Incidents of Travel in Mexico and Central America With Doug Breeding: A Journal

November 19, 2017

 

 

           “Dogs bark but the caravan passes …”

 

 

 

Douglas Breeding was a true Austin original. Raised on the banks of the Colorado River, he partnered in the used car business with another Austinite, Artie Osborn, at the foot of Red River Street. Red River Motors/Washington Motors was underground city hall for decades. The pair kept hippies and poor folks on wheels with a jokey guarantee – 90 miles or 90 minutes.

 

For many years, Doug made annual expeditions to Central America – initially Belize, later Honduras. His strategy was to load up an old bus (usually a Bluebird) with used furniture, appliances, assorted bicycles, motorcycles, car parts and whatever was lying around, and trade or sell the stuff on the way down or in-country.

 

He sometimes added a boat to the entourage. I made several trips with him, the first to Belize. I was driving a 1963 Impala of which I was the proud owner. After driving it all over the little country, I sold it to a Belize City dentist. Doug was driving the usual bus full of American relicts as well as towing a 30-foot steel lifeboat on a car frame trailer. He had mounted a Chevy V-8 engine forward with a steering wheel and console midships topped off with a plywood shade. The boat was painted red, white and blue. But that’s another story.

 

He often had friends or acquaintances drive other old vehicles he owned to sell. Doug would pay their expenses, but typically got increasingly testy about it as the days wore on. On a Breeding expedition, one was well advised to self-finance. It was best if he owed you money. But not too much -- that was apt to make him testy as well.

 

The final trip I made with Doug was to Honduras where he and some friends had purchased a large two-story frame building on the shore of the little fishing village of Castilla near Trujillo. (Trujillo was the hideout  of William Sydney Porter aka O. Henry, another fugitive Austinite.) Doug and his buddies were using the place, most likely a former brothel, as headquarters for their motorcycle club. This time I was riding along, supercargo. Doug was in a real estate beef with his Castilla neighbor and told me I was supposed to “watch his back.” 

 

What follows is a journal of that trip, featuring multiple breakdowns on highways and jungle byways and illustrating Breeding’s genius as a shade tree mechanic and road warrior.

 

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1996 ~ Sunday, Jan. 21  Sunday: Arrived at Red River Motors about 10 a.m.; At 12:30, we pulled out toward Lockhart on US 183, the bus loaded with old couches, mirrors, toys, a two-door refrigerator, a gas refrigerator (running) plus enough other stuff to resemble an eastside garage sale; Doug driving the scabrous old bus sitting on a tractor seat bolted to the floor slightly right of the wheel. Frank and I facing each other on couches behind him, the other stuff becoming an impenetrable mass about halfway back.

 

Doug’s Honduran acquaintance Armando is following in a Nissan pickup towing another pickup, both loaded with bicycles, a freezer and an assortment of car doors. Behind Armando is a 75-year-old guy named Mack in a Daihatsu Charade, a little red hatchback. Blue sky, 65 degrees, a gorgeous day.

 

 

 

Stopped at the junction of Hwys 123 & 172. The bus is down two quarts of oil -- looks like 50 miles a quart! Doug says 50-gallon gas tank at four miles per gallon. He buys a Texas highway map at the station, rips off all but the route to the border and throws the rest away. The attendant and another customer just stare.

 

Starter burnout discovered about 5 p.m. near Three Rivers. Jump-started bus by pushing by hand. Frank says he has a rare book on Caribbean shore fishing -- and left it in his truck. I am dumbfounded. Walkabout in Three Rivers and barbecue sandwiches. Clouding up. Dropping down the tail of Texas to McAllen/Reynosa. 7:30 p.m.  Parked for the night at Sna. Davita Guerrero’s Transmigrante lot in Hidalgo. Analysis: Exhaust leak fried the starter cable, then starter ran til it burned up. Doug, Armando and I bunk on couches. I am comfortable, but Doug and Armando with no blankets shiver all night and get little sleep.

