Tag Archives: expats in Latin America

Going Up Country

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Anita and Richard

 

 

 

 

 

 

Granada In The Rear View

Granada, Spain conjures up visions of the fabled history of Andalusia, the breath-taking magnificence of the Alhambra, the Moorish conquerors turned overlords.

La Catedral

La Catedral

But Granada, Nicaragua?  Before our Nicaragua sojourn our conversations with travelers suggested to us that we would prefer Leon, Granada’s sister city on Lake Managua, which is the larger of the two cities, the liberal bastion, the university town. Granada is smaller, more commercial, more conservative, favored by tourists seeking more amenities. We were fully prepared to be drawn more to Leon; so it came as somewhat of a surprise that we were captivated by Granada, Nicaragua.

The Old Hospital Ruins

The Old Hospital Ruins

In Granada the colonial architecture around the city is being refurbished and upgraded; its charm enhanced with each renovation. The city has begun to effectively lure the tourist – the more affluent class beyond the transient, back-packer crowd.

Hotel on Avenida Calzada

Hotel on Avenida Calzada

Avenida Calzada, jutting out of Parque Central, is a vital, bustling, pedestrian thoroughfare crowded with restaurants catering to many tastes. The adjoining streets offer more eateries, watering holes, souvenir shops selling traditional handicrafts and shops seeking to accommodate the needs of a growing city.

Kathys Waffle House

Kathy’s Waffle House

Scattered around the historic city center are the cathedrals and churches which lend an air of dignity and accentuate the beauty of the skyline. Breezes blowing off Lake Nicaragua help cool the air, in all but the dry season, vitalizing the city.

Iglesia Guadalupe

Iglesia Guadalupe

The physical expression of a city is fundamentally important; it’s the first impression, it’s what keeps you wanting to dig deeper, to know more. And what began to emerge, what drew us back for the third and extended stay was the relaxed feel and hospitality rooftopexerted by the expat community of varying backgrounds and nationalities. There is an eclectic mix of full-time residents, part-time residents and visitors driven by a multitude of personal motivations. The mix includes retirees, entrepreneurs, gap-year students, NGO professionals, volunteers, vagabonds and thrill-seekers.   And most have those ex-pat qualities of gregariousness and affability.  It is the norm to run into acquaintances on any short journey as we walk about the city and, since shank’s mare is the preferred mode of travel, social contact is amplified.

Old Train Depot

Old Train Depot

To augment the welcoming ambiance provided by the architecture and the expats, there is also the availability of world-class medical care and international transportation options found in the capital, Managua, just a short drive north of Granada. Vivian Pellas Medical Center, a newly constructed facility and private hospital, offers exceptional health care services at extremely affordable costs; it’s possible to ensure medical coverage through a monthly payment option. International flights are readily available at the Augusto C. Sandino International Airport to whisk tourists and expats to the States, Canada or any onward destination. Tica Bus Line has daily routes to all the capital cities in Central America and Mexico, so low-cost modes of transport are available for shorter jaunts.street scene

So it’s hard to leave a city that we have come to appreciate and friends with whom we’ve had great conversations and with whom we could develop deeper bonds given more time.  But we both agree that it’s time for new experiences and locations; time to leave a city and a country that have imprinted themselves upon us and move south, leaving Granada in the rear view.

La Iglesia Xalteva

La Iglesia Xalteva

By Anita and Richard, May, 2014

Howlers At The Green Puddle

Lagoon with Volcano ConcepcionWe exited the ferry onto Ometepe, an island comprised of two volcanoes rising above Lake Nicaragua’s choppy surface which are connected by a low isthmus giving it an hour-glass shape. The northernmost volcano, Concepcion, is active while the southern, Madera, lies dormant with a caldera and lagoon crowning its heights.Lake Nicaragua The island is large and sparsely populated for its size with a population somewhat in excess of 40,000 inhabitants. Ometepe is still primarily devoted to livestock and agriculture although tourism and eco-tourism are rapidly growing economic sectors. There are two small ports, Moyogalpa on the northwest coast of Concepcion, where our ferry docked, and Altagracia on its northeastern shore, with a newly paved road connecting them. A paved road also runs the length of the isthmus then abruptly ends on the northern slopes of Madera and the ride rapidly deteriorates. Clench your teeth because, if you want to go anywhere off this semi-circular road, you’re in for a bite-your-tongue, slow and bumpy journey.Petroglyph The island has an interesting archeological history whichs appear to have begun with migrants from Mexico as the initial inhabitants perhaps around 2000 BC. By happenstance, we stumbled upon Jorge Luis who was knowledgeable and who served as both chauffeur and guide during our stay.Statuary He shepherded us around the island starting with Museo de Ceibo at the end of a dirt road near a small village with the unusual name of Tel Aviv. The museum, devoted to the artifacts of the island, was much more than we had expected and showcased household and ceremonial pottery, kitchen and agricultural implements, weapons for hunting and war and burial urns. The influence of the Mayan culture in certain polychromatic ceremonial pieces was obvious.  We also visited Altagracia to view the few pieces of statuary left on the island (most have been moved to Managua and Granada) and many of the numerous and sizeable petroglyphs located on the lower slopes of the volcano Madera, among the most ancient of the relics on the island. Ojo de AguaAfter a tasty lunch of fresh grilled fish from the lake we headed for a swim to Ojo de Agua, the Eye of the Water, a mineral spring marginally developed by an encasement of the basin in a tiered pool, situated at the end of, yet another, rutted, bumpy road. The water, crystal clear, mirrored the surrounding colors of blues and greens and the sun’s rays slanting down through the leafy cover overhead reflected mystically off the water.  After a hot and dusty day the cool water was divine and the atmosphere of the spring was extraordinary and surreal. Butterflies hatching On the third day of our visit we discovered the newly opened Butterfly Paradise, obviously intended for butterflies but it could also have been called that for us humans as well.  A recently built, enclosed, mammoth-sized enclosure was beautifully and artistically Butterflieslandscaped which allowed our flying friends to live in an environment without predators. Fresh fruit was cut and strategically placed throughout the enormous space as a supply of fructose and colorful flowers offering nectar as a food sources in abounded in well-tended garden beds. For us, the only visitors at the time, it was simply an oasis of tranquility and a place to marvel at the delightful creatures.

