Diary of a Divemaster-in-Training: Nicaragua

PART ONE: LITTLE CORN ISLAND, NICARAGUA

Week One

At Managua airport, we hugged goodbye to mum and dad and watched them go through immigration until they were out of sight. Then we left the swanky, glassy international terminal and walked next door to the small, shabby building which served as the terminal for national flights. A few hours later, we flew from Managua to Big Corn Island (not as tiny and rickety a plane as you might think) and the next day, we caught a panga and crossed to Little Corn. The only available seats by the time we arrived were at the front of the boat, so we had an absolutely spine-thudding journey as the boat leapt through the waves, like trying to ride the wildest horse of them all and jarring with each buck.

We arrived at the Little Corn pier and disembarked, avoiding the touters advertising hostels, snorkelling tours and free drinks. Once we’d loaded ourselves with our backpacks, we set off along the concrete walkway (no vehicles on this island), and wandered along the shorefront amid the few restaurants and bars. The sea was mottled, with patches of bright turquoise and darker blue where the bottom was rocky or covered in sea grass or reef. Wandered into one and then the other dive shop. The second one, Dolphin Dive, appealed more: the staff answered our questions more fully and we liked the look of the operation. Adam, the manager, helped us find accommodation (our requests being a kitchen, to keep food cheap, and not a backpacker place) in the house of the two divemasters who worked there, Molly (English) and Gary (local), who shortly afterwards arrived back from a dive. Both really friendly, Gary took us back to their house to check it out and I quickly realised he has one of the heartiest, most infectious laughs of anyone I have ever met. Their kitchen has an oven (!) and the house is very spacious. They also have two dogs, a big fluffy sandy-coloured shepherd called Simba (aptly named, I immediately drew a line across his forehead and said ‘Simbaaa’ in as low a voice as I could manage), and an island dog (no official breed but they’re everywhere here) called Gypsy. The house is on the southern tip of the island, where it’s very quiet and most of the houses around belong to Gary’s family (he pointed in various directions, picking out his brother and dad in two houses across the way, his aunt and cousin to one side…). Seemed like it would be a lovely place to stay.

Very strange to be in a place where more or less everyone speaks and understands English, albeit Creole English, so the accent will take some getting used to. Absolutely love it though. By this time, Sam had already said out loud to me that he wondered if this would be a good place to begin our divemaster qualification. Within another hour, once we had sat down and had a smoothie in a restaurant overlooking the sea and talked it over a bit, including finances and other aspects, we decided to stay. (The extra deciding factors for me included a lending library in the village, which meant I couldn’t possibly run out of books and the two pet dogs. Yes, these things make a difference.) An odd feeling! We arrived expecting to be here a week before moving on north, and suddenly we were starting our diving internship the next day, didn’t know the first thing about where to get food supplies, and hadn’t even walked around the whole island yet.

The next day we began. I had fewer than the forty dives needed to start the qualification, so I spent the first few days getting my dives up by going out on a lot of the fun dives with Molly and Gary and groups of certified divers. Quickly realised that it is a great place to dive frequently: a lot of coral, many species of fish, stingrays, and resident nurse sharks. On my first dive, with Gary, a HUGE nurse shark passed over the reef, at least two metres long. Haven’t seen one that size for the rest of the week, but the smaller ones, especially at specific sites, follow the dive group around, swimming very close, turning over in the sand, swimming right at me sometimes before curving away at the last moment. Have seen long black moray eels, dotted with white, large shoals of different species, often Yellowtail Snappers, and several Southern Stingrays sat on the bottom and covered in sand so that only their tails and eyes/gills are visible.

Meanwhile, Sam helped out on some courses with the student divers. I joined in towards the end of the week when my assistance was more needed and I had reached forty dives, and spent several days assisting on try dives for people who have never dived before and wanna try it out. Quickly realised how much patience teaching and assisting requires. Although it is enjoyable to help people, and I know that it appeals a lot to Sam, during the dives our attention is so focussed on the students that the diving isn’t about the reef or the wildlife, or the joy of diving, it is about being a focussed, careful assistant. Watching two episodes from an AMAZING BBC wildlife series called ‘Shark’ in the evenings made me think about what I want from diving in the future: definitely want to use the diving to try and get experience in research diving and conservation.

 

Other than these activities, we spent every evening studying the Divemaster manual, a chapter a day ending with a knowledge review we had to fill in, which we then went through the following day with Adam. Absolutely exhausted, in bed by half nine most nights, ready to be up and at the shop by half seven or eight the next morning.

