A Series of Small Mistakes Culminating in My Fleeing From Drug Dealers

August 21, 2009

One of the things you always have to look out for when you’re on the road is the near-limitless pile of pushers, pimps, peddlers, and players trying to take advantage of the unwary traveler. Due to the fact that a whole lot of people like to travel, and a much smaller group are actually good at it, there has grown up in Central America a heathy culture of screwing over stupid white people – it’s a cousin to the other popular sport of shooting fish in a barrel. Now, I’ve no room to talk – I sit here sipping on a Fresca that I just overpaid 50% for since I didn’t walk across the street to check prices there – to be honest, it tastes a bit like wasted money, but a whole lot more like cane sugar, which beats the hell out of your American drinks and their high fucktose corn syrup – but I digress… The point here is that by the sheer virtue of being white, you are a target for all manner of schemers, thieves, troublemakers, and “the wrong sort of people.” You can minimize your chances of getting taken advantage of by playing it smart, not getting into situations you don’t understand, and not letting yourself get cowed by fast talkers, but in the end we all fuck up, make mistakes, and get into trouble – it is just a basic fact of life in a foreign culture.

Sometimes however, that just isn’t exciting enough – sure, you got talked out of 20 Lempira by a sad-faced boy, or someone picked your phone out of your pocket while you were sleeping on a bench in the bus station, or the taxi driver overcharges you substantially, but that’s not the sort of thing I can sit down and write a story about. No, to be worthy of a Citizen K adventure, you’ve got to go big, to really and truly fuck up to the point of putting your own life in danger. Here’s a story of how that happened, how we got out of it, and what we should have done instead. Spoiler: we survived.

How to Identify a Drug Pusher:

Someone you won’t meet often in the US unless you go actively looking for drugs is the peculiar fellow that I’ve taken to calling the Drug Pusher. The reason I won’t go so far as to call him a dealer is that he doesn’t actually have drugs most of the time, but sells them nonetheless – usually in the employ of a dealer but occasionally freelance, so to speak. How he goes about doing this is pretty interesting, at least to me. The Pusher goes about his life, travels the world, has another job sometimes, and meets absolutely everyone. He is a social butterfly, loved by all the little old ladies, popular with the girls, pals with every guy between 13 and 30, and looked up to all the younger kids. The thing that sets him apart from any other charming, well-spoken, popular young guy is that he finds a way to bring the topic of marijuana or drug use up very early on in meeting new people. It’s not subtle, usually some variant of “Hey man, are you new around here? I’m Larry, welcome to the neighborhood. Hey, weird question, you like to smoke weed?” To a positive assertion he’ll go on, preaching the taste, flavor, effect of the product he’s connected to, playing up the crowd before he goes in for the kill. He won’t ever offer you drugs, because he doesn’t have to – if you’re looking for something, you’re going to ask, and lo-and-behold, he turns out to be just the person you needed to meet. If you’re in a far-away land and want to engage in some healthy substance use or less-healthy substance abuse, the Drug Pusher is a character that will enter your stories from time to time.

How We Got Into Shit With Vlad:

We met Vlad (yeah, a Nicaraguan named Vladamir) in the back of a truck headed south. Sjoerd and I had our thumbs out, the driver stopped, we hopped into the back utility cage of the pickup and off we all went. As often happens when people are allowed to ride in the back of trucks, we weren’t the first bums who’d gotten a free ride – the 3 guys in the back gave us a once-over, we returned the favor, then everyone said their introductions and went back to standing around or sitting in the back of the truck. The exception was Vlad, the mid-20s Garifuna (dark-skinned) dude with an old American Eagle T-shirt, 12” pigtails, and slightly gapped front teeth that were hardly noticeable above the sheer force of his personality. Vlad, after warmly shaking our hands, started up a conversation with Sjoerd about fun things to do, and within a couple sentences asked him if he’d ever smoked weed. Playing it smart, Sjoerd admitted “yeah, a few times,” and pushed the subject down the road, but he and I shared a glance that said “well, do we want some?” It’s illegal in Nicaragua, we’re living hand to mouth and out of our backpacks – this is a bad idea. Yet, true to form, we didn’t immediately throw out the suggestion – be thankful for that, because if we had, there wouldn’t be this little adventure story for you to enjoy!

