MY SECRET NICARAGUA
The cop has an act. He's tough, dramatic, searching for justice. But what have I done? I just followed the truck and car ahead of me. We dance a tango of confusion and accusing, until it's time for him to whisper: "Look, Boss, do you think you could help me out with a little something for lunch?" He wants twenty bucks. This is called "La Mordida" in Mexico; the bite. As much as I love Mexico, adore its public support of local art, la mordida never really surprises me there; I am conditioned to small nibbles of corruption. But this isn't Mexico.
I take his picture in my rearview mirror and drive away. It's my last day in Nicaragua, and I don't think I have the energy for controversy. Except that the leopard has his spots. And a publisher's representative has traveled here with me, looking for adventure; he's a Yankee through and through, and has thrilled to the dip of his toe into a faraway place, as far from himself as he has ever been. Probably what he expected from this trip. Now it's time for the plunge.
But let me pop forward a moment: The night I come back I find myself filming a scene involving my BadTV partner and the poet Roland Varity and a bowling ball. I am reluctant, pregnant with my own plans and poetry, and I get yelled at and challenged and then concentrate long enough to get out of the shoot. In the Bank of America two days later I am making a deposit and I hear the poet's voice. I look at the plasma display, and CNN has picked up the parody of Hillary throwing bowling balls at Obama, played by the poet Varity, and I am laughing at this incongruent moment, because I hate CNN and the plasma pollution in the lobby every time I go to the bank. My footage will decorate the trash on CNN for the next 12 hours, and it feels good to swim up into the mainstream this way except that every time I see the footage, I think:
This is the principal problem with living in the United States; you are always screeched to buy, pushed to purchase, fooled into spending.
I clench my teeth in airports when I see the baggage carts locked into a dispenser, available for a dollar to cart your bags 100 yards to the exit. I bought a compact flash card, not even half the size of a credit card, and it came in formidable plastic packaging the size of a book; we had a piece on the Tonight Show a few weeks ago, and I told the producer Leno should be given four products from Best Buy or Circuit City and try to open them with scissors or a sledgehammer. That would be dark comedy.
And why does my cool Virgin Atlantic phone get 5 text messages every day with bullshit ads? Maybe they're free, but my time is not. Two bags on the airplane, extra $25, leg room in the first 20 rows, extra $29, beer or wine from Houston to Managua, five freaking bucks a pop, and we're not talking Heineken or French.
On my second day in Nicaragua at the Hotel Suleyka I decompress into a softer and slower world. The young woman at the counter is studying psychology at Managua. Her name is Suleyka. The hotel is named after her. What's that like? Heavy. Maybe a trick to get you to come back at vacation time to help out? She laughs: "I'd rather see my name over the door than have to check to see if I have a reservation." I laugh. She takes me to a fisherman named Dennis, and we have this exact conversation:
I want to watch how you fish.
"I've been waiting for you."
How many shark do you get?
"The boat can fit seven, if you bail."
Can we go out for just one?
"It's 40 kilometers out to sea!"
Oh, then you're out all night?
I'm going out to look for turtles tonight, sorry. And then I go to the mountains tomorrow.
"The next time you visit, I'll still be waiting."
We go out to look for turtles laying eggs. These are not Ridley's, so they do not lay 100 eggs at a time, but you cannot walk 100 meters on the beach without seeing somebody with a flashlight, searching the waves. A dozen turtle eggs sell for $3. In October, you cannot take the eggs, according to national law, feebly enforced. No live turtles are allowed to be hunted, ever. But up to one in four turtles gets the machete after laying her eggs; one turtle can feed a family for a week. The fellow who walks me ten kilometers along this abandoned beach makes $12 on a very good day waiting tables at a restaurant up the beach. A poacher on a magnificent day can take home 200 eggs. Fifty bucks.
No turtle makes it through, needless to say.
Suleyka the next day is dressed in combat fatigues. No make-up. She wants me to write down a list of music she should listen to, and books she should read. The war retarded us, she says. Like those turtles, creativity got hijacked on the beach to plant mines and fire mortar. Does she want to make art? No, she says. She just wants to be able to recognize art when it lays its eggs on Nicaragua's future.
