October 27, 2003

Managua, Nicaragua

I'm just passing through Nicaragua on my way to Costa Rica.

The only reason I went to Honduras was for the diving, but I got lot more than I expected. In Utila, I did a 4.5 day open-water dive certification. It's not tourist season now, so classes which are usually packed were wide open - 1 on 1 instruction! I spent the first few days with an excellent instructor who was very safety-oriented; this lay in some great basics. Unfortunately, she had to go into the decompression chamber after day two, and I couldn't finish the course with her. Her replacement, was a large island local who's been diving since he was 12 and has over 4,500 logged dives under his belt. Over time he's become a little, uh, lax in his approach to safety. In a way, this is somewhat reassuring. He has probably seen and dealt with every possible type of emergency underwater. Still, I'm glad I didn't learn the basics from him. But I'm really glad I got to dive with him. It was the best of both worlds. He knows the reefs around Utila better then most people know their own neighborhoods. A nature freak, he took me on dives (past the safe time limit) where we swam with manta rays, squid, and schools of neon tropical fish. He pointed out, and handled, a number of strange plants, fish and other creatures on the seabed, then later logged the species in my log book. I had no idea what he was doing when he later asked me to go show my log to the other instructors. Apparently, this was his way of tormenting them. I didn't know it at the time, but the stuff he showed me was pretty rare. Many of the other instructors have been diving the area for a long time looking for the same without success.

I also got to dive a wreck, which was one of the main reasons I wanted to dive. It was far deeper than the 18-meter limit I was supposed to adhere to, but the instructor didn't seem to mind so down we went.

My last day on the island, I picked up something more than memories. After an early morning dive, I caught the first ferry back to the mainland, and from La Ceiba, took a bus to San Pedro Sula. It hit me on that ride.

It was bound to happen sooner or later. I've been eating meals from street vendors, buying cream pastries in the market, and brushing my teeth, cooking, and drinking juices with the local water. Just about everything you're told not to do - in fact that was the point. If I'm going to be down here for several months, I might as well get used to the bugs now.

I got to San Pedro Sula, Honduras by sundown, and originally planned to catch an early bus to Nicaragua the next morning. But whatever I picked up had already taken its toll. By that time I had just enough sense left to get myself checked into a hotel for the night. I don't remember much of that night, or the next night I spent in that hotel. I'd wake up shivering, curled in a ball with some shooting pain in my gut. I used the wall to hold me up as I'd stumble back and forth from the bed to the bathroom. 48 hours later I managed to get down - and keep down - bread and soup.

Actually, I figure I have to thank a steady intake of beer and mezcal for not getting sick earlier. My theory is alcohol kills bugs right? I mean, what could live in that? Now, alcohol raises risks of the bends while diving dramatically, so I hadn't had a drop of alcohol on the Island. I stopped drinking. I got sick. Theory proven.

I'll stay the night here in Managua, then on to Costa Rica tomorrow. Two days on my deathbed in some sweltering Honduran hotel room or two days and three countries by bus? I honestly don't know which is worse.

Posted by dhuska at 09:42 PM | Comments (0)

October 21, 2003

Utila, Honduras

I decided to leave Xela and Guatemala altogether sooner than I had planned. The school was ok, but I didn't feel I was getting out of it everything I could. The family I stayed with was fine, but they were a young, modern family. Speaking with classmates with more traditional families, I realized I was missing out. That and the cold. Xela drops close to freezing at night and houses in Guatemala are unheated. They're wide open too for that matter. In theory the electric shower heads (yes, *electric* showers) should be able to at least warm the water, but I only got it to work two mornings out of seven. The upcoming elections in Guatemala were also a consideration. Trying to leave a week or two from now will be much more difficult. A heavy military presence will be active to try and control the expected civil unrest. This wouldn't have been too dangerous, at least not in Xela anyway, but transportation is expected to grind to a halt around the elections and I've got to be movin' on.

Sunday morning I hopped a 6:30 bus to Los Encuentros, spent the morning around Panajachel and Lake Atlitlan then left for Antigua in the afternoon. Stayed there the night then caught a 4am bus crossing over into Honduras to Copan. Checked out the ruins there, but there wasn't much for me there, not after Tikal and Teotihuacan. Two more busses got me to La Cieba on the Caribbean coast last night. This morning I got on a ferry to Utila where I'm going to stay for at least the next five days doing a dive certification.

