The ferries and lanchas (small boats that remind me of Popeye’s boat, “The Olive”) are the umbilical cords connecting Ometepe Island to the motherland. These umbilical vessels have supplied nourishment to the embryonic island by transferring thousands of people, vehicles, and supplies to and from the host mother, mainland Nicaragua.
In a span of six years, I have watched the population of Ometepe expand from 20,000 to 35,000 inhabitants. The development of the island has not come without a price. Soon, our ‘fetus of peace’ will have an aerial umbilical cord. An airport is in the beginning stages of construction, only a quarter of a mile from my house.
Clamping and cutting the ‘sweet seagoing’ cords will be difficult, if not impossible. There will always be a need to nourish the island through a rich and readily available source of cord blood. The ferries and lanchas are the heart and the soul of my embryonic island.
It remains to be seen how the addition of an airport will change Ometepe Island. Enjoy my reminiscent article ( written in 2004) before a blood transfusion transforms my oasis of peace.
I was the first one to notice the newly painted El Ferry as it chugged across the dredged channel to Moyogalpa. I shouted, “It’s back” as Julio and Luvis jumped around the front yard excitedly fighting over the binoculars. It was cause for celebration because El Ferry is the umbilical cord of Ometepe. Without its daily passages to the mainland, the islanders have to rely on three smaller lanchas and an occasional ponga to transport them back and forth.
Two weeks ago, when Ron and I decided it was time for a mini vacation on the Pacific coast, I read the Spanish sign at the dock advising people that El Ferry would be out of commission for its annual check- up for one week. Since it is the only way to transport vehicles to and from Ometepe, I wondered how it would affect commerce on the island. The banana and plantain trucks would be idle. The island would be without Coke and beer. Life on an isolated island was going to be different for a week.
Two weeks later, (remember we are in Nicaragua) the renovated, sparkling white El Ferry resumed its arduous task of supplying the island with the necessities of life. The majority of tourists, mostly backpackers, opt for El Ferry. The passage costs 25 cordobas ($1.56) each way, which is prohibitively expensive for the islanders. However, since it is the only way to transport vehicles and the smoothest ride across the lake, the locals hoard their cordobas to travel in style. El Ferry has three decks, a color TV, and room for five tightly squeezed vehicles (four if it carries a chicken bus or a banana truck.)
Traveling across Lake Cocibolca (which translates as ‘sweet sea’) on El Ferry or the stomach churning lanchas, is a feast for the senses. Vendors board the docked boats hawking tortillas, hot ears of roasted field corn, cashews, and plastic baggies filled with a colorful array of cold drinks. When riding El Ferry, the scenery is decidedly more upper class. Backpacks, bulging with around the world contents are stacked into a corner, while their owners, donned in tie-died shirts and beaded macramé jewelry, rush for the upper deck. Wealthier locals carry boxes of TV’s, stereos, and air conditioners. People board El Ferry with high expectations. Most come for the adventure, some return to die.
Several weeks ago, Ron and I watched as two Nicaraguan women pushed a draped figure in a wheel chair tenderly across the deck. “Ron, I think that person is dead,” I commented while filming a chicken bus loaded with passengers trying to maneuver its way onto the crowded El Ferry. With the wheel chair sufficiently secured on the bottom deck, the women removed the orange towel revealing an ancient woman. Her cheeks were sunken, exposing a pale skeleton and her mouth wrinkled into a cemented O shape. The only hint of her survival was one wandering eye, moving inquisitively around in her deep socket. The following week, we watched two men hoist an empty coffin from El Ferry. Ometepe has a magnetic pull that only those near death can understand.
Before boarding the smaller boats, I prepare with a dose of Dramamine. If El Ferry is the heart of the modern world, then the lanchas are the soul of the island. It has become a religious experience each time I ride these swaying, antiquated boats. Accompanied by chickens, puppies, an occasional giant pig, and an assortment of vegetables and fruits, I sit on the frayed school bus seat wondering about their destinations. These boats are much cheaper, 18 cords each way, and the most economical transport for the locals. A rooster crows in a closed cardboard box deceived by the light of its confinement, swaying waves gently rock crying babies to sleep, while buckets of an alien liquid substance slosh around on wet, wooden floors. Once, I watched, with awe, a woman balance a three layered, beautifully decorated birthday cake on her lap, as the launcha steamed its way across the choppy lake. I try to pick out foreign words from the shish kebob of Spanish, while focusing on the horizon, to calm my queasy stomach. I wonder about accidents and the never used life jackets stored above my head. I try to push this thought away because the majority of Nicaraguans have never learned to swim. I shake my head in disbelief, “We’re living on an island surrounded by the world’s tenth largest lake.”
This is Nicaragua with all the quirks and contradictions life has to offer. Ometepe is the land called, “Over there” by the rest of the country, as if it is a phantom arm still moving after being detached by a Contra land mine. It continues to survive with the help of El Ferry and the launchas. Soon, a larger ferry will carry 46 vehicles to the island. I hate the thought of the corrupt civilization debasing an innocent society. I feel blessed to be here before the little island becomes a concrete jungle. If you want to experience Ometepe in all its glory, you should visit soon, because Nicaragua’s biological clock is ticking. It won’t be long before my paradise is overrun with Hawaiian shirted, camera draped, unappreciative tourists. That’s when my book will be finished and El Ferry will lovingly transport me back home carrying the tales of its wondrous life.