Tuesday, March 14, 2006


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 Doña 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, including 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, José 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 José, 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 the 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 to 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!   It was a long, complicated, and interesting drive from Maine.   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 needed 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.   So 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.

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