05. Borders

It’s still early morning, as Antigua diminishes in the rear-view mirror.  It is bright and clear.  I’d really love to stay in Antigua for a while longer, but I’m concerned about how long it may take to pass through all the administration, and make it to San José for John’s flight on December 29th.  I know he’s planned to drive from the airport in Toronto, to London to pick up his girlfriend, and then continuing from there, directly on to go skiing in Quebec.  Missing the flight would be, complicated.

The road ascends steeply.  The main highway is steady, but not too busy.  I remember the Argentineans, honking as they continued up to Guatemala; it was much busier then.  I’m shocked realizing that it was only yesterday!  How could it be?

We approach the outskirts of Ciudad Guatemala; it’s frenzy.  I have no idea how to get to the highway we want.  I pull into a shiny, multi-national conglomerate gas station.

John and Nick go to get supplies, as I top up the tank.

Nick comes out of the store and stops to talk with a man filling his car at another pump.  A young boy waves to Nick, from the back seat.  Nick crouches slightly and talks with him.  The boy smiles.

Nick waves to us, “just one minute, guys.”

That could mean ‘one hour’, but he’s coming over, now.  “Hey, this guy, Pablo, is trying to explain how to get out of town.  I’ve been taking notes, but it’s really complicated.  He’s offering to lead us to the turn off.”

John drives.  We follow Pablo down a small lane, and along vacant streets.  My gut is acting up.  John is focused and relaxed.  Nick looks excited, like a puppy.  He reads aloud from a travel guide, describing the appropriate amount to give someone who helps you in such a situation.

“You wanna give him some money?”

“Yeah.  I mean look at how helpful this is for us.  He’s probably driving way out of his way.”

“It’s nice of him to do it.”  I feel it’s somehow tainted if we pay for it; it’s Christmas Day.  But Nick made it happen; so, “it’s your call to make.”

He nods.

We approach a main road.  The traffic is dense, but the flow is fast.  Pablo pulls the little car over, and waves us on to pull right into the traffic.

John pulls over.  Nick strides back to the driver’s window of the little car.  He moves his hands as he talks.  Pablo is shakes his head.

Nick leans closer to the window and kneels down.  He hands a folded note to Pablo.

He returns to the front passenger seat.  “That wasn’t too bad.”  He smiles back at me.

John pulls into traffic on CA1.  We descend steeply in a south-easterly direction.  I can see the dark green in the valley below, through thin mist, as the road bends sharply.

“I think it’s about time for a number four.”

“I’ll join yah.”  Nick opens the glove box and takes out a box of cigars.  “Dean?”

“I’ll pass, thanks.  But, if there is a scenic spot to stop, pull over, okay?”

“Roger, on that.”

Nick firers up the cigar with the little blowtorch.  “That is a handy toy”.  He hands it to John.

“Cigar good.  Are yuh sure you don’t want one, buddy?”

“Nah.  Thanks.”

John signals and pulls off the road, into a large level gravel parking lot with a lookout.  He drives to the guardrail, at the edge.  Even from inside the car, the view is expansive and green.  Two minutes later, I join them outside, smoking, with the fatty containing the remaining marijuana.

I make a round of coffee.  Then we continue down the highway.

The vegetation slowly transforms from green, through yellow.  Now, down here, in the lowlands, everything is a pale brown.  The road levels.  There are now just two lanes, one in each direction, with scant traffic.

The highway ends at a ‘T’.  We turn left towards the Salvadoran border.

The sun is high in the early afternoon sky, as we pull into the border station at Valle Nuevo.

Nick turns in his seat, smiling optimistically.  My anxiety about getting across the border is lightened.  A sober smile creases my face.  “What do yuh think?”

“We should make it through with enough sunlight to get to a town, and get a place for the night.  It should be easier with the three of us.”  I nod at him.

“Piece of cake.”  John turns off the car.  “I’ll take Nick and start it off.”

I take out my passport, and get the documentation for the car from the glove box.  “Here it is.  I’ll be here.  Change up anytime.”

I sit on the front bumper, in partial shade.  The station is a long rectangular block, two stories high, made from a pale, greyish brick; it looks a lot newer than the building at the Mexican border.  There are no frenzied lines of traffic through a carnival atmosphere.  I breathe deeply, calming slightly.

I get a beer from the cooler, and pour it into the enamel tin cup.  I return to the bumper.

A car pulls out.

On the far side of the road, there is a small garrison of soldiers and police.  A car stops.  Some men, standing on a raised landing, call greetings down.  The man from the car joins them on the landing, and lights a cigar.  They speak together; it sounds serious, but then laughter.  Another man walking comes along, and stops to join them.  The man from the car and this new man move apart, walk along the outside of the building, and then go inside by a door at the south end of the building.

Nick sits down beside me.  “John is following a Mexican lady around.”

“He’s chasing a Mexican lady around?”

He laughs.  “He says that she know what she’s doing, plus she speaks English.”

“He needs the insurance certificate.”

“Oh yeah; forgot that one.  Sorry ‘bout that.”  I get it and hand it to him.  “Thanks.  See yuh, when I see yuh.”

As he goes, he calls back, over his shoulder, “this is a blast!”

He returns twenty minutes later carrying a paper bag.  “I brought you something.”  He takes a dumpling out of the bag, and then hands the bag to me.  “Here yuh go.  There are a few in there.  A lady at the back of the building is cooking them on a grill!  This is amazing!”

“Thanks.”  I take a bite from the dumpling.  It’s hot, filled with savoury meat.  “That’s yummy, man!  It is cool here, ain’t it?”

He nods.  “Okay.  I’ll see yuh around.”

I get another beer and take another dumpling.

John comes over.  It’s been an hour and a half since I’ve seen him.  “How’s it going?”

“Good.  You just have to do the last of it.”

I was so content, letting someone else do it.

“Hey guys.  Are we done?”

“Almost.  Do you want to stay here, or go with Dean?”

“I’ll go with Dean.”

“Is there any cold beer?”

“Yup.”

I’m twenty-five minutes in a line.  Nick introduces me to the Mexican lady.  She explains what I have to do, and where I need to go.

I finish in less than an hour.

“All done.”  He’s at the end of a cigar.

“Just the inspection, down there.”  I nod to the southern end of the station.

“Where’s Nick?”

“I don’t know.  Last time I saw him was about half-an-hour ago.  He’ll find us.”

I turn the car on, and drive to the end of the building and left around the corner.  A soldier directs me to a spot on the far side of the road away from the main terminal building, next to a small building.

“What’s up guys?”  Nick walks over to the car.

“Just waiting for the inspection.”

“You’re not done yet?”

“Just the inspection.”

“How long does that take?”

“I don’t know.”

“What’s the hold up?”

“I don’t know, but lunch is a notorious delay.”

“How long have you been waiting?”

“About half-an-hour, eh John?”

“About that.”

“Wow.  Shitty service.”

“It’s been pretty smooth, actually, less than half the time it took getting into Guatemala.”

I see two men come out of the garrison building, walking towards us.  The one, middle-age, is in a civilian uniform.  The other, clearly a sub-ordinate, could be a in his teens.  He walks slightly behind, holding a clipboard.

The boss grunts a greeting as he approaches, says something I don’t understand, and walks around the car, speaking in a low voice to the soldier.

He walks up to the three of us and asks who the owner of the car is?

I step forward.  He nods and takes a cigar from his breast pocket then cleans something from the salt and pepper of his thick Stalinesque moustache.  He lights the cigar and asks casually what the engine serial number is?  He holds my eyes as the smoke drifts slowly out of him.

“¿El número de serie…”, I repeat back to him in Spanish?

“Si, el número de serie de motor de automóvil para este coche.”  He spanks the hood as a judge hammers the gavel, ‘of course this car!’

“Uno momento, por favour.”  I look through the pile of documentation I’ve been keeping under the passenger-side mud-mat, but I can’t see any reference to an engine serial number.

“John, engine serial number?”

“I don’t know.”

The inspector is leaning over the window, blowing smoke into the car.  I look at him.  “¿Es necessario?”

Patiently, he says, <<Unfortunately, that’s the way it is.  It’s necessary.  That is the way that it is done.>>

I nod.  I look at John, “won’t it be on the block, somewhere?”

He nods, “it should be there.”

I release the hood, and we walk around.  John lifts it, and starts looking around.

The officer speaks privately with his assistant; they snicker.

Under the hood, John draws my attention to a bar-coded sticker, white with black writing on it.

“That can’t be it?”

“I think that’s it.”

“Hombre, esta allá”, I point to the sticker.

He glances over, interrupted from recounting something to his assistant.  He waves a finger, and resumes his story.

John says to me, “that’s it, for sure.”

“A barcode sticker?  Isn’t it stamped into the block somewhere?”

“They stopped doing that years before eighty-eight.”

“Hmm.”

“I’ll keep looking.”  He starts taking the engine apart.  “Get the wrenches.”

Nick raises his eyebrows.  “Wenches?”

“Wrenches first.”

I bring them from the back of the car.

John is pulling the carburettor out.  The customs officer approaches us.  He clears his throat.

John pauses and looks at him.  His hands are covered in black.

I look at the officer.  <<We’re getting the serial number.  We’re almost there.>>

He looks agitated.  He looks at John, grinning impishly holding the carburettor up.  <<We can’t hold up the traffic here much longer.>>

There is no traffic, and if there was, there is plenty of space to drive two transport trucks, side by side.

He grunts out a chunk of mirthless smoky laughter.  He holds up both hands, one clutching the clipboard.  He blinks and laughs again, but this time without the tension.  He beckons me, then guides me around to the back of the car.  He asks me to open the gate door at the back of the car.  He picks up a half-full bottle of rum from under a magazine.  He takes a swig and hands it to me, tilting his head back to invite me to take a drink.  I pull one back.  I hand the bottle back to him.

We walk back to the front.  He looks in the engine compartment, makes a note on the clipboard.  He hands me a scrap of paper with a squiggly line on it.  He shakes my hand and takes another swig from the bottle as he turns and strides off.  He calls for his assistant, who follows at his heels.

I crouch down.  “He’s gonna do us a favour because he likes us so much.”  I show him the squiggle.

It takes ten minutes to reassemble the engine.

John is covered in dirt and grease, but he’s smiling.  Nick looks relaxed.

Nick sits in the driver seat and adjusts it and asking me questions about how the car works, while John cleans up, inside the terminal.

We pull away from the station on to the unpaved road, and up to a gate.  I hand the soldier the scrap of paper.  He inspects it, signals another.  The gate rises, and he waves us along.

We crawl along the bumpy gravel road for ten minutes to another check point.  The soldier asks for the passports and documents for the car.  He looks at them, hands it all back, and waves us on.