I have an idea, broiled out of the user charges at the airport and Virgin Mobile's stupid texts: I am going to buy a hotel on the beach, I tell Suleyka, and buy all the eggs for four bucks a dozen, build a hatchery like the hatcheries I've filmed in Mexico, and make a tiny theatre and a tiny library and a place where the gringos can come and do photoshop and poetry and fix their websites and make a book, all in a week of vacation for twenty bucks a night, and before dinner they can walk down to the waves with a margarita in one hand and a baby turtle in the other, and this way the turtle gets into the water without being eaten by gulls or dogs and maybe 15 years from now the baby turtle will come back to this shore and bury treasure into the sand, and you know what the best part of my plan is, Suleyka? She is thinking maybe this is performance art where the audience participates: "You're going to pay for the college educations of the young girls who operate the hatchery?" Wow. That wasn't the best part of my plan, but it is now. But why girls? "Boys don't lay eggs." Yes, yes, of course. I was going to say the best part of my plan was the name of the hotel: Even tourists from England can pronounce and understand "Hotel Tortuga." But I like the girls in University on the hotel profits, for too many reasons to admit here, and this becomes the cornerstone of my plan, hatching itself into my life.
There are girls and women in the police station when I come back with the cop who took my $20. The captain sent me with another copper to bring in the bribe-taker. He recognizes me when we pull up, and says, Hey, hey and takes off his headphones and extends his hand, until I say: "Can I have my $20 back?" What twenty dollars, he says. He looks down and sees another cop is driving my car. What's this? "Get in," says the driver to the crooked cop. "Captain wants to see you." He gets in all blustery, saying he's got nothing to hide, and I ask him again for the twenty bucks he bit out of me, and he says "You gave it to me, I didn't ask for it," and I say through clenched teeth: "You just made a fatal mistake coz the first thing you said was What twenty dollars, and now you're saying I gave it to you, which means you're a liar." And the driver cop looks in the rearview mirror at the crooked cop who is sitting in the back next to the publisher's rep, who's got a Gee Whiz look on his face as he follows the story without subtitles.
The women and girls in the lobby of the cop station have noticed my pink crocs and Floyd pajamas, and watch intently as the crooked cop whispers to me, desperately, "Think about what you're doing, because I have a wife and kids" and I say "Give me my twenty dollars brother and I'll protect your family, since I'm a thief myself, but I'll go to hell before I protect a liar," and he gets in my face and wags his finger, "Who do you think you are talking to a police officer this way?" and I bat his hand away and shout in honest fury, not Hollywood pout: "You're not a policeman, you're a snake," and other cops recover from their shock to separate us and the women in the police station wear frowns on their faces, their eyes bristling daggers at the bully whose life is going down the drain before their eyes. What would his wife think, or his daughter?
A few days before this, and a few days after the Tortuga Hotel, we zoom into a mountain stronghold of the Sandinistas and I call Luis and ask him how much he wants to be my guide the next day. Well, he's not here for cash, he's here to help foment understanding about New Segovia and the orchids that grow here. We meet at the hotel five minutes later, and sit across the table from each other as a a universe of possibilities is placed on my plate. Luis spent years in the Sandinista Cultural Brigade, was in the movies with Kristofferson and Julie Christie, and is an author and musician and clown, and he tells me: "After talking to you for half an hour, Señor Azul, I understand that what you are looking for is a complete immersion into a new place, and I will take you there, but you must approach this voyage with an open mind, consider everything without prejudice of your own home and culture."
No problem, Luis, says me, because my life is a terribly complicated but unique story, and this adventure with you will be a completely singular chapter, and Luis stands up and says, Okay five in the morning I will fetch you. I remind him that I want another person along to carry my photo equipment, and Luis says Yes yes, he remembers, no problem. Wait, I say: I want that other person to be a Contra. Luis laughs, no problem. He sees I am a step ahead of him already.
We drive to a church in a town of Sephardic Jews who left an inquisition centuries ago, and no longer know what it means to be Jewish except for the star adorned on the crosses in the cemetery, where too many young lives ended too soon, and for what? Luis tells me to look at the young people now: We are on the edge of a colossal jungle, which stretches a hundred miles to the Caribbean without road or telephone, and this edge of civilization has hidden these Jewish people in the shadows of intolerant Catholicism, and here is the evidence, look: Luis stops a girl in the street and begs her to let me look into her eyes, and a kaleidoscope of Iberian greens and oranges stare back at me. "They've kept to themselves by the color of their eyes and the tint of orange or red in their skin," says Luis, "Even to the point of incest and its results, and this town is famous throughout the country for inbreeding. But the people don't know why they stick together. There is no text, no synagogue, no map." Just this emerald glow, seeking separation in the jungle of blood and genes. And where are the natives, the people who walked down from Alaska twenty thousand years ago?