Utila is quite a change of pace from the last few weeks - and a welcome one. Far more Caribbean than Spanish, life here moves at slow, friendly pace. There's one road in town (and only one town), and English is spoken everywhere (sorta: "Way you coom to git off da boat from mon?"). Nice. Think I'm going to enjoy it here.

Posted by dhuska at 02:05 PM | Comments (0)

October 17, 2003

Xela, Guatemala (III)

16 years ago today, Carlos, René and Danelo, three politically active University students here in Xela planned to meet in order to discuss protest strategies. Carlos was late to that meeting and so lived. René and Danelo were kidnapped, tortured and murdered.

Carlos later founded El Proyecto Linguistico Quetzalteco de Español, the Spanish school that, through an unlikely series of coincidences, I've come to study at.

The story of René and Danelo is not an uncommon one here. Guatemala is well known for its atrocious human right record and brutal manner of dealing with dissension. In recent years, at least 100,000 have died opposing the poverty and corruption rife in this country, and another 40,000 are "disappeared".

I spent two mornings this week with "Renaldo"; a lifetime guerilla with a people's resistance army. At age 8, his father was kidnapped and tortured by the military. His father, a political activist, escaped, but would spend the next ten years being hidden and nursed back to health by priests. Renaldo is close to my age, and has had a rifle slung over his shoulder as long as I've had a backpack over mine. He's a quiet, affable man, but a little time with him belies memories I can't even fathom. He recently left active duty as a guerilla to work with a leftist grassroots political party.

I couldn't have picked a more interesting time to be here. Guatemala holds its election Novermber 9, and several candidates of varying degrees of corruption are competing for the presidency. Campaign logos are posted, painted, and strung on every available surface (logos are more effective than words due to the illiteracy rate), and pickups drive around town incessantly with speakers blaring campaign jingles. The incumbent, a self-admitted murderer under whom more Guatemalans have died for political reasons than under any other president, has a catchy jingle using children singing his praises.

Bribery, deception and intimidation are accepted election practices in Guatemala. The poor are bribed with much-needed items such as clothing and fertilizer - something that isn't hard to do when 40% of the population, or about 60 million people subsist on less than two dollars a day. Farm workers - a huge percentage of the population - are easily persuaded to vote according to the interests of the land owners since disfavor would make finding another job next to impossible; 2% of the population in Guatemala controls 75% of the arable land - a statistic unmatched anywhere else in the Americas. Another common tactic is sending party workers into areas devastated by the current government, and have them explain to people that if they don't agree with the current government's practices, they should cross out the party's symbol on their ballot with an "X" - the ballot selection mark. People are also told that the voting is videotaped, and that the current government will know who they vote for. In the past, parties have even bribed the power company to turn off power in areas favored to win by opponents, bringing voting to those areas to a crawl and causing them not to be included in the count.

These are the more benign techniques practiced here. I have heard first-hand accounts and seen footage of how dissidents are handled violently - the likes of which I hope never to see again. This is as much as I'll mention for the safety of the school and their affiliates.

Tonight there was a memorial gathering at the school in honor of René and Danello. I had the honor of attending. Their friends and families were there, so were political sympathizers and other affiliates of the school. Carlos spoke, as did the families and a local priest. There was food, music and song - a sombre celebration of life. This, I realized, is what I admire most about Guatamalans - their resilience. They are strong. They choose to be thankful for what they have, despite having every reason not to.

Posted by dhuska at 09:02 PM | Comments (0)

October 13, 2003

Xela, Guatemala (II)

Sorry already!

I wasn't prepared for all the impatient admonishment I received when I went through my email for the first time in a long time today. Thank you for your concern and suggestions. I haven't been ignoring you or this site, I just haven't had the time or resources to get photos or these scribblings on the site. Come to think of it, I've either been on the road or in the jungle for a week now. Now that I've settled for a while, I promise I'll post regularly, and I'll get back you each by email.

Posting writing, much less images has been challenging. I write in my Palm handheld for convenience, then need to find a computer on which to install the connection software, then post to this page. Images are another matter all together. I've taken well over 200MB worth of images already, and trying to get them onto the server over a 10kb/sec connection is like trying to suck a golf ball through a garden hose. I'm making progress however (with the images, not the golf ball) and I'll get them up eventually. Promise.

