Travelers’ Tales Central America is a first-of-its-kind collection of stories that reveal Central America in all of its adventurous, vibrant, sobering and inspirational glory. Through stories about seven countries—Belize, Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Costa Rica, and Panama—Travelers’ Tales Central America offers a unique window into this complex, and astonishingly beautiful part of the world. Contributors include Paul Theroux, Tim Cahill, Jennifer Harbury, Paul Berman, Henry Shukman and many more.
Central America: An Introduction
Many images come to mind when one thinks of Central America, that seismically active spine of mountains that snakes between two vast continents: the flash of a toucan against the lush jungle canopy; volcanoes piercing a ring of clouds; tropical islands far removed from the world’s cares; temples of a lost civilization emerging from the rain forest; indigenous Maya in clothing as bright as a quetzal’s plumage; architecture redolent of old Spain; the unfathomable depths of a pristine volcanic lake.
For these and other reasons, Central America has always exerted a draw on travelers. It is a place to study Spanish, to live out political inclinations, to lose oneself in a foreign culture close to home, and increasingly, to discover the joys of a natural world preserved against all odds. It is also a place to escape the cold northern climes and indulge in tropical exotica through an inexpensive beach vacation, a rain forest adventure, or a dive into a magical undersea world. Archaeological sites pull anyone with an interest in ancient civilizations, but equally engaging are the people here, who collectively have suffered tremendously, but who remain warm, spirited, and open to anyone who responds in kind.
Central America has a history troubled by colonization, military dictatorships, guerrilla conflicts, and interference from that colossus to the north, the United States. The great Mayan cities fell of their own accord, mysteriously, perhaps through environmental mismanagement. Centuries later, when the Spanish arrived, the indigenous people were ravaged by disease and overwhelmed by raw power. Later, the United States used the region at its whim, either through abusive business dealings or overt political pressure. The very concept of a “Banana Republic,” for instance, emerged from the United Fruit Company’s actions in Guatemala in the early twentieth century. Around the same time the U.S. military continued a series of interventions begun in 1850 that affected El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama well into the twentieth century. The CIA’s role in Guatemala’s military coup in 1954 has been clearly documented, and perhaps the most blatant symbol of U.S. meddling is the saga of Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega, who for years was on the U.S. payroll for drug interdiction but was ousted by the U.S. in a full scale military invasion in 1989 when he became uncooperative. Further notorious U.S. efforts in the region were the funding of El Salvador’s vicious regimes of the 1980s and of the Nicaraguan contras around the same time.
But for all of this troubled history, Central America today is an area in the process of healing. Civil wars have ended and representative government is on the rise. Former guerrillas now have a voice in the governments of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua. Costa Rica continues to make its way in the world without an army. Panama has avoided the scandals of Noriega’s regime since his departure. Honduras is no longer the base for a proxy war against its neighbors. Belize continues to be a magnet for travelers with its luxurious rain forests and pristine cayes along the world’s second longest barrier reef.
Central America is still an impoverished place, with a painful disparity between rich and poor, but it is also a place of unremitting hope and inspiration, which is evident in the stories that follow. Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchú finds the strength to imagine wonderful things for her hometown again when she returns to her birthplace in Guatemala after twelve years of exile. Paul Berman proves that one person can indeed make a difference as he delves into the story of Ben Linder, an idealist from the U.S. who lived in Nicaragua during the height of the revolution’s optimism and gave his life doing the right thing. Henry Shukman tries to live like the indigenous Cunas of Panama’s San Blas Islands and discovers the vital role the shaman plays in the community’s well being. Paul Theroux revels in the magic realism of Costa Rica’s landscape while trying to escape his fellow travelers, and Tim Cahill explores one of Honduras’s numerous national parks. Victoria Schlesinger delves into the spirit world and is guided along her way by a healer in Belize. Kevin Naughton, after an absence of nearly thirty years, rediscovers that Central America’s best surfing is still in El Salvador.
All seven Central American countries are revealed here, both in their determination to overcome past and present challenges and their optimism for the future. For those who have visited Central America, these places continue to tug on their hearts; for those who haven’t, the stories that follow are a compelling introduction. For both, these stories will create a yearning for that volcanic land between two continents, so close but so far removed from our own daily lives. And make us plan to return.