the green puddleWe lodged at the Charco Verde Hotel, literally translated as the Green Puddle, so named due to its association with a small nature preserve of that name, found at the terminus of (yet again!) a dusty dirt road.Water bird The setting was quiet and relaxed, nestled on the water’s edge in a cove on the south shore of Concepcion. The lagoon itself, the “puddle”, was fed by a fresh water spring and was lined with trees, forbs and shrubs. But the most appealing were the troupes of howler monkeys which we found could be witnessed each afternoon, high overhead, around dusk. The dry season provided the perfect viewing with the sparse vegetation allowing us to observe these clever acrobats and listen to their deep and reverberating warnings.  All in all, a few days delightfully spent in the somnambulant life of Charco Verde serenaded by our hosts, the howlers.Howler on Ometepe

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

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

 

Ladrilleria Favilli: Where Italy Meets Nicaragua

Ladrilleria Favelli workroomThe sign on the building reads Ladrilleria Favilli and the sidewalk in front of the building on Calle Santa Lucia in Granada is a colorful patchwork of tiles in many original and classic designs.Tile selection  We poked our heads in the door to check out the displays of distinctive and traditional patterned tiles and the pretty woman sitting at the desk, Maria, invited us to come in and look around the workspace.  While we admired the beautiful tiles she shared the fascinating history of the tile factory and explained and showed us how the tiles were made. 

In 1915, leaving war-torn Europe and Italy behind, Mario Favilli, Maria’s great-grandfather, arrived in Granada accompanied by his wife and two children.   Mario was an architect and sculptor and, to support himself and his family in his newly adopted country, he brought two hydraulic presses for the making of the tiles which grace the floors of many homes, both old and new, throughout the city.Using the press

There are many things that make the Favilli tiles unique.  Each tile is handmade: the molds are classic patterns and many were designed by Favilli himself although customers can create their own designs and select the desired colors for a truly one-of-a-kind floor.  Favilli’s will then create a template to meet the custom order.  The tiles are made out of cement (not clay as we had assumed), are approximately ¾ of an inch thick and weigh almost 8 pounds each.  The colored pattern runs halfway through the tile so, needless to say, they’re extremely durable!

Pouring the colored cementWe followed Maria into the factory as she gave us an impromptu tour.  Sand is brought into the workspace through the courtyard and a worker then sieves it to remove any over-sized pieces of sand, rock or debris.  The resulting fine sand is then mixed with water and concrete by hand in buckets and color is added to create a thick, viscous liquid to be used for the design.  The liquid is carefully poured into the molds in several different steps as one color after another is added to make the motifAdding the 2nd half -wet concrete and dry.  At this point, with the mold halfway filled, moist concrete mixture and then a thin layer of the dry mixture are added. A weight is placed on top of the mold and the whole, heavy load is transferred to the hydraulic press which squeezes out the liquid (about 15 seconds).  The template is turned upside down and the resulting tile is carefully removed and placed on its edge in a line with previously made tiles where it will need to dry for at least seven days before it can be laid.  The tile must cure for at least three months if it is to be sealed and polished.on the line

Finished productThe resulting handmade tiles can be arranged in an endless possibility of designs and patterns forming borders and “carpeted” areas on the floor, countertops and bathroom walls throughout one’s home.   After all, why limit art to paintings on the wall?Finished tiles

By Richard and Anita, January, 2014

 

La Bomba: A Not So Silent Night

Fireworks-A rocket is launchedGranada took on a new personality for Christmas Eve.  Rather than a handful of people sitting on their stoops to chit-chat while taking in the sights and sounds of the city’s night life, the doors and windows of the colonial homes on block after block were open displaying their Christmas decorations and lights for all to see. People congregated in groups, large and small, in front of the homes. Generations of families and friends greeted the strollers with “Feliz Navidad”.  Kids vied for space in the streets with the adults to shoot off fireworks or launch the numerous types “bombas”,  the explosives and sky rockets.Lighting a bomba The truly awe-inspiring missiles were those which were constructed locally using dynamite with prima-cord fuses. These brutes were wrapped in brown paper twists, placed into an upright, steel pipe-stand on the street and then lit with a long taper. The wee children, of course, were relegated to the curbs and steps to play with sparklers and ladyfingers.

Girls & SparklersAs we were walking by the home of the Arana family we stopped to admire the multitude of lights and glimpsed a beautifully decorated tree in the back of the living room.Decorated for Christmas The matriarch, Fatima, invited us to come inside to better appreciate their efforts. The home, built in the Spanish colonial style around an interior courtyard, was a lavish display of twinkling lights and ribbon wrapped columns.  We were given a tour of the home by one of the daughters and admired each room festively decorated for the season. Later that evening, when  we passed by the home again as we were walking to our house, we greeted the patriarch of the family, Emilio, sitting at the entry way overseeing  his grandchildren setting off their firecrackers in the street.

