As some of you already know, we're back from Kahkabila safe and sound and generally exhausted. We finished teaching our classes, helped make cement and carry bricks and organize trainings for the FADCANIC tourism project, fixed the finicky turbines more than once, etc. Our despedida (farewell) included soda cakes, large speakers, and a brightly lit dance party. In Kahkabila, we have some sweet moves!
We'll try to post pictures and tidbits over the next few weeks. Our general timeframe is as follows:
Still Bluefields until the end of May.
About 2 days in Managua (mostly spent drinking Guinness).
About 2-3 days in Costa Rica (mostly spent beaching and galavanting).
Most of June in Costa Rica working with Ali's sister Vanessa (mostly leafing).
First half of July in Costa Rica, Nicaragua, etc. with Ryan and Amanda (mostly loafing).
We'd say it's good to be back in Bluefields, but Bluefields smells funny.
We´re back to Kahkabila for our final four weeks. Hopefully, we´ll be catching the early commercial panga up to Pearl Lagoon tomorrow morning, and hopefully Oscar will be back from fishing at sea by then to pick us up. Drama! In any event, we´ll be available by cell. ...
On March 26th, 2009, after numerous years of unfulfilled election promises regarding the extension of the electricity grid to Kahkabila, after several weeks of brush-clearing, equipment delivery (poles, bulbous transformers, by boat), intermittent visits from national electricity provider ENEL, and disagreements regarding connection fees, the streets were finally made navigable at night for the two neighborhood gringos. “The lights,” as the electrical grid is affectionately known here, have arrived in Kahkabila.
We were lucky enough to be present for the installation and early transition period, and we’ll be headed back for our final stay next weekend. There are now fifteen yellow streetlights lining the dirt paths of Kahkabila, and, while only a small handful of residents (less than 10 households out of about a hundred) have been able to front the connection fee of ~$30, in general everyone is very excited about the possibilities this opens up. We were the only ones who really needed the streetlights at night, and while predictable shifts in television watching and later bedtimes are already in motion, it's hard to find fault with the recent proliferation of homemade ice cream.
Below are pictures from the technical installation process:
Perhaps, you imagined a truck of some sort?
...or a bulldozer?
...maybe a crane?
If you did, you should know better by now.
Even Sheidy thinks you should know better by now.
Even this gentleman in a not-so-subtly juxtaposed photographic composition thinks you should know better by now.
...but he's probably thinking about something else.
He's probably thinking about baseball, or his long-buried fear of heights, or the deep satisfaction of easing the nighttime footsteps of gringos.
We returned from our second extended trip to Kahkabila Sunday afternoon. Despite the fact that this is Semana Santa week (such that there were no scheduled pangas heading in the direction of Bluefields; everyone's leaving for vacation), we managed to catch a quick ride back from Pearl Lagoon by a fine gentleman shouting "Bluefields, Bluefields!" He was hurrying back to pick up more passengers heading out of Bluefields. The slow boat normally takes 5+ hours. We made it in 40 minutes.
Good, quick second trip, with two major highlights: (1) two-day trip to Orinoco, Marshall Point, and Awas with a group of U.S. students studying in Granada, and (2) the arrival of lights in Kahkabila! Early reports of Daniel Ortega helicoptering in to celebrate the interconnection didn't happen yet, but possibly next time... Fingers crossed. Fancy shirt set aside.
New focus (or, partial focus for our third and final trip): we've met a couple people from FADCANIC, which is a rural development and conservation non-profit on the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua, and a very good one at that. They're donating materials for a fullish-service tourist center in Kahkabila, and they've asked us to do the community training for it. Very excited about this, as it provides closer ties between bE and FADCANIC, it's awesome for Kahkabila, and it brings together a lot of our work.
We're back online for about two weeks (four days of which will be spent in Wawachang Reserve, a nature reserve north of Orinoco, run by FADCANIC), then back to KKB for our last trip. We'll try to post some pictures and some vaguely literate tidbits. ...
Waking up at 4:30 with the roosters (Kahkabilans have magical earlobes and awake well-rested around six) and falling asleep with the sun got you down?
No worries! These suggested activities, painstakingly paired with painstakingly selected pictures to optimize the overall, artificial feel of randomness, will have you well on your way to optimizing those 12 hours of productivity each and every day!
Feed the pigs!
