Sunday, December 27, 2009

Bananas and Coffee!

We’ve always loved bananas. Joe loves coffee. We knew bananas and coffee frequently came from Central America, but we didn’t know how much exposure we would get to the banana and coffee industry on our journey. And, yes, we never knew how deep of a history the US has with these industries.

First coffee: Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica, have all claimed to grow some of the best coffee! Costa Rica has gone as far as to say they have the best coffee! We heard claims such as ‘we have great altitude for growing coffee’, ‘our growing season is long allowing the coffee to become more mature’, and ‘our plants [growing next to the coffee plants] provide good shade for the coffee.’ In addition to hearing these claims, we’ve gotten some personal exposure to the cherished ‘red cherries’ or coffee beans.

In El Salvador we got up-close-and-personal with coffee plants for the first time, walking a local woman’s coffee finca (farm). In Nicaragua, a gringo showed us how he and his brothers grow, cultivate, and roast their own coffee (with the help of their local Nicaraguan labor force, of course). While there, Joe enjoyed a cup or two or three of the home-grown product. Finally, in Costa Rica, thanks both to our generous host and the country’s coffee tourism infrastructure, we visited an industrial-sized coffee finca. This large-scale operation, Espiritu Santo it was called, purportedly sends its roasted beans to the likes of Starbucks, among others. Coffee, in short, is omnipresent. And we’re not even to coffee powerhouse Colombia!

Coffee picking season is approximately 2 ½ months long and is occurring right now! Hence, on our visit to Espiritu Santo a few days ago the migrant worker coffee pickers (we were told 95% are Nicaraguans), many accompanied by their families, were not in short supply. Talk about getting (somewhat uncomfortably) up-close-and-personal! We’ll save further discussion on the labor behind the beloved fruits for a different time (or blog).

As for bananas, did you know that there are several varieties of bananas? The banana world is much larger than “Vietnamese Cavendish banana” you find at your local store. Varieties are sweet, bitter, large, small, fat, and skinny. It is always an event to pick a new variety at the market and compare them to previously eaten varieties. We both swear by one variety eaten we at on “our” Nicaraguan island farm. The problem… we have no idea what kind it was! We both recall this perfect banana being medium in length, really fat, and incredibly sweet and perfect for milk-banana-cinnamon licuados!!

While the banana fincas don’t seem to have the same tourist allure as coffee fincas, we both read a book about the United Fruit company now Chiquita Bananas. The pervasive and destructive octopus company, as it was known to local Latin Americans, seemed to control Central America. Railroads, schools, and health clinics were all constructed under the octopus’s control. The banana republics took several years of organizing and fighting to regain their “independence” .

As our journey continues, we are going to keep exploring banana varieties, searching for the ultimate banana. Joe is going to keep refining his coffee pallet. And, we are going to keep looking to how these delectable goodies are made! Today we saw our first industrial pineapple finca, owned by none other than everyone’s favorite Del Monte.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Map Update I

Now that we’re established in a new country—Costa Rica—it’s everybody’s favorite blog time: map update time! We’re including just the legend for places we visited in Nicaragua. If you want to see the legend for locations 1 through 14, you’ll have to scroll down and look at our last map update. Click on blog entries for November.

As you’ll see below, Nicaragua was a worthwhile destination for us. To preview, we met awesome people that are due to become lifelong friends, some through impressively random encounters. And, notably, we had a couple diverse and extremely informative volunteer opportunities.

15 – 10/31 to 11/25 – Leon, Nicaragua. A young town bustling with a small ex-pat scene. We lived at the headquarters of QuetzalTrekkers, a volunteer-run organization that leads hikes up volcanoes and donates all proceeds to local charities. During the three weeks we were there, we busied ourselves with various projects ranging from hanging shelves, to finding a local peanut butter source, to working with street kids at Las Tias.

16 – 11/25 to 11/27 – Jinotega, Nicaragua. A respite from Leon both as regards climate (it’s cool) and tourism (there’s very little). We stopped in this mountain for two nights and busied ourselves with computer stuff. Here Joe became a journalist.

17 – 11/27 to 11/28 – Masaya, Nicaragua. To celebrate Thanksgiving night we had pizza in Masaya, famous for its artisanal crafts and markets. Joe’s “fake wallet” stolen .

18 – 11/28 to 11/30 – Laguna de Apoyo, Nicaragua. Small world: Our CouchSurfing host was the son of a patient Juleen served in Chicago. We stayed in his mini-mansion, toured his finca, ate amazing food, and delighted in conversation about our Midwestern roots.

19 – 11/30 to 12/01 – Playa del Coco, Nicaragua. A random ride made us friends with Laurie, an amazing person and New York City lawyer. Half-Nicaraguan, her family holds onto a glorious beach house on a beautiful, sparsely populated piece of Nicaragua’s Pacific coast. We gladly kept her company for the night.

20 – 12/01 to 12/09 – Isla de Ometepe, Nicaragua. Two volcanoes dot the center of the figure eight shape this island makes. We roughed it for the week at Project Bona Fide. Most rustic week of each of our lives. Very educational. The people made the experience.

21 – arrived 12/09 – Liberia, Costa Rica. Only a few kilometers into Costa Rican territory, the difference between this place and everywhere else we have been is stark. Lights shine brighter. Skin is fairer. Streets are cleaner. Prices more painful. Our wallets will not allow us to leisurely take in Costa Rica.

Despite its harsh reputation, its reputation particularly with Americans that is, Nicaragua both entertaining and interesting. For anyone looking to go south to travel, live, or whatever, we recommend it.

