[I told a version of this story in my last International Christian Fellowship sermon, if you prefer to hear me tell it.]
I left the scene of an accident.
I consider that one of the truly horrible things to do, ranked somewhere in the range of mocking disabled people and hurting children.
But I did it. I drove away.
I did return, but the other car was gone by the time I got back.
Now I don’t blame you for judging me, but unless you’ve lived through a collapsing government, I’m going to suggest you hold off.
I’m writing this with one week to go in Nicaragua but I’m not going to post it until I’m out of the country. Do I think there could be retribution? I do.
I pulled out to turn left on the same highway where I had my horrible accident because it’s also the place I had to drive every day. But his time, our country was in upheaval because the government had been directing violent backlash against the protestors. This also led to a lack of police presence and neglect of protecting citizens, which meant random crime and violence was on the rise. I’m describing June 1st. It’s still happening.
I used what I have come to consider a Nica driving maneuver for a left turn, pulling out across lanes of oncoming traffic and waiting there, so that I can slip in when there’s an opening in the lane into which I’m turning. Is that a dangerous move and emphatically illegal in the States? Maybe. I’ve become accustomed to it; I’ll need to unlearn it.
An oncoming car slowed for me—which is normal since I’m in his lane and all—and I saw a sufficient gap where I could enter, so I pulled across—and got hit. Slammed my front passenger corner, shockingly loud, and suddenly I’m sitting still in the lane and have just shouted something and my girls are silent and what just happened? How was there a car coming at me where I’d already turned left?
I broke a Nicaraguan rule immediately: I pulled off the road. I sat there and breathed and prayed and groaned and probably said a few other things. Then I got out to look at the damage to our car. It was surprisingly minimal, considering. Our car has headlights and also lights below. The collision took out the passenger side foglight and scratched and dented that corner, but the bumper and the actual headlight were, to my great surprise, intact.
I then looked out at the car that had hit us/we had hit, sitting stopped in the lane, as they’re supposed to. Someone had gotten out and was walking around the car, leaning in through the window, walking around some more. We looked at each other. They didn’t approach me. I didn’t walk back out into the road.
I circled our car some more. I breathed some more.
Now what? Call the police?
The police had stopped functioning as police. I hadn’t seen a single traffic police officer in over a month, since we were in Ireland and it all went crazy. It’s not like the States, where police cruise and patrol and you might see several randomly or not see one. Here they stand by the side of the road. In fact, about 150 meters up the road from my accident, there was a police station. I say “Was,” because protesters burned it while Kim and I were in Ireland. Burned it completely inside, so that there’s still a building but it’s just a shell. Before things fell apart, I’d see at least two policia transito at that station, sometimes six, at any hour, standing there waving people over, doing their thing.
But last week our friend got mugged in broad daylight, literally across the street from where I just got hit, because the police were no longer a presence. No, that’s not true. The police were no longer a presence restraining crime and violence. They continued to be a presence threatening and attackingn protesters, shooting at unarmed civilians,* and guarding areas the government does not want protesters damaging. The police would dress up as civilians and commit crimes and hurt people to discredit the protestors.
Do you call the police?
Here comes the kicker: I didn’t have my license.
Context: I’d left my backpack, including my wallet, at our basketball team goodbye party the day before. Stupid, but such is life.
Context: Kim had stopped carrying her license or purse at all when she drove, because again, no police on duty, and having her purse taken now seemed more of a danger than getting pulled over without it.
Context: Kim’s first week-ish driving in Nicaragua, she got pulled over without her license and the policeman immediately threatened to put her in jail. Just a threat to get a bribe? Maybe. Probably. Scare the gringa. She was scared then. Since then, she’s become such a BA she would not have blinked at that—I mean, before this all went to hell and now we’re all afraid of the police because they shoot into crowds and use sniper rifles on unarmed protesters. Because just yesterday another child, eighteen months old, was shot and killed by police.
