Tag Archives: travel in Latin America

Life’s a Beach: Chillin’ in Cartagena

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

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

kids in bright suits

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

Boy at the beach

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

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

vendors

Enjoying the playaBy Richard and Anita

An Urban Garden in Getsemani: Cartagena, Colombia

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

plastic bags in Barrio Getsemani

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

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

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

Parque Centenario

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

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

By Richard and Anita

 

Off to Great Places in Cartagena de Indias

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Richard and Anita

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

 

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

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

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

Let me know if you have any further questions.

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

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

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

Another note arrived a few days later:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

broken bedroom door

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

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

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

Cartagena in the Christmas Season

By Anita and Richard

There’s Something Fishy About Manta

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Anita and Richard

 

Drivin’ Along in My Automobile … to Puerto Lopez

 

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

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

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

near La Pina

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

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

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

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

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

By Richard and Anita

 

What We Lost: Burgled On A Bus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Anita and Richard

 

 

 

Wooden Ships: The Boat Builders of Manta

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

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

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

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

Photo by Al Eisele of MantaExpatsOnline

Photo by Al Eisele

Photo by Al Eisele of MantaExpatsOnline

Photo by Al Eisele

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

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

By Richard and Anita

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

 

A Town By Any Other Name…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Anita and Richard  October 2014

In Sickness and in Health: Welcome to Ecuador

View from our window

View from our window

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

City view from the living room

City view from the living room

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

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

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

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

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

our favorite pharmacy!

our favorite pharmacy!

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

Recuperating in our new  home

Recuperating in our new home

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

By Anita and Richard     September 2014

 

 

 

 

Back in the U-S-S-A

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Richard and Anita

 

The Wood Gatherers: Living on the Edge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

By Richard and Anita

Some Sun, More Rain and the Journey to Bocas Del Toro

Leaving David in the early morning we were off for the Caribbean coast to see the reputed number one tourist area of Panama – Bocas del Toro.  The day was bright and hot, promising to be another scorcher.  Feeling a little less confident about our navigating skills and, again, embarrassed at our fractured Spanish, it had taken us two circuits bumbling around the large and confusingly chaotic, triangular-shaped bus terminal of David before we found the boarding area for the bus bound for Chinguanola that would send us on our way .  The bus was a twenty-four seat vehicle, a mid-size in the world of Panamanian buses, and it left David far from full, departing the terminal with only seven passengers.   We headed east down the Pan-American highway which was under construction; a perpetual condition here in Panama we had been told.

We left the Pan-Am near Chiriqui and began the slow ascent towards the continental divide on our way to the archipelago of Bocas del Toro and Bocas Town on Isla Colon. As we climbed towards the summit the air cooled and it began to mist; wispy, feathery clouds crept out of the valleys and clung forlornly to the ridgelines. Peering down into the valleys revealed a fractured and folded terrain for Panama is a new land. Somewhere around four million years ago, an eye blink in geologic time, massive tectonic plates ground together and this magical landscape up-lifted and created the land bridge between the northern and southern continents.

Just past El Valle de la Mina, near the summit of the continental range, the distinction between the sky and the road began to disintegrate rapidly. The white-greyness of the air merged with the grey-whiteness of the undelineated concrete highway and the misty rain played havoc with depth perception and object identification. The bus crept and climbed slowly along the dizzying curves of the winding road as the windows streamed with moisture.

As we descended from the summit and made our way to the coastal area, the visibility improved somewhat although it had begun to rain steadily and with great purpose.  The bus stopped repeatedly, filled to standing room only and emptied and filled and emptied again, with chattering,neatly dressed, uniformed children finished with another day of school.  The sky cleared briefly and the sweltering heat enveloped the land only to be replaced again by more heavy rain as the thunderheads moved in off the Caribbean.

