Photos – Guatemala

December 23, 2009

Antigua & Pacaya, Guatemala

December 23, 2009

Flying business class is not the typical backpacker choice of transportation, and I feel slightly fraudulent for arriving into Guatemala in the front seat of a TACA flight from Nicaragua.  However, for some reason a business class fare was cheaper than economy, and saved me two days of sitting on a bus so I jumped at the chance to travel in a bit of luxury.

I had been advised by everybody to avoid Guatemala City as being a big dangerous dirty cesspool of a city so hopped straight onto a shuttle to Antigua.  Described as being the ´Scandinavia´ of Central America it was indeed a charming village with cobbled streets, pastel-toned buildings and not a hint of dirt, poverty or authenticity.  Dare I describe it as slightly boring?

What saved Antigua in my opinion was the incredible people which I met.  I was staying at a hostel called the Black Cat which was a magnet for backpackers in the town.  A rowdy downstairs bar ensured solo travellers squeezed in elbow-to-elbow with others in a similar situation, and conversation came easily over whether we preferred chicken beer or goat beer, and if it was actually possible to finish one of the HUGE burritos or plates of nachos drowned in guacamole and described in the menu as ´big as your head´

The following morning I was keen to embark upon a walking tour of the town but made the schoolgirl error of spending a couple of hours on the internet before checking the tour departure times and missed the tour.  Wandering around wondering what to do, I came upon a Guatemalan cooking school and decided to enrol in an afternoon class.  I learned how to cook a traditional Guatemalan stew made out of chargrilled vegetables, rolled and fried tacos, and a dessert made out of Chayote (kind of like a green squash) with cinnamon and sugar – surprisingly delicious.  I have the recipes and so promise to make them at some point for anybody interested in dinner!

One of the main attractions close to Antigua is the active Pacaya volcano and despite dire warnings to the safety or wisdom of getting so close to an active volcano, pretty much every traveller to Antigua attempts the climb at some point.  I had met a crowd who were doing the climb on the Saturday afternoon and so joined the group for the trip out.

There was a two hour journey out to the volcano in atrocious traffic, with all of the incoming and outgoing traffic from nearby Guatemala City seeming to converging upon one small village, creating a huge snarl-up and necessitating traffic police to direct juggernaut trucks and chicken buses through local traffic including for a Quinceano celebration (a 15th birthday or coming of age party).

When we finally arrived at the base of the volcano we were confronted with hundreds of other gringos waiting to climb and met by our adolescent girl guide who climbs the volcano twice a day, seven days a week.  Our group was called ´the champions´(necessary for our guide to be able to marshal us together amidst the crowds) and consisted of 10 backpackers and two older swiss people who appeared to be in their 60´s.

It became swiftly clear that the older people were not keeping up with us young folk on the two-hour steep hike on loose volcanic rock, and I hate to say it but none of us showed much patience with the constant stopping to let them catch up- when stationary, it grew swiftly chilly.  The hike grew steeper towards the top, and calves started to burn – followed by the burning of feet as a red glow appeared in the air and fiery embers could be glimpsed in the cracks of the rocks below your feet.

The closer you got to the lava flow, the more edgy I felt.  The rock was so newly formed it was literally cracking under the pressure from hundreds of feet, and to get up to the main lava flow it necessitated climbing over precarious gaps, below which magma flowed at a temperature of at least 700 °C.

The other tourists were crowded around the edge of a huge cauldron of magma, poking sticks and toasting marshmallows, the blazing red glow of the lava illuminating their faces and glowing so brightly it almost hurt to look directly at it.  The heat was so intense it was like standing next to a furnace and I was seriously worried about the US$4 pair of shoes I had bought in the local market spontaneously combusting.  I had bought marshmallows to toast but had serious doubts about elbowing my way into the jostling crowd, who regardless of the fact that they were standing on the edge of a pit of fiery doom, wanted to get still closer.

Tiring of the edge-of-the-seat adrenalin jolt threatening to stop my heart, I retreated to a safer distance, just in time to witness a stick-poking thrill-seeker slip and seemingly almost fall in.  I am not sure if there would be another country on earth foolhardy enough to let crowds flock to such an attraction- attempts to research the safety record of this endeavour reveal only the past statistics of armed robbery on the mountain, prevalent before the formation of the armed guardabosces who accompany groups.

Is it ´safe?´possibly not.  Is it a once in a lifetime chance to burst the bubble-wrap other government authorities seek to wrap their citizens in, thus draining some of the colour and splendour from the world? Most definitely yes!

Photos – Costa Rica

December 18, 2009

500 miles!

December 18, 2009

I have finally finished up in the jungle and am now onto the backpacking portion of my travels – more about that in the next post however….

