Wednesday, March 22, 2006

1   USA, MEXICO

You can read my other 5 travel blogs by clicking on:
       DresellyFly.blogspot.com             and
       DresellySail.blogspot.com             and
       DresellyLabrador.blogspot.com    and
       DresellyToronto2011.blogspot.com and
       Dreselly.blogspot.com 


We like this philosophy from a kindred soul:  click here


To see this entire account, just scroll to the end.
To go directly to 1 of the 9 following segments, click on one of these:
Antigua in Guatemala
Generalizations, Tikal
El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua
Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama
Panama to Maine to Mendoza
Mendoza to Ushuaia
In and Around Ushuaia
Ushuaia to El Califate
El Califate to Journey's End

All my other blogs have a listing of segments at the right, so one can either click on one of them to go there, or scroll down to there.   This blog developed a problem I cannot cure.   The table at right consists of numbers.  Clicking on one of them will take you to that point, with no identifier.

On November 7, 2003 we two started driving from our home in Maine to Ushuaia, Argentina, the southernmost city in the world.       It was a cold start, but we would soon be in the tropics, and in South America the seasons are reversed.

We had made these extensive preparations for the journey:
* We got all the recommended inoculations and all the pills recommended for tropic travel.     We stocked over 3 months of the pills we take at home.
* We read extensively in books, articles and on the Internet.
* We took guidebooks, maps, and a Garmin GPS.
* We got advice about routing and safety from MIT alumni who were citizen residents of Guatemala and Colombia, from South American Explorers (www.samexplo.org) , and from the tycoon world traveler Jim Rogers (www.jimrogers.com).
* Dick spoke passable Spanish and had lived in Mexico. He and Marge had traveled extensively there.
* Our 1990 Toyota Camry odometer showed 316,000 miles.  We had carefully maintained it since new, so it was dependable. It looked old so would be less a target for thieves.  If we lost it (which eventually happened) we wouldn't be out much.
* We hid many $50 bills in the Camry air cleaner, and many dollar bills under floor mats.   We laminated several color copies of our license plates and hid them in the trunk.
* All of our goods were concealed in the car trunk, so the passenger compartment appeared bare.   We made multiple bilingual copies of a diagram showing inspectors where each container was placed, and the contents of each: Dirty Laundry, Tools, Shoes, Books, etc.   This speeded passage across borders and through in-country military checkpoints.
* We added locking wheel nuts, a locking gas cap, and an alarm system. Every night south of Texas our car was in a locked compound or otherwise under guard.
* A padlocked heavy steel box welded in the Camry trunk held our absolute essentials: passports, some money, our pills.
* Some countries required an escrow service which guaranteed that an imported car would be exported. Only the Canadian Automobile Association provided that, so we engaged their services.
* We had a money belt, some travelers checks, a dummy wallet, and careful habits.

Enroute we visited our families in Maryland, Virginia and Indiana.    On November 19 in Cape Girardeaux Missouri we drove down Rush Limbaugh (local boy) Drive to the the factory of fledgling Renaissance Aircraft.    After much trouble with lawyers, banks and the FAA they had started building modernized copies of the 2-seat 1946 Luscombe, which we coveted at a 1999 airplane show in Florida.    We saw two beautiful prototypes, which unfortunately were followed by bankruptcy in 2004.

The Camry performed like a new car on the Interstate highways.   However, we replaced our complicated $700 Garmin 2610 GPS with a $250 Garmin eTrex Vista, which was handheld and easily concealed, and showed most of the roads we would be using.

We spent 4 days in Brownsville, Texas, making final preparations for the trip ahead. We thought the place a delightful alternative to Florida.   We had a difficult time getting permission to export the Camry, and had to get the help of our Senator Collins.

Our overnights in Mexico were at Ciudad Victoria, Tuxpan, Veracruz, Villahermosa twice, Tuxtla Gutierrez twice, and Tapachula.

Our 2003 circumnavigation of the Gulf of Mexico, using the short-lived Florida-Yucatan ferry, was our most recent preparation for Mexican highways.    Toll roads costing up to the equivalent of 17 US cents a mile were excellent, with light traffic. All other roads were mediocre to bad. Our second evening in Mexico we crossed a beautiful world-class suspension bridge, got lost in Tampico, and drove the last 40 miles to Tuxpan in darkness. All agree that one must not drive at night in Latin America. That night we avoided most pavement holes but lost a hubcap. The road was narrow and unstriped, with sharp dropoffs where shoulders should have been.   There were many fatalistic pedestrians on both sides, extreme tailgaters, and oncoming cars with high beams or no lights.   I tried to drive behind other cars, aiming between their taillights, if any. Every town has topes (speed bumps), varying in number, location, elevation and signage.   At crawl speeds some topes scrape the bottom of the car, so that's where vendors gather in the daytime.   Tire shops and roadside crosses abound.   One day I passed on a narrow road, and somehow, simultaneously and impossibly, was passed by a 3rd car.

Each downtown at which we stayed in Mexico was photogenic.    In the evening families strolled in the warm air, and mariachi music was everywhere.   Countless vendors, some children, offered their wares but were satisfied with a simple "No, gracias".   In the morning, sidewalks were carefully washed, and gutters were swept in front of each shop.   USA influence was ubiquitous, especially Christmas commercialization.   Picture "Frosty the Snowman" in the tropics.

Each day on our drive the climate and vegetation were different, successively cacti, oranges, vanilla, sugar cane, coconuts, bananas.

For why we detoured to Villahermosa I'll go back 20 years.



In the spring of 1982 El Chichon (click here), a former volcano near Villahermosa dormant for 232 years, erupted.   The peak was blown into the stratosphere, replaced by a crater, affecting the world's weather for a year.   Several nearby villages were destroyed and more than 2000 people were killed.    Late in 1983 Marge and I drove to the area in a VW sedan rented in Mexico City.   Nobody in the USA or Mexico could tell us if the volcano was still cordoned off by the army, and if the base could best be reached by foot, horse or airplane.    In the nearest town to the volcano, Pichucalco, we found that Senor X (name forgotten), whose coffee plantation had been devastated by the eruption, would for $100 fly me in his Cessna 180 to his hacienda 4 miles from the crater, and return to pick me up.    Before dawn the next day I left Marge in our Villahermosa hotel, with the understanding that if I had not returned by 6 PM she would contact the US Consul.   I drove past workers trudging to their jobs (contrary to the stereotype of a Mexican sitting asleep under a big sombrero) in the adjacent banana plantations, and arrived at the Pichucalco dirt air strip at 7 AM.    Sr. X was not there as agreed, so I feared that the Mexican casual approach to scheduling would ruin the trip.   I drove to his elegant house in town.   The door was unlocked, as in 1950's USA, so I went in.    A woman's pocketbook was on the stairs, suggesting that another stereotype, the high crime rate we associate with Mexico,. did not then apply to small towns.    I helped myself to their water, and left without seeing anyone else in the house.   I arrived back at the airport just as Sr. X did. To haul the maximum amount of coffee in his scruffy plane, all seats had been removed except his.   He popped in a seat for me.   Then he taxied to chase away the goats, and we were off on the 12 minute 25 mile flight.   I tapped an instrument and said (translated from Spanish), "This doesn't work".   He replied, "Nor does this one, and this one and this one".   Using full brakes, the landing run on the very short narrow strip ended 10 feet from the end.   After I trudged a half mile on the young ash towards the volcanic cone ahead, 2 campesinos (farmers) appeared, offering to guide me.    I hesitated, for this would be like crossing the stream on the alligator's back: risking one's neck to save one's neck.   "OK", I said, "but I am rich and you are poor, and you have the machete, so you two go ahead a bit".   Later I caught up with them as they sat resting in the growing heat.   "Where's the machete ?"     "You were concerned, so we cached it back a ways".   The cone was essentially a huge pile of ash, with random deep dead-end gullies eroded by 2 rainy seasons since the eruption.    It was soon apparent that my "guides" had never been up the volcano either, so we shared route finding.   We shared my water supply too, so it was soon gone, and we 3 were increasingly dehydrated.    Marge later reported it was 90 in the city, and it must have been hotter on our unshaded climb.   Sulphurous fumes wafted from scattered fumaroles.   Without a trail, we 3 carefully picked our way up around the deepest gullies.   We reached the rim with what seemed the last of my strength and adrenalin, but there I could see that the true rim was a half mile ahead, even higher, and beyond even worse gullies.   I told my companions that I could not go on, so would go back.   We rested for 15 minutes, while I pondered that I would never be there again.   So I told them I had decided to continue on ahead.   They went with me.   Finally we reached the top.   They sat astride the sharp rim, gazing down 1500 feet to the seething crater below, the heart of that which had destroyed their homes and changed their lives.    I asked what it had been like.   "For 2 days there was only night".   Did all in your village escape ?   I'll never forget the answer: "All but the old ones, who could not run fast enough".   They had fled, in darkness mitigated by fires, and fumes that threatened asphyxiation, with ash and hot stones of varying sizes falling all around them.  That must have been as close to the Biblical vision of Hell as anyone has endured on Earth.    On the descent we reached a small stream falling over rocks yellow with slippery sulphur.   We plunged our heads in the waters and drank our fill, with no subsequent after-effect, except survival.   When we parted I paid my "guides" a total of $10: they had asked for $3.   Returning to the hacienda alone, I walked over a village with only about the top foot of charred house frames protruding from the ash.   The thatched roofs had burned away.   At the hacienda I waited with some apprehension for the return flight, for there were several miles of roadless jungle between me and the paved road to Margery.   In the covered patio I inspected 2 wingless Cessna fuselages pocked with dents of varying sizes, the deeper ones holed by rocks big enough to have penetrated the aluminum skin.   The caretaker's little daughter cried at seeing apparently her first gringo, me.   A faint buzz was heard, a tiny dot appeared over the horizon, and soon Sr. X arrived in his Cessna with a small boy.   I had a seat, but there was none for the lad, so he clambered unbelted into the coffee-cargo space behind.    I paid another $20 for an awesome pass over the crater on our return flight.    I rejoined Marge at 5:55 PM,  5 minutes before we had agreed she would contact the authorities about me.   I was and am still amazed that all this occurred in a single day.  (Feb. 7, 2011:  I'm searching our messy storage for 3 photos I know are there: of the crater from the plane, of the remains of the nearly buried village, and of the two Cessnas from Hell).

