Posted by: scenicroute206 | November 7, 2010

Peru Part 3

 Cusco to Manu…

Cusco at Dawn

After having a rambunctious birthday celebration for Gabe, with a day to recover of course, we hear all about her adventures in the jungles of Manu. Working with a reforestation organization called Atalaya, the volunteers focus on eradicating the foreign bamboo and replanting with native plant species. She also happens to fall in love with the coordinator, Ben, who is the driving force for the organization. These two ‘smitten-kittens’ share such wonderful stories about Atalaya that it doesn’t take much convincing for the two of us to want to spend a week out there in the jungle. Volunteering for a day with the school kids had just wet our appetite to do more good works on our travels. We hadn’t done any solid volunteer work since Costa Rica with the leatherback sea turtles, so we were jonsing for a good volunteer opportunity, and this was the ticket.  Also, in traveling through Ecuador and northern Peru we had to skip going into the amazon due to our time schedule so we were doubly excited to go into the jungle. Yet again, the universe has proven that we are well taken care of and has us on the right path, fulfilling our hopes and dreams in the most magnificent and unplanned ways. Fist pump for the Universe!

Market Madness in Cusco

We head to the main office in Cusco and coordinate all of our tickets and timeline at the Atalaya Reserve, the four of us set to leave in the couple of days. In the meantime Erin, Meaghan, and Gabe are able to sit down and hash out the travel logistics for the next month together. First, a week in the Peruvian jungle, then back to Cusco to celebrate Erin’s 30th birthday, Bolivia for two weeks, and back to Cusco for the hike to Machu Picchu as planned for Gabe and Erin’s milestone birthdays. Finishing just in time for Meaghan and Erin to fly out to Asia at the end of August. It’s amazing how fast time is flying by. Even for having a full year to travel, time is running short on all the things we want to see and experience.

Ben our fearless leader

 Welcome to the Jungle…
At 5am we’re all picked up for an 8 hour bus ride into the Peruvian amazon. Good luck sleeping in the back row of a public bus, winding through the jagged unpaved road that’s half washed out from the recent rain storm. The road was so bumpy that we would have to hang on to the seat in front of us as we were catapulted into the air. It was sort of like a rollercoaster ride, with a dash of motion sickness, and not very fun. At one point, in the middle of nowhere, the bus comes to a screeching halt and the driver starts frantically yelling at our group to “get off, get off, get off the bus” like a Latin drill sargent. Trying to make our way down the center aisle, tripping over the people packed in the middle, we stumble into the fresh jungle air wondering where the hell we are. Making sure we all made it safely off the rickety bus, Ben leads us past a wooden sign for Atalaya and down a jungle trail. This was one of those “blink and you’ll miss it” turn offs. As we hear a river in the distance, we round the corner and there it is, rushing below with a harmonious roar. In order to get to the reserve across the river, we need to ride on a little pulley-platform.

Butterflies Love My Stinky Clothes

Just imagine a tiny metal A-frame with wooden planks large enough to seat a maximum of four people, or two people hauling a load of goods across. With a white-knuckle grip, we zip across the river to a platform covered in beautiful butterflies of all shapes sizes and colors fluttering around us. It felt like a fairy tale welcoming, or stepping onto the pages of a children’s book. As we transfer all of our stuff across the river, we make our way down a short trail, cross the little bridge over a crystal clear stream, and into the main lodge. Open air on three sides facing the river, this is the meeting area and dining hall with the kitchen attached to the rear.

Tyra the mongoose

 We were introduced to Gloria the local cook, Polly the green parrot, Tyra the mongoose, Paula and Chico the resident troublemaking monkeys, and then taken to check out the sleeping quarters. Laid out like a bamboo sleeping porch with two cots to a chest-high cubicle, mosquito nets are hanging all over the place with laundry drying in between. We’re introduced to a group of young volunteers finishing up their work day and trying to chase the monkeys out. You’d think it’s cute to have monkeys jumping on the bed and rolling over the mosquito nets, but when they rip your net it gets real old real quick. And since there’s no electricity, sewing up the holes with a headlamp on is no fun. Before you know it, we were trying to catch those little rascals too.

Dirty Room?! What Dirty Room?

We would usually wake up at 8am, stumble over to wash our face and brush our teeth. There aren’t any mirrors at the reserve, so there’s no need for makeup or caring if your hair is a mess. We make ourselves breakfast and do the dishes before Gloria arrives, and then go over which trail we’re headed on to machete bamboo, plant native species, and take data on the new plants. After finding a pair of boots, or “wellies”, and testing them in the creek for holes we gather our gear and head out into the humid jungle.

Chico the free-riding monkey

Chico the monkey likes to join, but doesn’t like to walk. Even if you try to dodge him, he gets a hold of your leg and climbs up to your shoulders for a free ride. He secures himself on your shoulders by wrapping his tail around your neck, which leaves his little monkey balls resting right on the nape of your neck. Did we mention that monkeys stink? So, by the end of the day, after sweating profusely, you also happen to smell like monkey balls.

Care for a swim? It's chilly...

 

The best way to wash off the sweat and monkey-stank is with a swim at the waterfall. After lunch, a five minute walk from the reserve leads you to the magical waterfall with a swimming hole. There’s something to be said for cleansing your mind, body, and soul in the pure crystal clear water of the jungle, it truly is refreshing!

Alberto, the local medicine man, gave us a tour through the gardens that surround the reserve. Gabe, who became our translator, explained the medicinal uses for all the plants. By the end it felt like walking through natures pharmacy, reaffirming that all the answers we need already exist in nature. Alberto also explains to us how the local villager don’t have the money to go to the pharmacy for pills, so they rely on the fruits of the jungle to heal their ailments – headaches, joint pain, depression, open wounds, broken bones, diabetes, alzheimer’s, cancer preventatives,  and the list goes on and on for remedies. Most were utilized by being steeped into tea, some to use only the roots, stems, or leaves, and others were used to cook with- like lemongrass! 

Hacking, Planting, and Data Gathering

 It was nice to hear firsthand how the health of the jungle directly supports the health of the people, and how the small bit of volunteer work we were doing was having a positive effect on the locals and the ecosystem. For all the synthetic, laboratory produced pills lining the shelves of pharmacies at home, what a pleasure it was to see how all those pills began as plants produced by the wonders of mother nature.

Dinner by candlelight

With time to relax and enjoy a siesta before dinner, we all sit together and enjoy Gloria’s cooking by candlelight. The monkeys like to curl up in your lap, but you have to keep an eye on their little hands reaching for your food. The night winds down by playing cards and sharing funny stories with each other. The illumination from the candles would bring out some of the most peculiar looking bugs we’ve ever encountered, some of them were so big you could hear them approaching from a few meters away. We nicknamed them “flying dogs” because they were massive enough to put a leash on them and teach it tricks. When it came time to crawl into bed, the tricky part would be to secure the bug net and keep any stinky monkeys from crawling in. Chico would end up sleeping next to Meaghan and in the morning you would hear her say, “ugh, I smell like monkey.” The sounds of the jungle nightlife became the orchestra that lulled us to sleep in our sagging little cots.

GEMs Unite!

Ben was telling us about the blasting in the area, big enough to shake the reserve. Turns out, huge corporations are blasting away chunks of the jungle in search of oil and valuable minerals, not realizing that the real value is the jungle itself. Just because the jungle is located in a nationally protected area doesn’t mean that the government isn’t willing and able to sell the land off as they please, especially to the highest bidder and with no regard to the local communities or ecosystem. With the amount of time it would take to rally the locals and make their voices heard to the government, it may be too late to save the land from destruction. Living near the jungle has been like living in a fairytale, and if you’ve seen the movie Fern Gully, you know it needs to be saved.   

We were all in shock when a week had flown by and it was time to head back to Cusco. Erin, Meaghan, and Gabe were hesitant and sad to catch the public night bus, knowing how uncomfortable it was going to be, and how much we would miss Atalaya. As the bus slid and skidded it’s way through the mountains, we were surrounded by chatty locals and little kids sleeping in the center aisle. Filled with the stench of coca leaves, layered with dirt, and back poking springs, we were on our way. At around 3am, the bus is pulled over by the police to be searched. We all exchange looks, wondering what’s going on, and the locals start to fidget with nervousness. A stern police officer climbs onto the bus, shining his flashlight into everyone’s eyes, demanding to see paperwork. He takes one look at the woman sitting in front of us, throws aside the blanket on her lap, and starts to throw bag upon bag of coca leaves off the bus while she’s screaming and complaining. We come to find out it’s only legal to transport one kilo of coca leaves, not ten. 
The sweet, matronly old lady sitting next to us turned out to be quit the rebel-rouser. She starts complaining about the corruption of the police force, “quick, someone just give him some money already so he’ll leave us innocent people alone, and why aren’t you out catching criminals instead of hassling locals, you’re making us late, some of us have another bus to catch,” and so on. She roused all the other locals to start complaining and causing a ruckus. After almost an hour, someone must have bribed them because they let us go.

Cusco at first light

Arriving back in Cusco during the wee hours of the morning, we weren’t able to check in to our room at Loki until noon. That’s okay, with seven hours to wait we certainly drank a lot of coffee while hanging out in the sunny courtyard. By the time we checked in, we were in a state of silly delirium from being awake for over 32 hours. At one point Erin turned to Meaghan and said, “I don’t think I’ve ever been up for this many hours … sober!” After managing to not fall asleep in the shower, washing off the jungle-funk that seemed to permeate everything, Erin hit the pillow in a cloud of zzz’s while Meaghan somehow found the energy to go drop off laundry and do some shopping. She is a rock star after all.

Starting Thirty in Style

Look Out Thirties!
Although Erin was in denial about turning thirty, Meaghan and Gabe made sure it was a memorable one. The night before, Meaghan had taken her out to a nice restaurant for lemon-mint smoothies and delicious bacon burgers. Traditionally birthdays are celebrated with our entire family, and since we were on the road, it was nice to have each other. Meaghan had our server put a candle in our chocolate dessert and sang for her in the restaurant, in spanish! Before sunrise on the morning of Erin’s birthday, we both mustered ourselves out of bed to catch the first light of the day. Sunrise over Cusco was a beautiful moment to share together and will be remembered forever. We met up with Gabe later that afternoon for shopping, a decadent lunch of grilled alpaca and followed by a spa day, complete with sauna, massages, and pedicures.

Aaaah, spa day

Later that night in the Loki bar, while Erin is involved in a round of speed dating, Meaghan and Gabe inform Matt, the bar manager, of Erin’s milestone birthday. Before you know it, Matt is up on the bar hollering for everyone’s attention. With all eyes on Erin, she is invited to stand on the bar, take shots, and blow out candles. The party continues down at the clubs and brings us all into the wee hours of the morning. What better way to feel young than to party all night? It’s the next morning that really makes you feel old. With our friend Nic and the aspirin packed, the four of us were headed to explore Bolivia for two weeks.

