From ancient nomadic people to modern-day wanderlusters, why does the human animal get the itch to up and go?
Story and Photos by Robert Brodey
Along the shores of the vast life-giving waters of Lake Nicaragua, the wooden passenger boat roped to the jetty is listing badly. It has definitely seen better days. Five coffins lined neatly in a row on the ship’s roof appear like a terrible omen. I grimace. Our destination, the village of Moyogalpa, which lies across a large stretch of open water teeming with sharks, seems too distant to overcome in this rickety craft.
I’m relieved when the ship’s crew walks among our numbers, instructing us to wear lifejackets. Until it occurs to me that maybe they don’t think this rinky-dink vessel will actually make it, either. As we head into the brown swells, the boat tilts even more and I find myself leaning heavily to the other side, as if my body can somehow serve as a counterweight.
Up ahead, two volcanoes on the island of Ometepe rise dramatically from Central America’s largest freshwater lake. Geographically and socially isolated from the mainland, it’s a perfect getaway for someone wishing to escape the routine of urban life for a week.
I want a big experience in a short time, a journey all my own — with space to think, write and move at my own pace, which means local buses and hiking from village to village. It’s a chance to reconnect with my inner-nomad, no matter how briefly. And the best part: I’m doing it on a shoestring budget, flying on points, and staying at hotels that average $10 USD a night.
If the boat I’m travelling in manages to stay afloat, I not only want to chill out on dry land, climb a volcano or two and practise speaking Spanish, but I also want to search for answers to some longstanding questions. It’s like this: ever since I can remember, I’ve been travelling.
My obsession runs deeps, and it seems every time I get home the intense desire strikes again. I need the next fix, the next trip.
I may not be a doctor, but I know I have a chronic case of wanderlust. And I’m definitely not alone. What is this affliction that affects half a billion people a year, sees more than 36 million planes take off and land every year, and feeds a trillion-dollar industry? How do the biological mechanisms of this obsession work? And are we humans travellers by nature, or by nurture?
My travel companion, whom I’d met on the bus from Managua this morning, is a 25-year-old Norwegian named Johannes. It was an auspicious first meeting with a traveller, a perfect specimen, I thought greedily, for my investigation into what makes those with wanderlust tick.
Johannes can’t say precisely why, but as a teen, he told me, he just wanted to finish high school and start travelling. At age 19 he headed to Asia for several months. Then, at 20, he found out he could go to Australia and work (legally) for a year. Why not?! He left home with a plane ticket and empty pockets, but had faith it would work out (which, he tells me, it did).
“When I came back from Australia after a year, I was ten times the person I was when I left home…It’s a test, a confidence booster, when you know you can make things happen on your own.”
His first big travel experience reminds me of my first solo trip through Central America after high school. It was 1989, and the region was in the midst of various bloody conflicts, including Nicaragua’s 10-year battle between the Sandinista government and the Contra guerillas. The journey turned out to be geopolitics 101, Spanish immersion, and as Johannes pointed out, a profound lesson in independence and the art of problem-solving.
For time immemorial, populations have travelled out of necessity, be it in search of food, to escape conflict or to seek better economic opportunities. Wanderlust is something different, altogether. It’s all about travelling for travelling’s sake, for the experience, for the adventure.
So we know what wanderlust is, but how does it work?
What seems abundantly clear is that variety is the spice of life, while routine has a habit of dulling the senses, and making life seem less vibrant. In physiology, it’s called the “orienting reflex,” which compels the mind to focus on novel visual and auditory stimuli. From an evolutionary standpoint, this mechanism helps keep us alive by focusing our attention on new and potentially risky environments.
For travellers who are continuously being exposed to novel things, the switchboard in our brains is constantly lit up. That makes life pretty exciting.
Together with Johannes, I safely make the choppy passage between the docks of San Jorge and Moyogalpa, a tourist hub on the western side of Ometepe Island. Rising beyond the central church, the perfect cone of volcán Concepción reaches 1,600 metres into the clear blue sky, making Ometepe the world’s tallest lake island. The 31-kilometre peanut-shaped island was formed by volcanic activity more than 10,000 years ago. On the other side of “the peanut” stands the dormant volcano Maderas (at 1,394 metres), known for its crater lake and lush biodiversity.
I part company with Johannes and catch a bus to Altagracia, a town on the far side of Concepción, which I plan to hike in the morning, if the withering heat permits. The ride is a sweltering affair, a crowded scene that reminds me of those world-record attempts to squeeze as many people as possible into a phone booth. Despite any discomfort, I’m stoked to be here, feeling a million miles from my life/work routine back home.