Marge and the Cessna 180 that took me to the base of El Chichon.


The Pichucalco takeoff strip, temporarily free of goats. The strip near the
 volcano was shorter, and narrow between tall lush new growth.    



A bad place for farming.  Only the older "guide" and I wore hats.

My "guides".  One is carrying my tote bag and empty water bottle, and wearing sandals for climbing volcanoes.
 For the first time he is looking into the crater that changed his life.  Ground is unstable ash.


They told me a helicopter crashed and is submerged in the hot acidic lake.

We breathed sulfur fumes all day.  Here's a pool of pure sulfur.   I don't know the association, but sulfur is often near petroleum deposits, like in Texas, and huge Mexican oil fields are in this narrowest part of Mexico. 

Back to our 2003 trip.     In Villahermosa and Tuxtla Gutierrez the price of a flight over El Chichon was over $500, so instead we drove to Pichucalco.    Here 20 years of population explosion was evident. A group of friendly businessmen told me that Sr. X had died last year, and the little landing strips no longer existed. When I bragged of the 500,000 kilometers on our car, "old and well cared for, like me", one of the men showed me his car's odometer: 501,000.   "You win !" produced a broad smile.

The road ahead, across the mountains of Chiapas, was one of our most difficult ever.   Civil war had prevailed in that jungle state in recent years.   It was still simmering, so there were a few military checkpoints.   We drove about 100 miles of tight turns down to 10 mph, 5 mph behind some trucks. The road rose to 6000 feet, with visibility down to 50 feet in clouds.   We passed many small Indian men trudging uphill like oxen, each with a giant load of firewood on his back and a tumpline taut on his forehead.   Sometimes it was a woman with a large load plus a baby on her back. I was reminded of Markham's Man with a Hoe, from high school.    It's a beautiful, profound, prophetic poem - see it in books or click on:  Man With A Hoe

We entered Tuxtla Gutierrez after dark, its modern center a profound contrast to the primitive scenes behind us.    All upscale accommodations were sold out for a fair, but about 9 PM we found a room in a very modest hotel.

Monday, March 20, 2006

2   ANTIGUA, GUATEMALA

                                                       originally written in Antigua

After a night in Tapachula, Mexico, we crossed into Guatemala.   A young "helper" had used our prepayment to get stoned. The Mexican Emigration lady warned, "Dangerous - is on drugs", so we ditched him.   On the Guatemalan side of the border an official demanded a $50 bribe, but settled for $30.

Guatemalan roads were much better than we had read.   Advised by a Guatemalan MIT alumnus, we followed the coastal truck route, not the Pan American Highway.   He had told us that road was safe to drive since the election.   The scenery was gorgeous: lush greenery, flowers, volcanoes.   We entered Antigua on what turned out to be the biggest fiesta day of the season. The inns we had chosen from a guidebook were full, and the narrow cobbled streets were choked with assorted vehicles and revelers.   The firecrackers continued all night.   By parking and walking we quickly found a fine $26 room with semi-kitchen in a friendly 4-room hotel.

We've never been so enchanted with a city, and will return. Antigua is a living museum. Founded in 1543, and once the Spanish political and cultural capital of the New World, it has often been damaged by earthquakes, especially in 1773 and 1976, then partially and carefully restored. The streets were cobbled about 1760, so are hard on tires and feet. We're not using the car here, and Marge has switched to hiking boots.

Flanking the streets are very irregular narrow sidewalks, and drab centuries-old walls, regularly interrupted by heavy ornate doors, closed at night and open days to disclose flowered garden patios inside, or arcades of little shops and restaurants. Nearly concealed in a building showing its age is this computer facility.   It's 6 cents a minute for phone calls to the States, $2 a hour for "premium" use of computers.   It's owned and operated by a gruff German paraplegic, who must have quite a story to tell.

I can't imagine a more paradisaical view than that from our simple breakfast restaurant, looking out over orchids and old cathedrals to the conical volcanoes beyond.  Note 5/29/10: PACAYA was 1 of them.

Pedestrians are a mix of workers, businessmen (never women) with cell phones, tourists (mostly European), and short Mayan women in bright multicolored dresses, most carrying wide loads on their heads and babies on their backs, without apparent strain.   At 4900 feet altitude, the climate is springlike.

In Antigua quetzals (8 per dollar) are accepted, and usually dollars, euros, and Visa. Haircuts cost $1.75 US equivalent. Skilled workers get $3 a day. The city teems with no-haggle shops selling art we can understand and enjoy, beautiful craft work with which we would like to fill the car, and fine goods woven in nearby village homes.

For total language immersion you can stay in local homes for $60 or less a week, including 3 meals daily except Sunday.   People come from all over the world for the many little language schools.   We've just finished 4 afternoons of one-on-one instruction, at $3 an hour for experienced university graduate instructors.    It's illuminating and intimidating.

My maestro is a lapsed Catholic. The instruction is nearly all in Spanish. Amidst conjugations of irregular verbs, and idioms, we talk about politics, religion, moose, jokes, gringos, anything. Snippets: Why have we seen only 1 cockroach ? "You are very lucky, ho, ho". With so many men killed in your recent war, half your women must go without a man, no ? "No, for it is our custom for every man, rich or poor, to have 2 women. The wives do not like it". (That's an exaggeration. Not all men are hypocrites here. But the manager of our little hotel is a pretty girl, charming, intelligent, and still single at 29.) "You are safe to walk most of or streets... until 10 PM , when all the police go home".

The Guatemalan general partly responsible for the long genocide of perhaps a half million people, and supported by the USA in the Cold War, was defeated in an election last month.    That's a significant step towards democracy, but the country is left with a legacy of violence and corruption that requires the most caution of our journey so far.    Somber armed police are at every street corner near the city center, and vigilant before every store of luxury goods, and by every bank and ATM.

