Monday, December 27, 2010

Artisan Fair and Family Health Charlas

December felt like my most successful month thus far in Peace Corps.

Tuesday the 7th was the annual artisan fair at the U.S. Embassy, which I think I mentioned before is a shopping event held for embassy workers which brings together small time artisans that are working with Peace Corps Volunteers as well as professional artisans from all over Honduras. Since I work with small women’s groups, many of whom make artesanía, I was able to bring two groups to the event, one that makes woven items like scarves, shawls and tablecloths and another that makes interesting home décor items our of woven pine needles.

Nearly everything I’d done in the last two months had been leading up to this event. The business project organizes the event and I was on the task force, my job was to assemble the catalog which displayed a biography, pictures, products and prices for all of the 21 Peace Corps groups coming. It was a huge task which took weeks to compile, but I did get many comments on how great it turned out. In addition, I had to prepare my two groups. I gave them each charlas on basic business planning then helped them make some promotional material. We also had to figure out what they would bring and how much, how we would get there, who wanted to go etc.

Tuesday, Nolan and I woke up at 3 am and met the two participating women at the bus stop at 4 am. The bus ride was long, but we slept most of the way. We barely fit all four of us and all the boxes into a taxi to the embassy. It was surprisingly easy to get us all checked in, except for Nolan. Somehow his name hadn’t made it onto the ‘approved attendees’ list so he had to sit outside the embassy for about an hour until they finally agreed to let him in. The embassy is pretty strict on who they let in, and many groups who had switched attendees at the last minute had to wait for awhile too, so it wasn’t just Nolan.

We helped the women set up their products and the fair began at 10am! Of all the groups, I think my two did some of the best business. Their items were popular and affordable. The women were dutiful in attending to clients, despite having had very few opportunities in the past to participate in these kinds of events. They barely wanted to leave their tables to eat anything, worried they’d miss out on a sale. I felt such a great pride and relief to finally have the event come to fruition after so much hard work. It was a beautiful day with many amazing artisan products.

Nolan and I did some Christmas shopping, mostly for ourselves. The professional artists had items that were way out of our price range, but we were still able to sample some delicious wine and chocolate, two things we are often deprived of here. Most of the Peace Corps groups had affordable stuff. We bought a ton of beautiful Lenca pottery that was dirt cheap. A lot of other PCV’s showed up to buy gifts as well and it was great to finally see people whom we hadn’t seen in months. The day passed in a flash and before I knew it, we were packing the women up to head home. We stayed overnight to do some grocery shopping and came home Wednesday, exhausted but fulfilled. Despite it not being Nolan’s project, he did a lot of work to help me out, for which I was very thankful. What a great husband I have.

It also looks like I’ll be taking over as head coordinator for the event next year! Sadly, the coordinator this year, my amazing friend Harrison, will be leaving. I’m already looking forward to planning the event next December!

Then this week, just when I thought I was off for the holidays, the other organization I work with called and wanted me to finally implement my much awaited nutrition and family health charlas. Having pushed them back from October, I thought they might never get done. But at the last minute the proposal had been approved and the organization needed to spend all the deposited money by the end of the month, which actually meant in one week since they all take the last two weeks off. So Monday I was instructed to give the full 5-6 hour charla to the staff in order to train them to do the charla in 5 communities Wednesday and Thursday. They then solicited me to do the charla in two other communities Tuesday and Wednesday. Needless to say it was a long week.

I didn’t expect to be doing the charlas by myself, but they basically dropped me off and said, hey, we’ll be back in 6 hours to get you. While at first on the brink of tears, I realized this was an opportunity to show my strength and push myself. Despite freezing cold temperatures and fog the first day, the charla went smoothly. I had a group of about 20 women with kids, and we went over things like diarrhea, pneumonia, water purification, hand washing, nutrition/malnutrition and then did a cooking demonstration (which was the most fun and stressful part). I left feeling totally drained and smelling like fogon smoke, but also feeling satisfied that I had transferred some important knowledge to these women, and that I had done it all by myself. Day 2 was easier with another group of 20 women, I felt more comfortable alone and it was much warmer.

It always amazes me how much the women love the simplest activities. We do an opening activity where we throw around a piece of fruit and you have to say your name, how many kids you have and your favorite food. They laugh so much during this cheesy game, it’s hard to control them. Half of them also said their favorite food was spaghetti, go figure. We also did a taste test of different methods of water purification which they totally got a kick out of guessing which was which. I was also surprised to learn that they didn’t think cuajada (a kind of salty homemade ricotta-like cheese) was cheese at all. They never really said what they thought it was, but they didn’t think it was cheese. I’m not sure exactly what all this means, but it felt good to be sharing activities and knowledge that was new, exciting and important to them. Hopefully we’re still on schedule for more of the same charlas starting again in January, because this is one thing I have really enjoyed thus far. It’s combining my own passion for food and healthy living with a great need that exists in rural areas to educate people, especially women, about the most basic health topics.

Friday, December 17, 2010

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas….

…In every way except for that little thing called snow, although it’s almost chilly enough for one to imagine it could snow (39ºF a few nights ago). The shops are all stocking fake Christmas trees, ornaments (all plastic here), kids toys, singing icicle lights, sticky window décor, rainbow colored garland, Ferrero Rocher chocolates (out of our price range), even candy canes, and have been since before Thanksgiving time (which they don’t celebrate here so Christmas starts even earlier than in the U.S.). All the grocery stores are decked out with big Christmas trees and have special promotions going on. We’re hoping that we have a good chance to win a new stove or large refrigerator with all the shopping we do at our favorite Mini-Super Esperanzano. We’ve even heard some Christmas music around, mostly Feliz Navidad and English songs.

