Saturday, June 13, 2009

Up and over the mountain

Looking out from the castle in Gracias over the rest of Lempira
Looking from the castle out over the town
From the castle up towards the Celaque cordillera

A really beautiful farm on our walk up the mountain

So we now have just a couple of weeks until we leave Honduras. Already a lot of the mixed feelings that we’ve expected have started flowing in. We’re both really excited about next year, knowing where we’ll be and that we both have great opportunities awaiting us. At the same time it is hard to imagine leaving our life here. We have so many great things that are a big part of us and it is going to be really hard to just cut all of the strings that connect us to the people here and this beautiful place. Our neighbors have watched out for us so much this year, dropping whatever they are doing and helping us whenever we have the smallest problem.

For the last couple of months one of the communities near Gracias has been digging trenches for supplying water and are building a little dam in the river near our house to catch the water. They bring up lots of loads of gravel and stuff in these big trucks that can barely turn around. One day we were walking home from school and just as we were getting to our house we saw one of the big trucks coming down. We breathed a sigh of relief, glad that it was gone for the day but once we got right to our house we realized that it had ripped the power line from our house. I think this is a good opportunity to use the word flabbergasted and that we were. We just had no idea where to begin solving the problem. I like trying to fix things but I’m pretty scared of messing with anything electrical. We didn’t know who was driving the truck, who they worked for or anything. We don’t know any electricians, there isn’t really a power company so we thought we might be out of power for an extended time. We were just standing outside our house looking dumbfounded. Our neighbor who works on the water system came walking down the mountain as we were standing in the middle of the road and after looking at our faces asked what was up. We told him our plight and he was like, oh I have a friend who is an electrician and I’ll call him and get him to come up. With Honduran standard time measurement being on the slow side of things and everything we kind of just assumed that he might stop by in the next week some time and went inside getting all of our candles ready for the night. 15 minutes later a guy comes up to our house in a motortaxi and we thought he was picking up some tourists but nope it was the electrician friend. He and three of our neighbors proceeded to take apart the power line and the meter that used to be attached to our house and spent an hour getting everything reattached. We were worried that it was going to cost a lot of money and we might have to try going through the process of recouping it. So when we asked the electrician how much we could pay him and he said 100 lempiras ($5), we were amazed again at how helpful everyone is here. So far our experience here has been extremely positive as far as interactions go with everyone. Even more so than in the states my first reaction is to trust people and that makes every day that much less stressful and communications more open even with the language barrier.

Some of our kids making recycled castles for Earth Day

Dani's birthday in my class

Leaving the kids is going to be so hard but the actual job we have here will not be that hard to leave. We work with a lot of really great people but this week we were reminded strongly of how little we entirely understand this culture especially at school. The last couple of months there has been construction on a new basketball court at school. They just finished it this week and it looks awesome!!

The first rule was that the kids can’t play on it for another week. The reason for this is that there was going to be an official dedication ceremony with some of the donors who gave money for the project and I guess they don’t want the court to be dirty. For the dedication ceremony two high school teams were bussed in from the other side of the country to play while the parents watched. The teachers played both the teams and surprisingly we won. It was sad that the younger kids weren’t allowed to come and watch the ceremony or the game. The 6th, 7th, and 8th graders came but none of the younger kids could come. The principle told my class they couldn't come because they would be noisy and annoying. I was sad to hear the principal say that to my students and really sad that they didn't get to go to the ceremony for the basketball court, something that they are so excited about. There was another weird sports related event at school too. During one of Melanie’s classes the principal interrupted her class to ask her if she would play in the girls soccer game this weekend. The older girls at the school have been practicing a lot the last couple of months and have gotten pretty good but apparently this weekend they are playing a really good team and there is some rule loophole where people up to age 28 can play on the team. There are a lot of girls on the team already who don’t get to play much and it seems really strange to ask one of the teachers who isn’t part of the team to play and take playing time from the people who the team is meant for.

A few weeks ago we had a really nice time visiting the country estate/ farm of the founder of our organization. We caught a ride to La Union and had a tour of the school and some of the development things the organization is doing there. They really have made a big difference in that community and are starting to make big changes in the challenges that poor people in rural areas face. The only awkward part was when they wanted to show us the houses of a couple of the scholarship students at the school. We understand how poor people are here and it was a little strange going to people’s houses just to see how they live in poverty.

The leaders of Vida Abundante are such thoughtful and genuinely nice people and they have made a positive impact in Honduras. At the farm Eunice, the school superintendent, cooked us three or four 4 star meals and her dad, the pastor and leader of the whole organization, took us for walks around his property showing us what La Union is like.

Coffee plants in bloom in La Union

Some of the new classrooms they're building at school. The bricks are made from the dirt they used to level the land so the building cost is close to zero.

