The Journey on Laguna de Apoyo

When heartbreak and fear and evanescent beauty combine themselves in the same breath it is an experience that is hard to forget… 

I was there to take a two week course to learn Spanish. That was my initial goal, however I learned and experienced so much more, my horizons forever broadened, my compassion for humanity perpetually altered, and my faith and trust in myself inexplicably strengthened. 

Of the three experiences I had on Laguna de Apoyo the one that has most affected me years later was the interaction with my Spanish teacher. She was about 8 years my junior at 22 years old or so, a local who lived in the community near the lake. A brilliant and curious girl, living in an impoverished area, well below what many Americans would consider poverty, an area with little opportunity and education, where houses were 15ftx15ft in area, walls were poured concrete, roofs were corrugated sheet metal and toilets gave way to latrines in the backyard… The type of area where a girl isn’t expected to get much more than a 6th grade education and having a child or two by 14 or 15 years of age is common. But somehow, despite being extremely poor, she learned a bit of English, managed to avoid having a child so young, and supported herself and her family by teaching Spanish to travelers as they passed through.

What started as language lessons turned into a personal conversation quite quickly. A two week conversation about our lives. She wanted to tell me about her life, and wanted to know how life was for women where I came from. We talked about many things; education and schooling, men and pregnancy, jobs and welfare, et cetera. I found much of what she said disheartening, and didn’t know quite how to respond. All I felt I could do was answer her questions as honestly as possible and try to give advice when she asked for it, the best I could. 

She told me a story of how the teenage girls in the community I was staying in would peel the bark off of this one species of tree and make a tea to poison themselves. They would do this because they were too young to have a child, abortion is illegal in Nicaragua and they wanted to go to school, to have a job, to meet the right man to marry, to have some chance at a better life for themselves than struggling every day for each meal living in the same conditions that they grew up in. By drinking the poisonous tea it, in many cases, along with making them deathly sick, caused a miscarriage so they didn’t have to completely give up on their hopes for a better life by bringing a child into the world so young, and in most cases, where the father, a child at 14 or 15 years old himself, wouldn’t stick around. This was a common practice, as were many forms of illegal abortion where the girls life was put at risk, they had little to no access to sex education or birth control, and if they did have access to birth control like in the city of Managua a couple hours away, they couldn’t afford it.  I asked if they could get condoms… She said in many cases, the boys, who are just as uneducated, convince the girls in various ways there is no need for them… I’ll never forget this conversation…

For the last three years I’ve been thinking about her, their community, the many other communities in a similar situation I came across. I feel helpless as far as being able to do something with enough impact to help these people. I’m just trying to survive myself. I feel guilty for the car I own, the television, my education, my decent job. I was lucky to have been born where I was. I don’t have concrete walls in my home, or a corrugated sheet metal roof with a front door made from sticks in the nearby woods, or a latrine with feces eating worms in the backyard to process my human waste. I have health insurance and a retirement plan, I go out to eat once a week, and buy wine regularly. I feel guilty for having these things, I guess all I can do is not give up, and plan to put myself in a position to affect positive change in this world, during my life, as best I can. 

Some people ask you what you would do if you had a million dollars. Honestly, I would invest half of it such that the dividends and returns would allow me sustain myself, donate to charities, and build capital to invest in further humanitarian relief and development, and take the other half and build a school and an office or manufacturing plant in a couple of areas where it is needed most. I would devote my life to helping others, because I have been pretty lucky….

My second experience was falling in love, as we all do, or maybe it was lust as does occur, with a handsome, sweet British engineer. I’m also an engineer, and well, intellect is typically drawn towards itself and he was also taking classes. We had a wonderful time, and I’ll always appreciate a good British accent being an American woman 😉

But more importantly, was experience three, the battle with my own fears. Laguna de Apoyo is a beautiful lake, nested in the caldera of an extinct volcano, with crisp clear blue waters that extend 574 feet deep. Some people go diving in this lake, because the depth, clarity and the fact that it is teeming with aquatic life make it quite attractive. I’m a kayaker and on one random day, decided that after several months of not having the opportunity to kayak, I would find a way to get on the water. The school rented a couple kayaks, so I grabbed a lifejacket one day and quickly set out to explore.


I had mostly done river kayaking, and river racing until that point. I really wasn’t experienced in ‘deep’ water. I went about a half of the way around the lake and was so engulfed in exploring the gorgeous blue waters, flora and fauna, I lost track of time.

The sun slowly started to descend, and I only began to realize it when I stopped on a sandy shore for a quick break. Then I had no choice but to begin to ponder my return. However, a fear I never knew I had crept up on me. 

Deep water… What lies beneath in this crater… We’ve all heard the stories of giant unknown creatures, the water was deep enough to hold those creatures or if anything, deep enough that in a situation where the boat flipped, it would be precarious, to say the least, to get myself and the boat back to shore.. I was alone, in foreign territory, the sun was going down, there were no human structures within sight, and I was getting a little worried. To return now, and make it back before dark, I would have to cross the deepest part of the lake, exposing myself and my fragile plastic kayak to whatever was unseen below the surface… I started out with much apprehension. I was about a quarter of the way, when my fears completely overtook me, and I returned very quickly to the shoreline. I couldn’t pass through the center of the lake, the greatest depths of this vastly quiet foreign body of water, I didn’t have it in me.

