Sunday, March 30, 2008

El Paradisio

Samara, my last stop on this trip, is paradise at the end of a road. No other description could better describe this little oasis on the Pacific. Just like in calendars, or in exotic location advertising, this has it all-perfect palm tree lined beach, numerous little bars serving basic food and ice cold beer and crashing Pacific waves that feel like tepid bath water. Not only all this but there is also a Canadian owned restaurant that serves beer at 9am in the morning and has a Harley Davidson parked outside. Influenced by my sighting of the Harley I immediately went out and rented a motorcycle for a week- a 125cc Yamaha. I can honestly say that it is nothing like my Harley sitting lonely at home but it sure beats walking and it is kind of fun, helmetless, in shorts and sandals, buzzing along at a reasonably safe speed. If I had enough hair it would probably feel great whippin around in the wind just like the old days but alas, those days are long gone.

Samara is the end of the road. I know there are roads heading north and south but the reality is, once you step off the bus here, it could be very dificult to leave. All I seem to do is walk the beach and daydream. There are many other dark skinned gringos here that look like they were hooked and never left. There are Howler Monkeys in the trees, huge iguanas sauntering along or climbing palm trees, bats divebomb me at night, riderless horses walk by on the sidewalks, the early morning cacophony of waking birds is better than any alarm clock and then there is the 24/7 crashing surf in this small bay protected by an offshore reef.

I have done the wedding photos that first drew me to Samara. Dave and Michele's wedding was a beautiful event on the beach at sunset. Officiated by Fabiola, a local lawyer and music by Dylan, Dave's son, who sang a song that he had composed only the day before that was perfect for the occasion. The tune still rings in my mind. The photos came out great despite my equipment shortages and dwindling light. We headed back to the villa, horns a-honkin, well one horn-a-honkin anyway, to our second sumptuous feast of the day. Earlier it was Octopus, Lobster salad and fresh-caught Laguna Cerviche, now it was the full meal deal -Blackened Tuna caught fresh by the guys yesterday and a beautiful chicken. The evening wound down with Paulette, Dave's gregarious sister, taking the pool plunge in her maid of honour dress.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Punta Mayalas

My second day in Plan territory I explored and photographed some other Plan communities and projects including the community of Punta Mayalas on the east shore of Lac Nicaragua. It is 26km from Juigalpa along one of the worst roads I have ever encountered. This has to be one of the poorest communities that I have ever seen. Houses are basically shacks but at least most have new latrines courtesy of Plan. Surprisingly the people appear happy despite their daily struggle.

The beauty of the place cannot be described. In the distance, no less than 3 volcanos can be seen, one of them active on the Island of Ometebe. The only livelihood in the village is fishing and one of the reasons we were here was to eat fish. Apparently people come from miles around to eat here despite the kidney jarring trip to get here. 

We chose our own fish from the icebox and it arrived whole and headed. I ate most of mine but my Nicaraguan friends sucked every bone clean including the skull. I went and took photos not wanting to witness the pure joy that they were experiencing.

On the way back we took a detour to visit the Mayalas Nature Reserve located at the junction of the Rio Mayalas and Lac Nicaragua. What an incredible place. Bird life in numbers that I have never witnessed before waded, flew, and just generally hung out. We were given a free boat ride upriver where we saw numerous birds and I got some great photos including a stunning photo of a huge Egret shadowed by the Ometebe volcano.

All good things must come to an end and we headed back to Granada, passing on the way through Managua, the capital of Nicaragua, a place that guide books and previous visitors told me to avoid. What a hole of despair. Rivers were flowing with garbage, every available space was covered in bad grafitti, emanciated dogs ran free everywhere, the streets were filthy, the housing mostly shacks apart from the rich areas and the people basically bored with nothing to do. The pollution from the numerous buses and moto cabs was intense. We quickly passed through and I was back to Granada, a haven of colonial tranquility in a mad Nicaraguan world. There I ran into John Oliver, my rastafarian street artist friend who has slowly been telling me his story. Tonights chapter was the time he fought with the Contra´s in Nicaragua´s civil war. As he explained, you either fought for the Contra´s or the Sandanista´s or one of them killed you. Pretty hard to imagine but that is Nicaragua!