 

Monday, Jan. 22  Doug and I make “Arabian liquid coffee.” I notice it is made in Harlingen. It tastes foul. 11 a.m. Doug can’t find a starter for bus -- although the bus engine is a V-8, the starter is for a six-cylinder. Doug buys a new starter and rebuilds the old one with the armature from the new one on the steps of the bus. 4 p.m. We clear Mexican customs and head south on 97 for San Fernando. Not concerned with his image, Doug carries his papers in a black ladies’ handbag he found in a used car at RR Motors. When teased by Armando at the Migra, Doug waves a limp wrist and says, “Si, soy jota.” The guy at the customs desk points this out as well, “Bolsa de mujer.” Doug shrugs. 

 

We are in Mexico. Dust, confusion, wind. Arrived at San Fernando about 8 p.m. Hotel America. Armando got stopped by Federales on the outskirts of town and had to pay 100 pesos for no tail  lights. At first they wanted $100. Frank is riding with Mack, the 75-year-old guy in the Daihatsu. This is good because he is a contrary son of a bitch. Armando, Doug and I drink some tequila at a bar -- Herradura with a glass of sangrita, a tangy juice of some kind with limes and salt. Armando and I slept in the bus. Doug got a single room and we had showers.

 

Tuesday, Jan. 23  9:30 a.m.  Doug stops to get oil and have the front tires exchanged for the two on the rear. 12:30 p.m. Broke down in Aldama. Doug stops to realign the front wheels “with a piece of string” and discovers that the compressor for the air brakes has fallen off its mount on top of the engine. If we had been driving – no brakes plus compressor through the radiator. A guy fixes it at a taller mecanico on the side of the road.

 

3 p.m. Tampico outskirts: Caravan stops to consider route. Bus won’t start. New starter burned up. Jump-start on roadside. Early evening: Naranjo. Stop to fix starter and manifold leak. Two hours and much arguing by Doug with the electrician who had rebuilt the starter, twice. Overnight in a hotel with enclosed parking. I slept on the bus.

 

Wednesday, Jan. 24 Stopped by a pickup full of Federales with machine guns and battle fatigues. “Moneda de cafe, nada mas.” Doug gives a soldier 10 pesos. Armando had told us about this little shakedown. They look around but don’t really search. The soldier in charge thanks us and they leave. Afterwards, shaken, we can’t remember if we have any dope with us and, if so, where it might be.

 

Orange groves on Tuxpan bypass. 5 p.m. Around Veracruz on autopista to Minatitlan. Stop to fix air leak and repair starter wires, 6 p.m. Shortly after we left the Pemex on the new autopista through the wilds of Vera Cruz, the bus shuts down and smoke pours out from under the dash -- a major short, since someone (Doug blames one of the RRM mechanics) ran the wire through the same hole with the accelerator. Doug rewires with an old extension cord which was holding three bicycles to the rear deck. On the road to Sayula on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. The old man, Mack, is getting impatient with all the delays -- they are becoming comical to us for the distress it causes him. 

 

Doug has to pay 70 pesos to get off the deserted autopista, for a total of 185 for 50-60 miles. We recall a sign we saw shortly after getting on this most modern of Mexican highways back toward Vera Cruz: “We said we were going to do it and we did.”

 

“They damn sure did,” Doug said. “Another big improvement for los ricos.  Not many Mexicans can afford those tolls and neither can we. No wonder it's deserted.”

 

Onward to Sayula. Parked next to a soldadura where a guy fixed the tailpipe leaks, then to a hospedaje. I slept in the bus again to keep watch on my expedition gear. Awakened to hundreds of birds chirping in the little zocalo.

