Osa Peninsula Jim
I come from the Crow's Nest, berthed in the secure confines of the erstwhile Cradle of Western Civilization, Puerto Jimenez, Osa, the quintessential byline. My alcove is revealed beneath for the benefit of the curious. We acknowledge the greatness of Google in helping with the manifestation of our curious vision. I warn against dwelling at length in the narrative unless you are okay with the other side.
|Drivemaster||Puerto Jimenez, Costa Rica||06/09/2008||19:24|
Outside the Crow's Nest, the blustery wind brings the moisture from the highlands as the Central American night quickens, its trolls stumbling across the potholes of Main Street in search of another pint of guaro, its sprites twinkling in the photo-luminescence of the gentle Golfo Dulce surf, its spirit rising like the decibels of an approaching flock of lapas. While the Princess Squad tidies its Carate affairs, Jim Town is like thick molasses rising warm and sweet around me, grabbing at my hands and pulling at my hair, sucking me down. But the Great Central American Road Trip stands as a virulent molasses solvent, stripping every entanglement from my mind, every obligation from that puritanical compulsion to fulfill. It is a flag rolled up on the horizon waiting for the eddies stirred by the dust-raising passage of the Ruby Racer with the Princess Squad and the Faux Capitain at the helm to loose its freak unfurled across a yearning and hungry isthmus. . . or at least as long as the money holds out.
The truck is in the shop: change oil and filter, differential fluids, check bearings and replace as needed, pack with grease, new spark plugs, radiator flush, full mechanical check-over, oils, greases, waters, fluids, springs, gears, pumps, levers, wheels, belts, all that stuff, having had its electrical update last week. Tomorrow, Cuco installs the new steel toolbox that is hoped to keep our luggage from getting wet on the big trip ahead while short ends of the Princess straw get soaked to the bone in the bed on those occasions when we can't seem to figure out how to get in out of the rain. We'll see how well the tarp works. I have a hydroelectric resource evaluation to complete to wind up my two month string of OWW consulting gigs following my return after experiencing SNOW in the United States in March, a report that I spent most of today writing, but that will be one of those last minute term papers turned in by email on Wednesday. Besides that there are two bids to complete, one to see if I can get down to $25,000 for a hydroelectric job in Division, Costa Rica, the second a solar installation in Carate, how much I can deliver for $10,000. We overnight in comp'ed rooms at a beach hotel in Manuel Antonio on Thursday, where I huddle with a contractor to instruct on a septic job to be begun the following Monday and completed in my celebratory absence, and then, Friday morning, the Ruby Racer points its grimacing snout to the northwest to soar up the Guanacaste steppes to that fabled Nicaraguan border like so many Contra-revolucionarios before us, like so many kilograms of cocaine, like so many paperless immigrants peopling the highways of America in clumps and clusters of masses both huddled and otherwise.
An adventure on the brink of becoming. . .
|Drivemaster||Puerto Jimenez, Costa Rica||06/11/2008||21:43|
The hours wind down toward the Zero Hour and the clock droops suddenly like out of a Dali painting, and Bunuel's bear is rumbling around in the spare room of the Crow's Nest, and I dare not venture beyond my little acclimatized space to investigate his rumbling. The Carate Contingent arrived pinkly into town this morning refreshed and perky following a night of prayer and sobriety in the jungle to find me mulling over the insanity of what is now irreversible and only hours away. They are doing the first leg on a bus to Manuel Antonio to avoid the likelihood of heavy rains on the way up tomorrow afternoon, both the celestial variant that falls fluid from the sky and the other kind that rides motorcycles with sirens and normally sport bushy mustaches and dour countenances as they shake their heads doubtfully over any liberties that might have been taken with Costa Rican traffic law. I probably should have seen it coming when my mechanic delivered my truck to me rather than telling me to come pick it up. For $600 you can buy a hummer these days I hear in the States, and that was the bill for the tune-up. This was a tune-up like you have never seen. It came complete with new rear-view mirrors, and I am still shaking my head a little bit. But the Ruby Racer is in top shape and make no mistake, she hums and purs. Then after dark, Cuco came over and took my car away to install the new tool box, and we'll show it to you tomorrow in all its splendor and glory in OWW blue. Massive and heavy steel and roomy and waterproof. . . it is amazing. We rounded out the day with a fine-dining coup at Jade Luna, where Pony and Karlsbad had the goat-cheese fritter salad, MarMar opted for the bleu cheese broiled on pineapple salad and your humble Khanman munched on Feta and black olives. We split four entrees, the blackened, snapper, jumbo butter garlic shrimp, and grilled pork chop, and they have retired to their cabin for the night and are off at five on the bus. I managed to get my Hydro resource report completed and made it up to one of the properties to get the hibiscus hedge planting lined out correctly and summoned 12 copies of all my truck documents for the border crossings going and coming and got half way toward the two other job quotes I need to have out by the time we hit Nicaragua, and I am excited and amazed that my only real commitments that I can see for the morning are packing and a bank run and then hit the open road in the big rig with the fancy new tool box and a hood that opens to reveal all kinds of new parts, almost like a new set of dentures sparkling in the smiling mouth of the toothless crone whose dour grimace always reminded you somehow that in the middle age they used to occasionally get a little ergot alkaloid in their wheat stores, which tended to require the occasional round of burning people at the stake in devout expiation. Finally, the pacing of the bear next door has faded away, and it seems to have settled down for the long night of the Central American soul. I guess if I wasn't a little bit nervous it would be suspiciously like over-confidence.
What we are about to do is simply not something that is done. Period. I wonder if Vasco de Gama and Magellan ever got right down to the brass existential tacks of the substantiality beyond that distant cresting wave. And mustn't Cortes and Pizarro have had to have felt a bit queasy leading their platoon sized squads aggressively against city-states with tens of thousands of human-sacrificing, semi-cannibal, head-lopping, heart-popping, peyote-infusing, tequila-drinking and coke-snorting imperial savages?
But, wait. . . clearly I digress.
Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica
The way the light was around the edges of the curtains left no doubt but even then like the good Obamacan that I am. . . I had hope. Yes, we CAN sleep another hour, but out of the hermetic bubble of Crow's Nest frost in the bathroom, the diaphanous haze of the morning given the clouds had the feel of 8:15. Cloudless, it was easy only 6:00 a.m., but with the ceiling outside like the underbelly of a mackerel, even hope was insufficient and sure enough, the watch on the desk said 8:25, and today of all days I knew I could not sneak out even another half hour necking with Morpheus's sirens. I looked toward the bright side; at least I had not had to rise at 4:30 like the girls to make the five a.m. bus. Fifteen minutes later with strong coffee and whole cream and the curtains drawn it was not even so bad, the world colliding like hadrons underneath Switzerland out there in the wider cradle of western civilization. And sure enough, 95 degrees and 95 percent humidity out on the Crow's Nest landing. The morning's emails were light, however, and as I stayed up late last night backing up my hard drive and getting things out of the way, a half hour later there was nothing left to do but pack and go to the bank.
I have a problem with packing and figured the lines would be backed up from the bank half way to the Super 96 but incredibly at 9:15 there was not a single person sitting in the musicals chairs queue and I walked right up to a teller and walked away with $1500 to put with the other $400 in cash and at that point there was no escaping the last remaining chore. I went right down to three pairs of shorts this time and in the end decided to take a single pair of socks after all, plus jeans. The office is pretty easy to pack, everything into the bag, but I left the spare hard drive and opted out of the GPS and altimeter and stowed them in the safe downstairs and headed out under a steely firmament, breaking out of the Cradle at eleven on the nose, six hours behind the Princess Procession earlier in the morning.
For a civil engineer, the scenery was unparalleled in quality, with road construction going on nearly the whole trip. Also, the rivers were high, and that was also pretty fun to check out on the road. Looking back at my pictures, I can imagine that other people may raise their eyebrows at the notion of a sexy action shot of a vibratory compactor at work on the Osa Highway expansion, but what do those people know about sensual and tactile delicacies like the transcendental rumble rising from the earth as the compactor rumbles past. For those of you with more romantic ideals of scenery I also saw a jaguarundi cross the road between Ojochal and Uvita and then saw a loping tucan humping his ungodly beak in strained wing beats between Uvita and Dominical, rising and falling like a sailing vessel in the sky with an obscenely naked and prominent proboscic bowsprit as garishly colored as a baboon's butt.
Tomorrow I will show you photos of the septic job, but for today you will have to be content with roads, bridges, and fluvial hydrology. I passed the girls' inbound from San Isidro a half hour out of Quepos and swilled a frosty pop across the street from the bus station and was able to meet them as they stepped off the bus. We are just back in from pizza in Quepos, back to our hotel in Manuel Antonio, and amazingly I am bursting with the fiendish expectation of getting me a bit of what I could not return to this morning. For alas, my contractor arrives at six a.m., so I have to rise and shine bright and early to get the work part of the day dispensed with so that Team Osa Pen can proceed merrily up the isthmus for our anticipated rendezvous with Nicaragua around four tomorrow afternoon.
San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua
Today we honor Karl, aka Fabulo, on the 45th anniversary of his birth and Tim Russert of NBC News on the occasion of his untimely demise. I am great fans of both and am unsure how to balance the news that the day brings from the wider world.
The G-CART convoy rolled from Manuel Antonio this morning at eleven a.m. following your humble correspondents' miraculous conclusion of arrangements and coordination for work there to occur (supposedly) in my absence. We passed two traffic cops herding people to the side of the road and threaded the needle with two in the back and two up front, then drove through two phalanxes of guardia armed with heavy weaponry without even a slow down, just the wave through, despite being in flagrante delicto of Costa Rican traffic law. At the border we single-handedly caused the demise of at least a full tree in paper on both sides of the border, and if they had read all the paperwork I had they would have been able to squirrel at least a couple twenties in bribes from me, but as is we made it through the whole thing in an hour and a half. To my embarrassment I allowed myself to be deceived for $75 from a moneychanger and am pretty rosy-cheeked about that one, but I have learned my lesson. Ouch.
Flouting the most important law, we drove after dark for another hour, fifteen miles off the pan-am to the hopping urb of San Juan, where the entire world is gathered for a variety of activities, which include a fishing tournament, a salsa dancing contest, a cane-cutter's convention, and from the size of the crowd huddled outside the cathedral, possibly a congregant's affliction with stigmata or maybe even the appearance of Christ in a fried plantain fritter or maybe something even more darkly and more mysteriously Catholic than any of those.
After about a million hours of driving around town and being turned down after hotel after hotel, we finally found room at the White House. We'll get caught up in the morning, because following a gastronomic abundance the bed is calling hard, and the AC is on full tilt boogie. Maybe the Princess Squad will be ready to contribute in the morning.
They are pretty shy ladies.
What a splendid awakening to a beautiful sunny day in western Honduras! Here at the Hotel La Fuente as I wait for the girls to wipe the crumbs from their eyes and patter around with their morning toilette and whatever else it is that precedes revealing themselves to the world, I sit and marvel at it all with a big old goofy grin on my face. The pool is real big and pretty, the tables and chairs are draped with cloth, everything is air conditioned, and the hotel staff all have uniforms and are painfully attentive and polite. And our room for four cost $44 with taxes. Dinner for four last night with beers and drinks was $20. We have broken out, it would seem, of the Costa Rican price zone, which turns out to include the tourist resort of San Juan del Sur, where we had to pay $136 for two rooms, though admittedly we arrived late and had few choices.
What a country, Nicaragua! I didn't remember how beautiful it was from my 1994 road trip in the opposite direction. We had a full day of blaring sun and singing tires, happy howls of glee and mileage rolling out underneath us.
San Salvador, El Salvador
Things moving almost too fast to keep up. Yesterday's entry was a bit truncated, perhaps can fill out later. We made it circuitously through El Salvador yesterday, at least as far as the capital on a crazy "coastal" route that was zigzagging all over hell's half-acres--gorgeous countryside and great people--but a bit crazifying with no mileage signs, no directional guidance, and NO MAPS for sale anywhere ! Everybody was so helpful too. They all told me just what I wanted to hear, making the trip about two hours longer than it needed to be, but I think we really did hit the scenic route.
The roads here in this country are fabulous by the way, and for all the misdirection and the bristling of pistol-grip shotguns at every gas station and place of business, is the friendliest country to date. And the currency is US dollars. Yippee! The capital must be pretty high up because we climbed gradually to where the air was fresh and clear and then peered over the pass onto an urban mecca wrapping the valleys in the fading day's crepuscular orange. I pulled off at a gas station amid a bustle and throng of traffic and asked a besuited young man emerging from his car about hotels and how to get down town, and he advised against downtown as too dangerous and absolutely made me follow him. He sped us through a five minute convolution of enough whorls and loops to give a gastropod spire-envy and he deposited us with a broad smile on his face in front of our hotel. Wireless, AC, cable tv, vehicle security, close to a string of restaurants and bars, breakfast included, all for $60 for the four of us.
The girls are off doing banking, so I have to cut this short to load pictures, more later, perhaps. We are off to Guatemala today. A big day, like all of them
Rio Dulce, Guatemala
Yesterday was amazing!
The drive was beautiful and spectacular, the border crossing was the friendliest and least costly to date, the road kept on rolling, and at the end of the day we are within striking distance of the Yucatan.
El Salvador is incredibly beautiful. And the people are so helpful. In fact they will help you at all costs. For instance, ask them directions, and you will get them, no matter whether they know what you are asking or not. And since the country does not publish maps and since the road signs are cryptograms designed as puzzles, we were left with little choice but to keep asking people. What I found is that navigation in the country is best done through process of elimination, and here's how that works. When you ask for directions, you know for a fact that you can immediately discard the answer as one of the possibilities. So by a process of elimination, you keep asking people and go in a route other than what they have recommended and eventually you will find your destination. But other than that, the highways are very good, the people super friendly, the people smiley and happy. . . I can understand why they fought a war over the country. Everything is beautiful there and even though it looks small on a map, by the time that you take every road in the country following directions just trying to get through it, it grows to about the size of Montana.
At the San Cristobal crossing yesterday, the only kind of peeve was getting up to the last part, the vehicle entry into Guatemala, at 1:15, to discover that the only person that could do the crossing was out to lunch. So we sat in the shade in the chaotic bustle of the market area lining the border road, where a young Guatemalan border guard became enamored with Princesses innocently perched in the rear of the Ruby Racer and gave us all kinds of good advice about where to go and how to get there (all his instructions have proven accurate to the tee). He wanted to buy us all beers. I declined in the name of road sobriety, so he bought Gallos for the girls.
When we hit the road at 2:30 it was through a mountain fairyland of lakes and mountains and deciduous trees and small eateries and stands and smiling people everywhere, gently winding, well-paved roads empty of traffic. We came through a commercial route rather than the main thoroughfare, so there were no transnational vehicle traffic to contend with. We took back roads (but nice ones) to circumvent the phalanx of mountains and the capital itself and rose along a happily sunlit plain gradually, the Racer humming with satisfaction and happiness, wind whipping through the windows, the girls whooping it up in the back to the strains of Credence.
Presently we topped a ridge and peered into a dissected valley with large mountains, the slopes cloaked with pine, and the smell and sights transported me to Colorado, perhaps even the slopes of the Sierra Nevadas. It was a bit transcendental. Then when we made it down into the valley town of Cucabonga (or something like that) it seemed like the river bottom towns like Alamosa or Montevista, with the big cottonwoods replaced by some Guatemalan variant of the same and all the people bustling along in their valley bottom lives.
