The Curse Of Geography

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by Sidd Joag, Alberto Arce and German Andino.investigation.By Sidd Joag, Alberto Arce and German Andino34The Curse of Geography - La MosquitiaBy Sidd Joag, Alberto…
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by Sidd Joag, Alberto Arce and German Andino.investigation.By Sidd Joag, Alberto Arce and German Andino34The Curse of Geography - La MosquitiaBy Sidd Joag, Alberto Arce and German Andino5La Mosquitia The lobsters are removed from a freezer and placed in water to thaw. Another pot is put on the stove to heat. When the water boils, the lobster is dropped in for a minute or two and scooped out when the shell is soft. Then, “you put down a board and you hit it with a rock,” the cook says, “so that the shell starts coming off slowly. Because it has spines, you have to know how. With the knife, pull out as much of the guts as possible. There we add the garlic and spices.” These rock lobsters are local, from La Mosquitia, Honduras. They are served “traditional-style”: surrounded by slices of plantain, beans, and rice and salad. It’s May, and lobster season starts in July. Selling them now is illegal, because the lobsters are not fully grown. They tell us this, sincerely, at peace with the law and its absence. The lobsters here are cheap— around $10 a plate. A fraction of the price a single lobster can fetch in North America and Europe. Two men enter the restaurant. They order beer and sit at the corner of the bar. One is an American from Roatán, blonde with a cap pulled down to his blue eyes speaking a mix of Honduran Spanish and English. He has a sour expression and seems suspicious. He says that he was the captain of a lobster boat. He speaks abruptly, like he’s spitting bullets. “The problem with Honduras is there’s no respect, there’s no law,” he says. “The Miskito divers their accidents are their fault. Instead of making money working, instead of letting the business improve...they use drugs, drink. They have accidents and then ask for help to get better.” He goes silent.*** La Ceiba, after dark. On the dock, we watch a dozen men work in an assembly line passing empty crates and stacking them on to a large ship. The crates are used to transport rock lobsters caught in the Caribbean Sea. The electricity is out and the small shack outside the gate that serves as a bar is lit by a single candle. Divers, with broad shoulders and arms of stone, drop in for a beer or two, speaking in hushed tones. The depth of the sea, the pressure to deliver product. The race against time, time spent underwater. The quick ascent when the oxygen runs out, the accidents. A tall fair skinned man walks in and around the bar into a back room. From his demeanor and reaction he elicits, he is likely the captain of this ship. The atmosphere tenses. An armed port authority guard shiftily appears and disappears, in the flickering light, trying to look casual while making note of the goings-on. It is in La Ceiba that much of the lobster caught off the Honduran coast are prepared for transport to North America. Once a lively beach town, La Ceiba has become a major transit point for cocaine being trafficked through Central America, and has taken on a more sinister air in recent years. Eventually, some of the divers ask and then demand money to eat. They surround us and it starts to get sketchier. Our cab driver hustles us into his car and speeds off down the road. 6The Curse of Geography - La MosquitiaBy Sidd Joag, Alberto Arce and German Andino78The Curse of Geography - La MosquitiaBy Sidd Joag, Alberto Arce and German Andino910The Curse of Geography - La Mosquitia*** Flying southeast over the 300 miles of coastline from La Ceiba, you pass over Pico Bonito, Trujillo, Caxina Point, and Puerto Castilla. Mountains covered in dense tropical rainforest, carved out by a scattering of lagoons and long winding rivers that lead to the sea. There is speculation that this breathtaking landscape holds the ruins of the legendary Ciudad Blanca or White City. From time to time you can see craters, the remains of clandestine airstrips cleared by drug traffickers and then blasted by the Honduran military. A scarred landscape of lush greens punctuated by patches of red and brown. The tiny, twin propeller plane lands on a plowed dirt field, kicking up a cloud of dust. Soldiers carrying machine guns check identification here and copy down the information. They are stern looking with puffed chests, but it is clear that they are in their late teens, early twenties at best, and perhaps not as confident as they let on. Puerto Lempira, the capital city of Gracias a Dios, the eastern most state in Honduras, is not a city at all. The airport is less than five minutes from the single paved road that cuts through the center of town leading to the main dock. The dock extends a few hundred meters into the Caratasca lagoon and is the lifeline of the city. Before 1957, Gracias a Dios was a territory without any governing body. Today it is governed by its neglect. Gracias