Lessons from the Rio San Juan

posted in: Learning, Musings | 0

We had met about one month prior at Project Bona Fide. Our first real interaction was during the orientation for Diane, Trent and I where I got a taste of his realism as we spent the day all asking lots of questions and learning more about how a permaculture farm works. We got along really well through the month and decided to go an adventure together down the Rio San Juan with the thought of making it upto Bluefields and onto the Corn Islands where we intended to go diving. The whole journey was full of spontaneity and constant newness.

We left the farm after lunch so we could catch the evening boat from Altagracia out to San Carlos, the city at the mouth of the Rio San Juan. We looked around for machetes, but were unable to find an eighteen incher, which is what Trent reckoned was the best size. Trent’s sense of adventure is really fun and I was glad that I could share that with him and be on this trip with him, I knew it was going to be good. After the bus ride to Altagarcia we got a little tuk tuk to take us to the port where we boarded the boat for a twelve hour overnight boat ride across Lake Nicaragua. I hadn’t left the island of Ometepe for nearly a month now, it was time.

The first rain had come to Ometepe, and it looked like it was going to rain just about every day after, but it hadn’t yet. We got on the boat and Trent was telling me about the air mattresses he’s got that you just blow up and how it will be sweet that we’ll get to just sleep out on the deck on these little mattresses. We’re on the boat and sitting outside ready to leave from the port and the skies thunder open. It started pouring rain and even though the deck was covered, we were forced to retreat inside as the rain was being blown in from all sides. I hope the rains made their way to the farm that night.

Inside the cabin, they were playing Pursuit of Happyness while blasting the air conditioning. I’ve seen this movie before a few times and really enjoyed the whole struggle story and am always inspired by stories people overcoming adversity. This time though, I felt like the movie was almost directly equating happiness to money and I think that’s kind of lame. I guess the more you watch something, the way you see it also changes.

After watching the movie, the rains had calmed and although the deck was still a little wet, there were some good dry spots. Trent and I blew up the air mattresses and slept outside. I had a tough time falling asleep all night, but still awoke energized as the sun was rising. Shortly after, we docked into San Carlos and it was time to figure out what to do. We had spoken to a guy that kayaked down the river and Diane had kindly done some research that she gave us about highlights in different places along the river, but there wasn’t really a plan of any sort; we were just going with it.

We stopped by the tourism information office and got some knowledge about what’s good and boat timings and such. At some point, Trent had the bright idea of renting kayaks and going down the river that way. I asked about it and the tourism office told us it couldn’t be done and that no one would rent us a kayak for that distance, but we were referred to the only guy in town that might rent kayaks.

We walked over to his fine establishment which doubled as a restaurant/bar and inquired about kayaks. I got the sense that no one really ever asked him for this kind of thing and he wasn’t really sure what to say. He called up a guy in the next pueblito a few hours down the river that might be able to rent us kayaks. I spoke with him on the phone and he said we’d be able to work something out and that we should hop on the lancha down to Sabalos and we could talk.

We headed back towards the port and looked around again in the hardware stores for machetes and a flashlight. Unable to find an eighteen inch machete, we settled on the twenty inchers and got them sharpened by the blacksmith that was across the street. We weren’t able to locate a flashlight here, but figured we’d be able to find one in the next town. Just in nick of time, we were able to jump onto the 10:30 express boat to Sabalos just as it was leaving from the port.

We got to Sabalos and the hustling began immediately. We hadn’t bought a ticket before getting on the boat, so we paid when we got off. The tourism office had given us a paper with the set fares and timings, so we knew what the right price was. The boat guy asked for double, saying that we each had to pay an extra seat for out backpacks, even though they didn’t take up any additional seats. I knew the price though and as soon he figured out I knew, he backed off and I just handed the boat guy what we owed and walked away.

