Never, ever underestimate the power of nature ... it´s a lesson I learned in the very first week of my gap year, when the ice and snow at Dublin Airport prevented me from leaving Ireland for 48 hours, and a lesson I learned again during the last week of my travels.
Way back on January 6, my gap year got off to a terrible start when Aer Lingus dumped me in dirty old Dublin, without a taxi, hotel, or bus. And almost 50 weeks later, the savage seas of the Caribbean almost prevented me from getting home.
After almost three months of living and enjoying voluntary work in the beautiful old colonial city of Granada, I decided to treat myself to a week on the Corn Islands before leaving Nicaragua.
They really are a world apart, two islands in an isolated corner of the Caribbean which have none of the crass over-development you would expect from the region were you to visit countries such as Mexico, Belize, or Honduras.
Maybe it´s down to the political situation, but it felt like some sort of wonderful secret to be among the couple of dozen tourists on the two islands which have a population of about 7,000 between them.
To say that the place doesn´t feel like Nicaragua would be an understatement. Most of the people are of West Indian descent, families have names such as Turner, Kelly, and Wilson, and the local radio station pumps out reggae, even Christmas reggae songs, every day.
People talk English in strange Jamaican style accents and the islands, because of their location, are infamous routes for international drug traffickers.
During my week on the Corn Islands, the US Coast Guard paid us a visit. With them they brought a confiscated boat, with no name and three huge outboard engines. Thankfully for the dealers, they managed to offload the loot before Uncle Sam prowled upon them at night.
I know drugs are a huge problem in the Americas, but it sickens me that the US feels free to pursue boats through the seas of sovereign states such as Nicaragua. Then again, the US sees itself as master of the whole of the Americas and Nicaragua hardly has a navy to scare them away.
A trip to a place such as the Reggae Palace will soon show the traveller that white powder is in steady supply on the island, as is the green herb.
Fuelled by rum and coke and God knows what else, there can be a manic energy about the place at night.
I decided to base myself on the big island, which has roads, bikes, cars, a couple of towns, and a dive centre.
The diving was world class. I was overwhelmed by the quality of the coral and the amount of big fish (nurse shark, eagle rays, lobsters), even if the centre´s safety standards left a lot to be desired. On my fifth dive, I found myself breathing what could only be described as impure air.
My lungs felt uncomfortable and it was clear to me that the owner did not take proper care of his hired equipment. Having been forced to use a faulty regulator throughout my fifth dive, I decided not to continue diving over my last few days.
Which meant that I had more free time than I expected, so I got to enjoy a couple of nights of madness with Danish woman Nina and her two friends. Socialising with them was good fun, but also reminded me of why I enjoy travelling alone ... as I had no desire or interest to keep up with their manic drinking.
The Danes really are as mad as the Irish and these three 30-somethings had become quite infamous by the time I left!
I took a panga over to Little Corn, the smaller island which has no roads and just a pathway around it, a day after them. It was one of the scariest boat trips of my life, as we crashed headlong into two massive waves and the boat almost overturned. The Caribbean can be a cruel beast!
Packed only with a day bag including my swimming gear, a banana, a small amount of cash, and a book, I was then shocked to discover that the boatmen had no notion of returning to the big island that day, and possibly not the next day either. The sea, mon, the sea.
So I went into a bit of a panic, or a tizzy, thinking that I would miss my flight back to Managua the following day and then my trip to Panama for the start of my journey home.
Apparently tourists get stranded on the small island quite regularly, due to high winds and dangerous seas, but they don´t tell you that in the guidebooks!
The result was a heavy drinking session with the Danes, who missed at least three cancelled boats home, a hotel room for US20, and a sleepless night before I managed to get the only boat back the next day, at 7 a.m. Phew!
The Danes, who were nowhere to be seen at 6 a.m., love their nights on the rum and looked set to be stranded for another 24 hours, as the sea was very rough indeed, the waves crashing in upon us, for the return journey. The boat didn´t travel in the afternoon.
I was so overjoyed to reach Big Corn that it put all my panic and worry throughout the previous night into perspective. Yes, I had virtually no money or no change of clothes on me, but people were good and trusting and I had met two Polish lads who were willing to share a chartered boat (and trust me to pay them at the other end) if the ferry didn´t run.
To be honest, I failed to be impressed by the smaller of the islands, which gets more tourists than its bigger brother. It´s a bit like a Caribbean version of Koh Phi Phi, with paths, beach bungalows, lovely snorkelling beaches ... but very few tourists.
Apparently, there is far less wind on the Corn Islands during certain times of year such as April to June, and I would love to return to dive there again some day, because the people and the marine life were fantastic. I also think the two dive centres on the smaller island are better run, but I will make sure to give myself a day or two back on the big island before heading home. Little Corn can be cut off for days at times.
I will treasure my time at Hotel Morgan on the big island, where Kerry and the staff made the three or four guests feel right at home. The hotel had the best restaurant on the island and wonderful sea views, with a reef just across the road.
Glad to be back on the mainland, I will remember my silly panic attacks in my dump of a cheap hotel, even though I knew they were silly at the time.
Sometimes in life, s--t happens. A storm blows and your boat won´t sail, and you have very little money or clothing . . . and you just have to deal with it.
A good metaphor for life, I think. Things don´t always run smoothly when you are far from home and, when they don´t, you just have to try your best to deal or cope with the situation.
So, farewell to the Corn Islands, in this month of emotional goodbyes. The end of my trip looms on the horizon and today I enjoyed an absolutely fabulous trip across Nicaragua in a small propeller plane.
If I had let fear rule my life, I probably wouldn´t even have boarded the plane as the wind howled across the little airfield at Big Corn.
But if I let fear rule my life, I would not even have left Galway or Dublin back on January 6. And if I had stayed at home I would have missed out on the best year of my life.
Panama beckons, and the dreaded return to wintry Ireland. But already I´m full of gratitude for all the adventures, and even the little scares, which have made this a year to treasure.
The highs are higher and the lows quite low ... but I sure feel ALIVE!
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