…continued from part 2
Looking for rides is a real test of patience and attitude. You have to be willing to wait days, ever at the ready, for a boat that may leave with 5-mintues notice. I was nearly ready to give up heading south when I found a guy going to Walpa Siksa with a mother of two, a coupla young fellahs and three big sea turtles he was looking to sell. The village was about six hours ride south turned eight because he was going easy with his 9.9hp Yamaha motor. And I forgot my sunscreen…
Walpa Siksa is a pretty little coastal village about halfway between Puerta Cabezas and the border of the RAAS. It was also the scene of a major clash between Columbian drug runners and the local law enforcement only a week prior. A plane flying up from the south had crashed right outside of the village. The pilots and passengers survived unhurt and the villagers gave them food and shelter. It was quickly learned that this was a drug smuggling plane from Columbia, and the locals helped the Columbians stash their cargo until they could get new transport up north. A few days later the cops caught wind of what happened and swarmed the town with their superior strength.
Unfortunately for the cops, being on the right side of the law doesn’t pay the villagers’ bills. There was a shootout that killed a police captain, an officer and a local kid caught in the crossfire. The Columbians escaped unharmed. The drugs were well hidden and the police didn’t find anything.
I had heard about this from a few locals in Puerta Cabezas, but the panga driver I rode with assured me that going to Walpa Siksa would not be a problem.
He was wrong.
I arrived and saw more law enforcement than I saw locals. They wore blue camo, green camo, blue and white police uniforms and some wore solid black. I don’t know how many different guns I saw them carrying, but most were Ak-47s and small side arms like 9mms. There were a few dirty urban assault weapons like uzis and even mac-10s. Nearly all of the machine guns looked a little worse for wear, and when we approached, several were pointed at us.
I don’t think the cops would have been so interested in the panga coming down from Puerta Cabezas except that there was a gringo passenger in it. They looked at me with mix of apprehension and curiosity; no doubt I was the last person they expected to see. An older, fatter police sergeant approached and helped me out of the panga. He asked me in a very accusatory tone what I was doing in Walpa Siksa. “Don’t you know this place is crawling with drug traffickers right now?!” I explained that I had heard what happened and I had gotten the OK from the panga driver. I looked over at my bag, it was being rummaged through by three different uniforms. The sergeant examined my passport and shook his head, sighing as he gave it back to me as if pondering what to do with this sudden monkeywrench that has been thrown into his machine.
He led me to the church and spoke to the pastor. There I found a mattress and a plate of hot food and three other travelers, two Sumo businessmen and a blind Miskito singer from Cabo Gracias A Dios, the town at the mouth of the Rio Coco. We spoke briefly about the thriving Miskito music scene and I excused myself to take a walk around town.
Stares. People staring from all sides. I am usually pretty used to it, but it made me feel uneasy in this village. Two gold-toothed teenagers befriended me and explained what had happened the week before. The kid who was killed was his friend he said. He told me that the locals were just waiting for the police to leave so they could move the drugs further north. Eventually, he said, the cops would give up and go.
I could not find a ride south. Nobody was going. I asked a few cops what they thought about me walking to the next town and they said I would get robbed for sure. Judging from the way I was received by the police, I felt it better to take my chances.
That night the sergeant brought me my bag and told me he had heard that I was thinking to walk down to the next village. He advised me against it, repeating that this place was crawling with drug traffickers. I thanked him and wished them luck in their search for the culprits. I planned on making an early escape so I went to settle up with the pastor for my food and lodging. He refused payment, god bless him. I went to bed.
The next day came early as I casually slipped out of town on a back path to the beach shortly after sunup. A few local kids were up and about, but I saw no police. I hit the beach walking south at a fast clip and soon found myself catching up to another guy with a bag slung over his shoulder heading the same way. I remembered the sergeant’s warning and was hesitant to talk to him, but I decided to err on the side of making friends. I am glad I did. He had spent two days walking from Puerta Cabezas to the next village where he lives. He and I hit it off quite well, and it was nice to have someone to talk to during the three hours it took to reach Prinzapolka.
