Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Man in the Yellow Shirt (Part 1)

I sighed quietly.

Jen and I were in a collectivo van with five Nicaraguans. I couldn't see any houses or paved roads anywhere for kilometres, only the unmarked, barely visible dirt road we were on. There was not much traffic apart from a few 18-wheeler trucks that roared by from time to time. Occasionally some small children would skitter forward and throw buckets of water in front of trucks - it was a vain effort to control the dust that would inevitably be brewed up from the vehicles' tires. Sometimes our driver would slow down and give the children a few cordobas. More often he gave them nothing.

I wonder where those kids get their water, I wondered. And how far they have to walk to get here. I sympathized with them but also caught myself thinking that their efforts were in vain and therefore undeserving of any real reward. My own thoughts surprised and frightened me. My unlucky and unfortunate experiences in Central America was making me bitter.

You're not here as a politician or a sociologist, so stop judging shit and enjoy the scenery. Nicaragua's beauty was undeniable. I stared off at the great deserted plain that led to three volcanoes at the horizon. I snapped a few quick pictures of the volcanoes and quickly pocketed my camera. After absent-mindedly checking the time, I brought my attention back to the road again, where a truck driver ahead was throwing change out of his window at a small child.

The van bounced violently as it hit potholes in the dirt road. Our feet were on top of our bags - I had insisted on bringing them in with us instead of storing them in the back, as a security measure - which forced to sit slightly higher than everyone else in the van. Our heads struck the ceiling at every pothole. "This is first class stuff," I whispered to Jen. With her eyes half closed, she nodded.

Bored, I took out a 2 litre bottle of tap water and put two purification pills in it, watching it turn a muddy-orange colour. I made a mental note not to drink the water for a at least 15 minutes so that the pills could take effect. "I'm thirsty," Jen said. "How long is it going to be?"

"Fifteen minutes," I said.

"No," she said, shaking her head lazily, "I mean how long until we get there?"

"Oh, I have no idea," I said. I looked ahead and saw nothing but a few semi-trucks. "Probably a half hour or so."

I proved to be wrong. After about ten minutes, the dirt road ended and the collectivo van turned into what was quite obviously a city. The metamorphosis from desolate plain to urban city was immediate and astonishing. We drove through shantytowns and embassy districts until we finally arrived at our destination: the collectivo van and taxi depot. I paid the driver of the van 50 cordobas for the ride and shook my head vigorously at the man offering to take our bags out for us. I took our bags out myself. The taxi depot was not impressive - a flat piece of asphalt with about fifty cars and vans and just as many drivers yelling their destinations. We were immediately hounded by a swarm of taxi drivers asking us in accented english where we needed to go. "We're still figuring it out," I said. "Leave us alone." They reluctantly backed off and solicited other potential passengers.

"So this is Managua so far," I said. "I'm sure it will be better than Tegucigalpa, at least." I wasn't worried. I had high hopes for Nicaragua.

Jen and I took out our Lonely Planet map of Managua. Our hostel looked to be eight or nine kilometres away. "Want to just walk some of it?" I asked Jen. "I sort of want to stretch my legs and see what Managua has to offer before we put our bags away and relax."

"Sure," she said.

We were both sick of being stuck in so many chicken buses and vans, and walking for a little while would be a breath of fresh air. I only knew that the hostel was north, in the direction of the lake, but I didn't know how to say the word north in Spanish. I stopped people on the street and asked, "Donde esta el Lago de Managua?" I received several puzzled looks, and some people looked concerned and asked us why on earth we would want to go there. "La hostal," I would say, shrugging. We had a rough idea of how to get to our hostel, so we headed north.

After walking for about twenty minutes, I noticed that the neighbourhood seemed to be getting grittier. Razor wire covered school buildings, the side streets were really just glorified dirt roads and alleys, and many of the houses were made of cardboard and sheet metal. I was used to seeing this type of neighbourhood in Central America and I was fairly desensitized to it, so I was not particularly worried about anything.

I took a look at Jen. She looked tired. "Want me to hold your handbag?" I asked her. "Aww," she said, swooning. "What a gentleman!" I took her handbag and grinned from ear to ear. This is going to be a pretty good day, I thought.

There was some traffic on the street but barely anyone outside. We were practically the only people on the sidewalk. The only other people were ahead of us, two men walking in the same direction we were walking in. One of them was tall, a giant by Central American standards; the other man was short and squat. The tall man wore a white shirt with black shoes and the short man wore a black shirt with white shoes - I laughed out loud at how ridiculous they looked next to each other. The tall one looked at us and double-taked, but I thought nothing of it. They turned left at the next corner and disappeared.

"Want to take a taxi?" Jen asked. "No, it's okay," I replied. "Not right now. Maybe in five or ten minutes. I'm not in any hurry." I smiled, looking at the horizon towards the lake.

We walked in silence, with me holding Jen's handbag in one hand and holding her hand in my other hand. All of a sudden, two men appeared in front of me - they were the same men I spotted earlier, incidentally - and screamed at us in a slurry of Spanish. One of them held a long knife and held it in front of my face, still yelling at me. It was extremely dirty, but it glistened in the sun in the spots where the steel shined through. He pressed it against the right side of my stomach and began slowly driving it into the meat of my belly. I had no choice but to walk backwards with the knife or be stabbed. The other man put both his hands in my pockets and began stealing their contents; his hands were filthy and disgusted me, even in my moment of panic. I instinctively dug my hand into my right pocket and grabbed my switch-blade. The tall man noticed and raised his knife up to my chest, carving it in slightly below my right nipple. I let go of my switch-blade and took my hand out of my pocket, letting the short man steal my wallet with his dirty hands. He left the switch-blade.

Jen grabbed the tall man by the shoulder and pulled as hard as she could, yelling, "No!" He turned around and threatened her with the knife, and then went back to me. I continued backing up slowly as I had been before, moving in tandem with the knife. Suddenly, the short man yelled something to him and they both turned around and sprinted into an alley.

I stood there, still holding Jen's handbag, and listened to their footsteps dissipate. I looked down at my white shirt, checking for any red spots. There were none. Not even a tear in the shirt. I was in shock. I checked my pockets and was surprised each time that my hands came back empty, with the obvious exception of my switch-blade. They had stolen my digital camera, my passport, my wallet, all of my identification, and about 40 dollars' worth of Nicaraguan cordobas, Honduran lempira, and American dollars. I knelt down slowly and touched both my socks and felt a slight sense of relief. I still had my debit card and credit card, which I had hidden inside my socks. I then looked at my left hand and realized why I had been such a perfect target. I had been holding Jen's handbag the whole time.

I stood there in silence. An elderly couple sitting in rocking chairs had seen everything from their front porch, barely fifteen feet away from us. They did not offer any help or react in any way. It was as if nothing had happened. I stared blankly into the horizon at a volcano. "Fuck," I said, silently. I heard Jen yell, "Policia! Policia!" but it seemed so distant to me that I disregarded it. Then I felt her lifting my shirt up, touching my stomach and chest, turning me around several times in the process. I felt like I was moving through molasses; everything seemed to be happening in slow motion. "Are you okay?" she asked me. Her voice cracked when she spoke.

I snapped out of my trance. I looked at her. "I'm not hurt," I said.

Her face suddenly twisted in anger. "Those fucking gangbangers are going to pay," she said.

I did not believe her.