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Central America: An Obstacle Course, filled with adventure

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akhil-centralLeaving the ruins of Tikal and the squabbling Scarlet Macaw couple residing on a tree opposite our room, we left for Guatemala City driving through verdant hills resplendent with wild forests and meadows and tropical fruits. The bus had seen better days. While changing gears, the driver would succeed once out of every eight or ten tries. The bus and the driver seemed to have declared war on each other.

Every few kilometres the engine ceased and the driver, armed with spanners, marched to the rear, hammered and banged the machinery, and came back greased, soiled and bruised. His victories were brief. After covering some distance, the bus was ready to renew the fight. The bus groaned its way through the crooked road and half way to its destination it had a flat tyre. Though the road had an over-supply of puncture repairers only the sixth workshop we called on agreed to tackle our bellicose bus. The six-hour journey stretched to ten hours – and all of them a feast to the eyes.

 

Savouring Mayan wonders

akhil-central1Guatemala City literally takes your breath away, with grand views of the Agua, Fuego and Acatenango volcanoes. Forty-five minutes away is Antigua, the old capital, flattened thrice by earthquakes yet flourishing with the Spanish baroque architecture, some still fresh and others picturesque ruins. Our guide Celso Gomez’s exhaustive knowledge drained us out and the rest of our energy was sapped by the strong sun and pushy Mayan ladies pedalling trinkets. Antigua was celebrating the day of St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of environment – the subject of our expedition. We joined the Mayans in lighting candles in St. Joseph Cathedral, a Roman Catholic church – and then followed them to the basement of the quake-devastated old cathedral where they perform their original mumbo-jumbo – without troubling anybody or finding defects in other religions.

Next day we drove to the volcano-fringed Lake Atitlan, three hours away from Guatemala City.  The lake is volcanic in origin, filling an enormous caldera formed in an eruption 84,000 years ago. Author Aldous Huxley wrote of it: “Lake Como, it seems to me, touches on the limit of permissibly picturesque, but Atitlan is Como with additional embellishments of several immense volcanoes. It is really too much of a good thing.” Huxley was known to use psychedelic drugs. I would dilute his observation a bit. Nevertheless, the villages around the lake are full of rustic old world charm. The public places, the markets and churches of Solola and Panajachel present a continuous enchanting procession of brilliant Cachiuel Mayan men and women attired in their traditional clothes hand-weaved and embroidered in a frenzy of colours. Street-side vendors slap dough into flattened round tortillas – just like the Indian chappati. Others, sitting in the pavement, are selling avocados, radish, cactus, banana leaves, machetes, embroidered clothes, pirated film and music CDs. As in India, the Mayan lady’s blouse doubles as a purse that stores bank notes, handkerchief, keys and the mobile phone. Their all-purpose ‘kapperraj’ is the equivalent of our gammcha.

Shifting Seasons

Hector, our vintage driver, had a 103-year-old father and a 96-year-old mother living in the village and still working on their small family farm. He had observed that the seasons had shifted somewhat after the 2004 earthquake that caused the tsunami which swept across the Indian Ocean and moved the earth’s axis. The 2011 quake-tsunami combo that hit Japan might have wobbled the axis a bit more. This, according to Hector, was causing seasons to shift a wee bit. “You call it climate change. It is just seasons shifting a little,” he said.

Whatever the cause, Gautamela, straddling three tectonic plates and two oceans, will be most vulnerable to climate change – whose effects are already visible: rainy season starts later, ends early and the concentrated, heavy downpour during the shortened season causes landslides and flooding. This January there was an unusual snowfall in the mountains of Ixchiguan. The government has set up a Climate Change Unit to meet the challenge. Universities are offering courses in climate change. Varieties of flood-resistant maize and drought-resistant beans and other genetically modified crops that can tolerate extreme weather have already been developed.

el-salvadorFrom Guatemala City to San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador, it was a scenic drive through forested hills. The aristocratic Tica bus driver stepped on the accelerator, never slowed down on sharp turns, overtook extended container trucks at full speed, almost brushing against them. He missed, by a whisker, running over pavements, pedestrians, Bajaj tuk-tuks carrying school children, and a van transporting fresh fish. A couple of times, while driving, he took out his office bag and started doing administrative work: filing documents, checking statements, placing sheets on clipboard. Finally, in the outskirts of San Salvador, just after the army cantonment, he was flagged down by a well-drilled policeman and, in spite of his pleas, given a ticket for either talking on his mobile or speeding or both. From my front seat it was a hair-raising ride.

san-salvadorSan Salvador is a shabby city with cracked, potholed roads, choked drains, and garbage everywhere. Houses were in a state of disrepair and the place had a poverty-stricken look. We spent an hour wandering around the town’s historic centre and there was nothing pleasant in its sights, sounds and smells. The streets were populous with badly dressed shopkeepers who should be looking bored with life – but don’t. They holler, shout and yell without any moderation of noise and take you by your hand and pull you to their wares. The square in front of the church is immaculately untidy. There is a compressed statue of some military guy sitting on a horse with a dull expression. It was being given a sound coating of guano by disrespectful pigeons. The receptionist at our budget hotel had asked us not to hang around too long and return before dark. We trudged back with our camera bags, looking back over our shoulders every now and then.

“El Salvador is a poor country,” the receptionist had told me. “When a man dies here, his children inherit only debt and manure.”

 

Not everyone is poor. The grill-makers must be wealthy – for every house, shop, restaurant, office is framed in iron grills. Walls are raised and spiked with arrowheads. Railings of balconies are adorned with coils of barbed wire. The only other person doing brisk business in San Salvador is the coffin-maker. The city has the highest murder rate in the world. The coffin-maker in front of the Tica Bus terminal had two armed guards to protect his substantial and growing wealth.

“No Ingles!”

Next day, from the city with the highest murder rate in the world we went to the country with the highest murder rate: Honduras. Scenic mountains continued throughout the ten-hour drive till we saw the glimmering lights of Teguchigalpa deep in the heart of a bowl. We drove to the city centre in a taxi that was falling apart. The driver asked me to hide my camera lest someone grabbed it from the broken window. As in San Salvador, every establishment here also seems prepared for a siege. It is a sordid place with trash everywhere and no public services. Before I get too far finding faults with Teguchigalpa, I need to be reminded to look nearer home. Yet, there is nothing cheerful about the city. The hotel receptionist advised us to order food from a pizzeria over the phone rather than risk walking to a restaurant at 9.30 pm. Making a whirlwind visit in the morning to the town square, two blocks from our hotel, we left for Nicaragua with a sigh of relief.

Crossing the river that forms the border with Honduras, the bus reported at the customs office and we were told to collect our baggage from the hold and have it inspected while the bus conductor got our passports stamped. Some vagrant dogs also entered the inspection area and assisted the untidy officers in examining our bags. Just as we returned our bags into the hold, the conductor asked us to take them out again and follow him to the immigration office. A Mexican girl, sitting behind us in the bus, was already sitting with the chief of the unit, an obese and hot-headed man. On asking why we were brought here, the conductor asked us to be patient. Thirty minutes later, handing over $22 (of the $30) he had taken for the entry permit, he walked off to the bus, saying he would wait for us there. After another twenty minutes of waiting, two immigration officials, a man and a lady, escorted the Mexican girl out of their boss’s room and asked us to follow them. Holding our passports, they lead us towards the bridge connecting the border with Honduras. On my asking the reason for sending us back, the man rudely shouted: “No Ingles!” Clucking his tongue and waving the back of his hand, he shooed us away like stray cattle over the bridge. We had all the required documents but were not even given a hearing or asked any questions. Just dismissed. The Mexican girl also could not figure out why she was not allowed to enter. Cycle rickshaws plying on the bridge rode us back to the Honduran immigration office. The girl translating, we learnt from the rickshawallahs that there was no bus for Teguchigalpa today; a taxi, if available, would cost at least $600; and there were no hotels on the border. Stuck on the border of lawless Honduras without lodging or transportation, we were in a sorry state.

 

The Mexican girl and I barged straight into the room of the chief and she narrated in Spanish what had happened. The understanding officer gave us some water, offered coffee and after retrieving our entry papers stamped our passports, welcoming us back into Honduras – though that was no consolation. As we got out of the door, a polished gentleman waiting to meet the chief, said: “We have also been kicked out!”

“What’re you going to do now?” I asked.

