Tod and Lisa’s Year of Adventure

Life on the Road to Central America

Late Nights with Tod and Lisa June 9, 2008

Filed under: Central America,Mexico,Uncategorized — todandlisa @ 5:54 pm

Lisa and I had this fantasy when we started this trip. A vision of a natural rhythm of going to bed with the sunsets and rising with the sunrise. The first blow to the fantasy was when we discovered that during the winter down here the sun sets around 6:30PM, same as in the states.

A little early for us. Also, since Betty has all the modcons, electricity, stereo etc it’s not like camping in the “wilderness” sense. Often it’s 10:30 before we shut down the computer or put down the guitar. The stretch of road we’ve been on the last few weeks has seen us staying up later and later, usually because of the interesting people we’ve met. No complaints there, especially since we still seem to be getting our ten hours of sleep in!

Our last episode saw us leaving our new friends (and tortilla instructors) the Hernandez family in Lago Yojoa, Honduras and heading out for the classic Mayan ruins tour. First off though, we spent a few days wandering through the southwest of Honduras visiting a string of towns on what is known as the Route of the Lencas (the local indigenous people). While I wrote a blog entry on some of the sad realities of the poverty in this region there was one highlight that I failed to mention.

We arrived at the town of La Esperanza, tired after a long day of driving the slow dusty roads. We had no camping information for the night so we began checking out likely places as we entered town. Usually in these cases we find a restaurant or hotel with a big enough parking lot for us to camp in for the night.

Unfortunately, this not being a tourist town, there was little in the way of those kinds of services. After a frustrating hour of wandering around town following false leads to campsites, we finally pass a soccer field. We had heard of others camping in soccer fields but had never tried it ourselves. This one seemed especially promising because on one corner of the field were a few small RV’s parked next to a big top tent.

That’s right. Big top tent as in a circus! We pulled past the sign announcing the Circo Black &White and parked next to one of the RV’s. A rail thin black man confidently strode toward us to wish us a welcome. Edipo Zaire was his name and we soon learned that he was the contortionist and ringmaster of the circus. Before long he and Lisa were deep in conversation while I assumed my usual role of playing soccer and fetch with the kids (not to worry, Allie was doing most of the fetching, not the kids.) They would have offered Allie a spot in the evenings show but they emphasized that it was a “non-animal” circus out of humanitarian concerns. They also insisted we be their guests for the evening.

The Circus Black and White

What an evening it was! Although more vaudeville than circus it was a bawdy and raucous affair complete with transvestite karaoke, belly dancers and a grand finale skit which starred a white faced (painted) bumbling gringo! As the only gringos in the crowd we got a lot of looks and smiles from the crowd after the show. It was definitely some local color.

One thing we loved about the whole production was that, as with most things in this part of the world, it was an all family show. Edipo and his brother were the lead actors, the wives were the dancing girls and the children served drinks and sold treats at intermission. Edipo’s mom and dad where the real ringleaders as they had been in the circus all their lives and Manuel, the dad, taught Edipo the tricks of being a contortionist. Now-a-days, Manuel operates the popcorn machine, which is two microwaves running full time with piles of instant popcorn bag. Mom seems to be everywhere at once, giving out the orders.

The Zaire family; heart and soul of the Circus Black and White

We wrapped up the evening talking to Edipo and his wife in their RV, talking until late in the evening.
The next day the kids were begging us to stay for the nights show, a different act, as we rolled off towards Gracias and the Copan ruins. We were smiling at how lucky we had been to have a look into their lives.

Another realization of the trip for me is that I really do like some tourist places. Copan Ruinas was one of those places I didn’t think I would like, but did. After years of living in Jackson Hole, Wyoming (the national park’s answer to Disneyland) I resented most aspects of tourist towns. However, if you can see beyond the crowds of camera-toting tourists (of which, I humbly have to remind myself, I am one at times) there is a reason everyone is here. In Copan Ruinas, it’s the ruins themselves that bring the people although the town was what really appealed to us. Laid back and friendly with lots of nice cafes and shops is a nutshell description. It’s popular with the younger backpacking set and doesn’t see the fleets of bus tours we would witness in Tikal.

