The Island of Ometepe

“Look what the wind’s brought in!� joked one of the oil-stained dockworkers as we approached the ferry to Ometepe. Motor purring idle, ropes disentangled from its moors, our boat seemed to have been anxiously awaiting our arrival to venture out upon a turbulent Lake Nicaragua. Such was the volatile temperament of the lake that I felt that I was facing a storm stirred ocean rather than the land locked body of fresh water.

As the boat began to pull away from land, the few tourists remaining on the observation deck rushed into the passenger saloon. Water gushed in after them threatening to flood the cabin, but the deck hands followed close behind to brace the doors against the stormy waves.

Despite the splashed and misty side windows it was impossible not to be fixated in awe at Volcan la Conception, whose tapering form towered towards the heavens. It was the earth’s mighty bosom that appeared to heave and swell as if undergoing dramatic transformation (an impression most likely caused by the erratic swaying of the boat, but which I romantically attributed to its inner volatility. La Conception, after all, had erupted in both 2005 and 2007). Growing in immensity by the minute, I was convinced that by the time the boat reached its destination the volcano would blot out the whole sky.

Soon however, my attention was diverted to the saloon entertainment system, on which a curious music video entitled “Mi Abuelo� was playing. Old wrinkly men were shown guzzling down forty ounce bottles of malt liquor, joining biker gangs, and rolling around in bed with young women. Each singer constituted a different member of the ‘grandfathers’ extended family –including a young granddaughter, and some random midget wearing the French Hose and Spanish Bonnet of Elizabethan era wardrobe. Rather then deploring the debauchery, they shrugged off their grandfathers stiff dedication to the pimpin lifestyle, almost taking pride in the fact that he was ‘keeping it real’ till the grave.

Why was it that the saloon entertainment couldn’t offer passengers a sense of placement in the world? This short ferry service from Rivas to the island was the only real opportunity for tourists to get an understanding of the unique (yet fleeting) ecological Phenomenon of fresh water Bull Sharks (surely the boat operators could find some badly rendered, but thrilling presentation of a submarine struggle between a Bull Shark and its prey). Theoretically, below this very boat these seemingly displaced creatures could be swimming, anticipating a lavish feast of shipwrecked gringos. Yet fresh water sharks were rarely ever seen, even by local fishermen, and a recent article from Prensa Latina described the creatures as being on the verge of extinction .

Disembarking the ferry I was surprised that my first images of Ometepe were void of promiscuous old men groping at half-nude women. Arriving as we were in the dead heat of mid-siesta time, the streets were barren. In less than five minutes we were beyond the sleepy port town of Moyogalpa, and out onto a fast dusty road that circled the base of Volcan La Conception. Soon the behemoth slope was eclipsing the sun, conferring upon us unlimited shade. After some time of passing only the numberless piles of Plantains heaped on the road, I could see a fellow gringo cyclist coming up from the opposite direction.

“My god you’re a brave lad.� He said; eyes wide in bafflement as I sped past him.

Before I could think to stop and inquire his meaning, his distant figure was blurred with the haze of my dust trail. I was left to imagine for myself what formidable obstacles lay ahead (perhaps the fresh water sharks, rather than submitting to extinction, had spawned legs and were now running around Ometepe chewing the heads off birds of paradise).

To my dismay, the rest of our ride was uneventful. We crossed the hourglass isthmus that joins La Conception with its shorter counterpart, Volcan Madera, and found refuge for the night just above the village of Balgüe at Finca Magdalena; a coffee plantation offering rooms to travelers out of its rustic hacienda. Perched a hundred meters up the flank of Volcan Madera, we were half dragging our bikes up the path to the café-terrace, half spellbound at the view behind us. The fiery glow of a vanishing sun accentuated pastel colors in the clouds that whirled around La Conception’s cone. Before even reaching the steps of the hacienda we could hear conversations in a variety of languages intermingling with the drones of a dense diversity of jungle life forms.

