We wake on our final morning in Ometepe, enjoy a cold shower, and have galllo pinto y huevos for breakfast. Knowing we haven't much to do all day until the ferry comes we stroll around town looking for some food to pack for our journey to San Carlos. We manage to locate almost nothing. On an island complete with roaming banana plantations and fertile volcanic farms you can't barely buy a banana or find a place that sells more than Ritz crackers and coca-cola. In the end we buy two bananas out of the front room of a house near the square, a gallon of water, and, you guessed it, some Ritz.
At the hotel we meet Ben & Benny, a father and son from Germany. They, too, are planning on taking the ferry from Puerto Gracia to San Carlos and we make plans to share a cab with them from the hotel to the dock in the mid-afternoon. The boat doesn't arrive until 6pm, we believe, but are told to get there early to secure a ticket. Additionally, we find out that the boat sells two distinct types of tickets - for 30 cordobas (less than $2) you can get regular passage on the lower deck and for 70 cordobas there is an upperdeck. A traveler who had made the trip said it was worth the couple of dollars for the upperdeck, and when we divide the dollars by the 10 hours we think the difference is worth it. So our plan is to get there by about 3 oclock, procure our 'first class' tickets and wait out the afternoon waiting for our ship to come in.
Alas, the much anticipated upperdeck tickets have all been sold in Granada. 'Well fine,' we think, 'We sit on the bottom, save a few bucks, and enjoy the experience. No problem.' The waiting takes us from 3 to 6 oclock and no sign of the boat. We wait patiently, chatting with Ben and Benny, and watching as the crowd of waiting passengers thickens. The sunsets behind Volcan Concepcion with no boat in sight. The fog, like the crowd, thickens.
At about twenty past seven we see a dim light approaching through the fog. None of us believe that it could be our boat. For one, it seems to be coming from the wrong direction, and two (at least in our minds) it simply seems too small to be the vessel we've heard so much about. But as the light brightens and closens we are assured that this is the ferry we've been waiting for. Excitement all around - happy to get the show on the road.
It is in the following moments, however, that our relative jubilee begins to shatter. The boat, still only visible as a triumvirate of lights aligned in a crucifix formation, does something that breaks our hopes. About 150 meters off shore we see the lights, which so far have seemed steady and upbright, swing down to portside violently, and then, with equal violence bounce back to starboard like a can of beer dropped on a trampoline. Twice more she does this in the rhythm of profound waves. The fog, we realize, is not only concealing the color of the night sky - it is concealing the windswept swells of Lago de Nicaragua as well. Oh ------, we're in for it.
We're not the only ones to witness this new twist and a chatter erupts from the crowd, mostly in Spanish of course, and it is now fully evident that our wait was perhaps not 'worth' what we thought.
The ferry docked by approaching bow first, and as the bowlines were tied off and she swung her stern around into the light we got our first true look into the hell we were about to experience. Rolling still thickly as starboard pulled tight to the dock and in the full light we see the pale faces (and the massive number of them) looking back at us. It is obvious that they are much happier to see land than we are to this boat in front of us. What is more obvious than that, even, is that this boat is not almost full - this boat is full.
Around us by this point, our jaws dropped, the crowd has pushed forward, in nothing like an ordinary fashion, to begin the chaos of what we now know is a Nicaraguan boarding call. The closer we get to the boat the smaller it seems. In our minds we can't see how you could get a single individual on, let alone the hundreds who are eagerly pushing forward to board. Well, we think (clinging to some unnatural optimism), some of these people must be getting off. The two of us exchange looks of disbelief. 'This can't be real.' Ýou've got to be kidding me.' Éxcuse me, you've got to be ------ kidding me.'
Nevertheless, as the crowd pushes toward the gangplank, we push with it. Many passengers have gotten off, though, and we have the dim hope that some of the upperdeck seating has become available. We board the ship in the cargo area at the stern. The inside cabin, as we get our first look at it, is absolutely uninhabitable. Sardines come to mind, but then again, sardines have the joy of being dead before they go into their can. Inside it is people upon persons upon people. The door leading in is jammed full and we simply think, 'What the heck? You cannot fit all these people on this boat. We understand you might want to, but really, it simply can't be done. You can't, so what's the solution?' On top of that, we think, who's gonna solve this? Who's in charge?
