Category Archives: Long term travel

The Two Queens of Curacao: One Swings, One Soars

Queen Emma Brdge

Queen Emma Brdge

Step onto the Queen Emma Bridge and you feel a moment of vertigo as it shifts slightly beneath your feet.  You’ll sway a bit and it takes a moment to realize that what appears to be a simple, conventional bridge with fixed points on either end is actually floating upon pontoons, sixteen to be exact.  Nicknamed the “Swinging Old Lady” this permanent floating bridge spans the Sint Anna Bay and connects the two sections of Willemstad: Otra Banda and Punta districts.Queen Emma Brdge

The city of Willemstad dates back to 1634 and the shoreline of the older section of the city, Punta, had structures crammed cheek to jowl by the time a bridge between the two parts of the city was contemplated.  To have constructed a conventional bridge would have required the expropriation and destruction of a significant portion of the old colonial city. Entrepreneur and US Consul Leonard B. Smith came up with an elegantly simple solution that allowed the existing buildings to remain by designing a hinged bridge that swings out laterally from the Otra Banda side.  The original bridge, completed in 1888,  opens several times a day to allow passage of watercraft of varying sizes (up to and including the modern mega-sized cruise ships) from sea to the port and vice versa.a portion opens

partially open for small boat

partially open for small boat

When a ship wants to enter or exit the natural harbor, known as Schottegat, a flag either orange (for a short duration) or blue (for a longer duration) is hoisted alerting people.  A bell sounds shortly thereafter and an operator sitting in a small cabin operates the controls for two diesel engines that allow the bridge to swing on its Otra Banda axis in an arc parallel to the shore, a process that takes a surprisingly short amount of time.  During the time the bridge is open two ferries (ponchis) shuttle back and forth between Punta and Otra Banda transporting passengers for free.

bridge opening completely - pedestrians barred

bridge  preparing to open completely – pedestrians barred

opening

opening

open completely and now parallel to the Otra Banda shoreline

open completely and now parallel to the Otra Banda shoreline

Named after Queen Emma of the Netherlands, the bridge was originally a toll bridge; two guilders were charged for pedestrians wearing shoes, ten guilders for horses and, in the 20th century, 25 guilders for cars.  Since the poor citizens without shoes were allowed to cross for free many people would remove their shoes and walk across barefoot to avoid the toll.  Others considered free transit a form of charity and would save both their shoes and their money for the special occasion of crossing the bridge, proudly paying the fee.  After 1934 the toll was abolished and the issue of shoes became moot.

cruise ship moored for a day of sightseeing

cruise ship moored for a day of sightseeing

Over the years the bridge was renovated and enlarged but increased shipping traffic through Sint Anna Bay to the Schottegat harbor resulted in longer and longer waits for cars wishing to cross.  Construction began on the second bridge to be named after a Netherland’s queen, Queen Juliana Bridge, which is now the highest bridge in the Caribbean.  Built to provide passage for the enormous ships entering the harbor, at its apex its height is 56.4 meters (185 feet) above the sea water which also makes it one of the highest bridges in the world.  After the opening of the Queen Julianna Bridge on Oueen’s Day in 1974 which replaced the original structure, vehicular traffic on the Queen Emma Bridge ceased.

Queen Juliana Bridge- view from the Queen Emma Bridge

Queen Juliana Bridge view from the Queen Emma Bridge

Queen Juliana  Queen Emma

Queen Juliana and Queen Emma

The view of both bridges from the commanding summit of Fort Nassau emphasizes the dramatic difference in the relative heights of these two complementary structures and underscores the important role these bridges have played in unifying the city of Willemstad. For the very practical Netherlanders the bridges they’ve built reflect radically different personalities. The old lady, Queen Emma, undulates slowly while pedestrians cross from one side of Willemstad to another then swing dances open to allow the passage of the harbor traffic.  And the regal Queen Juliana from her lofty height is the soaring beauty of the urban island skyline. crossing Queen Emma

By Anita and Richard

 

A Past Gone With the Wind: The Landhuizen of Curacao

Rif St. Marie Landhuis

Rif St. Marie Landhuis – 1680

Our imaginations and interest were immediately piqued on our first full day upon the island when our hostess casually mentioned the plantation houses of Curacao and pointed out a couple of these “kas grandi”  (great houses) during our introductory tour of the northwestern half of the island.  Architecturally unique to the Dutch Antilles, the landhuizen provided a backdoor to the culture and history of Curacao neglected in the discussions of the UNESCO World Heritage Site encompassed in the districts of Willemstad.

Landhuis Habaii now houses the Gallery Alma Blou

Landhuis Habaii houses the Gallery Alma Blou –  ciirca 1752

Landhuis Papaya houses a treatment center for drug and alcohol addiction

Landhuis Papaya is a halfway house for those with drug and alcohol dependencies – 1850

Landhuis Dokterstuin - now a restaurant serving local food

Landhuis Dokterstuin is a restaurant serving local food – 18th century

It was our good fortune that the first plantation we visited was the marvelously preserved Landhuis Kenepa, in Knip. Moreover, it was a museum dedicated not to the aristocrats who owned the plantation but to the slaves who built and toiled in the homes or under the glaring sun in the fields and salt flats of the owners. This intriguing structure highlighted the role of Sula (also known as Tula whose iconic image is seen throughout the island today) one of the leaders of a widespread, but ultimately unsuccessful, slave rebellion in 1795 which was brutally suppressed.

Landhuis Knip is now Museo Tula - also called Kenepa

Landhuis Knip is now Museum Tula – also called Kenepa – 17th century

Our knowledgeable guide, Michalyn, sang soulfully in Papiamento, a pidgin tongue originated by the slaves and now one of the two official languages of Curacao.  The songs, passed down through the generations, spoke of a far-away homeland, day-to day cares, faith and future dreams and were sung by the slaves while washing clothing, grinding corn and other required labors. The foreignness of the tunes and language coupled with that of the isolation of the plantation lent an ethereal quality to the restored house now furnished with a mix of artifacts of the master’s costly possessions and the slave’s scant belongings, work tools and handmade musical instruments.

Landhuis Savonet Museum

Landhuis Savonet Museum – 1662

The first mansions were built in the 17th century as the focal point of the plantation, surrounded by outbuildings and warehouses and, at their zenith, there were over one-hundred landhuizen on the island. They were built upon large foundations which provided a platform, or veranda, at the front and rear of the house and were usually built on hill tops so that the manor overlooked the plantation.  From this lofty vantage point the home was cooled by the sea breezes flowing through the open doors and windows on both levels. This location also allowed the plantation owner, the shon, to observe the workings of slaves and the overseers from the verandas and the elevated location provided a direct line-of-sight with at least one other landhuis to allow for signaling in the event of an emergency – say a slave uprising.

Landhuis San Juan neglected and in need of restoration

Landhuis San Juan neglected and in need of restoration – 1662

Landhuis Morgenster shuttered and vacant

Landhuis Morgenster shuttered and vacant – 1786

Landhuis Kas Abou is uninhabited

Landhuis Kas Abou is uninhabited – circa 17th century

The abolition of slavery in 1863 signaled the end of this period of domination. The system died a slow death, hanging on through a familiar pattern of share cropping, where the former slaves, for lack of other options, exchanged their labor to maintain the plantation for plots of land to tend for their personal use and erect the now historic Kunuku houses. However, the times and the markets gradually gave way to the arrival of Royal Dutch Shell and employment in its refineries and the related service sector in the early 20th century.  The whole landhuis edifice began to crumble with the owners and the workers moving into the city of Willemstad, to the Punda, Otra Banda or Scharloo districts depending upon their circumstances.  They began to build a social order free of the colonial plantation system.

Landhuis Zorgvlied

Landhuis Zorgvlied – destroyed during a 1775 slave rebellion

Landhuis Fontein ruins

Landhuis Fontein ruins

The manors themselves began to fall into disrepair. The intercession of the Heritage Foundation, a national governmental organization, and private individuals has managed to conserve about half of the original larger plantations; roughly 55 are still extant. Others, scattered around the island, are in various stages of disrepair, neglect and destitution with little hint of their former grandeur while nature moves to reclaim her own.

Landhuis Jan Kok - houses the Nena Sanchez Gallery - 1704

Landhuis Jan Kok – houses the Nena Sanchez Gallery – 1704

Landhuis Groot Santa Marta employs the physically and mentally handicapped

Landhuis Groot Santa Marta houses Fundashon Tayer Soshal which employs the physically and mentally handicapped – circa 1675

Landhuis Ascension open for tours and owned by the Dutch Navy - 1672

Landhuis Ascension open for tours and owned by the Dutch Navy – 1672

Our visits to several of the landhuizen expanded our understanding of both the history of slavery and the plantation system but also exposed us to the wonderful utility of which these remarkable relics have been converted.  While some are still private homes many have been transformed into museums, art galleries, restaurants, small hotels and commercial business interests, including at least one distillery.   These plantation houses with a brutal history mired in slavery, presented us with a unique opportunity to augment our perception of colonial Curacao and the living history of the landhuizen.

Landhuis Zeelandia now occupied by private businesses

Landhuis Zeelandia now occupied by private businesses – 18th century

By Richard and Anita

 

Shake Your Booty & Cover Your Ears: Carnival Parades in Curacao

Children's Carnival ParadeA couple of things are certainties at Curacao’s Carnival parades. First, you will wait way longer for them to commence with the activities than you had anticipated and second, when they do get around to the parade to-do the initial order of business is to dispense earplugs along the length of the route.

Banda Bou Parade

So it went at the Children’s Carnival Parade one Sunday afternoon. It was an event requiring patience waiting in the scorching sun while being pressed up against a metal retaining rail as Banda Bou Paradelatecomers crowded in. We rationed our water from newly purchased and sweating bottles (because, after all, neither of us wanted to lose our places while searching for a porta-potty.) After a truncated eternity the street began to clear and there appeared, in dazzling canary yellow uniforms with the requisite short skirts, the Insel Air girls with their smiles and ear plugs for the masses. Children's Carnival Parade  All the schools, youth organizations and numerous companies, it seemed, had a presence at the children’s parade. And the theme of the parade was geared to the age; cartoon characters from past and present, including many that we recognized and remembered well. Passing before us were Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio, The Flintstones, Mickey and Minnie Mouse and other, new characters that were completely unknown.

Banda Bou Parade

Children's Carnival ParadeWe discovered quickly enough the reason for the ear plugs. Even before the first child was in sight we noted that spaced generously throughout the parade were Banda Bou Parade large mobile sound systems. Multi-tiered, ginormous woofers, tweeters, mid-ranges and bass blasted out live performances of Tumba, Curacao’s unique music, and Calypso or D.J. inspired audio mayhem of rhythm based “shake that thang baby” music.  But whether live or Memorex the volume was deafening. Shouting to each other was impossible. We could feel the vibration deep in our ribs and sternum from the bass rattling your bones, maximum decibel, blaring volume.

Banda Bou Parade Banda Bou ParadeCuracao has its own unique twist on the pre-Lenten celebrations that originated with the plantation owners and wealthy merchants who threw extravagant and stately balls complete with masks and wigs reflecting the heritage of their homelands. The slaves mimicked the upper crust behavior in their own homes with their songs, folklore and customs. After the abolition of slavery, with Banda Bou Paradethe enhanced freedom of expression and the rise of a freer, urban working class, the celebrations grew more elaborate and moved from the homes to the streets. Here developed the tradition of today’s Carnival with beauty pageants, Tumba dance competitions, street parties (the jump-ups), private in-door affairs (the jump-ins) and parades that encompassed all the island.Banda Bou Parade

Banda Bou parade routeHaving enjoyed ourselves with the children’s parade we ventured to the Banda Bou Parade in the town of Barber the following Saturday.  We were instructed to get there a couple of hours early as it was heavily attended since the Carnival frenzy continued to build as the countdown to sobriety and atonement, Ash Wednesday, was nearing. We arrived at our destination and drove the parade route from the end point towards Banda Bou parade routethe beginning and were politely, but emphatically, advised with head shakes that various parking spots we eyeballed were reserved as evidenced by a chalk mark, a cinder block or a folding chair. Near the front of the route we found a spot on the side of the road.  It was 1:00 PM; the parade, we’d been informed, started around 3:00 PM.  And so we sat and watched traffic ebb and flow, watched the Harley scooter contingent rumble through for a few passes, watched the vendors come and go, watched families with excited children, watched the sun cross a cloudless sky, watched the plates of food and Amstel beer and the locally distilled rum concoctions disappear.Banda Bou Parade

Sometime near 4:30, the police finally halted traffic and we waited with sorely tested anticipation. And then, the vivid canary yellow uniforms of the Insel Air beauties were among us again distributing foam hearing protectors with dazzling white-toothed smiles.  Shortly afterwards the parade was underway this time with children, teens and adults.  The bands and Tumba dancers, all elaborately costumed, strutted, shimmied and shook as they passed. Behemoth sound trucks, enough to justify the ear plugs, floats and cars with dignitaries and well-wishers rolled past us. And when it was done, we were among the first to lead the trek back down the island in the direction of Willemstad, deafened and carrying on a conversation at much louder levels than usual, happy that we had endured the wait and experienced another Carnival parade.Banda Bou Parade

Banda Bou ParadeThe next day, Sunday was the finale,  the Grandi Marcha Parade, a wild, riotous event for the adults celebrating what we were told was the island’s version of the New Orlean’s Mardi Gras festival that would eclipse all the previous parades.  Beginning in the late afternoon and extending well into the night it’s the city’s big blow out with the dancing, drinking and raucous partying so excessive that the day after is a national holiday, a day of recovery if you will.

