Last week we decided to take a trip without any plans. We actually had a bit of a plan. We wanted to stay the night on a deserted Caribbean island that had white sand beaches, palm trees and turquoise blue waters.
We came very close to that, but found something much better.
We started our journey by heading East since that is the direction of the Caribbean from here (we are currently hanging out in Nicaragua in a quaint Pacific Coast fishing village). Of course, we were well aware that no roads connect the West coast to the East coast of Nicaragua. We simply ignored everyone who said you can’t and went east anyways.
Our first stop was Managua. That was easy. Buses run regularly from here to Managua for about 75 cents per adult. Chickens and children ride free. We brought the children (3 years old and 2 years old). Someone else brought the chicken. It was in a nice plasticized version of a canvass bag and a hole was cut in it to allow the chicken to stick its head out and peek around. It seemed to enjoy the ride. So did our boys.
From Managua, many people told us that we couldn’t possibly get to the East coast from there by bus. We would have to fly or take a boat instead. We asked how far we could get and the answer was that El Rama was the end of the road.
We took the bus to El Rama. It was a much nicer bus and cost $7.50 per adult to ride. Children were still free. Chickens were not allowed.
In El Rama, there is a terminal that clearly shows your only options. You can go back to Managua by bus or you can proceed onward to Bluefields by panga (water taxi). The ride to Bluefields took two hours and cost $15 per adult. Children were still free. I don’t know if chickens were allowed.
In Bluefields, the options were the same. One could go back to El Rama by water taxi or one could go onward to Corn Island by ferry or the Captain D. The problem was that we arrived on a Thursday after the Captain D departed. The Captain D only takes the trip once a week. The ferry is the same. It goes only on Tuesday.
Bluefields wasn’t a good place to stay. We did explore it and found our church. We intended to go there if our destination put us close enough to get back to church. We expected that services might have been in English.
The town of Bluefields is split 50/50 between the typical brown skinned Hispanics of Nicaragua and black skinned creoles who speak something a bit like English. If they try really hard to be understood and you try very hard to understand, it is possible to communicate in something like English with the creoles.
In fact, we were interviewed for the local news within an hour of arriving. Our presence was newsworthy because Bluefields is definitely NOT a tourist town. We saw only one other foreign couple and they were from Europe. We met no fellow tribe members who spoke English.
The person interviewing us explained that we were considered fellow creoles by the local population because we spoke English. It was true that we were heartily welcomed by every black skinned person we met on the street. The lighter brown skinned people weren’t at all hostile, but they weren’t nearly as friendly as we have grown accustom to having Nicaraguans treat us. A simple Hola or Buenos Tardes always solved that problem though when they realized that we were willing and able to speak a little Spanish.
It was interesting to see cultural tensions that were based on language instead of religion, skin color or the various other things I have seen as the basis for cultural tensions in other areas. It was also interesting to be such a novelty in Central America when we have grown so accustom to seeing fellow white Americans, Canadians, Brits and Europeans wherever we go in Central America. Most interesting though was the instant adoption as a fellow tribe member by the creoles and the resistance by the fellow Hispanics.
Of course, we had purposefully gone to the very end of the road and then kept going, so we had expected the unexpected.
We spent the night in Bluefields because everyone insisted that it was impossible to get a boat that went anywhere except back to El Rama until the following week. During our discussions with those at the dock, we had heard two names of places very far away on the Caribbean coast that had water taxis for the locals only. One was Las Perlas. It actually turned out to be only an hour away.
All of our attempts to get information about how to catch the water taxi to Las Perlas were turned away that first day. The answers varied. Some simply sent us back and forth between two docks. One dock sold tickets to go back to El Rama. The other dock sold tickets to continue on to Corn Island. Both were run by Hispanics. Sometimes they said we had to go to the other dock. Other times they said that only locals could take the water taxi to Las Perlas because it was a protected reservation and only Indians were allowed there.
