Brujería lingers at the Laguna de Apoyo. This benevolent magic leaves the place awash with possibilities and gives a very peculiar quality to the light.
If it weren’t for the laguna, I might have left Nicaragua. A few weeks after I moved here, I found myself mostly friendless, struggling with Spanish and totally unsteady in my semi-volunteer role managing communications at a local nonprofit. The girl I left behind in Texas wrecked my heart with the simple, necessary act of moving on before I did. Misery does not become me, but I found myself wallowing. I felt so foolish – who was I to pack up and move to a totally unknown place with a negative understanding of the subjunctive tense and not even an acquaintance waiting for me? Perhaps it would be better to accept failure than to keep punishing myself. One month after my arrival, I went to Apoyo for the first time when I accompanied a group visiting from my church, which has a partnership with the nonprofit where I work.
When I first saw her, I got dizzy. I didn’t understand before why we always paint water blue, when water is always greenish or brownish. Looking at that water was like peering into the bluest corner of the sky that leads directly to Heaven. I felt like my feet touched the ground for the first time as I peered across that huge circle of water, surrounded on all sides by an infinite crown of impossibly green trees.
A volcanic explosion 23,000 years ago left the crater 6 kilometers in diameter that eventually became the Laguna de Apoyo. In 1991 it became an official natural reserve, and activists work to prevent over-development of housing, contamination of the water and harm to hundreds of animal and plant species that live there, some of them unique to the Laguna. The water stays a perfect 27 degrees Celsius most of the year. Tens of thousands of people call Apoyo home, though its water, electricity, educational and police infrastructures range from minimal to nonexistent. Tourism jobs, like taxi driving and waiting tables, are coveted. The reserve spans five different districts of southwestern Nicaragua; really it is a world unto itself.
On that first visit, I stood on the dock at La Abuela, one of several lakeside resorts that attract foreigners and Nicas for day trips and long weekends. As I free-fell the 20 feet from the dock to the water, my stomach came loose and created space in my gut. When I landed in the water, I decided Nicaragua could be home.
16 months later, it is. I have found a network of communities here that challenge me and love me. My work drives me and has brought me to corners of Nicaragua that most people never visit — Alba’s kitchen at 5 am to make tortillas; Adolfo’s coffee plantation on a rainy afternoon where he explains the affects of a new crop disease. Outside of work, I have debated identity politics with other queer women, danced until 4 in the morning to cumbia music, hunted for the best tostones in town with my roommates.
Nicaragua makes it cheap and easy to get to many magical places — a bus to any other city is less than four bucks, and every little town has an $8-a-night hotel. In Mira Flor, Esteli, I’ve climbed the inside of a tree. In the tiny community of Cumaica Norte, Boaco, I saw a sloth run. I kayaked between two volcanoes at Ometepe Island. When I made it to the top of Volcán Consiguino in the north of the country after a 4-hour journey, I nearly cried at the view, which included the coasts of El Salvador and Honduras and the volcano’s own collapsed crater lake.
But of all Nicaragua’s natural wonders, the Laguna de Apoyo remains my home base. Every time I go, I find something remarkable. I hear a new bird call, swim a little farther toward the center, learn new slang words from my friends. I’ve read a hundred poems there and written a few. The magic of the laguna is that nothing has to happen there for it to change you. It reveals the wonder in the act of existence.
A few months ago, I went there with a Honduran guy who for a time was, for lack of a better term, my long distance friend with benefits. It rained that morning, and the whole scene was muted grey with silver around the edges. We paid the $4 to get into Pajaro Azul and sat side by side in wooden-backed chairs. Our swimsuits stayed in our bags, and we just stared at the water and breathed. We held hands a little bit, we probably kissed. We barely talked. And in that silvery silence, I dusted off my most vulnerable corners. The Honduran later let me down completely and unspectacularly. I’m not sure if I should blame him or the laguna for this lingering feeling that I might be capable of love.
It’s easy to remember those feelings of last summer, the lostness and self-doubt and worry that I shouldn’t be here. But the laguna is always there between Masaya and Granada, welcoming me into the center of the earth. There, I can ask the questions I need to ask and be the freest version of myself. When I jump into the water, I always know I’ll feel my feet firmly on the ground.