Thursday, December 25, 2008

Merry Christmas

As far as I'm concerned, it's not Christmas unless I get to play with kids. This year, it was a crowd, mostly orphans, from a local school here in Cuzco, Peru. We got Santa out to the courtyard to give them gifts, and then Peruvian Christmas fruitcake and homemade hot chocolate made with cinnamon, condensed milk, and cloves.

It's late, or early depending on how you look at it. Been out too late with fireworks and clubbing. As I write this, the sun is rising behind me over the town. The city lights crawl up the hills, spreading from the plaza de armas and cathedral in the middle, up to my hostel.

I can update you with details of what I've been doing later. More importantly, I just wanted to wish everybody happy holidays from down here. Spend them with someone you love. If you can't do that, spend them doing something you'll never forget.

One thing I've been thinking about a bit lately is an old black and white comedy sketch about Christmas, either WC Fields or Red Skelton, I forget which. The main character is a homeless man who is determined to spend Christmas in the warmest, most hospitable place he can get to for the holidays: the county jail. So he tries robbing someone, eating dinner without paying, and committing other various crimes, hoping to get arrested, but every time the cops come, they look at him and say "Aw shucks, it's Christmas. Let the poor guy go."

There's nothing quite in the spirit of Christmas as much as the act of giving. Sometimes what people want isn't the obvious thing. I'm not trying to say you should get your friends and family thrown in the clink. But now is a time to figure out what it is someone truly wants and give it to them. You just might be in a for a surprise.

Happy Holidays from Peru, everyone.

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Friday, December 19, 2008


Galapagos ThreesomeI just got back from a 16-person cruise in the Galapagos Islands.

For those of you whose jaws did not drop at that sentence, let me explain. The Galapagos Islands are a set of islands under Ecuadoran jurisdiction, right along the equator, directly south of Guatemala. The first human uses of this place were as a headquarters and hangout for pirates cruising the Pacific side of the Spanish main, but the voyage that really put it on the map was that of a ship named The Beagle. Aboard this ship, as mandated at the time, was a naturalist. The Beagle's naturalist was a fellow by the name of Charles Darwin. What he saw then and what we still see today revolutionized the way we look at biology. He found a pattern of animals, clearly from the same ancestors, but who had each adapted to the islands they were living on, to the point where they were their own distinct species. For example, Tortoises that had tons of food lying around had huge shells that kept their heads low to the ground. Tortoises with little food in their environment had big spaces up above the neck so that the head could stretch up and snag the last low-hanging leaves and cacti. Finches' beaks varied in length, width and sharpness depending on what would be best for getting which kind of food on their island. It wasn't that much later that Darwin went public with his theory of Evolution.

Today the islands, aside from being idyllic Pacific islands, are now the embodiment of Wildlife Watching for Dummies. It's what you always imagined going out into nature to see wild animals should be like. It's easy, you see something new every five paces. There are unique species of fish, lizards, birds, and much more running around everywhere, and they don't fear humans. They aren't tame exactly, they don't come running up to people for handouts, but they don't run away from people either. If you walk towards most wild animals in other places, they will either flee, or start making threats. In the Galapagos, I walked right at tiny little finches and lava lizards who would simply hop out of the way, then cock their head sideways at me as if to say "where are you going, mister?" A giant tortoise and a large land iguana in turn walked directly my way with no intent on stopping if I didn't budge from their path. At least three young sea lions flopped their way to sniff my legs, just to make absolutely sure that I was not, in fact, their mommy.

I should say that this place is not a where you find wild expanses of jungle. Most of the landscape actually looks like desert, especially now in the dry season. Cacti are everywhere and there's a lot of cracked dry land and scrub (though the water is a breathtaking shade of blue that I didn't think existed outside of photoshopped beach pics). There are essentially seven different biomes across the island depending on elevation and the direction they face (the prevailing winds bringing different things to different sides of the various volcanoes). But most of what I saw was dry scrub, covered in sea lions, crabs, iguanas, and a huge range of unique birds with hilarious names, such as my favorite, the Wandering Tattler, and everyone else's favorite, the Blue Footed Boobie.

I took hundreds of pictures, and while being very very conservative (though still putting up more sea lion pics than I'd meant to) I've almost maxed out my monthly allotment on Flickr. If my set isn't enough for you, check out my friend Laurence and his family's site for more shots from our group's trip.

The one thing I couldn't get any pictures of was the underwater life. I couldn't go diving because of a slight cold (makes equalizing underwater pressure difficult and potentially dangerous) but I did get to go snorkeling at least. Even the simple list of what I swam with seems incredible. Aside from all the almost luminescent schools of purple, red, and rainbow colored fish swimming around coral, anemones, sea cucumbers, and sea stars, I had sea lions swimming laps around me like gigantic otters, startled a rockfish out of its camouflaged spot, saw a few stingrays float below, a pair of sea turtles bump into me after they were swept off by a an unexpected current, watched a blue footed boobie dive underwater about six feet away to snag a fish snack, floated over a few semi-covered little flounders with both eyes on one side of their bodies, and, at one tense moment, turned around to find a white-tipped shark snaking it's way through the water about ten feet away (I know they're mostly harmless to humans, but that's still a lot of very sharp teeth).

And we saw it all in style. I snagged a very last minute deal aboard the 16 person catamaran, Millennium, with rooms I'd expect from a four star hotel, three gourmet meals a day, small library and game set in the main lounge, and an observation deck up top (saw a ton of shooting stars). We had an official level III guide (trained biologist, lots of experience, speaks at least four languages) who led us across two islands a day. This was one of the two splurges I've planned for this trip, and I'm very glad I indulged.

Now I've come back to the rough and tumble life of the backpacker, currently stationed in Otavalo, Ecuador, and eyeing my next country. Also figuring out where I want to be for Christmas... My first one away from home and family.

In the meantime, I've been shown around some of the gorgeous waterfalls by the grandkids of a shaman I met on the bus from Colombia, and in a few minutes will be stepping out into what I heard at least one person call the biggest market in South America. So far I'd have a hard time finding streets in this town without some kind of stalls on them. Should be a good day, I think.

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Saturday, December 13, 2008

Colombian Lights

Festival of Lights, Villa de Leyva, ColombiaI got off the bus in the mountain town of Villa de Leyva expecting a quiet colonial village with few people. Instead I found a bustling colonial town with almost every single hotel entirely booked through the weekend. The reason? The Festival of Lights. Every year what seems like half the country pours into this little whitewashed town with seemingly no buildings younger than 400 years old, packs into the main plaza, sets off tons of fireworks and then parties until four in the morning. I'm not sure if I've ever seen so many people drinking and yelling and singing in one spot as I saw that town square. You could've easily crowd-surfed the wads of people packed in the stores buying beer and aguardiente (local firewater made from sugarcane and anise).

Aside from seeing some great fireworks being exploding so close that they set off multiple car alarms, I think my favorite part might have been one of the more ironic ones for something celebrating light. About half an hour after the last fireworks ended and the first musical act started, the power went out. All the sound systems, Christmas lights and buildings lost electricity. At first everybody laughed and cheered. Then something interesting happened. Instead of getting rowdy and complaining, I started hearing snatches of music here and there. In every corner, people were breaking out drums, sticks, guitars, and making their own circles and singing their heads off. Candles came out of nowhere, some tourists blinded all their friends with their headlamps they had "just in case," and the party went right on. We got power back about twenty minutes later, lost it again after a few seconds, then got it back even later.

I left during the second day to go to Bogota, but even there there were celebrations. The national park was absolutely packed, and my taxi driver and I ended up stopping on the main street just to watch the fireworks go off above our heads. The festival wasn't confined to the big public areas either. As we drove by the smaller streets we saw people with maybe fifty candles sitting outside their homes, chatting, enjoying each others company.

The next day, just about everything had been shut down. I spent the day checking out the sights and getting a few errands done. My poor, ailing camera finally turned in its letter of resignation in the form of multiple repeated memory card corruption errors. So after talking with my family some, I picked up a new one.

