My wife Ericka and I never miss an opportunity to visit El Transito, the little fishing village on Nicaragua's Pacific shore where her family maintains a beach house. It's a special place to Ericka, rich with childhood memories, and always a place where she feels at peace with the world. Lacking those same memories, I don't tend to see it with the same degree of enthusiasm.
I first visited El Transito with Ericka's family in July 2000, when we explored the rocky promontories that make up the coastline and body surfed in the strong waves of the Pacific. We avoided the town, generally, except to visit the acopio (the fish repository where the daily catch is accumulated and transported to market) to buy the day's meal, usually thick red snapper or similar. Six years later, we still visit the little beach town regularly and it is for all practical purposes, the same.
I'm tempted to blame the little town's stagnation on the poverty endemic to fishing towns everywhere. El Transito enjoys a magnificent stretch of Pacific coastline but life fishing is never easy, and the quality of life for fishing families fluctuates in synch with the catch and the price in the markets. It's equally easy to blame the tsunami of 1992 that devastated this coastal village, carrying away houses, boats, nets, and half a dozen loved ones. It's easy to see how fear of investing and rebuilding only to lose everything in yet another natural disaster would curb the locals' appetite for improving their lot in life.
But El Transito suffers equally from alcohol abuse, and as far as I can see, this one aspect has had a greater negative impact on the lives of these poor fishermen and their families than has any other factor in its development.
The rhythm of the day never changes: the boats come in with the tide, the fishermen straining to roll the fiberglass craft up over the high tide mark to safety. The day's catch gets quickly sorted, gutted, and delivered to the acopio for sale to the middlemen who take the catch to market, and from there the endless litany of chores -- from patching nets to repairing the fiberglass to all the day's other chores back in the house.
But increasingly, those tasks remain undone while the men gather at one of the little villages many pubs to drink themselves into oblivion. Meanwhile, the kids go without shoes. It's hard to empathize with a lifestyle as hard as the one these people lead, and there's no doubt by the number of children that exhibit signs of malnutrition that people aren't living well in El Transito. But I can't help wonder how much better things would be if one were somehow able to remove alcohol from the equation. Where are the bible-thumping Methodist ministers when you need them to admonish and chastise and straighten the flock?
The long, hard challenge of development requires helping people find an alternative to the lifestyle they are currently leading, and that means they have to want improvement as badly as you do, first of all, and that they are willing to make the sacrifices to achieve it. The second is where I increasingly think alcohol does the developing world (and not just the developing world, either) a disservice by removing any sort of will power to improve.
We still enjoy El Transito, but we enjoy it for the lazy afternoons body surfing in the Pacific's surprisingly strong waves, and for good times with family. But waiting for El Transito to make an effort to improve its lot in life is going to take more than just that, and the change will have to begin first from within.
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