Part Four -- PERHAPS NOT ALL DAYS WILL WE BE IN THIS
ATENCION TODO PASAJERO.
At 2:52. I had a ride from capital to capital. Atop the mountains
south of the city my attention shifted from the sprawling metropolis
to the narrow plume of smoke rising straight and high above the Volcano
de Pacaya. We then descended into valleys filled with coffee plants
growing shaded by arbors of trees. The frequent wild orchid gardens
nestled in the trees no longer surprise me. Today's botanical delight
was the number and kind of flowering trees, seemingly a new one at each
turn in that lush Southern Guatemala ecological zone. One plantation
had orange blossoming trees, another niche was solid purple. Nice winter
real estate indeed.
My hosts, three El Salvadoran merchants, had sold their van load of
products in the city. I rode in the back enjoying the view and the radio
blasting English rock and roll. When "I want my MTV" began playing they
switched to a stretched Vicente Fernandez tape.
While we went through El Salvadoran immigration and customs I began
to talk with one of them, A. When two soldiers with automatic weapons
walked by A. commented, "They are the armed forces."
"They certainly are," I relied. To maintain conversation yet remain
neutral I stated that in Guatemala they wore camouflage uniforms, not
A. replied that Honduras has similar green uniforms which look more
like American uniforms. He informed that there is a U.S. army in Honduras
and stated, "Honduras is practically an American colony."
The customs agent found a large package of cash in their luggage. After
my pack was briefly searched we were allowed to continue. I sat alone
in back with an excellent 360 degree view, astride my pack and beside
the cash. My hosts closely scrutinized any vehicle following us, they
commented about trucks undergoing random roadside inspections, they
were attentive to the possibilities of getting stopped at military checkpoints
and they worried not that I was riding beside the cash. We arrived in
San Salvador before 8:00.
A. led me to this hotel after dropping his baggage at his room across
the street. At a nearby comedor we shared dinner while a charming 8-year-old
bus boy conversed with us. Due to the little guy's street slang and
missing front teeth we had difficulty understanding him. Likewise he
asked me to repeat statements. His repertoire of hand and facial expressions
were as delightful as he was entertaining. We quizzed him about his
budding geographic concepts. He knows I come from a place far away where
people talk different, but that's the extent of his understanding.
A. offered to be my guide tomorrow and changed my Guatemalan currency.
Because he has helped and guided me I won the battle of buying dinner,
$1.60 for both meals. This hotel costs $2.25. Time to rest. Tomorrow
more about today.
Jan. 29. 6:45 a.m. Comedor La Ursula. All remains peaceful.
The most disturbing event has been church bells peeling loudly just
two unobstructed blocks from my room's open windows. A. stated that
the capital is quiet, that the fighting is in other parts of the country.
He said that things are worse in Nicaragua. I can only make comparisons
with Guatemala and Mexico for now.
Along the highways we traveled yesterday I saw many more soldiers in
El Salvador than in Guatemala. El Salvadoran soldiers are guarding the
bridges, electrical substations and road intersection, often from primitive
rock bunkers that might confuse future archaeologists. The Guatemalan
two-story police towers seem friendly compared to El Salvador's severe
road bumps placed across the roadspans at all strategic locations. These
necessitate nearly complete stops and very slow crossings as machine
gun toting soldiers look on. The El Salvadoran soldiers are heavily
laden with ammo belts.
In Mexico less severe speed bumps called topes are used at schools
and pedestrian crossings to assure speed limit compliance. Here the
warning signs read "Tumulus" and "Warning - Slow - Military Zone." Trucks
were being searched at several of the military zones and at seemingly
random locations. Only at the border were we actually searched. After
dark, at one stop, we were reviewed with flashlights shining in the
windows. I didn't see actual warfare and don't need to know I'm in a
war zone. I hope such luck continues.
Reviewing finances reveals that I've spent $10.00 a day since leaving
the USA, not counting photography. I've mailed eight 36 exposure rolls
of slide film to processing during the same time. From here south the
cost of living will average less.
A young boy just arrived selling today's newspapers with front page
color photographs of the space shuttle "Challenger" exploding. I bought
La Prensa, which reports that US Vice-President George Bush accused
Nicaragua of hiding its Marxist-Leninist system of government contrary
to the democratic aspiration of the people. Bush, at a news conference
held in the Central Bank Building in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, stated that
the USA unconditionally supports the more than 20,000 men in arms, the
contras, who since 1982 have tried to overthrow the regime in Nicaragua
with U.S. financing and bases installed in Honduras. Bush stated that
the U.S. is committed to help Honduras in its effort to defend its sovereignty
and territory against the communist aggression. So reads La Prensa.
A separate article about U.S. Secretary of State George Schultz's meeting
in Washington, D.C. with contra leaders cites Alfonso Robelo as having
said: "We can continue to fight without money, but we cannot win." He
also said that it is cheaper for the U.S. to finance the contras than
to intervene directly. While the Challenger article laments the accidental
death of seven people other articles coldly report preplanning and prepaying
to kill thousands of people.
1:14. Museo Nacional David J. Guzman. This morning A. did not
arrive as planned. I loaded the backpack and arrived after two quick
bus rides. A display of an old printing press is being installed so
the museum is closed. Because I'm here today I was allowed entrance
anyway and, excepting the workers, I had the entire museum to study
in solitude all morning. A glass enclosed island displays small stone
sculptures, including three beautiful mushroom stones. The polychrome
pottery presents very detailed painted imagery. The sculptured pottery
vessels depict both toads and goggle-eyed and fanged Tlaloc. One vessel
is undecorated except three images projecting in full relief, a face
and two paratoid glands--a minimalist toad with glands sculpted with
depressed spots identical to Izapan paratoid depiction. A facsimile
of the Dresden Codex, one of the surviving Mayan books, is open to pages
with an astronomical table complete with an upside-down toad seemingly
falling like rain from the sky.
I was allowed to photograph using the tripod, a complete contrast to
the beaurocratic stone wall around the Guatemala National Museum. Here
I will see the mushroom stones in storage. Inquiries about the stored
items led to the office of museum director, Dr. Stanley Boggs, who expressed
interest in my interests. I return to his office after he finishes lunch.
I had lunch with P.A., an American archaeologist who has worked in El
Salvador for three years. Our conversation ranged from Agrarian Reform
to Zoology. I learned that the surface soil in this basin is of recent
volcanic origin, 1,700 years old. The layer varies from 2 to 40 meters.
The eruption provides the local archaeologist with a perfect separation
between the pre-classic and classic. A valuable conversation with useful
local information with someone versed in Latin American studies is a
complete contrast indeed to doing a two hour shift as doorman.
7:50. Salon de T* María, San Vicente, El Salvador. Interruptions
had kept Dr. B from his lunch. While he ate I wandered into the museum
workshop. Time permitted doing close-up photography of the thirteen
complex polychrome figures encircling a perfect millennia old bowl, the
museum's piece of the month. By two o'clock I was in the first of several
storage rooms examining and photographing pottery, mushroom stones and
reviewing shelves with hundreds of other pieces, all the while in animated
conversation with Dr. B. and two of his assistants, receiving a short
course in El Salvadoran archaeology.
We proceeded to the museum displays to facilitate discussing details
of the pieces on display. As in the Popol Vuh museum, the second viewing
occasioned more insights, this time especially so because I had the
opportunity to question a company of local authorities including the
museum's proud father, Dr. Boggs. He has worked in El Salvadoran archaeology
since 1939. At 4:30 I loaded my pack as Dr. Boggs shut off the lights.
Two crowded rush hour bus rides later I was on the Pan-Am Highway,
again on the southern edge of a capital. At 5:38 I had a thumb up and
a few minutes later was underway, riding on a flatbed trailer beside
an immense asphalt compactor. During a brief stop the driver's assistant
pitched me one of the sweetest oranges ever grown. Further along the
tires passed over a rivulet of waste water flowing beside the pavement
edge. I received an odiferous speckling. When the assistant disboarded
at the turnoff to his home I was promoted to the cab. The driver conversed
about his daughters in California and his young grandson, who he has
yet to meet. Many El Salvadorans have fled to the USA due to the civil
war. The headlights illuminated a troop of soldiers on patrol and the
conversation shifted. The driver warned me to eat dinner and then stay
in my room for the night so as to avoid getting shot.
8:54. Back in my room at the "Hotelito El Toque." So there I
was bumping along squeezed with my pack in the passenger seat of the
diesel cab, contemplating staying in my room to avoid getting shot.
The truck driver announced, "This is where they destroyed four of the
company trucks." He explained that rebel forces, whom he called "guerilleros,"
had attacked the highway construction company, which is owned by "gringos,"
because the company continued to work during a strike and had therefore
incurred the attack. He also stated that fighting rages from here south.
