As we approach the island men toss sheets of black tarpaulin like flags and cover their fishing boats, while a fanfare of children jump jubilantly from the jetty into the Lago de Nicaragua. It is late afternoon and my travelling companions and I have been squashed in buses for the better part of the day. For the last part of this journey, by boat, the crossing has been smooth despite warnings that Hurricane Paloma will cross into Nicaragua. We watch as a small boy secures our boat with confident even tugs. There are a cluster of people onboard. I am with a few tourists on the top deck. We crinkle our eyes under the bright Nicaraguan sun.
A bridge of sand bags leads precariously from the lake to the shore. We balance our rucksacks nervously, hopping from one sand bag to the next with beginner’s caution. Then, safely on dry land, we turn to watch as boys march confidently across these makeshift steps with enormous sacks and boxes balancing on their heads. In the street the small town rejoices at our arrival: men wave tourist maps and taxis beep their horns.
We are six hours south and a boat ride from the Northern town of Estelí, where our project offices are closed for the municipal elections. For months my Nicaraguan office colleagues have been talking about politics: controversies around disqualifications of two opposition parties; police ransacking offices of journalists and NGOs; the decision that no independent bodies will be permitted to observe their elections; justice always framed through the political standpoint of its advocate. The election of Barack Obama as President of the United States happened just a few days before, but this historic event passed in the background as heated discussions on local irregularities took centre place. On the way here we skirted the capital of Managua where arguments have erupted into sporadic protests and clashes. Nicaraguans will vote tomorrow and while there is a curfew in the rest of Nicaragua, the bustle of island life seems unaffected here and those elections seem to be elsewhere.
The welcome at the port makes it easy to slip into life by this freshwater lake. The taxi driver shifts his car into gear, then turns the stereo up loud, blasting reggaeton music. It seems like a party and the three of us cannot help but be caught up in it. The small townships of San Jose del Sur and Esquipulas pass in blurred clusters of blue and white churches and different coloured one level homes. Thoughts of our daily working life in Estelí slip away. We smile at the small children and mothers who traipse along the road and wonder at the plastic tubs balanced perfectly on their heads. Cattle edge forward in front of a young boy with a stick, which he waves seemingly without intent as he stares up at one of the island’s volcanoes.
By the time we stop at a two story hotel we are in good spirits. Manuel, the hotel foreman greets us outside the hotel with well practiced enthusiasm. He has the eyes of a toad, a well established belly, and a smile which he twists tightly. The hotel is an old farmhouse with small musty rooms, tiny windows and a big balcony overlooking the shore. At first we inspect the small rooms like critics, fingering the mosquito nets over the windows with suspicion, and inspecting the beds, but in the worn fittings there is a sense of home here which holds us.
Manuel eyes our bags and their contents carefully as we place them in the room. He then ushers us downstairs to recommend the island tourist sites with practiced gusto. “You must climb a volcano” he says. “There are two.” He pushes us towards a map in the hotel lobby. “The softer Maderas and the brutal one Concepción. One is on each side of the island. Maderas is here. Alli cerca.” He points along the bay. We all nod at the idea of climbing a volcano.
“Ok, maybe tomorrow?” I say, looking at my travelling companions for agreement.
He assures us that he can arrange everything. “With me it is cheap, muy barato” he says. His eyes glimmer with the idea of commission. He ushers us towards the beach where thatched beach umbrellas are bobbing like islands in the bay. “We Ometepians watch the beach disappear during the rainy season from May to October,” he tells us. “We are not worried. We know it will come back again.”
Night hits quickly and we retire early to our single beds, the three of squeezed in one small room, the beds lined up like a staged set for Goldilocks. We sleep the way anyone would in a small bed with wooden walls tight up to your face and only one window for air. I do not know my travelling companions well and I am grateful for the tight privacy of my corner bed. They are new to Nicaragua, with new jobs in NGOs and government agencies in the same town of Estelí. The country hits them in jolts of amazement and bravado. I find it difficult to join in conversations about outrageously macho men or the old American school buses which service the roads. I have already been in Nicaragua for over a year and for me everything seems to roll like the waves that come to shore, one after the other, with a predictability that they do not yet notice.
In the morning we rise early, with the intention to climb Maderas. At the bottom of the volcano we meet Fidel, our guide. Humidity is already drawing close. We eat slices of fresh papaya and pineapple at a farm which promotes community tourism as a means to supplement rural incomes, traditionally made through coffee farming. My work in a government project promotes the same concept: social economic development through tourism. Tourism and coffee vie every year for top place in Nicaragua’s economy, providing cash incomes to the otherwise self sufficient. However, despite this competition both products have one thing in common—they are equally dependent on the whims of Western taste and the peaks and troughs of the global market.
With the earthy taste of Nicaraguan coffee still in our mouths, we start to climb the musky footpaths of Maderas, edging our way over fallen trees, stopping to smell the brightly colored flowers, moving up muddy slopes and into curious overgrown dead ends. Insects chirp sadly as we slip and the geckos roar with laughter. The forest soars above us. Fidel watches us with unassuming patience, speaking with a subdued voice, walking with a steady step.
