“Justice is an unassailable fortress, built on the brow of a mountain which cannot be overthrown by violence of torrents, nor demolished by the force of armies.” ~ Joseph Addison
If you come down to the River
Bet you’re gonna find some people who live
You don’t have to worry ’cause you have no money
People on the river are happy to give~ Proud Mary sung by Tina Turner
Every now and then, I kind of like to do things nice and easy. Rollin’ on the Rio San Juan was one of those nice and easy kind of days. However, life on the river was not always tranquil. What a deep and rough history this river has: pirates, slave traders, William Walker, Cornelius Vanderbilt; cannons, forts, rapids, and crocodiles the size of dugout canoes.
Yet, embarking on our three-hour journey meandering down the olive-green waters of the Rio San Juan, I felt like an explorer perched on the edge of discovering a new way of life…a much slower-paced life…one in harmony with the rhythm and beat of the waves gently lapping the shore in the wake of our long, flat-bottomed panga.
What discoveries lie ahead? Will we find human imprints? Join me as we leave the sliver of civilization known as San Carlos, and glide slowly down the river into the depths of the jungle. Turn up the music! We’re rollin’ on the river Tina Turner style.
In the evening, as the brutal sun was sinking into the sweet sea for its nightly nap , a freshwater giant was lurking in the shallow waters of Lake Cocibolca. These gargantious alligator gar have few known predators, mainly because the prehistoric relatives of the megafish have tooth-filled mouths and heavily scaled bodies.
Yet, one unfortunate menacing-looking behemoth couldn’t contend with Julio and his missile-like aim.
With a swiftly flying rock, he pounded the alligator gar into deadly submission. This toothy giant didn’t have a chance.
This gargantious gar may look fierce, but attacks against people are unknown. Tell that to little 8 mo. old Braydon, whose mother just finished bathing him in the lake.
Julio chopped up the gar with his machete throwing twinkly flying sparks….seriously! Then, the big hunks of meat were distributed among the neighborhood. Some say that gar is a tasty treat, others say that gar is bony and tough. The only fact I know about gar is that the eggs are poisonous to humans if ingested.
Stay tuned for my gar recipe. In the meantime, I think I’m taking a break from swimming in the shallow waters of our sweet sea.
The little people of the sea Have sent an answer back to me The little people’s answer was We cannot stand it, Sir, because. ~Paraphrased after Lewis Carrol
Sometimes I worry about the changes and rapid development in Nicaragua, especially for the traditional fishermen along the 100+ miles of Pacific coastline. Nicaragua is blessed with undeveloped, raw coastline. Dotted with colorful tiny fishing villages, the fishermen depend on the sea to make a living. When the roads are developed and tourism explodes, will the little people say, “We cannot stand it, Sir. Please make them go away.”?
Coastal fishing villages are often isolated, making them difficult to visit. We’ve seen the changes new roads have brought to San Juan del Sur, and soon-to-be ‘touron’ (Our son’s nickname for environmentally unconcerned tourists) infested Playa Gigante. The once charming fishing villages are overrun with tacky tourist shops, vegetarian restaurants, camera laden tourists, and surf boards and kayaks heavily chained to embedded metal poles. What will happen to the little people of the sea, whose homes and livelihoods are transformed into a concrete jungle for tourons?
Las Penitas is a short 30 minute bus ride from Leon. It is situated around a small natural harbor, which provides a safe haven for the fleet of fishing pongas. Fascinated with the daily activities of the local fishermen, we watched with trepidation, as the fishing pongas jumped huge waves to enter or exit the protected harbor. The harbor disappears at low tide, leaving dugout canoes and pongas stranded in the sand flats until the next tide rolls into the harbor freeing the boats.
Sipping our morning coffee, we eavesdropped on the conversations of the fishermen’s families waiting for the catch of the day. They discussed the cost of school supplies and beans, while chastising their children because they had taken the wooden slats off the bottom of the metal cart used to carry the fish to market. The children flopped the splintery wooden slats into the water and used them like boogie boards until the first fishing ponga sailed over the crashing waves into the harbor.
