Thursday, June 9, 2011

Dispatch Number 92 -Errant Thoughts: Peru

This Dispatch is a break from the Two Years summary and pauses from that series after Panama, Dispatch Number 90. It will restart shortly with Colombia. In the meantime, here are some shorter pieces.

Don't Walk
The pedestrian has no rights in Latin America. Crossing streets safely involves running.

I wasn't there, but Scott was when she burned her face in a minor gas explosion. Calling an ambulance is a normal reaction. Not in Lima, Peru, a megalopolis of seven million people, to get an ambulance you must have connections or credit established with the service before they will even pick you up. The majority, hop in taxis to get the injured to a hospital. They are cash & carry societies, and most have very little of it.

Later, I had selfish visions of getting crashed-out on some road desperately needing an ambulance, when none would come.
Call a taxi!, I yelled. Unless I was knocked out, in that case, black-headed vultures would be circling soon.

Cities Begin to Repeat Themselves
After you have traveled a long time, places repeat themselves, they begin to look the same. Definition of a long time is never thinking you could quit the job and really leave it all behind. The beaches, plazas and stores are the same in every city. Pots and pans on offer are the same in each shop, and the once curious open-air markets become as predictable as the white-tiled meat counters that have more flies than customers. Restaurants become a dull drumbeat of repetition. It's when you notice your curiosity wane, the signs are there, its time to go home.

Local sights follow patterns, too. Such as a spot, near town that suffered flood or landslide, an act of nature portrayed as a religious event, another proof of Christs miracles, especially if there was a miraculous survivor. Most townships have these quasi-religious sites used to prove their relevance. Waterfalls dot much of the landscape in Latin America and most serve beer at the bottom. Or the miradors, lookouts that hold the viewer in repeated awe; without guard-railings or signs telling you what to do. Freedom. Eventually, these places begin to feel the same, no matter the country.

When you have a domestic life of routine, these places and activities are fresh and appealing. And now, after three years on the road, find myself on the other side: domestic life looks very appealing, the very domestic life that had me fleeing it's confinement a few years earlier. The wanderlust candle dims and loses some of its intensity. I need shelter to stoke its flame again. A routine of stable home and community looks good. I want things that I have gone without, normal things like the same bed, same people, same woman, same foods, same bicycle, same newsstand and a neighborhood I'm recognized in.

It matters little which side you stand on, the life of a domestic or the life of a nomad, everything we do and everywhere we go, repeats itself.

Are the Drivers Really That Bad?
Drivers in Peru are woefully in over their heads when they get on a autopista, freeway where speeds of 100km/h (60+ mph) are possible for long stretches. Speed kills Peruvians. In a single days drive covering 225kilometers (140 miles) I saw two roll-over accidents on an empty highway. Latin Americans, including Peruvians travel in groups, so most wrecks include family and friends.
This section of the Pan American Highway, south of Lima is first rate, free of interferences and built to European standards, well engineered with excellent visibility and wide shoulders. Yet, somehow, they manage to crash out all by themselves on this empty highway.

How to Break Inertia
It started two and half years ago with, Just see if you can get to Patagonia, the bottom of the world, in a 25 year old truck.

Last Word
It hit me today, after a conversation with a local man. I don't like hearing my own voice, I like hearing my own opinions!


the important
the obvious

-Charles Bukowski

Whistle While You Work
Small town Peru. These towns have men, junior police, who walk the streets at night to ward off intruders and would-be thieves by blowing athletic whistles throughout the night walking from neighborhood to neighborhood from sundown to dawn, peeping their whistles, every half-minute or so. No gun, no radio, no car, just a plastic whistle.

Fair to assume any half-brained thief would never get caught by a patrolman, cause they'd always hear them coming. When living in Huaraz, Peru I spent months trying to figure out why someone would blow a whistle all-night each time they passed my intersection.

Old Man
Central plaza. Tarma sits low in the saddle of a jagged valley high up in the Andes. It's a sunny Sunday morning and all the benches are occupied, an old man shuffles by, frail and stiff, he passes the plaza with steady steps scratching the concrete as he moves across the plaza. Slowly and patiently he passes. Back in his day, this walk was known as his constitutional.
He passes, and I ask myself, Where will I be doing that? Will I sit on the wall with the other old men watching the world go by, where dreams are already memories?

Avila Beach, California 

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Dispatch Number 91 - Drug Travelers

This Dispatch is a break from the Two Years summary and pauses from that series after Panama, Dispatch Number 90. It will restart shortly with Colombia. In the meantime, here are some shorter pieces.

Drug Travelers
Peru, one of the poorer countries, has some of the highest purity cocaine in the world. It is also one of the cheapest at $6-7 per gram and would rate as economical to a coke addict. In Peru, drug taking has become integrated with tourism. The North Americans who drop, come for spiritual enlightenment, dosing on natural psychotropic jungle drugs, like ayahuasca used to cope with a variety of neurosis' or the popular desire to find it again.

The Australians come for coke, typically a small group will park it in a beach town somewhere and consume industrial amounts of it, like Tony Montana in Scarface. Achieving dental-grade numbness in their nasal cavity for days on end. Once they are established the coke is delivered like pizza.

