The Gifts of Phineas Banning

Phineas Banning (1830-1885)

The growth of Los Angeles was by no means a sure thing. In the mid-1830s, Richard Henry Dana described the area when the ship he was on landed near San Pedro for a cargo of animal hides. The description comes from Dana’s classic Two Years Before the Mast:

What brought us into such a place, we could not conceive. No sooner had we come to anchor, than the slip-rope, and the other preparations for southeasters, were got ready; and there was reason enough for it, for we lay exposed to every wind that could blow, except the northerly winds, and they came over a flat country with a rake of more than a league of water. As soon as everything was snug on board, the boat was lowered, and we pulled ashore, our new officer, who had been several times in the port before, taking the place of steersman. As we drew in, we found the tide low, and the rocks and stones, covered with kelp and seaweed, lying bare for the distance of nearly an eighth of a mile. Leaving the boat, and picking our way barefooted over these, we came to what is called the landing-place, at high-water mark. The soil was, at it appeared at first, loose and clayey, and, except the stalks of the mustard plant, there was no vegetation. Just in front of the landing, and immediately over it, was a small hill, which, from its being not more than thirty or forty feet high, we had not perceived from our anchorage. Over this hill we saw three men coming down, dressed partly like sailors and partly like Californians; one of them having on a pair of untanned leather trousers and a red baize shirt. When they reached us, we found that they were Englishmen. They told us that they had belonged to a small Mexican brig which had been driven ashore here in a southeaster, and now lived in a small house just over the hill. Going up this hill with them, we saw, close behind it, a small, low building, with one room, containing a fireplace, cooking-apparatus, &c., and the rest of it unfinished, and used as a place to store hides and goods. This, they told us, was built by some traders in the Pueblo (a town about thirty miles in the interior, to which this was the port), and used by them as a storehouse, and also as a lodging-place when they came down to trade with the vessels. These three men were employed by them to keep the house in order, and to look out for the things stored in it. They said that they had been there nearly a year; had nothing to do most of the time, living upon beef, hard bread, and fríjoles, a peculiar kind of bean, very abundant in California. The nearest house, they told us, was a Rancho, or cattle-farm, about three miles off; and one of them went there, at the request of our officer, to order a horse to be sent down, with which the agent, who was on board, might go up to the Pueblo.

Even then, the Pueblo of Los Angeles was the center of the hide trade, but it lay more than a day’s journey from the port of San Pedro. Dana adds:

I also learned, to my surprise, that the desolate-looking place we were in furnished more hides than any port on the coast. It was the only port for a distance of eighty miles, and about thirty miles in the interior was a fine plane country, filled with herds of cattle, in the centre of which was the Pueblo de los Angeles,— the largest town in California,— and several of the wealthiest missions; to all of which San Pedro was the seaport.

 

Phineas Banning’s House in Wilmington

Fortunately for Southern California, there was a recent settler from Wilmington, Delaware, named Phineas Banning who ran a stage line and had definite ideas for turning Los Angeles in a port city. His house in Wilmington, California, was during the 1860s right up against a gigantic marsh. Banning decided to have the marsh filled in and a breakwater constructed off San Pedro so that vessels can load and unload at San Pedro in relative safety. In addition, he arranged for the railroad to come down to Los Angeles and San Pedro.

Ironically, it was a transportation accident that snuffed out the life of the transportation genius who made L.A. into a major city: He was run over by a horse and carriage in the street and died soon after of the injuries sustained in the accident.

Today, Banning’s house is a fascinating museum of life in 19th century Southern California. Martine and I visited it on Saturday for the first time in several years.

An Unforeseen Difficulty

A Protest Around La Unión Hold Up My Trip

As I have written before, the biggest transportation problem on my trip was getting from Copán, Honduras to Rio Dulce, Guatemala. In the end, I was right. There had at one time been shuttle buses that made the trip, but either they had been canceled or occurred only during certain times. In the end, I cut a deal with a Honduran travel agency called Baseline Tours out of the Café ViaVia to hire a car and driver to:

  1. Drive me to Rio Dulce
  2. Allow for a one- or two-hour stopover at the Maya ruins of Quiriguá on the way

I wound up paying 1,700 Guatemalan quetzales (about $217) for a car and driver to take me there. I could have taken public transportation for much cheaper, but it would have thrown a monkey wrench into my schedule. I would have had to take a collectívo to the Guatemalan border at El Florido, a Litegua bus to Chiquimula, and an (unspecified) second class bus to Quirigua, where I would have had to spend the night. And then, I would have had to face the chore of a bus from Quiriguá to Morales, and from Morales to Rio Dulce. So I spent the money and adhered to my schedule.

