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2000 Expedition Journals
Upon our return to Puerto Lempira, I was well-rested, well-fed and ready to go. JP, in another chapter in the saga, was recovering from yet another malaria attack and was less gung-ho. Nevertheless, we rounded up all the gear, and were set in less than two days. Due to JP's extra sick days we were behind schedule and had to get going. We had planned five more weeks of paddling and we wanted to avoid doing any of it during the oncoming rainy season. We felt pressured by the schedule and intimidated by the itinerary. The border crossing and entire northern stretch of Nicaraguan coast would be the most remote and potentially dangerous leg of the entire trip. Fortunately the first three days up to the border were through the lagoons and canals on the Honduran side with friendly folks and flat water.
On our first day back, Laguna Carratasca gave us a rough welcome. It is only 11.5 miles from Puerto Lempira across to the town of Cauquira on the southeastern edge, yet it took us five hours through chop and a steady headwind. JP in his weakened condition struggled the second half. As we approached the scenic canal and sheltered banks of the town he nearly shut down. With the landing in sight, he asked jokingly if I would paddle into town and fetch him a Coke for the final push.
Cauquira was a complete departure from the poor villages we had seen on the coast just north. A family emerged from a gaily painted house on stilts just by the canal bank and quickly offered to host us. The men of the family earned a good living fishing for sharks and " red meat" fish (Snapper). From the looks of the town the people were better off. There was very little garbage, all the houses were nicely maintained and a few people even had generators and satellite dishes. We ate and slept on the plank floor of a house under construction next-door. No mosquitoes or sand flies pestered us and we slumbered deeply.
In our boats at 4:00 AM we were surprised to see that there was already some traffic on the canal. Occasional motor launches and power boats passed, navigating with short bursts from flashlights to save batteries. We were afraid we might be hit and paddled close to the sides.
We wound our way through the initial wide lengths of the canal and just after dawn arrived at the opening of the narrow man-made channel that would bring us further south. Several hours later we found ourselves lost in a maze of man-made canals, natural creeks and expanses of lagoon. We popped out of a stretch through thick mangrove at a junction bordered by a wide-open patch of savanna. A landing strip and a shack indicated that there might be people about and we disembarked to find someone to ask for directions. A motor canoe ferrying a dozen passengers eventually passed and the amused captain led us out for an hour and a half through the proper channels to the town of Benk on the coast.
05/04/00 Benk to Nicaraguan Border "Point of No Return"
Despite all the warnings to the contrary, we slept well, assured that our gear was safe in Benk. We expended much effort to make it so. After exiting the river mouth we had paddled another half mile down the beach to the only house along the shore, ferried the gear 250 yards back inside a friendly fisherman's barbed-wire compound and camped with everything piled around us. Once again, our rest was brief and we were up at the first ring of the alarm at 1:30 AM.
The Nicaraguan border had loomed large and menacing in front of us for months and today was the day. Stories we had heard in passing from people in southern Honduras rang in our ears: AK 47's are a dime a dozen along the northern coast of Nicaragua, banditos in motor boats prey on passersby, and for more than 100 miles no phones and few radios are to be found. Not wanting to dwell on our worries, without delay we roused ourselves, packed up the tent, wolfed down our breakfast of cookies and dry granola and commenced the long carry. By 3:00 we were ready for our launch.
Unexpectedly, a strong headwind plagued us from the start. This defied normal weather patterns and planted yet another seed of doubt in our minds that were already well-fertilized with fear. The reasons for our night launches were to take advantage of the usual pre-dawn calm and avoid the headwinds and waves of the day and to minimize encounters with rough characters. With 13 miles to go to reach the border we were worried we wouldn't make it before daylight. Our plan was to make it across the border and situate ourselves in a hidden campsite off the beach, rest until 10:00 at night and launch again for a 30 mile night- paddle through dangerous territory to the safe town of Sandy Bay. However, our slow pace made us wonder if everything would come off as planned.
