The Galapagos Islands plus a little more…

PIcs of the Galapagos Islands are here:
Pics of the “Lonely George Mural” are here:
Pics of Guayaquil, Ecuador are here:

Summary of Volunteer Work Abroad:

Camoapa, Nicaragua mural and environmental education program at Hogar Luceros Del Amanecer project for the community boys in need.

David did an excellent job teaching the boys techniques to create a beautiful local landscape on the once dirty wall of their school.  The landscape included their future home at the farm they  will move to in about 2 years and often work at.  It was the farm property where Erin taught the children environmental stewardship and science.

Reading the Lorax on top of the local mountainWe read the Lorax in Spanish at the top of Mombachito, the largest peak in the area.  The lorax reinforced the ideas of interdependence and eco-responsiblity of previous lessons.

Erin and the kids made nets to find local insects.  We then observed them, looking for adaptations.  Later we created our own critters, drew them and described their interesting adaptations.

This is Jose Manuel being a little scientist during our Bio-diversity study at the farm.  The kids learned how to use transects, make bar graphs, and most of all why it is important to respect and treat other living things with care.

Cochabamba, Bolivia mural and love giving project at Infante, a shelter for victims of Domestic Violence and their families

Here is the first wall that they had for us, too crazy and detoriated.

The final mural, showing the dreams of the children for the future under the mountains of Cochabamba.   In the mural you can see a future presidents, pilot, doctor, and a nice safe home with a loving family.   This project turned out to be a huge labor of love and affection in a very impoverished and chaotic center.  Erin was a professional hugger during this time and made up interactive games for them to help them grow.

Sorota, Bolivia English teaching project in rural children’s center

Erin led these sweet and motivated teens in a roaring round of “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” to teach English vocabulary.

Galapagos, Ecuador environmental education, teacher reform, and mural project

Erin led a teacher training workshop that showcased interactive and constructivist methods of teaching.  She led by example and let them experience how fun and interactive learning can be.

The final product with the artists on top.  We called him Solitary George and he transformed this tiny town that attracts hundreds of tourists a week to its tortoise reserve.  The perfect mascot and a money making tourist attraction for this impoverished town.

Erin teaching photosynthesis through role play with the funny kids of Delia Ibarra School.  Watching these kids critically think and enjoy learning was a huge step forward and very inspiring.

Erin in Peru

Hidi-ho campers! I am in Philly writing this, but will search my full and rich memory bank to tell you a little about my solo time in Peru. It was great. I went thru anxious patches and loneliness, but for the most part, had a blast exploring and learning. I started by going down to Bartolo, a little surf town. The coast of Peru is intensely stark, with huge, completely unvegetated mountains. At first, I thought, how the heck did I end up in this god forsaken place? Then I got used to it and enjoyed sleeping right next to the pounding waves. The owner expressed and interest in yoga, so I led him in a couple of sweet yoga sessions on the sand. I loved that. The beach was pretty, and dirty. A couple of times while I was in the water, I mistook plastic bags for sting rays. Silly me.

The surfing was hard. The waves broke right into a rock pier. It was thrilling and at times a complete blast, but I got hit by a girl’s board and hurt my arm badly. I cried like a baby. I am getting to the point where I just don’t like risking getting hurt. But one of the best parts was surfing with the guys from the hotel, having a little supportive posse.

The Spanish lessons in San Bartolo weren’t really happening. Antonio, the guy who was supposed to teach me, told me, “How can I teach you, when you speak better Spanish than me?”

So I decided to bite the bullet and high tail into Lima, a city with a bad reputation for congestion, contamination, crime and all around ugliness. The mission was to learn more Spanish. Surprisingly, my stay in the barrio called Miraflores was totally pleasant, full of learning and fun! The area was really pretty, with great parks, a wonderful sea front walkway, strewn with pretty, green parks. Who knew? I entered the city with two crazy and fun guys from Washington State. Our hostel had a rooftop garden, playing the best reggae I have heard in a long time. I was a happy girl. The next day I started school. My host mom was fabulous, the food delicious, and the Spanish easy to understand. My classes and teacher, another Antonio, totally rocked. Best ever. It felt so good to be really immersed in a Spanish world. That’s the only problem with traveling with David, is we speak too much English with each other! So I felt really satisfied. I saw a huge salsa dance fest in the park (finally some dancing!) and ran and meditated every morning on the ocean front.

I signed up to go surfing with this Lima surf legend named Doc (because he is also a psychiatrist). It turned out I spent my last few days joining his friendly and fun posse of surfers. I really enjoyed being part of a funny crew and getting to spend my last day cruzing back to San Bartolo to watch an international surf competition.

So that’s my solo adventure. I used a disposable camera, so the pictures will come later. Triple Yay!

Ecuador

Arriving into Ecuador felt like a mix of being in Central America and the United States, plus insane heat and humidity (since we’re right on the Equator). Everything is in US dollars, that’s their official currency, and it feels completely modern. Ecuador has two main cities in their country, Quito, the political hub, and Guayaquil, the commercial hub. We checked into a hostel in some far-off and lame neighborhood and promptly left to explore their mall! We got yummy-nasty mall food and saw a movie in English. We were happy. Getting back home was a challenge because we only knew the name of the hostel, not the address. After our taxi driver stopped to ask 7 different people how to get to our hostel, we finally got out and figured it out ourselves. We had dinner at a local crab shack and the next morning hopped a flight to the islands, 1000 kilometers west.

The Galapagos Islands

After entering the national park of the Galapagos, we were met by our host dad and director of the school we were going to volunteer at, Miguel. We have been staying with his family, Marixa his wife, and Arianna and Stalin his two kids in the tiny town of Santa Rosa in the center and highest part of the island. We have a lovely little room above the house, and besides having to watch my head hitting the roof and door frames life has been pretty good. We are a 3km walk from the Giant Tortoise reserve, and the school we are volunteering at is across the street. On our first day we went to the busy port town, Puerto Ayora, where we met our volunteer coordinator, Emily, and since it was her birthday we met a bunch of other volunteers who we quickly made friends with. The next day several of us went surfing and I got a great opportunity to remember how terrible I am at it. But right near by on the beautiful beach are hundreds of amazing Marine Iguanas, the only ones on the planet.

The first week here was a crash course into the Galapaganian life style, which is similar but different to mainland Ecuador. The Galapagos is much like Ecuador, except people come from all over the mainland, so the culture is a bit of a smattering. As a result of many tourists and volunteers giving to the people, there is a sense of non-ownership of what they have. This proved to be a challenge for us in our first week. Erin and I were assigned a teaching schedule, she was to teach environmental science and I was to teach art. I can’t speak for Erin, who has actual teaching experience and a curriculum, but I absolutely hated it. I didn’t know what to do with the kids (there are 4 different classes, each a grade ranging from the first cycle with 5 and 6 year olds all the way to the fourth cycle with 10 and 11 year olds), and most of them were little hell raisers and brats. Our introduction to children in Nicaragua severely skewed my perception of Latin American kids because they were so well-behaved. The kids here on the island were not. Miguel also had some ideas for me to paint little murals in the school with the kids, also something I wasn’t that interested in, since I came with the intention of painting a large scale public mural. However, in the center of town is a large coliseum with a huge quarter of a dome between the roof and a large vertical wall. It is humongous, more than 60 feet long, 18 feet high and 15 feet deep. All I could think of when looking at it was that it could be a huge turtle head. Oh yes, it would be mine.

I drew a design of a turtle head, showed it to Emily, our volunteer coordinator who loved it, and with her help we convinced the president of the town counsel, Angel, who then convinced the board of directors to approve the design and let me get started. From that point onwards I was in my happy place, a bit anxious about the project I was undertaking, but really excited to be stepping up my art. I was itchy to get started because my gig at the school wasn’t for me. So, once approved I put all my time into the mural and finding ladders, drawing the design, acquiring paint and supplies, and recruiting neighbors to help (which wasn’t that hard once people could see what I was doing…besides the appeal of climbing to the top of the tallest structure in town and painting a massive turtle head). Since school is only from 7:30am to 12:30pm, Erin had classes in the morning and I painted and prepared the structure for kids in the afternoon (I got out of my teaching gig once I got the mural approved). In the afternoons from 3-6 I climbed up to the mural and as soon as kids saw me up there the urge to paint called them up to join me.

After the first week and a half we made some good progress and were ready to explore the main port area and look for some tour opportunities, I mean, we are on the Galapagos so we should probably see some of what it has to offer. Firstly, we got hooked up with a large pile of DVDs from Emily, the coordinator at Galapagos ICE (where we’re volunteering). So from that day onward we saw at least a movie in our bedroom every day. We went on a local snorkel trip and although the water was murkey we saw some cool fish, a sea lion and a sea turtle. We also took a small boat to a point of rocks where we son TONS of iguanas and crabs

Slowly the days turned to weeks and we were fully living life in the Galapagos: waking up to roosters at all hours of the night, enjoying a fresh breeze blowing into our tiny windowless room through our open door when watching movies, fighting over the only pillow and the “good” side of the bed, overeating white rice and delicious soups and fruit and tomato smoothies by our host mom, making popcorn in the afternoons, playing with kids that come to the house’s adjacent convenience store, exploring the islands on the weekends, going on walks in the afternoon, teaching and painting with the kids, and getting to know the locals.

Unfortunately for us the islands were quite pricey, which limited our tourism. However, we did have a wonderful four day weekend on the island of Isabella. We snorkeled, explored, mingled with locals and tourists and enjoyed our time there. One thing to note about the Galapagos is the uniqueness of the wild life: some animals are bigger than normal, there are many different species that don’t exist any where else, and many animals are exotic – like hammerhead sharks, sea turtles and swimming iguanas, and also, the wasps pack a bigger punch. With my luck of stinging insects I woke up my first night to a wasp stinging my hand. It was swollen for four days. But that didn’t stop our adventures. Erin even taught a group of teachers about her interactive methods, which are very different from the memorization and wrote methodologies of Ecuador. One day Erin relaxed and snorkeled while I hiked up the local volcano.

Our highlight was snorkeling by the main dock where we swam with iguanas and tons of fish while coming with in inches of a lava herring perched on a mangrove above the water. Our time on the island was a great way to take a vacation from our trip and connect to each other. We had a romantic dinner out and read all the things we loved about each other over dinner and drinks. Overall, we had a lovely time but missed the home cooking of Marixa and the quaintness of Santa Rosa.

Being back felt great, and I started to really love my time working on the mural. Erin was a great help, both as a painter and managing children. My days were always harder without her; one day it was me and 15 six to twelve year olds painting, which wasn’t easy. Slowly the mural filled in, and at about half way through our stay the entire dome was completely covered in paint. During this time more and more teens from the neighborhood got curious, and after a short time I had a great group of teens working every day, who came on their own accord, unrelated to the school.

