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 02, 2007

Under the Volcanoes

Well, I’m back from Nicaragua. It’s a fine country, but I must say, a hell of a place to recover from a cold. Between the exhaust from poorly-combusted diesel fuel, the dust from animal droppings in the streets, the omnipresent cigarettes, and the smoke from wood cook-fires (even in the cities), I was hacking up my lungs basically the whole time. The cough has continued since I got back, though not quite as severely. I spent the past three days in the forest doing plant surveys and being (as I once wrote in a Trail register, grossing out a number of people who thought my sister and I were “ladies”) a veritable Cape Canaveral of snot rockets. I’ve had this cold for two and a half weeks now. Today I am sitting at home, doing nothing but drinking lemonade and typing this, in an effort—probably futile—to drive away this damn virus for good.

So, the news from Nicaragua. The border town of Peñas Blancas is, as ever, the most wretched hive of scum and villainy readily available in this part of Central America. Having been through there three or four times now, I have learned to avoid the major hazards for unwary travelers. Foremost among these hazards is the flock of ambulatory money changers that congregates around the various lines you have to stand in as you wait for various stamps in your passport and customs forms. These men wave large rolls of bills and flash their laminated ID cards and calculators, all very official-looking, but woe to the traveler who falls prey to them. A guy I know was handed a 1000-cordoba bill (about $50), also very official-looking, which turned out (when he presented it to the hotel manager later that week) to be a denomination that does not actually exist. Another friend attempted to change about $60 into cordobas. The guy claimed he didn’t have enough change with him, and instructed her to wait. He vanished, along with her dollars, into the warren of hallways. Fifteen minutes later, when he still hadn’t reappeared and our bus was starting to re-board, we talked to the uniformed police officer outside the door. We told him what had happened and gave him the badge number and name of the supposed money changer.

“That is so unfortunate,” he said. “There’s a lot of crime at the frontera.” Such was the official response. I suppose another $60, or even $5, would have gone a long way toward producing information, but neither of us had any to spare, and the bus was honking behind us. We cut our losses. On the way back through the border, my friend swears she saw the same money changer emerge nonchalantly from the building and then sprint like hell for the trees across the parking lot. He was far enough away that we couldn’t catch him, though.

As well as the money changers, all the way through the border crossing one is beset by hordes of people attempting to sell you immigration and customs forms, which you can pick up at no charge at the requisite desks. Another small hazard, worth mentioning, is that most of the food outside the official cafeteria is pretty suspect. On a border crossing a few years ago, one friend got food poisoning from the empanadas, and another discovered midway through that her freshly-squeezed orange juice contained a quantity of worms.

Fortunately, the rest of the country is not like the frontera. I hesitate to write too much about it, actually, because Nicaragua is one of those tourist destinations much of whose virtue rests in being largely “undiscovered.” The few tourists who make it there tend to be interesting people, and in many places the locals are still genuinely interested in talking to tourists about the world outside. As someone who grew up in a town where tourism was a major industry, and where locals had developed a jaded love/hate relationship with “people from away,” I found the Nicaraguan attitude refreshing and endearing. Nicaragua is certainly not a recommended destination for leisure travelers—certain amenities, like potable tap water and hot showers, are notably absent—but there are some lovely places and some great people there.

Franklin and I spent the first part of our vacation on the Isla de Ometepe, where we had spent a week together in 2006. The island looked much the same, except that low clouds obscured the volcanoes and most of the political propaganda from the 2006 election had been painted over or washed away in the rain. (Political aside: Ortega’s approval ratings are fairly abysmal, even in a country where, as I read in the paper on the day before we left, 44% of people do not feel safe criticizing the government. The promised reforms are nowhere in sight; the major parties haven’t reached accord on any of the pressing issues. Sometimes I wonder what people were expecting when they re-elected him—the last time he was in office, if I recall rightly, he basically sold the country out from under the common people so he could live the high life while babies starved in the streets of Managua. Of course, considering my own country of origin, I really shouldn’t point fingers at states who re-elect demonstrably failed leaders. OK, enough politics.)

We stayed at Finca Magdalena, a local coffee cooperative in the town of Balgüe that has started offering food and lodging for tourists. It’s a couple hours by bus and a long uphill walk, but a lovely place to stay. For the first couple days, I lay in a hammock and watched a family of urracas (birds like giant blue jays) cavort in the papaya trees, and coughed. It was good to rest, but the farm is up on the side of the volcano and was in the clouds much of the time. The misty chill and the ice-cold showers didn’t help my recuperation.