The Rio Coco (aka Segovia) that forms the border between Nicaragua and Honduras became an unforeseen obstacle. The river mouth was much wider and its flow much stronger than we anticipated. The result was a massive zone of roiling six-foot surf and standing waves that popped up suddenly, bouncing the kayak around uncontrollably. 20 minutes of strong paddling with continuous bracing strokes for balance brought us to the far side and into the lee of a sharp point. Once around it, the headwind became a quartering tailwind that pushed us southwestward. In our exhausted state we paddled lazily and looked for a spot to pull onto the beach and hide.
The shore line presented us with few options so we chose randomly and landed on a stretch with a patch of thick, low-lying brush. We hauled the boats up over a small bank and lugged the gear into the shadow of the foliage. While JP hacked out a natural shelter from the bushes I cooked lunch in the sweltering heat and fended off painful doctor flies. We ate quickly and nestled into our shelter by mid-afternoon. The tarp was crawling with stinging ants, the shelter received little breeze and the doctor flies pestered us constantly. In long pants and long sleeves, we lay unmoving while rivulets of sweat pooled underneath us and stealthy doctor flies left welts on our fingers, wrists and ankles We prayed for respite and for a few consecutive minutes of sleep.
Many times we have to remind ourselves that we are doing this by choice. By deciding to embark on this expedition we accepted the challenges and the inevitable physical punishment that comes with them. Masochism? Read JP's next journal and you decide.
5/05/2000 - "Masochism on the Nicaraguan Coast"
05/05/00 Border to Sandy Bay "Sacrificing Comfort for Stealth"
At dusk we moved from our hidden shelter to the shoreline. To reduce the risk of being seen, we moved without lights. Pale glow from a young moon helped us see shapes and obstacles but little else. It was mostly by feel that I cooked some ramen on the camp stove while JP spread out the tarp and the mats. We ate silently and laid down for another couple hours of rest.
The beach proved more inhospitable than the shelter. In less than an hour, the tide pushed the waves higher up the nearly flat shore, flooding our tarp. We pulled it higher, up to the line of dead seaweed and detritus that marked the previous night's high-tide line, and settled in again. At just after 9:00 the waves rose again and soaked us. Taking the hint, we decided to forgo our last 45 minutes of rest and get an early start on our planned 10:00 PM departure. What's 45 minutes when you're planning to paddle all night?
The overcast skies and new moon caused almost total darkness. Navigation required constant concentration, intuition and a bit of luck. Fortunately JP was up to the task and I put my head down and tucked in behind him. I had other issues that I was dealing with.
When it comes to motion sickness, I'd say that I'm better than most but not immune. JP has never been seasick in his life and doesn't understand what I must endure every night. In the darkness, with no horizon line or readily visible shoreline to focus on, I start to lose my equilibrium. The bounce of the uneven chop that characterize the Caribbean do it to me. My meager breakfast and fluids churn in my stomach and I fight back waves of nausea and bile. Deep breathing and strategic belching help, but I usually don't start feeling better until after first light. With our launch at just after 10:00 and first light at 4:45 it looked to be a long night. If all went well, after six and a half hours of paddling I'd be feeling good enough to eat something to give me energy for the remaining 17 miles and six hours.
The mental side of paddling under these conditions is a crucial concern. By 3:00 I had nearly lost it entirely. Nausea drained me of any energy and I lagged behind. JP. Forced to slow down, he became drowsy and was on the verge of dozing off while trying to navigate. Our little cat-naps on the beach the prior afternoon were not sufficient and we needed a break.
We approached the heavily wooded shoreline in the dark and prepared to land. I paddled in through the surf zone and floated in on the shore break to find a thick tangle of trees. My hull bumped up against exposed root systems and dead logs. There wasn't a speck of open sand to land on. We had to keep on moving.
The sky started to lighten and we scoured the coast for beach. There was none. At 4:30, with just enough light to make out shapes on shore, JP, working on instinct, aimed for shore. Yes, a narrow section of beach. We landed. It would turn out to be the only stretch of open sand for nearly 20 miles. We were out of the boats and napping on our mats in less than 10 minutes.
