Last in a three-part series on travels to Pearl Lagoon: Paradise Reconsidered
PEARL LAGOON— In the morning we met up with Mr. George Fox, and set out in his panga for a day exploring the offshore keys of Pearl Lagoon. If you ever decide to get stranded on a small tropical island, George is hands down the man to take along. He exudes strength, wisdom and capability born of many years experience all at the same time and he was happy to share with us many of the aspects of life in and around Pearl Lagoon.
But before we could set out into open water, we were required to stop first at a military checkpoint. For reasons one could only guess at this sleepy little outpost was staffed by a veritable battalion; eight young men in camouflage fatigues and spit-polished, military-style boots. One of them held a vintage Kalashnikov. They seemed so young to me that I wouldn’t have been surprised if they fought over whose turn it was to hold the one AK-47 that comprised their arsenal.
George presented his documents and all four passengers had to show either cedulas or passports. A search of our knapsacks turned up some miscellaneous tubes of sunblock, two cameras, some kleenex and several bathing suits. This being Nicaragua, some paperwork sandwiched between sheets of worn out carbon paper was required before sending us on our way.
While that was being attended to we noticed an enormous sea turtle laying belly up on the sand next to the checkpoint shack with its head supported on a coconut. Seeing such a magnificent creature up close in such a compromising position evoked a mix of emotions. It stared wide-eyed, perhaps with bewilderment at the goings on around it, and we were helpless to do anything but stare back into its large, cat-like eyes while we pondered its fate. I had been hoping to see some local fauna on our tour of the keys, but this wasn’t exactly what I had had in mind.
Paperwork completed; we were given the green light and off we went. First discovery of the day: A panga plowing through a choppy sea feels remarkably like a school bus bouncing along a potholed dirt road. Maybe the soreness of my recent trip hadn’t sufficiently worn off but the next nearly two hours spent bouncing along the coast before arriving at the first of the outer keys seemed all too familiar.
The keys themselves appeared as tufts of coconut palms poking up tentatively from the surface of the Caribbean sea, not all that different than everyone’s stock image of paradise including my own. For some reason people from temperate climes seem to think that any definition of paradise must include the same few shopworn elements: swaying coconut palms, blue water and walking barefoot in wet sand.
I was determined to enjoy this tropical respite. Once we had disembarked we swam, relaxed, snorkeled a bit and walked the empty beach of the first key. I did my best to ignore the enormous amount of plastic debris I saw mixed in with the seashells washed up by the waves.
On our circumnavigation of the small island we came upon an ungainly, three-story concrete house nestled in a grove of palms set back from the water’s edge. It appeared abandoned, half completed and open to the weather. It seemed like a ludicrously out-of-place monument to someone’s misguided dream and it reminded me that I had already seen a large number of houses back in Pearl Lagoon that had succumbed to a similar fate; long-abandoned, unfinished shells and rusting metal rebar poking out of half-built walls. As I tried to come up with a coherent storyline for Pearl Lagoon I couldn’t help but feel that so many abandoned, unfinished building projects weren’t at least a part of that story. There were simply too many of them not to take notice.
By the time we reached our starting point lunch was already waitin
g for us, prepared by the family who lived out on the key and we sat down at a makeshift wooden table in the shade of a few palms. It isn’t until you sit down to a simple meal in a setting like this that you begin to question the validity of your vision of paradise. I actually felt sort of stupid for having clung to some “Gilligan’s Island” fantasy for as long as I had. Suddenly everything appeared so obviously difficult. Potable water, food, shelter, even shade (just to name a few basics) pose so many problems to the novice castaway like myself. Simple things became complex and life in paradise all of a sudden seemed very hard to me, somewhat boring and even a bit lonely. I’ve never been a fan of all-inclusive resorts but I could begin to see their obvious appeal; paradise as seen from a chaise lounge, a beach picked over daily for errant, unsightly debris, plenty of ice and a cabana boy standing at the ready with beach towels so brilliantly white and fluffy they only could exist in dreams. By the time we departed from the first key my personal Disney fantasy had completely desiccated in the tropical sun and was ready for an unceremonious burial at sea.
