I have to confess that I was primed for paranoia while I waited for my Tan-Sahsa flight to Managua at the Miami airport. Tan-Sahsa, of course, is the Honduran airline and goes to Managua by way of Belize City, San Pedro Sula, and Tegucigalpa (though I think that sometimes they change their minds on any given day and decide to stop at places like La Ceiba instead and to maybe skip Belize). Anyway, I was expecting all sorts of shady characters to be on the plañe with me: contra leaders, mercenarics, CIA agents, right-wing evangelists, pizza chain owners etc. Tegucigalpa is a major jumping off point for all sorts of CIA and military activities these days. And I just read that a "retired" U.S. Army officer, allegedly now working for the CIA, was "executed" by unknown assailants on the streets of San Pedro Sula, Honduras. Actually, nobody in the waiting room seemed to fit the description of any of the above. Mostly they seemed to be wealthy Central American families come for a visit to Miami and now retuming home loaded down with goodies, the kids all outfitted in the latest fashions and with Walkman headsets on. I startcd doing a crossword puzzle after I got bored with looking at the people in the waiting room. Gradually, I became aware of a rather strange conversation a few yards directly bchind me. What caught my attention was that the conversation was in both Spanish and English. I heard an Hispanic woman speaking mostly in Spanish, while a man was speaking to her partly in Spanish and partly in English. His Spanish seemed quite fluent but had a strong accent, the accent of a native English speaker, I thought. But his English also had an accent that was unfamiliar to me. At times I though it was some regional Southem accent, at other times I thought he might be from some obscure British colony. I heard him say something about "We've got a ship coming up this week from Panamá to Honduras." Was this my expected CIA agent? I decided to kind of slowly turn around and take a look at this guy. My quick glance saw a bellied white man of medium height who looked to be around 50. He was casually dressed in grey checked pants and an open-necked white shirt. My fïrst impression was that he could play the part of a Redneck Sheriff without much trouble, although the accent wasn't really right. Their conversation died down and I went back to my puzzle. I was one of the first to board the plañe and I settled into my window seat. I saw my mystery man coming up the aisle and was surprised when he took the aisle seat next to me. His belly filled the seat to overflowing. As people continued to board the plane he looked over at me and smiled. "Maybe we'll be lucky and no one will take the seat between us," he said. I smiled and nodded. After a while, he looked over at me and then at his belly and then at the seat between us. "If we get a skinny one it might be OK," he grinned, "otherwise we're in trouble. "Look's like it's filling up though," I said. As it turned out, though, no one claimed the seat. I buried my nose in my crossword puzzle. Soon the plane had taken off and the flight attendants were starting to bring drinks and dinner around. I ordcred a rum and coke. "Are you going to Tegoose?" he asked me. "No, Managua." "Managua!" His blue eyes were riveted on me, not so much in hostility as in an intense puzzlement. He seemed to be trying to read my thoughts. I was dressed rather nondescriptly in light colored slacks and a light short sleeved shirt. I had just gotten a haircut and probably looked pretty straight. My "Let Nicaragua Farm" T-shirt was in my suitcase. "Do you work there?" he wondered, fishing for an explanation of my presence. "No I'm just a tourist. 111 be visiting friends and traveling a little." He asked me how long I would be staying and I told hún about thrce weeks. "That's probably about all you be able to stand," he said. "I was there for just a few days in the spring and it was enough for me." "Oh, what did you do when you were there?" I asked. "Oh ... I had to see some people." His voice became distant and trailed off at this point. And just what sort of people I wondered? My heart was racing a bit. I didn't know quite what to ask him next. My dinner had arrived and I busied myself unwrapping it. I was thinking about the scène in the movie "Missing" where Charles Horman is stuck in a hotel in a Chilean resort town that is mysteriously full of North American military types. That moming he had been awakened by the sound of helicopters to find the roads full of tanks and military trucks headed for Santiago: Pinochet's coup was underway. He later ended up sitting in the bar at a table with a dranken gringo. "What brings you to Chile?" Horman asked. "I'm with the Navy. We carne down to do a little job. And boy we sure did it!" he whooped. But this man next to me, the more I talked to him, really didn't seem like one of Ollie's boys. He didn't seem driven by any ideological passion. He talked about exchange rates in Nicaragua, the price of a good dinner, what the hotels were like, how to get a taxi. And, despite my initial superficial impression of him as a redneck good oíd boy, I also realized that his animated mannerisms and facial expressions were neither North American nor British. He was a born talker and his initial hesitation about who I was and why I was going to Nicaragua gave way to his overwhclming urge to shoot the breeze with whoever he was with. I told him I had been