A lone Miskito beachcomber awoke us by hailing us with greetings after less than an hour of restless sleep. My nausea had subsided but my wariness had returned. What was a guy with a machete doing here in the middle of nowhere? Showing only smiles and curiosity, he didn't appear menacing, but he caused us to shorten our nap and continue on. We were back on-board by 6:30.
The sun climbed higher, the heat rose, the wind picked up and the shoreline of thick trees and root systems opened up into sandy beach. We still had nearly 20 miles to go, and along this endless stretch I suffered. My left lat muscle, strained by overexertion, seared with pain every time I tried a long, powerful stroke. All I could manage was to put the blades in the water and go through the motions.
The coordinates for the town of Sandy Bay proved deceptive. Every 15 minutes for an hour and a half we checked the GPS. It is buried in the back of a lagoon half a mile inland and the entrance is a few miles further south. The map showed no such detail and we were forced to paddle nearly three hours more than we expected. Never have I known such exhaustion.
A village of surprisingly upscale, gayly painted houses on stilts welcomed us. The first house we approached lay in the shade of large mango trees on the backside of the lagoon. A friendly family helped us unload. They were concerned for the safety of our gear and stowed everything up inside their house, even the boats. After feeding us, they overwhelmed us with their generosity and insisted we take their bed. We were too tired to stay up and be social and just after dusk, with full bellies and muscles that ached with every move, we swallowed 800mg of ibuprofen and lay down for a 12 hour slumber.
05/06/00 Sandy Bay "Where do you get your water?"
There is no life without water, fresh water that is. Yet many of the Miskito villages that we have encountered recently are not near rivers. We've been paddling the coast and through lagoons. How do these remote towns survive without a fresh water source, especially now during the dry season?
In the past couple weeks I have seen two solutions, cisterns and wells. Neither yield crystal clear glassfuls of Evian-esque refreshment, but once treated and mixed with Tang in our water bottles, water is water.
Some towns that lie in less choice areas, until recently, have struggled. Swampy locations by lagoon estuaries or bone-dry spots along the sandy bar next to the ocean have left them with few options. Water sources such as creeks, rivers and wells in the swampy areas are contaminated by feces and silt that leaches through the groundwater. Out on the dry sand bar there is nothing.
In recent years, many non-profit organizations with foreign aid have donated large water cisterns to these towns. Water is collected during the rainy season and doled out during the dry months.
Other towns with better locations along shore and in the lagoons are more fortunate. They can successfully dig wells. You need not go deep, usually 10-15 feet is enough, and almost always you will hit fresh water.
But how is it possible that a well dug merely 150 feet from the shore of a salty lagoon will yield fresh water?
It turns out that the ground, made up of sand and clay, is an excellent filter. The salt is removed. You still need to treat it with micro-biotic purifying drops and mask the metallic aftertaste with lime or powdered juice but it is potable water.
With a bounty of water at hand, coconuts and mangos up in the trees, fish and shrimp in the lagoon and rice in the cupboard, life isn't so bad.
Our time in Sandy bay was relaxing and safe and we let down our guard. We should have remained more wary as we encountered a potentially explosive situation the day we left. Read JP's journal about getting robbed at gun point.
5/07/2000 - "AK 47 Sub-machinegun Armed Robbery"
We arrived tired, dirty and hungry and at first glance the hotel appeared to be a pretty nice place. It had clean rooms with A/C and hot water, an airy, open balcony and deck, and a kitchen with a staff that turned out good food. However, familiarity breeds contempt and by the second day, the things we over-looked at first began to gnaw at us.
We arrived so tired after a 38 mile, all-night and all-day paddle, that we were easy to please. A good meal, a comfy bed and air conditioning were a dream package. Our first night was a blissful respite from the misery of the previous days out on the water. It would prove a brief respite.
Like many hotels in Central America, Hotel Percy is a family-run business. The hotel doubles as the family residence, the restaurant is also the family dining room and the common area is the communal recreation space where games, daily duties and squabbles play out in front of guests. And it’s not just the immediate family in attendance. The infirm and sickly grandparents, an aunt and uncle or two, the live-in staff and a few hangers-on are also present.
