Part 2b                                                                                                                                                               Posted 21st August 2013

Scotland - Argentina, 1978 (continued)

Central America was an endless Tica bus-run with lay-bys. Mexico City was the first. It is a stunningly grand centre with a scatter of abysmal squalor round its hems, like a mother who keeps herself in style at the expense of her children. Alasdair Buchan was handling the language well but we were finding other problems.

Food was one. The first thing we ate in Mexico was enchilada in a cheap café. A glance round the table suggested a convention of aloes-tasters, except for Gerry McDermott. 'Magic,' Gerry announced. The word was prophetic. Gerry was to eat everything from tacos filled with what appeared to be Kennomeat to unidentified dead objects. All were 'magic'. Gerry's philosophical adaptability extends to more than food. Cast away on a desert island, he would probably take delight in the absence of noisy neighbours. He went sightseeing in Mexico City dressed only in shorts made from cut-off jeans, a denim waistcoat and training-shoes. He attracted more attention than a historic building. The citizens seemed to find his whiteness as weird as ectoplasm. Gerry accepted their curiosity like visiting royalty, acknowledging the wolf-whistles casually.

His sangfroid was helpful coming into Guatemala. Our bus underwent four separate border checks. Twice soldiers came on dressed as arsenals. On the fourth occasion a young soldier with a face as flexible as a no entry sign was ripping open plastic bags belonging to a dismayed woman. A young man was being taken off the bus. But Gerry had noticed a fruit-seller at the side of the road near to the window at which Charlie Gibbons was sitting. It was somehow comforting amidst all the Guatemalan tensions to hear Gerry's archetypally Glaswegian voice calling, 'Charlie, Charlie. Gonny get us a pineapple?'

After the troubles at the border, Guatemala City seemed a friendly place, although Alasdair Buchan, Peter Stone and Alister Steele, who were sharing a room in the hotel, claimed that their luggage had been gone through while they were out. They suspected the police.

The rest of us were sceptical, mainly because our own luggage was boringly intact. It was a matter of pride. We liked to think that as aliens we were as undesirable as the next person.

There was no time to brood on it. El Salvador was next on an itinerary that was beginning to feel like a holiday booked through Kafka Tours — the more you travelled the less likely it seemed that you would ever arrive.

In any case, El Salvador is hardly a place where many people would want to arrive. Coming in on the bus towards the capital, San Salvador, we noticed the signs of Americanisation that run through Central America like an acne. In some places the name-signs of towns all have Pepsi in huge letters and the place-names in smaller lettering. It is as if everywhere is just a subsidiary of Pepsi.

San Salvador depressed us totally. We played cards in a café while it rained. We went for a walk and came into a square. Along one side of the square, under a colonnade, families were sleeping on the pavement. Charlie Gibbons said he felt as if he was walking through people's living-rooms. We were glad to leave, partly, I suspect, because we felt our presence there as frivolous.

Honduras was just a place we passed through in the bus. But it gave us one good experience. Waiting at the border, we took the ball out for a game and were joined by Hondurans of various ages and sizes. It was an Esperanto moment. Unable to talk to one another, we stood in a ring and communicated with the ball, showing such tricks as we had before we passed it on, like a competitive dance. One man said, 'Bravo.' Another said, 'Si senor,' as if answering a question.

That day the bus took us through three countries, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua as far as its capital. It was like getting the cultural bends. We knew the place we disembarked at was called Managua. Beyond that, all was numb. The strongest sense of identity we had was our luggage.

Next day that feeling of having no centre was eerily matched by the city we found ourselves in, as if our arrival had put it there. Managua is still recovering from the earthquake of 1973. Clumps of buildings are separated by large patches of overgrown desolation. It is a city which seems to defy you to walk anywhere purposefully or to find anything to do, except perhaps to sit in one of the makeshift cantinas.

Gerry and Charlie, the inexhaustible improvisers, found a partial solution. They organised lizard-hunts and rat-hunts among the ruins. They claim to have acquired their hunting skills `up the Rezzy'. In the sapping humidity of early afternoon they brought Carmunnock Reservoir to Nicaragua.

A couple of elderly Managuans watched from the shade with perturbed curiosity as Gerry and Charlie ran around like headless chickens, shouting urgent advice to each other and trying to catch a lizard in a tee-shirt. Their lack of success could perhaps be attributed to tiredness. We all needed Costa Rica, the halfway stage where we had decided we would try to recuperate from our travel-shock on a beach.