The road solidifies to asphalt, but full of big potholes.  The edges are broken and crumbled, but we pick up a bit of speed, as we go.  Slowly, the road gets better.

The weather is beautiful and clear.  Cool air blows through the car.  The shadows grow longer.  It was still half-a-day getting through the administration.

We stop for gas.  The station is clean and modern, with logos of one of the multi-national petroleum corporations.  The shiny new sterility of it seems surreal to me in the context of everything else around here.  I fill up the car, talking over directions with Nick.  A man filling another car introduces himself to us.  He is well-groomed, dressed in respectable but modest attire.  His small car is full; a woman sits in the passenger seat; the back seat is full of children.  He addresses me in broken English.  “It has a powerful engine?”

“Si, ciertamente bastante.”

“I lived in Portland for five years.  I know these cars, but they are uncommon in El Salvador.”

John joins us.  <<These are my friends, John and Nick.  I’m called Dean.>>

He shakes hands with them.

<<I’m called Ronaldo.  I’m pleased to meet you.  ¿Where do you go to?>>

<<We’re driving to Costa Rica.>>

<<¡What a long drive!>>

“Si.”  I look over at the open sky and panorama.  Shadows of thin clouds makes ripples across the terrain, glowing in the golden sunlight.

<<You should not drive at night, here.>>

<<¿How far do you think we can get before dark?>>

<<You should be able to make it to Ahuachapán.>>

<<¿Will there be places to stay there?>>

<<Yes, it is a large town.  There are several hotels there.  Normally, they aren’t busy during the holidays.  Good luck.>>

He wishes us Merry Christmas as he shakes a round of hands.  The entire family waves as the car pulls out of the station.

I drive.

We arrive in Ahuachapán at dusk and get to the whitewashed two-story hotel that Nick found in the travel book, without problem.  The parking spot is a couple of blocks away.  A young man, Jorge, takes me there.  It is an extremely tight fit.  I hear the trailer hitch grinding along the floor, and take a chunk of plaster out of the side with the side-mirror.  But I get it in and it looks secure enough. It’s completely dark when I get back to the hotel.

John’s bought a case of beer in bottles, from the concierge.  He hands me one.  It’s ice cold.  “Thank you.”  I’m parched.

There’s a knock at the door, <<¿is everything alright?>>

“That’s the concierge.”

I open the door.

“¡Hombre!”  He takes the beer I offer him.  “¿Es muchos personas aquí esta noche?”

“Ahora, solomente usted?”

“¿Está mas, mas tarde?”

He shakes his head, smiling, <<this is probably the slowest night of the year.  You are the only guests here.>>

He looks like he’s about seventeen.  Like Jorge, he has dark skin.

I nod my head.

He finishes the beer and leaves, thanking us again.

I take two beers to my room, and change into fresher clothes.

The streets are dark, cold, and quiet.  People promenade through the park; it cheers me to see the activity.  Twenty feet away, in a shadowy corner of the park, a woman cooks empanadas on a grill over a sawed-off steel drum fire.  I get three.

John and Nick, are still debating dining options, as I offer them each one.  John inhales his, and asks if I want another, as he walks towards the lady at the grill.

“Yeah, I’ll take two more.”

“Nick?”

Nick is still inspecting the thing.  “I want to go get a meal, sit down, a jug of beer.”

“Yeah, two for me John,” I say again, hoping he’ll leave the debate and go and get the empanadas.  He goes.  I can see him holding up four fingers before the woman; she nods, once, and looks back down to her grill.

While we walk around, looking for a place to eat, the wind picks up, and the temperature drops.

We stand shivering, in front of a pizza parlour, having a small debate.  It’s the only place that we’ve found open.  I want ‘real’ Salvadoran food, but chilled, and fading with fatigue, I relent; we go in.

After an hour waiting, we’ve drunk the jug of warm, sour draft beer.  I’m agitated by the time the soggy pre-fabricated pizza arrives after 8:30.

They kick us out at nine.  The lights go out as the door closes behind us.

The wind blows down the desolate street.

* * *

At 8 a.m. there’s a thin film of overcast, as we driving along CA8, heading towards the Pacific coast.  John passes the trail mix around.  The air is cool, but not chilling.

We approach a sign ‘Sonsonate’; the road into the centro is busy.  The centro is like a carnival.  Stalls form an inner square, in front of the shops in the buildings lining the square.  The square is full of people, some doing their business, some strolling in the park.  Colourful banners, lining the square, are ablaze in the confident yellow sunlight.  There isn’t a parking spot.  We pull down a corner street.  Fifty feet down, Nick slows in front of a spot.  It’s a tight one.  “I can get into that spot.”

“I’ll do it.”  I’m surprised that he’s able to back it in on the first try.

I get out and look at the front and back. There is no more than a foot-and-a-half to spare.  “Good job!”

We’re parked directly in front of a busy cantina.  I take a step in.  I woman in her mid-fifties comes from behind the counter and ushers me to the last available table.  John and Nick follow me in.  She brings another chair.

She points to the menu board, and brings coffee.  I’m surprised at how good the coffee is.  It’s full of flavour and not bitter at all.  I ask for eggs, meat empanadas, and cornbread.

“I’m going to run up to the square and get a calling card.  See yuh in a minute.”

Two small boys are inspecting the car.

<<That’s a really big car,>> the taller one says.

“Si, es bastante largo.”

<<¿Where do you come from?>>

“Manejamo de Canada.”

“¿Condujisteis todo esa manera?”

“Si.”  I wave and continue on, not so much that I want to get these chores done, I do want to get them done, as much as I am being drawn by my increasing intrigue with this place!  I want to check out the main square.

I walk towards the corner.  People spill out of the shops, and on to the sidewalk.  Many of them greet me as I walk by.  The square is alive; all the individuals forming a part of a greater whole.

I am happy noticing it, and also realizing my improving ability to recognize truly cool moments, as they are happening.

I love this place; holy shit!

People pause along their way, speaking with each other, earnestly engaging.

I go by a break in the stalls towards a tobacco shop.  A woman greets me in the street, saying something, but I don’t understand.  I stop.  “Buenos dias señora.  Pardone, no comprendo muy bien, esa.”

<<¿Where do you come from?>>

“Canada.”

“¿Canada?  It is such a long way away.>>

“Si.”  I nod.  “Yo voy, yo manejamo.”

She laughs and claps her hands together.  <<Well… well… well, welcome.  We are very pleased that you are here.>>

“Ma gusto mucho aquí, esto momento.  ¡Que vive!  Gracias.”  It is so true, I am so pleased to be here; it’s crazy how it keeps building; the more I realize it, the more it keeps happening, and I realize it even more… .

I step into the tobacco shop and get the calling card.

I return to the cantina.  There’s a small crowd, men and boys, looking at the car.

An older man, hissing through holes where there used to be teeth, <<it is your car?  It’s very strong, yes?>>  I can’t tell if they are questions or statements.  I nod vaguely.  <<¿Where do you come from?>>

“De Canada; Toronto.”  I talk a bit about driving down.

I can’t tell if his expression is of pity, or humour, or both, as he says “¿Por qué?”

I want to tell him about how I needed to get away, and how I wanted to get unplugged from the rat race.  But I don’t know how to describe it, and I’m really not so sure, anymore.  But I am definitely sure that I am hungry!

I see the woman placing my food on the table.  She looks out to me and smiles.  <<Your food is ready.  Come and eat, now.>>

I say to him, “es justo algo que tuve que hacer.”  I’m trying to tell him that ‘it is just something I had to do.’

He takes my hand.  His hand is rough.  His grip strong.  He looks me straight in the eyes.  I see no malice in their blackness.  “¡Que aventura, bravo!  Bravo señor, bravo.”

“Gracias, hombre.  Pura vida.”

He laughs with unabashed mirth, sharing without reservation.  I can’t help but laugh, as if we two are defiant conspirators in irreverence, against everybody else.

It’s difficult to eat slowly, but I can tell that the food is great.  I can feel it coming into my blood stream, calming me.

I recount my vision of the main square.  Nick gets more and more charged by my description, as I go along, between gulps of minimally chewed mouthfuls of food; I’m not surprised, it’s the exact romantic ideal he’s been seeking.  He stands abruptly and announces he’s going ‘to check it out’, over his shoulder as he moves out, on to the street.

John and I talk about timing for the border, and where we’ll stop for the night.  We aim for the Pacific port town of Choluteca; it looks achievable by dusk.  He asks if I know whether or not the bank machines are working?  I tell him everything looks like it’s functioning in the square.

He goes.

The patrona sits, joining me at the table.  I tell her how great the food is, and how much I like it here in Sonsonate.  She sips her own coffee and smiles.  <<¿You must have seen many places driving from Canada?>>

“Si.  Muchos lugars.  Pero, solo uno Sonsonate.”  I smile, looking into her beautiful eyes.  “¡Que vivo!”

<<Come back and visit, again.>>

“Gracias, señora.”

I stand to go.  She stands and kisses me on each cheek.

John is outside, in conversation.  At a break in the flow, “are you going to go up to the square?”

A man is trying to say something to him, continuing a discussion.  John smiles, and looks at him, “perdó”, he holds up a finger, “necesario ir; gotta go.”

Nick comes around the corner on to the street, ambling towards us.

John sees him, “ah, maybe not.”

“Did juh get what you were after?”

“This place is great!  It’s too bad we can’t stay.”  He’s got water, orange juice, and food for the road.

John drives.

Coming out of Sonsonate we slow to pass an accident scene.  Two cars are overturned on the highway.  There’s a long streak of blood, ending in a large pool of it.  No frantic activity here; a policeman waves us along, without urgency.

The highways are good; there isn’t much traffic.  The day heats up as we speed along.

We stop for lunch at a restaurant at the edge of the highway, in a place called La Libertad.  Straight down from the patio on the back of the restaurant, boys play in the rolling surf; their school uniforms lie high on the black sand beach.

I want to get down there and take a dive in the ocean!  But I feel driven to get to the next challenge and overcome it.  We have to make it to San José by the evening of the 28th, so John can get his flight on the morning of the 29th.

We pay and go.

We have to slow as packs of kids, ‘helpers’ swarm the car.  It is the first sign that we are approaching the border.  I keep driving, slowly.  I intend to lead the charge across this border.

Nick says, “hey, look at that guy’s cool bike.”

He rides slowly, behind us, on a horned mountain bike; it has a chrome finish, all sorts of lights, both front and back, green water bottle, multi-coloured reflectors inserted in the spokes of both front and back wheels.  “¡Hey, hombre, qué bicicleta!”

He looks at Nick, “biciclo”.

He rides along, beside the car.  The folds on his face spread back from his mouth.  He reminds me of the Grinch[i].  I can see that he has a fair complexion, under his well-weathered features.  He’s about five and a half feet tall, and skinny, except for a bit of paunch around the midsection.  He wears a white short-sleeved, button-up shirt, with a pocket on each breast and a series of symmetrical geometric patterns running down each side of the button-line.  Light brown hair shows at the edges of the dark blue baseball cap.

“You need a guía?  A guide?”

“¿Cómo funcióna”, I ask?

“I take you”, he points vaguely, over his shoulder, in the direction of Honduras, “pasar la frontera.”  He’s relaxed.  His attitude is ‘take it or leave it’.

‘How?’ is my question.

I look at him.  He returns the gaze, grey eyes unflinchingly before my bug-eyed sunglasses.

“¿Cuánto cuesta?”

“How much is worth?”

I stare at him.  He stares impassively, back.

“Cinco dollars”, I say, out of the blue.

He looks at me, takes the matchstick out of his mouth, and spits a small fragment out.

“Cinco dollars”, he nods slightly, “cinco dollars.  Bring passport, ownership.”  He takes a chain from the back of his bike, “vámonos”, he’s looking under the front bumper.  He puts the chain through the trailer hitch, and locks the bike.

I get the documentation from the glove box.

John gets out of the car and approaches him; he makes a mock defensive gesture, curling his shoulders, raising his closed hands.  “Soy John”, John extends his hand to shake.

He drops his hands, smiles slightly, nods and says, “Leo”.  Then he takes John’s hand tentatively, and shakes it.

Nick is out of the car; he shakes Leo’s hand, “tanto gusto, hombre.  Me llama Nicolas.”

“Nee-coa-lawss.”  He takes his hand from shaking and taps his chest, with the open hand, “Leo.”

I look up at Leo, “Dean.  Tanto gusto, Leo.  Es la documentación para el coche.”  I wave the ownership and other documents that I’ve had to produce before.

He leads me into the main building and takes me to the first desk.  It costs five dollars for the first form.  The second form is twenty dollars.  “¡No es possible, veinte dollars para eso!”

He looks at me impassively.

I hold a ten dollar bill in my hand, offering it to the vendor of the form “¿hombre, diez para esa forma?”

He looks at me with distain, shaking his head back and forth, one time, “veinte dollars.”

I hand him the twenty, “¿es uno recibo, por favor?”

“La forma es el recibo.”  He walks off with my twenty, casting a disgruntled look at Leo, who mock-cringes then cracks a smile, until the guy is gone.

Now, it’s lunch.  Leo says we won’t be able to continue, because everyone will be at lunch.  We go back to the car.  Nick is there, reading a tour book for Central America.  He greets us enthusiastically.  Leo smiles and waves.  He starts to unchain his bicycle.

“What happened?”

Leo interjects to say that he’ll be back in a little while, then rides off.

“Uh, it’s slow, dirty work.”

“Huh.  Well, how much longer do you think it’ll be?”

“I really don’t know, dude.”

“Where’s Leo going?”

“I don’t know.  He says that everything is going to be closed for an hour, lunch.”

“Lunch?”  He is incredulous.  “It’s not even eleven-thirty.”

“Is there any cerveza frío?”

“Uh?  I don’t know.  Wha’dyuh mean, ‘lunch’?”

I hunt around in the car, checking out the usual hiding places.  “Uh… dude, you haven’t been here all that long, have yuh?”  I find one bottle the Guatemalan beer, but its blood warm.  “Fuck!”

Nick is back into the book.  He looks up from it, “hey, it’s Boxing Day, and we’re outside, sweating in the shade.  Chill out, will yuh?”

It’s precisely because I am outside sweating, and, the beer is warm, which is making it difficult to chill out.

I’m bugged out again at how opaque the border transit process is, without having to explain that it seems to be the facts of life, to Nick.  I open the beer and down half of it.  “Where’s Johnny?”

“He’s around.”

“I’m going to get some beer.”

I walk around a corner of white stucco; there’s an old woman cooking something mysterious on an old, well-worn grill.  She sees me coming and blocks my passage, “¿Qué desea comer?”

“¿Qué es?”

“Carne.”

“Gracias.”  I slide by her, but it’s a dead end.  The little bit of extra effort has resulted in a small wave of increased sweat; it’s getting really hot, now.

I turn around and come back past the old woman.  “¿Qué desea comer?”  For each thing she lists, she counts on her fingers.  She’s missing most of her teeth.  I can’t understand what she’s saying.  She looks up at me, as if to take my order.

I shake my head.  I’m tired, “no gracias, nada ahora.”  I walk past her.  The smell of the spices and roasting flesh, gives me a momentary pause, but I’m on a mission for beer.  I’d really love a grilled chicken, if I can find it; but whatever it is, I want cold beer to go with it.  I visit the small news vendor, inside the main building.  “¿Es uno lugar por comprar cerveza frío?”

He puts his hand to his chin, “No, no sé.”  He shrugs.

I head back to the car.  John is there with Nick.

“Did djuh find any place to get cold beer?”

“No, I don’t think there’s any place to get it, around here.”

“How’s it goin’?”

“Uh, you know, was moving along, rather slowly.  Now it’s lunch time.”

“Is there anything I can do?”

“I think that I’m gonna run out of dough.  You got any?”

“What dee-yuh need, Salvadoran or Honduran?”

“A little of both, if you’ve got.”

“I don’t have any Honduran.  I’ve been paying in US dollars.  One form cost twenty bucks!”

“A form?!”

“Fuck”, I say nodding ruefully.  “The first one was five dollars.”

“Whoa!”

“All I got is some Salvadoran dough.  Do yuh know where to change it?”

“Yeah, I can do it.”

“I’ll go with yuh.  Nick, see yuh in a bit.”

We walk off, several people wave to John as we walk by, “hola”, he says to one old woman.  We find the guy he’s looking for.  He says his rate.  We negotiate.  I count my Salvadoran notes out and hand them to him.  He counts them back and pulls out a huge wad of Honduran bank notes, peeling me off the most well-worn ones.  I wait while he stretches out the last few notes, pulling them off one-by-one, then pausing as if that’s all, after each one.

Finally, I nod and turn.

“Gracias”, John says as we go.

We go back to the car.

“Hey guys.  Leo was by, looking for you.”

“How long ago?”

“He was just here a second ago.”  Nick looks around.  “I gotta go to the can.”  He puts the bookmark in between the pages he’s looking at.  “I’m going to look around a bit; so I’ll see you in about half-an-hour.”

Leo appears.  He says that we have to move the car.  John gets in and moves it about twenty feet along, still in the shade of the building.  Leo chains up his bike.

“Bub, can you give me some US?”

“Yeah, just a second”, he reaches into his pocket.  “I know it’s down there…”, he wrestles, trying to get something out of it.  “Hold it a sec”, he gets out of the car and reaches into his pocket, again, and brings out a thin wad of green.

“Let me see.”  I take the wad, and count off the small bills, and take one twenty, “thirty-six, okay?”

“Take it all if you want.”

I’ve still got two twenties US left, but there’s a lot of padding going on here.  “That should do it.  Thanks.”

Leo is at my shoulder.  I nod.  He leads.  I turn and follow him.  We go back to the main building.  Inside is dark, after the outside brightness, and smells mouldy.

We get more forms.  Leo doesn’t say a word.  He walks out the door.  I follow.  I can’t see a thing, it’s too bright.  He leads me to another stuccoed building: this one is smaller.  I can feel the weight of the sun across my back and shoulders.  A soldier in camouflage fatigues stands at the door.  He holds the rifle level at his waist.  We take a spot in the short line.

Another man comes over and speaks with Leo.  They walk a few steps, into the shade.  Leo listens, looks at some papers held in front of him, and lights a cigarette.  He leans over and speaks to him, in his ear.

A fat man with a moustache inspects the people in the line.  He pauses, scrutinizing me.  He smells rancid.  I look him in the eye.  He speaks to me; I don’t know what he says.  I hold up my passport.  He sees it, and waves it down, dismissively, but seems mollified.  He moves in front of me and hassles the next guy in the line.  I see Leo watching, and smiling.  The soldier struts up and down the line.  The guy at the head of the line goes in.  More people join the back of the line, behind me. The guy in front of me goes in, and the moustached guy points to me, points in the door, and goes through it himself.  I follow.  Leo hurries over and squeezes through just as the door is forcibly shut.  The man with the moustache questions Leo.  It sounds serious at first, but he breaks into laughter.

I take off my sunglasses, so I can see enough to avoid banging into the walls.

We walk into a room.  Two men stand, two are seated.  All four of their shirts are soaked through with sweat.

There are three doors in the room.  Two of the men are lined up in front of a woman seated in front of a computer screen and keyboard.  A man comes hurriedly out of one of the doors.  Billows of tobacco smoke are blindingly lit by the sunlight pouring in.  All I can see is the silhouette of a hand dropping a sheet of paper on the desk.  The woman at the screen busily clicks and taps on the keyboard until the printer starts making noises and advancing the paper.  The form comes out.

My eyes adjust enough to see him glaring out impatiently, daring anyone to cross him.  He takes out a kerchief and mops the spot above his pasty-looking forehead; there is just enough hair there to collect sweat.  He’s perched behind the shoulder of the woman.  Another man, also waiting, glances out from his hand in front of his eyes, wincing as he does so.

She takes the multi-layered form from the dot-matrix printer, removes the outside edges, and inspects it.  Then she hands it, over her shoulder, to the sweaty, red-faced man.  He snaps up the original documents, and sweeps back into his office, closing the door abruptly.  The woman looks after him, chewing gum impassively.  She files her nails.

The man at the head of the line shifts on his feet.  She looks up, briefly glancing at the documentation, where the man has laid it upon her desk.

Through a resentful sigh, she begins to tap away on the keyboard.  There is an uneasiness in the room.  I shift back and forth on my feet, make eye contact with another guy, also standing.  The printer starts to make noise, and several pages advance out of it.  She removes the edges, and looks at the forms.  Satisfied, she hands the package of it to the man.  She sits down again, and is occupied at her computer screen, clicking away steadily with the mouse.  He looks at the form, and leaves, “Gracias.”

The clock ticks.  Leo leaves without a word, to me.

The woman seems to be working at something, clicking the mouse almost continuously.  The clock advances.  Sweat rolls down my spine.

Another man comes into the room.  She looks up, and holds out her hand to the man in front of me, who is now at the front of the line.  He hands her documents.  She begins to type.

The door of the office opens decisively.  The pasty man blusters out.

I can see him better, this time.  He wears office clothes, including a vest of a pale pink, but no tie.  His waxy white complexion is made all the more startling by the bright redness moistness of his fleshy lips and red-rimmed blood-shot eyes.  He reaches around to a back pocket and pulls out the kerchief and mops the slick at the top of his forehead.  He hands several forms to the woman.

