'The Year of Living Dangerously'

Backpacking Diary 2003-2004

 

 

 

Diary itinerary can be found here.

Diary arranged by topic can be found here.

 

2003

JULY 8

Well. Nine days into my year of living dangerously and things are going swimmingly cool. I am averaging $17 per day including hot showers, cable TV, all transport and cold beer. I have just returned from backpacking near Iryua. In two days I leave for Arica, Chile, and Lauca National Park.

Already my past life---the last ten years---seems as a dream. It was truly the most formative time I had ever had. This year of travel is a transition, perhaps---but to what? Only God knows, and He has not told me---yet. There will be surprises.

Credence Clearwater is playing on a CD at the internet cafe where I am typing. While in high school 33 years and one thousand summers ago I memorized every one of their songs for guitar. I still remember, and fantasize yet about playing Green River on my Parker Night Fly into a loud---a very loud---Fender amp. Ah...Heaven!

Which reminds me: I miss the guitar. I have not played for almost two years---planning this adventure, finishing up at Lincoln and designing my web site having taken up my time. Another reminder: playing the guitar, teaching, writing and bartending are the only things I do well. Seems to be enough. Oh...I cook a pretty mean tuna casserole.

Bye.

July 11

Here I am in Arica, Chile, after a 21 hour bus ride from Jujuy. Imagine a being in a vehicle smaller than a classroom and filled with 50 persons breathing, sweating, snoring, eating, drinking and urinating for almost an entire day and you can get a picture of what it was like. Fun stuff! I much prefer buses to flying, though, as I get a chance to see the land over which I am traveling and to rub elbows with the locals.

The road followed and old Inca route across the dry and salty altiplano. There were ruins of an Inca tambo, which once functioned as a rest stop for the couriers that the Inca  would send down to the coast. Often this was to procure fresh fish for the Inca. Runners could make the journey from the altiplano to the coast and back in four days and return with fish wrapped in ice. Not a bad deal if you were the Inca.

Tomorrow I leave for some days in the Chilean National Park of Lauca. Much of what I have seen of it reminds me of the backpacking I have done around Bariloche, Argentina. This park extends to the Bolivian border and is filled with lakes, high mountains and animals---including puma. (By the way, the word puma is a Quechua word.)

Bye.

I will turn 50 while in my tent somewhere in Lauca National Park. One is supposed to be wise and experienced at that age. I cannot wait! That should be exciting!

JULY 18

I just spent the three coldest days of my life backpacking around the Chilean town of Putre, a place that  provides access to  Lauca National Park. My plan was to walk across the park, taking perhaps five days or so. Since I came from Arica on the Chilean coast, and Putre is 3500 meters above sea level, I needed to spend some time acclimatizing before walking around the park, most of which is at 4500 meters and higher.

I walked out of the town in a bright sun and soon was climbing through a valley that provided stunning views of  two snow-capped peaks ahead and of Putre now far below me. I set my tent and prepared dinner. When the sun disappeared behind a rock face the air became at first chilly, then cold, then absolutely bone-breaking frozen. Inside the tent was not much better. My sleeping bag was good to 15 degrees Fahrenheit; the tent was only a three-season with a lot of netting. I was barely comfortable all night, and all the water I had collected had frozen solid. I was effectively trapped in the tent until the sun appeared the next morning. The next two days were similar.

My plans for walking through Lauca were put on hold until I could return with proper gear. A different bag---the Marmot Aiguille---for one, and a full-fledged mountain tent---the MSR Fury---for another. But  return I shall, as this area of Chile is some of the most beautiful country I have ever seen---beautiful, and spectacularly cold, deadly cold.

I am not really bothered much, as this year-long expedition is mainly for jungles---anything below 3500 meters really. Some of my journeys involve crossing passes at 4500 meters, but camping far below this. This means that I will not be going to the Cordilleras Blanca and Huayhuash in Peru, as I am not going to risk freezing again. I am not, after all, a Canadian.

I leave tomorrow for Arequipa, Peru to hike the Cotahuasi Canyon. It will be warm there, praise God!

I must have sinned. As I was sitting in a restaurant in Putre early one morning awaiting breakfast, a swarm of Frenchmen entered. They were two families, both laden with children. The silence I was enjoying was broken by the chatter of the French tongue.  I survived.

The next morning there they were again in my restaurant. Any thoughts of a peaceful breakfast were destroyed---again.

The bus back to Arica was French-free, thank you God. Alas! When I checked into my hotel, there they were in full force.

I can well understand any Frenchman who wishes to leave his homeland for any reason whatsoever, but why follow me around? Begone I say!

Anyway, I will be in Arequipa on Sunday. I will attend Mass and go to Confession and so expiate my sins. I pray that by then the French will have returned  to their citadel on the Seine.

July 21

I am finally back in Peru, my favorite country outside of the USA. Why is this so? To begin...

The music: There is a style of guitar here called criolla. It is amazingly complex, and matched with the female voice is a stunning and moving thing to listen to. There is also much African and Andean influence as well. The guitar is king here, and rightfully so.

The land: There are four distinct regions, all of which were made for backpacking : coastal, altiplano, the ceja de la selva---literally, "the eyebrow of the jungle," that region between 3500 and 500 meters where the land begins its drop to the Amazon Basin---and the lowland jungle of the extreme north- and southeast. All has its magnificent charms, yet it is the ceja de la selva that is my main goal. Here are the many ruins of the Chachapoyan culture, most of which have not been excavated. This part of  Peru has seen the greatest discovery of "lost cities" in the world. I will write more on the Chachapoyans when I return from the ceja de la selva.

The food: Argentina has the best beef in the world---there is really no competition---but that is all it has. Peru has a culinary tradition 500 years old, a mix of Spanish, Indigenous and Creole dishes that compares well with those of Mexico. Try aji de gallina when in Peru. If you do not like it, then go home.

The people: Peru is a mix of Indigenous, white and African. All of these contribute to Peruvian culture in ways more dramatic and impressive than in any other Latin American nation.

The history: Peru's pre-history begins 4000 years ago. All have heard of the Inca (and I have mentioned the Chachapoyan), but there is more, so much more: Chimu, Moche, Huari, Tiawanaku.

Catholicism: I do not need to  explain this, do I?

To state the matter simply: Peru is the capital of (Spanish) South America. You can never understand this continent unless you understand Peru.

Bye.

Christs

Anyone who visits a Catholic Church here whose congregation is mainly Indigenous will immediately be struck by how Christ is represented. There is blood, and lots of it: it pours out of His head, His chest, His hands, His feet---and all of it dripping down the cross. The most shocking Christ I have seen in my life is in the church in Putre, Chile. He was in agony, with massive cuts dripping blood over His face. There was hardly any area of His body that was not crimson. A huge mass of tissue spilled forth from His side; His knees were exposed to the bone; His knees and hands seemed to twist around the nails driven through them.

Why this grim and grotesque Christ? Why such dramatic visual effects of the violence inflicted upon Him by the Romans? We in the West are used to seeing Christ on the cross in almost peaceful repose, with scarcely any blood coming from His five wounds. This is our Christ, and represents our view of His suffering.

But what of the suffering of the Latin American Indigenous? Their Christ must suffer more than they do in their own lives. Thus the blood, the pictures of torture, the very visible pain on His face. Now, here is a Christ they can relate to.

August 2

I returned yesterday from Cotahuasi, Peru, where the deepest canyon in the world lies. Eight days were spent walking as far as I could into the place. The trail follows an old Inca communication route. Ruins and ancient terraces abound, and the entire area is clustered with villages. Quechua is the first language spoken here, and Quechua-inflected Spanish takes a while to get accustomed to. There are no roads in the canyon---to say nothing of electricity---and no possibility of getting around unless you walk. And walk the Indians do: everywhere along the walls of the canyon are myriad trails going to myriad villages whose names echo their Inca heritage: Andamarca, Quechualla, Vellinga, Huña---this last being an extensive set of ruins. I stayed in them one night (how many times does one get to camp alone in pre-Colombian ruins?) and my imagination---at all times wild and fecund---ran rife. I conjured up the ghosts of Inca long dead.

In a few days I will head to Lima, and then on to the jungles of north-eastern Peru. There are rumors of lost cities buried somewhere near the Rio Marañon. This area saw some of the last Inca conquests, and was still in a rebellious state when Pizarro arrived. These rebels against Inca rule, called Chachapoya ("the people of the clouds") actually lent aid to the Spaniards, believing that they would therefore gain their freedom from the Inca. This they certainly did only to fall under the rule of the conquistadors. Which points out yet again that as soon as the first European arrived in the New World, all Indigenous civilizations were doomed. None have survived, yet the people remain, always recalling their past glory.

Pachamama

The phrase means "Earth Mother", and it is an integral part of much of the Indigenous belief system in the Peruvian and Bolivian Andes. Many Westerners come to the Andes and comment on what they believe is the love of the earth exhibited by the people here. They fancy that the locals have some higher understanding of the environment than is possible to Westerners. They delude themselves.

The worship of Pachamama---Westerners at times identify her with their own goofy idea of an "earth mother goddess", Gaea---offers no moral code, no sacred books, no salvation here or in the hereafter. What it is is a propitiatory form of worship, rather like the religions of Babylon and ancient Egypt. The ancient peoples of Peru and Bolivia saw their world as harsh, cruel, terrifying and beyond understanding. The earth they lived on served up death in large doses on a regular basis. There is scarcely any natural disaster outside of tornados, hurricanes and the Clintons that did not visit itself upon the Andean peoples. 

The only hope as they saw it was to somehow curry favor with the earth, with Pachamama---which they identified with the female gender---in the hope that when she again decided to lay waste to some part of humanity, she might spare those who had performed services for her. And so an elaborate ritual system developed around propitiating the goddess to curb her impulse to wreak havoc.  (This idea would be familiar to the characters in The Epic of Gilgamesh.)

And so the Andean Indian would perform all sorts of ceremonies on all sorts of occasions to this end. Every time the earth was to be plowed, every time a house was to be built upon her, he would attempt to pacify the earth-goddess. Today one can see at these ritual observances alcohol scattered about, llama fat smeared here and there and the skin of a dead cat tossed around. The usual Westerner who witnesses these events thus connects them with the childish environmental clap-trap he was force-fed in grammar school. He declaims, "Oh look how these Indians love the earth!"

Wrong. The Indians do not love the earth, they fear her, and for good reason. Case in point: In 1970 the town of Yungay was buried under millions of tons of mud, ice and rock. Twenty-thousand people were killed in a few seconds--Pachamama in action. (The only structure to show through the muck was the bell tower of the local Catholic Church---showing to all with eyes who the real God is. Those interested can visit this site today.) This type of thing is a regular occurrence in the Andes, as are earthquakes, floods, droughts, cholera, typhus, rabies---a veritable cornucopia of disaster on a Biblical scale.

Pachamama is a real bitch.

August 8

I leave for Chiclayo Saturday, there to visit---again---the astounding ruins of Tucumé. From there on to Chachapoyas and the jungle---the magnificent jungles where lie what is left of the Chachapopyan civilization. I am bringing topographic maps of the region and using both GPS and compass. Getting lost there while alone is not something I would recommend. I plan at least three weeks there to do what I have wanted to do for years.

AUGUST 29

 

I returned yesterday from a 14-day walkabout through the jungles of northern Peru. Extraordinary it was. The internet connection here in Chachapoyas is absurdly slow, and more writing will have to wait until I am in Lima on Sunday.

 

It is clear that I will not have enough time to do all the backpacking I wanted here in Peru. The problem is the dry season---it ends sometime in October and I still have some jungles to traverse in Bolivia and Brazil. Stay tuned...

 

 

And Miles to Go Before I Sleep

 

Backpacking at 50 years of age does take its toll, especially the type of solo experience I have chosen. For one thing I am thinner---skeletal, as a superintendent once described me when seeing me after I had done some rough traveling through the Andes. And I am sore all the time: shoulders, knees and back cry out for chiropractic care---or a whiskey sour, which has a similar effect. Right now I am recuperating from my Gran Vilaya trek and preparing for a ten-day solo hike through the Andes to the ruins of Choquequirao. (Do not try to pronounce it.) On this walk, unlike the one to Vilaya, there will be no charming little villages to rest in, no families with whom to stay and little in the way of human contact. I will be on my own---just me and my little old GPS.

 

More and more I think of Central America: the jungles, the ruins, and the rice and beans at every meal. And the distances are considerably shorter. Example: to get to and from  the Vilaya region I had to spend two days on a bus, five hours in a truck, two hours in a taxi, five hours in a combi and another six hours in yet another bus---almost three days of  travel just to get to one expedition, and all in a rather small part of Peru. And it will take two more days to and from Choquequirao, a day to La Paz, another to Santa Cruz, another to Paraguay---enough already!

 

In Guatemala it takes 10 hours to the jungles, and then it is all on foot if you desire. From San Jose, Costa Rica it is 3 hours to the jungle, and then on  foot. And so on. 

 

So after Choquequirao and Amboró in Bolivia, I will head for the Paraguayan Chaco and then Rio---and then to the USA for some R & R before landing in Guatemala City around December 1. 

 

But what if there is some unexpected backpacking to be had in the Paraguayan Chaco? After all, no one---and I mean NO ONE---backpacks there. Rumor has it that in 1937, give or take some, a wild peccary was shot there by a farmer. The carcass looked a bit odd, so the farmer sent it to a university in Asunción. It seems that this species of peccary had been extinct for 35 million years. It is now  called Wagner's Peccary (Catagonus wagneri). Just what the Hell is out there anyway?

 

And about those peccary...they travel in herds of between 20 and 1000 members. When numbering 50 or fewer they usually take off through the forest at the sight of man. But in greater numbers they stand their ground and grind their teeth---a set of  formidable weaponry. Using your machete (you DID bring it, did you not?) stick the lead peccary hard---and I mean hard---in the snout. (No time for animal rights imbecilities now.) Stand your ground! Slowly back to a tree. If there is no tree to be had, hope for the best.

 

Once in Costa Rica I happened upon a jungle camp---what was left of it---of some prospectors who had had a nighttime visit by a herd of (probably) White-Lipped Peccary. There was not much to see: a scrap of bone, a ruined pot, some material from clothing.

 

Just bad luck.

 

 

SEPTEMBER 6

I am back in Cuzco, my third visit. My first was in 1987 when I traveled overland from Lima to Huancayo, and then on to Ayacucho, Andahuaylas, Abancay and Cuzco. Then there was war in the mountains between Sendero Luminoso and the Peruvian army. No quarter was asked and none was given. The army won, as armies pitted against guerrilla groups usually do. Like virtually all such uprisings in Latin America---Uruguay, Argentina, Brazil and Chile come to mind---the leaders of these movements sprang from the upper middle classes, usually from professors and students at universities. Their minds addled by communism and fantasies of egalitarianism, their expeditions financed by Cuba, and their morality fueled by the goof-ball heresy of Liberation Theology, these self-styled Robin Hoods embarked upon a decade of political violence. Teachers, priests, mayors, soldiers, police---anyone who could be said to represent the "oppressor classes"---were murdered.

The hills are silent now, the guerrillas and their fellow-travelers dead, in prison or fled. Some would argue that the conditions that led to such civil wars are still present. Well, maybe. But the wretched condition of most of the world---the poverty, the inequality, the corruption---has been present since the beginnings of civilization in Sumer 5600 years ago. They will not be rectified until Christ returns, alas.

Cuzco is the center of South America as far as most are concerned. The place is full of foreigners planning a trip to the Inca Trail, returning from a trip to the Inca Trail, arranging some expedition or simply taking in the sites---and there are enough to go around. Cuzco was the absolute religious and political center of the Inca Empire (the word "Cuzco"---more properly Qosqo---means ´navel´.) From here I planned last year's 9-day solo expedition to the last Inca redoubt of Vilcabamba, and from here I am planning another such journey, one to the ruins of Choquequirao and then on through the Andes until the town of Huancacalle ten days later. I leave Monday, full of anticipation.

SEPTEMBER  21

Veni. Vidi. Vici.

I returned today from the most extraordinary and difficult backpacking experience of my career---and I have walked the Darien Gap. Twelve days were spent backpacking alone through the Andes from the village of Cachora to the Inca ruins of Choquequirao and then on through the mountains to the road head at Huancacalle. The route I chose was 100 kilometers long. Several passes were crossed, one at 4200 meters and another at 4600. All told over 10,000 meters of ascent and descent were involved. Yes, I was worried at times, scared at others and delirious at others. At all times I was astounded at the sheer magnitude of what was all around me, surely God's creation in all its frightening magnificence. I am a bit thin now, my waist being what it was in college 25 years and 1000 summers ago. 

And I am invincible.

Oh...did I say that was alone? Well, not exactly. At my every step walked Christ: encouraging, challenging and carrying me. Of miracles there were many. I live, that is one.

See you tomorrow. Sleep well. I know that I shall.

SEPTEMBER  23

Wandering Jews

There is a tradition for young Israelis who have just finished their military service to do a four-month stint of travel either to Asia or to South America. I have seen hordes of them, usually in groups of four. They tend to be remarkably fit and do not care who knows it. When they backpack they are fast---very fast. Some years ago I was doing the entire circuit around Torres del Paine National Park in Chile. I ran into some Israelis---that is, I spoke to them briefly as they passed me on the trail. It took me nine days to walk the entire thing; they took four.

An entire group of businesses has arisen to meet the needs of these Israelis. Anyone in Peru can see laundromats, restaurants, clubs, hotels and bars with signs only in Hebrew. But why cannot these Israelis simply use the facilities that other tourists use? Some history please.

After the Diaspora during the time of the emperor Hadrian (117-138 AD) the surviving Jews were dispersed throughout the Roman Empire. They kept their Law, their ways, their language and their God. Every nation which sprang from the ruins of Rome viewed the Jews with suspicion. Often forced to live in ghettos, they were many times and many places simply expelled from wherever they were living---after being robbed, of course. Massacres, pogroms, expulsions: this was the norm for European Jews. Many occupations and professions and markets were closed to them. They fended as best as they could, usually by  avoiding problems and trying to keep as low a profile as possible.

That is, until the Holocaust and its child, the state of Israel. Though no longer fearing the whims of arbitrary and suspicious government,  the problem of being refused services overseas still existed. But not in Cuzco. Even local establishments now have signs in Hebrew. 

I should add that there are none in Arabic. Or French.

SEPTEMBER  24

 

I have decided to fly to Santa Cruz, Bolivia from Cuzco, and thus avoid La Paz. The Bolivians are having one of their all-too-common strikes, and all transport in the region has come to a halt. The route Cuzco - Puno - Lake Titicaca - La Paz is usually filled with tourists seeing the sites. Now, there are hundreds of them stuck somewhere along the way without transport in or out.

 

This is pure stupidity. What do the Bolivians hope to gain by denying their nation the hundreds of thousands of tourists dollars that would normally have poured in? I was originally going to go to La Paz and then bus to Santa Cruz and on to Amboró, but not now. Striking to make a political point is like cutting off your foot to lose weight. It works but there are unintended consequences. (Oh...the French strike all the time too.)

 

Besides, the Bolivian National Park of Amboró has become difficult for solo adventures to walk through, as it has acquired the "eco-tour" disease. What exactly is this one might ask? It happens when a formerly wild section of jungle is set aside for cabins with showers and full board, guides, and so on. In other words, what I do---solo backpacking---is frowned upon or downright impossible. All visitors are strongly encouraged to book through a travel agency, join a tour and be under the supervision of certified guides. Not exactly heroic or demanding, I should say. Environmentalists would be quite comfortable here. So scratch the place.

 

And: this leaves me more time for the northern Paraguayan Chaco, truly a wild and savage land. There are no tourists (there are no tours), no Ten Commandments and the place is as natural as it gets. Animals of all kinds and temperaments---puma, tapir, peccary---roam freely. Snakes slither about and hundreds of species of birds fly overhead. (Alas! I am without a shotgun!) It is difficult to get to and get out of. Temperatures can reach 45 degrees centigrade. There is only one road, and it is impassable after a rain. Oh, and there are no environmentalists.

 

My kind of town.

 

 

SEPTEMBER  28

Sitting at a computer terminal for hours a day in a foreign land is a bit disconcerting.  Funny mouse, funny keyboard, funny letters, funny screen, funny people next to you at other machines. You read something comical in the news, and laugh, and everyone wants in on the joke. Sorry folks, it is a private joke. Go away.

 

Yet there is no other way for strangers in strange lands to keep a handle on their home far away. What did they do---what  did I do when I traveled?---before the internet? Oh yes, they drank, I drank. Every capital city had its bar where foreigners would go to kill a thirst and to amble about trying to nose out some news about home. 

 

During the wars and revolutions in Central America during the 1980s these bars---in Guatemala City, Tegucigalpa, Managua---saw Peace Corps workers, foreign mercenaries, State Department types, obvious CIA employees, local military, hard-boiled traveler types and the foreign curious---me, for example. Friday nights were really on-site Poly-Sci seminars as these tribes circled one another, distant yet willing to talk about their lives, such as they were. The bar in Tegucigalpa was called The Totem, that in Guatemala City was called Bar Europa, that in Managua was in the Hotel Intercontinental.

 

Now the guns have gone mostly silent, the mercenaries who still live are working in one of the -stans and the CIA is busy elsewhere.  All is probably for the better, but then I am not sure about this. 

 

One thing that I know: whatever went into me while walking beyond Choquequirao is begging to stay, and  like an animal it needs to be fed. But not in Bolivia. Paraguay perhaps. Central America, most definitely. Already she calls, she beckons, she implores. I hear there is a lost city somewhere near the headwaters of the Rio Platano in Honduran Mosquitia. Gold miners once told me of a golden monkey god buried 500 years ago near a tributary of the Rio Sico. 

 

All this and more---so much more---soon and very soon. Stay tuned.

 

 

SEPTEMBER 28

 

Here in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, all is humid, tropical  and impoverished---much more impoverished than Peru (if you can believe that). At the steps leading into the cathedral sit all manner of the crippled, the diseased, the blind, the limbless, the mutilated, the deaf, the paralytic---all of the myriad evils of life except the Clintons are on display as one walks into the house of God. How can one cure them all? Easy answer: one cannot. All will be rectified in Eternity. But good God, in the meantime!

 

Tomorrow I search for transport into the Paraguayan Chaco. Nothing here to detain. A nation-wide strike begins tomorrow. Already the guns are out---some dead, some fled. Bolivia has suffered a decline in its GDP for 20 years. There is less and less for more and more. Something has to break.  Time to go. 

 

Oh...Bolivia and France have some things in common. Both nations go on strike often. Both nations lose all their wars. (The people of Bolivia look a bit cleaner than the French, however, and their women shave their legs.)

 

 

 

SEPTEMBER 29

 

There are two roads that lead from the Bolivian border to Filadelfia in the Paraguayan Chaco. My bus will take the newest one, though from all accounts it has nothing much to add to the old one. The difficulties concerning travel through the Chaco are isolation, heat and weather. After a rain this road becomes impassable, in which case all traffic must simply halt until the sun emerges to dry out the road. The bus company Yacyretá advises all passengers to take sufficient supplies of water on board. Temperatures along this trans-Chaco road at times exceed 45 degrees centigrade, and there is little shade. There are also many animals along the way, though they are mostly birds---I despise all birds except the saintly pollo frito de Kentucky (saintly because it feeds the hand that bites it)---and road kill.

 

The population density of the Paraguayan Chaco is less than one person per square mile; it is over 1000 per square mile in New Jersey by way of comparison. Empty it is.

 

This will be fun.

 

 

Meanwhile...way back in Cuzco I got a fine surprise: Two ex-students of mine from Lincoln School were there as well. They were attending a conference the subject of which I do not pretend to understand. The young lady on the left is Miss Paula Avellaneda, on the right is Miss Giulia Rolandi. Both were members of my backpacking club at Lincoln School. Both are some of the finest kids I have ever met. They are now seniors, and when they leave the school it will be a lesser place because of it.

 

 

 

A man came into the hotel lobby with a bag in which he said was  the skin of a cat. He took it out of the bag and there it was: the skin of a cat sure enough. A big cat. With stripes and claws and teeth---lots of them. He was selling it. Truth be told, it was beautiful. I did not ask how the creature met his demise. A pity, really. I have imagined a cat rather like this one tracking me in some jungle in Honduras---and myself tracking him. Not to kill (at least on my part) but just to see. Wild. Up close and personal. Alive. With all the savage vitality that nature put in it,  not as some adornment before a fireplace. A damn shame. 

 

 

 

SEPTEMBER 30

 NB: Tonight at 8 PM I get on the trans-Chaco bus. Thus there is little doubt but that I will not be able to make entries onto my web site. There is e-mail in the Chaco I understand. As always, please stay tuned.

Something I remembered about serious traveling and backpacking  was something I had forgot: It takes a lot of time---on buses, in hotels, cleaning clothes, arranging transport, taking taxis, seeking out medicines, getting lost (this always happens), eating, drinking, shopping, finding internet access, writing, reading, researching and just generally recuperating until the next expedition. I knew all of this when I had my last long-term adventure 1986-87. But it all faded away only to be re-learned now. One thing that only increases the "down time" between expeditions is the vast distances involved in South America. I will be in Central America sometime in December, where everything is on a smaller scale---except the difficulties involved in what I plan. I would not have it---and it could not be---any other way.

OCTOBER 16

 Ne Plus Ultra

 

I am in Rio, having just spent two weeks in the Paraguayan Chaco. That place is really the end of the earth, "from here nothing beyond." From the Bolivian border to the first real town in the Chaco the road is merely a crude track cut into the ground. Dust covered everything---every plant, every tree, every person on my bus. It was carried on the wind and breathed with the air. The heat was extraordinary, at times 45 degrees. The sweat it caused immediately mixed with the dust causing all of us to appear as if we were wearing cheap and badly applied makeup. 

 

Filadelfia is the first town of consequence in the Chaco as one leaves Bolivia. It is one of several Mennonite colonies in the Chaco, all of which are havens of civilization in that benighted place. The story of these Mennonites---of their flight from Germany and the Soviet Union in the 1930s, of their settling in the Paraguayan wilderness with little more than their Bibles, of their making a life and bringing light to such an astoundingly inhospitable land---is a stirring one. The Jewish immigration to British Palestine, the Mormon exodus to Utah and the American settlement of the West all have their echoes in what the Mennonites have created, almost ex nihilo, in Paraguay.

 

It is hard to get transport to the Chaco's (even more) nether regions. I finally found a Mennonite who agreed to take me to his estancia five hours and 300 kilometers away. We drove on a road that can only be described as entertaining. I asked him if this track were passable in the wet. He said no. I then asked what would happen if he were at his estancia and it rained. He said he would be trapped there until the track dried. Had this ever happened? Yes. How long was he stuck? Well, his parents were once trapped three months when everything had flooded and turned to mud. How had they survived? He told me they had hunted wild pigs and deer. Were there still wild pigs there? "Oh yes, so many that they travel in packs on one hundred."

 

He dropped me with my backpack in the jungle about 50 kilometers from the Rio Paraguay. He would not let me go until I agreed to carry with me a shotgun and a pistol. I took them and he promised to return to get me in some days. He kept his word, a good thing. In my time alone there I had the previously unknown experience of traversing a jungle with more than my machete and luck. Now I was armed and lethal. I could kill---and would have killed---any animal that mistook me for lunch.

 

Soon I will be in the northern Guatemalan jungles. They are as inhospitable and as empty as the Paraguayan Chaco. I will miss that shotgun.

 

 

OCTOBER 29 

Here I am back in the USA---Portland, Oregon to be precise. My last few days before coming here were lived in Rio, a city that enjoys certainly the most visually stunning setting in the world. 

 

It is difficult to believe that I just spent the last four months of my life backpacking alone through much of South America. Was it a dream? Some odd fantasy from which I will awake one day into the normal, the humdrum, the common? No. My body says as much. It is time to recuperate and to re-think the upcoming six months I will spend in the jungles of Central America. There is much yet to do, and (as always) miles to go before I sleep. I am not ready to return to the real world. Maybe in June---but God knows when

 

NOVEMBER 3

Tarzan Meets REI: A Primer on Jungle Backpacking

I have traversed jungles and mountains and plains and deserts and canyons and grasslands and valleys. I have used a huge variety of equipment---tents, sleeping bags, boots, clothing, backpacks. I have never felt---alas!---that what I was using at one particular time was the best gear for the terrain. Something was always amiss. The tent was too small, or it was cold, or it did not allow cooking during storms, or it was too heavy; the pack was too small or too large or too heavy or simply just uncomfortable; the boots were too hot or too cold or did not stop water from entering; the sleeping bag was too hot or not warm enough or too heavy. Complaints, complaints. I head for the jungle in a few weeks. What sort of gear will I take? Have I found the 'sweet setup'? Maybe.

Problems encountered while backpacking jungles are many and surely are a challenge not only for the backpacker, but for his gear. There is terrific heat and humidity during the day, cooler weather at night, myriad insects at all times---all of which see you as prey---a variety of unpleasant creatures and the occasional terrifying thunderstorm. To start with. what tent would be the best in these conditions? That is, what tent could be called 'the perfect jungle tent'? There was not one until the MSR Ventana shown below. Why is it different from my other tents, and why would it suit the jungles of Central America?

To start, without the rainfly it offers 180 degrees of viewing pleasure. All that mosquito netting also means lots of air coming in and all the bugs---some of whose bites cause particularly loathsome diseases---staying out. The rainfly has a vestibule of more than 20 square feet, which means that if I am---when I am---trapped in some tropical storm for days on end there is room in the vestibule to cook. The door of the rainfly, even when opened---a true necessity in humid jungle conditions---will not allow the water to enter. And this tent is only five pounds. (By way of comparison, a full scale mountain tent weighs in at nine pounds.) I have the Ventana set up right now in the living room, and it is roomy and strong. It is far superior to my other jungle tents, each of which had at least one flaw. Here is a review of the Ventana by Outside magazine.

How about the backpack? My other packs would serve, but not too well. The difficulty is that you sweat in the jungle---a lot. The sweat pours down your face, stings your eyes and drips from your nose, soaks your clothes and leaves salt crystals in hair and clothing at the end of the day. Internal frame packs are all the rage now (most packs you see today have internal frames) but external frame packs once ruled. One reason is that they are cooler, as they allow air to flow between the back of the pack and your own back. An internal frame hugs your back and becomes laden and dripping with sweat at the end of a hard day in the jungle. So my choice for Central America is the Kelty 50th Anniversary Pack, a true work of the backpacker's art.

How about boots? Normal hiking boots will not do: They are too hot, too low and impossible in the wet and mud. (Try walking  in them for hours down a jungle river and you will see what I mean.) The solution? The US military has fought in jungles for...well, a long time. Here is what it uses:

High top to give greater protection against snakes than mere hiking boots. A sole that cannot be penetrated by the ever-present sharp bamboo shoots that stick up from the ground. Small holes on the side to let water out. Mainly canvas uppers which dry quickly. No cushion or insulation to hold in the heat and water and so encourage fungus. Do not travel far into the jungle wilderness without these boots. Period.

Alas! What I will miss, the Remington 870. Properly fitted she will bring down any land animal in the world.

A hat is quite necessary as it keeps sun and insects and sundry creatures off your head. Once while in the Costa Rican jungles a yellow and black mama scorpion the size of my hand landed on my hat and then fell to the ground. Perhaps a dozen baby scorpions then scattered from mama's back. Had I had no hat they would have scattered about on my head---with momentous results.

And finally:

Take your pick. Do not venture into the bush without one of these babies. If you do, you are a fool. Practice using it first or you might chop into your leg. Bring suture material just in case.

At Panama-Colombia border, 1987

Bye.

NOVEMBER 7 

Well. I am now into my second week of 'rest and relaxation' in the USA and it is exhausting me. I am rested---and quite relaxed, thank you. I read, work on my web page, answer all e-mails promptly and eat too much cereal and ice cream. Something is missing, and that 'something' is the reason I am away from teaching for one year: solo, extreme backpacking through the wildest parts of Latin America. What I accomplished in South America created (or perhaps only encouraged something already latent) a desire for longer and more difficult expeditions, a need to push my physical limits---and my emotional, spiritual and intellectual limits---yet further, a hunger---and that is the right word---to go 'where no man has gone before'---or at least where few men have gone. I pace the floors here, a terror to my step-father's three cats, my thoughts never far from the jungles of Central America. 

 

But I must be here for now. All is preparation: new gear, new books, planning new and impossible expeditions. And there is more: getting dental work done, seeing old friends, spending time with family, coming closer to God---all of these are as vital as getting in fine shape. But I am not by nature a patient fellow, though I am receiving this gift in dribs and drabs, and it is enough. 

 

Besides, there is no point in simply getting on a plane for Guatemala City just yet. The rains up in the jungle regions have only slowed, they have not yet stopped. All is still muddy and soggy and mosquito ridden---doable but not enjoyable. And so I am here waiting. 

 

I really should be in no hurry, as the real test will begin soon enough. And most certainly, the jungle is patient.

 

 

NOVEMBER  22 

Later

 

I leave early in the morning for the next phase of my sabbatical, six months in the jungles of Central America. I have much enjoyed my time in Portland, but now my tent beckons. Tomorrow I dine in Antigua, Guatemala; three days after that I will be in the jungles to the north. My next writing will be...well, I really do not know, at least a week. There is internet all over Latin America but finding software to write to my site might take a bit of time. I use Office 2000, which is the standard and usually---but not always---has FrontPage (Microsoft's web editor) installed as well as Word and PowerPoint.

 

Thanksgiving was superb: great family, great friends, great people. Sure, I ate too much but soon begins six months of rice and beans. And beer---very cold beer. 

 

Check the SABBATICAL ITINERARY to find out where I am between now and June. There is some very difficult solo jungle work coming up, and so pray for me! And while you are at it, pray for the world. God hears all prayers and will answer according to His will and the desires of your heart.

 

I once said that I was the luckiest man in the world. Still true.

 

Bye.

 

 

NOVEMBER 30 

Why I Teach (Part 2)

I am writing from Antigua, Guatemala (about which more in due course.) Now---today, this instant---begins the final six months of my expedition. While preparing here for the Tuesday bus to the jungles, all sorts of thoughts intrude. I will write of them as time and desire permit---and that, by the way, is the purpose of this web site.

I cannot say why high school teachers get into the profession. No question that some of them should find other work---and some of these are honest enough to admit this. And there is no question that some who are not teachers should become teachers. What I can say for certain is how and why I became one. (Though of course any errors in the practice of my craft---and there have been many---are entirely my own.)

I left teaching for one year, mainly to spend one year backpacking the nether regions of Latin America; that is, backpacking to the really difficult places, for the easy ones I accomplished long ago. Every time I venture forth with tent and machete the task gets harder, and not just because I am 50. It seems I engage in pushing the limits of my endurance---physical, emotional and spiritual---each time I am in the wilds. This occasion will be no different. I await the challenge---this contest with myself---with great anticipation. I would have it no other way. It cannot be any other way.

During this year-long sabbatical I have encountered many of my ex-students---in Lima, in Cuzco and most recently, in Rio. They are always reminders of why I became a teacher in the first place. They are gifts from God, revealing little hints of His presence, a call to not to stay away from teaching too long.

 

DECEMBER 1 

Antiguas

 

Four-hundred and forty years after its founding was the year when I first pulled into Antigua, Guatemala. There was war in the hills in those days---a war both civil and genocidal. There were soldiers all about, a reasonable deployment since the communist guerrillas prowled nearby and were quite the nuisance. But not as much a nuisance as the army. This body, especially its elite Kabiles, was responsible for at least 100,000 deaths among the indigenous Mayan population. Another 100,000 fled to camps in Mexico. This war against the communists and the government was all-out, and as usual in such events the government won. One of the slogans of the time was

 

Para eliminar la rabia,

hay que matar el perro.

 

The rabies being communism of course. While busy eliminating all that rabies the army also eliminated some of  the seas in which the communists swam, the hundreds of indigenous Maya villages that dot the entire countryside of this country. This was classic counter-insurgency warfare, though a particularly crude and brutal form of it. (Is there a kinder and gentler form?) Like the failed communist uprisings in a host of Latin American nations, the Guatemalan version left in its sad wake poverty, corruption, economic dislocation and a habit of violence both personal and political.

 

During the war there were few foreigners in Antigua for obvious reasons. Streets were quiet, restaurants were small and empty and there were only three Spanish language schools. Twenty years later Antigua is a Guatemalan version of Cuzco. Restaurants are myriad and with varied cuisines, travel agencies abound, there are 27 language schools and internet is ubiquitous. The town in chock-full of foreigners who bring with them lots and lots of cash and freely spend it. This has caused sort of a boom here that has affected---as far as I can see---all economic classes. (Good lord, there is even  a McDonalds and a Burger King---though by law all structures must conform to the building style prevalent here for 400 years. So no ´golden arches´.)

 

Compared to Antigua Guatemala City is a sight right out of Dante: dirty, noisy, polluted, crowded, congested, violent---in short, it is what every third world capital city is. I had to visit the place today to get some topographical maps of the jungle regions of the Petén. A true nightmare it was, and it caused me to wonder why anyone would live there. The answer is obvious: they have to. Not every place in Guatemala can be as Antigua, and not every place in Peru can be as Cuzco. Antigua is no arcadia, as with the disappearance of the army after the civil war armed thugs have entered the Guatemalan political scene in force. They have wreaked some havoc around Antigua and in Tikal---wherever tourists are in fact. (But Antigua is no doubt more peaceful than Washington DC.) I almost miss the soldiers on every street corner.

 

(A similar problem has existed in Peru since the end of the civil war there. Armed men periodically raid tourist areas and cause mayhem---that is where the money is, after all. Both the Peruvian and Guatemalan governments have responded by training and placing several legions of tourist police all over the tourist areas. Neither government can afford the huge loss of hard currency that a flight of tourists would cause. The bandits do not just go away of course. They merely change locales. Para eliminar la rabia...)

 

I will do my best to avoid another descent into the netherlands of the capital. My transportation for the jungle leaves from here---another welcome change, as formerly one had to get a bus to the capital, a taxi to the bus station, and then try and bargain for a seat on the next bus to the Petén.

 

I have no idea of the internet situation in the Petén, so I might not be able to post until my return around January 15 or so. Both Christmas and New Year will be spent in my tent, a tradition I have kept for almost one decade straight.

 

Just for fun do a Google search for `Laguna del Tigre´, `Dos Lagunas´, `Nakum´ , ´el Mirador´ and `Yaxha´. I will be somewhere around these places having a fun time. Pray for me. It's a jungle out there.

 

Bye.

 

 

DECEMBER 23

Not Quite Green Hell

It was my third day in that damn swamp. I kept one hand on my machete to ward off crocodiles. The other hand clutched my al-Mar knife with its eight-inch blade. My eyes were scanning both the water and the shore in case any beady-eyed crocodile or wandering puma got any ideas. All the while mosquitoes fed with a wild abandon as the sweat dribbled into my eyes and down my face...

OK, it was not that bad, but there was an ocean of mud. And rivers of rain. And hordes of mosquitoes. And there was a wandering puma that devoured an unlucky Guatemalan worker---but see below. It seems I miscalculated the rainy season, which was in full force while I walked alone for five days among obscure Mayan ruins. So all was wet and muddy and bug-ridden. I was lost somewhere in the vicinity of Tikal, and using my compass and machete---always at hand, you see---I had to cut across some wild country for hours and across a croc-infested lagoon as well. And I picked up a few ticks. But still it was, well, fun. (Yeah, I have an odd sense of what constitutes fun.)

At all times I was followed by monkeys. I hate them; I despise them; I loathe them. If they were not part of God`s Creation (and if I were not a Christian) I would slaughter every one of those damn things on sight. I would look right in their simian eyes as I choked the life out of their disgusting bodies. It would give me great pleasure to do so. Without any doubt they are the filthiest beasts on earth.

There were cat tracks everywhere but I saw none of the beasts. Neither did the fellow below.

Lions and Tigers No Bears

Tyger Tyger burning bright,
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

---William Blake (1757 - 1827)

It seemed a day like any other. Pedro (not his real name) awoke in darkness, slipped on his rubber boots and prepared his breakfast of tortillas and beans. Soon he left the jungle camp where he worked. But this time he was not heading off into the bush to collect xate. Today he was heading to Uaxactun, an all-day walk through the jungle on an obscure trail. He would spend a day with his family and then return to the xate camp. He never made it, for it was his last day on earth.

Four hours away his killer awaited him. On ´dread feet` he padded his way through the bush, eyes wide open, searching. On this day his hunt would be a successful one.

At ten that morning Pedro was approaching the limits of Tikal National Park. The killer heard his steps, and followed.

What happened next can be peaced together from the scatered bits of skeleton found three weeks after Pedro was killed.

The cat took him from behind, its classic killing method. His front claws ripped into Pedro`s shoulder while his jaws clamped hard and tore across Pedro`s throat. The man was dead before he hit the ground. I like to think that he felt nothing, that he saw nothing, that his death came upon him in an instant. The cat paused after the kill, then drug the corpse into the bush. He fed, and would return to the kill several times in the next few days. When only ragged tissue and bone remained the cat went after the marrow, crunching the human bones into jagged pieces.

The killing site was found by other xate workers. Pedro`s machete---still in its holder, alas!---was found near his remains. There was no news report because Tikal is a great money maker and tourist magnet for Guatemala. If word got out that a man was killed and eaten by a cat within the park...

Meet one likely suspect, Felis concolor:

The average Guatemalan is smaller than the average American. From behind, and hunched over while walking fast he would resemble some of the puma`s natural prey. An American man walking with a large pack on his pack---me for example---would almost assuredly not be attacked. He simply appears too big for the cat, who would rather not fight his prey. But when the pack comes off, the man better have machete and knife real, real handy, just in case. He will keep his eyes open, build a fire and set the tent. The night will bring the screams of the hungry cats.

Let this be a reminder that the jungle is nothing like the innocent arcadia imagined by the environmentalists. Their minds filled with Lion Kings and addled from years of brainwashing in school, they see the rainforest as a veritable cornucopia of medicines, noble savages and eco-Edens.

All this is nonsense. The jungle is full of death. It walks on four legs. It slithers upon the ground. It flies through the air. It wriggles in the grass. It lives invisible in a host of insects only to burst forth in the most hideous diseases known to man. It burrows into your flesh and organs. It infects and paralyzes and blinds. In the city you might be doctor this or professor that or senator so and so, but in the jungle your are nothing but prey. Ask Pedro.

And I can hardly wait to return to it. (Please recall my idea of fun.)

Before venturing into cat territory do some research. Start here:

Bye.

DECEMBER  26 

Walkabout

Tomorrow I leave for Panajachel, which is on the shores of Lake Atitlán. Some years ago it was a magnet for hippies and Euro-trash: Kerouac pretenders, Steppenwolf aficianados, drug users, drop outs and hygiene-o-phobes who could not cut it in the real world of truth and responsibility  and so vanished into the oblivion of life-long loserville and the permanent bong hit. The ones who are not in prison and who are still among the living have showered, brushed their remaining teeth and set up nice little capitalist enclaves  that serve up, among other things legal and not, massages, yoga, fruit juice, Fen Shui classes, organic gardening methods, natural food, Pink Floyd seminars, energy chanelling, Zen sandal-making and the like. The entire touchy-feely creepy-crawly dippy-trippy-hippy Eastern mystical nonsensical kumbaya peace-love-dopey if-it-feels-good-do-it goofy slam-dunk jack-ass stupid smorgasboard of San Francisco and Amsterdam is now available on the shores of Atitlán.

Obviously I am not going there to connect with my inner lesbian, master the techniques of Tai-chi, decipher obscure ying-yang poetry,  become expert in Kabuki plays, learn the art of candle making, write articles on the varied pierced and tatooed street jugglers or practice advanced Kama Sutra. I want to  walk the entire distance around the lake, about 50 kilometers all told. There are small Indigenous villages around the lake where one can stay. So no tent, fuel, food, machete and knife, and no stove. All will be light and fast, a new thing for me. All of this to prepare for the serious work that comes soon in Honduras.

I promise to avoid any discussions of the war while among those filthy  and ignorant savages---the non-Indigenous ones I mean.

My companions will be the Bible and Augustine. A pretty good crew, those.

If this works out I will do another walkabout on the Nicaraguan island of Ometepe.

I return in 12 days or so. Until then...

Later.

DECEMBER 27

How To Leave Home

There are four ways to journey to foreign lands. In order of difficulty and risk they are: tourism, travel, adventure and exploration. I have done all of them. I am doing all of them.

Tourism is what most people mean by 'travel.' All hotels, transportation, food, photo opportunities, sites---everything, in fact---is arranged beforehand by an agency that specializes in such things. There are no surprises, for those who pay good money for such a tour do not want any. These are people who have no time to do research, learn the rudiments of a foreign language, and to make their own flight arrangements. Tourism is easy, popular and can be entertaining though at times it can be boring. Remember, no surprises! All hotels are clean and have hot water and one seldom gets ill eating the food.

The next step in difficulty is travel. One makes his own arrangements and attempts to learn street and restaurant survival techniques in a foreign tongue. This takes some time as often the traveler does not really know exactly where he is going or where he will stay when he gets there. College students making their first foray to Europe, graduate students following the 'Gringo Trail' from Mexico to Peru and retired folks who have time and an adventurous spirit become experts in travel. It is seldom boring, but it can be---and many times it is---trying. Cold water pensions or hostels and street food are well known to the traveler, as is the occasional bout with dysentary.

There are some hybrids that combine tourism and travel. They usually have the words 'adventure' or 'eco-' (as in 'ecological') in them. Thus something called 'adventure travel' and 'eco-tourism.' But do not be fooled, both are really types of tourism. All is arranged, planned and organized. The customer is just along for the ride. These trips can certainly be fun, but there is nothing heroic or difficult about them.

Adventure requires a desire to really get off the well-traveled track, to go the weird places---like obscure Mayan ruins buried deep in some God-forsaken jungle. It is also expensive, as the adventurer must have tent, stove and all the rest of the backpacking kit. He---and occasionally she---must be prepared for the unexpected (what I call the 'X' factor) for the unexpected is part of the reason for planning an adventure in the first place. And trust me, the X factor always happens. Adventurers plan on getting sick, sleeping in odd places, being dirty for days on end, becoming unfamiliar with toilets, having close encounters with animals and very strange people,  and eating unrecognizable fare---that is why it is called 'adventure.' Adventure types can be seen hiking frozen islands, soloing mountain peaks and revelling in avoiding death when it appears.

Exploration---going where few have gone---is getting tough to come by these days. Most areas of the world have been mapped and McDonaled. Even Everest, which 50 years ago was seen as the peak event in the exploration of the age, now is almost tourism. No kidding, about anyone can pay an agency upwards of $65,000 to take them to the summit of Everest and even back down again---no mean feat, as 14 people died there a few years back. Both poles are well-traversed---there are tours there---Africa has given up her secret of the source of the Nile, Asia is way over crowded. The only real remaining place to experience exploration is South and Central America, but even there it is quickly succumbing to tourism. This is not a complaint, just an observation.

One rule of thumb: if a bus pulls up to your camp site and unloads 50 Japanese tourists with matching suits and cameras, it is time to get out of there. When I was first in Tikal 20 years ago I was about alone in the jungle there. There was only a place to camp, one place to eat and no hotels. Now it is as crowded as Disney World. What all this means is that the adventurers and explorers must go further and further 'out there'. Rather than Tikal one must walk to Nakum. Rather than the Inca Trail one must walk across the Andes to Choquequirao. And so on. But even those places will be well traveled one day, forcing the explorers and adventurers way back into the hills and trackless jungle.

The last remaining areas for exploration in Central America are the far reaches of northern Guatemala,  the Mosquito region of Nicaragua, and Honduras, specifically the region between the Paulaya and Platano Rivers. Tales of monkey gods and lost cities abound. And that, dear reader, is why I am going there. After which...what? How will I be able to beat that, assuming I survive? The very thought disturbs. Maybe then it will be time to retire all my backpacking gear. After all, I will have seen all that is worth seeing in Latin America, as far as I am considered.

Or I could climb Aconcagua. Or spend time traversing the Venezuelan jungles. Or venture forth into the grasslands of Suriname. Or cut across country from Perrito Moreno National Park in Argentina all the way to Chile.

Ah...I feel better already!

Later.

2004

JANUARY 4

 

Peripatetic Lacustrine Perambulations

 

Or  "walking thither and yon around a lake." I returned today from my latest hike. My original idea was to walk completely around Lake Atitlán, beginning at Panajachel ("Pana"). I described the varied attributes of this village here.

 

The walk was OK, but just.

 

The problem was that the further I moved around the lake, the more I ran into Euro-trash hippy types. It seems that they have slowly migrated from Panajachel to San Pedro and San Marcos. These villages have developed a local part---usually away from the lake---and a foreign part filled with the tatooed, the pierced, the scantily attired, the doped-up and dropped-out, the bra-less and law-less, the shirt-less and worthless, the clueless and the shoe-less. It is bad enough that I must witness this motley and malodorous throng on the streets of my home town of Portland, at Dean for President rallies and at Greenpeace reunions but I refuse to share my vacation with them.

 

I went counter-clockwise from Pana, staying at Indigenous villages along the way. By the time I reached San Pedro de la Laguna I had had enough of the foreign flotsam. I took a boat across the lake back to Pana, which now feels almost conservative in contrast to the other villages along the lake. I spent nine days in this region. I should add that there was good food and cold beer all along the route.

 

The language here was a dialect of Mayan which I can neither spell nor pronounce. Spanish is in second place. The language with which all the foreigners communicate to each other (besides marijuana) is English---the world`s true lingua franca.

 

 

 

 

 

JANUARY 6

 

 Not Yet Ready For Antigua

 

I am still in Pana. Life is cheap and easy here---too much of both I think. The Internet here allows me access to my web page, and so I have been abusing this privilege as often as possible. I have indexed all of my scribblings since this page began in April of last year. They can be found on the ESSAYS page. I should be in Antigua tomorrow, for I cannot delay much longer. Honduras is calling.

 

JANUARY 9

California Screaming

The terrors of the jungle are not only in the jungle:

A mountain lion attacked and severely injured a bicyclist in an Orange County park and

may have killed a man whose body was found nearby, authorities said.

The lion pounced on the 30-year-old's back, grabbed her by her head and began

 dragging her, said her friend, Debbie Nichols. Nichols said she screamed for help and

grabbed Hjelle's legs in a struggle to free her.

 

After the attack, the body of an unidentified man in his 30s was found at the top of

a trail near a bicycle. Authorities weren't sure how long he had been there and couldn't confirm

 if the man was killed by the mountain lion, but Miller said, "it's pretty obvious that an animal was involved."

 

Authorities said a second mountain lion in the area was hit by a car and killed late Thursday and would also be tested.

And I thought I was in danger in the jungles of Central America!

JANUARY 15

 Change of plans---I am in La Ceiba, Honduras. Surprisingly, there is excellent Internet access here. Now I can write on my site to my heart and  soul's content.  I went to Santa Rosa de Copan so that I could climb Mount Celaque. But the rain there was incessant, drizzling and depressing. Had I gone ahead I would have been dealing with---yet again---oceans of mud. No thanks. So I decided to bus over to the Caribbean and stay here. Anyway, there is  the National Park of Pico Bonito, in which I was going to backpack anyway. So I am content---as long as it does not rain. But rain in the tropical jungles is warm and falls mainly between 2 PM and 6 PM---and thus is acceptable. But right now the sun shines. Thank you, God.

 

Most Hondurans are not as outgoing or as friendly as most Guatemalans. They seem a bit indifferent as well. I cannot really blame them, as this nation is quite impoverished. Some of the things one sees on the street would be right at home in Calcutta. Hurricane Mitch destroyed much of the infrastructure---billions of dollars worth---and the rebuilding is still in process. Here in La Ceiba there is more of a Caribbean-type atmosphere and plenty of black influence, so the attitude is more laid-back and relaxed. It looks cool so far.

 

From here I will bus the long route to the capital of Tegucigalpa. This "road" goes through Trujillo to San Esteban and on to Juticalpa. I took it 17 years ago and it was a hair-raising ride. Stay tuned.

 

 

Break Time

 

OK, enough brilliant commentary and analysis for awhile.

Here is what I looked like one month ago while in a cave in Belize.

 

 

Later.

 

 

JANUARY 19

 

I just returned from four days spent hiking around Pico Bonito National Park in Honduras. It was a fascinating trip, full of the type of jungle I love minus any ruins. It is the largest  park in this country, and is loaded with opportunities for adventure of all types. The summit of Pico Bonito (2454 meters) has seldom been climbed, and for good reason. True, it seems small stuff compared to the 6000 meters plus mountains in the Andes, but consider: there is no real trail; the climate is hot and humid---sweat city and insect heaven, in other words; which means a minimum of ten liters of water a day---that is 22 pounds per day once you leave the river to begin the climb; the climb takes a minimum of six days (more likely nine), and that means around 50-70  pounds of water per person after leaving the river; everything---food, fuel, tent, Bible---must be packed in without animals, as there is no room for them on the "trail". And a guide is essential---and believe me, he is---and costs $25 a day, but you must take two in case of problems---and there will be some, trust me. Everest has been climbed far more often than Pico Bonito. This peak looked so close and tempting from where I camped, but as I did a one-day recon of the route the difficulties became obvious. Maybe some day...

 

Anyway, there is another entrance to the park which I will take in two days---after pizza and beer. And for the love of Heaven I simply must arrange another type of diet for my backpacking---one more dried and packaged soup and I will explode. My last day in the jungle I refused to eat, so sick and tired was I of my cuisine. Oh: it rained not at all---God takes care of worthless little me. And maybe there is another route to that peak...stay tuned.

 

Where I am and where I will be---more or less---until late February. I return in early April to do some hard stuff around and through the Miskito Coast in Gracias A Dios province. The legendary---or fabled or imaginary---Lost White City of the Maya is buried (so it is said) between the headwaters of the Rios Platano and Paulaya---a bit northwest of the `G` in Gracias A Dios. It is rough country there.

 

 

Here is Pico Bonito (not my photo). I camped on the other side of it. The route to the top follows the ridge: sweat and heat and bugs and jungle all the way. And if it rains...well, you will have an interesting time and some great stories to tell.

 

 

And I read another set of biographies of Plutarch, about which more in due course. I do not know why, but there is something stimulating about reading a classical historian next to your tent in the jungle. I have yet to read more Augustine, some Gibbon, Anna Comnena, Michael Psellus, Boccaccio, Dumas, Ammianus Marcellinus---and no, you look these up.

 

Bye.

 

JANUARY 20

Yesterday the sky opened up. Rain fell in sheets, in floods---literally. The drainage system of La Ceiba is nothing to boast about. This morning it was impossible to cross from one side of the street to another without getting soaked. All sidewalks are flooded. It rains still. (At least I did not see any guy with a long beard building an ark or any beasts marching two by two.) I am glad that I am in a hotel and not my tent. Odd, when Sir Arthur Evans excavated the ancient Cretan city of Knossus (1896) he noticed that during a fierce storm that the modern city below the ruins flooded, but the 4000 year-old Knossus did not. The ancient drainage system worked as it had since Minos. Not a bad advertisement for Minoan plumbers.

Anyway, I will probably head south to the capital of Tegucigalpa in a day or so, as whatever I could do here with tent and backpack has been rendered muddy and water-logged. I will return in April to finish my look at Pico Bonito. Besides, I need a dentist as a large filling is starting to crack---not a good sign. I had a root canal in Portland in November, but the tooth next to that one is screaming for attention. It will get it. I hope any new root canal can wait until I return to the US. I know little about Honduran dentists but that ignorance will soon be remedied. I hope that I am pleasantly surprised.

JANUARY 23

Wild Things

The jungles I traverse are wild places. There are animals there who will hunt you and eat you. If you are careless or ignorant or unlucky, you are fair game. After all, the jungle is, well, savage---and that is its charm. If it were not, why would I go? The most dangerous beast there is the mountain lion. It is called puma and tiger and panther, but by whatever name it goes it is a killer. I have written about this before here.

Backpacking in parts of the US has its share of terrors as well. Bears come to mind, but the mountain lion is making murdrous inroads into populated areas all over the nation. How did this happen? There were many warnings. In Boulder, for example

Numerous homeowners saw lions in their yards, dogs were maimed or eaten and a girl was attcked...

but people beleived that they could coexist peacefully with the lions...Even after Scott Lancaster,

 the Idaho Springs jogger, was killed, area residents refused to endorse killing the big cats that moved into their neighborhoods.

Call it the ´Bambi Syndrome', where wilderness and its inhabitants are romanticized and Lion Kinged.