Jungle Ladies

 

Who wants a fuzzy snuggle buddie?!

 

Gabe and Chico the one-eyed monkey

 

Machete Madness!

 

Strolling through the Jungle

 

Enjoying Nature's Goodness

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Posted by: scenicroute206 | October 25, 2010

Precious Peru, Part 2

Huacachina…
After another long haul of a bus ride, we breezed through Lima to a little town that was rumored to be an oasis. Arriving at night, we weren’t quite sure what to expect until we awoke the next morning. With the sun blaring through our window, we awoke to a beautiful surprise. It was like a scene from Arabian Knights massive sand dunes as far as the eye could see with lush green palm trees surrounding a tiny lake. We didn’t think places like this actually existed, unless maybe in the pages of a book or deep in the Sahara; and here we are, in Peru of all places. A boardwalk surrounded most of the oasis, lined with hotels and hostels, restaurants, souvenir shops, Internet cafes, and street vendors. We come to find out that this is a popular vacation spot for Peruvians, with the main activities being paddleboats and sandboarding.
Sandboarding, you say? Why yes, yes indeed. We had only ever been skiing in the snow as little girls, always trying to keep up with the skill level of our three older brothers. Now we felt like those little girls again, excited and scared to barrel ourselves down a sand dune on a snowboard in the hot sun. “Who’s ready for an adventure?” Meaghan would say, and both of us would shoot a hand straight up in the air saying, “ooh, me me me!”
Erin had eaten a questionable empanada in the bus station on our way south, so the first day in Huacachina was spent sweating buckets in bed and not being able to venture far from the toilet. With the care of Meaghan and a medicine buffet of Tylenol, acidophilus pearls, and grapefruit seed extract, she was quick to bounce back and explore the dunes. While Erin was in recovery mode, Meaghan would climb to the top of the dunes in the early morning to start the day with a meditation, and then had the chance to explore the oasis and meet some interesting characters.
Amongst all the people selling trips on the dune-buggies, she meets Joseph who offers her the best price and promises the fastest buggie ride through the dunes. He also invites Meaghan to join him for his birthday celebration the next night. She tells him “maybe tomorrow, when my sister is feeling better.” While gandering at the hand-made goods laid out on the boardwalk,

Sharing is Caring!

Meaghan meets Daniel, a Peruvian hippie selling his jewelery while vagabonding around South America. She speaks very little Spanish and he speaks very little English, yet they bonded over hair. He has very long thick curly black hair, and she has blonde curly ringlets. Being the hippie that he is, he offered to put Meaghan’s hair into dreadlocks or give her a multicolored hair wrap. She politely declined knowing her hairdresser at home would kill her if she let anyone touch her curls.

My next car, a dune buggie!

The next day, When Erin was confident she wouldn’t poop her pants, we signed up for a dune buggie adventure with Joseph. There are always perks to knowing the people who work for the company you use (or if they have a crush on your sister), that’s why we got shotgun (front seat) in the windowless, doorless rally-mobile. All strapped in and ready to go, we encourage the driver to go as fast as he can, and with a sly grin he says, “no problemo”.

This is how we "get awesome!"

Here we go! At full throttle we take off through the dunes, speeding up as we reach the top of one dune, catching air and speeding up for the next. All eight of us were hollering with excitement and exhilaration. We love rollercoasters, and this was even better. The rumble of the exposed engine, the glaring sun, wind in our face, and the gritty feel of sand in our mouth made it a complete package of awesomeness.
As we come to a screeching halt at the top of a dune, we all unload and get a quick lesson on how NOT to end up in the emergency room. Step 1- wax your board, Step 2- assume the position belly down on the board, Step 3- elbows tucked in, head back, and spread your legs because your feet are you brakes. Step 4- ready or not, here you go! The first dune was the bunny-hill, but still looked massive and we were all a bit nervous to try it out, and all screaming during the descent. Given that the boards are chipped all down the sides, it’s almost impossible to stand and carve your way down without face-planting in the sand, so belly down is the way to go. Our loco driver then takes us to an even steeper dune, and this time we’re even more scared, once again screaming on our way down and finishing in fits of laughter. Thinking that this is as steep and big as it gets, our driver takes us soaring over more dunes and stops at the very top of the most gigantic dune in the area. Holy moly, are you kidding me?! Of course the driver tells us the only way to get back into town is by boarding down. As Meaghan barrels down at ridiculous speed, screaming profanities the whole way, Erin is so nervous that she’s pacing back and forth, obviously stalling. If you know Erin, you know that she is not a high-dive, high-speed risk taker so this was a big leap for her. Reluctant, she is sent at mach loony speed down the dune, breathless from fear and adrenaline the entire way. Relieved to have made it in one piece, and still shaking a bit, we rallied on to another dune in time for a magical sunset. In complete awe, we take advantage of the photo opportunity for the last bit of daylight and make our way back to the oasis. What a great day. Wanna do it again tomorrow? You betcha!
The hostel we were staying at also offered the buggie ride and sandboarding tour. The guy at the front desk had been annoyingly persistent about us using his company, to the point where he would say “promise me” or “I do you a favor, now you have to do me a favor.” We refused to promise him anything, and when he found out that we went with a different company, he ignored us altogether and would give us dirty looks. We explained that we were already giving him money to stay there in addition to spending money on food and drinks, so why should we spend all of our money with him? Besides, we found a lower price elsewhere. Still, he was rude and dismissive. Erin, being a graduate of hospitality administration, was appalled by his behavior. It was unanimous that we switch hostels for the rest of our time in Huacachina.
Strolling along the boardwalk we run into Daniel and have a nice broken-Spanish conversation with him. During which we decide to get multicolored hair wraps to commemorate the GEM reunion coming up with Gabrielle. We had such an epic and hilarious time with her in Guatemala, we knew that we just had to do something ridiculous and memorable for her birthday. During the delirium of our trek to El Mirador, Gabe became Ruby, Erin became Sapphire, and Meaghan became Diamond. We would joke around by doing silly dance routines to terrible songs, have super powers, and probably a spirit animal too. No, I promise you, no drugs were involved in this outlandish progression of silliness. To continue our ridiculous theme, we decided that getting matching weaves would be the perfect accessory to our GEM uniform.

Daniel giving Erin a weave...

Erin was the first to have a colorful weave put in her hair, located near the bottom of her hair line behind the right ear. As Meaghan is watching, trying to hold back her fits of laughter, she keeps insisting that her weave/hairwrap be shorter. Erin can’t see what Daniel is doing, so she has no idea  how long he was making it, she just sits there sifting through a pile of small stones, choosing the colors that would hang on the end. Afterwards, Erin realizes why Meaghan was so vocal about the length because Daniel made hers twice the length of her hair, reaching halfway down her back, yikes! So, while Meaghan was having hers put in, Erin was trying to convince Daniel to make hers just as long, despite Meaghan’s protests.

Gypsy scarf, silver hoops and a feathered weave. So funny Erin can't even see!

We both agree that the best part about having a weave was the detachable feather to dangle off the end with the stones. This just keeps getting more hilarious for us. For Gabes birthday, we wanted to get her a weave that she could clip into her hair, complete with feather and stones.  We also had matching bracelets made to tie the GEM acessories together. Now all we had to do was find a funny way to present her gifts when we arrived in Cusco.
The next day when we run into Daniel, he was upset that someone had stolen a piece of his hand made jewelery. Given that his craft is his livlihood, sustaining him as he travels around South America, it sucks that the thief was a tourist. He knew exactly who it was and what they stole, and also knew that they had already left town with their tour group. What is it with travelers who have money and yet steal from someone who doesn’t? Some things just don’t make any sense, like the fellow backpackers who stole from erin’s pack later that day. While our backpacks were locked up in a storage closet, another traveler had found their way to the very bottom and taken her sunglasses, iPod charger cord, and inflatable pillow. They left all the valuable stuff, but the pillow?! It’s frustrating and backwards when travelers steal from other travelers. Don’t they understand that what goes around, comes around? At least we know they’ll get what’s coming to them. Enjoy the best travel pillow ever, sucker.


Cusco…
We wanted to surprise Gabe by arriving a couple of days early. Then, we come to find out that she’s been volunteering in the jungle and has fallen madly in love, so she won’t be back to meet us until her birthday. Even though we were a bit sad about our surprise being shot down, we had plenty of time to explore Cusco and meet yet another bunch of crazy characters.

The view from Loki Hostel

We stayed in a hostel called Loki, a rennovated old monastery perched up a huge hill overlooking the beautiful little city. Paul and his buddies are from England, and Marc looks like a Swiss Jesus, and Cole from Denver. After lengthy conversations, dirty jokes, and tears from laughing so hard, we were quick to become good friends.

Meaghan and the kids

 Loki also offered different programs for travelers to volunteer with, so Meaghan and I jumped at the opportunity to visit with poor school kids and take them to the local park.15 little cuties in one car, how precious! Early in the morning, we took a taxi out to the school on the outskirts of Cusco, piled all the kids in, and spent the morning swinging, twirling, and sliding at the park. We were having such a good time, we didn’t want the day to end. So, we piled them into the taxi once again, with icecream smudges all over their faces, and took them back to school.

Silly Swiss Marc

 One day while exploring the markets with Paul and Marc, trying on furry llama hats and wrestling masks, Paul has a sharp eye out for rainbow gringo pants. Unable to find the right pants, we break for lunch at an Israeli bagel shop where, to Paul’s amazement, he finds a brightly colored rainbow poncho. None of us thought he was serious, but then he got up and asked how much it cost, didn’t even bargain, and paid full price for it. We were all shaking our head, laughing and unable to take him seriously.

Erin turning into a guinea pig

Did he really just buy a rainbow poncho? As we walk toward the main square, the rest of us trying to look like we’re not with the rainbow-poncho-guy, Erin easily convinces him to do an impromptu dance routine around the central fountain. With the cue to start as she’s positioned to record the dance of hilarity, he comes twirling and prancing around from behing the fountain, weaving through unsuspecting locals and bouncing off the stairs with his black ‘Tuesday’ socks pulled up and the rainbow poncho flailing about. We were all laughing so hard, it was nearly impossible to hold the camera still. And this was the beginning of Gabe’s birthday ambush…
We were set to meet Gabe at 3pm by the central fountain and had set the stage for her surprise. With Cole positioned on a bench to video tape the event, we had drafted Paul to do another silly dance routine around the fountain with his rainbow poncho on and then to dance his way up to us and wish Gabe a happy birthday in his sexiest voice, just to creep her out. Then, Marc approaches us juggling balls, stops what he’s doing and says to us in his French accent, “hey ladies nice weave, but wait, something’s missing. I think you need one too (referring to Gabe), here take mine. And oh, happy birthday Gabe.” as he unclips the special feather-weave from his hair and presents it to her. By now, she’s completely on her guard, wondering what the hell is going on and who are these people.