Monday, December 14, 2009


We spent one week on the Isla de Ometepe, an island in Nicaragua. While there we lived and worked on a farm owned and operated by two Americans. We could feel good about the $20 a day we paid to volunteer because we were learning, and, perhaps even more importantly, because the farm was purportedly organic and sustainable (admittedly, the money covered our food too). In other words, the farm was practicing “permaculture”.

Permaculture is short for permanent agriculture where the intent of preserving and conserving nature’s resources, while providing for oneself. For example, many American farms just plant one crop. They only have corn or soybeans or wheat or even canola! They have a monoculture. Because monocultures can quickly exhaust soil’s resources and allow for soil to erode, most farms apply annual doses of synthetic, unnatural fertilizers to the soil. The fertilizers ensure that the crop can obtain its required nutrients, and thus grow. Synthetic fertilizers are made using oil, so using them is considered inorganic and (in the long run) unsustainable farming.

Project Bona Fide does things differently. Instead of using synthetic fertilizers, the farm makes its own fertilizers: both from plants it grows specifically for the purpose and from food and animal waste combined with dead plants. Another advantage of Bona Fide’s non-monoculture system is that they use more than one potential growing “level”. Imagine a beautiful Indiana landscape, i.e. a big field of corn. Is there anything growing above the corn? Is there anything growing below the corn? Typically the answer is no. Bona Fide takes advantages of the different growing “levels” by growing plants with different shade tolerances together: a shorter herb and a mid-level legume plant to fix nitrogen and a taller papaya tree. In this way, Bona Fide grows a more diverse set of crops and avoids overtaxing the soil.

Another cool aspect of permaculture is its insistence on time and energy efficiency (a term from our Kiwi friend and permaculturer, Richard). Basically you put things in a place that will save you time and energy down the road. Put foods you use a lot close to your house. Put foods you don’t use a lot farther away. Definitely sounds good, huh?

That’s kind of the problem, though: it sounds good, but what does it look like in practice. And, of course, different strokes for different folks: your idea of permaculture probably doesn’t equate with mine. Along those lines, we spent most of our week at Bone Fide critiquing the place. Why don’t they grow “food”? What’s its true goal? Etc...

On our last night we got an awesome tour (thanks, Chris!) of the farm. While we wouldn’t have done everything the same way, at least their system made a lot more sense. With a better understanding of Bona Fide we could feel better about the money and time we were donating to the project.

If we can extrapolate what we found from our experience at Bona Fide, it seems to inform the experiences we’ve had at Bona Fide and, potentially, elsewhere (as discussed in our previous blog). A little communication goes a long way between volunteer and non-profit goes a long way! Who knew?

Saturday, December 5, 2009


Non-profit organization. What do you think of? I tend to think of an idealistic organization, a place doing good work. Ultimately, a place I’d probably like to work.

A volunteer-run non-profit. Sounds even better. And if the money supports a separate organization providing essential services to the community that’s better still. Of course I’d want to work there! Right?

In reflecting on our past work and the work we’re doing now, one common theme shines brighter than any others—all six organizations have been non-profit organizations. We certainly hadn’t planned it out this way. Well, to be truthful, we didn’t plan the trip itself, including the volunteer opportunities. But it’s cool that it has worked out this way. Both of our career paths, whatever they decide to be, could foreseeably include work with non-profit organizations. Beyond any personal benefit, familiarizing ourselves with the various organizations and subsequently critiquing them has been extremely interesting.

At the moment we’re volunteering at Project Bona Fide, a non-profit working to develop a fully organic, fully sustainable farm (i.e. a permaculture farm) on a strip of land here on the Isla de Ometepe in southern Nicaragua. Bona Fide seems perfect for us: there’s work to do; there’s farming to learn about; there are a few other, like-minded people around the place (so we’re not constantly staring at one another); and you’re done with work at noon! But we can’t unconditionally support the place. What’s the problem? Good question. Maybe it’s just the fact that we’re paying $20 a day ($10 per person) to volunteer. Maybe it’s that the food system is disorganized. Food is included in what we pay, but we don’t feel that the kitchen is amply stocked for us (Juleen asked for tea… the answer was no). Maybe it’s that the goal of the farm is unclear. After nine years under the current owner, it still depends on volunteer’s fees to stay afloat. For seeking sustainability, the farm grows an alarmingly few number of the foods it consumes. We’ve heard the owners might want it to function as an education center; however, the accommodations are rather barren.

In Leon, Nicaragua we experienced similar frustrations with various non-profit organizations. A woman representing a pro-woman’s group didn’t respect the meeting she setup with us. Consequently we weren’t able to work with the organization. A community group providing a safe place for street kids scoffed when we offered to start an afternoon class. Our attempts to assist Quetzaltrekkers were hindered by unclear expectations for management and volunteers alike.

So are we just whiney and overly critical? Well, yes. You know that. But more appears to be at play here. We’ve had great experiences and are thankful to have learned a lot through our volunteer experiences. And we’re not going to give up on them yet; we’ll keep seeking out work with non-profit groups along the way. We are surprised, though, that we cannot unconditionally recommend any of the non-profits we’ve worked with. Aren’t non-profits organizations better than this?

Next stop: corporate Costa Rica!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Sunday afternoon Gallera

Here is the scene: Hot Sunday afternoon. A large backyard, especially for Nicaraguan standards. A big, open gazebo in the backyard. No, it’s not a gazebo. It’s a small circular arena with three-row high home-made stands. Roosters are calling as if it were dawn. Animal cages line the circumference of the backyard. One hundred Nicaraguan males. One Nicaraguan female. Ten to 15 gringo tourists. And, obviously, beer flowing as if it were water. Where are we at?