We were looking for a guy named Julio in Sabalos that we had been referred to, apparently he knows everyone in town and is the guy that runs the tourism office in this pueblito. We found him shortly and he proceeded to speak with us in in English telling us how he wants to practice and showing us the canoe that he could take us down the river in. I started speaking with him in Spanish because I wanted him to understand we weren’t normal tourists and figured I’d be more likely at striking us a deal if I spoke his language. It’s amazing how quickly his tone of voice changed and our conversation took a more hopeful turn for the better.

He gave us all kinds of options where we could each get a kayak and he could guide us down in a canoe or we could all go in the canoe, all of them involved him as the guide. I insisted that we only wanted to do the journey without a guide. Trent and I were looking for a real adventure and we figured if we were going to have a guide down the whole river, then we might as well just take the regular boats down instead. He explained to me how he works with a few other families as part of this collective and that its against the rules of the collective to rent a kayak or a canoe to any tourists without a guide. We went over to another little comedor where they also have kayaks, but they also refused to rent without a guide. Julio was even making calls to other friends that might be able to rent us a kayak without a guide, but no luck. As I persisted in traveling without a guide, Juilio explained to me once again how the collective works and shared an anecdote with me about how they had rented a canoe to some people in the past without a guide to go down the river, but they crashed into some rocks, capsized, lost all their stuff and didn’t make it very far. I assured him that my Australian friend and I had plenty of experience on kayaks and canoes and that there wouldn’t be any issues of the sort. Trent had some prior kayaking experience, but I’ve only actually been in a kayak or canoe twice before and never was in control of the steering, but it looked like it was something that we’d figure out easy enough. In either case though, I was secretly kind of relieved that we weren’t able to rent a canoe without a guide at this point. Despite all the hustling, I wasn’t completely convinced myself yet that this was even a good idea, but I was just going with it and seeing where it led us. Julio talked for quite some time and I got the impression that he was really trying to help us out and find a viable option for us. Finally, he said we could rent a canoe from him and take it to Castillo, the next town down the river, and up into the national park Indio Maiz as long as we bring the canoe back to him.

We decided we should go look for a spot to spend the night. I had heard of this place called Sabalos lodge that was known for their extensive tours and such into the National Park, so we asked around a bit and headed on an unexpected 40 minute hike through the rain crossing many muddy hills. We finally reached, exhausted and the place was kind of swanky, definitely out of our budget. They brought us some delicious lemonade when we arrived and told us nicely that they won’t be able to rent us a kayak without a guide either. They happened to be heading back to Sabalos town back up the river and they graciously gave us a lift. On the way, Trent and I were talking about heading to the next town, Castillo, to try our luck there since it was a little bit bigger. As we were going up the river back to Sabalos, we saw a boat that had just left there going down the river towards Castillo so we made up our minds real quick, waved the boat down, everyone stopped in the middle of the river and we hopped over.

It’s late afternoon now and we’ve been in transit and hustling for more than twenty-four hours, we were pretty exhausted and feeling dejected. Castillo turned out to be a charming town with cobblestone roads and a big fortress up on the hill. We walked through the whole town with our packs and checked out every hostel/hoespedaje in town, we decided to come back to the first one which was the cheapest and friendliest. It’s tough to beat $5/night and a beaming smile. We freshened up and decided it was time to go have a good meal and we’d figure out the boat stuff the next day.

We stumbled into an unexciting little place on the river and ordered steaks. As we were waiting for our food to come out, we saw these boats ride up the river and stop right in the rapids. Some guys got out of the boats and were in the river moving things around. We went over to the edge to see what was going on. There was a guy directly below with some canoes and kayaks and he was just standing there carving an oar like a boss. I asked him what was going on and he told me that the river was too low in some parts and they were moving rocks around so the boats wouldn’t hit them when going through. We started chatting casually and I shared our predicament with him telling him we were looking for a canoe to paddle down the river in. Darwin sounded excited about the prospect of our adventure and was eager to help us make it happen. He said he’d rent us a canoe and started going straight into the details of navigating down the river, telling us we had to be careful of the alligators, sharks and snakes. He helped us make a plan of places to stop at along the way and kept emphasizing how it’s not that easy to camp everywhere and that the jungle is really thick. He advised us on food that we should take with us since there’s not much civilization after Castillo and he told us about all the military ports we have to stop at, the other paperwork we’d have to complete since were going without a guide and the navigation permits that we have to get as well. After eating we looked at everything on a map, talked some more and we had a deal. After the whole day of talking to everyone and being told it couldn’t be done we stumbled across our main man Darwin ‘by chance,’ got everything sorted out and were ready to embark on this wild adventure. Natural selection is sweet, now we’re ready to learn about survival of the fittest in the deep jungle.