Government-sponsored cougar hunting ended, bounties were removed, and cougars started to make a comeback...

As cougars, their fear of humans having dissipated after years of not being hunted, moved into semiurban

areas bursting with deer, they acclimated to human beings.

People were no longer scary and, after a while, started to look like food.

According to The Beast in the Garden: A Modern Parable of Man and Nature by David Baron

Scientists and outdoorsmen began to warn of danger, but they were ignored by both the Boulder public

 -- which was sentimentally attached to the idea of free-roaming wildlife -- and state wildlife-protection bureaucrats,

who downplayed first the presence, and then the danger, posed by the cougars. Dogs and cats started being eaten,

cougars started threatening people, and yet meetings on the subject were dominated by

 people who "came to speak for the cougars."

 

In the end, of course, people started to be eaten...

 

Some people, apparently, would rather be dinner than face up to the fact that nature is red in tooth and claw,

 and that -- in this fallen world, at least -- the lion lies down with the lamb only after the lamb's neck is broken.

 

I had many a conversation with my students about the risks involved with backpacking both in the US and in Latin America. I told them that if I were to go where bears or cougars roam, that I would be suitably armed. In Latin America, however, I cannot do so: except for a short time while in the Paraguayan Chaco, I have not carried a firearm. Why? The difficulties involved in transporting a gun from nation to nation are formidable and, for me, out of the question. I have to arm myself with luck, knowledge and Christ. So far so good.

 

But what excuse do Americans have? I have ever been amazed as how blithe are those backpackers who venture out into cougar and bear country armed with little more than a Swiss army knife and half-baked animal lore. These types will give all sorts of advice on how to deal with bears---play dead; no, run away; make noise; no, be quiet; back away; no, confront the bear; climb a tree; no, bears climb too; use pepper spray; no, blow a whistle; run downhill; no, run uphill---and so on. Sometimes one of these will work. And if it does not? Read this for those times that it did not. Well then, what works? What will save your life every time when you encounter a bear that will not be placated? Here is what one Alaskan---himself no stranger to living among wild animals---says:

 

Always take a firearm into the woods that can bring down the biggest animal that lives there.

 

Good advice I think. And how do deal with cougars? Recall that they will actually track you. Same advice. A 12-guage with a deer slug will bring down any land animal. For a lion, a good pistol will work fine---but make mine a Glock .45. This will also work  against  all but the biggest Grizzly or Kodiak. (And any critter that thinks me a meal will become a nice rug in front of my fireplace.)

 

Here is an excerpt from a Los Angeles Times piece by Alaska resident Karl Francis. It appeared January 19, 2004, under the title Walk Softly and Carry a Big Gun.


I am puzzled now by the strange way people here are dealing with mountain lions

 — which is to say, letting them kill you.
Nature killing people is no big deal for Alaskans. That's the way things are in Alaska.
When you step out into it, you are at risk. If you are wise, you prepare for it.

 Alaska does not suffer fools. It eats them.

It also eats people who are not fools, those who prepare well and try their best to stay alive.

 I have lost too many close friends to her, sensible folks who came up against something too tough to handle.

Our stories of untimely death are endless, and I will not burden you with them.

In case you think otherwise, polar bears hunt people down and eat them. I love bears, and not just to eat.

I used to study them. I have friends who have spent all their professional lives studying them.

You can't spend time around bears and not admire them.

But none of us go into bear country without the means to protect ourselves.

I don't know much about big cats. We don't have them in Alaska, and the few I have encountered southward

 were pretty spooky. They are elegant creatures, and I do respect them. I do not go where

 they are without the means to protect myself. And I keep my eyes peeled.

 It is in my genes  not to be eaten by bears, large cats or anything else.

Why would anyone go into mountain lion country without the means to protect themselves  from attack?

 I notice the police are armed. The wardens and rangers are armed.

 Indeed, anyone with any clue where they are would be armed.
 

Mother Nature is a bitch with no pity. Her children are 'red in tooth and claw'. You ignore this at your peril---and that of your children.

A pleasant surprise indeed was Honduran dentistry. The day after arriving here in Tegucigalpa I answered the incessant call of that tooth. The dentist was a Brazilian woman from Sao Paulo. She diagnosed the problem, set a price and went to work. I asked for and received double the usual dose of anesthetic. All was painless. She had no real assistant---one girl worked the phones, the door, the paperwork, the files, and sometimes even handed the dentist a drill---unlike American dental clinics where a multitude of help is always scampering about. The cost: $150 US, about one-fourth of what it would have cost in the US. I celebrated by going after some Kung-Pao chicken washed down with cold beers. Marvelous! For the first time in weeks I could eat, drink and be merry without that tooth reminding me it was there. I found out later that my dentist specialized in pediatric dentistry---which suited me very well indeed.

So now I have until Thursday here in Tegucigalpa ("the Goose" as it is called by those in the know). I found a fine Internet place with the right software, so I will amuse myself by writing far too often on my web site. Besides, there are many books to read, good restaurants, lots of hot water in my hotel and a Catholic Church close by. I am content. It has been a while since I have been in the Goose---six years I think---and much has changed. The Honduran capital is a far more pleasant place than Guatemala City, with  winding streets, many hills and trees scattered about.

Still, I am a bit itchy to get back to my tent. Alas! That must wait two weeks when I will climb Mount Celaque.

JANUARY 25

Not Quite the Gangs of New York

Honduras has a gang problem. Groups of young males band together and rob and kill and generally wreak havoc in the urban areas. They are called mareros, which translates as "gang members". A gang is a mara. It seems that everyone has a favorite gang story. Mine was on the front page of La Prensa this morning as I ate donuts and drank coffee. Some mareros crashed a local circus to rob the till. To distract attention from their crime they opened one of the lion cages to good effect. One of the beasts escaped and severely mauled a woman who was selling food. The mara made good its escape, but the lion was not so fortunate: a group of locals pulled out pistols and blasted away, leaving the king of the jungle in pieces and at room temperature. It made for a great newspaper cover---and in full color. (That is one thing I like about Central American newspapers, they publish any photo no matter how gruesome.) Right next to the dead lion was the mauled woman, bloody tissue hanging off her face and all. And on the next page was another gang story. There had been a gang war, and the two fellows on that page had had their 15 minutes (actually more like two seconds) of fame. There they were laying in liters of blood, shot full of holes, and very dead. Great photos.

I have been warned about Honduran gangs since my arrival here. According to locals they are omnipresent: Every part of the nation is subject to them. They control streets and districts and entire barrios, or so it is said. In fact, these mareros are really bastard off-shoot punks from a variety of US movie criminals shown on every Honduran TV and movie screen. Think of a rather slip-shod, crude and ill-organized Bloods or Crips. All Capone they are not. But they do have their own gang fashion by which the police can easily recognize them---not a very bright move one would think. They wear their hair long in back and short in front, fancy earrings and piercings, tattoos and a rather tight-jeaned look. They look to me like short and out-of-work San Francisco bartenders.

Anyway, as kids will do, some Honduran youth try to dress cool and hip-like in marero-style, sometimes with fatal results. The police here do not read Miranda rights, and anyone picked up in gang attire is assumed to be a gang member. Once picked up it is off to the slammer on a one-way ride. The locals favor this tough attitude on the part of Honduran law enforcement, as they are usually the targets of mara activity.

All things being equal, I plan on spending much time in Honduras and would rather avoid running into any stray mareros. I feel safer in the jungles here, where the predators are different.

FEBRUARY 4

I just returned from a whirlwind trip to Santiago de Chile. It was one of the highlights of my sabbatical---but about which more in due course. I traveled with Grupo Taca, a consortium of Central and South American airlines. They combined to compete with United, Delta and all the rest of that ferociously capitalist gang. They have done well. Not only do they fly to some of the more out-of-the-way places that I venture to, but they are inexpensive, offer fine food and have prettier stewardesses than the USA companies---not too difficult to arrange, truth be told.

 

I should mention that I took only a small bag which I put in the overhead bins in the airplanes. It was a revelation to travel so lightly. Solo backpacking through Latin America demands equipment---lots of it in fact---and much of it is bulky and heavy. I normally have two big duffel bags, which are always an amusing site to the locals. Most travelers have a backpack and not much more, whereas I can usually be seen lugging those damn heavy bags here and there. Thank God that there are always hordes of kids at bus stops who will help me carry those things---for a price, of course. Fine with me. (I wrote 'damn heavy bags'---but actually once I get walking all that gear allows me to accomplish what I set out to accomplish. I use it all, and some of it has saved my life. So perhaps I should write 'blessed heavy bags'---or something like that---as their contents have been loyal friends.)

 

Flying into Tegucigalpa was like returning home, oddly enough. There is much I have to do in Honduras, and I am anxious to get going and climb some mountains---OK, what passes for them here---and spend night after night in my tent. The two mountains upon which I have set my heart are Celaque and Babilonia. Almost time to go...but first: spend hours writing on my site, schedule transportation to Gracias (the entry point for Celaque), shop for food, pick up some fuel and load my gear. Monte Celaque is in Western Honduras; Monte Babilonia is to the north near Catacamas and Juticalpa. This one will actually serve as a reconnaissance for the main adventure of this part of my sabbatical, the journey into the jungles of the Mosquito Coast---known as Miskitia.

 

Sometime around April 1st I will return from Costa Rica and again travel to Catacamas. From here begins a tough overland route through Dulce Nombre de Culmi and on to a mule track that leads to Paya. From here it will be a five to six day's walk through mountains and jungles to Sico, a village I have visited before. If I am to perish during my 'year of living dangerously' it will be somewhere along this route. Trust me, this is tough country and completely free of any sort of law enforcement. I had some trouble near here six years ago with some locals. Christ will guide me, and His will be done. I need to be---I will be---in the best physical and spiritual condition of my life.

 

Sico is on a river that connects with the Rivers Platano and Paulaya. These are in the heart of Miskitia---the largest jungle area north of the Amazon---and where the Golden Monkey God of the Chorotegas and the Lost White City of the Maya are believed to be hidden. We will see. From Sico there is a jungle route to the coast, along which one can literally walk 300 kilometers east or west if he be an idiot. Anyway, I do not mean to imply that all of this journey is worked out---far from it. As always, there will be surprises---some good, some very unpleasant. I have been dreaming of this for 15 years, and I will not be deterred save by Christ Himself. Stay tuned.

 

You should know that in most of Central America, as in the Andean nations of South America, one can walk literally anywhere. The locals do all the time---but of course they have no real choice. There are footpaths and mule trails wherever one wants to go. Purify all water, carry all of your food, be overly friendly, camp away from villages, cover as much of your body as you can against ticks, scorpions, spiders and mosquitoes, watch where you place your hands as it is best not to grab hold of a snake, take good care when crossing rivers---they tend to be alligator infested--- and keep your wits about you. If you travel without a machete and a very good and long and sharp hunting knife, you are a fool and deserve what comes your way. Oh, and do not wander about at night unless you want a close encounter with a cat. But then, these felines might track you during the day as well. As I said, keep your wits about you.

 

I was in the jungle a few weeks ago and...

 

 

 

FEBRUARY 5

Dante Takes a Road Trip

You have to hand it to third-world capital cities: they sure are chock-a-block full of the odd, the weird, the nightmarish, the improbable and the impossible, an odd farrago of the sacred and the profane. Whatever horrors occur in places like New York , Dallas and Chicago---leaving out San Francisco for obvious reasons---rest assured that it is much worse where I am traveling. Dante himself would be lost for words here.

These thoughts intruded as I began comparing Guatemala City, Managua and Tegucigalpa. All three are congested, dirty, noisy and crowded---but it is Guatemala City that takes the award in these categories--- sometimes dangerous but always entertaining. As for being cursed by God, it is Managua in particular and Nicaragua in general that wins here. The most livable city---or rather, the least unlivable---is Tegucigalpa. (But more about these things in due course.)

None of these cities exhibits any sort of planning whatsoever, unless the planners were also drug dealers who regularly sampled their own merchandise. All is confused, helter-skelter, gimcrack, nutso, here and there and everywhere. Forget city maps. These are merely suggestions---and besides, most streets have no signs in any case. (Now you see why mail is near-impossible to send or receive.) Looking at a map while waiting at a corner would just label you a dumb tourist ripe for plunder. And the labyrinthine way the streets and avenues meander would confuse even the Minotaur. Cars have the right of way over pedestrians of course, and you had best step gingerly to avoid having to visit the local emergency room---believe me, these are best avoided. And if you do get tapped by a vehicle---and survive---you will probably be in a cast, which means that you will be easy prey for any wandering gang member. Like everyone's mom always said, look both ways before crossing the street.

All these cities---in fact, every city, town and village in Latin America---are centered around a plaza where one can find an incongruously huge and glittering cathedral. In the midst of jaw-dropping poverty these monuments to God are all works of art, gilded and bejeweled, intricately carved and decorated, and all with a particularly bloody Christ. These are not complaints---I am not Protestant after all---but simple commentaries. They are as they are. Their wealth is all from voluntary donations freely given---unlike the monuments in Washington DC, for example, whose magnificence came from forced confiscatory taxation. Enter these houses of God and you enter a place that is supposed to resemble Heaven: colored lights filter through rose windows, incense is on the burn, a thousand candles all a-flame. If you do not like it here than get the Hell out---literally.

Much of public life---and there is little private life in these cities---centers around the market. All is for sale: the junky, the trashy, the freshly picked and recently slaughtered. Some advice: watch where you step, and tell your nose that there will be surprises coming. What one sees in the street is nothing short of appalling: intestines, feces, mountains of trash, leavings of fruit, squadrons of flies and a host of mis-bred and malformed dogs fighting for the best pickings. 

These canines deserve special mention.  They are all without exception scabrous, diseased, mangy, cut-up and infested with ticks and fleas and worms. Some have fewer than the standard number of legs, many have machete-chopped tails and heads. (Do not let these grotesque beasts lick you, and do not pet them.) Their legs are too short and their bodies too long, and they have a habit of dying in the middle of the street on a regular basis. Sometimes these corpses remain there through cooling and rigor mortis and on to liquefaction. Who picks them up and where they are taken I have not the foggiest idea---and I do not wish to know at any rate. (It just occurred to me that there are always myriad Chinese restaurants near the market. Hmm...)

