Saturday, February 24, 2007

Kill Your Television

It's not that I believe everything I see on TV. If I was putting millions of dollars into a reality program, I'd damn well expect some professional writers on the payroll. Even documentaries are prone to exaggeration; people just don't act the same way when you put them in front of a camera. Still, it's a bummer to watch something meticulously staged being presented as real life. The Discovery Channel is in Granada doing a travel show for a series on Central America. Most of the show is a rundown on where to stay and what to see, but they also do some color pieces on the places they visit. One of the segments is going to be about baseball, Nicaragua's national pastime. Rather than go to a scheduled game, the TV crew decided it would be easier to just put on a game of their own.

I stumbled through my Sunday morning fog and met Stephan and Charlotte, a Dutch couple now volunteering in Granada and whom I had met last month in Antigua, at 9:30 in front of church near the mistress' house. It was one of the the many churches, now restored, that Walker had burned to the ground before leaving the city for the last time in 1856. A group of us had decided late Saturday night that it would make a nice Sunday outing to visit a village and watch the kids play some baseball for the Discovery people. The Dutch couple and some of the others at the party were volunteering at the village school, and the producer on the Discovery crew had asked their volunteer office to send some of the teachers as a cheering section for the kids.

I had imagined a little field behind the school and a grassy spot in the shade, a nice a place as anywhere to ride out a Mojito hangover. The village was a good 40 minute walk from town. Men and women of all ages were out on their rocking chairs, and the streets were full of people heading to the market or mass. The road was paved up to the cemetery with its magnificent granite tombs more comfortable looking than the shanties that straddled road starting where it changed to dirt. A pickup headed towards the village stopped to give us a lift, and we jumped into the truck bed. We got dropped off in front of a couple of corrugated shacks slouching amidst the trash drifts and a few hungry pigs. The camera crew was setting up behind their van on the side of the road, and they spun around to get an action shot shot of the hitch hiking gringos jumping out of a truck bed. The field was behind the shacks. There were no trees for shade, nor was there grass, or anything green for that matter on the dusty, uneven pasture mined with horse manure. There were four bases that barely stood out from above the droppings, and there were two faint chalk lines that ran from home plate to first and third bases. The only kids were watching from the sideline with their moms. The players on the field ranged from their late teens to early thirties, and they were wearing a hodgepodge of uniforms, some with local place names, most of the rest had filtered down from American high schools and AAU teams.

The sky was darkening from the direction of Lake Nicaragua. Sharp gusts strafed us with swirling, turgid dust clouds. The Discovery crew, not in the mood for a rain out, began to scramble. A camera man stood right behind the mound, and the producer choreographed the action. She arranged the outfield to fit in the shots and bunched the spectators together with the players on the sideline to give the appearance of a larger crowd than the 40 odd people who turned up. The group I was with was asked to cluster about 25 feet down the third baseline. We stood facing a second camera in shallow right field. We were dangerously close to hits down the line and pointed us directly into the onslaught of shit-dust. The producer peppered the field with instructions like a coach hitting fungo. Before opening her mouth, she seemed exasperated by the European cheering section (who were dumb enough to stand where she had placed them between home and third base).

"Does anyone here know anything about baseball?"

No response. The Europeans shuffled a little closer together.

"OK then. When the camera turns this way, I want you all to chant like this 'We want a pitcher, not a glass of water!'"

Fortunately, not wanting to take a line drive to the head, I had slinked away from the oncoming producer. I watched the rest of the filming with the pigs, in between the sheds where I had some shelter from the wind and dust and the embarrassment of those stupid cheers. After filming the crowd, the producer cut the top half of the inning in order to ensure some shots of the other team's defense ahead of the rain. Before they could be taught another painful chant, I convinced my friends it was time to leave. We were nearly back to town before the rains broke.

I learned afterwards that in addition to scheduling the game, Discovery had donated money for the uniforms. Intended for the school kids, the proceeds made their way to the fathers and elder sons and the result was the two motley dressed teams slinging bats and losing grounders in the dust. No doubt Discovery scored a segment infinitely more palatable than the ball scratching and rum drinking they would have gotten had they showed up unannounced.

