Ravdales Del Diablo
In the chilly morning mist I explore El Castillo. There are no cars and no roads. It is the roar of the rapids which draws me nearer. There perched high on a cliff is the old fort. Built hundreds of years before to protect the town from marauding Caribbean pirates the heavy stone walls just a few years earlier shielded local fighters from attacking government troops.
Down below for several hundred meters the river is strewn with large, seemingly impenetrable, boulders. As the water smashes swiftly over the rocky barrier I see him. In the middle of the torrent a man clothed only in a thin black shorts casts a heavy fishing net into the rushing water in front of him. If he loses his balance he will be crushed against the rocks and perhaps will drown while being swept down river. I am wondering how he can stand against the brutal current when he pulls up the catch. As many as twenty long silvery fish wiggle and flap in the net.
Slowly the man negotiates the hazardous rocks downstream emerging on the calm shoreline with his catch when I notice that he is also wearing knee length rubber boots.A group of other young men cheer as he triumphantly returns. Quickly another man takes his place in the raging current. It takes him a few extra casts of the net before he too returns laden with sabalos reales [silver tarpon].These are the daring fishermen of El Ravdales de Dialo, the Devil’s Rapids.
Eight Nicaraguan men and one woman, all under the age of twenty five, have arrived at the dock before me. Each carries a small cloth bag or tightly tied bandanna bulging with their sparse personal belongings. We watch as the seventeen foot wooden boat pulls into the dock. It is meagerly equipped with a fifty horse power outboard motor, two small red containers of spare gasoline, planks for seating six people, cardboard boxes sloppily stacked in the front of the boat and filled with merchandise, and one 350 pound short and squatty capitan who appropriately calls himself “Gordo”.We will be the passengers going down river. Gordo gives us a bitten off stub of a pencil.We write our names and ages in soggy notebook which will serve as the passenger log in case we are stopped along the journey by the Nicaraguan police or military.
Gordo explains that we will be passing through an area also claimed by Costa Rica. If their authorities stop us he will not guarantee the outcome.
Gordo, after collecting our money, directs us to proceed on foot below the rapids and east of the old fort. There he will meet us. Gordo will negotiate El Diablo in the boat alone. He also asks us to carry the cargo to the gathering point.
Gordo may be fat but I am convinced he knows what he is doing as I watch him skillfully manipulate the boats rudder as it weaves between, and hops over, the rapids We reload the boat. As there is not enough seating I perch on the side of the little craft. “Just don’t put your hands in the water”, Godoro directs in Spanish.
A Rain Jacket and a Free Meal
Our overloaded little boat is quickly back in the deep jungle. The trip to the mouth of the San Juan river and the Caribbean sea should take twelve hours depending on the current, the depth of the river, debris in the channel and how Gordo feels.I learn that my young companions are going to a remote border crossing where they will illegally enter Costa Rica to try to find work. They don’t have much money nor formal education. Their enthusiasm and dreams of a better life alone propel them down river.The hours trudge on as we become used to the sway of the boat and the bleakness of the surrounding tropical forest. Suddenly the boat hits a sand bar and jerks to a stop. A few of us at Gordos direction step out of the boat. The water is shallow enough for us to stand and push the boat into deeper water. We reenter the boat but the engine will not start. An hour passes before our big captain now covered with grease and oil gets the craft moving again.
As we enter the main channel Gordo who has been chewing on a piece of chicken throws the meat into the water and directs us to watch. A swarm of rapidly swimming piranha quickly devour their offering. Gordo laughs.Later, one of the young men points to something else swimming. It is then I learn that the river is also known for its freshwater sharks. Over the centuries these bull sharks unlike any other in the world have made the transformation from salt to fresh water and have been seen in Lake Cocibolca. Legend records that the ancient Ometepe people fed their dead to these god like river creatures.
A hard rain begins and does not stop. I notice the young girl shivering in her soaked tee shirt. I give her my water proof rain jacket and put on a spare long sleeve shirt. The young men smile nodding their approval of my effort to help one of their companions. Large logs, tree branches, and an occasional iguana clinging to chunks of grass rush by us as the storm quickens the current. Gordo is standing now. He grasps the rudder tightly weary of hitting submerged trees which could capsize the boat.The rain stops as was we speed into dense fog created by the cool rain and humid jungle air. Then the whistle blows, again and again. Gordo hearing the sound immediately turns the boat toward shore. As we pull closer I notice the small shack and dock. A solider holding a rifle motions the boat forward. For several minutes he observes us as our captain explains that we are headed for San Juan del Norte still six hours away. The solider looks over our crudely prepared passenger list. Recognizing a gringo, he motions only for me to come forward. He examines my passport then informs Gordo that the storm has made the river is too dangerous to travel. We will be required to spend the night at this strange riverside outpost.
It is dark.We have all gathered on a cleared space near the guard house. I am wondering if jungle animals will approach us while we are sleeping when I hear my name being called, “Tomas, Tomas”. I make my way up a hill to a large tree where four of my companions are huddled closely together. They offer to share their meager food with me. I am glad since I have none of my own. As I get to know them I realize once again that they are many wonderful people in our very small world.