After a few days, we also did our first inwater part of the course: the skill circuit. Steph, an instructor who has been teaching here for five years, took us to the confined area (shallow water) used for teaching, and we ran through a number of demonstrations that Sam and I need to be able to perform, should we need to assist student divers (like regulator replacement, mask clearing, out of air situations, buoyancy check etc etc). There are twenty plus skills we will need to be able to demonstrate clearly and simply, most of them underwater. There were a few surface skills, such as equipment set up, so we had to pretend we were instructing new divers, rather than each other and an instructor with a lot of experience, and demonstrate putting together the gear. Seeing as I’m not a fan of public speaking, I had to just ignore the weird set up and do it. Good feedback from Steph for both of us. Also had a couple of comments at the end of the weekend to the effect that we have done a lot for our first week, so I think we are working pretty hard and doing ok.

With no days off (out of choice, we wanna get into it a bit more first) we haven’t had time to explore the island any more than the necessary places. Have learnt that a supplies boat comes over from Big Corn every Saturday, so that is the day to buy anything fresh, mostly vegetables. Sam went over to Big Corn at the weekend to get money out, and came back with an absolute TREAT: three blocks of cheddar! It was American cheddar but hey, on an island with only salty local cheese that is a MASSIVE treat, never mind after a complete lack of cheddar for many months. He also brought back a huge bottle of olive oil. Only been a week and already these things are exciting. I have also learnt to bake bread (check out the domestic goddess), so every three days or so I have taken to baking a loaf to eat for breakfast and as snacks. I get Sam to knead the dough as my painful wrists make it difficult, plus the better the kneading, the lighter the bread comes out.

There is a strange vibe to the island, I haven’t yet worked it out. For such a small community (about 1000 people or so I was told, 500 or so are original Creole islanders, then a fair number of Hispanic immigrants from the mainland, plus foreigners who have permanently settled here), there don’t seem to be really strong familial ties. Maybe I am viewing this through the lens of a comparison with the family units in Cyprus and expecting that such a small community would be similar in that way. When I talked to Molly about this, she said it was partly cultural but also that cocaine has a huge influence on the island. It is apparently so readily available, and messes up a lot of friendships, families, destroys loyalty etc. A number of foreigners have described arriving on the island meaning only to stay a short while (like us) and then staying for ages, and many are repeat returners, visiting for several months a year. Some have even bought land and moved here, more or less permanently, doing visa runs to Bluefields (costal town on the mainland) every three months, then longer visa runs out of the country (usually across the border into Costa Rica for like twenty minutes then back) every six months. This influx has such an array of consequences, positive and negative, that it is difficult to untangle in my head. There is a LOT of crime, within the first week alone: robbery of a couple, also staying in Molly and Gary’s house, their bags were taken from behind their heads on a beach, an instructor from the dive shop was physically assaulted as she walked home and we heard rumours of the rape of a tourist. And the gossip just seems to circulate and morph and each story has several versions and it is difficult to work out where the truth begins and end, if indeed the truth ends up relating to ‘reality’ at all in the end. Fidelity also seems to be a hazy thing. I have heard that a lot of married local men have flings with tourist girls who either don’t realise that the men are married or don’t care.

But on the other hand, it is a palm-tree-strewn, small gem of an island, and especially when I am diving, or walking back and forth to the house chatting to Sam and looking out to sea and around us, I feel happy to be here. The simpler way of life certainly has its benefits.

 

Week Two

Week two was off to a slow start, with two days off because I was ill. I had a blocked nose and was basically congested, and seeing as this can be dangerous for diving, I had to sit it out. Went along to the dive shop and helped to translate for a Nicaraguan student taking a course, and helped out with assembling and breaking down gear, but other than that just felt frustrated that I was missing out.

On the Wednesday evening, we went out with Molly, Gary and a few others to a local restaurant, where a couple of wandering hippies who make up the group Los Arsonistas (The Arsonists) performed an awesome fire show.

The first dive I did when I had recovered more than made up for the two days off. We came to the surface at the end of the dive, to hear the captain yelling that dolphins were heading towards the boat, so we stayed in the water. Only a couple of minutes later, seven individuals, including a baby, swam into sight, gliding around us, playing with each other and coming quite close. Absolutely incredible moment. We all got into the boat and set off back towards shore, and the pod rejoined us, swimming really close alongside the bow, so we all put our masks and fins back on and jumped into the water. This time they were even closer, and as I was so massively keen, I was swimming out in front and got a really good look, especially at one individual who turned to watch me. There were a total of sixteen individuals by now, who swam below us, wrestling playfully with each other whilst keeping an eye on us, then would swim up to the surface ahead and curve out of the water for air. If I could have told my child self that I would get to swim with bottlenose dolphins in the wild when I was older, I wouldn’t have believed it.

