A Tale of Volcano Hikes, Chicken-Buses and an Island in Nicaragua
Being a searching person by nature can be both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it is a constant journey to self-discovery. On the other, you are in a perpetual state of wandering, from place to place, from idea to idea, from identity to identity. The destination you so desperately seek is always just out of reach. It was that feeling that led me on a journey of discovery in my late teens, and was the backdrop to how I ended up in Nicaragua.
Having done a fair amount of travelling with little-to-no preparation, planning, or budget, I was not a stranger to the off-the-beaten-track. I was on a two-month trek through Central America with nothing but my backpack filled with a few clothes, some books to read, and my sense of direction (and, I should add, no smartphone). Starting in Mexico, the idea was to travel by foot, bus, or donkey (whichever presented itself first) and make my way down to Panama in time to catch my flight home.
After several weeks of travelling through Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, I crossed into Nicaragua through the northern border town of El Espino and made my way south to the city of Granada. I found myself in a backpacker’s hostel aptly named The Bearded Monkey – as most of its residents resembled the ape by this stage of their travels. However, Granada was a stop on the way to find the isolation I was in search of, which took the form of the island of Ometepe.
I boarded a ‘chicken-bus’ – picture a yellow American school bus colourfully decorated with flame-artwork and graffiti – heading towards Lake Managua. It was packed to the brim, and the lady sitting in the aisle blocking me in was literally holding a cage with an excited chicken flailing its wings and clucking as though it thought it might actually be able to fly were it not incarcerated. Although the stuffy, sticky air made me want to imagine being anywhere else on earth, I did notice a young tourist couple get on the bus, which set off my “Jew-dar” (that’s a ‘Jewish radar’). I turned to my travel buddy, himself a Belgian-Israeli, and said “Hey, I think they are Israeli”. We stretched our ears to hear any semblance of Semitic language. It turned out we were right, they were a young Israeli couple from Jerusalem who had recently married and began their life together on the dirt roads of the off-the-beaten-track parts of Latin America. Before long, we got talking and invited them to join us on our travels to Ometepe. Now our party of two became four.
Following a short wooden boat ride from San Jorge, we arrived on the hourglass-shaped island of Ometepe in the early afternoon. Formed by two volcanoes rising out of Lake Nicaragua joined by a low isthmus, the name Ometepe is derived from the Nahuatl words ‘ome’ (two) and ‘tepetl’ (mountain) – meaning two mountains. And it was on the way to one of those mountains that I had my next unexpected encounter.
The four of us decided to climb Volcano Concepción. We hopped on the bus that made the twice-daily off-road journey around the base of the mountain to get to the start of the volcano hike. It was low-season and there were barely any tourists in the country, so it was a surprise that a few stops after we got on, two tourists stepped on, one of them sporting…a kippah! Two boys from the North of Israel, friends from school who had spontaneously decided to go somewhere different, and they were just as surprised to meet us as we were to meet them. We got talking and they joined us on the mountain climb, but it was cut short when we reached the halfway point due to the strong winds. A local advised that we should not go any further – apparently, tourists getting blown off the mountain top is a real concern. And to be fair, I had hiked up an active volcano in Guatemala a few weeks earlier (...don’t ask…) which spontaneously erupted while we were around halfway up, so I was more than happy to oblige.
After making our way back down, we headed back to our modest hostel on the lakeside. We asked our two new friends to join us, and so our party of four became six. At the time, I had recently begun my own journey into my Jewish identity and was keeping Shabbat in the way I knew how, and although four out of the six our mini-group were secular, we decided to spend Shabbat together. We prepared some food before sunset on Friday and my attempts at explaining to the barman that we wanted to keep a tab open instead of having to pay them for our beers on the Sabbath were met with an uncertain smile and head-nod. This indicated to me that he had no idea what I was talking about but was willing to comply anyway. We spent the following 25 hours talking, laughing, playing games and exchanging crazy travel stories, of which we had plenty.
Although we were far away from home, isolated on a volcanic island in Nicaragua, we all felt a sense of belonging and gratitude to the fact that such a small, dispersed people can be so connected, regardless of where we had come from. We were all searching for some end-point: a country to reach, an isolated island, a transformative experience; but the truth is, in that moment we collectively knew we had arrived.
Author J. R. R. Tolkien wrote, "Not all those who wander are lost". Maybe the wandering allows us to constantly find truths and integrate them into our lives in a way we never could if we were simply always “found”. Perhaps that is why the Jews – the world’s forever-wandering people – have been destined to roam the earth throughout history. Never settled or content, there is always more to be done, new horizons to sail beyond, and an eternal thirst for knowledge to quench.
Looking back, my search has always had a higher purpose. My trip to Central America taught me that the answers are not always found in the ideals we create or the destination we are trying to reach, but in the journey we took along the way.So although I am forever searching, although we are forever wandering, we are not lost, we are eternally finding.
Rabbi Ari Kayser is the Director of Online Education and the Editor-in-Chief of Perspectives magazine. Aside from qualifying as a rabbi, Ari also has a BSc in Economics from UCL and certification as a professional cocktail bartender. His interests include backpacking across the world, writing poetry and meditation.