There was an interesting article in the paper this morning witha brief sketch of baseball's history in Nicaragua. Nicaraguans have played baseball for over a century, yet the country has only produced nine (according to the article) major leaguers. The writer concluded that the lack of developmental infrastructure makes it almost impossible to cultivate local talent. I guess in this regard the pasture provided a realistic view of the state of the Nicaraguan game. With all the money MLB pours into scouting and player development, this country would seem seem an ideal place for a baseball academy. Vincente Padilla, who might be the only active Nicaraguan in MLB, has just agreed to donate a portion of his new contract for a foundation that will promote Nicaraguan youth in sports. Good for him. Click Here to Read More..

Friday, February 16, 2007


On our way to Tikal, Lika and I took a detour to visit the Guatemalan coastal village of Livingston, which is only accessible by boat as it is situated on a delta island at the mouth of the Rio Dulce. Livingston is a long haul from Guatemala City. By the time we arrived at the transit point for Livingston, Puerto Barrios, it was too late to find a launch so we had no choice to stay the night.

Puerto Barrios is a rough town, nearly a half a century past its hey-day as the principal port for Guatemala. It has long since slid back into a tropical torpor. The most prominent features of the town are the towers of Dole shipping containers stacked four high behind fences topped with razor wire. The containers are painted with the failed Dole mascot, Bobby the Banana, who never took hold in the States. At least it was the first I had heard of him. There was something indecent about the enthusiastic Bobby depicted cruising along on his skateboard happily peeling himself.

We made our way through the muddy streets to Hotel del Norte, the only game in town for the handful of people who miss the 5 pm ferry, or who for some inexplicable reason might want to linger and contemplate the town’s layered bouquet of port water, diesel, and excrement. Del Norte is a dilapidated two-story mansion with wood siding that is warping under a yellowing paint. Its screened hallways, wide enough for a locomotive, were nostalgic for past glories. The veranda still breathed the cigar smoke from the Banana moguls who lounged about sipping rum, plotting intrigue. Easily a centenarian, the hotel groaned under the burden of every footfall over its sloped and cratered floors. A once glorious mansion mired in the general malaise.

After dinner at the town's recommended restaurant, a cocktail of cheap Guatemalan beer and fumes off the bay had inhibited my judgment to the point that I agreed with Lika that it would be a good idea to stretch our legs down the dark streets to the hotel. We soon found ourselves walking beside another long stretch of containers. Opposite the storage yard, there was a makeshift bar, what had also once been a container with the side cut out so that it opened to the street. The novelty of a bar inside a shipping container was enough reason to stop for a beer, though a local youth who was twirling a large, angry snake he had just caught by its tail just up the pitted road from the bar provided some additional incentive to hang back depending as I did not have much trust in a boy slinging a large, pissed-off snake. There were two men seated at the plastic table in front of the bar, and one of them asked us, in English, to join them for a beer. His name was Gerry. He was wearing a baseball cap with the American flag and spoke with an accent that sounded almost Jamaican, though he had a bizarre and anachronistic cadence of an early blaxploitation film. Gerry was a Garifuna who had immigrated at the age of seven to New York and was back in his homeland for the first time after 38 years in the States.

I was amazed to hear that after four decades he still did not have permanent residence status. It didn't seem to bother him, and he spoke as if he might never return to the States. He had been back in Guatemala for 7 months, though his eyes lit up and his face broke into a broad smile every time he mentioned the move. He said he was still meeting cousins and nephews he had never known existed and was touched by how many of these new relations, long before having met them, had his picture on their walls. Gerry was the boy who went to America and made good. Raised in Harlem, he went to college and studied to become an electrician. He then spent a good portion of his career based out of Houston while working on oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico.

His Spanish was shaky. It is a second language for many on Caribbean coast, and though he learned it as a child, he lost it growing up in New York. He sounded fluent in the other language-- my first guess was French Creole-- he spoke with his uncle. They were speaking Garifuna, a unique blend of West African and indigenous Caribbean language with a twist of French, his first language growing up. After leaving Guatemala, his mom was his only link to his native tongue, though he tenaciously held on to it to the point of talking to himself in the years he lived alone so he would never forget. He has even taught it to his two American daughters who have never met another Garifuna.

"That's culture man, you hold onto that. Dig-it?” Gerry said, reaching his hands behind his head with a satisfied grin.

