Sunday, August 21, 2016

Chicken Bus Fever Part VII Lost and Sick

San Juan Del Sur is sometimes called the Hawaii of Nicaragua and Rio Dulce felt like the Hawaii of Guatemala. I don't know where these families with cars come from but the area was very popular. Maybe they drive from Livingston. I sincerely don't know where so many upper class Guatemalans were hiding. Maybe Puerto Barrios. The bridge over the river from Fronteras to El Relleno had big signs prohibiting parking on the bridge and these signs were ignored by absolutely everyone until it became a congested, one lane bridge.

Park Anywhere you want!
Tourist buses stopped on the bridge, taxis, cars, motorcycles. Food carts stopped to sell refreshments to people taking selfies while traffic honked to clear the way. The bridge, I suspect, is one of Guatemala's engineering marvels. In all my travels I don't remember ever crossing another bridge and maybe this is because I mostly lived in the southern Earthquake-prone region where a bridge would not last even long enough to be completed. But Rio Dulce was not close to the Subduction zone in the Pacific to be threatened by shifting plate tectonics so it survived and was probably the tallest man-made structure outside of the capital city. To my eyes, it was nothing special and I have no photos of it, but Guatemalan tourists drove long distances to park next to a no parking sign and take a picture of themselves with the river in the background.
The pirate castle was even more popular than the bridge. I did visit this castle by taking a short local bus to the dead end of a nearby peninsula and paying the foreigner's admission.
The original fuel mule on his way to market.
I was most impressed by the authentic drawbridge and moat, but it was very busy with school children learning about the romantic past represented by the fort. It seems to me that this particular river was so far from the Caribbean that it was quite an inconvenience for a pirate to navigate a long river and then cross a large lake and then risk being blown from the water by canons to hijack some fruit or coffee cargo, but that was apparently what the fort was designed to thwart and it was such a charming location, built so close to the river's edge that the moat was part of the river, that it's easy on the eyes. I think the Spanish architects simply wanted an excuse to live there while it was being built and sold the Crown on an unlikely threat from 'pirates'. Where the original builders found all those blocks of stone in the jungle I will never know, but they did a fine job assembling a labyrinth of tunnels, a prison, odd corners to shoot muskets at pirates, lookout towers and turrets for cannons, a drawbridge over the moat and a chapel. The bridge and the fort and the river attracted Guatemalans from all over the country for the weekend, mostly to swim. This jungle river frontage was warm in the sun, humid, but it was still a pleasant way to spend a day.

Who needs land to build a hostel?
I found too many 'hostels' in Guatemala with no kitchen facilities so I was not able to eat my customary Ramen noodles for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Instead, I ate whatever the local restaurant offered such as grilled chicken or fried chicken or chicken fajitas or ceviche. Breakfast was fruit and yogurt and granola. I understand a hotel expecting guests to eat at a restaurant but a hostel is supposed to cater to travelers who have a budget that requires them to pinch pesos and shop for food to cook but this hostel on the water had no such facilities, only a shower and a toilet and a bunk bed. Well, I'd had enough of that and packed one morning and walked back to the bottom of the bridge to flag down the next transport van headed in the direction of the Capital. 

The first van took me to a transfer area for Morales where one can go north to Puerto Barrios or the murder capital of the world San Pedro Sula in Honduras, or south toward the Capital. One problem with traveling by van is that there is often no obvious option to buy a ticket directly to Guatemala City via a town like Morales. Maybe with some hunting and investigation I could find the one location where such a bus would stop, but I suspect these buses are not as regular as the local vans so it was easier to pick the first van leaving toward the south and get on it. I was aiming for a dot on the map called Rio Hondo, which was about a 3 or 4 hour trip by van from Rio Dulce so it fit my distance limitations. The van from Morales to Rio Hondo was slightly bigger, with lots of air flow from huge open windows and the landscape rolled by, slightly drier as we climbed in elevation, Honduras on the left, Guatemala's interior on the right. 

