Tod and Lisa’s Year of Adventure

Life on the Road to Central America

Central Central America April 26, 2008

Filed under: Central America — todandlisa @ 12:20 pm

A quick geography lesson. I probably should have learned some of this in sixth grade but it took me traveling down here to really put it together. First off, Mexico is not considered apart of Central America. Duh, that’s why they were included in NAFTA as they are apart of North America.

Also, Panama is not largely considered a part of Central America either. This one is more debatable but the idea probably has it’s origins in the fact that it was originally apart of Colombia. Interestingly, it was the US that encouraged Panama to become independent with it’s support. Not surprisingly, shortly after that (one year exactly) the US began construction on the canal. Coincidence? Culturally speaking though, from our experience, Panama is very much the crossroads of the world. It is not only the land bridge between South and Central America but the most famous short cut in the world as well. All this has created a very diverse culture that has a unique feel, quite different from the other countries of Central America.

Then there is Costa Rica. With no civil wars and tourism developing for the last fifty years it feels quite a bit more Western than the other countries. In fact between our two months in Panama and Costa Rica, Lisa and I lost a bit of our Spanish as English was so widely spoken. Also, education levels are much higher in Costa Rica with it’s strong middle class and limited poverty.

So where does that leave us? In what I call central Central America. Honduras is where we are right now actually. Our experience has been that these middle countries: Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala constitute the backbone of what I would consider the real Central American experience. When we crossed from Costa Rica into Nicaragua a few weeks ago it felt as if we were reentering the 3rd world.

Backtracking a bit to catch up…in our last post we were still living large in Costa Rica, and that seems a long time ago now. We managed to finally break free of the spell Finca Bella Vista (the blooming tree house community) had cast on us and made our way down the coast towards some of the more well traveled tourist paths.

Hanging bridge through the cloud forest canopy

As mentioned in Lisa’s post, the world famous Monteverde cloud forest reserve almost scared us off at first with it’s carnival veneer. Fortunately we found a little base to enjoy the sights from. Honestly though, the forests were quite similar to what we had already been hiking through for the last few weeks, just with better trails, signposts and more people.

From Monteverde we headed over to Lake Arenal, another beautiful attraction with an active volcano parked at the head of a long lake which in turn is nestled into surrounding hills. Our campsite by the river watching the volcano for lava flows at night was fabulous. It was hit and miss with the clouds though and although we saw some of the lava flows it was brief, distant and at night so hence, no photos.

Volcano Arenal from near our campsite.

Leaving the Arenal area we headed down to Liberia, a transportation hub on the Pan-American,to connect up with our friends Kathy and Rick. We had originally met them in Oaxaca and as they have been living in RVs and trucks for going on six years now, needless to say they are veterans of road travel. They are an inspiring couple and have taught Lisa and I a lot about the ins and outs of life on the road and about building a mobile community. We spent three wonderful evenings with our friends sharing in good meals and lengthy conversations. We based ourselves at the Rincon de Vieja park where we could punctuate our discussions with walks through an assortment of volcanic features. Rick and Kathy are heading south (lands end for them is Tierra del Fuego) so unfortunately we said our sad goodbyes and crossed into Nicaragua.

Walking with Rick and Kathy in Rincon De Vieja park

The first recognition that we were in a different land was the transportation. Many of the cars and trucks had been traded for horse and oxen drawn carts. Even the little three wheeled taxis where now bicycle taxis. As I write I wonder if the differences I noted earlier between the countries are as much cultural as they are economic. Certainly there are strong ties between all the Central American countries with the Latin culture but the poverty of the central Central American lands really stands out and changes the experience for the traveler.

Local transport

Adjusting to the changes, Lisa and I headed to the Volcano Masaya area, just outside of the capital of Managua. The volcano and visitor center museum was fantastic, We camped the night in their parking lot and in the morning drove up to volcano’s edge for a peek into the caldera. That’s right, parking for fifty cars right at the lip of an active volcano. Of course they have precautions like back in parking only for fast escapes and limit your stay to 20 minutes because of the dangerous sulfur fumes. Conservative stuff like that. A place like this would never exist in the US with all the liability concerns. The caldera of a volcano is truly a raw force of nature. No lava churning around as one might think but the tortured cliff walls and noxious gases spewing forth were unlike anything I’d seen before.