On the third day, Rodrigo (one of the local guides) mentioned a rodeo on the other side of the volcano. He and some friends were planning to go, and he invited us and the other guests at the finca, an American woman named Patricia and a group of Belgian backpackers. We planned to meet up on the main road (the only road, really) sometime in the afternoon. Franklin and I walked down early to have lunch in a restaurant along the road, having exhausted the menu options at the finca. We found a restaurant/bar in a family’s back yard, with a shabby-looking thatched roof erected over two or three plastic tables. Chickens, dogs, pigs, and half-naked toddlers scrambled out of the way to make room for us. At another table, the older children were grinding corn for atol in an ancient, handmade-looking mill. One of the girls, probably twelve or thirteen, detached herself from the group and came to take our order.

We shared a liter of beer while we waited for the food (rice and beans, fried cheese, fried plantains, cabbage salad, and blistering hot sauce with peppers from a bush by the road—delicious, but quite slow in coming). A couple from France, Eric and Clementine, showed up just as the food arrived. We invited them to join us, since it had begun to drizzle and the only other table was under a drip. Eric was carrying a guitar, much to my delight. A few minutes later there came a young woman from Argentina, and a Canadian. We ordered a few more liters of beer. Finally, at about three, Rodrigo and Patricia showed up, along with some of the Belgians and Marichel, a young woman from Catalunya who is doing volunteer work in the village. Patricia and the Belgians had brought some bottles of home brewed liquor from the expatriate owner of El Zopilote (“The Vulture”), a tourist lodge near the town.

“It’s probably too late for the rodeo,” Rodrigo said. “And that chicken looks really good…”

Once again, the food was very slow to arrive. We ordered another liter of beer while we waited, then two, then three… Patricia and the Belgians shared their white lightning, too. One of the bottles was lemon flavored, a sickly-sweet cough drop sort of taste. On its own it wasn’t great, but mixed with lemonade (by this time I had ceased to care about potential parasites in the water) it was passable. The other bottle was infused with essence of hot peppers, and was every bit as lethal as it sounded. With Spanish as a common language, we talked about life, travel, politics, religion; all the topics one might expect from a group of young people of eight nationalities in a bar in the middle of nowhere. We also compared tattoos: Franklin’s snake armband, Rodrigo’s dragon, Eric’s Aleut-inspired band across his rib cage. I think I was the only one without one. The empty bottles stacked up in the side yard and occasionally one of the children came out bearing another plate of food for someone. The drizzle intensified and the woodsmoke from the house hung low about the clearing. Gradually it grew dark.

The guitar made an appearance. Eric and Clementine, it turned out, had just started playing perhaps a month before, when they started their trip. Clementine works as a piano teacher in France, and she hadn’t wanted to travel for so long—they plan four or five months—without an instrument. I can completely sympathize. They didn’t know many songs, though. (Clementine strummed a vaguely familiar set of chord changes: “Radio’ead. Eh, no alarms y pas de surpises?”) With my voice weakened by the cold I couldn’t contribute much either. But Marichel had a fine voice, and entertained us all with a rendition of “The House of the Rising Sun” – in Catalán.

Finally the matriarch of the house, a formidable woman a head shorter than Franklin and easily twice as wide, came out to announce that there was no more beer. We paid our final tab and swayed our way up the road… to another bar. By now it was getting dark, and none of us had flashlights for the km-plus ascent to the finca. Of course, by now we were pretty much past caring.

At the second bar, we were introduced to “Caballito Blanco” (little white horse), the Nicaraguan aguardiente. We shared numerous rounds with the local guys there. One of them was a kid, probably sixteen or seventeen, who managed to convey by gestures that he was deaf and mute. He was also missing a hand, either from an accident or a birth defect. His name, engraved on a handmade metal pendant he wore like a dogtag, was Yaimer, though when we wrote our names on a napkin he shrugged to indicate that he couldn’t read. He was a fine drinking companion, though. He also managed to convey by gestures a hilarious story in which he got lost on the volcano and ended up in a neighbor’s pasture being chased by a bull. I love small towns, and the way that people’s differences become part of the fabric of things, rather than shoved into a corner and forgotten. It can’t be easy to live in rural Nicaragua with such a suite of disabilities, but he seemed pretty happy.

We left the second bar and headed for the finca, but we were waylaid by Rodrigo’s father and some friends, drinking another round of Caballito Blanco on the back porch of a house in town. The owner of the house was a Hare Krishna who had spent years in San Francisco, and had retired to Nicaragua where he made a modest living selling whole wheat bread, fruit, and vegetables out of his front room. He and his assistant, an intense young man who expounded his theories of religion to anyone in hearing range, offered us another drink to wait out the latest round of rain showers. We talked about reincarnation and rock music.

Finally the rain let up and we decided to head for the finca. We had preternatural luck with the weather. The almost-full moon behind the clouds cast a diffuse bluish glow over everything, just enough to distinguish puddles from road and road from underbrush. We walked back slowly and stumblingly, but we managed to find our way.