Paul and Meaghan

 We explain that the weave is an addition to our GEM uniform and we were sure to point out that the stones attached to the end are actually ‘eye of the tiger’, which happens to be her theme song. And as we explain the stones, another guy comes running up to us and starts singing the song ‘Eye of the Tiger’ for her at the top of his lungs. In complete shock from the whole ambush, all of us laughing hysterically, we also give her the bracelet that matches ours. Well, it’s not every day you turn thirty, so we were sure to make it a memorable one for her! Afterwards, we introduced her to all the different crazy characters we drafted into the birthday ambush. You know you meet some quality people on the road when they’re willing to go out of their way to perform for some strangers birthday.

The Scene of the Dance

When we had first seen her at the fountain, she came running in slow motion towards us, wondering why we weren’t running to meet her half way. After the ambush, she realized that we couldn’t move without throwing off the staged production, which made everything else make sense. So, after the exhaustion of laughing and hugs we went to get drinks and a late lunch, finally able to catch up on lost time and hear about the new love of her life.

Presenting the 12 sided stone, impressive since there's no mortar holding the stones in place!

Posted by: scenicroute206 | October 23, 2010

Precious Peru, Part One

 Piura…
Arriving in the northern town of Piura, instantly covered in sweat from the unforgiving heat, our taxi driver takes us to a hostel in the central part of town. Tired from traveling and bitter about the backpack, we grab some lunch across the street and walk around town to get our bearings. In talking with a few locals, they suggest going to the market and eating some of the best ceviche in all of Peru. Loving a good ceviche, Erin’s ears perked up and said, “consider it done!” the next afternoon, in between World Cup games, we went to check out the market. Much bigger than either of us anticipated, the market covered a few square blocks. The fresh vegetables on display for rows on end, the fish laid out for sale or being chopped into ceviche, the stalls of spices, the plucked chickens, the smells, the outspoken vendors, aaah heavenly! And that was just one end of the market. The other end had everything you can imagine for sale: hardwares, housewares, bedding, auto goods, luggage, clothes for men, women and children, and on and on and on. At one point, we considered getting roadside tattoos by a guy with a wooden stool, tattoo gun, and a photo portfolio laid out on the sidewalk. Knowing our mom would shoot us, we laughed and decided against it. Maybe next time.
We come to find out that the main reason Peruvians come to Piura is that it’s the jumping off point to go up into the mountains for a visit with the shamans. Although many tourists travel to see a shaman and drink iowaska in the jungles surrounding Iquitos, the locals go to the town of Salala up high in the Andes. Well, uh, we want to go where the locals go, not the tourismos, so we booked a ticket for a weekend trip (vowing to return in time for the final World Cup game).
Salala, Shamans, and Stalker…
Although Salala is only an inch away from Piura on the map, it’s actually a 10 hour bus ride, winding up through steep, unpaved switchbacks into the heart of the Andes mountains. During a rest stop, a local Peruvian starts chatting it up with Meaghan in his broken English. Then, Erin walks into the conversation completely unaware of how awkward and weird this guy is. Let’s call him Boris. Just imagine an older heavier set, more odd-ball version of the actor John Turturro, with spectacles. So, Boris invites us to sit with him for the remainder of the ride and we politely decline, taking our assigned seats in the front of the bus. Less than 5 minutes later, he comes and takes the seat directly in front of us, wanting to practice his English. Boris asked why we were going to Salala, and we said that we were headed to see one of the shamans. Upon hearing this, he tells us that he too is headed up to meet with a shaman, but not just any shaman, the professor of all the other shamans in the area. He then invites us to join him on the shaman visit. Sounds great, right? We didn’t even know how to go about finding one, and here this guy is, inviting us to meet the professor. Sure, why not?! And how great it is that the universe provides for us, and also reaffirms the Great Sense of Humor. Funny, Universe, real funny…
Still unaware of his weirdness, when he asks if we have boyfriends Meaghan replies yes and Erin said no. Like a honing radar, he then ignores Meaghan completely and turns his focus to Erin. Oh great, here we go. As we arrive in Huancabamba to stay the night, Boris stays in the same hostel (which is one of the most horrid places we’ve stayed so far, just barely beating out the crack area hotel in Colombia). He invites us to join him for dinner and, feeling like it would be insulting for us to say no after his shaman invite, we obliged and said yes. At this point, he is looking for any reason to get close to Erin, saying things like, “you must be cold, come stand next to me and I’ll keep you warm… Are you sure you’re not cold?” doing little things such as offering his hand as she gets off the bus, asking to carry her backpack, trying to massage the back of her neck, or even trying to put his arm around her. During dinner we come to find out that the reason Boris is visiting from lima is because he has political aspirations, but not just any aspirations, he wants to be the president of Peru. He has been visiting with the head shaman for some time now, and swears by him. Wow, this just keeps getting better. In the process of saying goodnight and walking into our room, Boris starts massaging Erin’s shoulders saying, “ooh, do you like that, doesn’t that feel good?” and Erin cuts him off, saying, ” actually, I prefer a professional massage, but thank you, see you in the morning!” Ugh, are you kidding me?!
After a terrible nights sleep, we are ready to go at 5 am. Wedged in the back seat of a station wagon with Boris, we still have another two hours of driving even deeper into the Andes. We must admit, driving through the rural parts of the mountains is absolutely breathtaking and beyond beautiful. Photos will never do justice to the magnitude and magnificence of this part of the world.
We arrive at the shaman’s house just after sunrise and are told what to expect for the ritual. Given that visiting with a shaman is a very personal experience, we are going to limit the details of our encounter. The first session involves freeing your soul from any of the weight or troubles of the past, while the second part involves asking the spirits to bless your future. The head shaman sends us with two of his students to take us out to the sacred lake for the first ritual. Throughout our time with Boris, any photo we took he wanted to be in. And any photo he was in, he only wanted Erin in the picture with him. We each rode an ass, that’s right, an ass for two hours even deeper into the mountains (an ass being a cross between a donkey and a horse). During the ass ride, we cross crystal clear streams, vibrant little wild flowers, soaring mountains, and grazing livestock. All the while, Boris is calling Erin ‘princess’, constantly asking if she’s doing okay, and telling her that it hurts to be so far away from her. By the time we arrive to the sacred lake, our butts are aching and our spine is sore from the ride. Setting the stage for the ritual...We make our way down to the shores of the lake, in complete awe, and watch the shamans set up all of the props and tools for the ritual. Toward the very end, an important part of the cleansing is to jump into the lake. As Meaghan and Erin strip down to their swimsuits, Boris is ready and eager to jump in with his tight blue speedo on, or as we like to call them, banana-hammoks. Knowing our swim is going to be a frigid experience, and now an even more awkward one with Boris in a blue banana-hammok, we wade into the water. As we’re easing into the sacred ice water, Boris is frolicking, jumping, and splashing Erin like a giddy little kid. Shivering and tense from being splashed, we are instructed to take three sips of the lake water. We looked at each other, wondering if it’ll make us sick or give us a parasite, and then drink the water. When in Rome, right? Well, we couldn’t help but laugh at the hilarity of the situation, dunked in the water, and then hastily dried off and put our clothes back on to warm up. “NO, Boris,  I’m not cold, NO, I don’t want you to keep me warm, and I know how to get on a saddle so, NO, I don’t need a boost!” This guy is relentless, what a piece of work. It never got to the point where Erin needed to be violent toward resisting his advances, but she was prepared to…

Just after our swim in the sacred lake

Once again aching from the ass ride, we arrive back at the shamans house. Since the second part of the ritual happens during the dead of night, we were able to rest in a downstairs room lined with beds and what appeared to be horse mats for warmth. Erin was sure to choose one as far away from Boris as she could, and Meaghan, being protective over Erin, chose a bed in between them. With earplugs securely fastened, we all tried to get some sleep. Five minutes into our nap Boris let’s a huge fart out right near Meaghan’s head, and it was loud enough to shake the concrete walls. Um, awkward silence. Trying not to laugh out loud, we wondered if he was going to say “excuse me” or “pardon me”. Nope, but within ten minutes he was snoring louder than anyone we’ve ever heard before. Meaghan and Erin exchange glance, is this guy is for real?
For the night ritual, we sit on the ground with blankets to keep us warm. Meaghan strategically sat in between Erin and Boris, not wanting anything to happen while sitting in a pitch black room. The shaman proceeds to pray for us, calling the spirits to bless our future with such intensity it seemed like it hurt, all the while shaking a rattle in a rhythmic motion. At one point each of us are called up to stand in front of the shaman. Boris was first, then Meaghan, and lastly Erin. As Boris finished and Meaghan began, he sits down in Meaghan’s seat, the one in the middle. So, as Erin is standing up in front of the shaman, Meaghan asks him to scoot over. Looking up at her confused, she motions with her hand and repeats for him to scoot over. With a grumble, he moved over so she could have her seat in the middle, separating him from Erin. As the rituals finish, we were able to catch a quick nap before our ride came to bring us back down to Huancabamba. During the ride, Boris wanted Erin’s email address. Meaghan chimed in and said that we are sharing an email account while we travel, giving him her junk email address.

Throughout the remaining 9 hour bus ride, Erin tried her hardest to avoid the longing stares Boris was giving her. Headphones in, hat pulled down, and pretending to sleep. In order to get Erin’s attention from her pretend sleep, he would reach across the aisle and lightly brush her upper arm with the back of his hand, causing her to both flinch and jump at the same time. Creepy. It was so unnerving that Meaghan switched seats with Erin so she could block the stares and goosebump inducing hand brushes. By the time the bus ride ended, Boris proceeded to confess his love, telling Erin how much he cared for her, and how he wished they could have a future together. Sorry Boris, no es posible, nunca.  Thinking Boris might be lurking around every corner, we caught the World Cup final and then left Piura as soon as we could. Here we go, making the mad dash to southern Peru…
Boris has since sent at least fifteen emails… to Meaghan’s junk account. And whenever we want to creep each other out, we just lightly brush the other persons arm with the back of the hand and, sure enough, they flinch.

View out the bus window

(Just in case Boris does run for president of Peru, we opted not to post any of the awkward photos of him and Erin… if you really want one, we’ll email it to you! They’re pretty funny.)