Despite what you’ve read in the papers, pigs need food, too. And the coconut shells, plastic wrappers, and indeterminate muck aren’t the best mix for our growing, stinky, mud- and poop-covered friends. So, give a hoot! Feed a pig some watermelon rind.
Fancy dress party!
Ok, so it’s more fancy pants and fancy boots and fancy hat than anything else, but no one can hear you scream about fashion sense in the bush. Tuck your pants tight, grab a stick to navigate the marshes like a trooper, and try to sneak out of town under cover of dark.
So, yeah, it was already like that… but what a compelling caption, huh? The small Kahkabilan graveyard is over a little cement bridge at the southernmost edge of town, and serves as the final resting place for about twenty souls. You might feel like a prick walking around with a camera, but it’s nothing compared to the shame of jokes about grave vandalization on your blog weeks later. So, adjust.
Highlight: the bright blue grave of the prophet Florentino.
Hunt endangered species!
There’s nothing really funny about this picture, but it does firmly solidify the earlier point regarding randomness. Kahkabila highlights a variety of conflicts between value systems that, in other situations, tend to generally work pretty well together: human rights, renewable energy, conservation, indigenous rights, sanitation, cultural support, etc. As no one says in KKB: welcome to the jungle. Here, you’re dealing with indigenous tribes whose cultural heritage is occasionally hunting sea turtles, whose numbers have mysteriously dwindled in recent years, such that the community is obliged to apply for limited permits from the finicky government of Pearl Lagoon. “Conservation is a luxury,” was how someone put it to us recently.
Turtles are typically 80+ pounds, and sell for about $0.75/pound in Pearl Lagoon and Bluefields. They taste kind of like aquatic pork.
There are at least four or five generators in Kahkabila, some of which provide power for numerous interconnected houses, forming their own little microgrids. Gasoline supplies in Pearl Lagoon are patchy, and diesel supplies aspire to one day rise to the level of patchy. Cross your fingers! When you do manage to track down some fuel (Kahkabilans are resourceful), gather forty or fifty of your closest friends and settle down to a fine US action flick, Jamaica’s “Capone,” or a completely confusing flick regarding voodoo, or something like voodoo. The popcorn and refreshment stand is underwhelming. Near the rightmost side of the pic, you can see Anelia and Oscar (seated) with one of their four daughters, Shelenie. This is the house we stay in, and they haven’t kicked us out!
After a hike in the bush, swatting mosquitoes, tracking sloths, and (since you’re traveling with four Kahkabilan friends who know this place like the back of their hand) treating the jungle like a fruit and nut buffet, after you’ve completely stuffed yourself with a fruit that looks like a banana-shaped shallot and tastes like a pineapple and sounds like the word “penguin”, it’s coconut time! The older coconuts, whose interior is what you will most often find in the states, will be picked later for rondon and other dishes, but the younger ones have sweeter milk and a thin, fleshy layer of coconut inside. You feel stuffed, you feel exhausted after 4+ hours, you feel like sleeping, but you won’t be able to say no.
No one but the students know what time it is, and even they don’t care. Welcome to the last couple months before electricity comes. Savor it. Put your feet up. Find two sweet-looking trees and tie your hammock. Go out to the muelle at night and see the best view of the stars you’re likely to see again in a very long time. Let it all sink in, knowing that the blog commentary will be far more flippant than the way it actually feels when you’re there, and that this strange, unsettling place in some forgotten corner of the world is the first place that, for the last few months, at least, has actually felt home-like. … Homely?
So, we're back from extended trip #1 to Kahkabila.
Spent about three and a half weeks in the community, living with a really nice family (see kids below), working constantly, and, here and there, enjoying the beach, movie night, and trudging through the bush.
We got back Tuesday, and we'll be heading back Saturday for another three weeks. It's hard to put the visit into a single framework.
We don't have a ton of time to spend with the blog, but we did want to post some pics and try to at least give some sense of what we've been doing there. We'll try to post one more entry before we head back next weekend.
Since arrival, we’ve been teaching an evening class in US-style English classes for native Creole speakers. Our first class had about 60-70 people, which has settled down to a more manageable daily class size of about 20-30. The class is useful for Kahkabilans looking for outside work (cruise ships, especially, which is a huge source of income for some families) that require formal English fluency. We’re basically teaching the first night classes in Kahkabila, using lights powered by the bE turbine and solar panels, and trying to get another guy to start literacy classes.
