Delightful as it might have been to bump our way straight back to Las Penitas after my survival of the El Cerro Negro torture test and sink, battered and bruised, into a sling chair with a cold one in hand, the stockings hung up on the beach chair with care and all that, Lenin the Superguide was not about to fall short on providing us with every last possible Christmas Eve adventure.
Out of the gate of the national park we bumped. Just as I heaved a sigh of relief at the thought of the “repaired road” giving way to something more navigable, Chinto took a sharp left onto another soft dirt road, boogying along at 60 kph or more where I would have been hesitant to gallop a horse or stand on the pedals of a bike.
Have you ever dreamed of going back in time to sail a Spanish galleon across the Atlantic? Tame wild horses of the American West? Chase Moby Dick? Hunt buffalo over the jump? Those experiences can be yours in Nicaragua if you merely shut your eyes as you take a trip in a four-by-four on secondary and tertiary roads a few weeks after the rainy season ends—but waves and earth seem to have turned to concrete! The ruts and rocks and branches are reality bites much harder than you could have imagined!
We lurched to a stop just feet short of a broken oxcart. The front shaft had snapped and the cart had keeled over, spreading thousands of cobs of the original red, black and gold American corn all over the road. The farmer had already hitched the longsuffering oxen to the other end of the cart, with a view to pulling it free of its heavy load and righting it. A woman stood alongside, doubtless thinking how late dinner was sure to be. We offered help, and I could envision flinging corn cobs across the earth’s surface for the rest of the afternoon. These hardworking people didn’t need us, however, and directed us to an alternate route.
I understood perhaps half of what the farmer said in his directions, enough to fill up my already shaky body with dread. A sensible person would, of course, have switched to horseback, but we were not sensible. So I hung myself up in the vehicle at 45 degrees for an hour or more, first one way and then another, using the grab bars with all my strength while thinking kindly on my travel companions who had to manage their unwieldy sacks of muscle and bone and water around the beltless, benchless back of the van.
Chinto, I decided, was a very smart boy. I would give him a tip for his efforts, perhaps C20 (95 cents).
We came to a wallow with meter-deep squiggles delineating its boundaries. Chinto was brilliant, choosing exactly the route that I, the ancient Yukoner, would have opted for. He definitely deserved that tip, a cincuenta (C50, or $2.50) if I had one on me.
Then there appeared The Place of the Rock, Gully and Tree. No longer feeling chatty, I did not tell my companions that this spot reminded me of nothing so much as a certain bridge my old Jimmy once encountered on the way to the long abandoned American airbase of Aishihik, Yukon. That bridge, a handmade wooden construction over a fifteen-foot creek gully, was missing the last fifth of itself. The correct—and only possible—technique in that case had consisted of driving onto the bridge, carefully exiting my truck, edging along its side to the back of the vehicle, dragging the first fifth of the bridge alongside the truck to its front while side-stepping carefully all the way to a point even with the front bumper, situating Bridge Portion #1 in front of the truck more or less reliably as BP #5, and gunning the bitch while urging her in full voice to leap across the remaining gap, giving one’s feet their head on the pedals to help her chew her way up the chest-high embankment. What a good truck! And then, of course, on the way back, one had to do the same, in reverse.
The Rock, Gully and Tree situation seemed even more complicated, all three items seeming immovable. Moot point: in seconds, we were truly stuck, anyway. Suggestions in Spanish came from the back of the van, and I suggested lightening the chariot of the passengers, but Chinto simply applied the Chretien philosophy of running a country: “First you rock it forward; then back; forward; then back; get a leetle poosh, and pretty soon you’re on the road again.” I was quite prepared to get out and poosh, something I used to be good at, but it proved unnecessary. Chinto gave his feet and hands their head, and somehow the truck yearned and churned its way free.
I decided Chinto was a bloody genius. He was worth a tip of at least C100.
Just before I expired, we arrived at national-park location #2,and the “short walk” to the lagoon where we were to enjoy lunch and a refreshing swim.
I held up my trusty flop-flops, a.k.a. slippahs, Hawai’i’s national footwear. Lenin shook his head. Nugatory. They would not do. Sadly, I pulled on the crunchy sox, the desperately dirty shoes. Their pretty pink and rose Velcro ties were not enthused about coping with the grains of lava interfering with their competence but I managed to jess them on. The idea of a lagoon, the holy grail of fresh-water cleanliness, pulled me out of the truck, clutching a towel and bathing suit in anticipation.
This path proved easier than El Cerro Negro’s. You know what ninety degrees looks like? Straight up and down? Where El Cerro Negro seems just a tad less than straight up and down—whatever the posters say!—this path to the lagoon varied from halfway to straight up and down (45 degrees) and 60 degrees (2/3 of straight up and down). Ol’ Shaky Legs, here, was concentrating every remaining erg of energy on refusing the many invitations from rocks to step on them and re-experience the joy of sliding downhill.
My wrists were yelling, “You stupid bitch! You’ve broken us twice before doing this!” I told them to shut up and shoved them into my pockets so it would take longer before they threw their martyr selves out to “support” me if a fall did happen.
It did, my weight proving unequal to the task of cushioning the fall. I landed on a rock and have a purple grapefruit on the butt to prove it. The wrists, however, never made it out of the pockets in time to be part of the disaster. There was nothing to do but pick my sorry body up and continue.
There might be six humans on the face of this planet who would term the descent to the lagoon far below “a short, pleasant walk” but I have not met them. Me, I just kept muttering how much easier going up would be.