The long straight away to the coast is the trucker's route connecting the Caribbean and the capital, and we hummed along, finally making our turnoff to the Peten a half hour before dark. With a leaden foot in my approach to Rio Dulce I suddenly have lights behind me and pull over, steeling myself for the dour visage of a disapproving officer of the law about to read me the riot act. The girls were in their bikini tops, and he looks in the cab and asks for my documents.
"You've been swimming?" he asks, glancing at my license as I fumble with my growing package of superfluous paperwork.
"No, we're on our way to Rio Dulce for the night. Coming from Costa Rica."
"Okay," he smiled, handing it back over; "have a great time."
No warnings, no solicitations of bribery, no admonition to slow it down, nothing unfriendly, and five minutes later we were crossing the giant bridge over the Sweet River and into the jam-packed little town of Rio Dulce. We opted for a $40 motel room with Internet across the street and had dinner in town where we got to witness a catfight five feet from our table. . . with blood and everything. The girls thought that was pretty cool. It's not everyday that you get a show with dinner.
Destination today: Belize City.
Belize City, Belize
MarMar had her run, Karlsbad and the Ponester found blackberry wine, and your Khanliness has pretty much brought us up to date on the content that has been internally released. There is a bit of carping and moaning and criticism about how content is displayed, no ego there, surely, just aesthetic differences perhaps.
So, our crib is top shelf, looking out over the entire eastern part of the world out over the Caribbean from our pirate's perch right on the malecon of Belize City in the audaciously named Hotel Zone of the Tourist District. Busted.
Border crossings have grown consecutively easier since the Nicaragua/Honduras border when the big fat bitch sent me to the back of the line "because my paperwork was going to take longer," and today at Melchor, following an extortion of $10 by the Guatemalan municipality to be allowed to cross their dinky little rattly one lane semi-suspicion bridge, the Belizean authorities were strictly pro forma in their diligences and our whole border crossing took little more than a half hour. At the pace we are going tomorrow we expect to be waved through.
Today I had my first glimpse of primary rain forest since leaving Costa Rica. We strayed into limestone terrane for the first time since Palmar, southern Costa Rica, marking a carbonate platform from a separate proto-ocean. Just north of Rio Dulce, cockpit karst is abundant, reminding me of Puerto Rico. But further the land flattens and the vegetation shrinks into a scarred and ugly plain, blackened with tannic swamps and stubble, razed as though by a D-12 dragging logs through the country-side, or perhaps a Class V hurricane's track, a couple years on.
The road degraded after passing the turnoff to Tikal and twenty miles shy of the border, the pavement ended, and the white road took us bumpily the rest of the way out of the country, your old buddy grumbling in sympathy with the unimpressed shock absorbers beneath the dirge now sung by the newly challenged suspension and leaf springs. Happily after the Extortion Bridge and our entry into Belize, the roads pulled themselves together again, even though this country has a speed bump or two too many, and a rumble-strip or three to spare.
The Khan Man and Princess Squad still await a contribution from the wider world beyond: from the transcontinental contingents gathering steam and packing bags and arranging for pet care and mulling credit card limits and charging batteries and washing socks and underwear. Let me hear from you with your content: email@example.com (or any of my other addresses), and I will get it posted as soon as I am able.
Playa Del Carmen, Mexico
Wow. We made it.
Sure enough, at the Mexican border they waved us through, no paperwork with the car, nothing to pay, a cursory glance inside the toolbox and we were on our way.
I figured we were going to Tulum, but the girls wanted to stay at Playa del Carmen, and that's closer to the airport where I pick up my sons and brother and nephew tomorrow, so it made sense to me as well. They split off on their own after we ran around for an hour and a half trying unsuccessfully to find rooms that would work for everyone. They're in their element no doubt here in this Mecca of nightlife, and they have been pining to get around cute boys (or real men, as our Pony-Girl put it), and now they are free of old fuddy-duddies after seven days of being somewhat captive to my perhaps tiresome company. Here, the wireless Internet at my hotel turned out to be only pretend Internet, so I can take great pleasure in penning these words but cannot post them.
It's kind of funny. I figured the hard part would be getting here, and maybe it was, but now that I am here, I am a bit hogtied with communications lapses and no word from the Baltimore contingent, and now there are emergencies back in the Cradle of Western Civilization and at the moment I most need communications, I don't have them. I was supposed to get reservations for Russ at Papaya Playa, but now that I am in Playa del Carmen, it hardly makes sense to drive all the way back since I have to pick up my sons and brother tomorrow night at the airport. I was counting on Internet tonight for last minute communications with tomorrow's travelers, but I guess you can't have everything, and you certainly can't count on having everything.
I was here ten years ago, 1998, over the Christmas season, and what has happened since is a Cinderella story, but I am not sure where the wicked step sisters fit in. Then it was a dusty fishing burg, and now you can find Cartier distributorships on the main walking promenade a block from the beach and a hundred or so restaurants brimming with tourists and tuxedoes waiters and hosts. A few blocks from the beach is a Wal-Mart supercenter with an underground parking garage and a few blocks further out, probably, is where you can pick up a Masserati or Bentley.
The service today at restaurants and along the way and at the border was exceedingly friendly and smiley, but here in Carmen, there is a cynicism behind the mechanical smile, and the contrived politeness is politic and calculated. It reminds me, strangely, of Vail, Colorado, white sand replacing the white snow, bikini tops in lieu of ski jackets, cheeks flushed red from drink rather than from the cold. It is a jungle of wanton options, a bottomless cenote welling with surfeit and plenty to distract the jaded for a few days with the next new thing, Miami on the Mayan Riviera. The beautiful people sport their tans and designer surf slacks, beach mini's, leopard print sarongs, and immaculate polos and talk loudly over large umbrella drinks served by descendants of a decayed and overrun empire, slick street sharks surveying the scene from their perch against lamp posts, a zillion different cons in the works along the street as well, of course, as perhaps a thousand times more of the legitimate business of providing entertainment for all of us tourists and travelers, tens of millions of dollars exchanging hands every day in routine transactions.
For now, cable television, and a descent into soporific oblivion. Not much of a schedule for tomorrow. . . find a new hotel, troubleshoot long distance office challenges, count my money, get some breakfast.
Dateline: Papaya Playa
Okay, we have now really made it. Orpheus and Aladdin arrived only 45 minutes late, and Fabulo and Jordan's flight was one hour and 45 minutes late, and Roscoe and Sally are apparently delayed by nearly 24 hours. Here on the beach life is chill again, beyond the thunderclap of commerce that strikes from the heart of Carmen like a sledgehammer to the chest. Our new home, Papaya Playa is like a gentle caress on a warm day, like a gentle bath in warm milk, like a creamy pina colada on an empty stomach, a gift from the heavens deposited unpretentiously in our laps.
You would never figure you were right on it, with all the impenetrable ugly scrub and hardscrabble, sandal-gobbling limestone by the side of the road, unforgiving Helios pounding the pavement and your arm hanging out of the car, then you turn into the shaded compound and through the trees is a glimpse of aqua punctuated with white caps and then the foyer, the smiling attendant, and wouldn't you know it, the six person villa was available, and the next thing you know we were on the beach.
Just a few minutes before dark I am in town, alone, charging batteries, taking care of business, doing banking business for back in Jim-Town, and getting all caught up on downloads and uploads.
Russ and Sally must be on the ground and bound south by this advanced hour, and I can't imagine how ready they will be to finally arrive after over 24 hours in transit, surely stories there. Tomorrow, one more catch up day then surely the next we begin our diving lessons.
Wish I had taken pictures of last night's feast: we started off with fifteen tacos al pastor, then had grilled steak, pork chop, grilled cactus, bean soup, more grilled steak, about a kilo of tortillas, negra modelo beers all around the table, limes, and two types of chili sauce: hot and very hot.
June 21, 2008
After a push-me pull-you over what to eat between the seven of us and its eventual settling on breakfast rather than grilled chicken in that acid entre-temp hour when neither breakfast nor lunch is quite fully right, we piled into the Ruby Racer, some of us pleased that the bleeding was held to $52 with tip and repaired to Casa Cenote over by the mansion that Lynn and CJ have for an hour or so of swimming in the crystalline aqua water, the white limestone walls girding the whole, clinging beds of algae dangling babylonically from the mangrove roots, the water welling up from the realm of Oztotl to burble limpidly into the immaculate swimming hole. We paid our two dollars and the boys and I all pondered snorkel-and-mask envy for a bit then got over it.
We secured a diving certification training commitment from a local dive shop, $330 per person for five of us, to begin tomorrow, kicked around the rest of the afternoon, did a little Internet, then headed over to the Castle in the Sand for barbecued chicken. I bought chicken, limes, shallots, cilantro, bread, and corn on the cob and incredibly it all melded seamlessly with all the food already in preparation at the castle du mer. It was all too good, the whole house jumping with crazy wonderful vacation energy, everyone happy, lots of tequila and beer and drinking games, a little bit of aromatic cannabis wafting among the various floors. Orpheus, Aladdin, Jordan and I cut out at eleven thirty or so to get back and get some shut-eye in order to rise and shine to ready the 175 pages due for the classes to get underway. There was a road block a half mile from Papaya Playa, arguably half of the Quintana Roo police force, out en masse. Not sure what their deal was, whether it was for drunken drivers, undocumented aliens, marooned bails of cocaine, or simply to provide helpful instructions to dazed motorists, confused about their destinations. At any rate, they waved me through and back at the ranch the offshore breeze had faltered to a limp-wristed half-hearted imitation of a breeze, not even stiff, and the mosquitoes and swelter were like a mantle upon our bedded bodies.
K-bob and Roscoe rolled in about three hours later, the former on a deep-night rampage, in and out with flashlights, popping tops, stopping nocturnally straggling ladyfolk stumbling to their huts to chat them up loudly, apparently with some degree of success, alcoholic swirl raising the sand along the beach into so many eager dust-devils, yoni yearning lingum and the latter lurching longingly for a little cenote time, all of it thick with the purple scent of the sea and the sound of mosquitoes humming in the air.
June 22, 2008
The morning stifled with a rampaging stillness, the sun a golden platter rising angrily out the front door, the ocean cowed and obedient. Orpheus was the first to stir, and was right on the PADI book right away. I arose and made the rounds, snapping pictures of our sleeping beauties, O-Dog collapsed with the book on his chest, as is his wont and practice. I took my copy and repaired to the restaurant, where I finished Chapter three over bad coffee and returned to find J, A, and O, all reading their text, just like they were supposed to be doing, K-bob discreetly searching for his money and his and Jordan's passports, which had gone missing in the manic midsummer night's dream of the night before.
We dropped Sally and Russ at the Tulum ruins, where rumor falsely had it that Sundays are free, and we obeyed our instructors instructions to get a hardy breakfast and sat through three grueling hours of being lectured on everything that we had already learned by reading. I am sure that you get all types as a dive instructor, so his admonition that we read the chapters carefully was doubtlessly important in a general sense, but with our group being a little higher octane than your normal class, we struggled to subsume our boredom, some of us less effectually than others, Orpheus nodding openly until we went and got him a Tulum equivalent of a Red Bull.
We returned for our practical to dive the same cenote that we swam the day before. What a world of difference the worlds apart comprise, separated by the gentlest interface between two media so vital to all life: water and air. We did all our skills without skipping a beat, our instructor visibly pleased beneath the water and set out upstream, kicking against the gentle current upwelling from its plutonic passage through the bowels of the Yucatan carbonate platform, wending doubtlessly miles through aquatic passages of a benighted subterranean netherworld, the shards of bones of pre-Columbian Mayan maidens mixing with the carbonate sands in the cave bottoms, strands of DNA from their rotted carcasses mineralized in the waters getting past the seals of our masks, getting into our mouths, infusing us with the savagery of the land, the brutality of its prehistory, the vulgarity of its actual incarnation, and the impermanence of our passage, where the photos we have taken and the footsteps we have left are like so many punctuation marks among Joyce's abandoned drafts of Finnegan.
The instructor paid us a nice compliment, thanking us for making his job easy, and we beat a retreat to rally the troops for a round of beer and dinner. Jordan found Karl's hundreds of dollars and their two passports undisturbed lodged under a mattress of a beach chair where we speculate he secreted his horde to doff his clothes for a dip in the briny with a wayfaring maiden that we understand declined his further advances when he misremembered her name as that of one of the women at the party earlier.
You have to love the name Dianne.
Now, moments away from the generator's final hurrah, something has broken here in this wonderful wretched little stick hut they call a villa, leaving us bathed in ink. The boys have repaired to the bar to continue reading. Dino has opted for Blake over PADI, the marriage of Heaven and Hell, and the O-Dawg is drawing. Gentle drumming rises from the beach, and the offshore breeze is as stiff as unrequited love bathed in honeysuckle, thick like molasses hanging from a spoon, sweet like the beads of sweat rising on a maiden's lip as she beats out tortillas for the family hearth, and tickles like the faint caress of a mermaid's tail in an inshore lagoon. No bugs tonight, and the thick blankey is going to be a welcome companion as I stare defiantly into Morpheus's tunnel, daring a dream to dance across my cerebral cortex like a little electroshock therapy galloping across a full moon of a windswept Nebraska night . . .
June 25, 2008
The air seems never to be still, always in a flurry, and the colors of the sky seem never to be bold or garish but always in some half-toned hue tending toward grey. The light cannot be disparaged and can even be considered blinding on occasion, but its nature is not that of piercing whiteness like the stab of Helios's spear in the Central Valley of Costa Rica, but diaphanous, like a pearly mantle draped across the windswept mangroves. And so the colors are damped and subdued, even the typical garish Mexican affinity for vermilions and chartreuses thereby stifled by the dissipating and oppressed nature of the light, subject as it is to the sadistic vagaries of maritime humidity and Caribbean salinity bum-rushing the shore in an apostasy of global climate dysfunction. The town of Tulum intrinsically recognizes the limitations that the light and atmosphere impose and makes no attempt to rise from its yoke of chromatic subjugation. In obeisance to forces so preternatural and immemorial as to go unrecognized by the populace, the town itself is sinful in its ugliness. It is a sensual abomination, the architecture ugly and unplanned, the town layout over-planned and dyspeptic, the agglomeration of townsfolk unnatural and opportunistic, the policemen unsmiling and sharp-beaked, perched on street corners like raptors from barren ledges, scanning the streets for vermin upon which to swoop with filed talons, piercing eyes, and sneering souls. The merchants of this town are not like merchants in other towns that arise from the town's social milieu to fill a space in concert with natural human inclinations toward profession and sense of self. Here the merchants are like hungry scavengers rushing madly and unprepared into a gold rush, unskilled in the profession of mining but full of the expectation of striking it rich in streams overflowing with the precious metal. This is an unnatural town, and there is nothing nice to be said about it.
But the beaches. . . oh but the beaches. . .
It can hardly be an accident that the Mayan ruins of Tulum are perched along a stretch of the most immaculate white sand along the whole littoral reach that is so cleverly anointed the "Mayan Riviera." On the beach, the laws of light codified in the preceding chapter are violated, thus sundering physics like the chest of a sacrificial lamb unhappily surrendering his heart for the common good. On the beach the light is a heliotropic broadsword piercing the firmament to punctuate the fluffy clouds in strokes and stabs within a field of azure splendor that is as distinct from the vivid aqua of the gently white-capped back reef environment as vermilion is from chartreuse. And even obliquely the cautious eye will pick out the patches of reef that have strayed inshore from the barrier framework that is the planet's second longest such reef. The sand is so white that it will drive you under a palapa, the air so invigorating that a masseuse would go hungry looking for work. The founders of Tulum were onto something of such magnificent import that the bum's rush of Europeans, Americans, and even the Mexican descendants of this region's original people floods the land in an anticlimax, as a consequence of nature rather than any testament to the intelligence or creative genius of mankind. Just as gases expand to fill whatever volume is available, so too has man insinuated his way into every nook and cranny that can be converted into a mercantile opportunity. And where no buildings are yet, there is where you will find tents pitched and the nomadic hedonists perched with their gallon jugs of warming water, battered guitars leaned against windswept shrubs, inevitable bongo drums tortured by the moisture and salt, hawking valueless trinkets, denied by the natural order and food chain enforcing from peddling even piddling amounts of weed and blow.
In 1764 a liquor was invented by French monks that comprised a distillate of 130 separate herbs. It was a greenish-yellow in color, what might be called today neon-green, and was first elaborated in the chartreuse mountains of France in the Benedictine monastery actually known then as the Grande Chartreuse Monastery. The liquor was of such a distinctive color that its name was used to define the color, so that yellow green has been known ever since as "chartreuse." In the 1970's the Crayola corporation propagated an intellectually cynical and dishonest error on a credulous American public that persists to this day among even significant proportions of the G-CART's presumptive cognoscenti. My under-informed associates, colleagues, children, relatives, and co-travelers laugh at me and insist that chartreuse is actually a variant of pink--something like vermilion--and they imagine that numbers somehow imply correctness, that might indeed makes right. And they chortle at my error. It is so odd when you know you are right about something but everybody dismisses you as a bit of a crank and deluded. So, my fellow travelers are in dubious debt to a factory in Easton, Pennsylvania, where I spent some of the most soul-searching months of my life, and they still think that the color chartreuse is something that it is not. But I am not alone. The outcry over this chromatic bastardization was enough to give rise to a new name for the color stretching as an imposter somewhere between red and yellow, which is quite a beautiful and apt description: atomic tangerine. But maybe my G-CART sojourners will have the last laugh, for as we all know, language is anything but static, and if enough of you reject the green-yellow definition and favor chartreuse as atomic tangerine, then perhaps the bastardized definition will rise as a phoenix, and the proper chartreuse will be relegated to something so puerile and common as "neon green" and "atomic tangerine" will channel Bach as a reggaeton band that eclipses The Beatles in a happenstance of global musical domination. Stranger things have indeed been known to happen.
Our new hotel room--the one newly supplanting our Papaya Playa hovel--has hurricane shutters and air conditioning. Together they make for perfection in self-deception in the great exercise of sleeping in. We were cited for 10:00 a.m. at the Palace in the Sand for breakfast, but in accord with my nature I committed us to 9:45, to be bearing sausage, bacon, and orange juice. This hotel has the same old SMTP identity trap that I suffered through at Momma Lynn's, Mom's and elsewhere in the States, even at Dad's until configuring a personal email account, the ISP's way of tightening down access by the cyber pirates like myself sponging off others' Internet access in their effort to make us all pay our way and boost their bottom lines. So, after a modest flurry of work last night before bed I had 29 emails in my outbox, my dreams last night bouncing between communications conundrums and travel travails in hyperbaric dissociation, like sodium and chloride molecules straying north and south at the halocline. I left my watch on the Ruby Racer's console, so we were more timeless in Tulum than insensate in Cincinnati as daylight strove to sneak between the slats, and when it seemed that it really had to be time to attend to such things as waking reality I broke the tinsel threads tethering me to the shallow lagoon of gentle dreams and into the hardscrabble Mexican morning of sacrificial blood-red streaming reality. K-bob--the Aqualung--was awake and thinking privately of cigarettes in the gentle morning air, but the young'uns were folded serenely still in Morpheus's gentle arms as I broke into the diaphanous haze outside of a milky morning in search of Internet and coffee. Costa Rica is a culture of dawn, where the morning mixes with man to produce great works, including straight walls and right-angle corners. Mexico aspires more toward the motherland, Spain, where dinner before ten p.m. is lunch and a night out on the town starts at two a.m. and doesn't end till the sun is full and white and well clear of the oriental horizon, and Diego Rivera splashes his hurried supper in full color along a half city block to define his nation as Frida dips a memorial tongue in a Sapphic supper to evoke a midnight inspiration that propels Georgia O'Keefe's brushes to quiver in creative ecstasy, petals of lust dewy in the Mexican dust, bullets riddling communist corpses dancing with white smiles and long memories beneath an October moon. . . It was eight a.m., but not a single Internet Cafe was open in all the town, and despite a number of unsecured wireless networks within range of my buccaneering laptop, I was unable to connect and upload the massive accumulation of outbound missives. By nine-fifteen my favorite little cyber-hole was still battened down, tighter than a Bengali bongo in a Kalahari sweat lodge, so I reluctantly gave it up and we scored breakfast meats. Pulling in to the Saint Francis of Assisi Supermarket (has ever there been a less appropriately named store?) the Princess squad arrived at the same moment in a blur of the dog's hair, energetic with breakfast-buying energy, and before we could finish our purchases they were gone again, dervishes whorled away into the monochromatic morning light, leaving me to wonder whether they were not actually apparitions. Could they really have been there and vanished so instantly? Confused, and having never seen motion swell and recede so quickly, I was left rubbing my temples and briefly marveling at the mystery of my own sanity. Later, arriving at the Castle in the Sand, I decided against asking them whether we had exchanged words in the supermarket or not. Might I be courting insanity? Do I want to know?
The three of them were a lyrical ode to satiety and gastronomic concupiscence, the Ponester cracking eggs and whisking purposefully into a brimming bowl perilously close to overtopping with the slime of blended eggs, Marmar dangerous with her knife, chop-chop-chopping at green pepper and onion like a raven in her keep, Karlsbad tempting fate as always with a bared bronze midriff before a blazing flame and the sputtering and simmering of frying onions, potatoes, and bacon. I purloined a cup of coffee in mid brew as the knife turned to the bolillos that I had bought, symmetry emergent in avocado and tomato slices, green surrounding red, the Spanish sausage sizzling now with tantalizing abandon, Karlie's belly tanned as always but absent the telltale greetings of hot spots of angry grease. Meanwhile, CJ trotted wheelbarrows of seaweed, transferring organic debris from the the beach to somewhere behind the house in a happy trot, much like in a David Lynch movie, all to the suspected bemusement of the gardener whose job it was and whose experience may not have included such similarly ambitious work-starved guests before. A few more days, I imagine him saying, a few more days. . . In less than an hour, CJ urged that the bed-bound slackers be roused to join the fun, and before long, there were strapping young men with serious countenances, some nursing suspected hangovers and all forming a chorus line of seaweed toting barrowers, all shining with the happy sweat of morning exertion, working out the smells of the previous night's entertainment . . .
* * *
I am not sure whether the Castle in the Sand is a set piece from a bad Mexican gangster movie or a B-grade Mexican vampire flick, but it is definitely one or the other. It is clearly the kingpin's headquarters, and swarthy serious-looking men with cheap sunglasses mouthing sing-song subordinate phrases pace around the roof-top in leisure suits holding Ouzis and Mach-10s while the honcho's ho preens in a skimpy bikini in the pool within the walled compound as the head capo slaps around the tied-up rat that whimpers and whines beneath the blows as the big boss smokes a fat cigar and monitors the torture from a darkened backroom while sitting in a director's chair and sipping an umbrella drink and casually popping his knuckles as his bitch applies sun tan lotion and inspects her pubis for strays from an immaculate wax.
. . . cut
to a group of Mexican college girls, like a sorority party, all of them admiring the amazing castle that they have been invited to by their mysterious host who has yet to make his appearance among them. There are no men, only women, all in various states of undress, mostly in skimpy bikinis, not beautiful by American standards, but voluptuous by Mexican ones, all of them with a roll or two of baby fat about their wastes, deeply tanned and skilled at prancing around in high heels with skins glistening with lotion under a blinding white sky as deep beneath the rocks of the floor in a rat-filled basement the host somnolently reposes in his pimped out coffin, rhinestones and broken mirrors adorning its exterior, cobwebs obscuring the camera's view, a faint trace of anticipation across thin lips impossibly crimson in anticipation of the feast to come as back upstairs the unsuspecting victims talk loudly about pedicures and tan lines, boyfriends and sugar-daddies, a single demure bespectacled beauty glancing around ominously, clearly out of sorts with her surroundings, clued into the foreshadowing cued by the eerie musical score building on cue with her rising suspicion.
It was great to see the Princess squad dissolve into inaction at the conclusion of a gargantuan breakfast feast lain out on the bar like a Malay buffet in a Kuala Lumpur Hyatt Regency. The impressive array of food had more colors than a prism factory, items arrayed in mounds like volcanoes lining an Indonesian island arc, vapors as varied as a Van Nuys food court (okay, I'll own up to cheesy alliteration with no meat and potatoes there). But the predominant theme was either variety, quantity, or quality, depending on the lens through which you happened to consider the meal. For me, since I was not hungry, it was variety. I had a small spoon of eggi-weggs, a modest mound of potatoes, a splash of sausage, a bite of bacon, a bit of bread, a burst of butter, a jolt of juice (organically orange as opposed to magnificently mango), a refill of refried beans, an avaricious avail of avocado, a tumult of tomato, and a coffer of coffee, and by the time I yummed it all up, I had to sit down and rest and read a bit of the Lizard King's poetry, which just between you and me, was not very good. To top it off, he was sallow in his photograph on the back cover, a real rider on the storm, a corpse walking, and I wondered what it is that a sated rock star openly courting death supposedly has to tell the world about LA women and roadhouses before his thirtieth birthday. My conclusion? Not very much, but it is likely to be widely and well received nevertheless.
I guess it's too late for me to die young and leave a good looking corpse every time.
June 26, 2008
The Chinese fire drill got underway shortly before eight a.m. this morning.
Orpheus awakened with an angry rash on his face, his cheeks swollen, parts that were not red jaundiced, his countenance puffy all over, itchy and angry and ugly. Russ insisted that without doing a cavern dive we would miss the whole mojo of the region and fail to connect with the reason for coming here in the first place. I was out of sorts over being unable to send emails and jonesing for my cyber-hole, Aqualung craved a descent into the maelstrom, the whole crew was hungry, and so it was a bit of a perfect storm. Orpheus and I set off for a doctor while the crew went in search of breakfast and a dive shop to set up the trip. Clouds were piling up on the horizon, bunching up together and stacking up darkly, portending not just rain but potentially unforgiving horizontal sheets of the stuff, and in the back of my mind was the soaking the foam rubber couch would take without some protection that we had not yet bought and which seemed almost too much to ask for in our spatial and temporal constraints.
But first, a medical clinic. We went to four doctor's offices in the nasty little burg of Tulum, Quintana Roo, our home away from many homes now for nearly a week, finding none of them open. They would all be open by late afternoon we were assured warmly and helpfully by neighbors, not to worry. . . Finally we found a doctor perched in a consultorio off the main drag examining the dirt beneath his fingernails as he waited for patients. We walked in had an allergic reaction diagnosis within thirty seconds of arrival, and a script scrawled out in stereotypical childlike scrawl in under a minute. We were pretty impressed with the raw efficiency of the medical community. Once you track them down, they get right to the crux of the matter. Orpheus declined the cortisone shot but accepted the antihistamine pills, and I tipped the doctor $1.50 to bring the total medical bill to $5.00 and laid out another $3.00 on pills and we found the crew before their coffee had even arrived. Orpheus decided to pass on diving based on his medical circumstance, and Aladdin gave it a miss as well, and Russ opted for snorkeling to keep the Sallymander in good company, and I was considerably more concerned about getting tarps and shaping up the car for the road trip than laying out $60 to paddle around under ground for fifteen minutes of face time, but our dive instructor had given Dr. Fabulo Aqualung a good price based on five of us, and I felt obliged to participate once my kids had declined to keep the numbers in the realm that would justify the discount and reluctantly turned the keys to the Ruby Racer over to Roscutin, who repaired to the hotel to check out and beat a trail to Grand Cenote.
It was a fantastic exercise for me: I wound up with my car in one place where I was not, my money and passport and papers in a second place where I was not and found myself in a place that I did not really want to be, preoccupied over my son who was somewhere where I was not with swollen facial tissues and likely at death's very door, suffering mightily from some kind of allergic onslaught, with questions swirling about how this all came to be. I was completely out of control, entirely subject to the whim of entropy, vulnerable to the winds of fate, the same ones that so eagerly blow darkly and without the slightest sympathy for good intentions and a general track record of moral probity and ethical upstanding. In case you did not know, the gods most like to strike down people that least deserve striking down, and my only hope was the series of impure thoughts that had plagued me the night before, starting with the succubus stretched out above me, her wings enfolding me as I slept, her lips blood red, her pubis shaven. . . did I just write what I think I did? The thing is that you cannot control your dreams and some of them are nicer than other ones, even if they may not be as polite and whitebread doughboy nice as those apple pie dreams of which Momma might be proud. It's never a bad time for a stroll on the dark side, at least in your subconscious, though perhaps you gentle readers may not be particularly interested in the forking paths of the negrous pallor of the shadowy corners of my subconscious garden, which is really more of an arbor than a garden.
I was able to take deep breaths and let it all slide off me like a gentle rain rather than the pounding storm descending all around and worked my way into my wet suit and BCD and tested the gear and saw that I had a full tank and got into my booties and waddled down to the platform to stare into the emerald abyss beneath a driving rain and imagined the soaking the couch was getting in the back of the truck and plunged into the water and felt it all as so many trifles of little concern. The water was immaculately crystalline, the cave system descending back from the collapsed sinkhole, formations rising from the floor and descending from the roof, spacious rooms away from the entrance, light fading in the deeper recesses, back where the chupacabra and Oztotl reign in tandem, awaiting the straying of incautious cave divers beyond the limits of their capacities upon which to pounce in an orgiastic feeding frenzy, eager to fill lungs with water, to turn lips blue, to excite the little fishes with fish food, to provide companionship to the inorganic carbonate sediments with organic carbonate ones picked clean by the aquatic worm. We could always see off in some reach of our travel a dim light dispersed from the cenote mouth, so by definition we were only cavern diving, but it seemed mightily like the world's most dangerous sport: cave diving.
Inside the realm where Poseidon and Hades must surely do battle for dominion it seemed somehow natural to be there, a frightening thought in its fundamental unnaturalness. But Aqualung, Jordano, and your Humble Doughboy weaved between the roof and floor in tolerable buoyancy for our novice capacities, threading the subterranean needle with some grace. We followed instructions, never became uncomfortable or grew nervous, and it was serene and beautiful, utterly cosmic. And in that manner we wrested the final mojo from the land and were qualified to take our leave of the Yucatan in peace, having ventured into his realm and indeed touched the face of Oztotl.
The couch proved drenched, but we managed with a bit of ingenuity and coin of the realm to fashion a manner in which the Ruby racer could accommodate the seven of us in reasonable comfort and all of our luggage, managing with tarps and ropes and boards and pure insistence over the adversity of nature to fashion a manner for everything to stay dry even if it should decide to pummel us with rain. So with a final filling of gas, a recharge of the cooler with beer and ice, some road food, we hit the highway at three thirty, the odometer 36 miles shy of 298,000 miles and pointed the lubber line south, roaring across the carbonate platform with relish and abandon.
Tonight, Chetumal, tomorrow beyond Belize and on to Tikal, the ruby racer racing and good times good being had by all.
June 29, 2008
Looking out over Lake Peten Itza, from the kitschy and delightful breakfast nook here at La Casa de Don David, 32 klicks from Tikal, it feels that G-CART has finally arrived. Of course it is just me, but throughout this trip, even in Tulum, I have felt a slight undercurrent of dread, a faint tease of mortality. Always the underbelly has lain in fetid contrast with the bright countenance, perhaps in a vital marriage of the bold and beautiful with the fearful and foul. I have long argued that without the bad, we would not have a context in which to appreciate the good, and so it is in this sense that I have rationalized the dark side as a fundamental aspect of the trip.
