knows she’s just a student, this man is just as sure she is so much more.

At one level, it’s unnerving. There is nothing she can say or do that will change this man’s mind and make him see the truth. If he were to confront her, saying, “You’re a spy,” any denial would fall on deaf ears. What else would a spy do? Her truth means nothing in this place and time.

image credit: Microsoft clip art

There’s no confrontation. Being a young, attractive woman has its perks. No one calls her out as a spy. The man is much more interested in being seen in the company of an American woman, even if it’s nothing more than sitting next to her on a bus.

When she returns to her lodgings, she still sympathizes with Hondurans and their impressions of Americans. She can see their point of view. She has the ability to put herself in another’s situation and better understand his beliefs and reasoning, a useful skill in archaeology, which in the US is a branch of anthropology. But she can also see the irony in them—and the unintended humor.

What if I really did work for the CIA? she thinks. And these people keep asking when we’re invading their country to use it as a base for a full-out war on Nicaragua. Do they honestly believe I would tell them? How does a real spy keep a straight face down here?

Here, in the privacy of her room, she lets that smile escape.

How about you? Have you ever faced a situation where nothing you could say would make another understand your truth was real?

65 thoughts on “A Day In The Life Of Me — June 1980s — Realities Meet

  1. This was really interesting. I must have a double floating out there somewhere in the world because twice people have approached me calling out, ‘Jane? Jane how are you?’ and twice I have told them, ‘My name is Gemma. I am Gemma.’ It took a little convincing, so the resemblance must be uncanny. If anyone else approaches me I will be sure to ask them who Jane actually is 🙂

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    • Now that sounds like a potential novel….We could have a comedy of errors or a taut, fast-paced thriller. Or a take on identity theft, sci-fi aliens infiltrating our world, or a psychological thriller with potential split personalities, or a conspiracy where someone doesn’t realize they used to be someone else. By all means, find out who Jane is!

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  2. What an awesome life you have had. Not sure if I ever mentioned it but I always wanted to be a archealogist. I live vicariously through TLC, Discovery and now you. Thanks 🙂 Good reading!

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    • Most of it’s been fairly tame. 😉 But there was this stretch of doing international fieldwork that did have its interesting and eye-opening moments! I don’t regret switching to US archaeology, but I’m also glad I had the other opportunities. 🙂

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      • Like Mrs Lanny I wanted to be an archaeologist. I now live vicariously through a magazine called Archaeological Diggings, an Australian journal. Maybe in my next life.

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    • That’s true, too. And people like that frustrate me far more than anyone did in Latin America. In this case, it was simply the cultural divide and life experiences that set the stage for these interactions.

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  3. I really enjoyed this post. The truth should be simple, and yet sometimes it’s actually complicated. You did a great job here of conveying what it was like for a 22-year-old to wrap her mind around the concept of personal truth. Being so careful about exchanging pleasantries, about guarding your own expressions, must have been a strange experience. No wonder you love spy stories! Thanks for sharing this story. I’m eager to read more.

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    • Thanks, kiddo. 🙂 I also wanted to give a glimpse of how difficult it can be for people from different cultures to really understand one another. I think so many foreign policies fail because the government officials seated in their capitals don’t understand—or refuse to consider—how those cultural differences shape the views of others.

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  4. “When people find out you’re an archaeologist, they’ll assume you’re CIA. Get used to it.”—Sounds like the makings of a great novel. Like you don’t have enough projects on your hands…

    I’ve been in those situations where nothing you say will convince a person. It’s best to recognize the impasse early on before getting in a senseless argument. But if we try to see the other person’s viewpoint, we can better understand his/her thinking, even if it IS baseless (as in this case, NOT a CIA agent).

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    • I can imagine a few scenarios for that line. If I had the chops for writing thrillers, I bet there could be a best-seller or two in my future. Alas, those skills are clearly not present. But there’s no copyrighting an idea, so if you or someone else want to run with it, go for it. 🙂

      It may not seem like it given the news these days, but most of us can live our lives peaceably with those who think differently. But when someone reacts violently as a result of those different perceptions/realities/truths, the results are tragic. At a local level, we might have a hate crime. At the international level, we might have war and genocide.

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    • Ha—good one! 😀 Perceptions and realities can be so different even for people who are close. And the further apart we get, the more different they become. It sometimes makes me wonder how we humans have gotten as far as we have. 😉

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  5. My truth has always been real, JM, regardless of anyone else’s truth. I no longer attempt to convince anyone else of my truth, nor do I dismiss anyone else’s truth as not real. Truth is a many-faceted gem…xoxoM

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  6. That would have been very awkward. It does seem that most people believe what they want to believe, no matter what others tell them. The wisest people are those who can sit back and listen to all sides around them–not making judgments, but just soaking in words, body language and other nuances that sometimes tell more than words. Those that can do that find a lot more real truth than those who cling to perceived truths.

