From 56 to 58: Vaqueros, Volcanoes and the Voice of the Road

Nicaraguan LifeDecember 17, 2013: Pelicans glide inches above the cresting waves. The rising sun glistens pinkish and oblique across the Pacific Ocean and carries me back to yesterday, where we left Granada about nine thirty in the morning—Hernán was with us—and the driver was a big, giant of a man whose hands never left the ten and two o’clock position on the steering wheel the entire trip, through Nicaragua, Honduras and to the bridge at El Salvador.

We passed Masaya, the town, and then passed the volcano of the same name, a low and not terribly active lava-maker that looks more like a shield volcano than stratovolcano, what with part of its side seemingly blown off.

Hernán inspects the pottery I bought the day before approvingly.

(Side note: Hernán, whom I’ve not yet introduced, is the most interesting man in the world and utterly unlike the Dos Equis clown. He’s the same age as me and his life could have been mine, just as mine could have been his. In due time I’ll tell his story. It’s worth telling.)

“It’s Chorotega,” he says, “designs from the indigenous people of Nicaragua before the Spanish arrived.” An Indian chases what appears to be a frog with horns, although I know it’s some kind of deer. The colors on the cup are earthy, soft fleshy orange, jungle green and clay brown.

We ride through the middle part of Nicaragua now—the most heavily populated, along the shores of the Lago de Managua. The hills are deforested, in the naked reddish dirt grow green stalks of corn against an ever present but moody sky. Cloudless now, but later?
Vocano
Managua, the capital city and former den of the great communist plot to take over all of America, was modern, filled with new buildings, new cars (none American-made), surprisingly clean, but security was everywhere. That’s Central America for you.

Hernán points out a ‘Matapalo’ tree, “the biggest one in Nicaragua,” he says, “grows like a parasite over the roots of an older, hardwood tree, smothers it and takes it over.”

We passed from Managua straight into a landscape right out of South Texas, fertile but brushy, good dirt, not so many trees, cattle country and prickly pear cacti. The only difference was the tropical edge hanging over us, a sky now molten gray just waiting to unload.

“That,” points Hernán to a beautiful, wide, white-flowering tree, “is the national tree of Nicaragua: the Madroño.” I look closely at it and the subsequent madroños along the road. It’s clearly related to the Madrone tree found in the desert southwest, including my beloved Hill Country. It has paper thin bark that peels to reveal a red trunk, but the leaves are bigger, the bark peels less and it looks more natural in the tropics.

We pass Leon in a blur, “next time I will spend time in Leon, home of the revolution,” I promise.

After Leon we turned the car firmly northwest into one dramatic view after another. To my left sugar plantations lined the road, most in one form of harvest or another. In the distance the Flor de Caña distillery, in a feat of regal alchemy, turns sugarcane into the finest rum in the world.
Sugar Cane Harvest
Buses run down the Pan-American Highway, old Bluebird buses, known colloquially as “el Diablo Rojo,” red devils. Another odd thing I’ve learned about Spanish, their term for idioms, or figures of speech, is literally translated as ‘false friends.’ The strange things you learn on the road.

Campesinos (peasants) walked, rode bicycles and horses. One vaquero was even texting while riding his steed. Several species of dove lined the electric wires, kingbirds chased bugs, vultures kettled and the occasional Smooth-billed Ani flitted across a skyline of grain elevators.

But to my right the passage was much less pastoral, more like violently volcanic. The potential kinetic energy was palpable looking at cones of such perfection, built upwards, up towards the sky in a series of  identical eruptions. One had erupted recently (within one or two hundred years). The peak was grassy, and only the hardiest of trees grew on the lower slopes.
Nicaraguan Cowboys
A hedge of Herrisillo trees blocks the view. The dirt grows redder, fields of cane rise and fall depending on the harvest, many topped by the cottony white pyramid of the cane flower. A single line of white clouds scud across the blue until another volcano blocks out the sky with its lumbering, clumsy weight. Another perfect cone, this one smaller but with a perfect trail of gray smoke trailing the peak.