Except there was one little unforeseen difficulty. Midway between El Florido and Chiquimula, the highway was closed in both directions because the residents of La Unión were protesting en masse some government dictate or malfeasance. For an hour and a half, I sat in the car reading my Kindle when—quite suddenly—the local police (shown above) started letting traffic through.

It is not unusual to find whole towns in Latin America shutting down access to and from their towns while they make their point to the government. Bolivia is particularly notorious for this type of action.

In the end, I got to Quiriguá and Rio Dulce with time to spare. It was not an accident that I left early, around 8 AM, to allow for this sort of hindrance.

 

Chicken Buses

“Chicken Bus” with Conductor Hanging Out the Door

Old American school buses have a second life in Guatemala. They are imported, gussied up according to local taste, and converted into what are lovingly called chicken buses, because presumably the local Maya could transport pigs and chickens as well as themselves. They come with a driver and a conductor, who hangs out the front door as in the photo above, calling out the destination. Anyone could stop one of these second class buses by simply hailing it and climbing aboard. The conductor collects the fare and makes change, sometimes making the passenger wait until more fares are collected.

I did not take any chicken buses in Guatemala because of the potential for hold-ups and assorted violence. The guidebooks say to take tourist shuttles instead, even though they cost considerably more. Also, I do believe the language used by the driver and conductor is usually the local dialect of Mayan.

A Chicken Bus to Magdalena and Santa Lucia

There tend to be two, sometimes three, public transit options in the intercity market: chicken buses, tourist shuttles, and the (rare) first class bus that goes from point to point without picking up or discharging passengers on the way. (In a later post, I will tell you about my adventures careening through the jungle in a somewhat ratty first class bus.) The first class buses are usually for Ladinos; the chicken buses, for the locals; and tourist shuttles for Gringos.

Chicken Buses Lined up at Antigua’s Bus Terminal

I noticed that the numbers on the front or rear windows of buses (and some cars) merely repeat the license plate in larger letters (for the convenience of witnesses and the police?),

All the buses shown on this page were taken in Antigua near the second class bus terminal. The buses in Eastern Guatemala are different. But more about that later.

Tuk-Tuk? Nyuk-Nyuk!

An India Import: Auto Rickshaws, or Tuk-Tuks, from Bajaj Auto of Pune, the World Leader

If one travels to smaller towns in Central America, one is likely to travel around town in an auto-rickshaw, called a tuk-tuk from the sound of its engine. Above are two tuk-tuks parked near the public dock in San Juan la Laguna, on the shores of the Lago de Atitlán. In towns where taxicabs exist, they generally are more competitive, costing 5 or 10 quetzales instead of 20 or 30 quetzales (or more). As of today, the quetzal is worth 12.7 cents based on OANDA Corporation’s currency converter.

Riding a tuk-tuk is sort of fun, if you relish the experience of being puréed in a blender. Given the cobblestoned streets and the quick sideways maneuvers to avoid oncoming automotive traffic, you are likely to be tossed about a bit. And if you look closely, you won’t see anything that resembles a seat belt. You just have to hold on for dear life.

In Guatemala and Honduras, I have seen tuk-tuks with a driver and up to four passengers, three sitting in the back and one perched precariously next to the driver. But then, the Maya are not a large people. You can probably fit two American adults, max, in one of these three-wheeled wonders.

Tuk-Tuk Traffic in Panajachel

At first, I was afraid of trying to ride a tuk-tuk, until I found myself stranded at the eastern edge of Antigua. I was footsore from walking too many miles on rough cobblestones and narrow, dicey sidewalks, and I didn’t see any taxes passing by the Santo Domingo Museum, but a tuk-tuk stopped for me; and I was happy to take a load off my feet.