Twenty or so minutes down the road, after some random conversing and several more subject changes to and from drugs, our driver pulled up to his neighborhood and we – Sjoerd, Vlad, I – jumped out and started walking. While Vlad and I talked about his work (truck driving) his family (lived with his mother and little sister) and the town we were walking toward, Sjoerd and I were having a simultaneous non-verbal conversation about whether or not we should ask this guy if we can buy ganja. Combined, it must have looked ridiculous – 2 gringo-as-all-fuck backpackers and this big dude in a too-small shirt and pigtails walking along the highway talking inanities while the white guys shoot hand signals and weird looks at each other.

We walked a few kilometers, which gave us plenty of time to think things over. In the end, I asked Vlad if the reason he’d brought up weed so many times was because he wanted to sell some of it, and while he denied that, he did tell us that he “knew some guys.” Good enough – we followed him into town, Chichigalpa I think. Here’s where it got surreal: remember how he lives with his mom? Well, we went straight to his mother’s house and took a seat on the couch. Then, because Vlad is a pusher, not a dealer, we gave him the crazy-looking plastic bills with transparent sections that they call money here, and we sat around watching a National Geographic special on Fidel Castro in Spanish while he took off to get the product. The look we shared somewhere in here was priceless – “what in the fuck have we gotten ourselves into here?” – still, we’d taken a swan dive right into this one, and to get out was more difficult then just waiting to see how things turned out. We sat, played with the dog, and talked with 6-year-old Diana while we waited.

I was reassured by two things here – first was that Esmeralda, Vlad’s mom, and Diana, the little sister, were very nice, completely normal, and very friendly considering they undoubtedly knew we were buying illicit substances from their son. The second was that the dog, Rufo, was a fucking angel, loved being pet, and was one of the best groomed, fed, and most loving animals I’ve met in Central America. “Sure, Vlad sells pot,” I reasoned, “but his family is great, his dog isn’t abused, and everyone around here seems to like him – how bad can this really get?” Well… here comes that part of the story.

Vlad came back a bit later in the afternoon, right about the time I was sharing with his mother the intimate details of my time with the Peace Corps in Honduras. (which, incidentally, I just took the passwords off of here on Mental Cigarettes – check them out!) I opted to give her the abridged version, we said our goodbyes, and after Vlad slipped me a bag containing substantially shittier weed then he’d described, we were out the front door. Now, here’s the part where a person concerned about security would recognize that he had stretched his luck, come out thus far unharmed, and ought leave now before that all changes – being a different sort of person, the kind who seeks adventure at personal expense, puts his trust in the generosity and goodness of strangers, and consequently spends a lot of his time on the razor’s edge of disaster, I instead took a different course.

“Hey guys,” Vlad asked, “did you know that Flor de Caña rum is distilled here?”

“Here like in Nicaragua, or here like right here?” I responded.

“Right here man, we can just walk right up to the place, smoke, have a look around.”

“Sounds cool man, let’s do it.” I ask, then shoot a glance at Sjoerd, who nods. All of a sudden, we’ve an adventure on our hands, but we don’t realize what kind yet.

Vlad leads us across the street and a few blocks down before turning into a run-down block of homes and pulperias. Kids are playing soccer barefoot with a well-patched and scratched ball, a scrawny dog trots by, tail between her legs, plastic plate in her mouth. Families, not just one but a good 6 entire families, sit out in front of their houses in plastic chairs and on curbs, just sitting. In other words, it was any other poor neighborhood in Central America, with one crucial difference – everyone stopped when we walked into their midst – the game, the people talking, and instead they all glared unfriendly eyes at us. Well fuck – guess we’d found another part of the world where white faces aren’t welcome, especially when those faces are attached to the big bags that say “this person is richer then you, and for his pleasure, he comes to visit your part of the world just to fuck around.” It’s shittier when it’s true – I have no good reason to be here – I’m just passing through on the way to Costa Rica. I was about to mention this to Vlad when I realized something crucial – they weren’t looking at us, they were looking at Vlad with deep distrust.