Casa de FamiliasThe fireworks had been building towards a crescendo all day. In the early part of the day the reports were sporadic and tentative. By mid-afternoon they were reliably steady and increased hourly as the night progressed. It was not a coordinated effort; it was thousands of households independently and simultaneously asserting their right to celebrate in the loudest, most frenetic manner possible. At midnight, the culmination of the evening, the cacophony was majestic. From every side, on all the streets and walkways in the barrio, from over the garden walls fireworks exploded with abandon; the skyline a strobe, pulsating, white glow.  The occasional colored skyrocket only accentuated the bright flash of gunpowder with its resounding report. The angels would know that Granada was joyously paying homage to the Christ child.

We awakened on Christmas morning to a neighborhood disturbed only intermittently by the occasional sound of fireworks. When we left our home at mid-morning Christmas day, the city was quiet for Christmas is a day to be with the family. The only evidence of the assault on the senses that had transpired only hours before were the neat piles of paper residue left behind by the street sweepers to be hauled away later that morning. The city, its energy spent, had returned to normalcy.girl with a sparkler

By Richard and Anita, December, 2013

 

Out of Touch: Blissfully Unaware of the Christmas Ballyhoo

Nativity scene on Big CornThis is our second Christmas on the road and, as we return to Granada for the third time in as many months from our sojourn in the Corn Islands, we realize how out of touch with the holiday season we are. This is the week before Christmas and we’ve been happily removed from the Christmas hoopla. 

Minimalist decorThe weather’s hot, there are no television advertisements (indeed, no TV where we’ve been staying), no canned and cheesy Christmas carols blaring from store speakers urging us to Buy! Buy! Buy!  Ads that assail (and, I have to admit) entice us everywhere we turn.  Aside from the flood of email ads hawking holiday wares and specials which we delete each day we can choose to ignore the frantic commercial frenzy and preparations for the big day almost totally.

A Miskita church

A Miskita church

Which, and we apologize beforehand to all you Christmas season lovers, is exactly what we want.  No pushing and shoving crowds, no traffic snarls, no obligatory Christmas parties where overly exuberant drinking leads to unintended consequences.

A tipsy SantaInstead, we’ll spend a quiet Christmas with a friend we met in Merida, Mexico last year and new friends we’ve met in Granada.    We’ll call family to catch up on the news and activities of the day and, except for online gift cards, congratulate ourselves on our wise spending while trying hard not to miss those we love most dearly.

Seasons Greetings to all of you who read our blog.  If you are a Christmas lover enjoy the holiday.  If you’re not, get through it!  And to all of you, our wishes for a safe and sane New Year.A different Christmas tree

By Anita and Richard, December 2013

 

Off The Gringo Trail: Big Corn Island, Nicaragua

Municipal WharfBig Corn Island, just a smidgen off the gringo trail, is a conundrum. It has more than three times the land mass of its sister, Little Corn Island. It has five times the population (approximately 6500 versus 1200); it has the only airport and pier for transporting goods, services and tourists from the mainland. It even has the higher land form; Pleasant Hill (371 feet) as opposed to the stunted Lookout Point (125 feet). Yet a full 75% of the tourists who arrive on Big Corn Island depart almost immediately for Little Corn Island. The larger ferries even coordinate their departure times to coincide with the arrival of the twice daily La Costena Air flights from Managua to facilitate this exodus.

Brig BayOne result of this out-flux of tourists is that the service industry, which only tentatively began in the 1970’s and was stunted by the government’s disregard for the area until recently, is still in its infancy. This fact became obvious later when we realized that the largest hotel on the island boasted only twenty – count em’, twenty – cabanas. Little Corn has done a much better job of recruiting the tourist dollar with the hostels and hotels, SCUBA, snorkeling and sport fishing segments.  Tourism plays a small part in Big Corn’s economy with fishing –  shrimp, lobster and a variety of commercial fish – as the major economic engine of the island.Brig Bay Big Corn Island

Market near the commisary This reality was impressed upon us immediately when we went to pick up a few groceries in the late afternoon following our arrival on the island. Our host, Don, had advised us to go to the Commissary and the vegetable stand nearby to purchase some basic provisions for meals.  Once in the Commissary we observed dismally that half of the shelves were filled with cleaning supplies, paper goods, toiletries and the other half a random collection of canned and packaged foods.  To our questions of “Do you have any ground coffee, eggs, and butter the answer was an unapologetic “No, not today”.  The coffee was instant, the cheese American Singles, the bread a few odds and ends of older rolls and pastries.  We walked out with a small bag of oatmeal, pasta, some salad dressing (in the hopeful event that we’d find lettuce or vegetables) and a can of tuna.  No beans; none, not red beans, not black beans, not refried beans, not even bulk beans!  If possible, the vegetable shop a few buildings down was even less promising:  meager sunlight filtered through spaces in the roof to dimly illuminate boxes of limp, bruised, overripe and moldy offerings that we sifted through hoping that some strange insect wasn’t hiding in the box along with the food.  We arrived back at our abode dejectedly wondering just what we were going to do for grits for the next month.

Melody's Fortunately, Helen, the cook and housekeeper for our hosts, escorted us around the island the following morning. We went to Melody’s, a store with no outside advertisement for the uninitiated visitor, which had a fairly large assortment of groceries. Helen then showed us the Wharf Store, across the street from the municipal wharf, which was best stocked on Friday and Saturday after the ferry arrived with fresh provisions.

vegetable store by Nick'sShe showed us a restaurant where we could purchase freshly made tortillas. And we subsequently discovered other little tiendas where we could find foods that worked into our daily diet. It turned out that shopping was not all that complex, it just took some social interaction, a few stops and a bit of south of the border patience.The wharf store

By Richard and Anita, December, 2013

 

Jaco Beach, Costa Rica: Comfortable In A Familiar Sense

Jaco Beach looking northSome places are comfortable in a familiar sense. It’s not a feeling of déjà vu – not having been there before, but one of replication – having been someplace similar to it previously. That summed up the experience of Jaco quite neatly.  Jaco was like being at a surf-side town in the States.

