Friday, October 31, 2008

Volcanos and gallo pinto

Fast Eddie's photo Not mine.

Granada, Nicaragua. We're back in Granada. Ometepe was a bust. I found the photo at Fast Eddie's blog. I'll post my own rainy season version of the dual volcanoes later. The thing about the rainy season is that it is a Season of Rain. Lluvia. Not a rainy day. Not a rainy week. Or month. The rainy season is six months of rain and what happens after six months of rain? Visit Ometepe is you have any questions. I think this is the last time we will travel in the tropics during the rainy season. Yes, it's cooler and yes, it's cheaper and yes, it's not overrun with tourists but for a reason. In the rainy season the tropics are a Mess.

In our defense, traveling at this time of year was not our first choice this time. We had to bump our plans back from last spring. We've done the rainy season before, during 2005, the year of Katrina which trashed New Orleans and Wilma which trashed the Yucatán. We were in the Yucatán, under Katrina's outer whips so when Wilma hit, it was the last straw. It chased us off the muddy, trash strewn Caribbean and home with vows to never return in the rainy season. But the fates conspired against us.

Ometepe was miserable. I didn't even get one decent photo of either volcano. Both were shrouded with their cloud forests. The first clue that is was not in peak form was that the ferry terminal was flooded. To disembark, we had to walk across a makeshift sandbag sea wall. I'll insert the photos later. The shuttle driver warned us that the caminos were malo, the roads were bad. Very bad. Mucho agua. Still, we had to see for ourselves. We harbored hopes of finding a tranquil hideaway in spite of it all. But he was right. The water level of Lake Cocibolca is so high from months of rain that the nice sand beaches it is so famous for are all under water, the roads are muddy ruts and the lovely trails winding through the howler monkey jungle are flooded. After a couple hours of grinding through the sludge and visiting soggy hotels we decided to go back to Moyogalpa and return to the mainland on the morning ferry. On the way back, the shuttle got stuck in the mud so, along with the help of some kids and finally the policía nacional who happened by, we helped the driver dig it out.

But it wasn't all bad. Max, the driver, made a week's pay. We managed to get settled in a nice hotel just up from the ferry terminal, moments before the afternoon torrent. And after the rain, we got pizza at a restaurant with a dirt floor, got to sleep early and grabbed the six am ferry for the two hour trip back to the mainland this morning.

After the ferry docked we got a taxi to the bus station. That driver tried to scare us into having him drive us all the way back to Granada, a thirty dollar trip. He told us there wouldn't be a bus for three hours. We ignored him. The Granada bus waiting at the terminal. We hopped on and enjoyed another lovely two hour, two dollar trip back through the trash strewn country side, past countless starving dogs and smoldering piles of household plastics. We got back to Granada in time for breakfast at Nica Buffet, not a buffet but a great hole in the wall cafe owned by Ed, a cheery old Dutch fellow (that's him in white in the left hand side of the photo, who remembers that I like coffee con leche and we both like No. 21, the Nica breakfast of plantains, gallo pinto, and the eggs scrambled. Home. Don't bother to go there from the 4th to the 20th of November. He'll be away on vacation. Possibly the Corn Islands. We may be there too. Anyway, after breakfast we went home to Ernesto's. More about Ernesto later.

Need a happy ending?
Mr. Bones has left the building

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Notes on the fly

Granada, Nicaragua

We've been in Nicaragua for about a week and are finally getting adjusted to the heat, humidity and pace. Very very poor country; second only to Haiti in the region. There is no opportunity. Fifty percent unemployment. Bright, personable, able-bodied young people everywhere with zero opportunity. It's heartbreaking.

Usually, markets are the colorful heart of the city. Unfortunately Granada's dark market is an explosion of filth and chaos. The place is jarring, death's presence is so intimate and the suffering so tangible that I feel grossly irreverent, sacrilegious, being there as an outsider, an observer. I don't see how this town will ever attain the coveted status of tourist attraction until they somehow manage to change it. Apparently the town has been trying to get people to move to a new location but nobody wants to go.

Sorry. Gotta go. Time's up here. Tomorrow we leave for Ometepe, an island in Lake Cocibolca with dual volcanoes, one living and one dead. More later.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Hasta mañana

Antigua, Guatemala. Still trying to catch up with myself, so here are a few more photos from this last month.


Tienda from within

Maya women at La Merced

Fellow Spanish students

Living and the dead

Child in the ruins

Rainy season

Antigua vendadora

Perfunctory shot of El Arco and volcano

Furniture mover

Coming to the end

Rainy season is finally nearing the end and we were planning to leave for Nicaragua this morning but things got messed up. We were overcharged $60 for the bus tickets on King Quality so today the guy is back in Guatemala City redoing it. Tickets can not be purchased or upgraded via fax, phone or online. King Quality insist on someone showing up in person, with passport copies. So it goes.

