A pair of good legs. I was missing mine for a few days, but with some determined R.I.C.E. application, they're coming back to me. We were glad to stay, both for the healing power of rest, and the opportunity to get to know the area a little better.
We attended the Quaker meeting for worship this morning, meeting some of the founders of the town. It's been since high school since I sat in silence with others for an hour and meditated on life. And Lucas' first Quaker meeting for worship. A local man was moved to stand up and said that he had been thinking of the quote lately "Life expands or contracts in direct proportion to your courage". The hour seemed to pass in just a few minutes, while we were both lost in thought.
A few nights ago, a fellow traveler at the hostel told me about a strangler fig tree nearby that you could climb up into. Strangler fig trees surround large live trees, kill them slowly, and the original tree eventually dies, leaving a twisted hollow shell. Though dastardly, so many animals and plants then rely on the hollow tree, full of crevices, that it almost evens out. The traveler drew us a map with landmarks like "take a right at the pile of logs where the trail begins". We followed it and found a large strangler fig that had enough hand and foot holds you could get high up inside the tree, to the forest canopy. It was amazing to sit and watch the forest from up high, the tree rocking slowly in the wind. We've reached a traveling groove by now--washing clothes in the sink, keeping each other healthy, finding our way to new places, and meeting other travelers and locals from far flung parts the world. Tomorrow we head out to the capital San Jose, hoping to catch transport to Panama for the new year across the border.
Our first taste of Costa Rica was in a small town called Cañas, a truck-stop town right on the Interamericana. The sun was setting quickly, and we found a little hotel that wasn't too expensive. The manager told us of some serious tragedies in his life, but all the while spraying himself liberally with either hairspray or deodorant, we couldn't tell. He was a great help in finding the right combination of buses into the highlands, to the cloud-forest town of Santa Elena/Monteverde.
Monteverde is a community originally founded by American Quakers in the 50's, who moved to Costa Rica to avoid having to disobey their tenet of non-violence in being drafted into the Korean war. When they first arrived, they turned the top of the mountain into a natural preserve, helping to protect two distinct ecosystems on either side of the continental divide. They also unwittingly created a tourism mecca, originally reported by National Geographic. The Quakers have been fighting the development of a paved road into town from the highway in order to curb the tide of tourists. The town still feels small as a result. Knowing we would be in town for Christmas night, we found a small hostel away from Santa Elena, right on the edge of the forest with a view of distant Lake Arenal. The room was simple (though graced with an awesome lion bedspread), but the real draw for us was being able to wake up on Christmas morning and hike into the rainforest from our front step. But I'm getting ahead of myself -- clearly, the first priority was a nap. Upon waking, we noticed about 30 people gathering around for a guided night hike. We took the opportunity, and it was worth it. A family of Coatis, a tarantula, sleeping porcupines, sleeping birds (they just sleep on a branch... weird), and a climbing sloth were highlights of the tour; but we also learned a lot about the ecology of the rainforest and surrounding area. Christmas night was windy, the stars were out, and we had a bottle of wine. Lovely.
The next day started lazily, and we headed out into the forest to see what it looked like during the day. The sleeping porcupine was still asleep in the hollow of the Strangler Fig tree, but the tarantula had left its little hole. We couldn't find a sleeping sloth. Things turned a little south when along the path Jina twisted her ankle pretty badly. Back to the hotel we got some ice on it, but we both knew she wouldn't be able to use it for the next couple of days. So we're at a hostel closer to town, taking it easy until Jina's ankle is doing better.
From Leon, we caught the slow bus for Granada and spent the morning taking in the walking boulevards lined with cafes. From there, the bus slowly filled to capacity, as it has to before leaving, and we headed south two hours to the ferry terminal. It was almost dusk and the last transport barge was just about to leave. We threw our bags on board the crowded vessel and climbed up to the deck. They took our names, ages and nationality down on paper before departing, and when I asked if it was in case the barge sinks, I just got a smile. The wind comes across the lake with such force, it whips the water into ocean-like swells. And it felt like we were on the ocean as we heaved up and down, enjoying the bizarre sunset ride on the barge, crossing the largest lake in Central America, with the island's two volcanoes looming large in the distance. Isla de Ometepe was one of the few places we had pre-planned on visiting on our trip. So it was somewhat surreal to actually be there. That, and the fantasy-like feel of an island where fresh water sharks prowl the surrounding waters, transport is still largely horse and cow, drinks are readily made from tapping a variety of tropical trees, petrogyphs of wildlife are carved on lava rock, and everywhere you go on the island the active volcano Conception is there. The pace is slower, and the people as genuine as it gets. Adelma, a sassy female taxi truck driver, and I traded simple jokes and we had to stop for an hour on the dirt road as they put up a new power pole. We stayed on the north side of the volcano Maderas and in the morning, climbed it. A long muddy slog for Lucas and I but a beautiful hike through a cloud forest with a crater lake at the top. We got to know Fausto, our 21 year-old guide, and helped him with learning English ("mud!", "watch your head!") in turn learning about life on the island. The hostel where we stayed was so peaceful that we considered staying through Christmas. But decided, instead, to spend the holiday somewhere less hot.
