Exotic Cities, Part Seventeen: Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua
November 6, 2009
A potato-hungry Nicaragua can be grateful for a city like Puerto Cabezas. This lovely little port on the Atlantic coast is surrounded by vast potato farms, which grow 80% of the potatoes eaten in Nicaragua. They are the Balurde Brown variety, not seen in North America. Long lines of trucks rumble out of Puerto Cabezas on the only road into the city, which goes all the way to Managua. It is referred to, appropriately enough, as the Potato Highway, and it was described by Ernest Hemingway in one of his lesser-known stories, “At Noon Cometh the Spud Truck.”
This part of Nicaragua belongs to indigenous people, the Shinnecock Indians, who raised potatoes and ducks since their beginnings. The ducks, however, got wiped out by some sort of bird flu, which was probably brought to Nicaragua by Balboa in 1513. He was looking for another ocean, and the Indians pointed south and said, “It’s that way.” So he and his men went that way and “discovered” the Pacific Ocean. And along the way they had sex with a lot of Indian women, who were “easy,” so that’s how Nicaragua got a large population of Spanish-Indian hybrids. The women are pretty hot. Bianca Jagger is a good example. She got her start at fame as the country’s Potato Queen of 1964, and she is still the country’s favorite celebrity.
Tourism is just starting to take off in Puerto Cabezas. Local people still regard North Americans as “los estupidos norteamericanos,” because of the thousands of liberal white kids who went to Nicaragua back in the 80’s to pick crops and show solidarity with the peasants. It is pretty stupid when you think about it: paying your own way to Nicaragua to pick crops for nothing. And these are the same fools who protest against “exploitation” of cheap labor in the Third World by big American companies. Well, as I always say, if you identify with the poor, you’re destined to be poor. The people I know who went to Nicaragua to pick crops still live like poor bohemians, and when I offer to give them good stock tips or to teach them how to sell options, they laugh and say, “I don’t have any money.”
But a second wave of visitors is finding Puerto Cabezas as a tourist destination, and that’s good as long as they avoid the rest of Nicaragua. Managua, for instance, is a total f—ing ripoff. You must never spend a single minute in Managua. So forget about getting to Puerto Cabezas via the Potato Highway, which is too dangerous for tourists. And forget about flying from Managua to Puerto Cabezas. The airlines suck, they’re a ripoff, and the airport at Puerto Cabezas is, to be euphemistic, rather basic, and landing there is risky except in daylight and in perfect weather.
So your best access to Puerto Cabezas is the Royal Caribbean cruise ship Joker of the Seas. Joker is the “cheap” ship in the fleet, and it offers a bargain-priced cruise to some of the less-visited destinations, such as Devil’s Island. Joker will give you three days in Puerto Cabezas, but you can always get off and stay longer and pick up Joker on the way back.
You’ll want to stay at the Carlton Hotel Puerto Cabezas, which is the only hotel up to civilized-white-people standards. General Manager Massimiliano Perversi runs an efficient inn with about 50 rooms, averaging a very reasonable $150 a night, not including the $10 “health tax” the government charges you for bringing your civilized-white-people diseases into the country. Some of the rooms in the Carlton are fitted out in bizarre fashion. For instance, you have “crypt” rooms, where you sleep in a big coffin, and there are all these skeletons and monster figures and creepy sound effects. “It was Daniel Ortega’s idea,” explains Perversi, referring to the President of Nicaragua. “He comes up here occasionally with a lady, and they like things kinky.” Other theme rooms are “The Mummy’s Tomb,” “Spider Island,” and “The Tingler.” There is also a special party room, Room 13, that is reserved for Ortega, but what’s inside is a closely guarded secret.
