Ayapal is the shallow meeting point of two jungle rivers in the wild Bosowas Nature Reserve where the road stops being a road any more.
It is also where I met Juan Carlos.
For Juan Carlos, it was a very special day. The young Nicaraguan farmer seemed to glide through the dock side café with a sparkle of excitement. Smart jeans and a bright red t-shirt. Slick back black curls peeking out from under a baseball cap. Smooth. At every table he shook a hand, shared a joke. Generous, warm, kind. As he passed the open kitchen he kissed Maria on the cheek. The sturdy, apron-clad café owner was boiling rice and cooking beans. She has served the traditional Gallo Pinto with fried plantain to the dockers of Ayapal for decades. Juan Carlos asked after his young wife, Maria’s daughter. She was, it seemed, still getting ready. He was keen to leave, to get back to the farm. She was still getting ready.
To pass the time he leant on the wide café balcony and breathed in the Ayapal morning. Rooftop cranes atop wooden wharf buildings hoist up sacks of rice. Dark skinned boys with dirty hands and dirty faces unhook sacks and pile them in neat rows. Below them over-made-up prostitutes fail to entice a lonely traveller. Rusting and overladen trucks deliver crates, boxes, animals, people. Horns blast. Drivers shout. Wheels skid. Stocky men with deep set eyes deftly chaperone taxis, busses, and bikes along the Bocay riverbank. An ancient man rings the ancient bell on his ancient ice cream cart. Women wash dishes in the river. Women wash clothes in the river. Women wash babies in the river. A dog barks. A monkey howls. Dugout canoes with outboard motors impatiently wait for their cargo. Guns. Machetes. Horses. Spurs. The Nicaraguan Wild West. River cowboys in Wellington boots. Everywhere motion, everywhere noise.
The piercing squeal of a fattened pig stops everything. Her trotters tied she swings painfully from the riverside scales. Juan Carlos winces involuntarily. He turns away and shares a momentary pained look with the stranger at the end of the balcony, neither man likes to see the animal suffer. The perpetual motion of the Ayapal dock continues once again.
The stranger had been there for nearly two hours, idly playing with his long-empty coffee cup. Juan Carlos asked him what he was waiting for. The stranger wanted to get downriver. Deeper into the jungle. Deeper into Nicaragua. Along the Bocay, along the Coco, to the coast. To explore the vast jungle of the Bosowas. He had been waiting for a boat but no boats were taking passengers today or tomorrow or for another week. The stranger was disappointed.
Without thought or fuss Juan Carlos invited the stranger to his farm in the jungle. The stranger blinked and accepted the generous offer.
We crossed the river in an old US army transport vehicle. IFA was its name. In the Bosowas, people travel by horse, by boat or by IFA.
Juan Carlos carried a large box. I carried a car battery. Jocelyn carried the shopping.
She and Juan Carlos had been married for 6 months. She worked on the farm making cheese. She wanted a dining room table and a baby. Together we hiked to the farm. With my broken Spanish I learnt that Juan Carlos had been to Ayapal that morning to buy a solar panel. That was why it was a special day and that was why, for an hour and a half, I carried a heavy car battery through the Nicaraguan jungle. For months Juan Carlos had saved up the little money he earned on the farm to buy this solar panel and he wanted me to see his newly lit home.
The farm house was very modest. Two rooms with wooden walls and a corrugated iron roof. Humans, chickens, pigs and dogs all living together. It was tucked behind Juan Carlos’ parent’s house. His father had divided off some of the land and given it to his newly married son. I met uncles, nephews, brothers, mothers. Jocelyn served the Gallo Pinto.
While various piglets snuffled at my feet Juan Carlos set to work wiring up the solar panel, the car battery and the ceiling light. After the sun had set Juan Carlos, Jocelyn and I stood in the kitchen. In darkness. Juan Carlos switched on the first light in his first house for the first time and we clapped and cheered. Then he switched off the light. Then he switched on the light. Then he switched off the light. Then he switched on the light.
Later that night when we were alone Juan Carlos quietly explained that the light was for Jocelyn. His wife wanted to go to college and she could only study in the dark evenings once she had finished her work on the farm. He wanted his children to have a good education. To have opportunities not available to him. Juan Carlos reasoned that the best way for his children to get a good education would be for their mother to be well educated herself and right now, their mother needed light to study. It was an incredibly simple, beautiful and heart wrenching logic.
That night I camped by their house. Early the following morning Juan Carlos introduced me to his cow. After breakfast we hiked through the jungle to some hot springs. We boiled eggs in the sulphurous water. When we got back to the house Jocelyn gave me some freshly made cheese and more Gallo Pinto for my journey. When he refused my offer of a couple of notes for the hospitality I was, of course, unsurprised. Juan Carlos is probably the most generous man I have ever met.