You can so drive to Nicaragua
Officials told her it was impossible—they said the Inter-American Highway from Alaska to Argentina was just an imaginary red line in a mapmaker’s mind. But this B.C. housewife defied bandits, washouts, jungle tracks and border guards to prove them wrong
WE WERE LIVING rather forlornly, my daughter and I, at our home in Queen’s Bay, British Columbia, putting up our defenses against encroaching winter, and pounding down the mountain daily for mail from our men. From Ian, our son in college, and from Quen, who was geologizing in Nicaragua.
One day in early November I was slithering back from the post office with my nose in Quen’s letter. I read: “Why not come down here for Christmas, the two of you? I can’t get back as soon as I’d hoped, and Christmas alone . . . ” I brushed away the snow and re-read the letter, and the PS, which is noteworthy: “Whatever you do, don’t drive down.” I folded the damp letter into my mackinaw, and dreamed.
Joyfully I made enquiries, to learn that the only known way of getting to Nicaragua was to
fly from Vancouver. Of course there are no railroads, ships don’t seem to call there, and the highway, that thick red line that runs from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, was an unfinished project.
“We’ll not fly,” I said to Iona. “It’s so sudden. You see the top of the world and there you are with all the wrong clothes. Besides, I’m scared of flying.”
“I’m not,” my eleven-year-old said.
“Well, flying’s out. So how shall we travel?”
“We’ll drive, of course. How else?” Iona said.
For a couple of weeks I asked questions and wrote letters, but no one really seemed to know who or what Nicaragua was, though the papers were headlining some revolutions there. From some excellent but highly negative literature we learned that the highway between Mexico and Guatemala was impassable, and that cars have
to be transported byj*ail over a bad stretch between the end of the Mexican bit of highway and the start of the Guatemalan road. The literature informed us that the highway in Guatemala and Honduras was innocent of road signs, and that it was impossible to distinguish between the main road and the branching farm trails, that gas in southern Mexico was of the lowest quality, that one must carry one’s own gas south of the Mexican border, that one should take camping equipment because no accommodation was available and a traveler might be held up for days and weeks waiting for rivers to subside, and so on; of course, always providing that the traveler was lucky enough to find a fiat dry spot to camp on. There followed a long list of recommended spares and replacements, suggestions for sealing cars against dust and the information that only vehicles with double trans-
mission were permitted transit. I looked dubiously at our Zephyr convertible. Had it double transmission?
I read that one had to carry drums of water, that one must have typhoid and yellow-fever shots and police clearance papers.
“I don’t believe a word of it,” I said to Iona. “Let’s drive down to Mexico City, and start finding out from there, shall we?”
“But the dog?”
“Of course the dog. That’s the beauty of driving.”
Iona threw her arms round the neck of Oa, the yearling German shepherd. “He’s got such a fine winter coat, I do hope he changes it in time,” she said. “Can I sit in front and Oa in back?”
So we packed a spare fan belt, and a nylon towrope in memory of flooded rivers previously
encountered in the wilder reaches of Mexico.
We drove out of Canada in a wailing November blizzard, the slush flying six feet high like spray from a speedboat.
The trip to Mexico City is routine for us, as it is for most Canadians I find, so there is no point in telling about that.
We spent a week in Mexico City, asking questions. Friends who live in Chiapa, near the Guatemalan border, wrote that cars do indeed pass from one country to the other, but by rail and only in convoy because of the bandits.
Bandits! Who would have suspected good old Mexico of harboring anything as romantic as bandits? Could one, I wondered, be insured against being held for ransom by bandits? Another friend told us that his company had recently sent a driver over the Inter-American. The driver vanished for weeks, but he had made the round trip, down to Guatemala by road and back by flatcar. He had reported that the highway was as yet only a trail blasted through the mountains, that unbridged rivers tore through canyons, that he had been held up for days by roaring torrents, and that in effect the highway was impassable.
“Perhaps he was just having himself a time at company expense in Guatemala City,” I said.
“Why the three spares?” the serviceman working our car over wanted to know. When I told him he fetched the proprietor.
“If I understand this man right, you intend to drive down the Inter-American? I most earnestly beg you to reconsider. I would like to talk to your husband.”
I explained that Quen was waiting for us at the other end. In agitation the man paced up and down, stroking Iona’s head while she dodged politely between the cars.
“This lovely child, this lovely child to be sacrificed. At least you have a gun?”
“No gun. A dog.”
“Yes, the dog. Of course a dog is better than a gun unless they have been drinking or smoking marijuana, then hell full of dogs won’t help. 1 wish I could understand you gringos. There is always something that makes you impossible to get along with.”
I set about getting our papers. No one asked for police papers, typhoid or yellow-fever shots. The Nicaraguan consul was helpful, but when he heard that we proposed traveling by car he shook his head.
“Go with God,” he said. “But there is an excellent air service, you know.”
At the Guatemalan consulate there was a lineup for visas—students on their way to Honduras, Mexicans on vacation, Panamanians in paper trouble, and one gringo, me. All the seats were being drowsed on, so I stood and examined the notices. I stood for an hour and a half and then I presented my passport.
“Canada,” said purple nails and orange hair. “Are you traveling alone?”