As we climb the volcano I feel an excitement I have lost in my daily workday routine in Nicaragua where I am caught in the straight lines of small town life. I push to meet deadlines set by our headquarters in Europe, start protests in long post office queues, complain about the buses which stop running at six. It is frustrating to abandon plans to Nicaragua’s rhythms. This is the reality for Nicaraguans, but there is a part of me which refuses to let Nicaragua be.
Fidel interrupts my thoughts. “There was water that came down the volcano,” he says. “It hit our home. Seven of my family died.”
“Here?” I ask, not sure if I have understood correctly.
“The war did not come here,” he says, referring to Nicaragua’s fifteen years of revolution and conflict. “Instead nature is our enemy and also a great friend.”
We pause for breath, struck by this sudden tragedy. We mutter sympathetic condolences, not sure what to say. Hours later, we emerge out of the thick forest into the flat, green meadow of the volcano’s crater, with its motionless lake. A curved, silent secret.
We rest a while near the lake, before we turn to go back down. As we do, I slip and slide. Fidel patiently catches my hand as I stumble over fallen logs and down footpaths glistening with water. His hand is warm and steady. I am reminded that there is no easy way here. The Nicaraguans know, and I am only learning, that life circles in this way: we climb up, only to slide down, then look for the strength to rise up again.
We started the climb before dawn and it is mid-afternoon by the time we descend. A storm announces itself in sharp taps in the sky. Night announces itself before long in blotches of dark cloud. Francisco, the night watchman, greets us as we return, a small dog by his side. He is beginning his night shift.
“De que pais viene?” he asks me.
“Scotland,” I say.
“Escocia,” he says, mulling over my answer. “Escocia.” Then his eyes light up. “El Corazon Valiente.”
“Yes” I reply, now resigned to the fact that Braveheart, the Hollywood film about our national hero William Wallace, is the principal source of information for Nicaraguans on Scotland.
“Here we are poor,” he says referring to Nicaragua’s often quoted status as the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. “In Scotland you have a good education system. It is not like Nicaragua.” It is half a statement, half a question.
I agree. “We have many opportunities for education. But you have things we don’t have. Like sunshine.” I laugh and don’t go into details about the relative poverty at home in Scotland. A monkey jumps onto the stair banister where we sit and Francisco calls to it. It runs to greet him and I watch amazed as it eats from his hand.
At the hotel bar, Jose, the barman, pours us drinks. He has smooth brown skin, a shy lisp in his speech and a slow reluctance in his work. We sit by the beach, order plates of fresh barbequed fish, stretch our legs after the climb and listen to Manuel and Jose recount the stories of the day. Voting stations are now officially closed and the counting will begin. In Managua there is a curfew and concerns of unrest and violence.
“FSLN is winning” says Manuel. “Managua is the most important, we don’t know the result yet.”
Manuel says polling stations closed early, preventing voters who were not Sandinista from casting their vote. They say many young people did not get their voting cards in time.
“There might be peleas, fights in Managua,” says Jose.
“Here it is tran....qui....llo,” Manuel says. “Nothing dangerous will happen here.”
We eye Manuel with a degree of suspicion. In Managua they recommend curfew, and there is a nation-wide ban on buying alcohol. Manuel twists open a bottle of Flor de Cana Gran Reserva rum from the hotel bar.
“I thought there was a ban?” I ask, confused.
“We Ometepinos are wise” says Manuel pouring the rum into glasses, “we eat slices of cinnamon and it hides the alcohol on our breath.” I watch him pour with a mixture of annoyance and admiration.
As the night moves on, locals and tourists join them for a drink. There is a tourist from Switzerland who sips the rum cautiously, Julio, from the next house down, who drives tourists around the island for payment in dollars and Hector, who does not drink but holds his glass carefully as if it might break at any moment. He is from a farm across the road and he rides horses with the tourists. These horses ignore the cautious foreign commands, trotting, walking and galloping only at the soft click of Hector’s tongue. “Sometimes one would like to go somewhere else,” Hector says. “See what it is like other places.”
Jose, the barman, sips pathetically from the shot glass and Manuel scolds him. “Use another! We are all using that to serve ourselves!” Jose obediently finishes the drink in another glass, without a word. Then he eyes the pretty girl from Switzerland as he mixes a drink. “You don’t trust us!” Jose complains. He tells us that he cannot get used to sleeping alone, to the thick trickle of tourists, the heavy plod of island life, the hard throb of his own vein against the side of his head. “I am applying to study in Managua. Here it is too quiet.”
“Oh yeeesssss…” purrs Julio. It is a long whispered yes. He knows well the song of the migrant. Today he makes a few bucks taking tourists back and forth to the volcano in the new American four wheel drive he brought back to the island as a result of nineteen years of working in Los Angeles. “Your childhood always calls you, like a friend wanting you to come and play,” he says. “It holds you in places you are not sure you want to be.” His grown-up children remain in Los Angeles, but he returned home with his wife to build a house overlooking Lake Nicaragua. It is modelled perfectly on American suburbia, incongruous beside the dirt track with a sparkling garden, a clean metal painted fence. He had to return to the pueblo he was born in. Home. To the quiet Jose seeks to escape.
