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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