driving central america

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When it rains…

Sometimes things just go wrong…  maybe we needed a slap back into reality after leaving the realm of everyday life and spending a little too much time in the alternate travel universe.  We were stranded in Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica with a couple of rather large issues. The first being that the only bridge into town was half washed away by the unusually heavy tropical rains and had subsequently been closed. Tom’s surfboard needed a major repair after he lost a fin and its box surfing in Nosara; on top of that, Marlin was having some trouble with the alternator and his battery had died. Oh yeah and it had been pouring rain for 4 days.

Washed away

This is part of bringing a car with you and we both knew that we would be bound to have some mechanical issues, especially with an older vehicle and although our Spanish is progressing, our mechanical terminology is a little thin, which makes dealing with car problems all the more fun. We did manage to find a rather interesting mechanic, one with a penchant for all things pirate. His first mate was an efficient Tico teenager whom we called Smee, jumping to attention, repeating orders and being generally subservient, he was incredibly conscientious providing tools and parts on cue. It was a pleasure to watch them work and we both felt that Smee held an enviable position.

Pirate Mobile

Pirate Mobile

As it turns out the plaque del Dios, the god plate, had malfunctioned causing the regulator to burn out (maybe one too many river crossings the week before).  We were sent from the pirate to another mechanic, an older gentleman who had a spare god plate. He charged the battery and to showed Tom which part needed replacement as well as how to install the part.  The regulador was the key to getting Marlin running smoothly again, it regulates the charge back to the battery (or so we think).

With Marlin working, Tom’s board fixed and the bridge opened for light traffic we felt a definite change in our luck.  We took a risk and headed for the Panamanian border, which had been closed for two days because of the flooding.  The god plate must have been working because the border opened an hour after we arrived and we cleared both Costa Rican and Panama immigration in under 30 minutes!

Bridge to Panama

Insane Bridge to Panama

Knowing we needed the regulador we burned rubber to Changuinola, home of the famous Chiquita banana, a town of about 50, 000, 45 minutes south of the border. We rolled into the nearest gas station to fill up and Marlin died. I manned the car while Tom went off to find a new regulator.  Returning fairly quickly we switched out the part but, since the battery was completely dead, we needed a jump to get started.  Enter absolute chaos.

Somehow we had a policeman, two gas attendants, a truck driver and some random guy all trying to sort out why the car wouldn’t start.  The policeman, a rather amusingly frantic fellow, had to try the ignition for himself… just in case.  Then the truck driver who had been ordered to give us a jump by the policeman attached the jumper cables to the wrong terminals in his hasty obedience. Tom was looking a little stressed as he had noticed that the cables were mixed up but didn’t want to get the truckie in trouble with the cop who was dancing around the car looking anxious. The truck driver decided the terminals needed cleaning and the policeman whipped out a twelve inch hunting knife to help scrape away some of the corroded metal. While they were doing that Tom quietly reversed the cables on the truck and the next time Marlin came back to life.  We thanked everyone profusely and were on our way.

Thinking that we should double-check that the battery was receiving charge we headed straight to a nearby mechanic for a multi-meter. After a bit of testing, some insulation paint, a lot of good will and a minor earthquake we got the alternator fixed and the battery charged. We spent the night in Changuinola and were up early the next day headed for Bocas Del Toro, a group of Islands in the Caribbean sea off the coast of Panama.

A Year on The Road

So it’s been one year, twenty thousand kilometers, eight countries and one hundred malarial pills since we left Calgary last February in that -21º snow storm. We put together a little slideshow of our trip highlights to date.

The holiday season has finally taken hold of me and I have to admit I have been thinking about Christmas at home, snow and the Boney M Christmas album (nothing feels more festive than disco Christmas songs).

Finding useful and cool gifts for people who love to travel can be a difficult task but, lucky for you, the Travellious team has put together a really amazing set of gift guides: one for the First Time Traveler, The Urban Traveler and, of course, one for The Backpacker. I couldn’t stop drooling over some of the items they have listed, especially those for the Urban Traveler. If anyone is wondering this is on my wishlist!

Happy Shopping!

When we are not in class filling our brains with Spanish we have been happily hanging out with the students at ICA. There is a broad range of students from all over the world and it is a treat to get to meet all these really great people.

