For the longest time I’ve had this ridiculous hero fantasy wherein I find myself in a hostile situation with various other civilians – the two most used locations in my brain are a gas station robbery and an airplane during a terrorist take-over. I hear stories about these things happening all the time; I read the news articles, I’ve seen the YouTube clips uploaded from security cameras, I’ve watched the Caught on Tape! TV specials. Everything is calm and then, just like that, you’ve got a gun in your face, piss in your pants and the register is hanging open.
I always hoped that if I were to find myself in a real life crime-drama scenario that I would be the guy who Did the Right Thing. I tell myself that I would act honorably and valiantly but there’s a little voice in the back of my head that says, “When sword meets steel, you will fold. You will hide behind a rack of candy bars and sports car magazines and you will squat down and shiver and pray and wait for it to be over.”
I tell that voice that it’s wrong. That I’m made of better material but… until it happens… you never know what you’ll do.
Two and a half weeks ago while visiting a foreign country, I finally got to see if The Voice was right…
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For my wife’s 30th birthday we wanted to do something exotic… something extravagant… something adventurous. We talked about Red Lobster but said, “NO! Bigger.” We talked about skydiving but said, “NO! Bigger.” We talked about having a Latin American themed birthday party complete with pinata that looked like Jade but we said, “NO! Bigger…. but let’s save that idea for 31…”
BELOW: A photo journalistic approach to some of the awesome things we thought about doing for Jade’s birthday…
Petting a camel.
Having a staring contest with a seal.
Around this time we serendipitously ran into a couple at an ice skating arena one night who told us they’d just returned from honeymooning in Nicaragua. “Nicaragua?” I say, “Isn’t that a war-torn, poverty stricken, wasteland?” The husband shrugs and the wife says, “Yes and no.” They pull out their iPhones and show us pictures of an exotic paradise, photos of extravagant beaches, videos of adventurous hikes, swims and ferry rides.
We were sold.
“The only thing you gotta remember,” they say together ominously, “Is that everyone there is really poor and they’ll steal things from you… not because they’re violent but because it’s a course of survival…”
Two weeks later we’d purchased our tickets and two weeks later again we found ourselves airborne, somewhere over the Gulf of Mexico, heading for a land who’s foreign tongue we did not speak. I felt like Indiana Jones and my wife was that short Asian kid that follows him around, always helping him out of trouble.
Neither of us had experienced international travel before besides the one time my wife visited the Bahamas and the single time I was in southern Texas so neither of us really knew what to expect. Everything was new and revelatory; virgin territory.
On the plane I sit next to a Jehova Witness who just retired two days ago. To celebrate she was moving to Nicaragua for three months. Thinking about her I realize that she’s still there now (at the time of this writing) and it makes me jealous.
The captain buzzes over the intercom and tells us we’ll be landing in twenty minutes. Jade and I push up the window, expecting to see Strange and Foreign Nicaragua, a land covered in jungles and vines and explorers carrying machetes but instead we only see a phosphorescent orange glow emanating from the city; a color that screams the word “HEAT!” Traffic slowly crawls below us, cars and trucks and motorcycles. From above it looks like LA at night… or Miami at night… or New York at night….
ABOVE: Nicaragua by day, which is more what I was anticipating when I opened the window.
The plane lands, everyone stands up, Jade and I grab the only thing we’ve packed – a backpack per each of us – and exit the plane. It’s then, as I step into the terminal, that it all hits me very hard. I am in a foreign land. I don’t know anyone and, most noticeably, I can’t read any of the signs. Letters that I have been familiar with my entire life strategically reorganize themselves to stand out like strangers on boards that might as well have been blank.
ABOVE: Bookstore in the airport.
The airport is quiet. There are few people and no security.
Outside we find a man that the hotel has sent. He holds a sign with our name on it and, as we approach, he introduces himself as, “Mumble-Mumble, I speak very fast Spanish.” I place my hand against my chest, feeling like Tarzan, and say, “Johnny,” and he says, “Yonni,” and I nod. My wife says, “Jade,” and he, like everyone that’s ever met her, says, “Jane.” It’s good to know that the mistake transcends language and culture, making us feel right at home.
