I Left My Heart in Nicaragua

We're back at it for Summer Tri! The break was short but sweet, yet the spring trimester seems like a distant memory.

2016-05-20_boatI spent part of the break in Nicaragua, but not with NDI (Naturopathic Doctors International), as I had planned. A few weeks before we were scheduled to go, we were informed that there weren't enough volunteers to make the trip, but if we could find more volunteers, the trip would go on as scheduled. Since I was in the thick of it with classes and exams, I decided that I wouldn't be able to just roll with the punches and prepare for a trip that might or might not happen. So instead I decided to go to Nicaragua with another National student and friend who had also decided not to do the NDI trip. We both had non-refundable tickets, so we decided to go and try to have a relaxing break.

The two of us are quite well-traveled, so we decided to just wing it and head to Nicaragua without any plans other than to stay on the island of Ometepe in the middle of Lake Nicaragua and figure things out from there. After arrival, we soon discovered that Nicaragua isn't the best country to just "wing it" in, at least not if you don't have much time to squander. Despite speaking Spanish, it was still hard to find information about transportation between cities and towns.

We are both budget travelers, and unlike most travelers in Nicaragua, we didn't want to spend a lot of money hiring private shuttles and taxis to get to our destination. So, we instead spent a lot of time taking multiple chicken buses to get to and around the island. We walked where taxis were the only option, and in one instance we walked for over 2 hours uphill with our packs in 100º weather to one of the spots where we were staying. Who needs a gym and sauna? These treks could be brutal because of the heat, but we saw the island the way the locals do, as few have vehicles for transportation.

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Upon arriving to the island via boat, I noticed that it was very dry; not the lush tropical landscape I was expecting. Two days into our trip we learned that the country has been in a severe drought (worst in 30+ years), due to El Niño and climate change. It was also the end of the 7-month dry season, which is October through April, so things were really looking bad. Docks were high and dry and the entire island looked like it could go up in flames at any moment. We both started to feel really foolish for visiting the country without knowing about the drought and couldn't help but feel guilty for being there -- for drinking their water and eating their food in the midst of such hardship, as farmer's crops and livestock were dying, food insecurity was widespread, and major rivers, streams and lakes were drying up.

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Ironically, the plans that we made for our stay included going kayaking on a river and hiking a to a waterfall on a volcano, both which had all but dried up. So instead, we spent our time trying to beat the heat while exploring the lakeside, observing daily life, enjoying the natural flora and fauna, and doing a 10+ hour hike to the top of a volcano -- the highlight of my time there. We were able to get a guide to accompany us -- a young local woman who had studied ecotourism, sustainable agriculture, and English. She taught us about native plants and animals on the island and how residents depended on the plants and trees for food, medicine, and even laundry detergent. (A native tree drops pods with beans that release saponins and can create soapy lathers. These were used during the war when goods weren't available). The lush volcanic forest canopy was filled with wild orchids and animals such as howler monkeys, squirrels, giant blue jays, canaries, and other tropical birds. It was rejuvenating to be surrounded by such a pristine and untouched environment.

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But it was saddening to learn of the proposed Nicaragua canal that will cut across the country and through Lake Nicaragua. Bigger than the Panama Canal, it would displace over 100,000 people and do irreparable harm to the island and lake, the primary drinking water source for most of the country. While watching the sunset the last night there and feeling grateful to see the island before the changes that the canal will bring, I wondered how such a wonderful place had managed to remain undeveloped for so long. I imagined that Hawaii must've had a similar feel before it was discovered and developed.

Needless to say, the trip was humbling. I'm grateful that I got to see Nicaragua in the way that I did and I'm actually happy that the NDI trip fell through. I left my heart on Ometepe with all the cute children and dogs, the monkeys and horses, the big beautiful birds, fresh air and kind island souls.

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Oh, I almost forgot to mention that the night before we left, the rain started. Major thunderstorms hit and dumped lots and lots of rain on the parched ground. And for the week after we left, every time I checked the island's weather, it was still raining. It may still be raining -- hopefully filling the lakes, rivers, and streams and nourishing the land again.