Magic realism. Do you know what it is? It is defined as a literary genre where lines between reality and fantasy blur. Anyone who has read Garcia Marques’ wonderful book “100 Years of Solitude” knows how often in Latin America, magic realism is a way of living. Case in point. Becki even saw an ad for travel saying “Colombia IS Magic Realism” She would say ditto for Nicaragua. And Rio San Juan, out in the jungle, is magic realism “par excellence.” Let me introduce Becki Cohn-Vargas and her story Brush with Magic Realism Two: The Resurrection
Toastmaster Speech: February 2015
First let me set the scene. Imagine a river boat with a flat roof and open sides, set up like a bus with rows of seats going back and flaps to pull down when the rain comes and with aisles way too narrow. I was traveling on this river boat with my Nicaraguan husband, an American friend, and two others from the river, Eric and Yader, who had traveled along the San Juan River to the small town of San Juan de Nicaragua for a few days. Eric owns a watch repair booth in the town of San Carlos. A friendly guy in his forties, Eric seems to know everyone up and down the river. Yader is the caretaker of our property; he is in his late twenties, strong and capable of anything from expertly driving a motor boat to safely guiding night hikes amidst snakes and poisonous spiders. My friend Michelle would probably never have gone on one of those night hikes, but she was a trooper, being careful not to complain too much about the jungle bugs.
We wanted to go to San Juan because it is an historic town San Juan is on the Caribbean Sea on the southern tip of Nicaragua at the border with Costa Rica where several rivers flow together toward the sea amid swamps. Over the years, this town was once a thriving port town. First conquered in the 1500s by the Spanish, in the 1800s, it was taken over by the British and frequented by pirates seeking to invade the Spanish territories of Nicaragua. Later, in the 1850s San Juan had consulates for over 127 countries and served as a gateway for crossing from the Atlantic to Pacific coasts for over 20,000 gold-seekers heading to California. And now, little remains of those wild and wooly days, just an old British cemetery and a rusty 150 year old dredge, abandoned in the lagoons where the rivers join to spill into the sea.
Twice burned to the ground, and once a haven for narco-traffickers, now the town is dilapidated with only empty shells of narco-owned discotheques which were raided by the police. The town boasts new sidewalks (no cars are in this town) that allow people to not have to slosh through the mud. In addition to being easier to walk, the streets are safer because you can at least see the dangerous salt-water crocodiles who find refuge in town during floods.
We had loved our short visit to San Juan. We met a Rama Indian leader named Coyote, attended the graduation of adult education students, even an 83 year old woman who had just learned to read and completed a fourth grade education, and were taken around by the local Chief of Police who offered his boat and even let us wear their rain gear. We also met the owner who invited us for beer at his hotel, the one luxury hotel, on an island, with chandeliers from Spain and a small zoo of rescued jungle animals. We also met a Danish consultant who was leading workshops with the the Rama Indians about their rights under international law to arm them with information as they determined how to respond to the plans for the interoceanic canal that would go through their property. We walked everywhere in the endless rain, and the two days flew by. Suddenly it was time to leave.
And the story? It actually happened on our return boat ride, but I just thought you needed to hear all the above to get the richness of this story.
And at 5 am we boarded the boat for a six-hour ride back to our property. Our boat was the express, (the slow boat would take 12 hours). We were traveling with Mestizo, Creole, and Rama Indian mothers with babies, children of all ages, men on their way to work, one Italian tourist and a few chickens. The only way to reach San Juan de Nicaragua is by boat unless you have the cash and come on the right day to board the small plane that flies to Managua once a week.
So we were all crammed into the boat as we shoved off into the misty darkness. As we left town, we made our first stop at a village called Jojo. There we had our first hint of strangeness. It dim dark dawn mist, we saw at least 15 people of all ages standing there, along with a small wild pig with scratchy hair. It was obvious that they could possibly fit on the boat, but they made no attempt to do that. Eric called out “Is the pig for sale?”
“No”, was the reply from a tall man in bermuda shorts with a grim face and folded arms. Only a young woman boarded the boat in Jojo and was greeted by an older woman in a bronze-colored satin blouse and faded skirt. Later we realized why the whole town had come out to meet the boat.
The woman in the satin blouse must have gone from the front to the back of the boat in the first half our of the trip. Looking back at her, as she wended her way back, I noticed an IV bottle swinging from the wood beam on the ceiling of the boat.
