Nicaragua’s most famous musician, Luis Enrique, was honoured in a music festival in the Nicaraguan capital this weekend.
He only sings in Spanish, so I hadn’t heard of him before I left the UK. Conveniently though, I didn't need to look up his life story, as he tells it himself in the salsa hit Biografía (Biography – it should be 'Autobiography' if you ask me, but he didn’t). The chorus sings of how, because he fled the Nicaraguan Civil War and moved to Miami when he was 15 years old, “I’m neither from there nor here”. And that’s why I like him.
After spending over a decade away from ‘home’ myself, I know the feeling. Not that I’m not from England, I very much am. But I often wonder how long it will take before people stop asking where I’m from – ie, before I’m not constantly reminded that I’m not from here. Ten years into my study, the conclusion I’ve come to is that as long as I live in Latin America and have blue eyes, it’s never going to go away.
So I sang along with gusto on Saturday night. Me and Luis, we get each other. Sadly not so much that he had time to sign my shirt, but hey, we’re also both busy professionals.
In his thank you speech he mentioned how he owes his success to the people of Puerto Rico, who gave him his first break, and without whom Nicaragua wouldn’t have invited him back for this award.
Again, I get you, bro. As thousands of Nicaraguans emigrate each year in search of making their fortunes, I keep heading back to Nicaragua to earn mine. My twin professions of translator and travel writer work fine when I’m in foreign countries but seem to stall when I’m back in London and get distracted with more reliable (read: boring) work.
So while I might never be ‘from’ Nicaragua, I was honoured to be able to pay my respects to its crown prince.
From my table at the edge of the restaurant, high above the Caribbean Sea, I took my time over my rum-infused hibiscus; partly because it was worth savouring and partly because I was trying to work something out. I’d been on Corn Island for two days now and had yet to get my feet wet, nor could I be bothered in that moment to walk all the way down to the white sandy beach below. Was this a good thing? Was my life so cool that I could be blasé about being in the Caribbean for a few days? Or had I become jaded, so spoiled with visiting amazing places that they no longer moved me? Even worse, could my lack of energy simply be down to getting older?
I had plenty of time to contemplate this conundrum as I made my second trip around Nicaragua for Rough Guides. Nicaragua’s a good size for a guide book job. At 130,000km² it has almost exactly the same area as my native England so for me it feels not too big, and not too small - just right. Being British I’m used to the odd hiccup with public transport, though there are no passenger claim forms in Nicaragua. Having said that, people might complain less in the UK if they were entertained while they waited by stream of travelling salesmen, preachers, beggars with various ailments, and women and children selling hot food and cold drinks.
This trip was a military operation compared to the first time, when I’d kept forgetting things and having to double back on myself. Now I could arrive in a town, step off the bus, boat or plane and hit the ground running. I had a system and ticked places off with remarkable efficiency. I had been almost everywhere and knew which places I wanted to get over and done with as soon as possible and which I wanted to linger over, staying just one more night and therefore having to have one more meal in that perfect restaurant. In some spots I was the master of disguise, giving any mystery shopper a run for their money. In others, it was like returning to visit old friends, laying down my rucksack in the familiar surroundings of a friendly hospedaje (guest house) where I was mostly glad to see that the same wonderful owners were still welcoming travellers to their home and enjoying it.
Of course not everything was exactly as I’d left it two years ago. Along the Río San Juan the owner of Sábalos Lodge, who had endeared himself to the locals by coordinating many aid projects for the village with international organisations, had sadly passed away. Maybe it was just a case of the new owners finding their feet, but the friendly atmosphere created by Don Jaro was gone and everything was too much trouble for the new owner. I’d gladly walked for over an hour through fields and across streams to get there, but the trek back to town seemed so much longer, the scenery now muddy and wet, rather than lush and green.
Being British, my favourite food on the whole trip was curry. I’m sorry, I know I should be writing about the wonderful enchiladas and empanadas but they just don’t hit the spot like a well-made curry. And that was what I knew was waiting for me at the end of a long day travelling to Ometepe Island on Lake Nicaragua. Café Campestre is located in the small town of Balgüe and by the time I landed on the island one early Sunday afternoon, I’d missed the last bus. I usually keep a tight rein on the finances in order to be left with something of a wage at the end of my trip, but the dream of that curry had kept me going for so many days that I splashed out on a typically over-priced Ometepe taxi to get there[*]. The curry did not disappoint. Warming lentil dhal with a flour chapatti and onion salad washed down with an equally warming home-brewed beer (not that I’d been anything but warm for the past six months). This was the place I stayed an extra night for.