One recent evening we happened on a ceremony that epitomized the soul and deep faith of the people. Down the dim streets slowly lurched an apparently heavy platform supporting a highlighted Virgin Mary surrounded by flowers. The platform was supported by 9 persons on each side.    Each side was in lock step, alternating with the other side, hence the measured lurching to the cadence of the somber suited band following it.   Every 2 blocks a weary 9 was deftly replaced by another 9. Once they were women.    Liturgical choreography.    Finally, with apparent great effort, the platform was carried up stairs and into the floodlit main cathedral in a blaze of glory, the music replaced by firecrackers and arching skyrockets.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

3   GENERALIZATIONS, TIKAL

When this material was sent as emails from places on our trip, it was loaded with errors, because (1) I found some initial impressions were wrong, (2) I was in a hurry, and (3) local Internet portals are apt to capriciously erase an hour's work just before transmittal.   I had a choice between the fast shop with inscrutable quad keys (4 symbols per non-alphabet key) and the slow shop with the American type keyboard.   Quote marks, or at the time what I got when I hit the Hispanic quote key, were around passages from our 2001 Footprints guide.

Here are some generalizations, before the diary.     Obviously we are richer than the locals because we're more efficient. Mexico imports our wheat and cotton because we produce it cheaper.   The epitome of inefficiency is at the Honduras border, where it must take 30 officials to change a light bulb.   In the USA the price of a chain motel room approximates the daily wage plus benefits of a local chambermaid.     Here the ratio of room price to maid's salary is about 10, with no breakfast and fewer amenities provided for the traveller.
However, in all of Central America they are more efficient than we are in 2 areas:
* Money changing. At borders, ambulatory traders, each with a neat 6 inch stack of 2 currencies and no overhead, extract about 1% per transaction, better than banks.
* Baby production.    This seems facilitated by a macho tradition, and provocative female attire and gait. Babies are an investment by parents for a short old age with no other safety net.   The results are traffic that makes NYC rush hour look like a country lane, the destruction of 90% of Mexican/Guatemalan jungle, Mexico City population nearing 30 million, massive pollution, poverty feedback, and crime. Malthus, who in the 1700's said the problem would be intermittently solved by "war, pestilence and famine", may yet be proved right.   We hope not.   There are contradictory signs of improving infrastructure, technology and industrial production.

We've used in turn on this trip the USA dollar, the Guatemalan quetzal (the national bird), the El Salvadorian colon (site of the national malady), the Honduran lempira (an Indian leader), the Nicaraguan cordoba (the country's founder).   Actually El Salvador switched its official currency to the USA dollar in 2001, but bills are still tallied in colons, then divided by 8.75.   The mental conversion of lempiras to cordobas fried my brain.

In order to avoid city congestion we followed the coastal Highway, CA2, from Mexico almost to Honduras, where we joined CA1, the Pan American Highway.    We'll stick with that most of the way to Chile.    The quality of the PanAm Highway is much better than dated reports we read, and many stretches are being improved.   Occasional pavement holes are usually shallow, there are sometimes 2 foot shoulders and proper striping, and there are no more Mexican topes (speed bumps). Road workers wear fluorescent orange, but never hard hats.

Toilets indicate the wealth of their country.   If the quality of USA chain gas station toilets is 10, those at gas stations of the Mexican PEMEX monopoly are about 6.   This descends through Guatemala and El Salvador to minus 1 in Honduras.   I inspect them before Margery, and sometimes reject a minus 2.   The -1 is small, dark, filthy, no seat, no paper, broken door, and has a sign saying that used paper should be tossed in the corner.

At one such I stood guard for Marge.    Amid scattered debris a girl with a Mona Lisa half-smile watched intently.     I approached and asked her questions.    Yes, she liked school.   She was 10, had 4 siblings, and didn't know where the USA is.    I said I liked her pretty smile, and it became so radiant that it would break hearts.    I might have taken a picture, the tourist reflex, but it's etched on my mind.

December 14:    From a Lonely Planet guidebook: "In Peten (northern Guatemala) lie the lost worlds of Maya cities, where layers of ancient dust speak of ancient tales.  Tikal, whose temples push through the tree canopy, is wrapped in a mystical shroud, where battles and burials are recorded in intricately carved stone.    Although all human life has vanished from these once powerful centres, the forest is humming with the latter-day lords of the jungle: howler monkeys that roar day and night.    Here are also toucans, spider monkeys, coatamundi,...Jaguar, god of the Maya underworld, stalks the jungle but remains elusive, as do the puma and tapir".

Our 2-day package to Tikal, in the Peten area, started at 4:15 AM, when the hotel gates locked behind us.   We hoped our van would show up on the dark deserted street before the bad guys did. We were mini-bussed to the Guatemala City airport, then flown 180 miles in a 2-engine plane with scant knee room between seats.   I was delighted to see the pilots using a mounted but portable Garmin 295 GPS, just like the one we had used for our old Cessna and car.   Then it was an hour by bus to our lodge by the Tikal park entrance.   We were provided hot water and electricity only 6-10 PM and 5-6 AM.

Our affable young guide, part of the package, provided fascinating information on the animals, birds, and history of the area.   Tikal's main structures cover a square mile, but a much larger area has thousands of green bumps, unexcavatedTikal about 900 AD is less of a mystery.   Apparently it was Malthusian: war, pestilence and famine.

We saw many monkeys and coatamundi, but no snakes nor big cats.   A warning sign was posted by a pond where a crocodile had recently eaten a worker.   We were interested in the many huge, exotic, endangered trees.   One is so hard and ant-resistant that lintels made from it are still part of Tikal structures.    I was intrigued by the partially healed diagonal slashes on one kind of huge tree.   We were told that they were made over 40 years ago by "chicleros", hunters of chicle for chewing gum.   These renowned woodsmen knew the jungle like noone else, so were often the first to discover lost cities.   The chicleros were made obsolete by petrochemistry.

When asked about the war, our guide told of once seeing helicopters and a plane going over his village to destroy about 500 in a nearby village, with a lone survivor fleeing through the forest to Mexico. Another atrocity, "to teach the rebels a lesson", involved fetuses and is too horrible to to repeat here ....Communist fetuses.... Those are lies, say others.   However, that several hundred thousand native people died violently is accepted by all.

The guide wanted to improve his poor English.   "What's the verb for putting a seed in the ground ?", he asked in Spanish.   SOW.   Then we got into SOW for female pig, and SEW, and 2 meanings of SO, and SO-SO.    "Es una lengua muy (very) dificil", he said.

December 16:    It is said that travel is broadening in body (on cruise ships) and mind.    Face to face with my poor fellow humans, I'm forced to rethink my relationship with them.    What justification is there for my wealth and their short brutish lives?   Excuses are easy, like: I've got mine, buddy....They're used to it....My cup of water would have no effect on the sea of poverty....We're more efficient than they are, so it's their fault....Sharing creates mendicants, like feeding bears.

One trigger for updating that attitude occurred at a village on Lake Atitlan. where we went on a 1-day package.    The lake is famously beautiful.   We visited 3 lakeside communities by boat.   Streets perpendicular to the lake were steep, for it is in the crater of a collapsed volcano.   The year after our visit heavy rains caused landslides which killed hundreds.   Lake level is maintained by drainage through a natural tunnel to the ocean, almost 50 miles away.   Sometimes ocean fish appear in the lake.

An Indian girl (the middle of 3 in the picture), a sharp entrepreneur, in an area where Spanish is only a minority language, demonstrated in broken English the virtues of a pretty blue scarf.    We bargained from $3 down to $2, as all the books say to do.    Later I thought, what in blazes did a dollar mean to us, and what did it mean to her?    I saw our guide giving small coins to street children.    Result: acute guilt, and some broadening of mind.  

While waiting for Customs to return from siesta at a subsequent border, a boy of about 8 offered for $2 to wash away the dirt accumulated on our car since Maine.   No, I said, $1.   He left and returned with a heavy bucket of water.   He had to renew that once, and finished with a careful drying.   I gave him $2 anyway, and the two motel pens he spied.  So child labor is normal down here.


One morning in Honduras a wistful waif approached our car, saying he was hungry and had had no breakfast.    Shoo!    He stood his ground, with the steady gaze of a hungry psychologist.    I gave him our cookie supply.   He carefully ate each one, then silently left.

