Tag Archives: gringos in Central America

Neither Here Nor There: David And Boquete, Panama

Panama is a country of a few large cities interspersed between small towns glistening with puddles following a rain or a coating of dust in the dry season, wide spots on winding highways often with magnificent, breathtaking scenery. And, at the end of yet another long bus ride, we found ourselves in David on our way to other places.

David downtown

Our battered Lonely Planet Guidebook, a 2010 edition given to us by a friend in Nicaragua, advised us of to think of David (pronounced Dah Veed) as a major agro-business and commercial center rather than a cultural hub. Further digging informed us that it was a popular tourist destination and the second or third largest city in Panama, depending on the source, with a population of roughly 150,000 souls.taxis in David

As the capital of the Chiriqui Provence, the city of David and the surrounding area is rumored to be attracting ever more foreigners interested in relocation and might even be poised on the brink of major growth in both its economy and population.

Although David was founded in 1602 there is very little sense of historical importance or any impressive architecture. Indeed, the present was much more in keeping with a city devoted to the reality of commerce minus the frills of the arts and letters.

David

The center of the city, which radiates outward from Parque Cervantes, is a utilitarian affair which quickly turns drab or run-down in a couple of blocks if you head in the wrong direction. And Cervantes Park, while neat and stylistic, is not particularly appealing to the eye or the seat of pants for the foot weary pedestrian or the casual people watcher.Parque Cervantes

Our guidebook, under the heading “Sights” had listed a single entry: the Museo de Historia y de Arte Jose’ Obaldia. We hoofed it over to the museum twice, both times during the posted hours, with consistent results. It was closed, padlocked shut; so much for the cultural part of our stay…

We took a bus out of David and headed up into the mountains, less than an hour to the north. Here we encountered Boquete, a quiet mountain town of roughly 5,000 people and prized by Panamanians for its refreshing climate and pristine natural setting.outskirts of Boquete

This is the same locale selected a dozen years ago as one of the top four overseas destinations for retirement by Modern Maturity, the magazine of the AARP. So, aside from the gated communities which dot the hillsides, and are currently spilling onto the crowded valley floor, and disregarding the astronomical real estate prices which to seem to start at around a quarter of a million dollars, Boquete is an attractive place.Boquete

Due to the fertile soil, flowers, coffee and citrus all do well in this beautiful mountain town and the surrounding valleys. The city provides a picturesque central square which is clean, compact and welcoming for relaxed chats or simply watching the folks flow by. The presence of sweaters and light jackets might be what confirms the fact that one is in the mountains rather than at a beach resort judging by the relaxed and convivial atmosphere of the people.Boquete Parque CentralReturning to David from the crisp and invigorating climate of Boquete we couldn’t help but compare the two cities. Perhaps the geography best sums up our apathetic response to David. One city nestled in the mountains and the other, situated below a dormant volcano, sweltering in a basin with reputedly one of the hottest climates in the Central American region. It was definitely time to blow this burg and head for points more interesting and, hopefully, a little cooler!

Transportation to anywhere else...

Transportation to anywhere else…

By Richard and Anita, Panama,  July 2014

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

 

Nesting Sea Turtles at La Playa Piratas

Daniel, our guide for the evening, picked us up shortly before dark. The group was small, just the two of us and two young women from Argentina. The night would be dark as it was broken cloud cover and the crescent moon would not rise until much later in the evening. We were off to search for the nesting Pacific Black Sea Turtles on the beaches north of Tamarindo.

Pacific Black Sea Turtle - photo credit Rosa Sandoval photoa available at http://seaturtlesofindia.org/?page_id=358

Pacific Black Sea Turtle – photo credit Rosa Sandoval – photo available at http://seaturtlesofindia.org/?page_id=358

We turned off the highway onto a dirt road rutted with washboards and after considerable bouncing and rattling about arrived at La Playa Piraticas. Daniel went ahead to scout for turtles coming ashore and our small group waited on the beach listening to the sound of the surf and watching the stars beginning to populate the heavens.  The white foam of the waves was interspersed with several massive rock outcroppings silhouetted against the night sky under the faint glow of the stars. A few fireflies flickered here and there, pinpoints of light in the night.

Daniel emerged from the blackness and quickly led us in a single-file walk south along the beach for a few minutes to where we quietly approached and spied upon a female turtle who had already dug a shallow, circular depression about six feet in circumference. She had selected a spot high up on the beach, near the encroaching trees, and could dig no further down for rocks and roots impeded her progress.  She continued to labor at the task for some time while we watched and then, exhausted, relinquished the chore and made her way awkwardly back towards the sea. We saw her enter the surf and a wave finally lifted her and restored her graceful movement.