When we left the island by ferry, we still had no idea how we were going to get to Costa Rica. Everyone so far had told us the border was full and there was no more room on buses crossing over. Some stroke of luck was with us, as two spots were available on a bus headed south, not 20 min after we got off the boat. We aimed for a town halfway to the mountains, that we should be able to get to by sunset.
The cover of the paper when we arrived in Nicaragua was "Election Sham!". Rioting blanketed the country a few weeks previously, after the Sandinista party, and Ortega, dumped votes in the trash. A recount looks unlikely. Ortega seems to be consolidating power and from the general opinions of people we talked with it's to the demise of the country. Lucas and I were in grade/high school at the time of the Iran/Contra scandal, televised Ollie North hearings, FLMN guerrillas in El Salvador, disappearances in Guatemala, and Ben Linder assassination (an Oregonian volunteer in Nicaragua at the time-- killed by the US backed Contras) but are just now learning about the full history.
If Leon, Nicaragua is the liberal seat of the country, its conservative arch-rival is Granada. These two cities warred for centuries before the capital was created in Managua, splitting the difference. This trip has been an education for us-- lessons in the brutal wars that occurred in each of the countries we've visited, the reasons behind them, and which side the US armed and trained. Being an American traveling in Central America is a humbling experience both for the part our government played in the lives of the people we meet and our ignorance about the details.
The day we arrived in Léon I started feeling a bit off, and by the next afternoon I was running a high temperature. I don´t remember large parts of the next couple of days after that. Jina not only took excellent care of me, keeping me hydrated and cool, she also found a clinic around the corner and walked me over. I had some tests taken, and the two hour wait for the results was quite nerve-wracking. It was a bit worrying when the doctor started asking us about mosquitoes in our hotel room, but in the end the diagnosis was a throat infection. I feel much better now, after four days, but I can´t stop sweating.
The experience has been strange for both of us -- for me, being in a fever haze for several days, and for Jina not knowing what was going on with my health, and not being able to leave the hotel for long periods in case something happened. It was like we were on separate vacations for a couple of days, except that both vacations were harrowing. Today was the first day I´ve felt well enough to leave the hotel, or even have a conversation, and it feels good. I shaved, and got a haircut down the street from an old Nica gent named Frank. He cuts hair either with the most confidence or the least care I´ve ever seen -- hacking off large clumps of hair at great speed, and mumbling in Spanish. After three days of illness, I feel like a new man. Though not a bad place to be grounded for a while, tomorrow we finally leave town for the twin volcano island called Ometepe.
Five chicken buses and three currencies later, we´ve made it to Leon! What a great town. At dusk, locals pull their rocking chairs out onto the sidewalk and rock the night in. Border crossings are always a little hectic. There´s this frantic moment when the bus pulls in and we´re decended upon by money-changers and pedicabs. We´ve taken to politely declining and taking a breather while the melee settles out. An exciting day--taking in the subtle differences in landscape and culture between El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua.
Lighted Christmas trees are in evidence in every open door, but it seems so distant here with the blazing sun that beats us into submission every afternoon. The santa hats help.
I think we've passed into the street food phase of the trip. Our last night in El Tunco, we sat out under the stars and strings of bare light bulbs, enjoying a feast of pupusas. These fried patties are made from masa, stuffed with various ingredients such as cheese and beans. When they're fried, cheese oozes out and gets crispy. The pupusas are served with a kind of cabbage salad that took me about a week to find out the secret ingredients for: pinapple vinegar and oregano. Can't wait to make them at home!
Lucas and I packed up, put our traveling shoes on and waited for a bus by the roadside. A pickup truck swung by and the gringo driving said he'd drive us to La Libertad, where we were headed. On the way, he told us about the intermittent work he does at the nearby orphanage, and how they're always looking for help. And all their computers are busted. We gave it about a second of thought and told him we'd stay and help. So we turned right back around and headed to the orphanage.
The orphanage is run by a charitable Christian organization called REMAR. There are 95 children there, ages 6 months to 18 years. They come from all kinds of situations, but all from homes with abuse, neglect or abandonment. So it was amazing to be greeted by about 40 hugs each when we arrived. The kids all live, work and play together all day. Like having 94 other brothers and sisters. One night when we left, the kids were all singing and hauling dirt for their new school, late into the night. On their beds they put all their stuffed animals, in various patterns, which Lucas could identify with. Stuffed animals, clothing--everything is shared, since it's too hard to keep track of personal belongings. The kids were not shy about sharing their personal stories with us, most of them heartbreaking.
There are only 5 women looking after all the kids and they do an incredible job at keeping all the kids clothed, fed and happy. Incredible job is an understatement. I never saw a raised voice or kids picking on each other in our 4 days there. Instead, we took them to the beach. What a crazy day. They had more fun than seems humanly possible. We made apple crisp from all the green apples they didn't know what to do with, and Lucas played guitar with his Salvadorean younger self, a kid named Jose. We replaced a pot we broke, by navigating the market in San Salvador, and Lucas managed to fix 6 or so computers that had been donated and then poorly treated by their computer teacher.
