Yes, two books in one month, can you believe it?
Check out the preface:
How I got Here
It was a sudden realization. Behind me was about seven years of traveling the world, powered by odd jobs and an insatiable curiosity to see what was around the corner. Insatiable, that is, until I had had quite enough.
The sudden realization happened about two years after that. I had been living in Beaumont, Texas, with the hopes of settling down, bored with backpacking around the world, bored with lying to myself that I was a traveler, not a tourist. All the places I had been was just to see them, do them, like they were on my shopping list and I had been ticking them off one by one. Ironically it took two years of the monotony of the daily grind to make me suddenly realize that it was purpose that was lacking. I wasn’t bored with traveling by any means. I was bored traveling without a purpose.
Sudden realizations can have a way of motivating a person like no drug ever could. If big pharma could pillify sudden realizations it would be bigger than Viagra and make more money than the cure for hunger. I have only had a few sudden realizations in my life to which I can trace back all the major decisions I have made. When I realized I could control my urge to urinate until I got to the potty, I told my mother I didn’t have to wear diapers and I became a new man (though she just patted me on the head, kept the diapers on and told me, “safety is no accident”). When I realized being a baseball player wasn’t for me and instead committed myself to becoming Indiana Jones and learned how to wrap my homemade whip around tree branches, I felt it was the dawn of a new day (until the 4th movie came out. So let down…). When I realized I still needed to travel but now with a purpose, I got my pencil and paper. This is what I wrote:
- Learn Spanish
- Live abroad for at least one year
- Gain knowledge in renewable energy
- Buy new whip
- Tell mom enough is enough
One month later I had packed my bags and was off traveling again, this time to Central America, and this time with a purpose.
One month after that I was suffering from the worst diarrhea I had ever had and began to seriously consider buying diapers.
My plane touched down in Guatemala in February and I was to start working as a volunteer with blueEnergy in Bluefields, Nicaragua in September. During those spring and summer months I studied Spanish, immersed in the language and culture of the mountain city of Xela. I celebrated my thirtieth birthday just after my arrival with a dinner at the local Indian restaurant surrounded by other international students who had their own reasons to study Spanish. Instead of ticking exotic places off my to-do list, I was ticking off actual things to do. So satisfying.
Six months of Spanish with a few weeks of local travel and exploration sprinkled here and there had prepared me to take on my next goal. Or so I thought. I arrived to Nicaragua to find a new Spanish spoken, one that doesn’t follow all the rules I had studied so hard to learn. Then I found out that in Bluefields they also speak Creole, a kind of Jamaican tongue. And Miskito, an indigenous language. And Rama and Ulwa and Garifuna and, as if that weren’t confusing enough, most of the other blueEnergy volunteers were French. Putain.
I arrived to the blueEnergy house on the 13th of September, 2008. At that time there were about 15 international volunteers ranging in time served from six months to two years. It was late Saturday afternoon and they were all at the beach. After a few minutes of snooping around the big empty house I managed to find the director who had just gotten out of the shower. He greeted me in his towel, soaking wet. I wondered why someone would cover themselves up with the towel before drying off. He introduced himself and told me that he was half French and I figured that somehow that explained it.
Guillaume showed me to my room. I would be sharing a bunk bed with Charles, a French engineer who had had the luxury of living alone during his stay. His room was a disaster. From floor to table to ceiling it was full of clothes, books, magazines, wooden sculptures that looked like penises and empty cups and plates of half-eaten crackers smeared with stuff that needed a haircut. Guillaume and I stared silently inside for a minute, me wondering how I was going to clean cheese off the top bunk and him suddenly realizing mandatory room sanitation checks should be a new thing.
“Uh, so, next week we will figure out the room situation. This is only temporary,” Guillaume said, unblinkingly stonefaced. I don’t even think he moved his lips.
“Ya, ok…thanks. I will uh…just put my stuff up there on the top bunk and rest,” I replied, also stonefaced and blinking only because something in that room was burning my eyes.
Guillaume turned and walked out, leaving wet footprints from the entrance of my new abode to the exit of the dorm hallway. I tiptoed around a half-eaten can of duck, hopped up onto the top bunk, closed the mosquito net and went to sleep.
