“Well, then people die”, I responded. It was June 2014 in Boston. I was showing my 6th graders a video of tourists going “volcano boarding”, or “volcanic rock sledding” in Nicaragua. They laughed nervously at my frank response. Looking back, I was already in my Nicaraguan mindset of talking about death in a matter-a-fact, accepting way. My students stared at the screen, wide-eyed. They had never seen people sliding down a volcano on cheap pieces of wood. Neither had I, until I prepped for the lesson.
I had my students listen for cognates (words that sound the same in English and Spanish) so that they could understand the video. I explained to them that I’d be going to teach English in Nicaragua for two years. “Will you come back and visit?”, they asked. “Sure, I’ll come back to see you guys next year”, I smiled. I played it cool, as if I knew exactly what I was getting myself into. I had no idea.
Flash forward to a year later. It’s July 4th. I woke up in the steamy city of León, then hand-washed my clothes. I knew they’d hang dry in two hours. On the way to the Lazy Bones Hostel, I grabbed breakfast at a small comedor. The hot plantains, rice, beans, and eggs steamed the glass case they were in, so I went behind it to see what I’d have. I asked for some sausage-type meat, scrambled eggs, a tortilla, and cuajada cheese. The woman serving me turned around to make sure I was enjoying my food, and we smiled at each other. It’s pretty hard to go wrong with the cheap yet filling food here. “It’s yummy!” I said, as if she needed the reassurance.
Then, I checked in at Lazy Bones, where I paid $30 for the volcano boarding tour by Maribios Tours. I recommend the company because it’s family owned. The tour includes water, fruit at the end, a ride to the volcano, and photos of the entire experience. I met up with a group of 7 environment volunteers and their friends. Before we left, Chino, our tour guide, introduced himself to us. He had a friendly demeanor and floppy Mohawk. It was weird to see a Nicaraguan speaking in perfect English. He asked “are you guys READY?!” “YEAH!” we shouted, eager to spend out July 4th doing something as un-American as sledding down a volcano. We piled into the old ambulance car, which is a popular form of transportation here, and headed for Cerro Negro. Cerro Negro is an active volcano, but tour groups go every day-even on Sundays. Since it was Independence Day in the U.S., we sang along to “American songs”, which basically meant that we got in touch with our inner ‘90s child. We belted out “Wide Open Spaces” and “Lady Marmalade” on our hour-long ride past fields, then we jiggled as the car went over the bumpy road. There was a horse carriage in the way, and since it was a one-and-way road, the driver had his horses veer to the side to make room for our caravan.
We arrived at Cerro Negro. Where did all these hipsters come from, and how did they find out about this? I thought. Young men in perfectly trimmed comb-overs wearing denim flat backs, fancy hipster glasses, and American Apparel tank tops waited in line in front of us. After signing my name in the guest book, Chino had us huddle around a glass case with models of the volcanoes, and explained the history of the area. He also pointed to a picture of a Frenchman who biked down the entire volcano and broke almost every bone in his body doing so. Great! At least I would be seated when I’d turn to human pulp. I decided that my final meal would be two fun sized bags of chickies (think squared, inverted Oreos) for 40 cents.
We piled back into the car and got out at the base. Cerro Negre means “Black Hill”, and that’s just what it was. Chino and Eddy, another guide, gave us our 1 x 4 pieces of wood- I mean sand boards, and bags with the jumpsuits. It was already windy at the base as we took pictures, and it only would only get windier. I thought of my middle schoolers and of the video I’d showed them last year of volcano boarding. What were they up to now? I wondered if they’d ever end up here one day, inspired by the video Ms. Stoever showed them before she disappeared for two years.
The strong wind pushed me to the left, testing me to see if I really wanted to do this. Crunch, crunch, went they the black pumice rocks under my feet. Other volcanic rocks flew into my legs, making me wish I’d worn pants instead of the thin blue shorts I’d wear to soccer practice in high school. It was hard to climb with the wind while carrying a heavy board. I was in the back of the line, which is unusual for me, but I refused to let the wind knock me down. If I were to get scraped up, it would have to happen when I was flying down the hill, not when I’d be awkwardly scrambling up it. Eddy felt bad for me and grabbed my board. He hauled it for the rest of the hour-long hike. I thanked him profusely.
