(Part 2, Africa, Europe, Asia, latest entry, journalism, videos, map)


A Journey Around the World

I. The Americas: Signs and Wonders (Part 1)

Mitchell Stephens

(warning: raw thoughts, rough draft, to be plundered for more polished pieces; facts, spelling, piquancy not checked)

"And you wouldn't know it would happen like this."

Leave Alpine, New Jersey, USA, December 20, 9:30 a.m.. At goodbye dinner last night, I opened a fortune cookie and was ready to make a joke, until I realized it had been made for me. Good omen. Augurs (fortunately I have a dictionary on my computer; hotels supplying only Bibles), augurs well. We do search for signs, don't we? The first snow of winter. The second shortest day of the year. Looking for meaning in all the wrong places. "You are about to embark on a most delightful journey!" it read, honest. My fourteen-year-old son rips the fortune in half. With some embarrassment, I stick both halves in my wallet. Where are the right places to look? Whether I got a good night's sleep? My mood the first day in the car? The last words I say to that son before leaving for eight months? What would it mean to throw those two little pieces of paper out?

(See the video experiment: "Leaving...)

Forget to check odometer. All numbers from here on are, therefore, suspect.

I'm disturbingly happy in a car. Apologies: environment, energy resources, fellow human beings. But I'm sitting here, on the too-narrow Pennsylvania Turnpike, in a reasonably comfortable chair, listening to good music and looking out a wide window at an ever-changing view. And then there's the magic of motion: You're in one place and then, in time, another. This for me is, if not the magic of life, then a close approximation.

(See "Why Bent on Rambling Over the Face of the Earth,"

And it doesn't have to be some back road, some blue highway. I'm thrilled to be on an Interstate, especially one of those grand, divisible-by-ten routes. Let them make their own, straight, magic way across the country! There's a part of me that grows annoyed when Interstate 70 forgets its higher calling for a few miles to accommodate itself to the traffic-life of a Columbus or Indianapolis. December 21.

It's not the snow; it's the salt or the dirt they put on the road that makes seeing almost impossible (feel the same, sometimes, about diseases and treatments). A particular problem for those of us who are trying to videotape as we drive�Ran out of washer fluid somewhere in the middle of Indiana. Saw four overturned trucks today. I assume that's not normal. Maybe it was the snow.

Forget the cell phone; I can't be trusted to push the buttons on the radio and drive at the same time. But I did bring the cell phone -- for emergencies, where it works, I decided. And when it, for some strange reason, can't find a network all the way across Illinois and halfway through Missouri, a kind of gloom settles. The gloom of the disconnected.

December 22. Battery dead on a below-zero morning. Guys in the beat-up Lincoln parked next to me at the motel provide a jump. Buy a new battery down the road. Little time lost. Have to resist seeing that as a sign, also.

Outside of Kansas City. Covered about half the country in two days. Received lots of warnings before embarking upon on this around-the-world trip. So far, however, language has not been a problem.

Reporting in Wichita. Doors open. The most interesting people sit down across from me, including the city's mayor. (See "A Golden Age of Diversity," in FEED.) When those people, however, go home to their families -- it's December 23 -- I'm left to contemplate dinner at one of Wichita's finest by myself. Settle instead, not for the first time on this trip, for fast food alone in my room.

I've seen geese flying every which way this too-cold December. I've seen a wedge of them scattered by a jet over Newark. I, however, the reindeer express on this Christmas Eve, am going straight south. Interstate 35. The snow thins and is gone by Dallas.

Headline in the Dallas Morning News: "Eclipse offers a chance for learning, experts say." Perhaps travel does, too, though it being Christmas I haven't had a chance to get through to any experts. This also leaves open the question of whether spending Christmas day alone, writing and working on Web sites, in a motel room near a runway at the overgrown Dallas airport offers a chance for learning. It leaves open the question of whether my situation threatens to eclipse my experience -- the around the world experience.

First trunk revelation: Odd I hadn't looked in there before. No reason to take a wooden hanger and an old bike rack to Panama.

