Re: Ushuaia or Bust!
While it's still fresh in my mind, here's what happened yesterday. I was really glad to have the FJ in some dicey spots getting around these roadblocks where high clearance was needed.
Background: Nicaragua had some massive protests from April 19 that lasted about 10 days. 45-100 or more people died depending on whom you ask. I was in Honduras at the time and almost didn't go to Nicaragua. But then everything seemed to calm down and everyone said it was fine.
I decided to see the country some and drive to Bluefields on the Caribbean Coast. Then I took a flight to the Corn Islands for a few days. 5 days later - when I tried to drive back across the country there was a roadblock that had been up for a few hours. I had heard there might be protests on May 10th. But had no idea a full-scale nationwide roadblock was a possibility. Oops.
I waited the night and slept in my car, and it didn't budge. The minimum time I heard was two days. My car was getting a TON of attention with its American plates, as was I with my gringo rojo beard. I didn't really feel that comfortable sitting round longer. Nor did I have enough gas to idle my car with the AC on all day and night again (12 hours = about 4 gallons btw). I met some guys in line who kept calling me gringo and were getting kind of drunk and making me a little nervous.
So I drove back to Bluefields - stocked up on gas and water. I spent the night at the Flamingo Hotel/Casino again (formerly Oasis - which everyone still knows it by). I can't say enough good things abut these guys. They helped me get my flat tire fixed the first time when I went to corn island. And they helped me formulate a plan to get out and gave me contact info in Nueva Guinea (which was my backup plan if I didn't get through the roadblock on first attempt). I felt like family after spending a week there.
I drove back up to the road block the next day (about 2 hour drive). Now they were saying 5 days. I saw many of the same people - including in the head guy calling me gringo. He had walked to a hotel in Nueva Guinea - which was just on the other side of the roadblock - and was all cleaned up and very friendly. There were also some people well-dressed in nice cars still setting there - which made me think bribes aren't in the cards.
No one looked like they expected to move soon. And the roadblock itself (logs, bricks, metal stuff) had gotten much more built up. So I went back to Bluefields. I probably should have at least asked if they'd let me through. But it never occurred to me that they would. And it felt weird being saying "I am an American, please let me though" I didn't want to potentially bring more attention to myself and maybe get in trouble somehow.
I thought about trying to fly to Managua to check out Granada for a few days. But I decided against that as the situation kept deteriorating. More roadblocks were going up.
Yesterday Ortega was having the first talks with the protestors. If the talks somehow went well the roadblocks might go away. But if they didn't go well, which seemed likely, things could get real bad. Boats and trucks were blocked to the Caribbean coast. People were starting to worry about running out of supplies. Except hotels which had some kind of magical beer delivery service.
So I decided to take my chance yesterday. I had heard that foreign-plated vehicles and ambulances might be let through - which gave me hope. I loaded my car 2 cases of beer, many bottles of soda, water, extra gasoline and vodka to potentially use as bargaining chips. Also cash. I posted all this in the Nicaraguan ex-pat forum to ask any more advice.
Ok here's the story from yesterday:
I woke up at 6am to an FB message from a Danish traveler. He and his Swiss friend were stranded in Nueva Guinea and wanted to know if I could help get them out. A friend of theirs had read my post on the ex-pat forum and alerted them that I might be their ticket out. I said sure if I make it through the roadblock. They were able to provide some local reconnaissance as well, which helped.
I drove back to the roadblock at Nueva Guniea for the 3rd time. I parked as close as I could. There were two jackknifed flat bed semi-trucks blocking the road, and some barbed wire across the way around. I walked up to the front, found a friendly looking guy who seemed to connected to the people in charge. I said I have plates from Unistados Unidos and can I pass somehow. (I’m obviously a big pele rojo gringo – which helps I think).
He asked another guy in a little group sitting in a patch of shade, who I assumed was in charge. After a bit of back and forth – the first guy nodded I could pass. I didn’t ask twice and hustled back to my car. One person in line asked if I was going to pass – I said maybe. I got them to remove the barbed wire, then gave away a few loose beers to that group – which quickly turned into a happy mob scene and I gave away about 8 beers.
As I got to the front, they moved the first branch barricade out of the way. I was now in the middle of the intersection of NIC-71 and NIC-134. As I thought I was through, I got out of the car and pulled two cold 3-liters of Coke and a 12-pack of ice-cold beer out of my cooler and gave it to them. The beer again was a huge huge hit.
As they were clearing the last branches from my path - some younger dudes with their faces covered with scarves and homemade rocket launchers showed up and started saying NO. Great. Based on the rockets they were firing off sporadically throughout my first night at the road block 6 days prior - I’m guessing these rocket launchers are about like a big bottle rocket with an M-80 on it – but they could be more serious.
There was some arguing back and forth and finally the older guys won out and removed the roadblock. Where they were sending me though I have no idea. Instead of removing the roadblock on the right towards Nueva Guinea they sent me straight ahead down a road that google maps doesn’t know exists. I hoped it would connect over to Nueva Guinea – which I could see from there. But the road turned into a very bumpy cow field.
I turned around and headed back and some guys were waving me back towards the roadblock. I hoped they would send me down one of the side streets and not back through the main block. But nope, it was back through the main roadlock – with a giant log still in my path towards town - and a guy with a scarf and rocket launcher standing right in front of the log. At one point he actually pointed the rocket launcher at me. But most of the time it was still pointed up. I have no idea if that thing would actually do any damage to my car. But obviously if it comes to that I’m screwed either way. There are multiple more roadblocks in that vicinity.