My goal for the last 10 weeks of the work was to make it to walking 500 miles.  I only walked 200 in the first 10 weeks, so it was a bit of a stretch to do 300 in the second 10.  Being staff however meant there was a lot more survey walking to do, whereas the ending of the night walks halfway through phase took away a lot of the opportunity to do the 9 mile walks in the middle of the night.

You will all be excited to know that I made it to the 500 mile mark (800 kilometres!) scraping in at 501.75 miles.  I am really glad that I achieved my goal.  To put it in perspective I have walked the driving distance of Whangarei – Wellington in New Zealand, just under the driving distance of London to Geneva in Europe, just under the distance of Sydney to Melbourne in Australia, or 19 marathons – almost 1 marathon a week.  I am feeling pretty proud of myself there!

I had a disasterous incident a couple of weeks ago where I had a massive allergic reaction to *something* I ate for lunch and swelled up with hugely itchy hives all over my body.  It got progressively worse until I was covered, and then woke up the next morning with my eyes all swollen and not feeling great at all.  I headed into San Jose to the hospital where I was given steroids and anti-histamines, but the itching and swelling came and went for around 4 days until I was finally feeling better.  I have not had a reaction like that before, and am none the wiser as to what it was so cannot avoid eatin whateve it was!  I suspect pehaps the MSG in the soy sauce with lunch….. but have eaten it before with no problems so ??

In exciting wildlife news, I FINALLY saw a boat-billed Heron! I was super excited about it as I´ve been wanting to see one for 6 months.  I´d signed up for one final Cano Harold survey in the hopes of spotting the elusive bird, but after almost 4 hours we were close to finishing the survey and had not seen one.  I´d given up, when Rich paddled us onto a small side branch of the canal and deep in a tree, there he was!  We have also spotted a sloth right on base (Jo and I got so excited that he got frightened and ´ran´away deeper into the foliage, but everyone still got to have a good look).  I saw a white-lipped peccary (wild-boar type pig) on the last morning census, he was a tame one that lives at Turtle Beach Lodge.  Surprisingly very cute.

I am definitely going to miss the people from Cano Palma, but am not feeling too sad to be leaving, probably because I am now onto the next adventure.  I have had a fantastic 6 months in Costa Rica, learned a lot, and seen some amazing things.  Onwards and upwards however, here I come Central America!

4 weeks to go….

November 17, 2009

Time is still FLYING along here and I cannot believe it has been 17 days already since last post.  Less than 4 weeks to go which is also absolutely incredible.  Luckily I am heading off to do some great travel, and so I am not feeling too sad about leaving Costa Rica.  (yet.)

Night walks have now stopped, as the green turtle season is over.  We are still getting either a nest or a half-moon on the beach every few days, but there is definitely no need to walk every night in the faint hopes of seeing a turtle.  Even Tortuguero beach is very quiet, with a peak in the season of literally thousands of tracks on the beach, to around 25 tracks on Sunday on a 15-mile stretch.  I am missing the night walks however, we do far less walking and in fact it seems like far less of every survey, when we are not going out every night.  There is a lot of teaching and community work going on, and of course the normal Jaguar, Bird and Morning Census surveys are still ongoing.

I went out on a bird survey on Cano Harold a couple of weeks ago, which is my first one for the phase.   I have not passed my Patrol Leader test for birds and probably now will not.  I went out to have a look-see and try to spot a boat-billed heron.  We were very unsuccessful though in the boat-billed spotting stakes, and in fact the survey reminded me that birds are NOT my favourite species around here.  I’m getting better at identification but usually only manage to identify ‘it’s a bird of some sort’! as they are flying past.

Another long weekend has passed, fairly uneventfully.  A lot of the volunteers stayed behind, and we went to Turtle Beach Lodge for dinner, and basically had a relaxing weekend.  The new 5-weekers arrived after this, 3 new girls who are all very nice.  Unfortunately for them, apart from the first day they arrived it has been raining almost solidly since then.  It is a very different place around here in the rain.  Of course it is the rainforest so it is to be expected, and the plants and animals of the region are all flourishing.  On the other hand, it is quite depressing to be wet all of the time, and of course we are definitely not stuck indoors, surveys continue rain or shine, so we spend a lot of the time soaked to the skin and then unable to dry any of our wet clothes.  The base is at risk of flooding at the moment as well, it has had to be evacuated the past couple of years when the canal level rises too far and swamps base.  The canal was over the dock yesterday, but has receded by a couple of centimetres today so we’re all hoping that it will keep going down, not up…..

