Inventing River Castro: A tale of love, lies and loss in Canggu (Part 1)

Inventing River Castro: A tale of love, lies and loss in Canggu (Part 1)

People creating fake online identities in order to trick others is a phenomenon that is so common that we all know the neologism for it: catfishing. But each instance of catfishing is unique – some scammers do it for financial gain, while others do it out of loneliness or a desperate yearning to be somebody other than themselves.

On May 13, Josefina Bucaj, a 33-year-old German and former Bali expat, released a video on Instagram that reverberated throughout Canggu – a haven for expats, digital nomads, Insta-models, fitness influencers and everybody else seeking that picture-perfect version of paradise that brings so many to the Indonesian island.

Josefina’s video detailed a story of love and deception involving a man named River Castro, who never existed, and a woman named Sophani, who many people in the Canggu Community trusted as both a healer and a champion of social causes.

In the caption of the video, Josefina wrote: 

It’s not about revenge or anger, it is about to stop what is unjust and causes unnecessary suffering.

This is only a short version without all its details in it.

The story you are about to read is the long version, with all the details we learned through interviews with Josefina and several more women who were deceived by River Castro.

We also interviewed Sophani, not only to hear her side of the story but also to give her victims a chance to respond and, perhaps, find some sense of closure.

But first, we must go back to the beginning…


Things started to get serious between Josefina and “River Castro” when he left a small package containing two vegan brownies for her at the reception of Body Factory Bali on Jan. 4, 2023.

Josefina’s Albanian pulchritude was even more pronounced upon her face as she smiled at the romantic gesture by River, a handsome Colombian man who had been courting her for several weeks at that point.

“I thought it was cute, a romantic gesture to leave something for me at the reception,“ Josefina told Coconuts Bali during a recent interview. 

“I sent him a picture and said, ‘Thank you, that’s actually pretty cute.’”

It was this simple move that made Josefina start to warm up to River, who had followed her on Instagram in early December 2022. River told Josefina that he was in Mexico at the time for a project but would love to meet her as soon as he returned to Bali.

After River first caught Josefina’s attention on IG (she followed him back out of curiosity), the two started messaging each other back and forth (“We started having funny but also deep conversations. He seemed very intelligent and knowledgeable about various topics,” she said). 

But their first phone call was not exactly a pleasant experience. 

“He only talked about himself and constantly interrupted me. I actually found him quite annoying, and even rolled my eyes at how he praised himself,” she reminisced, noting that she was the one who initiated the phone call because she wanted to hear his voice.

River kept going on and on, despite Josefina’s plea to end the call because it was already late.

“I had to mention four times that I needed to sleep before I could finally end the call,” Josefina added.

River continued texting her in the following days, but she kept her distance. Around the same time, there was another guy on the island, whom Josefina had dated previously, that had caught her attention once again. 

The vegan brownies were, perhaps, River’s attempt at preventing Josefina from pulling away. While the gesture brought a smile to her face, after a couple of bites she headed over to the pool area of Body Factory – a boutique gym in Canggu famous for being a hub for Instagram beauties and fitness influencers – to hang out with her old flame.

But when it was time for lunch, Josefina decided to try the vegan ramen at a restaurant that River had once suggested to her. As she was about to leave, Sophani asked if she could join her. 

Sophani is a Cambodian-Australian woman who is well-known to some in the community for her involvement in various charity projects and social causes. But she was probably more famous for her role as one of the main admins of Canggu Community, an extremely active (and often drama-filled) Facebook group for folks living in the island’s hip expat enclave.

In addition to her community service, Sophani is also known as a healer, using Tibetan Singing Bowls and crystals (which she also sells, along with jewelry) to administer New Age therapies.

Josefina was first introduced to Sophani by another friend and, while the two initially did not connect, they ended up seeing each other quite often at the gym. But that lunch was the first time they had hung out together outside of Body Factory.

“This story is a lot more fucked up than people think.”

