31 July 2011

A hat party, not a tea party

     There are a lot of children in my life in Nicaragua.   Here is most of the crew on Easter Sunday, 2011 (and a momma).

      Two children live at False Bluff:  a preschooler with her parents full-time; and a boy with his mom when school's not in session.   And there are children who are part of the household where I rent my Bluefields apartment.   I enjoy their company and we teach each other small things about life.   Gift selection puts me in a quandary.   Last trip I took each child a hat; and for the entire group there was a package of permanent fabric markers and a hat party at my apartment.   The concentration each child gave to a hat's decoration rivaled the concentration given current budget discussions in Washington, D.C. 

Overall, the kids got more pleasing results.

30 July 2011

Ah, man, I really need a boat for this

     I had purchased a piece of property that might as well have been on a remote island; and False Bluff has no roads, no electricity, no 'grid' of any kind.   The nearest of any of these niceties is either El Bluff about eight miles south along the coast or Bluefields about eight miles west over water.   A boat was an absolute necessity:  first for getting people there and then for getting everything else there.
     On Nicaragua's Caribbean coast and inland waterways the Panga is the boat most people choose; it's almost the only boat available.   Shaped something like a Boston Whaler, Pangas come in different widths and lengths.   Although big Pangas can carry tremendous loads, getting the load in and out requires a lot of up and down work.   Some of a Panga's most precious cargo is on the way to a birthday party.

     Since I planned to not travel to False Bluff by way of the Caribbean once our canal was open, at my younger son's suggestion I bought a pontoon boat.   A pontoon boat would be ideal for the bay, the lagoons, and the canal.   And people and things go on and off a pontoon boat - not in and out, or up and down.
     Actually I bought a pontoon boat kit.   There are a lot of pontoon boat kit companies but taking into consideration not only the cost of the kit itself but the cost of then getting the kit to Bluefields, I was fortunate to find a family business in South Carolina, American Pontoon.   Once the proprietors and I had settled on the final design and components of the eight foot wide, eighteen foot long boat, they made the arrangements to truck the kit to Florida where it was then loaded into a container bound for Bluefields.   So far there aren't many companies that container-ship to Nicaragua's east coast.   The company I used is owned by Gladys Mena who lives part of the time in Miami where her business is and part of the time in Bluefields.   Ms. Mena has been shipping materials and 'households' to the Corn Islands for years.   The big pieces of the boat kit were unloaded in Bluefields onto a barge and hauled to the wharf near my apartment, just north of the center of town;  a pickup truck delivered the rest. 

     We assembled the boat at the edge of the water, propped up and leveled on scraps of wood we found lying around.  When it was all put together we shoved the boat right into Bluefields Bay.

 Before I could use the boat I had to get it registered. 
     The first step of the registration process involves making arrangements for a government employee to come to the boat.  He measures and inspects it and does some sort of paperwork, all of which usually takes a couple of days.   Once the paperwork's done the boat owner/applicant, you,  must then manage to find the employee at his office again and to collect the paperwork that tells you how much the registration fee will be.   Then you go to BanPro, one of Nicaragua's two banks, to pay the fee and get the receipt – no, you don't pay the fee in the office where the registration itself is done.   And if you don't have an account at BanPro you must take along someone who does.  You then return the receipt to the employee at his office who sends it and any additional requisite paperwork to Managua.  After an unspecified amount of time you're issued a temporary registration certificate...sometimes two temporary registration certificates if by chance you don't get your permanent-good-for-one-year registration certificate by the time the first temporary registration certificate expires. At least this is how it happens in Bluefields.

     'Calala' was the first pontoon boat to hit the water anywhere near Bluefields and even a trip to the gas station is a major event.   One of the first trips after the boat was 'legal' was to haul building materials to False Bluff.

But before that trip other things had to happen.  None of this process is linear.

