The hike that never happened

Like immigrants arriving at Ellis Island, our legs wobbled as we walked off the boat. Where I expected a “Welcome to Ometepe” sign, a chalkboard read, “AA – Every Sunday. Open Step MTG.” Who comes to an island in Lake Nicaragua because they have a liquor problem?

The sign that met us at the port in Ometepe.

There are two reasons foreigners board this sketchy vessel brimming with toilet paper, rice and Corona. The first is a volcano. The second is a volcano. Concepcion and Maderas are fraternal twins – best described as Lake Nicaragua’s D-cup and C-cup. Concepion is active. Maderas has been dormant for so long you can swim in the crater lake in its mouth. My plan was to take a bus from town to the trailhead where I could hike up Maderas.

They say if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans. Heaven roared with laughter that Sunday. Heck, it could still be hiccupping.

For starters, the bus I’d read about in my Moon Nicaragua guide book never came. Apparently on Domingo, its wheels don’t go ‘round and ‘round. Imagining the bus driver, feet up and sipping one of the Coronas I’d sat on during the voyage, I set off, on foot.

My black Chacos were gray with dust by the time I arrived at the town’s main square. A sign taped to a tree greeted me. It was a giant piece of paper, like they have on rolls at elementary schools. Written on it, in all-caps kidnapper handwriting, was the headline: “TOURISM OFFICE.” It looked as professional as a child’s summer sign. But instead of lemonade, it advertised a “Long Walk on Mysterious Path.” That didn’t sound like a return trip to me.

There’s a saying in Africa: “This is Africa.” These three words answer any exasperated traveler’s question about why something that works in the Western world is done backward, if even done at all, in Africa. In the weeks I’d been traveling, I’d been thinking “This is Nicaragua.” I’d witnessed a wedding party dance around a live electrical wire draped over a pool, paid 10 times as much as a Nica would for a pineapple and even tried to work from an internet café with no internet.

Still, I had faith that my hike would happen. My legs had already ascended Mombacho Volcano. At 1,344 meters, Maderas was only 50 meters taller. What I forgot, however, is that I’d started at the base of Mombacho. Now, here I was: two hours and five miles later, still walking along the side of the road. I was halfway to the trailhead. My sweaty feet were worn raw from my Chacos’ straps. Any water I’d packed was already sloshing around in my bladder.

Some say “Winners never quit and quitters never win.” I say “Quit while you’re ahead, not dead.”  Not wanting be stuck on a volcano at night, I decided to turn around. I’d return to town and free my feet from their brandname bondage. Miraculously, a truck pulled over. The Nica driver asked if I wanted a ride. Nodding, I walked toward the cab. Shaking his head, the driver motioned to the back.

Since the beggar who chooses loses, I climbed into the truck bed. I was greeted by a silver-toothed smile and a stench that all but slapped me in the face. In Spanish, the man told me he was indigenous. I took a photo (captioning it “His tribe evidently had a dentist” on Facebook).

He wasn’t the source of the sickening smell. No, those noxious odors came from the black bags beside us. I’d just willingly climbed aboard the weekly dump run. But from the whiffs I kept getting, it smelled like the bags’ contents belonged in a compost bin. My free ride reeked of rotten produce. Every time we hit a pothole I struggled to keep in my stomach’s contents.

When we finally reached town, I stumbled out of the truck – much like how I’d arrived on Ometepe. I was either dehydrated or drunk from the fermented fruit I’d been commuting with for the last half hour. “This is Nicaragua,” I sighed, before thanking the driver for humbling me with his hospitality.

I started to walk back toward the port. Maybe I could still catch the tail end of that AA meeting…

On the boat to Ometepe with Concepcion in the background.

On the boat to Ometepe with Concepcion in the background.

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