a Dios—Thanks to God—is the official name of La Mosquitia, an area of the Honduran Caribbean coast shared with Nicaragua. Translated as the Mosquito Coast, the villages here are so difficult to get to that only a handful of adventure tourists, scientists, NGO workers, and missionaries penetrate their isolation. The landscape is a convergence of tropical rainforest, mangrove forests, swamps, and floodplains. There is only one dirt road—unusable for most of the year—linking the capital, Puerto Lempira, with some surrounding villages. The capital itself can only be reached by small boats and planes. Travel is treacherous and is often limited to night in order to avoid the suffocating heat. There has been no investment in local infrastructure. Electricity is provided only a few hours a day and otherwise by gasoline powered generators. Most homes have no running water and there is no proper sanitation system. Without septic tanks, many of the stilted houses sit elevated above large pools of human waste. The people here, known as the Miskitos, are said to be a mix of descendants of shipwrecked African slaves, and the Kukra Sumo along with six other indigenous tribes. Varying historical accounts, generations of intermarrying, and no accurate census make it hard to pinpoint their exact origins. They are a forgotten people, trapped in the most isolated corner of one of the poorest countries in the Western hemisphere. The only State presence here are the young soldiers who patrol the streets, migrating between the dock and a military base, and a handful of underpaid, complaining doctors and teachers. Two-thirds of the population in Gracias a Dios are poor and 22 percent live in extreme poverty. More than one in five are illiterate. Only four out of every 10 inhabitants go to school for more than seven years. Median per capita income is a little more than $1,000 per year. That’s about eight times less than in the country’s capital city, Tegucigalpa. A quarter of all Miskito families are entirely dependent on 30 boats that catch lobster for export to the United States. Children play around burning piles of garbage, along with stray dogs and the large black vul-tures that are ubiquitous in town. Chickens dart across the roads in front of motorcycles, the remains of the unlucky ones flattened into the dirt. When the torrential downpours hit, shovels are used to dig out the mud gutters clogged with plastic bottles and cardboard scraps to stop the streets from flooding. In the middle of the day, people stand or lay around idly staring off into space. It is heat and dust. There is a feeling of hostility and hopelessness that hangs in the air here. Mosquitoes fill your mouth and eyes as soon as the sun goes down. By Sidd Joag, Alberto Arce and German Andino11Down the road where the pavement ends, Edgardo Bence Smith hobbles on crutches, dragging his broken body. He has a kind face, smiling with sparse facial hair, and leathery brown skin. In two precise, powerful, agile movements he shoots one crutch forward into a ditch, pole-vaults and leaps across. “When I’m sitting, it bothers me a lot because the blood isn’t dancing, so I’m a walker,” he says. He speaks quietly, you almost can’t hear him.Edgardo Bence. La Moskitia, Honduras.12The Curse of Geography - La MosquitiaHe says he is 36, but he looks at least ten years older than that. He pulls off his hat emblazoned with “The Money Team” and takes out a folded piece of lined paper that someone else has written for him. He can’t read or write. It explains that because of his physical state he is unable to work. He asks for small bills, to buy food for his family and the medications he needs. “I dove with a hose, tank, free dive, snorkel, mask, I was good at it. Miskito divers have the courage to die.” He continues in the Spanish of the Miskitos: “Yo saqué un huevo, saqué el corazón: When I’m diving the salt water grabs my heart.” He lifts his shirt to show a scar on the left side of his chest just below his heart. He truly believes that after diving for 20 years, a spirit arrived in the night to punish him by taking his heart and a lung. “The water was really dirty. So I thought it was a little shallow, but I’m going down and down and I don’t find the bottom…and I look at the watch and I’m at 160 feet. I wanted to surface, we were really deep then, but I see a hill, a rock, a lot of lobster walking. Pow, pow, pow, I grab them and I leave. Up in the canoe, bam, my head is dizzy, crazy, my head hurts, it hurts, I say to the canoe guy ‘let’s go, I’m already dead.’” Edgardo had two diving accidents: one in 2000 and the other in early 2017. Many divers have no choice but to go back to sea after the first accident. The second time is always worse. Some, like Edgardo, with rehabilitation, can regain some strength in their legs. But often the recovery itself leads to them to a third accident, when the only alternative to diving is hunger. Edgardo says that a while after the accident he went to the home of the person who had hired him and threatened to burn down his