One of the old volunteers returned this week, with some of his own volunteers to do some beach cleaning.  Bill was on my phase in June/July of this year, and returned to Colorado to take up some construction management work.  That unfortunately fell through due to the current economic conditions, but rather than sulk about it he set up his own NGO to do beach cleaning, called Habitat Healers.  It was quite incredible to hear him tell how it had all fallen into place, since coming up with the concept he has had amazing support and sponsorship from a variety of different organisations, from free t-shirts and shorts for the volunteers, to accommodation from local lodges, to architectural drawings for a recycle centre for the local community.  He put out a notice to the local community and university in Colorado, and arrived with around 10 volunteers for the clean including photographers and videographers to record the event.  GVI also helped a LOT with the cleaning as we clean up the local beach on a weekly basis as part of our tasks.

I am currently studying for my boat-driving license, I have not done any practical yet, but am working on the theory side so I can pass the state of Florida exam.  I asked ‘why Florida’ and it is because their local waterways and aquatic wildlife are reasonably similar to the canal systems around here, so their training is quite relevant.  I can’t wait to start actually training on the boat, and it had better happen soon as I only have a few weeks left!  We had a presentation from one of the staff members from the Mexico project who was visiting for a couple of days.  I did not realise that GVI was so large.  They not only have the worldwide volunteer projects, but have a corporate alliance division which organises huge volunteer programmes, for example for 20,000 of Wholefood Markets’ staff members to travel to see how their goods are sourced (what a perk!), and apparently they are running some other VERY large potential volunteer programmes as well.

Mario Rasta, the ex-base manager, came to visit for a couple of days as well (and I’ve noticed a small piece of graffiti on the table saying Jah! since he was here, I suspect the Rasta’s of that one).  He is a botanist and as he lived here for a couple of years, knows an amazing amount about the local flora.  He took us on a walk of the base trails and gave us a super interesting presentation about a variety of different plants.  He covered hallucinogenic plants that the indigenous peoples of here and similar rainforests have managed to discover.  One plant produces a hallucinogen, but one that your brain can naturally metabolise and have no effects.  However, there is another plant which stops your brain doing this, so when combined, boiled, reduced to a paste, dried and ground to a powder, makes you trip out.  It is very intriguing to try and imagine how the native peoples managed to discover this combination of plants and the required process to actually get these effects.

We also saw the Curare plant, which is a poison and best-known for being used on poison-tipped blow darts in the amazon forest.  Other plants are used for cuts, mosquito bites, anxiety, stomach upsets, are anti-parasitic and used by local midwives to cauterise the cut umbilical cord.  There are also some very large trees on base that are a valuable hard wood, and each tree is worth around US$6000 when processed into wood.  Apparently there is a local company which sells so-called ‘sustainable’ furniture to Europe, but is in fact using these giant and ancient trees and is not sustainable at all.  We are surrounded by national park here, but apparently if you are up in the air, you can see forestry works completely surrounding the park, and eating into the parks’ trees wherever possible.

Had a disaster the other evening on the way back from DE’s…. sank the Kinkajou! For those that do not know, the Kinkajou is one of the two canoes here on base and is notoriously unstable.  I have never rated it as being too bad, but now hate the thing! It was ridiculously easy to sink, one rock of the boat to let in a little water, followed by overcompensation to the other side, more water flooded in and down we went.  We had to swim for it to the dock, shrieking and waking up the whole base in the process.  All was well however, no harm done and the boat was rescued and righted to terrify volunteers for many days to come.

This Sunday I FINALLY went on a Jag walk! Jag walk is our survey in Tortuguero National Park, which studies Jaguar predation on Green Turtles along the beach.  it involves walking 15 miles along the beach (taking an average of 8 hours) and carrying a heavier backpack than normal due to the additional water and kit requirements.  I have not done it up until now due to the fact that I arrived here with a broken collarbone.  My shoulder has finally been feeling strong enough so I went for it this week!

The weather was very co-operative and we had an overcast day with a small amount of light rain.  These conditions mean that the walk is MUCH easier than on a scorching hot day and I did the 15 miles without too much difficulty.  Unfortunately I stepped on a rusty nail with 4.5 miles still to walk, but it did not puncture deeply and my foot is doing OK.  I have to be very careful not to get an infection however, as it is so wet here.  We did not see any Jaguars but we saw a LOT of prints on the beach, virtually the entire beach had 1-2 Jaguars who were prancing about and going in and out of the forest.  And yes we do know they were prancing as a lot of tracks had claw marks, which only appear on cat prints when they are running.  We saw 7 dead turtles which are always a gruesome sight – you have to examine them closely and use CSI-like techniques in order to determine time since death, parts eaten, point of attack (usually neck) etc.  Very interesting day however!

