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

POSTMARK:  Mexico

By COLLEEN McGUIRE and TOM McGUIRE

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.”         

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

POSTMARK:  Mexico

By COLLEEN McGUIRE

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.

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

POSTMARK: Guatemala

By COLLEEN McGUIRE

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.

 

 

 

 

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

POSTMARK:  Belize

By COLLEEN McGUIRE

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.”

First published by the Lafayette Journal & Courier, Lafayette, Indiana, January 2, 1977

POSTMARK:  Costa Rica

cahuita

By COLLEEN McGUIRE And TOM McGUIRE

Cahuita, Costa Rica, is a savagely beautiful and still obscure paradise 30 miles north of the Panama border on the lush green shores of the Caribbean Sea. Even the’ name of the little village (pronounced Cah-wee-tah) rivals Tahiti in evoking images of tropical splendor.

To arrive at secluded Cahuita we first had to pass through the principal east coast port of Puerto Limon. This is the site where Columbus landed on his fourth and final voyage to the New World. Forty kilometers south on a partially paved road that parallels the sea lies Cahuita. We pass infinite rows of banana trees. A large majority of the banana plantations in the Limon area are owned by the infamous Robert Vesco of Watergate notoriety who is presently in political exile in Costa Rica.

The tropical countryside is so glorious that upon entering Cahuita we were clapping and singing, much to the amusement of the Tico truck driver who picked us up in Limon. Tico refers to Costa Ricans in the same sense that Hoosier designates Indiana residents.

The truck pulled to a halt on Cahuita’s main dirt street and deposited us in front of the town’s only bar. It was mid-afternoon and, judging from the size of the crowd hanging about, these folks don’t, seem to take their work as seriously as do Americans.

Four ethnic groups comprise Cahuita’s estimated population of 1,000 – a handful of Chinese, young homesteading Americans who have purchased cheap land, Latins and the Carib blacks. It is the blacks, whose ancestors were brought in from the West Indies to build the railroads, who are dominant.

The blacks of Cahuita are by far the most colorful and mercurial faction of the population and are almost a direct reflection of the black culture of deep, rural Georgia.

This striking resemblance is apparent in the slow pace of life due to two forces – the intense heat and a mode of existence that is infinitely removed from the hustle-bustle of a sophisticated technological world.

We encountered Roy “Pepe” Carter (no relation to Jimmy!) sitting at the bar selling his lottery numbers. He’s the local bookie and the owner of a ten-room dwelling which he leases out to backpackers looking for cheap accommodations. We accompanied him to his place, walking at our normal pace. As Pene tries to keep up with us, he cries, “Hey mon, slow down. You ain’t in the city no more.”

the blacks’ native elocution is delightful. Instead of a conventional “hello” which implies very littie, they substitute “OK” or “Alright.” Their vocal inflection indicates that we actually are OK and alright in their eyes.

Another frequent colloquialism is “pura vida.” It is generally used in the same instances when Americans use the expression “right on” – that is to denote enthusiastic support of an idea or feeling. Pura vida translates as “pure life” and you know they really believe it when they sing out the phrase accompanied by a vigoous shake of a clenched fist.

The blacks, as opposed to Cahuita’s other ethnic groups, are trilingual. Most of them speak English, Spanish and Carib, although not in that order of proficiency. Even amongst themselves they tend to jump from one language to the next, making it difficult to discern which exactly is their mother tongue. When we asked Winston, the town sheriff, which language he knew best, he replied in a mixture of English and Spanish that he was unsure.

The merchants of Cahuita seem unconcerned about whether they get your business. You never know when a store will be open and, even if the store is open you can expect to wait indefinitely for someone to “jump” to your service although you’re the only customer in the store.

Normally in America when you go to a restaurant you’re expected to order something. Often you’re asked to leave if you don’t. Here it is the opposite; loitering does not have a negative connotation. Perhaps this explains why one’s presence in a restaurant often goes unacknowledged.

Instead of patronizing Cahuita’s three restaurants, we got a better deal and better service by dining at “Mizz” Rachel’s. Mizz Rachel is an old, black woman who serves meals to tourists in the casual atmosphere of her home. By making informal reservations with her that morning you can expect the most decent meal in Cahuita that evening. For the price of one meal, she heaps double portions of everything on your plate.

Somehow she has the culinary skill for enhancing the simplest dish of beans and rice. Her specialty is yam soup. We asked her for the recipe and she eagerly recited the ingredients. But contrary to Betty Crocker style, Mizz Rachel is vague when it comes to explaining how to combine them into soup. “I jes put um together,” she smiles.

After dinner we walked uptown to check out the action of Cahuita on a typical evening. The favorite pastime, besides drinking beer, is playing dominoes. It’s fascinating to watch a group of four or five blacks engage in a spirited contest of dominoes. They are not passive contestants, instead playing with the aggressiveness of cutthroat gangsters playing poker. There is a smooth rhythm in their style which captivates our attention. Each turn is executed by slamming the decisive domino onto the wooden tabletop. The loud clack and the exuberant chatter of the players is heard all up and down main street.

Cahuita has all the magical charm and rustic beauty of the most mythical tropical paradise. Highlighting the setting are two sprawling beaches. The black one is studded with roots of trees jutting out of the sandy terrain like the polished antlers of some aquatic elk.

The other has glistening white sand and tranquil blue waters of many shades. The contours of its densely palm-fringed shores arc for a mile to a distant coral reef where a sunken Spanish Galleon lies dating back to the 16th Century. Scuba gear and an adventurous spirit are needed for first-hand exploration.

