El Doc

They Call This Work??

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The Corn Islands (pronounced: Karn AYE-lands) are only an hour and a half and $160 away from Managua (round trip). A turbo-prop puddle jumper from the domestic terminal and it's smooth sailing at 10,000 feet (I know, cuz I was watching the instruments over the pilot's shoulder the whole time while he was reading a newspaper that covered the entire front windscreen); you can see down the length of Cocibolca all the way to the Solentiname archipelago while you're still climbing out, Granada, Zapatera and Ometepe steadily fall behind by on the right; over the hills of Chontales and off into the jungle … beautiful green like none that you've seen. Rivers are everywhere, roads not so much. There are sparse signs of people no matter where you are, but they're spaced far apart; a ranch here, a little one-road town there, thin line of red earth like Africa stretching off to nowhere, every once in a while something that looks like a little airfield carved out of the middle of the jungle … clearly just a logging camp. I mean, everyone knows the best place to do your logging is in the middle of 50 miles of unbroken jungle and no logging road anywhere in sight … cuz that's where the really good wood is. You cut a 800 by 50 strip and then move on to another stand of trees. Real conservationists, those loggers. I didn't see nothin', that's for sure. Anybody asks, I didn't see nothin' but logging camps.

View of the North End (pronounced NAR-tend), Big Corn Island. Our panga is the second from the right. It looks even smaller in 5-foot seas when there's no land in sight and only one life vest onboard.

As the Caribbean coast comes into sight, you quickly see it whiz by behind you. Pearl Lagoon up to the north, the Cays like little buoys (more on that later). We're really speeding like anemic bats out of a somewhat okay place now; 160 knots IAS as we descend to somewhere I still can't see ahead because the instrument panel on that bird looked like it was 6-feet tall. By now the pilot put his newspaper away) The sea alongside is an endless glow of turquoise water punctuated by bright holes of white sand and endless dark blue plains of seagrass and coral. The ocean is a desert with its life underground and the perfect disguise above (every once in a while America hit on a good lyric, though I'm sure most their songs were about heroin, especially “I Need You” and “Sandman”; go back and listen again and tell me those guys weren't comfortably numb).

Suddenly, just out of the left side of the pilot's window, the Island comes into sight. We're only at around 1,000 feet now and it's coming up fast. There's a long sandy beach with happy little cabanas the right and a pier that juts out directly in line with final approach. That's when you see it, a long strip of asphalt that runs half the length of the island, a monolithic public works project that has served as the express-ride to the world for Corn Islanders and at one time a pretty handy staging area for arms shipments during the war. Didn't matter who's side, government, contras, drug runners, pharmaceutical reps, . . . but anyway, it's very strategically located on the only piece of land anywhere near there that is big enough for an airstrip, so that's where you put it. I would soon learn that this not only serves as the runway for two flights daily, but it's also the main north-south thoroughfare for pedestrians, bicycles, cattle and horses. Hey, can't let asphalt that beautiful go to waste. 45-degree turn onto final and here we are. They didn't even pass with the drink cart!

A diadema urchin on the fringe reef around Carambilla Cay, Pearl Cays. Ubiquitous to all reefs in the area, these little guys sit in crevices during the day with their mildly-venomous spines sticking out to anyone who may want to eat them (a delicacy in Japan). At night, they venture out onto the reef and graze on algae. They are necessary for a healthy reef and when they die off or are harvested to excess (as they were in Honduras), the reef is quickly overrun by algae and the corals die off.

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