The Other Nicaragua

Trip Start Jan 10, 2005
Trip End Apr 01, 2007

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Flag of Nicaragua  ,
Saturday, June 3, 2006

"The Atlantic Coast [of Nicaragua] is perhaps best understood if one imagines it as a Caribbean island that, by some geological catastrophe, drifted toward Central America and found itself part of a foreign nation." --Stephen Kinzer, Blood of Brothers.

La Costa resides, as stated, on the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua; which does not initially sequester its uniqueness. It remains part of Nicaragua only geographically. Culturally, socially, and linguistically, it is another world. Due to the rugged wilderness separating it from the rest of Nicaragua, its residents have always looked eastward for their connection with the rest of the world. Therefore, they have never tried to connect the two worlds by a highway system; making it reachable only by boat or air.

Whenever the Atlantic Coast is discussed from "our" side of Nicaragua, the largest city Bluefields is always the subject of the discussion. More specifically, Palo de Mayo (The Maypole Dance,) is what everyone talks about. It is simply the most well-known and colorful feature of the vibrant Costena culture. Originally Palo de Mayo was an English and Nordic tradition of decorating a long, straight pole, set in the center of town with fresh flowers and colorful ribbons to celebrate the start of Spring and happiness. How Palo de Mayo arrived in Bluefields remains a mystery and why they celebrate it can be even more puzzling; since there are only two seasons in Nicaragua (neither of which being Spring.) However, Palo de Mayo on La Costa refers to two different things: a massive celebration of joy held every May and it is also the name of a dance and style of music. The dance is what typically gets discussed the most because of it sensual style; which sometimes appears as simulated sex on the dance floor!

Because of the distance separating the Coast from the rest of Nicaragua, most Nicaraguans have never visited it and allude to it as a place of enchantment and fear. Being that this was the last May of my PC service, I knew I had to make a visit to Palo de Mayo a reality and I couldn't think of a better way of dispelling some of the myths of the Coast than bringing along a 100% Nicaraguan Pinolera , and a wonderful friend Mayela. Since Peace Corps now mandated that no one could travel to the Coast by boat; air was our only option. With the "pocket change" my parents left me from their unused travels I was able to invite her aboard her first airplane ride! Consequently, once the engines started and were heading down the runway my gumption was being crushed, quite painfully out of my right hand. However, once she settled in a little she was quite cute, giving a little squeal every time we found a pocket of air (and in her defense, in that tiny plane there were a lot.)

In one hour later we touched down in Bluefields and were greeted with none other than Costena music and dancing. From a family I have become good friends with in San Isidro, I was invited to stay, by their grand-daughter, at her house in Bluefields. Nicaragua's constantly open up their homes to practical strangers and I have never taken them up on their offer. However, this time I did and the kindness and generosity of Nicaraguans' (Pacific or Atlantic) who don't even know you reinforced the wonderful heart of these people.

Being in Bluefields was very exciting. Watching all of the Palo de Mayo activities evoked all of your senses the colorful costumes, erotic dancing, delicious seafood, tropical musical rhythms, and the simple sight of Black people again. It was overwhelming that you just couldn't help but try to shimmy your body like them. Mayela and I called ourselves facenta (Bourgeois, stuck-up, show-offs) since we ate seafood everyday and sometimes not just once. I ate the best sopa de mariscos (seafood soup) that I've ever had and because of it ate it every day thereafter until we left! We spent two days in Bluefields tromping around by ourselves and with the few other lucky PCV's that got to experience this other country within itself before we headed out to Pearl Lagoon.

I went on a recommendation from a former Youth PCV turned Health PCV to visit this very special place. She started out in Nicaragua a Youth volunteer but because of the drug trafficking that comes from South America, up the coast; by way of boat they closed all programs on the Atlantic Coast. Her site would have been Pearl Lagoon but they pulled the program right before she was expected to go. It is a true shame. Once setting foot on this paradise I declared if I could live anywhere in Nicaragua for the rest of my life it would be there.

The town is more of what I expected from Bluefields, they speak English as their primary language and Spanish secondly. Pearl Lagoon is quiet, clean and a very safe Caribbean community were everyone is super friendly and tranquilo (laid-back.) The only music you ear is the soothing Caribbean beats and the only transportation is boat, bike or foot. We rented an upstairs room from the very amiable Arlene Williams and her 90 year old mother. Like I said everyone speaks English to one another, but I found myself in a strange conundrum. The habit of always initiating conversation in Spanish with people I don't know doubled by traveling with Mayela often left me in an awkward language trap; confused on how to address a conversation in English. Generally a good head-rattle did the trick, but it was defiantly a strange "out of body" feeling.

We arrived by panga (wooden fishing boats) in the late afternoon and decided we would just eat our way through the day, going to bed early and start the following day early. In the morning, we set out to find a place we could go swimming that was in one of the outlying communities. Walking out to this community, reported to be only a 30 minute walk away, I began to sense a different vibe emanating through the community. I would walk by locals and give the Pearl Lagoon greeting of "hello," but it would always be followed by a blush and a very cute smile. It was as if they didn't know how to respond; as if they didn't speak English or Spanish! Then all at once it hit me. "Maye, we've stumbled upon a Miskito village." Miskito is one of five indigenous languages still spoken on the Atlantic Coast. We walked directly out to the bank of the water and sat down to ponder or next move. Shortly, a local man named William approached us informed us that we were in the Raitipura village (Miskito for on to of the cemetery) and that if we wanted to swim it was best to head to Awas. From there he served as our tour guide answering all of our questions in English or Spanish about his community. It was very exciting to get to see one of these villages and understand how these people had maintained their language and fishing communities through the centuries.

Unfortunately, we could not spend the day in Awas and with our new friend; rather, we had to return to Pearl Lagoon to pack our bags and plan our departure back to Bluefields. The return trip was a lot more complicated than initially planed since we had "just" missed a panga back to Bluefields. Being that it was Mother's Day in Nicaragua (a holiday very similar in grandeur to Christmas) not too many people were leaving the lagoon. So, Maye and I had to do a bit of boat hopping, (getting fuddled again by the hora nueva, hora vieja) to get ourselves back to Bluefields. Luckily we made it to the airport just 10 minutes before our flight was to leave.

It was a long trip home, using practically every mode of transportation available, but it was a definitely worth it. Mayela and I had a wonderful time and I was so glad that we were able to do it together.
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