Monday, January 02, 2006

Panama City, Panama (also known as the end of the road) 

On December 30, we woke up early to begin our epic journey from Cahuita to Panama City. There were several mishaps along the way, including an incident where we paid for breakfast and had to run away to catch a bus before the food was ready and another incident where we paid for lunch and had to run away to catch a bus before the food was ready. And as it turns out, the first bus that caused us to abandon our breakfast was going in the wrong direction and we had to disembark after five minutes, switch buses, and buy new tickets. It was kind of a disaster. But after a few hours, we made it to the Panamanian border. It was one of my favorite border crossings. There was very little sketchy or threatening behavior going on. In my experience, there are two categories of people who try to engage you when you are crossing a border: gross, sketchy people who try to screw you over, and actually helpful people who give you good information and try to organize the situation so that everyone (immigration officials, people who change currency, taxi drivers, and travellers) benefits. This border crossing had a mix of both but the helpful individuals were more salient or something. So we arrived at the border, went through Costa Rican customs, and crossed on a horribly constructed footbridge that was rusty and corroded. We passed through Panamanian customs, bought our tourist cards, changed our Costa Rican colones into U.S. dollars (the currency in Panama) and hopped into a collective taxi going to the next town we would need to pass through on our way to Panama City. We arrived there, made a vain attempt to eat something, and then boarded a minibus for the four-hour ride to David, the town/city with bus service to Panama City. The minibus ride was awful! I was told to sit in a seat in the middle with no headrest or arms or window to grab hold of and, on a trip through some of the windiest territory I have ever travelled through, that is not a desirable situation. So I sat and got tossed around and tried to balance myself against the seat of my neighbor who kept glaring at me. Finally, four hours later; we arrived in David and caught our bus to Panama City. I must say that Panama is quite beautiful - one of the more beautiful countries we have passed through. There are no new desciptors to use: green, lush, mountainous, grand, etc. We arrived in Panama City a little bit after midnight and took a taxi to our hostel. We checked in and went to sleep.

And we've been in Panama City ever since then. This city is a trip! In no way does it resemble anything we've seen thus far in Mexico or Central America. The city has old and new portions. The new portions look like Miami. The old portions look like Havana (I've never been to Havana but people we've met here tell me this is so.) The city is on the Pacific Ocean and very much pays attention to that fact. You can stroll next to the water and it is quite lovely, though smelly as well. We have spent the last two days exploring and taking pictures. We met some really fun people in our hostel who we've been hanging out with. We went out with them for a debaucherous New Year's Eve celebration. We had some drinks on a balcony where we were treated to the sounds of the fireworks and the faint reflection of the fireworks on the buildings around us. But no, we did not have an actual view of fireworks. We went to bed in the wee hours of the morning and woke up in the early afternoon for a breakfast of tortilla chips and Baked Lays - disgusting but delicious.

And this brings me to my last day in Latin America for quite some time. We are going to try to see the Canal but there is the distinct possibility that the tourist areas will be closed since everything in Panama City seems to be closed on this particular day after New Year's Day. My flight leaves tomorrow afternoon and I will go shopping for new shoes in the morning to distract myself from the insanity that consumes me on days when I leave a place.

I know that I've gained a great deal from this trip but I have not yet figured out exactly how I've changed. This trip did make me realize that I am an actual twenty-something adult and not the quasi-adult I had previously believed myself to be. When I wake up and go to work, I anticipate I will no longer feel like I am in some way playing dress-up. I imagine that will be a nice change. And I suppose I will figure the rest out after I land at JFK.

And so brings an end to the 2005 installment of www.shakabuku.blogspot.com. This trip has been a huge mix of everything: you know, strikes and gutters, ups and downs. Thank you all for reading and sharing that with me. I've really appreciated your comments and feedback in the past few months. Chao, chao!

...and then he ran all the way home.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Cahuita, Costa Rica 

The Lebanese Christmas warrants description. We were picked up at our hostel by Pablo, the 26-year-old son of the family in San Jose that Maya knows. We drove with him for about 15 minutes into a sort of suburban neighborhood in the hills outside San Jose. He was a really fantastic guy and it was very comfortable to be with him. But still, Maya and I were both a little bit nervous at the prospect of invading this family's Christmas celebration. We were some of the last people to arrive at a very large and totally bizarre house/compound. It was a house that very much indicated the existence of a middle class and upper middle class in Costa Rica. How to even begin to describe it? I suppose I will start by describing the menagerie. Yes, there was a menagerie. A huge, fenced-in area in the front yard that housed monkeys and many species of exotic birds and had all kinds of niceties for the animals to enjoy. I was wondering how such different animals could share that space. Apparently, the biologist sitting next to me was wondering the same thing and joked that perhaps a new species would result from that living situation. In addition to the menagerie, there were dogs and cats dressed in Christmas clothing. There was a large, manicured garden with gigantic hydrangea. The house itself was also quite large and there was a lot going on there. Tons of art and a kind of maze-like setup and a huge kitchen with more food than I have seen in recent memory. The crowd at the celebration was incredibly welcoming which both Maya and I instantly sensed. The family that we arrived with treated us with such intimacy that being at this Christmas celebration in the middle of Costa Rica did not feel strange or uncomfortable in the slightest. Additionally, the crowd was extremely international -Costa Ricans, Nicaraguans, Americans, Argentines, and many people who live in these countries but are of Lebanese descent. Many people spoke English and those who did not tolerated my Spanish. We spent most of the party talking to Pablo and his father, Daniel. But the party followed the same pattern as my own family's gatherings back in New York which was very comforting. Everyone arrives and is loud and excited to see each other. The meal is served and everyone sits to eat. As the end of the meal nears, people shift around at the various tables to talk to the people they have not yet had a chance to talk to. So we participated in the same cycle and had the opportuity to talk to lots of different people, all of whom were just so nice. Also, because the past two months have been so much about moving from place to place and existing primarily in a world of people who are in transit as well, it was a welcome change to spend time with a stable family. We spent many hours at the Christmas party and returned to our hostel around 10:00pm.

