Flashback Friday: The Nicaragua Ferry Ride

A few years back, some friends and I took a trip to Nicaragua to visit another buddy who had been there for part of the summer taking part in a public health program. We met up with her after her program ended with a plan to bop around to different parts of Nicaragua and do some exploring.

After an unexpected overnight layover in the deserted Guatemala airport, we finally got to Managua, the country’s capital – sans luggage, that was probably still in Guatemala – but in Managua nonetheless. After purchasing some undergarments from a street vendor and washing them in the sink at our hostel, we were off!

One of the activities that we all knew we wanted to do was to take a side trip to the Corn Islands, which are located just off of Nicaragua and are said to be beautiful. After a quick flight that left us laughing, crying and shaking in our boots (another story for another day), we arrived on Big Corn and were blown away are how beautiful and untouched the island was. We spent a day or two on Big Corn and decided to take a day trip to Little Corn, which, according to our guidebook, was even prettier and was just a ‘short ferry ride’ away.

We took a cab to the dock and looked around for the ferry. Naively, we had some expectations regarding the type of boat that qualified as a ‘ferry.’  The one person in our group who spoke Spanish gathered that the ferry was actually the long, wispy looking number in front of us that was filled to the brim with European backpackers.

We took the last available row of seats at the front of the boat, right behind all of the luggage that was in the process of being covered with a tarp. The 7-to-1 person-to-lifejacket ratio concerned us a little, but certainly not enough to get us off of the boat. We probably wouldn’t need them, after all. But just in case, a girl in our group managed to snag one.

They then unrolled another tarp and handed it to the people who were sitting on the right side of the boat; we wondered out loud if we would be getting wet on this ride. At the last minute, a woman got on the boat and wedged herself into the space between our legs and the luggage. The motor started and the two men at the front of the boat stood up, grabbed ropes that were tied to the front, held them like reins, and firmly planted their feet; we wondered out loud if the ride would be rough. I popped a Dramamine just in case.

And then suddenly we were traveling at what felt like 110 miles per hour. At first the ride was fun; the seas were rough and the boat was bouncing around and we were laughing and cheering. The woman sitting with us was doing neither. As time went on, the seas got rougher, our laughs got quieter, the boat started to catch some air in between waves and I started to wonder if the guy up front would let us hold onto one of the reins.

Since we were seated at the very front, we were getting the brunt of the action, though I would have to imagine that based on the screams coming from the Europeans that it wasn’t much better in the back. Every time we hit a wave, the front of the boat would lift so much that we would all be airborne and then it would slam back down to the water and we would slam onto our bench. We wondered why they weren’t slowing down at all since there seemed to be a very real chance that we could go rocketing out of the boat at any time. The woman sitting with us was openly weeping and crossing herself and any lingering thoughts that this was a fun ride vanished.

There wasn’t anything to hold onto but each other, so that’s what we did, and our grip was broken only when my friend Laura put on the one life jacket that our group had been given. I must have looked at her accusingly because she defended her actions by saying that if we went over, we could all hang on to her so that we wouldn’t sink. I remember wishing that I hadn’t spent so much time reading articles about the species of sharks that thrive in Nicaraguan waters.

We were completely honestly yelling to each other about the possibility of pooling our money to charter a plane back to the Big Island to avoid having to take the boat back when suddenly it all stopped. The boat stopped, the screaming stopped, and the prayers of the woman sitting with us stopped.

We had run out of gas.

We had traveled far enough that we could no longer see the Big Island but not far enough that we could see the Little Island, and we were out of gas. We all sat there silently for what felt like hours but what, in reality, was probably minutes, and then the singing started. The European backpackers had quietly started singing a somber tune from the back of the boat and one of my friends pointed out the similarity between our current situation and that of the scene in Titanic when the band starts to play when the boat is going down. We all sat quietly, save for the singers, as the boat lolled over the waves and I regretted not having taken that Dramamine earlier.

Suddenly we heard another engine and looked over to see a boat coming towards us. Saved! The other boat worked to get alongside us and once they were close enough, a man threw a barrel of fuel to our captain and then drove away. We all gave a weak “No, wait!” but he was already gone. What if fuel wasn’t the only issue? Shouldn’t they have stuck around to make sure we started up again? We didn’t have too much time to worry about that, though; the captain filled the tank, started the motor and took off and we found ourselves once again speeding over the waves.

At one point after a particularly large wave, we hit the water so hard that my sunglasses broke on my face. I turned, crooked glasses and all, to Laurel who was seated beside me and yelled “My glasses! They broke on my face!” She looked back at me with an expression that clearly said “Hey dummy, that’s the least of our worries.” I wanted to explain to her that it wasn’t the fact that my glasses had broken that was worrying me but more the fact that they had broken while still on my face, but it didn’t seem like the right time.

We heard a cheer and looked up and were thrilled to see that Little Corn Island was in sight. We slowed down as we pulled up to the dock and the folks waiting there to take the boat back to the Big Island looked horrified as we all stumbled out, some crying, some shaking and some just repeating “We have to do that again on the way back?!” over and over again. My friends and I found a picnic table and just sat there, not speaking, for a few minutes before someone finally broke the silence and suggested that we go exploring. True to what we had heard, Little Corn Island was beautiful and untouched and amazing, but we had a hard time shaking the thought that we were going to have to take that boat back in just a few hours. We decided that we would get back to the dock early to make sure that we got a seat on the back of the boat to ensure a smoother ride; that helped quell our fears a little and we were able to enjoy the island.

Luckily the ride back proved to be a lot less eventful and we got back to Big Corn unharmed. We are able to laugh about it now (well, most of us) but at the time we were whistling a different tune – more specifically, track 9 from the Titanic soundtrack.

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