Not a real tour guide but a friend
Donnie wasn’t a real tour guide, just a guy who met us at the docks of Big Corn Island and toured us around all day. He had a short afro and a forehead beaded with sweat, even at that early hour. Each tooth that was not missing was capped with gold, but his smile was warm and friendly, like that of most people we met on the island. He lured us in with promises of cheap, cold beer and a home-cooked lunch.
He became our friend when he shooed the pack of dogs away from Naomi. No sooner had she gotten out of the lancha, when a pack of stray dogs surrounded her. These were the dogs that hung out by the docks. Some tourists were generous to them. They could hijack shipments of food as they came onto the island. I told her to walk, they wouldn’t bother her, but she froze. Donnie, with a rock in hand and a threatening stomp, made them scatter.
I had met Naomi in Mexico, I found out that whatever mood she was in could be made a happy one with a nice cold beer, especially a beer at odd hours which accentuated the traveling lifestyle we had found for ourselves. While others worked, we drank – cheaply. This day was no exception.
Drinking beer early morning
We arrived on the island at 7:00 a.m., by 7:15 we were drinking beer. Donnie took us to a place where there were some other locals drinking as well. I couldn’t tell if they were there since the night, or for the morning. They were upright, I assumed this was a good drinking hour in this part of the world. The sun wasn’t fully out yet, there was still a cool breeze blowing over the island. The tables were sticky and wet. The waitress never did come around to wipe the table clean. Mosquitoes began to accumulate around us. We were tired. Donnie told us he knew of a hotel that was good. We followed him out.
The place was rickety and built of wood, but it was across the street from the beach and it had a front patio that overlooked everything. We dropped our backpacks down in the room and took a nap. We had been traveling for three days.
Squealing pig, gorgeous beach, stray dogs
By the time we woke up, the sun was out, Naomi was sitting in a chair on the patio. She looked out across the street and motioned for me to do the same. There was a group of men, Donnie among them, standing around a table with their machetes, unsheathed. Naomi told me they had just killed a pig. She described the sounds as something awful. A prolonged squeal followed by a series of happy yelps from the killers. She was bothered, but I pointed out that we were staying inches from gorgeous blue Caribbean waters. All that separated us from it was a fine, white sand beach and a narrow street, populated mostly by dogs, with their noses to the ground, sniffing out scraps of meat not yet made rancid by the powerful sun. An occasional snout would poke through the fence that guarded the patio, but the owner of the hostel – Donnie’s grandmother – came out with a broom and the dogs scattered. Naomi began to protest her methods, but I pulled her along and we were bathing within seconds.
Donnie's 5-year-old son
A small child was in the water, Donnie’s son. He was only five or so, he began splashing us and giggling. We splashed him back, he was a good sport. The water was smooth and warm, I wanted to lay in it, but the kid was riled up. I picked him up and threw him as far as I could towards sea. He flew through the air and crashed down into the water, popped right back up and came back for more. Naomi was growing weary of the kid and told him to stop in her firmest voice; that we just wanted to relax.
He dove down into the water, stayed submerged for some time, popped back up with a sea urchin in his hand. Its confused, spiky tentacles waved about. He called it a sea egg; we insisted it was a sea urchin. His argument was that inside, there is a yolky-like substance that is edible, so it is like an egg. We were amazed, gasped and said "wow". Encouraged, he swam very fast to the nearest rock that protruded through the shallow waters, smashed the sea creature, With that one impact, its shell cracked, like an egg. The boy was proud to show us what he had meant. Before Naomi insisted he eat it, not waste it, he tossed the remains of the sea egg into the sea
Preparing the pig
When we were through bathing, we decided to take a short walk. We rinsed off where the bucket of water was, standing in the mud that may have been caused by either rain or a busted sewer pipe close to the surface of the ground. We didn’t get too far before we reached Donnie and the other men, with their machetes unsheathed. He called us over. The men were gathered around a table, a newly-killed pig on it. A man was scraping its skin with the machete. They were not wearing shirts, their skin was stretched taut over their muscles. A puddle of blood mixed with mud surrounded the feet of the table. One of the men asked if I had ever seen a domestic pig before. “They have little hairs all over them.” They had slit its throat earlier and would cook it all day afrer shaving and cleaning it.
Donnie had invited us over for lunch. When we came back to the hotel, he was waiting for us. He led us beyond the swamp, the path cut through a thick forest of palm trees and bushes with leaves larger than a person; they were dripping with dew even though it was midday and the sun was at full strength elsewhere on the island. The sky was barely visible. Without the sunlight to dry it, the ground was muddy. I took off my shoes, the mud cooled my feet. The path led us to an opening onto the main street, also muddy, that traversed the island. This was the street where most people seemed to live. Donnie recognized everyone he passed. Each house was a wooden shack with a corrugated tin roof and a hammock slung across the front. Donnie’s was no different.
There was one room with a bed in the corner. We sat on it. A stove was in the back with a large pot on it. Donnie brought the pot over to us and dug out a small, fried yellow-tail fish. He bit into it and it crunched. He offered some to us. It was quite good, sweet, a bit dry. Donnie used the juice of a coconut to season it. When we were done, we were tired and went back for a nap.
Our nap ended with the sound of pounding on our door. The room was small. the planks of wood that comprised the door were weathered and thin. The knocking jolted me awake. Donnie had come by with a garbage bag full of fried pig skins – fried from the pig that was being shaven earlier. He offered us as much as we wanted. The entire skin of the pig was in the bag. Still drowsy, I grabbed some and crunched into them. They were tasty and fresher than most of the pork rinds I was accustomed to.
Donnie and Naomi went off. When they returned, I could tell something was bothering Naomi. She told me, holding back tears, that they passed a house with its door open, in which there were dozens of giant sea turtles lying on their backs, tied together, flipper to flipper. Around the house there were emptied turtle shells being furiously licked at by stray dogs. A group of men with machetes were out in the back chopping the turtles. This upset Naomi.
When she was in Australia, she had gone scuba diving with giant sea turtles and had developed a kinship with them. Plus, she thought the capturing of them should be illegal. I told her that it was probably a good way for people to make money here, but she found it inhumane and disgusting. I told her it was hard to judge something like that; they had probably been capturing and eating turtles for centuries. The fact that they were now endangered was not the fault of the Corn Islanders – no high-tech fishing boats around. I didn’t think they needed to be tied up though, being primarily water creatures and slow at that.
Dinner with Donnie was good. I ordered the seafood pasta, hoping to get chunks of lobster, but I was served tomato sauce and shrimp. The restaurant was like all the others – muddy floors, sticky tablecloths, blasting reggae music. Naomi ordered the fried whole fish – succulent and large, both head and tail hung limply over the edges of the plate. She ate it all – nothing left for me.