Moving from the volcano to higher and drier Western Nicaragua we did a rural loop drive that took us to a night at Finca Silva Negra. It’s another coffee farm, this time owned by a family of Germans, hence the name (Black Forest). We had a tour of the operation in the morning with Mousey, one of the owners and they are doing an incredible job of making the entire place ecologically and socially sustainable. Schools for the workers kids, including scholarships to university, worm composting, reusing methane from their cows to cook with, the works. Amazing to see all this in a medium scale business. They are showing how it can be done.

A long slow drive through rural farm and ranch country brought us back to the Pan-American highway at the town of Esteli. We visited the Museum of Heros and Martyrs here although there are many across the country. These are tributes to those who died in the Sandanista revolution and this one was run by the mothers of the deceased. It was a powerful experience and spoke loudly to US interference (they call it imperialism) down here. Some times it’s hard to be an American traveling through this part of the world, knowing some of the history. I’m actually surprised we have been received as kindly as we have.

This painting is based on a famous photo from the revolution, in front are old weapons.

Entering Honduras we were given the usual run around at the border, Los Manos. Even though we have gotten better overall at avoiding the scams you still need a constant vigilance. We camped that night a little ways into the country at Danli, an area famous for it’s Havana cigars. It may not be Cuba but many of the Cuban cigar makers immigrated here after the rise of Castro and their cigars are considered as good as. Onwards and upwards we once again moved up into the mountains outside of the capital Tegucigalpa or Tegus as the locals call it. Valle de Angeles was a nice opportunity to do a little gift shopping and afterwards we spent the night near the entrance to La Tigra National Park. Our hosts were another German couple who had the only flat camping spot in the area…their parking spot. We spent two nights here, hiking outside the park (national parks here have a dog prejudice just like in the states) and learning from Jurg and Monique about their life as essentially homesteaders in the wilds of Central America.

Moving over the continental divide one more time we spent the night at an abandoned national park high amongst the pines. Honduras is the only place we’ve seen in Central America that reminded us of the mountains of Idaho. The high rolling pine forests are kept clear of undergrowth through annual burning, set and managed by the locals. The park itself was abandoned a few years ago as the conflict between conservationists and loggers grew increasingly violent. It was quite tranquil for the night we were there. No park managers, visitors, or anybody else for that matter.

The now closed visitors center at Parque La Maralla

The next days drive is the subject of our other recent blog entry titled breakdown. You can probably guess the jist of it if you haven’t read it yet. . After getting Betty back together we left Sambo Creek and headed along the Caribbean coast to La Cieba where we spent a few days running errands. You realize the reality of globalization when you leave the poverty of rural Honduras to find an air conditioned mall with all the modern conveniences.

That brings us around to where we are now. Lago Yojoa is situated in the hill country an hour from the Caribbean coast and surrounded by farms and ranchland. The family that manages the Finca Paradiso (Paradise Farm) where we are staying. Again, they grow coffee mainly but we are realizing that they have to do many things to stay afloat so they also rent cabanas, operate a private swimming hole (balanerio) and sell many fruits and other small crops.

Spanish Scrabble with the family

Getting to spend time with the Hernandez’s reminds us of how people make up more important part of the landscape of travel than geography does. We’ve rented a cabana for Lisa to work from and I have spent my days working on Betty (she now has tinted windows all the way around), doing laundry, fixing bikes (ours and the kids) all the while accompanied by at least one, sometimes up to five of the children. The schools are attended in shifts here with three shifts a day. That means many teachers work from 6AM to 10PM and kids are on the highway coming or going to school all day long. Mostly the finca kids just play with Alli but they’ve also given me a good chance to rebuild some of my Spanish skills and just have fun with kids again. Lisa has been playing the guitar for them in the evening and we’ve played a few rounds of Spanish Scrabble. Tonight, being our last night, we are piling into the van to watch Star Wars on the laptop, complete with popcorn and brownies. Connections such as these are the true highlights of the trip and we’ll remember the Hernandes family for a long time to come.

Lisa entertains while Fernando keeps the beat

Future plans include staying in the mountains and visiting ruins and cultural areas for the next month. Tikal and Copan top the list while cities like Panachel and San Cristobal de la Casas await us. As it is warming up we won’t see much of the ocean again for the remainder of the trip most likely. That’s assuming we stick with our current plans which would be very surprising indeed!

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Breakdown

Filed under: Uncategorized — todandlisa @ 10:55 am

Thudding our way along the dirt track, the constant shuddering and rattling suddenly took on a new tone and intensity. Lisa and I looked at each other quickly, this sounded familiar. I pulled over and hopped out to inspect the damage. Even though we were quickly descending out of the mountains to the Caribbean the air was still fresh, even with the dust of the road and the heat of the day. Around us were the pine forests of Honduras which reminded us of the mountains of Idaho with the red duff contrasting against the evergreen branches.

