Visitors Galore, Final Round: Mom

I arrived safely in Thailand last Wednesday and am acclimating back to the traveler lifestyle. I managed to board the plane with a total of 39.9 pounds of belongings with me, plus the clothes I was wearing. (I probably could have gone with fewer things, but I like to have some food and re-stock items with me.) It has been just under 2 years since my last backpacking venture came to an end, but I feel much more prepared this time around. Of course, it will take a little while for my body to get used to carrying around the weight of my pack and I have bruises on my hip bones to show for that, but it is totally worth the feeling of freedom that comes with traveling in such a simple manner. For those of you who have not experienced this feeling, I wish you could. You get to be carefree, concerned only with the few things you have with you, which frees you up to see the beauty of the world around you. Everything I need I have with me now. And anything I will need along the way (food, shelter, shower, etc.) is easily accessible.

The time zone difference is drastic: Thailand is 14 hours AHEAD of California time (PST). While I couldn’t escape the effects of jet lag, it only took me about 3 days to acclimate. I am taking advantage of it in the sense that now it is easy for me to go to sleep early and wake up early, getting a head start on each day.

The temperature has been steady in the mid- to upper 80s with relatively high humidity and occasional downpours in the afternoons, evenings, or overnight. Sunscreen and face wash are the only two things I put on my face anymore. The only issue that arises with sunscreen is trying to get as much sweat off your face and body as possible before re-applying in order to ensure that the sunblock sticks. It’s a funny problem to have.

I have enjoyed many new experiences thus far and the food is just as good or better than everyone had been saying, but I will save the details of this one for my first Backpacking Bonus post that is coming in a day or two. For now, I will continue the Guatemala project as I need to keep it moving…

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Mom visited me in Guatemala toward the tail end of my Peace Corps service. She was my last visitor and also the visitor that stayed the longest, arriving near the end of March and not flying home until the first week of April, totaling 15 days. Besides short visits to Mexico and Canada, Mom had never really traveled outside the USA, and certainly not to a developing country. I knew she wouldn’t really know what to expect and I figured she would WAY overpack so I tried my best to ensure she wouldn’t bring too much stuff because it would be difficult to haul everything around. My efforts were futile, but we managed nonetheless. As a first-time traveler, it seemed she wanted to be prepared for anything and everything. It was almost as if she were ready to move down to Guatemala permanently!

The itinerary I set up for Mom’s trip was pretty simple: 4 to 5 days at a time in three locations–Antigua, Lake Atitlán, and my site, San Andrés Sajcabajá. She had recently had a surgical procedure done on her back during which a nerve was nicked, leaving her partially without feeling in one of her upper legs, from the knee to the hip. Because of this, I didn’t know how she would manage in Guatemala where you have to walk everywhere! I chose only three locations to visit so she wouldn’t be pushed. Plus, taking into consideration that it usually takes my mom an entire day to unpack and settle in, and then another full day to re-pack, I figured it would be more time efficient if we didn’t have to move around a lot. As those of you who know my mom are already very well aware, she is significantly slow-moving.

When I met her at the airport, I was not surprised to count seven separate items trailing behind her, tended to by airport staff: two pieces of luggage, a duffel bag, a purse, a walker, an umbrella, and her big white hat. I had tried to convince her to leave her walker at home because it would not fare well with the cobblestone streets of Antigua or the dirt roads in my town, but she soon figured that out on her own and didn’t use the walker once the entire time as my arm was a much more adaptable stabilizer. She also quickly learned that bringing a big white hat to a dirty place wasn’t going to keep the hat white for very long! Sometimes people just have to learn things on their own; my job was to have patience with a first time traveler and observe in amusement. Luckily enough for her, the only casualty during the trip was the umbrella, forgotten on a chicken bus along the way.

Having a parent come to visit changes the dynamic of the adventure for sure. Instead of staying at hostels like I had done with all my friends and my brother, with Mom, I arranged for a nice, simple, classy hotel called Hotel D’Leyenda, sitting half a block from Antigua’s Central Park. It was the perfect location and for me, a total treat because it wasn’t often that I had a taste of luxury in Guatemala on my PC Volunteer budget (~$365/month as a living stipend). It was a peaceful place in the heart of a beautiful city, a warm welcome for any visitor.

Mom and I in the garden of Hotel D'Leyenda in Antigua.

Mom and I in the garden of Hotel D’Leyenda in Antigua.

Antigua offers so much to see and do so one of the first things I did was take Mom walking around the streets in the 7×7 grid tourist town. She was so excited to be there. Seriously, she was like a kid in a candy store, beaming from ear to ear, greeting everyone she passed, waving to people, etc. Wearing her big white hat to block the sun, she actually drew a lot of attention her way, especially from men. She interpreted it as everyone being so friendly, while I knew what was really going on and warned her that the catcalls and over-friendliness of the men were likely insincere. It was almost as if our mother-daughter roles were completely reversed during this trip: being that I had more experience, I was the mother figure, guiding her along and keeping my eye out for threats while she went about with a happy-go-lucky attitude, without a care or concern in the world, taking everything in with big, open eyes, in a similar way to how a child would. Her naïveté, however, tended to have a charming effect on those around her (see photo).

Mom in the middle of Guatemalan military. I'm not really sure how this happened...

Mom in the middle of Guatemalan military. I’m not really sure how this happened…

Most of the activities we did in Antigua were during the afternoons, one of the first being the famous chocolate-making workshop at the ChocoMuseo (where I had gone twice before with Jeffrey and then Christina & Aundrea). This is a wonderful activity for visitors! The workshop traces the origin and history of chocolate and how it has evolved over the centuries from a bitter drink, to a flavorful drink with spices, to chocolate bars, and even how, at one point in history, it was used as a form of currency. (Hence the expression “money that grows on trees.”) After the educational tour, we each had a chance to grind cacao beans, concoct and sample the different types of chocolate drinks, and even make our own chocolate pieces to take with us. I would recommend this workshop to any visitor passing through Antigua.

During our chocolate-making workshop at ChocoMuseo, we made traditional chocolate beverages with ground up cacao, spices, and a little bit of milk.

During our chocolate-making workshop at ChocoMuseo, we made traditional chocolate beverages with ground up cacao, spices, and a little bit of milk.

On a different afternoon, Mom and I took a trip out from Antigua to my training town, Alotenango, so she could meet my original host family (with whom I lived for 3 months when I first arrived in Guatemala) and so that they could meet her. To Guatemalans, it is an honor to meet your family. It would be offensive to them if my mom came out to visit and I did NOT introduce her to them. This was probably one of the most important things I could have done with her there. So we headed to the bus terminal where Mom got to experience her very first chicken bus ride. It was only a half an hour ride, so it was good practice for what was to come…

Mom getting her first experience on a crowded chicken bus.

Mom getting her first experience on a crowded chicken bus.

Upon arrival in Alotenango, my family greeted us warmly and invited us to share in a meal that Doña Amalia had prepared. All of my host sisters were there, at least briefly, which made it even more special. We spent several hours there, just chatting away and visiting. It made me so happy to share with my family, who had taken me into their home and helped me get through the initial phases of culture shock nearly two years prior. Doña Amalia, who constantly reassured me, “Poco a poco,” or little by little, whenever I would get frustrated with the language barrier, was just like a mom to me so the least I could do was bring my mom to spend some time with them. My mom was grateful to them as well for taking such good care of me, and she brought some small gifts for the family to show her appreciation.

Mom with Doña Amalia and Papa Julio, my host parents from pre-service training in Alotenango. She brought some small gifts for them.

Mom with Doña Amalia and Papa Julio, my host parents from pre-service training in Alotenango. She brought some small gifts for them.

Back in Antigua, the festivities continued. Mom arrived in Guatemala just as the Semana Santa, or Holy Week–Guatemala’s most important holiday, celebration was about to kick off. I posted an entire chapter on Semana Santa back in 2012 so I won’t go into full detail here (you can go read more about it on the “Special Edition: Semana Santa” post if you are interested), but I will say that it is one of the best times of the year to visit Guatemala because the processions and celebrations in preparation for Easter go on for about a week and a half and are like no other Holy Week festivities you have ever seen. The rituals, the symbolism, the honor–it is a majestic expression. While in Antigua, we were able to watch some of the processions. They can be absolutely haunting and so beautiful.

Mom visited during Semana Santa (Holy Week) so she had the opportunity to witness the beautiful processions through the streets of Antigua. Here is one of the floats in the procession.

Mom visited during Semana Santa (Holy Week) so she had the opportunity to witness the beautiful processions through the streets of Antigua. Here is one of the floats in the procession.

A pleasant surprise showed up to Antigua while we were there as well: my friends from California, twin sisters Jessica and Jocelyn, were on a short vacation traveling together in Belize and Guatemala. Jocelyn had served in the Peace Corps several years prior in Cape Verde (off the west coast of Africa) and Jessica and I used to work together at Forbes Mill Steakhouse and go rock climbing together before I started my PC service. It was such a treat to spend some time with them while they were passing through as I hadn’t seen them in nearly two years. They are fast-paced and energetic, always on the go and inevitably finding some kind of trouble or shenanigans along the way. It was wonderful to see them!

My friends from home, twin sisters Jessica and Jocelyn, were traveling in Guatemala during the same time so we spent some time with them. Here we are with Ronald McDonald at the McDonald's in Antigua--the fanciest McDonald's that I have ever seen.

My friends from home, twin sisters Jessica and Jocelyn, were traveling in Guatemala during the same time so we spent some time with them. Here we are with Ronald McDonald at the McDonald’s in Antigua–the fanciest McDonald’s that I have ever seen.

When it was time to leave Antigua, we arranged for a tourist shuttle to take us to our next destination, Lago de Atitlán, another big tourist spot in Guatemala. We stayed in a house in Panajachel that we rented for 5 days from an American lady who lived down there. This lake is a huge attraction for foreigners. There are so many expatriates living down there that I would say the area is less Guatemalan and more “foreignized” than ever. The year-round mild climate, closeness to nature, and considerably inexpensive real estate are all big draws. The sad part is that foreigners are essentially buying Guatemalans out of their own land. I didn’t realize this at the time, but the lady we rented the house from actually has two houses down there–one she lives in and the other she rents out to visitors. She had been down there for around 10 years already and hardly spoke a lick of Spanish. That is just evidence of what that area is turning into.

One of the reasons that the Lake Atitlán is so popular is that it is surrounded by three volcanoes and speckled with 15-20 lakeside villages, each with its own specialty and mood. One town, San Marcos, is known for yoga retreats and for attracting “hippie” types; San Juan is better known for the weaving co-ops where they make their own dyes, then hand-make bags, scarves, and other products to sell. (San Juan also has this amazing artisan cheese restaurant which was a favorite special treat for us PCVs!) San Pedro, which was off-limits to us as PC Volunteers, is a cheap backpacker draw where you can access Volcano San Pedro if you want to go for a challenging hike or just stick around town and access a whole lot of green stuff if you want to smoke instead. Santiago Atitlán is a bigger town where the legendary “Maximón,” who represents Judas, is moved from house to house in town where shrines are built around him and offerings (typically cigarettes, booze, money, or the occasional flower) are made so he can indulge his vices; those who arrive in Santiago Atitlán should seek out Maximón, if only to say hello, which is what we did. (We were a little far away to get a good photo, though!)

Mom and I being goofy and showing off our new headpieces, the traditional headpiece worn by women in a small town called San Antonio near Lake Atitlán.

Mom and I being goofy and showing off our new headpieces, the traditional headpiece worn by women in a small town called San Antonio near Lake Atitlán.

It was awesome that we had a small house in town because there were enough rooms for some of my other PC friends to stay a night or two with us as they were also gallivanting around Panajachel and the lake during the holiday. Kelly, George, and Kathy all stayed with us at some point so I was happy that my mom got to see some of my best friends from Peace Corps and vice versa. We volunteers definitely have a different way of life because Guatemala had conditioned us to go with the flow on a regular basis. I think my mom was in awe of how we all worked together and how flexible we had all become. One of the activities we all did together was take a boat trip across the lake to a town called Jaibalito where there is a public pool/hangout spot overlooking the lake. That was a fun afternoon!

From right to left (some of my other PCV friends), Sasha, Kelly, Mom, me, and Kathy visiting a lakeside town called Jaibalito at one of our favorite getaway spots called Ven Acá, which is a restaurant with a pool overlooking Lago de Atitlán.

From right to left (some of my other PCV friends), Sasha, Kelly, Mom, me, and Kathy visiting a lakeside town called Jaibalito at one of our favorite getaway spots called Ven Acá, which is a restaurant with a pool overlooking Lago de Atitlán.

Up until that point, safe transportation in tourist shuttles or private shuttles was easily accessible. However, following Panajachel, we were heading to my site–where tourist shuttles do NOT venture out to. There was no way around public transportation this time. Mom, plus ALL of her items, would have to face the trip that would have us on 3 separate chicken buses followed by a microbus ride on an unpaved road out to my site–the entire trip totaling three and a half to four hours. This made me very nervous. I would get anxious if I had to keep track of only TWO items during bus rides–but my two plus her SEVEN?!? Holy moly. There was no way…

And then I saw Eric, a PCV who lived in Canillá, the town half an hour past mine. I ended up bribing him with bus fare to stay with us for the whole trip. It was a good deal and having a third person, and a man at that, was so beneficial. He would have done it anyway without me paying his way home, but I really appreciated having an escort. It was worth being able to relax somewhat.

Once in my town, I felt like I could unwind because that was my home. Of course, it is a little different having a visitor who is “on vacation” because I still had work to do and I needed to jump right back into it. The priority switched from what Mom wanted to go see and do to preparation and implementation of my group activities, classes, workshops, and community visits. I went from being tour guide to full-fledged business owner. I made a commitment to my groups and it was “go” time. I was very happy to be back to work again after being away for a week and a half. This provided Mom with the opportunity to see what I really did on a regular basis as a volunteer in my town. I was in my element and Mom always had the choice to come with me or stay home, participate or just observe, rest at home or wander around town. She did all of the above depending on the day. There were a few activities that I insisted she be a part of, typically the ones in which I had very close relationships with the people involved. And there were some very special people in town who were eager to meet my mom so we incorporated those special visits into our week.

In my town where I lived and served, San Andrés Sajcabajá, I took mom around to visit some of my friends and neighbors. I always used to hang out with Irma and Olga (from the right); they lived half a block away from me. Mom also brought them a gift and here she is with them and their mom.

In my town where I lived and served, San Andrés Sajcabajá, I took mom around to visit some of my friends and neighbors. I always used to hang out with Irma and Olga (from the right); they lived half a block away from me. Mom also brought them a gift and here she is with them and their mom.

Some of the people we spent time with that week included my neighbors around the corner, Olga and Irma, who always insisted I pop in for quick random visits. I also took Mom across the street to meet Doña Gloria, my landlord and pseudo-mom; Mom had also brought some small gifts for her and her family, including Doña Gloria’s grandkids, Arli, Sarahy, and Alexandra, with whom I spent considerable amounts of time. One of Doña Gloria’s sons, Acisclo, was a very close friend of mine, I might even say he was the person I trusted the most and shared the most with in that town; he so generously spent over an hour visiting with my mom (and me) and discussing all sorts of things. He spoke a tiny bit of English and Mom spoke some Spanish so they managed to have a great, entertaining conversation. Lastly, we went over to Tayra’s house one evening to celebrate Tayra’s birthday. Tayra was my other very close friend and the wife of one of Doña Gloria’s other sons. She was like a sister to me and we used to cook together all the time, sharing various recipes and trying new things. She had recently had a baby boy that past February so her birthday was going to be low-key. It worked out perfectly that we could go over and spend that time with her, cooking together, sharing a meal, and then nibbling away at a giant homemade chocolate chip cookie “birthday cake” I somehow managed to bake. It was the perfect evening.

One of the activities Mom participated in that week was my kids group. Being that Easter had just passed, there was a great opportunity to fulfill the second of Peace Corps’ 3 goals: to promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the people served. By bringing with her an Easter egg dying kit, Mom pretty much determined the theme of my kids group that week. We taught them about how Americans celebrate Easter and how it is different from how they celebrate it in Guatemala. After they dyed the eggs, we explained how the Easter Bunny comes the night before Easter to hide the eggs and then in the morning, they get to do an Easter egg hunt before attending a church service (in many families) then having a great big meal with all the family together. We then had them stay in my room while we hid the eggs they had colored, then we released the kids to do their own Easter egg hunt. They LOVED it!!! It was so cute to watch them, and we made sure that they had learned enough that they could go home and teach their parents/families about our lesson that day.

A brilliant and creative way to share American culture and traditions with my Guatemalan community, Mom brought an Easter egg dying kit and that is the activity we did in my kids' group that week, followed by an Easter egg hunt. The girl on the right, Arli, is my landlord's granddaughter and lived across the street--she is so smart and kind. I miss her a lot.

A brilliant and creative way to share American culture and traditions with my Guatemalan community, Mom brought an Easter egg dying kit and that is the activity we did in my kids’ group that week, followed by an Easter egg hunt. The girl on the left, Arli, is my landlord’s granddaughter and lived across the street–she is so smart and kind. I miss her a lot.

One of the last activities we had on the schedule that week was a trek out to the other village I worked in, Pajquiej, for a nutrition lesson and cooking class. I normally would walk out to Pajquiej, which took about an hour, but I knew that was too far for Mom to go on a hot day so I arranged for a tuk-tuk to pick us up and take us there. Lo and behold, the tuk-tuk ended up breaking down on the side of the road so we were stuck in the heat and sun anyway! But at least Mom got the tuk-tuk experience…

On the way out to my village, Pajquiej, the tuk tuk broke down. So mom was just hanging out in the broken tuk tuk until another one finally came along.

On the way out to my village, Pajquiej, the tuk tuk broke down. So mom was just hanging out in the broken tuk tuk until another one finally came along.

When we finally arrived at the home of one of the ladies in the group, Sandra, I introduced Mom and then we got started with an icebreaker. Each person, kids included, had a type of food taped to their back (well, a colored paper cutout and drawing, not the actual food) and they could only ask yes or no questions to other people until they figured out what food it was. It had everyone laughing, that’s for sure! We then proceeded with the lesson and prepared some kind of colorful, healthy dish. (I think it was spaghetti with vegetables and a meat-substitute protein, but I can’t remember too well because it has been so long!) All in all, it was another nice day, and as with everyone else, the people in Pajquiej were honored that I would bring my mom to meet them and see where they live. While they didn’t have much, they were always very eager to share what little they had. One can learn a lot about humility and generosity from the people in that tiny village.

Mom observed/participated in one of the nutrition lessons with cooking class that I facilitated for my group in Pajquiej.

Mom observed/participated in one of the nutrition lessons with cooking class that I facilitated for my group in Pajquiej.

All in all, I’d say Mom had a wonderful time. Surprisingly, of all my visitors, she was probably one of the best Spanish speakers and was just chatting away with everyone she met. She seemed totally in her element with how she regards time and I joked that maybe she should be living in Latin America where people rarely show up on time; she would fit right in. Haha! But it is true: life in Guatemala is more about visiting and talking to people and less about watching the clock. Lastly, by the time she was heading home, she was pretty much able to stand and walk on her own. All the walking over the past two weeks had strengthened her leg and given her back the confidence she had lost. To me, this is a typical lesson from Guatemala: You will do whatever needs to be done when there are no other options…and in Guatemala, there aren’t usually many options. It is amazing what people are capable of.

For me, I was grateful as ever that another guest would take the time and make the effort to experience parts of the country where a little piece of my heart will always remain. I felt absolutely spoiled that seven people made their way down to Guatemala during my service! And on the flip side, I was also relieved that my tour guide and translator duties were all said and done and I could focus my energy and time strictly on the people of my community for the remaining 3 months of my service.

Ok. That’s it for a week or so on the Guatemala project, but a Backpacking Bonus is on the way soon!

Alexandra

Post PC Travels: Nicaragua, Part 2

Back to the adventure…

From Granada, Marjolein (the Dutch woman I met in León who became my travel buddy) and I headed up to Managua, the capital on Nicaragua, the following afternoon to catch our flight to the Corn Islands. I had been stating over and over how I wanted to avoid staying the night in the capital city at all costs since I classified Managua to be both dangerous and boring, but of course I spoke too soon: our flight was cancelled supposedly due to a popped tire on the little hopper plane and we were put up in a hotel in Managua for the night by the La Costeña airline and scheduled to be on the first flight out in the morning. The Managua experience wasn’t actually so bad since the hotel was nice, transportation was covered for us, and they provided us with a nice dinner. Apparently all of Central America can be classified as the “Land of the Eternal Unpredictability,” not just Guatemala.

