Tag Archives: expats in Central America

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

In The Zone: The Panama Canal

Panama CanalWe left Costa Rica on the Tica Express Bus at midnight for what turned out to be a sixteen hour bus trip from hell (think freezing cold air conditioning and the passenger in front of us lying almost in our laps).  However, we were on our way to Panama City and a visit that we’d dreamed of for many years:  the Panama Canal.  Several years ago we’d watched an impressive documentary about the building of the Panama Canal and, since then, seeing the Canal had been one of our big bucket list items.Locks closed

A waterway between the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans had been a dream since the explorer and conquistador, Vasco Balboa, first claimed the western sea for the Spanish crown in the 16th century.  However, by the turn of the 20th century it appeared to be more of a fools’ delusion as the French had lost a veritable fortune and an estimated 20,000 lives between the years 1881 to 1884 attempting this folly.  But less than twenty years after the French catastrophe, science and technology had progressed sufficiently in divergent fields to allow this ambitious aspiration to become a fully functioning engineering reality.

Scientists, among them Dr. Walter Reed, established that malaria was transmitted by a mosquito and, through an aggressive campaign on many fronts, effectively halted the pestilential killer during the construction.  New earth moving machines such as drag-line shovels and moveable dredges made mass excavation possible on a scale previously unimaginable.  And concrete, at the time a novelty for heavy civil construction, was used as the predominant building material. All of this newly acquired knowledge, scientific components and machines allowed the work to begin in earnest.closed

But perhaps the most phenomenal aspect of the canal was the elegantly simple notion to use gravity to raise the ships from sea level through a series of locks over the continental divide and then return them to sea level on the other side of the isthmus. Sir Isaac Newton would surely have been proud.lock gates opening

For the better part of two days our venues were the Visitors’ Centers, first at the Miraflores Locks on the Pacific side and subsequently the Gatún Locks on the Caribbean side, gaping at the massive ships as they transited the canal through the system of locks and lakes that comprise this international waterway. Call us hicks but this was one show for which we had both been eagerly awaiting; it was bigger than the big top at the Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus we’d attended as kids.entering the canal

We were still struggling with the concept of gravity as the main character in the live drama before us when we realized that a very large container ship, the MSC ELA, was actually sinking into the center lock at the Miraflores. It wasn’t really sinking; the water was being equalized with the adjoining chamber so that when the gates opened the ship would glide towards the final lock gates. This commercial behemoth was being held firmly in the center of the canal by eight mechanical mules (locomotives) with their sixteen hawsers. ship going through

What was even more astounding was that there were approximately eighteen inches of clearance between the sides of the ship and each canal wall.   These last gates would open, when all was stabilized, and the MSC ELA would be free to resume her voyage to the Pacific side of the American continent.almost through

That this entire operation was one hundred years old in 2014 was a staggering thought. The lock gates, forged in Pennsylvania a century before, were performing magnificently. The major modification occurred in 1998 and changed the forty horsepower motors which drove the bull gears, the massive ratio-reduction system of cogged wheels, to a pneumatic system.  But ultimately the key to the longevity was rigorous maintenance and that was evidenced all around us as we watched the ships transit north and south though the canal.done

So much of what we saw was attributable to the efforts of individuals on a regular and recurring basis. This was true from the surveyors who shot the original grade to the laborers who manned the shovels and dredges; from the men who operated the Canal Zone as an American enterprise until the transfer on December 31, 1999, to the country of Panama and the Panamanians who now provide this vital service to the world.Through the canal

By Richard and Anita

 

The Road To Cahuita

Riding the Tika Bus again we could tell within a few miles that we had left Nicaragua and were now in Costa Rica.  The shanties alongside the Pan American Highway looked a little less shabby and the rusted corrugated structures used as shelters were not in evidence.  The cars looked a little newer and, it took a while to notice what was lacking, there were no horses or cattle pulling carts or families walking beside the road.  Overall, within just a few miles of the border, Costa Rica felt more prosperous.Ferns & Forest

The feeling of Costa Rica having more continued into the next day as we set off early in the morning from the capital city of San Jose to the Caribbean side of Costa Rica.  We wound our way on a two-lane road through hills and low mountains driving through rain forests; the damp mists and clouds clung to the vehicle and traffic turned on their lights and slowed to a crawl to navigate through dense, cool fog.  Alongside the road were giant ferns, plants with huge leaves at least eighteen inches across and, in some places, the trees from either side of the road touched overhead and formed a living tunnel.  Occasionally we could see the valleys far below filled with hazy clouds and there were brilliant greens in every imaginable shade wherever one looked. For a while we followed a truck carrying mangoes and tomatoes and then other trucks filled with pineapples and bananas.  We glimpsed numerous rivers and streams as we passed, some with round, water-smoothed rocks scattered about the riverbeds and the trees lining the banks were flowering with exotic blossoms of purple, reds, yellows and oranges.  Everywhere the earth was populated by some thriving, living plant and the impression of abundance and fertility seemed to envelope us.Headed towards Jadin Glorioso

We arrived at our destination, Cahuita, about noon and were met by our American hosts, Edward and Julie, who led us down a dirt road about two hundred yards to the little casita on their gated property.  We were compelled to walk slowly as we were valiantly dragging our hard-shell, 24-inch suitcases with state-of-the-art spinner wheels through ruts and over pebbles along-side us; yet, again, another reminder of how inappropriate our luggage is for the out-of-the-way places in which we keep finding ourselves!El Jardin GoriosoSo, anyway, on to another piece of heaven, El Jardin Glorioso – the glorious garden. The grounds are a natural, park-like setting populated by royal palms reaching forty feet towards the sky, fan palms, triangle palms, lipstick palms and a profusion of numerous extraordinary and colorful plants, flowers and trees. This includes our new favorite, the ylang-ylang tree, which grows the most amazing flower with an intoxicating fragrance (rumored to be one of the ingredients for Chanel No. 5).The coral pool

Coral poolWe took advantage of the property’s crown jewel, a natural coral pool that one climbed down into carefully, avoiding the sharp walls to swim in tranquil privacy; watching the waves form and crash through the pool’s opening, the sea water flowing into the enclosure and ebbing out.

And so we found ourselves spending over a week Cahuita, waking to a chorus of birds early each morning (and not a rooster crow to be heard!) and finishing our day sitting out on our porch enjoying the night sounds or at the nearby coral beach watching both the night sky and the waves.El Jardin Glorioso

Next post – There’s much, much more to the Cahuita area including the Cahuita National Park and The Jaguar Sanctuary.

El Jardin Glorioso

By Anita and Richard, May, 2014

The Easter Pilgrims Of Popoyuapa

Pilgrims from PopyuapaSo much of travel is about serendipity; the unanticipated, the unknown and the totally unexpected.  And so, imagine our smiling astonishment as we rounded a curve on the Pan American Highway south of Granada, Nicaragua, last week and found motorized traffic halted and waiting for a long line of at least one hundred and fifty carts being pulled by oxen and horses. Caravan  Families with young children and the elderly passed by, either walking alongside the carts or riding inside.  Many of the carts were in the process of pulling off the road to rest and water their animals.  And, of course not able to resist an opportunity for a closer look, we hopped out of car and started walking down the road to find out what we could.Family passing by

The two-wheeled carts were built with a wooden base, many with aged and gray boards but others were gaily painted.  They had arched frameworks that were mostly covered in sugarcane stalks and leaves to shade the occupants within from the hot sun shining overhead.  Hanging from the roofs and along the carts’ sides were buckets filled with food, straw baskets, coolers, hammocks and cheap, plastic chairs and bunches of bananas or plantains. Chicken on the roof!

