Saturday, May 7, 2011

The Ups and Downs of life on a Volcano

Ometepe Island lies lazily in Lake Nicaragua, its two volcanic cones poking out of the water like two boobs in a bath tub. (Really, who could have resisted?). Active Volcan Concepcíon with its perfectly conical volcano shape and sparse cover absolutely dominates the northern island, separated only by a thin flat strip of land from the southern island where the dormant Volcan Maderras houses a cloud-forest and crater lagoon. The ferry from Granada docked just outside of the small town of Altagracia on the north island. We took one look at the "Evacuation ---->" sign and proceeded as fast as the rickety 1950's bus could go in the other direction over the 4x4 track known as the main road circling the two islands. Who knows – one day they might actually finish the monumental task of hand-laying all the pavers on the road. But until then, in the event of an actual evacuation I would recommend walking rather than taking the bus - a speedy getaway would be much more likely on foot!

This, my friends, is stage one of chocolate

Stage two of chocolate

We briefly worked up enough energy to climb Volcan Maderras and were rewarded with sightings of parrots, white-faced monkeys and howler monkeys. The cloud forest at the top of the mountain was beautiful and so much cooler than the scorching heat below. But the eight hour hike is no joke and we suffered a substantial amount in the following days.

The crater lake at the top of Volcan Maderras
Ometepe's industry is exclusively agriculture (plantains, cows hanging out on the road and a random scatter of small family farms) and tourism, making it a hotspot for agri-tourism. I'd estimate that half of the island's visitors are WOOFers: backpacker/ volunteer types coming to work and stay on the selection of organic/ permaculture farms run by foreigners who moved here for the off-grid lifestyle (I’m not even sure if there is a grid of any sorts to connect to?). Subsequently, there's also a decent selection of eco-lodges for those who are not keen to get their hands dirty. Although we weren't planning on visiting an eco-lodge here, fate brought us to Totoco Eco-Lodge on the slope of Volcan Maderras above the little town of Balgüe.

Another perfect sunset from our bunk bed at Totoco

It’s hard to describe the serenity that exists in the sun and the silence at Totoco, which sits perched on a hill directly opposite the stately Volcan Concepcíon and affording an infinite view of Lago Nicaragua. Aside from being in such a lovely spot, the triple focus of Totoco was as close to a working example of what we might hope to achieve with our own venture. The construction and operations at the lodge all genuinely focused on sustainability and we were amazed at all the small details and big ideas that have been incorporated into it. We were very happy that we had a chance to talk to all the owner-managers and learn about their experience, and we spent every afternoon in the infinity pool taking in the magnificent view and giddily refining our own plans and ideas. We were also inspired by the lodge’s commitment to the community through the Totoco Foundation, which supports education, health and literacy projects and also issues micro-loans to encourage small-business growth in the otherwise very poor community. The third aspect to the operation is the permaculture farm where we eventually got our hands dirty and realized just how hard it is to get some food out of the earth.

We got to share in the birthday celebrations of Justine and friends from California.

Part of the high-life at Totoco before we moved down to the farm to get our hands dirty
During the few days we spent on the farm-side of things we took to the challenge of being the best little worker bees we could. We watered, made and applied natural pesticide, transplanted plants, dug up whole garden beds, sifted soil for hours and Vinko had the fun job of collecting horse manure in the field to enhance my perfectly sifted soil. After much hype about “beating the crap out of the crap”, I did not eventually get to pulverize the dry manure, but Kelly – one of the loveliest people we’ve ever met, a great friend and fellow garden-worker – demonstrated the two-hand-beating technique in case I ever want to give it a go.

The kitchen and hang-out spot down on the farm

I didn't have the heart to take a picture of Kelly pounding poo.
Instead, here she is demonstrating the technique of garlic chopping.

The pile of sifted dirt is much bigger in real life, I promise!
We also got a chance to hang out a bit in the village, and were pleasantly surprised to find out that the majority of the kids who came out to throw a disc with Vinko, Kelly and I were actually really good! If we were to stay on Ometepe we would certainly have started Nicaragua’s best ultimate disc club! We also spent an afternoon visiting the family of Thobias – the gentleman who walks a cooler of ice the 2km up the hill every day to supply the lodge and volunteers – and he very generously picked us baskets of mangoes from his tree, sent his son to escort us for a swim in the lake and showed up at the farm the following day with seven lake fish for us, refusing payment because the casual exchange of how-do-you-do’s the previous two days meant that “we were friends”. This display of generosity from a man who lives in a stick and mud house with much less than we can ever imagine amazed us. Despite not having had the best experience in Nicaragua so far and experiencing a constant swing between good days and bad days here, it’s little gems like these that restore our faith and convince us that the ups and downs are all part of the journey.

On our last night on the farm, we had a pizza night with about 12 people joining in the fun.
I want one of these ovens! 

Another diligent farm worker

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