By the time we finally boarded our flight the next day we were getting really excited. The Corn Islands (Big Corn and Little Corn) are located in the Caribbean Sea off the coast of Nicaragua and supposedly offer some of the best diving in clear, turquoise waters. I was hoping to do another SCUBA course for my Advanced Open Water certification while I was there and Marjolein was looking for some serious island time and hoping to squeeze in a handful of dives during the week as well. After flying into Big Corn Island, we immediately headed for the ferry station to boat over to Little Corn Island where we stepped into a place completely designed for relaxation and rustic adventure: the unwritten standards of the island were along the lines of “no cars, no shoes, and no hot water.” Without vehicles, hearing and spotting crabs, hermit crabs, and salamanders scurrying all over the small island was feasible and common. Instead of shoes, we went barefoot for nearly the entire week, and, finally, there was no real need for hot water in the tropics.

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View from the front porch of our cabin on the East side of Little Corn Island. White sand beaches and turquoise seas DO exist!

Unfortunately, we ran into some issues right off the bat with both our lodging options and our dive shop options. We had been misled regarding the availability of cabanas at one lodge where we were trying to set up a deal for a discount in lodging paired with a course and dives at the sister dive shop. Not only did the owner not realize that there were no cabins available for the five consecutive nights we were going to be on the island, but the dive shop she owns was out of commission for most of the week due to a broken down air compressor that has been acting up for 10 years and she refuses to fix—according to all the residents on the rest of the island.

This woman, Mary, demonstrates a great example of an irresponsible international investor. She lives in Chicago and supposedly doesn’t know a thing about diving yet owns Little Corn Dive Shop and Casa Iguana Lodge and, while she doesn’t really maintain quality upkeep, she collects all the tourist profits at the same time paying her employees late, if at all. There is even a drink named after her called “Scary Mary Rum Punch—it makes you crazy and steals your paycheck” at one of the restaurants on the island. She is notorious on Little Corn Island and nobody likes her because of all the problems she causes, but she is an investor and her money is her shield. It was interesting to hear the local perspective on this as we were directly affected by it.

She left us in a lurch because we had no other reservations anywhere else for diving or lodging so we had a lot of work to do despite an attempt to arrive prepared to the island. The first night, we stayed in a bungalow with a private bathroom right on the beach, literally built on stilts in golden sand maybe 30 paces from the bright blue sparkling sea. But we only stayed one night there—Marjolein felt that it was too expensive for such a rustic set-up. The lodging hunt that followed was frustrating, to say the least. Some of the “no” reasons are listed: too expensive, not nice enough, there was only one bed, or there wasn’t a fan. But we couldn’t be too picky because there wasn’t much to choose from and we were going to be there all week. Had I been traveling alone, I probably would have taken any of those places; having to satisfy two people’s preferences on that island proved difficult. We eventually decided on a hotel that was right next to the only other dive shop on the island and we ended up getting a deal on both lodging and diving there instead.

Once we settled in, we were finally able to relax a tiny bit. On the second day, I squeezed in last-minute to the only Advanced Open Water course being offered at Dolphin Dive that week, joining two other women and a female instructor, Jenn, this time. The “specialty” dives included during the course were a deep dive, a navigation dive, a peak performance buoyancy dive, an underwater photography dive, and a night dive. We did all five dives in just two days. It felt extremely rushed, but there wasn’t as much bookwork this time; instead the focus was practice. The main reason to do an advanced dive course is for the deep dive clearance so that the depth of a dive will not limit your diving location options in the future. By checking that off, you have underwater freedom. All three of us successfully finished the course and had a great time together!

Laura (right), the German girl (center), and I underwater and decked out in our SCUBA gear during our Advanced Open Water dive course.

Laura (right), the German girl (center), and I underwater and decked out in our SCUBA gear during our Advanced Open Water dive course.

Consistent with its reputation, Little Corn Island was a superb diving location with great visibility and a large variety of marine life. Some of the creatures that I had to opportunity to see up close and personal included lionfish, spiny lobsters, barracuda, trumpet fish, sea cucumbers, lionfish, sea anemones, starfish, cleaner shrimp, hermit crabs, sea slugs, green turtles, hawksbill turtles, sea urchins, porcupine fish, and some of my favorites—the very large and very beautiful parrotfish (both “midnight” and “rainbow”).

A lion fish in "Yellow Tail" dive location off the coast of Little Corn Island. Lion fish are an invasive species so they are often hunted (with spears) and consumed by locals.

A lion fish in “Yellow Tail” dive location off the coast of Little Corn Island. Lion fish are an invasive species so they are often hunted (with spears) and consumed by locals.

My best daytime dive was at a shallow location (max depth: 45 feet) called White Holes. During this early afternoon dive, we spotted 9 nurse sharks and 2 eagle rays!! And since it was relatively shallow, the colors of the reef and sea creatures living on it were bright and vibrant. It was so neat to swim behind the sharks, rays, and parrotfish, trailing them, just to observe their behavior and watch how they move. There is no reason to be afraid. The rule of thumb for interacting with marine creatures while diving is, “If you don’t bother them, then they won’t bother you.” Some species can be aggressive (tiger sharks, great whites, etc.) and it is recommended to maintain distance, but nurse sharks are mild-mannered.

I am glad I had the opportunity to use the underwater camera a couple times because I got a couple neat shots! Of course, without a flash, the true colors cannot be captured; the deeper you go in the ocean, the less available light there is.

Can you spot the juvenile trumpet fish? Camouflaged well, he is almost as long as the plant.

Can you spot the juvenile trumpet fish? Camouflaged well, he is almost as long as the plant.

My experience as a whole on Little Corn Island was totally different and not as enjoyable as my time on Roatán, where I had my initial SCUBA training and diving experiences. I didn’t feel that I connected very well with many people, and that may have been related to my own state of mind. I was craving alone time and the ability to make independent decisions but not getting much of either. We did, however, run into a super cool group of people from San Francisco who was on vacation for a week during the same time we were on the island. Laura from my Advanced Open Water course was one of them. She and her boyfriend, Rick, were AWESOME and fun to be around so Marjolein and I ended up hanging out with their group (shout out to Ken, Matt, the other Matt, Ebu, Evyenia, and Dane!) for most of the week. I have since reconnected with them in San Francisco having moved back to the Bay Area – and Laura and Rick actually got engaged just a few months ago! Did I mention what neat people they all are?

One benefit of having a travel buddy is that you can both indulge in fabulous meals for sharing! Our meal here is a fresh lobster with potatoes and veggies. It was delicious!

One benefit of having a travel buddy is that you can both indulge in fabulous meals for sharing! That evening, Marjolein and I shared a fresh lobster with potatoes and veggies. It was delicious!

My week in Little Corn can serve as a great example of pros and cons of traveling. One of the PROS is that you can meet and connect with people from all over the world—even from your own backyard—and remain lifelong friends with them. And a CON, or more of a reality of traveling, is that it is not always the stereotypical exciting or relaxing vacation that we are conditioned to think of when someone mentions traveling to an exotic place. Things can go awry or you can be in one of the most beautiful places in the world and not be engaged with it. As I backpacked through Central America, I experienced these things as well as the many other pros and cons that come with the territory. Most, if not all, travelers do.

The eastern shore of Little Corn Island. A little piece of paradise.

The eastern shore of Little Corn Island. A little piece of paradise.

My very last dive of the week was a night dive I did after I completed my Advanced Open Water course, making this my third night dive overall – and by far the most amazing! The memory I have from this dive is easily one of my top memories ever. In addition to the amazing creatures we spotted and observed in their nocturnal routines, we also had the chance to experience bioluminescence in the dark again, just as we had done in Honduras. But this time, we kept all the flashlights off for 15 minutes straight, allowing everyone to float or drift however the current moved.

Instead of kneeling in the sand patch on the ocean floor, I floated up about 5-8 feet so I could be completely surrounded by the bioluminescent “strings of pearls” (the tiny crustacean called an ostracod), twinkling like little stars in a string-like pattern (which is a mating ritual). As I marveled at Nature’s work, I felt a complete loss of control—floating underwater in a pitch black ocean with no idea how close or far away I was from my companions—and I was at total peace with the fact that I was wrapped in Nature’s arms and at the mercy of God’s plan for the Universe. I felt wonderment and appreciation and, although I felt so tiny like I was traveling through an endless galaxy with only stars around me, I felt like this was exactly where I needed to be in that moment in time. My entire body was overcome with a peaceful feeling, completely relaxed in knowing that I wasn’t in control. It was an amazing experience.

When Marjolein and I left Little Corn Island, we headed back to Granada and spent one more night together there before she continued her journey on to Costa Rica. We had spent a total of 15 days together (probably my maximum time limit for travel buddies); I was ready to be alone again to get stable, re-center myself, and write more so I decided to stay in Granada for a couple more days because Granada has this fabulous coffee shop culture that is perfect for all of that. After Marjolein left, I switched to a hostel for $5 dorm beds. It also had free drinking water and Internet, plus I had the dorm to myself for 3 of the 5 nights I stayed there. It was awesome. I ate at Garden Café (my favorite restaurant there) for the majority of my meals, and I even had the opportunity to grab lunch with Nancy, a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer who served in Suriname and now lives in Nicaragua, running Hotel Casa de San Francisco in Granada. The Peace Corps community is everywhere!

RPCV Nancy and I at The Garden Café in Granada, enjoying lunch and conversation.

RPCV Nancy and I at The Garden Café in Granada, enjoying lunch and conversation.

I came to really love Granada and my time there allowed me to learn a little more about the food and culture. Nicaragua, just as many of the Central American countries, considers rice and beans as their staple foods. The funny thing about it, though, is that each country has their own version of rice ‘n beans. Imagine that. In Nicaragua, they mix whole red beans together with rice and call it gallo pinto, or “painted rooster.” Although it is just rice ‘n beans, just like any other rice ‘n beans, it is delicious; I don’t know what they do differently to make it taste so good, but no complaints there! In addition to that, Nicaragua is well known for its variety of meats as well as quesillos, or toasted slabs of firm white cheese.

At the southern part of Granada on the edge of Lake Nicaragua stands a statue of Francisco Hernandez Córdoba, who founded Nicaragua in 1524 and after whom Nicaraguan money, the córdoba, is named.

At the southern part of Granada on the edge of Lake Nicaragua stands a statue of Francisco Hernandez Córdoba, who founded Nicaragua in 1524 and after whom Nicaraguan money, the córdoba, is named.

I savored every minute of my last day in Granada pushing relaxation to the max with a $3 haircut followed by an approximately $25 spa package that included a massage, facial, and a reflexology foot massage. Writing, gelato, nice dinner, and peace. It was perfect. My plan for the next day was to hop on a bus headed southwest to the San Juan del Sur coast for a couple days, but my plan was interrupted with a very unsettled stomach that resulted in several minutes of vomiting just as I was about to check out of the hostel. I hadn’t puked in over 5 years—even surviving my entire Peace Corps stint without throwing up—so this was very unusual. While once was the end of it, I stayed an extra night, just in case. Little did I know, this was the first symptom of something much more severe, but I’ll wait to tell you about that once we get to Costa Rica…

So my plan changed again and when I finally got on that bus heading for the coast, I decided to avoid the notorious party town beaches at San Juan del Sur and instead I hopped on a ferry on Lago de Nicaragua, Nicaragua’s massive lake, heading for Isla de Ometepe, the small island that is made of two volcanoes in the middle of the lake. I picked a quiet lodge on one of the edges of the lake facing West so I had spectacular sunset views; I only had two nights available to stay out there which wasn’t nearly enough time, so I’ll just have to go back out there someday because it is a magical place and I was sad to leave it behind.

Isla de Ometepe, created by two volcanoes, on Lake Nicaragua. The high peak on the left is Volcano Concepción and the smaller peak to the right is Volcano Maderas.

Isla de Ometepe, created by two volcanoes, on Lake Nicaragua. The high peak on the left is Volcano Concepción and the smaller peak to the right is Volcano Maderas.

The magic began just hours after I settled in when a tropical storm made its presence known through heavy rain and big gusts of wind, causing the power to go out for several hours. I couldn’t write during that time so I hung out in a hammock outside and just happened to start talking to a random stranger who was also sitting there outside in the dark, equally admiring the forces of Nature. His name was Paul and he was from New Mexico, also traveling solo—on vacation for a couple weeks. We discussed our plans for our island stay and decided to pair up to climb Volcano Maderas (4,573 feet) the next day. I was relieved to have found yet another travel buddy to join me for my adventure because it was not recommended to climb that volcano alone, especially as a female.

A vibrant hibiscus flower on the grounds of the lodge where I stayed on Isla de Ometepe.

A vibrant hibiscus flower on the grounds of the lodge where I stayed on Isla de Ometepe.

The following day was filled with such wonderful surprises, starting with a dog from the lodge befriending us. The lodge owners said the dog didn’t have an owner or a name so Paul decided to name him “Cáne” (pronounced KAH-nay) which means dog in Italian. Haha! When we left midday to begin our journey to the waterfalls on the volcano, Cáne decided to follow us. We didn’t know how long he would trail us, but he ended up staying with us for the entire hike and all the way back home! It was like he adopted us. And it was really nice to have that extra companionship. He was such a good pup.

Cáne, Paul, and I at the waterfall and freshwater pools after several hours of hiking on Volcano Maderas.

Cáne, Paul, and I at the San Ramón waterfall and lagoon after several hours of hiking on Volcano Maderas.

In addition to Cáne, we were also graced by the presence of wild horses and howler monkeys. The horses were just grazing on the mountainside so it gave us a good resting point to stop and watch them. They let us get close enough to touch them, and although the baby colt was a little skittish, his curiosity got the best of him and he came up to investigate us, sniff us out some, before running off again to nurse on his mama. It was definitely a treat!

Wild horses grazing on the mountainside on Volcano Maderas.

Wild horses grazing on the mountainside on Volcano Maderas.

Paul, getting acquainted with the colt during our waterfall hike on Volcano Maderas.

Paul, getting acquainted with the colt during our waterfall hike on Volcano Maderas.

Once we finally found the waterfall, we were already getting a little tired and both dripping sweat due to the heat and the humidity so the thing to do was definitely jump in!! The freshwater pool was only maybe three to four feet deep and freezing, but it felt refreshing. We also ran into another group of hikers while we were there; incidentally, I knew one of them, Judy, whom I had met at the Surfing Turtle Lodge just a few weeks prior. This is a regular occurrence: when traveling in the same parts of the world, you will likely run into the friends and other travelers you already met along the way.

Full picture of the San Ramón waterfall, at 56 meters high (about 180 feet), at the end of our hike up the southern slope of Volcano Maderas.

Full picture of the San Ramón waterfall, at 56 meters high (about 180 feet), at the end of our hike up the southern slope of Volcano Maderas. (Photo not to scale because I am standing WAY in front of the waterfall, probably by about 200 feet.)

So proud of Cáne keeping up, we decided it was time to turn around as it had taken us several hours to get to the waterfall and we only had a little bit of daylight left. All through the jungle, we could hear howler monkeys at a distance singing among the trees, but it wasn’t until we were back on the main road that we spotted a couple in the nearby trees, swinging, playing, and chasing each other. (They were a little too far away for any clear photos.) Once Cáne and the monkeys saw each other, though, they calmed down and just watched each other for a few minutes. But we couldn’t stay too long because it was nearly sunset and we still had a ways to go.

Sunset view from Isla de Ometepe on our way back from the waterfall hike.

Sunset view from Isla de Ometepe across Lake Nicaragua on our way back from the waterfall hike.

It was an exhausting day, but well worth every minute spent out in nature. Poor Paul was stuck with me talking his ear off for 6 or 7 hours straight that day, but he was a good sport about it. The next day we decided to travel back to Granada together before going our separate ways. And guess who followed us as we left the lodge and walked ten minutes down the road to the bus stop? Cáne did, of course! And he even got on the bus, knowing that that was where we were headed. He SO badly wanted to come with us. Talk about loyalty! And he had only known us for a day!! It was sad to leave him behind, but we trusted that he would make new friends.

Cáne boarding the bus on our way out. He wanted to leave the island with us! Isn't he cute??

Cáne boarding the bus on our way out. He wanted to leave the island with us! Isn’t he cute??

In total, I spent about a month in Nicaragua and it was the perfect trip because I had no time pressure and I just moved along as I felt like it at a slow pace. I did and saw what I wanted to do and see. I had alone time and social time; I hiked in canyons and on volcanoes, I swam on beaches and in freshwater pools, and I embraced as many underwater adventures as I could fit in. I witnessed some of the most magnificent displays of nature, made friends, ate good food, and studied the culture. Nicaragua was kind to me, for the most part, and will always have a special in my heart.

Love,

Alexandra

Return From Writing Hiatus

Hello, hello! It has definitely been awhile…

I haven’t written in over a year and a half, having left my story very obviously unfinished. A turn of events in my life recently has gifted me with both the time and freedom to return to and finish my writing project.

Since returning from Central America in October 2013, my plans and path have changed drastically. Two posts ago, I wrote that I was living in Roseville, starting work at a restaurant again, and planning to visit everyone, save some money, write a lot, and look into grad school. None of that really happened, except for the temporary stay with my mom and saving some money.

I switched directions, moved back to the Bay Area, and started working a semi-corporate professional job as the Recruiting Director for a start-up financial services firm (that was under the corporate umbrella). While I learned an immense amount about business development and refined a skill set in that arena, it was probably one of the most stressful and high-pressure positions I will ever have in my life. It WAS my life for quite awhile, and all my time and energy went to recruiting, networking, community involvement, and everything else all about work. Consequently, it led to severe neglect of this lingering writing project that I think about on a daily basis.

In late April, the corporate office pulled the plug on our small firm (as well as all the other developing firms in California), merging us into an already independent agency of the company; my position was eliminated in the process. While it was sad to have everything we had worked to build just be taken away from us in a clean swoop, I am grateful to have experienced a corporate takeover at 28 years old and relieved that my stress level has significantly decreased.

I have enough of a cushion to take a couple months off now to complete my personal projects as well as do a thorough career exploration and select carefully before I make my next move. My experiences in the last few years have demonstrated the importance of identifying your passion, listening to your heart, and engaging with your calling. I am not going to ignore the opportunity I have been given at this point in my life.

I was lucky enough to go back to Guatemala in May for a short time; that trip will have a significant impact on how this story ends. I have only 8 chapters or so left to write for “Guatemala, Through My Eyes” and my commitment is that I’m not going to start a new job until I’m done writing this time (so I better write fast!!). These chapters are what you can expect for the remainder of the story:

Post-PC Travels: Nicaragua, Part 2

Visitors Galore, Final Round: Mom

Post-PC Travels: Costa Rica

Learning to Count Up

The Gringo Groove: Worlds 3 & 4

Sexy in Guatemala

Bolos, Chuchos, & Mangoes

A New Set of Eyes

The first three chapters are going to be lighter, sort of “froo-froo” chapters in how they relate to the overall conclusion, but they are part of the experience, nonetheless. I am hoping that my last five chapters will turn out to be some of the best writing and deepest exploration and sharing that I have done about Guatemala yet. I am planning for a strong finish.

So everything is ready now. I have all the templates for the remaining chapters up and partially outlined on my laptop, I have my purple pens and paper available for brainstorming, and I have a new journal that I have begun to write in again that will document this next leg of the journey. Oh, and last but not least: I bought a plane ticket to Southeast Asia. I figure that because I tend to write the best when I am out of the country, I might as well get my bum out of the country. I’m leaving in a couple weeks.

Ready, Set, WRITE!!!

Ready, Set, WRITE!!!

In addition to my remaining Guatemala chapters, while I am away, I will be writing short “Backpacking Bonus” posts with photos to document my adventures through Southeast Asia.

So please send well wishes and prayers my way for optimal health and safety, as well as focus, energy, and strength to write what needs to be written. In return, I will share my experiences with you as best as I can through stories and photos.

Again, I appreciate all the support, encouragement, and friendship coming from many of you who read. There are some of you whom I haven’t yet had the opportunity to visit in person since I have been back, but know that I always have you on my mind and hope to see you at some point soon.

Love,

Alexandra

Post PC Travels: Nicaragua, Part 1

After a lovely 15 days spent in El Salvador where I wasn’t really on my own very much, I was ready to get on the move again. The day I left San Salvador, I was planning to make it to Nicaragua, but I didn’t make it that far due to public transportation. Since El Salvador and Nicaragua don’t share a border, I had to cross back into Honduras and drive two hours through the country to the other border crossing for Nicaragua. Since I was just pulling into the border town, San Marcos de Colón at the southern part of Honduras, by 8 PM, I decided to stay the night. That meant I got a good night’s sleep and one more typical Honduran breakfast of baleadas and fresh cantaloupe juice in the morning before I headed for the border.