The vaqueros proliferate. The horses, clad in long leather saddles with noticeably absent horns from the pommel. No lariats in Nicaragua? Regardless, northwest Nicaragua is cattle country, where the rivers run muddy, wide and full of crocodiles. I count forty different shades of green—from the multi-hued slopes of San Cristobal, biggest of all Nicaragua’s volcanoes—to the Mesquite-like Jicaroro tree.

A billboard of Daniel Ortega, el presidente, waves goodbye as we pass into Honduras.

“Con Todos y por bien de todos,” it says. Adios Ortega!

Nicaragua is now but a reflection in our rearview mirror as we submit our paperwork and then drive on. I silently count the fifty-seven countries I’ve now visited. Fifty-seven countries in forty-three years isn’t too bad.

Between Honduras and El Salvador the continents and plates bend to create a bay of Pacific water without any measurable surf. It’s an awkward semi-circle ringed by rough hills of traumatized and fractured limestone, sliced and diced by volcanic intrusions: a white canvas slashed with red-black lines, like Eddie Van Halen’s Frankenstrat in reverse. A large tree grows in a soft field of green grass, but in its shade the grass has flowered white, a strange otherworldly sight of an hitherto unknown symbiosis.

The sugarcane dissipates, morphing into corn and bananas. The relative prosperity of socialist Nicaragua—where all the houses are made of brick—turns into the dire capitalist poverty of thatched huts, mud floors, straw beds and pigs and chickens wandering in and out of the house. The pink flowers of Tropical Oaks explode on the roadsides. A malnourished horse crosses the road towards an Ocellated Turkey pecking into dust blown down from deforested hills, looking for sustenance where none is to be found. We pass a truck with a large sleeping bed in its bed. Several campesinos wave. Cornfields grow at 45* angles or more on hillsides.
Honduras Life
There is little conversation today as we mostly absorb. That’s the way seeing country should be, alone in the moment, mindful that this is the only eternity that matters. But I lose the moment and silently curse my ex-wife—if only she’d given me a little freedom to wander around alone and not grasped so tight. Then I am mindful again, aware that “if only” is no way to live.

I turn back to the road, the giver of all things good: color, life, interludes, experience, and the hard comfort of being alone.

If the difference in wealth between Costa Rica and Nicaragua is significant that which exists between Nicaragua and Honduras is unfathomable. And yet I see a Little Caesar’s, KFC, Pizza Hut and the Golden Arches of Globalization in the southern Honduran town of Choluteca. Apparently Honduras has been made safe for American-style freedom, which must be a wonderfully comforting consolation to all those murdered for control of the drug trade to Estados Unidos.
Tropical Oak
Such ruminations, dark as they are, are interrupted by Hernán.

“We are at the Salvadoran border, Juan Pablo,” he says.

We say our good-byes. For they are long, complete with a genuine hug. I have grown fond of Hernán, my Nicaraguan doppelgänger.

Father and I plow through immigration and start the search for onward transport again. Luis, a former illegal dry-waller in Maryland approaches us. I negotiate a price and we are whisked away into dusk and then the dark. We pause for gas at a Puma. I haven’t eaten all day and order a “tamale con mystery-meat” and inhale it under a tree full of grackles making an ungodly racket. A grackle shits on me, “welcome to El Salvador,” it ca-caws, “country 58, you silly gringo.”

El Salvador passes in the dark—all I recall are three smells: burning plastic, diesel fumes and the musty-sweet smell of just harvested sugarcane.

At last I feel the humidity of the sea and the tang of salt on my lips.

We find a hotel room on the beach and I collapse, exhausted.

Update: 350 Photos Are Now Up

AlejandraI want to bring everyone up to date.

I spent a good part of the day scribbling, in between surfing, of course.

Tomorrow is a travel day so I’ll spent some time in the airport polishing up my notes and hopefully get a blog post up about Nicaragua and the ride from Nicaragua to El Salvador, which obviously was fascinating.

But it might take another day.

In the meantime, the full set of Central America photos is now up to about 350 photos, so click on the link and enjoy the full set.

More soon . . .