Posted by: scenicroute206 | October 23, 2010

Eeh?! Ecuador

Knowing that we had some serious distance to cover in order to make it into Cusco, Peru for our friend Gabrielle’s birthday, we cut our time short in Colombia, vowing to return someday to explore the country we had fallen in love with. Here we go again, yet another overnight bus through the mountains. With the dusty seats reclined back the full two inches, the garbage from the previous passenger tucked in the seat-back in front of us, and the air conditioner set to ‘iceberg’, we were layered up with all of our warm clothes and ready for the long haul to Quito. For the first leg of the trip we were lucky enough to have our own set of two seats, a whole meter of uncomfortableness to curl up on, and conveniently located right next to the bathroom with the wafting bouquet as the door swings open. At some point during the dead of night and in the middle of nowhere, we pick up more passengers. Pretending to be asleep, with her face mask on and neck pillow secured, Meaghan doesn’t even budge when tapped to sit up and scoot over. Then Erin is tapped out of her pretend sleep, grunting as she has to sit up and make space for a 200lb Latin man to squeeze in next to her. Nice job Meaghan, you win this round.
During a twenty-minute rest stop to eat and use the toilet, we meet two other travelers from England. Having a good laugh about the bus ride and the mysterious sausage we just inhaled, we come to find out that we’re all making the mad dash to Quito and that we’re all on a round-the-world journey. Before you know it, John and Dave have become our border-buddies. It’s always nice to meet other travelers and exchange stories, jokes, and unwarranted personal information.
After 15 hours on the bus, feeling like a new age beauty queen with our hair a disheveled mess and some serious bags under our eyes, we were dropped off at the bus station and now had to deal with the border crossing. Here’s the quick and dirty run down of what the crossing was like: 20 minute taxi ride to the exit office, pass numerous locals waving wads of money promising a good exchange rate, wait wait wait in line with only one official working in the immigration booth, get your exit stamp, walk a healthy distance to the entry office, ward off pushy vendors while hauling a heavy backpack, wait wait wait in line, fill out the entry form, make silly faces with the little kids, get a passport scan and entry stamp from the one guy working, bargain with a taxi driver, drive 30 minutes to the bus station, buy tickets, eat a questionable lunch, then hop on the bus which has none of the qualities promised by the ticket vendor. Bathroom? Nope. Air conditioning? Yeah, right. Direct to Quito? Sure, if you count stopping every twenty minutes. To give you a good idea of how long it actually took, just imagine watching three different Steven Segal movies back to back and dubbed over in Spanish (it was pretty funny for about ten minutes) All in all, it took over 24 hours to get from Medellin, Colombia to Quito, Ecuador. Ouch, my butt hurts.

Quito, Ecuador
Although our hostel is right next to a church and a synagogue, the lady at the front desk warns us not to walk late at night and to always take a taxi, but wait, always take an authorized taxi. Yep, we did it again, found a hostel in the shady, dangerous part of town. I’m beginning to think we have a knack for it. That’s okay because the rooftop terrace had a spectacular view of a gothic cathedral and the angel at the top of the hill, overlooking and looking after the city.

For an atypical afternoon, the four of us took a public bus out to the monument marking the equator. We’ve only ever known the equator to be the red line splitting the map of the world in half, separating the north from the south. You remember being a little kid, spinning the globe as fast as you can, round and round, stop! And here we are, at latitude zero, the line we used to get the best leverage for the fastest spin on our childhood globe, wondering what life was like where our finger landed to stop the spin.

North vs. South

 Well, it’s not every day you get to stand on the equator! So, we decided to kick it in style, North vs. South. With a civil handshake and a sumo wrestlers start, it was game on. With Erin on the North side of the line and Meaghan on the South, we wrestled on theequator laughing hysterically and feeling like little kids again. We had a limited amount of time to explore Quito, so we wanted to make the best of it. Strolling through the central park, avoiding the temptation to go on a romantic paddle boat ride with swans and all, we stopped to observe some sort of military graduation ceremony. Thank goodness we weren’t walking into a conflict, whew. Did we mention the massive hills in Quito? Yep, we definitely got a stair master style workout. While walking through the central park, we approach a very impressive playground filled with laughing children. Meaghan spies the pulley-swing and the long line of kids waiting their turn. She hops in line, towering over the kids, and patiently waits her turn.

Life in Quito: Church and Soccer

 When we went to explore the gothic cathedral, we find out they actually let people climb to the very top. Slowly but surely, we balance our way across the top of the vestibule, climb ladder after ladder trying not to look down (feeling a bit weak in the knees) and make it to the top of the tallest spire. What an amazing view of the entire city! After soaking it all in, the hardest part was climbing back down.

In our efforts to find a restaurant that was highly recommended by the Lonely Planet, we weaved our way through the labyrinth of a shopping district. Why is it that the budget travel book seems to lead the reader to the most expensive places to eat in the hardest to find location? There are some points when the book needs to be thrown out, especially when it comes to eating like the locals do. Speaking of hanging out with the locals, we found the central eating area and a coffee shop with outdoor flatscreen TV’s to watch the worldcup. With large crowds forming, the streets had come to a screeching halt for the end of the Uruguay v. Ghana game and the ‘hand ball heard round the world’ during overtime, causing an overwhelming uproar throughout the streets of Quito. Exciting!

Feet to Face…

Feeling stiff and creaky from the bus ride, legs cramping from our tromp around the city, we decided to treat ourselves to a massage. We hadn’t seen any places while exploring the city, so we asked the woman at reception. She suggested a little boutique salon just down the street. After checking it out, seeming well organized and clean, we were a little hesitant but committed anyway. And that’s when the massage nightmare began. While Meaghan was receiving her massage first, Erin flipped through every spanish magazine on the table while observing two guys drinking beer on the other sofa. Knowing that Meaghan was about to finish with her massage, Erin thought it would be a good idea to use the bathroom before it was her turn. After using the toilet, it won’t flush. Damn. No sign of water at all, and there was no way to fix it. No water to wash her hands either. As she peaks her head out the bathroom door, asking if there’s a special trick to it, the masseuse is right there. She said, “don’t worry, we’ll fix it, right this way.” Not seeing Meaghan first to get any indication of how the massage was, Erin was taken to the frigid cubicle.  The towel on the table was dirty, the first indicator to turn around and walk away, the cubicle was freezing (indicator #2), and there was no ‘modesty’ cloth for coverage (indicator #3). Laying there for what seemed like an eternity listening to the ladies getting their nails done on the other side of the partition, pretty sure the masseuse was trying to fix the toilet, and feeling a bit mortified. Then the torture began. There was no rhythm to the motion and slapping of her hands, her elbows digging in a rapid motion, the wafting smell of vaseline, and then, the rolling pin. With the force of a man, she rolled straight up the spine again, and again, and again. Flinching from the pain and on the brink of tears, she  instructed Erin to roll over, and still with no modesty cloth. After rubbing her caked-in-dirt feet, she went strait for the face. Really?! Who does that? Did she really just go straight from my feet to my face?! In denial about what was happening, she proceeded to firmly rub the forhead and cheeks with the stank from her feet. Oh please, is this torture almost over? Eager to get the hell out of there, rapidly dressing to warm up, Erin meets Meaghan in the reception area. With a quick glance, knowing we had both been through torture, we had to bite our tongues until we paid and left. Yeah, that’s right, we paid to get tortured and essentially have our feet rubbed on our face.  Managing to laugh about it while waiting for dinner, all we could think about was “I keep smelling my feet, on my face!” Lesson learned: never be afraid to get up and walk out. After this scarring experience, we were looking forward to getting out of Quito, wondering if we would be able to lift our backpacks given that our spines were bruised.

Cuenca to Loja…

Colonial style hostel in Cuenca

If you subtract receiving the worst massage ever, Quito was a great experience. Exploring the city, climbing a cathedral, wrestling over the equator, and eating some incredible food with the locals left us feeling full and satisfied. Our brother Keenan is friends with an ecuadorian, Edgar, who lives south of Quito in a little colonial town called Cuenca. Being a friend of the family, and sort of on our way south, we wanted pay him a visit. Arriving in Cuenca during the early morning, waking up a few different hostels wondering if they had a room available, we settled on a quaint little colonial style hostel. We come to notice that the beds were like sleeping in a sink-hole with blankets that appeared to never have been washed, also sharing a community bathroom with freezing cold showers and a lovely mosaic of hairballs on the wall near the sink. At least we were in a safer part of town, right?! Planning for a full weekend in Cuenca, most of the town was shut down for a holiday. Unfortunaterly, Edgar was out of town for a weekend getaway so we spent the majority of our time walking around to see the plazas, churches, and markets. The most exciting part of our time there was finding an Internet cafe so we could skype call to our nieces first birthday party. Seeing a large number of our extended family together really made us homesick, but seeing little Anne with chocolate cake all over her face made us happy to be a part of the celebration. We are truely blessed by the love, support, and encouragement of our family. Considering that Cuenca was pretty low key and docile, we were ready to get on yet another bus and keep moving south. We ended up in the town of Loja, not wanting to cross the border in the middle of night for safety first purposes. Since our next bus was leaving the station at 5:30 in the morning, we stayed in the hostel with the blinking red neon lights across the street, hoping it wasn’t the type of place to rent by the hour. Door locked. Windows locked. Check.
Back at the station by 5 am, wanting to get a bit of food before the long journey, devastation hits. Although one of us was always with our bags, someone stole Meaghans little green backpack. Running through the station as the bus is getting ready to leave, no luck finding the culprit. They managed to swipe her journal, immunization card, expensive makeup, iPod speakers, a few gifts for friends, and her spiritual books. We can only hope the thief grows a conscience and, on some level, needed the money to feed their family. Devastated, Meaghan is ruminating for the next leg of the trip. At least she has her passport, money, and cards. And thank goodness there was an adorable little baby girl seated across from us, warding off her need to scream at the top of her lungs. Feeling violated, she offered to share our ritz crackers with peanut butter and nutella with the kids and a few other passengers around us. With a smiling baby and shy kids coming out of their shell, Meaghan was beginning to release her attachment to the backpack and it’s contents.
Still a bit bummed out, we have to cross the Ecuador border into Peru. Confused about why we all had to get off the bus, a Brazilian girl who spoke very little English helped us out. We hopped in a truck with her to the border, filled out the necessary paperwork and got stamped, and then picked up by the same bus that dropped us off, making sure our packs were still stowed safely underneath. Ugh, get us out of Ecuador! After the massage and the stolen backpack, we didn’t want to spend another minute there.

Little shoe-shine boy...

 

What a cutie!

 

YUM

 

Posted by: scenicroute206 | September 23, 2010

Coolin’ off in Colombia

Cartagena …

Spanish-style living

In the beautiful old town part of Cartagena, just imagine colorful Spanish style colonial buildings with open plazas, fountains, historical churches, horse-drawn carriages, street vendors and local dancers, all surrounded by a massive stone wall. The protective wall was so well-preserved, it was easy to picture pirate ships, exploding cannons, and hostile takeovers, garr matey! Unfortunately the eye patch doesn’t go with our dresses.