He looks up at us, standing in line.  He mops the sweat at the top of his head, again, then reaches around and mops at the back of his neck.  He comes around a bit, so the woman can meet his gaze, from above.  He mumbles something, before turning abruptly, and striding back into his office.  The doors slams shut, again.  With a dour smirk, she returns to the clicking and clicking, eyes focused on the screen.

The roof creaks under the weight of the sun.

Is this her lunch break?

As I shift my footing, I edge forward, to the side.  I want to see what is on that screen.

She begin to type on the keyboard, looking over the forms the waxy man passed to her.  She types steadily for a minute or more.  The printer starts to whir and chug.  She stands, partially.  Reaching over, she rips the form along the perforation.  She stands, gathers the original, and walks over to the office door.  She knocks.  Nothing, then the door opens with a start.  The vacuum pulls the woman’s hair into office.  The guy looks like he has stage make-up on.  He doesn’t look up.  He takes the forms, inspects them briefly, while turning, mumbling and walking back into his office.  The door slams shut behind him, into the face of the woman.

She seems unperturbed as she straightens her hair, purposefully.  She returns to her seat at the desk and looks at herself in a mirror, patting her hair here and there.  Satisfied, she puts the mirror down and resumes the mouse clicking.

I can’t get far enough around to see the face of the screen, but as I look over, I catch the reflection of the screen in the silk glare-guard[ii].  She is playing solitaire.

I move fully in front of her, and dump my forms on her desk.  I look at her eyes as I pull out the fold of American money, and peel off the outside bill, a one dollar bill.  I drop it on top of the form, still staring at her eyes.

She takes my form, shooting back a sour expression.  She types.

I am relaxed.

She prints it, and hands it to me.

I turn to go.  Leo is there; I hadn’t seen him return.  He seems vaguely surprised.

I’m hot, sweaty, and hungry.  I’m in a foul mood.  At the next step, I pay up, again, but this time it’s a more typical extortion.  She stamps my pink copy, numerous times, and points to a nearby desk.

That was fast!  “Gracias.”

I walk over to the next desk.  The clerk assembles all of my documentation, and takes the yellow copy from the last desk.  He prints another form, stamps it, smiles, and points me to where the inspector is outside.

Hmm.

We walk to the inspector, he accompanies Leo and I to the car.  John and Nick greet the three of us.  The inspector looks the car over.  He asks if it’s just the three of us?

“Si.”

He takes a quick look at each of our passports, then writes his initials on a strip of paper, and hands it to me.  He does a mock salute then wanders away.

There’s Leo.  I take out my flap of money.  I strip off the five, from the outside of the wad, and hand it to him.  “Gracias.”

He’s looking at me, unmoving.  I wave and get into the car.

John says, “is that it?”

“That was the agreed amount.”  I think Leo gets kick-backs from all of the form vendors.  It was a hundred dollars more than the last border.  I just want to get away from the place.

Nick is out of the car, taking Leo off to one side.  I turn the car on, and pull my seat belt on.  Nick is shaking Leo’s hand.  I hear him say, “Gracias”.

I put the car into gear, but I remember that Leo’s bike is chained up to the bumper.  I put the car back into ‘park’, and rest back in the seat.  I put my right arm up across to the passenger seat, now empty.  I take a deep breath, and let it out as slowly as I can.

“That was pretty smooth.”

Nick is still with Leo, patting him on the back.  Together they look over conspiratorially at me.

I stare impassively back.

“So it’s like that, is it?”

“It was ridiculous, man!  It was the worst racket yet.”

Leo unchains his bike.  Nick is standing by him, as if to prevent me from rolling over him.  I’m glad to be through; but now I want to go.  Leo moves out of the way.  Nick gets into the passenger front seat.  Leo smiles at me.

I put it into gear and wave as I press the accelerator.  We move slowly through the first potholes.

I’m grateful that John and Nick are in good spirit.

I continue slowly along the broken road.

I curse silently to myself.  I’m so wound up, and angry.  Even though I fully realize that I do this to myself.  It’s the setting of expectations.  When there is any unexpected event encountered along the way, trying to achieve the set outcomes of the plan, it fucks me up.  There is always unexpected events along the way; I know it intellectually, but…  Why am I like this?  I wasn’t born like this.  Where did it come from?

“Hey,” I’m talking, mostly, to John, “I’ve been working on this theory that corporations are now actively shaping perceptions of both employees and customers.  Obviously, they do this because they figure they’ll make more money; the same reason they do everything.”

He nods, tentatively.

“Not more corporate conspiracy theories, it’s getting stale.”

“You of all people, ought to know about the company demanding complete subservience, … if you want the job?”

“Look at how far ahead we are, in productivity and standard of living…”.

“Even if that was so, Nick, and I am not saying that it is; even if it were so, at what cost?  The cost is too high.”

“What cost?”

“If you listen, I’ll tell you.”

“You say productivity is ahead and that has made the standard of living higher?  Well productivity is way ahead.  Around the end of the Second World War, they said there’s be two day work weeks with all these productivity gains.  Where have all of those gains gone to?  The average buying power for men has been in steady decline since the Second World War ended!  Where has it gone?”

I pause, picking my way around some large holes in the road.

“Sure, we have a lot more stuff.  Or, at least, there is potential to work enough, in certain fields, to be able to afford to buy a lot of cool stuff.  But has the quality of life got better?”

“People are living longer, in better health, better educated…”

“You always talk about more, more years, more… things.  But, it’s all quantity, not necessarily quality.  Sure people live longer, alone for more miserable years in the nursing home?  The entire society is being shaped to prize this, stuff, objects, over people, and… human interactions, and people need those human interactions to be healthy.  So, point number one, we are not better off.”

“Point number two, the cost; all you have to do, is just about everything you’re told to do.  That doesn’t seem like freedom.  I call that slavery, only it’s been disguised so well.  People are told, endlessly, how free they are, how in control of their own destiny, they are.  You, for example, bust your ass in the office all week long, then you jump on a plane Saturday morning to get a head start on your sales road trip.  You spend the next two weeks going from one hotel to the next, early mornings, late evenings, until to get back, probably late Saturday afternoon.  You crash, and spend the Sunday cleaning your clothes and doing all the stuff at home that you need to do every two weeks.  Then Monday morning back in the office.  You got to buy the latest expensive suits, get a new car on lease every two years, maybe a new, bigger house every ten years.  What do you do for yourself?”

“I’m free to do whatever I want.  Look, I’m down here doing this, right?”

“You’re free to do what you are told, and every single thing that you do makes money for somebody… else.”

“This is just one example of many, okay?  The corporations are making people see the world more like them, because it makes people easier to control.  Corporations are obsessed with assessing the future, then planning and getting things ready to deal with it when it, whatever it is, arrives.  Okay, now, consider this, as soon as anyone begins being exposed to television, in the future it will be the internet, shortly after birth, they’re taught, and then told over and over again, about what is needed to be happy.  The list keeps growing.  Soon, there is so much of it, it has to be planned out, and scheduled.  People are kept so focused on the future, that one never have time to live in the now.

Corporations are making people more adept and being scheduled, controlled.  That’s just one thing.

Humans can only really live in the now, it’s the only way we can really experience things.  And this twisting of us, into seeing the world this other, non-human way, as if everything can be expected, and therefore taken care of, in advance, just isn’t the way things work.”

It’s so twisted, I laugh, bitterly.

“Yeah, I bet you’d rather live here…”.

The road solidifies, and I accelerate appropriately.  The breeze blows through the car.  I can’t hear what he’s saying.  I’m too happy with the sun and the breeze to explain how this country is collateral damage; he knows it anyway; it’s the extremely well-developed ability at denial, shared by most people in the North American ‘first world’, that keeps the realization below the radar, most of the time.

“Can one of you guys find the trail mix that we got in Antigua?”

Nick opens the glove box.  A box of cigars falls out.  He grunts a laugh, “well if that’s not fate…  John?”  John nods.  He hands me the bag of trail mix, and John a cigar, while taking one for himself.

I eat as slowly as I can, and savour the tastes.

I think about the job I left behind, re-engineering the way corporations do their thing; I’m glad to be away from it.  Both John and Nick seem more comfortable with their jobs’.  Nick is gung-ho about his sales management job.  John does his automotive engineering day job to pursue his passion, invention, on which he often works through the night.  In some ways I envy them.  But it’s toxic for me.  The cigar smoke smells good.  I take another handful of trail mix, and hand the bag to Nick, “thanks man.”

He blows the smoke out.  “Ready for a cigar?”

“Is there any cold beer?”

“No.”

“I’ll pass on the cigar.”

The shadows lengthen.  We pull into a gas station, and take on supplies.

The light is fading.  As we descend, the air becomes warmer and damper.

I can smell salt water, burning shrub, and an undercurrent of rot, and sewage.  A sign blazes in the headlights, ‘Choluteca’.

We enter the town.  I turn the cabin light on, so that Nick can look through his travel book for a place to stay.  There are no signs marking the streets.  Most of the street lights aren’t lit.  I’m trying to find a main street to orient the search.  I pull onto a broad avenue.  It’s comparatively well lit by lights at the front of shops.  Fires burn in oil barrels on the street.  The sparse remaining paving stones are a navigational hazard.  We go slowly.  Garbage is strewn everywhere.  Men stagger from one bar to another.  A man drops his pants and urinates, in the middle of the street.  Occasionally we pass women.  Most of them are scantily clad, with lots of makeup.  In front of every bank, all closed, at least one armed guard sits or stands, many hold sawed-off shotguns.  Many of the bars also have a man, not in uniform, standing with a rifle.  A man stands with a vintage AK47, in front of a particularly lively tavern.  Three young woman stand along a row, beside him.

Past the epicentre, at a quieter spot, I pull the car over.  Nick and John look at the map for Choluteca in a travel book.  I look at the map for Central America.  It’s a high-level map, but it shows several main streets.  I hand it to the guys.

A man walks by with an old revolver holstered at the waist and a machete dangling from a thin rope, beneath his left arm.

I pull out, and cruise slowly down the street.

“Hey, where are you going?  We haven’t figured this out, yet.”

“I’m going this way.  I feel exposed, stopped anywhere here, too long.”  Several people hang out in front of a café.  There’s a man with a gun seated beside the door.

“I’m going to check this place out.”

I ease to a stop at the side of the road.  The activity in front of the café freezes.  All the talking and hand-gesturing stops.  Six pairs of eyes stare.  A man holds his hand on a bulge under his arm.

I get out of the car.  I feel the focus upon me.

Nick gets out.  “I’m coming with you.”

John comes around and gets into the driver seat.

