This is the End – Or is it Just the Beginning?

This is the End – Or is it Just the Beginning?

This is the end.

In the words of the somewhat famous and totally unpredictable Jim Morrison of The Doors, this is the end, my only friend, the end.

My family and I just completed a year-long overland adventure through Mexico and Central America. We left Virginia on August 1, 2015 and drove our 1985 Volkswagen Westfalia camper van – which we named Wesley – through Mexico and Central America. We’ve now landed softly at the family lake house in New York’s Catskill Mountains where we will take contemplative walks in the woods and frolic in the clear lake water before launching back at the end of the month into the hard work of being middle class Americans.

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Relaxing on the dock at the lake has proved to be a soft landing before re-entering the rat race of middle class America.

I want to thank Paige Conner Totaro, the founder of www.alloverthemap.net for hosting my blog this year and for providing R and me with lots of other advice and inspiration. If reading about our adventures has infected you with the travel flu, as we hope it has, you should continue to visit Paige’s site for great tips and ideas for individual and family travel. For example, Paige’s latest post describes an amazing Yucatan vacation rental for families, to host a family reunion, or for a girlfriend getaway. It may be too fancy a place to host a drunk frat brother weekend.

I also want to thank everyone who we met on our journey who helped us, hosted us, or just said “Hi.” I don’t want to start naming names for fear of leaving somebody out, but the amazing and adventurous people that we met are the main reason why this year will be unforgettable for us. Thank you.

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We only had these folks in the van for a few minutes, but I remember the conversation and we all had a few moments of fun with strangers, which seems easier to do when we are all foreigners to the place where we meet.

Finally, thanks to all of you who have taken the time to read my blog. I know that sometimes I can go on and on with no apparent point, but I hope it was as much fun for you to read my blather as it was for me to think it up and write it.

At the outset of our trip, I attempted to interest you in what we were doing by posing three questions. Now, finally, as my last blog post of this trip, I will attempt to answer them.

Q1. Is Mexico as lawless as the media portrays?

A1. I don’t think so. We survived without anyone shooting at us, robbing us, or even frowning at us. On the contrary, Mexico was perhaps the most pleasant surprise of the trip and we spent five months in various places there. It is one of the most beautiful countries – stunningly tall mountains, endless and mostly deserted beaches, outrageously delicious and affordable food – and has the most friendly people. I kid you not, even the machine gun patrols that drive around looking for trouble-makers waved at us. Don’t let the media fool you.

Q2. Does the Bright-rumped Attila still ply the skies above Central America?

A2. We didn’t see the bird in our travels through Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama, but we did see a mass nesting of sea turtles, hundreds of monkeys, stingrays and reef sharks, scorpions, tarantulas, dolphins, sloths, jaguars (at a zoo), and toucans.

R clowning around with a big monkey at the mall in Panama City.

R clowning around with a big monkey at the mall in Panama City.

Also, to soften the blow of missing out on the Bright-rumped Attila, we did spot its cousin the Bright-rumped Tanager one fine day while hanging out on the back porch of our workaway in Costa Rica.

Q3. Can a 1985 Volkswagen camper van handle the ups and downs of the Andes Mountains?

A3. Unfortunately, for reasons too depressing to get into again, we didn’t make it to South America so I am not able to answer this question based on an actual experience of driving through the Andes. However, based on our van Wesley’s performance through the numerous Sierra Madre ranges in Mexico, I have no doubt it could have conquered the Andes Mountains as well.

When we reached the top of one of the mountains we'd climbed, we just had to stop and pee

When we reached the top of one of the mountains we’d climbed, we just had to stop and pee

Okay – now that there are answers, I will pose a final question. This one was originally asked by the even more famous and less unpredictable Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin in the popular but not very rock and roll song “All of My Love.”

Q4. Is this the end or is it just the beginning?

A4. It’s the beginning. Even though the blog of our real-time overland adventure is at a convenient stopping point, the Vanamos family will not go away. We will be launching our own website – www.vanamos.net – very shortly.

On the website you will find updated articles about our experience posted weekly, the latest about our vantastic Volkswagen Westfalia – Wesley, information about preparations and budgeting for our year long adventure that you can use to plan your own trip, maps, what we know about border crossings, family travel guides for each country we visited so you know where to go and what to do, photos of me in a bathing suit to print and hang around your house for daily inspiration, and much, much more.

So stay tuned and let our end (of sorts) be your beginning. If I’ve delivered any message at all this year, let it be that there is a lot more to life than living 9 to 5.

The Road Less Traveled – Leaving Nicaragua

The Road Less Traveled – Leaving Nicaragua

We finally left the comfort of Paul and Marisa’s front yard after spending 11 days going to the beach, riding bikes, going to a rodeo, eating home cooked meals, and making natural skin products. Coconut learned to make kombucha, a fermented non-alcoholic hippie drink, and got her own “scoby” to make more, and we even celebrated Paul’s birthday by taking him out to a restaurant in one of the first downpours of the rainy season.

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The whole gang smiles for the camera just before the Vanamos clan packs into Wesley to drive north.

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Abbey, Owen, and J pose for the iPhone.

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Marisa, Coconut, and Abbey at the market trying to sell chocolate, lip balms they had made, and knitted head scarves and drink coozies made by Marisa

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Rodeos in Nicaragua are a lot more entertaining than what they would be anywhere else. Several years ago, someone got gored and died. Fortunately, we didn’t see anything like that, but we did see a bunch of drunks running around inside the arena.

Everyone got along easily and we could have stayed even longer with this generous, fun, and like-minded family but we’ve learned a few things by always being the last to leave the party. One of the things we’ve learned is that eventually you’ve got to leave the party.

 

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Chef Paul dishes out breakfast.

 

 

Our next stop was Granada, which was founded by someone named Cordoba in 1524 and which bills itself as the oldest city in North America. I’m not sure how to reconcile that claim with the facts that 1) it’s in Central America, not North America, and 2) the indigenous peoples all the way up to Mexico had been living in cities for centuries before the Spanish arrived. However, I think we can all agree that calling it the “first city the Spanish renamed and enslaved the occupants” is not a good  slogan to attract tourists.

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The view over Parque Colon in Granada from the bell tower of the Cathedral. The tower was open because a construction crew was using it as access to the roof – so why not let tourists up as well!

Nevertheless, Granada does have a long and interesting history. Because of its importance as a trade hub on the shores of Lake Nicaragua, it’s been sacked, looted, and burned to the ground multiple times by pirates – including by Sir Henry Morgan – one of the high-seas bandits the British Crown knighted to wreak havoc on the Spanish colonial empire.

Cannon and monument near the Parque Colon commemorating the heroes of Granada

Cannon and monument near the Parque Colon commemorating the heroes of Granada

William Walker, the American mercenary and self-proclaimed grey-eyed man of destiny, also took the opportunity to put the torch to the city in 1856 when the Nica Conservatives and Liberals united to depose him of the presidency that he had won in an election he had rigged. Walker was eventually captured and executed in Honduras.

Gun powder storage facility called La Fortaleza. It's the closest I've come to seeing a Spanish fort on this trip.

Gun powder storage facility called La Fortaleza. It’s the closest I’ve come to seeing a Spanish fort on this trip.

Each time it was turned to ashes, however, Granada has rebuilt, and it is now renowned for its colonial architecture, and wide, tree-lined avenues. We stayed at Hotel Antigua Estacion Granada, a beautifully restored colonial home with lush gardens in the interior courtyards. I was excited to walk the city in the relative coolness of the morning to see all the places that had been burned and rebuilt and then come back for a dip in the hotel pool before breakfast. I’m not kidding. I really was excited.

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Being out for a morning walk unleashed my artistic side – I took a photo of these four row houses because of the bright colors.

R poses in front of the small pool at our hotel in Granada. There were basil plants growing behind the lounge chairs and we cut a few leaves to have with tomatoes we got in the market.

R poses in front of the small pool at our hotel in Granada. There were basil plants growing behind the lounge chairs and we cut a few leaves to have with tomatoes we purchased in the market.

In the afternoon, we took a horse-drawn carriage ride through the streets and climbed the bell tower of Iglesia La Merced, the second oldest church in Granada, for a view over a sea of red-tiled roofs to the lake and with Vulcan Mombacho like a bearded giant on the southern horizon.

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Despite its grimy look, Iglesia La Merced is actually relatively new. It was burned by Walker in 1856 and subsequently rebuilt. Though, it could stand a new coat of paint.

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Our carriage driver put J at the reins while he took a phone call.

There was more to see and do in and around Granada, but time is running short so we traveled northwest into the hilly interior of Nicaragua, landing in Somoto. This medium-sized city (pop. 15,000) would be our last overnight stop in Nicaragua before we crossed the border to Honduras and pushed on to El Salvador.

Somoto, and the villages and mountains around, have long harbored supporters of the populist government movements in Nicaragua, so have been points of interest for U.S. Marines and the C.I.A. as the U.S political machine interferes again and again in Central American politics. There are apparently several hikes in the area to places of importance for the Sandinistas, including the remains of a plane they shot down during one of its strafing runs over the area, but we didn’t do any of that.

Evidence of the revolution. In the 1980's revolutionaries roamed the hills around Somoto and their presence is still felt with murals like these.

Evidence of the revolution. In the 1980’s revolutionaries roamed the hills around Somoto and their presence is still felt with murals like these. They eventually won the presidency, giving rise to the Iran-Contra affair in which the U.S. supported revolutionaries (from the old regime) in protest of the new, revolutionary government.

Wesley, the golden treasure, lies at the end of this rainbow in Somoto, Nicaragua.

Wesley, the golden treasure, lies at the end of this rainbow in Somoto, Nicaragua.

 

Instead, our plan was to visit the Grand Canyon of Somoto, so J could add to the list of things he has jumped from. Our first visit to Nicaragua in January took us past the canyon, which intrigued us, but we couldn’t stop because we were anxious to see R’s friend at Pochomil. We were happy to get another shot at it.

However, the day of the tour, J woke up feeling poorly and just as we were about to call our guide to cancel, he showed up at the hotel and told us the trip was canceled because the river was too high – it has been raining daily as the country heads into the rainy season.

Because we didn’t have plans or obligations or anything else to do, we decided to leave the country. It’s one of the nice things about being accountable to no one – you can do what you feel like doing. We could have chosen to stay too.

Rather than rappel in the canyon, J and I did some work on Wesley. The 31-year old muffler bracket has rusted through so we had to rig a wire to hold the muffler in place until we can get to a repair shop.

Rather than rappel in the canyon, J and I did some work on Wesley. The 31-year old muffler bracket has rusted through so we had to rig a wire to hold the muffler in place until we can get to a repair shop.

In fact, we might have stuck around Nicaragua another day or two if circumstances were different. In total, we spent about two months of our year trip in Nicaragua, so we obviously liked it. Leaving just like that is not the send off we would have given it. But, we know we will be returning in a few months to sign the closing papers on the piece of property that we purchased at the beach. We might be back to Nicaragua a few times after that as well. Maybe one of those times we’ll get to do the damn Somoto Canyon.

Abi joins R and I as we stand outside our Nicaraguan lawyers office after having signing a purchase agreement for a lot in the Bosques del Mar development. purchase land

Abbey joins R and me as we stand outside our Nicaraguan lawyers office after having signed a purchase agreement for a lot in the Bosques del Mar development.

Our border crossing into Honduras was like all of our border crossings except the first: unplanned and without ceremony or fanfare. We are getting pretty good at borders – R stands in line for the vehicle permit, I stand in line to get our passports stamped, Coconut and J are available to step in if I need to go over there or if R needs to come over here, or if someone needs to go to Wesley to get money to buy grilled meat on a stick from one of the vendors – and it took us less than an hour to check out of Nicaragua and into Honduras.

Unlike our previous mad dash across Honduras in January made under a big, blue sky and through parched, dusty valleys, this trip was gray and rainy. Still, we made the border with El Salvador in less than four hours, including a half-hour for lunch under a shady tree at a gas station.

Our plan for El Salvador was to go to the Pacific coast to a turtle and pelican rescue place, but we scrapped it because it was going to be dark before we got there. Instead, we ended the day in a town a dozen kilometers from the border. We’re not sure yet what we’ll do tomorrow.

This Day in Costa Rican History

This Day in Costa Rican History

The knowledge we have gained from living out of hotels for the better part of the last eight months has come in handy during our latest Workaway experience because we are helping to design rooms for the ecolodge that Esteban and Tom (our hosts) are building. R, Coconut, J and I have spent a lot of time since last August discussing different hotel features and we know what we like.