We almost gave up.
The next morning, I stood and watched from one dock as boat after boat was loaded up with people who left for somewhere. The dock we were on was for tickets to Corn Island and these people were in small outboard pangas that carried only 25 people.
I asked about them and learned that they were for the Indians only. I was confused at first because only black people were boarding them. I realized that I had only been talking to the Hispanic dock workers. I now searched out what appeared to me to be people with African ancestry. I later found out that these were the Indians or Native Americans as we would call them in the United States (they call themselves Indians or by their tribal name here).
As I looked with fresh eyes I realized that indeed, these people were not of African ancestry unless they had mixed quite a bit with some other ancestry. It was true that they had the same color of skin as many people from Africa have, but that was the end of their apparent commonality. It was a very diverse set of people so it is difficult to explain what specific features were different since it varied so much from person to person, but it was obvious upon the second look that most of the creole who were boarding these boats were of different ethnicity than some of the other creoles we had met in town.
I couldn’t get past a chain link fence to talk to the captains of the boats though. The Hispanic ticket taker refused me entry until I finally slipped her a 100 cord note (about $5). Once inside, the story was very different. The black skinned people that I later found out were mostly Miskito Indians (with some being Garifuna Indians and others being from even smaller tribes). They spoke the same creole English spoken by most of the black skinned people in town.
They were also just as friendly to us and wanted us to come and visit their tribal lands in Las Perlas.
We were traveling with a pirate friend (long story, but everyone who meets him understands instantly that he is a pirate and lives on a pirate ship), his 13 year old daughter, my wife and two sons. We all boarded the boat we weren’t allowed to take and headed back up the river.
I looked at my pirate friend confused and asked him to confirm that were were heading up the river and not out to sea to go up the coast an hour. He confirmed my suspicions. He was as confused as I was… which was a bit of a concern since he lived on a pirate ship and should know his directions at sea.
As we both pondered our fate, we ended up taking a sharp turn into a very narrow passage. The big river was probably five football fields wide until the turn. After the turn, we were traveling along a river that was perhaps 30 foot across.
We turned again and again through a maze of smaller rivers that forked, joined and forked again. Our captain seemed completely unconcerned and confident of his path although I can’t imagine how he could possibly know the way.
We passed a lot of huts along the river. We waved at naked children taking their bath in the river. We waved at fishermen who fished from their dugout canoes. The landscape changed from jungle to savannah and we felt in every way that we had entered Africa through some kind of portal in the river.
The feeling was abruptly amplified when suddenly the boat slowed and the captain started yelling. All of the young men jumped up and went to the bow of the boat. They grabbed the bow line and tried to frantically make a lasso.
Then, I saw the deer swimming across the river which had now widened to a football field or two. The captain maneuvered the boat to cut off the deer and one of the men tossed the lasso. It missed.
The deer changed direction and the young men frantically gestured for the captain to swing around. It was too late. The deer reached shore and ran into the savannah.
I asked one of the women why they were trying to catch it. It was a small doe and we would never kill a young doe in the U.S. They confirmed that they certainly would enjoy a run down made with young doe in Las Perlas.
A run down is a local dish that I had already read about. My pirate friend asked about it though and it was explained that it took an entire day to prepare a run down and it involved simmering in oil and bread of coconut. He didn’t understand what they were saying because of the accent. I had picked up some skills in Jamaica that worked a bit in deciphering the local creole so I translated.
At one point the woman repeated run down several times, but it sounded more like roon done. I translated and asked for the best local restaurant that served a run down. They all agreed that it would be the Pine View restaurant in Las Perlas. We never did make it there.
My pirate friend was still confused about the name of the dish we were supposed to order. I finally said that it was called a run down, but that we would have to practice saying roon done (using my best possible Jamaican accent). All of the women thought that was hilarious.
Several minutes passed as they repeated run down with my deep voice and then roon done exaggerating their own accent and laughing.