Perched upon the top of several of the carts we spied hens and roosters clinging to roof coverings for (perhaps?) their last ride.  Many carts displayed yellow flags which signify the Catholic Church and the blue and white national flag of Nicaragua.  Some were draped with a large purple cloth representing the upcoming Holy Week and stamped across with the name of the city from which they ventured.Pilgrims to Popoyuapa

Nicaragua is a Catholic country and the culture is rich in religious beliefs and folkloric traditions that may vary from region to region; many are prominently on display during Lent and Semana Santa or Holy Week, the week preceding Easter Sunday.  We found out later that the caravan that we had seen formed the return trip of devout pilgrims visiting Popoyuapa, a small village of 4,000 near San Jorge, Rivas and Lake Nicaragua where a four-day festival occurs each year before Santa Semana.  The Sanctuary of Popoyuapa is the home for the Shrine of Jesus the Redeemer, a life-size Christ figure wearing a traditional crown of thorns.  The image is also known as Jesus the Rescued, possibly named so after the floating statue was retrieved from Lake Nicaragua or, according to another story, after being pieced back together following an earthquake in 1844.Pilgrims from Popoyuapa

In addition to those making the symbolic pilgrimage by oxcart, thousands more of the faithful visit the shrine during Semana Santa to show their devotion and express their thankfulness for what they’ve received, for favors divinely granted or to ask for miraculous intervention in their needs.

colorful cartsThe pilgrimage by oxcart to Popoyuapa  is a tradition passed down through the generations and has occurred for at least a century with the faithful traveling from as far away as Masaya and Granada in a journey that may take as long as four days and cover up to 150 miles round trip.  Except for a chance encounter on the Pan-American Highway we might never have seen this astounding caravan of oxcarts plodding down the road nor learned of this religious pilgrimage of the deeply faithful. Pilgrims to Popoyuapa

By Anita and Richard, April, 2014

 

 

Competing For Candy

DancersWe were not certain what to expect as we walked into the auditorium of Casa de Tres Mundo in the heart of Granada on a Friday morning. We knew that we were attending a scholarship contest for Priscila, the 10 year-old daughter of Yanni, whose family has graciously lent a portion of their home to the school where we had volunteered for the last three months. In fact, we had supervised our older class the previous day in making posters to raise and wave supporting Priscila’s effort in competing for the prize. And we knew that some of the volunteers had been working closely with Priscila the last couple of weeks on the academic portion of the match, rehearsing answers to the questions that might be asked. We also understood that of the eight participants, only one would advance to the final competition in the capital city, Managua.

Contestant # 1Now we were prepared to operate on SOTB (South of the Border) time; we’ve pretty much acclimated to that aspect of life in Latin America. So we knew that we might have a bit of a wait when we arrived on time at 9:00 AM.  But we had our friends and volunteers from the school there, Priscila’s immediate family, the directors of the NGO and a small contingent of students from the Pantanal school.  The minutes ticked by slowly and, when the event finally began, it was not fashionably late, it wasn’t SOTB late, it was an hour and forty minutes late. Even the locals were beginning to despair.

CompetitionWe used some of the long wait profitably, however, and learned a bit about our hosts, MILAVF and La Fundacion Casa de Tres Mundos. The former, known also as Movimiento Infantil or the Children’s Movement, is a nationwide organization that, for 34 years, has worked to enact and enforce child protection laws. They work in communities with at-risk children and adolescents, organizing them into dance troupes, sports clubs, performing and visual arts classes and ecological projects. La Fundacion Casa de Tres Mundo, which began in 1987, was founded by an Austrian artist and author and a Nicaraguan poet, priest and politician.  It has steadily expanded to include classes in the arts, dance and theater for the children of Granada, an art gallery with rotating exhibits for the public, a free, communal radio station and an arts program to encourage youngsters in the poorer barrios of the city and beyond.All the contestants

When the competition finally began it was with each of the girls coming down the makeshift runway in sports attire:  a tennis outfit with a racket, a cheerleader with pom-poms, a soccer player with ball and so forth. It was a bit un-nerving to see these young girls striking semi-seductive poses during their introductions and sauntering flirtatiously. Following this was a segment with the girls in their colorful, traditional dresses of Nicaragua, which included a short introduction to the judges and a brief Q and A for the academic portion. Interspersed with the program presentations by the eight young contestants were dance numbers by various ensembles; these were highly entertaining.The dance troupe

Finally, the results of the judges were announced. Our contestant, Priscila, came in third. Of course this was not what we had hoped for, but as she was competing with girls from the more affluent, private schools in Granada we were pleased with her showing. As third-place winner she received three gaily decorated bags with packages of sugared confections. The winner of the competition won a chance at a scholarship and was crowned with a tiara and draped with a sash in true Miss America style.  She also received a beautifully decorated cake and three flowered bags filled with sugared confections. As Jim, our school’s director drily observed, “Hey, they’re kids. They like candy.”

Priscila with the loot

Priscila with the loot

By Anita and Richard, April, 2014

The ‘Hood: Living In Our Barrio

Vista MombachoIt starts to get light about 5:00 a.m. and the roosters commence their competition to welcome the new day.  Who can crow loudest?  Longest?  Most Inflections?  The birds join in with a songfest and soon we hear the occasional bark of dogs as households begin to stir and take advantage of the cool morning temperatures to get some chores accomplished.  A baby wails, a child laughs, a new day begins.View from rooftop of Vista Mombacho

We can go up to the third-floor rooftop terrace and peer over the waist-high railing into our surrounding neighbor’s irregularly shaped dirt yards filled with an outdoor stove for cooking, various shade trees, the occasional mango, and the ubiquitous banana trees. Drying clothes hang from lines and, in a haze of suspended dust, the women sweep the hard dirt backyards clean of leaves and place the debris into a trash pile with other discards to be burned every few days. The funky odor of burning trash and other garbage wafts into our window occasionally.

We are renting a cheerful, airy, one-bedroom apartment, about 500-square feet, at the Vista Mombacho Apartments.  Our apartmentWe have doormen who monitor the entrance around the clock for security and keep an eye on the neighborhood doings.  A small staff makes certain that maintenance problems are promptly fixed, the apartment cleaned twice weekly, the 5-gallon bottles of drinking water replaced as needed and our questions answered as they arise. The laundry facilities are clean and the Wi-Fi, while not blazingly fast, is reliable.  And, oh yes, there’s a lovely pool to float around in during the heat of the day and a roof-top patio for get-togethers or star-gazing while relaxing in a hammock.the neighborhood of Vista Mombacho

As for the neighborhood, zoning is a first world concept and “mixed” would most aptly describe the area. The predominant style is colonial with the attached dwellings fronting the walkways and/or road and finished in a stucco facade. Some homes are well-maintained with freshly varnished doors and a gleaming coat of paint. Neighborhood near Vista Mombacho Some are a little shabby and some are in uncared for, dilapidated disrepair interspersed with the occasional empty, trash-strewn lot. Mixed in with the houses are pulperias: small, family run stores in the front of the home specializing in convenience items and groceries, homemade foods and drinks, bicycle or small appliance repair shops, etc.  Many mornings we’ll glimpse the neighborhood women here and there busily scrubbing down the walkway in front of their homes or businesses.  At various times of the day, groups of men (varying in age but all unemployed) will congregate to visit or pass around a bottle.  Occasionally, as you walk a few blocks in any direction, will be some prone, passed-out man sleeping off another day of no work, no hope.

Home security - Stretching concertina wire

Home security – Stretching concertina wire

La Union

La Union

The two grocery stores we shop at, La Union and La Colonia, are about four blocks from our apartment.  Every couple of days we grab our canvas bags and set off. The stores are surprisingly westernized with shopping carts, scanner check-outs, and US and Latin American brand names. The familiarity and ease of shopping is reflected in the increased pricing.  We attempt to economize by buying some of our fresh fruits and vegetables in the small markets around the city or the mercado but the habit of convenient one-stop shopping dies hard.

Elsewhere in the neighborhood, just a couple blocks down from the grocery store is the office of our physician, Dr. Francisco Martinez Blanco,  who speaks fluent English and enjoys a popular reputation in the expat community.   In the other direction is the Laboratorio de Diagnostico Clinico Jesus Christo known to expats as “The Baby Jesus Clinic” where you can get your lab work done.  Two blocks further on is a husband and wife dentist team, both fluent in English and trained in Argentina, who run a spotless, modern and well-organized office and personally performed  our bi-annual cleaning and dental checkups at a fraction of the cost of work in the US.

The Baby Jesus Lab

The Baby Jesus Lab

It’s not hard to find fault in any city if you’re looking but Granada, a beautiful little city, is easy to love and easy to feel at home in. There’s plenty to do and see in the area for those so inclined or there are many places to relax and while away an afternoon.  Parting company with the city and continuing our travels at the end of April will be difficult.

By Anita and Richard, April, 2014

Field Trippin’ To La Playa Gigante

La Playa Gigante How do you reward kids who have perfect attendance and good behavior?  You take them on an outing to the beach!  And so, on a Saturday morning about 8:00, a group of around forty of the students who attend Education Plus Nicaragua met near the school where a hired bus waited to begin the odyssey.Waiting for the all aboard  Among the students were approximately twenty adults: volunteers affiliated with the school, other enthusiastic supporters who’d tagged along and a few parents.  There were smiles galore and anticipatory laughter and, when the “Everyone, get on!”  call finally sounded the kids scrambled aboard eagerly.

