I'm sitting in the back seat of a taxi in Nicaragua with my beloved beside me. There are five other people in the taxi with us, three of them squashing us, holding us down in the back. A man is reaching around Rachel, jabbing me in the neck with a knife, not hard enough to break the skin but enough to leave a mark and let us know they're willing to hurt us. They're shouting, "solo money", only money, slapping us, pushing our heads back into the seat. They are managing to frighten us.
About half an hour beforehand we jumped on a bus in Granada, heading north to Masaya Market. We only had a couple of days left in Central America, and we planned to buy gifts for family and friends. The local buses have been great so far, friendly people, cheap fares, and a view of what might count as real life in Nicaragua.
A guy behind us tried to make conversation. I'll call him Limpy, since later we see he has a limp. His English is probably worse than our Spanish, which is hard to imagine, but adding in some sign language we managed to communicate a little. He told us that this bus doesn't go straight to the market, but he's going there so he'll show us the way. We were actually on a smaller "Express" bus, a big minivan, a kind we haven't taken before, so this seemed plausible.
The bus dropped us by the side of the road and we caught another, this time one of the more familiar chicken buses. This is a local bus, Limpy said, that will take us close to the market. A big, friendly woman who was already on the bus confirms it, and says she's going as well. The ticket guy couldn't change our 200 cordoba note, and Limpy paid the 5 cordoba fare for each of us. It's very little money but a kind gesture. I had the same thing happen to me when I was in Iran.
Eventually, Limpy asked the driver to stop, and Rachel and I got off with him and Friendly Woman, and a couple of other people. Apparently it's now just a short walk to the market. As we walked, Rachel had a chat with a woman who introduced herself as Helena. They walked ahead of me, and Limpy walked slightly behind me, silently. I tried to listen to Rachel and Helena's conversation.
After a short time, Limpy started excitedly saying that the four of us could share a taxi right to the market for just 5 cordobas each. We'd found some change, and tried to repay him for the bus, but he indicated he'd be happy if we just take the taxi with him. It didn't sound like a terrible idea, so he flagged down a passing taxi and the four of us got in. Driving down the road a bit further, we stopped and Friendly Woman and Knife Guy jumped on top of us and the world erupted in sound and fury.
Anyone who's done much travel would have been shaking their head for at least a couple of paragraphs. Why did we get off the buses? Why didn't we ask a bus driver or ticket guy if this was the right way to the market? Why did we trust these complete strangers? All good questions, and I've asked myself many times since. Besides the fact that there always seemed to be someone else with Limpy confirming what he said, I think we'd been lulled into a false sense of security by a safe couple of weeks in Costa Rica, and the few stops we'd had in Nicaragua; relatively safe places, San Juan del Sur, Ometepe, Granada. We simply let our guard down.
They drove up and down the highway, turning around at what felt like roundabouts, going through our stuff. Shouting, slapping, jabbing with the knife, forcing our eyes shut, a bit more shouting and slapping. Once they found our credit cards the game changed to shouting demands for our PINs. They seemed to believe me when I told them Rachel's card didn't have a PIN, it was just a credit card, so they concentrated on mine. Say it, write it, say it in Spanish, type it into a mobile phone, I suppose to make sure it was the same every time, that I wasn't lying.
Rachel was even more squashed in than me, with Helena sitting on top of her, and Limpy holding a knife at her hand, threatening to cut her if we didn't cooperate. The windows were all wound up, and it was hot. Confined spaces are never great for Rachel and, unsurprisingly, she had a panic attack. They could see something was wrong, and thankfully we knew the word for drugs from warning posters in airports, and we managed to find Rachel's drugs in her bag.
Satisfied I'd told them the right PIN, they dropped Helena off at an ATM and continued driving up and down the road. I actually hoped she'd be able to get money out, as I thought that would increase the chances of them releasing us, but when they picked her up again the shouting and slapping started again in earnest. No money. I suspect the problem was that the card was a MasterCard, which only works in one bank's ATMs, but I didn't think of that at the time. I was saying in English things along the lines of, "I swear that's the right PIN, and there's money in there." Of course, they couldn't understand me at all, but I think they believed I was earnest.
Then things quietened down. They'd given up, time up. We'd been driving up and down for less than half an hour, but it seemed much longer. Not so much slapping and shouting, but still making us close our eyes, they started to drive us down a small dirt road. We were both thinking, either they're going to let us go now, or they're going to kill us. Rachel was convinced it was the latter, I was pretty sure it was the former, and was trying to find out from Friendly Woman what was going on. I caught some of what she was saying. "Camina," I think she said, you walk. "Salida Nicaragua," leave Nicaragua. "Disculpe, nino infirme," sorry, sick baby. She then slipped Rachel enough money to get a bus back to Granada. Maybe Rachel's panic attack had helped.
They stopped the taxi and dumped us out. Of course, they took our cameras and cash, and anything else of real value. Bizarrely, in addition to the cash, they gave us back our bags and Rachel's credit card, but they kept her art materials and a bracelet made of bone Mahjong tiles that we'd bought in Shanghai.
The further away from the incident I get, the more it just seems bizarre. It's good to be alive, and when we have bad travel experiences in the future we can say, "It's not as bad as the Nicaragua Incident."