Author's note: So let me preface this by saying that all the stories in this anthology are completely true and happened to my friends or me during our time in the Peace Corps. This is no gimmick. (I hate that I even have to type that.) I was tempted to finish up my series with a final Nicaraguan myth (El Cadejo), but I thought this would be a more interesting and honest way to end it. A special thanks to WaveDivisionMultiplexer and Shadowswimmer77 for helping me in the writer's workshop. Finally an extra special thanks to the people who I talked to that agreed to let me write/tell their stories. Please note that due to the personal nature of this story, anyone who is interested in narrating should contact me first.
A special thanks to KingSpook for accepting my request to narrate it after he sought out my permission over a year ago Note: His narration tells only the stories I experienced (as well as one new one) as I feel the other volunteers should be the ones to decide how/when/if their stories should be shared with a wider audience.
A final update: After a lot of reflection, I have decided to add my blog here as I feel like it builds off of my experience there and should be shared with anyone interested in working in a third world country.
This may not be a traditional opening, but I still feel like I have to share it with you all before I can rightfully begin. Hopefully it'll give you all some context to our situations. A few years have passed since my experiences in the Peace Corps (2012). A few nights ago I woke up at four in the morning. I want to say it was the sound of someone making noise in my apartment complex, but I'm pretty sure it was a recollection. I rolled over as quietly as I could and pawed the area around my bed for a few seconds. With each moment that passed, I grew more frantic, but in the haze of my waking state, I couldn't understand why. It wasn't until I felt the handle that I understood why I was so upset.
I couldn't feel the machete that I keep by my bedside until that moment. It's become a mechanical function for me these past five years (as of writing this; two years in the Peace Corps and three years after); roll over, touch your machete, assure yourself that you're alright, that you're safe. That little action has been so ingrained into my nightly habits that I don't even realize when I'm doing it or why. Good or bad, it's a part of me. I'll likely keep doing this for years to come. Please just keep that in mind while you read these recollections. These stories have all impacted us in some way and I can only hope that they'll provide an understanding for all of you by reading them.
There's one last thing I want to clear up before we get into the flesh of the story; I visited each friend from the Peace Corps personally and asked them if they would be alright with me sharing what's happened to them on this website. They are all great people. They told me that that would be fine with that as long as I kept their identities secret. I can say that if the tables were turned, I likely wouldn't be able to do the same with such confidence. Just know that these people willingly told me their horrifying experiences to share with you all because they want you to understand what it's like to be in the Peace Corps; I hope you will.
~ Travis/EmpyrealInvective (4/17/16)
The Eye/Ojos en la Oscuridad
Let me start this all with a bit of a disclaimer. This was in no way written to discourage people from enlisting in the Peace Corps. I spent two-and-a-half years in Nicaragua and those experiences, while trying at times, are some of the best memories of my life. These stories are being written out to help people realize what it was like to live in another culture/environment and the inherent horrors and joys that that entails. These are just a few of the stories that could be told.
I had been in La Quinta, my site, for about a year. I was used to living in that small community of six hundred people. Everyone knew my name or at least one of my many nicknames. For the sake of brevity I will only list three of my nicknames: Gringo Lobo, El Picaflor, and Travis Cumba. I will leave it up to your imagination as to why I was named “The Wolf Gringo” or “The Hummingbird”. As for Travis Cumba, it was their attempt to pronounce my surname, which they had difficulties with. Fun fact: A cumba is a type of machete with a hooked tip that is used for cutting wood. For a few months, some people literally assumed my full name was basically Travis Machete. I believe I will never have another nickname that badass ever again in my life.
My average day consisted of waking up early and visiting the houses in my community. I would visit ten to fifteen houses to pitch my projects, see if there was anything I could do to help, or just to talk. In the afternoon when the guys would return from their crops that they had planted up in the mountains, we would do a variety of work ranging from vaccinating chickens, building ovens, or castrating pigs. I enjoyed my schedule and the work I did.
The sun set at about 7 or 8 o’clock and everyone would go to bed. I do not mean that everyone would return to their house, I mean that everyone would be in bed and asleep by about 8 pm. I could never really get into that sleeping schedule so I would have three or four hours to myself until I was able to drift off. I typically spent this time reading, writing, or reclining in my hammock.
One night, I had been resting in my hammock while reading a short story by Harlan Ellison's, “A Boy and His Dog.” I was smoking a Belmont Suave. I have mentioned this before, but every drag from a Belmont Suave cigarette felt like you were punching yourself in the lungs. The Evangelical part of my community was not a fan of people smoking cigarettes (“Su cuerpo es un regalo de Dios.”) so I kept some of my vices under wraps for as long as I could so I would be viewed in a positive light and could continue my work with them. It was mid-way through my cigarette that I looked over and saw someone watching me through the wall.
To elaborate on this situation a little, my house consisted of dirt floors, with bricks up to about shoulder-level. At this point, my Nicaraguan grandmother had run out of money and used wooden boards to bridge the gap up to the tin roof. This set-up worked in a pinch, but it had the drawback of leaving two-inch gaps between each piece of wood. The lack of privacy didn’t really bother me all that much until this moment when I noticed that someone was looking at me through the slats in my wall.
