Take it away my friend...
After spending the last ten days surfing consistently head-high waves in the warm Pacific waters off Central America, it is hard to justify my appreciation of the used couch I currently sit on in my humble abode in Bay Park, San Diego, a comfortable nine miles from the beach. That is until one learns about the experiences my friends and I had on a quaint island off the Southern Pacific coast of Central America. Some of the names and places in this recollection have been altered so as to not incriminate any people and or organizations, but I assure you that the following account is absolutely true. I should know—I was there.
Within twenty minutes of leaving aeropuerto internacional, we found ourselves stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic on a two-lane urban road entering the heart of the capital. Trying our very best to take in the sights, sounds and smells of a city completely unfamiliar to any of the four of us in the car, we were promptly caught off-guard by a young local male (no more than 18 years old) quickly running past our car and straight to a bulldozer we were currently next to. This startled us but still didn't seem to elicit much conversation as for all we knew, this could have been a common practice in this Central American country (“bulldozer gallivanting” could be popular in this part of the world) but it still managed to catch our attention. However, this attention was minimal compared to that captured by the police officer quickly following with his pistol drawn.
What followed next was something one would only expect to see on an old episode of The Three Stooges as the young man and police officer ran around this bulldozer for what seemed like ten minutes (it was probably about one minute but felt interminable) constantly changing directions as well as the aim of the gun. There were at least five instances in which I was being directly shielded by the pursued, and my mind was racing that should the cop decide to end this fruitless pursuit more quickly, I was in danger of being struck with a bullet that missed its intended target.
Finally, another gun-first police officer appeared on the scene and the two were able to orchestrate a rather simple two-on-one scenario, closing on either side of the bulldozer to capture their suspect. At this point traffic started to move again and as we glanced behind us we were careful to note the forceful knees to the head the suspect was enduring. A sense of "notinSanDiegoanymore" uneasiness began to settle in – though little did we know just how intense the unease would get during our week away from home.
After sleeping that night in a rustic, mosquito-filled cabin, we were awakened early by the anxious boat driver we’d enlisted to take us to our next destination -- a remote private camp on an island about thirty minutes away. We arrived on the island and were greeted by fun four-foot waves directly in front of our room. After surfing once again at a local beach break, followed by dinner and about three beers each, we decided to call it an early night in hopes of good waves the next day on another one of the surrounding islands.The air was rife with anticipation that morning as the wave out front was already a couple feet larger than it had looked the day before during our breakfast observation. The three friends I was traveling with, two other campers, the surf guide/boat driver and I were quick to take down our eggs, toast and coffee in order to hop in the ponga.
We reached the small island and it became clear that there was certainly potential for great surf. We observed a slab of a wave that appeared to be no more than a crazy drop and a slight hint at a backdoor barrel but nothing more. The second wave we checked was a left that lined up a bit more and lent itself to a few turns prior to the next set of boils that were poking their heads out of the water. Three of my companions and I decided to try our luck at this smaller yet more lined up left while the guide and the remaining two decided to paddle out to the bigger slab of a wave.
After a solid hour and a half of trading fun waves with my friends, I noticed that the surf guide was directing the boat back our way. I caught one more fun wave and during my paddle-out noticed my buddy waving us all toward the boat. I wanted to surf some more but figured that someone must have hit the sharp coral reef and we needed to head back to camp for medical attention. Looking back, this would have been the best-case scenario. Upon paddling close to the boat, I was greeted with one of my friends demanding: "Get the hell in the boat...we need to figure something out!" My friend's words seemed to add to the confusion, but after hoisting myself into the boat, the situation quickly became all too clear.
On the bow of the boat was a large bag made of material resembling the cloth used to fashion ponchos one might encounter on the streets of Tijuana. The bag had been cut open, and I could see part of its contents lying next to the larger bundle. Rob, a Humboldt, California, native who can only be described as unique, had decided to cut open the large presumed "pillow" they had seen floating and then hauled into the boat to investigate.
In our estimate, there were close to 20 kilos of pure cocaine that had been broken into distinct bricks, each of which had been vacuum sealed prior to the entire bundle being vacuum sealed in saran wrap, all of which was placed in thin rubber and then finally sealed within the aforementioned burlap sack. Based on a rough per ounce calculation – again, Humboldt Rob adding his expertise and shedding some light on the situation – it was determined that there was roughly $1.75 million worth of pure cocaine. You figure that when cut, that number easily doubles if not triples or quadruples.
Needless to say, a few of the people onboard must have been contemplating their distribution, collection and ultimately laundering schemes. However, for me, there was only one clear choice:
“GET THAT SHIT OFF THIS BOAT!”
