Rio San Juan
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"I had no desire to die and felt tempted to say something about his mother."
-Che Guevara, Pasajes de la Guerra Revolucionaria
Granada had an imposing look to it. All the houses and tiendas were huge, speaking of a conservative spaciousness that had been lost as the country left Spanish colonialism behind. The best way to describe Granada is a balding, pot-bellied man smoking a cigar while observing the world through narrowed, suspicious eyes.
Though I only had a half inch of hair, a barber shop I passed by had such an inviting atmosphere that I decided to get a haircut. The middle-aged barber who sat me down was a master of his trade, meticulously evening out my hair with electric clippers, and then touching up with scissors. For shaving work around the ears he brought out the straight razor, which he handled with an effortless grace that suggested a lifetime of practice. After two different lotions and a powdering, I smelled like an aftershave factory. Pleased with my new look, I paid him the three dollar cost and left, leaving him shaking his head and wondering why I refused to let him shave the ghastly tangle of hair on my chin that called itself a goatee.
The following afternoon, as I was waiting at the Granada docks with a nervous young British traveler who gave the appearance of being frightened at his own shadow, a slightly ragged and amiable man walked up to us.
From Bluefields he came down by boat to Greytown - on the border with Costa Rica where the Rio San Juan empties into the Caribbean - all the way up the one hundred and eighty kilometer stretch of the Rio San Juan to San Carlos, and then on the ferry up to Granada.
Though he had been hoping to cross into Costa Rica illegally, he'd found all the entry points along the Rio San Juan to be too heavily patrolled so he decided to stay in Nicaragua a bit longer. Costa Rica attracted him because it didn't have an army and people seemed to be friendlier there, or at the very least less abusive toward their costeños than Nicaraguans were.
"Nicaragua is not a safe place for my people," he said sadly.
He seemed a quite intelligent man, and well informed of world events for having spent the last twelve years of his life fighting or in a Bluefields prison.
When I mentioned my visit to Tasbapauni, he grinned enthusiastically.
"You've been to Tasbapauni? I was there! Do you remember the church there? There was a big battle at the church in Tasbapauni..."
He trailed off and a frown appeared on his face.
"...no, that was in 1987, I was already in jail."
David wanted to get to San Jose to talk to Amnesty International about his brutal treatment while in prison. Besides having lost four teeth and suffered permanent damage to his spine, he'd been a victim of electrical shock torture. Lowering his shirt collar, he showed us the electrode mark where they'd attached it to his chest, and told us he had one to match it on his testicles.
"The Sandinistas, they no get no better.
If I made it to Bluefields again, he told me to look up Dexter Rigby in the Moravian Church. As we parted, he told me he would pray for me and wished me luck in my travels. I was aware I had met a remarkable man. I didn't share his religious faith nor his hatred of the Sandinistas, but it was an eye-opening encounter. The Sandinistas had done remarkable things in freeing the Pacific side of the country from dicatorship, but their track record on the Caribbean coast left much to be desired.
The ferry ride across the lake was a twelve hour odyssey on a reasonably modern, double-deck ferry, which even featured a television set on the upper deck.
A large part of this village seemed to have turned out for the ferry's arrival, and it was strange to see so much activity anywhere in Nicaragua in the middle of the night.For a good part of the time while I wasn't sleeping, I talked to Mario Morales Zamora. He was the twenty-eight year old son of Rosa Zamora, brother of the sixteen or seventeen year old María Mercedes Zamora, and had two other brothers and two sisters whose names washed through me.
"Clinton is a very young man, yes?" he asked while we were talking about my country's new leader.
I confirmed that, indeed, he was the youngest US president to have existed in either of our lifetimes.
At around three or four in the morning we arrived at the San Carlos docks. A few people wandered off in the darkness to their homes, but the majority stayed on the ferry in the same places they'd been since Granada. I followed suit, wrapping myself more snugly around my possessions and snoozing until the first light of amanecer crept over the horizon. Without so much as a cursory glance at the town, I departed the ferry and walked fifty feet over to one of the boats bound to El Castillo. My destination was a village forty miles down river on the Rio San Juan, the last village along the river accessible from the San Carlos end. It seemed to be as far away from Managua as I could get in this part of the country.
The five to six hour ferry journey to the village, which was described in the Lonely Planet guide based on unconfirmed information as a marvelous trip that passed through "dense jungle", was unfortunately far different in reality.
As the wetlands gave way to more hilly country, a few patches of jungle remained untouched along the river, but the deeper we went the more severe the deforestation became. I was in the Heart of Beefness. Though the destruction of the jungle had been taking place in the region for years, the problem had been exacerbated in the last few years with the area being used as a resettlement zone for contras.