There are no hospedajes or hotels or lodges in Prinzapolka. My walking buddy knew the guy running the ferry across the river to the village and convinced him to let me stay with his family. I was very grateful and paid my walking buddy’s fare…C$10 to ride across the river in a tiny dugout canoe paddled by the frail old man who spent all day drinking on his porch waiting for passengers to arrive. The ferryman brought me to his cousin’s house and introduced me to his family. Everyone was very excited to have a visitor from the states staying a few days. I had hoped it would only be one, but again, the transport variable was going to be the deciding factor. Surely someone would be heading south soon.
Back before the civil war Prinzapolka was a bustling little village with a very long pier to the sea. All the gold and precious metals that the United States was mining in the mountains of Nicaragua was coming down the Prinzapolka River and shipped out from there. Now there is nothing left but a long row of dangerous pilings and a few rusting train axels half buried on the beach. There is no power and there is no phone. Getting to Prinzapolka is difficult and expensive and, for that reason, it has been more or less overlooked by the government and development agencies. The people in Prinzapolka are pretty much on their own.
I did my usual walking tour around the village and talked to a few of the locals. One old man invited me to sit on his porch and have a glass of oatmeal fresco. He was very excited to talk…we spoke about fishing and politics and the shootout in Walpa Siksa. Then he asked me if I knew the gringa who had been walking the beach a week prior. It took me a second, but I quickly realized this was the same gringa that people had been asking us about in the beginning of our trip! I told him I hadn’t met her but had been hearing about her brave journey since Karawala. Then he pulled out a torn piece of paper with a name and email address on it. This fellah didn’t know what the internet was, but he knew this was how to get in touch with her. She had stayed two days with him!
This girl had been walking up the entire coast of Nicaragua, he said, and was halfway between Sandy Bay and Prinzapolka when the dire warnings of the locals came to pass. She was approached by two men with machetes at the mouth of the Juan Clum river. He didn’t go into much detail, though he said she had been robbed of C$10,000, a phone, GPS and other electronics. She arrived in his village with only her bag of clothes and $100 she had stuffed in her bra. “She was an idiot to think she could walk the beach and not get robbed,” he said. “A pretty gringa like her on the beach alone is like finding money on the ground!” I agreed and copied down her name and email address.
Two days passed and still no word on transport. Several had gone up the river and two had gone up to Puerta Cabezas, but none down south. I spent the days playing with the kids, walking the beach, talking to locals and lounging in the hammock. My host family was very gracious and always made sure I had plenty to eat. Considering how much they had to offer, I felt very lucky to have the rice, beans and yucca that were offered every meal. Sometimes the dad and I would get an egg with our meal, sometimes an extra slice of coconut bread. Food was basically what traders brought down the river, what was gathered from the forest and what was pulled from the sea. But that afternoon the family got lucky. Real lucky.
It wasn’t more than a speck of something floating down the river, but somehow the family knew exactly what it was. The kids stripped down to their undies and swam out to the speck with a rope. They tied the rope around it and I helped the rest of the family pull it to shore. It wasn’t until the speck was nearly to shore when I saw it become a lump, then the lump became a bulge, then the bulge became a cow!
When I turned around, I saw that the women had brought a wheelbarrow and knives and I knew what was about to happen. There was no tree to hang him from, so the family sliced up that cow right there on the bank of the river. The skin was cut away to make a dropcloth of sorts, the guts went into the wheelbarrow and sent who knows where, and the boys were given the hooves to chase the girls with.
They later told me that the cow was an unfortunate victim of a bad bovine transaction…selling farmer didn’t like the terms buying farmer thought they had agreed on, an argument ensued and the buying farmer smacked the cow with a stick, breaking it’s leg. Selling farmer threw the cow in the river and, in a rage, pulled out a gun and put a hole in buying farmer. Even Steven!
Dinner was a traditional Miskito dish of Luk-luk, or beef soup. It wasn’t very good.
The next day was my fourth day in the village. Still no transport and I couldn’t wait around any longer. I cut a deal with the old ferryman to walk me to the next village to the south. We headed out at 6am sharp and walked at a slow jog for three hours until we reached a bamboo hut in shambles on the beach. There we followed a trail into the jungle and soon came across an elbow of a creek that had several cayukos pulled up on the bank. The old ferryman motioned me to get in and he silently navigated the jungle creek with the deftness you would expect from a native. It was easily the most beautiful waterway I had been on in the country. Troupes of monkeys moved across the tree canopies and fish startled by the canoe jumped out of the water. About two hours the creek opened up to a lagoon and soon we were in the village of Kunwatla.