We went to the Leon community Gallera. No, not a gallery; a rooster fight. As we are now acutely aware, rooster fighting is quite the hobby for several men in the area. Roosters are bred, fed, and trained to be champion fighters. Fighting roosters are given special treatment throughout their careers; a career potentially lasting four years with two to four fights per year.

We were told that rooster fighting is “natural”. It was certainly extremely intense. We’re not so sure about natural. For example: To increase a fighters’ stamina, the rooster is walked on a leash for 45 to 60 minutes a day. Natural? The rooster’s hard (and potentially deadly) right nail is cut and a one to two millimeter “knife” covers its hard left nail, balancing the playing field between the roosters. Natural?

As the final bets are placed, the arena erupts with energy. (Bets placed can range between 50 cents and $2.50.) Just before the bell rings, everyone assumes his rightful place. Spectators pack the stands. A referee and a random individual who just wishes to have a closer look wait alongside the two owners gently holding their roosters in the arena. The roosters have, at most, 15 minutes to fight.

Roosters don’t get trained in fighting techniques, so the fight looks like you’d think… two birds jumping, pecking, kicking, and generally using brute force until one is either conspicuously defeated or concedes by laying his beak into the ground. While that can be to the death, it isn’t necessarily. We didn’t see any birds die in the ring, but we did see some that could very well be dead now.

The fights continue, but the gringos have had their fill. The hot afternoon has turned into a warm evening. The heat of the gallera defies the thermometer.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Lunch on the side of a volcano

We are presently volunteering with a volunteer-run organization, QuetzalTrekkers. With a three-month commitment a volunteer spends their days taking tourists on 1, 2, or 3 day hikes up volcanoes. Because it’s volunteer run, QuetzalTrekkers sends their proceeds to local community organizations. Cool, huh? Since neither of us is ready to give a three-month commitment, we are volunteering on the other end of this organization, working with the organization where QuetzalTrekkers sends their proceeds.

Yesterday the ambition was to go visit a remote school on the side of a volcano that QuetzalTrekkers’ proceeds helped build. The volunteers prepared lunch and on-the-fly games for approximately 50 kids. Several volunteers and I, Juleen, hopped in the back of a pick-up truck at 7:30AM, and we were off to visit “our school.” En route we quickly turned off the paved road, which made for a less comfortable ride, but no one was feeling too alarmed. Then, things started to get rough. The road became steep, the truck was struggling, and we were rocking from side to side. Realizing the difficulties that were lying ahead, those of us traveling in the bed of the truck hopped out and started trekking. After all, everyone (expect for me) was an avid hiker. Shortly thereafter, another volunteer who had stayed inside the truck came running towards us claiming, “The truck is on its side in a ditch.”

We hiked back to help. Several attempts to dislodge the truck failed. Holes were rapidly growing below the wheels as the wheels spun with each attempt. Communication was difficult (between two languages). And, leadership was minimal. THEN, the Nicaraguan men said they didn’t think the women should help. Women hiked two miles to the nearest farm to rest... Thank goodness, since we were a group of totally incapable women. An hour later, oxen showed up at the farm. Realizing the oxen were being prepped to pull the truck out, women walked back to see the spectacle. Women’s help was still undesired. Men chopped trees (attempting to make more traction for tires). Men dug holes. Men filled in holes. Mostly, men talked about doing “manly” work. Women made lunch, considering we had food for 50-plus people. Finally, the scene was set: oxen were in place, people were set, and the driver was ready. Oxen began to pull, people pushed (women were allowed to help), and the wheels burned more rubber. The truck didn’t move.

The “gringos” gave up and called a friend to come with a 4X4. While waiting the Nicaraguans, a group that slowly got larger throughout the day, dislodged the truck. It was a site to see and everyone cheered. The 4X4 didn’t come, the oxen were thanked with food, and we drove off.

Long story short, yesterday I had lunch on the side of a volcano with several QuetzalTrekker volunteers.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Getting Around

When we complete our adventures, we think that 50% of our noteworthy stories will relate to transportation. Trains are nonexistent and airfare is expensive. The bus system, however, is shockingly well developed throughout Central America, though it doesn’t always provide first-class accommodations. The buses themselves are worth a mention.

Do you know where American school buses come to retire? Central America. Buses from the 1970s and 80s abound. They’re painted wild colors with the name of a female adorning the back window. In addition, a young, agile, sometimes pushy, but generally helpful man is half-way out the front door yelling the direction of the bus to anyone and everyone on the street. Interiorly the accommodations are equally as stimulating. Latin pop-music blares while an impressive amount of people squish together, trying to keep the aisle clear. The young, agile man makes his way down the bus, often squeezing his way through standing passengers, collecting fares and throwing larger baggage anywhere possible, including the top of the bus. The circus continues when children, men, and women circulate the bus selling bare essentials, such as: water, prepared meals, candy, chicken, treats, papers, toothpaste, shampoo, and any other item imaginable (including mysterious vitamins/medications that do miraculous things).

While the buses themselves are a site to behold, using the system is quite an adventure too. Being “gringos” with over-sized luggage makes us targets—every young, agile busboy and roaming bus terminal helpers seems to know where we are trying to go before we tell them. Truly benevolent people are constantly helping us by telling us what bus to take and later when we should be getting off, and in between lugging our over-sized bags to unknown locations. It’s extremely overwhelming, especially when we really don’t know where we should be going or how much the bus should cost.

In the end, using the system for transportation is bumpy (pun) but kinda cool. We have, thus far, arrived at our desired destinations without too many hiccups. On one such “hiccup-less” trek from Perquin, El Salvador to Leon, Nicaragua (which required a bus through a slice of Honduras—see the map!), we took one pick-up truck, one mini bus, one bike trolley, five buses, and one taxi, and a mere 10 hours later we were hanging with new friends sharing travel stories.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Sympathizing with Thieves

Disclaimer: We knew that sharing a blog would be hard. Up until this blog, though, we've generally been able to type out a blog with relative ease--only slight grammatical or word changes taking place. For whatever reason, this time was a drastic change. Joe was probably too pig-headed about inserting his thoughts. Whatever the case, we hope you enjoy what we struggled to put together.

