Out of the Fire, Into Managua

By Gabriel Castillo, KF11 Nicaragua

At 6am I was in Guatemala, a few hundred meters from the border with El Salvador. Later, crossed the borders into El Salvador and Honduras. It is now 10pm and I have made my way into Nicaragua. My final destination is just under 4 hours from here, in the Nicaraguan Capital of Managua.

Just a few weeks ago I was in San Francisco, California training to be a Kiva Fellow. Now, It has been 10 days and 3,500 miles since I set out, on motorcycle, from San Francisco, to start my placement as a Kiva Fellow in Nicaragua.

It is Wednesday night and everyone at the Nicaraguan border, from the agent selling vehicle insurance, to the lady selling cell phone credits, to the official stamping my passport, to the truck drivers waiting in line, is warning me of the dangers in driving to Managua tonight.

They warn me of the assaults and the robberies. They tell me of the road blocks and how bandits fell trees and litter the road with rocks, or even light the road on fire in order to distract driver’s and force them to stop. They warn me that whatever I do, if I decide to continue tonight, then I better not stop until I make it into Managua.

They all recommend that I find a safe hotel to sleep in and to store my bike for the night. But I’m tired of being on the road and I’ve got my mind set on making it to Managua tonight.

It was 10:30pm when I pulled out from the customs office and away from the Honduran border into Nicaragua. I was in the town of Guasaule and the night was lit only by the stars that hung from the sky like stickers in a child’s bedroom ceiling. I was on my motorcycle and slowly picking up speed as I gained more and more distance from town. Soon, I was flying down the narrow 2 lane highway at 70 mph.

I approach a bridge and I see a shadow on the road, taking form just off to the right. I tighten up but stay focused. As I approach the shadow it takes the form of a human being. I hope it’s just a drunk who stayed out a little too late but tonight I can’t stop to check on him and find out. I keep going.

Eventually, I come across animals sleeping in the road. In the dark, the flickering reflection of my headlights on the eyes of an iguana resembles a lit fuse, ready to explode. A few times I even have dogs jumping out at me from the dark. I wonder if it’s safer to go fast and avoid being caught by anyone or if it’s safer to slow down and avoid running into anything. I decide to slow down and play it safe.

On a few, rare occasions, vehicles merge onto the desolate road and I wonder if they plan on ambushing me. Their bright high-beams are blinding and block out what little I can see of the road. Eventually, however, they end up turning off the road and I am left alone again.

I am now nearly to Chinandega and although I am tired, I’ve got a non-stop rush of adrenaline that’s keeping me as alert as I’ve ever been. So much adrenaline, in fact, that I’m finding it hard to not drive too fast.

I remind myself to slow down and try to relax when a large obstacle suddenly appears in front of me! Out of instinct I swerve hard to my right. It was a horse! There was a horse in the middle of the highway! What the hell is a horse doing in the highway!

Breathe. Breathe. Breathe. Breathe, and don’t stop driving. I continue.

Eventually, I pass my first major town, Chinandega. Then, as I leave town, I see what is the weirdest thing of my entire trip. There is a large water tank for horses to drink out of on either side of the road and standing alongside each one is what seems to be a dead horse, standing still.

In the split second in which I am able to see them they appear to be covered in rotting skin, with black patches and burns all over and slithers of meat hanging from there carcasses. I shake my head. My imagination is getting the better of me but it serves to remind me that I need to hurry and stay alert.

Eventually, a large truck merges onto the highway in front of me and after 2 hours of being alone on this highway, I take relief in knowing that worst case scenario, any bandit would sooner pay attention to a large cargo truck than a small miserable motorcycle.

After 30 minutes we come to a turn in the road and my heart goes from incessant pounding to a complete stop: There is a giant fire burning in the middle of the road.

The truck slows as he proceeds to turn on his hazard lights. I try my best to stay calm and follow his lead. I slow to a stop as I turn on my hazards and I think to myself, “This is it! I should have listened!”
There are people, men and women, lining the side of the road yelling and arguing with machetes in their hands. Their shadows dance under the flames.

A woman then walks up towards me. She’s yelling something about not being treated like a human being as she angrily waves her machete. Eventually, I can make out some of what she is yelling. She’s saying something about the government kicking them off their land. Hysterically she tells me how their entire community has been evicted from their homes. On the verge of tears she screams that their children have been thrown to the streets to fend for themselves and their babies have nothing to eat or even a roof to cover their heads.

She blames it all on the mayor but says that until the problem is fixed, no-one will pass.

I stay on my bike and walk it forward, around the truck and towards the fire, while keeping my eyes on every single thing going on around me.

There is a group of men in front of the line with machetes in hand and hats and black bandanas to cover their faces. As I close in on them I wave my hand up and down as if asking for permission to pass. But none of them say anything.

I can hear comments from all around. People are complimenting me on my bike and asking me how much it costs, but I’m too nervous to know if they are being sincere or if I’m about to be robbed. I hear some laughing and then they begin to ask if they can ride it. I can’t make out who’s saying what but suddenly the leaders in the black bandanas start moving towards me.

I open my helmet and greet them. No response. I then ask if they could please let me pass. No response. My eyes hone in on their machetes and I wonder if they may have guns.

They are all nearly shoulder to shoulder and behind them I can see the blazes of the fire dancing in the night. From my left I hear someone quietly repeating, “Watch out, watch out, watch out.”

Then, the leaders break their shoulder to shoulder formation in order to make their way to the sides of my bike. At the split second when I noticed the formation break I slam the throttle.

My front tire comes up, off the ground and my steering wheel swings sideways. At the same time my rear tire spins for traction until it finally catches. Within seconds I am flying through the flames and past the blockade.

When I could finally think of more than just getting away I look in my mirrors to see the giant blaze of fire and its billows of smoke fading behind me. For the rest of the trip I never stop looking back to see if I am being followed. I keep telling myself, “just 2 more hours to go…If I could only make it to Managua I will be safe…if I could only make it to Managua this fellowship is going to be one hell of an experience.”

About the author

Gabriel Castillo

Gabriel worked 11 years as a field technician for AT&T, during which time he was involved with worker's rights and spent 5 years mobilizing and representing workers as Contractual Vice President with CWA in Oakland. After attaining a BS in Computer Science, and feeling the need for a new challenge, Gabriel left his job and backpacked across the US and Latin America for 18 months. During this time he took interest in various sustainable projects that were taking root in Central America, eventually deciding he wanted to take part in and learn more about microfinance, he applied for and was accepted to be a Kiva Fellow in Nicaragua. Gabriel's always had a passion for empowering the less fortunate, now, he's excited to pursue this passion by means of working with the Kiva engineering team and empowering Kiva's website.