Up The Isthmus on a Promise

Woke up yesterday and immediately jumped into an ice cold shower: penance for my lack of vigilance the night before. You see, it’s been, what, four years since I’ve been on the road like this? A long time to lose critical skills like remembering to ask the hotelier (more like a roach motel, but hey) if they have hot water. It was late, it’d been a long haul from the Canal Zone to the border and on into Costa Rica. I was exhausted and I slipped.
The Road Goes on Forever . . .
Honestly, there was a bit of the old frisson as I counted to five and jumped into the ice cold water, quickly sucked in air, and breathed rapidly under the deluge. It’s called earning your stripes. After that I dried off quickly, grabbed my bags and walked into the brightness peridot-like hills, pregnant tropical clouds and blue skies. Just another typical Costa Rican morning.

Got breakfast. Post breakfast negotiated with a driver for passage to Penas Blancas, the border with Nicaragua.

“Look, son, I don’t give a flying two handed monkey fuck how much it costs, but I am not taking the chicken bus today. I am seventy-one years old and have earned a little bit of luxury. Especially after galavanting with you across Central Asia and God knows where else we’ve been together,” Dad said.

So I negotiated hard, finally settled on a price with a young man named Juan Carlos—handsome in that Latin American way—grabbed our bags and off we went down the road, chasing hope, the possibility that we’d sleep in Granada.

And what a road it was!
Jungle Mountains
The first portion of the morning we traveled the Pan-American Highway—IH 35 for you gringos and gringas—that runs from Chicago to the Tierra del Fuego with only one 53 mile break amidst the impenetrable jungles of Darien between Panama and Columbia. Our heading was vaguely northwest towards Nicaragua. Most of the morning we ran parallel the Pacific with the water popping into and out of view. The urge to halt the car, grab a board and abjure all responsibility was strong with me that morning. Were Dad not with me I might have, alas we pressed on.

On my left the endless quicksilver blue of the Pacific. To my right the timeless procession of jungle clad hills, mountains and countless rivers draining the high plateau of water. An infinity of greens. A riot of floral colors and one “soda” (small restaurants in Costa Rica) after another.

My Spanish grew rapidly as the day progressed but father’s grew exponentially.

Me on the BeachA digression: truth be told here, father’s linguistic abilities have always been somewhere between abysmal and non-existent. His ear for Chinese, Turkish, Russian, French, Italian, Farsi and Uzbek totally laughable, much like the yip and yap a coyote drowning in a vat of melted cellophane would make. But this? This was remarkable. And then it all came back to me, as a boy growing up on a farm north of San Antonio—how, as we fed the horse he named them in Spanish, as we grabbed eggs from the chickens he made me say “huevos” and how he’d point at the goats and say, “cabrito” forcing me to roll my “Rs.” Thus he gave me the gift of a passable natural accent. By the end of the day he and Juan Carlos were just talking. My father is my best friend and I fancy I know all about him, but he surprised me. And after forty three years of knowing one’s father that’s a good thing.

On we drove, the minutes rolling over with the miles on the odometer, little change in scenery: always skirting the ocean and hugging the jungle. Aside from pitstops every hour or so the day was uniform, the persistent squeak of the rear shock absorber, droning engine and Father and Juan Carlos speaking in Spanish in the front seat. I listened but mostly did my favorite thing in the whole world, the best life has to offer: I simply watched country roll by.
Yellow-crowned Euphonia
“And where is your family from,” Dad asked Juan Carlos.

“Mi madre in San Jose, mi padre no se,” replied Juan Carlos in a well rehearsed rhyme on the misfortune of being fatherless.

“You don’t know your father?” my father asked, surprised.

“Si,” Juan Carlos replied in that languid, oneiric way.

“Neither did I,” confessed my father by way of reply. The bond between them grows stronger, even though both know they will never see each other again. Two fatherless men, out in the world alone.

Most Costan Rican geology is igneous, dark brown to black basaltic volcanic rock. The beaches too are a dark brown to black sand. Fine and pretty but hot as hell in the sun. We stopped at an unnamed beach somewhere before the Nicoya Peninsula turns the tall Pacific swells into the smooth, harmless agua de bahia. Dad bought some ceviche and for the next two hours the smell of onions, lemon and fish hung in the air. We pulled away from the beach and rolled on.

