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.


The Search for the Perfect Tortilla May 13, 2008

Filed under: Central America,Stories — lisakruegertaku @ 3:36 pm

According to the Mayan creation myths, it took the gods four tries to create humans. They first created deer, birds and other animals. Because these creatures could not speak when the gods called them, they were deemed unworthy and condemned to be eaten. The second creation of the gods was human-like, but made of mud. The mud person spoke without “knowledge or understanding” and soon dissolved back into mud. The third creation was a person carved out of wood. While an improvement because they could walk and talk and procreate, they could not remember their Shaper. As a result, they were destroyed on their own grinding stones. The gods finally got it right when they discovered maize, which became the flesh of mankind and the source of the heavenly food known as tortillas. (adapted from the Lonely Planet Honduras)

If you know me really well, then you know I have a weakness for one food in particular: fresh, handmade corn tortillas.

When we visited Guatemala seven years ago, I was famous for going into comedors (small local eateries) and asking simply for tortillas de maiz (corn tortillas) because they were so damn good and I NEVER got sick from them. The women and girls working there would repeat my order five times to convince themselves that that was all I wanted. It was such an odd request that one woman refused to give me just tortillas. She said I must eat something else with it and suggested a chicken soup. Which I must say, they went quite well with. But then, when you eat a good tortilla it goes well with anything.

Shopping at a local tortilleria

Because of this deep love and respect I have for the tortilla it has been a mission of sorts for me to try and find the best tortillas as we travel in Central America and Mexico.

Why? My first experience with truly amazing tortillas was at a restaurant on Phinney Ridge in Seattle. It was a couple blocks from a house I rented in college and served the most amazing southwestern food. There, tortillas took on a new meaning for me. They were as big as plates and a quarter inch thick. They were hot, steamy, and chewy. Wow! Who knew a tortilla could be all that?

This was followed years later by my experience of tortillas in the highland villages of Guatemala. There the corn was grown on milpas (small plots farmed by a family). When it was to be used for tortillas, the corn kernels were soaked in water and cal (lime) until it mildly fermented over several days. In the home we stayed in Guatemala, the resident parrot would sit on the edge of this vast pot of corn and water, while Tod and I watched in horror – hoping he faced the correct direction when relieving himself.

The hopefully parrot-additive free mix would then boil until the corn was thoroughly cooked. At that time, it was drained and taken to the local molino (grinder) where it was ground into masa, which is a rough paste. This masa would then meet stone under the skilled hands of women using matates, undergoing its final transformation to make it suave (smooth) just like it has been for centuries.

A local lady works the molino in her resteraunt/cocina

Next, came the shaping of the tortilla. Depending on the food culture, they would be patted in hands into small rounds (Guatemala), squashed using a tortilla press (Oaxaca, Mexico) or pressed on plastic guides using hands (Honduras).

In all of these countries, however, the preferred final step was the same: cooking them on a comal. A comal is a ceramic or metal plate set over an open fire. Tortillas cooked this way have a wonderful smoky smell that adds to my delight when consuming them. The downside? It is this method of cooking that is responsible in part for denuding the landsides of villages in every single country we visited. Deforestation from gathering wood to cook with is a major problem on at least two levels.

Cooking over the comal

First, people must walk long distances to gather the bundles of wood to burn. This takes up large portions of their time, especially women and children and removes wood from the forests. Second, the smoke from the fires causes lung cancer in the women cooking over them. Cooking using fire indoors, without a chimney, is obviously not a healthy idea, but that is how it has been done for centuries. In Oaxaca, where indigenous women are living longer due to better medical care, doctors consider lung cancer an epidemic.

Like all costumbres (customs), it is hard to break this method of cooking even when families have access to modern appliances. The indigenous families I met in Oaxaca had propane stove/ovens which they used to make tea, cocoa and rice. The fire still had its revered spot in the yard, where the real cooking took place – making tamales and tortillas. When I asked why they didn’t just use the stove rather than bother with gathering firewood and working in all that smoke they looked puzzled and shook their heads with silent smiles. It was obvious I didn’t understand.

But what I did understand was that these kinds of tortillas were a new personal high for me. They were small (maybe 4 -5 inches around), thick (think .25 inches), and made with yellow corn. I LOVED them and simply could not get enough of them. And really, I am not alone. In Guatemala, a family of eight will normally eat approximately 170 tortillas a day! Talk about not getting enough, that means each person eats seven tortillas per meal todo los dias (everyday).

On this trip, during our mad dash south to Panama we only stayed one night in Guatemala; we knew we’d have three weeks there on the return trip. The hotel owner’s wife was so pleased at my love of Guatemalan tortillas that she gave me a stack of 20 freshly made tortillas gratis (free) for us to take on the road. Needless to say, they didn’t make it that far…which is actually the whole point of tortillas.

