Through Central America

The following are from Juan's notebook:

Saturday  Dec. 8, 1973

             We decided to leave Tikal today so at 1:00 we caught a bus to Flores.  We arrived at 4:00, had a good dinner and tried hitchhiking out of town.  Just as we were going to give up, a guy picked us up and took us to Poptun, about 50 miles from Flores.  We rode in the back of his pick-up with this old lady.  I did not feel real well so we got a hotel and stayed in Poptun.

 It was in Poptun that we ran into these guys who were a little strange.  Bob thought they were potentially dangerous, whereas I thought they were just a little goofy.  In retrospect, I was probably a little more trusting than I should have been, but nothing happened, so we’ll never know.

 Sunday  Dec. 9, 1973

             I laid in bed until noon, then Bob and I got something to eat – we missed the bus to G-City so we started hitching.  We got a ride to El Cruce – we rode in the back of a P-U and it was very rough, the road is so bumpy.  We rode for 5 hrs. until we finally got there.  We gave the guy $1.75 apiece.  We camped out nearby in a field that was as bumpy as our ride.  We shared our ride with several other people – a dog made quite a mess of the guy’s truck.  Anyway, we spent the night at El Cruce, near Bananera.


 The guys he mentioned in Poptun worried me a bit because they kept passing strange looks among themselves. There were four of them and they all carried machetes, not uncommon in the jungle I must say, but a bit unnerving. We didn't hang around long. The next day's ride to El Cruce was a nightmare. We had to crouch in a pickup bed under a canopy. There were three locals and the two of us. A lady had her dog with her. It got sick along the way so we did our best to hang our heads out the back for some fresh air. You hitchhike, you take your chances...

The next morning we went out on the road to hitch a ride into Guatemala City. Before anyone stopped a bus came by with a teenage boy hanging out the open door yelling "Guate, Guate, Guate". We gave a yell and it stopped. That afternoon we found our way to Pension Meza (a place I got to know very well over the years). We got beds and three meals a day for $1.25. Tough to beat that! We met up with some fellow travelers who we'd passed along the way. Pension Meza was quite a draw and the word spread among us vagabonds. For a few restful days we hung out, going out to the movies and restaurants and exploring. Juan was excited because there was a gym across the street where he could play baskctball. We were able to pick up our mail at the American Express office and catch up a bit with friends and family back home. Then we took off for Panajachel and Lake Atitlan.

Living is easy at the lake and tourists and hippies flocked there. A couple nearby towns have names like Huehuetenango and Chichicastenango (tenango being a native term for town). So locals make a joke about Panajachel being "Gringotenango" with its large US and foreign population. We got cheap beds and had breakfast at some Gringo's cafe - granola pancakes and other (American) homestyle dishes. A couple nights there and we decided to go to the picturesque market in Chichicastenango. Juan bought some gifts for family and friends and I picked up a blanket which was to serve as my bed when we camped. I traded a Mexican shirt I had for a hand-woven Guatemalan style shirt. The guy was thrilled to have something made on a sewing machine. We were both happy with the trade.

We headed back to the city to make plans for getting through Central America. Our objective now was to get to South America before we ran out of money. Flights were too spendy for us so we bought tickets on the Tikabus that zips through El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua to get to San Jose, Costa Rica. Tika is a slang term for natives of Costa Rica. The day before we left we bought some Raisin Brand cereal at a small store. We often craved comfort food that tasted a bit like home. We went back to our room and poured some milk on our cereal and started eating. I was stuffing my face thinking it wasn't as good as I remembered. Juan was a bit more "cautious" and noticed the cereal just didn't look right. We emptied out the box and found spider webbing and cocoons all through the flakes. OOOOHHHH. Then we looked at the expiration date and saw that it had passed a couple years earlier! So much for restocking the shelves. I was furious when we took it back to the store. An unsympathetic clerk did give back our money at least. I guess Bran Flakes aren't a big seller in Guatemala.

It took us a while to get through the customs in El Salvador. While we tried to remain patient we heard some yelling across the room. Some tall British guy was arguing with the guard. As Juan said, it didn't seem prudent to be yelling at a guy holding a machine gun but...This was our first glimpse at John Gunn, and incredible guy who we were fortunate to spend a lot of time with later.  Our bus was leaving at 5:30 the next morning so we trusted our hotel with an early wakeup knock. The bus was comfortable enough, even had air conditioning. But the ride is uneventful, mostly forgettable. We got into Managua, Nicaragua late the next night. The country was in the middle of a violent revolution trying to overthrow Samoza, an unpopular dictator. In addition, in 1972 the country suffered a huge earthquake and was still recovering from that. Anyway, we didn't want to spring for a hotel for the few hours we had to sleep. So when the bus parked for the night we walked across the street where two men were guarding some business. One had a shotgun, the other a submachine gun. We asked if it would be safe to sleep on the sidewalk.They said it would, and I slept surprisingly well on some newspapers spread on the concrete.

Let's say I was glad to get into Costa Rica. It had, and still has a reputation for being safe and welcoming to foreigners. By the time we got into San Jose, we had gotten to know John Gunn much better. He had seen a lot of the world, beginning from his home in Southend-on-sea, England. This guy was interesting and funny, and would not be lost in a crowd. As I called John Juan, and he called me Roberto, John Gunn called himself Juan Pistola. Very fitting.

It was Christmas Eve. John Gunn had a routine when he was in a foreign city of finding a ham radio operator. He would have the operator radio another operator in England who then would telephone John's home. Then from radio to radio to phone to phone he could talk to his family. So the three of us went searching San Jose for a ham radio guy. We ended up at some man's house in the city. I don't exactly know how we found him or if he even had a radio, but he was thrilled to have us as guests. As we had refreshments he went into another room and brought out a "treasure" - a shrunken human head! In spite of it being a bit creepy, I was fascinated. By coincidence, just week later I would see two more shrunken heads at the Anthropology Museum there in San Jose.

A couple more pictures here. Juan on the balcony of our hotel in the heart of San Jose. And Juan, John Gunn and I in the hotel. I have to comment on my clothes. I had my Guatemalan shirt and my Mexican huaraches, stylishly matched to my Army surplus pants. Hmmm. Not exactly trying to blend in. I guess I'll just leave it at that.


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