Pictures of this trip are at:
April 29, 2012 – It was still dark when my eyes popped open, suddenly I was fully alert! It took me a couple seconds to realize why I was so awake: today was the day! I was leaving for Raiti today. Raiti is only 50 minutes flight from our home here in Tronquera, Nicaragua, but it is one of the most remote places I had ever seen in Nicaragua. I had flown over it several times looking at the progress the village was making on their new runway, but had never been there by ground. The Baptist mission sent a small group up there over a year ago, and they helped the people get the runway ½ done. The people then quit working on the runway until the last 6 weeks. Now reports and photos from the airplane revealed they were voluntarily putting 70 to 100 people per day working on the runway. After they did this for 6 weeks it was completely cleared, it looked like they only needed the dirt smoothed and packed. I could likely encourage them and help get it ready to use in less than a week.
After a hurried breakfast, I rode my bike the mile and a half to the bus stop near hour house with my 9 year old son, Brandel, arriving at 6:30 AM. I visited with Brandel for the last little while. He then took my bike back home. There were several Americans from the mission in Francis Sirpi also heading to Puerto Cabezas, before making their way to the States after 10 months of working here in Nicaragua. It was nice to visit with them, most of the time standing in the middle of the isle of the packed bus bouncing along. About 4 hours into the trip, I got out of that bus and waited for a bus at the Rosita crossroads heading to Managua. Within 15 minutes one came along, and I got a seat on it (amazingly!) and rode it all day till dark. It was a bumpy road, and the bus broke down once for about an hour, not bad. Chickens and even a duck spent some time on the bus. I spent the night a little hotel in Siuna, a little mining town high in the Nicaraguan mountains.
The next day I was back on the road in a taxi at 5:30 headed to the bus stop. There was a bus pulling out for Waslala right then, so I got on and it pulled out within 5 minutes of my arrival. Since I hadn’t been in any hurry, I was lucky I caught it! Now the area was very hilly, winding around up and down about 1,000 foot hills. I switched buses in Waslala, heading to Mataglapa, in the northern part of Nicaragua. There are no buses direct to the place where I needed to go. The bus driver careened along the gravel round, flying around blind corners and bumping along the edge with steep drop offs. The road was often washed mostly out, so sometimes the bus crept along tipping out over the edge as it tried to hug the bank. My wife would have not appreciated it as much as I did, but the driver made even me nervous quite a few times. The cargo racks were a good 18 inches above our heads and more than once I hit my head on those steel bars. I arrived in Matagalpa, the city of ½ a million people about dark. The water ran red off of me in the shower from the dusty bus. After a shower and supper, I felt better. I wandered around the city a bit, dazed by all the lights, people everywhere, pavement, powerlines, signs, just so much stuff. It is amazing how much difference there is between the Atlantic coast and the Pacific. It is the same country, but the culture is different, the language is different, so much more infrastructure development – amazing the drastic change.
I was up at 5:00 the next morning, and a taxi dropped me off at the side of the road and told me that I needed to find a bus going to Jinotega. After 45 minutes a bus came along. It was a paved road and a short hour later we dropped down a winding road into a large valley and were in a small town surrounded by about 2,000 foot hills. I then took a taxi to another bus stop, and found another bus heading to Wiwili. After a ½ hour wait, it lurched along, going off the pavement quite soon and was back to the breakneck speedy bounces and hairpin corners. Four and a half hours later, it pulled into a dusty little town named Wiwili. There were no paved roads, and the town was built into the edge of the hills. I waited 1 hour in the hot sun for a taxi to take me to the boat dock to find a boat heading to Raiti. Finally one came along, and took me the 10 minutes there. I could have walked there had I known where it was!!