Altagracia, population 4,081, has none of the tourist buzz found in Moyogalpa. The greatest concentration of life appears to centre around the main square, with its park benches, kiosks selling snacks, and a basketball court. As I walk through the treed plaza, the dance of courtship between teenagers plays out in full view. At the basketball court, a group of youths play a game of pickup soccer. They see me with my camera and long lens and immediately start posing for the camera. I happily oblige.
No matter where I go, it seems the cone-shaped shadow of Concepción follows me like a stray dog. In reality, the island’s volcanoes must loom large in the minds of locals. Throughout Ometepe, signs point to safe zones for earthquakes and volcanoes. But despite the trembling earth and occasional fiery eruptions, the island’s remarkable fertility, which allows for planting year-round, has been drawing people here since antiquity.
It appears that Ometepe has been continuously inhabited for the last three to four thousand years, evidenced by petroglyphs and stone sculptures scattered over the island, some of which are now housed at a museum in Altagracia.
It’s 4:30 in the morning when my guide, a local named Arlin, meets me in the shadows outside my hotel. We set off down the darkened street leading out of Altagracia toward the base of that conical beast, Concepción.
My alarm had gone off an hour before, but it was a formality, because there was no sleeping for me in that infernal heat, even with the fan going full pop. And any hope of hiking early in cooler temperatures has been in vain, because the tropical heat is already smothering me like hot sauce.
We speak in Spanish, but I’m tired, unfed, and tragically uncaffeinated, so I suspect I sound drunk, slurring and stumbling over my words. We pass the time discussing the history and politics of Nicaragua. He points out that his country has had a long history of international intervention, starting with Spain in the 1500s. In 1912, the United States sent marines here, who stayed until 1933.
Then, in the 1980s, came the infamous Contra guerilla insurrection that came after the fall of the oppressive Somoza dictatorship. In the last few years, Nicaraguans have been debating the social and environmental impacts of China’s plan to build a giant shipping canal across Nicaragua to compete with the Panama Canal. And now there is unrest and civil protesting against the current regime of Daniel Ortega. (READ Robert Brodey’s Nicaragua Now: Reflections on a Country in Crisis by a Not-So-Secret Admirer.)
As the sky brightens, we hike up a dirt road surrounded by modest homes tucked into the forest. When we arrive at the park ranger’s shelter, I pay my $2 entry fee and receive a few freshly picked bananas. Breakfast is served! Thereafter, the profile of the climb rises steeply, often times requiring the use of hands as well as feet.
It’s not even 7 a.m., with a hot haze clinging to the volcano, when we stop to watch a family of mantled howler monkeys (Alouatta palliata) climbing around in the trees. A baby howler with impossibly spindly arms tries to climb a branch, with mixed results. The elegant white-throated magpie-jay, with its fancy-feathered headdress and long luxurious tale, disrupts the scene with an unpleasant screech.
The climb is a grind, following an almost direct line up to the smoldering crater. Incredibly, it takes four and a half hours to cover less than seven kilometres. Despite the incline, my legs feel fresh. My equilibrium, however, is a different story. I’m tumbling around over the rocks like I’m walking on the deck of a rocking ship.
Even with the heavy cloud cover, however, the rewards are immense, as is the sense of accomplishment. This is perhaps one of the big lessons travel teaches us: a worthy experience isn’t always a pleasant one. Often these challenges reveal something of ourselves and the value of pushing limits.
At the lip of the crater, the roof of Ometepe Island, we are deep inside the clouds, and a cold wind tears at us. There is virtually nothing to see. Just a purposeful wind that feels like it’s trying to push me into the void. Arlin cheerfully invites me to step closer to the edge of the milky abyss. I decline. I have to assume he reads some fear on my face, because he doesn’t ask again and hikes down to our designated lunch spot.
He sits beside a volcanic vent, which blasts warmth from the bowels of the earth like a hair dryer. For the time being, Concepción is relatively quiet, but it’s still known to occasionally shake, rumble and spew, as if to remind islanders that it’s still an active player among Nicaragua’s 19 or so volcanoes (it has erupted at least 25 times since 1883).
Over lunch of a power bar and water, we share stories about our lives and our families. Like me, he has a six-year-old boy. He tells me his mother had 11 children, almost half of whom didn’t survive. She was very poor, but could feed the kids with what the forest provided.
“Times have changed,” he says matter-of-factly, of his choice to have only one child. “The land is tired, and the cost of living is higher.”
I wanted a memorable experience, and I’m getting it. It turns out, the hard part isn’t climbing up the volcano. It’s coming down in one piece. I have to use all sorts of exotic and often prickly trees and plants as railings to safeguard my descent. And every few hundred metres, a different set of challenges arise like one of those cruel television shows that highlight epic fails, including slippery wet leaves and precarious rock-hopping. Mother Nature, in all her bounty, has offered up a thousand different ways of taking a tumble. And I oblige.
