The agent began waving frantically, pointing to our jeep and yelling in Spanish. We looked at each other, waiting for one of us to magically learn the language.
‘What’s he saying?’ I was in the back and leaned forward to ask Sara and Rachel.
‘I dunno…’ Sara replied. She was driving today; yesterday had been Rachel’s turn. I, the non-driver of the group was relegated to the back, which ordinarily would make me feel super ill, but for some reason, my road sickness had yet to show itself. Rachel, on the other hand, had vomited off the side of a cliff the day before. I think it was a combination of the altitude, the winding mountains and a Blu Cantrell song on repeat that had been super catchy on hour 1, when we were in high spirits and calling ourselves the Road Trip Gals, but unbearable by hour 6. Hey ladies... when your man wanna get buck wild…
‘I think he’s pointing to the trunk,’ Sara said.
It was the second day of our journey from the Raleigh field base in Turrialba, Costa Rica to a small remote community in Nicaragua called Achuapa. And although we’d given ourselves a little nickname, officially, we were ‘The Loop’ – a team that meets up with various teams of 'Venturers', young adults who were on expeditions across the region. The car is packed with special treats for us to hand out, boxes of mail from friends and families, and some cash folks had requested we bring from the safe.
Yesterday, we’d met up with one trekking group in Monteverde, dropped off someone who needed to rejoin their group after a small injury, and then watched them disappear into the clouds. We were meant to spend that night at a campsite on a beach called Playa Junqillal, right on the western coast of Costa Rica, where one of our groups was clearing trails and building cooking stoves.
But while dealing with her nausea, Rachel had forgotten she was airing a funky tuna smell out of her rucksack on top of the jeep. When we remembered hours later, it had been pouring for quite some time, and her bag was soaked. Sara and I had quite the chuckle, but then saw she was crying, and clearly not in the mood to continue to the campsite. We all agreed to cut the journey short, and stay in Liberia instead. Afterwards, Rachel was embarrassed by it all, so begged us to tell field base that we’d gotten lost. That was infinitely more humiliating – we were teased about it for days.
But at least we were able to check into a nice hostel, have a wander around this lovely small city and eat at an Italian restaurant, an incredible treat after a diet of solely rice and beans.
When we showed up at Playa Junqillal the following day, the group was miffed. A visit from ‘The Loop’ is something a team looks forward to all phase. Imagine eating shitty crackers and Marmite for 2 weeks, waiting for a chocolate bar to show up. I’d be pissed too so didn’t dare tell them about that pizza.
We took some photos, toured their environmental projects, and handed out some cookies and candies, but quickly had to hit the road. The deadline for us to reach Achuapa was that very day. This little village randomly hosts an international music festival and a few Raleigh Venturer groups would be performing. Rachel was the official expedition photographer so we couldn’t miss it.
After a quick stop at the gas station, we made our way seamlessly to the chaotic border. Raleigh expeditions have crossed it so many times, there are step by step directions on how to get across. Through the hordes of people, we spot the right lines and queue up with our forms, fees, and passports at the ready.
But instead of getting stamped, we jump out of the jeep to see why this guy is waving and pointing at our trunk. We soon see it's open. And mostly empty.
The bustle of the border goes silent as we stare wordlessly into the back of the car.
I frantically begin pushing the few remaining items around, trying to see what’s missing. My rucksack is there. Rachel’s empty bag is strapped to the roof to dry from yesterday’s downpour. She’d placed the contents in dry bags that are thankfully still strewn about the trunk.
But Sara’s entire rucksack. Gone
All of the chocolates. Gone.
A box of the precious letters from home, envelopes of cash and an iPod. All Gone.
“We have to go back,” I say. “Maybe someone left the trunk open. Maybe everything bounced out. We have to go see.”
“I didn’t leave the trunk open,” Rachel and Sara say simultaneously. There’s a strict series of safety steps for checking the vehicle before driving off. Closing the trunk is one of them.
“Well I don’t know… maybe it was me. I don’t know… but we can’t go on without trying to find everybody’s stuff! This is crazy! We just can’t.”
We pile back into the car, and turn around, carefully navigating our way out of the mayhem. Finally, back on the road, we carefully retrace our journey, looking in ditches, searching for any sign of a Costa Rican eating a Snickers bar and wearing a Raleigh t-shirt or a pair of Sara’s underpants.
And find nothing.
At this stage, it becomes clear to me what’s happened.
We were obviously robbed.
I start excitedly tapping the front seat. “Ohhhhh remember, remember… that guy at the gas station was so friendly. Like unreasonably friendly,” I recall.
“Yessssss,” Sara says. “He must have been distracting us!!! While someone else was stealing all of our shit out the back!!”
“Ohmygod yesss… yesssssss!!” Sara and I are in full agreement that we have been the victims of a gas station rucksack robbery ring. Rachel is just watching us with zero energy or desire to be the voice of reason.
We pull the jeep into the gas station and, in very poor, basically nonexistent Spanish, accuse an employee of theft with zero evidence. The explanation consists of an amazing skit, where (as the brown one amongst the Road Trip Gals), I play the role of the thieving gas attendant.
The owner disinterestedly shrugs, “No entiendo.”
“Sure you don’t! How convenient that you don’t speak English! What sort of operation are you running here preying on innocent women, stealing our t-shirts and chocolates?!” I’m waving my arms in full-blown hysterics.
Shrugs. “No entiendo.”
Suddenly, Sara spots an opportunely placed police station across the street.