We arrived here in Nazareth, Costa Rica, on Monday, April 4, and on Tuesday morning we spent a few hours on the farm Tom owns raking banana leaves then we went swimming at a nearby river and had a picnic.

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Tom and Esteban packed the stove from their kitchen into the pick-up to cook lunch at the river. Here, R enjoys a spaghetti and sauce picnic lunch after a refreshing swim in the river.

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Coconut contemplates the rope swing and the long drop to the river.

We have spent each morning since then at Tom’s family’s ferreteria (hardware/construction material store) building the first of the guest houses Esteban and Tom hope to float on the farm’s lake. They also plan to build tree houses.

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Men at Work – who can it be now? Me, Esteban and Tom move part of the roof out of our workspace.

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Coconut and J help out by weatherizing the metal angles that will hold the frame of the buena casa together.

Now, when I say we are helping to “design rooms” I do not mean that we are helping to design rooms in the engineering sense of the words. What I mean is we are saying things like, “Make sure you have lots of hooks in the room so the guests can hang things.” and “It would be cool if you could have walls made out of plants.” We are idea people – interior designers for rooms that do not yet exist.

Esteban and Tom are very receptive to our ideas. They say things like, “Yes” and “Sure” and then they continue to build the square thing without any blueprint and with scrap wood from around the yard. It’s actually quite amazing that the “buena casa,” as they like to refer to it, has taken the shape of a house because many times they don’t even seem to measure before they cut and the level is given only cursory attention.

Yet each day it looks more and more like something you would draw on a piece of paper if you were drawing a house, and now, on Monday, April 11 we have made a resolution to stick around until the house is done to see if it will actually float.

This day is also celebrated in Costa Rica as the anniversary of the defeat in 1860 of the American mercenary William Walker and his Band of Hooligan Opportunists, by a coalition of Central American armies at Rivas, Nicaragua. Walker was captured and executed in Honduras, thus ending his attempt to unify Latin America as an English speaking colony under his rule.  Walker may have been the only person in history to have united the Central American countries, though not how he intended.

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Life isn’t all work. Costa Rica has lots of whitewater options. Here, J, Jonas our guide, R, Tom and I sample some of what the Sarapiqui River has to offer.

I mention this historical event because Coconut and J both start each day by saying they also want to leave Costa Rica – which dissatisfaction may be a holdover from our recent visit home. It’s very hot and there isn’t much for them to do while the house is constructed. J usually ends each day saying that it was fun because we typically only work in the mornings and then go swimming in the afternoons and he is adding to his collection of things he has jumped off. But Coconut doesn’t have any interest in doing the fun stuff either (she even sat out our whitewater rafting trip this weekend), which is a little discouraging. She is anxious to make like Walker and get the hell out of Dodge.

Iguana – It’s What’s for Dinner

Iguana – It’s What’s for Dinner

As we drove through Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua, we often saw people standing along the side of the road holding large, spine-backed reptiles bound to a stick. The people  would wave these things at us as we drove past as if they were performing some sort of ceremonial blessing. We realized that the people wanted us to buy one or more, but we were not sure what we were supposed to do with the thing once we got it home.

One afternoon while I lounged outside Wesley while R and the kids shopped for fruit in the market, I noticed two teen boys with slingshots in their hands gazing intently up into the tree tops. I had seen spine-backed reptiles munching on tree leaves during our travels and despite months without seeing a single episode of “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” (or perhaps, because of this) I am still sharp enough to put two and two together – these boys were aiming to shoot one of these reptiles out of the tree. It still wasn’t clear for what purpose – to be sold as food or as a pet – but knowing how the creatures are obtained before being bound and waved about like shishkabob was kind of like watching the movie Memento, where the scenes happen in reverse. Although, this actually made more sense to me.

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Iguana enjoying the morning sun. Would you eat such a peaceful and plump critter?

We eventually found out from our friend Maria that the bound beasts are destined to become the main course, and in fact, she had recently enjoyed a taste herself. Maria described the reptiles as a delicacy like turtle eggs, but I guess with a less effective political lobbying group because it is now universally illegal to sell turtle eggs or meat in Mexico and Central America while the poor reptiles are openly offered for sale.

In these countries where things seem so hard to come by – volcano guides wear dress shoes to go on vertical hikes and nothing is discarded except plastic bottles, plastic bags, and other useless, broken plastic things – it’s not surprising that iguanas are seen as a food source.  The things are as ubiquitous here in Costa Rica (I’ve nearly run over several as they dart across the pavement) as the common squirrel is in the Eastern U.S. so there is a ready supply.

I know a few people who would vote to add a slingshot patrol to the local police force to thin the ranks of our cute, rodent-like neighbors. I’m just not sure those people want squirrel meat in their stew.

What is more surprising is that I have yet to see iguana offered as a choice on any restaurant menu. Maybe the perception is that American tourists – who are also ubiquitous here in Costa Rica – don’t want it on their dinner plates. Or maybe it’s just not very good.

Rocking and Rolling Honduras to the Tunes of Lou Reed

Rocking and Rolling Honduras to the Tunes of Lou Reed

Pretend you are a Honduran male who has come to the United States to make money to send to your family in Tegucigulpa. Your wife and three daughters run a small tienda (store) out of the front room of their house and have been paying $3 a week “tax” to the local drug gang that runs things around there. One week, the “collectors” tell your wife that their service is going up to $4 a week, but she can’t pay that much so only gives them $3. In the meantime, the gang members get beaten and robbed by the police and the next time they visit your wife, it isn’t the collectors, but the hit crew. Your two younger daughters watch their mother beaten, strangled, and murdered before fleeing the house. Your father, who lives next door, and a neighbor were also witnesses and had to flee. Fortunately, your oldest daughter was on a church retreat so did not see anything, but still, she can’t go home because the gang is angry and suspects that your wife cooperated with the police, which is part of why they killed her. The gang wants to eliminate any potential witnesses to the murder so anyone who they think may know something is on the hit list. Life is cheap.

Your daughters never return home. They stop going to school and remain in hiding for a year while your petition for asylum and their petitons to join you is considered by U.S. immigration. You are granted asylum. Your daughters arrive in the U.S. almost two years after their mother’s murder. You haven’t seen them in over seven years, but now you are together again, in the U.S.but without your wife. You won’t ever see her again.

This tragic story was one of R’s clients, and R has heard many others tales of gang brutality over twenty years of working with Central American clients that are even more horrific. Things are especially bad in Honduras. Tegucigalpa, the capital city with 1.8 million inhabitants, was recently declared the murder capital of the world and there are large swaths of the city where police don’t go. We didn’t want to go to Honduras at all, but because of the way God designed Central America, we had to cross one hundred kilometers of the country to arrive in Nicaragua.

We prepared as best we could – we gassed up Wesley and I got my fake wallet out and put twenty bucks in it. We spent our last night in El Salvador, Honduras’ neighbor to the southwest, as close to the border as we could get and still have a decent room – about 15 kilometers from our planned crossing at El Amatillo. After breakfasting on bananas and cereal in the comfort of our air conditioned hotel room, we pulled up to the steamy, teeming border checkpoint at 9 a.m. where we chatted with a couple from California that was also crossing that day, and driving straight to Nicaragua, Honduras’ neighbor to the east.

Wesley waiting patiently at the El Salvador-Honduran border. Given what we've heard about Honduras, we quipped about the years on the sign - Honduras! A functioning democracy from 1946 to 1947!

Wesley waiting patiently at the El Salvador-Honduran border. Given what we’ve heard about Honduras, we quipped about the years on the sign – Honduras! A functioning democracy from 1946 to 1947!

None of our border crossings have been particularly difficult – it’s just the tedium of waiting, typically in sweltering heat, while the immigration people do their thing and then tell you to go pay over at that window and get photo copies of every document you can imagine, including your third grade report card, at some other window, and then come back. Crossing into Honduras was no different, except R started chatting with the woman behind the glass and she ended up making the copies for us right there, and let us pay in U.S. dollars right there, even though just before she processed us she made the California couple go to the bank to change dollars to Honduran Lempiras (21 L to 1 USD) and get photo copies at some other building. We got the special treatment.

R and I pose at the El Salvador-Honduras border at 9 a.m. on another sweltering day while waiting for grilled meat on a stick.

R and I pose at the El Salvador-Honduras border at 9 a.m. on another sweltering day while waiting for our order of grilled meat on a stick.

There were hundreds of people hanging around the immigration complex and we were a little wary because of all the tales of woe R knows about Honduras. It made her comment that you can’t tell a bad person just by looking at them – a bad person could be in a suit or jeans, have brown hair or black hair, wear flip-flops or sneakers – and that made me think of the Lou Reed song “Sweet Jane” and his lyric that “villians always blink their eyes” and maybe we could use that as a clue. But a lot of people blink their eyes so that didn’t really help, but it did provide the impetus to put the Velvet Underground record “Loaded” on the player and it turns out that it was the perfect soundtrack for driving Honduras.

The first part of our Southern Honduras drive was through flat, dry, dusty, scrub land with brick houses and wooden shacks standing here and there, none of them painted with the bold and vivid colors we are used to from Mexico and Guatemala, so everything was just brown. It’s how I imagine the American West to have looked in the 1880’s so it felt right to listen to “Lonesome Cowboy Bill” while driving through.

We had lunch at a Chinese restaurant in the city of Choluteca and watched Saturday afternoon traffic circle the roundabout before we began our climb into the mountains and the border with Nicaragua at El Espino. The drive into the hills was actually quite breathtaking – a vast, empty stretch of green laid out below us as far as we could see with a big, blue sky above – and the landscape seemed very familiar to me like I might have been a rock on the hills of Honduras in my past life just staring out over the valley for a century or two. Around this time “Oh, Sweet Nuthin’” came on so I was especially moved and feeling very small in this great big world – I ain’t got nothing at all – so I pulled over a few times to try to take a picture of everything to remember how it was making me feel, and I’m sure I didn’t capture it, but that part of the drive felt pretty special and it’s how I’m going to remember Honduras.

Nothing but bush and hills and a big sky. It's how I will remember Honduras.

Nothing but bush and hills and a big sky. It’s how I will remember Honduras.

I'll also remember Honduras this way.

Another one of my attempts to capture the melancholy of the southern Honduran hills that I felt while listening to “Oh, Sweet Nothin'” by the Velvet Underground.

After a while the road started winding through this little town and then it just kind of ended at the immigration building where the usual money changers with fat wads of cash and “helpers” hang around. The helpers want to lend assistance by  showing you where to go first, where to get copies made, where to go next, and they bug the customs people. We don’t typically get a helper because R can navigate things perfectly well with her Spanish chops, but it can be useful – we paid $2 to a guy at one of the busier crossings when leaving Guatemala and got moved up in line because the guy we “hired” kept pestering the customs official to do our paperwork next.

Wesley waiting patiently again after we put 90 kilometers of Honduras behind us.

Wesley waiting patiently again after we put 90 kilometers of Honduras behind us.

We drove about an hour into Nicaragua and spent the night in Condega, which is in the mountains and was a base for the Sandinista movement in the 1980’s – more on that in another post. There was a woman grilling meat on the sidewalk next to our hotel and it smelt so good we all agreed it was the perfect dinner to complete our trifecta – three meals in three countries in one day. Breakfast – El Salvador; lunch – Honduras; dinner – Nicaragua.

Enjoying a dinner of grilled meat in Nicaragua- our third meal in our third different country for the day. We had breakfast in El Salvador and lunch in Honduras (and a morning snack of grilled meat in Honduras as well.)

Enjoying a dinner of grilled meat in Nicaragua- our third meal in our third different country for the day. We had breakfast in El Salvador and lunch in Honduras (and a morning snack of grilled meat in Honduras as well.)

 

Migrant Story

Migrant Story

With all the free time R and I have had each day after sending the kids to school, I’ve been able to read a lot of books. In addition to Scott O’Dell, Trenton Lee Stewart, and books by someone named J.K.Rowling, that were recommended to me by Coconut and J, I was also able to finish a book titled “Enrique’s Journey” which has particular relevance to us as we make our way south through Mexico and Central America.

The book is an account of a Honduran boy’s life and the reasons that compel him to undertake a dangerous journey north through Mexico on top of freight trains and running from gangsters and authorities to find his mother in North Carolina. Enrique’s mother had left him and his sister in the care of family members when Enrique was five and departed for “El Norte” with the hope of making money to feed and support them. After ten years of mostly downs in his life, and overwhelming feelings of loss, abandonment, anger, and despair, and with his own economic prospects dim, Enrique sets off on his own journey north to find his mother. The book is compelling to us for a number of reasons.