As for the Europeans, they tend to dabble in cocaine more than the psychotropics. The ayahuasca centers are filled with North Americans, who don't bat an eye at these over-priced retreats run by people masquerading as 'real' Shaman. These pretenders mix, or rather highjack 'ancient-medicine man-ways' with the latest New Age fads. These Plastic Shaman, as they are called by the real Shamans, add the necessary drama to make a person feel exotic and spiritual and is brought about by the Plastic Shaman impersonating traditions and combining them with New Age-speak, telling the seeker how beautiful and real they are, while emphasizing the importance of 'processing' the experience.

Maybe I caught too many in the 'processing' stage after leaving a retreat, when more than one told me they dosed on ayahuasca for two months straight, three to four times a week (local custom, if an individual practices, is 3-6 times a year); they seemed lost in general, telling me in some fashion or another that they weren't all there because they were in a cloud trying to understand it all. The fragmented mind was out in the open for all to see.

After seeing several in this state, one would conclude that, in all likelihood, little would change for them, even after they 'processed'. The way they use the word 'processing' comes off more as place to hide, than to sort anything out. It appeared to take them in the opposite direction than the reason they came in the first place. Lots of talk and a tendency to intellectualize the experience, rather than live it.
Like the time a European said to me, You Americans are so funny. You're always trying to improve yourselves.
She had a point. 

Cypress, California


Friday, May 20, 2011

Dispatch Number 90 - Two Years: Panama

This is a continuation of a series recapping the past two years of travels through Latin America by car, each Dispatch is a single country summary from Mexico, through Central America's Guatemala-Honduras-Nicaragua-Costa Rica-Panama and through South America's Columbia-Ecuador and Peru. The loose plan is to continue driving to the bottom of the world, Ushuaia, Argentina. These are stories of characters, experiences and hardships.

November 2009
Marjolein handed me the map.
Was this the right road to the border crossing? I asked.
She navigates fine, it's just that holding the map calms me down.
It felt like a border crossing, but the usual visual ques were missing and before I knew it, drove into Panama bypassing all controls. You had to pay attention at smaller crossings like this, they have no gates or neutral zone and no armed guards.
The crossing ran through Costa Rica's mountainous coffee region, steep, green and misty. It was the seasonal harvest, Panamanian Indians, the regions migrant workers, were flooding into Costa Rica.

I sat in a featureless concrete office on a black plastic and chrome chair. The Panama border agent is a racist and die-hard Yankees baseball fan who likes his snappy uniform. He's a young mestizo (a mix of Spanish and indigenous blood, the same blood he prejudices), speaks impeccable English, and tells us with glee how he despises these migrant workers. He's not subtle and doesn't try to conceal it with coded language, in fact, the more he rails against them the more excited he gets. (I know I mix past and present tense, and don't care) He goes on about how stupid they are and don't speak Spanish well. Marjolein and I are trapped. We have to endure this imbecile and nod, like obedient children, since we don't have our passports stamped, yet.

The Stop
On the coastal resort island Bocas del Toro, we made friends with a Colombian couple, Sandra and Fernando, an attractive light-hearted pair. We frolicked on remote gold sand beaches, sipped Cuban rum and skinny dipped in the middle of the day. They joined us when we left Bocas, traveling south through central Panama.

On our second day, driving down the Pan American Highway, we were stopped at a roadside check point. When they reviewed our passports and noted our friends were Colombian, told me they wanted to search the truck. It was going to be a real search inside an inspection center, not the usual kind of cursory search with easy questions and me waxing and waning about how much I like the country.
OK, search the truck. I said, feeling confident.
No. Not here. Over there in the inspection building, said the all-business officer.

I pulled in and set the emergency brake. I was displeased to see a drug dog and another unsmiling officer. The search bay was sterile, not a workshop full of tools, the emptiness was disconcerting and gave me flashes from the film, The French Connection, when they tear a car apart looking for heroin.

Half the gear is emptied on the floor, including each person's backpack. The dog checks everything. You watch this as if waiting for a bomb to go off, expecting the dog to stop and tail go rigid. After the bags, the trainer sets the dog loose inside the truck, it sniffs everything. Anxiety was building, even though I had no drugs and felt comfortable my friends were clean.
Would they plant something? Push for a bribe? I knew I was vulnerable to a bribe situation or worse a plant job, followed by a fake bust.

To my shock, Fernando directly confronts the lead officer, Are you are searching my friend's truck because we are Colombians?
The cop looked stunned at the directness of the question, paused a few seconds and said, No, that's not why, go stand over there.

I couldn't believe Fernando's brazenness. Watching this, I learned you can get away with a lot, while providing distraction and making the experience personal, instead of freezing up. Police in Latin America are not as strict as those in Europe or North America, where you'd be sitting in a secure room while they searched.
Fernando wasn't done.

When he found out the dog was trained in the Netherlands, where Marjolein is from, he brings her into it, She's from Holland, loves dogs and is a photographer. Can she take a picture of the dog and it's handler? He was brilliant.
Yeah, sure, as the officer posed with the stupid-looking blonde dog.
Then we were off. Silence in the car. Relieved.

Marjolein Groot Nibbelink

Santa Fe
Gamaliel is a campesino, a subsistence farmer. We met him while looking out over the valley and the coffee town below, Santa Fe. Our conversation covered a broad range of subjects: national politics, healthcare, Hugo Chavez, local farming and recent property development in Santa Fe. It was becoming a destination for Europeans and North Americans buying land and homes.

He explained how the community changed with the influx of money. Locals bartered less and helped each other less when money became the dominant social currency.
Gamaliel was kind and considerate and after a couple of hours, asked, Do you want to talk with your girlfriend? I can go.

