Our First Trip To Centro America - 1974

Discussion in 'Postcards from Planet Earth' started by Shale, Oct 20, 2015.

  1. Shale

    Shale ~

    (Note: I did not have a cam in 1974 - pix are scrounged from the Web of similar views from that era)

    Also, for those who did not see the pic in our "First Trip to Europe...,"
    this is the "We" referred to in this essay.


    Our First Trip to Centro America

    By Spring of 1974, Jim convinced me we should see the Mayan ruins of Mexico and tour Centro America. He knew some Spanish from living among Puerto Ricans in NYC and I knew some basic words so I was in. We put together backpacks and flew from New Orleans to Merida Mexico on the Yucatan Peninsula on May 1, 1974.

    This was not my first time in Mexico, having made border town trips while stationed in Texas in the early 1960s. However, this would be the most extensive stay in Latin America. We got a room at a hostel in Merida and proceeded to walk about the city.

    We took a day trip out to the ruins at Chichen Itza and Uxmal. I have a little acrofobia so I did not even attempt to go up "El Castillo" at Chichen, but the pyramid at Uxmal did not seem so foreboding, being closer to the jungle. I climbed up OK, but when I turned to walk down it really looked high. I had to turn and crawl down like on a ladder and was so nervous I had to remove my flip-flops and fling them down because my feet were sweating so much they were getting slippery. We even took another day trip to Progreso and saw the beach and Gulf of Mexico.

    Pic: El Castillo Chichen Itza

    Pic: Uxmal

    Things were going well until one evening we were stopped by two plainclothes cops who went to our room and searched it, throwing the mattress up and checking quite thoroly, while questioning us as to what we were doing in Mexico. I guess it was the beards, long hair and casual clothes that got their attention. Not that tourists don't dress in denim and wear sandals but we looked too much like Hippies and they thot they had an easy drug bust. (Actually, as corrupt as the Mexican police are, we were lucky they didn't need to fill a quota or we woulda been busted for their planted drugs) What they did find out in questioning us and enquiring about how much money we had for traveling in Mexico was that Jim did not have enuf. That's because I had all the Travelers Checks in my name that we planned to use on the trip. They reduced Jim's visa from 3 months to 1.

    We left Merida and took a bus to Tulum, to see the ruins there on our way to Chetumal where the plan was to go into British Honduras on the way to Tikal in Guatemala.

    Pic: Tulum

    At Tulum we walked down the road along the coast and found a coconut grove right on the Caribbean coast that was isolated and we set up camp. In Merida we had outfitted ourselves with enameled cookware, coffee cups, plastic canteens, a machete, multipurpose pocket knife, and sisal hammocks.

    Pic: Machete & Knife

    We stayed there a few days, found a restaurant near the ruins where we had an occasional meal at a balcony table overlooking the Caribbean and got our water jugs filled with still briny but potable water. We cooked some of our meals over a campfire of coconut husks, which really blacken the pots, but a little sand and washing in the surf took it off. On one of our walks thru the brush we found a large puddle of rainwater on a rock slab in the sun and took a nice hot bath. Where we were camped there was a small stone relic of the Mayans. IDK if it was a dwelling or just an outpost of Tulum overlooking the Caribbean but it was about 6 feet squared stone walls with a doorway and no roof. I felt this was the way to travel, to see those little hidden things that most tourists do not. The stars were also a treat at night laying in darkness in our hammocks tied between coco palms.

    One morning when we were heating water to make our instant coffee that we always carried even when staying in hotels, two Federales stopped by. This was the Quintana Roo federal district, not yet a state. They were friendly, probably checking us out for possible drug using hippies but had a quick cup of coffee and left. One of them mentioned the mariposa designs on our coffee cups (butterfly motifs was all that was available) and Jim said the implication was that we were maricons. However, they didn't mess with us and did warn us about rattlesnakes around the stone ruins we had discovered.

    From Tulum we caught a bus to Chetumal. We went to the border office, got our passports stamped Salida on May 17 and went out the door to a short footbridge across a small river to British Honduras or Belize. We went into their immigration office handed them our passports and were denied entry into Belize. WTF! It was the beard and long hair - the backward, discriminating authorities of Belize would not allow Hippies into the country. So, now what?

    We walked back across the bridge to get back into Mexico. The inmigracion official pointed out that Jim's visa had been reduced already and hinted that he could not get back into Mexico. Luckily the $10 bill Jim handed him changed his corrupt Mexican official mind and we were again mapping our trip plans to Guatemala.

