Part two of my crazy La Mosquitia adventure begins here. I don’t want to give too much away yet, but I may have been poisoned. If you haven’t read La Mosquitia Part 1: Welcome to the Jungle, you definitely should, because otherwise this story won’t make as much sense. Obviously.
Quick update for people who read part one but can’t remember how it ended: we were in Brus Laguna and things had been going pretty smoothly until my shoes were stolen.
The next stop on our route was Ahuas, a village roughly halfway between Brus Laguna and Puerto Lempira. We could have skipped it, just changed boats there and blown through the same day to Puerto Lempira, but we had decided against it. Puerto Lempira, for us, was more or less the end of the “difficult” part of the trip. There was a bank there. Supermarkets. The Nicaraguan border would be well within reach. It marked the point where the wilderness ended and civilisation started again. And there, in Brus Laguna, on the day before Christmas, it all felt a little bit too easy. We had made it through to this point in only four days, without any major problems. It hadn’t yet felt like a challenge. So it was settled. We would have Christmas in Ahuas.
As we walked to the dock to buy our boat tickets, I paid special attention to the footwear of everyone we passed. I couldn’t see my shoes anywhere. It appeared that they were lost forever, destined to turn up in one of the dozens of used clothing stores in the area. I hoped they enjoyed the smell.
Our boat to Ahuas looked super luxurious compared to the others we’d been travelling on. Instead of the usual wooden planks, the enterprising owner had installed bucket seats, apparently ripped out of the front of some old cars. Given my wooden plank injuries (detailed in part one) were still both fresh in my mind and on my cheeks, I was happy that this would be a comfortable trip.
I should have known better. In Central America one seat does not usually equal one person. As soon as the signal was given to get on board, things got rough. Everyone scrambled to get a seat. After some mild shoving and a polite punch or two, we managed to get two seats next to each other. Ten seconds later, a young dude jumped on board and sat right in the middle, claiming half a seat from each of us.
By this point it seemed like we would never depart. People kept shoving and trying to get in the jam-packed boat. Others would suddenly turn up at the dock with even more packages to throw on. At one stage the boat started to leave the dock, only to have to reverse back so a frantic woman could put – no joke – a kitchen sink on board. We were beginning to suspect that we were the targets of an elaborate prank.
But after the stampede, things actually became quite peaceful. The boat ride up the wide, mangrove and reed-fringed Patuca was smooth and scenic. Families of turtles perched on semi-submerged logs, jutting over the water like a line of little army helmets. Crocodiles, one about four metres long, sunned themselves on the thin mud banks and stared at us. We had heard some stories about boats sinking. I tried to put them out of my mind.
We arrived in Ahuas and jumped straight in the back of a pickup truck that took us to our lodging. This place was extremely basic, but it had a comfy bed and a mosquito net, so we didn’t mind.
The owners made us lunch and it was quite possibly one of the worst meals I’ve ever had. It would be difficult to describe exactly why. Most of the plate was just rice, undercooked and incredibly bland. On the side was a small scoop of a gag-inducing meat, origins unknown, and the ever-present beans, but even these had somehow cooked in such a way as to remove every ounce of flavour from them. As we sat staring at our plates, the chef, an otherwise adorable grandma with a long, wispy beard, brought out two plantain bananas so unripe and yet so off that they were greyish-blue.
Unfortunately, there was no comedor in Ahuas, so we were stuck with this cooking for the rest of our stay. We were going to be here for two nights because it was Christmas the next day and no boats were running. After pushing down some forkfuls, we walked to the general store and immediately bought a bunch of junk food.