Filial Piety be damned, Grandpa’s gotta go!
A few cards short of a full deck, the abuelito made his presence well known. After meeting him, and re-meeting him every time we passed through the lobby, he’d still greet us like strangers. A Latino of European descent, he obviously had spent a long time in the region and learned much about its indigenous culture, because each time we walked in the door he’d direct questions to us not in English or Spanish, his first languages, but in Miskito. Questionable physical and mental health were visible in his daily routine. From dawn to dusk he never left the hotel, merely shuffling and limping around to different chairs in the lobby and rumbling up gobs of spit from the depths of his throat. Every few minutes, repeatedly, he’d expectorate and project them on the floor, out the window, on the table, wherever, as if he was trying to dislodge a tumor. Other family members explained that he had a permanent psychosomatic cold, a figment of his imagination, and that he disdained medicine. Thus his only recourse was to try and exorcise the disease by spitting it out. Fortunately, as he wasn’t really sick, the puddles on the floor were free of sputum. The maid, dutifully and without comment, always cleaned them up after they accumulated at the end of the day.
We were awakened on the second day by the incessant, loud pinging of a hammer on steel. Another elderly member of the family was puttering out back in a junk-yard full of wrecked cars and construction equipment. He was doing his damnedest to prove he was still a productive member of society by hammering off a patina of rust on a plate of steel that belonged to a defunct backhoe. One presumes he intended to work piecemeal through the whole thing in hopes of restoring the exterior so that someone might be encouraged to buy a new engine and get it going again. From 6:00 AM until late morning he’d sit in the shade of a tree, with earmuffs in place, wailing away without pause. We had to vacate the hotel during those hours or risk going insane.
On the afternoon of the second day, I realized I had a couple fans in the kitchen. One was the kitchen manager, a half-Chinese, half-Miskito woman the size of a sumo wrestler. She teased me and flirted aggressively, making as if she was going to belly-bump me into the bed-room. The second was a shy and slight Miskito woman with a million-dollar smile. Never have teeth glistened with so much metal. I reckon she visited the same orthodontist as that Jaws character from the old James Bond films. As the main cook, she actually turned out to be a benefactor, slipping me free cups of coffee and choice bits of meat from the cooking pot. However, I couldn’t help but feel that each gift had some sort of string attached.
Our other encounter with family members came in the form of loud complaints and nasty looks from the pouty teenaged daughter. She was the sullen, oldest daughter who had spent her first 15 years in Miami and was angry to not still be living there. She’d sulk around complaining loudly about how the food sucked, the place sucked, the people sucked and everything else too. Unhappy to be 15, teen-wise and in no place to find any intriguing mischief to get into, she made everyone share in her misery.
The last straw came on the third day as we reviewed our finances and debated an extra night’s stay. We went over the bill with grandma and she let us know that we’d be paying 20% more for the room than we were originally quoted. Apparently we had been told the basic single occupancy rate and as we were two, we’d be paying more. Ambiguously communicated or intentionally deceptive, it didn’t matter, JP and I were furious. We had paid a higher rate than we would for many roadside motels in the States for a room in a seaside shanty town in a developing country. Talk about being a captive consumer. The decision about whether or not to stay an extra night became much easier.
I can’t imagine that anything would bring you to Nicaragua’s frontier country and its capital Puerto Cabezas. However if by some misalignment of the stars your horoscope takes over your compass and you do land in town, steer a wide berth around the Hotel Percy.
Hard to believe, but we caused more stir leaving town than arriving. We piled all our gear and boats onto a pick-up with a rack and paraded down to the dock. Standing in the back holding the boats. I definitely felt on display. People waved, yelled, gawked. I’d always dreamt of riding a float in a parade. This came close.
Once at the dock we were thronged. We had to weave our way through the crowd just to get to the unloading spot a mere 15 feet away. There were a couple dozen spectators surrounding the boats and easily a hundred more looking on.