We headed south towards the Costa Rican border for about an hour and a half with the kids chattering, laughing, gazing out the windows and singing songs they’d learned in English and other favorites.Singing "My Heart Will Go On"  Above the bus driver’s head was a sign entreating “Jehovah, guard our entrance and exit now and always” and another sign above the door reminded us that the safe passage of the bus and its passengers was in the hands of The Father.   Thus ensured of the Almighty’s protection, we turned off the paved highway onto a rutted, narrow dirt road and bumped up and down and around the hills for a bit until, finally… the Pacific Ocean sparkled ahead.La Playa Gigante

And, here’s the part that totally astounded us, the kids, even though they were full of energy and itching to run into the water as fast as they could, lined up and listened as the safety rules were explained.  And … then … they… ran!  racing as fast as they could go toward the water before them.La Playa GiganteLa Playa GiganteThe huge beach, situated in a half-moon bay, was almost deserted; dark brown sand stretching long and wide with a gentle slope into the shallow water.  And, unlike so many beaches along the Pacific, it was fairly calm with just enough waves to provide some excitement for kids who were novice swimmers.  Playing in the waterOnly a few of the kids had swim suits (what luxury!) and  beach dress was anything goes, from t-shirts and shorts to underwear – it didn’t matter who wore what because fun was the order of the day.  The kids jumped in the waves, laid in the surf, splashed and yelled.  They kicked the beach balls about in impromptu games, dug holes to fill with water and buried each other in the sand. Sand in places you don't want to think about!Eating watermelon right down to the rindLunch was pizza cooked in a wood-fired oven – fabulous but, of course, the perfect crust was somewhat underappreciated by the ravenous kids and devoured in about three bites. Wedges of watermelon followed and then… a sprint to the water again for more fun!

At the end of the magical afternoon, filled with laughter and many hugs, the kids and adults boarded the bus for the return trip home with happy smiles and a lot of pink noses.  The bus bumped back down the dirt road accompanied by a couple of howler monkeys in the trees.  P1010045 (800x595)The kids talked animatedly about their day and, except for two roadside stops to get rid of several gallons of soda they’d drunk immediately before the return trip – boys to the left, girls to the right and no peeking! –  the trip back to Granada was uneventful – good since all the adults were either a fixin’ to or were already dozing!I love Nicaragua

By Anita and Richard, March, 2014

 

Back To Leon With The Granada Travel Club

Leon a La CatedralWe were late getting out of town that morning; it was almost 6:30 when the gleaming tourist bus, rented for the day, loaded up the twenty-five expats who were headed to Leon as part of the Granada Travel Club’s latest excursion. The late start put us into the thick of morning traffic, bumper-to-bumper with cars, motorcycles and crowded city buses as we passed through Managua on our way north; we didn’t clear the city until around 8:30.

After that the road was open with light traffic as we motored through small villages and towns past fields that were dusty, brown and wilting under a brilliant sun in a blue sky with cotton-ball cumulus clouds.  We’d last seen this area in September when it was verdant; the dry season was now baking the land.   About halfway through the drive we skirted the shores of Lake Managua; looking at the sparkling deep blue waters with gentle waves lapping the beach, you’d never guess that it was so severely polluted with sewage that swimming and fishing are inadvisable in most places.  In the distance, we watched the classic cone-shaped volcano, Momotombo, which was venting puffs of steam into the morning sky.

La CatedralWe parked in the center of the City of Leon, near the cathedral and by a large mural across from the Palacio Municipal.  We were met by our guide for the tour, Julio, and as he shepherded us through the symbolism of the mural he also interjected his own personal history.

The Sandinistas crush Somoza

The Sandinistas crush Somoza

Stoically, Julio related how he and three of his friends were picked up by the authorities of the Somoza regime one September afternoon in 1969 returning from baseball practice. He was fourteen at the time, accused of aiding the Sandinista rebels and without any rights or legal recourse. He endured imprisonment, interrogation and torture and survived periods of time confined in a coffin until his release in early December of that year. On Christmas day he left his home and went to the mountains to help with the coming revolution. His was not a unique story; a boy turned Sandinista revolutionary. The Nicaraguan Civil War and the subsequent Iran-Contra Affair have touched and scarred a generation of Nicaraguans on both sides of the conflict.

Inside La CatedralFinishing with the mural we walked across the street and entered La Catedral de Leon, a designated UNESCO World Heritage site, and the largest cathedral in Latin America. During our tour we learned that the esteemed poet of Nicaragua, Ruben Dario, was buried in the church and next we made our way to his childhood home, three blocks away.  Julio told more stories of Nicaragua’s native son as we walked slowly around the 19th century Spanish colonial structure beautifully furnished with antiques and a collection of books and art typical of the period.

Centro de Arte Fundacion Ortiz GurdianOur last stop in Leon, and the main reason many of us had come to Leon for the day, was the Centro de Arte Fundacion Ortiz Gurdian, an extensive private collection of artwork from Latin America as well as pieces by Picasso and Chagall.  Like the home of Ruben Dario, this house also was of Spanish Colonial architecture, cool and with a hushed atmosphere, built around several gardens and fountains.  The setting and the artwork were, indeed, amazing treasures and made us very happy that we had spent the day visiting Leon.

By Anita and Richard, March, 2014

Where No Sewer Has Gone Before…

We all know the dull headache that comes when the city announces impending plans for a sewer repair or a road extension project. Checking it out In advance, we anticipate the congestion caused by the heavy equipment which will crowd the cars to the margins of the streets. The sight of earthmovers plying their trade on our public thoroughfares does not draw a second glance. But that is there, in the States – back home, where energy is abundant and affordable, where mechanical power has for scores of years replaced human power.

Detour For the last two-plus months, during our daily commute, we have watched a major sewer expansion project as the City of Granada extends the sewer lines into the previously ignored and poorer barrios south of the city.Digging  Electrical power has recently been provided to the vast majority of the area along with potable water. The sewer, as the most complex of the projects, is the latest improvement. So, if you need to construct a new sewer line and you do not have access to cheap, reliable electricity or heavy equipment, you use the resources that are available to you. You use the labor force to dig the trenches, lay the pipe, install the man-hole connections and complete all the ancillary work that needs to be done.

DiggingHand mixing cementNow, mechanized power is not totally absent. There are trucks delivering pipe and bedding gravel. There are water trucks providing construction water to the project. There are a few whacker-packers for compaction; there are even a couple of Bob-cat style loaders, presumably to assist with some lifting aspect of the work. But, primarily, the work is conducted with shovels and an enormous effort of physical stamina, brute strength and human power.

Does a project of this scope cause a bit of havoc in the neighborhood? Well, yes. There is no difference there. The major streets are closed or restricted with traffic forced onto the laterals. Passersby The number of “close calls” between vehicles and bicycles, scooters, pedestrians and the numerous horse-drawn carts, increases exponentially. Street traffic gets diverted to the unpaved side streets  creating hovering dust clouds for the residents. Traffic control, a discipline that has not yet reached its maturity in Granada, is inadequate – signage and traffic flow is a matter of secondary or tertiary importance.

Funding by Japan & GermanySewer constructionBut the work does get done. From our seats in the taxi we click our camera shots and watch as the project unfolds. The route to our school in the Pantanal neighborhood seems to change regularly as portions of the road are released for traffic. There is no major fan-fare about the progress of the work; it simply proceeds, day after day. The only sign, while not announcing Your Tax Dollars at Work, does explain that this new work was made possible with assistance from Germany and Japan.

So, say what you will about the disparity of construction methods between the US and Granada, Nicaragua.  There is still a basic and unmistakable commonality – those damn construction guys are forever leaning on their shovels!Leaning on the shovel

By Anita and Richard, March, 2014

 

VolunTOURISM Versus Volunteering

One of our goals as long-term travelers is to volunteer two or three months at a time while we are in a locale for a longer stay.  Before we left the US we researched various countries, organizations and types of volunteer positions available overseas.  This led us, a few months later, to the option of joining an international volunteer agency and paying for the volunteer experience.  Following that, we discovered the in-country approach: arrive at a destination and start making personal inquiries of the locals and expats to find out what opportunities are available.

Toothbrush dayWhat we discovered in the process of our volunteer experiences is that we unwittingly became part of the “voluntourism” boom.   Voluntourism, or volunteering as a tourist, is promoted as a way to have an authentic and meaningful cultural experience (a sort of working vacation, if you will) while providing needed benefits to local individuals or communities. It provides nervous travelers to third-world countries with a hand-holding experience: contacts and a safety net with new, built-in friends.  However, it’s also an unregulated business sector which attracts huge amounts of money, advertises appealing good-works projects and draws in hoards of people wanting to do their part to improve the world. And all of this is with little or no oversight. It is both a buyer’s and a seller’s market. Almost any volunteer assignment can be found on the internet for a price and the old Latin injunction, caveat emptor, should be kept in mind.