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Visiting Mariela, my sponsored child

One of the significant aspects of this trip was my plan to travel to the village of my sponsored child´s family on the east side of Lac Nicaragua, near the city of Juigalpa. Mariela, her sister Martha and their mother Josepha live in the small community of San Pedro, a very poor community of 5,000 people, supported by Plan International (used to be called Foster Parents Plan) who I have worked with before in Pakistan. The plan was to spend half a day with Mariela and her family and then do some photography of nearby Plan projects the next day as part of my ongoing volunteer work with Plan.

The trip to Juigalpa took over 3 hours through very dry cattle country. It is summer here (the dry season). Winter (the wet season) is the other season and it starts in May. The trip to San Pedro took another hour travelling on a gravel road. Along the way we had to dodge car sized potholes, roaming cattle, numerous cowboys on horses and many smoke belching buses. We arrived in San Pedro and pulled up in front of Mariella´s house where the family was waiting along with some of the community volunteers. Both Mariela, who is 10 years old, and her sister, Martha, who is 11 years old, are beautiful children who did not speak a word out of shyness. Josepha, their mother is only 26 years old and single, as it is very common to have children at a very young age in Nicaragua and very common for the menfolk to walk away once the children are born. They live in a shack with a dirt floor which is swept clean daily. The front wall is cinder block and both sides of the shack are planks with gaps in them. There are 2 separate partitions for the bedrooms and a kitchen in the back has a 3 burner propane hot plate. An open area out back is home to a cinder block shower stall and a wash tank for laundry. The tiny property behind the house is occupied by a couple of plants and a latrine in the back corner. Josepha has bricks and cinder blocks to do some improvements once the father of the children has time, or the inclination, to do the work

On my arrival I was served a drink of corn, cinnamon and cacoa which was quite delicious but somewhat granular. I also had some hard bisquits also made of corn. A little later we were served pasteles (cake) and coke. On the wall in the front room were cut out letters saying Beinvenidos Paul and a cut out drawing of what they thought I looked like. I had a hat on and was round. I was very touched by this act. I handed out gifts including some hand made bracelets from the Duncan Downtown market, some totem pins, and an English/Spanish dictionary to help Mariela when she was writing letters to me. They were gratefully received but still the girls did not talk. My spanish is getting quite good and I was able to have a conversation with Josepha while only needing help from the interpreter a few times. I was especially pleased that I could do this.

After the goodies we went for a tour of the town. First the baseball stadium, then the bullring where the men ride the bulls, and then off to Mariela and Martha´s school for a presentation. Arriving at the school we were met by a group of grade 4´s who officially welcomed me and led the way into Mariella´s classroom where she was supposed to introduce me. She was still tongue tied so we went ahead with a question and answer period with me answering most questions in spanish with a little help from Ellen, the Plan interpretor. Mariella has 45 classmates, a typical size class in Nicaraguan terms the principal explained to me. The school is in desperate need of most supplies, especially pencils and exercise books, since the government does not give much money to the school system. The school did not even have a single computer. After the presentations we all filed outside for a group photo and then repeated the process with Martha´s class.

Next stop the San Pedro church, built in 1952 and a very important part of the family´s life. The church is being renovated because, after 56 years, like myself, things are falling apart and need work. Old churches in Central America, like this one, are very fascinating with all their collected icons and memorabilia and the community is very proud of it. I was then shown the basketball court and told out that the youth had no basketballs to play with. Crossing the street we went to meet the Mayor as I was apparently a very important visitor, but he was busy so I met the assistant Mayor instead and he told me about all the great work Plan is doing in the community.

Last stop was the Rio Mico where I watched people wash their cars, do laundry on the rocks and swim. Ellen acknowledged the issue of pollution from these activities but said that the local municipal government was not concerned and did not see this as a problem. I didn´t say much because I am not there to judge but to witness. With all the other issues and challenges the community faces I can understand why the river pollution is pretty low on the radar.

It was time to say goodbye. This was really tough and emotional since I had been corresponding for over 2 years with Mariela and a couple of hours of visiting seemed so short especially since the children had hardly spoken. They did, however ask me when I was coming back. I told them as soon as I am able. Hugs all around and we parted ways, none of us looking back. One of the hardest goodbyes I have ever had to experience.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Granada, Nicaragua

After a long and tiring bus ride, and a very drawn out immigration affair at the border where I was left sitting for 2 hours,- thanks for the heads-up John M, you were right, I arrived in Granada, one of the oldest cities in Nicaragua. The history of this city is intense and includes a major burning of the city by an American who once took over the country. He eventually was hanged when he was stupid enough to come back and try it all over again. The violence continued over the years and right up to the early 80´s giving the world a sense that this is still a dangerous country. This is far from the truth. I have discovered some of the most wonderful people and some of the greatest natural country that I have seen in all my travels. I am staying at the Hotel Corona right on the Parque Central, (every city in the Spanish world seems to have a Parque Central. Horse and carts fight for street rights with Hummers and bicycles. The people are extremely poor and begging by all ages, especially children, is prevalent. I have made some good friends here already including John Oliver, a black Nicaraguan street artist from the east (English, Rastafarian and Carribean) coast. In many ways this is a country divided by it's inhospitable and difficult to access centre.

