Rivers and Borders

By Laurel Nakanishi

From the hill above town, El Castillo is a patchwork of tin roofs and red satellite dishes curving with the banks of Nicaragua’s San Juan River. There are no roads to El
Castillo: we arrive and depart by long boat. There are no cars in El Castillo: we walk through town on the public path that begins or ends at Daysi’s house upriver and meanders down to the soccer field. Along the way, there are small, wooden homes packed into the hillside or perched over the water on stilts. There is a stone Catholic Church, a public dock, pulperías, hotels, living rooms-turned-restaurants, and an elementary school on the hill.

After years of visiting Nicaragua on short vacations, I had finally come to stay a while. I was to live in El Castillo for a year, write a book of poems, and start a community arts program. I set up a hammock and makeshift desk on my back porch. From where I sat, the view of the river was sliced into panels: the boards of the railing segmented the sky, the bank, and the water. Every morning, I watched my 79-year-old neighbor paddle alone to his farm downriver. He crossed the current with ease, his body like a slack rope. When he returned near lunchtime, I would still be sitting there on the back porch, pen in hand. One day he caught my eye, and his sunken cheeks rose into a smile. He waved.

“¿Qué haces? ¿Descansando?” he called.
“No,” I insisted. I was not resting. “Estoy escribiendo.”

He nodded his head at this mystery, my writing life, my leisure, and lifted a clutch of bananas from the hull of his canoe.

I was the only foreigner living in El Castillo and, in the isolation of my days, it was easy to forget that the San Juan River had been a major international thoroughfare only a couple of centuries before. First, native people traversed this river, then Spanish conquistadores, then English pirates, and finally Americans hurrying to the California Gold Rush. Mark Twain journeyed down this river on a steamship. Cornelius Vanderbilt once schemed to dredge it for the first inter-oceanic canal. Everywhere there are reminders of the past. El Castillo sleeps under its own castle: the “Fortaleza,” a Spanish military fort built in 1675. Now it holds a library where I taught poetry classes.

It was my favorite view: perched on the crumbling stone wall of the Fortaleza, I watched the wide brown water ripple around a bend. Below the town curled with the S of the river. I tried to see it all, not just the beauty of the clouds as they burnished in sunset, but also the boys staggering home under bundles of firewood. Also the young, soon-to-be mothers leaning from empty windows. I tried to see the generations of US-backed dictatorship and the international corporations that continue to amass power. This, too, was part of my relationship with Nicaragua. This was the history that I carried under my skin. As my year in El Castillo progressed, I realized that international borders are not just geographical markings but identities and frames of reference that I carry within me. I am a product of my country in ways that I may never fully grasp.

In those first months, when I was still finding my place in the town, poetry class was a bridge and a border crossing. My ten and eleven-year-old students took to poetry like guppies to a stream. They would raise their poems into the air, shouting: “¡Lea el mío!” They would hide in hibiscus bushes around town and call out my name. They wrote beautiful poems: “I come from the wind que me pega en la cara todas las mañanas.” And: “When she sweats, it is like rain falling in summer.” My neighbors called them my tadpoles. They called me the pied-piper. They liked to tell the story of the day I went to the next town over. How my students jumped into the river and swam up to where I waited in the long boat. Five bobbing heads along the gunnel, black hair plastered to their grinning faces, they asked, “You’re not going away, are you?” They demanded, “And when are we going to have poetry again?”

It has been three years since I left El Castillo, and I am still thinking about borders. What happens at borders? Things blur into one another, and all of those lines that we thought were so permanent and static: nature and culture, river and bank, one country and another, they shift and seep. I think about the borders within me, those lines that keep me individual and separate. It is in my white skin, in my accented Spanish, in my identity that is undeniably American. But where do these lines blur? Perhaps in those moments of creative communion with my students, perhaps in the mornings watching the seasons change on the river, perhaps as I walk down the footpath in El Castillo calling “¡Adios!” to friends.

I imagine them now, my students. They are returning from school, shirts un-tucked and scuffed from climbing the coconut tree. They are rinsing the mop in the river’s slow water. They are carving flowers into the board above their bed. I would like for them to be able to cross international borders with the ease allotted to me. I would like for them to be able to see Nicaragua from the height of a plane. Below, the forests become an indistinct carpet of green. The river snakes and glints. We rise, turn small, and the town squints up at us there, in the open sky.

Laurel Nakanishi is the recipient of a Fulbright scholarship to Nicaragua.  She is the author of the prize-winning poetry chapbook Manoa|Makai and her work has appeared in Orion Magazine, Black Warrior Review, Fourth Genre, and Gulf Coast Magazine, among other publications.  Originally from Hawaii, Nakanishi currently lives with her partner in Miami, FL.