On Friday and Saturday I interned on an Advanced Course, which meant shadowing an instructor as she taught and carried out the course. The Advanced Course is made up of five adventure dives, plus a knowledge review for each dive to be completed in the accompanying manual. I especially enjoyed the peak performance buoyancy dive. It was just the instructor, the one student and me, and we took a few weights and a big square made of plastic piping down to about twelve metres and did various exercises to improve buoyancy, which included different fin movements to increase efficiency, hovering, and swimming through the square in a number of different ways, including upside down which was pretty disorientating. Good fun though, and showed up a few cracks in my own skills which I can improve on, though also showed to me that I am more competent even in ten days. It has got to the point where even just breathing, suspended in the water, has become a joy, that pure, effortless weightlessness is almost addictive. Never mind the incredible wildlife and marine scenery, simply the act of diving is amazing.

By Friday, we had finished reading the Divemaster manual and completed all the knowledge reviews, so did Part One of the exam. All went well, I got 57/60, and Sam got 100%, the smug thing!

Saturday began unremarkably. We then heard the news that a hammerhead shark had been spotted during a dive by the other dive shop at a site off the eastern side of the island. Incredibly exciting, especially considering there has been one confirmed sighting in the last eighteen months (apparently they used to be common but now are incredibly rare, most likely due to being fished). I had to accompany the final Advanced Course dive, but Sam went off with a group to the same site. He was swimming out front of the group and saw the hammerhead glide past him, as well as a group of twenty plus eagle rays which ‘flew’ above him. I was VERY jealous when he told me, more than made up for him missing the dolphins, and though we went on an afternoon dive to the same site to try search for the hammerhead, it was no longer there. Everyone was so keen to see it that the dive group consisted of four customers and six of us members of staff. It was a site called Tarpon Channel, an eerie place, about twenty metres deep, two walls of rock rising on either side of the deep blue. Not much to see by the way of wildlife. As we made our five metre safety stop at the end of the dive, Gary waved a tiny plastic hammerhead shark attached to his BCD jacket at me, then once on the surface made me smile as he laughed uproariously and told me that at least I’d seen one underwater.

The famous photo: fuzzy blur to the right is Sam, fuzzy blur to the right is the hammerhead shark

The famous photo: fuzzy blur to the right is Sam, fuzzy blur to the left is the hammerhead shark

Sunday was our first proper day off. I spent the morning writing and reading and doing other exciting life admin things like laundry. Sam and I then taught Molly and Gary an Israeli card game which we have picked up during our travels. They call their place the Game House because they like board games and card games so much, so it went down a real treat. We played amid preparation for a veggie roast dinner, which when served was delicious: one large Yorkshire pudding divided between us all, carrots done the way my dad does them, cabbage, and rosemary roast potatoes topped off with veggie gravy. We rounded off the day by watching the final part of the BBC Shark series. Dr Andrea Marshall, the top manta ray scientist who I met in Ecuador featured a lot, was odd to see her on screen.

Veggie roast dinner, with Molly, Gary and our two lovely housemates Ben and Ping

Veggie roast dinner, with Molly, Gary and our two housemates Ben and Ping

Instead of allowing me to rest, the day off brought out an illness. I became completely bunged up again, and thought we gave ourselves a really good night’s sleep, I woke up on Monday and decided that if I really wanted to get better I had to not go into the dive shop, so that I wouldn’t be tempted to go diving, especially if they were returning to the site where the hammerhead was spotted. When I headed in to use the internet, I took one look at Sam’s face and knew that I had missed it again. Really upset.

Over the next few days we got talking to Birgit, one of the instructors. She had great things to say about the dive shop on Roatán, an island off the coast of Honduras, where she did her Divemaster training and instructor course. The diving is in a Marine Park, and has completely different topography, with a lot of diving along the wall created by the drop-off into the deep blue. As the island sounded larger (well most anywhere is larger than Little Corn), there would also be a greater range of diving experience, including tec diving and various specialties. We pondered it for a while then decided that it sounded like a great place to finish off our DMT to broaden our range of diving experience. Without booking anything in advance, we said our goodbyes to Molly, Gary, the two dogs and our new friends and left Little Corn on a morning panga.