Before we arrived, Gerry and his uncle had bled the container’s cooler dry, so when they finished their beers we said goodnight. We stopped by a container-corner store for some beers which we drank on the veranda where we watched the carnivorous mosquitoes fly in formation through gaping holes in the screens. Flanked on three sides by a thousand self-skinning Bobbies and their demented grins, we to get some sleep under the heavy blanket of port air.

Daylight did not flatter Puerto Barrios. Mosquitoes played in the dust clouds of the steady stream of big rigs lumbering towards the terminal over unpaved roads. Haphazard slabs of concrete sidewalk partially covered stagnant sewer water that was slowly cooking into a retched broth by the late morning sun. We had waited some time for a launch to Livingston after missing the morning ferry. After half a shipping container's worth of beer Gerry had given us the wrong time for the regular service.

We arrived in Livingston early afternoon. While exploring the town met a local musician/historian by the water who was waiting to engage the few tourists willing to ignore the trickling sewers and sullied beaches on the backside of the peninsula. We hardly noticed. The breeze off the water was a pleasant contrast to the pestilential stench of Puertos Barrios.

Polo is a man of at least 60 judged by his cottony curls and dark sunken eyes. He is a jack-of-all-trades, a teacher (and advocate for the first Garifuna language primary school in Guatemala), drummer, historian, and master storyteller. Once we showed some interest in his community, Polo leaned back onto a cinder block wall abutting the shore and started from the beginning.

The Garifuna people come from the Island of St. Vincent, where, in the early years of the slave trade two ships loaded with Africans wrecked off the coast. The surviving slaves mixed with a local population of Carib Indians, according to Polo, the Arawaks from the Orinoco river basin in present day Venezuela. This was a fortuitous union, as the African blood of the escaped slaves lent the population immunity to the Old World diseases that elsewhere decimated local indigenous populations by 90-98 percent in little more than a generation. Historians say that the Arawaks were completely wiped out by the twin scourges of disease and, depending on the extent one accepts the thesis of the Black Legend, the brutality of the Spanish in their single-minded pursuit of bullion. Polo, however, contests the extinction of the Arawak as he claims the Garifuna are direct descendants. Because this African-Carib community, the Garifuna, had resistance to small pox and a fierce martial tradition, the Spanish were unable to conquer St. Vincent. For over two hundred years then, the Garifuna were an independent community that prospered by trading with the Spanish Convoys that stopped for provisions en route to and from the Spanish mainland. English pirates took advantage of this autonomy and used St. Vincent as a staging point for attacks on gold and silver laden Galleons, a disruption to the Garifuna trade with the Spanish. In time English naval power took command of the Caribbean from a sclerotic Spanish Empire, and the Garifuna cast their lot with the new rivals to English domination of the Caribbean, the French. After several unsuccessful attempts, the British subdued the Garifuna in1797, nearly two centuries after the shipwrecks that brought the Garifuna into existence. The British decided to exile the remaining Garifuna to the Mosquito Coast island of Roatan off of modern day Honduras.

Here Polo colored the story with touches reminiscent of West African folk tales. After the British left them to starve on a barren isle with only the poisonous manioc, the Garifuna had to find a means of subsistence. They noticed how snakes ate the island's poisonous toads by squeezing out their toxins before swallowing. The Garifuna did this with the manioc, stuffing the tubers into sacks that the women, "with their large buttocks", sat on until they had drained away the toxins. It's a nice children's story even if the facts are less enchanting. Anthropologists and historians have found evidence of Arawak's consumption of manioc and yucca long before the arrival of the Garifuna on Roatan, and sadly, many of the original exiles did succumb to starvation.

A fraction of the displaced Garifuna did eventually adapt to the hostile island. Others migrated to the coast of mainland Honduras, and today Garifuna villages are scattered along the Caribbean side of Central America from Southern Belize to the Honduran stretch of the Mosquito Coast. They are a people proud of their heritage and, and like Polo happy to share their culture and history with visitors.

After the history lesson, Polo took us on a tour of the Garifuna section of Livingston, mostly shanties, cinder block bunkers, and overgrown yards with subdued kids and scraggly chickens. The thatched houses that once predominated here had been blown away hurricane Mitch. Families sat outside and played dominoes on plastic tables. Polo invited us into a single room home where several generations of women were watching a Spanish football match on a TV that was the one decoration in the room. We finished the tour at a local hangout community center where kids were practicing on various sized hand drums. Polo complained that the kids were tearing up the drums, but he was pleased that so many of the youth here are engaged in the traditional music.