It was a door slamming that woke me up. Not the bedroom door; I had left that open hoping for a decontaminating cross breeze. It was the front door to the dorm. I heard people speaking French. A few of them passed in front of the bedroom I was in, talking, laughing, all dressed in shorts and t-shirts. It must have been before 6am…I guessed it had taken all night to sleep off the full-day travel time to get to Bluefields. From my eagle perch I spied people walking past. A short girl. An older guy. A skinny girl with glasses. A guy with a boogie board. I was still only half awake. The boogie board guy stopped, said something to someone down the hall, chuckled and entered the room. He shoved the boogie board under his bottom bunk and closed the door. He then took off his shirt and examined his sunburned shoulders in the mirror. I laid there with one eye open hoping he would not start masturbating or something gross like that. He then took one of the wooden penis sculptures in his hand and began inserting little wooden fan-like things into the head. In my half-awake state I thought it was curious that a penis sculpture would have what looked like palm leaves sticking out of the head, then I figured out it wasn’t a penis sculpture at all. It was a palm tree with removable palm fronds.
That was when I first thought that I should announce my presence. But it had been about five minutes since the original occupant of the room had entered and I thought it would be awkward to say hi since so much time had passed. I opened my other eye.
He set the penis palm back on the table and started examining his face in the mirror. One, two pimples down, a few more to go but he left them. I really should say hello I thought. It had been about 10 minutes of me spying on him. But if it was awkward before, it was really awkward now. He hadn’t seen me and I didn’t say anything.
He shuffled some papers on the floor, found a plate of something underneath them, sat down on the side of his bed and began to eat. I stopped guessing how much time had passed when he finished his plate and was searching the empty cups looking for something to wash it down with. What was once awkward had now skipped over rude and gone straight to fucking creepy. I hadn’t moved a muscle since he had entered the room, unless you count my eyes which followed his every move. Here I was, a complete stranger spying on this complete stranger in his own home, his castle as it were, though without the benefit of a maid, obviously. He yawned, found an old pair of underwear on the floor and began to undo his pants. Awkward, rude, fucking creepy or not, I couldn’t wait any longer to introduce myself, if only to save us both more embarrassment.
He was bent over pushing his pants to his ankles with his butt clad in weird, brightly colored European underwear that only gay people and macho Frenchmen can pull off. That’s when I jumped up from my sniper nest, flung open the mosquito net and yelled, “HEY CHARLES!”
You can imagine how he reacted. In fact, you will have to imagine because I don’t remember much else besides looking at a terribly frightened Charles in his underwear and suddenly realizing my mother was right, safety is no accident.
The Caribbean coast of Nicaragua is the wildest region in a country far from being domesticated. That isn’t to say that domestication hasn’t been attempted, on the contrary, more attempts have been made to bring this area under control than any other place in Nicaragua.
The indigenous Miskito groups took some tribes as slaves and wiped others off the map. Spain was repelled by the dense jungles and hostile natives during several expeditions in the 1500s and early 1600s. Franciscan missionary settlements disappeared. The English came in to fill the vacuum and were able to form an alliance with the newly-appointed Miskito King. That paved the way for British economic interests to grow, and with economic interests came pirates.
The British buccaneer William Dampier, who gave one of the first written accounts of the Miskito people, carried Indian warriors on raids against Spanish settlements in Panama. The Dutch pirate Abraham Blauvelt, escaping justice in New Amsterdam (now known as New York), hid in the waters of Bluefields Bay and Bluefields, Jamaica, both of which are named in his honor. And of course the infamous Henry Morgan ran up and down the Nicaraguan coast, at one point pillaging Granada after sailing up the Rio San Juan. These pirates took gold and women and left legends.
The Caribbean coast of Nicaragua still remains an autonomous region. The people have not lost their ferocity, their passion or their ingenuity. Its inhabitants are descended from the native peoples mixed with African slaves brought by the British, nearly all of whom carry English surnames.
These are the sons of pirates.
I lived and worked with blueEnergy for five years to the month. When I left I was the longest-serving international staff member aside from the American-French director, Guillaume. During that time I visited nearly all of the communities on the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua, the poorest, most inaccessible and culturally varied area from Mexico to Colombia. Most were for work installing renewable energy systems, water sanitation solutions and other small-scale development projects. Other visits were for play…that insatiable curiosity had returned and it felt new again.
The Caribbean coast of Nicaragua is a slow-moving trainwreck, scary as hell but impossible to turn away from. People have asked me why I spent so much time there. For me it was like earning a university degree in real life. During those five years I learned to value culture when I heard the sad beauty of the dying language of the Rama. I learned to understand innocence when I saw indigenous children in Kahkabila eating the last manatee that lived in their lagoon. I learned to appreciate restraint watching a rabidly sexy woman dancing at the bar at Cima Club, only to learn a year later she had died of AIDS. I guess you could say I have graduated and this book is my thesis.
This is a collection of stories, all true, from my time living on the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua.