Barbed Wire and the Friendliest People You’ll Meet in Central America

When you  say ‘El Salvador ‘ most people think of violence and crime, civil war and murder, but what if I told you that I’ve met the friendliest people in all of Central America right here in El Salvador? That’s a broad generalization, but in the two months I’ve been traveling through Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and El Salvador, the locals have never been more helpful than in these poor city streets.

Arriving in the city of Santa Ana, we immediately were lost. We stepped off of the yellow chicken bus, and two men greeted us with massive rifles across their chests. That’s one thing you’ll have to get used to – guns, lots of them. Armed men stand in front of banks, bakeries, pharmacies, anywhere really. Most buildings are also surrounded by large metal gates, concrete walls with shards of glass on top, a huge dose of barbed wire, or all of the above.

On our way to find Casa Frolaz (a hostel and restaurant owned and operated by Salvadorians), locals generously guided us to our desired destination. In so many other countries I’ve visited, most people expect tips or commissions for any sort of ‘help,’ or even try to lure you into some sort of business deal. I know that sad fact has much to do with the tourism industry, so it was refreshing to find otherwise. People also seemed very open to starting conversations with foreigners. Maybe the fact that we are from California gave us a natural ice breaker. Almost everyone we talked to on the bus had either been to the United States or knew someone who had. A large part of El Salvador’s economy is based on family members sending money home while working in the States. Many of the men work hard in the States, and then return to El Salvador to support their families.

In the five days that I explored El Salvador  (Santa Ana, Lake Coatepeque, Tamukal Ruins, Juayua village), we must have only ran into two other tourists. That´s an immense difference from every other country we’ve traveled through. Two  Salvadorian brothers, Bruno and Francisco, gave us such insight into the culture. From our first taste of pupusas to the psychology of the local coffee industry  to their futbol obsession to the clash between the old generation and the new generation of El Salvadorians… I’ve had an interesting glimpse into their culture. If you’re ever in Santa Ana, check out their restaurant, Quattro Estaciones where you can get a strong cup of coffee grown in the mountains near Santa Ana. Strike up a conversation, you’ll be pleasantly surprised here.

Quarter Century Lives

This morning, on our walk to Laguna Apoyo to the sunshine and cervezas and sparkling water, to the heart-beating world, on this morning, he told me that Chelsea died. As we stopped at the street corner, I could feel chills running up and down my body despite the hot dry Granada air. Chelsea was 24 years old, only a year or two younger than us. A few months ago, she had finished her nursing program and had found a job in a hospital. Her warmth and humor were as contagious as the diseases in those hospital beds. She was a good friend to us both, and now a motorcycle crash had stolen her life away.

As we crossed the street filled with semi-trucks and horse carts and taxis and bicycles, all of which refuse to acknowledge stop signs, I thought of how easily it could have been me or you. A more silver-lined person might have said thank you Universe for forcing us to slow down and look around at our luck. For now, I forced the tears to stop at the corners of my eyes.

At one point, Ian said, “I feel like we are hearing more of these stories nowadays.” He means more and more stories of friends with lives too short and bittersweet. This feeling is new to us who have lived quarter century lives and can look forward to so much more. As we grow older, I know there will be more stories too short to want to repeat. Today, I will remember the good ones as we sit at this lake in Nicaragua, a lake so similar to Cayuga Lake, where Chelsea was once and forever our friend.

Freelance Travel Articles While Traveling

Although I have published plenty of articles in newspapers and magazines, I recently published a travel article while backpacking through Central America. It is no easy task writing on the road. First off, I did not pack my own personal laptop, which means I am at the mercy of outdated hostel computers with spotty internet (though my current hostel has iPads, a very rare exception). Secondly, most foreign keyboards have all the symbols in weird places that do not match the keys. For example, right now I would not be able to find the apostrophe key if my life depended on it. When I press the apostrophe key, a backslash appears like a stab in the back. But hey, who needs an apostrophe.

Beyond the technology troubles, it’s just plain hard to work while on vacation, especially when hostel computers are generally located in either the kitchen or living room. With friends waving ice cold beers in your face, it is hard to keep your fingers typing. It is even harder to keep working when say, a gecko falls on your head or a howler monkey calls out your window. It is a lesson in concentration to say the least.

Put all my traveler whining aside, this is a great biz. While staying at La Jungla in Panama, I was captivated by the place and the opportunities it provides to the local community. Every week, children from local schools and orphanages visit the center and basically play with the jungle creatures. They learn so much from the simple touch of feathers and fur. They begin to understand their own country’s diverse environment and how they are connected. After interviewing the owner, Dorothy Howes, I was more than happy to spread word about this hands-on wildlife rescue and education center.

The article, “La Jungla Wildlife Center in Boquete, Panama,” was published in the Central America Travel section on About.com, which is owned by The New York Times. Central America Travel receives approximately 500,000 page views every month. Not bad. Join the 500,000, and click here to read the article!

