Sunday, December 25, 2011

Happy Holidays

Last Wednesday I flew back to Nashville to be home sweet home for the holidays. I'll be posting again after I fly to Nicaragua on January 4th. Until then, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Catching up (finally have internet!)

After a painful week of horrible internet connection, I am now in San Salvador, where I will spend a few days before coming home for Christmas. First of all, here's what I've been up to lately:

On Monday I saw some of the waterfalls surrounding Juayúa. That was a really neat way to spend the morning.
After seeing the waterfalls, I hopped on a bus to Sonsonate, from where I planned to get a bus to Puerto La Libertad and then another bus to Playa el Tunco ("tunco" means pig). When I got to Sonosnate, however, the last bus for La Libertad had already passed. I talked to one of the bus drivers and he said that I could take his bus to a smaller town halfway between Sonsonate and El Tunco and then a friend of his who owns a restaurant could take me in his pickup to El Tunco. Since that sounded a lot more pleasant and quite frankly safer than being stuck at a bus station in Sonsonate after dark, I jumped on the bus and sort of wedged myself between a guy holding a box of chickens and an angry looking lady with her son who kept stepping on my toes (the bus was so crowded that I had to spend almost the entire ride standing). By the time we reached this guy's restaurant, I was the only one left on the bus. I tossed my stuff into the pickup bed and sat down in the back with the rest of this guy's family and we set off on the thirty minute ride to El Tunco. I don't think I fell asleep, but riding in the back of that pickup was sort of like a dream -- everything was so still and quiet and peaceful. It was completely dark except for the car's headlights, and I managed to lay down and look up at the starriest sky I had seen in a long time (since we were so far away from any city). When the truck stopped at the road that leads into El Tunco I snapped out of it, grabbed my stuff, and, after thanking the driver, walked into the noisy little town where I ended up spending almost a week. 

Sitting at a beachside restaurant, the sun having just set.
El Tunco gets it's name from this rock, which I honestly don't think looks anything like a pig.
The beach consists of completely black sand, so fine it almost is like the ash you find in a fireplace. I surfed a few times and really got the hang of it, but always had to take the next day off because of how sore paddling out to the waves made me. Some of the other people at the hostel and I spent the afternoons going to an orphanage that is down the street from the town where we played soccer with the kids for hours. Honestly, I have no idea why I stayed there so long. I really don't like the cooler-than-you attitude that the surfers have, I don't like the constant noise and the 24/7 party, and I don't like how expensive the food was. Maybe I just needed somewhere to rest since I had spend most of the past two weeks spending only a few days here and there. Whatever the reason was, I enjoyed myself and met some really cool people, but I'm surely glad to be somewhere else.

Stay tuned for a post on San Salvador.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011


Right now I´m in Playa el Tunco, El Salvador -- a beach with completely black sand from volcanic ash-- where, alas, I´m having internet connection troubles, which means no pictures for now. This afternoon I had my first surf lesson, and I´m catching on pretty quick. After a few days here I´m heading to San Salvador, where I´ll catch a plane to Nashville to spend about a week at home for Chrismas before flying into Nicaragua. I´ll try to get some pictures up as soon as I figure out why my computer is behaving so badly.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

El Salvador -- Santa Ana and Juayúa

After almost 24 hours of bus travel, I arrived Friday afternoon in Santa Ana, El Salvador. So far, El Salvador has been a very refreshing escape from some of the tourist-oriented, disneylandified places I've been in the past few weeks. Santa Ana is a very authentic Central American city -- blocks upon blocks of street vendors selling everything from wristwatches to live chickens, a bustling central plaza with amazing street food, and really, really good ice cream, which Santa Ana is pretty well known for. One of the best things about the city, though, is what it lacks -- not a single american-style café with internet access and all that frappuccino mochaccino americano macciato crap. Just little pastry shops where everyone goes in the mid-afternoon to have a good cup of joe, nibble on something sweet, and read the papers. There are also none of those tourist-oriented "artisan markets" that sell "authentic" clothes, backpacks, etc. The markets here sell clothes that people living here would actually wear (not to say that I haven't bought my fair share of "authentic" stuff).