The next day, we cooked a Chanukah lunch and lit candles. I left for Cahuita in the early afternoon and Maya stayed in San Jose for an extra two days. We are now together in Cahuita. It is very much a tropical paradise. Blue water, white sand, palm trees, fruity cocktails, etc. It's a really beautiful place to just relax for a few days and enjoy the end of my time in Latin America. I would tell you what I have been doing in Cahuita but there is very little to share. I have spent the past three days on the beach - reading, swimming, sleeping, tanning/burning. To be honest, it has been quite lovely. Decadent and self-indulgent, yes, but lovely nontheless. Sadly, we are leaving tomorrow. We are spending a total of 22 hours on a bus to reach Panama City in time for New Year's Eve. Woohoo! There is very little agenda for Panama City. I imagine we will spend the 31st orienting ourselves and deciding where to spend New Year's Eve. We will visit the Canal and I will take care of last minute errands. And then I will fly home on the 3rd.

Lastly, in the name of "cunt" research and to borrow the narrative structure of "The Vagina Monologues," in Nicaragua, they call it "mico" and in Costa Rica, they call it "panocha" just as in Mexico. We did not spend enough time in Honduras to make this ever-important inquiry. And there was a man at a bar in Guatemala who would have been more than eager to share this information with us. But the very fact that he was so eager was exactly what prevented us from asking him. So, as with every research project, this one has a few holes.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

San Jose, Costa Rica 

The last few days have been rather eventful. In the spirit of "The Sound of Music," I will start at the very beginning. On December 20, Maya left for Managua and I stayed behind in Leon. I made a few inquiries with some organizations in the city and was consistently told that while my interest was appreciated, they did not have much needed for an extra set of hands around the Christmas holidays. But coincidentally, one of the organizations I visited was Quetzal Trekkers, an entirely volunteer-run outfit that leads hikes in the countryside surrounding Leon and uses all of their profits to benefit an organization that works with Leon's at-risk street children. While I was talking to the guides at Quetzal Trekkers, I was convinced to sign up for a two-day hike to one of Nicaragua's tallest volcanos, Momotombo. The hike was to leave the following morning at the precious hour of 4:30am. I was given a list of "things to bring" and sent on my way. I went back to my hostel and ultimately decided to take the bus out to the beach for the afternoon. On the bus, I met a really nice Australian couple who are in the middle of a trip around the world. We chatted about lots of things on the ride out to the coast. I find that when I tell people I work for an immigration law firm, they first laugh and the proceed to lavish me with questions about any and all information that my brain might contain about US immigration policy or immigration patterns or other things that I probably do not know anything about seeing as I am not an actual attorney. So we talked about immigration for a while and the woman actually told me she has a lot of friends who sign up for the US Diversity Visa Lottery every year just for fun even though they have no intention of actually immigrating to the US. An Italian woman recently told me the same thing. Who knew? So we arrived at the beach in the early afternoon and I slathered sunblock on to protect myself from those dangerous UVA and UVB rays. I sizzled on the black sand - this beach is known for its black sand - and splashed around in the water for a while. I love salt water. I really do. The fun and vaguely frightening thing about swimming in that part of the Pacific is that the undertow - or undertoad as John Irving and Julie Stein would call it - is incredibly strong and drags people out to sea all the time. You can feel the pull when you wade into the water. I was told by a French woman with hairy armpits and perfectly manicured red nails that I should not hesitate to swim and should maintain calm if swept out to sea and wait for the tide to throw me back to the shore. I mean, if my experience white-water-rafting in Uganda taught me anything, it's that I am utterly unable to maintain calm when drowning is even slightly possible. But whatever. I laugh (and/or cry) in the face of danger so I went in the water anyway. So I passed the afternoon doing basically nothing but swimming and reading in the sun. It was quite lovely. I rode back to town around 5:00pm and went to have a hearty dinner to prepare for my hike.

