Peter Nelson’s travels El Salvador to Panama

by Peter Nelson

On into El Salvador.  Still moving fairly fast, only one night in every stop until I find a nice little coastal town called La Union.  Here the seafood’s very tasty, and the sunsets are pink and peaceful.  Perfect spot for a rest from the rigors of this extended vacation.

El Salvador’s a beautiful country, but more expensive than the rest of Central America so far.  Have to find a zapateria, since the old shoes, bless ‘em, seem to be giving out.  The people here are very friendly and the beaches magnificent.  My first view of the Pacific Ocean in a long time, these great endless crystal curls.  Also, El Salvador is more stable politically, or was more stable, I should say, since two generals were assassinated in the capital last night.  We went through a village literally built out of lava — roads, houses, fences, everything stony black.

The El Salvador/Honoduras border is a monument to a century of squabbles between the two countries.  The exterior walls of the customhouses on both sides of the border are riddled with bullet holes — bricks are shattered, the mortar’s pulverized, windows broken, doors boarded up.  Whenever you have a dispute with the neighboring country, why waste your time writing a letter to some corrupt official?  Much better to just hop into your truck, drive up to the border, and shoot up the customs shack as an eloquent statement of your disapproval.

The Pan-American highway isn’t very long in Honduras.  And neither am I.  Got a ride all the way through, and the Code of the Road clearly states it’s bad luck to get out before a ride ends.  Nice light as we wind our way up into the foothills, the late afternoon sun soaked up by all this bare and sandy ground.  Pretty dry.  Barren of both vegetation and people, the poorest country in Central America.

Somewhere in Nicaragua, after Managua, I join up with an American couple also thumbing down the Pan-American.  One would think that three people would have more trouble getting rides than one person, but we don’t have a problem.  There is, however, some difficulty in getting a visa for Costa Rica, and since it’s some sort of Catholic holiday, we have to go down to the coast to San Juan del Sur to find the Costa Rican consul who has the chest-thumping name of Solomon de la Selva (Solomon of the Jungle).  Papers in order, it’s back to the highway, and a quick ride to the border.

On the Nicaraguan side, an American family is stranded.  Papa is sitting on a low stone wall, holding his head, looking with despair at the packed clay ground.  My Spanish is better than theirs, so I talk to the officials and help iron out their problem.  Out of gratitude, they offer us a lift.  It’s a bit tight, four of them and three of us, with luggage to match, but they have a big station wagon.  And we’re compatriots, after all.  They are travelling fast.  But it’s too fast and too crowded for me, so I get off at Libería (contravening the Code of the Road) and make my own way more slowly into San Josè.

One long rideless stretch, walking along this empty winding road in the rain, but hey, this feels like the real ‘Central American experience’.  On a high plateau, in the thick rain forest, the road’s unsurfaced, just some dirt scraped out of the sides of the soggy green mountains, and it winds, thick with yellow mud, slowly down to the valley below.  Big fat raindrops, slow but heavy, like being pelted with small wet stones that dissolve on impact.

Down in San Josè, I make my way to the University of Costa Rica to meet Marua, my ex-brother-in-law’s older sister.  OK, it’s a tenuous relationship, but whatever.  She’s a professor of archaeology and chair of the University anthro department.  Since her husband is out of town, it wouldn’t be seemly for me to stay with her, so she takes me over to Ricardo’s.  He lives in the suburbs — clean and comfortable, but a long bus ride from downtown.  Fernando’s brother is the perfect host, takes me to various hot spots, but mostly we just walk around downtown, the words “ojos bonitos” trailing after us.  Blue eyes are rare in this part of the world.  And the new MacDonalds, which has just opened, is packed full.  The good life moves south, I guess.

Mornings are bright and sunny, but cool — perfect weather.  Beautiful pine forests and mountain pastures right out of Switzerland.  Every afternoon, however, the clouds gather on the mountain slopes and hang there, ominously biding their time.  The rainy season is hot on my trail, and when it hits, things will be pretty soggy for the open-air hitchhiker.  No more sleeping under the stars.  But then the stars wouldn’t be out anyway.So, on into Panama.  Getting closer to the equator, and now the vegetation’s thicker, humidity’s higher.  Davìd, my first stop, has a lot of two-story tin shacks, much like a poorer version of New Orleans.

Then Panama City, my first extended stop.  The American-administered Canal Zone nearby has basically turned this city into another US Army suburb.  Tiajuana south.  The street hustlers are very young and very fast, but luckily not very persistent   It doesn’t take them long to figure out I’m not a good source of anything valuable, so they soon ignore me.

Now I slide back into the solitary-traveler-in-no-hurry schedule.  The cheapest hotel I can find is just off the Zone.  So dark inside that even on the brightest day, you can’t see the stairs and have to grope your way down the halls.  Still, it’s extremely cheap, and right next door is a good place to grab a quick breakfast.  Wander aimlessly around the city, down to the docks maybe, then a leisurely lunch.  The old City is up on a peninsula.  Nice old decaying government buildings, still used, but looking deserted.  Nice sea views from the benches at twilight.

Evenings are ‘treat time’.  Meals in slightly classier establishments than breakfasts or lunches.  (“Classier” meaning someone occasionally sweeps the floor.)  Once a week or so, I go to a movie.  Almost any film will do.  Other nights, I pick out a sidewalk cafe and linger over a cup of coffee for a couple of hours, surveying the passing scene.  Amazing how quickly one can insinuate oneself into the local life.  After two weeks here, I’m an old Panama hand.

But the problem is, how to get to Colombia.  My thumb is of no use, because there’s no road to Colombia.  I run into a couple of young ladies from Brooklyn, energetic types, totally dressed in black, even the frames of their glasses are black.  Their suggestion is to head east to Colòn, find a boat to San Andreas, and fly from there to Cartagena.  It’s the cheapest way to go, but certainly not the most direct, since San Andreas is way back up north, just off the coast of Nicaragua.

But it sounds good.  So I say a reluctant farewell to Panama City and the leisurely comfortable life there.  It’s funny, three weeks there, basically a pretty unexceptional city, and except for the two women mentioned above, I don’t think I ever spoke to anyone except to buy food.  Intense, complete solitude.  But I got attached to the place, the decayed atmosphere of a former colonial port town.  Gloomy, dingy, moldy  but somehow romantic.  Joseph Conrad would have loved it.

Three days in Colòn trying to organize a boat to San Andreas.  Eventually, someone tells me that my ‘hotel’ is actually the oldest whorehouse in the Western hemisphere.  OK.  Only then do I notice that all the other ‘tenants’ are female.

And then I wonder why they rented me a room.

And then I wonder why none of the girls ever approaches me.