My Travels in Central America: A Travelogue

My Travels in Central America

Travelling across Central America covering 10 countries in 22 days, I discovered that there is an undiscovered Spanish or – as they derisively call them in the US – a Hispanic world of Latin America out there. It is a world that unfortunately not many English-speaking Anglophile Indians know much about. That Spanish world does not exist for us, nor do we much exist for that Latin American world.

I travelled through Guatemala, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Colombia, Panama, Peru, Belize, Honduras, Mexico and Bahamas during those 22 hectic days this October and early November. I did the latter four countries as part of a Cruise, on the MSC Divina, boarding the Cruise Liner in Miami and returning to Miami seven days later.

A colorful Guatemalan Street Market.

The cruise was the easier part, as there was always the ship and its staff – all of them English speaking and at least some from India – to fall back on if something went wrong. The first six countries were the most difficult, as I was travelling alone – at my age, remember – having planned the journey, booked the flight tickets, the hotels, the tours and the cabs all by myself. By biggest anxiety was, what if I had booked the flights in a wrong order, on a wrong date, booked a 10.00 pm flight instead of a 10.00 am flight, or went to the airport to board a 10.00 am flight at 10.00 pm, or booked a wrong hotel or booked the right hotel on a wrong date, or booked a cab in the wrong city to go to a wrong hotel.

At the Casa Domingo, a Convent converted into a star hotel in the ancient town of Antigua near Guatemala City.

And there was the eternal fear of those serious poker-faced officials at the immigration in each country, all of them looking curiously at me and wondering if I was a drug smuggler – though I must confess I certainly don’t look like one. Or why else would anyone from right across the world visit their country, ostensibly for 2 or 3 days. What if they did not let me into their country? What if they detained me for a couple of days? What if they sent me back to where I came from? There was nothing I could do about it. And all the rest of my travel plans would go awry. I was often a nervous wreck at the immigration counters.

But they would get curious when I told them that I am a much travelled traveler, that theirs was the 92nd country that I was visiting, or the 93rd or the 94th. I would tell them that I hoped to hit a century soon and a double century not long thereafter. Being strangers to cricket, they did not quite have that aura about a Century or a Double Century that we in India have. But nevertheless, they were quite impressed. They would then flip through the pages of my Passports – I carry a bundle of them – to verify that what I was saying was correct. Quite impressed by the many used visas that the Passport has and the many entry and exit seals of many countries, they would look up at me with a new respect. The sound of that thud as the officer brought his entry seal down on a fresh page of my passport, was music to me.

A Coffee Break in San Salvador.

And there was always a special smile when they saw my Indian Passport. They love Indians here, though they do not have much clue what India is, or anything much about it. For them and the many others that I met on my travels, India was like a fabled land they had read about, the land of the Taj Mahal, of opulence and grandeur, of dirt, dust and colour, of software and poverty, of the very rich and the very poor. There was a knowledgeable someone on the cruise who insisted that Mumbai is the new name of Calcutta. It took me some time to convince him that Mumbai now was Bombay then, and Calcutta then was Kolkotta now.

Mayan women in their native Mayan dresses. There is a resurgence of Mayan culture in Guatemala. Antigua used to be a Mayan city.

Some of the many I met would be curious to know which part of India I came from. They knew India was huge. And when I told them I was from Kerala, no one, not one that I talked to, had heard about Kerala. I would then take out my Google Map and show them where Kerala was and tell them it was the most beautiful place on earth, that it was green, very green, that it had over a dozen shades of green, that it was God’s Own Country. But their total ignorance of Kerala, was always a blow to my Malayali pride. Kerala tourism, I realized, has miles to go, literally miles and miles to go.

The compliment is mutual. The world of Latin America, of Mexico, Central America and South America is a world that we in India know so little about. It is quite another world out there, a Hispanic World, where they speak only Spanish.

Language then was my biggest barrier. No one very much speaks English in that Spanish world and many would look strangely at me when I spoke to them in English, trying to find from them the way to a shop or a restaurant. Some of them would recoil in horror, as though I was speaking the devil’s own language. English is as strange to them as Spanish is to us. But all of them were helpful, especially when they realized that I had travelled halfway across the world to come and visit their country. They would be proud that their small Central American country merited so much attention from an Indian from so far away.

One of those typical Spanish Hacienda’s converted into a restaurant.

Some would not quite believe what I said, thinking that I was an US Citizen of Indian origin and was only travelling south to see the lands there. It often took me some time to convince them that no, I had actually travelled half way across the world, for over 30 hours – including the lay over at Doha Airport – to reach their country. There would be a look of respect – or was it look of ‘is this guy crazy’? – in their eyes then.

The younger ones, who did not speak English would fish out their Smart Phones, go to Google translator and speak to it in Spanish asking me what it was that I wanted.  Google would then speak it out for me in English. I would then speak to Google in English telling the young woman or man the place I wanted to go. They would listen to the Spanish translation carefully, then go to Google Maps and show me the way. I seriously wonder what I would have done without Google.

Posing for a photo with volcanoes as backdrops.

These are all the lands that the Spaniards colonized after Columbus. But it was originally the land of the Mayans, the Aztecs and the Incas. The west call them collectively as Indians, but many a tourist guide during my tours in these countries would point to me and insist that I was the Indian, but the Mayans, Aztecs and Incas were not; that they were the original inhabitants of the land, the indigenous people. That the Mayans, Aztecs and Incas were certainly not Indians. Just because Columbus made a mistake and thought he was in India, while he was actually in America, did not make the Mayans, the Aztecs and the Incas Indians. They were the original indigenous people of Central and South America.

The Cobbled streets of the ancient city of Antigua near Guatemala City.

There is today a burgeoning interest in these indigenous people and their culture. The Mayan town of Antigua near Guatemala City is today an important tourist centre. My visit to Antigua was an eye opener for me and showed me how advanced the Mayan culture was many centuries ago.

I believe some of these Central American countries have a small Indian Community, especially Belize, Panama, Honduras etc. That is the Indian diaspora that we do not know much about. The Indian diaspora in these countries need to be part of this worldwide network of the Indian Diaspora that we are building.  

You will occasionally find a Bajaj in these Central American countries
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