First, the story is unfathomable. R and I can’t imagine, and I daresay you can’t either, the despair a mother must feel to leave her children behind to travel thousands of miles with the hope that she can land a job that will allow her to save enough money to, first of all, send money home to feed them, and second of all, either bring the children illegally to the U.S., or return home in a few years with enough money to buy land, build a house, and start a business. It is serendipity that I was born a U.S. citizen and my biggest problem is often whether to order one pizza or two, and what toppings.

In describing Enrique’s journey, the book goes into detail about the many dangers faced by him, and migrants generally, as they travel through Mexico. There is no means for them to immigrate legally so they are reduced to jumping on and off moving trains, losing limbs or their lives when they miss a step or handhold, getting robbed and beaten by gangsters in Chiapas, Mexico, getting robbed and killed by Mexican authorities throughout the country, starving, freezing, and being caught and sent back south (usually to Guatemala) to try again. Enrique was caught by Mexican immigration and sent back to the Mexican-Guatemalan border town seven times.

As we all have no doubt heard from Donald Trump, it’s not a unique thing for people living in Central America, particularly Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, to immigrate to the U.S. to look for work. What is often missing from the sound bites, however, is any information on the reasons why people are compelled to leave family and friends behind to travel to a foreign country where they are often discriminated against, taken advantage of, and looked at suspiciously. I mean, let’s get serious, these people are not coming here so they can clean fast food joints’ toilets for minimum wage and then go out and get drunk and rape people and commit other crimes. I’m not an expert on this issue so this blog is not going to get into the many social and economic reasons why people might put their lives and families at risk to get to the U.S.; I encourage you to read the book instead because Sonia Nazario, the author of “Enrique’s Journey”, is a journalist and she does offer explanations. And let’s just say that the U.S. is not innocent – its historical Latin American policies are at least somewhat responsible for the lack of current economic opportunities within the countries. But let’s not go there, or dwell on the fact that our Congress still hasn’t come up with a sensible immigration reform proposal; instead focusing on partisan issues like trying to impeach the Commissioner of the IRS and restrict the sale of oranges at government cafeterias. In somewhat related current events – R and I recently read a NY Times article about how the U.S. has outsourced its border patrol.

A second reason why the book was so compelling to us was that when we leave Oaxaca in a few weeks, we will be heading directly into the belly of the beast – Chiapas state in Mexico – where Central American migrants face the most risk, including at the hands of Mexican immigration officials, who are just as likely to shake a migrant down as a bandit or gangster. Actually, we are more heading into the calf and ankles of the beast because we aren’t going to the places where migrants cross the border and hide in cemeteries and marshes to avoid detection from bandits who rob and beat them and from Mexican authorities who rob and beat and deport them, and we certainly won’t be riding on top of any freight trains, but to see this stuff first hand would be pretty fascinating. This is a pretty good overall summary of the dangers migrants face. There are also heart-warming stories – check this out.

Finally, a few weeks ago when we were driving back from Hierve el Agua, the frozen waterfall, we reached the top of a mountain and there was a guy walking alongside the highway, so we stopped to ask if he needed a ride. I may have stopped because I was still feeling the good will from getting a ride myself that morning after I had walked up from the campground to a store in town to buy some milk for our cereal and someone heading back down the hill stopped and told me to climb in. It turned out the guy at the top of the mountain was heading to Oaxaca city, which was where we were going – an hour’s drive away, so it was good for him that we did stop because even Wesley could get him there a lot faster than it would have taken him to walk there.

This guy had left a wife and two sons in Guatemala a few weeks before and was heading to the U.S. to make enough money to buy land. Two years, he thought. He had just been robbed of his last 400 pesos by a taxi driver who promised to take him to Oaxaca, only to kick him out after driving for a short while, and he hadn’t eaten since the day before. We gave him a few oranges and a can of beans – good hobo grub – and dropped him at the migrant shelter in Oaxaca where he would be able to stay and eat for a few days. Then he would be back on the road, just like we will be in a few weeks. Though, we are each writing very different stories.