We’ve been so lucky this year to have so many friends come visit us. In the beginning of May our friends Klaus and Mimi came and visited us and they did an amazing job navigating the travel challenges the big H can pack. Mimi is in vet school at NC State and was doing a veterinary mission in Central Honduras and they stopped by Gracias before heading over there. All of our other visitors had rented a car or spoke some Spanish. They made it all the way from San Pedro (a cab ride and two buses) to Gracias speaking no Spanish. We met them in Santa Rosa and got to share the bus ride back to Gracias with some good 80’s tunes cranking on the stereo. They came in on Wednesday and after a good dinner at Guancascos we had a fully loaded down moto-taxi ride up the continually worsening road to our house. The tuktuks are only supposed to have a driver and two passengers but we were barely able to squeeze the four of us, the bags they brought, and our shopping for the week. After this and our other experiences I’m beginning to think Moto-taxi Diaries would be a great sequel to the motorcycle version. On Thursday they went up to the park and had a good meal and fun communicating with Dona Alejandrina. They did a really good job piecing together Spanish phrases and came back with some bags of her awesome coffee. Thursday evening we just relaxed around the house and made some pizza and then Friday they came to school with us. It is always so great having extra hands in the classroom and they were a really big help in my math class and with reading groups. Friday after school we hit up the hot springs with our neighbor Mauricio and waited forever for some tacos to tie us over until dinner. There aren’t many souvenirs in Gracias but Klaus found some gems at the hot springs, some polo shirts with pictures of the pools. The other funny part of their visit came on Saturday morning when we were taking them to their bus to get to Siguatepeque. We had heard that there was a 5:30 direct bus to La Esperanza which would save a bus transfer and got down there 15 minutes early and started looking for it. We found the type of bus that usually makes the trip and asked them if it was the direct bus. They said no, and so we asked when the direct bus was coming. The driver then sort of laughed and said there aren’t any direct buses and so we got their bags up on top of the bus. Just as about we were about to leave another bus pulled up that was the direct bus. The two drivers were apparently good friends and they probably chatted everyday at the same time. I guess the first driver was just trying to get the Lempiras. We were glad that there actually was a direct bus and got their bags on the right bus and said goodbye. It sounds like their vet trip was successful too. I think they dewormed something like 4,000 animals and Klaus went around to public schools doing a presentation on public health. Talking to Klaus afterwards I feel like he made a pretty astute observation about Honduras. He was talking about how isolated most of the country is. Almost the entire country is rural but more importantly 90% of it is really isolated. This isolation comes from the fact that infrastructure and basic services don’t make it very far at all outside of towns and cities. There are so few paved roads, water systems, and medical and educational services so that even if you live ten miles away from a town or city it might as well be 100 miles away.

The kindergarteners practicing their dance for gradutation.

A picture of a strange sky phenomenon we've had a couple of times called a Sun Dog. It's a big cloudy circle around the sun with a rainbow on the edge that looks like it is a spaceship coming to land.

Bug Update

Whenever you ask someone when some weather event such as seasons you get a vague unique answer from everyone you ask. The one thing that is more certain than the seasons is the selection of bugs and insects that visit us. It seems like we have become premium members of the Bug-of-the-Month Club. When we first arrived our main battles were against 2 or 3 different varieties of ants. Throughout the year they’ve progressed, sort of like video game levels, and I’m hoping we don’t have to face the boss insect soon. Back in May the cicadas came out, really loud and really made the summer here seem authentic. The dry whistling of cicadas is probably the sound that is most tied to summer in my mind. The interesting part was everyone knew that the cicadas would be here for three weeks. Apparently the cicadas are brought to life by the first torrential downpour that breaks the dry season and then killed 3 weeks later by the next torrential rain. The late May bug was quite a doozy, a ¾ inch flying ant that all woke up out of the ground one rainy night and swarmed the light emanating from our house. All the kids at school had been talking about them and how they like to fly in your ears and burrow so for a couple of days the kids were walking around with paper stuffed in their ears to protect them from the bugs. When we saw them outside our windows we thought, “Great. Well at least we have screens on our windows.” We thought we were all good. The next day we were cleaning up the kitchen and we noticed all these half-inch worm type things crawling around. We assumed at first that they’d gotten into our food and it took about ten minutes to figure out these were the same flying ants from the night before that had shed their wings and after looking found there more than 100 around our house. They were creepy and crawly and easy to kill but there was an added challenge in that our power was out so we had to add headlamps to the flipflops we were using as weapons, bent over walking around the house squashing the bugs. Our latest bugs are no-see-ums that come at night and bite you as you try to sleep. I usually have zero problem sleeping but getting bitten and then wondering about when you are going to be bitten next makes falling asleep a little tougher. The solution we have for getting rid of them is lighting one of those bug coils, but then our bedroom is a little lucky. We’ll have to wait and see what the bugs have in store for us these last couple weeks.

Our classes have been doing well though. We've both been trying to do some fun educational things to tie up the year. Melanie's class has been doing a morning news show with weather and announcements and a couple of her kids are desperate about being able to use their video cameras (aka arms with a hand "turning" the reel) to tape it. In my class we just finished up a Boxcar Children movie. We had a competition to see who could write the best Boxcar Children story and then we made it into a screenplay. There was a lot of drama about who got what part but it turned out pretty good.

As you can tell from the picture a couple of the scenes were darker than the original books.

We hiked up another trail on the mountain a while ago. The trail went along the ridge for a long time and on one side the mountain was completely scorched from the forest fire, but on the other side it was the dense green we are used to.

Melanie's class after winning the mass soccer game

So two more weeks and we’re on a plane back to the states for a full and crazy summer. We’re going to have tons packed into these last couple of weeks so I’m sure there will be one or two more blogs. We can’t wait to see everybody soon!

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Must Be (Semana) Santa

Finally!  Semana Santa is here!  That’s Holy Week in Spanish, and it’s a really big deal down here.  We have the first days off (besides the ones we’ve taken to spend with our visitors) since Christmas, and the restlessness and heightened daily drama with our kids were a sure sign that everyone needed a break.  After our Landmark friends left, we had just a few days until my parents came in the following Sunday.  In those days in between, we walked into town twice for faculty-student soccer games after school.  The first one was for the boys’ team, so only male faculty played on the staff team.  The kids may have been faster, but the teachers won pretty easily, and Aaron scored two of their goals.  Not surprising, if you’ve seen him play soccer or at least seen how he pretty much always wins at everything. (You’d think could get annoying, but it just makes it all the more satisfying if you DO beat him!)  Anyway, this is a little more of a surprise:  I also scored two goals in the girls v. female faculty game a couple days later!  We practiced once, and it was a lot of fun, but our odds didn’t look so good since the people who actually had soccer skills were pretty out-of-shape, and the people who could run had no soccer skills or experience!  It all worked out, though, because it was just on a small cement field, 5 on 5, and it turned out that the girls still need a lot of practice.  And we were a lot bigger than them, and they were in 6th-8th grade.  So, maybe not the biggest accomplishment around, but it was really fun and I had never felt like a key player in a game before!  Guess I just have to play at the middle school/middle-aged level more often!