If you've got a boat, you've got to have a dock

      The first plan for opening a canal to boat travel, specifically an eight-foot wide, eighteen-foot long pontoon boat, was to use a dredge.  There is only one small dredge in Bluefields but then it is only going to be a small canal.   That idea turned out to be impossible but while this decision process was underway so was the construction of the dock, because I was sure I would need one soon.
      The wood for the dock and for the boardwalk that would carry people from the dock across the boggy land at the edge of the canal-head was cut on site. The master of this process and later head of the 'canal-crew' uses a chain saw to slice a log into useable pieces of timber like I use a knife to slice a pound of cheese.   Using string and mono filament fishing line he and his helpers laid out the dock and boardwalk, sank the piers, attached the support timbers, and nailed the two-inch thick cross pieces overall using six-inch long galvanized nails.
      The following series of pictures was taken with the Caribbean to my back looking toward the head of the canal where the work was taking place.   The large piece of rope (in the foreground of a couple of the pictures) had washed up on the beach.   The rope was nailed across the front of the dock to provide some protection to boats that I hoped would eventually knock up against the dock.

     Once completed, the dock and boardwalk sat in the swamp, unused and impossible to access by boat for nearly three months while the canal was slowly opened up to it.

29 July 2011

Semper cell phones

      The one amenity we do have on False Bluff is cell phone coverage. I'm not sure just when or who discovered that if you hold your head just right you can make a call. 

And you have to stand on the bench to reach just the right height.

Hurricanes and monkeys

     Second only to the questions about armed men on street corners was the question about hurricanes so I went looking for information.    I've had first-hand experience with hurricane damage in Virginia and work-related experience with damage in several other southeastern states.   National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration publishes the “Annual Summary of North Atlantic Storms 1872-2004” which to date actually goes through 2008. 
     Sometime during the 1900's each annual summary began including a map of all major storms for that year, hurricanes included.   After reviewing more than sixty of these map-summaries I concluded that I'm probably safer at False Bluff during hurricane season than I am in most southeastern states:   hurricanes hit Nicaragua on average once every twenty years and many of the hurricanes that do hit, do so north near the Nicaragua/Honduras border.
      But when a hurricane does hit Nicaragua it's a doozy and does the sort of damage typical of direct hurricane hits anywhere.    In 1988 Joan slammed through Nicaragua.   Reports state that 150-mph winds leveled Big Corn Island: all the residents there lost their homes and the schools, churches, and clinic were destroyed.   Nearly ninety percent of the homes in Bluefields were destroyed leaving 43,000 residents homeless.    False Bluff is almost directly between Big Corn and Bluefields.   Hurricane Joan was unusual in that it didn't curve north as most hurricanes do, especially those as late in the season as October;  and that it survived even after crossing Central America into the Pacific where it was renamed 'Tropical Storm Miriam'
      An estimated 100,000 acres of Nicaragua's forest was razed including that along the Caribbean coast in Hurricane Joan's pathway.   

     When I first began to visit False Bluff I asked if there might be monkeys and was told that when the forests died because of Joan so did the monkeys.   Those that weren't killed outright during the storm died later of starvation.   I have since learned that there must have been a few left because I don't think that the three I've seen along the creek are just aged survivors.

27 July 2011

A camping trip

     The army had graciously (and unasked) extended my older son's contract, thus allowing him to serve fifteen months in Iraq.  Following his year in Afghanistan this rounded out his middle eastern experience but finally he was home safe and '...free at last...' to join his brother and me for a camping trip.  It would be his first trip to Nicaragua and to False Bluff.   To get to False Bluff we traveled as usual across the bay, around the point at El Bluff into the Caribbean, and north along the coast.   The boat capsized just as it turned toward the beach to drop us off. 
     My sons are smarter than I and both of them had sealed their suitcases in plastic bags before we checked out of the hotel to head to the boat;  their stuff stayed dry.   Had it not been for the fact that our food and cooking supplies had been packed in tightly sealed buckets, we'd either have gone right back to Bluefields or gone hungry. 
           We hung our hammocks in a triangular clump of coconut palms right at the edge of the beach.   

