Friday, October 23, 2009

If I had a fist...

... I'd punch you in the morning. I'd punch you in a car. All over this land!

Oh, wait. That's not how that song by the Mamas and the Papas goes. Maybe my head got a bit jarred yesterday if I can't even remember the lyrics properly.

I stayed up late on Wednesday night, watching Mr. Smith Goes to Washington on TMC (I love Jimmy Stewart, Jean Arthur and everything Frank Capra has ever directed). Because I didn't go to bed until far later than normal, I set my alarm for 7am instead of 6:30 and figured it was no big deal if I was late for work.

I left my house shortly after 8 and was walking to the bus stop, same as I always do, I passed the pulperia said good morning to some neighbors and turned onto the main road. It was about 8:15am by this point and there were lots of people walking around, going to work, waiting for the bus... you know, the usual Thursday morning city stuff. I was walking past the panaderia (bakery) and this short, Nicaraguan woman in a white blouse with a pony tail started talking to me.

"Do you like walking?" she asked.
"Yes," I replied. "I'm walking to the bus."
"The bus is dangerous. Where are you going."
"To work. And the bus is far less dangerous than the local taxistas."
"I'm going that way, do you want to share a cab with me? It will be far cheaper."
"Not as cheap as taking the bus, but thank you for asking."

I was not about to share a cab with this lady. I have heard stories since I got here of friends and friends of friends agreeing to share taxis with people and then having all their stuff stolen and driven around to every ATM until their daily limit has been taken from their accounts. So the idea of sharing cabs with strangers has always sketched me out a bit. And I normally only take cabs if I know the driver. Which is how I know half the cabbies in my neighborhood. Additionally, she was telling me a cab was only C$5, which is ridiculous because I can never get anywhere in the city for less than C$20. But I digress.

I talked to her for a moment or two longer, just standing there near the panaderia, and a green car pulled up in front of us. Next thing I know, the girl opened both the front and back doors of the car. She got in front and three men came from behind me (I didn't even notice them) and they dragged me into the car. I was screaming as loud as I could and I was throwing punches and kicks but they dragged me in the car. I had one foot holding the door open while I continued to scream. I had my thumbs in the eyes of one of my assailants. He kept punching me in the face, mouth and head. Then, the guy behind me put me in a choke hold. I could not breathe. I could not scream. The edges of my vision started to go black. The guy in the middle, who was sitting on me, punched me again after Chokey loosened his hold a bit. The guy that had punched me in the face kept punching me in the leg. In the same spot. I'm pretty sure he was mad that my thumbs had been so deep in his eyes. They looked a bit bloody when I looked at him.

I don't think Punchy likes blood all that much. He had punched me in the face so hard that my nose was gushing blood. I'd never had a bloody nose before. And I was surprised so much blood could come pouring out of my nose. My face was like a running tap of blood. And I was bleeding all over Chokey's arm and the back seat of the car. Punchy kept trying to cover my face. Every time he looked at me he started gagging and spit on the floor of the car. I think he didn't want to roll down the window in case I started screaming again. Finally, I told him I had a handkerchief in my pocket. He punched me in the leg, in the same spot he'd been punching me for a while at this point, then asked me which pocket. I told him, he handed it to me, I went to work trying to stop the blood.

They asked me my name, where I was going, what barrio I live in, what barrio I work in, what I do for work, how long I'm in Nicaragua for, where my money was, where my debit card was and all sorts of things. At first, when I responded to their questions, Punchy punched me again. Chokey was just hanging out, holding me in a loose chokehold. Though, at one point, shortly after I'd started bleeding all over everything and before I'd gotten my hanky from my pocket, Chokey pulled out a knife, showed it to me, and said, "Look. I have a knife." I looked at it, looked at him, and said, "Que bueno." Which I meant as like, "good for you, dude." But really means "How nice." It's comforting to know that, even in times of crisis and danger, my sarcasm does not fail.

Eventually, I started answering questions without getting punched, which was nice. I told them I'm a volunteer, what barrio I volunteer in, and that I'm here until next June doing clean drinking water work. I told them my name is Luna and that my debit card was stolen last week. Actually, I said, "Mi tarjeta fue robado proxima semana." Which means, "My card was stolen next week." But I think they understood. I told them where my money was and that all I had was C$110 (about US $5). I think that was when they realized they'd made a mistake. I told them where my money was, they asked if I had a phone. I told them where that was. I also told them they could take my bag if they just gave my my keys and my glasses. (I was wearing my sunglasses.) They didn't seem interested. They kept asking me about my debit card, I kept repeating that it had been stolen next week. (You try speaking sensical spanish when your face is gushing blood and there are five people holding you hostage in a car.) Then I told them, "Lo siento no tengo mucho para ustedes a robar." Which means, "Sorry I don't have much for y'all to steal." After that, the mood in the car lightened up a bit.