The next day after breakfast we returned to Darwin’s abode and started on getting all the preparations in order. Darwin went off to handle the paperwork including the lawyers’ notarized letter that basically said we take full responsibility of whatever happens to us on the river and can hold no one accountable, your semi-standard signing your life away before doing something dangerous kind of legal document. He also took care of getting us the navigation permit. Trent and I walked around town in search of groceries, we decided to get tuna cans, beans in a pouch, bread, onions, tomatoes, avocadoes, mangoes, watermelon, pineapple, granola crunch things, a dulce de leche sweet snack, cookies, water, a flashlight, plastic bags and a tarp. It started thundering and raining as we went to make a copy of the legal documents and the map and we were starting to feel a little unsure about if we should leave this day or just wait it out and leave the next day. We waited for a little bit, the rain cleared and we decided to go for it. We packed up all the stuff into the canoe and were off into the rapids.

*****

Trent was steering and I was paddling in front and I can only imagine the horror that must have come across Darwin’s face as he saw us attempt to navigate through the rapids. It was painfully clear that we didn’t have much experience as we zig-zagged through hoping we didn’t capsize the boat before we even got out of sight. We made it through the first rapid okay and kept chugging forward in the most inefficient way possible going from side to side, frequent stops and reorientations, but we were learning quickly the hard way how to steer a canoe. It wasn’t nearly as easy as we had imagined. We were definitely doing more than twice the work necessary to move, but we were moving nonetheless and making our way down the river through the jungle. Even though it had cleared up when we left, we departed, we came across some really heavy rain along the way which was an especially intense way to start. The entire journey from Castillo to San Juan del Norte was meant to be somewhere around 200km, no one seemed to know exactly how much really. Darwin told us he does it in four days, we had budgeted seven for ourselves.

Despite our lack of coordination and challenge in being able to continuously go in a straight line for more than a few strokes at a time, our spirits were high and we were in search of this island called Diamante past the first military checkpoint that Darwin recommended we camp on. As you can probably imagine, there’s no addresses or navigation systems when going down a remote river like this so directions were foggy at best and we never really knew where we were at any given time. All we knew was that Nicaragua was to the left, Costa Rica was to the right and we were paddling right down the border. Darwin had explained to us that we’d pass a rapid, then an island and that Diamante was going to be the second island in the middle of the second rapid and it had bamboo growing on it. We passed a few islands, but it was tough to qualify what constituted as a rapid since it was still relatively dry and not much current in the river. We passed through what we thought was the environment that Darwin described just as it was starting to get dark and saw an island that had bamboo on it. We’ll never really know if this was the one we were meant to camp on or not, but the bush and overgrowth was so thick, there was no way we’d be able to even pull up to the island, much less find a suitable camping spot.

We pushed forward as the sun was setting and the feeling of desperation was beginning to set in. It was only day one, we couldn’t find this island that we were meant to camp on, there was no one to ask directions, we didn’t know where we were on the map and it looked like the jungle was only getting thicker and thicker. We came across the next island in the river, paddled cautiously around, looking for a place we might be able to park the canoe and hike in to set up camp. We found a little nook that was perfect, daylight was getting real precious now as it continued to get darker. As we pulled in there were these lizards high up in the trees jumping/falling out of them into the river beside us, all kinds of crazy unfamiliar sounds and some really deep and soft mud that was precarious to step through. I was actually scared now.