“No, with my daughter. She’s on the passport.”
“Have you her father’s permission?”
“That’s not necessary. He knows about it.” “You must bring a letter from the father.” “I can’t do that, unfortunately.”
“I see. Haven’t you any idea who he is or where he is?” When I had explained she began filling in her book of records.
“Single?” she asked after a lot of writing. “Married,” I said. She clutched her vivid head in exasperation and put inky strokes through her work.
“Why do you need a Guatemalan visa since you are going to Nicaragua?”
“You’re what? Well, you’ll be just fine when you do get to Guatemala. There’s a lot of Mexico to go through though. Over there for your car papers, please.”
“Single?” the next CONTINUED ON PAGE 64
CONTINUED ON PAGE 64
You can so drive to Nicaragua continued from page 27
We promised to send postcards every day en route, so they’d know where
to start looking for us
official said, writing hard. They handed me my papers and a map of Guatemala.
"We have been instructed to recommend the coast road. All paved. No need to take the train, you can drive all the way. Cross the border at Ciudad
Cuauhtémoc, then cross the Sierras to the coast road. They are still blasting on the Inter-American. Go in peace."
"Many gone down that way?”
A roomful of heads turned grins toward me.
At the Honduran consulate I was given my first two-way visa. The three round young men with downy mustaches and dark glasses were charming and helpful. They spread plump palms as they talked about the rest of Central
America, but Honduras, they said, was paradise for young unmarried women.
“I’m married,” I said, and I watched the irritable reopening of the record book.
The consulate for El Salvador was busting with beautiful girls and flashing uniforms. I was the only customer.
"Single?" the lovely clerk asked. They gave me a fine map and a booklet. “Roads all paved in El Salvador,” they said.
A telegram full of laughter and encouragement arrived from Quen. He wanted to know whether we needed more money.
"We always do,” Iona said. "How much have we got?"
“Hundred dollars left. It will take ages getting money, though, and meanwhile we'll spend the hundred. So let's go.”
And so we went, Iona, Oa. the hundred dollars and I, promising our friends to write a card each day till we reached Managua. Nicaragua, so that if the cards stopped they would know where to start looking for us. We wound toward Puebla over the high pine shoulder of Ixtaccihuatl. the 17,343-foot extinct volcano that lies by the side of the even taller Popocatepetl, whose plume of smoke rose gracefully from her snowy cone.
Many hours after dark we reached Oaxaca, the stars streamed down upon our dizzy heads and I had burnt out the brakes.
The two nights and a day we spent in Oaxaca cost us $20 of our hundred, and we were given to understand that the prices would soar as we traveled south.
All day we passed through the socalled bandit territory, but. as Iona put it, tourists were not in season for bandits. I hrough the wildest mountain scenery we drove, meeting nothing but an armadillo or two. and in the afternoon we plunged to sea level where the road runs through marshy-looking flats and mesquite scrub. Indians were at work cutting back the mesquite on the edge of the highway, and the cuttings blew from their hands and strewed the road.
After a bit I stopped and protested that my tires were being ruined. The men waved their machetes and laughed at me. "If God wills, you will get punctures without mesquite thorns as well as you could with them.”
We gassed up in the quaint, crowded little town of Tehuantepec, and we three — this includes Oa — strolled through the densely packed market building, slobbering with desire at the mountains of fried fish, and gaping at the beautiful women of the district who defy the tramp of tourists and cleave to their ancient costumes, long skirts that sweep circles in the dust about them, low-cut blouses and brilliant rebozos.
We reached San Cristóbal de las Casas just before dark, on the eve of market day. For miles and miles, as we climbed through the pines to the 8,000-foot-high city, we had passed gorgeous Indians vastly loaded, trotting townward. Like the Scots of old, the various tribes wore their different homespuns. Our favorite tribe wore knee-length white woolen tunics, rope girded, and flat straw hats with bunches of brilliant ribbons that hung from the crown to waist level. The men of course were the most beautiful.
Bachelors let their ribbons dangle free, while the married men have to braid and knot them.
“Let’s hunt in the market for a hat lite that for Quen,” I said to Iona.
"He'd look divine.” she said. “The only thing is, as soon as our backs are turned he'd unbraid those ribbons.”
There was a flat tire waiting for me next morning. A young Indian passed as I was getting the jack out. and said good morning. He turned up a few minutes later and offered to help me.
“Why’d you bother to come back?”
"Well, certainly not because I enjoy changing wheels. But I said to myself, that's a woman and who knows whether she understands what she is trying to do. Ml y woman wouldn't, so I came back.” When he had finished I gave him a ride tc his job; he was a truck driver for the dipartment of Indian affairs.
Through shining mountain meadows newly freed from night fog we drove down to the Guatemalan border. The Mexican officials were delightful, smartly uniformed and as correct as Canadians. As 1 was driving away one of them handed me a rabbit’s foot. "Here, you’ll be needing all the luck you can get over there. Attach that to your St. Christopher. No harm in doubling the power.”
With a downward thud the asphalt ended, and we were in Guatemala.