I spent most of Friday soaking up all of Santa Ana's energy -- walking around the markets, hanging out in the central plaza, hitting up some of the pastry shops, and visiting some of the famous sites such as the Cathedral and the Santa Ana Theatre.

One of the rooms of the huge building that holds the theatre. The theatre itself was completely dark, so I didn't get any pics worth posting.

The cathedral. Pigeons were flying everywhere.

Inside of the Cathedral
There was an art gallery inside the theatre, and this was one of the pieces. A kind of grim reminder of the scars that imperialism left on Central America.

 On Saturday I took a trip to Cerro Verde National Park and climbed Volcán Santa Ana (which is not the volcano seen in the below photo).
Volcán Izalco seen from the start of the hike up Volán Santa Ana.

Volcán Santa Ana with a cloud settled right on top.

Atop Volcán Santa Ana. If you aren't careful up there, the wind will blow  you straight over.
This morning, after spending my second night in Santa Ana, I moved on to Juayúa, about an hour bus ride from Santa Ana. Today, as on every Sunday here, there was a huge food festival. So, of course, I spent most of the day eating, drinking coffee, and reading in the park. I started out with a plate of grilled frog and rabbit and some rice and other side items. It was absolutely delicious. After eating, I walked around for a bit then grabbed a cup of coffee and a slice of flan and sat down again and read for a bit. Then, it was time for round two of grilled meat. The day pretty much followed that pattern -- eating, walking around, sipping on coffee, and eating again. I'm just gonna cover the highlights of the foods I tried, because listing everything I ate would be pretty boring.
Frog and rabbit and some other stuff.

One of the many tents under which festival-goers gorged themselves.

To the left is Rigua de Maiz, a corn pastry-type thing with coconut in it and served with a hunk of cheese. To the right is an elote loco -- a grilled corn on the cob smothered in mustard, mexican crema, and sprinkled with parmesan cheese and cayenne pepper. I rarely meet a food that I don't like, but this dude was pretty nasty. If I run across one of these again, I'll try it for a second time just to make sure, but I think I have finally found a food that I don't enjoy.

Sitting in the central park during one of my many coffee-drinking sessions.

More park sitting. I did a lot of sitting and eating, if you haven't gathered that yet.

This was the last bit of grilled meat I had - some kind of really big snake. It was pretty good, but really chewy.
Just as with Santa Ana, one of the best things about Juayúa is the lack of gringos. The central plaza was packed with people munching on all sorts of delicious morsels, and I was one of only two or three gringos out of the thousands of attendees. Tomorrow I plan to explore some of the waterfalls surrounding the town. Pics of that to come.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Caye Caulker - Go Slow

In Caye Caulker, Belize, there are no cars. Some have golf carts, most have bikes, and everyone walks. Signs set the speed limit at "Go Slow," but nobody needs a reminder, because on this island of a little over one thousand people, nobody has any reason to go fast. I didn't really pick up on the "slow" vibe until the second day I was there. I was walking to find somewhere to eat and this dreadlocked guy I had never seen before stopped me and said "why are you walking so fast mon?" I said "Um... I dunno." He just laughed and walked away. So for the past few days I've done my best to take it easy.

I stayed in this awesome beach cabana with an Italian guy that I met on the boat ride over. We both went in on the cabana and only had to pay six bucks a night each. Aside from the Italian, I also was living with a family of Iguanas that rustled around all night on the roof as well as an unbearable number of biting gnats (noseeums we call 'em in Tennessee).
One of my roomates. 
I would be remiss if I didn't mention how amazing the seafood was -- specifically the lobster. I had lobster omelets for breakfast, lobster pizza for lunch, grilled lobster for dinner, and lobster ceviche whenever I needed a snack. And it is inexpensive, too. I got this plate of grilled lobster, pasta carbonara, and steamed veggies for only 15 bucks.

I spent most of monday SCUBA diving. About ten other divers and I jumped on a boat led by a few master divers for a trip that would make three stops -- the Blue Hole, Half Moon Caye, and Long Caye. It took about two hours to make the 43 mile boat trip from Caye Caulker to the Blue Hole, which is an underwater sinkhole that measures 984 feet across and 407 feet deep. The dive went down to 40 meters/130 feet, which is 22 meters deeper than I'm certified to dive and 10 meters deeper than anyone is supposed to dive, but hey - this is Belize. If we're paying, they'll take us. This dive was too deep for the camera, so I didn't get any pictures, which is a bummer because there were some really neat stalactite formations and I saw a few caribbean reef sharks each about 10 feet long. Here's a google pic of the blue hole from the air:

After waiting the required time between dives, we made a second dive at Half Moon Caye and a third dive at Long Caye. Here are some pics from these last two dives (Unfortunately I used the wrong camera setting so most of them are very, very blue).

On Tuesday I made two more dives at different locations on the reef (which is the second largest coral reef in the world).

After two days of diving, I spent yesterday exploring every possible meaning of the phrase "Go Slow." I got up, ate breakfast and read until lunch, ate lunch, messed around on the computer, snorkeled a bit, and then went to dinner before packing my things and going to bed to be ready for an early start this morning. Right now I'm back in Flores after an hour boat ride and a 5 hour shuttle. My next bus leaves at 9 PM for yet another visit to my least favorite place ever -- yep, you guessed it -- Guatemala city. It arrives at 6 AM and after that I'll catch another bus to Santa Ana, El Salvador. It goes without saying that I'm getting very, very tired of bus travel. I will, however, try to carry the "Go Slow" attitude with me as I travel and try to enjoy the little things I encounter as I go along.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Flores/Tikal and Caye Caulker

Last friday morning I finally forced myself to leave Lake Atitlán and move to my next destination. If I had the time, I would still be staying at the lake right now, but if I want this trip to be about volunteering and cultural exchange I need to make sure I don't spend too much time in hostels with the european crowd (people traveling from europe, particularly Germany, outnumber traveling Americans twenty to one -- as a matter of fact I have only met one American since leaving Antigua).

Going from one place to another in Guatemala almost always means passing through Guatemala City. This was at least my fifth time passing through, and my hatred for this city hasn't lessened at all. It's dirty, loud, and crime-ridden. I got out of my bus and hopped straight into a taxi, which took me to the next bus terminal, where I bought my ticket and went to the upstairs of the terminal to... well, not exactly hide but to be somewhere where I wouldn't attract any attention. Most gringos fly or take a first class bus from Guat city to Flores (my destination) rather than taking the cheap buses, so a white guy carrying all his possessions in a backpack in the second-class bus terminal isn't exactly inconspicuous. Fortunately I've gotten pretty good at putting on a "don't mess with me" face and walking at a pace that makes it look like I know where I am and where I'm going, even when I have internally entered minor freakout mode. 

I got on the bus at 5 PM, and after an excruciating 13 hours of trying unsuccessfully to sleep, the bus arrived at 6 AM in Santa Elena. From there I took a taxi to Flores. Flores is a really neat island town on Lake Peten Itza connected by a short bridge to mainland. After I got to the hostel and locked my things into a locker I took a shuttle over to the Tikal Ruins -- about an hour drive. I like to compare going to Tikal to taking cough medicine. When you have a cold, you take cough medicine -- and it tastes really horrible, but afterward you're glad you took it. When you're in Guatemala, you go to Tikal -- and it can be a pretty unpleasant experience, but afterward I was glad I went. The problem is that I was a bit spoiled by Copán. It was small, but quiet and almost empty. Tikal, on the other hand, has been a bit disneylandified -- and not the site itself, rather the crowd it attracts. I was so disturbed by the huge groups of overweight foreigners that I immediately left the main attractions and headed for the quieter trails. It doesn't surprise me that so many people come -- I had prepared myself for that. What I was not prepared for was how unappreciative and disrespectful a huge number of these people were. They would walk in huge groups and talk, or yell, rather, unnecessarily loudly, completely oblivious that there are spider monkeys and toucans in the trees overhead. People would also complain (just as loudly) about how far they have to walk or how there are way too many stairs to get up to the top of the temple.  Then, when they finally make it to the top of the temple, they don't even take in the view -- they complain some more and snap some photos as if they are only looking for evidence that they had been there.  I wasn't quite as inspired by Tikal as I was by Copán and I didn't use a guide, so I have did little research and have almost no information about the temples in the pictures I took. Basically all you need to know was that Tikal was a giant city that completely dominated mesoamerica a long, long time ago. If you want more info, consult my good friend Wikipedia. Okay now time for some photos:

Tower IV towers above the jungle canopy.
The view from the top of Temple IV. Jungle stretches out for miles and you can see the tops of some of the other temples.

 As I mentioned, the best part of visiting Tikal was just strolling around on the jungle paths and seeing all the wildlife. I wasn't able to get a picture of the toucans, which were definitely the coolest animals I saw, but here are some of the others:
One of the paths.

Do not feed the crocodile.

Pileated woodpecker.
So that's that. Right now I'm in Caye Caulker, Belize and I've spent the past two days scuba diving. I rented an underwater camera and got some awesome pics, which I'll post tomorrow.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Lago Atitlán

I got here last Friday and planned to stay until last Monday. It's now Thursday, and I still plan to stay one more night here. Since pictures say more than a thousand words, I'll let the following pictures explain why I've stayed here so long.

Took this while Paragliding this morning.

Light coming from the recently set sun, the moon, the planet venus, and the pueblito of San Pedro.

Shy little spider monkey- this is the best picture I could get of him.

Looking across the lake at sunset.
Tomorrow morning after I climb Volcán San Pedro, I sadly will be leaving the lake and heading to Tikal, which means that I'll have to pass through and spend a few hours in Guatemala City, a pretty dirty generally unpleasant town. A rough change from my current scenery. Oh well -- I'll try to make a cultural experience out of it.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Catching up on last week... Volcán Pacaya, Thanksgiving, leavng Antigua

Well, I've finally made it to a place with decent internet connection, and I have some catching up to do.

First of all, some pics of Volcán Pacaya, which I visited over a week ago but never got time to write about:
View of Volcán Agua from Pacaya
Like a completely different planet

Vents that expel hot air. I was only in that thing for about 10 seconds and when I got out I was drenched with sweat.

So last Thursday, Thanksgiving, was my last day in Antigua. Antigua is a great place, but I was ready to move on. I didn't have any turkey, but did get some pumpkin pie at the apartment of some of the other volunteers. I'm slowly but surely getting used to meeting really neat people and then leaving-whether its people I meet while traveling around or talk to on long bus rides or other volunteers that I've gotten to know. For example, I met this German guy who studies in Mexico on a bus ride back from Copán. We talked for the entirety of the 6-hour bus ride about... well, pretty much everything. Then he got out of the shuttle at the airport to catch a flight back to Mexico city, and that was that - never even knew his name. It's a weird phenomenon thats happened countless times now and that I just have to get accustomed to. Anyways, below are a couple photos from my last few days in Antigua:

Walked up to Parque Cerro La Cruz, which sits on a hillside that overlooks the entire city of Antigua. A really great view and a nice place to lay on a bench and doze for a bit.

One of the other volunteers and I coordinated the kids' painting of a mural, which turned out great and resulted in a lot of my clothes being paint-stained.
On friday morning I jumped on a chicken bus bound for Panajachel, Guatemala on Lago Atitlán, the deepest lake in Central America. Apparently, the crater that holds the lake was formed some 11 million years ago by a huge volcanic eruption whose ash has been found as far away as Florida and Ecuador. I'm staying in a really small town called Santa Cruz la Laguna, since Panajachel itself isn't the most relaxing place. Most of the inhabitants of this area are native Maya, who speak Kaqchikel to each other and Spanish to everyone else. This lake is pretty amazing. The entire lake is surrounded by deep escarpments and three volcanoes located to the south.  I've spent most of the past three days taking a SCUBA diving certification course. Not a whole lot to see underwater here, but it's super cheap to get certified here in comparison to Belize, where I'm headed in about a week. The idea is to be already certified when I get to Belize so that I can dive the coral reef there as well as the Great Blue Hole. Here are some pics of the lake I took the other day:

On Wednesday I'll leave here and head to Tikal, one of the most impressive ancient mayan sites discovered so far. And "heading to Tikal" entails a bus from here to Guat city and then a really long overnight bus ride from Guat city to Flores, the closest town to Tikal. This afternoon I plan to visit the natural reserve in Panajachel. Pics of that coming soon.