West of the Fields

A tropical ecologist reporting from the field. Musings on life and art, botfly extractions, tropical plant identification, beer, parrots, machetes. Etc.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Postcard from Nicaragua

A postcard from Santo Domingo de Heredia, Costa Rica, more accurately, back in the land of internet access. I want to set things down while they are still fresh in my memory. Near the border at Peñas Blancas, the landscape of Nicaragua was indistinguishable from that of Costa Rica: pastures full of gray Zebu cattle, savannas with thorny trees, remnants of forest; volcanoes in the middle distance vanishing into the low cloud ceiling. Almost everything else about the two countries, though, was a stark contrast. The example that comes immediately to mind is the food options at the border. On the Costa Rican side, there’s a cafeteria with shiny linoleum and a buffet behind plate glass. Crossing into Nicaragua, the eateries are three-sided buildings beside the road, thrown together from scrap wood and metal, each one with a small smoky fire out back. They offer fried plantains, rice and beans, the occasional chicken. Lo que hay. Nearly all the food in the Nicaraguan countryside is still prepared over an open fire; a heavy scent of wood smoke still clings to the clothing I brought with me.

Isla de Ometepe is a large island, formed by two volcanoes (one active still, one dormant), in Lago Nicaragua. Lago doesn’t do it justice; it’s more like an inland sea. Check a map, if your Central American geography is as nebulous as mine was until I started working here. There really is a stunning amount of area covered by water in southern Nicaragua.

Ometepe hadn’t changed visibly since my last visit, a little over a year ago. There are still far more cows than vehicles on the main roads. The few vehicles that survive on the island are pretty down-at-the-heels. The buses are all 1980s vintage or earlier, festooned with stickers and religious slogans but otherwise unrenovated. Like the horses and oxen, they’re given just enough care to keep them from keeling over. Breakdowns are common, almost expected. One day I took a trip towards Mérida, on the southern side of the island. The bus broke down twice in less than 4 km: once with a flat tire, easily fixed, and once with a mysterious ailment that was remedied by the conductor pounding on something in the undercarriage with a large rock. I walked on the way back, and it was faster.

Mechanical difficulties are not limited to the terrestrial realm: on my last visit to Ometepe, the ferry’s motor refused to start when I was leaving the island. It was the first boat, 5:30 AM. Men clambered down to the engine room in the dark and banged on various things, but to no avail. Dawn came up over the volcano, purple fading into blue, and the stars winked out. Then a bus, one of the much-beleaguered horde, backed down the dock. I wasn’t sure quite what was going on until the boatmen opened the bus’s engine compartment and took out the battery. A few minutes later the ferry’s motor started, with a burst of black smoke from the tailpipe.

Last year, I spent most of my time in a hammock with a fat and thoroughly unedifying novel. This year I explored a little more of the island, visiting some of the beaches and hiking up the side of Volcán Maderas for a breathtaking view of the lake and the other volcano (Concepción). In the valleys, nearly all the arable land is taken up with rice fields and banana plantations. Up on the slopes of the volcanoes, they grow corn and beans. The climate is mild, and the volcanic soil is rich enough for two crops a year. It would seem like paradise, except for the flies. I guess it’s a logical consequence of living somewhere where the vast majority of transportation is by horse or oxcart, but there are a damn lot of flies. Islanders have a habit, which I quickly picked up, of putting a napkin over the mouth of your beer bottle as soon as it comes to the table.

It’s hard to adequately describe a Nicaraguan vacation. Certain images, then: the shadowed understory of banana plantations, with the starchy and unwholesome scent of organophosphate pesticides. Stone walls, so incongruously like New England’s but built of porous basalt, enclosing the plantations and neighboring fields of sugar cane. Dawn spreading like an oil slick over Lago Nicaragua, with thunderheads already building. Black volcanic beach pebbles; a thin line of yellow primrose petals at the water’s edge. Plumeria is blooming all over the island: branches like blunt instruments and such fragile flowers. I kept one pressed between the pages of a book. It’s still faintly fragrant.

The most notable thing about this year’s trip was the political propaganda posted everywhere. Nicaragua is coming up on a much-contested presidential election. Daniel Ortega, the Sandinista leader from 1985-1990, is running again. The country is divided, to say the least. I almost wrote “violently divided,” but the violence so far has been, thankfully, kept to a minimum. In the Sunday paper, I found an interview with Ortega. He felt confident of victory. On the same page there were interviews with the leaders of two opposition parties. Both promised that, when elected, one of their first acts in office would be to incarcerate Ortega.

The propaganda mainly takes the form of garishly colored posters, slathered across all the walls in town. Each party has its own bright colors: hot pink and green for the Frente Nacional de Liberación Sandinista, red for the Alianza de Liberación Nacional, carnation pink for the Movimiento para la Renovación de Sandinismo. (Their candidate, Mundo Jarquín, had by far the best slogan: vota por el feo que quiere una Nicaragua linda. Vote for the ugly guy who wants a beautiful Nicaragua. I have to admit, based on his picture, that “el feo” is not an unwarranted description.) As well as posters, the campaigns organized impromptu parades with brass bands, drums, and homemade fireworks. A truck with giant speakers mounted on top would follow close behind, blaring party slogans. This was all well and good, except that for three nights in a row, parades passed through Altagracia at something like three in the morning. I had to wonder if the parades were actually organized by the parties they advertised, or by rivals hoping to smear their image: vote for ALN, the party that wakes you up repeatedly in the middle of the night!

The most interesting campaign strategy I came across was the hiring of discomoviles. A discomovil is a fixture of Central American society: a roving truck that brings strobe lights and giant speakers to set up in any convenient open space. Voila, instant party. Well, one night in Altagracia both the FSLN and the ALN had the bright idea of hiring discomoviles. At the same time. The banks of speakers, three meters high and nearly as wide as the road, were set up facing each other, barely four blocks apart. And when I say blocks, these were Nicaraguan town blocks of maybe three or four houses. Maybe 200 meters total. The beats bounced off each other, recombining into bizarre variants of Latin music never heard before or since. John Cage would have loved it. Between blocks of merengue, salsa, cumbia, and reggaetón, the DJs subjected the crowd to a few pithy sentences of propaganda from their respective parties. If the DJ talked for too long, the crowd would begin to gravitate toward the other speakers. I mostly hung around the Sandinista end of things. Not for any political reason—personally, I really hope that somebody can keep Ortega out of office—but the music was marginally better.

Of the elections in my own country, I will give the same response I generally give these days when asked about my love life: sin comentarios. No comment. There are more than enough blogs that deal with sex and politics.


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