Monday, March 2, 2009

Chapter 9

The Narrow Pass

After an early breakfast, Carlos drove John and Chris eastward again toward Lake Nicaragua. As they crossed the divide and the lake came into view, a beautiful sight lay before them. A plume of smoke was drifting up from the Concepcion volcano and the sun was just topping the smoke plume making it and the volcano appear as if they were on fire. They stopped by the side of the road for a minute to admire the scene before them. Carlos reminded them that this was the spot of the now famous “bull fight”. They ignored him and got back in the car.

From the junction in the road at La Virgen, they turned south and drove almost to the Costa Rican border. John wanted to get a better view of the Sapoa Valley to the south of them, so he had Carlos drive west up into the foothills. He went as far as he could in his passenger car, but soon the going got too steep and the car gave up with an exhausted sputter.

They were almost to a ridge overlooking the southern valley, so they decided to walk over to it. They had to pass through a farmer’s pasture, so they went to his ramshackle house to ask permission. Everyone was surprised when the owner turned out to be Fidel, one of Carlos’ old Sandanista friends. They gave each other an “abrazo” and exchanged pleasantries. Carlos introduced his “gringo” friends, and of course, had to relate the incident with the bull. Fidel only smiled, not wanting to appear impolite. He was just preparing a late breakfast and invited them to join him and his family. So they spent an hour visiting and enjoying a “country” breakfast. It turned out that Fidel wasn’t just a country peasant. He was actually a high-ranking member of the still strong Sandanista Party, who had come to spend a few days at his “ranchito”.

While Carlos continued to visit with his friend, John and Chris climbed to the edge of the ridge and look over the Sapoa valley below them. It was fairly narrow, flanked by descending foothills on both sides. At this point, near Lake Nicaragua, the valley narrowed to about a mile wide. This corridor led down to the mouth of the river, where it flowed into Lake Nicaragua, then the corridor veered off to the north along a narrow strip of land bordering the lake. This strip of land gradually widened to the north until by the time it reached La Virgen, it was eight miles wide.

“That could certainly be considered a ‘narrow pass’”, commented John. “I don’t think we have to look any further.”

“I believe you are right,” agreed Chris. “But I would like to see it from down in the valley. Beside we want to check on the site which might be the city of Desolation, right?”

John agreed, so they went back to the farmhouse, thanked Fidel for the meal, and persuaded Carlos to leave. As they walked back to the car Chris asked Carlos how they could still be friends if he had defected to the Contras during the revolution. Carlos explained that it was all in the past and long forgotten. The Contras had won and they now had a democracy. The Sandanistas were now a loyal opposition party and they could all be friends again. Chris wasn’t convinced, but dropped the subject.

They drove to the border where they had another adventure awaiting them. The red tape involved in crossing the border at Penas Blancas was horrendous. It took them an hour to complete all the paperwork both on the Nicaraguan side, and then the Costa Rican side. But they were lucky they weren’t in the truck line. There were semi-trucks lined up for a mile on either side waiting to be processed.

“Is it always like this Carlos?” John asked.

“Oh yes, and sometimes worse, but what can one do.” He shrugged his shoulders. “You know how the government is.”

As they drove up the Sapoa River Valley they passed the long line of semis on the Costa Rican side of the border waiting to be processed.

“This is what it would be like in the US if each state were a separate country, and each state line were a border,” mused John.

“A terrible thought!” commented Chris.

In a few minutes they were at the turnoff for San Dimas, an archaeological site that they had identified as a possibility for the city of Desolation. They followed the dirt road until it came to a cluster of farmhouses that was the modern village of San Dimas. Past the village, they came to a stream crossing. Carlos wisely decided not to attempt it, as it was too deep. But it was only a kilometer or so to the site, so John and Chris left Carlos with the car, and crossed the stream on a footbridge.

The site itself was on a rise of ground at a big bend of the Sapoa River. The area had been farmed and so the disturbed soil showed quite a few broken pottery shards. John picked up a number of these as they walked across the site. Chris had picked up a long pole as they approached the area. When they reached the highest point, he retrieved a pointed metal object out of his pack and screwed it onto the pole.

“What’s that for,” asked John?

“You’ll see in a minute.”

Chris selected a spot and started probing with the pole. For some time all he encountered was hard solid earth as he moved from place to place. But then the steel point broke through and the pole penetrated several feet of open space.

“There it is!” exalted Chris.

“What?” questioned John?

“A huaca, a grave. They would usually bury their dead on the high places, on hills, or ridges. There’s usually a cavity in a grave like this one, and you can find the cavities with a pole like this or a metal bar of some kind.”

“So that’s how you do it. I have often heard about it but never knew how it was done,” said John admiringly.