The slam-dunk gold medal prize for violence goes to Guatemala City. Guatemala suffered a communist insurgency and guerrilla war for 37-odd years. After the so-called 'peace accords' the armed communist toughs---oh, I'm sorry: the former 'freedom fighters'---simply changed their mentor from Karl Marx to Alphonse Capone. Their guns were kept and used upon the populace, who also acquired guns, and the fun began. The violence there is on a Colombian level. I scarcely meet any Guatemalan who does not start a conversation with, "Damn this government! When will it stop the violence?" Businessmen are regularly kidnapped---families too---stores robbed, taxi drivers beaten and killed, busses hijacked in plain daylight and policemen slain. Professional criminals go back and forth from illegal enterprise to security work. Every bank and American establishment, from Domino's to Burger King---and more than a few Guatemalan places---have a cohort of well-armed guards. (A sawed-off shotgun is the weapon of choice, for obvious reasons.) A few years ago a tour bus hired by an American university was stopped on a busy highway under a bright sun. As traffic zoomed by a few feet away the criminals pulled everyone off, robbed the men and raped the women---everyone of whom was a college kid.

God has it out for Nicaragua. Pharaoh and those plagues had nothing on this place. Consider its history over the past 30 or so years: an earthquake that left not one building standing in the capital of Managua except the gringo-built Hotel Intercontinental, a revolution, a civil war, foreign intervention, Hurricane Mitch, an Indian rebellion, attempted genocide, a cholera epidemic, tremendous floods, regular and terrifying volcanic eruptions---what a mess! All is broke down, junked out, rusted and pot-holed, worn through and through, condemned and fit only for the trash heap.  I  got to hand it to the Nicaraguans for hanging in there---as if these poor souls had any other option. (While awaiting transport one day a beggar approached. I could not see her very well from a distance, but I could hear a loud buzzing, as if a thousand bees were about. As she got nearer I noticed a smell like that of a two-week old dead cat. When she was next to me I saw that her scalp had suffered a tremendous blow, probably from a machete, and was hanging loose behind her head. Her hair and bleeding flesh were encrusted with flies and maggots---thus the noise and the smell.)

And so I am making Tegucigalpa my center of operations while in Central America. It is as chaotic and goof-ball as those other capital cities, but still retains a bit of charm---at least as I define it. Besides, the Hondurans try very hard to be modern. Newspapers here are full of optimistic articles about how to increase tourism and bring in real cash---along with more somber stories of Dengue Fever and gang activity. (Today's headline and large cover story: "One thousand German tourists enjoy San Pedro Sula!" There were photos of, well, a lot of Germans who did indeed seem to be enjoying San Pedro Sula.) And truth be known, there is more adventure tourism potential in Honduras than in all of the rest of Central America combined. One senses a sort of buzz around possible attractions.  Even though Hurricane Mitch wiped out the equivalent of the entire foreign trade earnings of Honduras---think of the USA losing a couple of trillion dollars in a four-day perfect storm---these people are friendly and disarming. I wish them well.

Heading for the Hills

 

Tomorrow I leave for Gracias, which is one of the entry points for Monte Celaque National Park. It is time to go---it has long been time---as I am getting a bit too well-fed here in the Goose. What delayed were the dentist and Santiago---good things indeed, but now I will continue doing what I set out to do: walk with pack and machete through the rural parts of Central America. I have spent a great deal of time writing on the site, making changes and transporting thought to web. It has been fun, but exhausting. When something pops into my mind begging to be written, I have no real choice, I must get to writing it. An addiction? Perhaps. The monster seems to be sated for now.  I will return to the Goose in ten days or so, and so there will be no chance to write for a while. I will have other things on my mind, and it will be best if I am not distracted.

 

From Gracias---about five hours from Tegucigalpa---I will walk with all my gear and seven days worth of food eight kilometers out of town to the park entrance. Remember that this is Honduras. When you read 'park' do not associate this with Yellowstone. The facilities are...well, this is Honduras.  I will camp there, and then the next day head 1000 meters up the mountain and set the tent. The next day will be to the summit, where I heard there is another trail that leads far westward to a bunch of Lenca Indian villages. I will let you know. Stay tuned.

 

Bye...and later.

 

 

FEBRUARY 15

Peripatetic Montane Perambulations and Cogitations

I returned yesterday from six days spent  in Celaque National Park. It was a fine place, full of cloud forest and excellent hiking. I climbed to the top of Monte Celaque, the highest point in Honduras at 2825 meters. OK, no big deal if one compares it with about any peak in Peru, but there you start higher. The total amount of climbing and descending was about 4000 meters---not bad for six days. The final day I walked from the highest camp site (2505 meters) all the way back to the town of Gracias---20 kilometers away and 1300 meters down. My legs are still useless. Beer helps take the pain away. So does Chinese food. And chocolate donuts.

 

And it was cold up there, much colder than I had thought. My little REI jungle sleeping bag was barely adequate---no, it was inadequate. I was cold in my tent. I slept at 2505 meters with socks, Gore-Tex oversocks, long underwear, long-sleeved shirt, T-shirt, Gore-Tex pants, polar vest, polar fleece, jacket, wool hat, sleeping sheet and in the bag, and I was still cold. I want to climb Monte Babilonia sometime in early April, but not until I have a warmer sleeping bag sent down. I hate being cold. Period.

 

I wanted to walk from the summit of Celaque to another village, Belèn Gualcho, but it had rained the day before and all was slippery. Imagine walking down a steep and muddy trail with a heavy pack into some unknown cloud forest and you will see what I mean. Besides, from the summit all one could see was clouds directly below. It was rather eerie to be on a little point on a ridge and be surrounded by nothingness.

 

Time for some rest here in Tegucigalpa, and then head to Nicaragua for three weeks or so. I can hardly believe that there are only three months to go in this year of living dangerously. What the devil happened to all that time? All those journeys through Peru and Chile and Argentina and Paraguay and Guatemala seem far away, dream-like, fantastic. I read my own thoughts at the time on this web, and I seem to be reading the travel journals of someone else, a stranger even. What is going on here?

 

Now I am occupied occasionally with thoughts of employment in June. I have also given thought to what I will do if I do not find employment for the next school year. Sometimes that idea is positively attractive, sometimes it seems like an idea straight from loserville. And yet...there is something to the desire to wander about for a year through God's creation in my own nation---along the Pacific Crest Trail, for example. How else could I do that if not with a whole bunch of time? And I still have Andean dreams: ridges unwalked, valleys untraversed, frozen lakes lost and found. And I have not yet even mentioned the guitar---an old friend who is making his absence painfully felt. Even as I walk I have Telecaster dreams in shades of rhythm and blues. Hmm...seems like a time to turn everything over to God and let Him decide.

 

However, there is nothing solid yet, but stay tuned. There are lost cities and monkey gods to find, and miles to go before I sleep.

 

FEBRUARY 17

Heading for the Hills Redux

Change of plans. Rather than head for Nicaragua, I will leave tomorrow for more cloud forest and mountain stuff, this time in the Honduran province of Olancho. The town of Juticalpa will be my base as I go off to Gualaco and Monte Babilonia. I should be back in the Goose around March 3 or so. Ten days later I will meet some ex-students for some very cool jungle backpacking in Costa Rica. Thus, the reason for doing more serious backpacking pronto: I must be in great condition when those guys arrive in Costa Rica. What if they are in better shape than I? What if all those donuts and all that Chinese food I have eaten while in Honduras makes me look fat? I would never live that down, alas!

The province of Olancho is a bit rural and rustic, so I might not be able to update the web for a while. In the meantime, I promise to try to stay out of jail.

Bye.

FEBRUARY 18

I am continually amazed at how much Central America has changed for the better since my first visit 20 years ago. Then all was dirty and impoverished and politically disturbed; now the poverty is still there of course---though less in-your-face---but all nations have improved economically and politically, sometimes dramatically so. Part of this has been due to the end of the regional wars that afflicted almost every nation here. In 1983 there was either war or revolution---or both for always unlucky Nicaragua---everywhere, and the USSR and its hand-puppet Cuba were up to no good financing this war and that guerrilla army. The silly and pretentious and parasitical intelligentsia of Latin America---Chè pretenders the lot of them (and almost as malignant as our own professoriate)---wholeheartedly supported all this, perhaps in their adolescent heart of hearts yearning to come to power themselves. (And sometimes these bookish types did: witness the career of Sandinista poet and dreadful little cad Ernesto Cardenal. This girly-boy crybaby once declared that the reason he could not write poetry was because of Ronald Reagan---yet another success of Reagan's foreign policy.)

Speaking of whom...when Reagan came to power in 1981 he vowed not just to contain communism in Central America, but to 'roll it back' and defeat it. And truth be told he had his work cut out for him after the four years of Carter incompetence. But Reagan was as good as his word. With US cash, military advisers, support for anti-communist movements and a will of iron he brought democracy to the region (by Central America standards, that is) and began the process of radical economic and political reform. The results are clear to anyone who was here then and who is here now. Even the 'accursed by God' Nicaragua is better off now that the Castro-wanna-be Sandinista thugs have been voted out of power and have returned to their dreary poetry seminars. In fact, the Nicaraguan cities of Leon and Granada have become sort of hip places to hang out.

Honduras itself is most certainly a different place now than it was 20 years ago (even the girls are prettier).  Travelers still normally just stop at Copàn for a day and then head to Nicaragua via Tegucigalpa, but there are more of them---and they are beginning to venture out into the astoundingly beautiful Honduran forests. Truly Honduras has more eco-adventure-tourism-type possibilities than all its neighbors combined. This is why I have chosen to see as much of the place as time allows---time being defined as between now and June 1. It is somewhat shocking to be in a cattle town in the Honduran countryside---Juticalpa, that is---and find internet cafes where I can work on my web site. Yes, things have changed here.

OK, there is still trash everywhere---though less of it---and the Hondurans still spit too much (though "Please Do Not Spit" signs are obeyed more often than not), but hey! While traveling one takes what one can get.

I head to Gualaco tomorrow as it provides access to the mountains surrounding Sierra de Agalta National Park. Monte Babilonia hides behind some clouds thereabouts, and I there I go to seek her.

Bye.

FEBRUARY 26

I returned yesterday from venturing into Sierra de Agalta National Park. I walked five days---no, I climbed three and descended two. Seldom was there any level ground to walk upon. All was steep, and not entirely pleasant. The route to the summit at La Picucha (2500 meters) was not marked. There were many downed trees blocking what remained of the path, which looked as if it had not been hiked in some time. I had to  constantly use my machete to clear the trail. There was much mud---again! Sierra de Agalta has no infrastructure, so one is basically alone and without map or useful advice about what to expect. To top things off, on the third day I reached the ridge that led to the summit, only to find there was no water. I searched up there for four hours with no luck and was forced to spend a thirsty night in my tent. The nearest water was three hours away---straight down. There were howler monkeys about, but they were heard and not seen---a good thing, as I despise them and all of their simian cousins.

Was it worth it? Yes, but barely. The forest was your typical cloud forest that one can find anywhere between 1000 and 2500 meters all through the tropics of Central America. Nothing extraordinary, and I have seen it all before. (And no, I am in no way jaded.) What was indeed a payoff of this hike was that it well prepared me for the more strenuous one coming in March in the Costa Rican jungles. Then I will be with some very cool ex-students from Lincoln School. I had better be in superb shape or I will make a fool out of myself---a  state with which I am well acquainted, truth be told. And soon to come will be a seven-day walkabout on the Nicaraguan island of Ometepe.

So I am back in the Goose recovering. It is my knees that need this the most. Yesterday at Mass---it was Ash Wednesday---when I went to kneel down the knees screamed at me. They need rest, and they will get it. And my stomach will get its share of attention too, for there is yet much Chinese food and donuts to eat. Oh yes, and beer to drink. (After all, I am not a Baptist.) And what am I to give up for Lent? Chocolate? Beer? Hmm...let me think a bit. I'll get back to you after dinner.

Or I could take the advice of the Senior Pastor at Irvine Presbyterian Church, Mark Roberts. He says that a perfect Lenten preparation for Easter would be to read the Gospels one chapter a day. True, that is a fine idea at any time, and I have just begun a study of them, starting with Matthew. My Catholic Study Bible was (as usual) in my pack while walking Sierra de Agalta. I would have it no other way.

I need sleep. Bye.

FEBRUARY 27

One Day on the Trail

Here I am resting three days ago in Sierra de Agalta National Park, covered with mosquito and ant bites and a few ticks, filthy with dirt and sweat---and knowing all the while that a cold beer awaited in Gualaco. I sat because while chopping a bit with my machete I felt a wetness pour over my hand which made the thing hard to grasp. I thought it was sweat, but it was my own blood. I had wandered into some type of thorn bushes without knowing it. I was otherwise engaged and concentrated, it would seem. Anyway, it was a fine time for a break and a good photo op.

There is a certain scent that one takes on around day three while doing such things as I do. It is a combination of old sweat, new sweat, bug repellent, sun block, rotting plant life, dried saliva, animal feces, spilled food, dirt, mud, blood and the pulp of crushed insects---not quite Paco Rabanne. It is unerving at first, but then one accustoms---as one always does in such situations.

At times when I am so engaged I cannot wait to get back to what passes for 'civilization'  in the region through which I am traveling. Mostly though I simply revel in the glory of where I am at the moment: all of God's Creation all around and everywhere, dwarfing and consuming. I walk entranced, dreaming, fulfilled. No material thing, no merely physical pleasure, can approach this. Was it so before Eve ate the apple? Will it be so once again?

No, it will be better. Don't believe me? Then you do not believe.

FEBRUARY 28

 

La Prensa de Hoy

 

One good way to 'get inside' a foreign country is to read its print media. Now, a journey to Hungary or Finland might present problems, but many can work their way around a Spanish language newspaper. Here in Honduras the number one daily is La Prensa. So let us take a look at today's edition and find out what is of interest and importance to Hondurans.

 

On the front page is Cuban refugees land in La Ceiba. It seems a group of 14 Cuban fishermen spent one month at sea trying to get to Honduras. They said they would not return to Cuba, as they had heard good things about Honduras and wanted to stay there to find a better life than the one they had in Cuba. Now, I can well understand Cubans (or anyone) who wish to come to the USA however it can be arranged---by boat, airplane, life-raft, inner-tube, pogo-stick---but to Honduras? Please do not get me wrong, I very much like it here, but the quality of life here is...well, this is Honduras. Well now, just what does this desire of the Cuban fishermen say about Castro's socialist paradise? If Cubans prefer even Honduras to their own island...I mean, damn!

