The Old Hermit And His Dream Mountain
We are sitting on the terrace of a small restaurant in front of the big white cathedral in Leon glowing in the permanent tropical heat. We are eating tacos and drinking beer with our friend Katia Angelova, whom we met only a few days ago.
– Have you heard about this old guy who lives alone in the forest and all he does since many years now is carving the stones of the mountain, I ask Katia.
And even though she lives and works in Nicaragua since many years, Katia has never heard about Don Alberto. It seams that he and his mountain are not very famous; not your typical tourist attraction. Maybe, it’s not worth it? But for us and for Katia, an old stone-carving hermit sounds intriguing.
– Lets’s go and check him out, she proposes excitedly.
– He lives up north, near the border with Honduras, in Esteli. We need two days to get there and back! When do you want to go, we ask.
– Now, she is not joking. In two days I have to fly to Florida, so it’s now or never!
We can’t believe it! There is someone who is even more spontaneous than us! Let’s go!
Next, we drive back to Managua with Katia’s car, prepare our stuff for the journey and start driving north. It takes hours on a narrow road winding through hills and small villages. The entire time, Katia who owns and manages a few hotels in Nicaragua, is telling us the funniest stories. I mean, these are some hilarious hotel-stories that can easily become scenarios for the next most popular TV series. The one about the forty refugees from India stuck in her hotel without papers for a few months is my favorite. Crammed in just a few rooms to save on money, they founded a small Hindu community with its intense exotic sounds and smells, washing and drying their turbans on the balconies, starting small businesses within the confines of the hotel lobby, like facial hair epilation for example, smuggling prostitutes now and then, and finally, one of the guys married the hotel receptionist!
In the evening, we get to Esteli, not far from Don Alberto’s mountain, and thanks to Katia and her hotel business, we gat a nice discount in a nice hotel.
After breakfast, we meet Joconda, Katia’s friend who lives in the same town and is also interested to visit Don Alberto- a local legend. Together we head for the forest.
Finding Don Alberto’s place proves to be very tricky and this might be the reason why not many get to visit him. We drive on narrow roads, paved at first, then covered with dirt and rocks, through tiny communities and vast forests, and everywhere we see people we stop and ask them which way to go. In this forgotten part of the world, everyone knows Don Alberto and they explain to us how to get there, first driving to the end of the dirt road and then walking through pastures and farmland. I am worried that after this long journey, the old man might not be home, that we might not meet him.
– Is he there, I ask a woman working in the field as we get closer.
– He is always there, she replies almost offended by my pointless question.
Don Alberto was born in Nicaragua 77 years ago and for the past 37 years has never gone further than the village church which he visits on Sundays and holidays. He spends his days in the forest and up on the hills overlooking the valley. His home and shelter for the night is a miniature wooden shack with large religious drawings on the outer walls, smaller than an elf’s house.
We find the place empty. He is not there…
A narrow path leads us through the shadows of old trees, and on the side of the path, and in the shadows of the old trees, are scattered grey rocks- big and small, and each rock has been shaped into an animal or an icon of a saint. These shy stone sculptures slowly appear one after another- the most extraordinary forest gallery.
And then, like a ghost from an enchanted world- small and almost transparent, an old man emerges from the darkness of the forest and floats towards me. I don’t know what to say; I am afraid my words or my presence might scare him away, such a delicate white butterfly he is. The others have gone up the hill and there is no one to share this magical moment with me. I meet Don Alberto.
He is smiling with the sad smile of an angel, his hair is shining white, his skin is the color and texture of tree bark.
Immediately, he starts explaining about his rocks, his forest, the animals, the plants. He sounds like a recording. I am sure he repeats the exact same things to all his visitors and I wonder if he likes to have foreigners disturbing his peace.
– Have you gone up the hill, he asks me?
– Not yet, I explain.
– Go, go up the hill and then come back. I will be here.
I go up the hill. There, suddenly, looming above me, a few meters tall and many meters long- the vertical stone face of the mountain covered in carved figures of buildings and animals, Egyptian motives and religious scenes. An elephant, a tiger, a whale, even a helicopter are facing the vast open view of the valley to the east. The colossal scale of the artwork is totally unexpected, stunning and unbelievable. The work of a lifetime, secluded at the end of the world. Birds and sunrises are this gallery’s only regular spectators.
It is hard to conceive that this little, humble person who has never seen the world beyond his forest, who has never studied art or carving, who has never been to school at all, has brought the world to him in such glorious proportions, and only using some basic tools. A world of dreams and imagined images, captured in rock for eternity.
– I wake up around 3 o’clock in the morning and I say my prayers. Then I go and I shape the rocks. Later in the day, many people come to see me from all corners of the world. I like when people come to see me and my stonework. They take pictures and more people come every time! One woman who works in university brought me notebooks and I ask everyone who visits me to write their names in these notebooks and the country they are coming from. I have 15 notebooks already full with names. I am teaching myself to read and write now, and I read the names in my notebooks. If you are coming back, please bring me more notebooks, this is my last one. I don’t ask the people who visit me to pay. They can give me a gift if their hearth wishes. Here, look what people have given me.
Someone has given him a pocket knife he never uses, he keeps it hidden in his shack, like treasure, together with a small pin with the Canadian flag, a plastic Jesus on the cross wrapped in foil, and a pair of black leather boots.
– These are good hiking boots to go up the mountain, why don’t you use them, I look at his old broken shoes he wears instead of the new black leather boots.
– I only wear them when I go to church on holidays, he smiles.