We moved the kayaks to the beach just below the wharf. It was the landing of choice for the turtle hunters and we piled our bags amidst a few fiberglass lancha boats and a couple dozen 200 lb turtles, bound up and flipped on their backs. The onlookers moved to the wharf above us.
On our last trip from the loading dock down to the beach, we were approached by a salty looking fellow. He was the owner of the ramshackle bar adjoining the wharf. He explained that the city had grand plans to rejuvenate the pier and make it into a full-service, international shipping port. He planned to bring his shanty watering hole into the 21st century with a new, concrete construction, an upscale seafood menu and mural-covered walls. To immortalize our passing he was going to contract with a local artist and have a fresco done of us with our two kayaks. While writing down all the pertinent info (names, route, date) he treated us to sodas and donated a bottle of rum to the provisions. We promised as well to put in a plug for his joint on our site. So, here goes: for road-weary travelers looking for a savory meal of lobster or sea-turtle and a frosty Victoria beer, stop in at Elmo’s “Kool Spot” at the new Puerto Cabezas international pier from early 2002. Tell us how the mural came out.
With a 20 mile day in store for us, we got a late start. Just before 9:00 we were waved off by the crowd. More than seven hours and three drive-by oglings later (passing motor boats that changed course to come check us out), we pulled up onto a deserted beach. Just to be safe, we pulled all the boats and gear up into the bushes and camped on lumpy brush-covered ground. Aaah, fame has its rewards.
As you can see, the anticipated in-town comforts didn't materialize and out of town our discomforts only increased. Read JP's next entry to get a feel for the conditions.
5/11/2000 - "Forced Paddling with a Sick Stomach"
All along the Mosquito Coast of Honduras and Nicaragua we have been shown great kindness and offered bits of advice and words from the gospel from many of the locals, not without a trace of religious zeal. Even thieves will use the lord to their own ends. We were once waylaid and relieved of some money by “godfearing” men with an AK 47 and knives. Temptation will always be the downfall of man. You don’t need a preacher to tell you that. Fortunately, few are the men who succumb. Unfortunately, the trust and honesty of the majority lulls you into false security. On the most reverent days, JP and I are agnostics at best, and when we arrive in a town and are shown only brotherly love by “men of god” and still find ourselves victims, there is no end to the frustration. We’ve been very lucky so far, but the bad experiences leave a lasting mark. The latest? Someone in the idyllic town of Prinzapolka stole my deck-mounted compass.
We’d been making incredible time down the Nicaraguan coast to avoid dangerous places and potentially violent situations. A 1:15 AM night-departure and 27 miles—a typical paddling day—brought us into the town at the mouth of a river. Once again, an amiable crowd greeted us and within 10 minutes our boats and gear were stored in a house less than 100 yards from the river shore.
The town has an intriguing history characterized by dogma, fantasy and violence. It was named after a German princess who is rumored to have visited the area. A look around town indicates that the people do their best to live up to the legend. An elevated cement walkway (for ease of passage during the flooding of the rainy season) winds its way through rows of well-kept, gayly painted wooden houses on stilts and ends at an impressive church, the county seat so to speak, of the Moravian Evangelicals, with a three-tiered steeple and high vestry, looking like it came right out of Bavaria. It’s oddly grand and out of place in such a remote jungle town. The church is notorious for its aggressively evangelical rhetoric and devoted congregation. We happened to arrive on the second day of the yearly conference and streams of pilgrims were pouring into town from outlying villages, in motor canoes, dugouts, on foot. . .The church was packed and reverberated with songs and sermons nearly 24 hours a day. Four days of peaceful rejoicing are a marked departure from the towns violent past. Beginning roughly in 1900, a sawmill, gold mine, and shipping dock made the town into a regional hub and provided employment to most of the men in the area. That era ended 30 years ago with the advent of the war. The Sandanistas destroyed most of the mill complex and the foreign owners abandoned it. A cemetery down the beach lies full of graves from the conflict, some dug as recently as the early ‘90’s. The rusting hulks of machinery lie fallow on the river banks as fading reminders of past glory.