 

Can we stay?

 

On page 9 we find Evangelical Pastors Ask for Public Acceptance. It seems that Protestant Christianity---the Fundamentalist, conservative sort that is---is making great headway in Central America, especially in Guatemala. In Honduras it has run into some difficulty, however, especially from the Catholic Church which enjoys special privileges here. The Church is losing a few adherents, most of whom flee to the Evangelical churches. Now, do not get me wrong---no one can 'out-Catholic' me. I am as orthodox as the pope. I love the Church; I need the Church. But if some Hondurans (for reasons known only to God) can only find Salvation in another form of Christianity, then they should be able to do so without any troubles from anyone. After all, these Protestants are against all the right things: abortion, homosexual privileges, immorality and so on. They speak with authority and are remarkably strong-willed and dedicated to Christ. (Would that my faith were as strong as that of these Evangelicals.) More power to them. Better to be Protestant than to burn.

 

Can we pray?

 

On page 17 we find a public service announcement. It concerns Dengue Fever, for which there is neither treatment nor cure. There has been an outbreak of it here, especially its most virulent form. This plague is carried by mosquitoes, and this being Central America, these pests are ubiquitous. The announcement's headline reads She is no longer with us, below which is a photo of a beautiful seven-month old child named Blanca Lorena Almendarez. She will never see eight months, as she died of Dengue. The announcement reads "Dengue knows no special level of society or age, it only attacks and kills." Open letter to God from me: "Dear God: Why did You make mosquitoes?"

 

In the 'Living' section---yes, Honduran papers have these!---we find The Baths of Cleopatra. In the age-old desire of the female of the species to indulge itself in exotic beauty treatments---and what could be more exotic than Cleopatra's baths?---the article gives helpful tips about bathing with milk and with rice water.  It recommends using common kitchen spices to smear on the skin---stuff like olive oil, salt and lime juice to remove 'unwanted colors'. I do not know about you, but being around a woman who smells like some bizarre pesto sauce does not really appeal. Still, Cleopatra was known for having written a manual on cosmetics and for taking---how does one say it?---rather interesting baths. After all, she kept Julius Caesar and Marc Antony well and exotically entertained for years, so perhaps there is something to the article.

 

On page 41 we find in the 'International' section O'Donnell Marries in order to Defy Bush. There was a photo---blessedly small---of the remarkably fat and wholly unpleasant Rosie and her lesbian...um...'partner'. They seemed in high spirits with flowers in hand as Rosie bellowed into a microphone. She---she?--- was scowling mad---is she ever not so?---because Mr. Bush will support a constitutional amendment in favor of man-woman marriage rather than one of the myriad San Francisco varieties. So she 'married' her bosom buddy simply to irritate Mr. Bush, to let him know of her 'outrage'. Gee, call me old fashioned but does not one marry to express love and a desire to share a home and child-rearing? Why would one marry simply to make some stranger mad? Anyway, here is the grotesque couple in a yahoo photo on their way to wedded bliss and---one hopes---to Cleopatra's baths.

 

We're so gay!

 

I often wonder what Latin Americans think of all the perversion that exudes from El Norte: from Hollywood, from MTV, from Super bowl half-times, from San Francisco's streets, from Rosie O'Donnell's mouth, from Massachusetts judges, from Bill Clinton's antics. After all, Latins are remarkable for their stable and large families and strong and traditional values. But I wonder no more! On the 'Opinion' page we have...well, it speaks for itself.

 

Abominación

 

 

 

And that would be all, folks!

 

 

Rat Race

 

I was walking home---OK, to my hotel (it feels like home since I have spent many nights there all told)---when I noticed a commotion among some Hondurans on both sides of a busy street. I looked for the cause of this merriment and saw a gray, long-tailed rat trying to cross the road. The creature was having a difficult time making it as there was much traffic about. It would skitter part way across, but then would head back to the safety of the sidewalk as some taxi or car tried to run it down and send it to rat Heaven. The beast's perplexity brought great hilarity to the human onlookers. Many people stopped walking only to observe the animal's plight. Finally, as if there had been a 'rat god' somewhere directing things---rattus ex machina?---the rodent made it across, to the applause of the crowd. It stuck its snout into a tossed out McDonald's hamburger wrapper and began to nibble on some hidden leftovers. The crowd, once easily amused, now became bored and went about its own business. I thought for just a moment of kicking the rat from here to eternity but thought better of it. I continued my journey to the hotel. The last I saw the rat had emerged from the wrapper and was headed for the door of a donut shop.

 

 

 

 

 

Off To Nicaragua

 

Tomorrow I take a 9 hour Ticabus ride to Managua and then a microbus to Granada the same day. It will be tough to leave the Goose as I have gotten quite used to beer and donuts and Chinese food. And I have much enjoyed being able to write to my heart and soul's content on my site. As I have written before, when something pops into my head it begs to be written down. I really have no choice in the matter, and I cannot be comfortable until I get it out.

 

Granada is on the shores of Lake Nicaragua, and from there I will boat it to the island of Ometepe. Some hiking with neither tent nor stove is in order, as I will try to make it all the way around the island, staying in the odd hotel or shack. I need to be back to Granada and off to Matagalpa on the 8th or 9th to meet a friend of mine, an ex-student of Lincoln School. From there off to Costa Rica to participate in a real life buddy movie in a very tough jungle with some very cool guys.

 

Some say that Nicaragua is wildly entertaining and that I should stay longer there simply to get a feel for the place. Well, no. I am traveling to backpack---the purpose, after all, of this 'year of living dangerously.' There will be time enough later in life for tourism. Besides, there is not much backpacking in that country, truth be told. Honduras is where the real adventure is.

 

So perhaps no web updates for awhile, as who knows if there will be the proper software in impoverished Nicaragua? Until then...stay out of jail.

 

Bye.

 

 

MARCH 1

Sandalistas

I am in Granada, Nicaragua on the shore of Lake Nicaragua. Surprised again am I by the Internet takeover of Central America. The place where I am now working has a superb connection---faster than the one I had in Argentina---and has the software I need to write on my web. So, the addiction gets fed today.

 

Granada is a colonial gem, the finest example of it in this country---which of course says not a lot as this is Nicaragua. Nicaragua went through so many years of revolution, counter-revolution and civil war---not to mention terrifying earthquakes and volcanic eruptions---that hardly a building has escaped some type of destruction---except here, more or less, and the island of Ometepe. Now Granada is experiencing a tourist renaissance of sorts, as foreigners flock here. An entire host of things have sprung up to satisfy them: hotels---not nearly enough---cool little coffeehouses---all of which offer the superb Nicaraguan coffee (I am in java Heaven)---and regular boat service across the lake to Ometepe.

 

The place is hip for sure, in the same way that Antigua, Guatemala is hip---and to tell the truth, Nicaragua tries very hard to be so. My first visit here was in !983 during the Sandinista era. The 'revolution without frontiers' was in full force then. Young Sandinista soldiers were everywhere, with a cool Chè-type swagger and brandishing AK-47s. (Posters of the Argentine revolutionary are still all about.) Because the Sandinistas openly and brazenly allied themselves with Cuba they earned the unwelcome attention of the US. Thus, the Contras, more war and so on. But international leftist-types---all those feather-brained coeds and skinny chested sociology majors and bearded philosophy professors and itinerant campus rabble-rousers---poured into Nicaragua to give that nation their support, such as it was.

 

What they mainly did was to join 'international coffee brigades' whose organizers herded all that leftist flotsam to coffee plantations that had a dearth of workers. (The workers were in the Sandinista army.) So off to work they went, with shovels in the air and singing the Internationale, these 'sandalistas'. After a few weeks of real work these saviors of the world would head back to the air-conditioned  and pampered comfort of campus life in the USA, there to regale the ignorant and silly with tales of daring-do and heroism in protecting Nicaragua from the evils of American imperialism. At any rate a stint in the brigades seemed a great way to pick up college chicks. (And there was a rumor going about that the brigades were a good place for American co-eds to rid themselves of their virginity, but I have been unable to verify this.)

 

I met scads of these touchy-feely leftist creepy-crawlers both during my travels to Nicaragua and while in college. Odd, those who were in the US were bombastic, shrill, loud---all long-haired and finger pointing. The 'sandalistas' I met in Nicaragua were a different breed. We would often debate the politics of Ronald Reagan and Daniel Ortega over (many) beers---this beverage being one of the international languages for sure. Usually we ended up laughing, I by accusing my opponents of communism, they by accusing me of being in the CIA. (To put it briefly, I was right and they were wrong.) Anyway, the beer was good, the conversation refreshing and the experience better than any Political Science seminar.

 

Those days are long gone now, replaced by Internet cafes and myriad restaurants, and those ex-sandalistas, now a bit gone to seed. drive SUVs and carry American Express cards. The beer here is still cold, however, so all is certainly not lost. Last night I was sitting at a table with a Canadian and an Australian---all of our countries being former members of the British Empire, by the way---when we all marveled at the quality of cuisine to be had in this once Sandinista socialist workers paradise. And we were not oblivious to the beauty of Nicaraguan women either. (They got prettier and we got handsomer the more beer we drank, but this happens anywhere.)

 

 I think I will hang out here until tomorrow at least. Then, probably off to Rivas and San Jorge, from where there are several daily boats to Ometepe.

 

 

MARCH 8

Today I returned from the island of Ometepe. I traveled there because, as one prominent guide book says, "it is the highlight of any trip to Nicaragua" with "the friendliest people in the country." Well, OK, though I found it somewhat different from that breezy description  Look, I am not traveling to visit chic or trendy areas of any country or to have a 'cultural experience.'  I am traveling to backpack. Period. I have traveled many times all through every Central American nation beginning in 1983. What I want now is to push my physical and spiritual limits while traversing God's acres. To put it briefly, Nicaragua offers very little backpacking and very little solitude. (Of course it offers many other attractions---Nicaragua is beautiful, and I have only seen a small part of it in my three visits---but I am not buying right now. Maybe later.)

Ometepe is a case in point. From a map it appears that one could simply walk around the entire island, taking around 7 days. And technically, one could do this. But---and there is always a 'but'---there is absolutely no shade to be had (and the sun is serious business here). All is dry and dusty to boot. And once you leave Bagues, the last real village on the north-east part of Ometepe, there are no villages. If you have no tent and are relying on places to stay---I left all my camping gear in Granada---you would be out of luck. And there is more: Water is very scarce everywhere on the island, in all hotels and restaurants and homes. It simply quits, sometimes for the entire day. And the island sits in a huge freshwater lake! Granada, the third city of the republic, also suffers from water problems, and it is on the shores of Lake Nicaragua.

While the Americans look for water on Mars, the Nicaraguans cannot seem to find it in their own backyard. It baffles.

There are other reasons why the island did not appeal to me. It is chock-full of child beggars, for one thing. Also, Ometepe has become a haven for the North American and European New Age tribes that wander around certain parts of Central America. They are the same sort that infest Panajachel: the entire hippy touchy-feely types who dribble down from Mexico and Guatemala---stopping at every tattoo and piercing parlor along the way---and congregate in places such as Ometepe. There they disrobe, imbibe, inhale, and idle away their time. It pleases indeed to know that I never see these types in the forests and jungles that I love.

So I am back in hip Granada---and it has water today. In a few days I bus to Costa Rica, there to backpack with some very cool guys. And I have already decided to fly from San Jose back to Tegucigalpa. From 20,000 feet I will be able to look down upon thirsty Nicaragua.

APRIL 1

I feel as a stranger writing on my site again as almost one month has passed since I have had the luxury of doing so. And what a month! Granada, Ometepe, Lake Nicaragua---and the highlight of about everything, a nine-day backpacking trip in Costa Rica with five ex-Lincoln students. This adventure has its own page here.

Anyway, I have much to say---when do I not?---but now for the first time during this 'year of living dangerously' I suffer under the constraint of time. Briefly, I have less than two months to go before I am back in the US, and there are still miles to go before I sleep. I leave tomorrow for La Ceiba where I will finalize the plans for the most difficult part of this entire year, a 12-day solo walk in rural Honduras from the village of San Esteban to Dulce Nombre de Culmi to Paya, and then on to Sico and the jungles of the Mosquito Coast. After this I return to Guatemala to walk through the jungles there from Carmelita to the Mayan ruins of El Zotz and on to Tikal. After this, a well deserved break in my own nation. Which reminds me...

I have decided to return to the US of A permanently. I have not lived or worked in my own nation for 11 years. Time to rediscover a place that Americans with good reason call `God's Country´. What this means is that I will be back in Oregon around May 10 or so, there to buy a car---my first in 28 years---and a cell phone---my first ever---and then to load up and head out on a nation-wide job hunt. (Of course, much Internet spade work will be done before hand.) And I will walk 300 miles across Oregon from the Columbia River to the border of California. And buy another guitar. And find an apartment. And stay out of jail. And so on.

But all of this will not arrive until May. Until then there is a wild Honduran trek to finish. And much, much writing to do at my site, but not nearly enough time for commentary---only travel stuff. Too bad, as I have page after page of ideas to put down. Some other time perhaps...

Except for one thing: Bush is not Clinton and Falluja is not Mogadishu. Prepare for...well, let a US general  speak about the certain American reprisal for killing her people and dragging their corpses through the streets:

It will be at a time and a place of our choosing. It will be methodical, it will be precise and it will be overwhelming.

Go for it. But have a drink first, as this is not going to be pretty. No room here for New Testament Mercy. Now is the time for Old Testament Justice.

Bye---and do not forget that drink.

On February 27 I wrote:

There is a certain scent that one takes on around day three while doing such things as I do.

It is a combination of old sweat, new sweat, bug repellent, sun block, rotting plant life, dried saliva,

animal feces, spilled food, dirt, mud, blood and the pulp of crushed insects---not quite Paco Rabanne.

It is unerving at first, but then one accustoms---as one always does in such situations.

 

After hanging out with the boys in the jungle for nine days,  I need to add 'the smell of stale tobacco, yesterday's rum and sea brine.'