Entranced by the smells of fresh fish, the sights of salivating dogs circling the mooring pongas, the whispered swishing sounds of the frayed nets hauled to shore, the flash of sharp blades filleting the fish, and finally the raspy voices of rapid fire negotiations, the fish exchanged hands from sea to fishermen to market, as we watched the traditions of fishermen passed down generation after generation.
What will happen to the little people of the sea? Will they say, “We cannot stand it, Sir. Please make them go away.”? Or will they passively resign themselves to keeping up with the tourons? Only time will tell.
For those of you who know Ron, you also know that his passions are fishing and gardening. If you come to visit us, generally you’ll find him puttering around in the huge garden in our back yard. If he’s not there, he’ll be in the front yard, fishing. Our little La Paloma beach house is the perfect setting for Ron. The early morning sun rises above Vulcan Concepcion spreading its tropical rays on his mounds of fruits and vegetables scattered throughout the half-acre garden. The fence is dotted with wild purple morning glories and vibrant yellow flowers resembling an old English country garden watercolor painting. In our front yard, Lake Cocibolca waves her gentle fingers beyond our front doors tempting Ron with her aquatic delights. Life couldn’t be more perfect, or more picturesque.
With a year round growing season, Ron has experimented with a variety of fruits and vegetables. His cucumbers, papaya, green beans, sweet potatoes, black beans, black-eyed peas, oregano, and greens are bearing now. It’s been a constant battle, though, with the neighbor’s chickens, the nematodes, leaf-cutter ants, and yesterday, the wild horse that got in the garden and ate the leaves off his banana tree. The only consolation was that the horse manure landed exactly in the right spot. The neighborhood kids were here playing baseball yesterday and they forgot to close the front gate. This morning, Julio spotted the horse and he and his four bony dogs chased it out of the yard.
Our friends and neighbors have generously supplied us with sweet potato cuttings, peanuts, basil, mint, and other starter plants. Ron has tenderly nurtured carrots and beets for months now, but so far, they refuse to grow. Some people have told us to pee on the plants, but that hasn’t solved the problem. There are so many mysteries to tropical gardening. The volcanic soil is rich and sandy, yet it lacks certain nutrients. For example, Ron’s tomato plants were growing tall and spindly like something out of Jack and the Bean Stock, so one of my former English students told Ron to try pouring milk in the soil. Instead, he mixed up the liquid calcium supplement I bought from the traveling pharmacist, and it worked like a charm. Now, they have been attacked by nematodes, so he had to sterilize the soil and plant them in buckets to prevent another nematode onslaught.
Ron’s garden is dotted with avocado trees, papayas, eggplant, peppers, cantaloupe, and garbanzo beans. Between the rows and circles, Ron machetes the tall grass to make mounds of compost. It’s a never-ending job. But, in the process, Ron has lost over twenty pounds. Today, he was showing me his arms and his machete arm appears to be twice the size of his other one. He’s becoming a real pro with his machete…. a sign that he’s fitting into this primitive, macho world of ours.
Although all the neighbors like to visit Ron’s garden, it’s really puzzling that no one has a garden of their own here. We can’t understand why they don’t garden. There are large fields of tobacco, plantains, coffee, rice, beans, and sesame seeds, but no family gardens. We haven’t figured out if they lack the initiative or the know how, or both. Don Jose, our closest neighbor, sometimes doesn’t have enough food to feed his family, yet he has a big garden spot behind his house that is overgrown with mango trees, lemons, and other tropical fruit trees. One of the locals recently told us, “We like to pick and we like to eat.” That’s very true. Maybe they just don’t know how to dig and plant. Fruits are so abundant here and easily obtainable. If we want lemons, mangos, oranges, coconuts, hot peppers, or other fruits, we walk outside and gather them off the trees or the ground.
