Saturday, October 16, 2010

When I'm 64...

at the penthouse...

New Zealand has undergone a cultural revolution in the 15 years that we have been away, similar to the one I noticed when I returned to Canada after 25 years. The concept of Whanau has emerged in a more integrated Maori and Pakeha society. This extended family is made up of the people who mean the most to us, regardless of ethnic background or blood.

We had a little party for Rob’s 64th birthday on a gloriously sunny afternoon, inserted like a bookmark in the pages of rainy days that make up Northland’s spring. More special than this was being surrounded by our New Zealand Whanau. Not a day goes by that we do not think of our Whanau around the world and we treasure those friendships.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Central America Images

Did you just eat my button?

Hieroglyphic Staircase 1891
Hieroglyphic Staircase 2010

The Ancient Mayan Nation

muddy tuk tuk ride

Electical systems in Honduras!

School project at Tazumal

Santa Ana Theater

Volcano at Izalco

Guatamala Sinkhole after Hurricane Agatha

Exploring Central America

back to June 2010...
Our first trip inland in El Salvador began ominously. We had chosen the coast road to take us to the town of Sonsonate, the beginning of the routa de las flores. This road was not well marked and after becoming lost several times we arrived at a standstill where a major bridge had been washed out. It was not clear how long ago this had occurred, but the result was that traffic was detouring through a ford. Busses, trucks and cars made their way across the river, water half way up the doors on the smaller vehicles, assisted as necessary by bulldozers pulling and pushing through the muddy water. I missed the photo op of this incredible scene and this was to be my first indication of how traveling with others is different from traveling on our own. The five of us unanimously decided not to risk it with our rental car and off we went up a secondary road through the mountains.

There was a lively discussion about where we should stop to eat breakfast, and after getting lost in the bustling capital city of San Salvador, which we had hoped to bypass, we suddenly swerved and screeched to a halt in the courtyard of a stone villa. The driver had made an executive decision. The parking attendant had what looked to be an automatic weapon slung across his waist but gave us a friendly ‘buenos dias’ just the same. Guns are a common sight in this country where most people still retain vivid memories of the bloody civil war that ended in 1992. Inside the restaurant, tables were set with linen and silver, pewter plates to put the china ones on, and at least 20 liveried servers hovered to look after our every need. The specialty that day was a buffet, which included a huge variety of foods, omelets made to order, and all the fresh juice and coffee you could drink. I was dreading what this might cost but the bill came to $14 including the tip for both of us.

On to Sonsonate, where we got lost again and Rob got out of the car to ask directions from a group of men gathered on a street corner. After pointing vaguely back the way we came, the group lurched after Rob demanding money, and there was a nasty scene as Rob tried to shove one man’s head out of the door so he could close it while our driver moved off and the rest of us hastily locked our doors. At about this point we read the warning in our lonely planet guide saying that tourists were ill advised to leave the main road.

The routa de las flores has nothing much to do with flowers but is a 22 mile scenic drive in the western corner of El Salvador. We didn’t expect it could possibly take us all day, despite the LP suggestion that we should linger several days in this area. First stop was a town known for wood furniture and crafts. We stopped to check the shops where the girls all purchased nice tapestry bags and exasperated the boys with our prattle about the bag store for several miles afterwards.

At our second stop it began to rain, so we prudently all bought big umbrellas at a shop on the little square where the ‘Black Christ’ church is. Next stop, the waterfall, and we found ourselves on a perilously rutted track on the outskirts of town. One of the guys enlisted the services of a local in the deserted parking lot to guide us to the falls, and he happily ran off to get his machete before we set off. About half way down this slippery mud path, and a good half hour later, I began to wonder if we had been wise going off into the wilderness with a machete wielding local leaving our car alone, packed with our belongings, and attended only by his friends. The rain became heavy. Little rivulets of water pooled in places on the path. We got soaked. The waterfalls finally appeared, we took photos, and marveled at the concrete troughs and tunnels that had been built as a water system for a nearby village. I was very relieved to find our car safely where we left it, and we set off in the now heavy rain to find a 25,000-year-old rock carving weighing 12 tons. A wrong turn took us to a delightful resort where we changed into dry clothes, drank beer and coffee, and discovered that the rock site was closed. The photos on the wall showed a moss-covered rock with faint lines carved into it.

The hotel we had chosen for the night was in the next town, and we did not arrive until dark. It was listed as ‘the luxury option’ in our guidebook, with breathtaking views of the volcanoes across the town. We were all glad we had splurged for the extra convenience of running water in the room, but unfortunately the view was lost in the mist and clouds. Our dinner that evening, at one of the 2 restaurants that were open in Ataco, was entertaining, delicious, cheap and beautifully presented by the chef who was a giant of a man and his vivacious Spanish wife in their eclectic shop- restaurant-home. I got a kick out of their question “Are you sleeping in a taco?” We explored the following morning, seeing some of the murals that the town is famous for and buying more suitable clothes for the now persistent rain. The little second hand store had just my size - $2 for pants and $1.50 for a long sleeved shirt.
Too soon, we were crammed into the car and on our way to visit some of the Mayan ruins that were scattered about this area. At the ancient capital of Tazumal we saw the remains of a temple pyramid and toured the little museum along with hundreds of school children. After our trip to Oaxaca in Mexico, I felt mildly disappointed by this site. We continued on to Santa Ana, where our troubles began.
We had parked our car near the town square, and decided on a whim to visit the museum across the street. It turned out to be very interesting, housed in a former bank, with a collection of old money in the basement vault, photographs of the volcano that destroyed much of Santa Tecla in 1917 and a display showing the wide variety of uses for the agave plant, ranging from tequila to baskets. We have now dubbed this Museo Regional de Occidente the museum of accidents, for when we returned to our car it had been sideswiped by a bus.