Teaching English in GuatamalaOur first volunteer experience in Antigua, Guatemala was secured through a New Zealand agency with whom we felt relatively comfortable due to their transparent accounting profile. The time volunteering in the Antonio Escobar y Castro School was a phenomenal experience. However, the costs proved to be another matter. School girls in AntiguaThe fees ostensibly covered the room-and-board for a home-stay (which proved to be much less than satisfactory), the materials needed for the work at the school (which proved to be woefully inadequate) and the administrative costs of the company (which appeared to be more than generously staffed and housed). In our Antigua sojourn we discovered that the typical volunteer was a younger, predominantly white client who spent two weeks or less in the assignment minus the time for three or four day week-end jaunts to tourist destinations arranged by the local agency.

Activity dayWhen we started looking for our second volunteer gig, having gained some insight from our Antigua adventure, (fool me once shame on you, ….) we spoke with a trusted friend who told us about Education Plus Nicaragua and supplied an email address.  We contacted them, discussed our qualifications and their needs, met the directors of the NGO and found out they’d be delighted to have certified English teachers.Coloring  We signed on for a three month commitment and we’ve approached this experience as we would any job paid or not; we come on time prepared to work and do our best to make sure the kids learn. ColoringWe’ve discovered that there are a myriad of NGO’s worthy of our personal support and we need not pay an intermediary to perform our due diligence or secure our lodging. The current organization is small but growing.  It hires – to the extent possible – local, Nicaraguan personnel and is supported by the immediate community. In those respects it has a decent chance of becoming self-sustaining with secured capital funding from abroad.

Does all of this mean that going through an agency to volunteer is a less than worthwhile endeavor? Not necessarily. It can be quite costly. It can be a non-productive or even counter-productive experience when there is a mismatch between the volunteer and the work. And there is some evidence to support the notion that “voluntourism” has become one more commodity in the western world’s list of conspicuous consumption items. But if there is a good fit between the individual and the project and the program is reputable then wonderful experiences can await. But as always, “Let the buyer beware.”Angel smiling

By Anita and Richard, March, 2014

 

Teaching English And Volunteering In Pantanal

It’s hot in Granada during the dry season and, according to the weather forecasters, it’s going to get even hotter next month. This February the temperature has averaged in the mid-to-upper eighties.  In the neighborhood where we volunteer for Education Plus Nicaragua, Pantanal, the temperature seems to be amplified by several degrees.  The corrugated tin roof that covers the classroom at the school seems to intensify the heat. When the breeze makes an unexpected appearance it picks up the fine grit from the bare dirt yards and unpaved roads and deposits a fresh layer that sifts across and down over everything.   

PantanalFew tourists visit Pantanal and taxi drivers are reluctant to drive us to the neighborhood because of the distance from city center, the unpaved roads in much of the barrio and the detours caused by sewer extension construction. Some days, if we don’t have our usual taxi driver, Nestor, we’ll  have to ask over and over “Barrio Pantanal, por favor?” before we receive an affirmative response; most simply give a brusque shake of the head as they continue on their way.

Edu-Plus, Yanni's houseWe arrive each morning about 11:30 at the home owned by Yanni and her family where the school is currently located.  We set up the low tables and chairs which serve double duty as dining tables for those children receiving lunch or dinner and desks for the seventy or so students in one of the four classes.  lunch timeServing lunch to the youngest of the students is one of our favorite times.  The little ones, of pre-school and kindergarten age, line up with their bowls, spoons and glasses that they bring from home and wait patiently.  For some, this might be their only meal for the day.  Only a few weeks ago, when they first enrolled in the school at the beginning of January, it was a madhouse with children shouting, pushing and shoving to be first in line. Now they wait. They know there will be food for all.

HandwashingFollowing hand washing, we take turns with the other volunteers alternating between pouring the reconstituted milk into their glasses and dishing up the day’s offerings which might includeWaiting for lunch rice, beans, soy patties, cabbage slaw salad or fried plantains.  The children begin the meal time with a prayer in Spanish, hands steepled together, occasionally peeking out at one another from under their brows.   Towards the end of the meal the kids will share the food they don’t want with others and there’s always a stray dog or two from the street winding their way under the tables hopefully waiting for the scraps.

lunch time at the schoolWhen lunch is over we team up with the newly hired Nicaraguan college student, Johanna, to teach English to three classes daily, every Monday through Thursday from 12:30 to 3:00.  We divide the children into small groups to facilitate both learning and control.  The materials are a mishmash of donated educational items and home-made flash cards and posters. There is a portable white board at the front of the classroom area for the teacher and students to use. Each weekend we plan out ways to introduce new vocabulary, activities and songs to make the learning fun for all of us.

group workAt the end of the afternoon, we catch a taxi home, sometimes buoyed and smiling by a day that went as we had planned with games and learning proceeding as envisioned.  Other days we leave a little disheartened or frustrated by one or another of the classes that was disruptive or uncooperative.  We’re enervated by the cacophony that surrounds the little open school room in Pantanal; the children, the barking dogs and the booming loud music and Spanish talk radio from the house next door.  We return to our area of town where the temperature seems to be not so intense, the streets are paved and we can walk in our bare feet across the cool, clean tile floors of our apartment.

But when the taxi arrives the next morning at Yanni’s house, there will be a few early arrivals waiting with smiles and eager bright-eyed faces, arms outstretched for a hug and ready to help us haul out the tables and chairs for another day.

Jumping rope - Education Plus at Pantanal, Granada, NIC 2014

Jumping rope – Education Plus at Pantanal, Granada, NIC 2014

By Anita and Richard, March, 2014

 

Life Is Like A Box Of Chocolates: El Museo de Choco

El Museo de ChocoWe’ve passed by Granada’s El Museo de Choco, the Museum of Chocolate, many times but on the day that celebrates all things chocolate, Valentine’s Day, we finally stepped in.  It was a very hot day so we chose their signature drink, iced chocolate, an amazingly refreshing and satisfying concoction. A few days later we joined a group of five other devotees in a class, “From Bean to Bar” which was designed to teach the rudiments of the making of chocolate.

The cacao tree with podsThe class also presented a better understanding of the role of the cacao (pronounced ca COW) tree within the broader context of history. We learned, for example, that the cacao tree was indigenous to the Mayan homeland and that it was grown in most family garden plots. So, unlike the Aztecs who reserved the chocolate exclusively for their royalty, all Mayans, from the nobility to the lowest classes could enjoy the fruits of the cacao tree. The Mayans preferred it as a hot, frothy drink flavored with honey and chili peppers.

Roasting the beans in an ironwood cauldronroasting cacao beansThe  fermented cacao beans, which grow from twenty to sixty per pod, were roasted over a low fire in an ironwood cauldron for roughly fifteen minutes.  As the day’s temperature was ninety-plus degrees it was hot and sweaty work to stir the beans over the fire, but with a bit of song and dance by all participants, it played out well.

We then winnowed the beans, cracking the husks, picking out the nut meat and placing the small pile into a basket. Next, we crushed the nibs using a stone mortar and pestle to make the paste necessary to produce the cacao butter for the sweet drink.

stirring with a molilloFinally, we were ready to create our libations: First, the frothy Mayan drink and then the Aztecan brew, traditionally flavored with honey, vanilla beans and black pepper.  The Spanish version, which the conquistadors were quick to expropriate, incorporated sugar milled from imported sugar cane and milk from their transplanted cow herds along with cinnamon and other spices. Chocolate barsWe finished up our tour by making our individual candy bars; one bar combined the chocolate with honey and chili peppers and the other bar was mixed with honey, almonds and cinnamon.  At the end of the class we toasted each other with another glass of iced chocolate drink (no dinner necessary after that!).

The world has moved forward tremendously since the days of the Mayans, Aztecs and Spaniards. Cacao is still grown in Central America and since it is indigenous to the land, tends to have the highest quality and can be produced organically. However, the demand world-wide is simply too great. Vast monoculture plantations are found in Africa, Indonesia and elsewhere to supply the sweet tooth, particularly in the developed world. The upshot is that the sun farms, far removed from the rain forest of Central America, are vast acreages which require herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers and eliminate habitat diversification for animal species and crop diversification for the worker’s economic protection.

Cacao production has, for better or worse, joined the ranks of the commodities of modern world.Cacao Liquer

By Anita and Richard, February, 2014

 

The Cafe Of Smiles

Although Nicaragua is the largest nation in Central America, it is the most sparsely populated and second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.  Hardship is a looming shadow over this country with an estimated 45% of the population living below the poverty line which, needless to say, has a much lower threshold than in the United States or other “first-world” countries.  Add high unemployment and under-employment levels for able-bodied citizens and guess what happens to people with disabilities?

