Night of the Knives [NICARAGUA]

Patrick reflects on an unpleasant experience in Nicaragua, and how facing our fears can help us to grow as individuals.

Have you ever asked yourself, “What is my greatest fear?”

Is it spiders or dangerous animals? On the island of Newfoundland we’re fortunate to not have any creatures which we have to live in fear of, besides moose on the highways or a stray polar bear, while every day in Australia there’s the possibility of encountering something that can kill you. Maybe you have a fear of violent criminals who may step out of the dark and wish to do you harm – certainly a valid fear in some areas. Or, maybe you have a fear of flying? My first time on an airplane was definitely uncomfortable, however, my fourth time had me at the controls as I trained to be a pilot in the military. I quickly learned how safe flying actually was and grew to understand all the bumps and noises that you normally encounter during a flight. My favourite maneuver in an airplane became the ‘incipient spin’, in which you basically make the plane fall out of the sky, spinning towards the Earth – and then recover. Talk about an adrenaline rush!

So, what is your greatest fear? And if you think about it, ask yourself deeply and honestly, ‘Why? What is it about this that brings me to my knees?’ Because if you can answer this question you may find that you’ll start seeing life a little differently.

Facing the fear

For me it would be in Nicaragua, a little country in Central America, that I would come face to face with my greatest fear, and the challenge of overcoming it.

But before I get to Nicaragua, let me tell you a little bit about Central America as a whole. The area is extremely beautiful with lush jungles, sandy beaches and so many volcanoes that as soon as you leave the sight of one, you come upon another. Monkeys and many species of birds fill the forests while crocodiles, and sometimes even manatees (sea cows), fill the rivers. The food is bland when compared to Mexico and the staples are rice, beans, plantains and chicken. If you’re a coffee drinker, which I am not, you’re in heaven. With volcanic soil literally everywhere, coffee beans grow throughout the region and the freshest cups of coffee are the norm.

San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua. Photo by Patrick Whelan.

However, the area is still extremely poor. Though this may be good for a traveler – it means everything is extremely cheap – it also means that there is a lot of crime. The Mexican drug cartels operate all throughout the area and Central American cities have among the highest murder rates in the world. I had to always be in before dark (which was 6 p.m. at the time), only take taxis arranged by the hotel or hostel, and never stray far from touristic areas unless with a guide. By touristic areas I don’t mean resorts, just areas of the town or city where there are restaurants, bars, hostels and a greater police presence.

Traveling through Guatemala and Honduras I actually did have many situations where I had to fear for my life, and I never really felt comfortable there as I had to live a very strict and regimented existence, never really getting to relax and enjoy the beauty and culture of the area. But, upon arriving in Nicaragua, I felt like a veil had been lifted and the dirt and danger of Guatemala and Honduras had disappeared. With its clean and colourful colonial cities, like Granada and San Juan del Sur, and the sparsely populated island of Ometepe which houses two volcanoes, Nicaragua felt more safe and sleepy than my previous locations, despite its history of civil war and crime. However, taking this opportunity to let my guard down would lead me to a confrontation with my greatest fear.

San Juan del Sur is a sleepy little seaside village on the west coast of Nicaragua with a large statue of Jesus overlooking the town from a cliff on the northern tip of its C-shaped bay. That day, myself and nine others went to play paintball in the jungle. After a great day of exercise and adrenaline, three of the girls – Jen, Janell and Angie – said they’d like to walk up to the statue of Jesus to see the sunset beyond and asked me to come along. Besides wanting to see the sight for myself I also didn’t want them going alone, so we began the walk at 5 p.m. to catch the 6 p.m. sunset. To get there we had to leave the normal touristic area of town and found ourselves walking through dusty back alleys, greeted by somewhat hostile stares from the locals. Eventually we reached the gated neighbourhood which housed the statue and we began to feel safe again. The summit did not disappoint. With panoramic views over the town as well as the Pacific sunset beyond, it seemed like the perfect end to the perfect day. The others actually said that I was ruining the moment when I suggested that we leave before it got too dark. So we lingered and told tales of what brought us all to be here, and we all felt very much at peace when we left – in the pitch dark – to head back down the hill.

