That swampy jungle
between Central and South America never had a road built through it, mainly determined from US policy to stem the flow of people, drugs, and hoof and mouth disease to Central and North America. It’s now in the news, as a large number of migrants are trying to make their way via Colombia to Panama on small boats through the area known as the “Darien Gap”, and then north most likely with the goal of reaching the US.
After reading about a guy on a motorcycle who made it through the Darien starting in Alaska and ending in Tierra del Fuego at the tip of South America, I got it in my mind I could do that too. I just finished applying to Law Schools and sold half of a pizza restaurant. I had 6 months (if I was accepted) before the start of the semester and money in my pocket to spend. The motorcycle I bought from my ex-girlfriend’s brother in New Jersey, a Suzuki 1000, was one of the fastest production motos in 1981 but not the best model to travel on roads in Mexico and Central America with many muddy and rocky tracks. But it was what I had and became quite fond of. I also became good at fixing the tires and tightening the chain in minutes. I must of had at least 10 flats during that trip through Mexico and Central America.
In 1984 my starting point was California or more precise my new girlfriend’s apartment in LA where I departed for the southern border crossing at Tijuana then down the Baja peninsula of Mexico. In Ensenada, a Honda Gold Wing pulled alongside me and the rider signaled for me to pull over. At first, I thought it was a cop but I noticed the rider was wearing a yellow hardhat. Fred was in his late 50’s in good shape but with a potbelly and so short his feet couldn’t touch the ground. He had boots with high heels he balanced on when he stopped. He said he worked as a welder repairing large ships in the port of Los Angeles. He was on disability after an accident and spent much of the winter months in Bahia de Los Angeles, a fishing village on the Sea of Cortez or better known as the Gulf of California. He invited me to stop there, fish, and enjoy the scenery. I ended up staying for three drunken days with Fred in his shack up on the hill overlooking the village and a beautiful large island just off the coast. We sat for hours on the front porch after eating boiled crabs and drinking bottled beers brought by kids from the village below. Fred fished all day off the dock and drank beers all night on the porch. He never caught a fish during my stay but drank a lot of beer. He said I reminded him of his son who he was estranged from after his divorce. Fred talked of his poor health and how he hoped to reunite with his son before he passed. He wished me luck in my travels and offered me a few warm beers for the road. I realized long after I departed that village was described in one of the only books I read more than once, the Log from the Sea of Cortez by Steinbeck. Actually, it was the island that Steinbeck wrote more about and how local fishermen camped and drank all night on the island and like Fred, didn’t catch much fish, and women and kids collected crabs and clams in the tide pools. A professor at SFSU, mentor and friend, introduced me to the book. I think I learned more from it than all my years in school and college.
Near the end of Baja California, La Paz, I took the overnight ferry boat to Mazatlan on the mainland to continue south towards the Darien. Over the next month slowly traveling through southern Mexico and Guatemala all went fairly smooth except for many flat tires and the sound and fires caused by planes at night dropping bombs in Eastern Guatemala near the main road where government aircraft would spot rebel campfires. I realized I should not have been traveling in that area, but it was worth the risk to see the Mayan ruins of Tikal.
In El Salvador just north of San Miguel I saw a man walking slowly across the highway about 100 yards ahead of me. I remember it clearly, thinking to myself; continue to slowly cruise at the same speed and by the time I reach him he will be across the road so no need to slow down. Just as I approached him he stumbled backward directly into the moto and sent us both flying. It took me a while to get up out of the tall grass. The old man was lying on the edge of the road with his mouth open and looked dead or dying to me. My elbow was badly cut and bleeding and my knee was bashed up so it was difficult to walk, but otherwise, I assessed I was okay. I looked up and down the road and didn’t see any other person in either direction. My moto was lying in the road with one exhaust pipe bent and ripped off the cylinder. Out of nowhere I small red pickup truck pulled up and a young kid jumped out and yelled with a New York accent, “What the hell happened man?” Enrique was 20 years old whose El Salvadoran family was now living in Newark operating a pharmaceutical distribution company providing supplies to El Salvador hospitals and clinics to help with the dire situation with the ongoing Civil War and Nicaraguan-Contra war on its border.
