TRAVELING IN HOT SPOTS AND WAR ZONES Visiting places where they shoot more than scenery
David L. Marcus
The Dallas Morning News
BOGOTA, Colombia—Now I lay me down to sleep. But first, I close the curtains tight and secure them with several pieces of furniture. Just in case a car bomb explodes and the window shatters.
I set out clothes and running shoes so can I flee the hotel in the middle of the night if a fire starts. I fill an ice bucket with water in case someone shoots out the pipes.
Now I lay me down to sleep.
You haven’t traveled until you’ve visited a foreign city that is subject to a U.S. State Department advisory. You haven’t traveled until you’ve been in a place where people dive under restaurant tables, fearing an explosion, when a waiter drops a tray . . . where cocktail conversations center on the best bodyguard service . . . where rental-car insurance costs more than the car.
You know you’re in the right country when you arrive at Customs and everybody else is poring over maps of Miami as they line up to leave.
The obvious question is, why?
Why visit a country where soldiers outnumber tourists?
The answer is just that—because there are hardly any tourists. You can sit in a cafe without hordes of international dilettantes in starched safari outfits whipping out phrase books and mutilating the language. Restaurant service in Nicaragua is slow and rude, but in the conflictive zone of Jinotega the waiters are models of courtesy and speed. They want you out so they can get home before dark.
On the tennis court, you won’t find duffers wearing Hawaiian shorts made for men 10 years younger and 20 pounds lighter. In fact, you won’t find anyone. At the Hotel Inter-Continental in Cali, Colombia, I had the 20-meter pool all to myself.
Experienced adventurers say you understand a people more when you see them in the worst of circumstances. You test your mettle. And so on.
More importantly, when a country truly is topsy-turvy, there’s never a line for museums. You won’t see a soul at the artisans’ markets. Show faint interest in that one-of-a-kind dead-tarantula-in-glass and watch the price tumble.
I have a friend who specializes in traveling in war zones, from Afghanistan to Cambodia. At the end of every trip, he spends an afternoon at the outdoor stalls, bargaining for rugs and knick-knacks.
The more drug traffickers’ bombs that go off or the stronger the guerrillas’ offensive, he says, the better the bargaining.
Hot-spot aficionados do not enjoy seeing bloodshed. But they become downright sentimental when peace comes to their favorite locale. Some travelers mourned the departure of Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega from Panama. Instead of an aspiring police state spiced with intrigue—tapped telephones, informants, unexplained arrests—the country was transformed into another semi-tropical enclave with the only excitement coming from periodic crime waves.
Just a year ago, going to dinner at Panama’s premier French restaurant, Casco Viejo, was an adrenalin-pumping endeavor. You had to wind through dark streets lurking with muggers and soldiers in steamy Old Panama, which looked like New Orleans after an earthquake.
But the rewards were ample. There was never a wait for the candlelit tables on private balconies overlooking the bay. The chef devoted so much attention to each order of corvina (sea bass) or canard a’l’orange he nearly wept when they left the kitchen.
(I once realized halfway through a date I’d forgotten my money. In hushed tones, I explained the quandary to the owner. The next day, he stopped by my hotel with the bill. Let’s see that happen in Dallas.)
Now that Panama is changing, Casco Viejo has moved to a tidy, dull suburban neighborhood. It shares quarters with a Jaguar dealership. It’s jammed.
In Panama’s halcyon days under military rule, all sorts of new pastimes arose. Like rumor-spreading. Heads would swivel in a bar if you said, in sotto voice, “Hey, isn’t that Colonel So-and-So’s mistress with a Cuban military adviser?!’
Whole evenings were spent spinning yarns about the sexual proclivities and voodoo rituals of the military’s high command. Later, when many of those stories turned out to be true, there was a sense of disappointment. What would sustain dinner parties?
Anyone considering touring hot spots should keep a few tips in mind.