Punchy gave me my telephone. He put it in my hand and said, "Look. Here is your phone." Then he took my money and put it back in my bag and said, "Look. And your money is in your bag. We did not steal anything and there is no need for you to go to the police." There actually is no point in going to the police because, well, this is Managua and they are so busy taking bribes, they don't have the time to deal with issues of assault and attempted robbery. He also helped me remove my cardigan so I could use it to clean some of the blood off my face.

Chokey asked me, "Tienes miedo? Estàs nerviosa?" (Are you scared? Are you nervous?)
"No," I replied. "Si ustedes quieren matarme, pueden y no puedo hacer nada. Sola una y ustedes estan cinco." (No. If y'all want to kill me, you can and I can't do anything about it. I am only one and y'all are 5.) Chokey assured me they were not going to kill me.

Then, my assailants started joking with me. They told me I'm a boxer and asked me where I learned how to fight like that. I told them I have four brothers, so I got a lot of practice at a ayoung age in self-defense. They told me the color of my hair is crazy. I said, "Like me." And they started calling me Loca Lunita, or something like that.

After a little over an hour of being in the car, they pulled off onto an abandoned street in a residential part of Bello Horizonte and told me to get out of the car. I bent to pick up my sunglasses off the floor of the car and they told me to hurry. I got out of the car and began walking in the direction they pointed. I looked back to see the license plate number, but the trunk was open, so I waved, said, "Mucho gusto!" and I walked away. As I walked, I realized how strange it is to tell your captors it was nice to meet them. I suppose that, even under duress, I can have good manners. And that's nice to know.

I continued walking down the street, crying. I was this random white, blonde girl wandering through a barrio with a tear and blood streaked face, and I had blood in my hair. I saw three men sitting in chairs in front of a house, talking. I asked them where we were. They asked if I was lost. I said yes and that I was just robbed and assaulted. Then I started crying again. They gave me a chair and a glass of water and tried to get me to relax a bit so I could tell them what happened and make a phone call.

And make a phone call I did. I called my coworker, Wilbert, because he is normally driving around doing errands and he speaks some English. So I called him, told him where I was, what had happened and that I needed help. He told me he was at the bank. I asked if he understood. He said a little bit, so I repeated myself in Spanish and he told em to call the office. What the fuck. So I called the office, spoke with another coworker who called Wilbert and Wilbert eventually came to pick me up. While I was waiting, I talked to the fellas that had helped me out. One is Loiuse the Gardener. He started smoking and I thought, "a cigarette would be nice right now." So I went looking through my bag for the half pack I had put in there that morning. It was not there. Nor anywhere else in my bag.

Then I realized, I had been kidnapped and beaten to a bloody mess and all my assailants stole was half a pack of cigarettes.

The moral of this story is, never talk to strangers. And, that woman had better rethink the streets that she works on because I swear, if I see her again, I will kick her ass. Last time she had four fellas helping her out. Next time, it will be one on one, bitch. So you best be getting ready.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Go East, Young Man! Part II, The Journey to Puerto Cabezas

Leaving Río Blanco was a bit difficult. We'd had a late night the night before and I am completely enamored with Vicente (not Fernandez). But the Spirit of Adventure kept us going, or some shit.

We got to the bus terminal in Río Blanco (aka the Texaco Station) at 5:45am. And it was good we got there when we did. Five more minutes and we would've been without a bus. Siuna was a 6 hour bus ride from Río Blanco. Nothing really noteworthy happened on the bus. It was near full when we got on, so I sat in the back all alone (boo hoo hoo). The ride was scenic, but boring. The most exciting parts for me were buying juice from a blind man and watching some little boy holding a live chicken, upside down. Dan says that is how you hypnotize a chicken. I probably wouldn't move a whole lot if I was being held upside down, either.

We arrived in Siuna around noon and went looking for our hostel, Los Chinitos. I asked about 5 or 6 people where it was, because we didn't know, and I learned later that the Milliwolffs did not understand why I was asking several people for the same information. Later, they would learn that here, in Nicaragua, when people don't know something, they just make up an answer. That way you will receive information and they won't feel embarassed for not knowing. And, since they'll probably never see you again, they won't have to see how upset you are when you discover they were lying, or, I suppose, being creative with information.

