Lee Folk's Nicaraguan Journal
The ferry eventually reaches the dock, and it continues to bob on the waves of Lake Managua as we make our way down the plank. Having spent the past forty-five minutes on the top deck of the boat, leaning into the fierce wind, I am glad to be back on solid ground. We climb the vibrantly painted steps of the pier toward the parking lot where our driver is guarding the van. It’s late afternoon on our first full day in Managua. The murky brown waters of the lake are now disguised by the growing radiance of the sinking sun. I snap one last picture of the rolling waves behind me and climb into the van.
The driver takes us directly across the empty parade grounds of Managua. While these grounds now lie silent, they have been witness to many magnificent celebrations in recent decades. Dr. Ross directs the driver across the square and points him toward the Old Cathedral and La Casa de Los Pueblos. The Old Cathedral was the grandest church in all of Nicaragua until earthquake and revolution stripped it of its glory and left it to the winds to decay. Now it stands as a bullet-strewn skeleton of concrete and glass. The construction is still magnificent, with lofty arches and two great bell towers stretching toward the sky. A clock on the right tower remains frozen at 12:35, never to move again.
On opposing sides of the square lie the executive residences of the Nicaraguan president. There is the traditional Casa de Blanco, whose name is taken directly from America’s own White House. Upon his ascension to power, President Daniel Ortega decided to construct his own mansion, despite widespread public outcry. He called it La Casa de la Pueblos, or “House of the People.” The high gates that surround the perimeter seem to contradict that title.
The children are everywhere. From the moment we step foot in the square, kids are all around us, trying to sell us little crafts made out of fern leaves of some kind. I watch a young boy working fiercely to finish the construction of one such leaf. He fashions the leaf into an incredibly accurate replica of a grasshopper. I know the consequences of such an action, but I take out a dollar anyway in exchange for the boy’s unique work of art. He smiles and takes it from me quickly. Sure enough, three or four more children instantly appear on either side of me. “Sólo uno más?” they plead with me. Just one more? I remember Dr. Ross’ advice. *Sometimes you just have to say no*. But there is one little girl who is extremely persistent in getting my attention. She never stops working with her leaves as she follows me across the square. I decide that my first grasshopper will get lonely without a friend. I ask her to make me another. She immediately goes to work crafting another grasshopper. She tells me her name is Ruthia. I pull out a dollar bill and hit ‘record’ on my camera to capture her amazingly honed talent. The competition for tourist’s spare change is fierce in this city square. Several boys stand off to the side and try to divert my attention from the industrious girl. I notice that Dr. Ross is standing behind me, watching closely. “Those boys will beat her up for the money she makes as soon as we are gone,” he tells me under his breath. I look up at him in disbelief.
“She won’t be able to hold onto this money?” I ask him.
“Not likely. And what’s worse, if she doesn’t return home with a certain amount of money, she will be beaten again by her parents.”
The tone of the unfolding scene has now shifted from merely curious to absolutely heart-wrenching. Ruthia’s hands continue to fly over the leaf, and the shape of a grasshopper emerges. She holds it out to me with pride, and smiles. I hand her the dollar, the dollar that will be taken from her as soon as I walk off the square. And she hands me grasshopper, the grasshopper that is now sitting beside me on the nightstand. To her, I was just another American tourist with a dollar. To me, she was the girl I’ll never forget.
Journey to The Mouth of Hell
Don Pedro, our driver, is a man of focus. In fact, I have come to believe that any man who dares to drive an automobile in this country *must* be focused. Focused or crazy. At the moment, he is driving us to the top of a volcano. A live volcano. A live volcano that has smoke rising from the crater. I’m beginning to think that he is may be more crazy than focused. We have just entered Parque Nacional Volcan Masaya, or Masaya Volcano National Park. It is the home of Volcán Masaya, one of the few active volcanoes along the Pacific Rim. It is has not fully erupted since the late nineteenth century, but lava still flows close to the surface, and from time to time, as Dr. Ross tells us on the way up, the volcano will “burp".