He dropped me off 4 km. from town in the dark beside the Pan Am near
the construction company's equipment yard at the San Vicente turnoff.
Riders in the passenger bus I hitched recommended this hotel.
On the barroom type doors at the hotel entrance is written: "One hour
$7,00, Two hours $10.00." That explained the laughter which accompanied
the recommendation. I asked the clerk if they rented rooms all night
to someone alone. "That's $12.00." The sound effects are, well,
ah, beyond description. Sighs and moans presently issue from across
the hall. I went out to dinner and immediately encountered a military
patrol. The soldiers were distantly spaced from one another, In the
next block I met another squad. One soldier carried a heavyweight machine
gun with a long continuous clip of bullets slung back and forth across
his shoulders. All that hardware made the short little guy look deadly
but comic. The patrol density was about six soldiers per block on the
way to the Salon de T*, across the street from a one square block military
garrison. A concrete bunker occupies part of the intersection at the
garrison corner near the restaurant door.
While I walked from the restaurant a soldier ran up beside me and politely
requested that I accompany him to the garrison. At the bunker I was
ordered to present my documents, I was thoroughly searched and after
five minutes of interrogation was permitted to depart. The local military
situation is certainly active. Walking down the street in San Vicente
is unlike any prior experience I've had.
Gunshots just sounded in the distance. Laughter issues from across
the hall. Upon returning from dinner I had to reach over the cafe doors
to unlatch them. Suddenly one of the room doors opened and a half-dressed
soldier looked out to investigate. In the room a woman continued undressing
and in the courtyard shadows I noticed the clerk standing on a wooden
box and peeping into the room. My noiseless though timely arrival spared
his being detected.
Jan. 30. 10:05. Having breakfast on the outskirts of San Miguel.
At 5:14 the garbage truck bell ringer passed the Hotelito. The local
method offers no excuse for forgetting to take out the garbage. One
jumps out of bed to the bell's loud ring and throws the trash in the
passing truck. Simple enough. I rolled over a few times, by 6:46 I had
a ride to the junction. From there in a minute I caught the back of
a truck, the first vehicle to pass. The second time it stalled was about
a mile from the Lempa River. I walked, stopping once to take a photo
of the destroyed bridge, wreckage of what had been a long, graceful
suspension span. Twice during that one mile walk soldiers questioned
me and asked to see my documents.
Just past the old bridge ramp I caught the back of another truck. One
hundred meters later two soldiers stopped us and boarded with me. As
we crossed the dam which replaces the bridge I asked the soldiers to
identify the vegetation entirely covering the reservoir surface. "Water
lilies." They were not blooming. A few kilometers later the soldiers
stopped the truck and jumped down. In another few kilometers we were
stopped by a troop of seven National Guards, all fully armed and heavily
burdened with ammo belts and backpacks. They also boarded the back of
the truck. Apparently taking their occupation seriously, two placed
guns aimed to one roadside, two beside me at the opposite roadside and
three sat in the open back in weapons ready posture. I noticed I was
wearing a green shirt. I asked the man next to me to identify their
big machine gun with a long belt of bullets.
"M-60," he replied.
"How many bullets can it shoot?"
"1,000 about, until you have to change the barrel."
"And your gun, what is it?" I asked the other.
"M-16," he replied.
"Is it an automatic?"
I wasn't very happy about having such companionship.
Aaahh! One knows one is about to savor an authentic local cuisine breakfast
when the beans and tortillas arrive and no one even considers the possibility
that you might want a fork. Often this also means the coffee is sweetened
in the cooking jar. Mmmm! And too sweet. Well there we were, myself
and seven heavily armed men, riding through the war zone in the back
of a truck with an open rack like eight clay pigeons, and all with the
same color shirts. I continued my inquiries.
"Is there any chance that we might be attacked?"
"Yes, it is a bit dangerous here."
"Is there less of a chance that we will attacked because I'm riding
"No, they are really stupid."
I hadn't said I was seeking truths! I continued, "Can that M-60 cut
down a tree?"
"It can shoot a tree all to pieces."
"Well, do you have an extra M-60 for me in case we get attacked?"
"No, you'll just have to duck." Duck where?
"Well," I responded bravely and pompously, "if we are attacked I'll
take out my camera and try to get there pictures."
The two soldiers laughed and, after a moment to think, one replied,
"That's a pretty good idea." They laughed again, a light moment in a
serious war for the first two soldiers I've seen laughing in this part
of the world. They were still smiling when they jumped down.
The truck turned off miles before San Miguel at the base of the erupting
Chaparastique volcano. Rather than hitchhike I walked searching for
interesting photographic foreground. Finally, I took a frame while a
larger than average puff of heavy smoke and ash belched over the caldera
rim. Though a bit erratic, the venting is continuous. I asked a man
living beside the road how long the volcano has been actively venting.
"Since the beginning of creation," he responded, adding, "Recently
there was a lava flow on the other side."
Soon I was riding and passing columns of soldiers extending many miles
along the highway. I was dropped off near the entrance of the San Miguel
barracks and immediately changed into a blue shirt. A helicopter with
stretcher visible in the hold passed overhead. Hundreds of soldiers
walked and jogged past and into the garrison. I walked on. At the nearby
junction gas station I changed a U.S. $20 for 100 colones, a bit of
a loss but necessary to eat breakfast.
A fellow diner, who can't spell the name of the volcano, says he can't
read or write. The cooking fire glows warm in the corner of this open
shed. A thatch roof shades us from the hot sun. A young woman is bent
over the stone metate working masa with a mano. She stands upright and
palms a tortilla from a ball of masa and throws it on the sheet metal
griddle. A bus is stopping at the corner and instantly a cacophony of
venders sound sales calls; "refrescos," etc. Across the street a radio
entertains the neighborhood from a much more modern open shed restaurant
with tile roof and concrete floor. A man is walking by rolling a tire.
Another man just sat down at this, the comedor's only table, and, referring
to my writing, asked what I'm doing and why I am here. I stated that
I am studying archaeology and he emphatically retorted, "Aren't you
going to study the economic situation, which is so bad here?" He explained
that he is an agriculturist and had to leave his land because of the
I asked him what he does now and he said, "Nothing, because there are
no jobs." He explained that he wants things to develop so jobs will
be created and that's why he asked me what I'm doing, thinking perhaps
I could help. I've absolved myself, explaining that I'm just passing
through. Before departing I have a question for this man. "What is the
best thing that can be done here?"
I find his reply unexpected, but very sensible. "That things normalize
enough to plant beans and corn."
I'm reminded of Fredrick Boyle who a century ago said, "If the government
must be overthrown, say the planters, Carajo! let's do it between crops."
Breakfast costs 3 colones. This passing stranger is well fed, better
fed than the local farmer.
3:18. I need a map. I'm in one piece somewhere in Honduras,
in a large town near the Pacific coast. It is quite hot and dry. I'm
thirsty and sitting in the shade at a refresco stand enjoying a second
cold soda. I hitched the pickup that dropped me here from atop the previous
truck while it slowed to turn off. I've traveled fast with eleven hitches
so far today, eight in the backs of trucks or pickups. Only in villages
did any passing vehicle leave me standing in the war zone. One worried
and hurried driver and I changed a tire in four minutes flat. The land
today, as well as the day, has become progressively hotter and drier.
I'm feeling burnt. At this junction the road turns inland towards mountains
and away from the cotton and watermelon fields and the heat. I've reached
my limit of solar exposure and must await the next ride while resting
in the shade. Hopefully I shall also ride cool shaded and shaded.
The El Salvador passport exit stamp costs 3 colones. At the El Amatillo
Honduran Immigration office a drunk from among the throngs of people
decided to stick to me. I was irritated and told him, "Bug off and quit
touching me." He took the idea seriously only upon my second suggestion
being seconded by the immigration officer. After he moved off I felt
a moist spot on my left forearm and looked down to see an incredibly
large and bloody glob of phlegm. He was still sticking to me! Borders
are the pits and need to be abolished.
The immigration officials first checked for my name on a list, the
title of which read, "Lista de Personas de la Marcha de la Paz," the
"List of Persons of the March for Peace." Ever on the vanguard for information
I asked what the list was. The official curtly stated, "Those who cannot
enter Honduras." Then they checked a large book-size alphabetic computer
printout list for my name and found it not, not even after I corrected
their alphabetic sequence mistake. One officer told me to pay three
lempiras. The other rebuffed him in Spanish, "No, this one is five."
In English I was told to pay five lempiras, not three. Because they
would not accept colones I had to plunged back into the throng of money
changers, drunks and who knows whats. I exchanged .465 lempiras per
colon and 2.32 lempiras per dollar and then ransomed my passport. I
was marching south on Honduran soil at 12:50 and saw no evidence of
a customs check.