I will say that all the dust warnings were no understatements. The dust was the world's w'orst. It lay along the highway rippling in the wind, satin soft, fine as face powder and a foot deep so that it was ecstasy to step barefooted into the warm stuff. Bridges were being built everywhere, and the detours, provided would normally have made me act feminine. As it was. I simply headed the car at the two planks and, without a downward glance, drove over them.
Pesos were only play money
The tou'n of Huehuetenango, where we intended to buy gas. defies popular belief, information booklets, maps and customs men in that it is by no means situated on the Inter-American highway. The road forked. A signpost read InterAmerican and another read Huehuetenango. and on this we took off. We found ourselves on a bumpy trail that wound steeply up and down like a death ride. We traveled by feel alone, blinded as we were by dust from rushing native buses, cows, small boys, and market women. We nudged all of them, so I gathered that the trail must have been narrow'.
Huehuetenango w'as worth the pain of getting there. A pastel, clean town with well-tended gardens, no garbage and full of clean, well-dressed people, it w'as unlike Mexico in every way. When I’d taken on gas I offered the attendant 50 pesos. Mexican.
"We don't use that stuff here,” the man said.
"But you're right next to the border.”
"Take it away. What else have you got?"
So I gave him some U.S. dollars and he went off to change them into quetzales. A band of small boys tumbled round and asked for the Mexican money.
“I thought that stuff was no good here." 1 said.
"Oh. we can't spend it; we just want to use it for play money.” The gas man handed us our change: “If you’re heading for Guatemala City, drive over the Sierras to Quezaltenango. The InterAmerican is closed for blasting.”
"Couple of hours. Good road all the
way. After Quezaltenango. it’s all paved.” We looped back to the Inter-American. Cruising along the fine gravel surface, I thought that by next year all the world and his cat would be pouring through Central America during the dry season. This year, there w'as no one but us and the highway gangs on the road. When we slowed dowm to cross bridges, or so as not to run over the men as they w'orked (they never moved a foot out of the w'ay and we had to snake among them), the men leant on their picks and shovels to jeer and cheer, to spell out
our licence plates and discuss the Columbia. Here as in Mexico no one ever saw the British part of British Columbia. Colombia they would pronounce, and after a bit someone would say, "How did she get here? Who ever heard of the Inter-American being open to Colombia?” This Colombia business was rather a boon, because while Canadians and Americans were always in line for handouts. no one expected a thing from fellow Latinos.
We came to a fork in the highway, and I made a bad decision. I turned
off the beautiful, broad, well - graded, Inter-American and took to the hills, with no better excuse than a notice that read QUEZALTENANGO 45. We lurched skyward on a two - rutter trail with a hump in the middle, reflecting that the 45 part of the notice must mean that we would arrive at Quezaltenango in an hour, no matter what the road was like. But after an hour of climbing, an hour of the most remarkable performance from our Zephyr, with each switchback bringing the car out into space, we were nowhere near the top.
When at last we reached the top, the road lurched downward at once, and I was forced to ease the car along at an uncomfortable angle, in bottom gear. And when at last we reached the bottom, the road started up so steeply that for a moment the body of the car hung between two slopes.
“Do check with the map,” I said to Iona. “Just what have we come upon?”
“Listen to this,” she said, and she read me a little bit about some highway being the steepest in Central America, because it climbs from sea level to over ten thousand feet twice in a few miles.
“The best is yet to be,” I murmured. “I don’t believe we are even on that road. I believe this is a shepherd’s trail. No traffic. Come to think of it, no wheelmarks either.”
Four hours later the trail took an extra downspin and we were bumping over the cobbled streets of a whitewashed town. It was not Quezaltenango. Where, I asked, was Quezaltenango? Oh leagues away, they told me, away there to the east. Many leagues. You’ll be there by dark.
Just for the sake of seeing that wonderful little town, probably as the first tourists ever to touch it, I would have driven that wild road all over again. We saw no one but Indians in native dress. Here the women had it over the men in every way. Their long woven and embroidered skirts, heavily pleated from the waist, were embroidered in peacock and black. More beautiful still were the rebozos, woven of wool in the most vivid colors imaginable and rich with embroidery, worn, sometimes as in Mexico, over the head, but mostly just thrown over the shoulders. While in Mexico one never sees a bare-headed woman, here it was the rule.
We did not in fact reach Quezaltenango until just before dark, and we were surprised at the size of the place. Whereas all spots considered habitable for tourists were marked in red on our map, Quezaltenango — which turned out to be the second largest city in the country — was lettered in black.
The gas man looked at us in amaze, especially when Oa jumped out scattering a cloud. I had forgotten about our dust.
“You will want a hotel?” he said, and strung off a list of names. Iona produced our book of words and asked about the one that was listed.
“Oh, you wouldn’t be wanting that,” he said. “It’s the best hotel in town. You couldn’t go there.”
“Seems well recommended,” I said. “That’s where we'll go.”
“With such a dog, perhaps they might take you,” he sighed.
I must say the hotel clerk seemed pleased when I paid for the room as I signed in. He gazed at our filthy faces in disgust, but Oa received a pat and delighted praise. Nice, I thought, if we could shake.
Later, gleaming, we came downstairs dressed in clean skirts and sweaters. The clerk did not know us and demanded to know what we were doing in the hotel. We gave him our room number, but he didn't believe us and phoned.
“It’s cold,” I said agreeably while he was calling our empty room.
“Here it is always very cold. We are high in the mountains.”
He let us go at last, and we headed for the market across the square to buy a new water bowl for Oa. Indians were squatting on the streets and the sidewalks, selling their wares by candlelight. Into the orange inferno of flickering flame and copper people Oa hurtled, sniffing joyfully chicken livers here,
cheese tacos there, being yelled at, slapped, hissed at, exclaimed at, chased and run away from.
“Like going for a walk with Jayne Mansfield,” Iona said. We found a bowl, bright enamel, made in Hong Kong.
On our way back we peeped into the cathedral and chatted with a young man who, with sleeves rolled, was applying cement to a Christmas manger. He told us that the original Quezaltenango had been demolished by an earthquake in 1902.
Later we wolfed an excellent meal by a roaring log fire, and Oa’s new bowl was filled with strange things from the kitchen. We walked on the roof in the moonlight, shivering under the cold stars and gazing at the infernal-looking sparks and glow spurting from a nearby volcano.
Through the icy dawn fog the cathedral bells jangled us into stopping by before leaving the city. The church was filled with bare-footed Indians, muffled to the eyes against the cold. We saw the young man of the night before. He was the bishop.
The police searches began
The highway from Quezaltenango to the coast was not paved, at least, not at first, and it was just as sheer and tough as could be. Suddenly, after plunging through a tunnel, we were on paved road, out of the fog, among palms in the brilliant sunshine. As we wound on downward we began shedding till we were down to tropical skirts and shirts. We pulled in halfway down, and looking back we gazed on the glory of three volcanos, two cone-shaped giants and a third, far smaller, which was throwing great funnels of white smoke into the hard blue sky. About us the tropical foliage moved gently in the hot air, and for the first time since leaving Canada we felt that we had made a noteworthy journey, that we were arriving at places rich and strange.
No more Indians in costume, as we continued our descent, just dark men and women, dressed lightly for the tropics. We stopped at an open-air market and bought far too many bananas for two cents. Just outside the town we began being stopped by motorcycle policemen packing big guns and an overloaded sense of duty. On one pretext or another we were stopped every few miles. Some told us that the highway was narrow, not like ours, that we must drive slowly
because the people here were not like ours and sometimes obstructed. And where were we going, and why? What was in the car? Might they please look in? They opened the back, and searched the icebox, which contained only cans of American dog food. Suddenly I remembered the paper I’d glanced at in the hotel lobby. A revolution was expected in Guatemala on Sunday, and this was Saturday. The president had every confidence that the revolution would come to nothing. Judging by all the police, he wasn’t taking any chances.
“What are you really looking for?” I asked one.
“Cigarettes and liquor of course. Though I’d also like to know, are you carrying arms and ammunition? Bombs perhaps? No?”
He had a sense of humor anyway.
At sea level we drove through sugar plantations and coconut farms, and pacing us on our left was a rampart of volcanos, rising grey and beautiful from the rich green hills. The heat was stupefying, and we began to yearn for a swim. The map showed two roads to the beach, one to Puerto Champerico, and one to San José. We chose San José. Once morç we made the wrong choice, but how is one to know when one is playing peeka-boo with fate?
The next thing I knew there was a scream from Iona and I was playing catch-as-catch-can with a vast tractor towing a sugar trailer that was whipping out of control from one side of the highway to the other. Dodging desperately,
I tried to snake through on the left of the highway while the trailer was in a right-hand whip. I wasn’t fast enough. The trailer lashed back and caught us, almost head on, buckling the car and scattering itself over the highway in the impact. I turned off the motor, and in the sizzling silence the marimba music drummed happily on. Then everything began happening. Oa leaped over our heads to vanish into the ditch, Iona fell from the car and began to scream, and I jumped out to pass the time of day with the two on the tractor, who, not looking on the order of their going, turned their trailerless tractor smartly in the direction they had come and scuttled off, dodging the debris nicely as they went.
Then I realized this was Latin America and flight was our only hope. Turning back to the car I gauged the extent of the damage. No wonder they had taken off. The car was a crumpled mass
of crimson wreckage, and Iona was standing next to it. snivelling, desolate.
At my "Be quiet!,” Iona looked up in surprise and stopped at once. I realized that she was doing what she believed to be the right thing in time of car smashes. Instantly she became so helpful that I almost wished I'd left her to her tears. From the sugarcane about us. from up and down the highway, people were converging. In despair I tried the starter. The motor ran smooth as silk, but the car wouldn’t budge. The bumper and the bodywork were buckled firmly
against the right front wheel. Pouring with sweat I clawed and tugged trying to free the wheel, but the metal was immovable.
“Can I help?” a nice quiet American voice said at my car.
“Yes, yes,” I gasped. “Help me free this wheel and get out of here. Unless the authorities arc kinder here than in Mexico?”
“That they are not,” the crewcut youngster said. “You'd better get, but quick. I’ve no tools at all in my jeep. What've you got?” Iona produced every-
thing we carried, but we banged and bashed, prized and heaved without avail.
