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.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Ups and Downs: A Story in Two Parts

Part 1: Up – Nicki’s Story

Friday was a fulfilling day, I gave my first solo business charla! Every year the US Embassy has an artisan fair and invites PCVs who work with artisan groups to participate. I’m bringing two groups this year. The groups who come have to receive a charla on basic business plans and so came Friday, my first charla. I’d given charlas in groups in the past, but this was a 3-4 hour serious charla with tons of information and activities and I was flying solo. I prepared my charla papers for 4 weeks before the big day, they were sparkling and perfect. Nolan came along to be my ayudante and photographer. It was a misty, gross day driving out to the community and I was sick with a cold and feeling nervous. Then we nearly died skidding off a hill in the bus at it hit a patch of mud. That didn’t help my nerves.

We arrived to the site of the charla, someone’s small house with no electricity that was nearly pitch black because there was little sun. I nearly freaked out trying to figure out how I was going to give the charla in the space. First lesson in Peace Corps, be flexible! I had Nolan hold the charla papers rather than put them on the walls and I stood practically in the doorway to be sure people could see. We did activities in the small living room because outside was puro lodo. The best part was that the charla went really well! Second lesson in Peace Corps, have faith in your participants! Everything was pretty smooth, including my Spanish, and most of the group was actively participating and laughing, and (I think) learning new stuff about how to improve their weaving business. I can’t even explain how great of a feeling it was to be finished and to have the group thank me so sincerely for giving them this new information. Angela, my counterpart, and Nolan were equally proud and supportive. It felt like I was doing something real and actually making a difference and despite my exhaustion, I was full of adrenaline from my first successful charla!

Why are my eyes always closed in pictures?

Traditional wood loom that the group uses to weave their products

Part 2: Down – Nolan’s Story

Coming back from the business plan charla in El Cacao, we needed to get a jalon since the bus ya se fue. Catching a jalon in Honduras is not that difficult, as long as you are prepared to sit the bed of a pickup truck driving down bumpy, dirt mountain roads. We finally were picked up after walking for 45 minutes down the road and not seeing a single car or truck. Being that it is the rainy season and the visibility through the fog was about 100 feet where we were, the driver was nice enough to let Nicki, who had a cold, sit inside, while Angela (Nicki’s work counterpart) and I sat in the paila (truck bed). Due to the rain, the roads were pretty muddy, so after about five minutes, the driver got out and put chains on the tires to maintain traction. But the chains apparently didn’t help much since we still wildly fish tailed down the next hill. It wasn’t really as bad as it sounds, it’s not like we were driving along a cliff (actually we kind of were at one point). But still, just imagine sitting the back of a truck, fish tailing down a mountain with low visibility. And if that wasn’t uncomfortable enough, halfway down, we stopped and they loaded half the bed with big bags of potatoes, so we had less room to sit. In the end, everything was fine, we made it down the mountain in one piece, ready for any jalones in the future.

Friday, October 15, 2010

In the shade of the Banana Tree

Another day, another topographic study. (Well, my first real study, the other time was just a hike to see what we were up against.) Study days require early mornings, up at 7 am, at the here unnamed NGO office by 8, only to wait around for 20 to 30 minutes before actually leaving while people are doing heaven knows what besides wasting time. We set off in a pickup truck, luckily not in the pila, for the 1.5 hour drive to Masaguara, a neighboring municipality, which, although right next to Intibucá, is still lejos because you have to skirt around every mountain in the range to get there. 1.5 hours is speedy, especially when your pickup is going 100 km/hr along a winding mountain road that suffers daily from derrumbes (landslides) which take out big portions of the major highway. In a bus, it would be twice as long. When we hit our turnoff in Jesus de Otoro, the road turns to unpaved gravel. I keep thinking to myself that if I had money to invest here, I’d put it into roads so people could get around easier and avoid terminal back pain. Then I think that although paved roads would cut travel times maybe in half and save people so much time, time here does not equal money, it is just time, so maybe there wouldn’t be any efficiency improvements.