We grabbed everything out of the canoe, quickly set up camp, put the tarp over the tent for an additional rain cover, moved our backpacks under the tarp and sat down in the boat to make some sandwiches for dinner just as we couldn’t see any more without the flashlight. The lizards were still periodically jumping out of the trees into the river, but it was normal now. All of the unfamiliar sounds weren’t so ominous anymore and my nerves had calmed. We made it through the first day alive, managed to find a spot to camp on an overgrown island in the middle of the river and now I was enjoying the best tuna bean tomato onion sandwich of my life. As we fell asleep in the overheated tent, all I was thinking about was how I’m so lucky to be alive and navigating through in this wild unexplored place in the world. It was tough to fall asleep, constantly wondering about all the noises and thinking if we’d wake up to an alligator outside our door, but I still awoke fresh and rested the following morning.

On day two, I was in the back steering while Trent was in front rowing. As I was packing things up, Trent had found some sticks to raise our luggage off the ground of the boat to insulate it a little from whatever rain gets in through the tarp. This is where everything really started to blur together. My sense of time was non-existent now and there was really just one thing to do, row and keep the canoe in a straight line. I learned it was a lot tougher than I thought and extremely frustrating at times. At first I kept thinking there was something wrong with my technique and I didn’t understand what I was doing wrong. At first, I would always just try and paddle harder on the opposite side of where we wanted to go thinking that would help steer us in the right direction, but this method wasn’t so effective. Once it had swung too far, I would dig the oar into the side where I wanted the canoe to turn and paddle backwards a little bit when we needed a stronger turn. This would slow down the canoe considerably and it was really tough for team morale. Sometimes, I’d be using this method, but the canoe would just continue going in the opposite direction that I was trying to make it go and then it would all of a sudden swing too much into that direction and I found myself pulling it back the other way, digging the oar deep in on the side of the canoe slowing us down. I started making smaller, quicker adjustments more often before we got too off center and this helped considerably.  Sometimes when I would just be paddling myself, while Trent was getting a snack for us or something and I was able to keep us going in a straight line slower, but a lot more consistently. Then I started to blame Trent in my head thinking something he was doing was preventing us from going straight, but I knew it was very much so a team effort and we had to learn to work this canoe together if we were going to make it down the river. Nonetheless, progress was being made and we were able to go in a straight line more consistently on day two than the first day, but it was still frustrating not understanding why I was unable to keep it straight the whole time.

We paddled on quite hard all day, thinking we were closer to the next military checkpoint than we thought. As a result, we kept saying that we’ll eat later when we get to the checkpoint because we had heard there was a pulperia or a little restaurant there on the Costa Rican side that we might be able to eat at. We went through some crazy storms where it felt like it was raining for hours, at one point we stopped off because it was just too intense. There were also a few rapids that we managed to maneuver through more smoothly this time around. Finally we just decided that it had been too long and we needed to stop and eat so we pulled up, made some sandwiches filled with tuna, beans, avocado, onions and tomatoes and we had cookies for desert. A fisherman passing by told us we were only half an hour away from the next military post so we paddled onto Boca de San Carlos.

When we reached there it was around 3pm and the military guys were on the other side getting some snacks at the pulperia so we waited for them to come over. This meant that we had been paddling hard the whole day for seven or eight hours on our meager breakfast with our inefficient overly exertive paddling skills. It was an intense day and our emotions were reflective of this sentiment. We wanted to paddle on and camp on another island, but I’m glad the military guys forced us to stay and said we had to leave the next day. They said it wasn’t safe for us to camp on an island because of all the alligators and that we wouldn’t be able to find a camping spot. They were kind enough to offer us their office space to sleep in so we didn’t have to set up camp. We brought in all our stuff and headed across the border to find some real food and restock on supplies in Costa Rica. The crossing looked quite difficult as it was through a rapid and we had to do same upstream paddling. At this point we had learned a lot though about maneuvering the canoe and we made it across with ease, Darwin would have been proud to see us controlling the canoe like bosses. After this point, there was no more civilization on the Nicaraguan side for 70km, only dense jungle. Along with our supplies, we grabbed some salchichon (sausage) for the military guys and headed back across the border to retire for the night.