There are few services or opportunities for people with disabilities in Nicaragua’s countryside and so Granada, which has a special education school and some educational options and NGO programs, is a gathering place for families with members who are disabled.

The cafe of smiles and Smiles CoffeeWhich brings us to el Cafe de las Sonrisas, the Cafe of Smiles.  With a little digging we found that it is the first coffee shop in the Americas and the 4th in the world to be run entirely by people who are deaf and mute.  Big things behind little doors-Cafe SonrisaThe home of Smiles Coffee is located behind an unassuming entrance on Calle Real Xalteva in a large colonial building with a beautiful interior garden courtyard filled with a variety of plants and a central fountain.  Surrounding the courtyard are tables on one side, walls covered with images of the international sign language and an adjacent hammock workshop and showroom.A hammock to lounge by the garden  After ordering one’s coffee or a simple Nicaraguan-style meal from the menu and cards, which are designed to assist customers in communicating with the staff, you can wander over to the workshop areas.  The numerous large and open-air work stations create a pleasant and interesting waiting experience where one can watch employees weave brilliantly colored hammocks.

Weaving hammocks at Cafe Sonrisa   The signature quality product, called The Never Ending Hammock, symbolizes the goals of:  1) providing employment for the disabled of Nicaragua and, 2) highlighting an environmental focus on recycling plastic bags, the raw material from which the hammocks are made.

Weaving hammocksThe cafe is the latest addition to the Social Center Tio Antonio and is an inclusive educational and employment center for persons with disabilities.  The founder, Hector Ruiz, is a Spanish emigrant who has made his home in Nicaragua following a foray in Costa Rica as a restaurateur.  Early in his time in Nicaragua he met a man who was deaf and mute and began to help him by locating a teacher.

Just beginning the weavingSoon he was introduced to several other persons with similar disabilities and his efforts to assist with their education grew until he required a funding source to continue.  Aided by a local hotel, he opened a business to teach job skills and employ persons with various disabilities to make and sell beautifully crafted hammocks which has subsequently morphed into Tio Antonio Centro Social. The non-profit business, within the context of a community center, offers support to the hearing and visually impaired population in the areas of education, health care and dignified employment

weaving a hammock chairThe goal of Tio Antonio is nearing fruition: building self-sustaining businesses that flourish based upon product excellence and first-rate service. Customers return and bring their friends and recommend the shop to others because of the beauty, quality and value of the hammocks, the tasty fresh fruit drinks, satisfying, typical-style Nicaraguan meals and the whole-bodied flavor of the coffee.  In addition to the above, the knowledge that one is supporting a truly worthy endeavor nearly guarantees a smile pasted on the mug of the customers as they leave el Cafe de Sonrisas.Hammock factory next to cafe Sonrisa

By Anita and Richard, February, 2014

 

Slow Traveling: Putting Down Shallow Roots

Boy with a stick & tire We like to travel slowly.  When we came back from Big Corn Island to Granada at Christmas we almost felt like we were coming home. Neighborhood Kids  True, this was our third trip back in as many months and there was that warm, fuzzy feeling of the familiar.  True, it was great to return to a city we knew and nod again at familiar people on the streets.  True, it was so much easier to know already which direction to go to find the shops and visit favorite restaurants than to set off on the initial exploration of a new city.  And true, it was wonderful to see and talk to friends we had met previously.

Our initial plan in December was to spend Christmas in Granada and, at the beginning of the New Year, make our way through Costa Rica with a visit to the Caribbean side and head to Panama.A smile and a wave  But… we couldn’t get excited, even as we stared at the map at places that had previously stirred our imagination.  We felt kind of fizzless.  When we looked at bed-and-breakfast places, hostels and hotels all we could see were the hefty dollar signs attached and we lacked the enthusiasm to dig a little further for places to stay that were more reasonable.  Our act of procrastination and deciding to not decide on the next step presented a third option:  Why not stay a couple of months in Granada?

Pigs in a poke (kind of)And so, we reached out to the expat community.  During our previous visits we’d heard that there was a monthly meet and greet of expats who were establishing and reinforcing business contacts but then we learned there was also an informal gathering every Friday in front of the Grill House on Calle Calzado.  A few people, foreigners who now lived in Granada, both permanently and for shorter stays, and also people passing through would get together around 5:00.

Catching a bite to eatWe almost missed our first meeting. A rainstorm had us waiting in the inner courtyard with no group of expats in sight  When we gave up and came outside, though, there were a couple of tables pushed together and a few people sitting at them conversing.  We boldly walked up to the table (we never would do this in the US) and asked, “Is this the expat get-together?”.  In short order we had new acquaintances, an appointment to see an apartment, a list of places to inquire about volunteer opportunities and an invitation to lunch the next day.

A working familyThat is one of the beauties of slow travel. Since there is seldom a fixed itinerary there is no reason not to extemporize on the travel agenda. We have great latitude in deciding to extend a stay in places that please us, settle a bit more into a community and explore previously undiscovered places.  The only requirement of slow travel is that the roots must, of necessity, be shallow. For at some point we will pack up and be moving on again.

La fiesta - Granada, NIC 2013

La fiesta – Granada, NIC 2013

By Anita and Richard, January, 2014

 

A Year’s Accounting or…We Spent What?

money-stream roadA pox upon budgets We’ve never budgeted in our lives. The whole notion of a budget was antithetical to our concept of being. Yet, when we first started planning our great adventure one of our foremost questions was “How Much”?  We diligently researched destinations across the globe and avidly read travel blogs and how-to books on retirement in various countries that broke down costs.  Some articles boasted that expat couples were living in Ecuador and Nicaragua for as little as $800 per month Chiapas Mexicowhile others said $2500 a month would entitle one to a lifestyle one could only dream of back in the States. When we hit the road in September of 2012 we started tracking our daily expenses and charted it in a monthly spreadsheet.  This was basically to give us a baseline and to anticipate future costs. We also had to learn and adopt a lifestyle that was both commensurate with our desires and our bank book. Lodging is the largest single cost and our criteria have remained consistent: safe, clean, affordable. When possible we look for weekly or monthly rental bargains. Caveats Medical costs are excluded; these are too idiosyncratic. All costs associated with life back in the states are excluded such as costs associated with our house that we are currently leasing (and plan to sell this year), charitable and Christmas gifts, etc.

Mean Monthly Costs by Category for Calendar Year 2013 in Dollars per Month

ITEM                                 MEAN            MAX             MIN

Clothing                  44          115            5

Food                      368          632          77

Classes                   164          400           0

Meals                     407          587        202

Misc.                      190          383          80

Rent                       875        1697          22

Tours                      136          511            0

Transp.                    240           503          13

Total                     2367           N/A         N/A

What’s Included:

Clothing: Clothing covers everything from rain ponchos, sunglasses and second-hand shirts to Teva sandals shipped in from the states.

Fruit and VeggiesFood: Includes consumable items as well as household products (shampoo, soap, paper goods, garbage bags, etc.). Many times we buy gringo foods at gringo prices and, obviously, this would be a perfect place to economize!

Lessons: Spanish lessons and, most recently, the services of a professional trainer. These are intermittent costs. We don’t incur them every month.

Traditional Mayan FishMeals Out: Any meals eaten outside the home including drinks and snacks. The figure is a real eye-opener!

Miscellaneous:  A sampling of expenditures reveals moneys that were spent for laundry, haircuts, massages, entertainment, a travel alarm clock, housekeeper gratuities, baby, graduation and quinceanera gifts, volunteer supplies, replacement computer mouse (mice?), fees to use public bathrooms and handouts to street beggars.

Online: This includes fees paid online for e-books, I-tunes, Netflix, Hot Spot (our virtual private network), Dropbox, Skype membership, etc.

Vista MombachoRent:  This year we paid for lodging in Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Costa Rica. Our most common lodging is at B&B’s but this also covers homestays and housesitting and includes any utility costs when paid.

Tours/Excursions: Entrance fees for museums, archeological sites, historic sites such as cathedrals, National parks, guided tours and the like.  Also included are entrance or exit fees at border crossings between countries.

Tuk-Tuks Santa Elena, GTMTransportation: If it moves and we’re on board it’s included. That means tuk-tuk, taxi, bus, shuttle, panga, launcha, ferry and airplane fees. We’re not absolutely convinced that this budgetary spreadsheet is necessary or advisable. But we’re finding it interesting to see how we spend our money and tracking our expenses has become a habit. So, we reckon we’ll keep at it for another year and see what changes in our spending behavior…

Through the roof!

Through the roof!