As I was paddling back, I noticed that this side of the lake was entirely uninhabited by people. The walls of the caldera, that jutted up behind the waters edge were sharp, and covered by a dense forest…I took a few deep breaths and thinking I was more than half way around the 4.1 mile circumference of the lake, I would continue in the same direction and follow the shoreline back. Surely, I was going to make it back before dark….

So I embarked on my journey. I paddled fast and hard, I was in great physical condition, there was no way I wouldn’t make it back in time.  But my ambitions and calculations were sorely wrong… The sun went down fast. First, the vivid and magnificent colors of the blue lake and greenery of the surrounding forest became dull, and more and more gray as each minute passed. Then, I found myself squinting to make out the profile of trees in the distance. It wasn’t long before I noticed that I couldn’t see more than twenty feet or so around me. I found myself paddling as fast and as hard as I could. Then suddenly, all things including my boat and my hand which I put in front of my face, began to turn the same dark, fuzzy black color. 

I pulled out my light, my cell phone light was all I had. I was very unprepared for this. The phone offered light about five to six feet or so, after which all was blackness. I paddled for half an hour like this, swerving near and far from the shore, wary of rocks and extended tree limbs that would topple my boat or rip me out of it. Then it happened, what I had been trying to avoid, there was some spashing to avoid a near shore obstruction and the water poured on my phone which I had shoved into my life vest on my chest. The light flickered briefly, then went out. No more light. I was engulfed in total blackness. I couldn’t see any lights or anything in the distance. I stopped paddling and froze. What do you do when you can’t see anything? I told myself my eyes would adjust, and having no choice in the matter, I waited until they did. I creeped to the left towards the shoreline with my boat to try and see something, anything at this point. But even after my eyes adjusted, I still could not see more than two or three feet in front of me, and what I was seeing was a blurred vision of black and gray silhouettes. I very slowly and cautiously continued forward. Then quite abruptly I slammed into the shore with my boat. Well, this was certainly a predicament!! 

I backed up and having no choice, kept paddling forward, squinting in the darkness, very focused on trying to avoid hitting the shore, branches or rocks. I figured I was maybe, if I was lucky, about 75% of the way back, 3 of the four miles around the lake behind me, and had possibly a half hour to go… Always the optimist! However, what I started hearing just after the world around me went dark that I ignored until this point, did begin to shake my confidence… The apes, the monkeys, whatever they were, they were howling, screaming, yelling, growling, they were in the forest, and hearing them, I felt like they were a few feet away, ready to grab me, ready to see how tasty of a snack I would be that evening… I remember thinking, with no lack of profanity in my mind, that I sure as hell didn’t want to be some monkey snack! So, I decided to keep from the shore a good ten feet or so as best as I could estimate as I couldn’t see that far, and kept cautiously moving forward… 

I must say, padding in darkness makes you think of all sorts of interesting things.. Wondering what is in the water, what is on the shore, what you can’t see… It’s curious how the imagination and subsequently survival kicks in… that instinct, that drive to continue no matter what fears encompass your mind. So I did. What I thought would be a half hour turned into two… Slowly meandering, maintaining my shoreline distance, listening to the forest, hearing the waters, straining to see anything… I kept saying to myself, ‘breathe’, stroke left, stroke right, left, right, left right, I’m not quite sure how many times I mumbled these things to myself…

Then finally, after two hours in the darkness I saw a light… Finally, I was back to civilization, well human occupancy at least. I paddled and paddled looking for the place that I had put in. I really didn’t have much left in me. Between battling my fears and paddling for what must have been six or seven hours I had to get off the water. I found a ramp or entryway and put my boat in. I figured it was fairly close to the Spanish school I was staying at and could pick the boat up in the morning. Thankfully, during the day the next morning, it was a short paddle to the sandy beach near the school. 

So I put the boat on the boat ramp, grabbed my paddle and headed to the dirt road. I began to follow the road to the school, and it took me about 20 minutes or so to reach my destination. What I hadn’t considered though, was the pack of 5 or 6 dogs on the street that stood between me and where I was going. During the day, most of the dogs down there are docile or sleeping. However, as I learned, during the night, they’re vicious, protective beasts. The road didn’t have much lighting, but my eyesight was keen at that point in the dark as I kept cautiously walking towards the next light in the distance.

Then, out of nowhere, a dog lunged at me, barring his teeth and viciously barking. I jumped backwards, and took my paddle and swung it out in front of me almost hitting it, in pure reflex to protect myself. I started to move quickly away but it only took a few seconds more before I was surrounded by them. The adrenaline began to course through my blood, as I feared for my life. They were snapping at the air, barking uncontrollably and hurtling towards me with their teeth. I wielded my paddle with both hands like a two edged sword. I was surrounded and didn’t know what to do. Completely in defensive mode, one would lunge, I would swing, another would jump in, I would swing… This inexplicable dance went on for a few minutes. I wasn’t thinking much, just reacting and trying to get away. I swung that paddle in so many different defensive and aggressive movements and motions towards those beasts trying to protect myself… Somehow I managed to escape, and remember running with the paddle swinging behind me down the road. 

When I reached the school, I was exhausted, my mind and body spent. And that was experience three, the Apoyo lake and its depth, mystery and darkness with the howling monkeys, and unrelenting pack of vicious dogs… 

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