RIO PRINZAPOLKA - Watermelon Capitol of the World! (Part 2 of 2)

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Last week we spent four days sport fishing with a guest along the Rio Prinzapolka. Our objective for this outing was to travel up and down portions of the Rio Prinzapolka in an attempt to catch fish. We hoped to prove the Rio Prinzapolka to be the Snook and Tarpon Capitol of the World! That, unfortunately for us, didn´t happen.

This time of year the dry season is well advanced and the river is nearing its lowest level for the year. People in nearly all of the communities along the river have staked out short portions of the river bank, and, they have cleared and planted summer crops in the rich alluvial deposits of silt that lie fresh and still moist from the floods of the previous rainy season.

Some years people stake out their claims on the shifting deposits of sandy silt, use a machete to clear off the reeds that pop up as soon as the rainy season river level subsides, and plant their dry season crops only to have late season rains upriver cause a one or two day flood which washes away seedlings and leaves bare ground. Seldom does the farmer have reserve seed in order to replant.

Human nature here is much like it is virtually everywhere else. If one puts something valuable down, noone else is likely to take or bother it as long as the owner is watching. But, turn one´s back and it is a different story. Along the river the farmer must construct a temporary lean-to and place a family member fulltime to keep an eye on the family´s crops day and night. Many a complacent farmer here has left his farm patch untended for a short while only to return to find his year´s production missing.

One might reasonably ask, ¨Why plant in such a precarious place on the edge of the river where security and weather conditions are so important. There is plenty of community land available.¨ The reality here is that because of excessive leaching due to an annual average rainfall in excess of three meters, land here is unsuitable for traditional farm crops. Perhaps with fertilization and other mechanized farming techniques these lands could produce. These people are subsistence farmers, though. The Miskito people have hunted, fished, gathered from the forest, and planted with only machete and a pointed stick for many generations.

Crops on the water´s edge may include beans, watermelons, canteloupes, tomatoes, squash, and tabacco. The most prevalent crops, however, are beans and watermelons. The other products mentioned tend to have limited market demand and/or are too delicate to handle in larger volumes.

Here in the Municipality of Prinzapolka there is only one bean crop per year. Therefore, it is essential that the family harvest enough beans to last throughout the entire upcoming year. If the crop does well, a couple of quintales (hundred pound sacks) may be produced in excess of the family´s needs for cash sale. This year, however, our dry season turned completely rainless earlier than usual causing soils to dry out prematurely. Bean plants failed to grow and develop properly. The plants themselves stayed small and produced few pods. And, the pods produced only five or six beans each rather than their usual ten to twelve. Bean production was well below expectation.

Watermelons are a different story, however. These are planted as an immediate cash crop. The principle idea for the family is select the biggest and juiciest watermelons from the patch and take them to sell in the market at Alamikamba, Rosita, Siuna, Bonanza, or even Puerto Cabezas. Transportation is a major problem. Usually, the watermellons are overloaded into a dugout canoe to be carefully paddled to Alamikamba. If there are so many watermelons in Alamikamba that the market is saturated - which is usually case - then transportation via bus to Rosita, Bonanza, or Siuna has to be prepaid. Such a venture is probably doomed to financial loss due to transportation cost, inevitable damage on the bus, travel expenses, etc.

The aforementioned fishing trip made me very aware of certain aspects of our annual Rio Prinzapolka watermelon ritual that I had not previously considered. Watermelon in miskitu is raya pisa literally meaning ¨new food¨. But, this product is not that new here. The Rio Prinzapolka watermelon ritual was something well established even thirty years ago when I lived here before the Revolution. It was the case even back then that farmers were forced to camp in the middle of their patches in order to protect their watermelons from raiders. I recall one time in 1978 that the two teenagers who lived with us took my headlamp and gig to supposedly paddle the river´s edge during a new moon in search of river shrimp. Years later, they admitted to me that their real objective was to sneak home with watermelons! Personally, I have noticed that the watermelons I pay for never seem to taste as good as the ones that I get otherwise!

There is another aspect of camping out with the watermelons that I do find quite refreshing. People from the communities paddle in their dugout canoes constantly day and night going to and from their tiny campsite to change turns with other family members, deliver food, haul watermelons, or visit for a short while with stranded neighbors. Communications, salutations, or simply smiles between friends, relatives, strangers, etc. are commonplace. The weather at this time of year is nearly always perfect. The image of patch after patch of ripening watermelons planted on the slopes of the riverbanks is breathtaking. And, the splashing of children in the beautiful green Rio Prinzapolka waters is inviting.

I had previously informed my recent fishing guest that we would be spending our first night of his trip open-air camping in a watermelon patch. Because of mechanical problems along the way, we arrived at our destination in complete darkness. And, we immediately set up our camp on the beach directly in front of our boats, under the stars and next to some of my miskito friends who were already camping on the site in their traditional lean-to. My guest eventually asked me in the darkness, ¨Weren´t we going to camp out in a watermelon field some place?¨ I simply responded, ¨We are!¨ The following morning when my guest awoke he was shocked to discover that he had been sleeping on a sandy beach which immediately behind and around us was totally covered with ripening giant watermelons, and, in front of him was a deep bend in the river filled with tarpon and snook waiting for us. Is the only paradise a deserted tropical island? Needless to say our appetizer and dessert that morning for breakfast came with seeds and a rind!

Our brush with watermelons and the Rio Prinzapolka watermelon ritual had only begun, however. As we travelled down the river in search of fish, we invariably encountered more and more friends with smiling faces beconning us to pull ashore and visit for a few moments. Of course each stop hastened an offer from the gracious host for a big slice of watermelon. Our guest and ourselves never refused the offer. After four days on the river eating watermelon continuously, we made one final stop to - as you guessed it - stock up on watermellons to take home.

Reflecting on my recent experience and recalling the taste of my childhood, I´ve decided to declare RIO PRINZAPOLKA - Watermelon Capitol Of The World! OK, I´m not the president of the Chamber of Commerce here - not that one exists yet. But, this could be a real boon to the municipality. And, we need to get the banners made and the promotions set up before next year´s crop starts to ripen.

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  1. kwah2249's Avatar
    Great story!
  2. mupitara's Avatar
    Last year´s watermelon season was a total flop! The rains didn´t subside until mid-March. Folks planted their watermelons December til February as per custom. But the rains destroyed the plants and/or ruined the developing watermelons.

    Folks on the river also used up virtually all of the seed they had saved from the previous year. Since there were absolutely no watermelons produced last year, there is no seed on the river this year. I´ve been in Managua, Diriamba, Jinotepe, and Masaya for the last few days buying what watermelon seed (charleston gray and mickeylee varieties) I can get my hands on to take back. This may prove to be a blessing since using commercially supplied seed assures that this year´s crop will be from quality seed. Previously, many producers have sold watermelons with excessive seeds, poor color, poor taste, etc. which I believe to be mostly due to poor seed selection through reuse.

    Since seed for virtually everything is scarce on the river, I´m also taking back peanut, ginger (roots), corn (red, yellow, and purple varieties), potato (small whole ones), canteloupe, squash, pipian, ayote, sunflower, wheat, chiltoma, papaya, onion, climbing bean, spinach, white bean, radish, carrot, beet, flor de jamaica, jicaro, cabbage, sorghum, and sapote. Now, if I can just get the people to plant and care for this stuff!
  3. tomfromsinai's Avatar
    I really enjoy his stuff.
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