to Nicaragua two years before and made some innocent and non-partisan observations about my last trip and the people I had met. He loosened up and began to speak more freely. After we had talked for a while about touristic trivia, he surprised me by tuming to me and speaking in a confidential tone. "You know, I think they're going to survive." "Who? Who is going to survive?" This shift in the conversation carne out of the blue for me. I was still trying to picture him as a CIA man. "Nicaragua. Nicaragua is going to survive. If they wanted lo get rid of them they should have done it before this." I noddcd and allowed as how this seemed possible. "Let me teil you," he went on as if trying to convince me and with a genuine look of surprise on his face, "I was surprised when I was there - it's not as bad as they say it is! You go down the street and you may see a few pólice once in a while, but you know, there is no fear in the eyes of the people. I have been in countrics whcre there is fear in people's eyes, I know what it is, you can sce it. In Nicaragua I saw no fear!" He held up his hands in astonishment at this amazing phenomenon. He was rolling now and I was an attentive audicnce. "I'm in the fishing business. I own shrimp boats on Roatan Island and we fish up and down the coast of Central America. (This explained his unusual accent, since many of the Caribbean Islands of Central America were settled by the English.) I've been trying to get a permit to fish off Nicaragua because the fishing is very good thcre, much better than Honduras now. That's why I was in Managua, to get a permit from the govemmenL "Now I won't say that I like the way they do business there. It takes three times as long to accomplish any-thing in Nicaragua as it does anywhere else. They have to have meetings with you and then go and talk among themselves and then have more meetings with you. They are very serious and hardworking, but I would rather go and make a bargain with somebody who is willing to deal. The Sandinistas drive a hard bargain, and they keep fïrm to their price, but then when they make an agreement they keep it! And they pay! They pay." He shrugged his shoulders. Nicaragua, I leamed later, doesn't have enough fishing boats to take the annual harvest of shrimp and fish off the Atlantic Coast so the govemment seafood enterprise is contracting with foreign fishermen to take a part of the harvest which is purchased from them by Nicaragua and then packaged and sold abroad to countries like Japan. My companion here was trying to get in on some of the action. We were flying over land now and would be landing at Belize City soon. Below us we could see muddy roads of reddish soil and red muddy rivers along which were built raised thatched houses. We landed, exchanged some passengers, and took off again. "I may be in Nicaragua soon too," he said after we had been talking about various othcr things. "Maybe in a weck or so. I have a young cousin in jail in Managua." "In jail! Why?" He gave a mischievous smile,"He's young, only about 19, and hot-tempered and impetuous. He was caught fishing illegally 3 miles off Bluefields." He shook his head at his cousin's foolishness. "It's been thrce weeks that he's been in jail. But I checked, he's being treated all right. I think I'll leave him there for awhile to cool off. Maybe another week or so." He shook his head again. "Fishing only three miles off Bluefields." He flashed a grin, "Production was good though!" "But didn't his production get confiscated?" A triumphant smile. "Only the day bcfore he had unloaded his production. The fine that he will have to pay will be much less than the value of the production. But still, I think I need to leave him in jail for a while to cool off. (seeTOURIST, page 19) TOURIST (f rom page 11) He 's young and hotheaded. In a week or ■ so I'll go get him out. And maybe I can also get my permit." We talked about a variety of things: the shrimp business, Honduran politics, the influence of the military in various Central American governments ("I don 't have any problem with military governments. As long as they don 't get too greedy they 're good for business.") He kept coming back, though, to Nicaragua and repeating his revelation that "It's not as bad as they say!" We landed at San Pedro Sula, which is in a flat, agriculturally rich area of Northern Honduras with many banana plantations. I noticed the anti-aircraft gun emplacement next to the airstrip and the sandbagged semi -circular bunkers. Beyond a tall fence with a sign reading "Zona Militar" I could see camouflaged fighter jets and cargo planes. As we taxied up to the terminal a UH-1H "Huey" helicopter with Red Cross markings was landing for refueling just outside my window. It looked exactly like the one I had seen pictured in a recent Newsweek article which had been delivering military supplies to the contra inside Nicaragua. I watched the rotors slow and come to a halt. Two tall North Americans dressed in military fatigues got out. My companion, who was getting off here to switch to a plañe bound for Roatan island, was talking about Nicaragua again. "I teil you, I was so surprised! There was no fear in the eyes of the people! And do you know what I think? I think that they may not have the kind of government that I would like, but it's the government that they seem to want. Maybe we need to learn to live with it."
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