As someone from Utah, I’m uncomfortable on flat land. Each part of the Rockies brings its own memories back to me, especially the peaks and valleys above my childhood home in Kaysville. That’s where I hiked, sledded, went on “high adventure” trips with the scouts, and where my step-dad was stung by an underground colony of bees.
I feel a closer connection with the mountain-dwellers of Nicaragua than to people in the city or beach areas. I tell them I’m from the mountains as well, but my mountains are very different. Mine are dry and rocky, not green and filled with howler monkeys and fruit trees. My snakes rattle, theirs swim. My predatory cats are golden, theirs are black.
Most Nicaraguans, for the time being, are like many other Utahns I know – content to live next to the mountain. They travel to work every day underneath its shadow but never feel the impulse to get lost within it. Trails in Nicaragua are undeveloped and other needs are much more pressing – why waste time and energy doing something as foolish and dangerous as climbing mountains? Give it a few years and they’ll be the same as me and my friends – people who call themselves climbers.
That self-given title, “climber”, has been earned over years of going into the mountains and following the impulse to move up, years of showing pictures to others and forcing them to listen to my stories. I don’t know how many conversations I’ve had where I’ve tried to balance my excitement for climbing with a realization that some people may just think I’m trying to show off or one-up the story they just told. Sometimes I am. If you’ve known me for long enough you’ve probably heard me use the hooks I use to get people interested.
Here’s one that always works: “I almost died while climbing the Grand Teton.” The response inevitably comes, “Really?” and thus the story would begin, coworkers surely groaning and rolling their eyes. But titles come with a cost: expectations. “Posers” are people who take on a title because it looks good.
I’m going somewhere with this, I promise. Ometepe is an island formed from two active volcanoes you’ve probably seen in travel photos before. They’re iconic. The taller of the two, Concepción, reaches over 5,000 vertical feet from its base, the humid Nicaraguan air almost always forming a cloud and covering the top third. The impulse to move up was strong. Also, how could I face my friends if I didn’t try? I imagined the conversation going something like this:
Jefferson’s hook: “Yeah, we stayed on a volcanic island for a few days. Here, here’s a picture, though it doesn’t do it any justice. It was awesome.”
Climbing friend: “Wow, that’s amazing. How was the top?”
Jefferson’s shame: “Uh . . . yeah, we didn’t go up. We uh . . . we didn’t have time.”
These were words I couldn’t bring myself to say. Britney, however, isn’t a climber, and 5,000 feet isn’t easy even if you’re in shape. It could have made us both sore enough to ruin the trip and this was only the second day in. We agreed to go half-way up at least, woke up early, packed our bags, and rode the motorcycle to the base of the volcano to an area where we were told we could find a guide.
At risk of losing my title as a climber, I’m sad to admit we didn’t hike Concepción. Please read the rest of the paragraph in stuttering shame:
“We, uh . . . we had a small window of time to start and couldn’t find a guide in time. Why did we need a guide? Oh, uh . . . well, we had been told a guide was mandatory because some hikers had died a couple of years back – there are poisonous gases at the top and more than a few hazards along the way, so we, uh . . . we wanted to play it safe.”
Next time I’ll get Britney into climbing shape beforehand, give ourselves more time, and redeem myself.
White People …
Pride damaged and tail between my legs, we rode back through town to explore the island on our motorcycle instead. We rode along the edge of the island in no particular direction, just going until we found somewhere we wanted to stop.
I’ve often wondered what it would be like if I walked out of my home one morning and a van-load of foreigners stopped, pulled out their cameras, and took photos of me, waving and looking at each other excitedly. Beyond being annoyed I’d probably think they were simpleminded idiots for thinking something as mundane as me walking out my front door was so interesting.
As we rounded a corner we saw this exact scene–a van full of smiling tourists had pulled over and were taking photos of a group of 20 or 30 locals bathing and doing laundry in a stream. I felt stupid for being their same race. I felt even more stupid because I wanted to take the same photo. Not wanting to associate ourselves too closely with the tourist-van imbeciles, we doubled back on our motorcycle and did a nonchalant drive-by photo-shoot. Only one boy caught us, and he didn’t seem to mind.
As usual, unplanned things can often turn out to make the best memories. We came to Santo Domingo beach, pulled the bike over, and walked down the shoreline, a nice breeze bringing in consistent waves from the lake, and took about 100 pictures of random things we saw. It was a beautiful view and perfect weather, and after awhile we decided to eat some breakfast at one of the beach-side restaurants, choosing one that looked the least expensive and the most locally run.
As we sat down we noticed an interaction between two men, one old and one young. People-watching is one of the best parts of travel. They seemed to be strangers, connected in only the one thing – the pursuit of a morning buzz. The young man was sitting by himself, in front of him was a pint of Toña and a half-empty glass. He appeared to be in deep thought, possibly some solemn past repeating itself in his mind. The older man approached, falling into each step as if the earth surprised him each time his foot made contact. I’m sure it did.