One night we stayed up at the Hacienda San Lucas which is perched on a beautiful hillside property overlooking town, the river and the ruins themselves. It was our splurge dinner night (we have one per country), and we had picked the right place to go big. In a trip full of great meals in exotic locations this was one of the best. A set menu of six courses included an authentic Mayan cuisine with items such as roasted corn soup, tamales with Mayan herb sauce, roast chicken in adobe sauce, blue corn tortillas….you get the idea. The setting on the patio was intimate, lit only by oil lamps, with views over the lights of town. We met another British couple as well for the perfect end to the day with conversation, again, late into the evening.

The Copan museum with mock temple and stelae

The next morning we chose to skip the ruins themselves on recommendations from other travelers. The real gem we found is the museum on the grounds of the ruins. It includes a full size temple reconstruction, painted as it might have looked at the time of the Mayans. It is surrounded by many of the stelae, tall stone slabs with glyphs carved on all sides, that Copan is so well known for. The stelae were brought into the museum to protect them from the elements and replaced by replicas in the surrounding ruins. In all it was one of our best “ruin” experiences and we never even actually walked through the ruins!

And, after that, now we were finally back to Guatemala. Guatemala was the site of our first Central American adventures seven years ago. It still holds a bit of mystique for the both of us from those times . It’s grown in ways during the intervening years: cell phones are ubiquitous, there are less chicken buses and more shiny mini vans, roads are paved, and prices are higher. Still though, there is a sense for me that these are the lost Mayans. Eighty percent of the population is indigenous with most of them living in remote villages in the highlands. An old lady walking along the roadside in traditional dress with a bundle of firewood for cooking balanced neatly on her head seems oblivious to the traffic passing her by. A thousand years ago the same woman could be walking along some ancient forest trail and not be out of place.

Playa Trinidad was one of our best beach camps

Our first campsite was a great little beach on Lake Isabal. We had some of our best beach experiences in Guatemala and none of them were on the ocean! Afterwards we pushed north into the Peten and stayed for a few nights at Finca Ixobel, the first “real” campground we had seen since Costa Rica. Tikal wasn’t too far away now but we seemed to have a hard time getting there. First we went to Flores on Lake Peten but wanted to get away from the hustle so we drove around the lake to find Playa Trinidad, another beautiful beach get away. Jose, the vigilante (night watchman) remembered our good friends Paul and Bridgette who had recommended it to us, and welcomed us warmly. We also met Oscar, the owner we met the next day as it was Sunday, the beaches only busy day. We sat in hammocks most of the day reading and talking with Oscar. Allie had a crowd of kids chanting for her as she lept off the dock for sticks.

Airborne Allie goes big!

The next day found us back in Flores running errands with Oscar as our guide. Betty needed new shocks and Lisa got some medical tests for her continuing gut ailments. All the tests turned out negative which is a relief and frustrating at the same time as she is still plagued with intestinal issues from our first trip here. At least there are no lingering Guatemalan intestinal hitchhikers! We spent that night in Flores on the waterfront but slept little because of the heat and all the police and others walking by all night. In the Peten at this time of year, escaping the heat means being in the water which wasn’t always an option.

The Gran Jaguar temple at sunset, Tikal

Finally, the next day we made it to world famous Tikal. These are the temples that people think of when they hear Mayan ruins. We had to sneak Allie in as the whole area is a national park and closed to dogs. She stayed nice and quiet in the back while twice I had to assure the park guard we had no mascotas (pets). I’m such a bad liar! Lisa sat in the back with a big map spread out over top of Alli to help keep her hidden. Our plan was to camp one night in the ruins to get the best of both evening and morning light without the heat of the day. This also helped us by only having to pay one days entry fee, cheapskates that we are.