It seems like weeks since we had breakfast in the bright and pleasant pueblo of Sonsonate.

I walk past the man with the gun, and step inside.  I go to the bar.  “Hola.  “¿Es lo quartos libre?”

He looks at us, <<¿is it for the two of you?>>

<<There’s three of us altogether.  My friend is out in the car, I need a place to put the car also.>>

He turns and takes a key attached to a large piece of wood, like you might see at a gas station, from behind the bar.  Without saying anything, he turns and walks towards a plain door at the back.

The door opens to a short, dingy hallway, and another door.  It opens to the outside, the back of the building.  He tries the key unsuccessfully in the door handle lock of one of three doors.  He finally gets it open.  I already know that I am not staying here.  This is for show only.  He holds back the door and says, <<the other room, there>>, he points to one of the other doors, <<is occupied, but there’s three beds in this one.>>  He points inside.

I look in the room.  It’s small, and there is an unpleasant smell.

“Gracias”, I say.

<<¿Do you want it or not?>>

“No, gracias.”

I walk out the way we came in.  Nick follows.  I can hear the barman wrestling with the key in the door.  I walk straight through the bar, and out the way we came in.

John is looking at maps, in the car.  “Well, how’d it go?”

“No way am I gonna stay there.  I’d rather sleep in the car.”

I nod; we agree on this.

John describes where he thinks we are on the map.  He suggests a spot from the travel guide.  Silence confirms the consensus.  He pulls slowly away from the curb.

In five minutes we’re in front of a hotel.  The street, close to the centre, has shops at most store fronts.  It is calmer than the circus we saw before.  John and Nick go in to take a look.  After a few minutes, they come out.  They both like it, but the price seems expensive to me.  “Let’s look at one more place, first.”

“The manager wants to send his staff home for the night.  He wants to know if we’re gonna take it or not.”

Nonetheless, we drive to another place, listed in the travel book.  It’s out from the centre of town, along a highway.  It’s an eight stories high, 1960’s era concrete block.  I go in.  It’s even more expensive than the last place, and it reeks of old air-conditioner machine oil and mould.

We drive back towards the last place.  We’ve been in town for over an hour, everyone is edgy.

John stops directly in front of the door, next to the hotel reception.

The next door along the street is a twenty-foot high steel gate; I wonder what that is?

Nick and I go inside.  I inquire about a room at the linoleum, wood-grained reception counter.  The woman, of native descent, doesn’t seem to understand me.  <<We came before, twenty minutes ago.>>

“She wasn’t here.”

I can hardly think.  She makes a phone call.  A conservatively-dressed man in his sixties walks towards us.  I hold out my hand, “hola”.

He shakes my hand.  “I’m Thomas.”

“Dean Cassady.”

He addresses Nick, “so you decided to take the room, after all?”  He has a faint accent, something from Britain.  His English is perfect.  He sweeps back his pale wispy hair away from his sad blue-grey eyes.

“Yeah, can we still get it?”

“Unfortunately, I let the staff go for the evening.  I can’t put you in the room for three.  That was the rate we discussed.  But I’ll tell you what, I have a two-bed room ready, and I’ll have a single prepared.  I should charge you more, but you can have it at the rate we discussed.”

I mention the car, and he gives instructions on how to open the gate.  A side door accesses a broad lane adjacent to the hotel, behind that twenty-foot high steel gate; I notice the spikes and shag-wire, at the top.  Light is flooded on to everything.  I open the huge steel door.  John brings the car in and parks it, behind a sedan version of the same car model.

John helps me lock the gate.  Thomas stands by the door into the lobby, “you don’t plan on taking that car out tonight do you?”

“No, that’s it for the night, thanks.”  I’m grateful to be in this refuge, and relieved to have my car and all my stuff comparatively safe for the time being.

“What year is your car?”

“Eighty-seven.  What’s yours?”

“Nineteen-eighty-eight.  Do you have any trouble servicing yours down here?”

“To tell you the truth, it doesn’t take much servicing.  But when it needs it, I don’t really have too much trouble, no.  Things are done differently down here, of course.  The labour is inexpensive; so where there’s another way to fix something… sometimes they make it.  If I really need a part, I get it sent here.  No, there’s no problem with it.”

“How’s the mileage?”

“Not bad, really.  I don’t often drive too far, but the mileage is fine.”

John and I come through the door and into the lobby.  “That’s quite a gate you have there.”

“I’ve learned over the years.  Since I’ve had it like that, I haven’t had a problem.  Knock on wood.”  He knocks on the counter top.

Thomas gives directions to the rooms.  John and Nick take the key to the double and go.  He hands me the key to the single room, “if there’s anything you need, call reception.”

I trudge up the stairs with my gear.

I find the room, and go in it, dropping the bags on the floor as I fall on to the bed.  Cool air blows onto me from the noisy air conditioner.  The place smells of mould and machine oil, but I don’t care.

* * *

It is hard to open my eyes.  What is that droning sound?  Where am I?  What’s that smell… mouldy, ugh.  Choluteca.  What?  My stomach hurts.  Dinner!  I hope it’s not too late.  What time is it?

I sit up.  That fucking air-conditioner; I’d rather sweat.  I turn it off.

The phone is ringing.  “Hello.”

“Dean?”

“Johnny.  What’s up, man?”

“I don’t know, what time is it?”

“I don’t know.”  I look around for a clock.

I hear grumbling over the phone.  “Nick, is that you?”  I hear more grumbling.  “Do you want to get some dinner?”  There’s more grumbling.  “What’s John doing?”

I hear him, away from the phone, “I’m going to take a shower.  Then, let’s go.”

“John’s going to take a shower…”.

“I heard.  What room are you in?”

“It’s two-ten.”

“I’ll be there in ten.”

I strip and go into the shower, just long enough to get wet all over with the cool water.  I put on the cleanest things I can find, grab the keys, and walk out.

I knock lightly on 210.  Nick opens it.  “I’ll be at the reception.”

“I’ll be down in a minute.”

Thomas is still there.  I thank him for letting us stay.  He nods, like a slight bow.

“You’re not from here, are yuh?”

He smiles, briefly.  He lived in Toronto for eleven years, before he came here; he says he considers it to be, where he came from.  He speaks nostalgically about some of the landmarks, “… is that still there?”

He’d met and married a woman from Choluteca, and moved here.  She died a few years ago.

The hotel, while secure like a fortress, is run down.  My room is clean enough, but the bed is too soft and it doesn’t smell too good.  I ask him why he’d stayed?  He says that it’s his home now.

Nick and John join us.  Thomas tells us a few options for food.  We walk around the corner to a Chinese restaurant.  It’s pretty scummy and run down, but, I can hardly think, I’m so hungry.  It doesn’t bother me that the food is hardly recognizable, but as soon as I’ve finished eating, I want to get out of the place.

The streets are almost deserted.  We walk down and along the main street, past the hotel.  We turn left, and walk along a sidewalk bordering a park.

A skinny middle-aged man rides by on a dilapidated bicycle.  He wears an undershirt that is almost transparent from wear.  Across the handlebars, lies an old, sawed-off shotgun.  He passes us and is reclaimed in the blackness.

I hear music, it sounds like old Cuban music to me, coming from a small bar across the street.  The neon sign looks like it’s from the same era.  A middle-aged couple dance to the rhythm, he attentive, she swooning.  I sigh.  There is some good of humanity in this place.  I’m drawn to it.  I cross the street and go in.  It feels like I am entering a dream.  A vintage, art-deco jukebox plays.  Pale pink and blue neon lights flicker to the beat.

I take a beer.  No sign of John or Nick.  The table is white linoleum.  The dancers notice me.  Their rhythm mellows.  But as they continue, the heat builds again.

There is hope, even in this place.

I’d like to stay, but I feel as if I’m invading an intimate scene.  I down the beer, and walk out, back to the lucid blackness.

John and Nick sit on a bench across the street; smoke billows from them.  I walk over and sit.  “This is pretty cool.”

They each nod.

“Look at that.”  I nod across at the neon, and the couple moving as one to the beat.  “No pretension, just being; it’s cool.”

* * *

There’s noise.  What’s going on?  Where am I?  What is the banging all about?!  It’s knocking on a door?  I’m in… Honduras.  “Yeah.  Yeah.”

“Dean?”

“Yeah.”  I struggle and get up.

“Dean, it’s time to go.”

I open the door.  Nick stands there.  “Did you just wake up?  I couldn’t get you on the phone; didn’t you hear it ringing?”

“Naw, nuthin’.  I’ll be five minutes, max, okay?”

“Okay.  We’re downstairs.”

“Hey, hang on a sec.”  I grab my bag.  The clothes I need are on the floor.  “Take this and load it for me, will yuh?  I’ll see you in five.”

I go into the shower, and rinse my mouth with the water; it tastes of sulphur.  I get out, brush the towel over me, then struggle pulling the clothes on my wet body.

Thomas sees us off.  I shake his hand earnestly.  “I’ll come back, if I can.”

“Have a good trip.  You should make it to the border shortly after it opens at nine; that’s the best time.  Good luck.”  He pats the back of the car as we pull out; it’s 7:30 a.m.

The clock shows ‘8:30am’ as we pull into San Marcos de Colón.  It’s a beautiful, bright town.  The air is clear and the road is fully paved and clean.  I spot a small sign over a door.  I park the car across the street from it.

“What are we doing?”

“Food.”

“If that’s a restaurant, it doesn’t look open.”

“I’ll check.”  I put my window up, and hand the keys to John.  “It’ll be open.”

I walk across and try the door.  It’s locked.  A sign says to ring.  I press the button; I can hear a faint buzz.  The door opens revealing a beautiful woman flanked by a large garden courtyard.  She invites me in.  “Gracias señora.  Momento para mis amigos, allá.”  I nod to the car, and wave to them.

She seats us at a table half in sunshine.  The menu is substantial, but she invites us to ask for anything that we don’t see on it.

She returns with coffee.  It’s strong and without bitterness.  The food arrives after several minutes.

When the dishes are cleared, she brings another carafe of coffee and asks if she could join us.  She asks, and we talk about the trip.  I talk about the web site, and she takes the address of it.  Her husband joins us, and we linger over coffee.  The border office is a five minute drive, he says.  But, it’s not open for another fifteen minutes.

I’m so relaxed after the tense night in Choluteca.  I’d like to stay, right here in this town.

I pay, and I hug them.

We’re five minutes clear of San Marcos when the first ‘helper’ appears; he looks about ten years old.  “No, Gracias.”

It’s 9:30 a.m.   There are a few people here, but not very many.  It is so sedate, it’s a little bit eerie.

A man approaches the car as we park.  He greets us and introduces himself as Oscar Peres; he’s a Nicaraguan government employee; his job is ensuring people pass through the border with the least difficulty.

