I’ve never understood to what to attribute the prevalence of gold-capped teeth in Northeastern Nicaragua. For some, it seems like a fashion statement. For others, it seems the last line of defense against the total loss of dental capacity, a life restricted to mashed cassava and gummable beans. The truck driver was somewhere in the middle, blings in the grill, a sweaty unshaven man clad in a dust covered Hawaiian shirt.
Every year when the local roads deteriorate to vast stretches of muddy, cratered waste, the local government wakes up from their bathtub-rum addled haze and pitches a bitch against their treatment by Managua’s elite. I’ve been in Puerto Cabezas, the “urban” center of the Northeastern Atlantic region of Nicaragua for better part of two months, trying to gather together the materials needed to finish the construction of the region’s fourth (to be) operating room. But in response to the absolute dilapidation of the road connecting Puerto to the outlying villages and the Western coast, a blockade has been instituted, shutting off the city from the outside world.
So to pass the time while the supplies sit somewhere between here and Managua, I decide to put on my journo boots and put together a decent piece on the situation. I head toward the blockade on the outskirts of town, a pathetic cluster of punished school busses arranged in a wavy V pattern, with shirtless Miskito Indian men controlling the influx/efflux of all traffic with a piece of rope.
For a blockade, it seems a little on the weak side of things. No guns. Definitely no tanks. Not even coils of concentration camp razor wire or tire spikes. Just a rope and some dirty school buses.
I find the Jeffe of the group and get into the clichéd list of questions. Why the blockade? What is your group called? What are your demands? Don’t you think that you guys would be taken a little more seriously if you wore red bandanas on your face, draped bullets across your chest, and gave yourself an acronym?
He explains that the blockade has been established by a all those affected by the practically impassible conditions of the road. Bus drivers, truck drivers, local merchants, and the regional government. They are shutting down the city until the Central
Government makes a concrete promise to fix the “highway.” He explains that the trip from Managua– a 340 mile expanse of practically nothing– is taking drivers between 8 and 12 days. I calculate 8 to 12 days of driving in the states: N.Y to L.A, back to N.Y. with a comfortable stop off in Vegas.
Our conversation attracts a group of truckers that all want to vent their frustration with the road. I ask if there is a close section where they could take me to snap a few pictures. “One kilometer,” they say, “very close.”
I jump in the stripped-out cab of the gold toothed trucker’s rig and head off into Nicaraguan nothingness. The back is piled with empty soda bottles and 7 men who whistle when boxes fall to the mud. After 30 minutes of bumping down the road, waving around my shiny new mini dv cam and mini disc I wonder if something was lost in the translation of “very close.” I ask the trucker.
“We’re close, right? How much farther?”
“Yes, we’re very close. Just two and a half hours.”
“Um…senior, I cant go two and a half hours.”
“But you must see how bad it gets. Its beautiful.”
I decided that that’s ok, because I have a ride back.
“You are going back, right?”
“No. No. I’m going to Managua.”
Its a hot day, soon to be turning to a long evening. With three hours of daylight left before the nighttime swarm of Mosquitoes, something fierce that comes out of the grassy swamps, I decided to make a rapid executive decision.
After thirty minutes of contemplating my situation, seeing the gringo laden with expensive cameras, thinking about the sweaty truckers and thirsty mosquitoes, having that vulnerable “what the crap did I get myself into” feeling, and ultimately hearing the distant twang of dueling banjos as played by mariachis, we come across a particularly bad section of road.
“Here. Perfect, I’ll just snap a few pictures of this and wait for another truck heading back to Puerto.”
“Ok. You can take pictures, but its not safe to wait here. You come with us.”
I take the photos of the truck making its way through knee-deep mud. The truckers insist that I stay with them until another truck comes along. We head off again, all 180 degrees of the wrong way.
It’s thirty more minutes before another truck comes along. It’s the same fashion as the current: shirtless, sweaty trucker chic. My anus shivers.
After ten minutes of drivers haggling, the gold toothed man tells me it’s ok. The passing truck will take me back to Puerto. I jump on the back, nestled between a huge leaking tank of diesel fuel and some bags of strange looking roots. The men stare at me. But I’m happy to be headed in the right direction.
A good twenty minutes pass before the truck makes a horrible noise and comes to a harsh, metal-on-metal stop. The men dismount, and crowd around the undercarriage. I sneak a peek, seeing a mangled, dangling drive train. One of the men asks me if I have any money. I wonder what he’s looking to buy. I tell him no, just cigarettes. He helps himself to all of them.
More waiting, this time relieved by another beaten truck loaded with sand and gravel. I flag them down, and ask them if they’re headed to Puerto. “Yes,” they inform me “after a few more loads of dirt.”
I spend the next hour shoveling sand into the truck, learning about opportunities in the dirt-faming industry of the area. “Its free,” they say. “We just take it and sell it.”
I make it back to Puerto right as the sun dives behind the slash-and-burn clear-cut horizon, knocking a pile of dirt on the highway when I dismount the truck. I push it into a pothole with my foot and smile at the drivers.
Until the central government convinces the people of the Eastern Atlantic region that they really do give a flying fuck at a yucca tree about the laughable road, the city will stay blockaded. Today they closed down the airport, the bank, the pier, and all state government offices that represent the Pacific coast. They want to cease all revenues, including taxes that may reach the government and big business from operations in the area.
With an estimated revenue of $80 million per year leaving this region from fishing, mining, and lumber headed for the pockets of Managua’s few elite, this place defines the word ‘enclave.’ There is no sustainable economy to speak of. The investment in local infrastructure is the bare minimum needed to extract the resources. And with the pipe shut off by the blockade and all of my exits closed, I’m curious how the next few weeks will play out. Right now I’m running out of money. The supplies for the operating room have not arrived, and I don’t think they will. So I’m looking for other ways to pass the time other than playing journalist, and dirt farmer is looking like a much more profitable field.