Lack of economic diversity leads inextricably to desperation. With the timber industry non-existent and the fisheries slowing down, people are beginning to wonder what the future will hold. Our host relied entirely on his motor launch for his livelihood, fishing with nets, selling a few feet of timber out on the touristy Corn Islands, etc. He has begun to contemplate his future as his nets yield less and less. He looked at our gear and our lifestyle with envy, “You’ve got two boats and you travel, write and take photos. Nice life.” And in a bit of foreshadowing, commented that we were each carrying a compass. “Could sure use one of them for the 50- mile trips out to Corn Island. Was he the thief?
We happened to be camped out next to his house which lies on the main shortcut out to the church. Legions of well-dressed churchgoers stopped by to ogle and chat. All commented on the boats, the dangerous nature of the trip and the fact that in many places there were thieves we should watch out for. “By the way, how do you navigate? Compass, mmm, nice!” Was it one of them?
The young men of the town were the boldest of the bunch. They are the ones who go off to work as divers in the dangerous lobster industry. The incentive to take risks and go deeper and longer is high. Many die or are left crippled. They make enough to buy a flashy watch or gold chain, a new pair of shoes, a trendy outfit and all the booze they can drink. They see enough of the outside world to know they want more of that lifestyle. They just don’t know what direction to take to get there. Many of them stood around silently and stared admiringly, curiously, grudgingly. The dream for them is to buy a boat and motor on out into the world. Gotta know where you’re going though. Most likely it was one of them.
We left Prinzapolka for another series of marathon days with a bitter taste in our mouths. The religious festival was reaching its peak and the town was awash in the fervor of the righteous who have found the Way. One doubter, one infidel among them denied God as his compass and took mine instead. We now have one left. It is sacred, true and precious, for faith alone can’t find magnetic north.
This experience left a poor taste in my mouth. Fortunately it was replaced a few days later by wonderful food in Tasbapounie. Alas, JP was the loser on that one as stomach problems kept him from the table. Read his next journal entry.
5/14/2000 - Tasbapounie - "Missing out on the Sea Turtle Feast"
5/17/2000 - "And then the Rain Began"
During a malaria attack the intensity of your REM sleep rockets upward preying on all the infant thoughts that cower in the soft folds of your subconscious. The toxic chemical medicine and the fever fuel the dream ride. A few have been hurtled into a universe of insanity never to return. Sleep is brief reprieve from the heat and the pain, but it’s the waking moment that brings on the onslaught. My first three days in Bluefields was a montage of misery:
Exhausted after 30 miles, encamped on soggy margins of mangrove swamp on the shore of a protected cove. Swarms of insects. Monsoon squalls soaking everything. . . 17 miles to Bluefields. Slow progress to the mouth of the lagoon. Six to go. Violent, sudden onset of malaria, shuddering with chills, then hot like a furnace. The rain starts again. . .The harbor a web and maze of grounded decomposing ships and barges. A bevy of newer boats tethered hither and thither, the living crafts buzzing in and around the hulks of the dead ones. Fetid odor of sewage and decomposing garbage. Oil and gasoline rainbows thick on the surface of the water. . .Sitting shivering on the dock while JP searches for hotel. . .Waist deep water, feet sinking into polluted sludge, unloading gear onto dock in downpour. . .Warm shower to ward off chills then hot explosion of fever. . .acrid bitterness of chloroquine. . . In bed, peeling off the clingy skin of sheets wet with sweat. . .The Dreaming: massive waves pushing me away from shore, loved ones dying and no chance to say goodbye, falling endlessly. . .Endless pills. The level in the Advil bottle sinking. . .Endless glasses of water, yet the level of water in my body still sinking. . .Finally relief as the fever fades and appetite returns.
From hearing folks talk in Bluefields, there were worse encounters in store for us than malaria attacks if we continued south along the coast. The bandits from that region will take your life along with your belongings. Thus we changed the itinerary. Read JP's next account.
5/21/2000 - Bluefields to Managua - Tough Portage, do we really have to?