Most mountain streams, be they rivers (rios) or creeks (quebradas) along the way ran cold, narrow and clear, but one river was muddy and wide. The Rio Tarcoles was also full of crocodiles. Big, nasty looking river gargoyles that would chew your face over without thinking twice. They had ill looking skin anywhere from a sickly tan, fleshy color, better to blend into the muddy waters, to green with black spots and tan nictitating reptilian eyes. I obligingly took photos and walked back to the car. In a tall ‘Brilliant’ (stress on the iant portion of the word) tree a small flock of Yellow-crowned Euphonias sang and ate and flickered about brining the sound of joy to slow lapping sounds of river water.
Crocodiles
We motored on. The Pacific turned into the Gulf of Nicoya, a peninsula, which on a map looks like an upside down boot spur. The dirt here had changed from a tropical red to an almost Post Oak Prairie black. A road cut explained why: there lay dun-colored multi-layered beds of limestone with a thick black igneous dyke sliced diagonally through it. Clearly this rock sat for eons on the bottom of a shallow sea, much as the bed rock of the Gulf of Nicoya does now. Just as geology changed so too did the topography. We were now up on a slightly elevated plateau that slopes slowly down towards the bowl containing the Lago de Nicaragua. Here in Costa Rica it is punctuated dramatically by two lumbering volcanoes on the horizon.

Magnificent rancheros circled us. Brahman bulls and cows, like little grey cotton balls on a blanket of green, were covered by a ceiling awash in the finest ceramic blue possible. A volcano smoldered, smoked. Then the wind picked up. Blades of tall grass bent horizontally across the road. Then we passed an 18 wheeler blown off the road. Juan Carlos gave the wind a name, “Alicious,” which comes off the volcanoes cool and furious, pulled down by the languid humidity of the Nicoyan Gulf. Dusts devils blew across the road at 30-40 mile per hour blasts. We stopped the car to feel the full effect. Dust flung about by the winds stung my bare arms and face, rain mixed into my hair creating an intolerable clay-like mess.
Rio
We covered our eyes and got back into the car. It was getting late. And when it gets dark in the tropics, the darkness comes on fast. The sun began its nightly rainbow brigade. The scirocco coming off the mountains created a madness of color: from God’s own golden start to the mandarin middle and the crimson finale this sunset whispered a promise: you’ll sleep in Granada tonight.

We drove now into the dark but the closer to the border we got the more tense I grew. The Costa Rican side of this border crossing is easy, but the Nicaraguan side beggars description.

I lectured Dad on safety.

We arrived. We said our goodbyes, then plunged into the fray like it was a mosh pit.

I lectured Dad on safety, again.

Three times more times for good measure, including a string of f-bomb adjectives unfit for a family publication.

We stamped out of Costa Rica and began the kilometer walk in the jungle night to the Nicaraguan side. Countless rigs passed us in a roar we had to scream over to communicate. There were easily a hundred on wait and more coming every minute. This is free trade in the Americas now. Big rigs, diesel smells and insanely crowded border posts.

In a quiet moment father asked, “son, are we in no-man’s land?”

The ring of tension tightened a bit more about my neck. We were, indeed, technically out of Costa Rica but not in Nicaragua.

“Yes, father, we are,” I said somberly.

We reached the first police post.

Then passed through a second.

There was a third, but with the noise total, it was perfunctory. Then the darkness crowded back in upon us, the smell and sense of bodies nearby menacing.

The immigration post was barely discernible amidst the mad darkness. I found it somehow. A hundred migrants waiting for their papers while we breezed through, paid our entry fee, got our stamps and walked towards the fourth and final police checkpoint. In an uncommon bout of good sense I asked the immigration officer what was the most realistic price of a taxi to Granada?

“$60-70,” he said. I thank him and walked away towards the final checkpoint, preparing for the mayhem that would erupt when we walked out into the press and jumble of taxi drivers, bus riders and touts.

A hundred meters before we got there a young man approached me.

“You go to Rivas? San Juan? Granada?”

Apprehensively, worries of taxi kidnappings, left in the middle of nowhere, all our things stolen, disturbed my internal dialogue, but I asked, “how much to Granada?”

“$70.”

“Vamos con tigo,” I said. This turned out to be an excellent choice.