house. He left with 20,000 Lempiras compensation, about 850USD, more or less 50USD for each year of work. Now he repairs clothing and shoes in Puerto Lempira to support himself while he tries to rehabilitate. And, of course, he begs. Edgardo is one of an estimated 2,000–4,500 divers in La Mosquitia who has suffered decompression sickness, also known as “the bends.” This the result of diving to depths of 50 metres to retrieve lobsters from the bottom of the Caribbean Sea. For approximately 9,000 Miskito men in Honduras and Nicaragua, it is the only form of gainful employment. A livelihood at the cost of a life. In La Mosquitia, at least one in ten men of working age are paralyzed as a result of a workplace accident. A 2012 study by the Honduran Center for Marine Ecology in collaboration with the Smithsonian Marine Station found an even higher figure: 18 percent of all working age males. When they tried to take a census, they found 1,180 handicapped divers and some 2,500 active divers. In 2016, the Association of Handicapped Divers counted 1,150 handicapped divers in half of the region’s municipalities, but did not have funds to canvas the entire area. The doctor who led the count, Ana Paz, estimates there are more than 2,000 handicapped divers. A statistical projection in a place with no measure for pain. Ana Paz believes that there could be even more, as every week she adds at least two new files to her archive. Edgardo limps away, the cartoon lobster imprinted on his t-shirt peeking out from under his backpack. Edgardo is one of the lonely ghosts who haunt Puerto Lempira. Disabled and discarded, dragging themselves around on half-broken crutches or makeshift wheel chairs fitted with hand pedals, moving as fast their arms can push the chain that moves the wheels. They collect cans and beg to survive. Because adequate medical attention is either unavailable or unaffordable, they are often abandoned by family members unable to care for them. Notwithstanding alcoholism, drug addiction, and domestic violence which distances them further. In addition to marijuana and rum, crack is the drug of choice for the divers. A distraction from the weeks spent risking their lives collecting as many lobsters as physically possible before their contracts, or the air in their lungs runs out. Another crippled diver takes shelter from the rain under a restaurant awning. He is over 50 years old. By Sidd Joag, Alberto Arce and German Andino13With broken eyes, he speaks broken Spanish in a broken voice, explaining that he needs to recycle 100 cans to buy a pound of rice. So far he has three cans. He pedals off with his wife walking beside him, slowly, adjusting to the rhythm of the wheelchair.***14The Curse of Geography - La MosquitiaBy Sidd Joag, Alberto Arce and German Andino15Hundreds of divers have experienced nitrogen narcosis and have suffered for years before dying from illnesses related to their paralysis.16The Curse of Geography - La MosquitiaBy Sidd Joag, Alberto Arce and German Andino1718The Curse of Geography - La MosquitiaBy Sidd Joag, Alberto Arce and German Andino1920The Curse of Geography - La MosquitiaBy Sidd Joag, Alberto Arce and German Andino2122The Curse of Geography - La MosquitiaBy Sidd Joag, Alberto Arce and German Andino2324The Curse of Geography - La MosquitiaBy Sidd Joag, Alberto Arce and German Andino2526The Curse of Geography - La MosquitiaBy Sidd Joag, Alberto Arce and German Andino27“...the Miskitos are an abortion of the earth.” A small motorboat, overcrowded with twenty passengers and heaps of luggage, skips like a stone thrown hard across the Caratasca Lagoon. Each time it lands, the boat feels like it could split in two. Passing rain and gusts of wind are a refreshing break from the sticky humidity in which clothing never seems to completely dry. This is La Mosquitia’s nerve center—uniting and separating Puerto Lempira from a narrow passage of land that stretches along the Caribbean coast of Gracias a Dios. Two parallel coastlines. One of dense mangrove forests, tall, whimsical palm trees, fruits of all kinds, exotic birds, and free-roaming horses. The other a sprawling beach bracing the deepest parts of the Caribbean Sea. The boat docks in a town called Kaukira. According to Miskito myth, the Kaukiro is a creature—half horse, half man—that lived in the region’s forests. A single dirt road runs through the middle, with smaller paths meandering through the villages. Strings of bright colored clothing sway in the breeze. It is reminiscent of a tranquil literary paradise, full of promise, transformed into a banana republic fraught with contention. Instead of bananas, in La Mosquitia it is the lobsters and cocaine. Langostas y cocaina. Kaukira could be paradise, but it isn’t. Every hundred meters or so an enormous puddle fills the entire street leaving only narrow paths on the sides for motorbikes and foot traffic. There is scattered garbage and piles of dung everywhere. The broken, rusted skeletons of trucks and motorbikes dumped by the sides of houses, seem abandoned exactly where they