By Shannon Cram
“Con gusto,” our waiter said as he set a plate of gallo pinto in front of each of us. The fried rice and beans mix, a staple of most meals in Nicaragua, was exciting to us during our first week in Central America, monotonous after the second, and had become part of a comfortable morning routine now after more than 5 weeks.
It was early in the morning as my boyfriend Adrian and I sat eating our desayuno. The sun’s first light had begun to brighten the dirt streets of Moyogalpa and as it filled the windows of our tiny restaurant, we surveyed the mural decorating the wall in front of us. A huge volcano dominated the scene. Thick and angry, it spewed forth molten lava consuming the townspeople of Moyogalpa as they fled for their lives. Those that were lucky enough to escape to the safety of the boats looked on anguish at the skeletons of their family members, neighbors, and friends. Colorful and vibrant, this painted scene was fairly ubiquitous in Moyogalpa. An island town built at the base of an active volcano, Moyogalpa’s folklore was filled with many such horrific tales.
As we chewed our food and ran our eyes over the paint, we both felt ourselves begin to chuckle. It was not simply that our quaint two-table restaurant had such a gory scene as its centerpiece, it was more the fact that we had agreed to meet a local man who would take us up the very volcano painted in the scene before us.
“Well, that looks promising…” Adrian said. I snorted as I shoveled in another mouthful of gallo pinto and giggled.
We finished our meal and walked to the office where we were to meet our guide, but upon arrival found the lights off and the door locked. While I felt disappointed, I was also a bit relieved. After an hour of staring at Volcán Concepción’s fury, I was fine with the prospect of another lazy day on the shores of Lake Nicaragua. Still, we waited outside the office door and watched the daily activities of the dock nearby. Men passed boxes down into the boat hulls and little children sold nuts and fruits for small coins. Ten minutes passed and we grew weary of waiting. Defeated, we began the ascent of the dirt road towards our refugio. Part way up the hill, a short and rather stocky man in a baseball cap stopped us.
“You will go up el Volcán?” He asked us in halting English.
Thinking he was just a curious local, I answered “Yes, but our guide did not show up.”
“Good, I take you,” he replied.
A little taken aback by the fact that he knew our day’s plans, and by his willingness to take us up the volcano, I switched to Spanish and explained that we already had a guide who was supposed to take us and that perhaps we should wait for him instead. Relieved to speak in his native tongue, the man explained that he was, in fact, our guide and he had been waiting in a different spot for us. When we didn’t show up, he simply walked down the road and asked the only white people he saw. He seemed annoyed with us for the mix-up and I felt my doubt about our day’s hiking plans increase slightly.
“¿Ustedes son Americanos?” he asked.
This was a question we had come to dread in our travels in Central America. After years of oppression enforced by American instituted militias, Nicaraguans were not always thrilled to find out our nationality, and we felt guilty admitting where we were from.
“Si,” I replied after a pause and he nodded knowingly, as if this explained our lateness.
We made our way to a small curb at the top of the hill, where the public bus would pick us up and bring us to the trailhead, and sat down to wait. Minutes passed and our guide, who I will call Manuel, and I made small talk. Manuel, I learned, had grown up on the island of Ometepe and he and his family lived in Moyogalpa. He was a renowned poet on the island and had spent his boyhood years climbing el volcán daily. I also learned of his distaste for Americans. Although we were chatting, Manuel had not exactly warmed to us. He told me about the failings of the American school system and asked me various questions I didn’t know the answers to, just to illustrate his point. He removed his machete from the sheath on his belt, examined it, and began sharpening it on a piece of leather. He seemed to emphasize his disgust for all things American in each forceful stroke of his knife on the leather.
Finally the bus arrived, and I, feeling humiliated at failing the questions he had thrown at me, worried that I had become what I desperately did not want to be: the stupid American tourist that he could tell his family about that night over dinner. “Can you believe that gringa?” he would say, “She barely could tell me who Ruben Dario is. I bet she does not even know the name of our president.”
Added to my embarrassment and self-loathing, was the fear that hiking deep into the forest with this machete-wielding man who obviously disliked Adrian and I, and all that America stood for, was perhaps not the smartest idea. I tried to relay my doubts to Adrian, whose minimal Spanish consisted of several random vocabulary words like “horse”, “eye”, “beer”, and “left” which he would often rearrange into bizarre sentences for my amusement. Because he hadn’t understood Manuel, I tried to explain the tone of our conversation.
“Adrian,” I whispered, “I think this guy really hates us. I’m a little worried about going into the woods with him.”
Always laid back, Adrian replied, “I’m sure it will be fine.”
“No, you didn’t understand what he was saying. He really dislikes all Americans, even if they may not be typical tourists,” I said.
Again, Adrian assured me it was all right and I acquiesced. I had to admit that I was definitely the more paranoid of the two of us, and Adrian had a good six inches on Manuel, so I figured we would probably be safe.
