The International Writers Magazine:South America: Photo: Miskito
me, sir, do you know what the time is?" the small man asked
up at me in English, a bit breathlessly. He was hurrying to match
my pace but walked on the uneven asphalt of the gutter. My strides
were naturally longer, and I had the advantage of the sidewalk,
a foot higher. I stopped, leaning down, and showed him my wristwatch.
"Two-thirty," I replied. At that, despite the disparity
of our situations, we became an impromptu community of two among
the bustling crowds near the cathedral plaza in León, Nicaragua.
is very good, very clear. Do you live here in León, sir?"
he asked, stepping up on the narrow sidewalk in front of me. "You
see, I speak English, too." Indeed he did, the undulating English
of the Caribbean. I answered his question, but in disbelief. No one
could really suppose that I was a resident of León. I am very
tall and had arrived only the day before from the United States, my
skin still possessing the December pallor of the dank Northwest. I looked
as out of place as a parsnip in a carrot bin.
"Oregon!" His expression of astonishment was transparently
false. There is always a point at which a mark can simply walk away.
A note of insincerity, an obvious lie, maybe even a peremptory or intimidating
movementthese give away the moment. We had reached it. If you
step around the panhandler then, put on the "Ive ignored
you" mask and walk away, few panhandlers will follow. Not on a
busy thoroughfare, not with Nicaraguas notably stern police standing
nearby. But if you hesitate, if you wait for the next thing to be said,
even if only from an impulse of curiosity, you have made a tacit agreement
to hear him out. My panhandler had judged his man well.
"You see, I am Stanly Wals, from Sandy Bay on the other coast of
Nicaragua. It is north of Bluefields. You have heard of Bluefields?"
I replied that I had spent a few days in Puerto Cabezas the year before.
Puerto Cabezas lies 200 kilometers up the coast.
"You have been to Bilwi," he said emphatically. "You
see, my people call it Bilwi."
So, the story came out. I was prepared for a story but not one quite
like his. He was a Miskito, a member of the large tribe indigenous to
the east coast of Nicaragua and Honduras. They are famously fierce,
clannish people. During the civil war between the Sandinistas and Contras
in the 1980s, many Miskitos were recruited by the Contras. In
actuality, they often were little more than bandits, except that they
were armed by the American army and Central Intelligence Agency. After
the Contras lost the war, the banditry persisted. Northeastern Nicaragua
remains a hazardous place to travel to this day.
Stanly Wals, it turned out, had fought with the Contras himself. For
his efforts, his wife and daughter had been killed by the Sandinistas.
Later, after the fighting ended and the Nicaraguan government, no longer
Sandinista, tried to coax the Miskitos to be part of the nation, Wals
had joined the most lucrative industry in his region that was open to
the indigenous peoples. He became a lobster diver. He remarried and
had three more children. He was doing relatively well. He owned a house
and property. Then came Hurricane Stan in mid-October 2005, less than
two months earlier. It just brushed the Nicaraguan coast, but that was
enough. It blew down his house. It disrupted the lobster industry, destroying
boats and equipment. It leveled and ruined seventy thousand trees, Wals
claimed, so that there was no usable timber at hand for rebuilding.
He and his family were living in a plastic tent without money and little
prospect of help except from the local churches.
"But I have the name Stanly Wals," he said. "And thats
what I do. I stand like walls. I survive. I dont ask for anything.
I only need a little help to get started again."
Wals had come to the west coast hoping to find work as a scuba diver
in the Corinto-based fishery. Corinto lies 30 kilometers northwest of
León on the Pacific. There were no jobs to be had, and so he
had made his way here to the largest, most prosperous city in the district,
a city, moreover, that was beginning to attract foreign tourists.
Wals certainly looked out of place in León. The Nicaraguans here
are of medium stature and have slender, long trunks. Their faces are
oval, open, and with high cheekbones, their complexion smooth and sunned,
their hair, usually black, almost universally styled. A hospitable people,
fond of laughing, they are often bewildered by the foreigners who occasionally
visit. Or amused, but in any case polite and reserved. In my five stays
here I have never before been the mark of a panhandler with a story.
There are beggars, to be sure; this is the second poorest nation in
the western hemisphere. But they hold out a hand and look beseeching,
and nobody does it but the most wretched, mostly the very old and children.