The old Spanish fort was the first striking feature I noticed as our boat approached the small village. Built in 1675 to fend off British and French adventures up the Rio San Juan - through which they had to pass to attack the cities of Granada and Leon - the Fort of the Immaculate Conception had seen many battles throughout its history. They had ranged from the attack in 1762 by Henry Morgan, leading 2000 men and 50 British ships, to more recent battles during the 1980's when the fort operated as a Sandinista Army post.
It was in this area that the contras were led by Eden Pastora, and the fort was the site of a number of skirmishes between the two sides. The La Penca base camp where Pastora nearly lost his life in 1984 was not far from here. Life had returned to normal along the Rio San Juan with the contras gone, and history was finally coming full circle for the village of El Castillo. While the blue and white Nicaraguan flag flew over the partially restored fort, it was the government of Spain which was providing most of the money for its restoration. This same source of international aid was responsible for the majority of funding of the Rio San Juan Development Project, an ambitious effort to raise the local standard of living along the entire length of the river in addition to promoting ecotourism.After the long journey through deforested lands, thankfully there was still hope waiting down river.
When my German friend Peter - newly made on the boat ride - and I disembarked from the boat and walked up to the hotel, I was surprised to find that the inside more than matched the outside.
For the next few days I wandered around the friendly little village, exploring the fort, watching the water churn through the rapids, talking to locals, and watching the colorful sunsets each evening.
"It is much different now," he said contentedly. "Five years ago you would not have been allowed to sit here. The Sandinistas wouldn't let anyone near the fort. People didn't leave their houses after dark."
"The country's gone through a lot of changes," I agreed.
I had never suffered through the hell of living in a war zone, though, so I felt the respect undeserved.
"Peace is always better," I observed, to which he enthusiastically agreed.
"But," he added with a frown, "there are people here who don't like the peace. They would rather be fighting."
Changing the subject, I asked him how work on the fort was coming.
"Much of it is done," he said, walking over to a pile of bricks and picking one up. "But these bricks are no good."
"They're too delicate..." he smiled, "like the peace."
Though the villagers along the river had an "out of sight, out of mind" attitude toward garbage and threw everything in the river, this seemed to have a relatively small impact on the ecosystem.
The family who ran the hospedaje was vibrant. The vaquero father, Paco, with pale skin and turtle-like features, had a buxom wife, with an equally buxom daughter in her early twenties. Clari, the daughter, worried me continually with her lusty leer. They also had a quiet and handsome ten year old, as well as the Largest Baby in the World. The baby was a wide-eyed giant in diapers who could go no longer than five minutes at a time without feeling that another injustice had been committed against him.
They ran the hospedaje as if it were their home, which it was.
"Necesita una muchacha como yo!"
The thought was worrisome. Clari was too much woman for both of us put together.
Though unfortunately I was too low on funds to hire a boat to take me into the heart of the Biological Reserve, I did manage to hitch a ride down river with Paco, who periodically made short trips to where the Rio San Juan began to form the border of Nicaragua and Costa Rica, and brought Costa Ricans (legally or illegally, I wasn't quite sure) back up the river to El Castillo.
He planned to open his facility in another two weeks, a private hotel catering to ecotourists, and I marveled at his optimism. There were as yet scarcely any visitors to the area, and there was already competition for them. As the Amazon rapidly diminished, though, this vast rain forest reserve in Nicaragua was undoubtedly going to become a more popular destination. When we got a few miles further down river, the contrast beneath the sides of the river was extreme. The Nicaraguan side was the thick, virgin jungle of the Reserve, whereas the Costa Rican side was heavily deforested cattle country.
With my money running out, I decided to take the Monday afternoon boat back to San Carlos and hook up with the Tuesday ferry to Granada. Peter left at dawn on Monday with Paco's panga, which cost ten cordobas more than the biweekly afternoon service to San Carlos. The sign down at the dock said that the boat departed at five in the afternoon, so when the clock at the hospedaje read 3:30 I told Paco's wife that I wanted to pay my bill.
"That's the last boat until Thursday," she said, pointing out at it.
I suffered one of my most severe fits of instantaneous depression since the border crossing of the previous journey. There was no room in my plans for this development. Seventeen hours by boat and an hour by bus from my money source, fifty cordobas to my name, and now I was stuck in El Castillo for three more days. I very badly wanted to cry. I had purposely put myself out on a limb by coming to such a remote location with so little money, and now I was watching what happened when the limb fell off the tree. I sat and stared blankly at the river for an hour while Clari looked on sympathetically. Finally I threw my backpack over my shoulder and started to walk out the door.
"You're leaving?" Paco asked.
"No puedo quedar. I don't have enough money to stay here anymore."