He shows his identification badge.

There is only one other car parked.  A group of five people approach the office on foot, carrying some baggage.  It’s tranquil in the soft early morning light.  I have a good feeling about this.

I gather my documents and we all go with Oscar.  I’m handed forms to fill out for the car.  By the time I’ve completed them, John and Nick are finished.

Oscar and I continue to a next desk.  Everyone is pleasant and several speak understandable English.

I’m relaxed.  I’m not begrudging any waiting.  It’s pleasant here.  I don’t feel threatened.

I finish and get the last printed form.  It took half-an-hour!  We can go?

Nick is speaking with a woman by the car.  I approach them.  Nick introduces me.  “Pleased, to meet you.”  She offers her hand.

She’s Australian.  I’m speechless.  My mind runs across the Australian lexicon; I’m searching for the right thing to say.  I look at her, still holding her hand, wordless.  It’s funny.  I start to smile.  “It’s my pleasure.  Whereabouts you from?”

“Down under.”

“I reckoned.  Are yuh from… Victoria, somewhere?”

Before she can respond, Nick says, “Penny is going to come along with us.”

I nod slightly, with little expression.  “All right.”

I look at her.

“Melbourne.”

“I lived in St. Kilda, Elwood actually.  Do you know it?”

“I’m from Brighton.”

“I used to jog around the bay passed Brighton.  There’s a cinema there, right?”

“Yea, the Brighton Cinema.”

“Where I’m from in Toronto there’s a local movie house just like the Brighton.  I think there even was a ‘Brighton Cinema’.  Did you see a lot of movies there when you were growing up?”

“Yea, a lot.”

“Guys, I gotta go for a few minutes.  Don’t leave without me.”

“I think I’ll come along.”

“Me too.”  The car is safe here.  There’s no one here.

I follow them to a medium sized, stucco building on the far side of the road.  It’s surrounded by a well kept lawn.  Nick is ahead.  He meets a child.  “That’s Oscar”, Penny says.  “Nick is sponsoring him.”

Sponsoring?!

Nick and Oscar go into the building; it’s a gift shop.  “I’m gonna go in, too.”

“See yuh around.”

I wander around.  I see John.  He’s walking from behind the building, with a goat following him.  “Hey.  How’s it going,” he asks, keeping a wary eye on the goat?

“I’m finished everything.  Nick has got an Ozzie woman who is going to come with us.  Now, Nick is ‘sponsoring’ a Nicaraguan boy, named Oscar.”

The goat begins to hump John’s leg.  He pushes it away.

“That goat likes you, a lot!”  I laugh.

“Let’s find Nick and go.”  He pushes the goat away.

“They’re in that stucco building.”  Nick, Oscar and Penny emerge from the gift shop.

We walk over.  The boy is beaming.  He has new socks, new sneakers, and a new t-shirt.

“There you guys are.  Oscar didn’t have any shoes.”

“Wow Nick!”

He smiles broadly.

“Are you two ready to roll?”

They both nod.  Nick talks to Oscar.  Penny listens.

I catch John’s eye, “you?”

“I’m ready.  I wanna go before that goat finds me again.”  He takes out his camera, and takes a few frames of Nick, Oscar and Penny.

We rearrange the load in the car to accommodate Penny.  All she has is one small knapsack.

The drive is smooth.  We pass an ox-drawn cart.  Nick makes a big deal about it; so John pulls the car over to the side of the road and stops.  They take photographs.  I glance at Penny and sigh.

We pass through an open market in Masaya.  Stalls line the street, full of traffic.  We move forward very slowly.  The swirling colours and people disorient me a bit.  It looks great, I’m not surprised that Penny is decided to get off here.

“Why don’t you come with us?  We’ll go to Granada, we can share rooms, save on dough.  You could always take the bus back here, tomorrow?”

She ponders the proposition.  “Yeah, yeah.  Okay.  But let’s stop for a bit, for a walk.”

Just past the centro, John parks the car.  We agree to meet back at the car in forty-five minutes.  I wander aimlessly.  Whenever I pause, someone addresses me cordially.

Back at the car, Penny has decided to stay, again.  Nick helps her collect her gear from the back of the car.  But as we ready to leave, she changes her mind, reloads her stuff and gets in beside me.

We stop at a shiny, multinational gas station.  A tractor trailer stops at the red light.  The tank is covered with markings indicating toxic waste.  There is one small sign with the company logo; there is an address in Kentucky.  The light changes green and the truck pulls out in a cloud of black smoke.  I pay for the gasoline, and we continue southward.

The traffic is thin, and we roll unimpeded into full sunshine in the main square of Granada.

It’s so nice here.

The centre of the square is a beautiful fountain.  In a corner stands a massive church with a painted plaster surface.  Diagonal, from the church, across the square, in the northwest corner, is a beautiful building with columns and colonnades.  There is a generous porch.  On the ground level, behind varnished wood planters full of pink flowers, people, some in the shade, some in the sun, lounge at tables, sipping drinks.

I pull the car into a parking spot in front of the building.  The car is covered in caked-on dust and grime, as am I.  Dirt clings to sweat on my face and neck.  My clothes are filthy.  A porter comes out and directs me to move the car forward.  He puts his hands up when I’ve gone far enough.  He smiles.

I go to the reception, just to take a look at the place.  It’s a grand hotel.  The lobby is full of intricately carved wood.  Past the reception, there is a garden full of trees.  Water cascades down a wall seventy feet across, and twenty feet high.

The concierge greets me in English, “I’m fine, thank you for asking.  Your hotel is beautiful.  Can my friends and I take a few drinks on your porch?”

“Yes, you most certainly may.”  A host is waved over as Penny, John and Nick join me.

“How about a drink on the porch?”  I point to the host making a path to the front porch.  We follow.

A waiter takes our order and returns holding a tray ladened with it.

We toast to the splendour, looking across the central fountain to the massive church.  The dusty-grey of the car contrasts the sculptured white cherubs in the pond of the fountain.  To the left, a large gazebo’s elegant white pillars are topped by a gilded gold dome.

John, Penny and Nick are talking about the square, the hotel, and the market in Masaya.  There discussion seems a long way away from me.

I’m relaxing in the knowledge that we’re close to the Costa Rican border, and therefore I’ll be able to get John to San José, by tomorrow night.

I interrupt my companions, “here’s to Granada, and great company.”

“Salud”.  “Salud”.  “Salud”.

“I’m glad to be here.”

A man speaks to us in accented English, “is everything going well?”

John invites him for a drink.  I shake his hand as he goes around the table.  I hear his name is Juan. But my thoughts draw me from their budding conversation.

From my distance, it’s clear that the guy is selling something.  I hear Playa Cocoa mentioned, he’s trying to sell real estate on the beach.  The conversation fades from my awareness as all my senses are seduced into the otherwise fine moment.

I see three very young women on the far side of the square escorted away by a middle-aged man in a blue uniform.

The harshness of it interrupts my meditations and I can’t tune out Juan talking about ‘the new opportunities, since Nicaragua emerged from Sandinista dictatorship.’  He mentions ‘easy money’.  It is tedious and irritating.  I excuse myself.

I take a walk around the hotel.  Past the small forest beyond the reception area there is a broad staircase sweeping up to a second floor.

At the reception, I inquire about the cost of a room.  A suite with two rooms can be had for $80 USD.  I put my credit card on the counter to see if it will work.  It does.

I return to my friends.  I’m glad to see that Juan is getting up to go.  He shakes my hand and walks off.

“Interesting guy, he’s going to take us to a cigar store and out to dinner later.”  I groan inwardly.  “So we’re staying here?”

“I just paid.  We got a suite with two rooms.”

“I can’t stay here.  It’s too extravagant for me.”

“I already paid.  Will you stay?”

She looks up at me.

“If you want your own space, I’m sure we can work it out.”

“It’s not that, it’s just so… over the top.”

“I feel the same way.  But I want to celebrate the easy border crossing.  There’s only one more, Costa Rica, and that shouldn’t be all that bad.  I didn’t plan on this place, but here we are.”

She nods, “okay.”

“Alright.”  Nick is happy.

* * *

Juan joins us in the lobby at six.

First he takes us to a restaurant, which also sells crafts.  The hostess is a beautiful woman.  She introduces her husband, who immediately begins talking about the great deals in Playa Cocoa.  His accent is the same as Juan’s.  When he leaves us, I ask Juan, “how did you learn English so well?”

“I lived in the US and went to college there before we came back.”

The food is good, but it turns out to be expensive.

Juan takes us to an expensive cigar and booze shop.  He recommends several brands of expensive rum.  I wait outside.  They come out, following Juan to a bar.  It’s a higher-end clientele.

Juan’s tongue is loosened a bit with the drinking.  He starts talking about how much better it is now that Nicaragua is opening up to foreign investment.  He praises the capitalist system, and toasts to the prosperity it brings.

I tell him that the ‘capitalist’ system, isn’t very capitalistic, at all.

Nick sulks.

I want to let it go, but I continue. ‘Capitalism’, I try to explain to Juan, is a public myth, like democracy.  Corporations, I say, have superseded the nation-states as the system of governance; it’s more like a tyranny, except the tyrants aren’t human.

He’s unimpressed.  He rants on again about the benefits of the rise of capitalism in Nicaragua.

The cigar is terrible, I butt it out, hard.  I can’t stand this place, either.  It’s suffocating.  I excuse myself, and try to slip out, but everyone gets up to follow me.

“What’s wrong?  That’s a really happening bar, one of the best in town.”

I cough, “I need some air.”

I walk, leisurely at first, but gently picking up speed, as nonchalantly as I can, hoping Juan won’t stay with me.  I don’t care what everyone else does, I don’t want to be around that guy any more.  I come around a corner.  Penny is still close behind.  I slow and we walk together.  I hear music playing.  “Can you hear that?”

“Yeah.  Let’s find it.”

Looking back, I see that nobody else has come around the corner, we round another corner.

We duck into where the music is coming from; it’s a youth hostel.  There is a large dining room.  Tables and chairs have been stacked against the walls.  People sit, stand, dance, drink, sing and play.  The dress ranges from casual to scant surf wear.  I catch a faint whiff of marijuana smoke.  “I like this place.  D’you want somethin’ to drink?”

I get a couple bottles of beers.

Penny has joined a small party seated on the floor.  The two women and one man are Argentinean.  We sit, listening to the band, swapping stories.

I’m about to get up and get another round of beers, when the guys show up.  Juan starts criticizing the scene.  Nick frowns.

Smiling, I lean over and ask Penny to let me know if she’d like to take a walk.  She nods, “I’m ready to go now.”