Also, there was a lack of two teachers for the community’s secondary school (which is essentially the same as 7th and 8th grade in the States). Since the schools are full during the day and we had already the main block of our time in the evening booked up for English (people go to sleep around 8 or 9 when there are no lights), we’re now secondary school teachers in Kahkabila. We teach “Energy and Environmental Studies” for eleven class periods each week, plus a class on histories and storytelling.
bE-specific energy, water, and lighting work:
Abbreviated and bulleted for your reading pleasure…
bE systems maintenance sessions with KKB energy commission
Completed initial site assessment for bE water filtration project
Metrics and usage assessment for the two existing bE systems
Testing of home battery system (heavy!) and charging station
Working with Thomas (community leader) to formally present results of a bE diagnostic study to the Alcaldia (local government), which will hopefully result in funding for a secondary school
Successful site visit from HIVOS representatives (major funders)
Completed field testing of greenlightplanet LED lights
Filling out lack of teachers for secondary school, feasibility studies, and positive reception by the community
Seeing greater organization: twice-monthly meetings, primary and secondary schools, coordination on clearing bush for the electricity company, etc.
An acopio (big icemaker for fishing) in Orinoco, which will impact COOPARAAS members in Kahkabila and allow them to reach wider markets (besides juggernaut Mar Caribe), is mostly done.
The cows and horses, as of March 2nd, will head to the fincas. Non-compliants will be fined 150 cords/animal. Less poop to follow.
The bad (for bE, but great for the community):
The lights are coming! Expected arrival around March 15th.
The water might be coming!? Governmental plans exist to drill Thomas' well deeper, possibly by April, and put in a 5,000-gallon storage tank and house-to-house plumbing, complicating bE's filtration project. Or maybe not. TBD.
The ugly and humorous:
Large spiders with skull designs on their backs and/or intimidating wasps, now included free with every latrine!
Coral snake found (and killed) outside the bathing room.
Stories of rocks made by lightning, coral snakes biting with their tails, and the fairy boy of the jungle. More to follow later this week.
Barring some vaguely catastrophic occurrence within the next twenty-four hours, by tomorrow morning we´ll be on some form of floating contraption headed in the direction of Pearl Lagoon, then onwards to Kahkabila. We´ll be gone until the beginning of March and, while there´s no internet access or any other amenities (stores, for example), we´ll have a cell phone.
Kahkabila consists of about 100+ houses with upwards of 500 residents. It is accessible by floating contraption or footpath, and its current sources of power are the two bE energy systems, along with a few personal solar panels or diesel generator systems for basic appliances. We´ll be staying in the house of one of the bE system operators. The wife of another operator will be cooking for us, though we´ll be transporting most of the dry goods up there. Combined cost for cooking and accomodations (in one of the nicest houses in KKB, says Ali) runs a little over $4 a day. While not yet a tourist destination, if they clean up the beaches (they plan to) and arrange some general services, there´s a great deal to like.
Our first and primary role will be, as mentioned, teaching, specifically formal English as a core curriculum for native Creole speakers. We´ll also be doing workshops on some mixture of health, sanitation, water quality (bE volunteers will be ramping up studies on a water filtration system while we´re gone, potentially to be introduced during our second trip), environment, nutrition, math, and basic accounting and budgeting.
Secondly, we´ll be working with the KKB energy commission on both maintenance and organizational matters, and evaluating a number of other energy- and income-related interests, including their tourism plans and additional energy system installations (in various forms). We´ll be testing and demonstrating different energy utilization and efficiency gadgets (like LED lighting and home battery systems), to determine what works well.
Third... We´ll be taking surveys, pictures, trying to learn everyone´s name, playing dominoes, playing baseball (poorly), playing basketball (worse), fishing, swimming, and just generally trying to hang out without being a pain in anyone´s ass. We´re working as a more immersive followup to all of bE´s previous efforts in KKB, plus planning our second trip.
Cricket is a requirement for proper Australia Day celebrations, even when said celebrations occur while you're in Nicaragua. We went along with it. Few pulperias reliably stock cricket bats, so plan on making your own. Also, it is best if the rules are explained in humorous, half-sensical Spanish, because no one is going to understand them anyway.
Intimidate your opponents with flying-crane, rum-hand cricket stance.
Scald them with piping-hot sopa de mariscos from Nereyda's birthday.
