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.

Cochita Siempre!

DSC_5815

We are in Guatemala!* This means that Cochita (as we have now named the car; it means, approximately, “little female car”) has travelled the entire length of Mexico, from the frontera at Piedras Negras (Eagle Pass, TX) through the states of Coahuila, Zacatecas, San Luis Potosi, Guanajuato, Michoacan, Puebla, Oaxaca, and Chiapas before reaching the frontera at Hidalgo and passing into Guatemala. In all, it took us exactly two weeks: we left the United States on February 21st, and crossed the border into Guatemala on March 5th.

Let me tell you, first-hand, that two weeks is a very short time to drive from one end of Mexico to the other. The country is BIG, the road and traffic conditions are variable (though generally excellent), and there is so much to see. But we were racing against the clock to deliver Jane to the Guatemala City airport on March 6th, and so we hauled ass out of Austin at 5AM and catapulted ourselves south, leaving a trail of Freon in our wake and acquiring more and more broken español. Our glorious madcap rush found us barreling along the cuotas (toll roads) at 140 km/hr, easing Cochita over innumerable topes (enormous, mind-blowingly effective, undercarriage-scraping speedbumps), and careening around the curvas peligrosas (dangerous curves) of the mountain roads of Oaxaca. In two weeks, we stayed in the same place for more than one night only once: when we camped in a beautiful, deserted meadow in the mountains near El Capulin, at one of the sites where the monarch butterflies overwinter after their great migration. In total, we spent six nights staying in hotels of wildly varying quality and expense; five nights camping, all for free; and two nights staying in hostels, where the uniformity of the international backpacking community was further confirmed.

There were times at which I felt vaguely guilty for dragging Jane and Ben along on the trip. We had hatched the plan back in November, while I was visiting Jane in Illinois. In approximately the amount of time it took to drink two beers, they decided to drive through Mexico with me. It was a rash decision. I had advertised the trip as “tons of fun.” And now, instead of making lifelong friends on a delightful local bus, or flying from Chicago to the Yucatan in the blink of an air-conditioned eye, or even drinking whisky in the comfort of their own homes in Illinois, they were crammed into a tiny two-door Honda Civic, munching on off-brand Fritos and tolerating my fondness for Taylor Swift.

The fateful November conversation had gone something like this:
JENN: So, yeah, I’m driving to Nicaragua. I’m going to spend Christmas with some friends in New York, head down the East Coast, go to Miami, visit my grandmother in Mississippi, and then get to New Orleans in time for Mardi Gras. After that, I think I’ll pretty much head for the border.
BEN: Oh, sweet, I think I have some friends who are going down to Mardi Gras.
JENN: You should come too! I think Mardi Gras is going to be awesome.
BEN: Yeah, totally.
JENN: And then, ha ha ha, why not just jump in the car and come to Mexico!
BEN: Ha ha ha!
JANE: Hey, that sounds like fun!
BEN: And actually, I won’t have a job right then…
JANE: And I kind of want a holiday before maybe going back to school…
JENN: … Wait, for real?

And without much more discussion, really, I acquired two travelling companions for the Great Mexican Road Trip of 2015. Did they regret it? I wondered, especially during the first week of the trip, in which Jane and I both suffered greatly from a severe case of the flu. Did they wonder why the hell they were engaging in this arduous test of endurance, without even enough time to take full advantage of the opportunities car travel affords (exploring areas not easily accessible by bus, etc.)? Did 6’1” Ben’s knees just want to murder me dead? Did they flip through the Lonely Planet looking at the bus fares and comparing them to the thousands of pesos that flowed through our fingers at the Pemex stations? Certainly there were times when I wondered, myself, whether I shouldn’t have just left the car with my grandmother and booked a one-way ticket to Nepal. Why the inexorable desire to drive a four-wheeled advertisement of gringo wealth through a half-dozen countries all strongly warned against by the state department?

The road trip, though. The road trip. That’s the why. The romance and independence of the road, and the family-trip camaraderie of the backseat, yes, but so much more as well. There are things that you experience when you travel by car – or on foot, or by bicycle, or any other means in which you cross every single kilometer under your own steam – that are not experienced when you step inside a magical carriage and wake up the next morning in a totally different place.

Air travel, of course, completely occludes the areas in-between. Bus and train travel can be wonderful, and present their own unique rewards; the days I spent criss-crossing India in the sleeper cars of sardine-can trains were some of the most interesting days of travel I’ve ever had. When you drive, though, you see the transitions between places. The slow changes, the ways that one region blends into the next: in America, the way that New England gives way to the tri-state area, blending slowly through Washington DC and Virginia into the deep South, with the outliers of Miami and New Orleans keeping their own counsel. We blasted through Texas pretty quickly, but the whole border region with Mexico is like a third country. Then the north of Mexico with its endless desert and cartel domains, the influence of the United States very strong; the enormous throbbing heart of Mexico City; the vibrant culture of Oaxaca, and then the long journey over the cool, foggy mountains, descending endlessly to arrive at last on the beautiful coast.

To experience the geological and ecological shifts of the continent of North America has been incredible, and I would love to do this trip again but starting much further north, seeing the taiga thicken into forest and thin out again into prairies and deserts. Though the beaches of Chiapas are a far cry from Edmonton at -20 Celsius, I find that I’m left with a strong sense of the continuity of North America, rather than its fragmentation. Diversity, of course – inspiring, remarkable diversity – but commonality as well.

For now, Ben and I are beginning a week of immersive language school here in Quetzaltenango (Xela), Guatemala, at the Proyecto Linguistico Quetzalteco de Espanol, and thus I will have regular internet access (hurrah!) until the 13th of March.

The MAP has been updated with all of our stops in Mexico; in places where we camped, I have done my best to put the marker exactly where we were, so zoom in if you wish. I’ve also added a list of car troubles to date, which you may find amusing. Pictures coming soon!

* At the moment, “we” includes myself and my friend Ben; my friend and former college roommate, Jane, was travelling with us through Mexico but she flew home to Illinois yesterday morning.