I arrive to meet the group at the tourism office at 4:30pm, and we drive towards the volcano. The gate opens every night at six. Until then, we'll wait in a long line of cars outside the entrance. The convenience store outside our truck sells beer, juice, chips, and one Snickers bar. I sit on the curb to sip a Toña and watch as the sky turns from blue to pink. Eventually the cars begin to roll forward, and our guide delivers a lesson about explorers, craters, and other volcanoes in the area. I'm only half listening. I'll end up remembering that in this part of Nicaragua there is a salamander with zero pigmentation in its skin and a shark that can hold two months worth of salt water inside its body while it heads off to live in fresh water for some time. It strikes me as alarming that Spanish explorers were more interested in searching for gold than in discovering stuff like this. They must not have known about the salamanders.
We arrive at the volcano's museum and our eager guide walks us around, pointing out paintings of animals and telling us where each one is likely to be found. I see a group of live bats fluttering above us and hanging from the ceiling, but the guide ushers us through the man-made replica of a lava tunnel and leads us to more animal paintings instead. He translates their names into English for me, although I don't need him to. He tells me he's studied English since he was 15 when he set his mind to mastering it. Now he's 24 and he can understand anyone and talk about anything because he constantly improves upon his vocabulary and pronunciation. Outside, he shows me a tree of “almendras-- almonds” and tells me that they grow inside of a fruit that encases them, like a “cáscara-- a sheel.”
We make a stop at the museum's mirador. Our guide points out past the lagoon toward the horizon and tells us that just outside of the glowing city of Masaya lies Coyotepe Fortress, which marks the spot of an underground prison left over from the years of the Samoza dictatorship. The prison, a prime location for torturing political prisoners during the late 20th century, is submerged beneath the earth.
When the prison was active, very little light was allowed into the cells and connecting tunnels, ensuring that prisoners wouldn't be able to tell what time of day it was.
“Otra forma de tortura,” our guide explains.
To solicit information about the rebels' efforts, the guards inserted electric rods underneath the fingernails on their victims.
“Otra forma de tortura,” he adds.
And the cells were never cleaned. Often, when a prisoner died, the guards left the body until it decomposed on its own.
“Otra forma de tortura.”
He says it this time with the same tone as the two times before it, as if being left to go on living in the same room as a dead person carries the same weight as not knowing the time or receiving a piercing shock under your fingernails. I can't tell whether it's night or day, and also there is a man who used to be alive lying next to me with his face half eaten by maggots.
My yoga teacher had this lesson he would teach every now and then about the power of the conjunctions we choose in daily speech. When we use “but”, we automatically create a hierarchy or insinuate emotion. We imply that one clause holds a certain sway above the other. It is raining, but I am having a good day. We have already judged the rain. It is clearly something we have had to overcome. Not a gift. Not the bringer of life, but a burden to bear. When we use “and” instead, we remove much of the reaction from the equation. I stepped in a puddle, and I am going to get a sandwich. How do you feel about stepping in the puddle? Did it add a grumpy trudge to the rest of your walk? Or was it the joyous splash of a child? And the sandwich, is that a food common to your diet? Will you enjoy it? With “and”, we have simply delivered the facts.
I can't tell how long I've been in here, and there is a dead body rotting next to me. Actually, using “but” in this case might have recognized a valid blessing, a saving grace. If you have a general idea of about how long it takes a body to decompose under the earth (8 to 12 years), this might prove revelatory in your development of a timeframe. I can't tell whether it's day or night, and they're going to stab at my sensitive under nails with shocking needles, but there's a dead body here next to me. What luck.
We walk solemnly back to the van. The sky above is dark, and the city lights glimmer down below us. We complete our short drive to the edge of the volcanic crater. We step out of the van to see crimson smoke plumes rising over a bright orange glow. We take out our cameras or phones and try to find the right setting and filter to translate these images to our families and friends back home. If only they could see us now. We're all standing in the same line, taking the same photos.
The real stories are below us.