The Ends of the Earth

This was one of the weird days.

I landed on a rutted earthen landing strip in the rain; blatantly lied to indigenous people (has anyone else ever done that?) then fed them drinks for information. I got hustled twice (once by a cabbie, once by a restaurant owner) for a combined $50, and then retreated to the best hotel in town, which had wafer-thin, mouse shit-stained walls, suspiciously splotchy pillowcases, and a dubbed Bill Maher on TV. Welcome to Bonanza, Nicaragua. The town that finally pried another blog out of me.

First, though, let it be known that Bonanza is not without its charms. Even that runway is something everyone should experience once. It appeared as our pilot, who spent most of the flight reading the morning paper while letting his 18 year-old son man the controls, veered his 12-seat prop plane hard right out of the clouds, wings teetering, tail skimming in the rain, as a strip of red clay etched into a landscape of jungled mountains.

Then there was another banking turn a disconcerting increase in velocity (or maybe it was an illusion) and a thumping stop as stilted shacks and military trucks flashed by. And with that, after two weeks in Nicaragua’s up and coming coffee country, where comfort and caffeine could be sourced without too much effort, I was in Las Minas – a gold mining region run by a massive Canadian mining company and peopled with Nicaraguan workers (most of them men from elsewhere in the country), and Mayangan Indians – the same ones who met Columbus when on his 3rd trip to the New World (the one were he dodged mutiny and returned barely alive clinging to a fruiting twig of wild Nicaraguan Coffee).

Not that I’ve been to a ton of mining towns, but I have seen a lot of Deadwood and this feels like a mining town should. There are cowboys on horseback, casinos, and almost as many bars as girls. I wasn’t surprised to hear that weekends get violent. That’s what happens when men don’t have women to keep them honest. We (well, not me… but…) we drink till staggering and then try to stay vertical while shouting and swinging wildly. In fact, I saw that exact scenario unfold today (a Monday) at 6pm.

But back to the town’ charms. Aside from the fact that you can pan for gold or take a three-hour tour of a massive multinational gold mining plant that plumbs 400m beneath the earth to extract 24,000 tons of gold each year, Bonanza is on the doorstep on the world’s largest expanse of rainforest north of the Amazon. At 20,000 sq km the Reserva Natural de Bosawas is home to 30,000 Mayangan Indians who live in 16 villages accessed by roads that are washed out half the year. I wish I could tell you that I’m here to hack my way into this remote jungle. But, alas, I don’t have time. This is a Lonely Planet gig, which means I have to pick and choose which excursions make sense to take on. This would be a 4-day trip, minimum, and considering no tourists ever get out here (only scientists) I’ve chosen to simply glean the Bosawas how-tos, and save my adventuring for more popular locales. Like diving off Corn Island.

But getting the info wasn’t so easy. The Bosawas Office, which I was told was the only resource in town, was closed for the week. Then I was told of a Mayangan man named Fredencio Devis who leads tours into the Mayangan villages of the Bosawas. So I went to his house, but he just looked at me like I wqas insane and offered the name of his cousin who is a Mayangan territory leader and has an office in the city government building. Or he did. I checked. That office didn’t exist. But my cabbie knew where the cousin lived, so we visited his daughter and got his phone number. Ten minutes later I was getting a welcoming bear hug from Rolando Devis, a Spanish speaking Mayangan Indian with a thin mustache and a beret. Oh, and he was shit-faced.
He was accompanied by a much more composed gentleman with Jimmy Johnson hair and a suspicious gaze. I took out my notebook and asked questions, like “How can I go to the Bosawas?” “How much will it cost?” “What do I need to bring?” But they wanted to start with questions like, “Who the hell am I?” “How did I get his number” “Am I a missionary?” “And can you get Univision and CNN down here?”
I put my notebook away and soon found out that I was the first international journalist they’d ever met. And that the drunk Ronaldo, who also happened to be a black belt in Shao Lin Kung Fu, is the leader of the Mayangan people.
It was somewhere during this dicey period that I decided to lie. Mainly because telling them the truth would be too difficult to manage given the levels of sobriety and Spanish fluency involved. I’m not sure if I ever said, let’s all go to Bosawas together, but that’s definitely what Rolando heard.
“When are we going?” He asked. “We all go together. You, me and I’ll hire two guards. They will keep you very safe my friend.”
“Bueno,” I said with a smile plastered to my face as he slugged his beer
“Okay, so when are we going?” He and his partner just stared, while I considered the very basic question. Now was my chance to better explain the book, tell them that I just didn’t have time to visit and I hope I hadn’t been a bother.
Instead I said, “Thursday? I mean… Thursday.”