We passed through the final checkpoint without a second glance and were quickly guided into our taxi. A fight threatened to break out over us, so our taxi driver hurried us along.

Digression: once in a town between Samarkand, Uzbekistan and Bukhara a fight broke out between three taxi drivers, slugging it out, bloody noses and all, over me, a lone traveler trying to get to Bukhara. This was a serious moment in Nicaragua and I was happy to see it pass without violence.)

We drove.

All of the sudden Granada felt possible.

Rivas was a blur of light—the baseball stadium lit up the humid jungle night. Rivas versus Chinandega. An American was playing for Rivas, Ty Williams, which is all I understood from the radio blasting out beisbol in Spanish.

The wind farm on the Lago de Nicaragua whirled and whirred in the deep tropical night, providing precious low cost, eternal energy to a very poor country. The moon hung over the lake—the island of Ometepe’s dueling volcanoes crouching with fierce potential power in the shadowy night. We turned off the main highway. East into more darkness. And then even more, as the Mombacho volcano blotted out the moon and stars. I nodded off, sleepy and exhausted.

A bump.

A horse in the road.

Lights.

A city.

And then the Plaza Colones.

Tonight I would sleep in Granada.
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Nota Bene: As always, the most recent photos can be found in the full set, here. The most recent upload start here and moves forward. Enjoy!

(Consider a tip if the mood strikes you.)




Central America Photo Dump

So, here’s a photo dump. You remember those, no?
Flowers
The full set can be found here. The most recent photos begin here and move forward. Enjoy!

On The Road Again

For far too long this blog has been without any kind of real adventure. The last one ended abruptly with a shattered collar-bone in the jungles of Sumatra and a grueling six day return trip to America and surgery.

There were a few excursions here and there: out to West Texas a few times, a magnificent road trip from Tahoe to Yosemite and then Yosemite to San Francisco. But those places have been tame, calm, where one can sip fine wines and sleep on posh beds. It has been a long time since I strung a back pack on, landed in an airport and wondered, “where the hell am I going now and what language are they speaking?”
Descent on Yavin IV
That day has almost arrived.

No one is holding me back any more.

On Tuesday December 10th I will fly into Panama City, Panama and over the next two weeks make my way up the Isthmus to Guatemala City to fly home on the 23rd of December. This is all mostly terra incognita to me. I won’t spend any time in Costa Rica, but I do plan to revisit a day in a canoe in the Lago de Nicaragua and maybe catch a baseball game in Granada. After that: who knows? Maybe an eco-resort in El Salvador, maybe a trip up to Honduras to see family friends. But one thing you can be assured of, I am going to watch the Millennium Falcon land at Tikal during the Winter Solstice, December 21st!

Now, on to a bit of logistics: I’ll be doing some writing for Centro y Sur, a magazine dedicated to Latin American travel. So be sure and subscribe online, as it’s free.

But that hardly pays the bills. Therefore, I will not hesitate to ask (now that I am no longer in sales, but still a former salesman) for you to pitch into the tip jar only if you liked the blog post, or the story as it develops. Grad school is expensive and this travel, while I stay in $5 a night rat and roach infested places and the flight is covered by old accumulated air-miles, still isn’t cheap.

You will also get a daily dose of large amounts of photographs at Flickr. 

And as always, if YOU have suggestions, tell them to me and I will see if I can accommodate you, as you are the reader and an equal partner in this endeavor of ours.

So, y’all, how does it feel to be back on the road with me? It’s been far, far too long, hasn’t it?




Question Answered

Some unknown denizen of the world wide intertubes queried in a google seach with the following keywords: “popoyo without a car.”

No, I wouldn’t recommend it.

But I do recommend the rum.

Austin Diary October 11, 2009: Lazy, Unenthused and Plain Lame

Granada SkylineI have an immense case of the lazies. Bad. I’ve been meaning to write but all I’ve been capable of is watching Law and Order, Psych and other particularly dreadful and empty entertainment on my iPod and decompressing. I’m not sure what came over me the last few days in Nicaragua, but I was concerned for a while that it might be Swine Flu (it isn’t). It was very uncharacteristic to be so lethargic, tired and unwell. I’m glad I’m mostly over it–although there are some residual effects still lingering. Like laziness–I already mentioned that, a severe case of unenthusiasm and pretty much being lame all the way around.

