To the Big (Corn) Island

We awoke at an ungodly hour to walk across the street to the airport for our Big Corn flight.  The national terminal is tiny and chaotic and the ticket counters were heaving with people.  I couldn't believe the things people were taking on the airplanes: pinatas, enormous sheet cakes, mattresses (sounds like a hell of a party someone is planning).  I had made reservations and paid for the tickets ($160 per person) via email, but naturally, they had no record of this.  Fortunately, I had printed out a very important piece of paper with all my confirmation numbers and addresses, so it was sorted out and they promised to have my return tickets waiting at Corn Islands.  In lieu of boarding passes, we were given large plastic cards with a number on them and our destination.  V. eco-friendly.  Here is a photo, courtesy of JoTraveller on TravelPod.com.  While waiting for our flight to be called, we noticed not one but several people already drinking Toñas

.  AT SIX THIRTY IN THE MORNING.   But, hey, I'm not judging.  Talked to several Americans heading to the Corn Islands, all of whom were there because of Diane Wedner's L.A. Times article.  See the power of PR?  One article made tons of travelers visit.  I saw somewhere that La Costena has Nicaragua's most modern fleet (at least compared to Atlantic Airlines), and while they are a good 40 years old, those badboys somehow manage to stay in the air:


I was especially impressed that the flight attendant served us little cups of juice (Fanta on the way back) and gave us little packets of cookies or crackers.  American carriers could learn a thing or two.  I later met someone with an aviation background who noticed that one of the altimeters (or some other control doohickey) wasn't working on the flight.  She asked the pilot about it and he said, "Oh, I don't use that, it's turned off!"  So essentially, they are flying these planes like a big bicycle.  But we made it in one piece, with relatively little turbulence, a great relief for a weakling like me.

If all you were to see of Big Corn was the drive from the airport to the dock (which most people do when they head right to Little Corn), you'd be pretty disappointed.  I've never been to another Caribbean island, but as I understand it, BCI is like any other, but shittier!  No fancy boutiques, golf courses or resorts here, or really any attractions other than the beaches.  Lots of stray dogs and tin roof (rusted!) shacks, but gorgeous green-blue water and lush jungle frippery abounds.  We stayed at the Hotel Morgan, which was definitely the best bang for the buck, if not the best hotel on the island.  You really can't beat $35 a night for a room with AC, private bathroom, and theoretical hot water.  I say theoretical as there was a hot water heater, but all it delivered was an electrical shock.  It's right on the water but there's no place to really sit on the beach, you can just jump into the water.  I've heard great things about Casa Canada, but they aren't doing me any favors at $85 a night and have no direct beach access either, just an infinity pool, which is neat. 

While there are cars on Big Corn and taxis cost only $1 per person (though I quickly wizened up that that's really only the USD price, in cordobas you pay 15 each, beating the exchange rate of 18.5C to $1USD), we spent most of our time walking around the island.  It's only 6 square km and there's a fair amount to explore, and the best beaches require a bit more effort to get to.  Still, the beaches aren't very big.  Water, water everywhere, but not a spot to sit:

Here's one of the many partially built structures on BCI.  Cause: too many Toñas

before noon:

Here's our shot of the boat that ever visitor to BCI photographs:

My theory as to the message: Husband has the big belly, shame on him.  H's theory: Woman has big belly, hence no husband, shame on her.  My new alternate theory: Woman has big belly due to baby, and no husband, hence her shame.  I welcome further suggestions.

A few practical notes: I take serious issue with Lonely Planet's assertion that "everyone speaks English." Au contraire, only the natives speak English, and it is a hard to understand Creole, similar to Jamaican.  Many of the native islanders are also unemployed, whereas many people in the service industry are Nicaraguan mainlanders who came to the Corns for work, and speak only Spanish.  Familiarize yourself with some basics, like "beer" and "bathroom," brush up on your numbers, and remember that cintura is Italian for "belt," not "ashtray" (the Spanish  word is cenicero). If there were any Italian speakers on BCI the first few days, they would have thought I was crazy. 

On money: cash is king on Corn Islands and with few exceptions, your only option.  US dollars are generally gratefully accepted, as long as they are in mint condition.  The change you receive in cordobas, however, will be worn and torn beyond recognition, but God help you if you try to pass off a $5 bill with writing on it. 

Service is slow as molasses, but Nicaraguans are bordering on OCD when it comes to wiping down tabletops and floors.  A typical meal will go like this: you arrive and sit down in an empty (or full, it makes no difference) restaurant.  The waitress will see you and you will indicate that you are interested in some sort of food or beverage.  She will finish whatever she is doing before slowly rising and giving you a menu.  She will then disappear for a half hour.  After you have memorized the menu, you will track her down and give her your order.  Your drink will take another 15 minutes (maybe more if it is more complex than cracking open a beer) and food, even longer.  Intermittently, your waitress will come and wipe down your table vigorously, but will not ask you if you want anything or remove anything from the table.  This is a sacred silent time, apparently.  Your food will invariably include rice, sometimes with beans, and plantains in some form (generally fried).  Generally most dishes are either fried or swimming in butter, hence delicious.  Despite all this waiting and frying, you will be happy because your beer is colder than your wildest dreams.  Even on Little Corn, where electricity frequently goes out, Toñas come from a special cooler served below zero degrees, with a monitor on the top.  A little light even flashes when they get too warm, and frequently they have ice in the beers.  You can sort of see the cooler in this photo, from a bar in Grenada:

Also, every establishment will wrap a small napkin around the neck of your beer after opening.  I was told this is to make it sanitary, but it feels a bit queer (tip: a wise person will save these little cerveza scarves for an occasion without toilet paper).  The other amazing thing about Nicaragua is the rum, Flor de Cana.  In pretty much any bar, you can order a half bottle of delicious rum and a coke for $10, and they will also bring you a bucket of ice and a plate of limes.  This beats the hell out of a New York nightclub's bottle service, and makes a nice evening for two.  I found this demonstration on Flickr, here is us enjoying some on New Year's Eve:


It's too hard to think about rum and cold beer on a Friday afternoon, so that's it for today.  Next: our Contra Christmas!

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