I reach over and take Juan’s hand, “thanks for showing us around, Juan.  We’re going to go for a walk around.  See yuh.”

Penny and I walk in silence.  The streets are well-maintained, but there’s not too much going on.  We spend half-an-hour walking then emerge into the main square.

I see John and Nick on the opposite side of the square.  We get to John first.  Nick is further on, talking with a man and two women.  The three of us stroll over to them.

“Hey, how’s it going?”  Nick introduces us, Olivia, Felina, and Oscar.  They look very young.  Oscar, the youngest looking of the three, doesn’t say much.

Nick asks questions: where they live?  Do they go to school?  What do they do for work?

They in turn, ask him the same questions.  He wrestles to explain in Spanish.

Olivia interrupts Nick’s description of his work, and asks him, in English, “Will you marry me?”

All of a sudden, it’s quiet and uncomfortable.

All eyes on him, Nick, with great humility and sincerity, declines the offer.

It seems to break the ice.  The tension fades as Penny describes the market in Masaya, and asks about local markets.

Felina asks Nick where he is staying.  He points over his shoulder at the hotel.

Uhh, I don’t want to be here.  I start to drift away, towards a broad street leading off the square.  But I can hear Nick mention, off-hand, the great deal we’re getting for the room.  I look directly at him.  Please don’t…  He’s not looking at me.

<<It’s only eighty dollars per night.>>

As it is coming out of his mouth, he realizes.  An expression of concern comes over his face.

Even in the darkness, I see the jaws of threes three young Nicas drop at the same time, as if choreographed.  The two young women put their hands to their faces, covering their open mouths.  The bridge across the separate worlds has been blown away.  The gulf between those of the ‘first world’, and they of this place, is re-established.  I sigh, and continue sliding away from it.

I turn and walk.  Straight in front of me a security guards clears people from the square.  I hear weak protestations in Nicaraguan accents.

I walk into the darkness, down a side street.

I return to the hotel.  Penny is in the room we’ll be sharing.  John and Nick are in the other.  I’ve been attracted to Penny from the first moment, but I cannot feel any vibration of welcome from her.  The small talk agitates me.

I feel my pulse pounding.  I lie tense.  I try to relax enough, so that I don’t disturb her.  Finally, her breathing lengthens and becomes regular.  I’m panting as quietly as I can.  I take deep breaths to try to settle down.  There is no sense in trying to go to sleep; it isn’t going to happen.

I turn my table lamp shade away from Penny, then turn it on, waiting, listening.  There’s no interruption in the rhythm of her breathing.  Good.

I get the copy of ‘Manufacturing Consent’[iii], from my bag, on the floor.

The style is academic exposition.  It’s tedious.  It makes my eyes tired; so I try to sleep again, but it doesn’t work.  Restlessly, I read on.

* * *

I finish the book.  I’m so tired.  The sky is lightening.  Dawn will come, soon.

The book demonstrates that profit determines what gets presented in the news; information in the best interests of the citizens is a subordinated priority.  Stories that garner more advertising sales are presented to maximize the profits of the media corporations and their corporate customers.

* * *

We sit on the patio porch, ordering breakfast.

Penny is going to get a room at the youth hostel.

Nick is going to San Juan del Sur, a beach town, not too far north of the Costa Rican border.  We’re trying to figure out how to get him there.  A man at an adjacent table calls over, with an incredulousness tone in his voice, “are you guys from Canada?”

I look over smiling, “eh?”

He smiles back.  “Do you know how to get to San Juan del Sur?”

“I think so.  Just a sec.”

John shows me the lines on the map, explaining the route.

“We can lead these two out, then they can take Nick down, eh?”

“Yeah, yeah.  We’ll get there, eventually.”

I laugh aloud.  He grunts out some chuckles.

I walk over.  “I’m Dean.  How’s it goin’?”

Roger and Isabelle, both Montrealers, are on their honeymoon.  I briefly tell the story, driving from Toronto, and most recently meeting Penny; yeah, she is Australian.  I tell them our plan: John and I are driving to San José, today, and the way to San Juan del Sur, is the way we are going.  They can follow us, and could they take Nick to San Juan del Sur, if we show them the way to the turn-off from CA1?

It’s settled.  We agree to meet at ten, to go.

* * *

I’m lining up a shot of a building.  It’s got a long line of wooden columns supporting a roof, over a marble porch.  Further along, there are chairs and tables; none are occupied at the moment.

A guy wanders into the frame.  He waves at me.  I put the camera down, and look at him.  He’s short but thick through the chest.  His skin is a dark reddish-brown; he looks aboriginal.  I can see he has dark hair under a scruffy hat.  His garb is the most basic.  He waves again at me then moves along.  I wave back.  As soon as the frame is clear, I take the shot.

I line up another shot along a broad, finely paved lane.  An elderly man approaches me.  He’s talking in an agitated way.  I can’t understand what he is saying.  He is coming straight at me.  Now, he’s right in my face.  I’m not even sure that it’s Spanish.  I try to gather my stuff and move away from him, but he follows.

Having gathered my precious photographic stuff in such a hurry, I’m using both hands to hold all the bits and pieces.  I’m fearful that something will get damaged.

But now there’s someone between us!  He is gently moving the man back.  It’s the aboriginal guy.  He speaks low, in a soothing voice, to the agitated man.  I can’t understand what he says.  Gently, he leads the older man to an over-turned bucket, and eases him down on to it.  He keeps looking him in the eyes.

The older man is much calmer, now.  He mumbles to himself.  The aboriginal man turns slowly, and walks over to me.

“He is going to be okay.”  He nods at me.  “Are you going to take a photograph?”

I look back at the building, and quickly snap a shot of it.  “Thanks very much.”

“I’m George.”  He holds out his hand.

I shake it, “Dean Cassady.  It’s a great honour to make your acquaintance.  Thank you, very much, for… ”.

“That’s no problem.  I don’t think he meant anything bad.  He is confused.”

“I’ve never heard an accent like yours before, George.  Where are you from?”

He smiles and rubs his hands together.  With a glint in his eyes, he tells me his story.

He was raised speaking Miskito, an aboriginal language, and English, along the east coast, Cayo Miskito, the Mosquitos Coast.  His family, wife and fourteen children, are there now.  He had to come down from the coast to make money to support his family.  But in this, ‘his’ country, he’s discriminated against for his language and ethnicity.  He’s been robbed, beaten, and routinely threatened.  But he’d got down into Costa Rica, after hearing that he could make good money diving for shell fish.  He says he can dive twenty metres, and stay down for three minutes.  Through the threadbare shirt I can see he has a barrel chest, and a mid-section of solid muscle.

He’d been smuggled into Costa Rica inside a milk barrel!  It had cost him all he’d had.  In Costa Rica he was discriminated against, though he admitted, maybe less than the average discrimination against nicas.  He says it’s not as bad as what he gets in Nicaragua, anyway.  He’s managed to save $200 USD, after three months of diving.  He kept it in a hole he had carefully excavated in the wall at the rooming house where he stayed.

They came for him in the night.  He was beaten, and put on a deportation bus back to Nicaragua, penniless.  He is trying to find a way back into Costa Rica.  As far as he knows, the money is still in the wall.  He offers to sell me his pants.  They are shabby and thread-bare.  I’d give him all I had, but I don’t have any money, not a single cent.  And I’m late!

I embrace him.  I wish him luck.  He smiles and says, “may God and good fortune go with you, wherever you go.”

“Thank you, George.  Be.”

I walk away, feeling great humility, almost embarrassed at my entitlement.

I turn and walk in the direction of the hotel.  I see the old woman walking with a cane.  I see the dark-skinned children in rags.  There is a mother with an infant in her arms.  All of them have their hands out.  They skirt the opulent square, evading the men who will usher them away.

The car is loaded.  Penny is waiting with her pack.  She embraces me in a strange, intimate way.

I go to the room and take a last look around it.  Nothing is left.  I go back outside.

John drives.  The Quebecois couple follow in a small white car.

I’m a bit confused getting out of town, but John is confident that we’re on a ‘right enough’ track.  The driving is smooth and easy; we encounter only sparse traffic.

John takes the turn-off to San Juan del Sur, and immediately pulls off, to the right.  The Quebecois couple, pull over, in front of us.  Roger takes some photos of the three of us.

“See yuh in a few days, Nick.  Have a good time.”

“Yeah, see yuh.”

The last 24 kilometres to the border is uneventful.  It’s hot and sweaty.

When we hit the line to the border-crossing, I get out with the documentation, and walk to the building.  It’s so bright out, it hurts my eyes.

It’s 11:00 a.m.  It’s a crowded, chaotic scene.  I feel a tinge of anxiety as I search for the appropriate kiosk to complete the exit administration.   The line is ten deep.  After five minutes, John joins me.

“Anything I can do?”

“As far as I know, this is the line.  Maybe, uh, check around and see if you can figure out the process, here, just to make sure we don’t waste any time.”

“Is this the Costa Rican border office?”

“No, this is the exit office for Nicaragua.”

“Wow!”

“Yeah, what the fuck?  Let’s get the straightest line through it.  Anyways, it should be straight-forward on the tico side.”

He’s back in ten minutes.  It’s another thirty-five minutes before I get to the front.  He’s just about to go to lunch.  I implore him to process my stuff, before he goes, and he does.

But now I have to wait through another line.  I’m sweaty and hungry.  I want to get out.

I wait in a line three deep, for the clerk to return from lunch.  John stops by.

“More?”

“Just the pay up and exit stamp for the car, but… ‘lunch’!”

The clerk returns, opens the window, and accepts the first guy’s documentation.

I’m through in five minutes.

John idles us across to the Costa Rican entry office.  “It should be smooth here.  It’s Costa Rica.”

The terminal is packed.  Everybody has their hands out.  Here’s someone trying to sell something, <<no, I don’t want.>>  The money changer pauses peeling off the oldest, rattiest Costa Rican bills.

Exiting Nicaragua cost almost a hundred dollars.  We’re low on cash.

The twinge that started in the pit of my stomach at the Nicaraguan exit, now burns.  I’m disoriented in the crowd.

“Fuck, I’ve got to get some food!”

“They must have some in here.”

There’s a cafeteria, “yeah, yeah.  I’ll start, and you see if you can get me something.”  I go to the kiosk.  There are three in front of me.

I’m through the first hurdle in ten minutes, but there’s a lot more to go.  John joins me, but I can’t eat the fried potatoes that he’s brought me.

I continue.  I want a break from this stuff.  I want a rest for a few days.  All I can think of is getting through, and the smooth highway to San José.  I thought that this would be a breeze, but it isn’t working out that way.