I hate bargaining, starting with USA car dealers.    I'll no longer do that with street vendors south of Texas.   They take only what they can get, but should be paid what their work and products are worth.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

4   EL SALVADOR, HONDURAS, NICARAGUA

December 16. We resumed our journey by Camry. The beauty of the scenery was interspersed by the n out one country, into the next, with redundant military roadblocks and checking of documents and trunk contents between borders.

At the Guatemala frontier we negotiated a requested $120 bribe down to $20.  Entrance to El Salvador was encouragingly marked by signs saying ¨No Bribes Allowed¨, but it was a 2 hour fiasco. By then it was too late to reach the next town without famously dangerous night driving. So we drove 80 miles in the dark, the last 30 in an hour, before we found a hotel sign. The road was nearly deserted, very sinuous, with 5 narrow rock tunnels by the Pacific. The ¨hotel¨ became our worst accommodation
ever. Yes, they had rooms, restaurant, secure parking. But, ¨Better lock your car securely, in front of your room¨. Our confidence was restored by seeing a patrolling guns with the usual LLW (large lethal weapon: I don´t know guns), and surrounding high razor-topped penitentiary type fencing. Hmm, wonder why they need all that?

The price of the room was $15, and its value about $2. It was as long as the mattress on a raised concrete pad, and only 30% wider. There were no AC, furniture, wastebasket, HW faucet. It came with 1 towel, 1 pillow, and 1 big cockroach. We asked for more of the first 2, and got more of
all 3. After we settled in, sort of, we were told the restaurant was closed
until at least 10 for an employee fiesta. We ordered and were brought
food, which had the same ratio of price to quality as the room. Then the
water supply quit, so we had no cold shower nor toilet, but it¨might
resume at midnight¨. I vented my opinion at the outdoor fiesta, and we
soon got water. At 10:30 PM the party moved to the adjacent little bar,
and loud throbbing music began. I joined the party in my pajamas and
said a few effective words, so the music soon ended.

December 17. The promised breakfast wasn't available, so we drove 7
miles to the next town, which had hotels we might have reached
the previous night. We had breakfast there. Margery said, "I hate El
Salvador". We might have gone home then, but would not have been
allowed to leave the country without our car.

At the Honduran border, the processing was as bad as reputed. About 5
hours of too-familiar dashing about, correcting errors, bribes, lies. Once
they said we would have to hire a government agent to sit on our back
seat until we left the country. Once they said we should stay in the car
and continue processing in the morning. Near sunset we were freed, and
began the 54 mile drive to the nearest accommodation, Choluteca,
Honduras. It was our most harrowing ever. The pavement was good, but
without center or side striping, or shoulders. It was far worse when
vehicles sped by either unlit or with high beams on. Occasionally rocks,
downed trees, unlit parked trucks, animals or people appeared on the
pavement. Occasionally I could follow a lighted vehicle. Sometimes I
would have to nearly stop, and feel for the pavement edge, which was
often flanked by a steep drop. I asked a soldier with a LLW at a gas
station if the road ahead was still dangerous for carjackings.
¨Solament muy noche¨ (only late at night). It seemed plenty late to us.
We were fortunate to reach the best hotel in Choluteca for the night
($27 with good amenities).

December 18. The entrance to Nicaragua was less onerous. ¨No bribes
allowed¨ signs were posted, I was only cheated out of $8, and the double
crossing took only 2 1/2 hours including Customs siesta. Nevertheless we
again drove the last hour in the dark, more easily this time because I
simply followed slow vehicles that led the way and telegraphed the
obstacles ahead.

At our destination, Granada, we had another example of the Latin propensity to offer help even when they don't know the answers. We had 3 young policemen in the back seat supposedly showing us the way to our hotel. They kept changing directions and disagreeing among themselves, until after many blocks we pointed out our hotel ahead.

Granada has replaced Antigua as the place we'd most like to revisit, but without a car. It's charming, spectacular, and cheap:
* Charming, because it's smaller than the capital, Managua, and old. Founded by the conquistador Cordoba a mere generation after Columbus' last voyage, it's the oldest Eurocentric mainland community in the Americas.    Havana is a few years older, and the Hopi villages in Arizona are centuries older.
* Spectacular, partly because it's on the shores of 40 by 100 mile Lake Nicaragua, once an arm of the sea and hence now home to the world's only freshwater sharks.   Volcanoes are sprinkled around and in the lake. According to a guidebook, one is "the world's greatest natural polluter, spewing 500 to 3000 tonnes (sic) of acidic gas and ash a day, making a wide swath to the Pacific unarable".    One erupts frequently, the last in 2001 slightly damaging this city, and "a larger eruption can be expected soon".
* Cheap. Our night of arrival we ate at the city's best restaurant. We were greeted by uniformed waiters, attentively served, and thanked by the owner for having come.   The food was world-class, prepared by cooks at a big photogenic hearth.   The ambiance was prototypically romantic, with gardens and fountains and troubadours.   The tab, with drinks and the mandatory 10% tip, was about $12.... Later we paid a doctor about $6 for 2 house calls: more about that later.

We were so very fortunate, due to luck and persistence, to have reached
this place, Granada, before Marge´s sudden collapse. She had not been
feeling well. On our first morning at the hotel I heard a thud and faint cry
from the bathroom. She does not remember it, but had lost nearly all
muscle control and could not stand nor crawl. Only supreme effort by
both of us got her back in bed.

I spoke to the hotel manager about getting her to a hospital. He
advised against even going to the one in the capitol, Managua. A doctor was
summoned, and quickly came. He was was cheerful, very young and handsome, and had all the competence we needed. With his poor English and my poor Spanish and Margery´s restored intuition, a
diagnosis was made that she had a particularly virulent case of bacterial
AND parasitical digestive infection, not just ¨turista¨. He said that what
she had could have been fatal if untreated, but now she would be OK.
I had been acutely aware of what the Spanish endearment ¨mi vida¨
(my life) meant, and the sudden rush of relief and gratitude nearly
washed over me. I bit my lip hard. The doctor studied my face,
smiled at her, and said, ¨He loves you¨.   Yes !

He prescribed a regimen of electrolyte rehydration, then antibiotic pills
for 5 days, then anti-parasite pills for 7 days. He conferred with the
hotel staff to help her get started on soft foods, and that universal
panacea, chicken soup. We were the little hotel´s only guests, and were
treated like family, or the royal family. The motherly maid
came upstairs periodically to see if Marge had taken her pills, or to bring
special food from the hotel's former restaurant. I was a busy nurse for 2
days, as Marge gradually got better. When on the 2nd day the staff heard
her slow footsteps, all 5 of them gathered around the foot of the stairs as she hesitantly descended. She was
greeted with smiles and bravos and vigorous clapping. We were overwhelmed.

Our constrictions: Margery's expected complete recovery. Avoid crossing
borders on Sundays or holidays. Boat from Panama to Ecuador goes only
weekly, next reachable on January 2. Time needed in Panama to arrange
that, and to get the much-delayed coumadin-effect test of my blood.
We have only 2 more borders before Panama, then only 3 more borders
(Ecuador/Peru, Peru/Chile, Chile/Argentina) before Ushuaia, the bottom of
the hemisphere. Considering the usual bureaucratic delays and the
approaching southern autumn and our slow progress to here, we may give
our car to our friends in Santiago on arrival there, and continue by public transport.

Feliz Navidad y Prospero Ano Nuevo!

I don´t dare continue.    I just lost the whole text above from this local
computer, but made a miraculous recovery.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

5   NICARAGUA, COSTA RICA, PANAMA

December 24. While Marge recovered for 4 days at our little hotel in Granada, the hotel staff had prepared special foods for
her in the kitchen of their defunct restaurant, charging us only their cost of ingredients. I subsisted on pizza and Margery´s leftovers. This day I gave about $50 in cordobas (about$1.22 per employee per day) to Jean Baptiste, the jovial 26-year-old French manager, for distribution to the staff. An hour later the motherly maid appeared at our door with freshly squeezed juices, a broad smile, and thanks for our ¨generous¨Christmas gift".   She came again with 2 nicely wrapped presents ¨from the staff for Don Ricardo and Dona Margarita¨.

