Archive for the ‘Travelogues Latin America & West Africa 1976-78’ Category

When I was nineteen years old, I set off backpacking in Europe and the Middle East on my own.  It was 1974-75 and the world was a safer place then.  (more…)

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First published in the Lafayette Journal & Courier, Lafayette, Indiana, July 25. 1976

By KATHY MATTER Staff Writer

Colleen McGuire, 22, is spending the summer following her junior year at Indiana University as a crew boss for corn de-tasselers in Benton County’s lush cornfields.

Previously, she has picked grapes in Italy and experienced the communal lifestyle of an Israeli kibbutz only five miles from the Lebanese border. (more…)

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First published in the Lafayette Journal & Courier, Lafayette, Indiana, 1977



From the border town of Nogales, Arizona to the remote beaches of Acapulco, our bus bumps over a rough 1,700 mile stretch of road that zigzags wildly across the mountains. And fifty hours later, after numerous delays and transfers, we arrive in the bustling cosmopolitan city of Acapulco. (more…)

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First published in the Lafayette Journal & Courier, Lafayette, Indiana, October 3, 1976



The covered Acapulco market is large and sprawling. It is located in a section of the city that lures few tourists and the atmosphere is permeated with a mixture of strange, rancid odors. People bustle around from one stand to another like frenzied ants.

Most of Mexico’s poorer citizens buy their food at the market, and shopping becomes a daily chore because refrigerators are virtually nonexistent among the impoverished families.

As we approach the market, glistening slabs of diamonds attract our attention. But after spying pools of water at their bases, we realize that they are only blocks of ice. The iceman must sell his products quickly or the hot sun will literally eat up his profits.

But like everyone else, the iceman chooses a slow, easy pace. One day when we wanted to buy some of his ice, but he was off somewhere, presumably taking a “siesta.” Amazingly, no one stole his ice, except the thieving rays of sunlight.

Once inside we walk slowly towards the fish department to our sensitive noses, unaccustomed to such smells, the odor of dead fish is overpowering. The buzzing of flies combined with the stench is revolting, but everything looks interesting and exotic.

Shrimps, clams, oysters, lobsters are displayed everywhere in buckets of melting ice. The fish is sold fresh from the sea or scaled to suit the buyer’s taste. The vendor will conveniently chop up the fish on a block of deeply indentured wood. Crabs are tied together by a reed from the ocean.

Hopscotching over garbage on the grimy floor, we amble on bewilderingly until we find ourselves in the meat department. Here the wicked odor is even more putrefying.

No part of the chicken is wasted, and we are informed that the neatly arranged pyramid of chicken heads Is for sale as well as several chicken claws which are sticking out of a glass of water like skeleton flowers.

An entire pig’s head is displayed on a counter, blackened by the onslaught of hungry flies. Overhead hangs the remainder of the pig, on huge rusty hooks resembling the talons of a vulture. Blood trickles off the stall’s edge. Everyone is seemingly oblivious to all the flies and garbage and nauseating odors.

In the distance we see some of the this meat come to life! A man with a huge burlap sack slung over his shoulder is peddling iguana meat. The exhibited iguana is squirming as if in a wrestler’s pin. His front legs are tied behind his back and his mouth is clamped shut with a piece of rope.

The creature looked so pitiful and unappetizing it’s a wonder anyone cared to buy it But several nights earlier we had occasion to dine on iguana meat, and surprisingly enough it was very tasty.

The labyrinth, of paths leads us to the fruit and vegetable department. The produce is colorful and vibrant with freshness. Tomatoes are placed in creatively arranged piles. They are big and round, lacking artificial.

Sticks of sugarcane are also available. Nearby are brown sticks of an unknown nature. We learn that it is ocote. Ocote resembles sassafras sticks, but the fragrance is different. It substitutes as a candle and when lit burns slowly, releasing wisps of incense into the air.

Our thirst compels us to select from a variety of fruit drinks displayed in large glass containers which clearly reveal their tempting colors. A glass of watermelonade has bite-size pieces of watermelon floating on top. Limeade, lemonade, cocoanut juice, rice juice, orange juice or tomato juice are offered.

Bananas also are converted into drinks, but a blender is needed, thus making this an uncommon item sold in the street stands. The vendor adds milk and sugar to the pulverized banana, and the result, is a delectable drink vaguely similar to a banana milkshake. We each order one and pay for it with a 100-peso note.

We are astounded when informed that our money is worthless. It’s a counterfeit bill. Although it looks exactly like all other 100 peso notes, it does not bear the stamp of the Bank of Mexico in the right hand corner. All the natives are aware of the valueless bills, but the unsuspecting tourist is the last to find out about them. The ironic part of it all is that we obtained the bogus money from the downtown Bank of Mexico.