Malin Svensson, 32

At the restaurant, while Josefina marveled at how good the vegan ramen she was slurping up was (“It was a plus point for River. He knows what’s good,” she quipped to me), Sophani started asking her about the guy she had been hanging out with earlier by the pool and how long they had been seeing each other.

Josefina was surprised Sophani could tell that they used to date. “I can pick up on things,“ Sophani explained.

Josefina then asked her if she was indeed a “healer”, which Sophani confirmed. 

An aspiring healer herself, Josefina thought she had found a mentor in Sophani, who began advising her to begin letting her walls down because she sensed that she could be a little closed off when it came to men.

Later, after they exchanged Instagram accounts, Josefina noticed that Sophani followed River Castro as well. Sophani told Josefina that River was one of her healing clients.

Josefina confided in her that she found River to be annoying and self-centered.

“She was surprised and said that he didn’t sound like that at all. She described him as humble, egoless, and having a heart of gold,” Josefina recalled, adding that Sophani also told her that River was one of the four owners of Body Factory, although he never mentioned it.

“She spoke about him in a way that wasn’t excessive, but also not too dismissive. She even shared some details about his traumatic past, which was quite captivating, especially since I hadn’t heard it from him personally,” she said.

Upon returning home, Josefina finally texted River and told him that there was another guy that had caught her attention and, even though she was single and could do whatever she wanted, it was not in her nature to juggle two different men.

“He offered to talk about the other guy, and I thought that was nice and open-minded. I figured I had nothing to lose,” Josefina said.

“Anyways, this second phone chat turned into an incredible conversation that lasted for 4-5 hours. From that point on, we talked every single day for hours.”

What followed was months of intense communication between the two. River would often share Josefina’s pictures on his Instagram stories – essentially bragging to the world that she was his girlfriend. 

It got to the point that Josefina began opening up to River about her family. In turn, River finally revealed his past trauma to her.

“He was from Colombia. His family could not afford raising him and his baby sister so their mother gave them up to an orphanage in Cartagena when River was 6 years old,” Josefina said.

River said was eventually adopted by his English teacher who took him and his sister to London. Sadly, the adoptive parents died when River was 16. 

At one point, Valentina, River’s sister, reached out to Josefina, telling her that she was worried about her brother’s mental health.

“Valentina told me how stubborn River can be at times, but he has the biggest heart and if he loves he loves deeply and with all he has. That kind of stuff,” Josefina said.

Josefina never had video calls with River.

“I only asked him once. His response was, ‘I want to look into your eyes for the first time in real life.’ I found that quite romantic and wanted to respect that. Additionally, I thought that if we started with video calls, we would continue that way, and I would always have to ensure that I looked fresh… Actually, I preferred [phone] calls myself. It was a silly idea,” Josefina said.

Josefina says she spent a lot of time talking with River on the phone – even to the point of falling asleep at night during their conversation and waking up the next morning along with the man on the other side of the call. 

Sophani, who became a sort of older sister figure to Josefina, would give her relationship advice from time to time. Given her outgoing personality and the way Sophani seemed to be so knowledgeable about so many things, especially River, Josefina began trusting her more and more, sharing intimate details about her relationship.

It was not until later that Josefina found out the simple reason why Sophani knew so much about River: They were the same person.

Confrontation

Josefina’s loved ones, without her knowledge, began an investigation into River Castro as they felt something was amiss with this mystery man she was becoming more and more infatuated with. 

In early May, Josefina’s brother found evidence that River didn’t actually exist – there was no record of him being an owner of Body Factory and his Instagram pictures came from a different man’s account. He immediately told his sister.

Josefina, who was in Ibiza at the time, saw red. She didn’t know exactly what was going on but she immediately suspected that Sophani was somehow behind it.

“Two possibilities crossed my mind: either there are two people involved, which would require too much effort and leave me wondering what she would gain from it, or it’s just her using a voice changer tool,” Josefina recalled.

“In my anger, I called ‘River’ and confronted him, but it was as if my blurred vision suddenly cleared, and I only heard her voice. I asked him to turn on the camera, but he refused. Then, I went back and forth calling Sophani and River, asking for a phone conference, which obviously wasn’t possible. Whenever I spoke with her, I heard ‘him,’ and when I talked to ‘him,’ I heard her. It became so clear.”

