Travel Notes


Joe Arnstein

My passport has fifty-two pages. It replaces my old one that had forty-eight, which I renewed before it expired because it was almost full. Well, also because I was hoping for a less frightening photo.

Anyway . . .

Sometimes I look at the stamps on all the pages and think of the adventures that went with them. (Though some of the best adventures didn’t get stamps.) 

Remember the Pan-American Highway?

This was the “four-lane ribbon of concrete” we learned about as schoolchildren that was going to connect Alaska’s remotest outposts with the southernmost settlement in Patagonia. It was to create a kind of NAFTA in pavement, where trade and commerce could blossom the length of two continents. Where American adventurers would cruise the Andes in the comfort of their station wagons. Where a Chilean family, perhaps seeking fast food and the ozone layer, could drive all the way to our most magnificent wilderness. Just imagine their delight: salmon, grizzlies, eagles, and gas stations probably owned by Dick Cheney.

This is not something I think about every night before bedtime. But it’s all coming back to me now. Maybe that’s because at the moment I’m sitting in a bus looking out the window at Costa Rican rain forest. A couple of hours have passed since we left San José and we’ve just started down the mountains that make up the Continental Divide, headed south to San Isidro de El General.

And the bus has stopped.

So, because I have nothing else to do, I’d like to set a few things straight.

First, nobody calls this the Pan-American Highway. It’s known as the Inter, nothing else.

Secondly, it never connected the Americas. Somewhere in Panama the construction crew disappeared into the Darién Gap. Or quit to become drug smugglers. Probably both.

Finally, the four lanes of concrete are really two of asphalt, except where they’re one of gravel. Or none, of mud.

Which is right here, because it’s rainy season in the rain forest and about one hundred feet of Inter have just washed off the side of the mountain. Eventually they’ll wind up in the Atlantic Ocean. Oops. Make that the Pacific. And I’m kind of glad they left without us.

Listen, if you’ve never experienced bus travel in Latin America, you should definitely read about it.

The main thing to know is that buses are ubiquitous. You could probably catch one in Tijuana, keep transferring, and make it all the way to Tierra del Fuego without ever having walked fifty feet. (Well, except for that Darién Gap. But even there, I understand, some ex-construction workers will carry you to Colombia for a price.)

Also, remember that “bus” is a very big three-letter word. It encompasses a multitude of vehicles ranging from air-conditioned luxo-liners to pickup trucks with benches in the back. The latter are especially recommended if you really want to experience the rain forest.

I once spent forty minutes in Mexican jungle “donating blood” by the side of the road. What eventually saved me from death by mosquito was an old VW camper with an interior completely done in purple tufted vinyl and matching shag carpet. In any case, one hour and seventy cents later I was let out at the door of my downtown hotel.

Oh yeah, bus travel down here is cheap. In Belize, for example, the Batty line will take you across the entire country for about what a New York taxi charges to go around the block. Some other countries are even less expensive.

Naturally, there’s a reason for the low prices.

Did you ever wonder what happens to American school buses that can no longer pass inspections? Run your hand under the seat of a público in Caracas and you may find the gum you parked there when you were in seventh grade. Unless someone already used it to fix the transmission.

Bad brakes and bald tires are the norm whether you’re riding in a bus, autobús, or buseta; camioneta, carro, or expreso; guagua, porpuesto, or voladura; van, combi, or in a camelo. That last one is a Cuban humpbacked trailer that holds up to three hundred passengers in a pinch.

Make that “in a squeeze.”

Whatever the name, be sure that no matter where you stop, vendors will clamor aboard to sell you everything from coconut candy to ham sandwiches to little stuffed frogs wearing serapes and sombreros.

Which is what is happening right here, right now, on the side of this mountain.

And from past experience I know that as soon as we’ve bought all they have to offer, a big old earthmover will magically appear. Within minutes it’ll push the uphill part of the landslide into the gap where the road used to be and off we’ll go.

Thinking about my Latin American travels, I remember that in Caracas there is a very wide street that has been converted entirely to pedestrian traffic. I never had a bad meal in Venezuela and this particular street is lined with great places to eat. Perhaps the most popular being the Café Gran Via. Yet, because of the way patrons chose to situate themselves, it always reminded me of Dante’s nine circles of hell.