“If the Nicaraguans don’t want me, hell with them. I will just go back to Guatemala City,” he replied, stepping into the chief’s room.

“Where did he say he is going?” asked the Mexican girl.

“Guatemala City.”

“Maybe I can ask him for a ride,” she thought aloud.

Doc Jain quickly suggested that I also request the man for a ride – before the girl did so. Immediately, I swung open the chief’s door and asked the gentleman if he knew if there was a flight from Teguchigalpa to Managua. He said there wasn’t one.

“Can we hitch a ride with you to Guatemala City and share the cost of fuel?” I asked.

“I will not be going directly. On way I have to make some sales calls on some sugar mills. It will take me at least two days to get there,” he replied. “But I can help you. I am going to spend the night in La Union in El Salvador. From there the San Salvador airport is about 130 km. They have flights to Managua. You can take a taxi to the airport in the morning.” I instantly accepted the kind offer. He also agreed to take the Mexican girl. Our saviour, Gustavo Rivas, was from Guatemala and he was accompanied by another Mexican – Alfredo Ramirez, a business executive. Gustavo had crossed this border post several times in the past. When he asked the immigration chief why he was being denied entry this time, he was sternly told: “Because I don’t want it”.

 

“You think they wanted some money?” I asked Gustavo.

“Of course! But we can’t offer,” he said. The officials and cops slap some false charges on you and if you offer a bribe it becomes an additional and a more serious charge and they will then wipe you out clean.

Thrice, in quick succession, we were checked at police barriers. One young armoured cop, after questioning us for 15 minutes and examining the Mexican girl’s bag, reprimanded Gustavo for offering a ride to complete strangers. Exiting Honduras and entering El Salvador, we reached La Union after a four-hour drive. As Gustavo refused to accept any money for the fuel, we happily invited all three of them for dinner. Browsing the internet on my iPad I found out out there was indeed a TACA Airline flight at 0850 hrs.

At four in the morning Gerardo Gonzalez picked us up in his plush sedan and we sped towards San Salvador airport in darkness. The TACA staff did nothing to rouse our enthusiasm. They wouldn’t sell us a ticket unless we produced another ticket to show our departure from Nicaragua. We had arranged for a private car to drop us at the Nicaragua-Costa Rica border from where we would hire another car to drive us to the cloud forests of Monteverde. That was not good enough. We suggested that we would go to the TICA bus office and buy another ticket from Managua to San Jose in Costa Rica and return in time to take the evening flight. Three ground staff members huddled together on a computer – and came up with some additional requirements that included a letter of invitation from Nicaragua. Hotel bookings were not good enough. Clearly, we were hitting our heads against a wall of misinformed staff.

The sagacious Gerardo who offered to wait for us till we hand our tickets in hand, noticing our predicament, suggested that he could drive us to the Nicaragua border and try and get us through with some help from his contacts. The suggestion did not excite me. Then he proposed that we drive to the Nicaraguan consulate in San Salvador and clarify our position. That was sound advise. We drove to the embassy, knocking on their door at 8 a.m. We had agreed that we would not mention anything about being kicked out the previous day by their immigration officials. So I told the two ladies at the reception that we wanted to drive to Leon in Gerardo’s vehicle and wanted to know what documents were required. She said we just needed to get a visa, pay $40 per person and wait for 20 minutes – since we already had a “gringo visa”. If we hadn’t a valid US visa, it would have taken two to three weeks to get a Nicaraguan visa.

Driving around the Gulf of Fonseca, on the Pacific Ocean, for six hours, we again entered and exited out of Honduras, the country we had been asked to avoid, for the sixth time, and got to the same Nicaraguan border post from where we had been returned without reason 24 hours ago. Another set of bandits had replaced the desperadoes of the day before. They scratched their heads and rubbed their chins trying to figure out reasons to deny entry. After prolonged discussions, they let us in. Gerardo stepped on the gas, flying past fuming volcanoes, groundnut and sugarcane plantations, and cattle being herded by topless cowboys, and got us to the safety of our brilliantly located hotel in Leon.