The organizing principle is a love for God and each other. The city of children is actually the center of REMAR's substance abuse rehabilitation program for adults. Part of the program is that the recovering adults work at the orphanage. Sounds like a crazy idea, but I think the children move them in ways they had never been before. We'd love to continue to support them in the years ahead.
Our second attempt to leave El Tunco was successful. Friends at REMAR dropped us at the bus station in San Salvador and we caught the bus to San Miguel. It's blazing hot here as we prepare to cross two borders tomorrow, into Honduras and then into Nicaragua.
Our second stop in El Salvador has been the little beach town of El Tunco, where you can walk around barefoot for days. Both a bread and vegetable truck come by every morning, honking their horns and announcing their wares... we´ve been cooking for ourselves, and it´s been great. El Tunco is known for it´s surf, and we tried our hand (feet?) at it -- with help from Bamba and David, a couple of local boyz who give lessons. Apparently, it was pretty high surf that day... Jina got up a few times, I got some good wave time too. But man, that surfing thing is exhausting. The second to last night we went for a walk, and on the way home Jina heard her name being called... it was a friend of hers from college, Moni. It was a pretty random meeting, so far from Vermont. After Peace Corps, he stuck around El Salvador and started a surfboard company in El Tunco. We shared a beer, toured his shop, and met the second best surfer in El Salvador. Always the second best!
We´re really glad we made this last-minute decision to visit El Salvador. We´d like to visit the part of the country that was in the thick of the revolution, a town called Perquin. With some long travel ahead of us, we´ll see if it´s in the cards.
Juayua is a amazing place- beautiful, peaceful, yet thriving and full of energy. Not only are people here free to walk in the streets at night, it's the norm. On the weekend the town hosts a food fair with hundreds of Salvadorean tourists coming to spend a relaxed Sunday sampling the feast. Juayua is one of the best coffee regions of the country and as we arrived by bus it looked like the mountains were blanketed in forest. Looking a little harder, it was actually all shade grown coffee plantations. It's about halfway along La Ruta de Flores, a stretch of road in Western El Salvador known for it's flowers and relaxed pace.
Our hostel, Hotel Anahuac, is owned by two local musicians and the backpackers coming to stay were of an interesting sort--sailing down the coast of central america, traveling from Brazil to Canada and other crazy adventures. We went on a hike to the waterfalls, where tunnels connect each of the falls. We walked through the dark tunnels, water up to our chests, feeling our way along the smooth walls. The water somehow took on the color of turquoise in the pinhole of light. We took the bus to a little town up the way and watched the old man marimba band play. A drunk yet entertaining old man dancing enthusiastically to the music, taking many bows. We found a hidden set of hot springs, following false leads but eventually running into a woman who thought her husband knew about them. We went back to her house and met with her husband to find out where to get off the bus. Then a long hike up a dirt road to find pools steaming and gurgling and then in a series of jade colored pools, surrounded by gardens and forest. The owner came out as we were soaking and let us know he'd like to keep the location a secret and asked us not to divulge the location of the hotsprings. Saturday night we headed down to the local reggae bar, owned and run by a young Salvadorean. His friend Carlos was playing old Cuban and Salvadorean songs on guitar. Some of the other Salvadoreans in the bar would sing with him and by the end of the night the whole bar was singing.
We keep meeting Salvadorians who have lived in the states-- freely talking about how much it costs to pay a coyote to cross the border and how difficult the journey is. And talking with a local, Mario, and his brothers about coffee production. Picking 25 kilos of coffee beans garners $1 and $5 is a daily wage for back breaking labor. We saw whole farms with coffee destined for Starbucks. Coffee and bananas here are not just foodstuffs, they change landscapes and cultures.
We stayed much longer in Juayua than we expected. Tomorrow, we head out early to catch buses to the Pacific coast of El Salvador. Maybe to surf...
Our bus was headed all the way to San Salvador, but we had requested to be let off in a town an hour over the border called Santa Ana. We had heard it was a 'rare gem', and allowed us to explore western El Salvador.
The stop was a gas station... somewhere. It was dark. Two other tourists (Liza and Hans) got off with us, and together we talked with the heavily armed doorman at the gas station. Immediately we noticed the Salvadorean accent is much more difficult to understand, but after talking for a while, we found out we were a couple of kilometers outside of Santa Ana.
The hotel in Santa Ana was a little rough around the edges, but the owner offered to drive us into town to his mother-in-law's restaurant. At night the town looked pretty closed up, and the restaurant was empty save for a couple of guys at the bar. Hans and I had chicken sandwiches, and he shared the tip of having a shot of tequila after a questionable meal to sanitize the insides. It seemed appropriate, as the two locals started playing American 80's rock on the jukebox. Getting into the spirit of the place, we put on "Paradise City", which drew the locals over, playing air guitar. Our conversation consisted of them naming bands from the 70's and 80's ("Yethro Toll"), and nodding in agreement about how much they rock.
Like happy drunks the world over, they were very difficult to get away from. As we went to leave, the waitress asked us if our taxi was outside. Taxi? The owner of the hotel told us it would be okay to walk home. We told her no, and the look on her face told the whole story. "Muy peligroso", very dangerous, she said. Everyone at the bar was going home by taxi. Apparently walking at night in Santa Ana is not done due to gang activity.