As my condition improved, the prognosis for the onward itinerary rapidly deteriorated. The rainy season arrived a month early, suddenly and with a vengeance. Intermittent squalls that had kept us holed up for only brief periods in our hotel merely three days prior, escalated into long downpours. Over the course of three days in Bluefields inches of rain inundated the town. Had it been snow it would have been the kind of apocalyptic blizzard that buries alpine villages. As well, the more we inquired about the southern coast, the more we began to fear for our safety. The names Punta Mono and Corn River came up in conversation over and over.
Desperation and destitution make man a dangerous animal. Punta Mono and the town at the mouth of the Corn river have become notorious. Stories of banditos in motor launches roaring out to attack passing boats were told to us by every person we asked. In order to pass by these points unnoticed we’d have to paddle miles out to sea and then come into shore in the dark, hide in the bush and try to set up camp. And even then, nothing is guaranteed as the local people often roam the coast to work on their distant farm plots or look for washed up “treasures.”
After much consultation and discussion we decided to take the long way around to the Nicaragua-Costa Rica border. We packed up all the gear and arrived at the dock for the 5:00 AM boat that ferries people up river to the town of Rama. From Rama we immediately shuffled our gear out to a rickety, converted school bus for the seven hour ride to the capital Managua. One night in a hotel with a trip to a cinema and a pizza restaurant gave us a bit of respite. Another bus took us to the lakeside city of Granada and we rested for a couple days. The real odyssey would begin again at the Granada ferry docks.
I arrived at the ticket counter as soon as they began selling at 10:00 AM. It turns out that the four- hour hydrofoil ferry to San Carlos at the south end of the lake had been discontinued. The high-speed, Russion-made craft broke down a couple years back and were retired for lack of replacement parts. Our only option was an all-night slow boat departing at 2:00 PM, arriving at 4:00 AM.
We showed up at 12:30 to get our gear stowed away and get a good spot on board. To our surprise, most of the passengers had already arrived and the people working in the cargo bay of the port were completely un-cooperative and hostile. Nobody would let us borrow a cart or dolly. The chief wanted to charge us extra money for the equipment. The hired porters with carts wanted more money for a 150 yard carry than we had paid for the taxi ride with all the gear from the hotel. It wasn’t a lot but we were so angry, and on principle and stubbornness alone, we carried the 100 lb. kayak bags and large dry bags of gear to the boat ourselves in the pouring rain. And once on board we changed clothes, found unoccupied benches, unrolled our air mats (to the envy of our neighbors) and settled in for the night. The rhythmic pinging and clunking of the diesel engine put us to sleep.
We were at the San Carlos dock at the head of the San Juan river that forms the border with Costa Rica by 4:00. The ticket salesman for the motor launch that carries passengers down the river to the mouth informed us that it would not depart for another two and a half hours. We went back to sleep. Bustling on the dock awoke us before 6:00 and we rushed, flustered, to load our mountain of gear into the launch to be assured a spot on board.
I hate to generalize, but down here in Central America, organizational snafus are almost always the key factor keeping people, and on a larger scale the countries, from making any great strides. By 6:30 the 35- foot, narrow boat with 15 rows of seats for 30 passengers was listing to the side and low in the water with 43 people and mountains of cargo. The over-enthusiastic ticket salesman had oversold tickets. The port captain came out for his inspection and said no way. The boat driver and crew were unwilling to take control of the situation and demand that some people disembark. With the crew flustered, people complaining and the port captain holding fast to his decision, we sat in the boat for two hours waiting for a solution to materialize. Finally at 8:00 we shifted into a larger boat and were off. The engines from the smaller boat were transferred to the larger and did not provide the necessary power. The seven hour ride would prove to be much longer and the cause of more unfortunate events.
The most vocal of the passengers, the defenders of rider’s rights, was a black Creole family of four. Obviously they had spent some time in the States and were used to things working smoothly, perhaps more than us. The two young men and their sister, all in their 20’s, had a lot to say to the captain and crew. They would joke amongst themselves in their Creole English, much to our amusement, and then complain in Spanish to the amusement of the rest of the passengers. Their commentary was most likely responsible for motivating the captain and crew to resolve the over-crowding problem.