Mar ArenasThe condominium where we stayed was a well-maintained, horse-shoe shaped affair, only thirty-two units, wrapped around a large pool on lushly landscaped grounds that would have done itself proud in any US beach town. It was bounded by privacy walls with a locked gate and carport, manned by a security guard and sat directly on the seashore on the quiet south end of Jaco Beach. The unit had recently been renovated and sported a kitchen backsplash between the granite counter and custom-made cabinets that was a vibrant, unique and playful mosaic scene hand-wrought by one of the owners who’s an artist.  It was a comfortable, modern affair with wi-fi, flat screen cable TV, ceran stove top, hot and cold water throughout and, the epitome of modernity, a commode that accepted toilet paper.

Jaco BeachJaco BeachWe were ensconced here as a reward by our patrons for whom we had house-sat for two weeks in Atenas. In recognition of our services while tending to their home and holding the pet carnage to a minimum of one prized hen, we were given the opportunity to recuperate in this sea-side paradise and go to sleep listening to the sound of breaking waves.

Jaco's main dragJaco itself is a recent affair having come of age as one of the premier surfing beaches in Costa Rica. For two-and-a-half miles the black sand beach slopes gently out into the Pacific. There is a steady stream of breakers which, while not large, are consistent. Surfing schools set up shop on the beach under canopies and provide instruction and board rentals to the hard-body twenty-somethings that come to learn and enjoy the waves.

Jaco's main dragThe town of roughly 10,000 souls is laid out behind the beach in a long strip between the surf and the coastal highway in the lush, verdant tropical forest. For all intents and purposes, it is a modern tourist town that would be at home on any US coast with similar price tags for both goods and real estate.  As in the US, SUV’s are the vehicles of choice. Chicken buses were conspicuously absent, replaced by Mercedes and Toyota buses as the most common form of public conveyance. Aside from the language and the currency, the modern restaurants, tour agencies, hotels and souvenir shops felt like they could be in Anywhere, USA.

Jaco's main dragIn this familiar setting we experienced our first encounter with crime since we’ve been travelling in Latin America. We had gone to eat an early dinner with Mario, our host, and some of the other home owners of the condominium who had just concluded an annual meeting. After the meal we went to climb back into his SUV, walked a few steps back and forth in puzzlement and… the vehicle was gone – vanished –disappeared! There were patrons of the restaurant sitting at sidewalk tables but no one heard or saw anything suspicious. The police were called, reports filed, insurance claims initiated but it was all with a sense of futility.  The damage had been done and, most likely, the vehicle wouldn’t be recovered. It was perhaps fitting that it happened in Jaco. In this modern town, in this modern country, the old crime of boosting cars on a Saturday night was reminiscent of home. As I said; comfortable in a familiar sense.Sunset

By Richard and Anita, November, 2013

 

Two Cats, Two Chickens: Living The Life In Costa Rica

The best weather in the world

Everyday, there's a friendly game of checkers to be found near the park

Everyday, there’s a friendly game of checkers to be found near the park

“Vivir la vida” means living the life and that’s what we figured we were doing as we headed for Atenas, Costa Rica and a new housesitting gig we had arranged a few months beforeThe picturesque town of Atenas, reputedly named by a National Geographic writer as having the “best climate in the world”, is surrounded by mountains and coffee plantations. It’s a popular place for North American retirees who are drawn to the area by the climate, the area’s beauty and its proximity to the Pacific coast and  San Jose, the capital city of Costa Rica.  Also high on the list of things to like about Atenas is the genuine friendliness of the people.  And, although it’s a small town, (approximately 27,000) it has numerous westernized amenities.

Atenas street scene

Home maintenanceWe met the homeowners, Mario and Christina.  Their abode, behind a traditional privacy wall, was large and comfortable and located in a “Tica” (local) neighborhood. Inside it had many original paintings and mosaics that Christina, an artist, had created. And, oh joy! hot water in both the kitchen and bathroom.  The tap water was potable so, not only could we wash our fruits and vegetables in it, we could drink it as well.  We spent a couple of days with Mario and Christina learning the idiosyncrasies of their home and the basic layout of Atenas.  Our responsibilities included caring for two cats (Miles and Chunche) and two chickens (Blue and Dixie).  Additionally, there was swimming pool maintenance and composting of organic food and yard wastes, cleaning the patio and sidewalk, picking up the mail from the post office, vehicle checks and emailing our hosts every few days to discuss any problems or assure them that we were caring for all they loved diligently.Miles & Chunche

And then…one of the chickens died.  Our worse fear as house and pet sitters is of a pet death or some home catastrophe that we might have prevented.  Granted, Blue was limping around the yard in the days before our hosts left but… We alerted Mario and Christina a couple of days after they left that Blue was ailing and did not want to leave the chicken coop and that we had placed her feed near her.  A couple of days went by with her continuing to eat but, one morning she was dead. How to tell someone their pet had died?  Tough but we just had to suck up being the bearers of bad news and figure out where to bury her…

La FeriaOther than poor Blue…the rest of our house and pet sitting job went smoothly with us enjoying the run of a well-equipped home, cable television, fast internet and, such luxury, a pool.  Each Friday we’d walk to the local feria (farmers’ market) and join a throng of smiling shoppers looking at the artful arrangements of fruits and vegetables, flowers, breads and baked goods and a small selection of handmade crafts. Eventually we’d make our purchases and take our tasty acquisitions back to our abode to enjoy over the next few days. It seems that vivir la vida is really what it could be all about…

La feria

By Richard and Anita, November, 2103

 

There’s Art In Them There Hills – The Pueblos Near Granada

Making a pot

We had been in Granada, Nicaragua for a few days when we arranged for a trip to the pueblos in the hill country to the northwest of the city. We had read of a couple of these villages or heard of them while visiting Leon and others were recommended by our local contacts. So it was, on another bright and sunny Wednesday morning, we set out to see the artists’ villages.