You see, the problem with all handmade tortillas is that they don’t last long. Most locals tell me a freshly made tortilla will at most be good for 2-3 days. In the refrigerator, properly wrapped, maybe one or two more days can be gleaned. For this reason alone the armies of women in Central America cook every day vast quantities of this fragile food stuff. I have regularly experienced the anguish of finding my precious handmade tortillas sprouting colonies of unidentifiable life forms in fabulous shades of green, orange and white.

To meet this need for a super tortilla that doesn’t spoil muy rapido (very fast), the food industry has created those tortillas found in supermarkets everywhere. Yes, they are sturdy. Yes, they will live in your fridge or on a shelf for who knows how long. But also yes, they taste more or less like cardboard in my humble opinion.

Are they better than no tortillas? Sure.
But I am in Central America for heaven’s sake…I want the real thing!

Which brings up yet another distinction in the world of tortillas: corn vs. flour. Living in the States and enjoying the ultimate cheapskate meal, the burrito, one gets quite attached to flour tortillas. After all, they are malleable enough to hold vast quantities of beans, rice, steak, salsa, guacamole, and more, all stuffed inside them. Corn tortillas? Forget it. They fall apart when folded into more than a gentle U-shaped taco, meaning they hold significantly less comida (food).

As a result, most folks I know prefer the flour tortilla. When I wax on about the fine qualities of corn tortillas they stare at me as if I’m an alien. I know a secret they don’t, however: that they are missing out on one of life’s finest culinary and nutritional gifts.

Research has even shown that corn tortillas made the traditional way (with cal (lime)), contain significantly higher levels of calcium, B vitamins, and other elemental goodies than flour tortillas. Which makes sense, I suppose, when you consider that entire civilizations thrived for centuries with a food culture centered on corn and its offspring, the tortilla.

So, where is the perfect tortilla?

Angela at the tortilla press in Oaxaca

In Mexico, the tortillas are everywhere and they are fairly good. It has, however, gotten increasingly difficult to find tortillas a mano (by hand) in a public venue– most are made by machines or tortilla presses instead. However, even these are significantly better than what one can buy in the supermercados (supermarkets).

In Oaxaca, my struggle was that they used a white corn to make the tortillas AND a tortilla press. This is not heche a mano (made by hand) in the truest technical sense to me. The white corn made them taste pretty bland and the thin nature of them was disappointing.

I can live with the tortillas in Mexico, however, and eventually found the sister of a cook/cleaning woman for a family living down the road from our camping place in Oaxaca. She made a deep, yellow tortilla that I liked. I have even heard of the elusive azul y rojo (blue and red) tortillas in Oaxaca but must continue my search for them when I return.

In the meantime, I was profoundly disappointed by the lack of tortillas in Panama. Their “tortillas” looked like a round polenta blob. I was too deeply disappointed to even give them a fighting chance. Of course, the other countries of Central America don’t even consider Panama one of their own. Perhaps this is the real reason why?

In Costa Rica, I was floundering with store bought tortillas until I had an authentic, local tortilla experience. We were house-sitting our friend Billy’s place outside Herradura. Think mountains, rivers, a beautiful, fairly tight valley that is high and cool. This region has the highest mountains in Costa Rica and we loved it. Returning from a hike outside the national park (the Alli factor: no dogs allowed), we passed a couple of houses. I saw a small, older woman on the side of the road working and started talking with her. Her first words to me were an apology that she was not educated. After I reassured her that my Spanish was obviously not educated either, we got on quite well. Tod, seeing this was a woman’s thing, quickly escaped back to the house.

Meanwhile, I got the tour and introduction to the family and gardens, followed by special guest treatment. I was served 3 tortillas a mano with coffee on china, with silverware and a cloth napkin. What was weird was that no one sat with me and the living room was dark. They all bustled in the kitchen 20 feet away, as I sat alone in the shadows eating. I kept getting up at odd intervals and going to the kitchen door to tell them how wonderful the tortillas were. They would smile and nod before guiding me back to the guest of honor position….at least that was what I made of it.

So in the rural homes in Costa Rica, folks were still making these fabulous tortillas. We moved through Nicaragua too quickly for me to get a feel for the tortillas there, but given the poverty I am reasonably sure people still make their tortillas there too.

In truth, the simple answer is probably that they are in the small homes of the poor in every single country. It is there where people still make them in the time-honored traditional way. If I really wanted these kinds of tortillas all along the way, I could stop and poke my head into any appropriate-looking shack and ask. And I venture that in such homes in western Panama I might even be able to find them.

It was in Honduras, however, where my personal relationship to tortillas experienced a radical and unexpected shift. And all because of a 13 year old named Nolvia who shares my birthday. Coincidence? I don’t think so.