Many of the refreshment stands have convenient seats to rest on — they are wooden crates. The market totally lacks wastebaskets. Practically everywhere “stoves” can be seen. They usually consist of a small stone block with a charcoal fire burning a hole in the center. Ears of corn are roasting or fish is frying in pans. All the sellers are eating, so we’re confused if the food is for sale or exclusively for the sellers’ appetites.

Strolling through the market is a chore for non-natives. Our presence is so conspicuous that every seller yells to us to investigate his products. We are urged to buy everything from turtle eggs to avocados.

The sellers are overwhelmed when we choose their services. They take special care in wrapping the food in newspapers, shaped into cones, but it’s not quite the same as sticking a can into a shopping cart.

Leaving the covered stalls, we painfully walk through an obstacle course of sidewalk beggars; At times we gaze into their vacant eyes, but generally we just drop a peso at their feet, then disappear into the enveloping crowd.

We are on the outside now and still we come across more products. They are sold by aging women equating on the cement ground like gargoyles. Despite the hectic atmosphere, with hundreds of feet trampling over the ground, none of the products gets stepped on or crushed.

The noise and chaos of the city frustrates us. We are anxious, after a full morning of shopping, to retreat “home” to Pie de la Cuesta.

Finally our bus arrives. All protocol and etiquette are; completely abandoned as everyone struggles to be the first aboard the already crowded bus. Old women balancing baskets atop their heads receive no special privileges. Like everyone else, they must squirm through the small door and hope for space.

We find ourselves squeezed next to a woman carrying a live chicken by the legs. The upside down animal contributes to the pandemonium with its piercing squawks. Opposite the woman is a man holding a wire with five dead fish slung through it         

People start banging on the ceiling — the signal to the unconcerned bus driver that the vehicle is plenty full.

Paradoxically we hear the rhythmic strums of guitars. Despite the crowd on the bus, a boy and girl have managed to bring their guitars aboard to serenade the people. It is a common sight to see singing Mexican minstrels earn money on bus rides.      

The bus gradually empties after each stop as we approach Pie de la Cuesta. So ends a typical, enervating morning for us when we go grocery shopping at the “mercado.”         

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First published in the Lafayette Journal & Courier, Lafayette, Indiana, October 24, 1976



Because I intend to hitchhike from Pie de la Cuesta 300 miles south to Puerto Escondido, my sanity immediately is questioned.

A single lady hitchhiking on a Mexican highway! Crazy gringo!

But I adore adventure. I also love to defy people. So I’m determined to prove that a single woman can hitchhike in Mexico and arrive safely at her destination.

It is 9:30 a.m. when I boldly stick out my thumb. A taxi stops but I indicate I don’t want his service. Minutes later a white Volkswagen van pulls over. A young Mexican couple are on their way to work. They tell me the road is washed out ahead so they give me a ride taking a detour to Highway 200, the main highway which follows Mexico’s entire western coast

They wish me a good trip and drop me off at the crossroads.  It is a fairly busy intersection with a bus depot on one corner. Many Mexicans are standing along the road apparently doing absolutely nothing.

With my pack hugging my back I walk a bit hoping to get away from everyone’s stares. I hold out my thumb at the first passing car. It keeps going but at least everyone now knows my motives. Their suspicious stares turn to curious gazes.

Victoriously, I walk up to the second car that approaches. “Where are you going?” I ask the young, innocent looking driver, who replies “10 kilometers down the road.”

He looks safe, so I hop in. As we’re cruising down the road, the conversation reveals that this ordinary looking car actually is a taxi. Perhaps all the natives recognized it as a taxi, but I saw no such indication. Immediately I let him know I don’t intend to pay anyone to go anywhere.

The driver knows about five English phrases. Fortunately, the one he uses on me is “for you … free.” He deposits me at another intersection so similar to the first one that for a second I believe he deceived me and cunningly took me nowhere at all.

Again I stick out my thumb. A car stops abruptly. The driver is vague when I ask his destination. Besides, his eyes are shifty. I tell him “Andale, andale” (keep on going).

Next my thumb stops a truck. Inside are two well dressed men. For some reason, their clothes convince me they’re alright. Also, they can take me 100 miles up the road. Salvador and Pedro make this trip once a week. They are supervisors at a construction site that will eventually be a factory.

They are in their 40s, humorous and shy. Both are interested in the degree of their country’s poverty. Pedro asks me if Americans all have telephones, televisions and cars. He seems comforted by my answer, “Many young people don’t personally have all these luxuries.”