Our trips to the main port town were few, but it was nice to meet up with other volunteers occasionally, check email, and research other tour opportunities. We found a tour to an island about 2 hours south called Floreana. We hopped a tiny boat with a few other people and Erin and I got to lay on the front bit watching crazy flying fish soaring through the air about 30 feet. We endured a lame walk on land to find non-existent sea lions, but the true reward came when snorkeled at the Devil’s Crown. The current was very strong but in 10 seconds we saw sea lions, scores of amazing schools of fish, beautiful sea stars, rays and more than 5 white tipped reef sharks. We rode the current around the back side of the site and swam through an under water bridge to enter the center of the rock formation. This was truly the most beautiful and impressive snorkeling we’ve ever done. Afterwards we rode to a sea lion cove and swam with tons of sea lions who were incredibly playful. We saw penguins, blue-footed boobies and frigate birds. It was a memorable experience.

It is worth noting that the Galapagos aren’t particularly beautiful, but rather unique and fascinating. For example, the snorkeling isn’t full of pretty coral nor does it have great visibility, but there are incredible wild life roaming every where who are very unafraid of humans so you can swim right up to them. Being on land is the same experience. It’s really just a lot of old lava rocks every where, but if you pay closer attention to what’s around you can find some incredible plants and animals.

The purpose of Galapagos ICE (Immerse, Connect, Evolve) is to connect volunteers with schools and local community. So I feel I should write a bit about the people. The community of Santa Rosa feels a lot like any semi-modern Latin American town: every one knows every one, babies and children can be heard every where and are in the streets, people only eat Ecuadorian cuisine (our host family wouldn’t eat asparagus when Erin and I cooked it), the TV is always on, school is only half the day and most of that time the kids are playing or are idle, hanging out is a national past time, and not much changes. The big difference here is that the big sport is volley ball, and only men play it. They are pretty amusing to watch because the net is so high over all the short men that no one can spike the ball. Sad but typical is the women are housebound and the men are out and about. I’d say that 90% of women over 30 years old are over-weight. This is definitely a culture reigned by machismo. It was great to constantly see Erin shatter their stereotypes of woman, and for me to be the gentle giant with children as a strong role model. Neither of us could walk a block in our small town without some kid shouting our name to say hello. Having gotten a deep look into their community and culture, it is difficult to not feel judgmental and critical about their differences, especially around their education system. To us, it’s painfully obvious that children aren’t learning very much, which is perpetuating itself when they become teachers and do the same boring memorization practices without critical thinking. The teachers are inherently lazy, which was a big frustration of Erin’s when she would teach their classes and instead of assisting and learning, so they could incorporate the lessons, would just wander off and talk on their cell phone, even after Erin repeatedly asked for their involvement. But the teachers were quite friendly and warm, and Erin led some amazing outings with the kids to explore nature. In my opinion she was a divine messenger arriving at this school, where you have to spend so much time disciplining kids and getting the teachers to participate, because I could see her, some times forcefully, getting the kids to actually think.

Since we were both advanced certified to dive we couldn’t miss the opportunity to look for hammerheads. We went to an area called Gordon’s Rock, where two different currents meet and make your underwater experience feel a bit like a washing machine. It was challenging to be tossed around in murky and rough water at such a challenging dive site, but we did, although quickly, get to see a hammerhead, several beautiful sea turtles, an eel and the opportunity to swim for minutes at arms length from a white tipped reef shark. It was a good time.

Living with Miguel and his family was a mixed bag for us. They warmly invited us into their home and Marixa was a fabulous cook, considering that every thing had white rice and some options were limited to being on an island. They were generous and friendly, and always answered our questions and offered advice about how to do things. At the same time it was challenging for us to be confined by the dysfunctionality of another family (the hardest thing about living with other host families). We felt like we were a combination of a fly on the wall, their older children, and what we were (gringos visiting). Not all of the customs suited us, especially around the machismo culture where Miguel would thanklessly tell Marixa what to do, or when he was having a conversation with us would only address me and never look Erin in the eyes or pay her proper respect. That got old for sure. Being cooped up for a month gave a deep look into how the children were raised and it was so hard to not be hyper critical and judging that their kids sat in front of the TV all afternoon or would start conversations by complaining what they wanted. We could see they needed guidance, boundaries and affection, so we tried our hardest to give them that attention. We compared them to what it must be like living with the Simpsons, the father and son are ADD and challenging the mom and daughter are smart, sweet but confined to their roles. We also felt stuck, that this isn’t our family and it is not our place to say anything, especially living there for only a month. They didn’t seem unhappy, but they didn’t feel like they had a happy family dynamic either. But we figured out our flow with them and even had several nice outings together.

One weekend day they took us to a beautiful beach, Playa Alaman and a rocky canyon where the salt and fresh water mingled, Los Grietos. Marixa packed up a nice lunch and we all spent the day together. Los Grietos is nice because there is some great opportunity for rock jumping.

Our last weekend on the island they took us to a more remote beach where we enjoyed the waves. On most beaches there are horrible horse flies that are pretty aggressive, so we spent just about all our time on the water. We had been doing a great job of soaking up our last moments in tropical islands. It’s a strange feeling to have been traveling for so long, and knowing that we’re close to returning, to have to work so hard to appreciate where we are…on the freakin’ Galapagos Islands. But still we were so excited about returning that it made it challenging to put up with the annoying idiosyncrasies of Ecuador and Latin American life. We just want to see you all so badly!

The other day in the weekend we went back to Playa Alaman and Los Grietos with 4 of the teens who helped paint the mural. It was such a great experience taking them out and being their older brother and sister for the afternoon. Two of them were great swimmers but the other two didn’t really swim so I carried the little guy on my back when we needed to get across deeper water. We had a blast playing the waves and jumping off the rocks.

Rock Jumping Fun

In our last few days we had a great sushi dinner with some new friends, went to the famous Tortuga Bay to play in the waves and walk along the beach. I found a little inlet of water where thousands of fish were hiding from pelicans and a spotted-eagle ray swam by. That evening, our last night, Emily and Angel (the town president), coordinated a goodbye and thank you party for us outside the coliseum where we got to appreciate the new town mural! It was awesome to feel so appreciated by the locals and then turn the event into an impromptu play time with the kids. Two of my favorite teens came to the pool hall with Erin and I for an hour afterwards. FYI, the town is only 300 people and there’s two small convenience stores built into the homes, a school, a coliseum and a shabby pool hall with two tables.

Almost Done:

Done:

At the Party:

My Inspiration and local Friend:

We said all our goodbyes and when crossing the canal to Baltra Island to catch our flight more than 100 blue-footed boobies dive bombed the water next to us at one time hunting for fish. It was a glorious salute to our time there. We flew to Guayaquil that afternoon and were smart enough to not have made reservations so we could just ask a taxi to take us to a cheap hotel near the nice neighborhood. We spent the evening and much of the next day exploring their beautiful river walk and colonial neighborhood in the hills.

We hopped a plane and stopped off in Costa Rica, making Panama the only Central American country we didn’t see. My brother, Zach, and my great friend, Shaggy, were generous enough to pick us up at JFK at 3am and take us back to Philly. And now, here we are…in Philadelphia on our first day back in the states. I haven’t turned my cell phone on yet, but when I do in the next day you can reach us at 415.867.2298. We’re looking forward to seeing you!

It’s been an extraordinary adventure and I feel blessed to have been able to share our journey with you. Thanks for reading.

I’m not sure if we’ll keep up the blog, but since Erin and I are still traveling for the next month and splitting up for the summer, you might hear one or two more entries.

Love,
Dave and Erin

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The big split in Peru

Pics of Cusco are here:
Pics of Machu Picchu are here:

Trekking to Machu Picchu

So, Erin and I decided to get some solo traveling under our belt for 10 days.  We said our goodbyes after crossing the border into Peru and I got on a long 8 hour bus ride to Cusco.  After my long bus ride I found a quaint hostel with a single bedroom not too far off from all the hubbub of town. The city of Cusco is over 12,000 feet so it gets a bit cold at night. The next morning when I was having breakfast in the courtyard I met a travel agent who told me that the main Inca Trail is booked until mid-July. He told me about his 5 day trek through the Salkantay Mountain range and down to the jungle at Aquas Calientes at the foot of Machu Picchu. I gave him a deposit for the trip and when we left I realized how dumb I was to just sign up for the first trip. I decided to walk around the town, enjoy some alone time and see what there was to eat. There is 1000 tour agencies in Cusco, so finding options for tours wasn’t too difficult. In fact, when walking through the main plaza it’s difficult to not get hastled and molested to buy or sign up for something. I did, however, discover the world of cheap massages…$7 for an hour. They weren’t the best, but it was nice. I ended up signing on to the same tour but for much cheaper. I’d have to convince the original agent to give me my money back or let it go and call it stupid tax. I ended up getting half back. The highlight of my day was walking past the local art school’s exhibition, sweet talking the janitor to let me in the courtyard, and then walking into the administration and asking the dean in Spanish if I could sit in on a drawing class. He introduced me to a drawing teacher who warmly welcomed me into her class. I spent 2 hours drawing with them and loved it. The students were extremely curious about me. At the end of class I was invited back for the following week, where I returned after my trek and did another water color painting.

The next day I signed up on a white water rafting trip. Although I had a half wetsuit and a special top I was FREEZING. The entire group of 12 were from California. Erin would have hated Cusco and the trips that came out of it…crowded, touristy and full of gringos. I really had a great time, but I had to mentally prepare myself for the onslaught of tourists. Saturday morning, the next day, I woke up at 4am to get picked up by a van and taken to the start of my trek. I learned very quickly that the tour operators say anything to get you to sign up for their trip. My group of 5 or 6 people turned into 16. Apparently all the agencies combine their groups together and although everyone has paid different prices for different things they just lump you together. Although this gave me a bad first taste in my mouth, and I was worried about traveling with 16 plus 2 guides, 2 guys to handle the horses, a cook and 2 assistants, I was excited to get started. Day 1 was overcast and then it rained for a good part of the morning. Since I left my pancho in my backpack, not in my day bag, I got a bit wet. But the sun cleared up, showed an amazing view of the Salkantay mountain and we had a great lunch as a big group.

After lunch we climbed to a considerable altitude, I’m not sure how high but it was pretty damn cold. When we got to camp our tents were set up for us and there was a large dining tent for us to all enjoy a pretty good dinner. We started to gel and bond and appreciate all the different walks of life we came from. That night it poured down buckets and my tent was flooded from underneath. I woke up to a soggy bottom in my sleeping bag. Wet + cold = not fun. We were woken up to hot coca tea, which helped, and after breakfast we were climbing again. By late morning the second day we reached the pass between the two tallest mountains in the vicinity after climbing about 800 meters. Sadly it was very overcast and we couldn’t appreciate how high we actually were at. But we had a very nice ceremony in Quechua, the native culture and language.