Or, just wait patiently until they give up and play futbol. It won't be long.
There are countless things to prepare and organize for our first extended trip to Kahkabila, so postings have been set to the backburner. Items to collect and pack so far include: rubber boots, solar panels, buckets of dried goods and spices and oatmeal, teaching materials, LED flashlights and soldering equipment, machete, medical kit, toolbox, raingear, extra diesel, turbine monitoring equipment, rehydration salts, chlorine, and spare buckets.
In the meanwhile, Ken has been trading off rum-monitoring duties for occasionally getting some writing done in the evenings, and (as a few of you have already heard) recently got a short short piece of fiction accepted to an online journal, elimae. It will be posted around the 15th of next month. Given time restraints, the contraints of flash fiction have proven useful.
Below is something that hasn´t been published (an earlier attempt at the short-short form) and that, having been posted here, discounts it from getting published elsewhere and allows him to let it rest appropriately. Ali will post pictures from over the weekend (including a Nica friend´s birthday festivities) over the next few days, to maintain a semblance of balance.
Only once have I fully experienced irony expressed in another language. The road heading to Marrakech could have gone elsewhere, past melon vendors, past pushcarts (past children riding horseback, pulperias, past Louisiana lean-tos…), seated beside her while she thumbed a book: "The Art of Listening." We paused at a roadside stand, where the pepper sauce could have sterilized the water and an attendant stood waiting with her bucket to wash away one's shit. GPS and cameras: hidden in the trunk. After they'd gone in, I was approached outside by an old man grinning widely and toothless, speaking only his native tongue. I spoke none. Most things here couldn't be understood with a thousand years. But, he continued: our shoes know the way, everything suggests that woman's bucket will keep her employed, and behind you there is absolutely nothing to fear. ...
After a preliminary visit in December, after a winter vacation no one bothered to mention to us ahead of time, after countless documents read and re-read and forgotten about and read one last time, for good measure, after bugs and oranges and piñatas and endless disappointments related to imbibables in general and an overall blog flippancy underscoring a slight rambunctiousness from waiting around reading, we're finally finally finally going back to Kahkabila.
Hold on to your turbines.
Current departure date is looking to be around February 4th, and we're organizing supplies for about a six-week initial stay. Then three-and-a-half weeks back in Bluefields (slightly longer than expected, but the Semana Santa week around Easter makes it difficult to get anything done), then another five weeks in Kahkabila, then two back in Bluefields.
Somehow, that puts us into June.
Widely: we'll be working with the energy commission (the community operators who maintain and manage the bE energy systems) and teaching. Formal English classes are of primary interest. We'll be teaching health and wellness classes (as suggested by the KKB doctor), along with classes on the environment, energy, sanitation, and basic math and accounting workshops. Ultimately, this will be working towards better utilization of the energy systems and building community development in a way that allows those in Kahkabila to have more control over where their community moves from here. They'd like to clean up their water supply, boost tourism, and improve their livelihoods, and we would like to help them do so.
We do not have a coherent closing today. We are giddy on Oreos and coffee and new-found project management, and we've got plenty to do.
Over the weekend, one should peruse the new blueEnergy site, which just went online a few weeks ago. If you look at the "about us" header and go to blueEnergy Nicaragua people, you'll see us!, as well as a link to our blog. From there, you can click on the above link to the new bE website, and then follow the above instructions to return here. Endless amusement. ...
This morning, at around 10:30 Nica time, one nonprofit office inside INATEC (or at least a few of us) will sit quietly around a single computer screen to save bandwidth, in anticipation of an event happening thousands of miles and days of travel away, in a country that, for many, isn’t necessarily their own. They will wait patiently a few minutes longer, then perhaps a touch less patiently, for a slow internet connection to buffer the video feed, and during this time they will be thinking of the altered course ahead of them, ahead of all of us, the changing manner in which world affairs will be directed, considering the powerful words and refreshing honesty to appear whenever the video feed finally loads. I will be thinking about the piñata.
Sure, there will be many things to look forward to: an improved economic course, the closing of Guantanamo, the fostering of an American green-collar workforce, an intelligent and more transparent approach to world affairs. Health care, education, social programs. All valid and heartfelt reasons to celebrate, but, one has to ask, are they filled with candy?
