“But the chief matter of property being now the fruits of the earth, and the beasts that subsist on it, but the earth itself, as that which takes in and carries with it all the rest, I think it is plain that property in that, too, is acquired as the former. As much land as man tills, plants, improves, cultivates, and can use the product of, so much is his property. He by his labour does as it were enclose it from the common”
– Second Treatise of Government, Chapter V, Paragraph 32
This is the continuation of the accounts of my trip to Nicaragua’s Caribbean Coast.
In Peace Corps Nicaragua every one of the four sectors has a reputation; the stereotypes that fit us pretty well. My sector, Entrepreneurial Education, the “Bizneros,” are good with money, always working and busy, and talk about work a lot. At least we know how to split the bill properly at the end of a meal. Environment Volunteers are pretty granola. They want to ban plastics, hug the trees, and love making clothing out of garbage. English Volunteers are a little aloof and no one really knows what they do, other than help English teachers in the schools. Last, there are the Health Volunteers, who are always running around with wooden dildos showing anyone who will listen how to properly put a condom on.
Other Volunteers have also related us to the four houses of Hogwarts. The Bizneros, clearly Slytherein. Environment is Ravenclaw, The English Volunteers are Hufflepuff, and Health takes the Gryffindor crown.
Update: Nothing seems to stir up controversy like Harry Potter. My old site mate, Isabel, was honored to be sorted into Gryffindor, but she insists that the propensity for English Volunteers to quibble about grammar and syntax makes them more Ravenclaw, and the tree huggers scampering around the campo looking for manure to mix into the concrete for their low-burn improved ovens and stoves is soooo Hufflepuff.
However, there used to be a fifth sector: Agriculture. The Aggies. They were put in very small villages all over the country, and did not have many counterparts or a structured program. What did the Aggies do? No one really knows. While the other four houses of Hogwarts were up in the castle the Aggies were wandering around the Forbidden Forest trying the mushrooms. Every once in a while you would see them trudge through the office, dirty and smelly, still half-drunk from whatever moonshine they got their hands on in the campo the night before. Since then the ag program has closed, and none remain as Peace Corps Volunteers in Nicaragua. They are only but a legend.
Two of the most remote aggies lived outside of Pearl Lagoon. Joe lived in Rocky Point, and Stefan lived in Manhattan. They are both two small farming communities that lack electricity, running water, and roads. The inhabitants are primarily Black Creole farmers. Stefan and Joe both have pretty interesting stories from their stay, and I got to visit both sites while out on the Caribbean Coast.
Our first stop on my third day in Pearl Lagoon was Kukra Hill, the next town south. It was an hour long truck ride through the forest on a dirt road. Ryan had to visit some students there. Along the road we were continuously picking up and dropping people off. At one point someone hopped on the back of the truck, and just about a hundred yards down the road he hopped off and ran into the woods. He didn’t even pay. We drove on, completely unphased. Ryan mentioned that a lot of people hide their farms to prevent people from stealing their crops. I had seen much weirder stuff on busses anyway. The police officer that was once sitting next to me puking into a bag comes to mind, but I digress.
Anyway, as we were pulling off from our brief stop, the man now trudging off into the woods, a police motorcycle came screeching around a bend, and two officers hopped off and went running into the woods after the man. Turns out he wasn’t a farmer. He was a wanted man. By the time we got to Kukra Hill we had forgotten the episode.
A Nicaraguan friend of mine in León once went to Kukra Hill to volunteer in a literacy brigade. He told me that he loved his host family there, but they had lost touch. When Ryan told me that we were going to Kukra I contacted my friend and told him that I would look for the family for him. Ryan’s response: “I love a good scavenger hunt in Kukra.” Apparently, we would have three hours until the bus departed back towards Pearl Lagoon, so we would have time to kill.
This is what my friend sent me to find his host family:
“Si le caía bien, se llama nicolasa. No recuerdo el apellido, tampoco la dirección. Sólo recuerdo que vive en un taller de soldadura tiene un hijo que se llama Yeiser y otro que se llama bryan. No recuerdo si es del estadio unas 4 cuadras al norte, el consejo supremo electoral queda a ñunas cuadras de donde ella.”
“Yes, we got along well, her name is nicolasa. I don’t remember the last name or the address. I only remember that she lives in a soldering workshop, she has a son name Yeiser and another named bryan. I don’t remember if the address is from the stadium some four blocks north. The Supreme Electoral Council is a few blocks from her.”