I figured the person was just looking into my room to see if I was awake or not before knocking as it was about nine o’clock. I decided to not let on that I had spotted them to try and save ourselves the awkwardness of having caught me in two awkward situations. I was smoking and since I wasn’t wearing a shirt, my tattoo was visible. (“Su cuerpo es un regalo de Dios.”, “Solo los criminales y pandilleros tienen tatuajes,” y otro dichos.) I would leave it up to them whether they wanted to knock on my door and confront me or if they wanted to save themselves the embarrassment and walk away.
I continued to read and occasionally take a drag from my cheap and crappy Belmont Suave. About fifteen minutes later, I had finished a section of the story and my horrible cigarette. I turned in my hammock and snuffed the cigarette out on the dirt floor. While doing that, I took a peek at the gap in my wall. The eye was still regarding me through the crack.
At this point, I was more frustrated than anything else. Their persistent invasion of my privacy had finally made me confrontational. I swung on the hammock and set my book down on the wooden board I used as a shelf and threw on a shirt. I opened up my door and stepped outside. I walked around the outer wall of my room, but I turned up nothing. The person was gone. I visited the latrine and then returned to my room.
I finished up my book and went to bed around eleven o’clock. While that may not seem like a late hour, let me point out that most people had been asleep for about three hours now. In their opinion, I was a regular night owl. Later when they found out about my smoking and tattoo, I was also labeled a rebel and a gangster, which now seems ridiculous in retrospect.
As you can tell from the photo, my bed wasn’t the most comfortable thing in the world. I would get a few hours of sleep every night before I would toss and turn and try to find a more comfortable position. I woke up at around three that night and rolled over in my bed. In doing so, I found myself looking directly at the eye that had been watching me earlier that night through the gaps of my wall.
I maintained eye contact with that person for a good couple of minutes. I don’t know how long I stared and I don’t know how long they had been watching me. I became painfully aware that the locking mechanism for my door was a small piece of metal that I slid into a catch which consisted of two intersecting nails. (In other words, the only way my lock could have been flimsier was if I tied my door shut with dental floss.) I was glad I slept with a cumba by my bed, the necessity for which will be evident in the third story. Eventually they left and I went back to sleep.
To this day, I have no clue who it was that was watching me through the slats in my wall. To me, that was the most frightening part of the whole experience. It has even inspired some of my earlier stories. Not the invasion of privacy when I was at my most unguarded moment, but that this person eyed me in my hammock for at least fifteen minutes and then watched me sleep for an unknown period of time. I lived with these people for another year after that experience. It could have been anyone, a man I built an oven or vaccinated chickens with, a woman I gossiped with or who taught me how to cook. I have no clue. I lived in La Quinta for two years with a person who was so focused on me that they once watched me sleep.
While I was in the Esteli region for my service, one of my friends was working in a small village in Matagalpa. He came into the country at the same time I did and we both worked in the agricultural group. While my work was more focused on animals and improving methods of caring for and killing said animals, he was working to organize community banks and even managed to build a much-needed bridge in his village. While I am all right with divulging my name, I do not feel the same way about giving away his personal information so freely. (He did give me permission to write about his experience, so there’s that.) For that reason, I will call him by the nickname he earned in his community, Botas. (Boots.)
While not the most awesome nickname ever (“Travis Cumba” or “Gringo Lobo” has that title), it was fairly original. He was awarded that nickname because when we all arrived in Nicaragua, we had a two-month period of training. During this time, he visited a boot maker and had an amazing pair made. The boots were apparently so resplendent that his entire community was angling to try and get them from him before he returned home to the United States. The community wanted his boots so badly that a few of the guys began calling him “Boots” and the name just stuck.
This is a small aside, but I feel like it needs to be said. Boots is a great guy and I am privileged to call him one of my friends. While he was in Nicaragua, he lived in a small community in Matagalpa. While La Quinta was located along a stretch of road an hour or so away from Esteli, he lived in a more mountainous region. This had its benefits and drawbacks. He wouldn’t have to deal with missionary groups, whom if I may attach another small side note, missionaries are some of the worst people I have ever met in my life. Surprise visits from the bosses were a non-existent problem for him.
The major drawback he experienced was his transportation. If he wanted to get into Matagalpa, he had to wake up at 4 am and walk to the bus stop to catch a 7 am bus to his closest city. From there it was a five-hour trip into Matagalpa. From Matagalpa, it took an additional five hours to reach Managua. Managua, by the way, was where the Peace Corps building was located and the Nicaraguan capital also happened to have the only hospital we were allowed to visit. This of course was worrisome and it would become very problematic for him later.
Boots spent a lot of his time in Nicaragua taking pictures and working in his community. He was always working in his sector. One of his biggest ways of relaxing after a hard day of work was through music. He had brought an iPod with him with a gigantic high-class set of headphones that looked like more like earmuffs. He would put on those headphones every night and drown out the sounds of the wildlife and community around him.
It was about six months into Boot’s service that he began to hear the noises. He described it like this; pick up two or three rocks or pieces of gravel and begin rubbing them together in your hands. The sound you would hear from the stones grinding together was almost the exact same sound he began to hear that day. One day he woke up to that sound. At first he assumed it was the sound of construction. He thought that somewhere in his community, someone was building a new house and that was the source of the omnipresent, but almost inaudible sound.
