CASKE 2000 > Stories > Adventure > Nicaragua > Surviving Nicaragua - Part 4


Surviving Nicaragua, A Kayaker's Battlefield - Part 4

7/20/2000 by Jean-Philippe Soule

If you haven't ready Surviving Nicaragua - Part 1 to 3, I recommend you do:

5/05 - "Masochism on the Nicaraguan Coast" (Part 1)
5/07 - "AK 47 Sub-machinegun Armed Robbery" (Part 2)
5/11 - "Forced Paddling with a Sick Stomach" (Part 3)

5/14/2000 - Tasbapounie - "Missing out on the Sea Turtle Feast"

After a day of rest in Prinzapoka, we left a little after One in the morning for another long day. My stomach wasn't doing great, but it allowed me to make it through the 27 miles to the small village of Sandy Bay Sirpi (a different town from Sandy Bay Norte). From Sandy Bay a six-hour paddle took us to the first English speaking Creole village of Tasbapounie. Although the distance was only 18 miles, they were the most painful I had experienced. Diarrhea turned into bloody dysentery and the stomach cramps I experienced varied from constant dull pain to nearly excruciating. I could not swallow any food. Even crackers didn't appeal to me. So I did the distance on an empty stomach and on the autopilot mode, lazily lifting my paddle, dropping it in the water and pulling it with no energy. From time to time I had to squeeze my butt wondering if I had to quickly jump in the water. Once I barely held myself long enough to make the landing. The surf that lifted up my kayak also affected my bowels. After we had made it to the village Luke acknowledged that he would have never paddled these 18 miles if he had been in my condition.

The truth was that I felt even more miserable than I looked and it was time for me to dig in to our first aid kit and start a Flagyl antibiotic treatment. A diet of plain rice, bread, and Coke (chemically treated water can be hard on stomach) was also mandatory. The timing was the worst as we had just landed in the village most famous for its turtle preparation. Luke feasted on the best turtle meat, liver and fins right in front of my plate of plain boiled rice. He finished his meal with a delicious cassava (yucca) cake.

The village was the nicest we had seen in Nicaragua and one of our favorites all around. Although still very poor to western standards, compared to the Miskitos living in the north, the Creole people of Tasbapounie were well off. On their farms they grew countless types of fruits and vegetables and raised a few cows, pigs, goats, chickens, and horses. But their main source of food and income came from the sea. On one side of the village, the lagoon yields good shrimping. A few miles out to sea, a few dozen islands provide fish, conch, and lobster. Each family sets up traps. Members from each family also have divers working and risking their lives on commercial boats. At this time of the year though, the bounty comes in the form of sea turtles.

Western people might cringe and avert their eyes in disapproval at the thought of eating sea turtle, but gourmets will agree that it is one of the finest meats. Turtle liver is so fine, French and Japanese would need no convincing to make it their delicacy. Most of the turtle organs are edible, even the fat, which I usually refrain from on other animal, is a pleasure to the palate, both in taste and texture.

We stayed a day in Tasbapounie to get a better feel for the place and its people. We were rewarded with the opportunity to observe the preparation of sea turtles. This village does not over-hunt the turtles; they only catch the number they need for their own consumption. The turtle is killed with a log by breaking its skull. The process is quick and by far better than the pig or cattle slaughter I have witnessed in Europe. Then the expert butcher works quickly, cutting out the front fins first, then inserting a sharp knife between the scales of the soft ventral shell. He cuts his way around and opens the shell like if it was a can of food. A can of food it is indeed, a 200 lb. turtle produces more than 120 lbs. of meat. Most is a delicious red meat far superior to the best beef. The only parts that are discarded are the abdominal lining and the spleen. Dozens of alert dogs wait for the chance to fight for their share. The vultures are not far behind and they jump closer and closer hoping the dogs will leave them some scraps. All the guts are cleaned of their contents and replaced into the main shell, which after half an hour of work presents a full assortment of meat. Women even scoop out all the blood, which they fry until it thickens to make some nice rice topping. One can hardly argue that anything goes to waste.

Before the master cutter finishes his labor, villagers start lining up behind the scale to buy some meat and parts of their favorite organs. Some prefer the stomach, other the intestines, Luke the fat and I the liver. Although I haven't tried yet, I was told that the kidneys and lungs are also very good. The butcher's wife didn't waste anytime to reserve the family share, a smart move considering the popularity of the animal.

It is easy for wealthy animal rights activists to impose a ban on subsistence turtle fishing in foreign lands. But if these people lived on the Mosquito Coast and could not afford any other meat they would certainly come around. A single feast of turtle meat would convert most gourmets. To protect sea turtle would take more than a ban on a "disgraceful" practice; it would take a lot of education. That is, to educate rich conservationists about poor villagers needs and the real value of turtle meat. That would mean introducing them to the savory joy of such a meal and then instead of petitioning for animal rights they would understand that sea turtles will remain a seasonal staple of the Central American Atlantic Coast until villagers are offered another alternative. As people told us, "This is our beef." What would it be then? Cattle farming is one of the main causes of world deforestation with the US as the guiltiest perpetrator. South American forests disappear quickly to provide ground for cattle farming, most of which is to satisfy US consumption needs. Most of the large-scale commercial fishing also goes directly to the States and Japan while the profits line the pockets of corrupt governments of developing countries rather than benefiting any locals. If I agree that sea turtles are in danger of extinction, I also believe that unless rich countries stop their meat consumption and start producing food such as sago pit (a bland but high yielding crop with low land usage rate), they are in no position to judge their deprived neighbors. Even vegetarians who read newspapers, use wood for construction or gasoline harm the environment more than most turtle hunters in Central America do. In any case banning the practice will never suffice. Unless locals receive a better alternate resource, no restriction will protect the sea turtles.

A solution might have been found in Costa Rica where Eco-tourism money has outgrown the value of turtle meat. In National Parks such as Tortuguero, people fly from around the world to see thousands of turtles laying their eggs and millions of baby turtles hatching. All the villagers rely entirely on tourism and are better off now than when they were hunting turtles. But the international money that has poured into Costa Rica did not benefit the surrounding countries, which will remain turtle eaters. I understand why and for a better understanding of this practice, I invite you to visit one of these poor villages to share a meal with the hospitable Creoles, Garifunas, and Miskitos. You might never revert to hormone enriched, mass-produced and flavorless chicken or beef you get in the supermarket. Alas my stomach condemned me to plain rice while Luke continued feasting and licking his chops with glee after the feast.

5/17 - "And the Rain Began" (Part 5)
5/21 - "Bluefields to Managua - Do we Have to Portage?" (Part 6)
5/27 - "Dancing with Death to the rhythm of the Ocean" (Part 7)

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