Corn Islands, coconuts and corona crashes

Alliteration allegedly uplifts the isolated during these tumultuous times. It’s not scientifically proven to help an expat family living in Nicaragua in an unprecedented global pandemic. But playing with words on my computer screen makes for some cathartic and creative downtime while the kids are taking their siesta and we are in lockdown here in Iguanaland.

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Corn Islands, coconuts and corona crashes is also just how it happened chronologically. And I want to lead in with the good times, because when I gaze at my phone late at night and scroll a thorough mix of gloomy stats and bizarrely hilarious Instagram stories of friends projecting their insanity in self isolation, I feel we’re all on the online hunt for some good times.

Corn Islands is synonymous with good times. We made the epic car, plane and boat trek to Little Corn Island in the week leading up to my daughter Moon’s 1st birthday. My brother, sister-in-law and nephew had also flown over from Australia for my sister-in-law’s 40th, so we had a rather large crew and at least 2 birthday reasons to go to “de Caribbean, Mon”.

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With 4 adults, a baby, a toddler and a small child to manoeuvre, this far flung Caribbean island of Nicaragua couldn’t feel further from our home on the South Pacific Coast. And some might question why we’d leave one rather remote, idyllic beach and travel 10 hours in transit only to arrive at another one. We also questioned if what we were doing was crazy when we began the journey at 2 am with 7 souls, 6 bags, 50+ sun cream, 4 coffees, 3 hangovers, 2 headlights, in 1 Prado and no partridge nor a pear tree.

But questions of crazy were resolved once we arrived at the Managua Airport and we joined forces with our other entourage of 5 bleary eyed Iguanaland friends (including another kid!) for this week-long adventure. Now a party of 12 and enough gringo bulk to fill the light aircraft that would transport our human mass and bags chocked full of freediving equipment, it was confirmed: definitely crazy.

Adding ‘crazy’ to the Corn Islands Crew alliteration, our massive collective then descended on Big Corn Island. We piled out of the tiny aircraft and into 4 tinier Hyundai taxis which scooted us off along tropical tree-lined streets to a clear-water ferry bay. There, bobbing between moored fishing trawlers and kids jumping off the concrete quay was a Panga. This mode of transport between the two islands is basically an oversized fishing boat with about 10 rows of timber slats, all ergonomically designed to break the backs of middle-aged tourists as it bounces its overcrowded human cargo across a ripping, windy sea.

Finally, after an hour (or 10), we got there! Little Corn at last. As we moored up to the timber wharf, it was immediately evident we’d made the right choice to travel. We were met by Kennard, our accommodation contact and before we realised it, he quietly piled our belongings 5 foot high on one wheelbarrow. With no more than a smile and a glance in the direction inland, he began carting our things and leading us silently across this tropic paradise. We carried our tired kids, and within 15 minutes we had crossed to the East side of the island and found ourselves perched up and slowing down in a delightful beach house on the breezy side of heaven.

Sweet, salted air evenings, early sunrise shifts with the babies and playing in a shaded sand garden was how we subsequently divided our time. Almost no WiFi led to limitless hours of lazy bliss in hammocks, swimming at the by our bedroom and wandering through inland rainforests. We also embarked on a snorkelling and fishing day by boat (insanely, we tried to take the kids). I can’t recommend this to anyone with kids, let alone 9 people with 4 kids, but some of us reaped the rewards of my brother’s fishing fortune- coral trout in coconut oil with grated coconut dressing.

A small piece of trivia: In Iguanaland on the Pacific Coast, we are blessed with almost year-round offshore breezes. Because of this, the waves are perfect for surfing but with winds that push out to sea all year, floating coconuts can’t wash up on the shores. Hence, as my Kiwi mate pointed out, no coconut trees at home.

Corn Islands? Ironically not a lot of corn, but definitely enough coconuts to notice the onshore breeze blessing. In the mornings the kids and I would fill our pockets with tiny coconuts bulbs, and then hunt down a big ‘Shake’m Coco’- yellow husked and filled with juice when you “shake’m”. Quiet Kennard would smile, nod and thn crack these treasures open with a machete and we’d slurp down the goodness before digging out the flesh with a wedge of the husk.

I think you get the island drift. Quiet Little Corn Island and all of its sandy foot paths, coco palm shorelines and shaded hammocks definitely earned a remarkable place in my heart. Its microsystem that pulled in afternoon rain clouds set it vastly apart from the relentless dry season that whips over on the West Coast of Nicaragua this time of year. Instead of dust up our nose each day, it was light sea spray. Instead of spiky thorns hiding in the sand from the shade trees on the Pacific Beaches, in Little Corn, you guessed it, coconuts.