The answer, we quickly find, is that no one is really in charge. That is, the only authority figure we can find is the man who guards the gate to the upstairs and all he can tell us, even as we ultimately try to bribe him, is that 'No, sorry, no way you can come up here.' (This, we later find out, is a blessing in disguise). But the scene on the afterdeck worsens. A man on the stairs, coming down, tells us we're better off where we are. We ask him to describe the trip so far from Granada. 'Pretty terrible,' he says, dashing our hopes that all wasn't as bad as it appeared. 'Fifty, sixty people seasick up there, tossin' and heavin' over the side. Waves have been crashing right up to the top. Its been a rough go, no doubt.' He is not smiling. Meanwhile, more and more people get on behind us, most making their way into the interior cabin - so many, in fact, that from what we can tell - its standing room only. We're talking front row at a Dead concert, but with less drugs and more puke.
Our spirits are slipping and we're both thinking that despite the whole day (three days really) we've waited for this boat, and even our anticipation for the Rio San Juan and El Castillo, this boat is not a good idea. Mandy says, 'Really, this situation is my worst nightmare.' Jon agrees (although he saves comment on his own nightmares). Out of the corner of his eye he spots piles of fresh and chunky vomit, but doesn't feel it necessary to point them out to Mandy at the moment. The people who've made the trip so far on the after-deck are drenched from the waves and seaspray. There is no where, even, to sit down. The men are loading the cargo bay beneath our feet, and staying out of their way as they swing bags and boxes around is near to impossible. The boat is rocking even as she is tied to the dock, and all we can do is think of the ten hour experience we commit to when the last of the plantains are packed away and they take the plank aboard.
Our decision is really, on the one hand, to stay, hunker down, and bare an awful night of probable seasickness and definite sleeplessness against the reality of getting off, giving up, and spending another night on Ometepe. With each waft of vomit the latter makes its appeal. Tension is high. Peter and Persis, an American-British couple we met on the dock, are in a similar quandary. Should we eat the 30 cordobas and spend another night on Ometep, giving up our trip to El Castillo? Neither of us wants to do that, but the thought of ten plus hours on this boat seems unbearable. We both look to the other to make the decision, both knowing that turning back is the wrong move. The only real motive for deboarding is the realistic fear that a boat this overcrowded, in the event of some malfunction or disaster, would be beyond scope.
We play it out in our minds, shuffling our feet here and there as the men bring the last of the cargo baskets on board. Pete and Persis play rock, paper, scissors to see if they'll stay. Mandy and I forego the official decision and watch as they pull in the plank.
The regulars - the farmers, dock workers, and frequent fliers - seem to know the score. A handful carry with them long stalks of banana leaves, which as soon as the cargo is in place, they throw down as beds. Smart fellows, but not terribly gracious. They take the space of three sitting men and don't even take the care to nestle into a corner, but plop right down in the middle of the deck forsaking those of us too numbed by the experience to beat them to it. Before we know it the only space is the place where we stand. So it's Ben and Benny, Pete and Persis, and the two of us. We make a little area, the best we can, with our packs and grin, preparing for the worst.
Good news, however, is produced by Pete in the form of Flora de Caña, Nicaragua's finest rum. We use it to wash down our Dramamine, hoping the one doesn't offset the other. As we pull out into open water we are also tentatively relieved to find the rolls not so dramatic as the ones we seemed to witness from the shore. The time is 8:10 pm.
It would be hard to describe the eleven hours that followed. We did not sleep. Our heads may have bobbed in an unconscious nod once or twice, but mostly time was passed in futile attempts to achieve a once and certain position of comfort. Simply put, we twisted and turned all night. For a while we drank the rum and had a good chat with Pete and the other travelers, but after a while it became a sort of every man for himself. We managed to spread ourselves out a bit and everyone realized that communication and cooperation between one another would make us all more comfortable - even one of the banana-bed guys moved over so we could fit a little nicer. The good news is that no one got sick, at least not among our group. As it turned out, our space on the cargo deck was probably the best place we could have been. Based on Jon's two (reluctant) trips to the bathroom, the inside was a sort of hell that even Dante chose not to write about in any detail.
In the end, with a terrible night of sleeplessness, profound discomfort and confessed agitation we landed safely in San Carlos as the sun broke over Lago de Nicaragua. The time was 7:10 am. Truth be told it wasn't as bad as we thought, not nearly so bad as we feared, and we look back on the whole damn thing rather fondly - even now, just two days after the fact - lying in bed, that is, after a warm shower.