Throughout our travels we constantly hear from other individuals, “be careful”. Daily life in Central America seems to have a lot of emphasis on a few things: trying to remain inconspicuous—i.e. wearing nothing that appears to have value; noticing other individuals around you, and thus, inevitably, profiling people; and planning for the worst case scenario. In some cases, most notably Guatemala City, insistent warnings about safety have kept us from exploring places. Luckily, we haven’t seen or encountered any problems (knock on wood, please!).

You might ask: What could possibly be the cause of all of this insecurity? We by no means know the answer, but we think the following might have something to do with it: Civil Wars (known as the Contra Wars). Nicaragua’s ended in 1989; El Salvador’s Civil War lasted from 1980 to 1992; and Guatemala’s Civil War ended with peace accords signed in 1996. Twenty years later, the effects of war seem to be lingering. Perhaps these effects remain particularly strong since none of these recent civil wars produced a decisive “winner” (any experts on the subject out there?). While an entire college course on the subject of Central American Civil Wars and their effects would be best (and we need to take it!), we’ll focus on one country.

While El Salvador is the smallest country in Central America, it is estimated that 75,000 individuals died during the 12-year period comprising their civil war. What for? The usual: political disagreements linked all the way back to the social injustices started by the 15th - and 16th-century conquistadors. Clearly, we could write an entire blog about what occurred, but instead, we’d like to introduce Edgar. In 1978, fourteen year old Edgar joined the Guerrillas, and he maintained his Guerrilla warrior status until 1992. During that time we can’t imagine all he went through, but we know that he lost family and friends and encountered life-threatening situations. At one point, he was shot in the head and suffered a six month coma, after which he spent a mere month re-learning how to talk and walk before re-joining the Guerrilla ranks. The best thing about Edgar is that he is now an educator, teaching people about the war and his experiences in it as a guide at the El Salvador Civil War Museum in Perquin, El Salvador. During Edgar’s guided tour, he will even talk about the role the US government had in the war (donating, under the guidance of Reagan, six billion dollars to the El Salvadoran government, anti-Guerrilla war effort). Sadly the US has trained combatants, instigated coups, and generally supported US-friendly politicians, no matter their domestic policies, in El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and throughout Latin America. Impressively, and thankfully for us, Edgar does not let flawed US government policies affect his opinion of American citizens.

So, while we walk down the streets with no valuables, only the equivalent of a few dollars in our pockets, continuously surveying our surroundings, we can’t help but try to understand and empathize.

Picture descriptions:
1. Edgar, 27 years after the war, showing us the remains of a bomb dropped by the government forces.

2. What's left of a helicopter blown up by guerrilla forces. The infamous General Monterrosa was purportedly inside.

3. A not so innocent sign that adorned our hike through former guerrilla territory. All limbs are still attached.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

At last

We finally put a map together. We hope it´s easy to read and makes our travels more tangible. The plan is to post the map every once in a while, perhaps after we´re done with a country, and only include the ¨legend¨ for the places visited in that country.

Let us know what needs improvement. Thanks!

1 – Guatemala City. Home and volunteer place our first three weeks. We were outside of the city proper and, unfortunately, did not explore much of the city. Sophie and Igor were great hosts, and the Center was a great place to work and learn Spanish our first few weeks.

2 – Antigua, Guatemala. The site of our first “traveling”. We had a few day trips to Antigua, as it was a short drive from home. It is a beautiful colonial town.

3 – Panajachel, Guatemala. Our first weekend away was here on Lago de Atitlan. An old hippy hangout filled with plenty of expats and volcanoes.

4 – Rio Dulce, Guatemala. After three weeks in Guatemala City we headed here. We made our first traveling friend. Cool hostel on the water, which was the gateway to the Caribbean Sea.

5 – Flores, Guatemala. We didn’t want to spend the night here, but we’re glad we did. The town is a small island full of gringos going to or coming from Tikal.

6 – El Remate, Guatemala. A simpler jumping-off point for Tikal than is Flores. Also, the location where we taught an afternoon class for village kids for a week through Project Ix-Canaan. Located on a pleasant, large lake, with a “Biotope” and small Mayan site nearby, there was plenty to do when we weren’t preparing for class or teaching.

7 – Tikal, Guatemala. Guatemala’s biggest tourist site is this humongous Mayan ruin. Even though we weren’t happy with our guide, the place was awesome. We need to return.

8 – Lanquin, Guatemala. The closest town to the wondrous Semuc Champey. Caves were also close-by. Semuc Champey ended up being the most impressive site we visited in Guatemala. From here we left for El Salvador, though we spent one night back in Guatemala City (#1) with Sophie and Igor on the way.

9 – Candelaria, El Salvador. A small town just a few kilometers into El Salvador. We spent our first night couchsurfing here. Heather, a Peace Corps volunteer, was a gracious hostess.

10 – Ataco, El Salvador. This small town is located on the touristy Ruta de las Flores. We couchsurfed three nights here with Atilio and Rosario. Impressively gracious hosts again. We went to the beach, watched the sunrise, and enjoyed excellent food.

11 – San Salvador, El Salvador. Despite suffering greatly during the not-too-distant Civil War, the capital city was impressive. One impressive site a bit outside of the city was Puerta del Diablo, which offered government forces a great place to discard bodies during the Civil War and offers impressive mountain views today.