Hammocks at the Masaya mercado

Handwoven hammocks

We’ve enjoyed visiting the  mercados found in each colonial city and we had strolled through the largest market in Granada on Tuesday during an afternoon walk. However, we  noticed and remarked upon the fact that the Granada market was lacking the abundance of hand crafted items that usually fill a substantial portion of the stalls.

Entry to the Masaya mercado

outside the Masaya mercado

The conundrum was answered first thing the following morning. Masaya is billed as the “Artisans Capital of Nicaragua”; this statement was repeated later by others in Managua and Granada. The weavings and pottery absent in Granada during our market tour were found here in the Masaya Mercado. It is contained within a walled compound in the city and is filled with traditional woven clothing, beautiful handmade leather shoes, boots, handbags and cowboy hats,  colorful tiles and gorgeous pottery, handsome hardwood bowls, chairs and other furnishings both unadorned and painstakingly, intricately carved, and paintings by numerous artists. Because we visited in the opening hours of the mid-morning and during the low season, the aisles were unusually empty, but this only added to the discounts the vendors were offering for their wares.

Handmade footwear

Wood fired kiln

Wood fired kiln

After wandering throughout the Mercado, we gathered our lone purchase, a bottle of local honey to share with our Granada host, and headed for San Juan de Oeste, a mecca for pottery. Some San Juan pottery was shown in the market stalls in Masaya and much more was on display in the shops of the village. That morning we visited the taller (workshop) of Valentin Lopez, a potter who works with natural dyes and wood fired kilns. His workshop and showroom also serve as his home, where his sons apprentice in the trade, so we were appreciative of the hospitality of the family in explaining the process involved in the creation of both his utilitarian and decorative art. This visit was perhaps the high-point of the day but it evoked the cruelest feelings when trying to explain to the family why not even the sturdiest or smallest of the ceramic pieces was appropriate for our limited luggage.

A fired and polished pot using natural pigments

A fired and polished pot using natural pigments

Santa Catarina flower  shop

A short tour of Pueblo Catarina was sufficient to establish it as the gardening center for the region. In fact, Santa Catarina and the surrounding countryside provide the majority of the bedding plants and cut flowers for Granada and Managua, the capital city of Nicaragua. The small puebla vibrated with the colors of the numerous blooms. At the top of this hilly city was the Mirador Catarina, an overlook for Laguna Apoyo, a warm, fresh water lake in a volcanic caldera.

Laguna de Apoyo

The drive down to Laguna Apoyo took us into the Reservada Nacional, the protected area around the lake. There are several hostels on the edge of the lake, a Spanish language school and a few private homes, but most of the land on the hillsides is undeveloped. And judging by the large family of spider monkeys which we spied near the water’s edge, the forest remains healthy in these hills above Granada.

The Peace Project-hostel, school & volunteer organization

The Peace Project-hostel, school & volunteer organization

By Richard and Anita, October 2013

 

Getting To Leon, Nicaragua: Another Muggy (But Not So Buggy) Location

Some trips probably seem long before they even start!  (Leon, Nicaragua)

Some trips probably seem long before they even start! (Leon, Nicaragua)

We left Utila at the end of September and took the early ferry to the La Ceiba dock where we met Omar who would transport us on our journey from the Atlantic coast to the Pacific.  Omar was an enterprising and entertaining young Honduran who spoke fluent English. However,  he was still working the bugs out of the direct shuttle company he had launched a couple of months before which filled a transportation niche on the gringo trail between the northern coast of Honduras and the colonial city of Leon in north-western Nicaragua. A late start was occasioned by a wait for additional passengers and a heated discussion over the wisdom of lashing backpacks and suitcases to the roof of the van with no luggage carrier or tie downs. This resulted in another delay while we waited for a second vehicle and driver to accommodate the extra passengers and luggage. Once underway the ride went smoothly. 

Until … we were stopped at a military checkpoint in Honduras and Omar realized he’d left his driver’s license at home.  A gratuity of about $10 USD resulted in the okay to proceed but we spent the rest of our time in Honduras dodging military checkpoints and roadblocks. Omar picked up a friend along the way with a driver’s license who drove the van across the Honduras-Nicaraguan border. Finally, after our nineteen hour journey, we arrived safely in Leon in the dead of night.

Pedicab - another form of transportation

Pedicab – another form of transportation

The largest Cathedral in Central America

La Catedral

The original city of Leon was established in 1523 and, after Managua, is the second largest city in Nicaragua.  It’s an important industrial and agricultural hub with a picturesque, traditional city at its historic heart that is easy to traverse by foot. Most visitors come to Leon to see the colonial architecture which includes the 18th century cathedral, the largest in Central America. Additionally, it‘s the intellectual center of the nation; a fact bolstered by the presence of the national university.

This time of the year is known as “muggy and buggy” and one thing the guidebooks emphasized  was the oppressive heat in Leon.  We, of course, figured that the heat and humidity couldn’t be any worse than Utila but, in that, we were wrong.  Each day we arose, showered and then sweated through our clothing in a matter of minutes while walking around the city. Even when sitting in our B&B with the fans whirring, we would feel a trickle of sweat running down our backs.

