martes, 2 de junio de 2009

Chapter 4: The North Nicaragua Experience

Once clear of Punta Ampala the wind began to pour out of the Gulf of Fonseca to the east. Within an hour the sails were set and the engine shut down, and before I could get settled at the helm the wind had picked up to over twenty knots and I put two reefs in the mainsail. Feast or famine is the general state of wind along the Central American coast, and we were feasting once more. The dull gray sky and perpetual drizzle put a damper on the day and somehow reminded me of entering the English Channel three years prior. There the same ugly sky greeted me; except at least this time I was in a bathing suit rather than thick pants and a heavy jacket.
A more fickle wind is hard to find than that which chased us across the Gulf of Fonseca. Whenever we entered the lee of a distant island the twenty-five knot wind would be replaced by a light whisper. The longer islands required me to start the motor and motorsail through the dead air, only to shut down the engine again once we were in the clear. Ryan gave me an evil look each time I shut down the engine, knowing the wind would fill in to keep our speed up. I knew the end of the trip would be spent entirely un-der power and wanted to conserve as much fuel as possible. Thus I predicted, “Don’t worry, as soon as we’re across the Gulf here the wind will disappear and it’ll be flat calm.” Velella motored past us to starboard, wanting nothing to do with the putrid winds, and Ryan’s evil eye became more glaring.
Hours passed. The rain let up. The clock struck nine as we reached the lee of the Nica-raguan coast, and in five minutes the wind dropped from twenty-five knots to five. I started the motor, pulled in the jib, and resigned to a long day of powering. Surprisingly the wind showed some persistence and returned for another short stint before blowing itself out for good, and when the engine resumed her work the fishing line started scream-ing out. It took Ryan but a couple minutes to land our first Sierra Mackerel of the trip. I mistook the ugly fish for a barracuda and decided to keep it, so Ryan did his best fillet job on the foredeck as we neared the entrance to Marina Puesta del Sol.
The approach to the marina showed just how remote it is. Much of the northern Nicara-gua coastline is inaccessible due to sheer hundred foot cliffs, but the area adjacent to the marina is lined by a vast expanse of golden sand lined by dense green vegetation. There was nary a house in sight. The marina is located inside a lagoon, El Estero de Aserra-dores, which serves as the mouth for two rivers, and empties our parallel to a long beach. As we approached the entrance channel a nice wave could be seen forming off this beach with nobody around. Then, as we passed the marina’s sea buoy, a long left pointbreak could be seen grinding off the point which extended out to sea past the rivermouth. As we entered the navigation channel it became clear the left was the better of the two waves, and my mouth began to water as I watched wave after wave curl over the reef unridden.
The marina’s location inside El Estero de Aserradores necessitates an arrival that does not coincide with an ebb tide, else you may find yourself bucking a current in excess of five knots. Velella and I arrived at the entrance minutes apart, in the midst of the flood tide. It took me a number of tries to raise the marina on the VHF radio, and by the time I did we had already realized their first bit of advice, “The green #1 buoy is out of place, stay close to the red #2.” Lucky for us the green buoys had been washed clear into the surf line at the time and was obviously in the wrong place.
Once inside the channel I followed behind Velella as we wound into the lagoon. The channel snaked around to port, and as we swept past a pair of buoys at the turn Avventura fishtailed around the corner racing along with the current’s help at nine knots. Once in-side the lagoon the current eased, and within minutes I pulled into a vacant slip of the ma-rina and killed the engine. Bienvenidos a Nicaragua; third country of the voyage.

Marina Puesta del Sol is like an island in the Chinandega province of Nicaragua. It sticks out like a sore thumb from the rest of the region, and has garnered the wrath of the local inhabitants. Claims of wrongdoing are bandied about by both sides, and the conten-tious relationship between the marina and the area’s inhabitants is made clear by the long barbed-wire fences and numerous “Propiedad Privado” signs marking their territory. I couldn’t help but think it a shame, for if gone about in the right way the marina could easily benefit the region and her inhabitants. Nevertheless the marina was a beautiful new facility when I arrived, and the prices were bearable.