     The breeze was constant (and eventually dried the contents of my suitcase though I had to buy a new phone from Claro); and the nights were cool enough for light sleeping bags or sleep sacks.   Cooking was tricky even with shelter breaking much of the breeze.   At this time most of the property was covered with brush and because of the undergrowth none of us strayed far from the sea breezes for long.   Moving behind anything that blocked air movement was like stepping into an oven but walking along the beach was just plain good.

     Before returning to Bluefields for our flight to Big Corn Island we donated remaining edibles to a neighbor at a fish camp up the beach and buried everything else:  machetes, oiled and double-wrapped in plastic; and cook stove and seasonings in the buckets.   I would later dig up our stuff, but that's another story.

25 July 2011


     The next trips I made solo and on one of these trips I arranged to have the property surveyed, a job that took four people three days.

     The survey crew marked the north and south boundaries by chopping open a nine or ten foot wide path along these two lines - ah, those wonderful machetes.   The east and west boundaries didn't need a pathway chopped, of course, since the east line is the Caribbean Sea and the west is Smokey Lane Lagoon.   When the crew members cut the last bit of path where the north line meets the lagoon they were in water up to their necks.
     Although we delivered crew members and their provisions to False Bluff by way of the Caribbean we collected them from the lagoon side, just inside the creek entrance where they sat waiting for us on tree roots. 

     By that time there weren't many provisions left for them to haul out through the swamp.

24 July 2011

Where the hell is False Bluff?

     An uninterrupted stretch of beach runs just a bit more than twenty-six miles from El Bluff on the edge of Bluefields Bay north to Pearl Lagoon, or Laguna de Perlas.    Along this stretch are a few small farms, or fincas, none of which are occupied full time; and my place, False Bluff.   Access to properties all along this stretch has always been a problem.   You can go by way of the Caribbean; or you can go through swamp.

     Mangroves line the inland edges of this twenty-six mile stretch, all varieties of which are invasive.   Perhaps hundreds of years ago there were only one or two 'tiers' of mangroves at the water's edge;   now there are countless 'tiers' that have, over time, walked from the land into the water.   Seedlings sprout and do what their parents do:  send down roots.   Spaces among the roots fill up with leaves and wildlife providing a beautiful haven that makes for wretched and time consuming travel.

     My property sits on one of the narrowest pieces of land along the stretch between El Bluff and Pearl Lagoon.   
     But even better, my property is bisected by a creek that flows into Smokey Lane Lagoon from its head near the beach.   When I bought the property, however, the creek had been devoured by trees and was impassable by boat.

     After making several trips to False Bluff through the swamp, my first project was going to clean up the creek  enough so I wouldn't have to do it again.

23 July 2011


      During my first visit a side trip took us up to the viewing platform at the edge of an active volcano.   The air was still and sulphurous smoke was heavy around us.   I'm told that at dusk you can see the red of fire.   A sign attached to the platform cautioned against jumping into the volcano.   I think about sign that from time to time - it was only in English.
      One of the products of a volcano is pumice and the beach at False Bluff is littered with pieces, the sharp edges of which have been worn down by the sea during their travel there.   I've picked up pieces as big as a shoe, but the pieces I like best are the little ones worn into interesting shapes.   There are gradations of color and some have more feldspar than others and almost glow. 

      I carry a couple of pieces with me, a habit I began just for travel.   TSA frowns on nail files and an emery board only lasts for about 7 fingers.   I have yet to wear out a single piece of pumice by 'filing' my nails. 

A small bag of 4 or 5 pieces makes a nice gift.

22 July 2011

NICA.... NICA...


(Belizaribbean,  UnitedStatesVirginIslesaribbean,  CostaRicaribbean?  Probably not.)

21 July 2011

How's the weather down there?