12 – El Tunco, El Salvador. A chill surfing community not too out of the way (El Salvador is so small that most everything is pretty much on the way). While we didn’t catch any waves, we enjoyed watching from the beach.

13 – Suchitoto, El Salvador. A colonial town where fighting apparently first broke out during the Civil War. Our Civil War guided tour didn’t go as well as planned. Two more nights couchsuring, though this time in a hostel dorm room. Strange arrangement.

14 – Perquin, El Salvador. The guerrilla headquarters during the Civil War were located here. Also close to the site of an 800-person massacre (all civilians) carried out by the government forces early on in the war.

15 – Leon, Nicaragua. We arrived here four days ago after a long day of travel from El Salvador. A young Wabash alum who is volunteering here is providing us a room for a few days while we seek out volunteer opportunities and our own accommodations. The plan is to work with Las Tias, a group offering street kids meaningful afternoon alternatives.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Surfer's Paradise

Life on the road can be hard. We spend every minute of every day together. Luckily we continue to enjoy each others’ company, but we do begin to talk of subjects we would not normally discuss. For example, who is more fun? Clearly, I am… Or, logically following from the first debate, who is more spontaneous? It’s obvious again, I am... Some areas where we do run into some difficultly: constantly making uninformed decisions (Should we pay this much for (fill in the blank)? What bus do we need to take? Where should we go in this country?); Juleen not being as social as Joe (and wanting to go to bed at 8:15); and, lastly, measuring our sense of accomplishment by pooping. Yes, we said pooping. Today was a successful day though, so we are not full of shit.

While we have these difficulties, they are currently masked by the beauty of surfers’ paradise. We are hanging loose (no pun intended) on the Pacific shores of El Tunco, El Salvador. It is a town where shirts and shoes are not required for service. What is required? A surfboard under one arm, a perfect tan, and a burning desire to hit the waves. Believe it or not, but we may not quite fit the El Tunco stereotype. Instead of catching the waves early this morning we were dodging the waves on a run. How else have we been hanging with the hip crowd? Eating the best ceviche and fish tacos ever. Reading depressing stories about the El Salvadoran Civil War. Playing with hermit crabs. And eating veggie sandwiches for lunch.

Speaking of food, you must want to ask, “Is the food different in El Salvador than in neighboring Guatemala?” I’m so glad you asked. We didn’t think there would be a big difference, and there really isn’t, except for one notable, cheap vendor food. While we steered clear of Guatemalan street vendors, we’re intoxicated by the smells emanating from their El Salvadoran counterparts. You see, El Salvador has the rights to brag about the delectable pupusa.

Pupusas are humble. Though they look simply like thick tortillas, they are so much more. They are corn tortillas filled with goodness. The most common pupusas contain cheese, beans, or pork. Juleen salivates over the cheese pupusas, and Joe salivates over any he can get his hands on, including pupusas left-over from another guy. While he might have risked contracting H1N1, at least he saved himself the hefty price tag of buying yet another $0.30 pupusa.

Tomorrow we leave our good surfing buddies to hang in Suchitoto, El Salvador. An area rich with El Salvador Civil War history. Keep your fingers crossed that we can get a tour with an ex-guerilla.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Intro to El Salvador and CouchSurfing

Finding a public "chicken bus" from Guatemala City to our border-town destination--DIFFICULT!

Crossing the Guatemalan-El Salvadoran border--EASY! Happy that there were no fees, but sad that we couldn't get a stamp in our passports : (.

First night of CouchSurfing with Heather, the PeaceCorps volunteer in Candelaria, El Salvador--GREAT! Great food--including oatmeal w/ flax for breakfast--and a great morning run.

Second night of CouchSurfing, this time with Atillio and Rosaria in Ataco, El Salvador on the touristy Ruta de las Flores--AMAZING! Great veggie soup and tortillas awaited us. The signature El Salvadoran food, pupusas--tortillas with a cheese, bean, herb, etc filling--, came shortly thereafter. Stories from Atillo, a former Greyhound bus driver in the States, entertained us throughout the night and morning. Early morning sunrise over the seven volcanoes was spectacular. Breakfast was fabulous and even included limitless cups of REAL coffee!

Gotta go, though. We're off to the El Salvadoran playa (beach) with our CouchSurfing hosts!

Pictures of Atillo and Rosaria and Juleen and Joe in front of the Seven Volcano Sunrise vista.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Loves and Hates a Month In

A month into our travels we’d like to reflect a bit and simply record some things we’ve thoroughly enjoyed and some things we haven’t.


Loves a full email inbox, but she’s always perplexed what else her parents could have been doing when they haven’t sent her a note.

Loves planning.

Loves going to bed by 9pm not by choice, but because we grow tired of trying to read with the 25W light bulb in our room.

Hates throwing up over balconies in the middle of the night amid pouring rain, because she’s contracted some stomach ailment from the food or water.

Hates cold showers. :(

Hates seeing the Guatemalan women cook and clean all day for their male counterparts.

Loves having gone a month without TV, though she misses her dear friend Stephen Colbert.


Hates going without coffee. He has less to look forward to when starting his day.

Loves the international news section of Guatemala’s Prensa Libre newspaper.

Loves pursuing opportunities and good deals at the next stop.

Hates the broken strap on his XXL REI duffel bag. Maybe he just needs to take a look to see if he can fix it first.

Hates when Minnesota beats Purdue.

Hates having to pay for water. It gives him an excuse not to work out.

Hates paying ten times as much as Guatemalans to visit tourist sites, but he can kind of understand why he does.

Loves the freedom of carrying the few possessions he has (not including everything that’s at the Rodakowskis or in Beech Grove).