Call us weenies with no sense of adventure but … we skipped it!Banda Bou Parade

By Richard and Anita

The Kunuku Homes of Curacao

kunuku houseWe’ve always been collectors.  However, as long-term travelers we carry all our possessions with us and our collections are now confined to friends and experiences, memories and digital pictures. And what fun we have as we find the things that make each place we visit unique.  On Curacao, we’ve explored many roads around the island and we’ve noticed simple homes with slanted sides scattered about the countryside.  As we’ve hopped out of the car for a better look and perchance a photograph we’ve occasionally been met by the family dog, for the most part in good humor, or occasionally by the proprietor perhaps curious as to the workings of the foreign mind.  And we’ve been counting, notating and reading about these houses as collectors are wont to do.Kunuku Museum

To our great delight we saw that one of these structures, called Kunuku houses, has been lovingly restored and is now a proposed UNESCO World Heritage Site.  The Kas di Pal’i Maishi (Sorghum Stalk House) has been turned into a small museum dedicated to educating people about the lives of the slaves following their emancipation on July 1, 1863 and the homes in which they dwelt. During our tour of the grounds and house our guide was extremely patient and answered all of our questions as we struggled to assimilate this intriguing information.Kunuku house

Prior to gaining their freedom the slaves lived in makeshift shelters on the land near the plantation manors using native materials for their crude dwellings. Posts, poles and stalks provided the walls while a hipped roof covered with thatch provided protection from the scorching sun and torrential downpours during the rainy season. After the abolition of slavery some of the 7,000 people previously held in bondage were given plots of land upon which they could build a permanent home and raise a few staple crops.  For many of the former slaves, emancipation was just a word; a sharecropper system soon developed which tied them to the land and left them indebted to their previous owners. However, from these private holdings grew the Kunuku homes, some of which survive and are still in use throughout the island.Kunuku house

The permanent homes retained the same basic style as the improvised shelters. They were symmetrically rectangular with a centered doorway, a style recalling dwellings in West Africa from which many of the slaves had been abducted. Windows on each side and the high hipped roof took advantage of the frequent island winds to cool the home. The measurements were not exact but homes commonly would provide roughly 500 square feet of living space. The daub and wattle walls were tapered on the outside to provide greater stability. The interior of the walls were filled with compacted rubble and covered with a plaster made of clay, crushed coral rock and aloe vera which gave it a whitened and durable finish. The dirt floors were treated with a mixture of cow dung and clay which, over time, developed a reliably sealed surface. The peaked roof with rafters and supports provided a stable platform for the thatched roof composed of five layers of sorghum leaves.inside the home

The cooking was performed in a separate small building to reduce the chance of fire and the homes were divided into two rooms.  The larger room was used by all the family for their daily gatherings, meals and, at night, by the children.  The parents slept in the much smaller room which many times contained a bed with sloping sides and a patchwork quilt.master bedroom in Kunuku house

Outside might be an open aired privy screened by a cactus hedge and the house could also be surrounded by a pillar cactus fence of two to three rows to keep out roaming animals and define the property boundaries.Pillar cactus fence

Many of the Kunuku homes still in existence are occupied although, of course, in the 21st century the floors are tiled or finished concrete and modern amenities have been installed. The roofs, while still steeply pitched, are no longer made of hand-hewn logs with covered thatch but are corrugated metal or synthetic roof tiles. Some of the dwellings have additions or have been joined together but the original tapered walls and distinct symmetrical shape remains.Kunuku houses joined

Kunuku houseHere and there throughout the countryside are crumbling ruins and abandoned or damaged houses and these allowed us to view the interior of the walls showing the compacted rubble that lent strength to these structures.ruin of Kunuku houseThe history of Curacao is not solely in the Dutch architecture of Willemstad, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, or its centuries old, imposing plantation houses.  The simple and time-tested Kunuku homes with traces of their African roots have also been recognized, reclaimed and preserved as part of the rich heritage of the island and give an additional depth of character to the people who live here.

pride in Kunuku heritage

pride of placeBy Richard and Anita

 

 

 

Unexpected Journeys: Going to Curacao

Curacao - western sideSeveral months back we started thinking about where we wanted to go after leaving Ecuador.  With a bit of back and forth it was clear that both of us were ready to leave the Americas.  We wanted a change in cultures, something apart from the Hispanic inspired societies based upon the Spanish colonial model. Something exotic, something totally different with ancient history, spectacular landscapes, exceptional architecture and unique cuisine.Western side of Curacao

Our conversations went something like this:

“Europe or Asia?”

“Ooooo – what about Turkey?”

“Oh, I want to see Eastern Europe.”

“But what about New Zealand or Morocco or Vietnam  …?”

Obviously, our focus needed to be adjusted and refined.  Some people call this kind of conversation “brainstorming” but we call it “derailed.”   We decided to go online and, after some reading and more conversation about our enormous world with all its possibilities for places to travel, we finally came up with … Malaysia.  It had much of what we wanted including a large expat community, a variety of cultures and nationalities, was high on the exotic meter and completely different from any place we’d ever been.  And a plus – it would be a great jumping-off point to begin our travels in Asia.  We checked out airline tickets from Ecuador to Malaysia (electing to avoid any Malaysian airlines for the time being) and decided it was eminently doable although we wouldn’t be traipsing back to the US for a time.salt flats by Nena Sanchez gallery

And then, before we began to make the serious moves of purchasing the airline tickets and securing our initial lodging, we received an email from a friend we had housesat for in Costa Rica who asked if we might be interested in house and pet-sitting for her sister in Curaçao.  Hmmm … so here’s where we get a little red-faced and have to admit that we had not a clue as to the whereabouts of Curaçao.  We googled it, repeatedly, once to figure out where it was, another time simply to hear its pronunciation (Kur-uh-sow) and then to research the island itself.  For those of you who also have no clue where it is:curacao carib

And so, we read about the island country of Curaçao, which became an independent nation in October, 2010, when the Netherlands Antilles was dissolved.  The island was “discovered” by the Spanish in 1499 who promptly enslaved the indigenous Arawak population. It languished in obscurity for well over a century until 1634 when the Netherlands achieved independence from Spain and claimed possession of the island.  Shortly thereafter the Dutch West India Company decided that its natural harbor and setting made it an ideal location for shipping, commerce and piracy. It also became a thriving center for the Atlantic slave trade and its affluence is reflected in its colorful edifices which blended Dutch and Spanish architectural styles but also resulted in some buildings completely unique to the island, particularly those associated with the older plantation system.Willemstad

Our readings about Curacao resulted in our sensing that this here-to-fore unknown country could be exactly what we were seeking; exotic with a unique history. We sent a few emails back and forth with the homeowner to find out more of what she was looking for in caretakers for both her home and pets.  Soon enough, with very little resistance and much enthusiasm, we had a seven-week house and pet sit lined up in a lovely country surrounded by Caribbean waters.Wllemstad

So, what to do with December since our 90-day visa for Ecuador expired at the beginning of the December?  Cartagena, Colombia went back on our list and, as our faithful readers know, we had a terrific month in that picturesque city sight-seeing and immersing ourselves in its fascinating history.

After years of fixed plans, following demanding career paths and setting five-year goals we’ve come to treasure f-l-e-x-i-b-i-l-i-t-y.  We must remain mentally nimble to take leaps as opportunities present themselves.  It’s become a huge part of our travel plans – or no plans – and we try not to get too far ahead of ourselves so that we can change our direction, slow down or, conversely, move a bit faster.Curacao Otra Banda

And as for our travels after Curaçao? We have airline tickets to the Dominican Republic and other, more nebulous plans that we’re waiting to fall into place. Our travel lifestyle has slowly transformed into unexpected journeys that require curiosity and uncertainty as the ability to avail ourselves of opportunities that may present themselves.view from Museo Tula

By Anita and Richard

 

 

Capturing Cartagena in Photos

Cartagena, Colombia is a city of many facets from the ancient stone wall built by the Spanish to defend the old city from pirates and brigandsthe wall protecting the old city

the wall surroundingto the quaint and picturesque colonial architecture of the historic old town.

old historic cityold cityold historic city

Scattered across the city are parks, museums, restaurants and churches.La Catedral

Museum of Rafael Nunez Iglesia Claustro de San PedroThe old monastery, the highest point in Cartagena at the top of El Cerro de La Popa overlooks the Castillo, an intimidating fortress which protected Spain’s ill-gotten riches and safeguarded the city. ?????????????????????????????????

Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas

Tourists flock to the tony hotels, restaurants and high-rises that line the fine sand beaches of the harbor in Bocagrandemonastery on hill in background; Bocagrande in the foreground

Bocagrande

and spill over to the more local neighborhoods like GetsemaniBarrio Getsemani Barrio Getsemani

Barrio Getsemani

or Avenida Santander (where we lived) alongside the Caribbean ocean.

view from our apartment

beach across Avenida Santander

One doesn’t need to look too far to find statues and sculptures in public spacesPegasus in the plural??????????????????????????????????? ????????????

or street art upon building walls.street art in Barrio Getsemani

Barrio Getsemani

Streets are filled with all manner of vehicles from taxis and buses to carts pulled by horses and donkeys or horse-drawn carriages.horse powered

an uninspired tour busAnd lacking all other resources, sometimes carts are propelled by people.human propelled

The residents of Cartagena are friendly, welcoming and quick to smile as well as to share a friendly word and point one in the right direction.  One gentleman, posed proudly for us after showing us around a museum. our guide - Irsis

However, there aren’t too-many freebies in this tourist driven economy and the more colorful characters ask for change in exchange for photos.street vendor

street mimeColombian vender

And at the end of the day lovers find a quiet moment in the niches of the old wall to watch the late afternoon fade into night and the sunset reflected in the sea.?????? Lovers in old wall

A  UNESCO World Heritage Site, Cartagena is an amazing city and we greatly enjoyed our time here as we celebrated our third Christmas as retired nomads and welcomed in 2015.  Some places take a piece of your heart and we’ll leave a little of us behind as we move on to the Netherlands Antilles.vendors

By Anita and Richard

Life’s a Beach: Chillin’ in Cartagena

Sheer funjetties & unique beachesOne of the first things we noticed about the swimming beaches that run along the Caribbean coast of Cartagena was their unique configuration. Where the natural shoreline and urban development allow, jetties have been built with spacing that permit the tides to wash in creating half-moon shaped beaches perfectly suited to water frolicking. The only thing that upsets the tranquility of the water is a strong onshore wind which raises the swell of the ocean but does not seriously deflect from the enjoyment of the folks on the beach.

beach sheltersAt our favorite crescent shaped beach – our favorite because we had only to take the elevator to the lobby and walk across Avenida Santander – it was usually easy to rent a “tarpa”, a plasticized rectangle of blue or red fabric stretched over a movable metal frame to give shade. As we preferred to be there mid to late morning during the quieter weekdays there were usually about twenty to thirty of the canopied structures nicely spaced around our little swimming hole.   It set us back a couple of bucks but the fee was good for the day and they were rented by all because the sun would scorch you in short order. So if you weren’t in the water you were probably hunkered down in the shelter of your tarpa watching the fun going on about you.   happy girl

kids in bright suits

The kids, naturally, loved the beach. Tiny toddlers, at first apprehensive, saw even tinier tots playing in the shallows, splashing and allowing the waves to chase them. It didn’t take long for them to warm up either to the water or the fun; the water was not bath water warm but just a few degrees south, delightfully cool during the heat of the day. So the kids, either with or without their folks at their sides, became the stars of the show. In their neon colored swim suits with their unbridled exuberance they flapped and flopped about in the gentle surf, masters of their domain.