We took a horse and buggy ride around the area and beside the great lake today. What a kaleidoscope we saw: Nicaraguans, a few California tourists, dreadlocked hippies, religious persons, effigies of Arctic reindeer and Santa Claus in the sweltering heat, but no more Oliver North and the Contras.

When we went downstairs for our first supper out in 4 days,
we were greeted by more smiles, handshakes, and ¨Feliz Navidad, y
gracias!¨. The most touching gift came the next morning, from the
guard who watched over our curbside car each night. What can you do for the rich Americans when you are poor? You do the only thing you can do, like the Little Drummer Boy or the couple in O. Henry´s The Gift of the Magi. Jean Baptiste beckoned me outside. The guard had gone home, but he had left our Camry shining like a mirror, polished for the first time in its 13 year life.

We walked around to find an open restaurant Christmas Eve, but could find none, so hired a taxi to find us one. For $2 he hauled us in vain all over Granada, through muddy streets where we wondered if we were to be delivered to brigands. On every sidewalk were seated people, enjoying food and friendship and fireworks, behind them open doors revealing lighted Christmas trees and finery inside. Back at our hotel, Jose The English Speaker warmed up our leftovers from an aborted supper. With Cokes from a vendor in the park, and toast, our evening was salvaged. It was our most memorable Christmas Eve ever.

We had an incident that night that's funny only in retrospect. While engrossed in the movie we had been watching on TV, the Christmas classic It's A Wonderful Life, I swallowed my evening pills with a glass of TAP WATER !!!!!! Margery suggested I induce vomiting by vigorously tickling my tonsils.   Neither that nor pounding my stomach while upside down worked.    I suggested that getting drunk might be therapeutic, but that was rejected.   We consulted Jose, who said, "I drink it. Don't worry¨.    So we didn't, and haven't.

Christmas Day. We opened our presents, just the 2 from the staff, then drove to the top of
Masaya Volcano (click).    Signs at the rim said, "In Case of Eruption, Get Under Your Car¨.    The doctor and his girlfriend came to the hotel to check on Margery and bid us goodbye.

December 26. Our last 55 miles in Nicaragua were down the narrow pretty isthmus between Pacific and Lake Nicaragua.    The crossing out of Nicaragua and into Costa Rica was comparatively easy: 2 1/2 hours, no bribes, $6 to the usual assistant.   The average cost of each double crossing, out one country and into the next, was about $70, for fees, bribes, and helper fees.

Costa Rica was more prosperous and more mountainous than our journey up to there.   We would have reached the capital, San Jose, before dark had we not taken a wrong turn, which cost us 20 miles behind very slow trucks on continuous sharp curves.   For the first time the GPS, the AAA map and signs were each wrong.   While contemplating another dreary $15 room, we came upon a Hampton Inn by the San Jose airport, where we revelled in full American luxury.

December 27: The Pan American highway twisted up to over 11,400 feet and followed the crest for several miles.    To our surprise the vegetation was not semi-alpine as in Mexico at that level, but tall thick jungle, because of the wetness from the adjacent oceans.   The tunnel of trees confused the GPS, which showed us that we were far out at sea.   We passed many vendors holding up for sale parrots and other colorful birds, and sometimes monkeys.   At the next border we got the best room in the town of Neilly, simple but adequate at $17 (US equivalent).

December 28:   Sunday border crossings, especially this one, were reputed to be difficult.    However, we arrived before the officials had finished breakfast, and had our easiest crossing yet.   No bribes, $5 for helper, 1 hour for the out-in crossing.   We drove 300 miles, our longest since Texas, 200 of it on divided highway.   As usual we kept careful watch for police speed traps, and successfully passed about 10 of them.   At one of them I was asked for my license.   Two police studied the card
at length, then came back and said it was not acceptable.   My error: I´d given them my LLBean Visa.   It was returned with smiles, and we continued on.

What a thrill it was to drive across the high bridge over the Panama Canal, in daylight!   We were soon lost in the city, and engaged a taxi to lead us on a tortuous course to our hotel.   We stayed there 2 nights, then moved.



There´s been a surprise enhancement to our plans.   Thanks to my sister, we've booked passage on the Royal Princess from Santiago´s port on March 8, arriving in Florida March 25. At a 62% discount and an upgrade to an ocean view cabin!   We hope to have our car air-lifted to Quito, Ecuador, in a few days, leaving less time for South American than we had planned.

*****************************************************************************



Here you can buy almost any product the world produces except 13" Walmart Chinese-made hubcaps to replace those lost to potholes. However, our gap-toothed wheels probably make the car even less attractive to thieves.

PANAMA CANAL TRIVIA. Average toll per ship transit is about $46,000. Minimum toll was in 1928 when Richard Halliburton swam the length of the Canal, as described in his New Worlds To Conquer, which fascinated me at age 12. Based on his tonnage, his fee was 36 cents... Ten years later my ex-father-in-law Monroe Smith walked from the Atlantic to the Pacific in one day, following the trans-isthmus railroad track..  Tide on the Atlantic side is about a foot, on this Pacific side 12 to 20 feet... Most ship tonnage built the last several years is too wide for the locks, built 90 years ago.

PANAMA CITY. The half-square-mile seaside downtown area is at least as modern and opulent and safe as any USA city we´ve seen.   There are several multi-story indoor shopping centers offering goods of the globe (except Camry hubcaps) at reasonable prices.   There are banks of every industrialized country and hundreds of restaurants of every persuasion.   Throngs of well-dressed people walk the wide main avenues and the tree lined side streets.   Outside this area the streets increasingly belong to criminal gangs at night, or day and night.   So say every guidebook, and every Panamanian we´ve consulted.   After we checked into a hotel the first night in the city, we were advised it was too dangerous to
walk a block to MacDonald´s, the best available.   We went to a better eatery, by taxi.   The hotel front door was always locked, except when freed for passage through it.   It was like Fort Dodge surrounded by hostile Native Americans, or my year in Danang, Vietnam.   That´s why we spent only 2 nights at that $22 bargain, and moved to the 17th floor of the waterfront ¨5 star¨ Intercontinental Miramar.

DOLLARS AND DARIEN. The official currency here is the USA greenback, which they call the balboa.   Balboa was the explorer who, as I recall, ¨silently on a peak in Darien" "gazed in wild surmise¨ at the water beyond, which was what we call the Pacific Ocean¨.   Darien is the province between here and Colombia.    The Darien Gap is the only break in the Alaska-to-Chile Pan American Highway.   It's a gap not just because of the difficult swampy jungle, but because Panama wants it that way, to keep out hoof-and-mouth disease, Colombian rebels and some of the drug traffic.   However, the same population pressures that create squatter slums are pushing the jungle edge ever closer to Colombia.    Perhaps in 50 years Colombia will be at peace and the Gap will be closed and border processing will be Europeanized and USA/Canadian tourists can drive easily down to the great continent beyond....

RELATIVE WEALTH. In Honduras, the apparently poorest country on this trip so far, wooden-wheeled carts slowly pulled by big oxen outnumbered pickups along the highway, pedestrians outnumbered bicyclists, burdens were carried on backs not barrows, and border crossings were the epitome of inefficiency and corruption. We saw fewer oxcarts in Nicaragua, and none since.   More and more people could afford wheelbarrows and bicycles.    Border crossings became progressively less onerous in Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama.   In Nicaragua, midway in this economic hierarchy, ¨half make less than $2 a day and a third make $1 or less¨.     Each Land Rover and Cressida we saw cost the lifetime earnings of several of those peasants.   Social pressures like these are controlled by measures intolerable in a democracy.

I´m lucky the computer hasn´t erased this. Chapter 6 will be from Ecuador.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

6   PANAMA TO MAINE TO MENDOZA

Mendoza, Argentina


We made a side trip to Maine.   Here's why.

In Panama our Camry developed a small steering fluid leak, which could
have been fixed for $700, or ignored.    The risk of an unrepaired unit failing
would have been tolerable in Maine, but not in the Andes.   Whether to
risk it or spend $700, that, added to other financial and miscellaneous
hurdles made us decide to leave the car in Panama, rather than ship or
fly it to Ecuador.   We wonder if it will go its next half million kilometers in
Panama..

