Published in Journal of Hispanic Philology, 15 (1990), 1-6.
Quito to Chiriquí
by Daniel Eisenberg
For Miriam González
The trip described took place in 1981. Previous installments are in Volume 11, No. 3, Volume 13, No. 2, and Volume 14, No. 1.
Crossing international borders is never something
one takes for granted. Occasionally a border can be comforting. Friendly
Mexico, where the streets seemed safe, roads were comparatively good, and
air conditioning systems worked, never looked so welcoming as it did when
arriving from Belize. The Costa Rican border with Panama was positively
civilized. Bilingual signs proclaimed "Bienvenidos a Costa Rica / Welcome
to Costa Rica." There were a bank and restaurants, pay telephones, and a
bus waiting to depart for San José.
But adrenaline always surges when entering a country for the first time, and more so when up-to-date information is scarce. Road conditions often deteriorate as one approaches the frontier, and fortifications may appear. One never knows just what fee or piece of paper the border guards will ask for, whether they will inquire into finances or health. Going into Nicaragua every suitcase and handbag was emptied, all pockets were turned inside out, and panels of the bus body were removed to check for smuggled weapons, all of which took several hours. There are little aggravations like the hours the border stations keep; few are open 24 hours and smaller ones close at lunchtime. Sometimes the stations on both sides do not even keep the same hours. In extreme cases borders are not open at all. Perú and Ecuador had been shooting at each other, and the border closed, only a few weeks before I crossed northwards. (Ecuador, which like Bolivia was once much larger than today, maintains that Perú has stolen territory from it in the Amazon region.) One has to be prepared to change itineraries on short notice.
Four countries on my itinerary required visas of Americans. Brazil had imposed a reciprocal visa requirement, aimed at the U.S., on any country that requires visas of Brazilians. Brazilian visas are easy to get in the U.S., though in Mexico City I wasted most of a day trying to find the Brazilian consulate to get mine extended, gave up and changed my itinerary as a result. (I found where it used to be, but no one knew where it had moved to or its new telephone number, and I couldn't think of whom to ask.) Also I had gotten a visa for Guatemala, an unnerving experience as the consulate was guarded, admitting visitors to the empty waiting room one at a time.
For Colombia and Nicaragua, I had no permit to enter. Colombia requires the tourist to declare an arrival and departure point, and show a ticket out. If one has a vague itinerary and is not flying in and out of the same spot, such documentation is hard to arrange. The San Francisco consulate was very firm about the requirement. No ticket, no visa.
Perú has a similar requirement. A travel agency in La Paz sells travelers bus tickets from Perú into Ecuador. Armed with one of those, I never had to show it. At the city in Perú where it was supposed to be redeemed there was not even a building at the street address given me. On the Ecuadorian side of the border the voucher was indeed redeemable, for less than half of what it was supposed to be worth. After returning home I inanely wrote the travel agency in La Paz to complain. They politely offered to refund my money if I would return the voucher, which I had exchanged in Ecuador for the small amount it would bring.
Once in Ecuadorthe country that, after Bolivia, most left me wanting to returnI had to decide: would I visit Colombia, or fly directly to Panama? I chose the former. Cartagena interested me, and air travel was expensive and contrary to the purpose of the trip.
It was necessary to fly from Cartagena to Panama. There is no surface transportation across the Darién jungle other than hiking and perhaps a smuggler's boat. To purchase in Ecuador an air ticket from Colombia to Panama, in order to get a Colombian visa, was surprisingly difficult. Facilities we take for granted, like computerized airline ticket systems, are scarce in the third world. No airline that flew from Cartagena to Panama had an office in Quito. After several days wandering from one office to another, a creative travel agent made, through Ecuatoriana, a reservation Quito-Bogotá-Cartagena-Panama, and then canceled all but the Cartagena-Panama section. Thus I bought a ticket, refundable only in Ecuadorian currency, and got the visa.