It’s hard to conjure up thoughts of sunny Nicaragua while it’s pouring sheets of cold drizzle down on me. It’s funny, too, that I was craving the cold so much while in Costa Rica and Nicaragua and now? Not really. Two days of it was nice, but I’d prefer to wear shorts and sunglasses again very soon.

I’m sitting in my ‘office’ hoping some form of inspiration will strike. Alas, it’s never really about the inspiration, more perspiration but it’s so chilly here it’s hard to work up a sweat. The thing I am struggling with is the storyline for Granada. I was so wiped out by the time I arrived there isn’t much of one. And there is even less material in my travel journal than normal.

A sample of said lameness:

Am in Granada, Nicaragua this morning sipping real coffee for the first time in a week and a half. Nescafe gets old, quick, but works wonders in the mornings. I’m watching a Cocker-Spaniel named Emmit run around the hotel. How lame is that? Then again, after a week and a half of very severe, almost India-like rusticity I am decidedly enamored of civilization’s charms.

Sheesh, a week and a half of India-like rusticity and I get tired? What happened to my chops?

Want more lameness? Here you go:

There’s nice silver on the table, soft pastels blue and white tiles on the floors, place mats, soft butter and fresh Guayava marmalade to be had. A ceiling fan circles overhead churning out fresh air. White washed walls, and a bubbling foiuntain.

A bubbling fountain? How fucking cliché is that? Really? I must have been really ill or out of my head because I know for certain I wasn’t drunk. And the misery continues:

Hardwood pillars hold up a mahogany and tropical cedar veranda, cork-screw palms and other plants I cannot name grow in the atrium.

“It’s a place done with love, not profits in mind,” my friend says.

Andreas, one of the owners tells me, “Granada is a very walkable town.”

I think to myself, “I may be out of bed, but I’m heading back there after breakfast. Screw walking.”

I made it out of the hotel a few times, however. Enough to eat a divine BLT with avocados on it at the Garden Cafe. Apparently I had the energy to note this, at the very least, in my travel journal. I was also happy about the smell of tropical flowers ‘mingling’ with the smell of fresh roasted Nicaraguan coffee.

Good God, I am rapidly in danger of turning into a giant cliché! I’m rummaging through the travel journal right now looking out for descriptions of Granada that include the dread words, “charming” and “quaint.” I haven’t found them yet. I guess I’m not too far off the deep end.

The Mountains, Land-Reform and Jobs

Ortegasm!I was involved in two pretty interesting conversations with Ruy and Plutarco while in Nicaragua. They spanned about three days, but below you will find the gist of them both. I traveled with a friend who wrote up the conversations in dialogue form, as my Spanish leaves lots to be desired.

Ruy:

On Evangelicos

Ruy: “There are a lot of evangelicos here. You know, the people here have a lot of illiteracy and no education. When the evangelicos come, the people don’t know any better. They take, and take and take and the people just flock to the church and give what little they have to these thieves; puto evangelicos estupidos.

On Ortega

· They are all the same (politicians). He is just another politico now.

· I’m not an Ortegaist, but I do have respect for him for standing up to the US

· Lo que me importa es trabajo, si tengo trabajo, estoy bien con el politico (I just want to be able to make my own way and I don’t have confidence in the politicians.)

On The Sandanistas

· I was taken into the mountains for three years. They took me, I did not want to go. “No, no fue voultario”. I went to a training camp with the Russians and they taught me how to fight.

· I saw two of my friends murdered in front of me in the mountains. One of my friends got his head sliced off, right in front of me. There was nothing I could do. When you are in the mountains the only thing you can think of is your own skin. Your own skin, that’s all you can worry about. This affects a person.

On ‘The mountains’

BR- Did the war impact the whole country or was it mainly isolated in North?

R- Yes, it was mainly in the North; in the mountains. They would take people from the countryside but the fighting was in the mountains.

BR – How are the people in the mountains now?

R – Oh, there is no more fighting in the mountains. The fighting has stopped. Its safe.