Panamanian law said that I, but not Margery, could not leave the country
without the car, or payment of import duty on it.    I had to leave my
passport and the car at Customs for processing, and the duty would have
to be paid in cash.   Then the bank would not cash our travelers checks
without seeing the original of my passport, and Customs would not release
the passport without the duty being paid.   Since that made me a prisoner
at large in Panama, but allowed me to stay just 30 days, the only legal
alternative seemed to be my quick burial.   To fast-forward over several
days of these Catch-22s, Customs finally gave me my passport, stamped
"OK to leave Panama without vehicle".   We signed the car over to the
friendly USA Vice Consul.   He sends us occasional emails saying that
Customs still has the car and hasn't decided how much duty should be
paid.   Clearly an official hopes to wear down the Americans and get the car
for a pittance.    If the duty is ever specified and paid, and the car released,
the Consul will sell it and send us the net proceeds.   We don"t expect much.

We had time, but not enough, to see a little of Panama: the lush
countryside, boats passing through Miraflores Locks, prosperous
internationalized Panama City, and artifacts of this fulcrum of
Hemispheric exploration, conquest and trade.   We may go back, but
without a car, an asset which had become a liability.

Apparently this was a good opportunity to use a passenger carrying
freighter, to take us to Chile.    The crew of such a boat doesn't include a
doctor, so owners limit the age of passengers to 70 for some ships,
up to 80 for others.    In 2 years I'll be too old to qualify......We were
influenced by our best vacation ever, a 1983 voyage up the west coast of
Norway on a small freighter.   Also, before Marge, I got a job on the first
small freighter I approached on the Reykjavik waterfront.    In spite of
nearly spilling soup in the captain"s lap, I received seven dollars, a
passage to Denmark, and the surreal predawn spectacle of the new
volcanic island of Surtsy, still slowly rising above the waves.   Two months
later I returned to New York on a freighter with my new $1600 (not a typo)
Austin Healey.   But I digress, like the other Ancient Mariner.    To our dismay,
we found that none of the dozens of boats daily traversing the Canal would
take on passengers there.

The only remaining practical egress option was by plane.   We could have
flown to Chile, but decided to return home January 12, to recoup and to
tend to some medical problems.

************************************************************************

Our 3 weeks in Maine were cold busy ones, fraught with cliff-hangers.
Most crucially, the day before departure Marge received medical test
results that said she could continue our trip.

February 3 we flew to Atlanta, where a 6-hour layover allowed a visit with
grandson Nicholas, who was there on an internship with the M.L.King
Foundation.

Monitors on our nine hour flight to Santiago showed that we were at
37,000 feet, surrounded by minus 58 degree air, hurtling in a thin
aluminum capsule at 570 mph in the dark over 7 countries.

February 4 we recovered in our hotel, which was small, with no other
guests.   We had supper with Sira and Brian, our young expatriate
friends from Brunswick.   Their new business, SantiagoAdventures.com,
 prospered in the subsequent years:

February 5 we walked with them to a gondola, which took us up to
lunch with a panoramic view of this city of 5 million people, somewhat
obscured by smog.   The temperature was 93 degrees.

What we write about the places and peoples on our journeys is of course
imperfect, because of the brevity of the encounters, but we have learned
something from those experiences, and from media and previous
travelers.   For example, we were impressed by how clean is Santiago
and the countryside.   Providencia, the business and residential area
where we stayed, is a grid of one way streets, flanked on each side by a
continuous strip of grass and enough trees to shade half the pavement,
then a sidewalk, lawns and flowering shrubs, and buildings.   All the
grass was so neatly clipped that we thought at first it was a type that only
grew an inch high.   Each morning building superintendents, each
sporting a necktie, swept the grass and sidewalk and gutters with brooms.
Hardly a piece of litter, even a cigarette, could be found anywhere.   There
may have been litter beside country highways, but from our car we could
see none.   The explanation given us was that the years of dictatorship
under Pinochet, now deposed and senile, forced conformity, so that it is
now his legacy.   Similarly Mussolini made the trains run on time, and Hitler
built the autobahns.   Perhaps, however, the temperament of the people
had an older origin, because drivers were much more courteous than in
Mexico or New York.

Except for that, Santiago seemed to us like Paris in the summer.
However, faces were nearly all Caucasian, with those of Asian or
African or indigenous origin rare.    People walked and talked industriously.
 The ambiance was one of prosperity and safety.

With some difficulty we rented a small Toyota Yaris sedan, paying extra for papers necessary for multiple crossings between Chile and Argentina.  The first 50 miles after the city were 75 mph toll highways.   The next 50 sinuously climbed the Andes to the 10,500' border with Argentina.
We had expensive sandwiches at the famous Portillo ski resort near the border,
looking out the window at an azure lake set among barren multicolored crags.

The border crossing took only an hour.   It was efficient and free of corruption.


The first sign inside Argentina proclaimed Islas Malvinas Son Argentinas,
meaning The Falkland Islands Are Argentinian.   Considering the
proximity of those islands to the mainland, no wonder the country is
bitter about losing The War.   The sign in the picture means "Welcome to the Republic of Argentina".  Our parked car appears.

We drove a very rocky jeep side road to the ranger station of Aconcagua Provincial Park, sort of a base camp for climbers of snow clad Aconcagua, the highest point in the Americas at 22800'.   Back on the highway, the scenery continued to be a geologist's dream, but gradually leveled as it approached the central plain of the continent.

Remains of the Trans-Andean Railway were in sight most of the day.
Opened in 1910, the demise of this stupendous engineering project in
1982 was blamed by Argentinians on the president after Juan and Evita
Peron.   However, apparently Nature had been trying for years to kill the
railroad, requiring high maintenance until it was abandoned.   We saw
countless landslides that had either buried tracks or undermined them so they dangled in air.

We saw many abandoned road and railway tunnels, and drove through
dozens of tunnels, one 2.5 miles long, another 2.0 miles.    Since this was
the only land route between the large cities of Santiago and Buenos Aires,
maintaining traffic while making repairs to these rough narrow tunnels
would be difficult.   The principal vehicles on the paved roads of Argentina
are big trucks, so we have been fortunate not to have met any in a tunnel.
That's because there is very little traffic.

We stopped at a pile of thousands of full green water bottles, an apparent
exception to the otherwise clean roadsides.   It was the first of many
shrines to Difunta Correa (click), who died of thirst about 1835 while following
her soldier husband through the desert.    Her live baby was found at her
breast.   She is considered a saint by many, which the Church considers a superstition.

We are staying 2 nights at the Hotel Mendoza in Mendoza, a very attractive
modern small city.   There are popular leafy parks and streets only for
pedestrians.   The streets are broad and most buildings low because of the
memory of the total destruction by earthquake in 1861.

Prices reflect the economic collapse of just 2 years ago.   Then a dollar
bought a peso, now it buys nearly 3.   We ate lunch today at a sidewalk
cafe.   Urchins occasionally darted among the tables and grabbed leftover
food before the tables could be cleared.   Steak and drinks and dessert  for 2
cost $9 total.   An excellent local wine costs 5 dollars a bottle.


Added 2/29/2012:  From an Argentinian:
“During the Menem years, in the ’90s, I lived in Buenos Aires. Things were good then. Because Menem had tied the peso to the dollar. He said he would never break the link. So people lent money to Argentina. They thought they couldn’t lose, because the peso was linked to the dollar. It was like lending money to the US. Almost.

“But eventually — it only took 10 years — Argentina had borrowed too much money. It couldn’t keep up. People who knew what was going on began taking their money out of Argentina. Speculators began betting against the peso. 

“Then, it was just a matter of a few weeks...and we defaulted. The link to the dollar was broken, the peso lost two-thirds of its value and investors and savers lost a lot of money.

“Greece did the same thing. Instead of linking the drachma to the euro...it just took up the euro. That way, it was able to borrow a lot of money at low rates. Since it was part of the eurozone...and since the euro was controlled by the Germans...people thought it was safe to lend, so Greece went on a borrowing and spending spree. Now they’re suffering. They should default...like we did. 