The refreshing aspect of these gorgeous beaches is that they are still totally devoid of the hotel chains that spoil the beauty of other already developed beaches. Thus, we consider ourselves fortunate to have visited Cahuita before the impending onslaught of tourism. Recently a bank and a post office have augmented the community’s civic growth. These establishments are sure indicators of a sleepy tropical hamlet destined to evolve into a potential “hot spot” resort.

The new bank seems incongruous in Cahuita. The banker, a Latin, reflects the city’s image. He is efficient and meticulous in his work. His official manner – performing calculations on the adding machine or acting very business-like while counting insignificant sums of money is a parody. He thinks he’s a teller at Chase Manhattan instead of a mere clerk in Cahuita, Costa Rica. But still, he represents change and progress.

Another subtle indication of change and progress is the installation of electricity at Pepe’s. For years the only source of light was candles. However, the day we left, the electric company from Puerto Limon came to install electricity. Within two years Pepe intends to add a restaurant to his place.

Cahuita’s mystique lies in its virgin land and dynamic people. Its appeal is best expressed by our black friend Opie’s classic one-liner: “I came to Cahuita for a day and I’ve been here ten years.

First published in the Lafayette Journal & Courier, Lafayette, Indiana, January 16, 1977

POSTMARK:  Colombia

By COLLEEN McGUIRE

For my brother and me, Colombia was like a good Russian novel — difficult to get into, but very rewarding if you keep striving.

Our introduction to South America was Cartagena, the most beautiful Latin city we have visited on this trip. Its charismatic architecture — white buildings, Moorish arches and black wrought iron balconies —echoes the beauty of ancient Spain. Perhaps because it was the Christmas season, the narrow streets overflowed with people.

Cartagena once was one of the prime coastal cities where Spanish pirates returned from the high seas with their booty. A towering stone wall surrounds the old city where ancient gray cannons peek through the wall’s apertures. The majestic fortress of San Felipe stands as evidence that Cartagena was strongly fortified.

As if still under the influence of the glory days of their pirate ancestors, Cartagena’s people glory in the black market. Every other street vendor is selling cartons of Marlboros at cheaper prices than your local Kroger supermarket. A package of Marlboros sells for 33 cents. You can purchase one cigarette for 3 cents.

Near the market televisions, radios and other non-Columbian appliances are sold openly at drastically reduced price tags. There is just too much contraband for the police to arrest every single illegal vendor.

Cartagena’s warm evenings are conducive to outside eating and “dining” at the market is a unique experience. At a regular restaurant one doesn’t normally sit at the same table with strangers, but since there’s only one table here, everyone eats together under the open sky. Other people stand around waiting for a vacant seat.

The silverware was stacked in a glass on the table and you helped yourself. Out of the huge pots nestled on hot charcoals, a black woman scooped up bowls of beans, rice, fish, potatoes and soup. Everything was good and filling except the soup, in which cooked chicken claws floated morbidly in the broth. They may have no qualms about eating such things, but I couldn’t hack it.

One treat sold in the streets is freshly peeled and fried potato chips. These far surpass Lays or Pringles because the chips are hot as well as free of artificial ingredients. What a delight for potato chip fans!

Cartagena’s beauty makes it a big tourist town, which in turn means high prices. Both of these are extremely evident in Bocagrande – the new and also beautiful section of town. Despite the city’s charm, the tourists and high prices made it difficult for us to initially accept Colombia, so we trekked on into the countryside. Standing outside the northern industrial city of Medellin, we cursed the cars that swiftly passed us by. Finally we got a hitchhiker’s dream ride.

First of all the driver, a Colombian named Sigifredo, volunteered to take us all the way to Bogata, at least a 14-hour drive. And secondly Sig (his nickname) proved to be overly generous with his money (as computer specialist for the South American Chase Manhattan Banks, he could afford to be).

We took two days to drive to Bogata. Sig refused to let us spend our own money. His son is studying at Columbia University in New York and perhaps Sig wanted to take care of us in the same way he hopes Americans are being kind to his son.

We drove through high hills dotted with coconut trees. Sig pointed out that the coconuts on the trees were no bigger than moth balls. They’re called corozoas and despite their smaller size they have the same qualities as normal coconuts. Clusters of cana brava also decorate the hills. The plant is a variety of sugar cane with the stalk resembling huge green feather plumes.

At Rio Sucios, Sig offered to buy us a Coke. The waiter brought three bottles, one with a straw in it and two glasses. Tom and Sig got the glasses while I got the Coke with a straw.

We asked several young boys for the road to Pereiro, but their directions led us down a dead-end street. When we returned they were all laughing hysterically. No apologies were necessary though, after they reminded Sig that the day, Dec. 28, was Dia de Innocentes, literally meaning day of the innocents, Colombia’s version of our April Fool’s Day.

Later Sig treated us to a typical Colombian meal. Sancocho, the soup, was made from the yucca plant with potatoes added. Mazamola consisted of cold corn in a bowl of cold milk. Sig told us that the poor eat mazola in its own corn juice because milk is too expensive. Arepa was a white corn biscuit. Except for a sizeable chunk of meat, the native dishes were far too starchy for my personal diet.

We finished the meal over a cup of superb Colombian coffee. Black coffee called tinto was always excellent here and generally cost four cents in the small towns. The entire bill for our three meals totaled $1.80.