We are greeted in Masaguara by members of the Junta de Agua (water board) and pile into another pickup with our help for the day for the 20 minute drive further up into the mountains to the fuente (water source). The fuente in Masaguara is beautiful, a towering cascada along a rock face with ferns, palms and vines aplenty. This is partly the reason I wanted to come on this day of the study. As we hike through random tracks in the woods to the fuente, we chat with our study party for the day. Hector, the friendly Junta secretary who speaks a little English, tells us he has a friend whose child is named Needbreezing and wants to know what that means or what it would translate to. I would love to hear people’s thoughts about what that mother was actually trying to name her child, I told Hector it was gibberish. He also explained to us how people were up here in the woods chopping down perfectly good and protective natural trees to plant things like corn which grow poorly and have a low yield. He agreed with us that there needs to be more education and protection of natural areas, especially around water sources.

Hiking through the mountains to the fuente

The fuente

Once we get to the fuente, the only real uphill climb the whole day, the real work starts. We scramble down waterfalls and across rocky escarpments from one point to the next in a little train. Two guys are out in front blazing a trail through the woods by slashing down every bush (except coffee, cuidese with the cafĂ©) with their machetes. I’m convinced that Honduran men just love to chop things with their machetes, no matter how little it may actually need chopping; it’s a machismo thing. But they are handy with those things. They can chop down a small tree and make estacas (stakes) to mark our trail, they can slice through grass and brush that once seemed impenetrable, and one guy even made us a quick ladder/stepping log with notches carved in it in his spare time to help us down a rocky riverbank. I would probably chop my own foot off wielding those things, but it’s like an extension of their body almost. Off topic, but they can also cut the grass with machetes in towns where there is no lawn mower, which is quite often.

Making stakes

I was able to try my hand at surveying, which is easy and hard at the same time. All you do is look into a theodolite atop a tripod and read some numbers off (most of the day I was the note taker of those numbers). But you have to have a gentle hand to guide and then lock the theodolite in place and then focus it on the measuring stick in the distance to read the numbers. I tried it once then let Nolan take over. It was overall exhausting work, which I think I’ve mentioned before. Although you’re going mostly downhill, there is an occasional uphill stretch and when you are walking over big rocks and knee deep in bushes, you get tuckered out. Plus our lunch was about 2 hours late so I nearly passed out from starvation. The scenery was beautiful; the weather just about perfect and the company was friendly. The guys helping us out probably thought I was ridiculous, marching around in my rubber boots like one of the guys, but I think they secretly enjoyed my company.

Don't you love my boots?

Secret agent in the coffee bushes

We halted the study at 2:30 pm to be back in town in time for our 3 pm ride back. The NGO guy called at 5 to 3 saying they were waiting for us at the plaza and were about to leave, we convinced them to stay another 5 minutes. Of course, in Honduran fashion, when we got to the plaza, they were nowhere to be found and then called to say they would be there in 50 minutes, which later turned into about 75 minutes. And they said they were waiting, lies! All lies!

Feeling marooned, we walked a bit around the completely dead town, trying in vain to buy a refresco from the dozens of shops that were wide open with no one inside. It was eerily empty to 4 pm on a Monday. On the way back, I was exhausted, but those damn gravelly roads kept me from dozing off, as did our near brushes with death every three seconds. I noticed a binder in the pickup truck, a guide to the procedures of driving the truck from the NGO. I noted that the book probably strictly prohibited passing semi trucks on a two lane mountain highway with fog limiting visibility to about 20 feet, just a guess though.

I’d had enough after one day, achy all over and then catching a cold, so I let Nolan take over for the rest of the week. But I was still sad to say goodbye to our team of Honduran helpers, knowing that I would probably never return to the isolated community of Masaguara.

Church in Masaguara

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Nothing special, just life

Things have been busy but at the same time slow, if that makes any sense. Nothing special of note has happened lately, but I thought I'd fill you all in a little on what we've been up to since I feel like our blogging has been sparse.

I participated in a family health taller (workshop) at the end of September, right here in La Esperanza coincidentally, to learn about how to give charlas on diarrhea, pneumonia, nutrition/malnutrition, safe water and healthy cooking. It was a cold and rainy week in La Esperanza for the taller so everyone was a little miserable. It was also awkward for me because the two community members I "brought" to the workshop I had never met before. I was supposed to start actually giving the charlas this week, but fijese que the budget proposal with the NGO wasn't ready and so we can't start until November. I'll be giving 6 hour charlas on the above topics plus cooking demonstrations in 20 communities from November through February, at least that's the plan right now. Things are always subject to change here. If it sounds like a lot, it is, but I'm really excited to be doing work that I'm more interested in.

