El Castillo, Nicaragua - I've just bought a canoe. It's being patched up with pieces of fabric and old tin as the sales clerk emphatically mimes a fish cutting off my leg or arm in a single pass.
I ignore him. Canoeing is in my blood. The San Juan River can't overpower the Canadian heritage of the fur traders, the coureurs de bois. As I push off, I hear him mutter, "Gringo loco." I smile confidently.
My plan was to head to Costa Rica down the San Juan River, the eastern border between Nicaragua and Costa Rica. I'd hoped to find a Nicaraguan border post at the mouth of the river that could stamp me out of the country. Then I'd get an entry stamp for my passport in Costa Rica the first chance I got.
I'd arrived in El Castillo the night before, and a day of searching for a ride downriver had been disappointing; one man's opening price for the trip was $500 American, roughly my backpacking budget for a month. Dejected, I retreated to one of the restaurants that stood, like the rest of the village, on stilts over the riverbank and watched the children fish for dinner in their dugout canoes.
There I had my dubious moment of inspiration.
I'm proud of my an astute $50 purchase of a canoe. I set off down the current as howler monkeys roar in the jungle. Every 15 minutes or so I bale out the water that slowly seeps in through the patches. Around lunchtime I shoot my first set of tropical rapids, then tackle a second set. The light is starting to fade before I notice a number of large fish occasionally surfacing around my canoe. In a pinch, they might make a decent meal, I think. Vice-versa doesn't even cross my mind.
I pull up at a farm and ask the owner if I can camp for the night. After recovering from the shock of having a gringo appear on his land, he offers his spare bedroom and a hot meal.
I'm enjoying the first decent cup of coffee I've had since Guatemala when I notice what looks like a Stone Age chain saw hanging on my host's wall. Closer inspection reveals it to be a jawbone as long as my forearm. The inch-long spikes protruding from it are the monster's teeth.
"What is that?" I ask in awe, using my limited Spanish.
"Fish. It lives in the river. You see them all the time," he replies. "That one is muy pequeno." Very small. Suddenly. I remember the warnings I got earlier in the day. Losing an arm or a leg would be the least of my worries; a dip in the river could be an invitation to cut me in half.
I spend the rest of my evening wondering how to extricate myself from what I suddenly realize is a suicidal jaunt. My host's tethered pet macaw looks down indifferently as my previously indomitable voyageur spirit is blown away. The next day I'm off with first light. I decide to ditch my crazy scheme of paddling to the coast. I paddle hard upstream, ignoring both the pain of my broken blisters and the odd fish that surfaces around my canoe. Lurking.
Two hours later I'm dead in the water. The rapids I shot so quickly on my descent are impassable going up, unless I walk them while pulling the canoe. The thought of the killer fish eliminates that idea. I paddle on.
Later in the afternoon, after cursing myself steadily for a couple of hours, I hear a noise in the distance. Could it be? The miracle of a boat going upstream seems too much to ask for. Then it appears, mirage-like, round a bend in the river - a boat.
I steer into the middle of the river and wave my paddle frantically, stopping them. "Where are you going?" I ask in my pidgin Spanish.
"El Castillo," the captain of the small craft replies.
I could kiss him.
"We can't take the canoe," he tells me. I look down at my sorry craft, a thin layer of water motionless in the bottom. "Screw the canoe," I say in English. I push it off to meet its destiny in the Caribbean.
The captain mutters something about a "gringo loco," sparking laughter from his passengers, but I don't care. He's right.