Both of Us

Hate dogs barking and roosters crowing in the middle of the night. They create an awful chorus.
Love El Remate’s village kids.

Love meeting new people in random hostels. Now if we could only meet new people that didn’t speak perfect English with us.

Love learning about the Mayas through our trips to Tikal, Iximche and Ixlu.

Aman aprender espanol.

Love fantasizing about potential wedding extravaganzas everywhere we go.

Hate constantly, daily, always, siempre haggling over prices.

Hate washing dishes already used dishes in other peoples’ homes.

Hate missing the healthcare debate.

Hate the weight of our packs on our backs.

Love the idea of CouchSurfing. Hopefully we still love it in a week, as we´ve made plans to CouchSurf, for the first time, in El Salvador.

What would you love and/or hate?

Monday, October 12, 2009

Changing El Remate´s Diet

Today´s afternoon class for El Remate´s youth was focused on nutrition. From talking with other people and making detailed first-hand observations, we have come to recognize that nutrition is something lacking. So we decided to change the dietary patterns of El Remate´s youth during one of our two-hour afternoon classes. That change was destined to take place today.

All was going well. We opened the class with our usual English lesson. The kids ate it up, as they always do. Next up, we conducted a highly controlled, qualitative, single-variable experiment. Kids ran around for ten, enough to get them worked up. After about ten minutes of various races, each pair of two kids shared a package of cheetos. It was great. The kids enjoyed the snack, but recognized that their thirsty bodies were yearning for something more. The kids re-did the exercises, but this time sampled some juicy watermelon afterwards. They made great observations about the difference they felt. They claimed that the watermelon was more satisfying. Things were still going smoothly as we approached the end of the lesson, compiling a list of the foods--healthy and unhealthy--that they eat on a daily basis.

That´s when the dog decided to steal Magali´s sandal! Darn dog. All attention was lost. Joe tried to cooly retrieve the sandal to calm the storm. Joe ¨no could do¨. It took an army of six village kids to ultimately get the sandal back, but no army could have regained the momentum we had lost. We limped through the end.

Tomorrow we solve Latin American environmental problems!

Friday, October 9, 2009

Back on the road again

First off, a belated thanks to the following people for their help in finding other, non-Honduran options: Paula and Brian Cook, Steph Jarem, Grandma Heinhuis (including Denise Moore), Julie Rodakowski, and Lauren Asay. Looks like we´ll be headed to Leon, Nicaragua to work with street kids. But, back to the blog…

We are nomads. We have been bouncing from town to town, hotel to hotel, and restaurant to restaurant, searching for good deals and authentic Guatemalan experiences. We have come in contact with both, but, fear not, we plan to forge on and have no illusions of taking up permanent Latin American residence…yet.

Our first major landing spot since leaving Guatemala City early Saturday was Rio Dulce; a town filled with extremes. As the name implies (sweet river), it’s a beautiful town on a river that meet the Caribbean sea but it has a community struggling to keep their heads afloat. The most unique aspect of the town is the use of boats (ranging from yachts to dug-out canoes) for transportation. We stayed in the jungle in a bungalow, reached only by boat (see picture of Joe lounging). We had an interesting couple of days admiring a castle, mansions and yachts and, on the opposite end of the spectrum, haggling for non-gringo prices in the town’s market.

Heading northward in Guatemala, we reached towns just south of the Mayan ruin city of Tikal (our main destination). After another couple days searching for the true Guatemala and a good deal, we decided to splurge on a tour guide and visit the ruins. The ruins were breath-taking; towering above and below the jungle. Apparently, due to a lack of funds, a huge percentage of Tikal remains unexcavated. We spent several hours walking approximately five miles to see the old Mayan ceremonial center. Tikal is a huge site where only royals and priests lived, so it’s filled with monuments, stories, and celebratory structures. While our tour guide didn’t pan out to have the wealth of information desired—he rambled aimlessly without providing the depth of information we were after (see Juleen soaking it all in from the tour guide next to an stela in photo)—our video (of the many buildings surrounding the Grand Plaza, but also featuring impressive jungle sounds, found below) attests to the beauty and majesty of the place.

Well, now that we’ve seen the Mother of Mayan ruins (anyone want to dispute this claim?), where are we now? We are still 30km south of Tikal. We have taken a slight detour (figuratively, as we haven’t moved, just changed our plans) to volunteer at a clinic/community center. We are running a two-hour class for town kids in the afternoon, hoping to instill a little knowledge about reading, and eating and living well. Yesterday, our first teaching day, was a success. We had approximately ten kids show, and everyone (including us) was still smiling and laughing at the end of the day (see photo for the dream job mobiles we made with the kids). We even heard some kids practicing their English introductions after class at home!

As a cultural aside (and a feeble attempt to get you involved in this Blog): Does anyone know what’s up with all the guns here in Guatemala? Juleen informs me that there are a lot of guns in Peru also. Here in Guate, any private, random security guard is able to leisurely tote an AK-47 or sawed-off shotgun, and these security guards are everywhere--in front banks, hotels and even fast-food chains. The owners of the hostel in Rio Dulce confessed that acquiring their own sawed-off shotgun was painfully easy. Pictures of the arsenal to come in a later post.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Ann Sullivan Guatemala

Ann Sullivan Guatemala, our first volunteer location, is a community center providing services to young people with disabilities. Approximately six years ago, they started providing sessions to increase the independence of children with disabilities. As they have been growing, they have become involved with the Ann Sullivan center in Lima, Peru, latching onto their programs. Thus, the Guatemalan center is able to receive their curriculum ideas, supports, and continuing education.

