Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Bondo Planes, Bottlecap Boats: Getting There/ An Ode to Norm

“Dude, that’s bondo. That’s totally bondo.”

Norman, Dr. Kathy’s 19 year old nephew, and I are standing inside the boarding area for Costanena contemplating the plane that will be taking us to Big Corn Island. It is boxy and smallish, patched and riveted together with different sorts of metals and sporting what looks suspiciously like a large patch of Bondo holding the tail on. To say it looks old would be an understatement. It looks like something Snoopy’s World War Flying Ace would be flying. I really wish I had a leather cap and goggles.

Or that I was sitting on a goddamn dog house with a talking bird pretending to be about to fly this thing and not actually about to get on it.

In describing the plane to Andrea, the other vet tech, Claudio said something to the effect of “they are old planes, old Russian planes, like sixty years old, that Russia didn’t want any more so they gave them to Nicaragua. Because Nicaragua takes everything”.

My trepidation is over-ridden by the fact that I am so glad – so fucking glad – to have made it to the boarding area. Last year I made it to the airport; I even made it onto the scale and had a boarding pass in my hand. However before I could board a huelga – a strike – on Big Corn Island shut down the airport there as the fisherman started burning tires on the runway. Instead of going on this trip last year I spent three days sitting in the Managua airport, babysitting seventy five pounds of medical supplies the team was waiting for and watching flight after flight get cancelled.

This year was another near miss as Costena very nearly blocked us from our flight – all nine of us – for nonsensical Nicaraguan bureaucratic bullshit. How I understand it is thus: Donna had bought our Managua/Corn Island flights online and we had online tickets, printouts from the website.

No bueno.

Costena flies to a bunch of different places in Nicaragua, all of whom are selling tickets, none of whom seem to have any connection whatsoever to the other offices. The website is connected to no other entity. Thus the only way to really get on a plane, completely regardless of what the website says, is to go buy a ticket – a handwritten one – at the airport.

No handwritten tickets, no board. In theory we could walk our printouts over to the Costena office, two doors down, and exchange them for handwritten tickets but the office opened at 7. Our flight left at 6 AM. And the ticket counter people were just not having it. After endless discussions it was decided that seven of our nine people would be allowed to board, thank God for Tom’s endless patience and Claudio’s ability to deal with this crap. The two left behind would be sent on the later flight with Donna and Lilly and all our supplies that had randomly been denied due to weight. The first two draft picks for staying behind were me and Dave, the large animal vet from the States. I volunteered to be a good sport. And I have a relationship with the Costena airport.

At the last minute though, weight and the possibility of future bureaucratic fuckups saved my ass: Claudio, the Nicaraguan tech with his native Spanish and uncanny ability to unravel these situations, would be staying with Dave. At the last minute I am handed a boarding pass and pushed through security.

As the Bondo-plane lurches, gathers steam and speeds up Tom turns around and tells me 'hey Finn, you might actually make it this time'. Don’t curse me, I tell him. I’ll believe it when we get there.

The plane flies low over the country, low enough that we never really lose sight of houses and cars beneath us. We fly east, over the interior of the country. After a bit you see no roads, no real towns, just the tiny dots of cattle in fields and the faint lines of dirt roads. A lot of Nicaragua, interior Nicaragua, is agricultural and untamed bush. The fields are laid out in meticulous grids, like crop circles with their precise irrigation lines cutting through. I take picture after picture. Oh, Dr. Suess said, the places you’ll go.

The plane touches down first in Bluefields, on the Atlantic coast, for a moment. From above it looks like a picturesque fishing village, a postcard. From what I’ve read it’s a frontier town, buried under crushing poverty, inhabited mostly by English speaking Creole and Miskito and forgotten by the government and aid agencies.

After ten minutes we take off again and head out over the ocean. Twenty minutes later we drop into Big Corn. The perfunctory swine flu screening in the offloading area and five minutes later we are piling the gear we managed to get on the plane out the door, looking for a cab, two cabs, and headed for the ferry dock.

I will not sugarcoat: what I see of Big Corn looks like a shithole. I know there are pretty parts of the island – I’ve seen pictures. But what I see in the four kilometer drive between the airport and the ferry dock can only be described as a godforsaken pisshole. Ramshackle buildings and barely paved roads and litter everywhere. Scabby stray dogs look at us balefully as we drive by, as if wondering why we’re passing them by. Despite having two cabs our driver shoved all our baggage into the trunk of his hatchback and left it open. Every time we hit a pot-hole, which is often, the trunk swings down with a whump and the whole lot of it threatens to dump onto the ground. The ferry dock, such as it is, is not a dock as much as a single deck out onto the ocean with two or three large rusting fishing boats and what appears to be an ancient twenty person uncovered motorboat sitting dangerously low in the water.

Meet the panga, the boat to Little Corn Island.
The elderly, decrepit fishing boats look like the goddamn Love Boat next to it. I look covetously at the cabins on them. The panga looks more and more like an upside down bottle cap with an engine on it. Jesus Christ. Have I mentioned I can’t swim? And I’m packing a laptop? Are you shitting me?

Norman comes over and looks off the dock at one of the fishing boats. “Oh, that isn’t so bad”. I point at the panga. That’s ours. He looks at it with an expression of disbelief.

“Oh shit.”

