There’s a man sitting in the bushes, brandishing a machete.
I’m about to ask him to give me back my bracelet.
I’m the epitome of a stupid gringo. In my heart of hearts, I know this is a misinformed instinct. It’s clearly not worth it. But I’m already walking towards him. He looks up at me. I hear the waves crashing as I push aside a branch and walk into his wooden enclave.
Earlier that morning…
I was strapping my surfboard onto my makeshift board rack. I’d made it out of PVC and connected it to the back of my motorcycle with hose clamps.
Sketchy? Yes. Functional? It had carried my board through El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua, so I’d say yes again.
The surf was going off. A big south swell was hammering Central America. I was staying at a hostel in Playa Guasacate, commonly called Popoyo. It’s a small surf town that lines a dirt road next to the beach. A main hub for surfers in Nicaragua, there’s no lack of heads in the water.
I didn’t come all the way down here to surf with crowds. I was heading off to a beach break I’d checked out yesterday, a little further north and a little more remote.
I’m not going to name the beach break. Surfer’s code.
When I got to the little town that the break is named after, I pulled off onto a muddy dirt road that took me to the beach. I parked my bike, grabbed my backpack and board, and made the ten minute walk up the beach to the river mouth where I’d surfed the day before.
There was no one in the water, and no one on the beach except for a man in a white ranchero hat setting up a barbed wire fence. I walked past him, gave him a little nod, and found the spot where I’d stash my things.
The waves were smaller than the day before, but still pumping. Lefts, rights, barrels, offshore wind and no one to ride it but me. My mind was a storm of anticipation. But before I could paddle out, I had to set up camp. I had a process.
I wasn’t naive about theft down here. I’d had surfboard fins and a leash stolen out of my backpack in a bus by guys that were sitting two seats behind me. Leaving a backpack on the beach was an invitation to idle hands.
I had an empty bag of chips in my board bag. This was my main decoy. In it I hid the keys to my motorcycle and the money I had on me. I buried the bag halfway in the sand under some sticks and leaves. Trash on the beach is the norm here, sadly. An empty bag of Cheetos wouldn’t draw anyone’s eyes.
I left my backpack and board bag on a big sand embankment the waves had carved out of the beach. My backpack would be visible from the water, and it only held some sunscreen, my chapstick, and the bracelet Theint had given me in Colombia. Her and I still talked periodically. It had emotional value for me, but it was nothing worth stealing.
I paddled out at the river mouth.
I let the current help me get past the breaking sets. Once out, I took in my surroundings. An empty beach, empty waves; this was exactly what I’d ridden all the way down here for.
On maybe my third wave, I got the ride of my trip. It was a big, peeling right. I was just at the peak. I dropped in, did a drawn out bottom turn and crouched. I watched as the brown lip crested over me, covering me up. From the beach, I would have disappeared for a moment. I saw the almond shaped window in front of me, framed by revolving water. I glided towards it. And then I was out, back on the shoulder of the wave.
Hooting, I looked around at the beach to see if anyone had seen my barrel. There wasn’t a soul. Just the man mending the barbed wire fence, his back towards me. Our greatest victories often occur without a witness.
On a high, I kept surfing. I looked back towards my things.
I couldn’t be sure, but it looked like someone had dropped to the ground on their belly. Right next to my things. Paranoia struck. I kept looking, straining my eyes to see if I could make anything out. It looked like my backpack had fallen off the embankment. There was no way I could be at ease without going in. I caught the first wave that came my way and rode in to shore.
My backpack had been moved. It had fallen off the embankment, obviously at the hands of a human. I checked for my camouflaged valuables. The Cheetos bag was still there, undisturbed. That much had worked. I grabbed my backpack to check the contents. It was all zipped up, but on opening the front pocket, I saw what was missing. My chapstick. And the bracelet Theint had given me.
Who could be petty enough to steal chapstick and a woven bracelet.
Pathetic. They found nothing worth stealing but felt the need to take something. Things completely worthless to them. The bracelet was probably worth a dollar. But it’s worth to me wasn’t monetary.
As I was processing the theft, a big-bellied and mustached man walked up. Clad in blue shorts and flip flops, he stopped next to me at the foot of the embankment. I asked him if he knew who went through my stuff.
“Viste quien se metió a mi mochila?”
“No, ¿por qué? ¿Te robaron?”