Our bus stop was non-descript like so many in Nicaragua. The basic custom is for the rider to yell, “Parada” when they want to get off, and for the bus driver to stop at the next place there is room by the side of the road. I heard Manuel’s “parada” with a nervous jump in my stomach, and we followed him as he motioned us to get off the bus. The trail started off very flat and wound through animal pastures and dry grass. We crunched along in silence for a while, smelling the warm earth and animals as we passed little homes and large fields.
Manuel would stop and show us various plants along the trail and tell us about what they were used for and let us taste and smell them. He pointed to animals and corrected me if I pronounced their names wrong. As the forest began, we passed under an enormous tree with red bark that turned white as it peeled off of its branches. Manuel stopped and told me this tree was called the “Brazo de la turista”, meaning, “arm of the tourist”. It took me awhile to see the connection, but soon realized that the branches looked like sunburned and peeling arms of white tourists. I translated for Adrian and we both laughed appreciatively. Manuel seemed to brighten at our shared joke and strode on pointing out orchids on tree branches, and identifying the calls of howler monkeys in the trees ahead of us.
Soon, we were in the forest. Manuel took out his machete and began cutting vines and branches that had overgrown the path. I wondered if the foliage just grew incredibly fast, or if Manuel was taking us on a path he hadn’t used in awhile. The path became moist and steep and the sounds of bugs and birds increased. Although Manuel didn’t seem to notice the increasing incline, Adrian and I were not accustomed to the pace or the elevation and began breathing hard and pouring sweat. I felt invigorated though, and much more relaxed, walking speedily up the volcano. Because I had to focus so intently on keeping my footing and my pace up, while trying to translate what Manuel had said for Adrian in between breaths, I didn’t have the energy or brain space to entertain my paranoia about Manuel’s apparent dislike of Adrian and I.
Actually, the higher up the volcano we went, the happier Manuel became. Back at the bus stop it would have been hard to imagine that the terse, annoyed man I sat next to, could have been as joyful as the one hiking in front of me. Even Manuel’s face seemed to have opened up, as he shared with us the wonders of the forest.
A loud noise in the branches beside us revealed a howler monkey jumping from tree to tree. We stopped and stared as the monkey climbed away from us, and I felt my heart expand with the thrill of it. Adrian smiled at me, knowing my obsession with monkeys and apes. He chuckled at my flushed cheeks, red from the happiness of seeing a monkey so close to us and from the exertion of the hike.
Finally, we reached an opening in the trees where we could see out around the island. As we were surrounded on all sides by dense forest, it felt as if we were looking out from the mouth of a cave. Impressed by the view and grateful for the excuse to stop and rest, Adrian and I stood and looked out for a long time, Manuel behind us nodding appreciatively. Then, to my utter astonishment, Manuel began to recite a poem. A picture of happiness, our once surly guide recited not one, but 4 or 5 poems that he had written about life and the island. I translated each poem for Adrian and we both complimented Manuel effusively after each. My fear of our guide disappeared as he spoke on and on about the beauty of his island, and the volcano.
Finishing his last poem, Manuel turned and again began walking speedily up the volcano, cutting his way through the vines and trees. Adrian and I followed him trying to keep up, and becoming out of breath again quickly as the sweat that had dried and crystallized on us while we stood, quickly melted and began running down our faces and backs once more. After another hour of hiking, we emerged from the trees. I was surprised by the sudden end of the forest. Although I had seen from below that the top of the volcano was treeless, I hadn’t considered the fact that we would eventually hike until we were beyond the forest. We climbed higher over the dusty gravel of the volcano until we were well above the trees and sat down, the volcano’s cone at our backs, the thick forest and the entire island of Ometepe spreading out beneath us. The view was incredible. We had climbed so high, that it seemed we could see the curve of the earth on the horizon. Sitting in silence, the three of us let the wind blow our hair and dry our sweat for a second time. Manuel took out pictures of his family from his wallet and showed us, telling us about what his daughter was studying in school and when his poetry book would be ready. Talking so easily like this about life and family, we felt like old friends. My heart swelled in gratefulness for the two men sitting on either side of me, and for the incredibly expansive perspectives that come with traveling. We sat there for a long time before deciding to begin our descent.
Climbing down el volcán took significantly less time that climbing up. We passed through the forest, listening to the monkeys’ cries and the bugs’ buzzing. We crossed again under the sunburned tourist arm tree and through the animal pastures making our way back onto the bus that took us back to Moyogalpa. Manuel, Adrian, and I walked down the dusty hill towards our refugio until we reached the road where we would have to part ways. I found that I didn’t want to say goodbye. Before leaving, we all thanked each other over and over and expressed how wonderful the day had been, Manuel speaking in that halting English again so as to make sure that Adrian was included. Thanking Manuel one final time, Adrian and I turned and walked down the dusty road to our refugio, Volcán Concepción watching over us.
Shannon Cram is a graduate student at the University of Oregon studying Nuclear Waste disposal. She loves travelling and has been to 20 countries so far. She plans to hit the road again as soon as she graduates.