 

 

APRIL 4

I have been in La Ceiba a few days preparing for the penultimate journey of my 'year of living dangerously'. With every visit I like this place more and more. It is friendlier and more laid-back than the rest of Honduras. Coastal people in tropical Latin America tend to be more open and less traditional than their fellows who live elsewhere. Think of Rio and Sao Paulo, or of Guayaquil and Quito. Anyway, here I am enjoying writing on my site and eating great food---until tomorrow, that is, when a 6 AM bus will take me far into the province of Olancho to the  village of San Esteban. This tiny place was for ten years the scene of a rather sordid series of murders between two families. More than 80 members of both families were killed in a clan war until the army stepped in to end it. Soldiers are still there to enforce the truce.

Anyway, I will stay there tomorrow night and then on Tuesday begin the first part of my plans, a 30 km walk to the village of Dulce Nombre de Culmi. This will take two days, and then I head north by foot or truck  to the village of Paya. (Do not bother looking for it on a map.) From Paya the way is all mule track and must be covered on foot. (I refuse to ride mules or horses as I hate these things. They smell, they are stupid and they are bigger than I am.)  In five to seven days I  will---I hope---reach the village of Sico in Mosquitia. From there I will get a boat to the coast at Palacios---about two hours or so. This place is one of the entry points for Mosquitia, the largest jungle area in Central America.

Stay out of jail.

 

 

APRIL 13

Mud and Blood

I returned two days ago from an unpleasant three-day hike from San Esteban to the village of Dulce Nombre de Culmi. It was unpleasant for a variety of reasons. For one thing, there was not much to see as I crossed the Sierra de Agalta mountains. Much of the land has been deforested and there was little shade---and it was blistering hot always and everywhere. The  mule track between  those two villages has been severely chopped up by beasts of burden, and the mud was the worst I had been in since Guatemala in December.  There were armies of ticks scurrying through the dirt, and their attaching themselves to my flesh was a constant annoyance.

Of course, I have been through all of this and more many times. What really destroyed whatever enjoyment was to be had by walking through this part of rural Honduras was the ever-present threat of violence. I scarcely passed anyone who did not warn me of roaming gangs of thieves and killers lurking about in the hills and preying upon all and sundry. One man on horseback I ran into was armed with both pistol and shotgun---and he was afraid. He told me tales of thieves hiding off the trail who had robbed him twice. He absolutely refused to allow me to camp on a riverbed where I had set my tent and strongly insisted that I camp in his front yard. I was a bit spooked by then and so complied. Just how safe I was camped there was clear the next day. He pulled out his complete armory, which included a Chinese-built AK-47. I tell you, if any gangs raid his home they will get a faceful of bullets for sure.

I decided then and there that my plans to head north toward the Mosquito Coast were out of the question. Besides, there had been rain up north, which meant more oceans of mud---no thanks. To top things off, the village of Dulce Nombre de Culmi was borderline hostile. The people were indifferent and suspicious, and the "hotel" I stayed in was the worst I had seen, a truly ghastly place filled with insects, ancient filth, blocked plumbing---if that bizarre series of oozing pipes could be termed such---a terrible stench and shady characters.  But wait, there is more: Because I arrived there on Passover Thursday,  there would be no transport the next day, Holy Friday. So I was stuck in this pestilent s*** hole ( pardon the expletive, but I am in a foul mood) for two days. But wait, there is more: There were no places to eat in this damned place. I lived off beer and stale bread, and a dish of typical Honduran food that a woman agreed to make for me. Returning to Tegucigalpa was like crossing the Jordan River.

And I praise the Risen Lord for bringing me out of that forsaken spot.

Enough Already

 

I have had enough. I am tired, bone tired. I have simply had it with:

 

Sweat soaking my clothes and running down my face.

Being always covered with insect bites.

Drinking iodine-laced water.

Taking cold-water showers.

Going to Spanish language Masses.

Speaking Spanish.

Arguing with taxi drivers.

Hustling about  in a search for a bed when I enter a city.

Walking through populated areas with a loaded pack.

Being the center of attention while traversing rural Latin America.

Smelling like a goat while backpacking.

Always preparing for or cleaning up after a backpacking trip.

Pretending that I have more lives than a cat.

Pushing myself beyond any reasonable physical and mental limits time and time again.

Always being ready to deal physical violence if the moment calls for it.

 

Look, in this past 'year of living dangerously' I lived at an accelerated pace. I took all sorts of chances and won them all. I  accomplished most of what I had set out to do, and some that I had not. I ran into extreme cases of mental disability, unspeakable cruelty and astounding kindness. I felt the presence of both Christ and Satan, One always saving, the other always tempting. I read 34 books and sent hundreds of e-mails. I drank perhaps 500 bottles of beer and one bottle of rum---a necessary expenditure. I spent hundreds of hours before computer screens while writing one million words and perusing thousands of internet pages of news. I walked the world's deepest canyon and strolled weeks through Andean peaks---sometimes lost, sometimes found, always entranced. I slept in pre-Colombian ruins and an astoundingly luxurious inn. I gave away a lot of dough and spent far more.

 

But enough already. I want out of this place. I want to come home---home to America the Beautiful, God's Country, the envy of the world,  to be precise. I am as a stranger in my own land, where I have not lived or worked for 11 years. I need to rediscover her, soon and very soon.

 

 

APRIL 17

 

Back in Antigua

 

As the title says, here I am. I changed my United ticket today in the capital and will be back in the US of A this Wednesday. Believe me, I am quite ready. I have lived a bunch of lives since June and have taken a bunch of chances---too many, to be truthful about it. One cannot be lucky every time (although I was).

 

When I get to Portland there will be much to do. I will have four months to find a suitable job. I can move anywhere in the US, but I will choose a Bush state---Oklahoma, Wyoming, Montana---and a small rural town. I want as much as possible to be around my own kind. But all of these details big and small, are in God's hands. They are safe there. If all depended upon me alone all would go awry.

 

Anyway, once I have a fair idea of how the job search will go I will head for the forests around Mount Hood, about 70 miles from the city, there to spend some days walking about and breathing the clean air that God made for His pinnacle of Creation---umm, that would be you and me. This is a fine way---the only way for me---to re-enter the life of my nation.

 

When I think of it, I have lived or worked or traveled for more than 14 years outside of America. That is about one-half of my adult life. Living in the States again will require adjustments to be sure. There will be surprises. I will have to get used to some unusual things, like:

 

Clean water.

Hot water.

Machines that work.

Laser quick internet.

Efficiency.

Not taking malaria pills every week.

The use of real money---that would be dollars.

A lack of trash everywhere.

Laws that are actually enforced.

All the books and DVDs and CDs and magazines and stuff delivered right to my door.

More beer selections.

Not carrying a machete while walking in the country.

Myriad Thai, Mexican and Chinese restaurants.

Myriad consumer goods.

Wheat Chex.

Marble Fudge ice cream.

Starbucks.

Cooking at home.

Soap, toilet paper and hot water in public bathrooms.

No beggars.

Cheap cars.

Cool clothes.

Playing my 11 guitars.

A fine high-end audio system---mine.

Not sweating all the time.

Buying my first hand-gun.

 

Man, these will be tough, but I think I can handle them.

 

 

APRIL 13

Have Gun Will Travel

 

With farmer's AK-47 near Dulce Nombre de Culmi.

 

 

 

Bring 'em On!

 

 

Honduran farmers await gang members near Dulce Nombre de Culmi.

 

 

APRIL 20

 

Today is my last full day in Antigua, and perhaps my final day in Central America. I do not feel sad or anything of the sort; I feel relieved, actually. All that I have wanted to do here I have done. There simply is no reason to hang around. It is time to head home and begin a new chapter in my life.

 

I cannot say the same about South America, however. Something about the place---the Andes, for one---will draw me back I am sure. Even now I dream Andean dreams and think of things Chilean and Argentine: Bariloche, Patagonia, myriad lakes and forests, crystalline glaciers, air so clear and crisp it hurts to breathe. I could very easily head down sometime in October (I have a free ticket to Rio) and work my way south to the island of Navarino by March, and then head north, reaching Arica by June.

 

Ah...but job and responsibilities you say. I know, I know. But if these things were the only important stuff in my life, I would not be...well, Mike Austin---whoever he is. (Obviously I have been thinking about this.) But more than likely I will be working somewhere in the US this September, God willing. If not, it will be time to load up the pack.

 

In a nutshell: If I get a job, God has spoken---He wants me to work. If I do not get a job, God has spoken---He wants me to travel. (If I win the lottery, God has spoken---He wants me to buy a new high-end audio system.)

 

What would people say! Not that it would matter much. Or that I would care much.

 

Someone once called me the freest man she knew. Still true.

 

All Highs, No Lows

This is the last entry of my sabbatical. I will write again for sure---too much, depend upon it---but not until I return to God's Country. This 'Year of Living Dangerously' will be then officially over. Is there a summation? Some clever words or advice I can give? Not really. This past year is not so much a done deal as it is a work incomplete---much time must pass before all of the year is understood. Think 'impressionism' rather than 'classicism'; Manet rather than Michelangelo.

Which does not mean I have nothing to say. All who know me know that this would be quite impossible. What has happened to me since June? Well, a lot. To write of the highlights would be enough---for now---to put the year in some sort of place. So what were these high points? Well, there were a lot---a whole lot. In no particular order of importance...

All was new. I went to places I had dreamed of but never visited. Iruya, Argentina---a type of village one cannot find elsewhere: shimmering in frozen sunlight, shockingly beautiful huddled beneath its  canyon walls, hovering in crystalline air. Putre, Chile---a delight, all small and comfortable, guarded by a family of ice-capped peaks, living under sun-soaked days and frozen nights. Cotahuasi, Peru---the deepest canyon in the world, home to Inca who still speak Quechua, reached by vertigo-inducing stages of descent (and not for the faint-of-heart), where the route passes pre-Colombian ruins. Camp there---you will be alone---and hear the voices of Inca long-dead.

And the friends along the way! Eddie and Julietta and Adrian in Lima---known for ten years; Chip and Lucia and family in Santiago---truly a family blessed by Christ; Wilma and Vanina in Rio--real cariocas, alive to life, beach addicts and friends forever. What they showed me of Rio cannot be garnered at any price; the brothers Mario and Leonel---Guatemalan all the way, whom I met all of 21 years ago, to whom I owe much (the Spanish language, the volcano Pacaya, pepian, a love of Guatemala); and the unique Lauren---Yale grad, bright, beautiful, poetic---she is Irish after all---all of 22 years young, out to save the world---or at least the Central American part of it.

And ex-students! They were everywhere; Adrian in Lima, Paula and Giulia in Cuzco, Vanina in Rio, a whole swath of them at the American School in Rio, and those '5 Cool Guys'---Jeff, Matt, Sebastian, Erik, Nathan---in the jungles of Costa Rica. After hanging out with them, it was time to come home, as nothing could beat the time we had out there in wilds. Nothing.

Cities long-dead drew me to Peru; they draw me still: not Machu Picchu this time---that I had conquered long ago---but the ruins of the Chachapoyan---a vanished threat to Inca imperialism who left behind the astounding '7 cities of the Condors'---Kuelap, Gran Vilaya and scores of others yet uncovered; Choquequirao, an Inca site that dwarfs even Machu Picchu in its spectacular setting in the high Andes. Walking there and then continuing across two Andean passes---120 kilometers of footwork, 10,000 meters all told up and down---took every ounce of my physical and mental discipline---but it was Christ who carried me; the Hellishly hot Paraguyan Chaco, abandoned by God except where His Mennonites have settled, the only light in near absolute darkness; Rio, a city that boasts the finest location in the world, cursed by a venal and corrupt political class, diseased by a nightmare of narco-violence---but all the while enjoying the blessing of the soothing, oh-so-democratic and rejuvenating beach.

Then I was yet again in Central America, which I had first visited in 1983. All was new and transformed ---except the jungle, for only God and timber companies can do that. Tim and Kristina, lovers of God and some of the finest people on earth,  met me in Belize and together we went to the Mayan citadel of Tikal; one week later I became lost near those ruins and almost gave up the ghost after wandering for hours---thank you Lord for pulling me out of there; a climb to the Honduran Mount Celaque reminded me of Oregon, and I became aware of the first intimations of home; cool and hip little Granada, Nicaragua---like Flores and Antigua in Guatemala, and Copan in Honduras, this place reeks of leisure and culture. If you are bored here you are dead.

So there it is, both too long and not nearly long enough---and all is still too fresh to really come to grips with. With time and beer and many Masses I will understand more of all that has happened since June. I will certainly let you know when I do.

There is yet one thing I need to say. I am different to be sure: stronger physically, mentally, spiritually. Whatever limits I had have long been pushed outwards and upwards. I have at times thought myself invincible---foolish, I know, but if you had been there on those frozen Andean peaks, all alone, far from civilization...well, you get the idea. And it is not peace and quiet I yearn for; I yearn to rediscover my nation---and to do this the way I want, with tent and pack (and gun). This part of my life, this 'year of living dangerously', is over. The rest of my life will follow. I am in no hurry.

Bye.

Goodbye to All That

 

It had to happen some time---I am finished with my year-long walkabout, and thus finished with writing about the oddities that are common when one hits the foreign road with pack and tent. From now on, writing will be concerned with things more or less domestic: economics, history, politics, theology, culture, backpacking in the US, and the odd picture or two.

 

And it was a bit unsettling---and shocking---to realize that what I had planned to do for years, what I had dreamed of doing for years, what I had threatened to do for years---was now over. Done. Finished. Completed. Wrapped up. Thanks for the memories. Close the book. Now let's move on, Ok?

 

Right now I am sitting in the Guatemala City airport awaiting my United flight to Los Angeles. Last night I went to eat Italian food with my two Guatemalan friends Mario and his brother Leonel. I first met them 21 years ago during my first journey down here. Mario had just started a Spanish school, La Escuela Tecun Uman. His was the third such school in Antigua. Mario was a forward-looking sort, as 1983 was a time of extreme violence in Guatemala. Civil war raged in the hills and cities. It was a brutal affair---but then, all Latin American civil wars were such. There were few tourists, of course, but as peace came they began to flood into Antigua. Now the school is filled with students from around the world.

 

It was tough to say goodbye, as I said it not just to Mario and Leonel but to Antigua, to Guatemala and to Central America. Right now I can see no reason why I would ever return. All was said and done in my eight journeys to the region. And I am not the nostalgic sort; I would never return to a place only to relive past victories. There are too many future victories that will claim my time.

 

Tomorrow begins another sort of life from the one I have been living for 11-odd years. There will be surprises. I look forward to them. I hope they don't hurt too much; I hope they don't cost too much.