You’ve made it to the third and final instalment of my La Mosquitia adventure! I’m both pleased and impressed. This is the part where you find out about accidental drug smuggling across Central American borders, amongst other exciting things. Exciting things like being in the presence of supermarkets again. Or maybe you just had to be there for that one.
If this is the first you’ve heard of my tale, you can get up to speed with the previous two posts in the series here:
Quick update to remind you where we left off in part two: we just landed in Puerto Lempira after an insane flight where our pilot kept answering his mobile phone and swerving simultaneously.
Things were finally looking up after days of being stranded and (maybe) being poisoned that one time. The dust from the unsealed airstrip stuck to our sweaty bodies like bad, too-orange foundation. Whether we were sweating from the stress of almost dying in a plane crash or because it was really frigging hot, we’ll never know.
We jumped into a taxi and told our driver where we needed to be.
Of course, the car didn’t start.
Our driver made some, frankly, embarrassing attempts to fix the situation, including the classic open-hood-and-stare-at-engine move. At this point it was time to say ‘adios’ and promptly switch cabs; a move that ruffled a few feathers with our now former driver.
Maybe we shouldn’t have been so quick to abandon him, but given the events of the previous few days, you could understand our transport anxiety.
The next taxi was a success and we found our accommodation and lovely host, Junior, with no further issues.
Coffee and showers were followed by a little tour of the town, where we marvelled at not one, but three supermarkets. And a bank! This place felt like Tokyo compared to the rest of La Mosquitia.
Junior was the perfect guide. “This street is known as ‘The Laboratory’ to locals,” he informed us with a knowing look. I responded with a blank stare, thus forcing him to spell it out. “It’s where they make all the crack.”
I’m usually not that bad at picking up on subtle references, but who knew this little town did such a roaring trade in crack?
Sunset and beers on the wharf was the perfect way to close the door on all of our drama, though the vultures still loomed ominously in the trees.
We had already arranged a ride in a pickup truck to the Nicaraguan border for the next morning and we were getting all confident again. You know, because of roads existing in this town.
Waking up at 5:50am the next day was not pleasant (many beers were consumed the night before), but we were excited and already thinking about pizza and beer at our final destination; Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua.
Our ride turned up at 7am and we enthusiastically threw our luggage into the tray and got inside. Our driver explained that he needed to pick up a few others in town and then we’d be on our way.
What we thought would be a half hour cruise around town turned into a two hour series of errands. We stopped so our driver could purchase fruit and other groceries. Two minutes later we stopped again so he could buy a drink. Many things were bought from many shops that could have all been bought from one shop. Why he didn’t sort this out before picking everyone up remains a mystery to this day.
At one particular stop our driver went into a house and emerged 20 minutes later with a suspicious blue package. We didn’t think much of it until he asked us to get out of the car while he “cleaned” the seats (with the expert help of two shady looking friends).
Once we were out he attempted to shield our view. But we saw everything. He lifted our car seats up and opened a secret compartment underneath them. He placed the blue package inside and sought the approval of his buddies before closing everything back up.
The seats were not cleaner when we were finally allowed back in.
We were able to talk amongst ourselves about this new development, as no one else spoke English. Questions such as “Do we say something?” and “Do we get out of the car?” crossed our lips, but were almost instantly dismissed. We were so eager to get out of this place that we were willing to travel with a legit drug smuggler across the Honduras-Nicaragua border.
We made our decision and tried not to think of the mysterious blue package – probably a special delivery straight from the notorious ‘Laboratory’ – lurking beneath.
By the time we properly set off, it was past 9am and we couldn’t believe we had been in the car for almost as long as this drive would actually take.
The first three quarters of the drive, although bumpy, were uneventful. A welcome change.
This only lasted until our first military checkpoint.
The driver gave us the word and we all got out of the car. Honduran soldiers, gigantic rifles slung over their shoulders, stood around the wooden shack with solemn faces. We had been through these kinds of checkpoints before in Central America, and we knew that there was nothing to worry about. We had never had any problems before. But this time, our bodies would not respond to cold logic. As the young soldier looked over our passports and, with a ruler as a guide, slowly copied our details down on a piece of paper, we tried to control our sweating. Tried not to look back at the pickup, now being worked over by the other soldiers.
The soldier handed our passports back. The others walked away from the car, no longer interested. We got in and drove off.
We foolishly hoped it would be the last checkpoint. It was as though we had learnt nothing.
Of course there was another one. We arrived at the river that separates Honduras and Nicaragua and went through a process almost identical to the previous time. We felt a bit more relaxed here, as it was time to leave our truck and our drug smuggling careers behind and switch to a small motorised dugout to take us across the watery border.
As we all loaded the boat with our luggage it settled lower and lower into the water. We all got on board, the driver started up the outboard, and put the propeller in reverse.
We didn’t move. The boat was stuck to the river bank.
