04.04.2012 - 04.04.2012
Editors Note: The words below were written on the 10th of March but the expedition is currently seated in Ushuaia, Argentina, the end of all navigable roads south, the furthest from New York one can drive. A little apartment belonging to Senora Zaprucki is my cozy lodging. Ushuaia is cold this time of the year and I write while the wind howls outside the window. The fall season down at 54 degrees south is quick and strong and the wet winds come from the fiords in the west and from the south over the Beagle Channel.
I'm resting, recovering, reflecting here. I hope to get some little stories down on this blog in order to paint a picture to show you readers what I've been doing to be gone from home for so long. It's been a trip. Keep a look over the next few weeks for updates.
March 10, Santiago, Chile
Procrastination and lack of internet have left me to my current situation - over saturated with memories and stories, highs and lows, and reflections of the characters that I've met. All untold. More lately, often when driving a lonely road, I think about what will be potentially lost if I fail to share what I have seen. For the moment I have the motivation and the facilities to do just what I have been meaning to do all along.
The expedition, the beast that has served me and others (soon to be mentioned), has landed in Santiago Chile. A 28 hour drive through the Atacama Desert from the Peruvian border was enough to propel us into a new season. It's late Summer in this part of Chile. There's summer haze, crisping leaves on the hardwoods and that faint smell of Summer that is only easily perceived when one is suddenly immersed in it which is exactly what happened a few days ago when we left the Chilean Andes for the Atacama whose long straight neutralizing roads led us here.
I haven't seen this much sophistication since I left Corpus Christi Texas for Mexico in early December. The same feeling of excitement birthed from change ran through my consciousness when I crossed the Reynosa border into the slummy frontier towns and their tin roofs and lawless traffic and their stiff smell of burning garbage. The organization and cleanliness of an American city (Corpus might not be the best example of cleanliness) looks white next to the apparent chaos that is the black of a Mexican frontier town. For this and in the name of long waited progress south on the Expedition, I experienced genuine mind sharpening excitement. In December, I entered inside the parenthesis that I can only name as the 'tropics'. Today, March 10th marks the closed end of the parenthesis and the limit of where all before this day I will now try to begin to account.
Cartel violence and warning after warning from the informed and uninformed created a major rift in the expedition that had to be navigated over. Mexico was the Atlantic and I had to traverse if I was ever to reach Europe. Real risks were present but the sensationalism had me in its grip. My first night south of the border I asked Antonio, a hotel assistant, what the gunshots in the distance were all about. He put me at ease. They were fireworks and they were for the Celebration of the Virgin of Guadeloupe. To my other inquiry he insistent that he was vigilant and that Pale Cheeks would be untouched when I awoke in the morning. I was embarrassed but like a naive child I needed the reassurance.
We forged on south and finding ourselves in a town called Cosomaloapan Mexico with a tank full of diesel that I had not enough pesos to pay for. I took a hard line when they told me they didn't accept credit card. (it's not that uncommon for stations south of the border to make claims that they only take cash when they full know that they can process credit) The attendant pointed to a small motorbike and called over a joven. The kid, evidentially the station's utility man, motioned me onto the back seat of the little bike and we headed down the dirt road into town. He knew all the shortcuts - over sidewalks, squeezing through fences and weaving around big trucks hauling sugar cane. I had no choice but to go with the flow and so my general feeling was an easy one. "This is the first of many pickles", I thought. After swinging by the only bank in town so I could take care of business, the joven stopped for cigarettes which he insisted at my asking that they were for the other guys at the station. We returned and I settled the bill, finding Pale Cheeks exactly as I had left her. A feeling of triumph was in the air of the kind that one inevitably gets when he discovers he won't be uncomfortably stranded for an indefinite time. In my good spirits I called back over the joven (who as I imagined was already taken away a little by the gringo mystic) and handed him a 12 pack of Modelo. 'Ah so you're a winner' I heard one of the uniformed attendants say to the kid as I was driving away.
another mexican town, san cristobol de las casas
In Puebla Mexico I found myself navigating down a narrow cobblestone street packed with families and school kids gitty with the Friday afternoon. The old stone and stucco buildings, some 16th and 17th century, squeezed me in and I felt as if I was in Italy. Puebla was settled as a Spanish colony in 1531 and further south, Antigua, Guatamala in 1543 and Leon, Nicaragua in 1524, two other cities I would soon visit. Soon I'd be numb to 300 year old patina'd facades but in Puebla I was impressed. From time to time during the month after Cheek's and I crossed out of US territory, we would stop in awe over something far out, strangely central american, something that made us check our growing distance from home. I remember clearly Puebla Mexico bringing one of these feelings on.
