Off to South America

John and I had a friend who gave us our first ride from Portland down to Roseburg. A few rides later we made it to Ashland. On the outskirts of town we hopped a fence and got into our sleeping bags. A few minutes later we heard some rustling noise. In the dark we mistakenly lay down in a pasture and the cows came over to check us out. We hopped back over the fence and slept in a ditch by the side of the road. Cold - 35 degrees. Good sleeping bags though, so the night was pleasant enough. We hitchhiked from there to a desolate pulloff just south of the California border. It was illegal to stand on the I-5 freeway to catch a ride, so we waited on the off-ramp. We decided to double our chances. John went up to the freeway while I thumbed from below on the ramp. In a short while a small pickup stopped for John. I ran up the hillside to join him. The driver, Tim wasn't really prepared to take two passengers, but with a little conversation he grew comfortable with us. We threw our backpacks in the pickup bed and hopped in for a ride. Tim told us he was heading for Reno, not exactly the route we wanted but at least it was south. We figured we could get south to the border from there as well as anywhere. Driving along we were having a great time and Tim told us that Reno was just a stop for him and that he was then going to San Diego to return to the Naval base there. What luck! We'd ride all the way together.

That night in Reno Tim did some gambling. I had never been in a casino and I watched in amazement as some guy plopped down hundred dollar bills, one after another at a craps table. In a few minutes he lost a thousand dollars. What struck me was that I had saved just a bit more than that and it was going to be enough to travel 8 months through Latin America. (my whole trip cost me $1500). I remember it seeming unreal to me.

A few hours gambling was enough for Tim and we headed out that night towards Sacramento. While crossing the Sierras we came to Donner Pass. I mentioned something about this historic site that somehow John and Tim interpreted as me saying I wanted to camp there. So with snow all around us, we got into our sleeping bags in the open pickup bed. Tim in the cab. Several times in the night Tim started the engine to warm up. Thawing out in the morning I asked why we stayed there instead of a more comfortable lower elevation spot. It was then that I found out that they thought it was my idea...go figure. We slowly warmed up and had breakfast in the California capital.

The following account comes from John's journal:           

The day was nice, as the sun shined practically the whole way down.  So far the Cal Coast has been one of the most beautiful spots I have seen.  We passed through San Luis Obispo, which is a nice little city, and then we stopped in Santa Barbara for a while.  We visited Tim’s aunt, who had many interesting stories to tell.  She is fairly old, about 65, but she is very active.  A couple weeks ago she went up to Alaska, and soon she’ll be off to some other place.  She served us some sandwiches, we talked some more, and I enjoyed the visit.  For all practical purposes, that was the end of the night because we spent the rest of the time going thru LA.  It just kept going and going etc. etc.  Anyway, we finally made it to San Diego at 1 am.  We stopped at this Info Center right by the bay.  Mission Bay.  I slept on the lawn, about 100 ft. from the water

Sat.  October 13, 1973

             We woke up early and sat around for awhile before we finally got something to eat.  We ate breakfast at Oscar’s and then went downtown to get some things.  A parade commemorating the Navy’s 198th B-day was going on at the same time so we watched that for awhile.  Then Tim took us to the border and we said goodbye.  We didn’t have very much trouble at Tijuana and they gave us Tourist Cards for 180 d.  We hope they are valid.  Soon after we got a ride with this Mexican driving a Le Mans.  He said he was going to Tecate, about 32 km, and along the way he got thirsty and stopped for a beer.  When we got back in, the car wouldn’t start, so we stayed there for 2 hrs. before some guy started his car.  Before this, about 3 other guys showed up with jumper cables but the car didn’t start.  Apparently the last guy knew what the problem was.  We got out ride to Tecate and we tried to hitchhike out of town but no luck so we took a bus to Mexicali for $16.25=$1.32.  Bob and I had to stand the whole 87 km, about 2 hrs.  When we got to Mexicali we sat in the park and talked with these young boys.  We needed a place to stay outside town, so we got on a bus and went somewhere – we didn’t even know where we were headed.  We walked into this field of dirt clods and went to sleep.  Sort of.