Of course, no one dreamed of getting out of the boat to lighten the load. There was certainly no way Raph and I were going to move. We could see the Nicaraguan dock, not fifty metres upstream. We would wait here all day if we had to.
Our pickup driver appeared and swung the nose of the canoe back and forth in the mud while the driver revved the engine furiously and uselessly. Even at rest, there was only three inches of clearance between the surface of the river and the gunwale of the boat. Now passengers rocked back and forth, trying to clear the canoe, and the brown water sloshed over the sides. Still the boat didn’t budge. All of the passengers, including us, were laughing now. We couldn’t believe it. But there was no way in hell we were getting off the boat.
Two embarrassing minutes and one final push and we were away and into the river. The boatman drove as slowly as he could without being taken by the current back downstream, knowing that one sudden movement would capsize us. Now that the boat was fully in the water, there were barely three centimetres of wood showing above the river. A passenger in the front of the boat shifted her position and fussed over her bags of shopping. The boat rocked dangerously. I was genuinely convinced that we were going to sink. I was furious with her. I gritted my teeth and hissed to Raph, “why is this woman so stupid?” Raph laughed nervously and calculated which of our luggage had the highest value. Which backpack we would grab when we had to swim for it.
The boat docked with the gentlest of thuds and we suppressed our cheers. We had landed next to a small clearing with a scattering of stilted huts and an idling truck. Our guidebook, which was finally starting to become useful again, called this town Leimus. It was so small it didn’t even look like it deserved a name. There was no time to confirm this, however. As soon as we emerged into the clearing, some boys grabbed our stuff and flung it on top of the truck. “Quick! Quick! It’s leaving now!” they shouted. We didn’t bother asking where, or even how long it would take. We just got on board and pushed our way through the sweaty crush of bodies. It was standing room only in the back here. We were packed in like cattle.
The truck gave a lurch and we grabbed for the closest solid thing available. The woman didn’t seem to mind. We rumbled past the houses and up yet another bumpy dirt road. So this was Nicaragua. It wasn’t exactly a refreshing change.
One and a half hours later, we staggered off the truck in Waspam and counted our injuries. I had broken a flip-flop and possibly a toe when a rogue sack of potatoes had rolled on it. Raph had claw marks on his arms and side from me, a twisted wrist and aching biceps, and had also spent the last third of the trip buried in some other lady’s heaving bosom. We stood on the side of the street, shaken and broken, not even bothering to find out from where we should be catching the bus to Puerto Cabezas. The town drunk came over and tried to slur some advice at us. We stared at him and he slunk off, muttering.
As we started to consider beginning to talk about maybe thinking of funding a sub-committee to discuss the steps required in maybe moving to the street corner to look for a taxi, the bus rolled up right in front of us. With typical – and now thankful – efficiency, both we and our bags were quickly hoisted aboard. If the driver hadn’t been about 15 years old, we would have kissed him. Instead we sat down on the seats, which felt like they were filled with duckling down and clouds, and stretched out our legs into the cavernous forty centimetre gap.
If you’ve been reading this story fairly closely, you may be able to guess how this bus ride played out. It was not, in fact, the most pleasant of journeys. Those incredibly comfortable seats that I mentioned? They would have been nice if we in fact spent some of the time sitting on them.
Within half an hour, the road had turned to hell.
There is really no proper way to describe this. It was the worst road we had ever been on, and the worst road we would probably ever be on, at least for the next three days (that’s another story altogether).
Imagine some space buggy. Imagine it out there, collecting samples. Imagine it crawling over the broken, blasted, cratered, landscape of a desolate moon. Now imagine it going full throttle, at the speed of a rally car, driven by a 15 year old and his two 13 year old “helpers”, all of them chain smoking, with ear-splitting ranchero ballads pumped over the speakers.
We were thrown upwards, forwards, into the aisle, into the windows and, very occasionally, back onto our seats. Oh, they would slow down for some of the bumps, but it seemed to be only so they could all light another cigarette or get a run up for the next set of potholes.
After two hours, we took a break at a remote comedor. We asked one of our fellow passengers how long we had to go until Puerto Cabezas. He told us it would only be another hour and a half. A lady in front caught wind of this conversation and turned around to confirm. Definitely an hour and a half. Estamos muy cerca, she said. We’re very close.
Boy, was she wrong.
When we rolled into Puerto Cabezas and crawled out of the bus, it was almost 9 p.m. Our comedor break had been just past 4 p.m., over four hours ago.
But we were here. We were out of La Mosquitia. In Nicaragua. We were alive.
It was dark. Some kind of street carnival had been set up in the park for Christmas and New Years. Some forlorn amusement rides sat there, not moving, only half lit up, their attendants sitting nearby on the steps, staring off into the distance. Bored local teenagers with oversized singlets and nasty smiles roamed the paths and lounged against the fence. We carried our bags two blocks, found a hotel restaurant, and sat down.
Our pizza arrived not long after our beers. We had ordered the largest they had. It turned out to be almost the entire size of our table.
But we were up for the challenge.