Moriartys -- Dispatch from Panama

Dear friends of Ann and Kent Moriarty,

They sent this dispatch from Panama City, Panama, on 7 June 1998.

This dispatch from Ann and Kent covers our ride from Antigua, Guatemala, to Panama City, Panama; April 20 to June 2. If you are following on a map, we went west from Antigua on secondary roads to Jalapa and then to near Chiquimula. From there to Esquipulas and across the border into Honduras at Nueva Ocotepeque. North to Santa Rosa de Copán and across to La Esperanza and Siguatepeque. South to Tegucigalpa, then to Danlí and across the border into Nicaragua. Ocotal, Nica south, joining the Pan American Highway through Masaya and then Rivas, crossing the border into Costa Rica and riding to Liberia. Cut west to ride down the Nicoya Peninsula to Nicoya and then to the water where we took a ferry to Puntarenas and rode through Esparza to San José. Stayed on the Pan American until we crossed the border into Panama and rode through David to Chame, a town 90 km from Panama City. Now crossing the country to Colón where we hope to catch a cargo ship to Colombia.

We would like to thank the people and companies that enabled us to get back on the road after our accident in Chiapas, Mexico, by sponsoring us with equipment, time, and/or money: The Pedaler Bike Shop in El Sobrante, CA; REI; JANDD Mountaineering; Cascade Designs; Cannondale Bicycles; employees at Rainin Instrument Company; employees at Varian of Walnut Creek, CA.

I shot a glance at Kent sending him the message: "If those blasted kids don't quit staring at us I'm going to start with the smallest and rip him from limb to limb. Then I'll continue with the next biggest and keep going until they get the message!" AARGH! I was sick to death of crowds of brats gathering to stare at us. We would ask a question like "Don't you have school today," and no one would answer, just continue staring. "What, you don't talk?" At least they didn't touch anything -- thank God for that; they were just curious. Reminded me of what we read in one bicycling guide book before we left. "... Hondurans will be intensely interested in you. Whenever you arrive in a town, people will swarm [ya, like locusts]. With the lack of ordinary tourists, locals treat bicycle tourists like aliens." We figured that out soon enough!

The crowds of kids are what drove me nuts but what got Kent were the kids who leapt on their bikes, raced to catch up and trailed us as we labored up steep hills. Of course, as we had a ton of gear and they were fresh, we could not escape. Again, they would not answer any questions but were happy to just ride on our tails and laugh among themselves at the crazy gringos. Worse yet were the kids who started running after us (always on a steep uphill grade, always catching up), the pad-pad-pad of their feet infiltrating Kent's skull, sneaking into his brain and turning him into a raving lunatic. Kent is a fairly relaxed person but sometimes he just could not help himself and let loose a big yell and that sometimes sufficed to send kids scurrying away.

It was interesting to experience this type of attention because in previous countries people and kids would politely ask questions wondering about these strangers on the weird bike who were riding through their town. That we could deal with. The bike, being a tandem, had always attracted a lot of interest but never the Honduran staring "look at the extra-terrestial" type of thing. So we were a bit unnerved. However, while we were on the road, people always waved and yelled friendly greetings from their fields, stores or homes. And this was encouraging as we called out regularly to them as well; very rarely did we encounter a stoney or cold glare.

We have continued to run into memorable dogs, although nothing as traumatic as the hanging dog we saw in Oaxaca, Mexico. Dogs in Latin America are used to having rocks thrown at them, chasing them away and so our anti-dog strategy has changed from using pepper spray to keeping a few rocks in Kent's back pocket so I can grab them out to throw at any threatening canines. Sometimes just pretending to pick up a stone is enough to send them running but Kent has also engaged in direct confrontation with any dog that is dumb enough to come at us from the front. He simply plays "Chicken" with them riding straight at them until they figure out how threatening we are and back off. One time, however, a dog rushed out at us from the side and I grabbed my rock from Kent's pocket taking aim and throwing as hard as I could. Imagine the celebration when Mr. Dog got it, bonk, direct hit to the cranium! I was amazed! (And so was the dog....)

Another time we were cruising down a hill when a dog spotted us and thought we were chasing him. So he streaked off, crossing the highway trying with all his lean might to get away. As he turned his head around to check our progess, he crashed head-long into a pile of empty baskets, sending the baskets flying as he tumbled head over heels. Kent and I burst out laughing so hard that we almost fell over as the embarrassed beast picked himself up and shook himself off, trying to pretend, we were sure, as if nothing whatsoever had happened. HA! We knew better!