After the short break we began to descend and descend and descend and after 1500 meters were in humid jungle. The steep pitched mountains pouring into the narrow canyon below were unbelievably scenic. There were butterflies every where, popping out with colorful contrast in the foreground, while the smoky looking fog crept over the mountains in the distance. My pictures don’t do this scene justice, but here’s my attempt.

The second half of the day was more rain, and the path carved into the side of the mountain was super muddy. Every couple hundred yards there were gushing waterfalls pouring over the path with little rickety wooden ladders bridging the streams.

We had a nice lunch by the river in a meadow. Afterwards it was a few more hours of town hill until we got to our camping spot. By this time I was getting a good amount of hiking alone and getting to know the other people. The meals were especially fun, and we learned a lot about all our different cultures (USA, Canada, Finland, Australia and Argentina). That night it rained yet again, but at least it wasn’t so cold. The third day was more of the same spectacular jungle hiking, river crossing, and dodging mud. The awesome reward of the day was going to the hot springs with large bottles of beer after pitching camp. The hot pools were sulfur free and afforded as an amazing view of the mountains as night set upon us. I was in heaven. That night we had a big camp fire and hung out as a big tight group. I forgot to mention earlier that I was super lucky and had a tent to myself, which was great because they were way too small and I had to sleep diagonal as to not poke out the tent.

The fourth day was getting to Aguas Calientes (Hot Water), a town at the base of Machu Picchu full of tourists ready to ascend upon the site the next day. The hike there was tough. Half of it was walking along train tracks for 2 and a half hours. All I could do was stare at my feet so I didn’t trip on railroad ties. But we eventually made it, with sore knees from all the hiking. The best part of the last night was getting to stay in a hostel and taking a hot shower with soap. The town is built along a roaring river, so the sound of the water gushing permeates everything.

The fifth and final day started at 4am when we walked for an hour and a half up 3000 steps to Machu Picchu in the dark. It was amazing to see the blue light of dawn permeate the fog hovering in the mountains. We arrived at the site sweaty and tired, but psyched to see what this famous place was all about. It was a bit deflating to see loads of tourists on buses stroll out in front of us with fat bellies and cameras in hand. But I wore my ripped and dirty pants, sweat coated shirt, and smelly hat as a badge of honor. For us, this was a pilgrimage. As Jimmy, our tour guide, led us around and told us some of the history, the fog began to let up, affording us a magical view of the site and the steeply pitched mountains surrounding it.

The day at Machu Picchu (“old mountain” in Quechua) was awesome. The place is so huge that it easily swallows up all the tourists visiting it, the main load of whom don’t arrive until after 11am. Since we got there at 6am and I stayed until 2pm, I had plenty of time. My highlight was climbing Wayna Picchu (“young mountain” in Quechua), another steep 45 stair climb with a fantastic view over everything. I found a nice rock to draw from at the top but a wasp stung me on the head so I left (my luck with insects).

I walked back to Aguas Calientes with my new Argentine friends and everyone took the train and then a bus back to Cusco. Although exhausted we went out to a local bar that night to meet up for drinks. The next evening we had a reunion and after a scrumptious dinner went out dancing until 3am. By this time our group was really close and we didn’t want to say goodbye. But we did, and I was really looking forward to seeing Erin. I think the longest time apart in the 7 months of traveling so far was only several hours. It was great to actually “miss” Erin, a sensation that had felt foreign to me. Early the next day I flew to Lima, where we met up and then took another flight together to Guayaquil, Ecuador, where we had plans to fly to the Galapagos Islands to finish our exotic trip volunteering at a school in Isla Santa Cruz.

Expect a great update from Erin about here time surfing and studying in Lima…

From the Bolivian Andes to the border of Peru

Pics of Sorata are here:
Pics of our Andean Trek is here:
Pics of Lake Titicaca are here:

Sorata

Whoever described Sorata as the Garden of Eden adequately conjured up the perfect image of this town, nestled in the mountains above two rivers converging with the snow-capped Andes hovering over it. The town sits at about 2,700 meters with a great temperature during the day and a bit cool at night. We arrived towards the end of the rainy season, and knew it was a bad one with remnants of many mudslides. But we had some great weather the first few days and had a chance to explore the surrounding areas. We went on a beautiful walk, the first day, down to the river, were we encountered the amazing beauty and the only setback of the town…horrible biting flies.

The town is built on a large hill (we would call it a mountain) and our hostel was down 8 flights of steps and a steep hill, but with a killer view and the sound of the river in the distance. The place, Las Piedras, was owned by a friendly German woman who made amazing breakfasts, snacks and cookies. We had a balcony outside our room and I got to draw in the sunshine while Erin meditated.

Our second day we went on a 10km hike to the local cave, San Pedro. We followed a twisty and muddy road high above the canyon which the river tore through noisily far below. We had amazing sunshine and great vistas around every turn. The cave itself was a lot of fun. There was a little lake inside, and although small, had a paddle boat! We enjoyed a fried egg sandwich and some beer outside before the long walk home. We didn’t realize it on our way there that the hike was a gradual downhill…so the way home was a bit sweaty, but still amazingly beautiful. The next day we decided to keep up the trend of moving our bodies and climbed the local mountain. We couldn’t find the path up so we just went straight up from the farm below, which was an ass-kicker. As we climbed higher the plants got spikier and there was lots of razor grass, so we had to tread lightly. We were surprised to find farming and gardens everywhere, no matter the altitude or the steepness of the terrain. The locals are very resourceful. We got to the saddle of the mountain with a rewarding view of the landscape.

We tried climbing around the tiny footpath that wrapped around the sound but the height of the path and the poor footing gave us vertigo, so we stayed put and called it the summit. The way down was awesome. We cut across farms to get to a road out in the distance across from the mountain to avoid the razor grass and steep and muddy mountainside. We passed tons of locals, one who sold us a handful of peaches for a nickel. By the time we got back we could tell that our legs were starting to get into fairly good climbing shape. We booked a 4 day trek into the Andes two days ahead to avoid the crowds of Easter. The guys at the “Association of Guides” were amazingly friendly and warm. One of them worked to help start a home for children from the country whose commute to school was too long. The children lived at the home during the week and walked 2 to 10 hours back to their country home on the weekends. Anyhow, Erin and I ended up teaching them English in the evenings for a few nights. The first evening we showed up, expecting to have more of a cultural exchange with a few kids, only to find a classroom of over 20 kids ready to learn. It ended up being a fantastic experience and I truly hope that if any of you reading this blog make it to Sorata and ask the local kids “How are you?” that they’ll be able to say “Word up, dog. Give me a peso.” Joking.

Since we had one more day before our trip I found a guy who rented us mountain bikes, which turned about to be a bit of a fiasco. Not knowing what I was getting us into we took a bus with our crappy bikes and a guide to the highest point of the road that took us into town, close to 4,000 meters. It was a cold and overcast day and the curvy and windy ride down chilled our unprepared bodies to the bone. We couldn’t feel our hands, which probably didn’t matter because the gears and breaks didn’t work so well anyways. It was a cold, muddy and scarey experience. The next day we packed our bags four our first real deal hiking trek.

Trekking through the Andes

The morning of the trek we went to the market with our guide Jose. We bought food, kerosene and odds and ends for 4 people. The fourth was for a guy to watch our stuff on the 3rd day while we hiked to a mountain lake glacier. We found out later that day that this “guy” turned out to be Raquel, his 12 year old daughter. She was twice as fast as me on the mountain and ate twice as much as me too! Anyways, Jose packed up two mules, who I like to affectionately call Mule1 and Mule2.

We hiked the first hour and a half to his house in a small mountain town, where we picked up Raquel. The rest of the day was hiking up and up and up into the mountains. It was hard work but extremely beautiful. I felt strong and was leading the group. I remarked to Erin how great I felt and how I haven’t gotten sick in South America so far. Well, some angry and vindictive omnipotent being must have heard me at that moment because it was probably less than 3 hours later when I felt like I was coming down with a fever. By the time I went to bed I had the worst shaking chills of my life, mixed with nausea and the runs. I barely slept that night because I was freezing, partly the altitude, and I had to keep running out of the tent. In the morning I noticed how incredibly beautiful the meadow with goats, mules and horses that we camped in was, and that maybe I didn’t bring enough toilet paper. We had some oatmeal, I rallied, and we moved on. Thankfully this day was more lateral without too much vertical gain. By lunch time I was in pretty bad shape but the utter beauty of being alone in the wilderness offset my physical state. Erin was an amazing support, and Jose and Raquel were very helpful. Our second night was at about 4,500 meters…cold. We had an amazing view over Sorata and were camped along a tiny lake.

The 3rd day was a tough one. We woke up early and hiked 5 hours up to a famous glacier by a lake while our watchman, Raquel, stayed with the gear. It was fairly slow moving and very tough, loose and rocky terrain. As we climbed the clouds seemed to be chasing us, and by the time we make it to the glacier we were just about surrounded. Thankfully we had a solid hour before we got fogged in and decided to turn around. We enjoyed a spam and tomato sandwich, rested a bit, and then hike the 4 hours back through the fog.

If I haven’t mentioned it before, coca tea is an amazing beverage. Made from coca leaves, the derivative of cocaine, they are an excellent stimulant, appetite suppressant, and very medicinal for altitude. These leaves changed Erin’s and my life. It became ritual to drink the tea in the morning and to take it on hikes in altitude. Good stuff. The night of our 3rd day several groups came up to camp nearby to hike the glacier. We realized a bunch of tourists must have arrived to Sorata after we left for Easter, marking the start of tourist season. We were so thankful to having had Sorata tourist free, a quiet and tranquil hike, and amazing guides. This far outshined being sick, and I was able to sustain myself for the entire trek. It wasn’t until after the hardest 5 hours of downhill of my life did I have access to some Imodium. Boy was the down hill steep. My knees hurt for days afterwards. It was really interesting to slowly enter civilization again. We past mountain farmers, than sheep herders, more trekkers setting out to the mountain, and then commuters of far off towns on the paths. As we got closer to Sorata the villages grew until finally we were in town with the left over remnants of Easter. We warmly welcomed the hot empanadas and home-made ice cream. We said our goodbyes to our lovely guides and enjoyed our last night in Sorata. We noted how special this town was, how the people are more outgoing and friendly than the other high altitude towns of Bolivia. We started to recognize locals and feel a bit like we belonged there. Sorata definitely holds a dear place in our hearts, and a return trip some day is a must.

Traveling to Lake Titicaca

Well, it was finally time to leave our little slice of heaven and make our way to Lake Titicaca (best name ever). I popped another Imodium for safe measure and we caught the next microbus out of town. I sat in the front next to a guy who is half Bolivian and half American. What an amazing conversation. We learned about the political and social climate in the country and all the big news and what-to-dos that are going on with the proposal of their new constitution. We got off at a tiny town to catch another bus to Lake Titicaca. The bus, a big one, that picked us up was totally full so we sat in the very front with the lady who collects the money. Erin had a great conversation with her about the differences of our countries.