So after we met with Ryan’s students we set off. Kukra is not a Creole town. The majority of the inhabitants are Spanish speaking mestizos, so this little adventure was in Spanish, not English. We found the stadium, and I asked which way was north. They pointed north for me. Then I asked for the Supreme Electoral Council. They pointed in a different direction. Ok. Finally, I asked if there was a nearby soldering workshop. The man pointed in a third direction. Curious. I followed my instincts and went where he indicated the soldering workshop was. Turned out my instincts were right. I found Nicolasa, Yeiser, and Bryan, traded phone numbers, and reunited my friend with his long lost host mom, all in a hot afternoon in Kukra Hill.
After the scavenger hunt it was time to head back to the bus, which would be taking us to Rocky Point, one of the farming communities along the dirt road. No fugitives hopped on this time, and before long we ourselves were hopping off and heading off into the woods to finds Ryan’s friends who we would be staying with.
The Rocky Point Country Club
Lago lives on his brother’s farm (his brother has a hotel on Corn Island), tends cattle, and raises a few other staple crops. He has orange trees, soursop, carao (which they call stinky toe), and coconut palms. In addition to his cabin, he has two additional cabins for guests and farm hands. I understand about one quarter of what Lago says. As soon as we got there and Ryan introduced us Lago handed me a bunch of mini bananas – one of my top three tropical fruits, and he shook a green coconut free from one of his palms, used his machete to make a little opening, and gave me the coconut to have a fresh coconut water. I was in love with Rocky Point.
After the refreshment Lago proclaimed that we should play a round! The farm is the site of the famous Rocky Point Country Club, created by Aggie Joe, a golf fanatic. Using some backwoods ingenuity they created a nine-hole golf course. The holes are trees though, not actual holes. Joe got clubs shipped in from the states, and although Joe is now gone the clubs and farmers are still around. Unfortunately there are no leftie clubs except for a crappy ambidextrous putter. Rocky Point Country Club – No Lefties Admitted.
Ryan, Lago, two other farmer guys, and me played a few holes before it started to get dark. I actually got an improbable bounce-off-one-tree-and-hit-the-hole hole-in-one! The whole experience of the Rocky Point Country Club just reinforced my feeling that I was no longer in Nicaragua. The Caribbean Coast is like a whole other country.
For dinner we headed over to Ms. Connie’s farm. Ms. Connie is a bit of a local legend I suppose. She has four children with her husband. Miss Connie and Kenneth both have degrees. She works the farm, is a community leader, cares for one son with mental disabilities, is a volunteer promoter for the government agricultural agency, and has three children seeking a higher education on the Pacific side of Nicaragua. That’s no small feat for any woman, let alone a Black Creole from Pear Lagoon who lives in a house with no road access, water, or electricity.
I’ve mentioned one of Miss Connie’s sons before. He is Kennon, my student from Pear Lagoon who was in León to improve his Spanish. He has graduated and will be pursuing a veterinary degree starting this year. It was great to finally get to meet his family. They are very nice and were very happy to meet me as well and show me around the farm. Their main cash crop is coconut. They process it into coconut oil. That night we all made dinner together, watched a baseball game (they have solar panels that charge during the day), and tried giffytea, which is Garifuna moonshine. It was good. It tasted like spiced whiskey.
The next morning I woke up and walked out of my cabin. I had no idea what time it was. The sun was up, but the howler monkeys had ceased howling. My cell phone was long dead. There wasn’t any service anyway. Lago was standing on the bank of the creek shoving a long tree branch into the murky water. Two young Creole were jumping about him and yelping. I had no idea what was going on, so I asked Ryan. Turns out they were trying to stir up the caiman (“tora” in Creole) that lives in that section of the creek. I don’t know why they wanted to wake the beast that had once nearly killed a puppy, but hey, it’s not my farm. The caiman didn’t turn up though.
The boys are Lago’s nephews, Elshawn and Eduardo, both 11. Lago had to go do some work, so he left them with us. Ryan had to go talk to a few of the other farmers in the area, and we agreed to let one of the boys lead us to his grandfather’s farm which he promised was close by. I got Nicanapped. By an 11 year old. The boy wanted to see his brother and get oranges from his grandfather’s farm, so he just told us that it was nearby. Turns out it was in the next town down the road, Manhattan. It was a trudge and a half to get there.