My daughter flies in to join me for a stretch, and we drive downtown to find a suitable restaurant. Hah! If there is anything, besides the occasional hotel, open in the tall center of Dallas on Christmas night, we can't find it. Buffet at a hotel on the strip by the airport. Let the record show that stomach problems arrive before Mexico.

December 26. The wild goose we're chasing through a Houston neighborhood, so poor many of the stores have handwritten signs, is Screwed Up Records and Tapes. The older of the two people now in this 1989 Camry believes a certain slowed-down, hip-hop sound cooked up (under the influence of cough syrup, forgod'ssake) by the late owner of this shop -- DJ Screw -- could be an example of a new culture a-spawning. I'm thinking MacGuffin [sp? not in my computer dictionary]. I plan on thinking MacGuffin -- the random element that generates a plot (see Stanley Elkin's novel with this name) -- a lot as I chase geese of one variety or another around the world over the next eight months. Store's closed. Ace reporter reduced to noting "No Firearms Allowed" sign outside. Valuable driving time wasted, though reminder of the depths of American poverty should have its own value. Is this MacGuffin theory another superstition?

Ain't it just like us humans? What has it been, 24 hours, since we were bemoaning the presence of all those standardized fast-food places? Now, here in somewhere-southwest-of-Houston, Texas, where the only motel is reduced to advertising direct-dial telephones, we're bemoaning their complete absence.

Is there any border in the world as jarring as that between the United States and Mexico? (The old Berlin Wall, a traveler suggests.) Matamoros has its McDonald's, its Burger King, its Citibank, its sampling of the other global conquistadors. "El Grinch" plays with a familiar Hollywood selection at the local "Cinemex." After all, the city sits within reach of the cell-phone towers of Brownsville, Texas. Still, anyone who thinks this culture blends smoothly into the culture to the north would be seriously mistaken. It's not just the half-built shantytown poverty (a per-capita GDP less than a sixth as large). It's the sudden absence of the supposed global language everywhere this shamefully Spanish-deficient El Gringo looks, except the front desk of one of the better hotels. It's the crowds parading on the walking street in the middle of town, so close to the hollow downtowns of Texas. It's the relaxed but proud posture of the men at the restaurants. It's the dancing and costumed holiday celebration in the town square. December 27.

Don't have to travel around the world to see the limits of globalization. Just cross into Mexico. Border shock hits this particular transgressor hard. He ain't soon crossing back.

Actually we visited the border twice. The first time I handed over my passport and the guard there laughed. He was only asking for a toll for the bridge. So we sailed through without handing over anything beyond that dollar and change. We fools kept sailing until we were a half-hour south of Matamoros, in fact. An immigration inspector there pointed out our error. "Permits?" Turn around. Right attitude hard to maintain.

"Do you know there's a road that goes down Mexico and all the way to Panama?" Dean (Neal Cassady) asks in Kerouac's On the Road. "Yes!�man, the road must eventually lead to the whole world." What a thrill I got reading this a couple of months ago. However, "the whole world," at this moment, feels awfully formidable.

On the road south from Matamoros, December 28. Slapped-together shacks, as in Vietnam. Chickens wandering over dirt roads, as in Vietnam. And now: thatch-roofed huts, as in Vietnam. Hasn't the world long enjoyed a globalized poverty? Turn off the fast road on occasion and turn off my daughter by geeky-, gawky-like videotaping of the evidence.

The night in San Luis Potosi, which said daughter has studied as key Spanish silver town. Surprisingly beautiful -- at least for this fellow whose view of Mexico was mostly formed in Tijuana thirty years ago. One shaded plaza after another. Not surprisingly difficult to drop in and try, without much language, to secure a room. (Daughter says lack of patience with this is a sign of age.) Not surprisingly homesick.

