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Miskito Coast

Stand Like Walls
Roger Smith

"Excuse 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.

"Your English 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 movement—these give away the moment. We had reached it. If you step around the panhandler then, put on the "I’ve ignored you" mask and walk away, few panhandlers will follow. Not on a busy thoroughfare, not with Nicaragua’s 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 1980’s, 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 that’s what I do. I stand like walls. I survive. I don’t 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 his chin.

When he first spoke to me, I supposed that he was about thirty-five years old. The more he talked the older he seemed—maybe 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 nation’s 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 imagination’s 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 wasn’t 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."
"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 nobody’s 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.
"Don’t forget me," he said. "Send a letter here. Don’t 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 me.

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.
That’s "c/o Moravian Church, Bluefields."
Anything sent there will reach him. He prefers dollars.
© Roger Smith December 13th 2005

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