Do not disturb

On a small Nicaraguan island, two strangers and I find paradise. Naked on a pristine beach, I wonder if there's anything wrong with clich


Jason Wilson
May 13, 2000 8:00PM (UTC)

There was only one vacant room at the Hotel Panorama.

Marco and Elisa, the Dutch couple with whom I'd shared a taxi ride to this
point, glanced at each other in horror over the predicament. Hanging palm
fronds brushed softly against the bright yellow and white paint of the
pleasant, tiny, eight-unit hotel. A young girl with a straw broom lingered
under the cool shade of the porch and awaited our decision while
straightening a hammock. Marco and Elisa composed themselves and Elisa
said to me, "If you really, really want to stay here, I guess we can find
somewhere else." Her eyes, however, begged me to go away.

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I humbly insisted that Marco and Elisa take the room, then continued by
taxi along bumpy roads with deep puddles that had been gouged by
tremendous downpours and dried quickly in the hot sun. We drove from hotel to hotel, but there were no rooms at any of the other seven inns. "Too
many people in town for the fiesta," said the innkeeper of the 26-unit
Bayside Inn, the island's grandest accommodations. At most destinations,
"no vacancy" wouldn't necessarily mean a crisis. But here
on Corn Island, 45 miles off Nicaragua's eastern coast in the middle
of the Caribbean, it presented a special dilemma.

When I had exhausted every possible lodging option, my driver dropped me
in front of the small government office that housed the only public
telephones on the island. I could see the orange sun beginning to set over
a blue lagoon, casting shadows off several scattered fishing boats. There
wasn't a soul on the beach. I almost began to panic, but standing inside
the office with a telephone receiver in my hand, I realized worry was
senseless. I was here, and there really wasn't anyone to call anyway. So I
went back to the Hotel Panorama and drank beers with Marco and Elisa on
their porch.

The first thing you need to know about Corn Island is that the airstrip
doubles as the main thoroughfare. It is the only paved section of the island.
When the planes arrive from Managua, 100 people line the runway to
watch. Smiling men grab luggage straight out of the cargo hatch and throw
it into taxis. First-time visitors like us just follow along, mouths
agape. Gorgeous giant palm trees line the strip.

The second thing you need to know is that Corn Island has fallen under the
auspices of the Nicaraguan government for many years. Before that, the
island was a British colony. You can see the effects of both governments
in small but significant ways. Corn Island's "taxis," for instance, are
dilapidated Russian surplus jeeps. They were brought here during the Sandinista rule in the
1980s, a subtle hint to the islanders that comrades in Managua were
watching. The local language, unlike the Spanish of Nicaragua's interior,
is a West Indian dialect of English, which dates back to earlier days of
British rule. What Spanish Nicaragua calls "Corn Island" refers
to two islands: Great Corn Island is about three and a half miles long with a
population of about 2,500. Little Corn Island, relatively
uninhabited, is reachable only by boat from Great Corn Island.

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Before I flew to Corn Island, I'd been told by my Nicaraguan friends that
it was "virgin" and completely removed from the rest of the country. I was
hopeful it would be uncrowded, since there were still no paved roads that
connected the Pacific and Caribbean coasts of Nicaragua. But I was also
skeptical, since these same friends had also told me their nation's
government was finally stable and, after several weeks in Managua, I'd
realized that stable is a relative term. By "virgin," I only
hoped my friends meant Corn Island would be a break from the desperate
poverty and the danger that lurked throughout the mainland.

Myths swirl around Corn Island. It is reputed to be a stopover, a safe
haven, for the Medellmn drug cartel's shipments on the way to Miami, and,
according to locals, kilos of cocaine often wash up on the beach. But this
rumor is only the contemporary version of Corn Island's tradition of being
a frontier, outlaw place -- a reputation that dates back to British and Dutch
pirates in the 17th and 18th centuries. It's a place many have touched and
claimed, but none has truly conquered.