The next day we woke up to the 7am air raid siren, and explored Santa Ana. The town is nice during the day, with life happening and people around. But we knew we didn't want to spend another night there. There was a bus to one of the small towns in the country that afternoon, and Liza and we planned on taking it (Hans was nowhere to be found). As we waited for a taxi which never came, the gentleman fixing the tiles in the hotel lobby offered to walk us down to the bus station. Jorge Ramon. Again, someone went clear out of his way to help us out.
The bus terminal was a scene unto itself. The bus crawled through the bustling market, with a constant stream of vendors boarding the school bus and making their way out the back. It was like we were moving through this enormous living, writhing organism, with the line between bus and market blurring completely. My favorite stall I could see from the window sold flip flops and rat poison. Jina's was the vendor with hot sauce and toilet paper, a necessary pair. It took about half an hour to go the 100m of the market, and once out we rocketed up into the hills.
The local bus station was just down the block from our hostel-- so early in the morn we went to the curb and waved down the ones that said Guatemala City. The bus callers were yelling "Guate!". We were satisfied to have fit into one seat together, with our backpacks. Then noticed a family of 5 sitting in front of us. Arrived early at the Tica bus terminal and prepared to buy our international bus tickets. But alas, there was more work to be done. After thumbing through our passports, the bus ticket seller informed us that we had no Guatemala stamp and would need one to leave the country. Not ideal. Little did we know we were illegal immigrants for the past two weeks. The border from Belize must have forgotten/purposefully not stamped our passports upon entry to the country, something that we learned later happens a lot. The only place to get one now would be "Migration" in downtown Guate.
All along, we'd been trying to avoid downtown Guate. An urban city of that size wasn't what we were looking for on this trip and with the highest murder rate in Central America... But it was the only way to get to El Salvador, so we headed further into Guate by local bus. A man on the bus said he knew where our stop was. But when the time came, he got up, and motioned for us to follow him. Another man on the bus motioned for us to follow him too. But wasn't he getting off at a later stop? I was a little confused but we got off with him and he said it would be a few blocks before we reached Migration. He didn't talk further, but lit a cigarette and led us down the street. Not ideal. It was a gamble of trust and we went with it. The walk was long and by the end, the stores were broken down and we began to wonder if this had all been a very bad idea. And then there it was! We thanked him profusely. The man had left the bus early and led total strangers to where they needed to go. We would have been hard pressed to find it otherwise.
Migration was a lesson in bureaucracy and everything you would expect. forms in triplicate. multiple lines for forms, forms needed to wait in other lines for forms, fines and fees (200 Quetzales) and finally.. our stamps! We were free to travel and hoofed it back to the bus station.
The bus was an hour and a half late, coming from Mexico. So our second border crossing of the trip, and again in the dark. Not ideal. We wizzed along the Guatemalan countryside, seeing funerals in progress, corn fields and small villages, all while watching an Adam Sandler movie.
Another bus ride, another crazy driver, and more passengers throwing up. We witnessed our first ugly North American (French Canadian, specifically)... after asking for gum from a young man in his tienda, she didn't have enough money to pay for it. So she said angrily in English, 'that´s all I have' and took the gum. Jina made up the difference after the woman walked away. We weren't as sympathetic to her stomach troubles after that. Would she do that in Canada?
Antigua is the old capital of Central America, and retains the stateliness and elegance despite several devastating earthquakes. Ruined churches and buildings interweave with colorful one-storey colonial houses, cobblestone roads (being repaired with new cobblestone). Feels like it's been pulled straight from southern Spain. The locals are sophisticated and spend their nights hanging out on the town square, lit up for Christmas. We settled in to our hotel, and made guacamole on the roof with three volcanoes as backdrop. A little tired from buses, we decided to relax in town for a couple of nights. We hit market day and bought tons of fruit, including a new one to us: zapote. We used our haggling skills developed in Panajachel. Taking off tomorrow for Guatemala City on our way to El Salvador.
Arriving in Panajachel, we knew we were right back on the tourist trail, big time. The main drag in town is filled with vendors selling beer t-shirts and homemade textiles, but for good reason. Its the gateway to Lake Atitlan, an enormous lake surrounded by volcanoes (currently in the running for becoming a new Wonder of the World). We tried a new technique of finding a hotel -- one person gets a drink and watches the bags, the other goes scouting. It worked well.
Scattered around the lake are a variety of little communities. Knowing we couldn´t see all of them, we chose San Marcos on the recommendation from our travel book. Out of a boat filled with tourists, we were the only people getting off the boat there -- seemed a good sign. We had stepped into a bizarre hippie ex-pat holistic wonderland. Jina described it as 'the Guatemalan Oregon Country Fair'. Our hotel was El Hotel Unicornio, our room was apparently Uranus. Though not our scene, we explored a little and found some great hidden viewpoints, and the real San Marcos up the hill. It was our first sight of the giant bags of avocadoes being lugged around for sale... incredible. It's like they grow on trees here or something. We did some home cooking for the first time on the trip, hung out with a nice Dutch couple, and dealt with large spiders in the room. Jina had her first real cup of coffee -- not instant! The morning was relaxed, and the view of the volcanoes was incredible, but we decided to move on to where Spanish was the first language again. Antigua was our next stop.