 

Thursday, Jan. 25  On the road again by 7:30 a.m. No more fumes! Twisted my back climbing over the junk to tape a refrigerator door shut, then hurrying back to secure the front door of the bus which had popped open. Today we cross the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, the shortest distance between the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Ocean. Doug says, “Expect high winds.” 11 a.m. Hanging around Matas Romero getting money from bank and getting air brake lines repaired. I bought a large red hammock from a man from Juchitan for $140 pesos, about $20. 1 p.m. Across the isthmus, turned east for Tapachula and the Guatemalan border. Women in colorful clothes selling hamacas on roadside. Soon Doug passes a local bus on a narrow two-lane highway. The door of our bus, which has been secured with a nylon strap around a metal chair leg anchored with a 20-pound bag of rice, blows open with a crash and disintegrates before the wide, wondering eyes of the passengers in the other bus. I laugh like crazy having re-secured the door half a dozen times. The mountains of Guatemala loom in the distance. We have passed through at least 10 checkpoints.

 

Friday, Jan. 26  Overnight in Pijijiapan (pee he he apan), 50 miles from Tapachula. While Doug and Frank work on the bus air brake compressor, I find a comedor and dine on freshwater prawns, mojo de ajo, french fries and fried platano washed down with Coca-Cola and Ron Presidente -- best meal in days. Noon Guatemalan border at Talisma. Quetzales offered at 5.80 per $1 or 1.80 per peso. Incredible 13,000-foot volcanic mountains to the east with snow in crevasses. Armando is worried about “robbers.” He tells me to keep the “medicino de osos” handy. I agree but have no idea what he is talking about. 1:30 p.m. Hung at the frontera de Guatemala while we try to clear the bus through Mexican customs with an agente Doug hired. On the Guatemalan side, we are parked for an hour in the transmigrante area where we meet a number of young Honduran guys trying to get to the U.S.  2:30 p.m. Doug finally wins his argument with the customs officer that what he is driving is not a bus full of junk on which he should pay import duties. “Es un motorhome, un Winnebago” he argued, and added some pesos to make his point. We are finally cleared after Doug gives the guy two speakers and a tricycle. Evening Mazatenango on the road to Guatemala City, bus running poorly, tires in bad shape. Overnight shared a double with Frank who told the long form of the “Kay goes crazy and runs naked through the streets of Aguascalientes” story. Almost unbelievable but apparently true. (Bus almost blew up as Doug worked on gas refrigerator last night. Its only purpose is to keep his daily ration of milk cold.)

 

 

1/27 Saturday Aired up flat on rear tire. Bus running rough, Doug adjusts timing with a crowbar by bumping distributor slightly without loosening it. 9 a.m. On the road to Guatemala City. After a dusty detour, we return to the carrera and almost immediately come to a halt again. Impatient, Doug backs up without looking and knocks the front bumper off a large passenger bus stopped behind us. Much consultation ensues. Doug refuses to pay the driver 300 Quetzales to settle and they agree to meet at the bus station in town. Everyone drives on. Asked if he really intends to stop, Doug just laughs and begins to sing, “When you go to Guatemala, keep your money in your shoe, 'cause them Guatemalan women got the Guatemalan blues, O sweet mama, Dougie’s got them Guatemalan blues ….”  I have never seen him happier. Noon We eat in a comedor carretera and discuss what element is most likely to cause illness. I say the homemade lemonade. Doug drinks mine and his and says he feels sick. I eat two tortillas and he says watching them be made, made him sick once. 5 p.m. Through teeming Guatemala City relatively easily. Gas stop at El Rancho on the road to the Atlantic and the turnoff to Zacapa, Esquipulas and the border at Aguascaliente. Ojala, Zacapa esta noche!

 

Sunday, Jan. 28  No way Jose. Overnight in the village of San Agustin, parked on the roadside after oil pressure of bus engine dropped to zero then recovered slightly to 5-7 lbs. Doug jumped off the bus saying, “That’s it, it’s over,” etc. Armando located and sent for a mechanic who walked up out of the jungle just at dusk, dropped the pan and cleaned the oil intake. I cooked one of the freeze-dried meals I bought last February for the three-day Rio Sico expedition. Trucks roar by all night but I got some sleep. Doug and Frank went to a nearby hospedaje. Frank and I had a conversation about Belizean sinkholes and underground rivers, secularized Mennonites and so on.

