Log Cabin Chronicles

Royal Orr

THE FINE HOTELS OF RAMA

ROYAL ORR

The first tropical storm of the season was blowing in over Nicaragua. The local airline had lost two planes in as many months flying in similar conditions. Our film crew passed up the offer of a flight northeast from Managua to the Atlantic coast.

But we needed to get some film of a jungle river. Could we drive to one? we asked.

Yes, we were told. Go east. To Rama.

I just spent a week and a half in Nicaragua filming a documentary for United Church Television. We were looking at the efforts to rebuild that country after Hurricane Mitch smashed into it last November.

More than 7000 people were killed during the storm and in the floods that followed it. People in Nicaragua say that these deaths were caused as much by a complete lack of emergency capacity -- basic early warning, rescue and medical services are almost non-existent -- as by the weather. What few services were in place a few years back have been allowed to crumble and collapse by governments cutting back on public services at the behest of the International Monetary Fund and other international debt holders.

The 7000 deaths, the Nicaraguans say, weren't simply an "act of God." Hurricane Mitch was more a man-made disaster than a natural one. And some of the worst damage was along those jungle rivers.

Rama was six hours from Managua over some of the roughest roads I've ever traveled. By the time we'd bounced over the Amerisque Mountains and down into the Rama River valley, it was well after dark.

Rama is a little river port, said by our hosts in the capital city to be a rough place. We rolled into the town square and pulled over. A couple of vendors strolled up to our 4x4 to sell us cornmeal cookies and Fanta in plastic bags. Glass bottles are a precious commodity in Nicaragua. When you buy a soft drink, it's poured into a little baggie for you, tied tight around a drinking straw.

An old hotel took up one side of the square, a two-storey wooden building with a tin roof and a rickety balcony that hung out over the street. Downstairs, there was a statue of the Buddha sitting impassively (as ever) in a small nook over the bar. A stuffed alligator was tacked above it. The Rama River is well known for its alligators and crocodiles. Less so for its Buddhists.

Our translator asked about rooms. The young woman behind the counter looked us over and said, yes, there were rooms available. She named a price, about $5 U.S. after the exchange, $8 for a double. It looked like the kind of town and the kind of hotel where doubling up made sense.

Could we see the rooms? She shrugged and tossed us some keys. Outside and up a wobbly stair case. An old guy peered out of the room at the top of the stairs. There was a long hallway with a bathroom at the far end. A 40-watt bulb glowed dimly over the toilet.

The doors had tiny little padlocks on them. While we fumbled with the keys, a door swung open behind us. A man slipped by as we glanced back. A young woman -- a girl, really -- sat on the bed, a sheet tangled beneath her.

The translator and I exchanged looks.

How do you say "brothel" in Spanish? I asked. The translator nodded. Let's look somewhere else, she said.

The old man watched our retreat. We thanked the woman downstairs. Out on the square, our cameraman waited by the truck.

Not exactly the Hilton, he smiled, sipping on his Fanta.

We managed to find another hotel just outside town. Just as old and decrepit. Not as much commercial activity, though. Halfway through the night I awoke to a tickling sensation on my leg. My bed was crawling with red ants. I slept fitfully in a rocking chair. By about four in the morning, the brothel had started to seem (unexpectedly) like the superior accommodation.

Royal Orr is a writer and broadcaster living in Hatley, Quebec.


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