Some of the military guys wanted to go up the river to get some cheese and since they didn’t have any gas in their motorboat, they asked to borrow our canoe. Of course I obliged, it was just a really odd request that I didn’t really know how to handle. While they were away we started chatting with one of the guys that was still here and it happened to be his birthday. He had a big bottle of guaro (Costa Rican liquor) that he was drinking himself and he seemed quite happy. We had a great conversation about his experience in the military and he shared what he thought about how things were going in Nicaragua. Once again, being able to speak Spanish enabled this really cool exchange for a really unique opportunity to learn about a perspective I wouldn’t have otherwise been exposed to. Our friend shared tales with us about all the crazy animals that are in the forest and showed us a giant alligator skin from an alligator that had come up to the base the week before. We started to feel really tired after some time and decided it was really time for bed now.

We blew up the air mattresses with our breath laid them out on the ground and fell asleep in the military guard. I think day two is usually the most challenging with things like this. I was exhausted both physically and mentally having used muscles I didn’t even know existed. I had trouble falling asleep still, but slept better this night that the previous one. I awoke feeling ready to keep rocking the next morning.

We got our new navigation permit from the captain, cut open our almost rotten pineapple for breakfast. Trent cleaned out the boat and made some further improvements on packing our luggage and covering it with the tarp so it would be safe from rain. Instead of wrapping the tarp around, this time he made it more like a roof so all the water would stream off the boat or into one of the other sides where there wasn’t backpacks and food, no rain was going to get in now.

We switched places again today and we were really rocking now. Trent was in back steering today and he figured out the most efficient way to steer. Instead of digging the oar onto the side of the boat, he started putting it behind the boat so it functioned like a rudder. At first, I couldn’t even notice he was steering us, I thought we were just naturally going straight now. It was awesome. Now, we were able to continue on in a straight line very consistently, without losing speed or momentum. The night before we had agreed that not eating for such a long time wasn’t a good idea and that we had to pay better attention to what our bodies were saying and eat. We had the steering down, a rain proof system for the cover and had promised to eat better and morale was real high again. We were cruising down the river so effortlessly now, seeing which part of the river was moving fastest, navigating over and staying on the path gliding across the water. The jungle was so dense, teeming with the circle of life everywhere and it was simply beautiful yet utterly raw. Everything was lush green, the sun was out, birds were singing, monkeys were howling, we even saw an alligator and a shark fin in the water, as well as all kinds of other wildlife that might have been beyond our sight, but whose presence was definitely felt. Words will never do this place justice.

The day passed quickly and it felt like we were moving really fast. We tried navigating up some other rivers that go deeper into the Indo Maiz reserve, but they were so dense and there were so many trees in the water that we weren’t able to make it very far up these rivers. The Rio San Juan just kept widening and widening, it was so big that Trent kept calling it a lake. Our muscles had strengthened and paddling wasn’t so strenuous anymore. Now that we had figured out the steering, I was in front and just focused on paddling. I would get into these zen grooves where I would just keep paddling harder and faster with my breath in a cadence and Trent would be matching my strokes and it felt like we were just gliding down. It felt so good that we had really learned to do this experientially. No one had told us what to do or how to do it, we learned by trial and error testing out different things and learning all the ways it doesn’t work and exactly why so that we came across the best method naturally. It felt awesome.