We’ve gotten into the Christmas spirit at our house too. We bought a little fake tree which we decorated with some pine cones, bulbs, candy canes and two unique ornaments – one a bird from El Salvador, the other a Lenca pottery piece. It’s nicely complimented by a navideño colored pañeulo from one of my women’s groups. We hung some blinking lights around our window. I took it upon myself to embroider some stockings which are hung by the front door with care and full of small trinkets we bought for each other. I also decided to make some homemade wrapping paper out of charla paper I had lying around. We splurged on a huge pointsettia for the house, but I think it’s a little too cold here, the plant is already losing many of its red leaves. We’ve started playing our loop of about 75 Christmas songs non-stop, which in addition to the decoration makes the house feel much more Christmas-y.

Here the big night is Christmas Eve, Buena Noche, when people go the evening mass then stay up all night eating things like nacatamales (variant on a tamale) and gallina india (native hen) then set off fireworks at midnight. We bought some of our own fireworks to set off and already are planning our two-person feast. Deviled eggs, stuffed cabbage and fried potatoes for the eve (if I can find ground pork). Then eggs benedict with mimosas for Christmas breakfast followed by a roast turkey or chicken with all the trimmings, as well as some pumpkin spice cupcakes. Mouth-watering just thinking about it. Of course our fridge is not working at present so it’s all contingent on that being fixed soon.

It’s still been more than a little depressing to realize that this is the first Christmas that we’ll have away from any type of family. And our first snow-less Christmas also. We want you to know we’re thinking of you all this time of year, missing you a lot and wishing everyone a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Monday, November 29, 2010

My Run-In with Infectious Disease

Last week, my time in the Peace Corps was nearly cut short by a Leishmania scare.

It was two weeks ago that I spied a small, insect bite-looking mark on my neck. Thinking not much of it, I let it be. But the mark started to grow. In 4 days, it had turned into a red, circular scaly spot about the size of a nickel. It didn’t itch or hurt; I could barely tell it was there, so I really wasn’t too concerned.

But after another half of a week, it wasn’t looking any better so I decided to call someone. The Peace Corps sent me to the clinic in town, which is my least favorite spot. There’s no obvious order to the patients waiting there, which is probably why they can’t give you an approximate waiting time and appointments are nonexistent. Even if you’re half dead you might have to wait 2 hours before someone even acknowledges that you’re there. I feel like, if the Peace Corps calls ahead for me, I should be guaranteed a visit when I get there, but nope. So I waited about an hour and a half to see the Doc.

When I finally get in there, he takes a look. ‘Hmm,’ he says, ‘this looks weird. Have you been travelling lately?’ I said I’d been to Yamaranguila (20 mins away), Copan and El Salvador (a month ago). ‘Well,’ he said, ‘it looks like it could possibly be Leishmania, but I’m not sure. They don’t have it here in La Esperanza, but it’s endemic in El Salvador.’ But I was there a month ago, I protest, how could it just show up now? ‘I don’t know, he says, I’m not a dermatologist, but this could be something that ends your Peace Corps service…’

What!? I shriek over and over in my head. What do you mean? I ask as calmly as possible. ‘Well,’ he says, ‘they don’t really have Leishmania in the U.S., you’ve probably never heard of it. But it could be serious. We know about it here, we could give you some medicine to take back to the U.S. with you. You don’t live anywhere near Tulane do you?’ No, I respond. ‘Well, that’s where they treat it in the U.S.’ That was it. He suggested I see a real dermatologist in Teguz as soon as possible.

I ran home, collapsed into Nolan’s arms in tears and explained what the doctor had said. Nolan wasn’t the least bit convinced. ‘That makes no sense,’ he said. ‘How could they send you back to the U.S. if they can treat it here? And why would they only send you to Tulane? I think the U.S. has a better medical system than Honduras. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about.’ Agreeing that he was probably right, I still quickly scheduled an appointment with the dermatologist the next day in Teguz.

The portly dermatologist took a look, scanned me with a UV light and declared it eczema, a simple allergic reaction to something. He assured me it was nothing serious at all, and that I should be fine in a week. But that wasn’t good enough for the Peace Corps. They still wanted me to get a skin test to check for Leishmania. The PCMO texted me on Thanksgiving Day to let me know the test was negative and as she said ‘we can breathe tranquilo.’ That was probably the one thing I was most thankful for this holiday. Now, the spot is almost gone and I am left wondering how I ever believed for a second that the doctor in La Esperanza could have been correct. It doesn’t instill me with a lot of confidence to go back…

But the incident taught me 2 lessons:

1) 1) Don’t trust crazy small town doctors who think the only place to treat something is Tulane.

2) 2) Take advantage of every second you have in your service, you never know when it might end.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Gracias en Gracias

What better place to celebrate Thanksgiving (Dia de Gracias) than in Gracias, Lempira, a town about 2 hours away in the next department.

This was probably the only chance in our lives to celebrate a major U.S. Holiday in a town of the same name. After all, it’s unlikely you’d ever be somewhere called Christmas or Easter on that exact day.

Gracias cityscape

Hanging out at the Spanish fort

One of the churches of Gracias

Thanksgiving seems to me one of those holidays that becomes more important when you don’t have the opportunity to participate. In the U.S., it’s an event you look forward to with excitement (mostly for gorging yourself) but at the same times perhaps a little dread, will Aunt So and So be there and insist on talking my ear off, will your step-mom be able to act sane after three bottles of Chardonnay…etc etc. I have to admit that Thanksgiving was never my favorite holiday or the most anticipated.

