This is what I remember from a couple days with my family on the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua. This region was colonized by the English and the population is mostly indigenous and afrocaribbean, so people speak a mixture of Caribbean English, Miskito, Garifuna and Spanish. I am sorry if there are mistakes. If it’s not because my memory fails then I probably never knew what was going on in the first place.
The bus ride to el Rama from Managua took seven hours, arriving around 3 a.m. Nicaragua is usually hot. You know, the heat that keeps a constant layer of sticky grease and sweat on your skin. Now we went so fast the wind coming in the windows made my layers of dried sweat turn into sheets of salt. I squished against the wall for warmth and slept intermittently with flashing dreams or maybe only vivid thoughts. I had told my brother it wasn’t worth it to make this journey only to spend two days on the Coast, but we went ahead. My father had not been to the Atlantic Coast since the eighties, and my brother, his girlfriend and I had never been there before.
We got the bus tickets at the “Ivan Montenegro,” a small, stinky market in the southeast of Managua. The ticket booth was in the parking lot. There was a big blue gate–locked–next to a ticket stall. An old cab driver told us, “no tickets until 3 pm.” Another man called to us from behind the gate. He let us past the gate into long hallways with blue walls, many numbered doors, and an open area with potted plants. We walked to the end of the hall and into a room. He pointed to a tiny lady in one of those hospital style beds that can bend up and said, “talk to her.”
Doña Damaris had a big head and a short neck, so her chin leaned in towards her chest. She had a boxy torso with a flat chest and very thin limbs. Her hands were kind of bent and scrunched up–somehow atrophied. Around her five girls moved about the room. They passed around a baby and ate some food. They brought Doña Damaris water and sat around chattering softly. I watched the photos on the wall: a young girl, Doña Damaris getting a school diploma, and a picture of the moment when Juan Diego uncovered an apparition of the Virgin of Guadalupe on his cloak while he took a bishop some roses he’d picked at Tepeyac. With a voice as small and sweet as she looked, Doña Damaris said we were all set for tomorrow and that if we had any problems we should only mention her name or come looking for her in the same place. Crossing Nicaragua cost just about twelve dollars, no meals included.
The next night the bus left Managua. We’d brought a friend who had no ticket and the lady at the ticket stall wouldn’t sell us another ticket. My father went looking for Doña Damaris. It was only a few minutes before the lady got a phone call and then sold us a ticket. Doña Damaris had power.
Around 4 a.m. we got to the bus station at El Rama. We got off the bus and defrosted in a line, waiting to speak with a man in an office. Outside the office people slept and sat on long benches. Ladies walked by selling quesillo, frozen jello, bread and very sweet coffee. The station got warm. Under my shirt crystallized sweat defrosted into stickiness. In the office there was a desk and a box of toilet paper, which I didn’t see until after I’d gone to the bathroom. On the way to the bathroom there were many numbered doors. My guess is that maybe these stations are also hotels for the people passing through.
The man behind the desk assigned us a panga number. A panga is a small low boat with a motor. Since we had a couple hours to wait, we walked. People huddled in the street outside a closed market. We got to a park full of nativity scenes set up by a variety of government offices. As we walked back to the bus station, my mother was bitten on the calf by a lactating dog. There was a gas station nearby, so we went there to look for gasoline to sanitize my mother’s bite. Instead, the man at the gas station gave us alcohol and gauze. My father cleaned and bandaged my mother’s calf and we headed over to the port of el Rama.
At the port there was a tree submerged halfway underwater. We waited in a big crowd of people as each driver called out their panga number. The numbers were not called out in numerical order. In the panga, the driver stood at the back and we passengers sat on wooden slat benches in orange lifejackets. He handed the passengers on one side of the boat a piece of black plastic, which they held along the length of the panga so they could unroll it to take cover in case it rained, but it didn’t.
As the sun rose, birds stretched their wings with their backs into the sunlight. For minutes I fell asleep. The river was wide and brown. Scattered houses on stilts stood along the shore between all the plants. Cows grazed while people fiddled with clotheslines, machetes, and bananas.
In Bluefields, the capital of the South Atlantic Autonomous Region of Nicaragua, there was a market on the edge of the water. Boats and pangas docked there, delivering fish and bananas. Down the block was a food court on the second floor of a drippy building. Women called out so we’d eat their food. “Come here, love!” They’d wave, offering gallopinto ( fried beans and rice), shrimp in ketchup, fried fish, and tortillas. A smiling old lady with soft thin wrinkles and shiny eyes invited me behind the bar into her kitchen and put some drops of soup onto the back of my hand. It was good soup.
Our second day we went to a town called Pearl Lagoon. It was about an hour away by panga. At the port, men loaded a boat with palm leaves for the roof of a new hotel in a nearby town. It started to pour. We ate coconut bread while the rain calmed down. The baker recommended visiting Awas, a village we could get to following a road off the edge of town. The rain caught us again in front of the police station and then again at the pharmacy. Wind violently pushed water down in gushes from the sky. When it got softer, two small girls sprinted down the road under a giant umbrella. My father asked a man who waited with us if the rain would pass or go on like this. The man answered, “Yes, it will pass. But it will go on like this.” So we walked.
The road through the marsh was paved. For some stretches the water level was so high it went some inches over the pavement. People walked by us and we walked by them, always greeting each other. One man, David, passed us on his way home to Awas. As we walked together, he said the government had paved this road a few decades ago, maybe five years before they set up the public lighting. David told us he worked on whatever there was to work on, but right then he was going home.
We walked by a stretch of road that could have been either a bridge or a spot where the water on the edges of the road was very deep because people swam and a woman washed some clothes. When the rain got heavy David sent us running onto someone’s porch. By then we were also walking with a man named Martin. Soon two more people caught up with us under the roof. Boyd Martinez laughed when he introduced himself as a “black man with a Spanish name.”
My brother, his girlfriend and I stood on the porch with the two men and a lady whose name I never knew, while the upper generation of our group stood inside the house with some children who brought them chairs. While we waited for the rain to pass Martin and Boyd told us about where we were. The village was called Raitipura, which Martin said means “lots of people died here.” He said the population was 95 people, that the oldest person is 85. They built up the village after a big hurricane (my mother guessed Joan) destroyed their previous home closer to the ocean. They mainly fish and farm. Martin described a game that involved racing rolling balls of colored straw and told us how sad it is that young people don’t speak Miskito anymore because they would rather speak the Creole, but that he speaks Miskito to his kids who live on Corn Island.
Boyd Martinez was on his way to fish with a friend that evening because he hadn’t caught too many fish that morning. “The tide is best at night,” he said. He carried rubber boots and said he bet his boat was getting full of water, but didn’t seem too worried. Boyd told us most of his fish and shrimp get sent to Managua. He talked about how people here are mostly opposed to the Sandinista government because “Daniel [the president] brought such violence to this place; they is killing pregnant women.” He explained that to fish he goes chest-deep into the water with a big net and, “sometimes it’s cold though, even with two jackets and a big plastic.”
We never made it to Awas, and when we got back to the port at el Rama, the tree that had been submerged was now standing on solid dirt. There was a hammock hanging from it.