Ometepe is as unlikely a place as you could ever imagine to catch a glimpse of the future. Although unique in the world, an island composed of two volcanoes in the midst of Nicaragua’s freshwater Lake Cocibolca, it is mostly a quiet backwater, both off the grid and the beaten path as well.
An active volcano, Concepcion dominates the entire northern end of the island rising directly out of the lake. It resembles Mt. Fuji but with a tuft of cloud stuck upon the peak instead of snow, while Maderas, its smaller, extinct twin sulks and looks generally shaggy and forlorn in the south.
On the last leg of my journey (two chicken buses, a taxi without shock absorbers, a rather sketchy ferry, another overloaded taxi . . .) we crossed a bridge and below us standing in the riverbed women were beating their laundry against the rocks. A few kilometers down the road it occurred to me that while so much has changed in the world during my lifetime, beating laundry against rocks hasn’t changed a bit.
One seemingly small and insignificant change that actually reveals a lot about how we live has to do with the size of knapsacks these days. Everywhere I travel now I see young people laden with a truly enormous knapsack on their backs and a second, smaller pack slung backwards across their chest. The first time I saw this technique I thought it was rather clever but soon I began to wonder what in the world everyone was toting from place to place. The answer lay down the road at the Hacienda Merida, a former banana plantation turned budget hostel.
The paved road abruptly stopped and the driver of the dust covered minivan motioned down the boulder strewn path. I shrugged and started to walk the last eight miles under the midday sun with Concepcion looming above the leafless saba trees. I didn’t know I was about to unravel the mystery of the dual knapsacks and as an added bonus be given a peek at what the future of the world would probably look like.
As far as the knapsacks go, that was actually pretty easy. Today nearly every backpacker carries a laptop computer, a cell phone, a digital camera or video camera, an iPod and increasingly a Kindle, not to mention all sorts of rechargeable lights and other assorted gadgets and gimcracks that all run on electricity. Although they don’t take up all that much room they each require cables and recharging devices. Given all these new necessities, I was surprised that even with two knapsacks they weren’t pulling little red wagons behind them heaped with a tangled mess of electrical cords.
Increasingly, our modern world runs on electricity, even at a remote spot like Ometepe Island, where most people eek out a simple, mostly agrarian existence.
After a visit to a local rodeo where everyone including the bulls seemed to have imbibed too much of the local lager, a group of us wandered back down the road lined with enormous mango trees to the hostel and collected on the crumbling dock where they once loaded green bananas onto lake steamers. The open lake shimmered as the sunlight seeped from the sky and barely visible on the mainland shore you could make out Nicaragua’s Amayo wind farm. On an average day the array of 19 turbines supplies about six per cent of the electricity consumed in the entire country. The daily rolling blackouts are mostly gone now and between wind, hydro and geothermal, Nicaragua expects to reduce their dependence on imported Venezuelan oil from 80 per cent to nearly zero by 2013.
Sitting on the shore of Lake Cocibolca discussing renewable energy that evening with travelers from six other countries, I couldn’t escape the memory of how much vitriol has appeared in the Vineyard press about wind power, which has even included the shrill claims that wind turbines either don’t work or will double your electric bill while lining some developer’s pocket. But what is clear is that renewable energy is not going away. Not by a long shot.
Everyone I talked to that evening on the lakefront was unanimous in their support for renewable energy and without exception everyone agreed that the view of the turbines turning slowly in the breeze was a sight that offered both hope and inspiration. They also gently allowed, for my benefit, that they found the attitude of many Americans puzzling.
Although I have been a strong and vocal supporter of wind power for years, I have learned to avoid arguments regarding the relative beauty or ugliness of turbines. People are entitled to their personal opinions as far as aesthetics are concerned. But I still couldn’t help but wonder what the people who find their presence so objectionable would have said if they had been sitting with us that evening as dusk gathered, staring out across the open water at one of the most stunning vistas I have ever seen in my life. It occurred to me that words like pristine and majestic were coined with just this sort of sheer beauty in mind. It was a truly incredible sight. Turbines included.
Robert Skydell lives in Chilmark and is co-owner of Fiddlehead Farm in West Tisbury.