So there I am, with two daughters in the car, trying to figure out how I got hit, trying to grasp my new situation, and I realized, “I cannot have the police come talk to me without my license. I can’t. I will be in a potentially bad situation that I am not prepared to put my family through—I’m not going to risk going into police custody for that. Not now. Not with the reports we’re hearing.”
I stood there for a while and prayed the other car would drive away. But they didn’t. They just looked over at me, then the person standing outside the car got back in the car and they sat there.
I drove away. We drove to school in absolute silence. But the thought kept blaring in my head, “My daughters now think I’ll leave an accident!”
I got my backpack. A few people spoke to me and I acted like things were normal, because AAAAAAHHHHHH!
Then I drove back. Crazy, wild thoughts banging in my head.
When I got there, the other party was gone. Normally, meaning back when Nicaragua was its version of “normal,” the police would arrive, eventually, talk to both parties, look at things and take pictures while traffic somehow weaved its way around. Leaving cars exactly where they got hit is one of the Nicaraguan rules of the road I have to question, but you could always count on that it would take a long time. Usually hours. I was composing the Spanish to explain why I’d left, which would include neither “I ran to get my license” nor “I don’t trust the police not to hurt me.” But no one was there. So I drove home.
I told Kim I’d been in an accident. To her credit, she didn’t freak out at all. She agreed that I had to have my license.
Oddly, bizarrely, I then jumped back in the car and drove the same route an hour later to pick the girls back up from youth group. Because life goes on, even when the country is coming apart.
“I had to get my wallet,” I told them. “I couldn’t talk to the police without my license. I felt like it was the wrong thing to do but there were no right options and I couldn’t just see how the police responded now without having it.”
“Yeah, of course,” they agreed. Then we talked through the accident.
“How was there someone there? Wasn’t I on the other side of the yellow line?”
“Yeah, you were. He shouldn’t have been there.”
“Okay, that’s what I thought.”
“He came out of nowhere.”
“So…he pulled around the person who waited for me and tried to pass there?” Because that’s a really busy, crazy place to try to pass, even for traffic here. I mean, a motorcycle still would, but a car?
We all concluded that’s what had happened. The fact that they hit my passenger side meant they had to be way over there, because I was turning left, remember—they should have made contact with my driver’s side.
I still felt freaked out and bad, because that’s something I never thought I’d do, but the mitigating factors remained 1)the police here, 2)I thought the other driver was at fault, 3)it was too minor of an accident to have caused injury.
I was nervous for a couple of days, just moderate anxiety to blend in with the overall anxiety of living in increasing violence and chaos. Or disintegrating society. Or bordering on civil war. Call it as you see it.
But really, since they were on the wrong side of the road and the police can’t really be trusted, they weren’t going to tell the police. I thought.
Last Thursday night, I came home from a wonderful, gut-laugh-filled dinner with what I affectionately referred to as “Last Gringos Standing.” Not literally, of course, but a handful of the remaining gringos of our community. I had been fed and loved, which felt exceptionally marvelous because 1)my family had been gone from me since that Sunday, 2)I had gotten nasty sick with some chikungunya knock-off that was still close enough to cause me misery for four days straight and this was my first day back eating a real meal or, for that matter, seeing the outside world. Not exactly how I’d planned my last hurrah in Nicaragua, even my adjusted last hurrah within the crumbling world around us. But there I was, glowing with amistad and choosing to focus on how great Katie and Amy and Nate and Claire and Landon are instead of “Was that my last time hanging with them?” That was a choice.
I got home and my neighbor immediately messaged me that he had something for me. Cool. Totally full, but our neighbors really love me, far beyond anything I deserve, so I was nearly sure they were bringing me food, since I’m living as a bachelor without a stove.
Juan Carlos walks across the street and I make a joke about bringing me more cats. But it’s not cats.
