The alarm on my watch is beeping: it’s 4:00 a.m. I feel I’ve been asleep for about 10 minutes. Seconds later, one of the kid’s iPads emits a perky jingle—our back-up alarm, which now seems more annoyance than prudence. Mercifully, someone gets to it quickly to shut it off. What an ungodly hour to wake up. We are in a hotel room in Moyogalpa, the main arrival and departure hub on Isla de Ometepe, and we are trying to get the heck outta here.
Ometepe is a lovely get-away-from-it-all island of two volcanoes, Concepción and Maderas, rising majestically out of Lake Nicaragua. Concepción is an active, almost-perfect cone, Maderas an extinct cloud-topped crater. Pre-Columbian indigenous groups considered the island a sacred promised land. Hundreds of petroglyphs carved into basalt, some as many as 3,000 years old, dot the land, making it one of the world’s great rock art repositories. In 2010, UNESCO named Ometepe a biosphere reserve, a learning site for biodiversity management and sustainable development. You don’t have to clatter down what passes for roads for long to feel you’ve landed in paradise lost, which, as much as anything, is the appeal of the place. Our casita was steps away from the water’s edge, facing west for picture-perfect sunsets, with tempting hammocks on the porch.
Our first day, we stopped lounging around long enough to reconnoiter and grab lunch before getting sucked back into the vortex of chillax. It was hot, and we went into the water despite the presence of bull sharks, the lake’s most notorious inhabitants. Considered by experts to be one of the most dangerous breeds in the world (and now thought to be behind attacks previously blamed on great whites), bull sharks were once so feared in these waters it is said that locals did not know how to swim. They are pretty rare nowadays due to the shark-fin processing plant that caught thousands of them during the Somoza years, decimating their numbers. Still, it was a bit unnerving to be standing in the shallow, murky water these sharks prefer, even though I knew they tend to hang out far away near the mouth of the San Juan River. Like any good mother, I let the kids linger in the water while I had a beer on the porch and watched the sunset.
We had originally wanted to do some kayaking on the Istián River, in the isthmus of land joining the volcanoes, where caimans lurk in the carpets of floating water plants and birds of all kinds patrol the water’s edge. Sadly, my back is still recovering from a bad fall I took at the end of December, and we didn’t want to exacerbate my injuries with paddling. Our big excursion was to walk five kilometers to San Ramón and then hike a steep four-kilometer path to the San Ramón waterfall. (You’ll be told it’s only three kilometers. Don’t believe that for a minute. The main topic of conversation at the top is, “How far do you reckon that last ‘kilometer’ really was?”)
The waterfall doesn’t disappoint: the 80-foot cascade down a sheer, mossy cliff more than justifies the effort—check out Mark’s video blog post. We waded into the thigh-deep pool at the bottom for a refreshing shower in the surprisingly cold water. I went twice for good measure, knowing that soon I’d be on my way back down the trail, hot and sweaty, reminiscing about this drenched and breathless moment. It’s the only time I’ve been cold in Nicaragua.
That evening, we arranged for a local woman, Yossel, to come to the casita and show us how to cook an everyday Nicaraguan dinner. She chose to make us fried whole mojarra (a fish from the lake) with gallo pinto (rice with beans) and fried plantains. We chatted in the kitchen as she showed us just the right ratio of rice to beans, just the right time to turn the fish in the pan. The kids were rather weirded out with a fish eye staring at them as they prepared to eat, but to their credit they both dug in, and Sydney declared it delicious. Small victory!
The next morning was Sunday; already time to depart. Our taxi was due at 9:30 to catch the 11:00 ferry. Although our casita is only 22 miles from the ferry terminal at Moyogalpa, it takes well over an hour to drive there on the crap road, much of which isn’t paved yet. Adolfo, our taxista, was early, and we ended up rushing to finish packing. We were behind schedule partly because we lingered over coffee on the patio, looking out over the lake, and partly because the morning routine was interrupted when Sydney found a three-inch scorpion in her pants.
On our first morning, she emerged from the shower “with a bug” on her shirt she didn’t want to touch. For once squeamishness paid off: the “bug” was a baby scorpion. Mark managed to flick it far out into the grass. Later that day we bumped into our host, Cindi, who told us scorpions can give birth to hundreds of babies at once. Ewwww! She recommended shaking out our clothes before putting them on.
Turns out scorpions give birth to up to one hundred babies at a time. Not hundreds. But still—where there’s one baby, there might be many. The scorplings (aww, cute little baby scorplings) crawl onto the mother’s back and ride there until their first molt, when their exoskeleton hardens. In other interesting scorpion facts, they are arachnids, not bugs, and can control the amount of venom they inject. Ah yes, venom. Scorpion stings are rarely life-threatening, but if children are stung they should get immediate medical attention. Sure, we’ll get right on that here on our lost island of paradise. Plan A: shake out clothing! There is no Plan B.