By Richard and Anita, January, 2014          

Chillin’ In San Juan Del Sur

SJdS Welcome SignComing into the beach town of San Juan del Sur we were greeted by a vibrant psychedelic sign that announced that, yes indeed, we had arrived at our destination on the Pacific coast.

The beach at SJdSThe half-moon bay was ringed by golden sands and had sailboats, pleasure boats and local fishing vessels scattered across its surface.  Christ of the Mercy statueThe statue of Christ of the Mercy, the second largest statue of Jesus in the world, presided over the bay from the towering cliffs at the north end benignly gazing down upon the water and blessing the fishermen.  The street was lined from one end to the other with restaurants, bars and hotels.  It was easy to see that the once peaceful fishing town, now consisting of roughly 18,000 residents, had become a popular vacation place attracting both Nicaraguan vacationers and foreign tourists.  This beach was a beautiful place for those who wanted to walk along the shore, swim or splash in the waves and just chill. Other beaches to the north and south offer surfing and lessons for those so inclined.South view

Over the last few years the picturesque and colorful town has begun to attract a fair-sized expat and foreign retirement community who came to visit and decided to stay for the laid-back beach vibe, low-cost of living and gorgeous scenery.  Entrepreneurs are building small retirement developments and condos, owning and operating surf shops, fishing tours, restaurants and hotels.Street scene and construction

Expats are always a varied lot and one eccentric resident immediately caught our attention as we were walking down the street.  the Monkey ladyDressed entirely in a leopard print ensemble complete with a flapped hat and matching scooter the deeply tanned, shoe-leather-skinned woman was walking two golden-haired spider monkeys.  We asked her if we could take a picture of the monkeys (but really she was the prize!) and for a charge of 20 Cordoba which she justified as food money for her companions, she allowed us to take a few photos.  When asked about the monkeys she explained  that they were “rescue monkeys” saved after their mother had been shot and killed.

One afternoon during our visit we climbed into the back of a pick-up and took seats upon the benches lining the cargo bed. The boards of the surfing students were strapped on the top rack. We, sans boards, brought water, sun screen and our anticipation of a lovely afternoon and headed for Playa Hermosa, a secluded beach a few kilometers south of town. After driving a short distance we turned off the highway and passed, for a fee, through a locked gate and down a rocky, rutted, shaded and densely forested road, which was scraped into the hillsides that led to the beach. It was easy to imagine that during a downpour it could become a quagmire of mud.  This hard-scrabble track had been punched in by the developers of the hit television series Survivor a few years earlier. There was a comfortable little camp at the end of the road equipped with a restaurant, hostel and several palapas. We had arrived at a backpacker destination and the hard-bodies, beer and rum were all on display in relaxed and convivial abundance. Even the fact that one of our party stepped on a small stingray and received a nasty sting did not dampen the mood the afternoon.

The Bay of SJdS from the maleconBack in San Juan del Sur, while talking with a couple of expats who are financially involved in the community, there seemed to be an agreement that this small village was quite likely on a trajectory that would take it to a level of development similar to Jaco, Costa Rica. The pronouncement was neither laudatory nor derogatory, it was simply the educated guess of two longer term residents who had watched development in other Latin American countries. Change is a constant and the haunts of the backpackers do not remain their exclusive domain for long. This retreat is fast becoming a fixture on the gringo trail as word of this sea-side paradise spreads.San Juan del Sur bus

By Richard and Anita, January, 2014

 

A Fiesta in Barrio Pantanal

Barrio Pantanal The New York Times reported that in Latin America the rate of population growth has dropped dramatically recently; Nicaragua is no exception. During the last two generations urbanization, increased access to health care and women’s empowerment has translated into smaller families. Barrio PantanalBut it was hard to reconcile that account with the reality of barrio Pantanal, a neighborhood south of Granada’s mercado district. It is not a place that taxis like to go because many of the streets are not paved but rather are dirt roads or foot paths. Jim, our host, explained that of the roughly 11,000 people in Pantanal, 7,000 are children 15 years and under. In this neighborhood, many of the residents are squatters. They live on vacant land which they use until they are evicted and required to move to the next make-shift shelter.Barrio Pantanal

Feeling a little at loose ends for Christmas day we made inquiries regarding volunteer opportunities and leaped at the chance to spend the afternoon in barrio Pantanal helping Education Plus Nicaragua with a fiesta and celebration for the children it serves and including the folks in the neighborhood.  We arrived at the festival location, a modest home with neatly swept concrete and dirt floors and two newly built latrines out back.  waiting for airThe family who lives in the home has generously allowed the NGO (non-governmental organization) to use it on weekdays until a permanent home for the school is found.  Education Plus provides a much-needed nutrition program to combat the malnutrition and hunger that many of the children experience by offering a free lunch and dinner to its students.  The non-profit organization believes that children who speak English have the best chance to escape a life of limited options and poverty so high priority is placed upon teaching English as well as after-school tutoring and help with homework.  The volunteers also work on teaching and improving socialization skills such as sharing, taking turns and playing cooperatively in organized recreation programs.Two Princesses

The yard and roadway in front of the home were filled with excited children.  A handful of adult volunteers of many nationalities were sprinkled throughout the crowd.  Antonio & MelissaThe children, many in their best party clothes, were eyeing two huge inflatable bounce houses, a table filled with soft drinks, popcorn and cotton candy machines and piñatas. The dozen or so volunteers, some already working with the program, were there to enjoy a Christmas fiesta along with the children of the neighborhood.

The five hours passed quickly for it was mostly chatting briefly with individual children, helping to keep games moving along, making sure every child had their turn at the various activities and doing whatever looked like needed to be done.  The children were having a great time; there was laughter and smiles galore. Sipping sodasMuch food was consumed. There was none of the usual fighting and bickering associated with almost three-hundred kids in close proximity to one another.  Looking to the east you could see where the pavement ended and the dirt track began. You knew that the poverty and hunger were waiting, as they always are. But for that Christmas celebration, for that sun dappled afternoon, it was fiesta time.Howdy hi!

By Richard and Anita, January, 2014

 

Barefootin’ And Driftin’…Slow Days On Big Corn Island

Main Street - Brig BayEach day unfolds slowly here on the island.  Long before the first glimmers of light we hear the big rooster who lives behind our little abode greeting the day.   He seems to take great pleasure in moving outside around our bungalow and trumpeting his wake-up call from underneath each window until he’s satisfied that he’s been heard.   The unseen birds then begin their chorus of songs taking turns to break out into lyrical solos before blending back into the cacophony.  And always, in the background, the sound of the surf – some days a gentle swoosh and others a crashing roar.

Our panga with AlejandroOne day we climbed into a panga with two Creole fishermen and Steve and Toni, a couple of new friends, and slowly trolled along the rocky cliff faces for barracuda before setting off across the water in search of kingfish and yellowtail snapper.  The panga, a local vessel,  lacked  Coast Guard approved life vests aboard but there was a bucket filled with coconuts to quench our thirst. line-fishing & drinking coconut milkThe trick was to hack off the outside skin with a sharp machete, poke a quarter-sized hole into the point and then savor the contents.  In between  practicing line- fishing and sharing the two battered poles between the four of us,  we drifted slowly through the morning, hypnotized by the movement of the waves in various shades of blue and not bothered appreciably by our failure to catch anything but a couple of pan-size perch.north end of Big Corn Island

Bottle mosaicsAnother day, we took the ferry across the water to Little Corn Island and spent a few hours strolling around the picturesque and quaint small island, admiring a little store whose walls were built from glass bottles and mortared together into a colorful mosaic and eating excellent kingfish tacos for lunch at a lodge overlooking a coral reef before returning to our own island.

Every Sunday there’s a baseball game in the corrugated roofed stadium whose fences are papered with colorful advertisements.  For an admission price of 20 cordobas (less than $1) you can while away the early afternoon hours rooting for your favorite team, applauding standout plays and listening to the booing and cursing in the colorful Caribe dialect as abuse is heaped upon an unfortunate player.  Reggae and classic country western music blasts from the overhead speakers and occasionally, a member of the audience will stand and shimmy a few dance moves to celebrate an especially good play.  A woman sells a little spicy and delicious meat-filled, half-moon shaped pie called Caribe patties and sings out “pat-TEE, pat-TEE, pat-TEE” as she walks the aisles.  After she makes her sale to us she proudly confides that the young man at bat, number  11, is her grandson but “He ain’t playin’ so good today”. Indeed, he went 0 for 3 for the afternoon.

swimming at the municipal wharfgirl with a beautiful smileAnd always, there’s swimming and snorkeling in the sea, walking the almost deserted road around and about the island, watching the children laughing and at play, poking among the various fruits and vegetables on sale for the tastiest, exchanging greetings and pleasantries with the locals, napping occasionally and reading book after book.  It reminds me of the slow and lazy, endless summer days of childhood; a feeling and memory to be savored.Three kids

By Anita and Richard, December, 2013

 

Rainbows and Stars: The Corn Islands

Nicaragua mapThere are two ways to get to Islas Del Maiz or the Corn Islands (known as Big and Little) which sit off the eastern coast of Nicaragua in the Caribbean. You can take a bus from Managua to Rama (about 6 hours), a panga (boat) to Bluefields (about 2 hours) and then, either stay a night or two there in that less-than-thriving metropolis or hope to time the arrival to catch the twice weekly ferry (a 5 hour trip) to Big Corn Island.  Or you can take one of the twice daily flights by La Costena Air from Managua to Big Corn Island. The direct flight is just over an hour and is reasonably priced at $175 round trip. We opted, for the first time, to discard our by land only, budget-traveler philosophy and flew to the islands.