The region we traversed the next day gave rise to the great Andes Mountains. However, since it was
only their beginnings the mountains reached only a mere 7,500 feet. At the top the clouds created a white fog, making the curving road very dangerous, compounded by slow-moving cargo trucks that are forced to inch upwards at 10 or 20 m.p.h. Hence, we awoke very early to travel this stretch before the heavy traffic set in.

Before climbing upward, Sig made a pit stop for fuel and we were astounded to learn that gasoline is only 10 pesos (30 cents) a gallon. Apparently Colombia has enough oil to eliminate costly importation and maintain a low price for its people. Yet the people must pay $6,000 for the cheapest new car — Renaults — for which there’s an assembly plant in Colombia. The tax on foreign cars is 300 per cent, giving a Mercedes Benz, for example, a $50,000 price tag.

The stretch of the Andes we crossed was called La Linea. At the bottom of the road there was a Virgin Mary statue with about 15 sparkling candles glowing at her feet. Sig told us that before making the treacherous climb, many truckers light candles in exchange for the Holy Mother’s protection.

After crossing La Linea, we agreed that a candle isn’t a bad idea. It really was a difficult road. There were no gas stations in the mountains and it was not surprising to see overheated cars stalled and parked dangerously on the side of the small road. A bonfire near several trucks indicated the drivers had to spend the night in the cold mountains. Despite the difficulty of crossing La Linea, it was one of the most beautiful drives in terms of scenery.

In April or May each year, a bicycle race takes place on this road — reserved only for those with the stamina, endurance and energy to conquer La Linea by pedal.

After La Linea, we crossed a long flat valley, ascended another mountain range, and then crossed another prairie-like stretch. At last we came to the final mountain climb. At the top, the capital city of Bogota – one of the toughest cities south of the U.S. border awaits two wide-eyed kids from the Benton County cornfields.

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First published in the Lafayette Journal & Courier, Lafayette, Indiana, January 30, 1977

POSTMARK:  Colombia

By COLLEEN McGUIRE and TOM McGUIRE

Bogota, capital of Colombia, population exceeding 3.5 million, has the notorious reputation of being one of the most dangerous cities in South America.

Throughout Central America we heard countless horror stories from fellow travelers warning us of eyeglasses being pulled off their faces or jewelry yanked from their necks, wrists and even pierced ears. These bloodcurdling tales filled us with fear, but our intrepid personalities impelled us to investigate this city to verify or dispel the rumors for ourselves.

We have found Bogata to be a stimulating center of culture with more class than most cities we have visited on this trip. The avenues are a bedazzling spectacle of towering skyscrapers, modern, architecture and sophisticated people fashionably dressed.

The city is exciting and alive, like a Latin version of San Francisco. Discotheques blare from about every corner, and movie theaters showing the latest in Hollywood sensationalism thrive with long lines. Xerox, General Electric and Goodyear light up the skyline as examples of the multitude of U.S. industries invested here.

To safeguard ourselves against any unnecessary assaults, we decided to spend a little extra money for a decent hotel room. For only 20 pesos (about $7) we found a reasonable deal — hot water, comfort, privacy and above all, safety. Another one of the terrifying stories circulating through the backpackers’ grapevine is the dangers and uncertainties in checking into a cheap, disreputable side street hotel.

After settling into our quaint hotel, we prowled the streets with our new friend, Sig. We visited at least three restaurants where he insisted that we order anything we desired, and in between these coffee breaks Sig took us on a tour of the town.

Every wall we passed was painted with political graffiti and slogans demanding justice and people’s rights. A typical phrase we saw read “Contro el imperialismo yanki somos,” which translates as “We are against Yankee imperialism.” Bogota activist students are presently “en huelga” (on strike) against the six-month university tuition fee of $900 which is sky high for their standard of living.

Colombia mines and exports 95 per cent of the world’s emeralds, so jewelry buffs can get incredible deals here if purchased from the right person at the right price.

Scores of men patrol, the streets looking for prospective suckers to buy their phony emeralds. They uninhibitedly approach you like an old friend, then proceed to furtively show you their collection of emeralds for sale. If they’re not authentic then they’re ridiculously overpriced. A resolute “no gracias” usually stifles these sidewalk negotiations.

The gloomier side of Bogota is that it unquestionably has some of the most degenerate people we’ve ever seen. They create sights you just don’t want to look at or confront. Because these people are the scourge of humanity, with ugliness and despair in their eyes, you really get the creeps when they look at you. They crouch in alleys or sleep cloaked in rags on church steps, haunted by the wretched anguish of minute-to-minute survival.

Like costumes, the tattered derelicts wear black pants and a black sports coat. Their clothes are so old and moldy with stench that they look ready to disintegrate. Their filthy faces seem as if charcoal had been smeared on their cheeks. Their hair is matted and unkempt; their eyes have the glossy daze of a Charles Manson. The only element these depraved individuals lack to complete a zombie appearance is froth drooling down their chins.

Bogota’s nights are as brisk as a crisp October evening. It is therefore terribly painful and disconcerting to the senses to see these unfortunate people sleeping on sidewalks like neglected animals. Newspapers and piles and piles of rags serve as protective blankets.

It’s a doubly pitiful sight to come across a woman in such circumstances, surrounded by her whining, hungry children, yet they are found on practically every down-town block.

The face of one vagrant boy became familiar after making daily requests for pesos. Instead of offering
money, Colleen flashed on the idea of giving him a woolen vest she seldom wears. The gift would be much more beneficial to the nameless child than a couple of pesos. His reaction to Colleen’s gesture was to silently grab the jacket and run.

