CASKE 2000 > Stories > Adventure > Nicaragua > Surviving Nicaragua - Part 2


Surviving Nicaragua, A Kayaker's Battlefield - Part 2

7/20/2000 by Jean-Philippe Soule

If you haven't read Surviving Nicaragua - Part 1, I recommend you do:

5/05/2000 - "Masochism on the Nicaraguan Coast"

5/07/2000 - "AK 47 Sub-machinegun Armed Robbery" 

At one o'clock in the morning, our hosts from the small village of Sandy Bay Norte got up to help us carry our gear to the lagoon and point us toward the canal entrance on the other side. To get there I used the stars as reference; they were a better choice than land features, which change as we get closer. After entering the canal it was a real maze. There were many intersections that we had not paid attention to the other day when we arrived so tired after a 34-mile paddle. I sometimes navigate on feelings, especially on cloudy nights. The wind and the angle from which the waves hit the boat are my usual guides, but they can change. The wind can turn and waves can get refracted in a bay and gradually start to come from a new direction. Here neither the wind nor the wave directions could be of any help. After an hour of maze paddling in the dark, the distant dull sound of the waves and the slight water undulations repeatedly bouncing my kayak and teasing my full bladder were the hints we were on the right course to the sandbar opening on the ocean. Half an hour later we were stretching on the beach before setting up for another 20 miles that we planned to paddle. There was no more night navigation to do as the coastline was straight without any major bay crossings. We just needed to keep the shore on sight and follow it.

In the early morning as we kept moving along the coast we heard a strange sound. I turned back toward Luke saying, "What the hell was that?" I was afraid I knew too well what it was, I had heard that sound thousands of times in the army. It was the muffled whine from the shot of a rifle from a distance but carried over the water. It was soon followed by a second gunshot. I looked on the beach and saw a man standing and waving. Our rifle shooter was waving us to come in. We were far enough out that I assumed he didn't see me look at him, I forced the pace and we paddled further away from shore a little more.

An hour later we paddled closer to shore as we were closing up on a point. Two friendly fishermen launched a canoe and came to meet us on the water. They advised us to be cautious and not to try to pass the next point as up to 30 armed bandits were using it as a base to attack all slow passing boats. The men were very friendly but frantically insisted that for our safety and the salvation of their own souls, they could not let us get killed by the bandits waiting ahead. They invited us to rest on the beach and wait for a fast motorboat taxi between Sandy Bay and Puerto Cabezas to pick us up and drop us past the dangerous zone. They went on to tell us that these bandits were ex-guerillas and they would not hesitate to kill us and rob us of all we had. They had killed many before.

The men were convincing. Luke and I discussed our options. Maybe they lied, but they didn't seem dangerous and didn't have any weapons. Two other fishermen with a little kid were setting up a net from the beach. On the other hand if they told the truth we ought to follow their advice. We were in need of a rest anyway so we decided to go to shore. After we landed, the friendly fisherman told us an official armed-guard from the village would come to check out the situation and assure our protection. At the same time a man appeared walking from the North with an AK 47 submachinegun on his shoulder. We recognized the man we had passed earlier and who had shot his gun twice. He had probably shot in the air as he said, to call our attention and warn us about the danger ahead.

The eager fisherman and the armed guard in peasant's clothes walked toward the point to check out the situation for us. We had some doubts from the beginning about their stories, but when they returned less than five minutes later without going a tenth of the distance to the point we became even more suspicious. Then they kept telling us stories as if they had talked with the bandits who would let us pass safely for a fee they called a Derecho de Pasaje (right of passage). When I asked what kind of fee, they replied, "Very little, just $100. We laughed explaining that we never traveled with that much cash at hand I also said that our friends the Miskito leaders Brooklyn Rivera and Avelino Cox Molina were waiting for us in Cabezas today and that if we didn't arrive by the afternoon they would come with the police and the coast guard to look for us. These two people were famous nationwide. Our friend Jacinto Molina, a Miskito Leader from Honduras had given us their names. At the mention of these names, the five men were impressed. They talked in Miskito and we could only understand them when they repeated the names.

