From Costa Rica and beyond

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

From Romero to Ortega

Originally my travels were to take me from Belize by ferry to Honduras.  Instead, riding with friends, I left Guatemala entering El Salvador and have now progressed to Leon, Nicaragua.  I was very aware of these countries as a teenager in the ´80s.  These were turbulent lands convulsed not by their volcanoes but by class conflict and the Cold War.  It was a thrill to see a bit of what has come of the land where the outspoken Bishop Oscar Romero took the side of the poor and paid for it with his life.  Nicaragua is equally thrilling.  The leader of the Sandinista regime, Daniel Ortega, is again El Presidente and while he is fairly tight with Chavez and the brothers Castro and pays lip service to la Socialista, his politics are reportedly fairly moderate.

But there is much, much that has happened since I last wrote, so let´s get on with it!

The rain in Antigua, Guatemala seemed likely to go on ad infinitum (and ad nauseum).  Kevin, Andre, Mark and Maggie, and Nick and Ivanka, and I set off on a damp but not yet rainy morning.  Our convoy made a number of false turns and even tried to push through a marketplace (just where the GPS devices pointed us!) before we found ourselves on gently winding roads through flat sugar-cane countryside decorated with not so distant volcanoes.  Soon the rain returned.  The first destroyed bridge we encountered was easily circumvented, but not without driving up a two track with about six inches of water gushing down at us.  Cool!!  The next destroyed bridge seemed more dire.  It was a major bridge on a major road.  Again, there was a way around, but this mostly dirt road was pockmarked with potholes.  Still, we forged on.

Now the roads led us up into some hills where the air was cooler.  The rain had stopped, but I was getting a bit cold (being soaked through and through) and it was foggy.  Kevin and Andre led the way; I was third.  As I rounded a bend and crested a hilltop, I came across Andre standing shocked next to his red, white and blue Africa Twin lying in the middle of the road.  A dog had jumped out in front of Kevin and Andre.  Both had to make evasive maneuvers, but Andre was not able to recover.  His bike tipped and flipped and so did he.  His shoulder was very tender, but otherwise he was ok.  His bike was not so lucky.  The front forks were uniformly contorted.  The frame appeared to be wrecked.  A small crowd of onlookers gathered in no time.  Mark in his fluorescent green rain gear and Ivanka directed traffic after a semi almost failed to stop in time to avoid our inconvenient location.  Two local men in a small pickup agreed to take Andre and his bike to Guatemala City where a friend, Juan, would be able to help Andre decide what to do next.  Mark and Maggie and Kevin decided to go back to Guatemala City to support Andre.  Nick, Ivanka and I rode on into El Salvador.  We believe Andre´s bike is now repaired and he will join us again soon.

Leaving Guatemala and entering El Salvador was trouble free (and almost free of rain!).  It was exciting to ride across the suspension bridge over a deep canyon and enter a new land for the first time in over two weeks.  El Salvador is Central America´s smallest and most populous land.  While our route did not take us through any major cities on this first stretch, it was clear that there were a lot of people even in the countryside.  Lots of people were waiting for buses and others were walking along the road.  We soon saw that many of them were out to survey the toll of the recent floods on what was probably the first day without rain in weeks.  Nick and Ivanka had heard from backpackers about a nice hostal in Tecuba, a short ´dogleg´ from our route to the Pacific.  We ended up staying there for four nights. Tecuba is a very modest city of about 40,000 perched on the edge of some impressive mountains.  The buildings and homes are squat, their doors are steel and windows are barricaded.  Some homes are painted to show political affiliations.  Horizontal bands of red, white and blue are not celebrating the US nor the Netherlands, but instead the Arena Party, the conservative party I can still recall from the 80s.  There were a couple red flags flying  and some orange ones for the GANA party.  The major industry in this town is coffee.  The owner of our hostal and his son, Manolo, both own coffee fields.  There is a platform scale in town to weigh the harvest.  I checked to see if it was from the Fairbanks company, but it was from the Toledo company.

"Mama`s and Papa`s" hostl was indeed nice.  The owners are a sweet couple in their 60s.  They have hammocks a plenty and offer a menu of breakfast and dinner selections.  We enjoyed the ´tipico´ breakfast of eggs, refried beans, fried plantains (similar to bananas) with a pancake on the side.  For dinner, we walked to a pupseria for pupusas.  These are tortillas with beans and your choice of meat and/or cheese inside.  Very filling; very inexpensive.  Our first night and the following day saw more rain. Under a tin roof, it was hard to sleep.  I tried mentally to appreciate the racket as something beautiful and peaceful.  It occurred to me that I might be acoustically trapped in a John Cage composition.  Add to that the nightly, repeated chorus of roosters near and far and you can imagine why the hammocks were treasured the next day.  Kevin, Mark and Maggie joined us on our second full day there after Nick, Ivanka and I had toured Manolo´s coffee fields.  That`s when we considered Manolo`s offer to take us on an adventure on the nearby Naranjo River.  We decided to go for it.