Boy at the beach

intent on their diggingThe older folks joined in the fun, as did we, venturing out farther into the waves and, of course, we couldn’t compete with the gleeful enthusiasm of a kid.  But really, we all became kids inside whether we dove headfirst into six inches of water, buried a brother in the sand, built castles and dug holes or jumped through the waves. It was all done with shouts of triumph and laughter.burying a bro

vendorAnd then there were the unexpected players; those not decked out in beach togs. These were the worker bees, thevendor - proud drones, the vendors and the hucksters, those who offered beach toys or souvenirs and outrageously priced massages as well as food and cold treats and provided for us as we frolicked in the sun or drowsed in the shade. For them, this was not a day at beach, this was their version of a day at the office. And while we knew that they had to make a living and checked out their goods we did little to abet their financial success on any given day.

vendors

Enjoying the playaBy Richard and Anita

An Urban Garden in Getsemani: Cartagena, Colombia

Barrio GetsemaniWe turned onto a narrow street of brightly colored attached houses of cement and stucco.  Two boys played with their Barrio Getsemanirecent Christmas gifts of action heroes complete with sounds of warfare and annihilation. Potted plants were abundantly displayed along the raised edge of the paved road in front of many of the small homes in lieu of a yard and a woman tended her flowers while neighbors further on chatted, each sitting in front of their abodes.  The thriving bushes and flowers created an oasis on this street in the center of one of the lesser known areas of Cartagena. And overhead, strung between the homes across the lane of Callejon Angosto, from one end of the road to the other, plastic shopping bags in pastel colors of white, yellow, pink and blues fluttered gaily in the breeze, trapping the morning light, radiating a festive aura and creating both shade and, surprisingly, a tranquil refuge. We were completely delighted to see the lowly plastic bag, bane of modern existence, transformed into a fanciful and useful piece of beauty.

plastic bags in Barrio Getsemani

A portion of Getsemani is immediately adjacent to the old walled city of Cartagena that the tourists so love. It begins just across a major thoroughfare, Avenida Venezuela and online tourist websites as well as printed books give the area short Barrio Getsemanishrift. Yet it, unlike other neighborhoods such as San Diego, Boca Grande or the beach areas around Avenida Santander has not given way to the developers’ dollars and so it lacks the high rise condos, trendy stores and pricey restaurants found elsewhere. In this wedge-shaped neighborhood the common folk live, raise their families, attend schools and churches, save and spend their money, marry and bury their loved ones. For years, barrio Getsemani was stigmatized as poor and somehow unsafe for tourists. Yet we noticed on our visits that this was the mecca in Cartagena for the backpacker set; those young, mobile adventurists who flock to the barrio to take advantage of the clean, cheap hostels that thrive in Getsemani.Barrio Getsemani

Barrio Getsemani is also home to a large, multi-gated, fenced park established in 1811, Parque Centenario. It’s reputed to have a two-toed sloth, a large, aged iguana and a small troop of howler monkeys in amongst the trees but, although we looked hard, we neither saw nor heard any wild life. On our first walk through the park in the late afternoon we encountered the strong disagreeable odor of urine in some shaded stretches of the walkways and several rather disreputably dressed gentlemen, looking suspiciously like drunken vagrants, lying on the grass or benches and slumped about giving the vicinity an overall creepy feeling.

Parque CentenarioHowever, on our second visit to the park, a little after 9 AM, we actually talked about the song, What a Parque CentenarioDifference a Day Makes, as it reflected the changes we were seeing as we wandered through the park. People strolled about under trees pleasantly shading the pathways, grassy spaces and flowering bushes of green in the otherwise vastly cemented area of this part of the city.  Men sat upon benches talking quietly and a fountain sprayed water into a large pool.  Book sellers sat in front of little permanent kiosks that completely lined one side of the park and stacks of new and used books were displayed.  One gentleman’s attention was intently focused upon drying pages of a book by pressing a cloth to each page and fanning gently.  We examined the books, struck up conversations and smiled profusely.

Parque Centenario

Walking other streets within the neighborhood of Getsemani we nodded to friendly passersby, stopped to street sculpturewatch a craps game being played by several men on a corner sidewalk and admired a pretty little church, La Iglesia da la Trinidad.  One shaded and unnamed plaza had some whimsical metal statues of a dog chawing on a boys hip pocket, a drunk relieving himself in concert with a dog as his boon companion and a third of another borracho (drunk) proffering a drink to a not-too-close friend. Things that absolutely would not be encountered in the more prosperous, proper and staid old walled city. sometimes picturesque and charming precludes spontaneity and ribald humor!street sculpture

Here, in Barrio Getsemani, you’ll find wide-spread gentrification. It appears that the locals are resisting changes by working to preserve this remnant of an older, less attractive but still vibrant and thriving part of the city.  For now it’s a win-win for residents of the neighborhood as well as the tourists who have an opportunity to enjoy a grittier but character-filled corner of Caribe life amidst the hub-bub of cosmopolitan Cartagena de Indias. Viva el Barrio Getsemani!Barrio Getsemani

By Richard and Anita

 

The Unconquerable Castle on the Hill: Castillo San Felipe de Barajas in Cartagena

You know those geeky looking people you see on self-guided tours wearing the oversize, dorky black earflap headphones and squinting at their maps? That was us, complete with the big audio recorder that hung around our necks like a lead weight and bounced against our stomachs with each step.  At 9 AM in the morning we were already sweating buckets under the merciless sun and we hadn’t even started the climb up the hill.  We’d had a brief introduction to Castillo San Felipe de Barajas during our city tour a couple of weeks previous but the structure is so immense that we decided it deserved much more of our attention and time leisurely exploring it and besides, those tunnels looked like fun!Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas

The fortress completely covers the Hill of San Lazaro, a brilliantly strategic site that overlooks both land and sea approaches and is nothing if not imposing in its very size. Begun in 1536 and completed in 1767 it’s the largest, most complex Spanish fort ever built in the New World.  Slaves, using pickaxes and shovels first flattened the highest knob on the hill, no mean feat in itself, and then commenced with building the garrison from the top down. The original portion of the work which included constructing the “Old Fort” should have taken five years, but the governor’s unmerciful schedule finished it in a year; the number of slave deaths went unrecorded.  Using rectangular blocks gouged from both the coral reefs offshore and from a quarry nearby (manned by slaves and unfortunates who had been sentenced to hard labor by the ongoing Inquisitional Tribunals) they eventually covered the hillsides with ramps and walls, sentry stations, watchtowers and bell-towers, weapons plazas, ramparts for cannon and artillery, etc.  Also built were the structures needed to maintain those 500 troops at any one time such as a central kitchen, laundry, hospital, foundry and huge cisterns to collect water during the rainy season in preparation for the times of drought.high walls and sentry postscannons at the ready

And then there were the miles of labyrinthine tunnels throughout the hill, many dug by Welsh miners brought over especially for the task.  There are only a few that are open to the public now but it’s not hard to experience a rat in a maze feeling and sense of disorientation when one takes a wrong turn.  The tunnels were used for moving and storing provisions (food, weapons, and gunpowder) as well as repositioning troops or even evacuation/retreat, if ever needed, through a fortified exit at the base of the Castillo.  They were structured so that the acoustics allow for discrete sounds, such as footfalls or verbal commands and alerts by ringing bells with pre-arranged codes, that carry through the intersecting tunnels. tunnel entrances

tunnelWe had to applaud the strategic placement of the castle where the land adjoining the Hill of San Lazaro could aid the Spanish most in their acquisition and safeguarding of the New World’s plunder from those (also!) avaricious pirates.  Residing at the base of the castle was a “hospital” for lepers where treatment consisted solely of prayer and whose location was avoided by all who feared the dreaded flesh-eating disease believed to be caused by demons. The area surrounding the castle on the three sides was a mixture of lowlands and hillocks which were frequently flooded by seasonally heavy rains.  An elevated roadway connected this inhospitable region to the castle and served as an avenue of supply; it was useless to attackers as the road was well protected by the fort’s cannons.Cannons at the readyplacement of the fort

Fetid swamps, lying to either side of the roadway, populated by swarms of mosquitos and carrying malaria and yellow fever that had been introduced to the New World by the African slaves, further hindered the enemy.  An army weakened by disease, exhaustion and thirst was an easier foe for the Spanish to vanquish. On the seaward approach three stone causeways, connecting the Castillo to the walled city it defended, were intended to be destroyed by gunpowder to thwart the enemy in the event of an attack. These heavily guarded entry points were the only means to access the bastion.old bridge - incompletearea surrounding the Castillo

The entire massive fortress stands as a testament to Spanish tenacity and genius. The geometry of the Castillo was fifty years in advance of that practiced in Europe; a full half century would elapse before fortifications on the continent would rival those in Cartagena. The Castillo itself was actually seven defensive structures built over time with overlapping fields of fire. Should an attacker actually breach one of the outer parameters they would find themselves confronted with enfiladed fire coming from two or more of the remaining six fortifications.  It was a death trap waiting to ensnare any adversary foolhardy enough to accept the challenge.fortress

Three hours later with the sun at its zenith, our faces sweat-streaked and flushed under our hats and our water bottles emptied, we walked down the hill.  Our awe at what the Spanish had accomplished in the building of Castillo San Felipe de Barajas had only grown. The fortress, along with the old City of Cartagena well deserves its 1984 recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is well worth a lengthy and leisurely exploration.Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas

By Anita and Richard

Off to Great Places in Cartagena de Indias

“You’re on your own. And you know what you know. And you are the one who’ll decide where to go.”  The Places You’ll Go, Dr. Seuss

We arrived promptly at el Museo del Naval de Carib at 1:15 where we met Irsis, our English-speaking guide from the previous day. It was he who had suggested that we take the city tour which included several of the scenic sights in this phenomenal port city. Plus he could offer it at 20% off the price quoted to us by a previous vendor. So, after having a complimentary coffee that was heavily sugared, we departed through one of the gates in the city’s walls to meet the bus which would be our chariot for the remainder of the day.

“Congratulations! Today is your day. You’re off to Great Places! You’re off and away.” Ibid.

Our chariotWe were greatly pleased when we saw our tour bus painted in gaudy colors with Bob Marley and the Wailers blaring out of the open sides; it was nothing so much as a rolling Sesame Street colored boom box. Firmly ensconced in our open aired seats we departed, taking a jaunt around the Parque Centenario en route to barrio Bocagrande, the richest barrio in this city of 1.2 million built along the powdery white sand beach of Cartagena’s harbor. As we tootled around collecting the rest of the paid passengers we gawked at the shops, many similar to tony venues in the States. With our full complement of lookie-loos we turned towards our first destination of the day, the waterfront at the city’s marina. Colombia’s navy and army maintain bases in the port area while, in the commercial area, the gantry cranes stand ready to on or off load containerized cargos from ocean-going transports. Small parks abutting the malecon appear in less congested areas.  Berthing privileges are also extended to the massive cruise liners that make ports-of-call in Cartagena.  To our chagrin, we observed their disgorged passengers as they followed their leader’s standard literally blocking the city’s narrow streets like a flock of demented goslings. the harbor area

 

 “You’re off to great places! Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting. So … Get on your way!” Ibid.

Our next stop, and the main reason we had joined the tour, was a visit to the Cerro de Popa which would allow us an elevated view of the city, the harbor, the scattered islands and the waterways that enveloped the old walled city of Cartagena.  The name literally means Convent of the Stern referring to the similarity between the 492-foot hillock and the back end of a ship.  Perched at the top and overlooking the city with its white walls reflecting the sun’s rays is a picturesque colonial church (circa 1611) and a convent.Cerro de Popa

We learned that during the early years of the colony, around 1535, a clandestine shrine existed upon the hill which was used by the indigenous inhabitants and African slaves to worship the deity Buziriaco, which, history records, resembled a goat. Legend has it that an Augustinian priest received, in a dream, an order from the Virgin Mary to erect a monastery on the site. Having traveled to the hill of La Popa the padre discovered the goat shrine and promptly pitched it down the mount. This must have come as an immense relief to the indigenous Indians and black slaves, as normal retribution for such sacrilege by the Spanish involved nasty torture or hideous death and, on a bad day, both. Pitching the goat shrine down the hill was bupkis.

Ultimately, the ride to the top of the mountain was more memorable for the grinding of gears and the acrid odor of charred motor oil issuing from the antiquated engine of our glitzy boom-box bus than the Convent itself but inside was housed a memorable, dazzling altar encrusted in 22-carat gold leaf – a rather impressive upgrade from the now defunct Buziriaco goat shrine.gold encrusted shrine

We made two more stops prior to the finale, the first presented an absolutely impressive venue, the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas which we decided deserved another more lengthy visit and a later post all its own and the second stop to a sculpture of a pair of high-top sneakers that had little visual or historic note which we hereby omit.

“Things may happen and often do to people as brainy and footsy as you.”, Ibid.

the old Officers'  BarracksOur chariot came to its last stop in front of the old Officers’ Quarters, later converted into a prison and now in a revitalized iteration as a Latinized mini-strip mall. Approximately twenty small tiendas selling Colombian handicrafts, a combination of beautifully worked goods and shoddy souvenirs, were housed in the stuccoed and gaily painted barracks. During the half hour we were allotted, we wandered through six or seven shops before selecting a bolsa, a cloth bag, in black with a brightly colored embroidered and appliqued red parrot on the front to use as a packing organizer.street vendor in traditional Colombian dress

“Just never forget to be dexterous and deft. And never mix up your right foot with your left. And, will you succeed? Yes! You will indeed! (98 and ¾ percent guaranteed.)”, Ibid.