Since the border I've seen little of police, soldiers or lethal weaponry.
Another obvious comparison is that El Salvador seems immensely more
impoverished than Honduras and Honduras is one of America's poorest
nations. Perhaps my perception of economic disparity is due to refugee
shacks of cardboard and better grade along the El Salvadoran Pan American.
I walked the little traveled section from the border station to the
first Honduran village while reading the newspaper. A young lad passing
asked if it was an El Salvadoran paper. I said yes and he editorialized,
"Things are really terrible there." Today's El Salvadoran press reports
that Ronald Reagan is requesting a 33 percent increase in military assistance
to other countries in the 1987 budget, including a 25 percent increase
in bellicose aid to Central America. The proposal includes a total aid
package of $1.1 billion for four Central American countries. Other articles
report the number of daily dead and wounded in the civil war and the
people in the U.S. mourning the loss of life from the Challenger accident.
Today's headline story is about an additional 15 percent export tax
on coffee to serve to finance "the extraordinary expense necessary to
preserve the assets, security, order, and existence of the state and
the well being of its inhabitants" according to wording of the law passed
by the El Salvadoran legislative assembly.
7:45. San Marcos, Honduras. A village only a few miles from
Nicaragua. I'm up in the hills. It's cooler, the air is refreshing.
A wind blows. At sunset from a lofty viewpoint I saw three nations,
the Gulf of Fonseca, many volcanoes and the ocean below bright orange
clouds, a beautiful vista indeed, but not the most impressive sights
of the day. Several I shall not easily forget. Along part of the Pan
Am near Santa Rosa de Lima, El Salvador, for about 100 yards garbage
is dumped adjacent to the roadway, obviously by the truckload. A man,
a woman and a small child were sifting and searching the rubbish when
we passed. Hopefully, the parents have instructed the child not to open
large plastic bags. I'm happy to not have viewed blood and carnage while
passing through a war. Both yesterday and today I did see helicopters
ferrying victims. The mangled and twisted remains of the once graceful
Rio Lempa bridge are unforgettable. Almost every river and stream crossing
in El Salvador was on a new, temporary or makeshift bridge. Not one
bridge on the Pan Am between San Vicente and the border has been spared
This restaurant seems to be a family operation. Children are responsible
for table service. A boy, perhaps 10 years old, approached and asked
if I am with the March for Peace. I admitted my ignorance. He said a
group of pacifists have marched from Panama. They wished to march across
Honduras but have been denied entry. This young lad told me that if
I associate with the marchers I will not be allowed to enter Honduras
again. Without my prompting or my raising any subject he offered his
info, I presume to ingratiate himself before he revealed his true reason
for approaching-banking. Aay! Even the children are money changers near
these many borders.
9:04. In a room in a nameless hospedaje, San Marcos. Outside
the restaurant I was again approached by juvenile businessmen. They
offered the service of guiding me to the most economical room in town
for a small fee. They reported that Nicaraguan immigration costs $50
U.S. Well, it's been a long and intense day and after many km. and 14
rides this happy-to-be-alive reporter needs rest.
Jan. 31. 9:45 a.m. In the sun on the sidewalk in front of the
San Marcos Post Office. I've mailed film to processing and a sign of
life to my parents. After departing the nameless hostel an entrepreneurial
youth, for a small fee, directed me to a full breakfast for the "best
price in town." I ate in a private home surrounded by a courtyard of
flowers. Birds are chirping and children are laughing. The new concrete
streets are clean and well swept. Buildings are freshly painted. New
homes are being constructed. People are well attired. These few hours
of peace are a treasure after yesterday. All seems quiet here, yet somewhere
in this country there are military bases from which Nicaragua is attacked
by a U.S. financed irregular army, the contras. The Honduran people
seem to not know this, the government denies it and the El Salvadoran
press reports it.
The driver of my only El Salvadoran ride inside a vehicle yesterday
clarified a previous conversation. The previous evening the heavy equipment
truck driver reported that FMLN forces, "guerrilleros," had destroyed
four of his employer's vehicles because they kept working during a "paro."
Under ordinary circumstances the word paro would mean a strike, and
so I understood the communication. I assumed the FMLN supported the
workers vs. the company by violent coercion. Now I know a new meaning
for paro. Today in El Salvador they are having a paro, literally a stop,
a traffic ban, a transportation suspension. The FMLN announced the paro,
an announcement meaning that any vehicle which ventures on the roads
is subject to FMLN attack. Everyone understands so beforehand, so those
traveling the highways there today are those participating in the warfare.
Vehicles which violate the paro order are burned by the FMLN. Yesterday
I noticed burned vehicles in the road ditches. My informant said that
paros happen as frequently as once a week. Consequently southbound traffic
on the Pan Am will be reduced today, perhaps slowing me also. Onward
11:21. At the abandoned and war torn buildings of the Nicaraguan
Migration Offices. Because of the contras the actual facility has been
relocated miles from the border. Ruined buildings surround me. Political
graffiti decorates the walls:
"El enemigo es el mismo: muerte al Somocismo, muerte al imperialismo."
(The enemy is the same: death to Somozaism, death to imperialism.)
"Solo los timidos, vacilantes, reacionarios, y combardes rehuyen
al SMP-JS." ("Only the timid, vacillating, reactionary and cowardly
join the SMP-JS.")
"Quien pario ha Reagan una mula. Protesto dijo la mula, 'yo no pari
ese hijo de puta.'" ("Who stopped a mule for Reagan? I protest said
the mule, 'I didn't stop this son of a whore.'")
"Mi causa es la causa de mi pueblo, la causa de america, la causa
de todos los pueblos oprimidos." (My cause is the cause of my people,
the cause of America, the cause of all oppressed peoples.")
"Si algun dia me mataran por ser joven Sandinista, Con mi sangre
escriv soy Marxista Leninista." ("If they kill me some day for being
a young Sandinista with my blood I will write I am Marxist Leninist.")
"Cmdte. Carlos los Letreros aun siguen en los muros de tu pueblo.
No pasaran." (Commander Carlos the slogans continue on the walls of
your country. They will not pass."
I ask the people walking by who Cmdte. Carlos is. They say he is dead,
that he died before the triumph. Cars and buses are not passing. People
are walking by, carrying their belongings. The largest building's metal
roof trusses are downfallen, obviously melted by fire.
"Sandino vive, Muerte a los contra revolutionarios" (Sandino lives,
Death to the counter revolutionaries).
"Marcha por la Paz en Centro-America" (March for Peace in Central
Broken glass litters the floor tiles in the old customs room. On the
"Los momentos mas duros de la patria no fue cuando los fusiles salieron
derrotados sino cuando no hubieron hombres balientes que los empuöaron."
(The most unbearable moments of the nation were not when the guns
were fired, but rather when there were no valiant men to take up arms.)
"Muerte a Reagan conchon y sus paladines y sus perros terroristas,
asesinos..." ("Death to that fucker Reagan and his paladins and his
terrorist dogs, assassins...")
"Aqui estubo Benjamin Cordoba."
Dried feces and used toilet paper decorates the corners.
"25-90 Los Brujos I.S.A."
A tree grows out of the rubble, its bright yellow flowers contrast
with human destruction. In a corner a straw and cardboard mattress has
been carefully laid. A destroyed safe lies on its side. The safe door
reads: "Ministerio de Districto Nacional." A slogan in English reads:
"Sandino, life in the struggle for the Peace." On the walls there are
also drawings, childlike in simplicity. The most common elements are
guns, Sandino's hat and people. A few doves are drawn as is the globe.
"Hartilleros al pie del caöon defendense donde la revolucion
Si ay que combatir, combatiremos, si ay que morir, moriremos, nuestra
sangre derramaremos, patria libre o morir, patria ho muerte beceremos."
("Artillerymen to the cannon. Defend yourselves wherever the revolution.
If it is necessary to combat, we will combat, if it is necessary to
die, we will die, we will spill our blood, a free native land or death,
our native land or we will kiss death.")
The smell of feces fills the air. Vamonos.
1:01. Hot sun, dry wind. On the roadside, a spent shell beside
me. The new migration offices are still a few kilometers further. Beyond
the remains of the destroyed offices I passed two guard stations without
a question, just hellos. On this side the border is truly quiet. There
are no moneychangers or unruly drunks. A crowd of moneychangers surrounded
me at the Honduran offices. Here a few people are walking, struggling
with packages and suitcases. One small group was resting in the shade
of trees. So far no vehicle has passed.
For nearly a kilometer past the ruins of the immigration complex along
both sides of the road amidst overgrown brush and ornamentals stand
the remains of abandoned homes, now all roofless walls. Obviously years
have passed since the residents fled. At the end of those ruins is a
broken down sign reading "El Espino," that is, The Thorn.