It was delicate and indirect. We parted ways, touched by the interaction. He returned with his four year old son and said how much he enjoyed meeting us and presented a handful of local Mandarin oranges; then vanished into the forest with his boy. This kind of human connection is more satisfying than anything you can buy, and reminded me of why I travel. 

A Bridge Too Far
Dateline: November 23, 2009, 12:50pm on Monday.
Crossed the Panama Canal today, driving across Puente las Americas, Bridge of the Americas.
A landmark on the journey to the bottom of the world. The Pacific entrance was full of ships at anchor, waiting to transit the Canal.

People in the Hood
I poured a drink and watched the sticky-hot street from the balcony. A neighborhood drunk stoops at the corner, his corner, next to a trash box and fire hydrant. He's there every day and is barely holding it together. He had a brutal and ravaged face, that said, This is what life does to us.
Homeless-dark skin, body thin and depleted. Hands soiled at the edges.

After earning small change dumping hotel trash, he skips off around the corner to buy morning drink, returning to his corner with a pint of aguardiente, rot-gut. He argues with the local police that stand on his corner and fill the neighborhood. He pats his back pocket and tells me the bottle suits him fine, since he no longer has a wife or anything else worthwhile. He has nothing left to give and life, nothing left to take.

Casco Viejo was the original City, now it's a district within greater Panama City, surrounded by skyscrapers. Casco Viejo has old colonial charm that is slowly being gentrified into a high-end residential district of rescued colonial buildings. The influx of new well-to-do residents mix with poor residents that have lived there for decades in decayed bombed out buildings.

It's a poverty stricken neighborhood where many hustle a few coins at a time. They help park cars and guard them, sell cigarettes by the each, and wash cars with threadbare rags, using water from public fountains.

One of the homeless is a former Panama Canal worker, who lost his job after repeatedly failing drug tests. He lives on the street in rags and sleeps in a decrepit building where the doors and windows are bricked up. I gave him some of my t-shirts and a new toothbrush. I want nothing from him, not even a thank you. The next day, he gives me everything I need. From my balcony perch, I watch him come out of the crumbling building wearing a t-shirt I gave him.

The Swiss kid is an over-enthusiastic backpacker who talks too much. I try to hasten the conversation to an end. I've stayed in the neighborhood a while and developed a morning routine, a walk along the waterfront, before the sun turns vicious. I tell him about it.
The next day I ask, How was it? I detect some pride.
He pauses, smirks and looks pleased with himself, Yeah, I got robbed by a 15 year old, I chased him into the neighborhood after he swiped my knapsack.

I felt guilty for having made the recommendation. He chased the kid down in flip-flops and got his bag back. Now he has a travel story: adventure without humiliation.

It was late afternoon on shoeshine row. Men sit on low stools in front of shine chairs. I chose an old man over the younger ones. This one polishes for his next bottle of beer and can barely do the job. His hands shake badly and has trouble making the swirl-patterns to apply the cream. The old man works steadily for his next beer while his body struggles to keep up.

Container Ships and Sailboats
For big decisions, serious ones, I am fond of saying, “it's time for a come-to-jesus meeting”, a deep, non-religious consultation of sorts, like the one I had in Panama to decide whether to turn back or continue driving south. It was a question of money and curiosity, I still had some of both and put the truck on a ship bound for South America.

The Central America leg came to a close when I said goodbye to Marjolein, she was returning to the land of windmills and wood shoes. James and I shipped our cars independently, without freight forward services, exposing us to the process of shipping international cargo. It was arduous, took a lot of time, and taught me about Latin American bureaucracies and culture. James and I left Panama on an 11 meter (36') sailboat captained by David, an experienced Frenchman. A four-day sail over one of the roughest parts of the Caribbean Sea.

After sailing out of San Blas' calm coastal waters, the swell turned big in the open sea and I became seasick. I never returned to my bunk and stayed above deck; I hardly resembled a sailor, and spent the rest of the journey coiled up in the fetal position. The crew nicknamed me the sloth, since I rarely moved.

Although seasick, I was not excused from night-watch, when we'd scan the horizon for ships that could sink us; sadly, I fell asleep draped over the safety cables that keep you from falling off the boat, leaving James, my watch-mate alone. When the boat surged hard to port, I awoke from a deep sleep in total panic, grasping the cables fearing for my life, I thought I was being pitched overboard into the black midnight sea.

For Select Past Dispatches on Panama hit these select links and look for the Colombia summary in next Dispatch Number 91-

Francis the Psychiatrist, who told Fortunes and Believed in UFOs-
The Panama Canal is So Quiet-
Chapter One: Central America Comes to a Close-
Errant Thoughts Panama and Region-

Huaraz, Peru

Friday, May 6, 2011

Dispatch Number 89 -Two Years: Costa Rica

This is a continuation of a series recapping the past two years of travels through Latin America by car, each Dispatch is a single country summary from Mexico, through Central America's Guatemala-Honduras-Nicaragua-Costa Rica-Panama and through South America's Columbia-Ecuador and Peru. The loose plan is to continue driving to the bottom of the world, Ushuaia, Argentina. These are stories of characters, experiences and hardships.

Costa Rica
My girlfriend suggested we travel through the country quickly, a nice country, well trodden with lots of Americans living in big hillside homes. A place where retirees retreat to their tropical dream houses and spend the balance of their time shopping, while ignoring both local customs and the native language. She was right, too westernized, too many gringos, too much of what we didn't want.