My parents came in on Sunday evening, and we took them to Guancascos for dinner since it’s close and it’s got the best view of Gracias.  We went home up the bumpy dirt road, and their car had no problems since we learned from Aaron’s parents’ experience and had them rent a pickup truck.  My mom handled the truck well on the Honduran roads, and didn’t hit  any horses or cows or fruitstands.  They unpacked all sorts of goodies from Trader Joes and things for our kids, and I think we must have the most well-stocked kitchen in Honduras at this point…hopefully it’ll last through June!  We gave the tutorial on the electro-shower and the other nuances of our house, and then they were all settled. 


The next morning, we went to school, and my parents lounged around the hammock and carport/porch outside awhile and then walked around and went up into the park to Dona Alejendrina’s comedor for lunch.  Neither of them speak any Spanish, but my mom was proud of the little things she was able to communicate, like “casa pollo” = chicken house, and lots of show-and-tell with pictures of the dogs on her camera, pictures of our wedding, etc.  Dona Alejendrina loves visitors, so I’m sure she enjoyed having my parents there.  She gave them a little coffee demo, stuffed them with tortillas and eggs, and my parents made it home with a couple pounds of newly-acquired coffee and some full bellies just in time to meet us coming home from school.  My mom and I walked over to the little hot springs before dinner, and I was impressed how fast she made it up the longer hills on the way home, especially considering she probably walked about 10 miles that day.  The dry season doesn’t seem to affect the level of the water in the hot springs, I guess because it just comes directly out of the ground.  The river has gotten really low, though, and is just a trickle compared to what it was during the rainy season.  Only a month or month and a half until we can expect to say goodbye to all the dust that seems to just saturate the air and blow everywhere in the wind.


The next day, my parents went to La Campa, but didn’t find too much there except the pottery museum and a lot of places closed because of a town meeting going on.  On the way there, though, they stopped some people on the road to confirm that they were headed in the right direction.  Here, though, when you yell out a destination as a question, people assume that you are offering them a ride to that place.  So, when my parents yelled, "La Campa?" out the window, a bunch of people yelled back, "Si!" and climbed into the back of the truck.  So, my parents unintentionally picked up some hitchhikers, and got the full Honduran experience.  They helped us with our after school classes that day, too, which was a welcome change of pace for both the kids and us.  Whenever there are visitors at school helping, the kids who get stuck in my group always kind of groan because they want the new and exciting people.  Oh well…luckily, I don’t take it personally!  Later that night, we made pizza at the neighbor’s house, since one has been asking for me to teach her.  Aaron made his famous banana pudding, and I made some guacamole, too.  The pizza seemed to be a hit, and it was nice for my parents to spend a little time getting to know our neighbors, even if they couldn’t talk too much.  We actually went over there again the next night so that my mom and I could paint “Comedor Melgar”—the name of their new restaurant—on their wall outside.  Now the tourists that walk by on their way up the mountain will know that they can stop there for food.  It got dark a little faster than we had anticipated, but with the help of some headlamps and flashlights, we finished the job and the neighbors fed us some fried chicken, beans, and tortillas.  We watched a little of the Honduras-Mexico soccer game on TV afterward, and I’m pretty sure that the wiry little neighbor man we watched with, Luis, only sits down to watch soccer and to eat.  He had gone up to the top of the mountain and back with a tourist hiker in just 9 hours the day before…and he’s in his 60s at least.


At school, my mom was immediately a big hit with the kids with her hula hoop skills and the beautiful mural that she made for them to fill in with bits of colored paper.  

The mural, which is two 9 ft panels, one for each of our classes:

When it’s done, I’ll post pictures…it’s going to look great, though, and it’s huge!  And it’s perfect for the kids to work on when they finish something early and have a few minutes to kill.  My dad was a hit, too, and was first pick for reading groups in my class, even though he was dubbed “Mr. Lazy” when he was resting his head on the ledge outside the classroom and one kid said “he don’t want to do nothing!”  It was nice showing my parents the school, but it was also really nice to leave after school Thursday with them and know that we had a long break ahead!


Aaron got us to Copan in just 2 hours driving true Honduran-style, passing trucks and busses and bikes and all sorts of contraptions that they wouldn’t allow on the highway in the States.  Our hotel had a beautiful view of the mountains, and included breakfast the next morning, which I was really excited about.  We did get a little bad news when we arrived, though.  The main ruins site was going to be closed the next day due to protest from some of the indigenous people.  I’m not sure exactly why they were protesting, but I’m guessing that they don’t see a lot of the money that the government makes off of their heritage.  Even though we didn’t go to the main site, we saw some lesser-known ruins of the residential, middle-class part of the Mayan city at Copan, and a knowledgeable guy jumped right on us and became our guide as soon as we pulled up to park there.  

Unfortunately, this is the only picture I took at the ruins or with my parents because my mom has them all on her camera, but they were here!

We spent the morning there and the afternoons at the bird park with the parrots and macaws and such, ate lunch, took a dip in the river there, and then headed back to town for souvenirs and such good smoothies—like liquid fruit without anything else added.  We had a little dinner at a place with a courtyard, and we were the only people being served.  After dinner we walked around the plaza, people-watched  and tried not to let the breathy, loud flute music and desperate CD sales get to us.  Then it was back to the hotel, and my parents left early the next morning.  It was so good to have them here, and my mom recently emailed me to say that she’s going to try to do volunteer adult ESL literacy tutoring a couple of times a week.  For my dad, being at school here was not a huge change from being at school all day back home (he’s a middle school principal), but for my mom, going to school here and helping us with reading groups made an impact on her and she’s realized that helping people learn to read is something she’d like to do.  She’s a natural teacher and so good at communicating with an enjoying all kinds of people, so I hope it works out for her.


