19 August 2011

False Bluff time out

     Have detoured into Europe.   More of the False Bluff story later.

07 August 2011

The first kind of food

      Three kinds of food for humans occur at False Bluff:  grown food, caught food, and bought food.
      The first kind of food takes some work, time, and agreeable weather; the second some skill and luck; and the third takes money.   Here I'm only touching on grown food, some of which happens naturally and some of which is purpose-driven.  
     The most useful foods that happen naturally at False Bluff are coconuts; the noni fruit or Morinda citrifolia; the grapes produced by the sea grape; and the cashew.  I grow a lot of things in Virginia and know something about most of them.  What grows along Nicaragua's Caribbean coast, however, are things I know primarily from various stores near me in Virginia.  For instance this week I'd have to give somebody more than $2.00 to walk out of a local grocery store with just one coconut.
     As for the noni it's a small tree that grows in profusion at False Bluff – I might even say it grows like weeds.  Also known as a morinda tree, the fruit of the noni tree is reputed to have many beneficial medicinal qualities.   Both the plant, which is a small shrubby tree, and the fruit are....unattractive.   Despite the fact that noni fruit derivatives in health food stores are usually expensive, where I've been in Nicaragua it's common to see the fruit rotting on the ground.   Plucked white-ripe, small slices of the firm fruit have an ascerbic apple-like flavor.
      I've seen small unripe clusters of sea grape grapes but haven't tasted them. I'm told they're good.
       Then there's the cashew.   
     At False Bluff there are even more of these trees than there are of the noni.   I still am a bit amazed that cashews just grow wild at False Bluff.   Given the price of cashew nuts at home that's like money growing on trees. 
     The only way I can tell the cashew varieties apart is by the color of the fruit - and the nut is not the fruit.   The nut, also called maranon, is almost an accessory to the actual fruit which is called a cashew apple.   The cashew apple, whether red or yellow, is delicious for eating right off the tree or for turning into juice.   The skin of the cashew apple is so fragile that the fruit doesn't travel well.   So, if I had not gone into the cashew-tree world I wouldn't have known there was anything but the nut, but that's all that most of us know about cashews anyway. 
     As for the purpose-driven, we've planted lots of food:  dasheen (taro), cassava, sugar cane, pineapple, banana, rice, beans, corn, various other vegetables and some herbs.   So far the herbs are those that are good for tea, like lemon grass (shown below).
      But the most impressive food growing at False Bluff is cassava, formally the manihot esculenta.   Cassava has many common names including yuca (one 'c') and tapioca.  
   Cassava roots grow just below the surface of the soil and radiate around one or more stems that grow straight up.   Unpeeled, cassava roots looks something like really long sweet potatoes;  peeled, however, the flesh is white and can be cooked in lots of ways.  It can be cooked in most ways you'd cook a potato:  mashed, fried, or made into a salad.   Some cooks can also turn the root into a sweet moist cake.   
     I'm probably not the only person familiar with the plant who thinks that, along with some protein, it could feed the world.   We planted cassava in late November and by May we were harvesting and eating the roots...and what roots they were, some as long as four feet!   We got two good meals from this plant.

      Cassava is quick to mature, easy to harvest, and easy to replant.  Once the edible roots are removed from around the base of the stems, the leaves are stripped from the plant and the stems are then cut into pieces, each eight to ten inches long.  Drop each piece of stem into a shallow hole, cover it (most people just shove dirt over the stem piece by foot - saves all that bending over), and wait six or seven months.   So, not only do you get a meal or two from each harvested plant, but you've got the potential to get ten to fifteen new plants from each harvested plant. 
      Cassava and fish about ready to cook.

03 August 2011

Sea grapes

      Wherever possible, as we cleared we left clusters of mature sea grapes, Coccoloba uvifera.  
     Sun rise over the Caribbean framed by sea grapes...

New growth isn't green.

       There is a whimsical quality to these clusters which are often not clusters at all but a single plant that has wandered.   A twisting branch's own weight will lower the branch to the ground where in time it will root and start upward once more, until the weight of the new growth sends it down to the ground again to root and shoot off in another direction.   When the lower branches are exposed by pruning the result is sculptural; and the 'cluster' makes a jungle gym for children...

or a great place to pitch a tent.

I have spent weeks under this sea grape.

02 August 2011

Coconut trees

      Until this year I had not seen coconuts in the coconut palms, Cocos nucifera, at False Bluff.   Usually the only evidence of coconut production has been a pile of husks at the base of the tree, remnants of someone's snack; but this year, with the constant presence on False Bluff of my employees, there are coconuts to eat...

...and coconuts to set aside for sprouting and later planting. 


 (The one in the middle-right, below, has sprouted.) 