Costa Rica, sweet and cheery, is one country Americans can name in Latin America and feel safe traveling to. Ironically, Costa Rica has no army or military. I imagined it a place where people sun-bathed in beach-chairs and shielded their cocktails from UV light with miniature umbrellas, while feeling wonderfully rich because everyone around them is colorfully poor.

Marjolein and I slept under Vulcan Arenal, a live volcano that spewed orange boulders day and night, a couple kilometers away. Lava rocks, not liquid, that made deep percussive sounds as they rolled down concrete-colored chutes. A powerful hiss of gas preceded the rocks before they popped out of the top, like a jet engine, the sound strong and precise. The hiss was tremendous, as if, three 747 Jumbo jets were taking-off at the same time, with their engines funneled into a single exhaust.

Dirty and rough. We stayed in a leaky tent and ate canned food. It suited Marjolein well, she possessed some of the 'boy gene', adventurous and rugged, machete swinging and constantly snapping photos with the biggest camera you can buy, she could also name most the animals and insects in the region.

She stands by the truck. Waiting in a safari outfit: khaki shorts, boots, high-tech synthetic clothes with raincoat and rucksack. To complete the stereotype, wears a machete sheathed in a leather scabbard cracking coconuts open with it. The expensive high-tech clothes didn't work, mosquitoes bit through them and when body odor set in, they smelled awful. An irreversible mix of smells: old sweat-drenched socks, a sour sink drain and wet dog fur. These smells wouldn't come out, no matter how much she washed them.

Source: Wikipedia

We slept beneath Arenal for many nights. Night viewing was dramatic, the chutes of the volcano would light up with orange tracers. I'd be awakened in the middle of the night by a loud hiss of gas, then peer out of the tent to watch brilliant orange fireballs race down the mountain face; a newly minted rock began its life the size of a man, and when it got to the bottom, no bigger than a basketball.

We came to Arenal to watch it blow and instead, met Freddy, a Costa Rican wood craft artist and UFO fanatic. He sold his colorful hand-crafted figurines along a roadside that led to a mirador, lookout. We met him at an abandoned house we paid to sleep in. Freddy, tall and skinny had alive wild eyes. Those eyes, already big, became the size of small plates when we switched to his favorite subject, when he asked, if I believed in flying saucers.

Before I could realize what my answer would trigger, he had me watching a DVD filled with amateur clips of local UFO sightings, See it? See it? he kept asking, pointing to the portable player.
Latin Americans are big on repetition. Every time I answered, No., it was replayed.

I was worried, it came down to the 'correct' answer or the battery. I caught myself thinking about the battery. Marjolein deftly escaped Freddy's spaceman sermon.

Do you believe in UFOs?, he asked.
No, not really, I replied, not in the mood to lie about it.
As a traveler you are inclined to tell white lies to be more agreeable with locals, a sort of traveler diplomacy. In my travels, the most common questions after marital status are, Do you believe in UFOs? and, Are you a Catholic?, but the one that really gets them to pause is, Alone? You're traveling alone?

Latin Americans don't do anything alone, they are accompanied in pairs or groups in everything they do, except take a pee. Doing something alone in these countries borders on criminal, strange and far outside the norm. To the locals, a traveler wondering remote parts is an interesting event, something unique, when they meet a solo traveler it's an aberration. Their reactions often made me feel like I was being diagnosed with a mental disorder.

Do you want to watch? he asked.
Sure, I said, sensing a trap, Freddy, only a few minutes, I have to leave soon.
We view the clips...more than once.
Now, are you convinced? he wanted to know.
His eyes almost sold you on the UFO thing.

In my reckless thinking, I thought I could convince him with my basic and approximate Spanish that they do not exist, explaining that the samples on his DVD were anything but UFOs, proudly pointing out technical problems with the video. Either my Spanish was too vague or he chose not to take my points into consideration, I suspected the latter, as we established our opposition and stopped listening to each other, like two ignorant Missionaries who believe in different books.

Marjolein Groot Nibbelink

Car Parts
While Azulita, my 1986 Land Cruiser was in the shop for maintenance, I met Enrique, a Costa Rican who recently resettled in his home country after twenty years in New Jersey raising a family and running a gardening business.

Why did you return? I asked.
Enrique tells the story, To be closer to my family. We paid the way for relatives to visit us in America and see our home in New Jersey, we can't invite all of them to visit that way. Now, we all live in the same city.
What do you miss most about life in the United States?
In the States it is easy to get stuff. Like at Napa Auto Parts, you can get this distributor rotor in every shop, right now, I can't locate one in Costa Rica, he explains, holding the broken part.
So, you miss the shopping convenience?
Yeah, here in Costa Rica, you go to one shop and a tire costs $49, then down the street the same tire is $32. In the States, the prices are pretty much the same everywhere. It's a lot of work to buy stuff here.

The mechanic who services the truck looks like a fat beer-swollen version of Tuco, the bad-guy, played by Eli Walach in the spaghetti western, The Good the Bad and the Ugly. If you like bad-guys, his character is at the top of the list. Tuco greased the chassis and adjusted the clutch.

Odds and Ends
San Isidro. The market city, where I met Enrique is noisy and colorful. A 'hotel' off the main plaza has bored looking prostitutes that linger on wood benches in the lobby. Worn-down women who've seen too much and cared too little for themselves. Haggard faces and pear-shaped bodies, heavy in the wrong places. The women, with no claim to beauty, look garish in their ill-fitting clothes and thick pasted make-up. Everything a size too small. Faces hard as steel.
Years back in Bangkok, I met a Buddhist monk in-training who said, David, it is the last profession, in the world, a woman chooses.