BR- What I’m trying to ask is how the war affected the people there.

R – Oh, there are a lot affected people there, crazies. The war makes you crazy. You can’t see what we saw and not be affected. I had to take off for seven years to clear my head. I went to South America and United States. It took a long time.

BR- You are really lucky you could do that. I imagine few people had this luxury. Are there are a lot of people with problems there?

R – Yes. The people in the mountains were affected. There are a lot of crazies there. The men beat their wives and there is a lot of drinking. Lots of violence, fighting in the bars.

Plutarco

BR- What do people around here do for a living?

P- Mostly fishing and small farming. Remember you saw the shrimp/salt farms on the way to town.

BR- there’s a lot of people here . . . .they all do fishing and farming . . . is there enough work for them?

P – More people used to work, things used to be better. People used to be able to get able to borrow money to grow their business and get them through hard times. The government used to help.

BR – In the 80s?

P- Yes. Now people can’t get any help. There are no loans and if you can get loans, they are too expensive. Interest is too high.

BR- What does the government do now?

P-They do what they can, but there’s no money.

BR- so do they give materials for houses or food?

P- Yes, materials for building (not sure if he was just agreeing to be polite . . . . .but t he clear message was that people were not getting what they used to)

BR- Didn’t the Sandanista’s give people land?

P- Yes, sort of. They gave it to cooperatives, for community co-ops. But the profit was never for the individuals. The government set the prices at which they would buy the whole sale product.

P- Now, its just too hard. People can’t get money to grow or sustain during hard times. You can’t barrow money and then owe the same amount in interest in less than 5 years. This does not make sense.

BR- Its good you know this. A lot of people have gotten into trouble by not understanding this.

P- Yes, people do what they have to. I watched my father do business when things were better. He would barrow money to sustain us when crops were bad. But, you can’t do that now.

BR- What about NGO’s or micro lending?

P- That’s only for the leaders of the community. They will receive the money for the community but it never gets to the community. They are the only ones that benefit.

BR- So the community politicians are just like the national politicians.

P- Exacto.

P – See this road, see how bad it is? It was great during the 80s. No one has cared to keep it up since then. They used this to get people for the mountains.

(Both Ruy and Plutarco would speak of “the mountains” not “the war”. There was something interesting about this but my Spanish is not good enough to explore this nuance. Nor was I comfortable enough to explore the irony in his complaint of the deterioration of the road used to take children from his town to the mountains.)

BR – The Sandanista’s would come for Soldiers, like they did for Rudy?

P- They like people from this area, rural people.

BR- Stronger?

P – Yes, and not political.

BR- Would they take mainly children?

P-Yes, you had to be (13, 14 or 15, I can’t remember) years old. I was not quite of age and they had already taken my two older brothers so my mother pleaded with them and I was able to stay with her but it was not easy. It was just me, taking care of the family. Then my brother came home from the mountains and he was not right. It was very difficult.

P- They also took land from the people here.

BR- Part of the land reform?

P- No, not for the people. For his people. See these hills, all of them, all this land? He gave this to one person. This is really good land. It goes all the way up there and all the way back there. From those hills you can see everything. It’s a lot of land, really good land.

BR- I thought he took land from Somoza to give to the people?

P – This land was from someone who bought it. He was not a polititician. He paid for the land. They took it when he died and the land was in probate. His family tried to fight it, they are still fighting it. That’s always how it is. The rich people have all the lawyers and judges and they just get more and more.

(then we started driving by the owners that were given the land)

P- there they are; see, they are not poor. They did not need the land. See how nice their truck is.

BR – So this was not land given to the people?

P – No this was land given to one person, for their own benefit. One of Ortega’s cronies, as a reward.

Many thanks to BR for the transcription, as I seem to have been overcome by a severe case of laziness.

It’s A Strange World

Cifar RestauranteHad someone told me twenty years ago when I was majoring in Russian, ready to fight the Cold War and all that, that twenty years to the day I would be spending my 39th birthday in a Nicaragua where Daniel Ortega was president and enjoying myself immensely, I would have laughed in their face.

Alas, here I am. ‘Tis a strange life and a stranger world. Lots of new photos from the Lago De Nicaragua here.