    On the bus trip thru Mexico we ended up in Villahermosa at night and could not get a connecting bus going south until the next day. So, we ended up sleeping on a park bench - or at least trying to. There is a bird in Centro America called the Chachalaca that is very loud and makes grating noises, screeches and peeps like it is imitating cars and machinery and one or more were living in this park. All night we had to listen to this thing.

    Our next stop was at San Cristobal de las Casas a small town in the mountains of Southwest Mexico. It had a very Mayan presence, moreso than other parts of Mexico we had seen. The ppl wore indigenous styles or hand woven clothes. We met an American woman who rented us a room in her home. She had married a Mayan man and had a baby, which she mentioned had that little blue spot at the base of his spine when born, (Mongolian Spot) something Mayan and Chinese babies have in common. This house had a fireplace and it was nice because the weather was kind of cool and foggy here.

    Attached Files:

  2. Shale

    Shale ~

    We next spent a night in Tuxtla Gutierrez, a larger more modern city, then on to the border of Guatemala where we crossed at Cuauhtemoc, Mexico on May 27. The Guatemalan boarder officials, carrying weapons and checking passports on the side of the bus were very polite to us and not so to a couple of Germans on diplomatic passports. I should mention that Jim and I were naive travelers who went to places without knowing the corruption and political unrest of the moment or even the history of the clandestine U.S. involvement in these countries. There apparently was a low-key civil war going on between the U.S. / United Fruit Company backed government and the leftist insurgents. Which, explains the armed military men at every bank building and the disdain for the government we saw in the indigenous ppl. I am not sure if our "death squads" were operating at this particular time but we traveled freely and were not targeted by anyone during our month-long stay in Guatemala.

    Our first city was Huehuetenango where we were told we needed to get a visa to stay in Guatemala. I recall vaguely walking around to find the government office and getting our official paperwork. Our original plan was to travel back north to see the Mayan ruins of Tikal (woulda been closer had we been able to enter by way of Belize).

    Our next stop was Guatemala City, one of those dirty, grey disheveled third world workplace cities, where we got a bus to Flores in the Peten. We went thru some mountains on the way with little white crosses on the side of the road where ppl had gone over the edge. At one time the bus slowed and everyone looked out the side at the remains of another bus down in the ravine. I suppose this is the normal reality of bus travel in third world banana republics.

    We arrived at Flores, a small island city on Lago Peten Itza, accessed by a causeway. We stayed a few days at a hostel and asked about renting a place to stay longer. We then heard of a cabaňa we could rent across the lake in a small village of San Miguel.

    Pic: Flores Aerial View

    Seňor Peche took us across in his dugout canoe where we met his wife, pre-teen daughter and small son Roberto who had Down syndrome. The thatched roof cabaňa had whitewashed mud walls and hooks in the supporting posts for hanging our hammocks. At $7.50 for the month and use of a dugout canoe we took it.

    There was no plumbing and we had use of the family outhouse. We cooked on an open fire in a small covered cookhouse. Seňora Peche made tortillas daily, which we bought to supplement our beans & rice or vegetable stew or just have with jalea y crema de cacahuate. We learned how to paddle the dugout canoe across the lake to get any other supplies from Flores or other settlements along the shore. Jim and I bathed and washed our clothes on the shore of the lake like everyone else in the settlement of San Miguel, and tho soap was natural we worried even then of the effects of detergent on the pristine beauty of this lake. Also, like everyone else we got our drinking water from the lake - tho we swam out, away from the bank to fill our containers.

    Pic: Dugout Canoes on Lago Peten Itza

    We stayed here for most of a month, walking thru the jungle, finding a small pyramid still buried under plants and soil. Unfortunately I learned the hard way of a tree related to poison ivy called Chechem (Black Poison Wood in the Sumac family). It was dead so I cut it up and carried it back on my bare shoulders to cook with. I got the usual itchy blisters on my hands, shoulder, back and even my face from the smoke. It was a miserable week but I have had bad history with poison ivy so I just tolerated it until it went away. Seňora Peche gave me a home remedy ointment that I think was lard but I used it and it did seem to subside quicker than other bouts I've had. (I was also told with grafic hand gestures by Seňor Peche that if I got sap in my eyes from a live plant to wash it out with orino).