 

Monday, Jan. 29  After tire rotation (bad to back, better to front) we are on the road again. People laugh and smile as they pass us in pickups. I’m riding in the doorway, (no door, remember), hanging on to the bar by the steps. 

 

“Apparently we are comical,” I remark to Doug. “This is better than the scowls we got in Guatemala City.”  

 

“I guess they’ve never seen poor white people before,” Doug said. 

 

It is true that we are easily the most disreputable conveyance on the road in Central America.

 

Whole trees, big ones, blooming yellow, bright red, purple; yellow and orange-breasted birds, many rivers. Missing my sweetie back in the U.S. Lots of paranoia of robbados by Armando approaching Esquipulas. Bus smoking like crazy due to oil leak from pan to exhaust pipe. Noon Creeping up the mountain to Esquipulas in double-granny. The town is a famous pilgrimage site due to the Black Christ in the large basilica in the center of town. The Pope is due in less than a week, apparently to signify his dominion over this part of the world. The town is full of pilgrims, many from El Salvador. Large, slickly-produced posters advertising the Pope’s visit are everywhere. It appears that he is being sponsored by Pepsi-Cola.

 

I find my way through the crowds to the central telephone office, give the clerk some money and Jean’s telephone number and am directed to one of the small open booths lining the walls. After a while the large black phone on the small table rings and I pick it up. I hear the operator tell her in Spanish that she has a call. To my astonishment she hangs up. I try again, get the recorder and leave a message. 

 

4:45 p.m. We cross the ramshackle entourage from Aguascalientes, Guatemala to the Honduran border station. 8:30 p.m. After hours of wrangling over mordidas and aduanas, we arrive in Nueva Ocotepeque, Honduras. After much pleading, Armando’s red pickup truck is now on my passport and the silver one he is towing is on Frank’s. We have both been played. It is an awkward and unfortunate situation as neither of us can leave the country until the import stamps are cancelled. The good news is that we stay at the Hotel Sandoval -- hot water, color TV, good restaurant -- seven bucks apiece. Finally talk to Jean, so sweet to hear her voice. She was worried but I assured her everything was fine … what could go wrong?

 

Tuesday, Jan. 30  Up and out of Nueva Ocotepeque into the mountains and clouds of western Honduras: bus grinding slowly. Great views, red tile roofs, pine trees, horses, watermelons for sale. Had to put on coat and gloves for a few minutes. Through Cucuyagua, on to Santa Rosa de Copan, adjacent to the famous Mayan City of Copan, “Athens of the Mayan world,” and pilgrimage site of tourists from all over the globe. 5 p.m. On to Santa Rosa de Colinas, high in the mountains of Santa Barbara. Picturesque haciendas tucked into the mountainsides. 

 

Doug has a house here. He somehow maneuvers the bus up the narrow, steep roads to the upper part of the village, picking up members of his Colinas family as he goes. He plans to leave some of the stuff on the bus here. The locals have a large admixture of Spanish DNA and are remarkably light-skinned. Doug relates an incident from his first visit here when, awakened and annoyed by the frequent ringing of the church bells, he parked the bus in front of the church and played Doug Sahm songs at high volume. The priest complained but, surprisingly, he (Doug) was not arrested. Armando and Frank left us two hours ago at a junction to San Pedro Sula. The plan is to rendezvous with them south of San Pedro at noon Wednesday and proceed to Castilla, our ultimate destination.

 

 

The country is as pretty as any I’ve seen in Honduras, steep ridges sparsely covered with pine trees and other tropical growth. The bus looks like a fire sale at St. Vincent de Paul. The engine is surging due to the governor on the carburetor. Doug says, “I hope the SOB who invented the governor is condemned to drive a bus like this in hell forever.”

