The ferry dropped me off in the town of Moyogalpa, one of two port towns on the island, the other being Altagracia on the other side of Volcan Concepcion. Volcan Concepcion, the larger of the two volcanoes on the island is still active and has a treeless upper half, covered in volcanic rock. The island can be simply described in the shape of the number 8 and the other side of the eight is Volcan Maderas. Maderas is not active, is covered with primary growth forest, and has a lake in the crater at the top.
I cycled out of town in the early evening, knowing I would have some riding in the dark ahead of me. What I didnít realize at first was how large this island was and just how bad the roads were. There are hardly any paved roads on the island. Letís just say there are none. The dirt roads are very dusty and you can frequently encounter such obstacles as big rocks, impassible sand, potholes, and long open cracks, not to mention they are all the more difficult when riding at night. I stubbornly continued on the road trying to get to Finca Magdalena on the Maderas side of the island. After about 13 miles, I was offered a ride by a truck going in that direction. I gladly accepted. I still however had a few more miles to go after I was dropped off at Santo Domingo. I decided to continue on and made it to Balgue, a small town on the northern part of this side of the island. I stopped to get some dinner and chatted with the locals. They informed me that Finca Zopilote was also nearby and easier to get to in the dark. I had heard of this finca from a German traveler I met in Granada and decided to make that my destination for the night instead of Magdalena. After the tasty meal, I headed in the direction of the finca and met two locals, Michelle and Osle, brother and sister who lived in the small town where the trail to the finca was. They quickly offered to accompany me to the trail head and started to tell me a little bit about the place. We stopped off at the family house in the town of MadroŮal and I met their mom and their other brothers and sister. The Arguello family was a large family with 10 kids, 7 of which were still in the house and mostly teenaged. Cristina was the name of the mother, who was about my momís age, low 50ís, and Mario was her partner, but not the father of her children. The Arguello family leads a simple life working on rice farms during the rainy season and butchering pigs and selling the meat and cooked chicharron (pig skin and fat) in town and in Balgue. They offered to hold onto my bike and trailer while I went up the trail to the finca. Michelle and a couple of her brothers accompanied me up to the finca where I met Natalie, the German traveler and two Spaniards, Anne and Ramiro, who I met in Granada. I set up my tent and settled in. I checked out the town the next day but stopped by the Arguello family to say hello and see how the mornings pig slaughter went. Cristina was cooking up some chicharron and I sampled some of the tasty goods fresh out of the boiling pork fat and then later with breakfast, and a little with lunch...yum.
Natalie and I went into Balgue for breakfast and to find out about the festivities that were going on during Christmas time. They were putting on a small fair with music, food stands, a rodeo, and some rides. I went up to Finca Magdalena and touched base with Adrian, who had just returned from climbing Volcan Maderas. His shoes and legs were covered in mud. He said it was a tough hike but he enjoyed it. After taking a look around Magdalena, I decided to stay put at Zopilote, which was currently inhabited by me, the two Spaniards, Natalie, and a Polish-American dude. Two more Spaniards arrived in the evening and we collaborated on a nice meal. The Spaniards made Spanish Tortilla of course, and I asked Cristina to cook up a couple pounds of pork. We had a nice meal and I was really enjoying the nice atmosphere of the finca; that was until I met the owner the next day. An Italian man, Bruno had managed to stay out of sight for the time I was there, which now amounted to 2 nights. I hadnít been up to his house to introduce myself and that was exactly what he had a problem with. I mistook the cool finca atmosphere to be a chilled out place where I could register and discuss details with the owner at the time it presented itself. Bruno took me for a thief who was trying to stay on his property without paying and put up a wall of anger to my attempts to clear up the misunderstanding. I paid and left the finca.
I went to the Arguello family with my things and explained the situation. They immediately offered me to stay with them. I was happy to see such a positive turn around the bad impression Bruno had just given me. I set up my tent in their dusty front yard next to some of the big boulders that dotted the roadside landscape. I saw this as a unique opportunity to get to know a local family on the island. During the next few days, I had a great time with the family making jewelry, kicking the futbol, Frisbee, fishing and swimming in the nearby lake, dancing, exchanging music and stories and eating meals with them. Helping them cut away some bushes in the front yard gave me the inspiration to get the boys together and push around some boulders to make an area for a possible garden in the future. Cristina and I talked a bit about getting into the tourism business to create more work for her and her growing kids. I think doing what I could to help them with some projects would have been great if I had more time to spend here. Fishing with the boys was a lot of fun too. We went at it 3 different times and each time came back with a vine skewer through the gills of many lake fish, at least 3 different species. And these small fish tasted good too.
On Christmas day, Anne, Ramiro, Natalie, local Jonatan, and I hiked half way up the Volcan Maderas, reaching a nice lookout point where we could see the beach near Santo Domingo and Volcan Concepcion on the other side of the island. On the way up the mountain, we saw and heard howler monkeys in the trees, listened to groups of small parrots, and observed tiny leaf cutter ants carrying their cargo along their worn paths crossing the trail. On the trail we saw a very cool petroglyph (old rock carving; there are many on this side of the island). Later at night, I convinced Cristina to let 3 of her older sons to come with me and Natalie to the Balgue fair. We walked two kilometers into Balgue and danced a few hours to salsa, meringue, and reggaeton (fast latin reggae).
Adrian decided to speed up the pace of his trip and we parted ways before Christmas. Before finishing my week long stay on the island, I had a couple more great experiences. One of Cristinaís sons, Jenner, and I went to a nice swim spot called Ojo de Agua (eye of water) to meet a Costa Rican I had met at the fair who had invited me to participate in some jewelry making with him and some other locals. We chilled out and worked with silver, seeds, and shells, and then had a refreshing swim to cap it off.
One of the most intense experiences I had on the island had to be witnessing the killing of a pig on the family property. I was told it would happen the night before and told them I wanted to check it out. I woke up at 4:30 the next morning to the screams of a large female pig. I unzipped my tent and exited with my camera. It was dark and I walked towards the noise. There was a large pot of boiling water on a wood fire. They were tying up the pigís legs and mouth to secure it. They lifted it onto a bench and then Mario stuck a sharp knife into its neck and cut its throat. For the next minute and a half or so, they held the pig down as it made some horrible noises, choking on the blood that ran out of its neck and into a bowl. Nothing is wasted. The boiling water was used to help in scraping off the hair from the skin. The pig was then hoisted up by its legs, skinned, headed, gutted, and chopped into loin pieces, ribs, and legs. The skin is cut up for chicharron which is cooked and sold by the family. The head, feet, blood, and guts were sold to another family to make sausages, soups, and probably some other dishes. The other parts of the pig were sold off pretty quickly. As the sun rose and it became light out, people came around as if they heard the screams earlier and knew fresh meat was available to buy. By the middle of the day, the meat was all sold and by dinner time, all the chicharron had been sold as well. Just another day in the life of a family who butchers pigs for a living. Though the experience was a bit grueling at first, I enjoyed seeing the process from start to finish. I think this experience, as well as living with the Arguello family, have brought me closer to the food I eat and the important process so many people take for granted and choose not to think about when they eat meat.
Unfortunately, my last evening with the family was plagued by stomach illness. I had a bad nights rest having to get up and visit the toilet a half dozen times through out the night. I took a bus ride from MadroŮal back to Moyogalpa, spent a night there and met a couple more cool travelers before leaving the island the next day and riding the 40 km to the border of Costa Rica.
Happy New Years!