So many things to be thankful for. To be healthy, having enough to eat, a place to sleep and being together. And not throwing up on the bus to Coban. A vomitous road for those behind us. We arrived on Thanksgiving day to the splendid city of Coban, with a vibrant yet conservative feel. Dinner in a restaurant filled with locals chatting and sharing a cup of café. Managed to mime the words ¨saxophone reed¨ to buy one for Lucas´s wood clarinet, in the many music stores in the town. A musical place. Each town seems to have a local specialty--in Coban it was peanuts (a boy asleep on his peanut pile) and Argentine empanadas. We loved Coban, maybe because it was off the main tourist circuit and just going about business as usual.
Traveling for three days through Guatemala seems like passing through 3 different countries. The highlands are so different from El Petén, where we did Spanish school. The dress is becoming more colorful as we go and the towns are more traditional, conservative. We had a mini-bus to Panajachel, 6 hours southwest of Coban, and due to some delays, had it to ourselves. The route was a grueling precipitous road with landslides to negotiate every 200 m. Girls along the route were spinning long twine, stretched out across the road. Boys were filling in potholes for spare change. Hardly any other traffic on the road, due to recent rains. We had a moment where Eric, the Guatemalan driver, got stuck in a large mud puddle and began to curse in English. Maybe so we´d understand his level of concern. As we pulled in closer to the lake, a huge fog bank engulfed us and we saw nothing of the view below. Just like Oregon, where the pacific fog sometimes moves inland. Eric dropped us off and continued on home to finish out his 18 hour day of driving.
On the weekend, when school wasn´t in session, we took the saturday morning lancha to Flores and got on a bus for Tikal. The hour and a half drive took us around the lake and then through the entrance to the park, driving deeper into the rainforest. We found our hotel there, one of 3 places to stay at the park.
In order for our ticket to be viable the next day, we had to purchase it after 4pm. So we went to the edge of the forest for a look. Spider monkeys came into the trees above. We watched them use prehensile tails to swing and hold onto branches while eating leaves. Then, they sat embracing-- little monkey hands wrapped around each other´s backs, and groomed each other. I think when I´m home I´ll wish they were swinging in the trees overhead in Forest Park.
So at 4:30 we headed into the park, with only an hour before nightfall. We hoofed it in, past huge ceiba trees, known of the tree of life to the maya. Howler monkeys called out in the distance. We were just talking about how we didn´t really believe that the ruins existed when around the bend a gigantic tower rose in front of us. We entered the grand plaza in awe. No tourists due to the late hour and the silence played heavily on the scene. One of those magical places on the planet. We climbed the stone steps and sat gazing on what the maya created. Each temple 50 years to build, by thousands of hands. All the buildings in sight were restored but black with algae and disuse of centuries. Amazing to think that when they were rediscovered, all were just mountains with temples inside. One of the temples they left as is, covered with trees old and wide and just a glimpse of a human structure poking from the top of the mountain. We journeyed on to temple 5, on the eastern edge of the complex. It was getting dark but as we climbed to the top you could see the jungle spread out below us, and temples peering our from over the trees. Like climbing a cascade peak, getting over the clouds, and seeing the peaks of other volcanoes poking out. Just us, a handful of others, and a man with a shotgun. Lucas and I joked that it seemed a little unneccesary to shoot tourists who touch things they´re not supposed to, but the guards are there to protect us. Tikal is still at times a lawless place, hard to defend from forces that want to destabilize the park. Tropical sunsets are fast and before we knew it, it was dark. We walked back out of the park, training our eyes to see. Happy to be greeted by the light of our hotel, and a full restaurant of other tourists.
Up at dawn to catch the sunrise up on top of the temple. Such a great time to be in the park-- with no other people around it feels even more like you´re walking through a ghost town of unknown purpose and demise. We climbed the steepest of the towers and ate our cheese sandwiches. Our legs quaking as we sat on the steep precipice. ¿How did the maya climb these, much less build them? Two kinds of toucans and many parrots in the forest canopy. So many Indiana Jones scenes--an actual minature scale model of the city was found in one of the temples. Hardwoods used to build the palaces thousands of years ago, still strong and viable. The amazing astronomy that went into construction and placement of the temples. Equinoxes and solstices filling each building with light and sending it on to the next temple aligned. Nice to return back to San Andres after the trip to dinner with Alma, and bed amid church songs and marimba.
You know that scene in the first Matrix movie, where Keanu is strapped to a chair, has a cable plugged into his brain, and after a few seconds states, ´Whoa. I know Karate.´? This last week sorta felt like that. Even though classes with Esdras only lasted four hours a day, he put me through the ringer and I was exhausted by lunchtime. Thank God siestas are the norm. I feel like I now have a rough sketch of the whole painting -- I don´t have any vocabulary, and I take up to eight minutes to conjugate a given verb, but I have a sense now. I´m still pretty useless in day-to-day spanish, though. Esdras was a ´gordo´, as my homestay host describes, but knows his stuff, and his daily job of being a high school teacher makes him tough and relentless. Unlike in high school, however, he could tell dirty jokes to me. My final exam was to tell him one, entirely in Spanish. It took about twenty minutes, and careened wildly across tenses.