From Relaxation to Revolution

After the volcanic episodes of Part One of mum and dad’s visit to Nicaragua, we stayed in the colonial city of Granada for a few days. It was a small city, its streets narrow and lined with colonial houses painted in pastel colours, topped with traditional red tiles and decorated with carved wooden balconies. Most of our exploring consisted of wandering around, but we also did the touristy thing of taking a tour of the historic city centre and the lakeside promenade in a horse-drawn carriage. Then we departed and headed for unknown horizons.

Nicaragua has had a complicated, often bloody, history, and the last several decades have seen a lot of political and social change. Apart from a few expat spots, tourism is still generally in its infancy, with little in the way of infrastructure and development to support it at the moment. If you don’t speak Spanish, several of the places we next visited would be extremely difficult to get to and enjoy if travelling independently. This was where Sam and I came into our own; after months of travelling through Latin America, our Spanish was at a decent level and this underdeveloped tourism would simply mean more of a challenge, and hopefully a greater reward.

Still, as we bounced around in a shabby local bus (part of this challenge meant opting for local transport rather than infinitely easier option of domestic flights), I looked over at mum and dad to see how they were taking things. They had chosen the six hour bus journey from the capital city of Managua to reach the port town of San Carlos at the southern end of Lake Nicaragua. If the seats were a little hard, the entertainment more than made up for things, the highlight being what I can only describe as a catwalk of venders at one stop: dozens of venders marched onto the bus selling all manner of (mostly edible) goods, unleashing a cacophony of catchphrases and bargain prices, and piling on in such great numbers, that someone had to open a hatch at the back so that they could all stream off again.

We arrived in San Carlos and found accommodation for the night, and the next morning caught a small launch from the jetty, travelling downstream along the San Juan River. Officers decked out in faded blue uniforms, Nicaraguan Navy I presume, presided over the embarking process, ensuring that all luggage was packed onto the boat well and that each person had a lifejacket. The engine started up and we set off down the river, then it was as though an unspoken signal had been given: no sooner had we turned a bend and were out of sight of the pier, every single person took off their lifejacket and tucked it into the roof racks. Every single person except mum and dad that is, who were perfectly content to sit there bulging slightly for the rest of the journey.

 

Messing Around on the River

A couple of hours later we docked in El Castillo, a small settlement built into the fairly steep bank of the river. It didn’t take us long to explore. Our hotel was at one end of the village, looking out across the rapids of the shallow river, whilst the fort after which the place was named, sat on a hillock at the other end. They were joined in between by a narrow concrete walkway, lined on either side with restaurants, shops and houses on stilts. Though there did seem to be a kind of tourist infrastructure here, by way of several guesthouses and tourist-aimed restaurants, we saw only a handful of foreign tourists in our several days there. Apparently the place usually attracted national tourists, though we didn’t see many of them either.

That first evening, we visited the fort. The fort was small but had a fascinating history; for centuries before the Panama Canal was built, the interconnected rivers and lakes of Nicaragua acted as a Pan-American thoroughfare with which to traverse Central America, which meant that the fort was very strategically located and susceptible to pirate attacks. It did indeed offer a great view both up and downstream, as well as over the village and the farmland and forest on the opposite bank.

The next morning, we met Orlando, our local guide for the day. We all climbed into a small boat and travelled a short way downstream. Shortly after leaving El Castillo, the land on the same bank became Costa Rica, the river acting as the border between the two countries.

We disembarked at the edge of the Indio Maiz Reserve. Only two small areas of the vast reserve are accessible to tourists; only scientists and researchers can venture further. For the next few hours, Orlando led us around a trail which ran for several kilometres through the rainforest. He pointed out medicinal plants, a highlight being the Mimosa leaf he gave each of us to chew, to test out its anaesthetic properties. Sam and I were less cautious than mum and dad and happily chewed away, until our mouths suddenly felt fuzzy and numb and started producing more saliva than was manageable, so we walked along spitting out for a good few minutes. We spotted several beautiful species of frog along the way, including the tiny red and blue Strawberry poison-dart frog. Right at the end of the route, we ran into a troupe of howler monkeys, who were so unconcerned by our presence that we could stand beneath them, mere metres away, as they foraged for food, called to each other, and flopped around languorously in the branches. This incredible experience was topped off by a swim in the stream, during which a lone, probably male, spider monkey came crashing down through the branches until he was close enough to peer at us. He sat watching us for the duration of our swimming stop, which we mostly spent watching him back.