Took an all day tour yesterday with my new friend Megan, a jailhouse worker from San Francisco. The tour was a relaxed one with the tour vehicle being the personal car of one of the employees. It started with zip lining through the jungle tree tops at high speed on the side of a dormant volcano. Talk about heart stopping. If that wasn´t enough, we did tricks as well- hanging upside down with arms hanging down and flying like superman, screaming and yelling like an idiot. . There were 13 lines each ending in a platform high in the trees. The final line treated us to being flung up and down, almost bungee like by the guides, as we raced to the end. What a thrill. Someday I will grow up

Later that day I took a boat tour with my new friend Megan, and guides, Leo, Jose, and Maurice, thru the 300 odd mini-islands that form the coastline near Granada. We had the 14 passenger boat all to ourselves as we cruised amongst the tiny Islands, most the size of a a large house lot and usually owned and occupied by foreigners, a growing concern for Nicaraguans who are seeing their land being bought up by outsiders. After a couple of hours we stopped at Paradise Island, at least that's what I called it. It was crowded with Nica (Nicaraguan) families enjoying their Semana Santa (Easter week) holiday. Drank lots of Toña beer and ate whole fish with the head on and eyeballs staring at me, got over it and enjoyed it thoroughly and then went swimming in Lac Nicaragua, supposedly occupied by ocean sharks that have found their way into the lake from the Atlantic Ocean via the Rio San Juan in the south. Did not see any myself but did see numerous birds and some eager monkeys on, of course, Monkey Island. As it must, all good things come to an end, and I was dropped at my Hotel and another great meal with my new friend, on the Avenida des Comidas, Thai this time. The wind was up from the nearby Lake and the fabric street-side drapes were flapping and cracking dramatically as we ate. A fitting end to the day and our time together since we both head in opposite directions tomorrow.


Good Friday, Liberia

Today is Good Friday and in good Christian fashion everything is closed. When I say everything I mean the entire town is closed. If there were doors at each end of town, they would be closed too. Went for a morning walk and ended up in the Good Friday parade, an event that is obviously as old as the country. Basically the whole town gathers on a side street close to the town centre and main church. Mannequins in the forms of Jesus (with a cross) and 3 others, who I expect are important but forget who they are, are held aloft on the shoulders of townsfolk. Jesus leads the procession but is first greeted by the other 3 mannequins who are then lowered in deference and then walked behind Jesus to form a processional. The route is lined by the 12 disciples ( I assume this since there are 12), all dressed in the robes of the time. Mary Magdalene then anoints Jesus´s feet with oil and then he is lowered and the cross removed and placed on the shoulders of another man who walks at the head of the procession. Then everyone starts to walk slowly towards the church, walking to the staccato beat of a snare drum that gears up into a full brass band crescendo before dying back again to the single snare. With the smoke and the noise and the moment I felt a religious moment come over me but I soon got back to the raison d´etre- shooting photos, and I got some good ones. The procession made its way into the main church where we parted ways, Jesus to the alter and Pablo to the pool!

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Los Chiles, the end of the earth

Los Chiles, or the end of the earth as it feels, is a little town close to the Nicaraguan border in central Costa Rica. You reach it by driving two hours thru pineapple and sugar cane plantations and nothing else. The town sits on the Rio Frio and it is the river gateway to San Carlos, Nicaragua. It´s a strange place and feels a little frontier-like. Lots of people just sitting around, waiting for something to happen it seems. Flat bottomed river boats arrive and depart depositing groups of people on shore while across the river, Howler Monkeys roar and swing amongst the tree tops. On arrival I tried to sign up for a river boat tour and almost ended up going to Nicaragua the wrong way, being that this is the terminus for the riverboat buses ferrying the people back and forth. There is a large policia presence here due to the immigration problem of poor Nicaraguans entering the country illegally. Apparantly 20% of Costa Rica´s population is made up of Nicaraguans, many of them illegals.

