' v TRAVEL WRITING
The Miskito coast
In 1988, Peter Ford set out to explore the little-known
‘ Caribbean coast of Central America that runs from
Belize through Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama. This extract from his new book Tekkin A Waalk, describes the difficulties he encountered when trying to cross the border into Nicaragua at the height of the Contra war.
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My appearance at the end ofa queue of Miskito indians filling out their entry forms in the chaotic gloom of the Nicaraguan customs post clearly' struck the immigration officer behind the counter as irregular. And ifthere was one thing that a low-ranking Sandinista official disliked more than anything else, it was an irregularity that might call for some initiative to be taken. Lieutenant Ricardo Zuniga knew what to do with irregularities: send them back where they came from. All my efforts to alert the Sandinista authorities to my plans had been in vain. Lieutenant Zuniga had never heard of me. No, he had not been expecting me last Tuesday. No, he had no orders to let me pass. No, foreigners were not authorised to enter Nicaragua here, especially when they had no Honduran exit stamp in their passports as I did not. No no no no no. He had not even deigned to look at the letter that l was intending to use to open every door on the coast in Nicaragua, a letter of support from the top two Sandinista officials in the region. I had been given it just before leaving Managua three months earlier, and I
had been counting on it as a i
passe-partout in an area where normally every foreign visitor was obliged to register his every step a week in advance.
1988: FOR UNA PAZ DIGNA, PATRIA LIBRE O MORIR read the letterhead, the 1988 slogan that introduced every official Nicaraguan document that year. Dated 2 March and addressed to me, C omandante Guerillero Lumberto
2 The List 22 May — 4 June 1992
' Campbell, the top Sandinista at the
southern end of the coast, and Subcomandanle Jose Gonzales, the boss in Puerto Cabezas, the letter announced that they ‘support your project of writing a book about the Atlantic Coast of Central America and do not doubt that the results of same will be important study material for our work.
‘Before entering Nicaraguan territory it would be helpful if you could inform us of the date and of the route you intend to follow in order that we can issue the appropriate instructions to facilitate your mission.’
I forced Lieutenant Zuniga to read this missive and looked at him triumphantly. He could scarcely turn me back ifI had Campbell and Gonzalez’s blessing.
‘But you didn’t inform anyone of the date you were coming,’ he said truculently.
‘Oh yes I did. My wife told the Interior Ministry in Managua that I would be arriving last Tuesday, and when I was delayed I sent a note with the UNHCR officials for Subcomandante Gonzalez telling him I would be coming over later in the week.‘
‘Well we didn’t hear anything. And anyway, it‘s expired.
‘This letter. It’s dated March 2nd. That’s nearly three months ago.’
In vain I tried to explain that this
was not a permit valid for a certain length of time, it was a letter written on the eve of my departure from Managua and its contents did not go stale over time like the corn tortilla that Lieutenant Zuniga was chewing on as he heard me out. My arrival was all highly irregular and that was all there was to it. But he did not appear eager to send me back into Honduras, at least not immediately, so I thought it better not to force the issue until I had come up with some more arguments. l was trapped in a no-man’s-land on the frontier and in the no-man’s-land of Lieutenant Zuniga’s indecision as he wrestled to match my unexpected and troublesome presence to the rules
He kept his weapon at the ready not ior my beneiit, I found, but for tear of ambush.
and regulations he lived by. It was the meticulous care with which I saw him inspecting each of the 245 immigration forms the refugees had filled out that suggested an argument might make no sense to him.
I sidled up to the counter. ‘lfyou won’t let me into Nicaragua,‘ I asked innocently, ‘what do you suggest I do?’
‘We could find you a boat across the river,’ he told me.
‘Back into Honduras?’
‘But the Honduran authorities on the other side are only there for the refugees and they are only allowed to let people out ofthe country, not into it,’ I said.
‘And that means that they don‘t have any entry forms at their immigration post. I couldn’t possibly get past them.‘
That clinched it as far as Lieutenant Zuniga was concerned. If the Hondurans didn’t have the right forms then there was no point at all in sending me back. I would have to come into Nicaragua, but he would
i have to talk to his superiors in Puerto
Cabezas to ask for further instructions. That was all I wanted.
ln Puerto Cabezas, l was confident, Chepe Gonzales would be able to sort everything out. It turned out that Lieutenant Zuniga’s radio was out of action. but now that he had decided I could not go back to Honduras he began to see my presence as an opportunity rather than a problem. lfl had to go to Puerto Cabezas I also had to be accompanied. For Lieutenant Zuniga Puerto Cabezas was home, and a great deal more attractive than the woebcgone. rain-sodden customs post he was stationed at. His indecision vanished.
‘You are being detained,’ he told me. ‘You will be taken under escort to Puerto Cabezas.‘ I almost held out my hands to be cuffed. l was so glad to be arrested. Lieutenant Zuniga did not feel such dramatic gestures were called for, but he did unholstcr his pistol and kept it on his lap as we jolted down the track. He kept his weapon at the ready not for my benefit. I found, but for fear of ambush. as we drove past a gutted military transport rusting in the ditch. Too many government vehicles had been set upon by Miskito guerrillas. and Lieutenant Zuniga had little faith in the truce that had recently been declared.
.S‘uhcomandanIe Julio Rugama, a slim mustachioed young man with canny eyes and four bright brass echelons on the epaulettes of his newly pressed green uniform, has as much authority as anybody in Special Zone 1. as northern Zelaya had become known in Sandinista-speak. He was the senior officer ofthe Interior Ministry, the minister’s personal delegate. What he said. went. He was also the head of the secret police, and he wanted to know what I thought I had been doing. entering the country at an unauthorised border post at a spot adjacent to enemy-held territory.
Miskito guerrillas tail to retrieve iood supplies dropped by US planes into a swamp, Coco River