    We got the feeling from the ppl here of great pride in their indigenous heritage and disdain of the Spanish culture. There was a small, stone-walled church in San Miguel, an abandoned ruin with no roof and when we inquired got a scoff and a backhanded gesture of scorn. One of the young men from the village came by one night and he and Jim talked in Spanglish. He showed us an antiquity of which he seemed quite proud - a small clay whistle shaped like a bird. When he blew into it we heard a sound that was perhaps heard 600 years earlier by its maker.

    Oh Tikal, our original reason for coming to the Peten? That never happened. The buses going there from Flores were quite early in the morning and we could not see us getting up in the dark, making a fire, having coffee and paddling across the lake for that schedule. Besides, we were living amongst the remnants of that lost civilization. Before coming to Centro America, we studied a little about the indigenous ppl here and I even recall seeing illustrations in a book about construction of the typical Mayan thatched roof cabaňa and noted how the one we were staying in looked exactly like that. Perhaps a tradition passed down for hundreds of years. And, Seňor Peche was building another larger one right in front of the one we were in, so we got to watch it from the ground up and how they put the palm thatching on the roof.

    Strangely, we spent the month of June on the banks of a huge lake and were not bothered by mosquitoes. And, it was cool enuf sleeping in our hammocks inside the cabaňa with no fans. The only problem we had were the fruit bats, who would pick up ciruelas (little wild plumbs) during the nite and hang out inside our thatching eating them, dropping the pits on us when they were done. I never saw them because as soon as I turned on the flashlight all I saw was a shadow skirting under the eaves of the thatching. I guess we just got used to it.

    One day we were told about some other "gringos" staying in the village so we walked over to meet them. Turns out they were Dutch and all we could communicate was in the limited Spanish we each knew. Made me wonder tho, how much blame we North Americans took for the actions of "gringos" from any European culture.

    After weeks in San Miguel we decided to continue our journey to Costa Rica but took our time on the road. We stopped at Poptun on the way South, a small town that reminded me of those frontier towns of the 19th Century. We stayed at a really bare necessity hostel and ate at local restaurants, subsisting a lot on desayuno of frijoles negros refritos y huevos y pan tostado o papas. Yeah, I was picking up Travel Spanish.

    We met an expatriate American living on a local finca and Jim struck up a conversation with him since we had toyed with the idea of settling in Centro America on a small farm. We went to his place and actually helped him with some chores. I injured my finger, ripping the skin off between two large boards we were unloading. Found some first-aid stuff at a farmacia and managed to treat it successfully while traveling with iodine and mercurochrome band-aids. Also, in Poptun we were introduced to another expatriate American couple by the first guy and visited them for supper one evening. They were Mennonites, running a farm here in the jungles of Guatemala. They showed us how they made puffed wheat, and for those of my age who remember the old TV ads "Shot From Guns," it really is. Super heated under pressure in a special steel tube, when it is opened abruptly the roasted wheat kernels explode out, puffing up on the way. They were also attempting to make peanut butter as a cottage industry. Crema de cacahuate was available in some stores here.

    After a couple of days we moved on, stopping for a nite at Puerto Barrios, which looked like an even ruffer frontier town. It was here that I first discovered culture shock of traveling and living for a month in predominantly Mayan and Hispanic culture, then seeing black ppl for the first time and British tropical architecture of frame buildings with metal roofing. The coasts of Centro America often have Jamaicans or other black ppl from the Caribbean Islands or perhaps Belize. But now it hit me that this familiar environment in which I lived all my life had been missing. It was Something that went unnoticed until having an abrupt change of environment.

    This is where we got a cheap room in a brothel. We thot it was just a hotel above a bar until we realized its other business. Jim and I were standing on the balcony watching the action in the streets of this frontier port town when a young woman from an adjoining room came out and propositioned us, opening her blouse and showing her breasts. We politely declined.

    We then caught a Tica Bus to San Jose, Costa Rica on July 4, 1974, transiting El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua. We spent a night in Nicaragua at a hostel that was still in ruins from a recent earthquake and entered Costa Rica on July 5th.

    We spent a few days in San Jose, which was much cooler than the tropics near the coast. You notice these things when taking showers without hot water in the cheap hostels. This was a modern, cosmopolitan city and had its charms. We even met some Buddhists and went to their ashram for a visit. We enjoyed walking around the city, having some meals in restaurants to supplement the sandwiches we made in our hostel room. In San Jose we had good, black coffee in European style pastry shops. (Ironically, coffee exporting Guatemala was not a coffee drinking culture in the rural areas). But, we wanted to get back into the tropics so we took a very scenic train trip thru the mountains to Puerto Limon, passing many coffee plantations along the way and stopping for one nite in Cartago.