Once everyone settled down, one lady leaned close to me and asked me if my friend was a pirate. I told her that he was, but that he wasn’t dangerous. She seemed particular concerned about his beard and the skull and cross bones that he wore braided into his beard.
One of the men explained that someone who looked just like him had lived there 19 years before and was well liked. He wanted me to ask him if he was Derrick and had not aged. My sailor friend denied that he was the other man. I tried to diffuse the situation by saying that I had loaned my Price Smart card to him because basically all white people look alike when they grow a beard.
It worked. All of the women were laughing again and saying “he say all white persons look like one another.”
We arrived at the dock of Las Perlas after an hour ride through the mazes. A man waiting on the dock picked up our bags and said this way; you’ll stay at Auntie Dells house and we did.
Auntie Dell is a local woman who had married a man from the Netherlands. He had built a house that could double as a hotel with several bedrooms on the second floor. He died a couple of years ago, but Auntie Dell still runs the house as a hotel for what turned out to be a constant trickle of adventure travelers who visited.
There was always one or two other couples staying at the hotel during our stay. Their stories were always fascinating as one would expect for the stories of those who had managed to get to Las Perlas.
The hotel and all of Las Perlas has electricity. A large generator powers the entire town. The operator doesn’t turn it off until 1am so he can go home to his own family. He usually reports back to work and fires up the generator by about 9am.
There is a radio station in town. The door is wide open with a welcome sign if you want to step inside the studio and talk on or off air with the DJ or if you just want to request a tune.
There are no paved roads in town, but there are dirt roads and cement walking paths here and there. Several small stores sell all of the basic essentials. On the 2nd day my wife asked me to buy some diapers and I laughed. I didn’t expect to be able to find disposable diapers, but it was no problem after I found a translator.
I tried pointing. I tried saying extra extra large. I tried saying dos ekis grande. I got single XL. I tried several ways to say all the way on the right and mas derecha. I couldn’t get my point across until a translator stepped forward and said I studied in Managua and speak proper English. What you need mon? (I swear… that is exactly what he said).
I explained that I needed XXL and pointed again. He translated to “dat won no dis won kay” and she instantly understood and exchanged the diapers for the correct size. I just needed to be more precise and say “That one; not this one; OK?”
The first night we asked about taking a night swim. Auntie Dell was against it. I asked if it was dangerous and what the danger might be. She would only say “dey act up un stuff.”
Finally, she relented and convinced us to go with one of her nephews. He explained that it would be about a 40 minute walk to the lagoon and that he had to get someone with a gun. It was the same guy who had translated for me so I asked him if we should not go out at night. He insisted that Aunti Dell was a sissy and that we would be just fine, but we needed a gun.
So we started the walk to a mans house with a gun. On the way, he ran into a car. We had seen three wheel motorcycles with a box attached that acted like a taxi. This was the first car we had seen. He talked to the driver who agreed to take us so we wouldn’t have to walk. Our two toddlers appreciated the ride.
I asked about the cost. Our translator said “Just get in mon” and so we did.
The drive was very interesting since most of the way was on a sidewalk. The passenger car blared reggae as one tire rode on the sidewalk and the other maneuvered through ruts in the dirt beside the sidewalk. I asked about the gun. Our translator told me that the driver had a gun so we would be OK.
We arrived at the lagoon and drove in between huts along the beach to a perfect spot with white sand and palm trees. The moon was almost full and sparkled off the clear water. We got out of the car and went into the warm still water.
I kept walking out to get into deeper water so I could at least float, but I had to walk almost 1/2 mile out into the water before it got up to my waist. The next day, I went out over two miles and finally got to chest deep water before returning.
The water was spectacular. It was a bit brackish, but is supposedly in a very large fresh water lagoon.
As I returned to beach a man in a dug out canoe approached and I automatically said “Buenos Noches” before correcting myself and saying “How are you?”