It’s a summons. I’m to report to the police at 8 the next morning because of my traffic accident. It has my name on it. It has the license plate of my car on it. How freaked out was I? I went over and checked that it actually was my license plate.
Since the country erupted on April 18-19, I’ve felt moments of real fear two or three times. Mostly, I’ve just carried the vague anxiety/trauma that it’s coming apart, people are getting hurt, and it’s impossible to know exactly how to stay safe or to help.
But when I read that, I immediately felt scared, and more than a moment’s worth.
I ran from the scene of an accident, no one knows that I came back, and this accident got reported by the guilty party—which could only mean they were prepared to lie boldly.
Possibilities: I’m put in jail. In Nicaragua, during crisis, while uncounted hundreds (or thousands?) are being held in secret, indefinitely.
I’m not allowed to leave the country. Kim and kids flew out on June 18th and I could have been in the US on that date and never have seen this piece of paper. But now I’m here.
Is the other driver going to try to shake me for everything he can get? That’s done a lot here. Some good friends just went through that, including coercion and threats, false witnesses, police seeming to have been bribed, and ended up paying over $4,000 on false accusations.
Or did the other person get hurt? Is that somehow possible after all?
Lord Jesus, hear my prayer.
I think you’ve grasped context enough to know that I’m not making up bogey men here. My Spanish is still only passable if I’m with Nicaraguan friends who adjust to help me understand them. I can’t go to the police station alone. I mean, besides the obvious it-would-be-good-for-someone-to-know-if-they-jail-me.
I’m writing this calmly because it’s now, but I was Freaking. The Heck. Out. Racing, spinning, cartwheeling thoughts of worse-case scenarios. So do I not go? What happens then? Do I change my ticket to fly out tomorrow? Will they stop me at the airport because of this? Who knows? Sometimes information enters the “system” here and a lot of times it doesn’t and who can tell which, especially now?
Again, I’m not talking about “I did something wrong and now I want to evade responsibility.”
Just to bring that into focus:
I wrote my good friend, one of the best friends I’ve had in my life. He’s been here longer than I, dealt with an accident or two, navigates the culture far better than I, and is not one to get ruffled easily.
He wrote me this, and I am quoting it verbatim except the names–
Listen, I hesitate about telling you this, because I’m not sure if you have a choice, but want you to be prepared and to be able to get Jairo’s opinion on this. This is a message that [a woman] sent my wife two weeks ago: “We changed our flight and left Friday. Last week was a very strange week for us. Last Monday a pastor friend of ours took our vehicles to transit to finalize the registration for them to get them out of [ministry’s] name. He let us use his name since we don’t have residency. The police ended up setting him up by putting drugs in the cars. They surrounded him after he left transit and pulled him and his friend out of our cars, beat them, seized the vehicles, and took them to chipote. Now they are charging him with drug trafficking and money laundering since he was receiving the vehicles from a non profit. It is a mess! We reported the vehicles stolen to embassy but not sure if we will ever see our cars again. [My spouse] was concerned about getting out of the country because his name was on the original donation contracts that we used to get car insurance. And then afterward found out the two attorneys that told us we could own vehicles without residency were wrong. It’s like we’re in a drama movie or something. Last week was rough. So we are thankful to be out of there right now.”
I think you need to be very careful at Transit. Just rely on Jairo for communication and be very aware of what’s going on around you.
Nope, not nervous merely about a visit to the police station, not even “just” a reckoning with having made a lesser-of-two-evils choice and seeing if I made the wrong one.
You get now why I decided to wait until after flying out to publish this?
My good friend also urged me to get everything that could be construed as anti-government or pro-protesters off social media. There are rumors the government is black-marking people who post about them. Who knows what’s true?
But I’m slightly ahead of myself, because I heard back from my friend the next morning. I still had the night to survive.
