Ometepe Island, a budding Nicaraguan tourist destination dubbed an “oasis of peace,” was anything but during a recent week, when it hosted two dozen members of a British Rapid Deployment Team on an intensive disaster-response training exercise.
First, there were the reports that a passenger ferry had sunk in the choppy waters off the island and that hundreds were feared dead, including an unknown number of British tourists. Three days later, as the beleaguered and sleep-deprived response team was still trying to ascertain the identities of the British victims and survivors, the island’s volcano erupted, sparking a riotous evacuation scenario in which frantic locals fought with shell-shocked British citizens for spots on the rescue boat. Sandwiched between the two events was a rotating cast of corrupt customs officials, traumatized crash victims, a blood-lusty press corps, unidentified bodies showing up in the morgue, ill-equipped local doctors with a penchant for amputation, grieving family members and looters.
Needless to say, it wasn’t exactly a poster week for the local tourism chamber.
The training program, run by British consulting firm GroundTruth, was part of an effort by the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) to prepare its U.S.-based Rapid Deployment Team to respond to future natural and manmade disasters in the hemisphere. The British government decided to ramp up this type of training after taking a beating in the press for its perceived clumsy handling of the 2002 terrorist bombings in Bali.
Though some of the British volunteers had had military or police training, most were mild-mannered office workers from British diplomatic facilities in the United States. When disaster strikes, their task is more consular than heroic — they identify British citizens who are dead, missing or injured, while helping to assist victims and their families.
The role-play on Ometepe Island was aided by a group of two dozen local British expats and Nicaraguan thespians who acted the parts of crash survivors, doctors and local government officials. The actors, empowered by the omnipotence of playing multiple characters throughout the week, were relentless on the British trainees, first shaking them down for bribes as customs agents and then later grilling them as journalists on issues of morality and corruption.
“A reliable source tells me you bribed a customs official to enter the country,” a Nicaraguan customs agent-turned-journalist demanded of the British man who slipped her $10 the day before to speed up his fake immigration paperwork.
The scenes in the hospital and morgue were particularly ghoulish, with patients covered with synthetic wounds and bloody bandages wailing and moaning on dirty mattresses strewn about the floor. Even the British stiff upper lip seemed to quiver a bit as members of the response team tried to mediate in Spanish between injured countryman pleading for help and the local Dr. Giggles who wanted to take off a leg.
My own motive for participating in the hLost fantasy, spurred by the TV series also set in a tropical island crash scenario. All the ingredients seemed to be in place for my fantasy to take shape: a picturesque volcanic island shrouded in mystery; a disastrous crash scenario; and a group of mostly young and attractive actors to play the roles of the other survivors, whom I was determined to lead on a polar bear hunt. GroundTruth was even nice enough to humor my daydream by writing me into the script as a ferry survivor who suffered post-traumatic stress and confused the plot of Lost with his own disaster experience — a role to which I was ultimately unable to rise, because I am a lousy actor.
By the end of the week, the British Rapid Deployment Team had received invaluable training in the real-life chaos of disaster-response, while the Nicaraguan actors got an interesting experience to add to their resumes. Ometepe, meanwhile, was just happy to see the group pack up its dead, grieving and injured and leave the island, allowing it to get back to its day job as a tourist oasis of peace.