When Ron gets tired of gardening or macheting, he grabs his fishing pole and heads to the lake. The lake near our house is very shallow and sandy. Although, the Guapote ( the big, fat fish of the lake) are generally found in the more rocky, deeper areas, he’s been successful at catching smaller, silvery fighting fish that jump into the air about six feet. The Munchaca are harder to eat because they have lots of little bones.
His fishing pole is still a novelty in the land of long fishing nets. Strangers walking along the shore will often stop and stare at Ron casting his line into the lake. They’re sort of befuddled with the unusual contraption and don’t know what to make of it. One day, Ron took his electronic fish finder to the lake with him and you can’t imagine all the fuss that it created. For the past week, Cory and Sam have been flying a spider man kite. The end of November and December are the windy months…excellent kite weather. With lots of creative ingenuity and third world materials, they attached the kite to Ron’s fishing pole and tested it out at the beach. As a result, we’ve learned many new Spanish words like… tail, kite, wind, and crash and burn.
Ron is also the household chef. I’m glad that he enjoys cooking because it gives me more time to write. Like his fishing pole, a cocina man “kitchen man” is a novelty on Ometepe and I suspect in all Latin American cultures. The neighbors are in awe when they see Ron in the kitchen preparing a meal. Several years ago, when I asked my English student boys how to prepare plantains or other exotic fruits and vegetables, they gave me blank stares. They had no idea what takes place in a kitchen. The cocina is an alien world full of frilly aprons, smoky fires, squawking pigs, and crying babies. I gave them a writing assignment one day. “Go home and write the recipe for your favorite meal, in English.” They had to interview their mothers and translate the recipes into English. Not many could do it and the recipes I got were useless because they don’t use measuring cups or ovens. The recipes were hysterical with words like, drain the blood, gather the wood, use a fistful of oil, and locate a chicken egg.
So now you have a little peek into my amazing husband’s life. He’s definitely a keeper!! I’ve seen these young Nica women eyeing him and smiling seductively at a gringo who likes to cook, fish, and garden and I may have to swat them away with my twig broom. Life on Ometepe suits him well. As the neighbors say, “He’s a beddy goot man.”
Very little surprises us anymore. We’ve gotten used to the weird and bizarre sights in the “land of the not quite right.” However, yesterday morning there was a view so unique that a crowd of local people followed it from Moyogalpa to our beach in La Paloma. They camped out on our beach for the day with picnic baskets full of food, a gigantic camcorder from the 1990’s, and a dozen broken plastic chairs holding sleeping babies.
We woke up to El Gamalote, a floating island, slowly bobbing south from Moyogalpa on top of the gentle waves of Lake Cocibolca. According to the locals, occasionally during the rainy season, a small island of debris breaks away from the river banks that feed Lake Cocibolca. These floating islands are usually smaller than a basketball court. This morning’s Gamalote appeared, to me, about the size of Rhode Island…Ron says, ” Don’t exaggerate Debbie, it is about the size of two football fields.” Still, it is mighty big. Big enough to draw a crowd of onlookers.
I wondered from where this floating island originated. Jose, my friendly gardener, told me that grasses and rushes grow along the edges of the rivers. These rushes and grasses gradually push their way out into deeper waters, leaving a shelf and a mass of decaying vegetable matter on which other mosses and plants gain a foothold. When well established, other water-loving plants, such as water lilies and shrubs grow along with the moss and grasses. Still attached to the banks of the river, a layer of peat forms a foundation, usually less than three feet thick. The mat becomes firm and eventually small trees will grow on the Gamalote, weaving their roots into the peat and strengthening the foundation.
Then, when the rains come, the water level rises, and the mini-ecosystem breaks off forming a floating island. The local islanders are afraid of these floating islands because the mini-ecosystem lodges itself on Ometepe Island, like a shipwreck. New animals and serpents exit the floating island like stranded survivors seeking refuge on dry land. I often wondered how plants and animals are introduced to an island. Now, one of the mysteries is solved.