Fishing is the other important aspect of life in Puerto Cabezas, besides potatoes. The city’s canneries process tons of hagfish every day. When the cannery whistle blows, the whole street rumbles and groans and screams and rattles while the silver rivers of fish pour in out of the boats. Capt. Neptaly Arias, captain of the fishing boat Zorra, is the port’s most colorful character. His eye for a hagfish is rivaled only by his eye for a woman. “Here the hagfish is king,” he says. “There are many varieties of hagfish, but the Atlantic hagfish is the most delicious. And they are prized by the ladies, who put them in their vaginas while they are still alive.”
Arias says that there have been years when the hagfish simply went away for no reason. Then the Indians had to resort to their sacred magic to bring them back. One ritual is the burning of zozobra, a 40-foot-high effigy made of wood and chicken wire, meant to represent sin. All the people must write down their sins on paper and place them in zozobra, or they must place any object connected with their sins in zozobra. When the effigy is full of all the people’s sins, it is burned to expiate their guilt. Another ritual is the “stickdance,” which is practiced nowhere else in the world. The most beautiful Indian women must dance naked around a tall stake. Then they are tied to the stake and whipped by the old women to make them scream. The screams are heard by the hagfish, who become excited and return. It’s all part of a religious belief system, so you can’t criticize it.
Hagfish is served everywhere in Puerto Cabezas, but unless you are willing to risk diarrhea, your best place to eat is at the Carlton’s restaurant. Head Chef Rosalina Dolmo Martinez gave me her recipe for Hagfish Puerto Cabezas:
Rinse six Atlantic hagfish to remove superficial slime. Place in pot of boiling milk for five minutes, then transfer to casserole dish. Sprinkle with cayenne pepper, salt, and turmeric. Cover with tomato sauce. Bake at 350 degrees F for 25 minutes. Prepare bed of mashed potatoes using Balurde Brown potatoes, with two tablespoons of lard blended in. Sprinkle grated Parmesan cheese over potatoes. Pour finished hagfish and sauce over potatoes. Gordon Ramsay has called this recipe the most outstanding fish dish he has ever eaten.
The bars in Puerto Cabezas are on the edgy side, serving mainly fishermen and sailors of the Nicaraguan Navy. It’s best to have a local person as your escort, otherwise the patrons and staff may play rude jokes on you because we are still “estupidos norteamericanos” in their eyes and therefore fair game. Capt. Arias took me to the Hagfish Saloon, which is owned by his friend Raul Barahona. Patrons like to engage in a gruesome variation of arm wrestling involving hot coals, and on Saturday nights the place is turned into a makeshift boxing arena, where drunken toughs can vent their aggression and betting is encouraged. There is also a dwarf dishwasher who is feeble-minded, and the patrons take turns tossing him into a net. Raul insists the lad enjoys it.
Sailors are also drawn to the city’s two whorehouses. You need an escort there, too, if you’re an “estupido norteamericano.” Both are owned by a relative of Daniel Ortega. Capt. Arias says all the girls are clean. Many of them are Russian.
Shopping is concentrated in the Pelotudo Market, which used to consist mainly of farmers selling potatoes off their carts. But the market has gone upscale for the growing tourist trade. Tim Horton’s has a donut shop. Harry Winston has a jewelry shop. Takashimaya, a big Japanese department store chain, has moved in, as well as American Apparel and Toys R Us. And guess what! NO CRAPPY CHINESE MERCHANDISE ANYWHERE! Amazing! There is one store that is very peculiar, however, according to Capt. Arias — The Anti-Aging Shop. “They sell cosmetics to keep the skin looking young. But there are almost never any customers in the store. They don’t run sales or promotions. They don’t advertise. They don’t have a website. And they’re not even listed in the Yellow Pages. Yet they remain there year after year, occupying expensive retail space. What does all that add up to?” he asks, giving me a sly look. I confess I don’t know. “Ach! Estupido norteamericano! It’s money-laundering! Don’t you see?” Wow! You could have knocked me over with a feather!