And so, five hours later and $36 lighter we were dropped off on a side street inside the walled city. We perambulated over to what has become one of our favorite eateries, Ilsabe, for a pleasant meal and emerged after dark to stroll the narrow streets decorated for the holidays, the lights in gay profusion from balconies, statues and enormous Christmas trees that decorated almost every park and plaza. It was a wonderful way to end a raucous and informative day in the city by the sea.clock tower lighted up

We are indebted to Dr. Seuss, ne: Theodore Gisselle, for his marvelous creation The Places You’ll Go, published January 22, 1990 by Random House Publishing Co. While it was the last book he was to write it was the first book that truly inspired us in our visions of travel.

By Richard and Anita

Cartagena de Indias: Before, During and After The Conquistadors

Map of Cartagena, Colombia available at www.google.com/search?q=cartagena+map+colombia

Map of Cartagena, Colombia available at http://www.google.com/search?q=cartagena+map+colombia

Cartagena de Indias, Colombia is a jewel of a city sprawled on the Caribbean coast with a fascinating history that, like a trilogy, can be divided into life before the Spaniards, life with the Spaniards and life after the Spaniards.

Life before the invasion and land grab by the Spanish appears to have been rather idyllic in many respects for the original Meso-Americans drawn to this area as early as 4000 BCE by the mild climate and profusion of wildlife.  Here they built villages and engaged in a life as hunter-gatherers as well as some uniquely sophisticated irrigation and farming practices. Some agriculturalists had a belief system that viewed the world as a weaving of land, plants and water upon which the animals and people lived.  Potters made both everyday and ceremonial ceramics and goldsmiths (the Sinú people) devised several methods for making some pretty awesome jewelry for those in the upper echelons of their society. Of course, the elite of all the tribes engaged in some strutting to make sure that everyone knew they had riches.  Also practiced was intermittent warfare, with some tribes indulging in the art of barbecuing their adversaries. But by and large, life was good.pre-columbian gold artifact Cartagena pre-columbian gold from the god museum Cartagena

In 1501 CE, when the Spanish first landed in Cartagena Bay, the land was inhabited by several different tribes of people from the Karib (also spelled Carib) language group, who were found throughout the islands of the Caribbean Sea. The Spanish found the southern Caribbean coast around Cartagena unattractive to colonizers and departed elsewhere, leaving the Karibs in peace for another three decades.

portrait of Pedro de Heridia, 1533

portrait of Pedro de Heridia, 1533

When the Spanish returned in 1533, there were 200 settlers led by Pedro de Heredia and the Sinú people were forcibly displaced or enslaved while their ancestors’ tombs were looted for gold.   After their plundering was complete, many of the Spanish inhabitants scattered to the countryside to begin new lives as farmers. However, Cartagena was given a second opportunity to prosper a short time later when the city was successfully established as one of the great royal treasure repositories for the riches stripped from the peoples of Latin America.  As a renowned and flourishing outpost it became a major trading port for precious metals, pearls and emeralds. Gold, silver and emeralds from the mines in New Granada (later to be named Colombia) and Peru as well as pearls from the coastal waters were loaded onto the galleons bound for Spain via Havana.

With its fame and glory the now prosperous Cartagena was turned into an attractive plunder site for pirates and buccaneers – French and English privateers – licensed by their respective kings.  Now it became the turn of the Spanish to be threatened, then attacked; their cities and forts sacked and pillaged and their people killed. The pirates quickly closed on the victim with a strike in 1563 by the French nobleman Jean-François Roberval followed quickly by Martin Coat for the British crown.  Cartagena’s defenses were repaired and strengthened after each incident but the work proved to be ineffectual.  In 1586 Sir Francis Drake arrived with a massive fleet, quickly took the city and exacted a stiff ransom from the Governor after destroying a quarter to the city. (See also our posts featuring Sir Francis Drake having his wily way in Panama at Fuerte San Lorenzo and Casco Viejo, the original capital of Panama.)

sentry post overlooking the Caribbean Sea

sentry post overlooking the Caribbean Sea

After this disaster, Spain poured millions every year into the city for its protection.  Planning of the walls and forts began in earnest during the 17th century; the Spanish Crown paid for the services of prominent European military engineers to construct fortresses.  The last successful incursion on Cartagena was in 1697 by the French pirates Sir Bernard Desjean and Jean Baptiste Ducasse but by 1710 the walls were rebuilt, the forts reorganized and restored,  the public services restored and the buildings reopened.

Today the walls that surround Cartagena’s old town are its most significant, identifiable feature and a part of what makes the city a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  The engineering works took 208 years and ended with some 6.8 miles of walls surrounding the city, including the fort, Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, named in honor of Spain’s King Philip IV. The Castillo was constructed to repel land attacks and was an anchor of the city’s defenses. Numerous attempts to storm the reinforced fort were mounted, but it was never penetrated.P1050344 (800x545)

Cartagena WallsCastillo de San Felipe de BarajasSpain had one more infamous chapter to play in Cartagena’s history for, in addition to its prominence as a shipping port for the dispersion of the New World’s wealth to the Old World it, along with Veracruz, Mexico, became one of two licensed trade ports for African slaves in Central and South America. The first slaves were transported by Pedro de Heredia, who you may recall was the founder of the city in 1533, and were used as cane cutters to open roads, as laborers to loot and destroy the tombs of the aboriginal population of Sinú and to construct buildings and fortresses.  Slavery was abolished in Colombia in 1851.Three races

Colombia made several attempts to declare its independence from Spain and was finally successful in the final war for independence in 1821 led by Simon Bolívar.  It is the admixture of three races, the indigenous Meso-American Karibs, the Caucasian Spanish and the descendants of the African slaves, which gives Cartagena an ethnic richness. Several people have told us that those from Cartagena think of themselves first as citizens of this city because of its distinctive kaleidoscope of civilizations, heritage and history  and then as citizens of Colombia.

By Richard and Anita

“Greetings and Good Riddance” (We Arrive in Cartagena, Colombia)

 

historical centerWe should have known that we had potential communication problems with our prospective host when our last message from him was “Greetings and good riddance.”  We’d found the apartment through AirBnB, read the few references listed and sent out an inquiry to him about renting the apartment for 5 weeks beginning in December. The response:

10-8-14  Greetings and thank you for reaching out to me! Have you ever been to Cartagena before? My apartment–the entire place, not just a room–is available and I am pre-approving you already. The apartment has a patio with ocean views, strong wifi, and a pool in the complex. The beach is across the street and the historic center is a ten minute walk.

I am in Spain for the rest of the year, but my sister Liliana, who works in tourism, will be the one to let you in to the place. She speaks English fluently and will be able to answer any and all your questions about the city and/or the rest of the country whenever you want.

Let me know if you have any further questions.

Ah, we thought.  A personable young man and the apartment sounds like what we’re looking for.  We reserved the apartment (our 16th booking with AirBnB) and wrote again towards the end of November to confirm our arrival details receiving this reply:

11-25-14   if you please send me the details of the flight .. and I shall pass to Liliana. She is a person of great trust and works with tourism. anything were to need it We can help solve

We did and proceeded with wrapping up our time in Ecuador and reading about Cartagena, Colombia, envisioning the narrow streets and picturesque colonial architecture featured in the old movie, “Romancing the Stone” with Kathleen Turner and Michael Douglas.

Another note arrived a few days later:

12-1-14  Hi. Not long for the trip! I wanted to wish you a safe journey and incidentally tell an affair with reference to cushion your room. I wanted to change to a more comfortable, but to this day December 11 did not reach the new mattress. I apologize for the inconvenience that may be caused that day, but will be worth it for better comfort when sleeping! a greeting.

Hmm –  A problem??? December 11 must be a typo since it’s written the first… And so we kept packing…

12-2-14   Hello .. if everything is organized for your arrival day 3! the address of the apartment. It is avenidad sanrander building offshore goatherd. 1012 apartment !. liliana will be waiting at the airport! greetings and good riddance!

Ah!  A good laugh when we read the last line.  Everything was on track…

December 3rd we spent the day in the air and in transit through the Manta and Quito, Ecuador and Bogotá, Colombia airports out of touch with everyone as no Wi-Fi was available; relaxed and blissfully unaware that this message had arrived:

12-3  Hi Anita and Richard. what about the apartment? had told him that he would change the mattress for the day December 11th is not possible before by q reference q want is not in the store .. could talk tomorrow with mattress store to see if they can serve tomorrow another .. regards

The plane was an hour late and Lilianna, a pretty woman in her late twenties was awaiting as promised.  She was polite but far from the warm, welcoming person our host had written of who, because of her tourism experience, would be interested in making our visit pleasant as well as answer any questions we had.  Also, she was not the loving sister described but a friend and she spoke NOT ONE WORD OF ENGLISH. She dispatched us as quickly as possible to the apartment without being overtly rude and sped off into the night. The apartment manager, a plump and smiling woman named Dianna was waiting in the airy lobby which was decorated for the holidays and, although she didn’t speak English either, we were able to communicate with our limited Spanish.  She produced the keys and we followed her up the elevator.  We arrived at the door and she unlocked the flimsy locks, shaking her head in dismay because she had talked to the owner about replacing them and…

We walked in.  It looked okay at first, second and third glances as we looked around.  Certainly not as modern or as big as we’d thought but things looked fairly clean and the view of the Caribbean could be seen as promised from the balcony. The kitchen was basically outfitted, there was a nice television, table and couch in the living area and the bedroom … Wait, there was something wrong here… the bed was strangely low… and it finally occurred to us, there was no mattress!  Just clean sheets drawn over a box spring with pillows piled up invitingly. a bed with no mattress

Obviously, the new mattress that the host had spoken of in a previous email had not been delivered.  We decided to contact the host on the “strong Wi-Fi” connection and, of course, nothing, nada, zip.  We debated about this conundrum for a few minutes with Dianna assuring us that we could figure out the bed and Wi-Fi in the morning, and having been up since 4 am, decided to tough it out on the box springs for the night with a nest of pillows.  We turned on the AC (it worked!) in the bedroom and a fan in the living room since the apartment was stifling and proceeded to unpack just what we needed for the night.  Washing up, I looked down to see a pool of water spreading from the sink base and tiredly, laid a towel over the rapidly expanding puddle.  And then, upon closing the folding doors to our lovely cool bedroom (mattress or no) a small sound, R-r-r-r, as part of the door sagged drunkenly to its side held by one hinge and a screw pulling from the adjoining panel.

broken bedroom door

Things did not look any better in the morning.  Dianna arrived and, using her cell phone, we wrote the owner a note saying that the apartment was unacceptable, detailed the problems and advised him that we would be contacting AirBnB which we did next, sending photos of the problems.  We also Skyped with a helpful AirBnB rep named Miranda who assured us that she would follow the matter through.  And then, we left for a hotel that Dianna helped us find – with a mattress and reliable Wi-Fi, intact doors and dry floors.

AirBnB came through for us with flying colors and we received a full refund within a couple of days as well as a $100 credit towards our next reservation.  In the future, we may not be quite as credulous when corresponding with prospective hosts and we’ll look for more reviews as well a slightly higher price range.  It’s always a gamble when booking through any online accommodation agency (be it VRBO, FlipKey, Wimdu, Homeaway, etc.) and this time we lost.beach across from our apt

But not quite.  Four days later, again with Dianna’s help, we returned to the same apartment building but a different and vastly improved apartment.  And for only twice as much… plus the hotel fees… Ah, well, it’s the h-o-l-i-d-a-y-s and we’re right in the middle of the Christmas high season with celebrants and vacationers visiting Cartagena in huge numbers.  Lights and decorations, fiestas and festivities abound.  Feliz Navidad!

