Augencio had a peculiar way about him. He wouldn’t look at me when he talked. Not that first time, anyway. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that I was standing there in my shorts and nothing else
WE WANT TO GO TO GREYTOWN
Well, all the guides have an agreement about the price…
SO HOW MUCH?
Boxhead was in the room on his bed. When Augencio had arrived on our doorstep, he made an effort to get up, but halfway there it just got to be too much, a monumental effort borrowed from the vastness of space, and he couldn’t do it… couldn’t do it, and he collapsed back down
Ahhhhh I’ll just let you sort it out…
We agreed to meet at 8 o’clock the following morning at the what appeared to be the only restaurant in town.
In the morning, there was a knock at the door. It was one of the girls from the hostel. This time I had a shirt on. Lucky for her.
Your guide is here now
I looked at my watch. It was 7.15. I went out to meet him and it was Augencio’s son and he wanted to give us a ride to the restaurant in his boat. He told us on the way to the restaurant that the boat to Bluefields was leaving that morning.
It’s certain?, I asked
He looked at us, startled
There wouldn’t be another one for at least six days. We had the option of flying, but the next flight wasn’t until Sunday. It was Thursday. Stuck in a no-horse town until then. There was nothing to eat. I was starving and I wasn’t feeling too noble. Our only hope was to go back on ourselves to San Carlos.
I really hope that boat isn’t going today, I said.
We knew it was a risk attempting to go by boat from San Juan del Norte to Bluefields. The boat only goes once a week and we couldn’t be sure of when that was and it is frequently delayed anyway. We had no idea when we’d be going.
As it happens we arrived on a Wednesday and the fucking boat leaves on Wednesdays. But it had already been delayed by one day because of the weather. Another day and the timing would be perfect. We’d see Greytown and leave the following morning.
Wouldn’t it be nice if for just once, everything worked out for us?
After breakfast we climbed back into the boat parked outside the restaurant. Augencio sat at the front. His son steered the outboard.
We crept up the Rio Indio into a lagoon where there stood an old rusted dredge amongst islands of green river plant, put there during the California gold rush when thousands of travellers passed this way en route to San Francisco. Across the water from it an expensive sport fishing lodge, $150 a night. It was early but it was already hot and the sun was on my face and I could feel it burning. Rusting steamships wrecked against the shore, trees that bleed red, the jungle so matted and impenetrable, the growl of the outboard, we entered the Cañon del Vapor, narrow, where the old steamships would go to reach Greytown.
How deep is the river?, I asked Augencio
It is safe to swim?
We went slowly along the river, past the thick forest of both banks until a sign announced that we had arrived. The motor was cut because of the weeds and we waded into shore using a paddle. I looked at Augencio’s rubber boots. I had noticed them back at the restaurant but not registered the significance.
The grass and weeds were tall. There wasn’t much of a path. We were wearing flip-flops and shorts. That’s all right, I thought, pulling out my insect repellent and covering my legs with it, I’m so clever. I looked at Boxhead,
I suppose you want some of this?
We started walking and almost immediately the path turned sloppy wet, ankle deep water, which I hadn’t prepared for.
Every couple of steps my flip-flops would break from the suction.
Damn these duff flip-flops. You know what I should do? I should go back to Cartagena, back to that shop where I bought them, and shove them up that woman’s… ARGHHHHHHH
I’ve had a tits full
WAIT, WAIT! LET ME TAKE A PICTURE!
You’re not helping, so shut the fu – …AW, IT’S HAPPENED AGAIN! TO HELL WITH IT, I’M GOING BAREFOOT… OW, ARGH, MOTHERFU- OOOOOOOOOOOOOOO
I minced over the thorns and sharp things in my path
NOBODY TOLD US WE NEEDED BOOTS!
Yes, they are better, said Augencio
I CAN SEE THAT
It was too much. I had to put the flip-flops back on. The right was more reliable. The left one hung from my foot like a dead fish. I had to slowly lift my leg out of the water very high and stretch it out in front of me in one big step like I was striding over mountains. It must have looked ridiculous.