I'd met Marco and Elisa on the scary propeller airplane to Corn Island,
and they told me the trip was a vacation from their real purpose in
Nicaragua -- to provide health care outreach to street kids in Lesn. The
plane stopped once in the coastal outpost of Bluefields to drop off
passengers and for the pilot to catch a smoke, and we continued on.
When we landed, we were joined in the taxi by a Peace Corps
volunteer from Los Angeles named Tim, who told us he'd been trying for
months to establish an efficient lobster fishing cooperative on Corn
Island. As we disembarked, we saw several boxes marked
"Spanish Bibles" unloaded by a group of sincere-looking,
English-speaking men.

"A donde va?" asked the black islander driving our rusty old jeep. His
casual assumption was not unfounded: We'd all just arrived from Managua,
were white and, therefore, must certainly speak Spanish. At Tim's
suggestion, we headed for the Hotel Panorama.

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Tim explained that the island would be crowded on this particular
weekend because it was the annual La Fiesta de Cangrejo -- the Festival of
Crabs. "Everybody here says the fiesta celebrates the emancipation of the
slaves by the British in 1841," he said. "Legend has it that their
ancestors cooked a huge pot of crab soup in celebration. That's where the
name came from."

As Tim continued, he spoke about the island's lobster fishermen -- the ones whom the Peace Corps volunteers were trying to assist. "It's hard
to get these people together for a meeting," he said. "I scheduled one
last Sunday and it rained and nobody showed. Like they never got wet
before." This was the first time in 20 years that the Peace Corps had been
invited into Nicaragua.

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Tim slightly bemoaned the fact that the Festival of Crabs was happening
that weekend because another Sunday meeting with the fishermen would fall
by the wayside. "These people have no concept of how to market their
product."

Marco asked, "Do you have experience in lobster fishing?"

"No, I have a business degree," Tim said.

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"Oh," Marco said, smiling broadly and winking at me.

Our driver honked and yelled to his friends, who were yanking a giant sea
turtle out onto the white beach, and making short work of the animal with
a machete. "Turtle soup, mon!" our driver shouted. The sun sparkled off
puddles in the road as we approached the hotel, which was tucked away in
overgrown brush.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Night on Corn Island means a darkness so clear and thick it feels
tangible. Although I still didn't have a place to sleep,
Marco, Elisa and I decided to get something to eat. The girl at the Hotel
Panorama pointed us toward a light atop a hill, which overlooked a cove.
"That's the closest restaurant," she said. We had to carry flashlights to
find our way up the path, and we could see the flickering blue glow of
televisions in the little ramshackle homes as we passed.

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When we reached the top of the hill, we realized the restaurant was
basically someone's home -- about six tables set up in the living room. Two
island women rushed back and forth down a hall toward the kitchen while a
middle-aged American man ate at the front table. The man told us that the
restaurant/home was his and that he'd come to Corn Island to catch
lobsters.

"Been here four years," he grunted, adding that one of the women
in the kitchen was his wife.

Merle Haggard's "Greatest Hits" played on a small boombox and we ate a
tremendous dinner of shellfish. Later, when I tried to use the restroom,
the door was locked and I heard the shower running. Soon enough, the
American lobsterman walked out wrapped in a bath towel.

We drank more beers on the porch. Haggard changed to reggae and
mixed with the soft lapping of the bay. Suddenly, from out of the
darkness, a man wearing rubber surgical gloves and no shirt appeared at
the porch. He carried a bag of shrimp and asked if we wanted to buy some.
We said no, then he patted my stomach and disappeared once again into the
darkness. We walked back down the hill by flashlight, and
searched for the man with the rubber gloves.

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Then we decided to take a taxi back to the main drag. People with AK-47s
occasionally appeared from the darkness in the taxi's headlights. As we
approached the airstrip, the street teemed with islanders gripping beer
bottles and falling in and out of bars with swinging saloon doors.
Roulette wheels lit by lanterns spun as the crowds screamed. Motorcycles
and taxis flew through the darkness with or without lights.