stopped working. People idle in the shade of their porches in small groups, sometimes listening to music screeching from smart phones, watching TV, or staring at nothing in particular, in silence. It seems that the things that break here, are never fixed. Glenys Aguilar is a strong, stout, energetic, 27-year old woman with a warm smile. She runs one of the two restaurants in town. A pair of dog tags hang around her neck, souvenirs from her days in the navy. In addition to running her restaurant, she catches jellyfish which are sold to China and Japan. Next door to Glenys’s restaurant is the local police station and jail. The jail is a short concrete structure, two cells with bars and locks on the door. Adolpho, an acquaintance of Glenys’s, jokingly says that he spent twenty-fours in the jail for beating his wife. He holds two fingers under his nose and makes an unintelligible joke likening himself to Adolph Hitler. When asked why he beats his wife, he seems confused. He shrugs and attributes it to jealousy and machismo. Not long after he walks a short distance away with a friend to smoke crack. “My grandfather used to say the Miskitos are an abortion of the earth.” According to Glenys, domestic violence, sexual abuse, and incest are common here. When young girls become pregnant by their fathers, they are blamed for seducing them, then beaten and ostracized. She says she was impregnated by an older man when she was fourteen, a local police officer. She was kicked out of her home and forced to marry. But she wears none of the bitterness or emptiness that could accompany the theft of her youth. Everyone in town seems to know and respect her.*** When speed boats from Colombia, Venezuela or Panama are chased by the Honduran navy, traffickers throw packages of cocaine into the sea. A few days later the packages wash ashore or get caught on the nearby cays, sometimes in spots where lobster boats drop anchor. 28The Curse of Geography - La MosquitiaIt happens all along the coast, not just here, Glenys says. “Those people who walk along the beach?” she asks, and answers, “they do that all day and night, walking and hoping to find a package of cocaine. Young people don’t look for jobs. It’s better to waste time looking for drugs, even though it’s like finding a needle in a haystack, than to look for work because there isn’t any.” It’s a question of luck, she says. “I have an uncle who has spent years walking on the beach and he’s never found a package, and during this same time there are people who have found a lot, and you say: ‘damn, this guy is so lucky!’ As if it came especially for him.” Few hide such luck. Walking through Kaukira you can find among the dilapidated wooden shacks and evangelical churches, gleaming new houses with four-wheel drive pickups parked out front. Locals say some have hot tubs and air conditioning. In a place with unreliable electricity it means they also have the money to run a generator for pleasure, as opposed to necessity. When these packages arrive you have to be careful. Glenys says that people have been killed between the beach where they recovered a package, and their home where they went to hide it. When a lobster boat finds one they have to divide it between everyone on the boat. The threat of word getting around is very real. Worse than being ratted out to the military or the police, is being identified to those who want their product back. “There are civilized people who say: I saw you got one; give me my share or somebody is going to die.” This violence directly tied to drugs is not properly (if at all) accounted for in public statistics. Often the drug planes shot down by the military do not even make the news. So one, two, or three weeks after a package lands—something that happens at least once a month—someone arrives with cash for product. On that day, the town shuts down and people spread the money around. “Five-hundred lempira notes flying around town.” Glenys smiles. Ultimately, she is a businesswoman. “That has affected the price of things here, which are double or triple what you pay in the city. If something costs 100 lempiras and you ask them for 300, they pay it because it is easy money. And since they have it [money], and a lot of it, they do it.” But, while these illicit pockets of wealth exist, most people are not building houses. Instead, they shut down a cantina, drinking and eating until the money is gone. While Glenys speaks, one crack smoking friend is joined by another. Others are snorting cocaine from a package that washed ashore. In the face of inhuman work conditions, and the constant risk of death, divers discovered that crack and cocaine makes them fearless. When they are high they are able to withstand hours of exhaustion and darkness 100 feet below the surface. But whether they are drifters or divers, eventually they get hooked. The way Glenys tells it, “the cocaine, the weed, and drinking have made my people lazy and the ill-gotten money doesn’t build hospitals, and when it comes ti
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