My first destination was the town of Estelí, a so-called “cowboy” town in the northwestern highlands of Nicaragua. One of my first encounters with a local occurred at a roadside food stand, where I had ordered an afternoon snack of an enchilada (more like an empanada stuffed with chicken and rice) and quesillo, a small block of cheese toasted on the grill, a Nicaraguan specialty.

The man came up to me and asked if I was going to treat him to an afternoon snack as well. Naturally I was wary of being approached so brazenly, but he started speaking to me in English some so I listened. The guy was in his 60s and had previously lived in L.A. for 15 years—has citizenship even. He has been retired for seven years and came back to Nicaragua (where his retirement money and social security get sent) because he said there is no life in the States—why would anyone want to live there when they can live in peace and tranquility elsewhere? This is the general consensus of many people in these countries: go to the States until you feel financially secure, then go home and live the good life with all the money you made (that stretches so far in these countries).

He continued to probe me for information, and when I let it out that I spoke Spanish so well because I had been a Peace Corps Volunteer in Guatemala for two years, he started telling everyone who passed on the street (usually locals, all of whom he knew by name) that I worked for the CIA. Apparently, Nicaraguans all used to think that PCVs worked for the CIA, especially during the war—why else would they be infiltrating rural villages and trying to gain the trust of all the locals in their communities? By the time 20 minutes had passed and everyone who walked by knew my name, the state I was from, and my supposed CIA agent status, and this guy had interrogated me about my marital status, I think he was bored so he left to probably find someone else to poke fun at. The whole encounter made me laugh because it is so typical of the lifestyle of rural towns.

Estelí is a relatively mellow place so I decided to take a writing day while I gave my dog bite injury some more time to heal before getting active again. There wasn’t too much to do in Estelí anyway. It is known for its cigar factories, but I wasn’t really interested in that. It also has some natural reserves and opportunities to hang out with local families and make tortillas and stuff, but since I had been doing that for two years, I decided I could pass. The big thing I was interested in was the Somoto Canyon, an hour and a half north by the Honduran border, so I signed up to take the tour the day after my writing day.

Here I am, surrounded on all sides by the Somoto Canyon.

Here I am, surrounded on all sides by the Somoto Canyon.

I hopped on a bus to Somoto early the next morning and was picked up by the tour operator who took me on his motorcycle to where the tour guide was waiting for me. They geared me up with water shoes and a lifejacket, and the guide and I set off on foot for the canyon. It turned out that I was the only person who signed up (and showed up) that day so I got a personalized tour, and we moved at my pace! My tour guide even voluntarily became my personal photographer, constantly asking, “Do you want me to take a picture of you here? How about over there?”

This is me, happily posing on a rock by a small waterfall in Somoto Canyon.

This is me, happily posing on a rock by a small waterfall in Somoto Canyon. (That huge bruise on my thigh is from my dog bite!)

The hike through the canyon ended up taking about three and a half hours, and the place was stunning! After making it to the actual canyon, we made our way through it by jumping off canyon formations into freshwater pools, then swimming or walking through the streams toward the other end of the canyon. Being right there in between these giant canyon walls just drifting along gave me such a peaceful feeling. Nicaragua is so proud of the Somoto Canyon that the 50 Córdoba bill (Nicaraguan currency, approximately equal to US$2) even features it.

This was taken in Somoto Canyon after I jumped 15 meters (approximately 45 feet) off one of the canyon cliffs into a deep pool below.

This was taken in Somoto Canyon after I jumped 15 meters (approximately 45 feet) off one of the canyon cliffs into a deep pool below.

While Estelí is a mellow town, it is also filled with very bothersome men. I, just as every other foreign woman living or traveling in Latin America, have encountered a significant amount of unwanted male attention, however, I don’t know that I have ever gotten as much attention as I did in Estelí. The men were shameless. The catcalling, the kissy-smoochy sounds, and the honking. All of it. One guy even slowed his car down in the street, holding up traffic, until he was just ahead of me as I was walking down the sidewalk; he made sure to make eye contact as he made a very exaggerated kissing motion toward my direction, earning a much-practiced scowl from me before I turned the corner. Of course, the escalated attention probably was due in part from my “solo traveling,” but I still made a note to avoid all so-called cowboy towns in the future.

In addition to being completely annoyed by the brazen, relentless attention from men in Estelí, I also didn’t find anyone I really connected to there. It made me really miss some of my previous awesome travel buddies like Marcus and Tibo. Estelí seems like one of those “heart of Nicaragua” towns in which you have to spend a lot of time before the people start trusting you. But I didn’t exactly have another two years to spend there and this trip wasn’t focused on integration, plus the last night in the dorm room at the hostel brought in a couple more antisocial people and a girl who smelled as if she hadn’t showered for a week, so I couldn’t wait to get the heck out of there! Off to León.

Not long after arriving in León, I was already feeling better. After dodging pressure to stay at “the biggest party hostel in León” by a guy who waits at the bus terminal scooping up travelers before they catch their breath and convincing them to head to his hostel, I found my way to a place called Lazybones Hostel, which was much mellower than my first option and even had a nice swimming pool and plenty of hammocks. I immediately caught the vibe and within minutes, I made new friends who were just as laidback and friendly as the hostel. Hanging out with the four German guys and the two Dutch girls made me yet again think, “Geez. Europeans are so funny and really smart!” We all had a great time and swapped some fun stories and travel recommendations.

In the next couple days, I spent a lot of time with the Dutch girls, Marieke and Marjolein (sound like “Marika” and “Mario-lane”). Marieke is a teacher and was spending her summer holiday traveling in Nicaragua. Marjolein had recently ended a contract with her job in Mexico, where she had been living for four years; she is currently en route via land to Argentina, where she plans to look for work and live for a while. Marieke and Marjolein had actually attended school together in the Netherlands years ago and found out that, by chance, that they were in Nicaragua at the same time so they made sure to get together in León, where I found them. And I am sure glad I did!

We went to dinner at a fabulous restaurant together in León one night and it turned out that the owner of the restaurant was from the Netherlands, too, so Marieke and Marjolein chatted away with her in Dutch for half the night. After we took this photo (Marieke, me, the restaurant owner, and Marjolein), I was like, "Hey! We match the cow picture on the wall!" Each of us had a solid-color shirt on that matched a color in the painting. Random, but we all laughed about it--especially when I told the restaurant owner that she matched the cow's nose! Maybe someday I'll learn not to put my foot in my mouth...

We went to dinner at a fabulous restaurant together in León one night and it turned out that the owner of the restaurant was from the Netherlands, too, so Marieke and Marjolein chatted away with her in Dutch for half the night. After we took this photo (Marieke, me, the restaurant owner, and Marjolein), I was like, “Hey! We match the cow picture on the wall!” Each of us had a solid-color shirt on that matched a color in the painting. Random, but we all laughed about it–especially when I told the restaurant owner that she matched the cow’s nose! Maybe someday I’ll learn not to put my foot in my mouth…

León itself is a nice place—a university town, although it has the reputation for being the hottest town in all of Nicaragua. After breakfast with my friends the next day (Sunday), I wandered through the streets into the Rubén Darío museum (he was one of the most influential poets in all of Central America and still a very important figure in Nicaraguan history), through the Ortíz art gallery to admire old paintings and sculptures, and over to a couple prominent churches and the giant cathedral in the area. There weren’t too many people wandering around while I was in the middle of the day (which can probably be attributed to the thick heat) so it gave the place a very laidback feeling.

It is a relatively easy town to get around in although the majority of given directions come in forms such as “from the central park, a block and a half up” or “from the La Merced church, go two and a half blocks down and one block over.” Of course, the only way to know which direction is up, down, or over at any given time is to try to follow the hand signals of the direction-giver. There are all types of transportation, but it is far from overcrowded and the streets are decent (with the exception of a bazillion deep potholes along every sidewalk). Additionally, I was surprised by the number of locals all over the country who choose bicycling as their main from of transportation (in Estelí as well!).

Another trend that caught my attention all over Nicaragua was the presence of rocking chairs. The most common setting is a front porch, yard, or sidewalk after the sun has gone down and things start cooling off. (León comes alive in the evenings!) It provides a great spot for locals to get some fresh air and people-watch while chitchatting about this, that, and the other thing. But rocking chairs aren’t just found there; they are in people’s living rooms, at restaurants, and even serving as the main furniture in travel agencies and hostels! (I continued to see rocking chairs in every other town I visited as I traveled south in Nicaragua, as well.)

I planned my big León adventure for Monday morning: a hike up Volcano Cerro Negro—a young, active cone that is completely black and has three craters that are constantly hot with sulfuric activity—with the specific intention of sand-boarding down the side of it. I went with a group of six through an agency that drove us out to the park and set us up with boards, jumpsuits, knee and elbow pads, gloves, and goggles. (We carried our gear up in special bags for later use…)

Here I am standing in front of the biggest of the three crater on Cerro Negro.

Here I am standing in front of the biggest of the three crater on Cerro Negro.

The hike up the volcano only took about 45 minutes—the shortest ascent I have ever made on a volcano. Not only did we get to look down into the craters and out over the landscape, but we also spotted unexpected wildlife: a porcupine foraging for a meal only a couple meters away from us!!

This is the porcupine we spotted while ascending Cerro Negro, its quills waving in the cool wind.

This is the porcupine we spotted while ascending Cerro Negro, its quills waving in the cool wind.

After walking around the top for a few minutes, it was time for the real fun. We geared up and got a quick lesson from our guide on how to “steer” and slow down or speed up during the descent. The majority of us had chosen to go down sitting on our board as opposed to standing so it was more like black gravel tobogganing than sand-boarding. (The one lady who attempted to go standing took about 10 minutes to get down because she kept falling every few feet, said it was a lot of work, and reported that volcanic gravel doesn’t really have anything in common with snow; we were all impressed that she took the task on in the first place.)

Our group, all dressed up in our jumpsuits and gear with boards in hand, preparing for our rapid descent down the volcano.

Our group, all dressed up in our jumpsuits and gear with boards in hand, preparing for our rapid descent down the volcano.

When it was my turn, I sat down, grabbed the rope handle/reins, leaned back, and gave myself a little push. Then I was off! Speed picked up really fast because the smooth push-off quickly becomes a steep 45-degree angle descent, and all I could focus on was trying to keep my board pointed downward. But that was hard to do while I had black, charcoal-like gravel shooting up the legs of my jumpsuit, firing at my cheeks and exposed mouth, falling down my clothes from the opening at the neck, and nailing my goggles. Despite being under gravel-attack, I had to stay steady and focused because as soon as you lose focus, you fall and take a rough tumble. I managed to stay on and make it to the bottom in about 40 seconds. It was exhilarating!

This is the final leg of my high-speed  volcano-boarding descent down Cerro Negro.

This is the final leg of my high-speed volcano-boarding descent down Cerro Negro.

As soon as I got back to Lazybones, I checked in with Marjolein and we were both ready to get on the move (and away from the debilitating heat) and head for the coast to a place called Surfing Turtle Lodge, on a little island called Isla de Los Brasiles, just off the Pacific beach town of Poneloya, 20 minutes west of León. (Marieke had left us early that morning for her flight back to the Netherlands; this is the point when Marjolein and I became official travel buddies.) We were a little skeptical of this place because it seemed to good to be true, but we decided to give it a shot and stay at least one night. Getting out there was an adventure in itself that involved a hot, sweaty bus, then a 10-minute walk to a random restaurant where we were supposed to take a tiny motorboat out to the island, and then walk another 15 minutes through a marshy forest until we arrived at the lodge right on the beach.

Marjolein and I—hot, sweaty, and gross, but with high hopes—during the motorboat leg of our trek out to the Surfing Turtle Lodge on the Pacific Coast of Nicaragua.

Marjolein and I—hot, sweaty, and gross, but with high hopes—during the motorboat leg of our trek out to the Surfing Turtle Lodge on the Pacific Coast of Nicaragua.

Upon arrival, we looked at each other and decided that we were going to stay longer than planned—at least a few nights. (That was a Monday.) So although the Surfing Turtle Lodge had neither good surfing (since the currents were way too strong and would break a lot of boards) nor turtles due to the fact that it wasn’t turtle season, it was still a neat spot to hang out because it was practically the only place on the island. We stayed in the spacious dorms that had a nice breeze and an ocean view and enjoyed the isolation for a couple days. The place was rustic and the food options were limited, but you can’t really demand much for a place out in the middle of nowhere. The peace that the ocean provided was the payoff.

Marjolein and I playing on the beach at sunset on Isla de Los Brasiles.

Marjolein and I playing on the beach at sunset on Isla de Los Brasiles.

I don’t really have much to say about this part of the trip because I didn’t do much but read, write, and relax. I took a couple walks on the beach on which I could go at least 30 minutes in either direction and then return without seeing anyone else out there. We also played in the waves but we didn’t go too far out of respect for the current. There were other travelers there so we met lots of people and were in good company, but the best part about it was that there were enough people there to get beach volleyball matches going every afternoon for three days straight, plus a little bit of ping pong in the evenings!

Standing on the second story of the lodge, where our dorms were, this was the view: palm trees, sand, volleyball court, thatched relaxation areas, and ocean. Pure bliss for me!

Standing on the second story of the lodge, where our dorms were, this was the view: palm trees, sand, volleyball court, thatched relaxation areas, and ocean. Pure bliss for me!

I kept to myself a lot so I could spend time with nature and my thoughts. I also found that I have very different priorities from the younger travelers looking for partying or romance so the conversation with them proved difficult; Marjolein (at 35) and I often sought each other out for conversation relief from the early-20-somethings. We were still very social when the time called for it; for example, there was no way either of us was going to miss the full moon party with the beach bonfire and group mystery games on Thursday night! It was also great to hear the individual stories of some of the mellower guests which included Terry, an easygoing South African who works on yachts and has a favorite hobby of shark-diving, and the Dutch couple who has been trying for years to start a family, and after recent run-in with bad luck (for the 4th time), decided to use the money they had been saving to buy a car for “future family use” to take a big trip to Central America instead.

The lounge and bar area at Surfing Turtle was fully equipped with couches, hammocks, and bar swings. This was our group right before we started the beach bonfire. Most of the guys in this photo were out playing beach volleyball right next to me during the week. We all had a great time that night!

The lounge and bar area at Surfing Turtle was fully equipped with couches, hammocks, and bar swings. This was our group right before we started the beach bonfire. Most of the guys in this photo were out playing beach volleyball right next to me during the week. We all had a great time that night!

One of the highlights of being of the week (besides volleyball!) was witnessing a torrential storm that battered the island and gave us a big show. The lightning was practically right on top of us, flashing and cracking so immediately after each bolt appeared that it was scaring the begeezus out of us and had the adrenaline coursing through our veins as we all looked on in awe. We even saw a bolt or two hit the ocean, which was really cool!

After the storm...

After the storm…

We finally decided to leave the lodge on Friday after four nights there, and we caught a ride to Managua, the capital of Nicaragua, with some of the other guests who had a car. Instead of staying in Managua, I persuaded Marjolein to jump on a bus to Granada so we could spend the night there. I try to spend as little time as possible in capital cities because they tend to have more crime and therefore seem less safe. It turned out that we made a great choice because Granada on a Friday night was absolutely fabulous! We showered and each put on a dress and headed out for a girls’ date night. The main street was alive with live music, street vendors, and restaurants with outdoor seating. We picked The Garden Café where we had a delicious healthy dinner; later, we went to a different venue for the live music. Having so many options in a vibrant city was a big change from the isolated lodge on the island we had just come from.

The Calzada, Granda's main street, has a vibrant atmosphere, especially in the evenings.

The Calzada, Granda’s main street, has a vibrant atmosphere, especially in the evenings.

I immediately loved Granada. It is a Spanish colonial-style town with a laidback, coffee shop feel. There is a healthy mix of foreigners and locals, which is nice to see when some towns tend to be overrun by tourists. The male attention that we received was a prevalent part of the culture there, but for some reason, to me it didn’t seem as threatening as it did in the northern parts of the country since the men’s actions were less vicious, more playful, and maintained at a distance.

Another cultural observation I made in Nicaragua was regarding driving, honking, and transportation. In the United States, I had become accustomed to people only honking for road rage purposes when they get angry or frustrated at another driver; in India, I think all the people who are incessantly laying on their horns think that, by doing so, it might magically clear the streets or make people drive faster in the overwhelmingly congested streets. My personal experience with being honked at in Latin America can affirm that it is used as a really lame way to get a female’s attention—a sort of catcall. Of course these are generalizations, but the generalization I have for Nicaragua is that people are very cautious as they drive and use their horns mainly to notify other possible drivers in the area that they are approaching an intersection or attempting to join the flow of traffic. I found honking to rarely have disrespectful or angry undertones in Nicaragua.

Another note on transportation: cars and trucks, motorcycles, bicycles, and horse-drawn carts share the road equally. It was neat to see so many locals on their bicycles cruising down the streets. It became as common as the rocking chairs! And Nicaragua is the only Latin American country I have been to where using horse-drawn carts for practical purposes and transportation in the cities as well as the rural areas is completely normal.

A man on his horse-drawn cart, sharing the road with bicyclists and motorized vehicles on the streets of Granada.

A man on his horse-drawn cart, sharing the road with bicyclists and motorized vehicles on the streets of Granada.

A few more cultural notes on Nicaragua are the following: 1) Baseball is the national sport. They are so into it! It was refreshing to be in a baseball country since I have been surrounded by nothing but soccer, soccer, and more soccer for the last couple of years. I’m not really much of a soccer fan, but I love me some baseball so finally I was in the right spot! And to see how women, men, kids, and adults alike shared their love and enthusiasm for the sport was heartwarming. 2) The Spanish language in Nicaragua is very casual (also using the informal “tú” form when speaking in second person). The people seem just as laidback as the way they speak, although the thicker, harder to understand Spanish (literally, the one that comes from Spain) accent seems to have infiltrated the Nicaraguan way of speaking more so than in any of the other Central American countries I visited. 3) Nicaraguans refer to themselves as “Nicas” for short.

To be continued…

Finally Home

I have actually been home for a couple weeks at this point, but I decided that it is finally time to come out of hiding. Since I have been home, I have kept a low profile in order to have some time and space to readjust. The transition has been relatively smooth in regards to my car, phone, accounts, insurances, finances, etc. since I arranged for everything to be maintained while I was away. It is interesting stepping back into the developed world because it seems to happen so naturally. However, that doesn’t change the fact that I frequently feel disconnected or out of place. I’m like a fish out of water but I am getting used to it and glad to be home.

In one sense, it almost feels like Guatemala was just a distant dream. On the other hand, I can feel it with me all the time as I constantly flashback to my life and memories there. I am not ready to just let it slip away from me, but it is challenging to find a way to incorporate such a meaningful experience into a society where everyone is too busy to deal with anything except for what is right in front of their faces. A place where stress, consumerism, and addiction to immediate results and gratification are the common currencies coursing through the veins of the American people in this time- and money-dictated world.

I am happy to be back in the United States of America. I left Guatemala on my own terms, for the most part, and I came home when I was ready. I had a grand adventure! And to be surrounded by loved ones again—to feel safe and protected—is something that I appreciate more than I ever expected to. However, it is definitely a big change from the life I have been living on my own for the last two and a half years. The “I have to take care of myself or no one else will” attitude and survival instincts that go along with it that I developed while living abroad are still very much with me, as well as the patience and calmness that were necessary for managing the unpredictable everyday occurrences in Guatemala. I think those are all good attributes to have, but it will probably take some time for people who knew me before to get used to the enhanced, perhaps different, person I am now. And vice versa. Lots of changes have occurred over two and a half years.

Since I came back earlier in October, I feel like I have hardly been alone, but coming home to family and doing fun activities together and participating in American cultural traditions has been great. Here I am with my brother, Jeffrey, and my mom, Janine, at a pumpkin patch/corn maze in Dixon a few weeks ago.

Since I came back earlier in October, I feel like I have hardly been alone, but coming home to family and doing fun activities together and participating in American cultural traditions has been great. Here I am with my brother, Jeffrey, and my mom, Janine, at a pumpkin patch/corn maze in Dixon a few weeks ago.