At war’s end, the Commission on the Truth for El Salvador registered more than 22,000 complaints of political violence in El Salvador including an estimated 70,000 killed, between January 1980 and July 1991, 60 percent about summary killing, 25 percent about kidnapping, and 20 percent about torture. The Salvadoran Armed Forces, National Guard, and National Police were massively supported by the United States ($5,339,864,000.00 in 2018 dollars). They were accused in 85 percent of the complaints of violence. The death squads in approximately 10 percent, and the FMLN (the rebels) in 5 percent. More than 25 percent of the populace was displaced as refugees before the U.N. peace treaty in 1992.
Enrique picked up my motorcycle and rolled it over to his pickup truck. Still moving slowly from the shock of the accident he yelled at me to help him lift it on the back of his truck. Enrique then quickly cleaned my cuts and bandaged me up with materials in his pickup he had been distributing. He then said let’s get out of here before the police come. I said, what about the old man? He said he is old and lived longer than most people here and the locals will take care of him. I said, what locals? There is no one here. He said there are many people hiding in the bushes and I am sure they are staring at us right now. I said I am not leaving the old man here. Enrique went over and picked the old man like a sack of flour over his shoulder and threw him in the back of the pickup with my motorcycle then jumped in the truck and shouted, let’s go!
Not far away there was a clinic that Enrique knew because he had delivered some supplies. He dropped off the old man and then took me to San Miguel to a friend’s garage. They fixed the exhaust pipe and clutch cable that had snapped. While eating at the garage where I also slept, police tipped off by a neighbor, arrived and politely asked for my passport, and then left.
Enrique and his friend thought I was in trouble. They said the police would not let me leave until I paid a lot of money. They said I should make my way out of the country via the road to La Union on the coast. From there I could take a small boat to Honduras or Nicaragua to avoid the police. They said otherwise I could be there for weeks or months until I paid them off or worse I could be charged for killing the man if he dies. They said a fisherman friend of theirs in La Union could help me make my way by boat. Given the chaotic state of the country, I thought it best I take my chance and leave. Early the next morning Enrique showed me to the main road south out of town which was controlled by rebels so no government police would be in the area. On my repaired moto and with the name of a fisherman, without a passport, I slowly proceeded out of town. It was eerie with no one else on the main road about 20 miles to the coast with two checkpoints manned by young kids with guns. They just waved me through. When I arrived in La Union I went directly to the port and asked for Jaime and was immediately directed to a heavy-set middle-aged guy who was working on his engine. It was a Johnson 5hp engine attached to what looked like a dugout tree trunk. Jaime agreed to take me to Nicaragua. Honduras he said was too dangerous to approach its port. He said we would first have to spend a night on an island in the gulf and get clearance to proceed to the port in Nicaragua. I realized once on the island it belonged to Honduras. We spent the night there with stories told to me by Jaime’s fishermen friends about how the Nicaraguans will arrest me as soon as “the Americano” arrives. They said the war by the Contras was because of the US and the mining of the ports by the CIA crippled the economy. I would not be a welcomed visitor.
The influence of the United States in Honduras was so strong that the term “proconsul” was used to designate its ambassador. In the 1980s, the Reagan administration used the country as a platform in its war against the Sandinista government of Nicaragua and the leftist guerrillas of El Salvador and Guatemala. U.S. military assistance to Honduras increased from $4 million in 1981 to $77.4 million in 1984. While stressing internally that Honduran government forces commit “hundreds of human rights violations (…), most of them for political reasons”, the CIA supports death squads which, in particular, Battalion 3–16, torture, murder, or cause dozens of trade unionists, academics, farmers and students to disappear.
