21 January 2015

What's in Central America That Keeps Me Going Back

Tikal, Guatemala

“For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.” – Robert Louis Stevenson

I get asked that question a lot these days as I prepare for my next adventure down South. And the basic answer is that I'm not done with the place yet. THIS particular excursion will take me to all 7 countries revisiting a few spots, but mainly checking out new ones. I'll visit the Caribbean and Pacific sides of just about every country I visit. Belize only has a Caribbean side, but I'll be working my way around both sides of it, nonetheless. Most of my time will be spent in Guatemala and Nicaragua, two countries I am already familiar with. So why the affinity for such places in the world...? Well, I'll tell you.

First, its because of Panama. I spent some time there while in the military. Twice, for jungle training and we got sent down there on another occasion. It was the first place in the world that was absolutely totally different from all I had known. I grew up in Texas and RARELY left the state and hardly traveled more than 200 miles from home. Germany was my first duty station after my enlistment. Germany was different, yes. But I still understood the urban landscape, about catching a cab, the weather was a bit cooler most times, and the people were not entirely different from my home with the exception of the language.

Seven Altars, Livingston, Guatemala
The first time I got off the plane in Panama, I could barely breathe! The humidity in East Texas can get pretty damn muggy. The humidity in Panama required GILLS! And the HEAT! Training was restricted to mornings and afternoons. It was forbidden to do anything requiring exertion  in the middle of the day. I could eat a brat from anywhere in Germany. The first time I burst open a coconut in Panama, I had the runs for two days. EVERYTHING took acclamation.

But it was BEAUTIFUL!!

I recall being on patrol once and as lead element, I halted the formation upon coming to a clearing of the biggest tree I had ever laid eyes on. I had seen taller trees before, but this one was bigger around than a house. A few hundred meters of more machete bush-wacking and I rolled up on another one TWICE as big. One tree you DIDN'T want to have a close encounter with was Black Palm. This tree is the inevitable offspring between a palm tree and a porcupine. The spines that stick out will penetrate damn near anything, but break off with the slightest upward or downward pressure. And then there were also things in the jungle that could kill you. Simply by the grace of God, I avoided a face strike by the countries deadliest snake, the Fer-de-Lance, with its neurotoxic venom. Had it been the more aggressive bushmaster, I'd likely be dead. And oh my God, the last thing you would ever want would be to get held up in the jungle after sunset. We had a squad that was so unfortunate as to experience this. I did not get their story. But I saw the evidence in their demurred stature and swollen/bumpy bodies. I didn't need to know anything else. I simply wasn't going to have my ass in the jungle at night.

Hostel Dorm, Livingston, Guatemala

“Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends.” – Maya Angelou

A few times, we got opportunities to visit the nearby city. I stayed close to the base (on one of my visits) at Fort Sherman's Jungle Operations Training Center, but some of us spent time getting into trouble in Colon. I rarely went further than the closest place to get food or see a movie. The times I did get out and about, what I recall most are the women and what I now know were "chicken" buses. If you are an ass-man, you will love Panama. And these buses reminded me of how the homies did their cars with a lot of custom flashy work, but just in a more colorful fashion. I promised myself that I would come back and visit this country again as a civilian without the restrictions I had as a soldier.

Typical Nica breakfast prepared by my host, Dona Lucia!
Another reason is that its CHEAP! Good gracious! My ticket to Guatemala City was listed at $202 one-way. I did some seat upgrades that brought it up to almost twice that, but a round trip ticket can be had for $365 to several places in Central America. I usually have to fly one-way because I'm never certain when I start a trip, when or from where I'll return. Accommodations are also inexpensive. Sure you can pay $100 or more a night in plenty of places. But you can also stay for $20 a night and do VERY well, in some of the most gorgeous spots on the planet. Food can be had for $10 a day and you get FULL. Catch a bus for an 8-hour road trip for $10. If I wasn't moving around so much, I'd probably just rent a residence for a few months for a few hundred or maybe house-sit for nothing. Deals abound! I'll be in at least 20 spots staying in one place for no longer than 4 or 5 days in most cases. I'll be on Little Corn Island for a week in Nicaragua in my own little cottage on the beach. I will even be in a dog-gone treehouse with a queen size bed and hot water shower in Guatemala!

But its also the experiences that keep me returning. I get to better understand new and various cultures. They may be of the same ethnicity, but highland people do it differently than those by the coast. And the Garifuna do it differently than everybody.  Then there are the fellow travelers who come from all over the world just to cross your path. I made many new friends that I still talk to today. And some, not so much. The pics I come back with are some of my best artwork and they make me money. That should be reason enough. And I get better every time I go there. I always come back with great stories. Okay, so I almost got killed a couple times on my last visit. BUT I DIDN'T DIE! And it was mainly my fault. I'll def be more careful this time around. My girl with be with me on this trip so I know I can't take chances like I did on the last one. I love the people. I love the land. What can I say? It keeps me coming back.

Tobacco Caye, Belize

What's next? Well that all depends. I could get a wild hair and keep on after Panama into Colombia and keep skirting South down the Pacific. I'll do that then or on my next excursion, but South America may as well be the next itinerary item, mainly Columbia, Peru, Bolivia, and Chile. I can break it up and do Brazil and Argentina later. If I don't do South America right off, then Southeast Asia will be the next priority. Now, I'm talking extended visits for the most part. I still want to make my way over to Iceland for a few weeks, but I'm not counting that in my "gone for a while" excursions. I estimate 3 months for this trip in March, but its looking more like a few weeks more if not right at 4. So who knows? Tomorrow is not promised to me. I'll stay focused on the event ahead of me for now.

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