Almirante, the jumping off point for the water taxi to the Bocas del Toro archipelago and Bocas town, may have seen better days or perhaps it was always neglected and dirty. We grabbed a cab from in front of the dilapidated bus stop but the scenery only deteriorated further when we arrived at the waterfront where outhouses perched at the ends of docks extending out from ramshackle homes. Almirante waterfront

After purchasing our tickets for the water taxi we wrapped our backpacks in waterproof covers to protect our laptops from the rain and hunched protectively over the packs in our laps (rather resembling gargoyles at this point) as we hunkered down in the launch. Rain dripped down the sides of the canvas tarp overhead and splashed into the boat from the sides as the water taxi gained speed and we endured the half hour ride to the island.

Bocas TownAnd, you ask, was Bocas del Toro worth the time and effort?  We might have to rethink scheduling any future visits during the rainy season, which according to one local, was one of the wettest years he could remember.  However, most afternoons we could count on the sun making an appearance and a few hours of no rain so that we could explore around the colorful Bocas Town and the Isla Colon. We managed a day trip on a catamaran sailing to Isla de San Cristobal and Isla Carenero among numerous little islands. Mangroves and islets

We anchored a couple of times to swim and snorkel alongside a shore tangled with mangroves above a fantastical reef which included  startling deep purple and brilliantly golden coral and other fabulously shaped and colored occupants.  An amazing number of plumped up, rosy-colored starfish, resembling pictures from a children’s book, rested on the sand or draped over the coral inhabitants in the reef garden.  Another day we unfurled umbrellas and spent a few hours following an energetic English expat as she showed us her incredible botanical garden paradise, Finca del Monos,  spread over 27 acres.Botanical gardenBotanical garden

So yes, our journey was well worth the time and effort and we were supremely comfortable and well cared for at Lula’s B and B.  And hey, we’re not vacationers counting each precious day, despairingly waiting for sunshine and cursing the rain.  We can be patient and enjoy the thunderstorms and downpours.  We have time …

By Richard and Anita, Panama, July 2014

 

 

 

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

Do You Know The Way To San Jose?

view from the Cultura de PlazaThe capital city of Costa Rica, San José, gets very little press in the guidebooks and, like most travelers, we had used the city as a place mainly to get from here to there as it is located in the center of the country.   This was our fifth trip to the city and, aside from the Tica Bus station and some quick food restaurants around our hotel, we didn’t know doodley about the capital except that it was big and hectic with traffic and pedestrians scurrying about.  Like all of our previous visits the weather was chill and gloomy; gray, overcast and frequently raining regardless of whether the rest of the nation was in the wet or the dry season.   However, unexpectedly, we found ourselves with a full day to see a bit of the city as our bus for Panama City did not leave until midnight of the following day.Rosa del Paseo

We did know a good deal about our lodging as, despite our travels, we can be creatures of habit and kept returning to a charming little hotel we had discovered during our first visit. The Rosa del Paseo is housed in a turn-of-the-century Victorian private home and was built 115 years ago by the Montealgre family who made their fortune exporting coffee. Rosa del Paseo It is reputed to be one of San José’s most charming stucco homes and is located near the heart of the city on Paseo Colón. The Rosa has kept pace with the times, undergoing regular upkeep and upgrades yet is nevertheless surprisingly evocative of 19th-century Costa Rica.another staircase It has the traditional central courtyard and is graced with period furniture and oil paintings. Beautiful details are spread throughout the hotel, including transoms, ornate stucco door frames, original tile floors, polished hardwood and parquet floors, gleaming wainscoting and a collection of antique sewing machines on original tables scattered here and there.  In the midst of the frenetic movement of the modern capital city of San José, the Rosa del Paseo retains its dignity and composure.

The Ticos with whom we had spoken had highly endorsed both the Museo de Oro (Gold Museum) and the Museo de Jade.  Our map was a bit sketchy as to the exact location of the museums so we opted for the most obvious solution and hailed a cab to the Plaza del Cultura.the Gold Museum below Pigeon Plaza

And there, residing below the Teatro Nacional (National Theater) was our goal. But to get to the museum we needed to navigate our way through a plaza full of pigeons which refused to be flustered by our passing. Indeed, they moved leisurely out of our way delaying just long enough to make certain we were not bearing gifts of food.view from the Plaze de Cultura

The gold museum contained an amazing assemblage of Pre-Columbian gold pieces ranging from raptor broaches and clasps to warrior breast plates and collars and included numerous animal figurines for ceremonial use.Gold ornaments