Unlike its namesake, Manhattan is no bustling metropolis. Stefan, one of the aforementioned Aggies, used to live there. When I walked to Manhattan we crossed a small bridge over a river. However, when Stefan began his service, there was no bridge. Stefan dedicated his entire service to getting that bridge built, and I was glad that the boys dragged us to Manhattan so I could see such a wonderful Peace Corps legacy. I really hope that the bridge is helping farmers in Manhattan, like Elshawn’s grandfather, generate more income and have higher standards of living. And luckily, I did get a fresh orange when we made it to the farm. Joe and Stefan both wrote articles about their projects for our Volunteer magazine before they closed their service. Check them out here.
As we were walking back towards Rocky Point down the unpaved road I was reflecting on what life was like out there in Pearl Lagoon. It may be the closest I have ever been to the state of nature. Land titles are seldom recognized. The long hand of the law is not quite long enough to reach Rocky Point. Families live long walks apart from each other, and the primary, nay the only, form of livelihood is agriculture. I had been in Pearl Lagoon and I realized that the region raises every legitimate question about living in a society. Governance. Law. Safety & Security. Commerce. Transportation. Environment. Agriculture. Language. Race relations. Infrastructure. Culture. History. And more. It is a truly fascinating and beautiful place to visit, and it gave me excellent perspective on León. For everything that León lacks the people are far more fortunate than their compatriots of the other coast.
That afternoon we all hung out at Miss Connie’s some more, although we put the boys on the bus back to town at around 3:30. We tried to watch the next baseball game in the Nicaraguan professional league finals that night, but the solar battery went out in the third inning, so we went back to Lago’s cabin to go to bed.
Back in our cabin, I realized that someone had gone through my stuff. Some things were missing. Ryan and I checked the rest of the cabin. Ryan’s stuff was untouched, but we realized that one of the windows was not shut properly from the inside. Someone had found the open window, pushed it open, and taken some of my things. The burglar must not have seen Ryan’s bag.
It was dark out, and Lago was drunk. He had had a bit of a heavy hand with the giffytea that night. Ryan and I decided to tell him what happened. He knew who the thief was immediately. Burton. Bad Man Burton. Apparently, Burton or one of the other farmers had asked Lago earlier in the day if Burton could stay in one of his cabins. Lago said no because Ryan and I were there. Using some other clues he had picked up during the day, Ryan realized that Burton was the fugitive that was momentarily on the bus with us the day before. He is a professional thief and sought by the police. Unfortunately, there is very little trust between the police and the Creoles, so people out in the farms often hide suspects from the police. Upon hearing that Lago had some White boys hanging around, he circled back when Lago came over to Miss Connie’s, found the open window, and got my stuff. He got from me:
- My camera with 16 GB memory card (and all of my pictures from the trip on it)
- Crappy Nica cell phone
- My brother’s old iPhone 4
- About C$ 250
- My deodorant
The camera has a scratch on the lens and is fairly worthless to sell used. Of course, it is very useful to me and I was furious to have lost it. The memory card, in addition to having all of my pictures from the trip, is probably pretty valuable. The cell phone is junk. It doesn’t even have T9 and it always gives me a SIM card error. It is my main means of communication though and has all of my contact numbers. And the iPhone is also pretty worthless, but I make good use of it for Whatsapp. Plus, he didn’t take the chargers for any of the three pieces of electronics. C$ 250 isn’t really that much (a little under $10), and luckily he didn’t realize that there was an addition C$ 1,500 in a money belt that John and Ashley gifted me as a going away present. The buckle clasp had broken over a year ago so I can’t use it as a belt, but I had brought the belt and stowed it in my bag for this trip, because I needed a lot of cash and I wanted some extra concealment. Good call John and Ashley! I would have been in a real bind if he had found that cash.
As for the deodorant, well, I can see why a man on the run in the jungle would be interested in that. In fact, this is actually the second time that someone has stolen my Old Spice! Clearly I have good taste. Unfortunately, I would be quite smelly until Saturday night when I got home to León and my Old Spice war chest. I would have also recommended that the thief had taken my malaria prophylaxis pills, maybe a few condoms (hey, you should always be prepared), bug repellant, and Atlas Shrugged (he is going to have a lot of reading time, whether he is hiding out in the jungle or rotting in jail), but instead he went for the electronics which I am certain have a nearly worthless resale value.
Ryan and Lago decided to go to a neighbor to confirm their suspicion. The neighbor sure enough figured that it couldn’t have been anyone else and must have been this Burton. Lago wanted to go and find Burton, but Ryan and I asked him not to. His knee was really hurting him, not to mention that he was pretty drunk. So we all went to bed, deciding to look for Burton or my stolen items the next morning.
