Thursday, September 25, 2008

Parque Nacional Tayrona -Paradise






03/08/2008
Was given a beautifully hand-drawn map and sent on my way with well wishes, bound for Parque Nacional Tayrona. Decided to go solo, so shunned the tours and got on the first bus out of town to the park entrance. I'd remembered reading that from the park's entrance it was another 4 or so km to the admin building where you needed to pay the entrance fee, but that there would be colectivo jeeps making the journey back and forth.


So, as soon as I got off the bus I noticed a jeep and walked towards it, enquiring with a couple of local dudes on my way. They told me that "yes, it would go up" but that I'd have to wait and they then pointed me towards a shelter where I could do just that. Cool. So I started walking up the road a few metres, past a police shelter, manned by 2 police officers.


They called me back and through my basic Spanish and their heavily accented version, they explained that they wanted to check my bag. Sure. I've had this before. They usually ask me to take things out, one by one, and check them over. Nope. A bit different here. He wanted no help, actually moved my hand away and proceeded to take every small object out of my pack (which was luckily only a day pack and not my huge "bag-o'-shit" which I'd left behind in Santa Marta). I wouldn't say he was "rough" with my belongings, but he definitely wasn't gentle. "Thorough" would be a better description. Nothing went unchecked, except my person (I just love saying that). I then gave him my passport and when he seemed satisfied with all of his checking, there was some brief, misunderstood communication as I said I was waiting for the jeep, then the next thing I knew, the officer who had checked my bag was firing up his bike (although I'm guessing it was someone else's because he pressed the horn by accident to start it - laughter), then I was handed a helmet with not much option but to get on. There's something about saying "no" to a man dressed up in army greens, carrying loaded weapons that just doesn't feel right.


So...I sat behind him on the bike, right on top of a sexy lady's face, and we took off. He took me (what I later realised in hindsight) towards the park entry office, but then just ahead of it and off to the side, to avoid paying any entrance fee. We got off, then I followed him down a jungle path, asking if it's been a busy day, trying to determine if this was a well frequented path. "Sure, no worries, very safe. Just if someone asks you where your pass is, say you lost it in the sea". This took a couple of goes until I fully understood (damn coastal accents), but in effect I'd paid this police officer the park entry fee and entered just past the official entry point where I would have been given a wrist band.


Ah ha! Nice and dodgy! "No worries, can do" I said (he'd saved me $2 on the ride up), then he walked me to the right turnoff in the path, we shook hands, and he bid me good luck before returning to his post (although not before asking me if I had a boyfriend, to which I lied, said I did, and that he'd be joining me tomorrow).


I've come to realise that there are 2 types of boyfriends over here in Latin America. Ones that are with you, and ones that aren't in that particular moment. When I told the officer that I had an Argentinian boyfriend (a lie, but fresh in my mind because I'd just been travelling for the last week with an Argentinian guy) he said "right, but do you have a Colombian boyfriend?". This happened the last time I made up a story about so called boyfriend . On that occasion when he wasn't with me at that particular moment, I was asked if I wanted one for right then and there. Again, I'm going to have to devise a better story.


On my walk further into the jungle, I passed armies of leafcutter ants forming 8 lane highways across the path, dodged flying insects that sounded like bomber planes, narrowly missing my eardrums, heard wookpeckers pecking away at the trees (they make me laugh they do), and saw vibrantly green striped lizards scuttling away from my heavy footsteps.


I made the hour long trek (relieved when I saw the first lot of people as I was slightly disheartened walking through this unknown jungle, alone, in Colombia), and came out in paradise, to one of the most beautiful beaches I've laid eyes on on this trip so far. No beach-front restaurants, but a long, white sandy beach with wild waves and big rocks jutting out of the sea.


I spent 2 nights camping just behind the beach at Recife, got taken to hidden beaches by a local guide, ran into my Argentinian friend again by chance, and basically swam, ate and slept. Alot! (although I didn't sleep very well because I couldn't fit inside the tent and it was super hot inside. I was sleeping diagonally and I still had to lie curled up. Twas a wee tent!). Walked to the next beach in gorgeous afternoon light and sat on a big rock, watching the ocean, the entire beach to myself. I've missed the ocean. I never thought I'd say it, but the Caribbbean can get kinda boring sometimes with it's warm, flat beaches (gosh life's tough huh?). Nothing like the wild energy of an ocean.

Taganga




31/07/2008
Caught a bus down the road to a much more touristy, but significantly smaller and much prettier fishing town called Taganga. Managed to get a big, open room overlooking the sea and spent the next few days chilling out to the sound of the sea and Bob Marley (I'm still wondering if people realise that there's other types of music that can be played at the beach, that'll still create a relaxed, holiday vibe), and reading, and recuperating from many rum fuelled nights out on the town. Am loving that Colombian men can dance. Only wish my feet could keep up with them. Still, they're very patient, and don't seem to mind so much. Must enquire with my insurance policy as to whether I'm covered for inflicting injury on fellow dance partners.


Finally managed to have a hangover free day, so got up early and walked around the surrounding hills to the next beach. What a view!