It’s an axiom that the most undesirable countries—the ones that should be offering cash bonuses to anyone who visits—often make entry difficult with visas and bureaucratic tape.
There is an art to applying for a visa. Consider a typical socialist country. The key question on the application is inevitably “Why do you want to visit Southern Alberia?’
Wrong answer: “I hear the food is very cheap, especially if I change money on the black market. Plus, I can pay for my trip by selling a few knockoffs of Japanese radios.’
Right answer: “I would like to personally witness the Triumph of the Popular Revolution against Western Imperialist Exploiters.’ (Use capital letters liberally.)
Bonus Points: “In addition, I hope to spend hard currency on locally produced, hand-crafted soapstone Lenin busts and possibly volunteer harvesting rice in a Peoples’ Collective.’
Caution: Use different responses when seeking to visit a right-wing dictatorship.
Wrong answer: “I will be filing reports for a human rights group.’
Right answer: “As chairman of the of the Heritage Freedom Liberty Association’s new Arms For The World Sub-commitee, I will be meeting with military contacts to discuss mutually beneficial sales of laser-emitting weapons.’
The cruder the government, the more polite and self-effacing you must be. When a colleague wanted to visit Panama last year, he dutifully faxed a request to the military every day. Every day he was told none had been received. Finally, to avoid the run-around, he sent 14 faxes in a row.
He called to find out if they had arrived.
“Every last one,’ said the major in charge.
“So do you think I’ll be granted a visa?’
“Definitely not. You’re a pain in the . . . ‘ Getting around
Uncommon situations call for uncommon sense.
Visiting colleagues in San Salvador a couple of years ago, I quickly became mired in Yalta-style negotiations. The subject was where to eat dinner.
If we went to too elegant a neighborhood, we’d have to worry about attacks by guerrillas who were targeting the oligarchy. If we “slummed,’ we’d be inviting food poisoning.
Finally, we settled on a sidewalk restaurant in a modest neighborhood. If we sat outdoors, we could get hit by flying shrapnel from a bomb. But sitting just inside the plate-glass windows could be worse.
By the time we took a table at the back of the restaurant, I had lost my appetite.
Choosing a place to stay is no less complicated. Start by looking for a hotel with plenty of exits.
Ask for a room that’s somewhere between street level, where car bombs do the worst damage, and the penthouse, which is a long walk if the elevators fail.
Make sure the security measures are roughly the same as the Pentagon’s. I like the Charleston in Bogota, where bellboys discreetly whisk away luggage from newly arrived guests, then search it for weapons.
Friends laughed at my curtain-sealing precautions in Bogota’s Hotel Tequendama. Fine. Last fall, several days after I left, a car bomb exploded in the hotel garage.
In Lima, Peru, the Miraflores Caesar installed bulletproof glass at the coffee shop after explosions occurred in front of other hotels. Now you don’t have to rely on room service to save your life.
Odd situations arise that might require consultations with your travel professional or a good lawyer.
Those of us who were in Panama City’s Marriott on March 28, 1988—when paramilitary troops raided it and beat up several guests—have a complaint.
Aren’t we entitled to double Marriott gold points for that night?
Just when you’ve had enough, the real adventures begin.
I was so eager to leave Lima I showed up 5 hours early for my AeroPeru flight home.
My name had disappeared from the computer, the clerk said, but there was a flight in 2 days.
I flashed a stack of dollar bills.
The clerk, suddenly friendly, whispered, “I think I can make an arrangement.’
He looked so eager I was afraid he’d kick out the co-pilot to give me a seat.
I handed over the money. Later, when we took off, I noticed the flight was only half full, but I wasn’t about to go back to complain.
PHOTO(S): 1. A contra stops by the town of San Marcos in northern Nicaragua. (DMN: David L. Marcus) 2. Fog-shrouded mountains near Nicaragua’s northern border are beautiful—but have been a haven for contra forces. (DMN: Randy Eli Grothe); PHOTO LOCATION: 1.-2. NR(C).