6/10/19 – 6/11/19
Nobody tenderfoots around in the country mornings. I awoke at 4:30 to stereos, motos, machetes chopping wood to stoke ovens for the day, men yelling to one another across the street, roosters, pigs, all the birds in the trees, and metal shop doors rolling up and slamming against the backstop.
All of my clothes are still wet from being washed in the sink the night before. I now wear the same pair of underwear every day and wash it every night so I can wear the dry pair for a few hours in the evening. Under the jungle tree line the road stays shady late into the morning. As the sun exposes itself through the break in the canopy, the night’s rain evaporates instantly and I dream of steamed brussels sprouts.
My mouth had a strange rough patch in it from the enthusiastically salted rice I was served for dinner and breakfast. This appears to be the only seasoning in these parts. Naked children stand in front of a fishbone clapboard shack and stare at me as if I am the one without pants. Their neighbors smile black tooth grins. I weave through the prenoontime rush of men on horses, men on bikes, men on motos, and men on feet. All of them carrying machetes. Kids practice lassoing a pig.
Twenty five kilometers from the border of Costa Rica, Carretera 25 hooks west. From here it is less than an hour to San Carlos at a good clip. Approaching town is a strange and dark experience. The roads are lined with the red and black flags of the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional, the ruling political party. In Granada I had asked Alfredo and Lauren about last year’s protests. They were reticent to talk about it in public for fear of the wrong person overhearing them and being labeled as traitors. You could have lit a cigarette on the road that day, but riding through that last corridor of self-aggrandization built by a man who ordered the military to kill his own people gave me chills.
I checked in at Hotel San Carlos. The room was built on a deck over the lake and you could see the water through cracks in the floorboards. A sign on the wall requested that guests refrain from trying to urinate through the floor into the lake. There were two beds, so Lauren and Alfredo could have those once they arrived. I convinced the hotel owner to let me pitch the tent on the deck overlooking the lake. It would cost fifteen dollars for all three of us.
San Carlos was a bit tired and perhaps shady. People gave me strange looks. I ordered a smoothie at a lakeside tienda and was given a cup of juice. The waiter seemed like the kind of guy that would smash a car window for the spare change in the ashtray. He didn’t appear to have brushed his teeth in months and smelled like rotting onions. I became suspicious of their adherence to relatively slack Central American health codes and dumped my drink into a plant and ordered a shot of rum as a precautionary disinfectant. I stood against the sea wall, twenty feet away, and watched everything from beneath my floppy hat and photochromic sunglasses. After a couple left, the waiter grabbed a half-eaten piece of chicken from their plate and sucked the bone clean. He chased it down with a dollop of sugar from the communal jar on the table which he procured with the spoon from their soup. He wiped things down with a dirty rag and threw the paper napkins and a pop can into the bushes.
Time is liquid in Latin America. Alfredo and Lauren arrived just before dark, three hours later than planned. While waiting for them I did some reconnaissance work about boats on the Rio San Juan. This is what makes Nicaragua special. Along with their deep rooted mistrust of punctuality, they’ve managed to fend off the internet and hence anything that resembles a solid nugget of information about the nuts and bolts of their country. What would be a five minute online booking in other places could take days of research to get a muddy rebuttal. Online travel forums offer the most useful information, but even these often conflict with one another:
“I was there a few years ago and there was a boat….”
“There was a boat, but I don’t think there is now.”
“They have a boat, but I don’t think they run it anymore.”
“Definitely no boat”
The woman that owned the hotel told me that there was a boat but she didn’t know what time it left. I found the docks and asked a man in an orange vest about the schedule. He told me that it might leave tomorrow morning, but that the captain was already out drinking so it was difficult to say what time. Another person told me that he hoped the boat would leave. Others were less optimistic and thought it would sink any day now.
In the end, I was confident that if we showed up at the docks in the morning with a wad of cash somebody would probably take us down the river. I told Alfredo and Lauren over dinner about our pending adventure. Their jaws dropped.
The boat takes about ninety minutes to arrive in a small town called El Castille. If you want you can take it all the way to the east coast. We didn’t have time for the twelve hour one way trip though. The river is the only mode of transportation between the towns on its banks. Occasionally the boat pulls up to a person standing on a rock a few feet off shore. The captain hops off at docks in front of houses to give somebody a phone charger or maybe some bread from a favorite bakery in town. He is sure to offer a hand to every woman boarding. As more people get on, the long narrow hull begins to flex. Old men row raggedy fishing boats and wave as we troll downstream. We approach muddy banks and drop people in front of mysterious jungle foot paths.
There is a light rain when we arrive in El Castille. For entertainment, Alfredo and Lauren insist that I do all of the negotiating of our accommodations so they can hear my Spanish. We wander the streets and eventually settle on a room with three beds, no windows, a second story porch over the river, and pair of Canadian women staying down the hall that we managed offend at some point during our stay.
The rain subsided and Lauren and I explored town while Alfredo took a nap. There are no cars or roads. Just footpaths, bikes, and wooden pushcarts made from gnarly and dense jungle trees. We woke Alfredo and went to the castle, which the town is named after. The Spanish built it as fortification from which they could hurl projectiles at pirates sailing up the river. We eat dinner at the hotel, procure cervesas, and sit on the deck talking long past the point where the sun set into the middle of that river turning it to gold under an orange sky. I’m speaking Spanish and they are practicing English. Alfredo has a heavy accent. He loves The Doors and Nat King Cole and is constantly singing and I notice that his accent disappears. For the rest of the night any time he wanted to say something in English we made him sing it.
“Chris, are you excited to visit Suiza?” Lauren asks. They both laugh a bit.
“Costa Rica is Central America’s Switzerland and Belize is a phantasma. All our life we’re taught that this place exists, but never I have met somebody from Belize.”
Apparently at some point Nicaragua and Costa Rica had a disagreement over who owned the river. As far as Nicans are concerned the issue is settled, although they say Costa Rica is constantly trying to encroach on it.
“They want it, but they can’t have it!”
In the hostels, after about three beers, it is inevitable that the kids will start posturing over all the places they’ve been and all the places they’ll go. At this point I tend leave the conversation. With Alfredo and Lauren it was different. Neither had ever been so far from home. They talk about Paris and Iran, South Africa, Shanghai. They’ve read books and watched films to learn about these places. This is a foreign concept to me because I live in a world where when I want to know about a part of it, I can just go there. I told them that I hoped one day I could show them around America. Nobody answered. Alfredo and I pushed back in our rockers and Lauren turned over in the hammock. We all stared out into the river. Sometimes you know that you’re all thinking the same thing and there is no need to say anything. I was thinking about how it would probably take them a year just to pay for a plane ticket to the states and that even if they saved enough for this, they probably wouldn’t be allowed in. I felt an inexplicable sense of guilt.
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