Wals was well dressed in tasseled loafers, pleated slacks, a dark shirt
with a subtle floral pattern, and a white tie. Very unusual for the
Leonese. The men here favor open-necked white cotton shirts. But, then,
Wals was a man hoping for job interviews. He was short by Nicaraguan
standards. His face was round, very dark with some mottling, his hair
thick and vaguely combed. Although stouter than the Leonese, he gave
the impression of being very sturdy rather than plump. His movements
were smooth and sure, economical. His teeth were very bad. His eyes
would not quite meet mine, yet he did not seem shifty or secretive.
A long, crooked, coarse black whisker grew from a mole on one side of
When he first spoke to me, I supposed that he was about thirty-five
years old. The more he talked the older he seemedmaybe as much
a fifty, almost my age. I stepped down into the gutter so that our faces
would be more nearly on the same level. I was still much taller.
"I don't ask for money," he repeated. Yet he had none. He
wanted to get to Managua, the nations capital and from there take
a bus to Bluefields. The trip would cost fifteen U.S. dollars, he said
by way of information. He assured me that he would raise the money by
selling his clothes. He said it with complete aplomb, as if it was nothing
to him to travel hundreds of miles in his underwear, unshod. For a moment
I imagined him wearing a loin cloth, seated on a bus, stout and impassive,
but then felt ashamed of myself.
If he could get home, he continued, he would find some way to feed his
family. That did it. It was not so much the hungry children or my imaginations
turning him into a feral stereotype of the Indian that did it, but simply
that I was afraid he would, if I let him, go too far with the story
and so become preposterous rather than enterprising. That everything
he said might be the plain truth wasnt the point. I gave him the
one-hundred cordoba note in my pocket.
He accepted it without expression, then said, "You have given me
the same as seven U.S. dollars. With only eight more I can go home."
He was, I think, about to mention his clothes or children again when
it appeared that a happy notion struck him. He perked up and looked
me in the eye. "You have seen the west coast, how beautiful it
is? You can come to visit me and I would be your host. I would show
you Bluefields. I would show you the Corn Islands."
I agreed, blandly, that that sounded lovely.
"I will teach you to say how are you in Miskito, and
you will be liked there. Nahki sma. That is how are you.
"Nahki sma," I repeated, and for the first time he smiled.
"Write it down for me."
It was a tactical move on my part. He would write it down, and then
I could accept a piece of paper and thank him. It would be an excuse
to part with courtesy after a straightforward transaction: money for
language instruction. He was nobodys fool, however. He saw through
the ploy and apologized that he had no writing materials with him. I
handed him my notepad and pen. He wrote Nahki sma in small neat letters
and showed me, pronouncing the phrase again. Then he wrote down his
name and address.
"Dont forget me," he said. "Send a letter here.
Dont forget me." His address was: Sandy Bay, RAAS (Región
Autónoma Atlantico del Sur), c/o Morevian Church, Bluefields,
Nicaragua, Central America.
"You see," he went on, "I need only a little to start
a business. I need only freezers and I can catch lobsters and sell them
to the Columbians. The Columbians pay fifteen U.S. dollars every pound."
I noted to myself the reappearance of the number fifteen as he wrote
on the pad: two freezer, type Whirlpool, cash for each, to buy used.
With just a little money he could do this and feed his family. He could
also buy seeds and beans and grow crops, for the soil was very healthy.
He added "beans, seeds" to the pad. Then he paused, watching
I scooped up all the coins in my pockets and put them in his cupped
hand. About another twenty cordobas. He mentioned that he could sell
his shoes for the rest, but he said it in changed tone. There was much
less conviction to it. He was looking down the street toward the plaza.
A group of European tourists had just come out of the cathedral and
were blinking in the bright sunlight. León is a city of low stucco
buildings, for the most part painted matte white and light pastels.
The walls reflect the heat and glare into the streets. To go from the
cool interior of the vast neo-Gothic cathedral into the open air is
to change ecozones instantaneously. The tourists were disoriented.
For me his story was ended. I wished Stanly Wals good luck, and we shook
hands. We both turned toward the cathedral. Then for a few steps that
comic thing happened when two people who have just said goodbye set
out in the same direction, side by side, pretending not to notice each
other any more. My legs were longer, however. I soon outdistanced him.
Thats "c/o Moravian Church, Bluefields."
Anything sent there will reach him. He prefers dollars.
© Roger Smith December 13th 2005
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