Here at this table on this morning, that axiom would seem to have been rendered obsolete. The day is beautiful, the air fresh, with a slight bounce. The siege of no-seeums and mosquitoes that rise from the slightest Tulum calm are nowhere to be found. A bouquet of perfume rises from a garden splayed with a patina of florid colors. The lake itself is still, and its far horizon fades gently into the atmosphere in such a gradual blend that you can distinguish the two only by the notion of a horizon as the chromatic transition is seamless. In Mexico the morning waiters were extroverted and gregarious, a quality that could be confused with friendliness by someone lonely, deluded, or overtly optimistic. But it is not friendliness but rather a form of mandatory opportunism. Here the smiles are those of indelible human grace and welcome. The creases in their cheeks are testimony to the ritual of smiling, and the service that is rendered seems intended to ensure satisfaction rather than an angle toward the best tip possible.
For the first time on this trip, we broke up into three separate rooms last night, and I was reminded nostalgically and for reasons that are difficult to describe of my former summer hide-out on the Mighty Ontalawnee River in the only halcyon days of my Pennsylvania tenure before the weather grew cold and drove me to the decay and collapse of foul Easton. Making the comment that it struck me as a kind of B-grade fifties style off-road second tier American tourist place, Orpheus's characterization, Flintstone-ish, was dead-on, like a little group of cabins that you happen upon on a lost little river somewhere in Indiana that surprises you and feels homey and welcoming.
Our night in Chetumal was memorable if perhaps not for all the best reasons. As I hovered in the room and wrote the last entry, the gang ventured forth into the Quintana Roo capital and were caught by sheets of rain, returning drenched. Wet, the air conditioning was too cold for the Aqualung, seeding a conflict over climate control, as to me the air conditioning was quite welcome. Our room was very small, and I had a pad brought in to sleep on, and the two doubles remaining were split between my sons in one and Karl and Jordan the next. The rain continued most of the night, and having not taken precautions to protect our sofa, we were left with no practical alternative but to abandon it in the grey morning. I slipped and slid in my Crox around the town center and tried out two Internet Cafe's but was unable to send emails in either one and hurried back to join the arisen crew for breakfast. We entered a market where a large restaurant turned out in fact to be divided in a bunch of stalls beside one another, and we were beset by representatives of each one, hawking their breakfast stuffs, pushing menus into my belly, generally taking my appetite away. We finally sat down to a memorably bad breakfast and had to fork over a surprisingly dear $42 to get out of there.
Thus chastened by our breakfast experience, we loaded the Ruby Racer up to once again take on our decided resemblance to the Beverly Hillbillies and got jacked for $2 on the exchange rate by a pirate Pemex gas station attendant and hit the border a half hour later. Mexico assessed us $20 apiece to leave their country, and with some pain, I forked over the $60 of my share and we rolled forward past the casino and down the road to Belize. We got through immigration, without comment, but checking in with my truck the official asked about what we were carrying, and when I replied luggage, she obliged us to go and get it and walk it through. They did no open a single bag, and I am not sure what the point was, but they released us without charging us more than the $5 fumigation fee, and we were eagerly off at the crack of noon into a cool grey Belizean morning.
The less said about the country of Belize the better. The land serves perhaps as inspiration for that which rises from it, and it is a foul blend of swamp, straggly scrub, sawgrass, more swamp, stumpy little ugly pines . . . The people seem nice enough, a blend, like Brazilians, of the cultures that have gone before, mostly black with notable Indian features, and a patina of caucasian, Chinese brushed in a bit more liberally than perhaps elsewhere. Everything in Belize is expensive, and the Belikin beer is made from the finest bilge water pumped from the deepest trawlers that weigh anchor in the Belize City seaport, lending it a particularly distinctive flavor that you are unlikely to want to ever experience. The whole of the northern highway from Corozal to Belize City, stretching from the west to the east is foul and not truly inhabitable though people do live their in clapboard stilted hovels and the odd concrete store peopled by unsmiling Chinese that are the region's predominant commercial ethnicity.
To be fair, the land becomes less foul moving westward until near the Benque Viejo border, it becomes even pretty, low rolling hills populated here, among others, by an unexpected Mennonite enclave. I did a double take to lay eyes upon a whitebread teenage boy standing at a bus stop among more typically colored Belizeans, and then a half mile down the road understood as a cart ambled past with a man with a long red beard urging his steed on down the road. The town of San Ignacio, in fact, was indisputably picturesque, a place where all things being equal, I could even live, perhaps, with a large beautiful river flowing right through town and making great swimming stretches in its burble around giant rocks.
The Benque crossing carried no surprises other than the $15 US Belize exit fee. We crossed the Municipal Extortion Bridge where we were touched for another $7 crossing fee that I knew from my trip up was upcoming. It was the one time on the trip when it was clear that I was being openly and smilingly extorted unfairly, and the town of Melchor, Guatemala, will forever stick in my mind accordingly as a place that has exchanged its soul and any option of a fair shake in the court of world opinion for the dubious but perhaps remunerative reward of larcenous proceeds. There is a bit of poetic justice that the town is so foul and ugly. This bridge tax is clearly not used for the town and even less for the bridge, itself a squalid and decayed affair, and so the taxes go surely to benefit the mayor and perhaps the town council that keeps him in place, while the townspeople, who could change this if they really wanted to, get to suffer the scorn of disgusted travelers like myself.
We washed the taste of Extortion Bridge out of our mouths with Gallo beer and rolled again across the great white gravel highway, eating it up like so many pistacchios and hit the blacktop in record time, rising through a land wonderfully peopled with healthy smiling brown denizens in dwellings that were humble but appeared waterproof, goats, chickens, pigs, cattle, and horses, everywhere in profusion, testimony to an abundance of protein in the local diet. Here in Remate, which is at the turnoff to Tikal, Lake Peten Itza is the defining physiographic feature, but tourism is clearly the mainstay, and we like it so much that we are going to remain another night following today's expedition to Tikal.
June 29, 2008
Short summary entry as I feel the road rising before us within the next hour or so. Uploading content now and sending work emails from the Internet nook at Don David's, breakfast settling gently in my belly, its energies suffusing my limbs with a gentle and sturdy awakening, yesterday's activities will surely stand long in all our collective memories. We made it to the park by noon and walked around the complex for three and a half hours, and without regurgitating the same piecemeal speculative history that you could get from Wikipedia, I will allow the pictures to speak for themselves. We were just tired enough that the Gallo beers went down like ambrosia, and we were pretty damned loopy after four of them. Roscutin and Axel (Jordan's road name) fell to wrestling, and the latter emerged te wounded warrior with a twisted knee that has him in a hobble this morning and appears serious. The gods of herbal concupiscence showered gently upon us following a jaunt on foot out into the wider world by your Humble Correspondent, and hilarity and good appetites were the predominant theme of a alcohol-fueled dinner that left us all sated and delighted. More later; although the Sallymander is pushing for Lake Atitlan based on a conversation she had with someone, I expect that our destination for this evening shall be the former capital, Antigua Guatemala, but I guess we shall all see, shan't we?
June 29, 2008
The outside restaurant area of the Park Hotel, about fifteen minutes out of Copan, Guatemala, has wireless Internet. It does not reach the cabins, but that is quite alright, here two beers to the breeze. The rain that falls in the parking lot is a delight to listen to, almost musical, in considerable contrast to the sound of the raindrops that fell on today's transit from the Peten to the highlands. You can conjure all the images of Central American that you care to and I'll bet you can't imagine Copan. I don't know how high it is but I am figuring from my dermal thermometer and the feel of the air that whistles through my nostle hairs on a vigorous inhale that we are pushing 5500 feet and I may even be shy 700 or so. I'll have to inquire before we leave. San Jose has a Park Hotel as well, but it is a hooker hotel. This plays reminds me strangely of the fictitious Lookout Hotel in the novel The Shining. Even though this little enclave of Guatemala could easily be abstracted from what I imagine the Swiss Alps might be like, there is certainly no skiing here in the tropics. But I am sitting here in my long sleeve fuzzy pajama bottoms and my long-sleeved hoodie, and you can bet that the cover will feel nice on the bed tonight.
Today's cab shifted with Jordan taking shotgun, Aladdin and Orpheus alternating as bitch. Navigation was immaculate, but in Santa Elena, the road sign for La Libertad pointed west at the glorieta, and we all examined and commented as their was a southerly exit from the circle as well. Five miles out of town there was a road that turned left, but it was gravel, and the layout of the landscape, given that we had lake frontage was awkward to reconcile with the map, and ten miles in we pulled into an empty filling station. "They all pull in and ask the same question; no, you missed your turn. It was at the circle," he smiled. "Every day they pull in and ask."
So right out of the chute we were a half hour on goose chases but felt momentarily right again when we retraced the steps and got back on the road again. Immediately, the rain began, brisk rain, bracing and refreshing, a great wakeup call to the rear, but as quickly the sun came out and made rain seem almost quaint. The rising land takes on many aspects, but all of them share the quality of fairness and beauty. Green is a predominant color of the nation and its country, and the smile is the predominant facial punctuation of its people. Rising from the Peten the land rises gently, vast aprons of pasturage nurturing thick-bodied and healthy cattle
Guatemala is beautiful. The carbonate platform of the Peten rises gently inland with lots of karst features and sprawling pasturelands and forest, very green, the people very Mayan dressed and humble. Smiles, albeit shy and retiring ones are the order of the day, and even dour looking men are friendly and helpful.
July 1, 2008
The portrait of contrasts that is Guatemala is mesmerizing. The profusion of natural splendor of the countryside and the drama of geologic landscapes comprise a ballet of sensory opera, an orchestration of impressions that belie any tendency toward preliminary expectations. Having never spent more time in this beautiful country beyond the day and a half it took me to drive through on the Panamerican Highway in 1994 on my way to Costa Rica, my impressions have been perhaps unfairly tinted by the peasant massacres of the eighties at the hands of the military, whose gubernatorial regimentation is still in evidence in the billboards for the military party, which all call for a Mano Dura (Hard Hand). After the tens of thousands of innocents executed for little more than the crime of poverty, the notion of a hard hand is a bit chilling. And the poverty itself is an impression in my mind that is not strictly borne out from my experience so far. No doubt there is poverty, and no doubt we have transited regions that must have less of it than other less fortunate regions of the country. But I have not seen any indication of human misery anywhere. Even in the poorest villages that we drove through the day before yesterday on our interminable slog across the Peten's vast carbonate platform and into the rolling cockpit karst and tower karst in the ascending highlands and then into the continental massif that rises to the fertile highlands of Coban bathed in evergreens, even on that day of winding country roads punctuated with speed bumps in tiny Mayan villages, the people all were dressed brightly on their Sunday market day, all moving about energetically, obviously well fed, the children playing games and running around, the bolder ones screeching with laughter, the shy ones peeking from behind their mothers' multi-colored skirts, groups of young and old men alike huddled around television sets in small commercial hovels to watch one or the other of the World Cup elimination matches.
Coban was clearly a mountain retreat favored by domestic tourism in search of the clean mountain air. There the pines lay a patina of conifer perfume across the land, and the clouds billow and puff and sock in the land and evaporate into the night and return with pounding rain and that wonderful chill that makes you reach for the comforter. Many large hotels, like the one we stayed in are testimony to the popularity of the region--not to foreign travelers like ourselves as it is a bit off the beaten path--but to Guatemalans themselves escaping for a bit of an alpine getaway.
We were spared more rain yesterday, and the sun broke through the epic clouds, peeking from between celestial azure fields so promising as to make you hold your breath in rapt expectation. From the highlands we descended a grade of fifteen miles or more into a hardscrabble rain shadow valley filled with scrub, night compared to the highland's day above, reminding me of the land around Mapimi, Mexico, only greener, the land dry and hard, the living clearly a bit harder. From there we picked up the main thoroughfare and began an ascent that challenged the Ruby Racer all the way into Guatemala City, or Guate as they call it here. There were two different takes on the city among the small community of wayfarers comprising our little group. Russ and Sally both reported strong unfavorables afterwards from the frenetic exhaust-filled urban depravity that so defines metropolises everywhere. But others in the group found the urban energy vital and rhythmic, a brilliant counterstroke to our experiences to date, and after all, the Guatemala tourist magazine clearly points out that Guatemala City is the most important Central American city, so we were all on the lookout for monuments of import. I lost my way only once, road signs apparently not rising to the level of real significance, much as in the rest of Central America, and then only momentarily. I was given suspicious directions at a gas station but then checked at another after winding through some streets and we reconnected with our route with amazing seamlessness, stunning in light of the spaghetti of controlled chaos that was this city. It is perched in a graben, bounded by large thrust faults that have allowed the city center to collapse. The whole region is obviously undergoing dramatic uplift, as one of the most striking features was crossing a bridge over a chasm 1000 feet or so above a river coursing below, where it is clear that fluvial down-cutting is driven by continental uplift powered by the subduction zone off the Pacific coastline that feeds the fire of the line of volcanoes that punctuate the spectacular landscapes to the west of the capital. Slums and tenements blanketed the tops of the ridges and stopped abruptly at the slopes' edges, presenting a bizarre image of green virgin slopes capped by the residuum of tens of thousands of people and their obligatory zinc roofs, all fusing together into labyrinthine slums where surely the rule of law is meted out by local enforcers and community syndicates. I was reminded again of places I have never been, and I don't know why I was struck by the notion of a fusion of Athens and Constantinople, but I was. The bustle of the city was like that of any city anywhere, arguably, but invigorating following our many days of rural dwelling. The billboards splashed color, and the symphony of horns, car alarms, broadcast advertising, screeching music blasted from shoe stores and pharmacies, the whistles of traffic police, the musicality of vendors hawking newspapers and beckoning bottles and pushing orange juice and empanadas. . . it was like a welcome blast of modernity, like an infusion of culture, however vulgar and crass, and I loved it all.
From Guate, we climbed and climbed and climbed again up where clouds were beneath us and the firmament eternal in its cerulean majesticity above, frosty cool, wind whipping through pines and cedars a century or more old before descending through a perilous grade that had three runaway truck lanes within two miles and into the rock-paved streets of vast Antigua Guatemala, where all the buildings run into one another in a colonial foreshadowing of brownstones that are the architectural abomination of the American east coast urban reality, each brightly painted with large wooden doors and inside patios, the impossibly narrow streets lined with thousands upon thousands of cars, the streets thronged with locals and tourists alike, the whole lorded over by the serene and majestic volcano that rises from the town's edge like a lord of darkness and prince of light, its cone ringed and submerged within clouds that are drawn to it magnetically as if to defile the perfection of its form and deny the casual tourist the fulmination of the visual orgy on his first day in town.
We found a nice hotel for $10 per person, and prices are a little touristy, but there is a lot here, and a lot of people. While we have been discussing barreling on to Lake Atitlan, it is three hours away, in the opposite direction of our eventual pathway, and as many of us want to go and see hot lava which is done out of this town, any Atitlan wayfarers will be doing so by bus on their own, as the Ruby Racer has reached its point farthest north by west that this trip shall have it occupy, and Lake Atitlan shall have to remain, at least for your humble correspondent for a future soiree through Central America.