Cartagena in the Christmas Season

By Anita and Richard

There’s Something Fishy About Manta

tun on a stick statueManta, Ecuador isn’t a pretty city.  At its heart it’s a small fishing village that has grown into a substantial metropolis with an estimated 300,000 citizens.   Although the city has existed since Pre-Columbian times, there are no cultural ruins and little aesthetic appeal in the gritty commercial downtown.  example of streets in downtown, Manta Narrow one-way streets climb up and down the steep hills attended by sidewalks in need of repair as crowds of vendors and shoppers move in opposing directions and swirls of activity. The vast majority of the downtown, one or two blocks set back from the waterfront, consists of relatively new and unimaginative structures: two, three and four-story cement and cinderblock square buildings, predominately gray or in need of a new coat of paint, their sides plastered with posters and signs. If the architectural term “Eastern Bloc” existed it downtownmight well apply to this portion of the downtown. In contrast, the Malecon, the main street abutting the Pacific, running along the beach from Playa Murcielago eastward to roughly Playa Tarqui, hosts recent, modern, commercial edifices of glass and steel of several stories.  Here are the larger banks, government buildings, hotels and the like. But, regardless of where you are in the city, tower cranes, arc welders and cutting torches attest to the fact that the city is in a genuine boom phase, both commercial and residential.

city beach near portshrimp and prawns happy fish mongerManta has the largest seaport in Ecuador as well as one of the most stable economies in the country; fishing, tuna processing and canning are the main industries.  We half expected the city to reek of fish but this wasn’t the case. The fish market, a huge open-air structure roofed in tin and located on the beach was worth several morning visits. Tables were piled highfresh caught fish with more varieties of fish than we had ever seen (tuna, dorado, corvina, red snapper, grouper, wahoo, prawns and lobster, etc.) with the fresh catch of the day glistening under stray shafts of sunlight. The flash of machetes and fillet knives slicing through the sea’s bounty and the salty smell of the sea and fish in the air gave us a new appreciation of an ocean harvest. Mid-day, after the crowds depart, the market is washed down; later on in the day it might turn rank, but there are the scavengers (frigates, egrets, herons and buzzards) waiting their turn to help with the final cleanup.A fishermans famliy

At three roundabouts on the Malecon sculptures are erected that reflect Manta’s roots as a village of fishermen and seafarers. building a boat Here, also, we watched the skilled boat builders of Manta craft their handmade ships and, near the Manta Yacht club, we admired the yachts and other ships and boats floating in the bay.  Tourism, both foreign and domestic, is becoming more and more important to Manta’s economy; assorted cruise ships make Manta a port of call. When the ships are in port, local vendors from the city and nearby Montecristi as well as those from the mountain cities of Quito and Cuenca set up their tables and display their handicrafts, textiles and artwork from many of the country’s finest artisans.welcome to Manta

The citizens of Manta were some of the most welcoming and friendly people who we’ve yet encountered.  Although the expat numbers are growing (estimated to be around 350) the ratio of gringos to locals makes this one of the most “authentic” places we’ve been.  Taxi drivers were friendly and we had many conversations in Spanish, and occasionally English, as we were speedily delivered to our destinations.  We made many friends in the active expat group which met several times during the week and our social life varied only with our desire to participate in the many gatherings or seek some quieter pursuits. And, while conversations of religious philosophies might be tolerated, political discussions could be volatile and engaging in such was best avoided.boats bobbing

fresh produceManta’s an easy city in which to live and it’s only going to improve.  It has beautiful beaches and the influx of affluent Ecuadorians looking for vacation homes, foreign speculators seeking a good investment and retiring baby boomers searching for a place where their money goes further are spurring the growth of this city.  The availability of fresh produce and seafood at economical prices is unsurpassed and the city abounds with excellent restaurants. Garbage pickup is daily and there’s good cellular service as well as cable TV and, depending where you reside, excellent Wi-Fi. The electricity costs appear to be much lower than Central America’s and there’s even an airport.

However, our ninety-day visa was close to its expiration date and it was time for us to move on.  And, lest we sound like an ad for International Living, Manta’s not for everyone and it’s probably not for us.  The dry climate that results from the offshore Humboldt Current gives Manta a mild and very pleasant temperature which draws many expats seeking to avoid the torpid humidity of Mexico and Central America.  However, the aridity combined with the constant wind and dust can also cause a lot of respiratory problems for people predisposed to breathing difficulties (what the locals call gripe) and the rainfall, which would clean the air, is erratic and scant. It was usually cloudy during the months that we were there (September through November) but when the sun shone the skies were dazzling. We genuinely felt like we were leaving an old friend when we boarded the plane bound for Cartagena, Colombia.seafarer

By Anita and Richard

 

Drivin’ Along in My Automobile … to Puerto Lopez

 

Puerto LopezWe’d wanted to visit the bustling fishing village and eco-tourism hub, Puerto Lopez, south of Manta since we’d arrived in Ecuador and when Barb, our Canadian mentor and friend here in Manta, invited us to drive there we jumped at the opportunity.  Puerto Lopez serves as headquarters for the Parque Nacional de Machlilla, a whale watching port and is a jumping off point for the Isla de la Plata, known as the Poor Man’s Galapagos, which hosts many of the same sea and shore birds as the Galapagos Islands with a day trip costing only $35. trees forming a tunnel

a change in climate - coolerIt was an overcast day as we climbed away from the arid landscape of the coast; the leaden sky gave up a light fog which in turn yielded to a fine mist. The grayness of the drizzle contrasted sharply with the lush greens of a micro-climate through which we passed for a time and then, once we crested the hill and began the descent, we returned to the cacti and scrub of the native coastal desert.coastal desert

roadside eateryDriving through the more typical barrenness of the land, we slid through the nondescript pueblos of the campo, the countryside, of Ecuador. There was no glitter in La Pina, no tourist destinations in Santa Rosa. The surroundings through which we passed were the earthen tones of the uncompromising land itself; the dull red of the bricks, the unpainted gray of the cinder blocks and the fading gold of bamboo turning a monotonous brown with the passing of time.  The colors seemed to be drained by wind, sand and salt air and within were sheltered extended families striving to eke a living from the land and sea.  And somewhere within the mass of dwellings would be one or more churches each proffering its claims of grace in the afterlife as precious little of it was available here. This was the rural side of Ecuador and its people not, as yet, invited to sit at the tables of the middle class.  In this nation of relative prosperity, the country folks stood in stark comparison to their city cousins

near La Pina

As if to mirror the image projected by the villages, the sea faded into the sky, foam pushed close to shore, the rocky shingle of the beach mocked the absence of the sandy stretches elsewhere to the north and south. The view was more stark and on this particular morning it appeared that the seascape was about the immensity of the ocean itself, offering little succor.bluffs of Machalilia beach

We were well past the mid-point of the trip to Puerto Lopez when we pulled into the sleepy little village of Machalilla outside the national park of the same name. It was a small town of indeterminate size with a concave malecon circled around an arched, sandy bay.  Three parallel streets crowded into the bowl area delineated by the highway which hugged the hill furthest back from the water. The town was in desperate need of a facelift: stucco patching, fresh paint for the buildings as well as asphalt in the frame-rattling pot holes. But the beach was a scenic attraction stretched around a half-moon bay.  Small fishing boats were lined up on the fine sand or in the water among larger ships rigged out with fishing nets. After reconnoitering the city and snapping a few photos we departed for our final destination.Machallil Bay

Puerto Lopez beach A few more miles and we arrived at Puerto Lopez. The humpback whales had departed the waters near Puerto Lopez for the season as had several species of birds from the Isla de la Plata.  We walked down the new pier for a long overdue view of the sea birds. Peruvian pelicans, closely related to the brown pelicans of the U.S., were in fine form plunging again and again into schools of fish close by the pilings.Peruvian Pelican

Peruvian PelicansSmall terns harassed the pelicans unsuccessfully as they emerged from their headlong dives with their beaks streaming with seawater and a morsel of fish. Overhead the Great Frigate Birds circled and looked for opportunities to quickly snatch a tidbit from an unwary, feathered competitor. Gulls, few in number, sat in desultory knots away from the action with little hope of getting into the game. The black vultures drifted on the winds or hopped about on the sand dejected by the paucity of options available to them at the moment but their time would come when the fishing boats returned.

We ambled by the numerous hotels, hostels and tourist agencies and browsed through the souvenir shops before we sat down to a fresh seafood meal, indifferently cooked, of shrimp and rice.  After a bill negotiation with a waitress who had trouble adding accurately we climbed back into the car and pointed the wheels north towards Manta. Our slow journey was retraced through the small villages and rural areas while we kept an eye out for the wild burros that we had seen alongside the road.wild burro by the ocean

By Richard and Anita

 

Silk Underwear Concealed – Kleptocracy Revealed: Lima, Peru

Armas PlazaWe flew from Manta, Ecuador to Lima for a few days to meet-up with family members who were visiting for a week and on their way back to the States after spending a total of two-plus weeks acclimating to the altitude in Cuzco and then volunteering on conservation projects at Machu Picchu. We were looking forward to the reunion but we weren’t prepared for the fact that Lima is c-o-l-d, damp and gloomy.  The city sits in the northern fringe of the Atacama Desert which gets roughly an inch of moisture a year; 95% of that comes in the form of a fog that blankets the city each morning. At this time of year (November) it lifts briefly only to return in the late afternoon usually accompanied by a blustery wind. However, we were both excited to each inherit a set of silk long johns to warm us in the absence of sunshine.  We were assured that the sun does indeed make an appearance for two to three months a year starting in January, unimaginable as it then seemed. Love Park in bloom

Parque KennedyMost surprisingly, given this climatological fact, was the abundance of flowers in the parks and boulevards of the city; daily watering keeps the city in bloom. Parque Central and Parque Kennedy, near our residence were redolent with blooms and lazy cats stretched out and napping on the lawns. Love Park or Parque de Amor, was awash with flowers, a statue of two lovers entwined and intricately tiled mosaic walls. Plaza de Armas and Plaza del San Martin were similarly bedecked as were most of the wide boulevards with grassy medians.Armas Plaza and the Palacio Gubierno

Lima, and the adjacent port city of Callao, host roughly eleven million people, more than a third of the country’s population, with urban sprawl being a pronounced feature. The old Historic District radiates out from the Palace of the President, the Cathedral, the Archbishop’s Palace, San Fransisco Church and Convent, among the notables, and was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992.

We toured the underground crypts in the San Francisco church, a bastion of egalitarian burial. Each of the crypts were filled with ten bodies with no distinctions between classes and then covered with quicklime. The members of the religious order may have had a separate chamber but in death a commonality of the human condition was finally recognized.

We wound our way through tunnels with side chambers and came upon a unique feature, the ossuary, which was a circular crypt where the curators, displaying a macabre sense of design, had arranged the larger bones, tibia, fibula, etc. and skulls artfully in elaborate patterns.  We guessed that the smaller bones had sifted their way down to pile up below.

MuseumRafaael Larco HerreraAbout midway through our visit we caught a cab across town to the Museo Larco which was as fine a museum as we’ve seen anywhere, including all the offerings one might see in the Smithsonian. The grounds were a riot of colors, impeccably landscaped and it was a pleasure just to sit and gaze around at the spectacular gardens.grounds of Museo Larco

Funerary bundle with mask and gold crown

Funerary bundle with mask and gold crown

The benefactor, Rafael Larco Hoyle (1901-1966) began the museum in 1926 and, with his family’s financial backing, amassed a collection from archeological sites along Peru’s northern coast.Gold adornments

These included many cultures previously unknown and the objects were of precious and semi-precious metals and stones, ceremonial and everyday pottery and earthenware and vestments of the upper classes. In all, 45,000 items were cataloged and on display to the public.  After hours of wandering through this fabulous museum we were satiated and our eyes began to cross and glaze over!

Dueling set

Dueling set

On our penultimate full day in Lima we went to Museo Oro del Peru – the Gold Museum – another privately endowed property. The ground floor was more a monument to militarism and kleptocracy, devoted to armaments from the 16th through the 20th centuries from all over the world. We took a few pictures before being reminded that photos are discouraged but a “short” list of some of the implements of war and the related accoutrements follows: armor complete with codpieces, brass knuckles, dirks, a “Beefeater” uniform, Gatling guns, a beautifully polished Kalashnikov rifle presented by the USSR Ambassador, a plethora of fantastic European dueling pistols, maces, Moroccan scimitars and Nazi paraphernalia. Two over-the-top items were uniforms personally donated by Generalissimo Francisco Franco of Spain in 1938 and Generalissimo Augusto Pinochet of Chile in 1976.

After being sidetracked on the first floor for well over an hour we climbed down the stairs and reached our real objective, a subterranean level which housed within vaults containing gold, silver, bronze, copper, pearls, turquoise, weavings, funerary offerings, litters, and mummified corpses. In a nod to the ultimate equality of mortals a corpse of a lower class commoner was among the items. A corpse’s class in life could be determined by its position: a corpse laid out horizontally was in the lower classes as opposed to the corpse seated vertically in its funerary bundle in the higher classes.  In addition, death objects accompanying the body ranged from pottery shards to the elaborate which, again, made the class distinction painfully obvious.  One thing that struck us, just as we were again reaching our critical threshold of museum overload, was that the precious metals, pearls and stones would not have filled the hold of the smallest Spanish galleon. The fact that these items were buried kept them beyond the reach of the acquisitive conquistadores.San Simon Plaza

We barely scratched the surface of the city of Lima and didn’t explore any of Peru’s other magnificent and well-known sites.  But we had a terrific reunion with some of our family, learned a little about this country’s rich and varied history and, clad in our silk long underwear, departed gratefully for warmer climes.