I woke up at 4:00am the next morning to walk over to the Quetzal Trekkers office. I met my seven hiking partners there - five other guests and two guides. We divided up the communal goods, ate breakfast together, and hopped on the bus that would take us in the direction of the volcano. Actually, we took a crowded pick-up truck to a bus to another pick-up truck before actually arriving at the entrance to the grounds of the power plant that sat at the base of the volcano. We started our hike around 7:00am. It was incredibly hot - sun baking my head, sweat pouring down my shirt, face beet-red. It was also a much steeper climb than the volcano in Guatemala. Essentially the entire volcano sits at a 45 degree angle and there is almost no flat space. It is very taxing on your legs. But the beginning was not terrible. Just as in Guatemala, it was more like a mountain than a volcano - trees and trails and bushes. I had mixed feelings about the crowd I was with. There was an Italian woman, Sylvia, who I really liked and chatted with for much of the hike. There was a socially awkward Dutchman whose entire muzzle area of his face looked like it had been pulled forward with a vaccum clearner. There was an adventure travel junkie Austrian, a portly German who got a wicked sunburn, a Spaniard who was a guide for Quetzal Trekkers in Guatemala and visiting the cite in Nicaragua, a totally hilarious French Canadian guide and a very intelligent and interesting but nonetheless bizarre Austrian guide. I must confess that I had my own socially awkward moments. I think that since I have spent the vast majority of the past two months interacting with Maya, we have developed a pattern of interaction that is familiar to me. This pattern involves a great deal of discussion about what is going on with our bodies at any given moment. So I kept exclaiming, "Oh my god, I'm soooooo dirty right now" and "Oh my god, I've never been so sweaty" and "When I put more sunblock on, it requires that I rub dirt all over my arms and face." It took me a few hours to realize that these other people might not actually desire frequent updates about my level of sweatiness. Anyway, the hike just got harder and harder. The incline got steeper and there was the sudden and unfortunate appearance of that gravelly volcanic rock that I also found on Pacaya. After five incredibly rigorous hours of hiking, many falls, cuts, and scrapes, we reached our campsite. It was one of the only flat areas on the entire volcano and there was not even enough room on the flat plane to set up three small tents. We pitched tents and ate lunch. At 2:00pm, sin backpacks, we began our ascent to the crater. Holy shit. This was not a fun portion of the hike. The conditions were more of the same but worse. There was absolutely no trail or path. Just a steep volcano covered in pieces of gravel that varied in size. Just as in Guatemala, every time I took a step, my feet slid several inches down the mountain. Rocks were sliding and falling all over the place. The wind was blowing hard. There were not flat portions where we could rest so our legs were constantly engaged to resist sliding all the way down to the bottom. It was impossible to determine whether a rock was stable enough to step on so every step was accompanied by the fear that you would fall on your face and possibly injure yourself. Over the past two years, I have become aware that I have a fear of falling. I hate balconies or open stairwells because there is always the potential that I will slip and fall to my death. Well, I was not expecting this fear to play a role in climbing Momotombo but it really did. I became totally paralyzed. I was convinced that I was going to slip and fall and die or that the wind would knock me over and I would fall and die. I had the constant sensation of having my legs swept out from under me. I was so afraid I was actually shaking and no one really seemed to understand what I was talking about. I was incredibly relieved when we reached the crater at the top of the volcano. Momotombo's crater was much different than Pacaya's. The lava was not visible and there was much less gas. The absolute best part of the climb was the view. It was spectacular. Momotombo is part of a chain of volcanoes and it is the second highest. From the top, you can see the entire chain, all the way to the highest, San Cristobal, the top of which was obscured by clouds and huge puffs of volcanic gas. We had a view of the massive lake that sits at the bottom of Momotombo and in the distance the Pacific Ocean. I felt like I had reached the top of the world. I was on the same level as the clouds and it appeared that everything ever created was below me. We spent about 30 minutes exploring the crater and taking pictures. We climbed down to our campsite and lay around until we were motivated to cook dinner. We made dinner and then watched the sunset. It was my first time seeing a Pacific Ocean sunset. It moved quite quickly. All of a sudden, it dunked itself below the horizon and was gone. After that I bundled up and lay down to watch the stars. They were pretty and numerous though not as pretty as the stars in Uganda. They were not as plump or something. And then I went to bed at 8:00pm. I shared a tent with the Dutchman who had smelly feet and thought it appropriate to lay in close proximity to me in his jock strap. Gross. The night brought some interesting things. The ground was pretty uneven so I slept with a lump of volcano digging into my back. And the wind was relentless and blew the walls of the tent within one inch of my face. So it was a cozy little sleeping situation. I woke up around 6:00am. We all ate breakfast and packed our bags to prepare to hike down. The first hour of the descent was extremely challenging and my fears from the previous day were very much in play. This time it was even worse because I had my whole backpack to deal with and I felt very cumbersome and off-balance. I was kind of a basketcase for that entire portion. I even said to the group, "I just don't understand what is preventing this mountain from killing me right now." But I survived - miraculously. We made it to the part of the volcano that more closely resembles a normal mountain and I grew happier. We hiked down to the lake and walked on the beach for a while until we reached a restaurant where we stopped for lunch. The place was small and open-air and on the shore of the lake. The owners had lots of pets, including a monkey that had its own hammock. We ate lunch and walked to the bus terminal to return to Leon. I checked back into a hostel and took the most glorious shower of all my twenty-two years. Dirt and sweat and rock and even a little blood were washed off my body and all that was left were some cuts and scrapes and a little bit of tan. I took a nap and went out for the evening. It was nice to be in Leon by myself. It is a city where I felt pretty comfortable. In fact, it was the only city we've been to where I could actually see myself living if I were to ever make the commitment to live and work outside of the U.S. I suppose that feeling comes largely from the fact that many of the foreigners I met there were people who in some way reminded me of myself. So I went out and had a good time and went back to my hostel for the night.