On the nineteenth day of the trip and down to $250 in cash and unable to recall the password necessary for me to check my stateside account, my gaze is turning homeward, angel, and the demons of dread and anxiety rise in unguarded moments to taunt me with a recognition that I and my steed are many miles from home and that it is not just my expendable body that lies on the Central American altar of experience but that I have a truck full of family, including two sons in the thick of their university youth and plans for a wider greater world that will be best nourished by not having a trip in which the money runs out along the way. That said, with a little bit of cautious stewardship, the hotels and meals are not that expensive, and so long as there are no mechanical surprises it all remains within fiscal manageability. Still, so far from home, the gremlins of the mind rise to distract and gnaw at the cornerstones of probity and logic, making a clean getaway through distractions the order of the day.
Beyond the banal restrictions of a finite budget, I could easily do this as a lifestyle. Just put me on an open road in a comfortable rig with an inexhaustible billfold and a few digital toys to document the perambulations of my psyche, and I would be happy driving from Point Barrow to Patagonia and then shipping off to another continent.
I guess I will have to work on that inexhaustible billfold part, which seems to be the only part of the equation really holding me back.
July 01, 2008
Volcan Pacaya / Antigua; Guatemala
The witching hour approacheth. Tonight it is Silent Hill, a plotless horror movie. Five minutes till midnight. Orpheus, Jordan, and I left the Aqualung with a full tank at a bar where there was a lady's night underway. We had gravitated from Reilly's and before that from Gaia's and before that from the bar across the street from Don Valentino's--our hotel--where we lost Aladdin. Before that we dropped $70 on dinner at a restaurant where there was karaoke and an obnoxious girl singing it. The aqualung sang baritone and butchered Queen Killer after moderately belting out Come Together one octave below Lennon. Jordan sang Piano Man serviceably, though with a British accent, and the nuclear Khan kept its collective counsel and chewed toothpicks. Roscutin and the Sallymander never strayed forth, and following today's revelations and excursions into the truly wider world, there was of course no manner to top the day's temporal passage.
The tour buses depart for Pacaya at six a.m. and two-thirty p.m., and since it would be plainly impossible for this group to even consider a morning outing of such military earliness, we figured on the two-thirty outing. But when all of us ponied up for the trip it made more sense to just point the Ruby Racer out the gates of the Citrine City (my new name for Antigua) and negotiate the byzantine perambulations of turns and crosses and detours and faux vias and paths and tracks and just find it ourselves. The expedition's auspicious beginning was at Don Valentino's front desk, where the attendant handed me a town map and told me to take the road leading northwest out of town and launching in a tirade of instructions designed to leave even seasoned travelers like myself with glazed eyes and a slack-jawed expression. "Just ask once you are out of town," she suggested. Following an interjection by her companion and a bit of huddling between the two of them, they advised me to instead depart town by the road leading to the southeast, i.e. in the precisely opposite direction, with instructions a bit less abstruse. Brimming with good cheer and felicity, I ransomed the Ruby Racer from the parking lot where I had her sequestered for the evening for a token $3 for the hours beyond the $7.50 I had paid for the night's passage in the walled courtyard, protected by a mean looking Guatemalan with a pistol-grip shotgun. I made the cobblestone block and the crew hopped in and we were out of town in two shakes of a sloth's tail feathers.
I presumed that the volcano to which we were headed was the majestic one that overlooks the Citrine City and guards it as a towering western sentinel, but as it would prove, Pacaya was in fact nearly due west of that volcano and perhaps 30 miles as the crow flies from our temporary home away from home at Don Valentino's where the yewls of passion from Room 204 lent a degree of authenticity to the hotel's name. And so, as it turned out, you really could get there leaving in opposite directions from town. We huffed it up the five mile grade to San Lucas, then down a new five mile grade to Bercena (or something like that), then managed to find ourselves on the right road again and before you knew it were off the pavement and bound for San Vicente de Pacaya.
We pulled up into the parking lot of the National Park and were beset by little boys insisting that we buy "esticks" for our hike. We figured the angles and hired a guide for ten bucks, and those of us that turned out prescient purchased our "esticks" for the equivalent of seventy-five cents. The entrance fee was a demoralizing $6 in Guatemalan money, which if I have not elucidated on this heretofore, is named for a bird: the quetzal. Better than the Honduran currency, the lempira, which is named for a lempire, which in case you are unaware is a limp-wristed vampire, i.e. a vampire with gender identity issues. But don't tell that to the Hondurans.
All rigged out with thick hiking socks and my hiking boots--first time I have replaced my crocs on this trip so far--and my "estick" and my guide, and my stalwart G-CART companions, I made it about ten minutes up the steep trail at an elevation of around eight thousand feet before realizing that I was not going to make it, that I was likely to expire of cardiac arrest before making it to the cool stuff. From a well of experience, we were being followed by a man with a horse, who offered it to me as a taxi, and it was then that I had to make a choice, either summit the peak on my own dogs or die trying. The trail was steep at first but grew less so further on, and with only 2.8 km to the summit, I figured I could muscle through, and I did.
We hiked through an emerald landscape in which clouds swept up the slope to envelop us and then swept past to reveal the valley below us. The hike was punctuated by thumps from the forest, like woodcutters out there throwing sheets of plywood on other sheets of plywood, or like thunks of axe chops magnified by the mist, or like a giant pressure cooker's relief valve, which is what it turned out to be. On the shoulder of the mountain, the forest shrank away, and a grassy scrub in emerald green rose from the mist-cloaked boundary of the forest cloaking the flanks of the mountain all the way up to the boundaries of jumbled rock, fresh rock, the remnant of rivulets of lava that trickled across the land and within my lifetime.
Pacaya only got active again in the mid seventies, and has been active since. We hiked across 500 meters or so of basalt, tuff, scoria, all of it porous and weak, rapidly extruded and riven with porosity. The apparent strands of rope in the pahoehoe flows are testament to the fluidity of the melt. The angry new rocks across which we walked grew hotter, and my crocs would never have managed. Inside the crevices, the white rings of precipitate was contrasted by an umber orange and angry molten rock deeper within the ground. The rocks sounded hollow, and the "esticks" certainly were nice to have to probe. It was incredible that we were allowed to walk on this fire-scape, and presently, our guide called us from his forward position, and upon gaining his location were able to stand within meters of two active flows of lava emerging from a common volcanic vent, one flow headed one way, a second flow headed in a separate direction, orange molten hot, unbearably hot, the movement about four feet per second.
As a geologist, the opportunity to stare at the violent birth of planet in extruded lava was somewhat transcendental. I have never expected to actually stand beside flowing lava, despite that this might be an obvious objective for any self-respecting geologist. But it was not a take restricted to a rock guy. We were all taken a step beyond the norm, and Orpheus compared the moment of standing above the molten fire to those occasional moments that come along in which suddenly you have propelled yourself to a forward edge where you are no longer completely in control, taking a stroll along the wild side.
The ride back to the Citrine City was uneventful and straight forward on the heels of our successful caress of fire, fulminating the third of four ordinate points. In Mexico we had done water with scuba diving, and earth with the caves, even though the fact that they were under water may have rendered the experience more of the water and less of the Earth. But today we graced the face of fire with our courage and curiosity and danced upon its break, swilled the spume of its transcendent funk and danced the phantasmagoric in two-step double-time without even really thinking about it, all the while in firm possession of our obligatory "estick." On the way down we could make out the warm-water caldera below and the geothermal power generation facility on the ridge across the valley from our modest trail. The incoming clouds cloaked the steam rising from the ground, but as the cloud rose in momentary thermal equilibration, the ground vents revealed themselves in spires of steam rising from behind bushes and beside rocks, something so unusual in practice yet so natural in presentation as to require a recalculation of the value of all that is presumptively known and understood of the reality about which we remain so blithely immersed.
July 2, 2008
I was sure that it would take most of the day driving today, and for the first time I re-drove track that I first drove on the way up with the Princess Squad, and for once the rain persisted sufficiently long so as to complete driving all the nails in the coffin of a Central American transit without rain. You should have seen it as we squared away on our final highway of the day and pointed our way down this valley toward the Honduran border, a wall of water dancing in the valley beneath us, slamming against the valley walls, and break dancing in roaring pirouettes and twirls across the valley floor in a swirl of watery grey that simulates best the color of defeat and surrender.
The Aqualung probed me this morning: "You think it's gonna rain?" "Naw," I said, the cloud bottoms scraping the building tops and sparking small lightning bursts as the humidity of the valley air scraped across the building tops and exuded water. "I think it's gonna burn off."
And for awhile it did. It took us a full hour and a half to escape the orbit of the capital city, and you would expect the heavens to break out into cold sweat on the shoulders of its urban empire, and of course it did, spitting and catting it up a bit with the boys in the back. And of course at six thousand feet plus in elevation and 45 miles per hour, even a casual mist becomes a relatively consequential turn of environmental circumstance. In the cab we are attendant to the environmental issues braved by our boys in the back and take great consolation in the virtual certainty of the high degree of character-building qualities in moments of great tempestuous challenges by the gods of rain.
Half way down the alpine highway and fifteen minutes after the teasing burst of winter-like brouhaha, Helios cleaved the firmament and shoved his weight between two masses of grey and hove them with such violence that a burst of solar renewal danced across the countryside to either side of the Ruby Racer's mad passage through the brilliant last gasps of cherished Guatemala. Of course, the end can linger and endure, and so we kept on driving through the afternoon, with mini-adventures along the way.
In the enchanted roads beyond the end of the logical part of the map, the countryside resumed all over again its resemblance to the Sierra Nevada and then teased me mercilessly with the onslaught of the storm as we grew closer to one of the more notorious border crossings in the western hemisphere. We arrived as a celestical punctuation mark tempered the passage of a particularly violent rain clap, leaving a light drizzle as we argued our way through customs. We cleared immigration in record time, stamping out of Guatemala for $1 apiece and into Honduras for $3 apiece and negotiated Ruby's exit from one country, leaving only one thing between ourselves and the mystical lodges and night's respite in today's reincarnation of the famously southern and alpine Mayan redoubt of Copan, now within Honduran territory and on our destination list for tomorrow if only the rain will stop.
The rain did not stop as we processed our passage, and they required that I produce two copies of my passport, which I had, and of my driver's registration. I repaired to the Guatemalan side, ready to hire a moto-taxi to take me back to the copy shop one mile back for the required copies, when the reality was brought to my attention: the power was out, both at the border and at the copy shop, and there were no copies to be had anywhere, and there was no idea of when the power might be restored nor whether the copy shop might tend to my urgent need at that hour. . . armed finally with little more than a few copies of things not requested and a sense of purposeful conviction, I argued my case in my most susurrant and coaxing manner, demonstrating that I had really everything I needed, except only a single copy of my vehicle registration, though I had the original, and so that sort of made two copies, after all. . . After a verbal sally across the table, a voice of reason rose from the desk alongside, and the saucy little hottie occupying its seat inside a border guard uniform lay the foundation for exempting me from all the requirements that I could not meet, and she was all of about 22 years old and about as saucy as Marie Sweet's Belizean Comotose Hot Sauce and sexily reminiscent of Lisa Bonet in Angel Heart, drop dead gorgeous and read-through-her-flesh skinny right down to the bone--unimpeachably impeccable fruit of the land--and brassily taking my side with her grey-dumpling sister in customs officialdom frowning dowdily, unhappy at the notion of letting me off the hook.
There was a healthy dosage of willful resistance, but I saw the opening in the doleful array of elements raining down upon us and smiled my biggest and little miss dumpling face picked up a ballpoint pen in one hand and an application form in the other, and I suspected that I might have conquered half the battle. With a third hand she grasped by passport, and with her fourth she fished out an inkpad from a desk drawer while picking her nose with a fifth and wiping off her visa stamp clamped in her sixth hand with a rag perched in her seventh as she scratched her ass with her eighth and cast her beady little eyes sidelong at my loud-mouthed little border vixen leaning back in her chair, obviously pleased that the electricity was gone and that soon it would be dark and that she would be able to have an excuse to dance naked at home by candlelight and not have to go out at all, nor to kiss the boys and make them cry.
And then, $8 later, a discount from the $29 originally threatened to be required from us as Honduran tribute upon American travelers, the heavens opened with a torrential sally of the hydrogenous oxide elixir in its rude freefall over all of us in our headlong mad rush up the otherwordly slopes of the ancient Copan homeland reborn in torrential modernity. We arrived at six-thirty, slightly before dark, and now as the witching hour is fifteen minutes in waning, the rain continues yet, likely four inches in the time that we have been here so far, though it is now in tempered retreat, and surely the sleep will be otherworldly and filled with the delicious dreams of vampires and vixen zombies and tea parties and final examinations for courses in which I suddenly remember that I have forgotten to ever go to class. . .
Roscutin and Aqualung seized the hotel manager in a double headlock and forced him to deliver food to this incredible location in which we have managed to take shelter in this pressing night of isthmian water torture. But tomorrow it will be a return to the journey.
The O-Dawg has come up, in fact, with a new name for our adventure: The Great Central American Rain Trip.
Hephaestus laughs and Poseidon burbles. Apollo gleams and Gaia shudders. The Ruby Racer has rounded third and is headed down the home stretch. There are eight days remaining in the tenure of my six associates. Will they really walk down that hallway and toward that concourse and abandon me to the sad and gentle final conclusion of G-CART in that final day of driving through the vast homeland? I guess we'll see, because there is a long way to go between now and then.
July 3, 2008
I fear that it is a sign of age and pray that it just goes away and does not become a self-fulfilling prophecy and even less than that a simple realization of a fact. I am not ready to release the hedonistic profligacy of the simplest of all possible vices, that of sleeping in. This morning I awakened as dawn remained a good hour away, just the first tendrils of light piercing the eastern sky, its sticky fingers invading the room directly through the curtains and indirectly in the symphony of birds that got underway even earlier and perpetuated their morning ablutions nearly through till dawn before shaking off the night's memories and sallying forth into the wider world in search of seeds and fruits, insects and carrion, nectar and grain, all that good stuff that birds eat. I clicked on the air conditioner to drown out the symphony and retreat back into the tunnel of Morpheus, where I was admitted grudgingly and felt my way along a grey tunnel guarded by a dog that barked incessantly. Refusing to stray back to the entrance, where I knew the dog was real and the air conditioner was inadequate interference to completely exclude him from my world in between and that nobody was going to politely come along and shoot the damned thing, the twilight surf was less than fulminating, an incomplete opera, and by seven I rose and headed computer in hand to the restaurant for coffee in order to catch up on the journey blog and check mail.
By the time we broke from our hotel, had breakfast, completed Internet, it was eleven thirty, and we hemmed and hawed at the Copan Park ticket desk and at the end of the day figured $30 entrance fee to the ruins and the tunnels was excessive, and we pointed the Ruby Racer's fearless hood to the northeast toward San Pedro Sula. The weariness of the road has settled in among the group and despite the green beauty of the landscape, the mountains and valleys, the conifer forests, the bougainvilleas and bananas, many of us are tired, making it increasingly difficult to climb into the back of the truck and slather up with sun block and prepare one's self for another day on the road.
The Honduran road is distinguished from all other countries by the profusion of police checks. We went through a police check on average twice an hour and were asked to produce documents for all members of the party at one of them and for me to produce my license, registration, and truck particulars at two of the road blocks. They were relatively friendly, and they did not shake us down, despite the fact that it looked like that might be the way we were headed at our final stop of the day, and it is an unwelcome way to travel, knowing that regularly throughout your trip you will be face to face with men bearing guns, questioning your story and asking about your origination and destination.
We hit the road at the crack of noon and pulled off at Siguatepeque at five p.m. or so and found a delightful hotel on the town square, replete with wireless Internet, premium cable channels, hot water, and air conditioning for $24 a room. We patronized a Chinese restaurant and actually brought home probably four pounds in a doggy bag, stuffed to the gills.