Finca Magdalena was the ideal destination for a band of nomadic cyclists. There were plenty of hammock spots with views of the Lake, volcano, and of their garden of vibrant tropical flowers; numerous showers with intermittent hot water supply; rich organic coffee grown and roasted on the premises; and an international backpacker scene that was daily renewed with characters ready to hear and relate travel stories.

The hiking trail that led up to the peak of Volcan Madera was conveniently located behind the Plantations’ grounds. Apparently, hiking the trail without a guide hikers had disappeared on the mountain and that the discovery of their bodies brought the flow of tourism to a trickle) yet Jacob, Russell, and I managed to navigate without assistance the only trail (rather, a sticky mud trench) through the cloud forest. After cresting Madera’s saddle we hiked down into the lagoon filled crater where several tourists were standing around zipping up their jackets in response to the chilly change in climate. Their respective guides, standing at a comfortable distance from their clients, stared blankly into the rolling wisps of fog. They looked immaculately clean and improbably patient in their role of chaperone. Despite the cold, Russell and I swam out to the center of the Lagoon, and both conferred upon hearing an eerie sound like the buzzing of an electric current (reminiscent of that creepy-crawly vacuum machine that cleans suburban lap-pools).

Russell and Jacob opted to run the entire way down the steep slip and slide trench to the Volcano’s base. The effort was considerably straining on their physique. For several days afterwards the both of them were whining about sore legs.

The day after our hike we migrated to the opposite side of volcan Madera, (nearly completing our circuit of the entire island) to the village of Merida. There we met Bryce and Deirdre, an incredibly active married couple that, together, had bike-toured all throughout Europe, Australia, Central America and Africa.

“I think we’re perhaps the first people to have successfully ‘Bike-toured’ the Thames River.� Boasted Bryce.

At first not one of us knew what to make of his comment. For clarification Deirdre brought out her I Pod Classic and showed us a video that she and her husband had put together. Sure enough there they were pedaling their bikes on the river’s surface beneath the London Bridge. Their regular touring bikes were mounted on outrigger floats, drive shafts connected to a gearbox that turned a propeller, and the steering column was connected to a rudder. They could literally ride their bike across water.

“The whole system packs down pretty small.� Relates Deirdre “But it weighs a ton, so it’s not really worth carrying around on a tour unless you plan to be traveling as much on water as on land.�

“I don’t know…� I think out loud. “I might have carried it this whole trip just to avoid taking that ferry ride from Rivas. Those outrageous music videos… did you by chance see ‘Mi Abuelo’?�

“Actually, they showed some random clips of movies.� Bryce explains. “First they put on the original Godzilla which… man… where the hell do a bunch of boat operators find an antique like that. Then they showed a bit of Halloween. People are already queasy from the choppy waves, and then they’ve got these gory scenes of Michael Myers hacking up teens in front of’em.�

“That’s exactly the point when you jump ship, mount your bike and leave the boat to wobble in your wake.� I said, still mesmerized by this ingenious new concept.

Our two camps exchanged stories and caroused late into the night, officially violating the Hostel quiet hour. The next morning the hostel manager gave us a stiff lecture. Surprisingly he didn’t mention our disrespect of quiet hour time, rather, complained to us for a good while about ‘backpackers’.

“…They just come here with this idea of the Shoe-string budget and so each and every one of them is a cheap-skate, looking to pay as little as possible, without considering the impact of their consumer role.� He barks at us. “Do you know why hostels in Granada are so inexpensive?� He doesn’t wait for a shot in the dark. “Because nobody charges the mandatory 15% federal tax to their guest’s account. That is money that could be going to public education, but the manager’s concern is only about keeping the backpacker happy. And they spend nothing on infrastructure so the whole place starts to stink of sewage. This kind of greed goes on even in the up-scale resorts…�

Luckily the manager enjoyed se bikes himself. We were ‘bikepackers’ not those inconsiderate ‘backpackers’ he condescended to on a daily basis in accepting their money.