            I woke up before the sun finding the insect bites I received last night fully grown.  We took a bus back to town and went to mass.  Then we got a ride almost to San Luis.  About 6 miles outside of town.  We stopped to talk to this family whose car had a flat tire.  They were very nice and they gave us a ride to San Luis.  After hitchhiking (espanol – raite) for over an hr. we got picked up by the authorities who wanted to check our papers.  They told us to stop hitchhiking and that we were to take a bus pronto.  So we inquired about a bus ride to Guaymas, but the ticket seller said we had to wait until an hr. before the bus was scheduled to leave.  So we hacked around town for a few hrs. talking with the people and getting mosquito bites.  Finally we tried to get a ticket but the man kept saying “un poquito mas.”  We had been talking to this Mexican, so he came over and helped us get our tickets.  They cost 76 pesos ($6).  When we got on the bus we had to sit on folding chairs in the aisle.  After awhile I got to sit down in a seat but I was still uncomfortable.  We left San Luis at 8:45 pm and arrived in Guaymas at 9:30 am 13 hrs.


Back to my recollections here:

Before long we found ourselves in another world south of the border. By hot buses and wood-seated train we made our way to Guaymas. My friends weren't around so we hiked our way out to a remote spot called Miramar on the Gulf of California to camp. Under a starry sky we laid out our bags. No tent, just the open air and rocky desert sand and only cactus for shade. In the relaxed morning that followed we sat on our bags. I was making repairs on some mosquito netting, Juan (as I now referred to John) was writing some notes. I glanced at something crawling by - a tarantula. Something I'd never seen, certainly not in Oregon and never in an open campsite. No sooner had we gotten over the shock of seeing that when I saw another desert dweller, a scorpion. I was horrified to think that either of these might have crawled into my bag with me during the night. We decided right then that we'd pack up and move along.

A couple from California showed up in a Volkswagen van to camp. We chatted a bit, then Juan and I went for a swim in the warm water. I had a snorkeling mask so we were able to enjoy some of the reef life below. After we got out we packed everything and passed the mask to our newfound friends. While they were out in the water, we leaned our packs up against their van and headed into town to get train tickets to Guadalajara. Walking back to camp I remember singing Beatles songs and Juan asking me how I knew so many. Some things just stick in your mind, I guess. A happy, carefree afternoon. The last carefree afternoon for a long time I'm sorry to say. When we got back to our spot we didn't see our packs. We asked the couple if they had put them inside the van. No. They hadn't seen them. While they were out snorkeling someone had come by and STOLEN them! Naive fool that I was, I had packed both my passport and traveler's checks. All I had now were the clothes I was wearing. Juan, more prudently had his passport and checks with him.


Rethinking Our Position

What now? Needless to say we were devastated. We walked back into town to the police station to make a report with little hope. Dejected we returned to the beach. We were able to borrow a pair of sleeping bags from the couple and as we lay under the infinite sky I cried as the desperation hit me. We decided we had no choice but to carry on. For two nights we stayed around, sleeping now with cockroaches, scorpions and tarantulas in the hope of recovering our packs. Of course, they were long gone. And soon, so were we. We caught the train to Guadalajara. As we neared the city a Mexican woman came up to us and handed us a bag of groceries. We tried to reject her kind offer, but she insisted. She told us we looked so forlorn and destitute that we must need the food. On balance, that single act of kindness outweighed the cruelty of the thief who made off with our precious possessions.

The rain was pouring when we got to the city. I stepped out of the bus and the water came up to my knees. We found a clean little hotel room for the night to rest and prepare for what lay ahead. We went to the orphanage the next day. Somewhat ironic that we now were like grown orphans. We got settled in and made our way to the US Embassy and American Express to replace my lost passport and traveler's checks. I was issued a temporary passport which needed to be renewed in 3 months. We spent a few days trying to replace some essentials. We soon found out that good backpacks didn't exist in Mexico. We finally found a couple small Boy Scout style canvas packs. Talk about travelling light. I will say that in hindsight getting around was much easier with small packs and few possessions.