Tomorrow it is southward, almost certainly beyond the border and into Nicaragua, though maybe not. I figure we have three more days between Honduras and Nicaragua and then we will have to make a big decision about whether to tarry slowly through Guanacaste (Costa Rica) and blow through more money or just blaze a trail to Jim-Town where we can hole up in familiar terrain and then the troops head back to the capital for their return on the 11th. Today we did not even fill up with gas and put maybe 220 miles behind us at most. I doubt we can reasonably expect to do much more than that in remaining road days as the weariness sinks into the bones and the rains drain the spirit in their bone-soaking chill.
July 4, 2008
While you dined on hot dogs and apple pie and ooh-ed and ah-ed at pyrotechnics over rivers and state capitols and city centers and ballparks; while you baked in the July sun and sipped beer surreptitiously around out-of-key renditions of the star-spangled banner; as you paid homage to those first brave few that affixed their signatures to their own ostensible death warrant--the Declaration of Independence--the Great Central American Rain Trip continued in all its unvarnished glory. We put a fourth nation to bed today on this leg of the journey. For your humble correspondent, it is technically the tenth nation I have put to bed on this trip with only this last one to go. We skipped El Salvador on the return trip, which is where you may be coming up with different numbers for anyone counting, and of course I am only counting Mexico once.
Roscutin awoke yesterday with a headache and felt poorly all day long. The amount of beer we drank the evening before was inadequate to blame his condition on that, and sure enough he reported a fever rising after our Chinese meal last night and breaking at four in the morning this a.m. or so. But he was in rough shape all day today as well and spelled out in the cab twice. Both days we have had rain, making it three days in a row of relatively stiff rains for the crew. It is hard going I am assured by the Aqualung, and the wisdom of the entire expedition is being called into question.
Why was it that we decided to drive through Central America in the back of a pickup truck during the rainy season, anyway? What was the rationale there? Over dinner tonight it was generally settled that we would head now for the desert. Only the desert is not really very desert-like here, particularly in the rainy season, so we will see how it goes. But we are in Nicaragua, only seven days away from everyone's departure from San Jose, and Guanacaste has a drier climate than what we have experienced to date, so we may be able to skirt further drenchings.
I am reminded of a trip just south of the Yukon in 1974 that my nuclear family took on my father's quest for gold and jade. We flew in a float plane into an unnamed lake some thirty or forty miles into the wilderness from Cassiar, British Columbia, and set up camp on the edge of a lake in order to prospect and strike it rich. On our first full day of camp, we hiked way up the mountain where Dad killed a caribou with a very long shot from the 300 Savage and we packed it back to camp and that night we heard the wolves howling up in the mountains in the area surrounding its carcass, and I caught grayling on my fly rod at twilight around two in the morning. Every day it rained from dawn, which came around four a.m., until just before eleven a.m., when all of us would emerge from our tents in damp clothing and build up a fire to make coffee and cook strips of caribou meat and marvel at how much it rains. We would stray into the bush to take care of our physiologic exigencies, always aware that grizzly bears might well be assessing us from the margins of our camp boundaries of thick woods, gauging us through beady eyes for our caloric content. I fished every night, and we took to eating grayling in the morning with powdered eggs for our noon breakfast and saving the caribou meat for our evening meals. I had always dreamed of such a wonderful thing as a camping trip to the middle of nowhere, during which I could search for gold and gemstones by day and angle for exotic fish by night and catch them, but the indomitable constancy of the rain--never hard, just a persistent drizzle/shower every morning and occasional spittle in the afternoon--pervaded every waking hour and turned my and Carl's (that was his name then; now he is the Aqualung) thoughts toward things as far removed from the romantic northern wilderness as coelacanths are from dromedaries. We dreamed aloud of how it would be in a few short weeks when we were back in school, wherever that might be, and dry, and would be able to do the normal things that we were meant to do, like collect stamps and tie flies and be dry and maybe even play sports and imagine having girlfriends and have milk with our cereal that did not start out powdered, bacon perhaps that did not come out of a can, and if it were not too much to ask, eggs that were not powdered, and perhaps the luxury of being warm and dry nearly all the time.
And I think that G-CART has touched upon an analogous turn of the screw. We are still somewhere in the middle of Central America, drunk with the beauty of the landscape but stuck in a dumpy and stupid hotel tonight that no one would stay in if they had their druthers in a shit hole named Esteli, Nicaragua, which has arguably no redeeming features other perhaps than being the world headquarters for a type of coffee that I have never heard of before. We are moist to our souls, and unlike clothing, the soul takes a while to dry out. We are all in the middle of something for which there is no escape but the conclusion of the experience, and for all the gorgeous mountains that we drove through today, for all the thousands of conifers lining the roads, for the myriad of remarkable sights that greeted our sore eyes and even for the relatively painless passage through the penultimate border crossing, all of that pales in inverse comparison to the misery of being pounded with sheets of torrential rain in the frigid highlands of the isthmus. It's just cold enough to be miserable and not quite cold enough to become hypothermic.
Perhaps tomorrow we will hit the desert. That is what we will all dream about tonight.
Casares, Nicaragua (the
July 5, 2008
The western horizon stretches with infinite grace, curvilinear before me. The pea-green sea spanks the rocks below and here from our cliff-side keep in remote Casares, we have the Lupita Hotel all to ourselves. Above the horizon the sky is white, tinted with the slightest degree of pellucid aqua and then above that basal sky-scape the aqua deepens briefly into a sky blue of grace and clarity. Then above that it is capped by thin wisps of white clouds. Along the northern coastline, low-lying cumulus clouds joust with the coastline and dissolve in the Pacific's vast reservoir of atmospheric moisture. The coast is rocky, and the Lupita Hotel is perched at the top of a seventy foot cliff. The breeze that rolls off the ocean seems to come all the way from the Philippines and bears upon its back the breath of renewal and offers the nostrils a drink of tantalizing promise. The surf is tame in the manner of generic surf everywhere but would be fearsome if I were actually out in it. You would not be able to get in and swim without getting slammed back into the rocks. It would be traumatic. It might require paramedics, and of course we are far beyond the reach of paramedics. A weak swimmer would simply have to die. Easy come, easy go.
But here in our turreted keep where a thatched balcony promises to hold small rains relatively at bay and completely deflects the sun's unrelenting caress the ambiance is superior in quality to just about anything that I have felt in recent days. Even the warmth of the beer fails to damp the sensation of ether and cosmos that a perch above the vast ocean on a desolate and lonely coastline cannot help but to convey to even the obdurate and miserable. To me it is a full circle, back to the ocean of origin after having traveled to the other ocean. Two oceans in one trip. Not everyone can boast that their vacations carry them between oceans. It is nice to select boasts that are so easily attainable.
I negotiated $25 per person for our stay and two meals, and if we are lucky, runners out there in the wider world scouring the tough neighborhoods may return with herbal fruit to temper an evening Scrabble game, or perhaps Oh Hell or Hearts. Roscutin is dog-sick, just sacked out in a hammock, and the crew is uniform with relief in having escaped the rigors of the road. Our stay in Esteli was remarkable in all the negative qualities for which hotels may be associated perhaps everywhere: noisy, bad food, hot water did not work, the breakfast was not included after all, the coffee was instant, and the porn channel did not work. Well, I just threw the last one in. It's a running joke since there was cable porn in Tulum (I am told), and we all were wondering what that was about. To add insult to injury, my choice of a roadside diner turned out to be considerably less than the quintessential gastronomic experience. Then, there was the morass of Managua, one sweltering Eternal City of Babylonic motion and depravity, of diesel fumes and fetid fruit, of the deformed and the concupiscent, street vendors and hawkers and bus drivers and drug smugglers, and junk dealers and the homeless and school children in their colored uniforms and traffic cops hanging out of pickup trucks. There were dead chickens hanging from bicycles, iguana tacos, cattle grazing in the medians of boulevards, auto parts shops, evangelical churches, soccer fields, markets, bakeries, horn factories, junk yards (there were many of these, lots of junk in Nicaragua) and water vendors, aggressively hawking their aquatic wares in the streets, as urchins fought one another to reach windshields with squeegees. In short it was Babylon and Rome fused, the east ends of London and Manhattan, Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok, Cairo and Constantinople, it was an umber metropolis of sprawling slums 1.8 million people strong straddled between volcanoes and mountains on one side and massive lakes on the other, a city as geographically spectacular as Rio de Janeiro or Hong Kong in its own inimitable perfection but an edgy city, one always one step away like New Orleans or Jakarta from oblivion of biblical proportions. In 1976 the city was razed by an earthquake. Perhaps absent that act of God (or Gaia) Somoza may have taken five more years to fall and perhaps Ortega would have gotten cross-ways with an assassin's bullet in some country hidey-hole and would not have his visage on billboards across the land, bounded with the abrasive fuscia that I presume is the new left's softening of good old communist red.
We were shouted at and glared at, not perhaps in real anger so much as in startled bemusement, but the crew did not consider it friendly, and we are not taking away from this country social images of pleasantry and egalitarian goodwill but will perhaps remember Nicaragua as a bit forward-leaning and abrasive. But here at Casares it is all so much chaff gone in the wind, leaving only the kernel of nutritious life on the table, battered by the invigorating and life-sustaining breeze born of the western ocean as the sun dances gaily in the sky without any real intent to scorch and harm. We watched two rain storms dancing like Cortes across the waters that skirted us with wide margins, and it can rain all it wants here today as we now have protection. Here we are allowing our souls to dry out a bit, here in this invoked desert.
On this final descent from Diriamba, the Ruby Racer began to idle poorly, and I am touched at the gentleness of her complaint. Yes, she has been asked to perform at a level beyond that which vehicles of any stripe should be asked to perform, and here in the final days away from the nest, it can hardly be expected that she would hiccup and burp a bit. We are within two hours of the Costa Rican border. Up front it was impossible to really imagine the chore that was lain down in expectation. But three weeks into this trip there has not been a single easy day, and the miles keep piling up on top of each other, and every day the excess load of seven people and all their gear weighs well north of one thousand pounds, and not once has she complained or groaned or expressed suffering in the form of any kind of mechanical failure. It is in fact stunning that a vehicle of 1987 manufacture with over a quarter million miles of life experience should have performed to such stellar standards, yet here we are: one hundred miles from the Costa Rican border on the final home stretch with only a little bit of idling problem and a driver's side window that quit rolling up yesterday.
Sitting here as Apollo's fiery chariot threatens to breach the thatch edge and blind me with afternoon rays, I feel like--get this--like I am on vacation. I am expecting a delightful seafood dinner and remain delighted by the tickle of the world's wind. As Dino, Orpheus and the amphibious one cavort in the swimming pool behind me and K-Bob and son struggle along the rocky shores to find a semblance of a beach and Roscutin rests up, I salute the wider world and all that is in it and tip my hat to all the adventure and adversity out there. Here in our coastal desert as our souls dry out, we now take on a new turn of the adventure as tomorrow we will conquer the final border and take on the home turf in the Guanacaste and Nicoya region, where it will all be simultaneously familiar and exotic, at least to me. I think for once tonight I can sleep and rest without any array of demons to people my sleep.
I am nearly home.
Playa del Coco, Costa Rica
July 7, 2008
It was nearly to the day in 1984, twenty-four whole years ago, when I was last here. I remember it as being a bit of a yawn, a long drive on rough gravel roads with a pretty beach at the end of the trip and hostel-type lodging with a dance hall and little else. Today it is completely touristified, big money, nice streets, swanky, kitschy little bars, swarming with beautiful people, condos and residential zones, commercial strips, trinket sales, cops that sit in their cop station and leave everybody alone, all of it friendly and welcoming, not even that expensive. . .
We choked down our breakfast yesterday at the Lupita Hotel, memorable for many of the wrong reasons, and marveled at just how bad things can be without any of the happy smiling people in charge realizing it. Ever, our nineteen year old host was doing his best I could not help but conclude, but I guess they figured they would make their money off the $25 per person deal I negotiated by shortchanging us on the food. Those of us that presciently ordered whole fish got a whopping good meal, but those of us that ordered sea-bass filet or shrimp received pittances of food, leaving us hungry and a bit angry, with nothing left to do in memorable Casares, Nicaragua, but drink the taste out of our mouths. Well, I had bought a couple of ripped DVDs in the Antigua market, so we settled down to No Country for Old Men, which ROCKED! We were already mentally prepared for a vulgar and mean breakfast and were not one bit disappointed, starting it off with Nescafe with Cremora. We choked it down as well as we could and packed up the buggy, our consolation being the slim two hours separating us from bounteous Costa Rica, reputed to reside at the end of the rainbow.
I figured this border would be our easiest, but it was our most grueling. It took us twice as much red-tape and window-crowding to get the truck out of Nicaragua as it did to get in, and at the Costa Rica side we were stunned by a line for immigration that wrapped outside the door and around the building in the blaring sun. Not sure if it was a Sunday thing or if it is just that everybody wants out of Nicaragua and into Costa Rica, but it was a full hour wait in line and then routine stamp action. The car took a five minute inspection. The border as a whole took us three hours, and we were stupid with mental numbness and bureaucratic despair as we finally turned the hood of the Ruby Racer into the Guanacaste homeland and stared into the distant wall of water awaiting us a few miles down the road.
I would like to think that we have all had open minds about the countries that we have traversed, and I do not want to say something negative, but Nicaragua stood out for all of us as a nation besot with foulness. Admittedly there is some pretty country-side, and the volcanoes and lakes are spectacular. The physiographic setting of Managua is itself stunning and world-class. But the people were not friendly, and the food was not good, and the prices were not as inexpensive as they should have been, and the accommodations were shabby. Admittedly we were pulled over by a policeman an hour from the border in the dirty town of Diriamba that could have shaken me down for a bribe or forced us to remain an extra day to pay a fine on Monday (don't get a ticket on Sunday if you want to keep moving) for my not having my seat belt on, and that was a bit of decency despite the fact that there was no reason to wave me over in the first place. And Ever at Hotel Lupita did go out of his way to be nice and polite and attend us with a modicum of decency even if the chef shorted our caloric requirements for basic human sustenance. But that is not enough to come away with anything but a two thumbs down conclusion of the country.
Perhaps the defining quality for me was something that was in the eyes of so many of the people. I don't know whether it was anger, resentment, antisocial sentiments, general antipathy, or some sort of socio-political meanness associated with Communist dogma and the dashed expectations of the peasant and agrarian class. I don't know what it was, but in Managua the people on the street shouted at us meanly in complete contrast to the friendly shouts that we got in the other countries, and at stop lights in Managua the vendors were aggressive and clearly half-criminal and I felt half-naked without a hog leg and a couple quick loaders under the seat. Sunday morning in Casares was a depraved scene of villagers in dirty clothes mixing with pigs that seemed to own the mud lanes that went for streets, half the town evil-looking with hangovers, the other half still drunk from the night before and lifting bottles from the trash for that illusory drop left by the last drunk standing. There is much talk about how Nicaragua is the new Costa Rica, with great land price values, but don't believe it, not for a Managua minute. It will take another revolution and a generation of hope and promise to change the social ambiance of that country, and just between us, don't hold your breath for that to happen, cause it just ain't in the cards.