The lagoon lay still and cool under a fabulous view of volcanoes Momotombo and Telica rising above the jungle. Lenin had brought snorkel gear and plunged into the lake as soon as he had exhorted Sandy and me for the third time to be very, very careful, as the lagoon had a sudden drop-off just a few meters in. Evidently neither Sandy nor I had impressed him with our physical competence.
I hadn’t the slightest intention of easing his discomfort by telling him I had begun my illustrious teaching career by convincing adults terrified of water to stick their heads under the surface of a swimming pool.
Tentatively removing an eager foot from the hot, graveled shoe, I placed it on the mud nearest the water. Ant’s nest! Not quite so hot as fire ants, but oh! how they make you hop! I retreated to a rock, there being not a single seat or table or bench in this national-park rest stop, to consider the important question before me—how to change into a bathing suit in the wild, surrounded by three guys, knowing that in the nude you most closely resemble a brochette of Swedish meatballs, until you manage, on shaky hypoglycemic pins with no so much support as a table or tree, to don the Magic Bathing Suit that Forgiveth All Iniquities?
Every cubic centimeter of me longed for that water, but I couldn’t figure out how to get out of my long pants and into the Suit without breaching manners and modesty.
Someone fancying himself an arborist had decapitated trees at the seven-foot level, leaving them two leaves each to gather sunlight with. Salvation! I struggled out of the filthy pants while seated on the rock and then hung it and everything else on the nearest remnant of tree, after examining it for ants. Then I walked sockless in the gravelly shoes to the edge of the water, and stepped into the lagoon with bare feet.
Another good reason to wear plain back undies—they easily double as swimwear.
Lenin returned from his snorkel and seemed surprised that his client who had proven inept at flying or walking could definitely swim. Sandy and I had been treading water and comparing masters’ degrees and opinions on economics and ecology for some time, and Lenin jumped in with information about Nicaraguan species in trouble. Although his master’s degree is in herpetology, he mentioned manatees early on, which is doubtless the water mammal I most resemble. Those gentle creatures, like anything else in Nicaragua that stands still long enough, are in danger of being gobbled up by humans. Sadly, the prevailing philosophy Lenin—and others—report goes like this: If it moves, kill it and if we can’t eat it we’ll sell it. Eco-education is a slow business in a country where literacy is as low as corruption is high.
There we hung in the delicious water, three highly educated people from India, Europe/Canada and Central America, vaguely depicting the triangular map of Nicaragua as we enacted another few lines in the Great Conversation on Earth’s future. In the old-fashioned quiet of birdsong and insect-hum, long missing from my own country, I fancied I heard whispers and echoes of that Conversation from across the planet. Would that everyone could have this kind of education!
Tourism bad; traveling good.
I seemed more sure of foot on the path upwards, although I had to stop three times to catch my breath, each time rewarded with spectacular views. Lenin stopped too; I noticed he was equally out of breath. “This is good for me,” I said.
“Me, too,” he said. That startled me a little. After all, he does this trip four times a week. Maybe, like many Nicaraguans a little better off than most, he smoked.
Mercifully we did not have to return to the highway by way of Rock, Tree, and Gully Road. The lagoon was close to Leon Viejo, Old Leon. On this pleasant spot with its marvelous view of the whole chain of five volcanoes, the Spaniards started their city in 1524. They build first with cane, then mud, and finally in brick and stone. Surprise, surprise! Whammo! A volcano blew, big-time, in 1617, just as the place was really getting going, and they left, lock, stock, and casks of gold, to rebuild on the present site of Leon. For 250 years Leon Viejo lay forgotten under layers of ash, until rediscovered as a historic treasure in 1967. Lots of cruelty took place in the square where we so peacefully strolled through history. Possibly the best story is about Nasty Guy #1, who decapitated Nasty Guy #2, then the Big Cheese, and took over as the next Big Cheese. #1 died of syphilis at age 93. So what do historians find buried under the church? A headless skeleton lying right next to one whose remains proved syphilitic—friends at last!
Poetic justice will get you in the end.
What got me at the end of the day was my first experience of a quesillo and a drink of chiste. We stopped at a local eatery, dirt and tile floor and everyone dressed in checkered blue-and-white headgear and apron. To make a quesillo, you lay a thin slab of local cheese atop a tortilla; then roll it and stuff it end first into a sandwich baggie; then ladle a generous portion of liquid cheese into the center and hand it to the unsuspecting customer, who may then add as much chile or salsa picante as desired. Chiste is a cold drink made from corn, cane, or both—I couldn’t find out—served in a gourd stabilized in a wooden or bamboo ring—very pleasant but a bit too sweet for sugar-loathing me. The quesillo is the real challenge. First, peel back the baggie so that you don’t ingest plastic. Your first five bites consist of just the taco and the first cheese, since all the liquid has pooled in the bottom of the baggie. “Now what?” I asked Lenin once the taco had gone down the hatch. Aha. The technique nicaraguense. Twist the empty end of the baggie around and around and then tie it in a knot. If your knot is not tight enough, you will be a mess, guaranteed. Now up-end the baggie and tear off a corner of what was its bottom. Again, be careful not to eat the plastic. Now just suck the baggie empty! (This is the moment when you wish you had used either more or less salsa.) If you were a tidy baby before weaning, you’ll stay relatively clean. If not, well, the local dogs will want to kiss you and your clothes.
Wendy, the Singing Dog at my hotel, would probably have kissed me anyway.
I think I slept twelve hours. My last thoughts dwelled on the poetic justice of putting my impaired sense of balance through the tests of the day, and the possibility that the old body would get the message, straighten up and fly right again at last.