My replacement passport photo taken in Guadalajara.

How it happened, I can't remember exactly, but we were invited to a youth club dance and party. There I met Carmen (Maria del Carmen de Los Angeles. How's that for a name?). What a beauty! For the next week she helped me forget anything in the past. All innocent. Walks in the park, lunch with her family and just being there. Had I not had wanderlust I might still be in Mexico raising a family of 10. One more "what might have been".

Mexico D.F.

With renewed energy we said goodbye to new friends and Guadalajara and headed to Mexico City. We had an invitation to stay at the Casa Cuna "La Paz" (Cradle House -The Peace)  orphanage in the heart of the city, a few blocks from Chapultepec Park and coincidently, the Russian Embassy. A great spot to relax and make final preparations for our continued trek. One thing we thought we needed to have was a backpack tent. I had one in Oregon and I asked my mom to mail it down to general delivery in Mexico City since we figured to stay there at least a week or two. We figured with a tent and a blanket or two we'd be fine camping anywhere in Latin America. And at least safe from bugs and snakes and mosquitos.

Thanks to Google Earth, I was able to see again our beloved "home":

Each day we'd get up and explore the city, one of the largest in the world. It never got boring. We'd hop on the subway for a dime, choose a destination at random, get out wander around. One of the nuns at the orphanage had a nephew named Miguel who took a liking to us and took us under his wing. He took us out to Teotihuacan, the Aztec capital where we climbed the pyramids and visited the gardens at Xochimilco (written about by Paramahansa Yogananda in Autobiography of a Yogi as the most beautiful place he'd seen. Time had not been kind to the floating gardens, but I digress). Below is a photo of Miguel and his children from that day with a pyramid in the background:


We had also met a Colombian priest through the nuns at the orphanage. He was from a wealthy family. He must have taken pity on us and our complaints that of all the things we missed, steak and potatoes were near the top. He offered to take us out to some swanky restaurant to have a meal like no other. Oh yum, I could hardly wait. We chose a night to meet. That afternoon we spent with Miguel who wanted to treat us to lunch. He took us to a small restaurant to have a traditional Mexican dish, pozole. He was excited for us to share this treat. Let me say that Miguel was quite poor, but generous beyond limits. Wherever we went he insisted on paying. So our soup arrived. It was thin broth with a few small pieces of meat and hominy. I was appreciative, believe me. But hominy soup was not what I craved at the time. I knew that evening we'd be wined and dined, so I didn't mind that I was still a bit hungry. When we got back to the orphanage later, the priest came to pick us up for dinner. On the drive he said that we'd be going to his place to meet up with a bunch of his students who were near our age. A party. Up in his apartment he made us feel at home. He brought out a curiosity to show us, an original bottle of Napoleon Brandy from the 1800's. But he didn't open it for us...oh well. Then 5 or 6 kids showed up. They had decided that instead of going to a restaurant that they'd fix a super meal there. We started with some hot cocoa into which we melted some soft cheese, really delicious. Then for the main course. Can you guess? Pozole. Pozole! AAAAHHHH. I laughed and cried at the same time. I'm sure there is some cosmic lesson in that. 

So the next day we had to make our way back to the Gigante shopping center for our 16-cent burgers. At least we had Gigante, burgers and fries for just pennies. We ate there almost every day. Eating was a big part of the adventure of travel. We ate a lot of street food, some of which was excellent and cheap. Mexico City has every kind of food of course, and we soon found a Pizza Hut. Not exactly American style, but ok. As we came out we ran into an American woman, jungle clothes and a big backpack. She asked us how the pizza was. We got talking to her - Benita, sharing travel stories. She had travelled by herself around the globe and had some great insights for us. She was on her way to South America too. By amazing coincidence, our paths would cross again.