Happily, Sydney discovered the scorpion as she was shaking out her pants, not as she was putting them on. It went flying across the room and scuttled under her bed. Mark and Lucas, intrepid warriors, went to investigate. It didn’t move much, but, you know, why poke a scorpion just to see if it moves? We left it in situ. As we were leaving we mentioned it to Yossel, who had come to clean. All in a day’s work for her, I guess. She was unfazed. Adolfo wanted to know if anyone had been stung, so we learned a new Spanish word as we climbed into his taxi: picar, to sting.
Many bumps later, we had made our way around the Maderas volcano and finally hit the pavement that surrounds much of the larger volcano, Concepción. The wind on this side of the island was brutal. The lake was frothed into whitecaps, and we remarked how lucky we were to have chosen a more tranquil spot. In Moyogalpa, lots of tourists were milling around the ferry terminal. Who knew the 11:00 departure would be so popular?
In the ticket office, the clerk shakes her head, reminiscent of the Soup Nazi: No tickets for you! We eventually decipher what she is saying. No ferries have been running or will be running anytime soon due to high winds. Oh. Travellers, both locals and tourists, continue to pile up at the dock. We see the gamut of emotions that accompany unexpected bad news played out on their faces. Some people clearly need to work on accepting life’s little vicissitudes with a bit more grace. No wonder the ticket lady is peeved.
We decide a cup of coffee can’t hurt and weigh our options at a nearby café. If we pay for a hotel room and a ferry runs later, we’ll have wasted that money. But if we wait too long, hotels are going to fill up—fast. Much to Lucas’s delight, we spy a hotel with Wi-Fi and swimming pool, and what’s more, it’s well priced. The plan sounds reasonable: hang out at the hotel, get some work done, swim a little, and catch a ferry tomorrow. Lucas zips to the pool so fast, he leaves his cat grin floating behind him.
I laudably haul my laptop to the pool deck but get nothing done. A Canadian fellow is there with his kids, and we get to chatting. He first came through Central and South America 20 years ago, and he has some great stories. I decide it’s a better use of my time to swap stories with him than to work; I can work tonight, anyway.
The wind has other ideas. Playing its trump card, it wipes out the power. We will get power for no more than a few minutes here and there for the rest of our stay. We later learn the wind has wiped out the power in all of Nicaragua. In a lucky coup, we find a restaurant with a generator. We’re able to eat, and the beer is cold. Still paradise, really.
Our hotel has a generator too, but just for lights along the outer veranda. Guests are lounging in chairs and hammocks. Sydney sagely notices that the phones and tablets visible in the morning have been replaced with books and cards. I chat with a mother and daughter from Taos, who can’t believe Trump is about to be president of their country. Candles are handed out as the sun goes down, and word is spreading that if a ferry leaves tomorrow, it’s going to be early, 5:00 a.m., when winds are the lightest.
And so, we decide to set our alarm for 4:00. We’ll be among the first to get down to the dock, we figure, and if a boat leaves, we’ll be on it. Groggy, I note that the power is still out. It’s pitch black, and the wind is howling. It’s been gusting all night. From the look on Mark’s face, it’s clear that he’s thinking what I’m thinking: fat chance a ferry will be leaving. I volunteer to go suss things out.
The air is like ink around me as I shuffle along the veranda. If I would have had my phone, I could have lit my path, but alas, my phone was stolen on the bus ride here. I was the classic victim of a classic pickpocket move, a vicissitude I still need to accept with a bit more grace. The main entrance is lit by a single bulb (yay!), but it’s gated shut (boo!). I decide to try the restaurant entrance, even though it’s probably gated too. It’s at the end of a long stone pathway, and I remember there being steps, so in the dark it’s a slow and tedious process, inches at a time, to pick my way along. As I feared, it’s gated. As I reach the gate and assess its structural integrity, a hotel security guard shines his flashlight my way and comes to investigate. I explain my purpose. No doubt taking pity on the irresponsible foreigner without a light, he offers to check the ferry situation on my behalf. Plus, handily, he can unlock the gate rather than whatever I thought I was going to do. Several minutes later he returns shaking his head: no ferry departures today. On the bright side (ha ha), he and his flashlight walk me back to the room.
We nestle back into our beds (translation: we lie on top of the sheets and wish there were power to turn on the fan) and are roused about 20 minutes later by the same guard announcing a boat is leaving after all. Crap! Really? General chaos ensues as we try to pack up by candlelight. Why didn’t we do this last night? Lucas and I are ready first, so we leave to secure a spot on the ferry, if possible.