I didn’t know what to do with this information – it didn’t fit with my train of thought, but I stole a glance at Sjoerd, and he’d seen it too – at least we were on the same page. Half a block down it got weirder – a smallish guy in a blue shirt and worn jeans whistled loudly, I snapped my head in that direction, started wondering if he was a threat, but then Vlad whistled back and waved. It still didn’t feel right, but if Vlad knew him… I let my mind slip back down a few notches – lets just smoke a joint, see a rum distillery, and get the fuck out of here. The guy in blue came up to us, slapped hands with Vlad, and introduced himself – “Mynameisdavid” he said in one breath, no spaces, the word vomit approach to English – thus Mynameisdavid he became. After the introduction, Vlad led us down a foot path, and Mynameisdavid followed – here’s the first point I decided that we needed to change the situation, where Juan Carlos’ warning voice broke through my comfortable reality – this was not a good scene.

Down the path a hundred meters, I asked Vlad if we could stop and smoke there instead of going all the way into the distillery – it was getting late, I said, and we needed to keep going south. He shrugged, we sat down on a log, and Sjoerd did his magic Dutch joint-rolling trick while I tried to keep Vlad and Mynameisdavid talking about themselves, about their families, histories, anything. Vlad took off his shirt in the clinging heat, and that’s when I saw the 4” ragged scar on his right shoulder – an unmistakable knife wound. “What’s that from,” I asked, wanting to see how he lied so I catch it again later. He didn’t though – “It was a knife, a machete actually.” I gave a low whistle, and told him he was lucky to still have an arm. “Better off then the other guy, he’s dead now.” was the reply, delivered straight to my face without blinking or smiling. I laughed, but it was forced. Sjoerd finished rolling the joint, and I’ve rarely needed one like I did then.

We sat in our little circle, 2 brown faces, 2 white ones, smoking what ended up being pretty awful weed. Actually, I don’t know to be honest – most of the marijuana high is your own perception of it, and right at that moment I wasn’t in any mood to be spacey and get lost in my own head. Instead, all I felt was wariness and fear – this was not a good situation. “When you are in a bad situation, change it. Take control – they have a plan, so get away from it.” Juan Carlos’ words, delivered to a frightened Peace Corps training class came bubbling up out of my subconscious. I felt the knife in my front right pocket, its weight suddenly magnified – but could I use it, even if I had to? Better not to find out.

“Hey guys, we really need to get going,” I said, “and we need some food before we go. Do you know a good cheap comedor or restaurant around here?” Change.

“Yeah,” Sjoerd chimed in, “I’m really hungry, lets do that.” Awesome wingman, this guy.

Vlad and Mynameisdavid shared a look, and even though it lasted an instant, the message was pretty unmistakable – Fuck, this isn’t going as we wanted. Good, I thought, exactly what we were going for.

After tramping back out of the same neighborhood, enduring the same warning yet scared looks of the families alongside the road, we were on the main road. Here I fucked up again – we could have turned right, walked along the busy main road straight to the highway, hitched a ride, and gotten the fuck out of dodge. We actually started doing this, but as we were saying goodbyes Vlad pointed out that we’d come from that direction and we hadn’t passed any comedores on the way in. It was true, and we were hungry – after a few second’s hesitation we turned left and put ourselves back at the mercy of 2 guys who quite definitely had bad intentions for us. Fuck. However, Vlad did give away part of the game here, telling us that the bus station was ahead of us, right near the center of town – it really pays off to listen to what information people let slip.