Nearest the kitchen sat the typical tourists. They dressed the part, kept at least one guidebook on their table, and communicated with the waiters by pointing.

Next were the serious businessmen, suit wearing and cell talking.

The third group were the harder core travelers who didn’t need guidebooks and would probably be embarrassed to carry one.

Fourth were the so-called business people who were always looking for the fast dollar. Or bolivar. These blended into the outright hustlers, who in turn led to the criminals, and finally, in the seventh circle were some beautiful people in their own category.

Yeah, I know. Only seven circles while Dante had nine. I figured the last two, the depths of hell, logically belonged to the eatery on the other side of the street—Tropi Burger. Maybe it was possible to get bad food in Venezuela. Tropi Burger?

One day I was seated in one of these circles—your guess—sipping, well actually guzzling, batido de fresas. Fresh strawberries, condensed milk, and some ice, all whipped smooth in a blender. Also at my table were a British woman who read tarot, a street performer from Guyana, and Anson, who hailed from Trinidad. It was Anson who insisted that we huddle up and converse very seriously whenever the police walked by.

When I asked why, he explained that this made him look like he belonged with us.

“But why do you need to do that?”

“Because I have no papers.”

“Anson, you mean you’re in a foreign country without a passport or anything? How is that possible?”

Another of life’s epiphanies.

“I take the green road, mon.”

The green road. What a concept. You may think security at Kennedy is a pain. Just imagine that you’re in Central America, standing for an hour under a sweltering tropical sky while waiting for a petty Third World–bureaucrat to finally open the window of his air conditioned hut and ask for your documentos. To make matters worse, you can see him playing video games while you’re risking sunstroke, malaria, dengue fever, and possibly the vapors. I’d done this way too many times but now there was an alternative. Fantastico.

Since then a number of my adventures have been as an indocumentado, an illegal alien. Though, I must admit, these started by accident.

Not knowing how many separate lines were involved the first time I crossed into Panama, I thought I was done after dragging my wheelie bag through four of them. Then I climbed onto a little bus. It was only after we’d gone about ten miles that the immigration police stopped us, came on board, and checked our visas. Oops; busted. They escorted me to the other side of the road and waited until I got on another buseta that took me back to the frontier.

I’d gotten off easy. A guy I know had the same thing happen, but he was detained, taken to an airport, and shipped back to the US. You’d think he’d be grateful for the free ride, but no. His car, his wife, and his kids were still in Costa Rica where they’d been living for months.

Some years ago I’d taken a path between Southern California and Tecate, Mexico, simply because I felt like going on a walk through the hills. This was before September 11 and before narco homicides. Right now I wouldn’t go to Margaritaland in anything less than an armored personnel carrier—if that.

In any case, I was ready to apply the green road concept to a rematch with Panama. And, in fact, have done so twice.

The first time I was with a lady friend who had no passport. No problem. We bused into the mountains and walked through the coffee grounds. Sorry. Poor choice of words. Through the coffee fields, or maybe the coffee plantations. The result was a very comfortable, if caffeinated, three-day weekend in the country.

More recently, near the Caribbean coast, I used an old railroad bridge to cross the muddy river that was the border. If you’ve ever seen Stand by Me you know what I was thinking. Multiple choice question: Would you rather get hit by a train or jump into a crocodile condo? Correct answer, fortunately, was “none of the above.”

There does remain yet another green alternative for ignoring boundaries. I resorted to this one while again in the company of senorita who lacked a passport.

Even though there’s a path that sees so much traffic that you can buy cold drinks along the way, she would not walk through the jungle to Nicaragua. Something about green roads, green snakes.

So I met an official who, for 1,000 cordobas (about ten green dollars in those days), wrote my friend a salvo conducto, a safe conduct.

Was it a bribe? Well, let’s call it a contribution. Like the little cooler of sodas I bring when going to Haiti.

As an American, I am, in fact, opposed to any form of bribery and once sat in a Belize customs shack for three hours because I was unwilling to come up with a five-dollar tip. Thanks to an engrossing James Lee Burke novel, one I was obviously willing to read until the vacas came home, the inspector gave up and sent me on my way.

Bottom line, I probably could get along fine without the green road just as I’ve gotten along without the Pan-American Highway. But why would I want to do that?

Issue Twenty Two