Since we were staying at this comfortable hotel with a free, huge, scrumptious breakfast (and we found out it was waffle morning, even), we opted for a noon shuttle to Guatemala rather than the early one.  We had a relaxed morning full of food and reading and lazily watching the hotel cat that reminded us of our Hela back home, and then we packed up and met our shuttle, a minibus/van that was not surprisingly packed full of other tourists.  Our plan was to get off at Guatemala City around 4 and then catch a bus to Xela, our first Guatemalan destination.  Well, many unnecessary stops later, including van changes (why not just change the drivers?), 20-30 minute bathroom breaks, food and drink stops, and traffic jams, we finally reached Guatemala City around 7, and after much debate and frustration between the two of us, we both agreed to just go on to Antigua and find a place to spend the night there instead of catching a 5 or 6 hour ride to Xela.  We thought it might be hard to find a place to stay in Antigua since it’s notoriously booked up and crowded all through Semana Santa, but as soon as we walked near the park with our backpacks, we just followed the first guy who yelled, “hotel??” at us.  He took us to a pupuseria (place where they make stuffed tortillas), and a lady took us to a back room with a bed, set us up with a TV for Aaron to watch basketball, and gave us the key to the room.  Not the most luxurious or spacious place (more like a large closet with a bathroom attached, and no windows), but hey, it was cheap, and it was just one night.  We found a place to eat some delicious and artfully served soup (it had been awhile since we had been somewhere where presentation mattered), and strangely enough, mojitos were the cheapest drink on the menu—cheaper than water or coke or tea or anything else, so we had a little happy hour. 


We got up early on Monday so that we could get to Xela with enough time to explore the city a little bit in the afternoon.  At the bus station in Antigua, we bought the most delicious sandwiches on fresh crusty bread, with beans and egg, lettuce, avocado, and Aaron’s had chicken.  Yum.  We needed our energy, too, because we had to stand for a good hour or so in the bus aisle since there weren’t enough seats.  The bus attendant brought Aaron a bucket to sit down on, eventually, which was nice of him, and on top of that, he was gracious enough to give up his cushion taped to the floor at the front of the bus for me.  It was actually probably the nicest place I’ve sat on a bus here, because the windows up front are so big that it’s like touring the countryside in a big bumpy bubble with nothing blocking the view, nobody screaming into their cell phone, and out of earshot of the people getting on the bus to sell things or preach about Jesus, the evils of saturated fat, or missing limbs.


That was a fast bus ride, and it dropped us off on the highway outside of Xela in about half the time we were expecting—you just never know.  I wish I could have taken a picture of our taxi without being completely rude; it really looked like it had been to the junkyard and back again at least a few times, and the driver had to hold two wires together to start it.  Xela was the first place we’ve ever tried “couch surfing,” but it worked out really well.  If you don’t know what that is, it’s an online network of people that agree to host out-of-town visitors.  It’s kind of a social networking thing, where you can just say you will meet someone for coffee, show them around, let them stay with you, etc.  You contact the people you want to stay with beforehand, and then they respond and let you know if they can host you.  We put our house up on the site, and we’ve gotten a few requests, but they’ve all been for times that we’re gone or we already have visitors.  We’ll see if anything works out before we leave, but I think it’d be fun just to meet some different people while we’re here and have plenty of free time to spend.  Anyway, I’m sure it could have its awkward situations, but it’s free, it’s easy, and you can get a feel for the people on the website just through communication and their profile and seeing what others have said about them, so I’d recommend it if you’re looking for cheap travel. 


So the place that the taxi brought us to was this guy’s house on the edge of the city.  His name is Juan, and he’s young (I’d say 20-22), but he owns a café and a language school, so he keeps busy and he’s really used to foreigners.  He drove us downtown, and we walked around a food festival and took advantage of free samples, got some falafal sandwiches, some cold chocolate drinks, and kind of drooled over some of the chocolate blocks for sale, but didn’t buy any because they were too expensive.  I only say this because it is important later.  We walked around the plaza, scoped out the colorful markets, the church, and the people making bouquets out of palms or grasses and all sorts of beautiful flowers.  

These Easter-bouquet ladies were everywhere arranging flowers to sell:

There were people everywhere, but the women in their traditional dress just made the whole scene alive.  Everywhere we went in Guatemala, with the exception of Antigua, the majority of women still wear traditional clothes—a long patterned skirt, a flowered embroidered blouse, ribbons in their hair, and all of it different colors and slightly unique from the others.  The fabric was for sale in all the markets, but it was pretty expensive, so I guess that most women and girls just have one or two sets of clothes.  Not many of the men had traditional dress, but in some other areas we passed through, they had loose pants made of the same kind of fabric the women’s skirts were made of, a decorated linen or cotton shirt, and a wrap going around their waists.

Here's some older girls in traditional skirts watching bumper-cars...interesting contrast, I think:

We walked around Xela a long time, took our time getting back to Juan’s house, and then went out again to find dinner.  Aaron gave into a Wendy’s burger, and I had a salad made with actual non-iceberg lettuce and apples.  Neither was very Guatemalan, but it was so good to have different options outside of our normal food in Honduras.  We thought we were going to meet up with Juan and his girlfriend later, but it turned out they changed plans and wouldn’t be home until much later (the down side of couch surfing, if the host doesn’t give you a key), so we walked around a bit more and then couldn’t resist another dinner at an Indian restaurant.  We tried to keep our second dinner small, but small by our standards when it comes to Indian food is still pretty hefty portions, so we were stuffed.  We waited around in the plaza after dinner, then grabbed a taxi back to Juan’s house (thankfully, not the same taxi we caught before).

Xela looks really colonial, especially around the plaza.  It felt more like Europe than Latin America at times:


The next day, we went on a mission to rent bikes and ride out to a nearby town.  After shopping around, we found a great bookstore that rented well-cared-for bikes and even had a good map to use to get to where we wanted to go.  This was fortunate, because without the map showing the back dirt roads, we would have had to take the highway.  The ride was really tough in some spots because with the lack of rain, the dust was about 6 inches deep in a few places, but we made it to a glass blower’s shop, and the then a town called Zunil with a vibrant market where we grabbed some version of street tacos and a bag of sliced mango.

The market in Zunil:

After the market, we rode up a 5 mile hill to some hot springs.  The ride was exhausting, but the mountains covered with little lush gardens and vegetable farms were beautiful.  The uphill was definitely in the right direction, too, because after a soak at the hot springs, we just had to coast down the long hill, wait at the highway intersection for a bus, and then the bus guy pulled our bikes up on top as if they were nothing, and away we went back to Xela.  We thought they might give us trouble about the bike cargo, but it was only 20 cents extra for the two bikes…well worth it. 