I didn’t like this guy. He kept trying to talk to me and he was suspicious as hell. But I wasn’t going to shake him down for my bracelet.
Pissed that such a glorious session had ended in such a bummer, I started the walk back to my motorcycle. Halfway there, I realized I had dropped one of my rubber crocs that functioned as my motorcycle boots.
Now even more annoyed, I turned back to retrieve the sandal. That’s when I saw the others.
Right where the big-bellied man was standing, three other guys came out of the bushes behind where my stuff had been. I stopped and watched them, too far off for them to notice me. They started walking away from me towards the river mouth.
A switch inside me flipped. I was going to get my damn bracelet back.
Resolute, I started following the men on the beach. I picked up my fallen croc on the way. My board bag hung over my shoulder and the tropical sun beat down on me. I walked.
I made it to the river mouth. The fat man was still walking down the beach on the other side. He was probably 100 yards away. I noticed two young men fishing in the river who hadn’t been there before. I stared at them, wondering what the hell to do. Should I just let it go? How long would I walk around this beach looking for a stupid piece of woven thread?
The guys fishing could feel my stare. They waved at me. I walked closer and stopped. They moved further up the bank of the river to a different spot. Forget these guys, I thought. I’m going to find the guy in the blue shorts.
I walked all the way up to the point, which required walking over a whole lot of reef to get around. Blue shorts wasn’t in sight. I headed back to the river.
Walking up the bank, I found the two men fishing. I approached them, my feet sinking into the damp river sand.
“Buenas,” I said. “¿Saben quién robó mi pulsera?”
“Debería haber sido el tipo con los shorts azules.”
They were friendly enough. They implicated the man in the blue shorts. I didn’t trust these guys either. I had no choice but to take them at their word. I walked back down to the beach. I knew this was a ridiculous endeavor, but the impulse for justice remained.
There he was.
The blue shorts. The big belly. He was returning from around the point back towards town. I walked straight up to him.
“Ey hombre, ¿dónde está mi pulsera entonces? Sé que la llevaste.”
I was calling him out for the theft I knew he committed. This is not the recommended protocol for a gringo in a foreign land. I can only imagine his surprise that I was rousting him so hard. And over a bracelet.
He denied any wrongdoing, defensive like a kid that had been caught stealing cookies.
“Yo no la tengo. Él la tiene.”
He pointed towards some trees. I could vaguely see someone sitting in the shade of overhanging branches. Blue shorts was telling me that this guy had the bracelet. He was indirectly admitting guilt. I set off for the trees and the big-bellied man continued down the beach towards town. His flip flops tossed up little spirals of sand with each step.
I walk towards the cave of branches where the man is sitting.
He’s holding a machete, aimlessly chopping at a stick while he sits on a gnarled log. My instincts are all over the place. Here I am, alone on a remote beach in Nicaragua, essentially about to accuse a local armed with a massive blade of stealing my bracelet. The one Theint gave me. Behind me, the waves crash with a perpetual roar.
“Qué tal” I say. Why not start there. “¿Tienes mi pulsera?”
He stops toying with the machete and looks up at me. He’s younger than I am.
“¿Es tuya? Él me la dio.”
He feigns surprise, pointing towards the man in the blue shorts walking towards town. Apparently, my big-bellied acquaintance gave this kid with the machete my bracelet. He asks if I want it back.
“Pues, sí” I respond.
He takes off the bracelet, brown and black thread woven into an alternating pattern, and hands it to me.
“Gracias” is all I say. I put on the bracelet and walk out of the shade of the tree. A smile spreads across my face. I’m shaking my head. That was truly idiotic. But it worked.
As I ride out of town on my motorcycle, I see the man in the blue shorts.
I stop on the side of the road and call him over, my engine still running. He walks up to me, looking sullen. I want to get the last word.
“Sé que robaste mi pulsera. Ya la ando. Mala onda, vos.”
Without letting him respond, I kick my bike into gear and take off, leaving him standing on the side of the road. I get into my highest gear and fly up and down the hills of the dirt road in front of me, leaving a cloud of dust hanging in my wake. Victory.
I lost the bracelet while surfing.
It slipped off my wrist at a beach break in El Salvador. I usually took it off before getting in the water, but this time I didn’t. It sank to a salty demise, abandoned to rot beneath the warm-water waves.
I haven’t spoken to Theint in almost a year.