He was standing in the canoe which seemed like a remarkable feat to me. His chiseled stomach told me it was more an act of strength than balance.
He said “I’m good mon; respect.”
After our initial friendly greetings, he turned to the business at hand. He was mad about something, but it took me awhile to understand what he was mad about. All I could understand was “I no like that” and “You gotta show respect mon” and “no permission.”
I offered to leave if we weren’t welcome. He insisted that we were welcome to swim there. His problem was somehow with the car. I asked him if it was the music that was blaring. That seemed logical to me since there were numerous huts along the beach and it was after 10pm. Everyone seemed to be inside and perhaps asleep. He assured me that the music was OK.
After awhile I came to understand that he was complaining about the car crossing his front yard without permission. By this time, we were close to shore and I saw that the man with the gun had exposed it on his thigh and was gesturing to us to come in.
I explained that it wasn’t my car and that the driver was gesturing to talk to him. As we started to go onto shore, my translator gestured that I should stay in the water.
Our driver and the irate local went down the trail to talk in private. I went to my translator and asked if we needed to leave. He said “no no no; dey is no problem mon” and indicated that I should go back to swimming.
I did. The irate man came back and apologized to me and shook my hand and said “dey is no problem mon.”
He said a bunch of other stuff, but I only understood that my family was always welcome there and there was no problem. He also wanted me to come back the next day to look at his art. I agreed and he went back to his hut.
I noticed a restaurant on the dock near where we had entered the hut village on the lagoon. I asked my wife if she wanted to go there for a drink. We started the walk. The driver asked us if we wanted a ride, but we insisted on walking the 200 yards and asked him to meet us there.
Vidale (the chiseled stomached tribal chief of the Garifuna that had met us earlier in the water) met us halfway and apologized again.
He explained that the men we were with were bad men from Haulaway and they went around pretending to be the government with their gun. We were welcome, but he didn’t have any respect for our driver/gunman or our translator.
He asked us to come back the next day without them and he would show us his jewelry and climb a coconut tree to get us a drink. We agreed and exchanged the 22 part official Garifuna / Rastafarian handshake.
The restaurant was closing as we walked there, so we hopped in the car to go back. The car made several stops as locals flagged it down. They would look in the drivers window and be shocked to see us and would tell the driver “never mind.”
He would say it was OK and get out of the car and walk about 50 feet behind the car to complete their transaction. My wife didn’t understand at first, so I had to explain to her what kind of transaction was taking place.
We were in solid Cocaine smuggling territory. It was only to be expected that some of the locals had developed cocaine habits… and the driver of the only car in town had probably earned the money by being the local cocaine dealer.
I gave the driver the equivalent of $25 for the adventure (which they were amazed at) and we returned to Aunti Dells to close the night.
Our toddlers had enjoyed the night swim and were completely oblivious to the cocaine dealing or the gun waving. It was just another fun adventure for them… and they were tired and ready for a good night’s sleep.
I stayed up with our pirate friend and chatted with a couple of lesbian lovers from Finland and the Netherlands who were visiting Las Perlas and also staying with Aunti Dell. They brought their 4 year old daughter with them. They had an important meeting on redevelopment in the area the next day.
The next day, we did go back to the lagoon by foot. We took Sarah (the 13 year old daughter of the pirate) and found a swimming hole along the way since it was almost an hour walk.
It was just past the first village of Miskito Indians who smiled and waved us on in the right direction to the Garifuna lagoon.
The restaurant was open. We learned that we needed to go to the bar to place our order. They weren’t very familiar with the custom of coming to your table to take your order.
We watched the sail canoes (dug out canoes with a black tarp mounted on a pole with another stick coming across the bottom used for steering and keeping the sail full). The local economy is based on fishing from these dug out canoes.
Once a year, the beach fills during Easter vacation by the locals from the entire province and that was the reason for the restaurant. In between times, the local drug dealers used the restaurant or occasionally there was a crazy tourist family like our own.
