What’s the perfect Christmas gift for someone who has lately been saved from cancer (not to mention the fact that she also lost her mother and a beloved dog in the same year)?
Isn’t it obvious? A trip to the lip of an active volcano in the tropics, complete with opportunity to sandboard down the mountain, swim in a volcanic lagoon, and view with her own eyes the remains of the wacky history of said tropical locale! Oh, yes, topped off with healthy snacks and a local specialty guaranteed to turn the tidiest guest into an unspeakable mess. The Full Nicaragua.
You will have guessed, correctly, that the wise old lady I have become asked all the right questions before deciding Christmas Eve would be the perfect time to conquer Cerro Negro, a black cinder cone some 400 meters above the plain which birthed it. Never having regained my pinnacle of muscular youthful perfection after a broken a leg twenty years earlier, and finding myself still waddling carefully around the many irregularities of colonial streets and devil-may-care beach towns so as not to bonk my bean or fall and break a wrist again, my extra poundage announcing my arrival six inches in advance, I did not allow visions of clearing volcanoes in a single bound to cloud my judgment. I wanted the easiest of the many volcano tours available in this steaming, rock-pimpled land, and that was Cerro Negro. You walk up, you walk around, and then you have a choice of taking a sandboard back down in just a few minutes, or walking down, which takes a little longer.
The entire volcano trip takes about three hours. How much trouble can you get into on a guided tour of only 180 minutes? After all, as an ex-Hawaiian I am well versed in lava, volcanoes, calderas, fumaroles, sulphur fumes, and what not to do around volcanoes. Besides, I had bought a small painting of Cerro Negro in all its fiery glory during its last eruption, and the thought of creating a connection with it by spending at least part of a day on the mountain attracted me.
For an extra five bucks, I was to be picked up at 5:45 a.m. right in front of my hotel. Good deal. I was more than ready, sick as a dog who has wolfed down a plastic bag of chicken bones, my own private plastic bag being beer, even one. Not that Nicaraguan beer is not good—Tona and Victoria and Brahva are all terrific, as is the world-class rum, Flor de Cano—but on the rare occasions I so much as sip the stuff, there will be a price to pay, and both ends of me were busy paying it as the four-by-four van arrived.
I wondered briefly why we needed a four-by-four on such an easy trip as I politely refused breakfast. Chinto, our driver, seemed about fourteen years old, a dead ringer for curly-haired boys on Greek vases. If I were his mother, I wouldn’t let him out of the house without a brawny chaperon, but Chinto had obviously been manhandling a four-by-four since God was a kid. He roared up the carretera at twice the posted speed, where there is one, and passing and missing everything on the highway—mule carts, horses, trucks, buses, bikes, pedestrians with stuff topping their heads like oversized flower pots. I managed to click the seatbelt into its prescribed position and thought, I should have begged off the trip.
But hey, you can’t do that to one of these eco-tour places. My impression of a slumping tourist trade was reinforced by the fact we picked up only one other client, an internationalista born in Mumbai who had lived in at least four countries other than the land of his birth and was still looking for a home, with eight languages under his belt. Sanddep had very competent-looking camera gear slung about his person, and was planning to sand-board down the volcano. Our green-eyed, latte-skinned, rasta-locked guide, a powerful young man improbably named Lenin, took the two of us in at a glance and I thought I heard his soul sigh, “Why me, God?”
As the old lady of the group, I snagged the passenger seat without a murmur from Lenny or Sandy, and soon was grateful for the handles up and forward. Chinto left the paved carretera for some charming soft dirt roads which swiftly reminded me of Yukon. I wouldn’t have risked a horse or motorbike down these twisty, rutted roads at the speeds that he apparently thought perfectly normal. At his age, of course, he had a touching faith in providence, a faith I hoped would not be tested too stringently today.
Up to the gate of the national park of Cerro Negro, I was able to consider with approval my friend Chris’ idea that Nicaragua is a lot like Yukon, certainly with respect to roads. Many a time I had mired by Volvo in impossible bogs and slogs on the way to my cabin on the marge of Lake Lebarge, affording ample opportunity to curse the Yukon Terrified Government for failing to maintain our road. I almost felt a smile touch my lips at the thought, but then Chinto opened the gate, leapt back into the driver’s seat, and introduced us to the joys of the so-called “repaired road” between the gate and the visitors’ center.