On way to Granada we visited the ruins of the old capital on the shore of Lake Managua and at the base of the 1,300m Momotombo volcano. In Managua, the capital of Nicaragua, we learnt of the country’s stormy past and of all the national and international conspiracies that retarded the country’s progress. The revolutionaries, who once waged an armed struggle against state corruption, are now in power that has gone to their heads and looting of the state treasury continues.  From Granada, located on the sprawling Lake Nicaragua, 8,264 sq km of fresh water, the biggest lake in Central America, we drove through lava slopes to the top of the Masaya Volcano and looked down into its yawning crater bellowing thick clouds of gaseous sulphur.

After the bad experience in Nicaragua, I fantasised about all sorts of terror we would face while crossing other frontiers and these fears intensified as we got closer to the borders. The crossing into Costa Rica was pleasant. We drove to the Cloud Forest in Monteverde and for three reposeful days lived amongst wild and majestic trees, fragrant flowers and colourful birds, listening to the sounds of the insects at night. Rains had been deficient this year. Moss covering the trunks should have been dripping wet at this time of the year but was dry. It was also getting warmer, according to Julius, a professional naturalist. Some species of reptiles were now seen at higher elevations.   The rainy season had shrunk but the rain was more concentrated. It rained heavily every day that we were there.

Eco-friendly Costa Rica

Costa Rica is leading from the front the global campaign for environment sustainability. By 2021 it plans to be the first carbon-neutral country. It already produces 90% of its electricity from renewable sources.

A late night drive from San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica, got us to the Panama border at four in the morning and we had to wait for two hours in the cold for the Costa Rican immigration officials to report for duty. The Panama border was a short walk away. In a state of usual tension, we queued up to get our passports stamped and when our turn came, ninety minutes later, the immigration officer examined our money and passports, looked at the US visa, our onward tickets to Colombia – and denied us entry.

“It is not good enough to show you are leaving Panama. You must produce a ticket that shows you are returning to your own country,” he barked officiously.

Our return air tickets to India were in our bag placed in the hold of the bus. Uncooperative Tica bus staff would not let us access our bags for over an hour till all the rest of the passengers had been cleared by the immigration.

As we couldn’t accomplish much without speaking Spanish in Latin America, I had my friend, Professor Fanor Larrain, director of the Asia-Pacific Programme at the University of Valparaiso, Chile, write out, in Spanish, on his letterhead our introduction, the purpose of our mission, the route we would be following and the arrangements made. I requested the officer to read the letter – but he was not impressed. “I want to see ticket!” he shouted, fuming like a devil.

 

When we finally showed the officer our ticket from Santiago to Delhi, his most baffling pronouncement was: “This ticket is from Chile. According to our law you must return to your country from Panama. Show me a ticket from Panama to India.”

Before leaving for the expedition I had written to the embassies and honorary consulates of all the Central American countries and obtained in writing from them that no visa was required. The embassy of Panama had sent me a copy of their 2009 presidential decree that stated clearly that nothing more than a US visa was required for a tourist to enter the country and this decree superseded all previous regulations. I showed the officer a copy of their President’s decree. He held it with the tip of his two fingers as if he was holding a rag, made some announcement to the other officials in the room and they all had a good laugh! Other passengers were watching our dilemma with interest. An elderly man who spoke some English advised that our only chance was to petition ‘El Kapitan’, the chief of this immigration post. Shortly afterwards the captain reported for duty. Before he could enter his office I pleaded our case, brandishing all the documents to show that we were in the right. He asked me for my passport, examined the US visa, nodded his head and told me to follow him inside. Slapping my passport on his hand, he first fired the immigration officer who was handling our case. I thought he was reprimanding him for harassing us. Then the junior officer translated: “This US visa is not valid because it should have been used once.” My dampened spirit revived. I showed them the US immigration stamp. The visa had indeed been used once. The boss then saw my ticket out of Panama and the Santiago-Delhi ticket and with a wave of his hand said: “OK”. With a deep sigh of relief, I bowed and gracias-ed my way out of the room and Doc Jain and I got our entry stamps at the window from the obstructionist officer who did not look up to see our enlarged chins.

The Darien Gap, a 17-km forest corridor, separates Panama from Colombia and South America. Environmentalists have ensured that there is no road or railways passing through this dense jungle. The only way to get to Colombia from Panama is to sail or fly. Passenger shipping is not available unless a special boat is arranged. Making a whirlwind visit to the Panama Canal, we flew into Cartagena, on the Atlantic coast of Colombia, to begin our journey through South America.


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