Reminiscent of Ghost Busters - the fumigator's equipment

Ghost Busters flashback – the fumigator’s equipment

As for the bugs, we witnessed the Leon bug eradication program in action – weirdly reminiscent of  a scene from the old movie Ghost Busters.  First thing one morning, and later that day throughout the city, a couple of young men with gas masks and backpacks carrying the gas-powered, insecticide applicators appeared to fumigate our premises. We stood in the front courtyard while they walked from room to room spraying each area and, soon enough, clouds of noxious  fumes began roiling from the building.  Out of the fog appeared our fumigators wielding their strange weapons and promising that the premises were bug free for another few months.

The fumigator (in uniform)

The fumigator (in uniform)

By Anita and Richard, October, 2013

 

Tourist Trees, Jesus Lizards, Chirping Geckos And Other Island Oddities

A view from Pumpkin Hill

A view from Pumpkin Hill

the "Tourist Tree"

the “Tourist Tree”

A few days ago we donned long pants – very difficult to do when it feels like 300% humidity and 200 degree heat – and set off with our guide on a horseback ride to Pumpkin Hill, the highest point on the island of Utila at 243 feet.   Sterling, whose ancestors emigrated from Arkansas to Utila in the late nineteenth century, was a fount of information on the flora and fauna of the island.  He pointed out the blue land crabs as they scurried across our path, the numerous reddish-hued trees called “tourist trees” by the locals (because they are red and always peeling) and the Jesus lizards, which run upright on two legs and can sprint across water, hence the name. 

Happy trails

Happy trails

 It was a quiet morning, riding through the dense, green growth of the island’s interior with the creaking of saddle leather providing the accompanying sound to the clopping of our horses’ unshod hoofs, culminating in a panoramic view of the island and the turquoise waters of the Caribbean.

Mini-golf balancing act

Mini-golf balancing act

Now, horseback riding is only one of many activities in which we’ve engaged during our stay on the island.  There’s Ed’s Reptile Gardens Mini Golf, an original and very quirky exercise in chasing one’s golf ball across rocks, holes (intended and not), next to sculptures complete with swim fins and reposing dummies, into caves and onto balancing-act greens.   On many of the holes, the assigned par score seemed merely a suggestion as we’d add up scores of eight, nine and ten strokes, search for our balls in the ground’s nooks and crannies all the while hoping we wouldn’t encounter a scorpion or tarantula and laughing with evil glee when we came in with the low score on a hole. 

Our guide on the way to Pumpkin Beach

Our guide on the way to Pumpkin Beach

Another day we amused ourselves by borrowing a friend’s ATV and, with a couple of adventurous cohorts, explored the deeply rutted paths through mud and deep puddles while trying to find Pumpkin Beach (coincidentally next to Pumpkin Hill).   A local boy on a bike answered our question of “which way to Pumpkin Beach?” and, with a brilliant and genuinely friendly smile, rode his bike as fast as he could to lead us back to the meandering track on the way to a rocky and coral strewn shoreline with the far off smudge of Honduras on the horizon.

We’ve spent many mornings snorkeling and afternoons lying in hammocks reading as well as sitting on deeply shaded porches waiting for a stray puff of wind with new friends talking, trading histories, funny tales and sharing laughs.  The conclusion to many days is a ritual of doing “sunset”  which takes place at the watering holes with names like Tranquila, Driftwood and Babalu’s located on the bay front. Here the locals, divers, expats and tourists gather to watch the sun descend prior to heading out to the numerous restaurants or home.

Sunset view reflected in the  water from Tranquila

Sunset view reflected in the water from Tranquila

A chirping gecko clinging to the ceiling

A chirping gecko traipsing across the ceiling upside down

Some evenings we’ll return to our third floor apartment and sit on the deck while the night brings a little relief to the day’s sweltering humidity and watch the bats swoop by the trees and eaves eating their fill of the little biting varmints (mosquitoes and sand flies).  Inside our home there are little geckos ranging in size from one to three or four inches clinging to our walls and vaulted ceilings or scampering across our shelves as self-appointed house pets, also doing their share of controlling the biting hordes.  Many nights we drift off to sleep or awaken during the night to hear them chirping and clicking to each other as another island day ends.

By Anita and Richard, September, 2013

A Place For Dr. Seuss

Shade and respite for Seuss lovers

Shade and respite for Seuss lovers

Okay, here’s the question?  Who isn’t a big Dr. Seuss fan?  Who doesn’t have his thirty life-changing quotes as their computer screen saver?  Hey, this guy’s a home-grown philosophizer!

The Jade Seahorse

Entering The Jade Seahorse

Our usual inquiry about places to visit brought several responses, one of which was to visit The Jade Seahorse, a short ten minute walk from our apartment. It was recommended that we visit it at least twice, once during the day and once at night, to fully appreciate its uniqueness. In other words, to paraphrase Dr. Seuss, “…this place is Fun and Fun is Good”.

A conglomeration

Art using old circuit boards, computer discs, broken glass, you name it!

As we walked through the gates onto the grounds our smiles stretched wide.  Everywhere we looked was a  colorful assortment of mosaics forming underwater corals, marine life flashing and shining; broken mirrors, tiles, marbles, glass bottles arranged into new and ever more pleasing walkways and walls representative of, well, anything you wanted!

Mosaic designs

Colorful whimsy – mosaic designs with tiles, marbles, glass and conch shells

Color and light shifted, refracted and reflected from amazing conglomerations and hanging art as we walked into little spaces and gazebos, climbed onto platforms, ascended and descended winding stairways and bridges into the artist’s vision, laughing and pointing out various discoveries to each other along the way.

An arch inviting us to make more discoveries

An arch inviting us to make more discoveries

A whatchamacallit

A whatchamacallit !

The Jade Seahorse is the ever-evolving design begun at least twenty years ago by a former LA school teacher and artist, Neil, and his chef wife, Julia.   Neil worked on it part-time during winter and summer vacations using flea market finds, other people’s rejects and recyclables from LA and other objects from trips to Guatemala and Honduras. Julia tended to the restaurant and growing the business on Utila on a full time basis.