Maybe subconsciously we’d assumed that, after the depredations of the Spanish and the centuries of interminable grave-robbing and looting, the pieces remaining would not be so numerous or would be of lesser quality. Fortunately we were proven wrong and we were astonished and impressed by the quantity and wealth of treasures assembled in one place.gallery

Coming back into daylight brought us to the National Theater, a magnificent building that is a monument by, for and to the 19th century coffee barons. Performance room in the National Theater

The theater was modeled after and imitative of only the best of European architecture and was built with European marble, windows and chandeliers and decorated with European paintings, silks, brocades and crystals. The barons lobbied the government agreeing to assist financially in its construction but, in the end, 94% of the costs were raised by a general tax overwhelmingly borne by the common population, the non-coffee barons.  And, without a doubt, the masses might have appreciated the century old Steinway and Sons baby grand piano which the maestro graciously limbered up for our enjoyment.San Jose pedestrian walk

As the afternoon waned, we hoofed it a few blocks over to the Jade Museum, a five-story building of modern design tastefully filled with a wealth of multi-colored jade objet d’ art.  Again we marveled that this quantity of masterful work had survived the last centuries of pillage and plunder. We were well pleased with the museum even before we encountered the overwhelming and astoundingcouples coupling collection of ceramics, a massive number of pottery pieces in pristine condition. Tucked away on the fourth floor was an unexpectedly large exhibition of ceramics and sculptures of Pre-Columbian indigenous erotica  which displayed an avid interest in sex, sexual roles and childbirth.  Our close examination was interrupted by the announced closure of the museum which led to our hurriedly breezing through the remaining floor before exiting into the tumult of the city and ending our cultural expedition.

We can’t say that we are a great deal wiser about San José but we learned that beneath the exterior of hurried consumerism and anonymous architecture there are true jewels to be found. The beauty contained in the museums and National Theater made us glad that we had spent a little more time exploring San José.

By Richard and Anita

Housesitting: The Good, The Bad And The Ugly

Tineke sTwice a day flocks of brilliant green parrots flew by overhead, sometimes alighting here and there among the verdant trees on the property and sometimes continuing on to the neighboring trees.   They screeched and gabbled and the air reverberated with their riotous cacophony. Like clockwork, at dawn and dusk, the air was also filled with the guttural calls of the howler monkeys.  A few iguanas lived on the property including one dignified male who measured at least two feet long from head to tail.  Butterflies, in a profusion of patterns and hues, alighted briefly on the flowers and we rushed to take pictures before they fluttered away.Magpie jays

A variety of other birds visited us from time to time including the beautiful and regal Magpie Jays who squawked like shrewish crows in a deafening shriek.  And hummingbirds, always there were hummingbirds flitting among the flowers.  Tiny frogs hopped about along with enormous toads, both of which occasionally wandered into the house and had to be scooted back outside gently. variegated squirrel

During the day, one of our favorite visitors, the variegated squirrels, would climb down from the trees, sprint in a funny little run-hop a few feet to another tree and climb back to a safe perch.  And at night there were a multitude of stars spread across the firmament, lightning bugs blinked randomly about and, to the north and east heat lightening arced in brilliant flashes.Tineke s house

We housesat for several weeks on a property six miles outside of Tamarindo, Costa Rica on a parcel of land approximately one hectare (2.5 acres) located at the end of a long dirt road that branched here and there as it delved into the countryside.road to Tineke s

The homestead had a variety of palm, banana, mango, lemon and bamboo trees, as well as several enormous trees which spread broadly providing welcome shade. Flowering plants and bushes were scattered about the property which was fenced all around and secured with a gate half of which hung drunkenly, twisted and totally useless.

