On the Caribbean Coast of Nicaragua, the colorful hustling of different cultures can't stave off tropical decay.
In the tropics, warm sunshine, prolific rainfall and a fierce cornucopia of otherworldly beasties all accelerate the twin processes of expiration and biological breakdown. Some of the forces are microscopic, some grotesquely large, like blaberus giganteus; the Giant Central American cockroach. But in the sultry port of Bluefields—a city perched on the Caribbean shores like some ragged black vulture—my basement room at the Hotel Don Caribe was a virtual shrine to the ever–ravenous Lord of Putrefaction.
Giant rats, roaches, fleas, flies and an array of creeping multi–coloured moulds had all encroached on my quarters. Packs of wretched feral dogs would gather by my window to howl at the moon, and some time during my final night in that iniquitous hotel, I sensed I had died and finally succumbed to rot myself.
What had brought me to Nicaragua's far flung eastern seaboard? And why had I endured so many nights in the infernal Don Caribe?
My English taste for humiliation could not entirely account for it. Neither could my fatal streak of masochism. Sheer intrigue had drawn me to the region, but a lack of funds had been my first concern. A desire to plunge into the seamy chaos of local life had been my second. Ultimately, however, I was indulging my taste for the margins. And once I began unravelling the layers of Bluefields' crumbling psyche, I became hooked.
Damned or Blessed Bluefields
"Bluefields is blessed!" A community leader had told me heartily, gold teeth glinting. But if anything, I was concluding the opposite.
It was a bright April morning when I emerged from the Don Caribe for the final time. The night had been sultry and I was dizzy from insomnia. My mind refused to settle inside my skull, instead drifting weightless above the city, above the sprawl of concrete houses, the rusty tin rooftops, the crisp white Moravian churches, the angular spires, upwards, into the vast, blue, untapped sky.
Far off to the east, the ocean met the heavens in a searing white–hot haze of cloud and sunlight. North and south, the coastline stretched with broad empty beaches, swirling sapphire sand banks and swollen coastal lagoons. To the west sprawled an expansive forest canopy, broken only by meandering toffee–coloured rivers and a single lone highway that rolled in perpetuity, mile upon mile towards the world outside. From above, the city of Bluefields was like a tough grey scar nestled in the flesh of some wondrously bright emerald beast: the only semblance of "civilization" for miles.
Back on earth, my body was numb. I sensed that exhaustion had conferred a state of heightened awareness, of weird translucence, perfect for the practice of street photography. Camera in hand, I proceeded to the port, hoping to capture some of the visceral scenes that had so fascinated me during my month–long investigation into the city.
The port was delirious with activity. Beyond a warren of dank brick alleys where consumptive sailors sweat out their sins, gangs of inebriated fishermen shared cigarettes and bantered. A ripe aroma of rotten fruit, diesel, dead fish, and grease suffused the air. A procession of weathered vessels bobbed past concrete piers where laborers loaded and unloaded supplies. A confused volley of orders, enquiries and insults flew back and forth like a flock of deranged sea–gulls. I pointed my camera, framed the shots, focused, and clicked.
Pirates, the Dutch, the English, and the Spanish
Through the morning haze, I could almost make out the ghost–ships of 17th century pirates, giant white sails unfolded, advancing like luminous storm clouds on the horizon. It was the Dutch, not the Spanish, who first made landfall here, when the wily pirate Henry Blauveldt—from whom Bluefields aptly inherited her name—sought refuge from the ravages of the sea.
Thanks to its thoroughly inhospitable rainforest setting (and its equally inhospitable local population), the Caribbean coast was well–positioned to fend off marauding Spanish conquistadores. Ultimately it was the English who made colonial overtures. At the invitation of the indigenous Miskito people, they secured the entire Caribbean territory as a British protectorate. The Miskito Kingdom, as it was known, was indirectly governed by a line of local kings, all educated in Britain and loyal to the British crown.
Over the years, adventurous English merchants arrived from Jamaica, bringing black slaves and laborers who would establish thriving Creole communities throughout the city. The English language flourished, and is still spoken by Nicaragua's blacks and indigenous Ramas today. Cultural institutions, too, were heavily imported. The Dance of the May Pole—an old pagan ritual normally reserved for eccentric and ridiculously attired English Morris dancers—is performed on the coast with all the gusto and exuberance befitting any proud Caribbean nation.
"But why don't the English want to help us?" An elderly Creole shoe–shiner, Roy, asked me, as I rested next to him in a dilapidated doorway.
His question was a fair one, and one people have been asking in Bluefields for a hundred and fifty years. Under the 1860 Managua treaty between the United Kingdom and Nicaragua, the Miskito Kingdom was formally dissolved and centuries of British protection drawn to a close. Less than thirty years later, President José Zelaya initiated a harsh military take–over of the region, still dubiously described in national school–books as 'the reincorporation of the Moskitia'.
Decades of poor management and plunder ensued. Numerous petitions were dispatched to Downing street, begging protection from the 'Spanish devil', who had now inundated the area and was perpetuating all kinds of injustices. No answer came.
"I hate to tell you this Roy," I said. "But the English don't even know where Nicaragua is."
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