My first big fall has my leg twisted back and my knee folded into itself so it feels like it’s going to pop. My back spasms painfully, and I’m afraid it’s going to seize up completely. I brush the dust off and keep going. A few minutes later, a warning from Arlin about some tricky ground. I remain cautious but still manage to slip and land hard, slicing open my palm. At this point, I get lots of practice swearing in Spanish.
Then the mortal blow. Seven and a half hours into the hike, I start feeling lightheaded, and the vista of the distant volcán Maderas turns into an over-exposed image, burned white. I sit down, my head heavy on my shoulders. Is it heatstroke, sunstroke, a crash in sugar? Or maybe a lack of caffeine, salt or sleep?
All I know is that I’m in deep trouble. Several times I try to stand but am forced back down by nausea and dizziness. Like a polite Canadian, I keep apologizing to Arlin, even as I curl into a ball on the grass, my system zapped. Time slows to a crawl.
After perhaps 15 minutes, I force down some crackers Arlin hands me, then drink more water before downing salt and ginger pills. He warns me that being out in the sun is going to make matters worse. We need to get down to the tree cover, he insists. But how? I can’t take two steps before collapsing to the ground. And there is no one to carry me out—no helicopter to pluck my wasted body.
I focus on taking 10 long steady breaths, then think of my wife and son. I tell myself they are down below and need me. I bolt upright and tell Arlin, “Let’s go.”
And, like that, all the feelings of death pass from me. I follow Arlin down the last 400 vertical metres, wondering how I could have felt that terrible then suddenly recover all my faculties. I’ll never know exactly what happened to me, but it does prove that there are certain things you can’t cheat on—like acclimatization. That, as it turns out, is the downside to short and fast trips like this one.
It’s Sunday on Ometepe Island and many things are shut down, including most bus transport. To get to my next destination, Finca Magdalena, a cooperative farm perched on the lower slopes of volcán Maderas, I can pay $30 USD for a taxi or walk 15 kilometres. For me, walking has always felt like an expression of my nomadic self. Decision made.
I walk along a dirt path that follows the main road. Almost no cars pass. Several pelotons of cyclists come around the corner, likely heading off to the fields with their ropes and machetes slung from their handlebars. At around kilometre six, I stop off at Ojo de Aqua, a stunning natural pool fed by underground springs and surrounded by forest. It’s a perfect way to make time disappear while bringing my core temperature down in its crystal cool waters.
Soon, I strike up a conversation with a local seller about island life on Ometepe.
“Here we are still campesinos,” he says proudly, which roughly translates to small, rural independent farmers. “We grow our own bananas, our own food. We feel differently than the rest of Nicaragua.”
And it’s true. The island really does feel like a country inside a country, with its own unique character, including an interest in environmental protection and sustainable farming practices.
In my new surroundings, it’s easy to think about what it means to be away. Even though I’ve only been gone a few days, I feel a spaciousness, an ability to think more broadly. And what I’m feeling is actually backed up by research, which has shown that cognitively, we have a more expansive view on issues, seeing them in a new light, when we put some physical distance between ourselves and the origin of our issues.
Travel, in fact, can rewire our brains. As we’re exposed to new experiences, including immersive cultural exchanges, fresh neural pathways are created in the brain.
This increased activity not only enhances creativity by allowing the mind to make connections between disparate ideas, but it can keep our brains “younger” and more flexible as we get older. And if you’re travelling in natural surroundings, there’s the added bonus that exposure to nature reduces the stress hormone cortisol and can calm an overactive mind.
The final leg of my 15-kilometre walk takes me up a dirt road from the village of Balgüe to Finca Magdalena, which appears in a forest clearing like a scene from a 19th-century novel. This 386-hectare cooperative farm is run by two dozen local families, and produces everything from corn and plantains to milk and honey. Of course, also being purveyors of organic coffee, I couldn’t resist visiting.
It turns out, Finca Magdalena also happens to be the place where I strike gold in my search for fellow travellers plagued with wanderlust.
Enter Mexican-born Azul and her 25-year-old travel companion from Germany, whose name I never catch. I find them lounging on the broad balcony railing, basking like cats in the spectacular light of the setting sun. In classic traveller style, we immediately become fast friends and over-sharers, particularly regarding why we travel.
While Azul has been travelling intensely since she was 18 years old, her German companion is a newbie who decided to travel for a year while he feels he still has the time (though no money). When I ask him if he’ll go back to work or keep travelling, he says, “[EXPLETIVE], right now I’m pretty lost. Instead of answers I get more questions!”