We noticed that when you take the time to stop and watch the local people working, they have an etiquette like none other we’ve seen. For instance, the main plaza is filled with tables being serviced by the surrounding restaurants and there are strict lines they are not allowed to cross while trying to draft people into their section. Two waitresses competing have an invisible line, walking street vendors will wait a certain amount of time before approaching the same people again, and the street performers will stake out and claim an area without interrupting or overpowering a competitor nearby. The only part we felt uneasy about were the horse-drawn carriages. Not only did the horses appear to be emaciated, but there was one in particular who was very upset and started rearing up like it was going to take off running through the middle of the plaza filled with patrons. As we watched the scene unfold, ready to grab our stuff and run screaming “bananas” (our safety word), the family in the back all jumped out as three men grabbed the harness in an attempt to control the horse. Thankfully we didn’t have to flip over our table in defense and run, but we were ready to!

A short distance from this culture-filled part of town was the neighborhood we stayed in, uh, with a different sort of culture. This area was a cross between backpacker hostels and the late night red-light district. Despite a few warnings, we never felt threatened. Safety first, right? Regardless, we made it a mission to still catch the world cup games; we may be traveling, but we still have priorities. While walking through some of the residential neighborhoods, with families all hanging out together in the streets with boom-boxes blaring music, we were able to get a feel for how the locals like to relax as the day cools off.

In one area, where two police officers were standing guard near the ATM, they started asking us questions and, before you know it, they were giving us their family information to go and stay with their parents and family. I’m not sure if it was Meaghan’s blond-curly hair with blue eyes, or Erin’s pale freckled skin with green eyes, that made them want a photo with us, but before you know it, Meaghan’s wearing the Colombian police vest and hat for a photo of her own (soon to be a facebook profile pic). Just in case, Erin had them write their information on the back of a passport photocopy, just in case we ran into trouble…

Santa Marta…

Located on the northern Caribbean coast of Colombia lies a bustling little town called Santa Marta. Larger than a village and smaller than a city, this area has its own sort of attitude without the need to pamper the tourists. Based on the suggestion of the hostel we stayed at in Cartagena, we booked a room at a partnered hostel, whose name we have intentionally blocked from our memory.  Our taxi driver didn’t really know where it was, just the neighborhood it was in, and raised an eyebrow asking if we were sure when we pulled up. Why not? After all, we already had a reservation. We were tired and hungry and wanted to catch the second half of the world cup game, so we decided against looking for another place to stay. As it turns out, our room looks like you don’t want to touch the walls (or anything else), the bed feels like it’s been made from concrete, the “shower” is just a dribble, and the air conditioner sounds like it’s yelling at you while it barely works. Ok, yeah, we should have listened to the taxi driver.  As we cross the street to the little restaurant filled with locals, actually, local men, we order a lunch plate. The starter course is soup, which seemed to be corn flakes in watered down condensed milk with potato and egg… we could only finish the potato. This is followed by chicken fat and bone with a dash of meat on it, rice and vegetables. Well, at this point, the rice and vegetables were delicious. Erin was too tired to change out of her Italy t-shirt, and suffered the scoffs and snickers by the local latin men also watching the game. Aah yes, we also come to find out that our hostel is located in the ‘drug’ neighborhood, and “us pretty little girls shouldn’t be goin out at night.”  Afterward, it was unanimous that we find a different place to stay.  Walking through town and along the beachfront, we came across a friendly backpacker hostel with hot showers, a pool, roof top deck, and flat screen TV’s – score! Or should we say, gooooaall!

Harpoon fishing?! Anyone? Anyone?

Early the next morning, we were quick to check out and head over to Las Brisas Locas. Turns out, this hostel is quite the party-house. Baby steps here folks, we made it out of the druggie neighborhood and into a safer travelers-on-drugs-or-blacked-out-drunk hostel.  While sitting in the bar at 9 am, trying to watch the world cup over breakfast, it was hard not to notice the topless beer-bongs and yelling from the group on the rooftop deck. We were pretty sure this wacky group hadn´t slept in a couple of days, given the quality of Colombia´s top ¨cash crop,¨ and they made for very entertaining people watching. To give you an idea of the wacky-factor, one guy was collecting nail clippings… from other travelers! He was hoping to sell them on eBay and had been stalking Erin´s pretty painted toe nails which, in the end, she contributed to his collection. Meaghan on the other hand didn’t even entertain the idea of sharing.

The only thing Meaghan was willing to share was her toothpaste when they finally decided to try and get some sleep.  It was difficult to keep a straight face while watching the intensity and vigor at which they brushed their teeth. With their feet planted firmly on the ground, wide eyes, serious expressions in the mirror, and rapid rough motion of the toothbrush, it felt like watching a cross between a sketch-comedy and anti-drug commercial… hilarious! It’s one thing for tourists to come and spend their time and money on drugs, and it’s an entirely different picture to watch local street kids looking to get high to the point of passing out in the middle of the sidewalk for everyone to step over. It’s hard to deny giving them money when they beg with those big hazy puppy dog eyes, but we know they’re just going to turn around and get high again. The only thing we felt like giving them was food, so we did, even when they said they only wanted money.

Scuba Diving …

Our original intentions for going to Santa Marta was a hike to the Lost City in the middle of the jungle. After troubleshooting our time line, budget, and interests, we decided to skip the mosquito filled,  fankle-inducing, strenuous trek and opted for an alternate adventure… scuba diving certification!

Underwater Zen with Brain Coral

Bestest Diving Buddie Ever!

Our daily routine for the next 5 days consisted of being picked up between 7.30 and 8am, driving to Rodadero where the diving station is located, brushing up on scuba info, and suiting up into (unflattering) wetsuits before venturing out into open water. Each day included two dives with a lunch break on a tropical beach. Although we were incredibly nervous to conquer our ocean-water fears, our instructor was a great teacher and opened our eyes to a whole new underwater-world of amazement.

There were four different characters along for the ride during our dives: David, our instructor, was a silly character who enjoyed singing reggae and practicing capoeira (a Brazilian martial art mixed with dance); Camilo, a dive master, sports beautiful tattoos, an amazing smile with a positive attitude to match, and is a student of marine biology; and Sebastian, also a dive master, was such a quirky character that we had to keep from giggling. And then  there´s Scooby-Doo, the old chihuahua who joined us in the boat as co-capitan. By the end of our diving adventures, we had become such good friends that it was hard to say goodbye. We were so captivated by the people, scenery, and activities of the Colombian coast that we eagerly look forward to returning someday sooner than later.

Meaghan and David, our super cool instructor!

Medellin …

After an overnight bus through the mountains of Colombia, we made it to the sprawling metropolis of Medellin. Although Meaghan seems to effortlessly sleep on the bus, Erin has a much harder time catching some zzz´s. Not only do the bus drivers forge ahead at ridiculous speeds, none of the roads are straight. So, just as you begin to doze off, wham! your head hits the window, then whack! you hit your neighbor, then whomp! your face hits the seat in front of you as the driver slams on the brakes. When you´re lucky enough to halt at a random rest stop in the middle of nowhere, don´t forget to bring toilet paper, plug your nose, pull up the bottoms of your pants, and hover. Trust us, you don´t want to sit on that seat-less toilet, even if it did have a seat. Gallons of hand sanitizer, anyone?!In the tram bubble

We were both surprised by the magnitude of Medellin. A sprawling metropolis with an incredible transit system including busses, railways, and trams that take you to the top of the mountain overlooking the city.  The Black Sheep Hostel was nestled into a residential neighborhood within walking distance of the grocery store and popular restaurant/bar/clubbing area.  The best part about the hostel was the fact that it had a fully equipped, well taken care of, functioning kitchen. Instantly Erin started strategizing on what to cook first, just the prospect of going to the grocery store made her start to purrr. At this point in our travels, it’s the small things that make us happy… a kitchen, comfortable bed, toilet seats, hot showers, clean laundry, and no flea bites at the end of a bus ride.On our tram ride up ...

We only spent a few days in Medellin. It’s such a big city that we were aching for somewhere a bit smaller and more laid back. While exploring the city, we made good use of the rail system which is clean, fast, safe, and easy to use. A part of the system includes a tram that takes you to the top of the mountains surrounding the city. On the way up, seated in a bubble, we cruised above some of the poorest parts of the city. Amid the signs for coca-cola and cell phone companies were children playing in the streets, small shops selling just about everything, and laundry drying on the rooftops of houses that seemed to be stacked one on top of the other for miles and miles around. The overhead view from the tram made us feel disconnected and like a spectator of how the poor live, peaking in to see what its like in their lives.

*Peace*We got off the tram to check out the new library perched on the hill, looming over the city like a big black stone – if Mecca looked like a learning center with angled windows, this would be it. On our way, we made friends with a little boy and invited him to join us on a walk through the library and look at the kids books. He told us that he wasn’t allowed in, so we walked around and joked with him while overlooking the city. There are moments while traveling that break our hearts a little, and this little boy cracked ours wide open. It hurts to see how access to education can be very restricted, elitist, or even an illusion to those that need it the most.  As we said goodbye, we watched him run off to play with his friends in the fountain, laughing and running in the shadow of the big, black library…

Santa Fe Antioque …

For a day trip outside the hustle and bustle of Medellin, we headed up into the mountains of Colombia.  Santa Fe is centered around a main plaza with market stalls, restaurants, a fountain and big white church. We spent the day wandering through the side streets, and happened to stumble upon a small church with the town cemetery. The side entrance gate was open, so we decided to wander in – observing a tall wall lined with flowers and names of the deceased being commemorated. On our stroll through the grounds, hundreds of little blue butterflies would flutter around us, gently reminding us of the circle of life and how closely related life and death are.

Continuing on, meandering through the cobblestone streets, we decided to rest in a small little plaza across from a beautiful old stone church. As we watched the little girls bicycle around in circles with their training wheels, or a little boy try to figure out how to kick the soccer ball, we hear the symphony of church bells ring. As the massive wooden doors open, and a few local grandmothers wander in, we exchange glances with each other feeling drawn to go and check it out. As we approach the grand entrance, two little birds bright yellow with black wings, flutter to us from inside the church and land at our feet. They hopped around in front of us as they chirped, then flew away as quickly as they had arrived. Without saying a word, we look at each other and smile, knowing that we are exactly where we’re supposed to be on our path in life, and this was just another way of the universe rooting us on. It’s the little moments like this that make our trip such a wonderful experience.

Thanks for reading this really long blog posting! Let us know what you think, will ya?!

Ciao,

Erin and Meaghan

Posted by: scenicroute206 | August 23, 2010

Pampered in Panama

The Islands of Bocas del Torro . . .