The fishermen who had stopped us were first very friendly, but after half an hour of conversation leading nowhere they started to lose their temper, especially the zealous muscular little man who had convinced us to land. He was waving his large diving knife about excitedly and at one point looked to the fabric skins of our foldable kayaks and very suggestively remarked that the bandits could easily rip all our boats with knives. The man with the AK 47 remained calmer and asked, "So what are you going to do? We will bring them your money so they let you go, and I will ensure your protection with my gun." When a motorboat approached, the men exchanged a few words in Miskito and all we could understand was policia, policia, policia. Afraid it was the police, our armed official ran to hide his AK 47 in the bush. They were not police officers but just a commuting boat on its way to Sandy Bay, but now we were sure about the intent of the men. They were the thieves and although friendly, they were well armed and had started to lose their patience with us. The tall man with the beard was standing in front of me with his AK 47 on his shoulder while the excited fisherman moved his knife all around more and more in frustration. Around us were four more men, two with machetes. The threat was never direct, they always referred to the bad people from the point, but they made it clear that they could not let us leave considering the danger. God would not forgive them for not saving our lives they said, but we knew better.

The tension was building and as our two main negotiators were pressing us more and really starting to annoy me. I had flashbacks to my special-forces training years. For a second I saw how easily I could remove the knife from the little man and dig it in the throat of the tall guy with the AK 47 standing next to him. I was sure it would take me less than five seconds to have the machine gun in my hands. This thought only lasted for a few seconds before reason returned. I thought, "JP you're crazy! These people aren't a real threat, they just want some money." I could feel the anger building in them, but also nervousness and hesitation. I told Luke who carried the few Nicaraguan Cordobas we had that we should give them a 100, which is the equivalent of $8. Surprised he asked me if I was serious. "Yes" I replied. After repeating that Brooklyn Rivera expected us, I don't think they would have taken the risk to hurt us. But they were armed and had already spent over an hour of energy and frustration trying to rob us of $100. It was better to give them something and call an end to this situation.

Luke pulled out 100 Cordoba and I told them that we were grateful for their help asking the bad guys to let us pass safely with this donation. They agreed and I gave them one of my bottles of Tang drink. We shook hands like old friends and they helped us carry our loaded kayaks back to the water while giving us God's benediction. We thanked them for their gracious help and they continued their lies by recommending us to paddle far out from the point just in case. We did, not really to avoid the 30 mythical armed bandits but rather to stay clear from another similar encounter. Of course they never even bothered simulating walking toward the point. By then they too knew that we had understood their scam for a long time, but the small donation made things easier for both parties.

Once out a little way from the coast we laughed. Maybe still a bit nervous, we thought the situation once concluded was funny. It was our first armed robbery of the trip and the first time we saw an AK 47 in the hands of bandits. Eight dollars was a small price to pay to get out of this situation. As I paddled on leaving Luke in my wake, I thought more about the situation and remembered that one of the silent men with a machete was very high on drugs. I remembered the warning we had received numerous times about drug users and the value of life in these countries. I thought we were lucky this time as they were just poor guys who probably only robbed occasionally. They could have been cocaine addicts and killed us first. In Central America life doesn't have much value and it is especially true in Nicaragua when just ten years ago people were still killing each other all over the country without really knowing why in a dirty civil war.

Although I had not felt any fear at any time during this encounter, as I kept paddling, I felt more and more uneasy and didn't want to camp on the beach in the evening. I waited for Luke and told him I thought we should paddle all the way to Puerto Cabezas pushing our distance to 34 miles. After paddling the distance we landed in front of a restaurant. There we met a Miskito leader named Julio Chow who took us, after a meal, to the Captain of the Port for registration. Our letter of recommendation from the immigration of Honduras did marvels for us. Then Julio helped us hire a truck and took us to a nice comfortable hotel. As it was Sunday we had to wait until the following day to check in with the immigration. Again, our recommendation letter worked so well we did not even need to show the kayaks or talk to customs. We had officially made it to Nicaragua and we paid our dues to get into the country.

5/11 - "Forced Paddling with a Sick Stomach" (Part 3)
5/14 - Tasbapounie - "Missing out on the Sea Turtle Feast"
(Part 4)
5/17 - "And the Rain Began" (Part 5)
5/21 - "Bluefields to Managua - Do we Have to Portage?" (Part 6)
5/27 - "Dancing with Death to the rhythm of the Ocean" (Part 7)

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