Stairs to our apartment, Casa Luna

You might wonder why we are going to all the bother and expense to go executive class but it's a 17 hour trip, longer if you count the shuttles on both ends, and the seats are supposed to be more comfortable.

Roof top neighbors

We have really enjoyed our stay at Casa Luna. It's a small place, six rooms, and very quiet. We stayed in the roof top room which is up a narrow iron spiral staircase. It has its own small garden and great view which we shared with a couple of Boxers, one roof top over. Mario, the owner, is a great guy, speaks fluent English and is very helpful whenever anyone has a question or problem. I highly recommend the place.

Charles, assistant editor La Cuadra

M. Lee, Sunday walk

Our room, Casa Luna

No time rest

Sorry to break focus here but I feel compelled to pass along this email I just received from MoveOn. I hope you will pass it along as well. It just takes a minute. We can't let the bastards screw us again. There is far too much at stake.


1. The polls may be wrong. This is an unprecedented election. No one knows how racism may affect what voters tell pollsters—or what they do in the voting booth. And the polls are narrowing anyway. In the last few days, John McCain has gained ground in most national polls, as his campaign has gone even more negative.

2. Dirty tricks. Republicans are already illegally purging voters from the rolls in some states. They're whipping up hysteria over ACORN to justify more challenges to new voters. Misleading flyers about the voting process have started appearing in black neighborhoods. And of course, many counties still use unsecure voting machines.

3. October surprise. In politics, 15 days is a long time. The next McCain smear could dominate the news for a week. There could be a crisis with Iran, or Bin Laden could release another tape, or worse.

4. Those who forget history... In 2000, Al Gore won the popular vote after trailing by seven points in the final days of the race. In 1980, Reagan was eight points down in the polls in late October and came back to win. Races can shift—fast!

5. Landslide. Even with Barack Obama in the White House, passing universal health care and a new clean-energy policy is going to be hard. Insurance, drug and oil companies will fight us every step of the way. We need the kind of landslide that will give Barack a huge mandate.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Antigua photos

Antigua, Guatemala

Roy, this one's for you....

Chicken bus in the rain

Antigua, Guatemala. Tropical Depression 16 and it's gray buckets of daily rain have pushed my travel wardrobe to the brink even though I packed for the rainy season. All in all, my backpack weighs a mere 22.6 lbs, my carry on bag maybe another 7 or 10 lbs and my purse, stuffed to capacity, perhaps another 3 or 5. That's it. But I brought two light weight, poly, long sleeved pullovers and, thank the gods for them, I am (barely) squeaking by. Yesterday in class I wore four layers, including my raincoat, for the whole session. My desk was just under the roof and right next to the giant roofless courtyard in the center of the school. Naturally, the whole school is open air because it is, after all, the tropics, so the rain was an arm's length away. And this morning? Rain. But today, no matter. I am happy anyway. Even though I only went for three weeks, it's like the first day of summer vacation, we are at a great internet cafe, with a wonderful open air courtyard garden restaurant five feet away, and with the help of M. Lee, I finally managed to access my photos.

Chicken bus, Antigua

This photo was a lucky shot because, blurred as it is, it captures the hellish reality of the "chicken buses". Granted, they are wildly colorful and dedicated to saints, mothers, daughters, and wifes, and protected by numerous dangling religious icons and filled past capacity, with many people in traditional, colorful Mayan dress, and there are chickens and baskets of aromatic, steaming, home-cooked food and shawls and headdresses full of jewelery and hand-woven cloth of many colors bound for the market and streets and you might consider the buses merely picturesque, if only a little dangerous careening around corners. Unfortunately, gangsters shake down the drivers on a regular basis and those who do not, or can not, pay their "protection fee" are murdered. A young guy, 28, was recently shot to death here in Antigua because he didn't have enough money to meet their demands, and the newspaper included a long list of other victims from this year alone. A couple of thugs were arrested but everyone knows nothing has changed. So, if you decide to ride a chicken bus for the fun of it, please do not deny the driver his tip. His life actually depends on it.

more photos to come...

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Week's end

Antigua, Guatemala I just finished a third week of language class, this time in a different school, CSA, and even received a lovely, albeit cheesy, full color diploma for my efforts. I felt like an idiot when the director handed it to me but my very nice profesora signed it with such extreme flourish that I had to accept it graciously, which I did. What the hell? I can now actually string together a couple of rudimentary sentences in Spanish so yeah.