Our pirate friend joined us after we waited a couple of hours for our food. We enjoyed shrimps (it’s proper in creole to add the “s”). The shrimps had been caught right in the lagoon.
After lunch, we went swimming again.
Vidale showed his jewelry made from a local seed to our pirate friend who bought some for his wife.
I told him we didn’t wear jewelry. He agreed that the human body was beautiful and needed no jewelry to distract from it.
He climbed a palm tree several times to get coconuts for my wife, Sarah and our toddlers. It was very impressive.
He then hacked off the top of the coconut in a single stroke of his machete leaving just the membrane to poke through to get to the coconut water. The kids enjoyed it.
I talked to him alone for quite awhile. That is when I found out that he was the chief of the Garifuna.
He had converted to Rastafarian several years before when a Rastafarian priest had come through the village.
I also learned that a fellow gringo used to live among the Garifuna at the lagoon. He was a rich man with a helicopter. His helicopter crashed into the ocean. They pulled out his body and made inquiries for quite some time before they burned him and gave him a proper sea burial.
Although he had lived among them for two years, they didn’t know much about him except that he left them every month by helicopter and that he was very kind to the children.
Vidale asked about the U.S. elections when he found out that we were from the states. He asked if McCain or the woman had won. I told him that Obama had won. He didn’t know who Obama was for some time until I said “the black man running as a Democrat.”
He was elated and ran to another hut to tell them. A woman from that hut then walked to all of the other huts to inform each of the inhabitants of the lagoon the results of the election that was now months old news.
Vidale said there would be a big party that evening in Obama’s honor.
Vidale wanted to know if we would like to live there for awhile. I told him we might want to live among them for a month or so sometime. He offered to build me a house for $200 out of the best trees and to varnish it naturally.
I asked him about visiting the Cays. Several others had given different excuses for why we couldn’t go that day. He said he would take our family, but I would have to show him that I knew how to fish first because he didn’t know how long it would be before he returned to pick us up.
I finally decided that would be a bit too much of an adventure to camp on one of the Cays with our toddlers for an unknown period of time. We are pretty adventurous, but we have our limits.
That afternoon, I started making inquiries about how to best get home. Everyone had a different story. One of the most interesting was that we could take a bus with no panga rides. Everyone knows that there are no roads connecting the Caribbean of Nicaragua with the population on the west coast. It simply wasn’t possible to take a bus all of the way back.
Many insisted that it was possible, but their stories varied about when the bus left and what route it took. We decided to give it a try. The bus left at 10am on Sunday morning destined for a town on a hill where we could get another bus. It would also take us further to where we could take a panga up to El Rama or on to Bluefields.
About an hour into the ride, the drive flagged down an army style truck and began yelling El Rama and several people got off including us.
We boarded the army truck with benches on either side and a tarp over the top. It stopped often to pick up children heading to school or another batch of shrimps headed for the west coast.
A drunk fell off his seat passed out and had to be helped back onto his seat by another local. He later collapsed onto a 7 year old boy and I had to remove him, wake him up and yell at him not to dormir (sleep).
By this time, the black skinned people were no longer with us. The occupants of the truck were all lighter brown skinned Spanish speaking Nicaraguans.
The boys enjoyed the truck ride and sure enough after three or four hours across some stunningly beautiful country-side, we arrived at El Rama having never taken a boat.
We took a 7pm bus back to Managua and arrived just in time to see why nobody should be out after dark in Managua. We stayed at a dump hotel for $20 and took a taxi back to our beach town the next day.
It was quite an adventure. We’ll have to do that again sometime. I’ve never been to the end of the road and then kept going. There’s some pretty cool stuff out there.
You can read Uncle Frank’s more subversive posts on his blog here:
S.U.F.A.Q. stands Subversive Uncle Frank Answers Question… and he does. Leave a comment and he’ll be happy to answer your questions personally.