“If we can’t free you, you’ll have to get a wrecker to tow you to Guatemala City. This being Saturday, you won't be able to see your embassy till Monday. Then there’s that revolution tomorrow. I don't know.”
I didn’t know either. And I didn’t give a damn about anything except freeing that wheel and heading out of Guatemala before anything expensive could happen.
Then, from the sugarcane, strode a
magnificent Guatemalan. To me he looked like a timid Roman's drawing of Attila the Hun. He was expensively dressed in the best of everything, including two big guns strapped to his legs.
“I saw it all,” he said from the depths. “In which direction were you driving, señora? Since you’re smashed on the right, you must have been heading for San José.” I was just about to say yes, I had been heading for San José, when Iona piped, “No, we were going the other way.”
“Odd, the impact on the right of your car, no?” I wiped the streaming sweat from my eyes, speechless. Attila turned to the young American.
“This woman does not understand any Spanish?”
“I don’t know,” crewcut said, and to me: “Do you speak Spanish?” Before I could reply Iona said in her beautiful Spanish: “My mother speaks perfect
If there is one thing I dread when confusion is probable, it is a lot of talking to make it worse confounded. So I resolved to speak no Spanish, no English, nothing; and I would free that wheel and get!
“This accident, you see, concerns me,” Attila rumbled. “The mangled tractor and trailer belong to my son whose land adjoins mine. My son will lose days of harvesting, but never mind that. The señora is in trouble and I shall fix her car at my workshops. Yes, on my ranch the workshops are the best, and I have fine mechanics. All about you you see my land. Please allow me to offer you my hospitality.”
Machete-wielders shouted advice
I said nothing. I gaped at him. He said coldly: “Monday we shall arrange affairs between us with the help of our respective lawyers.”
“Ouch,” I said to the American, “I want out. but quicklike.”
“If only we had a towrope. As it is I see nothing for it but that you go along with this man. After all, he is being helpful.”
“But I have a towrope,” I yelled. We set to work fixing the grapples, apd then with my car in reverse and the brakes full on and the jeep crawling forward in bottom, little bits of metal were pulled free. Piece by piece we worked, and I remember looking up during the feverish operation to see Attila noting down my licence number.
A truck loaded with sugar workers all armed with machetes charged up. and the men poured out, shouting advice.
“You've at least $300 worth of damage there,” the American said walking around my liberated car. “It's a miracle the radiator isn’t damaged.” We tied up the buckled right-hand door with the nylon towrope. and the American said. “There’s nothing much wrong with the trailer, just needs assembling. I'd get out of here if I were you.”
“That the señora give me her address,” Attila growled. I scribbled my address. Queen's Bay, B.C. and Attila said, “This isn’t any good. Where is she staying in Guatemala City?" In the end he gave me his city address, asking me to call him first thing on Monday morning. I blew him an hysterical kiss and started the motor. Oa galloped delightedly from the ditch, splattering mud over Attila and all of us, and 1 shot off to the shputs of joy from the machete brandishers.
In Guatemala City every policeman felt it his bounden duty to quit his post and examine us. And so. exhausted as we were and with darkness not far off.
I slowed down before we reached the dip. But it was no dip—it was a clean break in the road
we decided to get out at all costs. On the road to the south, a gravel road, we were stopped only once, and that was by a military roadblock.
Over the fiendish washboard we stepped on it as best we could, while a hot orange moon rose from the mountains, and cicadas sang. We passed a couple of bulldozers and thudded onto a smoother stretch of highway, which seemed to dip and then rise again to vanish far ahead in the gathering darkness. I shall never know what prompted me to slow down before we reached the dip. It was no dip, it was a clean break in the road with a drop of thirty feet to a river bed. On the far side, straight as an arrow, the road began again. There had been no road signs, no detour signs, nothing. And it was not the dusk that had misled us: that road would have led to destruction in the noonday sun, and the slightest wind blowing up a dust would have made the break invisible till one was airborne. I drove back half a mile or so. to an unmarked turnoff.
At Asunción Mita, a few miles from the border of El Salvador, we took on gas, and found a room in a scruffy hotel built in the Spanish style, a bunch of dingy rooms surrounding a patio filled with hungry-looking trees, chickens, terrible smells and cats. Oa hurled himself into the life of the place; shrieks and squawks marked his passage. He spent the whole night in animation.
In the hot, windowless room we slept profoundly, and I awoke refreshed. Not so poor Iona, who was deadly sick — because of the smell, she thought. I fed her some pills and left her miserable in bed while I went to Mass, for this was the Sunday of the revolution. Whereas in Mexico women sit on the right of the church, here in Guatemala the women sat on the left, the men on the right. Lining up for Communion 1 realized from the hissing that I was supposed to stay with my own sex. The priest was a long slender Benedictine with a distinct Brooklyn drawl to his Spanish.
Before most people had had their breakfast, we were over the Salvadoran border. Had there been a revolution? We never did find out.
We fell in love with El Salvador, the gorgeous youths in uniform at the frontier, the fine paved highways, the clean prosperous people. Poor Iona suffered rather badly throughout the morning, and 1 yearned to get to a good hotel where I could put her to bed. We drove through miles of coffee plantations, and at last we reached the capital, San Salvador, by way of a speedway lined with flowering shrubs.