A dog followed us from Tortuguero for the entire 15 miles.  When we got to the end a local guide asked us if it was our dog, and then advised us we’d have to take it back to Tort on the boat, due to the fact that Jaguars are eating dogs in the area at the moment.  The park rangers’ dog had been eaten the night before and we have talked to a local farmer who has lost his last FIFTEEN dogs to Jaguar predation.  His latest dog has managed to survive for quite a while, however with turtle season being over, the Jaguars will be looking for meat in other places, more than likely cattle and other dogs in the area…

I am starting to look to the end of my time here in the rainforest, and plan my four weeks of travel once I leave.  I am very excited to be heading to some Mayan Ruins at Tikal and Copan Ruinas, and am also hoping to climb a volcano in Guatemala and do a little diving in Honduras.  Four weeks is not long enough though and I’m sure that I will be wanting to return at some stage…….

Back in Cano Palma

October 31, 2009

Firstly I must apologise for my lack of updating this blog, I cannot believe that I have been back here for over a month already, time is flying in time-honoured jungle fashion, and the volunteers are almost ready to leave for their mid-phase break… 

After leaving nicaragua, I arrived back on base a week before the volunteers in order to meet the other new staff members, and to help out with the turtle walks and preparing the base for the new arrivals.  It was a fairly chilled out week and walking with staff members only was enjoyable as everybody was pretty experienced and you could relax and enjoy the walk while watching out for turtles.  One night we sat with a turtle for four hours while she dug body pit after body pit, finally deciding to go back to sea at 3am without laying any eggs whatsoever.

The day of the volunteers arriving came around quickly, and the newer members of staff were a little nervous at the thought of being in charge of the fresh-faced new arrivals, although also excited to be sharing our slice of jungle paradise with a new bunch of eco-warriors.  The boat pulled into the dock, with 15 newbies on board, and who knows what they thought of the welcoming line of staff members, all nearly identically dressed in our matching staff shirts.

The first week is training week for the volunteers, who are hearing presentations, studying or sitting tests virtually from dawn to dusk for the entire week, whilst the staff members are cooking all of the meals, doing all of the cleaning and conducting all of the turtle surveys.  I did not have an appreciation of how hard they were working during my own training week (probably due to how hard I was also working that week!) but I can tell you that it was exhausting although rewarding.  The big reward comes after the end of that first week, NO MORE CAMP DUTY!

For those of you not familiar with life on base, Camp Duty is when two volunteers are rostered on to do all of the cooking and cleaning for the day.  It was quite entertaining at first, but cooking for 25 or so people is not easy, and it is a looooong day, commencing anywhere from 3:45 onwards, and not finishing until the dinner dishes are done at 6pm or so.  It was usually at this point where I needed a cold beer more than any other time during the week.  It is a massive relief not to have to do this any more.  We do however have to do a day of duty staff, which is a more supervisory role.

I have been walking a LOT since being back this time around.  I never got any blisters last phase, but my feet had somehow softened up during the 3 week holiday (despite wearing flipflops and not shoes during that time) and I was having problems with blisters at first, thankfully my feet have now got used to the long miles again.  Last phase I walked around 200 miles over the 10 weeks, and I am already up to over 180 miles this phase, at just before the halfway point.  Night walks will stop some time in the next couple of weeks, but I am thinking I might do 300 miles, and therefore crack the 500 mile mark for my time here in CP.

There have not been many turtles around since the volunteers arrived, despite having quite a few in the last week of interphase.  We went 5 nights without seeing any, and I really thought they had gone for the season, with a couple of volunteers not having worked one.  Thank goodness however, a couple more have come up and now all volunteers have worked a turtle.  I have also managed to tag one, after doing my tagging training and hoping mightily that a suitable turtle came along.  It was a turtle that somebody else had badly tagged, with the tag upside down and embedded into the flipper.  We removed the bad tag, and put a new one in, which I am proud to say I managed to get correct on my first attempt! (luckily for the turtle). 

There is a new community intern who is living over in the San Francisco village. She is a bubbly enthusiastic and rather hilarious girl from the UK.  I took her over into the village to show her around for the first time which was interesting to say the least.  She got bitten by a dog, then was talking to the locals about the differences in vocabulary between UK and US English speakers.  Fair enough, except she used the example of ‘pants’ as her illustration of this.  As in – in the US it means ‘trousers’ and in the UK it means ‘knickers’.  The middle-aged Juan-Pablo found this really tickled his fancy and sat there for a few minutes giggling and saying ‘hee-hee…. bikini!’  ‘hee-hee….. panties!’  On the way back to the base, she then slipped and fell squarely into a huge mud puddle, right in front of several local women and children who were sitting out the front of their house.  What a way to make a first impression in her new home! 

We have had some amazing wildlife sightings since being back-

– Two Mexican prehensile-tailed Porcupines in the trees out by the boatdock.  One of them fell out of the tree onto the angled roof, scrabbled his way up to the top, only to realise there was a steep angle down the other side of the roof.  He rolled all of the way down the roof and fell onto the floor.  I felt sorry for the little fellow, but it was quite amusing as well.