They warned Ron not to paddle out to the floating island because it contained many snakes. But, not heeding their advice, he paddled out anyway. He didn’t see any snakes, but he reported a variety of sea birds, turtles, water lilies, and shrubs. I think that secretly he was wishing it would stay afloat in front of our beach because it could be a great new fishing spot.
By evening, the floating island was within 20 feet of our beach. Like at a horse race, the crowd cheered when the Gamalote floated further out in the lake, and booed when it floated closer to the shore. All I could imagine was that by morning, we would have a nest of snakes slithering around our house. I shivered with dread!
This morning, the first thing we did was to run down to the beach to see where the Gamalote landed. It is slowly headed farther south toward Punta Jesus Maria. Sighing in relief, I hope it journeys around Ometepe Island to the Rio San Juan. Maybe they like nests of snakes more than I do….at least I’m keeping my fingers crossed!
Big Fish was a permanent fixture in my fifth grade classroom. My overstuffed Large Mouth Bass pillow comforted the insecure, wrestled with the rambunctious, and teased the shy into an uninhibited smile. When I squeezed Big Fish into my suitcase, Ron commented, “That’s the craziest thing to take to Nicaragua. What are we going to do with a big fish pillow?” I whispered, and let out a sigh (kind of exasperated with the twenty questions for every item I packed), “You’ll see.” There was no way that I was going to tell him that I thought Big Fish was magical. He already thought I lost it when I bought an overstuffed Sunfish pillow to go with Big Fish to Nicaragua.
A few months later, my fish pillows had worked their magic throughout our tiny community. Big Fish wrestled with Isaac, our rambunctious three-year old neighbor. The pillows were a comforting poof of fabric for little bottoms settled into coloring and reading on our hard tiled floors. And after the kids tired of coloring, reading, and wrestling, the fish pillows transformed into…well, pillows…for sleepy heads, after exploring all the novelties in a gringo house.
Big Fish was well-known in my classroom to comfort the insecure and tease the shy into an uninhibited smile. When the Nica teenagers and young adults would come over to our house, they would usually gravitate to Big Fish, place him on their laps, and get into a cuddling frenzy with my pillow. When I offered to start a Facebook page for Luvis and Fabiola, I told them, ” I need to take a picture for your profile on Facebook.”
It’s important to know that I helped Luvis and Fabiola join Facebook on two separate days. Neither girl knew one another, nor saw each others pose for the profile picture. Luvis grabbed Big Fish to include in her profile picture. A few days later, Big Fish joined Fabiola on Facebook. Take a look. I challenge you to tell me that Big Fish isn’t magical.
Fishing defines our small island. It sustains the people and nourishes their minds and bodies. The islanders use large nets called reds. Strong calloused hands and arms throw out the reds and haul in the catch every day of the year. A fishing pole is a novelty on the island. Ron may have the only pole on the island, and this oddity intrigues the fishermen, as well as confuses them. They wonder why anyone would only want to catch one fish. It really freaks them out when they see Ron throw the fish back into the lake. Fishing for sport is an unheard of concept.
When Guillermo, our head construction worker, spied Ron’s fishing pole, he asked if he could try it out. He attempted to cast repeatedly, with no release because he never hooked into one fish. Ron didn’t want Guillermo to be disappointed or frustrated with the new sport of fishing with a pole, so he grabbed Big Fish and Sunfish. He posed Guillermo with his fishing pole and the overstuffed fish pillows, and a sport fisherman was born!
I’ve shopped at the enormous Bass ProShop, since I returned to the states for a few weeks. I have a new overstuffed pillow to take back to Nicaragua. This time, it’s a crocodile. Since my fish pillows are such a big hit, there’s no telling what a crocodile will do! I suspect my croc will be therapeutic for the little kids because Isaac developed a fear of swimming in the lake. He overheard a fisherman say he spotted a four ft. croc nearby, and I’m sure it didn’t help matters when he watched “Jaws”.