But I digress. Our hostel was clean and pleasant with shared bathrooms downstairs and it only cost C$150 per person per night. A bit expensive for my taste (I like to find rooms for $5 or less) but the balcony was so nice. And there was a parade to welcome our arrival!




Or maybe they were just there because it was independence day. I think they were there for us, though.

We had shrimp for lunch at a small house down the street. It's technically closed on Sundays, but apparently they had made lots of food and were willing to feed three starving travellers. That shrimp was so, so good. And we made friends with a tiny fella whose name I don't recall. He taught us that, whereas we say "wow" in English, they say "tweny." Or something that sounds like that. So, all afternoon, our tiny new friend kept saying "Wow! Tweny!" It was hilarious. He also found a cab to take us to the river.

After lunch, I took a nap. Then our tiny friend came by with his taxi friend, we negotiated a price for a cab to the river, an hour or two wait, and a ride back, and we were on our way.



The river, clearly, was beautiful. And quite likely still is. Although Dan and I were a bit nervous that no one else was swimming. We quickly got over our fears and enjoyed the water. Until it started raining. We were already wet anyway, so at first it wasn't a big deal. Then it started monsooning. So, Dan and I got out of the water and stood around talking to our tiny friend and the taxista and Leslie, and we decided it was time to leave. Even the river chicken was heading for cover.




We tried to get to the car without getting too wet, which proved to be impossible. Especially since I'd just been in the river.

By the time we got back to town, the rain had stopped and it was getting hot again. So we decided to buy a bottle of rum. Unfortunately, the lady was out of fifths of rum. She only had tiny bottles and giant bottles. We wound up buying a half-full 1.75 liter bottle of rum. And we sat on the balcony and had a few drinks before we went to dinner. And after dinner, we had a few more. Flor de Caña is especially delicious when enjoyed with friends after a day of travelling and swimming.

Word on the street, according to 3 out of 5 people I had asked, was that there was a 4am express bus to Puerto Cabezas that took 10-12 hours. We decided we were going to try to catch this bus. And, since the bus from Río Blanco to Siuna had left a bit early, I decided it was best if we got to the bus station at 3:30am. So, we went to bed at 8pm and I set my alarm and woke everyone up at 2:30am. "I don't think I can travel today, Heather," were the first words that greeted me. I asked why, of course, and the answer I was greeted with was unpleasant. One of my friends was sick and the other was in pain. We had a meeting and decided we would go as far as Rosita and if they felt they could keep travelling, we would go on to Puerto.

So, we got our stuff together, used the bathroom, made sure no one felt like they were going to vom (at least not too much) and we left the hostel just after 3am to get to the bus stop.

We made it to the bus stop at 3:25am and we waited. Lelie and Daniel lied down on benches at the terminal and napped while waiting for the bus. 4am came and went. We waited some more because, well, in Nicaragua, things don't often happen on time, or according to a schedule. At 4:30am, music was playing. It sounded like a marching band. Leslie got up and we walked down to the street to see what was going on. And it was glorious. Maybe it's because I was tired, maybe it's because it was 4:30 in the morning, maybe there was something in the water I'd been drinking, but it was no marching band. It was a trucking band! It was like a marching band, but in the back of the truck! And, re-reading this, it doesn't sound quite as exciting as it actually was. Trust me. It was f-ing life-changing.

The band passed and we returned to our respective benches. And I started asking people about the 4am bus to Puerto. A few people denied such a thing existed and a few others seemed remotely surprised that it never came. Which still makes me wonder whether that bus actually exists. Like, I asked this guy if there was a bathroom. He said no. About an hour later, Leslie asked someone else and they directed her to the bathroom around the corner. You never know who knows what and that's why I like to ask several people where things are and what not.

This is what the beginnings of a sunrise look like at a Siuna bus station.



We wound up taking the 6am bus to Rosita (C$80). I asked several people how long the bus ride was. They all said two to three hours. This was not true. It was 4 1/2 hours on the roughest road imaginable. And, of course, I was sitting in the back so I got to feel every jolt and bounce a bit better than those lucky people in the front of the bus. Luckily, as the bus progressed along the road, more and more people got on. It was crowded, rough, hot and dusty. I was sweating dirt. It was incredibly sexy. Clearly.