We have an hour to kill in Big Corn. Tom, Andrea and Meg wander off to get food. I try to find a Coca Cola Light. Terry and Norman wait with the bags and the others go to explore. I look around a little bit. It’s dirty and kind of dusty, with only one nicer-ish restaurant by the docks. The rest is shacks housing pulperias and the odd house and home.

Almost no one takes cards and by the time we figure out how to get to the only cash machine on the island it’s time to board. There’s no cash machine on Little Corn. Cash-wise, I’m fucked. Thank god Casa Iguana on Little Corn comped our casitas.

Boarding the boat means making a jump down from the piling into the bottle cap. This requires a bit of timing as the boat moves towards and away the deck with the ebb and flow of the waves. I don’t feel good about this.

Sit towards the back, an overly talky ex-pat from Costa Rica tells us, otherwise it gets rough. The back is about ten feet from the front so I’m unsure of how big a difference this is really going to make but the two guys herding us into the boat are loading the back rows first anyway. I get squeezed between Terry and Tom, clutching my laptop in its supposedly waterproof case and hoping for the best.

If you read Moon Handbooks guide to Nicaragua they make some comment about the panga drivers liking ‘speed records and big air’ or something to that effect. What does that mean? It means the minute we get the ropes off the boat takes off like a bat out of hell, going so fast the front is actually higher than the back by a good seven or eight feet. You can’t see over the top of it. We are literally skimming over the waves, almost surfing them.

Scary shit.

As the boat gets into deeper water we start to bounce off the waves – the front goes higher and then we are slammed around as it dumps into the trough. Bam, bam, bam, up and down. Water is pelting us from the sides. Every now and then we go into a wave so big the engine goes silent as it’s lifted out of the water – the whole thing essentially going airborne. Those quiet moments are followed a second later by epic slams as the panga falls back into the trough of the waves.

Holy fuckballs. There’s no way this piece of shit is going to make the thirty kilometers of open ocean across to Little Corn.

I’m jesus-mary-and-josephing. Kathy looks like she’s going to puke. Tom is completely Zen about this – he leans over and again mentions that he thinks I might actually make it to Little Corn this year. The more the little boat slams around the more I doubt this.

At some point in time Terry and I get so freaked out that we get punchy, joking around and laughing so hard we’re both crying. I am so going to volunteer building stucco houses next year, I tell her as the boat slams down again, soaking us. Fuck this shit. Nice little stucco houses. Some place dry.

Against all odds the boat makes it to Little Corn and then it’s a jump up onto the dock. Somehow I manage this, clutching my laptop in it’s now moist bag, my sunglasses coated with salt. Once safe and confronted with dry land all I can think of is how I really want to do that again. It’s like the best roller coaster you’ve ever been on in your life, made even more exciting by knowing that, unlike real roller coasters, there’s a genuine chance you might actually die.

But Tom was right, I made it this time. Despite a bunch of near misses and some seriously dubious transport, my feet finally hit Little Corn Island

Photo notes and then some other notes:

Photos 1) Dr. Kathy T & Norm walk out to the plane 2) Dr. Tom patiently waits by our stuff while the Costena folks check everyone else in and decide what to do about us. There are no photos of me waiting patiently because I was either outside smoking, pacing, or surreptiously trying to take pictures of people wearing surgical masks. 3) Agricultural areas east of Managua as seen from the plane. 4) Dropping into Bluefields. 5) The only shot of the panga I have which came out really screwed up, light wise. It's the only one that came out like that leading me to believe it's FUCKING POSSESSED. 6) on the panga with about eighteen other people, looking wistfully at fishing boats docked nearby. Grey hair is Dr. Terry, guy in glasses is unnamed guy from East Germany who kept popping up all over Little Corn island and was perfectly nice except for he started every sentence by saying "RIGHT, RIGHT.." in the loudest possible voice which was highly disconcerting. 7) The promised land: Dock at Little Corn with fishing boat coming in. 8) Norm chills with a recovering Mama dog in the second clinic room on Little Corn. (below)

A note on chronology: things are going to get kind of out of whack here as I have some Granada stuff I didn't get a chance to post before we left. So there'll the odd Granada interlude in the midst of Corn Island stuff. I just wanted to at least start putting Corn Island stuff up. Also: my computer is overheating badly, dying after about twenty minutes so posting is a lot more slow going than I had hoped. Add into the mix constant and persistant power outs - we were mostly out yesterday - and things are going to be coming up slower than expected. That's also why I'm not being great about answering my emails, I can only real work on my laptop in twenty minute spurts.

A note on Norm: I could do a whole blog entry just about Norm. He had no vet tech experience, had never left the country before and was a 19 year old chef from Detroit. His aunt, Dr. Kathy T, invited him on this trip. He rapidly became one of my favorite people in the world - if I could adopt him as a little brother I would. Norm is universal. No matter where he went everyone loved him and he fit in like a native, despite not speaking a word of Spanish. He cooked with the chefs at the resort. He played baseball and basketball with the islanders. He danced at Cafe Nuit. He chatted up everyone. At one point during clinic I looked outside and saw him holding up a little kid by the ankles and screaming "give me your lunch money, give me your lunch money" while the kid squealed with delight. Honestly. He spent hours playing with the island kids. He was a great ambassador for this project in terms of integrating with all the concerned groups and amusing the hell out of everyone.

All hail Norm.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Congrats on making it back out... Keep on, Herz