Christmas morning came and was, as predicted, a quiet affair. We played my Christmas song playlist, we drank some dirty improvised eggnog (rum, vanilla flavoured long-life milk, egg), we dug out the Scrabble board. Later in the afternoon two teenage boys invited us to see the traditional Christmas festivities of the town. We hitched a ride with them to the soccer pitch and sat around the fringes chatting awkwardly in Spanish. Families and youths loafed in the shade and looked largely disinterested. A crowd had gathered in the middle of the field, chanting and stomping their feet. This ancient tribal ritual, passed down orally from generation to generation, seen by only a handful of outsiders, climaxed with Enrique Iglesias bursting out of the speakers and everyone jumping up and down like school girls. The boys who had taken us looked embarrassed. We all decided it would be a good idea to leave.
No-one turned on their generators that night. The town was quiet and calm. Hundreds of fireflies fizzed across the grass, shooting beautiful green sparks in the darkness. The warm wind brought the faint smells of scorched dust and animals down the road and through the cracks in the door. The candlelight in our room pulsed and pushed soft shadows over the walls.
And by the next morning, after two nights in Ahuas, I was itching to get out. I had eaten hardly anything since we had arrived. We told the lady at our place that we would be leaving that day, and she assured us that a car would come for us and take us to the dock with plenty of time.
We sat around with our luggage for over an hour. Our lift to the dock was extremely late. We asked our lady about the car twice. She nonchalantly did her washing and assured us it would come soon. It didn’t. Half an hour later, we asked for a third time, and she finally called someone to check. After some rapid fire Spanish, she got off the phone. There was a mechanical problem with the boat. It wasn’t running today. Maybe tomorrow, she said, shrugging her shoulders infuriatingly and returning to her washing. We put our luggage back in our room and walked down to the shop to double check. Of course there’s a boat, they said. But it’s leaving in ten minutes. And it’s already full.
Either way, it ignited my first tantrum in a very long time. I couldn’t bear the idea of another full day. I was furious with the lady for either lying to us or not even caring enough to find out the right information. I was starving. I was dangerously bored. I returned to our room and lay in bed for hours, unwilling to move.
The next day we arrive at the dock super early to make sure we that we could get on the boat. We bought tickets at 9am for a 2pm departure. We had the physical ticket in our hands and excitement was in the air. We took a seat near the river, fought off the mosquitoes and sand flies, and waited.
At 1pm a guy approached us. We knew it was bad news even before he opened his mouth. Are you going to Puerto Lempira? he asked. Yes, we said. There’s no boat, he said. It sunk in the lagoon. But we have tickets, we said, even though we knew that it didn’t really mean much.
It was Saturday. There wasn’t another boat until Monday afternoon.
I couldn’t believe it. I remained calmer than the day before, but I knew I couldn’t stay here any longer. There was another boat about to depart that was heading back to Brus Laguna. We quickly swapped our tickets and jumped on board. We knew that there was a small airport in Brus Laguna, and we were sick of waiting for boats. If we were lucky we might be able to fly out that evening or the next day. At the very least, they had a comedor there. Escape and food were on the horizon.
The three hour return journey was a lot less fun on the way back. I wasn’t interested in crocodile spotting. Rain hammered down on the roof of the boat and sprayed into the open sides. We huddled under a tarpaulin and barely spoke.
We were back in Brus Laguna. After some asking around, and a lot of different answers, we finally found out that there would be no flights until Monday morning. It seemed that nothing at all ran on Sundays. Despite this, we were getting optimistic again. Surely a plane had to be more reliable than a boat. AeroCaribe: an actual company with an actual name. They wouldn’t let us down. We were prepared to wait it out some more.
Remembering our last hotel experience in Brus Laguna, we decided to try a different one this time. The Laguna Paradise hotel was above a general store and looked like no-one had stayed there in years. The bathroom was filthy and the concrete common area consisted of a single broken hammock. The beds seemed fine, though, and at least we had a mosquito net this time. We took the room.
Of course, this was a big mistake.
We both woke up that night at 3am. The hotel caretaker, a mute and a seemingly friendly young man who had “cleaned” our room when we checked in, was now barking and moaning right outside our door, pacing up and down the concrete and occasionally shining the torch through the window.