In one of the conversations, Josefina asked Sophani if River was, indeed, one of the owners of Body Factory Bali. 

“Hello? Hello?” Sophani said to the phone. 

“Don’t pretend that you did not hear me,” Josephina responded immediately.

Sophani hung up.

River, on the other hand, was silent for a moment before answering, “Silent owner, yeah,” to the very same question. 

Josefina decided to share her entire story on her Instagram account. Her video explaining her relationship with “River” and Sophani’s deception quickly became a central topic of discussion in the Canggu community. 

Three days after her Instagram video was uploaded, Josefina was told by another friend that a woman named Malin Svensson, 32, a Swedish model who lives in Ibiza, had experienced a similar situation with Sophani. 

“This story is a lot more fucked up than people think,” Malin told Coconuts Bali. 

For Malin, the discovery that Sophani was River occurred on New Year’s Eve 2020 while at a friend’s party in Bali that Sophani also attended. 

Malin had struck up a romantic relationship with River through Instagram several months earlier and things had grown quite intense. At the time, River had told her that he was residing in Australia due to the pandemic. Since his time zone was two hours ahead of Bali’s, Malin decided to surprise him with a call.

“When I called him on Viber (a messaging application), Sophani’s phone rang in front of my eyes,” Malin told Coconuts Bali.

“I could tell she kind of freaked out.”

The next day, Malin came to Sophani’s house to make smoothies (their ritual every morning after working out at the gym). Noticing Sophani’s phone being charged on her bed, she decided to give River another call to confirm her suspicions.

Again, the phone rang.

“That’s how I found out that she did this,” Malin recalled.

In retrospect, Malin acknowledged that there were similarities between Sophani and River’s personalities. On the other hand, she had trusted Sophani because they had been close friends for about a year at that point.

“I met Sophani in the ice bath area of Body Factory to be exact – this was April 2020. We got along very well. I didn’t really have any friends in Bali as I was only there for three months at this time,” Malin recalled. She says she started thinking of Sophani as an older sister.

Malin recalled one incident in the gym’s sauna when a guy started hitting on her. Sophani “lost her shit and started screaming at him” to the point the guy had to leave the gym. 

“She made a scene, completely. Now, knowing that [Sophani] was River, I could see that she was just being jealous [rather] than being protective. And the way she was handing it was just too extreme,” she said.

Malin later realized that Sophani actually knew of her even before she came to Bali. She recalled a comment left by River on her Instagram profile in 2014. Malin was living in Miami at the time. 

“So she would have known about me five years before I came to Bali,” Malin said. 

Now that she realized that Sophani was River and River was Sophani, Malin looked back at all the times she had spent with Sophani during the day while, at the same time, intensely communicating with River at night. 

“So I was basically spending 24/7 with her because, even at night time, I would fall asleep on the phone with River and I woke up with him [on the phone] and then I started my day and I would go hang out with Sophani,” said Malin.

She says the heartbreak that she felt over that betrayal is what prompted her to move to Ibiza in July 2021. 

“I left because of Sophani.” 

Even after leaving Bali, Malin said she still received phone calls from River about six times a day, even after she blocked him. River, according to Malin, would tell her that he would always find a way to contact her, no matter what.

“[It got] to a point where I couldn’t take it anymore. I just wrote: ‘Sophani, I know it’s you. Please stop contacting me.’ And he would say, ‘You’re losing your mind.’ And I said, ‘Sophani, I know it’s you.’”

The phone calls stopped and Malin never heard from Sophani (or River) again. 

She decided to speak up after Josefina shared her story.

“I don’t want her to do this to more people,’” she said.

“Bali was my home and I was happy there. She took that away from me. I’m not gonna go back until she is deported.”

Kimberly (not her real name), is another woman who confirmed to Coconuts Bali that she had been in a relationship with River, starting with messages exchanged all the way back in 2016. She recalls looking at his now-deleted Instagram profile and seeing posts going back well before that year.