Then all the sudden, you’re living in Honduras and haven’t seen your family in 9 months and at the mere mention of November, you are already planning the details of a big gringo get-together to celebrate. Perhaps it’s that we look for any excuse to get out of site, speak English and drink uncontrollably, but it’s also that longing for a sense of something familiar, something American that marks this time of year.

And so we found ourselves among good friends and new volunteers, along with a few random gringos who just showed up, sharing a Thanksgiving feast together to remind us of home. It may have been one of the finest Thanksgivings I’ve attended, we really did it right. Two 9 lb turkeys, one stuffed and oven baked, the other deep fried in 5 gallons of oil in a huge cauldron heated over a wood burning fire – that was a feat. Real mashed potatoes, homemade macaroni and cheese, delicious red cabbage, classic green bean casserole, and of course my family’s famous sausage stuffing (it was a hit Mom). We topped it off with pumpkin and pecan pie, chocolate cake and cinnamon rolls, followed by rousing and controversial games of beer pong, Peace Corps Jeopardy and Celebrity.

This is how you fry a turkey, Peace Corps style

A real Thanksgiving meal

Peace Corps Jeopardy

Things we are thankful for:

Things you should be thankful for that you probably take for granted:

Each other

Being able to easily get together with friends and family for the holidays without having to take cramped, 4 hour bus rides


The fact that candles are primarily used for ambiance and romance, not much needed light


Constant hot water infinitely adjustable with separate knobs

Ceramic water filter in a bucket

Potable tap water that you don’t have to worry about accidentally swallowing in the shower

Dial-up speed internet in our house

Broadband speed internet on your cell phone

People who throw water on the street to keep the dust down

Paved, dust free streets that don’t contribute to constant sinus infections

Tarps and the kindness of strangers

The fact that riding in a pickup doesn’t mean sitting in the bed with a tarp over your head to stay dry from the rain

Finding a bottle of sage for my stuffing

Having mega-grocery stores which carry every item known to man, most likely within a 5 minute drive from your house

Not having Leishmania (another story for later)

Not having to worry about insects that carry chronic, monster, tropical diseases that can only be treated at Tulane

The aforementioned tarp in pickup truck scenario

But what we are most thankful for is having the opportunity to live in another country and experience the culture, constantly meeting new people, not only from Honduras, but from all over the world, and sometimes even a bunch of guys from the University of Michigan (there was a group that joined our Thanksgiving dinner who started a microfinance organization down here). We complain a lot often about all the failings of Honduras, but we are incredibly happy to be here. There is no way you can really understand how fortunate we are in the US until you live someplace like Honduras for a few months.

We hung out with this friendly baby gecko during lunch

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Some new pics

Us at the waterfall in Yamaranguila (a town about 30 minutes away), the waterfall just kind of appears out of nowhere

Gravestones decorated for Day of the Dead (Nov 1st)
with the town of Yamaranguila behind

Harrison (lives in Yamaranguila) on his b-day, clearly enjoying his caramel cake (which Nicki slaved 4 hours to make)

Nolan and Harrison

Harrison's b-day, hanging out by the bonfire with our torch (paint thinner on an old t-shirt wrapped around a stick)

Jose the firebreather

Holding the torch makes you feel so powerful...

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Highlights from Halloween

We spent last weekend in Copan Ruinas for the infamous annual Peace Corps Halloween Party. While we didn't have a chance to visit the ruins, we did have a great time with our friends and ate a lot of delicious food! Check out our pics!

Nolan on the zipline

Nicki on the zipline

Hiking across the river from Copan (you can kind of see the town in the background)

Sexiest Costume Winners - The Lady Gagas

Carrie and Sean - Adam and Eve

Our favorite costume that didn't win - Jose as Mario Kart

Best Costume Winners - 4 Honduran National Beers

Us - Lenca Couple (traditional group in our area) You can't see Nicki's rubber boots or Nolan's swaddled baby on his back - those really make the costume

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Adventure of the Bus Mishaps: Our Trip to El Salvador: Part 4

When we last saw Nicki and Nolan, they were stuck in a strange San Salvadoran neighborhood, with no idea how to find their next bus.

Dripping with sweat, we searched in vain for anyone who could give us a straight answer about where the bus terminal was. At last, we decided to stop wasting time and hail a taxi. At $4 for the ride, it was 10 times more expensive than the bus, but we didn’t have time to waste. In no time we were at the terminal and on our next bus, a super especial with huge seats and air conditioning. It was the most expensive bus we’d take our whole trip, $5 each for just 2 hours, but it was comfy. We were treated to some music videos, greasy men singing upbeat Latin ballads with shots of half-naked dancing women spliced in, as well as some vendors selling freshly grilled meat that they sold off huge skewers like at Fogo de Chao. San Miguel, our spot to change buses, was nothing special, a hot, dirty, noisy bus terminal/market with annoying women grabbing our arms to buy stuff and no pupusas. We were forced to settle on Pollo Campero for lunch, again the most popular spot in town.

We got the last two seats on the bus up through the mountains to Perquin. The bus trip takes 3 hours, not because it’s far, it was only 60 km, but because the mountains are so steep that the cumbersome bus can only go 20 kph. It was a horrible ride, stuck between a guy who wouldn’t get his butt cheek off my seat and a woman who apparently thought it was a great idea to bring a gigantic birthday cake and box of fried chicken home on her lap for a 3 hour bus ride. I hope it was a special party. If the roads had been dirt, we may not have made it. But we did.