We left Antigua the end of April, memories of the accident still running through our minds but feeling optimistic about continuing towards our goal of Tierra del Fuego in Argentina, thinking that something so bizarre as getting purposely knocked off the road in Mexico could not possibly happen again. We had a new tandem, new gear to replace the equipment that had been destroyed and healthy bodies, healed from our various injuries. We were so happy to be traveling again that the mountainous route we chose through Guatemala did not faze us too much even as we faced steep climbs on gravelly dirt roads. Admittedly, our bodies had some fitness to regain as simply walking around flat Antigua had not kept us in biking shape and there were moments that we gasped to a halt, sweat blinding us as our legs quivered in exhaustion. At those times I wondered why we had decided to keep going, knowing in the back of my head that this was nothing compared to what we would experience in the Andes of South America.

As we struggled up one muddy dirt road in the mountains of Honduras, we were surprised by a white Blue Bird school bus that passed us. We thought that it had to be full of American military personnel because we had heard that the United States Army had set up a temporary base to help build roads, a clinic and a school off the beaten track between the towns of Gracias and La Esperanza. Not more than an hour later we rounded a curve and saw the bus stopped ahead in front of what looked like a school. But more surprising, there was the military camp, spirals of wicked-looking barbed wire arranged as a fence and a gate guarded by soldiers with heavy guns. We approached the bus and saw some very civilian-looking American type of people gathered around, talking to the military. Turns out they were a group of Baptist missionaries from Florida and their bus could not negotiate the steep uphill muddy curves in the road. They were asking for the Army "tow truck" to help pull them up. So there we all were, Baptist missionaries in their white school bus, American Army soldiers in their fatigues standing by their humvees and we, two brightly colored bicyclists standing by their tandem. A bit surreal, I think! The Hondurans planting trees in the school grounds and observing the goings-on seemed to think so too -- who wouldn't? As we all stood around, the tow truck arrived, bigger than the bus and looking like it had ten-wheel drive that would haul anything anywhere. So we left, pushing our bike up those tough muddy curves and not too terribly long afterward, the bus passed us having been successfully pulled up the road past the difficult parts.

One of the major reasons we rode through the mountains was to avoid the heat, the horrible humid heat of the lowlands. For the most part our strategy worked but there were times we could not help but come down and ride through air that you could practically see for the water it carried. Nicaragua was the worst: days of between 90-100 degree Fahrenheit heat with 90-100% humidity. If we were slowly climbing a hill, we could not even get the cooling effect of a wind and had to stop often to pant and guzzle down endless amounts of warm water from our bottles. Any chance we got we stopped for a refreshing cold Coke, the drink of champions, at the humble cost of 50 cents per liter. Still, we would go through fifteen bottles of water before stopping for the day, our bodies and clothes soaked in the sweat of our efforts. At one home, we lay down on our Therm-a-Rest air mattresses on the tile floor to sleep and woke to soaked pillows and sheets. Yuck -- get us back to the mountains!

But yet again, the many people we met as we rode through the rest of Central America helped us overcome much of the trepidation we felt about collapsing in heaps somewhere in the middle of nowhere-nowhere. In the six weeks we have been riding since Antigua, Guatemala, very few nights have we stayed in hotels. The rest of time, people have invited us into their homes, we have been with friends or SERVAS (a peace organization) families or we have stayed with the Fire Department or Red Cross. Incredible how we have been blessed. In Guatemala, the first night out, a car pulled over in front of us and a well dressed man stepped out asking us if we needed any help. He ended up sending us on to his uncle's ranch several miles up the road. The third night as we arrived in a town asking about a hotel, a woman invited us to stay in her parent's home which was empty at the moment. She also insisted on our eating dinner and breakfast with her family and so we sampled tamarind fruit juice, soup made from the flowers of a tree called Flor de Izote, and the Guatemalan version of beans and tortillas. As we left, her small son said we looked like clowns but as the circus really was coming to town that day, we forgave him. And this was just the beginning of our many interesting encounters with people in Central America.

Another bicyclist told us how he had asked the Fire Department or Red Cross to help him by allowing him to stay on their property and as it seemed like a good idea, we decided to try it out. The first place we asked was in Honduras in the city of Danlí, near the Nicaraguan border. Turns out that there was a great big field where we could set up our tent, showers where we could clean up and, of all things, cable TV in the room where the "man-on-duty" kept watch. This we could deal with! In all of the cities where we have asked to stay with the Fire Department or Red Cross, we have always been helped by friendly interested men. In Esteli, Nicaragua, I gave impromptu English lessons while in Masaya, Kent talked politics until late. Only in Danlí, however, did we get to watch them go out on a call. The men were all gathered in front of the TV watching their favorite soap opera when a group of kids skidded up on their bikes, yelling that there was a fire nearby. The captain stepped out and asked for details, turned around and saw the tell-tale orange glow in the sky, hitched up his pants and asked, "Now who sent you?"

"Our moms sent us!"