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    • That is so very true. It seems wisdom, though, is often in short supply. And even when it’s present, cultural differences can make it hard to interpret someone else’s words and body language. There are some cultures, for example, where nodding the head up and down means “no” and shaking it from side to side means “yes.” That’s exactly opposite of what we do. We really need to spend time with others and listen to each other as we try to explain ourselves to each other. And to not rush into interpretations that are based too much in our own perceptions. Not an easy thing for most of us to do.

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  7. Your story raises some core issues and opens the door for an interesting debate. It got me thinking a lot about how this influences us as a society. You illuminate how truth/reality is different for each of us. It’s shaped by our culture, education, family, life experiences, etc. This ‘worldview’ influences how people view themselves, the kind of relationships they have with others, and what types of communities they create. Diversity can be threatening, like to the Honduran man you met, because his background has taught him so. Extend that from individuals to nations, and we see how this leads to global conflict. Tolerance for diversity could be the key. Thanks for another great post!

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    • You hit exactly what I wanted to convey in this post. When we lead insulated lives and don’t interact with others “different” from us, it’s too easy to misunderstand their words and actions or to believe they’re “evil” or “immoral” just because someone in our group tells us so.

      Very few Americans were in places like Honduras in the 1980s. A few adventurous types made their way to the Bay Islands for scuba diving. But the mainland saw very few American tourists. There were archaeologists, missionaries, Peace Corps volunteers—and military and intelligence units. Combine that with a long history of US-supported dictators and status as one of the “banana republics,” and it’s not hard to see why we were so distrusted. And, at least at the time, the CIA did use archaeology, missionary work, and the Peace Corps as covers for their operatives. To this day, Peace Corps job ads explicitly state no one who has worked for an intelligence branch need apply.

      I believe it’s only by embracing diversity that we’ll ever really how much we have in common below the surface as humans.

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  8. I would have been terrified! Being in another country and someone thinking you’re a spy would be quite unsettling.

    I’ve faced a few situations where someone didn’t believe my truth (mainly family stuff), but there was one time when a lady chased me for several blocks thinking I was Jane Fonda on holidays in Australia and nothing I said could change her mind (I don’t think I even look like Jane Fonda!) LOL 😉

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    • Luckily(?), the local men were far more interested in trying to spend time with American girls. It was a status thing. I was really glad I wasn’t blonde and blue-eyed. Those girls could get a lot of unwanted attention.

      Now what is it with Australia and doubles? You and Gemma have both run into this, and in both cases you’ve been mistaken for someone named Jane! I think there’s a novel in this!

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  9. That last line is outstanding. Just perfectly said. You will write that thriller someday. It’s simmering while you practice up for it.
    In some places – more now – people are suspicious of outsiders…for good reason, maybe.
    That was a pretty intense area at that time.
    There are actual trainers now that work with people companies are sending to work out of the country to get them up to speed with differences in body language as well as appropriate clothing and cultural customs/phrases they don’t teach you in books. Those lessons are becoming even more important?
    No better education than traveling – learn as much about yourself and your own place as the destination.
    Those late 1800’s-1900’s “grand tours” families used to take with their children served some purpose?

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    • Travel is the best education anyone can have, I think. I’m fortunate enough to have a diverse family history, too. On my dad’s side, some family lines have been here since the 1600s. But my mother immigrated with her parents. I have most of Europe covered in my tree. I’d bet I was the only third-grader in my town who could spell Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. Actually, I was probably the only one who had heard of them!

      Going someplace where Americans aren’t a common site is an eye-opening experience. I wish everyone could see their own country from an “outside” perspective. Challenging our preconceptions isn’t easy, but I think it’s the only hope humanity has.

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  10. Wow. For real, people assumed you were a spy??? That’s wild and cool and funny and sad all at the same time. I have never had an experience where someone refused to believe me. I’ll have to make up something good for that, I guess.

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    • It is true. I’m still not sure why they thought a spy would give them information about any planned invasions, though…. I think the Peace Corps volunteers had it worst because they would spend a couple of years in a place. All the better to gather more information, right? You can see my replies to Helga and Diane above for a bit more context if you’re interested.

      At 22, there was an air of adventure about it. Today? I’d probably be a hell of a lot more nervous to have people think of me that way.

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  11. Enjoying your posts. I thought of your trip in reading Summer at the Crossroads. Hope you don’t keep it shelved.

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  12. I can only imagine that people in Honduras were told, “Don’t trust an American–they’re probably CIA.” The thing is, they wouldn’t have had any way of verifying one way or another. It was safer to assume CIA than not. For a regular person on the bus, I’m guessing there was a bit of wanting to feel close (in a safe way with a young, pretty American woman) to possible intrigue. Can’t you hear the conversation that man may have had at home? “Today I rode the bus with a CIA agent. No, really. She denied it, of course.”
    Anyway, you know from reading my blog that I’m in complete agreement with your thesis that travel and openness to diversity is important.

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    • Most Hondurans saw very few Americans in those days. The military personnel could be easily identified by their uniforms. But things got murky after that. Is that young man in a white shirt and dark pants really a missionary? Is the woman in cargo pants and long-sleeved shirt really an archaeologist? Why would they be here?

