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?

Volcán de Pacaya




02/06/08

Had the most fantastic daytrip to one of the volcanoes just outside of Antigua. This one was special in that it was very active, and you were able to walk right up to the lava flows, something so incredible, and so unreal.

Our guide was great, and had told me that he'd been taking people for walks to the top for about 20 years, and had really good communication with the local villages to know if the conditions were safe or not (one would hope so anyway). I initially thought we'd been pretty unlucky with the weather, as we spent 6 hours hiking in the pouring rain, not letting up for even 5 minutes. But apparently the combination of the heavy rain and the temperature had made the lava flow more heavily than it has for a long while, and that in fact we were extremely lucky to be able to visit the volcano on this day.
I discovered that my 'waterproof ' jacket is not at all, and was glad that I'd taken my friends' advice and purchased a stick at the bottom of the volcanoe, to aid me on the muddy, super slippery climb there and back.
When we reached the top, we could just make out through the steam rising from the hot, wet rocks, a red glow further ahead. After being told to take care and not to fall because it would probably be fatal (this is like inviting me to tempt fate) we walked over loose volcanic rocks, right up to the lava flow. The heat was incredible, and it was oozing so heavily, down the volcano. A couple of people shoved their sticks into the rocks surrounding the flow, only to find them disintegrating in their hands, It was hot, and red, and we were walking over real, flowing lava, and it was totally amazing.

Antigua






30/05/08

From Lanquín we travelled south to Antigua, more noticeably geared towards touristm, but oh so pretty. The crew had already started split, so we had the obligatory night on the town to celebrate our time together, and bid the others farewell.
As it was continuing to rain for days upon days, my time spent in Antigua was more indoors in nature (hours were spent reading in cafes and searching the 2nd hand bookshops for something, anything to read). I did, however get to the markets in town, which were huge, and busy, and filled with everything you could ever imagine, and more. I had luck, of sorts, with my timing as I'd been able to catch a little girl of only 6 years or so, just in time to stop her from reaching into my bag and lifting out anything she fancied. I eyed her off, she looked me back, dropped her hand and then casually looked away and walked past me. Lucky...this time.

Lanquin and our beautiful stay at El Retiro

The loft we stayed in at El Retiro


The pools at Semuc Champey


Sweet li'l local girls

26/05/08

From Flores, we did a bit of re-grouping, hooked up with a fab new crew (2 super fun Americans and more Aussies) and made our way to the most relaxing place I've stayed at so far, 'El Retiro' in Lanquín. There we swam in the 'fresh' river, indecently stuffed our face on the tastiest vegetarian feast I've ever laid eyes on, night after night, drank lots of Chilean wine, learnt the wonderful world of 'shake-face', laughed until I nearly wet myself, swam in the clearest, turquoise pools at Semuc Champey (which are amazingly sitting on top of a flowing river), floated down a river in an inner tube, and went adveturing in a cave that extends for 7km, armed only with candles and in our cossies and thongs, we swam through deep pools, shimmied our way through small gaps in rocks, and climbed up ropes and down ladders. All in a day's work I guess.

Tikal



25/05/08

Woke up super, super early and went on a 3:30am tour of Tikal. I think our arrival was the highlight for me. By the time we'd arrived to the ruins, and had climbed the steps to the top of one of the viewing points, the sun had risen, but the whole site was enveloped in fog and clouds. We sat on the steps in silence, with a view of white, listening to the jungle awakening. The howler monkeys marking their territory is a sound I won't forget in a long time. I was just very relieved after hearing their cries that the sound was off in the distance. A safe distance.

Our guide was very informitive about not only the ruins and the Mayan history of the area, but also of the natural environment. We were told of the Ceiba tree, revered and thought of as sacred for many, many years by the Mayans. It's a beautiful tree, and I was even more amazed to hear that it's 4 main roots always point towards the 4 points of a compas...north, east, south, west. How crazy nature can be.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Flores - Guatemala







Arrived in Flores, Guatemala after a 29 hour journey and 3 border crossings...with no sleep. So fresh am I...look out world!


23/03/05

It amazingly took me 24 hours to figure out that it only takes 10 minutes to walk a lap of the island. My sense of direction never ceases to amaze me.


Found cheap Margaritas (Hoorah!) and drank while watching the sunset over the lake. Have the fattest cankles I've ever seen.


24/05/08

Went for a swim in the lake just as a huge storm was rolling in. It was wild and tropical, the wind picking up huge sheets of metal from roofs and whisking them away. 'Twas a nice, crazy change of weather from the 30+ degree days with 90% humidity in Cuba, perfect weather to sit inside, drinking and playing cards with my newfound friends whilst listening to the storm do its crazy thing.

Cuba - Mexico - Belize - Guatemala

I sat next to a Dutch couple on the plane from Cuba to Mexico who complained really loudly about how disappointed they were with Cuba (like a child who misbehaves). You can only be disappointed if you have expectations... I tried to sink down lower in my seat so I wouldn't be considered as sharing their thoughts.

I started to miss Cuba as soon as I landed. People watching just wasn't the same, especially in Cancún. Got on the 1st bus outta there, headed for Guatemala. Caught one down to the border between Mexico and Guatemala to be told that I'd have to wiat 8 hours until a bus would leave for Guatemala AND I'd have to go via Belize. Stayed awake until 3am, drinking Nescafe coffee (oh, strong Cuban coffee, where are you?). Got on the bus and was bound for new adventures. Wore all of my warm, cosy clothes so I wouldn't freeze again on a super-cold aircon bus and it ended up being the most unbearably hot, sticky ride I'd had in 3 months. What luck - especially seeing as though I had another 8 or 9 hours. Yay!