Later, returning to our hotel, he happily ran up to us all decked out in his new bright red vest which looked absurdly incongruous with the rest of his squalid garments. He stroked it as if it were a mink coat, thanked us with an enormous smile before turning away to show it off to his friends.

The prospect of spending New Year’s Eve in the big city seemed appealing to us yet it didn’t occur exactly as we anticipated. We naturally presumed that as the final hours of 1976 eroded into history, 7th Street (the most active) would be teeming with activity. But it was empty and deserted like a staged gunfight set. Our misconception about how a New Year’s Eve in the city should be celebrated is attributed to having watched too many Johnny Carson New Year’s Eve programs that telecast live coverage of Times Square celebrations overflowing with people and noise.

Later we were informed that the custom in Colombia requires the family to congregate during the last hours of the outgoing year. But when 1977 officially arrives, the young people go off to celebrate in their own style. Thus, during the hours before the bells toll midnight, the only people wandering Bogota’s most frantic avenue are the street dwellers and a few tourists like ourselves with no home to party at.

Rather than venture out into the darkened streets past midnight, we stayed in our hotel room proposing toast after toast with crystal clear Aguardiente to commemorate the New Year. Aguardiente is Colombia’s national liquor, an exquisite tasting distilled spirit flavored with anise that is bottled throughout the country.

On New Year’s Day we visited the bullfighting stadium. The coliseum is round with high arched entrances and intricate geometric designs on the walls. Disappointed, we learned that the next bullfight wasn’t until the following week, when Agustih Parra of Spain — one of the world’s celebrated bullfighters — was to dazzle audiences with his mastery.

Since the gates were open, we went inside to have a look. The coliseum is huge with a seating capacity of 30,000. Two matadors were practicing their art — one waved the traditional red cape while the other charged at his adversary holding a pair of bull horns to his head.

Back outside we met an entourage of midget matadors who had flown in from Madrid to participate in the upcoming bullfight. They looked amusing in their official regalia of polished brown boots a fancy suit with tassles and a huge hat with plumes sticking out of it. They asked if we’d be around to see them perform and advised us not to miss them standing on top of one another to kill the bull. At that, they all exploded into munchkin-like laughter.

We have no regrets about visiting Bogota. Many of those horror stories are no doubt true and we did keep them in mind strolling the city’s avenues. All in all, though, we’re glad that we chose to tackle this rough city for ourselves, and after our week’s stay, our traveling philosophy remains intact: “If you don’t go looking for trouble, the less vulnerable you’ll be to trouble.”

ecuador

First published in the Lafayette Journal & Courier, Lafayette, Indiana, February 20, 1977

POSTMARK:  Ecuador

By COLLEEN McGUIRE

The Spanish word for equator is Ecuador, whose capital, Quito, lies within 25 kilometers of the zero degree longitude line. Quito holds the distinction of being the second-highest capital in the world. The city’s unusual geographical position makes for very warm days and downright chilly evenings.

I found Quito’s charm in the old southwestern section of the city where steep, winding streets dip into deep ravines that have either been filled or have stone viaducts built over them. Plaza Independencia, the heart of the city, was a perfect example of Quito’s huge plazas that are dominated by ornate churches. Nearby was the monastery of San Francisco, the earliest religious foundation in South America (1535), as well as an astronomical observatory, also the oldest in South America.

From high in my hotel room I could safely marvel at the arched bridges, towering steeples, domes and the Pichincha Volcano. I almost preferred this passive method of observing Quito, as strolling through the town is not always pleasant.

I’ve visited many cities in my travels, but I must confess that I’ve never come across one that smelled so much of urine as Quito. Certain cobblestone streets that look enticing for strolling turn out to be torture for the nose. What amazed me was that the stench is not confined to one area, but rather you caught whiffs of the strong odor throughout the entire old city. Businessmen carrying briefcases are as guilty as the native Indians in perpetuating this nasty habit.

The native Indian population forms a large part of Quito’s interesting personality. Many of the men pull their long jet black hair back into a braided ponytail. They wear fedora-like hats, woolen ponchos and, when they are not barefoot, their shoes seem as skimpy as ballet slippers. The women also wear the same brown felt hats as the men, giving them a rugged masculine appearance. Babies are wrapped in a blanket or shawl tied around the mother’s back, papoose-style.

The, Indians are a short race to begin with, but shrink even further from the immense weights they carry. I saw their bent-over bodies hobbling down the streets with unfathomably heavy objects tied to their backs, such as mattresses, desks, or huge sacks of potatoes, all to be sold in the market. When they unload the pounds, their backs fail to arise erectly. The shortest of gringos towers over the native Indians.

Ecuador is rich in oil. The reserves lie in the eastern area of the country, the Oriente, which is untamed equatorial jungleland. I took an eight-hour bus ride from Quito down to Lago Agrio, the temperature lowering as the hours ticked off. Following the gravel road the entire length of the trip was the mighty pipeline carrying Ecuador’s future wealth to the Esmeralda coast where most of the oil is shipped to California.

I had to spend the evening in Lago Agrio, whose population basically consists of men employed by the oil companies. The men passed their hours drinking beer and gawking wildly at any member of the female sex — particularly if she happened to be a gringa in shorts. Between the weather and the men, it was a toss-up as to which was more oppressive.