December 29. On the four-lane highway we sweep by at 120 or so. While off to the side, in positions rarely attempted or allowed in the States, the slow-paced poor try to gather some coins by offering, say, strawberries con cream. They haven't gotten any slower; the road -- the global life -- has gotten faster. Has their shot at those coins actually decreased? I spend a lot of car time with this metaphor (related to Thomas Friedman's notion of the "fast world.").

Your eyes get used to the shacks and the chickens and that speed gap real quick. That's why you have to keep crossing borders.

"Obey the Signs ("Obedezca las Senales")," signs announce. Where's the sign to tell you to obey them?

The billboard-shaded highway into Mexico City, and we have no idea where to get off and what to do when we get off, and I, in my frustration, choose, after an hour of this, the first hotel I see. Further evidence of age? The telephone in our room doesn't even work. Carnival-lively streets. Homesick dad.

December 30. Lightheaded from the thin or the polluted air. Air has gotten better, my friend had said. Militarism and human sacrifice among indigenous peoples at the swell Anthropology Museum. Even the ugliest and stupidest television shows -- the most polluted cities -- are not that ugly and stupid. Life has gotten better, I insist.

In the early-morning dark we drive out to the Mexico City airport. Choked up. Wave goodbye. Again alone. Now feels very alone. Out to car. Try to ask and understand and find the road to Oaxaca. Crying in the car. Hard -- one of the harder, moments in an easy life. Don't even notice the dawn. New Year's Eve.

The world is trying to shove itself into a new millennium. I see a man walking slowly beside the road and think that it will take decades, maybe centuries, for all of us to make it. A donkey is loaded with bright green alfalfa. A boy herds sheep.

Reason not to travel around the world: Because there are so many mountains to wind around, so many plains to traverse, so many arroyos to glide over, so many valleys and towns and dogs, so many times when it starts to rain and then stops -- in Mexico alone.

I've managed to organize this trip so that most moments of desultory relaxation are, as they are in the rest of my oh-so-adult life, stolen.

Lonely, hassled. A town so foreign and desolate, to my still not- (never?) entirely-adjusted eyes, that I feel like stopping by the local Ford dealer and crying, "companero." The PEMEX's have stopped taking credit cards. Had and will have tolls; need cash machine. Reason to travel around the world: Find cash machine.

Such vast spaces with so few people, though members of my species do surprise with unlikely appearances in canyons or deserts. Space for lots more of us, me thinks, if transportation undergoes anything like the revolution communication is currently undergoing, if water could move at anything approaching the speed of mail or cash.

Come about 4,000 miles and still haven't made any progress in the direction I plan to go: east. But Mexico keeps hurling beauties at me. Sun. Hills. Mountains. Canyons. Fog. Sun. Oaxaca. I wouldn't have guessed that Mexico does squares -- zocalos -- better than Spain.

Another lost, circling, confused entry into a town. Crying in hotel room. And the guy at the next table at the cafe says something, and something, as happens when you're lost (spiritually if not geographically), happens...the next day.

New Year's Day. It involves Indians and horses and chickens. It doesn't involve witches. And I see the slow life and its pleasures, and understand why it's important that your eyes do get adjusted and why it's important not to keep crossing borders. This is a day worthy of an essay, which I will write (less cryptically, I promise).

(See "The Global Pueblo: The Three Stooges Play Zunil" in FEED.)

Wherever I was -- and I had arrived, blessedly without the insulation of my car -- proves difficult to leave. So I'm near the end of the line for a jammed bus. And there are no taxis going where I'm going. And then I become the money half of a try-to-find-a-ride team with a young guy wearing a Yankees cap and saying, "man." He's the talking half. But the trucks and vans towards Oaxaca are all packed. Until one isn't packed. And we're invited in. And the driver is a Mexican women who goes to Harvard Law. And the shotgun is an Israeli male who goes to Harvard Law. And in the back seat is mom, a Prof. of Chemistry. And my "man" man turns out to be a biologist. And I'm diverted to see a 17th century organ and a church saved from conversion into a hotel. And yes I do like to travel.

