By Eric Anderson
As the panga roared away from the dock and into the humid twilight of Laguna de Perlas, Tonia, Whitney, and I waved goodbye to Mr. Fred and the partiers at Hotel Casa Ulrich, his beachfront restaurant where we’d spent the afternoon eating fresh seafood, dancing to Caribbean music, and playing a made-up volleyball-soccer hybrid game straight out of childhood – only better now, because we could drink beer.
The party animal in me wished we’d taken Mr. Fred up on his offer to stay the night at his hotel so the fun could go on. But we had to get back to Casa Rosa, our hotel in Bluefields, before nightfall. The next day, we’d arranged to visit the Pearl Cays, a snorkeling and diving destination with clear waters and abundant marine life. To get there, however, we needed our passports, and Whitney and I had left those at Casa Rosa. So we would come back this way tomorrow morning, which was pretty okay, too, because it meant we’d get a couple more panga rides up and down the stunning Kukra River (watch documentary) that connected Laguna de Perlas and Bluefields.
Warm breeze in our hair, cold beers in our hands, it was a fantastic ride.
“I could do this all day,” Tonia had said on the way over.
Now, sitting near the bow of the boat, I directed my camera at the passing shoreline and brought into focus a green-grey blur of palm trees and foliage, the leaves fat and wet from the light afternoon rains, broken only by a sporadic flash of color in the decorated fishing boats, tin-roof huts, and laundry lines of an indigenous village. Orlando, our driver from Casa Rosa’s Rumble in the Jungle, had selected the biggest, fastest panga – with a 200hp outboard motor – at Casa Rosa because it could make the winding 30 mile trip between Bluefields and Laguna de Perlas in 50 minutes, and because it had room for his brother, friend, and girlfriend. As we traveled further, the distance between each village became greater. Soon, we would cruise down the throat of the Kukra River, and the jungle would close in around us.
I was about to start recording when the panga came to a sudden, jolting stop in the middle of the lagoon, throwing me against the bench hard enough to briefly knock the breath out of me. The cooler we’d stocked that morning with Toña beers and bottled water slid into the bench Whitney was sitting on. Jicaro, a skinny 17-year-old boy, had been sitting on the bow but was now on the floor of the boat. I rose, unhurt but unsteady, and looked over him to see what we’d hit.
There was nothing. Just open water.
I turned to Tonia and Whitney, searching their faces for what had happened, only to hear the answer a moment later in the wa-wa-wa-wa-wa of an engine refusing to start as Orlando turned the ignition.
Wa-wa-wa-wa-wa. Wa-wa-wa-wa-wa. Wa-wa-wa-wa-wa-wa-wa-wa-wa-wa-wa-wa-wa –
As Orlando tried and failed to start the engine, Tonia gave me a knowing smile. “Didn’t I tell you we’d have an adventure?” she said.
Before coming to Nicaragua for the Finding Corte Magore Project, she had promised me an adventure. With a week of experiential tourism offerings involving filming the 29-acre island of Corte Magore on Hog Cay, meeting with the Campbell family (the island’s owners and Finding Corte Magore’s partners), and exploring an eco-farm, Bluefields nightlife, restaurants, casinos, and surrounding areas like Laguna de Perlas, I had no doubt an adventure would happen. I did not, however, expect it on day two, and frankly wasn’t convinced a minor mechanical hiccup qualified. Everything we’d done today had gone off without a hitch, and I was pretty sure the boat would start back up in a second…
Frowning, Orlando raised the engine from the water so he and his friend, a large guy in a Boston Red Sox hat, could examine it.
We waited, bobbing listlessly in the middle of the lagoon.
That sound was starting to get on my nerves.
Tonia dug out her iPhone.
“Who are you calling?” Whitney asked.
“I’m going to ask Mr. Fred to tow us back,” she said. “I worked at a marina in Indiana. I know what a broken engine sounds like.”
Mr. Fred had given her his number just before we left and told her to call anytime. He would have a good laugh at this one, I thought. Mr. Fred had offered several times to accommodate us for the night, and, when we’d declined because we didn’t have our passports, offered us use of the showers and a change of clothes and, when we’d declined that, suggested we at least stay for one more round of beers. “You must have work to get back to,” Tonia had said. “We never work on Saturdays,” Mr. Fred said with a smile. Now here we were, about to take Mr. Fred up on all of his hospitality after all.
“He didn’t pick up?” I asked.
“The call’s not going through.” She dialed again. Again, the call didn’t go through. “How do you make local calls?”