Perquin is a refreshingly cool, small mountain village, just minutes from the border with Honduras. In 2 minutes after getting off the bus, we had walked through the entire town, all 10 blocks of it, and gotten a recommendation about a place to stay. Our hostel was a few rooms, each with about 5 beds, circling the dining room of a popular restaurant. Back to bucket flushing and bathing, we felt like we were in training again. Our first night, we took a quick stroll around town, watched the sun set over the endless mountains, and found some quick pupusas before retiring to our rooms. While studying our guide book in bed, we were startled by something falling from the ceiling, a gecko fighting a scorpion! Scorpions were the last thing we expected to find, but there it was, small but lively. We grabbed a broom from the waitress at the restaurant and moved all the beds around to find it. We finally swept it out, then shooed the gecko away as well. After that, we switched to sleeping on the bottom of the bunk bed rather than in the uncovered one.

Hills of Perquin

The next day we woke up late and had a quick breakfast at the hotel before heading to our main attraction of the day, the Civil War museum. Here’s a bit of background. The 1930’s through the 1970’s saw widespread poverty and oppression engulf El Salvador due to overpopulation, high unemployment and government fraud. Conflict between the left and right wings of government erupted in 1980 after the assassination of an outspoken liberal archbishop, and from 1980 to 1992, El Salvador was engaged in a bitter civil war which claimed over 70,000 lives. The war is still very fresh in people’s minds. The liberal resistance group, a revolutionary army called the FMLN (Frente Marti para la Liberacion Nacional – named after the founder of the Central American Socialist Party, Farabundo Marti) was based in Perquin where they ran a radio station that spread news about the liberal forces. Throughout the war, fighting took place in and around Perquin and the museum was a testament to the bravery and strategy of the FMLN and its allies.

A few things were really outstanding. They had a variety of homemade bombs the FMLN used that were made from wood, wire or plastic since metal was almost impossible to come by unless it was captured from the army. They also used radios or walky talkies that worked by sending signals through barbed wire. There were interesting 1980’s aid posters from all over the world, especially Germany, that called for support for the FMLN. The radio station, Radio Venceremos, (we will overcome) was still partially intact with old equipment including a recording studio lined with egg cartons. They also had the exploded bits of a helicopter, brought down in a sting-operation orchestrated by Radio Venceremos. All this in addition to hundreds of photos and news clippings about the war. Our guide, Jose, was a war veteran who led us though the museum, explaining to us the intricacies of the war. He explained how the war turned families against each other, and how crafty and strategic the FMLN had to be to win battles with less funding, materials and people. We were so happy we could speak and understand Spanish to hear his story.

Radio Venceremos - Voz Oficial del FMLN

Jose, our guide

After the museum we took a quick hike up Cerro Perquin, a small hill overlooking the town, pockmarked with craters where bombs had hit and zigzagging trenches where the rebels fought. The view on all sides was endless blue-ish green mountains. In the afternoon, we headed a little out of town to the fanciest hotel, the Perkin Lenca, where we had an awesome lunch of grilled steak on a beautiful patio overlooking the valley. If the hotel itself hadn’t been so expensive, we might have stayed there, but the food itself was worth the short hike from town. It being the last day of our vacation, we relaxed the afternoon away. We saw a pretty awful four piece band playing in the central park, had some ice cream, chatted with an abuela who owned an artisan shop, watched some kids play volleyball, listened in on some high-powered evangelical church ceremonies taking place, tried to determine where the bus left in the morning (we decided to trust the police), then lounged in some hammocks to watch a funny (we assume Mexican) movie at our hostel about an orphan boy getting stuck in a cave. While lounging, we met a Dominican Bachata singer driving a Mustang who was passing through Perquin on the way to another gig. He thought Nolan was Italian (what a compliment) and he said he plays frequently in Honduras, so we might look him up.

Cerro de Perquin

Lunch at the Perkin Lenca

Our beautiful silence was interrupted by a group of 15 gringos who barged into the hostel (maybe the only one in town so who can blame them) in their short shorts, graphic tees and flip flops. We assumed they were college freshman since they were unchaperoned, and we wondered to ourselves if we had ever acted so annoying when we were that age… probably. We overheard one girl saying she thought all the countries in Central America hated Honduras – we took particular offense to that. We decided the best thing was to be the only gringos in town, mostly because the other gringos made us look bad. At least we dressed well, could speak Spanish and didn’t leave trash everywhere.

We tried to do a ‘pupusa hop’ for dinner, sampling the local fare from a few places, but it was Sunday night and most places were closed up. We settled for a quick pupusa in the park, and then headed back to our hostel for a few more. Despite doing hardly anything all day, we were exhausted, probably the rest of our trip finally catching up with us, so we turned in early.

Pupusa dinner

But oh our trip couldn’t be complete with one last bus fiasco or two. It turns out that the only unpaved road in El Salvador is the one that goes from Perquin to Honduras. It was just our luck that it had rained overnight, turning the road into mud. If the bus had been a little busito it might not have been that bad, but this was a huge bus, a busote, casi un avion said the guy we asked in town, and driving up steep hills in mud with no chains was not what it was designed for. Things were going okay for the first half. We were making good time through the little towns north of Perquin and were only briefly stopped at a Salvadoran military check point where all the men had to get off the bus to have their ID’s checked (kind of scary). When we got to the Honduran border, things got ridiculous. First of all, the border is in disputed territory so El Salvador doesn’t have a border post, only Honduras does. But when we arrived, not a single person boarded the bus to check our ID’s or passports, no one instructed us to get off to go through immigration and the only noticeable activity was a guy selling ice cream cones on the bus. Oh Honduras, we said in unison. The bus ayudante got off to fill up some bottles of water that he had been continually pouring into the engine on the way up. In less than 5 minutes we were off, feeling lucky that we have residency cards that prevent us from having any trouble anyway.