Decided I was ready for a new view, a bit of "me-time" and to give my poor wee liver a well deserved break, so I said "Hasta luego, Che", to my Argentinian friend and hit the road solo again.

If my friend's accent is anything to go by, I'm in for a lot of problems when I finally move to Buenos Aires. My level of understanding droppped from about 60% to 12% every time he spoke. Oh well, practice makes perfect...so they say...

Cartagena to Santa Marta


29/07/2008
Said farewell to my Aussie companion again, and left Cartagena with an Argentinian, from Buenos Aires, bussing our way to Santa Marta without drama (it's nice to leave the communicating to a native Spanish speaker, even if I don't understand his accent, everyone else does).


Got so excited to have a room with a TV that we spent the first night in, watching movies. (It's the simple things really).


Went to the beach resort of Rodadero and spent the day lying in the "shade" of a palm tree, strolling the beach and drinking tropical juices. Returned to Santa Marta in the evening, pink as a prawn, and checked out the local amusement park. Quite small, pretty pricey and not a lot of people, but my Argentinian friend made the whole experience so entertaining. Just watching him cling on for dear life to the walls of the graviton made the ride so much more fun. He was squealing with fright and I found it all so hilarious. So we did it again...and again.


Was in too much pain from laughing at my friend to continue (oh, my poor broken rib), so we left to eat some "cheap" street food. Ended up paying more than we have so far, so retired back to the financial safety of our room again. And telly!!!

¡Hola Colombia… Suramérica aquí venimos!





25/07/2008
Almost one of the easiest journeys and border crossings to date. No real delays to speak of. Tiny propeller plane, that initially had us holding our breath and crossing our toes, but landed like a dream both times, putting Ryan Air and Easyjet to shame. Arrived in Cartagena, and got through customs with a smile and a quick chat, so easy! Then went to collect my bag. Oh. As soon as I asked its whereabouts one of the flight staff told me with a smile that it was still in Panama because there wasn't any room for it, even though I'd seen it on the tarmac as we were about to take off. How she knew it was my bag that had been left behind before I even gave her a description of it is beyond me. So, after I asked for a quick call to locate it for sure, we proceeded to fill in the necessary paperwork. The 2 girls helping me didn't seem too worried about my bag, and as they were taking my details and they discovered my name is the same as a famous Mexican singer, they began to serenade me with her songs. Bless! Lots of giggling, I'm thinking the formalities here are a bit strange, but whatever, so long as my bag shows up.


We finished for the moment with the bag dilemma, then moved on to the final customs check. This proved to be just as comical. My friend and I were stopped by 2 men in their army greens sitting at a table, wanting to check our bags (well, my friend's anyway). I think this whole bag checking thing is just a decoy to flirt with girls. They questioned us on where we were going, whether we had boyfriends, and if we'd like an accompanyment while we were here in Cartagena. Nice and professional boys! And a lovely entry into your wonderful country!


Flagged a taxi and headed towards a budget hotel, but beginning to display slight hesitation because both the airport staff and the taxi driver reacted with surprise and shock when we gave the address of our hotel, asking why we'd want to stay there. Anyway, being the penny savers that we've become, we stuck to our guns and continued to said budget hotel, and never looked back. It was close enough to the myriad of nightlife venues, the beautiful old town, and even closer to cheap food ( which we soon found out was a luxury in this part of the world).


We went out pretty much every night of the week, met some great travellers and locals alike, I did some much missed interpretive dancing with a couple of Norwegians and got some invitations for a night or 2 out on the town when I finally make it to Bogota. Starting to think that Colombians are lovely folk, and so far I'm absolutely thrilled to be here in their gorgeous country.

I had a moment of snap happy psychosis come over me and proceeded to take over 100 photos of Colonial architecture. No surprises there, I knew I would.


On our first day in Cartagena, we were led to a bar so we could celebrate finally making it to South America, and we got surrounded by 3 teenage boys, all with braces. My eyes did a quick sweep of the bar, and I spotted a few more metal filled mouths. That's the first time that I've seen that in a long while. I wander if it's because it's cheaper here, or because vanity plays a bigger role in the hearts and minds of fellow Colombians (am I in the land of beauty pagents? I think so). One thing's for sure, we've definitely landed in a wealthier country.

Ended up spending 6 days in Cartagena, towards the end of which we visited a volcano and swam inside, in its magical mud. In theory this would have been an extremely realxing activity, but I was so hungover I became claustrophobic and delerious, and found the whole situation so hilarious, I couldn't see through my tears of laughter. I think some of the folk trying to relax thought I'd lost my marbles. I think I did too. My friend ended up having to drag me out because I was stuck in the mud and couldn't move. Weeeeeee! Rinsed ourselves off in the lagoon, then went to a nearby beach to lunch on fried fish. Mmm...super tasty!

Panama City and our last days in Central America



22/07/08 - 24/07/08
Stayed in a pretty decent hostel in a pretty decent part of town and found a more than decent supermarket (like a city of temptations that I haven's seen the likes of since I was living in France) that made us so excited we spent a heap of money and walked out with nothing really to eat except olives and dips. Ate all of it really quickly, felt sick, and then decided to stick to cheap local food in the future.