And here begins the first story, this one about the marauding cows and horses, who visited several times over the course of the first few weeks, trying their best to graze on the thick grass and delectable, flowering edibles.edible grazing for cows

We would tramp about, with Yippy barking enthusiastically but ineffectively in his unaccustomed role as a cowherding dog, and finally funnel  them back out onto the road.  Not especially fun during the day but a whole different game when this had to be done two times in the dead of night with only the light of the stars and a couple of travel flashlights.  We would peer around the property here and there at looming shapes that would suddenly break into slow trots, urged on by Yippy’s hysterical barking, in any direction but where we wanted them to go! A couple of nocturnal bouts of this entertainment led us to the inelegant but practical idea of closing the working side of the gate and driving the car into the breach left by the inoperative side of the gate.  And once again, our nights were undisturbed and the problem was temporarily solved.Yippy I-O

And the car…we had agreed to rent the car for a nominal sum so that we could run errands, grocery shop and visit the beautiful beaches around Tamarindo.  We were looking forward to the experience as we hadn’t driven a car since we left the States in September of 2012.  It was a nice looking Nissan with 4-wheel drive and … two totally bald rear tires.  In Costa Rica the roads are in notoriously bad shape:  paved roads have no shoulders, abrupt drop-offs and deep potholes.  And the dirt roads?  They are washboarded, rutted, and fissured with fractured stones working their way up to the road surface. Tire life expectancy of a tire is none too long in this part of the world and so, you guessed it … a flat tire.   Jorst, a highly esteemed German expat and tire fixer extraordinaire, arrived within fifteen minutes of our distress call – we were told later that this was not common – but we were duly impressed! He performed the requisite tasks for the nominal fee of $20, an astonishing price for roadside assistance.  Of course, we were a little leery of driving unnecessarily as we still had one American Bald Eagle on the driver’s rear. So, after some back and forth with the homeowner we sprang for two new tires ($175).  Problem solved.

Our housesitting gig included looking after the property and house, maintaining the swimming pool (which started out a bit murky but which we coaxed into a sparkling blue) and the animals.  The four pets were friendly, well-natured and very mellow. 3 outta 4Yippy, the inept cow dog and wanna-be watchdog (also not a successful occupation), was the alpha animal. There were two cats; the younger cat, who we nicknamed Queen Calico, was regal and rather stand-offish except with Yippy with whom she had a rather strange fixation;Strange bedfellows! flirting and rubbing herself sinuously around his legs, curling herself around him seductively when napping and lavishing his face with licks and laps.  Actually, we enjoyed watching this strange affair! The second cat was a tabby we called Fat Cat or Big Mama and she would scold us with long plaintive meows first thing in the morning and throughout the day if her food dish was empty.

And the last player in the ensemble was Dolly, a sweet, golden-colored medium-sized matron with a cataract clouding her left eye and comical ears that flopped over at half-mast. Dorrie - Dolly

It was easy to imagine her in a nursing home, inching her way behind a wheeled walker in a confused daze, peering about with no clue as to where she had been going. It was not her age but her hygiene that created the initial issue; to put it mildly, she was highly odoriferous!  We looked at each other the first night of our arrival with a “How are we going to make it through five weeks with this reeking creature?” expression on our faces.  And, to further add to her unimpressive introduction, the next morning we found out she was incontinent as well. The following week we ended up taking her on the first of four visits to the vet after the hair around her tail and rear end fell out in big clumps almost overnight and the skin became angry-looking and inflamed.  She received a giant dose of antibiotics ($100) to treat a massive ear and skin infection, parasites and the ticks that she had hosted.  And (oh praise Jesus!) an antibacterial bath!   We were instructed to bathe her twice a week with the medicinal shampoo, a ritual that transformed her into a soft and sweet-smelling critter.  As for the incontinence problem?  Since the house was open aired with only grills and gates that covered the doors and windows we moved her bedding (freshly laundered) about ten feet to the covered porch so that her ancient bladder could awaken her at night and she could totter off into the darkness to relieve herself.  Another problem solved.

butterflyAnd so, we finished the last days of our home and pet caretaking gig sitting on the covered patio, watching the birds, listening to and enjoying the fresh scent of the rains with Dolly stretched out dozing on one side of the big work table, Yippy underneath at our feet and the two cats curled on pillows napping on the chairs; our little adopted family.  We’d had a Costa Rican rocky road this housesit and solved even more problems than the ones we wrote about here but we’ll miss this place with all its downsides because, it turns out, there were a lot of upsides, too.Bananas flowering and growing

Note:  The homeowner, a lovely Dutch lady, reimbursed us fully for all expenses incurred during our stay.

