The lobster trawlers bob like toys in a bathtub, tipping to and fro with every swell of gray sea. I watch with 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 had little to do with mainland Nicaragua. It wasn’t until 1894 that the country 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 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 traveler’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 10 miles 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.
But watching palm trees bend back in the rainy wind, I wonder: Do I really need to sleep in Eden tonight?
“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.
There are no cars on Little Corn. No buzz of motorcycles, no throttle or honk disturbs the air. 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 — purple, 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 blonde on the staff handed me a basil mojito, then plantain chips. The catch of the day was cooking somewhere, as guests pattered in, barefoot. 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 and then into the inky dark toward my abode.
It’s early when I step outside the next morning. 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 that 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. It’s dizzying to keep up with these multilingual young men. Ronald and Richard salute passersby in Creole (“Yow bigs!”), echo back a few holas, and flip between singing American rap, Latino pop and Bob Marley like a radio on scan.
Snorkeling off the Sea Prince
Walk down the beach; look for a boat; find the guy who takes out snorkelers; bring $20.
The snorkeling guy isn’t around, but I do find men drinking 11 a.m. beer in the shade. One of them is Harris, from the other side of the island, which felt like a great coincidence, until I remembered that the “other side of the island” was what we’d call, anywhere else, “next door.” Little Corn is little more than 1 square mile.
I beam at my old friend (Harris!) and he responds in kind, offering to take me snorkeling.
The men in the shade set down their beers, rise to their feet, and push Harris and me off the beach in a motorboat called the Sea Prince.
Leaning forward on the tipped-up bow of a speeding boat, I feel like the Sea Queen. The water is so clear, I can count the mustard-colored patches of corals and see every ripple in the white sand below.
I don’t tell Harris about my phobia of ocean swimming, a fear of fish (and worse) nibbling at my feet. I don’t have to, it turns out, because snorkeling in water this clear is the perfect cure. Head submerged, I can see it all, the swerving and darting and breezy wafting of every size of fish. A school of jet-black fish with long whiskers and shimmery blue stripes turns past me with the clean synchronicity of ballerinas, and my hands stretch right out. Apparently, I want to pet them.
Harris spots a barracuda, and that’s enough to get me wriggling back into the Sea Prince. Besides, my time is short — I’m catching the afternoon panga boat back to Big Corn. This bothers Harris. “You’ll have to come back,” he says, shaking his head at my haste.
But as I scamper down the beach and grab a loaf of coconut bread from the little pink house that everyone agrees is the place for the baked variety of “coco food,” I feel secretly as if I got it right. Perhaps the perfect time to leave is just before the sunburn shows, before the waves dull into white noise, before I run into Harris a third time. Maybe it’s best to get on your way, right when you’re tempted to call a place perfect.
Lobster on Big Corn
I’m encased in red heat by the time I reach Big Corn. New freckles are menacingly dark. Quick movements hurt. I give up all ambitions of meeting the island beauty queen and decide to let the end of my journey be about one thing: lobster.
There’s a dish called rondon that brings the flesh of fresh lobster together with the milk of local coconuts, simmers the pairing in garlic and herbs, adding a full medley of Central American starches and sometimes, another whole fish. It sounds to me like a dinner that I’ll one day tell my grandchildren about.
I pick a hotel on the basis of the owner’s culinary reputation, overlooking its position beside a fish-processing plant. The plant’s constant thrumming reminds me that I’m now on the “working island,” as people call Big Corn when differentiating between the two isles. I’m willing to forgo both scenery and serenity for a taste of the best lobster stew.
Rondon cooks so slowly that I have to put in my order at breakfast. Still, when I slide onto the bar stool of the hotel restaurant after noon, I’m told to wait.
Finally, the kitchen door swings open, and my rondon floats toward me. I see no pink legs, no pincers, no shell in my coconut broth. I slice each lobster morsel into four more, to savor as slowly as possible this expertly slow-cooked stew.
I patter back to my hotel room, lobster-hued, lobster-full. Without bothering to hit the lights, I fall right into the local pose, napping with my bare feet dangling off the bed, finally under some kind of spell.
Colleen Kinder is the author of “Delaying the Real World” and teaches travel and essay writing at Yale.