Puebla's Plaza Central on an early evening was a stage for giggly teens, couples overly displaying affection, businessmen sharing a beer, kids and baloons, little greasy empanada stands. A nun and her microphone were in full uniform at one corner of the plaza preaching the charms of the Virgin of Guadeloupe, beside her the only unoccupied benches. Lights were in place illuminating the broad branches of the Plaza's hardwoods, the palm trees and the old majestic cathedral at the west end. From my post seated outside the cafe, I was approached by an elderly woman selling icons of the Virgin and in my liberated free-as-a-bird good spirits I begged her and her cane to take a seat and take a break. We shared a coffee together and spoke about what my spanish would allow of God and family, marriage and kids. She shead a few tears towards the end and two thoughts crossed my mind: "she's a good woman" and "wow my spanish is better than I thought". We both parted ways winners, she with 60 pesos and myself with a well-crafted icon, us both with a pleasant memory of good conversation.
At the border between Mexico and Guatamala I got my first taste of two concepts of which I now know intimately-the backwards central american border crossing protocol and the Goodwill that Pale Cheeks has with male border officials (and any police officer who was once a boy). I was lacking a vital document that the mexican side was supposed to give me when I exited the country. "You didn't receive it because you didn't ask for it," I was told.
In Guatemala Old Cheeks did all the work. Her hood and doors were opened and they were permitted to let have their fill of whatever they wanted to see. But it was by no means an inspection. They asked questions about tents and camp stoves, the winch and the snorkel. I could have smuggled anything in. Soon the officers just wanted to make sure I knew the way into their country. I remember looking south past the gate at the swarming crowds carrying loads on their backs, trading, money exchanging hands, shacks and their canopies with trinkets, clothing, all encroaching into the road. I found my way out of the clutter and onto the poorly maintained Guatemalan national roads with their potholes, randomly placed speed bumps, blind curves. There were shacks with little rows of coffee plants right off the road where the shoulder should have been. "So this is what I am to expect" I thought.
Whenever stopped at military checkpoints or flagged down by traffic police or questioned at borders, I kept my secret weapon in close reach. By using liberally the word 'adventura' I was able to immediately communicate my way out of further interrogation. The word, when coupled with the patina of Pale Cheeks and what I have learned to call her "Goodwill", lifted more eyebrows and got more colleague to colleague smirks than any other word in the spanish language could have. I counted around 20 checkpoints in Mexico. Central American Countries' biggest threat from northern borders are smuggled weapons from the US. The military presence on every corner of road I traveled (at least gave the appearance) that the country was getting its act together.
quetzeltenango from el bolsen
Quetzeltenango, Guatemala's second largest city, made itself my home for a week. There I studied spanish at the Proyecto Linguistica Quetzeltenango and stayed with a spanish speaking host family. Fate gave me Gisela and Boris, mother and father to three dogs, two little white barking ones that lived inside the house and one big shepherd mix who, from what I understood, protected the apartments weakest point of entry, the roof. But it was as if they had been real parents before. They warned me of walking home at night, hated that I drank beer with my classmates after class, both loved and hated that I had a big appetite (like most Guatemalans they were on a tight budget), begged me to calm down when I discovered Pale Cheeks had a second radiator leak as it sat in their driveway. Half of our meal time discussions were about their former guests - the guy who complained about not getting enough eggs in the morning (he needed more protein), the girl who ran every morning "could you believe she just went out and ran for no reason", the Australian who spoke great spanish but then suddenly left them for another host family. The loving Gisela had her motherly flaws. She was always overly imploring - about why I didn't cut my hair or why I was traveling alone without a wife or why I was skipping dinner - i just wanted to yell out in english "Come on Ma I'm going out with the guys give me a break!" Boris was a shoemaker who operated out of a two story corner of the apartment. The smell of leather and rubber cement brought me a constant reminder of the uniqueness of my lodging. A long list of orders to fulfill at the time of my stay (it was just before Christmas) were burdening him a little and his two hired shoemakers were in daily with fresh roles of leather and bags of prefabricated soles which they brought in by bike. Gisela packaged the final products and twice I had to navigate around stacks of shoes in the morning making my way out to class. I was charmed when Boris told me he'd take off from his day's responsibilities to join me on a day trip to some mountain hot springs with Pale Cheeks.
I learned from my long walks to and from school that many of the locals worked out of their homes. I'd pass furniture makers, bakers, barbers and families selling groceries and nicknacks. The streets were narrow, the homes one continuous jumble of concrete, old timber, and tin and so if you didn't know the neighborhood well enough you wouldn't have a clue on where to find the store to by your eggs. If you wanted a 1/2 dozen sweet breads you might have to knock and yell "buenos dias". Out might come a woman in a bathrobe, or a little nina sent out to make the sale. The neighborhood appeared rough on the outside but all I found was pleasant community. By the end of the week I was getting "buenos dias" from everyone, especially the barber a few doors down, my new pal, who I had solicited mid-week for Gisela's sake.
Boris and Gisella
I left gritty Quetzeltenango for touristy Antigua but not before solidifying a solid bond with fellow student, Daniel, a free thinking Aussie with wits and a natural ability for roughing it. Over a mid week beer after class we got into talking about our host families. He had a new family this week, his old family was awkward and a little stingy on portions and the wife over salted the food. Ha! I connected the dots. Daniel was the Australian deserter. On the points he made I could not disagree. We had a laugh at one of the first of many commonalities we were soon to find between ourselves. We also made an accord. If we were to cross paths south, he'd join me and Pale Cheeks for a little adventure.