If you've ever had a new camera, especially a new digital camera, you'll know the effect it has on your eyes and brain. Everything and its mother looks photogenic. Everything. And that's if you're just sitting at home. Now imagine that same effect, only you're in the gorgeous colonial capital city of a foreign country bordered by a mountain range you can take a cable car up to the top of for the view. I had to forcibly restrain myself from only looking at where I was going through the camera screen. I have some of the most random pictures of dogs, graffiti, trees, streets, gold museum exhibits, guinea pigs (which is another story in and of itself), you name it. And at they time, they all looked absolutely fantastic. We'll see what I think of them in about a month.

I made my way south to Cali, the mecca of Salsa dancing, and found another cultural experience I wasn't expecting. The towns two major football/soccer teams were playing each other and that if the one with home team advantage won, it would go onto to finals. So I hopped a bus and got a first floor ticket. Being a typical Yankee, I'd never been to a professional soccer match before, and I figured if there was anywhere to start, it would be in South America. I made sure I was wearing neutral colors, got a bite to eat, and grabbed my earplugs as an afterthought before catching a city bus to the stadium. I figured if things got just way too loud after a while, I could put them in.

That "after a while" turned out to be roughly two minutes and 30 seconds after entering the stadium. This was not the polite, quiet Seattle Mariners Baseball crowd I was used to. Maybe the companies of mounted and riot police stationed outside the entrances should've tipped me off. I was surrounded by a throbbing, screaming, singing, and jeering red mass supporting Cali America. The fans behind the goals not only never sat down, they never stopped jumping up and down for the entire match. I saw at least one person try to climb the barbed wire fence to yell at his favorite players. That atmosphere alone was well worth the price of my ticket.

One of the funnier things for a foreigner was the sounds of a non English speaking crowd. For example when something goes wrong for an English speaking crowd, you hear everybody go "Awww..." in unison, and maybe boo. Here, everybody made this "aaOOgh" sound that, for me at least, was a bit like the bark of a great dane. Also instead of booing, ape sounds and gorilla arms seem to be the norm for making fun of someone or showing disapproval. And the songs they sang... I would not have translated those in front of English speaking kids the age of some of the younger fans there. Wow.

Cali America won 1-0, qualifying for the finals, and the fans did not the let the city forget it for the entire night. All across town was a sea of honking, cheering, and singing red. Meant I saw a lot more drunk soccer fans than salsa dancers, but I still had a lot of fun.

That was all a few days ago. I'm in Ecuador now. Quito, to be specific. I had a breathtaking ride through the southern mountains (just look at that) and then an excruciatingly long border crossing. Imagine standing in a shortish line, say twenty yards or maybe less. Now imagine standing in that line for over four hours. That was Ecuadoran migration. But after that, sleeping on a parked bus to avoid bringing all my stuff through a dangerous neighborhood at midnight, and I'm here, enjoying parades, parks, and the scenery. Also I'm shopping for shoes. A short but overgrown and challenging hike ripped apart my hiking shoes, and after a repair job lasted only three days I ditched them in Cali, relying on my sandals instead. Turns out to have been a bit of a mistake. I wear size 13 mens shoes. I'm about half a foot taller than most latin american men, and it turns out nobody here sells shoes my size. I'm having a hard enough time just finding shoes two sizes too small. But any chill from walking around a high mountain town in Teva's is easily eclipsed by my shopping for...

...well, actually I'm not going to say what I was shopping for quite yet. I found it, at around 45% of its original price, but my head is still spinning just thinking about how much money I just spent. And that's after plunking down the cash for a new digital camera. But this...

Let's just say my next post should be a good one.

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Thursday, December 4, 2008

From the Ground on Upwards

Look closely at those leaves. They're being carried by ants. This whole path, with no grass, has been eaten and worn away by these ants. If you click on the picture you can get a closer look.

I've seen these ants in every park or forest I've been to from Mexico on south, and they still kind of amaze me. There's always just this little highway of moving bits of leaves crossing my path.

This time it was in Panama city's Parque Metropolitano, a national park within the city limits of the nation's capital. It´s five minutes walk from a huge mall, bus station and domestic airport. I went from shopping in a department store for a fake Nalgene to using it for a three hour hike without needing to sit down once in between.

Surprisingly the park seems pretty tranquil. You can hear the cars go by when you´re near the entrance, but I saw a ton of birds, lizards, turtles, and even six White Nosed Coati. And of course the ants.

It was sort of the last thing I had planned in Central America. The next day, a couple friends of mine and I went to the airport for our 11:00 flight to Cartagena.

The buses took longer than we expected, so we arrived at the flight counter a bit later than expected. We asked for our tickets. They refused to give them to us. They said they were supposed to stop giving out tickets at 10:00. I looked up at the clock. It was 10:06.

I argued it, went to other airlines, tried the airline office, but no luck. Even if the flying time was less than one hour, it was an international flight, and despite not saying this anywhere on their website, our ticket, our confirmation email, or the airport's website, we were supposed to know to be there exactly an hour in advance. We couldn't budge them on this. We missed the flight.

Fortunately there was another flight. At 9 pm. We changed tickets and spent the next nine hours upstairs in a hyper-air-conditioned cafeteria, talking eating, playing cards, watching the Simpsons in Spanish, playing cards, sleeping, staring at the walls, and I think, maybe... yeah, playing cards.

We finally got our boarding passes, through security, wandered around duty free a while, and then boarded our plane. By which me mean boarding a bus which took all ten or so passengers to a Dash 8, a twin-engine, turboprop plane with nine rows of seats. By far the smallest thing I'd ever flown on in my life.

And it was so much fun.

I was not expecting that at all, but I'm used to jets where you sit in an apparently immobile metal tube that suffers an earthquake every few minutes. I'm not a big fan of turbulence and expected to have a lot more of it in this little thing. But it was just a different experience entirely. It was really flying. Yes there were bumps but you could really feel the wind behind them. Looking out the window an seeing the propellers roaring over the shrinking ground was a real trip. It was the old-fashioned kind of travel, the kind you picture on all those vintage posters when you think travel. It probably changed how I look at planes for the rest of my life.

So I'm in South America now. Even since before we touched down, I've been feeling good about this leg. It's as if Central America was just the warm up for this. I'm in the walled city of Cartagena, Colombia. I've been exploring the biggest Spanish fortress in the Americas, with a flashlight, creeping through underground tunnels filled with puddles (impressive acoustics-- if you sing the right note down there you can see the sound waves ripple on the water). I've also been browsing the Naval History Museum of the Caribbean, mostly focused on how many times the poor city has been sacked by so many people despite how intricate and massive the defenses were.

Later I ended up invited to and registered at a conference on combating Hunger and Poverty (Babelfish Translation), with groups like Accion Social, the World Food Program, and the UN in attendance, along with the governor, several local NGOs, and interestingly enough, the national petroleum company present (the petroleum company was showcasing how it was using its profits for environmental and social justice campaigns). All the people I talked to at the conference were hopeful and excited about what they were doing, especially in terms of helping impoverished families become self-sufficient and more prosperous. Everybody was talking about how much success they'd seen recently and how much more they were going to have. It was great getting to meet all these people working to make other people's lives better. Plus there was free food. I like free food.

Ending post bad news (I really hope this doesn't become a tradition) my camera's condition continues to worsen. Now any photos I take have a blurry lower third with the colors screwed up. I've posted a couple passable ones, but I'm starting to get worried. The vast majority of my shots in Colombia so far simply didn't come out, which I´m kinda bummed out about. Especially when it comes to the sunset shots over the Caribbean I took from the city's 400 year old walls...

I'm heading south today, up to the mountains. After being cooped up on an island and then wandering in Panama city looking for a way onward, It feels very good to be somewhere that I can leave just by hopping on a bus.

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Saturday, November 29, 2008

Helping My Way Through High Seas

I took this after collecting plates from the lunch that had just been served. We were in the Hospital of Bocas del Toro, where mattresses had been tossed on the floor of three bare rooms to house about 30 or 40 elderly and disabled men and women whose nursing home had been flooded in the downpour. Several of them didn't have control of their limbs, or were blind, and needed to be spoon fed and have their drinks gingerly tipped into their mouths. There weren't enough wheelchairs for everyone to sit down all the time.

A few of them had to be physically lifted and moved into their beds. I was shy and ginger about it, not wanting to hurt them, until a nurse came and hauled them like sacks of potatoes to where they needed to be. I said I didn't want to hurt them. She said any little thing hurts them, and moved another.

Not all of them were entirely there mentally. One woman was terrified, convinced she was going to fall, no matter how we surrounded her with pillows on her mattress as she lay down, or what angle we set them at when she sat up. Another started stripping off his pants and adult diaper after I wheeled him to his bed at his request (an act I was later told off for). Other examples were slightly nicer though. Like the kindly old man who looked up at me when I served him his lunch and asked "how much?" ("Oh for you, sir, it's free." I told him).

One thing that impressed me again though, the same way it had from the last volunteer experience I had on this trip, was what was appreciated the most. It wasn't the physical help. It was the company. One man named Michael talked my ear off in English whenever I was nearby telling stories of his friends from Lebanon and Palestine and some of his skirt-chasing exploits from his younger days. Or Nicolas, the man who had both legs amputated, and his love of politics, travel, and also of riddles. Or Rafa, the childless Costa Rican lady who would alternate between languages to talk about how much she loved being with neighborhood kids and how relatives would say she spoiled the neighborhood boys but she didn't care.

But the man in this picture stood out to me somehow. He spoke very quietly, so quietly I couldn't understand his words. Sometimes it seemed to be English, sometimes Spanish, sometimes some other language entirely. But he always had something to say to me, and he would take his time to say it at length. I was never sure what to tell him, but he always seemed satisfied with just, talking, and haveing me stand there and listen. I never even learned his name.

Anyway, that was my experience volunteering in Bocas del Toro with flood victims. It wasn't exactly what I came to the place for, but I'm glad I found some way to help with the growing situation there, (the link is courtesy of my fellow volunteer there, Erin).

I believe all of them have now been moved back to their home. The last day I was there, I was told they would be moved back the next day, depending on weather. Which was, in fact improving. We had some sunbreaks that morning, so I'm hopeful.

The only public transportation off the island to the rest of Panama was by airplane. I didn't like the idea of paying a lot of money to fly through thunderstorms in a small plane, so I started looking for other options.

A few days later, I was sailing on the Caribbean as a line hand on the 66' sailing yacht, Colombo Breeze. I'd asked around at the marina for private yachts heading out and managed to find the only one braving the weather and heading for the port of Colón to the east. I asked the British crew if they had space for another, told them I was young, agile, bilingual, and didn't get seasick, and I was in.

Soon I was pitching and rolling my way across the open ocean for an overnight journey. I saw stars for the first time in weeks, and also saw and learned about phosphorescence. Glowing, living, pieces of the Caribbean like fireflies winking and swimming in our wake. It did rain a bit, still, but all that really seemed to do was flatten the waves. I never did get seasick, but the pitching and particularly the rolling was way more disorienting down below in the cabin than it was up on deck. Still, the movement rocked me right into a very deep sleep that left me groggy for hours afterward. Also, adjusting back to solid land once we made port took me much longer than adjusting to a moving boat had. I was so thrown off kilter that I checked my temperature to make sure I wasn't coming down with something.

I did not waste time in Colón. I saw the norther part of the Panama Canal (looks exactly like you'd expect it to-- a massive canal with massive lines of massive boats waiting for it), and then got straight onto a bus for Panama City. Colón is notorious for being the most dangerous city in the country, if not in all of Central America. The local wisdom here  says if you've been mugged in broad daylight once, it means you've been there a week. Twice means you've been there two weeks.

I made it to Panama City just in time to sign up for a Thanksgiving dinner at a hostel in the Casco Viejo neighborhood. I sat down with 49 other expats and backpackers and stuffed myself silly with turkey, potatoes, yams, veggies, salad, fresh pumpkin and apple pie with whipped cream that I ended up whipping myself with a whisk (good forearm workout). Fantastic atmosphere, great night.

Since then, I've been looking to plan my next move. The original plan was sailing to Cartagena via the San Blas, islands but the prices have skyrocketed to the point where an independent trip to the San Blas and back followed by a flight to Cartagena is $100 less. So I'm just booking myself a flight to continent number two.

But not until I've joined up with some guys from here who are going and hitting some bars tonight. Last night I was walking the streets and heard some fantastic live music. I found the source was a free concert and wandered up. One minute later, a table full of Colombian Panamanians were enthusiastically offering me a share of their food and drinks. Three minutes later, they had me on their cell phone with their 23 year old son who happened to be in town with his Seattlite girlfriend. So if all goes to plan, I'll be meeting them tonight. If I've learned anything when it comes to hanging with Central Americans, it's to keep your schedule clear or you're going to miss out.

Only minor bad thing was I got my day pack stolen. Most valuable thing inside was a Nalgene and a flashlight the charged by hand-crank. The most annoying part is that it's actually the top compartment of my big backpack, so part of my backpack is gone. I feel pretty stupid about how it happened. I had myself prepared for all situations of robbery. I had zipper pockets and a money belt to foil pickpockets. I had a decoy wallet in case of being mugged. I knew all the typical cons involving distractions like people spilling stuff on you and cleaning it up to distract you while you're robbed. But I didn't account for my own simple absent-mindedness. I went to get breakfast at a cafeteria in the rain. I put my poncho on a chair and slung my bag on my chair behind me. I got up to pay and started counting my change, putting on my poncho on the way out. It wasn't until ten minutes later that I realized I'd forgotten my bag, and by then... it was gone.

So I've got a gimp backpack now, and am missing little useful things like a water bottle, bandanna, flashlight, and the trail mix I'd made and been using as road fodder. But more than anything, I'm just annoyed with having my pride hurt like that. There I was, smugly thinking I was better prepared and smarter than all those bumbling fools who got themselves robbed, then I go and prove myself more bumbling and foolish than the lot of them. Figures.

Well, it's a well-deserved dose of humility and extra warning before I head into my next country.

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Tuesday, November 25, 2008

When the Going Gets Wet

I am currently stranded on a Caribbean island.

People from back home sometimes tell me they envy the weather I must be having down here in Central America. They say it's warm and sunny. Most of the time they've been right. But not this week.

I crossed into Costa Rica last week in a drizzle, landing in Liberia in time for it to clear up a bit. I wanted to push ahead into Panama. Costa Rica is a wonderful place, but I'd been there 8 years ago in the perfect season to see places like Arenal, Tortugero, and the Nicoya Peninsula. The other places I wanted to check out like Corcovado weren't in great shape to see just because of the time of year.

So I pushed through one drizzle to the next in San Jose, stopped to check out the great theater scene and found the major theaters were either dark for the next few days or only had concerts scheduled. So I pressed on to the south Caribbean coast and Cauhuita. There it really started to rain. The power was out too, so I stayed long enough to try a fantastic Caribbean fish coconut peanut curry, served with a Panamanian chili pepper so hot it actually gave me the hiccups (one of my father's legendary tests for whether or not food actually qualifies as spicy). Then I pressed on to the border, hoping to get to the Bocas del Toro islands and better weather.

I got to the islands fine, but the weather followed me right there. Two other travelers and I ran off the boat through the downpour, (followed doggedly by a local who offered me both marijuana and cocaine within three sentences of "hello") to a hostel where I was quickly given an introduction to the layout, my room, and then The Three Bocas Lies: 1. 'I'm not drinking tonight', 2. 'I'm leaving tomorrow', and 3. 'I love you.'

Morale was low. Bocas is a fantastic place to go to the beach when it's sunny. It was not sunny and wasn't shaping up to be sunny any time soon. Most people there were sitting around without much to do. That didn't appeal to me much, so I started thinking about my next destination.

But then I thought for a bit and decided that clearly I was going to get wet here, I might as well get really wet. So I found the nearest PADI shop and enlisted in a scuba diving course. Three days later, I was a certified open water diver.

This didn't come quite as naturally as surfing did. To be honest, I kind of freaked the first time I went underwater weighted by a lead belt with a hose stuck in my mouth with air that didn't taste right and didn't feel like enough to breathe by, plus the fact that the visibility was less than 2 meters. But once I got over the initial shock, realized the air was just fine and that I didn't need to suck it down to stay alive, I was actually able to enjoy myself somewhere where I could see more wild animals in 10 minutes than I would see in a forest in 10 hours.

Visibility was bad. Good conditions to learn in and I'm now a stronger scuba diver for it, and it had the cool effect of putting everything in a greenish fog that came out at you as a surprise. We got to dive a shipwreck near the island and see most of it absolutely covered in coral, plants, and animals of all colors. A school of fish followed us with a synchronization and precision I'd never seen from anything anywhere, something a team of human dancers could only dream of. They could twitch in unison. We found a few lobsters eyeing us suspiciously from nooks and crannies and we dodged jellyfish.

It wasn't a cheap venture, but it was definitely worth it. And like I said, as long as I was going to get wet anyway...

Thing is, this was turning out to be more than just rain. This is a massive system that is simply sitting on top of the entire country of Panama and parts of Colombia and Costa Rica, refusing to move. And it rains, rains, and rains, until you think it can't possibly pour down again. And then it does. I haven't seen the sun in more than a week.

This means flooding. The nearby island of Bastametos, where I was originally thinking of staying, has been flooded. People have lost everything. Until very recently, out here we had no telephone access to the mainland, no internet, no ATM service. The roads out of the nearest mainland town have been wiped out in both directions. The seas are treacherous-- two ships have recently sunk trying to leave. And the conditions aren't good for the small airport either, all flights yesterday were canceled, and I'm not sure the ones today are going either.

At first it was an inconvenience. Then it was a situation. Then yesterday I learned that the President of Panama has declared a state of emergency. Mutterings of food, power, and water shortages are beginning to circulate.

When I heard that, I stopped trying to leave and started trying to help. I started spreading the word to other stranded travelers with no money, food, or places to stay where they can go to get help. I've left my name with the police and tourist office as a possible volunteer and I'm going with some friends to the hospital later, where a lot of the people who lost their homes in the flood have gone to stay. If they need more volunteers, I'm getting them more volunteers. There are plenty of backpackers sitting here in the rain with not much else to do right now who are all ready to lend a hand.

I'm keeping my ears open for when people figure out road travel and I know the name of a private sailboat that's going to leave for Colon sometime within the next couple of days if they can. But I'm leaving the flights to the people who are missing connections home for the holidays, jobs, and loved ones they're trying to meet.

I'm optimistic. We got internet and phones back today, and the clouds seem lighter and thinner. I've been here two days longer than anywhere I've been on this trip, but I don't have any hard date I need to be anywhere else yet. I've started making some great friends in the area-- I even had one guy from Bocas ask me if I was Panamanian (something I'm still ridiculously pleased with).

Still... well, maybe the best way to describe the feeling is from something that happened a couple nights ago. I was hanging out with a Panamanian artisan, two travelers from New Zealand, one from Italy, and one from Germany. One of the Kiwis got a bit bored and started drawing on the other's leg (these are the kind of people I like to hang out with). Soon, there were a few birds on her knee. The German liked it a lot. He told us that that kind of bird was a symbol of freedom. If you put it in a cage, it dies.

None of us are literally dying, but we want out sometime soon.

In the meantime, I'm going to see what I can do to help.

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Monday, November 17, 2008

A New Kind of Ride

It's been far too long since I last wrote on here. I could easily write at least three separate entries on this last week alone, but I'm going to simply try to combine as much as I can into one behemoth of an update, even without the monkeys, birds, a visit to the biggest island in a lake in the world (two volcanos joined at the hip), border crossing into Costa Rica, etc. I'll even try to keep it concise... wish me luck.

Fun stuff first. Like the picture on the left. That's me, volcano boarding. I decided that climbing up an active volcano and roasting marshmallows was pretty good, but not quite enough. So I climbed Cerro Negro, the youngest volcano in Central America, and decided to go back down a little more quickly than I went up. Basically you take a snowboard, strap metal to the bottom, take it to the top, strap your feet on, and throw yourself off the side of a (steep) slope of volcanic sand and rock. Volcano Boarding. Of the group I hiked up with, I was the only one dumb brave enough to take the fast way down (everyone else hiked it). At the end I asked if I could do it again, and they said no. Something about having to hike up the side of a slippery active volcano full of black rock in the hot sun once being more than enough, I guess.

At the end of the week, I took the boarding thing back to where it started: the waves. I had my first surfing lesson off the beach of San Juan del Sur. If you can believe it, surfing is even more fun than it looks. I can't even start to do justice to what catching your first wave feels like. I know nothing like that rush. No fear, just pure exhilaration while you stand on top of the ocean as it charges to shore. I got a little battered by the end from catching my board at odd angles in the waves, but that was probably the most fun I've ever had at a beach. The only irritating thing was afterwards when I accidentally got board wax on my shirt. Turns out this white wax doesn't come off with soap and water. It comes off like magic when you use and iron and wax paper, which is great, if you happen to be in a country where they sell wax paper. As far as I can tell, that's not going to be until Australia for me.

Board sports aside, it's been an interesting week. I mentioned at the end of my last post that the head of a nonprofit wanted to show me a metaphor for the country. It turned out to be at the top of a hill near Leon. A dirt road led up the hill to a small fortress built by the US-backed president Somoza. Set against a gorgeous view of the surrounding mountains and the Pacific Ocean, lay what amounted to a prison where the national guard tortured and killed Sandinista rebels. There were broken water pipes and electrical wires still sticking out from the walls, near an octoganal interrogation room (built to maximize echoes). Gun turrets on top pointed toward the city in case the population ever got "uppitty." There was a solitary confinement chamber, too small to sit in, and too low to stand in. All used to suppress opposition until the Sandinista's successfully defeated the occupying army in the 80s.

The Sandinistas are now a political party, the FSLN, instead of the revolutionary army. The opposition party, the PLC, was in power in Leon not too long ago. They looked at this site of history and violence, set against a spectacular backdrop, and instead of making it a monument like the kind I saw in El Salvador, or even putting some kind of marker to honor or acknowledge the dead buried just outside the fortress walls, they turned it into a dump. Literally. Right next to the fortress stands one of the largest, steamiest, smelliest municipal garbage dumps I've ever seen.

Some hope the FSLN might change that kind of thing, but it's not an easy thing to do. I came into Nicaragua on their election day. It was just local elections, and the FSLN cleaned house. I actually almost walked right into a bunch of them with bandanas covering their faces, waving flags and stopping traffic in Managua to celebrate. I'm still not certain if they were carrying and firing firecrackers or guns-- having heard two people had died in a fight over the election a day before, I decided being an obvious foreigner in that place might not be a good idea. But, as I traveled, read headlines, saw news and talked to people. I heard news of fights in the streets. Questions of legitimacy began to leak out. Either the PLC was trying to discredit their loss, the FSLN actually pulled some strings, or both. Mostly though, it just reminded me of our own elections, back in 2000 and 2004, when we had a few questions about legitimacy ourselves. As one Nico summed it up, "No me sopresa. 200 años, la misma mierda." ('Doesn't surprise me. 200 years, the same sh*t.´) In the US, when elections were shadowed by chads and screwy voting machine access and screwy voting machines themselves, some people got mad. Others became complacent. The results will be up to others to judge.

Though judge they certainly have. It was a bit of a black eye whenever we as a country would go somewhere promoting democratic leadership, and whoever we talked to would come back and point out that our president wasn't democratically elected but appointed by the supreme court. It's an attitude that filtered its way down to how Americans are treated by everyone else, including of course, travelers like me. Most people of other nationalities I met were wise enough not to hold me accountable for my government's actions. But every once in a while, the questions would filter through and people would take me to task for the torture of prisoners, the imprisonment of people without trial or charge, the blatant defiance of things like 182-4 votes on the floor of the UN general assembly against our actions abroad. Some of the nicer would ones would pipe up and say that, actually most of the Americans they had met had been nice, intelligent, educated, and open-minded people, as if that was some sort of amazing surprise. Even those who said nothing would always have a brief "oh, you're one of them" look. I know many Americans who would pretend to be Canadian, just to avoid it all.

But about 13 days ago, that all started to change.

When Barack Obama was declared President Elect, I was sitting in a hotel bar in Suchitoto, El Salvador, watching with about six other American expats and travelers. Upon seeing us cheer, the Salvadoran bartender gave us all drinks on the house, and toasted a nation "that was once great, and will be great again."

Now everywhere I go, when I say "American", everyone everywhere says "Obama" back, and they are always smiling. Salvadorans, Hondurans, Nicos, and Ticos are all celebrating new leadership in the big neighbor to the north. Everybody from all over the world, local and traveler alike, is talking about it and the high hopes they have. I even had one Honduran man telling me all about how Obama was going to end all war.

The least optimistic thing I've heard is from a German girl who wondered whether he was going to make as big a change as everyone thought. She then followed that by saying "correct me if I'm wrong, but the Democratic party is controlled by the Jews, right?"(Yikes.)

But that aside, I'm for the first time finding that calling myself an American is opening doors instead of closing them. To answer the questions of whether Obama is really going to solve all our problems, no he won't. I'm sorry to say he won't end all war, and the economic crisis won't simply disappear. But that's missing the point. The real change is the new attitude we as a nation are bringing to the white house. That's what means more to me when I tell people where I'm from.

As I wrote in my personal journal 13 nights ago, ´for the first time since I started paying attention to politics in a real way as a teenager, I can be proud of my country's choice of leaders. I no longer have to feel embarrassed or make excuses for my government's actions and attitudes when I say where I come from. And, most importantly for me, for the first time, when someone asks me if I represent the majority of voting citizens in my country, I can look them in the eye and say "Yes, I do."

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Sunday, November 9, 2008

Honoring the Fallen

I'm going to start at the middle of the week on this one.

This picture was taken in El Mozote, El Salvador, the site of what might be the most repugnant atrocity in the history of Latin America since the end of colonial rule.

The woman in the picture was a volunteer guide, the kid is her son. At one point we were watching her son play with his truck. She told me he was now the same age as her sister's son had been when they had been killed together. They were not alone.

December 11, 1981, the US-trained Salvadoran National Army came here and slaughtered roughly 1000 civilians. The army had separated the men, women, and children, but her sister would not let go of her son. She was herded into the wooden church with the rest of the children and locked inside. The Army then set the church on fire. There were no survivors. The women were separated and raped before being killed. The men were tortured and killed. The bullet holes are still in the walls, the bomb craters are still in the ground.

The town of El Mozote today has a simple motto: Nunca Más. It means Never Again. It's a theme I could feel throughout the second half of my time in El Salvador. Anyone about my age or older remembered the war. I visited the revolutionary stronghold of Perquin, not far from El Mozote, where arms, posters, and radio equipment used to bring down an Army helicopter were all on display. In San Salvador, I visited the Museum of the Word and Image, showcasing the FMLN revolutionary radio as well as pictures and poems from the war. Then there was the Center of Monseñor Romero, dedicated to the Archbishop and his fellow Jesuits who died because they dared to speak up for the people. There's a collection of about anything they could find with the blood of these martyrs on it. I was shown a book with photos of their bodies as they were found on the college campus, including two girls who were shot because the army heard them crying in another room and were ordered to leave no witnesses. I was then taken to the room where the girls had been killed. Everything was left the same aside from a change of upholstery.

As one New York native told me after she saw what was there, it's an exhibit the screams "Bear witness to this, bear witness to this, please somebody, for the love of God, bear witness to this. "

But there's more to it than all that. Yes, this was a bloody civil war. Few people know how it happened. The atrocities were terrible, and those that died are due every respect and memory. But, as I learned there there's more to El Salvador than its tragedies. There's more to this country to know than its war.

I happened to be in Suchitoto on November 2nd. In many places, this is All Saints Day. In Mexico, it the Day of the Dead. In El Salvador, it's a bit of a mix. It ends up simply being a day to honor the dead. At the time, I was hanging out with a friend I'd met there who himself was from Portland, but whose Father was from Suchitoto, north of San Salvador. Since the war ended, they've come to visit together just about every year. We took some time to go to the graveyard, navigate the crowds, and stand in silence in front of the grave of my friend's grandfather for a while.

But then we moved on. I spent the next few days with his family, friends from the town, other travelers, all together out exploring, showing that people here are living life more than ever. Everyone I met in El Salvador was friendly, wanted to help out. This family took me and another traveler under their wing, fed us, gave us a place to sleep, brought us to to San Salvador, then to a gorgeous Pacific beach which we practically had all to ourselves, then all the way back again. All the way being generous, friendly, and fun hosts.

They certainly weren't alone. When I got into San Salvador the first time, at least four people went out of their way to help me get to my hostel. One even walked me around for a good half hour or more making sure I got to the door, and then refused any offer of anything in return. The owner of my hotel in Suchitoto threw open his doors, inviting me to use his laundry machine, computer, kitchen, and even to raid his fridge if I wanted to, saying he'd do the dishes. I got back to the place at 1 am on a Sunday after still more locals had taken me out to the local discoteque, and found a crowd of at least 12 more local guys partying in the courtyard and who wanted me to join in.

I think the most impressive image wasn't the hospitality. It was when I was visiting a former battleground in Perquin. It was a hill above the village where the guerrillas used to be camped. On that hill, I didn't find plaques commemorating the blood of the fallen. I found two things. One was on one side, where two boys were laughing and running with kites. The other was on the other side, where a couple, about high school age, were sharing a moment with the view together. From a battleground to that is a sign of healing if I've ever seen one.

So, where does this all leave me? Well, in Nicaragua at the moment. I spent the last few days trekking my way from the border near El Mozote, into Honduras by anything I could find, including many chicken buses, a ride in Tegucigalpa from a couple who wasted no time in asking whether I'd accepted Jesus Christ as my personal savior, and bed of pickup truck in the rain, sharing my poncho with Salvadorans and Hondurans talking politics. It meant a couple nights in places with no toilet seats and with buckets of cold water instead of showers... then there was the haul today over five buses, the second of which I was told had been canceled, the third that was either and hour early or an hour late, and the fourth which the first two people I asked claimed did not exist, and the fifth spending more than an hour on a road so riddled with potholes that we slowed enough to be passed by a guy on a bicycle. Twice. But that's travel.

And now I'm in a posh hostel in Leon, watching Nicaraguans work their own election day today. Tomorrow I'm getting up early to meet some people from a non-profit I met over dinner so that they can drive me up to a spot the head of the foundation claims is the great metaphor for the country. Intrigued yet?

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Tuesday, November 4, 2008

New Rule

Today is November 4th. I'm instigating a new rule for this blog:

If you are a US citizen and eligible to vote in this general election, you are not allowed to read this blog again until you have voted.

This does not apply if you are reading this after polls have closed (for example email subscribers who get new posts some time after they are uploaded).

Thank you, and have a nice day.

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Sunday, November 2, 2008

Hot Rocks, Cool Waters.

I roasted this marshmallow over hot lava.I roasted this marshmallow over hot lava.

Go back and reread that sentence if you think it will help you believe it. I was on top of an active volcano called Pacaya, a hour or so outside of Antigua, Guatemala. A few minutes before, our guide tossed down some sticks and the heat caused them to erupt into flames within seconds.

The last week has been full of volcanoes. I found out when in Antigua that there were treks up a nearby active volcano to be had, so I found a good way to get there, a bag of marshmallows, and a really long stick. I wasn't alone; the group I was with ended up with two full bags of marshmallows between the six of us.

The climb up Pacaya was a great hike, I'd forgotten just how lush volcanoes can be below the tree line. There were trees and plants of all kinds everywhere until we hit the black cooled volcanic crags. Clambering over those, we got fantastic views of the surrounding mountains and ocean with the sunset, and then saw the lava turn red after dark. The marshmallows were a fun extra. Not something you get to try every day.

After that trek and a little more time in Antigua, I backtracked to Lake Atitlan. I wasn't planning on going there at all, until I talked to an experienced backpacker who told me that, even after living in Japan, Italy, Greece, Argentina, Spain, and visiting dozens of other places, This lake was her favorite place in the world. So I caught a morning bus there the next day.

It's one of the highest lakes in the world, and the deepest of Central America, surrounded by three volcanoes. As soon as we broke out to a spot where we could see the lake from above... well, I'm uploading pictures as we speak, see what you think.

I took a lancha to a place on the lake only accessible by boat, Santa Cruz de la Laguna, and snagged a spot right on the water in an open a-frame with a big loft bed. The weather was perfect, the rainy season was over. We had a really nice sort of lodge right on the lake where a communal dinner was held each night. There were paths leading to waterfalls and viewpoints all over, and the water was great for swimming off of any dock you could get permission to use (or forgiveness after use, if that's more your style). Did I mention just relaxing in a hammock with a good book and a lunch of warm, thick slices of fresh baked bread with a heap of fresh guacamole?

I expected it to be over-hyped, but the place really was beautiful, especially at sunrise and sunset. And then there were the stars. The key really was picking one of the most secluded spots. There are several villages around the lake, but the biggest ones are way overdeveloped. If you pick a small one, you will have a great experience. Or even better, you can rent a house on the shore for unbelievably low prices-- between $250-$450 US per month, or $15 US a day in some cases. Just make sure you know the way to the nearest public lancha dock.

So, that lake was the grand finale to my time in Guatemala. I've now moved on to El Salvador. I'm sitting in the little lakeside town of Suchitoto planning a few hikes in the area, then getting ideas of where I can go to learn more about the civil war-- some places to the east are said to have life-changing experiences for those willing to listen to ex-guerrilla guides showing them around. Then on the lighter side, the surfing around here is supposed to be great too. Not that I've ever surfed before, but hey, first time for everything, right?

Now if I can only find a good spot to be on election day to keep track of coverage...

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Sunday, October 26, 2008

Building Back Up for Land, Hope and Life

Inside a house of BelenThe story for my travels this week is a little different. I wish I could introduce it with a picture that was a bit more in focus, but my camera is still rebelling at the moment. What it contains deserves a bit more than I can really show.

This is the inside of a house in Belèn, Guatemala, in the western highlands. It is a Mayan mother and daughter of the Ixil tribe we paid a visit to. The story behind how they got there is a long one.

I am not Central American historian, so I can’t make any real guarantees as to accuracy or bias in what I know. But here’s what I have: until 1996, Guatemala had been steeped in civil war. This war was particularly bad for Mayan villages in the mountains to the west. To oversimplify matters a bit, the revolutionary army fled there and assumed guerrilla tactics fairly early. They needed food. So what they would do was go into indigenous villages fully armed, and demand to be fed. The village would feed the guerrillas to protect themselves, and the guerrillas would leave. Later, the national army (US trained, I might add) would roll into town and demand to know what happened in the village. If and when they found out that the village had aided guerrillas, the army would slaughter the village.

Guatemala signed peace accords officially ending the 36-year civil war about 12 years ago. An estimated 200,000 people were killed (for perspective, neighboring Belize has a total population of about 300,000). A million were estimated to have been made homeless, and some uncountable number disappeared.

A huge number of these people were indigenous, and already faced a great deal of discrimination. Even after the war ended, there were outbursts of violence against them. Those who lived often lost all of their family as well as any land they could call home.

Fortunately, there has been help. People have recognized the problem and stepped up to the plate to get these people back on their feet. One of the oldest and most successful organizations taking on this mission (among other missions in several other countries) is Agros International.

The motto of Agros is three words: Tierra, Esperanza, Vida—Land, Hope, Life. At its most basic level, Agros is a micro-loan organization that buys land, gives it to indigenous people to start a small village, and helps them set up its basic infrastructure. Once the villagers are able to work off their debt, they buy the land back. Agros then uses that money to buy more land for more people, and the cycle repeats.

One of the basic tenants is that instead of coming in a giving charity to the village, Agros works with the village and sees how it can augment what the village already has, in order to make it more self-sustaining. For example, if there is a big weaving culture as there is among the Ixil, then they will come in to teach more weaving techniques and how to make things that are more likely to sell, as well as setting up channels for marketing opportunities. If there is a strong farming element and a good location, Agros will teach new techniques to improve crop yield and suggest other crops that will also work aside form the ones the village is already trying. If there’s a large amount of wood resources, then possibly there will be some carpenter training so that the village can create and sell goods made from just two trees for the same profit thy would gain by cutting down and selling half of their forest.

I’ve spent the last week working with an Agros team based out of Cotzal, Guatemala. We spent a total of four days visiting the village of Belèn, with extra days on each end for a little orientation and exploration in Chichicastenango beforehand and Antigua afterwards. I was joining a crew based out of Epiphany Parish of Seattle, about half of which had been coming down to Belèn for years, and was really starting to get to know the villagers.

That phrase doesn’t quite cover it though. "Getting to know" someone sounds like people making small talk over a water cooler at an office. This went deeper than that. At the end of the last day, more than half the village literally lined up to shake our hands and give every team member a hug. A couple of them even started crying. Teams of laughing kids would not let us go as we said our goodbyes, including new members of the team like me.

I’m not sure I could really do justice to how we got there from never having met any of them before, when some of the more shy residents would not meet us or talk to us. It’s not just because I wasn’t there for the first few years. It’s because I’m not sure I know how to put any of it into words. There are bits and pieces I could describe, like my leading a class of little kids, some of which only spoke Ixil and a little Spanish, how to make and inflate origami cubes as part of a cultural exchange. Or how we cooked more than 25 pizzas in the village’s wood-fire oven and served it to them before they gave us a taste of their version of tamales. Or there was sitting down with the village’s only schoolteacher and asking what he needed for his classroom of 40 or more kids ranging from 1st to 6th grade.

One the morning of the last day, some of us went on a hike up the mountain with the mayor of the village hacking us a trail with his machete so he could show us his favorite view spot of the village. We were able to look down on the valley and see something he could be proud of. Thanks to his friends and a little help from Agros, they had gone from having just about nothing to nearly half of them well on their way to paying off their own land.

And let me tell you, it’s some beautiful land.

Thank you to the Epiphany team and thank you to everyone who gave to support us out there. Thank you also to Agros International and Agros Guatemala. Best of luck to all.

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Thursday, October 16, 2008

Caves and Good Eating

That ladder led down to my first snorkeling lesson. It's a pit with water 14 meters down from the edge. It was left there by a chunk of the asteroid that theoretically killed the dinosaurs. The water is very blue from calcium deposits. There are tree roots growing hanging down from the ceiling next to stalactites (I tried my hand at climbing both-- the roots were a lot easier, I got all the way to the top of the cave). The water is quite deep and supposedly out of sight in the darker depths lie human skeletons. These pits were worshiped by the Maya, sometimes by sacrifice.

To review: I went snorkeling and climbing tree roots in a pit full of water, traces of space rock, and human remains.

It's called a cenote. They're all over the Yucatan Peninsula. They are the only open sources of fresh water there, part of the reason why the Maya worshiped them. The peninsula has no real lakes or rivers, rainwater just seeps through the igneous rock underground, filling these cenotes.

I got to see two: Yax-Xa and Kankiriché. Unfortunately I wasn't able to get good pictures from inside. I tried finding good ones online, but I'm not using the fastest connection in the world and can only really find one or two of Kankiriché.

This brings me to some bad news. My camera is officially on the fritz. The screen is now unusable in shooting modes, the thing won't focus well even under great lighting conditions, and some of the images are getting messed up. It's had a little trouble since I arrived in Mexico, but it's gotten worse and worse lately.

The cause? A faulty CCD connection. It turns out that Canon USA has actually issued a recall on the model, because it gets messed up in "hot and humid conditions." It will replace it for free, shipping included. The catch? You have to be in the US. They won't do international orders. I've been directed (very nicely and apologetically) to Canon Latin America. I'm hoping to hear back from them soon, but I'm not optimistic.

But anyway, on a lighter note, I've still managed to to keep busy. I've kicked up the pace a notch, I'm now writing from Flores, Guatemala. Since my last post, I've been through Mérida, Piste, and Tulum in Mexico, shot through Belize with a brief stop in Caye Caulker, and then right across the Guatemalan border to where I am now.

Aside from things like one unforgettable 4 km walk to a deserted beach under a full moon, there have been yet more ruins and more dancing. Dancing in Mérida's weekend fair (live bands, stalls etc. out on the street every weekend of the year) with some of the best salsa dancing I've seen in my life. And then there were visits to the ruins of Chichen Itza and Tikal, two of the biggest Mayan ruins out there, one being named one of the seven wonders of the modern world. But I've written a lot about ruins and dancing already. I want to write about something else instead.

I've realized so far that I've left out one of the most enjoyable parts of traveling abroad: the food. I'm writing this with my spiral notebook sitting next to what was (until it rapidly disappeared) a plate of Guatemalan churrasco beef, tender enough to slice with the side of your fork, immersed in a simple tomato salsa with rice, steamed local vegetables and thick Guatemalan tortillas, plus the ubiquitous lime and hot salsa (habañero this time).

My friend and host in Mexico City, Jorge, told me that I was going to miss Mexican food a lot when I got further south. It's not just the tacos and tamales, but things like pollo pibil-- chicken wrapped in banana leaves and slowly cooked underground, or the more simple courses like elotes and esquites, maize with huge kernels with lime, chili, a pinch of salt, and sometimes some cream and cheese to go with it. Oh and then there's the Oaxacan chocolate. I found chocolate in Oaxaca so good that two Swiss backpackers I met were raving about it.

Still, if I can take as an indication the grilled lobster tails and coconut rice I had served to me by what must have been one of Belize's fattest chefs (Roger of "world famous" Jolly Roger's, right on the beach of Caye Caulker), not to mention of course what I've been finding here in Guatemala, Mexico is going to have competition. No doubt Jorge would put it all down to the shared Mexican border, but I've had great stuff in both countries during the short time I've seen them in action.

Here's the trick: eat local. If you're eating only where the tourists eat, the food you're getting is probably not as good and definitely more expensive. Watch out for English menus and credit card acceptance. Where I've been so far, these are bad signs. Look further, to where the locals are eating: the food will be cheaper and tastier. For anyone who is interested, I've got more tips. Let me know and I can send the to you (if enough people do I can post more here). But for now I've got other people wanting to use this machine.

So, I've got two more days until I meet my Agros team in Chichicastenango and then we head up to Belen. More from me when we start working.

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Friday, October 10, 2008

Welcome to the Jungle

I went from sipping Oaxacan tejate (a cold maize and cocoa drink) from a bowl while a rainstorm whipped through the tarp-encrusted market to the middle of a nature reserve in 24 hours. My time at Sumidero Canyon was a boat ride full of birds, crocodiles, and even a couple spider monkeys. The canyon is massive. See that white thing on the water on the left? That's a boat full of people. Get the scale?

I was never much into bird watching, even if a lot of my middle and high school friends were. Now I'm starting to regret that. I'm seeing (and hearing) so many different kinds of birds, and I have no clue what they are. I can just report an assault of colors and calls everywhere I'm going. Same for the fish I'm seeing in rivers and creeks (is there such a thing as fish watching?).

I spent a night on the other side of the mountains from the canyon next to the ruins of Palenque. This was the jungle. I got half a cabin and spent more time than I'd care to admit evicting the previous occupant: a moth/roach critter about the size of my fist. But waking up to those noises the next morning was something else entirely. Everybody, four-legged, six-legged, two winged, or otherwise had something to say. Forget roosters, try waking up to dawn in the tropical rain forest.

I crossed swinging rope and wood bridges next to waterfalls to find that the ruins of Palenque themselves have been totally conquered by the the jungle. Fully-grown trees erupted out of stone steps and buildings. Vines had torn off limestone plaster and the rocks beneath. But the biggest buildings and pyramids had been preserved. The carvings of gods, kings, and heroes were still visible in places. I don't think this will be the last time I visit ruins like these, but this might be the most impressive setting for quite some time. You snake your way through trees and vines until a pyramid suddenly opens up in front of you. Amazing.

When I wasn't crashing through the jungle, I was mostly either chatting up or being chatted up by locals and fellow travelers (mostly Spaniards out here in Chiapas). I don't know if my Spanish is actually improving, but I know I'm getting more and more confident at least. Since I was a teenager, I've almost always had some song or other running through my head. Lately, I've been mentally translating the lyrics from some of the songs into Spanish without even thinking about it until I hit something I don't know how to say or that just won't scan right. When talking to people, I still constantly have to ask them to repeat themselves, but I'm getting better at it. People have been really excited to teach me localized spanish. Especially how to swear properly. Also learned where piropos/pìckup lines with "mamacita" come from (turns out it's not mother, it's maize). Useful stuff...?

I have about a week left until I meet up with my group in Guatemala. My next stop is the Yucatan. With any luck, I'll be there before sunrise tomorrow morning.

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Monday, October 6, 2008

A Little Mexican Night Music

Walking the streets of Mexico after darkI wrote about half of this entry in my notebook in the very back of a midnight bus from Veracruz to Oaxaca, with my crank-powered flashlight dangling from where I'd jammed the wrist strap into the A/C vent. I wrote most of the other half in a $10 room in Xalapa at (I kid you not) the Hotel California. The finishing touches were scribbled out in my current hostel in Oaxaca while surrounded by its two black cats, three basset hounds, two black labs, and one beagle. So if it all seems a little mixed up, that's probably why.

As I've told a lot of people, I've been saving up for this trip for a long time. One of the ways I've done that is to put little things I'd want to buy in perspective. I'd look at a teriyaki lunch in Downtown Seattle during a half hour break, but then I'd tell myself "yeah, I want that, but it will taste better if I save the money and use it to get some in Japan." So I would save the cash, knowing it would be put to better use later. The gelato will taste better in Italy, the samosa will taste better in India, and the hot chocolate will taste better in Mexico.

A few nights ago, after hunting live music by streetlamp, I found myself writing by candle light on the cobblestone square of the Artist's Barrio, sipping Mexican hot chocolate and listening to two guitars and a violin playing latin jazz in Puebla, Mexico.

I was right. The chocolate did taste better.

The week has been filled with churches, museums and markets, but also especially with music. On Thursday, a few friends I made in Puebla took me out to a couple of their favorite bars and clubs. I left my hostel at 9:30 pm, and didn't end up back in my bed until I wandered in around 9:30 am, groggily grabbed breakfast and stumbled back into the dorm for the two hours I could use before checkout. I haven't pulled an all nighter like that since college. Get yourself a club that plays both club music and salsa/meringue/etc, stuff it full of people who know how to handle both, and you've got yourself a great party. I didn't even know the name for half the partner stuff I danced to, but I guess I did okay-- after sitting down, one of the girls I'd been dancing with asked me if I knew how to dance to the kind of song that had just started playing. I said I might be able to guess. She took my hand and said "let's guess together." This is a culture I could get used to.

Then on the other end was two nights ago in Veracruz. I'd been talked into seeing Veracruz by a native who had two rules: 1. No hablas mal de Veracruz (you don't say bad things about Veracruz) and 2. No hablas mal de Britney Spears (...same thing with Britney). So I was a little dubious of his judgment. Especially after running into a Spaniard in Puebla who went on at length about how ugly the city was. But when I got there, and Saturday night fell, it was a whole different ball game. Live salsa bands peppered the city center and people were dancing everywhere. I saw one talented singer who couldn't have been much older than twelve (and also his adorable little brother who wandered onstage and covered his ears). Then of all people, I met a Mexican man who had spent 10 years in Edmonds, WA (or "Deadmonds" as he called it), just outside Seattle.

"Veracruz is ----." He told me confidently. "The place is ----, the people are ----... they just don't ------- want to work." He added, "This is my country, so I can say whatever the ---- I want about it, know what I mean?" I pointed out that the music was good, and he couldn't disagree with me there. He himself has spent three years doing what I'm doing now, traveling the world. He's got back problems from his old external metal frame backpack. Not that he has to worry about it anymore. It was stolen on a second class bus between small towns in the state of Veracruz (part of why he's less than happy with the place). So he's got plenty of advice for backpackers like me.

"Backpackers like me" brings me to another reason why this trip has been so great so far. One of the things I enjoyed the most and now really miss about college is that I was surrounded by smart people close to my age from all over the country. But now, in hostels, I'm surrounded by smart people close to my age from all over the world. Bonus: we're not here to sit in class and do homework. We're here for adventure. Within two hostel stays I've met travelers from the UK, Australia, Switzerland, Spain, Brazil, Italy, and Belgium. None from the US so far, interestingly enough...

For those of you keeping score, I've gone from DF to Puebla, to Xalapa, to Veracruz, and am now in Oaxaca, where last night after climbing a nearby mountain, I made myself sick off of Oaxaca chocolate (...but it's so good!). Up next is Chiapas, then with any luck the Yucatan. Either that or I'm just gonna say screw it all, I'm going south to the beach. We shall see.

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Tuesday, September 30, 2008

A Vist to a City Condensed Beyond Belief

El Bosque de Chapultepec (Chapultepec Park)
Less than 24 hours after landing in Mexico City, I end up dancing solo for a crowd. Go figure.

I was entering Chapultepec Park when I was hailed by a clown (red nose, face paint, big shoes, and all the rest) with a microphone, "¡Oye! ¡Güero!" he yelled. I pointed at my chest, and he said "¡Sí, usted! ¿Hablas Español?" And from there we were off to the races.

I wasn't totally alone-- after having me dance solo he pulled three volunteers/victims out from the crowd to dance with me, plus a team of kids in pairs to compliment the show. I even got to practice some meringue and salsa near the end-- lifts and dips included. Good way to start the day.

That wasn't even the beginning, and it certainly wasn't the end. I've been here since Saturday and have been to multiple parks, ruins, museums, rallies, bars, and I've lost track of what else.

One of the highlights was definitely Teotihuacan. About an hour's bus ride from the City's north terminal, it's arguably the most important archaeological sites in the state, if not the country. And that's saying a lot; this is a place where such sites are so common that you can find pyramid steps in the middle of a subway station. Teotihuacan has two of the biggest pyramids discovered on the continent (yes, of course I climbed them), extensive living quarters between them, well-preserved murals, and more.

I banded together with two girls from the UK and a guy from Mexico City and hired a guide. We learned a ton more than we would have otherwise. Among other things, apparently the world is going to end in the year 2012. There's going to be a massive earthquake when the planets align ("Of course," responded one of my British companions, "just in time for the London Olympics."). Not all of it was quite so ominous. The calendar used by the builders (we think the Olmecs, but to this day, we're not 100% certain) was quite advanced, and the numbers used were everywhere in the place's construction and art. The main route is aligned to precisely on 15.5º east of North. There are acoustics such that our guide often stands on the tops of the smaller pyramids in the evening-- a good distance apart-- and easily converses with the guards standing on any of the others. Some of the pyramids haven't been excavated due to budget shortfalls. If you look behind the smaller exposed pyramids, you'll see some hills about the same height. Those are pyramids that haven't been uncovered yet.

I've uploaded pictures of this and more-- If you look on the sidebar under the map, you'll see a slideshow. I'm still playing with this gadget, so it might get stuck. There's a link underneath the pics to the whole album online.

The rest has been one amazing blur. I'm in a really posh apartment, right on the main drag of the city, with a pair of great hosts, Jorge and Ruben. Not only has my stay been comfortable, but also informative. Jorge is an experienced traveler himself in both Latin America and parts of the Middle East, plus Ruben is from Veracruz, one of the places I'm headed soon. So I've been learning a lot from them both about travel in general and also of course in Mexico City (or D.F. as it's known here). Zona Rosa is a great place for nightlife, but don't go there if you don't want to get hit on by someone of the same gender. The National Museum of Anthropology is one of the very best of its kind, be sure to check out the massive sun stone in the very back room. The Subway system is great, if a bit crowded during rush hour. One speedy trip anywhere in the city costs US$0.20. And watch the Mexican tequila-- it became the first drink, not only to give me a hangover, but to give me a hangover before even getting me drunk, (though I suppose five hours of sleep and four and a half in an airplane might have had something to do with that too).

If I keep writing, I'll be here for hours, and I should leave soon-- early birthday party tonight. I'm already meeting people left and right (funny how travelling alone works that way). Tomorrow, I'm headed east to Puebla. I just met a med student from there at the Frida Kahlo museum, so with any luck, I'll be able get beyond the tourist bubble there too.

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Friday, September 26, 2008

The Traditional (Pretentious?) Metaphor at the Start of a Journey

The Chicago Tribune Tower has chunks of something from every state of the union embedded in its outside walls. Not only that, but it has a few things from other places all over the world alongside them. Look hard enough and you can find just about anything from the Parthenon to the Berlin Wall.

I can imagine some people wandering up to the walls, scratching their heads, and asking "why did they do that?" It's a fair question. Why does some newspaper out in the Midwest want a building with little bits in it from random other islands and forests and buildings on the other side of the planet?

The truth is that I'm not sure I could tell you in words. I could be a cynic and skim it, just saying they wanted impress people, but I don't think that's the real reason why.

But after taking this picture of it and looking at it a little more closely, I didn't need a well-worded reason to like it. I just do.

Some people ask me why I'm doing this. What's so great about an adventure, anyway? Why have I picked up a backpack with about 25 lbs of stuff and decided to haul myself away from my home, family, friends, pets, and everything else I'm leaving behind. I don't think I have a good answer in words. Once again, it's not to impress people. If I wanted that, I'd do something easier, like sword-swallowing.

Obviously there's a lot of other, better reasons, like all the stuff I'll learn, the people I'll meet, the places I'll see, things I'll try/explore/record/eat/whatever-I-can-do-with-it. But it isn't any one of those things that led me to do what I'm doing. I don't know if I could give you one reason in words why I want this adventure.

But I like it.

I've spent the last few days back in Chicago chatting up a new director on his vision for his first play in Univeristy Theater, planning a fiction submission for a friend's litmag as she tells me about the "skeeziest conversation she's ever had about semicolons," getting travel tips from one of my favorite professors (eats lots of local yogurt, the bacteria helps your system adjust to local food), walking my cousin's husky-collie and border collie mix out by Lake Michigan, talking up scav at the local watering hole and tons more besides. It's been a great visit, I'm really glad I got to see all the people I ran into, ate with, carried boxes and or groceries for, and everything else. Thank you all, hope to hear from you and maybe even see you on the road!

With any luck, tomorrow is going to be the big day. The last one I spend in my home country for a very long time. My last night at home in Seattle was a sad one, looking at everyone and everything I'm leaving behind. But now that I'm on my way, things are looking up.

Next stop: Mexico City.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Packing Up

There's an old traveler's joke about how to pack. Take all the stuff and money you think you need, and put it on your bed. Halve the stuff and double the money, and you'll be set for the trip.

On this couch is almost everything I'll have for the trip. It all fits in the backpack with room to spare.

The last few things I have left are mostly paperwork. I'm waiting for the "special" ballot I ordered from King County so that I can vote in the upcoming general election before I leave. The original plan was to have one of my Agros teammates pack my regular absentee ballot with them so that I could vote in Guatemala and have them bring it back home to drop off. But they're not sending out absentee ballots until the day my team arrives in Guatemala. So I had to change tactics.

Aside from that, I'm figuring things out like travel insurance and how to file my taxes from abroad. That and picking up a few final pieces of gear (like deciding between a thin regular towel or getting one of those "quick-dry travel towels" that feel like felt and purportedly start to stink after too much use, even after washing).

Five days until I leave Seattle. I'm taking a pit stop in Chicago to see friends and family, and then I'm starting for my first international destination: Mexico City. It'll be my first time in Mexico at all. A little embarrassing considering I'm from a neighboring country and have taken Spanish classes starting in kindergarten. Still, better late than never.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Let's Get Started

It's one week until my 22nd birthday. Half a month since I graduated from the University of Chicago and came back home to Seattle. Three months until my trip around the world begins.

I'm in the planning stages right now. My first and only commitment as of this post is in Guatemala in mid-October, when I will be volunteering in Belen with Agros. Beyond that, I expect to be deciding where and when to go next as I travel.

However, I've got a vague idea of how it's going to work: I'll start in Mexico and move down Central America, then South America. If I find a cheap way to do it, I'll make a stop near or on Antarctica, then comes the long journey west to Australia and New Zealand. I'll work my way up to East Asia by wintertime. By spring I'll be taking the trip across to Africa, followed by Europe in the summer. If I have a little time and money left over, I'll cross the Atlantic and spend a little time in the Caribbean before heading home (or wherever I end up). Once again, this is all very much up in the air and could change drastically.

Here's where you come in. If you want a piece of the action, I'd love for you to join me, either vicariously or in person. Some of you have actually talked about meeting me somewhere. Drop me a line. Now is the time for me to start planning where I will be exactly when, so if you want to meet me at a specific time and place, let me know and we can start planning together.

Everyone else can still follow what I do right here. I'll be posting pretty often; public internet access is becoming more common internationally and much less expensive than it used to be. I'll be posting regularly with stories and hopefully some good photos, maybe even some video.

In the meantime, I've got some work to do for the next couple of months preparing for the trip. Any and all tips are welcome.

Thank you very much for visiting, and I hope to hear from you soon!