River crossing/ car washing station outside of La Union

River crossing/car wash near La Union

Once under the van I began pulling and shaking all the vital parts of the suspension. Sure enough, there it was again, a rear shock rattled around violently as soon as I touched it. Just like the time in Mexico, where \ again.

The cruise down the mountains had been narrow and winding but smooth at first and I enjoyed letting Betty barrel around the turns a little.f We camped the night before at the visitors center in El Parque La Muralla, one of the best national parks in Honduras until wars between environmentalists and illegal loggers led to several deaths and the consequent park closure, Closed only meant quieter and we enjoyed an tranquil night amongst the high pines. This morning, as we hit La Union, the valley town, the road widened and took on the corrugations that accompany most well traveled dirt tracks. I followed the traditional technique of speeding at 35 mph across the tops of the bumps which gave us a relatively smooth ride for the first hour or so. Then the potholes, called baches in Spanish, began. Hidden between the corrugations they were hard to spot and I weaved all across the road attempting to dodge them without slowing down. Lisa, who had been uncharacteristically quiet up until this point, mentioned that I might want to slow down as Betty had to get us all the way home. I grumbled something at her and continued with my game of dodging the holes. I’d say I missed the most of them but the ones that got us had finally added up to a broken shock.

Angry at myself for breaking the van I naturally proceeded to take it out on Lisa, as she was the most convenient target. I slowed Betty down to a limp and we bickered our way until we hit asphalt and the next decent sized town.

Burros help keep the steets clean in La Union

“Donde esta un soldero” Lisa asked the three blank faces. The faces stayed blank. After a couple more tries finally one of the guys lit up: “Un soldaduro?” “Si, si!” we quickly replied hoping we were on the right track. After seven months in Spanish speaking lands we were still struggling with the language. Even words we thought we had down would become different with some of the nuances between countries and dialects. A soldero (welder) in Puebla, Mexico had fixed us up the first time and we hoped the soldaduro here in Honduras could do the same. We’d become big fans of these guys; one had welded Lisa’s car seat back into shape in Costa Rica. It took 15 minutes and cost 10 bucks. Fortunately, this shop was just around the corner.

There was no sign out front but the heap of cars in the yard told us we were in the right spot. I wandered into the melee of young men, dogs and kids and asked where the boss was. A voice from the edge of the yard called out to me and I weaved my way over towards Victor just as he heaved himself out of his hammock. It was a weekend after all and it seemed the kids were running the yard quite well on their own.

Victor, the soldadura, and his family

Victor didn’t appear too eager to take on any big projects this late on a Saturday, especially as I had interrupted his siesta. He was game to have a look though and made a big show of dismissing all the extraneous men and kids from the yard and making a space for us to pull in. He dropped under the van and took a look and to our mutual surprise found that no welding was necessary, a bolt had sheared and needed replacing. While he hopped into a car with a buddy, off to find the part, Lisa and I were entertained by his family of 6 kids who goggled at postcards of Idaho, and his wife who loved showing off their newborn and asking Lisa about her children. I don’t think she ever really understood our joke about Alli being our daughter. Lisa found it was just easier to tell her Alli is practice for when we have a real child; that seemed to put an end to those kinds of questions.

Back on the road, we were hopeful to still have enough daylight to make it to La Cieba and our anticipated campsite for the night. The pavement in Honduras is some of the best in Central America and we were making good time when we realized the little shimmy we’d had for awhile in the van had developed into a full blown shudder. We stopped a few times and crawled underneath again but didn’t find the problem.

Things deteriorated quickly and soon we were crawling along at 15 mph as the shudders became too violent at any higher speeds. Making our way to the next town, Sambo Creek, a Caribbean Garifuna village, we made the turn off just in time to be greeted with a great clanging noise as the driveline shaft dropped to the ground. We aren’t going any further tonight.

It was going to be dark soon so we went into action mode. Lisa set off down the road to check out a hotel signposted at the turnoff while I gave a nearby security guard (they are everywhere down here) a few limperas to help Alli keep an eye on the van while I followed his directions to a nearby mechanic. I didn’t have any luck as the mechanic I found was actually an electrical engineer. As I returned to the van a black truck pulled up along side with the driver sporting a big smile and acting like a long lost friend. It wasn’t until Lisa hopped out of the passenger side that I realized the calvary had arrived. Not only had she found us a hotel room (camping out in Betty on the side of a narrow, busy dirt road wasn’t going to be a fun option) but had also found Jose and his two buddies who were just leaving the bar. They had overheard her plight and offered to take a look at it.