Once under way our primary concerns were seating positions and the question, to drink or not to drink. The first issue, the seats, was a constant struggle. Hard plastic straight-backed seats were anchored to the fiberglass frame of the boat with little leg room in-between. Some of the large Caribbean mamas with ample posteriors had no problems. For us it was miserable. I had to change position every 10 minutes and still my back side throbbed.
The second concern was hydration and excretion. It became very clear that the boat would not make many bathroom stops. As it turns out, the first stop long enough for any passengers to get out was five hours into the trip. We debated as to whether or not we should buy drinks from the one vendor on the boat. Our first try cured us of any desire to purchase more. The only option was canned apple nectar. Viscous and warm, it provided no refreshment. Thusly we endured, dry-mouthed and dehydrated.
The weather was not much of a factor at first. Morning haze changed into intermittent squalls in the afternoon. The boat was equipped with a roof and plastic curtains that could be unfurled on the sides during downpours. The roof was a godsend. If only it had stayed intact.
By dusk, we were still over two hours away from the destination town of San Juan. The crew began to navigate by flashlight as the wan light faded to total blackness. Some passengers looked worried; others began to grumble, “Never would have happened if we’d left on time!” As it turned out they would have more to complain about.
At 7:30, the pilot in the back of the boat, 35 feet behind the bow-riding crewman with the flashlight, steered us into the left channel around an island. Some of the passengers, locals, commented that it was the wrong way to go, too narrow and twisty. A shout from the front and a quick correction from the pilot narrowly saved us from running aground on the left bank. At that moment it began to pour, and 10 seconds later, blinded by the rain, he was unable to fix his over-correction and we plunged into the low-lying branches on the right bank. Like gunshots, the wooden posts holding up the roof snapped. The boat listed to the side, the right gunwale dangerously close to water level. The only thing that saved the boat from capsizing and discharging the passengers into the swiftly moving current was when the roof completely ripped off and released the boat from the branches. People screamed and raised their hands over their heads to push away the heavy canvas and wood awning. I wasn’t quick enough and received a gash on my forehead. In the aftermath, the boat went silent for a few seconds as everyone waited to see if we were still afloat.
The four man crew scrambled to assess the damage. The pilot was afraid to engage the engines. He passed long poles to the two deck-hands to direct the boat as it drifted in the current. The passengers calmed down and began to reach overboard to the partially submerged awning and dislodge the life vests tied to the underside.
Ten minutes of drifting later we approached the riverside shack of a homesteader. Dim candlelight guided us. We pulled up to the bank and once again the complaints began. The two black guys, nonplussed at being rained upon and “nearly killed,” lambasted the crew. “If you don’t have life vests for all of us and can’t find the right way, we’re staying here man! You can send another boat for us in the morning! It’s your fault this accident! If you had any organization we’d have left on time and we’d be there now!”
The rain let up, the narrow branch rejoined the main flow and we continued on in discomfort but with no further incidents. The pilot kept the engine on low-throttle, the deckhands navigated with the flashlights and two hours later we pulled into the dock at San Juan. I had shivered and suffered all huddled up and soaking wet and wrapped in a plastic bag. I was ready to pay anything for a dry hotel room. After finally locating one we carried the gear, dried off, choked down a warm meal and collapsed into bed.
The irony of our long portage through the itinerary was not lost on us. We chose what we thought was the safe route, away from life-threatening encounters with bandits only to nearly meet our ends at the hands of inept boatsmen. You can only count on yourself.
Consistent with the entire month in Nicaragua, our final push to the border had been a near tragedy. Onward to Costa Rica we would go with great haste and few fond memories.
After this ordeal, we thought we could coast through the home stretch into Costa Rica. Little did we know that it would be JP's turn for major mishap. Read his account.
1 km = 0.62 statute miles
1 Nautical Mile = 1.85 km
1 Nautical Mile = 1.15 miles
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