viernes, 6 de abril de 2012

Bikeventure on La Isla

I woke up in an empty tent. Tom´s sleeping bag lay beside me, but Tom was gone. The tent was so hot. It was already after nine and the sun´s beams seeped through the thin nylon, baking the air inside the tent to a stifling, nearly unbreathable pool of sweaty stagnant air. I think that´s the latest I´ve slept in in a tent in Nicaragua- not a good idea. The next time my alarm goes off at 5 on a trek I´ll have something to be thankful for.

After scouring the kitchen, the showers, reception, and everything in between with no sight of Tom, I decided he must be off on some solo adventure. Not surprising at all, really. Anyway, I recalled saying something along the lines of ¨Maybe I should have a full rest day tomorrow so I can finally recover¨, the night before.

So that I did. I wrote, I drew, but mostly I just chilled out at the yellow bus café- Literally a yellow school bus, or ¨chicken bus¨ as they´re referred to in Central America, permanently parked right off the highway on the trail to Zopilote. When travelers wander through the gate off the road, which looks like it really shouldn’t be opened, confused and standing out like sore thumbs from their baffled expressions, huge backpacks and hippy attire, and it´s still light out, they´ll get a comforting yell from the bus. A head will poke out the back window and inquire if the backpackers look so confused because they´re looking for El Zopilote. If so, the bus can actually phone reception to see if there are rooms.

Since we arrived so late, Tom and I didn´t benefit from this perk of service, so we hadn´t met the bus volunteers yet. Two of them sleep on a bed that takes up the rear of the bus, curtains separating it from the kitchen and shop areas. Man, was I jealous when I saw that. Living in a bus?! How cool is that? It´s a German woman and her Chilean boyfriend; they met in Chilean Patagonia when she worked there as a guide. We bonded over guiding, but then all I wanted to talk about was the intriguing and enchanted land of Patagonia. She could tell I was serious about going there someday- To my delight, she wrote me a list of places and contacts in one of the most intense and beautiful places on earth.

I basically hung out there all day. When Tom came back, it had just started to rain. He walked in from the highway through the sudden downpour, dripping and muddy and smiling huge. He had been on quite the adventure- a mapless and guideless hunt for a secret waterfall, which he may or may not have actually found, but he did find A waterfall, and made some friends along the way. My stomach had been bothering me all day, but it was feeling steadily better. As we hiked back up, I walked at almost normal speed and didn´t have to pause, gasp, and grasp my knotted stomach every thirty seconds. So we decided it was time to leap into action again the next morning.

Ometepe´s villages are sparse and spread out, and public transportation is sporadic if even existent. The road to Balgue (the town nearest to El Zopilote, Finca Magdalena, La Brisa, and the volcano Maderas) was just recently re done, shortening the ride from the port by at least an hour. The best way to fully experience the island and have adventures along the way is to rent bikes. They´re five dollars a day and provide the perfect medium between walking and automobiling.

We wanted to squeeze in as much as we could, since yesterday was lost. The plan was to bike along the water to Ojo de Agua, a swimming hole, and then swing around to Caballitos del Mar for kayaking. Jelmer, my trusty reference for all activities Ometepe, had suggested we rent kayaks from Caballitos and kayak a stream that cuts between the north and South halves of the island, at sunset. Apparently that’s when the birds come out, and Ometepe is home to a plethora of exotic birds- colorful, unreal as if out of a Dr. Seuss book. The Urraca, a big baby blue and white beauty from the magpie family that sports a stately crest on its head and delivers an impressive squawk, is a rare and exciting sight on Quetzaltrekkers hikes. On Ometepe, Urracas abound. Indeed, they´re so bountiful that the locals absolutely hate them. As we biked along the lake we stopped at some farmer´s house to buy tortillas, and I joked that the Urraca should be Nicaragua´s national bird because its colors match the Nicaraguan flag, rather than the bright green Guadabarranco. The farmer was appalled. He went off on a rant about the annoyances of the winged pests.

