Carbide from Hell

      For a guy that has smuggled drugs across international borders more than a handful of times, one might think I’d have a dash of street smarts stashed away for a rainy day.  But that didn’t seem to be the case. 

     It took less than several minutes for my skin to crawl once we’d entered the Managua taxi cab.  There we were; me, my two friends Greg Richmond, and the Doctor, and Alex my 22 year old son on holiday in Central America.  It dawned on me there may be a problem when our cab driver ignored every red traffic light,  nor used any turn signals, hand or otherwise.  But let me not digress. 

      Christmas night at Managua International Airport was a crazy scene.  After passing through customs, immigration, and the local version of health and safety, we were solicited by every third world hustler one could imagine.  And those folks were crafty.  It seemed they were willing to do just about anything for a tip.  They’d shin your sandals, tote your suitcase, or open a door for fifty cents or less.  I couldn’t imagine what they’d do behind closed doors for a little more grease. 

      After much delay, we rescued our bags from the luggage carousel and made our way through the terminal towards the airport exit.  The large glass double doors were fixed open.  Above the archway, hand painted on the plaster wall, was: “Bienvenido,” and if the walls could talk they’d say much more.  I was glad they were mute. 

     From afar, it seemed we had a clear shot at what appeared to be various forms of ground transportation.  Sooner than I expected, our path was blocked by aggressive Nicaraguans reuniting with loved ones.  It was the night of Baby Jesus’ birthday and a tang of Christian sentimentality loomed, mixing with raw, working class emotion.  The local passion resembled the type of love I’d always craved from my parents and siblings and never knew; but so much for my emotional gushing. 

     At Managua International, there was one speed, one setting, and one local state of mind.  On a scale of one to ten, one being sedate, ten being violent, the Nicaraguan Nationals seemed to be hovering somewhere near thirteen.  I would probably have felt safer on all fours in the middle of a Black- Friday blow-out sale with an extra twenty percent off at Nordstrom’s department store. 

      The first mistake I inadvertently made was allowing my son Alex, a possible reincarnation of the Compassionate Buddha himself, to take the position of point man.  The holiday may-lay at hand demanded the well honed stern of an Arctic ice cutter to get us through the Holy-Day blockage and Central-American lack of yield.  Alex’s easy and loving disposition was going to get us through that crowd like a dull butter knife through a slab of granite.  When I realized we were faced with a “When-in-Rome” situation, and surrendered to the fact that my son was a lover, and not a fighter, I took matters into my own hands.  I stepped in front of my first born and said to those blocking our path: “Con permiso,” at a volume just below yelling and served up something a tad more subtle than a body check where appropriate.   

     We achieved some incremental progress towards a ride for hire, and the curb was in sight.  Once we made it to the bricks I approached an official looking gentleman wearing a powder blue shirt displaying Budget Rent-A-Car insignia and said: “Senior, donde esta taxi por favor?”  Before his brown weathered lips could move, a kid of no more than ten years of age, came rushing forward from nowhere without a smile but fierce determination.   He began ranting in a voice like a midway carnival barker: “Taxi, you need Taxi?  “Nessicitas taxi senior?” 

     “Si,” I said, and the half pint of high octane gestured with his head as though everything from his neck down was being dragged along without choice.  The youngster was too young to be fending for children of his own, but had an ambitious drive that may have rivaled Donald Trump or an Olympic Gold Medalist.  The kid’s body language alone seemed to move us ten feet towards a docile man who asked: “Nessecitas taxi senior?”  I answered: “Si, ala Hotel Intercontinental por favor.”  I wasn’t sure if the boy and the man were a team, but had no time to think about it one way or the other. 

     Before an ornery fly could land on my arm, and there were plenty, our six pieces of luggage disappeared into the rear compartment of the man’s dated Toyota station wagon.  I tipped the underage hustler with a fiver while Alex helped the Doctor, who was healing from foot surgery, and on crutches, into the shotgun position.  I seated myself in the rear middle and Greg slid in on my left.  The four of us had met at LAX earlier that morning around 9am, and it had been a long day. The end of its length was nowhere in sight. 