I woke up the next morning and prepred to leave Leon. I ran some errands and checked e-mail. I received a really disturbing e-mail from Maya telling me she had been violently robbed in Managua. She is fine - having lost a few important items - but still, what a shitty and scary thing to happen in life. I hopped on the bus to Managua and went to meet her at the office of a friend of her parents' friend in Managua. We talked for a while and took our things to a guesthouse around the corner. The place was totally bizarre but fabulous. We are not totally clear as to who lived in this house. There seemed to be several families who may or may not have been related to each other. There were several adorable children, including one adorable and precocious nine-year-old who made us play poker with her. One of the women cooked us dinner and we ate while a mix of 70s disco music played on the stereo. After dinner and poker, we went to our room which had...a television! We flipped through the channels and stopped for a minute to watch a scary Latin American talkshow host. She was super-tan and her breasts were sagging to the floor and she had a very long face and terribly cut blonde hair. She prompted Maya to comment, "See, this is what I think of when I think of Latin American television: scary, trashy women." We continued to flip and watched several American sitcoms. I laughed a great deal at an episode of "Frasier." The little girl later told us that I laughed so loudly and suddenly that it caused her to jump out of her chair. I fell asleep very much on the early side and we woke up at 5:30 the following morning to leave for San Jose, Costa Rica.

We took an early morning bus straight through to San Jose. The border crossing was totally uneventful, as was the nine-hour busride. We arrived in San Jose in the late afternoon and checked into our hostel. We bought a small box of Cuban cigars. Today we are going to cook an early Chanukah dinner and spend some time with the children of the best friend of Maya's grandmother-in-law from Argentina. The wife of this couple is Lebanese and raised in Costa Rica and we have been invited to her family's elaborate food celebration this afternoon. Maya is going to spend tomorrow in San Jose and I am going to take the bus out to Cahuita, a town on the beach.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Leon, Nicaragua 

I spent three nights in Miraflor. Maya stayed for two and then headed back to Esteli to take care of some things. Like I said, it is an agricultural community that has integrated ecotourism for supplemental income. The entire place is really very cool. It is located approximately two hours outside of the town of Esteli. It is a large area of hilly farmland. According to Brian, it is the size of Westchester County. We stayed in a guesthouse run by an incredibly nice family. For thirteen dollars per day, you are given a bed in the dorm and three home-cooked meals. The guesthouse functions almost entirely without electricity…the generator is turned on from 6:00pm to 8:00pm and afterward you can either function with candles or go to bed. If you are me, you can vomit up everything in your system and go to bed at 6:30pm. That is how I spent our second night in Miraflor. During the day, we hiked around and explored the area a bit and even rode horses. Our guide was an adolescent girl who claimed to be eighteen. I suppose she is eighteen in the same way that I am twenty-six – not at all or only if I decide to tell people that is my age. But anyway, she was perfectly nice and laughed her ass off when she whipped our horses causing them to gallop at uncomfortable and alarming speeds. She took us on a long horseback ride through the farmland and gave us some explanation about the crops. It gave us a good sense of what life in Miraflor looks like. She took us into the woods where we splashed around in a waterfall. We were accompanied by what turned out to be an obnoxious Israeli who recently finished his tour in the army and a tragic 30-year-old Australian woman whose entire situation made both Maya and me very sad. She is one of those people who seems to have very little in her life at home and so she tries to distract herself by forming some kind of jet-set community and travelling the world. I suppose you could make an argument of “different strokes for different folks” but I got the distinct sense that her life is not a happy one. We have encountered a fair number of these people and they never fail to make me sad. Hmmph.

After my third night in Miraflor, I caught a ride back into Esteli to meet Maya at her hotel. We went for breakfast and then went back to her hotel to gather our things. While in the street, we passed a barbershop where I decided I would go for a shave. I have never been shaved by another person and I have been wanting to do this for quite some time. It was quite an experience. There were several men in the barbershop, all of whom were either being shaved or having their hair trimmed. I waited for nearly an hour before my name was called. The barber gave me the most compulsively thorough shave of my entire life. He used water and hot rags and lotions and gels and aftershave and razors and some kind of face mask that he dried with a hairdryer and then peeled off of my face. He was so thorough that Maya grew a little impatient. Perhaps the clincher was when we spackled my face with aftershave with one hand while fanning me with the other hand to prevent that horrible burning sensation that happens when alcohol is thrown into shaving cuts. But my face was smooth and clean in the end so even Maya pocketed her complaints.

We caught a bus from Esteli to Leon, another city recommended by the ever-helpful Mr. Brian Yellen. We are now in Leon and have been since Friday. Now, we have been travelling for approximately six weeks and I am flying home to New York on January 3, 2006. I am afraid I am reaching a saturation point. I feel like the cycle of arriving in a new place, gaining a superficial understanding of it, accumulating a small assortment of stories and experiences there, and moving on is becoming unproductive. Perhaps I am comparing this experience too much to my time in Uganda where I was able to gain a deeper understanding of things like culture and politics. But still, I am nervous that if I do not find something a little bit different to do, the rest of our destinations will blur and become somewhat meaningless. For this reason, I am very pleased to be in Leon. Here is why…