When we tried to pay our taxi driver in Nicaraguan cordobas, he first
refused, then claimed he didn't have any change. The making of change became a community event: He shouted at drunken friends in the street, asking for cordobas. Finally, we produced a $5 bill and he gladly made change out of a wad in his wallet.

Three of us stumbled through the doors of Bar Morgan, which felt like a
sauna inside. Dance-hall reggae pumped and we
screamed at one another and laughed. The skull and crossbones of a huge
Jolly Roger hung over the dance floor. According to the waitress, the
bar's owner was a descendant of the legendary pirate Captain Morgan. We
paid for our beers with cordobas and she brought us two packs of Chiclets
as change and we laughed again. I danced with Elisa and a giant woman
wearing pink curlers. We saw Tim was sipping a beer by the door and yelled
at him to join us. "Don't Peace Corps volunteers dance?" Elisa asked.

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"I'm not really in the mood, man."

"What?" we shouted.

I spilled onto the street for air and a man who smelled like a rum
distillery wrapped his large arm around my shoulders and yelled, "Whoever
doesn't enjoy themselves on Corn Island is a fool!"

At the end of the night, Marco and Elisa insisted I stay in their room at
the Hotel Panorama. "I like you," Marco said. "It's funny, usually I don't
like Americans." He smiled. "I'm sort of a Marxist, you see. Back at the
university in Amsterdam you might have even called me a communist."

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I followed them back, sweaty and happy, and fell into the extra bed. In
the middle of the night, I heard a crash and awoke to find the electricity
off. I didn't bother to grab for the flashlight in my backpack. There,
away from the excitement near the airstrip, the night was silent and stars
gave off the only light. The fan never came back on, and as I waited to
fall back asleep, I could hear Marco and Elisa panting and whispering
amorously in the darkness across the steaming room.

In the morning, the Festival of Crabs began early with a parade that
wound through the muddy streets to the beat of a makeshift drum corps. I
ran down the beach and was nearly run over by a boy on horseback. Army
surplus trucks carried costumed children, and the young festival queen in an orange gown was carried through the streets on a pony.

During the parade, it started to rain -- a warm, peaceful island rain -- and I
dashed back to the Hotel Panorama, following two little girls with long,
braided hair along a shortcut through the trees and past a house. Men
standing on the porch yelled, "Hey, dreadlock girls! Hey, dreadlock girls!"
as the two covered their heads.

Later, I treated Marco and Elisa to breakfast at the Restaurant Rotunda,
across from the airstrip. After our 45-minute morning hike from the hotel
toward the southern beach to find the only public phone on the island, we
decided we wanted "Tomasa's Pancakes." We settled into a table on La
Rotunda's porch and ordered.

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Tomasa herself took our order and whistled for a little dreadlocked boy, who bounced over. She whispered in his ear and the boy tore off across
the street. About 15 minutes later, he ran back, shrugging his shoulders.
Tomasa returned to our table. "We can't make pancakes," she said.

"OK," Marco said. "Can we have eggs?"

"No. No eggs. That's why I can't make the pancakes." She added: "The boat
was supposed to come in yesterday with my supplies, but it didn't."

"What do you have?"

"I have chicken and toast. You can have chicken sandwiches." So chicken
sandwiches it was. And toast smothered in maple syrup. Perfect. And beers.
A breakfast of champions.

As we ate, a bare-chested American man covered in tattoos and his female
companion sat next to us. He told us they'd come over by boat from nearby
Little Corn Island for the festival. "Little Corn Island is even more
primitive than this," he said. "There aren't any taxis or electricity and
the only lodging is a small pension with an outhouse." The tattooed man
said he'd sold his house, car and business and moved there on a whim. "It
was just a little piss-ant business anyway." The couple was starving for news
of the Atlanta Braves.