Popoyo Diario, October 3 2009

Popoyo Cloud ViewThe vile shit we do in the name of national security is beyond me, sometimes. I’ve visited a lot of countries in which our national security obsessions have led to all sorts of misery, but here in Nicaragua it seems the most futile. What harm did this desperately poor country ever pose to us? A little Cuban influence? Or Russian mercs running around in the hills? As Ruy told me yesterday, “Soy no Sandinista, pero if I have no job, I vote for Ortega.”

That says a lot for a guy who was pressed into the Nicaraguan army to fight the Contras. “Three years I spent in the mountains, fighting that puto Ronald Reagan. Pablito,” he tells me,” I love you Americanos, but Reagan was el grande puto.”

Ruy likes that word, he uses it with a large smile, his little Ortega inspired mustache hanging from his upper lip. He’s got an infectious hand-shake and at close to 50 years old has the energy of a 20 year old.

We drive for an hour and a half from the beach here at Popoyo to Rivas, the only place within a hundred kilometers with an ATM. “Yeah,” I think, “capitalism has come to even Nicaragua.”

“You see these schools? All built by the Sandinistas. Sure, our roads are no good, but we are educating people now. Soon, they will be smart enough to build the roads without the help of the Chinese or Nortenos,” he tells me.

The car stops, he says hello to some old man on a horse, chats him up and we speed along. Dusty rolling away in the read view mirror. Pigs loiter in dirty, disheveled front yards. Nicaragua is poor, but fuck, I think, the people do smile.

* * *

I require prodigious amounts of caffeine and nicotine to wake up, as I relearn that benadryl and ambien are not the best combo at bedtime. But my feet are no longer swollen like pimply papayas. There is something in the sand here I’m allergic to. That or I’m diabetic.

I grab the long board and head down to the beach to the ‘holy grail of Nica waveriding, Popoyo.” The board is heavy—and long at 9’2”—blows in the wind back and forth and tries my patience. There are few clouds and I look like a walking Crisco commercial, all larded up and not an inch of skin showing underneath the sunblock.

But the waves are too big and too fast for me. They come in easily discernible sets of threes and fours, with no whitewash to speak of.

My travel companion, whom I’ve taken to calling ‘Curls’ for her amazing mane of Shirley Temple curls, earned a very serious badge of honor yesterday. She munched her first board. She, unlike me, can surf. I just flail about like the rank amateur I am. But her? She’s got the goods. Alas, a big set wave came in, she misjudged the drop—they are two and a half meter waves—and went head first into the wall. The board jackknifed straight into the air, caught the next wave and snapped right in half. It amazes me that the human body just curls up in water and doesn’t get hurt at all, but the brittle board breaks. While she’s off earning real plaudits I’m in the surfers version of the kiddie-pool, desperately trying to just get up on a wave.

I’m reminded of Alejandro’s comment about surfboards, “unlike woman, the board let’s you get up on it every time.” What does that say about me? Am I neutered?

I wonder what Reyes would say to Alejandro? They are peas in a pod. So alike. Alejandro is a cad, but far too funny to dislike.

“I like my girlfriend,” he says, “but I like my life better. My priorities are family, surfing and girls.”

Latin to the core. And a surfer.

As much as I like Nicaragua, I cannot help but notice the country’s economy is a disaster. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a place that imports all its bottled water. But here in Nicaragua the water comes from Costa Rica and the salsa, of all things, comes from Honduras. Is there any industry here, aside from rich former-CIA staffers buying all the beach front property. “How’s that even possible,” I ask Ruy. “I don’t know,” he says, “but that mansion and that mansion,” he tells me, pointing north up the beach and then south, “are owned by former CIA staffers.

Is it paranoid rumor? I wonder? Who knows. The fact that the Nicaraguan’s think so is enough to be disturbed.

“And now, the evangelicos are invading,” he says. “Los putos puritanos,” he tells me. “Even the surf camp up the road is a ‘Christian’ surf camp.”

I shake my head.

“Soy Catolico, but he is evangelico,” he says, looking at his buddy Plutarco. He smiles at him. “I feel sorry for you.”

I concur. I’ve endured enough puritanism in my life as well.