So, why couldn’t I be bothered to swim in the Caribbean? Probably a mixture of everything but I’m not complaining. It was the end of a long and tiring journey, and watching the sun go down with a glass of rum and good book is not a bad way to spend the evening. I’m sure there’s a metaphor in there somewhere about not having to be in the ocean to be a part of it, but I’m too relaxed to figure it out.
[*] As a side-note, Omtepe taxis really are a phenomena. They are so over priced I can never decide whether I admire their business acumen in sticking together and resolutely charging in dollars rather than the local córdoba, or loath them for reducing me to the status of just another gringo they’ve managed to swindle. I think the latter.
Of all the excuses I have ever given for being late (and there have been many), this had to be the best.
It had already been an eventful journey. We had let two slow rutiado busses go by in the hope that an express would come eventually, before getting worried that we would miss our connection and getting a rutiado anyway. The conductor had lied to get us on the bus, saying that we would be in plenty of time for the connection if we went with him - so why wait for the express? But everyone knows that conductors always say that, so why did we even bother asking the question?
My old flat-mate, Astrid, and her husband were waiting for us to spend the weekend with them in their new home high in the mountains of Nicaragua, not far from the border with Honduras. Only four buses a day go from the city of Somoto up to Las Savanas, so we had planned to get to Somoto in time for the early afternoon departure, but that had long been forgotten and by now we were just hoping we could make the last bus. Not that it would have been a huge drama to be stranded in Somoto. I was traveling with Astrid’s Nicaraguan mother- and brother-in-law, so I didn’t feel vulnerable, as you sometimes can in a strange town, where people just see your pale skin and blue eyes and don’t know that you’ve lived in Nicaragua for years and that you are no longer an outsider.
The bus was packed. In a land where busses are often packed, this one was really packed. As it filled up from the fount and the back, we became the filling in a hot and sweaty sandwich. At some point on the road to Somoto a poor old woman wanted to get on with a pig and a sack full of chickens. I didn’t see her get on - I could see very little other than the body in front of me. Olivia, the mother-in-law, told me later that the conductor hadn’t wanted to let her on as there was really no room, but she agreed to put the pig in a sack on the roof, so she - and the sack of chickens - were allowed on board. I didn’t notice her and I didn’t notice when we had to stop because some people had set a roadblock of rocks in the road and were throwing stones at the bus, but Olivia told me about that too. I was busy texting Astrid to warn her that we might not make the last bus to La Savanas. I complained about the lack of express busses to Somoto and about the lying bus conductor who had said we would be there by now. She would understand my frustration, but know that it wasn’t a serious falling out with Nicaragua.
When the pig fell of the roof, though, everyone noticed. We were going up a steep, curved section of road and it was really no place to stop, but suddenly the driver stood on the brakes and we swerved to a halt. The driver had spotted the pig flying off the roof in his rear-view mirror. The call “el chancho! el chancho!” spread down the bus and those of us that couldn’t see a thing waited for news from the passengers at the back, debating whether the pig would be alive or dead, or whether it would be recovered at all. Maybe it would be fine and run away, in which case we couldn’t wait while they hunted it down through the bush. Maybe it had fallen down the steep mountain slopes either side of the road, in which case there was no hope….Possibilities were debated amongst passengers who just moments ago were bumping along in miserable silence. It turned out that it hadn’t gone too far, as moments later news came down the bus that the pig was alive but injured. I glimpsed the woman out of the window, crying and holding the pig still (thankfully) in the sack. Public opinion was that it was worthless now. Some said she should be compensated, since it was the crazy driving that had flung the creature off the roof, but the conductor was having none of it. I felt a flash of anger when I saw the conductor grinning and joking about the whole thing, while the woman was clearly distressed. The fact that she was on the bus with her livestock in the first place probably meant that she was going to the nearest town to try and sell them to raise a bit of money, perhaps for a medical bill.
Once we reached her stop, the chickens decided to rebel also and squawked their heads out of the sack in all directions as she battled her way down the bus to get off. We left her by the side of the road, balancing the two sacks. I felt quite sad for her and wondered how people could be joking about it. But really it was a small pig, it wouldn’t be worth much yet. And I guess that’s just life: if you will transport your animals on the roof, every now and then one will come a cropper. In fact, perhaps it’s more of a wonder that I’ve never witnessed a person coming off the roof. Although I still prefer travelling up top to being cooped up inside, I certainly thought of the pig and held on that bit tighter the next time the let us up. Anyway, the rest of the journey went a lot quicker now we had something to debate up and down the bus. And of course, I had a wonderful excuse for being late.