After a week or so I started to check in at the Post Office to see if our tent had arrived. No luck. After a couple weeks had passed, I was getting anxious. The clerk insisted it hadn't come yet, and told us to be patient. While we spoke, I looked behind him to a shelf where I saw the tent! The package was torn and I recognized the blue ripstop nylon. Incredible. I got upset when I saw this and pointed it out to him. He didn't really care about our position and the inconvenience we had in checking the status. So he grabbed the package, took a customs form from it and told us it would be something like $20 to claim. I blew up. I told him the tent only cost $20 and I wasn't about to pay that in duty. Some arguing back and forth got him to relent and accept a couple dollars. Finally we had our camping "home". We were ready for jungles, mountains or beaches.

We had been in the orphanage for a couple weeks when we were asked to leave for a few days so our room could be used for a potential adoptive couple to use. Miguel was happy to have us come stay with him for as long as we'd like. Miguel worked at a soap factory during the week. He was proud and grateful for his job and he even showed us his paycheck - $30 a week. He supported his family with that and still shared with us. Let me digress here for a bit. When we walked the streets in our casual clothes - I had just a pair of t-shirts (one of which the nuns gave me since I had no extra clothes) and my military khaki pants with the extra pockets that were so handy for carrying stuff. We'd see young Mexicans of our age dressed in black slacks with white dress shirts. Their hair slicked back. I used to wonder why they dressed so formally. I was a bit cynical from my dress-down-worn-out-Levi's point of reference. I just felt they were a bit pretentious. Now, back to Miguel and his home. I do have a point here, so stick with me. Miguel lived in a large barrio some might call an urban slum. Dirt streets, open dumps, etc. We'd be told not to go out after dark. I'll never forget the sight of an elderly woman sifting through a city block sized garbage pile looking for food, competing with mongrel dogs for anything edible. Miguel lived with his extended family in a complex of about eight rooms. He had one small room with his 3 children (he was divorced, raising the family) The grandparents had a couple rooms and other family members had the remaining rooms. The entrance to the courtyard was next to the small tienda (shop) where they sold pop and candy and a few other household items. In the center of the courtyard was the only running water, a single faucet. The bathroom was a small room with concrete seat, basically an indoor outhouse. Miguel let us use his bedroom and moved his family into another.

One morning we were in the courtyard when out from his room came one of the young men. He was dressed like the others I described - black slacks, crisp white shirt. He put his head under the faucet, washed his hair and slicked it back. Off he went into the street. I asked what he was up to. Miguel said he was going out to look for work. It can still bring me to tears to remember my arrogance and cynicism. Me, a suburban kid who never knew true poverty or desperation. I was humbled that day as I had never been before. Later we were in the kitchen with the grandmother. Her husband, dying of tuberculosis, was in the other room. She wanted to make us lunch. I insisted that was unnecessary and that we were happy to go out and buy our own lunch. She insisted. She opened the refrigerator, which was mostly empty. She took out some lamb, wrapped it in tortillas and dropped it into some hot oil to deep fry. She put it on our plates, added a bit of fresh sour cream and served us. I have never eaten anything that tasted better. What love adds to a dish. While we ate and conversed I asked her what she thought of us, two young men with enough money to travel for months. Just average Americans, but rich by comparison. What she said I'll never forget. She said, "Oh if we had your money we'd do the same. Besides, we have our family." Oh my God.

Miguel, who insisted we call him Mike, took us out for a ride on his bike. It was a three-wheeler with a sidecar that he used to deliver goods from the small store the family ran. Juan and I sat in the sidecar as he pedaled us around. Juan was pretty athletic and offered to do the pedaling and give Mike a break. So he hopped on the seat and started up. When he got going a bit I jumped into to the sidecar. This threw off the balance and the metal corner of the sidecar ran right into a beautiful '57 Chevy parked on the street! It put a 6-inch dent in the door. We stopped and the owner came over to assess the damage. There goes a bunch of money now, I thought. Mike told us to stand back and he'd deal with it. The two went back and forth in a Spanish of which I could only catch bits and pieces. When the negotiations ended we ended up paying 50 pesos - $4. That's four dollars, not $400 or even $40. Mike pedaled after that.