The road, which while unpaved in El Salvador was still fairly well maintained, turned into something like a motocross course on the Honduran side. The bus was getting stuck every few feet, skidding all over the road wildly from one side to the other, barely able to keep traction. At one point, we were stuck for 45 minutes while a team of helpful Honduran who appeared out of nowhere tried to dig, push, pull and tug our way out of mud pit. We thought we might never make it home, our supposedly 3 hour ride turning into a 5 hour fiasco. By the end, our ayudante and driver were both caked in mud and drenched in sweat, they earned every cent of their bus fare that day.

We had to change buses one last time in Marcala, about two hours from home. Before we did, we found a small café to have a good ol’ baleada. It felt good to be back in Honduras again.

Back at home, Nicki and Nolan are able to catch up on some much needed rest to recharge for their next adventure, Halloween…

Friday, October 29, 2010

Adventure of the Bus Mishaps: Our Trip to El Salvador: Part 3

When we last saw Nicki and Nolan, they were on the side of the Central American Highway, hoping to catch a bus to La Libertad and warily eyeing the passing cars for shady characters.

After a good half hour of standing in a bus cutout that not a single bus pulled into and wondering how safe it was to be two gringos standing along a busy highway, we asked a guy for help. He thought the buses to La Libertad got on the highway a little further up. Not knowing exactly where we were supposed to go, we instead got on a bus back the center of town, this time clearly asking if the bus went directly to Terminal de Occidente. We arrived at the terminal and no sooner had we asked for help did the bus to La Libertad pull up, and before we knew it we were speeding away.

La Libertad is the closest port to San Salvador, and a popular weekend getaway for capitalinos. We arrived in the middle of a jostling market and just after stepping out of the back of the bus like a middle school fire drill, we were able to catch another bus to head further down the beach. The bus blasted reggaeton and the wind whipped our hair as we sailed past huge beachfront properties. Our destination was El Tunco, a small community with a few scattered hotels and restaurants, famous for a rock formation off the coast known as El Tunco, the pig, as well as it’s world class surfing. We arrived to our hostel, Papaya’s Lodge, and found that the only room left was a two twin bed room with shared bathroom and fan. We took it. Papaya’s was in a great spot, they were located on a serene small river full of mangrove forests just 100 meters or so from the ocean. They had a nice deck with hammocks overlooking the water.

Does it look like a pig to you?

Lounging by the rio at Papaya's

We headed toward the beach at sunset to snap a few pictures. The smooth black rocks made a pleasant clinking sound like a rain stick as the waves washed them to and from the beach. Surprisingly, the place was pretty empty. Four or five big restaurants lined the water but there were only a handful of diners. Just as the moon was rising, we settled on a small eatery which an old drunk hippie woman convinced us was the best in town. We ordered huge frozen lemonades for just a $1 each then grilled chicken and fish tacos. After dinner, we headed to the Coco Bar, a small establishment perched on the rocks above the beach for a Cuba Libre and a Pilsner (the national beer of El Salvador). We were hoping for a little more nightlife, but decided we’d call it an early night and had back to the hostel. A bunch of young Eastern European guys were up drinking, playing music and being noisy all night just outside our room. So that night we decided that in the morning we’d look for a new place to stay.

The next day we woke up and headed to a restaurant advertising American breakfasts. Again we were served huge glasses of fresh juice. The American breakfast was good, but only came with one slice of undercooked bacon and a hot dog for the meat. We checked out a few hotels along the beach, scoffed at the exorbitant prices of the fanciest ones, and made the easy choice of Casa Miramar. For double what we were paying at Papaya’s we got a private room and bath with A/C and access to a small, clean pool and sitting area with hammocks overlooking the churning waves. It was perfect!

Vista de Casa Miramar

Tough day at the beach

Happy with our new found hotel, we headed back into La Libertad for lunch. Although the guide book said it was unbecoming, dangerous and not worth a visit, we found the port town to be quite charming. We walked along the big muelle (pier) where they had a huge fresh fish market selling everything from lobsters and crabs to fish and even fresh ceviche. From the pier, they lowered boats down to the water on a crane so they miss the waves crashing on shore. Just off the pier, the fishing boats are lined up, whole filleted fish draped over the sides to dry in the sun. The fisherman had their nets tied to trees and were carefully mending the holes. The rocky beach was also lined with drying fish filets. To one side of the pier was a line of open air food stands serving the catch of the day. We had a decent whole fried fish with papas fritas while listening to a nearby mariachi band. To the other side of the pier was a newly redeveloped waterfront boardwalk with an amphitheater, restaurants and shops. The project is not quite done, so the place was kind of deserted. We did stop for some much needed Mexican popsicles, which came in every flavor imaginable from strawberries and cream to mojito with rum and even pico de gallo.

It was getting hot, so we decided to go back to El Tunco to take a swim. Originally we had wanted to take surfing lessons since El Salvador is famous for its breaks, but after jumping into the water, we quickly changed our minds. The waves were huge and powerful. One minute we’d be standing in calf deep water, then a wave would crash over us and the water would be above our heads. Several times we were both dragged into the shore, skidding along the rough, sandy ocean floor. It was exhausting to swim in, and for a novice surfer would have been impossible to manage. We were happy just fighting the waves for a bit, after which we retreated to the serene hotel pool to relax. We showered off then lounged around in hammocks, waiting for the sunset. But the biggest treat of the week was yet to come.

