Crossing the plancha

The sensation was one of being inside a capsule. I’ve driven my truck into the plancha a few times now and never really gotten a thrill out of it, until today. Times past, the water has never really gotten much deeper than the wheels – maybe a little but higher. Today, as I got further and further into the river I realized the depth (pun intended) of my mistake. As the water swirled around me high up onto the doors of the pickup, I had this strange sensation of being inside a capsule in the river. The water was all around me but I wasn’t getting wet. I didn’t need to look down at my feet to realize that this whole “capsule” experience was about to change. My bare feet inside my sandals could feel the water rising inside the truck and I could feel the wheels start to spin. My capsule only had a few more minutes before it became a sunken boat – completely filled with water. My heart just sank. I was terrified that I had completely ruined my new (used) truck. I put the truck in reverse and felt the wheels spin in reverse. I tried to “rock” the truck back and forth, the way you might if you were stuck in the snow, and slowly felt the reverse motion catch a little bit of traction. I tried to “feather” the clutch – giving it just enough pressure to go backwards without spinning…..

This is where I need to pause the story and do a little bit of explaining of just exactly how I got myself into this mess. When we get back to this part in the story, it will be important to remember that I had miraculously just caught a little bit of traction and I was slowly moving backwards out of the river.

It is now the end of November and it has been raining steadily since October, just the way it is supposed to in “rainy season” here in Honduras. Our little apartment in La Ceiba has kept us warm and dry and although we’ve gone through a bit of street flooding, at times rather deep, we’ve not really experienced anything very difficult. In the times when we’ve driven out to Hospital Loma De Luz (our eventual destination once we finish language school in La Ceiba) we’ve always had it pretty easy. The hour and a half drive features four river crossing, three with bridges. Two of these bridges were washed out by the last storm about a month ago, but have since been repaired. The one river crossing that does not have a bridge is called the plancha and during the rainy season its depth usually defines when trips can be made or when they cannot be made. The question is often asked “how is the plancha” as the missionaries determine when to come in to La Ceiba for groceries and gas and such. We’ve been here at the hospital for a couple of days now (since Saturday) and we were able to cross a couple of days ago with no problem. Today (Monday) my dear friend Howard brought food and supplies for the hospital in his two-wheel drive truck. He managed to make it through the plancha this morning with no problems. To my amazement, he made it through the nearly impassable muddy road all the way here to the hospital. How he made it without getting stuck in the mud in a two-wheel drive truck I’ll never know. I told him when he left to return to La Ceiba to call me if he had any problems. I fully expected him to call and tell me that he was stuck in the mud as the ruts are up to 18” deep in places right now and the mud is truly the worst I’ve ever seen. When he did finally call, it had been so long since he left that I was sure he was calling me to tell me that he was home safely. “David, I have been stuck in the plancha two times now and I need you to come get me right away”. The scenario was so bad that I immediately thought he must be joking. Stuck in the plancha? Twice? “You’re kidding, right?” I asked. Silence. You are joking, right? “David, I am serious – you must come get me right away.” Wow. He wasn’t kidding. I had told him earlier that I didn’t think he should try to come in today and I had offered to meet him on the La Ceiba side of the plancha, and now I was a little bit angry with my very good friend. Did I mention that I was just sitting down to eat a late lunch? I grabbed my sandwich and my raincoat and took off.

Those who know me well know that I am never happier than I am when I have someone to “rescue”. So it was with a mixture of irritation (why didn’t he just listen to me?) and a mixture of exhilaration (I have to get through all of this mud to rescue my friend!) that I made the thirty minute or so journey to the plancha crossing. One of the strangest things about traveling here is that you can go through one or several weather fronts in a very short amount of time. The little town of Lucinda is only about a mile west of here, but I ran into a major rainstorm the other day while driving over there. No rain at all at our house. I mention this because as I got closer and closer to the plancha the rain got heavier and heavier. I arrived at the crossing in a drenching downpour. Cars and buses were lined up on either side of the crossing (my foreboding begins here). Howard is parked about a cars length from the water and waves me down towards the water in my truck (more foreboding). As I get down there to the bank, I notice a white pickup stuck in the middle of the river (major foreboding). When I get out he tells me that he wants me to tow him across in my truck. “Ok” I said, “let’s do it” – hoping that I sounded much braver than I felt. We tied the two trucks together and I asked him to show me the path that I should take across the river. “Stay to the left of the truck in the river” he said, stating what I felt was rather obvious. Ok, ready – here we go! As I drove out into the middle of the river, around the truck that was stuck in the middle (on the left – of course), the water began to get really high really quickly. ** This is when I started to get that completely surreal “capsule feeling” that I started with at the beginning of the story and yep, you guessed it, this is where I started to get stuck. I’m going to push the play button here and resume the story – remember that I had just started to get some traction going backwards, but what I couldn’t tell you without all of the background info was that I had to backup right into a two-wheel drive truck that I had pulled into this mess! I suddenly realized that I couldn’t tow in reverse and that there was no way that I was going to be able to back out of this river, even though I was starting to get a bit of traction.

Several Honduran men jumped into the river and began to push Howard’s truck backwards. I had to back up quickly enough so that I could keep from slowing them down and yet slowly enough not to squish them in between our two trucks. So now I am backing up through the river with four or five guys pushing the truck right behind me. This is not how we define fun! We finally got far enough back that Howard was able to back out on his own and got back up onto the sweet sweet ground that we had started from. Well we no more than got back on the bank, but the guys started urging me to drive back into the river, but this time to hold more to the downstream side to my right. Well at that time, I was convinced that no one was going to get me back in that river without holding a gun to my head. Seeing my obvious terror at driving back into the river, one of the Honduran guys just walked right in and motioned for me to follow. Walking through the river backwards and motioning like he was landing a 747…..what else could I do? I drove right in after him, this time holding to the downstream side. I felt that “capsule feeling” again as the water swirled around me, but this time the water wasn’t quite as deep and the wheels (thank God) never stopped turning. We made it to the other side! The whole crowd of people who had gathered to watch the show started yelling like a bunch of Indians and I’ll tell you that I’ve never felt happier in my life than I did as I pulled up on the other bank of the river.

As we untied the rope, Howard gently chided me for not listening to his instruction and for straying too far to the left. I responded with a shoulder shrug and a smile. I will certainly never make that mistake again. The Honduran guys asked me if they could load a motorcycle in the back of the truck for the return trip across the river. Sure! How could I deny my new friends a ride back across? The airplane landing guy walked right back in the river backwards and guided me back across the river. This time it seemed easy and I kind of held the wheel with one hand and hung my elbow out the window “truck driver” style and we went back across. A few people cheered when I got back across the river, and then moved on to see what the next entertainment would be. I’ll never forget the picture of these two old guys standing up a little farther on the river bank, standing right next to each other, holding a piece of black plastic over themselves to shield themselves from the downpour. They had stood like this for this for the whole show. I don’t know who they were of why they were there, but they seemed really glad they had come. They had the most satisfied look on their faces as I drove by. “Thank you”, their eyes seemed to say as I drove past them. I drove about a half a mile back down the road towards home until I was out of sight of the whole things and then I just pulled over to the side of the road and sat there in the silence. My hands were shaking and I was a stressed out mess! I kept shaking my head as I drove back to the hospital in sheer disbelief of what I had just experienced. Oh, what I would have given for a camera back there and someone to have been able to take a picture! I was now just a little bit less of a rookie than I had been an hour ago and a little bit more of the jungle had rubbed off on me here in Honduras.