After crossing the border between Costa Rica and Panama, we caught one of the last shuttles to the coast, only to catch the last water taxi to the island of Bocas.  Consistently, the timing of the universe has been in our favor! We were planning on meeting up with Stamie and Alvaro (every 90 days she needs to leave Costa Rica for 3 days in order to renew her visa) before they return to the Estacion las Tortugas.  With our packs in tow, we walk past a row of surfboards to the check-in counter at Hostal Heike.  As we’re shown to our dorm that sleeps 8 people, we walk in to find six hot shirtless Australian surfers piled onto one of the beds watching the movie Point Blank on a computer. Surfers watching a bad surfer movie?! Somehow very fitting to the situation.

After dropping off our packs and realizing how hungry we were, we ventured out unshowered to find one of the restaurants suggested to us on the bus ride back in Costa Rica.  We found the restaurant, RipTide, parked at the dock.  This place used to be a working vessel and had been turned into a floating restaurant, run by a Panamanian woman and her husband from Helena, Montana.  As we’re waiting for dinner to arrive, Erin can’t help but eavesdrop on the conversation going on behind them… typical Erin.  Not wanting to be rude and interrupt, she bites her tongue many times before she just can’t take it anymore- too many opportunities for a bad joke had passed, and she couldn’t let this one go. A handsome gentleman asked what the name of the soup was they had at the chinese restaurant last night, and Erin didn’t even think twice before turning around and saying, ‘cream-of-some-young-guy’ (yes, a very bad movie reference).  This interjection opened the door for introductions and sharing terrible jokes for the rest of dinner.  It was an absolute pleasure to meet Thomas (american living in Panama), his brother Lawrence (lives in Spain), Charlie (NYC), and the twin ladies Alex and Morgan (also NYC).

The next morning we meet up with Stamie and Alvaro out front of our hostel and decide to rent bicycles for a journey to one of the beautiful beaches on the island.  Bicycles with baskets on the front per Meaghan’s request. The rumor floating around town was that the TV show Survivor was stationed at one of the beaches and had been building on a turtle nesting ground.  Given the turtle connection we were on our way!  As we approach the remote, public beach on our retro bikes it’s easy to spot where the survivor crew is stationed.

We bike a little further down the dirt road toward a different entrance to the beach, when we see that a small turtle hatchery had been set up.  It was very make-shift with two tents, a small fire pit, sticks to mark the hatchery area, and a swaying flag made of a cut-up bed sheet and sharpie marker drawing of a turtle.  As we park our bikes and venture out onto the pristine beach, our jaws drop at the magnitude of the structure Survivor had built. The structure was being built for the final obstacle course for Survivor Colombia . . . on a beach in Panama . . . and on a turtle nesting ground.  We wonder who the genius was that planned this?!  Probably sitting in an air-conditioned office, balancing profit and cost, all while doing research on Google Earth. As we strolled past the structure, it was easy for us to spot where turtles had come up on the beach and how close their nests were to the construction site. We were all saddened at the stupidity of it all.

One of our last nights on the island was spent at the AquaLounge. Just imagine MTV spring break in the pouring rain, dancing to terrible techno on the dock- with a fair share of Bob Marley’s Legend, a fav of Thomas’. This dock of a dance floor is surrounding a swimming hole with a jumping platform. After Meaghan was unwillingly dragged in by Thomas with her dress on (thank goodness it was black), she was ruthlessly trying to convince Erin to jump in as well.  With the coercion and company of Charlie, Erin conquered one of her fears – jumping off of a high platform… into the ocean… at night.  Once in a blue moon, it´s nice to party till dawn.

The next day we took a water taxi with John (Alabama amigo from the hostel) out to Wizard beach, a beautiful and remote location with no signs of settlement – not a single bit of electricity, no bars, no restaurants, no hostels. The only thing we heard were crashing waves, and the only thing to be seen was the white sand of a tropical beach and sailboats in the distance.

Panama City

While we had a kickin’ time on¨spring-break island¨ it was time to move on.  After taking the water taxi back to the mainland, and while waiting for our bus to arrive, we meet a wonderful woman named Katrina. We’ve learned  that when you meet someone during the course of travelling, there´s no telling how much time you´ll end up spending together, and what it is you have yet to learn from them…

Katrina is an Australian woman in her forties, sporting a camouflage backpack, pink floral skirt, and long sun-bleached hair. As we start chatting at the bus station, we find out how similar our paths are – she just finished backpacking through Central America (with amazing photos and stories to share), and is planning on backpacking for at least 2 years with scheduled time to volunteer along the way. We weren´t planning on spending much time in Panama City, just enough time to catch a boat to Colombia, and we unexpectedly ended up spending two weeks here!

Throughout the course of getting to know Katrina, listening to her stories and advice about life and spirituality, it was a nice re-affirmation that we are exactly where we´re supposed to be our life-path. She encouraged us to maintain our ´divine feminine´by having a Goddess Day once a month.  For one day a month, pamper yourself. Get a manicure, wear a dress, have a massage, get your nails done, take a walk, have a day with your girlfriends, meditate, put a flower in your hair, and ultimately, make time for yourself. You don´t have to spend lots of money doing it, just make sure you focus on all the best parts about being a woman. The same importance should be placed with men too, making the time to go out with guy friends, play sports, go fishing, build something, whatever encourages the best parts about being a man.

Our hostel, Casco Viejo, was situated in the midst of an up-and-coming neighborhood in the old part of the city. In other words, just a couple of years prior, this area was part of the dangerous ghetto. And now the edge of the ghetto/hooker district was just a few blocks away. This made for a captivating blend between old neglected buildings crumbling to the ground, and beautifully rennovated spanish colonial style buildings.  With the advantage of knowing a local Panamanian, we were introduced to the most amazing pizza and clams at Napoli, situated in a neighborhood we would never venture into on our own – thanks Mo!

Panama City has a bit of everything: a sprawling metropolis zone filled with skyscrapers and high-end shopping malls, the spanish colonial style buildings in the old part of town, weekend getaways into the jungle or out to the beach, and of course, the Panama Canal. At the west end of the entrance to the Panama Canal, gigantic freighters are awaiting their scheduled time to pass through the locks and into the canal.  If you´ve seen the Ballard Locks in Seattle, that´s childsplay compared to the size and magnitude of the Panama Canal. We were able to experience a freighter passing through, the interactive museum, and a promotional/historical video of the canal.

Thomas, our friend from Bocas, was nice enough to take us out to a Lebanese restaurant (hookahs included, yum), give us a ´lay of the land´, invite us to catch the US/England futbol game, and introduce us to a few of his expat friends. After talking about travelling, we come to find out that he´s been to just about every country in the world and also works with universities to bring student groups from all over the world to work on projects helping small communities – Global Brigades, check ’em out they are pretty awesome.

After realizing through our research that it would be three times more expensive to catch a boat to Colombia and take three times as long, we decided to catch a flight from Panama to Cartagena, Colombia.   Surprised at having spent two weeks exploring and relaxing in the city, we were ready to move on for the next chapter of our adventure… South America.  With only two months(ish) in South America, it was necessary to limit our travels to a few countries. Our new plan was to ‘swing’ through Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia. In the words of one of Meaghan’s theme songs, courtesy of Whitesnake, ¨Here we go again…¨

Posted by: scenicroute206 | June 27, 2010

Costa Rica- Seaturtles!

After two full days bussing through Honduras and Nicaragua (crack, squeak, stiff) we were very relieved to make it to San Jose safe n sound. We used the time in the city to do laundry and catch up on some errands and stayed at a hostel called Casa Ridgeway, which was connected to the local Center for Peace, and run by a group of Quakers. This turned out to be a relaxing haven after being in transit for two days, whew!  While we were in San Jose, the first female president was being inaugurated into office and the whole city practically shut down to watch this historic occasion. Although not everyone was excited to see her take office, it was exciting to see presidents from all over the world in attendance. What a historic occasion! Before you know it, we`re on a bus headed for the coast to spend 2 weeks volunteering with the Estacion las Tortugas to help during nesting season for leatherback turtles …

When we`re dropped off in the small town of Matina during a torrential downpour (apocolyptic style), we were promptly picked up by Alvaro, who we later find out is the assistant director of the program.  Twenty minutes of driving down dirt roads through endless fields of banana plantations leads us to the winding waterways of the lagoon where we are picked up by a motorboat to take us to the turtle station. We quickly find out how un-waterproof Erin´s rain coat is and how rain at high speeds in a boat stings the face. Meaghan was smart enough to keep her poncho handy, and Erin was grateful to at least have a hat to minimize the face sting.  We were excited and soaked, maneuvering our way through jungle lined lagoons filled with exotic birds and crocodiles. Arriving at the Estacion, we were led to our room to ditch our stuff, attempt to dry off, and take a tour of the grounds.

THE SET-UP … 

Nestled in the Jungle

Stamie, the resident biologist from Greece and the only english-speaker on site, led us to the education center which our friend Pam helped do the fundraising for (great job Pam, it looks spectacular!). With the different school groups and Ecoteach groups coming through here, this center displays all the information on leatherback turtles – the history, statistics, and problems stacked against the survival of this prehistoric species and the purpose of this station to help preserve their existence on our planet.  We walked through the dorms where visiting groups stay, the outdoor classroom, where the guards and family sleep, the laundry station, outdoor kitchen, grass soccer field (heaven minus the hidden red ant fields Meaghan was lucky enough to experience a few times, ouch), and the main building which includes the office, indoor kitchen, main eating area and, to our amazement and excitement, a pool table and ping-pong table (uh, game on!).  There is also the turtle display – a long counter that has been turned into a replica of the beach and features the names of all the turtles which have nested on the  beach this season, all nicely lined up with different color-coded flags on mini turtles made from coconut shells.

Tortugas Crew

The family living at the remote turtle station was absolutely delightful.  Since none of them spoke english, this was the perfect time for us to practice our spanish. Before you know it, we were joking around with them and probably making fools of ourselves. Can you imagine living and working with your entire family in the remote jungles of Costa Rica?! Don Alfonso and Dona Sylvia are the head of the family and care for: quiet Daniel, shy Jonathan, playful Kevin, astute Avlaro, mama Daisy, baby Roussel, funny Yandi, flirty Flor, regal Helen, and the non-family members too: Stanley the founder and director, silly Stamie, sporty Jose Antonio, talkative Jose Francisco, chummy Cholo, native Huancho, and happy Hilbert.  And how big is your dining room table? Everyone, no matter how young, had their job on a daily basis.  Whether it was coordinating the visiting groups, driving the boats, picking up supplies, cooking for everyone, managing the food inventory, cleaning the rooms, laundry, compiling daily statistics on the nesting turtles, patrolling the beach for turtles, or guarding the beach from egg poachers – everyone chipped in and helped with different jobs around the grounds. Truely a group effort, and being raised with workparties we were happy to chip in- ¿Puedo ayudar (may I help)? became a staple in our vocabulary.