Liberia is about forty minutes south of the border, and the wall of water greeted us about half way there. We gassed up in Liberia as it broke for a spell and turned west for the remaining thirty minute drive to this town, in and out of heavy showers the whole way. The mood in the back was grim, the day edging toward evening, rain beating down upon us, sunshine pounding the north less than a kilometer from the road. We opted for the first hotel we stopped at, taking lessons from our hotel scouting expeditions in the past where we have often returned to the first hotel we checked after scouring the towns for a better deal, like in Chetumal. And it was great, no Internet, but cable television, on the beach, no AC, but clean rooms for $28 double and $40 triple, and we will be spending tonight there as well. Escaping the rain released the gremlins from our collective mood and by the time we hit Coconutz last night and had two giant delicious pizzas and happy hour margaritas it was plainly evident that we had arrived. With Ghost Rider on HBO later, it was a full return to civil society
For your Humble Correspondent the sense of transcendental calm is invigorating and liberating. For the first time in weeks I know that the worst thing that can happen would in itself not be calamitous, for I am now home. Guanacaste has always seemed like the other end of the universe, so far from Jim-Town as to practically occupy a separate universe. But on the heels of the great trek that I am within days of concluding, Guanacaste seems very much like a next-door neighbor to the Southern Zone. So, the country of Costa Rica has shrunk from my experience but in doing so it has also blossomed into something much greater than it was before my departure. It is very much a Mecca of this diverse and relatively vast isthmus. For anybody that says that Costa Rica is not all its cracked up to be, I beg to differ. With its natural splendor and the spectacular diversity between its mountains and beaches, the dichotomy between its littoral Pacific and Atlantic coastlines, the profusion of money that comes from outside of the country and increasingly from inside as well, the contentment and self-satisfaction of its healthy, well-fed, well-educated populace, the uncommonly civilized nature of its police force and civilian government and the absence of a military in a haven of once-banana republics now in search of a new geopolitical soul, Costa Rica is a transcendent society and and an uncommonly beautiful and friendly nation. And at the end of the day, it is not even that much more expensive than its northerly neighbors.
We loved Guatemala, and we love Costa Rica. Honduras would have been okay if it had not rained so much, even if it was hard to find nice things in a country struggling with widespread poverty. Perhaps Belize has something in it that is redemptive in nature, and perhaps we were just on the ugly roads and passed through the ugly towns and paid the ugly prices. But I don't think so. So, Belize and Nicaragua share the Clogged Toilet award, for the countries that are most memorable for all the worst reasons. We all intend to return to Guatemala, and we did not see the Bay Islands of Honduras (Roatan and Utila) but Roscutin speaks very highly of them, so I imagine it will be in our future. But it will be a cold day in Old Jimenez Towne when any of us books a trip to Nicaragua or Belize.
Jordan spanked us in Scrabble last night, with High Roller (Aladdin has been adequately baptized with a fitting nickname by the Aqualung) coming in second, K-Bob third, and your Humble Correspondent eating Humble Correspondent Pie in last place, a special memorable occasion as I don't think I have ever come in last in that game before. Tonight I may insist on vengeance. And tomorrow the adventure continues. There are three more days to our collective experience, not counting today, and then a thankful return to our various grindstones.
Monteverde, Costa Rica
July 8, 2009
I would have preferred to head on to Tamarindo or preferably further south, Samarra or Nosara or Malpais or Montezuma, but the collective mood favored a road-less day, so we lazed up in Playa del Coco, and it was really all very cool all day long yesterday all the way up until 1:30 in the morning when Karl entered our hotel room to awaken us and announce through swollen lips that he had just been mugged. The day dawned with the spectacular azure of tropical mornings everywhere, the happy air bouncing around between buildings to feather palm fronds and set the hair of winsome beach-bound, bikini-clad maidens to dance in warm sun-splashed frothy surf, the light a brilliant whiteness replacing yellow, every shadow cast in dark contrast to its maker. The breakfast nook had cappuccinos and blackberry smoothies, breakfast burritos and croissant egg-wiches, bacon and cheddar egg sesame bagels and Caesar's salad, everything that you might possibly want from a breakfast, and we lambasted the memory of our choked down Honduran and Nicaraguan breakfast fare, elated at our newfound gastronomic entitlement. High Roller passed his highest favorability rating for the channel selection of the cable in our room, manifesting that it was unquestionably the best fare that we have been offered on the whole trip, including the Mexican package that even had porn. I found the Internet accessible and cheap in Cafes and in wireless restaurants and was able to get caught up well yesterday. Souvenir shopping was fruitful to the Sallymander, and Roscutin was still coasting on the sheer delight of the pizza from the night before, and Orpheus kicked the flu-like symptoms that gripped him in Casares and threatened to do him like it had Russ.
His face was like raw meat, punchy and red, bleeding from cuts, scratched, blood on his shirt, his nose bulbous and crimson, his lips swollen and purple. His eyes were wild, one pupil highlighted by a mean little orb of red in one corner, a little splay of blood in his eyeball. His knuckles were swollen, his nostrils flared, and eyes wide as he stood there with sand stuck to his legs and scratches on his thighs, his pants pocket hanging down, torn.
"They got my wallet, the little cowards," he announced. "They didn't hurt me, though; I still have all my teeth." His speech was altered, not slurred but encumbered by torn flesh inside and out of his mouth that intruded in the normal act of speech. One eye was dark but not a full shiner, and certainly not both and despite the furious bulbous red of his nose, it did not look quite broken, just very roughly used. "They jumped me out in the dark by the bridge and stomped my face with their feet, the little pussies," he declared. "Didn't you hear me calling out for help?"
I got much of the photo content uploaded from Coconutz in the afternoon, delighting as the rain storm passed through and I delighted in its torrential pounding of the roof as I tapped away on the keyboard, delighted with the breeze whipped up by the storm, never losing for a moment the connection. It was full on happy hour as the gang found me just as I was wrapping up. We listened to a passable entertainer sing old standards and play a decent keyboard and sipped on some happy hour margaritas, but all three boys and I repaired to the room to freshen up for dinner as the weather moved on, leaving the Aqualung, Roscutin, and the Amphibian to play billiards and while away the rising evening in casual passing. We opted for pizza again for dinner, and Sally and Russ ate somewhere, but Karl just dipped into our pizza for a slice passing by and did not have a proper dinner. Everybody was in and out of Room 26, Spark Central, where the cooler was being guarded by the Nuclear Khan plus Jordano. We watched the second DVD rip that I had bought in Antigua and discussed at some length the merits of Iron Man and the quality of the recording but were generally pleased with our evening.
We had no idea as we slipped between the sheets alongside the dream maidens of our Morphean restoration that one of our number was courting death out in the hard sands of the other side. But as soon as he had announced his mugging, he was off on a mission out of the room, and Orpheus and I bounded to our feet and shorted ourselves and caught up with him downstairs angrily instructing the watchman to get a policeman on the scene immediately. The clearly overwhelmed guard took Karl to be the threat and was at first uncooperative and refused to make any call or to allow the phone to be used or to even acknowledge it as within his purview or ability to call the police. He wanted Karl to leave the facility and walk the two hundred meters down the road to go and talk to the cops himself.
"Are you insane?" Karl asked him with buggy eyes and a glare that would melt a 450 cc engine block. "I was just assaulted by four faggot ruffians right outside these walls," he jabbed the air in the chest before the guard. He then stomped the sharp rock broken gravel beneath his feet with his bare feet. "They did this to my face with their feet." He looked up again wild-eyed and savagely. "Do you think I am about to go back out there again so they can do it all over again?" When the guard did not move, Karl pushed past him into the office and made to go to the office side of the reception area, which unhinged the guard, invoking oaths and a level of voice sufficiently threatening as to stop Karl in his tracks to recognize momentarily the boundaries of the circumstance. As Karl stalked back upstairs decrying angrily circumstances, I took the guard aside and spoke to him calmly, his frightened eyes testament to uncharted waters rising up his ankles. "It does not matter where it happened," I told him. "He is a guest in your hotel, and he was just attacked by four men not fifty yards from here. He has asked you to call the police." I gave him a firm stare despite his apparent willingness to cave. "You'd better do it."
But the cop that finally did come just wanted to know what Karl was doing hanging out in dangerous places and finally warned him that all citizens must take their own security into account when venturing into questionable activities and being in places that are known to be dangerous. Karl went off to take a shower and Orpheus and I eventually returned to bed, and an hour later Jordan awakened us again as Karl was now headed off to the police station to make a report to the superior of the little boy cop that they had sent. I argued against this course of action for a half hour under the distinct impression that things could only spiral downward from where they were and that the only safe resolution to the evening was a horizontal one, preferably within the sanctity of our hotel rooms. At some point it became clear that my advocacy rubbed my brother in all the wrong places and I gave up and went to bed. At three fifteen, Jordan, Orpheus, and Karl hiked down to the police station, where it turned out the little baby-faced cop that had come out and taken his statement in the first place actually was the only one on duty and there was no superior to file a report with.
And by nine-thirty this morning it turned out that Karl had hid his wallet in his room before his nocturnal outing and so the only thing that he had wound up losing was a half pack of cigarettes and a few bucks. There was some consolation in discovering that he was not out the cash, the credit cards, the driver's license, everything else that he was sure had been lost the night before, but the inverse consolation would be that given that circumstance it might have been worthwhile surrendering all that stuff to avoid the cowardly beating by four little reprobate, lazy, muggers.
July 9, 2008
Naturally, there was a large urge to get out of Playa del Coco. With all the activity of the night before that strayed well beyond four a.m., we were unable to mobilize before 11:15 and didn't get through with breakfast and actually blaze a trail before the crack of noon. At Las Juntas, the sky looked threatening above, and we hired a taxi for the last 35 kilometers to Monteverde. As if to tease us with our own folly, the heavens remained tight-lipped through our winding ascent out of the "desert" and into the cloud. In fact it did not rain until seven p.m., so the $50 investment in a cab was a little gamble that did not pay off. In retrospect, it may reflectively be argued that even getting wet might be worth the $50 savings, but it is not my place to speak to such relativities given that the burden of a soaking has not been mine to bear.
Monteverde is kitschy and commercial. Prices are high but not outrageous. My experience at the Tree House restaurant was very disappointing. I went there to use Internet, and their system of providing it was ultra-controlled and anal. I was cut off after 30 minutes and told I had to sign up for another 30 minutes and get another code so that they could charge me the $2 per half hour rather than the $3 per hour price. I figured I would never make it to $6 in consumption to reap the half hour free, but two beers would up being $8.30, and the Internet would not allow me to do anything that involved actual consumption of bandwidth, and the person in charge of answering connectivity questions was rude and dismissive of me, and as I paid the cashier I told him in a flat voice that it was pure highway robbery, even if they did not in the end wind up charging me for Internet time that was largely unuseable and only wacked me for $4.15 for beer they get $1.25 for everywhere else. Excuse my French, but f--- that place. My observation made the pudgy, soft, proto-curmudgeonly little attendant uncomfortable, sitting there in his little cashier's booth with his ridiculous little wooden earrings, his stupid little pulled back hair-do with ridiculously shaved sidewalls on his fat little head and his offensive little superior insouciance, and he tried to ignore me, but I would not leave until he looked at me, and when he did, he had something in his eyes that was absolutely not defiance and may have even had a tinge of acknowledgement in it. Of course, he might have had a premonition of my crawling through his little window and giving him a larger piece of my mind as I probably did not look very friendly or passive when I told him they were all bandits.
However, our dinner place was very friendly, the food quite good, the prices reasonable, the wait staff very pleasant, and we all felt good about it. Afterwards, I was able to find a second Internet cafe where the attendant's band mates were practicing inside the office, though not loudly. He was also at first snotty with me but seemed to nicen up relatively quickly. He told his buddies to keep it down, but it was not unpleasant, and they were pretty good, and I closed the place down as the only client having gotten plenty of work done. In final complimentary acknowledgement, this hotel is $15 per person with breakfast, and this morning's breakfast was easily the most generous standard breakfasts to date. The rooms are comfortable, and I was able to leave the Ruby Racer under cover, so commercially I can offer two thumbs up and one thumb down for the town of Monteverde. Remember to avoid the Tree House. Not sure if the hype lives up to the reality, but I guess Monteverde on the whole is okay. It is certainly pretty up here, and the climate sure is good for sleeping.
The Agualung was feverish last night, and his hand and leg wounds are inflamed and angry. He is sore all over and unable to walk without discomfort. He will need antibiotics and probably has small pieces of dirt and ground buried under his skin in places that will need to be cut out of him. He is in no shape to do anything but nurse his wounds and at this writing, here at 9:00 a.m., has not ventured outside the room.
The vortex swirls ever closer to our collective point of departure, descending gently toward us as entropy kicks up leaves around us and and things become lighter and more airy. My brood is no longer hot for hikes and exploration, aka Monteverde National Park, and the group is on the verge of splintering to make the final trek into San Jose in waterproof circumstances. Karl, Jordan, Russ, and Sally are looking at taking tomorrow's afternoon bus as their flights depart the next morning at 7:00 a.m. I have just made arrangements for Orpheus, Aladdin, and myself at the Dunn Inn for tonight, and we will sit through the final full day before their Friday afternoon departure with the pleasure of in-room Internet, air conditioning, cable television, and cinema at the mall, forgoing another night here in Monteverde, where it is okay but no longer much of a draw to the nuclear khan.
San Jose, Costa Rica
July 9, 2008
The morning dawned bittersweet in the cool mountain air of Monteverde. My concern yesterday upon discovering the rooms had no fan proved baseless, and the night's sleep, while fitful with bizarre and vivid dreams was nevertheless swaddled in a crisp mountain air damped by the thick woolen blankets. We devolved after last night's pleasant dinner to static occupations, Karl to sleep, Aladdin and I to writing, Orpheus to drawing, Jordan to Dune, and Sally and Russ to their room. After Internet I wrote on the balcony, but lights out came before eleven o'clock, before the high school and college groups in other rooms were able to hush their muffled partying, before the creaks in the hotel joists quieted for the night. In the morning, I lay abed as long as I could and rose and breakfasted with Orpheus and Aladdin and Jordan, with Karl still in bed. He rose afterwards in pain, the wounds in his knee and hand infected and painful, the night's fever broken, his body aching all over. I went to the bank to get some fresh money and returned to find him back in bed and not planning any hiking in the cloud forest. He agreed that he needed either doctoring by a professional or to dig around on his own with a blade or probe and antibiotic ointment to remove whatever pieces of road dirt remain in him; he knows he needs some systemic antibiotics, though Neosporin is surely a good start.
Russ was not up for two nights in San Jose, and Karl and Jordan opted to hang in Monteverde rather than take the ride today into San Jose, deferring their last bit of the road until tomorrow afternoon and the 2:30 bus to Alajuela. They were definitely taking the bus one way or another to forestall any final chance of getting rained on, so they opted to remain in Monteverde rather than to break like the nuclear Khan for the bright lights and big city. It was sad to split up the group and break for Babylon, but there was no sense to our remaining in Monteverde just for the sake of form. We now have a final day for souvenir shopping and gifts and have a couple of choice restaurants scouted out, having knocked off Il Pomodoro tonight.
The road out of Monteverde was just as unpaved as the road into it was, and it strains credulity to realize that this nation has not paved access to one of its front lines of tourism. It is not like the presumptive "charm" of the paving stones of Antigua. This is, after all, just miles of gravel road. It was nice to finally hit blacktop, though the Panamerican Highway was congested with bumper to bumper traffic all the way up the long grade from Puntarenas to San Ramon. The roiling clouds that jousted with the mountain tops broke open at the pass and the bottom fell out of the sky on our descent into the Central Valley, all the way into Sabana. It was somehow fitting to conclude the last leg of the Great Central American Rain Trip with a driving rain. But it was great to not have travelers in the back to bare the brunt. The rain broke though before we hit down town and enabled a rain-free unloading of luggage.