Nolvia and her family live at the Balnerio Paradise, near Lago de Yajoa in central Honduras. It is actually a working shade coffee farm that also sells flowers. Her dad is the manager and her four other siblings have run of the place. A frigid river runs through the property, a mere 100 yards from where we camped for the week that I worked there. It was a delight for the kids to live there as they proudly showed off their knowledge of plants, animals and….tortillas.

Fernando, Henry and the maestra herself: Nolvia

From their initial introduction to Alli, these kids fast became our friends. They are smart, polite, interesting, and great Spanish teachers. Once allowed in the van they would sit and stare and just make “oooo” sounds as they relaxed in the chairs of the van. They LOVED the cocina (kitchen) as it really is kid-sized. With Nolvia, however, it went one step farther.

As I told her how much I loved tortillas, but got frustrated at not being able to find them she simply asked why I didn’t make them. I told her it took too long, and she simply laughed. It doesn’t take long at all she assured me. When I asked how she made them, she said you started with Maseca.

Ahhh, we were dealing with a middle class Honduran family here. Of course, we should have known this when Tod asked Henri, the seven year old, if his mother did laundry in the river as many women we had seen did. Henri gave him an odd look and said “No, she goes to the lavenderia (laundrymat).” Tod looked as sheepish as he felt.

But back to tortillas. Maseca is a store-bought corn flour used as a quick way to make tortillas. I had no idea. However, I did have Maseca on hand for the oddest of reasons. I had bought it to supplement Alli’s diet as she had been on a hunger strike of sorts. She wasn’t eating regularly because the antibiotics for her ear infection upset her stomach. She’s pretty skinny anyway, but a veterinarian we met near the National Park La Tigra (on the other side Honduras) begged me to add it to her food. It was embarrassing having a dog which apparently looked like a starving Honduran street mutt. Alli soon returned to eating just fine and left us driving around with a full bag of Maseca.

But as providence would have it, I could learn to use Maseca the way it was truly meant to be used. Nolvia proudly took over the kitchen, shooing her brothers to the side, and began instructing her pupil in the fine art of tortilla making.

First, you add water and mush it up with your hands to get the right consistency. This masa can easily be stored in the refrigerator for up to a week. Already we have circumvented the need for corn, cal, boiling, a grinder and the use of heavy, primitive stone tools. This was beginning to look possible.

Next, you work a wad of dough into a flatish disc on your hands.

Then, you take a piece of a plastic grocery bag and cut into so that you get a circle. These are your guides that the disc of masa goes on.

Now to the most difficult part: shaping the tortillas. Yes, they make it look easy. Nolvia was such a skilled expert. Her brothers would laugh as I struggled to make the sacred circle. When I finally got it right, there would be shouts of approval from them.

Lastly, we cook it. Using our cast iron trivet or pan, we place it on our propane gas stove. This actually takes skill as the transfer can easily break up the fragile disc. I broke several initially, and still do on occasion. When this happened, you would hear audible intakes of breath, a hushed silence, followed by a simple shoulder shrug. With the words “no hay problema” (there is no problem), Nolvia would smile and we would squish up the dough to start over.

It’s all in the wrist

Each side is cooked once, then the first side is cooked again with you poking it with your fingers to try to get it to balloon up with air. When it did this, the kids would squeal with delight.

After the transfer to the plate, I would high five Nolvia and her brothers and she would yell “Muy rico” (very rich, delicious) followed by her brothers chanting those same words. With that, we would start anew.

This was the first of our many van cooking classes that took place after I worked with clients during the day. I also learned to make frijoles fritos (refried beans: they were shocked at my addition of onions and garlic but we love it), limonada (a lime juice with sugar, very refreshing, from limes I gathered with the kids), and flour tortillas (much more involved, but yummy).

To be honest, I have since given up the need for shaping my corn tortillas into perfect rounds. A round-ish shape is what we usually eat these days. It is certainly sacreligous on some level, but I hail from eastern Washington not America de Central so it I think the gods will forgive me. Still, please don’t tell Nolvia!

The result of this profound new life skill is that my relationship to tortillas has changed.
While I don’t think the maseca-made tortillas are quite as rich tasting or nutritious as the ones made the old-fashioned way, I love being able to make a couple for each meal. Unlike the traditional families, we each usually eat just two per meal. And now I understand the silent smiles from my indigenous friends in Oaxaca. Tortillas imbued with the wood smoke of the comal have a flavor that propane stove “smoke” just can’t match.

Nonetheless, these tortillas I make are one hundred million times better than the store bought variety and I don’t have the tortillas-turned-science-project issue. I also don’t feel as helpless as I used to when we ran out of tortillas, wondering where the next good tortilla could be found and how the hell was I going to get there.

The finished product!

Big road trips are a curious thing. You start out with certain goals in mind, but are constantly astonished by what you learn about yourself and the world. Perhaps this was one of the unconscious forces behind this trip in the first place…to become the tortilla maker rather than just the buyer. I’ll never really know.

