I wanted to go to Nicaragua to meet the Rama tribe who live nine hours down where the Río San Juan meets the Caribbean - a magical river which slashes across the country from East to West on the Costa Rican border. It is known as the Amazon of Central America.
Why the Rama Tribe? There has been a black cloud of a threat hanging over the Río San Juan for the last 500 years to turn the river into a canal. That would be the end of the Rama tribe, the wild life and the river communities. How many times do we describe a place to someone who says, "Oh, it's completely different now, you should have been there in the 60s/70s - whenever!" I want to be that annoying person.
Now I can be a bit tricky but I do have friends. So I cast around for a travel buddy and am met with a baffling array of excuses which amount to, “Where the fuck is Nicaragua?” “Why the fuck are you going there?”
So, I go on my own.
The First 24 Hours:
There are a few things that go - shall we say - not exactly to plan.
It is Sunday and I climb out of the 10 seater plane in San Carlos and wend my way down a dusty path to the port where my trusty friends have promised me there is a public boat to transport me to Los Sábalos - my first destination - two hours down the river. This is an important connection as there are no made up roads leading to the village.
A toothless old woman tells me: “No boat – go away … find the bus stop.” In Spanish of course, but that’s OK… I speak Spanish.
I make my way to the bus stop which turns out to be a bus station. On arrival, I notice my case is dragging a bit. “Oh, no” I think , “that’s all I need… broken wheels” however, it turns out, I am giving a naughty little boy a free ride. He is lying astride my suitcase. “Shoo!” say I.
If you’ve had the misfortune to be in a Central American bus station you will know what I’m talking about. There are gangs of ambulant vendors all with the same things: leather belts, jewellery, and shower curtains. I ask three people times of buses to Sábalos and get three different answers and a taxi driver with an angry face how much to drive me. 2 hours, 2000 córdobas. Bus: 2 hours 60 córdobas.
Am I worried that I have just read an article about that very same route where a bus slid into the river whilst trying to unload a cooker from the top? The driver forgot to put the hand break on. Eight people drowned and the driver went to prison for two years. Yes! I’m not thrilled I happened on that story.
I remove myself to a comedor to mull over the choices and order a coke to sugar me up. A lame dog comes and sits on my feet under the table. Not sure what a Córdoba is worth (I have a wodge of them in my wallet) but it seems a bit of a no brainer, particularly as I am thinking I will be safer with a group in a bus than with a dodgy looking taxi driver in a dodgy looking car on a road that isn’t a road and isn’t marked on any map.
Boarding a Bus:
This is Steve Simpson's description:
I've been on quite a few now. I'm beginning to understand some of the problems. You'll remember that there are two doors, one at the front and one at the back, and every bus is full. The idea is that you get in at the front and struggle down the aisle in time to get off the back at your stop. Timing is important. I've only seen one hefty woman with a box of tangerines on her head capable of moving from halfway down the bus to the back between two stops. I was forced out before my stop that time, and a couple of other causalities occurred - broken foot and crushed groin, nothing fatal. Most people aim to get to the back well before their stop, but this creates the CLOT, which is difficult to get through; it often happens that you get empty standing space at the front while there's a CLOT of people crushed at the back for fear of missing their stop. Some passengers deal with the CLOT by staying up front and nipping off at their stop before passengers get on. However, if too many people do that you get big pressure up front too - this is the DOUBLE CLOT. There's no real answer to the DOUBLE CLOT. One woman was bodily passed through a middle window when confronted with the DOUBLE CLOT, but this move is not generally advisable.
My problems are a little different but none the less problems. My main priority is to get on the bus and get an inside seat which will ensure a whole seat rather than having one buttock waving out into the aisle. There is indeed a back and a front entrance and it is at the back that the bundle/suitcase/chicken has to be loaded either on the shelves in the bus or on top of the bus. My strategy is to board the bus at the back but having disposed of my case I find there are no steps. The people are piling in at the front. My only hope is to scramble up the two feet gap and grab a seat. However, half way up, on all fours on the floor of the bus, I am pulled back down and ordered to go to the front. Screwed again! I reconcile myself to sitting next to a very fat lady with a very fat child on her lap and a very jabby plastic chair on top of the child. I get the numb bum treatment as I feared.
Arrival at Sábalos:
Three hours later I arrive in a dark and deserted village at the very spot where the bus slipped in to the river.
Anxiety check list:
The hotel is on the other side of the river 20 minutes away by fast boat. Am I worried? Yes! I have absolutely no idea if anyone will meet me.
“Doña Maggie” says a small boy emerging from behind a tree. He bundles me into a large boat and off we go at high speed in the pitch dark across and down the raging river. I offer him the light on my phone. He declines.
Beastly Beasties (or Mod-Cons-Aren't-All-They're-Trumped-Up-To-Be):
I arrive at my “hotel” which is a cabin on stilts without walls dangling over the river. I am shown with pride that there are two plugs to charge phones etc. Not only that, there are overhead lights. Exactly the sort of hotel I love: A shower with only one knob so there's no confusion; towels cleverly made in to the shape of swans (wish I could do that!); And a very strong looking mosquito net. I unpack in my new home making full use of the 20 watt light bulbs. I look at what was a sparkling white mosquito net, I look at the light bulbs… everything is a heaving dancing mess of yellow wings, they descend on me, my phone, my face, my hair. I run through the jungle, along some planks to the reception hut. Nobody there. I was going to say, “Excuse me señor, I can’t stay here. Take me home!” By home I mean ISLINGTON. I slink back along the planks through the jungle and decide I am not dead so it could be worse. How in God’s name to get into the safety of the mosquito net without bringing in the whole population of beasties? The next half hour is spent thrashing around in the dark and randomly squirting DEET inside my net. In the middle of the night there is a storm of such monumental proportions that I am almost certain that my little house and I are floating down the river. I’m beyond caring.
The bed cover is a morgue in the morning – I am sharing my bed with about 1000 deet victims.
I prod myself...
I question my anxiety register. Am I suffering from PTSS?
I feel no symptoms. I scramble out of my mosquito net, lean over the rickety fence on my balcony and breathe in the sweet fresh air, I watch the relentless journey of the river, I am exactly where I want to be.
Home Sweet Home
Unbelievable but true - at my great age I've only just discovered the joys of travelling ALONE!