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!)









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The Borderlands January 29, 2008

Filed under: Mexico,Stories — todandlisa @ 7:23 am

She kept her distance at first, perched high up on the bank in the shade of the bridge. Occasionally, she would shout down something that sounded like a comment or a question, but it was hard to make out the words between my erratic Spanish and the murmur of the nearby river. Besides, my focus was intent on unwinding the broken belt from around the engine fan. Lisa was the diligent assistant, handing out tools and pointed advice throughout the operation.

Under the bridge was a great spot to work, shaded by the tall span with a flat gravel spot to spread out on. We had noticed the day before, in El Salvador, that the air conditioning, which, despite its emergency-only status, has been getting more use lately, wasn’t blowing correctly. Slow to catch on, today, in Honduras we realized the batteries weren’t charging correctly and finally caught on that we had broken a fan belt passing a slow truck on a hill somewhere.

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The belt change went well, with only a minimum of banged knuckles and cursing. Throughout the process the little girl, our audience of one, became increasingly bolder, creeping down the embankment with a wary eye on Allie, who was too distracted waiting for me to throw a ball. The girl looked about seven or eight, slender as a wand with enormous almond eyes. Her mother must have been one of the women, not far away, on the banks of the river, washing their clothes.

With the procedure finished our little friend was now down to the van, asking Lisa questions, as always, about whether the dogs bite and where we were from. We noticed the kids here were a bit more shy than we’d seen elsewhere, obviously not used to the sight of gringos puttering around beside their river. Like children everywhere though, once she warmed to us she was a bundle of life and curiosity.

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Allie and I took the opportunity to take a swim in the river…me to clean up, Allie just because she can’t stay out of the water. She always amazes kids and adults alike with her stick fetching, rock-chewing antics. She’s crazy about the water and even at the surf spots the surfers drop their cool enough to laugh at her diving headlong into the crashing waves and riding them out. She and Taku are our little ambassadors and a great way to meet people.

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Tod and Allie head out for some fun near La Libertad, El Salvador

The crowd at the bank was growing and Lisa was busy taking pictures and handing out our Idaho postcards and school supplies as little gifts. We realized though that we needed to move on quickly before the whole neighborhood showed up. Besides it was 10AM and we still had another border to cross.

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Tod and Betty pose in front of the first hotel stop of the trip. In Guatemala the $12 for a room with air conditioning was well worth it.

Five borders in seven days. We are steadily making our way along the PanAmerican highway through the frustrating bureaucracies towards our destination., Panama City. Right now we are just outside San Jose, Costa Rica with just one more border to cross into Panama. It may sound fast but we’re not setting any speed records. A fellow we met at the Costa Rican border yesterday had left Canada only nine days earlier. For us though, this is certainly a breakneck pace. We often feel exhausted, even though we take a break every few days, unwinding on beaches in El Salvador and Nicaragua, even a few days of hiking here in Costa Rica.

We had been warned that the complexities of getting a vehicle through all these countries could be daunting. It certainly is perplexing and frustrating with seemingly little effort made on the part of the officials to streamline the process. Central American countries are legendary for their byzantine bureaucracies. Tim Cahill theorized in his book Road Fever; an account of his drive from Tierra Del Fuego to Prudhoe Bay; that the bureaucracies started with the Spaniards. These soldiers had just conquered the a new world and were now being asked to ship all the wealth back to Spain for the king to pay his debts. By creating all sorts of little procedural hurdles to cross, the conquistadors ensured they got their little bite of the pie before it left for Spain. In fact the term for bribe in Spanish is “la mordida” which literally is “the bite”.
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Betty picks up a friend

I try to keep the theory in mind when I’m sent for the third time to get copies of my stamped passport, with a this receipt, with my drivers license all in a certain sequence, on one side of one page of paper. Lisa, with all of her organizational skills and natural charm, has proved more effective at getting us through quickly. I will occasionally just start snapping at people so I’m usually assigned to guarding the van with the dogs. When I negotiated the process into Costa Rica it took almost four hours but I was proud that we managed to avoid a couple of major scams. We found trying to do it together led to too much confusion as in El Amatillo, one of the most notorious border crossings in Central America. We breezed through in an hour but at a steep price. Our guides (known as tramitadores) had given us the usual run around and in the confusion we managed to pay the same fees twice

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Allie likes to help Lisa keep a look out for potholes

Yes, guides. The level of challenge is such that the governments have created a nice little cottage industry for their constituents, many of whom make a good living leading baffled folks like Lisa and I through the borders. The problem is that the guides have more scams and ploys than the officials do. In fact we’ve had only one border official approach us for a bribe and only halfheartedly. He ask for us to pay him and we just nodded our heads yes and kept driving. Unfortunately though, all of our tramitadors but one have tried to scam us in one way or another.

Usually the scam revolves around there being a hitch in the process that they can smooth over for us. “The computers are down but if you give me thirty bucks, I’ll pay the right guys and you won’t have to wait two hours.” We’ve found that if, despite our guides protests, we go talk to the officials themselves they usually have no knowledge of any computers going down. A French fellow behind us on the Mexico/Guatemalan border got taken for $100 dollars because he got a “special” stamp to get his car through all the Central American countries. When we compared notes later his stamp was the same as ours that we had payed $12 for.

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The kids down here are occasionally feral

So why use them? Well theoretically you don’t have to, and at the quieter borders we won’t. Most times though, they are worth the five dollars we pay them just to keep all of the other tramatidors from hassling us every step of the way. And, even with speaking some Spanish, there have been a few borders that I don’t know how we would have done it without their help. The dogs add another layer of complexity and often the agriculture department, where they get registered, is hidden in some far office in the border compound. On whole we’ve figured out a system for working with them that seems to get us through efficiently without us losing our shirts.

So, in all it’s been an exciting and exhausting week. We’re looking forward to our arrival in Panama City where we get to slow down again and start being a bit more touristy. Lisa will be working again for a week while there and then we’ll start making our way more slowly back through the countries we’ve just passed. This time taking the back roads, seeing the sights and crossing borders at the quieter posts.

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Taku is still loving life

Despite the challenges I still find it hard to resent the people too much. We’ve seen so much poverty here that I’m not sure what I would do myself if I were in their shoes. Scamming tourists for a few bucks may not be ethical but it puts food on the table. I also wouldn’t let the hassles deter someone from coming down. The wonderful and generous people we have met have far outweighed the shady characters. Besides with the right attitude the crossings can actually be amusing! Pretty rarely though. Until next time!

Allie swims out for one last ride in Nicaragua

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Birthday on the Bay January 15, 2008

Filed under: Mexico — todandlisa @ 5:28 pm

It amazing how quickly things can change around you when you are on the move.

One evening we are  dining beachside at an tiny upscale star resort we discovered while looking for a campsite. The next we are eating in a fish shack at a family run restraunt, the only tourists around.  By the way the fish shack had the better food!  Another truism about Mexico is that you can’t always go by appearances.  Lisa was a bit dismayed though when her fish arrived head, fins and all.  I guess we’re still squeamish gringos when it comes down to it.

We’re in another resort community (Bahias de Huatulco) now, hoping to find sushi to celebrate Lisa’s birthday tonight.  A good spanish goof we had  today was Lisa telling a local that today was the day she was hatched! I must say though, her Spanish has progressed much faster than min.

As we move down the coast we are driving more and have less of the “free time” we had in Oaxaca but still are doing well.  Lisa spent an hour and half practicing with her new guitar (a Christmas/birthday gift) on the beach while I logged some hammock time and played with Allie.   I guess you don’t have to worry about us.

 The previous few days were used to adjust to coastal living (heat and beach towns) in the Puerto Angel area.  Lisa and I found it a bit too much of the hip and hippie scene with the nude beachs and lots of young international travellers.  Our first day there we had a tad bit over exuberent German woman literally climb into our van in her eagerness to show us were to go.  Generally we like this kind of thing but this was a bit over the top as I was only pulling over to use the bathroom!  There were quite a few intelligible stoners around too but I guess it is a surf spot.  When we finally did find “the spot” to camp on the beach we were content until we saw the band setting up in the palapa next to the van.  We were relieved when they finally stopped their reggae jams at 2:30AM.

We were happy the next day  to find a quiet little village (Ventanilla) just north of the whole place that allowed us to camp there.   We had the beach to ourselves that evening and got to speak a lot more Spanish.  Betty did get stuck in the sand though as we tried to pull into and out of our campsite put plenty of local young guys were on hand to push us out both times.

Time to log off so we can go find that restraunt.  Next week should find us further down the coast, perhaps Guatemala or El Salvador even?  We’ll post photos soon but as we rode our bikes into town  we don’t have the camera with us now.  Adios!

 

Moving On January 6, 2008

Filed under: Mexico — todandlisa @ 3:05 pm

The old timers laugh as we tell them of our plans to move on. “Yeah, we heard that two months ago.” is what they are saying. They’re right, Oaxaca has been a hard place to leave. As we pack I wonder what are the aspects of this community that have made it so easy to stay. Is it the perfect climate and the easy access to mountain trails. Or maybe the cultural “safety” of being amongst other North Americans at the trailer park and having access to wireless internet? Perhaps it’s the local indigenous culture with it’s myriad of fiestas. Timing is important too and after 6 months on the move Lisa and I were ready to ground into a place. Mostly though, I think it comes down to the people. Since our first days in the city we have felt welcome here. Whether it’s Kate greeting us at the trailer park in San Felipe or the warm smile of the candy vendor on the town square, it is the people of this place, more than any other thing that has kept us here for these three months.

So what have we done with all this time?

As Suzanne, one of the Canadian regulars at the trailer park has said: “It seems by the time I’ve brushed my teeth the morning is over.” Time is different here.

Slowing down is an interesting thing. It seems to involve getting out of your own way long enough to let things evolve on their own. Letting go of the list of things “to do” and experiencing things that “happen”. Trust me, the “to do” list can be just as long here on the road as it can back in the world of work and responsibilities. I’ve seen it in myself as well as other travelers who are hurrying through on their way to fulfilling whatever experiences they think they should be having.

As the time perspective has shifted, and it took a good few weeks at first, I’ve found things rising to the surface within myself. Emotions and thoughts I’ve been afraid to look at, conversations with Lisa that were hard but we’ve needed to have. The window of what is possible has broadened as well. I realize we all have a lot more options in life when we look up from our daily tasks and gaze further down the road to see the possibilities of our future. It’s scary though, knowing we have that much power in our own lives. Knowing that our excuses are just that.

One of the things Lisa and I have enjoyed most here are the spontaneous interactions that happens through out the day. A morning greeting can turn into a two hour conversation about winters in France or the volatility of the Japanese Yen. More often it’s just light chit-chat though, and watching the dogs play. There’s an informal routine here of making the rounds in the morning to see what folks have planned for the day then checking in again in the evening to see how things went.

“I’m headed up to La Senora’s, need anything?” is a common start to a conversation. Whether or not you make the trip to the little market a block away is irrelevant. The senora will be there tomorrow as well. These seemingly trivial rituals and interactions have an important role in connecting us as a community. It’s sad that I realize I’m often to busy in my “other life” to participate.

Tonight there will be a gathering on the lawn in front of Kate and Del’s to give us a send off. Our friends want to say goodbye and, although I’m bad at it, it is another one of those important pieces. We’ll have a hearty meal of meatloaf and potatoes and afterwards there will be a fire on the porch while they give us last minute advice about border crossings and places to visit. The predictability of it is warming as we face the anxieties inherent in moving on.

So where to now? Well, inspite of all my musings about schedules and goals, we still would like to visit some of the other countries down here. The plan for the moment is to make our way slowly but directly to Panama City, our intended turn around point, then meander the back roads for a few months as we make our return. Time again is relative and it seems, now that we are half way in our “year of adventure”, that it is rather short.

The sadness of leaving is lightened as we know we will visit again on our return in the spring. It will be wetter and some of the snowbirds will be gone but most of our friends will still be here. And that is the important thing.

 

 

Feliz Navidad December 25, 2007

Filed under: Mexico — todandlisa @ 8:46 pm


Merry Christmas Everyone!

We just wanted to say thanks for all of your support and interest in our journey this year. This picture is us in front of the little casita (studio apartment essentially) we rented in Oaxaca.We wish you happiness and hope in your adventures in the new year, wherever they take you!

With love,

Tod, Lisa, Taku and Allie

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Mexican Mail Run December 11, 2007

Filed under: Mexico,Stories — todandlisa @ 12:56 pm

 There’s a saying here amongst travelers and expats that “you never know what is around the corner in Mexico”.  Well that was certainly true today.

Another beautiful day in Oaxaca.   The weather here is so good here, it can be a bit boring.  So, the big item on the to-do list today:  head downtown with Del to mail a package home and help him with all of his packages for the holidays.  Easy enough, I might even get some hammock time later on. 

By way of introductions, Del is an ex-pat from Michigan who has lived at the San Felipe trailer park for the last two years.  He and his wife Kate, a Canadian, have traded in their 5th wheel trailer and now rent one of the small studios that dot the edge of the trailer park.  Together they run an ebay business exporting Oaxacan folk art and you can check out their beautiful carvings at http://myworld.ebay.com/treasurehunters4ever.

Del’s role in the operation is packaging and shipping so he goes into Oaxaca once or twice a week to mail orders out at the central post office.  They’ve been generous enough to help us negotiate the intricacies of Mexican shipping so I’ll be accompanying him into town today to help out. We load up the back of their bright red Jeep Cherokee (they call it the Heap as that’s how Jeep is pronounced in Spanish) with a stack of boxes and head down the hill towards the city.  As we go Del entertains me with stories from growing up in Michigan.

Entering the city we ease into traffic on Hwy 190, Avenue de Ninos Heros.  This is the road that threw Lisa and I for a loop when we first arrived in the city as it has two dividers splitting traffic into three, two-lane groups.  Sometimes west bound traffic is in the outer four lanes while the east is in the center two.  Then all the lanes reverse at a stoplight.  This confusion repeats every four blocks or so.   Fortunately, we have yet to drive the wrong way down a lane, on this street at least!Del of course, is a pro so he’s weaving his way through traffic in the middle of another story when he bursts out:  “Damn it to hell!  Not again!”

Looking down the road for the source of his frustration I spot uniformed traffic cops directing traffic off of the main road onto the side streets.  No construction, detour signs or anything, you just can’t seem to go this way.

“Looks like their doing it again.” Del exclaims.

“Doing what?”  I ask, puzzled.

“Protesting”

A break for a little Oaxacan political history.  Demonstrations are fairly common in Oaxaca and they are often by held by teachers asking for pay increases and supplies. It seems that the only way teachers get raises is by raising hell.  In fact in rural areas we’ve been stopped by school kids and teachers holding a rope across the road.  Once we’ve contributed to this unusual fundraiser they drop the rope and let us proceed on our way.  Maybe the PTA  back home should consider trying this!

In Oaxaca the teachers’ strategy is usually to disrupt things just enough that the governor will have to talk to them.   Their favorite ways of accomplishing this are by camping out in the town square and by hijacking buses and using them to block off major roads in town.  The protests are almost always peaceful and typically they eventually they get a concession and life returns to normal for awhile.

Last summer however, protestors from the teachers union were staging their annual demonstration in the town square when the new governor sent in the troops.  Predictably, things got ugly, and when protestors started getting killed every union in Oaxaca joined the demonstration.  Finally the president had to step in with federal troops and ordered the governor to negotiate with the demonstrators.  They eventually reached an agreement but not after shutting down the town square for months.  The tourist economy is still struggling to recover today.  If you want to read more about Oaxaca and an excellent article detailing the conflict check out this link: www.tomzap.com  So this protest that Del and I had stumbled into was just another in a series of fights for better wages.  From the U.S. perspective it may seem the protests are unreasonable.  However to get a picture of the discrepancies here think of this: This is a country where low level bureaucrats get picked up each day at their homes and flown to work in government helicopters while the local women wash clothes in the streams that run in front of their mansions.

Back on Avenue de Ninos Heros, I could tell Del was trying to come up with a plan.  Apparently this had happened here last week and he never did find an alternate route to the post office.  I watch as Del waves happily at the cop directing him right and then proceeds to bypass the barricade through an empty gas station.  This being Mexico there are several other cars pulling the same move and the cop doesn’t seem one bit fazed.

Past the barricade the normally busy street is quiet with only a couple other rogue vehicles on the street, some driving the wrong way in the lanes.  Ahead we can see a bus that is pulled across the street blocking all progress.

Or so I think.

The few folks that are around don’t seem to be protestors, so Del pulls right up to the bus and  then starts an end run around it by pulling up onto the sidewalk.  He startles an elderly lady who scampers into the empty street while Del nonchalantly cruises along the sidewalk.

Now past the bus, we ease back into the street. Another block ahead of us is another bus, this one surrounded by demonstrators.

At this point I begin to recall some of my reading about travel safety.  Political unrest in a region is no reason to not to visit it I remember reading.  They said just make sure to stay away from any protests or demonstrations and you’ll usually be fine.

Great, I think to myself.  Now, what?

Pleased with his success so far, Del boldly approaches the bus barricade obviously looking to repeat the end run manuever

It’s a no go this time.  People are all over on either end of the bus and they have laid rocks and logs in the road to prevent just such a trick

“Guess this is it.” Del says as he pulls over to the curb.  Thinking he’ll be executing a quick retreat to get us out of here,  I look around warily for people that may be blocking us in from behind

Surprisingly Del, throws the car into park and hops out saying: “I’m sure glad you’re here, I wouldn’t have done this otherwise.”

I’m not so sure I share his sentiment and wonder what he has in mind.

As he opens the trunk, I climb out and try and figure out his plan.  Noticing my confusion he points past the bus in front of us.

“The post office is only another block.  We can walk from here.  I’d never be able to carry all these boxes myself but I think we can get them all in one trip.”  He seems oblivious to the fact that we will be walking right through the demonstrators.

Trusting in his bravado and experience I don’t say a word as he stacks my arms full of boxes.  They stack high enough that I can sort of hide behind them and don’t have to look at the protestors as we pass.  What a silly sight we must be to them, two gringos tottering through their midst with a tower of Christmas packages destined for the states.

No one says a word  as we pass and as I sneak looks to the side, the people seem more amused than angry.  Once past the bus we walk the remainder of the short distance to the post office.  Relieved to be through I comment to Del:  “You know I guess it makes sense that they won’t bother us, their gripe is with the government.”

Without missing a beat Del replies, “Well I guess we’ll know when we get back if the car’s on fire.”

Great.

The bonus was that the post office was open but empty.  While we waited for our packages to be processed I found myself repeatedly looking down the street for signs of smoke.  Fortunately when we returned to the car it was in one piece and we had no problems bypassing the first bus again.  After running a few more errands we returned home.

Just another Mexican mail run and I still had time for that nap!

 

Van Life December 4, 2007

Filed under: Mexico,Video — todandlisa @ 9:53 pm
From Crackle: Van Time

 

Hi everyone…finally got the video camera to synch with Windows Vista (if you have a similar problem email me and I will link you up with the right codec to fix it!)…so here is just a brief video of van life….more and BETTER ones of our adventures to follow!