He reasoned with the younger man, asking him for just one more drink, but was rejected and stumbled away again towards the beach. About half an hour later the younger man followed with a similar stance, off to do who-knows-what at 10:30 in the morning on a Saturday.
Drunkenness seems to be a big problem in Nicaragua, or at least a more visible problem than it is in the States. While riding around the island, especially at night, we saw more than a few men drunkenly walking down the road. There isn’t a lot of extra room on the roads in Nicaragua, especially not this far out from big cities, but they don’t seem to care. They just keep on walking, oblivious to the world. I’m surprised we didn’t see one of these men hit while we were in town, or hit one of them ourselves. What appears to be chaos to an outsider is normal to a local, organized and working in its own baffling way.
Donation Project #1 – Buying a girl a bike
On my first trip to Nicaragua I had a last-minute idea – two days before I left I asked friends and family to donate through me to a Nicaraguan I’d meet along the way. Since Americans earn, on average, 15-20 times what Nicaraguans do, I could do a lot with a little money. I’d keep my eyes open, see someone who lacked something, and give them a gift or help them out in some way. I liked the idea much like I love the idea of a millionaire coming up to me one day, saying, “You know what? You’re a good chap. Here’s $100,000 and college tuition. Do something good.”
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve daydreamed about that scenario. “Ahhh, how great life would be . . . .”
Anyway . . . (*slap myself back to reality) I really loved the idea, and so did my family–they donated a total of $250 in two days and I set off. I probably should have expected this, but I had a really hard time deciding who to use it for. I wanted to give it to a deserving person who could really use a little help, but didn’t know how to tell who they were. After a few days of uncertainty I asked one of the nonprofit organizations I was visiting, and that’s the trick: they know the people in their communities and usually have a lot of suggestions for where you can use some money. Since their projects usually have a narrow focus there is a lot of need outside of their mission that they don’t have the funding to do.
On Ometepe we asked around for some nonprofits, made a friend from Outmore Adventures, and set off into a community called Los Ramos to meet some people, learn, and look for an opportunity to help out.
Mariselda lives up a long rocky path in the community of Los Ramos with her two parents and three siblings. She is 10-years old, is a very good student (her favorite subject is math) and she also happens to have polio. Polio has affected her ability to walk normally, giving her stiff limbs and tight tendons that don’t respond well. When she was two-years old her parents took her to Rivas for therapy (a long and expensive trip) to help her learn how to walk. The treatments went well, but over time she has lost the ability to walk safely by herself again – the path to school and friend’s houses is rocky and steep.
We approached their house with Ever Potoy, our new friend who was showing us around the community, and sat down to chat. Mariselda is shy, so it took a little prodding to get her to talk each time, but she’s very cute, always had a wide smile, and was clearly a bright girl. After talking awhile with her mom and explaining what we do, I asked Mariselda what she would like us to do for her. She didn’t answer, but we waited for her – we wanted to get her what she wanted more than what we thought she should have. I said, “If we could get you anything, what would you want?” At this point I had $775 in the donation pool – I wasn’t going to use it all with Mariselda, but wanted to do something important for her if I could. Finally she answered: “To be able to walk.”
What she probably needs is another medical operation, but we couldn’t afford that, so we went with the next best thing. At 10-years old there still may be time for her to learn to walk on her own again, but it would require therapy twice a week in a town that is eight kilometers away in Santo Domingo. Her parents are both hard-workers and they have no form of transportation to take her there – it would require her father to carry her. He had done that when she was younger, but now he doesn’t have enough time or, I suspect, energy.
We used $184 for Mariselda (4,416 Córdobas)
- A new bike so her dad can take her to therapy – 2,000 Córdobas ($83)
- A seat for the back of the bike that Mariselda can sit on – 180 Córdobas ($7.50)
- A wrench for the bike – 100 Córdobas ($4.20)
- A new bed (she was sleeping on a wooden board with foam on it, we figured she deserved something nice just for her) – 1,500 Cóordobas ($62.50)
- Some spending money for a few other things (tubes for the bike, a charger for her school computer (it has educational games and stuff like that on it), and books) – 500 Córdobas ($20.80).
Just to put that donation in perspective . . .
Every year Mariselda’s dad rents an acre and half of land for 2,500 Córdobas ($104). He plants beans, rice, and corn, and then sells that, earning about 5,000 Córdobas from each harvest ($208). I think there are two or three harvests each year. As you can imagine, buying that bike on his own is probably something he never would have been able to do.
My friend Ever is going to continue sending pictures as she goes to therapy. I really hope this makes a difference for her, that her therapy works and that she’ll be able to move around by herself throughout adulthood. She is a bright girl with a lot of potential, her family just didn’t have enough money to purchase the bike themselves. THANK YOU to everyone who made this possible!
(If you’d like to be able to donate through me on my next trip, send me an email and I’ll let you know when I’m accepting donations before I go)
This is part of my mini travel memoir, read from the beginning if you liked it!