Halfway, we stopped to take pictures at the first viewpoint-it was the strongest wind I’d ever felt. I leaned forward to see how far I could go with the wind pushing me back. The wind tangled that little hair I have on my head. There were volcanoes all around, reminding me of the term “jungle Pompeii” I invented when I first flew into Nicaragua and was blown away by the amount of volcanoes molding this small country. Some volcanoes were covered in trees. Others were light brown with dark streaks that suggested previous erutions. It felt like we were on Mars. It was barren, with beige and red colored rocks. Sulfuric gas puffed from the surface, filling my nostrils with a freshly rotten egg smell. Crunch, crunch, went the rock.
Once we reached the top, we all took pictures with our jumpsuits on. My black jumpsuit was missing a button. The wind didn’t really let me button up the rest of the suit anyway. It kept flying open. Eddy brought me my board-Thanks Eddy! Part of me felt guilty for not having carried it up and struggled with the rest of everyone, but I realized that was a stupid thing to be guilty about. I came here to ride a questionable piece of wood down a volcano, not to carry it up it.
As we looked down at the bottom of the volcano, I thought of how in college, one of our traditions involved taking a dining hall tray and going “traying” down a small hill. This was a large volcano, though. I felt as if I were on the top of the world. If that means having small rocks crash into your legs because of the wind, then so be it. We waited a while to line up. I went to take pictures and came back to my board. Apparently, it wasn’t mine. A blond man tapped me hard on the shoulder, clarifying that it was his board. They all looked the same, so I found another one that I hoped was unclaimed. There were lots of blond Europeans. Were they Swedish? My only point of reference point was the lyrical speak of the Muppet Show’s Swedish Chef, so I could be off.
“If we were in the states, we’d have to sign a million waivers”, I heard someone say. We would also probably be given helmets, and some other form of protection besides a thin jumpsuit, but we weren’t back home. We were in a country where 10 people can pile into a taxi without seat belts. The point is to get from point A to point B, and God willing, nothing happens to you. Risk isn’t so scary here.
We walked to the edge where we were supposed to take off, and my heart crawled into my throat. It was steep. I turned and asked Lindsay “Where’s the bunny hill?” We laughed nervously, because I was half joking. My thick goggles still let the dust particles into my eyes, and a yellow handkerchief covered my mouth. I looked like a fumigating guerilla fighter. Also, may I add, pulling a wedgie out with gloves on while you’re in a jumpsuit is almost as challenging as hiking up a volcano in insanely strong winds. I’d felt accomplished on so many levels today.
The guides gave us simple guidelines for using the board. We should never reach out with our arms to brake. We should only use our legs and extend them onto the board. I wonder if someone’s ever overstretched their crotches by doing that. Who knows how many people and jumpsuits have suffered from this ordeal. We also couldn’t steer the board right or left. If we wanted to change directions, we had to stop and start over. That’s kind of hard when braking makes you wonder if you’ll ever have children again.
Chino and Eddy kept watch over whoever reached the bottom. It was as if we were anxious middle schoolers on a hot summer day, waiting our turns for the lifeguard to let us use the water slide. A thick black blanket of pumice extended out past the base. Crunch, crunch. I sat on my board and scooted to the edge.
I took off, expecting to fly down, but I got stuck twice. What a tourist trap, I thought, regretting I’d wasted $30. I got up twice to slide the sand of my board, then, before I knew it, I was flying down the hill. Crunch crunch cruuuuuunch! went the rock. Rocks flew front the front of the board into my pants, into my face, and up my sleeves. Don’t panic, I told myself, just as I’d tell myself as a child when I’d snow ski down super steep slopes in Mission Ridge near Wenatchee, Washington. I leaned back to go faster, not accepting anything less. I must have been going 40 miles per hour. It felt like sledding on an insanely steep hill, but instead of snow, it was volcanic rock that could send you flying uncontrollably and slice mercilessly into your skin.
I went so fast that my friends downhill thought I was going to knock into them like a bowling ball knocks into down every pin. Luckily, once the grade flattened out, I came to a smooth stop. I’d just sledded down a volcano! My heart raced for minutes afterward, thinking that it could have been much worse. I was grateful I’d leave the day with a few small scrapes on my legs instead of a bloodied face, as has happened to people before.
We trudged back to the base. Again, Eddy carried my board without my asking him to. What a nice guy. Our guides welcomed us back to the cars with bananas and mangoes. I ate two mangoes by peeling them like a banana for the first time. Normally I’m used to slicing them and slathering them in lime and tajin chile, but the banana-peel technique was fine for the moment.
Exhausted and dusty, we piled back into the car. All of us had been sweating so much that we didn’t even need to stop by the bathroom on our way out. We chugged water and listened to much quieter music than we had sang along to on our way in. I looked back at the Cerro Negro welcome sign, and I was happy I’d finally given this extreme sport a try.