I lucked out with the homestay. My house was beautiful, spotless, and homey. The Doña of the house, Lola, was a yoda-like figure, a grandma of the old school: hardly ever wore shoes, loved to cook and watch her two soap operas ('Tempesto en el Paradiso' was quite addictive), and full of kindness, quietude and love. One of her daughters, Carla, also lived there when she wasn´t working in Belize, about half an hour away from where we stayed the second night of this trip. Finally, there was Lola´s granddaughter Evelin, who was 15. 15-year-olds are surprisingly similar, all over the world. The food was lovely, and they were very patient with my spastic spanish. Every night I would try to use something I learned in class that day, and I would be gently corrected, often accompanied by an exasperated 'ay, Lucas...'
I was further away from the school than Jina, and on my walk over I would pass a small tienda, run by Don Rene and Doña Ella. Jina and I would walk up and get a glass-bottle coke during our break, and often on the way home I would sit for ten minutes, and try to talk with them. I'm quite positive they were imparting great wisdom, but I could only understand every sixth word. When I asked for their address to write them a letter, they had to confer to try to figure it out. 'Next to the cemetery, San Andres' was their consensus. Oh, and put Guatemala at the top.
Thanks to a tip from Beth, Lucas and I signed up for the Eco-escuela spanish school in San Andres. The town of San Andres lies across the lake from Flores, on a steep hillside. We were picked up by the ¨lancha¨ boat, driven by Cush, a local character. He has only a few teeth left, can play his throat like a trumpet and hasn´t worn shoes in 40 years. Before the road was built to San Andres all traffic from the town was by lancha, and now water transport has dwindled to just Cush.
Lucas and I had decided, prior to arrival, to have different homestay families. That way, Lucas could have Spanish practice with the family, at his own pace. I was relearning Spanish by trying to sort out the Malagasy and French vying for space in my head, and Lucas was learning Spanish for the first time. With vastly different families, we hoped to see multiple sides of life there. As luck would have it, the biggest festival of the year fell on Friday, at the church by my house. The main attraction is the chalcones, dancing dolls 8 feet high and the entire town came out to watch. As the brass band began to play, towering female figures came stifly up the street, operated by a dancing puppeteer beneath her petticoats. Traditional dances, a marimba band and the high school like brass band kicked off the festivites. At one point a fuse blew and sparks flew as the lights at the square flickered out. The marimba band played on. They must practice in the dark for just these occasions.
My family and I had shredded carrots, chopped potatoes and some squash-like vegetable to sell with tostadas at the festival. We set up a stall and sold our mayonaissed salads, choco-bananas and drinks for the village celebration. All night, intermittent church bells, fireworks, hymns and marimba.
After a few days, spanish came back to me. It´s like a key that unlocks a door that I never could have opened otherwise. My teacher and I spent time trading recipies, talking about the culture of the town and guatemala. A woman I spoke with often, opened up at the end of the week that her husband had crossed illegally into the US and has been away in Los Angeles for 4 years. He crossed right where I used to work, in the desert in AZ. These are the stories I was hoping I would have enough Spanish to hear. Gaining the language back also helped me to realize I had unwittingly stepped into a divorce in progress. Alma and Raoul, the parents of my family got separated my last night there... Crazy to step into another family´s dynamics, but a very real encounter with people struggling with money, machismo, love and life. So it was good to spend time with Lucas´family too. We decorated his family´s Christmas tree (a little late by their standards, on Nov 19), made corn tortillas with Doña Lola and hung out with his shop owner friends. I love that everyone has a separate ¨tortilla house¨ just for making them. Corn has such a special place here. Our last night we made Doña Lola a soup and banana bread, with ingredients searched high and low for. Every ingredient a treasure hunt.
It was getting dark when we went through customs into Guatemala. There was a hand-written sign for all the drugs and fruits we were not supposed to be carrying, and gentlemen with shotguns. The road is unpaved for the first hour into the country, and the dust and darkness didn´t give a lot of depth perception. It was also apparently past our driver´s bedtime, as he kept falling asleep and the guys in the front of the bus had to clap right behind his head to wake him up until we reached Flores.
Our first impression of Flores, actually Santa Elena, was a large, brightly-lit mall and fast food. Strange -- not quite what we were expecting. Neither was Flores, but in a much better way. It´s a beautiful tiny island in Gautemala´s second largest lake (why is everything always the second largest?), covered with rows of stone and plaster houses and narrow cobblestone streets. More like a European village. School started the next day, so we spent the day walking, reading, eating, and generally relaxing. It was lovely. High season isn´t until May, so the restaurants were empty, and we wondered how the place survives. It´s a really rare place where locals were living their lives alongside the tourist industry -- an aerobics class in session, music lessons in open windows, and soccer games. The Pringles delivery truck has an armed escort.
We caught a bus and a taxi to Hopkins, where Garifuna culture rules. The Garifuna is a Honduran tribe that escaped slavery by canoeing to the Belizian coast. And man can they drum. We were hoping to catch some of the festivities.