The hardest thing I have been dealing with since being home is over-stimulation in every aspect. From spending so much time alone in peace and quiet whenever I felt like it to all of a sudden being surrounded by people who are excited to see me and tell me everything that is going on in their lives and then walking into a grocery store and being faced with like 40 different choices of yogurt, it has been overwhelming. It took me two weeks to even step foot into a grocery store; I just wished I could walk across the street to buy my eggs and milk. And one time I went to a shopping center to find a place to write and was faced with so many choices that I just didn’t pick any place and decided to leave. There is so much congestion of traffic and people and televisions and noise, but very little interaction. In Guatemala, we HAD to talk to people and touch people and live in a real, physically interactive environment. So I find that I am craving that on one hand and being oddly anti-social on the other hand.

I went to the cheeses section at Safeway where there were 199 different options (I counted) varying by type, size, brand, fat content, and preparation style; in Guatemala, I used to have to go an hour and a half out of my town to buy a small pack of shredded mild cheddar cheese (my other option was mozzarella), and then I rationed it because I knew I couldn't get more for a couple weeks.

I went to the cheeses section at Safeway where there were 199 different options (I counted) varying by type, size, brand, fat content, and preparation style; in Guatemala, I used to have to go an hour and a half out of my town to buy a small pack of shredded mild cheddar cheese (my other option was mozzarella), and then I rationed it because I knew I couldn’t get more for a couple weeks.

As I wandered through that same Safeway, I stumbled upon ANOTHER cheese section by the deli (the specialty cheeses). I didn't bother counting that time, but with the specialty cheese section, the first cheese section where I counted, AND the cheese "island" near the bakery/muffin selection, there could easily be between 300-400 options of choices just at one Safeway. Can you see how that could be overwhelming?

As I wandered through that same Safeway, I stumbled upon ANOTHER cheese section by the deli (the specialty cheeses). I didn’t bother counting that time, but with the specialty cheese section, the first cheese section where I counted, AND the cheese “island” near the bakery/muffin selection, there could easily be between 300-400 options of cheese just at one Safeway. Can you see how that could be overwhelming?

It has been extremely heartwarming to know that people want to see me, and I have felt so welcomed by most of those with whom I have been able to spend time already. Little by little, I am getting out and about and I really appreciate the patience and understanding that everyone has demonstrated while waiting for me to come around. I am very excited to get to everyone and hear what is going on in YOUR lives, and I have noted everyone who has individually contacted me expressing interest in meeting up. As I settle in and regain some structure in my life, I will be sure to set aside some quality time for correspondence or, when possible, in-person visits. Of course, this will not all happen overnight, but know that my heart is with all of you and I’m sending well-wishes your way for now. I haven’t even seen all of my family yet, but I am moving at a pace that is comfortable for me and eventually it will happen.

My brother, Zack, me, my little sister Lyndsie, and my older sister, Christie, at our cousin's wedding just a few weeks ago.

My brother, Zack, me, my little sister, Lyndsie, and my older sister, Christie, at our cousin’s wedding just a few weeks ago.

Although I wasn’t originally intending to, I have decided to move back to Roseville (near Sacramento) with my mom for a while. Compared to the Bay Area, Roseville is a lot more laid back and less crowded, providing a calm, peaceful environment that will make for an easier transition, I am thinking. With a couple family members and close friends up there, I have a really nice support system, but at the same time, since I am not going back to the area where I was living and working immediately before joining the Peace Corps, I have the opportunity to start fresh again. I got hired (sooner than I expected) at a very nice restaurant called Suede Blue in Roseville and will start tomorrow, working mostly in the evenings. It will be nice to get back on my feet again and start earning some money so I have time to adjust and finish some personal projects without the burden of being completely broke and trying to make payments on student loans, insurances, other bills, etc.

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Part of my support system in the Sacramento area includes this bunch here with me at Apple Hill just over a week ago: My mom, my brother, Jeff, his awesome girlfriend, Tanya, and our family Golden Retriever, Savanna (my new running buddy).

Unfortunately, I did not finish my writing project before I came home. This was not entirely unexpected. My travels ended specifically because my cousin Robert set his wedding date for earlier in October, and I wanted to be there in person to show my support for him and his wife, Anita, on their special day. I tried very hard to write as much as possible in Central America before coming home because I feared that all of the distractions in the American society would prevent me from finishing, but I am not done yet. (Don’t worry: I will give the story a proper ending!) I have approximately eight chapters to go. They are all formed in my head and if I don’t get them out now, I might never finish the story. And then I will always be thinking about them and stressing over it. Not cool.

My cousin, Robert, and his bride, Anita, on their wedding day.

My cousin, Robert, and his bride, Anita, on their wedding day.

As I expected, finding time to myself to write has proven to be a challenging endeavor, but now that I will have some structure in my schedule and be living in one place, I am determined to incorporate writing time into my life here in the USA—at least until I finish this writing project. I am not putting major pressure on myself, but I’m expecting to wrap it up around January. So even though I am home now, there is still more to the story. One benefit is that now I can incorporate some of the cultural aspects that may surface during this readjustment period which will add an enhanced perspective.

Coffee shops are usually the best places for me to write. There is no shortage of Starbucks in the USA: my brother, Zachary, told me that there are 11 Starbucks in a 3-mile radius around my dad's house, including this one--inside Safeway--that is currently being remodeled. I think Guatemala has ONE, (maybe two) Starbucks store in the entire country, which has approximately the same land area as the state of Tennessee.

Coffee shops are usually the best places for me to write. There is no shortage of Starbucks in the USA: my brother, Zachary, told me that there are 11 Starbucks in a 3-mile radius around my dad’s house, including this one–inside Safeway–that is currently being remodeled. I think Guatemala has ONE (maybe two) Starbucks store in the entire country, which has approximately the same land area as the state of Tennessee.

I’m in no rush, but some of the next steps—because that seems to be everyone’s favorite question for me right now—include studying for and taking the GRE (which is similar to the SAT, but for graduate school), researching grad schools and programs, fixing up my résumé, taking on another job perhaps in the Spring, fiddling with some other small personal endeavors and creative projects, and spending a lot of time with my family and best friends.

I just got back from a week-long trip to Portland, OR, to visit two of my close Peace Corps friends as well as one of my best friends, Krista (the one who visited me in Guatemala), and Krista's fiancé, Chase. Krista, Chase, and I enjoyed an afternoon wine tasting in a part of Oregon wine country last Saturday.

I just got back from a week-long trip to Portland, OR, to visit two of my close Peace Corps friends, Kelly and Pedro, as well as one of my best friends, Krista (the one who visited me in Guatemala), and Krista’s fiancé, Chase. Krista, Chase, and I enjoyed an afternoon wine tasting in a part of Oregon wine country last Saturday.

So for those of you who are still reading, I hope you are enjoying each chapter, and I promise you that some of my best chapters will be the final ones. Thank you for keeping me motivated to finish!

Love,

Alexandra

Visitors Galore, Round 4: Christina & Aundrea

My visitors just kept pouring in. Just over a month after Jeffrey had come to visit me, my next set of visitors, Christina and Aundrea, came to Guatemala for a week. Their trip was the shortest of all my visitors, but we stayed active and really did a lot with the small amount of time they were in Guatemala.

Christina and I know each other from college as we shared a double room together in the dorms during our freshman year at St. Mary’s College. After our first year, she transferred out, but we have stayed in contact ever since and see each other about once a year. Aundrea is Christina’s partner and they are currently living in San Diego, both working a ton as well as trying to start up a community organic farm on Aundrea’s mom’s property. They are busy, busy, busy so the main purpose of their trip to Guatemala was to have a vacation and relax. And I got to be their tour guide. A couple things Christina had told me they would be interested in included hiking a volcano, visiting farms such as coffee and chocolate, and learning about the Guatemalan diet and attending a cooking class. I did my best to work those things in as efficiently as possible.

Christina and Aundrea took a red-eye flight from Los Angeles and arrived in Guatemala early on a Friday morning. Instead of meeting them at the airport, they hopped on a public shuttle to Antigua; between the two of them, they spoke enough Spanish to figure it out without a problem. When we finally found each other that morning, we went straight to breakfast in Antigua, and then we spent the rest of the morning strolling around Antigua. It was a beautiful day, which made for a lovely introduction to the country. And neither Christina nor Aundrea had done much traveling before so they were stoked to be in another country!

Christina and Aundrea in Central Park in Antigua.

Christina and Aundrea in Central Park in Antigua.

At one in the afternoon, we headed to the Choco Museo for our chocolate workshop—the same one I had done with Jeffrey. Since there really wasn’t an easy way for me to get them to a chocolate plantation, I figured the history and discussion regarding how chocolate comes to be would be enough. Plus, we all got to make our own little chocolates at the end! (Since I had already done this, I knew what combination I liked and made all of my chocolates dark with macadamia nuts and sea salt. Yum!) Being that the girls hadn’t slept much in the last day or two, the two-hour workshop was a little draining, but the interactive parts got their attention again. They both highly enjoyed the activity and felt like they had learned so many interesting things about cacao and chocolate.

Christina, me, and Aundrea making our personal chocolates during our workshop at Choco Museo in Antigua.

Christina, me, and Aundrea making our personal chocolates during our workshop at Choco Museo in Antigua.

Shortly after our workshop ended, we had to catch the pick-up that was going to take us up to Earth Lodge. Since Mari, Russell, and Jeffrey had all loved this place, I thought for sure it was a safe bet with Christina and Aundrea. Plus, the lodge is set on an avocado farm, which was appropriate since Christina and Aundrea had been doing a lot of farming. For their trip, I was able to reserve the Deluxe Tree Cabin for us to stay in which is actually built around a tree. As soon as we settled in, they completely unwound and relaxed. They loved the place and said they could probably spend the whole week there because it was so peaceful! (I realized later that maybe I should have let them stay there all week…) And as it seemed that they never really slow down at home, for them to be able to just enjoy doing nothing was a nice change. Everyone left happy the next day, and Christina managed to acquire a recipe for avocado key lime pie, as well, while we were there.

Christina and Aundrea enjoying the view of the forest and valley from the Deluxe Tree Cabin at Earth Lodge.

Christina and Aundrea enjoying the view of the forest and valley from the Deluxe Tree Cabin at Earth Lodge.

On Sunday mid-day, we made it back down to Antigua on time to drop our stuff off at our hostel, run out for some food, and then embark on the big Saturday activity, which was a hike up the active Volcano Pacaya. The hike up only takes about an hour and a half, but since most of the way is uphill, it seems a lot longer. Once again, seeing one of my visitors in utter misery during a volcano hike made me second guess planning volcano hikes in the future. The good thing about the hikes is that you can go at your own pace, more or less. Although it was a strenuous activity, especially for Aundrea who was having a problem with her knee, we had a nice guide who explained a lot about the plants in the area during the necessary breaks that were taken.

Christina, Aundrea, and I with Volcano Pacaya in the background (constantly spewing a little lava and some ash, but the last major eruption was in May 2010).

Christina, Aundrea, and I with Volcano Pacaya in the background (occasionally spewing a little lava and some ash, but the last major eruption was in May 2010).

As always, arriving at the destination is both a relief and a reward. Since Pacaya is very active and the volcanic gravel and debris are so soft and unstable near the top that you would sink into it every step you took, tourists are not allowed to ascend the cone—it could be very dangerous. However, being right up close to an active volcano is enough, especially for people who have never been to or on a volcano. Another special thing about Volcano Pacaya is that it emits vapors from heat vents at the base of the cone that are hot enough to not only roast marshmallows but to set them on fire if you let them sit there too long! Most of the tour guides pass out marshmallows to their hikers and I had packed some “Chiki’s,” which are Guatemalan vanilla cookies with a chocolate layer, so we could make the Pacaya version of S’mores. Delish!

Aundrea and I roasting marshmallows in the hot vapor vents on Volcano Pacaya.

Aundrea and I roasting marshmallows in the hot vapor vents on Volcano Pacaya.

Christina with her marshmallows on a stick, getting ready to toast them on Volcano Pacaya.

Christina with her marshmallows on a stick, getting ready to toast them on Volcano Pacaya.

Christina and Aundrea were both very satisfied with the hike and feeling accomplished and exhausted by the time we got back to Antigua around 8:30 that night. (We had walked the last 20 minutes of the descent in the dark!) I don’t even remember if we went out for any formal dinner at all because we were all just so wiped out. We slept really well that night and had a nice Sunday morning in Antigua before heading up to the PC office Sunday afternoon to catch the shuttle for part of the way back to my site.

Christina and Aundrea stretching right before going for a chicken bus ride the day after hiking Volcano Pacaya.

Christina and Aundrea stretching right before going for a chicken bus ride the day after hiking Volcano Pacaya.

The ride out to San Andrés was windy, bumpy, and long, as usual. We did some grocery shopping for the week before we headed down the infamous unpaved road for an hour and a half to my town. Since it was during the week and I couldn’t take vacation because I already had plenty of activities on the schedule, Christina and Aundrea were with me at my house from Sunday in the afternoon until we left again Thursday morning. Since I had run them wild for their first 48 hours in Guatemala, I think they were ready for a break and being at my house gave them exactly that. My place was a great spot to relax and breathe.

Exhausted from many activities and finally giving her body a chance to slow down, Aundrea was found like this in my hammock more than once during the week.

Exhausted from many activities and finally giving her body a chance to slow down, Aundrea was found like this in my hammock more than once during the week.

During the week, we did a lot of cooking and recipe sharing, story-telling and catching up. I learned so much about Christina and Aundrea that I didn’t know before! And it was funny because since Christina and I lived together for a year in college, we could still relate to each other’s habits and “methods of madness,” per se. Once you live with a person, I don’t think you can ever go back to NOT knowing them: Christina and I are sort of like sisters and have the same relationship dynamic that we had in college. It was really fun re-living the roommate situation again, but in Guatemala. And, gosh, we all talked SO MUCH that week!

Christina and Aundrea spent most of the time at my house and gave all the cats a ton of attention. Mama kitty had just popped out another litter and they were just under two weeks old while the girls were there so that was a good source of entertainment. Christina also had the opportunity to do some leisure reading and Aundrea caught up on some movies—two activities that they don’t have he opportunity to do very often at home. I was happy to see them enjoying my home so much.

Christina loving on my kitty, Missy, who Aundrea dubbed "Joan Crawford" for the couple of days they were at my house.

Christina loving on my kitty, Missy, who Aundrea dubbed “Joan Crawford” for the couple of days they were at my house.

I did take them out once to visit my neighbors, the sisters Irma and Olga who lived around the corner and always wanted to know where I was going or coming from, who was coming to visit me, what my work activities entailed, what my weekend plans were, what my views were on dating and marriage, and how to make banana bread. These are very talkative, friendly women who can get up in your face with your curiosity. I came to adore these women—they were so good to me and warm, always insisting that I keep them in the loop of my life and also comforting me when I was feeling down or lonely.

Christina and Aundrea had very opposite experiences with them during the time we were there. Irma, Olga, and their mom, Josefina, were very hospitable serving us food and beverages and trying to make my guests comfortable. And then the non-stop questions from all three of them to the girls poured out, overlapping each other. Aundrea was having a blast because she finally had the chance to really practice her Spanish. She is of Mexican descent and grew up hearing Spanish all the time so she understood the conversation and kept up with it.

On the other hand, Christina, like me, knew Spanish grammar a lot better than she could comprehend what people were actually saying. She is also a processor, needing time to think before answering, but she just kept getting bombarded with questions and comments before she had the chance to process and respond so it ended up being a very frustrating and overwhelming visit for her. It reminded me of how I felt during pre-service training in Peace Corps when I felt so isolated when I couldn’t understand what people were trying to say to me and therefore couldn’t keep up with the conversation. Christina truly got a taste of the PC experience in this sense of isolation. Although a rough experience, we talked about it and planned to maneuver around such intense situations for the rest of the week, which meant that the anticipated interactions with my local community were slightly cut back, unfortunately including the nutrition lesson and cooking class that I facilitated out in Pajquiej that week.

The incident that occurred actually rose a good point, something that I had overlooked and failed to plan for: culture shock. My previous visitors had not had such strong reactions. Krista had been very curious about everything, Mari and Russell both had plenty of travel experience, and my brother just doesn’t react very emotionally to anything. Looking back, I realize from comments my visitors made or from how they acted in certain situations that they each were experiencing a bit of culture shock and handling it in their own ways, observing, asking a lot of questions, looking at me wide-eyed, etc.

Christina and Aundrea had a more intense experience in my site and vocalized how it affected them, which led to us finding a ways to help them feel more comfortable. Aundrea was stressed out just walking through my town because it triggered negative associations from a handful of stories and visits to the rural Mexican town her mom was from. It was definitely something that threw me off a little bit because I hadn’t been faced with managing extreme culture shock for my guests before, but it made me realize how different everyone is and how everyone copes with new situations in their own way. It was another opportunity to be flexible and to adapt to the unplanned occurrences that you can always count on in Guatemala, the Land of the Eternal Unpredictability.

We left my site on Thursday morning and headed to Antigua for their last adventure before going home early Friday morning. We set up a coffee tour for the afternoon and actually hiked out to a coffee plantation to learn about the differences in the two coffee plants this particular farm harvested, pick the coffee berries off the plants, and then distinguish between the usable berries and the “bad” ones (that get recycled and used by companies such as Nescafé to make instant coffee). We were shown the drying and roasting processes and even got to taste the fresh coffee that came from the beans that we ourselves helped to roast. It was a very informative, interactive tour—a great way to end Christina and Aundrea’s trip.

Christina, Aundrea, and I picking coffee directly off the plants during our Coffee Tour the day before they flew back to California.

Christina, Aundrea, and I picking coffee directly off the plants during our Coffee Tour the day before they flew back to California.

After the tour, we went out to Frida’s Mexican restaurant for excellent Mexican food and 2-for-1 margarita night. Christina and Aundrea were ready to get back and put all their fresh ideas for their farm, traveling, and possibly starting their own business into action. That is always my favorite part of having visitors: hearing all their favorite things and new ideas at the end of their trips. They left super early Friday morning, souvenirs and gifts in hand and stories at the tips of their tongues, for their flight back to L.A., where they had a fast-paced, fully booked weekend ahead of them. It meant so much to me to have them come out for a visit, even though it might not have been what they expected. Nevertheless, it was a solid bonding experience and an effective travel bug planter. Last I heard, they are already planning their next trip, this time to Costa Rica, this upcoming winter!

Speaking of Costa Rica, I am on my last couple days here before I make my next move. Since recovering from dengue, I have been on the move and very active, trying to make the most of my time in this beautiful, jungle- and wildlife-clad country. It is wonderful!

Love,

Alexandra

Post PC Travels: El Salvador

After leaving Kathy in Guatemala, I really felt like I was on my own as I headed for the El Salvadoran border. But that didn’t last long. A little background on El Salvador: it is the smallest country in Central America and often overlooked by travelers. Plus, since El Salvador has the best economy in Central America, there has been little need to focus on catering to tourism and backpackers. Therefore, travelers in El Salvador often receive shocked reactions from locals. And solo female travelers throw them off even more.

I had hardly crossed the border when some teenage boys (who had been on the same bus with me) approached me and asked if I was traveling alone. They said their mom was coming to pick them up and that she could give me a ride if I wanted. I waited until she came, and then I figured that they knew the area better than I did so they could at least direct me to where I needed to go. However, they were all afraid of me traveling by myself to Santa Ana in the late afternoon and insisted that I stay with them at their house in Metapán, a town half an hour in from the border. So within an hour of being in the country, my first El Salvadoran family adopted me. Awesome.

Esperanza, me, Henry, and Memo in the living room of their home. They were my first adoptive family in El Salvador.

Esperanza, me, Henry, and Memo in the living room of their home. They were my first adoptive family in El Salvador.

I stayed the night with them, washed some clothes in the pila, got organized, hung out with the mom, went out to get papusas (a typical food—more on those later) with the boys, and got a great night’s rest. The next day, one of the brothers, Henry, drove me to the bus station and sent me on my way to Santa Ana, which was actually only about an hour and a half away.

In Santa Ana, I settled into the most amazing hostel I have ever stayed at. It was like a giant home complete with a pool, hammocks, fully stocked kitchen, lounge, Wi-Fi—you name it. Even each dorm bed (no bunk beds!) had its own nightlight and small fan. Anything you could think of or needed was covered and at your fingertips. The owner had thought of everything and did a really great job! It was so nice, I didn’t even want to leave the hostel, but I did wander around town and over to the famous cathedral in the central park that looked like a perfectly sculpted white castle—and the inside was just as breathtaking!

Inside the cathedral in Santa Ana.

Inside the cathedral in Santa Ana.

