Journey to Ometepe

I’m a firm believer that the journey to a destination should be approached with as much importance and regard as the destination itself. There’s so much excitement, so much to absorb, so much to take away from getting yourself from Point A to Point B (often via Point C and Point D, depending on your luck). I’ve read that Ometepe Island should be part of any traveller’s itinerary to Nicaragua. And now, after having visited, I can confirm this statement’s validity, but as this is beyond the scope of this blog post, I won’t explain why at this moment…

After spending four nights in Granada, I checked myself out of my hostel and the uber-comfortable double bed that had been my crash pad in the dorm, and walked to the bus terminal, passing through the bustling shops and markets that spilled onto the road. I had walked this same road two days earlier to catch a chicken bus to Mombacho, but its familiarity did not temper the noise, odours, and peculiarities I had noticed the first time around. This was my first time taking a chicken bus alone; I’d taken them to and from Granada the past couple days with friends, so I found myself more alert travelling by myself. I felt that the bus was packed much more than on previous occasions, and it was interesting and entertaining just watching all the different vendors selling everything from food to pens that doubled as two-year calendars…

Upon arriving at the bus terminal in Rivas, I tried to pair up with others who were going to Ometepe in order to share a taxi. It was all in vain because unfortunately, everyone was either already part of a big group or had already gotten in a taxi, leaving me with taxi drivers offering very inflated prices to get to the port in San Jorge. I ended up speaking with a rickshaw driver who said that he’d take me to some taxis further away from the terminal, who would offer lower prices. I figured, “Why not?” and got in, and enjoyed the ride a couple streets over, pretending I was a celebrity being the recipient of numerous stares while on the road.

The rickshaw driver pulled over not far away from the terminal, and started telling the taxi drivers that I wanted to get to San Jorge. They were offering the same inflated prices as those at the terminal, but I was able to bargain it down a little, though I still think I overpaid by a dollar or two. At any rate, I got in a taxi for the ~7km ride to the port, happy that my journey was finally progressing…

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The 91 year old woman

I climbed a volcano, admired some fantastic views of Granada, Lake Nicaragua, and Las Isletas (through which we had taken a boat tour the day before), caught a glimpse of a volcano crater, rode in a chicken bus twice, rode in a tuk tuk twice (and simultaneously was in amazement that I wasn’t in India!), had an amazing dinner, and all with the enjoyable company of Derek from Ireland, Bernard from Holland, and Gui from Brazil. And none of these was the highlight of my day. Undoubtedly and unequivocally, my encounter with the 91-year old woman is what I’ll remember most about day 5 of my Nicaraguan trip.

We were well on our descent down Mombacho volcano, walking down the road built for trucks to transport tourists up to the Biological Station (the base for which you can explore the top of the volcano through guided or self-guided hikes of varying lengths), when Bernard and I were stopped by this old woman at the entrance to her property. I’m writing this over two weeks after this happened and I can’t describe the physical setting too well, only that it was typical of rural Nicaragua – her home was a modest shack comprised of concrete and sheet metal, surrounded by dusty brown dirt and the lush shades of green effortlessly produced in the Tropics. This woman looked like she had been standing there awhile, and was eager to greet us and I’d say even a bit desperate to stop us for a few minutes of light conversation. I may no longer be able to recall my surroundings there very well, but I can certainly remember her tan, wrinkled face framed by her silver hair, the contradictory excitement and sadness in her eyes, and her smile simultaneously expressing gratitude and melancholy.

Above all, I remember her words. She fervently told us her age, and I had trouble believing that she was older than 60. She described to us how she used to work up at the Biological Station up until a few years ago, but one day they told her that she was too old and that she basically stayed home since then. With sorrow, she expressed how it was almost a curse that God allowed her to be so old, because she lived in this lonely, solitary environment without her children and grandchildren (although one of her grandsons was visiting her that day), and life was tough being alone and unable to work. And then she brought her hands together and praised God, thanking Him for the blessing of our company this day. She claimed that meeting us and talking with us was the highlight of her day, and I believed her. The sincerity in her eyes and the honesty in her voice were only genuine.

Throughout this encounter, and certainly the further along it went, I was always a bit wary of this woman, thinking that she might want something in return for sharing her very personal stories. Some money, some food – that’s typical of what people usually asked for, right? It turned out, she had wanted nothing more from us that what we gave her – a few minutes of our time to enliven her day and break the seemingly endless monotony that dominated her life. It really was just a few minutes of conversation with this lady, and then we said goodbye and continued our walk down the volcano. But this encounter had me feeling guilty and ashamed for thinking the worse in a fellow human being. How jaded, untrusting, and skeptical had I become? Thankfully, my actions didn’t reflect my thoughts, but indeed, this meeting gave me a lot to think about.

This 91-year old woman was the highlight of my day. Perhaps what I love most about travel are these strange, unforseeable encounters and surprises that you can never imagine taking place, but which unquestionably end up having a lasting impact on you…

Flashback to volcano climb

I had a job interview yesterday and by far the most interesting question posed to me was to describe an achievement, personal or professional, that I have experienced and why it was so memorable.

Immediately, my mind floated back in time to March 2009 and the memory of Volcán Villarrica outside of Pucón, Chile. The past couple months had been filled with unforgettable days and nights of novel experiences – hikes to Incan ruins, new friendships, living in the jungle without electricity or internet, 24 hour bus rides, running down a sand hill in the Atacama desert – why not add climbing a volcano onto the list? So I joined my friends in planning to climb this volcano, blissfully unaware that it would be the most physically demanding activity of my life at that time and still is to this date.

Volcan Villarrica

Why was it such an accomplishment? Because the climb consisted of 5 and a half almost merciless hours of ascent, stopping periodically only for nourishment and rehydration, and being frequently reminded by our guides that we had to get to the top before the increasing winds and cloud cover threatened to prevent us from making it all the way. Part of the volcano was covered by a glacier, and we even had to sport special gear on our hiking boots part of the way to avoid slipping on the snow and ice. Continue reading