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Commence Journey up San Juan River—Palms and Wild Canes
Plantations—The Colorado River-Proposed Improvement of the River-Progress of the Delta-Mosquitoes-Disagreeable Night -Fine Morning-Vegetation of the Banks–Seripiqui riverMot-mots-Foraying Ants—Their method of Hunting-Ant Thrushes—They attack the Nests of other Ants—Birds' Nests, how preserved from them- Reasoning powers in Ants-Parallel between the Mammalia and the Hymenoptera, Utopia.
I FOUND at Greytown the mail-boat of the Chontales Gold Mining Company, which came down monthly in charge of Captain Anderson, an Englishman who had knocked about all over the world. The crew consisted of four Mosquito negroes, who are celebrated on this coast for their skill as boatmen. Besides the crew, we were taking three other negroes up to the mines, and with my boxes we were rather uncomfortably crowded for a long journey. The canoe itself was made from the trunk of a cedar-tree (Cedrela odorata). It had been hollowed out of a single log, and the sides afterwards built up higher with planking. This makes a very strong boat, the strength and thickness being where it is most required, at the bottom, to withstand the thumping about amongst the rocks of the rapids. I was once in one, coming down a dangerous rapid on the river Gurupy, in Northern Brazil, when we were driven with the full force of the boiling stream broadside upon
a rock, with such force that we were nearly all thrown down, but the strong canoe was uninjured, although no common boat could have stood the shock without being staved in.
Having determined to go up the river in this boat, we took provisions with us for the voyage, and one of the negroes agreed to act as cook. Having arranged everything, and breakfasted with my kind friends, Mr. and Mrs. Hollenbeck, I bade them adieu, and settled myself into the small space in the canoe that I expected to occupy for six days. Captain Anderson took the helm, the “Caribs” dipped their paddles into the water, and away we glided into a narrow channel amongst long grass and rushes that almost touched us on either side. Greytown, with its neat white houses, and feathery palms, and large-leaved bread-fruit-trees, was soon shut out from our view, and our boatmen plying their paddles with the greatest dexterity and force, made the canoe shoot along through the still water. Soon we emerged into a wider channel where a stronger stream was running, and now we coasted along close to the shore to avoid the strength of the current. The banks at first were low and marshy and intersected by numerous channels; the principal tree was a long, coarseleaved palm, and there were great beds of wild cane and grass, amongst which we occasionally saw curious green lizards, with leaf-like expansions, which like those on the leaf-insects assimilated them in appearance to the vegetation amongst which it sought its prey. As we proceeded up the river, the banks gradually became higher and drier, and we passed some small plantations of bananas and plantains made in clearings in the
forest, which now consisted of a great variety of dicotyledonous trees with many tall, graceful palms; the undergrowth being ferns, small palms, Melastoma, Heliconiæ, &c. The houses at the plantations were mostly miserable thatched huts with scarcely any furniture, the owners passing most of their time swinging in dirty hammocks, and occasionally taking down a canoeload of plantains to Greytown for sale. It is one of the rarest sights to see any of these squatters at work. Their plantain patch and occasionally some fish from the river suffice to keep them alive and indolent.
At seven o'clock we reached the Colorado branch, which carries off the greater part of the waters of the San Juan to the sea. This is about twenty miles above Greytown, but only eighteen by the Colorado to the sea, and is near the head of the delta, as I have already mentioned. The main body of water formerly flowed down past Greytown, and kept the harbour there open, but a few years ago, during a heavy food, the river greatly enlarged and deepened the entrance to the Colorado Channel, and since then year by year the Greytown harbour has been silting up. Now, (I am writing in 1873) there is twelve feet of water on the bar at the Colorado in the height of the dry season, whilst at Greytown the outlet of the river is sometimes closed altogether. The merchants at Greytown have entertained the project of dredging out the channel again, but now that the river has found a nearer way to the sea by the Colorado this would be a herculean task, and it would cost much less money to move the whole town to the Colorado, and then by dredging the bar there a fine harbour might easily be made, but unfortunately the Colorado is in Costa Rica, the Greytown branch in Nicaragua, and there are constant bickerings between the two states respecting the outlet of this fine river, which makes any well-considered scheme for the improvement of it impracticable at present. A sensible solution of the difficulty, would be a federation of the two small republics, but the heads of the political parties in the two countries see in this a danger to their petty ambitions, and will not risk the step, and so the boundary question remains an open one, threatening at any moment to plunge the two countries into an impoverishing war.
If the Colorado were not to be interfered with by man, it would, in the course of ages, carry down great quantities of mud, sand, and trunks of trees, and gradually form sand-banks at its mouth, pushing out the delta further and further at this point, until it was greatly in advance of the rest of the coast; the river would then break through again by some nearer channel, and the Colorado would be silted up as the Lower San Juan is being at present. The numerous half-filled-up channels and long lagoons throughout the delta show the various courses the river has at different times taken.
Our boatmen paddled on until nine o'clock, when we anchored in the middle of the stream, which was here about one hundred yards wide. Distant as we were from the shores, we were not too far for the mosquitoes, which came off in myriads to the banquet upon our blood. Sleep for me was impossible, and to add to the discomfort, at midnight the rain commenced to come down in torrents. We had an old tarpaulin with us,
Ch. II.] BOAT JOURNEY UP THE SAN JUAN. 15 but it was full of holes, and let in the water in little streams, so that I was soon soaked to the skin. Altogether, with the streaming wet and the mosquitoes, it was one of the most uncomfortable nights I have ever passed.
The waning moon was sufficiently high at four o'clock to allow us to bring the long dreary night to an end, and to commence paddling up the river again. As the day broke the rain ceased, the mists cleared away, our spirits revived, and we forgot our discomforts of the night in admiration of the beauties of the river. The banks were hidden by a curtain of creeping and twining plants, many of which bore beautiful flowers, and the greenery was further varied here and there by the white stems of the cecropia trees. Now and then we passed more open spots, affording glimpses each into the forest, where grew, in the dark shade, slender-stemmed palms and beautiful tree-ferns, contrasting with the great leaves of the Heliconiæ. At seven we breakfasted on a sand-bank, and got our clothes and blankets dried. There were numerous tracks of alligators, but it was too early to look for their eggs in the sand; a month later, in March, when the river falls, they are found in abundance, and eaten by the canoe-men. At noon we reached the point where the Seripiqui, a river coming down from the interior of Costa Rica, joins the San Juan about thirty miles above Greytown. The Seripiqui is navigable by canoes for about twenty miles from this point, and then commences a rough mountain muletrack to San José, the capital of Costa Rica. We paddled on all the afternoon with little change in the river. At eight we anchored for the night, and