There is a pause. Salvador asks, “But do they eventually intend to get them?” I answer, “probably.” I feel uncomfortable sitting between them, knowing that despite their well paying jobs, even for them televisions and telephones are something of a luxury.

Their turn off has come. We shake hands. The good-bys are sincere and friendly. I watch the truck drift down a dirt road and look around me. The highway is empty. There is a profound stillness in the solid green wall of tropical scenery. The sun is scorching.

Yet neither the sun nor the lack of a ride really bother me. It is so utterly peaceful. I fee! privileged to be the only human in this panorama reserved for enticing postcards.

I sit down and smoke a cigarette.

About half an hour later, I hear a car or something coming my way. As it turns the bend, I make out a dilapidated truck with a spider web of cracks in the windshield, inside are three boisterous Mexicans.  They stop – or at least they try to. But it takes a while, since the truck’s brakes aren’t too good.

I explain to Isidrio, Bolivar and Napolean that the reason I am rejecting their ride has nothing to do with them personally. However, they seem just as offended that I have a low regard for their truck. Yet they give me a slice of watermelon then drive on as recklessly as they arrived.

About 10 minutes later another car approaches and pulls to a halt. An elderly man says he’s headed for Puerto Escondido. Great!

He’s a government engineer with the lavish name of Victor Santio Rocha Moreno. The Rocha is his father’s last name. The Moreno comes from the maternal side of the family. Most Mexicans have two last names for formal use, but for everyday use only the paternal last name is used.

Victor’s driver, Onofre, has jet black hair that appears to be dripping with grease. He wears thick glasses whose lenses are mirrors, a long-sleeve white shirt that just barely covers a pot belly … a James Bond bad guy, if I’ve ever seen one.

The car slows down just outside of Pinotepa. It is another one of those Federale road blocks. The young soldiers take down Victor’s name, destination and make of car. Routinely the Federales open trunks, checks glove compartments or dismantles suitcases, looking for people smuggling marijuana or running arms to the guerrillas.

At Pinotera, we stop for a lunch of enchiladas and chicken soup. Victor gets a beer and, as is the custom, puts a little salt and lime on the edge of the can’s flip-top mouth. I get a Coke.

When we enter the state of Oaxaca, Onofre bangs on the horn, honking in excitement at being back in his home state.

After traveling a bit, I understood his passion for Oaxaca. It is a mountainous land with a rich green carpet of dense trees. We pass an enchanting waterfall. In the river below, a young peasant girl, naked from the waist up, is washing clothes on a rock. In the very distant mountains it is raining.

We arrive at Puerto Escondido (Hidden Port) just as the sun is setting. I’m relieved to be here and happy with my successful traveling day.

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First published in the Lafayette Journal & Courier, Lafayette, Indiana, December 12, 1976

POSTMARK: Guatemala


Contrary to my preconceived ideas, Guatemala is definitely not a minature version of Mexico.  The country has its own distinct culture of which the native Indians are an integral aspect, and although it is only about the size of Ohio, at least 33 different dialects exist.  Toursts have difficulty pronouncing the names of Indian villages like Chichicastenango or Huehuetenango, so foreigners tend to simplify the names to Chichi and Huehue.

Brillian colors of red, blue, orange and yellow found int he INdians’ clothign immediately strikes the tourist’s eye and embroidered on many blouses are ancient Mayan symbols.  In Central America, Guatemala is THE place to buy clothes.

I first traveled to the Lake Atitlan region.  Verdant mountains surround the pure crystal blue waters.  Panajachel is the most “civilized” town in the area and thus it serves a base for outgoing trips.  From Panajachel I took a 30-cent boat ride to San Pedro, a very poor Indian village on the toher side of the lake.  My desire to go there lay in the 9,000 foot volcano.

The climb itself is 4,000 feet and ten of us tackled the steep, steep volcano.  The path got wetter the higher we climbed.  Vines à la Tarzan style became more frequent.  Every now and then we encountered peasants descening.  On their backs were at least 30 pounds of firewood they had chopped to sell in the village.  Some of them were really old, old men.  Their endurance was amazing.

One ancient Indian stopped to speak to us in broken Spanish.  We were all impressed when he told us that he makes the arduous three-hour hike every day.  “Es mi trabajo.”  — it’s my work, he said grinning.  His daily firewood trek earns him the ridiculous pay of $1.

At the top of the dormant volcano, the view stretches for miles.  And i’m told that from the other side you can see as far away as the Pacific Ocean.  It’s dynamically beautiful.  A little before noon the clouds set in.  We were enclosed in a cool blanket of white air and were no longer sweating.  It was time to descend. 