A lovely city it is, fine wide streets, houses all new and shining in pastel colors, brilliant flowers, wrought iron, everything spacious, lavish and gleaming with expensive cars. San Salvador, destroyed time and again by earthquakes, lies at the foot of the volcano of the same name, in the Valley of the Hammocks, named for the continuous shaking and swaying of the land. We cruised around admiringly, and soon we were picked up by a young man in a cream convertible who drove ahead of us to point out the Hotel El Salvador, two miles out of town at the base of the volcano.
The young man seemed rather taken by us, and he leant his initialed rawsilk torso over our battered door, and gave us his card.
"This afternoon,” he said. “I will show you round our country club, where we shall swim and play tennis and dance.”
“Thanks,” I said, “but my daughter and I plan to spend a quiet day.”
“Your daughter?” He withdrew, pulled out a shell-pink silk kerchief and brushed his elbows. “Well, goodbye señora, señorita, it has been a great pleasure “Now I wonder which of us he was after?” Iona mused, patting a golden braid and looking not sick at all.
The Hotel El Salvador was sheer mag-
nificence. It was watched over by the National Police, and the very postage stamps wore the hotel's picture. We drove over floors of polished marble, and stopped by a rocky grotto with blue water a foot or so deep into which Oa plunged, scattering exotic blossoms and fish. Then he rushed into the hotel at our heels, quite spoiling the effect I had intended to create of an ordinary tourist
with a pretty daughter and no dog. I paid $17 for a room and slunk quickly into a plushy elevator. Oa lay glued to the floor as we rose, and howled.
Scarcely had we breathed our first ecstatic sigh when the assistant manager was with us.
"Madam,” he said in German. “No dogs."
"No, of course not,” I said.
“Your German shepherd then, he is a nice dog but he must go.”
“He’s not a dog,” I said, and Iona added, “He’s a friend of ours," in Spanish. I put my hand to my head, “I’m sorry, the journey ...” I murmured. “All the way from Canada ...” I was beginning to feel savagely guilty over the $17 and I was delighted to leave. I picked up my overnight case.
“Canadians,” the assistant manager said in beautiful French, “and by road, impossible. Wonderful, wonderful, of course you may not think of leaving.
And your er, your friend, perhaps he will agree to sleeping on the balcony outside your room?”
We wallowed for hours in the sumptuous bathroom, rang bells for a radio, an electric fan, chicken soup for Iona, beer for me, a plate of bones for Oa. I tried to persuade Iona into bed, but she, like the rest of us, recovers from anything instantly when surrounded by luxury. She wanted more.
Of course no one would take my Guatemalan quetzales, so gassing up on Monday morning I changed my last $20
into colones — one colón is 40 cents— and I was pleased with myself for catching a short-changer. Unfortunately there isn’t very much of El Salvador, and so in the thundering heat of noon we arrived at the Honduran border.
There is an archway some three buses long over the highway that has HONDURAS lettered over it. The customs offices are there, and everything on legs and wheels for miles seemed to have congregated for shade. We, in our battered car, fitted right into the picture, and we squirmed and wriggled ourselves
into the shade among hundreds of crates, boxes, baskets, bicycles, buses, trucks, and smashed-up cars. We were soon buried like everyone else under swarms of children and millions of flies. After an hour or so I found that the holdup was caused by the lunchtime siesta of some official. He had gone off to a neighboring ranch and wasn’t expected back for a couple of hours anyway.
We changed all but $3 into Honduran lempiras, two to a dollar, and drove through the murderous heat and some very fine scenery. We bought gas at a little town, and continued on the road to the south.
“Seems the Inter-American is fading out,” Iona said after a while. I was inclined to agree. The broad, well-graded gravel highway had gone, and in its place was a rutted country road that steadily worsened.
“Is this the road to Nicaragua?” I shouted at a couple of Indians struggling with a cow.
“Of course it is, keep straight on,” they said. The road grew so bad that I feared for the life of our car. A crowded bus lurched towards us, and I asked the driver. “Yes it is,” he smiled and jerked his head. “It’s rough for a little car like that. Don’t think you can make it in that.”
The border wasn’t free
A couple of hours later we charged right through the Honduran-Nicaraguan border, while swarms of wildly dressed soldiers poured out of the mountains to stop us.
“I don't much mind being shot at, do you?” Iona asked.
“Costs too much,” I said and allowed them to shoo us back.
“How about shutting the gate next time?” I said as they stood around us laughing, their bayonets pointed at our guts.
“In. a hurry, weren’t you?” “Getting through on the cheap, eh? Costs something after hours.”
They were a friendly bunch, fascinated by Iona and Oa.
“So big, both of them.”
“She’s young still? Still has a lot of growing to do?”
“Some,” I laughed.
“She’s almost my size already. Will she grow as big as you?” he tugged playfully at one of Iona’s golden braids. “Is everyone as big as that where you come from?”
“That’s why they have a dog the size of a horse,” another said.
“You’d think they’d drive a bus or something. This is the smallest car we’ve seen round here.”
“Aren’t you scared of the bandidos?”
“Have you bandidos here?” I asked.