Of course, this is to say nothing of intangibles: the endorsement against eight long years, the racial tug, the collapse of a right-wing politics, people in the streets, this feeling of elation, of feeling something other than numb. Being able to read the paper again. But, is that what I was really focusing on in the mercado, eyeing up paper maché forest creatures, salivating, thinking of that exuberance of being blindfolded and swinging a stick?
The Pooh-bear, for instance, overhead after the Iowa primaries should have suggested a sense of excitement outside normal bounds of political fervor. Inexpensive, it fell with a few hard thwacks. I didn’t even eat all the candy. November 2nd: a large white cat dressed in a ballerina skirt, spilling M&Ms over a freshly polished floor. It seemed appropriate, destined, at the time. Perhaps it suggested something much deeper than surface feelings, a certain unfilled void, maybe from childhood, maybe back to an emptiness even larger than the last two terms. Maybe. This is normally where a voice quiets into soft introspection, where the intensity before just simmers...
But, tonight, we’ll write Bush in magic marker and swing for the hills. ...
Fine. In Bluefields, personal vehicles are switched for tricked-out taxis and pangas. The coffee, rum, and tobacco products you’ve grown to know and love and develop slight-but-loveable addictions to are only memories, as fleeting as Toña’s palate. You didn’t come here to be amused, pampered, patted on the butt and given a lollipop. Lollipop? It’s next to the Camembert. You’re just asking for a thread of normalcy upon returning home after a ten-hour workday. At least eating an orange can’t possibly lead you astray.
Anyone who said “right” (and especially anyone who said it aloud, to their computer screen: you, especially) should be ashamed of themselves. Put the orange down. Your long fingernails are of no consequence here. Peeling and wedging won’t win you friends.
First, grab an orange. Hint: it will not be orange. As a reliable fallback, grab a lime, which might also look like a lemon. Then grab something similar, but bigger. You’re halfway done!
Peel in a careful circle around the outside of the orange with a sharp knife, leaving the integrity of the rind intact. The first couple times, this will not make you proud of your knife-handling skills. You will not feel like Crocodile Dundee beneath a bridge (“that’s not a knife…”). Go with it. Use an Australian accent. Eat more oranges. Switch to an orange-based diet for weeks on end. Also, picking out oranges with thicker rinds will let you peel more quickly, in wider slices, without looking like a rind-poking gringo.
Cut off the top. Begin nibbling. Do whatever comes natural. Go nuts.
If you’ve successfully managed to follow the above directions, you should have nothing on your hands at the end of things, the juice safely captured in your suddenly-pliable Nicaraguan orange. Try not to get any in your nose.
If we were back in the States, there would still be boxes of beer arriving on our doorstep every morning and afternoon, like alcoholic clockwork. In Bluefields, you will never get packages (they’ll be waiting for you at the post office, should they accidentally arrive at all) and any packages on your porch are probably something you shouldn’t open, especially if they slosh around. In other words, forget everything you know about New Glarus, Lost Abbey, Hair of the Dog, Alesmith, Pizza Port, sour ales and lambic.
Even the tears on your pillow, you’ll notice, taste worse here.
But there are some slight condolences, thankfully the largest of which is not the fact that Toña is, after some careful and independently validated studies, the best cerveza available this side of Managua. God help us. It’s fresher and differently labeled than the U.S. imported version, it’s one of the two major imbibing staples in Bluefields (the other being 375mL bottles of light FdC, served simply with ice and lime), and it’s also as cheap or cheaper (13-20 cords, $0.65-1) than your other options: Victoria, Victoria Frost (shiver), Premium (it isn't), Brava Beats (wtf?), and the imported monstrosities of Heineken and Smirnoff Ice, which are twice as expensive as the locals. There is, legend has it, a single Irish pub back in Managua serving Guinness at inflated prices, and you will contemplate daytrips.
You’ll see passion fruit as a fermentable. You’ll consider purchasing that bottle of Nica moonshine (in a used soda bottle) you've been eyeing up.
But!, there is goodness to be found. Even the worst rums here, Cañita and Plata, are suitable for shots and defusing with large quantities of citrus. At 22-30 cords ($1.10-1.50) for a half-bottle, you’ll be a cheap date. There are, if you look hard enough and have money, a few of those most ubiquitous liquors here: Beefeater and Tanqueray (but rarely tonic), Cuervo, Baileys, low-end Johnny Walker, Jack, etc., at shot prices of about 50 cords ($2.50) apiece. Poor generics range from white wine to cognac.