Returning to the sea

Returning to the sea

Sea turtles leave distinctive tracks along the beach which alerts guides that they've come ashore

Sea turtles leave distinctive tracks along the beach which alerts guides that they’ve come ashore

We immediately regrouped and Daniel led us back north along the beach to find a second sea turtle whose black bulky form we had sensed, more than seen, arising from the waves when we had passed the spot previously.  We remained on the beach until Daniel, using his red light, scouted around quietly to find where she had decided to nest.  Stealthily we approached her, and remaining soundless and kneeling about two feet away to her rear watched as she created the circular depression for her nest alternating between her front and back flippers and pivoting  from side to side about the depression to make sure that the depth remained consistent.  It was fascinating to watch the intensity of her digging, flinging the sand out of the depression.  Although we were crouched a couple of feet behind her as she dug, we were splattered by several flippersful of sand on the face and body from her powerful efforts.

Once she had completed her digging of the circular depression, it was roughly 18 inches deep and uniformly level and compacted. Work then began on digging a trench which would be at mid-line of the rear of her shell and would serve as the repository of the eggs. Using her rear flippers she bore into the soft sand to remove and spread the material. With the trench roughly 15 inches deep, and with no further fanfare, she began laying her eggs.

laying the eggs

At this climax of the evening we found it necessary to relinquish our place at the nest after we hurriedly snapped a couple of pictures aided only by the guide’s red light. A government biologist, alerted by Daniel, came to take possession of eggs as they were deposited in the nest and transfer them to a beach where the danger of high tides exposing the nest to predators would be lessened.

It probably makes no difference that there is a taxonomic disagreement as to whether the Pacific Black Sea Turtle is a unique species, as some contend, or a subspecies of the more predominant Green Sea Turtle. The sad and sorry truth is that all sea turtles are endangered by extinction. Their dwindling numbers remain subject to depredation by natural foes such as land crabs, raccoons, gulls and other shore birds but thus it has always been. Man’s voracious appetite, along with habitat depletion, threatens the turtle’s existence. It was with this sobering reality that we savored the night as we watched the eggs, loosed from the mother’s body, fall into the sandy cavity of the nest designed through the millennia as the hatchery of the turtles.

 

 

 

 

 

By Richard and Anita, June, 2014

 

Cahuita: Cow Whee What?

Bus station mural There was no breeze and the town felt almost deserted in the mid-afternoon sun as we entered Cahuita for the first time after a forty minute walk down a dirt road from El Jardin Glorioso where we were staying. Main street Cauita At the northern end of the main street was the first grocery store named, incongruously, the Safari, and about three short blocks away and anchoring the other end was the second grocery store, the Vaz #2.  Cahuita National Park sat at the southern edge of the town. Two additional streets in Cahuita pointed west; they linked up near the bus station on the road out of town.

Cahuita is a funky little Caribbean beach town where the days play out slowly and there just isn’t a lot to get excited about.  It’s a laid-back place for the traveler who wants to enjoy the mix of rugged coral, black and golden sand beaches and hike through the rainforests rather than party the night away.  the populationThe name is derived from an indigenous word Cawi for the towering, twisted Sangrillo trees that, along with mango, palms and a variety of other trees, comprise the coastal forest.  The town’s origins can be tracked back to Africans who were brought via Jamaica in the late 1800’s to build the coffee railroad from San Jose and work the banana plantations. The Afro-Caribbean culture is still in evidence among the local population and a jumble of Caribbean patois, English and Spanish seems to be the language of communication.

North end of CahuitaAfter a few long walks into town to buy groceries or sample the restaurants we followed our hosts advice and rented bicycles for 5,000 Colones ($10) a day; big clunky, graceless, single-speed contraptions with sluggish coaster brakes.  These sped us on our way with less effort along the dirt roads and we explored the national park and the town and its environs at our leisure (as everything seems to be done in this humid, tropical area).

