Rio San Juan Series #8 of 11: Yarlen’s Cousins’ House to Delta House (Nica Nugget #74)

A thick mist hung over the river. Yarlen Diaz’s three male cousins woke with us at daybreak, grabbed their towels and ran down to the river to bathe. While we ate breakfast, they dressed, said their goodbyes and motored down river in their panga to school.

By 6:30 am we were also on the water, with the mist thick all around us.

Map of today’s paddle.

We would see the boys’ boat tied up to the bank later, where the Sarapiqui River flows from Costa Rica into the Rio San Juan at Boca de San Carlos, where the boys attend school.

Our first stop though would be to the military check point on the Nicaraguan side. There, Yarlen got out and showed the officials our documents before being waved off.

Through the mist, we spotted the boy’s boat tied up at their school’s landing.

We would stop at two more military checkpoints, at least, before the day was done. Each time they were accommodating and waved us on down river.

At our lunch spot they even let us come ashore, which would have been much easier done if their dock hadn’t been listing dangerously towards the water. John and I had to crawl out, ungraciously, on our butts, and even then we were hanging onto the dock, stupidly, for dear life.

This military checkpoint became our lunch spot.

But they had a great grassy area overlooking the river and under the shade of a large tree. There we ate our lunch. And they had porcelain toilets and toilet paper. We just had to pull buckets of water up from their very deep well, in order to flush.

Our highlight though was the two toucans they had gotten from somebody’s house. They were rehabbing the birds: caring for them while their clipped wings grew out and they could again fly. We fed them the rinds from our watermelon while they squawked like baby chicks as if asking for more.

Yarlen spotted a crocodile across the river so we got our binoculars out and watched it just lay there. By the time we left, fifteen minutes later, it had barely moved.

One of the baby toucans. Photo courtesy of JoAnne Stoltz.

We were grateful for the cloud cover. We were grateful for the high water and moving current. Somehow we had all been led to believe that today’s mileage was going to be significantly less.

Blisters were forming on my hands where I gripped my paddle. Blisters were forming on Eve Kohlman’s lips. She looked like a bandit for the rest of the trip, with a bandanna strategically covering most of her face. JoAnne Stoltz protected her hands from the bite of her wooden paddle by wearing wedding-dress-type gloves she’d found in a store in El Castillo. And Yarlen complained of a sunburn that had kept him from sleeping well the night before.

Eve, protecting her blistered lips.

John and I have spent a lifetime running rivers in the United States. And likewise, many months over many, many years sea kayaking in British Columbia, Canada, Washington State, Florida, Baja California, Mexico, and the Bahamas. Our typical daily mileage on a river is 15 – 20 miles, whether in a raft, a canoe or a kayak. Our typical daily mileage sea kayaking on the sea is 12 – 17 miles.

This particular day we paddled 42 miles. It was the longest single day of paddling John and I have ever done together. I’m sure it was the longest day paddling for Eve and JoAnne. I don’t know about Yarlen. He didn’t even look tired.

By our lunch break we were already ready to quit for the day. But we were informed that we had many more miles to go.

Our lunch spot along the river.

Yarlen told us stories.

He was about twenty years old and was fishing and hunting up a small tributary of the river when he heard a wild boar. He took off through the jungle running after it. And he kept climbing as he heard it still above him. But then the sound of crashing wild boar disappeared. And when he looked around him, he realized he was lost.

For three days he was lost. For three days he was lost in the jungle.

And then he somehow found his way out.

His uncle, the father of his cousins, never made his way out. He was hunting with three of his dogs in the jungle, when he fell and accidentally shot himself. One dog returned home while the other two stayed with their master. It was that one dog that led the family back to the dad. But it was too late.

As the mist burned off we had a rainbow.

The jungle giveth. And the jungle taketh away.

And on this day, although we were not lost and not injured, we in our own way were being challenged.

My hips ached. The heels of my feet, where they rubbed against the floor of my boat, screamed in pain. I just needed to get out of my boat.

The gals kept up with Yarlen paddling their canoe, lifting their heavy wooden paddles and setting them back in the water, pull after pull.

The river stretched out in all its glory, clumps of vegetation floating alongside with us.

John, making a last push on our very long paddle day.

The last few hours we played the pop trivia game JoAnne had introduced back at Bamboo Camp, with some slight adjustments. Guessing U.S. Supreme Court judges, Russian ice skaters, scientists such as Charles Darwin and even Jesus Christ himself, kept our monkey minds from doing too much detrimental complaining.

And then we visited our last military checkpoint before the river turned north at the Delta. We were getting closer to our destination – a home stay that Yarlen had arranged through family that lived in the area – just as the river slowed down. We passed dredging operations which were clearing the river channel, just as our own minds and muscles felt muddier and muddier and in need of dredging themselves.

We heard shouting from the bank. “My daughters,” smiled Yarlen. Followed by a church procession which filed by.

Our lodging for the night.

At some point we had been told that tonight we’d be staying in a nice house with showers and electricity. Despite all of us living in Nicaragua, our North American minds had formed our own individual visions of comfort and nice. In mine, there were verandahs and rocking chairs. Cool breezes. A veritable home version of Hotel Sabalos. And I probably had even thrown in visions of iced drinks and fans without knowing it.

Poor Yarlen. I think I’ll go to my grave with the crushed look on his face when I took one look at the simple wooden shack without even so much as a porch to hang our hammocks, and said, “But you promised us something nice, with showers and electricity!”

“Well, there’s not a shower,” he replied, “but you can bathe with a bucket. And there IS electricity. The people here are poor. This is the nicest house around.”

A shower…of sorts.

I could’ve climbed into a hole, I was so embarrassed by my grumpy words. I backpedaled quickly, blubbering something about expectations and misunderstandings and apologies.

The house actually WAS nice, once I erased my North-American, Hotel Sabalos visions.

It was clean. It was tidy. It was shelter for us all.

I don’t think I’ve ever bathed in a bathroom with such a splendid view, for example, nor are there many showers that I have enjoyed more.

Yarlen’s daughter heated our meal over an open fire.

That night for dinner we ate an amazing pork dish. Juan Alberto Aguilar Gomez had slaughtered a pig and prepared this final meal for us back in El Castillo. Yarlen, Eve and JoAnne had then paddled the meal down the river with them in the cooler. And Yarlen’s daughter heated it over an open fire that night in the kitchen.

We all slept in the adjoining main room. Yarlen even offered a spare mattress to John and me, and set it up on the floor with a mosquito net. Maybe he’d heard of my problems the night before. No more hammock trauma for me.

That night, John sat out by the river beyond the sunset, drinking in the sights and sounds of the river.

Me, in front of the bed Yarlen made for John and me.

JoAnne, in her hammock, Eve, in hers, and I, in my bed, chatted as the mosquitoes descended on our netting and the darkness grew deep.

Lying there in the falling light and talking, about what I don’t even remember, I suddenly felt cloaked in a blanket of joy and contentment and peace, so quiet and so true.

JoAnne and John enjoying drinks along the river.

Just like I know I will always remember my shame at causing Yarlen pain, I knew that I would always equally remember my later moment of pure joy.

We were clean. We were fed. We were sheltered from mosquitoes. We had put in a very big day of exertion, had survived our grumpiness and now we were lying down together as friends to rest.

Tomorrow we will paddle to the sea and then on to a hotel in San Juan de Nicaragua, the terminus of our trip. Our adventure is tipping over towards its end, but not quite yet.

Today’s video: Cousins’ House to Delta House.

To be continued…