To Berlin, San Isidro, Matagalpa, Nicaragua, that is. In fact, I’m back at my house in barrio Berlin in the town of San Isidro, which is home for the moment. It’s just across from las naciones unidas (the United Nations), in case you get lost.
The barrios in this part of town are named after the places or organisations that donated the pre-fabricated houses that make them up. The reason for the donations was hurricane Mitch, which struck in October 1998. As always seems to happen with these things, people say that different ones managed to take their cut, and if the buildings were donated, the land certainly wasn’t - which means that people are still paying off the $1000 or so they were charged. But at least it meant that many who may never have been ordinarily able to own a house now do. A lot, including the one I rent, have been gradually enlarged and improved since then, but they are still the smallest and cheapest houses in town (unless you count the ones made of straw, mud, plastic, corrugated iron, etc, but I didn’t really think of them as rental options). So thank you, people of Berlin for providing me with cheap housing.
Continuing the theme of strange place names, I recently spent a day on a building project in the town of Muy Muy. No, you’re not forgetting your GCSE Spanish, it does mean ‘Very Very’. You would think that the first question anyone would ask on entering the town would be ‘very, very..what?’ I half expected to find a sign as we entered, saving the towns folk from having to explain it a hundred times a day. But no, nothing. Not only that but as I asked the rest of the volunteers who had been there for a number of weeks, it became clear that not one of my Nicaraguan colleagues had thought to ask. It was not until the last minute, as the bus was going to leave, that I spotted a family sitting out on their front step and ran over to ask them. I had started to think it was a stupid question, so I was relieved when the ladies I had approached unhesitatingly called the spokesman of the house to explain it to me. “Don’t you know yourselves?” I asked. “Yes, but he tells it better.” So I wasn’t the first to ask.
On the way home I soon realsied why everyone had been in a hurry to leave before it got dark. Our old driver had some kind of eye problem which left him completely blinded whenever there was an oncoming vehicle, even if their lights were dipped. This meant that every time another vehicle came towards us he slammed on the breaks and stopped until it passed. Better safe than sorry. Those who came closest to death were the unsuspecting people riding their unlit bikes home along the road, they were only saved by the chorus of middle aged women shouting ‘¡cuidado la bici!’ from the back of the minibus each time we were about to take one out.
Lucky for you, I lived to tell the tale, and here it is: muy muy is from the indigenous Náhautl language meaning ‘lots of otters’. Apparently back in the day the river was much wider and the area was full of them. So there you go. In fact, many of the unpronounceable names in Nicaragua are Náhautl, but I have to admit, this one threw me, what with it being in Spanish and all.
Cabin Fever. Noun, informal: lassitude and irritability resulting from long confinement indoors during the winter.
Nicaraguans call the rainy season ‘winter’, but it’s a bit different to the winters you might be used to.
In my village in the north of England we used to get snowed in when I was young, but that was only ever for a couple of days a year, and not even every year. Here in Nicaragua the winter rain is guaranteed every year, which, in as much as it makes things grow, is a good thing. The other thing that’s virtually guaranteed, however, is that there will be days on end when the rain will hammer down so heavily on your tin roof that you can barely hear your own voice. So there is no chance of passing the time watching DVDs. You would be a fool to go out and, anyway, the way you gain access to friends’ houses here is to call out ¡buenas! but no-one will hear you. Then the electricity goes off and gradually the battery on your laptop runs down. No electricity means that soon there will be no running water, so at least some exciting moments are spent filling up all the pots and pans you can get your hands on, with the rush to beat the ever-decreasing flow of water and the din of the rain heightening the sense of drama.
By 6pm it’s completely dark. Cooking and washing-up takes longer by candle light, and without the modern convenience of the tap, but that’s just as well as it passes the time. By 8 I’ve had enough of my candle attracting a never ending stream of bugs and mosquitoes and retreat to the mosquito net over my bed. But when (despite my legendary capacity for sleep) I awake at 6am, the first sound I hear is the same as the last sound I heard before falling asleep – rain.
Has the electricity come back? I try the light switch and even hover for a second in hope, but nothing. So we need to be even more careful with the water – there’ll be no flushing today. A peak out the front door revels that the street is now a muddy river. I did have plans for today, but everyone knows that rain stops play here and I’m no longer expecting the visitors to turn up. No need to call – we wouldn’t be able to hear each other anyway. So I take my time over breakfast and use the last bit of battery to finish my blog.
‘Bliss’ all you stressed-out city-wallahs are thinking. And you’re right, thanks for reminding me.
I’ve decided on my number one piece of travel advice, at least for today: If in doubt, always follow a local.