Boots ignored the sound for most of the day, assuming that it was just people at work. When he went to lay down that night and he was still hearing those sounds, he began to have his doubts. No one could possibly be working that long and that late at night. He decided to check it out the next morning as there wasn't much he could do that night. He popped on his headphones, turned up his music, and went to bed.
The next morning, Boots went around his community and asked if there was anyone building anything. No one was doing any construction in his community. So, after turning down a number of offers to trade his boots for a chicken or pig, he went back to his house. By now the sound had grown louder, but was only a minor annoyance. He said at this time that it was no louder than the whirring of a computer monitor or the oscillating sounds that come from a fan.
Boots assumed that the sound might be his eardrums popping due to the altitude he lived at. (He lived in a mountainous region and his community was actually built into the side of a mountain high above sea-level.) He was tempted to go into Managua and talk with one of the doctors, but he ultimately decided against it. It was a two-part trip that would take two days to get him into the capital. It was a lot of work for something that he was certain would pass.
The next day was a Sunday and by now the noise had grown exponentially. He described the volume as being the equivalent of someone rubbing rocks around just inches away from his ear. Now Boots was concerned. Unfortunately, the transportation system didn’t work on the weekend. He would have to wait a day to get into the nearest city.
The next day, the sound was almost completely gone. He was relieved at first until he tilted his head and he felt a liquid substance trickling out of his ear. It was straw colored and smelled like earwax. He walked down to the bus stop and began the arduous process of getting into Managua. He missed the last bus to Managua and had to spend the night in Matagalpa.
By the time, he made it into Managua, Boot’s left ear was inflamed. He went into the Peace Corps office and got a doctor’s appointment. The doctor asked if he would be all right with waiting a day and he told her right to her face that he wasn’t going to wait. She was nonplussed about his insistence, but she had him sit down on an examination table.
The doctor pulled out an otoscope and examined right ear and then his left. When she looked into his left ear, she gasped and said these words exactly, “Sangre de Cristo!” (“Blood of Christ!/Christ blood!” This is a common Nicaraguan colloquial exclamation.) She dropped the otoscope and when he asked her what she saw, she told him that when she looked into his ear canal, she saw insect legs.
Apparently the insect had crawled into the lining of his headphones one day, enticed by the residual smell of earwax. When he went to bed that night and put on his headphones, the insect was driven out of the headphone lining by the vibrations of the music and into the safest spot it could find, his ear canal. That night, it locked its pinchers/mandibles into his ear where it stayed for over four days. You may find yourself asking what the bug was doing those four days and wondering about the noise that sounded like rocks being rubbed/ground together. There is a simple answer to both of those inquiries. The sound Boots had been hearing was the bug chewing its way through his eardrum and worming its way deeper into his head.
My Very Own Stalker/"Todo Va a Estar Bien.”
This story goes back to Esteli. Of the twenty-five volunteers that started out in my group and the fifteen that completed their service, five of us were based in the Esteli region. Of the sixteen departments in Nicaragua, (There are technically seventeen, but one region has been subsumed into the others.) a large number of volunteers were concentrated in the Esteli region. This is because some regions like the coast were extremely difficult to reach in an emergency and others were hostile. Female Peace Corps volunteers were discouraged from selecting Chinandega to work in due to a cultural climate that was hostile towards females.
One of my friends lived in a small community that was midway between Esteli and Jinotega. The community's name was Numanji ("New-mann-hee", but I pronounced it as “Nu-manji” like the movie "Jumanji". This got me into trouble on more than a few occasions, as the pronunciation was laughably incorrect.) She was about two hours away from either city by bus. To get to her bus stop, she had to walk about an hour and a half and cross a river, which would overflow in the winter and be impassable for weeks at a time.
Due to the events that passed in her community, I am also going to refer to her by her nickname. Her community called her “La Tita.” Tita isn’t actually a Spanish word, but a suffix (-ita) thrown onto words to indicate something that is small or precious in combination with her name. For example, ‘perro’ means dog, but ‘perrito/a’ means puppy or little dog. La Tita earned this title of the “The Little One” due to her stature and cuteness. Despite this not being a competition, “Travis Cumba” is still a cooler nickname to have.
La Tita came in with my group and she lived about an hour away from me. Even now, when trying to describe her, the only words I can think of are “laid back” and “cute”. I must confess that I had a bit of a crush on her during training. I am in no way ashamed to admit that. My childish crush evolved into a friendship over time and I am glad for that. She has the type of personality that can deal with any situation and face it in a relaxed and unruffled manner.
La Tita lived with a family in Numanji for two months before moving out on her own. She used her savings from the two hundred dollar stipend we received every month (Four thousand and six hundred cordobas.) to rent her own place. This was allowed, but she needed to get approval first and live in the community for three months. (Neither of which she had done.) She liked the idea of living by herself, cooking her own meals, and being independent. It was about a week after moving to a small house that was about twenty by twenty feet that she began to get nightly visits.
The first time it happened was late at night when the rest of her community had gone to bed. She told me it was about 10 or 11 o’clock at night. She was changed and in her bed when she heard the sound of footsteps. They approached her door and paused for a few moments. She listened for a few seconds and then the person pushed on her door. The deadbolt clicked against the holder, confirming it was locked. The person then walked away.