Visited the Parque Nacional de Metropolis, saw some wee monkeys, but much to my disappointment weren't able to see any sloths (even though they were there that morning, and every other bloody day). Explained my dismay to the park ranger, who then let me hold their stuffed sloth. Does that count?


Ran into a couple of Irish lads that we'd met a couple of nights ago, and on their good recommendation decided to follow them and walk back to Casco Viejo, the old part of town (should have known early on not to follow Irish lads). Of course, they took a wrong turn and we ended up walking down a sketchy looking road, towards a getto. It took us until we saw a man literally jumping up and down on the other side of the road warning us not to walk any further to take notice of where we'd ended up. Oh oh. Just at the moment that we looked ahead and saw a group of "bad boys, bad boys, what ya gunna do", a police car came to our rescue. They asked us where we were heading, and explained to us that had we continued along that road, that we would have walked out the other end naked, robbed of every last thread on our body.

Ah... So, we got in their car and they drove us to a safer part of the city, very close to the old part that we originally wanted to visit. We stopped for lunch (sat next to a sign that warned diners not to let their bags out of their sight) and STUPIDLY set out again following the Irish lads to the old part. "Oh, it's grand, we're staying near here,we know where to go"...only to be led in the completely opposite direction to our destination. We walked a way down a small street and were approached by a little girl, no older than 6, shaking her finger at us, and warning us not to continue down that street, and to turn around and go back. Just as we were walking closer to ask her what she meant, and man walked out of his house, towel wrapped around his waist, telling us to turn back, that it wasn't safe to be in this area.


This is where my friend and I said our goodbyes to the Irish boys (to the sounds of their protests "ah, no, like, now we really know where we are") and got in a taxi and left for safer parts. We returned the next day in a taxi (to the exact place where we wanted to go), walked around and saw the beautiful architecture of the old town and decided that that was the last time we would voluntarily follow the lead of two Irish lads in unknown territory.


We made it back to our hostel safe and sound, booked our flight to Colombia and said farewell to Central America. It's taken me 5 months to get from Mexico City to Panama City, and I've had the time of my life!


¡America Central, hasta luego y gracias por las memorias! Me lo pase muy bien en tu paises.

It's a gas

Drove past a TEXACO petrol station, and the only letters that were lit up on the sign were "ECO". Kinda ironic really.

Plastic Bags and Elephant Steps

21/07/08
I am officially sick of sharing a bunkbed in a dormroom with people who don't understand the concept of respect, who have never lived out of home, and whose mummy and daddy are paying for their life-altering volunteer experience in the comparatively safe country of Costa Rica. These kids in this room have even asked for some extra cash so they can "get away from it all" and don't understand that you don't need to turn on the light before 6am and repack everything you own into plastic bags whilst talking shit really loudly and stamping heavily back and forth...all the while, everyone else in the room is sleeping.

Bocas del Toro, I'm sorry I never gave you a chance

Am starting to get bored of my broken rib now. Not a whole lot I can do on an island with this thing. Can't swim, so can't snorkel, can't paddle a kayak, can't even lie down on the sand comfortably. Am executing the sidewards-roll manouvre to get up and am feeling like a bit of a dick! So... decided to leave Bocas del Toro after only a day. Heard great things about this place when I left (always the way) but didn't feel like hanging round for very long when I was there. Felt nearly twice the age of everyone in the dorm too (where are all the old bastards?).

And...I wanna know...why does everyone working in hostels on the coast always have such an attitude problem. They're so busy being cool it's like they're doing you a favour if they serve you, let alone smile (unless you're 15 and half naked of course). It doesn't seem to happen so much inland. It must be something in the water...

Boquete

Mi Jardin es Tu Jardin

Mi Jardin es Tu Jardin

Quetzal Trail (Sendero Los Quetzales)


Quetzal Trail (Sendero Los Quetzales)

Quetzal Trail (Sendero Los Quetzales)

Quetzal Trail (Sendero Los Quetzales) - cloud forest


Boquete. So pretty. I really enjoyed my time there, rain and all. I went on several walks; through the town, out of town past coffee and banana plantations, and into the cloud forest. I was stopped by local kids on my walk out of town, who wanted me to take their photos, and asked only to see it when it was taken. Their sweet smiles had me glowing on the inside for hours afterwards. We love Kodak moments!


And, I finally got active and decided to walk the Quetzal Trail. Unfortunately I started us on a bad note (or a tiring one at least) with my bad taxi bargaining powers. I was nominated as the official Spanish/English translator (a very bad idea when it involves understanding directions or any important information) which got us dropped off 3km from the start of the trail, at the bottom of an incredibly steep road (which ended up being the hardest 3km of the entire treck) only to save $1. By the time we reached the start of the trail, I would have happily paid at least $5 not to have walked that bastard of a hill and save my energy for the actual Trail.