The beaches we cycled past were strewn with course sands and waves which heaved with the prowess of an ocean. I had to keep on reminding myself that we were many miles from the coast. So far out I could barely see, a horse´s head bobbed in the gray surf. I stopped my bike to take a closer look- there was a man in there with his steed. Nica, long black curly hair and brown shoulders. They were swimming, then prancing through the water. His locks and her mane whipped and sprayed water into the wind, wild and free creatures of the sea.

About an hour later we arrived at Ojo de Agua. I was expecting a hidden natural pool, deserted, maybe a waterfall, buried deep in the greens of the jungle. Wrong. Apparently, every gringo tourist on La Isla is hiding out at Ojo de Agua. It was packed with white, screaming, bikini clad teenagers, families picnicking at the water´s edge, girls sunbathing on the concrete surrounding the pool. Which isn´t exactly a natural swimming hole. It is fed by a spring, but has been built up with concrete retaining walls to emulate a manmade pool.

After the initial shock wore off, I had a great time. There was a rope swing, a bit of a dud, but Tom found a way to make it exciting my attempting flips off of it. He actually managed a full flip, not so easy off of a piece of twine a foot or two over the water. Vendors along the banks sold some of the finest handicrafts I´ve seen in Nicaragua- if you´re looking for authentic, well-crafted jewelry, Leon is, unfortunately, not the place to go. Such things abound in Granada but I didn’t really get the chance to explore Leon´s conservative sister. Ometepe, however, seems not to lack skilled craftsmen. I bought all- literally all- of my souvenirs right there at Ojo de Agua, in one go. That felt good.

We didn´t know exactly how long it would take to bike to Caballitos del Mar for kayaking, so at one point we decided it was probably time to scoot along and got back on the road. We cycled to the critical intersection of the Southern half of Ometepe, a three way with options of Balgue, Merida, or Everything Else (the direction in which we came). Our road of choice was the one toward Merida. I full and foolishly assumed that the road would be bikeable. When we arrived at the cross section, I gulped: This road was so disfigured, so torn apart, it didn´t look driveable, let alone bikeable. Rocks and boulders littered the entire expanse. Ditches and potholes tore open the surface like someone had dropped a series of small land mines. It looked like the dry bed of a fast moving river, one that had syphoned all sediment to expose the unruly rock below. It looked like it had been carved out of the mountainside yesterday.

I looked over at Tom. He looked at me. We looked back at the road. A Nica guy, late teens, cycled towards us, keeping to the far side where there was a narrow shoulder with a bit more dirt to keep the boulders together. He swerved his handlebars and utilized his breaks with the grace of experience, basically guiding the bike´s thin wheels along the larger and flatter rocks and avoiding all pits. So it wasn´t impossible – SOMEONE was biking it. And hey! This could be my chance to finally experiment with hardcore mountain biking! I looked down at our bikes, which we had rented from a family near Zopilote, an informal business with a crusty wooden sign that boasted ¨BIKES¨. These were not mountain bikes. Not at all. They were the kind of bike you ´de buy at Target for cheap, for riding short distances on flat sidewalks until it breaks. My stomach was full of butterflies, but Tom wasn´t saying anything, so we started biking.

Biking that road was probably one of the most terrifying things I´ve done. Scarier than rock climbing. Scarier than jumping off 40 foot cliffs into water. With that stuff, you know you can´t get hurt. The rope will catch you; the water will catch you. As  jerked my handlebars to and fro and kept my eyes, wide with terror, glued on the rubble ahead of me, I was well aware that what was going to catch my fall was the hard, sharp, painful ground. That´s scary.

I lasted about half an hour before I wiped out. It was a good one, too. My wheel hit a dip and I flew over the handlebars and crashed, spread-eagled with limbs littering the debris below. Best of all, I fell right next to a crowd of playing kids. They ran over and, instead of helping me, or at the very least asking if I was alright, they immediately started laughing and pointing. Stupid gringa! She doesn´t know how to bike! Go back to your clean cut streets, your slick pavement, your flat asphalt smooth as a silk sheet. Here, we know how to rough it, we play the real deal.