Copacabana, our destination, is across a small body of water on the lake. So the bus was actually put on a motorized platform and taken across the lake, only a couple hundred of meters. It was another 30 minute ride until we arrived in the land of tourism and amenities. It was shocking to see so many white people. We got a hostel with a nice view of the lake and set out to take care of airplane tickets, details for the trip and to enjoy some good eating. That night, unbeknownst to us, was a super loud post east party that kept us up most of the night. The next morning, a bit tired, we got up early and caught a boat to Isla Del Sol, supposedly where the Incan Empire started. We relaxed on the beach, letting the other tourists disperse, and played with a nearby pig. After a yummy trout lunch we were ready to follow the Inca trail. The only problem was we couldn’t find it. So we climbed the local mountain, and from the top we saw a well made path leading south. There were a fair amount of people walking on the path, enough to merit little path-side stands selling warm beer, water and candy. The day was really lovely, and we enjoyed being at the high altitude (13,000ish feet) but dangerously sunny island (I think the sun was born here).

We originally thought we were going to sleep on the island but we didn’t bring enough money so we found ourselves sprinting down the hillside at the end of the day to catch the last ferry home. The ferry ride home we sat on the top of the boat with a bunch of hyper gypsy-types from Argentina. They were a lot of fun and after one of them caught me drawing them I drew the three sitting across from me. I’ve started a nice habit of emailing and snail mailing pics of my sketches to the people who model for me.

We spent our last night together back at Copacabana and had another yummy meal. The next morning we crossed the border into Peru (by this time we’re now experts at border crossing and money exchange). We took the bus to Puno, where Erin spent the night before flying to Lima and I took another bus another 8 hours west to Cusco. We were now separate for 10 days to get some serious space and time to travel alone doing what we wanted. Erin went to go surf in Lima and I wanted to do another trek to Machu Picchu. It was exciting and scary to be alone, but 10 days isn’t all that long.

Cochabamba, Bolivia

Pics of Cochabamaba are here:
Pics of the mural we did in Bolivia is here:

Cochabamba, Bolivia

After spending a day killing time in Uyuni we took a 10 hour overnight bust to Oruro, where we transferred to a 4 and a half hour bus to Cochabamba, the second biggest city in Bolivia.  I remember meeting a German girl in Argentina who said “the buses in Bolivia are terrible, their old and dirty and the people smell horrible because they wear many layers of clothing they don’t clean and they don’t shower.  And there’s no bathroom on the bus!”  Well, do I our disappointment, she was exactly right.  Erin has problems with the dirtiness, and I struggle with the lack of bathrooms.  So armed with hand sanitizer and an empty wide-mouthed yogurt container we traveled to Cochabamba.  We some how each managed to leave something of value to us on the bus.  The ride down from the altiplano into the mountains of Cochabamba were exquisite.

 Cochabamba

Erik, the founder of the non-profit Sustainable Bolivia who we were about to volunteer for, met us in a plaza and took us back to HQ to meet the people who worked in the office.  They were all very nice and we were glad to be there, but bummed out we had entered such a big city.  Since the size of the town was going to be an issue for us, Erik found us a home in the country suburbs.  Apparently it’s the vacation home of the city’s most famous gynecologist, complete with a gorgeous view of the mountains, a beautifully manicured landscape and a cactus that was a gift from Yasser Arafat.

 cactus

Sounds good?  Well, it was a mixed blessing.  The ride to the home was over 30 minutes through ugly traffic.  We were in a suburb of Cochabamba, called Apote.  In some ways it was great to be off the beaten track, literally – you had to walk along two large fields to get to our home.  We had a kitchen and were finally able to cook for ourselves.  At the same time, we were secluded, not learning Spanish, and still feeling stuck half-satisfied and half-disappointed.  The house was filthy, so after going into town to buy a broom and mop and cleaning supplies we spent Saturday night and most of Sunday cleaning it.  We realized that maybe we made the wrong decision to come when we found ourselves waiting over an hour in the plaza to meet the guys from the office to take us to the women’s and children’s shelter we were going to volunteer at.  Apparently all the local trufi’s (cars that run like local bus lines and charge $0.20 per ride) went on strike that day and blocked the roads with their cars so no one could get by.  I hear this is common.  So we hired a taxi part of the way and walked the rest of the way to the location of the next mural.  It was when we saw the condition of the shelter and the wall did our knees weaken and our stomachs feel queasy. 

infante

This place felt was falling apart.  The condition of the wall was in horrible shape, I mean absolutely unworkably terrible – with holes, plaster coating in parts, old paint, dirty, with a muddy and uneven yard in front of it.  Maybe with a team of 10 strong adults could we prep this wall in a week to be painted.  The twenty 7 to 10 year old kids were running around without adult supervision, screaming and throwing rocks, and the bathrooms were full of hundreds of mosquitoes and feces.  This place is part of an umbrella organization called Infante, who takes in women and children from domestic abuse.  After talking with some of the women who run the place we realized that they really need some help and we agreed to take on the project.  The next morning Erin and I met a woman from Sustainable Bolivia who took us to “La Cancha,” South America’s largest market.  It’s miles long.  After a few hours we had all the supplies we needed to scrub the wall and do some minor construction.  We were ready for the following day.  We arrived and started scrubbing the wall in vain.  The children were barely making a difference, partly because of their size and partly because they could barely focus on one task for more than 5 minutes.  I had created a huge mound of trash after chiseling a ton of plaster off the wall, and when I asked where to put it all one of the adults told me to just dump in the flooded garden that a previous volunteer had created (not a good sign).  We decided to stop what we were doing, make a circle and explain that what we were doing to get them to focus.  They just couldn’t contain themselves and after much time and frustration we had to pull them aside and lecture them in our bad Spanish about respect.  There were barely any adults to help us and after a few hours we left in frustration to re-evaluate our situation.  I forgot to mention that we arrived during the end of the rainy season, and our first night we discovered 5 leaks in the house.  One of the leaks was right between where we pushed our two single beds together.  So we put the thin mattresses in the living room to sleep next to each other.  The house was poorly made, with many holes in the walls, allowing many mosquitoes in each night.  I had to sleep with insect repellent and ear plugs and still woke up covered in bites.

 infante wall 

We originally were planning to volunteer for one or two months, but quickly realized this was not the opportunity for us.  A big part of our excitement of volunteering was to get to know the people and learn Spanish.  Many people of Bolivia are extremely reserved, conservative and traditional.  Trying to have conversations with people who either are curt or ignore you when you talk to them can be quite a challenge, especially for us who are sensitive, polite, and excited to meet people.  We decided to change our plans to two weeks, complete a smaller mural, and get the hell out of there.  This way we were able to complete our commitments and be in integrity with Sustainable Bolivia and Infante.

 

The first week was incredibly trying and tiring.  Each day we wrestled with commuting to the shelter, the children’s bad behavior, leaving exhausted and heading to the internet café for hours to research where to go next only to come home to strange neighbors.  It seems as though this tough experience was the straw the broke the camels back for our escalating disappointment in South America.  It’s such a big continent and getting around and dealing with all the cultural differences, on top of being travel worn, really took a lot out of us.  Erin and I started to not get along as well, and we weren’t taking good care of each other.  We were feeling home sick, anxious about our travels, and all around fed up.  Tough times!

 

We had an important conversation one morning where we realized how much we loved each other, and all the lessons learned and good things that we had in this experience.  By Bolivia standards we had a really nice place.  We cooked for ourselves with olive oil instead of the typical veggie oil.  We had peace and quiet much of the time there, and were even able to host a BBQ with the folks from Sustainable Bolivia.  The walk to and from the road where we picked up the Trufi was really beautiful.  We started to fall in love with some of the kids who lived at the shelter, especially the 2 year old Helen and her 4 year old brother Willy.

 Helen

After our first week we were getting the hang of this place and were starting to enjoy it.  We took a lot of time to notice and appreciate how privileged and lucky we are.  Bolivia is remarkably poor and dirty, and to be able to have so much is such a blessing.  Then we discovered the Cine Center, a mall like complex with fast internet and movies in English.  The gods were smiling on us.  The mural was starting to look good, and we were getting in the swing of things with the children.  I had to barricade myself with tables and chairs to keep the children not painting at a distance, even though they wouldn’t stop complaining and asking to paint.  This was really hard for me, because my Spanish isn’t so great.  I had to keep telling them that they could paint if they were respectful, tranquil and didn’t keep asking me to paint (“Yo quiero pintar!” – in a whiney voice).  After seeing what angels the kids could be when they were actually painting, we realized that what these kids need is structure, discipline and love.  It was sad to see them not getting it.  But we saw that we were making a difference, and that was all we could ask for.  Be the end of week two we were a little sad to leave, but not that much.  The 9’ x 8’ mural, only 5 half days of actual painting, came to completion.  I designed it to accommodate 7 and 8 year olds to paint: two children dreaming in the mountains in a star filled night of their dreams of the future.  Erin and I spent the first few days having them draw their dreams of what they wanted to do or be in the future.  Later they were able to paint them inside their dream bubble.  To celebrate, on our last night we tried to have a fire in our fireplace, but the wood that was there was extremely hard to start…so we used candles.  We got a bit carried away, and by we I mean I, and burned all the candle at once.  The fire got so hot and big that the fireplace started falling apart!

 fire place

Infante, Sustainable Bolivia and Erin and I were incredibly proud of what we were able to accomplish in such a short time.  We left on great terms after a nice but awkward meeting with the women of Infante to thank us for our efforts. 

 mural 

On our way to trek the Andes

The next day we took an 8 hour bus to La Paz, to head towards the beautifully famed town of Sorata.  I must go in at length about the two bus rides because they left such strong impressions on us.  The bus to La Paz was challenging, and it was mostly because of the boy who worked on the bus who deals with tickets and luggage.  Like every bus in Central and South America there’s a TV mounted and speakers over all of our heads.  Early on during the bus ride the boy who worked on the bus put on an old war movie and when I asked him if he could put on the subtitles he completely ignored me.  I waited till he came back to ask him again, except this time I tapped him on the shoulder and asked.  Again, he completely ignored me.  I was feeling pretty agitated, so when the movie was over and he put on The Patriot, I stood up and asked a third time.  Again, he tried to ignore me, except this time he couldn’t shut the compartment for the DVD player because me hand was there blocking it.  I think this might have been one of the most socially awkward moments of both of our lives.  Here we are, standing on the bus, and I’m forcing this boy to deal with me who is just trying so hard to ignore me, yet he can’t.  After saying he didn’t understand what I was asking, even though I know he did, I was probably pretty scary to deal with.  I’m 6’1 and big and he’s significantly smaller and younger.  Yet at the same time, he was being extremely rude and disrespectful by walking away every time I had a question.  So I finally let it go and went back to my seat steaming about how ridiculous and unsociable Bolivians are, and that all the bad racist stereotypes I heard in Chile and Argentina are true.  Obviously, like all cultures, they are just different and I don’t understand them completely, but it was a hard bus ride sitting there with my anger and being unable to appropriately express it to the subject of it’s source.  Later, Erin tried to ask the bus driver if he could put on the subtitles, only to receive the rude response “We’re in Bolivia, there isn’t English.”  They didn’t even get that we just wanted Spanish subtitles so we can read what we couldn’t hear.  Later, when the boy was putting on the 3rd movie Erin asked if he would put on a movie that didn’t have so much violence, since the first two were war movies.  He put on Rambo.  Except this time he forgot to lock the compartment and Erin got out of her seat, took the movie out of the player and put on Alive, after announcing to the bus “No mas violencia!”  When the bus finally took a break on the side of the road there was a big sign that read “Prohibito orinar aqui” (Do not pee here!).  Yet the whole tiny town stunk of urine.  When we stop to take breaks hoards of women selling food run on the bus for 2 minutes trying to sell us whatever they have to offer.