There were seven of us on the boat, but we couldn’t figure it out. Orlando gave Tonia his phone and this time, the call went through. But Mr. Fred didn’t pick up. Tonia dialed him again. Again, Mr. Fred didn’t pick up. Tonia left a voicemail, explaining the situation and asking Mr. Fred for a ride back.
“So much for calling him any time,” she said, jokingly.
“They’re probably still partying,” Whitney said.
“Okay so we need to call the restaurant itself.” No one had the number to the restaurant. Back on her iPhone, Tonia googled Casa Ulrich, but the connection was slow. We waited, silently, as the webpage loaded and she got the number. Using Orlando’s phone now, she dialed.
No one picked up at the restaurant either.
At least for now, Casa Ulrich was a dead end.
Orlando called Casa Rosa in Bluefields. Someone picked up, but that didn’t do us any good. Randy and Rosa, the owners, were gone for the week on a fishing trip. Casa Rosa had several spare pangas, but everyone who worked there who could operate one had taken a vacation day to come on this boat with us… this boat that was stranded in the middle of a lagoon with a busted engine, a long way from home, without any help on the way.
I had to smile at how fitting it was that we’d found ourselves living out a textbook opening to a horror movie. When I’d first met Tonia on a flight from LA to Chicago, I was working as a script reader at a horror film company and was all too familiar with the scenario we found ourselves in now. A group of tourists spend the day living it up in paradise. Just when they think nothing can go wrong, they get stranded in the wilderness. They have no cell reception, but one of their cameras is conveniently still going and catches every moment in trendy shakycam as a monster rises from the muddy depths of the lagoon and tears them apart…
There were no monsters in the lagoon. There were, however, alligators. Baby alligators, Orlando had stressed. They couldn’t eat people… though I wondered whether whatever gave birth to these baby alligators could. Fred Jr., Mr. Fred’s son, had joked that there were anacondas. Tonia had joked there were piranhas. Everyone was a comedian when we were safely ashore.
Looming nightfall, however, was a more realistic challenge. I’d heard earlier that the only boats on the river at night were those of drug dealers, but even they rarely frequented the waters, given Nicaragua is the safest country in Latin America. By nightfall, we’d have to do watch rotations. We’d have to figure out a way to light-up the boat so no one crashed into us. We’d have to split, what, the five or six bottles of water left in the cooler? The beer would have to be rationed. Oh no!
Wa-wa-wa-wa-wa. Orlando tried one last time then shook his head, defeated.
“Battery,” he said. “Engine,” Tonia said.
So his friend proceeded to peel off his shirt, shorts, and Red Sox hat and jump into the water. He hadn’t expected the water to be so shallow and hit the bottom hard, tumbling over. For the first time since the boat stalled, we laughed. Jicaro jumped in next and started pushing as well.
Unable to restart the engine or call for a pick-up, we had come upon our last resort: pushing the panga back to shore. I powered up my camera. This was turning out to be an adventure after all. Which meant I had work to do.
Part of the reason I was on this trip was to gather footage for the Finding Corte Magore documentary. I imagined the film telling an inspiring tale about the obstacles Tonia and her team overcame to make the fictional island in her children’s book real. I knew of many of the obstacles already – locating the island, negotiating with the Ambassador to let us use it for the project, crowdfunding it, building it up, and managing it for tourists. But surely we could find room in the film for getting stranded in a jungle river, too. I pressed record:
Maybe more than two miles. I couldn’t even see the village Casa Ulrich was located in. Pushing a panga was slow-going so whatever the distance, by the time we made it back, it would be nighttime.
Jicaro waded to the bow of the boat and started pulling the rope used to dock it. After steering the panga on its course back to Casa Ulrich, Orlando jumped into the water as well and started pushing. I felt a sudden urge to do the same. So, kicking off my flip-flops and holding my $1,000 Canon D70 above my head, I stepped over the side of the boat and into the water. It was bathwater warm. The bottom consisted of a squishy mud that sucked in my feet. I felt like the intrepid storyteller I’d always dreamed of being but, in this business, so often remains a dream. As I filmed, I felt myself enter the sweetspot of adventure. This plan was last-ditch, slow-going, ludicrous, but spirits were as high as they’d been all afternoon.
There was only one thing that could make the adventure sweeter…
And Tonia made it happen by doing what I imagine every documentary filmmaker would want from its chief subject: without prompting her, she jumped into the water and started pushing the boat, too.