Temple V

Tikal truly is magical and for all the tourism focused on it, it holds itself well. They say only twenty percent of the ruins there have been uncovered. Looking out from the top of Temple IV you get an idea of the vastness of the city in it’s glory, every little “hill” you see is a buried ruin. That first evening we met a nice Vancouver couple Doug and Rebecca watching the sunset from Temple III. We wound up having dinner with them and, again, more conversation late into the evening.

While it was a wonderful time, this was a bad idea as Lisa and I had signed up for a guided tour first thing in the morning. …first thing being 4:30AM so that we could catch the sunrise from Temple IV. I felt like I was climbing again as the alarm woke us up in the dark of night. The tour was a bit disappointing as one of the guides bailed and left us as a group of forty with one guide. However, the temples hidden in the mist with the howler monkeys bellowing across the forest created a wonderfully mystical feel.

Feeling like bad tourists we left Tikal shortly after the tour to escape the heat. People talk about spending two or three days at Tikal but we could not tolerate the high heat and humidity. This time of year is definitely NOT the time to be in the Peten. Besides, we knew a nice beach nearby to retreat to! Jose welcomed us again at Playa Trinidad and we spent the afternoon in the hammocks out over the water, and in inner tubes on the water, recovering from all of the tourism.

Hammock self-portrait

From Tikal we moved back south and into the high-country and cooler temperatures. The roads were well paved for the most part but were tortuously slow and winding. The scenery was spectacular though and I had a hard time keeping my eyes on the next turn. Think six passes with elevation changes around 4000 feet for each!

We stayed a night in Coban at a tranquil little city park then pushed on to Chichicastenango where we visited their famous market. Here too we hired a guide to take us up to a Mayan ceremonial site. Part of our reason for doing this is that we have very few pictures of the Guatemalans themselves due to their shyness and sensitivity to cameras. With a hired guide we had permission to photograph the ceremony and the people. It was an amazing blend of the ancient and modern as a Pepsi can was offered on the alter was a request for a blessing on the family business.

Mayan blessing ceremony in Chichicastengango

From there we pushed on to Panajachel where friends had promised us excellent camping. True to form, at the Hotel Tzanjuyu we had a great spot lakeside all to ourselves. We spent several days there, mostly lounging by the lake but occasionally walking into town or taking a boat across to one of the other little villages. It was again, rather touristy compared to areas we had been in, but the natural splendor was quite remarkable. Think lake, a couple volcanoes, and great weather.

One highlight was going out to dinner at a locals word-of-mouth restaurant called Cordon Bleu. Tom, a long time expat from the States, had simply opened up his living room and balcony, put 5 tables in there and was serving food. He had started two of the most successful restaurants in town, sold them, and was now doing the low maintenance restaurant gig. A four course dinner for two, plus drinks, was $12!!! Lisa enjoyed meatloaf and mashed potatoes with gravy. The fare was non-Central American, home-style cooking. And we got a long-time local’s view of Panajachel, Guatemala, world politics, and living abroad.

Another highlight was the utter transformation in our haggling skills. Given the huge economic discrepancy between our standard of living and the normal one for folks down here, we typically don’t haggle much when buying something. However, we had been told you can haggle in Panajachel and better do so if you don’t want to get eaten alive. The commerce here is so aggressive that on the first day when Lisa showed interest in one street girls wares she was immediately swarmed by five little girls, all under 12, draping scarves over her shoulders and twining ribbons through her hair. So we learned and gingerly started the buying process by asking prices. Literally, they were outrageous. Wanting to get some gifts to take home, Lisa suggested that we offer 1/3 to 1/2 of the initial price…and be willing to walk away. Again, another shocking act of street shopping we had not managed before. Lisa usually felt too guilty to do so. But we came up with the plan and it worked and soon the merchants were yelling at us down the street, that yes, yes, they would take our price. When we returned to pay we noticed a look of respect in their eyes. We weren’t being had.