 bus to LaPaz

Ranting and Raving:  Bolivia is full of strange sights and idiosyncrasies.  For example, every public bathroom charges you to use it, so people just pee on the road and sidewalks.  Small towns where many buses take rest breaks reek of urine.  There’s never any soap, and I wonder how people aren’t getting so terribly sick…perhaps it’s because as young kids they are playing in the dirt beside the markets where their mom is selling peaches (6 for $0.15).  Almost every restaurant, bus station, mechanic, and many other shops have either half naked or scantily glad pinup girls on the wall.  It’s particularly strange to see this when you walk in a restaurant full of traditionally dressed women without a man in sight and posters of naked women on the wall.  Dogs rule the streets and cars love to just honk and swerve around the dogs, yet pedestrians seem to have less priority.  Bolivia is a honking culture and biased for the driver, not the walker = scary.  People pass regardless of double yellow lines and hairpin turns.  Yesterday I watched a mini van try to pass a bus on a sharp turn to almost get into a head on accident and stopping oncoming traffic.  Flies and bees crawl on everything in the market and the women that sell the items all have some form of a bag or yarn attached to a stick to shake at the flies from landing.  They never use fly swatters, just something to get them to buzz around forever.  There is no trash pick-up, just a garbage truck with a man on the back ringing a bell so that people can chase after him with their trash.  Getting your cooking gas works the same way.  I have never seen a culture more in love with fried chicken.  They can squeeze more people into a car than anywhere else.  Bolivians are also very protective of their rights and protest more than any other country I’ve been in.  Women seem to be the dominant figure, as they seem to be more visible than men.  Every one is selling something (usually peaches), and their neighbors seem to be selling the same thing too.  Need peaches, you are guaranteed to find 3 people next to each other selling them.  Need socks, same thing.  Need anything else, same thing.  I don’t see how the competition works here, but that’s how it is.  All kids wear white lab coats as their school uniform, I feel like I’m at a mad scientist convention.  There are more dentists per capita then any other Latin American country, yet I’ve never seen worse teeth in my life.  Most adults are missing six to all of their teeth, if they aren’t rotting out of their head.  There is no limit to how many people you can pack in a bus, van, or car.  Most men seem to have poorly made tattoos on their left hands or necks.  I think this must have something to do with being in the military.  Babies and just about anything are carried on the backs of women with multi-colored blankets.  All traditional women dress the same: parted hair with pigtails, bowler hat, hoop skirt, sweater and blanket or shawl.  Apparently this was mandated from a Spanish king over 200 years ago and it still persists.  Speaking of persisting, change happens very slowly here, especially in the more conservative and traditional higher altitude towns.  There are many many more of these examples and when you ask for a reason why things are so different, inept, out-dated, etc, you just get “we’re in Bolivia.”

trash collection in Apote

Anyways, after crazy amounts of traffic entering the city we arrived in La Paz (the highest capitol in the world) in the evening, made a complaint to the bus agency (who knows if they care) and learned that we couldn’t get a bus to Sorata until the morning.  We got a room in a hostel near by and explored the town.  We were shocked to find part of it beautiful and interesting.  The man plaza is very cute, with a well lit and stylish old church.  The foot traffic dominates the crazy car traffic surrounding it, and there is no shortage of fried food vendors in the street.  It was really interesting to be in the melting pot of traditional and contemporary culture all clashing and mixing together at the same time.

The next morning we took a cab to the cemetery district where I convinced Erin to get on the small micro bus instead of the larger bus because it left a half hour early.  The cargo van sized bus was jam packed full of almost 20 people and a dog.  I was stuck in one of those folding sits for the 4 hour journey.  At one point the driver stopped on a steep hill to secure the luggage on the roof when all of a sudden the van started jolting backwards.  The woman in the front jumped out of the car, leaving all of us and her daughter in the van jolting backwards.  The guy next to me leapt up to turn the wheel but was too short so I bent over the front seat to help steer.  The van driver got back just in time before it would have been real trouble, but hey “we’re in Bolivia.”  So we took off through the crazy hills of La Paz to encounter some of the worst traffic I have ever seen.  Every non-motorized object seemed to be moving faster than us, including old ladies pushing carts of food and random stray dogs (and there are tons)..  At one point, through the incessant honking and stop and go traffic, our driver went through the median and drove against oncoming traffic.  At this point I was pretty uncomfortably cramped in my little fold out seat.  All of a sudden the door opens in traffic and a man with a bag jumps in the van and sits down where my foot rest is and is facing me with my legs between his.  There was no personal space.  At least not much after we were moving.  Before long we were driving along the snow capped Andes and high planes.  We drove higher and higher until we were right at the foot of the steepest mountains.  Finally, after about 3 hours we started to descend through hairpin switch back roads in deep fog.  It took us an 30 minutes of steep descent before we were below the clouds to see a gorgeous valley nestled in the pitched and green mountains of Sorata.  This year is La Niña and the intense rain cause mud slides all over the road.  If we were in the US the road would either have been closed or there would have been insane amounts of construction going on.  Neither was the case, and we dodged fallen rocks, impromptu rivers crossing the road, steep and pitched drop-offs and large piles of mud and debris.  We finally reached Sorata and couldn’t have been happier to get out of the most uncomfortable and beautiful ride of my life.

  ride to Sorata

From Argentina to Bolivia

All new pics of dave’s Sketchbook are here:

Pics of our Southern Bolivia Tour are here:

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Erin’s Jungle Trek

I said goodbye to Dave and Dan and was on my own. Happy and nervous that my decision to trek into the mountains with a stranger guide was, shall we say, stupid. My guide, Rafael, showed up, and he seemed to be more or less normal. The Jungle we trekked into was gorgeous. We spoke in Spanish the whole time, which was great. He knew a ton about plants, especially trees. In this jungle, there were cacti growing on lush trees and trees with huge thorns. We climbed and climbed getting amazing views of the valley. He brought great food. Then it started raining, heavily, and it didn’t stop until we got back to the parking lot the next afternoon. A detail Rafael forgot was to waterproof my sleeping bag. It was wet. So there we were, Rafael and I in his little tent, in our wet sleeping bags, for HOURS. He was feeling social and I just wanted to be quiet and introspective. He hit on me a little. I talked about Dave and his wonders a lot. It was soooo awkward. On the bright side, he cooked great food, brought a lot of chocolate and we camped next to this beautiful little adobe house that farmers used to live in. It is amazing to me that people live so remotely. The view when I poked my head out of the tent was gorgeous cloud forest as well. When I woke up, I was ready to GTFO. The sun came out when we reached the bottom of the mountain and I soaked it in gratefully. I enjoyed pure alone time for the rest of the day. It was great when Dan showed up and we ended up drinking lots of matte with our speedy Argentine Mami, Vilma and then going out to dinner with a fun and friendly Argentine from Buenos Aires. At the restaurant, with great live music, I realized just how much I love the friendly culture of this beautiful country. I look forward to returning with more time and money.

erin Trek

Entrance to Bolivia

Hi everyone, this is a rare Erin entry. I just spoke with my dad last night and heard my aunt Laura Jean and cousin Christine are reading this. Hi guys!!! I send you a big hug.

I get to write about our entrance into Bolivia and our time in the Altiplano, which is a region of Bolivia that sits around 14,000 ft. From that high altitude, even higher volcanoes and mountains arise. It is spectacular and remote. From the moment we entered Bolivia, we were entranced. It is sooo unique and very different from Argentina. The people all have a ton of indigenous blood and are much more reserved than Argentines. It is a much poorer country economically and a rich country culturally. The people usually speak one of 3 different Inca languages as well as Spanish. The women, especially the older women, wear unique traditional dress, with a bowler hat, long (down to the knees), decorated triensas (braids) lots of sweaters and a puffy skirt. My favorite is how they carry their babies and grandkids in a brightly woven blankets slung to their backs. They are hard to photograph, but we were strategic and got some good shots.

Uyuni Market

Dave’s drawings are rad also.

drawing

Dave and I met in N. Argentina, after our only 2 days apart, and bused to the border together. It was great to see his sweet face and fun to share stories. After the usual confusing, stressful and expensive (thanks George f’ing Bush) border crossing, we got on the coolest train, winding thru red rock, river desert canyons, valleys growing unique veggies in neat rows. I can’t believe how extremely beautiful this country and its people are.

entering Bolivia

We arrived in a small high (10,000 ft) desert town, Uyuni, at midnite. I had a headache at first, but used the local cure of coca leaves to relieve it. You suck on them and are cured of many maladies. The Bolivian president, Evo Morales, used to be a coca farmer. The indigenous treat it separately from the cocaine you can make out of it. It is a big political thing, because the US tries to fight what the indigenous hold as an important part of their culture. You would be amazed at the puffy cheeks with mouths full of coco leaves everywhere with brown and twisted or missing teeth.