That afternoon, we moved from El Castillo to a wooden riverside cabin further downstream. There were only four rooms available to begin with, but we were the only guests, so besides the caretaker’s family we had the place entirely to ourselves. The afternoon was therefore spent in quiet bliss, reading, writing or simply sitting and watching the river flow past. As darkness fell, fireflies began flashing in the long grass. Dad and Sam used the light of a couple of faint bulbs to play a game from my dad’s childhood which involved stones on a board and a fair amount of strategic thinking.

The next morning, we were supplied with two canoes, paddles and lifejackets, and merrily rowed our way downstream and along a small stream through the reserve. As I am notoriously bad at rowing, Sam did most of the work, enhancing the romance of the beautiful setting by rapping the Fresh Prince of Belair in a BBC English accent for my entertainment.

When we got back to El Castillo that evening, we raced to the reception to use the incredibly slow internet connection to check out the results of the national election back home. An air of disappointment accompanied our dinner that evening.

 

Island Bliss

We caught the small launch back from El Castillo to San Carlos, and on the same day, took an even smaller boat out to the Solentiname Islands, an archipelago of thirty-six islands clumped together in the southern end of Lake Nicaragua. The journey was only an hour, but the waves were against us, and as Sam and I were sat in the front row, we received a drenching.

We landed on Mancarrón, one of the most inhabited islands; next to the pier there was a ‘town’, with the excessive population of forty-five people. As there were no vehicles or roads on the islands, we carried and pulled our bags around the narrow concrete walkway to view a couple of potential places to stay. We settled on a wooden cabin, whose several rooms could hold about fifteen guests but as we were the only ones staying there we essentially had private accommodation with a lake view, and, as we found out the next morning, a full breakfast spread served beneath a thatched roof only a few metres from the water’s edge.

For a couple of days, we simply relaxed and explored the island. The main vocation of the town’s people was as artisans of the very lightweight balsa wood, which they carved into objects and painted, so that as we wandered along the path past the few houses which made up the town, we saw tables laid with colourful creations, often depicting local animals, such as toucans, parrots and turtles. A local artisan acted as our guide, and led us through the dry forest outside the town, climbing up the mount there until we found a break in the trees and had a lovely view across the lake and a few surrounding islands. We also popped into the one room museum, with its collection of indigenous stone and ceramic objects, and the whitewashed church, with its bright murals of animals and plants of the island. In the evenings, we ate at another hotel, which seemed to have only one guest despite its fairly extensive grounds. The food was amazing, three courses made from the limited supplies grown on the island or brought over from San Carlos, each time different and always tasty.

After a couple of days we wanted to explore more of the archipelago, so we hired a small local boat, complete with captain, to transport us between islands. We passed Isla de Padre, where a troupe of Mantled Howler Monkeys sleepily peered at us from the top branches of the forest, and continued on to Isla Venada, where we pulled into a small bay, fringed by a cluster of basic houses. We had come to this island to particularly visit this village: its population was comprised of three generations of the Arellano family, a family of artists headed by Rodolfo Arellano, who all painted in the primitivism style, depicting the wildlife and landscape of the Solentiname Islands. Rodolfo had taught a number of his children who taught their children, so as we walked from house to house we met several Arellanos, and chatted to them as we admired their collections of work. Although it was all the same style, if you looked carefully you could see how the work of each artist differed: the details, the use of colour, the animals they included. The pieces were beautiful, so incredibly detailed that the longer you looked at each one, the more you noticed. Finally we came to the house of Rodolfo himself, who was now confined to a wheelchair, but was still painting and warmly welcomed us in to look at his work. Dad was particularly struck by one of his pieces, a depiction of the island of Mancarrón where we were staying, so soon he was the lucky owner of a painting by the great man himself.

We got back into the boat, with much waving and thank yous, and drove around to the other end of the island and moored. As we clambered over the rocks to look into a small cave, a huge iguana came crashing through the undergrowth, fell into the water and swam away hurriedly. Along the walls of the cave, now home to many bats, we could see the faint traces of pre-Colombian petroglyphs carved by the indigenous of the island.

For lunch we stopped by San Fernando Island. We were the only customers in a beautiful restaurant overlooking the beach and several other close islands. After eating, we followed the path running through the village and up a steep slope until we came to a small museum. It contained an eclectic mix of very large, incredibly beautiful, collaborative pieces painted by several members of the Arellano family, diagrams and photos of petroglyphs found across the islands, and other artefacts, both older and modern, relating to the Solentiname way of life, such as old fishing canoes.

On the way back to the port, we looked around a workshop, with a collection of Arellano work at one end, and balsa wood pieces at the other, the tables laid out chock-a-block full of colourful animals and objects, the walls covered. Finally, our short tour complete, our captain motored us back to Mancarrón island and our wooden cabin.