He takes us to an unmarked car and opens the doors for us. PS, we’d read stories about taxi drivers picking travelers up, driving them into dark alleys and mugging them so i was ready for his attack… if it were ever to come to that…
The man, Mumble-Mumble, drives us through a large city called Managua and it’s unlike any I’d ever seen. Homes and businesses in various states of disrepair are found on every corner. Domiciles that most would find uninhabitable are everywhere; we see toddlers walking in ruins, families eating in filth, couples enjoying the night air, surrounded by debris; corrugated steel, cracked wood and rubble.
We pass a street corner where a small gang of eight year old kids are washing windshields for money. On the same corner are women covered in short dresses, long hair and thin sheets of sweat, selling themselves on a humid night.
ABOVE: This picture was not taken at night… but all the pictures that were taken at night were dark… so you get some day time photos.
ABOVE: For the low, low price of just 85 cordobas, you too could enjoy the processed goodness of a quesoburguesa doble!
Jade and I begin trying to converse with our driver. The three of us speak slowly, trying to find familiar words and phrases; shaping things with our hands. He tells us he has diez hermanos or ten brothers. He tells us that the children working the streets are the children of drug addicts who can’t take care of them. He tells us that Marc Anthony is playing a show in town tonight. He tells us we should go. He says, “Trabajo! Trabajo!” and snaps his fingers and dances but I don’t know what it means.
He turns off the main road onto a dark street and the solitude of our situation creeps under my skin. We pass abandoned garages and dark homes and broken windows; patched up fences and homes with no doors. A group of six motorcycles blow past us, their engines tearing through the silence of the night and the driver tells us there will be a motorcycle convention in the center of town tomorrow but all I hear is “There are motorcycle gangs everywhere. Watch out!”
ABOVE: The outside of our room at Hospedaje Naranja.
He takes us to Hospedaje Naranja (Hotel Orange), where we’re staying the night, and walks us to the front door, who’s gate is locked from the inside. A woman cautiously peeks around the corner before recognizing her friend, smiling and pulling the dead bolt. Jade and I step inside and the woman quickly latches the door behind us with a nervous giggle.
She speaks fluent English, checks us in and asks if we’re hungry. She suggests three restaurants and, little do I know, but this is the first of several choices that will ultimately lead me to an undesirable end. We choose the closest; a Peruvian place three doors down the street and our fate is sealed. The woman says, “Very close. Very safe.”
We put our bags in our room and walk the half a block to the restaurant. It’s now 9:30pm and dark. Every car I hear approaching is a kidnapper, a thug, a villain ready to Do Crimes. We enter the restaurant and order our food in the best Spanish we can muster. Jade orders wine and I get a shot or trajo of whiskey. We order a pasta plate and share it.
The woman who owns the restaurant approaches our table and asks where we’re staying, asks what our plans are, asks how the food is. She sits down at the table and tells us that her tablet (knock-off iPad) is broken and it’s erased all of her family photos. She says something about batteries and RAM and wireless signals. She asks if we’d like her to pull some herbs from her garden to make us a fresh and delicious tea but we decline. Jade, because she’s genuinely not interested, me because I’m afraid she’s going to slip me some kind of date rape toxin that will render me useless before I wake up handcuffed to a bed with a man named Tony rubbing his dirties all over me.
The woman sighs, disheartened, and then we take another turn closer to the pit.
I say, “Is there a bar around here?” The woman looks at me quizzically and says, “Bahr?” and I say, “Yeah, uh… drinks? Beer. Cerveza?” and she says, “Bahrr? AH! Pub!?” and I say, “Yes! Si! Si! Pub!” and she tells us that there’s one on this very block. She draws an invisible map on the table and says, “Go right and right and right. Not far at all.”