For dinner, we happened upon a pizzeria serving Italian style pizza, which for us is the perfect meal. Good American style pizza is hard to come by in Central America and real Italian style pizza is nearly impossible so finding a good pizzeria in the smallest of Salvadoran communities was a miracle. We were excited to order a big margherita pizza that arrived with a thin, charred crust, the perfect ratio of sauce to cheese, and fresh basil. It was beyond delicious. It was so good in fact, that we decided we had to order another, unsure when we’d have the opportunity again. The second had pepperoni, and not the Hormel kind, thick slices of slightly spicy artisanal Italian salumi that delighted the senses. We probably could have ordered a third had our stomachs not been prohibitively small. Instead we retreated to our hotel to finish the night with a few Coronas, sipped on the terrace overlooking the dark ocean.

For not really being beach people, we were sad to leave El Tunco the next morning on an early bus. We ran into another couple that was headed for Honduras. Unfortunately, the first and only thing they had to say about the country was how confusing it was for the woman to get a visa because she was Russian. Oh Honduras. In no time we were back on a chicken bus, speeding back toward San Salvador to make our way to the eastern part of the country. But of course we couldn’t do that without having a few more bus problems. The bus from La Libertad, which leaves from Terminal de Occidente, is also supposed to return back to Terminal de Occidente, but then ‘supposed to’ doesn’t mean very much apparently. Our bus drove in confusing lops around the city before depositing us in some unknown neighborhood. Attempts to ask the bus driver, a guy at a kiosk, and some fellow bus passengers got us conflicting answers as to how close and which direction Terminal de Occidente was.

Will our adventurers ever make it to Terminal de Occidente and on to their final destination? Or will they be forced to aimlessly wander the urban jungle of San Salvador? Tune in next week for the exciting conclusion of Nicki and Nolan’s Salvadoran Adventure.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Adventure of the Bus Mishaps: Our Trip to El Salvador: Part 2

When we last saw Nicki and Nolan, they were stranded on the side of a mountain highway as the darkness settled in, unsure if they would find a way back to Santa Ana for the night.

Just as we were beginning to despair that we would be sleeping in the woods, we heard the faint roar of a bus engine. As the bus rounded the corner, we felt a huge sense of relief. Unfortunately, after we had made it down the mountain, we discovered the bus didn’t actually go back to Santa Ana. Some nice man had the kindness to tell us that we had to switch buses. We hopped off and then quickly got on another bus with psychedelic flashing lights everywhere just as it was getting pitch black. It was more than a little sketchy, but we had to do it. But it didn’t end there. The flashing bus didn’t actually go to the center of Santa Ana either so we got the bus driver to explain to us how to get yet another bus. So we ended up on a random corner in Santa Ana, waiting for an urban bus. It felt like midnight, we didn’t know where we were and we were leading the three other hikers who were even more befuddled about our whereabouts. Luckily we quickly caught a final bus, which we were the only passengers on, and headed back to our hotel, and it was only maybe 7 pm.

Exhausted and starving, our friendly hotel owner guided us to the most amazing pupuseria in El Salvador. Pupusas are a national dish, corn tortillas stuffed with cheese, beans, chicharron, or a combination, then fried on a hot grill. They are normally eaten with your hands, topped with encurtido, a combination of pickled carrots, onions and cabbage. We scarfed down three huge pupusas each, nearly burning our mouths on the oozing cheese. The whole dinner, 6 pupusas and 2 sodas, was $2.40. Stomachs full and minds at ease, we crashed into bed for a good night sleep.

Day 3 we left Santa Ana to head back to San Salvador for a day. Again, the bus system wanted to complicate things. Since the central bus terminal no longer existed we had to catch a quick bus to the mall south of town (a pseudo-bus terminal) where we could catch an especial bus to San Salvador. After waiting for awhile and not seeing the especial we took the directo which stops more. Just as we pulled out, we spotted the especial behind us. The directo wasn’t too bad, we were maybe only 15 minutes later than we expected, but the directo didn’t go to the mall in San Salvador where the especial did. Chatting with some people on the bus, a kind old woman explained that we had to get off the directo and hop on bus 44 to the mall, she offered to show us. So we disembarked on the side of yet another highway in the middle of San Salvador. Luckily, bus 44 was right behind us, so we got on and were at the mall in no time.

We didn’t really want to go to the mall per se, but rather to a folk art museum that was nearby. With our backpacks weighing us down, we walked in the boiling hot sun for about 20 minutes to the museum. We almost cried when the museum looked like it was closed, but luckily the door was just locked and the woman let us in. At the museum we saw some traditional Salvadoran crafts, the most famous being sorpresas (surprises) miniature figures and scenes that are molded in clay and then painted. They come in little egg shell-looking cups that you open up to reveal the scene inside. Some depict Salvadorans making pupusas or harvesting coffee, others have a variety of sex positions. We also saw some paper art (like tissue paper or thin plastic sheets), weaving, ceramics and masks. It was a cool little museum, certainly off the beaten track but well worth a visit.

From there we were excited to head to a nearby restaurant famous for its sandwiches, pasta and selection of Belgian and German ales. Again the old guide book would let us down, the restaurant had been replaced with a nearly empty tipico bar and grill. Disappointed, hot and exhausted, the only real option we could see was to head back to the mall. Once again, we were dismayed to find that the liveliest spot in town was the American looking food court. We found a pretty good restaurant and had soup, salad and sandwiches that really hit the spot, although they were a bit pricey. We wandered around the mall for awhile, wondering how people could afford to pay $25 for a pair of shoes, certainly out of our price range.

