Oceans Apart – a journey along the isthmus – Introduction and Chapter 1

Through Guatemala to Honduras, a river journey

in Nicaragua, hiking in Costa Rican jungles and

wandering the streets of Havana, the author delves

into the significance of travel and the difficulties of

language learning, and interacts with an array of

quirky characters.

This book offers an insight into the life of travelling.

It’s a template for anyone who ever doubted

they could just pack up and go, regardless of where

their lives were at.

And for the author it was Oceans Apart from where

he otherwise would have been.

Oceans Apart cover

This travel narrative is now available to be purchased in print or

downloaded from


Here is the introduction and the first chapter.


Airports are a vacuum to the other side, to a different world, a different life. I like airports. Going into an airport is like penetrating a timeless zone, entering a tunnel in which we are sealed, then blasted, to another place, another time, an alternative environment. Propelled from one land into another.

I was standing at the airport with my luggage at my feet, a lot of goodbyes behind me. What I really didn’t know was what was in front of me. I knew what I was doing in the physical sense. But I’d woken from a zombie state of three hectic weeks sifting through the material items of more than a decade living in the one house. The night I moved out, the car loaded with the last of my things, I stood for a brief moment, staring at a light still burning, beaming through a window, casting an eerie shadow across the facade of a phase of life suddenly complete.

An endless journey is one that has no anticipated finality; open-ended, unlimited, no essential return. Like on the face of a clock or a stretch of infinite railway line, there is no certain beginning, nor end. No definite departure, nor destination. I woke that morning, standing in the vacuum, too late to allow the doubt that maybe there was much to lose. But I was lucky that I was not alone. We’d both been on endless journeys before; not knowing for how long we were going, even where we might end up, which paths we would take. It was where our values and ideas were shaped. And I knew I had never wanted those days to end, had always wanted a lifestyle of travel. Waking that morning in the vacuum, I was picking up where I’d left off.

The one thing that had changed was that I had passed the age where the aimless wander can be written off as travel bug or the prelude to anticipated careers and family life; houses, cars and a contribution to a system. Far too young to retire, I didn’t know where I was supposed to fit, if anywhere at all, but we didn’t talk about that, we didn’t let thoughts such as those enter or cloud our minds. Maybe it was true that we were trying to recapture our youth. And it was now, or never.


We reached Mexico City in the late light of the final days of winter. It was fifty two hours since that moment of waking consciousness at Sydney Airport. The flight had taken us north to Narita, Japan, where we spent a day in light snow and grey skies before flying east to get a glimpse of the white capped Rockies on the Vancouver skyline and then, as if we’d gone to the top of the planet to gain momentum, we floated south to Mexico City. A taxi ride got us to Isabel la Catolica, a dark hotel with a cold tiled courtyard, where we ate a tortilla and drank a Corona while a man with a face of a thousand wrinkles played “Punta Negra” on accordion, his encircling guitar strumming mujer belting out a nasally harmony.

We slept like we were dead. When I woke in a darkened room I went searching, climbing ladders to the rooftop balcony where brilliant sunshine spread out across Mexico City, looking, that morning in March, like an atrium of boundless cloud-free skies. We wandered the streets to the sound of Cathedral bells, sat in the Zócalo surrounded by monumental edifices. And it was not the infamous smog, but jet lag, that choked us as we walked through the Parque Hidalgo and the broad boulevard of Insurgentes to the cafés and burritos, tacos and Coronas of the Zona Rosa. The metro, a modern underground train system, pumped the equivalent of Sydney’s population through the veins of Mexico City twice a day. It took us to Coyoacan.

The Blue House of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera stood on a corner in a leafy suburb not far from the gloomy house where Trotsky not only lived out the last years of his life but was also shot to death. In the park, posters demanding peace hung from trees that cast shade over box hedges lining neat garden beds. When we left Sydney, the streets had been filled with the purple adorned peace marches and Mexicans too, clearly had reservations about the imminent invasion of Iraq.

Our journey was to Central America, not, as many people imagine, the mid west of the USA, but the isthmus that runs between the continents of North and South America. Only in the Americas is there such a connection, like an umbilical cord connecting the scorpion’s tail of Yucatan to the holster shaped South America while at the same time separating the Atlantic from the Pacific. The seven countries nestled here belong to neither continent. But in Mexico City, we were still in North America.

We took a green beetle taxi to the Tapo station and clambered onto a bus heading for Oaxaca in the state of Chiapas. After a six hour trip through rolling valleys, we called a hotel from a pay phone in a street bustling with cars. They told me they had a room at a price we liked. The taxi driver assured us he knew the place. We paid him and got out of the cab. But this was a hotel with a similar name and exorbitant rates. We struggled down the road with our overweight luggage into a darkened street to our preferred hotel.

“Yes, we have a room for one fifty pesos,” the senora I’d telephoned explained in a dark foyer. “But there is someone in it.”

She offered to look after our mochilas (backpacks) while we looked for somewhere else. But we declined the offer, ambling toward another hotel we had the name of. Another no vacancy. We walked up to the Zócalo, the Mexican equivalent of a central plaza, drank an icy Corona, perspiration dripping off us. I tried a new number, and we left the vibrant square for a dim windowless room that shared a tiny bathroom with a dozen other rooms facing onto a concrete interior balcony. We paid, dumped our mochilas and went back to the Zócalo for a few more Coronas.