What you really want, however, what you honestly and truly and at the very core of your two-thirds-liquid existence hope for, is the sweet sweet Flor de Caña. The cheapest full bottles of blanco (aged 4 years, available regular and extra dry) will set you back about 100 cords downtown ($5). The regular blanco and a 7-year old dark version are available almost everywhere, similarly priced. You’ll find dusty bottles of versions you’ve never heard of as you shop downtown. Remember to bring an empty with you, unlike one forgetful gringo couple, or you’ll end up paying a bottle deposit each time.
We’ve been everywhere for the most part (every club, which doesn’t take long in Bluefields, bars on hills, bars in pulperias, bars on rooftops), and the best place to drink is also the most misplaced. Say hello to the gentleman manning the door (seriously, say hello, he’s got a gun). Oasis Casino, near the municipal wharf, is basically the only place around here you’ll ever even see the Flor de Caña 21 ($5) or, for that thrifty-but-elegant Caribbean drug smuggler in your life, the 18 ($2.50), probably the best drink in town.
For many people, going to the bathroom in the middle of the night is easy, often pleasant. You get up, feel the soft plush carpet on your feet bottoms, the nightlight-lit hallway fully empty of living creatures except pets and family members, nothing hungrily flying through the air, even toilets that flush via handles. This must be very nice, but it doesn’t build character.
Here, we have special suits designed for keeping you reasonably safe and secure. It will make going to the bathroom in the middle of the night require a touch more effort, with the armor plating and such, but what did you honestly expect, drinking beer before bed? You will learn, or the rusty clank of your bathroom equipment will haunt your dreams.
Now, there are those who will argue that small, nocturnal geckos that eat only insects do not warrant the steel armaments to one’s legs and midsection. Perhaps there’s some level of truth to this. There are some who will say that bug spray is just as effective in keeping mosquitoes at bay as a flamethrower. That bat-proof isn’t the equivalent of bulletproof. That spiders and cockroaches, on the basis of physical mechanics alone, are simply incapable of unleashing kung-fu. There are even those who would suggest that, instead of full military fatigue and night vision, you should just put on flip-flops and turn on the goddamn light.
Well, there is a difference between bravery and carelessness.
Sure, it isn’t a fully streamlined process quite yet: the fastening and riveting and so forth. Operating an arc welder half-asleep can prove daunting. Your spouse will loathe you and the neighbors will secretly plot your demise. One more reason to suit up! Occasionally, after the half hour of preparing and clanking down the hallway, there will only be that thin line of timid ants traversing the walls of the bathroom, acting innocent, giggling to themselves as only ants can. Sometimes, you will start to itch somewhere unreachable. But remember, always, ants are clever.
Relax, check around the toilet, and hastily make your retreat.
With bE volunteers gradually sauntering back, smug and tan, from holiday destinations to places besides Bluefields, work weeks have recommenced and we’re back to preparing full-time for our fast-approaching trip up to Kahkabila. Whenever that might occur. Most likely before the end of January, but possibly early in February, at the very latest. Maybe.
First bE rule: "Hurry up and wait."
In the meanwhile, we’ve been digging up information from work groups and internal bE expertise about water filtration, biodigesters, ecotourism, etc…, trying to prepare as much as possible for two remote months in which we really want to be as useful to this community as possible. It feels like we don’t know anything right now, and since there are so many directions that community development work could take once one is actually on the ground, it feels like we need to know everything, just in case.
Second bE rule: "The plan is to change the plan."
We’ve been spending a lot time with two French volunteers, Jose and Ann, who are in Bluefields separately from bE but assessing potential projects around the area. The pair has thirty-plus years of experience in Africa and Latin America doing sustainable agriculture and health-related work, and this is their vision of retirement. They’re interested in the work in Kahkabila, and we’re trying to notice possibilities up there in the same way they do.
Third bE rule: …we forget the third rule.
Last incident of note, aside from the fact that articles regarding creepy-crawly things and alcohol (separate articles) are forthcoming, there was a 6.1 magnitude earthquake outside of San Juan, Costa Rica that caused plenty of damage and was felt at least as far away as Bluefields. For the East-Coast half of us, this was his first earthquake.