Cahuita ParkCahuita National Park was established in 1970 and is Costa Rica’s only free national park. It’s small land mass, 2600 acres, was established to protect the large coral reef off the Caribbean coast which is still endangered.National Park We donated towards the park’s maintenance, chained our bikes and walked for a few hours along its trails, beaches and occasionally upon long, wooden, raised footpaths elevated above swampy ground.  The sun overhead was filtered by the coastal forest canopy, the air humid and the atmosphere quiet and tranquil, broken occasionally by some insect buzzing or a birdsong.  Golden beach at Cahuita National ParkOur hike was gratifying although we had hoped to glimpse either the two or three-toed sloths or a troop of capuchin monkeys inhabiting the park.  Our efforts however rewarded us with the sighting of a lone howler monkey high in the trees and a couple of raccoons ambling across the path.  And, thankfully, no pit vipers were spotted either since they also occupy the park.Upside-down sloth

Since we had no luck spotting the sloths in the park we hopped a bus to the nearby town of Puerto Viejo and visited the Jaguar Rescue Center, a sanctuary that protects injured animals and returns them to the wild whenever possible.  And, finally, we saw sloths, both two and three-toed, high in the trees adjoining the property (so we can truthfully say we saw them in the wild) and climbing sideways along branches or hanging upside down inside the sanctuary. Camoflauged tree frog We saw several varieties of frogs alongside a cleverly landscaped natural-looking lagoon including one so cleverly camouflaged that it nearly defied the focus on our camera. In several sturdy Baby howler monkey sleepingcages were species of the poisonous snakes including the fer-de-lance and the golden eyelash pit viper.  There was a half-blinded anteater that had been rescued and (so cool!) four small baby anteaters and a few baby howler monkeys.  Although we’re not zoo fans the Jaguar Rescue Center was a unique, educational and uplifting experience that we really enjoyed.

Baby anteatersIn retrospect we’ll still stand by our statement that there’s not a lot to get excited about in Cahuita; that’s different from not a lot to do. You just don’t get too animated – that can be hard work in the hot tropical sun, don’t you know.Red-eyed tree frog

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Adios La Antigua

La MercedWe’ll be leaving Antigua this week and heading to Rio Dulce and Livingston, Guatemala on the Caribbean coast and then into Belize again to renew visas. We’ve been here for over five months, much longer than the two month stay we had originally planned when we arrived to volunteer. Our lifestyle of slow travel came to a temporary stop when a chance meeting, our own flexible itinerary and a bit of serendipity landed us our first official housesitting gig for an additional three months.

La Catedral Ruins

La Catedral Ruins

What is it about Antigua that so captivates us?  Surrounded by three volcanos in the central highlands of Guatemala, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most popular tourist destinations in Guatemala.Santa Rosa ruins Founded in 1543 by Spanish Conquistadors the city was “the capital of the Spanish Empire in America” from the 16th to 18th centuries until, after a devastating series of earthquakes earlier in the 18th century, a major earthquake in 1773 destroyed most of the city and the Spanish moved their capital to Guatemala City.There are impressive and melancholy ruins of ancient churches everywhere one walks throughout the city as well as a multitude of beautiful Spanish colonial and baroque edifices still in use.

Fountain in Parque Central

Fountain in Parque Central

Antigua is a very compact city and it’s wonderful to be able to walk anywhere we want within thirty to forty minutes. However, the sidewalks can be uneven with little steps going up or down and very narrow in places forcing us to walk single file or even on the street. Traffic right of way and trying to cross a street can be a guessing game called “Pedestrian Beware!” since you can’t assume that the cars will actually stop for you. There are few street signs on the corners so, for those of us who are directionally dyslexic, finding and orienting yourself can be a bit of a challenge too. The streets are paved with cobblestones and, while picturesque, can be treacherous if you’re not paying attention.

Marimbas - Guatemalan traditional music

Marimbas – Guatemalan traditional music

And it’s hard sometimes to watch your feet when there are so many things to see. Most weeks have a celebration or procession and there’s always the live traditional band with trombones, tubas and huge drums playing in the late afternoon on Fridays at the Parque Central. Just sitting in a café or a bench in the park watching the people (tourists and locals) can provide colorful sights of interest and entertainment.

A couple in the park

A couple in the park

The Antiguans are quite indulgent so long as you are respectful. They realize that tourists are the life-blood of the city and work to accommodate their desires. In return, we maintain the attitude of guests in their country, educate ourselves as to their customs and remain appreciative of their patience. This is rather simple when they routinely, and with great tact, help us with our struggling Spanish.

We have been fortunate to have been in other colonial cities; but it may be a time before we encounter another with the charming mix that brings La Antigua prominence.beautiful smile

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

 

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