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First visit to Latin America

Posted by John T. Reed on

Except for an evening wandering around Juarez, Mexico with my West Point senior class in June 1967, I had never been to mainland Latin America. I also spent a cruise day in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Juarez 1967 was a freak show. The most memorable feature of it was a club where a woman let a donkey have sex with her. I did not go to that show but some classmates did and confirmed it.

Oookay. That was not in my previous exposure to Mexico—a Dennis the Menace comic book based on the artist’s taking his family there.

The most incongruous thing about that evening in Juarez was that the uniform of the day was full dress white. So there we were, 700 actual or virtual Eagle Scouts, in pristine white uniforms wandering around this sordid, sleazy Mexican border town. It was Felliniiesque.

San Juan in December 2016 was hot as hell but nice, and the people I met were just fine. It was also genuine foreign territory. I went to a supermarket using my Spanish to find it. I walked past it twice because a Puerto Rican supermarket bears almost no resemblance to a U.S. one from the outside.

That was before the Hurricanes.

On January 4, 2018, my wife and I went on a Panama Canal cruise on the Crystal Serenity. Left Charleston on January 4th, the day it snowed 4 inches. The weather all over the Midwest and North and South East was so bad that 200 or 300 people missed the boat. Some could not get out of JFK and other airports. Others could not get into Charleston. Temperatures were in the 20s for days. And in Charleston, which is not used to that, they closed the airport, bridges, roads. On the 4th, they closed the post office, schools, offices, restaurants.

The ship then went to Fort Lauderdale and Key West. Some tried to catch it there. One missed the boat again in Fort Lauderdale because of more airport problems and canceled flights. They then had to rent a car and drive three and a half hours to Key West. They got on the boat, but one of their suitcases had been lost. It caught up to them at the next port: Cartagena, Colombia South America.

I was a bit freaked out by my first visit to South America. It had the feel of some Middle Eastern bazaar. I felt like I was the couple in a long-ago TV commercial where the American man and woman were bewildered and scared in a crowded surrounded by loud, fast-talking Arabs and Arabic signs. A boy about nine years old noticed them and excitedly yelled at them something like “ehteaem” over and over. He finally motioned to them to follow him through narrow alleys where they ended up at an ATM machine, maybe for American Express.

Cartagena people were not dressed in Arab costumes and they were speaking Spanish. But otherwise, it was very similar to that commercial. Beggars and street hawkers constantly accosting you. I was freaked by the houses. They are jammed together like in the Middle east. As you walked by the windows, you could see and hear the people inside just a few feet away. No one had any lights on. The rooms were dark because of shadows, few windows, shutters, and the heat of the noonday. No air conditioning. Stinking hot and humid even in January. It’s 719 miles from the equator.

I read several books about living abroad as part of my research for taking refuge abroad in the event of U.S. hyperinflation. One was written by an American woman who had lived in several other countries in Latin America. She had adjusted to just about everything but said there was one thing she never got used to.

People in other countries invade your space and each other’s space. They stand too close, the walk too close. They live too close. If you have a window seat on a bus, and they want the window opened or closed, they just reach across inches from your face to move it. I felt that walking down the street with those glassless windows inches away and the shadowy figures a couple of feet away inside in the dark. I felt like I had to say “excuse me” as I went past every window.

Then there was the security. Bars, fences, razor wire, guards everywhere. My CA house has an unfenced front yard. like virtually everyone in America. And, as is common in CA, we have about a six foot high redwood fence around the back yard. In Cartagena, such a house, if it even existed, would have about a 10 foot high fence with serious spikes or razor wire on top all around. To see something similar in the U.S. you would need to go to an industrial part of the South Side of Chicago where “bad, bad Leroy Brown” saw junkyard dogs.

The ports around the cruise ship were also armed fortresses, especially Acapulco. We decided not to get off the ship in Acapulco because of state department warnings. But we walked around our ship to see what we could see of the city from there.

At 10:10 AM on a weekday, gunfire erupted across about 400 yards of water echoing off the high-rise office building walls. Sounded to me like .45 automatic pistols, my weapon in Vietnam when I was in an artillery unit. There were about 12 to 15 sporadic shots.

I heard only one type of gun so I am guessing it was police shooting at bad guys who did not shoot back. In a gun fight, the bad guys’ guns typically are different models, makes, and calibers and sound different. Then there were a ton of sirens. I never found out what happened. The people on the beach between us and the gun fire paid no attention. My wife wondered if it happened so often that it was a non-event.


The Panama Canal is interesting and surprising how little the original canal has changed since it was built in 1914. The French, who built the Suez Canal, tried to build the Panama one first and totally botched it. 22,000 men died working on it including 5,000 French. The Americans had great difficulty, but pushed by President Teddy Roosevelt, powered through, figuring out how to prevent yellow fever and malaria in the process.

Panama City is big, an air hub as well as a sea hub, also big in international banking. They got rid of their military. We now take care of that for them. The tallest building in Panama City is a Trump Tower. Panama City is not as weird as Cartagena, but still an armed camp.

We were supposed to visit Costa Rica’s west coast, but the wind was too much for the tenders that take cruise passengers ashore.

After Acapulco, we went to Puerto Vallarta, which I liked. The old town was foreign and charming, but not scary like the prior places. And there was a Wal-Mart and indoor mall across from the ship dock. That was the most interesting thing for me. Because I could compare a Mexican Wal-Mart to a Mexican one. The Mexican one was about five times as good as the U.S. ones. In fact, I felt like I was in “Seahaven” in a Spanish language remake of the Truman Show.

The Wal-Mart and the mall looked like they were built yesterday. They were immaculate and barely allowed a tilted potato chip bag to go unstraightened.

They were no showplaces for tourists. The employees and customers were Mexican. The employees were not very good at English. I had to order my lunch in Spanish.

But whereas the rest of my trip seemed to prove that Latin America and its people were way behind the U.S., Puerto Vallarta proved that the Mexicans can run a better Wal-Mart than Americans. Much better. I will leave it to others to explain that.

Puerto Vallarta has the best weather I have ever experienced. Unlike Cartagena and Panama CIty, which were stinking hot and humid, Puerto Vallarta seemed to have perfect weather. They have a rainy season. It lasts from June to September. And it rains mostly at night! Year-round high temperatures range from 73 to 83ºF. The city is almost immune to hurricanes because of the local terrain. Some observers on line said Puerto Vallarta is hot and humid. But the average temps and humidity in the afternoon do not look very scary.

Our last stop in Mexico was Cabo San Lucas. It seemed almost like a Mexican-themed American park. Nice, but less feeling like you were in a foreign country.

This was no fact-finding trip about Latin America. Too brief and no local friend to show me around. The security situation was far worse than I thought. Also, I found the economic backwardness worse than I expected. As a real estate expert, I was appalled at the suboptimal use of high value real estate. Also, they have many anti-foreign ownership rules. And local owners seem incompetent or maybe do not have access to capital to make optimal use of their best properties.

Latin America has some tremendous property in terms of climate, sea navigation, dramatic terrain. But they seem like they are determined to waste them forever rather than let the Gringoes show them how to maximize them.

I shrug my shoulders. Too bad.

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