As a storyteller, a part of my mind is often separate from whatever’s going on before me, running through quality control checklists: What am I trying to get across? How do I get that across? What contribution am I making to this story, all stories, the world? Here as I filmed Tonia pushing the panga, I thought of the famous shot of General Douglas MacArthur wading ashore in the Philippines WWII, of Daniel Craig announcing his presence as the new 007 in Casino Royale by strutting through the Caribbean. Walking through water isolated human toughness. Motors broke, cellphones died, but willpower was its own power source. The idea that, through hard work, anything is possible was a central message to the Finding Corte Magore Project, and here it was in action. Our fearless leader did not let us down. I waded behind, ahead of, and to the side of the boat, shooting as much and from as many angles as I could before Tonia climbed back in.
As we went along, the water started getting deeper, and I had to hold the camera higher and higher. It rose to my waist, then my stomach. When it reached my torso, I decided there’d been enough mechanical failure for one day, and put the camera back aboard the panga. Then, unable to resist becoming a character in the story, I grabbed the side of the boat and started to push.
We docked the panga at the first fishing village we came across. A dock worker and two small children had seen us approaching and were waiting for us. Orlando explained the problem and, a few minutes later, the dockworker had a fresh battery.
“This is why I love Nicaraguans,” Tonia said as they connected the new battery. “They’re some of the friendliest and most helpful people I’ve ever met.”
Orlando fired up the engine. Wa-wa-wa-wa-wa. Wa-wa-wa-wa-wa. Wa-wa-wa-wa-wa-wa-wa-wa-wa-wa-wa-wa-wa –
So it wasn’t the battery after all.
Tonia sighed. “I knew it wasn’t the battery. The battery starts the engine. Once it’s running, even if it goes out, the engine would keep going.”
Eventually, a fisherman tied our panga to his and towed us the rest of the way back to Mr. Fred’s. As we neared, we saw the beach party was still in full swing. The partiers gathered on the pier and greeted us with big grins, none bigger than the told-you-so grin of Mr. Fred as he helped us off the panga and onto the pier.
He couldn’t resist saying it either. “Told you! You should’ve stayed!” he said.
Our engine failure adventures continued. A few days later we were taking a panga away from Corte Magore on Hog Cay in the lagoon when the engine died and the boat came to a (much gentler) stop in the middle of Bluefields Bay. Here we go again, I thought.
All afternoon, I had been gathering on-island footage for the crowdfunding video, something I’d been waiting to do for months. Having done it at last, I’d awarded, if only to myself, a “mission accomplished,” and allowed myself to turn off the camera and settle in for the ride. It seemed I had celebrated too soon.
Juan Martinez, our driver and our island handyman, took the casing off of the engine and started fiddling with it as Tonia told the story of our Laguna de Perlas engine failure to Earl, our guide. Earl is a coordinator for CEDEHCA (Centro de Derechos Humanos, Ciudadanos y Autonómicos, or the Center for Human Rights, Civil and Autonomous), a human rights organization stationed in Bluefields and run by the Campbell family. He had given us the tour of the island and the eco farm. Now we were swapping engine failure tales when we heard the throaty but lyrical roar of the engine coming back to life.
Within minutes, Juan had fixed the engine, and got a job offer:
After we’d docked at Casa Rosa, Tonia turned to Whitney and me, smiling. “That makes two engine failures. We’re due for one more. Things always happen to me in threes.”
I would have considered this no more than an idle superstition had I not read Tonia’s memoir-in-progress, When it Comes in Threes. In it, she traced threepeats through her adult life and childhood. If Tonia’s rule of threes held true here, we were indeed due for one more engine failure, and running out of time for it to happen. It was our last night in Bluefields. Tomorrow, we’d fly to Managua. I don’t think any of us liked the idea of climbing into a single prop plane with fate owing us one last engine failure.
So it was with some relief when, that evening, our cab broke down as we were driving to a seafood restaurant called Pelican Bay.
“This is the third time!” Tonia said, vindicated. “I told you things always happen to me in threes!”
As if to reinforce it, Tonia gave the driver three unsuccessful turns of the key before calling Earl, who we were meeting for dinner. Tonia checked with Earl if we were in a safe area (we were, even though a large, muscular man standing on the sidewalk made me uneasy), and had him talk to the driver in Spanish. An arrangement was made to have the driver’s cousin pick us up. We were getting good at this.
The next day we boarded a small prop plane and slept easily on a wonderfully unadventurous flight back to Managua, and eventually – safely back on American soil – I marveled at the experiential tourist this trip had helped me become.”
As a follow-up to this post, we got a kick out of a tweet Tonia received on Twitter. It reads, “@MyWeego: Sorry @ToniaAllenGould. If you had a Weego jump-starter, you could be back on the water in no time. Check it out 🙂 http://t.co/0zculKdDYf”
Given the frequent trips to Nicaragua, we might just have to buy the WEEGO jumpstarter and battery pack.