     I can now write from personal experience that the sound of a coconut hitting the ground near you is just like it sounds in the movie 'Castaway.'   After having one hit near me a couple of times I changed my travel paths across the property and I sure don't sit down for a meal under one of the trees anymore.
      A lot of undergrowth at False Bluff has been cleared.   Not only could you not navigate the property because of it, but the undergrowth kept the breeze from cooling you.   In fact there was so much undergrowth there was no space left to plant anything else, like a garden, or pineapples, or citrus trees.   There is now space for lots of food plants, many of which are already in the ground and some of which we're already eating.

     The palms at False Bluff have that universal silhouette that says 'Caribbean.'
     Sad to say as we cleared we found that many of the existing coconut trees are damaged or don't have good root systems. When a coconut, which is just a big seed, falls and then grows right where it falls, much of the root system is above ground and in the early years of the tree's life any wind will bend it sideways, further lessening its hold on soil and life.   

         Although we didn't remove those trees as we cleared, we recognize their lives are in jeopardy.   The fact is not only did we not remove a single viable coconut tree we've planted additional trees:  more than two hundred to date with nearly a thousand more to sprout and plant.  

     In addition to what we harvest, I bought additional coconuts for sprouting from an elderly man who watches over a farm about a half-hour north of False Bluff.   Packed into a net bag, the bag was pulled through the water parallel to the beach.   Since it wasn't possible to haul the full bag up onto the property, smaller bags were filled from the big bag and carried up from the water.


Why name a boat calala?

     In recognition of a really great drink.
      It has been said and written that 'Flor de Cana' is Nicaragua's national drink, and a winning rum it is too.   Some recent awards for this Nicaraguan export include the Double Gold Medal at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition this year and the Gold Best in Class at the International Wine and Spirits Competition in England in 2009.   (For those of you who follow Nicaragua forums, don't you think Alan Bowie would have been proud?)
      But for some of us there's the even better and more exotic drink made of the juice of the passion fruit, called calala in Nicaragua.   Pictured below is a freshly-made glass of the juice served in the Caribbean Dream Hotel restaurant in downtown Bluefields.

     Passiflora, the plant that produces the calala, grows almost everywhere:  a cousin in New England has one species in her garden and another species grows wild in Virginia corn fields.   Tennessee's state flower was the passion flower from 1919 until 1939 (and then they adopted the iris as the state flower if you can believe that). 
     Many species have an edible fruit, including Virginia's wild rambler.   Passion fruit is a rich source of antioxidants.   In Nicaragua calala, whether growing wild or cultivated, can be the size of an elongated softball.  
Flowers of the passiflora look like they grow in another world.   Each species' flower is a bit different but just as alien. 
     Cosmetics around the world use passion fruit to supposedly do for your outsides what the drink does for your insides.   Neither of the two pictures immediately above was taken at False Bluff, but for sure calala has been planted there.

01 August 2011

The canal was finally open

      It's so easy to write that the canal was finally open, but there was nothing easy about it.   We learned early that the canal could not be opened with a dredge, not even with the small dredge that seems to be the only one available in Bluefields.   The head of the canal would be about 1000 feet west of, and slightly down-slope from, the beach...just where the swampy wet ends as the land rises up.   For more than a hundred years at least, the canal had narrowed as the trees along its edge had taken over, the most invasive being the mangroves.   The mangrove trees wove themselves together as their roots dug into the water and mud, roots of one tree meshing with the roots of another, forming a dense thicket. This thicket of roots just below the water's surface could be traveled over once the crevices and spaces between the roots had been filled with decades of rotted vegetation-turned-mud.       
     'Traveled over' because it wasn't as though you could walk over it:  in it, through it...but not over it.   Hidden crevices of deep mud between roots sucked rubber boots right off your feet.   For generations this is what people have traveled through to reach the beach at False Bluff and their properties, north or south (although some have walked the long miles up the beach from El Bluff, rarely with a load of supplies).   A woman who is building a house near my apartment in Bluefields told me that when she was growing up in Bluefields her school class would go on field trips to the beach at False Bluff for a picnic and swimming; and that even then everybody traveled through the swamp to get there. 
     Once some years ago during a camping trip to False Bluff with my sons a family who owns property north of mine came through with supplies for their farm:  chickens, bags of household goods, and food for the weekend.   Traveling with them was another property owner who carried seedlings to plant at his farm and a young breadfruit tree sapling that must have been nearly four feet tall.   Each person had carried something through the swamp. 
     Another part of the equation for people visiting their properties was the security of whatever boat they had traveled in, tied to a tree a half mile behind them.   Would it and everything in it still be there when they got back to it – gas, engine, oars, sails?   So usually people visited along this stretch of coast by catching a boat ride with someone going their way, or hiring a ride out; someone who would just drop them and all their stuff off in the swamp - as far up the canal as the boat could get, which wasn't very far. 
     So, here is this potential canal curving through the jungle and nearly swallowed whole by tree roots that have woven themselves into an impenetrable mass.   How to open it enough to allow easier access for me and other property owners?  