That hurt my feelings. My body, on the other hand, only hurt for about thirty seconds, during which time I lay there unmoving like a dead man, in pain. Then it passed, and I stood up and checked myself: Bloody knee, bloody hip, bloody elbow, but all bearable. I got back on the bike and we carried on, this time with a train of little punks skipping behind us and pealing with laughter. I was biking more carefully, but I also wanted the hellish ride to be over as soon as possible; I knew that it was only a matter of time before I would crash again. On the other hand, Tom was having a blast. Huge grin on his face, adrenaline rushing through his veins. Jeez. Maybe if my bike had just a little bit of shock support.

About 20 minutes later, we still had no idea how far it was until Caballitos, but a sign appeared out of thin air stating Peru- Kayak rentals. Next right, 500 meters.¨ Peru…? Well, a kayak´s a kayak. We turned right, just as the sun began to set. And then we were at the water´s edge, and amidst a cornucopia of water related sports equipment. Motorboats, rowboats, kayaks, wind surfing kites, surfboards, sailboats! It was obviously some guy´s house who had recognized the advantage of his lakeside property and started collecting aquatic toys to rent out to tourists We told him about our mission to kayak to the river in time for sunset, see the birds, and paddle back in the dark. He shrugged, set us up with a two person yak, and we paddled away.

It wasn’t until we were half an hour or so out that we realized that once again, we had no idea how far away we were from our destination. The river couldn’t be that far- had we missed it? The sun was already below the horizon. We paddled and paddled, but it seemed as if progress eluded us, and the river was nowhere to be seen. After rationalizing it out, we decided it would be stupid to try to make it all the way to the river and back in the dark, especially because we had to bike all the way back to Zopilote that night. And we could enjoy floating right here- We were in an idyllic spot, hugging the curved shore of Ometepe’s waist, the inside crescent of her hourglass figure. We were nestled between the two volcanoes, the isthmus, and the open waters of the lake. On our left, Concepcion was a beastly silhouette against the setting sun, yellow and black. On our right, Maderas glowed a soft green, her lush jungle carpets rosy in the dimming light.

When we got back to “Peru” after only an hour, our rental man was disappointed but understanding. We mounted our flimsy, deteriorating bikes- they had gone through a lot- and realized we had no choice but to walk them. There were no streetlights. And although the fact that I literally couldn’t see the horrible shape of the road made it feel more benign, logic told me that wasn’t going to solve anything.  It was going to be a long walk. We whistled, we sang, we contemplated deep things and moral issues, but secretly we hoped and prayed for a truck to come along and pick us up. And then- like out of a dream- a gigantic flatbed rolled unsteadily up and let us climb on board. A team of agile Nica men tossed the bikes into the back with ease and we got another wild back-of-the-truck ride- this one far more exciting than the last. We tumbled through the night air, lurching and pitting into potholes, accelerating down steep stretches to skip over the bigger rocks. I was screaming out loud! I couldn’t believe our luck. What a night! Forget about the scrapes, we were tipping through the dark countryside of the Nicaraguan night in a truck bed full of random furniture, our bikes, and other unknown objects, rollicking along the craziest road I had seen all year!

The driver let us off at the crossroads, and was surprised when we offered him a tip. Biking the rest of the way was comparatively easy (although I had complained the first time passing through) and there was the occasional streetlight, which helped. We dropped off the bikes and in another stroke of luck stumbled upon a restaurant just outside El Zopilote that was still open.

Full from a big Nicaraguan dinner, we realized we hadn’t brought a headlamp. The path up to El Zopilote, already near impossible to navigate in daylight, was a nightmare in the dark. We kept taking wrong turns until Tom had the genius idea to use the glow of his camera screen to light the way. It was just enough to pick out some landmarks, and we finally arrived at our tent.

 I was exhausted, but knew that we had only one full day left. And we still hadn’t climbed a volcano. We hadn’t set up a tour either, but screw that- I’m a volcano guide! We set an alarm for early the next morning; we were going to find our way up Maderas. Nestled in our little tent, sleep stealing us away, we were already perched partway up the mountain. Maderas is dormant, it’s short and shady- how hard could the rest be?

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