I wait at an office down a short corridor, and around a corner.  The clerk returns from lunch.  I have to get another set of photocopies.  He’s nice about it.  There’s a photocopier in the office down the hall.  I go and wait five minutes for a woman to finish something she’s working on.  Back at the office down the corridor, I find I don’t have enough money for a three month importation permit and three months insurance.  I have to get one of them for only one month.  Once I get settled, I should be able to take care of it, easily.

I meet John at the car.  The inspector comes over and looks in the back.  He looks at the two passports and the documents and gives me the little piece of paper with his mark on it.

Finally, we pull out from the station.  It’s 2:00 p.m.  The road is clear.  The sun is shining.  I eat the last of the trail mix from the glove box.  I’m happy to be here.  “It should be smooth all the way”, I tell myself, again.

We stop in Liberia for gasoline.  It’s 3:00 p.m.  I have to admit to myself that there is no way we can make it all the way in daylight.  My moods drops with the realization.  At least one can drive here at night, but it still sucks.

The road gets steadily busier.

We’re in a long line of cars and trucks, as we pass the turn off for Puntarenas.  Dusk is almost finished.  It’s slow going.  I pull out and stomp on the accelerator in the passing lane, also used by the oncoming traffic.  Cars close ranks to prevent me from pulling in.  A large truck approaches me with his horn blaring.  I jam it into a spot with scarcely skin to spare.  The guy in the car behind screams obscenities over the blare of his horn.

“That was a little too close.”

“I’ll pull over and we can trade places, as soon as I see a spot.”  But I can’t see anything.  I’m desperate to get to San José.  I can’t bring myself to pull over; I don’t want to lose the precious few minutes of the dying light, and the twenty passes I’ve made, in the last few minutes.

Finally, there is a small row of buildings to the right, off the highway.  I pull off and to the far end.

It is pitch black, now.  I can’t wait to piss.  I open the door and piss into the gravel.

John looks more tired than I’ve seen him before.  He drives, stoically with white knuckles.

It starts to rain.  I can’t see anything.

The road is completely full of vehicles, in both directions.  The lights from the oncoming cars reflect off the wet road, and gets distorted by the streaks of dust on the windshield.  It’s cold and windy.  We’re going forty kilometres an hour, up and down mountains, around corners, in a long line of vehicles, bumper to bumper.  It’s blackness.  Why are the roads so full of traffic?  And why is it so cold and rainy?!

The highway opens with a third lane in the middle, for passing, alternating priority for each direction.

Now, there are overhead lights.  We must be getting close!

We grind on, doing about fifty.  The flow slows to a walking pace, then stops.  It makes my skin crawl to be stuck on a highway not moving.  It starts to move, but slowly.  We crawl past the airport.

“We’re almost there.”

Past the toll booth slow down, the traffic opens up a bit.  There are two lanes in each direction, separated by a barrier.  Then the highway ends abruptly at the city.

I direct John, by instinct.  We make it to Barrio Aranjuez with no wrong turn, but we can’t find the hotel.  We cruise up and down the small residential streets.

“Pull over, anywhere.  We’re close.  I’m going to walk around and see if I can find it.”

“Okay.”

Around the nearby corner, I see the sign for the hotel, a short way down the street.  I trot back to the car.  “We’re here.  It’s right around the corner!”

It’s 8:00 p.m.  It feels way past midnight, to me.  There is a light drizzle and it’s cold.  John goes to his room.  I complete the administration and go with a young man to park the car.  The camber of the road is so steep, I scrape the bottom crossing a low point over the gutter, backing it in.  Once I have it inside, I can see that there’s about three inches to spare on each side of the car.  I crawl out the window, and across the hood.

There is a gouge in the pavement and a trail of liquid, reeking of gasoline fumes.  The kid notices it, too, as he locks the gate for the parking spot.

The hotel is several residential houses merged together.  It’s larger than it was in February; another house must have been added since then.  It must be seven or eight houses long, now.  The character of the houses has been preserved; the creaking wooden floor reassures me.  I feel safe here, though I’m not sure why.  I take my things into my room, and take a hot shower.  I come out and go out to the garden patio.  There’s a covered dining area where breakfast is served in the mornings.  The garden is a rain forest.  It’s stopped raining.  I go to the lobby and get some maps.

It’s 9:00 p.m.  I knock on John’s room.  No answer.  I knock louder.  “Uh?”

“You want to get some food?”

The door opens.  “Yeah, I guess we should.  I’m going to jump in the shower.  I’ll be out in five.”

“I’ll be in the lobby.”

We take a cab to Cocina Leña at a fashionable commercial complex.  It’s a mall of interconnected white-washed units.  We get the last table.  “Just get me something.”

I order two casadas and beers.  I eat fast; it’s decent food, but I’m uncomfortable in the crowd.

The espresso brings me closer to coherence.  I consider my surroundings for the first time since we arrived.  Many people are speaking English.  The crowd is starting to thin out.

The bill comes.  It’s expensive, three times what I think the food should cost.

I had wanted to go out and celebrate, maybe go to a bar, but I’m exhausted, and uncomfortable in these crowded places.  We walk out of the restaurant, and through the twisting corridors of the complex.  Many art stores are open.  Loud music booms from behind a door.  We walk in.

It’s dark.  Multi-coloured lights flash.  There’s a five dollar cover.  John is barely awake.

Instead of discoing it up, we walk out and get a cab.  It’s 11:00 p.m.  John passes out during the ten minute ride back to the hotel.  I wake him; he goes to his room, practically comatose.

I wander around the neighbourhood.  I pass a spot where there are four station wagons of similar make and model year to my own.  It’s a funeral home; they use those cars!

I walk back, past the large hospital, where there’s quite a bit of activity along the street.  Several small cafés are still open.  Security guards walk up and down the street.

At the hotel, I drop my jacket in my room, and sit in a chair in one of the small common areas.

* * *

“Sir?  ¿Señor?”

“Yes.  Si.”

“I see you have fallen asleep there.  It is one o’clock in the morning.”

“Oh.  Uh… thanks.  Gracias.”

I stumble around looking for my room.  I double back and find it a few feet from the chair I fell asleep in.

* * *

“Hey, wake up, in there.”   I hear knocking.

“Huh?”  Where am I?  I am comfortable.  Aranjuez, I’m in Aranjuez.

“Wake up, Dean.  Time to get moving.”

I roll over and open the door.  “I’ll be out there in five.”

I help him load the last of his stuff into the car.  He shows me the muffler hanging down.  Then holds up the bailing wire, smiling.  He wires it into place, dirtying his clothes as he does it.  “Are we ready?”

“What about your stuff?”

“I’m gonna stay here tonight.  Yer cousin, FR, is supposed to meet me here, today or tomorrow.  He’s supposedly on the Nicoya, somewhere.”

“I’m going to grab a coffee and a bun on the back patio; we’re okay for time, right?”

“We should go in ten minutes.”

“Perfect.  I’ll be here.”

He adjusts some baggage.  I leave him and walk back, through the hotel, to the patio.

I feel comfortable and safe in the tranquility of the back yard rainforest.  There are many plant varieties and even more varieties of insects.  I get coffee and an assortment of breads.

I sit down at the nearest table.  The coffee is good.  I’m feeling better.  A young woman across the table is smiling as her cup comes from her lips.  “Where are you from?”

“Toronto.  ¿Y usted?”

“Mexico.  I work in the planes for Mexicana.”

“How do you like it here?”

“I like it.  It’s a little bit slow, but I like it.”

“Do you go today?”

“No, I have a little vacation here.  I go on Monday.”

“That’s nice.”  I down the coffee.  “I’ve got to drive my friend to the airport.  But I’ll be back later.  Maybe I’ll see you?”

“I see you later, then.  Ciao.”

“Pura vida.”

I take the croissants and rolls with me to the car.  John sees me coming and turns it on.  I get in and we drive to the airport, retracing our way from last night.

“Are you going to drive to Mont Ste. Anne, today?!”

“I fly to DeToilette, get my car, drive to London, pick up my physio-therapist, and then, yah, drive to Ste. Anne.”

“Jeez.  I’d like to go a month without getting into a car.”

“I’ll get some winks on the plane, and I’ll be ready to go.  No problemo.”

I’m stung with melancholy.  The guy has pulled me out of the fire of my own hell, more than once, and put up with a lot of my compulsions and complaining.  I’m I dreading not having that support, or am I feeling guilty that it didn’t seem to be as much fun as I had envisioned?

We check his stuff in, and he does the customs administration.  We walk towards the control area.  He turns and looks at me, “what are yuh so stressed out about?  Relax.  Pura vida, Dean.  The whole thing has been about the journey, for me.  Slow down, chill out, and enjoy it a bit more.  It’s fucking cool!”

“I’m still running, like I can’t stop.”

“It was a great run.”  He claps me on the shoulder.  He shakes my hand firmly.  He smiles.  “Hey, pura vida, dude.”

“Dude, thanks for the positive.  I’ll get there.”

“It’s all about the journey, man, the journey.  I’m ending this one, by starting on another one.  Dude.  It’s one journey to another, altogether making one big journey, eh?”

“I got about three hundred in cash, here.  Take care of that.”  He hands me the green.  “And, I think I got,” he reached into another pocket, and pulled out some traveller’s cheques.  “One, two, three, four, I didn’t know I had this much, five; there are five fifty dollar travellers cheques.  Here, let me write on your back; turn around.”

He signs them over to me.  “Will they cash them?”

“Should be no problem.  I’ve done this before.”

“Thanks, man.”

We walk up to the security check.  There’s the boarding call for his flight.

“Okay dude.  Thanks dude.  Pura vida.”

“Pura vida”, he waves over his shoulder and walks beyond the translucent glass wall.

I wander back to the car.

I pull out of the airport.  I’m mellow.  I cruise through the traffic on the highway, not getting provoked by the kamikaze drivers and honks and slow spots.  I snake my way through town, avoiding the core.

I park the car on the street, a bit away from the hotel.  I don’t intend on using it again, but the leaking gasoline reeks.  I feel guilty about putting it into the parking spot.  I’ll do it later.

There’s a message at the desk for me, from FR Lee.  “On way down from Liberia.”

I toss it into the garbage.

I go to bed.

[i]. “The Grinchhttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grinch :“…is a fictional character created by Dr. Seuss. He first appeared as the main antagonist of the 1957 Christmas story How the Grinch Stole Christmas!”

[ii]. “silk glare guard”, a frame with a (mostly) transparent single layer of silk taunt across it; typically this inside frame size equalling a computer cathode-ray design monitor, the purpose of which is to reduce glare from light sources reflecting off the computer monior surface, obstructing the view of the display of the screen; also partially protecting the eyes of the user

[iii]. “Manufacturing Consent”, by Edward S. Herman & Noam Chomsky, 1988 (Pantheon Books), ISBN: 0-375-71449-9

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