“Here in Argentina, the middle class was practically wiped out. People griped. They lost a lot of money. And for a couple years, it was pretty rough. But we were able to pick ourselves up and start over again...”



By R.D: The USA government now borrows 42 cents of every dollar it spends.   How long before the same collapse happens in the USA?   Argentina didn't learn from its expensive lesson, for inflation  is accelerating, and the government trying unsuccessfully to cover it up:  click here

**********************************************************************

We anticipate it will be easier coping with the challenges of Nature
(ahead) than of Man (back in Central America).   According to books and
www.travel.state.gov the most dangerous countries in the Americas are
three we cautiously traversed (Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua ) and
Colombia, which we had no intention of visiting.    The journey south
will be long and spectacular, nearly 5000 miles round trip, over vast
pampas (elsewhere called prairie, veldt, savannah, steppe), in
occasional sight of guanacos and rheas and penguins, via paved roads
and dirt roads and "incessant gales", to Ushuaia, the southernmost city
on Earth, 651 miles from Antarctica.

Friday, March 10, 2006

7   MENDOZA TO USHUAIA

Comodoro Rivadavia,
Patagonia, Argentina

February 9: At our hotel in Mendoza we met 6 Boston youths who were
enroute to climb Aconcagua without oxygen. Collecting the week's
laundry delayed our departure to 11 AM. We drove 240 miles, much of
it on 75 mph divided toll roads, as well designed (shoulders) and
maintained (no holes) as those in the US. Tolls averaged a cent per mile.
For lunch we ate excellent big steak sandwiches and a liter of Coke, for
$2.50 total, at a truck stop with clean facilities of equivalent quality to
those in the USA. The amenities, road, and vineyards gave the appearance of California.

We stopped for the night at Villa Mercedes, a small agricultural center not
in our guidebooks. Finding a hotel and restaurant was difficult partly
because of the local dialect, which sounded like Italian. We heard "Ciao"
countless times. At supper, our steak-ham-cheese sandwiches cost $1.50
each, and a liter of Budweiser (I had ordered a "bottle") cost $1.20 . Our
hotel room, with AC and TV and a 1930s ambiance (no credit cards) cost
$14.30. Cheap for us, but gasoline is $2.10 a gallon, which explains the
small size of cars in Argentina and Chile.

February 10: The next sure beds were 460 miles ahead, so we started
driving early for us, 8:30 AM. We soon left the Santiago-Buenos Aires
turnpike and headed straight south. Speed limits were reduced to 70 mph,
lower through hamlets with gas stations about 50 miles apart. Cultivation
was replaced by cattle ranching, the basis for Argentina's main export.
This was nearly flat semi-desert, with trees rare, and the far horizon
constantly in sight. We had crossed
the narrowing continent to the Atlantic port of Bahia Blanca (White Bay).
Our hotel was quite modern, a great improvement over the previous night.

February 11: Another 450 miles. We crossed the Rio Colorado and entered
Patagonia. As the land became more arid, covered with sparse shrubs
about 5 feet high, sheep gradually replaced cattle. We saw our first rhea,
a small version of the ostrich and emu, with which it had a common
ancestor before the continents split apart. At our destination, Puerto
Madryn, our chosen hotels were full, because this is summer and the
adjacent Peninsula Valdes, a World Heritage Site, has "one of the most
incredible arrays of wildlife on the planet". We stayed this and the next
night at friendly quirky mediocre Hotel Muelle Viejo (Old Wharf). Our
excellent supper was at the most expensive restaurant in town: $20 total with too much wine.

February 12: The approach to Peninsula Valdes was 60 miles of
pavement. Then we drove a loop of 160 miles of gravel road, called ripio,
allegedly for what it does to tires. Driving required full attention, for
the car easily slewed as if it were on a few inches of wet snow.
Sometimes the tracks were so deep that the driver has to keep the
tires on the narrow ridges to avoid scraping the undercarriage. We
saw herds of guanacos, the smaller wild version of the domesticated
llama and alpaca, with which and the camel it shares a common ancestor.
Rheas were ubiquitous, usually mingling with sheep. On the coast we
saw colonies of sea lions and elephant seals. We missed seeing right
whales, which congregate in a bay from June to December, and killer
whales snatching sea lion pups that nap too close to the sea.
Incredible as it was to us, an orca (killer whale) can lunge its front
half onto a ledge, and retreat on a following wave with a giant
mouthful. At the museum we saw photographs of this, and learned that
here was the approximate southern limit of a deadly snake, and the
northern limit of Magellan penguins. Our biggest thrill was coming upon
a flock of thousands of these birds, apparently fearless, standing erect in
their tuxedos. Somehow the creatures had waddled up the steep 200
foot seaside hill, some to the top, to reach their nesting burrows.

February 13: We made a late start to Trelow, where Welsh pioneers
arrived in 1851. More Welsh had followed, fleeing the industrial poverty of
their homeland, so well portrayed in the 1941 classic, How Green Was My
Valley. This heritage is most ardently preserved in nearby Gaiman, a
verdant river bottom oasis in the desert. The town has many Casas de Te,
which serve tea and crumpets starting at 2 PM. At the tea house which
trumpeted its patronage once by Princess Diana we enjoyed the
sumptuous grounds of palms and roses at 1 PM, then found a more modest
tea house which opened before 2 PM. 250 miles of our loneliest road yet
followed. We were buffeted by the famous Patagonian gales, air which
sweeps around the globe, the only obstacles at this latitude being South
Africa, Australia, New Zealand and the diminishing Andes. When meeting
a big truck on the narrow road, with a relative closing speed of 140 mph
and a separation of 6 feet and a background of gales, the driver must
clutch the wheel firmly as if his life depended on it It does.

We arrived at our hotel, the Lucania Palazzo, and found it and the city so
delightful that we extended our reservation from 1 night to 2. Our room
is on the 10th floor, looking over a monument to Argentines killed in the
1982 Falkland (Islas Malvenas) war, to the high white waves of the sea.
We have never stayed in a more luxurious accommodation, though
perhaps that was not really gold on the plumbing fixtures and dinner
plates. $170 for the room and $65 for supper, but divide by 3 because
they use the dollar sign for pesos. No AC, but it is not needed because
temperatures seldom rise above the seventies. It's sweaters
from here to Ushuaia, which we expect to reach in 4 or 5 days.
We walked around town and enjoyed watching couples dance the tango,
which they do on a closed off street on Friday nights, of which this was one.

From our Footprints guide: "Winds here average 25 mph, sometimes
reaching 150 mph...Every day is a bad hair day. Picnics? Nobody
remembers the last one... Scientists agree that Patagonia is the
natural candidate to become the Kuwait of wind energy... Plans are
for wind to supply a fifth of Argentina's power needs by 2012".
Huge wind turbines spin on the hill above our hotel.

Oil was discovered here in 1907, but the supply is waning. Argentina was
the richest country in the world in 1900, but synthetics largely replaced
wool and the governments accumulated huge deficits, until the economy
collapsed just 2 years ago. It couldn't happen to the USA .... could it?

What a contrast is Argentina to Central America. Every official we have
met in this country has been efficient and courteous. People go out of
their way to help us, even when they just see us studying a map.
There is tremendous tourism potential here.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

8   IN AND AROUND USHUAIA

Ushuaia,
Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

After 3 days here, the feeling of unreality has not worn off yet. We made
it !   Actually it`s easy to get here.   The great majority of travelers
arrive by jet.   A relative few come by cruise ship, a minuscule number by
car (after a long journey over long and finally bad roads), or by sailboat
(most enroute to a circumnavigation of Earth).

Names of several place names in this vicinity get lumped together as
synonyms for remoteness, like Timbuktu.    From the north, the Strait(s)
of Magellan separates the mainland Patagonia province from the island
province of Tierra del Fuego, the south side of which is defined by the
Beagle Channel.   On the north side of that channel is Ushuaia, on the
other side more of Chile, and beyond that small islands culminating in Cape Horn.