We arranged a tour with 4×4’s through the vast salt flats, to desert lagoons, and to climb Lincancabur volcano, which rises to 18,000 feet. It was a totally amazing tour, a highlight of the trip. At the beginning we were packed into the 4×4 with 5 other extraneros, who were super cool. I expected to be surrounded by other tourists, so it didn’t bother me so much to be on a popular tour. One of our fellow tourists was a professional photographer, Mustafa, and it was so fun to watch him get all crazy taking pics; and were psyched to get some great shots he took of us with his phat camera.

mustafa shot of us

Overall it was great just to make some friends again. Every night we stayed in these really basic hostels, no showers for 5 days, and sharing them with 6 people per room and 30 people per toilet (which were nasty and without soap). We ate and slept together and became a team. The last morning, our whole team, except magically Dave and I, were sick as dogs and Dave and I became nurses. This was at 4 in the morning, in darkness, where only us had headlamps. We are such strong stomached travel professionals. It was great to be prepared and tough enough to support others. And now we have a date in NYC to eat good, home cooked food with our new friends. On the journey we saw and took pics of breathtaking salt flats, green and red lagoons, flamingos, ostriches, lots of running llamas and vecunas, bubbling and steaming geysers, high snow covered mountains, deep canyons and red rock desert.

jesse eating us

The towns we stayed in were so tiny and built of earth. They blended into the brown desert. With this backdrop the brightly adorned women, llamas and sheep looked stunning.

llama

 

Volcan Lincancabur

A highlight of the trip came when we said goodbye to all our tourist friends (I am writing right now on my laptop in a little mountain town’s main square and the kids are surrounding me curiously; they have never touched a computer, much less seen a laptop.) We ended up the sole tourists in a family run hostel in the vast and remote desert. We rested and enjoyed a practice walk along the green lagoon at 14,000ft. It was flurrying snow horizontally in the strong wind, to my delight. We played with the kids and taught our traditional indigenous guide, Pedro, liars dice. We got up at 3 am the next day to kick ass on the highest climb of our lives, Volcan Lincancabur. We were prepared for a 6 hour climb and a 2 hour decent with water, coca tea, bread, eggs and Dave’s treasured 2 cliff bars. We were afraid we’d be hungry, but with the altitude, we ended up only drinking the tea gratefully and forcing a cliff bar down. Starting out in the freezing, star filled sky was amazing and adventurous. .Pedro started walking so slowly, something I would only later understand. As the sky lighted slightly, I could only make out a huge black slope ahead of me and the shimmering lagoon below. I had been really afraid of scaling the side and getting afraid of heights, but it never got hairy in that way. After a few hours, it got light and the air got really thin. Every step was a huge effort and I was grateful for Pedro’s slow motion walking. Dave and I were going through bouts of nausea. Mine got worse with every step. I had to push myself sooo hard. I set a goal of making it to a certain rock. We reached it after about 5 hours. Dave’s love for me shone in his support during my physical difficulty. He was rocking out. I decided to not go any further and wait for their return from the top, a really hard decision. I decided to not think of it as a failure, instead to relish being perched on the upper level of a majestic volcano, with a view beyond the imagination.

lincancabur

My favorite was the ice cascades around me. After passing out hard core for an undetermined amount of time, I sat on a rock, with nothing below me and had a powerful meditation session. When Dave and Pedro returned, victorious and smiling, it was wonderul! What a high! To descend we kinda skied down the scree, not Dave’s (with his long legs and bad knees) favorite activity, but I liked it and Pedro was like Speedy Gonzales. Every little bit we descended, I felt better. Phew, high altitude can work the body!!!! It was great to return home to our hostel to hang with our guide, Pedro, and his family.

pedro family

Dave and I had a hard time walking for a few days, but will always remember that adventure. We had a great trip back to Uyuni with our wonderful guides, Luis and our cook, Eufronia (who was about 3 ft tall). We encouraged them to eat with us and made a point to make these sweet Bolivians our friends. It is really hard to connect with Bolivians we have found, so this was really special.

all of us

(note the height differential)

South America!!!

I’ve got a lot of ground to cover for the past month, so I’ll try to keep it different/interesting/note worthy.

Pics of Santiago, Chile are here:
Pics of the Lake District are here:
Pics of Buenos Aires are here:
Pics of Northern Argentina are here:

Chile and Crossing the Andes to Argentina

After 20 hours of traveling and 4 countries to pass through, we arrived in the Santiago Airport at 2am to find out that Americans are charged a “Reciprocity Tax” of $131 each, just for entering the country. Apparently, that’s what we charge Chileans to enter the US, so we just had to bend over and take it up the credit card. Ouch. We were unbelievably jet-lagged so we crossed the street from the Airport to the Holiday Inn, where we had reservations with my Dad and Susan the next evening, and begged them to let us have our room early. They wouldn’t give it to us, but said we could sleep on the couches in the lobby. It was a bit awkward, but we crashed on their comfy couches and around 6am were let into our rooms for a real bit of rest (probably out of sympathy for looking so pathetic). It was such a treat to final meet up with my parents, get my goody package of clothes, art supplies and cliff bars that they so generously collected and brought half way down the world. We had a fairly uneventful but interesting day exploring Santiago and trying to adjust to the new time (the sun now set after 9pm). If you ever get the chance to go to Santiago…don’t. It’s ugly and Chile has much more attractive places to go.

Santiago

We got some rest and the next day flew to Puerto Monte, a 2 hour flight South, where we the sun sets even later, the lakes are plentiful and beautiful and the mountains are spectacular. Flying along the Andes was incredibly beautiful too. We got a rental car and drove to Puerto Varas, a town much like Tahoe, except there’s a huge snow covered volcano in the background. Apparently January and February is big travel time for Argentines because it’s their summer…so the crowds were plentiful and the traffic busy. In the area we got to do a few adventurous activities: a challenging but rewarding hike along the base of the volcano and white water rafting down class 3 rapids along a river nearby. A trend was set early on for us to have low lows and high highs that fluctuated frequently. For example, on the hike it was incredibly hard to find since there are no signs for trails and the Chilean accent is SO hard to understand (this was a bit depressing at first because we could barely understand people…go figure, Chile is surrounded by the Andes to the East, the Atlantic Ocean to the West, desert to the North and Antarctica to the South…so they speak a very different Spanish). Once we were on the trail it provide gorgeous views and we had this amazing bit of nature all to ourselves. Then, we are bombarded by horse flies, the last of their season (apparently there are hoards of them in January and we go the tail end). So as we forced to enjoy the incredible mountain and lake views constantly swatting at the largest and most annoying flies I have every encountered. So these intense frustrating bits allow for high contrast when they are removed and we are left with amazing views, great company, a comfortable hotel, fun activities and so on.

Puerto Varas

White water rafter was really special, and it was a blast to do it all together, especially since it was Susan’s first time. It was the perfect amount of rigor, fear of rapids, calm swimming in cool water on a hot day, and being able to soak up the pretty landscape.

rafting

That night I probably wouldn’t have appreciated my hotel room so much if I hadn’t had to sit in 2 hours of traffic for what should have been a 30 min card ride. Thus the contrast I’m talking about. Our last morning we woke up a little earlier and got on a tour bus to start what would be our most interesting, trying, beautiful, and exhausting travel day of the trip: crossing the Andes by 4 buses and 3 boats. The journey itself took 14 hours to travel from our hotel in Puerto Varas, Chile to Bariloche, Argentina. It was full of some of the best views on our entire trip and the most crowded and obnoxious traveling with way too many tourists. The frequency of highs to lows and back to highs on this day felt like something you could read of a Richter scale.

Highs include: Beautiful cascading waterfalls, many spectacular views of the snow capped Andes complete with glaciers, having a tasty lunch outside, enjoying each other’s company for the day.

Crossing the Andes

Lows include: The bilingual and loquacious tour guide on the first half who wouldn’t shut up, way too many people so that every bus and boat ride we had to jockey for seats, dealing with the idiosyncrasies of two countries and a boarder crossing, watching tourists feed the seagulls crackers and avoid being pooped on, and it just being such a long day.
crowded boat

 

It was really interesting to see that tourists in South America are pretty much just like tourists every where else. Much of Argentina and Chile feels just like the US, only speaking Spanish. We ended the long day in Bariloche, the pinnacle city of the lake district of Argentina. Even though we didn’t arrive until 10:30pm we were just in time for dinner. The schedule in the summer, down here, is quite difficult to get used to. We didn’t start eating dinner until after 10pm or 11pm each night. I was really looking forward to the late sunsets of the south, but I actually found it really hard to get used to. It was strange to wake up late, dilly dally for the morning and then start a long hike in the afternoon, and many hours later the sun is still beating over our heads. I thought I was prepared for the sun after Central America, but I was still getting sun burned down here. He had two really nice days to spend in the Lake District. One was taking a ferry to both a unique forest of “cinnamon trees” and then to a national park on an island, where we got off the beaten track and walked around for half the day. We found a lovely beach with a chilly lake where we heated up on the rocks and quickly cooled off by jumping into the brisk water.

Argentina is known for its grass fed cows and succulent steaks, and we sure tested as many restaurants as we could to see if this was true. One of the hardest things about constantly changing countries is that the names of the food and dishes are different. We keep having to relearn what we want to order. It’s actually quite fun, when feeling adventurous, to just pick something out and see what shows up on your plate. More often than not it’s delicious.

The next day, after having lunch in too popular down town area, we took a bus to the local mountain, Cerro Otto, and then a gondola to the top. We had perfect weather and impressive views.

 

 

Cerro Otto
After walking around the top and enjoying the views, my dad and Susan took the gondola back and Erin and I walked home. It was 2 and a half hot hours in the exposed sun, and again, I would have never believed it was 7:30pm when we got home and the sun still was high in the sky and hot on my skin.

Buenos Aires

For our last leg of the journey together we took a flight to Buenos Aires. We had a driver pick us up at the airport and waiting on the steps of our luxury apartment was Mr. Dan T, my friend from San Francisco. We had planned to meet up on BA, but it was a pleasant surprise to start Day 1 with him! That day all of us explored the famous cemetery, walking distance from our place in the Recoleta district.

 

 

 

Cemetary

Being walking distance in BA is a true privilege. The city is enormous…when landing on our flight there all I could see in every direction was concrete. 16 million people live there. In our 4 days of exploration we only tapped a small percentage of the more popular neighborhoods. We shopped, had nice food, saw a tango show, shopped, explored funky districts, and shopped. I have to say, BA wasn’t my favorite, of course I didn’t have the insiders perspective, but on this trip Erin and I have really taken a liking to smaller and quaint towns. I did enjoy the colorful neighborhood of the trendy La Boca.

 

Boca

 

On our last day with my Dad and Susan we said our goodbyes, transferred into a hostel (which wasn’t easy) and went to a futbol match (we couldn’t get seats in the crazy and noisy section but it sure was fun). While traveling together for the past 10 days the luxury we had, when compared to what we were used to, almost felt excessive…but we sure missed it when it was gone!

tango

 

 

 

Our last day in BA, before taking an over night bus to Cordoba, we all spent separately. Erin spent the afternoon in the botanical gardens and I went across the street to zoo. I was shocked by what I saw: everyone feeds the animals, a chimp panhandling for peanuts, sad monkeys pressed against the cage, a mother mandrill monkey carrying around it’s dead baby, a hippo mashing it’s teeth close up so I got a good look, and lastly a group of parrots all sitting on a pedestal pecking at a giant antelope leg that was given to them to eat. Now where are the pictures of all of this you ask? Sadly, our camera broke that day. I cried on the inside.

Cordoba, La Cumbre and Yaca Yura

Dan, Erin and reconvened and took the overnight bus, “cama class” – which is the more comfortable mode of traveling, and we were pretty surprised by how comfy it was (aside from being forced to watch Robbie Williams live in Berlin.

