The women puts the final brush stroke on her painting, takes off her glasses and peers at us: two white girls, sunburned from a long day of exploring the Island of San Fernando, standing at the edge of her porch, looking sheepish.
“I take it you don’t want to rent the canoe anymore?” she asks, looking at the sun sinking slowly towards the edge of the water. An all-knowing smile plays over her lips as if she knows, already, what happened, had been watching all along.
“You see the thing is, we kind of got lost,” I say.
That was only partially true. Initially Annelore and I had wanted to rent a canoe from her for half the day and paddle around the island a bit. To be honest, there was not much else one could do, stranded on one of one of the 36 Islets that make up the Solentiname archipelago. The archipelago is only accessible via a a 2 hour boat ride from the town of San Carlos, itself located 7 hours by bus from Managua, on the isolated south-east corner of Lake Nicaragua. Unless you want to dish out the 10$ for the daily speedboat, you have to take the collective boat that leaves San Carlos Tuesday and Friday and returns later on the same day. Being so far out here, these Islands don’t see a whole lot of tourism. A women on the boat told us that now in the low season, we might be the only tourists to come this month, and invited us to stay in her house, where she had built a few rooms for accommodating tourists. No cars, no shops, no restaurants, no lights,no nothing – the Solentiname Islands feel like a different world. The three main activities here seem to be fishing, making art, and staring at the beautiful surroundings of jungle and water and birds and plants. It’s solitude and tranquility gives the islands and almost eerie quality; it seems as though people here are part of a conspiracy, as though at night when the islands are bathed by the moonlight and fall into a profound silence that the archipelago transforms into some magical, otherworldly, primitive place full of spirits and legends and gods long-forgotten. It was in part this isolation that inspired the famous Nicaraguan liberation priest Ernesto Cardenal to create a sort of communal artistic utopia on these Islands in the 70s. To this day, most families are still engaged either in woodcarving or painting and have a distinct artistic style –primitivism – intricate, tiny details of plants and animals peering out of a wild and magical natural background that holds both the tranquility and mysticism of these islands.
So earlier that morning, after telling the lady we would be back at 1pm to rent her canoe, we had set out to the mirador- the viewpoint at the highest point of San Fernando to engage in some epic staring at beautiful surroundings. Once there, absolutely covered in sweat because of the overwhelming humidity, we noticed, scratched into the side of a stone, an arrow pointing us away from where we had come with a single word: sendero – path.
Immediately our curiosity got the better of us. A path? On this Island that has one single paved path as its main street? Our guidebook showed us that there was but one village on this Island. Where did this path go? Why was it there? Where would it lead? Who made that sign? An hour and a half later we were still walking, not having seen a person or sign of civilization since the viewpoint, but following very distinctly a path that cut through swaths of meadow, low lying jungle, and secondary forests.
“Should we turn back?” I questioned Annelore for about the 100th time, “or continue on? Maybe it will loop around?”
“We are on an island,” she answered also for about the 101st time, “ the path has to stop sometime.”
Finally we saw a sign, “ Kanoes,” with an arrow that pointed us towards the outlines of a house. Sounds of children splashing in the lake reached our ears and we arrived on the doorstep of a house, painted a dizzying array of colours, with pictures and paintings and photographs decorating its walls and the words: “Welcome! Hostal-puesta del sol,” written in large letters on a block nailed to a nearby tree.
“Buenas,” Annelore ventured, as we slowly circled the house.
“Hola!” came the cheerful reply, a short, chubby man of about 40 bouncing up out of the hammock to vigorously shake our hands, “Hola! Welcome! Welcome! Do come have a seat!”
He led us to his open-air, kitchen/living room, gesturing us to sit down on the jumble of broken chairs and hammocks just as the pressure broke and the sky opened up, letting loose a torrent of monsoon rain, effectively stranding us in this surreal oasis in the middle of the jungle.
“So, how are you? Where are you from?” He seemed genuinely unsurprised that on an island that receives an average of 3-4 visitors a month, two white girls had suddenly appeared out of nowhere on his porch, following a rough path with no directions other than a single, hand-painted sign carved into a rock, in a village that wasn’t even mentioned in the guidebooks or shown on the maps.
I pointed this out to him.
“Well yes,” he said matter-of-factually, “that is because the tourist agency that runs the island doesn’t want you to know that we exist.”
He then went on to explain how the tourism agency that operates on these islands has a monopoly over information, only benefiting certain families and leaving everyone else out. He is the founder of the rural tourism association of the Solentiname Islands and doesn’t hesitate to share with us his views about everything, weaving together local politics, the history of the Islands, the holocaust, native American struggles in the United States, Fukushima, spirituality, poetry, beauty into one fluid, all-encompassing monologue. An hour later the rain lessened up, the sun came out again, and he clapped his hands, waking me out of my trance-like state.
“Shall we go for a walk then?” With his son leading, he took us up a different route over the island, talking almost the entire time and pointing out various points of interest. We stopped by the giant Guanecaste tree, beckoning us with it’s giant roots to sit, be still, and enjoy the view – “here is the only place you can get cellphone signal in the whole of the Islands,” he proudly pointed out. Down into yet another village – “They turned the bakery into a greenhouse!” he said, pointing at a concrete building with glass windows, seemingly being overrun by the jungle. I was sorely tempted to ask if they purposely grow anything inside of there but before I could we were off again, suddenly passing a strong and straight and sturdy looking fence (a serious rarity in Nicaragua). Unsurprisingly it belonged to a German that arrived a month earlier; surprisingly there is a German that lives by himself in possibly the remotest place in Nicaragua. Unsurprisingly when our new friend insisted on introducing us, he was unbelievably rude, even for a German.
By the time we reached the fork in the road that would lead us back to the main village and him back to the path he had carved out of the land, seemingly with his willpower alone, I felt I knew everything about this man. Despite living such a humble and isolated life, there was a magical quality about him, a certain worldliness and optimism and certitude about life that seemed to transcend his simple being.
We shook hands, parted ways, and turned to go back to the main village. “That just happened, right?” Annelore asked, voicing my own question as we watched them disappear among the tall grass. “I think so,” I said, and we turned towards the swath of jungle in front of us. The parrots were screeching from the treetops all around us and in the distance we heard the howler monkeys scream from their one lonely island. It was golden hour. For a split second I had the surreal feeling that we were becoming part of a drawing; that we belonged there, eternally part of some primitivist painting. I swear I could almost feel the old ladies brush as she painted us, stroke by stoke, an all-knowing smile on her face as she squinted at her canvas : two white girls, tinged red by the Nicaraguan sun, standing overlooking the ethereal beauty of islets and jungle shimmering an otherworldly green, illuminated against the eternal sunset of the Solentamine Islands.