After much discussion and a trip across the large creek that they called the Rio Coco, I found out that the water was too low during this season for boats to leave from here to Raiti. You have to take a truck to another town down the river first, and boats would leave from there. The road was too bad for buses, only 4x4 Russian military trucks made the trip. Fortunately there was a pile of cargo there, and the 15 year old boy sitting on top said it was destined for that town, Los Piedras, that afternoon. So I waited with him for another hour, and finally the truck came. They loaded the luggage, got stuck in the sand for awhile, forded the Rio Coco, (amazing how small it was there!) and went back to the same bus stop where I had been dropped off a couple hours ago! A pile of people got on the truck hanging on the sides and on the top. I had a seat since I was one of the first on the truck, although I felt the hard wood quite well as it was the 3rd day of traveling sitting on bumpy seats! A couple more stops for more than a thousand pounds of rice and beans, and we were finally on our way. The hills were very steep, and the truck very heavily loaded. It crawled up the hills at a walk, and geared down and crept down the hills too. I planned an exit strategy of how to jump if it missed a gear and lost its brakes, which it did once. It was a late teen driver, and he wasn’t very good at it. Fortunately it was a small hill when it happened, so he just let it coast to the bottom and got control again. There were many places he wouldn’t have been so lucky.
We arrived at 8 PM, and there was an old Spanish guy with a battered cowboy hat that had a spare room to sleep in for $1.50. No place to take a bath, I fell asleep in my clothes. They promised someone would be heading out in the morning, by boat, so I was up at 5:30, waiting with the boats, just 100 yards from where I had slept. Some boats came and went, but no one was going even remotely close to Raiti. The hours slid by, very slowly. The sun became hot. By 9:30 a boat came that was going to a place that was about 4 hours boat ride from Raiti. They said they were full, but they spoke Miskito instead of Spanish that most had for my trip this far. They were so surprised I knew Miskito that they agreed to take me. It was the last boat that left that day. I was happy to feel the wind on my face, and we motored along down the river hour after hour. Large hills rose several thousand feet on the sides of the river, and sharp rocks were everywhere. The guy driving the heavily laden boat managed it very well, skillfully zipping right next to large boulders and spray sometimes washing over the boat from the waves. It was a dugout canoe, with patches in it. Sometimes we hit bottom and had to get out and push, and it sprang a few leaks. A 14 year old girl spent most of her time bailing water out. The day went by slowly, the sun was hot, the river interesting at first, then boring. It got dark, and we kept going with a nearly full moon. About 1 hour after dark we arrived at their home town, San Andres. They carried all the luggage from the canoe to their little store, and there were excited greetings all around. This monthly supply run was a big event for the village. There was no sugar in the village, so people were happy to see the supplies. I was given a very nice supper of rice and beans, and found a place on a porch to tie up my hammock. I was thankful for its built in mosquito net that my wife gave me for Christmas. A nice cooling bath in the Rio Coco (the crocks usually don’t eat people, just dogs) and I was ready to sleep. Between kids playing, drunk people yelling, the pigs and dogs fighting under the house, and the roosters all over the village through the night, it wasn’t very restful. I wondered if I could sleep through it, finally I slept but not very well. I treasured the silence of my precious home in Tronquera, where we live far from any noise of villages and towns.
I was up at 5:30 and on my way by 6 AM, no time for breakfast. This was day 5. A boat was just leaving, so I jumped on and it took me 3 hours, to Walakitan. The morning fog was heavy on the river, and the sound of the engine and ripple of the water broke the heavy stillness. The sounds of the jungle coming to life were all around us as parrots and herons flew by our boat. The sun was getting hot by 10 AM when I arrived. I found a person from Raiti that said he would walk with me there. There were no boats going, but it was only a 1 ½ hour walk, according to the local people. The person said they would be heading out in 30 minutes. Well, you know they don’t have watches, and have no concept of time, so I waited under a tree for 45 minutes, then got impatient and found a 12 year old kid walking by. He said he would help me carry my packs to Raiti and knew the road, so I took off following him. We walked along just on the edge of the river the first ½ hour, then wandered inland further on a trail. It was deep jungle, no logging had been done. Still the original jungle that has been there for hundreds of years.