I am staying at the Rancho Tulipan Hotel, built by a dutch company who are involved in reforestation projects in the area planting and harvesting fast growing Teak and Acacia trees for export to China and India and other countries. They also employ a large percentage of the community for which the community seems quite thankful for. I learned all this by hanging out with Max and Paul, two dutch foresters who work on the plantations. We shared a lot of beer since tomorrow the Easter holiday starts and no more alcohol is allowed to be served until after the holiday. We talked about trees, environment and world affairs late into the night (10pm is late in Costa Rica and the bugs were out in force). We didn´t solve any of the worlds problems but we made good friends. I love these friendships made over beer.

I took the riverboat tour at 6 am the next morning (with a headache from the beer last night) and had the 30 passenger boat all to myself and my guide/driver and headed down river for a 3 hour excursion. The wildlife, especially the birdlife, is prolific and that is only what I can see. Numerous species are nocturnal or are hidden by the jungle vegetation. The skies are full of birds flitting and flying here and there, lizards crawl the banks and run across the water (the Jesus Christ lizard) and Caymans, small alligators, lurk lazily in the narrows and beneath tree trunks waiting for prey. The rain, which fell all night, continued unabated throughout the entire journey, sometimes drizzling and sometimes just dumping on us. Thank goodness the boat has

a roof a roof.

Coming around one bend in the river there was a large white thing in the mud on the river bank. I asked what it was- Cow the guide said. I thought that this was some kind of spanish word for a wild animal. It wasn´t. It was a cow and it was up to it´s neck in the soft riverbank mud. All that was showing was the top of it´s back and it´s head. It was in dire straits. A cow here is very valuable to the poor people so we had to get it out. My guide lassoed the horns and then tried to drag it out of the ooze with the boat. Fifteen minutes later and a lot of tugging it came free. I was sure we had killed it because the dragging would pull it´s head under the mud for long periods. We then dragged it alongside the boat (doing our best to drown it) to find a place for it to climb ashore. Our first effort resulted in it getting stuck again because it stopped to eat half way up the bank. Finally we found a place to land the dumb brute and after a lot of ass-smacking it made it to high ground. My reward for this rescue was a Fire Ant bite and a lot of mud all over me.

We continued up the river hoping that we would find no more cows in trouble. There were none. Tons of wildlife. The highlights of the trip included 3 of the 4 Costa Rican monkey species including White Faced Monkeys which were as curious about us as we were about them, a Wood Stork high in the tree tops, and a couple of Yellow Keeled Toucans which were surprising good flyers despite the fact that half there body weight was hanging from their faces, or so it seemed.

All good things have to come to an end and my guide soon announced that it was time to return to Los Chiles. Arriving back at the hotel I had a hotel breakfast $2 and some more really bad coffee. Then I headed back to Liberia. I took a back road through the Cano Negro Refuge. This was a dirt road, or what we would call a gravel road except that in Costa Rica they use boulders as gravel and the potholes would better be described as craters. Had fun though blasting along the road making big splashes ( it´s a guy thing). I must admit that after 2 hours of this I was dreaming of tarmac. Finally reached the end of the road and headed south on a real road. Got a little lost and, when asking for directions, was told to go back the way I came. I was sure it was staright ahead across the mountains so I went for it. As luck would have it I was right but it was another Costa Rican dirt road but I made it to Arenal and the highway home in good spirits.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Arenal Volcanoe

Today I hiked to the base of Arenal Volcano, the  most active volcano in the America's,  where I witnessed the rumbling and explosions of boulders erupting from the volcano leaving a lava dust trail as they rolled down the volcano's side. I never seen anything quite as impressive as this! I realized today that I have been on a volcano search since visiting Mt. St. Helens in 2005, and then the Colima volcano in Mexico later that same year. Well I saw a big one today, I was thrilled and now I want more.

The volcano tour was the second to last of the days adventures that I shared with my guide, Miguel and our driver Guilermo. It all started yesterday when I found my hotel room by luck after getting a tip from a German couple in a tourist information booth. The original plan was a nights stay in a little luxury before heading north to a much less tourist oriented habitat. That quickly changed after reading the 'tours available' binder at the hotel reception. I couldn't help myself, and since I wanted an intense experience in little time, I signed up for the all day excursion with a local tour company. They would pick me up at 7am the next day.