Understandably, she was worried about that late-night encounter. Someone had tried to enter her house late at night without her permission and was testing the door to see if it was locked or not. She had no clue what they wanted, but had a good idea. Unfortunately the percentage for sexual harassment for female volunteers is reported to be about twenty percent by the Peace Corps. Even more unfortunate is that that number is realistically closer to ninety-nine percent as I have only met one female/male volunteer that wasn’t verbally propositioned/harassed in the streets and in their community.
She hoped that it was just a case of mistakenly walking up to the wrong house and trying to enter, but this hope was trampled underfoot when the next night, the man returned and tried to push open her door again. This time the footsteps circled around her house and tried the backdoor to her house as well. After finding both locked, the man left once again.
Like most volunteers, La Tita took to sleeping with a machete by her bed just in case someone would try to force his way into her house. (It is unfortunately a habit that I keep to this day, I no longer feel safe in my own bed unless I have one close to me.) These nightly visits occurred for two weeks before she broke down and called another volunteer to come and spend the night with her to try and catch the perpetrator in the act of trying to open her doors late at night.
The other volunteer never heard or saw anyone, which made her even more distraught. She now knew that the man was watching her during the day and didn’t try to enter her house because he knew that her friend was lying in wait for him. The friend stayed for a week, but the man never came any of the nights he was there. He eventually had to return to his community in Jinotega, but he advised her to call the Peace Corps and report these incidents.
Looking back, it seemed like a stupid decision not to report the activity, but if I had to guess at her reasons, I would say they stemmed from the fact that she had not received permission to move out into a new house and was worried about being kicked out of the Peace Corps. Stoicism seems to be a common trait among volunteers. I think some viewed it like being a tattletale. I viewed it as an insult, if I went to the higher-ups with every problem I faced, I would be admitting that I couldn’t handle them myself. I dealt with my community counter-part stealing materials from my oven building project by myself. Why involve bureaucracy in a situation that they probably couldn’t even resolve? (A side note: I was and still am an idiot.)
La Tita instead opted to go and talk to her Nicaraguan grandfather whom she had lived with for two months and had built up a friendship with. She told him every detail. She told him how the person tried to enter her house every night and she was frightened for her safety. He wrapped an arm around her reassuringly and told her, “Todo va a estar bien.” (“Everything is going to be alright.”) Later she saw him talking to a few guys in front of the shop that sold guarro. (Nicaraguan moonshine.) She figured he was talking to whoever was bothering her and telling them to knock it off.
The late night visits from the man stopped for a week and La Tita started to relax and let down her guard. The man came back on the eighth night and tried to open her front door, back door, and tried to open her window. He tried to get into her house for the better part of an hour. She spent that night clutching her machete and didn’t get a wink of sleep.
I would love to end this story on a happy note about how the man lost interest with trying to sneak into her house at night and she eventually went on to do great work in her community. She did work up until she left, but she unfortunately quit after a year of being in the Peace Corps.
If I had to hazard a guess, I would assume La Tita quit not because of the man visiting her house on an almost nightly basis, but because she found out who it was. She eventually caved and told the Peace Corps, but there wasn’t much they could do other than offer to place her in another community. (Being transferred to another community with only a year was pointless as it generally took a year to build up a relationship with a community to carry out larger scale projects like ovens and improved stoves.) She chose to stay and put up with that man for nearly two more months before calling it quits.
La Tita had caught him a few weeks before she left. She had waited up for him to come and try to open her door. The instant he pushed on the door, she pulled it open and met him on the front step with a machete in hand. He stood there with a shocked expression and she returned the look. The man who had been trying to break into her house for over six months was none other than her Nicaraguan grandfather whom she had confided in and asked for help when she felt like she had nowhere else to turn. This was the same man who listened to her fear and concerns about this intruder who had looked her in the eyes, wrapped his arm around her reassuringly, and told her, “Todo va a estar bien.”
A Split Instant/La Pistola y Los Pandilleros
I mentioned before that the Chinandega was a rough place for volunteers and I hope this story conveys that point. While I considered myself a prankster and self-deprecating person who joked, made fun of myself, and typically made friends; the volunteers in Chinandega had to present themselves as strong and immovable. During his service, one of my friends had to prove his mettle in such a way.
One of the Chinandega volunteers with the nickname ‘La Pantera Phantasma’ (Which literally translates to Ghost Panther… Travis Cumba had its moment in the sun as the best nickname, but now I must gracefully concede the title.), he was given that nickname based on his skin color and choice in music. He was a Pantera fan and he was white.
I consider him to be a great friend and he is honestly one of the most hardcore people I have ever met. While I was choosing a community with a temperate climate and friendly people, he chose a community that lacked electricity, was judgmental of outsiders, required him to cut his own firewood, prepare his own meals, and deal with anti-American sentiment (Due to the Contra-Sandinista War).
His community was very close to another town called Montenegro. Migrant workers came in every year to harvest the sugar cane populated this community. It is worth noting that these workers were typically men who were drunks, addicts, or unstable individuals who couldn’t maintain their own land that had been forced out of their own community. Suffice it to say, Montenegro was not the safest place. People were robbed, raped, and a few times they found a headless man in the sugar cane fields.
Panther tried his best to avoid the community, but the dirt road to his village cut through the town so he’d have to catch the bus or risk having to walk though Montenegro. He managed to catch the bus most of the time, but eventually his luck ran out at the worst possible time, as luck tends to do.
