Jan’s Filthy Smoking Habit Inspires Unique Cultural Experience

Marina Puesta del Sol, Nicaragua

Awaiting the President of Nicaragua

We arrived the morning of Friday, March 26 after a passage of nearly 140 miles and just a bit over 24 hours. On our arrival, we were surprised to find we were the only cruisers at the dock. Roberto, the marina owner, told us that while we were welcome, there would be limited use of the facilities because the President of Nicaragua had reserved the entire property for Easter week, and was scheduled to arrive on Monday. We wiped the salt off the boat, took a dip in the (HOT!) swimming pool, and enjoyed a dinner out with the full attention of the staff – being the only customers raises some interesting concerns about financial viability of a spectacular place like this. Unless the rate for chartering the entire property for a week pays off…

Saturday afternoon there was a potential emotional and physical disaster – I ran out of cigarettes, the marina didn’t have any, and so we embarked on an adventure into the little village just outside the marina gates to hunt down any cigarettes that might be found in a village of maybe 200 people.  The walk was dry and dusty. We passed small, simply constructed houses of cinderblock, wood, tarp, and woven leaves, during the late afternoon when the villagers were tidying up and preparing for evening.

Though the houses were small and poor, they were tidy, the gardens were full of shade and food plants, the animals were sleek and fat, the children were well mannered and clean, and everyone we passed wished us buenas tardes. Women were busy drawing water from their wells, sprinkling down the gardens to keep the dust down, and preparing food. Men were gathered talking and laughing in groups.

Our walk through the village drew nothing more than polite curiosity as we inquired from the folks we passed where we might buy cigarettes. At a bus stop, we asked an old man, who pointed across the road to a house with an open air kitchen and a large extended family gathered around while grandma prepared the evening meal. We felt a bit timid about walking right into the back garden kitchen, but the old toothless grandma bid us welcome and told us that yes, she could sell us cigarettes.

Then the negotiations started. We had no Nicaraguan money, the marina couldn’t change a $20 bill, so there we were in this tiny village set in the early 1900s, trying to make a $5 purchase from a family that probably doesn’t see more than $5 in a week. (Damned Gringoes.) When we showed her the money, she expressed concern, and the whole family – grandma, daughters, children, all chimed in to help figure out how to save the sale with the money they had on hand. One of the daughters, heavily pregnant, brought out a couple of chairs and asked us politely to sit while they discussed the problem. At one point, one of the husbands was called – he was Mexican, and probably had some pesos, and if he could be persuaded to part with them, we could get change in Nicaraguan Cordobas and Mexican Pesos – but that deal fell through as he was reluctant to part with his pesos.

As the discussion progressed, a huge sleek pig ambled through the garden, hens and chicks and naked toddlers rolled around in the dust, and the family talked, argued and laughed, trying to figure out a solution. Finally, someone suggested a visit to another “store” down the road, where the proprietor might be likely to exchange the $20 for Cordobas. Grandma indicated I should give the $20 to her granddaughter who would return shortly with the change – I thought it might be a better idea to walk with her and protect my investment.

In retrospect, it would have been fine to trust her; after all, we were customers of Roberto, the patron at the marina, and to rip us off would not be in their best interest. So as we walked, we chatted a little with the 13-year old Lal, who was the designated financial comptroller of the transaction. Once the money had been exchanged over a fence with the “rich” store owner (we knew he was rich because he had a tile walkway and floor in his home), we walked back to Lal’s family, made the purchase, and everyone was happy.

I know, I know, smoking is a filthy, unhealthy habit. But it led to an interesting adventure and some deep thoughts about what the nature of poverty really is. We had run into some cruisers earlier in the month who talked about how miserably poor this village was, and how it moved them to want to come in and build everyone a modern house. But our experience of the village was different. We figure that maybe fewer than 1% of Americans see this kind of lifestyle close up and personal – and when we comparatively rich gringos see or hear reports of poverty on the news, we automatically apply our cultural and material standards, assuming, arrogantly, that the affected folks need what we have.

When we talked about it later, we agreed that yes, the people of this village could use a doctor, a dentist, or a clinic, perhaps some reliable water supply and maybe some improvements in electricity – but what they had seemed to work. Roberto built a school for the village, there was work to be had, the children and animals seemed to be clean and healthy, and the garbage was minimal. We will admit, though, that the contrast between the several-million-dollar marina and it’s neighboring village was a bit surreal.

Sunday, March 28, we opted to walk to the Pacific side beach facility that belongs to the marina, a spectacularly-placed thatch-covered pavilion (called a palapa) paved with tile, shaded with woven palm and lattice, furnished with white wrought-iron tables and chairs, and graced with a freshly-painted blue infinity pool facing the miles-long expanse of beach. The only complaints we had were that the sand was blisteringly hot to walk on and the surf at the beach made swimming out of the question. So, rats, we had to sit in the shade and enjoy a fresh-water swimming pool, shade, and garden. Life is brutal. Since we expect the President to arrive at any moment by helicopter, we’re staying away from the marina facilities.

Tuesday, March 30, we joined up with John and Gayle, a couple on the boat Sirens Call from Suquamish (just over the hill from Poulsbo) and booked a van into the nearby town of Chinandega to do some shopping for fresh produce and meat.

From the Taxi Window on the Road to Chinandega

This area of Nicaragua is the breadbasket of the country, and we passed fields and orchards and herds of cattle for the hour-long drive into a city of maybe 100,00 folks. The city is a typical Central American city –noisy, full of traffic and strange driving habits, and irregular streets and sidewalks with open-air shops selling any- and everything. Had to make a stop in the hardware district to find some parts for the watermaker and generator, spent a couple of hours in a beautiful large grocery store, then asked our driver, Indolfo, to recommend a nice restaurant for lunch, where we treated him.

Making Easter Goodies with Indolfo and His Wife

On the drive back, he stopped at his house to introduce him to his family and show us how his wife and daughter were baking Easter pastries in a clay oven in the back yard. When we got back, we shared cocktails on the flybridge, and noticed the marina and staff were still in a state of high alert, as the President hadn’t arrived yet.

Wednesday, March 31, we joined John and Gayle on Sirens Call for dinner and lots of conversation. Their steel boat is a testament to craftsmanship. John built it himself, starting in his back yard and finishing at Port Townsend to the point where he could launch and do the final touches underway. Everything on the boat is hand-built: from the aluminum railings, to the stabilizing gear and the watermaker. We were entertained by the Easter Party thrown by the village at the shipyard on a nearby point, eliminating the need for any mood music over a delicious dinner of bacon cheeseburgers and salad.

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