     It seems I've always known that at least compared to Virginia, winter in the Caribbean is 'better.'  Warmer, no snow, no ice, no frozen pipes.   What I've learned more recently is that weather in False Bluff is better in the summer too.   For instance, this week in Richmond is setting record highs with a heat index that's supposed to hit 115.  By comparison the temperature in False Bluff (8 miles from Bluefields) for the same days won't get out of the 80's.   

 (Richmond and Bluefields weather, July 20-24, 2011.) 

      The rainy season, Nicagua's winter, runs roughly from April to November and though it rains a lot it doesn't rain all the time.   When I was growing up I spent most of my summers in North Carolina's Smoky Mountains where it usually rained every day.   The rains in False Bluff are like that.   They come and go.  

The second trip had one purpose

...and that was to find a piece of land to buy.   Three of us flew to Big Corn Island: my younger son again, my sister this time, and I.   One of the great things about Big Corn and, it turns out, about Bluefields as well is the ease with which you can get there.   To get most any place along the Pacific coast you have to take a bus, or rent a car (with lots of insurance), or hire a car and driver.   Driving in Nicaragua, particularly in Managua, might be one of those things you do once in a lifetime just to say you've done it, like eating fugu.   But getting to Big Corn or Bluefields is simple: fly. 

(Atlantic Air has since gone out of business.)

      Big Corn Island sits in water so you can't get there in a bus or a car.   And until recently there was no road to Bluefields.   The ease of getting to either of these places by simply flying in was a factor in my decision to buy on the Caribbean side:   I can catch a plane in Washington, D.C. in the morning and be on the beach that afternoon.   Very little lost time.

      You can, of course, make getting to Bluefields difficult.   From Managua, drive or take a bus to Rama, and then a boat to Bluefields.   You can also make getting to Big Corn Island difficult:  ride the ferry from Bluefields, which I understand takes about 5 hours.   However, once on Big Corn or in Bluefields let a taxi take you where you want to go:  fifty cents or a dollar will get you just about anywhere.   It's always nice to have options.

      Time spent on Big Corn is always a pleasure and we combined the fun of being there with looking at property for sale, which is another kind of fun.    When I didn't find a piece of Iand I couldn't live without, we headed to Bluefields and caught a boat to Pearl Lagoon to meet a man.   Some of the land he had available in that area was beautiful (see next picture) and the possibility of a purchase was in mind as we boated back down to Bluefields to look at property he had for sale there.  
     The second piece of property we visited near Bluefields is what I now call False Bluff.   After very brief negotiations I signed the necessary documents and bought the smallest of all his beachfront offerings from this interesting Canadian man who had sailed to Bluefields years before and decided to stay after his boat sank in the bay. 

    Sinking had been a possibility on our first trip to False Bluff.   

     At that time the only viable option for getting there was a boat trip from Bluefields out into the Caribbean and up the coast, a good hour-long trip in what could and sometimes did quickly turn into a rough ride.

19 July 2011

Freedom or Death

I grew up in the state where Patrick Henry asked to be given liberty or death and even now live just blocks away from the site of his speech, so this song hits hard. 
     Luis Enrique Mejia Godoy, one of Nicaragua's great artists, performed "Yo soy de un pueble sencillo" at the Central American Peace Concert in Managua in 1983.  It has been written that either attending or performing at the concert was an act of defiance.  However, the Central American artists who did perform had reputations larger than their nations' boundaries and the concert broke the silence that had surrounded Nicaragu's struggle.  White haired and now 66, Luis Enrique Mejia Godoy is still singing.

(For years I've tried to find a better copy of this video.  Let me know if you've got one.)

18 July 2011

But Nicaragua's so dangerous!