When we stopped at the second key these feelings came into even sharper focus. The remnants of someone’s nearly completed dream of what life in paradise lay abandoned. There were several buildings made of of concrete, a thatched roof bar and a single simian cuidador standing watch over the entire tiny island. The buildings had glazed windows and french doors and a host of other wholly inappropriate design elements. The results were hermetically sealed, airless spaces better suited for an air-conditioned Florida subdivision than a remote tropical key and the buildings baking in the harsh sun were already rapidly falling apart.
Why do people always end up trying to redecorate paradise? Why do they dream of escaping from all the trappings of civilization only to drag it all with them when they finally do? Perhaps our primitive, animal brains have shrunken and withered to the point where only our domestication is left to guide us. We start by making nice straight pathways through the natural world and then we line them with pretty shells. We cover things in concrete and instead of gazing up at the perfection of the star-studded sky we set up outdoor floodlights to hold back the night and assuage our fears of the unknown. We build walls and fences and anything that brings a semblance of order. Eventually the decision to build a heart-shaped concrete swimming pool seems like an inspired idea, even a nice touch. It’s no wonder we were thrown out of paradise in the first place. The story about the snake and the apple was probably just an excuse to get rid of us.
It was interesting to see the ruination of things on this remote little island. We had only stopped by to drop off some food and water for the key’s lone occupant; a sad and suspicious monkey. The remains of the concrete buildings that responded to neither the climate nor the setting will melt away in due course. Fortunately, at least on a geologic time frame, nature always wins. The game is thankfully rigged and mankind’s impact on this small bit of tropical real estate will become negligible and eventually disappear entirely.
The sun was getting noticeably lower in the sky and we were making our way back to Pearl Lagoon when we were hailed by a panga in distress. A group of three listless men waved us over and asked George if he had any spare spark plugs. Their engine had quit and refused to start. When we came alongside I looked over and saw that the entire boat was loaded to the gunwales with large sea turtles —fifteen in all that were turned upside down and covered with palm fronds. Earlier in the day George told us about the difficult efforts to preserve the sea turtles of Pearl Lagoon. Apparently it remains an ongoing struggle and progress has been slow to take hold. I looked over at him as he secured a tow rope to disabled panga and I could sense his deep frustration. I asked him what they would do with them.
“They’re going to cut them up,” he said. It was easy to detect the barely concealed anger and sadness in his voice. His expression turned stoic and tight-lipped as he made fast the tow rope and began to haul the heavily laden panga slowly back to the pier at the checkpoint.
We were nearly back to our starting point at Pearl Lagoon. Once rid of the disabled panga we continued on another mile or so to the town in silence. George’s words stuck with me the whole way back and the image of the dying sea turtles continued to float before my eyes as we pulled up at the pier. Our goodbyes were curt and George seemed preoccupied and grimmer than before as he cast off the line and motored away from the dock. He was just a dark silhouette against the setting sun now and I found myself wondering about his life and the challenges of living in Pearl Lagoon.
The last part of our day was an unanticipated reminder that Pearl Lagoon is a delicate place and it hangs uncomfortably, maybe even precipitously in the balance. Those turtles we saw would bring the men we aided some ample cash which would likely be used, at least in part, to purchase more gasoline and the means to catch even more turtles. As it stands the balance between sustainability and a permanently diminished resource is being tipped heavily in favor of the latter. Today, all of the species of turtles that frequent the area are endangered, some critically. They have become part of the economy and have no effective protection from over harvesting. Pearl Lagoon will certainly have to face many questions as the varied temptations of a modern world continue to loom large over the near horizon, bringing both promise and potential demise. And seen in that light, the sea turtles are merely emblematic.
Oddly enough, I really did discover a bit of paradise in Pearl Lagoon. It just wasn’t what or where I expected it to be. Instead of something based on some cliché picture postcard image I’d been carrying in my head I found it permeating the rich fabric of the community itself. I found it in their traditions, their foods and in the gentle humanity of their simple, everyday ways. If you bothered to notice you could even hear it in their voices and see it in their broad smiles. The future of this unique place is at stake and whatever the people of Pearl Lagoon eventually do their choices will surely have lasting and profound consequences. And only they can decide how much of the modern world they should welcome with open arms and just what they are willing to offer up, to be sacrificed upon the altar of modernity in return.