A nice pit stop in the highlands:

The volcanic soil must make this area perfect for flowers, vegetables, and developing impressive leg muscles while tending to them:


After the ride, when we climbed into the taxi to get back to the house we were staying at, I just happened to feel a plastic bag left in the back seat next to me, and there was something hard inside, kind of like a couple of big blocks.  I was intrigued, because I figured it was probably some souvenir or grocery item left by a tourist.  Aaron figured out that it was chocolate blocks from the very same shop whose chocolate we had sampled at the food festival a couple of days earlier!  It was too bad for whoever left it, but there was no way they were going to find it again, so we didn’t feel too bad taking it and splitting the spoils of the cab ride with our host.  He made us some shrimp for dinner, and that ended our time in Xela.


After several bus rides the next morning, some better than others, and most unbelievably packed full of people with various items in tow, we arrived in Panajachel by Lake Atitlan.  Besides good food, the town didn’t have a whole lot to offer, but luckily, that’s not where we stayed while we were at the lake.  We took a short boat ride to Santa Cruz, and got settled into our room at a pretty hotel by the lake.  Our room was more like a little cabin, but it was cute and cozy and you sure couldn’t beat the view.  The town was up on a steep hill, and the few hotels were along the lakefront, but it wasn’t trashy by any means.  Each hotel offered a 3-course reallllly good family-style dinner each night, so we found the least expensive and just went there every night.  The food was delicious, healthy, and there was a ton of it, and it was great just to go and meet other travelers and talk to people that we would otherwise not have met.  We talked with another couple teaching in Honduras, a lady in her 50s in the Peace Corps in Belize, some nice British girls, and it was so interesting hearing all of their stories.  After dinner, we’d walk along the lake a little bit (it was nearly a full moon while we were there), sit out on a dock awhile, and just take in the view of the lake and volcanoes. 


We did a lot of walking during the day, too.  There was another little village just about 40 minutes away along the lakeshore, and we went there several times to go to this little café full of old hippies for a cheap internet connection and for Aaron to do a couple phone interviews with schools.  

A mind-bogglingly long snake of a cactus along the path:

Just a friend we met along the lakefront path:

One day while Aaron was interviewing, I went up into town and found a little “art gallery” that a family had set up.  They explained that they were just getting started and didn’t have a lot yet, but the mother was weaving some really beautiful scarves, one of the daughters made jewelry, and the son painted.  I chatted with them for awhile, and then bought a scarf.  It’s amazing to me how unaffected that little town has been by the development of tourism.  I think that by putting the hotels all down below by the lake, they have been able to keep their town separate and relatively unvisited by tourists (well, except especially pesky ones like me).  They speak a combination of 2 different Mayan languages, and most speak Spanish too, so it’d be a really interesting linguistic study to spend some time there. 

The town of Santa Cruz, nestled in the hills:

Little kids doing manual labor, women and girls in traditional dress, and people carrying bundles of sticks for their cookstoves are all really common sights:

Not a bad view from Santa Cruz:

One morning, we rented a kayak for a few hours and went along the shore until the wind kicked up.   It was nice, but it made me miss our boats back home…a big plastic double is just no comparison to paddling in ours.  Anyway, at least we got out while the water was pretty calm, unlike the next couple of people that went out!  I did yoga a couple of times with a group class near the water in the mornings, too, which was a great way to start a relaxing day.  Our last day there, we did an all-day hike up into the hills behind the lake, past a mini-volcano, through lots of steep cornfields, a windy mountain road (which was VERY scary coming back down with the loose gravel and the sharp drop-offs without guard rails winding down to the lake along cliffs), and finally, to a town called Solola.  

The road back from Solola was almost as much an adventure as the path up the mini-volcano:

Solola seemed dead quiet at first, but we soon found out that everyone was in the center of town at market day.  We were the only tourists there, and again, being immersed in the colors and smells and busy atmosphere of the market was an experience in itself.  At one corner of the plaza, we saw a crowd gathered together and wondered what was going on.  Looking over the heads of people (yes, I was actually taller than most of the people of Mayan descent, and I loved it!), we could see some gambling going on in the center.  One guy would throw this big cow bone, and depending on how it landed, people would make money off of their bets.  So, they were literally “throwing bones,” and it kind of reminded us of the game “Pass the Pigs” if you’ve ever played that.  We lingered an hour or so around the market before heading back to Santa Cruz and our 3-course curry dinner with soup (with the most amazing croutons that they make from homemade bread every night) and orange cake.  I’m so glad that we got to stay at the lake more than one or two days…four days was about perfect. 


On Saturday of Semana Santa, we caught a bus back to Antigua, where we had unexpectedly spent that first night of our vacation.  This time, since we had planned on being there, we stayed with another couch surfing host.  Her name is Margaret, she’s in her 50s or so, she’s from Connecticut but she’s married to a Guatemalan police officer, and she has 4 cats and a dalmation.  She was such a lovely person to stay with; we went walking with her up to a park overlooking the city, and we even took her dog out for a walk on our own one afternoon.

The park had a great view:

Even Sasha, Margaret's dog, stopped to take in the scenery:

Margaret and Sasha also took us to the good places to see the Easter processions and the carpets that decorated the streets.  The processions had been going on all week, but the ones we saw that night had a lot of kids swinging smoky lanterns around, a lot of smaller floats carried by people in black robes (after Good Friday, everyone wears black), and one big float with a statue of Jesus on it.  These larger floats can weigh thousands of pounds, and in order to carry them, people pay to sign up at different locations throughout the city according to their shoulder height, and then they go to that place at a certain time to get ready for their rotation to begin.  The carpets that people make out in the streets are made of flowers, pine needles, fruits, colored sawdust, or whatever else people want to use.  The processions last for 12 hours or more sometimes, and there is at least one or two every day leading up to Easter.  Suprisingly, Easter Sunday is really not much of a celebration, though.  Good Friday and the crucifixion are really the big points of the week.