Love Park - Lovers entwined and workers maintaining

Love Park – Lovers entwining and workers maintaining

By Richard and Anita

 

Adding Up the Costs: The Galapagos Islands

galpsaOver the years we’ve watched several documentaries of the Galapagos Islands and have always thought, right along with millions of others, “Wow!  Would we love to visit there s-o-m-e-d-a-y!”  Upon our arrival in Ecuador we started researching affordable ways to visit the islands that were somewhere between the high-end luxury cruises and backpacker hostels.  Most flights embark for the 1½ hour journey from Guayaquil which was only a little over a three hour bus ride from Manta where we’ve been staying.  We  consulted a couple of travel agencies whose prices were roughly $999 per person, for a four day/three night stay in a four-star hotel with meals included, excluding beverages.   A five day tour, with the same inclusions and exclusions was $1299 per person.  Not covered were tourist/park fees and docking fees.  We read a few articles online, talked to friends about their visits and decided that we wanted to add extra days as well as select which islands we wanted to visit.  And so we planned our own “Indie” excursion.galapagos tortoise

Day One

We took an early morning cab to the bus station ($2) and boarded the bus line Reina Del Camino (Queen of the Road) to Guayaquil with our previously purchased tickets, $5.00 for adults, $2.50 for seniors for a total of $7.50. Upon our arrival at the major bus terminal in Guayaquil, a three-story affair, we claimed our bags and then cabbed ($4) to the airport.  The bus terminal and airport are actually adjoined but one-way streets necessitated an extended drive around the parameters of the two facilities.

Our plane fare on Avianca Airlines was $577 for two round-trip tickets from Guayaquil to Baltra Island in the Galapagos.  We were a little out of sync with the order of steps and procedures but they basically boil down to:

  • Stop by the Consejo de Gobierno del Regimen Especial de Galapagos for the control card for transit into the Galapagos ($20 for two people).
  • Next go to the Inspeccion y Cuarentena, a quarantine that checks to make sure you’re not bringing in seeds or other items that could affect the balance of the flora and fauna in the archipelago. Bags will be scanned, checked and stickered.  Some people elect to get their luggage wrapped in multiple layers of plastic but we’re not quite sure why.
  • Finally, we checked our two bags, proceeded through security and awaited boarding.

park ticketsWe landed without incident on Baltra Island at the small airport and claimed our checked bags.  Customs was a breeze and we were separated from another $200 for two people for the Galapagos Islands National Park entrance fee. Our passports received the requisite stamp for the Parque Nacional Galapagos.

We followed the crowd to the waterfront and deposited our suitcases with a man who heaved them on the roof of the covered launcha, clambered aboard and set off for the Isla Santa Cruz, the island we were staying on ($2 ). Upon disembarkation we reclaimed our carry-ons, and boosted ourselves and our luggage onto a bus for the 45-minute ride to Puerto Ayoro, the largest metropolis on the islands, with a population of perhaps 12,000 hearty souls. The bus, incidentally, was gratis. At the terminus we hailed a taxi (a bit of a price gouge of double the normal fare at $2 for the short trip) and proceeded to our hotel.

We had reserved our room through AirBnB previously and found The Hotel Fiesta to be charming, clean and quiet although the room was small. It was also very close to the “downtown area” and restaurants and was a great value at $100 per night, including tax and gratuity, for a total of $500. The room included an enormous breakfast of fruit, yogurt, granola, coffee/tea and juice which was then followed by eggs, bread, cheese and sausage or ham. The Hotel Fiesta also had a travel agent, a delightful woman named Deanna, who booked all our tours for us, including a lucky break on a highly desired island tour.Galapagos

Day 2

We explored Santa Cruz beginning with a walk of roughly 6 miles round trip from the hotel to Playa Tortuga on the island. The vegetation was remarkable and the ocean view was spectacular. Small birds showed no fear and wandered freely around us. Afterwards we went took another ambling walk around the Charles Darwin Center (free) to view rescued land tortoises and large multi-colored iguanas.iguanas

Day 3

blue footed boobiesWe joined a small group for a 4-hour tour of the Academy Bay ($70.00) and cruised by some of the smaller islands and rocky, jutting cliffs for up close glimpses of sea lions, sea turtles and blue-footed boobies. We beached at a rocky point for a walking tour where we saw marine iguanas emerging from the sea and heaving their large bodies over the lava rocks, finally gaining purchase on the sandy beach and hence into the sparse vegetation searching for warmth under the scorching sun.  A calm lagoon had at least twenty white tip sharks floating and sleeping.  Snorkeling was the final activity but only three stout hearts attempted it because, hey, the water was c-o-l-d!  The boldest swimmer made it no more than 15 minutes with only a few fish seen. On shore, following a late lunch at a wonderful Italian restaurant, we wandered over to a pier adjacent to the fish market. The vendors were gone but we were treated to very close encounters with large Peruvian pelicans.sea lion and cub

Day 4

We’d scheduled a tour to North Seymour Island (cost $320 for a couple which included meals) and our day started at 8:00 AM when a shuttle picked us up to transport us to the north end of the island.  Here we caught our boat for the day, a 37 foot Bay Liner, for the 1 hour trip.  North Seymour Island is a flat-topped island, an uplifted piece of the ocean floor raised during one of the tectonic upheavals that created parts of the Galapagos.  Aridity was the hall mark of this island but here we saw sea lions with their pups, some suckling and some juveniles old enough to brave the waters for short periods. As for our avian viewing highpoint, the male Magnificent Frigate Birds were courting and in full display with completely distended air sacks – brilliant red with black spotting.  The Lesser Frigates were fun to watch but no competition for our admiration and the Blue Footed Boobies, while not in abundance, were sufficient enough to fill our quota.Magnificent Frigate Bird

Day 5

Our last tour, St. Bartolome Island, was a genuine score for Deanna, our hotel’s tour agent, ($340 with meals).  This island, especially, has a very high demand for on-shore tours and a daily limit of people allowed.  We started our day at 6:00 AM with the shuttle across the island followed by a 3-hour boat ride to St. Bartolome Island and an exciting sighting of a few manta rays.  The island shores are a combination of rugged bluffs, sandy beaches and pyroclastic lava flows from 1898 which almost resembled an elephant hide in places and served as a geological lesson in island building.  At a second drop site, we climbed 364 steps that circled the island’s extinct volcano for a panoramic view of the whole island.  On our way down we were lucky enough to spot sea turtles regally swimming by, penguins darting rapidly in and about the water with a couple on shore and curious sea lions cruising by the beach for a closer look.  However, the only apparent inhabitants appeared to be grasshoppers in this stark landscape. The long boat ride back was drowsy and filled with quiet talking and gazing out at the water, contemplating our visit.????

Saint BartolomeAnd on Day 6 we retraced our route of taxi, bus, launcha, bus, airplane, taxi, bus and taxi finally back to our apartment in Manta.  The final costs, $1,808, are summed up below:

Transportation (Buses, taxis, launchas, airfare) – $639

Meals – $219

Tours – $730

Park Fees – $220

We saved where we could but we didn’t skimp because this journey will be one of the highlights of our travels.  Going to the Galapagos Islands can be done for much cheaper with hostels starting out at $25/night or it can be done for a lot more money in luxury accommodations.

By Richard and Anita

What We Lost: Burgled On A Bus

Although we were careful with our belongings, we must have become complacent during our travels.  Bad luck finally caught up with us and we became the victims of theft.

We arrived home to our apartment in Manta in the early evening after a long day of travel.  We had begun at 6:45 with a taxi ride on Santa Cruz Island in the Galapagos to catch a bus to the ferry that took us across to Baltra Island.  From there we flew back to the Ecuadorian mainland into the large port city of Guayaquil and grabbed a taxi to reach the bus station.  After buying our tickets we scrambled a bit to find our departure point and made the bus with only minutes to spare.  We settled in to our comfortable seats for the three-and-a-half hour ride back to Manta and the last taxi taking us (finally!) home.

photo available from http://www.canstockphoto.com

photo available from http://www.canstockphoto.com

We arrived home tired but very happy with our visit and began unpacking our carry-ons, piling up dirty laundry and putting our things away.  And then we turned our attention to our backpacks.  With a sinking feeling I pulled out the bag with the charging cords (camera, I-pod, Kindle) and didn’t see my camera wrapped in its bright blue woven bag from Guatemala.  I pulled out the charging cord and mouse for my computer and, with a slow, sick feeling growing in my stomach, made sure all the compartments were empty.  I compulsively patted my backpack front and back. I looked around at my belongings strewn across the bed, checked under each item and verified that my computer, wrapped in its green padded bag, was also gone.  I twisted my backpack side to side as if my computer might magically reappear but the bag was still empty – the camera and computer still gone.

We had taken turns taking pictures on our cameras of all our sight-seeing in the Galapagos Islands and had carefully downloaded the photos each night when we returned to our hotel in case one of the cameras was damaged or lost.  Our Wi-Fi was so slow that uploading our photos to Dropbox, our cloud-based storage file, to back them up wasn’t really an option.  However, we thought we’d pretty much covered the bases…

When did the theft occur? Our best guess is that it happened on the bus from Guayaquil to Manta.

The first suspicious incident happened when an official looking man asked us to move from our assigned seats to more inviting seats towards the front of the bus which we complied with.  However, the rightful passengers appeared shortly and requested their assigned seats. At this time an official in the uniform of Riena Del Camino, the bus line, assisted us and back we went to our original seats.  Both times our attention was divided between picking up our backpacks and gathering up the items we had removed and then stumbling along the narrow aisle while curious onlookers watched.

The second suspicious incident happened when I noticed that my pack had fallen on its back by my feet and was slightly pushed under the back seat rather than leaning against the bus side on my left where I’d first placed it.  Thinking that the bus movement had shifted its balance I moved it upright again without checking the contents.

The important questions are: “What have we really lost?”

  • One of two of our fairly new computers with the contents mostly backed up and recoverable. One of two of our small cameras with over half of our photos of the amazing Galapagos.
  • Our “travel virginity.” In return we gained the realization that we were singled out as vulnerable targets.
  • And, maybe, our faith in the travel gods. Our future journeys may always include less trust in the people around us.  We’ll be more watchful, more guarded and possibly more suspicious.

    photo available from http://www.canstockphoto.com

    photo available from http://www.canstockphoto.com

We live a minimalistic lifestyle as long-term travelers with each item carefully selected and chosen.  But the loss of a computer and camera is much more than the loss of a few of our possessions.  It’s about the diminution of our confidence in ourselves and the people around us who we had formerly greeted with open smiles and trust.

Something’s changed.  Call us less naïve and complacent…. and tally up a small win for the dark side.

By Anita and Richard

 

 

 

Going Up Country

Both of us remember as kids piling into the family station wagon for Sunday drives to “see the scenery” and we both had the same thought: “B-O-R-I-N-G!”  Fast forward to present day and it’s readily apparent how much we’ve changed.  A road trip is a cornerstone of travel and the thought of a day spent exploring new towns and countryside can leave us with a sense of giddy anticipation. north of Manta

We headed north of Manta through a series of small “don’t blink your eyes or you might miss them” towns.  Because we’ve found that this area of Ecuador seems to be very aware of its image and protective of its environment, we were surprised when piles of garbage and random trash appeared dumped beside the road for a stretch of a few miles.  We spied a large landfill off to the side, servicing the large military reservation in the area, along the otherwise scenic route and once we left it behind we began to enjoy the views again.  Our favorite trees, the ceibos, appeared and we began wending our way through the low hills.row crops

As we moved inland from the coastline we began noticing small farms of row crops, many with solitary or multiple workers bent over their tasks – stoop labor. Among the offerings we recognized were onions, maiz, pole beans alongside banana and plantains.  Picturesque rice paddies appeared with egrets scattered here and there in the shallow water near workers standing in the mud, hunched over and laboring at the work of tending their crop as in years gone by. Rice paddies

We arrived in Bahía de Caráquez, with an estimated population of 20,000.  As a coastal town situated at the mouth of the Río Chone, it’s a popular vacation destination for residents of Quito and Guayaquil and has begun to attract foreign visitors and retirees as well as investors in the last decade.  Tourism is a significant source of income and, with its high-rise condominiums and hotels located along the waterfront, this new, vertical construction has earned Bahia the nickname of “Little Miami.” Numerous fishing boats, pleasure boats and yachts of various sizes were moored at Puerto Amistad near the bridge which crosses the Rio Chone.view of Bahia from San Vicente

Because it’s a small town there’s not a lot to see but we had a terrific time looking for and taking pictures of the colorful variety of tuk-tuks and pedicabs. There is talk that a new mall with a modern grocery will be coming soon and this will reduce the need for the frequent trips to either Portoviejo or Manta for some basic shopping.

pedi-cabtuk-tuks galoreWe crossed over the Los Caras Bridge, admiring the boats on the bay and drove through the small town of San Vicente which appeared to be largely ignored by tourists and no comparison to its wealthy neighbor. Here, as elsewhere through our journey, we noted the widespread use of bamboo as a construction material for houses, shops and many examples of split rail picket fences.bamboo construction

bamboo fencelongitude why not latitude?) signPassing by occasional roadside signs that counted down our longitude we reached our final destination, a little fishing village named Canoa (0°28’59.9″S 80°27’04.5″W).  Maybe because it was mid-afternoon or low season the few streets seemed almost deserted although it’s a popular tourist destination. Shops and small eateries lined the sandy street adjoining the huge expanse of golden beach that sold beachwear, souvenirs and basic groceries.  Surf lessons for beginners and intermediates were advertised and there were several of the obligatory surfboard shops and hostels as well.mainstreet Canoa