Before leaving us, Polo recommended a Garifuna restaurant, though I was little wary when we were the only customers on a Saturday night at 8 pm. The waitress slowly shuffled towards the table, perhaps annoyed that two customers would extend her workweek by hour. I ordered tapada, a coconut based seafood soup, and she took my order with a wry smile. The tapada arrived with the head and tail of a whole fish protruding from the broth. The shrimp and crab swam in their shells along with a whole baby squid, conch, and the fish. After dinner she returned the same eerie smile which widened when she said, "After tapada, a good siesta," which brought maniacal laughter from the women watching us on the stoop just down the street. The taunt made me nervous, and the residual spices left me sweating for much of the rest of the night. Fortunately system failure did not ensue. Click Here to Read More..

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Legal Stuff

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First Amendment's Freedom of Speech clause. Click Here to Read More..

Monday, February 12, 2007

Walker in Granada and a Nicaraguan Homestay

The Nicaraguan cities of Leon and Granada have had a rivalry only possible between competitive siblings. Granada has been the historic home of conservative politics in Nicaraguan history, and is proud to claim itself the cultural heart of the country. Leon, with its universities and strident intellectual atmosphere, has always sheltered the vanguard of the liberal-left. Granadan's look down upon the Leonese, the latter deriding the snobbery of their southern neighbors.

The impetus for Walker's arrival in Nicaragua was the long-standing power struggles between the conservatives of Granada and the liberals in the colonial capital of Leon. During the Nicaraguan Civil War of 1854-1855, the Leonese invited Walker to intervene on their behalf against the conservatives. Walker arrived with an army of 300 adventurers and from the lake shore of Granada launched a surprise attack that took control of the city. Instead of trying to win the support of Ponciano Corral, the gifted politician at the head of the conservatives and the potential key to national unity, Walker had him executed. This was the first of the many political blunders the filibusterer-in-chief would commit in his 20 months in Nicaragua.

The second of Walker's mistakes was a clumsy power seizure whereby he rigged elections to proclaim himself President. This disillusioned his liberal support in Leon. His forthcoming presidential proclamations, issued from Granada, not the capital, wore out what was left of his welcome even among the closest of allies. The unpopular mandates included making English an official language of the country, legalizing slavery and opening up to the slave trade, outlawing vagrancy as a means to gain the power of impressing labor, and sanctioning the absolute right of private property. Of all the missteps, the worst may have been his seizure of Cornelius Vanderbilt's railway and shipping lines. The furious Commodore was determined to make Walker pay, and he poured resources into the coffers of all the opposing governments of Central America. Walker compounded this problem when he declared, with his rhetorical 5 or None, that his aim was the conquest of all territory between Mexico and Columbia.

Bolstered by Vanderbilt’s war aid, the combined forces of Costa Rica, Honduras, and El Salvador drove Walker into an untenable position in Granada. He evacuated the city and sent orders to have every house, business, and government building--even the churches--burned. Walker's soldiers raped and pillaged, and after leveling the town to ashes, the filibusterers left a sign on the town square- Granada was Here. This last part is what most people on the street can tell you if you mention his name. A very bad man, they are almost sure to add.

Throughout his first Nicaraguan adventure, Walker never lost a decisive military battle. The Battle of Rivas, now remembered as the crossroads where the Central American forces won the decisive campaign of the war, was actually a military rout by the filibusterers. For every 100 casualties suffered by the united armies, Walker’s army lost one soldier. Cholera and dysentery were the more effective enemy. The twin scourges had thinned the ranks of both forces, and after Rivas, Walker decided his 250 men "still able to walk" did not have the means to keep on fighting. Walker negotiated a surrender by which he and his men could obtain passage back to the States. The 5th of May, 1857, they sailed for Panama and from there on to New Orleans.

I decided to take a couple hours of Spanish classes here in Granada, mostly to brush up on vocabulary for my research. Schools are also a great way to find a family to stay with, a very affordable and comfortable means to get to know a town. The family I was put with is not so much a family but the 29-year-old mistress of a local tycoon. He runs the only real option for cable television and high speed internet in Nicaragua. With his enormous belly and white suit he looks like the Nicaraguan Boss Hog. He comes around a couple times of week, once to take the mistress to his island in the lake, another time to hand her a wad of cash. Both visits he sits on the porch while one of his bodyguards mixes his vodka tonics from a well stocked cooler in the tail gate of his Land Cruiser. Another guard stands a few feet behind his chair with a very conspicuous gun on his hip. I drink a beer with him and we both laugh when he pinches the mistress' friends that suddenly materialize when he comes around.