Our hostel, Yagudah, was run by the effervescent garifuna-speaking Rosie, who took care of our immediate french fry needs. Although the light situation was just a bare bulb plugged into a power socket, we were provided with some really nice bikes to ride about town in. Hopkins is one loooooong stretch of road along the beach, with fancy resorts on the north and south ends, and locals in-between. We decided to find some kind of internet in town to check on our spanish school reservation, and followed the hand-painted signs to Kismet hostel. It turned out to be an eclectic gringo-run hippie hostel. She regaled us with stories about how her monitor was broken, and she spent exhorbitant amounts of money on repairs that never materialized, but we were in good spirits and offered to help fix it. With only electrical tape and a rusty screwdriver, Lucas got that sucker up and running. Just as Lucas was completing the job, she casually mentioned that actually, her internet was canceled. We high-tailed it out of there as she called out that Lucas was ¨the miracle she had been praying for¨. Genius, that boy.
After dinner with Mani et Antoine, we hit the bar. One of the garifuna drummers at the table next to us said ¨I need a bassist¨, and Lucas without hesitation said ¨that´s me¨. Though the man said Lucas´s drumming made him sick, it sounded fantastic to us. He made us hats from palm fronds.
In the morning, we set out to catch the 7am chicken bus. All the public buses in Belize are old 1980´s yellow school buses. So the school buses for children look exactly like the chicken buses for adults. Our cue was the bus the kids lining the streets didn´t get on. Many false starts. Leaving off at the intersection, we hitched a ride in the back of a pickup to Belmopan, the capital city, where parted ways with Mani et Antoine. Another chicken bus to San Ignacio, then across the border into Guatemala.
Jina and I are trying something here -- she writes about part of the trip so far, I write about another part. They use iguanas to power the computers here, so we need to be as efficient as possible.
Leaving Placencia was a difficult decision -- we were caught between loving the place, wanting to stay longer and chill out, and needing to get to Guatemala for our Spanish school reservations. We had no idea how long it would take to travel inland, and there were several places we would like to see. So we reluctantly left the little paradise, and grabbed our first chicken bus of the trip, from Placencia to Maya Center. Tony was there with us, resplendent in his same puffy black shirt and trousers, and harness motorcycle boots. Although it turned out he was unable to procure a ride, he did take us down to a little restaurant where we met Ernesto.
Ernesto was the previous and first director of the Cockscomb National Wildlife Reserve, an enormous reserve for jaguar and other big cats. And howler monkeys, which are apparently the loudest land animal. More on them later. Ernesto gave us a wonderful introduction to the park, it's conception, history, and policies. It was like a private audience with the park itself. He was responsible for mitigating the land loss from the local Maya, organizing a local Women's Centre to benefit from the tourist trade. The local women are clearly quite a force to contend with -- when the government changed it's policy about the park, they went to the access road and cut down a huge tree to block any tourists from getting up to the park. Ernesto himself was very thoughtful and gentle, and had such a wise and caring attitude towards both the park and the people he had to reconcile. Although he couldn't guide us in the park, he recommended William, who lived down the road. We arranged with William to meet us at 7am the next day to walk through the park.
The park itself is five or six miles from the highway, so we hired a cab and the three of us (Jina, Tony, and myself) piled in to the little sedan. The fact that it made it up to the park was a minor miracle -- the road was washed out in several places, and there were many large boulders throughout. You could pretty much feel the road on the floor under your feet, scraping away at a good clip. The facilities are great -- clean, solid, solar-powered and screened in. Immediately upon arriving, we ran into the French couple from the boat: Mannaig and Antoine. They were staying the night too, so we offered for them to join us on the guided tour.
Once settled in, Jina, Tony and I headed out for an evening hike around the "Wari Loop". It got very dark very quickly, and soon we were wondering if that was a snake or a root we just stepped on. We had a lovely dinner, and slept well -- no sign of the promised evening Howler monkeys.
The next day started bright and early. William was there, and we set out along the "Green Knowledge" path. He was awesome. Although initially pretty quiet, he opened up when we started asking questions (he lies Jackie Chan a lot). He knows so much about the park and the wildlife, and was able to spot birds in the thickest of foliage and jaguar prints in the mud. He showed us the pirhanna in the river, and we tossed in some cinnamon roll for them to froth over. We mentioned our disappointment with not hearing the Howler monkeys, and he started making this weird throat noise -- the result of which was that the monkeys started responding. It even broke out into a howling fight between the dominant male and another male in its territory -- with us right under the two of them. It was insane. They sound like death metal singers with asthma. We could see them move from branch to branch above us. Wow.
The hike then visited a beautiful waterfall, and we climbed to the top of Ben's Bluff, with views of the surrounding park. Incredible. There were so many different kinds of trees and wildlife everywhere.
The way out we shared a taxi to the highway with Mannaig and Antoine, and tried to figure out how to get to a town called Hopkins. Hopkins is known as the center of the local Garifunda culture -- with it's own language, history, and language. The National Garifunda Day holiday is on November 19th (this week!), and we heard that people will be arriving for the huge four-day festival of food and the traditional Garifunda drumming, like we heard on Tobacco Caye. It was too promising to miss. So we arranged a hotel and our transport -- local chicken bus to taxi, and arrived in Hopkins.