 

We spend the night in Doug’s modest casa outfitted in his typical style with obsolete but functional American appliances -- washer, dryer, refrigerator, electric stove. Two beds, one a fine old Central American four-poster with mosquito netting and rope suspension; the other, which I slept in, had a net full of holes and a filthy mattress. I used my own net and bedding and spent a cool, comfortable night despite the almost incessant barking of a dog down the hill. A breakfast of eggs, beefsteak and pan tostado with good Honduran coffee purchased by Doug in Ocotepeque prepared in my little espresso.

 

A rest day here. Doug spent all day doing things to the bus. I was at leisure, walking around the town, reading and trying out my Juchitan hamaca. In the evening there's a message from Armando by the local bus driver that the road to Trujillo is closed due to labor unrest and that we should meet him in Chamelecon by a back road through the mountains. Things are getting complicated.

 

Wednesday, Jan. 31  Last day of the first month of 1996. Took third anti-malaria pill. Barely out of Colinas when the carburetor self-destructed. Limped back to town, had it welded and back on the road by 11 a.m. Took a dirt road from Chinda  to Villanueva to avoid checkpoints and road closures due to the campesino manifestacion. What ensued was a beautiful if bumpy ride through the mountains of central Honduras. Small villages, large haciendas. Left a message for Armando to meet us in Trujillo and looped south of San Pedro to Tela on the coast. Tried to camp at the Lancetilla Botanical Garden but no go. Spent a horrible night at the Hotel Retiro, but salvaged the evening with a conch and vegetable meal at a Chinese restaurant in Tela. Dreamed of a job search all night, desperate for a vocation. Doug says “writer.”

 

Breakfast in La Ceiba, 90 miles from Trujillo. Glad to be near the end of this overland journey down -- 10 days on the road. Saw a Rio Honduras raft on a vehicle headed through the dust for a Rio Cuero day trip  -- two peeps and a guide. 1 p.m. rolled into Castilla. Doug says, “We made it!” Unpacked the bus at the Doce Postes, took a shower. Welcomed by Artie, Connie, John Laughlin and Ralf with redfish, shrimp and rice pilaf. The place is so wonderful and peaceful. Upstairs quarters with hamacas overlooking the bay. Motorcycles down below….

 

Thursday, Feb. 1  Long conversation with Jean from Scotty’s La Bahia bar in Trujillo. Weather there in the 20s all day. Scotty said they had the longest wet season in memory -- five months which killed the tourist trade. The reconvened motorcycle club worked on their bikes last night and took off for a ride this morning. Armando reportedly sold both trucks, but has not reappeared. I’m following leads on a boat to La Mosquitia, my personal goal. We track down the old black man who is selling the Doce Postes property. He says that the fish merchant and his son next door to the Doce Postes who are troubling the deal should, in so many words, be killed.

 

Friday, Feb. 2  Saturday Boat from Brus Laguna tied up at the dock when I awoke from a night battling noseeums. The captain says $10 passage, leaving Monday afternoon. Big party with wild world beat dancing at Sand Fly bar last night. Inclement weather continues and La Mosquitia trip is scrubbed. I decide to bail for San Pedro, try to find Armando, get my visa cleared and fly home.

 

Thursday, Feb. 8  Doug, Connie, Kristi and Laughlin drive me to Trujillo in the rain to catch the bus to San Pedro. They make jokes about the lame local tourist attractions: “the pirate tree,” “the rope bridge,” “the rincon de los amigos’” (a bar on the beach). Doug’s last words are, “There’s not a reason in the world to come to Honduras.”

 

Afterword: Doug made more trips to Honduras and other places. He and I toured around Ecuador a couple years later. He was especially interested in the so-called “Valley of Longevity” in the south of that country. Unfortunately, his philosophy of “taking the use value” out of old vehicles caught up with him almost exactly six years after the end of this story, when a vintage truck he was using to haul stream cobbles to a new house in Colinas lost a wheel and tumbled into a ravine, effectively taking the use value out of him. He was a great friend and I miss him.

 

 

H.H. Howze © 2017

 

Not a boomer. H.H. Howze is a writer/photographer and disruptive political presence in deep red Round Top, Texas.

 

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