Despite the colorful advertisements, the worldwide renown – even the glowing reviews from this particular blog – some individuals would argue that Bluefields is something other than a culinary experience of the highest caliber. These individuals are not the kind of people you want to be friends with. These people are never happy, they are never sated, they will never be fulfilled by the rice-and-beans dailiness of your company.
Sure, the cheese is sub-par. It’s salty, sold in blocks, and looks (/tastes) like a hybrid, frankensteinian food creation somewhere between pumice and a sponge. Soy cheese will melt with more gusto. Sure, the proliferation of chicha, an artificially pink-colored corn-based drink sold in small plastic bags, will leave you shaking your head and scrubbing your tongue. Sure, there’s only iceberg lettuce. Sure, your favorite foods don’t exist here.
But, there are certain things to look forward to. Our initial compilation:
Coco Bread: Purchased for 15 cords a loaf from a nunnery near downtown, Casa bE’s hunger for the lard-led pan de coco is the stuff of legends. Slice it, toast it, freeze it, take it to school for show-and-tell. Add honey, cocoa powder, peanut butter, or nothing at all, this will still be your heaven-sent staple with almost every meal. Still unsatisfied? We can never be friends. But for 25 cords, the nunnery also sell a little something extra called “good bread,” with spices, fruit, honey, and an extra helping of goodness.
(Even nuns like to show off once in a while.)
Fruit: You can barely walk down the street here without getting bonked by a coconut or brained by a papaya. The sky’s the limit, as long as you’re looking for something tropical or an apple. Kids walk around selling pink Nicaraguan pears for a cord apiece. Oranges, limes, melons, watermelons (pricey), pomegranates, bananas, and passion fruit abound. Frescas made of water and miscellaneous fruit puree accompany most lunches here.
Mas x Menos: Pronounced “mas por menos” (“more for less”), this is the closest you’ll be getting to any semblance of a supermarket. Items are stacked behind the counters on 15-foot-high shelving units. If you want it, you have to ask for it. Prepare to be vaguely amused (M&M’s and corn flakes), but there’s a cubbyhole for high hopes at the door. Asking for something as basic as brown sugar will get you confused stares, and mumbles about the normal sugar being kind of brown. Bluefields, sadly, has yet to firmly establish itself as a thriving pastry mecca.
Mas x Menos 2: Because one more-for-less is never enough! About two blocks away from the first, and more expensive.
Seafood: So many varieties, even the locals don’t know all their names. Everything but lobster is cheap (shrimps, prawns, oysters, and a plethora of pescado), and everything is fresh. Men and boys prowl the streets of Bluefields carrying buckets or pushing carts of shrimp on ice, advertising their catch with piercing calls of Chacaline, Chacaline throughout the day.
You’ll be a happier person not confusing them with the ice cream cart.
The nightlife in Kahkabila, at its height, consists of a stiff breeze to frustrate mosquitoes, thumping reggaetón next door, and, occasionally, phosphorescent waves in Pearl Lagoon. It’s in your best interest, while in Bluefields, to learn the table-slapping euphoria of the domino.
Your guide is the Casa bE house guard, Spanish-only. The setting: the all-purpose ping pong table. The rules deviate, develop or diverge, as your guide remembers that having three doubles requires a remix. Or is it four? Actually, it's pretty likely for someone to draw at least three doubles in a four-person game, maybe even 50%, so maybe this isn’t the best rule...
Lacking wickets and water balloons and poetic zones, however, dominoes will be a reliable emotional rock of twenty-eight rectangular pieces. Unless you lose one. Each half shows a number between 0 and 6. Each number appears as a part of seven different dominoes, including doubles.
Two players: All twenty-eight dominoes are scattered and mixed around face down, with each player choosing seven to start with. Whoever draws 6:6 plays this down first, at the center of the table; if no one draws the double six, the cutest person is allowed to choose any tile from their pile to begin with, or the next highest double, or reshuffle. Most likely the first, maybe. The ugly player then plays a tile on either side of this tile.
Players build on either side of the developing line of dominoes, provided they have a tile matching one of the end pieces. I.e., in the case of starting with 6:6, this would be any tile with a 6 on it. If not, draw dominoes from the pile, grunting disapproval, until you have a match. All doubles (0:0, 1:1…) are placed horizontally between the two players to save space, while the non-doubles (everything else) are played vertically. For all that is holy and sacred in the world, do not place doubles vertically. Just don’t do it.