We arrived in Raiti after 1 ½ hrs, about 1:30. I paid the boy, and he headed back home. An older Spanish gentleman guided me to a guys house named Robinson Smith. The town looked quite different on the ground, but from my often flying over it I had an idea of its layout. Mr. Robinson had a spare room in a house that was a storage area where one of his sons sleeping too. It was a small house, and I was glad for a corner with a bed. First thing, he asked me if I had checked in with the military. I said no, maybe we should go there now. He asked me to bring all my documents. I only had my cedula (Nicaragua photo ID residence card) and a business card. Since everyone always knows about our work, and this runway has been under construction, I thought that was all I would need. Well, I was wrong.
The military in Nicaragua has always been a tremendous help to me, inspecting bags, clearing the runway of animals and people, helping people in and out of the plane, etc. I had no reason to think this would be any different. The military captain there was very upset right from the beginning that I only had a cedula, and not my passport. Nicaragua law says it is fine to just carry a cedula. Then he demanded airplane paperwork, the papers that give me permission to fly. Since I came walking, I didn’t bring my airplane papers. I told him when I flew, I would have those papers, as I kept them inside the airplane, not on my person. Everything I said he found fault with. He would often interrupt me with another question before hearing he answer to the last question. He asked a lot of financial questions. He many times said I was lying. I said I had nothing to prove, but had worked in Nicaragua 4 years, and would offer the same services here that I do everywhere else. I remained very respectful. I finally told him that I could not operate the runway without his help, and if he didn’t want me, just say the word and I would leave. So after 45 minutes of questioning, he said “You don’t go anywhere, just sit right there till I check you story!” He took my cedula, left me sitting with 2 armed soldiers, and ordered I was not to talk to anyone.An hour and a half went by, minute by slow minute. I asked to go get something to read in my pack, they said no. Since I had left at 6 AM, I had not eaten breakfast, and had not had lunch. I did not bring my water with me since this was suppose to be just a short trip. I could almost see the house where I left my stuff from where I was sitting.
Eventually he came back, and brought all the town leaders. He told me I was free to go, but that neither the town nor I was allowed to touch the runway. Since the town had been working on it with nearly 100 people a day for 6 weeks, it seemed strange to choose that time to shut it down. I asked him what he needed to allow the work. He said permission from the military headquarters in Matagalpa, the northern part of Nicaragua. For the 3 runways we use that have been rebuilt and approved in Nicaragua, military permission was never required, so this was something new. I told him with the town leaders that that I had traveled so far 5 days to this point, and if I left without doing anything, I doubted I would come back since I would lose so much time. There is a satellite Internet connection run by solar panels put in by the European Union funding of some kind, so I e-mailed several people in the government and told them that there was this problem, and we needed to resolve it by Friday 5 PM (this was Thursday evening) If it wasn’t resolved till Monday or Tuesday, I would sit around all day Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and Monday – all the time missing emergency flights. As it could easily take a week or 2 to resolve, I didn’t feel like waiting. That evening I held a meeting with the town leaders and explained exactly what I would offer, the kind of patients I would fly, etc. I explained how they needed to maintain the runway too after it was built. They all understood everything. They very much wanted a runway and said they could give me 300 guys a day to work on it. We would work 2 shifts a day and I estimated it would take less than a week. I would stay and help them until it was ¾ done, then I could be sure I could land and take off. We agreed that we would likely hear from the military by 1 PM if we were going to hear from them Friday, so they would mobilize a crew in the morning as it was their normal community work day, and cut grass somewhere else until we got permission. As soon as that came, they would start at 1 PM working on the runway, with crews scheduled Sunday too.