After enduring the lecture Goat and I went out to inspect the Hostel owner’s new sailing yacht when a young lady from Philadelphia named Kori made our acquaintance. She sat at the edge of the pier and set down her treasure of cacao jam (it had been canned by “the blessed Italian ex-patsâ€� to resemble their native Nutella) between the three of us.

I was captivated by Kori’s intelligent expression. Fluent in Spanish, and always ready with a relevant bit from her many journies to add flavor to the conversation, she described her activist projects in the states, her time picking coffee berries side by side Nicaraguan locals, and her expansive travels through South America. In a few days she would return again to Caracas, Venezuela, where she had been conducting research for her dissertation.

“In the streets of Caracas, sometimes you need to stop, turn abruptly, and stare hard at the person following behind, to let him think twice about what it was they were about to carry through.â€� Random assault and robbery being so prevalent in Caracas, she has, many times, had to follow this piece of worldly wisdom. “…Because they’re still human, and susceptible to that feeling of suddenly being made vulnerable, of having the intent uncovered. When confronted first, they are more likely to back off.â€�

After conversation we all swam out to the island of exiled white-faced Capuchin monkeys. In our pockets we carried green oranges that we would roll onto their turf to determine if indeed they are as aggressively territorial as the rumors allege. The monkeys delighted in ripping the peels apart and tearing the flesh to bits. As soon as we make an attempt to approach, however, their moods turn sour; they stood up on their legs, manically waved their arms and screeched like banshees.

Being a good distance from the pier, the swim out to Monkey Island had left us spent. Recuperating with spoonfuls of Cacao jam Kori blurted out quite suddenly: “Margaret is damn amazing.�

“Margaret is indeed a dear” I agreed.

“I mean really, I think the real reason I’m here…,â€� gesturing to the hostel behind us. “Is to affirm to her, each and every moment that what she is doing is good, and immensely beneficial to these kids.”

My introduction to Margaret had occurred the same night the two belligerent biker camps had taken over the hostel bar. One diluted shot of Aguardiente had vaulted her into a giggling fit; yet she was an already jovial lady by nature. Hailing from Canada, she was engaged in a volunteer program at the hostel in which she received room and board in exchange for her teaching services. She was much determined to get her rowdy bunch of pre-teen kids to learn English. Without a word of Spanish at her disposal, her prospects for success would seem to anyone a little farfetched. Yet she had more than enough heart to compensate for the lingual barrier.

I figured it a good idea to brew Margaret a cup of coffee since last time I checked, she had forgone breakfast. She also appeared to be expending much energy in getting her students to admit that they had taken home all the school supplies that she has purchased from out of her own purse.

At her classroom I found her dwelling on a familiar theme.â€� There were… Forty Markers, twenty-five erasers… Now there are two and six.” She beams into the eyes of her unreceptive students whose ages range between six and fourteen. “You are more than intelligent enough to know what I am talking about. Now please….”

With the steaming mug of brew held high above my head I am able to catch her attention.

“Wow, this is special.� She looks relieved to take a breath. “I don’t have my money right now, but later on…�

Ah jeez, I thought, interrupting her with a frown and a wave of dismissal.

“You know, I don’t know if you guys are going to be busy later on, but it would be great if you could play a ball game with the kids.” rolling her eyes now, “My morning class needs to get up and move around, if you know what I mean.”

“I do indeed.” I graciously accepted, knowing that ‘the guys’ she had referred to, my hard-core biker gang, would be much too busy convalescing with aching joints to partake in such rigorous activity.

My students for the day were quickly assimilated into teams that when set side by side, appeared to me, to be incredibly unfair. I soon realized that one kid on the opposing team had the footwork of a featherweight boxing champion. He was barefoot, wore a pink mitten on his left hand, and scored three goals against us in the first five minutes. At first I had thought it prudent to play ‘half-speed’, but after shaking off the dazed feeling of being outmatched by a twelve year old, I realized my team might turn against me if I didn’t keep alert. Toward the end of the match two of the boys began to insult and provoke one another into a brawl. After the last point was scored I had to intervene when the smaller of the two aimed a boulder at the head of his persecutor.