When we arrived in Leon on Friday night, we checked into a hostel which doubles as a loud and overcrowded bar. While I was taking a little snooze, Maya bumped into a girl she was abroad with who has been living and working for and NGO in Leon for the past seven months. The three of us had a drink together and she gave us a really insightful and fabulous description of what makes this city special. I will try to relay as much information as I can remember. For various reasons, one of which being the fact that Hurricane Mitch destroyed much of this region of Nicaragua in 1998, many NGOs and foreign governments have established offices in Leon to deliver aid and rebuild infrastructure. A natural and inevitable result of foreign organizations establishing offices here is that there is a large foreign presence. But this foreign presence seems to be a very good one. Unlike the population of Antigua which is all weird ex-pats who do nothing but drink and interact with each other, the foreign population of Leon is almost entirely composed of people who are here for good reasons and are doing good work. As a result, the relationships between the local and foreign populations are for the most part incredibly positive. There are tons of NGOs that work toward intercultural exchange and therefore bring foreign students to visit Leon and send Nicaraguan students to visit places like the U.S. and Europe. There are English language schools that encourage Nicaraguan students to go to hostels and use visitors to practice there English. Two really nice Nicaraguan guys joined us for breakfast the other day and took us on a walking tour of the city – at their request, we spoke English with them for the entire time. There is this unusually positive dynamic that exists between locals and foreigners and it is a wonderful thing to see. We have seen this in no other city we have visited.

But our time in Leon is coming to an end. Maya is leaving for Managua tomorrow. I do not want to go to Managua and will come up with another plan. My initial plan was to go to an island in the middle of Lake Nicaragua which is supposed to be beautiful and offer a lot of amazing hiking and similar activities. But then I started to get this feeling of saturation and have been looking for alternatives. One of the nice features of being in a city with tons of NGOs is that they frequently need help – any kind of help. So I am going to see if I can be of service to anyone. If I prove useless to the NGO population of Leon, I will pack up and head to the lake. But if not, I will be here until the 24th, at which point I will take a bus to meet Maya in San Jose, Costa Rica to begin the last leg of our trip.

And lastly, one of the funniest things I have ever heard was Maya explaining the plot of “The Producers” to a German man and then listening him describe the existence of “Springtime for Hitler” in German to his friend.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Esteli, Nicaragua 

Have you ever sat down and wondered what country Andrew Wachtenheim has been to that reflects the least developed infrastructure in terms of public transportation? Well, for those of you who have pondered this very question, the answer is...Honduras. My word. For absolutely no productive reason, we have spent the last two days on buses and the last two nights in Honduras. We left Guatemala City early on Sunday morning. We took a bus to Esquipulas, a town near the border of Guatemala and Honduras. We ate lunch. We then negotiated a taxi ride to the Honduran border. The one-armed taxi driver with out-of-control long curly hair told us it would cost 15 quetzales, the equivalent of US$2 per person, to be driven to the Guatemalan customs station and then across that weird "which country am I in" zone to the Honduran customs station. We put our bags in the trunk and got into the taxi. The taxi was a collectivo so we needed to wait for three more passengers to fill it before the driver would leave. The driver went to find more passengers. While he was gone, a woman with a young child sat down in the front passenger seat. Another woman sat in the back with us. The taxi was full but the driver was nowhere to be found. The woman in the front started honking the car horn and shouting, "Estamos listos! Estamos listos! Vamanos! Vamanos!" It was a fabulous and brash display. I found it very amusing. While we waited for the driver to respond to this woman's demands, we asked the other passengers how much they were paying for the ride. They told us they were paying 10 quetzales per person. We were pissed. We told them that the driver was charging us 15 quetzales per person. Both women in the car said that was ridiculous and we should only pay 10 quetzales per person. When the driver returned, we told him we would only pay 20 quetzales in total. He said that all the passengers were going to be charged 15 quetzales each. Well, needless to say, the woman in the front seat erupted. Let me just tell you that this woman could easily find work as either a union organizer or a revolutionary. She does not take any shit from anyone. She thrust the car door open and dragged her son into the street. The rest of the passengers followed, Maya and myself included. Who were we to argue with the reincarnation of Che Guevara? We found another driver who charged appropriately.

We crossed the border into Honduras. Generally speaking, borders are weird. All borders we have encountered, with the exception of the U.S./Mexico border (obviously), have been unregulated, unclear, porous, and s-k-e-t-c-h-y. There are always gross men buying and selling currency, taxi and bus drivers who grab your arms and shout in your face, and little kids and strange men who won't stop looking at you and hang all over you while you fill out your registration forms. I don't like borders. At borders, I encounter most things that I don't really like in life.

Anyway, after going through Honduran customs, we tried to find a bus to Tegucigalpa, a city we knew we would need to pass through in order to make our way to Nicaragua. But there was no bus to Tegucigalpa. I mean, why would there be? Why would there be a bus from a major border crossing to the capital city? Instead, there was a bus to San Pedro Sula, a town in northeastern Honduras that had absolutely nothing to do with our eventual destination. We were in northwestern Honduras. Tegucigalpa is in central Honduras. And Las Manos, our intended border crossing into Nicaragua, is in southwest Honduras. So, in order to travel from the northwest corner of a country to its southwest corner, we would need to travel both farther north than we were and significantly farther east. We hopped on a bus. But not until after we had a fight with the conductor, an asshole of a man who told us it was forbidden for us to carry our bags into the main cabin. The bus was going to be making many stops on the way to San Pedro Sula and half of the trip was going to be in the dark. We wanted our bags to arrive in San Pedro Sula with us so we told the conductor we would ride with them beneath/in between our legs. He was all huffy and pissed off but we prevailed and I spent the next six hours with my legs spread wide apart to accomodate my beast of a backpack. Maya spent the six hours with her legs bent uncomfortably and wedged against the wall. But we were both cheered up when the bus stopped for repairs and we were given time to buy many bags of potato chips and cold sodas.