About twenty minutes later Lago came to our cabin. He couldn’t sleep. His knee hurt and he was furious that someone would go behind his back like that and steal from his friend and guest. Lago had his rifle around his shoulder and his machete in his hand, and he wanted to go find Burton. Ryan didn’t want him to go, but there was no convincing him otherwise. Before he left I took out C$ 1,000 of my money belt hidden Córdobas and gave them to Lago, telling him to use them before using the gun.
Ryan tried to go to sleep. I decided to immerse myself in the soothing prose of Ayn Rand to pass the time. It just so happened that I was reading the chapter where d’Anconia goes on a rant about the sanctity of private property and any usurpation of it is tantamount to murder. Not in the State of Nature Frisco! It felt eternally late at night, but in reality it was only between 10:00 and 11:00 PM. Once the sun goes down and the solar batteries run out for the night, everyone is in bed in the land with no electric (I was reading with my headlamp, another one of my personal items that would have been useful for a life on the run in the jungle). Ryan was extremely nervous for his friend Lago and was grinding his teeth like a man in a strait jacket.
Maybe 45 minutes after Lago left we heard the neighbor’s dog’s barking. He was back. He had known where to look for Burton, found him, and recovered my phone and iPhone using my C$ 1,000, not the gun or machete. And the camera? Lago was too drunk and forgot to ask for it. That was an awful, ironic, sinisterly comical kick in my gut. Lago wanted to go back for it, but we forbade him too. We all managed to finally go to bed that night (Ryan and I were sure to properly secure the window).
The next morning we got up early, cracked open a few coconuts, and made soursop tree leaves tea. We also sucked on some cacao seeds (a common treat at the farm). I was extremely bitter about the fate of my camera. Lago’s knee still hurt, which was a shame. He had banged it while working the day before. Nevertheless, he was going to go looking for my camera. Ryan and I had to go because we were heading to Bluefields that day so that I could get back to the Pacific side of the country, so I told Lago no guns, no machetes, and that I would give him C$ 500 if he recovered the camera and hopefully the memory card with my photos too.
And so Ryan and I headed back to Pearl Lagoon and that same bus we had started the adventure on, with one camera and C$ 1,250 less, plus my armpits being exceedingly smelly. From Pearl Lagoon we took the speed boat back to Bluefields. I actually sat next to a man in handcuffs and his police escort. Most unfortunately, it was not Burton. This boat had no canopy on it, so I had to slather on a ton of sun block to stave off a nasty sun burn. Plus, the boat was overloaded, so we had to go slowly, and the engine either overheated or ran out of gas in front of Bluefields, so a speed boat from Kukra Hill had to tow us in the last hundred yards.
The dismal state of the transportation system out east (there isn’t even a highway that goes all the way to Bluefields) stirred in my mind a cool idea to improve things. The Coast needs a monorail, like Disneyworld, to whisk people around the lagoons, from Rama, to Bluefields, and up to Pearl Lagoon and further afield. It’s a pipe dream, probably more improbable than the canal, but it would be pretty cool nonetheless.
Bluefields, although a Creole town, still feels like Nicaragua, not a foreign country. Spanish is still spoken in Bluefields, and most of the signs are in Spanish. The stores and streets all resemble Pacific Nicaragua as well. I read that Bluefields once had some wonderful Victorian homes and architecture, but Hurricane Joan flattened the whole city in 1988. My plan was to stay the night at a Volunteer’s house and then fly back to Managua the next morning, but the flights were all booked up. The second best option is the express bus from El Rama to Managua, but that was booked to! I stayed the night (her house was very nice and she was very kind to accommodate us) and went to the airport first thing in the morning to try to fly standby. No dice. I had to take a boat to El Rama and then string together two slow bus rides to finally arrive to Managua at 5:25 pm, putting an end to my bittersweet trip to the Nicaraguan Caribbean.
Update: I just spoke to Ryan and he informed me that they have not been able to recover my camera. Rumor has it that it got sold in Kukra Hill. Enjoy the pictures! I feel like Burton stole my memories and my voice. I use my photos and videos to narrate. Without those pictures I can’t express on this blog so many things that happened during the trip, like little Eduardo being afraid of every animal that we came across, his awesome little accent, or his brother having to wear his shirt around his waist so that the “crass” cow wouldn’t see his red shorts. Also, later in the day we did find that caiman!
My advice: fly.