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.