Looking through the photos and writing I've decided to post, it's pretty obvious that the trip so far has been Mayan ruin-oriented. I guess I should explain that.

The ruins and a better understanding of the Maya were indeed my focus for the first part of this trip. Teotihuacan, Monte Alban, Palenque and Tikal are the vestiges of the most important Mayan cities in Meso-America. I haven't detailed anything of the ruins on this site for several reasons: I couldn't do them justice, most of you probably aren't interested anyway, and they've all been well documented elsewhere:

Monte Alban

If you're interested in more still, I recommend:

A Forest of Kings and The Code of Kings both by Linda Schele, and Maya Cosmos: Three Thousand Years on the Shaman's Path by David Freidel.

There is, of course, more interesting material out there ;) Ask me.

Posted by dhuska at 10:09 PM | Comments (0)

October 12, 2003

Xela, Guatemala

After spending yesterday in Guatemala City, a four-hour bus ride has landed me in Quetzaltenengo. That's the city's official name, though everyone in Guatemala calls it by its Quiche Maya name: Xelaju or Xela (SHAY-la) for short. Xela, unlike Guatemala City which was noisy, smelly, dirty, and a waste of time, is gorgeous. Surrounded by volcanoes, the city is high in the mountains and the temperature reflects that. While warm during the day, it drops close to freezing at night! Just a few hours drive from here, it's over 30 degrees at night.

I'm here to do a combination Spanish school/homestay. There are a number of such schools here in Xela, and I chose this one based on a recommendation from some Israeli travelers I met in Tikal.

I speak Spanish well enough to do everything I need to down here, but I think I'm cheating myself out of an understanding of the people here by not being able to speak with them in greater depth. I'll be here studying for at least a week and probably for a second as well - a welcome break from the frenetic pace I've been keeping.

Being in one spot for awhile will also give me the chance to post some writing to the log - something I haven't done since Mexico City. I'll get some images up there too.

Posted by dhuska at 09:45 PM | Comments (0)

October 11, 2003

Guatemala City, Guatemala

11/10/03 7:49

After two days in Flores and Tikal, I've moved on to Guatemala City. The temples were absolutely amazing, and the days and nights were sweltering: 30+ degrees with 100% humidity. Only one fan in the hotel worked, and the nightly blackouts took care of that one nicely.

Coming back from the ruins, I was filthy enough to justify renting a hotel room just to shower, despite leaving for Guatemala City later that night. A few others I started traveling with yesterday thought this was a good idea and we each chipped in. It turned out to be a very good thing we had the room. A Swede I've been traveling with spent the hours before catching the bus puking up her guts from a combination of sunstroke from the jungle and a bad case of diarrhea from the water. In Guatemala, as in most Central and South American countries, you can't put toilet paper in the toilet. The sewage systems here can't handle it so it usually goes in a basket provided for that purpose. It was 30 degrees that night. Thankfully, nobody had to sleep in there that night. The rest of us sat waiting for the bus on the hotel terrace in the muggy night air watching a spectacular lighting storm in the distance while generators hummed until the power returned.

Flores has no bus station, and the only way to arrange travel out of the city is by using one of the local travel agencies to book into a charter. So, for the first time on this trip I didn't arrange my own travel, and arrived at the agency last night at 10pm with my ticket to Guatemala City as arranged. There, a woman at the agency collected the tickets and promptly closed the shop. Minutes later the bus arrived.

Once on route, an attendant (who was perhaps all of 15 years old) came around to validate all the passengers' tickets. This wouldn't be a problem except my ticket, like those of many other passengers was back in Flores in the now closed travel agency. At this point, the bus stopped in the middle of nowhere to resolve the issue. Enter "bad cop". He tells us that we can't be on the bus without a ticket. The kid pleads in our defense, and so ensues a humorous rendition of the classic con. Me, being the only one of their "customers" able to speak with them is stuck right in the middle. This goes on for a while, and the other tourists are growing nervous. Bad cop and the kid go off and "heatedly" discuss the issue between themselves, then bad cop disappears. The kid comes back and in a fine appoligetic performance delivers the ultimatum - (surprise!) we can all go on to Guatemala City for the price of 10 Quetzals each. The cast has done a fine job and the passengers, more frightened than irate at this point, gladly pony up the cash (about CND$1.50). I do also.