Panther had been in Chinandega with his girlfriend, who was also a Peace Corps volunteer, and they were going to return to his community so they could work on a joint project. They missed the last bus by a few minutes, which meant they had two options: return to Chinandega and call off their improved stove project or go through Montenegro. They chose the latter.
They caught a ride to the road leading to Montenegro and began walking. It was early in the afternoon and if they walked at a steady pace, they were bound to make it to his community before the sun set. They hiked down the dirt road in the sweltering heat. After about an hour of walking, they managed to flag down a passing car and hitch a ride. As I mentioned before, this is a fairly common practice and typically doesn’t result in many problems.
Panther struck up a conversation as the drove along the dirt road. The man had apparently been working in Guatemala and was sending money to his family in Nicaragua. (As Nicaragua is the poorest country in Central America this came as no surprise.) The man had returned home to visit his family and had been there for about a week.
Panther told him the community he lived in and they carried on pleasantries until they were close to the outskirts of Montenegro. It was on that dirt road that the ride took a strange turn.
The man reached into the car’s glove box and fished out a revolver. He set it on his lap and began to load it while driving. The car swerved and veered along the road as he loaded the gun. Panther asked the man what he was doing and the driver responded that they were getting ready to pass through a rough part of town where the road had fallen into disrepair and the gun was a precaution against car-jackers.
Panther reasoned with the man that he couldn’t drive and shoot at the same time so he offered to take the gun. He made that offer mainly because he didn’t trust a stranger with a gun around his girlfriend or him and was worried about it accidentally going off every time the truck hit a bump in the road. He was surprised when the man took him up on his offer and handed him the revolver.
They reached a section in the road that had been worn away by rain and the car had to slow down to weave between large rocks that might damaged the undercarriage at a faster speed. It was then while the car was practically stopped that three men emerged from the sugar cane and began approaching the car. Two wielded cumbas while the third carried a cutacha. (A small machete typically used for cutting weeds and sugar cane.) They moved as if they were intoxicated and began to approach the car.
Panther raised the revolver so they could see it and shouted a warning, which they ignored. He put his finger on the trigger and tightened his grip. He would later confide that he learned afterwards that revolvers have no safety and he was a finger twitch away from shooting a man.
Panther continued to shout threats while the car slowly worked its way through the stones and other obstructions. The men were now a few feet away from the car and they had raised their machetes, making their intentions clear. The driver worked his way around the last obstruction and floored the gas. They sped off and Panther watched the three drunken men slowly stumble after them before eventually giving up.
When Ghost Panther told me this story we had been drinking a little and swapping stories. He said that if they hadn’t caught a ride, they would have had that encounter while they were walking through Montenegro. A few drinks later, he would confess that if those three drunken men had gotten within striking range of the car, he would have shot them. He said that he had no clue what they would have done to his girlfriend or him had they pulled them out of the car, but he had an idea that he would have most likely ended up as another headless corpse found hidden amongst the sugar cane.
The Man on the Bus/Mi Vergüenza
As I sit here, typing out these stories, there is one that nags at me from the back of my mind. To add a bit of a literary flourish (which I am want to do if you haven’t figured that out yet), I have erected a wall between that memory and the rest of my mind. I have tried to cordon it off, but as I recall my time in Nicaragua and all of those memories, I can hear it seething and scratching away at the walls. I know it has to be typed out or it won’t leave me in peace.
I am sorry in advance for this. A warning first. This story isn’t something that's very terrifying, it is scarier in another aspect I guess. It is also very personal to me and even as I write this out, I still can’t figure out why I am doing it. All that being said and done, feel free to pass over this section as a bit of a superfluous outro.
I had been in Nicaragua for about six months and I have no shame in saying that I needed to take some time off. It is taxing work to try to understand and be understood in another culture. I told my host family that I would be leaving for the weekend. They were a little bit disappointed, but I am fairly certain they needed a vacation from me as well. I decided to go into Matagalpa, have a good meal (something that didn’t consist of rice, beans, and a tortilla), enjoy a couple of beers, and talk to some family and friends on Skype.
I woke up early and got on a bus into Esteli and then caught a bus that would take me to Matagalpa in three hours. Before I continue, I would like to talk about the bus/transportation system. Ask any Peace Corps volunteer, in Nicaragua or elsewhere, and they will have three or four horror stories ranging from buses breaking down in the middle of nowhere, overcrowding that makes you feel like you were packed in a can like sardines, or being asked to pay exorbitant prices to be transported short distances. The buses were old decommissioned school buses that had been repaired (possibly) and put back into service. Most had metal racks welded onto the top and sides so they could carry items. Imagine the cars from “Mad Max” and that is a pretty accurate depiction of the transportation system.
I was midway through the trip when a man got on with two fifty-pound parcels of leña (firewood). He was transporting them to sell in a nearby community for an inflated price. The cobrador (ticket-taker/money-collector) tossed it on the roof and it sounded like the roof would cave under the sudden weight. He hopped on the bus and we continued towards Matagalpa.
About fifteen minutes later, he got off the bus, but either the driver had forgotten to offload the firewood or had decided to abscond with the three dollars worth of wood. (Three dollars/60-65 cordobas bought you about one hundred pounds of wood.) The man realized what was happening as the bus began to drive off. He shouted, but the words didn’t get through to the driver due to the Ranchero music he was blasting on the radio. The man decided that if he couldn’t get the bus to stop, he would just have to get his items himself.