After the kids had dispersed, I found Margaret alone in her classroom poking indifferently at a plate of sparsely touched Gallopinto (fried rice and beans). She beckoned me to take a seat.
“Do you know that the manager of this place wants to suddenly change my contract.” she gestured for me to finish off the remains of her plate.

“He didn’t even have the nerve to tell me about it face to face, even though we see each other everyday.â€� Her mouth wavered on the threshold of uttering the next sentence as if fearful it’d be too bitter for her palate.â€� He e-mailed me a whole new set of rules governing my volunteer work.â€�

“He told me to take notice that he would have to start charging me for food and Board.â€� She paused to shake her head. “I just don’t have that kind of Money. And if I have to return early it’ll be the kids who suffer in the end.â€�

I had heard rumors before that the owner of this beach side hostel, also (volunteer teacher program, bike and kayak rental shop, and buffet breakfast and dinner café…ect.), was greedy and that perhaps he inherited his land. Talk of land inheritance in Nicaragua is sure to raise eyebrows. It could mean possible military ties, in other words connections with the corrupt Samosa Family of the early Contra revolutionary times. Yet I knew better than to draw any conclusions from idle gossip.

“But get this.” She smiles, wags her finger at the crux of the matter, “he wants me to travel with him to Managua to petition The Nicaraguan government on his Behalf. He wants funding for computers that … yes, will partially be used for the children’s’ education, but the majority of the use would be from travelers for Internet time. And so of course he’ll be profiting from this. But because I’m a foreigner, whose ideas for educational investments are favored above the locals… we’ll I’d be the one to initiate his little scheme.”

“That Scoundrel!â€� I yelled. The more this charming old lady went on elucidating her misfortunes, the more my sympathy grew. She had ‘just survived a car wreck’ which had led to “phone battles with insurance agents complaining about the price of her back surgery’.

After carrying some books for her back to her room Margaret shakes her head, wondering what it was she was about to do next.

“You were about to take a walk along the beach”. I interfere on her behalf. “And I think I might have a word with the head man.”

Unfortunately I failed to relay that word. Too much food had been cooked that night for the hostel buffet. Not being one to let waist be noticed, the hostel manager let the garbage disposal bikers intervene. My appetite being thus satiated I felt my motivation to vent these vague grievances dissipate. ‘Don’t bark at the hand that feeds’ the saying goes.
(In a recent correspondence with Margaret she informed me that a visitor had written ‘[the manager] is arrogant’ on the hostel message board. “He came up to me to ask what the word arrogant meant,� wrote Margaret, “And I just had to smile and say: “I want you to take notice that I will not answer that question for you.�)

The next day we made our escape from Isle Ometepe. Instead of the fancy passenger ferry with in-saloon entertainment system, we boarded the top of a smaller boat. We tossed our bikes in a pile to one side, which considerably threw the boat off keel, yet nobody said anything nor made any attempt to secure the considerable load.

“Ciento vente cinco.� Barked the ticket collector.
The price was nearly double what we paid going the opposite way. When questioned about the incredible rise in rate, the man shouted: “Expresso! As if at any moment auxilary engines would kick in and propel us at warp speed. The boat chugged along at the same exact pace as before.

A small gang of boys that had helped unfasten ropes was standing around the top deck in their swim-shorts intently watching the buildings of Moyogalpa fade into the distance. Just before taking off, one had shoved another off the side to crash into the water, inciting the remaining dozen onboard to rambunctious cheering and leading me to believe some game was afoot. They stood in focused silence, each waiting until the distance to the coast was just right before gracefully swan diving into the sea. At first I thought they were waiting for the boat to get further down the coast so that they could swim directly to their neighborhoods. But then it became clear that it was a race, each competitor assigning themselves a starting distance relative to their skill. The ones to jump in last made impressive sprints to overtake the ones with head starts. It was entertaining to watch, but really I had a strong craving at that moment for blood bath horror movies and sex plastered music videos. Certainly with the exorbitant boost in price, these trivial amenities could be provided. Where else would I find my trashy media fix before resuming the long haul southwards.