I kept my eyes open for an attractive town to stop in but none appeared. The van sped at maximum velocity, as all public transportation does in Central America. My window of opportunity to disembark would be no more than 30 seconds from entering a town, grabbing my bag, yelling for the driver to stop, and forcing my way through the crowded center aisle of standing passengers and children and goats to the front door. This decision could not be delayed or else the bus would enter the extremely dangerous single lane area outside of the city where trucks and taxis and cows and dogs roamed without precaution. This was not an uncommon event but I held my breath and awaited a fatal impact each time it happened. To get off the bus in one of these lawless zones risked certain death plus a walk back to the center of town. So every time we entered a populated zone I looked out both sides of the bus for something that would appeal to me, but the towns between Morales and Rio Hondo offered nothing but tire repair kiosks and more fried chicken. Finally, we passed through Rio Hondo itself and it was a dry, sunny, baking small town of concrete buildings with no hotels or hospedajes or evidence of hostels, at least that is what I saw from the window of the bus. These roadside towns often looked to my eye as a place no pleasure traveler would ever stop for the night and Rio Hondo was no different. These towns were very utilitarian, very working-class, no attempt was made to charm anyone. These towns simply grew from the basic needs of the traffic going to and from the Capital, and were not towns of obvious cultural value. I had paid fare to Rio Hondo but we were soon through Rio Hondo and took a hard left turn toward Honduras. I did not know our real destination and finally resigned myself to stay on the van until we stopped, wherever that would be. I knew we weren't going to the Capital of Guatemala because that was on the north/south road and now we were moving easterly through a mountain pass. I was not concerned because, as I have said, I had no real destination. I wanted to be back in Quetzaltenango in a week or so when my leather pants were due to be finished; I was traveling with a single bag and a mandolin. I had a passport. If I was forced into Honduras then so be it. I would find my way back to Guatemala City some other day. All that mattered was choosing a town with casual lodging and some charm, not what country that town was in.

We descended through cool fog into a warm and sunny flatland next to a river with a sprawling city on the west side of the road. I knew this was my destination even if the van kept going but we pulled into a terminal and parked and everyone grabbed their bags so it was the end of the line no matter what. I looked around for some idea of what city this was and saw on the terminal sing and hardware store billboards the word Chiquimula, capital city of the state of Chiquimula.

So many departures and destinations have blended together in my crumbling memory that I can't reliably separate them. For instance, I vividly remember entering a busy city and shouting over the horns and car alarms and blaring Ranchera music, asking what town we were in and not getting the reply I wanted so I begged to get off, and they asked me where I was going, and I told them and they swore because I had missed the connection spot, generically referred to as "La Cruz". This may have been in Morales on the same day I reached Chiquimula. I think I was on the van from Rio Dulce and aiming for Rio Hondo and when we reached Morales I was still on the van and thought we were going to go to a main terminal, but this thinking was too 'American' because only an idiot would go all the way to the Morales terminal to transfer to a bus that always waited on the outside of town to go to Chiquimula. And so I jumped off the van and was pointed in the direction of a zoo and after some more inquiries it turned out the larger bus going south to Rio Hondo and Chiquimula simply waited at the side of the road by the zoo. There were no signs, no indication that this was true, but as soon as I walked past a park a man asked me where I was going and I asked, "Rio Hondo?" and he nodded and I got on seconds before the bus revved and downshifted and sped out of town like we'd been rehearsing this transfer for weeks. I think that was Morales where that happened but can't be sure.

So, I'd reached Chiquimula and walked into town with my backpack and mandolin, wearing cut-off shorts and my pith helmet. About 2 blocks from the terminal were a dozen hotels so finding the most economic room was merely a matter of looking for the one with the most broken windows and the ugliest signage. I forget which hotel I ended up in but it had a huge box fan and a television in a generic concrete box. The bed was a huge improvement over the hostel back in Rio Dulce so I showered, turned the fan on, and passed out. 