– A baby bird of prey that two of the village children found and gave to the station manager.  We took a vote on his name and the clear winner was ‘Crusher’.  This name suited him very well, considering he was only a few days old and about two inches long.  We had a nice couple of days trying to keep him alive on a diet of mashed banana but unfortunately he stopped eating and died.  RIP crusher.

– A fer-de-lance, which is the most venomous and dangerous snake in Central & South America.  Mike the station manager catches reptiles and puts them into clear tubes for us to have a look at.  She was massive and certainly looked dangerous, I don’t mind snakes but this one gave me the chills.  I am not sure if it is just the fact that it is so dangerous, or whether it was the fact that she had bitten through her own mouth with her huge fangs and was bleeding as well.

– Many, many Brazilian Wandering Spiders are in camp this phase.  They are nobody’s favourite creature, being also highly venomous and also fast moving and fond of jumping, especially when people are trying to catch them. I do not know if they are seasonal, or why there seem to be so many around at the moment.  My first night back in camp I went to the bathroom in the middle of the night in bare feet, and to my horror when I looked down my foot was about an inch away from one of these beauties.  I have never gone anywhere barefoot since then.

– I took two volunteers into the forest on the Jaguar Camera project (Jag-cams).  This project involves setting camera traps in likely spots to be triggered and get pictures of (hopefully) Jaguars and other mammals.  I really enjoyed being in the forest, it made a nice change from being on the beach every day.  We were walking along, and were startled all of a sudden by a flurry of movement in the undergrowth.  A dozen Coati’s burst out of the scrubby forest floor, and bolted up the surrounding trees, at a distance of only a few feet away.  Most of the family hurried off quick-smart into the jungle, but one individual was ‘trapped’ on the far side of where we were standing.  He sat in his tree, regarding us closely.  We were not sure if his look was aggressive, or if he was waiting to see if we were a threat for him.  We must have stood still regarding each other from a very close distance, for around a minute or so before he felt brave enough to cross our path and join the rest of his family on the other side of the trail.  A fantastic sighting!

– Some HUGE Green Iguanas, over a metre long.  One was in the tree at the cafe where we were having lunch in town a couple of days ago, and did not seem to mind being very closely observed at a distance of around a couple of feet.  It was incredible, you could see every scale on his body and I was marvelling at how prehistoric he looked.  His head was very dinosaur-like and he was eating leaves off the tree like a leaf-eating machine. ‘om nom nom’

– A red-eyed tree frog.  We found this yesterday over in San Francisco, in the middle of the day.  They are nocturnal so he was rather sleepy.  They have three eyelids and we saw at least one pair, which was hatched with gold lines so his eyes appeared open even though they were closed.  When he did open the lids, his eyes were an incredible bright red (surprise!) When he was all tucked up on the leaf he was a lovely peppermint green but when he was (very carefully) picked up and he stretched his legs, he was an amazing bright blue with the characteristic red sucker feet.  So beautiful.

Yesterday was the community event in San Francisco.  There is a festival on in Tortuguero at the moment, and the community is entering a float designed to look like the ‘cerro’ (local hill) on the back of a boat.  We were drafted in to help.  One of the local lodges donated the materials and the school children made and painted flowers from plastic bottles which they picked up as litter on the beach.  So far so good.  However when we got there yesterday, the entire project had been hijacked by one local family, the head of which is a lady who is (or thinks she is) one of the heads of the village.  Firstly, they did not want to put all of the flowers onto the float, only the ‘good’ ones.  Never mind that these flowers had been painted by kids as young as four or five, all of whom were immensely proud of their work.  They then made us go over to the other side of the canal to hack down a huge amount of the natural tree foliage to cover the hill.  Being a conservation organisation we were not too pleased with this.  We then found a furry caterpillar which was more than likely venomous.  The scary machete lady promptly took him off and drowned him in the canal.  Later, a tarantula emerged from the vegetation we’d just been dragging from the forest.  The lady then macheted the tarantula, to our horror.  They then proceeded to tell us we were doing everything wrong, and did not seem to want or need our help at all, so we headed back to base.  The float is launching today over to Tortuguero, I am very interested to see what it has ended up looking like.

It is halloween today and we made some decorations from old bottles also found as rubbish on the beach.  My art work is a bit iffy to say the least, but they look great in the kitchen.  I also made some green porridge for breakfast this morning, which I thought looked fantastic! Most people agreed, but some people could not stomach green porridge at 4am.  Fair enough I suppose.  We’re also going to make multi-coloured spaghetti for dinner and dress up with face paint later on.  It is a good excuse to do something a bit different for the day so I hope that all of the volunteers enjoy themselves…..

That is about it for the moment, I will try not to take another month to update the blog, let me know how all of you are doing as well!

Jess x

Almost time to return to the Jungle…

September 24, 2009

Well it is almost time for my 3 week holiday to end, and return to the jungle for 11 more weeks of hard work saving the rainforest (or turtles, birds or perhaps mammals…) and my goodness it has gone quickly.