"No se preocupe. We have plenty of room here. Quedese. "
I returned my gear to my room and gratefully accepted the offer. For the next three days they treated me like an additional member of the family. At first I didn't want to eat because I couldn't pay for that either, but they made it clear the meals were free as well. Usually it was gallopinto with plantains, and I relished them like I never had before. When Thursday came I made sure to take Paco's dawn service, thanking the family profusely for their hospitality before boarding the crowded panga. The river was so low that we had to weave back and forth to avoiding hitting underwater rocks, and the engine kept dying out in the early stages of the trip. I was only cautiously optimistic at best of my chances of making it to Managua.
When we reached San Carlos, I checked into a large and seedy two-story hospedaje overlooking the market sprawl. I stayed there for thirty minutes and walked out again, giving up hope of ever getting the attention of the dueña so that I could pay her and get a room key. I asked around the bus terminal about buses to Managua and was told that the direct buses weren't running because the road was washed out near San Miguel. The best bet was to take the ferry to San Miguel and then take a bus from there. Nevertheless, there was a bus that supposedly ran to San Miguel at one in the afternoon and I crowded my way on to it when it arrived. The road up the eastern edge of the lake was in horrendous condition. I stood in an uncomfortable stoop for hours as we jolted our way along at a pace that rarely exceeded five miles per hour. Eventually we reached the washout and the bus came to a halt. Everyone unloaded and crossed over to get on a bus bound for Juigalpa, a major town about half the distance to Managua. After an hour or so of waiting and not allowing people to board, the driver of the Juigalpa bus mysteriously decided to cross the river and head back to San Carlos.
I was getting very depressed. I couldn't afford a place to sleep, I couldn't afford to eat, and Managua still seemed worlds away. Black Dimas and his band of recontras called this part of the country their own and had been regularly robbing buses and passenger vehicles along the road. I had nothing left to steal so that was hardly a worry. Just when my view of the world was approaching a dimness just a shade brighter than a black hole, a big IFA bus came barreling up the road from the south. Painted brightly across the front of it was the magical word, MANAGUA. It charged across the river bed like a bull seeing red, paying the deep muddy ruts and flowing water no heed. Though it wasn't scheduled and its origins were unknown, its propitious timing made it like a chariot from Zeus sent to snatch me away from the gates of Hades. We rumbled up the long and dusty road toward Juigalpa, picking up speed as the road progressively got better.
Timber trucks rolled by occasionally, headed for nearby sawmills. The countryside was dry and dull, the larger trees all harvested. What passed for forest resembled what Managua would look like if the buildings were replaced by equivalent sized flora; a one story sprawl of assorted shrubs, stumps, and small trees. By the time we hit pavement, I was coated head to toe in dust, had a cramp in my side, and was half blind. I was happy. We stopped in Juigalpa for dinner as darkness set in, and I spent my last cordoba on a potato pancake. By ten-thirty or eleven we rolled to a stop somewhere in southeastern Managua, and I wearily climbed off the bus and into a nearby taxi.
Dead to the bone but with my wits still about me, I asked the driver how much the fare to the Meza would be.
"No se preocupe," he replied.
The words were familiar, but I was in a different world now. Instead of putting me at ease, as they had so recently done, they put me on edge. When a taxi driver told me not to worry about the fare, I got worried. Especially one who reeked of Eau du Miami Boy, with a nice taxi and a pretty young tart in the front seat whose makeup glowed in the dark. Her black dress was so tight that it fit into grooves on her thighs. As we sat waiting for the driver to roust more passengers into the vehicle, she turned toward me and spoke softly.
"Quiere una compañera este noche?"
"No, gracias," I said with a tired smile. Managua had definitely changed a bit. The taxi drivers used to just act like pimps. Now they were pimps.
"Porque no?" she queried, giving me her best pout. She was about sixteen.
"I'm tired," I said simply.
There were a number of other reasons that I didn't feel like giving for my disinterest, among them the fact like I smelled like a one hundred pound sábalo left out in the sun for three days, I was incapable of sex regardless of the most outrageous attempts at stimulation, I never paid for sex, and I didn't like her pimp.
"Is there something wrong?" she asked.
If my bones hadn't been so weary, I might have laughed at the irony of it all. Five years before the girl might have had a shot at a future, before the hopes and dreams of the Revolution had been utterly sunken to hell by a quagmire of rhetoric, corruption, "pragmatism", and the inability of factions in the countryside to halt their love affair with the power of the AK. I remembered Bertha's children, Jorge, Carolina, and Lesbía, and the marvel that those kids from the dusty back streets of Estelí should all become doctors. They were probably lucky now if they even had a hospital to work in. And here was a prostitute scarcely older than the Revolution itself, asking me if something was wrong.
"Tu país, chica," I muttered softly. "Your country is ill."
The pimp tried to charge me thirty cordobas for the ride.