Saturday, March 18, 2006


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 were apt to capriciously erase an hour's work just before transmittal.   I had a choice between the fast Internet shop with inscrutable quad keys (4 symbols per non-alphabet key) and the slow shop with the American type keyboard.

Here are some generalizations, before the diary.     We are richer than the locals partly because we're more efficient.   Mexico imports our wheat and cotton because we produce it cheaper in spite of our higher wages.   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, but here the ratio of room price to a maid's salary is about 10, with no breakfast and fewer amenities provided for the traveller.

However, in all of Central America they seemed more efficient than we are in two areas:
* Money changing. At borders, ambulatory traders, each with a neat six inch stack of two currencies and no overhead, extract only about 1% per transaction, better than banks.
* Baby production.    This seems facilitated by 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, 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.

In Central America we used in turn  the USA dollar,  the Guatemalan quetzal (the national bird), the Honduran lempira (an indigenous leader), the Nicaraguan cordoba (the country's founder), and  the El Salvadorian colon (site of the national malady).  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 rejoined CA1, the Pan American Highway for the rest of Central America .    The quality of the PanAm Highway was much better than dated reports we had read, and many stretches were being improved.   Occasional pavement holes were usually shallow, there were sometimes two  foot shoulders and proper striping, and there were no more Mexican topes (speed bumps).  Road workers wore fluorescent orange, but never hard hats.

To us, toilets indicate the wealth of a country.   If the quality of USA chain gas station toilets is 10, those at gas stations of the Mexican PEMEX monopoly were about 6.   This descended through Guatemala and El Salvador to minus 1 in Honduras.   I inspected them before Margery, and sometimes rejected a minus 2.   A  -1 was small, dark, filthy, with no seat, no paper, a broken door, and had 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 queried her.    Yes, she liked school.   She was 10, had four siblings, and didn't know where the USA is.    When I said I liked her pretty smile, it became so radiant that it would have broken hearts.    I might have taken a picture, the tourist reflex, but it's etched on my mind forever.

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 two day package deal to Tikal,  a great Mayan site 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.   It did.   We were mini-bussed to the Guatemala City airport, then flown 180 miles in a two engine plane with scant knee room between seats.   I was delighted to see the two pilots using a mounted but portable Garmin 295 GPS, just like the one we had used in our old Cessna and car.   Then it took an hour by bus to our lodge beside the Tikal park entrance.   We were provided hot water and electricity only from 6 to10 PM and 5 to 6 AM.

Our affable young guide, part of the package, provided fascinating information in Spanish 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, not yet excavated.  Tikal about 900 AD is less of a mystery.   Apparently its death was Malthusian: war, pestilence and famine.   You may know (or Google "Mayan technology"), that the  Mayans were technologically sophisticated.  However, they used the wheel only on kid's toys, because it was sacred.  So how did they quarry and transport these multi-ton stone blocks, and raise them so high without pulleys ?  I think nobody knows.

We saw many monkeys and coatamundi, but no snakes nor big cats.   A warning sign was posted by a pond where a crocodile (not an alligator) had recently eaten a worker.

  We were interested in the many huge, exotic, endangered trees.   One is so hard and ant-resistant that lintels the Mayans made from it are still part of Tikal structures.   Here's one:

    I was intrigued by 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.   Here's Margery and our guide:

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, 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 one-day package.    The lake, in the crater of a collapsed volcano, is famously beautiful.   We visited 3 lakeside communities by boat.   Streets perpendicular to the lake were on the steep sides of the crater.   The year after our visit heavy rains caused landslides which killed hundreds.   Lake level is naturally 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, as in these photos I took.

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.

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