The next day I was up early, ready to roll. Then I sat at the reception waiting. 7:15 a tourismo van pulls in and a short stocky guy, not much younger than me, jumps out, looks around and says someone's name. Wasn't my name for sure. He hurries to the reception- a fast blathering of spanish and off he goes to the guest's room. Before long he's back, no guest and after another short discussion we all realize it is me they are looking for. Hop in the van, Miguel, the stocky guy starts talking a mile a minute doing introductions, there are others in the van including the driver, Guilermo, and off we go. First stop the hanging bridges, 13 bridges and trails through the forest canopy and forest. Miguel turned out to be a great guide, well informed and funny when necessary. We learned a lot about the canopy, jungle trees, and other growing things. I heard my first Howler Monkeys and Miguel found a Blue Jeans Black Leg Frog the size of my thumbnail with legs. 

We exited to Arenal Volcano. Most of the cloud had cleared and I saw it clearly for the first time. Wow is all I can say. Miguel bought out cold beer to celebrate. I like this guy!

Next stop- drop the other guests then grab a lunch back at my hotel, the Casa Luna, all part of the package deal. And it was a great lunch. Top of the menu stuff. Stuffed! I discovered the next tour would be to the La Fortuna waterfall, a short drive from my hotel. Arriving there I discovered that it was a short drive but then it was a serious long way down via stairs and coming back up was going to be a killer especially after a large lunch. Oh well, down we went. It was incredible. A high, thin spout falling from way above into a pool. The water was icy and fresh. The spray smell reminded me of childhood. Swim done, we hiked all the way back up which was not so bad after all.

Next was the late afternoon volcano hike. We picked up a family and headed off to the 'other' side of Arenal, the dangerous side. At the parking lot before starting up the trail, Miguel got all excited and told us to see if we could see anything on a tree. We couldn't see anything except this small yellow looking fungus type thing. The yellow thing was actually an extremely poisonous yellow coral snake, and yet it was tiny and looked harmless. Not so Miguel explained as he showed pictures of 21 more deadly snakes including the easily provoked Fer de Lance. The ladies in our group were well freaked by the time we started up the dense Bamboo Palm lined trail to the volcano. The trail ended at the bottom of an old lava flow but the spectacle above was pretty cool. Below us is a jungle and then Arenal Lake which flows into the distant horizon. Flocks of Yellow Keeled Toucan's were flying between the trees in the fading light.

Miguel rounded us up and led us back. Driving back to town we saw lightning bugs flicker all over the fields and memories of Quebec nights returned.

Last stop was at a thermal pool resort where the guys left me for a soak and dinner. The soak was in a series of cascading rock-lined hot-tubs- hottest at the top, this one had a small waterfall that poured boiling hot water onto my bald spot. Sure wasn't as relaxing as the brochure said. Looking around I noticed the hot springs had this huge fence with barbed wire the length of it. As well, loud erratic disco music was playing out of very old speakers making a beautiful place very weird indeed. Ignoring the noise I worked my way down the pools with a couple of Negra (beer) stops along the way. Hopped out for dinner feeling pretty good.

Dinner was part of the package and as I sat eating a delicious meal of Sea Bass I loud explosion went off just behind the restaurant. Nobody seemed bothered and there was no screaming so I forgot about it until my driver, Guilermo picked me up and asked if I had noticed all the armed security guards outside.  I hadn't noticed which is not unusual since there are plenty of guns in Costa Rica, even beer trucks have flak-vested armed guards. He went on to explain that there were two thermal pool operations side by side and the older operator was very angry at the new operation and was doing his best to destroy the business with loud music, homemade bombs (everyone does this here) and other tactics. There had even been a shooting recently. I thanked Guilermo for this info. 

I jumped into his van, now loaded up with his family, and they dropped me back at the Casa Luna. A great day indeed!

Friday, March 14, 2008

Liberia, Costa Rica

I am here and it is hot and humid and bug ridden. My first night I went to bed covered in bug welts. I guess that is what bug spray is for. Today is simply an unwind day, heal from uncomfortable plane seats day, and find a good coffee day. The day started with no power for the entire city, not even water would run out of the taps. Everything is good now. Wonderful fresh fruit for breakfast, and lukewarm coffee due to no power. I am already sweating and it is time for the pool and further R&R before starting my travels. 

First impressions- The heat and humidity, the demolition derby traffic, the weird money, 2,000 Colones for a beer, lizards everywhere, noseeums everywhere, weird birds, weird bugs, dodging huge ripe Mangoes dropping from sidewalk trees, dodging bird s*** from those same trees in the evening, the square and the church, and weak beer till I discovered Negra!