Chapter Seven — Fermin & Chase
The next morning I was awakened by bells, beautiful bells. Bell-ringing is an art in Managua. The operators beat the bells with large malls and play many tunes simultaneously, yet the effect is harmonious.
I looked at my wristwatch and found that it was six o’clock. I got up and dressed and stepped out into the hallway. Jock, looking neat in white shirt and blue jeans, was waiting for me. He is a small fellow about five-feet-six inches tall, and he weighs about a hundred and forty pounds. He has strong even teeth and dark curly hair he wears parted low on one side. His eyes are big and brown, and he has a winning grin.
“Good morning, Jock, You’re up early.”
“Everyone gets up early here.”
“How old are you?” I asked.
“Twenty-four,” he said.
Jock was indeed an amazing fellow. Only twenty-four years old and he could speak five languages. We walked downstairs and had breakfast. The menu was printed in both Spanish and English. We had ham and eggs and coffee. Everything was very good but the coffee which was black and strong. I think they must have boiled it all night.
I told Jock that I needed a shave and haircut, and asked if there was a barber shop nearby. He said there was one with seven barbers in the hotel building just around the corner.
We walked outside into the bright sunlight and on to the barbershop. We found all seven barbers standing on the sidewalk in front of the shop. Each man had a yo-yo in his hand, and was throwing it up, down, and around, each thoroughly enjoying themselves.
I was astounded. “Do grown men play with yo-yos here?” I asked Jock.
“Sure,” he said, pulling out his own, “the yo-yo is very popular.”
I asked if it was something new, and he said that it was and had only been here a short time. When I asked how the pastime got started, he told me the story.
“Coca-cola was the very famous drink here and everyone drank Coca-cola, then Pepsi-cola came to town with a larger bottle and a very good drink. Almost everyone had switched to Pepsi, when Coca-cola came out with a larger bottle, it was too late because all the people were drinking Pepsi. The Coca-cola people are very smart and they introduced the yo-yo. You cannot buy one, but for ten bottle caps and one cordoba, they will send you a beautiful yo-yo. Now many people are drinking Coca-cola again.”
I got a chuckle out of that and walked into the barber shop. All seven barbers took hold of me in seven different places, each trying to drag me to his chair. I thought surely I would be torn into pieces, but finally I managed to sit down.
One of the barbers, smiled and started to work on me. The other six went back to their yo-yos. A girl came in to give me a manicure. I took the full treatment. It cost me ten cord, which is one dollar and forty cents, U. S. money.
Jock asked me if I would like to take a tour of the city, but I told him I didn’t have time, that I was here on business. “I came to look for gold,” I said. “You are my man now. Where do we start?”
“I have been thinking,” said Jock. “I have a friend up the street. His name is Fermin Goldburg. He is a Jew — a German Jew. We call him Fermin the German. He runs a little cafe. He speaks good English and he has been here a long time. Maybe he can help us.”
Fermin had a neat little cafe and bar. Jock introduced me and asked Fermin if he could help me locate some gold. Fermin scratched his head. “Maybe if you would buy one bottle of Flor de Caña we might be able to figure out something. Also, you being new here, the water will make you sick. You will get bugs in your belly if you drink our water, but not if you drink much Flor de Caña.”
I thought he was kidding and looked at Jock. Jock nodded so I ordered a bottle. Fermin pulled a table out to the sidewalk, and brought us ice and Coca-cola. His waitress brought a platter of dainty little sandwiches about an inch square that had toothpicks pinning them together. This was my first experience having refreshments at a sidewalk cafe and I was really enjoying it. The Flor de Caña (rum) the Coca-cola, and ice with a little squeeze of lime, was the finest I had ever tasted.
Fermin brought a map of Nicaragua and spread it out on the table. “Now, this map tells you where to find everything. Look, mahogany timber.” This same mark appeared in many places on the map.
“If you want pine there is much pine,” Fermin said.
“I’m not in the lumber business,” I said. “Where can I find some gold?”
“Gold in Spanish is ‘Oro,’ look for yourself.”
Jock and I bent our heads over the map. Oro, oro, almost everywhere we looked.
“This just can’t be true, Fermin,” I said. “If there’s gold everywhere in Nicaragua, why aren’t people out mining it?”
“Hundreds of years ago this country was very rich in gold. It has been looted by pirates, bandits, churches, and many dictators. The rich gold is all gone. There is a little left,” he said sadly, “but most of it is gone.”
“It has never been mined with dredges or heavy equipment has it, Fermin?” I asked.
“No, only by hand. I don’t believe there has ever been a dredge in Nicaragua.”
The rum was warming me up and I felt good inside. Bill had been right. This country was loaded with gold. Only the surface had been scratched.
“If you were going to look for some good places where gold could be mined with a small dredge, where would you go?” I asked.
Fermin studied the map for a moment, then said he would go north and prospect the Rio Coco.
Yes, there it was, the Rio Coco on the map. It looked like a big river. Fermin explained that a mountain range runs down through Nicaragua, and there is much flat land on the west coast; then the peaks tower high and are very steep on the west side from where they gradually taper to sea level on the east coast. The Coco hugs the west fairly close and the mouth of the river empties into the Caribbean Sea.
I said to Jock, “Well, I’m not getting anywhere or getting anything done if I stay around Managua. I must start somewhere, so why not at the Rio Coco?”
“We will need a Jeep ,” he said.
“You are my man,” I told him. “Get us a Jeep.”
A big smile lit up his face. He jumped to his feet and took off.
If Flor de Caña kills the bugs in your belly, I was well vaccinated by the time Jock returned. Fermin and I were on the third bottle and were very buddy-buddy when up pulled a Jeep pickup.
That’s when I met Chase. Chase, a Negro, was from Bluefields. Bluefields lies on the east coast and had been an old English slave-trading post. Almost everyone there speaks English.
When Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves in the United States, he also freed them in Nicaragua. Even today, the Nicaraguan postage stamps have the picture of Abraham Lincoln on them. Lincoln said, “All men are created equal,” and he meant it. Here in Nicaragua people believed in him and respected him. There are several statues of him in Managua. Abraham Lincoln may have freed the slaves, but here in Nicaragua is where he really freed them. Here, a Negro is equal to any other man as he should be.
Chase was handsome as are most of the Negroes in Nicaragua — probably crossed up a bit with the English, the Spanish and the Mosquito Indian. They are the real Nicaraguans.
Chase had a big smile on his face as Jock introduced him. Yes, he would lead us to the Rio Coco. He would need a tire for his Jeep, and a few other things; and he didn’t have any money. My money was in travelers’ checks.
“Let’s go to the bank,” I said to Jock, “and I’ll cash some of these travelers’ checks. I’d better cash about five hundred dollars into cordobas.”
“Do not go to the bank,” Fermin said. “They only give seven cords for one dollar in U. S. money. I will give you seven twenty-five for one U. S. dollar. There is not enough United States money in this country to go around. People come here from all over the world. Anywhere anyone goes the U. S. dollar is good. I can make money on it.”
Seven twenty-five to one! Never before had I realized the value of the good old U. S. dollar. We made the transaction, and I gave Jock two thousand cord. I felt I could trust him. I told Jock to buy everything we would need for a couple of weeks, and to get plenty of food, bedding, tents and whatever he thought necessary.
“Give Chase an advance on his wages and get him a tire. You are my man, so let’s see how good a job you can do. We will leave tomorrow morning at daybreak.”