A marina worker helped catch our dock lines and informed us that the officials to check us in would be here “mañana. With that weight lifted from my shoulders I set foot on the dock and met the blonde trio of Billy, his wife Sandy, and their son Cody. Cody was run-ning around on the dock with a little fishing pole, hunting for whatever he could get to bite. The family were cruising the region on their forty-foot catamaran, Hibiscus, and Billy was a surfer full of advice. His speech and mannerisms led me to believe he was the kind of guy that gave surfers their reputation of being “weird dudes,” but he directed me back out to the left as the best wave around as he zipped down the channel in his dinghy, board in hand. Within minutes I launched our dinghy and Ryan and I were zipping back down the lagoon and into the open ocean. We dropped anchor beside Billy’s and I leapt into the water, stroking fast for the lineup.
Eight-foot waves rolled through with picture-perfect form. Never threatening to close out, never too steep to make the drop, it was the ideal surf break. I dropped into wave af-ter wave, arcing out long bottom turns, racing down the line, and making big sweeping turns before the wave dissipated in the deep water of the channel. Paddling back out, I watched as Billy dropped in and laid out nice backside bottom turns, raced across the face, and joined me in the channel. Sitting in the lineup, all ashore was wild and green. A volcano pierced the sky inland and to the south, and to the west an unending expanse of blue reached for the horizon. More waves flowed past. The sun dipped into the sea. The air began to cool. Life was good.
Twenty minutes after sunset I could no longer see the dinghy from the lineup so I caught one more wave and headed in. Ryan was waiting for me, and we quickly started the motor and followed Billy back to the marina where Billy invited us over for a drink. After rinsing off and changing we headed over to Hibiscus and Billy tossed us each a beer. We got to talking and I found out he was a tug captain up in San Francisco and was soon heading back there to save up more money so that he could come cruising again. He had grand plans of buying a jet ski which he’d lash forward and use for tow-ins when he came across big surf.
Before long a few termites began to circle around the marina’s lights. Being in Central America, bugs were no new thing, so for a time they went almost unnoticed. But after finishing my first beer the bugs were everywhere. They were so thick at the lights that they looked like a single big, dark ball; and on the dock itself there wasn’t enough room to walk without stepping on a few. When they started swarming around my face it was time to retreat to Avventura, where Ryan and I quickly put up our screens in an effort to keep the termites out. Despite having every opening screened a few managed to find their way below, but it was a manageable amount. In talking with some locals the next day I learned this was a yearly event, and only occurred after the first big rains of winter (which had passed through the two days prior to our arrival). I can’t say I understand why it happens, but all I know is that for the remainder of our stay we saw but a few stray bugs.

Sunrise at Puesta del Sol is a beautiful thing. The sky in the east brightens illuminating an active volcano, and as the sun stepped into the sky the next morning a trail of smoke was sweeping across the sky off the volcano’s peak. Watching nature’s display, I ate a quick bowl of oatmeal in the cockpit and asked Ryan if he wanted to go surfing. He de-clined, but as I was loading into the dinghy I saw Cameron paddling towards me in his kayak. He tied his kayak to the dock and loaded in with me and we zipped down the channel and anchored beside the left once more.
The swell had dropped considerably in the night, but Cameron and I traded off fun head high waves for two hours, enjoying the quiet solitude of the setting and thrilling in the clear skies and the beautiful day which lay ahead. The sea was a sheet of glass and there were no signs of people anywhere to be seen. The coastline ran northward wild and free, and the sandy point greeted us shoreward. After a couple hours Billy came out in his din-ghy, pulled up beside us in the lineup, and said, “Customs is waiting for you guys at the marina; better hurry in.”
We took his advice and paddled straight for our dinghy, thanking Billy for letting us know. In minutes we were back at the docks where I woke Ryan, gathered our papers, and walked up to the marina office. Checking in was complicated by the fact that both Customs and Immigration wanted original copies of both our zarpe and crew list from El Slavador. I finally convinced the officials that I had only one copy, but they could photo-copy it if they chose, and they agreed to let us enter the country after paying $30 in visa and port fees.
With the check-in off my mind it was time to enjoy my surroundings. I passed the day surfing the point, washing down Avventura, and exploring the area. Ryan and I walked up the long beach stretching north from the lagoon entrance where shells littered the water-line. The beach was empty as we walked down a couple miles to a point from where the coastline turned to high, inaccessible cliffs stretching as far as I could see.