A close-up of  carpet made with sawdust and flowers:

The people that make theirs out of sawdust usually use stencils:

This one is pine needles, palm bits, and flowers:

And the actual processions that trample the carpets:

And here's one of the giant floats, carried by a ton of people and followed by people carrying the generator for the lights:

Since things were quiet on Sunday in town, we took a short bus ride out to a macadamia nut farm.  They have a project going there where they give trees to poor farmers so that they can have a good source of income, and they’ve helped a lot of people out through their work.  I didn’t even know that Honduras was a big producer of macadamia nuts, but apparently it’s up there after Hawaii and Australia, and maybe South Africa.  

Cats are cats everywhere...there must be something theraputic about sleeping on a macademia nut-drying table:

We saw how they are grown, shelled, classified, and we got to taste some chocolate and have a facial and neck massage all as part of the free tour.  We ate some blueberry pie and just had a little hammock time in the shade for awhile, and then went back to town and walked down to buy a special treat:  bagels!!  We went with Margaret to bring her husband some pizza for dinner at the police station.  Being in the police force is different there because most of them work an obscene amount of hours and basically live and sleep in the police station.  If they have families, their house with them is just for the rare vacation days or occasional nights off. 


Antigua was great, but the next morning was a stressful one.  We both woke up at 3:30 to catch our 4 am shuttles to different places—Aaron to the airport, and me to Copan as the first step in getting back home to Honduras.  Neither of the shuttles was at the house by 4:20, and after wandering the neighborhood in the dark, we found Aaron’s airport bus.  We asked if they could call the agency or someone to try to contact the Copan shuttle, since no one seemed to be able to find the address we were at, and I didn’t want to stand out alone on the streets of a city I didn’t know at 4:30 am.  The driver said he didn’t have any minutes on his phone, but he agreed to at least take me to the agency where I could wait for the shuttle to come back for me.  At the agency, he opened the door and talked to a woman, and then just closed the door and told me to wait outside, and I watched him (and Aaron, and about 15 other tourists) drive away in the minibus.  Great.  So no one had communicated to me if my shuttle was coming, and no one answered the door when I knocked over and over.  I waited out on the dark street for a good half an hour, until 5:00.  Finally, another traveler showed up to wait for the 5:00 shuttle.  I thought all hope for the early shuttle to Copan was lost, and I’d have to wait for the noon, but then it pulled up and picked me up—an hour late, and in a different location.  At least I was on.


Our bus went along fine for about an hour, but then in Guatemala City, it broke down.  We all piled out, some people lied down on the sidewalks and went back to sleep, but I just waited in the bus to see what would happen.  Another shuttle came along (the now-empty airport shuttle Aaron had been on), and we transferred our luggage and the weary passed-out people that belonged on the shuttle, and then we made it the rest of the way with no major problems.  From Copan, I took three more buses that day to get to Gracias and a mototaxi up to Villa Verde around 8, for a total of 15 hours of travel.  Having a selective understanding of Spanish helped me out a lot with unwanted male attention, and the only noteworthy occurrence was when, after hearing clucking sounds for awhile, I noticed that there was a chicken under the arm of the little girl sitting right next to me.


This week was a little lonely and boring up on the mountain by myself, but the neighbors checked in on me a lot, and I didn’t feel unsafe at all.  One neighbor, an older man, was concerned that I might not be able to fall asleep without Aaron there, so he picked some really tall grasses (in the lemongrass family, he said) that would make a nice, relaxing tea that could double as relief for toothaches, if that was ever a problem.  He also told me some passages to read in Psalms, and that the angels would be with me.  Another neighbor, who is really more of a friend at this point, came up a couple of times with her son just to chat and bring me some tortillas and beans (can’t have dinner without those!).  It’s great to feel so much a part of the community there, and I think we know our neighbors here better than we did in Beverly, and there we lived in the same building as our neighbors, and we worked at the same school as them!  I hope that whatever we are next year, we get to know the people in our neighborhood.


Aaron can write his own blog about his trip back to North Carolina for job interviews, but after three lucky interviews, he got a job offer from his top choice school in Durham!!!  It’s called Central Park School, and he’s going to be teaching 4th grade again!  So now we both have plans to look forward to when we get back—UNC at Chapel Hill SLP program for me, and teaching at a school that’s a great fit for Aaron.  We’re excited that everything has worked out so well so far, and now all we need is a place to live!  I wish I could be closer to my family, but I’m glad we get to be near Aaron’s parents, and we both have good friends in the area from college.  The only change of plans we have to make is our date of return.  We had planned on traveling a little after school gets out in June, but Aaron’s new school has a year-round schedule, so we have to be back in the States by July 6th for him to start. 


That means we only have just over 2 more months…it will go by very fast.  It’ll be hard to say goodbye here, but we’re looking forward to being closer to everyone again.  Even for those who far from NC, you will be a lot closer for us to visit than you were this year! 

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Springtime, summer or fall

Guess who is late again with their blog entry. This is about a month overdue and a lot of the credit, especially photos, goes to Brett, Mike and Rach.

It’s hard to believe it’s almost May here. It is now actually summer and it is really hot during the day, but at night we still have nice cool weather. The last couple days have been crazy windy and the wind has kicked up all the dust that has been around since it hasn’t rained in a month. In March we had some friends visit from Boston and we had an awesome time showing them around here and then heading out to the coast. It was so nice having them here, as close friends and family are the only two big things we feel are missing from our life here. We were with them for five days and it went by like a flash.


They came in on Wednesday the 18th and by the time they got here they had already had a travel adventure. We went down to town after school to meet them (at a hot gas station on the highway) and Melanie checked email and found out their flight was delayed for four hours. This meant they got to do almost all of the drive to Gracias in the dark. They got into Gracias a little after 9, and then we had a quick dinner before piling six people and six people’s things into the car. Our neighbor was out of town for a while and so we were able to use his house for a couple people to sleep in, which made things much more doable with just four in our little place. We woke up the next day, headed to school, and left them to discover Villa Verde on their own. They had a great time at the restaurant up in the park and stayed long enough that she was ready to serve them the next meal. 