I pulled up and had both windows rolled down at this point. People surrounded my car on all sides, arguing and yelling stuff. I heard “International!” a few times. I noticed that many of the guys who were arguing most vociferously for me were holding the beers I had given them.
The rocket launcher guy made his way over to my rolled down drivers side window. He of course was saying stuff in Spanish I couldn’t understand. I can usually communicate what I need to. But I can never understand what these guys are saying. If you tell them that, they just repeat whatever they were saying. They never try to use dum dum Spanish for me.
Everyone was yelling at everyone. The scene was really chaotic. At one point I asked the rocket launcher guy “propina” (tip)? He didn’t want money. I couldn’t get anyone to explain to me what this guy wanted. Then he said “Tu arma?” which I actually understood. I said “No – yo no arma” and held up my hands. He gestured his weopan to say “yeah I’m armed”. Ok you’re the boss. So I just asked him “Hay paso por favor? Placa de Unistados Unidos”. He paused for a bit then nodded yes. I guess he just wanted to be asked and show he was in charge.
They removed the log and I was on my way – a few 100 feet down to the next roadblock. A few more guys with beers in their hands, explained to the other road-block manners that I was allowed to pass, and helped me back up and negotiate around the second one for me. After I cleared the second roadblock – my original buddy asked me for a few pesos (not sure why he said pesos, but that’s what he asked for). I gave him 200 Cordobas – about $6. He seemed happy. It was the only time all day anyone asked for money or anything else other than respect.
I got to the hotel of my new friends in Nueva Guinea. They were completely shocked to see me through the roadblock so soon. I told them to get ready as fast as possible and lets get moving. Being dudes, they were ready in about 3 minutes. We piled in and headed down the road – aiming for the normally lightly traveled Nicaragua/Costa Rica border at Los Chiles / Rio San Juan.
We hit another roadblock maybe 20km down the road. I stopped and got out. This one was mostly older dudes w/o scarves. They were super friendly and pretty much agreed to let us go immediately. I gave them some soda. I might need the 30 beers or so I had left for more serious situations. I also had water, money, gasoline and vodka as potential bargaining chips.
The next roadblock was a lot more serious. Tons of guys with scarves and rocket launchers. This was at the intersection where you can first turn off to start heading back south to get to the border. They were really suspicious of us at first. I repeated my phrase “Solo quiero dejar el pais.” (I only want to leave the country). When they saw the American plates they starting asking me if I was a Contra. I know Ortega is a Sandanista. So I’m like – do they want me to be a Contra? I have no idea if that’s good or bad. So made I don’t know gestures and tried to look dumb.
They wanted to check inside the car and were very curious to see in my car carrier on the top. So I opened it up. They poked around a little. One thing that helped is we explained that we came from Bluefields and already got through Nueva Guinea. Also there was zero traffic coming from our direction as everything is blocked. So they knew we were probably telling the truth. The roads were spooky empty. I told the guys it felt like some kind of zombie apocalypse.
Unlike the other road block where it seemed unclear who was in charge - this one had a tall young dude with curly hair seemed to be clearly making the decisions. He nodded ok. At that point I pulled out a full cold 12-pack. A gigantic roar went up in the crowd. The dude I gave it to hoisted it on his shoulders like he was returning to his village with a magnificent kill. I wish I had the nerve to take video. But considering how much trouble some of these guys were going through to hide their faces it didn’t seem like a good idea.
We went further down and the curly headed guy let us through the way towards our border crossing. If we had wanted to go towards Managua that might have been a problem.
I knew to expect a few more border crossings. But I thought at this point we might be done – especially when we went through a highway intersection still manned by police. We got some wide-eyed stares from the half-dozen or so cops there. I thought – ok maybe we’re in govt territory now.
Then I saw some stuff ahead and a sign for El Tule. I remembered there was a block at El Tule. This one was pretty tense too. These guys probably seemed the angriest of all. They were really confused as to how I got there. They were also really interested in looking in the car and in the car carrier above. Neither group wanted to look in my locking trunk in the back though. Maybe they didn’t notice it. Or maybe they were looking only in spaces big enough for a person? Or maybe just if I was trying to run stuff like toilet paper through the blockade. I have no idea.
The weird thing on this one is they put a guy in our car to run down to the other parts of the road block. Ok sure. When we got to the other end he explained to them. We got around, drove around some trucks and I saw that there were a bunch more in line. This looked like the other end of the Nueva Guinea road block. All the stuff in between had hardly any stuck vehicles. I thought ok – maybe that’s it. And it was.
Oh yeah – I finally got the balls to ask for a pic after I gave these guys some soda and beer. At least the ones in this pic were more than happy to pose. (edit I'll post the pic later when I can blur out my phone)
We got to the bridge over Rio San Juan and I’ve never been so happy to be questioned by grumpy border cops in my life. We told them the story and showed them some pics of the day.
The Nicaragua border took like 2 hours of silliness just to get out with my car. Which they also scanned my entire with some multi-million dollar-looking x-ray device. Brilliant use of taxpayer’s money there. No idea why people are pissed at the govt.
The Costa Rica border was super laid back. We saw one other couple walking across and that was it. I think I was the only car all day. I know this because the last guy at aduana (car immigration) forgot to give me my passport back. And I was too frazzled and just happy to be out of Nicaragua to notice. I didn’t discover it was missing until I got to my hotel at La Fortuna, an hour and a half into the country.
I went back this morning and it took us two searches of the guy’s office. I was looking in through the window as they searched. I was about to give up, when I saw my form in his drawer and a photocopy of my passport. I said “copier!” They opened the copier drawer and there it was. I let out a bunch of gigantic “YES! YES! YES!” yells that probably freaked everyone else out at the border.
And thus concludes the craziest 24-hours of my life.