Just past the El Espino sign smoke filtering from the tile roof of
a large shack. A hand waved inside the doorway. Due to thirst I approached,
stopping in the low doorway. Inside on crude benches at a makeshift
table sat six Sandinista soldiers lunching on beans and rice. From under
the table a lank dog growled and ferociously barked, oblivious to contrary
"He must think I'm Reagan," I said. I asked for a drink of water. A
tall, dark beautiful woman brought a large glass of cool water. I thanked
her and began drinking. The soldiers, all with rifles leaning against
their legs, kept watching me. The dog kept growling.
"Do you know how many U.S. politicians it takes to eat a dog?" I asked.
While heads shook one soldier responded, "Only one."
"No three, because while one eats, let's say Reagan, two hold off the
traffic." That drew a bit of laughter, but not much. On duty soldiers
do not a friendly night club audience make. I continued, "Do you know
how many dogs are required to eat a U.S. politician, let's say Reagan?"
This time the same man assuredly responded, "Only one."
Tapping my abdomen I said, "How can it be? He even does damage to the
dogs." There was no laughter. Here the old joke is too true.
I handed the glass back to the woman and for a very long moment stared
into that shack, into the boy faces of those men with their guns, at
their meager lunch on square tin plates and at the skinny growling dog
as they silently stared back at me. As tears welled I said, "Good luck,
take care," and turned and walked.
Down the road two of them caught up to me. They carried a plastic jug
with about three pints of beans and rice. We chatted as we marched.
When they turned to climb to a rock bunker I asked, "How many men will
that feed?" The soldier replied, "Only one."
At the bunker I saw three.
1:51. La Playa village. A sign on the first immigration shack
reads, "Atención Todo pasajero que su motivo sea en transito por Nicaragua
debera pagar $20 dollares por visa. D.M.E." The sign is outdated. The
price is $60 for a visa.
2:41. In a private courtyard beside the Pan Am. The people who
live here began conversing with me as I walked by. I was invited to
have coffee and a tortilla. My hosts, though hospitable, are obviously
very poor so I lied and said I'm not hungry. The coffee is good as is
the company. While awaiting the coffee we thrashed sorghum seeds. It's
simple; one beats a pile of sorghum stalks with a stick, occasionally
stirring the heap. Sorghum chaff litters my hair and clothing. Granny,
who wears a "Women Save the World" button, is telling of the wonderful
peace marchers who visited here. Her son is inspecting my digital calculator
watch. In response to explaining my travel plan Granny said, "May the
Virgin take care of you so you have a good trip," and she cried. I asked
not why. I sense that part of her family is no longer present.
The conversation has shifted. Granny says that here a dollar is gold.
At the border I was required to change $60 U.S. for 28 cordobas per
dollar or forego entering Nicaragua. Across the border the Honduran
moneychangers paid 925 cordobas for each dollar. Changing one traveler's
check yielded an inch thick wad of bills. By all practical reasoning
I just paid $58 to enter this would-be republic. How many bananas is
that? An astronomical number I'm sure.
6:38. A town. A plaza. In front of the church stand columns
of women, each with a torch in one hand and a cross in the other. Other
women carry a banner which reads: "Vigilamos y Oramos por la Paz." ("We
Vigil and Pray for Peace.") They are beginning to march and are praying.
Now the priest is singing a prayer. People and vehicles are falling
in behind the marchers, joining in the prayer responses. The priest
speaks of the 100 million dollars that has been spent to kill Nicaraguan
people. Another prayer begins, part of the stations of the cross. More
people and cars are joining the march, including a truckload of soldiers.
"It was unjust for Christ to be nailed to the cross. It is unjust for
the Nicaraguan people to be nailed to the cross of imperialism. The
second station of the cross..." the priest prays on. At the end of another
block the march stops to pray another station. And the march moves on
in prayer. An inquiry reveals that all the women holding crosses and
torches are "mothers of the martyrs," mothers of those killed by the
7:19. The town is named Esteli. I checked into the Hotel El
Mesón. At the free market exchange rate rooms with bathrooms cost less
than a dollar as does dinner. The waiter just arrived with the first
course, a beautiful mixed salad. After marching most of the afternoon
I'm hungry. There was almost no traffic, I caught the first of two rides
after 5 p.m. A thick juicy steak topped with onions and green peppers
and served with bread and rice just arrived. I've ordered a second beer.
A juvenile businessman sold me a local paper for 1¢ U.S. The headline
story is about the Nicaraguan Constitutional Congress Commission meeting
yesterday, a truly historic moment. On the very same day U.S. President
Ronald Reagan announced his $100,000,000 contra aid request. Another
story features photos of U.S. citizens that completed building a school
and an Australian group that completed two weeks picking coffee beans
to assist Nicaragua. Page two has an article citing a Spanish television
station airing a report on U.S. experiments with a biological weapon
derived from Anthrax bacteria. According to this report the activity
at Fort Detrick, Maryland and Dugway, Utah is part of a secret CIA and
Pentagon project. Time to stop writing. Tonight I'm getting drunk, I've
ordered a third beer over the waiter's objection.
I leave alone, I will pass alone,
but not for all the days, for all afternoons.
I'm here alone, an orphan of the Earth.
Tomorrow or later I will stay below ground.
I will return to earth.
Right now yes we will drink it
we will drink our liquor.
Right now yes, on this day, on this afternoon
We will enjoy here, we will laugh here.
That the sentiments will calm
that heartaches be forgotten
We will give drink, we will take drink.
Perhaps not all days
perhaps not all afternoons
Will we be in this world?
Ancient American Poem.
Feb. 1 7:02 a.m. Esteli. Sitting in the plaza amidst prehistoric
petroglyph rocks and beside a modern monument to the immense love of
motherhood. Singing emanates from the church. A statue of mother and
child adorns the austere church facade. This morning I notice that all
around town the buildings have bullet holes.
Gunfire at 4 a.m. awakened me. I could not see what was happening from
the small window of my room. I heard eight shots then a round of automatic
gunfire. Before long some people walked by seemingly unconcerned. They
were discussing obtaining meat today. Then two soldiers walked by, also
After lying awake a long time I fell asleep again. In a dream after
a long series of events while traveling I was sitting with other people
on a beach. While facing the ocean to the west and telling my companions
I had been awakened by gunfire our dream conversation was interrupted
by a shot, the loud and near discharge of a firearm. I ran south across
a border to investigate and found people slaughtering cattle, cutting
their throats to bleed them. My attention focused on the large pool
of blood near one cow's neck. In the blood stood three miniature calves.
My attention centered on the middle calf, its white coat stained vivid
red with blood, fresh blood. It had run out of blood, yet it continued
standing. I awakened.
1:22. According to a sign this is "Managua, Nicaragua Libre."
Obviously there has been war here. The four dirt coated beggar children
surrounding me fit their surroundings. All around are burnt out, decaying
and empty building shells, ruins of the present age between empty lots
overgrown with weeds. I expected to find a central plaza with a zócalo
surrounded by colonial buildings, but the 1972 earthquake and the civil
war have left old downtown Managua more a ghost town than not. My hope
of finding restaurants under arcades, marimba in the park and people
promenading and socializing is vanquished. A new park with a few market
stalls has been built between building shells. The only functional building
is a new children's library. Onward to find the museum.
3:09. The directions I received led to a horrific ghetto wherein
there is a museum consisting of one crude stone stela and a deep dig
revealing footprints in ancient mud. The impressions made by a group
of barefoot humans 6,000 years ago. The caretaker informed me that the
national archaeology museum is closed because the staff is working in
the coffee harvest. It will reopen in several weeks, so I plan to visit
on the return. I'm sitting before a small street corner monument which
Here on March 18, 1970 Oscar Antonio Robelo Sotomayor offered his
life for a free Nicaragua. 1952-1978. Founder of: Christian Revolutionary
Movement (M.C.R.), Rural Workers Association (A.T.C.), Peoples Revolutionary
Commandos (C.R.P.), Military Commander of the F.S.L.N. "Solo me occure
una cosa, Luchar! Vencer y trabajar para que esta absurda dominación
polÍtica y explotación económica queda en el recuerdo como
parte de la história, de la epoca de piedra de Nicaragua. Adalante
Campesinos Adelante...Hasta vencer o morir!!" OSCAR
"Only one thing occurs to me, to Fight! to Win and to work in order
that this absurd political domination and economic exploitation be
left in memory as part of history, of the stone age of Nicaragua.
Forward countrymen Forward...Until victory or death!!" OSCAR.