At 10:30a, we were finally freed from the confines of that hellish bus ride. Immediately we heard a bus runner from another bus shouting "Puerto Cabezas! Puerto! Puerto!" We all looked at each other. Luckily, even though those poor kids felt like Jesus ran over them with a steam roller, we all had the same thought in mind. We all wanted to get on that bus and just ride out our journey. None of us wanted to have to wake up the following morning knowing we had to get on another bus.

I asked the bus runner what time the bus left. He said 11:45am. Perfect. We had time to 1) not be in a bus, 2) use a bathroom and 3) get some food and water.

Oh, the bathroom. Seriously. There was a board with a hole in it sitting over a latrine. I was going to photograph the inside, but there was a line behind me, so I figured the outside was good enough.



After using the restroom, we wandered around a bit. Bought some water and a few sodas and just had a good time at the bus station.



It's amazing how happy they look, considering how shitty they felt. Way to pull a smile for the team, kids!

We were hanging out at the bus stop for almost an hour when I realized I was starving. I think what made me especially hungry was watching the chickens being unloaded from the top of a bus.


So, I went wandering, looking for food. I was craving fried chicken and french fries. The Milliwolffs wandered with me for a bit before they decided to hop on the bus. At this point, it was around 11:35am and I decided it was necessary to eat food before getting on an (alleged) 6 hour bus ride.

The ladies I ordered food from didn't have potatoes, but they had fruta de pan (aka bread fruit) and they made bread fruit fries for me that were so, so good. I felt a bit bad because I was trying to rush them and I asked if they could set it up for me to go, like, to take on the bus with me. Then two fellas said to me, "Tranquila. El autobus no va a salir sin tí." Or something like that. It turns out I'd been chatting it up with the bus driver, Raul, and the bus runner, Alfonzo, while I was waiting for the ladies to make my food. They told me to sit down and eat and the bus would leave whenever I was ready.



Pictured here are the ladies who made my food. The guy in the white shirt is Alfonzo and the other guy is the bus driver, Raul. I finished eating, threw the rest of my fries in a bag and hopped on the bus. While I was eating, the seat I had reserved for myself with my pack had been filled with a family of four. So I moved my pack out of their way and found myself sitting in the last seat of the bus, near all the kids that were riding on bags of beans and buckets of grease. It was good times. And, I think, riding in the back of the bus made that trip a whole new experience.

While on the bus, flying over ridiculously huge bumps in the road and almost falling out of my seat several times, I made friends with a 9-year-old boy named Lenín. We talked, he told me all about the Nicaraguan flag (it was the 4 day independence day weekend, after all), he emptied out his pockets and told me about all the treasures he'd collected and told me about the town where he lives, called Sahsa.




This is Lenín. He tried to teach me to whistle. I still can't. But my efforts to learn thoroughly amused all the women and children sitting near us on the bus. For those of you that don't know, whistling is as important for communication here as facial expressions and words. Not being able to whistle is like having a speech impediment. There I go again with the digressions...

For several hours, Lenín spoke in weird voices and laughed like Woody Woodpecker. When I asked him where we were, he said "Breña." I repeated it. He said I was saying it wrong. I repeated it again. I still wasn't saying it right. This went on for about five minutes before either he was satisfied with my pronunciation or had given up on me as a lost cause. He got off the bus at Sahsa, which was about 3-4 hours into the trip. We still had another 3 to go.

When the bus runner came around to collect money, he didn't make me pay. Lenín had been surprised by that and tried to call the bus runner's attention to the fact, but yeah. I thought he'd just over looked me and I would have to pay later when he collected the tickets for the bus, but no. The bus ride from Rosita to Puerto Cabezas is normally C$180 (US $9) and, for me, it was free. I love free. Especially since I work for free. Right?

We got to a river on the bus with no bridge across. The only way to cross the river is on a cable barge, so that's what we did.


Dan was taking lots of photos and was stopped by an armed guard in fatigues. Dan doesn't really speak Spanish. Alfonzo speaks a little bit of English and translated a bit. The guard wanted to know where Dan is from and didn't seem to believe that Australia is actually a country. We believe the guard thought Dan was sent from a fake country to steal Nicaraguan cable barge secrets. Or something.

After this, the only other excitement was a bridge that was out, it was a small bridge and we managed to cross it somehow. We were supposed to get into Puerto around 6p. We got there at 7p. That last hour was the worst. You know when you're travelling a long distance and you're so close you can see the city lights in the distance... but you still have another hour to ride in a bus down a bumpy, dusty road? That was us.

We turned onto the main road to Puerto and saw this:



I think it was just Puerto Cabezas's way of welcoming us to the Caribbean.