It was in Santa Ana that I met my next travel buddy, Tibo, from France. He was staying at the same hostel and a small group of us would hang out and have dinners together. Most of the others went their own ways, but since Tibo and I were headed in a similar direction, we decided to stick together for another day or two. So from Santa Ana, we headed out to the Pacific Coast with the famous El Tunco beach in mind as our destination. El Salvador is renowned for its Pacific beaches, specifically in the world of surfers because it has some of the best breaks. To our surprise and slight disappointment, the “surfer” beach we had in mind was hardly conducive to the non-surfer’s enjoyment. El Tunco was terribly rocky and very unpleasant to walk on. We walked it nonetheless, but I immediately decided that it wasn’t the place for me.

Playing on the rocks at El Tunco.

Playing on the rocks at El Tunco.

Despite the fact that neither of us really fit well into Surfer Town, Tibo and I really had the best time together. He’s a great talker (even though he would say otherwise) and extremely smart and polite. He has such a way about him that he seemed so nice as he listed off all the stereotypical obnoxious behaviors and superior attitudes that Americans tend to exhibit toward the rest of the world. Of course he acknowledged that the French have acquired their own set of stereotypes as well, but he had more fun bashing the Americans in his charming way. And there was little to deny…

The famous El Tunco rock.

The famous El Tunco rock.

In the evening, Tibo and I decided to take on the notorious nightlife scene of El Tunco. But we agreed to have each other’s backs the whole time and make sure we each got back to our own dorm beds that night. (It was good that we had our buddy system because certain dorm mates seemed to have gotten lost on their way to bed that night.) So off we went to find some live music and dancing and new friends. El Tunco attracts some crazy people and one unforgettable night was plenty for me. The stories Tibo and I could tell from that night could go on and on. Better left off the record, though…

I had already decided that afternoon that one night there would suffice for me and then I’d be ready to move on so I set up plans with another family for the next day. In the morning, Tibo and I went out to breakfast together. It was a little sad for both of us to be parting ways, but I couldn’t take any more of El Tunco; I had to move on. As we enjoyed our last meal together, we laughed over all the inside jokes we had created during the week. I am so grateful for the friendship we created that week. Tibo is such a wonderful person to be around and I hope to one day cross paths with him again. Maybe in Europe next time…

Tibo and I in El Tunco.

Tibo and I in El Tunco.

From El Tunco, I hopped on a bus headed for San Salvador, the capital, where I was meeting my next family. On Christmas, I had met a guy, José, and his parents, Herbert and Liliana, at Mass at the cathedral in Antigua and we got to talking. They were from El Salvador and José was currently working as an engineer at BMW in Germany (and thus living there). We’ve kept in touch so when I knew I’d be in El Salvador, I told him that I’d like to stop by and say hi to parents. Sure enough, it all worked out. Liliana came and picked my up from one of the bus stops, took me out to a nice lunch (more papusas and other typical fare), and then brought me back to their house to visit with her and her husband for a couple hours. It was the perfect timing for a lovely visit and so good to reconnect with such a nice family before bouncing to yet another local family.

Me with Liliana and Herbert in their living room.

Me with Liliana and Herbert in their living room.

Liliana gave me a ride to my next destination—the home of a complete stranger. Well, not 100% unknown. When I had posted on Facebook that I arrived in El Salvador, my friend from college, Diana, wrote to me saying that she told her aunt and uncle I was there and that her aunt, Yolanda, wanted to show me around. So we got together that Friday afternoon and, little did I know, I was going to be attached to them for 11 more days!

So I was just on this train of family-hopping through El Salvador. I was originally planning to spend only about 6 days in El Salvador before going to Nicaragua, but when I kept getting adopted by families, it made it hard to leave. I ended up staying in El Salvador for over two weeks! And one thing I can definitely say is that El Salvadorans are some of the most hospitable people I have come across. It was such a joy to be included in these families when they hardly knew me and vice versa. Also, I had the rare opportunity to experience the tiny nation almost completely from a local perspective, something many backpackers don’t get the chance to do. I am happy I hadn’t made any solid plans beforehand either because I would not have had the same experience.

Yolanda was so excited to take me around, and it turned out that the whole country was celebrating a national holiday that week so everyone was on vacation. She invited me to go with her and her husband, Alejandro, to their other home in northern El Salvador where we were joined by her cousin, Elsa, and Elsa’s husband, Anival, and stayed for three nights. They showed me Ahuachapán, Ataco, Apaneco, and Salcoatitlán, all towns along the famous Ruta de las Flores (Flower Route), a tropical stretch of highway dotted with flowers and vegetation, and they took me to a nice beach on Costa Azul on a day where I met even more of their family.

Yolanda, Alejandro, Elsa, and Anival during breakfast on the porch at Yolanda's house in Ahuachapán.

Yolanda, Alejandro, Elsa, and Anival during breakfast on the porch at Yolanda’s house in Ahuachapán.

They were so eager to show me the best parts of their country and teach me all about the Salvadoran culture and especially the cuisine. Yolanda made sure I tried everything she could think of. Some dishes included canoas, large, cream-stuffed boiled plantains, atol de elote, a sweet warm drink made from baby corn (that has so much more flavor than Guatemalan atoles), tamalitos de elote, again, corn tamales that are soft and lightly sweet and oh-so-delicious, casamiento, the Salvadoran rice ‘n beans dish that is basically just rice mixed with refried (not whole) red beans, horchata de morro, made from a special seed unique to El Salvador instead of rice, and lastly, but most importantly, papusas, corn-based pancake-like savory patties that are made from mixing the cornmeal with cheese plus another ingredient (such as beans, pork rind, squash, spinach, chicken, or loroco [an edible plant]) and then letting the patty cook on a heated griddle. Papusas are the pride of El Salvador and for good reason!

Here I am displaying the tray of papusas we ordered after a full day at the beach. I was also sipping on horchata de morro that night.

Here I am displaying the tray of papusas we ordered after a full day at the beach. I was also sipping on horchata de morro that night.

Back on the outskirts of San Salvador, I stayed in the guest room of Yolanda’s beautiful home and was fed well and entertained for the rest of the week. Yolanda, Leonel (her son-in-law), Andrés (her grandson whom she absolutely adores), and I went on a couple outings including one to El Salvador’s Volcano National Park. Because Andrés wasn’t even three yet, we didn’t attempt any crazy hiking that day. Instead, we took a 45-minute walking tour around one dormant volcano, Cerro Verde, where we had views of two other active volcanoes, Volcán Izalco (last eruption was in the 1950s) and Volcán Santa Ana.

Leonel, Andrés, Yolanda, and I during our walk on Cerro Verde; Volcano Santa Ana is in the background.

Leonel, Andrés, Yolanda, and I during our walk on Cerro Verde; Volcano Santa Ana is in the background.

Me with a great view of Volcano Izalco.

Me with a great view of Volcano Izalco.

Another pleasant surprise I had while in El Salvador was being able to get together with another college friend, Danilo, from St. Mary’s. Danilo is half-Guatemalan and half-Salvadoran and just happened to be in San Salvador for a family reunion during the same time I was there! (I probably could have jumped families and been taken up by his if I wanted to be because that is just how Salvadorans are, but I was pretty set with Yolanda’s family who had lots more plans to take me around.) Danilo and I were able to spend an entire afternoon into the evening together catching up and swapping stories. What a great time we had! It was so nice to see him. (He saved my computer once during college so we always laugh about that and have plenty more stories to go around.)

Danilo and I, finally catching up.

Danilo and I, finally catching up.

The next outing Yolanda took me on was to a beach called Costa del Sol. The thing about El Salvador’s “nice” beaches, though, is that the coastline is lined with exclusive clubs that own the property and you can only get access to the beach if you have a membership to the club. Lucky for me, Yolanda had a membership. Our outing included Yolanda’s brother, Carlos, and his girlfriend and her daughter, Leonel (who had the day off work) and Andrés, Yolanda (who is retired), and me. It was a beautiful day and we all enjoyed the resort-like accommodations that this particular club was equipped with: a large pool, hammocks, beach access, and fresh coconuts to order. We later had a fantastic seafood lunch. It was like a little slice of paradise, but El Salvador (and a lot of Salvadorans) can afford to have that.

Palm trees, beach, sunshine, pool, perfect weather, bright sarong, and a coconut. Too good to be true? Perhaps.

Palm trees, beach, sunshine, pool, perfect weather, bright sarong, and a coconut. Too good to be true? Perhaps.

The beach was absolutely perfect to me. It had plenty of golden sand and lots of waves, but the waves weren’t so big that they could drown you. The water temperature was just right and the beach went down a long way in both directions—great for strolling. Since I love to walk on the beach (an activity that I have come to realize that, oddly, only a small percentage of people are interested in), I took off in the afternoon for some walking exercise. My guard was down as I was enjoying this lovely beach and its crashing waves so I didn’t hear the dogs that attacked me until they were too close. I got scared, screamed, and started backing away, but I didn’t make it into the safety of the ocean until after one of the two dogs put a gash in my thigh. (I am pretty sure it was a territory thing; we checked with the dogs’ owners and had them monitored for rabies during the next week and everything was fine.) It was definitely a reality check on the yin and yang of life, though: even my perfect beach had its flaws.

Dog-bite-in-thigh exhibition.

Dog-bite-in-thigh exhibition.

That evening when Leonel’s wife, Karen, got off of work and we all had dinner, Leonel, Karen, and I went out to experience the famous nightlife of San Salvador. The town was hoppin’! Since they have a little one, they don’t usually go out much, but Leonel was eager to show me, the visitor, a good time. We ended up at a place called Los Rinconcitos, which was like a 3-in-1 entertainment spot. We started with section that had the live band playing which really revved us up. From there, we walked into the attached building to have a run with karaoke night. And when we got tired of that and decided it was late, we had to pass through the dance club which had high-energy music playing that pumped us up again so we stayed and danced for about half an hour longer before finally going home. The thing about nightlife in El Salvador is that it doesn’t end until the sun comes up—there is no closing time.

Leonel, Karen, and I during our night out.

Leonel, Karen, and I during our night out.

Live band at Los Rinconcitos.

Live band at Los Rinconcitos.

A few days before when we had gone to the Volcano National Park, we made the plan to come back on Saturday to hike Volcano Santa Ana when Karen could supervise Andrés. Unfortunately, she ended up having to work that day which meant Yolanda was on grandkid-duty and Leonel and I were the only two who were able to take on the hike. But we did it! It was about a 4-hour round trip trek, beginning on Cerro Negro, and out of all the volcano climbs I have done, I would say that the crater of Santa Ana was coolest one I have ever seen. It has a small turquoise-colored lake that looks like a precious jewel lodged in the crater, and this volcano (last eruption October, 2005) still shows signs of activity on a daily basis with sulfur vents spewing vapors from the lake and crevices in the walls surrounding it. The natural beauty was spectacular!

The crater of Volcano Santa Ana.

The crater of Volcano Santa Ana.

Like most volcanoes, the altitude at the summit creates a very cool atmosphere and tends to attract a lot of clouds and fog. We arrived sweaty, but had to bundle up some in order to be able to enjoy the rewarding views. We munched on the snacks we had brought and walked around for a little while before making the descent. We felt so accomplished!

Leonel and I at the summit of Volcano Santa Ana.

Leonel and I at the summit of Volcano Santa Ana.

On the way back home, we decided to stop at Lago de Coatepeque, a fine, pristine lake at the foot of Volcán Santa Ana, for a couple hours to relax and cool off. This lake, just like along the Costa del Sol, is practically monopolized by exclusive clubs and very wealthy Salvadorans with lake houses. Leonel had his membership, of course, which allowed us access to the grounds and pool. We rented a jet ski and took it all around the lake for just over an hour in the late afternoon. It was so exhilarating and neat to be able to explore the entire circumference of the lake and the little island in one of the corners at high-speed. What a fun activity! However, it did feel a little strange to be taking a jet ski for a spin in a developing nation…

A view of Lago de Coatepeque in late afternoon from the club we were at.

A view of Lago de Coatepeque in late afternoon from the club we were at.

The next day was also a very active day. It started with yet another trip to a volcano, this time El Boquerón in San Salvador. Danilo was still in town so we invited him along for the trek, only it wasn’t much of a trek. You can drive your car up most of the way, and then, once you get out, it takes only about 10 minutes to get to the viewing area for the crater. It was pretty cool, but good company always makes a trip better, and that is what I had.

Danilo, me, and Leonel at El Boquerón.

Danilo, me, and Leonel at El Boquerón.

The crater of El Boquerón (last eruption was in 1917).

The crater of El Boquerón (last eruption was in 1917).

After that, Leonel dropped me off to get a clinical pedicure. According to both Leonel and Danilo, El Salvador is famous for their clinical pedicures. Danilo told me that that is the first activity his family does upon arrival to El Salvador every two years because it is so amazing. The feet “clinicians” really get down into your feet and toenails and dig all the gross stuff out, scrape off any callouses, and smooth everything else down. No nail polish at the end, just really clean, fresh feet and toes. I got mine (for less than $10) and can honestly say that, although some of the machines they used which I had never seen in my life kind of scared me, it felt like I had a new pair of feet when they were done with me.

Because I was planning on leaving El Salvador the following day (a Monday), I took the rest of Sunday as my travel preparation day: washed my laundry, repacked my backpack, went to the grocery store to stock up on snacks, etc. Since everyone in the house knew I was planning on taking off as well, Leonel planned a really nice going-away family lunch that day for me, and he even arranged for him, Karen, and me to go get massages later that afternoon.

The Viscarra Family: Karen, Cristina, Yolanda, Carlos, Mariela, and Mariela's mom in Yolanda's home. (Missing: Alejandro, Leonel, and Andrés.)

The Viscarra Family: Karen, Cristina, Yolanda, Carlos, Mariela, and Mariela’s mom in Yolanda’s home. (Missing: Alejandro, Leonel, and Andrés.)

One of the unique aspects regarding staying with this family for so long was that I got to listen to their stories and get to know many family members on an individual basis as well as see the local perspective regarding El Salvador’s brutal history. El Salvador is a tiny country, but not very many indigenous people exist there anymore because the majority of them were killed off during the civil war. El Salvador never had the landmass or numbers to garner the type of strength that Guatemala could during its civil war. Most citizens are ladino now.

Yolanda’s husband shared a story with me from the civil war: he said the government had issued a countrywide curfew during that period and that all people had to be in their houses by 7 PM every night. Soldiers who had orders to shoot anyone they found outside after 7 patrolled the streets. Alejandro told me that one night he was hanging out with some buddies and lost track of time. On his way home, he was detained by soldiers. They had a gun to his head and were about to kill him when one of the soldiers who was from that town recognized Alejandro and stopped the army from carrying out the sentence, sending Alejandro hurriedly on his way home. Alejandro was forever grateful to that friend and the twist of fate, but he recounted his stories very solemnly, recognizing the difficulties the country faced and expressing thankfulness that times have changed.

Speaking of how things have changed in El Salvador, this country has adopted many American habits. As you could probably tell, this family is well-off. Not wealthy, but able to afford more than enough. We had a great discussion about consumerism and Yolanda admitted that she has trouble escaping the consumer society that San Salvador is becoming. She also lives a very fast-paced lifestyle with appointments, schedules, and routines. It was interesting to spend so much time with her because her lifestyle stressed me out, sometimes making me very anxious and putting me on edge. I recognized it as a little taste of reverse culture shock and I managed to find ways to communicate with her when I needed to slow down or do my own thing. It made me identify some of the readjustment issues I will likely face coming home, and I decided that all this traveling is going to significantly help make my transition home go smoothly because I don’t have to take reverse culture shock head-on all at once; instead, the Central American traveling allows me to take the developed, fast-paced world in doses and retreat from it as I need to.

It was so great to be with Yolanda’s family. They absolutely spoiled me, providing me with my own comfortable, room, feeding me whenever they could, and showing me everything they love about their country. I hardly spent any money in El Salvador and when I tried to pitch in for a meal or activity I did with the family, they reprimanded me! El Salvador is an inexpensive country to travel in and the American dollar stretches far especially when you only need nickels, dimes, and quarters to pay bus fares and buy street food, but it got to a point where I really started wanting to spend to my OWN money. (El Salvador actually uses American dollars as its national currency—as does Ecuador—because in 2001, the United States experimented with these two countries to see if they could make the dollar the uniform currency in all of Central and South America; it didn’t work out but El Sal and Ecuador maintained the money system nonetheless.)

A couple times I caught myself wondering why I was spending so much time with that family and not my own, and it made me miss MY family. I also felt that I had gotten to know the inner workings of that family very well—maybe too well—and although I was so grateful for their hospitality, I didn’t want to overstay my welcome and I knew it was time for me to move on and be on my own again. I wanted my independence back, plus Nicaragua was calling my name.

Sunset at Costa del Sol

Sunset at Costa del Sol

Before I left, the family insisted that I tend more to my dog bit so Leonel took me to the health center on Monday to have a consultation with the doctor, which meant that I couldn’t leave until Tuesday, making a grand total of 15 days spent in El Salvador. Of all the Central American countries I have visited, El Salvador comes out on top in regards to hospitality, ease of getting around (in such a small country, everywhere you want to go seems so close and takes just an hour or two to get there—a nice contrast from the 5, 10, or 16-hour bus rides I had gotten used to in other countries) and local food. (Mexico beats El Sal with the cuisine, but that is not in Central America…) I still dream about papusas and tamalitos de elote, both of which I could probably eat on a daily basis without tiring of them. All in all, I really enjoyed the time I spent in El Salvador and would gladly go back.

More writing on the way! I am finally making some exploratory progress in Costa Rica, as well…

Love,

Alexandra

Visitors Galore, Round 3: Jeffrey

Next up: Jeffrey, my little brother! Jeff was my first family member to come visit me. He was also my youngest visitor (at 19) and, by far, the most entertaining visitor I had. We planned his trip to last 8 days in early January while he was still on winter break from American River College in Sacramento. He landed in Guatemala just a day or two after I had returned from my own Christmas vacation in Belize.

Jeffrey had never really traveled before coming down to see me, and it took a lot of convincing to get him to agree to it. I told him I would plan the trip based on a small budget, and I even let him borrow my big travel backpack. As his older sister, I held a small position of influence so despite his hesitation, he finally agreed to it. During the whole trip he told me and repeated to other people we met along the way that he had made a list of reasons of why he should and why he shouldn’t come to Guatemala and his list for why he shouldn’t come was significantly longer so he wasn’t sure why he had agreed to the trip. Oh, and I also found out that he was under the impression that all I did in Guatemala was build houses, climb volcanoes, and poop in holes. That paved the way for a shocking trip for the little brother!

Jeffrey standing on Antigua’s famous “Arch Street” by the Santa Catalina Arch with Volcán de Agua behind it.

Jeffrey standing on Antigua’s famous “Arch Street” by the Santa Catalina Arch with Volcán de Agua behind it.

Jeff arrived around noon on a Thursday and I met him at the airport. He was so relieved to see me! We headed straight Antigua, put down our stuff at the hostel, and went out for lunch. I took him to Saberico, a very nice, PCV-favorite restaurant and with organic food and fresh veggies and herbs, many from its own garden. Jeffrey ordered fettuccine alfredo with meat in it and raved about it; however, he skeptically eyeballed the side salad that came with it and decided not to touch it. Amused, I said, “Fine. If you won’t eat it, I will,” and I took it to go.

In the afternoon, I took him up to the cross on the hill, of course; a little fresh air and exercise never hurts after a full day stuck in airports and on airplanes and cars. Then, in the evening, we met up with a bunch of other PCVs, had dinner, and hung out for a little bit in Antigua. A lot of other volunteers were also either entertaining visitors or getting back from other vacations during that first week of January so Jeffrey was able to meet a wide variety of PCVs, plus some of their family members. A couple of the female PCVs from my group who were staying at the same hostel hung around a lot longer that night than they ever had around me before, and I am fully aware that it had everything to do my brother’s presence. I had never found myself in that situation before, and I was under the impression that it is usually little sisters whose friends try to go after their older brothers, but since Jeff looks a lot older (the general opinion was that he was around 30), I guess I can understand it. It was pretty funny to me, but poor Jeffrey just wanted to sleep!

Jeffrey and I at the Cross on the Hill with the town of Antigua below and Volcán de Agua making the backdrop.

Jeffrey and I at the Cross on the Hill with the town of Antigua below and Volcán de Agua making the backdrop.

Friday morning entailed the usual, a leisurely breakfast and strolling around Antigua, then in the afternoon, we hopped on the PC shuttle and a couple chicken buses until we arrived at Lago de Atitlán where we jumped on a boat that took us out to Iguana Perdida in Santa Cruz la Laguna. As night was falling, we settled into some chairs on the patio overlooking the lake and started chatting. Jeff told me that he loved everything so far! He said that he thought he was going to be really nervous, worried about getting robbed and expecting to be attacked by deadly bugs the whole time he was out here, but that he was actually very relaxed and a little surprised by it. He seemed very excited all of a sudden of what the rest of the week had in store for him, which made me do a triumphant backflip inside.

The big Saturday adventure I planned for us entailed a volcano hike. (I had to make sure his experience was at least partially congruent with his hike volcanoes/build houses/poop in holes theory.) We were taken to the park entrance where we joined a few others (making a group of seven) and set up with a tour guide. During the hike, Jeffrey was in great spirits, chattering on about the two cute 19-year-old girls at dinner the night before with their sexy British and Scottish accents. We learned a lot from our guide, and the hike was really nice because we were shaded most of the time by forest. I also thought it provided more brother/sister bonding time.

About halfway through the hike, Jeff was tired which was understandable since we were climbing vertically. Then, only half an hour away from the summit, he was so mad and swearing that he would never EVER torture himself with a volcano hike again. He had thought he was in better shape! Feeling slightly responsible and realizing I had probably made the mistake of planning this hike when he had only had less than two days to acclimate to the altitude, I decided to keep quiet and just keep moving…

He was about ready to throw in the towel, but he trudged on when I told him, “We’re almost there.” (But not before retorting, “You said that 20 minutes ago!” first.) Once we got to the top, though, everything changed. Suddenly it all seemed worth it to him as he gazed in awe at the amazing view of the panoramic landscape that stretched across the entire giant Lake Atitlán and the two other volcanoes and many small towns that border the lake. He changed his mind at that point saying he would climb a volcano again—but definitely not anytime soon.

Jeffrey and I at the summit of the volcano we climbed with Lago de Atitlán below.

Jeffrey and I at the summit of the volcano we climbed with Lago de Atitlán below.

It was chilly at the top of the volcano, but we all set up our picnics and stayed up for about an hour enjoying the view and the break. I had packed 3 pieces of fruit each, plus sliced banana bread, peanuts and raisins, nearly a gallon of water, and beans-in-a-bag with some bread to spread the beans on for us to keep us going during the hike. Jeffrey looked at the beans-in-the-bag and made a grossed out face, claiming he wasn’t going to eat them because he didn’t like how it looked as I squeezed these packaged refried black beans out of a medium-sized circular opening onto the bread, but since we had already eaten a lot of the other stuff and he was hungry, so he gave in and decided that they weren’t so bad after all, and in fact, he reported that the beans were actually pretty tasty. (Beans-in-a-bag is a PCV favorite: inexpensive, easy to travel with, doesn’t spoil easily, and a great source of protein!)

After a 6-hour hiking trip including the descent, we headed back to Iguana Perdida where a bunch of my PCV friends were gathering for a get-together. As a group, we actually went on another hike over to a neighboring town where we were planning to spend the rest of the afternoon at a small restaurant with an infinity pool overlooking the lake. Unfortunately, the place was closed and I felt silly for leading everyone over there, but the hike was pretty at least!

Kelly and Pedro (back row), Chelsea, Jeff, me, Kathy, and Vénoni at Ven Acá on the lake with volcanoes Atitlán and Tolimán behind us.

Kelly and Pedro (back row), Chelsea, Jeff, me, Kathy, and Vénoni at Ven Acá on the lake with volcanoes Atitlán and Tolimán behind us.

I loved that my brother got to meet a lot of my Peace Corps friends, especially a couple of the people who I am very close to. Kathy came out to lake that weekend specifically to meet Jeff, and Kelly, Kathy’s site mate and also a good PC friend also came out. So did Chelsea and her boyfriend, Vénoni. Lastly, Pedro was still in Guatemala, making his rounds visiting friends after our trip to Belize so he didn’t want to miss the fun at the lake either! Pedro and Jeff really hit it off which I was happy to see; I think they both needed some good male bonding time. And that bonding continued throughout the night as Iguana Perdida’s infamous Saturday night “dress-up” party got under way. But I will say no more about that, for dignity’s sake…

On Sunday morning, as we were getting ready to check out, Jeffrey noticed that he was developing a rash of little pink dots all over his body. The consensus of the group was that it was an allergic reaction; Kelly knew for sure because she had had the same thing during her service already. (It was really funny that Jeff would get the allergy attack because he had been so careful with his food selection the night before at Iguana Perdida’s BBQ dinner, eating only his chicken and 2 of the 7 side salad dishes that were being offered.) I called Johanna, the PCMO who had already met Jeffrey and calmed his initial nerves by saying he could call her for anything, and she actually talked to Pedro to tell him what to give Jeffrey to calm the reaction (in addition to antihistamines).

Luckily for us, Pedro worked as a nurse at a hospital in Portland so he knew exactly how to handle the situation. As Jeffrey’s throat started itching and his hands, back, and neck continued to visibly speckle as we rode along the windy road in a chicken bus, we all became anxious. As soon as we stopped in the next big town, Pedro was off the bus and disappeared into a pharmacy. By the time we got there, he had already bought the medicine and was preparing a needle. Everything happened so quickly, which was good because that way Jeff didn’t have time to think about the needle. He grabbed his camera and asked me to take a picture. (Later, he told me he wasn’t sure if he wanted me to take a picture or hold his hand; that comment was so endearing to me as his sister.) Pedro had him stand by the counter and injected his upper arm so fast that Jeff hardly felt it. And then we all jumped on the next bus!

Pedro injecting Jeffrey with some serious anti-allergenic meds.

Pedro injecting Jeffrey with some serious anti-allergenic meds.

Jeffrey and I were on our way to my site that day and from the time he got his injection we still had almost 3 ½ hours to travel, three of those without the rest of the crew. The medicine was supposed to make him really sleepy so here I was traveling with this 6’ 3½” giant little man who couldn’t keep his eyes open on public transportation with both our backpacks. The Guatemalans on the buses probably still thought he was my bodyguard, though. Again, very entertaining. I wasn’t too worried, just glad he was going to get better. And right before the last leg of the trip, he woke up and we ate some ice cream together, which made him happy.

Upon arrival to my house, all the cats came out to meet Jeffrey. It was so odd because usually they are pretty shy or only one or two will poke around at a distance, but all four of the cats (all females) living in the house at the time surrounded him! They absolutely adored him. It sort of reminded me of how ALL women seem to be drawn to my brother, ever since he was little. As he was raised mostly with four sisters and Mom, I think he has learned a thing or two about how to treat the ladies!

Jeffrey making friends with the felines of my household. Notice how three of them all have similar tails? That is because both the grey one and the paint one are daughters of the golden one (who by the way is pregnant in the picture) from different litters.

Jeffrey making friends with the felines of my household. Notice how three of them all have similar tails? That is because both the grey one and the paint one are daughters of the golden one (who by the way is pregnant in the picture) from different litters.

Within a short time of getting to my place, Jeff passed out again for several hours. I took advantage of the time to settle back in to my home and put everything in its place since I had been gone for nearly three weeks by that point. During that time, I also schemed about making Jeffrey go outside and dig a hole to use as his poop spot while I used the porcelain toilet in my room so he could have the experience he was expecting, but I thought that with the allergy attack and everything, I’d give him a break. :)

I then prepared dinner and woke Jeffrey up to make sure he had something in his stomach. He finished up and was still hungry! I was used to cooking for only me, or me plus small people, so I didn’t know how to manage his big boy appetite! He poked around my kitchen for something more to eat and decided on cereal. But when he saw the powdered milk that I was about to prepare for him, he raised his eyebrows with a “you don’t really expect me to eat that stuff, do you?” look on his face. Ok. Let’s try again. Milk-in-a-box. “Really?” his face questioned. He asked when it expired so I read the box and said it didn’t. He didn’t trust it, but after I opened it and he sniffed it, he said it would do. It was kind of hard to feed my brother that week due to the sheer number of calories he needed. I couldn’t keep food on the table! Luckily, my chili con carne was a hit with him AND filled him up.

Jeffrey, happy to finally get some meat from my chili con carne.

Jeffrey, happy to finally get some meat from my chili con carne.

Unfortunately, Jeffrey wasn’t able to see or participate in the PC work that I did because it was holiday season and thus down time for everyone (and building houses was never part of the deal), but he still got the PCV living experience. During the few days we were in my site, I taught him a couple favorite recipes (boy loves to cook!), and he did his own laundry in the pila and then hung it up on the line. The best part by far was the bucket bath experience, though.

Apparently I didn’t explain very well how to go about it and probably should’ve stepped into the bathing area and briefly demonstrated; instead I just warmed up his water and told him which buckets served which purposes. I later found out that he literally stood INSIDE the bucket during his bathing experience! I was so surprised and couldn’t believe his size 18 feet actually FIT inside the bucket! He said he didn’t want to run out of water and that when he poured the water from the bucket onto himself, it fell right back down into the bucket so he was good to go. It made sense. LOL!!!

On Tuesday, like always, I planned a day out in Pajquiej. We had spent all of Monday at home, letting Jeffrey recuperate from his allergy attack (which we unfortunately never found the cause of; it could have been food or a bug bite or anything since it was all new and foreign to Jeff) so it was time to get out and get some fresh air. At the time we were leaving, there happened to be a micro headed out so we hitched a ride for part of the way. When the ayudante, or helper, of the micro saw Jeff, he told him to ride on the top of the van because he was too big and didn’t fit inside! That was something Jeffrey definitely doesn’t get to do on a daily basis back home…

Jeff, riding on top of the micro on our way out to Pajquiej.

Jeff, riding on top of the micro on our way out to Pajquiej.

In Pajquiej, we headed straight for Sandra’s house because she had invited us over for lunch. Jeffrey was again skeptical, but gracious of the caldo de pollo, or brothy chicken soup with vegetables and rice, that he was served. It was only after lunch that I told him this was the same family that had served me cow tongue, cow stomach, and cow kidney on three different prior occasions. The family and I all laughed about it and had joked before about feeding Jeffrey something “different and exciting.” For the rest of the afternoon, we played with the kids down by the river before walking back to town.

Jeff, playing with Yaser and Yessenia down by the river in Pajquiej.

Jeff, playing with Yaser and Yessenia down by the river in Pajquiej.

I could tell Jeff was starting to get bored so we talked about it. He just felt so far away from everything and had nothing to do. Now that he was healthy again, he seemed ready to leave and get active again; it reminded me a little bit of how I felt when I first moved to my site before creating a new life for myself there. I think experiencing the rural lifestyle and visiting a village family with very little was good for him. I like to think it provided him with a little perspective and a lot of appreciation for what he does have access to in the USA.

That evening, I pulled out a “goodie bag” filled with firecrackers and other pyro-technic knick-knacks and we headed over to Tayra’s house to set them all off after Tayra and I made dinner for everyone. Finally, Jeffrey was in his element. He had something that caught his interest! We set off flowers and whistlers and lit sparklers and smoke bombs. Then HE lit a couple bottle rockets before shoving the equivalent to half a stick of dynamite inside a thick plastic container and lighting it, effectively blowing the container to pieces. There are no laws against fireworks in Guatemala! He really had a great time that night.

Jeffrey setting off a bottle rocket.

Jeffrey setting off a bottle rocket.

We left my site the next day and headed back to Antigua. It took us over 5 hours to get there, but upon arrival, Jeffrey exclaimed, “Oh, I am SO happy to be back to Antigua! We were like out in the middle of nowhere and I was scared that if something happened, we would be too far away from anything to get help. I LOVE Antigua!” Funny because he hadn’t said anything while we were in my site; I didn’t know he had been feeling THAT isolated. So we headed to the spiffy McDonald’s ice cream-only shop [next door to the nicest McDonald’s I’ve ever seen, complete with top-notch service, a huge kid’s play place, an expansive garden, and even its very own McCafé with hot drinks and treats ready to order; I actually took all my visitors there since I regard it as a must-see tourist attraction] to get some cool treats before moving on.

Happy to get some Mickey D’s soft serve!

Happy to get some Mickey D’s soft serve!

The next stop for us was Earth Lodge so we piled into the back of the pick-up and headed up into the hills! This was a relaxing spot, of course, because it is set among an avocado farm a little ways off from a hillside village. It was so nice to settle in to the lodge after a full day of traveling! Jeffrey felt the same way so after dropping our stuff off in our cabin we scooted into some chairs on the hill and chatted as we watched the sunset. It was perfect.

Jeff and I relaxing at Earth Lodge.

Jeff and I relaxing at Earth Lodge.

Earth Lodge always serves family style, vegetarian dinners (unless you request meat) which means that you have to mingle with the other guests. Jeffrey thought a bunch of the other travelers were weirdos and wasn’t really interested in talking with any of them. It just so happened that I was sitting next to the only older gentlemen at the table (and at the lodge) and we got to talking. It turned out that he, Henry, was an RPCV who served Peace Corps, Brazil from ’66-’68! We shared stories and ideas about service, volunteerism, communities, government, and economics. Henry was so smart and Jeffrey was intrigued. And I was amazed at how connected two PC people can become just upon meeting each other. It was as if the three of us were in our own little world and no one else was around. We talked until we were the last ones in the dining room and finally had to go to bed. Great conversation!

Our sunset view from our relax spot at Earth Lodge.

Our sunset view from our relax spot at Earth Lodge.

Jeff and I went to our cabin and starting winding down. When it was time to brush teeth, Jeff didn’t want to walk through the forest by himself so I told him to just spit over the balcony. But it was dark and we were up in the woods so he tapped into the special sister-duty requests which meant I had the honor of stepping a couple feet outside the glass door onto the balcony first to show him it was safe, and then he followed and stayed out to brush his teeth. When he had to go to the bathroom, it was a similar thing. I asked him, “What are you going to do? Hold it all night? Just go pee off the balcony.” But that was a no-go because he thought something might jump out of the trees while he was taking a leak. He finally took a flashlight down to the bathrooms outside.

On Thursday when we went back down the hill into Antigua, we spent a couple hours managing the details of Jeffrey’s end-of-trip, including the usual souvenir shopping, airport transportation arrangements, and a couple other things. We had a fun time haggling our way through the markets! Then in the late afternoon, we walked over to the Choco Museo where our 2-hour chocolate workshop was about to begin with Pablo, the charismatic tour leader.

The chocolate workshop was so interesting because we learned about how cacao grows and is harvested, the history of chocolate and the different ways the Maya used the cacao beans (for example, as part of a hot drink and also as money/currency in trading), and the evolution of the chocolate drink based on where in the world it was being consumed. We also learned how chocolate got to Europe and then how milk chocolate came into existence. Lastly, Pablo explained the benefits and uses of the cacao butter (beauty products, chap sticks, white chocolate, etc.), and as he was explaining to our group how cocoa butter can help get rid of stretch marks and elaborating on a story of how Jeffrey could rub it all my belly during a post-baby romantic beach getaway to Cancún, I had to stop him: “Puh-lease don’t go any further with this story. This is my little brother, NOT my husband!” Poor Jeffrey.

On that note, I should mention that the whole week sort of went like that. People thought Jeffrey was either my husband or my boyfriend, and everyone thought he was a lot older than me. It was kind of nice in the sense that men left me alone when Jeffrey was with me. I mean, he is like double the size of the average Guatemalan so people were correct to be intimidated by him. It was like he was my bodyguard for the week—the facial hair, the black sunglasses, and the fake spike-earrings he was wearing really had an effect. It was great to have him with me, and it wasn’t until after he left and I tensed up again that I realized how I had actually been able to let my own guard down some and relax a little when he was around.

Back to chocolate. The second part of the workshop included hands-on work with chocolate, roasting and shelling cacao pods, grinding them into a paste, and trying three different types of beverages based on cacao and a mixture of various other ingredients including sugar, spices, and water or milk. Lastly, we each had a little workspace with a bowl of liquid chocolate and a spread of spices and other goodies—dried oranges, almonds, macadamia nuts, coconut, cardamom, cinnamon, chili, coffee beans, sprinkles, sea salt, Oreo cookies, powdered milk—to mix together and drop in molds, thus creating our very own unique chocolates to take home with us at the end of the day.

Jeffrey and I grinding up cacao beans at Choco Museo during our workshop.

Jeffrey and I grinding up cacao beans at Choco Museo during our workshop.

Jeffrey had a great time with this workshop and was really interested in all of it. He also loved Pablo and was talking to him afterward for a while about the housing market and buying strategies. Our friend, Henry, from Earth Lodge the night before also stopped by as we were finishing up to touch base with us again. Jeffrey’s two favorite people from those couple of days! It was cool to see him get so excited talking with both Pablo and Henry and being interested in learning from them.

Jeffrey and I with RPCV Henry at Choco Museo.

Jeffrey and I with RPCV Henry at Choco Museo.

That night, Jeff and I cleaned up and went out to Frida’s, a top-notch Mexican restaurant in Antigua, for our last dinner together. We talked about how nice it had been to spend so much time together that week. Sometimes siblings or other family members don’t spend enough time together and fall out of touch or lose track of what is going on with their loved ones so it was really nice to get a full week of brother/sister bonding time. We talked a lot about our family and laughed at all the different personalities and which traits certain siblings inherited from mom and why certain members of our family get along better with each other or why they don’t. We were both really enjoying the family member personality analysis as well as making plans for the future holidays and get-togethers and a bunch of stuff. Jeffrey and I had always had a nice relationship, but him coming out to Guatemala deepened our involvement with each other’s lives and made our relationship even stronger.

The next morning after breakfast, Jeffrey was feeling stomach-sick so I left him in the hostel to rest while I finished up his errands. I met up with Henry again who wanted to say goodbye to Jeff in person so he walked back with me to the hostel and we both saw Jeffrey off together. Henry really liked us and the feeling from us was mutual toward him as well. He said he could see what a great brother-sister team we made and he could tell that we would always be close. That was special to hear.

Jeffrey and I at the end of his Guatemala trip, right before he headed to the airport.

Jeffrey and I at the end of his Guatemala trip, right before he headed to the airport.

I was sad to see my little brother go, but so proud of him for gaining the courage to make this trip in the first place, despite all his reasons against it. I really enjoyed watching him explore and learn a little about traveling during the week. I loved how he got excited when he found someone interesting to talk to, and I was very entertained by his thought processes and ideas. It was like he was a different person at the end of his trip than he was at the beginning. His initial timidity was replaced with a new confidence and excitement, and he couldn’t wait to get back home to put his new ideas into action (and go to the gym and eat a lot again—haha!). The only bummer was that I wasn’t going home with him. But that was okay because I know that time won’t come between us.

FOLLOW-UP

Jeff flew back to California on a Friday so I waited until Saturday to call and check in on him and see how his flight went. I got some one-word answers and short sentences so I just assumed he was tired from traveling, but actually he was patiently waiting for me to finish because as soon as I stopped talking, to my surprise, he started raving about what a great time he had with me and how cool it was to meet so many people from all over the world. Then he goes, “Alex, I know you’re going to have your own plans and stuff you have to do when you get back, but I just wanted to let you know that I want to travel the world with you so if we could work that in somewhere, that’d be great. We can go to some crazy places and who cares if we die, at least we’ll die together.” He made my day. Not only that, it was clear to me now that my little brother got the travel bug!

Jeffrey transferred to Sacramento State University this fall and is studying Economics. He’s been working in restaurant business for a couple years, but recently got out of that and is looking for a new line of work so he can take his lovely girlfriend, Tanya, out on dates every now and then. :)

Jeffrey, a natural backpacker, walking toward the lake in late afternoon.

Jeffrey, a natural backpacker, walking toward the lake in late afternoon.

I am currently in Costa Rica, on the upswing of nearly a weeklong run with dengue fever (which I most likely picked up in Nicaragua), which had me down for the count and passed out for a good portion of several days, but I’m slowly coming back around now. I’m ready to start seeing Costa Rica after being her for a week already.

Love,

Alexandra

Post PC Travels: Honduras

In the middle of our travels, after visiting Tikal, I spent about a week more in Guatemala working on some stuff with PC. Kathy and Joeana passed through Antigua for a day and then went ahead of me to Honduras because I was still had a little more left to do in the office. After I finished, I left Guatemala on a Saturday morning at 6 AM, prepared for an all day trip on shuttles and buses to get me to a town called La Ceiba, on the Caribbean coast of Honduras, from where the boats to Roatán leave. After a 16-hour day in transport, I finally settled in to a hostel late and shared a room with another lady (from San Francisco) who was on my bus that day and headed to the same place.

On Sunday morning, I got on a ferry that took me out to Roatán, one of the Bay Islands in the Caribbean, and found the girls. By this point, we had collected Jenny as well for a couple days. She was a PCV in Kathy’s and my group; she just COS’d about 10 days after us, and then jumped right on with us for some traveling. So we became 4 upon my arrival.