Kunwatla is about half the size of Prinzapolka, that is to say, about two dozen houses and one sidewalk that connects them. Fortunately there are boats that head south to Sandy Bay on a regular basis, unfortunately, the last one had just left and there weren’t going to be any more for at least another three days.
I was faced with a pretty nasty option…wait in a village for another three (or more) days or walk. We found a guy with a 2hp motor on his canoe who offered to take me to the mouth of the Juan Clum river for the price of two gallons of gas. The mouth of the Juan Clum River was where the gringa met her robbers. I wasn’t carrying anything of value besides my old camera, and after I paid $15 for two gallons of gas, I didn’t even have much money left. I wasn’t going to wait for a boat that may not come. “Vamanos” I said.
The ride was long with that little 2hp motor pushing the canoe. I had eaten some bread and chips for lunch and brought a 1lt bottle of orange soda. It was going to be a long walk, but I still wasn’t sure how long. The river came close to the backside of the beach and returned to the jungle several times before emptying into the sea. The tide was coming in so there was big chop at the river mouth. “Be careful!” the guy yelled as I fumbled my way out of the canoe and onto the bank. I thanked him and he wished me well and I watched him turn around and disappear around the bend.
I walked fast. I found a tall, light stick to help take the weight of my stride. It was already after lunch and I suspected I could reach Sandy Bay before dark. But I had to walk fast.
I spent hours and hours walking on that desolate stretch of beach. Occasionally I stopped to hack down a coconut when I was thirsty. About three hours into the walk I realized I was following a set of footprints. There was a clear left foot, toes of a right foot and a small hole just in front. It was a strange set of prints and I followed them for hours wondering who might have left them.
Sometimes I ran. I was sure I did not want to spend the night on the beach. I would turn my backpack to my front and I took my shoes off and ran. That, of course, didn’t last long, but I tripled my speed for a few minutes and felt better because of it. Sometimes I sang. I don’t remember what it was I was singing, but I remember thinking that it only seemed strange to sing at the top of your lungs when there were other people to hear you. When you are all alone for hours on another stretch of empty beach, it is perfectly normal.
I watched the sun dip below the treeline, which was very close. What a relief to be walking in the shade. I alternated my run walk run pace, following the strange footprints most of the way. My feet began to get some serious hotspots. Sand is very abrasive, and when it sticks in your socks it surely means blisters.
It was getting dark.
I nearly missed him as the sun was setting, but there he was sitting on a dried out tree. It was the owner of the strange footprints…an old man who must have had 50 years on me, easy. He had one twisted foot and walked with a broomstick. I had been walking for about seven hours with my 10-pound backpack, he had left at dawn and was lugging an impossibly heavy bag of coconuts. I stopped to find out what in the world he was doing out there. Collecting coconuts. Hadn’t eaten since he left this morning. Nothing to drink. I gave him the rest of my orange soda and the johnny cake I had bought to snack on. He was very thankful. Then he asked me if I knew the gringa who had passed by here a week and a half prior. Yes, I told him, I felt like I did.
Sandy Bay was only another half hour walk. I arrived just before 7pm and checked into the same hotel I had stayed in before. I got to reacquaint myself with Sandy Bay since I had to wait another two days for the commercial panga heading to Bluefields. I bought my ticket the day before, and met a wharf FULL of people trying to get on. I realized it didn’t matter that I had already dropped the C$350 to get there, if I wasn’t on the boat, I wasn’t going. As soon as the ayudante threw the seat cushions down, people started jumping in. Despite him yelling at people to wait, people jumped off the dock into the boat like crumbs being swept off a counter. I quickly followed suit and got lucky. There were dozens of people who didn’t get to go to Bluefields that day but I wasn’t one of them.
The ride back was long and uneventful. I returned home, dropped off my bag and thought back to what a chore it is getting around the coast. Finding lodging. Eating decent food. Not getting robbed.
Oh, and I emailed the gringa. I explained my trip following her footsteps in one long story and asked all kinds of questions about her journey. She replied, “I believe I am going to return when I have time. See you later!”
And that was that.