So, it took just over a week into my trip to get taken by my first scam, and no doubt this is only the first of many.

The overnight trip was otherwise uneventful (I've come to learn from experience that flat tires, wrecked transmissions, running out of gas and the like are routine here, and are not really worth mentioning). I didn't get much sleep however. I write this in the room I rented, where I'm about to sleep for a few hours then go see the city. Off to Quetzaltenango tomorrow morning.

Posted by dhuska at 07:49 AM | Comments (0)

October 09, 2003

Flores, Guatemala

The 8-hour journey to Flores, Guatemala from Palenque, Mexico consisted of a bus to La Palma, Mexico, a boat ride down the Rio San Pedro, then another bus from the Guatemala side of the river to Flores. The boarder crossing into Guatemalla was a shack by the river manned by two teenaged soldiers.

I made the journey with 3 Israelies, a Swede, and 2 Britons, and we will spend the day at the ruins in Tikal. The bus for the ruins leaves at 5 am. On return tomorrow to Flores, I will get on the 10 pm bus to Guatemala City, arriving the following morning. From there I'll go further to Quetzaltenango where I plan on staying for a few weeks to study Spanish.

Posted by dhuska at 09:22 PM | Comments (0)

October 08, 2003

Palenque, Mexico

I'm traveling alone again. I came 16 hours by bus this morning from Oaxaca to Palenque to see the ruins here - once the capital of the Mayan world. I arrived on the heels of tropical storm Isabelle, though it continues to pour at night. The trip through the mountains in the rain was an experience. At times I would look down through the window and see only cliff side for several hundred feet, with no guardrail at all. More impressive still were the drivers that share that road. They pilot their huge trucks - passing and weaving around blind corners on these roads with a nonchalance that boarders on suicidal.

After several days of torrential rains, today was the first hot day. I have never felt humidity like this in my life. I have been soaking wet all day - not just in the jungle, but back in town. Now as I write this in bed, as I go get something to eat; all the time. Every scrap of paper I have is soggy just from exposure to the air.

Fear of the storms that have pounded this area have done wonders to keep most of the tourists away. The hostel I'm in now has seven bunks but I'm the only one here. Just as well, as all my wet laundry is hanging around the room in a futile attempt to dry it. There's a washing machine right outside my door, but as is the norm here, no dryer. The washing machine, it turned out, wasn't even for public use. After loading it up with all my muddy clothes from the ruins, I couldn't help but notice not much was happening once I hit the "on" switch. The panel lit up ok, and the extension cord (which lay in a puddle of water) seemed to be plugged in alright. A little investigation turned up a shortage plumbing into the machine. None. No drainage either for that matter. A quick look around the area showed how they do laundry here: a garden hose is used to fill the machine to the right level, then at the end of the cycle, the drain hose is placed over the rail to drain into the yard - which is just what I had begun to do when the owner/maid came along and tore a strip off me for using her machine. Oh well. I finished my laundry in the sink.

I've exacted compensation by removing the speed limiter on the fans in the room, and am currently basking in their strong breeze. I don't think they were counting on guests having a pair of pliers and a few screwdrivers with them. The limiters, I think, were to prevent overloading the wiring in the building. The lights dimmed as soon as I did it. I'm getting my 60 Pesos worth.

I leave tomorrow morning at 6am to cross into Guatemala to the ruins in Tikkal. Lightning and thunder crash outside. Bed time.

Posted by dhuska at 08:29 PM | Comments (0)

October 07, 2003

Oaxaca, Mexico

Oaxaca, 5 hours to the south of Mexico city, is easily the best I've seen of Mexico so far. It's a small town, but the markets are considered the best in Mexico. The food here has been my favorite so far too, especially the chocolate and the cheese. The chocolate is local cacao, mixed with sugar and cinnamon but no milk, giving it a gritty texture. The cheese tastes alot like mozzarella, but is saltier and has a fibrous texture. I like it better. Thanks to Juan, I've also been able to try traditional dishes I wouldn't have known about otherwise. The most interesting of which was probably the roasted crickets, which made even the worm at the bottom of the local Mezcal appetizing.

Posted by dhuska at 05:06 PM | Comments (0)

Mexico City, Mexico (II)

I'm writing my memories of Mexico city a few days after leaving. I had a blast there, but was good and ready to leave.

Mexico City is a noisy, smelly, gritty city that makes little effort to disguise any of it. In fariness, it is the largest city in the world, and at about 22 million people. The rampant crime and overcrowding gives it the feeling of a city under siege. Street vendors, sewage and diesel are ubiquitous in Mexico City, and the noise is incessant. But these are only byproducts of people, and the people are what made the 3 days there a blast. I met a great bunch on the road to Teotihuacan - Gosia and Filip from Poland, Juan from Columbia, and Phil, another Canadian. We were travelling in the same direction, and so stayed together for a few days in the city and into Oaxaca. Thank you all for a great time.

I never did quite get used to the armed guards everywhere. Every store, hotel, government building, restaurant, gas station etc had heavily armed men out front. Private security firms represented most of the guards, but the police and military were present too.

I arrived on the morning of October 2nd, the anniversary of a student protest massacre right out front of where I stayed. Memorial rallies were being held in the square, and this probably heightened the police presence. The murdered students were communist protesters, and there are were more than a few axe-and-sickle flags in the square. The square itself is apparently the second largest of its type in the world after Red Square in Moscow, a with all the "red" banners present it certainly looked like it.

Posted by dhuska at 09:59 AM | Comments (0)

October 04, 2003

Alive and well

I've been having a huge amount of technical trouble getting this log up and running from down here. I'm currently getting about 1 char/4 seconds over SSH which isn't helping things at all either.

Long story short, I leave Mexico City tommorrow morning after a few kick-ass days here. Details to follow when I find a better connection.

Posted by dhuska at 06:35 PM | Comments (0)

October 02, 2003


Mexico City

I suppose being the only person pulled out of the boarding lineup by a customs dog isn't the worst way to start a trip, but it made things more interesting. The dog picked up on a roll of US currency I had stuffed in a pant leg pocket right at dog-nose height. It took only a few minutes with customs for them to figure that everything was ok, but that didn't seem to persuade the rest of the passengers that I wasn't dangerous to them - a sentiment I accidently reenforeced by popping the drink spout on my water bottle closed with a pop louder than any you'd ever think one of those things could make. The passengers in the isle directly in front of me ducked.

The flight left about midnight, and ever the optimist I figured I'd get a few hours sleep on the plane. Twas not to be. Long before I ever booked that flight, Rosio gave notice to Mexicana Airlines that today would be her last shift before retirement after 23 years as a flight attendant with the airline. The plane was adorned with streamers and helium balloons and Spanish banners. Most of the rest of the staff was her family, and a significant number of her friends were on board as passengers. On the upside, amid the cheering and balloon-popping, nobody on board remembered customs pulled me aside earlier as a potential threat to their safety. I didn't, however, get any sleep.

Mexico City is a daunting place when you're alert, much less half awake. I arrived just in time to make morning rush hour traffic in a cab ride across town. The entertainment value of that ride was worth every sleepless moment on the plane. At no time was there ever more than 2 feet between us and another solid object, though the average was easily inches. 20 million people worth of cars, trucks, motorcycles, vending carts and other interesting vehicles flowed in a fascinating self-regulating movement. After barely squeezing between two trucks at speed, the sun popped out and my driver asked if I happened to notice his glasses on the seat when I got in. I told him no, but that there was a pair of sunglasses on his dashboard. "Not those ones" he said and began hunting through the car looking for them. We're still driving. I looked down at the floor at his feet and told him there were a pair down there but they weren't sunglasses. "Ah! That's them. Can't drive without them." As we were stopped at a large intersection where several police were directing traffic around construction, a motorcyclist with a passenger on the back split the narrow space between lanes and and blew through the intersection right by the police - with one hand searching in a side bag for something. I asked the cab driver what the police thought of motorcyclists in the city. I didn't understand his explanation completely, but the idea was that they are on their own - the police don't care what they do, and won't help them if (when) they get hurt.

I've spent the day exploring the city's core. Markets, cathedrals and assorted other points of interest. Eventually I'll post pics.

It's the end of a long couple of days without sleep, and I'm about to collapse into bed at a hostle. I'll post this tomorrow.

Posted by dhuska at 06:17 PM | Comments (0)