At that moment, I realised the other reason why I had woken up. My eyes were burning. And the skin all around my eyes was burning.
Raph, I asked, do your eyes, uh, really hurt?
Yes, he said.
Convinced we were poisoned and potentially going to go blind, we brainstormed on what the source of our pain could be. The water, some kind of gas, and the pillows were our three options. We couldn’t stay in the room in case whatever it was made our eyes even worse. But we’d been advised not to walk around town late at night due to dodgy drug activities. Not only that, there was a certified psycho lurking right outside our door. That might even be his plan: to force us out of the room with toxic fumes and then take us captive and eat our young, tender bodies. We couldn’t even really discuss it properly: we didn’t want the light from our own torch to be seen from outside the room and we didn’t want him to hear us from the other side of the paper-thin walls.
What the hell were we going to do?
We decided to take our chances with whatever was out there.
After five tense minutes, the torchlight went away and the noises stopped. It seemed that the caretaker had gone back to his room. We threw on some clothes, grabbed some water, and ran out the door, down the steps and out to the street. We walked quickly through the deserted town to our previous hotel, where after a bit of pleading, the night security guard (actually just a nice old man who keeps the gate locked) let us in the gate and even showed us to a grimy room he had access to.
We were exhausted. We were sweaty and dirty. All of our clothes stunk. Raph had been wearing the same pair of underwear for the last three days. The skin around our eyes stung badly, and washing them with bottled water had no effect. If we went to sleep, we had no idea whether we would be able to see when we woke up. Between boat sinkings, eye poisonings, and potentially being stranded here forever, Raph was haunted by something his sister said in Australia. Whatever you do, she said, don’t get Amanda killed.
The sun came up eventually. We walked back to our other hotel to check out and move all of our stuff. Our eyes were still burning, but the menace of the night had passed. By the end of the day our eyes would be pretty much back to normal. But we never did find out what caused it.
We reserved our spots on the flight to Puerto Lempira later that afternoon. We were not encouraged by all the rain that was pouring down, as we were told the flight wouldn’t go in the rain. At this point we realised we couldn’t actually wait any longer than Monday, as we were almost out of cash (there are no ATMs or banks anywhere along the coast until Puerto Lempira). If we couldn’t take a flight we would have to go back the way we came, on the seven hour pickup truck to Tocoa.
The next morning we arrived at the ticket office, as requested, a bit before 6:30am. As usual, this was completely unnecessary as it didn’t even open until after 7am and it took a good hour for the lady to deal with the handful of people and their standard mountain of weird luggage.
Finally, we were all set to go, but the usual pickup to the airport didn’t show up. A few frantic phone calls later by the ticket lady, and the replacement showed up ten minutes later. It was Brus Laguna’s only ambulance. We all squished together on the stretcher and just hoped that no one had a heart attack while the driver was offering taxi services on the side.
We arrived at the “airport”, a heavily potholed dirt strip in a paddock. The plane that awaited us was only slightly larger than some remote controlled models I’d seen. It had only six seats, one of which was the pilot’s, and the luggage went into a tin box welded to the bottom of the fuselage. We opened the door ourselves and jumped in. It looked like we would get out of here after all. We just weren’t sure if we’d arrive at the other end.
The flight lasted a very long and very nervous 35 minutes. Apparently the Miskito mobile phone obsession does not stop in the sky. The pilot was on the phone almost the entire flight, taking his hand off the yoke (that’s what a steering wheel for planes is called. I Googled it.) and causing the plane to give a little gut-wrenching shudder every time he answered.
Sitting next to the pilot, in a careless little arms reach of all of the controls, a mother played with her child on her lap. I looked down at the untouched wilderness and specks of villages below and tried to relax.
When we landed, I breathed a sigh of relief. We were in Puerto Lempira. We were alive. There were actual restaurants here, as well as a road out of town.
To read what happens next, check out La Mosquitia Part 3: Sweet Escape.