"Stamped out, nothing but a powder sprinkled on our heads," says Luis. "There are the Miskitos from the coast, and around here there are some Tomatoyos, who think they grew the first tomato, but these people are mixed with the Spanish blood and the escaped slaves blood and the other native tribes bought or sold through our history, except for this town of San Rafael, where the Sephardics have hung onto something of themselves in utter silence, where nobody comes with the embrace of a cousin. We are all related, maybe, as you say, all from Africa, as you say, but we keep our profiles of distinction, if for no reason other than to use them on our enemies."
Did you ever kill any Contras? The question is problematic. I have seen a picture of Luis, young, looking like a handsome Guevara, in the campo with guns propped behind him, and hand to hand battle and explosives and landmines have been a reality for him for most of his lifetime, but here is what he answers:
"One night we were showing Chaplin to some villagers when word came that the Contras were coming into the valley, and I had to pack up the projector and the Chaplin and get out toward the riverbed to escape, and it was very close call, but me and Chaplin made it out."
What would the Contras have done with the Charlie Chaplin movies?
I shake my head. Why wasn't Reagan, that fabulous actor, on TV talking about how important it was to stop the villagers from watching Charlie Chaplin on a Saturday night? Could he have fooled his people with this mission, too?
I'm going to make a book about why I want to come to your country and live a quieter life, I say to Luis, and one chapter will be called "The Importance of Killing Charlie Chaplin." Luis laughs at this idea. And I hope the next chapter will be called "The Importance of a Quieter Life," says Luis. Yes, dude, says me, that's a chapter I can't stop writing: it's a sequence of words that entwine my ambitions and fears into a personality always searching for escape.
On the Pacific
This picture, like all my pictures here, was run through Lightroom. It was cropped from the bottom and sides, but otherwise untouched. No saturation correction, no clarity, no contrast. Zilch. This is the sunset as I saw it, the same sunset I thought for a minute might cause me some major damage.
Like a moth I fluttered beyond the sands to the rocks in the picture, to try to get the soft smooth flows of the Pacific over stone. As the light dwindled, I clambered over the surface and picked up my camera whenever the waves shot up to my shins, until I realized with a shock that the waves weren’t going away. When I looked at the beach, I saw a gulf between me and the sand. I had a flashlight, thankfully, but when I shined it on the stream between rock and beach I saw a river snapping and hissing with muscular intent. The light was red and dull now, and I couldn’t make out the depth or form of anything beneath my feet; in water up to my knees, I tried to find some sort of passage back to shore, a hump of sand, a bridge of small rocks, but being barefoot meant the stepping was rough. What would I do when I got to the edge? My camera would be toast, at the very least.
I found what I thought was the edge of the bluff, and prepared to lower myself into the swirling rush. I would sink to all fours and use my hands and feet to claw myself along the sand and rock for the fifty yards to where I knew the water would be shallow enough for me to stand in. No way to swim through without being carried into the waves south.
But then I stopped to think for one last second. Why not let nature tell you what to do?
I just got off the phone with a scientist who is making headlines by saying the north polar ice cap will be completely gone by the year 2013. That’s in five years. Open water, every summer, over the North Pole. Your children might still be in high school, your dog still chasing butterflies. I asked the scientist the only question of importance I ask scientists: How does it feel to see the subject of your studies disappear in the middle of your studying? They hate this question. Their shoulders droop, tones fall. The oceanographer says to me, only minutes ago: When the ice is gone, I will feel as if I have lost a member of my family.
And on that edge of rock in the red sunset, foaming current growling at my feet, I had the only question I ask of Nature: “What the f--- should I do?”
Well, I can walk around like a chimpanzee on a combat patrol, ready to be the snarling male for the benefit of friend and foe, or I can be the baby Nature made me, and fall into her lap with a whine: “Mama, save me!”
A Country for Girls
She wants money. I tell her I am taking pictures of the pretty building. She says nothing, and watches me take pictures.
But then I feel my pockets to see if I actually have coins. I’ve only been in town for a day, and coins have been few. No small bills, either, I think, but the way she is looking at me, pregnant with hope, is an eclipse of my intentions. A poor moon, minerals and dust, she clouds my view. I focus more sharply on my surroundings. What am I seeing?
