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San Miguelito, Nicaragua
East of Lake Cocibolca the Nicaragua-Costa Rica border is defined by the Rio San Juan.
To cross the San Juan one begins in San Carlos, a port town at the river’s outlet from the lake. The town is crumbling and humid, but the marketplace is busy and the bustle is of commerce and border intrigue. From here downriver there’s not much in the way of social structure. A Spanish fort watches over town, and has since the 1600s. It was built after pirates sailed upriver from the Atlantic and across the long lake to sack Granada. The fort’s construction accomplished little – different pirates repeated the same feat a few years after its completion, after stopping briefly to take the fort.
I passed through San Carlos in late January. A light rain was falling, which I didn’t mind – it seemed to fit the setting. I got off an early bus and had a cup of coffee amongst the market stalls before making my way down sloped streets to the wharves.
The next boat to Costa Rica left at 1:30, and no passports would be stamped until an hour before, despite the already crowded immigration office. I busied myself roaming San Carlos in search of a bottle of Flor de Caña, Nicaragua’s cheap and excellent rum, and a bar that might be willing to break the serve before noon law and let me run down my cordobas on a few beers. I’d been traveling too cheaply for too long, buses and taxis were wearing me down and I knew that many more still sat between me and a friendly home in San Jose. This wasn’t the first day I’d sought a beer far too early, and it was surely time for this particular trip to end.
I returned a few hours later, rum under my arm and patience re-fortified, for the frantic herding of forty people through immigration and onto a low slung boat. We sat while our passports were checked by a customs official, and then again by a boatman in a tank top.
Lists of names were compared, pronunciations were butchered, and the boatman pleaded with three Germans to move astern by repeating endlessly in Spanish, “move back to arrive early”. The Germans sat, puzzled looks marring their tans and worldly airs (one had his corduroy shirt unbuttoned and had been smoking a cigarette, reveling in the adventure of it all as he blew smoke in the face of his fellow passengers). I finally intervened to explain weight displacement and its benefits to boat speed, but not before sharing a good chuckle at the boatman’s antics with the man seated next to me.
He looked a few years older than me, and was heading to Costa Rica to return to his job – a migrant workers fortunate enough to have legal residency. Many more Nicaraguans cross this porous border in search of work illegally, much as so many nationalities do to the U.S. They pick coffee, they work in the pineapple and banana plantations, or on construction sites or in the city. In San Jose, the poorest neighborhood is said to be Nicaraguan, and it is popular to attribute most crime to them as well, though this is greatly exaggerated and seeped more in cultural bias than reality.
Since my neighbor knew this border well, we talked about the crossing and the best way to get from Los Chiles, on the Costa Rican side, to San Jose. Both of us wanted to make a 3:00 direct bus and were worried that we probably wouldn’t.
Finally the boat pulled away from the dock and motored slowly into the San Juan. As town fell away to stern only water birds and the occasional shack broke up the long stretches of green riverbank. The boatman came round to hand out customs slips, just as is done on any international flight. My neighbor asked something I didn’t catch, to which the boatman answered “15 cordobas”. The cordoba is Nicaragua’s currency, 15 equals about 60 cents U.S.
I thought he was referring to what we owed him for the slip. Crossing land borders in Central America, I’d seen many people hawking these slips along the line. I’d smile at the pure huevos of selling something that was handed out for free at the immigration window, and shake my head at those who fell for buying them.
However it seemed that this time I would have little choice in the matter. I filled my slip out, and then offered my pen to my neighbor, who I’d seen wasn’t writing anything. He shook his head, and I respected what I took to be a small stand against extortion.
It wasn’t until the boatman filled out the form for the couple in front of us, and then began on my companion’s, that I realized he couldn’t read or write. The boatman copied the information from his residency card and then made a mark to indicate where the form was to be signed.
It struck me, hard, that what I’d been laughing at was not a scam but a legitimate service; 15 cordobas to hire a momentary scribe to do what you yourself are not capable of, write your name and copy the information from your passport. My stomach flipped as I realized how much I’d missed.
Maybe he felt my embarrassment, or maybe I just felt it too strongly, but some of the camaraderie had now escaped us. I stared at the passing jungle, where white-faced monkeys played on branches over the water. 15 cordobas wasn’t much money, but had I understood, been less naive, I would have happily filled out his form. It would have taken me thirty seconds.
Our boat was waved over to the river bank at a military outpost. Dark green and black buildings and brown soldiers in uniforms colored the same all blended into the jungle. Costa Rica and Nicaragua like to argue over this river, sometimes all the way to the international court at the Hague. I re-broke the ice with my neighbor by asking if this outpost was new. It was not, he said. We would end up sharing buses and ruefully shaking our heads at one another all the way to San Jose, which we made just before midnight.
Nicaragua has a 78 percent literacy rate, according to the CIA World Factbook. I wonder about the unofficial number, and I suspect that if you surveyed only migrant workers the illiteracy would be much higher. Border scribing must be an ok business, all things considered.