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Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

MAGNIFICENT Corn Islands

Caribbean getaway far off the beaten path

Posted: 01/18/2014 1:00 AM | Comments: 0

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The lobster trawlers bob like toys in a bathtub, tipping with every swell of grey sea. I watch from a crowd of Nicaraguans about to board the day's last panga, or public ferryboat, wondering whether the storm is as bad as it looks.

The word I keep overhearing is "angry." In Spanish, English and a Creole that sounds like English flipped inside out and set to a beat, everyone's calling the sea -- our only highway -- angry.

Such is the medley of languages 40-some miles off the coast of Nicaragua, on the Corn Islands. For centuries, these two landmasses on the Caribbean map had little to do with mainland Nicaragua. They were pirate territory, coconut-tree-lined refuges for the likes of the ruthless privateer Captain Morgan.

It wasn't until 1894 that Nicaragua claimed these fringe islands. But, with no roadways linking the capital to the marshy eastern coastline, the Corns remained a world apart. To this day, islanders still bear surnames such as Quinn and Campbell, play more reggae than salsa, and every August, around the 27th, the day the slaves were emancipated, they crown another local beauty island queenla at a festival featuring crab soup.

There's a Big Corn and a Little Corn, and the traveller's first quandary is to pick her Corn. I say quandary, because these islands are different in both style and scale ("big" means 6,000 people; "little" fewer than 1,000) and what separates them is about 16 kiolometres of often turbulent sea.

My plan was to depart for Little Corn as soon as my puddle-jumper landed on the bigger island. The reason was simple: In every story I'd read about Little Corn, the writer sounded a little shocked by how totally the place calmed him. Clearly, Little Corn cast a particular spell.

"Hurry!" Our captain cuts off my doubts and sends us all running with fire-drill panic toward our thrashing panga boat. I'm seasick before it leaves the dock.

At last, the captain takes aim at a skinny band of beach, and we're told to leap off the back of the panga, toward the kelp-strewn sand. Someone points out the sunset, but heads are down, nausea pervasive. I take a quick look: The sun is a gold blotch, bleeding pink into the wooly wreath of clouds. It could hardly look more distant, well on its way to the west of Nicaragua.

-- -- --

There are no cars on Little Corn, no buzz of motorcycles, no throttle or honk of any sort disturb the air. You hear just two things as you wind around the cement footpath that is this island's only thoroughfare: the crash and withdrawal of waves.

Waves awoke me early, in a cerulean-blue shack perched above the southern shore of Little Corn. Such is lodging at Casa Iguana, which borrows well from the palette of Corn Island homes -- creamy purple, cool turquoise, the deep yellow of ripened mango. It's tucked back in a carefully manicured jungle, where hibiscus vines dome over damp dirt pathways. My shack-for-one, rustic and yet so ready for me (flashlight, mosquito net, three novels in a pile), invited the delusion that I could just stay here and live, overlooking an empty beach.

So did the mood at the communal dinner. A ringleted blond on the staff handed me a basil mojito, then plantain chips on the house. The catch of the day was cooking somewhere as guests pattered in, barefoot. A Californian named Blake struggled to tell me when he'd arrived - "Tuesday?" How soon I could feel the complete dissolve of home's priorities. Was it ludicrous to ask about a wireless signal here, where fireflies beaded the darkness and pirates once strung up hammocks?

I did, only to wish that I hadn't. The last thing one should gaze into from Little Corn Island is a full inbox. I shut the hotel laptop and drifted back toward the dinner table, where everyone was talking scuba. Corn Island travellers chat about diving conditions the way bankers discuss stocks -- everything here hinges on the clarity of the sea. A non-diver, I couldn't get into it, so I wandered off into the inky dark toward my abode, intent on exploring Little Corn first thing in the morning.

It's very early when I step outside. With neither a watch nor a phone, I read the only available time clues: bare feet dangling from hammocks, and a few toes peeking out from shored boats. It's the crack of dawn on Little Corn Island.

Harris is the first alert person I meet. An older man with the muscles of a sailor, Harris is scraping the scales off a yellowtail snapper as the waves curl toward the sand just behind him. A native of the island, Harris assures me I've come to the better Corn. Why? "Children can run around without the scare of cars."

The foot traffic is gentle as I step back onto the path, and without meaning or trying, I merge with Ronald and Richard. Both 21, both wearing baggy jeans to their shins, and both members of an Afro-Caribbean group called Garifuna, Ronald and Richard could pass for twins. Their native language, a mix of Arawak, Carib, English, French and Spanish, speaks to how many cultures fused along the Atlantic coast of Central America.

There's something familiar about my dynamic with these two, and I put my finger on it only after we've wedged through barbed-wire fences, crossed a cattle pasture, and lobbed bruised mangoes up at a tree until it gave us the fresh ones, and we're standing below a lighthouse that Ronald and Richard gently dare me to climb.

Childhood: It all reminds me an awful lot of life at age 11. Maybe that's the sort of paradise I'm in the mood for, more than the Eden of escape, the one that loops you back to a simpler, playful time.

The Little Corn lighthouse is no innocent dare, though. You climb it the way you would a ladder -- straight up. And if you happen to have just peeled a sticky mango, it feels more like three grip-resistant ladders, back to back.

I'm doing OK until the brightness strikes. A wash of light means we've cleared the tree line. We are higher than the tallest coconut trees on Little Corn Island.

Take your time, take your time. My breathing gets loud, my pauses long. At last, my sticky hand finds the platform. It's round and towering, like a crow's nest.

Inhaling, I taste salt -- the ocean is that close. Land hogs so little of this panorama, the island's outline hugging us tightly. Little Corn is a single comma on an otherwise blue sheet.

Many other things keep this Corn feeling little, and the lighthouse is a prime place to take stock: no hotel pools, no tennis courts, nothing taller than two storeys. A boutique hotel called Yemaya is under construction, I'm told, but the plans sound small-scale, unlikely to upset the island's treetop-to-rooftop ratio.

My gaze drifts offshore to the marbled waters that distinguish Corn Island beaches in photographs. It's a curious patchwork of navy and aqua, like two different oceans, about to mix hues. But the contrast only intensifies as the sun does; by midday it's a stunning patchwork, some mirage of the sea, or in my case, a summons to slip under water.

-- The Washington Post.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 18, 2014 E6

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