CASKE 2000 > Stories > Adventure > Nicaragua > Surviving Nicaragua - Part 6


Surviving Nicaragua, A Kayaker's Battlefield - Part 6

7/20/2000 by Jean-Philippe Soule

If you haven't ready Surviving Nicaragua - Part 1 to 5, I recommend you do:

5/05 - "Masochism on the Nicaraguan Coast" (Part 1)

5/07 - "AK 47 Sub-machinegun Armed Robbery" (Part 2)
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)

 5/21/2000 - Bluefields to Managua - Tough Portage, do we really have to?

Making the call to portage the small stretch of coast from Bluefields to the border town of San Juan del Norte was not an easy decision. I felt strongly about paddling the entire coast of Nicaragua, and we had already done most of it. We could reach San Juan in 3 days if we paddled there while it would take us much longer to portage via the mainland. We would have to fold our kayaks, and repack all our gear, then transport it all by way of numerous boats, buses and taxis. The logistics of portaging were a major hassle that we were not looking forward to. It was not, however, the most crucial factor in our decision making process. Up until this point in our expedition no local or authority warning and no type of danger ever made us alter our course before. But in Bluefields, we understood that it was the wise decision to make. While we were willing to paddle heavy seas, expose ourselves to insects and malaria, and even paddle waters we knew hosted numerous tiger and bull sharks, we were tired of worrying about the human threat. For months we heard stories that we ignored. In spite of numerous warnings, we even set off to paddle the most dangerous stretch of Nicaragua, which lies north between the Honduran border and Puerto Cabezas. But the constant pressure and worries of being attacked built up. In Puerto Cabezas, people had warned us that the next most dangerous place would start south of Bluefields. In Bluefields, both the immigration and the port Captain urged us to travel by land to San Juan. All the locals we met reinforced these thoughts. We met people who had lost friends or family members in recent months in the vicinity of Monkey Point and Barra del Rio Mais, places we could not avoid if we were to paddle south. We had easily walked away from armed bandits in the north mainly because we had among our contacts some famous Miskito people and could say that we were expected that same day in Puerto Cabezas by the authorities. From the Monkey Point to San Juan, we could not possibly paddle it in a day, and we had no contact names to drop and even if we had, the navy and police can never find the armed bandits from the south, and they know it. To make things worse, all our gear was soaked and it had not stopped pouring during the 3 rest days we took in Bluefields. Finally, with his recent malaria attack, Luke was in no shape to paddle anyway, so we decided to pack all our gear and start the long portaging to San Juan del Norte.


Portaging to Managua

 The six-hour boat ride upriver from Bluefields to Rama was described as “unique” in the Lonely Planet guidebook. The book said it was a good reason to make the 12-hour trip to Bluefields from the capital. We found the boat ride to be painfully slow, long, and boring. The scenery wasn’t any more special than any average river we had seen before in Central America.

The 6-hour bus ride that followed was up to Central American standards. We rode an old school bus with uncomfortable seats that had lost most of their padding. The half asphalt half dirt road was bumpy and reminded us every few seconds that the shock absorbers had died years ago. The cranked up radio and speakers were of such poor quality that even the best classic songs were screaming outrageously in our ears. The heavy tropical rain was rushing from the roof next to the driver making a puddle over the engine cover. The windows had long lost their rubber joints and failed to block the water that constantly sprinkled on us. The wet floor magnified the smell of oil and rotting chunks of food and other unknown decaying materials. The comic touch was added by the way the single wiper had been repaired. Deprived of an electrical motor, the wiper was tide on one side by a bungie rope running all the way to the broken mirror by the door. The bungie rope kept constant tension on the wiper. On the other side it was tied to a blue plastic rope that was running through the middle of the windshield in front of the driver and coming inside the bus through the side window. Wiping was simple, the driver opened his window, put his arm outside under the rain, pulled on the blue rope until the wiper cover the full windshield, then released the rope and let the bungie pull it back to place. A bit rudimentary, but it worked when the driver could spare a hand from the wheel, which wasn’t always easy on the bumpy road. Each time the driver opened his window to pull on the rope, the people sitting right behind were blessed with a free shower. It happened to be Luke and I. When the rain was too strong, no hand wiping was of much use. The driver made the best of the visibility he could get through a waterfall flushing over the window.

Eventually, the shockless bus coughed so hard going over the bumps that the rope got stuck under the windshield. But the loss of wipers wasn’t a good reason enough to stop the bus. After all, like most people in Central America, our driver was continually passing slower traffic going up hill before a turn with no visibility of any possible oncoming traffic. Even when drivers here see oncoming traffic, that does not prevent them from passing. One of the additional jobs of the teenage boy who collected the tickets is to hang out of the door and whistle while waving his arm to signal the slower vehicle about to be taken over that it needs to get off the road to let us back in. In Central America, the traffic regulations are a little different. The most aggressive driver with the biggest and most powerful vehicle has always the right of way.

The young ticket collector’s duties don’t stop there, however. The boy also doubles as a mechanic. After hearing some strange clicking noise, he grabbed a big wrench and ran outside under the strong rain. The bus driver, after setting some wood blocks under the wheel to secure the brakeless bus, gave the signal that people might have the time to rush out to urinate. While driver untangled his wiper ropes, more than half of the passengers dressed rushed out to pee all around the bus. Women went just a few steps further to squat as discretely as they could next to each other and no more than 50 feet from our window. As soon as our young mechanic returned, people hurried back in. All were soaked, but with the heat generated by the old diesel engine, people didn’t worry about catching a cold. They just sat back in their sticky cloth, squeezed against each other for another few hours of bumping up and down the road to Managua. We were not sure what the mechanical problem really was, but as incidents like this happen on every trip we knew the chances were pretty good that the kid could fix it. And people have to have a chance to relieve themselves, so I’m sure most locals always hope for a small mechanical incident. Nothing works on these buses, most run on nonexistent brake pads. The only reassuring thing about them is that the engines aren’t in any better shape than the rest, and thus limit the maximal speed and increase our relative safety.

People often fear traveling in Central America. Bus riding here is an experience some choose to never repeat. The worst bus rides I have experienced were on the altiplano of Guatemala. The vehicles there are nicknamed chicken bus for the number of chickens sharing the bus with people. Sometimes on market day, you could even be traveling with a few goats and small screaming pig with their legs tied, laying down on your feet. I mind neither the smell, nor the noise, the friendly people make each ride a good experience. But on the altiplano, with steep roads, old buses are allowed to run downhill at sometimes uncontrollable speeds which explains why it is common sight to drive by a few capsized and destroyed buses or trucks that have ran off the road. I accept these risks as most places are only accessible by this type of bus, but I have never ridden a bus without worries and one or two justified adrenaline rush. I was happy and relieved when we finally arrived in Managua. We were shocked to discover a modern capital with much higher standards of living than the big cities of Tegucigalpa, San Pedro, or those in Guatemala or Belize. It was like we had changed planets and the dirty harbor of Bluefields and wild forests and remote Atlantic coast were part of a long past experience. We were back into the modern world where McDonald and Pizza Hut were the highlights and symbolized the American Dream.

From Managua we portaged to San Juan del Norte and resumed our paddling. We experienced one of the most challenging day to date...

5/27 - "Dancing with Death to the rhythm of the Ocean" (Part 7)

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