A few hundred meters down the road we got to a central plaza, a statue set in the middle of the road that cars had to swerve around – a great strategy, Sjoerd pointed out, for dealing with the problem of drunk drivers. The statue’s base had the marks to back that statement up. We circled around it, and ahead of us on the right was a little unnamed restaurant. The family that owned it was sitting out front, and we received a welcome that would have sent paint peeling back to wherever it had come from. “I know, I know, we’re in shitty company,” I wanted to respond, but couldn’t for obvious reasons. Going up the front steps, I headed into – well, I walked straight into this family’s living room and grandma – why does everyone do that here? The restaurant was apparently confined to the 2 small tables on the front porch, so I gave my best “yeah, I’m a dumb white person” grin and headed back out. Sjoerd was already seated, everyone laughed, just another of my bonehead moves. And so we sat down, alternating natives and gringos, around 3 sides of a small wooden table with a tired tablecloth and an even more tired jar of pickled onions in the center. It was awkward at best – really it was uncomfortable because none of the 4 of us wanted to be there, at least not together. Sjoerd and I were pretty happy about sitting down to eat, but not with 2 guys who had obviously malicious intentions, and they didn’t want to be sitting in public with 2 guys whom they couldn’t exactly rob or mess with in front of a whole family – thus, awkward. It was good though, because it gave us time to think, to plan, to change the situation more – time is almost always your friend when you’re trying to get out of a bad decision or five.

We ordered the cheapest plates on the menu, had a quick english conversation about offering our friends something to eat as well, and thus possibly get on their better side, but decided against it on the grounds that we’re totally broke – we offered them drinks anyway. Then, while Vlad sulked, sipped a coke, and stared off into the distance and Mynameisdavid wore my sunglasses and hollered and whistled at every girl between 11 and 35 who walked by, we ate some very dry but flavorful beef, rice, and beans. I would probably have liked it quite a bit, if not for the circumstances. We ate slowly, enduring the obvious impatience and uncomfort of our companions and the malevolent stares of our hosts, while sharing the looks of 2 prisoners resigned to prolonging their last meal as long as possible – ought to note that nobody ate the poisonous-looking pickled onions. At the end of it all, we reluctantly set aside our plates, paid, and got ready to left. I didn’t see it, but Sjoerd told me later that as we were walking out he saw the grandmother of the family crossing herself as we left – it really was that sketchy.

Leaving, my mind was going crazy – how can I change this situation? How can we get out of here without getting robbed or shot? Why in the fuck did I bring my laptop? Is this going to end up being my regrettable adventure? How do I even write this story? All of this was rolling through my head as we headed back toward the highway, and as I searched desperately for a way out. My chance came suddenly, and I have my Peace Corps teachers to thank for my quick reaction. We walked along the main road into town, 4 lanes wide, busy like Sjoerd’s mouth on free blowjob day. There appeared a gap all of a sudden, a few seconds wide at best, between the oncoming traffic, and we took it. I looked at Sjoerd, he looked at me, and we stepped quickly across the street to the center median – it worked partially – Vlad, who had been ahead of us, was caught unaware and left stranded on the far side of the road. Unfortunately Mynameisdavid had seen our move and followed us, and was trying frantically to signal at Vlad, who kept walking down the sidewalk without noticing what had happened behind him. About now was when Mynameisdavid began to get more explicit – first telling us that we owed them a gift for their company, then after I declined that, that we would regret not giving them what they wanted. “Remember what we did for you?” he kept asking, “We know strong people. You don’t want us to get them.”

I was very much in agreement with that statement – I didn’t want him to get anyone, nor did I want to spend much more time with Mynameisdavid. Sjoerd and I started talking in English about this point, about how we really hoped that a bus would pass already. I kept stealing glances over at Vlad, telling Mynameisdavid that no, I would not pay him even 50 Cordobas apiece for their company, and walking rapidly toward the highway. I’m honestly not sure what Sjoerd was doing at this point – my attention was elsewhere, the heady adrenaline rush of imminent danger pounded in my temples, and all I know is that he was beside me and in no worse (or better) situation then I. We shared a few looks as we walked – we wer both scared, but determined to not give in to a pair of petty blackmailers, especially when one of them was across a very busy, very wide road and the other was a foot shorter then I. Then a couple things happened at once: first, in what I would quickly list as among the most awful moments of my life, I caught Vlad out of the corner of my eye finally notice that we weren’t behind him and run to the road’s edge. The second more then made up for it however, because the next thing that happened was that a bus finally showed up behind us. “Sjoerd, there’s our ride!” I yelled over Mynameisdavid’s whistling, 4 lanes of cars rumbling and honking, and the sounds of the busy city. We stopped at the road’s edge, reversed directions, and waved like idiots at the approaching bus. Vlad, now realizing what we were about to pull, dodged out into traffic, but only made it one lane before narrowly avoiding getting his ass ran over by a bus – he was stuck between the dense-but-fast traffic, and I smirked a little – this might actually work out!