—Larry Habegger and Natanya Pearlman
PART ONE: ESSENCE OF CENTRAL AMERICA
The Moon And Danzel Cabral — Bucky Mcmahon
The Lone Ranger — Tim Cahill
At The Station — Emily Hiestand
Am I Glad To See You! — Paul Theroux
Exploring The Place Of Fright — David Roberts
The Mayan World
On Guatemala’s Gringo Circuit — Doug Fine
A Garífuna Awakening — Natanya Pearlman
In Search Of Ben Linder’s Killers — Paul Berman
PART TWO: SOME THINGS TO DO
Corn Island And The Festival Of Crabs — Jason Wilson
Bones And Heads With Hussein — Tom Joseph
In Search Of Blue Butterflies — Sue Hubbell
The Last Penal Colony — Scott Anderson
Surfing La Libertad — Kevin Naughton
Pacaya! — Steve Wilson
PART THREE: GOING YOUR OWN WAY
Viva Sandino Koufax! — John Krich
In Search Of Zen — Lea Aschkenas
The Rainbow Special — Cara Tabachnick
An Evening With Croc Poachers — Randy Wayne White
Dancing For Centavos — Martin Mitchinson
The Lady Who Lassoed Jaguars — Joseph Diedrich
When Water Bends — Victoria Schlesinger
PART FOUR: IN THE SHADOWS
Everardo — Jennifer K. Harbury
Deceptive Moonrise — Yael Flusberg
I Hear Voices — Martin Mitchinson
Return To Laj Chimel — Rigoberta Menchú
PART FIVE: THE LAST WORD
In The Land Of The Cunas — Henry Shukman
by Cara Tabachnick
What’s in that soup?It had been three months since I’d washed my hair, two months since my underwear got stolen off the laundry line, and six days since I last changed my outfit, so I felt sufficiently ready to attend my first Rainbow Gathering/Full Moon Party. It was to take place on the shores of Lago Atitlán in Guatemala. We were looking for Bob’s tepee somewhere between San Pedro and Santiago. Because it was a favorite gringo hideout, it didn’t take long to secure a boat at an astronomical price. As we approached the spot a giant tepee appeared with leaping figures dancing around, visible in the setting sun. Our friendly boatman’s face quickly changed to disapproval.
“Gringos,” he muttered as he paddled into the dock.
Appropriately insulted, my friend and I jumped out amid screams of “Sister, Sister, welcome!” Strange, I mused, I thought my sisters were back in the United States. Soon enough I realized this was the traditional way of greeting in Rainbow Land. Since I didn’t have dreadlocks and couldn’t name one communal van I’d lived in, I sat on the side watching the festivities.
It was nothing like I’d seen before, and I’d been in Central America a long time. About sixty people were dancing around to the beat of twenty people drumming, singing chants they all seemed to know. Some people were making out, others were spinning, and the rest were running around naked. Restless, I looked around for someone to make out with since naked running and spinning were out of the question.
That was when I was caught and enlisted to help the kitchen workers whip up a vegan dream for eighty hungry hippies. In a way I was glad; nothing makes me happier than slaving over an open fire at a party. There was a group of about eight of us and with our limited choices we dreamed up a menu of pasta. (I never said we were creative.) Then, as the saving grace, we added tortillas and hummus. Hippie Bob had an old-fashioned grinder attached to a piece of wood that served as the counter, preparation space, and table. I was assigned to the hummus. My team of three, including myself, got to work funneling garbanzo beans into the grinder. The conversation was quick and light with the usual traveler gab.
As the mound of light-brown mush expanded, the sounds from below grew louder. Someone had discovered an old sweat lodge and a fire was lit for a party sweat. People were preparing early for the event and had started stripping down, eager to enter. Our instructions were to have the meal ready after the completion of the communal sweat. Working away maniacally, adding some spices here, others there, the dinner was looking good. There was just one problem: the hummus. It was so dry and tasteless, that even I didn’t want to keep on trying it. I tried to pass it off to someone else, but with no luck. My teammates had deserted me long ago for the greener pastures of naked bodies stuck together in one small room sweating together, so it was up to me.