When the sun was setting over the mountains I awoke with a worn feeling, dizzy, feverish, disorientated, like I'd been drugged. I hoped this was because of a badly timed nap, but I suspected this was the result of some parasite invasion, maybe from the chicken leg I had bought near Morales or maybe the fruit plate breakfast back in Rio Dulce. Who knows? Maybe Zika or Chikungunya from the mosquitoes that feasted on me in the fan-less hostel? I soldiered through the initial sickness to get to my feet and walk around Chiquimula but I knew I was in trouble because I dragged my feet, almost got hit but several speeding vehicles. I knew it was better to stay in the hotel if I was not feeling strong enough to navigate a brand new strange city but I planned a simple walk around the central zone and then I saw a sign for the central park and blindly followed the crowd until I was at the central park, but couldn't remember how I had reached it. I found myself on a park bench with my throbbing, sweaty forehead hanging limply in my trembling hands. This was a total body sickness with muscle aches and blurry vision, headaches, weakness, lack of hunger, gagging, mouth watering to the point I almost vomited right there in the park next to a kid's inflated bouncy castle like a foul wino. I struggled to my feet and stumbled in the direction of the terminal. Man, I wondered, how the hell did I end up here? Where the fuck am I? What country is this? Where is my hotel? I was delirious and disorientated and I had absolutely no idea what the name of my hotel was or where it was. The key only had #8 painted on it. Well, that didn't do me any good. Jesus, what city is this? So sick, so tired I wanted to go to sleep in the bushes and give up. Christ, surrounded by churches and parties and exploding fireworks, but no idea which direction I had to go into return to the hotel, dark streets with no signs or numbers, strange faces. Too sick to even care about life, Jesus, end this misery.

I knew the hotel was near the terminal, if I could find the terminal then I could probably find the hotel or else rent another hotel room until morning and then find my real hotel. I was too sick to care about the details and stumbled in the general direction of traffic. Any time I saw a sign for the Central Park I went in the opposite direction. Nothing looked familiar, there were almost no pedestrians on the street, no one that looked safe to talk to. I almost shit my pants right there on the streets of Chiquimula and didn't care. If I could simply find the zone with all those hotels then I could figure out where my hotel was but I was so disorientated and dizzy and sweating and weak that it took all my strength to simply stumble down the sidewalk using my hand on the wall to keep from falling over. Dios, have mercy!

Well, there was a saying in Louisiana, "Even a blind pig will find an acorn." and that applied to me. It took some time but I found the hotel zone and recognized a pizza shop that I remembered was near my own hotel. Then I found my hotel gate and the suspicious owner let me stumble through, probably thinking I had gone out to whore around and take drugs in dirty alleys, and I clawed at the door to the wrong room and finally was led to my room and I apologized in terrible Spanish that I was 'Broken" due to "Bad Food" or something to that effect and fell into the bed after turning the fan on.

The worst was not over because I could not get out of bed fast enough to reach the toilet in the morning and shit the bed. Fuck, I hate that. Obviously, I wasn't going anywhere so after I cleaned myself and the floor up I paid rent for another day and lay there watching bad television, only going outside for some electrolyte water marketed to babies dying from parasites. There was nothing to do but suffer through the cramps and sweating and fatigue.

I only mention this episode to be thorough. I've been sick many times in Guatemala and Nicaragua, so sick I was shitting in a garbage can, much sicker than I was in Chiquimula. I remember projectile vomiting in rural Nicaragua, laying lifeless in a cow pasture clawing at the dirt with my fingers, delirious, rain falling on cracked lips, priests reading my last rites to me. Now, that was sick. And in Granada I parked near a hospital because I thought I could at least crawl to the emergency care if I needed to but had no strength to even lift a gallon of water to drink as I swung in the sweat-soaked hammock. That was deathly sick, the van smelled like a Bombay latrine and I was hallucinating Mother Mary was washing my feet with lemon juice. I don't even remember how many days I lay there dying. The episode in Chiquimula barely deserves mention compared to those desperate times because I was in a comfortable hotel room with a toilet. Being trapped in the van on a city street, baked by the sun, oppressive humidity roasting you in your own foul odor and poisoned juices, with fluids flowing from both ends of your digestive tract is pure torture. Chiquimula was a nice town and my one experience should not reflect badly on it. Within two days I was strong enough to eat a banana and some electrolyte water and find my way back to the terminal to search for a Pullman bus to Guatemala City. 

Part I: Pacific Blues

Part II: Sierra Madre

Part III: Mal Estado

Part IV: Jungle Love

Part V: North

Part VI: Ruined

Part VI.5 Sweet River

Part VII: Lost and Sick

Part VIII: Capital

Part IX: Coming Full Circle
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Man in the Van by Oggy Bleacher is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.