Fortunately for us, that has not happened recently, so we are able to follow the winding road up to the crater and sightsee from the summit. This is one of only three places in the world where visitors like us are able to walk to the crest of an active crater. On our way up the road, Don Pedro steers around a large group of Nicaraguan Cub Scouts. They are decked out in their field gear and bound for the smoking summit. They wave and smile at us as we pass. We wave and smile back. As we begin to gain altitude, Lake Managua and the surrounding countryside comes into view off in the distance. Fields of volcanic rock lie to our left and our right. I take out my visitor’s brochure that we were given and begin to piece together the story of this place. “Welcome to one of the most active volcanoes in Latin America,” it reads at the top.
The Spanish conquistadores were the first Europeans here, all the way back in 1529. The volcano was more active at that time. I can only imagine the reaction of the Spaniards when they first witnessed molten rock. Understandably, they called the place Boca del Infierno. The Mouth of Hell. The local friar, Father Francsico de Bobadilla, ordered the natives to drag a large wooden cross up the mountain and erect it at the rim of the crater, in order that the floodgates of hell might be held closed by the superior power of God. The cross became known as Cruz de Bobadilla. It awaits us at the summit. Through several centuries, the volcano went through various stages of intense activity.Though there has not been a major eruption in many years, the mountain has retained its menacing reputation in Nicaraguan culture.
Dr. Ross leans forward and tells me that the Sandinistan government used to use the volcano as a means of torture. Enemies of the ruling party would be tied to a rope hung from a helicopter and flown over the crater. Some were even dropped into the volcano itself. And we Americans thought waterboarding was bad. Just before I close my brochure, Dr. Ross points something else out to me. He is chuckling. “Look here, Lee,” he says. “It says, ‘In case of rock expulsions, you can protect yourself under your car.’” Just then, we pull into a large gravel parking lot and Don Pedro backs into our parking space. I step out of the van and notice something written on the curb in English. “Park your car facing exit,” it says. “That’s in case the volcano erupts and we have to fly out of here,” Dr. Ross tells the group. *This just keeps getting better and better,* I think to myself.
We climb up the hardened lava slope to the lookout post. I am taken aback by the view of the crater below. I had expected to see a crater, but this truly does look like a gateway to hell. The interior slopes cascade downward and then level off. In the center of the crater, there is a giant hole. A large cloud of volcanic gases is rising from it like a giant, steaming cauldron. The park advises you not to come to the crater for more than twenty minutes, and if you have asthma, not to come at all. The vastness of the mountain is overwhelming, and suddenly I feel very small and insignificant. The city of Managua is far below us, resembling a Lego village of shingled roofs and radio towers. And above us, at the top of several long flights of stairs, stands the Cruz de Bobadilla. The cross is constructed of several tree trunks, almost the thickness of light poles, and it is erected in such a way that it can be seen from any point of the compass. There is only one way to the summit, and so we begin our ascent, some of us pausing at landings to catch our breaths in the dusty mountain wind.
Finally, we reach the stone base of the cross. Dr. Ross remains below, but he has encouraged us to take a few moments to carve our initials into the ancient wood, as hundreds of visitors have done before us. I select a piece of hardened lava and hoist myself up onto the pedestal. I carefully carve an L and an F into the wood, then stand back to snap a picture of my handiwork. I turn around to take in the magnificent vista. It’s not every day that you can say that you stood at the crater of a volcano. I think of my mother and chuckle at the thought of being so close to magma*. *Magma is her favorite word. I pick up a few more rocks for keepsakes, and take one last look into the crater. It is still belching gray sulfur gas. On a whim, I clutch one of the rocks and fling it as hard as I can over the railing of the cross towad the gaping jaws of the volcano. Maybe it will hit the devil in the head on the way down. It is, after all, the Mouth of Hell.
(To read more of Lee’s journal, visit the RMU News Blog.)