A mural about Guatemala’s civil war

Leaving Panajachel we were followed by a British couple in an MG convertible who were driving from Patagonia to Prudhoe Bay. We chatted briefly during a rest stop and they seemed quite the explorers from the Age of Empire with their scarfs and explorer hats. He said he bought the car new in 1967 and it was the only car he’d ever owned. Another example of all different kinds of people doing cool things out there in the world.

Fishing boats on the shore of Lake Atitlan

We drove the high road off of the Pan American Highway up into the mountains to our rendezvous with Todos Santos, the site of our first visit with Guatemala. This return held a lot of questions for us: Would it be as we remembered? Would our family remember us? What changes have happened in us in that time that will make our visit different? There’s a saying that you can never step in the same river twice because both you and the river have changed.

The landscape was still as majestical and mysterious as we remembered although modernized with cell towers sprouting from several moutaintops along the way. Our family remembered us, but just barely. It had been seven years without contact. We realized that while our life was hugely impacted by our visit to their town, their lives had continued pretty much unchanged. When we retold the story of Lisa’s fall after the sauna and subsequent hospitalization, they recalled the story…although some had thought she had died!

Lisa and Martina, our host “mom” of seven years ago

What struck us most was how stark and hard life was there. Of all our travels this year this place seemed the most desperate. The climate was cold and everyone seemed sick. Children’s faces had the red sunburned cheeks that you see at altitude and patches of warts covered the hands of many we met. The reality of our return was a bit depressing. Our family had stopped taking in tourists for home stays, probably it seemed, because they tired of them living in their space. So while our Spanish was much better than previously, as we sat in the family’s new kitchen with Martina cooking over the wood fire, the conversation was still in Mam, their native language, leaving us feeling isolated.

Then we were off to visit our old language school, where Lisa’s instructor greeted us with big hugs and asked how long we would be studying Spanish! Her welcome was heartwarming and she was disappointed we wouldn’t be staying long…chastizing us to leave more time next time we visit. It was an interesting distinction that this time we were tourists, whereas before we were students. It was gratifying to see that our Spanish had improved enough to engage in a long conversation about our trip and lives in the States.

As usual, Alli stole the show in town. With villagers walking up and asking us to give them Alli as a gift or offering to buy her. Only the local dogs didn’t like her. All in all, while we were glad we had come back, we also found ourselves eager to leave. The harshness of the lives of the family and the general isolation with them was hard to face. This place was among the poorest we had visited.

With some small gifts and a final farewell we trundled back down the mountain ready for Mexico. The relief of re-entering Mexico was surprising. It felt like home in away. Cleaner, better roads and signs, more development, and Spanish that was easier for us to understand. The locals also seemed more comfortable with foreigners and easier going. This may be because our first stop was San Cristobal de la Casas, a mountain town renowned for it’s indigenous color, hippie subculture and being the heart of the Zapatista revolution. In all we were glad to be there.

Tod trying on the local fashions in the market, Chichicastenango, Guatemala

Although we spent a week in San Cristobal, again , like in Panajachel, we found ourselves mostly just enjoying the good camping. Sure we walked into town once in awhile, took a few pictures of churches and even visited a museum. Lisa got excited about the Mayan medicine institute. However, we never went out to the outlying villages and mostly we hung out in the campground on the grass in the sun chatting with other van travelers.

These two things have been fairly rare on this trip. Sitting in the sun has been rare we have spent most of the trip hiding from it. As a matter of fact our tans our rather pathetic for having so much time in the tropics. San Cristobal though is at such a high altitude that it is pleasantly cool during the days and can get a might chilly at night, the sun is a welcomed guest. The other oddity was meeting others traveling by car, van or RV. After 5 months of only seeing the occasional “land cruiser”, the name given our types by sailors, we now were in a campground with several of them. On top of that some of them were Americans, another rarity down here where most land cruisers are Canadian and the backpackers are mostly European. The atmosphere was perfect, relaxed with lots of music and again, conversations late into the night.

It’s been an exciting and varied stretch of road for the trip and now we are eager to get back on familiar ground in Oaxaca. Also it’s time for us to catch up on our sleep in anticipation of more late nights ahead when Delone, Lisa’s dad, visits!