Play alternates between each player, placing down no more than one tile each turn, until either one player goes out or no one can play anything. The last person to have played a tile, in both cases, wins. The loser gets all the points from any tiles remaining in either player’s hand at the end of each round. First person to one hundred points, or fifty, or whatever, loses.
Three players: Nine dominoes apiece, discarding 0:0.
Four players: Seven dominoes apiece, teams of two seated opposite.
Kahkabila variation: Dominoes are evil and must be punished. Choose a sturdy table. Watch your fingertips. Earplugs optional.
While Bluefields is technically the main Caribbean-side port town of Nicaragua, it sits on the western edge of Bluefields Bay, not the Caribbean. You do not want to touch, drink, swim through, or make direct eye contact with Bluefields Bay. However, 33 cords and a bit of patience will get you across the bay and to the bluer Caribbean waters of El Bluff.
Before Hurricane Joan, El Bluff was attached to Bluefields by land. With the sand bar between them washed away, the only efficient way to get there now is by boat. Pangas leave the dock to the right of the waterside market throughout the day, as soon as a dozen people with 33 cords show up. This gets you to the bay side of El Bluff, and a 30-minute walk past the large commercial fishing boats, bright houses, and tiny pulperias gets you to the beach. 47 or so cords would get your lazy ass directly to the beach.
When you actually arrive at the beach (and you will see the initial stretch of sand, empty and desolate, and believe that the sand flies have taken over), which is actually up ahead around a distant curve of sand and cement wavebreakers, you’ll find yourself annoyed that your only contacts with water in Bluefields since you arrived have been rainwater showers.
The amenities of El Bluff are about as intricate as one could expect: one or two shops in thatched huts along the water, selling basic food and cold drinks. The other thatched huts with palm tree roofs, built for the Semana Santa vacation week, are available for general use. The water is temperate, bluish, with large waves and a strong undercurrent. The sand is very soft, infused with patches of light pink and orange shells. There’s usually a constant breeze off the water, minimizing the heat and the sand flies.
If the wind stops (it probably won’t), run.
For your trip, remember plenty of sunscreen, a swimsuit, a soccer ball, something cold, lunch (or a bit of extra cash), a small pouch for shells, and cordobas for the return panga ride. Oranges and other fruit can be found easily at the waterside market in Bluefields (a friend of ours, wisely, had one of the kids we were traveling with run and buy 40 cords of oranges before we headed out; $2 bought about forty oranges). A hammock isn’t a bad idea either, for hanging up in the huts, and it can also provide a place for you to sleep if you don’t make it back to the docks before four.
Despite initial hopes, it does not appear that Peets Coffee has a Bluefields location just yet. There’s no Starbucks lurking around the corner either. The most costly drink we’ve found so far (we’ve been looking) still doesn’t quite cover some of those high-end venti-sized sugar bombs back home. But, no worries, because Nicaragua is known for its great coffee!
Like the Easter Bunny and Nica pizza, prepare to have your heart broken.
But, don’t worry, because even if your morning cup of coffee (which you look forward to more than any other recurring aspect of your day) has been relegated to the magical mystical Folgers-variety land of freeze-dried and instant, Nicaragua is known for its great rum! While the low-end varieties are better hidden in blended drinks or with enormous amounts of citrus (no scurvy here), it’s the aged rums that really shine through as something special, as sippers, as something to erase your coffee frown.
Like Diet Coke and change for 500 cords, only at the casinos.
But, no problem, nothing to worry about, because Nicaragua is known for its great cigars! And, man, a dark-wrappered, well-humidified robusto would go perfectly with warm sun and your scurvy-prevention medication. With the absence of Cuban products, cigars from the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua are readily available and take center stage back in the U.S. So, presumably, all one has to do is walk down to your nearest pulperia and have your little mind blown by the vast selection of hand-rolled delights!
Seriously? Opened half-packs of Belmont cigarettes?
Yes, indeed, this is a magical place where you can fantasize to your heart's content about Nicaraguan coffee, rum, and cigars, endlessly, the sky’s the limit here, so long as you don’t lose sight of the fact that, like Columbia, everything good here gets exported. At least there’s plenty of marinated tofu, fresh green vegetables, and craft beer to help you forget.
Red and white are what you get upon combining gringos and insects. blueEnergy is a non-profit group centered in Bluefields, Nicaragua providing clean, renewable, and long-term energy solutions for isolated communities. Most of the current volunteers are French or American.