I prayed fervently whom I should ask to help me and decided I had to ask Jairo to come with. Jairo has become a dear friend and is extremely knowledgeable in the inner workings of immigration, police, and most of the other sources of red tape and tension experienced by expats here. He’s also calm, godly, and bi-lingual. He said “yes.”
That was my first moment of feeling slightly better. Slightly. So I did some anxious organizing, just for the sake of movement, prayed with intensity and clarity that I rarely experience outside of, well, crises like we’ve been going through here, and got all ready to go see the police the next morning. Then I went to bed.
I tossed and turned, as expected, but did fall asleep, then woke up in the middle of the night. Yep, that’s normal for insomniac me. Okay, so I went to bed about 11:20 and now it’s…12:50AM.
And that’s the last I slept. Or I might have for tiny bursts (do you sleep in bursts?), but I’m pretty experienced at sleeplessness and this was not dozing on and off. This was intervals of praying, futilely trying all the relaxation tricks I know, and having my mind generate new worst-case scenarios.
I gave up and got up at 6:30. Then I read my friend’s message.
Imagine if I’d read that message before I tried to sleep.
We arrived at the police station. Everything seemed normal. It was much less crowded than any of my previous visits there. We were told I had to pay 100 cordobas as an automatic fee for the incident, regardless of fault. Then we waited for a long time, at least 45 minutes to an hour. I kept watching for the other drive. At last, a policeman came out, called me into his office, and asked for my version of the story. Jairo translated. The policemen showed me the drawing of what the other driver had reported, which was not how I experienced the event at all. Then they told me to wait.
So we waited. We sat and watched grainy (World Cup) soccer on an ancient TV. The police came and went. We waited for the other party to arrive. I tried to unclench my teeth. We chatted. We waited some more.
A younger officer came out and told us to go with him. Where? He needed to look at and take pictures of my car to help them decide who was at fault. So we went out and watched him take photos.
When we came back in, a larger, much more scowling officer asked me a question at a speed and with an accent I could not understand at all. I asked him to repeat it, which seemed to anger him more. He then stood a few feet from us and reviewed papers, seemingly on my case, for a very long time. Occasionally he would stop to watch the soccer game, then return to his papers and his scowling.
Two hours went by like this. Jairo was calm. My heart felt like I was playing ultimate. The pounding part, not the joy part.
Then a policeman, a different one than , came out and explained that they had found me at fault. Okay. No mention of leaving the scene. Okay. My multa (fine) for the accident would be 350 cordobas.
The cord is presently thirty-two to the dollar.
But no, that was not all.
As we were waiting for our next instructions, a police woman came out of her office and started to talk with Jairo. She asked a question that I didn’t understand and he said Yes, of course, and the next thing I knew, we were in her office helping her with her English homework. Active and passive voice, to be exact.
The last twenty to thirty minutes of our time at the police station was spent (passive voice) helping her complete several worksheets on English grammar.
When we finished doing that (active voice)—Jairo asked, “Do we pay the fine now? Are we done?”
And she said, “No, don’t worry about it.”
Then I breathed for the first time in sixteen hours.
So that is how I paid three dollars for my accident. Plus our labor, of course.
I am certain God answered many prayers for me. It could have been a horrible situation, and as we hear new reports of violence and cruelty every day, it’s clear this wasn’t just silly worrying.
I felt so grateful to be free and alive and not scared. Breathing free air was wonderful. Is wonderful. Freedom!
But I also remember and carry heavily that over two hundred Nicaraguans have been killed by the police in the past seventy days not for crimes but for trying to speak against injustice, for trying to have a voice, or simply for being in the wrong place when the police started shooting. This week an 18-month-old baby was shot and killed by police while being carried to his babysitter.
Therefore, I decided not to post this until I departed.
*This video was taken at Metrocentro, a shopping mall we’ve visited a hundred times. A friend who was there that day told me it was a normal shopping day, then suddenly stores were closing and owners were leaving with their arms full of merchandise. Ten minutes later, the shooting started.