We arrived in San Pedro Sula around 9:00pm and went to find a hotel. Many of them were bizarrely full which we still do not entirely understand. But we eventually found a cheap hotel which actually included both air conditioning and television. We have encountered neither of these things since we left the U.S. We were ecstatic. Naturally, an in-room picnic of tortillas with beans and cold bottles of water while watching "X-Men" ensued. After "X-Men," we watched "Forrest Gump" and fell asleep.

We woke up the next morning and went to the bus station. The bus to Tegucigalpa did not leave until 10:30am. So we ate breakfast and waited. Eventually, the bus deposited us in the city in the early afternoon. But not in time to catch a bus to Nicaragua. So we took a bus to El Paraiso, another small town in Honduras, and spent the night. Once again, totally bizarrely, a cheap room with television. Last night brought us an episode of "ER," the end of "Mission Impossible," and "Being John Malkovich." Sometimes a little bit of television can go a long way. We were both in very good spirits.

We woke up this morning and took a bus to Las Manos to cross the border into Nicaragua. The Honduran/Nicaraguan border is interesting. Officials from both countries sit in the same room to stamp your passport. It's very cozy. We then caught a bus to Ocotal where we ran off the bus and onto a bus bound for Esteli. We are now in Esteli...at last. And it feels good to know we will be here for a few days. Shortly after we leave this internet cafe, we will head up to Miraflor, a nature reserve recommended by Brian Yellen. From what Brian tells me, it is similar to a kibbutz in Israel and a fantastic example of how sustainable development and ecotourism can actually work to benefit a community. I am so excited.

Also, just so you know that we have not entirely lost touch with popular culture, we went to see two movies in Guatemala City. We both saw "The Exorcism of Emily Rose" which made for an interesting and terrifying walk back to our hostel through a deserted city late at night. And the next night I saw "Flightplan" while Maya saw "In Her Shoes." We have yet to encounter a theater that is playing "Rent" or "Cuba Libre." But the search continues...

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Guatemala City, Guatemala 

Yesterday, I climbed an active volcano, Volcan Pacaya. I never thought I would have occasion to climb an active volcano. In fact, Ithought it was one of those things that is expressly forbidden by the proper authorities in countries that have active volcanoes. Butapparently, in Guatemala, for US$5.00, a guide will lead you to the top of a volcano where you can peer into the crater at the top andlook at flaming red lava. I left Antigua with the other hikers at 1:00pm. Maya decided to stay in town and explore a bit. But aCanadian girl from our hostel was interested in the hike as well so we went together. We drove for a little more than an hour until wereached the base of the volcano. Our guide, Rodolfo, was a total doll. He was very concerned about an elderly woman in the group andtook good care of her. He even lifted her up at a certain point so she could have a view of the crater lake we were all looking at. So,the group of us, nearly fifteen in total, began our climb in the mid-afternoon. I had heard from some other travelers that the hikewas really intense and I should be sure to bring lots of water and a warm sweater and energy bars and all kinds of things like that. Ilistened and went to the hike prepared. As we climbed up the mountain, I was really confused as to what all the fuss was about. Itwas not particularly steep and we were moving at a very comfortable pace. It also did not really differ in appearance from an ordinarymountain - trees, rocks, trails, etc. At one point, my hiking companion and I remarked to each other that we were both a littledisappointed that the hike was not strenuous in any way. We both wanted to exert ourselves more. We spoke to soon. After 80 minutes,we were above the tree line and everything changed. The mountain became a volcano. The dirt trail was replaced by volcanic rock. Thevolcanic rock was in little pieces like gravel which made it incredibly difficult to walk on because the incline was so steep.Every time I took a step, I would slide back a few inches. The wind picked up and was beating at us fairly ferociously. I was feelingsuper hot and rugged with volcanic ash all over my shoes and my EMS hiking shirt all billowing in the wind. I didn't quite feel likemyself but I chose to embrace it. I have lots of pictures of myself with my hairing blowing in the wind and soot from the volcano on myface. But those last forty minutes to the top were difficult and I have been happier in life. I had a terrible headache from thealtitude and the rock was really rough on my hands. As we neared the top, the rock became more like a heavily-grooved tree trunk and wasvery jagged. The scene really started to resemble Middle Earth. A mountain of dull gray rock, clouds, volcanic gases shooting out ofpores in the mountain and swirling around your head, steaming hot lava brewing in a crater. The experience was entirely surreal. I wishthat I had a better understanding of physics because I am fairly sure that there was a phenomenon going on that physics would explain. As Iclimbed up the last 20 feet of rock, I glanced up and saw the other hikers ahead of me. There were gases and clouds moving over thereheads in such a way that it created an optical illusion - it looked like the hikers and the mountain were going to tip over and fall on myhead. I suppose it could be physics. It could also be my light-headedness from dehydration and the altitude. I'm not quitesure but it was very cool. When I actually reached the top, my hands were totally numb from the cold. The guide told me I should just warmthem by the heat of the lava in the crater. So I walked to the edge of the crater and warmed my hands over the opening. I actuallystarted to giggle. I just didn't really know how to process the fact that I was on top of a volcano. I did not have enough time toprepare myself for what it would mean to be up there. I was having an interaction with something in nature that I never ever expected toencounter and that was a very overwhelming experience. We started to walk down the mountain at around 5:00pm. The sun was setting andlooked quite strange and brilliant when combined with all the gases from the volcano. Actually, I would not say that we exactly walkeddown the mountain. It was more like skiing down the gravel. When we reached the bottom of that top stretch, we all had to take our shoesoff to empty the rocks out. There were rocks in my shoes and even in my socks. We reached the bottom shortly after dark and drove back toAntigua. I think I will put yesterday in my register of most incredible experiences I have ever had. It was similar to seeing thestars in rural Uganda and visiting the source of the Nile River.