Down the coast at Trey's place, a comfortable hostel in a sleepy village, I watched a young Swiss woman, who traveled alone, shy and odd, she mixed little and was usually penning in her tiny diary. I looked at her and saw myself.

Osa Peninsula
The German is good company, his Greek wife is a terror. A woman of anger, agitation and pettiness. A female powder keg in a petite body. She trembles with frustration when she talks about the weather while lifting another cigarette out of the pack. When she calls him 'Darling' in German it sounds like she's cursing him. He's a chess player and works for the United Nations in Afghanistan as a police trainer. We debated that war and he told us it was about Democracy and Afghan women winning the right to vote.

I thought, If those are the reasons, then we should occupy ½ the world's countries.
It was, as if, geopolitics and oil (pipelines, there's no oil in Afghanistan) were never a part of the occupation's principal aim.
The irony! Germans working in an American quagmire.

We met them on the magical Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica, a stunning coastal rain forest full of rare birds and mammals, set on the Pacific coast with big surf and abundant animal life. The country was well named, the Rich Coast.

Marjolein Groot Nibbelink

On morning walks I was overwhelmed by exotic bird sightings, unable to keep track of them all, let alone know what I was looking at. Many sat on low tree limbs fearlessly staring with the same patience I would study them. It was one of the most pristine natural reserves I have set foot in, second only to the Upper Amazon in Peru, where I spent twelve-days living on the waterways in a dugout canoe.

I was the accidental wildlife tourist. Marjolein was a mammal and bird enthusiast and only through her was I able to appreciate the rareness of the birds I would spot. She took me on night walks to see a whole other world of strange nocturnal insects and mammals.

The Rains
It was rain season in Osa and the rivers swelled. John the owner of Kapu, where we stayed, gave tips on how to traverse the many rivers on our cross-peninsula drive. The rain stopped, but water still poured from the mountains, turning streams into rivers. On the return we used an ad hoc crossing that forced us to drive 'up-river', heading straight into the oncoming waters. I almost lost it here, the river was high enough to flood the engine, the truck struggled against the current and depth as cafe au-lait water rushed over the hood.

Marjolein Groot Nibbelink

Here at Kapu, animals would come close to our room. Scarlet Macaws, Capuchin and Squirrel monkeys, Great Curassows (ground bird), humming birds, a common black hawk (who stared and stared at us), a pair of Toucans eating berries with their enormous beaks and Blue Morph butterflies. An Agouti (a short stumpy hopping mammal), the long-nosed bat that stayed in our room during the day, black turtles crawled about, and leaf-cutter ants defoliated whole trees, carrying their green booty down 'highways' they constructed on the jungle floor.

Something Between the Third World and a Little Better
While Costa Rica was a pleasant country to visit and easy to navigate it lacked something, it ran smoother and was more orderly than neighboring countries. They cut their grass with weed-whackers instead of machetes, building projects were completed and curiously absent were the rebar spires that adorn the rooftops of every Central American city. There were no flies and the majority of roads were paved. Clean water flowed and the electricity always worked.

Gone were the colorful characters, like the shoeshine boys and other hustlers I'd meet in main plazas of most every town visited before it. I could not find street food and when you took a beer, they gave you the option to have it poured over ice. The remarkable part was that you could even get ice. Costa Rica was advanced compared to its neighbors, but I wasn't looking for that kind of order, I was still excited by the rough-shod, happy-go-lucky ways of its neighbors.

For Select Past Dispatches on Costa Rica hit these select links and look for the Panama summary in next Dispatch Number 90.

Errant Thoughts on Central America-
Errant Thoughts-
After a Year: Short Reflections-

Paracas, Peru

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Dispatch Number 88 -Two Years: Nicaragua

This is a continuation of a series recapping the past two years of travels through Latin America by car, each Dispatch is a single country summary from Mexico, through Central America's Guatemala-Honduras-Nicaragua-Costa Rica-Panama and through South America's Columbia-Ecuador and Peru. The loose plan is to continue driving to the bottom of the world, Ushuaia, Argentina. These are stories of characters, experiences and hardships.

August 2009

Traveling alone. Stocked up with Pop-Tarts. I stood in the breezeway waiting for the border officer to process car papers and stamp my passport, when I began chatting it up with the shoeshine boys and 'expediters', the young men who hustle a buck helping people move paperwork through border control.

It was the same remote crossing that exiled Honduran President Zelaya, just two weeks earlier, had tried to re-enter Honduras from Nicaragua to reclaim his presidency, he and a throng of supporters were turned back amid a media storm. Third World politics as practiced in Latin American are a form unto their own, colorful and dramatic with ample chest thumping.

Zelaya later, did successfully sneak back into Honduras in the trunk of a car, his hope was for a popular movement to sweep him back into power, but ended on a less exciting note, holed up in the Brazilian embassy for a month. Imagine that, a head of state sneaking around in the trunk of a car! An earlier attempt, before the trunk stunt, his private jet flew to the capital and circled around for an hour trying to land, Honduran authorities refused him by placing army trucks on the runway. In other parts of the country armed men parked old buses on unimportant runways defending against persistent Zelaya.