      Alex tried to get in the rear passenger door behind the Doctor but was being detained by the kid for God knew what.  I said to Alex: “Just get in the car,” and through the three inches of door still open, the kid managed to hustle me on purchasing a small hand woven flower he’d assembled from the bundle of reeds he’d been clutching in his left hand.  I figured what the hell, it’s Christmas, and handed the kid a buck and said: “Feliz Navidad.”  The kid answered with a sneer.  He had me confused with someone else with deep pockets and mumbled something to the effect that he had to earn money not quite nder his breath.  Doctor, turned around and said: “I think he said fuck you,” and again I was disappointed by a shortage of humanity. 

     Alex asked me: “Dad, where are the seatbelts?”  I looked and determined there were none and replied as such.  The cab sped away through the airport roundabout. If it was hot outside, it was even hotter in that cab and the humidity was no joke either.  I said to anyone listening: “Roll down the windows,” and the cab made a left onto the main drag leaving the airport.

     The highway was lined with palms and other tropical vegetation that hadn’t been planted but had spouted from every crack in the concrete, and pieces of dirt that lay unpaved.  Our cabs electric windows still worked and had made it down; the scents that wafted into the car were almost nauseating.  The mélange of smell was a combination of exhaust, night blooming flower blossoms and burning matter; mostly wood fueled cooking fires and nearby incinerated cane fields.  The driver had a scrawny frame and wore clean clothing. He was well groomed and sported a long, well manicured mustache.  I couldn’t figure him for sure.  He could have been a churchgoer or cutthroat killer.  He kept his hand on the gear shift knob and nursed the car gently from gear to gear.  By the noise and slipping sensation the transmission made, I guessed the vehicle was in need of a new clutch.  Such items came at premium and our driver wouldn’t let that prevent him from collecting fares in the meantime. 

     Traffic abruptly halted in both lanes and we were momentarily stuck behind a an old American school bus.  I could see it had been repainted several times but traces of yellow showed in the frequent worn spots.  Through the buses dirty and half open windows, I could see arms, shoulders, torsos, heads, and what looked like various forms of livestock jam packed like prankster college kids in a telephone booth.  I was happy I wasn’t stuck in that tin box.  It looked like the passengers could be suffocating.  There was an equal amount of chaos tied down to its roof. 

    Nothing was moving and the air that had been blowing through our windows moments ago had ceased.  It was then I realized just how hot and shitty it actually was outside.  My mind began to churn with many ugly thoughts and possible scenarios.  I’d probably seen too many movies where soft Americans had been hijacked by desperate bandits or revolutionaries and was becoming increasingly paranoid.  I noticed some graffiti spray painted on a cinderblock wall to my right, it said: “Viva el pueblo y gente” and could make out the silhouette of an old women sweeping with a worn broom in the darkened doorway next door.  She looked all alone and too tired for Christmas night.  There was a Rosary sitting on top of the cab’s dashboard above the speedometer.  It looked dusty and unused.  I received no comfort from it sitting there and less being stuck in traffic.

      Despite the barometer reading, Greg and the Doctor still looked relatively coifed and fresh in their LL Bean-like wear.  In contrast, Alex looked wrinkled and creased in his shirt and shorts, and out of character in his Yarmulke and tzitzit.  I felt and probably looked a little more haggard and travel wary than everyone else combined.  I was becoming more unglued by the minute and asked the driver: “Quanto tiempo ala hotel por favor?”  He craned his long, thin neck in my direction, and said: “Vente o vente-cinco minutos.”  “Gracias,” I replied. “El hotel es en Managua El Centro,” he explained further.  A billow of black exhaust blew from the buses broken and rusted exhaust pipe, and the yellow war wagon shifted into first gear and lurched ahead.

     Greg turned his head in my direction and said: “I thought the hotel would be closer.”  “How would we know?  I never inquired, did you?” was my response.  We were moving again, and at pretty nice clip, but were surrounded by 360 degrees of third world poverty.  Numerous homeless dogs wandered hungrily but the street beggars we’d see twelve hour later in the daylight were absent.  The buildings, signs, and street lights appeared to be all equally in need of repair or demolition.  Dilapidated houses and shotgun shacks were inter-dispersed along the main highway and sandwiched in between commercial concerns.  Many of the dwellings occupants were sitting on the porches cooking Christmas dinner or passing the time. “You’re right,” Greg replied and laughed.   I joined in the chuckle not knowing that might be the last humor I’d experience for an undetermined length of time.     

     When the driver ran right through the first red light we came upon without shame, the term “a little edgy” took on a whole new meaning.  I ignorantly commented: “Maybe they mean something else here,” referring to the red light.  Both the Doctor and Greg laughed nervously.  Alex remained silent.  We came upon a stretch of highway under lit by impoverished infrastructure illumination, and the cab made a sudden hard left without signaling.  We were no longer on the main drag, but had curiously landed in a more residential part of town on a worn cobble street.  The populace milling about seemed less than above board.  The area reminded me of a more ramshackle version of Ghost Town in Venice, a neighborhood near my first apartment when I was newly sober.  I’d never driven through Ghost Town; only around it or nearby.  I was too fresh off of rock cocaine to test my not-using drugs muscle.  Ghost town was run by the Cripps.  And in addition to your every day gang banging activities, the black street gang sold crack, guns, and rolled unwary customers.  Not a bad living if that’s your thing, but was no longer mine and I avoided the district like the black plague. 

     After making the left, there were fewer cars on the dark neighborhood streets and even less the further we drove.  The barrio landscape was dotted with drinking establishments and girlie bars, but not the type that catered to any form of upstanding citizenry, let alone semi-upwardly mobile gringos.  It seemed as though every vice under the stars could be had for a price.  Men walked arm in arm with boys.  Senoritas leaning against storefronts with hiked up skirts, stiletto heels, and big hair were in abundance, and young men on bicycles were scattered about here and there, probably in possession of every type of contraband one might want or need to procure.  It was at that point I felt I’d made a grave error in judgment by picking that taxi.

     There I was, Mr. Smuggler, Mr. Third-World-Hip, Mr. Street Savvy, Mr. Tough Guy, Mr. Know it all pants.  Truth be told, if I could be called any of those names with conviction, and I really couldn’t, they would have been names I’d answer to over thirty years ago.  But at the moment in question, I felt more like the underbelly of a sow ready for slaughter. 

      I further assessed the situation in my mind.  There was no meter in the car, nor any signs or markings that identified the vehicle as one of livery.  I’d been in a couple of cabs in Mexico that were similar, but this one, especially on the back road route we’d suddenly taken, didn’t feel like any type of legitimate, or illegitimate form of airport to hotel transfer.  What it did feel like was a direct, non-stop express to a Central-American version of Dante’s Inferno.  We passed two more males, walking arm in arm, groping one another in an intoxicated stagger.  Their canter reminded of Burroughs account of the homosexual district of Mexico City during the Thirties. 

      I tried to rationalize that if the driver wanted to rob us, he could of done so a lot sooner and spent less on fuel.  “Jesus,” I said out loud but meant to keep the thought confined to my head.  Alex and Greg both looked at me and sensed my anxiety and apprehension but I said nothing more to the effect.  I began to devise an exit strategy.  I thought maybe I could tell the driver I’d forgotten a piece of luggage back at the airport and we needed to return to the terminal.  I figured that would be one way to get out of what might be eminent danger.  And worst case scenario, he’d ignore me and step on the gas.  At least I’d know where we stood.  Then I thought: there’s four of us and one of him.  Even with the Doctor on crutches, unless the guy our driver waved to a few clicks back was a co-conspirator, we could easily overtake the hack. 

     Then we passed a well identified cab approaching us from the opposite side of the street.  It occurred to me that we might be traveling a justifiable route, but hardly one that seemed to lead to a five star resort hotel.  Our car came to a complete stop at a red light.  It was the first stop our driver had acknowledged and stopped for.  We turned right onto what appeared to be heavier traveled thoroughfare and I began to feel a little better again, but not enough, and happily noticed a large green sign standing erect like the Statue of Liberty.  It read:  “Centro de Managua.” 

      We came to another stop and there we were, directly in front of the McDonalds golden arches.  The international sign of civilization, even in places where internal combustion was relatively new, the landmark loomed larger than life itself; twenty trillion, bazillion served.  My heart resumed its normal beat.  Then I turned my head to the left towards the other side of the street, and like a Phoenix rising, there stood the Intercontinental.  The driver announced: “Hotel Intercontinental.”  We made a left and tooled into the five star driveway.    

     Moments earlier I’d thought we were goners.  I gleefully asked our driver: “Quantas Questas por favor?”  He answered: “Treinta dollares.”  I handed him two twenties and wanted to kiss his feet.  I found out the next morning the going rate to or from the airport to the hotel was fifteen bucks but was grateful to be breathing.