There are moments in life where I wish there were some kind of god figure to take a snapshot for me. I had one two days ago. I went insearch of lunch in Antigua. This city is extremely touristy so it is hard to find reasonably priced anything. I walked to a plaza thathouses a gigantic church. The church, in turn, houses the largest fountain in Latin America. We went to visit. Hugely disappointing.There was no water! But anyway, as I walked past this church, I saw some people sitting inside a skinny doorway and eating sandwiches. Ipopped my head in and asked if I could buy something for lunch. I was told to go into the back of the store. When I got back there, I wasconfronted by a bizarre little scene. It immediately made me think of the dining tent for the employees of a Depression Era circus. The lighting was dim and everything looked a little dingy. There were huge posters of Jesus and Mary and the whole gang lining thewalls. The tablecloths were all multi-colored but were muted with age. There was tons of clutter. My eye was drawn in one million different directions. I sat down across from a teenager at a long table. He kept grinning at me. I glanced to my left. Seated at the other end of the table was a fairly large woman. When I say large, I mean that her general stature was large and big-boned. She had this wild, curly, platinum hair piled on top of her head. She was wearing very flowy clothing and big, chunky jewelry. She had a very commanding voice which she used to speak in very forceful and expressive Spanish. Seated next to her was her white poodle, Bruno. As she sat there, she prepared a little plate of food for Bruno and spoke to him. "Bruno! Comida!" she shouted. She was also talking at great length to the man seated across from her. He was a dandy if I've ever seen one. He was skinny with huge eyes that bugged out of his head. He also wore this crazy grin on his face. I was so incredibly amused by the two characters at the end of the table. My sandwiches were ready after a few minutes and I packed them away and left the circus.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Antigua, Guatemala 

On Saturday morning, we took a series of buses from Palenque to the Guatemalan border. We crossed the border at 5:00pm and it was kind of surreal. It was the most chaotic border crossing I have ever been to. We are still not sure where we left Mexico and where we entered Guatemala. We made three significant mistakes upon entering Guatemala (but don't worry, everything worked out for the best): 1.we brought absolutely no Guatemalan currency and very little Mexican money to exchange; 2.we crossed the border in the early evening on a Saturday and were therefore unable to remedy our financial situation; 3.and we packed nearly all of our possessions into our packs which were then tossed on top of "chicken buses" - former schoolbuses turned into public transportation which are packed with people and things and shoot along roads like they are hopped up on some really intense drugs - and could very easily have lost everything we brought with us on this trip. We had wanted to go directly to Lago de Atitlan, our eventual destination, but were told we would need to transfer buses in a sketchy city late at night so we decided to stop and sleep overnight in a city along the way. We rode the bus for two hours and were both consumed by the fear that our bags (and lives) were going to fall off the roof. But we arrived and claimed our bags with no problems. We also made a pledge to ourselves to store our bags inside the buses whenever possible. We hopped out at the bus station/parking lot and were at a bit of a loss as to what to do with ourselves. At this point, we had absolutely no Guatemalan money, having spent the 30 quetzales we purchased at the border on our busride. We needed to eat and find a hotel room. But it was 8:00pm and no banks were open. There was a very tall, shaggy-haired, blonde Finnish man on our bus who asked us if we wanted to share a taxi into the center of town. Taxi drivers were crowding around us and offering insanely inflated fares for the ten-minute ride into town. Since we had no money and were not necessarily convinced that leaving the area around the bus station would help us in any way, we decided to find a hotel nearby. Our Finnish friend came with us. We walked to a hotel that smelled like a combination of cooking meat and wet dog. We asked the clerk if we could exchange the rest of our pesos for quetzales. We could not. We asked if there were a bank nearby where we could change travelers checks. There was not. We asked if we could pay her in the morning since we had no money. She laughed and said this would be fine. She also told us that it would be significantly cheaper for three people to share a room rather than two. We invited our Finnish friend to join us. We then learned that his name is Ville (pronounced Vee-la). We all moved into our new room and Maya and I went to see if we could find money somewhere. We eventually found a small store that would buy our few remaining pesos. It was a really shady scene but we had not eaten in many hours and were quite famished. We went back to our room to find Ville and the three of us went to get dinner. Ville seemed perfectly pleasant and to some extent he was. He is 22 and has going on various adventures since he graduated from high school to postpone starting at a university – apparently this is common amongst Finnish people. He recently spent a month in Uganda which I thought was going to be really fun to talk to him about. And once again, to some extent it was. But the he started telling us stories about his traveling companions and their relationships with Ugandan prostitutes and he was immediately transferred from the category of “fun and interesting” to “gross and exploitative.” We finished dinner and went back to the hotel to go to sleep. We woke up early the next day to find out about buses to Lago de Atitlan. Three buses and five hours later, we were in Panajachel, one of the towns on the shore of Lago de Atitlan.

Lago de Atitlan is one of those destinations in Latin America that every single traveler tells you is absolutely essential to visit. I will start by saying that I do no necessarily agree and feel very mixed about the entire experience of being there. The lake itself is spectacular. It is huge and shapely and surrounded by massive volcanoes and mountain covered by trees. The volcanoes are sometimes covered by a fine mist or fog and have this very majestic quality. It is the kind of natural wonder that makes your realize that nature will eventually triumph over humanity. The lake at night was also beautiful but in a different way. It looked like someone spread an inky black cotton blanket across the surface of the lake. The sky was kind of spattered with stars but they looked casual. At various points, there would be huge portions of sky that were missing stars and you realized that the volcanoes were blacking them out. Lights from towns and villages across the lake dotted the shore and were bleary with distance, as if they were underwater.

So yes, the lake itself is something to see and experience. But everything that was going on around the lake was not to my liking. There is a tremendous tourist industry which is to be expected. There are little boats which serve as water taxis and take people from town to town. It takes about 40 minutes to cross the lake in a water taxi. The town where we were staying, Panajachel, is the biggest town and generically touristy. There are one million things to buy and many of them are quite pretty. Like an idiot, I bought a king-sized quilt which I really like but now need to carry around until I get to Panama. But the whole scene surrounding the crafts markets is very strange and upsetting if you allow yourself to think about it. There is poverty like nothing we saw in Mexico. Women and little girls basically assault you on the street to ask you to buy things. None of the prices mean anything because people will just keep lowering them until you agree to make a purchase. There are several other towns around the lake, each of which has its own personality. San Marcos, which I read about but never visited, is the site of a weird meditation facility founded by white ex-pats who moved to Guatemala. There you can eat organic, vegetarian food and achieve peace and tranquility. San Pedro is the destination for people like Ville who have profound interest in drinking heavily and smoking pot on the beach. There you find loads of people who are “in touch with the natives.” They wear baggy linen pants and carry instruments. Sometimes they have scarves in their hair. We went to San Pedro and I hated it for various reasons. First of all, I was really hungry when we arrived and we could not find anyplace to eat. We walked up what we thought was the main road. It was not. In actuality, it was the road the lead to the part of the town that housed the evangelical churches and all of their scary signs. For real, assertions about Jesus and God were everywhere. It was totally surreal. Those missionaries know what they are doing! As I gradually slipped into a supremely bitter and emotionally altered mode due to the intense religiosity around me and the lack of food in my stomach, Maya told me to settle down and stop talking because I was being scary. She was right. We finally found lunch and rushed to catch the last water taxi back to Panajachel. We were told to walk across town to the other dock. This is where we found the Villes of Lago de Atitlan. Bars and restaurants that were 100% marketed to displaced American hippies were everywhere. Signs advertising multi-grain bread and markets selling items that referenced Bob Marley and Rastafarian culture. We found the dock, were grossly overcharged by the driver and we had no bargaining power because it was the last boat, and went back to Panajachel. We were both having a bit of a love-hate relationship with Lago de Atitlan and this persisted into our third (and what became our last) day there. We took a very long walk to Santa Catarina, another town on the lake. It was nice walk with pretty views of the lake. We drank some fruit juice near the lake and found out about boats going to other towns. We wanted to go to San Pedro to ride horses up one of the volcanoes. We negotiated a ride back to Panajachel and were told they would then bounce us straight to San Pedro. We got to Panajachel and the shit hit the fan. The mob of boat drivers with inflated prices and vague information caused something to snap in both of us. Maya started screaming in Spanish, one of the drivers got really mad at her, and eventually she exclaimed to me, “Fuck it, I’m done with Lago de Atitlan, let’s get out of here.” And I totally agreed. We went back into town, bought tickets for a shuttle to Antigua, packed our bags, and left.

We arrived in Antigua just after dark last night. We are staying in a nicely-appointed hostel with some very strange rules and instructions posted all over the walls. Right now, I am looking at a sign that reads, “Hey Bevis, If you don’t like SLEEPING in dogshit keep your DIRTY FEET OFF the damn beanbags.” But it is quiet and in the middle of the city. The rooms are clean and there is hot water. I’m totally satisfied.

I would also like to report that Maya has lost her filter. Our ride to Antigua was in a van with eight other passengers. Everyone was sitting quietly and enjoying the scenery when Maya shouted, “Christ is coming!” Everyone turned to look at her. She turned beet-red and said, “What? I’m just translating the sign.” I was consumed by silent laughter and was staring at her with a “you have lost all sense of appropriateness” look on my face. She maintained there was nothing wrong with what she said. Moments later, a really foul odor wafted in front of our faces. It was very obviously from another passenger. But Maya still thought it was appropriate to exclaim, “Stinky!” This time she knew she had gone to far and may have even asked me quietly, “What the hell is wrong with me?” But it’s okay because I lost my filter two years ago…December 31, 2003.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?