And I'm happy, once again, to sit in a car the next day, January 2, 2001. And I remain happy even though the road winds so slow. And I remain happy even though I lose 45 minutes to the effort to clear away an accident. Happy, certainly, to meet some of the gray-haired members of a six-house-trailer, three-months-in-Mexico caravan, while we wait. Happy even though it was a head-on involving a bus, and we eventually drive past the remains of the bus. Happy even though soldiers in dark-green fatigues periodically appear with very-authentic-looking rifles, sometimes crouched behind very-authentic-looking sandbags. Happy even though I'm driving near too-poor and still-almost-revolutionary Chiapas. Happy even though I have encountered my first bad main road -- cracked and rutted -- south of Oaxaca. Happy even though the Mexicans control speed not with signs but with many, many, not-always-marked topes -- speed bumps ("road humps" in Texas) -- a few of which I've neglected to honor with a reduction in velocity. In fact, I've made some moves on these roads that may extend the reputation of New Jersey drivers into new territories.

Ralph Waldo Emerson began his controversial address at Harvard's Divinity School by announcing: "In this refulgent summer, it has been a luxury to draw the breath of life." Had to look up the word, which sounds more moist than shining, but this certainly is a refulgent day in southern Mexico. I am grateful for the luxury. Here, somewhere between the Tropic of Cancer and the Equator, on an early January afternoon, you realize -- as the light , through the filter of these little oval sunglasses, bounces off cacti, brush, trees and asphalt -- that despite all our pretensions, this remains the sun's planet.

Another reason not to travel around the world: Because Mexico -- in its beauty and poverty and sophistication and anthropology and archeology -- is sufficient. The high tropical sun illuminating facets of the tall cacti. Burros by the side of the road. It takes a very wide smile to acknowledge all this loveliness. It takes rich, unfamiliar words.

Packing this morning I fold a T-shirt, then wind up a power cord, then stuff something in the briefcase, then grab another shirt, another power cord. Same way I do lots of things: all over the place. I drive straight ahead, however.

It's taken long enough, but I am genuinely hot here on January 2, heading toward the isthmus of Mexico. The Atlantic is trying to ease the pressure on itself by forcing air across that narrow neck of land to the Pacific. Have to close the driver's side window to protect my ear from the resulting wind; steering wheel at eleven o'clock just to keep straight.

Now it's "Respect the Signs" (that's R-E-S-P-E-T-E). And it has been a "delightful" day watching the often unhappy world from a car. Happy to walk the warm-windy streets of the isthmus town, Arriaga, where I'll spend the night.

A third reaction to news that you're driving around the world, from people who live in its poorer parts: They look at you with a deeper wistfulness than that of my middle-aged friends and say, "I wish I could do that."

Guatemala announces itself with brightly colored buses and shacks, women washing clothes in a river and the reappearance, after a week of PEMEX, of the free market -- in the form of Shell, Chevron and Texaco. We didn't support those generals for nothing. No Toyotas, 'cept mine, visible in Mexico. Seems like nothing but in Guatemala. January 3.

I know it is early in my trip, and not everywhere can be Central America, but I have reached the conclusion, based on the evidence that has filled my windshield, that this planet is excessively beautiful.

A crippled kid lies, out of the sun, under a car in a town on the shore road through Guatemala, his crutches beside him, his father, I assume, bending over him. Should I, man of resources, have done something? That'll knock the ecstasy right out of you.

Guatemala City, sooty, dark, architectureless on the evening of January 3 -- though it does have a Schlotsky's Deli. And I quickly learn that I didn't have to come here. Have to drive four hours back (on a different road, at least) the next day. Right attitude? Well, all I do is drive anyway...

Lost going back that next day, January 4, on the cobblestone, suspension-ruining streets of lovely Antigua. Looking for Quetzaltenango, aka: Xela (if only names counted in scrabble). It's a mistake in many parts of the world to ask directions for a town (or country) too many towns over.