I guess number two would be: try not to freak them out.
But this tac-tic saved from a good roasting as I travelled between two Caribbean islands last week.
The only way to get to Little Corn Island, Nicaragua, is to first get to Big Corn Island and then to take a small boat called a panga to Little Corn. This may be one of the hardest parts of Nicaragua to reach, but it still draws enough tourists to make your heart sink if, like me, you always want to be the only tourist in the village. So as the panga pulled up and all 48 passengers rushed to board, I applied my rule and picked out a local lady with her daughter who had clearly just been shopping on Big Corn. While everyone else piled into the main body of the boat, she tucked herself and her daughter on a little bench behind the driver, and I was right behind her, trying to look innocent. This was the first of the two boats that leave daily for the islita, as it is called by the Spanish-speaking locals, but it doesn’t leave until 10am, so already the sun was high in the sky and burning down on the 43 mostly pink bodies in front of the driver (a man selling sunglasses and a carpenter had also made room for themselves on our bench). 10am came and went, no driver. Life jackets were handed to most passengers, which some on the back seat used as a cushion to sit on; I abandoned my rule at that point, reasoning that it’s not so special that I should have to follow it to my death.
I must admit that I didn’t keep a check on exactly how long we waited, I was too busy gloating over the fact that while my fellow non-Nicaraguans wilted, I was bobbing along under the shade of a canopy that had clearly been put in place to protect the driver on his many journeys to and fro between the islands. It turned out that the hold-up was due to the manager of the port claiming that the boat was over-full, while the owner of the panga insisted that his papers authorised him to carry up to 50 passengers and he only had 48, so there was even room for two more!
Mutiny almost broke out when they took their argument to the shade of a nearby tree, leaving the passengers to roast. My fellow back-seaters urged the tourist to boycott the boat in protest at being treated worse than animals, but of course they were not about to lead the way themselves, for fear of losing their first class seats. And anyway, the boat was full of tourists, most of them American, most of them still smiling and enjoying the cultural quirk of the boat not leaving on time.
One way or another, the problem was resolved and we sped off towards Little Corn, making up some of the lost time on the way and arriving well within the 55 minutes scheduled for the crossing. I stepped proudly onto the decking of the pier, sure that not only was I the only tourist to have arrived on Big Corn by boat rather than flying in from Managua, I was now also the only one not sporting a burnt face and wet clothes. I, more than anyone, deserved the nearest hammock.
This time last year, I was working for London Underground and a delay of just a few minutes during rush hour was a disaster. I’ve adapted quite quickly to the pace of life here, but knowing that if we missed this boat it would be almost a week for the next one was enough to make sure I jumped out of bed at 5am.
There exists an easier way to get to Corn Island. You can simply hop on a plane in Managua with a dozen or so other tourists, and you’ll be on the beach within the hour. So why did we decide to go on a seven-hour bus ride followed by a twelve-hour boat ride? Well, the practical reasons for my travelling companions were the cost and the fact that they wanted to transport, amongst other things, a motorbike. I was just a tag-along so my, more romantic, way of thinking was that this journey would be an end in itself; that after so long on the road, I would know my adopted country a little better; and that I would feel quite entitled to spend the next week alternating between beach and hammock, hammock and beach.
And so it came to pass. Yet it was not half as bad as it sounds, or as I had anticipated. The express bus leaves Managua for El Rama at 8:45am and, for the price of a bottle of Coke, there are plenty of men willing to help you out with your luggage. It's a long journey, but so long as you are mentally prepared for that, there’s not a lot else to worry about. The road to El Rama is paved the whole way, so it’s a very different story to the twenty or even thirty hour bus ride to Puerto Cabezas (which I’ll tell you about another day). There is even a very civilized toilet stop in Juilgalpa, which is exactly half way. The bus was, in typical Nica style, an old American school bus; but it was one of the more comfortable and less crowded ones.
What Nicaragua lacks in the way of services stations, it more than makes up for in the variety of hawkers, preachers, beggars (and even clowns this time) that make their way through the bus at each stop. You want for nothing. Vitamins, pens, cakes made with corn flour, a selection of seasonal fruits, boiled sweets, ‘purified’ water; the travel toothbrush was a big hit: “it folds away to stop cockroaches climbing on the bristles at night - they enjoy the feel of the bristles on their feet”. Who could say no?