Elevated walkways, sitting areas and views

Elevated walkways, sitting areas and views

following the path

Meandering paths and beckoning archways

The grounds are occupied by Neil and Julia’s home, the Treetanic Bar, built as a shipwreck high off the ground in three mango trees, the restaurant and a few independently standing little bungalows which are for rent.   And the space in between the buildings, above and below too, is a fantastic carnival celebrating life and the pursuit of happiness.

Habitats for rents too!

Habitats for rent, too!

P.S. If the original guest register existed, I’m rather certain you would find a familiar signature: Theodore Geisel.

By Anita and Richard, September, 2013

Lago de Atitlan-Beyond Beautiful

Lago de AtitlanThe first view of Lake Atitlan is from just under the ridge where the winding road begins its descent into the valley. We are at 6000 feet in the highlands of western Guatemala, and the contrast of the various shades of green on the mountainsides and the deep, sapphire blue of the lake is quite startling. The lake fills a caldera, a volcanic depression, of enormous proportions which was formed 84,000 years ago.

Volcanos Toliman (left) and San Pedro (right)

Volcanos Toliman (left) and San Pedro (right)

On the southern rim of the lake, three volcanos, Toliman, Atitlan and San Pedro tower over the landscape. It shreds the boundary of picturesque. Aldous Huxley tersely noted, “It really is too much of a good thing.” In this, he was correct.Volcan San Pedro Panajachel, the town where we are staying, is similar to the other seven or eight villages spread around the lake; a few thousand people engaged in traditional crafts and tourism with the remainder in ancillary businesses or farming and fishing. However, Panajachel is unique. It is built on the ancient flood plain of the Rio Panajachel, which still feeds Lake Atitlan, and as a consequence it is built on the level. Santiago AtitlanThe remaining villages are built on the sides of the caldera and they are a vertical maze of streets, homes and shops. While people have lived around the lake since the pre-Classic era, the lake has flooded five times in recorded history. The latest iterations of Panajachel, San Marcos La Laguna, Santiago Atitlan and most of the towns date from the 1930’s.

WeavingWe set out one morning to visit some of the lake towns by boat, the easiest means of transport. San Juan La Laguna, a very small village on the eastern shore of Atitlan, is an artisan’s town with over 40 cooperatives, primarily women’ s “asociaciones”, devoted to the production and marketing of traditional native crafts. While the focus is primarily on weaving, other co-ops engage in wood working, pottery and painting.

Textiles and handicraftsThe quality and beauty of some of the woven pieces produced was truly phenomenal. The gradation of colors in the thread was enormous and all the dyes were produced by hand from organic materials: plants, minerals and insects.( At times the tyranny of a single suitcase seems unjust. That day was one of those times as we both were so tempted to make a purchase).

Maximon - sans arms and legs

Maximon – sans arms and legs

The highlight of Santiago Atitlan was the shrine of Maximón, a folk saint venerated in various forms by the Mayan people of several towns in the highlands. One of the legends holds that one day, while the men were away working, Maximón came to the village and slept with all the wives. When the men returned they were sorely aggrieved and cut off his arms and legs. And that is why the effigies you see of Maximón at the shrines are of short men often without arms. The worship of Maximón treats him not so much as a benevolent deity but rather as a bully whom one does not want to anger. His expensive tastes in alcohol and cigarettes indicate that he is a sinful human character, very different from the ascetic ideals of Christian sainthood. Devotees believe that prayers for revenge, or success at the expense of others, are likely to be granted. The veneration of Maximón is not approved by the Roman Catholic Church – geez, go figure…Hauling firewood By Richard and Anita, July, 2013

Where Can I Buy Chicken Feet?

El MercadoWe lived in the land that invented the supermarket and the one-stop shopping concept and we’re slowly beginning to realize what we’ve missed: the one-to-one human interaction of asking if a certain item is available and for how much, occasional bargaining and the adventure of the quest. Here, in Latin America, the options for shopping vary. The larger cities usually have some version of the western style supermarket.  TiendaEvery neighborhood, town and city has its tiendas: little shops similar to small and crowded convenience stores. There are also the family businesses; bakeries and tortilla shops, stationery stores, pharmacies , fruit and vegetable stands, etc. Many of these shops are actually “storefronts” with the business in the front and the family home in the rear behind a privacy barrier.El Mercado

And then there are the mercados, huge farmers type markets that are usually in a permanent location, sometimes covered and several square blocks in size. We enter into the narrow lanes of the mercado and are instantly assaulted by the calls from the vendors seeking our attention, entreating us to buy their goods, declaring absolutely the best quality and price.

??????????This competes with the blaring music and noisy discussions all around from the crowds of people in a riotous cacophony. Stalls are jammed side by side into every available space and goods hang from the tent type walls, corrugated tin ceilings and shelves packed with colorful goods.

MannequinsMannequins decked out in skinny jeans and t-shirts strut their stuff next to pirated cd’s and dvd’s and hardware tools. Piles of underwear and padded bras are sold next to stacks of eggs and handcrafted items such as traditional weavings, leather goods, jewelry, and pottery.El Mercado

Plastic ware and household goods share space with fruits, vegetables and flowers all in a tower of abundance. There are of course the usual mangos, bananas, tomatoes, avocados and more strange and exotic things that we’ve never seen and have to ask in our Spanglish “what is this?” and “how do I eat it?”.