"OK, OK, we'll be right there." He dragged the other firefighters away from the TV, they gathered all their gear, jumped into the big red truck and roared off to check out the fire. Not more than twenty minutes later they returned, did a U-turn and left again. Where were they going? Well, the fire was a simple grass fire that burned itself out so they returned only to decide that cookies and milk would accompany the soap opera quite nicely, the fire truck convenient transportation to the neighborhood mini-supermarket!

Crossing the border into Nicaragua was difficult only for the paperwork registering our bike as a vehicle and the $20.00 we had to pay. But the country has changed drastically since the time we had been there before, almost nine years ago at the end of the Sandinista revolution when elections were occurring. At that time, the attention of the world was focused on Nicaragua and every day's American newspaper had stories about what was happening there. The atmosphere was charged with hope for a future. But now, the promise of the new democracy seems to have faded. Gone are the revolutionary murals and red and black banners of the Sandinistas. Nicaragua is now just another poor Central American country that is of no real interest to the major world powers. Its people struggle to survive in an economy that seems practically non-existent, children running into restaurants to take people's leftovers off their plates, men and women illegally crossing into Costa Rica to work because they can make a decent wage there.

We stopped along the road at a watermelon stand in Nicaragua to cool ourselves off with some sweet fruit and started talking with the woman who spent the day selling the produce. Cynthia was very intelligent and open about the troubles she experienced making it in her country. She worked the whole day at the stand, making twenty Cordobas (about $2.00) to support her and her son. She had moved to Honduras in the past to cut sugar cane and had also crossed the border into Costa Rica because she could make more money there. But because of her three year old son that had stayed with her mother, she felt she could not be apart from the boy for so long, so she returned. We spent at least an hour or so talking and as we left she pulled out a jar of bee honey to give to us. "Take this with you. It helps cure colds," she told us. Generous? More than.

Costa Rica is dealing with illegal immigrants and some of the graffiti reveals this: "Nicas go home...." This country is definitely doing better economically than most of the other Central American countries (although the Pan American Highway is in worse shape here than anywhere!). Suddenly there was more traffic on the road, fancy four-wheel drive Toyotas and Nissans; the people were better dressed and seemed to take a tandem bike in stride. OK, we were different, but there are many bicycling enthusiasts in Costa Rica so lycra and bike helmets aren't too bizarre. In addition, poverty is more of a relative thing, in most areas avoiding the abject poverty that afflicts Honduras and Nicaragua. For instance, one lovely family we stayed with considered themselves "poor" because they could not afford to buy a new road racing bike for their sixteen year old son. They had a nice house, coffee makers, plenty of attractive clothes and two very good bikes for their sons. They were not poor. Costa Rica in the past has been relatively free of money-draining civil wars and thus has been able to invest more of its money into the populace. It shows.

Another country that is surprisingly different is Panama. We had been expecting flat, tropically hot terrain filled with people slapping around in their flip-flops or swinging in their hammocks because they had nothing to do. I was also worried about anti-American sentiment resulting from the U.S. invasion (Operation Just Cause) of Panama eight years ago. But how happy we were to learn that our preconceived notions were not entirely correct! We had ridden not more than 30 km into the country when a man pulled over in front of us, inviting us to stay at his home in David. "We have one son studying English in Canada, so we have a free room! We are all mountain and road bike racers and we've had people stay with us before! You have to come!" How could we resist? That began our initiation into Panama -- Bienvenidos and Nelly Caballero invited us to stay for several days, drove us up to the beautiful cool mountains that were full of Swiss-style weekend homes and gorgeous colorful gardens that bordered the rain forest that reached to the Atlantic coast. They even took us to the supermarket that was identical to any American grocery store, even down to American products. We were looking around and I was talking with Nelly in Spanish when suddenly it struck me: "Why are we speaking Spanish in Safeway?!?" Weird ... And we even finished off the evening with Dominos pizza.

Panama City itself definitely has its poor and dangerous areas but it is also filled with international banking districts, upscale malls, what seems like several hundred McDonalds and the canal that connects the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. We stayed with our missionary friends Chris and David Baxter in the small town of Chame outside of the city and were surprised when we went to the beautiful country club to swim, then out to dinner at a terrific restaurant and the next day ate incredible Italian food. It was not very hard to tease them about how "difficult" they have it here in a foreign country!

So now we look forward to travelling in South America. But first we have to get there. The Pan American Highway abruptly stops beyond Panama City and does not cross the swampy jungly terrain of the Darién gap. This means finding an alternate route. The ferry that used to go from Colón to Cartagena in Colombia went out of business and flying is quite expensive so the alternative remaining is to search out a cargo ship from Colón. So we find ourselves going to the docks and asking the various captains for passage. No luck yet but hopefully patience will win out!

Copyright (c) 1998 Ann Moriarty. All Rights Reserved.
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Phil Davidson / / Last modified 30 September 1999