He mulled that one over, and said, “How about Saturday?”
“Perfect,” I said.
Then he stood up in affirmation and shouted. “Let’s go see a Mayangan Pueblo!”
So he, the Mayangan Jimmy Johnson and three younger Mayangan guys, and I all piled into his (thankfully) chauffeured old school Land cruiser and hit the muddy backroads. We bounced over boulders, splashed through rivers and skirted a dirt poor village dotted with stilted, one-room wooden shacks with naked children swinging on porch side hammocks. The late daylight was angled perfectly on the jungle, illuminating the dozens of variations of green visible in all directions.

“We are very poor,” said Rolando – who seemed to be sobering up as we drove. “Ortega gave us this land after the revolution in the 1980s. We have no industry, no money in Bosawas. We get no income from the gold mine or from the scientists. We are on our own.” Words tinged with sadness but also with a smile. “At least we have our autonomy.”
Then his eyes narrowed on mine, as if looking through me. “How did you get my number?”
I should confess that when he first asked this it was back at the hotel, he asked it with a bite of resistance, anger even. Like he wanted to know who was nosing around his business. So, I didn’t want to tell him about my drop in on his daughter. I mean, who wants to hear about a foreigner dropping in on their daughter asking weird questions. Instead, I said his cousin gave me his number. He accepted it, but I could tell he didn’t believe it. I took a deep breath. “Your daughter,” I said as I averted my gaze. He smiled wide and nodded. The fucker made me.
“Todo tranquillo,” he said.
Then we stopped at the highlight of the trip: a foaming mocha colored waterfall that burst over black granite and disappeared into thick jungle. This was where the Bosawas reserve began. By this time all suspicion and apprehension had faded from both sides and we were simply enjoying a slice of raw wild.

“Politics and power changes,” he said referencing our on-the-road conversations about Osama, the Sandinistas and Reagan, “But nature is forever.”
This was the Shaolin Mayangan madman at his best, feeling nature and wearing a beret. Which is why I was startled when he abruptly asked, “Who needs a drink?”
We all ended up at a restaurant where we (well… not me) ate fried guinea pig (a local delicacy) and shared a bottle of the wonderful Floor de Cana Gran Reserva rum. One slug of rum and he was back to the brink of incoherence. He kept shaking my hand, wiping his greasy guinea pig hands on my shirt, fingering ice from the bucket and throwing it into my glass, and making loud meaningless proclamations like:
Him: “These are the principals of the revolution!”
Me: “Um… what are?”
Him: “Exactly!
Both: (awkward pause)
Him: “When are we going?”
Me: “Sabado!”
Everyone but me: (loud cheers!)
Me: (awkward pause)
Through it all – which included a near brawl between staggering drunks at the other end of the restaurant – his beret remained perfectly askew. Then the check came, and it was easily twice as much as it should have been. I had been in country for three weeks, and I knew how much things cost by then. He demanded to look at the check, but I just smiled and paid it as it lay – just the latest extranjero buying his way out of his lies on indigenous land. I know… so 500-years ago.

He smiled, poured me another and raised his glass. “To friendship!” He said. We drank. Everyone did. Then he asked me for $100. I mean, seriously Rolando?

– Adam Skolnick