On the road again
It's a scene that would surprise even Gabriel Garca Marquez, the great Colombian writer who knows so well the surrealism of Latin America.
Amid the total destruction of what was the Pan-American Highway in far-north Nicaragua - now a gray no man's land of car-size boulders that were tossed like puffballs in the raging waters of hurricane Mitch - there's a bobbing cloud of shocking pink.
It's the pink of cotton candy, small plastic bags of which are attached like leaves to a pole balanced over the shoulder of Jose Miguel Solano Gonzalez. Sales of the 1-cordoba (about 10-cent) treats are going poorly in his hometown of Ocotal, so Mr. Solano is fording the now-peaceful Dipilto River, blazing his own rocky path as he goes, to make the 10-mile trip to the small town of Dipilto.
"It's the first day you can get to Dipilto other than by helicopter, so I figure I ought to be able to make a few sales up there," he says, oblivious to the apparent absurdity of his trek.
"Nobody has money after what hit us, but I'm thinking someone will come up with a cordoba or two to give his kid a little happiness."
So this is a pink of Nicaraguan optimism and determination.
And other signs of this same determination stand out as vividly as that cotton candy all along this washed-out stretch of highway that, until Mitch hit at the end of October, connected the countries of Central America like a two-lane backbone.
Down the highway in Yalaquina south of Ocotal, a group of young men turn adversity into opportunity. With the town's bridge washed out, the men carry motorcycles across the rushing river for a few cordobas.
For 5 cordobas, a farmer lets four-wheel drive vehicles enter his property to reach a particularly shallow crossing point of the river.
Northwest of Ocotal, along the dirt road of the rural community of Mozonte, Santos Meja Balladares is already replacing the mango, orange, avocado, papaya, and coffee trees he lost.
"All of this was lush, green, and productive," he says, indicating the eight riverbank acres he owns that are now just a stretch of hot gray rocks. "I had to wait five days to let the river subside and get my spirit back, but then I got to replanting."
Dipilto is a town that was isolated from the rest of the world for 22 days except for a daily helicopter load of emergency provisions. The reopening of the Pan-American is a harbinger of better times.
The very provisional roadway from Ocotal is still open only to the hardiest of four-wheel-drive vehicles and jacked-up buses, but it's a start.
A pretty and prosperous town that lived on tourists drawn by mountain air and a shrine to the Virgin, Dipilto lost 23 of its 109 houses when the river swelled and jumped its banks. On one street, only the faades of six white-washed dwellings remain: Their windows look in on a scene of uprooted trees, tangled furniture, muddy clothing.
But with the first trucks able to get through with building supplies on Nov. 20, a post-flood silence is finally ended by the banging of the initial hammerings of reconstruction.
"We lost our house and everything with it, but we're fortunate we have this," says Julio de Jess Marchena of the house his sister has lent his family. Repairing a muddy and rusted box spring with a few shiny-new nails, the summons-server for the local judicial authorities says, "It'll take some time, but we'll get over this."
Mozonte farmer Meja agrees. He points to a work crew of local men, women, and children, each of them earning 20 cordobas a day from the municipality to make the dirt paths passable again.
"Some people don't want to pitch in, they seem to have given up, but most of us are determined to start over. Like these little trees," he says, caressing the green leaves of an orange seedling poking out from among the gray rubble.
It's the vibrant green of new growth, as stark against the expanse of rock and mud as the pink of cotton candy.