Loading the bags

A rainstorm had just passed and, upon our arrival at the very small island airport, we stepped out onto the dirt (mud) parking area.  The dense, moist air enveloped us, rain drops sparkling upon the leaves.  In the distance was a perfect whole rainbow stretched from end to end, an uplifting and auspicious beginning for our month long stay on Corn Island.

A little shoppingTwo or three taxis were lined up and a very large man with a friendly smile and outstretched hand introduced himself in a lilting Caribbean accent as Puma.  It was a pleasure to listen to him as he drove and spoke about the island in a deep-toned, melodious voice with the words flowing around us; some in English and the rest in a barely decipherable island creole.  He deposited us at our roof-top apartment called the Crow’s Nest which had screened and shuttered windows overlooking an empty and pristine golden sand beach with one row of foamy breaking waves and the turquoise water stretching to the horizon.

the beach and pangasDarkness arrives about 5:30 at this time of the year in Nicaragua so we moved quickly. After meeting the owners of our apartment, we dumped our one suitcase and backpacks and hurried to a little store for a few staples for breakfast.

The Island Style Beach Bar and Reastaurant Then we set off in search of dinner, walking in the dark down the dirt road with flashlights pointing ahead trying to avoid the large mud puddles.  We arrived at the Island Style Beach Bar and Restaurant which sits next to the beach, empty except for one other couple, with classic old-style country and western music reverberating from the speakers.  Our meal of chicken, homemade plantain chips and coleslaw arrived on island time; the meal good and the setting tranquil.  That is until an apparition appeared halfway through our dinner emerging from the shadows of the jungle behind the restaurant, wielding a machete a machete dangling from his hand. He ambled in, sat down a few tables from us, ordered a beer and listened to the country western music for a bit before dozing off.

We walked back down the dirt road in the velvety darkness talking softly and laughing over the thought of a man walking into a restaurant in the U.S. carrying a machete.  On the left was the sea with the sound of the waves filling the night.  We turned off our small flashlights for several minutes, standing in the middle of the muddy road, turning slowly. . and saying “oh” ….  our faces upturned in wonder like children, gazing at the stars that filled the night sky.View from Long Bay

By Anita and Richard, November, 2013

 

“Don’t Know Much About History”…Leon, Politics And The Civil War

1786 La Iglesia Recoleccion

1786 –  La Iglesia Recoleccion

Our guide, Juan, joined at age 14 and fought in the revolution in 1979

Our guide, Juan, joined at age 14 and fought in the revolution in 1979

As travelers we prepare for each new location or country by breaking out the maps and researching the history.  The theme of “La Revolucion” is present in most of the Latin American nations where we have been, harkening back to the battles of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. But Nicaragua has its own unique perspective. For, unlike Guatemala which fought a civil war for thirty-six years only to arrive at an armistice, Nicaragua experienced a real and successful revolution in 1979 with the overthrow of the  Somoza regime by the Sandinistas.

A street mural

A street mural

Leon, being the intellectual capital of the nation, has a special relationship with that historical period. It has always been the city favored by the more liberal of the country’s political class. The city figured heavily in the revolution, led by the FSLN (Frente Sandinista de Liberacion Nacional or the Sandinista National Liberation Front]. There was fierce street by street fighting as each side sought the upper hand. In a desperate move, the Somoza government resorted to bombing the city. The Sandinistas eventually gained the advantage and held the city until the ultimate defeat of the Somoza regime.

FSLN Banner

The Museo de la Revolucion, housed fittingly in the Palacio del Gubierno which belonged to the deposed Anastasia Somoza, is staffed by veterans of the conflict and contains a small collection of memorabilia. The residence still bears many the scars of the fighting including bullet pocked  walls.  Elsewhere in Leon is the old 21st Garrison, the prison used by the Somoza government at the time of the revolution, which depicts many of the brutal interrogation tactics of the discredited regime. Near the city center there are a number of street murals, some covering extensive portions of city blocks, honoring the martyrs of the revolution.

Pulling a cart

With Leon’s history – it was the capital city founded by Francisco Cordoba in 1524 and a major colonial center –  and the recent revolutionary events, the city comes down on the proletarian side of the equation. It is a nitty-gritty sort of place and does not display the grandeur of Managua or Granada. Over-laying the ancient churches and the colonial architecture there is a glimpse of the working class nature of the city. Pedi-cabs replace tuk-tuks for cheap personal transportation. Horse drawn and human-powered wagons provide a means of moving goods within the city as well as from farm to market.

Homemade cart pulled by a horse

Adding to the impression of the proletarian nature of the city is the number of shops given over to the sale of used clothing. This feeling was further underscored by the dearth of restaurants; even the “tipico” eateries which cater to the local population were not in abundance around the city center. It appeared that whether buying or selling, money was in short supply.

Despite its relative humbleness, the good will of the people was obvious and abundant. It did not appear that hospitality was a casualty of the conflict.

By Richard and Anita, October, 2013

By Boat And By Bus to Belize and Back

Boats on the waterfront at Livingston

Boats on the waterfront at Livingston

Who knew they liked Americans so much in Central America? They even set up a special travel status just for us: the CA-4. Now that’s a bit of southern hospitality.

Dock at La Casa Rosada

La Casa Rosada Hostel, Livingston

Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua participate in an agreement called the CA-4 (Central America – 4) that allows U.S. citizens to travel freely between the four countries for ninety days.  We entered Guatemala at the end of February, extended our visas in mid-May for an additional ninety days by going to Guatemala City, filling out a short application form and paying a fee, and finally, had to leave the country for seventy-two hours in August to renew our visas and continue our travels into Honduras and Nicaragua.  We decided to exit Guatemala via Livingston, a funky little town on the Caribbean coast accessible only by boat.

Great Food - A bit messy but GOOD

Great Food – A bit messy but GOOD

Livingston is a small port city, with a population of roughly 17,000 souls, inhabited by
the Garifuna (descendants of 17th century shipwrecked African slaves and indigenous Carib),  Q’cqchi’ Mayan and Guatemaltecans. Spanish is still the predominant language but Garifuna, English and Mayan are heard regularly.  The cuisine is distinctly different from the rest of Guatemala with a tasty selection of seafood and coconut based dishes.  We walked up the short main street, Calle Principal, which included a very steep hill from the little marina, wandered about a few side streets where we encountered a sow and piglet, chickens and goats and …that was it.  We’d seen the town.

Entering and exiting Punta Gorda, Belize

Entering and exiting Punta Gorda, Belize

We took our passports to the immigration office, received our exit stamps and, early Tuesday morning we boarded a launch for a ride across deep blue water sparkling in the sunlight to the port city of Punta Gorda, Belize.  After receiving our visa entry stamps, we caught a local bus for a two-hour ride to Independence, also called Mango Creek by the locals, and finally boarded a water taxi for the fifteen minute ride to Placencia.  It was a long day waiting and riding upon various forms of transport, hauling our backpacks and suitcases around and about, but it went surprisingly smooth and people were smiling, friendly and very helpful.

Main Street - Getting around in Placencia

Main Street – Getting around in Placencia

Placencia peninsula is sixteen miles long and very narrow with the Placencia lagoon on one side and the Caribbean Sea on the other; as we walked about  Placencia Village we could catch glimpses of both the lagoon and the sea.   The village was founded by pirates and is a mixture of expats, creoles, Garifuna and Mayan Belizeans all speaking several variations of English, the official language of Belize, a former British colony.  The spoken English varied from a very proper British accent to a thick, melodic Caribbean patois that we had to strain hard to understand.  Added into this mix was the background talk from the tourists we met (German, Israeli, French, Canadian, etc.).

