I enter Nicaragua, a country I know little about except for a reputation of being the poorest and most rewarding spot in Central America, in a motorized canoe at the remote port of San Carlos. A yellow canvas awning shades two dozen jabbering Latinas with their stores and me from the blazing sun and whatever may drop from tropical trees. I see baskets-size epiphytes bow the trees, 4’ chameleons on overhangs, wading birds, 1’ turtles sunning on the banks, two 6’ crocodiles, and a stout branch that conks my forehead sending the ladies into giggles.
On a further bend sits a ragged encampment of thatched huts where three Nicaraguan military youths duck a clothesline of their underwear with AK-47s in hand to wave the captain over for a list of the passengers’ names, a head count to verify, and we are passed.
I step mightily up under my pack and trundle the swaying dock to a weathered wood door signed ‘Immigration’ and wait until it cracks after a knock as kids splash and scream underfoot for coins through the slats. An equally cheerful agent beckons me forward, speedily stamps the passport, and I take a deep breath to brace and exit the far side of the hut.
Before me left and right stretches a cobblestone main street flanked with flimsy, busy shops, and I doubt there has been a distressed port in any century. I duck into a café that’s the front room of the cook’s home and toss down a parade of $.25 fruit drinks while paging the guidebook to make a plan. This is the way the nomad moves through daily storms of possibilities, and on learning that I know the present location only by name and not the month, the cook kindly suggests a river visit to a 17th century castle ruins built on the bank to thwart pirates.
An hour later, the ferry, a thinner, shorter motorized launch, departs with a few Latinos and slices the jungle toward the Caribbean. It occasionally drops and takes on fares like a usual taxi except the car pools are horses tied to trees at wide spots where trails meet the rio.
At sunset, the canoe swings into a tributary held tight by trees and vines and motors a few minutes to a timber dock to tie on. Passengers fore and aft climb out, and I eagerly follow for a glimpse of the jungle castle in green filtered light, don’t spot it and muck the muddy town square and up a sole road into the hills until the forest and dusk close behind. I stop in my tracks, pull a penlight, but am struck with a queer thought and rush down the hill.
The boat is gone! There is no castle for I’ve prematurely disembarked. Lost and curious, I snap a flash photo of a 6’ statue of a fish with a sharp nose pointing upward when the seeming one town truck batters past to the dock, and I follow to a 70’ steel hull elderly freighter with peeling gray side-paint and weighted under burden. Five young stevedores, grinning teens in oily rags, jump the tailgate, crank the truck radio, and dance while off-loading five cubic yards of 120lb. sacks of rice.
They look shorthanded, what the heck, so I leave the fish to help unload lighter items including 8’ spherical black plastic solar water heaters. The boys, like me at that age growing in spud-rich Idaho, are wary of a vocation that requires new clothes more than once a year, and are pleased to earn $8 per 12-hour day, 365 days a year. They take turns trying on my ankle weights until the captain of the ship advances and I hit him up for a ride. Batting nary an eyelash, he will ferry me downstream to El Castillo for $1.50. We momentarily push off with our feet for a slow ride down a moonlit stream as I recline on life preservers with hands clasped behind my head thanking my lucky stars. The unknown is the best pillow where I gaze at the stars between passing overhangs and smile that dreams do come true because in Idaho I read Bombay the Jungle Boy and here I am.
I must have dozed, for next the Cap’t yells, ‘Get off!’ I edge to the boat side that bobs three feet from a darkened pier, and toss first my pack, then ankle weight with thumps, and leap…
Gazing up at the castle in the shadows of moonstruck trees, I nod sleepily on hands and knees, and rise to trudge up to it. Just think, it began by carefully putting two bricks together three centuries ago and now it’s a touching hump of a hundred weathered bricks. No town should be larger than a walk from a castle to a hotel on a wharf over jungle rapids next to a pool hall of hangers on. I get a key and candle for $6, and fall asleep listening to the water rush beneath.
People in jungle outposts rise at godforsaken hours, so I catch the 5am launch back upstream to the port of San Carlos. There, next to the dock, the mud slick bus lot steams under the sun. I grab a cucumber from an adjacent market stall to munch and think and, sure enough, thirty minutes later wipe my Chucks on the first step of an ancient orange school bus. It so crams with Nicaraguans and their stores that I’m pressed to the back above the rusting floor atop a dozen rice sacks. The driver cries ‘Vamos!, mud flies and the heavenly ride slides out of town.
I look down and around at the passengers and out the windows with some concern that there’s not a fat person in Nicaragua, nor a real thief. A grain or two at a time, with each bump along the road, a rice sack with a rent of my throne leaks to tinkle to the floor. A beatific ten-year delights in scraping one fallen grain at a time and sucks a la grime, and grins shyly. The bright eyes in mine express wonderment, softness, pride and a touch that I don’t join the table. Other riders squeeze the aisle to take pinches off the floor and thrust into hungry mouths. Savages we have called them around the world because their manners differ from ours.
I study them. Travel magnifies human emotions. Every seat is stuffed, and thirty more stand the aisle in their sadness and wisdom- and I might mention eternal yak- until the temperature soars to 100F at our heads that sometimes bump the roof. They stand stoically and chat affably for hours until I must be grateful as the sun heats the metal so hot the air thins beneath until they cannot find wind to continue.
The yellow antique averages 20mph for ten hours over the worst main route I’ve journeyed, stops hundreds of times- often at hundred feet intervals- for passengers at slim towns or paths erupting from the jungle, plus two flat tires. A huge volume of adventure is filled within the span of a bus glass by taking a keen interest in everything that passes. This, and more windows, will shine a theater of jungles, towns and peoples struggling for existence with all they can give. It’s showtime, forget the mosquitoes!
I spread a map for the first time against the hot glass to discover where the bus is going. A country’s psyche is the roadmap thrown into an upright position, and I’m delighted to see the paths and lanes are earth. I shall become enamored over the next month with the notion that the poorer the place the higher the adventure.