There was an American colony and a few tourists in Quito, most coming from or going to the Galápagos, the country's main tourist attraction. I met no tourists heading southwards, a warning of trouble ahead I failed to recognize. There is also reputed to be in Ecuador, as in a number of other countries, a population of retiring American and European hippies, who live in the bush and keep a low profile. They survive primarily off money from home and subsistence farming, sometimes on profits from smuggling or quasi-legal trade. In return for primitive conditions and isolation, which some prefer, they can grow and smoke as much dope as they want, and collect and eat psychedelic mushrooms. The lower classes with whom they have most contact have a live and let live, sometimes even a welcoming attitude. The upper class and power structure find them an embarrassment, but for such countries as Ecuador and Costa Rica they are not worth the expense and effort to eliminate.
Quito was where I spent May Day, a holiday with patriotic speeches. Quito was also the last stop for a while with good phone service, and I called Tallahassee to tell everyone I was all right and be sure there was no catastrophe at home. This was done at the facility called in Spain a locutorio, the office where one books a telephone call by filling out a slip, turning it in at a counter, sometimes paying a deposit, and then waiting until one hears "Estados Unidos, a la cabina tres." The wait can be from ten minutes to several hours. Telephone waiting rooms always have fascinating clienteles, usually in a good mood with the prospect of talking to their loved ones, occasionally disappointed when a call cannot be completed.
For an introduction to contemporary Colombia I would suggest Charles Nicholl's The Fruit Palace (New York: St. Martin's, 1985).1 My experiences were unfortunately much more negative. In the first city inside the border, Pasto, there reappeared something not seen since leaving Brazil: hungry children hanging around the doors of restaurants asking to eat anything left on one's plate. The country is just as unsafe as reputed. In Popayán the tourist office gives out maps marking the unsafe areas of town. The national park of El Tablón, whose huge prehistoric statues are pictured on Colombian currency, is unsafe even in bright daylight. On the bus from Popayán to Medellín I was robbed, a bag slit while I slept on the seat above it. Taken were an inexpensive radio, a pair of jeans, and my swimming trunks. The perpetrators were gone before I knew anything had happened. Medellín's bus station had a reputation for assaults on travelers and had a very unsavory feel to it. I quickly bought a ticket to Cartagena and sat down in the nearest restaurant to await the departure, taking everything with me when I used the toilet. The trip to Cartagena was long, the road out of the mountains narrow. A stone left the bus windshield in pieces: no safety glass in Colombia. We arrived late at night and the hotel the South American Handbook recommended no longer existed.
Colonial Cartagena, where Cervantes sought to be contador de las galeras, is well preserved. Large walls, the fort, and other period buildings reveal the important city it once was. The city had an unhappy feel to it, and it is one of only two cities where I have not felt it safe to walk after dark. (The other was Belize City.) I sat in the hotel the taxi driver took me to and watched the street life from the balcony, wondering if I would contract hepatitis from eating ceviche.
After getting my bag repaired and another round of visits to airline offices to get my ticket endorsed, I had a reserved seat on an actual flight, an aged four-propeller plane on a non-IATA Panamanian airline, COPA. The plane was some six hours late arriving in Cartagena, and it felt like a scene from Casablanca as we sat in the small airport restaurant, drinking tepid beers and helplessly waiting for something to happen. Cartagena was on a pilots' "black list" of unsafe airports. The reason was the continual theft of runway lighting bulbs by inhabitants of the shantytowns that surrounded the airport. Commercial flights thus arrived in daylight only.
The first American since Quito was also waiting for the flight. She confessed to the unusual occupation of delivering sailboats, and said she was carrying uncut precious stones. I soon discarded the one she gave me. Finally the plane arrived. We were all searched for drugs, paid our airport tax, had our passports stamped, and boarded. The plane took off, landed in Barranquilla and picked up more passengers, went to the end of the Barranquilla runway and turned around and returned to the terminal. The plane had failed one of the pre-flight checks. Whatever the inconvenience, one is glad to have these things discovered on the ground.
As there was no other flight that day, the passengers and flight crew were stranded. Surprisingly, the airline came up with vans and took all the Cartagena passengers to a hotel and bought us dinner. A sign informed us that the airline was not providing any gratuities. There was nothing to see in industrial and dangerous Barranquilla, so I stayed in the hotel and sat in the night club. Walls surrounded the hotel, and access to the night club and restaurant was through the lobby.
