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.