“That’s good,” I interject. “That’s how you find yourself.”
After a stuffy sleep in the main building at Finca Magdalena (I opted for the $6/night room, rather than the more spacious and airy $25 cabin option), I forgo a chance to climb Maderas in order to go on a coffee tour.
Call it a travel-writer’s instincts. I’m not really looking for information on coffee as much as an opportunity to talk to someone about the farm, and how its history is entwined with the Sandinista Revolution of the 1970s. My guide, a diminutive man in his sixties with jet-black hair, appears on the porch of the farm. He smiles and introduces himself as Juan Francisco, but then adds, “Or you can call me Chico.”
With no time wasted, we tromp into the forest toward an unseen locale. Immediately, he begins to tell me how he has been working at this farm for the last 55 years. He came when he was just 10 years old, and worked under very difficult circumstances as a field hand when the estate was owned by the very powerful Baltodano family. In 1979, after a protracted battle between the Somoza government and an amalgam of community and business leaders, campesinos and rebels, the 43-year Somoza dictatorship fell, and the Baltodano family was forced to abandon the plantation.
“Before we worked for one family and were paid badly. Now we work for ourselves,” Chico says, proudly.
For Chico, the impact of the revolution can still be felt, not only in the way he gets to reap the rewards of his labour, but also the importance of universal literacy under the Sandinistas, who sent out “literacy armies” to educate campesinos like himself.
“It was the first government that cared about the campesinos,” he tells me. And the stats show that literacy jumped from just 50 percent before the Sandinistas took power to about 88 percent in a relatively short period of time.
As we walk among the coffee plants, he lovingly pulls a few beans from a plant to show me. The first thing I notice is that the beans are small (but packed with tons of character, like a fine wine). Remarkably, all the cooperative’s beans are roasted in small four-kilogram batches on a roaster the size of a BBQ, bringing new meaning to the idea of local artisanal production.
The spoken world grows quiet after Finca Magdalena. I make the five-kilometre hike to Hotel Finca El Porvenir on the northern slopes of Maderas. Here, there are no more travellers to speak to, no more fast friends to make.
Just my own solitude, the sound of howler monkeys, and the impressively chatty insects. As I sway gently in the hammock outside my room, yellow butterflies flit and flirt with each other, humming birds hover above delicate flowers, and lizards zip across the wall. I take a certain comfort in the loudness of nature, in part because it probably means there is no imminent earthquake or volcanic eruption—animals usually sense these things before we do. At least, that’s what I’m banking on.
While relaxing amid this Darwinian menagerie, a question pops into my head about why some people are regularly struck with the impulse to travel, while others are happy to stay put all their lives. It turns out, part of the answer may be in our genes. Those with large amounts of dopamine — a.k.a. the “pleasure” chemical — sometimes express more impulsive, risky behaviour.
Apparently, 20 percent of the human population has more dopamine because they possess a variant of the DRD4 gene. The upside to this impulsivity is that it may also increase levels of restlessness and curiosity, drawing some of us to new environments that stimulate the nervous system. This according to Justin Garcia, an evolutionary biologist. Garcia has said that it’s even possible this gene contributed to the great human migration from Africa tens of thousands of years ago, providing the extra motivation to explore.
Of course, we can’t blame every trip we take on our DNA (“It’s not you. It’s my genes”). Arguably, environment also plays a big part in setting us up to be travellers by nurture. In my case, I was still a baby when I took my first family vacation to Europe. Those annual family trips primed me for my solo adventures that began at age 17.
With all this contemplation of wanderlust, I get the itch to explore several nearby archaeological sites where pre-Columbian petroglyphs have been found. Among the clusters of carved rocks, I see what looks like faces, human stick figures, as well as spiral patterns.
It’s easy to imagine these early communities flourishing in such a bountiful place. And they were prolific art-makers. Around Maderas alone, something like 73 archaeological sites with 1,700 petroglyphs have been identified and mapped, some of them thousands of years old.
After the petroglyphs, I return to my hammock to swing and read some more. I recognize my time here is finite. I want to soak up the heat, the sounds and spaciousness, because in two days, I’ll be home picking up my son from school, doing laundry, and diving back into my responsibilities and routines.
As for wanderlust? I may not have uncovered all of its mysteries on Ometepe, but I feel as if I’ve come closer to understanding how the wanderlust tribe ticks, what motivates us, and what challenges we face on the road, as well as back home.
There may be no cure to wanderlust, but what’s certain is that travel has provided me with an incredible opportunity to explore the planet and myself, and almost always returns me home changed—even if I’m occasionally left with more questions than answers.
And that’s a good thing, right? ♦
- Robert Brodey is a longtime contributor and contributing editor to Outpost magazine.