The material at CSA was presented in a much more organized fashion than the first school I attended, and my teacher had me do a lot more repetition and reading aloud in class. Very important for those of us who live, how shall I say, in the moment. I forget the verb forms a second after conjugating them. And CSA provides an endless supply of free coffee. That goes a long way with me. The downside is that they are twice the price of other schools in town. Okay for a week but not for a long run.

Now, I just have to trust that in the three short, miserable weeks I submitted to linguistic torture, a few new neural pathways managed to sprout and will find hospitable ground in one of the abandoned garden barrios of my brain, there are many, as my daughter said, "one little dendrite at a time. Poco a poco. They better. She told I can't come home until I can order her "a burrito with no lettuce, sub tofu and extra pico on a whole wheat tortilla. And make it snappy.

Anyway, it was fun and I am glad it's over. M. Lee gave me Poco Buug as a graduation gift. When I finally manage to get some photos off of my camera, I will post a photo of him along with a few from our travels to date.

In other news, it continues to rain, rain, rain. And Antigua had a minor earthquake yesterday. No big deal for the locals but it bothered me. The town is surrounded by active volcanoes, there's one at the end of main street, and it's full of ruinas from previous quakes. In fact, the town was basically abandoned for about 100 years after a particularly bad one in 1773. We were planning to go to Nicaragua in a few days but now we're not so sure. There is a tropical storm covering Centroamerica and rivers are flooding everywhere. I am so glad I'm not in the US glued to the screen slavering over the political news and firing off one blog comment after the next. Better here in las tormentas.

Table for two

San Jose, Costa Rica.
It was a dark and stormy night after a dark and stormy day after a dark and stormy night and in the morning it rained. But that did not stop Enrique. He dashed across the wet branches, leapt onto a banana tree, crept down its hard green hand and peered at the table below. And waited. Finally he came, the big man with the shaved head. Enrique curled his sharp black claws into the fruit. His tail stiffened and twitched. He narrowed his liquid black eyes and whispered, "Buenos dias, mi amigo."

The man sipped his coffee then settled back. "I know you are watching me, Enrique. And I know what you are planning but I warn you. This buffet is not for filthy little thieves like you."

Enrique dashed down the tree and out onto the railing beside the man's table.

"Panqueques! Panqueques!"

The man poked his fork at the squirrel but that did not stop Enrique from leaping onto it.

"One bit and I will go, Senor."

"No bites and you will go, Cabron."

Their eyes locked. The man smiled and slowly lowered his fork to the plate, stabbed a slice of pancake and ate it and they continued staring at one another as he took another bite and another then again he poked the fork at the squirrel, this time waving it in his face.

Enrique smiled. And launched.

Language addiction

San Jose, Costa Rica. We are still in Costa Rica. Tomorrow we return to Guatemala and perhaps more school. We're just checking out Costa Rica this trip but looks like it's a must return. Some years ago Costa Rica figured out that offering eco-tourism would be a good investment and really, it's a no brainer. Who doesn't want to roast marshmallows over a volcano in view of both the Pacific and the Atlantic oceans... simultaneously?! But not for us this trip. We're concentrating on Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. Maybe in the spring. I can't believe it but we are both kind of yearning to go back to Antigua and do more language school. They didn't tell me that language school can be addictive, especially as I can get addicted to anything, but it's hard walking away from once you get started. It's like leaving a puzzle unfinished in the middle of the table. In any case, tomorrow it's back to Antigua and the rain. They said the damn rainy season was supposed to taper off this month. We shall see.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Ghost hotel

We are in Guatemala City for the next couple of days en route to Costa Rica, staying Hotel Casa Blanca. It's located in a concrete and razor wire ghetto near the airport. Not to worry. Razor wire is a regular design motif in Centroamerica, even in the better neighborhoods. The only other guest in the place is a fellow from India who is in the country to sell parts for textile machines to the Mayans. He cooks his own meals barefoot in the kitchen and seems distinctly disinterested in small talk. Otherwise, the place is a ghost ship manned by the two lowest ranking members of its crew, the cook and her compadre, a kid who drives the shuttle jalopy. Seems they both live here. I think he sleeps in the kitchen. Neither speak English. They are very nice but their stock answer to any question (yes, in Spanish) is "Un momento, por favor." So we waited until 10 o'clock last night for the manager/desk clerk to swing by before we could get permission to print out our boarding passes. Of course, by then the page had expired. There is no phone. They have no maps of the city and, if you want drinking water, you have to go to kitchen and ask for it, if you can find anyone around. Did I mention we will never stay here again? I don't recommend you do either.