By Anita and Richard

 

The Beautiful Place: Lugar Bonita

Lugar Bonita

“Where are you from?”  “How did you end up here?”   While we’ve been traveling those are among the first questions we ask and answer as we meet people and exchange our back stories.   One of the reasons we hear most often is that it’s cheaper to live here in a Latin American country or that one can have a much higher standard of living (think maid, cook, fancy digs) for the same amount of money.  Others move to another country because the people are friendly, the culture and history are intriguing, the weather is more agreeable or they’re hankering for adventure.  As for Wanda and Jerry…

Lugar Bonita

Wanda and Jerry had successful careers and upon their retirement sold their home in Arizona and took off for Costa Rica in 2000 with a dream of finding paradise.  They arrived in San Jose and began traveling around the little country looking for the place that titillated their fancy. They were among an earlier wave of expats who were relocating to a Costa Rica which was welcoming retirees with open arms and enticing incentives to move to their country.  In Costa Rica they could find a new home where the life style they wanted could be afforded after years of slogging it out as entrepreneurs on the American economic treadmill. They found a property east of Tamarindo beach in Barrio Josefina which measured one hectare or 2.5 acres and the deal was struck.Tne main house

The property had an existing house where they lived while they closely supervised remodeling and enlarging that structure and incorporating it into the future paradise they envisioned. The construction began in earnest in 2001 and was, by and large, completed in ten months.  When all was done there stood a main house with a large pool and the sizeable rancho, a covered open-air living area with a high peaked ceiling and huge outdoor kitchen. Lugar Bonita Rancho

Lugar BonitaScattered around the property as well, because Wanda loved to entertain guests were smaller casitas, free-standing abodes with en suite bathrooms.Lugar Bonita

And then the work began – turning the buildings into a home.  Wanda and Jerry imported the comforts of a North American lifestyle in two cargo containers including a riding mower and household goods; two sub-zero refrigerators, furniture and all the other paraphernalia and brick-a-brac that constitute a fully stocked home.  They hired a maid cum cook, who lived nearby, for six days a week to maintain the habitation and prepare the evening meals. Then they settled into the life they had dreamed of and Jerry, a passionate gardener with an engineering background, worked almost daily, ultimately removing thirty-five trees from the property and landscaping the grounds, bringing beauty forth.  And … life was good.Lugar Bonita

Another ten years went by and life moved on bringing health problems that forced a relocation to the States.  The property was put on the market and sold, after a couple of years, to two American investors.  They hired Wanda’s son, Sky, and his Colombian-born wife, Sandra, as their property managers.  The estate’s new iteration is as an end destination for weddings, fiestas, birthdays, reunions and all manner of happy events that can be rented by the night and accommodates up to eighteen people in comfort.Lugar Bonita

Our travels bring us into contact with many people and, in a fortunate happening, the Lugar Bonita was next door to the home we were housesitting. Sky and Sandra welcomed us to the neighborhood and invited us over to the property several times.  They shared the evolution of the Lugar Bonita as well as stories about Wanda and Jerry who followed their dream and created a paradise…Lugar Bonita

By Anita and Richard

The Panacea: Do Nothing, Just B-e-e-e-e-e….

Panacea de la MontañaJust down the road from where we’re housesitting is a nondescript sign on the side of the highway announcing “Panacea de la Montaña” which leads onto a rutted dirt road of dubious worth.  After the initial slog you arrive at a junction on a level flat. A quick glance at the road ahead informs you that this is the time for four-wheel drive for the final push up the steep grade.  Panacea de la Montaña

The discreet sign alongside the highway and the pitch of the daunting road may be inadvertent but no one arrives at Panacea de la Montaña unintentionally. It is, in fact, an end destination of repute; a boutique yoga retreat and spa visited by individuals, groups and aficionados intent on participating in a sublime physical and spiritual experience set inside the forested canopy of the coastal mountains of Costa Rica.Panacea de la Montaña

