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Searching for Sharks

Nicaragua , Granada and Around, Granada

Nicaragua, Volcano, Sharks




They say Lake Nicaragua is the only lake in the world where you can find sweet water sharks. They say that the bay where the lake now sits was suddenly closed off long ago and the sharks got trapped inside. But the sharks survived. As the salt slowly dissipated from the water, they adapted.


We had spent a week taking boat trips in search of these sharks. Easy access to the lake was important, so we based ourselves on Ometepe – a figure-eight shaped island formed by Concepción Volcano and its conjoined twin Maderas. Despite our diligence, my traveling companion and I hadn’t found a single one. Thankfully, our stay on the island hadn’t been completely lost; we had managed to keep fairly busy during our down time.


One morning, we fought the chills of the early morning to scale Concepción – the active of the two volcanoes. Our guide, Mateo, a young, Nicaraguan ex-boxer, slowly led us through the various climates as we ascended: First, the heavy humidity of the forest, then an open, cool, misty terrain thick with grass, and finally steep, barren gravel. As we stood at the top, Mateo told us about growing up in Nicaragua. He had little recollection of life under the cruel Somoza dictatorship, but could remember the ensuing war between the US-backed Contras and the Sandinista rebels that had kicked out Somoza and established a new government. He described the terrifying sonic booms of the American “Blackbirds” that tore through the sky in November of 1984, and how he would curl into a ball under the kitchen table wondering which one would take his life first. A person’s future was based on luck and geography. “Take sides or face execution,” he explained. He still flinched at the sound of airplanes.


As I stared down into the steaming crater before us, I wondered if this very volcano had contributed to the sharks’ isolation, spewing chunks of molten lava over the one outlet that connected the animals to the outside world.




After three more days of fruitless shark searching around the lake, we returned to the mainland town of Granada. Our intention was to count our losses and continue south. But instead of succumbing to our defeat, we decided on renting a small motorboat from the nearby wharf to visit the 300-some lush, volcanic islets that curl out from the mainland into Lake Nicaragua. Two locals had joined us along with the owner of the boat: a rotund, well-dressed man in his 50s who sat next to us, and a small, quiet girl who moved to the front. As we set off, maneuvering between the little islands, she made herself comfortable at the bow of the boat and kept a constant watch out into the lake, for sharks perhaps.


“Where are you guys from?” the older man asked with a surprisingly perfect English accent.


“New York and Chicago,” my companion answered.


“Are you in school?”


“We just graduated from Brown actually.”


“That’s a great school. My son is studying at Yale. All ivies!” He was pleased by this shared experience.


The young girl suddenly looked back, her piercing eyes fixing on mine. I wanted to apologize for our general state of affairs – the scruffy necks, the black nails, the crusty jeans – but I couldn’t form the words.


“Do you have plans for this afternoon?” the man continued. “I would like to have you over to my island.”


“Your island?” I asked, stupefied. “Are you sure?”


“Absolutely. My name is Ruben, like the famous Nicaraguan poet.”


It turned out that many of the small islands were privately owned, at least those large enough to build a house on. Ruben had more than a house.


Ruben’s gardener was waiting at the dock when we pulled up. He grabbed our belongings and led us along a paved path in a semi-circle around the island until we arrived at the front steps of the white, one-story house. We sat down in the patio area on plush pillows adorning an assortment of spotless wicker furniture. The patio was shaded under a stucco roof held up by Romanesque columns, and the floor was immaculately tiled. A Nicaraguan flag hung against the wall. Through the front doors, I could see a flat-screen TV and a top of the line stereo system in the living room. We made ourselves comfortable and Ruben began to shower us with all of the amenities foreign to a 22-year old backpacker: pickles, stuffed olives, those little baby corns and 18-year-old rum.


We spent the afternoon there, staring at the still water around us, the passing heron or cormorant, and a boulder, roughly four feet in diameter, which had somehow been suspended between the branches of one of the mango trees. By the time the sun had set, we had polished off several rum and cokes. Ruben, like Mateo the guide, began to discuss the 1980s during the war: of abandoning his properties when the Sandinistas took over, of sending his kids to the US, of laying low and waiting until it was safe again.


When the motorboat pulled up to take us back to Granada, Ruben invited us to his house in the capital for dinner the next night. We took it as a sign to stay yet another day and agreed.




As promised, a car came to pick us up at 7 pm on the dot. After an hour’s drive to the suburbs of Managua, we pulled through the large black metal gates leading to Ruben’s estate. Curving around the large fountain in the middle of the rotunda, we came to a stop in front of the wide marble steps leading to the main entrance. Ruben led us through two kitchens into the living room.


“One kitchen for Mr. Ruben only,” one of the many maids shuffling about stopped to explain, “For when he feels like cooking.”


Once in the living room, Ruben began to point out the various treasures he had accumulated over the years. He had a sizeable collection of Pre-Colombian pots and figurines left behind by the indigenous Chorotega and Nahua cultures. In the back of the room were rows of pod-like ceramic urns used to bury the dead in a squatting position. The centerpieces of the room, however, were two full-size Steinway pianos, formerly belonging to the expelled dictator Somoza, he explained. I wanted to ask him what these things were doing here. He spoke before I could ask.


“If they were in a museum, they would just go to waste, or worse, be mistreated. They are better preserved here.”


I could have pressed Ruben to explain how he had come to possess all of these priceless objects. Most of all, I wondered about the Somoza Steinways. I thought back to our guide during the hike up the volcano – “Take sides or face execution.” As I watched Ruben move about, handling the objects, my mind then turned back to the sharks. Perhaps we had finally found one.



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13 Jul 2007

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