Irony is knowing that the islands are not continents, nor the lakes, oceans.
On the cement wharf, merchants moved cases of beer, rum, and victuals. They cracked jokes with a gossiping group of robust peasant women who were returning back from the market, their lace aprons soiled from work and their bosoms swollen with banknotes. Nature had blessed these women with glorious breasts, but could there be some contempt in this? Wasn’t it thanks to inflation that they had become so attractive? The economic crisis had made these women more desirable.
The crowd of people pushed and shoved one another as they moved about the wharf. There were peasant families in their Sunday best, returning home after a visit with relatives on the continent, awkward in their city clothes; lonely civil servants with shiny shoes and briefcases in hand; and olive-green soldiers with red-and-black Sandinista scarves knotted at their necks and Kalashnikov rifles slung over their shoulders.
The Señora del Lago had been forced to drop anchor at a cable’s length from port, the level of the lake being so low. The trade winds were stirring up a swell, making maneuvers difficult. Towed by sailors along a taut rope, wooden barges went back and forth between wharf and ship. In guise of a gangplank, a fifteen-foot board provided access, rocking with the rhythm of the waves. It sagged and groaned under the weight of the passengers who crossed with unsteady footing, assisted by the outstretched arms of two half-drunken sailors, one on the barge and the other on the bank.
Ruetcel was watching the scene. It was difficult to imagine so many people fitting on board the Señora del Lago. There was stumbling, panic. Two suitcases fell into the water and were fished out by a group of children. Shouts and laughter burst into the air. Were the dozen cows next to him part of the cargo? He thought apprehensively about the shipwreck tales he’d been told. Lake Cocibolca was notorious for its dangerous waters. Some millions of years before, sharks from the Caribbean had swum up the Rio San Juan and adapted to the freshwater lake, leaving their descendants who had inherited their penchant for human flesh. “This lake is treacherous,” the inhabitants of the area would say, finding, after each storm, their beaches strewn with drowned bodies mutilated by the sharks.
On board, the passengers were settling down where they could, even on the wooden floors. Hammocks pulled from bundles were hung from the deck beams. There was not much room, but amid laughter and affability, they all managed to make themselves comfortable. Child hawkers with newspapers, fried cassava, chicklets, and sodas made their way through the baggage and travelers, crying out as they sold their wares, while the dockers loaded the last sacks of cement and fertilizer and barrels of gas.
In the final boarding stage, the livestock was loaded on board by crane. The cows lowed painfully as they were hoisted up one by one, a strap under their bellies and their legs dangling. The cable gave way under the weight of the last, which fell into the lake and swam back to shore. Its lasso capture and successful loading were greeted by a round of applause.
Once the incident was over, several ship boys dove into the lake to dig the anchors out of the silt, while others on board pulled in the chains by hand, the metal clanking against the pulleys in the ship’s bow. Orders ran up and down the members of the crew, and the engines roared as the siren gave the departure signal. The sky was clear, the weather mild, and it promised to be a good crossing…
The Señora del Lago set sail for the island of Ometepe.
The passenger next to Ruetcel, who looked like he might be a student, was intrigued by the presence of this pale-skinned gringo dressed in a white T-shirt and ironed blue jeans, carrying a foreign-made leather bag. “You aren’t from these parts, are you?” he asked.
“You’re right. I am French,” Ruetcel answered.
“By profession I am a scholar, a geographer. And yes, I am an internationalist, I came here as a volunteer.” He was on his way to Ometepe to work, he added. He’d arrived in the country at the beginning of the Nicaraguan Sandinista Revolution. “Now, tell me, please, what’s this Ometepe island like?” he asked.
“A wonderful spot,” the student assured him.