Permission didn’t come, and I stayed at the little house and read a book and spent some time on the Internet. I was afraid to even go look at the runway. At 1 PM a group came to me and asked me what I had heard, I told them they had to ask the military. Just after 2 PM I was in the Internet place, chatting with my wife, and 2 military soldiers burst through the door and said you come with us right now! They were very serious looking, and it didn’t look like good news. The two armed men followed me along one on each side, directing me to a central location in the village. There I noticed other town leaders coming, each escorted by an armed soldier. They put a line of about 8 chairs up and sat down all the town leaders. 8 soldiers stood 20 feet away, evenly spaced at attention watching in a semi-circle around the group, as if they were ready for some of them to bolt and run. The leaders were all older people and didn’t talk, but didn’t look worried. The military were all younger men, except for the Captian and a couple of his head guys. After everyone was seated the Captain stood and visited with his few head guys, just out of earshot. They laughed a few times. A good 10 minutes went by. Eventually the Captain came over and addressed the village leaders. With my limited understanding of Spanish, I understood he was holding them responsible on 2 counts: 1 of clandestinely working on the runway, 2. Of clearing an area within 50 meters of a waterway. I guess the town that day had cleared an area across a ravine in the same direction as the runway, and he felt it somehow was connected to the runway construction. The village leaders respectfully denied that, saying it was a normal area they always clear. There was a small creek in the bottom, so he said it couldn’t be cleared there. They told him if he felt that way they needed to develop a plan on exactly what was to be cleaned for the village and not cleaned, because they understood it to be a proper place to clean, and not connected to the runway in any way. He asked me if I was going to cut trees in that area, and I told him no, the trees are fine there, the runway is already cleared. He said a presidential advisor had contacted him, and wondered who told them to contact him. I told the Captain it was me, per his request the day before. He said OK, but there was to still be no work on the runway, these offences were very serious and must be addressed to by the whole town. He said maybe in the future the military would help on the construction of the runway. That would be unusual, but saying it helped pacify the people. He asked when I was leaving since I couldn’t do any work, and I said I would leave the next day.
So the meeting broke up. I heard the people taking as I walked through the town, they were very unhappy with the military! When the military people get sick, the helicopter that comes monthly will also just airlift them out anytime. They will not carry civilians. The people didn’t understand how it was their land, with a signed document by all the leaders saying they were working on the runway, and they were told not to work on it. With tensions running high, it didn’t appear to be a great time for me to stay there. There was no boat that day, and none the next day, Saturday. I usually don’t travel on Sabbath, but felt it would be best to leave. The next day I waited around all morning for some people leaving walking to play ball in the next town, Siksa Yari. They didn’t leave, so by 1:30, I left with one guide who also helped me carry my packs.
The hot sun was cool under the jungle canopy, and the huge trees launched themselves far up to the sunshine. The trail was often covered by leaves, and an occasional stream crossed the path. It was a good trail, and not too many hills. Some places the jungle was clear of undergrowth and you could around you. Every once in awhile a stray beam of sunlight filtered through the canopy and played on the leaves. Everyone has seen pictures of the jungle like this, but there as parts of the jungle experience that you have to be there to fully appreciate. For one thing, there is lots of noise. You’ve all heard the noise of the birds, insects, crackling leaves and sticks under your feet, etc. One thing you don’t know, is that the jungle is constantly in a process of decay. As you walk you hear nuts and sticks falling from someplace way up there. As they fall they bounce off the layers of the jungle on their way to the ground. Many never make it to the ground. Some are big enough you see the tree branches moving as they crash through them, but often it is small seeds and nuts plink plinking as they drop layer by layer down to the ground. There is a constant noise of these things falling all around you in all directions, some big, some small. The other thing the pictures and videos miss, is the smell. There is a sickeningly sweet smell of decaying mater, mixed with the smell of flowers, and then the scent of the green ferns, vines, and moss – and the earthy dirt smell under all that. The colors are vibrant, flowers all over, and many different shades of green everywhere. The bright birds that flit here and there add to the color and noise. The first couple hours I noticed all these things, then it faded into the background as it all became "normal", just like the river. I just kept walking, sometimes cutting stray bamboo out of the way with my 26 inch machete instead of stepping over it.
My feet had been rubbed raw by my rubber boots Thursday when I walked the 1 ½ hrs to Raiti, so I was wearing my tennis shoes. One sole fell off the old shoes, and it was slick and soft under it, but better than a shoe that rubbed. I was dead tired 4 ½ hours later as dark was falling when we arrived in Siksayari. The judge directed us to the house of a person in charge of a place where visitors sleep, an open cement building. The lady looked me over, then told me they had a bed there in their house. I gratefully put my pack down there, and by flashlight, put some peanut butter on 2 pieces of bread I had bought in Raiti. A hard rain started just as we arrived, I was thankful it waited for me to be under a roof.