There is a whistle in my ear as the Great Central American road trip tapers to an anticlimactic finale. The stark violence and the bursting of a bubble stains the flow of thoughts with an indelible smear of shock and regret. I value my brother's gregariousness as a trait that I will never be able to manifest in his able and natural manner. He could break the ice with a Yemeni Bedouin, I believe, and I wonder if it is not ironically this same quality that contributed to being targeted by the hoodlums that assaulted him. Everyone may take away obvious lessons from the experience: "don't wander around alone late at night in dark places" is one that everyone should be intrinsically familiar with and is perhaps the most obvious lesson, but to me there is another much deeper one that I have not been able to yet bend my mind fully around. I was once admonished by a Costa Rican judge in court for not tying my father up to prevent him from mischief if I knew about his condition and worried for his safety, and while it was a preposterous suggestion, the judge making the statement was entirely serious and his fellow judges nodded in sober agreement, stunning given the notions of personal liberty and the presumptive integrity of each person's privacy and personal space. My grandfather advised my father to never speak more than was absolutely necessary to policemen of any stripe, advice that is intuitive and obvious to me and of first rate quality. Others would argue that a person in distress should be helped to achieve the goals that they are striving for, despite the fact that being in distress they may not be rational. I wonder if my vision is preternaturally dark to realize the existence of parallel universes of pain and suffering that went way beyond the bruises to the ego and the token few ounces of flesh tithed to the great chaotic malevolence unleashed that night. My counsel was rejected, and yet I did not listen to the judicial council and did not tie my brother down (not that I am physically capable of overpowering him or anyone even if I wanted to) as preposterous a notion as that may sound. But in the sphere that we occupy there lurk darkened places where inequity and suffering rule the day and suffuse the night with pitch. However, it is these very ulcers of existence that provide context and meaning to the light and beauty that radiates from all corners of existence to welcome its greater cultivation and worship.
We all got a taste of the inky blackness of the pit's water, and the Aqualung got submerged in it, a profane baptism, the waters of which splashed upon all of his G-CART companions. It's a bad way to end this amazing experience, and the fact that it can be neither coincidence nor design and that bad cannot exist without its contextual counterpoint of good leaves the experience heavy with unintended significance and unrealized consequence. The why of it all populates the imagination like neutrons dropping out of the raceway of a particle accelerator, unaffected by the magnets to clog the field of light-speed charged particles whirling about the giant raceway to transmit the meaning of life to their physicist mediators and metaphysical interlopers. There is more than a lesson to be learned and are as many states of right and wrong as there are configurations of mass and energy in any karmic re-creation of the events. For some the hills are alive. For others the hills have eyes. For me a hill is only a hill because of the valley beside it. And somewhere in the nebulous haze of metaphysical sophistry, so too is there a counterpoint to the attack on my brother that occupies a place on the mountain, far from the forge of human struggle, yet equidistant from the shimmering wholeness of God, from which the events can be turned to a greater highness than any pain physical or spiritual that he endures now and that we endure in lesser degree with him.
Perhaps in time I may grow to understand it more fully and be able to codify it in my mind and reap its intellectual fruit. Perhaps it is a transitory and fluttering notion, a butterfly freshly emerged from a pupae, loping gamely along to enjoy the short-lived sun-splashed day from flower to flower.
San Jose, Costa Rica
July 10, 2008
The lump rising in my throat is familiar from other visits. To release the boys back into their world and to return back to my own is always a challenge. It is easier now that they both have their own lives, but the greater the time that we've had together the greater the sense of loss, the more acute the anticipation of separation pangs. This has been a visit unlike any others, and if all of them could be defined in the same way, it would be as close to an ideal as I can get given the dissolution of any conventional parental notion into a singularly American mist fifteen years ago. Today it struck me that I really still see myself as a contemporary of the age I was when I was the age of my own children yet of course that is absurd as I am a quarter century older and come from a totally different era and am surely all grown up by now or at least should be. But I still am not sure what I am going to be when I grow up so how can I be grown up and feel very privileged to have so many alternatives to bounce between. Jack of all trades, I am, master of none, and still paying the bills if not always as elegantly as the paycheck set in their cookie cutter worlds of continuity and contextual baseline static.
But as much as I love and will miss my sons, I sure am looking forward to the first day I won't have to lay down $50 three times a day or more for food, lodging, gas, or entertainment. The big ticket items, the plane tickets, the diver training course lessons, the investment in the tool box and preparation of the truck for the trip, those were easy expenditures, down and dirty and palpable for what they bought. The endless hemorrhage of cash for the sustenance of the flesh is the part that begins to grow heavy, and today is the last full day of those series of daily fiscal bloodletting. Beyond the trail of greenbacks left in the wake of the Ruby Racer's blazing passage up and down the spine of Central America, there is another thing you start to think about more and more, and that is a kitchen till after a couple weeks of that the fantasy of cooking a meal looms large and competes with even the erotic and psychoactive as biologic yearnings. Imagine walking into a kitchen and preparing food and then eating it, perhaps doing this a couple times in a row. Maybe after I earn back some revenues I'll install a kitchen in the Crow's Nest. Too bad there is not one there now. I have envy for the return of all my G-CART companions to dwellings of their own, all of which have kitchens.
Fabulo's intended project, once the wreck-diving prospect did not materialize as a subject to report upon, "ten reasons to take a road trip through Central America" only made it to about reason number five or so (see molten lava, perhaps) before he could not help consider the alter-project "ten reasons not to take a road trip through Central America." During the entire seven days from Puerto Jimenez to Tulum it rained only once, in the final hour and a half into Tulum. On the thirteen days so far to make it back it rained every day of the trip except for one, some of those rains torrential. I look forward to reading whatever project might emerge from the Aqualung's discerning pen. It is my fantasy that sometime I will see in a work of Aladdin's a genetic origin stemming from experiences of this trip despite the selfishness of this parental fantasy. Orpheus's world is so dense with his experience and daily eye that it is impossible to imagine abstracting these two weeks from the products of his creative drive. And Roscoe is headed to a string of further fun, bankrolling it all from hard work and good organization, all of it channeled into the maximization of the fun-component, life's most quintessential and elemental component. Jordan is off to Pepperdine University in Malibu on full scholarship and surely on to a brilliant and profitable career, and Karl faces life beyond the nest and a restructuring of his entire weekly dynamic, curiously married in time with his rise from the union ranks to populate the other side of the social contract as a manager as your Humble Correspondent tries to wring a living in the backwaters of an overworked imagination in a vestigial paradise where food hangs from trees, maidens rise from the ground, and strong men dissolve in booze, procrastination, and suppressed expectation into vestiges of their former dreams of glory.
The odometer shows 3800 miles, and I have another 200 to go to get all the way back home. I set off without a map, and I don't know why I figured it was only 750 miles or so. It was actually only a bit more than twice that far. Way back when, the round trip airfare from San Jose to Cancun of $760 seemed outrageous. I ridiculously imagined without doing a lot of checking that I could drive up there and back for less than that. And that initial and ridiculous fallacy was the germination of the Great Central American Rain Trip. In taking separate routes, the country that has flashed by my windshield seems like a serpentine Moebieus strip of nature and culture merging with mountain and coastline into a single perambulating pathway twisting between day and night, light and dark, rain and shine, land and sea, to convey to Central American a vastness in diversity I never could have imagined in the absence of this experience. It's like its own little continent, where every valley contains a physiographic universe distinct from that of the valleys on either side of the ridge or the ones down river or in the headwaters. The language mutates in accent and vocabulary and nuance and the human element varies as a function of all the internal variety so that the threads of connection are only in broad backbones, with the connecting webs a permuted morass of variegation and diversity.
It is so small on the map, spanning a mere few degrees of latitude and skinny as island arcs are wont to be, but not completely. Central America's Honduran pregnancy distends a vast lowland spanning half of Honduras and Nicaragua into a lowland wilderness unthreaded yet even by more than a smattering of roads. We traveled only the littoral Pacific and along roads through the isthmian spinal mountain ranges, as they descend from the tectonic nerve center of the orogen up in Guatemala, where the entire field of geology seems to have been miraculously compressed into a single country.
In the first few days the thrill of the open road rose before me, provoking imaginations of future road trips through South America, Africa, perhaps Asia in some post-Colombian-civil-war era, maybe through mostly non-muslim countries in a universe that is not likely to be post-Islamic during my lifetime.
Right now I imagine the feel of my own bed and can nearly smell the fragrance of the air in the Crow's Nest and look forward to the way the light rises in the room through the thick curtains well before dawn and even find some familiar comfort in the anticipated vibration of the walls as Juanita's rocks downstairs. With two jobs in the Quepos area for Saturday, I expect to spend the night there tomorrow after dropping off the kids at the airport then continuing to Jim Town on Saturday. The Chico and Los Gatos contingents overnight in Alajuela tonight and depart on 7:30 flights in the morning, so they are all tucked away and likely in psychosomatic subconscious struggles with alarm clocks and deadlines at this very hour of writing.
Barring circumstances that have not revealed themselves, my Great Central American Road Trip has two days and at least one denouement to go. Stay tuned for tomorrow's return to the Central American road as the Ruby Racer smells the stable and the passage of the Rincon River into home terrain strays geographically and temporally ever nearer to my hungering now.
July 11, 2008
Quepos, Costa Rica
"Don Pablo," Randall reports with muted enthusiasm, "it is all much better now. There is no smell anymore. It is fixed. Only Don Pablo, we are all full; I have only the guide room to offer you for tonight."
Full circle here in Quepos, the smell is gone at my client's hotel, the sewage is managed, the birds are in the air, and the Ruby Racer has all four wheels planted firmly on the pavement. I'll mosey on up to Manuel Antonio to take a measure of the fix, not to really do anything so much as to follow through and take a look and marvel a bit at the power of absentee fulfillment and to gage the measure of the last final phase to leave this fix permanent: the grey water solution. I'll head up into the mountains mid morning and meet my new clients and pick up my $250 and notice a few things as I look around, just enough for them to take a favorable measure despite my disheveled and unapologetic casualness and maybe come back around and send me that $20,000 alternative energy contract when their house goes up, perhaps hire me to set them up with a rainfall catchment system and lock me into the filtration and household pressurization systems. Perhaps not. Maybe I'll meet the neighbors who will have a friend that is looking for a remote ecolodge in Costa Rica to buy and run. Maybe I'll round the corner and run into a mack truck or have a landslide carry me, Ruby Racer and all, into the valley of the shadow. You never know what is around the next bend in the road.
Between last night and this evening I put together a one week package for five buddies with east Indian names. The total comes to just under $4000 with another $400 or so pending my sourcing three final things. Their point man sends me payment tomorrow, so that my return to the grindstone will be a real pay day for me, $850 adding in the OWW fees to my anticipated commissions tomorrow. How's that for a day's worth of work in a tropical backwater? I am not sure what the answer to that one is. For sure, the question is rhetorical. It ain't the money in itself, but there is a lot of pleasure in the earning of it. And the easier it comes the proportionately better it feels. I can tell that I am due a sale. I can feel it in my bones, a sale on the horizon to fill my jib with a brisk westerly breeze.
At dinner tonight a lady walked past me quickly on a mission and I recognized her voice as she spoke to her daughter. As they emerged from the bathroom she recognized me and sent her daughter off to daddy and sat and spoke with me for quite some time. After awhile she told me I should not stop eating because of her and so I complacently jammed some raw tuna in my face. She was in a new line of work, wedding consulting, and fat and happy and bubbly. Eight years now into my latest tenure, I have lived in Puerto Jimenez longer than I have ever lived anywhere else. But as my encounter in a sleazy little sushi joint in Quepos goes to show, it's a mighty small world here, and I am swaddled from afar as I gaze southward toward the Cradle of Western Civilization.
In a couple hours the boys will touch down in Baltimore, and Aladdin's friend, Lily, will be there to pick them up. They are due to head down to North Carolina to say their farewells to their mother's mother who is facing her final battle in an unglamorous war with a determined foe. The California contingents are surely all back in their land of ten thousand smokes, Russ and Sally perhaps even nearing Chico, K-Bob confectioning the best face to put upon Monday's awkward return as a titan of journalistic prowess and homing beacon of the sensibilities of the beautiful people of Silicon Valley.
Morpheus reaches a hand to beckon me toward his universe of dappled dreams, and I dare not resist more lest I get a late start in the morning and give myself away as the morning slacker I am, pealing the pillow from my head as I sort the fine distinctions between effluent and electricity, between rainfall capture and storm water management to then point my hood south and race down the Coastal highway and back toward my unlikely homeland where the Crow's Nest pines gently for my happy return and my staff can't help but wonder at the mood I will sport upon this latest return from the wider world.
July 12, 2008
Puerto Jimenez, Costa Rica
It was one month to the day that I pulled out of Jim Town, and 3985 miles later, I am back again. The changes are not trivial. The road is built up in many places, and from Rincon it is nearly a gravel super highway. Town is paved. My green curtains are replaced with much more appealing white ones. The hat I lost on the road somewhere turned up on my office chair in my office. Thank you, MarMar; never expected to see that again.
The septic retrofit at the hotel in Manuel Antonio was a complete success in every way, and the job was aesthetically elegant. Everybody did right, and I pulled off another OWW success story. My new clients in the mountains above Quepos remarked that they considered the $250 well spent from the trove of advice I was able to give them on rainfall capture and alternative energy options. Like a maraschino cherry on top of a complimentary banana split, my reservations client sent in a CC authorization form for $4100, and it cleared, flushing me for payroll obligations in three days time, fulfilling my personal payday expectations about which I indiscreetly boasted last night when both revenue streams remained unfulfilled still hypothetical.
The sky opened up in a fitting tribute to the adventure between Dominical and Uvita and rained torrentially for a half hour to Palmar then intermittently the rest of the way. I bought a used gas cap for three bucks in Chacarita and made it to Jimenez before dark in a record three hours and forty five minutes from Quepos without happening across a single officer of the law in route. My experience is that they shrink back to office duty when it rains hard. Four thousand miles and not a single flat nor a single engine hiccup nor a failed bearing. The only thing that went wrong with the car is that the driver's side window fell out of the track and the handle mechanism failed in Copan, Honduras. Tonight I will fetch my jack inside the Crow's Nest seeing as I have lost three to burglary by crack heads to date out there where I park it. Four thousand miles on half a quart of oil.
With so many things that could have gone wrong, the only thing that I lost on the whole trip was the pillow that I snagged out of the Crow's Nest at the last minute before leaving. One pillow was my only casualty. I left it in Monteverde, and K-Bob rescued it to leave it for me at the Hotel Alajuela but then inadvertently left it on the bus. I guess it was meant to wander around on its own adventures.
Nothing can ever be the same at the conclusion of G-CART as it was at its inception. The axis of the Earth has tilted; the planet has warmed; people have died, been born, lost faith, and perhaps even gained faith. The air in Jim Town has a different taste and the intersection of myself and my office chair is unlike it ever has been before. As rain pelts the peninsula and the wind billows at my new white curtains it does not seem natural to turn on the air conditioning whereas before it would have been preternatural to leave it turned off. In a stream of consciousness bombarding me there is not commonality to all that is familiar and no strangeness to the alien and unknown. It has been an obsessive need of mine to punctuate the days of this trip with this banal scattering of words and the images they intend to compose, and I don't know quite the nature of that with which I shall replace the soothing compunction. Yet, something will take it's place, and it is with a melancholic satisfaction that I take my leave of this journal and turn my intentions and energies to other vagaries of equal if not greater insignificance.
For those of you that have followed along with the pictures and narrative, thank you for your attention, and the best of wishes to you and all of yours. From the Cradle of Western Civilization I kiss the sky and return to the basic exigencies of life with a wet face and all kinds of silly notions, many of which had never occurred to me before launching off on the Great Central American Road Trip. We will see what comes of it all.
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