 

bus

 

We arrived early the next morning, walked up to the ticket counter and asked for 3 tickets to the cutest and smallest town up north. We ended up 3 hours later in the town of La Cumbre. We lucked out. It was exactly what we needed, small, quaint, tourist friendly and authentically Argentine town hugging the Western Sierras in a dry and beautiful atmosphere. We found a lovely hostel run by a friendly family, complete with thousands of antiques and their own home brewed beer (DanT was happy). We took 2 days to really soak up the relaxing and beautiful atmosphere before heading to an organic farm to volunteer at. We spent one day on a serious 20km mountain bike ride where we rode to the top of a peek for a sweet look out and ended up paragliding with condors!

 

Paragliding

 

After the flight we hopped back on our bikes. A stinging insect flew into my mouth and stung my tongue and lip. Ouch. We rode down a steep 3 mile section to a beautiful stream where we cooled off. By this time my lip was a little swollen.

 

fat lip

 

It was much harder to bike back, but it was rewarding and so much fun. By the end of the day my butt was so sore.

mountain bike

 

The next day we took a bus 40km north where we were let off on the side of the road, at km 103. It was such a strange experience to just be standing on the side of the road with our packs in the middle of the desert. We hiked in 3km to a small “farm” (and you’ll see why I’m using quotes in a minute). We found these guys on the WWOOF site (willing workers on organic farms). We thought doing some gardening and eating organic food in nature would be pretty special. We popped out of the sandy and cactus strewn path on an irrigated bit of land with a large overgrown garden. We were welcomed in and had a delicious lunch. The people we extremely friendly and we were pretty excited to be there. We found out pretty quickly that some thing was off. That night we went to their special yurt and did awkward chanting and circle dancing till midnight. The next morning, after a rough night’s sleep because of the stagnant air and mosquitoes, we did more circle dancing and singing before our 4 hours of labor a day. We came expecting to work, but we spent more time participating in the airy fairy hippy culture than anything else. The food started to run out and the place was in shambles. We learned that they just live off the land and the money that comes in from visitors. The farm is actually a bit of unkempt garden that sorely needed help. The irrigation of the place was stagnant, thus fostering mosquitoes. The place itself was truly beautiful, and the people who both lived there and visited were really a lot of fun to hang with. It just wasn’t a fit.

 

Yaca Yura

 

We decided to leave early, no surprise there, but had one more day of work before a day of rest (and we were psyched to enjoy the nature and walk to the neighboring village). Erin and I were able to do our work outside watering the garden. I must have stepped in a nest of biting ants, because all of a sudden my foot was covered in them and shortly after felt like it was on fire. Shortly after my foot started to swell and I felt really itchy. Really itchy. I took a shower and when I got out and looked in the mirror my face was swollen and I was a bit wheezy. It was kind of scary actually. I loaded up on Benedryl and took a nap. I felt much better afterwards but my foot was swollen for days. Our last day at the farm, named Yaca Yuri which is Quetchua for Clear Water, was a favorite. We left. We walked with our British friend, Dave, who led us 3 hours through the desert until we arrived to the super duper authentically hippy town of San Marco Sierra. We had a great lunch after jumping in the river to cool off. Afterwards we walked to the center of town, where I saw something totally new: we went to an ice cream shop and British Dave ordered a triple scoop cone. Everyone else ordered ice cream and by the time we finished ordering British Dave finished his and ordered another three scoop cone. We walked to the square a block a way and in 3 minutes he got up for another cone. We basked in the sun waiting for a shuttle to take us to the local river to go swimming. British Dave decided to just go back to the farm, but on his way out he got another 3 scoop ice cream cone! Too bad he left cause we went to one of the prettiest rivers I have ever been too. The water temperature was perfect, and there were Argentine hippies lounging in rocks. We had the afternoon to lounge and relax before getting picked up and taken back to the farm.

 

3 Piletes

 

Walking the last 3km in the moon light was really nice. The desert has been a magical place for us, and when it’s just us in the quiet of the night it feels extra special. Our last morning we had yet another hippy circle dance and laborious chanting session before we said goodbye. A massive storm was brewing and we missed our opportunity to avoid it because we spent the morning singing and frolicking to the tune of some Hindu song. So Dan, Erin and I hid in our room will the sky opened up and dumped. We decided we couldn’t hide all morning so we got our raincoats out and changed into our bathing suits to hike back to the highway. A scorpion crawled out of Erin’s bag, and we joked that with my insect luck I should have been stung. Luckily I wasn’t. We hiked in flip flops and not much more, with our packs wrapped in plastic bags, through the torrents of flash floods that crossed through the desert. It was an incredible experience. Soggy and excited to be back on the road we took a bus south to Cordoba before taking a long 13 hour overnight bus north to the colonial town of Salta.

 

Northern Argentina

We arrived in a very damp and dreary Salta the next day. The storms covered all of Northern Argentina, leaving floods in many areas. We found a fantastic hostel with an eccentric owner hyper on mate (a tea with a stimulant like caffeine). Erin set us up on a wonderful day trip where we were picked up by a local, Francisco, who took us 30km out of the city to ride mountain bikes for the day. The area was stunning. We followed the train tracks of the now closed town “train to the clouds,” stopped at waterfalls, and walked over precarious bridges, as well as chased goats on our bikes.

 

bridge

 

 

Since the ride was a slow and steady up hill we thoroughly enjoyed the 10km down hill on the way back. We lounged in the park with Francisco and had snacks before returning home and looking for the famous coca leaves (used to make cocaine) of Bolivia. The leaves are very popular to make tea and chew on to prevent altitude sickness, prevent hunger, and to be an all around stimulant. We were remarking how the three of were traveling really well together. For being three people, Dan fit in really well without feeling too much like a third wheel. Erin and I were interested in doing different types of adventure ecotourism for the following days so we decided to split up for 2 days (first time apart!). She went on a solo tour of the mountains in the area with a guide (she’ll post about that soon), and Dan and I decided to do a sight-seeing/hiking tour of the farther north where there is more desert, mountains and the famous salt flats. We spent an exhausting afternoon searching for a 2 day private trip to take us where we wanted. We settled on a company who picked us up the next day at 7am, while Erin slept in to leave at 10am for her trip. Dan and I learned pretty quickly that the woman who sold us the trip communicated nothing about we were specifically looking for to the guide. We really wanted to do lots of trekking and the guide was prepared to take us to all the tourist spots. However, we made the best of it and saw some incredible places. Our highlight was walking through the banded and colorful mountains of Purmamarca, the blaring and stark white salt flats and the ride home to Purmamarca, where Dan and I booked a hostel, through an incredible canyon of cactus and eroded dirt and rocks.

 

purmamarca

purmamarca

(courtesy of Erin with our new camera from the bus on her way up north to meet me)

 

We had a blast speaking only in Spanish with the guide. All the amazing pics of the adventure are on Dan’s camera, so you’ll have to wait till he posts his pictures to see them. We realized we over paid for the trip so we actually abandoned our own private tour. We told the guide thanks for a great day but we’re not interested in Day 2. So we were left in the tiny and dusty village of Purmamarca. That night I saw the most impressive lightning storm of my life. Dan and I sat under a shallow awning in our raincoats watching the storm only 200 meters away blasting away at the mountain. We even saw a cactus catch on fire. The following day the bus to our destination north was sold out so we pittered around town in the drizzle for the morning before going our separate ways. Dan took the afternoon bus to eventually fly out of Buenos Aires, and I took the local bus 2 hours north to the last noteworthy northern town in Argentina, Humahuaca.

 

I had so much fun exploring and being by myself, making friends with the hostel owners, drawing the landscape, watching an impressive sunset over the white desert mountain, and eating diner alone while reading my book. I tried food I had never heard of. By the way, Llama meat is delicious. Northern Argentina’s food and traditions start to blend amount Bolivia’s. Buenos Aires is almost completely of European decent, but the north is more indigenous people. I am drawn closer to them and have been looking forward to see what Bolivia is like. Having the day alone had me be able to slow down and appreciate all that has been going on, and I really relished my personal space as well as missed Erin at the same time. The next morning we met at the bus station and hot tailed it to the Bolivian Border (watching ‘Forest Gump’ in Spanish). The ride to the border was pretty impressive too.

 

northern argentina

You made it! We’re currently in Bolivia. That blog will come soon.

Wrapping up Central America

GRANADA

We set out from Camoapa full of sorrow and excitement.  We were leaving a rich community who captured our hearts and set sail for new places to deepen our immersion.  We’ve been remarking how ridiculous it is to have back to back travel experiences full of such luscious people and scenery, each with enough memories to last a life time.  We got off our bus at a busy town full of chaos and taxis, whose name I love: Tipitapa.  We jumped in a cab to head to Granada, a hot spot for tourists in Nicaragua, because we wanted the amenities and beauty after feeling deprived for 5 weeks.  Images of salads and American breakfasts danced in our heads, and our bellies were growling.  The cab ride is worth noting because it was a perfect example of a complete Nicaraguan taxi experience:  We bargain the price for the 45 min cab ride, the ride only takes 30 because he drives like a freakin maniac – at one point he passes four cars at once but finds that a rotunda was up ahead and is unable to merge back and the oncoming car is forced to the side of the road (Erin left marks on my arm for holding me so tight), he then gets some lame ticket from a traffic cop for no apparent reason after pulling out of the gas station (we visited two gas stations to fill up on the way – don’t ask, I don’t know why), he cries after getting the ticket and Erin and I feel horrible for him, he then drops us off at our hotel and quotes us for double on what we agreed on.  This was the first time in my life I’ve been able to get angry, raise my voice, and argue in another language (not well, but well enough).  We gave him some sympathy money for the ticket.  I’m very proud of the way Erin and I have been handling difficult situations with integrity.  After stepping out of the car we realize we’re in an entirely different town, and it’s beautiful!  Granada looks more Colonial and European, with tall colorful walls and many old and worn out churches.

granada church

We walked into The Bearded Monkey, a back packers hang out and hostel, where only English and other European languages can be heard.  We were a bit overwhelmed by the beauty, the abundance of computers with high-speed internet, a room for TV and free movie screenings, and a beautiful courtyard.  Our room was fairly disappointing, but we were able to upgrade to a beautiful suite where we settled in for 4 nights and reveled in our newfound amenities.  The perks of a beautiful and wealthy city, compared to other Nica cities, came with cleanliness and attention to detail unlike any where we’ve been in a while.  We still didn’t have a hot shower, but the weather was so hot the cold water was welcomed.  We went for a long walk that led us to the outskirts of the town, and it was here where we saw the real juxtaposition of wealth and poverty that this tourism feeds.

Central Park

We have been so sensitive to the contrasts between everything: US vs Central America, the differences of people, rich and poor, city and town, oceans and mountains, etc.  It was hard to see the people down and out living so close to such wealth.  It felt different than Camoapa because everything felt more balanced and equal there.  Nonetheless the walk was beautiful and I couldn’t get over the beauty of the architecture, tall, stark and colorful walls jutting up between narrow streets to secretly hold amazing courtyards inside, where one can catch a glimpse through an open door when walking past.  A highlight for me was climbing an old church tower to watch the sunset over the nearby volcano and ringing the bells (I’m not sure if I was allowed, but hey, it was there so I had to do it!)