So after just a few hours in San Salvador, we were ready to head out to the beaches of the Pacific Coast. We found a bus who said they were going to the Terminal de Occidente, right where we needed to be to catch a bus to the coast. But as you may have guessed, we were in for another crazy ride. The driver didn’t stop at the terminal, we didn’t even pass it, nor did they advise us where we could get off to either walk or catch another bus there. Of course we didn’t know the city well enough to know where to get off ourselves and when we finally decided we were not in the right spot and asked for directions, the bus driver just said to wait, he would take us somewhere to catch a bus to the beach. We drove all over San Salvador on the bus for about 30 minutes, we were so lost. Finally the driver advised us to hop off and wait alongside the highway for the bus to La Libertad, the beach, that would be passing by every 10 minutes or so.

There we were on the side of a real highway this time, a divided 6 lane beast, on the outskirts of the city, waiting for some unknown bus to miraculously appear.

Will the bus to La Libertad drive by and save our adventurers? Or will they be forced to trudge down the Central American Highway trying to avoid the dangerous drug smugglers? Tune in tomorrow for Part 3 of Nicki and Nolan’s Salvadoran Adventure.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Adventure of the Bus Mishaps: Our Trip to El Salvador, Part I

It was a crisp and sunny October morning when Nicki and Nolan set off from chilly La Esperanza for their 7 day vacation to El Salvador. They travelled by busito across scenic and magnificent mountains, valleys and plains to the far western corner of Honduras, the department known as Ocotepeque. The bus ride rivaled any they had taken thus far in beauty, but the voyage took over 6 hours, far longer than one would imagine after looking at a map. They would spend just one quick night in the serene and mountain encased city of Nuevo Ocotopeque with a fellow volunteer before setting off to the frontera.

We caught a cab to the frontera at 6:30 am which dropped us off 50 meters from the actual crossing point. The street was lined with shady trees and rows of small shops, all still closed this early in the morning. The ‘border’ was a guard with a gun who checked our ID cards. He must have thought we looked suspicious because he sent us to chat with an immigration officer who was interested in where we were going and for how long. Due to an agreement called the CA-4 between Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, residents of these countries don’t have to pay to enter the others, so we were all set. It was a strange border crossing, no lines of cars, big walls or fences, not many officers or police and hardly any people. It might have been any sleepy Honduran town except for the guys with big black bags hawking dollars. El Salvador replaced their colones with U.S. dollars in 2001 in a process known as dolarizacion. The only downside to this plan that we could tell is that because things are so cheap here, everyone has to carry around a mound, bag or purse-full of coins since no one makes change for bills more than $5 usually. The bus ayudantes have cool bags that hang around their wrists for such purposes.

Just past the border, we hopped on the first of many Salvadoran buses to La Palma, about 30 minutes from the border. It’s a quaint town, made famous by a style of art created by painter Fernando Llort in the 1970’s. The style is one of simple, brightly colored geometric pieces that form traditional images (casas, birds, people) and it is now painted on everything, from canvas and wood to seeds, tiles, walls and boxes. The town itself is decorated with colorful murals on nearly every wall, door, telephone pole and bench in town. We were there too early to do much, so we had a quick coffee and pastry, snapped some photos, bought ourselves a souvenir and hopped back on the bus to head down to El Salvador.

Mosaic chairs in the park in La Palma

Murals in La Palma

Painting we bought in the Llort style

Despite being in a remote area of the country, we were amazed to feel the bus speed down smoothly paved roads past rural outposts, all with electricity. El Salvador, mostly because of its small size and relatively dense population, (same population of Honduras in 1/5 the area) has excellent road and electricity infrastructure unlike Honduras. The buses are the same, old US yellow school buses, souped up and decked out, but in El Salvador they all seem to have extra wide aisles created by putting in smaller seats (not sure why they do this).

The scenery coming down from La Palma was as gorgeous as any in Honduras, skyscraping mountains and rolling hills covered in coffee and corn plantations but with the addition of one thing, towering volcanoes off in the distance where we were headed. In less than 3 hours and for $1.60 each, we were in San Salvador, the capital, trying hurriedly to navigate the public transportation system. San Salvador has a pretty reliable, safe and cost effective public bus system and in no time we were directed to a bus taking us to the other bus terminal. The intercity buses have turnstiles in the front where you get on and another in the back where you get off (not so easy to navigate with backpacks).

We may have mentioned before that it’s common in Honduras for vendors to get on the bus at intersections to sell snacks and drinks, usually tajadas and rosquillas (cookies for your coffee). The same thing occurs on Salvadoran buses, but with some variation. Maybe the people in El Salvador are more healthy (unlikely) or maybe there are fewer produce markets (also unlikely) but there was a ton of produce being sold on the buses. There were things like sliced cucumbers, cabbage salad, chunks of papaya and oranges, all ready to eat with your choice of lime or chile. But you could also buy just a bag of onions, green peppers, platanos, avocadoes, apples, or tomatoes to take home! Like a mobile market! They were also selling a lot more nut varieties and candy than we see in Honduras, usually for a cuoda, which it took us almost a whole day to figure out meant quarter. We were also offered toothbrushes, colon medicine, bags of Christmas cookies, ice cream cones, and marshmallows. These people will sell anything on a bus.

So we finally arrived in Santa Ana. Well, more or less we arrived. The bus we were on, which was supposed to stop at the “central bus terminal” bypassed this stop for whatever reason, and no one informed us. So we ended up the only people on the bus, somewhere outside the city at a random bus terminal along a highway. Santa Ana is a big city, about 200,000 people, so it wasn’t like we could just walk into town. We asked around, luckily we speak Spanish now, and figured out which bus we could get on to head back to the center. There were about 10 buses that passed us so it was good that we asked. All the buses have scheduled routes and numbers which are clearly painted on the front and back of the bus so as long as you know which bus you need, it’s relatively easy to find it. And buses pass pretty frequently, sometimes two of the same numbered busses are in a row, so we didn’t wait long.

