Monday, August 26, 2013

Virgins And Volcanoes*

Nicaragua is known as the country of lakes and volcanoes, as it has the latter in abundance, and although the number of lakes may be few, they make up for it in size: lakes Nicaragua and Managua are the two largest (by far) in Central America. Activities in the country revolve either around one or the other. Isla de Ometepe, with its twin volcanoes emerging from the waters of lake Nicaragua like a pair of lopsided breasts, is a popular spot for people to go and chill and do nada, or, if they're feeling the need for physical activity, to scale the crater rim (though in the rainy season nada is about all you get to see at the top). And on the shores of the respective lakes the two great colonial towns of Granada and Leon battle it out for visitors' affections.

The wonderfully named volcanoes of Momotombo and, a little smaller and to the right, cutely-named Momotombito, on the shores of lake Managua.

Both Granada and Leon are set out in your typical Spanish colonial style, which is to say in a perfect grid with a big square in the middle where you can find the town hall and the cathedral/church. Addresses are also a breeze with a very logical numbering system: streets go east-west, avenues north-south. Where the main, central avenue and street cross is the zero point of the city from where each road is numbered in ascending order and given a cardinal direction. So a typical address might be street 3 NE between avenues 7 and 8. And immediately you know exactly where it is. That's the theory anyway. In practice everybody completely disregards the staid, logic of this system, with its street signs and predictability, and resorts to landmarks instead. In which case an address may become something like 3 blocks past the Church of the Assumption towards the market, opposite the pharmacy. Or, a block north of the central plaza next to where the Hotel Real used to be. Needless to say finding where you're looking for involves a communal game of "hotter and colder" with the local population.

Seeing as the Central American isthmus is one long chain of volcanoes I knew I would need to ascend at least one flaming mountain, and Leon proved a good base from which to do it, with a selection of smoking cones to choose from nearby. The most popular is Cerro Negro, a nearby volcano that has become a mecca for the niche activity of volcano-tobogganing. Instead I decided to visit the most active (yet open to the public) volcano in the area, Telica, as I find peering into a pool of lava bubbling away in a crater, this direct link to the very core of the earth, to be a mesmerising experience. Like waterfalls, fire and the constant oscillation of waves on a beach, there is something about lava that touches a primal chord and I could watch it indefinitely. The special thing about this ascent was that it was to be a full moon so there would be enough light to climb at night, thereby avoiding the stifling heat of the day and the need to pay for a night's accommodation. My companions for the hike were a youngish mixture of Israelis, Aussies and Brits who reminded me why I rarely do organised tours. Still, the guides were an interesting source of information. We reached the crater rim a little before dawn and crawled to the edge, shielding our faces from the sulphurous smoke, to peer into the earth's maw. And I wasn't disappointed as some 150m below the magma hissed and churned and growled. whilst the dawn light revealed a string of sister volcanoes stretching off into the distance on either side.

The steaming crater of Telica in the pale, pre-dawn moonlight.

Perhaps because of their unfortunate history Nicaraguans are probably quite thankful that they are not currently in a war, being bombed, buried under clouds of volcanic ash (read the history of any Central American town and nine times out of ten it is not where it started off, having been forced to move due to the violent rumblings of the nearby volcano), or forced to pick bananas for slave wages, and display this thankfulness in processions. Hardly a day went by when I didn't witness some sort of devotional or celebratory procession, complete with marching bands and floats: from the feast of some facet of the Virgin (Virgin of Guadalupe, Virgin of Mercy, Virgin of the Sacred Heart, Virgin of Car(a)mel, take your pick) to the 33th anniversary of the Sandinista literacy programme. Nicaraguan children must spend half their school time either rehearsing for, or participating in, these parades (you can always recognise a school in Nicaragua from the strains of marching music emanating from within).

The Virgin being taken for a little perambulation around the streets of Leon.

Or perhaps they are thankful that the buses are still running. That's one of the first things I noticed upon entering Nicaragua. In Panama and Costa Rica relatively sleek coaches ply the intercity routes; if not quickly, then at least relatively comfortably. Waiting in the bus lot on the other side of the border were a flotilla of ex-US school buses dating from around the 50's or 60's. Nobody had bothered going through the expense of repainting them, although many drivers had pimped theirs up with arrays of stickers, usually containing some expression of religious faith, such as "God is with me", "property of Jesus Christ", "I drive with God", or "the Lord is my shepherd" (although the driver of the bus below didn't seem to be as religious as many of his colleagues). Despite their age these rivet-boxes on wheels do not slouch (unless they're going uphill ... or downhill) and thunder along the country's roads with a vengeance, trailing clouds of miasmic smoke behind them. They might not be pretty, and they certainly aren't quiet, but they get the job done and keep the country moving.

The Exterminator. Not sure if that applied to the bus or the driver, but at least it made a welcome change to the religious platitudes that dominate bus decorations in Nicaragua.

*Unfortunately the former are not being thrown into the latter.

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