TURTLE PATROL …

Beach side futbol anyone?

On our very first night, we went out on patrol with Alvaro and Stamie (who also make an adorable couple).  It took some getting used to, you know, walking down the uneven beach in the dark looking for a turtle in the far off distance. Before you know it, they spotted one starting to nest, and pointed her out to us newcomers with novice night vision.  Only using red light since white light is distracting to the turtle, we walk up behind her as she`s digging a deep hole with her back flippers (typically the depth is 41 cm, the length of her flipper). As Stamie starts rummaging in the backpack filled with gear, Alvaro starts digging a seat in the sand directly behind the hole so he can sit in a better position to be ´the catcher.´  Before you know it, the turtle slips into a trance as she is about to start laying eggs. He calls over Meaghan to hold her flipper to the side (which mama turt uses to cover the hole as she begins birthing eggs- and she is mighty strong!), so he can hold the bag in the right spot to catch all the eggs as they`re coming out of the schute.  Stamie and Erin fill out an information worksheet during this time in order to gather nesting data. The information gathered includes the length and width of the mama turtle´s shell, the depth of the nest she dug, the distance the nest is from both the vegetation and the water, and if she has any identification tags or scars. In this case, she needed an identification tag, so we pierced her back flipper- like how you get you get your ears pieced, all cartelidge- while she was in a trance induced by the egg laying process (she doesn´t even notice the new jewelery). Later she will be given a name and little flag to be put on the display back at the Estacion so everyone can see that she nested and if it`s the first time she`s laid eggs this season. After filling in the nesting hole, this gigantic turtle begins to camouflage the area by kicking up sand all around her in a large circle. Once she feels its well hidden, she returns to the sea.  The process of her emerging from the water, looking for the perfect spot, digging the nest, camo-ing, and returning to weightless swimming takes about an hour. What an incredible experience, and on our very first night patrolling the beach!

After the eggs have been gathered, we take them down to a spot closer to the Estacion in the hopes that we can keep them well protected from poachers and predators. After digging a hole to the same depth as the mama turt, the fertile and infertile eggs are counted and placed into the new nest. Side note, the mama usually lays over 100 eggs- the fertile ones (usually about 80ish in a batch) are about the size of a pool ball and the shell feels like a ping pong ball and it´s covered in, ummm, ´mama juice´ that causes a slight gag on first wiff. As the hole is filled in, an ID tag is included so they can see which turtle laid the eggs when they hatch 60 days later. The location of the nest  is then triangulated between the two, numbered markers they were planted in between; and then we camouflage the sand around the nest to make it look as if we were never there. From that point on, we can only hope that the crabs, dogs, or poachers don`t find them.

For two weeks, this is the process we go through every night for four hours, in the dark with only the moon lighting our path and an amazingly clear starlit sky. Sometimes there are lots of turtles, and some nights there aren`t any. Regardless, we just walk up and down the beach in groups looking for turtles and practicing our spanish along the way.   To keep the groups safe, there are a group of guards that keep an eye out for dangerous poachers at the end of the protected stretch of beach, and will send message over the radio if there are any problems, all so that we are all able to roam freely up and down the beach.

At one point, Stamie, told us to get ready to help the turtle camouflage the area by laying down and spreading the sand around, similar to a ´snow angel´.  We look at each other, thinking we should get on our rain gear before laying down in the sand to start flopping around, when we see a sneaky little smile creeped across her sweet face. Trying to pull a fast one on us, she started laughing and said she couldn´t go through with it – she told us she´s never been a very good liar!

CHIPPING IN . . .

Being there for two weeks, we were able to get to know the family and get a glimpse of how many touring groups come through there.  When no tour groups were there, we would be patrolling in small groups of 4. When the Estacion was filled with locals or Ecoteach, we would be in groups of up to 15.  In the smaller groups, we were able to practice our spanish more and also jump in and help with all the steps taken with nesting turtles.  Before you know it, we were digging the seat in the sand, catching the eggs in a bag, and taking all the measurements for the data sheets.

In addition to night patrols, we were able to put our organizational OCD tendencies to good use during the afternoons.  For the turtle display, we were put in charge of updating it so it was an accurate representation of the nesting turtles on the beach. With the excel spread sheet in hand, colored construction paper and a glue stick, we were on it:  cross referencing the turtle names with the display, in accordance with the proper color of the month they nested, if they had nested already this season, if they were a `false crawl`and came up on the beach but didnt lay eggs, making sure they were located in the right sector, creating flags for new or missed turtles, reorganizing the coconut turtles on the display, and naming some of them after the wonderful ladies in our life.  Whew, and it only took us about 3 afternoons to update everything.

Our Living Quarters

The daytime was usually very hot and very humid and, chances are, we were swatting at mosquitoes the whole time.  It was almost to hot to take a siesta… almost. Many afternoons were also spent with our nose in a book, and we probably finished 3 or more books each while we were there. We also fell in love with a little cookie called a Chicky- buttery, nutty, and coated in chocolate on one side, mmm, we couldn`t get enough of them! Books, chickey cookies, and siestas, now that`s what I call a vacation!

THE RUNNING JOKE . . .

During our night patrols we hear about the most infamous poacher of them all, he goes by the name Rambo.  He sneaks around the beach in total darkness and silence, looking for where the turtle eggs have been relocated so he can dig them up and sell them for top dollar. At one point, while Stamie was leading a group down the beach, she sees a face pop up from the sand, and then disappear again. Using her flashlight to investigate further, she finds Rambo face down in the sand trying to hide. Even though she calls him out, he just lays there, face down, pretending to be invisible or dead.  Turns out, he lives at the neighbor’s house, camping on the beach. Talk about double standards! The neighbor not only hosts turtle education groups and uses the knowledge and education resources of the Estacion, but also houses poachers that steal and sell the eggs.

One hot afternoon, Erin walked up the deserted beach and waved to the´ local´ hanging out in front of the neighbors property. He approached her and introduced himself as Rambo, one who lives at the house and keeps the beach safe for turtles. Knowing full well who he was, she let him continue to tell her all the wonderful and noble things he does to protect the leatherback turtles from the disrespectful visitors and from greedy poachers.   Erin respond by telling him how important his work is because there aren´t many leatherbacks left in the world, and how every single egg is important for the turtles to survive. In fact, their survival is so important that people all over the world come here just to volunteer and help.  Knowing that he was actually a poacher, she was hoping to convert him with kindness.  Later, after talking to Don Alfonso, who chats with Rambo regularly, she finds out that he has a crush on her. For the rest of our time there, the running joke was how Rambo was her boyfriend – ¨did you see your boyfriend last night? did you invite your boyfriend over for dinner? when are you getting married? how many kids will you have?¨ and so on, and so on, and so on. Funny at first, but got real old real quick.

SECTOR 10 . . .

Patrolling with Stamie, Daniel, and Flor one night, we were told that ´the devil lives in sector 10.´ Stamie was hesitant to tell us the history of Sector 10 because of the history of all the strange things that happen in this specific part of the beach. There is a wide range of reasons why no one likes this stretch of beach, are you ready? The small things that have happened include: glowing red eyes following you as you walk by, strange noises not made by human or animal, having the collar of your shirt grabbed firmly and pulled upwards (only for nothing to be behind or above), and seeing a creature jump from tree to tree.  They know all the animals living in the area and it wasn´t a monkey or a cat, something very strange they´ve never seen before. Trying not to show how scared we were at this point, and walking up the beach near sector 7, we were approaching the dreaded sector 10. Stamie also tells us about the disappearing man. Two guards are first to walk up the beach one night, when they see a man with no clothes on come walking out of the dense, remote jungle. Halfway between the jungle and the sea, he vanishes. As the guards reach the point where he vanished, there´s a set of footprints showing his track from the jungle and where they just . . . stop.  The most peculiar story also happens to two guards who are first to walk up the beach at the beginning of patrol. As they´re in Sector 9 and almost to 10, they see something furry curled up near the water. Getting closer to it, this creature unfurl itself and stands up on two legs about 3 to 4 feet tall. Looking almost human in its composition, it is very short and covered in stringy hair, they said it looked as if it didn´t have a face. As the creature noticed the guards and began to rise, the strange part was that it started to walk backwards toward them. With any animal in nature, when approached by a threat, it would never turn their back on it and then start walking toward it,  it´s just unnatural.  Given how unhuman this creature was and how it behaved, they turned and ran. At this point, approaching Sector 10 after all these stories, we felt like running too! Yes, we were scared shitless and were clutching on to each other for the rest of our patrol. This also became a running joke with the family.

LOCAL CONCERNS . . .

There are a number of issues surrounding the reasons behind poachers.   First of all, it´s quick money. One nest of eggs earns enough to support a poor family for a month.  What one man earns a month working all day in the banana fields can be made in poaching a few nests in one night.  Second, these eggs have a higher protein content than other eggs and families who have been living here for generations consider it an integral part of their way of life.  Thirdly, these eggs are considered an aphrodesiac and a delicacy. They use it in a drink called Sangrita, mix one beer with tomato juice and a raw turtle egg and voila, there you have a very expensive aphrodesiak drink.

There aren´t many options for poor families on the coast of Costa Rica. Employment is difficult since the surrounding areas are monocropped with banana plantations. These plantations have cornered the market in the area, resulting in perpetuated poverty and environmental damages: the blue bags used to protect our glistening bananas in the stores can suffocate marine life; the soil´s nutrients are stripped to the point where workers are instructed to spray chemicals and artificial nutrients which evenually run into the streams, river and coast

THESE MAGNIFICENT TURTLES . . .

This experience is tops on the ´List of Awesomeness´.  Beyond the warm feelings of knowing your doing a good thing for others, being able to see these creatures up close and personal was awe-inspiring.  To give you an idea of the size difference between the baby and the mother – imagine the print of a mountain bike next to the print of a tractor.  When a nest of turtles would start emerging during the heat of the day (when it should be at night), we would collect them in a wet-sand lined crate so we could release them at sunset. While in the care of the Estacion las Tortugas, we would collect data on the baby turtles: the length and width of the shell, the weight, and how many in the nest. They are so tiny, they can fit in the palm of your hand! Born with a single little tooth that looks more like a rose thorn, they use it to crack themselves out of the shell.  The sun is setting, the waves are crashing, and one by one we place them on the sand to make their way to the sea- they instinctively know the direction because they´re attracted to the white foam of the waves. The only other time any of them will return to the beach is when they lay their own nest of eggs.  Somehow they know which beach they were hatched from, and will remember over thirty years later where to return. Nature is amazing!