She points. “We are going over there to file a report!”
Ninety minutes later we’ve filed a report that says our items have been stolen, or lost, or possibly both, and the super pleasant gas attendant at the station may or may not have had something or everything to do with it.
We had zero hope they’d investigate.
The car ride back to the border was glum. We once again get into the correct lines, with our passports, forms and fees. Everything gets stamped. They instruct us to roll up all the windows so they can spray the car down with pesticide. And we trundle across the border into Nicaragua and drive quietly for a few hours.
The Loop is now basically a day behind schedule, and night is fast approaching. We aren’t going to make it to Achuapa today. Our Lonely Planet guide says the nearest town is a few miles away, and while the narrative doesn’t seem overly thrilled about the place, there seems to be some decent hostels.
Anyway what other options do we have?
Sara has no clothes or toiletries. Rachel realises that her rucksack was STILL strapped to the trunk so now it’s been sprayed with pesticide. Everyone feels awful about the lost mail and money and chocolates. Plus, like I said. It’s nighttime. And Raleigh rules prevent driving in the dark.
We have to stop, so turn off towards Tipitapa, which we immediately see is pretty fucking grim. Nice.
After checking into a clean-enough hostel, we walk around the streets, trying to find stores for Sara to replenish her supplies. We pop into a ‘farmacia’ for a toothbrush and soap, then locate a little clothing shop, nothing fancy, but they require you to leave all your purses at the front and the security guard at the door has a giant AK 47. She quickly buys a package of underwear, some shorts and a couple t-shirts and gets the heck out of there.
Walking back to the hostel, I look at the map in the guide and notice that Lonely Planet feels the ‘best Mexican restaurant in Nicaragua’ is in this town, just five or six blocks away.
“Guys! Let’s go have dinner! The best Mexican restaurant in all of Nicaragua is right here … how cool is that?!” I look up at them excitedly.
There’s a long pause.
“Are you insane?” Sara asks. “You aren’t knackered?”
“Yeah a bit,” I concede, “but, this is so random. We’ll never be in this town ever again. Let’s go.”
Rachel is staring at me like I have just asked her to strip naked and run through the streets of Tipitapa, and shakes her head. “I’m not going. I’m not even hungry. I’m tired. I’m … I’m done.”
Sara agrees. “Yeah… I’m going back.”
“Okay.” I sigh, disappointed, and start to say they’re right. It’s been a long stressful day and we should all go back to the hostel and turn in. Then I realize: the only way I will feel better about this shit fuck of a day, is to go to the best Mexican restaurant in Nicaragua.
“Actually, I think I’m going to go.”
“By yourself?” Sara exclaims. “I don’t think that’s even allowed. This place seems dangerous. We probably have to stay together.”
“I know. I know but… I can’t explain it. I have to go. I’m going.”
They look at each other. By this stage, they have known me about 4 days. As the head of Raleigh in Bermuda, I’ve come to visit the expedition, check in on my Venturers, and then go on my merry way. I’m only there for 2 weeks. Sara and Rachel have already been there for 8 weeks and have 6 more to go.
Technically, they could have pulled rank and told me to stop fucking about. But exhaustion had led to complacency. And like I said, while we had bonded over the last couple days, they didn’t really know me, so were likely thinking ‘if this bitch wants to die alone on a dark Nicaraguan alley, that’s her choice.’
Shrugging they say, “Okay. Be safe,” and turn away.
I consult the map and start walking quickly towards the famous eatery, but see someone staring and think my fast gait is making me stand out, so I slow down. Then I remember. "Kristin, you have on bright orange Crocs with a pink scarf tied around your head...you already stand out.” Picking back up the pace, I start to sing under my breath, a surefire sign that I’m terrified. Hey ladies… when your man wanna get buck wild.
Just as I turn onto the last block, the entire town goes black.
I keep walking, and quickly check my pockets for a head torch. Nope.
I stop and put my back up against the wall, eyes wide as I gaze into darkness. Should I go back? Power outages are common though. It’s probably fine. But maybe the criminals wait for just these moments to rob and pillage. Are those gunshots? Maybe it’s a celebration. Don’t people shoot guns in the air when it’s a celebration? It’s probably a fun wedding or something. Those dogs are barking a lot. Is that someone screaming? I’m going back. This is stupid.
I’ve just about talked myself out of continuing on, when up ahead inside a window, I see someone putting candles on a table.
I walk up a few stairs into a small dim space with bright coloured chairs, and ask if they are still open.
They sit me, one of the only people there, at a long table right in the middle and hand me a menu. Using candlelight, I struggle-translate the info about their platters and point to one asking, “para una persona o para dos personas?” They assure me it’s for one person.
I nod. “Si… por favor.”
In 15 minutes a giant platter comes towards me, filled with bowls of sautéed beef and chicken, rice and beans, cheese, sour cream, guacamole, salsas and a stack of freshly made tortillas.
“Para una persona???”I laugh, for the first time all day.
“Si… Si… una persona.”
Over the next hour, I gleefully assemble fajitas by candlelight, savouring each one until, having barely made a dent, I was stuffed.
Towards the end of the meal, the power came back on. I walked calmly back to the hostel, rolling my eyes at how scared I’d been a few hours earlier. Sara and Rachel, freshly showered and in better spirits, wished they’d come along. “Was it really delicious?” they asked.
I smile. “Of course. It was the best Mexican restaurant in all of Nicaragua.”