The gates are down now, so we easily exit via the main entrance and join the trickle of would-be ferrygoers, their flashlights poking through the darkness as we walk down the street. Nobody’s really sure the ferry is leaving, but seeing some locals in the mix gives me hope. Lucas and I turn at the terminal and sashay right onto the ferry . . . and then wait and wait in the wind and the darkness as more and more people file on, walking by us as we linger on the ramp. How many are already on? How many will the ferry hold? I’m distracted somewhat by the presence of a ferry worker talking to someone on the phone. He looks like the guy who might be making the decision. Try as I might to understand what he’s saying, he’s speaking too quickly for me. And anyway, my Spanish lessons have not covered pre-dawn risk assessments of wind velocity and wave action. A crowd is forming on the lower deck as people gather to make their way up the stairs to the seating level. Is anyone counting all these people? Will there be seats for us? Life jackets? Where are Mark and Sydney?
Lucas is becoming more and more agitated. In the dark, with the wind and the uncertainty, his mind is reeling. Why are we even boarding this death trap in the first place? Why not wait another day by the pool, until we know it’s safe to cross? What if the boat leaves suddenly, before Dad and Sydney can get on? What if it’s too crowded and it sinks halfway across? He’s shivering, somehow, and close to tears. To calm him down I tell him the sun will be up soon and reassure him that we’ll get off if we have to. Nobody was going to be leaving anybody behind.
“It’s like something out of a scary movie,” he says, “all these people trying to escape the island.”
Out of the darkness I hear Mark yell my name. Theatrically, he and Syd have been stopped just before stepping past the fence to get to the ferry ramp. A worker is down there now, it seems. It is like a movie, I realize, with the wind, the dark, the language barrier, and the lack of sleep magnifying the confusion. Lucas has unknowingly articulated some of my own thoughts: should we, in fact, be getting on this boat? Is it safe to cross? The worker who was on the phone now wants Lucas and I to get off the ramp and onto the deck. I explain to him that we are a party of four; my husband and daughter are just over there. Can they also board? ¿Es posible? He pauses, then nods.
I am looking to where I heard Mark’s voice and yelling to get his attention. He’s one of the dark shapes of people by the fence, the head of a restless snake that has grown many feet long. Everyone wants on this boat—this boat that might not even be leaving, or worse, might be leaving and maybe should not be.
And that’s when it happened.
All my attention focused on the shore, stepping back sideways to get a better sightline, my left foot goes straight down through the roughly five-inch gap between the ramp and the boat proper. WHAM! I suddenly find myself on the floor of the ramp, my left leg buried to my thigh. I realize belatedly there was a scream, and it came from me.
People around me spring to action. The man I was desperately trying to understand earlier shifts into accomplished English. Let me help you. Here, take my hand. We extract my leg. I can’t seem to determine if should bend it or straighten it. I’m in so much pain I don’t know what to do with myself. It takes a lot of compression to get a leg my size shoved that far down a five-inch opening, let me tell you. We’re going to stand you up. Can you move your leg? No, no, no. Don’t touch me. I try to breathe, feeling for damage. Nothing seems broken. Lucas’s eyes are like saucers in the first hint of dawn.
Somehow Mark is beside me. Let it be known that falling through gaps is an effective means of getting all members of your party onto a Nicaraguan ferry. He helps me to stand. Nausea hits. If I don’t lie down, I’m going to vomit. That thought propels me to the edge of the car deck. I lie down on the cool metal, not caring what I must look like. It’s a lot of drama for this hour of the morning, and it’s enough to push Lucas’s fear over the edge.
“Now we’re really in trouble,” he concludes, “and there’s no hospital on the island.” A tear falls. Poor Lucas. His fatalism makes me smile, and remembering that I have ibuprofen in my bag cheers me even more. On cue, the sun takes pity and peeks over the horizon.
That day, we are among 150-odd people to board the ferry and “escape” the island. It’s the only ferry that left Isla de Ometepe that day. Each passenger, I’m pleased to see, has a life jacket. What’s more, most are wearing them. I don’t see the Canadian family we met by the hotel pool, or the mother-daughter pair from New Mexico: They had a flight to catch from Managua that evening. Now that the sun is up, the kids’ fears dissipate, and the crossing isn’t so bad. On the other side we hit a stroke of luck and board a bus on which we can sit for the entire ride back to our place near Managua. When we arrive, the power is on. Hallelujah!
I wrote the bulk of this post three days post-escape. The pain and swelling had abated somewhat, paving the way for an impressive bruise on my outer thigh. In a few days, I could walk short distances without too much of a limp. (Now, almost a month later, I’m just able to lie on that side. It’s still swollen, but the bruise is nowhere near as spectacular.) I reduced the bulk of the pain and inflammation the first couple of days by application of a gel our Nicaraguan host swore by. He happened to have a tube in his medicine cabinet, and I was eager to use it. Wondering later whether I should be limiting how much I apply, I Googled it: Diclofenac, the subject of a 2014 Health Canada safety review. So, that answers that question. I opted to medicate instead with Nicaraguan beer. Una Toña, por favor.