The mistress likes to watch me from the porch while I eat my breakfast. I might need to find another family soon.
Click Here to Read More..

Monday, February 5, 2007

William Walker- Fusilado

That’s what it reads on his gravestone--shot.

The Mosquito Coast is absolutely blowing my mind. In my search for the stories of my distant ancestor, I will start with his ending. In August 1860 he made his last, and by far most haphazard, attempt at conquering Central America. He would never again have the opening that the Liberals of Nicaragua had given him with their invitation to intervene in that country’s civil war in 1855. How he convinced a crew of mercenaries they had any chance of success, after 5 consecutive defeats, leads me to believe he must have had a snake oil salesman’s personality and the voice of a revivalist preacher. My most accounts that on his last adventure, his crew mutinied before they even arrived at his intended launching point on the Honduran Coast. He set himself at the mercy of a British frigate, whose Admiral, after assuring his safe passage, handed him over to Honduran authorities in the port town and former capital of Trujillo. He was shot by firing squad on the 12th of September, 1860, in a fortress overlooking the bay’s turquoise waters which lap at white sands overhung with dense green jungle that run around the town and up into the mountains.

I visited Walker’s grave yesterday in Trujillo and can say that I received the welcome fit for a distant ancestor of that wayward adventurer. First I stopped by the fort where he was executed. Built by the Spanish in 1546, the old stone walls are patched in places where over the years rocks were borrowed to build the rest of the town. What was a defensive wall that ran 3 kilometers down to a lagoon in the deepest curve of the bay is now only preserved as a perimeter for the fort and adjacent prison. The marker that indicates where Walker was shot is now outside this perimeter and on the back steps of a laundry and several small apartments. The residents now empty their bedpans a few feet from the marker. Another smaller plaque inside the gates fortress gates tells the story of the Hondurans dramatic victory and subsequent capture of Walker and his army. This is almost certainly a fiction, though the guard on duty who showed me around seemed proud of the tale so I didn’t interject. He also gave Walker the motive of a man driven mad by a lost love. This is a story I’d like to hear more about, it seems as plausible a motive as any for why a well-bred doctor and lawyer would go off and try to conquer five countries on his own initiative (Note: A book I found on Walker in Nicaragua provides some detail about the death of fiancee while he was in New Orleans).

When I arrived at the old cemetery the gates were locked so I jumped the wall rather than wait for two days when they would open again. I spent some time taking pictures and soaking in his outstanding view of the jungle and the bay below. When I turned around after paying my respects, there was a crowd at the gates. Mostly stern faced women and their wide-eyed kids, though there were also some young men in the group. They all stood there, staring at me. A bolt of ice hammered down my spine. I have never had quite the same feeling or terror in my life, including the time, at age 16, when Eric Anderson and I were held at gunpoint by a lunatic landlord who had just foiled a harmless Halloween prank, a knee planted on each of our chests, the gun pointed between our heads as we lay face up in a mulch bed, unable to breath out of fear and because of the knee. That was a different kind of terror. There is something about the instinct of the crowd, especially in the heat, that is further from reasonable thought or deliberate action than a (mad)man with a pistol.

So, I got to experience, if just for a second, what it might have felt like to see a lynch mob at the front door. My first instict was to run. Instead I walked towards the crowd, then angled to the left to get the wall between me and the still staring Hondurans. Once obscured, I quickened my pace, ok, a dead run, and cut back towards the rear of the cemetery. I grabbed a tree branch and with a crumbling head stone as my springboard, I vaulted the wall and hit the other side on all fours. Still out of view of the crowd, I moved as quickly as I could without looking absurd, and did not look back until I hit the beach a couple kilometers down the bluff. I traded my hat for a jacket packed in my day bag, and zipped up the jacket over my inconspicuous Black Panthers shirt. I hid out in the back of a sea side bar until dark, caught the first half of the Superbowl, and then crept back to my hotel up the dim light streets.

I caught the 430 am bus the next morning and headed towards La Ceiba. Click Here to Read More..