On our way back down the beach we came across a group of three Americans lying in the sand. As seems natural when coming across a fellow countryman in a foreign land, we struck up a conversation. The group was from Minnesota where they went to Medical School. The two girls and one guy were down here volunteering at a medical clinic. They told us horror stories of the local diseases, warned us of their lack of hygiene, and made sure we knew venereal diseases were rampant. After scaring us sober, we turned to lighter topics like my travels to date. One of the Minnesotans made a comment that we must have a big medical kit on board, and when I replied it was as meager as they come and we lacked even the basic suturing kit, they promised to try and help us out. Ryan broke the conversation off mid-sentence saying, “We better carry on.” I cursed him under my breath, said bye to the two cute girls, and said they should come visit us at the marina sometime. If nothing else it was nice to meet some fellow English-speakers, and since my Spanish was rudimentary at best it was nice to carry-on a conversation without having to think about every word and sentence. (A couple days later the Minnesotans showed up at the marina with a big bag of medical supplies, including a full suture kit which I was grateful I never had to use. We bought them a round of drinks at he bar in return. Just an-other example o travelers helping each other out in foreign lands.)
On the way back to the marina I stopped at an empty beachside palapa and recorded the day’s events in my journal. While I wrote small shorebreak crashed on the sand and wind rustled through the nearby coco palms. A squall began to descend on the area, so I closed my journal and rushed for the ocean. I started bodysurfing as the rain came in, slow at first, slapping the water with big drops, but ever-increasing till it was pouring. A wave came through and I took off, cut left, and pulled inside the tube and it dumped on the sand. I washed up the beach, and when the water sucked out from under me I remained stranded on the sand, rain pelting my back, thrilled at life. Ryan was long back at the boat by now, probably watching a DVD and eating lunch. He didn’t feel what I felt; the raw emotions of life had been dulled in him through the long monotony of years in school, and I felt bad about it. I stood on the beach, faced to windward, and shut my eyes as the rain pelted my face. My body began to shake in the cold downpour, so I opened my eyes and rushed for the ocean once more. Down the beach I could see the two Minnesota girls huddled under a towel. Then, seemingly out of nowhere one rushed into the ocean and jumped in. I gave a hoot. We were children of the elements. Life was good.

The bus to Chinandega passed by the marina three times a day. Anxious to see some of northern Nicaragua, and in need of a few basic supplies, Ryan and I decided to catch the second bus to town at nine o’clock. This left just enough time for a quick surf session with Cameron off Velella before I rushed back to the boat, gathered Ryan and my things, and headed for the gate out of the marina complex. We arrived at the necessary intersec-tion just in time to board the empty once-yellow former school bus. Ryan and I took seats across the aisle from each other and settled in for the short ten-mile ride to town. Off the bus rumbled over the wet, muddy streets through the towns near the marina.
It didn’t take long to realize that Marina Puesta del Sol is an oasis in what is one of the poorest regions of Central America I’ve seen. The homes lining the road were simple plywood structures with thatched roofs. The lucky few had some sort of plastic or iron roof, but all used the earth as their floor. There was no electricity to be found, no plumb-ing, and most of the inhabitants obtained their water by hand-cranking a bucket up from a local well. After a night of much rain all was muddy and wet and I found myself feeling sorry for the inhabitants. My heart ached and I wished there was some way, any way really, that I could make their lives easier and better.
Then an amazing thing happened. As I sat in my window seat on the bus I watched the people pour out of their homes to board the bus. Not a one had a frown on his face; not a one had a look of worry in his eyes. Everybody I came across had a beaming smile and a bounce in their step rarely seen among modern Americans. It was when I saw the little girl that I knew I could learn something from these people.
She flagged the bus down from the side of the road. Standing in her pink floral print dress, a ribbon pulling her long black hair back into a ponytail, she turned and waved good-bye to her mother and father who watched from the doorway of their palapa shanty. She then skipped across the street in front of the bus, and bounded up the stairs. She said something to the bus driver as she handed him her fare but the cacophony of chatter drowned her words. As she walked down the aisle she surveyed the scene. She said hello to a few people she knew, both young and old, and found another little girl seated across the bus two rows in front of me, apparently her friend. Her friend waved her over, but before she turned to sit down her eyes spied the gringo. Once she sat down the whisper-ing began between girlfriends, and before long they were both looking my way. I waved, and the girls quickly looked away, huddled together, and giggled. A moment later they mustered the courage and looked up again. I waved once more, and this time the gesture was returned with another bout of giggling. The look of fascination in their eyes betrayed how few white people visit this region of Nicaragua, and throughout the bus ride the girls continued glancing my way periodically.
