Driving a Volkswagon bus north on the Pan-American Highway from Panama to the Texas border was an adventure in itself. All the bridges had been completed with no more fording of rivers, and the road was in very good condition. However, moving from the home we’d made in the Canal Zone for nearly 12 years was wrenching, but Lynn and I, with our children Kerry and Kirk, had a lot to look forward to. We regretted that our oldest daughter Mimi wasn’t with us but she was already in college having her own adventures.
With Kerry, who was more fluent in Spanish than the rest of us, doing the translating, we crossed the border into Costa Rica after a beautiful drive through the Panama highlands. Most of Central America is mountainous with tiny, brightly painted houses teetering on the brinks of deep canyons. San Jose is a lovely modern city with a strong European influence. A side trip to view Mt Irazu, Costa Rica’s tallest mountain and the site of a recent volcanic eruption, was a sobering look at an ash covered wasteland.
The drive to Managua took us along the coast of Lake Nicaragua for quite a few miles. This vast lake had been under consideration as a likely location for the canal that was eventually built in Panama. We spent a night at a very nice hotel, reassured by the big blue bottles of water in dispensers everywhere. The next morning a stroll down to the lakeside was an eye opener. We watched as men wearing the hotel uniform stood knee deep in the lake, filling the bottles while cows also stood nearby, also knee deep, placidly looking on. Fortunately Mom had lifted the ban on sugary sodas for the duration of the trip so no one got sick from the drinking water. I could only hope the water for my coffee had been well boiled.
We passed through a small section of Honduras, mostly jungle. To our surprise, a fully armed Honduran soldier stepped out into the road and flagged us down. Naturally we stopped, more than a little nervous. He climbed aboard, went to the back of the bus, sat down between the kids with his rifle across his knees, and off we went. Kerry tried a few words of conversation but got no response. He rode with us for many miles before he signaled for us to stop so he could get off. We decided that he mistook our bus for public transportation and probably wondered why the burly blond bus driver didn’t ask for a fare.
Enjoying dinner at a pension in San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador, was memorable mainly because there were windows on all sides of the large comedor, or dining room, and no matter where we looked a volcano was looming in the background, looking over our shoulders. At that time El Salvador was the least advanced of the Central American countries, lost somewhere between native and modern cultures.
Guatemala has always been my favorite Latin country, incredibly beautiful with lush fields running almost vertically up and down the mountainsides. The cities have a strong Colonial influence. The indigenous tribes are colorful with their hand woven clothing, each weave identifying a tribe. They speak their native languages as they go about their daily business with an amazing amount of industriousness.
The Governor’s Palace in Guatemala City is huge and ornate, the reception area lined with rococo chairs covered in the most delicate yellow satin. Every time I’ve been there it’s been full of natives trotting barefoot up and down the elegant halls in their bright costumes, patiently waiting to take care of whatever business they may have. I wonder what they must think of their elegant surroundings.
We took a side road through the mountains that had absolutely spectacular scenery. Needing gas halfway along, we finally came to a station out in the middle of nowhere. It only had electrical power for an hour every morning so Lynn and Kirk had to get out and crank the gas pump by hand while the attendant watched carefully.
We spent the night at a pension with the most delightful family who seemed thrilled to have a family of Norte Americanos staying with them. The floors had just been mopped with kerosene so we were sure there wouldn’t be a problem with insects, if only we could breathe.
We were served a delicious Guatemalan meal, including what our kids called “black bean blop”, familiar from other trips. Just as we were nicely full, La Senora proudly entered with her specialty, a can of Spam neatly sliced. Our hearts sank. It must have cost them a great deal, and knowing it was a delicacy to them we each took a tiny piece, (I think I cut mine in half,) and sent the rest back to the kitchen for the family to enjoy in private.
If you like museums as much as my family does, Mexico City is the place for you. We spent a week there, making some interesting side trips to such lovely old cities as Cuernavaca and Taxco, and visiting as many museums as we could manage. After touring the brand new National Museum of Anthropology, we paused as we left and I turned around to take a picture. There, coming down the broad staircase, was a couple we knew from Panama!
It wasn’t quite the coincidence it seemed. Every year a new crop of young students interned at Gorgas Hospital in Ancon, and it was time for them to rotate back to the States for their residencies. We had heard that several of them, all young men with their wives, were driving back at the same time we were. We had dinner together that night and went our separate ways the next day.
We made an interesting stop at the Aztec ruins of Teotihuacan, huge pyramids, mostly restored and now a famous tourist site. Fortunately we had the place to ourselves. Ever on the lookout for bad food or drink, I was the only one of us who got sick. My memories of Teotihuacan are of a dizzying white brilliance over everything while I made a mad dash for the nearest pyramid and upchucked my last few meals, apparently the victim of listeriosis, which is caused by tainted dairy products. Fortunately we had the place to ourselves. I had a hard time living that one down.
We spent one last night at Ciudad Victoria in an North-American style motel with a North American owner/manager who served us her homemade American pie, coconut cream I believe.. The next morning we made our run for the border, arriving in Brownsville, Texas and headed for our next home, wherever that might be.
…to be continued…