The next morning we got up early in search of another room, thankful for noon checkouts. On the streets, Oaxaca was stunning, ochre coloured architecture contrasted the clean white stone of the Cathedral of Santo Domingo. We ended up in Plata Gelatina, a hostel with basic but adequate rooms. But when I lay on the bed, late in the day, I could see that the walls reached only three quarters of the way to the ceiling. It was not secure, footmarks the evidence of where someone, sometime, must have climbed in. We changed rooms for the second night, reminded that an endless journey requires a budget and a budget meant compromises on lodgings. It was looking like a long year ahead. We had spent three nights in Oaxaca in three different rooms, two different hotels.

Perched above the valley on a dusty hill looking back to Oaxaca was Monte Alban, a series of low stone ruins, once the headquarters of the Zapotec empire. It had a power, whether it was the location, I wasn’t sure, but it reminded me of one of the strongest of magnets of the region – the culture of indigenous people.

We bought tickets for a bus leaving that night to San Cristóbal de las Casas and I took a shower to cool off. When the water ran dry, I got out, covered in soap, and went downstairs, hovering in the hallway, semi naked, until the other shower was vacant. The comforts of home were a long way off and I was still going through the slow process of adaptation to a life stripped of surplus.

San Cristóbal had the evening air of mountain town and a pueblo atmosphere where the markets in the grounds of the cathedral sold Zapatista dolls wearing balaclavas and bearing rifles. We found a nice place to stay with a central garden courtyard where breakfast was served but, continuing our luck, it was booked out for our second night and we moved to another room before heading to the town of Palenque. The five hour bus ride was slow and winding, the humidity thick enough to see, hanging from jungle green trees and dripping on the busy streets of Palenque town when we arrived. Still, the open sided, second storey restaurants caught a cool breeze and we drank Corona in the sultry air. We were in a different climatic zone by then, the el Peten jungle of Guatemala just south across the river. Geographically, if not politically, we had crossed into Central America, perspiration trickling down our arms.

We were in Mayan territory. They had ruled the area east to the Yucatan, spreading south through Guatemala and into Honduras, building vast temples to house their emperors and perform their rituals. Most of those temples were lost after the Spanish arrived. But rather than being destroyed, many of the sites became overgrown by the jungle only to be uncovered in the last hundred years. The grey stone ruins of Palenque stand in a clearing amongst lush jungle, a series of temples on stepped pyramids. The Mayan ruins of Mexico are hugely popular with tourists from around the world but at Palenque it was far from crowded, and the area vast enough to find solitude, think about the ancient past.

In Palenque town we spent two nights, the first time we had been two nights in the same room since Mexico City. We sat in an upstairs courtyard again drinking Corona, deciding what route to take into the countries of Central America. This was a symbolic moment. It was these countries I’d wanted to spend more time in, after a trip some years earlier. At that time, I thought I’d be back in two years. It took seven.

We had the option of going south of Palenque and crossing by boat into Guatemala. The alternative was to head directly east to the Mexican border with Belize, a more travelled route and one in which we could incorporate some time on Caribbean beaches. I was keen to go by boat but figured that there’d be plenty more rivers to cross in the jungle. The heat made it easy to choose the Caribbean option, some island life what we needed. And besides, by heading down along the Caribbean as far as Panama, we could turn around and come back up along the Pacific later in the year. This was one of the attractions of the Central American isthmus. It had a long Atlantic or Caribbean coastline, as well as an equally striking Pacific. Several of the countries had an almost equal share of both oceans, splitting them into two climatic and biological zones. We left for Chetumal on an overnight bus, on a road so potholed that sleep was impossible, with only a scratchy picture and crackled sound of a video of “The Shipping News” to cushion the initial hours. But the film’s water theme seemed symbolic of our beginning the journey down the thin isthmus between two vast oceans.

Arriving in Chetumal at four in the morning, we sat reading in the fluorescent ambience of a Mexican bus station amongst white uniformed cleaners and hipster gun belt security guards. A muchacho squatted outside los baños collecting two pesos a customer. Around seven am, a yellow nineteen fifties Blue Bird International, bound for Flores, Guatemala, pulled in. Passengers travelling to Flores had been allowed to buy tickets but anyone getting off in Belize City, as we wanted to do, had to pay one hundred pesos directly to the driver, at an increased price of thirty per cent. One of the other gringos protested angrily and called on the rest of us to do the same. For a few dollars, it didn’t seem worth the risk of being stuck in Chetumal.

This was the first sign that there was a gringo trail. The bus was almost exclusively full of westerners. There were the tall, statuesque, tattooed and ear-ringed, head-shaved Austrians, a threesome of hippy dread-locked Coloradoans, a clean looking Swiss couple, a young woman on her own from somewhere in the US, a German woman searching for her friends, and a youthful pair of young lovers who kept well to themselves. There was little interaction between us until we got to the Belize border a couple of hours later. The slow process of getting our stamps into the sleepy country meant some idle chat, while the colour of passports, revealed the rest.

We got back on the bus. The sun was still low in the sky but seemed warmer than in Mexico, as if crossing a border could change it. With the windows down, we cruised past cane fields, where a diversity of birds darted over a vivid green countryside, their whistling and calls audible above the sound of the engine. It felt good, the first of the seven Central American countries that stretch down to the Panama Canal, bulging and bursting at the seams with dense and diverse tropical forest. The 3000 kilometre stretch along the Caribbean – Belize to Guatemala, Honduras to Nicaragua, Costa Rica to Panama – would be a part of us by the time the year was out and somehow, on that bus, the winds of change blew through me as if to say that when I crossed back into Mexico, some time in the future, all within me would be different.


~ by Drifting, Rambling on May 5, 2008.

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