After such a strenuous hike a hearty meal sounded divine.  There are only three “comedores” (cafes) n town and they all have the same menu: rice, beans, bread and chicken or eggs.  Not exactly tempting.  There generally is a 45 minute wait for the food after ordering.  I sincerely doubt if any of the lethargic waitresses could get a job in a U.S. restaurant.  Byt he second morning i got wise.  Instead of ordering coffee and waiting 20 minutes, I just went to the kitchen and poured it myself.

My boldness didn’t disturb the Indian waitress.  Her sincere smile revealed that she was as aware as I that our conceptions of time are vastly different.  The Indian time element is the hardest adjustment to make in Latin America.  Time means absolutely nothing to them.  San Pedro was just too, too slow for me and leaving my 29 cent a night “hotel,” I caught a boat to Panajachel. 

Panajachel is a unique town.  Tourists are startled to find such Western culinary delights as granola and yogurt.  Progress can be smelled in the air.  Hilton has plans not only for a hotel here but as casino as well.

However, I found it really sad that very few Indians are now living in this town where they once lived for centuried.  The Hilton crowd will most certainly change the placid ambiance of Atitlan.

From Panjachel I took the hour walk to the nearby village of Santa Catarina.  The gravel road is only two years old, but the native Indians of Santa Catarina still resent is construction.  The road brings tourists.  Tourists bring hotels.  Hotels bring the permanent intrusion of Western man to their quiet pueblo.

One old Indian who knew he was more than 50 years old but didn’t know his precise age, complained to me in poor Spanish that Lake Atitlan was much, much bigger when he was a child.  Panajachel’s existing hotels seep their sewage into the lake.  The word ecology is no doubt absent in the Indian dialects, yet they understand the concept well.

One of the biggest holidays of Guatemala is All Saints Day on November 1.  One associated custom is to congregate in the cemetery and drink to the dead lest they haunt you until the following year. 

All over the country housewives spend several days preparing the special All Saints Day dish known as fiambre.  Over and over talk is of fiambre, fiambre, fiambre and the amount of work needed to prepare it and of its tasty nature.  But personally, fiambre, a dish of beets and a variety of meats and vegetables served cold, was a disappointment.

The Guatemalan culture is rich due to the Mayan heritage. The single biggest tourist attraction is the ruins in northern Tikal.  A plane trip there from the capital costs $29 and takes 45 minutes.  My budget compelled me to take the $7 bu ride.  Physically, I regret my decision.

The bus ride generally lasts about 11 hours.  However, this is the region’s rainy season and since the road is unpaved and has more holes than a chunk of Swiss chees, this onerous trip lasted 17 hours.

In places the rain water was so high on the road that it was seeping into the bus.  The bus holds 40 people but the driver, greedily desiring more money, kept accepting passengers until there were 60 of us copeting for comfort.  At 4 a.m. the bus broke down, whereupon we cattle had to file out into the muddy ditch to await repairs.  I tried to imagine any Greyhound bus passengers ever experiencing a similar nightmare. 

Tikal is situated deep in dense tropical jungle land.  One wonders not only how the ruins were ever discovered but also how the Mayan culture commenced in such rough terrain. 

The pyramids are stupendous, moreso than those in Egypt.  They’re built extremely steep, makng for a treacherous ascent.  The stone drawings depict ancient gods carrying machetes and wearing elaborately plumed headdresses and some of the imprints can only be seen when the sun is brightly shining.  One creeps in and out of the chambers with visions of loin-clothed Mayans performing mystical rituals.

The pyramids at Egypt are located in the desert.  All one sees for miles is sand.  At Tikal the foliage is as enticing as the ruins.  Spider monkeys swing high in the trees screeching mating calls to one another.  Parrots sit on branches gossiping in their native tongue.  Their feathers are so rich in color they look as if they were painted by French Impressionists.  Birds that look like a cross between a turkey and a peacock calmly stroll the grounds.  Their tall plumes gleam metallically.Small anteaters feast on the abundance of ants.

A brief rain shower broke the oppressive humidity.  Then lo and behold a pastel rainbow radiated the sky forming an arch over one of the pyramids.

I do believe I have found the proverbial pot of gold at the end of the rainbow — it surely is this magical land of Guatemala.





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First published in the Lafayette Journal & Courier, Layfayette, Indiana, December 19, 1976



The typical traveler in Central America is either going up the Pan American Highway towards the States or headed down towards South America. Thus, everyone passes through the same line of countries.

A look at the map shows that Belize — formerly British Honduras — is slightly off the circuit. So to be different, I ventured into that tiny country and into a minor case of culture shock.