And finally, it was time to feast on some amazingly fresh and cheap seafood at a little thatch-roofed beach restaurant while we admired the view of the Pacific Ocean, bluffs off to either side and scattered fishing boats along the quiet and almost empty beach.Canoa BeachCanoa Beach

By Anita and Richard

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wooden Ships: The Boat Builders of Manta

wooden beautyWooden Ships, the song performed at Woodstock by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and featured on their first album, may well be remembered by many members of our generation. The ballad came to our baby-boomer minds when we first viewed the magnificent wooden yachts and fishing boats in various stages of construction, tear-down and refurbishing.  All the overhauling and building is taking place in dry dock on the sands near Playa Tarqui here in Manta.cleaning and repairing the hull wooden ships

There does not appear to be a great deal written about these craftsmen or the work of the shipbuilders on the beach adjacent to the fish market. Manta, with an estimated population over 300,000, still feels like it’s not much more than an overgrown fishing village although it’s now a major exporter of tuna and other seafood within which a financial sector has flourished. So it’s logical to assume that the profession of building wooden ships has been known and practiced for generations, if not for centuries.a slow process of repair

The current craftsmen still rely on hand tools. Chisels, hammers, adzes, awls, knives, machetes, nail sets and the like are wielded to work the wood to create ribs, hulls, decking, super-structures, etc. Some of the wooden beams and planks are machine milled but not to uniform dimensional lumber. The individual boards are selected one by one, measured and cut separately to match the adjacent plank and the gaps between are sealed by caulking. The beam and ribs are chosen for the grain with a natural bend being required and are slowly shaped so the main supports, to the extent possible, are intact pieces of lumber and not ones “sistered” or jointed.erecting the hull

To seal the spaces between the planks, the fibers of de-husked coconuts are used. These tough strands are roughly woven into a fibrous rope held taut between two men while being worked to form a sinewy caulking that is later covered by water repellant sealers.

Photo by Al Eisele of MantaExpatsOnline

Photo by Al Eisele

Photo by Al Eisele of MantaExpatsOnline

Photo by Al Eisele

As a concession to modernity, a limited assortment of power tools are used in the construction including small chain saws. Some of the wooden ships and yachts, which are covered in fiberglass, require powered grinders and buffers for a finished application. These, alongside the Asociacion de Carpinteros de Manta of which the craftsmen are members, show that this native industry has kept pace with the times.fiberglass cover on the hull

almost ready!It’s been decades since the release of the song Wooden Ships; we’ve aged and changed and could even use some refurbishing of our own. And yet we have little reason to believe that much has changed here on the beach in Manta. Certainly the fiberglass coverings, the chainsaws and the associated electrical accoutrements are a more recent addition. But it’s not hard to imagine that the profession of building ships is passed down through the generations from father to son.  And there’s much to be said for the refurbishing of those ships that have been used well and meticulously restored to their former incarnations allowing them to go to sea once more.ready to be refurbished

By Richard and Anita

Special thanks to Al Eisele of mantaexpatsonline.com for permission to use his photos.

 

A Town By Any Other Name…

A few miles south of Manta are a group of little towns each known by the unique wares that set them apart from their neighbors.  Unlike the US, where it’s often difficult to distinguish between cities and towns with homogenous strip malls, big box and chain stores, it’s easy enough to pinpoint exactly where you are in this area.

Welcome to MontecristiHat Town.  Before we even reached our first destination, Montecristi, our friends all but hung their heads out the windows and inhaled deeply because we were passing a coffee roasting plant located off the side of the road.  A-w-w-w!  At a round-about, a statue of a woman, at least four stories tall and fashioned from tiles loomed over us, the effect slightly marred by bamboo scaffolding surrounding her for ongoing renovation work.  Leaning slightly forward so that we had a view of her subtle smile and generous cleavage and supported by a traditional hat-makers stand, she was engaged in the art of weaving a hat.

original Montecristi "Panama" hats Montecristi hatsAnd not just any hat but the original and misnamed “Panama” hat which was created in Ecuador but became famous when Teddy Roosevelt donned one while viewing the construction of the Panama Canal. The hats woven in Montecristi are an enormous point of pride with their residents because they are said to be of the finest quality.  Stores line the streets, displaying not only the hats but beautifully woven hammocks, wickerwork, intricately fashioned straw baskets as well as rustic and good-quality handmade wood furniture.

Cathedral & FounderNot to be overshadowed by its famous hats, the colonial city of Montecristi (founded in 1628) is also the birthplace of Eloy Alfaro Delgado (1842-1912), the leader of the Ecuadorian Liberal Revolution. A bronze statue of him resides in the central plaza in front of the elegant cathedral, Nuestra Madre de Monsarrate, alongside a huge and tiled mosaic of Alfaro’s portrait.

woman potterkitschy ceramicsStatue Town. Upon resuming our journey we came to La Pila, also known to the locals as “Statue Town” for its ceramic statues of imitation pre-Columbian pottery, cherubs, dogs, horse heads, vases and other kitschy bric-a-brac and pottery lining the sidewalks and filling the stores. We stretched our legs and ambled about the displays for a bit, including the unadorned statue of the female potter at work – the city’s totem – but found little to tempt us among the goods.honey

Honey Town. Further down the highway is a wide spot called “Honey Town” where shaded tables display jars, large and small, of various shades of golden honey. We walked among the various stands, smiling at the sellers and, after bargaining a bit, we left with a good-sized jar of Ceibo honey ($8) in which a generous piece of honeycomb was included. In retrospect, the inedible, waxy honeycomb might have been an unwise choice as we could have had more honey!

Corn Town. The last pueblo, and most pleasing to the ear, was Jipijapa, traditionally spelled Xipixipa. Pronounced “Hippy-Hoppa,” the mere mention of the name invites a smile.Jipipapa

A huge ear of corn, betasseled and partially husked, towers behind a mosaic sign spelling out the town’s name.  Lore has it that the town’s mayor, at the time of the statue’s conception,  wanted a statue that would rival his neighbors; who cares if no corn is grown in or around Jipijapa? The town serves as a trade center for cocoa, cotton and coffee and, while not a tourist attraction, has a very photogenic Parque Central and the Comunidad Mercedari Catholic Church which is in the process of being repainted.Parque Central

Ceibo Town. Okay, we’re making this one up! However, these unique trees that are found throughout the area deserve mention.  During our journey we saw the Ceibo (Say-BO) trees standing in groups or solitary silhouettes against the skies.CeibosIt wasn’t hard to understand why ancient people believed they connected earth to the heavens and allowed the ascent of ancient souls.  At one time the cotton tufts (kapok) that grew on the trees were used for life vests but now the trees have negligible commercial value and this, along with the old beliefs, may have led to so many of them surviving and flourishing even while much of the land around these trees has been converted to agriculture.  The trunks and branches were a bright velvety green and some of the limbs still had last season’s kapok clumps clinging to them.ceibo in velvet

Puerto Cayo.  Our last stop before turning back to Manta was Puerto Cayo, a town that’s getting hype in the investment and expat press but struck a huge note of “buyer, beware” for us.   We were left with the impression of a nowhere town with limited amenities and few stores located on an amazingly beautiful coast where the beaches go on for miles.  Speculators have bought up large portions of land and are, with varied success, attempting to sell these coastal lots in pricey developments to foreigners who dream of retiring in paradise. However, from what little we could see, vacant lots far outnumbered the few homes that had been completed and sat behind lonely gates. And, although the scenery provided during the drive is both varied and lovely, it’s a long way back to Manta…

By Anita and Richard  October 2014

Déjà Vu at the Tarqui Market

tarqui“It’s like déjà vu all over again.”  The quote, often attributed to Yogi Berra, is the feeling we have as we wander through the vast market area known simply as Tarqui in Manta, Ecuador. It is, in ways, similar to the sprawling mass of shops and stalls in Merida, Mexico whose cacophony and turbulence would drive us back to Parque Central after a couple of hours. Or it could be compared to the Mercado adjacent to the gigantic, bus parking lot, masquerading as a terminal, in Antiqua, Guatemala. Here we could find, among the fruits and vegetables and almost all manner of things available in that country, the area known as la Paca (the Bale) which resembled nothing so much as a vast topsey- turvey Goodwill drop-off station turned on its head. But, Tarqui is unique. Tarqui Market

Man and fishA happy fish vendorA reputable source guestimates that Tarqui is a rectangularly shaped twelve by fifteen blocks. While we’ve not walked the parameter that seems intuitively correct. Tarqui serves as a market for the barrio, the neighborhoods surrounding it, as well as the city folk. The street stalls offer to the passing throngs the bounty of this fecund province of Manabi in addition to the abundance of seafood from the Pacific. For the haggling aficionado, bargain hunters get an animated buying experience with plenty of smiles and shoulder shrugs as well as, in most instances, the cheapest prices in town.

Chicken fetchingly arrangedProduceOn a daily basis, seven days a week, live chickens and ducks, plucked chickens with feet still attached and a harvest from the sea arrive. The heart of the market is, of course, the produce. The vendors, some on the sidewalks but most abutted to the curbs, display their wares in stunningly colorful geometric piles and pyramids of fruits and vegetables.Best ever strawberries

Incredible values are available; a bag of six green peppers goes for fifty cents.  We pay another fifty cents for a bag of fifty to sixty whole, cleaned garlic cloves and are charged 75 cents for a large bag of thirty to forty radishes.  A young man from the nearby town of Jipijapa (Hippy-Hoppa) sells large loaves of banana-nut bread, fresh and amazingly fragrant, baked by his aunt. This still-warm bundle goes in one of our backpacks to be consumed later with the best-ever, ginormous fresh strawberries.Tarqui

Into this teeming mix of buyers, sellers and lookie-loos which fill the streets, taxis and trucks advance with a slow determination. If you’ve ever witnessed a car drive though a herd of sheep or cattle on a country road you get the picture.  It’s literally a game of give and take with the taxi inching its way deliberately through the teeming multitudes and ultimately gaining the upper hand as no one really wants a smashed toe.Tarqui Marquet

And then, as we venture beyond the produce vendors, who congregate near the major thoroughfare at the north end of Tarqui, we encounter the rest of the vast variety of merchants who sell bootlegged CD’s and DVD’s, clothing, plastic items, breads and pastries, car parts, stuffed toys, construction materials, kitchen items and on and on. Behind the vendor’s facades are the stores themselves and occasional alleyways that break the symmetry of the store fronts and allow access to an interior rabbit warren of more small shops, some of which have multiple entrances and exits, and all of which sell –  guess what? – more of what is on the sidewalks outside.

Tarqui MarketOf course, we have the option to shop in the several supermarkets dotted here and there throughout the city, such as GranAki, Mi Comisario and Super Maxi among others. Modeled after their western counterparts they offer ease and convenience in a sanitized package at, almost always, higher prices.  And Tarqui, while similar to street markets in other Latin countries with an echo of having done this before, offers a slightly difference experience; maybe because it’s a different country on a different continent. But here, there’s a spirit of cooperation with buyers and sellers working together to make sure everyone’s a winner.  Buying and selling goes on the world around, but this, friends, is commerce Ecuadorian style in Tarqui.chicken fun

By Richard and Anita

 

 

They Make House Calls Too

It was a dark and stormy night (we’ve always wanted to start a post like that!). The rain was coming down hard, a rare event in Manta, and our power had just gone out.  In fact, looking out our 11th story apartment windows, it appeared that the power had gone out in much of the city.  We decided to call it a night and started the usual preparations to get ready for bed.  The screech from the generator powered intercom startled us around 8:45 PM and the security guard at the entrance to the property engaged us in a fractured dialogue involving our basic Spanglish with the attendant miscommunications.  Finally, we came to understand that the physician we had seen twice to treat Enfermo’s bronchitis was at the entrance.

His daughter, Jema, a second-year medical student, came on the line and explained that she and her father were concerned about Enfermo’s health and were making a house call.  After we shut our gaping mouths, we invited them up to the apartment and then hurriedly changed out of our sleeping attire and back into street clothes.

The back story is immaterial but through circuitous means the doctor had learned that the nebulizer he had loaned us for inhalation treatments was not working properly and they had come to investigate the possible causes of the problem.  Upon deciding that yes, there was a problem with the machine, which of course didn’t work now because the power was out, the doctor and his daughter insisted that we get in their car and go to a pharmacy with power and test it there. So, with Jema driving, we set off into a black night and an entirely different view of Manta.  In addition to the nonfunctioning street lights, many of the traffic lights were also unlit and we slipped and slid on wet, slick roads up and down the steep, winding city streets through a crazed checker board of darkness and illumination.