But according to Tod, with this newly acquired skill I am now the perfect wife. While I doubt the veracity of that statement (the men and women of Central America argue I must give him a baby first), I do find his other piece of wisdom rings true:

You find the perfect tortilla within yourself.


The Children of the Lenca May 2, 2008

Filed under: Central America,Stories — todandlisa @ 2:40 pm

The little girl tucked herself into the high bank of the turn as far as we came rumbling slowly around the corner.  We passed and her eyes were haunting as her face shimmered with fear.   Her older sister, on the other side of the road watched her anxiously as if she would disappear forever in the few seconds the van separated them.

We were used to getting looks.  Ever since we crossed into Mexico Betty has been turning heads.  We know when we’re on the backroads by the amount around the road that life stops as we drive pass.  Usually it’s just a look of wonder and then a friendly wave.  Often there is pointing at the bikes with some shouts of “regalame!” (literally: gift me!)  But these looks were nothing like that.

Lisa saw them first, two little boys playing on the roads edge.  Once they spotted us they began sprinting towards  the safety of their home, a meager one room hut.  As we neared the high embankment separating their house from the road they crept back to the edge. When we passed underneath them we saw those eyes again, wide and fearful, peeking between blades of grass as the boys lay on their bellies, hoping not to be seen.

The Lenca are the largest indigenous group in Honduras, occupying the dry hills that make up the southwest corner of the country.  Lisa and I were driving what is referred to as the Ruta de (route of the) Lenca., a patchwork of roads connecting some of the major towns in the region.  Life along the roadside spoke to the abject poverty; barefoot mothers walking with large loads of firewoods balanced on their heads.  Old men pushing even older bicycles up the rough hills, machetes balanced between the handlebars.  And the children.

In the market of La Esperanza, earlier that morning, Lisa and I had drawn more stares than usual as the only gringos in the sea of faces.  This is one the areas of Central America many aid organizations such as Save the Children and the Peace Corps  focus their efforts.   We were making our way through the crowds searching for the freshest fruits and vegetables when suddenly two boys, probably six and four years old, darted out from behind some stalls dancing around me laughing and grabbing at my legs.  I was surprised at first, this wasn’t the withdrawn suspicion most of the children greeted us with at first.  As I shooed them away I saw them return to their mother who was watching them quite intently.   Realization dawning,  I checked my pockets carefully.  Some of my side pockets had been opened but my wallet was still safely zipped into it’s hidden pocket. This was the first theft attempt we had experienced on the trip and I was saddened deeply by it.  The boys had obviously been put up to it by their mother.

On another long dirt road, far between towns we turned a corner to find a small knot of children in the middle of the road.  As the rough roads had us driving all of five miles per hour they were in no danger from us.  We approached slowly and the group divided but only enough to let us pass.  The little girl on my side couldn’t seem to decide if she would flee or join the boys on the other side of the road  which left her darting back in forth in front of us.  Lisa stopped the van to let her make up her mind and the group of boys quickly pressed forward waving a bag at  us, shouting a garble of words.   Lisa began rolling down her window when  she saw it was a bag of fresh berries.  We often buy things from kids even if we don’t want them.  Just to support their efforts and encourage something other than begging and pickpocketing.  The berries would be good in our morning smoothies but as window came down the boys started climbing up through, fighting amongst themselves to get at us.  There was a threatening air about the whole thing; the intensity of their shouts, the desperation in their eyes, an anger. One kid started banging on the side of the van.

I’m ashamed to admit it but I started to get anxious.  Not one of these kids was over eight years olds but the recklessness with which they threw themselves at us was unnerving. Bringing out money in front of this group seemed like it could have sparked a riot.  With a quick “No, gracias”  Lisa rolled her window back up and carefully drove off.  The little girl had now fled in terror as the some of the boys banged the side of the van more while others stooped to pick up rocks.    We picked up our speed a bit to get out of range of their rocks and rage, feeling helpless and frustrated.

These moments are the dark side of the “indigenous experience” we have sought out in our travels here.  Gratefully, they have been rare but as I look back now on that day, it was important. I tend to glorify the traditional indigenous life without always acknowledging the difficulties and insecurities that seem inherent to it in this age.  Poverty, malnutrition and lack of education are all far too ubiquitous in these societies.   Not inherently I believe, but almost as a consequence.  A consequence of being undervalued and left out of the developments in the rest of the world.  Looking beyond the beautiful artisan crafts, tight family units and the quaint customs I have to recognize that these people want a seat at the table.  The table of bounty that they see us partaking of.  It doesn’t mean they want to give up their culture or traditions but they want the opportunities, the securities, they see in us.  The children of the Lenca need a ruta for themselves: one that connects the traditions of their past to opportunities for a secure future.


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!