Written by Fidgit
She was clearly a leader in the community. I had seen her early that morning, clipping along the single sidewalk which connected the town of Boca San Carlos through the morning drizzle. An hour later she sauntered back past, surrounded by four other kids all chatting. She was in her element, with a tiny purse in the shape of Mini Mouse’s face over her shoulder.
Later in the morning, she and several other children had gone down to the water, escorted by one of the teenagers and played in the river, jumping in from the side of a cayuco which was landed there. The teenager was the lookout, scanning the water for crocodiles or other dangers as the little ones splashed and squealed and washed.
That evening, she joined us on the wrap around porch of the hostel as we ate dinner. The low building of creaking wood had once been a hospital and later was used by the CIA to distribute weapons during one of the many seasons of conflict. She clambered onto the bench of the long table where we sat, and our host prepared her a plate. She picked at the food but it was clearly the company which had attracted her interest.
The next morning, she joined little Ana and I at the end of the dock. We sat, dangling our feet above the sticky mud and watched the confluence of the San Carlos and San Juan. The 1967 eruption of Volcan Arenal had blanketed the area, casting it into a false winter. Relieving some 50 people of their lives, capturing many of them in that final instant of surprise, staring and pointing toward the volcano.
A modern day Pompei.
According to an elder storyteller at the bar/restaurant the night before, the eruption had produced enough sand to build a road which could wrap around the world 4 times. Certainly it had been enough to produce a sandbar which beached our kayaks when we turned up the desemboque.
We tossed twigs and small coconut shells into the river and watched them slowly drift.
“Have you ever seen a crocodile?” I thought I asked in Spanish.
She continued to peel apart the blade of grass in her tiny hands. “No, we don’t eat the crocodiles, but we do eat the turtles,” she replied.
Life in this jungle emulated the river itself; a languid flow punctuated by catastrophe. Already I had been told tales of animal attacks, eruptions, floods, hurricanes, raids, disease.
It is a place where people have learned to mind their own business as a matter of survival. With something resembling pride, the father of a family I was chatting with said that people who came into the area were surprised to learn that out here life was worth nothing. “Kill someone, throw them in the river, they never existed.” The little girl opened the clasp of her purse, checked the contents, and snapped it shut again.
The history of humans on Rio San Juan has been both as a connection and a cause for division.
At one time, it was the principle avenue to connect the Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans. During the California gold rush, it was the quickest way to get from New York to California. The likes of Mark Twain made the trip by steam ship and buggy. Several times it has been considered for development into a canal connecting the two oceans. In the 1890s construction began but was abandoned in favor of the Panama Canal. Again in 2014 a Chinese company broke ground from the Pacific Coast but after several years of civil unrest and push-back against the political forces backing the effort, the project has again been all but abandoned.
Before that, even, in the era of conquest and pirates, the Spanish held the river. The English were the pirates, looting gold and attacking the Spanish fortifications of El Castillo. Strategically located on a high point above a bend in the river, it offered a view several kilometers down the river, giving the defenders plenty of time to mount an assault on any ships coming upstream.
One of the stories in the fort’s museum tells of a 19 year old Spanish woman, Rafaela Hererra, who in 1762 rallied the defense against an English attack. She was the first to pick up arms and on her third round, she shot the English Commander. That night she had the soldiers soak bed sheets in alcohol, light them on fire, and set them adrift on branches floating down the river toward the British ships, which caused their retreat.
Kayaking the river gave us a taste of the flow and stress of life on the river. The waters were easy enough to navigate; however, sharing the murky waters with crocodiles the size of our boat and having to stop every day to present our papers to a new outpost of Nicaraguan military wore on us. While the men were friendly enough and generally just curious, it is difficult to normalize a conversation when the other person has an AK47 strapped to their back.
On a morning stop at one of the five outposts, the military, immigration, and national park officials all came out to greet us. I got to speaking with the park guard, gushing about the dawn concert of monkeys and birds singing loudly.
“Yeah, everyone wants to announce that they are still alive,” he smiled. “It’s annoying because it makes it impossible to sleep in.”
He is right.
Nicaragua is the poorest country in Central America and the rustlings of political unrest is choking potential income sources, such as tourism. Of the many things which struck me about the kind and hardy people who live there, was the lack of clean water, even for those living on a river bank.