The individual soul touches upon the world soul like a well reaches for the water table. That which sustains the universe beyond thought and language, and that which is in the core of us and struggles for expression, is the same thing.
-Yann Martel, Life of Pi
After a few days of meager surf in Popoyo, I was starting to get restless. A substantial swell was forecast for the weekend, but it was days away. In the mood for an adventure, I considered going to Ometepe, an volcanically active island in the middle of Lake Nicaragua.
Rich in culture, history, and raw natural beauty, the island contains two volcanos, Conception and Maderas. Though anxious to explore it, I was wary of the logistics involved, as I would need to arrange land transport, coordinate a trip on the ferry, and find accommodations on the island. I wasn’t up for a hassle and I didn’t feel like going alone.
It was just my luck that Stephanie, another solo traveler, was planning a trip to Ometepe herself. I asked if I could tag along, and she agreed. Our friend Alex offered to give us a ride to the bus station as he needed to buy food and supplies for his restaurant. After I quickly packed my bag and stored my boards, we were on our way.
Alex decided that he would accompany us on the island for a mini-vacation, which turned out to be a huge bonus. In addition to bringing his truck along on the ferry, which greatly simplified our plans, he had a glittering sense of humor that kept us doubled over laughing for the whole trip.
We bought our ferry tickets in San Jorge and watched as the water trucks drove directly into Lake Nicaragua to fill up their tanks with salty sweet water which the locals call agua dulce. A horse rolled in the sand, its legs crudely tied together to prevent it from straying too far, too fast. At home, we would call it abuse, the way these animals live.
No, the animals here are not pampered or coddled. Indeed, they are rarely fed. Like their owners, they scavenge the land for what they can. Both endure numerous hardships – hunger, parasites, sores, discomfort and pain. Though I feel sympathy for these animals, I will not stare through the window of my comfortable life and stand in judgement over the people who care for them.
In Popoyo, there is a dog missing half of its face, its jawbone and teeth exposed like a zombie, back from the dead. On my first day, I unknowingly reached to pet its head as a woman called out to me, “Amiga no!” When I looked down and saw its rotted lips pulled back into a gruesome smile, I felt a strange mix of disgust and reverence, amazed that it could eat, that it was still alive, in such condition.
Since then, some people have suggested that the dog should be put out of its misery. Part of me concedes, but this is the part that feels repulsion at the burden of seeing its leperous skull. Another part of me feels a deeper repulsion at the idea that an animal who has fought so hard to survive should have its life so flippantly taken away for the inconvenience of looking at it.
Beyond the hobbled horse, the volcanos towered above the lake, their peaks engulfed by rings of gray white clouds. As we approached Conception on the ferry, I began to grasp the scope of its size. Literally a mile high, and still volcanically active, Conception last erupted in 2010. Over the course of millennia, Conception and Maderas sprouted an island that spans 107 square miles in the middle of the largest lake in Central America. Ometepe is a sight to behold.
Alex had been to Ometepe several times, and lucky for us, knew his way around. He suggested that we stay at an old coffee plantation at the base of Maderas. The rustic structure was originally built in the 1800s and later converted to a historic hostel. Ever the restaurateur, Alex brought us coffee with sugar and milk on a tray each morning, pressing steaming mugs into our sleepy fingers as we pulled the mosquito nets back from our beds and listened to howler monkeys calling out from the mango trees.
We hiked to a waterfall, swam in natural spring water, suffered through plagues of insects. At one restaurant, the gnats were so abundant and aggressive, they flew into our ears, crawled across our menus as we struggled to read them, fanning incessantly to clear our fields of view. As I began to suggest that we look for another place, I inhaled a mouthful of bugs and choked. We laughed ourselves to tears, all the way to the other restaurant. I may have laughed as much in those three days with Alex and Stephanie as I have in my entire life.
One night we spied a forest of twinkling lights and pulled over for a closer look.
Thousands of fireflies danced magically in the trees, twirled across the ground at our feet. Entranced, we pursued them, trying to lure them into our hands, to watch them tickling the hems of our clothes. We gave in to the child buried within each of us, delighted by the tiny tinker bells.
As we drove around Ometepe, the stark difference in Nicaragua’s infrastructure compared to Costa Rica’s distilled into a potent tonic. I drank it in. Domestic animals – pigs, cows, chickens, horses, dogs, cats – roam freely through the countryside. No roads are paved, horses and carts are as common a form of transportation as cars. People build their houses from whatever scraps they can find. When I commented on a missing piece of signage, Alex pointed out that it had been repurposed as a roof on an adjacent habitation.
I looked more closely, and began to notice the finer details, the marks of perseverance and resourcefulness. Homemade saddles and bridles fashioned from wood and rope. A cart, perched on the base of an old truck axel complete with rubber tires, the bed constructed of scrap wood and crudely hewn branches.
There is a special, glowing admiration that throbs within me as I take in the tenacity, the persistence, the ingenuity of these people. They see endless potential in the pieces of a dead truck, in roadside debris, in things I would call garbage, things I would cast away. Our waste, our trash, is truly their treasure.
These people hold the power of creation in their calloused hands. They take what others have deemed useless and ugly, and make something functional, something inherently beautiful in its brazen existence. Buried beneath layers of hapless circumstances, the human spirit boils hot as lava, and creates an island in the middle of a lake.