By Vicki Barnes
The towns along the Río San Juan are rough around the edges, as one might expect in the distant frontier of a country.
Sandwiched between the river and the rainforest on land that is Nicaragua, but which in some spots is claimed by Costa Rica, it is not surprising that the residents are strong and a bit boisterous.
There is a military presence in these parts that isn’t common elsewhere in the country. Soldiers in fatigues, Soviet-style arms at their sides or slung across their shoulders, board each boat the pulls into the dock in every town and assesses the bags and boxes being transported on the roof.
It’s a passing glance, a push with a boot, maybe – though rarely – a peek inside a bag. A scribble on the captain’s clipboard, a nod and the boat is on its way. The soldier returns to a table under the shade. A second guard adjusts his gun, sips his coffee and makes another move in their on-going dominos game.
Another boat will arrive in a little while. The other soldier will take his turn inspecting it.
If they get bored later, one of them might hitch a ride to the other side of the river on a panga transporting a resident. He’ll get a snack from some place different than the spot where they sit from dawn to dusk every day. Maybe he’ll call his girlfriend if he can get some privacy before he goes back.
They’re looking for contraband from Costa Rica. Guns, drugs or items being brought in without the appropriate taxes being paid.
The soldiers are young, maybe 18, maybe 19. Their uniforms look a little dusty, but their boot are polished. They try to look fierce, but they’re too young to pull it off as well as they’d like.
One of the vendors who sells vegetables on the dock says they rarely find anything illegal in the bags or boxes. It’s there, he said. There’s a lot of it. But the soldiers don’t really look unless they feel like it.
Nothing really bad travels on the boats, the vendor says. Maybe a few things that aren’t supposed to be there, but if the soldiers were really looking, they’d find something.
There is plenty of jungle. Plenty of dark paths through the trees. The places that aren’t Nicaragua or Costa Rica. That’s where the stuff passes.
Others say that that’s where people pass too. People looking for work. Or a better life. People who hope that they will find something better in some place new go across the border on dark paths where no border is marked.
As probably happens in the spaces where countries meld into one another all over the world, there is no need for passports or customs agents. People and goods cross over unquestioned, unsearched, unnoticed.
Tomorrow, we’ll pass over the border where it is marked with a small office and watched by soldiers. Our passports will be inspected and stamped. Perhaps someone will take a look in our backpacks.
The young soldiers with their big guns will try to look fierce. We’ll wave and say “Buenos Dias!” and see if we can make them crack a smile.
We’ll step across an imaginary line that separates one country from another and be on our way.
By Vicki Barnes