Then the path rose out of the water and we were only walking through long grass again
OH JESUS, THANK YOU THANK YOU
There was a runway alongside of us.
Who uses that?, I asked Augencio
The government and private planes, from Costa Rica, mostly
To go to the fishing lodge, I supposed. I turned around to Boxhead
I really hope that boat hasn’t gone
A strange noise was coming from the trees. I thought it must have been some kind of monkey. Then we could see it, a rusted windmill poking above the treeline, the blades spinning like fury.
Like a horror film, I said (at least that’s what I wanted to say. I might have said ‘like a shit film’. The words for horror and shit being quite similar)
In 1846, England seized San Juan del Norte and renamed it Greytown, in honour of Sir Charles Grey, governor of Jamaica. As the gold rush escalated, the town became a seedy little boomtown with whorehouses, gambling halls and hotels. This period of prosperity didn’t last long because in 1860 the US bombed the town to pieces, an act that earned international condemnation at the time. Once the Panama Canal was built, Greytown was forgotten and slid into decay and was given back to Nicaragua. It was burned to the ground in 1982 during the war, and flattened again in 1988 by a hurricane. The current San Juan del Norte a few km away has only existed since 1990. (How’s that for a nice brief summary?)
All that remains of the original town is four cemeteries, the windmill and some foundations. We reached the first cemetery. It was a masonic cemetery. There is a Catholic cemetery, a British cemetery and a cemetery for US citizens. All of them enclosed in broken cast iron fences peppered with bullet holes from the war. There are not many tombstones that aren’t broken. Inside the masonic cemetery, a wind picked up rattling the trees, disturbing the mournful stillness that had pervaded before it.
Looking at the dates on the graves, it seemed to me they came from all places, but disease, unforgiving surroundings, unfamiliar food, they sickened and died early.
Boxhead was slapping his ankles
They’re getting me too, I said
I would feel a sharp pain and I’d look down and find this very tiny ant trying to take a bite out of me.
Tourism is growing in San Juan?, I asked Augencio, under the shade of a tree
No, not really, laughing. I have been a guide for two years and you are only the third group that I have brought here.
I was staggered. It seems few people pass through San Juan, and that’s all they do, simply pass through.
Augencio continued: The infrastructure for tourists just doesn’t exist here. I wanted to build trails, paths, walks, through the reserve
And getting to and leaving San Juan is very difficult…
We want to go to Bluefields after this. If that boat has gone today then I don’t know what we’re going to do.
There is one boat per week to Bluefields. Flights only go to Managua and they are irregular. Boats regularly go back to San Carlos. There are a few hotels in town but almost no restaurants. A few shops selling sugary, protein deficient snacks and not much else. I was so fucking hungry. The previous night I had dreamt of food.
I gingerly walked back through the water, starving, thinking I had better write about this. Despite the refreshing quality of the cold stagnant water, the effort of concentration was causing me to sweat quite profusely
I really really hope that boat hasn’t gone, I said
We got back in the boat and headed to the mouth of the river, where it flows into the Caribbean. There we stood on the beach overlooking the ocean enjoying the breeze.
It is true they are building a new (inter-oceanic) canal through here?, I asked
Yes, it is certain
The people of San Juan want it?
There are mixed feelings, Augencio gestured with his arm to the forest and the river behind us, all of this will change, but there will be jobs.
Do you want it?
He nodded to his boy looking after the boat
It will be good for my son, it is better for his future
Maybe I misunderstood because I don’t speak Spanish well but it seemed Augencio was saying that everything would be all right because they would do it properly, environmental scientists are working closely with developers, and they will extend the biological reserve to replace those parts lost to the canal.
The impact will still be enormous
We stared out at the ocean. I could see Costa Rica in the distance through the mist. My long hair flapped in the wind.
Vamonos?, I said
We walked back to the boat, back to the restaurant, the only restaurant, and confirmed it. The god damn boat had gone.