       By hand.
     Thirteen men and a crew chief began to work just inside the canal close to where it meets Smokey Lane Lagoon. 

     When they began this project they were a good half mile from the dock that some of them had built earlier and from the beach.   They made camp in the swamp along the canal's edge burning termite hives to keep the bugs away.   As work progressed and they got closer to the beach than to the lagoon, they moved their camp onto the pier which at that time was a useless appendage to the also useless dock.   There they built plastic-tent city that got them off the wet ground, immediately making use of both pier and dock.

     The crew lived at False Bluff during the months it took to open the canal, returning to Bluefields once a week for down time.   The crew chief made more frequent trips to Bluefields in order to replace tools which broke with alarming frequency.   Men would cut sections of underwater, interwoven tree roots into 'manageable' chunks, each wet chunk weighing 200 to 300 pounds.   Here's the crew chief with a good example of what was being removed in order to open the canal to boat traffic.

     These chunks were then winched out of the sucking mud with a block and tackle and set out of the way of the work being done.

     The chunks were dug out with something that looks like a long metal chisel at the end of a long handle.   These are actually fairly common tools locally; but the typical wooden handle wasn't up to the demands of the work being done on the canal.   The crew chief carried broken tools to Bluefields and had the chisel ends welded to metal handles.   Even these broke, but not as quickly.   After the roots were cut out and removed, the canal was deepened by digging out bottom muck with shovels. 

     Wooden shovel handles were also eventually replaced with metal.

     After a couple of months the families of the crew members began to join them at the job site, especially now that the men were no longer camping in the swamp.  The crew had dug themselves a well.   Only a hole in the ground, the water was clear and sweet.   Wives did laundry and cooked meals; and children and household pets swarmed everywhere.   The work was exhausting but after the families had joined the mix each work day ended with an almost festive air.
     Long months and nearing the end of the project. Boredom set in and the day-by-day sameness of the work began to slow things down so the crew chief initiated an incentive plan:  open 20 meters a day.   If you finished the 20 meters by 10 o'clock in the morning, the rest of the day is yours to do with as you like; if you're still working on the 20 meters when it turns dark, he'd supply the flashlights. Needless to say nobody worked until dark and the creek continued to open toward the dock (during this last bit most of the men were fishing by noon).
     Right after I got the boat registered I asked the crew chief if he wanted to take the Calala (the name of the boat) on its maiden voyage. Since all the work he was overseeing and doing was being done to accommodate my pontoon boat, shouldn't he make sure the effort was doing that?   He, his crew, and a week's worth of groceries made the trip, getting more than half-way up the canal, which is as far up as the canal had been opened at that time.   (I'd like to have been along for the ride because I understand the trip was a bit of a party.   In retrospect that makes perfect sense since where I live a synonym for pontoon boat is 'party boat.')   Not only did these guys get the first trip on the boat but they also experienced the results of all their hard work.   After leaving the men and supplies at False Bluff the crew chief returned to Bluefields, excited to report that everything we hoped was happening was happening.
     The canal project wouldn't have taken anywhere near the time and effort it did had we not all been careful to do as little damage to the environment as possible.   We followed natural twists and turns dictated by the location of big old trees, thus lengthening not only the work involved but also the length of the trip a boat would have to take to get to the dock.   The end result is beautiful and the trip in itself is an event.   Wherever possible we left big trees 

...and the men were even careful not to disturb orchids that had attached themselves to trees along the way, some at eye level.

     Finally the crew could see the dock while they worked: the job was nearly done.   In the final calculation, this crew of fourteen men had opened more than a half mile of canal by hand.   For those who, like I, have heard stories about how difficult it is to make things happen in Nicaragua, I say that is not only not true but insulting as well.
     While the canal was being opened, each trip to False Bluff took the boat a little closer to the dock that had been finished and waiting for months.   Each trip required less and less of a slog through the swamp.   One day the boat bumped up against the dock and we stepped onto its dry surface.

     Opening the canal has been of benefit to more people than just me.  Those who routinely traveled to their farms with great discomfort do so now with ease.   The man who years ago slogged through the swamp with a breadfruit sapling now brings his children and stops at False Bluff for a visit and to catch up on the news.

     I have been told that many people who own property along this stretch of the Caribbean coast had almost abandoned their properties because of the difficulty of traveling to them.   The trip isn't difficult any more.   Here is one of my employees in the canal with a new 'errand' boat.

     Now people who've not been out to the beach for a long time are returning...to visit, to work, to clear land.   One of my neighbors stopped by after tying up the boat to introduced me to her grown son: he was making his first visit to the family's property.