Jenny, Kathy, Joeana, and I in Roatán.

Jenny, Kathy, Joeana, and I in Roatán.

The whole point of going out to Roatán was to take a SCUBA course and get Open Water certified. We had the choice between two islands: Utila and Roatán. Utila was the “backpacker island,” supposedly with significantly lower prices for everything; Roatán has the reputation for being the “resort” island (and therefore more expensive), however the diving was supposed to be better. So what did we do? We opted for the expensive island on our very tight budgets! It worked out really well for us though because we found a cheap hostel ($8/night) with a shared kitchen where the four of us cooked together for the first few nights in West End.

By the time I showed up, Kathy and Jenny had already completed their Open Water course and were SO excited for me to start mine as soon as possible. (Joeana had tried it out for a day and decided against it.) But it was too late to start on Sunday so we planned an afternoon trip over to the beaches of West Bay (where the fancy resorts are) where we went snorkeling and ate a picnic lunch. Kathy, Jenny, and Joe seemed to relish the opportunity to sunbathe, but since that activity doesn’t suit me well, I ran off and joined a beach volleyball game with some locals instead.

This is the view directly across the street from the Coconut Tree dive shop.

This is the view directly across the street from the Coconut Tree dive shop.

It was a little complicated having four girls together, each with different ideas, tastes, and agendas, but we managed all right. All three of them seemed to have some sort of deadline: Joeana was flying back to California from Roatán that Monday, Jenny was flying to California from Guatemala the upcoming Saturday, and Kathy was starting her new job in Xela the following Thursday. And I showed up after everybody and wasn’t going to leave the island after only 2 days. It was a little stressful, but with brainstorming and flexibility, we were able to create a functional plan together for the week.

On Monday, instead of starting my SCUBA course, I spent the whole day with the girls. Joeana left late morning to catch her flight. Then, Jenny, Kath, and I had lunch together and just did whatever we felt like for the rest of the day! That included hanging out with some of the new friends Kathy and Jenny had collected at the Coconut Tree dive shop (where we did our courses), swimming out to an abandoned sail boat with a giant rope swing attached that is there solely for islander/visitor entertainment, and then relaxing in an infinity pool in late afternoon to watch the sunset. Our great day ended with a delicious vegetarian dinner we cooked together at the hostel, then a movie. It was perfect.

Kathy, Jenny, and I watching the sunset in an infinity pool built on top of volcanic rocks.

Kathy, Jenny, and I watching the sunset in an infinity pool built on top of volcanic rocks.

On Tuesday, I began my Open Water course at 9 o’clock sharp with Coconut Tree. There ended up being only two of us in the class, me and a guy named Marcus, and Marcus had already done the PADI coursework online so I was left to work independently in the classroom, studying, watching the videos, and completing the knowledge reviews and quizzes at my own pace. Just how I like it! Marcus and I did all the confined water work together that day with our instructor, Rudy, and a guy named Ándre who was just observing our classes as part of his Dive Master training. Although I wasn’t able to do my course with Kathy like we had originally planned, I couldn’t have asked for a better learning environment: a small class with personalized attention and one great buddy!

That day was Kathy and Jenny’s last day on the island so while I was in class, they were soaking up the sun. We all headed out for “Taco Tuesday” at a restaurant called the Flying Pig and each had two very loaded tacos with the works: meat, salsa, kale (instead of lettuce!), guacamole, cheese, and real sour cream—for only $1. We spent the rest of the night socializing with all the people we had met through Coconut Tree, including Marcus and his friend from home, Vijay. Kathy and Jenny had done such a great job establishing a rapport with the shop before I arrived that I felt like I automatically became part of the dive shop family as well. They were so welcoming, so we were in good hands the whole time!

For their last night, we had switched lodging and moved to the Coconut Tree dorms, a two-minute walk from the dive shop, where we paid only $5/night for a 6-bed dorm with a bathroom inside AND air-conditioning. (Surprise, surprise! Roatán isn’t all that expensive after all…) The only issue with the dorm cabin that was constructed on stilts was that some cracked tiles on the bathroom floor were sort of drooping a little and when Jenny—the smallest person in the dorm—took a wrong step, the tiles went crashing to the ground ten feet below, leaving a 4-tile hole in the bathroom floor!

Kathy and Jenny left Roatán early Wednesday morning because Jenny had been in contact with some family friends who owned a beach house near La Ceiba and was running out of days to make it out there before her flight home. I decided to pass on the beach house so I could complete my course and I was okay being left alone so Kathy went with Jenny for company. Once they left, I felt myself completely relax. Since I was behind with my dive course, I thought the girls would get restless waiting for me to finish (even though that is probably not true) had they stayed on the island. Also, Jenny being on a time schedule affected me because we were all trying to make plans together. So when they left, leaving me on my own with all my slowness, I was so relieved. It was the best thing that could’ve happened at that point.

I absolutely loved the experience I had on Roatán!!! I actually never thought that SCUBA diving would be a part of my life or something that I would even try. I like going to the beach and I have gone snorkeling before, but I have never been extremely comfortable in the ocean. I get nervous so I just assumed that the big, dark, deep, scary ocean wouldn’t be the place for me. Boy was I wrong! I am not even sure why I decided to try it (I think it rooted from a plan that Kathy and I hatched together which made me feel good since I wouldn’t be trying it alone!), but my life is now changed. Everybody says this and it is so true: diving gives you access to a whole new world!

The Open Water course lasted three days and included technique learning and emergency situation practice in a confined water setting plus four dives over the course of the second and third days. Marcus was the best buddy for me and Rudy was the perfect instructor. Marcus’ positive outlook and optimism toward everything were contagious so we were always joking around and having fun! And Rudy was professional, efficient, and patient with me, making sure I felt comfortable with every step before moving on to the next thing. And whenever I needed more time with something, Marcus was perfectly fine entertaining himself until I was ready. I looked forward to every day with them!

My AWESOME dive buddy, Marcus, and I showing off how great our dive gear, rash guards, and my full body wetsuit were! They all started calling me Jaguar-Woman after that...

My AWESOME dive buddy, Marcus, and I showing off how great our dive gear, rash guards, and my full body wetsuit were! They all started calling me Jaguar-Woman after that…

Although diving was challenging for me, especially in regards to overcoming the psychological blocks (for example, “Wait—you want me to let my mask completely fill with water, take it off, put it back on, clear all the water out, and then open my eyes again? All under water?? Are you crazy?!” Okay, well I never asked that, but I was sure thinking it), it made sense to me. It is very scientific and involves a lot of physics concepts. For every circumstance where something might go wrong with equipment, air, or anything, there was always a pre-thought-out and functional solution. And so I believed that everything would be fine…

And it was. During our four dives, we mainly focused on practicing skills underwater, but Rudy was nice enough to let us swim around some as well. I was really nervous during my first dive and very tense, but after that, I loosened up a bit and concentrated on my Darth Vader-breathing, and everything was fine. Marcus would try all these little tricks in the water like doing flips and hovering upside down so he gave me the confidence to try new things, too!

We saw a lot of new types of fish plus turtles, stingrays, corals, sponges, anemones, sea urchins, cleaner shrimp, lobsters, lion fish—you name it! I had seen similar things before snorkeling, but the difference is that with SCUBA diving, you can get up close and personal, as long as you stick to the “look but don’t touch” rule of thumb. You really have the chance to observe the animal behavior as well as see the creatures that dwell on the sandy bottom or inhabit the reefs—things you can’t see when you are just looking down from the surface. It was so cool to be a part of the underwater world! I was breathing and swimming and felt totally normal, no problems with pressure changes or anything. And I was so excited to be doing something that I thought I would never do!

During that week, I really bonded with Marcus (if you couldn’t tell by now). Before you get any ideas, I should let you know that he is happily married and raves about his amazing wife, Ashley, every chance he gets. Actually, that is probably a huge factor in our bonding. But, geez, this guy is awesome!! I don’t know how people wouldn’t like him.  Originally from Sweden, he moved to New York to live with his aunt as a teenager, then stayed for college, and married his high school sweetheart. He works in tech and recently quit his job to start his own business and they live in Mountain View, CA, right near where I was living before Peace Corps!

Marcus has this giant smile that exudes kindness, and he takes interest in other people. His natural curiosity was also evident while we were diving together because he would always swim off a little ways to explore without realizing that he was wandering away from the group. His sincere concern for others, light-heartedness, and silliness opened the door to create a genuine connection between us. I felt like I could totally be myself and speak my mind the way I would with one of my own brothers or sisters. I got so lucky to get paired with such a fun, supportive dive buddy because he really made my first experiences diving unforgettable. And if he knew that I was writing all of this, he would probably blush because he is humble, too. What a wonderful person to have as a friend!

Speaking of friends, when my girl friends left, I found that I was almost completely surrounded by men: I was the only girl in the dorm room with three guys (a Canadian, a Swede, and an Aussie), I was the only girl in my class, and I was often the only girl on some of the dives and when all of us would go out to dinner after we were done diving for the day. Contrary to what life was for me back in Guatemala—if you are seen with a guy, it promotes speculation, gossip, and even jealousy (coming from both men and women), it felt nice for it to be okay to have male friends again. These guys from all over the developed world were easygoing and respectful and conversation came easy without the usual sense of expectation lingering in the air. Realizing how comfortable I was around these guys and knowing that I could have male friends again was so liberating!

I ended up hanging out with the boys all week, especially Marcus and Vijay, and we always had a great time. Marcus and Vijay were always inviting everyone along with them to have dinner and it was hard for anyone to turn down their invitations because everyone knew that a fun time was guaranteed with those two! One night, we all headed to the Coconut Tree restaurant and settled into an area with couches, chairs, tables, and a TV to get dinner together and watch some big soccer games (USA vs. Honduras, then Panama vs. Mexico). I picked a spot on the couch, plopped down, and didn’t get off my butt for four hours straight! Through dinner and both of the games, I didn’t move because I was so relaxed and not worried one bit about time. I can’t remember the last time I did that. It was a good feeling.

Vincent, Marcus, Vijay, me, and Rudy getting ready to head out for our night dive.

Vincent, Marcus, Vijay, me, and Rudy getting ready to head out for our night dive.

On Thursday, Marcus and I victoriously completed our Open Water dive course and to celebrate, we both signed up for the night dive that Rudy was leading that same evening. Now this was new territory and we weren’t sure what to expect, but we all jumped in the water just as it was getting dark, flipped on our lights, and submerged. It was actually a little frightening, especially when I thought I lost the group underwater (but then I found them). I sort of felt like we were in space—not that I know what outer space is like—because it was so dark and it looked like everyone was just defying gravity as they floated along. Marcus and Vijay were paired up so I stayed close to Rudy since I knew he had experience in spotting the nocturnal creatures (and since he had been my instructor, I figured he could save me if something bad happened to me in the dark).

Sure enough, we saw creatures! The first sets of eyes I spotted were a bunch of tiny red glowing pairs flashing up at us when the light hit them. It was creepy! They looked like little devil eyes spying on us; I found out later that they were shrimp. We saw a bunch of other fish peering out at us with one eye from their cubbies and holes among the reefs, and a couple other active creatures moving along the sea floor or across reefs. Then the jackpot: not one, but TWO good-sized octopi on the search for their nightly feasts. They were beautiful—shimmering with iridescence beneath the white light of our flashlights—and they moved with such agility, landing on the reef and billowing up to inhale whatever they could catch before gliding off to the next hunting spot. I think my favorite underwater creature might have to be the octopus. They’re clever little guys.

At one point, we found a sand patch, knelt down together in a circle, and shut off our lights so we were in pitch darkness on the ocean floor. The point of this was to witness bioluminescence, which is a chemical reaction that produces light inside living organisms. This occurs for various biological purposes including luring prey, protecting oneself, attracting mates, and communicating, and it usually happens in the very deep parts of the ocean where light doesn’t reach or at night when sunlight is absent.

One of the most lusted after bioluminescent organisms is the string of pearls. A string of pearls appears as tiny bright blue balls of light that flash in a string-like pattern, one little ball at a time, in sequential motion, and then slowly fade away. They look like the running lights on arcade machines. The organism that produces the “string of pearls” is a tiny crustacean called an ostracod and the light pattern it produces is for mating purposes. (Ostracods in other parts of the world use the bioluminescence as a defense mechanism, but only the ones in the Caribbean use it as a mating call.) Anyway, it was neat to be among the bioluminescence because it really did seem like we were among the stars, twinkling around us.

Back on land (and Marcus and I on a high from our eventful day), we all showered and headed out for dinner together before running off to karaoke night on the island and doing a couple hits together. “Don’t Stop Believin’” anyone? It was a great way to end our “graduation day.” At that point, I wasn’t sure when I was going to leave the island but I wasn’t even thinking about it; I was just enjoying my time and company. Friday I did the same thing—soaked up the awesomeness of the island, the dive shop family, and my buddies. I even squeezed in some journal time. I haven’t been more relaxed than I felt that week in Roatán, and I knew that was saying something. Even as I write this now, I know that my experience in Roatán will be one I cherish forever…and one I will never be able to repeat, as much as I would like to.

Me, at dusk on my last night in Roatán.

Me, at dusk on my last night in Roatán.

On Saturday morning, I finally left the island (after serious deliberations about staying for another couple days or more). I had a new travel buddy, Toby, the Swedish guy who was in the dorms with me, and we were headed for Copán to find Kathy. Jenny had left Kath the day before to get back to Guatemala for her flight home, so in Kathy-fashion, she collected new friends to keep her company until I found her again. It was another full travel day, and we were tired, but went out for a little while anyway with Kathy and her new friends. Copán is a colonial town with cobblestone streets similar to Antigua, Guatemala but a lot smaller, mellower, and safer.

Toby and I getting in to the edge of Copán.

Toby and I getting in to the edge of Copán.

The next day, the three of us headed to the famous Maya ruins at Copán with a personal tour guide, Julio, who was part of the excavation team there as a teenager. He was great and he thoroughly explained the importance of Copán for being the economic giant during that era and then the history of the reigns of the Maya kings there (I think 18 total in that particular empire). Lots of kings, but no queens ever mentioned. Why not? Because women were not entrusted to make decisions in the Maya empire. Oh, yes, and because each king had many women to keep him company, father his children, and thus be the instruments to pass on his DNA. So that’s what the women were good for! I was wondering… And now I understand that the machismo in Guatemala, especially among towns with big indigenous populations, goes WAY back.

Toby, Kathy, and I imitating the statue of the old Maya face at Copán Ruins.

Toby, Kathy, and I imitating the statue of the old Maya face at Copán Ruins.

At the ruins, we also learned about the ancient customs, temples, tombs, and traditions. There is a well known ball game the Maya used to play on big courts that, when described, seems similar to a mix of racquetball and rugby. There would be two teams passing a heavy ball back and forth across the long alley “court” with sidewalls and launching the ball either toward a basket or toward a high stone structure on the walls that they were trying to break. (At Copán, the court was set up for the players to destroy stone structures of Macaw heads; the Scarlet Macaw is the national bird of Honduras.) A VIP was then chosen from the winning team and sacrificed—apparently it was a huge honor! And that is how the 13th king’s reign ended. Supposedly human sacrifice was rare in the Maya empire; those ball games must not have been an everyday occasion either.

The big courtyard at Copán Ruins, where the big events, ceremonies, and ball games took place.

The big courtyard at Copán Ruins, where the big events, ceremonies, and ball games took place.

We finished up with a little nature hike in late afternoon, and then we walked back to town. We got off the beaten path for dinner, thanks to Kathy, and ate at a family-run comedor where they served us gigantic chimichangas and an order of tejadas, lightly fried plantain chips with a light tomato sauce for dipping. I didn’t spend very much time interacting with locals in Honduras or studying customs; in fact, I tried to stay as far from the inner workings of this country as possible considering the reputation it has for crime. However, I did observe a couple of fun facts: 1) People are definitely taller and have eye color (more hazels and greens) that was different from the typical dark brown that many Guatemalans have; 2) Instead of the black beans that dominate the Guatemalan diet, Hondurans consume only red beans; and 3) The “typical” Honduran dish is called a baleada, which is like a little burrito and consists of a thick, fluffy flour tortilla spread with refried red beans and dry cheese and folded in thirds for the basic, but any other ingredient such as eggs, plantains, avocado, etc. can be and is often added.

Kathy and I at the Copán Ruins.

Kathy and I at the Copán Ruins.

Monday was Kathy’s and my last day together. We said goodbye to Toby in Copán then took off for the Guatemalan border, which was only 20 minutes away. (Kathy had to get back to Guatemala to start her new job, and I was on my way to El Salvador, but from Copán, the easiest route to El Salvador required me to pass through Guatemala again.) This was the first time that Kathy and I had been alone together since the day we got back from Mexico, two and a half weeks prior. It was really important for us to reconnect and review what we had just accomplished. After all, the idea for this trip started over a year ago as we sat in a café in Xela creating our “Guatemala bucket lists” and expressing a shared interest in exploring the countries that surrounded Guatemala as well. Now, at the end of July, we gave each other victorious smiles, because although we hadn’t done everything we planned on, we had done a lot, and changed the plan a hundred times along the way, but the result was lasting memories from really cool shared experiences.

This is what happens to Kathy after going non-stop at her turbo speed for a month straight. I think she was tired on her last night of vacation!

This is what happens to Kathy after going non-stop at her turbo speed for a month straight. I think she was tired on her last night of vacation!

One of the things on my Guatemala bucket list was to see the Cristo Negro, the Black Christ, at the Basilica in Esquipulas. Making a pilgrimage to Esquipulas for the sole purpose of spending some time in devotion with the Cristo Negro is a common thing for Catholics to do, especially those from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and some from Mexico and the United States. There are several theories for why he is black: one is that the resin-saturated smoke from the incense burned in the pre-Basilica hut where Cristo Negro originally was made him darker; the other is that the creator intentionally made him dark to represent the dark-skinned indigenous people.

Kathy and I in front of the cathedral at Esquipulas.

Kathy and I in front of the Basilica at Esquipulas.

Cristo Negro is significant because paying homage and praying has resulted in miracle upon miracle over the centuries [since 1594]. Catholics from all over come to stand in line for hours just to spend a few minutes with the crucifix, after which they retreat walking backwards so as not to turn their backs on the Lord. It is really a very reverent and poignant practice. Relying on the history of what faith in Jesus Christ has done for the people and the miracles that have happened, the Cristo Negro represents optimism for a better future in Guatemala, a country that has been ravaged by oppression, discrimination, civil war, and genocide, among many other social injustices.

By the time I finished service, I thought I might have to give up that trip since Esquipulas, Chiquimula was located in the southeastern corner of Guatemala, a part of the country where few PCVs or tourists ever frequented. But it just so happened that both Kathy and I had to pass right through there that Monday so we stopped there just before lunchtime to make our promised and long-awaited date with the Cristo Negro happen. We came at the right time on a Monday afternoon during lunch so we didn’t have to wait in line at all. After we each had our visit in silence, we headed to lunch. It was an appropriate ending for our journey together.

The famous Cristo Negro inside the cathedral.

The famous Cristo Negro inside the Basilica.

Then we started the next phases of our lives. Kathy was taking on another year in Guatemala but with a different NGO, a different place to live, and a new social scene. And I was starting a solo travel adventure, ready to take on the rest of Central America. Since we had become close in PC, we hadn’t gone for periods of more than a few weeks between seeing each other and we talked much more often than that. So this was weird, knowing that we wouldn’t be in direct contact for at least a month, but probably at least 2 since I kept extending my trip…

Our last photo before we parted ways to conquer the next phases of our personal journeys.

Our last photo before we parted ways to conquer the next phases of our personal journeys.

Enjoying Nicaragua still! More to come soon!

Love,

Alexandra

Visitors Galore, Round 2: Maricela & Russell

My next visitors, Maricela and Russell, came in mid-June (2012), only two and a half weeks after Krista left. I got a 2-for-1 deal since they are a couple!

Russell, Mari, and I all attended St. Mary’s College of California together (but each of us graduated at a different time). We all met each other for the first time during a January term school trip to Ecuador in 2007. Several months after that, Mari and Russell started dating, and they eventually married in December 2011. During my service, my first trip to visit home was around the same time so I was able to attend their beautiful wedding.

They had originally planned to visit me the August before, but since I didn’t have a site assignment and I was still so new to Guatemala, we decided to postpone their trip until the following summer, after Mari finished her second year of law school and when Russell could take some time away from the business he was starting up. So although they were not my first visitors, if I had to give them a prize it would definitely be for being the Easiest Visitors.