We passed by the next checkpoint, Sariquipi, and they gave us a new navigation permit to the Delta where we were meant to reach that evening. We decided we didn’t want to spend the night in a military base this night so we kept our eyes open for a good camping spot. We passed by a giant island that seemed to go on forever without a single place to camp or pull into and then we saw a nice raised clearing in what looked to be a farm on the Costa Rican side. We paddled across against a strong current and pulled the boat into a perfect little cranny that was protected from the current on this curve. We climbed up, checked out the area and decided it was a good place to set up camp. The sun wasn’t setting so we had time to enjoy the view and the magnificence of the river after we set up camp and had dinner. We cracked open one of the giant coconuts we took from the Boca de San Carlos military base and it was delicious. It might have been the largest and sweetest coconut I’ve ever had. In the process of opening it, we lost the top half, but the bottom half was still bigger than any normal coconut I’ve ever seen.

The mosquitoes were out in full force this evening and I got bit up real bad all over the place, in places you can’t even imagine. I don’t know what it is about my blood, but I’m always a prime target for getting bit. At this point, I think I have over a hundred bites all over my body and permanent scars that are a result of my itching and scab picking habits. I hope the bugs enjoy it, because I really don’t. It was a tough sleep for me this night as I had some itching fits and felt as if I was continually getting bit. There was a big storm through the night; it was still raining in the morning when we awoke and thundering in the distance. Even though we had planned on being up super early and paddling out into the sunrise, sometimes you got to be flexible and change plans. We decided to wait out the storm and get some extra rest before starting our voyage this morning. There was all kinds of debris and even whole trees in the river now being taken down the river with the current.

The skies were grey and it was still drizzling, but it was time to hit the river. We packed up and started going and it just looked so crazy. It was like there had been a war the night before between the rains and the trees and you could see all the tree casualties and limbs of the trees all over the river flowing with a faster current from all the fresh water that had been thrown in the night before.

I was steering this day and it was my first attempt at the new technique. I was having some trouble with it early on and was feeling extra frustrated with the greyness and the rain. I started to get the feel of it after some time though, looking out for the faster moving streams of water and we were gliding again. It rained for a little bit and then the skies cleared up and we made it to the next military checkpoint, the Delta, in no time. They said we were almost to the Caribbean and if we kept paddling we could make it there before the sun set. This was a big surprise to us, we thought we still had at least another two or three days before we were going to make it through the river, but I guess we were moving a lot faster than we thought we were.

We kept paddling on and decided to stop in a little town in Nicaragua called El Jobo where we thought we might be able to get some food. We were served some eggs with rice and beans at the pulperia in town by some very nice ladies and just as we were finishing our meal we were greeted by the husband of the woman who was serving us, the owner of the place. He welcomed us very graciously and told us a little bit about the town and himself and how he’s an evangelical priest. There happened to be a quincenera going on in town and he invited us to come join in on the festivities. Trent and I had been debating pushing forward onto the Caribbean, but wisely decided to stay and embrace this experience.

A quincinera is a pretty big deal in Latin culture. It’s the 15th birthday party and a sort of coming of age for women and they are always huge all-out celebrations. Our main man pastor friend led us into the gathering and motioned for us to take a seat on some benches. The lucky lady was at the front of the room decked out in this hot pink gown and a giant cake in front of her. There was another guy standing next to her preaching with utmost conviction about a daughter’s duty to take care of her parents and make them proud and a parent’s duty to raise their children on the right path with love and kindness. The entire situation was just so crazy, it was tough for me to process what was going on and follow what was being said. We were on this bench with a bunch of little girls and they couldn’t stop looking at me and my beard, wondering who/what I was.

I couldn’t help but think about a point that Trent had brought up a few days earlier. It’s kind of crazy to think that the European imperialists brought these religions to Latin America hundreds of years ago along with war and the raping, pillaging and genocide of the indigenous cultures that used to exist here hundreds of years ago. Traveling in Central and South America, I’ve observed some the most devout Catholics and Evangelists in Latin America. How does something like that happen? How did this embracing of religion come about so strongly? Some of the tallest Jesus statues in the world are found in Latin America. God and religion are powerful things beyond comprehension in the development of human civilizations and the course of history. It makes me wonder almost if it really is just this tool that’s used to aide in imperialism and conquering of new lands by master manipulators.