This day at the border, with it's shoeshine boys and 'expediters', was devoid of activity, empty and lonely.
While my papers were being triple-checked by a third policeman, a prostitute winked and gestured, I smiled and drove on, thinking, A rough and tumble border crossing, like this one, is no place for a moral lapse.

The Price of Rum  
Esteli, Nicaragua. The first night. The price of rum, Flor de Cana, was more in Nicaragua, the country it's made in, than it was in neighboring Honduras. This started an argument with the liquor store owner and two locals who made doughnuts on the side. Over beers, the question of price was left unresolved, while I made friends with the doughnut guys, Merdardo and Pablo.

Although he was pleasant to be with, Merardo wore a natural expression of fury on his face that showed in his eyes and cheeks. He grew agitated debating the coup in Honduras and tossed back the last half of his beer with a fury that matched his natural expression. His friend Pablo, watched with curiosity.

Nicaraguans, like Hondurans are passionately expressive and would talk about anything and debate freely, unlike Americans who tend to be fearful of sharing opinions with each other. Merdardo surprised me with a business card, he was a multi-level marketing man; he had his fingers in a hotel, doughnuts and Herbalife. I still get email blasts telling me how I can lose weight and live longer with Herbalife.

In the morning Pablo and Merdardo were making doughnuts by hand for their upstart, Super Donuts, in the kitchen of the hotel. Made by hand without tools to cut or shape the doughnuts, cooked in a large pot of oil that held less than a dozen at a time. Nearly rolling with happiness in the sugar and cinnamon the doughnuts were covered in, I ate them still hot, right out of the cooker.

Coffee Plantations and an Island
Preferring back-country travel with its smaller towns, I avoided the big cities and spent most time in the coffee region with its cool climate, staying at plantations from another era. In contrast to this natural setting of low green hills and the beloved coffee plant, it was here, after nine months on the road, I had my first case of traveler's burnout. I weathered it out by hiding in a cheap hotel, avoiding decisions while watching movies and nursing a bottle of Flor de Cana in a pink room. I half-recovered. 

The second half of recovery came on isolated Isla de Ometepe, in the middle of gigantic Lake Nicaragua, riding horses and taking walks. I gained weight eating Marie's home-cooked food, the only restaurant on my side of the island and spent afternoons playing with her pet monkey. It was a tiny Capuchin monkey with a trumpet-shaped penis, cream colored and always sticking out.

Coping with burnout and conversations that repeated themselves, I needed the small world of island life that let me return to my cat-like solitary ways, a world of walks, books, and journals. I was looking forward to meeting Marjolein in a couple weeks time. Like one savors a fine piece of chocolate, I begin re-reading Dostoevsky's, Crime and Punishment.

The first night on the island, I slept in my truck after drinking aguardiente, moonshine with a group of local men. I met them at a bull-riding contest, it was a comical event, as we sat passing the bottle on the rickety stands; it is an easy to drink, hard hitting sugar-cane liquor. It was rumored that the old men who went crazy, did so from drinking too much aguardiente over the years (I met three or four while on the island, I'd give dialog of the conversations, but could not understand one mad-slurred word).

It was Saturday night and the place was packed with people, beer, loud music, lazy bulls and cheap food. The rides were pitiful: a man would mount a bull tied to a post, then released for a 'ride' on a sad-looking barn-sour bull. It was more akin to a walk, than a ride. So we drank. And I slept in the truck. During the night a drunk tried to break in twice. Once he realized I was inside, he asked to come in to sleep. Island life.

The El Porvenir was set on the slope of a stale volcano, surrounded by raw jungle. In the middle of a lake the island was far from city lights, at night it would turn the darkest pitches of black, like a horrible dream of being stuffed into a sealed closet without a trace of light.

It was two or three in the morning when I got up to pee, remembering to grab the flashlight before I set foot outside the bed. No sooner than I switched it on, a juvenile tarantula was walking the floor. I relieved myself. Went back to bed. And let Junior be. In the morning, I bought stolen fruit from an old man without shoes or money. He was begging for spare change and I wanted something in return and that's when the fruit appeared.

The same routine the next night, a midnight pee, and there was Junior defying gravity, walking up the lime-green wall.
Enough, I thought, If he can do that, then very little stands between me, him and the bed I sleep on.
I was much calmer than I thought I'd be when I released him outside after capturing him with a shaving mug (surely this dates me) and a piece of cardboard.

Friends of the Tarantula
A mouse visited nightly and left droppings throughout the brown-tiled room. A cycle began: black blunty shits left in the night, swept up in the morning by cleaning lady, and repeated on the mouse's night-shift. A giant cricket-like insect, the size of my hand, came out at night and would sit perfectly still on the mint colored wall for hours. The last night I saw her, she laid eggs, or rather inserted, fat wood-like splinters into the sheets and mattress. Life at El Porvenir. I wondered how Marjolein would like it.
It was at El Porvenir and Marie's three-table restaurant that Marjolein joined me for three months of travel in Central America. She met the hard-on prone monkey, who promptly peed on her after gaining a perch on her shoulder.

The American Cafe. I parked in front and walked off to do errands in Moyogalpa, a two-road village on Isla de Ometepe, it's where you went for internet and food stuffs. It had several two-shelf food shops and idle taxi drivers drinking beer waiting for fares. I contributed to the evils of drink & drive by buying a group of them a beer while I drank mine. After errands I stood in front of American Cafe, and decided it didn't look inviting, until I saw the Used Books sign. Like a chronic drug addict, lacking any resistance walked in.

