Published: March 6th 2011March 6th 2011
I stood knee-deep in the water at the edge of the lake, my skirt hitched up as we used to do when attempting handstands in the school playground, rubbing my laundry on the already-soaped ribbed board at one side of the concrete unit. When everything was thoroughly scrubbed, I bent over to rinse the clothes. Having wrung them out, I took them back to dry land and hunkered down under the small lapa, watching the water and the birds as I waited for my flip-flops to dry in the sun, before I headed back up the hill to my washing line and a rare date with a book and a hammock.
This is island life. This is the Archipiélago de Solentiname. Where there is no traffic; there are no roads – only, at most, paved pathways through what passes for the most densely populated areas. There’s no mobile phone reception, although the library on the largest of the 36 islands, Isla Mancarrón, apparently boasts a dial-up internet connection. Where food is grown or caught on a line. Where I struggle to find a shop that sells anything other than the brightly coloured balsa wood carvings and stylised landscape-and-birdlife paintings for
which the islands are famous; the only one I do find therefore stocks everything from rope to canned tuna to padlocks to toothpaste to rum in a space the size of an underfed broom cupboard. Where birdlife thrives, and games of baseball are played on all available space, banana palms doubling as bases. Where I fall asleep to the sound of the lapping waves. Where I can watch an iguana laze on a branch in a tree in front of my room from the comfort of my own pillows.
The title of this blog may raise a pedantic hackle or two, but I am unapologetic. This is one of those rare times when I don’t think that the correct grammar conveys exactly the meaning I am seeking. For the visitor, the Solentiname islands are a place to simply be. Hamlet should have postponed his navel-gazing, and got himself over here. Life for everyone goes on at a slow pace. It’s warm and humid, a recipe for languor, but here there really isn’t very much for the visitor to do. You can borrow a canoe and paddle around the islands; you can trek along trails that are the locals’ everyday
routes; you can take a fishing rod and find a monster to wrestle; you can spend hours with binoculars and a bird book. But primarily this is a place to simply be. To let the islands’ innate otherworldliness wash over you. To relax and to absorb. To stop.
So I did.
Somewhat to my surprise, I had found myself on the “colectivo” boat from San Carlos to the islands the day before. It only runs twice a week, but when I asked around about its departure time, I received a variety of responses, no two of which were the same. Anything from “las diez” to “las dos”. That gave me a four hour window to sit at the lakefront and watch the world go by. No great hardship, it must be said, though I kept a weather eye on the activities of fellow gringos, assuming that at least some of them would be heading in the same direction. In the meantime, I ordered a little light breakfast, Nica-style, and three cups of coffee.
When I landed on Isla Mancarrón, I toyed with the idea of staying in one of the wooden cabañas at the island’s original hotel,
an undoubted indulgence… but when I saw a sign at the pier to Hospedaje Buen Amigo – from what I had read, much more my cup of tea – I decided fate had intervened on the side of worthy economy. (Later, when I knew my geography better, I wondered at the pier-side sign. Why do they send people round what is essentially two-and-a-half sides of a square? Not only would the other side-and-a-half be quicker, but there’s even a track that provides an easy shortcut.) After a hundred yards or so, I asked a young man for directions (you can never ask too many people for directions in this part of the world, I was learning)… but was a little bemused to hear the word “rotonda” twice in his answer. Roundabouts on this traffic-less island? Was my Spanish vocabulary letting me down? I soon found out what he meant. The intersections between the paths up from the pier, the “main road”, and the “road” along the top of the ridge are graced with small paved circles, complete with concrete benches if you’re in need of a wee sit-down before you continue your five-minute journey. Pretty, but maybe a little over-engineered?
At the first circle, I dutifully turned right, and found myself on what passes for Mancarrón’s “high street”, the paved track that leads up the hill between artisans’ cottages, many of which have artefacts on display while men and women work on the islands’ distinctive crafts on their front porches. On the grass in front of some of the houses were plastic sheets covered with drying rice and beans. Some of this was the product of local cultivation, but even the contents of sacks from the mainland are dried out in this manner. It takes a lot of effort to bring food to the islands, and any damp in the sack would ruin a significant amount of food and investment.
Further along the road a dog lounged in the late afternoon sun, and a small boy pulled his little brother along on a plastic crate in short jerking movements. Nothing was happening quickly here. Despite the weight of my bag, I slowed down, the island’s languid atmosphere already infecting me.