The vast differences between Belize and the other Latin countries are so incredibly striking that for several days I was in a constant state of amazement.  I had no idea that Belize was predominantly populated by Negroes. Actually they’re referred to as Caribs.

At first I felt like I was on the south side of Chicago. I arrived very late at night and contrary to sleepy Guatemala, the streets were filled with people cruising around despite the late hour. The blacks dress loud. They don’t just walk down the street, but tend to saunter with style.

As I began to talk with people, Chicago vanished from my mind. These blacks speak an English dialect called Creole. Their accent is British and many words are unfamiliar. When they spoke pure Creole, I had no idea what they are saying. “Hey, mon” is how they greet each other with a smooth slap of the palm. My long skirt was referred to as a frock. A young man called to me, “Hey mama, stop your eyes” meaning he wanted me to come talk to him.

Their place names are creative. I turned down a road called So Why? Street. I saw a clothing store called My Ting — in Creole, the “h” is abandoned in “th” words.

All over Belize City one hears music. It’s loud and lively. And where there’s music, there are people freely moving to its beat. At Mom’s, a popular hang-out, an old black woman in a Salvation Army suit was shaking and shouting the gospel. A spirited crowd accompanied her words by clapping and chanting to her rhythm.

Belize is a country with fewer residents than the city of Indianapolis. The people are extremely nationalistic and proud of their origins. I was fortunate to be in their country on their National Day. So I hitched a ride out to the “bush,” as the countryside is called, to partake in the festivities.

On Nov. 19, 1823, the natives of the West Indian island of St. Vincent’s fled the Spaniards, coming to Stann Creek in Southern Belize by boat. For 50 years the Caribs have been celebrating this liberating event. As I arrived in the small coastal village, a parade of school children was slowly dancing down the main street. They were singing in the Carib language and some carried banners saying in Creole, “We work together” and “Love one another.”

The Belize children have to be the most uninhibited group of kids I’ve come across. They’ll be strolling along and suddenly break into a cartwheel or a series of aerial flips.

One of the highlights of the Stann Creek festivities are the drums. The children perked up at the familiar noise. We moved en masse to where three black men were beating the instruments. The drums are tall, like congos. The beat is mesmerizing. Little boys of five or six started swaying to the vibrations. Every bone in their bodies was moving in perfect harmony to the rhythm. Their dancing to the drums is called the “punta” in Creole.

The crowd was urging me to join in. Believe it or, not, I accepted their offer. The Caribs were overjoyed. These people adore anyone who freely lets loose with them.

Compared to the young boys, I knew my “punta” attempts were pitiful. But it didn’t matter in the least. The main point was just having a good time. The drums, the punta, the swinging and swaying were to continue throughout the night.

I dropped off early about 11 p.m. and went to sleep on the beach. At 5 a.m. I was awakened by the noise of people. The day was Nov. 19 and at this predawn hour everyone had come down to the Caribbean Sea. There were five dug-out canoes in the distant waters approaching the shore. The event was the reenactment of the Carib ancestors arriving at Belize from St. Vincent’s Island. About an hour later the canoes reached land to the cheers of the crowd. The entire procession then marched into town.

The children performed again. Adults gave speeches. A queen was crowned. The next event consisted of a woman’s basketball game. The game was a little rough since the baskets had no backboards for rebounding and the court was gravel, but the spectators were as enthusiastic as Hoosier basketball fans.

Because everyone was tired from staying up the previous night, the festivities closed early on Nov. 19 and people started going home by whatever means possible.

I caught a ride in the back of a cement truck going to Belize City. The ride lasted about four and a half hours. The driver made several stops.

At the first stop, he climbed out of the cab with a machete in his hand and cut a bunch of plantanos growing wild on a tree. Plantanos look like bananas except they are bigger, greener and harder. They are fried.  Another stop was at a grapefruit grove. I stood on the cab and plucked several of die newly ripe fruit.  As we passed over a bridge, the driver made a, third stop. It was so hot and humid in Belize that we took a fast dip in the deep creek below.

A fourth stop was to let off another rider, a British soldier. There are 1,000 British soldiers in Belize. Britian granted Belize independence last year, but still maintains a military presence. This is because Guatemala doesn’t recognize Belize and wants to take over the country to gain a sea port on the Atlantic. Belize has no army so Britian supplies her defense.

I mention the political point because it is so important to the Belizens. A tourist can’t avoid discussing the Guatemalan affair when speaking to the people.

After attending the National Day festivities and being among the people, I’m convinced that Belize could never, ever be incorporated into Guatemala. The two countries are distinctly different.

Belize is a fascinating country, perhaps partially because it is so incongruous in Latin America. As one old black street vendor said, “We is a unique people.”

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