The next day I was able to catch a bus to Coca, it was about a two-hour ride entailing the crossing of two rivers, and twice all the passengers had to collect their luggage, take a ferry to the opposite bank and reload it on another bus. This was no chore for a backpacker, but several passengers had all sorts of cumbersome possessions, and one woman was transporting two mattresses and several chairs.

Finally I arrived at Coca, a small river village with plenty of American engineers employed by Gulf or Texaco. I noticed enviously that from their living quarters protruded the ultimate in tropical luxury — air conditioners. My intentions in coming to Coca were to look for some means of water transportation to Rocafuerte, Ecuador’s eastern border town to Peru.

Normally there is sufficient river traffic on the Napo to easily procure a ride from the natives in their dug-out canoes at a small cost. However, it hadn’t rained in several weeks, making the waters unusually low and highly difficult for traveling.

The scarcity of native boats forced me to search for other alternatives. The Ecuador navy had a small base in Coca, so I figured it could help me out. Luck was with me as a crew was going down to Rocafuerte that very day. After I had a short, but persistent, conversation with Lt. Francisco Espinosa he allowed me to accompany him and his men.

The troops were outfitted entirely in U.S. Marine uniforms. The boat was from Britain and I recognized their weapons as the Uzi submachine gun of Israel. Lt. Espinosa’s cotton T-shirt was from Red China. Except for the Ecuadorian flag waving in the breeze, all their equipment, from knives to canned goods, seemed to be foreign.

Cruising down the Napo River is a spectacular event. The land is a jungle of dense green foliage on both banks. As we sped by isolated thatched huts, the children would run to the river’s edge and wave at the military boat as if its passing were the big event of the day. We passed natives in dug-out canoes loaded with bananas, paddling by with long poles as oars.

In this dry season with the waters so low, giant sand bars came out of their rainy hibernation, filling the Amazon tributary with scattered lonely beaches. Llori, the young soldier guiding the boat, did an amazing job of avoiding the sand bars. In a way he reminded me of the Bedouin tribes in the Middle East. Those nomads can travel the desert and know precisely where water hides beneath the sand. Llori, a native of the Oriente, can travel the equatorial rivers and know precisely where sand hides beneath the waters.

Only twice on the trip did Llori get stuck in sand bars. Lt. Espinosa ordered his crew to get out and push. The men were only waist deep in water, but the current was so vicious that they had trouble maintaining their balance, let alone freeing the boat.

The first time we got stuck, I stupidly jumped overboard to help, but the current was far more powerful than I realized, and I found myself helplessly floating downstream. I was only carried a short distance, since I managed to cling forcefully to a huge, stationary branch. Lt. Espinosa immediately came to my aid, terminating my frantic fantasy of floating into the obscurity of the Amazon.

We stopped for lunch at a small village called Panacocha, which turned out to hold a colony of Frenchmen involved in oil explorations.

Juanta was on the luncheon menu. “Is Juanta like a cow?” I asked. “No,” replied the lieutenant. “Nor is it a pig.” I caught a look at the head of the animal in the cooking area and noticed it was rather small, with two good sized tusks. I told the lieutenant that it looks like juanta could be a boar in English, but he smiles and said, “Muchacha, juanta is only found in the equatorial jungle, so I doubt if the word exists in your language.” Well, whatever it was I ate, it was delicious.

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Nineteen women writers tell of their love for this amazingly beautiful country in Greece, A Love Story (Seal Press, 2007)  This is Colleen’s story:

I first touched Greek soil in April, 1975, when you could voyage from Haifa to Herakleion by ship (now defunct), camp out in the caves at Matala (now prohibited) and watch drunken Greeks dance and smash plates (now passé).  After my flirtation with island life, Greece remained in my memories as a mythic place of sensual pleasure.   Years later, one day in New York I fell in love with a Greek god.  When he proposed relocation to his homeland, it was an easy decision to return to that pleasure center of my youth. My move to Greece was not official until I brought my bicycle over from the States.  I switched gears, as it were, and eventually hauled, one at a time, three of my four bicycles across the Atlantic. 

For someone who pledges allegiance to the bicycle, Greece is not the most logical of European destinations to take up residence. Greeks are insanely smitten with motor vehicles.  More than a third of Greece’s citizens reside in the capital and all of them seem to covet a car. Continuously inhabited for more than 7,000 years, Athens is a city accustomed to movement.  Yet, when Greeks left their rural domains in droves in the latter part of the twentieth century and flooded Athens, paltry provisions were made for mass transport.  A bicycle culture never arose in Greece; it is as if the country went straight from the donkey to the car.  

I insisted on living in Thissio, a neighborhood at the foot of the Acropolis, in large part because a pedestrian mall now circles the monument’s grounds.  In this car-free zone I can move effortlessly on the extended stone walkway while marveling at the surrounding archaic ruins.  When I venture outside my provincial precinct, I contend with a city locked in perpetual rush hour mode. 

In Manhattan, I gamely wove in and out of traffic, but in Athens cycling is practically a contact sport.  Motor vehicles bloat the narrow streets, struggling to occupy alleyways with all the tenacity of a plump matron determined to fit into a size 8 evening gown.  Even my svelte Italian-made Colnago often finds no opening to maneuver around the stalled traffic, so tight is the space between car and corridor.  Emboldened perhaps by their numbers, Athenian drivers brazenly discount non-motorized traffic, making the concept “right-of-way” a non sequitur. 