Okay, Forget Yukon. These meter-deep ruts and porker-sized rocks are worse. Mercifully the road was short and I climbed out of the truck carefully to sign my name in the guest book, use the ladies’, and admire the captive iguanas as I managed to down a sweet local banana.
Lenny, you lied to me about the iguanas! When I asked why they were penned—at least thirty baby iguanas piled on top of another in a kind of doghouse, you said they would probably be released into the wild when they were bigger. Later I found out they are destined for dinner!
Just as well, perhaps. I might have lost my cookies—uh, banana—if I’d known the truth.
Off we trotted for our short hike, water bottles in hand or picket or pack. Sandy was fitted with his sandboard strapped through his backpack, so that he resembled an arthritic, badly designed eagle. We chatted pleasantly about the various kinds of lava rocks, as defined by the Hawaiians as we negotiated the beginning of the trail, me thinking, Somebody from here should visit Haleakala and Kilauea to learn how to build trails through lava flow.
Then the fun began. The trail steepened and roughened, and I began to realize I might have overreached my abilities. Okay. Just monitor your energy and stop when you think it’s half gone, I said to myself. Less than half an hour in, I was there, not least because the trail simply stopped existing. Lenin had leapt from precipice to precipice like a surefooted goat, and apparently expected me to follow suit.
“I think this is it for me,” I told him. “I’ve used up about half my energy and clearly I’m not going to make it. I’ll just go back to the truck and hang out until you guys get back.”
“Nothing doing,” said Lenny. “You can’t go down. You can’t turn back now. This is the hardest part. It’s easy–“ he pointed vaguely upward—“just up there.” He reached out a competent young hand. What could I do? No wonder his parents had named him Lenin.
“Just up there?” I narrowed my eyes at him. He nodded encouragingly in the direction of a spot no further away than twenty feet.
Knowing I couldn’t rely on just my legs, I climbed “the hardest part” on all fours—all hundred-some feet of it. Don’t even ask why that section of the so called trail had never been rebuilt—probably the same thinking that had gone into labeling that travesty of a road as “repaired”.
Once more a bipedal creature, I acquitted myself not too badly. Lenin and I frequently stopped for Sandy to catch up as we climbed the 1,200 feet and I used only little of my water. The higher we rose, the more fiercely the refreshing wind blew. I wondered how Sandy felt with that wind tearing at the wings of his sandboard. My hair was whipped around my face in a disorienting way, and I wished I’d brought a bandanna or shaved myself bald. Why didn’t the tour company tell you these things?
As we topped the rim, Lenin encouraged us to stop to take pictures of the vistas of breathtakingly gorgeous Nica countryside and its string of volcanoes. What a country! Equally impressive, however, I thought as I gingerly turned around slowly to free my camera from its little pack, was the precipitous trail we had just climbed. Indeed, Lenny was right: there was no possibility of returning the way we had come. Descending is invariably more difficult than ascent, and all that scree, those loose rocks, and that horrible no-trail patch amounted to a promise of broken legs or worse.
Cerro Negro, it turns out, holds two caldera in her black cinder mouth. We peered down into the fearsome interior of the first one. Good heavens! The damned thing was alive and well and thinking seriously about giving us a piece of her mind! Every eight years or so,Lenin answered my question about the frequency of eruptions. And when was the last one (presumably depicted in my painting)?
Christmas Day, 2002.
Heh heh heh. Given what 2010 had dished out so far, fireworks would end the bitch perfectly.
A squiggly white line limned the crater rim, about as certain as a drunk crossing Vancouver’s Georgia Street in rush hour. “Please tell me that isn’t the trail,” I begged Lenny.
He gave me that lovely green-eyed smile, so wasted on an old broad. “It isn’t,” he said.
He spoke truth this time. The white line turned out to be some sort of calcification, embroidered curiously in one spot with the tattered remnants of a tee shirt, the circumstances of which I did not care to speculate on. Besides, the trail itself was enough to give that drunk on Georgia Street the willies, never mind me, hovering at the edges of the dread hypoglycemia, a condition in which I am about as useful as a short cooked noodle and twice as slithery.
The trail wound around the top of Caldera #1, on its way to show the visitor Caldera #2. Sometimes it was ten feet wide, which allowed me to take a breath; sometimes it was about a foot and a half, which left me thankful, for once, that I was to heavy for the wind to blow over, either into the crater to be cooked like a hapless lobster, or over the cone’s edge, ample bum over deficient brain. Sandy, slightly built, was not faring well in the changing direction of the wind, which threatened to launch him towards Leon without a promise he would get there as it whacked away at his wings. “Please,” he called, “can we take this thing off?”