Upon further visiting, I discovered that this was a Seventh-day Adventist family, and they had just been greatly encouraged by Baldecio Toledo, the lay pastor I had flown to San Carlos and sent up the river for 3 weeks in March (2012). He had held meetings there, and encouraged the people, their first visit by a lay pastor in 12 years. In the morning they showed me their church, it is in a sad state. They asked for money to fix it, as they do not have the resources re-build it. I explained we don’t do that kind of work, but felt bad explaining that to them. These villages on the river are so hard to access that there isn’t much Adventist presence there. The lay pastor I sent up there performed communion for the Seventh-day Adventist members in one small river community for the first time in 24 years.
The Adventist members pointed out to me that I had helped a man in their town, many years ago. His name was Lacayo, and he had fallen on his machete. I flew him out of San Carlos. Of the hundreds of people I have flown, it isn’t likely I will remember just one, but he was an exception. He was the first transport out of the remote runway of San Carlos, when I was just starting our aviation program. Also, I’ve never had another person fall on a machete, it is a rare thing. So I remembered him well, and long ago had even written a story about him on the Internet on our web page. I walked over to his house, and introduced myself. He was surprised to see me, and showed me the scar on his stomach. I took a picture of him, and then took him to their little satellite Internet place and showed him his own picture on our web page under mission stories, as he was being loaded into the airplane.
I asked around the town for someone to take me by small boat to the next town, floating down the river. An adult with 1 or 2 kids will stand in the little narrow dugout canoes and paddle and pole them along. It is easier going down, but upstream requires a lot more work. The man who had fallen on the machete all those years ago told me that he would be happy to help me, as a favor for my help transporting him. The Miskito people usually do no favors for Americans, everything is paid for or it won’t get done. Far from civilization, the moral sense of right and wrong and the hospitality is much stronger than in westernized cities. The people are more grateful for help, and I was surprised in this instance, actually looked for a way to repay it. He took two of his 12 children to help him, and we headed down the river. We had a good talk about God and the end of the world, and the treatment of the rich and poor people as we floated along with steep hills rising out of the river on each side. The water running over the lava rocks was constantly noisy but he knew the river quite well, guiding the dugout log through the fast flowing areas. At one place we picked up a lady with about 16 chickens and one large turkey and took her along for ½ hour, but it was usually just us. We arrived at Yahbra Tangni (Andres Tara) after 3 hours of paddling, and he introduced me to his family there. He spent a couple hours visiting his family, and then left me in their charge and headed back for the long paddle UP the river to get home.
It was just after noon, and I waited for a boat to the next village. Everyone said there might be one leaving from this village. There was one, but it would not be going till Thursday or Friday. This was Sunday. I sat on a hammock on the porch, ate the rice and beans they gave me, and read a flying magazine. It seemed strange to sit there and read about the 65 million dollar Gulfstream 650. The differences in this world are so vast. The day passed slowly. I took a bath after dark in the Rio Coco, surprising them. They won’t go in it after dark.
Since no boat was leaving, I decided to walk more the next day. It appeared the walk from there was possible to Asang, a direct trail cutting through the jungle. They said it was 5 hours. There was some confusion in the morning about who I was paying to take me, so I wasn’t able to leave at 6 as I wanted. By 7:30 I was finally walking with my guide. I had a little piece of rice patty for breakfast, but had left before breakfast was ready. It had rained hard the 2nd consecutive night, so the trail was muddy. I chose to wear my shoes because the rubber boots just rubbed my feet so bad. The one shoe was slick, since the sole had fallen off, so I favored my left foot with the better traction for all the jumping across mud and creeks and over logs. That didn’t help my left knee I had injured when I was 16. When you get old those things come back to get you. The first 5 minutes was interesting, then it turned to drudgery. The path was slick, up and down steep washes and hills. I got muddy up to my knees, both shoes soon soaked. My camera was safe double bagged in plastic, so I didn’t want to take it out. I only took it out once on the whole time walking so got very few pictures of the long walk through the jungle. Logs were fallen across the trail, some head high. They required scrambling over and sliding down the other side. The trail was most often overgrown to the point you bent over almost double under branches for long lengths of time. The bamboo is sharp, so you always had to watch both above you and below you. You couldn’t just watch your feet, you had to constantly be looking up to duck. We saw one 5 foot snake, but my guide said it wasn’t poisonous and left it. Later he saw a coral snake, and I helped him kill it with my machete. Half a snake can still really move around.