The night is young and, maybe it’s my one shot of whiskey or the fact that I’m realizing that my fear of all Nicaraguans has been unfounded and that everyone truly is kind and gentle but the pub sounds like a good idea. The taxi driver was friendly and helpful. The woman in the lobby was generous and wonderful. The restaurant owner and our waiter were both smiling and genuine people.
“This is Nicaragua,” I think. This is how life should be. I’m projecting my anti-trusting violent mindset onto these people. I’ve watched too many movies. Seen too much TV. People are people and people are kind.
The woman says, “I will take you there,” and we say, “Okay,” and she grabs her coat and then we’re in the dark street and then we’re walking towards her SUV and then Jade is saying, “Wait, what is happening? I thought she was walking us?” and then I say, “Yeah, but she’s driving us. It’s okay. She’s nice,” and then the woman is on the other side of her car and Jade and I are standing in the dead street with both doors open and Jade is whisper-shouting, “We don’t know her. She could take us to some factory and sell us into sex slavery and men will stick it to your maize-hole,” which of course is a Spanish joke if you can translate it and I say, “Don’t worry. Everyone is so nice! She’s just going to give us a little ride!” and Jade says, “I don’t want to. I don’t want to go,” and, looking back… I’m really amazed at how stupid and careless I was about to be, crawling into a car with a stranger.
Luckily, we never saw how that story ended because, like all good stories, the unexpected occurred.
Suddenly, the woman, out of my line of sight on the driver’s side of the car, screams. SCREAMS. She hasn’t stubbed her toe or slipped or broken her ankle. This scream tells you immediately that something nasty is happening. Again. SCREAMING. In my mind, I remember it all in English, but I have no idea if that’s true or not. It seems like she would have shouted in her native tongue but all I can recall is, “Stop! Stop! Stop! No! Stop!”
Jade says, “What-” and I begin to hesitantly walk towards the back of the car… and then from out of the darkness a man appears, slightly heavy set, Latino fella. Late 20s. The image is blurry and I’m having a hard time processing what is happening; everything has gone from calm and unsure to chaotic and unsure in literally seconds. I see the man and I see the woman and they are struggling. The woman is hanging onto something – her purse – and the man is pushing her away from it, trying to break free. She’s struggling like it’s her newborn child he’s trying to pull away and, finally, he succeeds. He grabs her dress by the shoulder and violently throws her to the ground.
The entire exchange happens in one or two seconds; I walked around the back of the van and then saw a man overpower a woman and throw her to the ground. It was very fast. Everything else moves at an incredible rate… everything else moves faster than I can process; faster than I can make decisions or weigh pros and cons. It all just…. happens.
But this is my moment. The one I’ve been waiting for my whole life.
And when it is upon me, I don’t think, “Here is my moment,” and The Voice never speaks up. There is no internal dialogue of whether I will act or not. Whatever is inside… just exists.
The man turns and begins to run and I immediately break into a sprint after him, my Dad sneakers slapping the hot concrete like pistons. And then there is suddenly a motorcycle with a second man in the street, waiting, but I don’t slow down. I don’t know where it came from or when it arrived or if it was there when we exited the restaurant but I am certain that my runner is heading straight for his getaway driver.
ABOVE: This was not the robber… believe it or not, we did not pull out our cameras during this ordeal. This is just a random man on a bike. Although, the bike looks similar and the man looks similar…. so…. maybe…….
I’m out of shape but The Thief is even thicker in the center than myself so I’m able to close the gap between us just before he reaches the bike. He pauses momentarily to skip and hop into the air; the plan to land on the back of the bike and his friend to, of course, escape into the darkness with their loot but…
…I don’t know where the truth is in this following section and I don’t know where my wishful thinking is – everything is a gray blur – but I’ll give it to you how I remember it and how I hope it happened.
The Man slows down to leapfrog onto the back of his accomplice’s bike and, as he does so, glances over his shoulder. This is the first time, I believe, he realizes that he is being pursued… and it shocks and surprises him and causes him to stumble, foiling what would otherwise have been a practiced and flawless landing on the bike. In the background, echoing, I can hear someone screaming. Maybe it’s the woman from the restaurant, maybe it’s my wife, maybe it’s both.
