Guest post by Wilson Carletti, recipient of the Bonderman Travel Fellowship
Before departing for La Isla de Ometepe, I happened to meet Alex Tuthill, a UW grad who started Pacha Mama (arguably the most well-known hostel in San Juan del Sur). He left corporate America behind after the 2008 financial crisis and ended up meeting his future Nicaraguan business partner in a hostel while traveling. We chatted about his business, the emerging middle class in Nicaragua, and the various projects he is involved in around the community – currently he is helping to rebuild the local health clinic, but he is also involved in local youth sports leagues, women’s shelters, etc. And to think, simply because I wore my UW shorts that day, I ended up having an awesome conversation.
Ometepe is a gigantic island in the middle of Lake Nicaragua that houses two massive volcanoes – it looks like it belongs in Jurassic Park.
I sat down on the stiff, warm wooden bench on the musty ferry, as the loud motor churned at the water, attempting to pry itself from the land. Mexico was playing Nicaragua in Little League baseball on a tiny, fuzzy television set, so I sat down with some other men and entered the conversation. One guy’s favorite team was the Boston Red Sox, while the other’s was the LA Dodgers. The Dodgers fan spoke nearly perfect English – turns out he grew up in LA, but left the states for one reason or another. Now he lives on Ometepe, working as a chef.
I got up early on the day I planned to climb Madeira, the smaller, more forested volcano on Ometepe. As we clambered up a trail toward the entrance of the park, our guide, Harold, gave us a quick Ometepe history lesson (currently it has 47,000 residents, but the first inhabitants came here 4,000 years ago), and showed us some 2,000 year old petroglyphs.
He commented on the state of Ometepe. Tourism has greatly improved the quality of life on the island. For example, there used to be two schools on the island and now every town has its own school. There are still plenty of problems, one being sexual education – Harold’s wife has 64 siblings.
Sure, there are problems, but Ometepe is also nearly self-sustaining – almost all of the fruit, dairy and meat products come from the island or the lake. Unlike much of Nicaragua, there is a recycling program on the island, the animals look much healthier and in general, the people have a much greater respect for nature.
Regardless of what I am doing, I am learning every day. I am so incredibly grateful for this opportunity.
I wandered down the streets of Granada looking for a cab, but had no such luck. Two men, one who spoke English, near the Parque Central persistently offered me a taxi, though something in my gut told me not to go with them. I can’t really explain it – the offering of assistance felt insincere.
And then out of nowhere, a taxi driven by an older man came whipping around the corner and stopped right in front of me. There were already two women and two kids in the backseat, but he saw the other men attempting to strike a deal and immediately undercut their prices. This time my gut told me to hop in, so I did.
Minutes later the man asked me where I was from. “Los Estados Unidos,” I replied, which disrupted his calm demeanor and brought about a new energy in him.
“Los Estados Unidos es el mejor país del mundo,” he declared dramatically. I was pleasantly surprised and honestly taken aback. Most people here have been very friendly and helpful, but not to the point of declaring my country the “greatest on Earth.” He went on to explain that while the U.S. does some bad stuff, all countries have bad people, and the U.S. helps those in need. Plus, they have Major League Baseball (his brother lives in San Francisco, so he is a Giants fan).
We went back and forth talking about politics, baseball, poverty, his favorite U.S. presidents (he really liked Ronald Reagan), communism, war, etc. He explained why he feels democracy is so great; “democracy allows us to be friends,” he said, extending his hand. As I shook it, and told him my name was Wilson, he smiled and exclaimed, “Como la pelota!” – “Like the ball (from Castaway).” As we neared my destination the road became muddier and rugged; he slowed down and looked gravely at the rough terrain ahead. He then turned to me and said what might be the only words he knows in English, “I’m sorry, Wilson.”
The sincerity in his voice was heart wrenching. He felt as though he was letting me down – after that single sentence, the conversation switched back to Spanish and I assured him that everything was just fine.
Little did he know that was one of the coolest taxi rides of my life and a moment I’ll never forget.
I bid my new friend farewell and gave him a nice tip. Holding the money in his hands, he looked up, smiled, and said – “Dios bendiga usted y Los Estados Unidos” – “God bless you and the United States.”
And with that he was gone.
Adapted for the Foster Blog with the help of Wilson Carletti. More episodes to come. Follow his unabridged journey here.