Apparently, the two of them owned the only small pension on Little Corn. "We have to grow everything we need," the woman said. They'd planted melon, bananas, peanuts and, of course, corn. "The people have really
helped us with our crops. We thought our peanuts looked great, but
somebody told us we had to stomp them down, so we did."

As we ate breakfast, dozens of islanders strolled by in their Sunday best.
Little girls and women dressed in pink and white twirled parasols and
tried to keep their dresses and shoes from getting muddy. The tattooed man
waved to one of his neighbors. "Everybody's so excited about the
festival," the man said. "It's funny. I've been here for over a year and
nobody can tell me the significance of it. They all say, 'It's when they
freed the slaves.' They say, 'The slaves made crab soup.' But nobody can
tell you any more than that. It's all been forgotten."

When it came time for the bill, Tomasa eyed our cordobas and demanded exact
change.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Under the midmorning sun, hundreds of islanders stood on a crumbling
basketball court and watched their festival queen crowned on a makeshift
stage. People cheered as the emcee introduced her in English. Following
her coronation, the politicians took over the stage. The Managua-appointed
governor began his speech in Spanish and people wandered into the shade.

He told everyone they must unite in order to solve Corn Island's problems:
Unstable electricity, unclean drinking water, unemployment. He said
Managua understood that the islanders were still hurting from a terrible
hurricane in 1998. He assured them the government pledged 10,000 cordobas (about $1,300) and 15 new basketballs to the island. Near the end of his speech, someone blared reggae music, drowning him out, and the
islanders danced in their bright Sunday clothes. Bottles of beer were
already opened. The only politician who spoke English yelled over the
music, "We must make it a point to preserve the beauty of our island!"
Everyone cheered again.

Later, bongos and steel drums banged while two local baseball teams played
an exhibition. Women in curlers served an enormous pot of crab soup. A
sweating man stared at us with bloodshot eyes. "You all had some?" he
asked, handing us three bowls. Hot sun beat down and we were the only
ones outside the tent.

Soon, we decided to go swimming and found a small path that led to the
beach. Lizards and huge crabs crossed back and forth in front of us. We
passed a pig and trailed through a tiny farm. Under a mango tree lay a
half-naked man, passed out, snoring, his bottle of rum and a machete on
the ground. Eventually, the path opened up to blues, whites and greens that
previously had existed only in my imagination.

"This is like a clichi," Elisa said. "Like a beach a child would draw."
And so we entered the clichi as we were supposed to: We left our sweaty
clothes on the beach and swam naked, the water so clean and salty it
burned our eyes. I strolled along the white sand alone for over an hour and
didn't pass a soul, and suddenly the idea of a crowded island seemed
laughable.

When I returned, Marco and Elisa were drinking milk out of a coconut and
the three of us grinned at one another. We'd been on Corn Island for
less than two days, but we already knew we'd stumbled into one of those
truly special places in this world: just close enough to the real world to
know what it lacked, but thankfully, far enough away not to care. As
we cracked open another coconut, none of us wanted to return to the
Nicaraguan mainland, or even to our own countries, ever.

Elisa was right. The beach, the whole island excursion, was certainly rife
with clichis -- the carefree islanders, the posturing foreign volunteers, the
backwater politics, the tourists' wacky encounters with third world
amenities. Even the beauty and the epiphany could be summed up as clichi.
But what does it matter? It's certainly not the kind of story you'd trade
in a hostel, late at night, when all the backpackers held forth, trying to
top one another's most sordid tales. But is that all we travel to find?

On that beach on Corn Island, we were simply three people greedily sharing
a brief, odd, fleeting moment. What I'm trying to explain here is a quiet
moment of happiness. Can that be enough?

Eventually, as the sun went down, we put our clothes back on in silence.
Together, we walked back along the path, careful not to disturb the man
sleeping under the mango tree.


Jason Wilson

Jason Wilson is the series editor for Best American Travel Writing (Houghton Mifflin). He teaches in the graduate English and publishing program at Rosemont College.

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