Lenin the goat-footed god pranced back along the rim to relieve Sandy of the sandboard, while I stood on the rim of one of the world’s most active volcanoes and called myself many names, none of them complimentary regarding my intelligence.
We impressed our footsteps on about 300 degrees of the remarkably perfect circular rim of Caldera #1 before coming to the second one. Although perhaps a little less impressive, it throws in a feature that astounded me: fumaroles, right there. No, not at the bottom—at the top of the rim, right at our feet! You could stand on top of one and roast your runners, were you a goat not needing footwear to negotiate a way out of this little bit of hell. The predictable sulphur smell assailed our tender nostrils and we each stuck out a hand towards the steam. This mountain is so ready to remind us forcibly of what lies just under the planet’s crust. “This,” I announced, “is the closest I’ve been to the devil since my marriage!”
This would have been a funnier comment were my companions some gender besides male, but no matter: they had another thing going. The approach to the second caldera was frankly terrifying: it appears to—and does—end in the middle of the air, 1,200 feet up, just a foot or so beyond the steaming fumaroles. The photo op consists of having the guide take one’s picture as one leaps joyously 1,207 feet into the air, coming to land, hopefully, not in the caldera but on the relatively safe rim.
I hoped Cerro Negro was not ticklish.
We strolled back along about 100 degrees of the circle, with me looking eagerly for a reasonable footpath leading down. Lenin left the circle abruptly, walked a few feet, and said something idiotic, like, “Here we are.”
“We are?” I said stupidly. Where was the damned footpath? We stood atop the face of the mountain adjacent to the rocky torment we had just climbed. This face drops almost straight down, at perhaps a 75-degree or even 80-degree angle. A sort of slide carved a darker line down the mountain, where, I understood, the sandboard was destined to carry Sandy—if, of course, he survived—back into the land of the living. But where were the facilities for walkers? Pedestrians? The aged and infirm?
Lenin pointed to the spot before me, where evidently something had awkwardly descended in the past. The thing was, the line of descent, if one could call it that, ended in mid-air, somewhere far below—there was no promise that that last hundred or two hundred feet were not a sheer drop onto the rocks below.
“I am frightened,” I said Name it and tame it. I explained how my body had never fully recovered from a terrible fall in the past.
Like his namesake, Lenin remained unmoved, although he was not unkind. “The safest way,” he showed me, “is to face sideways and put one foot down”—it slid half a meter in the scree, and I winced—“and then the other foot down”—he slid another third of a meter—“like that.” Big sweet smile. “I will be right behind you,” he added, as if that would help.
Sometimes life gives you weird choices. I could do this crazy thing. Or I could stay on this volcano rim until the mountain blew up, maybe even tomorrow if it had a reliable alarm clock.
I decided the broken left leg must be the upper leg. If I fell, I’d fall against the mountain. Gingerly, I put the right foot down.
Horrible. I slid a foot, and two or three bits of a’a immediately sneaked into my shoe, which, by the way, is one of a pair belonging to my mother, who had never traveled as much as she wanted. Mom, this one’s for you, I said to myself, and put down the left foot. More slide, and approximately four hundred small rocks entered both shoes.
Three feet down, eleven hundred ninety-seven to go.
The sun was out in full force by now, and the wind was blocked by the mountain face. I prayed Lenin would stay far enough behind me to prevent black dust from choking me, or I’d never make it off this face. I held out my chubby arms as if I remembered my ballet lessons, but fell a couple of times anyway. My shoes and pants filled with rocks. A fine black dust covered my hair and face and clothes. The once-broken leg began complaining and wouldn’t stop. I occupied my mind with math: how many times must one perform this movement if each slide covered a foot? A yard? A meter? What fraction of the slope had I descended and what the hell was beyond the apparent precipice?
What a shame if my last thought on this earth was how different the law of negligence must be in Nicaragua compared to that of Canada!
The precipice proved to me more of the same, but even steeper. Straggler was my second name by the time I struggled to the truck, poured centuries of lava from my shoes and heaved myself into the seat on only the third try. Sandy, of course, had been down for ages, but was gracious about it. Not a word was said by him or Lenin about my fears or frailty, or of the possibly posthumous telling of the tale of Wolffy’s last Christmas.
My mother would have had a fit if she’d known what was accomplished in those shoes of hers. They’re washed clean of the black dust, now, ready for the next adventure.