|Apr/May 2009 Travel|
It started with being pulled onto a moving bus in a loud market. Then there were swimming cows and giant poisonous toads and a hotel lobby staffed by a girl watching cartoons. My trip to the island of Ometepe in Nicaragua was at once magical and real, and I felt like I was trapped inside a novel by one of the Latin American authors that made the genre of magical realism famous.
The island—two forest-covered volcanoes connected by a thin strip of land—is too strange to be created by a random act of nature and too monumental to have been created by man. I crossed into this netherworld on a shaky plank of wood between the mainland dock and an old wooden boat. The boat ride was dizzying. A man wearing an orange shirt advertising cereal talked to me about island life. My shoes turned to sponges as water crashed on board.
I sucked on an orange and bounced on a bus. The woman next to me had a little girl on her lap. She told me to go to the hotel she worked at and not to toss the orange out the window.
I found the hotel down a long dirt road. After the chickens scattered out of the lobby, I tapped the little girl watching cartoons on the shoulder. She started yelling until a man appeared and told me that a bed in a shared room was $4 a night.
The room was only a few hundred feet from the muddy beach where a herd of cows bounded into the water. I saw a few human swimmers, but mostly women up to their knees washing clothes on concrete tables. As soon as I put my swim suit on, it started to rain so I talked to a guy from Australia.
Later I sat next an to uprooted tree and read a book. I read until a cow walked up to me and started scratching its rear end on the tree. Then a girl with a soccer ball walked by, asked me if I liked the island, pointed to the cow, and walked away. I kept reading.
I needed socks. A few minutes later I was riding on the back of a motorcycle with a member of the hotel staff. He took me to a store where I bought three pairs for less than one dollar. He drove too fast and probably laughed to himself about how tightly I grabbed his shoulders.
This place was full of myths and legends. In one tale, people were turned into cows after selling their souls to the devil. I looked at the cows bounding around in the water and on the roads.
Then, I was climbing a volcano with a girl from Switzerland and another girl from Holland. We saw a toad the size of a dinner plate that can spit poison from its skin. We heard howler monkeys.
At the top of the volcano the trees were so tall and the fog so thick that we couldn't feel the satisfaction of looking down the mountain we just climbed. We walked down an old riverbed into the old volcano crater. A lagoon disappeared into a cloud. We could hardly see anything, but we did see the sign warning us about the poisonous toads. Our guide pulled a watermelon out of his backpack.
At the bottom of the trail the guide smelled one of our walking sticks. This smells like the top of the mountain, he said.
I smelled it, too. Ometepe, a place most enjoyed when it's least unexplained.