Chris pulled a garden trowel out of his backpack and began digging at the spot. In a few minutes he was down into the cavity. He carefully pulled out some broken jars and half of a broken grinding stone or metate. There didn’t seem to be much else in the hole. John was examining the broken jars. They were decorated in some of the ancient styles. One was half full of dirt. As John dumped it out to examine the inside, he noticed something green. He picked it up and brushing it off, saw that it was a jade figurine, finely carved and polished. Several years back he had paid several thousand dollars for one that wasn’t as nice as this one.

Chris broke into his reverie. “We probably should put all this back in the hole. The authorities don’t take kindly to huaqueros nowadays.”

“Do you mind if I keep this one?” The collector in John was coming to the fore.

“I wouldn’t recommend it, but do what you want. You’re responsible,” warned Chris.

John put the figurine into his pocket, and Chris put the rest of the relicts back into the hole, covering it up, smoothing the surface and walking over it several times.

They surveyed the area from the high ground. A stronghold here would effectively control the narrow valley. Such a stronghold would be protected on one side by the bend in the river, and on the open side could be protected by a trench and palisades, such as the Nephites used to protect their cities. They looked for evidence of this, but didn’t find any. But such a trench and mound may have been destroyed when the ground was prepared for planting. John was satisfied. With the talisman in his pocket, he felt confidant. It was a good omen.

When they got back to the car they had Carlos drive them west to the little town of La Cruz near the Pacific coast. It was situated on a high bluff overlooking the Bay of Salinas. This was the location they had theorized for the site where Hagoth, the ingenious Nephite, had built his ships and sent them into the unknown sea. They asked one of the locals how to get down to the bay. He pointed out a road that would take them down, but added a warning.

“Be careful! Several months ago a carload of Americans was robbed down there. There are some disreputable people who live along the shore.”

With that warning fresh in the ears, they descended the bluff and reached the shore. The area back of the beach was heavily overgrown, so they could see that such a crime could be committed and the robbers escape and hide easily.

The bay was a perfect horseshoe bay, mostly shielded from the open ocean, with a wide, white sand beach. If there had been a heavy growth of large timber, it would have been a perfect place for Hagoth to experiment with ocean going craft. But if there had been large growth trees, they were all gone now; there was nothing much over a foot in diameter left. Still it was all fitting together like the interlocking pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.

John decided that they had accomplished their goals and proved to their satisfaction that this was the right area. So he had Carlos drive them south to Liberia, one of the two airports in Costa Rica. They paid him off and sent him back to Nicaragua, relieved that they wouldn’t have to pass through the border again.

Fortunately there was a flight leaving in two hours, so after arranging the flight, they had a late lunch and started to board. The security guard wanted to check their bags thoroughly and started to go through them in minute detail. John suddenly realized he might be in trouble. He had hidden the figurine in his suitcase wrapped in one of his stockings. He was relieved when the guard finished and started putting everything back into the suitcase. Suddenly the man felt something hard inside the sock and pulled it back out. The next thing John knew he had called some other officers over and they had placed him under arrest.

Chris had kept his distance while all this was going on, not wanting to get involved himself. After all, there had earlier been warrants out for him. But then he had second thoughts and decided to try and rescue John. He checked his wallet but only had a twenty—not enough. He went back to the lobby, found an ATM and withdrew $500. When he got back they were leading John out of the terminal and toward a police car. Chris approached one of the two officers.

“Senor, I would like to pay his fine.”

The officers stopped and sized up Chris. “How much do you have?”

Chris showed him the wad of 25 twenties spread out so that all were visible.

“Get in the car and come with us,” commanded the lead officer.

They got in and the officers drove several miles from the airport to an uninhabited area along the highway.

“OK pay me the fine and get out!”

Chris gave him the money and they got out. The police car pulled away and drove towards town leaving them standing by the road.

“You can thank me anytime now,” said Chris as they started walking back to the airport.

“Thanks a million--but I still don’t get it. How did you know how much the fine was for?”

“There wasn’t any fine. That’s just a safe way of conducting a bribe. I see you haven’t been around as much as I thought you had. By the way, I could say I told you so, but I won’t.”

John didn’t have much to say for the rest of the walk to the airport.

Fortunately their bags were still there and they proceeded on. The guard who had apprehended John wanted to know why he had returned so quickly. John, being a quick learner, told him he had paid his fine. John asked the guard what had become of the figurine. The guard replied that it was “safe”. John thought he knew what that meant.

Their flight north took them directly over Lake Nicaragua and provided a perfect view of the Isthmus of Rivas. Chris, who was by the window, spent the next five minutes taking pictures until the plane moved out of range. It was a long, relaxing flight back to the states, something John sorely needed.

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