Kimberly said Sophani was very encouraging during her so-called relationship with River and even acted as a sort of couple’s counselor to help her deal with what she described as his “emotional outbursts.”

Kimberly didn’t want to go into detail about all of the fallout from the deception, but she did mention that, “the emotional and mental trauma caused physical damage. My health took a very big hit for a very long time.”

Just like Malin, Kimberly said she has been very removed from Bali since she learned of the deception and does not want to return to the island because of Sophani.

“There were a lot of things that didn’t add up for me. I questioned the legitimacy of this person ‘River’ a lot throughout our time speaking, and I did question if he was Sophani, but could never get to the bottom of it,” she said. Kimberly finally found out the truth through Josefina. 

Deception

At this point you, like some of the people who commented on Josefina’s Instagram post, might be wondering why there weren’t more doubts about River’s authenticity due to the lack of video calls. 

”That question is understandable,” said 25-year-old Allyson Mayle, a writer and part-time model currently living in San Francisco, in a separate interview with Coconuts Bali. 

“But what needs to be addressed is how manipulative Sophani was, and how she managed to use River to control and manipulate women even more.”

Unlike the other women we interviewed, Allyson never had a romantic relationship with River – instead, she said River was like the older brother she never had. 

Allyson said she was first introduced to Sophani via her yoga school and that they became close after she had her first healing session with her. Eventually, she confided in Sophani about her estranged brother. 

“I haven’t spoken to my brother in a while and missed his guidance,” said Allyson, noting that she told this to Sophani during one of their healing sessions.

“River then became a brotherly figure to me. He even stated at times that our relationship was a lot like a sibling one.”

Allyson commented that Sophani was “highly calculated” in the way she managed to make River seem like a real person. 

“She would even walk out of the room sometimes to take calls from ‘River’, then would come back in saying what he was going through. She made this man super believable,” Allyson explained.

“Sophani would make multiple accounts that would comment on Rivers’ photos, she would have these characters post about River on their stories, which he would repost. Wherever ‘River’ said he was in the world, she would be posting photos of that location to his story,” she added.

Malin recounted one time when River asked for her help to send him his clothes from Bali as he was “stuck in Australia”.

“[Sophani] even packed the suitcase with men’s clothes and sent it to my house and this was supposed to look like it was River’s suitcase, to make it more believable that he existed, which is crazy,” Malin said. 

Allyson said that she was dating another guy at the time and thus did not engage whenever River began injecting sexual innuendos into their conversations. 

However, she recalled an incident on Nov. 4 of last year in which River asked her if she could wake Sophani up because he needed to book a flight to Italy and needed her advice.

It was the middle of the night. At the time, Allyson was renting a bungalow next to Sophani’s.

“Now, knowing that River and Sophani are the same person, [I realized that] she was manipulating me into believing that this man needed help, and that I should go into her room at night alone with her. I am glad that I fell asleep that night, because I do not know what I would have walked into,” Allyson said. 

Allyson released several Instagram Reels of her own after she got in touch with Josefina in which she detailed her own experiences with River Castro. In one of the videos, she uploaded a recorded confession from Sophani about what she did during a phone call with her.

One woman told Coconuts Bali, under condition of anonymity that, in addition to the mental trauma of having had phone sex with River and sending him half-naked pictures, she felt Sophani had physically violated her as well.

“I once had a menstrual cup stuck inside of me. My choice was to go to a hospital and pay a lot of money to get it out or, as ‘River’ suggested, ask Sophani for help,” the woman said.

The woman mimicked River’s advice: “Why don’t you just ask Sophani. She knows how a woman’s body works. She’s your friend and sister, she could easily just take it out.”

As awkward as it felt, the woman didn’t think it was that strange as it was something she might also do for a female friend. But now, she realized, it was a completely different situation.

“Sophani basically suggested herself. She put her fingers in my vagina to take the menstrual cup out,” she said. 

Read the rest of the story including our exclusive interview with Sophani in Part 2, coming out tomorrow.

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