In such a climate, Athenian cyclists are an uncommon breed, be they commuters, leisure riders or athletes —a strange phenomena, given that Greece is the home of the Olympics.  So imagine my surprise when I discovered that in this urban behemoth of some four million residents, my apartment building shares the same block as the meeting space of a group called Friends of the Bicycle. The Friends organize self-contained rides where everyone carries their own gear and we camp out. 

Fantasies of Greece usually conjure up beach scenes with blinding blue waters, but four-fifths of Greece is mountainous.  I was a committed road cyclist until the Friends introduced me to the poignant treasures awaiting a mountain biker in remote terrain.  In the Peloponnese mountains near Kalavrita we came upon a village whose prized feature is a hollow tree so huge that it holds a church inside it. I walked through the carved-out door and sighed when I saw an altar and eight chairs in a circle.  Religious icons hung from the inside bark and you could light a candle as you would in any other chapel.  I almost genuflected on the spot.

Biking near Mt. Parnassus, we stopped to gorge on wild strawberries clinging to a wall of earth.  Sparkling from the morning dew and no bigger than a dime, they had a luscious sweetness out of proportion to their size.  In the Greek mountains you’ll never go thirsty owing to bountiful sources of healthy, pure, cold fresh water springs that make store-bought water taste stale.  Like Napa Valley connoisseurs hopping amongst wineries, the Friends sampled water from every spigot we passed even if we had just filled our water bottles several kilometers back.     

To ride with Friends of the Bicycle is to experience siga siga in full force.  Translated as “slowly,” my sense of the phrase is that it even connotes a disdain for all things fast.  On a Friends outing, the goal of getting from Point A to the evening’s camp site at Point B is secondary to indulging in ceaseless distractions en route.  We linger for twenty minutes to watch a fellow rider chase and catch a fat garter-type snake with his bare hands.  Forty-five minutes are spent poking around a deep cave using our detachable bike lights for illumination.  A good one to two hour afternoon nap is de rigueur. 

Through the Friends I met Giorgos Altyparmakis, an iconoclastic cyclist and consummate bike mechanic whose family has operated a bicycle repair shop for over forty years.  Giorgos is in his sixties, looks forty-five, and has the biking energy of a twenty-year-old.  He has a peculiar fondness for cycling maniacal hours, starting early in the morning and pedaling until eleven or midnight with one or two twenty minute breaks.  Few Friends cycle with him when he sets the itinerary, but I regularly ride with Giorgos.  As if hypnotized, I somehow keep pace with him. 

On my first outing with Giorgos before I knew his style, I grew concerned when we continued to cycle in the lykofos (translated as dusk, lykofos literally means “wolf light”).  I became alarmed when darkness arrived.  Soon enough, however, I recognized that with a full moon and no cars for miles on a navigable dirt road, this outrageous activity was not only do-able but wildly fun.  Giorgos and most Friends are committed night riders and I readily joined their ranks.  We take note when the moon is full and plan our rides around the panselinos (Greek for “full moon¨).  What better place for lunar gazing than in the land where this practice was cultivated as a science millennia ago by our pagan ancestors?

About six months before the 17th annual Spartakiada in October, 2005, Giorgos described this bike event to me and I gasped, “You mean you guys cycle from Athens to Sparta in one day?”  

“Yep,” he replied in his typical laconic manner.

“That’s about 200 kilometers!”

“257.” 

Gulp.  I did a quick math conversion in my head and concluded that to bicycle 150 miles in one day across a succession of mountains, you’d have to be super fit or slightly foolhardy.  I felt I didn’t fall into either category.   Nonetheless, Giorgos commenced his campaign for me to register for the ride. “You’re out of your mind,” were my exact words to him.  It sounded preposterous, but I secretly contemplated his suggestion.  Giorgos had ample opportunity to assess my cycling abilities, and if he declared me Spartakiada material, how could I doubt the master?  I let the thought simmer for several months.   

Although I cherish excursions with Giorgos and my Greek friends, I also get itchy to cycle solo.  Among a smorgasbord of more than 250 inhabited islands, each one an exceptional honeymoon choice, I have visited some thirty-five Greek islands, more than half by bicycle. In Lesvos, Greece’s third largest island, I paid homage to the oldest known female poet in history, Sappho, born in 628 BC in Erassos.   There is no official plaque to honor her that I know of, but her legacy survives through the tidal influx to nearby Skala Erassos of female tourists, often lesbian, from all parts of the world.  Skala Eressos has a sensibility unlike any place in Greece.  Here you can find white tourists with dread locks, vegan food, women-only hotels, and aromatherapy reflexologists.  Underneath the hip façade, however, a traditional Greek community thrives.

I became intimate with many other islands, too, some of them so tiny—like Pserimos with only forty inhabitants—they are unknown even to mainland Greeks.  One of my early favorites was Kos, the Dodecanese homeland of Hippocrates, where I biked to thermal waters in the sea, assuredly frequented by the Father of Medicine.  On Paros, after a half-hour climb from the sea I reached the Valley of the Butterflies, an enchanting little forest where hundreds of tiger moths the shape of arrowheads lie fairly camouflaged in the trees, forcing you to play “Where’s Waldo?” 

Suddenly, they fluttered their wings and a splash of neon orange pinpointed their presence and put a silly smile on my face.  Nearby is a monastery with peacocks perched on tree limbs.   On Naxos, I was biking along and came upon a thirty-foot, 7th century B.C. male statue, known as kouros, lying not far from the road; it had been left unfinished in its marble quarry.   I had admired many kouros at the National Archaeology Museum in Athens, but to see one in its “raw” state was startling.  On Corfu, Kefalonia and Zakynthos in the Ionia Sea, I cycled to their highest paved points. 

