Feature Story

My Secret Nicaragua

A Country for Girls   ::::::  (First of Three)
Lunch With the Iguana
Dangerous Circumstances Beneath an All Natural Sunset
A Daughter Gives Birth to Her Father
When I Was Young, I Thought I'd Grow Up to be a Secret in the Water
Every Game Has A Midnight

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 **** 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?

"Destroyed them!"

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.


This is the first part of two parts of a story called "My Secret Nicaragua," and I have no idea when I'll get around to the second part. I was hoping to be in Portland for my sister's birthday and the shoot organized by another JPGer last Sunday, and totally missed both.

Part Two will relate the amazing morality play in the police station between me and the beleaguered cop, whose name is Marcos, and the even more amazing coffee farm I decide I want to buy with the help of my Sandinista friend Luis, who has a daughter determined to become the next Dengue Fever. (The band, not the disease, and if you don't know them, you should!)

I am still in a turbulent mood over the recent brouhaha between the JPG leadership and several loyal JPG members, who have flown the coop or at least have only a few feathers remaining in their nest. I flew away, too, but I love the place and its members, and think some sort of sister dark star will emerge from this site, which hurtles towards Flickrland by the minute, and I'd love to see an alternative burst forth which is more about the picture than the person taking it. Some sort of peer-review process to get only the best few pictures from each person up onto a display for publishers and serious buyers of great images. The mood here is still tinted with a sour anger, at least expressed to me, that could make such a dark star operating in JPG's orbit a quick reality.

It is really cool to see so many fantastic new pictures from old contacts: boredom and loneliness are the penalties awaiting people who do not evolve!

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—The JPG team

2 responses

  • Mal Stewart

    Mal Stewart gave props (6 Apr 2010):

    Your messin' with my head again here Seanie....This story has got me thinking hard again, particularly the last few paragraphs (not taking away from the rest of the story). It's making me go back and rethink the way I submit everything, and that's a big plus. The story also rings true for me in other ways just by making me reflect on my own time in Mexico and understanding what you're talking about with that. I wrote you a fairly substantial email the other night but lost the draft in my tiredness . I will try again another time soon. Your story will be eagerly awaited by me and I am presuming quite a few others. Dengue Fever.........I'm off for a look around now. Thank you !

  • Mal Stewart

    Mal Stewart said (6 Apr 2010):

    Voted.... absolutely.

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