Yes, there are places in the world where woman don't wear Western-style blouses, where they sling their babies on their backs in blankets, where they carry wood on their heads, where they live in shacks, next to animals, their growth stunted by poor diet. There are, and you can drive to these places; it might take you eight long days from New Jersey.

Last time I entered Central America there were bad guys in the cities and good guys in the mountains, or visa versa, depending on the country and your political persuasion. And you couldn't travel far. Will meet one of my good guys -- a former Guatemalan guerilla -- plus an anthropologist, a Mayan priest, one of the organizers of a union for women and a boy watching the Three Stooges in a Mayan village before I leave the country. Will see more traditional dress than I've ever seen in my life. Will observe the cult of Maximon -- he being, in this incarnation, in a Mayan town outside of Xela, Santa Catarina Zunil, a kind of dummy with a white, doll-like face, glasses, a US flag towel as a shawl, a cigar, cowboy boots. His acolytes tip him back and seem to pour rum into his mouth, while young children are presented before him, with much making of the cross, and different colored candles burn: white for health and security, red for love, black for doing evil. It is not a good idea to criticize someone's religion. January 4 and 5.

(See "The Global Pueblo: The Three Stooges Play Zunil" in FEED.)

I am so ready to pass to the banana-tree, coconut-palm, sugarcane-harvest side of the country after the chill of a couple of evenings and mornings in high Xela. See two men collecting the stalks that have fallen off the huge sugarcane trucks, as they head from fields to smoke-billowing refineries. January 6.

(See "On Moving Fast,"

At the border into El Salvador, at least three different people read off the vehicle identification number under the windshield of my Camry, and we must have gone to a good half-dozen windows and dealt with a couple of inspectors. The young man who gets me through, whose business is it is to take money for getting people through, had lived in the US -- LA and Oregon -- for nine months. His story of hiding from 'copters in the desert, of hopping on a freight train, of wandering into a Mexican restaurant in LA penniless and hungry, puts my own delays, discomforts and fears into perspective. Still, there are easier ways to try to become a man of the world.

January 6, 5:30 p.m. -- I am breaking my own rule and driving after five o'clock for the first time -- and I see, for the first time on this long trip, the Pacific Ocean. It is currently in the process of swallowing -- with the usual pinks and purples -- what is left of my sun. I have driven almost exactly, to the extent that any of these numbers can be exact, six thousand miles.

The surfer's paradise of La Libertad, on the beach nearest to the capital, looks spooky and deserted in the dark. Disquieting. Just looks gentle and lazy as I leave, without swimming or even strolling, in the bright morning. January 7.

I haven't seen a shaved head except in the mirror or on the occasional tourist since I left Texas. Indeed, there aren't a lot of New Jersey boys on this gem of a road. I guess that was the idea. Do see lots of men by the side of the road holding machetes. Must they always be prepared to have at some brush or is there another reason? Somewhat disconcerting. Also lots of chickens by the side of the road. Considerably less disconcerting.

Staying in touch so regularly with home is like still seeing each other after you've broken up. Just increases the ache. Two-lane blues: I always hesitate to stop, because it would mean having to pass everybody all over again. And then there are those little mysteries, like whether it is okay to pass a police car. Answer, here in Guatemala and El Salvador is apparently yes. Dopey road conclusion: Men ride their horses faster here.

Lots of wood or thatch-roofed huts isolated between the fields and the side of the road. Women still carrying things on their heads, but they're back, now that I have left Guatemala's Mayans, in much more Western dress: skirts and short-sleeve blouses. Men still in straw cowboy hats.

The car is already an outmoded form of international transport. Nostalgia, consequently, accounts for some of the romance -- in my head at least -- of this trip. This also explains why what happened to me at the border this afternoon would be of little concern to the tourist industry of Honduras. Drivers arriving from New Jersey are hardly a significant part of their business.