In his case it was until death at this very spot. Another man has stopped
to copy the monument. He offered me some of his bread. He's Mexican
and says he "worked in the coffee harvest as a solidarity gesture with
Nicaragua's struggle." He reports that because of contras they were
protected by soldiers harvesting with rifles on their shoulders. All
day long I've noticed numerous military trucks ferrying soldiers and
civilians. Groups of people are walking into town from the highway.
According to my Mexican companion all this activity is part of the coffee
harvest. "Everyone works here." he said. The people do seem busy.
6:57. Jinotepe. Restaurant La Casona. I walked up mountain and
south out of Managua. Just past the guarded water tanks a Sandinista,
Rolando, and his two young sons provided a ride in a new Toyota Land
Cruiser. In response to my questions Rolando told of his role in the
revolution. He and his fellow combatants lived in the jungle and survived
on what the people could give them, often eating only fried bananas
for days on end. Rolando said that it was a time of greatest hardship,
but that "the most difficult thing was killing people." He saw many
men cry. He lamented, "My grandfather remembers war and my grandfather's
grandfather remembered war and I had hoped my children would not, but
already they too know war." They turned off towards the Pacific.
I walked during sunset. The road followed a high ridge raked by a strong
wind, so forceful I was blown off the pavement once. Before and then
above me a large plume of clouds moved swiftly towards the sea and sunset.
A man answering my inquiry informed that the clouds have been forming
from an active volcano for the past 15 years. Before the eruption the
area was a lush forest. The volcanic emissions have killed the previous
vegetation. I walked on noticing a few remnants of what must have been
the largest and most durable trees. The area is now one of weeds, abandoned
homes, goats and a few hardy goat herders.
A man gave me a lift as darkness stole the view. All the while during
the short ride we discussed politics, yet he did not take sides. His
words were cautious and careful. He asserted that even if I lived in
Nicaragua for a long time I would not understand the Nicaraguan reality.
"How many people live in Nicaragua?" I asked.
"Three million," he responded. We did a little math and concluded that
the 100 million dollars proposed as funding for the contras was sufficient
money to feed every Nicaraguan breakfast for an entire year. Calculator
watches are handy while nation hopping. I asked him what the solution
to the present situation is. "That every Nicaraguan work as hard as
possible to produce as much as possible," he answered.
"But that is not possible if they are busy fighting," I replied. He
smiled and commented not. Excepting one swipe at the military for the
amount of resources they consume, he had avoided partisan positions.
The three young men who accosted me on the street were certainly partisan
to the Sandinistas. First I was asked where I was from, where I was
going and how long I've been here. With my answers for background I
was urged to attend mass in the morning to witness that there is religious
freedom in Nicaragua, not religious repression "as the Yankees claim."
I was also urged to visit villages to see that the people are free.
They warned of the danger of encountering contras near the Costa Rican
border. Dinner for 60¢ U.S. has arrived; a half chicken, rice,
salad, onions, fried potatoes and beets. In the background a Costa Rican
radio station is broadcasting Casey Kasem blasting the "hottest song
in the land"--"I'll be on your side forever more, that's what friends
are for. Keep smiling, keep shining, you can always count on me, that's
what friends are for." With that American Top 40 concludes. "Freedom"
follows. The marinated onions are superb.
Feb. 2. Rivas, Nicaragua. 9:39 a.m. After dinner last night
I checked into the last available room in Jinotepe only to discover
the noise level greater than my tolerance. If your thinking of the noise
associated with making babies you're wrong. Yes, there was some of that,
but it was the noise of a half dozen of the micro-units themselves that
drove me out onto the pavement again. I walked towards the highway.
A man who had paralleled me for blocks crossed the street and engaged
me in conversation. He recommended that I go to the Sandinista command
for a safe place to sleep. I had already discovered that the church
lawn was off limits. I followed his lead. All I wanted was sleep, but
"due to regulations" the woman in command had to turn me away.
The following hour and a half was enjoyed joking and talking with the
Saturday Night Highway Alive revelers. One of those gathered, by far
the most inebriated, took me aside briefly and told me I should keep
to myself and not to talk to anyone so as to avoid dangers. I could
not decide if he was genuinely paranoid or if he wanted me to walk off
alone so he could rob me. I blamed the alcohol and worried not. When
a vehicle stopped for a group of people a block away our group ran and
caught a ride.
The Sandinista officer driving the new Toyota pickup permitted nine
of us to squeeze ourselves in back. Though the drunk intended to go
the same way he was too late. Near Nandaime our ride turned east and
we thanked her for the late night lift. While everyone else walked towards
the village I rolled out my sleeping bag beside the highway. What a
pleasant change, to sleep under beautiful stars, a night sky of diamond
clarity. I slept like a log, awakening once at moonrise. The night was
peaceful. So was the morning except for roosters. Before sunrise the
neighborhood's many chickens began to forage, scratching and crowing
near me and making sleep impossible. Better to awaken to roosters than
4:24. Hotel Nicaragua. Rivas. Showered. Today has become a Sunday
of ease and rest. I found the regional museum closed. Another local
point of interest is Alta Gracia, a prehistoric megalithic statue site,
on Ometepe Island, a large, twin volcano island rising a mile above
Lake Nicaragua. To catch the boat I had to begin running before reaching
the dock and then long jump to reach the departing vessel. Inquiries
with the crew about schedules revealed that it was impossible to both
see Alta Gracia and return today. It was also impossible to jump back
to land. I enjoyed the passages back and forth. Each way takes one hour
and costs three cents U.S. The view is beyond value. The island is pristine.
Lake Nicaragua and Rivas are historically and geographically significant.
Rivas is located on the narrow isthmus of land between Lake Nicaragua
and the Pacific. Ships can steam upriver from the Atlantic, enter the
lake and dock at Rivas. The Rivas transit route competed with the pre-canal
trans-Panama route. Many people who emigrated to California from the
east traveled this route to cross the continent.
Politics and concern about volcanoes prevented location of the Atlantic-Pacific
canal here. Nicaragua is considered the most geologically explosive
region in the world with 28 volcanic peaks or craters on a 180 mile
fault line. Twenty-five Central American volcanoes have been active
in historic times, including new volcanoes in Nicaragua and El Salvador.
Most of the Central American population lives near one or more volcanoes.
Earthquakes are not infrequent either. In historic times San Salvador
has had six major quakes, Antigua four and Cartago (Costa Rica's early
capital) also four. During this century both Guatemala City and Managua
have each recorded two. The very destructive December 1972 Managua earthquake
killed many thousands.
Feb. 3. 7:44 a.m. Awaiting breakfast. It's raining. Late yesterday
afternoon it rained hard. Twice last night I awoke to loud rain showers
on the metal roof. At this moment I'm sheltered by the quiet thatch
roof of a round wall-less structure, this restaurant's dining area.
A little naked singing child is delighting in the rainwater splashing
on her head from the kitchen roof's valley. All about the courtyard
are plants--ferns, caladiums, a very large pothos, spider plants, campanitas,
roses and other plants I recognize as common house plants, here common
A horse drawn ice wagon stopped at the street gate and a large block
of ice is being carried in. Rivas has more horse drawn vehicles than
I've ever seen elsewhere. Some are elegant, antique four-wheel carriages,
perhaps the very carriages used during the transit road era. This morning
the convertibles had their tops up. The sound of horses on cobblestone
is pleasant indeed.
9:33. Back in the Hotel Nicaragua reading El Nuevo Diario, The
New Daily. Seven parrots in Lima, Peru, have been sentenced to
a reeducation process to be carried out by ornithologists at the Parque
de Las Leyendas zoo. Their continuous offensive language prompted the
The Rivas museum is closed due to damages sustained in the Dec. 15th
earthquake. After inquiries I found the curator and made an appointment
to see the facility at 2:00. Meanwhile I need to catch up on letter
3:30. The Museo Nicarao de Antropología e Historía de Rivas
is interesting, even in its present condition. To view artifacts I had
to unpack them, so I inspected only a few. The interpretations in the
barren display cases report that the area's first inhabitants arrived
from Colombia and were displaced by Chorotega people 1,000 years later.
The Chorotega were displaced by the Nicarao arrival from Central Mexico.
The Nicarao are a subgroup of the Pipiles, inhabitants of the west coast
of Central America. The interpretation states that the Pipil spoke Nahuatl,
a Uto-Aztecan language derived from what is now Colorado, Nevada and
The museum building, of colonial vintage, was formerly the ranch house
of the Hacienda Santa Ursula. After the Sandinista triumph the property
was expropriated from a Somocista and with local cooperation the ranch
house was rehabilitated to become the new home of the museum. The structure
has the historical distinction of having been the first refuge of the
rebels who started the 1856 uprising against the military dictatorship
of William Walker. A large plaque decorating the museum entrance was
presented by the President of Costa Rica to commemorate that memorable
beginning of Central American liberation 130 years ago. The names of
the "Heroes of Rivas" are unknown. To appreciate the historical significance
of the Santa Ursula ranch house a telling of William Walker's history
One interesting chapter of Walker's history preceded his sailing to
Central America. He led an invasion of vagrant California 49'ers into
Mexico in a crazed attempt to wrest Baja California and Sonora from
Mexico to create a separate nation, with himself as leader of course.