He ran up behind the bus and grabbed the metal rack and climbed up onto the roof of the moving bus. The driver was unaware of all of this and continued driving. The man managed to toss one bundle of wood when people began to realize that someone was on the roof. The bus was going about forty or fifty miles per hour and I recognized the danger of the situation. I assumed falling off a bus going that fast would probably not end well. The driver had to stop or something terrible would happen.
I waded through the other passengers who had already begun to talk excitedly and reached the driver. The man on the roof had reached the bundles of wood at this point. I shouted over the radio, “Suave!” (Literally means “smooth”, but in Nicaragua it can also be used to convey, “Stop”.) I told him to brake because there was a man on the roof. I wish I never did that.
The driver slammed the brakes and the bus grinded to a halt. The man at this point had managed to toss both parcels off onto the side of the road and was preparing to dismount from the back when the bus made its sudden stop. The quick stop pitched him forwards and off of the roof of the bus. The man swan-dived and hit the road head first.
Men swore, women screamed, I just looked on in shock. The man was on the road, twitched spasmodically like he had been tazed. He spasmed and writhed for a few seconds before he stilled. The driver, cobrador, a few guys, and me hopped off the bus to check to see if he was all right. My major concern was that they might try to move him and paralyze him after his evident spinal injury. We reached him and it became clear that my worry about damaging his spinal cord was unneeded. He was already dead. I don’t want to get into too much detail. I will only say that it wasn’t like anything I’d seen on TV or movies. He was just there, sprawled out on the street, little to no blood. He was just dead.
We waited for the ambulance to come. They collected a statement before picking up the man and tossing him into the ambulance. I do not mean that as a literary flourish, one grabbed him by the legs and the other by the arms and they swung him and tossed him into the back of the ambulance like he was a sack of potatoes. That cemented it for me. The man was dead and it was my fault.
I know how ridiculous that sounds, I’ve told myself how absurd it was many times. I know that I shouldn’t think that way, know I shouldn’t blame myself. That doesn’t change the thought though. I made the driver stop. The sudden stop made the man fall. The fall killed the man. Ergo I killed the man by shouting for the bus to stop. I tried convincing myself otherwise, but I can’t. It’s a thought that I bury, but it keeps unearthing itself. No matter how much I try to distract myself and bury it under mountains of other thoughts, it refuses to be forgotten.
I think maybe that is why I am typing all of this. I told a few friends, but I never really got this in-depth, never told them that last part. I’ve been trying to hide that thought for years now, but it resurfaces from time to time. I am done burying that memory, it is time to make it known and maybe find some form of catharsis in its revelation. That is what I’m hoping at least.
This was hard for me, harder than I hope any of you will ever know. I think the hardest part of it will be when I actually upload it and I know that someone is going to read it. Maybe that’s why I’m posting this last part so late at night and doing any editing after the rest of the wiki is asleep. I'm casting it out into the stygian depths of this wiki to be swallowed up in a sea of edits and contributions. The worst part of it is that when I think of them reading this, I feel such shame; guilt and shame for my actions. When I think of you, who I now realize have become my friends over these past few years, reading this; I feel only shame. It is a burden and it feels like two fifty-pound bundles of wood on my mind.
I Shook Hands With a Monster
I’m sorry for the disjointed nature of all of this. It’s late, and I’ve spent a lot of tonight and the last few nights talking to people from the community I used to live and work in from 2011 to 2013. I’m tired but I can’t sleep. It’s four in the morning and I have to do something in four hours. I’m too anxious to sleep so I’m going to try and organize everything into a simple document and try to make sense of it all. I don’t know if I’m trying to compartmentalize it and tuck it away, maybe even delete it and pretend this has nothing to do with me anymore. Remove myself from what’s going on in Nicaragua. Ignore the Facebook posts featuring dead students, livestreams of reporters being shot as they try to record the violence, and police firing into crowds from the back of trucks. It’d make sense and probably save me a lot of grief, it’d also be terrible. If you’re seeing this, then I didn’t do that, but that doesn't mean it didn’t cross my mind.
To set the stage for the title above, it was July 28th, 2011 (my birthday). I don’t know if it was the exact day or the weekend of my birthday, but the events were so closely tied together I can’t help but associate them. The 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps being in Nicaragua was being celebrated (with a hiatus due to the Contra-Sandinista war) and on the day of our Peace Corps inauguration and swearing in, we were hastily informed that we had been summoned to meet with the president of Nicaragua (Daniel Ortega) for an impromptu congratulations.
To say we were nervous was an understatement. Imagine celebrating the start of your service in the Peace Corps after three months of training and hard work and then being given the opportunity to meet the most powerful man in a country with no idea of what to expect and only a few scant hours to prepare yourself. Add onto that Nicaragua’s tenuous relationship with the United States (We supplied the Contras in the Contra-Sandinista war before pulling out which partially precipitated the Sandinistas winning which led to the Sandinistas seizing complete control.) It was nerve-wracking especially given the fact that my level of Spanish at that time was abysmally low. I could string together a broken conversation, but I would blank on phrases wholesale and my mouth would get ahead of my brain and then derail like a forty car pile-up on the freeway resulting in Spanglish and embarrassment. I calmed myself by thinking that it’d be a quick thing; he’d talk at us for an hour and the awkwardness would be over.