Before long the bus was overflowing with people of all ages. Young girls were headed for town to visit grandparents, farmers were heading in to purchase supplies, farmer’s wives were bound to sell their goods (strapped to the roof where a pair of locals rode and held on for dear life) at the local market, and mothers with child were heading in to do some grocery shopping.
Still the image of the girl in the pink dress dominated my thoughts. Here she was living in what could only be described to Americans as poverty-ridden squalor, living in a house with dirt floors never having known running water or electricity. Despite all this she boarded the bus beaming an infectious smile. Her hair perfectly brushed and pulled back in a pretty ponytail; her dress clean and wrinkle-free; her skin glowing with health and her eyes filled with a purity and innocence that is lacking from any kid in an American schoolyard. Where I come from she would be the poorest little girl around, but she knew nothing of wealth and money, greed and power. She was free like the birds and, in that moment, appeared to me the happiest girl in the world. Voltaire’s story of “The Good Brahmin” came to mind and I said to myself: “I envy her happiness, but would not wish to trade places with her.”
As the bus rumbled along the dirt road turned to asphalt and the ride became even more uncomfortable. Potholes dotted the road like land mines and the bus driver crawled along at the pace with which you approach a speed bump. Even so the bigger potholes launched me clear out of my seat. The bus’ suspension had long since become worn and useless, and every bump was felt by everyone in the bus. The Nicaraguans carried on their con-versations oblivious to the torture Ryan and I were enduring; after all, this was just a rou-tine trip to town for them. For me the sweltering heat of the coming day and the hordes of people looming in the aisle above me added to the roller coaster ride and made for a mis-erable ninety minutes.
To distract myself I gazed out the window at the countryside flowing past. Cattle grazed in open fields, but all looked emaciated and meatless. At one point we passed a baseball diamond—the first since leaving home—and kids were already on the field play-ing among themselves. From time to time we passed an ox-cart pulling her riders and their goods on down the road. Everywhere you looked people flowed past on their bicy-cles, and it was a rare sight to see a bike with just one person. Dr. Seuss came to mind as I watched one man on one bike, then two men on one bike, the a man and a woman. Three on one bike caused me to chuckle, but the family of four I saw ride past was a humbling sight. The father pedaled while his son stood behind him and his wife sat atop the handlebars, cradling her baby in her arms. It was clear that this region of Nicaragua was a resourceful blend of the old with what new technology could be afforded.

Ninety minutes after leaving the marina I didn’t think I could stand the motion and heat anymore when the houses along the road finally grew thick once more. We had left the countryside and were entering the town of El Viejo. The bus wound through the crowded streets of town and I was struck at the massive amounts of litter all about. Water and juice is sold in small plastic bags and it is customary to simply throw these out the window of the bus when you are finished with them. This creates no regard for keeping the town clean and as a result all sorts of garbage finds its way to the curbs. The rows of houses and shops looked old and decayed. Chunks of concrete were missing from their facades and paint, where it was applied, was peeling off.
Some of the passengers disembarked in El Viejo, but as we continued onward somehow more people filed in for the short ride on to Chinandega. When the bus finally pulled up at its final stop I was thrilled to disembark and stretch my legs once more. Chinandega’s streets showed more of the same decay. Litter was everywhere and I had a hard time rec-onciling the Nicaraguans lack of pride in their cities with the great deal of pride they showed in the presentation and look of themselves. The men all wore pants and a button-down shirt, and the women wore dresses or other nice outfits. How could they let their cities decay so obviously?
Walking south through town, the row of shops came to an abrupt halt and a beautiful church stood in their stead. The façade of the church was pristine, the paint job looked recent, and yet a placard beside the entrance proclaimed the church to date to the 1800s. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to see the religious fervor of the Nicaraguan people. Soon after the church there came a gap in the buildings filled by a rarely-used, uneven basket-ball court. Off in the distance, rising above the city dwellings rose the form of two volca-noes big and ominous; an ever-present reminder to all inhabitants of nature’s fury and their own mortality.
