a privilege of the era

Cochita about to make a river crossing in the Nicoya Peninsula

(Actually this picture is from Costa Rica)

 

I am in Panama. What am I doing in Panama? I know nothing about Panama. Most of what I know about Panama comes from this episode of This American Life, in which a ten-year old girl sends a letter to General Manuel Noriega, and winds up being invited to visit him in Panama as a sort of show of political friendliness. I have also skimmed the “history” bit of the Panama section in Lonely Planet’s CENTRAL AMERICA ON A SHOESTRING (which, let me tell you, only if you have pretty fucking fancy shoestrings… Lonely Planet just isn’t what it used to be, or have I gotten poorer?).

Is it disrespectful to visit a country without knowing anything about it? It seems so, a little bit – Shane and I are gliding through Central America as suits our convenience, choosing our movements according to weather, waves, and the price of hotel rooms, flashing our privileged passports and slipping through the borders without a backwards glance. Borders which – especially in this part of the world – have served so often as prison walls, arbitrary barriers trapping people in banana republics, in small schoolyards with bullies who bear the names Mara Salvatrucha or Las Zetas, in the equally helpless positions of being either in or out of favour with the United States (with accompanying meddling and/or misery), in dictatorship or “socialism” or sputtering pseudo-democracy. People die by the thousands trying to cross these borders every year, have the life of their family buoyed or broken by which side they happen to be on. The rainforest in all its billowing verdure swells up through Costa Rica, swarming to the edges of that country, and then thins out through Nicaragua and Panama, abruptly dropping off in Honduras – these invisible political boundaries transform the impartial wildlands as well as the human beings inside.

But here we are, preparing to leave Boquete. My car has been fixed. We are sitting in the hostel kitchen surrounded by home-foods – another one of the pathetically unimportant reasons that might direct the travels of people like us. Can you buy peanut butter? Real peanut butter? How about wine? When I lived in India, expats would have moved heaven and earth to get a bottle of wine. I, too, would have sold my soul for a glass of shiraz – but how totally absurd it all was. Still is. And yet we are in Boquete, stockpiling lentils and capers, and whatever other Western foodstuffs we couldn’t find in Nicaragua – squandering this greatest of all privileges on the whims of our spoiled palates.

Because it is a privilege – both of our passports and our money, but also, quite possibly, of this particular era in history. Who knows what will happen next? But certainly, never before in human history has such incredible mobility been available to so many. I am currently reading “Annals of the Former World,” by John McPhee, and he includes this quote from geologist Karen Kleinspehn:

“Anyone who wants to [drive across America], though, had better hurry. Before long, to go all the way across by yourself will be a fossil experience. A person or two. One car. Coast to coast. People do it now without thinking much about it. Yet it’s a most unusual kind of personal freedom – particular to this time span, the one we happen to be in. It’s an amazing, temporary phenomenon that will end.”

Maybe we’ll sort out electric cars and renewable energy and in a hundred utopian years everyone will be cocooning the country with the threads of their passage, from now until eternity. Maybe humankind is just going to sort it the fuck out, and Kleinspehn’s assessment is dated and pessimistic (the quote, I believe, is from around 1980).

But more likely, maybe she’s right, and the wild continent-crossing freedom that I am experiencing right now is a unique honour, something only one percent of one percent of one percent of humans born on Earth will ever be able to do.

Every age is fleeting, though. I’ve also been thinking much about Renaissance-era explorers and the notion of the blank space on the map. And of the aboriginal peoples they encountered, and the notion of a self-contained universe without colonialism, without Europe. How did the explorers see their moment in history? Did they feel it slipping through their fingers? Had they any inkling that soon the map would be filled, in every corner, with a level of detail almost incomprehensible even to the modern human? Surely the people of today are more self-conscious than any before us, paralyzed by information, overwhelmed by knowledge and freedom, pinned to the portrait of the world by a thousand satellites. Here I am, painfully cognizant of the the fleeting nature of these gifts, filled with dollars and youth and passport stamps, Google maps and cheap gasoline and the English language. I am soft-palmed and childless; I am full of the sure knowledge of invisible things. I look at the world and see DNA and plate tectonics and gravity – forces undreamt of by Columbus or Moctezuma! And I take it all and spend it on olives and beer and the search for the perfect wave.

I couldn’t tell you if this is right or wrong.