Buen Viaje (Good Travels!)


Cleaning the Earth June 7, 2008

Filed under: Central America,Stories,Uncategorized — lisakruegertaku @ 7:33 pm

A low haze drifts across the valley. Smoke. This time of year it is always smoke as the milpas (small farm plots) are burned. “We’re cleaning the earth,” the locals tell us. Limpiar is the word they use. It is the word to clean. Fire cleans the land here in Copan, Honduras.

But “here” is even bigger than one place. Here includes vast swaths of Honduras and Guatemala, and parts of the other Central American countries we have visited.

We’re high on the side of a mountain outside Parque Nacional La Tigra in Honduras. The valley spills onto a wide plain below us, open and inviting. But we know it is there only because the German immigrants tell us. They have lived here for ten years. On our two day visit, only faint outlines tease us.

On a secluded rural road in central Guatemala we are greeted by bursts of color scurrying alongside the road. Women in traditional huipiles bustle by us as drifts of smoke climb skyward across the valley. Small clusters of people are tending them, guiding the flames. I see prayers rising in the heat at the end of verano (dry season), prayers for the rains to come soon.

Locals working the firelines in Honduras

Then there’s Lake Atitlan, Guatemala. An enormous lake surrounded by two ancient volcans (volcanoes). These sentinels set amongst nature and water led the Lonely Planet to call it “arguably one of the most beautiful places on earth”. But I don’t have any beautiful pictures to show you. The smoke, humo, hides them. They are simply ghosts to me, standing behind a sheer gray curtain.

On a lancha (boat) the other day, I overheard tourists talking about the “dreadful” smoke and fire.

“Can you believe they let them burn so much?”
“It’s terrible for the land.”
“It’s so UN-NATURAL, but they don’t know better.”
“Well, someone should tell them.”

The hazy million dollar view from our campsite on Lake Atitlan

Fire as it is used throughout Central America is anathema to the American West (and America in general), where decades of fire suppression have created ill, crowded forests. The green has turned rust-red in many places, as the pine beetle weaves a mosaic through the forests. The fires that spark there don’t clean the land, they sterilize it by burning so terribly hot. And the money required to fight these gigantic fires is enormous.

Quite the corner we are backed into. To start burning now, which many clear-sighted forest managers are attempting, is a house of cards. The fuel loading is so high many prescribed burns get out of control. Public outrage ensues. I know. I fought fires by rappelling from helicopters into them.

Change countries. Change mindsets. The land here isn’t for recreation. The land is sustenance. It is food. It is religion too, if you’re indigena (indigenous).

While I have no idea if burning truly cleans the land or if it helps with mineral content in the soil, I do know that it helps in other ways. Sure, you deal with the smoke problems in the form of lowered visibility and public health impacts. But if you look at it from an ecosystem point of view, it is rather ingenious.

Ecosystems of pine evolved to actually need fire. Many of their pine cones don’t open up unless they are exposed to heat. At that point, germination ensues. Pines also die at lower temperatures than do other, harder woods.

By setting fires annually in the pine forests and milpas, they are clearing the surrounding understory and preventing the catastrophic fires we experience routinely in the American West now. Healthy trees live. The understory opens up. Bugs are killed. Diseased trees removed.

When Columbus and crew first landed in America they declared the land to be a most amazing wilderness. There was so little understory that they could run their horses at breakneck speeds through the forests. It was pristine, they said…untouched.

We now know that those forests were anything but untouched wilderness.

They were carefully managed gardens, but gardens vastly different than the kind we are used to cultivating. The Native Americans of the eastern United States routinely burned the forests to cultivate a landscape that supported their lifestyle. They managed these forest-gardens to support animals they hunted, fruits they harvested, and more.

New books, such as 1491: New Revelations of The Americas Before Columbus, show history as taught in school is woefully misinformed. What we considered natural or wild was often manicured and guided by time-honored traditions.

Cleaning the land is a tradition. And within it, we just might find the keys we didn’t know we had lost.