Scared but with no place else to go I had to continue south and besides I knew there were many Americans and Europeans in Nicaragua helping the Sandinista government. I had no other choice but to go. Jaime had received the ok from local fishermen that he could proceed to Nicaragua and soon after we were on our way we were approached by a Nicaraguan Patrol boat that looked just like the one in McHale’s Navy with machine guns on the bow and the stern. I noticed Jaime was scared when the patrol boat approached. I was directly facing him in his small boat with the motorcycle balanced between us. I saw his eyes bulging. I thought the person with the 50 cal gun aimed at us was about to fire and I pissed my pants. But no shots were fired. They yelled to us to head directly to the coastal village of Potosi. I thought for sure now I would be arrested on arrival but as we pulled up to shore a group of people waded knee-deep to Jaime’s boat and helped lift the moto out and wheel it through the sandy bottom tidewater and up onto the beach. An official of some kind approached me and said, “WELCOME GRINGO to the land of the free! Thank you for coming! How can we help you with your travel? No passport? No worries you can get one at your counselor’s office in Managua, we will escort you there. After I paid Jaime (about 50 dollars) and said my goodbyes I followed a pickup truck filled with a bunch of guys with rifles to the main road where they pointed in the direction of Managua and then turned around and headed back towards the coast.
Relieved but exhausted after a three-hour ride I checked into the Inter-Continental Hotel. By coincidence, the US consular office was in the Hotel. I got my new passport in three days and could make long-distance calls from the hotel. Pat, my roommate in San Francisco opened my mail and read five rejection letters before I was finally accepted at Golden Gate Law school. It was a good feeling but it also changed the journey, never mind my life, as I now had a limited time to travel since I had to be back in San Francisco in four months. My trip to Tierra del Fuego would have to be completed at a later time but I was determined to make it through the Darien and at least to Colombia where I had a good friend. I met a Canadian couple at the hotel who were volunteering on a farm to help with the “Sandinista cause”. After visiting the coffee plantation where they and many foreigners were working I continued south towards Panama and the Darien. In Nicaragua, it was the only time that police and other authorities did not try to find or extort money from me. I was not well informed about the war in Nicaragua and the surrounding countries but I had met many refugees while studying at San Francisco State and while working at a small law firm that represented migrants pro bono, mostly from Central America. Part of the reason for my trip through Central America was to see first hand and try and understand the situation better. You can debate the Carter and Regan administration policy in the region but one thing is certain that the US caused havoc and death throughout the region similar to what it did in Vietnam, despite never officially invading the countries. Years later, while working in Bosnia in 1994, former President Carter visited Sarajevo as part of a peace negotiation team and I had the privilege to brief him and Roselyn on the number and locations of displaced persons. He probably is the most influential person I ever met. I was impressed by how much they both already knew about the displaced person’s situation as if they had read my brief before I gave it to them. I had respected Carter for his commitment to a Human Rights approach in his administration but I missed an opportunity to ask him why wasn’t he more forceful in getting rid of Somoza and other Central American dictators and their cronies. Regardless, Carter’s actions were nothing compared to the mess his successor’s administration made in Central America.
In June 1986, the International Court of Justice in The Hague voted that: The United States of America, by training, arming, equipping, financing and supplying the contra forces or otherwise encouraging, supporting and aiding military and paramilitary activities in and against Nicaragua, has acted, against the Republic of Nicaragua, in breach of its obligations under customary international law not to intervene in the affairs of another state. The International Court esteemed the American ‘undeclared war’ against Nicaragua in violation of its obligations under international law and ordered the US to pay reparations. Without even defending its case, the US rejected the Hague’s order and withdrew from the World Court.
After 40 years in Nicaragua the Somoza family dictatorship was finally ousted, but now also in the news, who would have thought that the Sandinista Ortega would keep his grip on the country for about the same time? I was rather reluctant to leave Nicaragua with such hospitality but I was on a mission to make it to South America. Costa Rica was like being back in a rural semi-tropical US with good roads and infrastructure compared to parts of southern Mexico and Central America. I made my way through it quickly eager to get to the Canal which was in the news a lot over the past couple of years. Carter was accused of handing it over to Panama. Imagine that? And it’s in Panama.