And when you reach the crest near the top of the mountain there is a vista of a lush and fertile valley below and mountains in the distance all swathed in variegated hues of green.  Panacea de la MontañaAn infinity pool seems to drop into the valley so that the vast expanse spread out before you can be admired and contemplated, a hypnotic and mesmerizing view. Panacea de la Montaña

Once you leave the common area of the pool, patio and cocina (kitchen) and pass by the yoga pavilion you enter the more private space of the cacitas, the individual residences for the guests.  The little dwellings, seemingly set down on the mountainside randomly, offer private views of spectacular scenery from the covered porches.Panacea de la Montaña

Trails meander around the mountaintop and slopes, spread with white rock for easy visibility and edged with larger river stones.  There’s a feeling of discovery as one wanders about this little bit of paradise; every turn reveals something new such as a totally unexpected labyrinth amid the trees or benches here and there for contemplation. Panacea de la Montaña

And interspersed throughout the walk are signs painted by guests with meaningful bits of wisdom or river rocks decorated with pithy expressions of inspiration and insight.Panacea de la Montaña

Upon our arrival in Tamarindo we were introduced to the three owners of the yoga retreat by Tineke, for whom we were housesitting.  Mary leads the yoga classes and Debbie, who is also a yoga instructor, acts as gourmet chef extraordinaire while Peter deals with the business side of living in nirvana as well as teaching aqua fitness classes and providing reflexology treatments.  We signed up for four weeks of classes and, from our novice perspectives, were  bent sideways, forwards and backwards, stretched out and relaxed within an inch of our lives. Here, amid the greenery of the coastal forest and accompanied by the twittering of birds, the flitting of multi-hued butterflies and the baleful calling of the howler monkeys, we slowly stretched and breathed to the measured and calming cadence of Mary’s expert instruction.   Each class was unique and had the successful goal of making us feel refreshed both mentally and physically. One of our favorite sessions (no effort involved!) was a restorative yoga class that focused on us moving our bodies into a variety of comfortable positions fully supported by various pillows and cushions and concentrating completely on doing nothing, breathing deeply in and out and just b-e-i-n-g.  And, at the end of every class, when the cymbal would chime softly, the realization would slowly creep into our minds, “But, surely that wasn’t ninety minutes already?”Panacea de la Montaña

And all too soon our time, not just for the day, but for Panacea de la Montaña had come to an end.   But we gained, with the aid of Mary’s classes and instructional materials, the ability to continue with our practices as we decamp again for parts further south.Panacea de la Montaña

By Anita and Richard

The Road To Cahuita

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

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

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

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

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

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

El Jardin Glorioso

By Anita and Richard, May, 2014

North To The Hill Country Of Nicaragua

Sebaco MarketWe branched off the Pan-American Highway at the Masaya exchange and headed north on Route 2, beginning a slow ascent through arid country seared from the long, hot, dry season. After an hour we made our first stop in Sebaco; the fruit and vegetable stalls beckoning us to pause and sample their offerings.Fruit and Veggies This was not a grand market in scale; no more than a dozen stands lined the west side of the highway. However, the vibrant colors, with fruits and vegetables carefully and artfully arranged in baskets, piles and stacks and hanging from posts overhead made a visual appeal. The vendors repeatedly sprinkled water from large barrels nearby over their goods which made the produce sparkle and glisten in the sunlight. We purchased a bag of mandarin oranges and, after settling in to our journey again, alternated between savoring sections of the aromatic fruit and gazing out the windows.Smiling woman Read more

The ‘Hood: Living In Our Barrio

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

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

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

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

Home security - Stretching concertina wire

Home security – Stretching concertina wire

La Union

La Union

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

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

The Baby Jesus Lab

The Baby Jesus Lab

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

By Anita and Richard, April, 2014

Field Trippin’ To La Playa Gigante

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

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

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

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

By Anita and Richard, March, 2014

 

Back To Leon With The Granada Travel Club

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

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

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

The Sandinistas crush Somoza

The Sandinistas crush Somoza

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

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

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

By Anita and Richard, March, 2014

Where No Sewer Has Gone Before…

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Anita and Richard, March, 2014

 

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

 

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