A girl, in the slum, posing for cash: a picture of hope before it is extinguished. Here is childhood in front of me, not poverty. But I am no child, so I want to hide my intrusion with money. The coins are in my shirt pocket, hidden in the folds of my Floyd pants, in the ashtray, in the pockets of the publisher’s rep who has flown down here with me to see if I will really do as I say: “I’ve got some coins,” says the rep, “Funny, they weren’t there a moment ago.” He rains coins. They fall into my lap. My car tinkles change, Cordobas cascade from the domelight.
Let me take your picture. I will give you some gringo coins, too.
I take this picture, and two others that will be a threesome called “A Country for Girls,” and when I am finished the coins fill her cupped hands. Where have they all come from? I ask her name and where she lives and how old she is, as I cast for nickel and copper.
But more children are coming. I start to drive away. I am late, the Rep is itching, and destiny whirls me across the country, toward a shocking morality play at the end of eight days that destroys a man, with me as either Lear or Shakespeare, author or killer, not sure which. This trade of coin for picture is the second step on my path, the first being the intuition that something important waits for me here, some passage not available on my own street, neither in my mind nor in the comforts of a home which never quite fits.
And in my mirror, looking backward, in hindsight and safety, before I turn off her street into diesel and schedule, I see Evangelina assaulted by other urchins, by the boy she said was her brother, by the older girl she said was her sister, and in two seconds the coins are a glittery shower in the sunlight and a dozen children shriek in delight or dismay as the coins stick or slip away, and Evangelina is suddenly empty-handed, as I found her, a non-renewable resource stripped.
Maybe I pressed my brakes, said something to the publisher, but I drove away. She was unhurt. Back to her original contours, swollen with hope. But I drove away, resolute that my next step will be an effort to give back, to make amends.
(Like any tourist with a camera I cruise after prey, unaware that I have already swallowed the line, unaware of the hook already pierced into my heart.)
Taking Music from the Sandinista
As we eat ice cream together, the Sandinista and I, we agree we are full of unspooled dreams, surfing our futures with a tune or a ruse, hoping for a break before we get broken, except we are very different: He has a daughter, and I am a zombie.
We dressed our schemes as dreams for two days, and marveled at how we still wait for that break, looming, fortune crouching in the shadows of one more song. But who needs fortune when you have a weapon as potent as your daughter, the piano player?
Why not give her what he’s got?
“You are hostage to the musician in you, Luis, the rebel playing a flame nobody hears. And you don’t want to end up like Mozart.”
Because Mozart died in hell, in a fever, crying disconsolately, lamenting that all his music was written for cash, heartbroken that nobody would hear the music he’d kept inside, just for himself, while he performed like a trained monkey for nobles and royalty, biding his time until he got his break, and the first commission he got without strings attached came with the fever that killed him, and he died terrified, broken-hearted, in tears, and that’s Mozart!
Hold on to it too tight for too long and you will kill the music. So you might as well give it to her. Give her you, everything you’ve got. Surrender, and teach her. Look what keeping yourself to yourself has got you, walking around on a Saturday night with ice cream in your hand. He laughs, of course, but then I say: If I had a daughter, I wouldn’t keep being me.
I film them together, playing together for the first time, the next morning. He’s on guitar, repeating a phrase from a song about revolt, and she’s on piano, trying to mimic his melody. We do this for 37 minutes, the same four-line verse over and over and over, and I tell Luis to change each line’s emphasis, try to trip her up, but Sari follows, hanging in there, until I tell her she’s got to close her eyes and play the song for the band she and I discussed the night before, where a seven-foot Miskito shaman’s daughter out of the jungle dances on the lip of the stage, and a short albino punk from Holland is on the bass with his back to the crowd, and a surfer from Thailand plays the drums standing up as he bounces like a pogo stick up and down: it's time to give them something to chase.
This last bit is whispered in Sari's ear as she follows her father, and I back away but keep the video close on her face: When her eyes open she’s pounding a derivative over the keys, jamming a slightly different tune which her father now effortlessly follows, a surprised smile smeared on his face, and they jam like this for an hour, surrendering to each other and following the music.
This picture we make an hour later, before I go, and I tell Sari she will have to take the music from her father without waiting for him to give it to her by himself, and the expression on his face is a labor pang, as he gives birth to something he thought was his.