We went to lunch with the curator of the museum and he was extremely helpful, phoning the rental car company and translating for us. We were told to bring the car back that evening before 6. Ok. We continued our sight seeing. The theater in Santa Ana is a place that I would love to return for a performance. It was funded by coffee taxes - all beautifully crafted wood, leather, stained glass, marble statues, inlaid floors, frescos and chandeliers.

Our next stop was the Los Volcanes Park, with its breathtaking views (one could imagine a mountain out there under that cloud) and network of hiking trails for bird watching. We had spent a lot of time on the phone with the car company so we didn’t have much time left for hiking. Besides, it was raining. We settled for a quick photo against Mt Izalco, which last erupted in 2005, causing damage to the condemned hotel from which we were viewing the barren, gray, still-smoking cone.
We had no time left to see the ruins at Joya de Ceren, a city that has been preserved under layers of volcanic ash that sounded fascinating to me. We raced into San Salvador, got lost again, made it to the hotel just after 5 and phoned the car company. No answer, and the doors were chained shut when the guys drove over there. Here again, we might have done things differently if we had been on our own. But we were all booked to join another couple for a tour to Copan in Honduras the next morning at 5AM. So we left the damaged car at the hotel and fled the country (so to speak).

To get to Copan, we cut through Guatemala, taking 4 hours off the trip if we had gone straight from El Salvador to Honduras. So we had 2 border crossings, three countries and three currencies to deal with. Our tour driver was a Salvadorian who turned out to be very knowledgeable, and in hindsight, hiring him might well have been worth it in comparison to the hassles of this rental car. We arrived at our hotel in time for breakfast.

Copan is a cute, cobbled town with a collection of craft shops, restaurants, and tourist attractions all within a few miles of the plaza. In nice weather, I imagine it would be lovely to stroll the streets, poking through shops, sipping cocktails on verandas, taking long walks through the fantastic carved statues at the Mayan ruins, walking by the river, bird watching at the Macaw Mountain bird sanctuary, glimpsing colorful butterflies amongst the orchids at the butterfly gardens, horseback riding, tearing along the zip lines above the jungle canopy or burbling down the rapids in a raft. But we were there as Tropical Storm Agatha was whipping herself up to a fury and the rain just kept coming down.

We did get to visit the ruins and the bird sanctuary, both of which were excellent, although I thought the $104 cost for the day to be a tad expensive. Those that know of my sensitivity to jade might be interested hear that I felt that a large deposit of jade lay under those ancient stones, and when I mentioned the location to our guide after our tour, he told me they were still looking for a tomb they believed to be in that area. Oh how I wish someone would take me there to be their divining rod! The carvings that Copan is famous for were incredible to see, but for us the tunnels were equally fascinating. Visitors can see how the successive chiefs built new cities on top of the old ones as you make your way deeper inside the pyramids to uncover older carving styles and lines of floors. It was inside here that I had my second jade headache, even though at the time I had no way of knowing I was almost directly below the spot where I had first felt it.

At the perimeter of the ruins there is a nature trail with informative signboards explaining many of the Mayan beliefs, identifying birds, plants and animals, and one with a message for us all. The Mayan civilization, as great and advanced as it was, fell because of one reason. The people over-harvested their resources. Deforestation for fuel and crops resulted in erosion, and eventually this entire great nation starved to death.

By the end of our second day there we became worried about flooding. Our three wheeled tuktuk taxis were skittering around on the muddy hillsides, and there were no longer any breaks in the weather during which to walk outdoors. Rob and I had planned to go back the next day anyhow, but with Agatha brewing and a volcano erupting in Guatemala, everyone else decided to cut their trip short as well. We all shared a van to drive us back to our boats the next morning.

The 4-hour trip took us all day, although we did stop briefly for provisions at San Salvador. The rain came down in sheets, causing small lakes in the road. Rivers and creeks became raging torrents; trees, mud and rocks littered the roads. Traffic slowed to a standstill. We finally arrived back to find the outside pontoons of the dock at the marina had been taken off to relieve the pressure in the current. We are in an estuary here, and the extra water from the floods increased the current on the ebb tide, bringing the debris from the storm, including huge trees. We were happy to find Blue Moon safely at anchor where we had left her. However the next night as we were watching for logs in the water whooshing past us, we noticed a commotion at the dock. Suddenly all the boats were milling around and people were shouting. The entire marina had begun to break up. Everyone got off safely and they have set about repairing the docks but the floodwaters are still flowing.

We are lucky. 11,000 are homeless here now. I was happy we hadn’t chosen to visit Guatemala, where a 200-foot wide sinkhole appeared at an intersection in Guatemala City, and volcanic ash was turning to concrete in the rain.

As for the rental car, well that is another story.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Penthouse

Before ...

down the new driveway

 ...and after 

Local Scenery:

the penthouse is bottom right