They showed me to a windowless room at the end of the whitewashed customs building. A languid young man swung in a hammock and blew smoke rings.
“You’re late,” he yawned. “Border closes at 4.30 p.m. Two-lempira fine.”
“I don’t want to pay a fine,” I said.
“Well, stick around till morning then,” and he closed his eyes. Crossly, I handed him the money and waited while he reluctantly filled in his register. Farther down there was another room, with another young man dozing bulkily in a hammock, swinging himself by a string tied to a nail in the wall.
“Late,” he murmured and spread limp palms. “Wait till tomorrow? Lots of room here.”
I paid two more lempiras.
"Mind the bandidos, they’ll make sausages of that dog,” one of them said as they let us drive over the border.
The Nicaraguan customs was very smart, all new' concrete and glass, with a snack bar, tourist souvenirs, the works. No one said I was late, and for $1.50 I got a permit to remain thirty days in Nicaragua.
“Just keep renewing this till you want to leave,” the official said. “You can stay as long as you like in Nicaragua, only don’t try to sell your car.”
Well, this was easy. I had expected difficulties in Nicaragua, basing my beliefs on tourist-book information.
“Are you going to Managua?” he asked. “That is a terribly hot place. You won’t like it. Better stay up in the hills here with us.”
Somoto is the frontier garrison town, some fifteen miles over the Nicaraguan border, and here we were stopped for our papers. And we had to pay a twodollar fine for being late. If I didn't pay we’d have to sleep in the bush on the other side of the border, so it seemed to me. The official was a very agreeable, elderly man. He had just received a phone call from the last customs post to the effect that I had forgotten my car registration papers there. They were sending them down by jeep, but they wouldn’t hurry themselves.
“You’d best make up your mind to spend the night in Somoto.” he said. “You’ll be far cooler here, and anyway the highway from here isn’t safe because they are working on it.” He rose and walked round the table to us. “Excuse me,” he said, and pulled the hood of Iona’s windbreaker off. “I just have to see this hair. Lovely, lovely," he murmured and stroked her dusty, tousled head, while Iona stood deadly still, shivering with anger. “They tell me there is a lot of this golden hair up where you come from, no? Well, you come back in a couple of hours, we’ll see whether the jeep is here with your papers yet.”
I drove into the pink evening to get a fill of gas. We changed our last $3 into córdobas, and the gas cost us the lot.
“Well,” I said to Iona, "this is it. No more nothing at all till we get to Managua. Let’s go see whether the hotel will have us.” The Somoto Hotel was run by a prim old lady with black and white hair drawn hard into a bun.
“Wfeat will you leave with me, to show you’ll pay?” she wanted to know.
“Help yourself,” I said, and threw open the back of the car. She looked sadly at the dusty, battered contents.
“Better you choose me something,” she said. “It all looks alike to me.”
From the depths I produced a heavy camel-hair coat, and, when I’d shaken the dust, I watched her examining the lining.
“Nice coat, this will be fine. Do you want the best accommodation we have, a room upstairs with a washroom and shower, or the next best, downstairs?”
"We’ll have the best please.”
The price of the room included morning coffee, and was 21 córdobas for the two, about $3. We were delighted with the room. A cold wind blew through the wooden slats from the pink-tipped mountains, the room was spotless and spacious and we had a balcony. On the strength of my coat I sent for some beer and pop and a sandwich or so. Our hostess shouted up to us from the street: “I forgot to ask. How come you have no money? Was it stolen?”
“Oh no,” I said. “We spent it all.” “Well, you’ll have to remember that
you share a bathroom up there with a gentleman. He is very orderly.”
We wandered through the large square under the trees and the high moon, and we dropped in to hear Benediction in the large old church. Oa followed us in and hurled himself into a dogfight in the middle of the church. The singing stopped while we all disentangled our respective dogs, and then the singing was resumed as though all this was a matter of course. Later we collected our car papers and strolled back to the hotel. Our hostess was waiting for us.
“Here,” she said. “You take your coat. You are sure to be needing it, and I don’t need anything to assure me that you will pay. Don't thank me. Just send the money when you have some. That you both sleep well!”
Oa decided to sleep in the shower between our room and the orderly gentleman’s. In the middle of the night we were awakened by a yell, and Oa’s deepest growl. I rushed into the shower to find my dog, eyes flashing with moonlight, fur on end, fangs bared, growling at the still-swinging door of the orderly
“Don't let him gnaw my passengers,” the pilot said, looking at our puppy
one. There was a strong smell of beer, and the sound of running feet on stairs and the slam of the street door.
“A wolf in the poor man’s bathroom,” I sobbed to Iona. “It isn’t fair.”
The highway to Managua was quite difficult; it was under construction, was very dusty, and had many detours. The construction workers were Americans. When we were held up they chatted with us, and told us how terribly hot it was in Managua.
It was. Although Somoto was only 2,100 feet above sea level, it had been almost cold. Managua was like hell’s own furnace. We registered at the best hotel in town. And then, right there in the main street in the middle of the hurlyburly of the jam-packed traffic and the noisy chaotic pedestrians, under the fierce noon sun, I had to unpack our car, for there was simply nowhere else to do it. People didn’t arrive from anywhere by car; they came from the airport in limousines. The hotel had no garage. When the job had been done, and the luggage transferred, I batted about the town hunting for an estimate on the repair job. The Ford people produced the best deal, and with them I left our beloved Zephyr.