Francisco doesn’t drink. He listens. Later when we are alone he speaks out into the darkness. “In this country, few are rich, most of us are poor and the rich don’t give the chances to those who need chances. It is like a tree with a hand over it, not giving it light.”
We look at Nicaragua on the globe in the lobby of the hotel, shining a small flashlight on the continents. We point to countries with the beam.
“There is Scotland,” I say as I point the tiny country out to him. “Al lado del Inglaterra.” Then we spin the globe.
“Y Nicaragua esta aquí.” He lays his finger over the country. We spin the globe some more. “Allí esta Estados Unidos, América, Francia, Australia.” For each country, we spin, point, examine, explore.
As the globe turns I think of home in Europe, a continent on the brink of recession, grasping onto its prosperity. I think of the USA bailing out banks and the UK handing out rescue packages to financial institutions. I think of how Europe must look to Francisco on this globe, a distant outline, a place of opportunity. I think of our advantages, of our running hot water and our grand universities and I think of all that we have broken: our crumbling communities and the poverty we hide in our own nations. I think of Nicaraguans waiting to discover who will control their municipals for the next four years. I think of stock markets where the FTSE drops, when the Dow Jones falls with no hand to catch them. I think of the way Francisco’s hand steadily holds the globe as he turns it around and around.
“Our governments want power, not better things for their people. We used to be the strongest country in Central America! Now we are the first in poverty, in illiteracy and corruption.” He pauses and stops spinning the globe. “I would like to learn English. Like most Nicaraguans, Francisco speaks only Spanish. English could mean a better job, other opportunities. He considers it a while. “Sí, quiero aprender inglés,” he confirms.
From the balcony beside our room, I watch Francisco beside the hotel listening to the sound of the world moving in the dark. I think of all the ideas he shares with us and of the municipal elections which invite Nicaraguans to vote, without seeming to listen to what they express.
The next morning we travel to the town of Altagracia. The election has arrived to Ometepe. With it, unseen divisions in Nicaragua start to emerge. People group around the two forms of the main political parties: the ruling Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN) and the opposition Partito Liberal Constitucionalista (PLC). Deep lines, which normally subtly mark daily life, appear like fences constructed urgently overnight. Allegiances are strong,territory is marked and tension heightens. We walk around the main part of the town. On the other side of the central square, the election results have just been announced and the town is fighting over the four votes which won or lost the seat. The winners gloat, fly party flags and explode firecrackers.
“We won!“ says a man from the FSLN in the square, leaning too close and wiping the sweat from his face, as if even the risky thought of change came a little too close this time.
The losers demand a recount, claim that there was rigged voting, that it wasn’t fair, that not everyone got a chance. The crowds stir. Mothers mutter, the unemployed grumble, the opposition will seek redress. We wonder how many of them will be heard.
In the church in Altagracia they sweep the town’s dust into heavy piles which they beat out into the garden. We walk around the church, and make note of its calm white interior and the wooden pews lined up in careful harmony. In the garden a chicken pecks on the ground. A PA system lifts music from the central square where a small cluster of victors celebrate with Cumbia music, shaking black and red FSLN flags. They play their part in a political process which reaches beyond their shore to Managua where they rarely go; to a President’s hand that they will never shake. As we drive away from the church, the voices and music fade. For those in Managua, for those watching from abroad, those voices will be quieter still.
As we drive back to the hotel the taxi’s radio updates us of the situation on the other side of the lake. I reluctantly think of returning to the stresses of work in Estelí. The radio reports bias in the organization of the elections, complaints from across the country against the Supreme Electoral Council, fights between FSLN and PLC groups breaking out, encouraged by political candidates. Across the country victors cling to their win, losers complain loudly, knowing only the same stories, the same frustrations, but not knowing hope for redress.
By night the lake is agitated. Waves race far up the beach as the tail end of Hurricane Paloma sweeps the Caribbean. Francisco remains beside the hotel, listening to the sound of the world moving in the dark, his dog seated at his feet. In the morning the cries of monkeys and urracas wake us. As we leave the hotel Francisco also sets off for home, his night shift finished. In the day, he tells us, he cannot sleep. In his house on the outskirts of the town, cars rumble by and his eyes flit as he tries to rest. Even then he is thinking of all the problems, which could have been solved, if only they were held in better hands.
Catriona Knapman is a writer and development worker, currently based in Burma/Myanmar. Her writing has been published by Guernica, The Atlantic Council, UNDP and The Arab Review, among others. Originally from Scotland, she has been living abroad since 2005. She has lived in Latin America, North Africa and Asia working on socioeconomic development and human rights issues. You can visit her online at: www.writingonrights.com or contact her @CatrionaKnapman.