Dona Alejandrina roasting some coffee.
Some of Dona's tortillas:

They took a little trip to La Campa, but I don’t think that other people are as taken with it as we are.  After a dinner at the house, we hit up the hot springs which were popular with everyone.

Melanie with Irma, one of her smartest and most needy kids.

Friday the whole gang came to school and helped out with classes and made quite a splash with the kids. It’s amazing how much smoother everything can go with more than one teacher in the class.  Rachel and Brian were awesome helping with our first research project and Mike helped out a lot with adding some volume to the songs we were singing and showing off some crazy Frisbee throws. Brett did a guest reading of the spelling words and made quick friends with one of my students who drew a picture of a baseball game for him before we left. The school also made a hard pitch for all of them to come back to teach next year.

Melanie's class, the way they usually are

As soon as school was finished we made a mad dash for the coast in the jam-packed Mitsubishi Nativa. Mike was a natural Honduran driver, dodging potholes and gunning it past tractor trailers. We made it to San Pedro, grabbed a little food at the mostly-closed bus station and then went on to Ceiba. It was a fun ride with all sorts of good discussion and as the night went on, more and more Disney sing a longs. It’s really interesting to me that that is one of the common bonds of our generation, whereas for the current generation I’m guessing it will be High School Musical that they crank out 15 years down the road. After going through Ceiba, we turned off on a dirt road to head up to the “Jungle River Lodge” which would be our base for white water rafting and ziplining. The road wasn’t that bad but it was a single lane road with no railing 50-75 feet above the river, and we were glad when we finally saw the kayak that the lodge used as a sign. We got settled in our camp cabin-like accommodations and had a tarantula sighting and a few classic card games before we all climbed into our bunks.

Mike's shades definitely give him the edge in this pic

We woke up the next morning excited for rafting, grabbed a quick breakfast and got all our gear and headed up the river. Melanie and I were the most “experienced” rafters and had been telling the others how we were going to be floating down the river with a little bit of paddling now and then on the 3-4 rapids. We found out very quickly that this was not the case. Probably half of the rafting trip was what I would call a river adventure. First, our guide casually explained that we were supposed to swim across the river and meet him on the other side. It’s not a crazy request in words but think about it, this was a whitewater river, usually things go down it not across it. So we had to swim straight up the river really hard and let the current carry us across. About half of us made it across without needing the rescue rope, and by now, we were already exhausted at 8:30 in the morning. We continued to walk and swim upriver for the next half hour until we got to an impassable waterfall and I think we all had a bad feeling about what might be asked of us next.  The guide jumped off of a 20 ft rock into a rushing whirlpool, across to the other side, and then scaled a 40-50 ft inverted rock face and then proceeded to do a flip off the cliff back into the whirlpool. He survived, luckily, but none of us wanted to challenge fate or the failure of our muscles. We were still having a hard time wrapping our minds around jumping off the 20 ft rock. The rock wasn’t a straight cliff but a gentle slope so you had to run for a good 20 ft before you came to the point where you could jump off so besides the drop there was the real chance you could fall on the slick rock, break some body part and fall limply into the rushing whirlpool. We all made it across with a lot of cheering and relief and then started back down the river. I thought this was going to be the scariest part, floating back down over rapids, but it actually wasn’t as bad as I had thought. The water shoots your body right over the rapids and besides being shoved under every now and then by the falling water it was a pleasant ride down. When we made it back down to where we had started, we finally got into the rafts and headed down the river with no explanation or instruction. The rapids were awesome, lots of class 4s and a couple 4.5s that were pretty much just 7-8 ft waterfalls that we went over in our boat. Melanie and I, the “experienced” ones, were the only ones who got dumped in the river and our guide would be getting a group high five going while I was floundering to get back into the boat. Our guide was really good though, and we stopped a couple times along the river for him to show us things like a plant that was a natural soap and some big iguanas sunning on some rocks. Although we weren’t really prepared for the first part of the trip it was an amazing rafting trip and surpassed all of our expectations.

 Rach on the first zipline heading across the Rio Cangrejal

When we finished rafting we went back to the lodge and they had a huge fruit buffet and we gorged ourselves on fresh cantalope, watermelon, pineapple, and bananas. After a little more formal lunch, we lounged on the rocks next to the river and waited for the second half of our adventure day. Our guide picked us up and we got geared up for riding the wires. We had a brief introduction to ziplining with basic safety tips and a short practice wire to get our “form” right. I kept on thinking that sometime I was going to accidentally put my hands in front of the pulley and get them chopped off. Like the rafting trip, there was a lot of bonus material on top of just riding the wires. After our first big wire across the river, we walked a little while through the jungle checking out different kinds of medicinal and poisonous plants, endangered trees and the highlight of the trip probably, a big termite nest. Our guide showed us the nest and told us that if you get lost in the jungle with no food that termites make a great source of protein. We all thought “Oh interesting” and then he proceeded to share that they tasted just like carrots. At this point I think we were all a little skeptical but then he plunged he hand into the nest and pulled out a handful of live crawling termites.  He chomped a few, and sure enough, we could smell some carrots. After a lot of prodding and peer pressure, we all put some live termites in our mouth, chomped down, and sure enough, they were a high-protein carroty treat. The wires were really cool too, ranging from short ones from one platform to another to flying through the branches of trees in the jungle. The last wire was breathtaking, almost 600 feet across a river at a pretty steep angle. You started out in the woods and then came flying out across the river. There was a little bit of miscommunication with the guide though. He was talking to us beforehand and we took it to mean, “This is a long wire and you can take your brake hand off because you will have time to put it back on.” What he really said as we later found out was, “Don’t take your brake hand off the wire because you won’t be able to put it back on and you will crash into a tree.” This we found out through direct experience. It was pretty exhilarating flying across the river spinning around but pretty frightening when I realized that I wasn’t going to be able to stop and came into the platform at 20 mph. 