One night we were a bit late in getting back from our ramblings. We were on a bus returning to Mike's. We sat near the back door, pretty worn out from a long day, when we heard some scuffling behind us. The next thing we saw was two men struggling up the aisle. Then I saw one holding a large knife, blood on the blade. I was frozen, but thank God not everyone else was. A few men jumped in and wrestled the knife away from the crazed man. The bus had stopped and within seconds they'd thrown him out and delivered some instant street justice. I knew that Mexico and Colombia were number 1 and 2 in the world for murder rates at that time. I kept my eyes open after that, though I loved Mexico and still do to this day.

We spent a lot of time in Mexico City reading, In part, because both of us spent a lot of time sick. Sometimes we could blame it on some weird food we'd eaten. Other times it was probably the foul air and environmental conditions. There were days when you could hardly see more than a few blocks because the air pollution was so thick. We'd spend a fair amount of time working in the garden at the orphanage and joining in activities with the nuns and kids. Before we left we gave them a bit of money. They gave us some clothes. So now, rested, resupplied and anxious we left the city.

Our next stop was Puebla, a large city SE of Mexico City. We kicked around for an afternoon and climbed a hill and pitched our tent. By 9 p.m. it got so cold since we had no blankets that we packed up the tent and went back into town and found a cheap room. Puebla is about 7000 ft. in elevation so November than is plenty cold. Who needs this? we thought. So we bought a couple tickets on a 2nd class train to Veracruz. Historic Veracruz. I was pretty excited to get there. The train left town at 1:30 a.m. The bench was bare wood and the train rocked back and forth. Some guy a few seats away was sniffing glue and acting pretty bizarre. I still managed to sleep, but Juan spent an uneasy night awake.

Veracruz was hot. I had never seen the Gulf of Mexico. We were walking through the plaza when a couple Canadian women asked us for help. Some young Mexican men were hitting on them so we had to pretend to be with them. Not an unpleasant task. They spoke no Spanish and asked if we could help them get a hotel. The clerk at the hotel tried to cheat them and I was able to catch him at his game and give him a tongue lashing in his own language which caught him off guard. We did our Boy Scout duties and went down to the beach and pitched our tent. Now instead of shivering we were sweating. But at least we slept.

Because we had been delayed so long in Mexico City, we were ready to get out of the country. We took a two-day train ride through the jungles of Veracruz, Tabasco and Campeche. I rode between cars for a while with jungle leaves and branches brushing my outstretched hands. The train would stop in tiny villages where locals would come aboard selling tamales and drinks and fresh fruits. One incident still bothers me. A little barefoot girl was selling some homemade food. A Mexican man chose something and tried to pay her with a 20 peso bill. She didn't have enough change so he gave her back the food and kept his money. I just wish I had been quick enough to make change or help in some way. But she was gone and I'd missed a chance to a good thing. I'm still mad at myself.

We made it to Merida in the Yucatan. I'm not sure what I expected, but this wasn't it. Cloudy, windy and cool. The area we found ourselves in had a lot of nice homes, most of which were empty. We guessed that they were vacation homes. We camped in the back yard of an unoccupied house. After a rainy, windy night we went into town and got a room. The next day we tried to catch a bus but all seats were sold so we slept in the park. Then we headed to the border with Belize. Finally we were leaving the relative comfort and familiarity of Mexico.

English is the official language of Belize, it being the former British Honduras. So when we arrived at customs you would think it would be easy to talk to the guards. Not so. They spoke with such strong accents that I could barely understand them! The guards in their crisp uniforms were a real departure from more casual officials we were used to. The culture was unique, being a blend of British, Caribbean and Latin American influence. I was struck by the unusual selection of foods in the store. Canned goods imported from England and even canned orange juice! We camped on a beach in Belize City.