Boquete, Panama: climbing Volcan Baru

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Cochita is in the shop with a broken head gasket, so we have been stuck in the mountain town of Boquete, Panama. Yesterday we decided to actually get off the couch and go do a bit of mountain-climbing; we didn’t make it all the way up, but here are some photographs from Volcan Baru.

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From Mexico to Nicaragua, Part 5: Proyecto Linguistico Quetzalteco

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Hallway at PLQ

Each morning I would wake up in my small bedroom (yet probably larger than any of the other two bedrooms), organize my things, and groggily head out to the kitchen, where Noeimi, the grandmother, would put food before me. Both parents would have already left for work, and Alejandra and Ayline would be in their school uniforms. One morning we ate cornflakes with milk and sugar, and Ayline set a small bowl for the cat, filling it with cornflakes and placing it on the table next to hers. The cat – thin, elegant, orange-and-white striped – jumped up and sniffed at the cornflakes but was not impressed, despite his frequently-demonstrated love of tortillas, and so Ayline asked very seriously if he would like milk, and poured the bowl half-full. Satisfied, the cat deigned to eat with us.

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On my way to PLQ in the morning

After breakfast I would walk for five minutes down cobbled streets to the school, shuffling along the narrow sidewalk beside its long yellow wall and then pushing open the large, metal-framed wooden doors. Typically of Spanish colonial cities, the building containing PLQ is bland and featureless, fortress-like, from the outside; but the thick walls encircle a graceful colonnaded courtyard, ringed by high-ceilinged classrooms. Opening the main doors to such a building is like entering a secret paradise, particularly to those of us raised in different architectural surroundings, where a long blank cement wall probably indicates a boring collection of cement boxes lit by buzzing fluorescence, rather than a gorgeous private garden and elegant archways.

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The courtyard cafe, PLQ

After entering this beautiful place I would sit in the courtyard at a small pupil’s desk with my teacher, Domingo. The classes were one-on-one and lasted from eight until one, with a break at 10:30 for coffee and snacks. I sat down at the desk on the first day buoyed by my success with my host family, and exhilarated at the prospect of being back in school – a place, despite my disastrous experiences in pursuit of a master’s degree, that I still feel excited by and at home within. Domingo straightened his books and papers and folded his arms in front of himself on the desk, looking at me with level dark eyes. He wore a white tunic with embroidery around the neck. “So,” he said in Spanish, “Jennifer. Tell me about yourself.” And so I commenced speaking Spanish, uninterrupted, for five hours, for the first time in my life.

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Ben and his teacher

We talked about many things, including why I love the study of evolution, whether or not facebook is the devil, and how fucked-up American intervention in Central America has been. PLQ has a strong leftist bent (at the “graduation” dinner at the end of the week, we all belted out the song “Bella Chao,” whose chorus includes the declaration SOY COMMUNISTA!) and tends to attract students who have interests beyond travelling and holidaying; my classmates included volunteers with organizations back in America helping undocumented immigrants, volunteers with medical and humanitarian organizations in Latin America, doctors working in predominantly Hispanic neighborhoods in New York, and two hipsters from a bicycle cooperative in Minnesota who also had a largely Hispanic clientele. Then there was me: just driving through, man. Just staying a week. No plans. Never studied Spanish in my life. Passing through, passing on.

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An interesting collection of fellow students

We all became friends during the 10:30-11:00 a.m. coffee break/recess, when a bell would ring and we would all look up from our books and scramble for the little round café in the middle of the sunny courtyard. Inside there would be carafes of coffee and a huge basket full of approximately six types of sweet, airy breads, and we’d sit outside talking and balancing handfuls of the insubstantial pastries on our laps. I would unwrap my Tibetan shawl from my shoulders – the mornings were mountain-cold in Xela, but by the coffee break the air would have warmed up. Domingo and I usually moved our desk into the shade before resuming our lessons.

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Schedule of extra-curricular activities

In all, it was remarkably SCHOOL-LIKE. There was a wildly bearded man from Seattle who told me he’d never liked school before in his life, but finally, at PLQ, he was getting into it. “This is what it should have been like all along, man!” he enthused.

From Mexico to Nicaragua, an aside: Notes on Roads

A word about the differences between traffic in Guatemala and Mexico.

