There are stories that I don’t want to be able to tell and already we had written the first line of it. ‘We went for a walk alone at night on the beach in Nicaragua…’
The stars shown brightly in the clear moonless sky, but we took no notice. Unseen waves crashed on the shore to our left. Our own footsteps fell unheard one after another, after another, sinking into the wet sand, streaked with black volcanic ash. Our twenty minute walk out to the wave break to watch surfers in the setting sun seemed interminable upon returning. We felt foolish, realizing that we were making a classic traveler’s mistake. What in the day was a safe and active place became, in the night, an isolated place ideal for thieves to work their craft.
Ultimately nothing happened that night and we returned to our hostel with only a feeling of shame for our unjustified (if not unjustifiable) fear, and with a large black and white dog with a clipped tail who joined us on the beach and dutifully escorted us a good portion of the way. We were only too happy to have the company and who can say whether or not the presence of this canine did not give a would-be assailant second thoughts.
There are no safety guarantees on the road. But in reality one risks a good chance of getting mugged on the streets of San Francisco as well. We rely on our personal intuition. The warnings for Central America are nearly endless and if we heeded the first one, that fog of fear stirred up by so much news and entertainment, we would never have crossed our first border. But the closer we get a destination the more seriously we take new warnings so while the vague alert to the dangers of Nicaragua, we were apt to ignore, the admonition to avoid the dark beach, we try to obey.
Soon we will have passed through the most dangerous countries on the Pan-American route, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua; two of which compete for the infamous distinction of the murder capital of the world, all of which have endured the horrors of civil war within the lifetime of many citizens, and one that nearly erupted into war last fall. It isn’t always easy to parse out what threats are real and which are not, so we typically choose to err on the side of caution. We ask locals if there are any safety threats. Sometimes there aren’t but frequently they offer advice. In Guatemala we were warned about a stretch of road around Lake Atitlan that was prone to banditry, in El Salvador we were told not to walk to the waterfalls near Juayua without a guide to avoid getting robbed, and we were warned not to visit the market street at night in Granada, Nicaragua. We try to heed these warnings but nonetheless there have been a few occasions, like our unadvised late night stroll, when we questioned our security and raised our guard in response.
Most of the headline grabbing violence is part of the ongoing drug war and does not affect tourists. We accept on principle that most people wish us well and we typically find that to be the case. We are treated well wherever we stay. People occasionally stop us in the street to chat, practice their English, learned while living in the US, and ask us what we think of their country. They are pleased when we express our fondness and they are frank about the dangers that exist. When, riding through villages, we feel the somber stare of locals, we try to remember that we are the strange ones here, the disruptors of an otherwise unceasing rhythm of normality. We try to remember to wave, to offer a cheerful ‘buenos dias’. In response, we are often greeted with a grin and a wave.
It hasn’t been our safety that has defined our recent days but the sway of hammocks in a humid breeze, the size of the ocean swell, the rustling of palm leaves, hot sand, and cold rum. We rise with the morning sun and retire early, or we stay up late conversing with new friends, who, in spite of being only recently acquainted feel close, our relationship forged even before we met by the mythology of the road, dusty tracks, border crossings, digital maps, guidebooks, and our imagined Utopias just over the next hill or around the next outcropping of rocks. A paradise somewhere in the beyond and not back there in the comfort and security we have, for a time, left behind.
We will soon depart again, each following that dusty, potholed road until our money dries up, our vehicle gasps its last breath, or finally, if we are lucky, we meet the end of the road. Yet even then, at the end of land itself, we continue onward along some other road towards the dark unknown, believing that we might harvest our fears and, like the alchemist turning lead to gold, transform them into freedom.