His small army, routed by Mexicans, surrendered to the U.S. Army in
Yuma, Arizona. He was tried in San Francisco on charges of violating
neutrality laws. Walker's acquittal was attributed to admiration for
his bold scheming by a jury of his peers.
In June of 1855 Walker and 58 men who called themselves "the Immortals"
landed in Nicaragua with a plan to conquer the nation and build a canal
connecting the oceans, thereby making Nicaragua a significant power.
To skirt neutrality laws Walker and company entered as colonists, were
sworn into the Nicaraguan army as the American Phalanx and became citizens.
Liberal revolt leader Francisco Castellón arranged Walker and company's
emigration in exchange for military support. On landing the Immortals
stated that they had come to free Nicaragua from oppression. Walker's
small army sailed south along the Pacific Coast, crossed inland and
attacked Rivas. They were nearly repelled but managed to hijack the
steamer La Virgin on Lake Nicaragua. The captain's complaint that the
ship was an American vessel did not deter the Immortals. They sailed
to the conservative town of Granada, which they captured at dawn. In
short order more newly arrived armed recruits from California marched
in Granada in a torch light parade to "Hail Columbia" and "Yankee Doodle
Walker proclaimed that he had come to Nicaragua to bring democracy.
When Castellón died Walker gained full control of the liberal faction.
When the insurrection was settled Walker became Army Commander, an army
swelling with California recruits into the American Phalanx. Walker's
effective control increased. He rose to dictator by ordering his opponent,
Secretary of War General Corral, to death by firing squad. Walker invited
the other countries of the region to unite under his rule. Only El Salvador
bothered to send a reply. In the U.S. in the South Walker's exploits
were favored by those hoping that Nicaragua would enter the Union a
slave state. Walker's goal was to colonize with white North Americans
and eliminate the brown skinned Natives whom he despised. Meanwhile
the ranks of the American phalanx grew to a few thousand men. The Nicaraguan
Liberals knew they had been deceived when the Conservative party nominated
Walker for President. He was elected and the Liberals revolted anew
with Costa Rican and British support. Costa Rican troops became involved
in Walker's ouster after Walker's troops invaded Costa Rica. At one
point the Costa Ricans invaded Rivas and cut off the transit road. Generals
from El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua united to battle Walker. Furthermore
British warships cut Walker off from foreign contact or support. A desperate
Walker destroyed Granada and withdrew to Rivas. Finally Walker attempted
to evacuate his surviving men by ship from the Pacific coast. He was
captured by the United States Navy and the bloody and destructive conflict
ended. Walker's second Central American reinvasion attempt resulted
in the leader of the Immortals meeting his end. A firing squad of brown
skinned and barefoot Hondurans ended the Walker problem on Sept. 12,
1860, five years after his landing from California.
6:50. Restaurant Chop Suey. I like the atmosphere, Chinese wall
art, wind chimes, an aquarium, a parrot and tables under a veranda beside
a courtyard garden dense with flowering plants. Can this really be winter?
Tonight's sunset was of the rarest subtle orange pastel tone I've ever
seen. I wonder if the volcanic emissions affect the color.
I sure like the surprisingly low cost of living in Nicaragua. My best
in town hotel room, natural stone shower, natural temperature water
and no cockroaches included, costs 75¢ a day. Restaurant meals
average 30 to 80¢, depending on food preferences. A fresh lobster
dinner costs a dollar. My laundry, hand washed and line dried, was 70¢.
Beer is 10¢ a bottle. It is so tempting to just hang out, bask
in the sun, swim in the lake and watch paradise turn to the tune of
$80 a month. How revolutionary! No wonder they charge $60 to get in.
Feb. 4. 6:49 p.m. Alive south of the warfare. Tabaris Restaurant,
on the Pan Am near Puntarinas, Costa Rica. Twelve hours ago I parted
Rivas. The first ride was with a Nicaraguan draft dodger who said, "Some
like the military, some don't." He casually added that he must not be
on any lists, for they have not troubled him yet. At least according
to law, military service is compulsory in Nicaragua.
Before the border there was a series of small signs, one last blast
of slogans. The first said, "To die for the fatherland is to live,"
Political phrase makers too often show no respect whatsoever for critical
thinkers. Perhaps critical thinkers do not engage in political phrase
making. Each stage of the border crossing was punctuated by a line and
a wait. This was quite bearable because a Canadian grain farmer stepped
in line behind me and an interesting conversation ensued. He is spending
part of the winter in Costa Rica. He said he had gone to Northern Nicaragua
to work in the coffee harvest for a week. I read a five day old stamp
in his passport. He reported that the peace marchers were allowed to
pass through Costa Rica, but not permitted to march. In San Jos* right-wingers
harassed the marchers, pelting them with stones while the Civil Guards
looked on. This farmer, a French Canadian who also speaks English, stated
that he has always held Americans, meaning USA people, in low regard
due to U.S. politics, but he has met U.S. citizens in Central America
who have changed his mind. He considers Ronald Reagan a fascist. From
him I learned that the mothers of the martyrs pray the stations of the
cross protest in Esteli every Friday.
I was customs searched for the first time since entering El Salvador.
The Nicaraguan departure check purports to prevent loss of archaeological
objects. We walked the last two miles to Costa Rica, a much eroded and
unmaintained segment of the Pan Am. Upon arrival at the actual boundary
I surmised that the reason for the horrible road condition is military,
to slow a possible invasion. We passed bunkers with guns pointing at
Costa Rica and concrete walled trenching extending in both directions
as far as I could see. Nicaragua has prepared to defend the border.
An airstrip and contra base are near there in Costa Rica.
Customs check by the Costa Rican guards consisted of our assurances
that we had no newspapers or books of Nicaraguan origin. It was the
first thing we were asked. We both lied. The second stop was malaria
control. My blood was drawn and I was given four pills to ingest. I
purchased a tourist card and received a receipt. No mordida! The immigration
complex has a bank, a restaurant and, much to my amazement, a public
bathroom. After changing currency we stopped at the restaurant. The
thing I remember most about our breakfast conversation is my farmer
companion's stated opinion, "The detrimental militarism in Central America
can be prevented if the people in the U.S. regain control of their government."
I walked on. My new friend, too conservative to hitch, waited for a
bus. Cross border traffic was sparse. I walked a good distance before
receiving a ride with an old grey-haired man who made several stops
until selling out of boxes of fresh tomatoes. I inquired why all the
houses had blue and red flags. The man said they supported Cardenas,
a candidate in yesterday's presidential election. "They are leftists.
Stupid. Bad. Communists." he added. I asked who won. He responded his
party and Oscar Arias, the green and white, had won and that they had
nothing of the left, "nada de izquierdista."
"Why is it that every house has a blue and red flag and yet they lost
He said that the green and white had support in other parts. A few
miles later he proudly pointed out a house with a green and white flag,
the first I noticed. His home, a roadside store, was draped with green
and white banners and large posters of President-elect Oscar Arias.
I drank a cold Coca-Cola and continued on foot.
After walking four km. I stopped to rest in the shade of a parked truck
at the coast highway junction. The truck's driver, lying underneath
tightening loose drive train bolts, said "Hello." We immediately began
talking. The Civil Guard at the intersection came to check us out. He
got quizzed by the truck driver about his job and responsibilities.
His duties include recording the license plates of every vehicle turning
off the Pan Am highway or arriving to the Pan Am from the coast. Costa
Rica has no army, only the Civil Guards. I saw several today. Most were
unarmed. Soon we were rolling south with 12 tons of pineapple. The driver,
a Nicaraguan, expressed considerable distaste for politics. He complained
that half of Nicaragua's resources are now used to maintain the military.
He asked if I thought American imperialism will fall soon. Mostly we
spoke of trucks, his family members in the U.S., the weather, geography
and vegetation. At dusk I spotted a clan of large monkeys high in an
immense tree. I really got excited. They were dark haired and had long
tails. Howlers I think. Wild cousins for sure.
Costa Rica and Nicaragua contrast. I've seen very few poor homes and
fewer homes in Costa Rica. The northwest coast region, a green, rich
land, is much dedicated to bovine inhabitants. The smooth highway is
the best road section since Texas. The road signs at the border contrast
with Nicaragua's signs. The first sign reported the number of highway
accidents and fatalities and their leading cause, speeding. The second
sign read, "In order that Costa Rica be truly rich, we work, we produce,
and we export." The third implored, "Help us conserve the bridges, don't
destroy them." For a change there are no troops, gun placements, and/or
bunkers at every bridge.