We chose a place called Manuel Antonio. To get there, we were told to take a bus from San Jose to Quepos. We weren't told we would have to take it by storm. At the terminal we joined what we thought was a queue. It turned out to be an ambush. As soon as the bus backed in, the queue became a riot. People were clinging to the bus while it was still moving. The driver ignored them. A man was knocked down. Everybody ignored him. When the door of the bus was suitably thick with heaving bodies, a horn sounded teasingly 20 yards behind us. It was another bus for Quepos. We went for it. Only Alister Steele managed to get in the door. The rest of us threw our luggage in a window and climbed in after it.

Manuel Antonio was worth the hassle. It has several beautiful beaches set in a National Park. Having duly acquired our sunburn, we organised football matches on the beach involving several Swiss, an American, a Norwegian and a waiter called Jorge. Charlie and Gerry graduated to iguanas, with the same success rate as for lizards. Gerry wasn't worried about the questionable legality of hunting iguanas in a National Park. He has already successfully defended himself in a Glasgow court on a charge of shooting grouse out of season. Charlie still smiles when he remembers appearing as a witness and having to face Gerry, thumbs hooked in the lapels of his bus-driver's uniform, saying, 'Now, Mr Gibbons, tell the court in your own words...'

From Manuel Antonio we returned to San José to catch our flight to Bogotá. We were over the exhaustion but the sense of being an eccentric and embattled minority about to enter a vast continent still frayed our commitment a little.

Only Alister Steele, the quietest and most single-minded of the group, was still thinking of Argentina. But Gerry and Charlie admitted to me that for them the trip had become the thing and that it wouldn't matter too much if they didn't see the World Cup. From what we had heard of Bogotá, that seemed a possibility.

In the plane from San José, we were preparing ourselves. All through Central America we had heard travellers' tales about the Colombian capital that made New York sound like Toytown. But Gerry didn't seem too bothered. Sitting 20,000 feet above South America, he leaned forward and prodded Charlie, who had never flown before this trip.

`Charlie,' he said, nodding at the steward. `Gonny ask that man to open a windae?'

Gerry's nonchalance was a nice antidote to the paranoia the journey was tending to develop. You begin to feel in your pocket constantly for the shape of your passport, you watch manically out of bus windows as luggage is being unloaded, you riffle through your travellers' cheques like checking a pulse.

Bogotá began as a robbers' encampment. It believes in tradition. `To get through Colombia without losing anything, you must become paranoid about your money and your luggage,' we had been told in Costa Rica by a serious Norwegian girl with a Belfast accent. Yet for us Bogotá turned out to be one of the friendliest places we had visited. It is true that the friendliness had something heavy-lidded about it, a sort of take-a-drink-or­I'll-break-your-arm quality, which reminded Gerry of Glasgow.

We met it on the plane. Across the aisle from three of us there was a Bogotano family — mother, son and daughter. They adopted us for the flight. The son told me his house was my house. The daughter asked if I was married. The mother shared with us a bottle of Napoleon brandy. She didn't drink, the son told us — only when she was flying, because she was terrified. We finished the brandy, the mother was drunk enough to open a door and go for a walk, they were all insisting that the three of us visit them. The worrying clauses were that we had to go before checking in to a hotel, so that we would have all our luggage, and that the three other members of the party couldn't come. Was the guest-limit arrived at in relation to the number of places at the table or the number of sons waiting in ambush? Reluctantly, we went to a hotel.

Subsequent evidence suggested it was perhaps not a bad decision. In the hotel we met a young, powerful Australian of 6 ft. 2 in. who told us that on the street he had noticed a small man who walked past him and then kept looking back. Suddenly, the man turned and ran full tilt, hitting the big man in the chest. While the Australian fought him off, hanging grimly on to his travelling bag, another small man came up behind and took his wallet. Then both ran off. We met a 68-year-old New York florist who had prevented his wife's bag being snatched by beating off the thief with a 7-Up bottle. 'I justhappened to have it with me. I didn't come outta the Bronx to find out how to get mugged here.'

(To read the next post in this series click here.)


  e-mail:                                                                     Photo © Eric Gordon