I think we're realizing we are terrible at keeping up a blog. Only a few computers have crossed our path and there's always been other things to do. But, here we are in San Ignacio, near the Guatemalan border, and waiting for our bus with internet galore.
Belize is home to the second largest barrier reef in the world so that's where we headed after our first day in Belize city. We motored out to Caye Caulker, watching mainland Belize recede in the distance and a tropical island come into view. Our pace dropped a notch with the discovery of a hammock on the beach. Caye Caulker is a mellow island, split in two from hurricane Hattie. Most of Belize was ravaged, scarred then reshaped by hurricanes Hattie and Mitch. The evidence of these storms is visible in the landscape and heard in the stories of the people we talk to that survived them. Caye Caulker is small so that by evening we were meeting familiar faces and had gotten to know the key locales around the island-- navigating around the piles of empty conch shells and taking the oceanside cemetery shortcut (with "sunset" and "sunrise" instead of "born" and "died" on the tombstones).
We happened to stop in to a shop that we'd seen advertise for a one way 3 day sail out across the barrier reef, stopping to snorkel, fish for dinner and camp out on little uninhabited cayes. And lo and behold, the trip had been delayed and was leaving the next day, and needing two more people to make it go.
So we hopped on, joining 9 other travelers from Scotland, France, Seattle and Ireland and the two local crew. Dolphins surfed our bow (baby dolphin!), flying fish careened out of the water ahead of us like skipped stones and the wind filled our sails as we headed south along the reef. Everyone burned to a vibrant shade of pink. Our first snorkel was at a caye called Gallow's point, also a line from a Captain Bogg and Salty song--"from Port Royal to Gallow's Point we cultivated fear...".
We slept out under the full moon, with minus tides on a tiny island with 8 palm trees. Our yellow boat listed and ran aground until the tide came back to free it. And in the morning hundreds of schooling sardine minnows hid in the shallows off the island. Occasionally a school of large jack fish would plow through the sardines, raising a ruckus, and brown pelicans would swoop in to scoop up confused stragglers. We stopped to snorkel twice a day, hovering over fan coral, huge brain corals and iridescent fish aplenty. It was infinitely fascinating to splay out in the warm top layer of the Carribean and float there watching an intricate world of creatures living in and on other creatures. Plus, barracuda for dinner.
We pulled into Tobacco Caye the second night. Shore shower. Sea legs. We set up tents in the middle of the island town, trying to avoid the coconut trees and their heavy, irregular falling fruit. Everyone in a Belizian town knows the stats on how many people have been killed by falling coconuts. Tobacco Caye: One wounded, none killed. We headed to the little beachside tiki bar-- with a specials sign facing the ocean that just said "Obama". Two local garafunda drummers played hand drums like mad men. They started up a local dance that tells the story of finding a dead body on the beach and trying to wake it up. And so the stick used for the dance is passed to the next dancer. Lucas went up and did a mean, very respectable jiggle. Pictures to come. It felt like the first bit of old Belizian culture we'd seen so far. We fell asleep with the full moon framed in the upper window of our tent. Dangerous coconut trees swaying in the breeze.
Three of our group opted to stay on Tabacco Caye, they liked it so much. The remaining five of us sailed on, stopping to swim with spotted rays and a flounder, in and out of mangroves, like swimming through a forest. Jellyfish began to populate the water. Our last snorkel stop was the best-- with towering corals 10 feet high. We were so reluctant to leave the boat almost left us behind.
We arrived in Placencia and took the honeymoon ashore. Placencia is a peninsula of mellow beach town , with cute restaurants and so much peace. Francis Ford Coppola's beach mansion lighting up the far shore. We found a room right on the beach and relaxed into it. A thatched restaurant right next door. To stay another day or head up to the jaguar reserve? We met a guy at breakfast the next day named Tony who happened to be a volunteer at the Cockscomb wildlife basin, where we'd planned on heading that day. Tony is from the north of England, with red red hair, and a black renaissance outfit. He works in the forest there clearing brush. He can only see a foot in front of him, but doesn't wear glasses so he can regain his eyesight. He was headed back up there on the 1 o'clock bus so we took it as a sign to go with him. Packed up our stuff said goodbye to the coast and the beach and the Carribean vibe. We felt like the honeymoon portion of the honeymoon was over and the adventure had begun.
After about an hour's sleep, Heather picked us up at 3:30am and we headed to the airport... the flights were good, and we were literally surrounded by fellow honeymooning couples. The competition was fierce. Flying in, we noticed things looked a little... wet. So apparently, a "tropical depression" hit northern Central America for the last three weeks, dumping rain aplenty - the worst flooding in 30 years. The floodwaters are just now starting to recede, leaving behind a wake of unpassable roads. Hmmm, didn't hear about this at home. Damn you, weather.com! We'll soon see/wade through the extent of the damage. We just saw the local weather on TV, looks good.
We had some local Belizean cuisine tonight, a carribean-style beans & rice dish and the famous Belikin beer, good good good.
Well, we're a couple of days from leaving town, Jina is busy finishing up work projects, and I'm setting up this blog for our trip. We'll both be contributing to it as we travel through Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama.