Yesterday we were driving near what’s left of a village (not much) on the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua, armed with a video camera to document the disaster. Except for sun breaks out to sea, patches of aquamarine water glittering beneath them, sullen clouds prevailed. Much of the land was unnaturally green. What had been a rain forest was now a debris field, the majority of the trees having been uprooted by160 mph winds, their crowns stripped, shredded into confetti-sized pieces and distributed across miles and miles—it looked as if someone had scattered salad makings over the entire region. Rivers were turned into sludge by earth and wreckage, and the mud that covered the rest of the land was a horrid gray, as of putrefaction. The sea was so polluted that lobster diving has been banned, depriving the survivors of their major source of income. An entire eco-system had been annihilated.
Now and then we passed a concrete block structure—most wooden houses were smashed flat or had been whirled away or otherwise rendered unlivable. Livestock and people had fled into the swamps for safety and there many of them died. Early on, Honduran radio was reporting four deaths as a result of the storm, yet we ourselves saw far more than four decomposing bodies and heard stories of hundreds of people trapped on hilltops by the storm surge and dying of thirst, of the Mosquito Cays swept clean of the fisherman who lived there, and countless other stories detailing similar tragedies. I suspect the actual toll may be in the thousands, and that toll will go higher as cholera, typhus, malaria and other epidemics sweep through the population. The human cost of Felix will ultimately exceed that of Katrina, if it has not already done so. Millions of dollars of relief are said to have poured into the country, yet where is it? Not here, not in Puerto Cabezas or along the Rio Coco. Probably it’s in warehouses in Managua and Tegucigalpa, waiting to be sold by profiteers. The only signs of relief I saw were a handful of Nicaraguan and Honduran doctors, sleep-deprived and almost out of medical supplies.
There is this, too. Many of those who are in the region, trying to help, are crucially flawed by hero complexes and megalomania. For instance, there’s a man whom I’ve worked with for several years—he’s a good man and he gets stuff done and he’s committed to human rights work, but he likes to paint himself as the little guy battling monster corporations and implacable forces. He enjoys that David-versus-Goliath scenario a bit too much. He has to do things his way and if he can’t, if a mistake is pointed out or an idea comes along that doesn’t originate in his head, one that might make the struggle easier, his stubbornness is engaged. He can’t put his ego aside and so he keeps on screwing up or not taking advantage of opportunities. I reckon he’s lost thousands of dollars because of this flaw, money that could have been used to save lives. His altruistic impulses, his considerable energy and competence, have been compromised by his ego.
I know a lot of guys like him, doing work that no one else seems willing to do, but not doing it optimally because their ego gets in the way of their noble intent. Perhaps it takes such imperfect men--men who fancy themselves modern day Robin Hoods or Zapatas, whose grandiose schemes are subverted by their unshakable conviction that their way is the only way--to do charitable work on the Mosquito Coast, to risk assassination from a variety of illegitimate agencies in what is literally a land without law, a violent and decaying backwater run by cocaine dealers and villains of every stamp. Perhaps operating amidst villainy turns them that way, causes then to adopt a heroic pose. Perhaps, to a lesser degree, I myself am such a man—though I’m far from heroic, I’m not unaware that my self-image is tied-up in these infrequent journeys. But I have learned one thing that these men seem incapable of learning: sometimes you have to become egoless (or at least redirect your ego) in order achieve your goals; sometimes you have to let others take the credit or get the glory or believe they’re leading the way. That said, I’d work with him again, with any of them. He and guys like him are the only game in town (except for the Moravians, who—unlike most missionaries—are not fools, but are limited in the scope of their activities; they can’t go extra-legal when the need arises and their good works are confined to a small area). These men hand-deliver food and water and medicine to places other people can’t and won’t go. They’re a quick response team in a place where the response times are woefully slow under the best of circumstances. They don’t make things easy for someone who wants to help—they’re 501 3-C charities with no Paypal buttons or 800 numbers, because they’ve been doing without contributions for years, running hustles to raise money or using their own money. They don’t expect contributions, and their expectations in this regard are usually met. Right now they need blankets, medicine, and non-perishable food. Contact Corazon a Corazon if you have anything to spare.
Or contact Robet Izdepski at Subocean safety through his blog:
They’ll see that whatever is sent gets there.
On the edge of the village, we came upon a group of Miskitia Indians amid the wreckage of houses that had been splintered, their roofs stripped away and their planking snapped. Most didn’t even glance up, too enervated to care who we were or why we had come. We passed out bottles of water and rice. The ex-medic with us treated them for exposure and lacerations and so on, but he couldn’t really do much. There was a dank, heated stench and every breeze brought a new foulness. Some of the survivors stared into the camera lens with puzzled expressions, as though hoping it would supply an answer to some fundamental question. Some wandered aimlessly away, picking over the debris. Some wore no clothes. It was like a bomb had gone off and, weeks after the fact, the survivors were still wobbling about the crater. There’s no FEMA here, no Brownie to blame, not even that kind of incompetent effort being made.
A middle-aged woman in a man’s grimy shirt and equally grimy panties approached us and pointed to a crippled house on stilts that had somehow remained standing on three legs, tilted, one corner resting on the ground. Her face was horribly twisted. I assumed she was disfigured; then I noticed that on occasion the muscles of her face would relax for a second, yet they always returned to that clenched expression, a reflex driven by some unbearable inner tension.
“The boys that live there…they died,” she said. “Their father off looking for them. He says the wind have took the little one, and the big one chase after him.”
She walked a few paces away and stared back at us expectantly. We followed her. She led us to another decimated house.
“This family have drowned, I think,” she said. “They washed out to sea, I know that.”
She continued to lead us from homesite to homesite, announcing the specific tragedies that had done for the former inhabitants. She was not in the least emotional. Her delivery was matter-of-fact. It was as though she had been assigned this duty and it had become routine for her. When she concluded her tour, she stood nodding, as if to say that’s all she had for us. I wanted to ask about her family, but I thought that doing so might remind her of the thing that traumatized her and that, in turn, might shatter what I suspected was her only strength, her stoic façade.
There are hundreds of villages like this. Seriously. Hundreds.
I began this piece or blog entry or whatever in a Tegucigalpa hotel room. Now it’s a few days later and I’m at home. My mood, as blog prompts might have it, is “disconsolate”—LJ has, unthinkably, no “apocalyptic” setting. My music is “It’s All Shit” by the Soothsayers. I’ve come to realize that blogs are generally unsuited for this sort of material. Blogs—most I’ve looked at, anyway--are displays of attitude. They’re for hanging out with friends; for practicing one’s disaffection; for preaching to choirs; for pretending to be clever; for exalting the trivial; for striking poses; for taking a piss on bad actors and creepy politicians and rock stars, people who won’t be affected by what is said, and for taking shots at other people who will be; for voicing petty disagreements or differences; for talking about books and movies and so forth; for celebrating Things We Like; for deriding Things We Hate; for self-promotion and play. These are all pastimes I approve of and participate in. But this…the only reason I’m putting it here is that I have nowhere else to put it and because I think the story deserves as much light as it can get. I began writing it in hopes of moving people to become pro-active, but I went off on a tangent and lost my focus. I don’t want this to become just another exercise in ego, so I’m going to post it and hope someone responds and otherwise leave it be. I need to begin again and write an article I can place before a wider audience…though I’ve come to doubt that people can be moved by something so distant from their personal concerns. There are too many calls on their attention, too much going on in their lives, too little news and too much infotainment, too much noise and distraction for them to heed the cries of hundred and fifty thousand people whose fates are playing out in virtual secret, having no more impact on the world than the tree falling in the forest that no one hears and that does not, despite philosophical arguments to the contrary, really exist.