Before I could set foot inside the cafe, I was pressed by an aggressive, prickly old white woman with an English accent, Is that your car? You're parked in my spot, that spot is for customers. Are you staying here? Came the blast in a village with fifteen cars.
Her pettiness was out of place, No, just the books.
If you want some good American food, come here, she continued on.
Yeah, but you have an English accent, and you guys aren't known for decent food, I thought to myself.
It was an unpalatable combination: a British cook with American territoriality.

While real estate man and I tried to start conversation, she began interrupting, The books are over there, they are .35 each.
OK, thanks, As real estate man and I tried again over his plate of pasta. We hadn't exchanged a full sentence yet, because of our pesky host.
She hovered over us, We have super chocolate cake, she blared, cutting in, if you want a slice.
No, thanks, I ate, hoping real estate man could finish with how the market fell out and how small plots on the island were hard sells.
How about you, an investment?
No, not looking to buy land, besides I'm a nomad, it just wouldn't work.

Our travels, the first Marjolein and I were to make together, on the Rio San Juan were amongst the most memorable on the Central America isthmus; setting off in boats across the lake and down river to the Caribbean coast staying in settlements along the way. The San Juan is an old pirates highway that runs along the northern border of Costa Rica. The road-less jungle remains undeveloped since the 1850s, when the U.S. government wanted to develop a rival shipping canal to the one the French started in Panama.

It was the best coffee to-go I ever had. Black water from a Styrofoam cup in a cramped seat of a small fast river boat. The seduction of morning mist over glassy water, the sun weak, and a densely dark jungle with birds in dawn symphony. Coffee, me and no conversation -just the sound of water rushing by and the drone of the outboard motor. It was our last boat on the San Juan.

Before leaving Nicaragua I paid my first bribe to a traffic cop, who graciously opened the conversation with a compliment on wearing my seat belt, then promptly found fault with my car papers. I haggled from $20 to $5 and Marjolein and I were on our way for Costa Rica.
After the exchange with the traffic cop, I thought, They are so flexible, the Latin American legal system rocks!
I learned bribes did not come at gunpoint or under threat of jail, but in Dollars, in a friendly flexible way. The horror stories people back home told with such glee were not coming true.

For Select Past Dispatches on Nicaragua hit these select links and look for the Costa Rica summary in next Dispatch Number 89- 
The Cost of Rum with Merdardo and Pablo-
My First Bribe, Glad to see You are Wearing Your Seat-belt-
Reflections on Material Wealth: North vs South-
Brief Observations in a Short Format, Errant Thoughts-
More Errant Thoughts-

Paracas, Peru

Monday, April 11, 2011

Dispatch Number 87 -Two Years: Honduras

This is a continuation of a series recapping the past two years of travels through Latin America by car, each Dispatch is a single country summary from Mexico, through Central America's Guatemala-Honduras-Nicaragua-Costa Rica-Panama and through South America's Columbia-Ecuador and Peru. The loose plan is to continue driving to the bottom of the world, Ushuaia, Argentina. These are stories of characters, experiences and hardships.

July 2009

With My Own Eyes
The coup began at 5am on Sunday morning. I planned on entering Honduras around the same time Zelaya, the Honduran President, was forcefully removed from office in a coup d' etat that left him standing on a runway in Costa Rica, still wearing his pajamas. It was Latin America of old, a coup hadn't happened in almost twenty years and I was itching to be closer to it.

I waited another week to assess the volatility, which at the time, was full civil disobedience and international political pressure. Everything was in play, the whole gamut: demonstrations, border closings, a media-storm, clashes between protesters and police with a smattering of political killings.

I was apprehensive to go alone and wanted to have someone who would watch my back with a sense of adventure. I found two men ready to leave Guatemala for turbulent Honduras. Jeff, a talkative Australian who was fluster-proof and Alex, a tightly wound journalism student from Mexico City with something to prove.

We wanted to see it first hand, to talk to the people and confirm or dispel what the press was saying. Jeff and I tended to be the more practical, while Alex's temperament was to run the streets of San Pedro Sula after curfew, when the streets would flood with trucks of National Police that played for keeps.

I attended rallies protesting Zelaya's removal from office and interviewed many about the coup d' etat. At the time, the running argument made by the government, was that Zelaya's removal was constitutionally mandated and this was used to great effect blunting domestic anger. After a few days in-country, Alex managed to find himself a journalism job in the turbulent capital, Tegucigalpa, as an assistant reporter. Jeff and I were relieved to have him go, for Alex had too much unbound energy and was a bullhorn of constant criticism for the two of us. Jeff and I headed for the mellower environs of the Caribbean coast. Along the way, we saw a couple of dead men (due to road accidents, not political violence).

Despite conservative cries from the extreme-right, there was no important liberal movement in Honduras. The oligarchy cried Communism and blamed subversive activities on an unnamed movement (there was none), and the people bought it like docile servants shaking their fists at the Communist threat branded with the flags of Cuba and Venezuela. Watching tv and reading newspapers at the time, felt like it was the 1950s in the United States, when Americans were mobilized against the Red Threat.

Ricardo, a heavy equipment salesman and I argued over dinner, the merits of the coup, (he was in favor of it), while he got a lady friend or his sister (my Spanish was so bad at that time) on the phone and attempted to match-make. My position was that if Zelaya's removal from office was constitutionally mandated, then he should have stood trial, instead he was led out of the country under gunpoint, hardly evidence of a legal mandate.