Chilling on the rocks next to the river:

Big Bad Brian focused on the wire

We all made it pretty much unscathed and partook of the fruit buffet one more time before we packed up and headed towards Tela. On our way we made a couple pitstops in La Ceiba to enjoy the outposts of American fast food. At Dunkin Donuts we got a dozen donuts and one of my favorite moments of the entire trip. One of the dozen that we got happened to be a Boston Crème and Brett, trying to be friendly, told the cashier “Soy de Boston” or “I’m from Boston” and she gave him one of the best “Like I care” looks I have ever seen.


After getting a good laugh out of that we made it to Tela and drove around looking for the hotel we were going to stay at. After getting some good yelling at for driving down one ways the wrong way, we made it to the Maya Vista, a beautiful hotel way up on a hill looking over Tela Bay. We took all our stuff inside and were going to head to our room when I found out that I had made a huge travel planning mistake. Because of some early planning and changing plans I had booked the hotel for the wrong nights, and after we didn’t show up the first night, they had taken our deposit and given the room to someone else. I felt so stupid and was just tired from traveling and rafting and ziplining, but eventually the owner helped us find another place that he said was good. He did find us another place, but we soon found out that it wasn’t “good.” There were six of us and we wanted a place we could all stay together, and after looking at the possible rooms, we chose the one that didn’t smell like they had used enough air freshener to cover up a dead body. Was it a good choice? Hard to tell. As soon as we sat down in our new room we saw a huge roach crawl out of the sofa and head towards our Dunkin Donuts. Our first reaction to this was, “Crap, he’s going to try and eat our donuts” and so we had to keep the donuts in the car. Mike tried to hit another roach with his shoe, and although we all swore that he hit it, when he lifted his shoe it wasn’t there, adding to the mystique of these superintelligent disappearing creatures. 

Ahh, roach motel

After calming down a little bit we headed out for some dinner and found a really nice place with good Caribbean rice and beans and some fried fish that came entero with their eyes looking right at you. Mike did a good Big Mouth Billy Bass impression. We also had a traveling mariachi (I think) band come by and play a few songs and their first one was really good, but when we tried a request (it ended up being La Bamba) they flopped.

Honduran Caribbean Typical Food:

Mike with his old disappearing fish trick. As you can tell Rach is thoroughly "impressed."

After making it through the night in the literal roach motel we were glad to pack up and move back to the hotel we had originally wanted to stay. In the morning we went and explored the Tela market. In my mind it wasn’t quite as good as the Gracias market, but they did have a lot more fish. We found some good snacks like quesadillas with a piece of fried chicken in it, and then some fresh squeezed orange juice. 

Tela is home to the second largest tropical botanical gardens in the world, so we thought that would be a good way to spend the morning. The gardens used to be private gardens of one of the banana barons but now it is public. There were lots of nice paths to walk on, and the first part of the walk was through the densest bamboo tunnel I had ever seen. Although there wasn’t too much information about the individual plants, it was educational to see several different types of one family of plants growing together. There were probably 10 different kinds of palm trees and some really beautiful giant eucalyptus trees. 

Never would have even thought of it but yes, there are red pineapples.

Some of the bamboo

They also had an exhibit on the first man:

Our afternoon goal was to make it to Miami, a Garifuna beach a little smaller than its American counterpart. We had seen some pictures of it and it looked like it was just a big barrier sandbar with palm trees and a few huts on it. Although it was only 5 or 6 miles away, we soon discovered that we probably weren’t going to make it, since the road was even worse than our road up the mountain. Although the beach we settled for may not have been quite as idyllic as Miami, it had clean sand and warm water and that was all we wanted. We went to the beach at this beach club that we assumed would just kick us out, but we swam, lounged on the beach, and had some fierce volleyball games and they didn’t seem to mind at all. At this point, Melanie and I were getting a little jealous that everybody else was going to get to stay and hang out at the beach and we had to go to work the next day. We headed back towards Tela, got settled at our hotel and had a nice dinner looking out at the ocean.


We had seen that there was a fair in town, and although we had seen the less than splendid fairs in Gracias, this one looked like it might have more to offer. After walking through all the fried chicken vendors to get there, we were pleasantly surprised to find out there was no entrance fee, you just buy tickets for the games or food at will. The first thing that caught our attention were the bumper cars. I’m a huge fan of bumper cars and was really excited to get in on the action, but I couldn’t figure out how the system worked. I could tell you had to buy a ticket, but I had no idea what you were supposed to do next. There was no line, no one collecting tickets, but after a while we sort of figured out what was going on. The ticket you bought was actually a plastic token; when a buzzer went off all the cars stopped everyone started running around like crazy. This is because although all the cars stopped at the same time everyone was trying to run from the side to one of the cars before someone who had lots of tokens put another in their car and started aiming for knocking peoples’ knees off. It added a whole other degree of difficulty to everything. After feeling like we had conquered the bumper car circuit, we headed over to the spider arm spinny thing. This is another classic, with a little more stomach churning and although it was the exact same ride they have in the States, it lasted at least twice as long. Mike and Rach were lucky and got the crazy car that was spinning a couple of times a second and somehow they both kept their supper in. 

Do they put a mix of owl and dog in these delicacies?

This is before the Puk-0-matic 3000 gets going
You might say I'm a little competitive with the bumper cars

We walked around the fair a little while longer and skipped some of the scarier rides. I think the scariest looking ride of all was the Ferris wheel. I’ve always thought of the Ferris wheel as this kind of leisurely “let’s admire the view” kind of ride, but in Honduras they have a different take on it. The huge wheel probably does a revolution every three seconds with everyone on it shrieking and then after 30 seconds or so they brake it and spin it the other way. For anyone who has read Devil in the White City that’s sort of how I imagine people felt when they rode the first Ferris wheel at in 1893. We were looking for some good carnival food but couldn’t find anything other than the normal fried chicken and French fries. We headed back to the hotel and got all packed up to head back towards Gracias the next day.

The next morning we all woke up, got some good fruit at the market, and partook of the great coastal baleadas one last time. We went out to the highway and said our goodbyes, really sad to leave everyone, and not exactly excited about our full day bus trip back. We feel so lucky to have such good friends and even luckier that they would come to Honduras and see our world here. If they’re reading: Thanks guys for being such a great group to travel with and hopefully we can do it again soon!