Here are some of Juan's notes from that time:

Tuesday  Dec. 4, 1973

            We got on the bus at 7 and arrived in Chetumal at 12:30 + at 2 we took a bus to the border, Santa Elena.  We entered B. Honduras without any problems and we got a ride to Corazal.  There was a bus that left at 4 but we didn’t have any money so they wouldn’t let us buy a ticket (.80 cents US).  Finally, we insisted they accept a travelers cheque.  We got on and 4 hrs. later we were in Belize – the road was so narrow and bumpy, often times our speed was reduced to about 5 mph and when a car came in the opposite direction we had to pull over and stop so the car could creep by us.  We got to Belize at 9:00 + ½ hr. later we found a spot to camp right by the beach.

 Wednesday  Dec. 5, 1973

             At 9 we found a bus ($1.00 US) that would take us near the border so at 10 we took off but after going no more than 5 miles our bus broke down so we waited over an hr. for another one to arrive.  At 2:30 we arrived at El Cayo and we took a taxi to the border for 65 cents US.  We became friends with two Britain's David Walker + Peter Jones and when we got to the border we met a Canadian – He told us quite a bit about S. America.  We talked for awhile in the St. but at 6 or so it started to rain so we looked for a hotel.  We found one for $1 apiece so we put all our stuff in this room and went out looking for a place to eat.  We found a very nice spot just a block from our hotel.  The very fine meal consisted of soup, rice, chicken, potatoes, tortillas, frijoles, water, and coffee – all for only 60 cents.  We talked about all sorts of things during and after our meal and had the lights not gone out we would have stayed much longer than the 1 ½  hr. we were there.  We got back and talked for a couple more hours and at 11:30 we finally went to bed.

Juan's notes remind me of how slow and difficult travel was on these backroads. By the time we made it to the Guatemalan border I was exhausted. Guatemala still disputes the border with Belize, and even refuses to recognize it on Guatemalan maps! So the border guards here were heavily armed with submachine guns and cautious attitudes. A small river at the border was filled with native women washing clothes on its rocks. For the few days we had been in Belize I really missed the Latin culture. Most of the time I had to ask the English speakers in Belize if we could speak in Spanish which had become easier for me to understand. And I'll never forget that first meal in Guatemala. I have never liked spicy food, so in Mexico my constant request was "sin picante" or "sin chiles, por favor" i.e. without hot spice or chiles. Now we were enjoying soup and corn tortillas. I immediately had hopes of better health.

Our main reason for coming through the Yucatan was to see Mayan ruins. We skipped side trips in Mexico in favor of taking more time to visit Tikal, the Mayan capital. A slow bus ride from the border took us to El Cruce where the road leads to the ruins. We started hitchhiking from there. We hooked up with another group of travelers, a Spaniard and his French-Canadian friend, and two women, one from France and the other from Guatemala. The Spaniard was very suave and handsome. He played a flute and referred to us as "maestro", an affectionate slang term. The two beautiful women seemed enamored of him. The Spaniard was light-skinned and tall. We all were visiting with some locals, one of whom praised him for his excellent Spanish, mistaking him for another gringo American. He made sure to point out he was a proud Spaniard and Castellano was his native tongue.

Along the way, the sky turned ominous and dark. We were lucky enough to find shelter in an empty, one room building. The rain poured and a rainbow ended a few feet in front of us. We had a meal with some locals and slept on the floor. In the morning we caught a ride to the ruins. Most tourists seem to show up in the afternoon, so we were able to have much of park to ourselves. There are plenty of other better descriptions of Tikal, so I'll simply say it's like another world. Climbing the steps of the Temple of the Sun I recalled the stories of the countless human sacrifices that took place there. From the top of another pyramid all I could see in 360 degrees was jungle and Lake Peten in the distance. Here are the few pictures Juan took, the road and looking out from our shelter and the two of us up on the pyramid:


That night we slept in hammocks with the sounds of howler monkeys and other jungle animals. Unforgettable. We spent the next morning exploring the ruins and then hitchhiked out that afternoon.

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