In this little paradise, we got to watch the moon wax full into a super moon, cook “Ron Don” seafood stew over an open fire and drink coco loco (cheap white rum poured into a cold coconut). Under those stars, under those warm rain showers and beside the fire at night, we’d chat with backpackers and travellers of all walks of life about ‘the news’.

Coronavirus had swiftly hijacked the typical “where are you from?” conversation starter that you get on the road. This new trending topic spread itself effortlessly across beach bars and between strangers as action and inaction ricocheted around the planet, wreaking havoc on humanity’s everyday life. Already, each of us knew someone close to us affected by travel “advice and warnings” that shot up through Government announcements. But on this little island, in early March 2020, we still felt separated from it.

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Naively yet naturally, with our collective and limited understanding of it at that point, it was there and we were here. The intensity that was booming internationally was penetrating our homelands, but on this far flung little atoll, and where zero official cases had been announced in Nicaragua, we just didn’t fear it. We all could see a degree of risk and agreed things would change in time. But I for one, had no bloody idea how short that time would be, and how radically we would change the way we live in the ensuing days.

When we left little Corn, the weather Gods blessed us with a windless day. We floated over a glassy sea like a dream back to Big Corn Island. We flew in the luxury of a large-ish plane, complete with air conditioning, and landed smoothly back on the Nicaraguan mainland, still in a world that we knew and understood.

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With family visiting from overseas, we naturally squeezed in two more days of touring as if the world we knew wasn’t ending.  Even when the house next door to our AirBnB set on fire and burned to the ground, we were still enjoying our misadventures! At least it was a danger we could see, understand and manage.

When we weren’t running away from fires or fighting them as the case was for my brother, we watched howler monkeys swing past the trees by our balcony. We stayed on the banks of an extinct volcano and jumped off a pier into the volcano’s core, now filled by a freshwater lake. By night we sought out an active volcano, and gazed down at the bright bubbling lava while the stars blinked down over us. We refrained from jumping in here.

We ate and drank at hotels, dined at roadside restaurants with locals, mingled with other travellers and continued to chat about ‘the news’. Every day, a new consciousness was growing with more concern and caution, but nothing had hit us yet.

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Now ‘yet’ has hit us. By the time we got back to the coast, international news and the cascading closures of countries’ borders was signalling a new world disorder. Governments locked down, the WHO declared a global pandemic, and quickly, rather than slowly, we got to where we are now: an understanding of how the virus works, an understanding of the maths and the science, an understanding of the need for self-isolation.

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Less lonely than some, we are lucky enough to be a multiple family household in self-isolation. As well as our nanny and her son who moved in with us 2 weeks ago, my brother’s family are now Nica refugees because their flights home were cancelled and the transiting countries literally locked them out. Their journey to this point was fraught with trials for them both. They spent painfully long hours in phone deadlocks with airlines and tried countless avenues to try to get home. But as it turned out, they got stuck with their family in paradise. And while the health system offers little confidence to those of us who remain here, there are certain positives that lead us to conclude this is the best place for us to be right through this time.

As long as we continue to take precautions and keep ourselves safe, our new 9-piece family will never be short of conversation or a swarm of cute kids to distract us with their innocent joy. We have a forest with families of monkeys in our backyard, the beach is across the road and we can still wave to our beautiful neighbours as they wander along the shoreline at sunset. As well as that, we are lucky enough to have a car and miles of uninhabited coastline. With careful preparation and a packed lunch, we can still pile our Brady Bunch into the Prado and take off to explore the world around us without fear.

We know we aren’t near the end of this. But we are at the beginning of something new as we look inside our home, and into our family’s souls and personalities with new attention. Despite the risks that we know exist in the face of this pandemic, I know one thing is true. I’m so lucky to be self-isolating where I am and how I am, surrounded by the safety and sanity net of my family.

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If you’re lucky enough to be isolated with someone, get that someone to teach you something you never had time to learn and they never had time to teach until now. If you’re isolated alone, get out in the garden and teach yourself. Get your hands in the soil, grow edibles, trench compost, maybe talk to the plants! If you don’t have a garden and you’re in full solo self-isolation, bless your soul! Try to stay sane. Take advantage of technology, and don’t let it take advantage of you. Try not to read too much doomsday stuff and please, keep posting your funny-arse, Instagram stories to the world! I love you and I’m watching!

Stay home if you can, my friends. Stay safe.

Thank you Michelle Rossetto and Sophie Pontone for some of the gorgeous photos that this brightened this blog post!

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