The day that we left the finca was the first day of the coffee harvest. I was eager to see what it was like, and to do something to satisfy my harvesting instincts. Having grown up in a place where cutting wood and preserving food was a necessary part of fall, it’s really weird for me to live in a place where there are none of those rituals to mark the seasons—indeed, hardly any seasons to mark. Especially in fall, it’s somehow deeply satisfying to gather food, whether it’s wild berries or potatoes from the garden. (A friend of mine has a theory that modern women’s love of shopping is merely a misplaced version of this gathering instinct.) So I volunteered to go up in the morning with the coffee pickers. Franklin, bless his heart, came along as well. For him it was no novelty—in college, he used to pick coffee for a few weeks every year to make his textbook money. It’s also not as easy for him as it is for most people, since he’s color blind. For me, the red berries on the branch stood out from the green like stop signs. For him, it was a matter of gray on gray. Coffee berries ripen singly or in clusters, but this early in the season there are usually only a few ripe ones on a branch. We walked along the row of coffee bushes, on the steep side of the volcano, with willow baskets strapped to our waists with strips of bark. I helped point out the ripe berries for Franklin; not the quickest picking strategy, but it worked. Monkeys hooted in the shade trees above us, and the sun came out for the first time all week. It was lovely and peaceful up there.

Unfortunately, we couldn’t stay all day in the coffee patch. We’d planned to catch the ferry out the next day, and in order to get an early boat we planned to spend the night in the port town of Moyogalpa, 30 km away on the other side of the island. We packed our bags and started walking. We bought a loaf of bread from the Hare Krishna and asked him what time the bus came by. He frowned and told us there was a transit strike, at least for the unpaved side of the island. No, he wasn’t sure how long it would last. I guess it was a good time for the bus drivers to strike, given the huge puddles on the road, but it did throw a monkey wrench into our plan to get to Moyogalpa.

“We’ll get a hitch,” Franklin said. We thanked the Hare Krishna and started walking.

It was a very quiet afternoon. Also very hot. The sun had finally emerged in all its gringa-wilting intensity. We walked probably five or six km without a single vehicle passing, and my energy began to flag. Just as we came out to the edge of a corn field, heat shimmering over the surface, we heard a wheezy motor chugging along behind us. We stuck out our thumbs; the driver grinned and slowed enough that we could hop in back. The truck was a boxy Soviet thing from about 1950, I guessed, with a metal frame welded onto the back. The cargo, besides me and Franklin, was a load of construction material, a branch of green plátanos, and a profoundly drunk man passed out on his back. We bumped along the rutted road at a speed only slightly greater than walking, but it was a blessed relief.

After a few minutes we reached paved road, and then a considerable hill. The truck stalled halfway up and rolled back into the ditch, coming to rest with only three wheels on the pavement. Franklin and I jumped out to help. The driver sent his co-pilot off into the banana plantations, shouting, and he returned in a few minutes with a crew of helpers. As a woman, I was summarily exempted from pushing the truck by the code of machismo, so I contented myself with taking pictures instead. The drunk guy was also exempt: he remained passed out in the back through the whole episode.

The driver explained that the starter motor didn’t work, so they’d have to get the vehicle back onto the level road to push-start it like they always did. After the truck was heaved up onto the pavement, with a Herculean effort, Franklin and I said our farewells and kept walking. We figured it would be a week before they got it started again. We had just reached the top of the hill, though, when we heard a familiar wheezy motor sound. Sure enough, it was our friends in the blue truck. We hopped in back and got another couple kilometers down the road, almost to the main intersection with the road to Moyogalpa, before the truck broke down again, this time with an ominously final-sounding clunk. We wished them luck and re-shouldered our bags.

Perhaps a kilometer down the main road, we heard another engine sound. It was a bus, the most beautiful bus I have ever seen, a 1980s era Bluebird school bus festooned with Jesus stickers and headed straight to Moyogalpa for fifteen cordobas. It was the same price we’d paid earlier in the week to get out there, so I guess the strike hadn’t been about wages.

Well, there is much more to tell about Nicaragua—the mustard-yellow cathedral of Granada (much prettier than it sounds), the multicolored chaos of the central market in Masaya, the mega-despiche of the frontera as we returned, with our bus arriving at the same time as three others... but I am out of time to write, and it’s time to get back to fieldwork. I’m still hacking up my lungs. If this doesn’t stop by the weekend, I might have to drag myself to the clinic.


At 7:59 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

So, Susan, when are you going to get a tatoo?

At 5:30 PM, Blogger Susan said...

Heh heh. When I find one that has a deep personal meaning, is aesthetically pleasing, and won't be overly embarrassing when it's discovered by my future students and/or grandkids. Also it has to be a location that won't sag too much. Franklin thinks I should get a liana that starts at one ankle and twines all over me.

At 5:22 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

so my question that i even came to this page was does misty have vocanoes bitch


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