So, what really goes on? In the morning, between 5 and 10 kids come for what is effectively a half-day of school. The school is based on the Ann Sullivan curriculum. Everything is functional, a lot of pictures are used, and kids maintain a routine. In the afternoon, kids come for one-hour one-on-one or two-on-one skill building sessions with their specialists. These sessions target whatever the kid needs, ranging from improving gross motor (through play) to improving fine motor (through writing activities) skills.

So, what have we been doing? Well, we wake up at 5:15 every morning! We drive through shockingly bad traffic to arrive at the center between 6:15 and 6:30. Conveniently, the center is a transformed house, so it is equipped with showers and all the house fixings (it serves as a second house in the city for our host family). For the first hour or two of the day we do some combination of the following: run (three times a week), read, write a blog, dream about a real cup of coffee (Joe, every morning), unsuccessfully try to access the internet, shower, and eat. After the specialists arrive and everyone has completed the hugs and kisses welcoming routine, we begin the slow and arduous process of changing the world. Our mornings are spent painting, constructing a wheelchair ramp, making potential adaptive devices, and helping as needed. In the afternoons, Joe performs more manual labor or he reads, and Juleen switches to assisting in treating kids and providing potential suggestions. While she doesn’t feel like she is revolutionizing the services being provided, she has provided some good OT 101 suggestions, as none of the specialists are trained therapists. At the end of the day, we drive home in shockingly bad traffic, arriving home around 7:30. After a light dinner, we start heading to bed.

But don’t worry much about our taxing days, as we are moving onward and forward Saturday.

Pictures are the following: upstairs roof before, indoor patio before, inaguration of the wheelchair ramp (the ramp did not get completed as easily as it might appear), upstairs roof after, and indoor patio after.

Thursday, September 24, 2009


As you might know, after another week and a half in Guatemala City we planned on doing a week´s worth of traveling in Guatemala before making our way into Honduras. Pop quiz--what´s happened in Honduras recently?? If you happened to guess coup three months ago, followed by internal turmoil, and ultimately border closures, then you were right on! You might have already put this together, but I will go ahead and spell it out for you--border closures are bad for would-be Honduran travelers.

So, what do we do? We call upon our biggest asset--YOU (well, really your constant supply of super-fast worldwide web)!

To earn first prize -- Find a place (organic farm, hostel, nature reserve, community clinic, whatever!) that offers free housing and (I´ll be greedy) some food for volunteers. And where? Somewhere in Guatemala, Nicaragua or El Salvador. Finding a place on an island earns a ¨bonus¨!

To earn second prize -- Find the same type of place as above in Costa Rica or Panama. Or find a place anywhere in Central America, excluding Honduras, that charges a minimal fee for volunteers to stay and work.

To earn third prize -- Find a cheap way (boat, plan, Maah da Hey trail (sp?), whatever) to get from anywhere in Guatemala to anywhere in Nicaragua.

Consolation prizes for anything (and everyone) else!

You can post your ideas as comments here or email them to joe.d.moore.ii(at) and (equally creative) juleen.rodakowski(at)

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Lago de Atitlan

Since our arrival in Guatemala all we’ve heard from the locals is how much there is to see and do in their wonderful country. As the weekend quickly approached we made our decision: we would go to the Guatemalan gringo capital—Panajachel, a town that sits above the shores of Lago de Atitlan (Atitlan Lake) while volcanoes tower over the lake. The staff at the community center jumped on board, and they were calling hostels (getting a non-gringo price), finding bus routes, and recommending activities.

Friday afternoon we were taken by staff to the bus stop. They were told a direct bus to “Pana” would leave at 1:30. Since we had ten to fifteen minutes, we were taken on a mini-tour of the district. The time quickly passed, and we were blocks away. We finally asked, something to the effect of, “shouldn’t we get to the bus.” We were assured the bus never leaves on time. At 1:45 we pulled up to the bus stop. The bus was long gone. Ooops. Fear not. Our driver took off down the roads, following the typical bus route, as we craned our necks to look at each bus we passed. Veering in and out of traffic, we finally found it, flagged it down (which isn’t uncommon), and hopped on. A few uneventful hours later, we arrived at the lake.

Most of Saturday was spent at a nature reserve next to Pana. We went on a 45 minutes hike full of swinging bridges, animals we had never seen, most notably monkeys, and a striking waterfall plummeting through the forest. After the hike, we enjoyed the reserve’s butterfly sanctuary and swimming in the lake at their private beach.

While the scenery is one-of-a-kind, we couldn’t help but enjoy the English-speaking American population at least as much as the natural setting. Whether it was an Oregonian lawyer turned guitar player, a middle-aged coffee shop owner, or a young woman holding down the fort at a used bookstore, the similar accents and stories were quite a joy.

But, at present, we now find ourselves back at “the center”, where we struggle to understand five year olds; we’re pretty sure they’re verbally advanced. We have finished conducting observations of therapists and ninos, and now are moving onto to the substance of our work here. Big ideas abound: ramps for wheelchairs, yellow lines to demarcate steps, and more.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Independence Day

First off, we’d like to wish everyone a happy belated Guatemalan Independence Day! I’m sure you celebrated, right? We certainly did. The celebration was filled with parades, typical breakfast foods (including Joe’s first “real” Guatemalan coffee!), book purchases, and no work, of course. Independence Day was Tuesday, and el centro (the place we’re volunteering) followed the holiday with a little celebration for the kids and their families on Wednesday—gory details below.