What happened was that I made what I later realized to be a traveler's mistake. While stuck on the El Salvador side, I gave my man for the Honduran side forty dollars to get things going there. He did indeed get things going, almost finished. But then produced all sorts of receipts in an attempt to secure more dollars. I kind of knew that wasn't right. And when I figured out that he was using the same numbers twice, I exploded. He suggested a cop. Cop didn't speak any English, but when I wrote out "$40" along with an arrow pointing to my assistant, he waved his hands and said "nada." I owed nothing. Fellow still didn't give up, and I ended up having to give him five dollars more just to get all the papers and get away. Bad taste.

Well, maybe I didn't really explode. Just seemed to be really angry.

I don't want to seem hopelessly naive (never a happy image for a journalist), but can't we consider doing without this whole border thing. The stamps upon stamps upon stamps, the stacks of forms -- sometimes, I'm not exaggerating, in quadruplicate -- it's easy to see that they need to go. But why not do what the Europeans have more or less done, open things up?

A country of volcanos, earthquakes and hurricanes, one of the most terrible of which bore my name. In Honduras, instead of relying on speed bumps, they do it the old-fashioned way: with potholes. At least the speed bumps were sometimes marked.

Incredible how few wild animals you see. Lots of cows, chickens, horses, dogs and other domesticates, but outside of the omnipresent buzzards, who have followed me all the way from the Palisades in New Jersey, just about nothing free. I know there are monkeys off in the jungles, but we have a done a pretty good job of cleaning our fellow creatures out of the mostly agricultural lands, which appear to fill most of these countries. When you see something darting across the road it's usually a wind-blown plastic bag

New technologies sometimes tend, in their early years, toward cultural variation. There are the radiation screens that you see so often on computer monitors outside the US, and now this policy of carefully handing out and collecting the "controller" -- the TV remote control. Almost got hit with a large charge for failing to return one with the key in my comfortable hotel in Choluteca, January 7.

Honduran shakedown #1: My papers, veteran border crosser that I now am, are in order. The cop can see that. But he thought he'd get me on the triangles -- those emergency warning devices that few have or use. Hah! I get out and walk toward the trunk. (Dumb luck: happened to have a set in the Volvo I just sold, so I'd tossed them in the Camry.) Seeing my confidence, the cop doesn't even bother to look. Instead, he simply asks if I want to give him a tip -- propina. I say no, and move on.

Honduran shakedown #2: This time, when they flag me down not far from the Nicaraguan border, I actually have to open the trunk and show the triangles.

I'm chugging along, stopping to videotape particularly primitive looking dwellings topped with TV antennas. Someone's been digging square holes in the road, three to four inches deep. Most of them are marked. Hit one of the others at about 40. Lose my right front tire in about a second. Broke down. 11 am, January 8.

I used to be an ace tire changer -- about twenty years ago. Second trunk revelation: There does seem to be a spare back there, though it's a little flat. And here's something for getting off the bolts. Where's the jack? Oh. You would think someone driving as far as Panama would have checked this sort of thing. The Toyota limps back in the other direction -- tire flapping loudly, rubber burning. I have a memory of having passed a gas station back there somewhere,

Honduran shakedown #3: Yeah, after about twenty minutes of flapping and burning, I see an an Esso sign, but guess what stands between me and it: those same officers from shakedown #2. Very interesting. Their boss does a quick calculation: If the gas station succeeds in replacing the bad tire with the spare, then I will no longer have a spare. Driving without a spare tire is a violation. He says that word a few times in Spanish. I have nothing smaller than a $10. At first he looks offended. He reconciles himself to it. Tire is fixed efficiently. And I'm off again. Back near where I hit the hole I see someone on the other side of the road changing a tire. Could this all be a more enterprising operation than I'd imagined? Seems unlikely.

Getting better at borders. Valuables in the trunk. Papers at hand. Hire someone, but pay all charges yourself. Chat up the foreigners. A couple of Dutch travelers join me for the ride. Nicaragua. Running late. January 8. Only make it as far as Leon.

While checking my oil at a gas station outside of Leon, an attendant finds a pine cone sitting under the hood. Looks it over carefully. Keeps it as a souvenir.