That impromptu congratulation turned out to be three-plus hours as Daniel Ortega interviewed each one of us and broadcast the entire thing across the country for hundreds of thousands of people to see. Fun stuff.
We were crowded (There were about fifty volunteers and Peace Corps staff with a cadre of reporters, government officials, and the Juventud Sandinista (more on them later).) into a large room with AC blasting on us. We were dressed in formal clothes and some of the female volunteers were in dresses. The U.S.’s relationship with Nicaragua hung over us like a funeral pall due to Ortega’s tendency to bring up anti-U.S. rhetoric in his speeches. It was frigid in every sense of the word.
Daniel Ortega opened with a speech that I can’t remember (given the abomination that is my Spanish language comprehension) and then proceeded to ask a question to every Peace Corps volunteer in a mock-interview no one was prepared for in a manner that feels completely absurd. I talked about my projects (poorly). He quizzed someone on their favorite sports. He signed the baseball that one of the volunteers had brought as he was going around shaking all of our hands for a photo-op. It was all so surreal and ridiculous.
During our Peace Corps service, they held an election for Daniel which happened to be in violation on Nicaragua’s constitution as it (originally) limited presidential terms to two sessions. He was running for a third term. My community which was Pro-Sandinista supported the vote to eliminate election limits and re-elect him. The night of the results, one girl from my community would later confide in me that she was terrified Ortega would lose and what would happen to the country under someone else’s guidance.
Daniel Ortega didn’t lose. He won in a landslide. Cities, towns, and villages voted overwhelmingly in his favor. Even communities that supported the fractured liberal parties running against him experienced a sudden surge of Sandinista support and voted for him. All the Nicaraguan news channels were abuzz with celebration of this monumental election. Very few Nicaraguan stations would bring up the discarded ballot boxes that they found on the side of the road which happened to contain votes in opposition to Daniel Ortega. Even less would mention that those ballot boxes happened to be tied to communities who supported liberal candidates, but whose votes still happened to be counted as Pro-Sandinista despite their political standing in the election results.
It was picked up by a few international news stations, but the voting fraud was treated with a shrug of the shoulders. I also happened to shrug my shoulders at it and resign myself to a bit of defeatism. He controlled the media, had propaganda, and was relatively charismatic. Of course he would win, even if he didn’t stuff ballot boxes, he would have likely won due to going up against a fragmented party with multiple candidates running and sapping votes away from one another. My service ended in late July 2013 and I returned to the United States with a few stories under my belt and some experiences I’ve been known to overshare from time to time. My community recently got a cell phone tower in their vicinity which strengthened their signal and resulted in a number of them getting Facebook on their phones and us randomly talking and reminiscing at times. This is how I learned about everything that’s happening.
I’m realizing this setting the stage has quickly devolved into delaying the inevitable so here we go. The protests and violence in Nicaragua started in mid-April with proposed social security reform. President Ortega wanted to decrease public debt so he proposed an increase to the amount the employed had to pay and decreased the amount pensioners would receive. To put it in simpler terms, he wanted to increase wage tax that workers paid and decrease the amount pensioners would receive after their retirement.
This of course resulted in public outcry and protest as it was viewed as taxing the poor and lining the pockets of the wealthy. Students and workers took to the streets to protest this proposed change. Daniel Ortega and his wife, Rosario Murillo (who happens to be his vice president), quickly retracted this reform, but the damage had been done. Compounded by a forest fire that the government mishandled in its response resulting in the loss of 9000 acres, the demonstrations changed targets from protesting social security reform to decrying government corruption. Now their focus was on Ortega himself, calling for his resignation.
The Nicaraguan president responded to the protests with the Juventud Sandinista (the Sandinista Youth). They were bused out to areas where protests were occurring to oppose them. The Juventud Sandinista responded to these public protests with violence. Why maintain political discourse when you can just punch your opposition in the face with the support of the government behind you? This of course resulted in full-scale fighting between students and Sandinista Youth.
Here’s a video of protestors building barricades out of the roads themselves with the help of a mother in preparation for a protest. That’s the only video I’m going to share. It’s the only video I feel comfortable sharing, if you want to see mothers openly weeping and consoling each other in front of posters featuring their deceased children, students shot and bullet-holes in beaten bodies, you can search that up on your own. Facebook and Twitter has compiled most of them. I don’t want to see them again.
A medical brigade which was composed of medical students (including someone who lived in my community) responded by trying to provide treatment to the people who were injured in the protests. Their supplies were confiscated by police who were also responding to the violence. The responding medical brigade was prevented from treating people with claims that a majority of people were violent criminals (I’ll address that below). It was in this dark moment that the police became more involved in the protest.
I’m not going to link to videos of police gunning down civilians who are protesting or just happen to be in the same vicinity as protestors. There’s a video of police swathed in riot gear firing on crowds of people from the back of police trucks. There are videos of people hugging the street as motorcycles roll by, spraying bullets. There’s a livestream from a reporter in Bluefields covering the violence who is shot and left for dead by an unknown assailant. There are a lot of horrible things. Most of them on social media, not many on news outlets.