Fear in Waves

Ever since early childhood, I’ve loved the ocean, but have been fearful of actually swimming in the waves. My parents did a gnarly job of instilling a fear of swimming. “You’ll drown!” they’d yell. And instead of teaching me how not to drown by improving my swimming skills, they kept me out of the water altogether. Pool parties, lake excursions, and beach days were always an issue. Yes, yes I’m blaming my parents. I know there is some fault there in me too for not pushing my own boundaries, but I’ve resolved that I’m definitely tossing my own kids right into the water.

Although swimming pools are no biggie, lakes and oceans are a whole other monster. Luckily, I have a fish for a boyfriend and have learned immensely from him on how to deal with waves. Yes I can swim, but I have little confidence in my own abilities and a fear of losing control in these vast expanses of water. Since we´ve been traveling in Panama and Costa Rica for the past month, I´ve really been pushing my boundaries with water. With the Caribean Coast´s bathwater warm water, it´s been easy to be lulled into the ocean. Just think of it as a splashy warm bath, right?

And then the Pacific Coast´s immaculate beaches and surf towns have even encouraged me to give surfing a try with the help of a few lovely ladies. Can´t say I stood up, but I can say I rode my first wave all the way to shore. Bodyboarding was a rush for sure.

But then today, out on the gorgeous sandy beach of Manuel Antonio, I got gobbled up by a wave and spat out in the sand. It was my own fault. I saw a wave coming and underestimated it´s size. I should have dove underneath like my boyfriend taught me, but instead I stood my ground when I wasn´t supposed to. After a few jolted spins and a mouth full of salt, I learned an important lesson – listen to whatever the waves command of you…. and adapt quickly. For now, I´ll just have to tilt my head and hope the water drips out of my ears. Maybe I´ll hear the ocean´s commands a little better now.

A Break from Peace of Mind

Sunning on the quiet island of Bastimentos, an island away from Bocas del Toro in Panama, we spent the afternoon with a group of Peace Corps volunteers from the States. These government volunteers were stationed in Panama for two years. Many of them were working in remote villages with the indigenous population.

As they told us about their unique, exasperating, life-defining moments, there was one story that really stuck in my head. A friend of their’s had been stationed in the Dominican Republic near the border to Haiti. After returning to the States, he began to look for a job and went through a series of interviews…. all of which would always ask about his experience as a Peace Corps volunteer in Dominican Republic. This seems to be the biggest problem for the volunteers that we met – how to describe the experience to outsiders? Like a veteran of war, they had experiences that were hard to share with the “normal” population.

So, as a way to sum up his experience in Dominican Republic, he told this story at job interviews: One day an indigenous man was electrocuted, but mostly unharmed. In order to combat the evil demons that had then entered his body through electricity, he slit his wrists. As the blood drained from his body, the demons went with it. In the final moments, the volunteer stood and watched as the man bled to death. This is Dominican Republic.

Would you hire him after hearing that?

On a separate but similar note, we had a small taste of superstitious ritual on the island of Bocas del Toro. On the last night of the Carnival celebration (also known as Fat Tuesday), people dressed up as devils and ran down the crowded streets, while a line of people whipped them, and I’m not talking symbolically whipping them. I mean blood dripping down lashed legs. As an outsider, this is all hard to understand. Even if I had the experience of two years as a volunteer in an indigenous village, I still don’t think I’d understand. Instead, I return to the bathwater blue waves that bring such peace to my mind.

Envision Festival

With no personal computer and limited access to internet, I’m having a bit of trouble updating this blog. Today I walked twenty minutes on a hot dusty road to get to the local internet cafe only to find it closed. It was Thursday at 10:30am, no sign on the door, no listing of hours… gotta love Tico Time.

Let’s recap the week…. though I have very little sense of date and time now.

Ian and I attended the Envision Festival in Costa Rica. After backpacking for two weeks in Panama, it felt like a huge shift to be partying with a bunch of Americans and Canadians who flew in specifically for the festival. It felt like we were suddenly transported out of Costa Rica to any random place in California. A chicken truck shuttled costume clad people out to the festival site – a dusty piece of private property skirted by jungle. Many people (including me) were a bit disappointed that it wasn’t actually on the beach (instead, the beach was a five minute walk on a jungle path through a swamp with rumored crocodiles/alligators). False advertising. Anyway, it was sweltering hot. I’ve been to Burning Man before, and I swear this festival felt hotter… must have been the humidity. Day and night I was dripping with sweat. It made it impossible to attend any of the yoga workshops. It didn’t help that the water faucets would unexpectedly stop working, especially since many people were camping there. During the days, we would retreat to shaded waterfalls 30 minutes aways, just for a bit of relief and relaxation. Anyway, beyond those few survival annoyances, the music, dance performances, and workshops were fantastic. A few favorites were Beats Antique, Lunar Fire, Lucent Dossier, The Earth Harp, and others that I never caught the name of.

