Going Places: Tales from the road: Postcards from Central America

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By Jim Gould

July 17: Siuna, North Atlantic Autonomous Region, Nicaragua

As I said before, the Bosawas rainforest is prime for eco-tourism. But there's always a "however." What happens to us today in town, for example.

A campesino asks us if we want to buy what he has in the stained grain bag he's carrying. Inside are the pelts from two big cats. Beautifully spotted ocelots. No one knows how many are out there. Two less now. This guy says they were eating his chickens, so he shot them. Offers the skins for 200 cordobas each. About $25.

It's not surprising that no one knows how many cats are in the Bosawas. Fact is, no one really knows how many of anything is out there. Howler monkeys, tapirs, assorted species of parrots, frogs, exotic reptiles, ferns, orchids, trees, on and on. Cloudforest, humid tropical rainforest, montane rainforest. All there. Uncharted, unsurveyed, unstudied, unmapped.

At breakfast, a barrel-bellied man sits at the table next to us. He's carrying a big gun in a holster. Through whispers, the waitress tells us he is a rearmada, a former Contra. They and many followers and plain old poor folk want land, and the stinking government, they say, has all of this free land just sitting around the reserve, so it's time to take it.

Screw deeds. Screw the law. We're the law, they say. Eating my eggs and beans, and armed with only a Swiss Army knife, it's hard to come up with a counterargument. The Bosawas' 2.5 million acres is being eaten up and spat out as ranchland, and the government, hard-pressed by any number of equally valid concerns like not allowing the country to slip back in civil war, for one, cannot enforce anything this far from Managua.

Later, sharing too many beers with Hans and Rob, listening to their Bosawas dreams, hearing ideas about ecotourism in the region, I count. In my head. But I keep having to start over. I am counting the number of flies on the next table. I get as far as 31, but two dogs wrestling nearby keep banging into the table leg, and the flies are scattered midair for a second, then land in a new pattern. My count is interrupted again when a drunken man, the local surgeon, grabs one of the dogs, throws it on the table and, with the dog howling, he pulls a tick from its foot. He shows it to me, puts the tick on the table, and crushes it beneath his nail. I hear the pop of the tick's exoskeleton above the ranchero music, and watch its blood seep into the weave of the tablecloth. I cancel my order for another plate of rice and beans.

Jim Gould is a professor of writing and literature in the environmental studies program at Paul Smith's College in the Adirondacks. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, New York Magazine, and other publications.

Other info on travel in Central America

Notes of an accidental eco-tourist
Postcards from Central America. Our correspondent
rambles in search of answers to the eco-tourism myth.

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