The next day, we piled into the back of his rickety pickup and headed up into the mountains over bumpy dirt roads.  Like the locals, we stood in the back, holding a bar and learned why the locals do that.  Suspension just does not suffice in such conditions.  Indeed, neither did the pickup.  It broke down.  Manolo went back and got his Toyota Landrover. After an hour of winding upward on a one-lane roadway on the edge of mountains offering commanding views all the way to the Pacific, we stopped, poured out of the SUV and walked...farther than usual, as landslides made the road impassible.  After hiking down into a deep Glen, we reached the river.  Manolo admitted to never having taken guests when waters were so high, but he and his assistants were undaunted...and so were we, despite our reservations about the force of the water and the lack of swim vests and head protection.  Our first jump required us to inch across the crest of a waterfall to a tiny outcropping of rock where we could then jump a good 15 feet to the roiling pool below (that crossing was done with climbing rope and harnesses, if you were worried).  We followed that general procedure for about a mile down through this canyon.  Some jumps were a mere meter, but one last jump was probably close to 50 feet.  Right after that the water plunged over 100 feet to a more level section of river.  We clamored down the rocks next to the falls and then headed back to the Landrover electrified by the fun we had and relieved to all be safe!

We resumed our travels the next day and headed to the El Salvadoran coastline.  Along the way we passed incredible vistas of towering volcanoes and friendly towns.  Outside the towns, people along the roads were carrying wood for cooking, women were cleaning clothes in rivers, garbage was burning in small piles.  The roads were good.  We actually drove at highway speeds as we encountered and paralleled the scenic sandy coast.  Signs warned us to look out for "surfistas" crossing the road.

We stayed at a small hostal on the beach in El Zonte. We planned just one night there, but stayed another...not for a happy reason.  Before our departure the following morning, we all checked emails.  Kevin received news that his mother had died.  He lives in Australia, but home is Ireland.  Our team mobilized to figure out where he could fly from and where he could store his bike.  Kevin has traveled throughout Asia on his bike and aims to go around the world.  He is a man of great humor and kindness and it was crushing to see him stricken so.  Together we figured out the logistics and Kevin was on his way the next day.

That did not mean that there was no fun to be had that day.  Nick and I played in some excellent waves where I met a German from Neumunster where I had spent much time years ago.  That evening we all had a fine dinner, quite a bit of beer and learned how meeting locals can be great fun and also awkward.

The day of Kevin´s flight, the remaining group of five headed east along the El Salvadoran coast to get closer to the border, setting the stage for a two border day.  This part of El Salvador is poorer.  I saw a couple places bearing the emblem of the FMLN, the Marxist side of the civil war.  We hoped to stay in a coastal town, but found exorbitant prices in enclosed resorts and unhappy faces in the nearby towns, so we rode on to La Union.  This is a rather depressing town set on a scenic bay.  Well into the night, women sat on plastic stools selling items out of plastic baskets set upon plastic stands.  Like in other places in this part of the world, people sell the same things side by side hoping to make a meager profit off an absolute minimal investment.

Our mad dash across two borders started at 7am.  Within an hour we were at the Honduran border where we were swarmed by men offering (insisting) their services to facilitate the process.  It took three hours to take care of our immigration and our bikes´ importations.  We paid a modest amount for entering Honduras, but then paid hefty amounts for the importation and a certain ´road tax`.  We still don´t know if we were duped by these smooth operators (A french friend, Kerman is now telling me he did not pay any sort of road tax.).  We finally sped away at about 1pm hoping for a smooth ride across 80 miles of Honduras to the nearest Nicaragua crossing.

This part of Honduras appeared even poorer and certainly much more rural than El Salvador.  The roads were the worst we had encountered.  Potholes were everywhere.  We tended to follow each other´s path and avoided riding too close behind the few cars and buses, as they straddle potholes (when they aren´t too big!) while motorcyclists skirt them.  All this made it impossible to take photos while riding and left less time for my wandering eyes to linger anywhere.

Ivanka took charge at the Nicaraguan border, learning the lessons from just two hours ago.  Her lead and a somewhat more formal atmosphere made this crossing much more pleasant, except for the very slow line I was stuck in for my bike´s importation.  After a good hour of standing and sweating, we finally were rolling again.  Nick pumped his fist:  We were riding in Nicaragua!!!  Here too there were potholes, but they appeared to stem not from neglect, but from flooding.  The swollen streams were sites of young men casting nets for fish.  Like Honduras, not many cars were cruising this region.  Instead, there were carts pulled by horse and giant tricycles with roofs that served as local taxis.  There appear to be less dogs in Nicaragua, but there are more horses along the roads.  I´m not sure if that is an improvement.  After absorbing first impressions (which included a wonderful ride around three sides of a volcano), I started looking for remnants of the 80s.  It wasn´t long before I passed a tractor, in good condition, brand name: Belarus.  Excellent!  We have passed a couple large farm complexes that I suspect were collective farms in the 80s.  Beyond that, I have so far only spotted numerous posters (in the customs office) highlighting Daniel Ortega, 30 years of victory and a flier promoting a celebration of the end of the Samoza regime.  Of course, a Sandinista supporter would argue the remnants are everywhere and living.  Love or hate those socialists, it´s indisputable that they dramatically improved literacy rates and some aspects of health care.

The people here seem very nice - perhaps the nicest collectively since leaving the US.  It´s hard to say if this is any sort of reality or merely perception.  Clearly, most people are good people. But there are places where one feels leery and where people appear less than content.  Nicaragua is a poor country, but the people I have seen so far appear to be in good spirits

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like an interesting time; how are you planning on traversing the Darién Gap? Ferry to Colombia?