While camping in Oaxaca, beneath the palapas of a particularly friendly and sweet family that I hope to revisit on my way back up North (lord only knows when that particular adventure will happen, if ever, but you know, intentions for the future and so on), we complained to them laughingly about the excessive number of topes (large, ubiquitous, SERIOUS speedbumps) in Mexico, and asked whether Guatemala had many topes. The topes, it must be said, had become a running joke among us: the vast taxonomy of topes, from “shadow topes,” which are concealed by the lines of shadow that trees cast across the road, to “ghost topes,” which are topes that have been indicated by a sign and yet never actually manifest, to simply “oh fuck” topes which scrape horrendously along Cochita’s undercarriage and tailpipe. But when we asked our new friends about the tope situation, they replied in complete and concerned seriousness: No, there are not very many topes in Guatemala, and in fact it is a great concern and an indication of the inferiority of the country and its disregard for safety; how can roads be safe without topes? Guatemala, if it knew what was good for it, would invest as swiftly as possible in a sweeping program of tope reform. Topes for all!! Chastened, we dropped the subject.

At any rate, whether due to the topes or – more likely – to the increased poverty in Guatemala – the traffic over the border was immediately and profoundly more chaotic, mostly in the wild diversity of vehicles on the poorly-maintained single-lane roads. Everyone! Motorbikes (ranging themselves from powerful bikes with single riders, to rickety contraptions loaded down with multiple passengers plus a cargo of sugarcane or straw or towers of empty plastic bottles), pickup trucks with their beds crammed with people and luggage, lorries with bits of their overflowing contents flying off the top, cars of every shape and size and condition, wildly painted chicken buses, cartoon-like mini-buses on tiny wheels proclaiming LOVE JESUS on their windshields, horses, the occasional donkey cart, agricultural equipment, and every single vehicle scrambling aggressively to pass the rest of the traffic along twisting, dangerous mountain roads.

It wasn’t as bad as India, but actually, it was as bad as parts of India. And as beautiful: jungle now lining the roads, the traffic more dangerous but also more colourful, from the sunset mangoes cresting the top of a truck’s container, to the spectrum of t-shirts of passengers packed into pick-ups, dangling off of chicken buses, and clinging to the backs of motorbikes. Occasionally the mountain road would give us a slice of the view, hazy hillsides dense with forest.

Jane was driving, and she took it like a pro, gunning Cochita’s 1.6L of power to stay on the tail of passing cars, zipping past tractors and bicycles and snail-paced huge trucks then ducking back in the face of oncoming traffic. We drove all the way to Xela, without stopping, climbing to that beautiful mountain town where the streets are cobblestoned and precariously sloped and as narrow as the alleyways of Paris, forcing all of the cars to park with two wheels on the curb and two in the street and a prayer that the mirrors don’t get knocked off. Not that we didn’t encounter wild driving in Mexico as well, but it was mainly confined to the cities, where lane markings are regularly ignored in favour of cramming in an extra lane-and-a-half of traffic. (Truly, this seems to be a beloved tactic in most countries on earth – someone should get wise and maybe just paint narrower lanes.) And the cuotas (toll roads) of Mexico are fabulous, expensive but in better condition than many American highways, populated by fast cars that cost many times more than Cochita. Guatemala’s roads were the first taste of how deeply impoverished Central America is in comparison to North America (a continent which very much includes Mexico, in more ways than just road quality), and just how different each of these marvelous countries are. Mexico and Central America! Eight countries previously lumped together in my inexperienced mind as a vaguely Spanish-speaking mixture of jungle, beach, tacos, and a sprinkling of drugs and murder. You know, of course, that they’re all different. But you don’t really know, until you see for yourself.

 

From Mexico to Nicaragua, Part 2: The Guatemalan Border Crossing

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Welcome to Guatemala

 

We woke early and drove to the border crossing at Ciudad Hidalgo, the most southern of the crossings between Mexico and Guatemala. It was a curiously cryptic border; there was an assortment of confusing signs as we approached Hidalgo, which led us straight into a tangle of crowded, labyrinthine streets in the center of town. We asked a number of people for directions, which was sometimes helpful and sometimes not; asking for directions within cities have proved to be a confusing endeavor, in which our imperfect Spanish mixes with people’s imperfect knowledge of which streets we should take, as well as the often-idiosyncratic nature of the directions, necessary in places where streets are not always named, or may be known by names other than what’s written on the signs. Directions wind up a perplexing mélange of references to landmarks, stores, cardinal directions, and the occasional hopeful bullshit when they simply don’t know the answer. Our border-crossing is particularly complicated because of the car, and usually takes this form, roughly:

  1. Locate the permit-cancellation office, which may be many kilometers from the border, and have our permit for the current country cancelled.
  2. Locate the office (sometimes) where the cancelled permit must be inspected, usually right at the border.
  3. Visit the customs office for exiting, and have our passports inspected and stamped.
  4. Cross the border
  5. On the other side, visit the customs office for entry, and have our passports inspected and stamped.
  6. Possibly have the car fumigated, and receive a fumigation certificate (this is a literally poisonous-seeming affair in which we drive the car towards a gas-masked man with a backpack full of pesticides and a sprayer, roll up all of our windows and turn off the air intake, and sit nervously while the car is drenched in chemicals, then pay three dollars and receive a piece of paper.)
  7. Go to the car-permitting office, where our cancelled permit is inspected, and many new documents are produced, stamped, written on; the car is inspected; photocopies are required, then stamped; the new, stamped copies must be copied again and returned to the office; fees are paid; and eventually Cochita is declared legal to enter the country and we drive away.

All of this is accompanied by a frenzied crowd of touts who offer relentlessly to “help” you through the process for a fee, tearing documents from your hands and running them around the various offices, demanding preferential treatment from harried border officials. We have become better at avoiding these men. Once they fade away, they are replaced by the calmer crowd of currency-exchangers, usually older men waving enormous wads of cash in every colour of the rainbow (albeit a very dusty rainbow), offering their rates in various languages. The rates are always bad, but as we’ve discovered, it can be very difficult to change a Quetzal (the Guatemalan currency) anywhere but the border.

After a Kafka-esque round of being shuttled back and forth over a pedestrian bridge near the border, with the city and an official, military-looking encampment on one side, and the office of the Banjercito (the Mexican public bank which manages car permitting) on the other, we finally wound up at the desk of a patient, competent older man who explained what we had to do and sent us on our way. We found the border crossing itself hidden at the end of an innocuous city street, difficult to access because of road construction cutting off Cochita’s path. A couple of grinning, relaxed guards beckoned us over the narrow entrance, studded with vibradores (big metal hemispheres, another species of speed bump), and we were through.

On the Guatemalan side, a calm and well-mannered middle-aged man named Isaiah shepherded us through the permitting process, his fee almost worth it to me because I managed to have my first real Spanish conversation with him while we were waiting for the various officials to process my documents. I learned that it is the general opinion of Guatemalans that Nicaraguans are “very poor,” and “have nothing,” and also that the word for taxes is “impuestos” – ten or so people were lined up at the customs window waiting to file their taxes, which phenomenon remains basically a mystery to me. Why file taxes at the customs office? And was it tax time in Guatemala? In which case, why were there not MORE people? Regardless, we processed Cochita’s permit with relatively little difficulty, the border crossing was charmingly peaceful and relaxed, and we drove off into the maniacal traffic of Guatemala having invested approximately two hours in the border-crossing effort.

a few pictures from Nicaragua

Nicaragua! Things that have happened: bid farewell to Ben at the Managua airport; bought a surfboard; celebrated my birthday with an enormous pinata; sprained my ankle; more-or-less healed the ankle; explored a half-dozen beaches of the southern Pacific coast of Nicaragua; learned about the hell-on-earth that is San Juan del Sur on the penultimate day of the Semana Santa.

The heat is a beautiful enveloping blanket, searing at midday when we walk up and down the steep dusty roads to the coast toting our surfboards; comforting at night when the wind blows through the thin screen of our tent; and always, always riding the fine line between sensuous and overwhelming. At noon today I stepped out of the shower, cool for an instant, then five minutes later wondered in despair if my skin would ever be free of sweat again. But now the ubiquitous wind is blowing, blowing, blowing towards the sea and the open second floor of the hostel is shaded and cool, perfect, paradisical in the sheer luxurious pleasure of warm air flowing over my body.

Some photographs:

 

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Handstand improvement, slowly. Playa Hermosa.

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Sunset beach-goers, Playa Hermosa

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Howler monkey – there are hundreds of them in the forest here, screeching to each other at night.

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Nicaraguan flag

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