The next day we all left on a Costa Rican LACSA flight which would stop in Panama. We were searched for drugs again, our sequestered passports were returned, and a hand-written form was filled out for each of us to exempt us from paying the departure tax a second time.
Finally we landed at the new Tocumen airport
in Panama City. A customs officer pulled me out of the line and took me to
a small room where I was required to take my clothes off. This was again
a search for drugs. Gringos in casual dress travelling alone rate high in
smuggler potential. Couples get less attention, families with children none.
After satisfying the customs agent that I was not smuggling anything, I walked
out to the highway and caught the first bus into downtown Panama City, to
the parking lot from which long distance buses and vans left. To eat at a
cafeteria with a tray, pay in dollars, and see convenience stores and
self-service gas stations were experiences I hadn't had for months. From
Panama northwards there were no more internal border checkpoints and menacing
police stations straddling the highways, found in every South American country
My destination was Aguadulce, the town where, in 1959, I was first exposed to Spanish as an exchange student. Since my previous visit the Canal Zone had disappeared, something not all Panamanians applaud. Conditions had begun to deteriorate: the Panamanian government was unable to keep up mosquito spraying, for example.2 Fourth of July Avenue, the Canal Zone border at Panama City, had a new name, but it still separated third-world tugurio from now-seedy federal parkland. Aguadulce seemed a lot smaller than my memories of it as an exchange student. My "mother," with whom I'd had no contact, still lived in the same house. She spoke no English, and it was reassuring that even with a Ph.D. in Spanish I was still unable to make sense of the woman. Now I understood the words she used, but not the sense of her loopy remarks, which assumed acquaintance with people I no more knew today than at the age of 13.
The next day produced one of those warm interludes that make travelling worthwhile. No transportation left Aguadulce towards Costa Rica in the morning. Long-distance buses left Panama City in the morning and would pass through Aguadulce about mid-day. The solution was to hitchhike. I didn't hitchhike to save the cost of transportation, which was cheap enough when priced in dollars, but I did several times when the alternative was an extended wait.
A truck driver who liked Americans picked me up and treated me to one of the most memorable nights of the whole trip: dinner and lodging with his family in a modest whitewashed house in David. Chiriquí, of which David is the capital, is an example of something prized by travelers: a prosperous area that conserves something of its local traditions. Such areas are always far from international airports and have little access to television. Chiriquí exports quantities of fruit, and has its own railway. Long ago it was part of Costa Rica, from which mountains separated it. Costa Ricans are not sensitive on the issue because at about the same time the northern province of Guanacaste became part of Costa Rica.
After eating we had a long family get-together, with glasses of a good wine called Amor Chiricano. A female relative was visiting from Bocas del Toro, the state capital on the Atlantic without road access, from which a small plane flew round trips to David, all day long. A treat, since one rarely has access to old people while travelling, was the host's uncle, a thin man of 90. He was thus born when Panama was part of Colombia. (In diplomatic documents Panama is still not part of Central America; the formula is "the Central American countries and Panama.") He told me an exciting story about his youth, about his fiancée of 13 whom he stole from her family and hid out with in the jungle. Growing their own food, they remained fugitives for two years until some legal provision I didn't get straightperhaps that the girl was then 15freed him from fear of prosecution. The two of them then married and lived together for thirty years, at which point they divorced. "Bien contado," he agreed, it would be a story worth writing.
In a tiny, spartan, but immaculate bedroom I had the soundest sleep in a long time.
1 "Anyone who has ventured much into South America will know the feeling that there is another pulse, another country, just beneath and behind the surface. You're walking on solid earth, you're confident of what your wisdom is worth, and then suddenly you're falling into the cunningly concealed pit of the past" (p. 283). Nicholl alludes to Indian civilizations and tells of his visit to the prosperous Arhuacos, half-autonomous as some Indian nations in North America are becoming.
2 The Panama Canal has by now seriously deteriorated due to lack of maintenance (New York Times, January 23, 1991, p. 3).