In August when the figs are ripe, an incomparable delight on any island is to set your bike by the side of the road and gorge on fresh figs right off the trees.   You peel off the pastel green skin to get at the pastel pink meat which is juicy and delicious and tastes nothing like dried figs. 

On Amorgos in the Cyclades, while resting in a village café and being the only patron resplendent in Lycra, a woman began chatting with me, offering that her brother from Athens bikes a lot, too.  Yeah, right, I thought skeptically, Greek cyclists are as rare as drachmas after the euro took effect. 

 I interrogated her:  “Where does he bike?”

 “Everywhere!” 

“What kind of bike does he ride?”

 “He made his own bike!”  

Hmm.   There’s only one person I know in Athens who builds bicycles.   “What’s his name?”  “Giorgos Altyparmakis!”   What a hoot to run into my buddy’s sister who lives on the island of Milos and, like me, just happened to be visiting Amorgos.    When she told me her brother has cycled from Athens to Sparta, I said to myself, “Yeah, and that crazy Greek wants me to do it, too!” 

I am not and never have been an athlete. What I do possess is a pound of endurance and a dash of discipline.  With those minor attributes, I resolved to tackle the Spartakiada. 

The Spartakiada is not exactly a race, although those coming in first are recognized with an award and the event is organized under the aegis of the competitively-inclined Hellenic Cycling Federation.  Male participants must be at least 30 years old, while females must be at least 25.  Riders start at 7:00 a.m. from the Olympic Stadium built in 1896 and must reach the Sparta finish line by 6:30 p.m. or be disqualified. 

It was still dark when I biked over to the Stadium starting point, arriving sharply at 6:45 a.m.  Of 122 participants, I spotted three other females in the crowd each about twenty years younger than me, several elderly riders (the oldest was 69), and—courageously I’d say—a number of overweight guys.  We were all riding thoroughbreds, which is to say, expensive bikes.

As this was Greece, we set off at 7:30 a.m., a respectable half-hour late.  The noisy clanging and clacking of 122 riders clicking into their pedals was a cyclist’s version of “Gentlemen, start your engines.”  Accompanied by a police escort, we thrillingly rode through downtown Athens without having to battle traffic.  This segment of the Spartakiada felt like a fantasy for those of us who commute and cycle daily in “carmegeddon” Athens.  Another memorable highlight was pedaling across the majestic Corinth Canal.

For the entire ride there was only one official rest stop: an obligatory ten minutes at the eightieth kilometer in ancient Korinthos where snacks were distributed.  For the first 150 kilometers we were required to ride together as a pack and then you could break away and do the remaining 107 kilometers at your own pace.  Since the first 150 K were practically all flat, I managed to keep up, but when we reached the mountains the guys left me in the dust.  I didn’t mind; my goal was simply to finish. 

The route went from sea level to 2,300 feet over a mountain affectionately nicknamed Kolosourtes (“drags your butt”) and then 2,600 more feet past Tripoli.  I coasted the final 25 kilometers downhill to Sparta, finishing the ride in ten hours with no pit stops except for the required break in Korinthos.  I was among the last to finish, but, cheerfully, not the last.   

There was a ceremony that evening in the Sparta town square with awards given to everyone who completed the Spartakiada within the time limits, and I proudly stepped up to the stage to accept mine.  A half dozen or so cyclists received a special award for completing ten Spartakiadas.  Greeks have a knack for drollery, evident on this occasion by a hilarious award called Most Fertile Cyclist.  “How many?” the emcee called out, and one biker yelled, “I have three kids,” while another screamed, “I have four.”  I believe a father of five won out. The Fertility Award was presented by Sparta’s head priest, looking quintessentially Byzantine in a long black robe, tall oblong headgear and gray beard stretching to his chest.          

Giorgos rode the 17th Spartakiada, too, and when we caught up with each other at the end we exchanged hearty high fives.  I felt indebted to him for intuiting my cycling abilities when I myself could not.  Some guys questioned my presence at this event, doubting my endurance, but in the end they congratulated me for finishing.  I gave all credit to Giorgos, facetiously calling him my trainer.  In truth, he trained me mentally more than anything by giving me the confidence to overcome my initial intimidation of the Spartakiada and bike 257 kilometers in one miraculous day across the Peloponnese peninsula.

My cycling adventures provide an unconventional lens through which to view the Greek people and culture.  They also dramatize my love affair with this sacred land whose illustrious history and stupendous natural beauty humble me.  Were it possible to designate an entire country a World Heritage Site, I hereby nominate Greece.

http://greecealovestory.com/
(Seal Press, San Francisco, 2007)

First published in the Lafayette Journal and Courier, Lafayette, Indiana, March 8, 1977

POSTMARK:  Peru

By COLLEEN McGUIRE

It was 8:00 am and and I was the first in line to pay Ecuador’s $2 exit fee to leave the country. With my passport stamped, papers all in order, I crossed the sizable bridge and walked into Peru, the land of the lncas.

This northwestern border seems a logical geographical division for the two countries. From the dense green tropics of Ecuador, one finds in Peru a dry, sandy climate. From the bordertown of Tumbes to Peru’s capital of Lima it is 1,300 solid kilometers of arid desert as one follows the Pan American highway that hugs the Pacific Ocean the entire length of Peru’s western coast.