I'm also working with two women's groups who make artesania to prepare them for an annual artisan fair at the US Embassy that the Peace Corps has helped sponsor the past two years. That's coming up the second week in December. I will be giving them each a charla on aspects of creating a business plan and then helping them take pictures of their products and write a brief bio that will go into a art fair catalog of all the participating groups, which I am also editing/creating. It will be a good opportunity for the groups to compare their products with other artisans and to get some face-to-face time with customers. It's only a little tricky because the groups are located 1 to 2 hours away so communicating information and doing advanced planning is difficult.

Nolan has had nearly nonstop work doing water studies. He completed one in September that he is still working on the design for since one house ended up higher than the tank, so there isn't enough pressure to get the water to that house. He did a quick sewage system survey here in La Esperanza just last week and still has to design that. This week, he's out in a nearby municipality doing another study. (I went with him Monday and a blog about that in specific is forthcoming). They're already trying to line him up to do two more in November! He is also going to start teaching high school chemistry (in Spanish of course) in about 2 weeks at a program called Maestro en Casa. It's like a GED program I guess, where people who never finished school can get their high school diploma by studying at home and having classes one day a week. Most of the people live in isolated rural communities and are either too old or too busy to go to traditional school. Maestro en Casa in La Esperanza has a good reputation and is run by a woman from the US who actually cares if students are learning or not, so the kids or adults really, generally do well. I think that will be exciting for him :)

Despite all this wonderful real work, it seems like day to day life is still moving at the same slow pace. I have been spending a lot of time at home preparing charla papers and when Nolan's doing a design, he's at home all day, so it's a bit boring. We watch a lot of movies and tv shows, our new favorite show is Community. We've been keeping up with Michigan football via internet radio on the weekends and doing a lot of cooking (bolognese, ginger ale, banana cake, zucchini bread, broccoli and chicken with penne). I also made some lovely curtains for the house (sewn by hand) to try to keep out some of the cold air. It hasn't rained in over a week now, which seems strange, so the town is a big cloud of dust. Oh yeah, and our landlord's/ex-host mom's son has apparently opened up a auto body repair shop in the garage right below our apartment which makes for lovely paint fumes and strange drilling noises at all hours.

Next week we're headed to El Salvador for 8 days to celebrate our 2 year wedding anniversary and Nolan's birthday! Look for pics and many new stories when we get back!

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Nicki and Nolan’s Honduran Cider Mill

We couldn’t go any longer without having some tasty autumn cider, so we took matters into our own hands, we made some ourselves.

First, I’d like to share that where we live, we can actually get apples, Honduran apples. I couldn’t tell you the variety, but perhaps something akin to a Gala? Those pretty red, orangey, yellow kind that are small. They also sell USA apples here, the waxy looking ones like red delicious and granny smith, but those aren’t cidering apples. So we used the Honduran ones, ugly by US standards but still tasty. We bought 15 smallish apples for 30 lemps or $1.50, which is actually a little expensive for apples since it’s not the cosecha (harvest) right now.

The process was actually simple, but a little time consuming. We cored and chopped the apples then blended them in the licuadora as best we could, a little at a time so it took awhile. We then squeezed the pulpy substance a little at a time through a cheesecloth and viola, cider! We added a few sprigs of cinnamon and heated it up to pasteurize it then savored our fall treat with some homemade zucchini bread (a zucchini the size of my arm was only 5 lemps at the market). Our house sure smelled delicious.

Those 15 apples only made 2 glasses of cider though, either because they were small or because we don’t have the strength of an industrial apple press in our arms to properly extract all the juice. We’d have liked to make more but our arms were aching and the Michigan football game was almost on. We hope to try again next week if we can still find apples.

Part 2 involved using all the discarded apple pulp and pieces from the cider process. It felt wrong to just throw 4 cups of apple bits away. So we decided we’d try to make fruit leather, you know, the chewy dehydrated fruit snack. This process was equally straightforward. We mixed the leftover pulp with some orange juice, sugar and water and simmered it on the stove until the apples were soft and rehydrated. We further blended the mixture into an applesauce-like consistency. Then we spread the sauce on a pizza pan with some plastic wrap and let it sit in the oven which we heated up on and off for a day to dry it out. It actually turned out pretty delicious except for we left the oven on a little too long at the end and one part got kind of crispy. Still tasty though.

It was nice to be able to recreate some of our favorite fall traditions. It helps us not miss home so much. Plus it gives us something to do instead of work.