We jumped up onto the bus before it had stopped moving, and the driver pushed back out into traffic. I heard Mynameisdavid yelling and whistling, but he didn’t climb into the bus, for whatever reason – perhaps he couldn’t pay the fare, or maybe it had become too public a scene for him. Regardless, we’d made it, at least partly. There was always the chance that Vlad and his friends would follow us in a car, catch up to us, and beat us senseless or shoot our gringo asses – thoughts like this wove their way into my brain until I couldn’t shake them loose – Sjoerd’s too I imagine, because we both sat facing the aisle, packs still on, ready to bolt if need be. Still, as we rode down the main road out of town, it started to dawn on us that we’d dodged that particular bullet, and that we’d be safe to make bad decisions another day. Hit the highway, paid our fare, and hopped out – only one last thing to do. We needed a ride and fast, and so it was thumbs out at a brisk walk, and we headed south toward León. I kept looking into the cars that passed, expecting to see a huge muscled guy with pigtails any second, but nobody fit the description.

A few minutes on, a grey Toyota pickup passed us, then 50 meters down the road braked and swerved over. Sjoerd and I looked at each other – well, is it them? – passed unspoken. We shrugged, ran down toward the truck. The adrenaline began seeping out again, the heady rush overpowering. I skidded to a stop at the blackout-tinted driver’s window, which wasn’t rolled down. Fuck, it’s them! – No, it wasn’t, just a kindly male face, wrinkled around the eyes from a lifetime smiling, and his similar-age wife beside him. I asked if we could get a ride to León, they offered us one gladly, and off we went – suck it drug pushers, we’re gone! Wind in our hair, packs in a pile, we finally started to loosen up, laugh even.

“What a ridiculous, insane, idiotic adventure that was!”

“Can you believe what we just did?”

“God, I thought they were going to jump us!”

“Why didn’t we just leave?”

“Man, good thing we got them high – that could have sucked if they had reacted properly.”

“Yeah, that was a good practice run, with bad criminals instead of good ones.”

“Lets be more careful next time.”

“Agreed.”

And onward we drove, sun slowly setting, road unwinding before and behind, volcanoes in the distance, and Chichigalpa fading into the distance. I still don’t know if the name is really Chichigalpa, but I do know one thing – we aren’t allowed back there, Sjoerd and I. We burned that bridge to the ground the second we went in, bought drugs, and fucked over the pusher – our name is mud with all the wrong sorts of people. No matter, we learned a bit about ourselves, our ability to cope with bad situations, and came out alright and more knowledgeable. Experience, some say, comes from having made bad decisions in the past and learned from them. If that’s the case, I’ve gotten a whole lot of experience from this little adventure. The moral? What moral? I was doing something illegal, dealing with shady people, and made a whole lot of bad decisions followed by a few choice good ones. Keep your head on straight and your eyes open might be one. Don’t buy pot in Nicaragua might be another. It all depends on your point of view and what you’re aiming to do. Take this story as you may, and may it help you out someday.

Vemos! -k

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3 Responses to “A Series of Small Mistakes Culminating in My Fleeing From Drug Dealers”

  1. AK Says:

    Wow. I really can’t say more than that.

    Well written too, by the way.


  2. […] is always appreciated to those of us who travel without plans.  A few hours later, after being chased around by drug dealers in Chichigalpa, we skidded into Leon after dark and without many other options, stayed the night. […]


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