On American Thanksgiving one of the students offered up his apartment for a full-on Thanksgiving meal. Everyone seemed keen and before long the potluck list was full of traditional dishes. This was probably partly due to the fact that more than a few of the students are finding the Guatemalan meals a bit tiny! The dinner was amazing and everyone (about 25 or 30 people) happily stuffed themselves with real turkey (thanks Ben and Krista), mashed potatoes, veggies, gravy and stuffing among other tasty dishes. Pumpkin and apple pie finished off the evening.

This past weekend we set out to see the yearly festival of a local town called San Andres Xecul. The town boasts a technicolour church covered with saints, angels, animals and vines as the background complete with neon lights on the inside. A small fair is set up in front on the church where rides, like the ferris wheel, are hand-operated! Apparently at some point during the weekend there is a pole-climbing contest, which I would assume, is rather interesting judging by the amount of alcohol being consumed. During the afternoon, a long speech by a town leader was followed by (as with all festivals here) a ridiculous amount of fireworks. And then the real party started…dozens of people dressed as conquistadors and animals came out to dance for the crowd. The theme of the Mayas being conquered by the Spanish is a recurring theme in most of the festivals. It seems they have not forgotten.

Getting to and from San Andres Xecul was taken care of the by the local buses fondly known as the, “Chicken Buses”. Take your regular old cheese-wagon from elementary school, pimp it out with chrome details and religious iconography and cram as many humans onto it as possible and then throw in a few more for good measure. Add in your host for the ride, the ayudante, who will scream out the bus destination 20 times in under a minute and call it a day. Welcome to transport Guatemalan style.

All the chicken buses have female names — rumour has it that the buses are usually named after the driver’s mother or daughter. Though they have prayers for safe passage pasted to the windshield they are actually a rather unsafe form of transport due to the umm…driving style and it is not unheard of for backpacks to be swiped when you aren’t paying attention. I have to admit traveling by car beats the chicken bus hands down. But they do look really cool.

We have been in Xela for a little over two weeks now and it has been rather interesting to meet and chat with the Guatemalans. They are a polite, friendly and hard-working people who are more than ready to explain their history or discuss politics if you ask. One thing that I have noticed in particular is that they have time for you, in fact, they will make time for you, and we found that they really do want to help you … no strings attached. If you need directions, a recommendation or anything else they are more than willing to help you out (which really helps since the highways don’t have signs).

We arrived late last Sunday night to our Spanish school and were dropped off at our homestay house. It would be a bit of an understatement to say we were a bit surprised at our new surroundings. It has made me appreciate how lucky we are at home and I suppose that as you get older (Ack!) your standards change a bit. What we were able to handle at 21 has changed a little bit. Things that seem to be completely standard in Xela are a lack of hot water and power outages at all times of the week. Somehow (we really cannot figure it out) water is heated in the shower in this crazy contraption:

All things considered I do think Guatemala is on its way to becoming a stable nation. After a horrible civil war from 1960 – 1996, where over 200, 000 Guatemalans were killed, a million left homeless and thousands just disappeared, Guatemalans are trying very hard to change the world’s view about themselves and their nation. They are making the effort to move away from the violence, which swallowed up the country for much too long. My Spanish teacher told me yesterday that at the age of 10 he had watched two televised executions, one by firing squad and the other by lethal injection. Stunned I asked him if he thought that seeing this type of violence as a child had any long term affects, he shrugged and replied, “Yes, but everyone would tune in to see them.” This only solidified that fact that those of us in the western world cannot really understand the atrocities these people, and many others, have been exposed to in the past century.

All of this aside, things do seem to be looking up here. Education and literacy are extremely important and many young people are expecting to attend university to find work. The indigenous people are much more integrated into society that those of Mexico and there are serious discrimination laws in effect. Should you ask anyone in Guatemala what group they belong to the only response you will get is,” Soy Guatemalteco.” (I am Guatemalan).

Of course, there are still lots of violent activities and child kidnapping seems to be huge issue here (we watched an anti violence and kidnapping protest in the main square). And everyone, both tourist, ex-pat and national alike will tell you to avoid Guatemala City. From what we have heard it sounds extremely dangerous.
On the lighter side we visited Fuentes Georginas, beautiful hot springs, about 35 minutes outside of Xela. After a very cold week both inside the classroom and at our home stay we were overjoyed to jump into the scalding waters and warm up. Interestingly enough most of the visitors to the springs were cold-looking tourists.

Tasty rum and cheap!

We have a couple more weeks of one-on-one Spanish at ICA for 5 hours a day. And when we are not conjugating verbs we are planning to hunt down San Simon, a famous Mayan hero, check out a finca (coffee plantation) and take a trip to the beautiful Lago Atitlan.

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