Lunch with the Iguana
This lizard is worth $10. It can feed a family of four for a week once it is turned into an iguana soup. The meat tastes like, well, crocodile. Somewhere between scallops and veal. Its mouth is wired together with a nylon string punched through its cheeks. If it bites a finger, you lose a digit. Its legs are hobbled. The man who caught him is lucky to catch one a week. The man has all his fingers. He has caught more than 200 iguanas and sold them all, usually to people who throw them in their trunk and give them to the maids to cook in the bigger towns toward the south.
In Chihuahua, I bought falcons for $10 a pair and let them go after driving a few miles along the highway to keep them away from their captors. I always insisted on buying the cages, which I would destroy and hide. The military pulled me over one day and an officer screamed at me about trafficking in wildlife and I screamed back that it shouldn’t be my fucking job to police the open-air market in falcons just two miles around the bend, and I’d be happy to go tell my version of the story to any general he chose. But to the birds, privately, who lay on their backs with their claws up in the air, between them and me, I had a sharp rap on the beak and a warning to not be so stupid and fly back into the trap because I won’t be here next week. Didn’t matter. As they flew away, I knew they blamed me. And next week they will be in somebody’s broth.
Turtle eggs sell for $3 a dozen. A ridley can lay 100 at a time. A full-grown Ridley can make a lot of soup, and needs a half-dozen whacks of the machete to be decapitated. I filmed a pretty scene for a movie on a beautiful beach in Mexico two years ago, and a week later some boys came on the beach and killed 80 mother Ridleys in an act so wanton it made the top five stories on Yahoo.
And yet, none of these creatures is any different from a Chicken McNugget or a Big Whopper. They live lives of some freedom, after all, searching for mates and scrabbling for households, so who cares how they get caught up in the food chain?
Why don’t I fly into a rage and liberate chicken coops? Or stick to soybeans and tangerines?
Can I trick myself into thinking the freedom I buy for this stupid lizard makes me any less the hunter?
When I was young, I thought I'd grow up to be a secret in the water
We walk with machetes and cameras and cut our way into the rainforest, and with every chop Mother Nature giggles and says “Do that again,” because she knows the scar she intends to cut into my heart is worth every scratch I make into her hirsute skin, where roots grow instead of follicles. She is tickled by our busy explorations through her wild hair, unbrushed.
And at some point I lie down to have a heart attack in 120 degree heat, utterly wasted, lying on my back, on top of the camera, caked with mud, hanging onto a vine above my head to prevent falling downhill into the brush. There is a stream, a river, a tinkling, and I am smiling in the emerald shadows of the jungle, squinting at spots of canary-colored sunshine, hopeful candles in nature’s dark cathedral.
Cesar the Contra offers me a hand up and I tell him I have laid down to have a heart attack and die in this impenetrable forest, where the seeds and nuts can sprout from my body in a wild shout in this jungle, bragging about the city where once they sat for sale on the shelf, packaged in plastic as “Trail Mix”. Cesar yanks me to my feet anyway, saying: “I had a heart attack five minutes ago, but the water is right here, and you never felt water like this, untouched by humans for years, as chilly as a dagger.”
And into this water I collapse without care for my stupid slippery-soled $27 boots from Target, and the tiny cold daggers dance into my muscles, into my bones, into the lava cooking in my hot engine. I sit in the stream and watch a leaf sail by, and when it occurs to me to do so I stoop to the water to sip and end up splashing into my own drink, face first, gulping the essence I am made of with pulsing fishy lips, until I surface for muggy air. Cesar has stripped me at least of my camera, and this picture is evidence, shot between submergences.
I grew up in this, a water baby, on the rocks or beach of a shore, and I can’t remember the first time I touched concrete but I swear to you it was a mistake.
* * * * *
A few days later I ask the controversial oceanographer what he would do if he wasn’t able to pursue his profession. What do you fantasize about, Dr. Maslowski, in these moments when you actually see the actual ice at the North Pole disappearing? If this garden of yours was taken away, would you become a locomotive engineer, collect stamps of falcons and lizards?
He’s got a retirement plan, says the oceanographer. He is famous for saying there will be no arctic ice in five years. He plans to sail across big oceans, across the Pacific. But the way things are going, maybe he will sail across the arctic summer.
And then he will be like me, now, remembering the chilly stream in the hot jungle where no humans walked for years. Sailing into the hot future, burdened by a fierce thirst in the endless frictions of human ambition, burnt by memory.