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Travels in Central America, Part 1

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Getting there, or bridging with GAP

The security guard motioned me out of the lineup and into a separate area where I was instructed to take off my belt and boots. After looking under the insoles he gave me a second going over with the wand which beeped suspiciously in the area on my crotch. Finally, satisfied that the signal was due to a metal zipper and not some lethal weapon concealed in my shorts, he gave me back my stuff and told me to "have a nice day in Dallas".

Since most flights from Vancouver to South and Central America involve a stop-over in the Excited States of America it’s important to be prepared for a thorough inspection before you even get out of the airport – valid passport, clean sox, and plastic zippers. But I still haven't figured out how to avoid the guy who does the random checks. Neither my harmless-Canadian-wimp look nor my god-fearing-American-patriot look seem to work. Maybe it’s the boots?

Our American Airlines flight to Dallas pushed off promptly at 7 a.m. and we settled back for the three and a half hour flight, pleased to find that there actually was, as advertized, extra leg-room. After a long hungry wait we inquired about breakfast and were told we should have picked up our "Bistro Bag" before boarding. However, the stewardess would be happy to bring us one. The sturdy little shopping bag, emblazoned with American Airlines insignia, contained a small tub of yogurt, a limp rice-crispy bar, a few raisins and a plastic spoon. As she passed us our breakfast I sensed even the stewardess was slightly embarrassed. Extra leg-room, it seems, comes with a trade-off.

During our four-hour layover in Dallas airport we met a group of doctors, nurses, and medical technicians – volunteers with Helps International who were on their way to a remote first-aid station in the mountains of Guatemala. Twice a year they convert the station to a hospital and provide modern treatment, including surgery, to the forgotten poor who live outside the cities. Our conversations were a prelude to our own helpless witness to the grinding poverty that still afflicts so many people in Central America.

It was dark when our 737 began its letdown over the sprawling lights of Guatemala City. Getting through immigration and customs was a breeze and Rosana was waiting to take us to the Los Bucaros Hotel in Antigua, a 45-minute van ride from the airport.

Betty and I were signed on to a 17-day tour from Guatemala, through Honduras and Nicaragua to Costa Rica. It was our sixth trip to Latin America and our second with GAP, a Toronto-based adventure tour company that avoids the luxury tourist traps in favor of local services. Accommodation is modest, transportation is by local "chicken bus" or van, and shopping is in the local, rather than tourist, markets. It’s not a style of travel that appeals to everyone – the squeamish and weak-of-bladder will find it a challenge. But, although it’s not possible to shed one’s gringo image completely, the GAP style does bring you a small step closer to the local people and their culture.

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