    Pic: Mountain View Costa Rica

    We got a cheap hotel room in Puerto Limon, which like Puerto Barrios had a large black Islander population. Jim got into a conversation with Lante Wilson who wanted us to meet his brother, Bonnie still living in a very small community in the interior called Zent. He wanted his brother to have exposure to more than that small insular community could offer. So, we took another train trip into tropical Costa Rica and met Bonnie Wilson, who was subsisting in a small, mostly Black community in the country.

    Bonnie was a bit eccentric and lived in a shamble of a house that was missing walls, mostly just a roof with no plumbing or electricity. He cooked some vegetables and rice on an open fire in his kitchen and showed us how to roast coconut, which gave it a ham flavor. We stayed with Bonnie a few days, sleeping on the wooden floor and walking thru the countryside by day. He showed us tropical plants like a nutmeg tree and the red mace that grew on the outside of the nutmeg. We saw Cacao trees and opened a pod and tasted the sweet seed coating, which was nothing like chocolate.

    Pic: Nutmeg & Mace

    Pic: Cacao Pods

    We bathed and got containers of drinking water from a nearby river (Bonnie would not keep a well for fear someone might poison it) and luckily did not get guinea worms or other parasites. We learned a lot about the tropical farm community and also how conspicuous we were in it when Bonnie told us the Constable wanted to talk to us. We had a talk and convinced him we were not drug dealers or whatever suspicions he had of two bearded, long-haired white guys in his community.

    By July 20, 1974 we left Costa Rica, flying out of San Jose and stopping over on the Colombian island of San Andres on our way back to Miami. We then took a bus to Pittsburgh, where we would live and work until January 1975, when we'd bus down to Miami and fly to Costa Rica again.
  3. Shale

    Shale ~

    Our Second Trip to Costa Rica

    After five months of working at Pizza Pub in Shady Side, Pittsburgh, Jim and I got enuf money to take another trip to Costa Rica. (We were taking about $50 a nite from the cash register. Everyone was boosting from that place, including the manager & owner).

    For some reason we had the idea that we could buy a small farm around Zent and live a self-sufficient rural life. It was the fantasy of many urban free spirited types to get back to nature. I had done a solitary month or so in the woods of east Mississippi in 1970 and had also toyed with the idea of a rural commune in Lincoln County in 1972.

    We bused down to the Meher Center at Myrtle Beach on our way to Miami and met up with Sarah Hebb, who gave us a ride to Tampa/St. Pete. We caught the same plane route to San Jose on Jan 7, 1975 by way of San Andres where we got our visa to Costa Rica on Jan 9 and were in Costa Rica on Jan. 11.

    We went by train to Puerto Limon then visited Bonnie again in Zent. We had brot a lot of money with us, so I opened an account in a bank in Puerto Limon. After staying about 3 weeks we went back to San Jose to get extensions on our visas. I got an extension until 11 March 75 but Jim's was denied an extension. IDK why Jim had so much trouble with Central American officials, but needless to say, we had to be out of Costa Rica by the 11th of February.

    Shale's Extended Visa

    So, I had to go close that bank account in Puerto Limon and get back to San Jose to catch our flight out. I took the train going down but had to fly back in a DC-3, my second time flying on this beautiful aircraft. The pilot left the cockpit door open so I got a good view of the clouds and blue sky thru the front of the plane. These prop planes fly lower and are more prone to cross winds than jetliners, and we took a gust of wind that made the plane pivot slightly - strange sensation while flying.

    I got back to San Jose in time and we left Costa Rica on February 11, 1975, exactly one month after entering, returning by way of San Andres to Miami. When we got in Miami on a balmy, warm February day, we decided to forego the winter in Pittsburgh or even New Orleans and found a cheap apartment in Miami and started looking for work.

    Montanari Clinical Schools had a running ad for cottage parents because the work conditions were so bad that there was a high turnover. Both Jim and I got on there for our first jobs at "right livelihood," caring for disturbed or mentally retarded boys.

    Altho the job paid us minimum wages, there was no free time to actually spend it and by October 1975 we had enuf saved to take our first trip to Europe and travel overland to India.

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