The man stumbles and, instead of hopping smoothly onto the bike, lifts his foot up and catches it awkwardly after seeing me. He lifts his foot again and lands half sideways on the seat, hop-hopping to keep his balance, the back of his left knee draped over the seat prematurely, the driver now struggling to hold things upright. I catch up to him and, as I’m running, begin to pull my fist back. I’ve never hit anyone in my life and it’s about to happen. We are on an impact trajectory, folks.
The Man holds out his left hand, trying to block me and, with his other hand, pulls back his fist and begins to say, “No!No!No!No!” and then this is the first time that everything slows down. Finally, the fast forward is done and a clarity rolls through my brain.
I see two men standing in front of me that are clearly capable of very dark things. I see two women standing behind me, the latter of the two pressing 50. I see myself stopping these two men and then me standing in a street with both of them coming towards me. I don’t know if they have knives or guns. I don’t know anything. I don’t know anyone. I’m in Nicaragua.
And then I see my children, in my head, clearly.
ABOVE: The two things that I love most; my children and my hammock……… Oh, and Jade is nice too.
And then I realize that whatever is in that woman’s purse is not worth losing what I have at home. I don’t care if she has a hundred thousand dollars in there and three gold bouillons and the Busch’s Baked Beans family recipe. I suddenly realize that that purse is going to go away… and I am completely okay with that.
I pull my punch and take a step back. The guy sees me hesitate and hops the rest of the way onto the bike. I assume that our exchange, his entire pause, was roughly seven seconds. Just enough…
The bike revs and the two men wobble and then take off into the darkness just as a third man appears over my shoulder; this one running directly towards the motorcycle. Like the others, he too came out of nowhere and it only takes me a moment to realize that it’s the waiter from the restaurant. He shouts and the bike revs and takes off but he doesn’t stop. He cranks his arms and chases the bike for a solid 20 feet. His arms outstretch… the bike picks up speed… he’s closing the gap… as the bike finds its balance… and then just before the bike is out of his grasp, he wraps his fingers into the shirt of The Thief and throws him to the ground, pulling the entire bike sliding onto the concrete with a bang and a hissssss.
Looking back, I wonder if the two criminals were thinking the same thing I’ve been thinking, which is…. seven seconds. If we’d only had seven more seconds… if that stupid American hadn’t…
In those seven seconds they would have been able to ride free and clear. As is, they did not.
Two, three, four, six, nine, twelve men suddenly come running from behind me; various restaurant workers who heard the ruckus. The driver stands up, pulls his bike up, hops on and takes off, leaving his partner in crime lying in the street, alone, as the twelve men encircle him before dragging this would be felon to the curb and begin beating him mercilessly.
Jade and I slowly step backwards, towards the other side of the street and disappear into the shadows, retreating back to the confines of our hotel. For the remainder of the night we lie in bed and slowly flip through 93 channels of Spanish television, hoping to learn a few phrases for the coming week but the only word I’m able to pick out is ayuda.
At midnight I shut the light off and try to go to sleep but merely stare at the ceiling for what feels like hours. My heart rate has long since returned to normal but I still feel as though adrenaline and fear are pounding through my veins and my brains. I hear a noise outside and go to the window. Nothing. I crawl back into bed and hear a scamper from the room next door. I listen and wait. Nothing. I get up and use the bathroom, make sure the window is locked and secure. I double check the lock on the door and then peer out from behind the curtains slowly. I hear a motorcycle approaching and wonder if it’s the same man, coming back to the neighborhood to pick up his limping and beaten friend.
I crawl back into bed, under the cold sheets and wonder what it’s like to live in a world where this occurrence does not throw you into a state of panic and fear and unease. I think about the men that came running from the restaurants and realize that this wasn’t the first time this had happened. This wasn’t An Event. This was A Lifestyle.
This was Managua.