10:33 p.m. Hotel Terminal. San Jose, the capital city. For some
unknown reason a rooster is crowing continuously near my street side
window. The hotel is near the bus terminal in the city center so awakening
will be doubly easy. I caught a ride from the coast to the door with
a young Italian immigrant, an architecture student somewhat versed in
Costa Rican archaeology. I've been briefed about the museums. On leaving
the Tabaris restaurant I noticed my new Canadian friend watching a mechanic
labor on a bus engine. I asked his name and hotel. I'll look for him
Feb. 5. 8:19 a.m. Museo Nacional de Costa Rica.
"En Cariari, Los Espaöoles hallamos la mejor gente y tierra
y estancia que habiamos hasta alli hallado, por la hermosura de los
cerros y sierra, y frescura de los rios, y arboles que se iban al
cielo de altos..." Bartolom* de las Casas. 1502.
"In Cariari (Costa Rica) we Spanish found the best people, land and
plantations which until there had been discovered, (the best) for
the beauty of the mountains and ranges, and the freshness of the rivers,
and trees which grow to the highest heaven..."
According to the display archaeological evidence of human habitation
in present day Costa Rica dates from 300 B.C. with both Mexican and
Central American cultures eventually entering the country. The Papagayo
polychrome display cites this local pottery being found in far away
Tula, north of Mexico City. Another display contains a slate disc from
Tikal, Guatemala, bearing Mayan glyphs and found in Costa Rica. Cultural
features of sculpted semi-precious stone pieces are traced to points
as diverse as the Maya and the Mixteco-Puebla of Mexico to the north
and San Agustín, Colombia and Tiahuanaco, Bolivia to the south.
The most impressive displays are large, elaborate sculptured stone
grinding tables with legs of human and animal figures in stylized form.
In part the interpretation reads:
"On the edge of the table can be seen human heads, indicative of
the head hunting cult prevalent in prehistoric times. The central
figure of the main panel represents a person with a large alligator
mask and headdress. The two figures beside him are playing flutes,
an activity known to be associated with funeral rites.
"Each one of the three legs is adorned with a large bird carrying
a moribund human figure with tied hands in the back. It is probable
that this action symbolizes the transport of the dead person's soul,
and that the symbolism arose from spectacle of carrion birds congregating
around cadavers, on the battlefield or sacrifice ground."
Disrespect for the critical reader abounds in this message. The Spanish
version goes on in even grosser terms "...on the battlefield o cuando
los dejaban a descomponer al aire, cosa que tambien era costumbre..."
("...on the battlefield or when they left them to decompose in the open
air, a thing which was also customary...") The metate is dated 300-800
A.D. The interpretation of an exceedingly artful, delightful grinding
table with monkey sculptures as legs reads in part, "the notches around
the plate symbolize human trophy heads...."
Two six foot long stone slabs, immense and impressive works of fine
art, have sculptured animals on their sides. One has zoomorphic humans
carved at one end of the otherwise smooth slab. The interpretation reads:
"Stones from the Atlantic coast region. They were used to mark communal
burials by matrilineal clan. The figurines are said to represent guardian
spirits and regarding their use, the chronicler Oviedo wrote; 'It
was seen that inside their houses, which are of wood and roofed by
canas (?), they had sculptures on which were dead bodies , dried and
myrrhic, without any bad odor, wrapped in blankets or sheets of cotton:
and above the sculptures were boards and on them were sculptured what
was buried and also jewels of the most precious that they had.' "
The ethnohistorical quote contradicts the gruesome metate interpretations.
The next salon, a vault, contains prehistoric gold artwork.
9:20 p.m. Buenos Aires, Costa Rica. Nearing Panama. Upon walking
out of the museum I heard someone say, "Speak of the devil." I turned
and saw my Canadian friend. We lunched together and toured the Teatro
Nacional, an entirely European building in the center of San Jose. Much
to my surprise the road south climbed above the clouds to 3,335 m. (10,942Í)
at Paso La Muerte. The descent to 700 m. was very foggy and a fright
indeed. We descended in low gears with air brakes and engine brakes
without letup for 45 minutes, winding down steep, sharp curves through
pea soup so thick we could see the center stripe only a truck's length
ahead. The fact that the driver does this three times a week was insufficient
assurance for me. I fretted and expressed my fears, in contrast to oohs
and ahhs for the sunset vista from above the clouds. We stopped in the
first town on the plain and a front tire immediately blew. I survived
Paso La Muerte, (Death Pass).
I'm enjoying dinner and reading today's Costa Rican press. Thirty-one
representatives in the U.S. Congress who voted for aid to the contras
last year sent a letter to Reagan advising that no additional aid be
provided to rebels attempting to overthrow the Nicaraguan government.
Other articles report that Jimmy Carter spent today in San Jos* and
yesterday in Nicaragua, that President-elect Arias will visit 14 countries
in America and Europe and that Castro declared war on "waste, negligence,
incompetence and irresponsibility" in Cuban bureaucracy. La Republica's
Cuba article informs us that Castro discussed, during a three hour address
to the Third Congress of the Cuban Communist Party, minisculities such
as the state of Cuban underwear, bottle caps and bathroom articles.
Feb. 6. 11:57 p.m. Somewhere in Panama in a hotel with cold
showers after 18 hours on the road. Last night I slept beside the Pan
Am and awoke early to the extreme quiet of vast pineapple fields and
a slender crescent moon just above the mountains in dawn light, close
to its monthly passage between earth and sun. I walked a few km. and
at 6:16 caught the first ride of the day.
Costa Rica, literally "the rich coast," deserves the name. The land
is lush, the vegetation is thriving, it's banana heaven. Near the border
in a 7,000 acre palm plantation, which yields oil from its fruit, millions
of ferns and philodendrons live on the rows of tall palm trunks. What
a unique garden. Winter, freezing, frosts, snow, ice and cold seem like
mere theories from this perspective. I'm seeing bananas, billions of
At the border I was informed that I would need a Panamanian visa from
the consulate in Ciudad Nealy, some 10 miles back up the highway. My
return ride from Ciudad Nealy picked up another gringo hitchhiker. When
we arrived the migration office was closed for lunch and together we
hunted breakfast along the actual border, a street lined with duty free
shops, many vendors and a few basic eatery options. The atmosphere was
very hot sunshine combined with another gross congested border crossing,
this one decorated as a duty-free supermercado.
From our conversation I learned that my fellow hitchhiker, a U.S. citizen,
works teaching in a Costa Rican literacy program as a Peace Corps volunteer.
Also, he worked in Nicaragua cutting sugar cane, he once won a bet on
how fast he could hitchhike from the USA to Bolivia and back and he
was at the border buying fine rum at duty-free prices to pay off a bet
on the Costa Rican election. I forgot to ask if he had counted the flags.
After eating we found a bank. To my surprise in Panama the currency
is none other than the U.S. dollar. Isn't Panama a separate and independent
nation? I changed a fifty dollar traveler's check.
The midday sun was too hot. We killed time in several air-conditioned
stores. I chugged a real can of cold German beer at the liquor store
and we walked back to the Costa Rican migration office. After exchanging
addresses and an adios I entered the office. Enough people had gathered
over lunch to create a short line. I spoke briefly with a Pennsylvanian
ahead of me. He was disbelieving when told he had to return to Ciudad
Nealy for a Panamanian visa and after arguing with the clerks he walked
out angry. I was as polite as possible, trying to compensate for my
offensive fellow countryman who seemed as yet unaware of the usual local
level of courtesy. Certainly the clerks are not at fault. I got my exit
After a short walk in the midday heat I found my obnoxious fellow citizen
at the Panamanian entry office arguing with the military official. The
ugly American was having a problem accepting the inconvenience which
his own ignorance had caused. He had no choice and walked north, fuming.
I smiled broadly at the officer and said, "One of the nice things about
Latin America is the opportunity to learn patience." I was quickly processed
while enjoying a pleasant conversation. Because I lacked a plane ticket
home I was required, for the first time this trip, to show my money.
The officer joked, "You have enough money to return home with a Panamanian
bride." Though we conversed, joked and laughed he paid close attention
to details. I was forwarded to the military control office, my name
was entered on a list and I was free to walk on. There was no customs
check. After a ride to the second military control post again my name
was entered on a list and again I walked on in the hot sun.
A bus, unknowing of the intent of an upraised thumb, stopped. I boarded
anyway. While fares were being collected a woman began complaining of
the money asked, a 5¢ fare increase to $1.25. She let out a litany
of swearing, curses and insults amidst arguments against the increase.