To me, this stretch of road was the ugliest land I’d seen in South America. It was barren and desolate, a perpetual monotone of brown earth.

The adobe mud huts were almost camouflaged, for they, too, were an ugly, dreary brown. Poorer people reside in structures whose walls and roofs are yellowish woven mats (petates) that I’d normally seen as floor coverings, and the petates appeared so fragile that a flick of the finger might cave in the walls.

In fact, all along the route battered petates were scattered in the rough sand, victims of the fierce winds. The winds whistle eerily and blow continually, turning every village into a miniature dust bowl. Laundry drying in the dusty air seemed such a futile chore for the women. You would have to seclude yourself indoors perpetually to stay clean. Every person in every village wore dirty clothes.

The roadside was marred by scattered mounds of garbage, half buried in the sand like tombstones of civilization. A deserted dead animal would attract a flock of hovering vultures, intensifying the morbid lifelessness of the empty area. Occasionally a solitary red-flowered tree would brilliantly illuminate the otherwise drab environment..

Perhaps the land is different in the winter, but in their present summer season, I confronted miles and miles of brown bleakness dotted by pitifully dirty and dull villages.

I tried to imagine what the word “beauty” means to the Peruvians who’ve lived in this dismal environment all their lives. The poverty, the boredom shone in the people’s eyes, and the winds constantly rearranging the dust and the colorless terrain made the two-day trip from Tumbes to Lima one of the most depressing rides of my travels.

Basically, I was unimpressed with Lima. There were several lovely plazas and various enchanting buildings, but for a big city there’s nothing very intriguing in Lima that would lure me back to the capital. It’s a poorly organized city, especially in the inadequately planned newer suburbs.

Not only was Lima highly expensive for such a poor country, but the capital’s night life peters out around 11 p.m. Toque de quida, which means “curfew,” was announced by a loud gong at 1 a.m., and after that hour absolutely no one was allowed on the streets except for the patroling Peruvian police. Graffiti on the walls indicated that most citizens resent this inhibiting law, which has been in effect since July.

I met a sophisticated Peruvian named Abraham who filled me in on the state of the government and the mentality of the people, and who showed me around the city. He was enjoyable company compared to many Latins who befriend you as a status symbol just so they can be seen strolling with a gringo.

Abraham showed me the super rich areas of Lima as well as the super poor areas. The people refer to their ghettos as pueblos jovenes, which translates as “young towns.” He also took me to a highly tight-knit gypsy section of Lima, and peering into an open door I saw very little furniture but many brightly clothed people sitting on the floor playing some sort of card game.

I saw a totally gruesome sight in downtown Lima — a man who was so poor that he literally had no clothes.  He was covering his torso with newspapers and scraps of plastic to protect what little privacy he had left.  Barefoot, he walked with a daze as if he had just come from primitive jungleland and couldn’t understand how he landed in an urban jungleland.

Another unusual place Abraham took me to was a little restaurant that was the only place in Lima where you could buy camu camu — a nourishing drink made from a fruit found only around Iquitos, a jungle city on the Amazon River in northwestern Peru. The juice is pink and is said to have 30 times more Vitamin C than the equivalent amount of orange juice.

During the 1800s many Chinese were brought to Peru to build the railroads. The result was that Lima now has some  of the finest Chinese cuisine this side of the Pacific.

Twenty miles from Lima are the l4th century Indian ruins called Pachacamac which looked identical to all those depressing looking adobe mud homes I already had seen on the Tumbes-Lima route.

I took a surprisingly comfortable train ride from Lima to Huancayo, climbing upwards into the high Andes Mountains. At one point the train was at an elevation of 15,000 feet, supposedly the world’s highest train ride. Herds of llamas were grazing on the grassy slopes. Their long, erect necks give these animals a noble appearance.

The Indian women wore stovepipe hats and cumbersome skirts which surely must hide several woolen petticoats to give them their bulky effect. A beautiful looking race of people with high cheekbones, and dark eyes very Oriental in shape, they speak Quechua, the same language their Inca ancestors spoke. The rhythm of their music and the Quechua words sound astonishingly similar to Vietnamese.

At the market in Huancayo I came across an Indian woman sifting through her daughter’s hair, which was a nest of lice eggs. This I did not find unusual, but what totally shocked me was that when the woman found a louse, she hurriedly popped the insect into her mouth as if it were a live pill. And in fact, she told me that she was eating them to cure whatever was ailing her. I grimaced when she offered me her warped medicine.

From Huancayo, I took what had to be the most precarious bus ride of my entire life to the next isolated city called Ayacucho. The train terminates in Huancayo, so one must travel on the dubious road that passes through the untamed Andes to reach Ayacucho.

Peruvian buses are ancient monstrosities that could very well collapse at any time. Andes roads are ridiculously narrow, totally unpaved and wind dangerously around sharp curves that desperately need some sort of guard rail. The bus path was so high that when I got the nerve to look down, the river was a mere thread of water. All these dangers were compounded by the reality that at any moment falling rocks could come crashing down on our dilapidated vehicle.

To make matters worse, I took this 15-hour bus trip at night, and by 1 a.m. we were in the midst of the snowy altitudes of the Andes. Sure enough, the bus broke down in the most freezing portion of the route and, naturally, the bus lacked heating. Fortunately, we were only stalled for an hour, I’ll never regret dragging my down sleeping bag through South America specifically for, those freezing hours. The Indians came prepared also, piling blankets of warm alpaca wool on top of themselves.