Puerto Cabezas has two beaches, Malecon and Panocha. They’re fine to sit on, but that’s about it. There’s no surfing. Bathing is at your own risk, on account of the occasional shark. Don’t go there alone, and don’t carry any money or valuables. The death rate for Malecon is about one per 10,000 visitors, and Panocha is closer to two per 10,000. But the latter is a topless beach with lots of hot women with big tits, so it’s worth the additional risk.
A mile north of town is the Haunted Lighthouse of Death, so named because a visitor died of food poisoning after eating a hamburger from the snack bar, and his spirit haunts the lighthouse seeking revenge. Before that it was just the Puerto Cabezas Lighthouse, but these people know how to turn tragedy into opportunity. The lighthouse actually serves little purpose from a nautical point of view, since there are no reefs or dangerous currents. But it’s a make-work job created by the government, and if the lighthouse-keeper isn’t too drunk to attend to his duties, the light is turned on at night to serve as an aid to drunken pilots looking for the airport.
South of Puerto Cabezas is an artificial lake that you won’t find on any map. It’s referred to as Ink Lake. This is where the Sandinista government dumps the bodies of writers and journalists who have gotten up the government’s nose. The name was the inspiration for the Canadian story anthology From Ink Lake (Vintage Canada, 1995), which, unfortunately, was a poor seller because I wasn’t included in it.
Puerto Cabezas is the site of the world’s only shelter for “hand-walkers.” These are mentally deficient people who walk on all fours like animals. Apparently, there are a lot of them in Nicaragua, but no one knows why. The Indians regard them as cursed. The shelter is operated by the Church of Santo Cabron, which raises money by selling mail order ministerial credentials through classified ads in tabloids (suggested donation $50). Father Jesus Humberto Canales, a self-ordained minister not connected to any particular denomination, was once photographed with Hillary Clinton and milks it for all it’s worth. He also has interests in racetracks and casinos in South and Central America. The hand-walkers appeared in a documentary on NOVA. One of them has been offered a scholarship to study sociology at Northeastern University in Boston.
A new attraction scheduled to open late in 2010 is “Triassic Park,” which will feature large Komodo lizards that roam freely. Jon Gosselin is the major investor behind it. He says it’ll be a great outing for parents with too many children. He also intends to use it for a reality show about a bachelor who has lots of girlfriends, and they all live in this big park full of lizards. (But TLC isn’t going to get it!)
Puerto Cabezas doesn’t have a Mayor as such. Instead, the de facto power broker of the city is potato tycoon Ernesto Echavarria, who is very tight with Daniel Ortega and the Sandinistas. I was fortunate enough to meet him over dinner at the Carlton, along with Massimiliano Perversi. By an astounding coincidence, it turned out that Echavarria owned one of my books, I Chewed Mrs. Ewing’s Raw Guts, which was given to him as a gift by an “estupido norteamericano” from Toronto, who went to Nicaragua to pick potatoes. This book is an out-of-print collector’s item, and you might possibly find it (along with my other books) at www.abebooks.com, although I have no control over prices on the collector’s market.
I asked Echavarria if Puerto Cabezas had a “sister city,” and he said yes — Burlington, Vermont. I was surprised, so I investigated further and found that Burlington had seven sister cities, which Echavarria didn’t realize. We agreed that Puerto Cabezas deserved an exclusive sister relationship, and I said I would find another sister city for it. And I did — Blenheim, New Zealand. The deal was sealed with Mayor Alistair Sowman of Marlborough District Council, who will be visiting Puerto Cabezas as a special guest early in 2010. Capt. Arias promises to take him to both whorehouses and get him drunk at the Hagfish Saloon. Whether Sowman gets to party in Room 13 at the Carlton, however, depends entirely on President Ortega’s schedule.
Recommended vaccinations: Colorado tick fever, Erdheim Chester Disease, Waldenstrom’s macroglobulinemia.
Copyright@ 2009 by Crad Kilodney, Toronto, Canada. E-mail: email@example.com