As the boat made its way through the mist, the passengers pulled down the canvas tarps to stay warm and dry. The swamps were left behind and the river wound along. On one side was Costa Rica, with a road carved out of the hillsides, but few vehicles, just electrical wires strung along. On the Nicaraguan side, there were no wires, just thick forest. We passed five Nicaraguan border stations. The first was so primitive that the soldiers with machine guns in knee-high boots had to wade through flooded waters to climb aboard our boat and make their way to the back, cursorily rifling through our bags and purses, and review our paperwork. Luckily, this did not happen at each station. After about an hour, Maria, another friend of Eric’s with a short afro and a friendly face made her way to the front of the boat to talk to the captain. On her way back to her seat, she leaned over us and whispered “there’s a patient in the back who drank battery acid to kill himself over a broken heart. They are taking him to the hospital in San Carlos. But, he probably won’t make it.”
We all tried to be discrete as we turned our heads to view the young man, hooked up to the swinging IV bottle, his head was bobbing forward. The woman in the satin blouse was leaning over him, she was his mother. The young woman who got on was his sister. And now we realized that the man was from the town of Jojo and everyone from that tiny village, probably all related to each other, had come out to bid his farewell. Next to him was a nurse and behind them a police officer. Maria seemed to be the self-appointed emissary, going back and forth to speak to the captain. On another trip she said in a hushed voice. “Things look bad, we are going to make an unplanned stop on the Costa Rican side.”
Now, Costa Rica and Nicaragua are not happy campers these days. The world court had deemed the San Juan River to fully belong to Nicaragua and only gave Costa Ricans the privilege of navigating unarmed along the river. That was not acceptable to Costa Rica, who claimed they could not secure their border, and for that reason they swiftly built the unsightly road, a source of much controversy about environmental destruction, leaving great swathes of dirt and ugliness. Costa Rica shot back the Nicaragua was dredging the river, which was diverting water from Costa Rican rivers to the Nicaraguan side. Would that impact the need to save a Nicaraguan life by going to a Costa Rican clinic? We did not know.
The boat pulled over in the town of La Tigra, a town so small, I cannot find the population or anything about it online. The captains’ assistant called out to us “only the doctor will be getting off to make a phone call,”
No sooner than the words were out of his mouth, that in typical Nicaraguan fashion, half the boat got off. Just as the police officer was marching off the boat, my husband, Rito said to him “maybe you might not want to get off since you are armed and it could be misinterpreted.” The guy stopped in his tracks and thought better of creating an international incident.
A few minutes later, they all began boarding again, carrying bags of chips, cans of soda and other snacks. Yader, our caretaker had a cup of hot coffee and Rito asked him “what are you already having a wake for the poor guy?”
Another person called out, “look, the guy wanted to die, so hopefully he will hurry it up so we won’t be held up.”
The doctor re-emerged and the word on the boat was that we were continuing on to San Carlos as planned. I never was sure who she had consulted with, but before she made it to the back and as the boat was pulling out the man went into cardiac arrest. Looking back, now with no discretion, I could see the police officer doing CPR and his mother sobbing. Halfway to the back was Maria. The captain’s assistant, aware of the crisis moment, called out “should we go back to the dock?”
A moment of chaos ensued. People were all calling back “should we go or leave?” There seemed to be no answer coming. The people in the back were deeply engaged in the emergency CPR.
Finally someone shouted out “majority rules, let’s go.” and the boat headed back to the middle of the river. By now, it was mid-morning.
As the boat moved along things seemed quiet in the back. I had to go to the back to the bathroom and passed the people taking care of the young man. Things seemed to have calmed down. The hours passed slowly and we all dozed and snacked and forgot about what was happening with him.
Finally, after passing four border stations, we reached the big town of El Castillo where everyone was invited to get off for a break. And nearly everyone did get off, the lady in the satin blouse, the police officer, the doctor–all of our little group, except my husband. He stayed on board and decided to use the bathroom on the boat. On the way to the back, there was the patient sitting quietly. “Are you all right?” Rito asked.
“Yes, said the man, sitting there as if nothing was wrong, except for the IV fluid going into his arm.
We reached our destination without further incident and never heard any more about this man, but his resurrection marked a special moment for all of us. If we had not been there, we might not have believed it, hence Magic Realism, alive and well on the San Juan River in Nicaragua.