My idea didn’t initially seem to set in with the rest of the crew. The boat driver, a 37- year-old gringo who had been living on the island for the last two years and whose brain surely showed signs of sun damage, offered his opinion that we should probably try to take the package to the nearby naval base. This prompted my immediate rebuttal as to what would happen should we be stopped by Colombians, police, the Coast Guard, etc. en route? What happens if we get to the naval base and they don’t believe us? Aren’t the chances good that someone at the naval base knows who this actually belongs to and would see to it that this package arrives to its intended owner and or get rid of any sheepish gringos who may have stumbled on something they shouldn’t have? As everyone else contemplated my list of hypotheticals, I decided to take matters into my own hands and enact my aforementioned plan. First went the loose brick, which once it landed in the water, quickly started dissolving as Humboldt Rob had chopped into it to make sure it was what he already knew it was. Just to make 100% sure that he hadn’t stumbled upon over fifty pounds of baking soda, he’d decided to take a quick gummer, soon after which he remarked that he couldn’t feel his face.
Others on the boat soon took notice and decided my actions were the best plan of attack. As I struggled to get the massive bundle of the remaining forty-plus bricks off the side of the boat, I received some assistance from one of my friends. I released a sigh of pure and utter relief once I saw that massive burlap bundle hit the water, but it soon became clear that the relief—if not the sigh itself--was premature.
As my glance strayed from the bundle, I noticed a boat on the horizon that was pointed directly at us. The boat was far off but appeared to be traveling at Mach 4 speed, with bow looking almost vertical. It seems that our hearts jumped into our throats at the same exact second and we looked right at the driver, who didn’t need to hear a word to know what we were telling him; the 60 horse power motor on our small surf ponga puttered to a start on his third attempt.
As we crept back to the island that was the seemingly thousands of miles away (really only 12 but at about 18 miles an hour with Colombians hot on your tail, that is really far) our collective gaze was affixed on this boat, which was getting closer by the second. The boat and its occupants seemed to be gliding above the water, not at all affected by the slight wind chop that had settled on the water about an hour before.
Once we appeared to be about a quarter of the way to our destination, our suspicions became more evident and the fear in the boat, more palpable. The speedboat that was giving chase was directly in the spot we had just left. My mind became inundated with scenarios but the most prevalent was the scariest: too many eyes had seen what they weren’t supposed to and it would be beneficial for the continuation of business development to quash this little problem.
This theory seemed to become more realistic as I remembered the dissolving brick I had hastily placed back in its salty home and one can only wonder about the tens of thousands of dollars that may have cost someone. I began hatching my plan for what to do when the Colombians inevitably caught up to our boat. Because we had another thirty minutes of puttering through the Pacific before we would reach the camp but it would take less then ten minutes for the Colombians to catch up with us, it was clear that my safe escape from these undoubtedly gun-yielding drug lords would involve creating some sort of air-hole underneath the bow of the boat. I was searching for PVC piping, hollow motor parts, possibly the lens from someone’s camera, anything that would lend itself to a quick MacGyver-made snorkel.
As we inched our way closer to the island, the drug boat slowly started to recede into the distance. We continued to hold our collective breath, as it seemed any exhalation might roust the currently dormant dealers. Finally, we were within a mile of the camp and seemingly clear of any angry Colombians. Our approach to safety brought with it a solemn oath that we all agreed to: No one will speak of this occurrence once we make it back to the camp. There were too many locals living at the camp who might know who that package belonged to, and the last thing we needed was for word to get back to the rightful owners about our discovery.
As the day progressed and the oath was continually pushed to its limits vis-à-vis whispers, murmurs and occasional snickers, life seemed to be on the up and up. That is until we noticed a small boat making its way into the expansive cove the camp rested in. The binoculars circulated from person to person, each weighing in on whether they thought it was the same boat. The “yays” had it four votes to three. There was a large antenna pointing from the cabin area, which we presumed was utilized during the GPS locating of their stash. The boat seemed to be trolling and didn’t appear to me to be capable of the speed we’d witnessed.
The boat never got closer then a mile offshore of the camp, and as it continued back in the direction from whence it came, we were left feeling its temporary proximity may have been a warning. A warning from the owners of the precarious package that we unknowingly stumbled upon but undoubtedly hampered with. A warning that we were to keep our mouths closed because they know where we were. A warning reminding us of things that could have been – lost riches, lost friends, lost lives.As I fell asleep that night on that small island my mind raced with what I had witnessed that day and the potential Colombian infiltration that awaited us that night. My escape plan included a Jackie Chan-esque move out the screen window and hightailing it through the rainforest surrounding the camp. I had visions of living in the trees for a few days, feasting on any grub worms I stumbled upon and making a fashionable yet secure loincloth out of palm fronds. My thoughts took a quick turn toward the loved ones I’d left back at home and how much I wished I could reach out to them and tell them how much they mean to me and why it takes a life-threatening experience to make you appreciate what you have. My worries and preoccupations faded as my loved ones kept me company that night, and as I clutched at the last moments of consciousness, I knew I had been extraordinarily lucky – life seemed far too tangible that morning. but the gratefulness for another chance to do things right brought me comfort as the evening engulfed me.
- Andrew Bayer