What could I add to this? There was nothing except pasta. I considered it for a moment, then struck it off my list and at last in a burst of brilliant inspiration thought: water. Water is good. From childhood we are told to drink eight glasses a day. Water helps your skin, hair, and health, so I figured it could help my hummus. Now remember—we were in Central America where water isn’t always the friend you know. There are two types of water: 1. Your best friend—Mr. Agua Pura (pure water). 2. Your worst enemy—Mr. Parasite-Filled Lake Water. Picking up the first jug I saw, I liberally drenched the food. Seconds later, Hippie Bob screamed across the way, “You didn’t use the red jug did you, because that is the parasite-filled lake water!” Of course I did—what was he thinking, that I knew what I was doing? Everybody stared, shocked, the main staple of our dinner was now ruined and the animal-like sounds of hunger from below were growing more ominous.
“What should we do?” was the general worried question.
“Cook it!” came back the wise reply from the oldest and most experienced travelers in the group. So we did as told, and the hummus bubbled away merrily on the fire for about half an hour until the screams for food were unbearable. Dinner was served. As we approached the fire, varying travelers in a state of dress and undress were forming a large semi-circle around the glowing embers. All types of plates were brought out, from plastic ones that had seen their prime—to plastic bags and scooped out avocado peels.
Before eating, though, one last Rainbow tradition had to be performed—the meditation and thanks. We all held hands and against the background noise of drums, a flute, and a Tibetan meditation bowl, we started singing chants of thanks. Usually I don’t believe in this crap, but I must say even I was moved by the beauty of the occasion. With a last “buen provecho,” servers started walking around dishing out generous portions of the hummus, pasta, and tortillas. I didn’t want to take the hummus, but then I decided if everybody went down I would too. Gingerly, I spooned the first bite into my mouth—and God it was good! From the murmurs I could tell other people were in agreement. Relaxing and flushed with my success, I began to truly enjoy the evening. I even tried playing the drums and made new friends. When I closed my eyes hours later enclosed in a fluffy sleeping bag, surrounded by unwashed hair including my own, my last thoughts were that I had done well.
Hours later the first groans of pain rose from the floor somewhere near me. Soon the groans got louder and were joined by others as people made their way outside to join the ranks squatting in the bushes. Instead of people dancing in the dawn, they were crouching on the lawn. My rhyming stopped as the pains began to seize me, and I soon became one of the many. It turns out that everyone in the gathering had gotten the travelers’ fun and feared friend—giardia!
I had poisoned the peace-loving group. With daybreak the softer travelers snuck out for the easier comforts of flush toilets (myself included). As the tepee receded in the distance, I watched from a fetal position in the boat and made myself three promises: 1. I would always use bottled water for everything, including brushing my teeth; 2. I would never eat off the street again; 3. I would never cook for anyone I didn’t want to poison.
These resolutions reached, I smiled, looking forward to my next gathering and the story this would make for my grandchildren. I never did follow any of those promises, though, and I try to poison people on a daily basis with my cooking, especially my immediate family.
Armed with her savings and a backpack, Cara Tabachnick spent two years traveling around the world and returned safe, sound, and a whole lot wiser. Born and raised on Long Island, New York, Cara currently lives in New York City where she concentrates on writing, art, helping other people, and just being a better person, which is the best lesson traveling can teach.
Larry Habegger, executive editor of Travelers’ Tales, co-edited the award-winning Travelers’ Tales Mexico and Travelers’ Tales Thailand, among others. As a series editor he has worked on almost every single Travelers’ Tales title, winning eighteen awards for excellence. He is co-author, with James O’Reilly, of “World Travel Watch,” a syndicated column, which since 1985 has appeared in major newspapers in five countries. He lives in San Francisco, CA, with his family.
Natanya Pearlman first traveled to Central America when she was seventeen, and later lived for four months in Nicaragua, where she built a school. She’s worked on numerous Travelers’ Tales books, including A Woman’s Passion for Travel, and the Second Edition ofGutsy Women. She lives in Berkeley, CA.