At the end of my stay, what impressed most was the effectiveness of the state propaganda machine and how it influenced public opinion and people like Ricardo. The lesson: regardless of the facts, tv matters more than any other single media when shaping public opinion. Reflecting on the effectiveness of media in Honduras, I could see how the propaganda model was deployed on Americans during the run up to the invasion of Iraq, how quickly and easily the majority of Americans bought into military adventurism.

Political Epilogue
Since Zelaya was unceremoniously stranded in his pajamas that morning in June 2009, the new government of Honduras has increased the use of political violence to suppress popular movements. The violence escalated dramatically since Pepe Lobo was elected President; union leaders, resistance organizers and journalists have been systematically murdered.

In 2010, Honduras was named the most dangerous place in the world to be a journalist, ten were assassinated in 2010. The United States and Canada are the only countries to recognize Lobo's government; in a rare show of unity, Latin American countries have denounced his government because of the illegality of the coup d' etat and sham election that followed.

Hondurans were friendly people with hard faces, until conversation started, then the faces softened. Compared to the overly-polite passive Guatemalans, they were direct and gruff. Greetings in restaurants were rare and when entering a shop or hotel, it was, Diga me, tell me, skipping the usual courtesies.

More people rode bicycles and the women kept their youthful figures later in life, whereas, in Guatemala and Mexico the women turn plump in their early twenties. An enjoyable part of the Honduran character is how open and expressive they are, opinions freely shared on politics and social issues. They were refreshingly direct.

Far away from the protest burdened cities and blocked highways, I met a Dutch woman on the Caribbean coast in Trujillo, not knowing at the time I would fall deeply in love with her. Marjolein and I made plans to travel together in Nicaragua.

On a rain soaked mountain road along the Caribbean Coast was my worst get-the-truck-stuck pickle to date. A land bridge, barely as wide as Azulita, my truck, gave way and crumbled from under us as we tried to cross it. The truck settled on its axle, at the edge of a hole large enough to swallow it.

Before this episode, I had some experience getting stuck, in Mexico trapped on a beach, buried in sand, another time, semi-submerged in a small river with water running inside the cab; all of them workable situations, but this one was bad. There was nothing we could do on our own, to move it forward or backward would send the truck into the hole.

The Russian couple, Dmitriy and Olga went down the hill for help, we needed a pull-out. He came back with a old Toyota FJ40, and after we built a rock ramp with a tree and an old door to help it pass out of the hole the yank out went well. The big Sunday drive I promised everyone was spent getting unstuck. We made it two kilometers up the road.
Dmitriy an adventurer in his own right and a survivalist trainer put it this way, The only difference between a regular car and those with four-wheel drive, is in a 4x4 you get further down the road before getting stuck.

After I left the Russians and New Zealander, Michaela at the edge of the Mosquito Coast, where the road stops, I drove into the Wild West interior of Honduras, Olancho Department, known for rough-hewn ways, it is the same region where exiled President Zelaya came from. A region modeled on the old west of farmers and cattle ranchers linked by dirt roads and dry dusty towns.
Men worked on horseback, Real cowboys, I thought.

I met Oscar in these remote reaches, a traveling salesman who sold guns, but I could only see him hustling leather-holsters. We both stayed in a hospedaje that had cell block rooms with shared bathrooms for a few bucks a night.

After gun talk with Oscar, I got bored and thirsty, and was tired of yellow dust in my mouth, and went for a beer on the plaza. Without local guidance I was at the mercy of the place, I had set foot in cross-dressers bar. Even the owner was a feminino. It was the last thing I expected to find in Marlboro country. They stared at me like fresh meat, I steeled myself for my mistake and ordered a beer.

They had hunting lurid eyes. I squirmed and was conscious of every move, making nervous tick after nervous tick unable to mask my discomfort. A group of cross dressers sat at a table looking my way whispering, smiling and winking.
Is this how women feel? I'm sorry, I'll never do it again, passed my thoughts.
My bravado had to be propped up with a second beer, leaving after the owner told me to come back at seven when he'd have a nice girl or guy for me.

Strawberry Pop-Tarts
After months of craving Strawberry Pop-Tarts, I finally found them, in Danli, a small city known for cigar making, near the border with Nicaragua. I ate them for dinner and for breakfast the next morning in bed, crumbs all over my chest. I stocked up and refused to let other travelers see them. The secret supply ran out soon enough, left deprived, the cravings started over again and lasted for months, until Marjolein found them in Panama City. I had all but given up on seeing or tasting them again. In every city I stayed in, during my walks, I would search every grocery store for Pop-Tarts. Once, I found fig newtons. I dreamt of care packages with Pop-Tarts in them.

Did you know:
In 2001, the United States' military airdropped 2.4 million Pop-Tarts in Afghanistan during the US invasion. Cultural and political imperialism comes in many forms.

Today he said, more than ever before men had to learn to live without things. Things filled men with fear: the more things they had, the more had to fear. Things had a way of riveting themselves on to the soul and then telling the soul what to do..
-Bruce Chatwin, Songlines

For Past Dispatches on Honduras hit these select links and look for a Nicaragua summary in next Dispatch Number 88-

A Colorful First Night in Honduras-
Presidential Coup with Alex-
Presidential Coup with Jeff-
With Love from Russia-
When I Almost Lost the Truck-
Oscar the Gun Salesman-
The Cross Dressers-

Ayacucho, Peru