Wednesday, May 5, 2010

A Love Hate Relationship Building

April 7th

Leaving Esteli, we stop at a petrol station to load up on water and run through the usual conversations with the usual small crowd that gathers to watch our antics. One guy in particular grabs our attention, being unusually enthusiastic and uniquely attired in a crisp white linen suit. It is only after we've been chatting for a couple of minutes that we realise he has a small entourage with him and women are queuing up to have photos taken. Finally he asks us if we know who he is and we have to confess our ignorance, just as a van rolls up to collect him. None other than Octar (the soap guy) he is something of a celebrity throughout the whole of Central America and I am jealous of his affect on the ladies as he does a promotional tour....

The other big guy around here is THE Big Guy. Graffiti and roadside banners proclaim 'Jesus Christ is God the King and The Main Man in Esteli and Nicaragua'.

Nicaragua is an emphatically catholic country with 90% of the population devoutly practicing. Much like the rest of Central America religious festivals are widely celebrated and Sunday is still sacrosanct with most businesses closing to observe the Sabbath.

We ride out and the land changes from green to barren brown as the crop changes from tobacco to sugar. Roads are littered with crushed brown canes that fall from the backs of hugely overladen 34 wheel transporters; Esteli is a major sugar town. Many fields have just been harvested and only the battered and truncated stalks remain in what looks like the aftermath of a biblical locust swarm....

Traffic seems to be lighter than Honduras - people are generally poorer and there are fewer private cars as more people travel by bus. It's easy for them to get about with every town served by several buses every hour costing, say a dollar for a couple of hours ride. Whole families move house and business using these old workhorses more used to carrying American school children in the 1950's....

So - straight road, wide shoulder, clear skies, no worries....

Then.... BANG.... and I'm on the deck, bike scraping along behind me....
There's a man.
I get up and turn to face him, ankle vaguely painful from the crash.
Slowly it dawns on me that he made a grab for my handlebar as I rode past him, and so, in confusion, and also strangely politely I ask him 'Que pasa?' (what's going on?)
He makes a move towards me and instinctively I grab his wrist....
And then I see the knife, silver steel glinting in the sun!
Suddenly angry, still confused; I shove him in the chest.
'Da me su camera!' he shouts - give me your camera!.
It's all happening in a flash and I tell him NO and push him back again.
Then he takes a swipe at me and I just manage to flex and get my stomach out of the arc of the blade as it swishes viciously, slicing air where soft flesh had so recently been.

Then I see Sue run past me out of the corner of my eye, arms frantically waving. Distantly I hear her shouting to the man's accomplice to get away from my bike.

Only then does the first light of awareness filter through the slow fog clouding my brain.
Apparently we're being robbed...
at knife point....
and by not one, but two toe-rags.

It's strange how one minute you are just cruising along, pedals slowly turning over, lazy hazy.... your mind a thousand miles away in it's only little travel trance.... and whooosh - reality suddenly smashes you in the face.

Maybe it would be a good idea to just give the camera away and maybe allow both Sue and I to retain a full gallon of blood each; our precious skin still attached to precious bodies.

Yes - that's a good idea.
So I tell toe-rag number one - 'Here you go' and offer the camera....
But without thinking I suddenly tell him I'm keeping the memory card - I need those photos, and I calmly open up the camera and remove said card before handing it over.
I think he was just too stunned to object, and in any case Sue had managed to stop a couple of cars by now so toe-rag is losing confidence. He takes the camera and melts into some trees by the road side.

I guess Sue and I are too stunned to realise we should be afraid, worried, angry or maybe shocked. We're just both a bit bemused as we continue to watch this guy slip in and out of the tree cover for a couple of minutes as he fades into the distance. Bizarrely his accomplice hangs around, so we tell him we're going to the police and he tells us he was nothing to do with it and even offers to help by telling us where the other guy lives.

Finally we ride on and by chance, a kilometer or so down the road, we see a police car. Flagging it down, I explain to the driver what has happened and he jumps into rapid response mode. Telling Sue to look after the bikes at the roadside, the three police policemen in the car make space for me in the back and we set off in hot pursuit.

We were robbed on the main road at a point where two dirt roads intersect heading off in opposite directions. We hit the first at 50mph, dust flying, car careening and bouncing on the broken surface. It's all gone very Starsky and Hutch!
A shotgun emerges from under the back seat, a rifle from under the front, and I'm trying to offer a description as I bounce around in the back. Under the circumstances I just can't remember the Spanish for 'purple and white striped T-shirt'....