I´ve really enjoyed my mosaic classes, and produced two in four days of classes (around 12 hours or so).  They are certainly not works of art, but I had fun and I think they are pretty good for first attempts.  One is for my Spanish school CENAC, and the second is a gift for my host family.  Two birds with one stone there as well.  I think that what I like the best about mosaic as an art form is that it doesn´t have to be perfect, I don´t really have the best drawing skills or a knack for art, and so finding something creative where you don´t have to be a master artist to achieve a good result is fantastic.

I took the bus to the markets at Masaya on the weekend, and encountered a lively bustling local market.  I don´t feel acutely ´foreign´in Granada but I certainly did in the market, it is one of those hot noisy loud situations where you don´t understand a word of what people are saying and don´t recognise half of the things for sale! I bought 17 pairs of socks for US$5.  I am planning on wearing them a couple of times each and then throwing them away.  Yes I know I am a TERRIBLE hippy but anyone reading this who has been to Cano Palma will understand! (and mum, no my package has not arrived yet, I am hoping somebody will check the mail in the next couple of weeks….)

I took the locals bus to Masaya, given that it only cost US 0.50cents to get there (hotels sell a tour out there for much more than that!) and it was an interesting experience.  Where I am staying is very close to the bus station out there, and when I got onto the bus it was not too crowded.  While you are waiting for the bus to depart, various vendors of food and drink make their way down the aisles and don´t hop off until the very last moment, the bus is actually moving out of the station by the time the last one hops off, anxious to make as many sales as possible. 

The bus did not stay empty for long, the driver basically navigates at a crawl through the cities´outer suburbs (and I literally do mean a crawl, I could have walked faster than the bus) and if anybody looks like they might want to catch it he yells ´MASAYA MASAYA MASAYA´and the people hurtle towards the bus and clamber on.  The bus barely even stops and they really have to run for it.  Once we´d left the city, the bus slowed down to pick up a guy from the side of the road.  He jumped on and immediately launched into an enthusiastic sales pitch.  At first I thought he was selling vitamins, but soon after that a full-colour poster of various intestinal parasites came out, and I realised he was selling worming pills…. several people bought some as well so it must be a real problem in these parts (hooray).

Some other snippets – the women vendors in Granada carry around their wares in baskets on their heads.  I was sitting at lunch the other day and saw a woman with a giant packet of remote controls on her head, walking into all of the restaurants & shops in the hopes they required a spare or replacement remote!  At the same lunch I left the remainders of my food on the table outdoors and went in to pay, and by the time I came out, a kid was sitting at my table polishing the rest of it off….  Today I amused myself during lunch by talking to the parrot in a cage in the back.  He could say ´ola´and wolf whistle.  Finally somebody I speak better spanish than!!!

I am pretty glad my spanish classes are almost over, not because I haven´t enjoyed them but because in 2 weeks I have absorbed SO much information, without the time to really reflect or properly learn the words and verb conjugations.  I definitely have a good base to get on with now, and I must do a small amount of study every day back in Costa Rica, and practice speaking to the Spanish speakers out there, in order to capitalise on these two weeks of lessons. 

Well this is also the end of daily internet access for me.  Now I´m an intern at Cano Palma I can use the internet from time to time (usually in the middle of the night after turtle walks on the beach) but it is antiquated dial-up so I won´t really have the best access.  Facebook will have to wait for the weekly visits to town (assuming they have finally fixed all of their technical problems that is…..)

So signing off from Granada, and I´ll see you all on the other side!

Jess x


September 20, 2009

Granada is a lively colonial town on the shores of Lake Nicaragua.  My first impressions upon arriving were fantastic, the architecture is beautiful and colourful, and it is a bustling place full of street vendors trying to make a buck off any gringos that come their way.

The first thing I did upon arriving was visit the local chocolate shop which sold a variety of chocolate truffles, most of them alcoholic (banana whiskey! delicious!), and then locate another establishment optimistically named Vinos y mas.  (wines and more).  I say optimistically because I certainly couldnt see anything in there apart from wine.  The bottles were extremely expensive, a bottle of Jacobs Creek costing US$30! They did however sell a glass of some kind of sauv for US$4 so I settled into an outside table with my fancy chocolates and did some quality people-watching.

