Log Cabin Chronicles

Royal Orr

Making do but just getting by on the Moskito Coast


So, we're about 150 miles inland from a seacoast renowned for its isolation - the Moskito Coast of northern Nicaragua.

We're headed down what one man described to us as "the worst road in Central America" on the way to a jungle village called Alamikamba. The rainy season should have held off another week or so, but it came early. One night it rained eight inches while we were there.

The roadbed is made up of red clay and large sharp rocks. The clay turns to mud after the first three inches or so of rain.

The 4x4 that we tried to rent in the main town on the coast was taken. We were driving a 1984 Ford Aerostar with 165,000 miles on the counter. Not exactly an off-roader's dream.

And then we got a flat.

Never, ever have I cursed the automotive engineering genius who designed those stupid little spare tires - you know, the kind that are about the size of a quarter - as much as I did then. That's all we had to get over the next 25 miles of mud and rocks to the Prinzapolka River - and back. I thought it would be impossible.

But my pessimism proved ill placed. Our driver turned out to be worthy of the Paris to Dakar Rallye and the damned little tire held up under conditions that its designer couldn't possibly have imagined. We bounced and slewed cross-country for three hours and never got stuck once.

We pulled into the village at dusk. Just in time to worry about the clouds of malaria - and Dengue fever-carrying mosquitoes. What a relief…

I gazed at the beautiful jungle river, at the dugout canoes lining its banks, and the people moving about in the half-light among the little houses built on stilts along the road.

An old man named Raymond Dean sidled up, an English-speaking Creole with a Miskita mother, who told me about his life on the river catching tarpon and turtles. About an alligator 20 feet long that was shot near his village. About the watersnakes and the men they had killed. About his wife of 52 years who had died last year and whom he missed deeply.

The next morning we climbed into a fibreglass launch with a dozen village elders and headed down river to the village of Galilea. They pointed out how the Miskita farmers planted the riverbanks during the dry season with beans, squash and corn. When the rains come and the waters rise, they move to their forest plots and sow rice and set out cassava cuttings.

But for two years the rains came early along the Prinzapolka and the riverbank crops were wiped out. The rains were heavier than normal, too, and the dry land rice that the Miskitu plant drowned. The people faced starvation.

As we had found out, just getting to this part of the world is a major undertaking and the government of Nicaragua is one of the poorest and most corrupt in our hemisphere. No help arrived from the capital city as the people here began eating palm nuts that even the pigs wouldn't eat if there were any other food available.

The Miskitu villagers are all members of the Moravian Church, a missionary faith that has worked in this country for centuries. The Moravian leaders put out a call for help. The Canadian Foodgrains Bank responded with money collected from members of the United Church of Canada and matching funding from Canada's International Development Agency.

Shipments of boots, tools, and seeds for about one thousand households began to arrive at the start of the dry season last winter. It's been the difference between getting by and going under for these villages.

At each of the six communities where we stopped along the river, a village leader made a formal speech of thanks in Miskitu. We were taken to see the sacks of dried field beans that had been harvested. We watched as the rice seed for the next planting was distributed to the farmers.

These were wonderfully strong people. It was a great privilege to visit them and to sit and eat a feast of rice and beans, chicken, and boiled plantain that was the first fruits of Canadian-Nicaraguan solidarity.

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