Danger in the dark

Not five minutes after leaving the statue, while still in the gated community, we came upon three harmless looking teenagers. We didn’t pay them any attention and they eventually passed us by. What followed can only be described as confusion. I heard a shriek from one of the girls and my first thought was that she recognized one of them as a friend she had made before meeting me – it was that kind of shriek. Then a relatively small guy came up and grabbed me – he had taken his shirt off and was trying to cover my face with it. Again: confusion. I started to push him away and as I did I glanced back to the girls and that’s when I saw the 9-inch blades at their necks. Immediately my arms flew up in the international sign of surrender. All the strength left my legs and when he pushed his shirt in my face and again I fell backward on the ground, which only served to send the girls further into shock, thinking that I had been stabbed.

As I lay on my back, because of the position I was in, it took the boy a seemingly long time to wrestle the iPhone out of my pocket. Because of that he never bothered to go after the camera and wallet in my other pocket. As he got up and ran away I noticed that the other guys were nowhere to be seen: they had just grabbed the women’s purses and run, leaving the small, possibly unarmed boy on top of me with the three girls in shock looking on.

When I got up I was made sure everybody was okay and tried to comfort them and get them out of there as soon as possible. One of the guys had even taken one of Jen’s sandals – just one – so she had to walk lopsided down the hill. When we got to the gate of the community we tried to tell the guard what had happened and he kept insisting that he should get his friend to come with a motorcycle and one of us would go with him to find our attackers. This sounded even sketchier than the attack in the first place and I refused to let any of the girls out of my sight. With frustration mounting, we eventually gave up on the guard and started back towards town. Fortunately, just a few steps away, there was a little café owned by an elderly German couple. They took pity on us and the man gave us a ride to the police station.

Photo by Patrick Whelan.
The twin volcanoes of Ometepe Island, Nicaragua. Photo by Patrick Whelan.

Upon arriving at the station we met several other groups of foreigners, all similarly attacked that night. One girl was lying on the beach while her friends played in the waves, and when she opened her eyes there was a guy with a knee on her chest and a hand over her mouth while his friends gathered up her belongings. Another girl, who was visibly very fit, was walking the street just one block from our hostel and was knocked unconscious as her attackers didn’t want to take any chances with her. We all agreed that the hours we were spending at the police station were most likely a waste of time as the police officers didn’t seem interested in doing much work – though they did make sure to give us our police reports for insurance purposes.

During our time waiting in the police station, still registering what had just happened, we bonded as a group and did some soul searching. Janell decided to cut her trip short by a couple of weeks and head back to the U.S. while Angie and Jen decided that they wouldn’t travel alone for the next little while and would accompany me to Costa Rica, where I planned to flee Central America and its constant threat of danger, to Buenos Aires in Argentina.

My only thoughts were on what had happened and how useless and helpless I had felt. Everybody would tell me that I did the right thing, and of course I knew that as well, but I just couldn’t let go of the feeling, and it would come to haunt me for months. For the first few weeks I dreamed about the ordeal and would wake with my head raised off the pillow as my entire body tensed up. It wasn’t the personal danger that had me so angry and frustrated, but rather having witnessed the danger to people I was determined to protect and being completely unable to help them. It was this powerlessness, this impotence, that would teach me about fear.

As with any feeling that affects us in life it always helps to ask, ‘Why do I feel this way?’ And it’s these ‘why’s’ that help us to learn about who we are as people. It was many ‘why’s’ that led me to realize that the most important thing to me is helping and protecting others, but also that in order to do so I must be better prepared. Sure, in this situation doing nothing was the best option, but every situation will be different and we want to be ready for anything.

Another ‘why’ I asked myself was, ‘Why am I letting something affect me that I cannot change?’ The lost sleep, the anger, the frustration – they serve their purpose as reminders that we have lessons to learn and ways in which to improve ourselves. But once we have taken all we can from the situation, the negative feelings will do nothing but harm us and it’s much to our benefit to learn to just let them go. As you can imagine, three years of traveling through developing countries would lead to many unpleasant situations. But it was this last lesson which got me through it all and allowed me to enjoy my time and the people I met, and I will continue to maintain my happiness throughout this adventure we call ‘life’.

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