Under the volcano

Travel as much as you can, my mother said. It broadens the mind, she said. Thanks, mom. My mind is now so broad that important stuff has begun falling into the yawning crevasse between my cerebral hemispheres.

Right now, a cold Toña is at my elbow. This is Nicaragua’s finest beer. It might be its only beer. In front of me is a volcano. Not off in the distance, where volcanoes belong. This one is a few hundred metres away. I have an active volcano threatening to ruin my sundowner. Concepción last erupted in 2010. As if that’s not enough, there’s a second volcano on the same island. This one’s dormant, though, like my sex life.

It wasn’t easy getting here. It’s not like going to Mozambique, Zimbabwe or Namibia, where you just step over a sagging fence or swim across a river. These Centroamericanos are serious about their borders.

If you’ve been paying attention, you’d know that I hopped into Panama from Costa Rica the other day. It was a breeze. Doing the same into Nicaragua, not so much. Conquered and pillaged by the Spanish, colonised by the English and sodomised by America, Nicaragua is wary of foreigners. Maybe I’m being unfair. The woman at immigration at the Peñas Blancas border post was wary of foreigners. Okay, I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt. She was wary of me.

Let me briefly back-pedal. Nicaragua demands a PCR test for Covid, regardless of your vaccination status. It’s inexplicable. Even barbaric countries like Lebanon and Denmark no longer require you to be tested if the Pfizer filth is in your body.

So once again I had to suffer the indignity of a stranger rooting around in my prefrontal cortex, unnecessarily exciting my pituitary gland which caused my beer boobs to start leaking milk. Better than an unexpected growth spurt, I suppose. Nobody looks kindly on seven-foot men unless they play for the NBA and are multi-millionaires.

The invasive atrocity was perpetrated in a tent in the parking lot of an airport called Liberia. Yes, I know worse atrocities have been perpetrated in Liberia, but not to me. This Liberia is a town near Costa Rica’s Guanacaste coast. It’s dry and hot and full of gringos with annoying accents and thousand-yard stares.

Once the obsidian-eyed woman in a hazmat suit was done ravaging my sinuses and throat – the third swab activated my gag reflex, an unpleasant sight for the nurse, and yet, on the other hand, there’s a good chance she took a fair amount of perverse pleasure in seeing a man … never mind. Can I wait here? No, you can’t. The results will be ready sometime in the next 24 hours.

Whenever I am trapped in circumstances beyond my control, I head for the coast. I feel safer with my back to a large body of water. It’s an escape route and a source of infinite pleasure. Nothing can go wrong if you’re at the beach. There’s drowning, I suppose. And sting rays. And Congolese men selling wire tortoises. But apart from that.

My navigator, a woman with the directional skills of Christopher Columbus had he been born blind and deaf, took me to the wrong beach. We ended up in the wrong bar where I asked the local drug dealer what he was selling, which also turned out to be wrong.

Anyway, our negative Covid results came through and we made it to the border by 11am the next day. And that’s where I came up against the poison dwarf. Channelling the spirit of the dictator, Somoza, she spent two hours looking for reasons not to let me in. She asked what I did for a living. I have several fake occupations I use when crossing borders, but before I could say, “chicken sexer”, she said, “Escritor, no?” I took a step back. Was it the holes in my shirt? The look of abject despair in my bloodshot eyes? She wanted to know what kind of writer I was. Oh cariño, you don’t want to know. Travel, I said. For who, she said. I quickly googled the word for freelance and said “lanza libre”. She picked up my paperwork and left the booth. Much later, I reverse translated and found it also meant “mercenary”.

Eventually, through gritted teeth, she allowed me into her country where 82% of the population live on less than $1 a day. Maybe she didn’t want me spreading my dirty capitalist largesse in the local bars. Raising poor people’s expectations is a dangerous game.

Two hours later I was on an island in the middle of one of the biggest lakes in the world. There are vicious bull sharks in the water and mad people with machetes down broken dirt roads strewn with volcanic boulders. It’s like nothing I have ever seen and I doubt I will make it out alive.

4 thoughts on “Under the volcano

  1. John Gnodde

    Brilliant Ben, and we all hope you make it out alive, the cover of your ‘On the Run’ best seller probably reinforced her mercenary (aren’t we all) impression of you.

  2. You’d better make it out alive, Ben. We need you to brighten our week. Stuck here in the WA mud, I never thought I’d be limited to travelling vicariously through a South African escritor.

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