After the sermon, our main man took us back to his house said we could sleep there that night and we didn’t have to worry about anything. He walked us around town and explained to us how the town was started fourteen years ago and it’s a project being funded by the EU and ACCRA to see how a community could live sustainably in the jungle. Each family is given four hectares of land and the community continues to grow. Our main man Rufino led us back to the quincenera where we were given some delicious birthday cake and then he was jamming out on the guitar with some others belting Evangelical songs. We went to grab all of our stuff out of the canoe and it was as if the entire town came to help, they wouldn’t even let us carry the bags. After this we walked around some more in town, cut down some sugar cane to eat and planted new ones to grow back. We harvested another vegetable whose name I cannot recall that grows in the ground for dinner.

Then we went to the neighbor’s yard and asked if we could buy one of his chickens for dinner to share with Rufino and his family. We chased the chicken around the yard for a little bit and were able to catch it after some time. It was really interesting to observe how the dogs were whimpering and barking while the chicken was being chased, it was as if they knew what was going to come of their comrade and that this chicken was about to give the ultimate sacrifice. We carried the chicken back to our main man’s house and proceeded to help cook dinner guided by his daughter. The first step was slaughtering and butchering the chicken. Trent did the honors with a knife in the bathroom which was located at the back of the kitchen. The knife wasn’t the sharpest so the cut wasn’t as quick as one would have hoped for a humane chicken slaughtering, but it was quick enough. Once the head was removed the chicken struggled for a few moments after while it bled out onto the bathroom floor. Zoyda, our main man Rufino’s daughter, already had a pot of water boiling and ready to help remove the feathers. She put the chicken into the pot of boiling water and then poured it out over the chicken as well. This makes it easier to pluck out all of the feathers. Then Trent and I proceeded to pluck out all the feathers one by one, trying to get it all out because no one likes being surprised by chicken feather stems in their dinner.

Our main girl Zoyda taught me how to skin the other vegetable thing we had pulled out of the ground and I did the best job I could. Rufino came back and we started chatting with him. Zoyda started making the gallo pinto, preparing the chicken and the mystery vegetable. It was clear that despite our good intentions of wanting to help out, it was more efficient for Zoyda to prepare the meal herself than for her to teach us to do it so we kind of just backed off and spent the rest of the evening getting to know our main man Rufino a bit better. He told me about how he used to work for the government and spent time on other development projects and he had the potential to rise as a politicization, but he had no interest in this. He kept telling me about how he doesn’t really care for power and that he’s more interested in just doing something good for his country and developing projects. Rufino is a fascinating and a genuine man with a very kind heart and we were blessed that such a man decided to take us in and share his town with us for a day.

After dinner was prepared, we all sat together with the whole family and some other extended family from town and there was another sermon kind of thing, some reading from the bible, songs, collective prayers, hand clapping and most of all giving thanks to the great Lord. We had chicken, gallo pinto and mystery vegetable for dinner along with almond fresco and it was all delicious, not only because it was as fresh as it gets, but because it was made with some serious love. It was like Trent and I were part of the family.

After dinner, they laid out a mattress for us to sleep on and we told them its okay we have air mattresses we can use. They were intrigued by this so we took them out and I blew one up as our main man attempted to blow one up unsuccessfully. Then everyone took turns laying out on them, basking in the glory of a simple little blow up air mattress. They asked if we had any mosquito nets, we didn’t so we thought we might as well just put up the tent and it seemed like everyone was really interested in seeing what this was all about. So, Trent unrolled the tent and we put it all together in a few minutes, threw the air mattresses inside and they were so amazed. Everyone took turns trying this out as well seeing what it felt like to be inside the tent on the air mattress. It was really neat to watch, like kids in a candy shop for the first time.

Everyone retired to bed and so did we. The accommodations were more than generous, but I quickly learned just how many chickens there were in town. All I remember hearing the entire night was the cock-a-doodle-doo of roosters and sounds of hens all around outside, it wasn’t a night that entailed much sleep, but I still awoke the next morning feeling rested and ready to go for our last push down the river to the Caribbean.