One of the richest experiences we had in Granada was studying Spanish with two amazing teachers for only 3 days.  They were both passionate about language, spoke English, and had so much to teach us.  They were the best teachers we had, and we were lucky to have em.  Before we headed off to Managua, the capitol, I bought “Historia de Nicaragua para niños y niñas” which was perfect for me to read in Spanish at my level.  So, I’ve set out with our dictionary, thank you Jamie, to improve my reading skills.  We took the bus to Managua and then a cab to hop a puddle jumper to the Corn Islands, two extremely small and beautiful islands off the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua.

 The Corn Islands

 view from plane

Refueled with nutrients, sleep and luxuries we were prepared for a rustic life style for the next week, before heading off to South America to meet my father and step-mom.  We arrived on the bigger of the islands and took a ponga, little motor boat, to the small island.  The sea was a bit angry that day, and the boat ride (completely packed with people and luggage) was rough and exhilarating.  The swells went well over the boat, and we dipped, bobbed, and flew through the water repeatedly experiencing my stomach in my throat.  It was a blast, and we managed to not get sea sick.  Once at the small island we were led across to the other side, where there were 3 groups of small cabañas.  There are no cars on this island, so it was a 20 minute walk with our gear to our new home for 5 nights.  We ended up in a wonderful Nicaraguan owned spot called Carlitos.  We got a tiny hut, right on the beach, without a bathroom.  There’s a constant wind on the west side of the island where we were staying, so bugs weren’t much of a problem.  The rain, however, was a different story.  Our first night blew a gusty storm, although brief, where the rain came through the walls and ceiling.  We woke up to drizzle in our bed, water dripping off the light bulb, and wet baggage.  Fortunately it passed fairly quickly.  We were welcomed the next day with glorious sunshine, perfect weather, beautiful blue and clear water, and coconut trees every where.  We were in island heaven. 

 cabana

The island was small enough to not have motorized vehicles but big enough to merit wonderous explorations.  One afternoon we followed the beach north and stumbled upon three beautiful sets of cabañas.  We were expecting bad food, but because these places were owned by an American, a Frenchman and an Italian, we ended up with delicious food.  We made reservations for each of our remaining nights and headed back through the jungle to discover the different trails that the locals have made.  Our lunches were full of fresh fish and shrimp.  We managed just fine.  The full moon timed quite nicely with our arrival and there’s nothing quite like long walks on the beach by moon light.  There is something so peaceful about islands, and the people are so relaxed.  We were in a great place to read, study Spanish, draw and just hang out.  We managed to stay fairly active too.  We decided on our second day to watch the sunset on the east side and stay for dinner at the Cuban restaurant.  The food was delicious, but the drinks were terrible.  After a misunderstanding the waitress brought two more of the same horrible drinks, which we finished out of politeness.  When we got the bill our jaws dropped.  The owner used imported Bacardi rum instead of the local Fleur de Caña rum (which is 5 times the price).  We were pissed and the owner was irresponsible and told us the mistake would come out of the waitress’s salary (who was supporting two little girls on her own).  Again, I feel proud of our handling the situation.  We told the owner what we though, said our piece to the waitress and left her with a huge tip to cover half the mistake.  Our blood boiled about the expense of the meal for a few days, but we got over it.  Lesson learned…check prices first.  At least coconuts are free here…they’re all over the island!

 coco drink

One afternoon, while swimming, a scissor bird snatched a fish, too large for it to properly hold onto, out of the water and struggled with it in the air for about 15 seconds.  Finally, unable to hold on any longer, it dropped it from about 40 feet in the air.  Our Dutch neighbor, and new friend, Jop, was nearby and caught the wounded fish.  That night was the first bird-caught dinner I had ever seen!  We walked every where, snorkeled as much as we could and met a local who took us out on a fishing trip.  His name is Dennis, and it’s worth mentioning him because he’s different than most of the locals we met.  The Corn Islands are a strange mix of black and Hispanic.  Most people speak Creole, Spanish and some English.  Dennis was the only local we met, who made a point of interacting with the tourists.  He was capitalizing on fresh people arriving every day who he could guide, get kickbacks from bringing them to cabañas, and being entrepreneurial.  He was a really fun guy, but a bit flakey.  Even though our relationship was one built around money we enjoyed what he showed us and what he had to say.  We got the sense that most of the locals aren’t interested, and perhaps a bit turned off by the amount of tourism.  I don’t blame them.  Every day they see a new flux of white people with money ready to milk their island for all that its worth.  If there’s one consistent truth every where we’ve been, it’s white people have come far from their homelands and have plumaged, extorted and taken advantage of the people and land.  We constantly find ourselves feeling caught between being white people here to experience and enjoy their culture but also are here as conscientious and compassionate people wanting to leave a positive experience for everyone.  The locals weren’t mean, they just weren’t the warm and gawking Camoapans we were used to.  Anyways, back to Dennis.  We were taken out on a mini fishing expedition with our new Dutch friend, Jop, and Dennis’s friend, Peter, who operated the boat.  It was a rough day, and we rode out pretty far to find a good fishing spot.  It was a blast.  Instead of fishing rods we had a spool of line with a piece of metal rebar and two hooks tied to the end.  When done correctly, you can feel for the fish biting the bait, yang the line, and within 30 seconds you have a fish.  In 10 minutes, peter had caught over 6 fish.  It was incredible. 

fishing trip

Erin and I only caught one each, but it sure was satisfying and Peter gave us all the fish…so at the end we had an enormous bucket of fish.  We all felt a bit queasy bobbing and rocking in the boat, and to our surprise Dennis was the one who got sick…and boy did he get sick.  The better part of the fishing expedition he was bent over the boat sharing his lunch with the fish.  When we arrived back home, we dropped Jop off with the fish (which he cleaned), and we were brought, by boat, to the other side of the island for a night dive with the local dive shop.  The ride was extremely thrilling, since we went around the south side, full of large swells.  The trip felt a bit rushed because we had to make the next activity.  I remember a time in my life, not long ago, where every thing I did was packed solid with no breathing room before the next activity.  Having no cell phone and time to relax is truly opening my eyes to a different life style I have been sorely needing.

 Relaxing 

We suited up for our dive and headed out into the inky darkness of early nightfall to find our dive site.  Just as the sky became truly too dark to see we were in the water with flash lights and all of our gear.  We submerged into an entirely different world, full of murky silhouettes of coral reefs and a universe of strange creatures whose eyes reflected the light from our flashlights.  We saw tons of lobsters and hundreds of shrimp.  It was such a surreal experience to awkwardly swim and float in the darkness with tons of tiny fish swarming the light and watching it glint off of tiny organisms floating nearby.  It was neat to see a sleeping parrotfish who protects itself with a bubble of mucous over it’s head when it sleeps.  At the very end of the dive Erin found an octopus.  It was amazing.  It kept changing colors from red and browns to yellow and greens.  What a cool animal.  The next morning we went on another diver, and this one was completely different.  The weather was good enough to head out to a hot spot for wildlife and we saw over 14 rays and 7 nurse sharks.  It was an action packed dive and it was really thrilling to finally see a shark for the first time in the wild.
 

Let’s go back to the food, shall we? 

  

After our night dive we were late for our appointment at the French place.  The locals told us not to go in the dark, as it’s easy to get lost, but we had our dinky flashlights and we were too excited for good food to miss out.  So braved the jungle at night, got a little lost after asking a local for directions who told us to just go straight only to find a dead end 30 feet later.  We eventually ended up on the beach on the west side and walked north till we found heaven in the form of crab soup, fish and sauce, and a large welcoming platter of vegetables.  We received a rude welcome from four aggressively barking dogs which scared the bejesus out of Erin.  It was an unfortunate ending to a stressful walk through the woods, where we bickered the whole way.  After dinner we had a wonderful and long walk home through the jungle to get to the familiar east side where we then took another more familiar trail back to our home on the west side of the island.  Rich food in our bellies calmed us down a bit, and stroll home was wonderfully romantic.  The following night we arrived at the north side of the island for an adventurous snorkel outing, followed by coconuts for the sunset followed by a heavy but yummy Italian meal (who had an amazing dog).

  

The following morning we packed up and set out on calmer seas for a night and a day on the Big Corn Island.  We arrived at a place that Erin had visited 2 years ago, which at this point was a bit run down.  However, it was right on the water and they had a marine park which we explored with mask, snorkel and fins.  We really noticed the impact of having a road run around the island as we now had to deal with cars.  It made us really appreciate how calm the absence of motorized vehicles is.  In fact, on the small island some of the people who have never left the island have never even seen cars.  We saw a little boy on the beach with a toy boat driving it around the sand, just like little boys drive their toys cars where we’re from.  The little island also had speed bumps for bicycles, which I tripped over in the dark, but apparently it’s needed.  Again, it’s fun to point out the contrasts.  Back to the big island.

 crab

Erin here, checking in.  Dave just said he doesn’t like my tea, and I am happy because I can have the rest.  I love it when Dave doesn’t like something, then I can have all of it.  Like olives.  It’s easier to share when I can just not share. 

 beach time

Anyway, yes, the big island was a luscious swirl of adventure and tranquility.  Dave and I have become master snorkelers, realizing a long lived dream of mine.  Not only did we adventure far out into a rough ocean by ourselves, but we did it with style.  We found tiny squid swimming funnily and bright nudibranch things.  We can ID most animals and even corals we see and can tell if they are sick or damaged.  We dive deep and swim strong.  I find myself incredibly attracted to the underwater Dave…so graceful, powerful and courageous.  When I get scared he holds me and we swim together.  He makes me feel safe.  Squishy yummy give me somey.  The next day we swam a mile out into the ocean with an old, in-shape, pirate descendant named Dorsey as our guide.  It was the perfect, calm and sunny day and our destination was a shipwreck.  It was amazing and eerie to swim around this huge, broken down ship.  After being taught and teaching others to look and not touch it was shocking and pretty funny to have Dorsey smack a shark’s tail to get him to swim.  Those Nicas are so hands-on with their nature!  We got to see lots of endangered animals up close….

 horsey

Another highlight was connecting with the locals and coconut bread.  Man, I love that hot out of the oven, fresh from the fruit yumminess.  Dave and I ended up having a wonderful morning kicking it with an island family who ran the ice cream and breakfast shop.  It was wonderful to finally connect with these people who I knew were hecka cool, but hard to access.  After that morning it was time to leave.  We got one last fresh caught fish lunch to go and hopped a tiny airplane back to Managua to spend our last night in Central America.

 

This blog is coming to you from Southern Chile in the town of Puerto Varas.  We’re with Dave’s dad, Joel, and his step-mom, Susan.  We’ll be in touch soon!