Honestly, my favorite part of the entire festival was the astounding sense of relief I felt at the end. We found an amazing hostel called Flutterby House. Treehouse bedrooms, hammocks in the shade, local homemade dinners, ice cold beers, really fantastic people, and a quick walk to a deserted beach.

More to come later…. I’m beginning to feel people eying the computer for a turn.

La Jungla

I’ve come to the realization that I do not like monkies in my hair, however, my boyfriend seems to have found his calling. Recently, we’ve stayed at a unique hostel called La Jungla in Boquete, Panama. It’s an animal rehabilitation and education center that has all sorts of creatures from baby goats to squirel monkies to toucans to boa constrictors. At the same time, it’s home to travelers looking for a warm bed and a bar (not the metal cage kind of course, unless you are into that kind of thing).

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Besides going maternal over the cute animals, we’ve been exploring the mountain town of Boquete, Panama. Yesterday, we hiked the Quetzals Trail in the Parque Nacional Volcán Barú with a couple other travelers from Denmark. It was six miles uphill through dense jungle and across rivers. And when I say uphill, I mean almost vertical at a few points. At the highest point, we were at 2,500 meters above sea level. Really stunning! Sadly, we didn’t see any wild animals, not even the Quetzal bird, though we did see cows and sheep grazing at either end of the jungle.


Pandemonium in Panama

Inconveniently, we’ve landed in Panama at the exact same time that thousands of Panamanian partiers have flooded the streets for Carnival. This massive festival happens in the four days before Ash Wednesday. So to prepare for the 40 days of penitence and prayer of Lent, the entire country eats, drinks, stumbles through confetti dusted streets. Not such a bad thing, unless you are a traveler with no plans and no idea why there are men with coconut bras trying to give you lap dances. The bus stations are madhouses and you’re lucky to find hostels with any beds at all. Travelers spill into hammocks and hard wood floors. After nights of fireworks, blaring music, and shaving cream sprayed on my head, I’m ready for Wednesday to arrive…. praying for a little peace on the beach.

sparrows all up in my pancakes

Only a farm in Southern California would have a greenhouse built overtop a tennis court and an old swimming pool filled with fire wood. You would dial 1-2-3-4 into an intercom that would swing open an ornate white gate. You would see Larry the miniature pony and Sweet-Ti Pie the soft-eared donkey. You would walk through fields of blooming dahlias and sweet peas to your beach style house. You would chat with the Scottish gardener and the web programmer while making a sandwich of humus and spinach. You would wonder, is this what Californians call farming?

(Photos taken by Ian Stevenson)

Counting my one week of WWOOFing, yes – this is what I would call farming in Southern California. World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) is a network that throws together travelers with farms that need an extra hand. In exchange for room and board, WWOOFers work 25-30 hours per week on the farm. As the organization’s name suggests, these opportunities are worldwide. For our first attempt at WWOOFing, my boyfriend and I chose a flower farm just a few miles from our former home in Santa Barbara. We cleared fields, weeded them, planted rows of sweet peas, and set up an irrigation system. Not bad for a week’s work. I became a human rototiller. It was quite the workout for me after coming from freezing winter in New York mostly spent in an office chair or in front of a wood stove. On the other hand, it was easier than I thought to adjust to a vegetarian lifestyle. Fresh squeezed orange/carrot juice, ripe avocados straight off of the tree, and vegan sausages (Trader Joes you are a miracle worker).

Although I had fun at the flower farm, I’ve learned a few things that I’d like for our next WWOOFing adventure:

  1. Choose a place where you will learn something new. All of the above tasks I have already done in my own gardens. I want to learn more about sustainability, organic pest techniques, maintaining complex soil systems, and so on.
  2. Consider the social aspect before you sign-up for a place. Are there many other WWOOFers who come to work/stay? Meeting new fellow travelers is always an awesome experience. You not only gain connections all around the world, but you also learn that Luna’s Castle is a must-stay in Panama and that  “sparrows all up in my pancakes” means way more than it says.
  3. Check out a farm in a foreign country. Maybe we’ll find a place in our upcoming two-month trip to Central America…

The Land of Gorges

Before the snowy rock gorges of Ithaca become an ancient land in my memory, I better write something down. As most bumper stickers in the area will point out, “Ithaca is Gorges.” And it is. It’s a land of extremes. A world of winter versus summer – a world this little California native has never experienced… and has now left behind.

Since I’m horrible at blogging, let me just do a little word association and call it a night.

Winter: water frozen to rock walls mid-splash; ponds frozen and broken hundreds of times over; geese cutting V’s across the cluttered clouds; fields of white and black; the smell of fires from chimneys; rusted cars sliding through the slush; abandoned barns; vacant Collegetown; numb fingers; pints of beer & popcorn; furry boots and jackets double your size; snowflakes melting in the heat of the defroster

Summer: boat rides on the Finger Lakes; barbeques every night; stunning sunsets of pink and lavender and yellow beyond reason; music festivals, apple festivals, any sort of festivals; green go-getters setting up shop; tomatoes bursting on branches; sleep and sunrise on the trampoline; dips in the lake