Little by little, bit by bit . . .

One of our last day there, Stamie comes charging into our room before 5 am. ¨Quick, wake up! There´s a turtle nesting in sector 0!¨ We instantly snapped awake, tossed on our sandals and grabbed our cameras. It is incredibly rare for a leatherback to nest while light out, so this was our only chance to get photos and see one in her true glory.  Running down the beach at full speed, we see her as she finished digging the nest and Alvaro is beginning to catch the eggs. She is beautiful, and much bigger than seeing them with the red light at night.  All of the white dots she displays on her skin are individual markings, similar to finger prints, and in her body´s effort to keep her cool, all the blood rushes to the surface making the white marking a gorgeous shade of pink.  By the time she´s finished nesting, a large group has started to form, some of which are poachers. Thank goodness we got to the nest before they did! Watching a half ton creature lay a nest of eggs and return to the sea was incredible.  Being able to experience her magnificense as a true representation of Mother Nature was a life enriching experience and we will forever be grateful to be a part of it.

Posted by: scenicroute206 | June 27, 2010

Hangin´ in Honduras, Nighty Night in Nicaragua

Magical Honduras sunset

After an exciting journey through Guatemala, it was time to move on to the next country… Honduras! We unexpectedly enjoyed Guatemala so much that we spent a month there, which unfortunately limited the amount of time we were able to spend exploring the innards of Honduras and Nicaragua before our volunteer time in Costa Rica. On the Northeast Caribbean coast lies the little town of Tela, home of the ´Chiquita Banana.´

 

A dear friend of Meaghan´s loved Tela so much that he recommended an amazing place for us to stay, Hotel  Telamar- thanks Carlos! Hugging a pristine part of the Caribbean coast, this hotel was like a breath of fresh air. Upon our late night arrival, we were escorted to our room which also had an amazing view of the beach. With a sigh of relief, we happily crashed on the plush white beds, delighted at such amenities like air conditioning, a private bathroom,a television and oh yes, an ice machine in the hallway. If only you could see the smiles on our face, we had come a long way from jungle treks with a broken tent and a bucket of water for a shower, and we were loving every second of it! Not wanting to waste the opportunity, we changed into our swimsuits for a late night stroll on the beach which was literally right outside our patio.  After a serene walk we joined the rest of the guests in the pool area complete with massive slides for adults and a dance show of locals glittered up, reminding us of the american tv show, So You Think You Can Dance. We quickly realized that this was not your average backpacker stop, rather, it was more of a local Honduran getaway to be savored, and savored it we did!

After relaxing in Hotel Telamar we moved to a hotel nestled in the hills and eye level with the trees. After relaxing amongst breathtaking sunsets we counted the days until the time we needed to be in San Jose which was now in the single digits. Back on the bus! We took a 4am shuttle ride to San Pedro Sula in hopes of catching a bus to Tegucigalpa before it became too dark, one lesson Meaghan learned from travel security people. We bumped into a quirky Canadian guy named Jeff who claimed he spoke spanish, we would later find out it only worked when he was fully awake. As the universe would have it we caught a bus seconds from departing. After a chatty ride we pulled into the Honduras capital in the early afternoon, just missing the 2pm Tica Bus to Managua, Nicaragua. After wrestling with the most logical bus to take (stay overnight and catch the next afternoon´s Tica Bus for $20 or spend$40 and take the King Quality bus leaving shortly). In order to catch the next leg to San Jose we would need to hop on the 6am bus from Managua to San Jose, so the $40 bus it is! Unbeknownst to us this was a Sheraton Hotel of Central America on wheels- double-decker with 2 levels, fully reclining seats with calf rests, in-ride movies and 2 chatty missionaries from Michigan. Midway through Honduras we were kicked off in a tiny unknown town to wait 2 hours for the connecting King Quality bus continuing on to Managua. Ummm, ok- we did make great use of the rest stop motel 6 by pulling out the frisbee, thanks for the suggestion Evelyn! We befriended an elementary school girl and a Nicaraguan woman by teaching them how to play, they often giggled at Meaghan´s over calculated throws.  Delight blessed us as a King Quality pulled into the U-turn parking lot- a 5 star ride awaited us. Again we relaxed in the air conditioning and backdrop of a free movie. As night fall approached we admired the gorgeous landscape, vowing we most certainly will return to explore Honduras further. Just after nightfall we crept toward the border crossing, Meaghan quoting that travel security would have a fit over going across the Honduras Nicaragua border at dark, on a bus, and with no american dollars for entry or exit fees. But we made it through! It was arriving in Nicaragua´s capital, Managua, at 11pm that would have made them (and our mom) freak out…

We abruptly woke from our restful King Quality slumber with a jolt, again being kicked off the bus, rats. While we love to sleep, if duty calls for action we jump- Jeff, not the case. Still mostly asleep and thinking he could translate spanish we went with the only option, climb into the only taxi in the chain link fence parking lot. We try to negotiate the rate, nada. With the spanish Jeff could muster he instructed the driver to pull into the convenience store to pick up some stale chicken wrapped in deliciously dry tortillas, similar to a day old 7-11 hotdog. Upon asking if we wanted to join him in his excursion we opted to sit patiently in the car with locked doors and windows rolled up. Don´t get us wrong, it was a blessing to travel with Jeff because it would have been more dangerous had it been just the 2 of us. After tapping our fingers for a couple of minutes we were off to a hotel- we had one in mind but the driver had other plans- the hotel we wanted was fully booked, no way to call them, we should just stay at one that was close (and he would get a commission off of). Now nearing midnight, getting ripped of by a cab driver was a better option than well, our imagination. We pulled up to a no-tell-motel, slightly stinky and awkwardly small for 3 people. Don´t touch the sheets- it´s at times like these we are so grateful to have sleeping sacks, inflatable pillows and hand sanitizer. Plus we would only be sleeping or rather laying there with our eyes closed, for 4 hours. Happily we woke up, threw on our packs and caught the next bus to San Jose.

Posted by: scenicroute206 | June 7, 2010

Rio Grande, Guatemala

Feeling very stiff after a 6 hour public bus ride, we were dropped off in the middle of Rio Grande as it begins to rain. Safety in numbers, right?  The three of us have all our stuff on the side of the road at 10pm in the middle of a thunder storm, in what seems to be a pretty shady part of town.  Feeling famished, we risk eating a bit of  ´street meat´ being grilled up on the side of the road. Delicious, but probably not the best idea.  Our contact for our hotel comes walking up and we´re all wondering where the car is, turns out he came in a boat to get us. So, with an apprehensive glance to each other, here we go with all our stuff in a small boat while thunder and lightening is cracking and roaring all around us.  All part of the adventure, right?

Aaah, what a sigh of relief when we make it to our little cabin!  Three clean beds with bug nets inside a little A-frame wooden cabin on the shores of Lago de Izibal.  The real surprise was the next morning when we walk out the door:  wooden plank paths lead to various cabins around the property, either on the lake or nestled into the jungle marsh, walking paths that wind through the canopy for bird watching, a beautiful pool with a waterfall and swim up bar, along with a restaurant and wireless internet. I will never again take for granted a hot shower.  Can you see our cabin hidden in the jungle?

Wanting to take full advantage of the local activides, we decided to go horsebackriding with a local guide.  He took us through the rubber tree farm, up to an old priests home which has long since crumbled to the ground and been rebuilt, and to the natural swimming holes.  We had all forgotten how exhilerating it can be to run at full speed through nature on the back of a magnificent horse, laughing and giggling the whole way! I think we also forgot how painful it can be afterwards, too!

Although Gabrielle had to be a good student and finish her online coursework, Meaghan and Erin were able to take a boat ride down the Rio Grande and out to Livingston on the Carribean Sea.  We glided past old Spanish forts used to ward off pirates, bird islands overflowing with different exotic species, stopped to swim at a hot spring, and sat back to enjoy the wonders of Rio Grande.  Just imagine soaring cliffs dripping in wild jungle while motoring through waters as still as glass.  Arriving in Livingston, where the river kisses the sea, we decided to stop in and see a friend we´d met while staing in Lanquin.  Donn, a charismatic old man, had graciously invited us to join him for lunch and a few hours of swimming in the hotel pool. It´s absolutely amazing the different types of characters you meet while travelling.  Donn has been living in different parts of the world for most of his life and has no intention of settling in one place, he also had some incredible advice to share- on life, on love, and on getting the most from travelling the world.  Thanks Donn!  

In order to remember our names, Donn nicknamed us the GEMs for Gabrielle, Erin, and Meaghan; which, in a state of delirium while hiking El Mirador, we turned it into the beginning of a superhero dance routine, complete with diamond, ruby, and sapphire transformations. We still have some work to do on it, and as a tribute to our hiking buddy, Alex, we will have matching headbands.  It doesn´t sound very funny when put into writing, but it had us laughing hystarically on quite a few occasions.  Mmm, maybe some things are best left as an inside joke? We’ll see when the u-tube dance/workout video comes out, hehehe.

Posted by: scenicroute206 | June 7, 2010

Flores and Tikal, Guatemala

Our tree-house room

After the exhausting adventures of El Mirador, we were all excited for cold showers and french fries back at the Los Amigos youth hostel. Knowing that we didn´t have much time to loiter around Flores, we developed a game plan to get laundry done and also explore the ruins of Tikal.

Early bird gets the worm, right? (tastes like chicken when sauteed). On the bus by 4:30 am to be at the front gates of Tikal by 7 am, ouch, please ignore the bags under our eyes.  We managed to bargain our tour guide to a lower price after everyone else had paid full price, of course.  What a drastic change from the El Mirador ruins- although only 12 percent of Tikal has been unearthed and restored, the amount of tour busses and groups going through was a bit shocking.  Our guide was local to the Tikal area and had been working as a guide for over 20 years and was a proud promoter of the Mayan people, you could tell he was passionate about the history and sharing it with travellers. 

At one point, he drew in the sand the general layout of how the different temples were situated in relation to eachother. With incredible accuracy, the temples were in exact alignment with the summer-winter solstice and the spring-fall solstice, in such a way that the sun would illuminate the gold costumes of the priests and kings standing at the top of that specific temple.  In addition, the location of far off Mayan sights were also in perfect alignment with the sun and the stars, all leading to a center platform, or energy epicenter.  We both took a few special moments of meditation and praise to the life force which binds us all together throughout all time and space. Walking through a living piece of history was just a loud reminder of how everything is connected and that we´re all exactly where we´re supposed to be on our individual paths through life.

After exploring the grounds of Tikal for the morning, we were back on the 2 hour shuttle ride to Flores before reconnecting with Gabrielle to hop another bus to the Rio Grande on the eastern side of Guatemala.  And how nice it is to have clean laundry!

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