 

Religion and Revolution

After a few days staying on the Solentiname Islands, we made the return boat journey to San Carlos and from there caught a bus back around the lake to Managua. This time we added on an extra stretch north from Managua, to reach the city of León. On recommendation from a couple we had previously met, we stayed in a small posada, a guesthouse in a colonial building which had been in the family of the owner for more than a hundred years.

The heat in León, much like everywhere else during our wanderings through Nicaragua, was not conducive to a lot of activity, so our sightseeing was spread over several days. We began with an amble through the historic city centre, then returned to the main square and entered the large white cathedral in the hopes that we would spot where to buy tickets to climb its bell tower. A service seemed to be in full swing, and the queue for communion stretched all through the knave, several hundred people long. We spotted where to buy tickets and left the crowds to climb the tower. We emerged at the top, right beside several large bells and were asked to take our shoes off and told not to walk on the domes. Odd instructions considering we didn’t really know what was going on, but we followed the steps around a bend and found spread beneath us the bright white roof of the whole cathedral. It was a surreal landscape, dreamlike and glowingly white, and great fun to wander around, the views in all directions splendid. When we looked down in the main square, crowds were gathering, and just as we wandered back into the bell tower, several boys began ringing the bells, the vibrations so loud that my head buzzed.

By the time we climbed back down the tower, the communion queue was so long that it snaked several times through the cathedral then out its front doors. One of us clicked that the celebrations were in aid of the beatification of John Paul II, and indeed, that evening after dinner when we walked through the main square again, there were crowds stood on either side of the road as a procession and marching band slowly made its way through. Like any interested tourists, we gathered to one side to have a look, and several minutes later a news camera crew came along, filming the crowd’s reaction as the procession passed through. The cameraman lingered on mum and I, and then I made the fatal mistake of answering the question ‘Do you speak Spanish?’ with a yes. Suddenly the camera light was on me and a presenter was asking me questions and holding out microphone, and the locals around me were giggling and pointing as they realised a news interview was happening right in front of them. As the procession filed into the cathedral, fireworks began bursting overhead, and we were treated to a long display before we decided to head for home.

Our sightseeing continued the next day with a visit to the Museum of the Revolution. We found the museum on one side of the main square, an old building with a small group of elderly men sat on the steps leading in, all former revolutionary fighters during the overthrow of the Somoza regime during the 70s. We were introduced to Ricardo Lopez who gave us a tour of the place. The walls of the downstairs room were covered in faded photographs and information boards which Ricardo used to talk us through the events of the twentieth century, leading to the downfall of the dictatorial regime of president Samosa in 1979. There was even a photograph of Ricardo himself, armed and peering around the corner of a building during the fighting.

After the downstairs tour, Ricardo led us up a grand staircase, past what were formerly offices of Samosa’s military, and up onto the roof. We carefully trod along the corrugated iron and gazed at the view around us, as he explained what happened at various points of interest across the city during the revolution. As we left the museum I sat down amongst the former revolutionary fighters, who were keen for a photograph, especially with what my mum referred to as ‘a young lady’.

On our final day, we headed for the coast and spent the day on the beach. The waves were ferocious, and dad, Sam and I had great fun playing in the shallows, being tossed and pulled about. Mum sat reading and watching us under a thatched roof constructed on the beach for sun cover, surrounded by beach dogs. We watched the glowing sunset, then headed to the second floor of a restaurant bar for a drink.

 

And with that, the three weeks were up. The next day we hugged mum and dad goodbye in Managua Airport, watching and waving until they were through immigration and out of sight. It seemed very quiet with just the two of us after all the chatter of the last few weeks. We swung our backpacks onto our backs and headed for the small, somewhat shabbier domestic terminal.

_DSC8184-Pano-2 (Large)

The Volcano Series

Once across the Costa Rican border and into Nicaragua, we could feel that prickle of excitement that comes with a new, unexplored country. The roads were dustier than in Costa Rica, the countryside drier, the people browner. Old American school buses, straight out of The Simpsons, but patterned with clashingly bright colours and pasted with religious verses and pictures, ferried the population between towns, groaning and bulging with crowds of locals. We climbed aboard one of these ancient specimens and made our way into the city of Granada, and from there we searched for the hotel that my mum had mentioned in an email. We found it only one block from the main plaza, a beautiful ochre colonial building arranged around a small courtyard filled with a paddling-pool sized swimming pool and outdoor kitchen.