An artful display of chicken feet and other parts

An artful display of chicken feet and other parts

The meat, poultry and fish stalls are areas that we prefer to visit earlier in the morning (especially before the fish smell begins to permeate the area). Hanging from the ceiling are strange-looking cuts of meat, paper covered counters with stacks of fish and large bowls of chicken feet and other parts all arrayed with careful attention like a flower arrangement. We’ve seen live chickens near the stalls a few times but are unsure if they’re sold live or butchered later. One early morning, before the Mercado opened, we saw a merchant with several piglets leashed together on ropes. Better not to guess…Piglets

And this is before we get to the biggest used clothing thrift store we’ve ever seen.Aisles and aisles of clothing, sold by different venders, arrayed on hangers, piled onto tables, spilling to the floor. Huge wobbling stacks of shirts, trousers and skirts, dresses , underwear and shoes .

La Paca, an enormous bargain extravaganza!

La Paca, an enormous bargain extravaganza!

We’ve dug through the piles of clothing a couple of times out of curiosity but it requires patience, perseverance , stamina and maybe even some desperation. Easy, convenient and one stop shopping it ain’t!

By Richard and Anita, July, 2013

Antigua: Lent, Alfombras and Semana Santa

We arrived in La Antigua, Guatemala, a UNESCO world heritage site, after a nine hour overnight ride on a double decker bus.

The ruins of Templo San Francisco

The ruins of Templo San Francisco

The city is absolutely, stunningly quaint and picturesque filled with well-preserved Spanish Baroque architecture and the ruins of Spanish colonial churches (destroyed by both time and recurrent earthquakes), many dating back to the sixteenth century.

Ruins of Santa Clara

Ruins of Santa Clara

On the horizon, surrounding the city, loom three large volcanoes: Volcan de Agua, Acatenango (last erupted in 1972) and Volcan de Fuego, which is constantly active at a low level with steam visibly venting many days.

Volcan Agua

Volcan Agua

We were incredibly lucky to have timed our stay here during Lent as Antigua has the biggest Lenten and Semana Santa celebration in the world and the weeks leading up to Easter were filled with music, religious processions and alfombras.

Procession on Good Friday

Procession on Good Friday

Alfombras are sawdust “carpets” which are laid out on the cobbled streets in front of the family home or shop and have a variety of stenciled patterns, geometric and free form designs, made with colorfully dyed sawdust, flowers, fruits, vegetables and pine needles.Alfombra - San BertoloAlfombra They were absolutely amazing and involved hours of tedious work to make.After th These acts of devotion cost participants dearly in terms of time, money and effort: many people work all night to create their unique alfombra.Alfombra Each area of the city, and some of the surrounding villages, had its own procession over the weeks leading up to Easter with the faithful celebrants carrying enormous and incredibly heavy wooden platforms with the parish statues.Lenten ProcessionWomen's procession We spent the month of March waking up before dawn on the weekends, walking the streets, admiring alfombras and waiting with the early morning crowds in anticipation of the marchers.Incense and Procession The procession would be preceded by music as the streets filled with the fragrant incense smoke from men swinging burners. The men, wearing robes of Lenten purple, and the women wearing dresses of black or white, would slowly pass by carrying the religious statues.

After the Crucifixion

Good Friday – After the Crucifixion

They would make their way over the  cobblestone streets carpeted with the alfombras, trampling them to mounds of sawdust and debris. The bands with drums and horns would follow, signaling the end of the event and then the street sweepers would descend immediately to clean up the debris. Half an hour after the procession passed there’d be nothing remaining of the glorious alfombras. Street Sweepers after the Procession By Anita and Richard, May, 2013

IN THE BEGINNING…

We lived in a water front home on the canals of north Padre Island. The island is located over the causeway from Corpus Christi, TX. It’s a beautiful place to live and retire. The house was on the Laguna Madre, the west side, and the Gulf of Mexico, the east side, was about a mile distant. The National Seashore – a massive national park dominated the north –central part of the island and provided excellent recreational opportunities. We planned on retiring there.

P1000020

The economy, politics and business decisions beyond my pay grade had led me to early retirement. That did not pose too great a problem. I was busy with volunteer activities, beach combing and my island fellowship gang. Anita was a hospital pharmacist working with people she enjoyed. We had family and friends, the beach, water toys; things were good.

Somewhere along the line, in between Anita’s job becoming less satisfying and more frustrating and my growing restlessness, we agreed upon a new option for the future. We decided that we would travel. There was more to it than that, but that was the essence of it. We would travel with no clear end game, no ultimate destination, no place to which we must ultimately return.

This idea did not arrive fully developed. Anita researched it for several months – in stealth mode – before she broached the subject with me. I wrestled with the notion of possessions and how we could keep the “the really good stuff”. We both considered the option of being teachers of English as a Second Language while we travelled. But in our minds, we began to envision an alternative to our previously anticipated retirement years.

We began in August 2011 and started making up lists of what needed to be done.  We went through two garage sales, endless Craig’s list postings, shipping treasured items across country to new homes, etc. We finally got our stuff down to what we would need to travel.  We put our finances in order, leased the house long-term (still waiting for the real estate market to recover), arranged  for worldwide health insurance, addressed issues of taxes, voting, medical records, and especially, how to stay in touch with all those who are important to us.

P1000047

We left our island home on September 11, 2012. The cars were loaded to the gills with “stuff”, but all of that was destined for our son in Colorado. We drove to Longmont, Colorado, left the vehicles with all that remained of our worldly goods and said our goodbyes to family.  On September 19th we took off from the Denver International Airport for Mexico. We took with us two laptops loaded with all our photos, scanned copies of documents and other important information , two kindle e-readers with extensive libraries,  two cameras, and two suitcases each.

We have no set itinerary or schedule.  We plan to not plan and follow opportunities and interests at our own pace.  In the immortal words of Dr. Seuss, “You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes.  You can steer yourself any direction you choose”.