As mentioned above, there are an amazing number of street vendors walking around trying to hawk their goods, and as a gringa who is sitting at an outside table, drinking a nice glass of wine, I was an obvious target.  I could have bought my pick of mainly hammocks, small wooden whistles in the shape of birds or animals, or cashew nuts.  On day 1 I didnt mind, it was a good opportunity to practice my fledgling spanish speaking.  Now Ive been here for a week they just get a simple No gracias as Ive now been approached 100 times and no longer have any interest in their goods.  I remember my friend Liz saying when she first got to London she talked to all of the street vendors, just to have a conversation.. now I can sympathise with what it is like to just want to have a chance to chat with someone!  More troublesome are the children who approach you with their best sad face on and their hand out for money.  Ive been told under no circumstance start handing out money to these kids, they are up to no good.  Another way of them making some cash is to dress up in the big doll-like costumes pictured on the last entry.  If you take a photo or show any interest in what they are doing, the demands for money start up again.

It is not surprising that there are so many vendors however, my spanish teacher tells me that around 25% of the population are unemployed, and another 25% do not have stable employment.  The minimum wage is also supposed to be 2000 cordobas per month (around US$100) but there are plenty of jobs, and people willing to take those jobs, which only pay around $800 cordobas (US$40).  No wonder they see me as an easy target, as at any one time I am probably carrying around at least a months wages in cash in my bag.  I have never felt unsafe howver, they will give it a try but if you are firm then they just move on.

More problematic are the Hombres who due to unemployment or other reasons, just sit in the streets all day and harrass women.  Ive spoken to a few people about it and this is a problem all the time.  I get a lot of it as Im clearly foreign, but according to one guy I spoke to (Mum: he was originally from Bootle) they start in on the really young local girls too and kind of wear them down into a submissive attitude as soon as they can.  They again are not particularly frightening in any way, but I am VERY bored of it as I have never been fond of builders whistles and the like so to now have it repeated 200 times a day (no joke, depending on how much walking I do) is really starting to get on my nerves.  There is nothing to do but just completely ignore it and keep walking, until you pass the next guy……

Im staying with a host family here, who are nice enough, but dont speak a word of english and take in students as a business.  They make an effort to have a wee bit of conversation with me every day, but generally I am just doing my own thing and they are doing theirs.  They also have another sibling who was badly injured in a car crash a few weeks ago, and so they spend a lot of time over at his house looking after him.   Part of the deal is 3 meals per day and I have to say the food is not the most enjoyable part of my experience.  Meals consist of plain rice, plain beans, a lot of cheese (but not a particularly nice type) and fried bananas/plantains.  This is typical nicaraguan food, and in theory I dont mind any of these things, but I have had to ask them not to make it so salty! Being given a plate full of the saltiest beans Ive ever encountered and a piece of super salty deep fried cheese was not my favourite meal ever.  (and yes, the beans and cheese were the only things on offer).  This was accompanied by some oats soaked in water to make a strange kind of juice. Mmmm.

This morning I was given a traditional nicaraguan sunday breakfast.  delicious you think? Think again.  Traditional nicaraguan sunday breakfast is in fact corn meal mush and a piece of white bread.  Mmmmmm.  Ive been trying to sneak some meals out in town, it costs me money but at least I am getting a few meals of some different types of food.

Im the only student in my spanish school and the only one staying with my host family so Ive been feeling a bit isolated while here.  Ive been therefore doing my best to go out & see if I can strike up any conversations about town.  Ive managed to have chats with a few people, and then a couple of days ago ran into cassidy one of the volunteers who taught the community school in Costa Rica.  It was really nice to see her, and we went for a drink on Wednesday night, then out properly on Friday night.  I booked a hostel room in town for the night, as I have to be home by 10 with the host family (I have no key so they need to let me in).  It was great, we met a bunch of people, and I went to a nightclub with salsa dancing, and even had a go! Im terrible and have no rhythm whatsoever, but it was great to try and Id love to learn to do it better.

Next week I only have spanish class for 4 hours in the mornings, so I am going to go and do a Mosiac making class in the afternoons.  Im really looking forward to it! I am really feeling like trying to learn some arty stuff at the moment and it is great that Ive managed to find this class, and that the time fits around my spanish class so nicely as well.  It also has the advantage that I cant possibly get home to the family for lunch so that is 5 meals less at the house 😉

OK signing off now, hope all are well wherever you may be!


Photos – Nicaragua

September 17, 2009
First view of Nicaragua over the border, 2 volcanoes in the lake and the big windmill thingees
First view of Nicaragua over the border, 2 volcanoes in the lake and the big windmill thingees

Nicaragua – San Juan Del Sur

September 12, 2009

I am officiallly in love with Nicaragua! What a great country.