And that was just the bus ride. The real adventure for me was going to be the boat. The Island Express II is a slow cargo boat that travels between El Rama and the Corn Islands, stopping en route in El Bluff. It creeps along so slowly that even once the island was in sight, I had to keep going away and taking a break before coming back in order to notice that we were getting any closer. But creep up on the island we did, without waking it from its natural dreamy state. Once the sun is up, they play some soft reggae music and you feel like you've left Nicaragua for another culture altogether. There are quicker boats leaving from Bluefields, which is the road more travelled, but the speed of the boats mean that the going is rough and all but the hardiest sea-dogs get sick. Add to that the journey by land to Bluefields, and I would rather let the Island Express rock me to sleep and wake me up to the smell of gallo pinto and coffee, the sound of Bob Marley and the sight of blue sea meeting white sand.
From when our bus pulled out of the bus station in Managua until we arrived on Corn Island, there was not another tourist in sight. Yet, counter intuitively, this most remote part of Nicaragua is actually one of the easiest to navigate since English is the default language. It may take a while to adapt your ear to the Caribbean accent but for many tourists the hardest part of the journey will be negotiating a taxi in Managua to get to the Mayoreo bus station.
Of course, the majority who come to Nicaragua for just a couple of weeks pass neither though Bluefields nor El Rama, but choose to fly. Perhaps if your timetable is limited, you won't realistically be able to wait a week for the boat. However, if you could even go one way by land and fly the other, you will add so much to your trip. You will save enough money to pay for a night in a decent hotel before or after; and by choosing the cheaper option, you will add so much to what could otherwise easily be a beach holiday anywhere in the Caribbean.
Just realised that my award-winning article has finally disappeared from the Bradt website and been replaced with newer winners, so thought I'd better preserve it here for posterity...
THE ART OF STILLNESS
My best friend’s choice of husband was a strange one, but at least it was a choice. My early twenties had turned to my early thirties and I was still no clearer on what this ‘something’ was that I needed to do with my life.
The main advantage I could see about the husband was that we now had a man to accompany us on all those journeys around Nicaragua that we had previously avoided doing on our own, precisely because of Nicaraguan men.
So, not for the first time since their wedding, I found myself back in our village in the mountains, ready to set off on another adventure though Central America. This time we were staying officially within Nicaragua. Our route was through the autonomous region to the east of the country, which is much more foreign and inaccessible to the rest of Nicaragua than say Honduras or El Salvador. The first eight hours were overland to El Rama, so far, so normal. Even as we boarded the boat for overnight trip down the Río Escondido and out into the Caribbean Sea, it seemed like we were taking the safe option as there were other boats in port bound for Venezuela and beyond. I asked about boarding one and although I was told they were strictly taking cargo and crew only, all things here are flexible when you know how. Sadly, things like foreign visas for Nicaraguans are not. So, the husband turned out not to be so useful after all.
As the boat pulled out, I felt that familiar sense of contentment that mine was more than an ordinary life. I had been born in the western world and I had learned very young to appreciate what that meant. If I worked hard in between trips, I could go anywhere on this earth, experience anything. Here on the boat with us, every other person was here because they couldn’t afford the airfare. And in the air above us, tourists were flying in to the Caribbean because they couldn’t afford the time. We are all poor in one way or another.
The ironically named Island Express normally takes twelve hours from El Rama to Corn Island, which is quite a feat considering it is less than a hundred miles away. This time it took twenty. There was no drama, no panic. The engine cut out and that was that. The crew wandered below deck to the engine room and didn’t emerge until hours later when the engine began chugging away again. In the meantime, we had slowly drifted back downstream, but that was about all that had happened. Those that were sleeping continued to sleep. Those that were awake continued to be awake. There was nothing to say, we would arrive later than planned, but there was no mobile phone signal to oblige people to call ahead. I finished reading my novel, carefully chosen about a girl called María. I rechecked my guidebook and noted even more mistakes; I don’t know why I always have to buy the latest edition, just to prove to myself that I could have done a better job. I flicked through the photos I had taken on my digital camera, deleted a few. The sun was getting hot now, so I put on some sunscreen. In between distractions, I meditated on my life, where I was going. I found all kinds of metaphors in the boat and the river but no revelations. For once, I admired the Nicaraguan art of doing nothing.
It was one of the first things I had noticed on arriving in the country. The national pastime is doing nothing. It is an art I have never really mastered. I can do it for about five minutes at most. But try as I might, the westerner in me just can’t do nothing. I can daydream, I can sleep, I can plan my next trip, I can even watch the world go by, but I can rarely manage to do nothing.
We had arrived here together, a couple of idealistic westerners wanting to ‘do something’ with our lives. But that was ten years ago, and while I had got bored after a few years and moved on to something else, my friend had turned native, married a local and seemed settled. Unlike me, she had mastered the art of stillness.