We saw a fat rodent and were lucky enough to spot some monkeys playing up in the trees. No quetzals though, but I think we were out in the wrong part of the year.


Didn't really give much thought to my broken rib when I set off, but was constantly reminded of it throughout the treck. Had nauseating pain when I had to pull myself up onto the stairs and thought I was going to pass out or vomit. Yay...fun!. The only way I could fill my lungs with oxygen was if I was doubled-over, perpendicular to my legs. The combination of my rib and the altitude (and, yeah...my... ahem...level of fitness) made it slightly more difficult than it really needed to be.


We walked to the lookout, looked out, and saw...clouds (funny that, being a cloud forest and all!) The walk back was a delight, except for having to spend a couple of hours in heavy rain with a "waterproof" jacket that really is not. Arrived back to the hostel and had my first warm shower in ages. Mmmmm...nearly hot!


Visited "Mi Jardin es Tu Jardin". This garden is like something out of Alice in Wonderland. I spoke to one of the guys working there and it turns out that the man who owns the house has a lot of money, loves his garden, and wants to share his joy with as many people as he can. Weeeeeeeeeeee!!!! I felt like I could have skipped over a rainbow when I left his magical land.


Didn't end up going on a tour of a coffee factory, but was just as happy smelling the coffee from the coffee roasting factory as I strolled through the surrounding hills. Sweet, sweet coffee...

Adios Costa Rica... Hola Panama


Arrived solo in San Jose, had no idea where to go. Landed in a typical backpacker hostel. Really wished I could afford my own room. Checked out a couple of cool contemporary art galleries, walked downtown (ugly, ugly), and walked past a comtemporary dance company in practice. Got the feeling that there'd be a nice creative vibe in this city, that the average tourist would never get to witness. I saw it only by peeking through a semi-closed curtain.

17/07/08
Got to the bus stop without a ticket just as the sun was busting a move, and got the last seat on the bus. Fate was in agreeance with me that I should get out of this town.

The border crossing was cruisy, friendly and practically trouble free. My only gripe is that the bus drove off ahead of us, leaving us to walk across the border in the pouring rain, only to get back on board 200m further down...wet!

Decided to jump straight on another bus when I landed n Panama and head out to the cooler mountain climate of Boquete. Arrived in the late arvo, and checked in to a crazy hostel (where the owner made me feel like I had ADD too).

Already feel more relaxed in this seemingly pretty town.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Brasilito's rodeo madness

Playa Tamarindo




Checked in to our new hostel at Playa Tamarindo and spent the next few days swimming, reading dancing, dancing and more dancing...and recovering from a series of mammoth hangovers (couldn't afford the good rum so settled for second - or fifth- best. Always a mistake). Already missing Nicaraguan rum. Didn't get much of a culture fix in this part of the world (lots of surf shops, boutiques, cafes and tourists), but...we did make it to a rodeo...


Heard there was a rodeo in a small town called Brasilito, so a bunch of us taxi'd out there and watched the crazy evening's events unfold. It was the National Championships, and the riders were wearing their funky matching outfits. Our crazy Norwegian friend had set his mind to riding a bull, for the first time in his life, here at this National Championship. He had a look of determination (and sheer Norwegian craziness) in his eye that made it impossible to change his mind. Here began my uneasiness for the evening.


We watched our friend's eager communication with the owner of the bulls, lots of laughing and passing of comments like "what a crazy fucker" (in Spanish of course) back and forth. Very luckily, at the last minute, he was talked out of it, and offered a visit to the farm of the bull owner later in the week, where he could ride to his heart's content, with a slightly less agressive bull than what was on offer this evening. Phew!


So, we took our seats behind the ring ("Phew!" again) and started to witness the effects of the evening's (and all afternoon's) alcohol consumption... punters and riders alike. Crazy! How on earth can they have their quick, life-saving defences when they're drunk? Exactly!


The first bull broke out, rider atop, and low and behold...he could ride that sucker! He was being thrashed about, like I've never seen, way more than on one of those mechanical things, and look mum! No hands! As much as I don't like to see animals used and abused...this guy was good! And...he survived. Made it off safely, was given a huge applause, and left centre stage for the downward spiral of health and general well-being.


We witnessed much more thrashing that evening, but unfortunately not so positive in nature. There proceeded to be 4 or 5 (I'm slight on details, I think shock has prevented me from recalling exact numbers) men in various states of unconsciousness who were taken away by ambulances. A few who would wake up, sore...very sore, but alive. Another would wake (hopefully) with a broken neck, perhaps never to move again (and possibly with several crushed ribs, as he was sat upon by a bull after we heard his neck snap), and another would wake with a hole where his intact kidney once was. He was the man who befriended our posse that evening. He tried (successfully) he get our crazy Norwegian friend into the ring, to wave a flag in the face of the bull, and then managed to get what seemed like half of the spectators in our area to buy him a beer. He was so, so drunk, I began to cringe every time he approached a bull, watching his reflexes slow to a speed that you could see would lead to an accident bigger than he was ready for. His last hoorah in the ring was when he stumbled towards a bull, huge, snorting and pissed off, red tablecloth in hand that he'd knicked earlier that night from the nearby restaurant. The bull rammed him, he fell, he was instantly unconscious. Never before have I seen anyone lose consciousness so quickly, and then to have absolutely no self defence and be trampled on repeatedly, impaled, and then thrown into the air at a height which looked like the next day would bring a new meaning to the word "pain". I think it was made all the worse by the fact that this was the man who we'd spent most of the evening with (albeit trying to lose him and not encourage his show-off antics). To this day I have no idea if he woke up, and if so, with what injuries. Needless to say, if he does make it back to good health again, I don't doubt for a second that he'll be back in the ring for round 2...beer in hand, grin as big as you like! Ready for the fun to begin again...

Bling baby!

As soon as we both woke up from our powernap on the bus, not long after crossing the border into Costa Rica we instantly noticed change. People were better dressed, dared to wear their jewellery and mp3 players in public without fear of being robbed, the buses had rubbish-bins in them, and there was no pollution to be seen by the side of the road. To this day I'm still not sure whether this is a result of enthusiastic clean-up efforts, or the result of a very effective education campaign. Whatever the reason, it was a real joy to see. The people were super friendly and keen to offer assistance, and we were escorted to our next bus, bound for our Costan Rican beach experience.

Nicaragua to Costa Rica

12/07/2008
Caught the buses and taxis we needed to to get to the border, then when we got out and the first of the crowd started telling us where to go and offering to show us the way, I thought "no, we don't need to be lead 10 metres away only to have to pay an exhorbitant tip", so I shooed them all away and we started our walk to the border. Coudn't quite figure out what the big queue was when we were leaving Nicaragua, and could only see signs referring to arrivals, not departures. So, we kept walking and 1 km later reached the Costa Rican entry point (so, so hot and sweaty and not enjoying carrying 20kg 'bag o' shit). As soon as we got there we saw a mammoth queue, that looked to take a couple of hours to get through. We thought we'd be safe and ask a fellow traveller the procedure, and she showed us her exit stamp...Oh! So that's what that queue was for. Crap!

So...we walked all the way back, waited for our passports to get stamped, then walked the kilometer back to the Costa Rican border and waited in the sun for another hour. Oh what fun! Realised that that's the longest I can walk (or waddle) with my 'bag o' shit' without stopping. We took a bet as to how long we thought the queue would take, and luckily for us the eternal optimist (me) came a close second, saving us all another hour of waiting.

Jumped onto another bus and headed over the border to Costa Rica. Very, very sleepy.

You just know when you're at the beach



10/07/2008
Continued down to the coast again, this time to a place called San Juan del Sur. Checked into an old hotel that would have been quite lovely in it's hayday. Our windowless room could have been anywhere in the world, but somehow we both knew that we were across the road from the beach, so had no hesitations spending hours indoors reading and passing the time.

Tried my luck at surfing again, and and had such a great time. Caught a lift out to remote Playa El Romanso, with only a few folk sharing the same waves, and a perfect break for a beginner on a longboard. What luck! After 20 inutes or so a local guy swam up to me and asked if he could give me some advice. Of course!! He recommended that I roll the board on top of me to avoid hitting my face time and time again as I ducked under the waves. Then he said "because you have been hitting your head, haven't you?" Ummm, yes I have. Thanks so much for the tip. So, I rolled and ducked, and managed to stand, if only for a few seconds, and totally loved the sensation of catching a wave, except maybe when I accidently surfed into rocks, because I haven't quite got the nack of turning.

Anyway, the day turned out superbly, me leaving with the most minor of injuries (considering what I'm usually capably of) ...only sunburnt knees and a singular cut from the rock incident. Qué suerte!

Isla de Ometepe - town of old men



Caught the cheapo ferry over to the island, and sat down-wind of the boat's exhaust. Managed to get in 3 good, deep breaths and quickly realised why all of the locals had made our seats available so easily.

Unfotunately, our first encounters on the island happened to be old, expat men, living their dream, and hiding from whatever reality is. I have to say tha this kindof tarnished our experience here, and although it's a beautiful place and we didn't really give it much of a chance, it seemed a bit sad with some strange old-man energy.

So, after catching a bus to the other side of the island, eating beans and rice, then catching the first bus back again, we left this place, quickening our pace with eagerness to arrive in South America as soon as possible.

(wished my Spanish was as good as it is when I've had a few drinks ALL the time! Had a great chat for a couple of hours in perfect Spanish with a Swede who spoke with an accent from Spain. So easy to understand, and a conversation I would normally have in English. Hoorah! We have inguistic progress - if only when I'm tipsy)

Rancho Tranquilo






03/07/2008 - 06/07/2008
Left León behind for a traquil getaway. Battled our way through countless chicken buses and arrived at our detsination: "Rancho Tranquilo", Los Zorros via Jiquilillo, in the very north of Nicaragua (although I took to calling it "Rancho Relaxo" very early on in the piece).

Arrived in the arvo to be told that Tina was out of town until a bit later and to make ourselves comfy. Had the obligatory refreshing swim and met our host as soon as we got back. HAD to hook into our rum as soon as she returned, to catch up with her and her several previous hours of drinking (she left us no option...really). She was positively sloshed, and a couple of us were wandering where our myriad of buses had led us. Proceeded to have an entertaining night on the beach, I then woke up in the middle of the night to the sound of crabs climbing over the base of the fan. I hoped they wouldn't grab my toes in the wee hours of the morning and scare the shit out of me.

Stuffed our faces for every meal, day in, day out, with huge vegetarian feasts - thanks Janet - (would be rude not to finish what was on our plates wouldn't it? Oh yeah, we served ourselves, I remember...but it all looked so good). Don't think I'll ever tire of beans and rice.

Met my favourite dog so far on this trip. Sweet "Canela" and her seriously ugly underbite. A face only a mother could love, but lucky for the both of us we met under the cover of darkness, so were friends from the start.

Tried my luck at surfing, but only had whitewash to play in. So exhausting, with no real chance to even paddle, just lots of board carrying and wave ducking. Watched our friend surf under a barbedwire fence, missing it by milimetres, and luckily saving herself from a possible need of facial reconstruction. The ranch we borrowed our boards from was built right on the beach, the owner not seeming to have any idea about coastal erosion, or seeming to mind for that matter. Not sure why the barbed wire was out the front, not going to offer much protection from the ocean, and perhaps not even a gun weilding maniac. Have to say though, that that was the first time I've seen anyone surf under a barbedwire fence, and will hopefully be the last...

Spent a few days doing what you do on a beach, then left Tina-the-Strange for Granada and more sight-seeing.

Arrived in Granada on 06/07/2008, and although it was very pretty, didn't have the same connection with the place as had done with León, so hit the road again for Isla de Ometepe (although I must admit that I did go a tad snap happy with the Colonial architecture before I left).

León - Rum and Rotten Eggs




30/06/2008
Ran away from Managua as soon as possible and arrived in León, where one can stroll around town with ease, and even enjoy oneself. Had an older woman take my hand and guide me through the political murals in the centre of town, kept thinking that this experience would be so much more meaningful if I understood more than 30% of what she was saying to me.

Found a great street stall that had the greatest selection of vegetarian dishes. Ate way more than I could handle because it was first time the street vendors have offered me so many options. I fugured it'd be rude not to. Had to waddle to the bar afterwards. That's what I get for being overly excited.

Partook in a pub quiz with newfound friends and jointly won a bottle of Nicaraguan "Flor de Caña" Rum. This kickstarted my new obsession for the final duration of my stay in Central America.

A little mousie kept me awake all night, rustling through my plastic bags. That'll teach me not to be one of those irritating backpackers who keeps everything wrapped in offensively loud plastic.

01/07/2008
Rotten Egg burps. Oh oh! Anyone who's ever had giardia will understand my anxiety. This bout kept me busy for the next couple of days.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

El Salvador to Nicaragua

29/06/2008
Bus from San Salvador to Managua. Sat next to a man, originally from Guatemala, now living in Geneva, but does a lot of travelling for his work through Central America. Stopped at the first border, between Nicaragua and Honduras, and he was escorted off the bus and thoroughly searched and interrogated for an hour. His family in Guatemala were even contacted for verification as to his family background. He was the only black man on the bus and confided in me that this happens to him every single time he crosses that particular border, and nowhere else, and usually no one else is put through the same procedure as he is, time and time again, often by the same border control guard.

A bunch of young kids asked us for money at the border while we were waiting for our passports to be checked. I happened to glance down and notice that one of the small girls, no older than 5 years old, had a large bunch of rolled up notes in her pocket. She was carrying more cash than our busload was carrying combined.

Made it to Managua (the capital of Nicaragua) without too many dramas, checked into a hotel a few doors down from the bus stop, and the owner of the hostel pointed me to a sign on the counter warning guests not to walk around the area, even by day. So, this was going to be an expensive stay here as the taxis are hard to bargain in this part of town. I never did figure out if our safety was her main concern, or if there was some fiscal agreement that existed betwen herself and the taxi drivers. I wasn't about to wander the streets to put it to the test though...
Luckily had a television in the room, so was more than happy to stay in watching fillums (it's all productive when it's in Spanish, don't you know?)

Monday, June 30, 2008

El Salvador

La Playa El Tunco

My room in El Tubo, Playa El Tunco


MARTE, San Salvador


San Salvador


San Salvador


Lago de Suchitoto


The sleepy streets of Suchitoto


Arrived in San Salvador, Saturday night, 21st June, 2008.


El Salvador, or San Salvador to be exact... what a difference, and especially compared to Antigua in Guatemala where nearly half of the town is geared towards tourism in some form or another. I left there not knowing what to expect and have been surprised on so many levels. San Salvador is a city filled with contrasts, all within walking distance of each other.



I took off on Sunday morning, to hit the streets, walking 10 or so km to get my bearings. First stop...the money part of town, and also the area where many of the city's art galleries are located. The first thing I wasn't expecting to see were so many ritzy houses, brand new 4WDs zipping around, and high class shops dotting the neighbouhood (Hilton Hotel and all).



I'd just come from the part of town (where I was staying - just north of Boulevard de Los Heroes) where the only thing that came to my mind was...The United States of America. Land of chain stores, drive thrus and super sized malls. An enormous world of fast-food and mass consumerism, the likes of which I've never seen on that scale before. Contrast #1.



From San Benito, through Zona Rosa and then up to Colonia Escalón, I made my way from the 'high-life' into the city, passing through the university area on my way. By that stage my imagination had started to create a mental image that couldn't have been further from the truth had I've tried. I assumed (very incorrectly) that the centre would be where the 'office blocks' were located, with lots of small, local restaurants, shops and a smattering of fast-food joints interspersed within the local businesses.



But...it was mayhem, filled with street stalls, music blaring, people yelling, chickens squawking and cars honking. The market stalls seemed to continue for miles, at times with only a foot or 2 of pedestrian space, and twice the amount of pedestrians that could physically pass by. I was grabbed by several people as I walked past, desperate to get me to look at their stall, men called out to me every 5 metres that I walked by, and mostly in English (I know I said I was slowly getting used to it, but it seemed much more intense here, with one even calling out in his gramophone each time I passed...I soon changed direction). To say that I was overwhelmed was close to the truth, slightly nervous...even closer. It was here that I was most aware of the recent civil war of El Salvador, and the continuing violence that still lurks amongst the poor. Contrast #2. I could instantly feel that downtown was not so safe, that tourists were warned not to go there, and definitely not to stroll the streets after dark, for a reason. What I didn't want, especially here, was to get lost and have to look at my map. I already felt like I was sticking out more than I ever have in my life, especially having not laid eyes on another tourist since arriving into El Salvador.



I've since changed navigational tactics and now ask quietly for verbal directions as opposed to opening my bag and looking lost, and have been offered very clear, friendly directions in San Salvador, and have even had many personal escorts to my destination (albeit without my asking).



In San Salvador, I was impressed by the museum of contemporary art (MARTE), and was super excited to find a hidden treat, filled with miniature surprises... literally (a museum showcasing a local artistic tradition of creating tiny 3D scenes and hiding them in an egg, or inside a miniature colonial house that you can open up to peek inside...surprise!). I stumbled upon a great, laid back bar (always a pleasant find), found a Centro de Cultura de España, which always comes through with the goods (this one had a great photo exhibition of Central American immigrants in the US), spoke with some really lovely, friendly local folk, and I became a big fan of 'pupusas' (hot hand made tortillas stuffed with refried beans and cheese), and stuffed my face in a local pupuseria for less than $1 each morning.



From San Salvador I took a short trip north to a sleepy town called Suchitoto, where I located more pupusas, took a stroll down to the lake and wandered around the plaza again and again...and again. I was keen to get out and explore the lake on a kayak, but no tours were operating because of a lack of tourists in town. I was told if I wanted to go somewhere with a guide I'd have to find a group to go with. This proved to be a tad tricky as I hadn't spotted another tourist since arriving. One of the difficulties of getting away from the hordes I guess. I stayed only 1 night, in a family home that rents out a room or 2, and when I returned in the night after my pupusa feast, the key I'd been given for the front door didn't work. I had several of the neighbours try their luck, but to no avail. So, I waited out on the street for an hour or so, and then just as I was beginning to think that maybe the family had gone away for a few days and I'd be locked outside for the night, a little boy walked up to me with a key. It had taken only 1 hour for word to spread amongst the neighbours, up into the main square, and to the owner of the house who was at work, who then got a young boy, her neighbour, to walk down and let me in. When I asked him how he knew I was locked out he simply replied "people talk".



I returned to San Salvador for another night, explored a few more of the galleries and museums, then took off for the coast, down to Playa El Tunco. It was super cruisy, and a great place to surf (apparently). I succumbed to the latin way..."mañana"...and never got around to getting on a board even once, but instead spent my time reading, swimming and just hangin out. It was such a nice change to be able to swim in the Pacific Ocean again, with waves and a natural liveliness that the Caribbean, in all of its turquise glory never offered.



When my week was up in El Salvador, and I was on my way south towards Nicaragua, I felt slightly sad to be leaving, and knew that there was so much more to explore, and so many great people yet to meet. But, I've got a new travel schedule to keep now, so it's on the road again. 12 hour bus ride, here I come...

Monday, June 16, 2008

Final weeks in Guatemala

My home in Xela (Quetzaltenango) for 1 week


The Spanish School in Xela where I studied


mmm...beer!

And so I spent my final couple of weeks in Guatemala on more of a studious note, almost domestic, and even quite productive. A nice change from packing up and trucking to a new town on a daily basis, finally getting a chance to get to know an area, and have some decent conversations... in Spanish (which is, after all, one of the main reasons why I'm here on this continent).


I spent 1 week studying Spanish in quite a politically active and very socially-aware school in Xela, and whilst there I stayed with a "family". The "mother" of the family was a 78 year old woman who had only girls living under her roof (by choice), at times up to 7 Guatemalan students, only some of which were family, ranging in age from 12 to 25 (I think). I was never too sure how many girls lived under the same roof as me as they would come and go and those who were present at the table for meals would change on a daily basis. I often found myself asking several of them "Do you live here?". By the end of week I still wasn't sure.

It was in that house, with those chicas, that I learnt a lot about Guatemaltecos, their relationships with each other, their desires, their humbleness, their struggles, their big hearts and their religion.

I learnt that it was very unusual for a couple to ever speak to each other again once they'd divorced, that Catalina (the "mother" of the house) hates divorce, that diabetes, cancer and AIDS affects everyone in every remote corner of the earth in the same way, that many of these girls have had to grow up too quickly when they were children, that even when asked for their english homework to write about the house of their dreams limited only by their imagination, they would describe a modest 3 bedroom house with 2 bathrooms, a carspace and a flat-screen TV, that even people who have nothing can do so much for people who have even less, and that I eat more than these Guatemalan girls, of whom the tallest was at least a foot shorther than me.

From the school I learnt about the current state of affairs in Guatemala, and that the saying "When America sneezes, Central America gets pneumonia" is true. In the same week that the cost of fuel increased in Guatemala by 40%, so too did incidences of violence.

And from my time spent studying, but also meeting other travellers and locals, I've learnt that Guatemala can be a very dangerous place, and that, especially in Guatemala City (that I've chosen not to visit, I think wisely) it's possible to be killed for as little as Q20 (less than $3). In my month in Guatemala I still haven't quite figured out who the goodies with guns are and who are the baddies, and it never did fill me with much relief or confidence to know that often the "goodies" are 17 year olds with no arms training, carrying loaded shotguns.

I've been surprised to spend more on a good cup of coffee here than back at home, and have realised that all the good coffee from Guatemala gets exported.

I've learnt Spanish (in my second week of studying, spent in Antigua) through bromas (jokes) - the first word I learnt was 'bajas' (bullshit) - and from listening to stories that are hard to believe all belong to the one brutally honest but eternally joking man, Pedro. I've learnt about the monopoly the 7 richest families of Guatemala have in this country, from the chicken fast-food joint (more popular than McDonalds here) to the most popular beer company, to the bottle producing company, to the transportation company, all to avoid having to pay taxes in their ever successful operations, thus making them richer and richer, and further increasing the division of wealth in the country.

I've lived on typical Guatemalan cuisine for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and realised that I miss Mexican food, and that the word "vegetarian" here has a different meaning to that used back home (meat is often included, and you're best to avoid the chunks if you can).

I've learnt that folk from Antigua are also called "Pansa-verde" (green stomach) because of the sheer quantity of avocados produced there, and that when it's rainy season in Guatemala you you have to just get out there and get wet, or else you'll end up sitting inside all afternoon, watching the storm, sipping on tasty hot-chocolate made to a traditional Mayan recipe with a light dusting of cinnamon, listening to Argentinian tango music and missing out on everything (???!!). And...I've learnt that the young men here can be just as...persistent (am wanting to say "sleazy" but don't want to offend) as those in Cuba even when marrying for a visa is not a factor in their approach and subsequent conversation. I am now thinking this is the behaviour I'm to expect in this part of the world and am gradually ceasing to be surprised (although I must admit I'm the last to complain when they're "a bit of alright").

So, from Guatemala it's back on the road again, heading southwards, but this time with a new, restricted budget and a goal of reaching Columbia in 4 weeks. We'll just have to wait and see if I can actually move that fast (and getout of bed that early each and every day)...

Lago de Atitlán

Some funky local dude in our regular bar of choice. Great threads!


Misty view from San Pedro


The narrow alleys of San Marcos.


The (sunny) view from San Marcos.


From San Marcos



03/06/08

Ha, I'd arrived in an apparently beautiful, natural setting, but with the amount of heavy rain that was bucketing down, I couldn't see the view for the raindrops. So...we led a somewhat nocturnal existence here, in San Pedro (as I'd been warned may happen).



Spent a few nights in the various bars, watched the rain from the safety and warmth of the inside of a bar, and had a daytrip to Chichicastenango Markets (Chichi), luckily on the first day of sunshine in what seemed to be weeks. The markets were great, apparenty the largest in Central America, and just overflowing with Guatemalan crafts ready to be bargained for. And so I did. 'Bag o' shit' has gone over the 20kg mark again...



From San Pedro, our crew dropped to just us 2 Aussie girls, and we went further around the lake to San Marcos. Ahhhh, the tranquility! Tried to recover from our previous few nights on the town by participating in a Yoga class at Las Piramides, a place where you can study for months any esoteric subject that takes your fancy, whilst meditating, yoga-ing and fasting (not so keen on the last activity, but each to their own I suppose). In San Marcos we changed our indulgence of chioce from cocktails to cake, and breathed in the fresh, hippified air with delight.

And...just as I was leaving there was an hour of sun, I kid you not. I was finally able to see the lake in all it's beauty, clear, blue water and all. Who would have thought?