Final random thoughts from Cuba

HAVANA TO TRINIDAD
I was really looking forward to being on the 6 hour long bus from Havana to Trinidad. I wanted to stare out of the window at all the passing scenery, rock out to my tunes, and possibly fall asleep. My excitement dissipated after 20 seconds however, as when I got on, I was seated in an aisle seat, the woman next to me kept sitting on me, and EVERYONE had their curtains closed (to keep out the sun) so I couldn't see a thing. It was super hot and sticky too. Crap! Needless to say it was a long 6 hours.


ARRIVAL IN TRINIDAD
I had someone waiting for me with my name on a sign for the first time on my life. I felt so very important.


MUSEO DE ARCHITECTURA - TRINIDAD
Spent 30 minutes running away from the "guide" who kept following me and trying to read out loud what was written on each sign so I'd have to pay her for a "guided tour". The chase became kinda fun after a while.

Back to Havana...my last days in Cuba


The view from my Casa Particular in Havana Centro (Calle Neptuno)
















After my time spent wandering the valleys in Viñales, I left with strong feelings of guilt and headed back to Havana. "Why guilt?" you ask. Because I'm a sucker, and when the woman that I was staying with told me that she makes her money not from the rent of the room in her apartment, but on the meals she serves, which I couldn't eat because I became too ill (especially to stomach another meal of the same salty fish that I'd been eating each and every night), I ended up offering her extra money not to eat. All because she looked at me with eyes that resembled a hound-dog. Sounds cruel, but is true. Wet, puppy dog eyes, that worked their magic on me a treat.

So, I was quite looking forward to getting back to the city, where the guilt hit me more softly, where eating with the family I was staying with wasn't an option, and where I could eat a peanut butter sandwhich for 20c if I damn well wanted to...and guilt free too!

So, I had 2 more days to see the sights I had missed the first time round, which were plentiful. My highlights were definitely the Museo de la Revolución, La Bellas Artes Cubanos, sipping on a mojito, watching the sunset over the Malecón, not at the Hotel Nacional, but at a more seedy waterfront bar, filled with big groups of older Cuban men in Habana Centro, the US Interests Office, which was completely blocked from sight by hundreds of black flags waving in the wind (very much on purpose), my friend getting whistled at at the very second her bottom was about to make contact with the step near the US Interests Office (obviously not a good step to sit on, so she moved away a bit, then tried to sit once more, then "toot" blew the whistle, again JUST as she was about to touch it with her arse...you're always being watched in Cuba), looking out over Fidel's old office, which is now Raoul's, garlic flavoured corn puffs, the Plaza de la Revolución, the streets of Habana Vieja, El Gato Tuerto (the bar that came with a very good recommendation from a good friend, and proved to be a hit, especially with the oldies - I'm not sure the old Italian man thought it was as funny as me when I told him he looked like Pinocchio's father, lucky he was intoxicated and forgot after 3 minutes...or 23), the Museo de Naipes (a museum filled with thousands of playing cards), the periscopic view of Havana, the street art in Vadado, the tour I took of the tobacco factory "Real Fabrica de Tabascos Partagas" and the fantastic lithogrpahy at Taller Experimental de Gráfica.
I think Cuba will always have a special place in my heart. It will most definitely be one of the most remembered countries I've visited, and one that made me experience such a wild rollercoaster ride of emotions.
As they say...
¡VIVA CUBA!

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Viñales



A gigantic mural showing the story of evolution. My friend kept thinking it was "revolution" so couldn't understand where the big snail came in to the story.








This place was so, so beautiful. The valley was footed by fields of tobaccco, cocoa and vegetables, cows trudged slowly through fields in the sweltering heat, and the salsa continued to play night after night in the town. It was here in Viñales that I saw the best dancer I've ever laid eyes on. He fancied my friend, she wasn't interested, but he was persistant, and after the flower he made her from his cigarrette foil didn't woo her sufficiently, he proceeded to show off on the dance floor. And what a show it was. I was so impressed I was trying to encourage her to dance with him, that surely she could look past his missing front tooth for the dancing. At least his determination meant that I was able to watch him for hours on end.


I decided too (woman of many good decisions it seems), that it would be a great idea to trek to to top of the mountain inthe middle of the day, and thus in the hellish heat of the day, with crazy guts from the street food I'd eaten the night before, which had also put 2 Swedish guys to bed for the day. Brilliant idea! I'm glad I did it though, because the view was amazing, and we visited a village at the very top that believed the water they were living above was sacred and had healing powers, and had incorporated this belief into their daily religious activities. Needless to say, I didn't touch it, I figured my guts could either get much better, or much worse, and I was happy not moving in either direction. I had enough movement ther already...
I did get a chance, however, to ask my young teen-guide (after he'd finished telling me what a good idea it was if we get married) what he thought would happen to Cuba now that Fidel was out of power, and was quite surprised when he said he honestly doesn't think anything will change. "Different name, same government", and he feels the rest of Cuba shares his sentiments. I told him the rest of the world thinks changes will happen quickly in Cuba now that Fidel's not in power any more, and for a split second I'm sure I saw him look at me as if I were a fool. I think reality lies somewhere in the middle...that vast grey area that's hovering above Cuba's political future. I tried to fill him with optimism, saying that the outside world was rooting for their freedom, and based on the media that gets circulated outside of Cuba, they're really forecasting positive changes for the people of Cuba in the immediate future. But of course he couldn't share my optimism, how could a Cuban possibly be exposed to these same thoughts? I've read their newspapers, watched their television, and listened to their radio. Why would their censorship laws allow that sort of information to filter through to the masses? This is a land of revolutionaries, you never know what might start the ball rolling again.