The propaganda machine has groaned to life and has started to try and discredit the protestors. Protestors are being labeled violent criminals and operatives trying to sow insurgency. The police said that the violence that resulted from the march on Mother’s Day, populated with mothers who have lost their children in the violence, which resulted in over a dozen people dying. A lot of the Facebook posts feature comments from people espousing the belief that this is the work of violent thugs targeting the protestors and propagating the lie that the government is a blameless victim of this smear campaign.
Here’s a brief breakdown of the events. Here is a report from one of the most violent protests which happened to coincide with Mother’s Day and resulted in at least eleven reported deaths with numerous unconfirmed fatalities and injuries. Here is the most recent report of violence involving police laying siege on a church that housed protestors as of writing this (it won’t be the last report I fear) today. Here. I have no fucking clue what to do with any of this information. Here. Please take this and do something with it. I still don't know what to do with this. Tell someone, share it somewhere, bring it to someone’s attention. Here. Please.
I’m sorry for all that. The sun’s coming up and I’m a mess. I’m going to try and rein it in.
My community is a little ways away from the capital so a majority of them are isolated from all the violence. I know a few people who are attending university in Managua so I’m keeping my eyes on their feed to make sure they’re alright. As of writing this, they have been (Gracias a Dios), but this is an ongoing issue. This is not a temporary thing. This has been building for years and the violence has been ongoing since mid-April.
I keep going back to that moment in 2011 and I keep thinking this: I shook hands with a monster. I was feet away from him and I extended my hand to him and shook it. I remember thinking about the absurdity of it all. I was a kid out of college, a nobody, and I was meeting someone who had risen to power and controlled the fate of an entire country. It was comical at the time. There was no warning signs. My soul didn’t shudder at the sight of him like we’ve come to expect from media. He didn’t exude a violent aura. I didn’t feel like there was anything sinister about him in that moment. He was joking with the reporters and making light of us fumbling for words. He was having a good time. He just seemed like a harmless goofball, a ridiculous example of random happenstance that resulted in his election or the Peter Principle on his promotion to power cranked up to max. He’s not. That is the thought that’s repeating in my head like a broken record, he was just a normal guy. He’s average. You could have run into him on the street and not be any the wiser of the horrible things he’s orchestrated. He’s human. I think that may be the most horrifying thing I’ve ever typed.
At that time I thought, “He’s a clown.” Here he is signing a volunteer’s baseball and non sequitur-ing another friend by forcing him into a conversation about sports after interviewing the previous volunteer about where they were going to work and live. He’s harmless. That’s what I told myself. At that time he seemed like a man who blundered into the position of president and was just rolling with it. He may have stolen an election but he wasn’t actively hurting anyone and at least he has a few projects that help out the poor. He’s harmless. The system was screwed to begin with so why try to upset it again when our involvement resulted in a full-blown war? The Contra-Sandinista war was muddled with U.S. interference and it drastically hurt our relationship with them and resulted in the deaths of thousands. I told myself that he was harmless in the grand scheme of things. He is not harmless.
I’m realizing that a number of people said the same thing about Idi Amin. That’s my mistake. I downplayed a dictator and excused the actions of a monster. I can’t do that anymore. He’s not some inept fool blundering and saying ridiculous things in his speeches. He’s responsible for the deaths of over one hundred people and the injury of thousands. His police have actively participated in the torture and murder of his own people. These are human rights violations and they need to be shared. This needs to be spread. This is going to keep going as long as other countries are overlooking it and lumping it under the nebulous term ‘third world unrest’ that we shouldn’t get involved in. This is not civil unrest that can proceed unchecked and will 'fix itself'. These are atrocities. These need to be seen by the rest of the world.
I was out drinking with a friend from the Peace Corps a few days ago. We were catching up and re-hashing stories in the way that only drunk people can do. It was nostalgic and bittersweet at the same time. Emboldened by the copious amounts of whiskey, I asked if he still slept with a machete by his bed. He told me that he used to for a while, but he ended up giving his bolo machete away to a friend who was in the forestry service. I asked how he slept without it by his bed and he told me that there was no change.
Looking over all this on the cusp of another possible stint in the Peace Corps, I can't help but wonder. I gave my cutacha (gardening) to my sister and my bolo (branch work) machete to my brother, but I kept my cumba (heavy duty) for myself. Truth be told, I want to give it away, but I can't. I keep having this sad realization that it was a part of me. I know that soon enough, I may leave for another country and I can't bring it with me.
I know that I will likely give my cumba to a friend as a keepsake if I choose to leave. I also know that if I do decide to go through another stint in the Peace Corps, I will probably pick up a new set of machetes for the wide range of tasks I will have to do while I am overseas. Like stories, I will collect them. I will gift a few to friends and family when I am done, but I will always keep one for myself. They are a part of me, both the machete and the stories. I'll likely always roll over in the night and paw for that comfort. I will always hold those memories close to me in the dark of night. That neither brings me comfort, nor does it worry me. In the end, it is an extension of me. I've learned to find peace in my acceptance of it. It brings me more comfort than the item itself. Despite the nonsensicalness of that last sentence, it is true. Acceptance gives me the strength that keeps me going. Thank you for listening to our stories, that also gives me strength. Thank you my friends.
~ Travis/EmpyrealInvective (4/17/16)
Written by EmpyrealInvective