     One of the questions I got most often when I first began to talk about Nicaragua was about the masses of armed men who supposedly stood on all the street corners.   Since Nicaragua is a pretty safe place to be, I think these questions came from seeing pictures taken during the revolution of just that sort of thing.   If a war were being waged on my home soil, carrying a gun would be a good thing (although even without a war being waged on my home soil masses of people in the United States are armed).   
     Nicaragua is a poor country where a lot of poor people live, people who were poor before the world's economy tanked.   The really bad world economy hasn't made their lives any better and guns cost money most Nicaraguans don't have.   I spend a lot of time in the Caribbean port city of Bluefields and most of the handguns I see there are in the hands of a) the police, b) the military, or c) private security.   Police everywhere carry guns;  I did when I was a cop.  Much of the military presence there relates to the control of illegal drugs that travel by sea from various places in South America to various places in North America where the customers are.   Private security is a big thing in both Managua and Bluefields.   One night in Managua we wanted to walk to dinner from our small hotel near the stadium and the hotel staff insisted on sending their armed guard with us.   I don't know if that was necessary but if it was necessary it was more than a nice gesture. 
     And in Bluefields a security guard will open the door to the Tip-Top restaurant for you whether you're coming or going, politely armed with what looks like a sawed off shotgun.   None of this is to say that some citizens aren't armed, legally or illegally.   In order for a Nicaraguan to legally carry a handgun in Bluefields, he or she must apply to the local police station, have a background check, and take a short course in gun use and safety, all similar to  procedures we follow in Virginia to legally carry a concealed weapon.   If you're not a citizen of Nicaragua you don't get to legally carry a gun!
      That said, machetes are everywhere;  and as lethal as they can be, they're really hard to carry concealed.   Machetes are versatile tools used to do such things as chop down small trees, dig holes for planting flowers, cut grass, or peel oranges.   I'm cautious in Managua, in Bluefields, and in my home town in Virginia.   The world we live in can get really nasty really fast.

Aeropuerto Internacional Augusto C. Sandino

... is in Managua, Nicaragua's capital city.  The Sandino Airport is modern and full of light and traveler conveniences.  I loaded a rental car with insurance and we headed into the city for our first night. The insurance turned out to be a good thing because during our travels we tore the bottom up pretty bad on a road near Rancho Santana while looking at a piece of beachfront property. 
     We left Managua the next morning for Rivas and points south, almost to Costa Rica. On San Juan del Sur's main drag it turned out that the small hotel where we stayed was owned by a family from Chincoteague, VA...go figure.   Once you leave San Juan del Sur there's not much of Nicaragua left unless you go north, which we did.  We traveled up the coast, taking a few side trips and this 'western' part of our trip ended with a couple of nights at a beach house near Leon.  Surfing is world class on Nicaragua's Pacific coast. 
     I wanted the less contentious waters of the Caribbean and after another night in Managua (and turning in the poor car) we took a morning flight to Big Corn Island which basks in the Caribbean off Nicaragua's east coast.  Big and Little Corn Islands are a part of the Region Autonoma del Atlantico Sur (RAAS, the southern of Nicaragua's two autonomous regions).  The capital of RAAS is Bluefields which we experienced during this trip while sitting in the plane for the few minutes it took to drop off and pick up passengers at the airport.  I had no idea at the time just how familiar I would become with Bluefields.

16 July 2011

One day

...bored witless in a federal office in Washington, D.C., it occurred to me that spending the rest of my life on a beach would be better than being where I was, doing what I was doing. So as I got closer to the end of a career than to its beginning, I pursued the possibility of making this thought a reality. I glanced first at places closer to home; but even in that long ago time when there wasn't the buzz about Nicaragua there now is, what I did learn told me that the place had lots of what I thought I wanted.
     At first, practical information about buying and living in Nicaragua was hard to come by; but during the years of digging into what was available, the body of information grew and I went where it lead me. Internet searches, music, online 'communities,' talks with those who'd been there already, and books: about war, about freshwater sharks, about the country's history...even an e-book by someone who'd settled in and had stuff to share.
     Finally, the first trip. My older son, in the army, was Afghanistan-bound; his wife and my younger son and I were Nicaragua-bound.  After hearing that our destination was Nicaragua, most people I know acted as though they thought our trip would be “the trip to end all trips” - and that my older son would probably be safer in Afghanistan.
This is the story of False Bluff.