I travelled up on the Ticabus which was a reasonably comfortable mode of transportation from San Jose, Costa Rica´s capital city.  The first hurdle was the border crossing.  It took 2.5 hours to get across the border.  We had to get off the bus, and spend 1.5 hours waiting in line for the Costa Rican exit stamp, in the blazing sun the whole time.  I spotted 1-2 other foreign faces but it was overwhelmingly peopled by Costa Rican and Nicaraguans.  After that was done, we hopped back on the bus and drove about 500 metres to the Nicaraguan side.  Back off the bus, we had to collect our luggage and take it in another line for an ´inspection´which involved them briefly glancing at the outside of the bag, it did not even get opened.  I think this was it for most people, but since I was literally the only ´foreigner´in the queue, I got taken off to a back room in another building where I got quizzed about my trip into the country, a very interesting conversation since I didn´t really speak Spanish and they didn´t really speak English.  This wasn´t really a problem though, and soon enough I was on my way to San Jan del Sur

San Juan is a small surfie town on the Pacific Coast of Nicaragua, just over the Costa Rican border.  There are some good surf breaks (I will have to ask my brother if they are actually any good), nice beaches, seafood and a chilled out atmosphere.  I booked myself into a nice hotel with air conditioning, cable TV and spent a few days doing almost NOTHING…. it was great!

It is amazingly cheap in Nicaragua as well, a lot cheaper than Costa Rica.  Beers are around 50p, I ate an amazing foot-long whole red snapper (I know greedy but hey why not!) which cost me US$10, you could get lobster for around the same price, cocktails for 1 pound… heaven.

I met a couple of interesting people whilst there, a lovely costa rican couple, the husband is a deep-sea tuna fisherman and is around 30, I am not sure what the wife did but she was over 50.  They were very much in love (Despite him telling me ´she´s old´… um I guess that is not bad manners in their culture?).  They invited me to a BBQ at their friends house, and when I went cooked me some amazing prawn skewers and furnished me with some beer as well.  After the BBQ we went to a bar where there was a band playing, Manuel fancied himself a singer, and did a couple of numbers with the band.  They were playing a Marimba which looks like a giant wooden xylophone and is played with big drumsticks (two, with two ends each, so there are up to 4 notes being played simultaneously).  It sounds like a cross between a xylophone and the steel drums.  Always interesting hearing music from another culture.

I also met a lovely american couple from Boston whom I went diving with.  They were heading to Granada in their rental car and so I managed to get a ride with them which was awesome! It saved me having to try & figure out the bus timetables up to the city, and they refused to even accept any petrol money from me.  Thanks Bryan and Jen!! =)

I think probably most have you have seen my account of the diving on Facebook but here we go anyway, the diving itself was pretty average, visibility was a bit silty and not that great, but we saw some Jack, a big scorpionfish, angelfish, puffer fish, an eel and a big eagle ray.  The surface interval was better than the diving itself, unfortunately we didn´t see any turtles while under the water but we saw lots from the boat, they are so cute floating on top with their heads poking up! When they see the boat coming they usually vanish back underwater.  We also saw two Pilot Whales, a mum and baby! That was amazing.  The second dive was down to a shipwreck which was mildly interesting.  Unfortunately the water was absolutely full of jellyfish which really stung.  I am not sure exactly what kind of jellyfish they were but they were long stringy things.  You could see them floating towards you, and because they were so long you couldn´t get out of the way.  We were wearing long wetsuits, but I got heavily stung on my face, hands and ankles.  VERY painful, and a couple of days later I am still feeling the effects (albeit mildly).

There were three of us diving plus the Divemaster.  After about 20 minutes on the 2nd dive we look around, and saw that he had disappeared! At this point, I decided that I was definitely not going to lose sight of the other two divers.  We swam around the wreck to check whether he was there, and when we couldn´t find him decided to surface.  Jen was wearing a dive computer, so we surfaced slowly with a safety stop.  Once we got back to the surface, there Fidel was, on the boat, changed out of his wetsuit back into his civvies, happy as anything!  I asked him where he went and he said ´oh my face was getting too stung by the jellyfish´.  Yeah THANKS Fidel…. I am pretty sure this is a breach of his PADI licensing and shocking behaviour from who is supposed to be a professional divemaster.

I saw a group of nuns in their habits, shoes off, paddling in the surf.  =)  Also, I cannot describe the joy of finding family guy on the TV, then the despair of realising it has been dubbed into Spanish.  Agghh!  I also bought some mysterious fruit from a little old lady without having any idea what it was.  I then asked the barman what it was and he told me (in spanish) that one you eat and one you are supposed to put into water and drink.  I tried both of these, and will post photos when I find a decent PC.  One was green on the outside, with pink flesh like a very soft apple.  It had large woody seeds that you kind of sucked the flesh off.  It was OK I suppose, but more interesting to try rather than to go back for more.  The other one had a dark blood-red flesh and juice, almost like beetroot juice.  I was very glad I had cut this open on top of the fridge as opposed to the white bedcover as I got juice everywhere.  This one was crunchy in the middle with hundreds of tiny black seeds, almost like a poppy seed texture, although larger.  It is nothing like any other fruit Ive seen or eaten!

That is probably about it for San Juan, next post will be about Granada, I arrived yesterday and already love this place…..