(See "On Conquering,"

Managua remains hopelessly centerless. My sister lived in this city for six years. I had visited once. On the outskirts, at the end of a dirt road, is the house of her friend Laura, who spends half the year here with her Italian husband and then takes their four-year-old son back to Berkeley for the other half. A breezy, open, tropical home of the sort I go for, filled with help. Coffee and bananas grow in the back. Laura, who drinks only decaf, talks of 60 percent unemployment and the end of bread subsidies. Yellow and red "Daniel Presidente" signs hang in many of the towns. Hospitality and insightful analysis, but I decide I need to travel on.

"Daniel" -- Sandanista leader Ortega's first name. In Brazil I was Professor Mitchell. In France, on the other hand, last time I checked I was still Monsieur. Individual cultural variations. Still, there's a larger cultural trend: toward informality. My responsibility, as I see it, is to try to keep an eye on the larger stuff.

January 9. And suddenly, here are all the travelers: shaved heads, tattoos galore, backpacks, white faces sitting at cafes. Granada is a nice, old colonial town. It has a lake with islands big and small. It has a nearby volcano. My sister had taken me here. However, it's not until I glance through my Lonely Planet guide to Central America the next day that I really understand. Guess what is one of the dozen places highlighted on the map in front?

Making good time. How I like making good time. A genuine, honest-to-goodness early start. Seven a.m., January 10. I'm the pothole dodger. Also Mr. Borders, who hires a competent young man, even if he doesn't speak English. Gets the exchange rate from American fellow. And agrees to pay a $10 bribe to avoid the couple-of-hours, passport-stamping line. In Costa Rica by 10.

Here's a conclusion even a fast, Panamerican-Highway (a name I see nowhere marked) traveler can feel confident in: Things are different in Costa Rica. The beauty seems more damp and lush, yes. Humid, if not quite rainforesty smells. But , more significant, the shack-to-building ratio has dropped.

Starting to feel as if I'm learning things in dreams. No, not signs. Not clues to the future or even secrets. But, and I know this is old hat to you Freud folks, clues to what I'm feeling. Helps that I toss and turn in strange beds every night alone.

Costa Rica endeared itself to me by abolishing its army. But what's that jumping from the black-smoke-emitting pickup truck I'd been stuck behind? Why it's a young man in some kind of uniform with a nasty rifle, and he's checking out something at a stopped bus. Militia? Police?

Unmaking time. Another winding road. Another long line of stuck cars, trucks and buses on either side of an accident. This time three hours. All gains lost. But our spiritual goal on this trip has been to see ways in which all loses might be seen as gains. Spend most of the time talking with two Dutch fellows: economist and telecommunications consultant, here, respectively, five and seven weeks.

I have this recurring conversation with travelers from the Netherlands. (They say Holland, cause they fear no one knows what the Netherlands is.) We begin talking, in English of course. And at some point I inevitably feel called upon to compliment them on the quality of their language skills. No, they always scoff, they're not particularly good in languages -- just English and German, and maybe some French.

All these people on the road -- the five- or seven-week or longer travelers I mean -- seem unstuck, detached, free floating. They are, a high proportion of them, engaged in reevaluations: thinking about their past, present and future. "When I get back, I hope I'll be able to ..." Drifting.

Two other kinds of non-locals at the Best Western in San Jose, where, time having been unmade, I spend the night: First, the tourists, and I really don't want to take shots at them. I want to note their smiles behind the tall, colorful drinks. I want to honor their alertness to the "sights," their commitment to having some fun this week in the sun. And, second, a more mysterious type to me, represented, perhaps, by that guy at at the hotel's Denny's who curses a lot and wants me to understand that most of the Americans living here can't, legally, go back to America.

