Moonshine on Ometepe Island

by Hannah Hughes

While attempting to check into a hostel on Lake Nicaragua, a traveler is swept off into an adventure that gets stranger with every turn.

On Ometepe Island, stress doesn’t exist. Residents aren’t even sure what the word means. They’ve heard rumors of headaches and hair loss and high blood pressure from far away Western worlds, worlds dominated by business and briefcases and boredom. But on this dually volcanic island — located on the biggest lake in Central America, Lake Nicaragua — that state of mind is meaningless.

This means that the destination attracts two kinds of people. Firstly, those who are so chilled that ice cream doesn’t melt on their skin. The men and women who don’t know or care what day of the week it is. Those looking to meditate, manifest, and magic mushroom. The lone wanderers wearing tie-dye and feathers in their hair, inked with moon cycle tattoos. The ones pulled by the energy of the island, who study crystals and read tarot cards and speak to grass.

Then, there are those who stumble off the ferry with a naive smile on their face. Oblivious to or uninterested in the island’s reputation, they are ready to kayak, volcano, and waterfall. They sport maroon sunburn lines, motorbike injuries, and matching bar crawl T-shirts. They define themselves by how many countries they’ve visited, how quickly they can down a bottle of beer, and how many views their Instagram story gets.

These two groups of people rarely interact.

After a two-hour bus ride to the other side of the island, I arrived outside my hostel. Reggae music was vibing from inside the building, and flip flops were piled up outside. I slid out of my sandals and added them to the pile before stepping inside.

The hostel was empty apart from a local with a majestic mane of dyed blonde curls. Blue braces studded his gap-filled teeth. He was slouched on a red flowery couch that was neither appealing to the eye nor clean of ants, food crumbs, and small flowers of marijuana. His tattooed leg was draped over the seam-split armrest. He nodded at me in acknowledgment as I entered, and I smiled in reply.

The wooden reception desk was unoccupied. It had been painted in stripes of red, yellow, and green, and the walls were plastered with various dog-eared bus schedule posters. Behind the reception desk was a light switch, and underneath was a sticker reading, “TURN LIGHT OFF WHEN NOT IN USE.” Below this instruction someone had graffitied, “Instead, turn the light on from within,” illustrated with a small heart. It smelled of must.

I did a quick three-sixty. It seemed the only person in the place was the man on the couch, who was now closely inspecting the silver ring on his middle toe. I felt something tickle my foot and looked down to find I was obstructing a long trail of ants marching from somewhere behind reception. I unobstructed their path. A silver bell sat on the desk, and a strip of paper tape before it read “Ring me!” in purple felt tip. I rang it.

“You wanna check-in?”

 I turned to face the man on the red, flowery couch. I stood in silence for a confused moment.

“I’m Ron, by the way. Welcome to my hostel.”

As I was a new face who had just entered, sweating, heaving a backpack more than half my body size, standing at reception with a lost look on my face, I resisted the urge to gasp, “Obviously, Ron,” and instead exclaimed, “Yes, please!” with a big smile on my face.

“Well, I’m actually going out now,” he shrugged. “The sun’s gonna set, and I wanna watch it.” His multiple necklaces softly clashed together as he stood up to leave. I blinked. He fixed his hair, looking as though he expected me to do something. Did he want me to check myself in? Or perhaps he would prefer it if I simply stood like a lemon as I awaited his much-anticipated return?

He picked up the pool cue balancing against the rotting wall and gave it a twirl. “Wanna come?”

A volcano on Ometepe Island, Nicaragua

The sky was already pink with blunders of lilac clouds as we sped along the bumpy roads, both helmet-less, on his motorbike. I clung onto his bony hips, stopping myself from springing into the air as he drove over the dips in the road like he was racing to see his mother during her final seconds of life. The air smelled of fried fish. I suddenly remembered how I hadn’t eaten since before I boarded the ferry.

“Where are we going?” I shouted as we drove further inland away from the coast.

“To get moonshine,” he said with a smile in his voice. His blue braces flashed in the cracked wing mirror.

I waited on his bike as he walked over to a shack that looked like it had been abandoned. He rattled the rusted lock and key that secured the metal gates together, and an old woman appeared. She donned a blue and gold shawl, walked with a limp, and wore nothing on her feet. They conversed in Spanish, and then the old woman disappeared, returning with a dark blue bottle.

Back on the bike, we hurtled towards the coast; I squeezed the bottle of moonshine between my legs, the cold glass cooling on my skin. The island streaked by in a blur of darkness, and the sky had now birthed its brightest stars. The air was jumping with the sounds of choppy water, a revving motorbike, and…a high pitched whimper of pain? Ron had hit a dog. He halted in time to watch the small white animal hobble off into the trees.

“Sorry, dude,” Ron drawled, his hand stretched towards the direction the dog was last seen. He sighed and fixed his hair. I sat in horrified silence, the sound of the dog’s squeal stapled into my memory.

Ron turned to me. “Is the moonshine OK?”

When we arrived at the coast, the sun had set. The trees were silhouetted, their twigs and roots camouflaged in the declining light. The sky had become a deeper shade of blue with gray wisps of mustache-like clouds. On the island’s edge, the humidity had eased, and a light breeze threaded the air.

I sat on the muddy ground next to the shore. It felt like cold Play-Doh. Ron looked deep into my eyes as he poured a bottle-cap shot of moonshine.

“What is your deepest fear?” he asked suddenly, his voice ringing with drama and mysticism. I drank the shot. It tasted like chemicals. 

“Spiders,” I replied, too exhausted — or too few shots deep — to have a profound and meaningful conversation. “You?”

He turned towards the body of water, the breeze blowing his mane behind him like a superhero cape. “The forest,” he whispered, his eyes full of genuine emotion. “When I was three years old, I was kidnapped and brought to the forest,” he continued, his voice failing to hide the trauma of his past.

I waited for him to go on, but his lips remained closed. His eyes perused the lake, fixed on the horizon ahead. Unsure whether to press this evidently painful memory further, I stared at him, waiting for a clue. Eventually, I placed my hand on his bony back in support and quietly asked, “Who kidnapped you?” 

“The elves,” he breathed, his voice breaking mid-syllable.

I continued to stare. Ron grabbed the moonshine and gulped it from the bottle, the volume of his swallow amplified by the silence around us.

“The elves?” I questioned, unsure whether this was a joke or the words of a genuinely crazy man.

He turned towards me, his face serious. He fixed his hair. “When I was three years old, the elves chose me. They took me from my mom’s home when I was asleep and brought me to the forest,” he inhaled deeply. His gaze fell to the muddy ground. The sound of the breaking tide tinkled close by.

“How long were you gone for?” I was unsure what to ask.

“Half an hour.”

“What did the elves do to you?”

“They danced around me.”

“And then what?”

“They returned me.”

I put my fingers to my mouth to mimic a gasp, but in reality, I was trying to compose my quivering lips. It was confirmed: I was sitting with a genuinely crazy man.

We fell silent, watching the runway of light cast onto the lake by the nearly full moon. Fireflies sparkled around us. Fungus sprouted on the floor. I fiddled with a stick lying by my muddied trainer. Ron fixed his hair, again.

When the sky was black and glittered with stars, we stood up to leave. I could feel the moonshine in my head. Ron tripped clumsily. If this man had hit a dog before downing alcohol, I decided I had better brace myself for the return journey. We boarded the bike and retraced the way at startling speed through the lamppost-less roads. After a long and interesting day, I could finally shower and eat something. But first, I still needed to check in. 

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