Dirty work on the Ujoint

Not put off by the sight of our drive line laying in the road these guys crawled underneath and started to work. Quickly they popped back out and said we needed a such and such in Spanish. When I handed them the universal joint we were carrying their jaws dropped. Who drives around with not one but two spare U joints? Well, we have to give credit to Lisa’s dad. As we were leaving Moses Lake at the start of the trip, Delone handed us two boxes and said you better take these along. I shrugged as I didn’t even know what to do with them but packed them away in deep storage behind the couch.

Well, having that part saved the day. I was a bit nervous having three guys,, all straight from the bar and none of whom worked as a mechanic, doing the repairs right there on the side of the road. One guy at least seemed to know what he was doing. A couple hours later as they were wrapping up another fellow came by and commented he’d had to replace a U joint on his truck three times last week! Apparently a pretty common thing down there.

We finally got to use our emergency triangle!

After three and a half hours, all the fresh-squeezed orange juice Lisa could make (we didn’t have beer to offer the guys), and tons of mosquito bites…we could drive! When we drove, very slowly in case it all fell apart again, it was to the hotel bar where I bought another couple rounds for our rescuers. Exhausted by the frustrating day we collapsed into the hotel room, savoring the hot showers.

So the lessons learned the this incident:
1. Listen to your wife
2. See lesson #1
3. Slow down on bad roads
4. Good people are everywhere.

You know, you’d think I would have learned some of these earlier!

Our campsite by the El Canadien Hotel. We stayed and camped a few days after the repairs

 

The Big Question April 24, 2008

Filed under: Stories — lisakruegertaku @ 1:57 pm

Lately, the most frequently asked question we get is the same.

It comes from gringos we meet doing the whirlwind ten day tour of Costa Rica.

It comes from the ex-pats living abroad.

Even the locals seem to be getting on board.

And with that, we’ve done some deep soul searching about what the answer is for us.

If you ask Tod his favorite country, he’ll tell you Costa Rica – for the National Geographic natural splendors.

If you ask Lisa hers, she’ll still fall back to Oaxaca, Mexico – where the food is amazing and indigenous cultures abound.

But as to the question we keep getting, the answer is entirely different and seems to shock the people who are asking us.

The question? It’s this:

What’s been the best part of your trip?

The amazing thing is how this question is what we hear over and over – not which country was our favorite or others…but what was the best part. (Followed closely by the second most asked question – what was the most scary thing that has happened to you….!)

After reflection we realized that the best part of the trip is quite simple: having the TIME we have to take it.

Without the time we currently enjoy, we would feel rushed to take in the sights, visit the places, and push ourselves the way most do when on a tighter schedule.

But with the time, the trip unfolds at a natural pace and each day has the opportunity for unique adventures to reveal themselves.

Take today, por emplojo (for example)…we are in Monteverde, Costa Rica (Lisa wrote this about a month ago -TG), home to some of the rare cloud forests on the planet and a potential tourist zoo. We entered town and almost turned and fled at the Disneyland-esque center. But remember, we have time, and we managed after a day to find a little hotel on the way to the reserve with a grassy area that overlooks the bosque (forest). From here we can walk to food shopping or to the reserve, enjoy our first really hot showers in a couple months.

6 am – Wake up to the raucous symphony of bird calls…

6:30am – Fall back asleep dreaming of birds

8am – Wake up again

9am-Finish eating breakfast and talk to the neighboring campers about having a fire that evening

10am – Take showers and clean up the van, do dishes, etc.

11am – Leave for “town”

Noon – Walk past the local Quaker-started cheese factory, visit the women’s co-op and buy groceries at the local mercado (grocery store).

1:30pm – Go to visit a local museum, decide to pass on the bat tour, and find a fabulous Argentinean restaurant. Have a long talk with the owner – who moved here years ago with her husband who used to run the Monteverde reserve – and learn about Argentinean cooking, Argentina and Monteverde.

2pm – Having started with just two lemonades and two empanadas, we are now eating Argentianian cannelloni in a bechaemal sauce…splitting it of course to protect the sacred budget that is already being blown.