The next day was spent waiting in the thick, burning heat, until darkness fell and a taxi picked us up. An hour later, we were stood in the arrivals area of the airport. I was so excited that I could barely keep still and instead leapt about, much to the confused amusement of other people waiting around us. After only a few minutes, mum and dad came through the doors, wheeling their luggage and looking around for familiar faces. Our reunion hug carried the weight of several months apart.

The day after my parents arrived, they handed me several notes from Jo, my sister. They had me laughing, and nearly crying too, and culminated in the unwrapping of Substitute Jo: two photos of her face in a protective plastic folder attached to a length of string, so that I could wear her around my neck wherever I went and include her in family photos. This may sound embarrassing to some of you, but I wore Substitute Jo with pride, hardly noticing the strange looks, and took her with us everywhere.

As we soon found out, Nicaragua is the land of volcanoes. The first ten days of the holiday with my mum and dad were a series of episodic experiences as we moved between a few of these, and so I present you with: The Volcano Series.

 

Episode One: Ometepe

We left the city of Granada and arrived at the shores of Lake Nicaragua. Each clutching a small sandwich bag of orange juice freshly squeezed from a roadside cart, we boarded a ferry and headed for the island of Ometepe. As we glided towards it, its topography struck me; two volcanoes rose out of the water. Both volcanoes were conical, and the larger was still active, a column of smoke forming into clouds above its peak. When I opened the guidebook to look at a map of the island, I realised that it was a figure of eight shape, with the entire 30,000 people of its population living in a series of towns and villages around the narrow base of the volcanoes.

The two volcanoes of Ometepe island

When we arrived on Ometepe, a taxi drove us around the base of the northern, active volcano and crossed to the base of the southern volcano. Because we were travelling with mum and dad, we guessed that the luxury level would be upped a bit in comparison to our usual backpacker standards, and on Ometepe this came in the form of Finka del Sol, an Eco farm. Sam and I were led to a round adobe cabin, painted yellow and with a thatched roof. A short way up the path, mum and dad were looking around their own blue cabin. We were shown how the compost toilets worked (scoops of rice husks acted as a substitute or flushing, surprisingly it worked a treat!), informed that the water dispenser was filled from a volcano spring, and told that as it was sunny at the moment, there was plenty of solar-powered electricity to go round. We went on a wander around the small farm, through a fenced off area for goats and sheep, kept to make cheese, where we ran into a passing troupe of howler monkeys, and up to the breakfast spot, next to the owners’ own, larger, adobe cabin and separate kitchen hut, where hummingbirds flitted between large red hibiscus blooms and blue jays called out to each other with a distinctive warbled call.

Whilst mum and dad got over their jet lag and let the hustle and bustle of their working lives drift away, we had a few lazy days. Not that we had any other alternative: the heat was overpowering, almost unbearable. By only ten o’clock each morning it was at least 35°C, and I don’t want to know what temperatures it reached by the middle of the day. It was all we could do to sit still and breathe in the heat. We managed to make it down to the nearby sandy beach a couple of times and drift about in the cooling waters of the lake. It was an odd sight to see horses drinking from the shores of what otherwise looked like the seaside. We had an unpleasant incident during our second beach session: in the time between dad getting into the water and Sam and I getting out and walking towards our bags, someone managed to pull dad’s backpack behind a rock and take his iPhone and iPod. Sam and I must have unwittingly disturbed the thief(s) before they could strip away everything, because they also took odd small items like sun cream and a penknife, but hadn’t yet got to a couple of other valuable items, including Sam’s DSLR camera sat among our stuff. All things considered, we were lucky really.

After a couple of days, we arranged to go for a walk through the cloud forest which ascended up Maderas, the southern volcano. As I prepared for the walk, I pulled on my right walking shoe and felt a searing needle of pain pierce through my right big toe. Ripping off my shoe, I began howling with pain as I gripped my big toe, completely unaware that my face was streaming with tears. I should say that the culprit who delivered the sting, a scorpion, was not a lethal species and I didn’t need medical attention. It was, however, bloody excruciating. I sat there, unaware of the ghastly sound I was making, clutching my toe for a good half an hour, until the pain began to subside and I could just about walk on it. I managed to get a look at the translucent brown creature when I extracted it from my shoe and released it into the grass and, despite the pain it had caused me, had to admit it was pretty damn cool, even its long, mean sting. Unsurprisingly, I had to skip the walk. Sam, mum and dad came back with reports of another encounter with howler monkeys as well as a sighting of white faced capuchin monkeys. I meanwhile spent the morning interspersing my writing with two minute showers, followed by drip drying, a feeble attempt to cope with the heat of the oven that the world had become.