El centro does a great job of teaching children with disabilities independent living skills. To incorporate this teaching and the celebration they held a fiesta for an entire morning. The fiesta wasn’t only for the children, but it included their parents and siblings. The morning included games (fishing, pin the tail on the donkey, knock the cup tower over, and a throwing target game). After games we celebrated the success with dancing. Everyone was out there shaking to marimba music. Joe was throwing kids into the air, and Juleen was twirling every kid she could. Clearly you’d need a huge feast of typical food after all of that work… Luckily, they came through. The children were working on waiting in line, ordering, paying, and receiving food while we enjoyed a sampler platter of Guatemalan food. See the pictures to begin to appreciate the fun that was had.

What is all of this typical food we are eating? Well, it’s muy rico (very rich), as they frequently say. A typical breakfast consists of eggs with a non-spicy salsa, refried black beans, and bread. While that is Guatemalan typical, on work days typical for us is a bowl of cereal. The big adjustment (for Joe) has been the lack of consistency in having coffee, especially considering Guatemala is one of the coffee producing capitals of the world. While instant coffee is most common, he has been able to savor the occasional “good” cup of coffee.

For lunch, we are ordering from a local restaurant. For about two dollars (or 16 qutezals), we have a plethora of food. Every lunch contains a drink called rosa de jamaica (a semi-sweet drink made from flower petals), tortillas, and rice. Beyond those staples we eat meat, meat, and more meat. (In fact, one of our weekend lunches featured a smorgasbord of meat options—chicken, different types of sausage, and steak. Quite a meal for former vegetarians!) The meat is frequently prepared in a soup or a salsa sauce. As you may have deduced, lunch is a huge meal. It is their biggest meal of the day.

Finally, dinner. Dinner consists of a small serving of a salad or fruit or yogurt. Nothing else. In all, fear not… we aren’t starving. The food is excellent though quite different.

Pictures included: one of a parade in Antigua on independence day, two of the fiesta at el centro, and one of a volcano as seen in Antigua (however, this same volcano can be seen from “our” front yard).

Monday, September 14, 2009

Arrival in Guatemala City, Guatemala (September 13, 2009)

The sign read “Centro Ann Sullivan Guatemala”. Those words indicated that the two women holding it were there for us. The Centro Ann Sullivan is the community center for kids with disabilities in Guatemala City where Juleen (and Joe) are helping out these next few weeks.
Once at the center, we were greeted with a welcome sign (see picture), seven singing women and lunch. Quite an introduction. After lunch we observed therapy sessions, headed home--we’re staying with the founder of the center in her quaint home thirty minutes outside of the city--, had a “cena” and were in bed by 7pm.

Day two started at 5am--we had to beat the Independence Day weekend traffic into Guatemala City. All of the Ann Sullivan centers—they are in nine different countries, predominantly in Central and South America--had a teleconference. After spending a few hours stretching our brains to understand the Spanish in the teleconference, Igor and Sophia (our wonderful hosts) took us to Antigua, a colonial city, with their two young children. We had lunch, the biggest meal of the day, at an old coffee plantation, and we got the first taste of independent traveling. The two of us walked the streets of the city, admired a few churches, and when to a museum exhibit about a Guatemalan photographer (Julio Zadik??).

On the third day our hosts took us out (again)! This time we went to Mayan ruins about an hour from Guatemala City. We spent the day walking about the beautiful ruins of Iximche (see photo of Joe being sacrificed on the ceremonial sacrificial ruins).

In all, things couldn’t be better (other than our broken Spanish, though it has improved significantly since our arrival). Our hosts are patient and kind; they are wonderful at explaining and re-explaining their stories to us. This week we are looking forward to celebrating Guatemala’s independence day (September 15, 1821) and working at Centro Ann Sullivan Guatemala.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

T Minus 2 Days!

We are back from San Jose/San Fran. We briefly checked out Stanford--disappointing! Good thing Joe didn't want to go there anyway. We visited San Fran, along with aunts, uncles and cousin. And lastly, we attended Carol's wedding and reception. Thanks Kathy, Chris, Dorris, John, Roger, Bob, and Julie and Harold!

You can (try to) check out pictures of us at the wedding via facebook by clicking here. Disclaimer: Juleen did not watch Joe as closely as she should have.

Now that the last of our summer travels is over, we can no longer excuse NOT preparing for the "real trip". We leave September 11--two days from now! Aaaaaa! We're staying with a woman who works at a center for people with disabilities in Guatemala City. She's even coming to pick us up from the airport. We're thinking we'll be there between two to four weeks. Hopefully, we'll be able to post pictures and notes once there.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Directions for the Map Below

To see where we have been, where we are now, and where we plan to go next, scroll out of the map below (click the negative sign within the map). To find out more about each stop, click on the blue marker and read the pop-up bubble.

Hope this helps.

The Plan

View Where are Juleen and Joe? in a larger map

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Western Road Trip

While Joe and I are not abroad, we have already begun seeing and doing a lot. Our aventuras began with a road trip out West. Along for the ride was Joe, Jordan (Joe's 16 year old brother), and me. We visited:
Des Monies, IA
Boulder, CO
Denver, CO
Salt Lake City, UT
Reno, NV
Eugene, OR
Portland, OR
Lenore, ID
Dickinson, ND

While we had many highlights along the way, one was going white water rafting with friends on the Arkansas River (see picture above). Notice Jordan trying to be a true mountain of a man by not wearing a "splash jacket". He was the only one among us who was so brave.

Also very impressive was Crater Lake in southern Oregon (see picture to the right). We were all awed by the scenery, particularly the ridiculously deep blue color of the water. We suggested Crayola come up with a new color inspired by this national park--Crater Lake blue. You have to see it to believe it.

The best part of the whole trip was hanging out with friends and family. Juleen arranged most all of the housing (thank you Juleen!) for the three of us along the way. A special thanks to all of those who put up with us and put us up during our primera aventura.

So, in summary, get west. Or, at least get out. There is much to see.

Until next time,

Joe and Juleen