Russell and Mari both had plenty of travel experience and backpacking under their belts and Russell is like an REI master so packing for them was a breeze. In fact, Mari packed so lightly that when she shoved all the goodies that they were bringing for me into her bag, it nearly doubled the weight! They spent a total of 13 days with me in Guatemala and I hardly felt the time go by because it was so enjoyable and the three of us moved rather seamlessly. I had created an itinerary for them as well and gave it to them ahead of time so everyone was aware of the plan—although subject to change, of course. I would always give them a heads up on what time we needed to head out and what we needed to bring, and we would always be ready to go and help out with preparation details such as cooking and cleaning up. No complaints, no problems. Just simple, easy, and fun.

Another advantage to traveling with them was that they are a married couple so they functioned like a well-oiled machine. They already knew each other so well that if any kinks (such as injuries) came up, they were practically undetectable because they were solved or dealt with immediately and without making a big deal about anything. Some of my single visitors were just as laidback, however, the difference is that when I had only one visitor, I felt like I had to keep him or her entertained; one the other hand, I didn’t worry about Mari and Russell because they could entertain each other. I also knew that if I needed some time to myself to work or just be alone, I felt comfortable enough communicating that to them, knowing they wouldn’t be offended in the least.

Russell and Mari in front of the cathedral in Antigua's Parque Central.

Russell and Mari in front of the cathedral in Antigua’s Parque Central.

One really neat thing about their visit as well was that I had them completely to myself for almost two whole weeks. I felt lucky because I know how busy they both are and I know that no one gets that much of their time in such big blocks—not even them! Since their honeymoon, I don’t think that they had had the opportunity to slow down, so I know they really enjoyed the time away, relaxing, exploring, and getting to know Guatemala and the life of PCV a little bit.

They arrived in Guatemala in the evening on a Thursday and I met them at the airport. We had a great car ride back to Antigua, and everyone got a good night’s sleep. On Friday, the day after their big travel day, we just hung around Antigua. Antigua is usually a first tourist stop in Guatemala because it is the closest touristy town to the airport, only a 45-minute drive away. Hiking to the Cross on the Hill is always a nice activity because it includes exercise and culminates in a rewarding view of the city so of course we went there after a leisurely breakfast. The rest of the day was just spent getting familiar with the town, stopping into churches, enjoying meals together, and catching up in this comfortable little town run mostly by foreigners.

Mari and I at the Cross-on-the-Hill overlooking Antigua.

Mari and I at the Cross-on-the-Hill overlooking Antigua.

In late afternoon, we hopped on a chicken bus for Alotenango to spend some time with my host family from training, and that evening, we went out with Fluvia, another host sister, to participate in a Catholic celebration of San Juan (the saint of Alotenango) at another family member’s home. It was sort of a big deal—one woman, the hostess of the celebration, was so overcome with emotion that it made her sick and she had to be taken to the hospital! Talk about an off-the-beaten-path cultural experience for Russell and Mari! That night, we stayed with my family in Alotenango.

Mari, Russell, me, and Papa Julio during lunch in Alotenango.

Mari, Russell, me, and Papa Julio during lunch in Alotenango.

On Saturday morning after breakfast we left with one of my host sisters, Helen, to accompany her to the filming of her 2-hour weekly program for kids on a local TV channel in Alotenango, called “Jesus TV.” She had been running this program every Saturday since January, accompanied by her little helper, Sofie; it is focused toward children’s learning, will sometimes cover topics like friendship or roles in the family, and usually always includes some special song or art project (recorded live) that the viewers can learn and do themselves at home.

This particular day, guess who made a guest appearance? All three of us!!! It was a Fathers’ Day focused program, but there was a special section for the American visitors, during which we were interrogated and then focused the discussion on Mari and Russell’s relationship, how long they had dated before marriage, and what some of the dating customs are like in the United States. Mari encouraged the young viewers to take their time, but noted that every courtship is unique and some couples do get married after less time dating.

The whole situation was pretty funny because we knew we were going to appear on Helen’s show, but we didn’t know what to expect. The show was filmed in a small, narrow room with terrible ventilation so it was hot and stuffy. Plus there was no script so we didn’t know what Helen would be asking us or how we should respond. Oh, yes, and it was LIVE! No pressure or anything. We had a great time and laughed a lot, then helped Helen with her DIY craft for the day: a box made out of popsicle sticks that could be used to store jewelry, keys, photos, etc. It was meant to give the kids an idea for a Fathers’ Day present for their dads.

Sophie, Helen, me, Mari, and Russell with the popsicle-stick boxes after the show.

Sophie, Helen, me, Mari, and Russell with the popsicle-stick boxes after the show.

After the program, we spent some time with the family who lived in the house where the studio was. The mom was making tortillas, Guatemalan style on a hot comal and invited each of us to take a shot at it. Making perfectly round tortillas without holes in them proved to be a difficult task! Then we returned to my host family’s home to have a big lunch, everyone together as a family. Russell loved my host dad, Papa Julio, and the epic stories he told as he gave Russell the customary rooftop tour of the town. And Mari had a great opportunity to use her Spanish with the rest of the family.

Russell and his tortilla.

Russell and his tortilla.

From there, we said our goodbyes and took off for a place called Earth Lodge, an eco-friendly lodge set on an avocado farm in the hills about half an hour outside of Antigua. They have tree cabins and A-frame cabins as well as dorms and even tent-camping available. It is so peaceful up there, and I could tell that Russell and Mari both enjoyed being so close to nature. It was like camping out in the woods, only in nice little cabins with real beds, blankets, and pillows, plus great family-style dinners instead. We were only there for one night, which definitely wasn’t enough, but we had to get back to my site for the workweek.

Mari & Russell at Earth Lodge.

Mari & Russell at Earth Lodge.

Mari and Russell fit right in at my place and quickly picked up on my methodology for dishwashing, pantry set-up, bathroom use, and bucket bathing. They were even so tolerant of the small space that I called mine—one room with a bathroom; the garden area, hammock, and kitchen set-up in the corridor provided extra space to prevent anyone from feeling locked up. Just as Krista did, Russell and Mari both renamed my cat during the week. Russell’s nickname for her was “Relámpago Loco,” or Crazy Lightning, and Mari dubbed her “Preggers” after we decided my poor little kitten was definitely already pregnant at only 8 ½ months old.

On Monday, Russell and Mari accompanied me to my Mujeres de Vida Saludable charla, this time the nutrition theme was carbohydrates with the accompanying carb recipe for dulce de leche in the form of a warm drink served with pan dulce. On Tuesday, we headed out for my usual visits to Pajquiej, but that Tuesday I only scheduled a visit to Carmen’s house because she was excited to teach them how to make tamales de arroz, which is a lengthy process. They both loved Carmen, although since she speaks Spanish faster than the typical Guatemalan (Guate Spanish is usually extremely slow) it was a little difficult to keep up with her! We had a fantastic lunch, chowing down on food we had just prepared together, and then we hitched a ride back to town from the main road.

Mari & Russell making tamales de arroz at Carmen's house.

Mari & Russell making tamales de arroz at Carmen’s house.

Hitching a ride in the back of a big truck that was going way too fast down the curvy dirt road!

Hitching a ride in the back of a big truck that was going way too fast down the curvy dirt road!

On Wednesday, we took a day at home to rest, do laundry, recuperate, and relax. When we got restless in the afternoon, we decided to take a hike up to the big hill in San Andrés that overlooks the entire town. Ten minutes into our hike, a storm rolled in and it started pouring on us, but since we were geared up with raincoats, ponchos, and umbrellas, we carried on, periodically stopping to crouch down on the side of the mountain under our protection during particularly heavy bouts of rain. It was very refreshing and great exercise! In the early evening, I took them over to introduce them to Tayra and family, but we didn’t stay long because supposedly Tayra was going to be busy that week so we hadn’t made any plans.

Russell & Mari, contemplating life while overlooking San Andrés from its high point.

Russell & Mari, contemplating life while overlooking San Andrés from its high point.

On Thursday, we went out to Pajquiej again for my Health Promoter training. Again, it was exciting for everyone to have visitors. Mari and Russell thought it was neat to “see me in action” with my PC work, and my ladies were definitely on their best behavior, although some were a little timid. The little ones were not the least bit shy and wanted to show off what they had learned as much as possible, asking me if they could sing the “wash your hands” song for Russell and Mari. The kids loved having an audience that was new and different form their normal family and community members.

The little ones in Pajquiej, singing to Mari & Russell.

The little ones in Pajquiej, singing to Mari & Russell.

That afternoon we walked all the way back home from the village and had a nice little Guatemalan-style dinner with Victoria, one of the health center educators, joining us. Mari and Russell shared that some of their favorite characters they had met along the way were Carmen for her go-getter attitude and friendly personality, Victoria for her calmness and attentiveness, Papa Julio (in Alotenango) for his epic story-telling, and Rosa, my counterpart, for her lightheartedness, constant laughter, and gigantic beautiful smile.

After the Health Promoter training, Russell & Mari walking back to town from Pajquiej.

After the Health Promoter training, Russell & Mari walking back to town from Pajquiej.

It was great having them in my house. First of all, it was really important bonding time for Mari and me since it had been awhile since we had spent some serious quality time together. Additionally, Russell and Mari learned my system, took charge of cooking some meals, shared ideas with me, and provided great company. When I needed to work, they managed themselves and even went for a stroll around town and through the market. They were very comfortable there, and I was so happy to be able to share my PC life with them. I was impressed by how easily they fit in as well!

Russell, the ultimate outdoorsy handyman and the guy responsible for the majority of my REI collection, was totally in his element in my rural town. Not only did he make a pair of sandals for me using only a flat piece or rubber and shoestrings, but he also created a natural candle with a can, oil, and a paper napkin as a wick to ward off the crazy flying worm-ants that were invading our space during that time. Russell has always been like a big brother figure to me so it was really fun to share more adventures together. While with me in Guatemala, it seemed that Russell was relishing the opportunity to have his very own mini-PC experience. He used the time to gain a better understanding of the Peace Corps model of sustainability in development work, and he decided to incorporate this inspiration into the business model for the start-up he had been working on. (More on that later.)

In addition to being with me, Mari and Russell interacted with locals often as well. Mari has Mexican in her blood and had studied abroad in Mexico several years back so her Spanish was good and she enjoyed the practice. Russell had studied Spanish before, but hadn’t had as much exposure to the language as his wife, so the fluidity wasn’t quite there but the fact that he was trying and was friendly to everyone and curious about everyone really made a difference. On the flip side, Guatemalans also had their own language barrier issues: whereas Maricela’s Mexican-rooted name was a breeze to pronounce, Russell’s name was absolutely butchered. The pronunciation came out in various forms, including Brazo, Ruso, and Reginald.

On Friday, we left my town to continue our tour. I planned to take them to a fantastic place on the lake for lunch that day: a restaurant in San Juan La Laguna called El Artesano that offers the best wine and cheese experience in the whole country. On our way out there, we found out that our 8 AM shuttle to Semuc Champey for the following day was moved to a 2 PM departure so we made a spontaneous decision to spend the night on the lake at Iguana Perdida in Santa Cruz La Laguna that night which took off all time pressure to hurry through lunch, leaving us to enjoy the most lovely and relaxed afternoon.

Lunch at El Artesano with wine and a selection of 26 different cheeses served with fruits, nuts, and a marmalade.

Lunch at El Artesano with wine and a selection of 26 different cheeses served with fruits, nuts, and a marmalade.

On Saturday afternoon, we started the long, bumpy journey for Lanquín, the town we stay in to have access to Semuc Champey. Learning from my trip with Krista, I planned for us to stay three nights there with Mari and Russell so as not to feel rushed. (And since they had the flexibility in their schedule with a longer stay in Guatemala, they had the time.) Since we arrived late that evening, we just checked in to El Retiro and settled down for the night in our thatched hut by the river. The next morning was extremely leisurely and included a delicious breakfast, lounging around, and yoga on the dock. It was a perfect start to the last leg of the trip.

Mari on the dock at El Retiro.

Mari on the dock at El Retiro.

After lunch we signed up for a 2-hour inter-tubing trip down the river, which was good fun, but the really cool part of the day was the bat cave tour we did at dusk. The guide drove us out to the limestone caves before dusk and we hiked around inside the caves for about 45 minutes observing the various formations, exploring, and even holding a giant cave spider by its leg (for just long enough to get snap a photo and pass the spider on!). Just as dusk was approaching, we stood around the cave entrance and witnessed thousands of bats flying overhead and around us to exit the cave in search of their dinner and other nightly activities. Because of the way they use their sonar radar based on echolocation and the vibration of sound waves, they would not fly into us or touch us even though they were so close to us. It was amazing!

Bats flying out of their cave at dusk!!

Bats flying out of their cave at dusk!!

On our next full day, we went on the Semuc Champey tour (the same one I did with Krista). We started in the morning with the candlelight cave tour where we were had only a candle and our bathing suits to swim, climb, jump, and explore inside. While Mari was descending a waterfall with the aid of a rope and rock “steps,” the pressure of the waterfall on her back aggravated a prior injury and sent her back into a spasm, putting her out for the rest of the day. So unfortunately Russell and Mari didn’t have the chance to hike or to the Mirador to see the Semuc Champey pools nor did they get to play in them, however, it turned out to be a good thing that they went back to the lodge because Russell spotted and killed a scorpion that was crawling around our hut, earning the name, “Reginald, the scorpion-slayer” for the remainder of the trip.

Russell, Mari, and I in the bat caves.

Russell, Mari, and I in the bat caves.

As is characteristic of most trips outside of a person’s comfort zone and daily routine, people have the chance to clear their head, get focused, and make space for new ideas. As Russell was getting inspired for his business, Mari’s mind was going, too. Right in the middle of law school, she was preparing papers on various subjects. She was very passionate about one particular topic—that of women and the time-old discussion of how to balance career and family, and I was the lucky one who got to listen to her theories, ideas, and plans and occasionally contribute to the idea bouncing. It was always fun for me to see how excited my visitors would get over their plans for their returns back home. Every single visitor left refreshed.

During the last afternoon in Antigua, we did the usual end of the trip errands—arranging airport transportation, checking in for flights, last-minute souvenir shopping, etc. We were also able to squeeze in a visit to the San Francisco church where the remains of Hermano Pedro, Guatemala’s very own saint, are located. In the late afternoon, we stopped by Hotel Santo Domingo, a former convent and now the only 5-star hotel in Guatemala, to tour the grounds and decided that if there would be any way to convince Mari’s parents (mainly her dad was the one who needed convincing) to visit Guatemala someday, it would only be possible using this hotel as bait!

Russell and I at Hotel Santo Domingo near the advertisement for their restaurant. At first, we thought he was praying being that we were in a former convent and all; it wasn't until after the photo that we saw the pan and spatula in his hands...

Russell and I at Hotel Santo Domingo near the advertisement for their restaurant. At first, we thought he was praying being that we were in a former convent and all; it wasn’t until after the photo that we saw the pan and spatula in his hands…

For Mari and Russell’s last morning in Guatemala, we went to breakfast at Tenedor del Cerro, a restaurant run through Hotel Santo Domingo that is set up on a hill with a beautiful view overlooking Antigua. After that, it was time for them to head to the airport. I actually had a really hard time saying goodbye to them because we had had the best time together and the trip was so pleasant. I had gotten used to having them around and having the in-person support. Thinking that I was going to be very alone again was what got to me, but knowing that they were going home relaxed and that they were taking a piece of Guatemala with them made me content.

FOLLOW-UP

Guess what? They came back!!! During their first trip, Russell had made a connection with another PCV and friend of mine, Jesse, and for months, they were collaborating together on one aspect of Russell’s business. Part of Jesse’s PC service involved working with small indigenous co-ops in order to form smooth-running businesses of their own. Russell was interested in working with co-ops that make their own fabric-based products using natural dyes; Jesse and Russell were hoping to help develop this co-op to the point where they could produce their products (specifically bags) in bulk and sell to bigger businesses.

So in January 2013, Russell, Mari, and her brother, Stuart, planned a one-week trip back to Guatemala with a work focus. They were going to be meeting the founder of the co-op, interviewing him, selecting fabrics, and approving the design and quality of the bags that the co-op was producing for them.

It just so happened that they were here for my 26th birthday! Although they weren’t staying with me this time around (all three of them stayed the whole week in Jesse’s one-big-room apartment with him near Xela) and I had nothing to do with the agenda, planning, or guiding of their trip, I still managed to get across the country and spend some time with them while they were here. We celebrated my birthday at Jesse’s place and ended up having a big group of my other PCV friends over to join in. It was a fun night, however, I realized after the fact that being surrounded by so many big PC personalities all at once in a small space might have been just a bit overwhelming for the non-PC bodies present, especially since they were exhausted from the work and all the running around they had done that day.

Peace Corps friends and friends from home all together in Guatemala!

Peace Corps friends and friends from home all together in Guatemala!

Jesse managed to get 26 Maya-ceremony candles on my Funfetti birthday cake (that we all ended up scooping out of pan because it was too warm to slice). Fun birthday celebration with good friends all together!!!

Jesse managed to get 26 Maya-ceremony candles on my Funfetti birthday cake (that we all ended up scooping out of pan because it was too warm to slice). Fun birthday celebration with good friends all together!!!

The next day I accompanied them to their work activity in an outlying village where they were going to meet with Juan Vicente, the man in charge of the co-operation where the bags were being produced. We met the family, drank atol made from maize (corn), examined the bags, and even helped the mom and little girl remove dried corn kernels from their cobs. I think Mari’s brother, Stuart, particularly enjoyed the interaction with a local family since he hadn’t had much prior experience in rural towns of developing countries. Stuart and Russell set up the video equipment and Jesse translated as Russell conducted the interview, asking Juan various questions about the history of the business, the techniques used in weaving, and how the co-op functions. It was an eventful and productive day.

Mari & I drinking our atol de maiz from gourds.

Mari & I drinking our atol de maiz from gourds.

I wasn’t with them during the other parts of the trip, but from what I heard, they seemed to get around and get a lot done for the business. Unfortunately with the small amount of time they had, the trip felt rushed and was a little stressful. They realized that there was a lot more they needed to do than they had expected and that things took a lot longer. So although it may not have been the most organized or relaxing trip to Guatemala, they learned a lot that will help make the business even better.

Russell, Stuart, and Mari all working hard to keep things functioning well during Juan's interview.

Russell, Stuart, and Mari all working hard to keep things functioning well during Juan’s interview.

Now, finally, on to the business! Russell’s company is called GAD Equation. GAD stands for “give a day” because for every item sold, a portion of the profit is donated to buy a day of education for a child or teenager at a school in Ecuador. It is based on the Teach A Man to Fish model. The unique fair trade products are made at co-ops around the world (India and Guatemala are two examples). The “equation” aspect is that Russell’s business is employing small, local business in nations with struggling economies to make these products, and every item sold purchases a day of school for youth in another developing nation, thus giving back to society via education so in essence, buyers are supporting international development in two forms. If you are interested, the link to his business site is http://www.gadequation.com.

Some of the products offered include purses, bags, iPad cases, jewelry, and scarves, to name a couple. (The bag that was in production while they were here in January is the “Pajarita” bag and it is beautiful! Check it out here: http://www.gadequation.com/Pajarita_p/pa-0001.htm!)

Since their second trip, Russell has focused much of his attention on his business while Mari was busy finishing law school at Phoenix School of Law. She graduated in May and was invited to present papers at conferences in both Ireland and Amsterdam during the past few months. She is currently working with Russell’s dad in his insurance business until she disappears in a couple months to start studying for the Bar Exam (in order to be qualified to practice law). Stuart is taking his college courses, but last I heard, his trip to Guatemala might have him pointed in a different direction than he was before. He got a lot out of the visit!

I’m looking forward to spending more time with Russell & Mari when I get back before Mari goes into hiding. :) They are flexible and always up for an adventure! It was such a pleasure to have them in Guatemala with me—twice!

Mari, Russell, & I at breakfast together at the end of their first trip to Guatemala.

Mari, Russell, & I at breakfast together at the end of their first trip to Guatemala.

I am still traveling (currently in Nicaragua) and still writing, making new friends, and enjoying this special time. A review of my trip to Honduras is up next!

Love,

Alexandra

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Common Peace Corps Acronyms

PC = Peace Corps (sounds like "peese kor")
PCT = Peace Corps Trainee
PCV = Peace Corps Volunteer
PST = Pre-Service Training
ET = Early Termination
COS = Close of Service
NGO = Non-Governmental Organization
HH = Healthy Homes, the PC program I am in.
YD = Youth Development, the other program in my training group.

Disclaimer

Anything that is written or views expressed on this blog are mine personally and do not represent the Peace Corps or the United States government.
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