The vines grew across the path like little ropes, and if your shoe caught them, they would take you down in a hurry. Many of the trees grew thorns, so you didn’t grab them unless you stopped and carefully looked them over first, not to mention animals that might be on them. As I was slogging along through the muddy path, twisting and turning up and down squeezing through the brush, I heard faintly far above, a jet. Suddenly I felt my thoughts transported to the time I rode first class to Europe. I thought of the people up there pressing the button and putting out their foot rest with their nice dress shoes. I could see them loosening their tie. I thought of the fact they were deciding which video to watch, maybe dipping their spoon into a glass dish of ice-cream. They might glance out the round windows at the faint specks of green trees below them, never realizing exactly what they were flying over. Very few of them have actually been in virgin jungle where no tourists have been, and they had no idea what it was really like. I looked ahead of me at the Miskito person there, his head bobbing up and down as he kept watching his feet and ahead. I asked him if he heard the jet, he said yes, never pausing. He had never seen a car, let alone an airplane. I walked along pondering the differences in his lifestyle here in the jungle, walking the trail he had walked through his childhood, verses the executive far above us or the people on their way to visit their families, the differences are amazing. I was humbled that I am privileged to be able to know a little bit of both worlds. At least the guy in front of me knew he would have money to buy food for his family from what I paid him today. And if the world economy goes under, that guy carrying my pack will continue to survive with the rice and beans he grows for his family, while the civilized world will be thrown into chaos.
After 6 hours of hiking I was tired, muddy, and ready to stop when we reached the village of Asang. There was no boat scheduled to leave Asang for Waspam, not for 3 days. Floating on the river, San Carlos was only 2 hours, and it was early afternoon. I asked around for someone to float me down the river, but only one person came along and he wanted $22. With wages of $5/day, that was ridiculously high for 4 or 5 hours of work. A boat left from San Carlos every day, or so I though, so I needed to get there that day. It was 2 hours more walk. After a rest and a little more of that rice patty, I sort of felt ready to go again. I took off, carrying my pack. I walked 45 minutes, and made it to the next little village. I was close to exhausted then. I found someone to carry my pack, and they left at what seemed like a terribly quick walk. I followed as best I could until arriving at San Carlos, just before dark. I had walked 8 hours, but it felt like an eternity. My legs felt like they were blocks of wood. I laid down for an hour, got up and ate some rice and beans, and then went to bed.
I was up at 5:30 AM, no boat that day. I had a meeting with the runway commission, and sat around all day waiting and resting. It was a welcome rest, but I wanted to be home!! The next day, day number 10, I was out again at 5:30 AM at the river, no boat. At 7 AM a boat came from up the river. It was full, but stopped and let one person off. Even though I was number 6 waiting in line there that morning, the town people told the driver to take me, the pilot, down to Waspam. They all knew I had been waiting all day the day before, and there would be no emergency flights until I returned home. I was thankful. The boat never picked up anyone else, but went straight to Waspam. It took 8 hours. My wife was there, and a 1 hour drive later, I was finally home. The trip took 37 hours on 6 buses, 24 hours in 4 boats, and 14 hours walking slippery trails. I lost 8 pounds (I am only 130 lbs in the first place!). It was a long trip, and I am sad it wasn’t more successful at the mission I set out to accomplish. Often the Lord’s reasons and goals for our life are not exactly our plans; we might not know until heaven exactly why we made the trip. In this instance, at least I got to see a part of Nicaragua from the ground that few westerners have ever seen. The kindness and hospitality of the people put to shame most Americans as they shared their meager food supply without asking for compensation. They put food on my plate before their children, not knowing or asking if I would pay them for it or not. I always did, but their hospitality unadulterated by civilization is encouraging.
Clint Hanley, Pilot in Nicaragua, Central America