 

Episode Two: Mombacho

After several days unwinding and cooking in the heat of Ometepe island, we crossed the lake back to the mainland and returned to Granada for a few days. Episode Two of the Volcano Series featured Mombacho, and began with a short taxi ride out of the city. We were dropped off in the car park at the base, and driven up the side of the volcano in a huge 4×4 truck, to the visitor centre, where we realised that the whole volcano was privately owned by an award winning coffee company, and that the research centre had been partly, funded by the British government.

From the centre, we set out along a trail through the cloud forest, circling one of the craters. We were led by a guide, who chatted to us about the ecosystem whilst pointing out its flora and fauna, such as the spikey bromeliad plants growing along the branches and in the nooks of certain trees, or the Monkey tail fern, the tallest fern in the world. We paused at a number of wooden platforms to peer through the trees and across the crater, which was thickly draped in a layer of tumbling green foliage. Midway along the route, we emerged in grassy meadows filled with a number of bright orchids species, with stunning views across Granada, Lake Nicaragua, and Las Islas, hundreds of tiny islands scattered like fragments into the huge lake. A small path to one side led to a steam vent, where hot sulphurous steam from the neighbouring active crater rose out of the grassy vegetation, steaming up dad’s glasses. Near the end of the circuit, our guide spotted a two-toed sloth up in a tree, languorously turning its head from side to side as it chomped on leaves.

As we sat waiting for the next 4×4 to take us back down the volcano, our guide came running to tell us that she had found several red-eyed tree frogs around a small pond behind the visitor centre. We excitedly followed to have a look, and found several of these beautiful creatures, vivid green with bright red eyes. The males had blue patterns on their hind legs which could only been seen if they stretched or jumped. We hung around watching them until the next 4×4 arrived.

 

Episode Three: Masaya

Towards the end of the first week of mum and dad’s holiday, both mum and Sam became quite ill, so we took things slowly for a day or so, and when we went for Volcano Round Three, we took the easier option and hired a taxi for the day.

Hector, our taxi driver, began by driving us to El Coyotepe Fort, on the edge of the Masaya Volcano calderas. The watchtowers at each corner of the structure gave us great views across to the peak of Masaya volcano as well as across the town of Masaya, built in the basin.

Maderas volcano

Though the fort was built in the 1890s, its history was overshadowed by its later use. From 1944-79, while Nicaragua was under the dictatorial regime of the Somoza family, the fort as adapted, with several underground floors built so that it could be used as a prison and torture camp. Hector led us around three underground floors of concrete cells, faint blood stains on the walls of the torture rooms still discernible and words and phrases scratched into the walls, such as ‘only Jesus Christ can save me now’. Bats now inhabited the deserted cells and flitted around our heads as we walked through the prison. The place left me sombre and quiet for a while, as we drove away and towards the peaks of Masaya.

We began at the Masaya Visitor Centre. There were a number of interesting aerial models of the site, as well as Nicaragua as a whole, which put into perspective the two chains of volcanoes strung across the country. We then drove up to one of the four craters. It was an active crater, belching out a thick haze of sulphurous fumes. These were so strong that visitors were only allowed to stay up there for ten minutes each, and even then, we spent most of that time madly coughing as we stared down into the thick white steam. The sides descended into the shifting haze but the bottom of the crater wasn’t visible.

After visiting the peak, we drove into the town of Masaya, and wandered a large market of local artisan crafts, then headed to a viewpoint close by which looked down across Lake Apoyo. With a depth of three hundred metres, it is the deepest lake in Central America, a vivid circle of blue, held in the bowl of several mountainous peaks.

To round off our tour of the Masaya Volcano area, we stopped by San Juan de Oriente, a village known for its handmade pottery. We climbed down some concrete steps and found ourselves in a smoky, dark workshop. In one corner a fire blazed away, heating a kiln. Besides a wooden table littered with pots of bright paint, a woman carefully drew a design onto a large bowl. Upstairs, the shop was stocked with many beautiful pieces; vases, bowls, and pots glazed with different colours, intricate patterns carved into their surface depicting local people and animals.

 

Nicaragua threw a fair few challenges our way those first ten days, ranging from a robbery on the beach to a scorpion sting, from two people struck down ill to a mini flood in our hotel (the rainy season started one night and was intent on proving to us exactly how it got its name). But as we travelled between the volcanoes, the country slowly began to draw me in and intoxicate me, with its landscape, its people, its rougher, unpolished feel, its complications and clamour.