Street signs. In my cities and Europe's they're small or stuck on the side of buildings, aimed at pedestrians. In these Central American towns and cities they're mostly nonexistent: People presumably know. But in the great American suburbs and the American South and West (I always associate such innovations with California) these signs have adapted themselves to the automobile by hanging -- large and clear -- over the intersections. Which is a way of saying we do learn something. Which is a way of saying it was tough to find my way out of San Jose on the not-so-early morning of January 11, the day the oldest of the three children I'm missing was born.

Up another mountain road -- the highest on the Panamerican. Always the risk of meeting up with some too-brave passer. Always that feeling of accelerated freedom after having, at some small risk, passed. Potholes reminiscent of the Palisades Parkway in February, before they repaved. Some sections of the road washed away. Nonetheless, Costa Rica seems never to tire of looking lush and lovely. Simple but delicious lunch. Pleased too, I must admit, that it is served fast.

I always wanted to be out on the road. Sometimes in my youth I was out on the road. Am I finally strong enough to be out on the road?

Last border with the car. Panama. Many of these Central American towns have adopted their own version of the US strip: scattered and sloppy buildings and signs aimed at the road traffic. No doubt a prettiness has faded from world with the loss of the homogeneity of the traditional strolling village. But maybe we need to retrain our eyes to see a new prettiness in this auto-tropic heterogeneity. Me, I'm just glad to be out of the mountains. Hope that's it for the up, down and wiggle around.

Development. If you drove with your headlights on in the United States for reasons of safety, say, seven or eight years ago, drivers coming the other way would blink to remind you to turn them off. By now they have stopped blinking. I've been blinked at all over Central America. Less in Panama. Have even seen some others driving with their headlights on in Panama. Trade has made this the richest of the Central American countries.

Not a lot of traffic out here on what is presumably the Interamerican Highway. Stop for the night in Panama's third city, David. 24-hour Internet place -- Speedlan -- jammed. I ask at the hotel, mostly in pantomime, what baseball players are from Panama. Silly mi Mariano Rivera is one of my favorites.

January 12. Last stretch. Been watching this world movie enfold, from a comfortable seat, with a wide screen. But, upon occasion, it does become interactive. In fact, somewhere north of the Canal I fell, as travelers occasionally do, into a conversation without apparent bottom. Though I am prone to confuse the need to keep on living with a bottom. A conversation of some significance. A conversation I will not forget.

I've never seen so many chickens crossing roads. Is it possible this lends humor or a kind of metaphysical ease to a culture?

Went a couple of days without shaving. Can feel the difference in the reaction of people at hotels. The security people along the roads look deeper into my bags. That fashion apparently did not catch on here. Can now conclude that, except for Belize which I haven't seen, there are police checks on the road in every country between Texas and Colombia. (And I could guess about Colombia.)

On the road you can put anything behind you: cops, people, scenery, weather and certainly warmth.

In Panama they've built these nice off-white, blue and red pedestrian bridges over the highway. I want to see that as an attempt to reconcile the fast and slow worlds. There are no shacks by the side of the road here. That does not, of course, mean they don't exist. It does mean there are at least fewer of them.

Drivers have cultures too. In Panama they honk a lot.

In tall and modern Panama City, January 12 to 16 with my wife. Canal, various rainforests, two monkeys, a few iguana, white-water rafting, the better restaurants and cafes. Much missed and needed warmth, fun, love. What a difference! Failed attempt to sell the stalwart Camry. Best offer: five hundred dollars.

(See "The Gift of a Delay,"

Another weepy airport scene. Another drive by myself. The last? To Colon, a city even the Lonely Planet finds too dangerous to be worth seeing. I ask a policeman for directions, and he leads me where I'm going. The kind and complete help of C. Fernie and Co., shipping. "Stuff" Camry into container, after drug-snifing dog has at it, for shipping back to New York. Car and I had come six and a half thousand miles together.

To recapitulate: Four weeks, seven borders, one Mayan priest, one flat tire, my share of impressions, not too many conclusions.

The Journal Continues...The Americas: Signs and Wonders (Part 2)

Mitchell Stephens

Beginning of journal

"...Because there was nowhere to go but everywhere," J.K., On the Road.