Its two volcanoes were among the highest in Central America. They were linked by a strip of land: on the map, the island formed a figure eight. On a clear day, from the summit of the volcano Concepciòn, you could see the two oceans that washed the continent, the Atlantic and the Pacific. Ometepe? The mere center of gravity of all the Americas. The student was proud to have been born there. It was a fragrant garden, a lush flowering orchard, which bore fruit all year round. There was a peace that hung about it, which visitors invariably likened to a small taste of paradise…
In Ometepe, Ruetcel took a room in a boardinghouse near the port. He deposited his bag on the cot and went out. He could make out a group of local men standing in the shade of a mango tree, and he went toward them to ask for directions.
“Buenos días, compañeros. I’m looking for the public telephone. Could you tell me the way, please?”
“It’s off to the right,” said one.
“It’s off to the left,” said another.
“To the right,” a third one.
“To the left,” another said immediately.
The group of men began to laugh. Then, politely, some of them motioned to him to take the road on the left. He thanked the group and was already moving away when someone else shouted out, “To the right!”
He stopped. Were they making fun of him? “Do both roads go there?” he asked.
This time the reply was unanimous: that was very possible, but it wasn’t sure… Ruetcel smiled and thanked them. What did it matter if he got a little lost in this village? It would be a good way to get acquainted.
The dirt roads were perfectly straight, as if they had been drawn by a surveyor. Under red-tiled roofs, most of the houses were colonial-style, with patios, window gratings, and brightly painted clay walls. He found the telephone office at the corner of the town square: it was a wood shack with a varnished switchboard of wires and jacks. Above the door hung a red banner that read, “Telecomunicación, Conquista de la Revolución!” It was full of people. At the operator’s request, he wrote the number he wanted on a slip of paper and took a seat on the bench to wait his turn.
The public telephone had drastically changed the way of life on the island: nearly all the families had relatives on the continent somewhere, and suddenly they were able to talk with them without having to go through the ordeal of crossing the lake. But it took a long time—a good half hour, even more, an entire afternoon—before the operator could get through. First he had to call the county seat. He would tease his young colleague on the other end of the line, calling her mi amor, and invite her to visit his beautiful island. Then he would ask for Granada, the regional exchange. It was difficult to get through, and often the line was cut off. Another call, another bit of flirting with the amorcito at the county seat, who managed to reconnect him with Granada. The island operator would suddenly raise the tone of his voice, while the public behind him waited together in silence, hoping that this time he would be more successful.
“Hello, hello, this is Ometepe. Hello, Granada, please don’t cut me off. I beg you don’t cut me off. Hello, hello. Son of a goddamn bitch, they cut me off!”
Exhausted, his index finger shriveled from his work (he did nothing else, eight hours a day, six days a week), the operator would once again have to call his sweetheart colleague, amorcito lindo, at the county seat. Once again an attempt was made, always with dedication.
“Hello, hello, this is Ometepe. Don’t cut me off. Please, hold the line…”
He had never seen his colleague, but day by day, they had built up a relationship, initially of seduction and flirtatiousness, and finally of outright affection. It was like an apostolate, the republican mission of these humble government workers. They were fighting for progress and the revolution, against isolation and obscurantism. When he managed to make contact again with her, then with the regional exchange, he raised his voice, almost shouting. And again a collective silence fell upon the room, upon those who were waiting their turn.
“Hello! Hello! Granada!” he would shout at the top of his lungs. “Don’t cut me off, please! Put me through to Managua, Managua!”
When he really began to holler, it meant that the capital was at last on the other end of the line. Each stage of the call meant that a distance of at least fifty miles had been traversed, forcing him to strain his voice to make himself heard.
“Managua! Managua! This is Ometepe! Put me through to twenty-five one-twenty! Twenty-five one-twenty! Managua! Don’t cut me off!”
If the call was cut off again, it was with a tired hand that he replaced the receiver, heaving a sigh that the patient public, grown fond of him, echoed behind him.
Luck was on Ruetcel’s side: he was able to put his call through in less than two hours and inform his friends in the capital that he had safely arrived on the island. His trip to Ometepe seemed to start well and he could not imagine - can we ever do so - the kind of nightmare that was about to reach him.