We walked with our main man out to go and milk the cows equipped with a bucket and a few glasses that had a powdery mixture of cacao and corn in them. There was some real thick mud walking out to where the cows were, so thick that there many occasions in which the entire boot was submerged in mud. We found the cows and Rufino showed us how it’s done on one of the more stubborn ones. I learned the key is to squeeze the nipple hard from the top and pull it down so the milk is squeezed out with the pressure instead of back in. it’s not an easy job at all, one that requires lots of practice I imagine. Rufino could milk the cow exponentially faster than Trent or I could. He milked it straight into the little cups he prepared for us and it was the best milk drink I’ve ever tasted. It was basically like a pure milk hot chocolate at the perfect temperature. After filling the bucket with milk, we headed back to town and had breakfast. After breakfast, Rufino sent us off with the sugar cane, a whole bunch of bananas and a warm smile. We were almost there now.

Trent was steering, I was paddling and spirits were really high as we left Jobo. We were in a really good groove and knew we were so close to the end now. The river had less current now, but it still felt like we were gliding down as we were really in sync with one another’s strokes. The landscape was slowly changing and we saw more cattle land and open fields, the river was narrowing and we could feel the headwind coming from the Caribbean coast. We passed two military checkpoints where neither was really able to read a map or help us with directions through the final lagoon and into San Juan del Norte. We came to the final checkpoint where the rivers diverge, one is a shorter path, but goes out into the ocean where the crashing waves of the Caribbean are. Darwin had advised us not to take this route because we would surely capsize the canoe and not make it through the break. The military seemed to be unaware of this and incapable of directing us through the lagoon, they said ask up ahead.

We paddled on into the unknown through a very thin river overgrown from all over that was prime alligator territory. We made it out into the lagoon, trying to look out for islands, but then there were all these collections of floating plants that also formed islands. We kept following the river out around a curve and into a big open lagoon area and then we snaked back up against the current, against the wind this was the final stretch and it was really hard. Trent was in a lot of pain from his back and forearm that had been bothering him the last few days and I was just pushing it as hard as I could, giving it all I had left. I knew Trent was in a lot of pain, I was feeling it too. It felt amazing though just pushing and pushing as hard as I could against everything and then we saw the Caribbean. There was no dramatic finish line or anything like that, we had to keep paddling down the river a ways to reach town. This push was also going against the current with the sea breeze coming in from the side. We pulled through and got to the final port in San Juan del Norte. We made it.

We were the only foreigners in the entire town. We found a nice little hostel to stay at that was run by a friendly family and they gave us breakfast every morning. We tried our best to get a boat that would take us upto Bluefields so that we could venture over to the Corn Islands where we had intended to do some scuba diving. We asked everyone that owned a boat in town, but it simply wasn’t a plausible thing with only the two of us. We spent four days in San Juan del Norte hanging out, doing a lot of reading, being disconnected from the world. If we had a little more time or luck, I think we could have eventually made it upto Bluefields and onto the Corn Islands, but it just wasn’t in the cards. We returned back up the river on the boat going to San Carlos on Thursday as this was the only remaining option. After the twelve hour boat ride we were back to the place the overnight ferry had left us ten days prior. We hopped on another overnight bus into Managua where Trent and I parted ways and continued on with our travels. I’m really glad I was able to share this experience with Trent, he was an excellent travel partner that challenged me in new ways. Trent was going to Granada in the morning and I decided I’d just fly to the Corn Islands from Managua that morning.

It was an epic journey and I’ve learned the hardest places to reach oftentimes have a very special quality about them. As frustrating as it might be, sometimes you have to go all the way back to where you started and then take another step back to get where you want to go. Life has many twists and turns and I’m learning more and more about keeping it all in perspective and taking it one step at a time.

I’m in the Corn Islands soaking up the Caribbean breeze, hanging out at Derek’s Place and rounding off the end of this journey in Central America. I’m excited to be back home in a few days. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *