Efren drove the lonely country road and I sat there staring out of the window of his pick up truck while green Nicaraguan scenery passed us both. Efren was probably in his fifties and had a slight build. Since we had gotten in the pickup, he never moved his eyes away from the road. It would be a three-hour drive to catch my flight back home to Los Angeles. I had been traveling through El Salvador and Nicaragua on a press trip for ten days.
Press trips are great and there are wonderful perks, but at the end of the day, I am traveling on someone else’s dime and I have a job to do. So believe it or not, the trip usually feels like work. After a week, I am ready to call it quits and come home. Not this time.
I had just arrived in Leon, a charming Colonial city, and felt there was more to explore as I had found a stride with Central America and my improving Spanish. Unfortunately, I had an itinerary and a flight to catch. I was handed over to Efren and away we went. There is always a certain amount of faith that goes along with being a sponsored writer. Get in the car, bus, plane, taxi and go. So far, I have had few problems.
In the pickup truck, a combination of disco and Billy Joel music played on the radio. I tried to make conversation because I had gotten used to trying to communicate, albeit poorly, in Spanish. I had no choice, as Efren spoke no English at all.
While I tried to think of questions to ask in Spanish, I could not help but think of all the “FSLN” (The Sandinista National Liberation Front, or Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional) graffiti that I had become accustomed to seeing almost everywhere I visited in Nicaragua. I began to think about what I knew of socialism, Daniel Ortega and the Sandinistas. It was not much. Then, I began to wonder aloud about these things to Efren. “Socialistica is muy interesante, si?” I said.
Before I realized how awful the topic of politics and socialism might be, I asked Efren what he thought about Socialism in Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega, clashing opinions about socialism then I added my own views of the importance of some socialistic ideas like: the fire department, police, and libraries. Only moments after the jumbled words fell from my lips did I realize these could have been terrible questions. Efren continued to look ahead at the deserted countryside of Nicaragua. I thought, how do I say, “I am just a conscientious objector,” in Spanish?
The car began to slow. I tried to change the subject. At the time, I was wearing a gray baseball jersey with orange piping with “Nicaragua” emblazoned on it. “Do you like baseball,” I said. The car hit the crumbly gravel shoulder of the road and then stopped.
Efren shifted the pickup to idle. I looked around and realized I was nowhere near civilization, just a few trees and no one to hear my screams. Had I offended an anti-socialist? Had I angered a FSLN sympathizer? Did I even know what I was saying with my pitiful Spanish? Then I thought, what is a Sandanista anyway? It is not like I knew anything about the subject. Did they feast on human flesh? Sure he was older, shorter, and weaker than I was. All I knew was that he had been cordial, kept his eyes on the road. I felt sorry for all those people who read my articles about trusting the world and the people in it. All those people I told to have a great time traveling, inviting them to explore the world. It never occurred to me to get out of the car before Efren would kill me.
Efren then grabbed at the glove box by my knees and flung open its door. He began to rummage. I said, “I love baseball. It’s a really great game (Si, el béisbol es un gran juego).” While I stammered, Efren pulled out something red and black from the glove box, the colors of blood and death. Then Footloose began to play on the radio. Efren pulled back to show me what he had pulled from the glove box. It was a flag. It was red and black and had “FSLN” in white letters on it. Of course, he was going to strangle me with the symbol of the Sandanistas while I thought about Kevin Bacon. It all made so much sense.
The blood in my neck pulsed faster. For a murderer, he seemed so calm, almost kind. He showed me the flag and then pointed out the letters, “F, S, L, N.” He smiled and took his time before he spoke. I listened intently waiting for his next move.
Finally he said, “Por favor, tenga presente. Recuerde Nicaragua (Please take this. Remember Nicaragua).” Then, he began to fold the flag neatly and handed it to me. He calmly closed the glove box door and pulled back on the road. I put the flag into my pack, took a deep breath and began to outline this story.
All of this story is true, except when I temporarily swapped Footloose, in my outline, for the Gloria Gaynor song, I Will Survive — which seemed a better song to die to. Then I debated whether a small kernel of lyrical fiction made my entire story a fraud. After a few minutes, I put Footloose back into its rightful spot in this story and then thought about the nature of creative non-fiction (more on this subject in a future article).
When I finished writing, I looked up to find myself on the outskirts of Managua. I closed my steno pad and relaxed into the pickup’s bucket seats. Efren had been silent and still kept his eyes forward on the road. Twenty minutes later, Gloria Gaynor finally did begin to sing I Will Survive on the radio. I began to sing along. It seemed to make sense to celebrate the irony of travel-related fear, another safe passage, and being safe in Nicaragua.
As it turned out, this was the extended remix of I Will Survive, which carried us into the heart of Managua. The walls on every building were covered in graffiti, where signs of viva [live] flourished: “ Viva el frente, Viva Daniel [Ortega], Viva FSLN.” Then Let it Be came on the radio and Efren began to sing.