Neither the driver nor his helper argued with her. She directed some
of her anger at me, an obvious foreigner, saying they must pay so rich
gringos ride free in this hard life. The passengers were totally patient,
some had understanding smiles. After she was completely heard out, many
miles indeed, the driver told her, "You will pay what you wish to pay."
She fidgeted and seemed much disturbed during the entire ride. After
disembarking the last passengers at the David terminal the driver gave
me a ride to the military control post on the Pan Am where all traffic
must stop. I thanked him and complemented his warm hearted patience.
At 5:30 I caught my third Panamanian ride, an empty 18 wheeler returning
to Panama City. I jumped ship while waiting at a roadside bar and brothel
longer than promised and, for that matter, longer than necessary. After
my patience was exhausted I entered the establishment and found the
driver inebriated and physically examining merchandise. I asked to get
my pack out of the locked trailer. Walking 45 minutes along the dark
highway led to this hotel. Time to rest.
Feb. 7. 11:32 a.m. Panama City. I awakened early and closely
examined the bathroom for the 2' spider that jumped onto my leg in the
shower last night. Cockroaches I can tolerate, except under bare feet,
but spider bites can cause intense pain.
I bought a cup of coffee at a roadside stand in front of the hotel.
Two men, having finished drinking coffee, arose and walked to a small
truck pointing south. I drank quickly, lifted my pack and arrived at
the slow starting diesel in time to score a ride. At that early hour
I again had a long ride to Panama City.
We crossed the Panama canal at 10:14 after passing U.S. Marine, U.S.
Army, U.S. Air Force, U.S. Navy and other military bases in the U.S.
Canal Zone. My hosts mentioned that last year a child wandered into
a U.S. controlled restricted area and was killed by a land mine. We
drove down a street they called "The Martyrs" because, I was told, U.
S. soldiers in the military zone on one side had opened fire on Panamanian
demonstrators throwing rocks from the ghetto on the other side. We turned
into and drove through that ghetto to arrive on a plaza at the central
Post Office. The ghetto here brings to the word entirely new meanings
for me. After passing numerous vast and vacant sugar cane plantations
all morning, people densely packed in the century old wooden three story
tenements seems more than improbable, irrational and unjust.
The last three nations have been a racial transition. In Nicaragua
the people, more so than not, look like they did before Columbus sailed.
In Costa Rica European genes predominate and in Panama African genes
are prominent. Both Costa Rica and Panama have Indian Reservations like
the U.S. Greatest in contrast is Guatemala where three states have over
90 percent Indian population. Totonicapan state is 97 percent Quiche
Maya. In Panama I have seen few obviously Native Americans, in the aboriginal
sense. The neo-natives are a blend of every race.
I've sent mail. Onward to study two colonial churches and an anthropology
museum, all within walking distance.
12:35. Museo del Hombre Panameno. Museum of the Panamanian Man.
The archaeology section begins with spear points 10,000 to 12,000 years
old. The known pre-ceramic habitation sites date to 9,000 years old,
ceramic sites date to 5,000 years old. The first ceramics developed
in the Americas are reported from N.W. South America between 5,000-6,000
Ancient men of stone, eight life-sized sculptures from Los Barriles,
Chiriqui province, dominate this salon. The Barriles sculptures include
stelae, large barrel-shaped stones and a seven foot long grinding table
with four human figures as legs and an additional 48 faces or face-like
masks all around the table's edge. A guard, who just interrupted, interjected
that the Barriles sculptures are related to human sacrifice, that the
grinding table is a sacrificial altar, the bowl in the hand of the nearest
statue was for blood and one statue's obviously broken off head is missing
because it represents a beheaded person. I admire how long this "beheaded"
person has stood. One hand holds a small head. The guard even claimed
that one of the prehistoric statues represents a Negro. Actually the
facial details presented do not warrant labeling the statues Homo sapiens,
hominids seems more appropriate. Human shapes decorate the ends of one
barrel and three post shaped standing stones. The very impressive stone
artworks and their platform mounds were rediscovered in 1947.
Two of the statues are two figures tall, that is, with a second individual
astride the shoulders of the lower. One lacks the upper head and on
its chest a long-nosed, half human-half coatimundi zoomorph grasps its
nose with both hands. The other double statue, which presents two simian
faces, and two of the three single figure statues with heads have atop
there heads forms, perhaps hats. The hats are mycologically describable
as broadly conic and umbonate.
Great leaps of logic! More fiction to record. Who writes these fanciful
museum interpretations anyway? The guard? His source certainly. This
one in part states:
"One the extreme western edge of the platform were located statues
showing a man seated on the shoulders of a vassal. From the fact that
some of the personages carry trophy heads and ceremonial hatchets
it follows that there is a connection between human sacrifice, belligerence
and territorial expansion. They also carved barrels of stone and tables
supported by figures whose genitals have been exaggerated. This, perhaps,
indicates that there existed a fertility cult related to the ritual
use of corn."
With the eruption of Barì volcano Los Barriles was abandoned,
becoming occupied again centuries later. Onward to other displays.
"No pongo en duda un instante la funcion regeneradora y reproductiva
de la tradicion; la he evocado donde quiera que palpita el alma colectiva--misteriosa
y profunda--del istmo paname?o."
(I do not question for an instant the regenerative and reproductive
function of tradition; I have evoked it wherever the collective soul--mysterious
and profound--of the Panamanian isthmus beats.)
El Cano, another lithic sculpture site here interpreted, has 13 groups
with over 100 standing stones, both plain and engraved with animal and
human figures. The interpretation makes no mention of astronomic alignments,
though the potential of another American Stonehenge is obvious. El Ca?o
dates to 500 A.D. and burial accompaniments prove site use after the
arrival of European goods.
2:17. In the museum office awaiting permission to photograph.
In the synthesis salon stands yet another Barriles double hominid statue,
the best one!
2:54. After identifying myself I was granted permission by the
museum director. The guard has brought a flashlight to help illuminate
details for photography. The museum director and two military officers
are observing our activity from an upper level window. I wonder why.
4:43. Life isn't cheap in this country, that and I just blew
$14, $11 for a colorful, eye-catching mola, a native textile art form,
and $3 for an express taxi to arrive at the Colombian Consulate before
closing. The rush became necessary when I tuned into the fact that carnival
beginning tonight means an offices closed holiday until midweek. I now
have a visa to South America. I'm a block from the Hilton and it's time
to find a more economical neighborhood. I've spent $35 since the border,
hardly what I'd call Latin America on $5 and $10 a day. I had planned
to restock on film here but I cannot find Kodachrome, my usual choice.
It isn't sold in Central America. Perhaps in Colombia.
9:06. Caracas Restaurant, Colon. Across Central Avenue from
the Colonel and across the continent from Panama City. Arriving was
easy. This Caribbean seaport near the canal entrance was two rides and
two hours from the Pacific. My second ride, Juan, dropped me near the
docks at the door of a nice, clean $6 hotel he recommended, the Astor.
I've been encountering some very gracious people. One meets the kindest
people when hitchhiking. Juan, a black of West Indies origin, speaks
English, works for the U.S. Government and drives a Japanese car. He
was crossing the continent to attend a Catholic choir practice, he wears
a gold Star of David and he said my hotel serves the prostitution business.
All in all, a well rounded gentleman!! Juan said that Panama has two
black cultures, the slave descendants from the colonial era and the
West Indies influx during the canal building era. That project had a
major impact on population composition. Thanks to Chinese immigration
I'm eating "Wuanton" soup at the moment. I'm not finding beans and tortillas
in this city. From this seaport I hope to hitch a boat to Colombia.
The greatest in calypso, salsa and raggae is blasting on the park-like
median of Central Avenue. The dancing in the streets has begun. Carnival!!!
10:13. Enjoying a cerveza Sobrana and Puerto Rican salsa in
the bar next to the hotel. The music will penetrate my room--the other
side of the wall--until 3 a.m.
Take me back Colombia, let me rumba Take me back Colombia, let me
salsa Colombia, Colombia, Colombia, Colombia Colombia, Colombia, Colombia,
Colombia, Ayee Colombia rocks, Music, Music, Music
Afuera a la calle, Afuera a la calle.
I've got music on my mind, the words are hard to find
Feb. 8. 7:20 a.m. Colon, 7 Central Avenue. I was looking for
breakfast. A man suddenly plunged his hands into my left front pants
pocket and began attempting to extract my billfold. I acted quickly
enough. Also, for the first time ever, I hit someone. I was able to
give it all I have while his hands were clasped by my left hand and
Finding America -- Part
I -- Part II -- Part
III -- Part IV -- Part V -- Part