It's just a warren of tracks disappearing off from the dirt 'road' terminating in wooden shacks finished with plastic sheeting and you can almost taste the atmosphere of suspicion at the unexpected intrusion of a speeding police car with it's out-of-place gringo cargo. People stare blankly and understandably, they have seen nothing.

We try the dirt road in the opposite direction, and amazingly, the knife-man's accomplice is calmly strolling along listening to his (or recently, someone else's) Mp3 player. Parking the car across his path, all three armed cops get out and invite him to get in.

It's a short ride back to Sue and our bikes and we set up an altogether slower procession back to the police station, Sue and I leading on bikes, police car and prisoner following on behind.

Interviews, statements, cross examinations.... passports are checked, forms are duly filled in. Toe rag sticks to his story - what me guv? Dunno wot you're on about.... and we kiss the camera goodbye thanking our lucky stars the cost was so low.

And I've got a cheap, spare camera - so here's the police station where it all happened....

But the day has changed for us and indeed, sadly, so has Nicaragua. It's like riding out into a new world....

It is not the loss of the camera - who cares about that. We could have lost so much more - and not just stuff. No, in many ways it was a lucky escape, but the next 30 miles pass in a blur as your mind replays the incident and suddenly you start to look at people differently.

It occurs to me I had seen those guys before, earlier on the road. They were walking towards us as we rode past. Then I saw them again, overtaking us in the back of a pick up truck. Obviously they had seen the opportunity and hitched a ride to get ahead of us so as to carry out their premeditated plan.

I am angry.

Central America had worked so hard to dispel what really is a myth about the level of danger and violence here. In some ways we were becoming complacent in our trust, but that is to be expected after hundreds of good deeds verses none of the bad variety. I did notice something not-quite-right about that guy as we passed him the first time. Something subtle, a glance maybe, or just a slight movement towards the bike rather than away as we passed by. But I thought nothing of it after so much good will. Now I am looking at people walking at the road side differently. It's understandable, but it is not their fault and they have no awareness of what happened further up the trail. They don't know why I'm so angry. People continue to wave greetings of friendliness, but now I distrust them all.

The land blurs and some distance passes. I see nothing but a purple and white shirt and a knife. I wonder what could have been....

Eventually we reach San Benito and enquire about a room. The only hostel in town has an amusing owner who wants 200 for a room not worth a hundred and I am in no mood to be robbed twice in one day. I let him know about that and explain to Sue we will be riding to the next town.

We post 135kms (85 miles) for the day, despite losing a good three hours. Anger makes good fuel for the pedals it would seem.

We hole up for the night and reflect on the next day's ride to Managua lying just 15 miles ahead of us. There we had planned to extend our visas for another 30 days to allow time to explore Nicaragua more fully. After consideration, we both agree it would be churlish to change our plans now and head directly to Costa Rica. You can't judge an entire nation based on the actions of one individual, no matter how much of a scumbag he was. We have to give Nicaragua more time. It is easy to balance this one bad incident off against the driver who stopped to offer us assistance and then gave us his last money 'for luck', plus all the other acts of friendliness we have seen here already.

So tomorrow; the capital, and another 30 days here hopefully. We try to forget this incident and reset our expectations so as not to prejudice our opinions of Nicaragua and it's people.

And anyway - you can't ride through the whole of Central America and not have a good knife story....


Bob Bobel - The Elder said...

Well written. When will I be able to buy the book?

Daniel said...

Hi Martin,
that's right. Some stories are simply a part of the travel. Not that it is fun to "lose" things, even with a knife in front of your face, but welcome in the club! My nice Panasonic on was going this way too...
After such moments you are angry and try to figure out what was happen or what you had could do that this could not happen...
Move on and see this as experience. This continent is to great that one of such a incident can change your opinion about things.
So, move on Amigo.

Sween in SAmerica said...

Hi Danny
Good to hear from you amigo.
Sorry to hear your camera went the same way - seems to be a popular model with el bandido. Like you say you feel angry for a while, but it really is just one of those things and no point changing plans over it...

Bob - not sure about the book - still got a few miles I need to ride first.... but you never know....
Thanks for the vote of confidence

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