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 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.     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 maid's salary is about 10, with no breakfast and fewer amenities provided for the traveller.

However, in all of Central America they seem more efficient than we are in two 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 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 rejoined 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.

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 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.    When I said I liked her pretty smile, 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 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 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.   It 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 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 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, not yet excavated.  Tikal about 900 AD is less of a mystery.   Apparently it death was Malthusian: war, pestilence and famine.   You may know (or Google "Mayan technology"), that the  Mayans were technologically sophisticated.  However, they didn't use the wheel except 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 ?


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.

    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, 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.

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 unpleasant crossings of national borders.   At each there were redundant military roadblocks, multiple paperwork by several people, and checking of documents and car trunk contents.  Crossings sometimes took hours, and usually took bribes.

Added 4/27/2016:  Click here  for a book on how dangerous are Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, especially the last two.   We avoided the places and times that were less safe, but that was not easy on the drive from Guatemala to Nicaragua.

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, and secure parking.   But, ¨Better lock your car securely, in front of your room¨.   Our confidence was restored by seeing a man patrolling with the usual LLW (large lethal weapon: I don´t know guns), and surrounding high razor-topped penitentiary type fencing.    Hmm, we 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 anyway, and were brought
food which had the same low quality as the room.   Then the cold
water supply quit, so we had no 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 town, Choluteca,
Honduras.   It was our most harrowing drive 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 easier.    ¨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 saw and  pointed out our hotel ahead, which we recognized from pictures.

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.  On 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 extreme 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, he determined  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 at this point: 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.   On arrival in Santiago we will give
our car to our Brunswick friends in Santiago, and continue by public transport.

Feliz Navidad y Prospero Año 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 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.

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 saying 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 Santiago 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 butt, could be found anywhere.   There
may have been litter beside country highways, but from our car we saw 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 seemed 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 the 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

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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.