The airline advanced the money for our plane flight into the jungle on the following day; and the hotel lodged us American plan on tick, so we ate hugely .
I sent a wire to Quen, asking him to meet the plane.
At 5 a.m. the taxi came for us.
“Why not the limousine?” I asked.
“With that monster?” the clerk said. “Why no one in Nicaragua would travel in a car with that.”
Everyone kept his respectful distance at the airport. Oa had to be weighed in, and I spent a lot of time explaining that he was only a puppy, nine months old to be exact.
“Only a little puppy,” the man at the scales said. “A little puppy. Is he to travel as excess baggage or as a passenger?”
“Which costs less?” I asked.
“He’ll not be traveling at all,” the bossman boomed from afar, “unless you crate him.”
“I can’t crate him,” I said.
“Well, he’s not going. And please put him on a leash at once.”
“I haven’t a leash. And if you won't fly the dog, then we'll walk.”
“Haha, walk is it? So you’re going to walk a couple of hundred miles through trackless jungle. Well, that’s just fine. Better get started.”
The official looked at us standing before him, the three of us with tears in all our eyes, and he said more kindly, “Hang on, then, and we'll ask the pilot. After all, it's his responsibility.”
The flight was late, mechanical trouble or something. We sat on hard little benches from 5.30 to the afternoon. The pilot arrived and Oa was produced.
“Oh sure, he can travel. Only don't let him gnaw my passengers,” the pilot said.
We took off at 1.30. Oa lay glued to the floor at our feet. The flight was very rough, so rough that we couldn’t even stand to change seats when Iona wanted to look out the window. Oa slid uncomplaining up and down the aisle with each plunge the plane took.
“Look at the passengers," the stewardess said to me. "Usually they are all airsick, even when it is smooth. That dog has scared them out of vomiting. You'd better leave him to me.”
We came down on a bumpy strip in the jungle, the door was thrown open, the steps rolled up, but no one moved. All eyes were on Oa, who was taking his time. He rose, stretched languidly, strolled to the door, paused, and started down, moving faster and faster as he approached the blessed earth. The watchers on the ground scattered.
“Look, it’s the real Rin-Tin-Tin.”
“No, it is a tiger.”
“It is Señor Dog in person!”
Oa joyfully took off in ever-expanding circles. Iona and I looked over the many-colored, milling mass of people, but there was no Quen. But we did see a Capuchin bishop, sitting foursquare on a bench in the shade. He smiled at us and said in Brooklynese, “All sorts here, jet to tan. All languages, English, Spanish, Mosquito, Chinese — they’re all good people, good people.”
As the bishop suggested, I phoned the mine. Quen had received the telegram rather late, but he had already left for the airport.
“Little Canada here,” the bishop said when we sat down to wait. “The mining people, riverboats, seaport, highways, everything, just about, Canadian; the coop’s run by us, of course.”
“Funny, the terrific change in climate and vegetation in so short a flight. Over there so dry, all desert. Here moist, lush. Is there malaria?”
“Gracious yes. All the tropical horrors. Yellow fever too. Epidemic couple of years ago wiped out all the monkeys. Terrible stench in the valleys. Ghastly riding from village to village. This is the rain belt all right, wettest climate in the world. Look at that now, more delays.” I looked at the horizon of short, choppy, heavily green volcanic hills and saw that they were being gobbled by cloud.
“This is the dry season,” the bishop said, “so we do get a break here and there. Weather is bad between here and
the coast. Been waiting all day, missed all my connections. Will of God.”
“Where are you heading?” I asked.
“Rome,” he said, He mopped the sweat from his streaming forehead.
Suddenly our wonderful Quen was there.
We piled into the company truck and set off on the gravel road that ran to the company's mines in the middle of nowhere. Quen pointed out the cortez trees, their tall heads flaming like giant bunches of daffodils, and here and there a mahogany tree.
“All the company houses are made of mahogany, built on stilts because of ants and so on. Everything is kept in drying cupboards, bedding during the day, everything.”
“I imagined a grass shack by a river, I don’t know why,” Iona said.
“Nothing like that,” Quen said. “The company’s done a beautiful job. Cut back the forest and made miles of rolling golf course. The houses are scattered over the hills. The place looks like a millionaire's paradise, not like a mining camp. Wonderful flowers in the gardens, and fruit. Mangos, bananas, pineapples, oranges, grapefruit, breadfruit, avocados ...”
“Sounds like the garden of Eden,” I said. “You’ll never get us away.”
Some time later, when the moon was sailing fast and high, our headlights caught two pale forms stationary in the middle of the road.
“Cows.” I thought, as Quen slowed. As the truck stopped, the nearer animal turned flaming eyes toward us, and languidly padded his creamy, black-rosetted body into the forest, followed by his mate, while we three sat petrified with joy.
Jaguars! We had seen jaguars. Alive, moving gloriously, real jaguars.
“Who will ever believe us?” Iona said. “Just imagine, jaguars in driving distance of Queen’s Bay!” ★