Main pedestrian walkway in Placencia

Main pedestrian walkway in Placencia

Because it was low season, we found a charming room with a kitchenette and porch complete with a hammock on the beach and a view of the Caribbean for a discounted price.  There we spent our three-day exile gazing out at the Caribbean, occasionally swimming, laying in the sun, swinging in the hammock and reading (and did I mention sweating buckets in the thick humidity?).  This was a pleasant and leisurely respite before we had to reverse our trip back to Livingston and then begin the next leg of our journey to the Bay Islands of Honduras.

Quiet  time at dawn-

Quiet time at dawn-

By Richard and Anita, August, 2013

Becoming Minimalists or “How Heavy Is That Suitcase?”

Blog0511-1010-1423-4936_Black_and_White_Cartoon_of_a_Girl_Carrying_a_Heavy_Suitcase_clipart_imageWe were enthusiastic and competitive participants in the game of life called “He who dies with the most toys, wins”. That is, until we decided to change our lifestyle to become perpetual travelers. In the year that we took to prepare for our new lives we had to make a huge shift in our attitudes about potential purchases. Almost overnight we went from active consumerism to answering our gold standard question “Will this fit in my suitcase?”

When we first moved to Padre Island in Corpus Christi, Texas, we drafted a hurricane evacuation plan in the event that we were forced to leave the island. This was a great rehearsal because it made us prioritize, select the few things that we could not replace and fit them in a finite space, our car. These items included: household files and documents, photos, family keepsakes and a few select pieces of art. When we started getting rid of our stuff, we tackled the irreplaceable list first.

blogfileCartoon 17611) We toted bags of files to a shredder service and finally winnowed our files and documents to a couple of envelopes that would fit in a safe deposit box. We made notarized copies of documents to take with us (birth certificates, background checks, university diplomas, etc.) and uploaded copies to Dropbox, a cloud-based file storage service.

2) As for the pre-digital era photo albums, I divided our pictures into two groups: a few quality professional photos and a huge quantity of not-so-great pictures taken over the years with point and shoot cameras.  After receiving a quote from a professional scanning service (the Scan Cafe), we boxed up the better quality pictures and old family photos, and mailed them off. The service took about a month from the time the pictures were mailed to when they were returned and cost about $150. blogkkin186lThe remainder of the photos we scanned ourselves into the computer.  I saved just a few pictures after our son, no sentimental slob, convinced me that he did not want the photo albums and would be content with a disc and to view the albums online. The last of the originals worth saving were mailed to friends and family. In the end, were able to take our pictures with us.

3) Richard had collected oil and water-color paintings, pen and ink drawings etc. during our marriage. He was able to place a few pieces with the Montana and Oregon Historical Museums (and console himself with the thought of sharing these with others). Many pictures were shipped to family and friends as gifts, a few were donated to charity fund-raising auctions and some were sold.

Blogpban8l4) Family Keepsakes. Again, we contacted various family members and shipped off what was wanted. The rest were sold.

One of the ways to keep our sentimental emotions tamped down as we shed our former life was to remind ourselves that all this stuff prevented us from doing what we wanted to do: travel. In the end we disposed of everything through two yard sales, Craig’s list, gifts to family and friends or charitable donations.

Throughout the year-long process of changing our lifestyle we tried to laugh as often as we could and worked hard to keep our sense of humor.blogggm090721l

By Anita and Richard, July, 2013

 

Housesitting: The Right Place at the Right Time

Volcan Agua -view from house

Volcan Agua -view from house

We met Mike in March, a few days after we arrived in Antigua, at a local restaurant. After meeting him a second time a couple of days later he invited us to his house in Santa Ana, a little community contiguous to Antigua, the following Sunday to see the Lenten procession which the church in Santa Ana was sponsoring. Since we were anxious to learn about these processions and the whole Lenten experience, we gladly accepted.

La Iglesia (church) in Santa Ana

La Iglesia (church) in Santa Ana

The following Sunday we followed the Alfombra carpets laid out on the cobblestone roads and walked to his home. Sure enough we had an unobstructed view of the event. Centurians Mike’s is a beautifully renovated colonial house at the end of Calle Real, the route of the procession, so all of the marchers, the bands, the andus (the elaborate wooden platform holding the religious statues that the marchers carried) , the hawkers, everything and everybody trooped by his front door.

Mike and Dawn's Alfombra

Mike and Dawn’s Alfombra

Mike and his wife, Dawn, and friends had spent the early morning hours creating their own alfombra in front of their home, using a custom-made plywood stencil and colored sawdust. Their participation in this annual religious ritual endeared he and his wife to their neighbors and further tied them to the community.

During our visit we found out that Mike and Dawn split their time between two homes, one in Santa Ana and one in Canada. We discovered that they would soon be departing for their home in Canada and that they were looking for a “house-sitter” for the Santa Ana casa. After some discussions they extended an offer for us to care for their home after we finished our volunteer work commitment teaching English at the end of April. We decided to prolong our time in Antigua for an additional three months, accepted their offer and the deal was sealed.

La Casa CourtyardThe house-sitting has been a fantastic opportunity to further acquaint ourselves with the city of Antiqua, learn about the pulse of the small community of Santa Ana and spend more time exploring Guatemala. After living in fairly basic accommodations, we are thoroughly appreciating a pampered lifestyle. We have 1) a coffee pot ! 2) a hot water heater which provides a hot shower with full water pressure ! 3) good Wi-Fi ! 4) a washing machine ! 5) a kitchen where we can cook both comfort foods and experiment with some local cuisine 6) a home to spread out in!

2nd floor terrace

2nd floor terrace

Our contribution is to provide a visible, lived-in presence at the house, pay the monthly salary for a lovely lady who comes in and cleans daily (far less than what we would be paying for rent) and make sure that things operate in good order.

This experience has led us to enroll in an on-line international house-sitting website. So if the planets are aligned favorably, we may be able to care for another home, in another country, at another time. It sounds good in theory; don’t plan too concretely or too distant and be available to respond to opportunities when they present themselves. We shall see…Santa Ana-Antigua street

By Richard and Anita, June, 2013

The Mayan Ruins in Copan, Honduras

Scarlet MacawsStanding on the edge of the green expanse which is the Gran Plaza it was impossible not to witness the scarlet macaws as they flew overhead. If their colors, the brilliant reds with patches of vibrant blue, were not enough, the raucous calls forced them to the fore-front of our attention. The scarlet macaw, recently reintroduced to the area, was a sacred bird for the ancient Maya and images of the macaw are found throughout the Copan ruins.

Birds NestsIn the background we could hear the howler monkeys roar occasionally and, as we walked about the plaza, we saw the unusual and very bizarre nests of the Montezuma Oropendola (thanks Google for helping us identify this Dr. Seuss-like bird!).

A Stelae in the Gran Plaza

A Stelae in the Gran Plaza

The ruins of Copan, in far western Honduras near the Guatemalan border, have been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1980. The expansive ruins offer an impressive number of stelae (tall columns carved on all four sides), altars, relief statuary and hieroglyphic writings. While the ruins are compact in size we spent several hours walking and climbing the groupings at the Gran Plaza and the East and West Courts of the Acropolis, with the ball court and hieroglyphic staircase in between.

Mayan Ballcourt at CopanThe ball court was unique in that the hoops we had seen displayed at other Mayan ruins (such as Chichen-Itza) were replaced by macaw heads.  It is believed that the stone heads were the targets to be struck by the rubber ball. Site archeologists have discovered several iterations of the macaw heads from the successive ball courts at the Copan site.Macaw head

Copan also has the most impressive on site museum that we’ve seen with numerous artifacts from the site preserved for site visitors rather than being housed in the national museums. The center piece was a full-scale reproduction of a sixth century temple, La Rosalila, which had been buried intact  within the Acropolis. Because we had spent so long wandering the actual ruins we were forced to move post-haste through the final portion of the museum as the guards began locking the outside doors and giving us polite hints that the museum was about to close.Parque Central

The city of Copan Ruinas is a very small colonial city, roughly a four block square surrounding a pretty little cathedral and a very picturesque parque central, perfect for sitting and people watching.Street Scene The streets extend out on all sides and are inclined or declined sharply on the steep hillsides that surround the city. It was the first colonial city we had visited where there was no visible evidence of the traditional Mayan native dress that we had become accustomed to seeing in both Mexico and Guatemala:  the rural setting made this distinction even more noticeable.Uphill or downhill in Copan

Tourism is the primary business in this charming little city and the people were smiling and friendly. We found a basic but clean, budget hotel at $25 per night with a fan instead of air conditioning and a little mosquito eating gecko at no extra charge on the bathroom wall.  However, we weren’t prepared for the cold water only shower that had us dancing the hokey-pokey! Next time we’ll remember that that might be an important question to ask!

By Anita and Richard, June, 2013

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