Dr Cedeno & Jema We found an open pharmacy and after turning on the device the doctor was able to ascertain that the compressor could not produce sufficient force to vaporize the medicine.  This perplexed Dr. Cedeño, as it was a new machine, but he quickly thought up a solution.  Once again, we set off through the rain-speckled, night streets in quest of another nebulizer at his office which was located in the teaching hospital at La Universidad Laica Eloy Alfaro de Manabi where he rounded daily.   Upon our arrival at the university campus the doctor ran into his office only to discover that the equipment that he had envisioned loaning to us was no longer there.  But, (Aha!) he had one other option, an older model in his office across town at the Clinica Americana where we had first met him.

Setting off on our quest once again, we talked about the improbability of this ever happening in the United States. A physician, with his medical-student daughter, making unsolicited house calls out of concern for the health of a patient.  Both of them expressed incredulity at what we described and explained that it was quite common in Ecuador. Part of the physician’s job was to see the patient in the home, as necessary, and here the family would listen to the doctor and also be a part of assisting with patient care.Dr. Cedeno

At last, with a serviceable machine in hand, we arrived safely at our apartment shortly before 11 PM and were deposited at the gates expressing our profuse, totally inadequate thanks for the care, concern and unbelievable efforts just bestowed upon us. Shaking our heads as we mumbled “incredible!” the thought dawned upon us that there had been no discussion of compensation. Only in Ecuador. Only in a land far away from where we once called home.

By Richard and Anita

In Sickness and in Health: Welcome to Ecuador

View from our window

View from our window

We arrived in Manta, Ecuador the first week of September and spent the first couple of days settling into our new apartment on the 11th floor, stocking up the kitchen and looking at the Pacific view from our kitchen window (we’re in the lower rent unit which faces the city rather than the beach).  And then… one of us (let’s use the Spanish word for sick, “Enfermo”, for our patient) was down with fever, chills and a gut-wrenching, racking cough that was accompanied by a growing sense of fatigue, malaise and a slowly increasing shortness-of-breath. And, not just for a short period of time but for days…

City view from the living room

City view from the living room

When you’re traveling, health comes before everything else.  Exploring a new environment or meeting other people just isn’t practical or even doable when you don’t feel well.  Luckily, so far, when one of us has been down the other has been healthy and can run errands, track down a doctor or medication, heat up the chicken soup and generally act as a stand-in for mom, a cheerleader when the whining starts or an advocate when navigating a foreign medical system.

While we have a few health issues we’re generally fairly healthy but we’ve needed to find a doctor and /or dentist several times and in several countries in our two years of travel. When in need of medical care we’ve availed ourselves of our contacts to gain access to proficient heath care. We’ve asked the people from whom we were renting, reached into the expat community for advice and inquired through language schools or NGO’s where we were volunteering. It boils down to relying upon the knowledge of those who live in the community.Clinica Americana

Once it became clear that Enfermo was not going to become well using our emergency supply of medications we reached out to find assistance. The fastest response came from our apartment manager who found a doctor who specialized in respiratory diseases; a pulmonologist by training.  An appointment was set up for that afternoon and a taxi took us across town to the Clinica Americana, which, while only a block from the Malecon (the walkway along the beach), looked rather rundown on the outside and, while clean, old-fashioned looking on the inside.inside clinica Americana

Upon our arrival we were warmly greeted by the doctor who introduced us to his wife seated at the reception desk. The doctor spoke some English but called in his daughter, an outgoing second-year medical student, to join us and assist with the translation during the examination. We spent an hour in the doctor’s office during which he examined the patient and we all discussed Enfermo’s medical issues.  We also engaged in conversations about the Doctor’s travels in the US to attend medical conferences and our travels in Central America. Before leaving, the doctor provided us with a prescription for medications we would need to pick up at the farmacia (most are available for the asking without a prescription). He most generously gave us samples of medications which we would need or were currently using.  With a follow-up appointment in hand we willingly paid the nominal $40 consultation fee and departed.the doctor and daughter

The following week found us back for the scheduled appointment with the daughter again in attendance to assist with any translation difficulties. Poor Enfermo’s cough had improved but the feeling of fatigue and shortness of breath had become worse.  A breathing treatment with a nebulizer was administered and the doctor doled out more samples of different antibiotics used in a combination one-two punch against the offender, bronchitis.  He also graciously loaned us a nebulizer to continue a few more breathing treatments at home.  Enfermo left the office a half hour later with new prescriptions, a third appointment date in another week and a more positive outlook about the prospects of a future recovery.  We, again, gladly ponied up the nominal fee.inside Fybeca

our favorite pharmacy!

our favorite pharmacy!

There is an old saying that, “When you have your health you have everything” and at no time in our lives has that saying been more true than when we’ve been traveling.  Being of the baby boomer generation we are much more aware of our health than, say, a traveler in the twenty to thirty year-old range.  Realistically, we know that this is the best our health will ever be, right here and now.  Additionally, we travel as partners sharing the fun and also the not-so-fun times that come with traveling as a lifestyle.  We’re fully cognizant that pursuing our travel dream could come to a standstill if one of us becomes seriously ill.

Recuperating in our new  home

Recuperating in our new home

Enfermo is much improved and, after being holed up in our apartment for an interminable period, we’re now looking forward to exploring Manta and Ecuador and sharing it with our readers.

By Anita and Richard     September 2014

 

 

 

 

Back in the U-S-S-A

The sun was well up as the plane descended into the Miami International Airport.  It was just shy of twenty-three months since we’d loaded up two cars, deposited the keys with the property management company who would handle leasing our last substantial possession, our house on Padre Island, and headed north to drop off the last of the belongings with our son in Denver, CO. From there we’d flown to Mexico for several months of traveling around the Yucatan Peninsula followed by wanderings that encompassed every country in Central America.  And now, we were coming back “home”; wondering if we’d experience the reverse culture shock that we’d heard about from other long-term travelers.Flag photo from Padre Island

In Latin America we’d found border crossings to be either ridiculously easy affairs or protracted and potentially problematic even though we’d experienced nothing worse than inconvenient delays, minor price gouging and nasty public toilets. But the effortless return to the States was totally unexpected. We were directed to the Global Entry kiosks where we scanned our passports, filled in a bit of data, mugged for the camera, grabbed our print-outs and went to the friendly customs agents who welcomed us back home. Claiming our bags was not a problem and with no more than a nod and a smile we wandered off to find our next terminal to re-check our baggage en route to our first stop, Newark. So easy. It was all coming back to us. This is the States; things worked here, just like they were supposed to.

Since we’d been gone so long visiting family and friends was a priority and so we spent the month of August journeying from New Jersey to Virginia and then Washington, Colorado and, finally, Texas.  However, besides catching up with F&F we came to S-H-O-P. We were consumers with a mission to replace everything that was battered, tattered and worn from months on the road.  We needed new laptops; the original ones we had purchased were too large, too heavy and needed some major fixin’ expertise. New Kindle Fires had been ordered and awaited us at a relative’s home as well as new I-pods and all the other things that may not be essential but certainly make life easier as well as more enjoyable. We also replaced our luggage in a successful attempt to shed pounds by swapping out the 24-inch hard-sided, spinner-wheels suitcases. They were durable but not really practical for use on cobblestone streets or rutted roadways. And clothing; what we hadn’t abandoned in our last month in Panama was faded and limp, much of it obtained from the Nicaraguan stores called “Ropa Americanas” that sold slightly used clothing unwanted in the US.  And so we shopped from the east coast to the west coast to the Gulf coast for the light-weight, quick-dry, no-fuss clothing necessary for the tropical climes.  Lastly, we snagged new light-weight backpacks at REI in Denver as well as countless other little things on the list like vitamins, sunglasses, etc.

Consumerism is a crass word; it’s so negative and judgmental. It’s also quite apt. We shopped unabashedly. We shopped with glee and gusto. We shopped until we nearly imploded from sensory overload. It’s not possible for us to describe the experience. But a friend named Peter, a transplanted Floridian living in Costa Rica, referred to the US as the “land of too much”  and in this we can wholeheartedly concur.

And the take-aways? The reverse culture shock we’d been told of by fellow travelers? There were a few moments that were a bit disorienting, especially in some of the mega-grocery stores but the culture shock was much less than we’d expected.  However, some observations were duly impressed upon us.

Long distance travel in the States requires air transportation; flying is a necessary evil. There are really no practical or economical options. Of course, there’s Amtrak or Greyhound but chances are the destinations are not on the route or out-of-the-way. And, if you find a workable route it can take, literally, days to reach your destination and may actually be more expensive. For long distance traveling flying the friendly skies is really the only practical option. And for short distances it’s a private vehicle. Buses are inconvenient, cabs are prohibitively expensive and most cities are too spread out to be pedestrian friendly. Quite a contrast to our life on the road using feet, buses, shuttles, tuk-tuks, inexpensive taxis, pangas and water taxis; all forms of economical travel that don’t require an airport or SUV.

We put our home on North Padre Island on the market with little sentimentality and concern only for the market realities of supply/demand and what we may be able to pocket from the transaction.  It was a wonderful place while we were there and we’d intended it as our retirement home. But, it became our last possession that kept us rooted to a place that no longer fitted our needs. We suspect that we’re abnormal in this regard but there are a whole lot of places yet to be seen.

So no; there was no culture shock. But there was no culture fixation either. The US is unique both in history and in current time. It is pre-eminent for many reasons. And we love it dearly. It has given us the freedom to pursue this passion of ours for travel and new experiences. We are not spurning the US; we are bidding a temporary adieu. We shall return to visit and okay, “consume” quite often.

By Richard and Anita

 

The Wood Gatherers: Living on the Edge

Hauling firewoodDuring our travels in western Mexico and Central America we’ve become aware of how costly electricity is in Latin America.  Many times our rent is the base price with the extra cost for the electricity added on by the week or month.  Kitchens usually have cooktop stoves (ovens are rare) fueled by propane which is cheaper and no hot water line plumbed in.  And several times, in budget accommodations, our showers have been cold to tepid also. This, we’ve been told, is the typical arrangement for most local dwellings.hauling firewood

It wasn’t until we were in the mountains of Chiapas State, Mexico, on our way to San Cristobal de Las Casas, that we first became aware of the people who gathered wood. This they gleaned as a fuel source primarily for home consumption uses such as cooking and heating. This basic commodity might be bound for the gatherer’s home or it might be for sale on the streets but it was the fuel choice of the lower echelon of society.Hauling wood

This type of labor takes place at the micro level of the economy, akin to the subsistence farmers of the campo – the country side – who tend small plots of land on the slopes of the hills or by the margins of the roads. It takes place off the grid and the harvesting is done in the thick forest or jungle. More often you see men, each with a machete dangling from their hand, and women or children, walking on the sides of the roads with their loads. Or you see the vendors in the small towns, in the markets, on the streets or hawking wood door-to-door.a log and a machete

Gathering wood is ubiquitous; it went on almost everywhere if one was watching for it. We saw it in the mountains of Chiapas and throughout the Petén rain forests of both Mexico and Guatemala.  We saw it on the beaches in El Salvador, in the western highlands of Guatemala, the coastal regions of Honduras and in the northern hills of Nicaragua.

hauling woodHauling firewoodAnd we saw it in the city of Granada as well as on the Caribbean coast of Panama. Often the men and boys were seen with the large loads suspended from the tumplines around their heads or peddling bicycles with staggering loads strapped on front or rear. Or women trudging along the roads with armloads of wood or even trunk sections balanced on their heads or shoulders; they carried driftwood along the beaches and back towards the small homes away from the tourist areas.tumplin

Wood gathering is demanding and dangerous work as we came to learn.  While housesitting in Antigua, Guatemala for three months we enjoyed using the fireplace on chilly nights and Alejandro, a young man, supplied our wood.  One morning we asked about his “bandaged” hand which was wrapped in a cloth soiled by the work of wood gathering. He was missing the last joint of the ring finger due to a machete accident which had happened several weeks previously and was still in the healing process.  A few months later we met Herman, now a middle-aged, panga boat captain from Utila, Honduras who told us of collecting buttonwood beginning at the age of six with his family. He would rise with his father and brothers well before dawn to row from their home on one small island to another spending the day chopping and gathering wood. Since the red sap of the buttonwood would destroy the few clothes they owned father and sons worked in their briefs or naked. Once the wood was gathered and bundled into uniform sized sticks of one-hundred pieces, they’d paddle to a third island to sell the wood and then paddle home to rest for another day.hauling wood

In the lands where electricity is expensive and poverty is a reality, the necessity for firewood as a fuel will undoubtedly continue. Breathing in the smoke in homes not properly ventilated causes a lot of respiratory illnesses, especially in the young.  However, it is the reality of those living in poverty and on the edge to rely upon this natural commodity and it will fall to those within that class to provide the labor which provides this necessity.bundle

 

By Richard and Anita

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