Back at the central market where we were supposed to be, we scurried through hundreds of food and random product stalls at the market, like rats in a maze, trying to find the street we needed. We eventually popped out a park with a huge, dilapidated and abandoned building that looked like an art museum. It was unfortunate that it was no longer in use, but it gave an interesting character to the surrounding neighborhood. We found our hotel nearby with no problems, the pleasant Hotel El Faro which had a nice interior courtyard and beautiful murals painted in all the rooms. We were the only people there, but the ‘hourly rate’ signs on the wall in our rooms suggested that this hotel was utilized by a different kind of clientele.

Abandoned building in the park

Hotel El Faro

Sign in the hotel

We hit the highlights of Santa Ana in the afternoon, the museum of western Salvadoran history with an exhibit on El Salvador money, the colonial style city hall, the freshly restored Teatro Santa Ana, the gothic-inspired Catholic church, and a famous all-natural ice cream/sorbet place called Sin Rival (without rival). The trouble began around dinner time. We attempted to find a place called Lover’s Steakhouse to have an anniversary dinner. That didn’t exist. We looked instead for a tipico Salvadoran place called Dona Amelia’s. That didn’t exist. We tried Pip’s Carymar which was a strange cafeteria that didn’t seem to have any food. To be fair, we were using a guide book from 2005, but still the city didn’t seem to have a vibrant restaurant scene. After traversing the city center for nearly 2 hours, we settled on Pollo Campero, the Central American equivalent of KFC. Air conditioned, with waitresses and free wi-fi, Pollo Campero was full of people, the happening spot on a Tuesday night in Santa Ana. Our fried chicken dinner was satisfying if not exactly what we were looking for.

Teatro Santa Ana

The next day, we caught the first and only bus to Parque Nacional Los Volcanes, home to three volcanoes, Izalco, Santa Ana and Cerro Verde, two still active (Santa Ana and Izalco). On the drive up to the park, we passed by the azure Lago de Coatepeque, nestled at the base of Volcan Santa Ana. The views were stunning. The visitor center for the park is actually in the now inactive crater of Volcan Cerro Verde and was mostly deserted except for the 5 other people we would be hiking with, a couple from Montana, a French-Canadian woman and two friends, one from El Salvador, the other from Colombia. We chatted with a police officer who recommended we hike Volcan Izalco. When we told him how impressed we were with the Salvadoran road infrastructure, especially compared to Honduras, he told us that it was actually the worst it had been in years because the current administration didn’t maintain it. We couldn’t see a problem; to us everything was wonderfully paved and smooth.

Lago de Coatepeque with Volcanes Santa Ana and Cerro Verde

Then the grueling hike began. We first hiked down Cerro Verde (~2000 m, although I don’t think we hiked down that far) which was a surprisingly exhausting 1,300 steps. Nicki’s legs were shaking by the time we reached the bottom. From the lush Cerro Verde we popped out onto the barren slope of Izalco. Izalco stopped erupting in 1966 after almost 300 years of constant eruption, and because it spewed lava, the cone remained pure pumice. Santa Ana erupted with only ash and smoke, so it is still lush and Cerro Verde hasn’t erupted in so long, it’s had time to regrow. And so we began the even more grueling hike up Izalco (1950 m). It was difficult mostly because the ground was gravelly rock which slid out with every step. But the reward of making it to the top was worth the climb. Although cloudy, we still had an amazing view on all sides to a wide open valley floor, Santa Ana and Cerro Verde on one side, a small piece of the lake and almost a view to San Salvador had it been clearer. We could walk all the way around the steaming crater, and saw some gigantic flying grasshoppers with bright orange wings.

Before the ascent

Steaming crater

Cool grasshoppers, about 4 inches long

Of course then we had the steep climb, or rather more like slide, down the volcano and then the hike back up Cerro Verde. Nolan, who hikes for a living here, did just fine. Nicki was a little more exhausted. What amazed us was the little Salvadoran girl who was our guide who couldn’t have been more than 4 feet tall. She practically ran up and down both slopes and was barely out of breath, but she does the hike about 3 times a week. We also needed an armed police officer in our entourage, not because it’s dangerous, they told us, just to have. I chatted with our officer since I was bringing up the lead and he was behind me. The police officers actually live at the visitor center for 5 days then have 3 days off. He said it was hard for him to leave his family, but as he put it “Hay que trabajar” (you have to work).

The fun really started after the three and a half hour hike though. We waited around until 3 for the bus, but it didn’t show. The guard thought it would come at 4, so we waited some more. The bus didn’t come. At this point, all the staff of the visitor center who normally take the bus started to leave by foot. Only when we asked them did they finally suggest we start walking down the mountain to some other random spot where there might be another chance of a ride. So we translated the info to our fellow hikers (who would probably still be stranded there because they didn’t speak Spanish) and began our descent, hiking down about 5 km to another “bus stop.” Then we met Carmen, a little old woman, perhaps our favorite Salvadoran. She explained that she had been sitting waiting for the bus for about 6 hours (since the bus that dropped us of in the morning) because she had lost the key to her house that was next to the bus stop. If she’d had the key, she told us, she would have let us in and made some coffee to warm us up. She didn’t want to walk because she had a very heavy bag and was “nearly paralyzed with cold.” The staff assured us a bus would come at 5 pm, which we explained to Carmen as we waited along the side of a highway in the shadow of the volcanoes.

Will our adventurers ever find a bus back to Santa Ana? Or will they have to walk back through the Salvadoran countryside in the middle of the night? Tune in next week for Part 2 of Nicki and Nolan’s Salvadoran Adventure.