A couple blocks past the basketball court the streets grew thick with people. I stepped inside a bank to convert dollars to cordobas, but when I saw how long the line was I de-cided to try and use my dollars instead. Stepping outside, a man pulled a shady-looking roll of bills from his pocket, began thumbing through them, and asked me how much I needed to exchange. I handed him a pair of twenties and he returned 650 cordobas to me. I had been warned against dealing with these characters, but if the banks were so crowded how could I resist? He had given me more than the 15 to 1 minimum exchange I had been warned about, so who was I to complain? It was time to buy a few provisions.
Passing by a big supermarket, I noted its location but carried on, with Ryan nipping at my heels, for the farmer’s market. Lining two streets in the center of town, the farmer’s market is quite a sight to behold. The local farmers and various other merchants set up stands beneath umbrellas and tarps of various shapes, sizes and colors, and display their goods. One street is lined with fresh produce while the other contains stands of cell phone accessories and other trinkets that seemed quite out of place. The streets were loud and chaotic. Shoppers bargained with the women tending the stands. And in the middle of the streets themselves bicycle taxis pedaled by ringing bells, sharing the road with both ox-carts, horse-drawn carts, and a modern cars. It was a bizarre blend of the new and old that clearly displayed the vast range in the standard of living of the locals.
The produce stands boasted some of the biggest fruits and vegetables I’ve ever seen and sold them at what were to me bargain prices. I bought four of the biggest mangoes I’ve ever seen and a pair of pineapples for the equivalent of two dollars. I also picked up a few needed vegetables and made a stop at the modern supermarket for other supplies before I had knocked everything off my provisioning list. Fleeing the commotion of the market, we bypassed the park at the center of town and its long line of food stands and boarded a bus for the short ride back to El Viejo.
Upon arrival in El Viejo I asked where and when the next bus to the marina would be leaving from, and was told we had a few hours. The next bus would be leaving from be-side the park at four o’clock—some three hours away. Learning this, Ryan and I set off for the park, again in the center of town, and sat down at a food stand in its midst. For a dollar you can get just about whatever it is you desire. I ordered a fish plate, and while waiting for it to arrive wandered across to street to get a picture of what I was told was “the holiest church in Nicaragua,” Basílica Immaculada Concepción de María (Basilica of the Immaculate Conception of Mary) . I was again struck by the beauty and careful upkeep of the church compared with its drab surroundings, but found it a pleasant back-drop to the town’s park.
While eating lunch at a small plastic table in the park my eyes scanned the scene. Eld-erly gentlemen dozed off on park benches in the shade of trees, women went about their daily shopping in the distance, and kids ran amuck in the park playing wildly. Two young boys huddled together in the dirt playing a game of marbles, beaming with delight. Life was simple, and happiness in abundance.
After lunch I penned an entry in my journal before finding an empty bench in the shade and reading the afternoon away. The dreaded bus ride back started on time, and was just as crowded as the one into town. Another ninety minutes of hell elapsed before Ryan and I disembarked, hot, tired and sweaty, and to purge myself of a day of filth and grime I leaped into the marina’s pool for a relaxing swim before returning to Aventura for the night.

While checking into Nicaragua I let the Customs officials know I wanted to leave on Sunday. To my great surprise the official replied that he and his partner would be at the marina Sunday morning between nine and ten o’clock to check us out. Ten o’clock came and went—no Customs. Ditto 11, 12 and 1 o’clock. A man in the marina office called Customs and told me they were already on their way. Two o’clock—no customs. I walked back into the office and this time the dockmaster called. Customs was still on their way. Just wait and see. At 2:15 P.M. an eighty-foot sailboat, Lenore, arrived right on schedule and lo-and-behold Customs showed up. They walked right past me and boarded the new vessel. She was clearly a higher priority than a couple young kids. While the sailboat was being checked in the three Americans from the medical clinic arrived, so Ryan and I had a drink with them in the marina’s restaurant, chatting and waiting. Before long the skies opened up and it started to rain with a fury. Lightning flashed and the medical students fled for the shelter of their clinic. Customs was ready for us now. It was 3:15 P.M.—far too late to leave.

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