      We saw a few intrepid European tourists while we were there, but no Americans. If people in the US had heard of Honduras, it was probably because of the war in Nicaragua, so why would they want to go there?

      It must have been easy to assume the only non-military Americans were really intelligence agents. And that led to some interesting conversations when we left the town where we were staying to go sightseeing. Which led me to a much broader worldview in my life.

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  13. Great post. Yes there have been times when anything I said, no matter how true, would be pushed aside as a blatant lie. I’d tell you about them, but I was told never tell such secrets to the CIA. 😉

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  14. I think of Honduras as a scuba destination so it was eye-opening to read this narrative. I visited Ireland in 1978 with a friend who wanted to visit the home of her ancestors. We ended up spending time with two guys from Belfast who threatened me for being a WASP.
    I was clueless about the troubles of that country at that time so I could not even begin to defend my truth. It was quite disconcerting.

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    • Back then, only a few adventurous Americans made their way to the Bay Islands for diving. I made it to Tela on the mainland coast to enjoy the Caribbean. Most tourists were from Central America with some Europeans added to the mix.

      With your experiences in Ireland, you have a good understanding of what I’m getting at with this post. When someone from a different place, upbringing, and experience has preconceived ideas of who and what we are, we can quickly find ourselves out of our depth and in a situation we can’t control. Luckily, things never escalated like that for me, and the experiences were simply eye opening!

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  15. In my recent trip to Tawi Tawi, a far flung part of the Philippines, where there have been several cases of kidnappings by a terrorist organization involving tourists, my new-found friend admitted that he had been sizing me up all day wondering if I was a covert agent sent by the government. It was dusk and we were having a couple of beers in their little house by the beach. I opted not to tell him that I had been doing the same thing since morning, trying to figure out whether he was somehow connected with the Abu Sayaff, the notorious terrorist kidnap which was based in the same group of islands in the area. I looked at the horizon instead, and told him “this is the most beautiful beach I have ever seen”. Then we drank more beer

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    • Thank you for joining the conversation! Your experience sounds similar to what I encountered. It’s unfortunate that such situations still have a place in the modern world. But wherever there’s civil unrest, distrust of “outsiders” is common, especially if or cultural differences are involved. And perceptions of, and past experience with, those outsiders often determines how someone will react. I’d like to see the day when humans around the world would accept and embrace the differences between us, realizing that they don’t have to be feared.

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  16. This gave me Reagan flashbacks. 🙂 I didn’t vote for him either – he scared me. Nicaragua is a good example of why he scared me. That’s funny that people thought you could be a spy. Maybe it’s those dark glasses? 🙂

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    • I can’t remember what my sunglasses looked like back then…. 😉 I do know they didn’t need to be prescription! On the one hand, I could understand why people would think we worked for the CIA. But I still don’t understand why they thought the CIA would give them information on any upcoming actions!

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      • That’s true – unless they were being very tricky spies and trying to give misinformation. Sounds like it would be a great novel!

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  17. Fascinating JM! I love learning about different cultures and meeting new people! I wish more people were open to learning about, loving and accepting people who are different. Can’t wait to read more about your experiences!!

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    • Thanks, Arlene. 🙂 From a “reader’s” perspective, this was probably the most interesting time of my life. But I’ll see if I can make some of my other experiences come alive on the page, too. 🙂

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  18. Travel really opens our eyes. We don’t know that things we take for granted are just part of our culture until we go somewhere else and find the things that ‘everyone knows’ are totally different.

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    • That is so true. I wish everyone could have the opportunity to experience another place and culture, especially beyond the usual tourist sites. It can really make us realize that there’s no one “right” way to live.

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  19. I’m such a wuss. You were much braver than I could ever be. I would’ve been petrified they’d have kidnapped me or something.

    Yes, I’ve had many people not believe my truth, and it still happens on a daily basis. I’ve always felt misunderstood. Up to this point, it hasn’t been as dramatic as yours. The biggest problem to convince of my truth has been my mother-in-law. Heh. Stay tuned for a fiction a character lightly based on her. 😉

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    • I don’t know if it was so much bravery as naivete. 😉 And sometimes, I’m just as clueless today as I was then, despite more life experiences. And even people who have known me all my life don’t always understand me. Maybe that’s true for everyone and it’s just that some of us recognize the fact more than others do.

      Shh, just don’t tell her which one! 😉

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    • I think it would take skill at writing intrigue and/or thrillers, which isn’t me. But if this post gives anyone an idea, they should run with it!

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  20. I don’t know, Ms. McDowell–if that IS your real name–I’m still not convinced you’re not a spook.

    Sandanista–great album, great band.

    The closest experience I have to the one you describe is that a couple times people have thought I was a cop in situations where I didn’t want them to think I was a cop.

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    • In the wrong place and time, being mistaken for a cop could be just as dangerous as being mistaken for a spy. So you have a good idea of what it feels like when people don’t believe what you know is true.

      “The only band that matters.” They were amazing. Honestly, I was just a graduate student. But I’m used to some people not believing me.

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