A Yankee Notebook

NUMBER 1598
March 5, 2012

SHOOTING TROPICAL BIRDS AND SCHOOLCHILDREN

MÉRIDA, OMETEPE, NICARAGUA – When does a journey begin? Is it in the anticipation for weeks or months beforehand; in the poring over books and maps; in the packing of socks, shirts, and the pills against the infirmities of age, disease, and irregularity; or in the calls to credit card companies that they are soon likely to see charges made from places they’ve never heard of?

Best, I suppose, to start with Day One. I’d left a wakeup call for 4:30 at the desk at the Logan Airport Hampton Inn. I’ve never trusted those things, but I needn’t have worried. It rang several times during the night, and at 4:00 I finally gave in, got up, and showered. Phil, our fearless producer, and Steve, the videographer, joined me in the breakfast room with their mountain of precious gear, and it was off to Logan in the 5:00 o’clock shuttle. Security was crowded and tedious, but thanks to full-body scan quicker than usual for me

A long bout with Customs in Managua; our camera boxes and bags were suspect. An even longer bout with the car rental agency, and longer yet with a balky GPS unit, until eventually the rental agent and Steve realized there were several towns named San Jorge, and got the right one programmed On the highway at last, we shared it with three-wheeled covered jitneys, horse-drawn carts, and dozens of bicycles. Two amateurish and tongue-tied cops pulled our white Land Cruiser over at an impromptu checkpoint and demanded Phil’s license and passport. They gazed at them blankly, peered at the three of us, and, clearly unsure about asking us for what they really wanted, gave back the documents and waved us on. The GPS unit, predicting our time of arrival at the ferry terminal – Ometepe is an island – showed it increasingly unlikely we’d make the last boat. But almost everything here, it turns out, starts late; we made it as the gate was closing.

The ferry was apparently run by pirates. We landed in the dark at San Jose del Sur and backed perilously off the steel ramp onto an unfamiliar dock. The last bus of the day – called “the Chicken Bus” by the locals; it’ll take farm animals, as well as people – loaded up and departed. We followed it, through a scene straight from Jabba the Hut’s saloon, and into the countryside. The GPS wasn’t much help; but I’d remembered a map of the island roads, and opined that if we just bore right at every option, we’d be following the coast, which would lead us eventually to our destination, La Hacienda Mérida. We stopped at one junction to ask a bunch of teenagers the way. One of them promptly climbed into the back seat with me and pointed forward. We assumed he was guiding us to the hacienda, and wondered how he’d get back; but after a mile or two of what Phil called “volcanic boulders” – you can’t believe how bad those last few miles were – he suddenly shouted, “Alto!” and jumped out. We’d given him a ride home.

We’re here to shoot a story about a Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center program called Bridging the Americas (Unidos por las Aves), that pairs elementary school students in the United States with their peers in Central and South America. They share the same birds – summers (ours), they nest and breed up north; winters, they head south – and share similar problems of predation and loss of habitat. By talking with each other about migratory birds, the kids in both places develop a deeper appreciation of birds as a natural resource and, it’s hoped, will become better stewards of their environments than have been their predecessors. Their communication has been rudimentary to date – teacher exchanges and art work – but recently the computer is opening almost undreamed-of possibilities. On top of that, an organization called Programa Educativo Una Computadora Por Niño is currently issuing 5000 basic laptops to the island kids.

We visited the Mérida school: low, white-painted concrete block buildings enclosing three sides of a dirt square with a concrete slab in the middle. Pigs wander unmolested across the yard, sniffing forlornly in the dust. The kids are beautiful: girls in blue skirts and white blouses, boys in white shirts and black trousers. They played a bird identification game with the three teachers who are here with us, flapping happily across the yard to several stations around the perimeter.

During recess I watched a soccer game played in the dirt between two concrete abutments (the goals) and the most amazing game of beisbol I’ve ever seen. No bat, no gloves, no pitcher; just the 100-foot-square concrete slab whose corners were the bases, two teams, and a handball. The batter simply bats the handball as hard and far as possible and runs like mad toward first base. A scrambling mob of fielders tries to catch it. If the ball goes into the branches of the large acacia behind third base, it comes down through the branches like a pinball, while the mob beneath runs in circles trying to guess where it might come out. The runners were as savvy as any major leaguers, and the fielders covered bases or home plate like quicksilver.

The villages along the road are pretty poor. The economy is agrarian, and conveniences we take for granted uncommon. We six gringos retired to a tiny dirt-floored cantina across from the school for a cold drink and a little reflection under the verandah roof. Standing in the road afterward, we saw a squad of women marching toward us. They had a familiar air about them.

“¿Americanas?” I asked. Yes, they nodded. Where from? “Vermont!” It was a group of college-age volunteers spending their spring break installing pipes to bring running water to some of the houses along the road. How much more, it occurred to me, these ladies were doing for United States foreign relations and the people of Ometepe than all the “anti-Communist” efforts of the Reagan years! Maybe, with the kids, the birds, and the waterpipes – and time – we can accomplish something here, after all.

Photo by Willem lange