The Hospedaje Buen Amigo doubles as the “local” for the community here. The extended family live their lives in the communal area, the toddler trying to emulate
his mother’s sweeping action with the food he has spilt on the ground, the young lads watching football on TV, one of the young women feeding her baby, the men putting the world to rights. At first, I felt I was intruding: I always had to go and find someone if I needed anything. But that was how they were and, when I ate dinner there the next night, I felt like a member of the family, albeit one a little removed from the chit-chat by the problems of language, except for the universal one of football when a Chelsea match was being broadcast.
There are only a few rooms, and three of them share a delightful common balcony, brightly painted, and well-furnished with rocking chairs and a hammock or two. Only one other room was occupied, and I soon met its resident: Brazilian-American Tiago who has been living here for the last year, working on a photography and reading project with the local kids. He sat outside with me that first afternoon, peeling oranges for us to eat Nica-style, and we exchanged what’s-brought-you-here stories. Most importantly from my immediate and selfish point-of-view, he clearly fully appreciated the Importance
Of Books, and had several to offer me – a not unremarkable feat bearing in mind his location for the last year. I was desperately under-equipped with reading matter on this trip, thanks to a misunderstanding with Amy and one of her friends whom I had thought would be able to lend me endless English reading matter; as it was, I was trying to string out a 200-page murder-mystery and would end up re-reading it as soon as I had finished it. The chance of a day with a book was too good to pass up.
In the middle of the next afternoon, I took myself off for a walk. Tiago had told me the island’s tracks were perfectly safe; the only issue is keeping a weather eye on which route you take so as not to get lost on your way back. I took some iron rations, lots of water, a torch and my whistle as insurance. (I wasn’t brought up on “Swallows and Amazons” for nothing!) Within minutes of leaving the village’s last house, I could have been a million miles away from my fellow man, if it wasn’t for the well-worn nature of the narrow track.
I decided to take all the lake-side options at every fork in the path. After all, on an island, I couldn’t really go wrong. The sound of the waves lapping on the shore, and the cries of birds disturbed by my progress or celebrating the beginning of the cooler hours of the day, kept me company. I was reminded of a track I had walked near the shore of Lago Niassa in Mozambique, similarly remote… but at least this one did not have the same awful history of marching slaves… I shook myself and returned to the present, turning left to head due inland for a while, before returning the way I had come well before sunset, iron rations only slightly dented.
My last morning, I went in search of the island’s museum. The Lonely Planet is disparaging about its collection of dusty artefacts, but this is out of date. A surprising range of cleaned-up ceramics and stone statues from as early as the fourth century AD are intelligently displayed in glass cases and, where appropriate, on mirrors so that you can see the carving on the object’s underside. I had meandered into the library in my original quest
Isla La Carolinas
– the museum itself is not actually signposted – and met the improbably-named but extremely well-informed Elmer who then took me round the exhibition. I only wish my Spanish had been up to following even half of what he was saying, but the 10% or so I did get was impressively detailed. If I’d even thought of balking at the surprisingly high entrance fee, his commentary made every cent a bargain.
Meeting Tiago had reminded me that I really would be struggling to learn much about the islands in only the time between “colectivos” to the mainland, so I decided at least to see a little of a second island, Isla San Fernando, and to stay there my third night.
On my way over to San Fernando, ferried by my Buen Amigo host, I had my first encounter with howler monkeys. Isla El Padre, between Mancarrón and San Fernando, is reputedly now dominated by more than a hundred howlers, about ten years after they were reintroduced there, and I was enchanted to hear their grumbling call echoing across the water as I was having breakfast the next day. Not a bad life to be having breakfast to the
audio accompaniment of monkeys while watching hummingbirds at work…
Once again, I managed to land on my feet. On the basis of the Book’s descriptions, I’d decided to look first at Hospedaje Alburgue Celentiname after I reached San Fernando. The geography of the settlement on this island is even more straightforward than on Mancarrón: there’s simply a paved walkway running parallel to the shore. Some buildings are higher up the slopes, but they are reached by specific tracks. A few hundred metres around the shore from the pier, I found my destination… and was rapidly swept up into the Guevara family who run the Hospedaje, including the fabulous Olivia – not only a great cook but also an English-speaking bird aficionado who answered all the what-was-that questions I’d accumulated in the last few weeks in Nicaragua – her mother, a talented artist, and her uncle who, on hearing I was intending to get the “colectivo” at 5 am the next day, promptly offered me a lift back to the mainland in his boat with the rest of the family, leaving at a far more civilised time. And her brother Tito showed me to my room, a pretty little cabin
view from my room
Hospedalje Albergue Celentiname, Isla San Fernando
with its own balcony overlooking the lakeshore. Was I really going to have to tear myself away from this paradise after less than twenty-four hours?
I put the thought determinedly out of my head, and slipped into simply-being mode. Life was for another day.
There are more photos below