Much of the aura of this place, to me, comes from its storied visitors.
First was Magellan, whose 1520-22 expedition I think the most daring
and important ever.   His discovery and passage through the 250 mile
tortuous constricted passage that bears his name seems nearly
impossible.   Because tacking across the open sea south of Cape Horn is
supremely easier, almost no commercial vessels used his Strait again until
steam was supplanting sail in the last decades before the opening of the
Panama Canal.   The return to Portugal of one surviving ship and a few
surviving men, which did not include Magellan, proved that the world
was continuous, with no dropoffs.   The next famous traveler to this area
that I remember was o traversed the area in the ship Beagle,
via the Channel now bearing its name, enroute to the theory of evolution.
...Around 1900 Joshua Slocum, the quintessential circumnavigator,
connected the oceans in his salvaged sloop Spray .... During those waning
years of the Age of Commercial Sail my great-uncle Captain Myron Bailey,
whom I met once in 1932, rounded Cape Horn about 30 times. Some of
his logs are in the Maine Maritime Museum in Bath..... Next in my memory
is our favorite painter, the socialist adventurer-painter-author Rockwell
Kent, some of whose work is in the Portland Museum of Art.   He lived in,
painted, and wrote artfully about Greenland, Monhegan, Newfoundland
and Tierra del Fuego, places where we've visited some of his haunts...
Then pilot-yachtsman Sir Francis Chichester, the first non-stop-solo circumnavigator... Etc.

Studying a globe here reminded me that land-wise the world is
top-heavy.   South of here are only a few small barren islands, and the
Great White Continent.   At the equivalent north latitude are Edmonton
and Oslo.   North of the Arctic Circle live more than a million people.
South of the entirely wet Antarctic Circle temporarily live maybe a
thousand human residents and, more permanently, lots of penguins.

Ushuaia`s economy has been capricious.   It plummeted in 1914 when the
oceans were joined at Panama.   Until 1947 it hosted Argentina`s Alcatraz,
or Devil`s Island.    Since then it has become the main supply port for
Antarctica, accessibility by jet has continued to strain the hotel capacity,
and the more affluent tourists continue to Antarctica.   Russian icebreakers
and other ships, even some commercial sailboats, shuttle to Antarctica
during the summer, which is winter in the USA.... Backpackers and
help-wanted signs abound.    There are no beggars or shoe-shine boys.
Some prices (except things heavily taxed in Buenos Aires but not here)
are nearly double those of northern Argentina.   Local taxes
provide much better facilities than in northern Argentina, we are told.

Now back to the end of the previous post: 7 Mendoza to Ushuaia.

February 15.   Our sleep was short because the previous day was
Valentine`s Day, Saturday, with weddings at our hotel in Comodoro
Rivadavia, where the restaurant opened at 8.30 PM.   We drove to the
wind power farm above the city, where European-made windmills,
like animated Easter Island monoliths, thrashed their 155 foot diameter
arms with pulsating "whooshes".   These were mingled with the fading
icons of energy, petroleum pumps.   Continuing southward, the trees
disappeared, leaving only bald brown
grass rolling to the horizon.    More guanacos and rheas, even fewer gas
stations.    We stopped for the night at the port of San Julian, whose history
belies its population of only 6500.   Magellan spent 5 months there in
1520, then came Sir Francis Drake, Darwin, and Antoine Ste. Exupery, the
legendary pilot who wrote Wind Sand & Stars and The Little Prince.
By coincidence, as we entered our hotel room and turned on the TV, a
story on the History Channel in Spanish told about the Lindbergh airplane
shipping box, now a museum in Canaan, Maine.

Near here we passed the estancia (ranch) of Douglas Thompkins, the USA
backpacker turned billionaire, the founder of North Face.   A decade
earlier he had bought several thousand square miles of southern Chilean
scenery for $55 million, lived there in a "shack" with his little
plane outside for occasional transport to civilization.    He groomed
that vast property, Parque Pumalin, for a gift to Chile.    Conspiracy
theories arose (CIA, Jewish homeland, etc.) so, disgusted, he gave the
park to Chile and moved to Argentina, where he could similar realms
cheaper.   His example inspired other tycoons to buy and protect
Patagonia while it is still cheap.    One was the Italian
clothing billionaire Benetton, who has put thousands of sheep on his
land, to help revive the moribund wool industry.

February 16.   Gasoline in Patagonia is 40% cheaper than in northern
Argentina, about $1.30 per gallon, taxed low by the government to
encourage settlement.... On the 220 miles of paved Route 3 to Rio
Gallegos we met another vehicle only about every 15 minutes.
Accommodations became scarcer, and we had reserved the last
available room in town.



* 40 miles of some paved, some bad ripio (loose and studded rocks) to
the border with Chile.   That country is shaped like a 2900 mile spine,
usually under 100 miles wide between the Andes and the Pacific, with
the Strait(s) of Magellan as its coccyx.   There Chile has its only 8 miles
of Atlantic shoreline.
* Customs and immigration twice: out of Argentina, into Chile.
* 40 miles of ripio to the Straits of Magellan ferry, which doesn't run for
about 3 hours of low tide.   We reached the ferry in time to avoid that
hiatus.   Bus passengers had to walk across, to lighten the bus enough to
negotiate the angle between the sloped beach and the boat ramp.
* 100 miles of ripio, swerving carefully around oncoming trucks to avoid
a cracked windshield.   Ripio roads lack shoulders.
* Out of Chile and into Argentina again.   Fortunately all this processing
was efficient and courteous.   A sign declared that it should be so, and
how to report if it were not.
* 10 miles of PAVEMENT to our fortunately reserved room in Rio Grande.

February 18. 190 miles, half ripio, half asphalt, the last of our 2500 mile
arc from Santiago to Ushuaia.   As our route curved westward and
approached the Andes the ground rose and rolled, and low conifer forests
appeared.   We traversed a spectacular mountain pass via cliffside
construction.   The last 25 miles to Ushuaia were on new asphalt, which
Argentina is extending northward.   We transferred our one-night-stand
reservation to a hotel where we could stay for several nights.  We investigated the possibility of heavily discounted passage to Antarctica on a Russian icebreaker, about which we had read.

Ushuaia is spread out on the curved steep rim of its harbor, with a
semicircle of snowy peaks and glaciers above it.   We drove up to a
chairlift, which carried us up towards a glacier.   There we enjoyed hot
chocolate and a magnificent view.   The little city gets its water from
glaciers above it, like Boulder, Colorado.

February 20. We took a 9 hour catamaran excursion down the Beagle
Channel, pausing a few yards from separate colonies of sea lions,
penguins, and cormorants, and stopping for an hour at an estancia
(ranch) founded and still run by Englishmen.   Marge caught her foot
on a metal stair on the boat, but after the fall followed our guide and
group on rough trails.    When we returned to our hotel in Ushuaia the
pain, swelling and coloration of her left shin mandated a visit to the
local hospital emergency room.   She was wheelchaired down long
faded corridors, and treated by solicitous and apparently competent
nurses and a doctor.   Xrays determined the bone
was not broken.    Total charge= 4 pesos, or $1.35.   An injection, pills, ice
and rest have greatly improved her condition.   The hospital sign at right says, "Be nice to those who visit us.  The tourist is a friend who will return".    Indeed that's the way we were treated, we will remember it, and we want to return.




Supper was our worst slowest pizza ever.   When I asked the hotel clerk for an extra pillow to prop Marge`s foot, an Indian-from-India doctor, a tourist, volunteered to give a second opinion.   Marge was quite surprised when he walked in, but pleased at having her condition discussed in our language.   What a nice man !




February 21.   Marge stayed put.    I tended, shopped, and used the
Internet.   The government tourist agency told me that there were cabins
left on the 3 Russian ships leaving for Antarctica that evening, and the
price had been reduced to $1,500.   Considering that demand exceeds
supply, it was not surprising that that turned out to be false.   Minimum
passage is $2,400, and the norm $4,500, which was too much for us.

February 22.     I composed this opus and Marge updated her diary.    She
went out with me to eat and shop, a good sign that she was recovering.

Tomorrow we will head north, for hundreds of miles of ripio and gorgeous
mountain-glacier-lake scenery, enroute to Santiago.

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