In Panama City, I met an American military guy in a bar who showed me all around the Canal Zone. After spending a few days between Panama City on the Pacific and Colon on the Caribbean, I was almost convinced not to head further south. Everyone I talked with said you can’t travel through the Darien unless you go in a group and hire a boat and most likely criminals will rob everything from you and kill you or leave you in a swamp. But I was thick-headed and feeling invincible after making it through the Central America conflict zone unscathed. I convinced myself nothing could happen to me. So I continued on my way down the last bit of the Pan-American Hwy in Central America. At that time it was about a hundred miles to the end of the tarmac road. The road ended suddenly and turned into a dirt track and thickly covered by trees creating the impression as if you were then entering a dark black hole into the jungle. Quite a few pickup trucks and motorbikes were parked at the end of the road before the entrance to the big black hole into the jungle. There were large flatbed trucks with newly cut large tree trunks parked on the side of the road facing in the direction of Panama City. There were a few concrete buildings on one side of the road and a shack called a “restaurant” with a palm-covered roof and petrol station that dispensed fuel out of a large tanker truck. I thought this could be the last warm food I would have for a while so I decided to eat whatever they had in the restaurant. Everyone in the small place stared at me and watched me eat my beans and tortillas. I was listening to the different conversations and couldn’t understand what anyone said in the local dialect of Spanish and I learned some were speaking in a local language. As I was eating, a man who seemed to know everyone in the place came over to my table and sat down. From what I remember, in perfect English in a low voice he said;
“My name is Juan. I work this road for a long time.” Gesturing with his head he said, “See those guys at that table over there? They are planning to follow you when you leave and take your motorcycle and all your money.” Nodding his head in the other direction he said, “See that truck over there? It will leave before dark to Panama (city). I suggest you put your motorcycle on that truck and get out of here and back to Panama. I know the driver and will arrange how much to pay him.” I nodded my head and said thank you, please arrange it for me. Again, I think I paid the trucker about 50 dollars.
So much for my crossing the Darien Gap. I made my way back to Panama City and after spending a couple of days trying to find a way to ship my moto to Venezuela, I gave up. The cost would be far more than the value of the moto. I found a guy in a Colon motorcycle shop who paid me about 700 dollars for the moto. I bought an air ticket to Curacao and then made my way by boat to Venezuela. Then overland by bus to Bogota Colombia to my good friend Juan Antonio Villamazar. I had such a good time with him and his family visiting their many farms around the country, I stayed for three months then made my way back to the US via a direct flight to Miami. My goal for Tierra del Fuego wasn’t completed until 20 years later, another story.
I heard the road in the Darien has been extended another fifty or so miles but construction had stopped in the ’90s after protests over deforestation from environmentalists and intervention from the US. With the proliferation of armed groups in the region and of people, drugs, and weapons trafficking the migrants now will have a more difficult dangerous journey as they make their way north through the Darien. In desperation, people leave their homes and travel through such dangerous places to make their way to the US. With such ease, I could end my journey but for them, there is no turning back.
About a year after my return to the US from Colombia and well ensconced in law school I was eating in my favorite restaurant in the Mission District in San Francisco, Chavez’s, owned by a Mexican with a lovely El Salvadoran wife. After I finished my Chilaquiles I walked out of the restaurant and there was my Suzuki motorcycle parked out front. I yelled in the restaurant who owns the blue and white moto and soon I was negotiating to buy it back from the man who said he bought it from a shop in Colon and rode it from Panama. I offered him much more than he paid for it but we never agreed on a price. Around the same time, I received a letter from Enrique, the kid who picked me up off the road in El Salvador. He wrote to tell me the old man survived with some broken ribs and a concussion. The old man was a well-known alcoholic in the nearby village. I convinced myself he was drunk while crossing the highway, so the accident was his fault. Also around the same time, I received a letter from a Los Angeles law firm stating that I was named in the will of the now-deceased Fred. He had left me his Honda Gold Wing and his house in Bahia de Los Angeles. At first, I was excited but realized the moto was very old and the house was only a shack. The land did not come with it but I could continue to rent the land the shack was on. I asked the law firm to sell the moto and do whatever it wanted with the house in Mexico. But I still have a desire to go back to that shack and sit on the porch and look out over the water and island and pay my respects to Fred and think about a way to find and thank Juan for his advice in the Darien.