2:30pm – Okay, now we’re reading the paper and waiting for the chocolate soufflé with walnuts….yes, absolutely amazing and I am feeling particularly proud to be enjoying a leisurely lunch…also a bit guilty as it seems so decadent to just wallow in good food. But as our Swiss friend Paul says – “I only eat for pleasure”….and it is a pleasure indeed.

3pm – Leaving the deck overlooking the cloud forest, Tod asks Susanna where we can buy good peanut butter. Immediately she is on the phone. As we wait, she explains that a local woman makes the best peanut butter around. She talks the woman into selling us her last pound of peanut butter and gives us directions to her house…but we must hurry as she is waiting for us and can’t transact business after 5pm (because she’s 7th Day Adventist).

3:30pm – A beautiful walk back up the hill, grabbing Alli from the van to join us, and we see the rolling pastures of cleared forests used as pasture for the dairy cows. It is deforestation true, but done over 50 years ago and hasn’t been enlarged since. The views are stunning and the sun highlights the bright blue, yellow and orange butterflies dancing around us.

3:45pm – Mary the Adventist is waiting…she has a Scrabble game to get to. She is a short, wiry woman that exudes strength of spirit and character. We saw her earlier in the mercado, cafefully choosing her fruit…not one to mess with. We buy her homemade peanut butter for $2.50 USD – one pound of wholesome goodness!

4pm – Back to the van to decide what is next…we’re thinking about the waterfall that a stoned ex-pat told Tod about yesterday. He says it is a half hour away, but I remember the guidebook talking about something much longer. After a bit of research I discover the American really was stoned because the ½ hour walk he recommended really takes a half day. Instead, we decide to hike up the road to the Monteverde Reserve to visit the Hummingbird Gallery.

4:30pm – We have seen an agouti along the road…it was amazing! And Alli was perfectly behaved. We also had more birders who were walking along the road give us dirty looks…okay birders out there please explain! In Panama, a man told us he was sorry we were walking with our dog because it was scaring the birds. Not sure why a dog on the leash who is walking next to us would be any more scary to a bird than a man wielding 20 pound binoculars and a 30 pound backpack, noisily crunching through the forest.

5pm – Arrive at the hummingbird galley where, right before the entrance, we see a coati. Coatis look like raccoons with narrow white snouts and the tails of a mono (monkey). He sees Alli and is curious. He moves a little ways from us – 10 feet – then sits down and scratches himself. Now he’s up leaning over the edge trying to see Alli, rocking back and forth and looking at both of us. Alli is smelling the air, moving her nose back and forth but sitting like a good girl.

5:15pm – We find a sheltered corner of the gallery where the coati decides to show off. No one sees us on this hidden bench, buzzed by hummingbirds of all sizes and colors – iridescent blues, turquoises, white, striped orange and green – simply amazing. Meanwhile the coati, is hanging upside down about six feet from us, trying to feed off a hummingbird feeder…as the feeder swings further away he is now hanging by his tail and finally does an all points off dyno to fling himself at the feeder…then does a backflip and lands with his butt squarely on the ground. Tod is choking down laughter and Alli is tilting her head sideways in curiosity. It’s the best show around but everyone in the shop is missing it.

5:30pm – Leaving the gallery we walk along the road and meet a wonderful couple from Wisconsin on a 9-day trip with their kids. Good people, we talk about travel, time, and expenses. Of course they ask us the question. As we leave Tod says …I’ve always loved people from the Midwest…good, solid and friendly.

6pm – We finish walking down the road looking into the canopy for a sloth sighting…the one thing I haven’t seen that I’d like to….and arrive in camp as the sun is preparing to set.

6:30pm – A light dinner of guacamole, chips and steamed beets as we’re still full from lunch. (We save the smoked provolone from the cheese factory for tomorrow).

7:30pm – Lisa practicing her guitar, while Tod splits up the chair and table the owner gave us to burn in the campfire

8pm – Blazing fire and familiar conversations with new friends under glorious stars and a false southern cross star constellation

9pm – Plans develop for catching a local band in town tomorrow night

9:30pm – to bed…

Now this day, with its open-ended freedom was such a treat! On a short whirlwind tour we might have felt that the day was wasted, not filled with enough tick-list completions. But with time, the day becomes a gift that gets to unfold where we find a rhythm that lets us discover what is everyday for the people who live here.

Like our friends Rick and Kathy say –

Tourists see what they came to see. Travelers see what they see.

And what an amazing gift that is – the time for the journey to unfold.

(Tod’s note: with all the unfolding happening lately we have a few more posts that should be up (with photos) in the next couple of days.  Current photos are posted though and available on our web album by click the sidebar link.)