"If you have come here to help me, then you are wasting your time. But if you have come here because your liberation is bound up in mine, then let us work together" -Lilla Watson, Aboriginal Activist

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Living Livingston

Check the tabs. Organize a drinking game. Do the room checks. Passports. "Buenos dias, Casa Iguana."

The hostel life.  I feel lucky to have landed myself a hostel job for a bit.  It's offered me a chance to stay in one spot for a bit, save some money, beef up my bartending skills, and best of all, learn about the inner-workings of a backpackers hostel.  So when I heard from the owner of Casa de la Iguana while I was still traveling in Nicaragua, I decided to get on a bus back to Livingston, Guatemala the following week.  And now here I am, in the small, islandesque Caribbean hub of Northeastern Guatemala where the water is as warm as bathwater, the fish is fresh, and the dreadlocks and marijuana a-plenty.

Two weeks into the job I've realized a few things.  One, that owning/running a hostel isn't as glamorous/easy as I thought; two, that living in the Caribbean is as awesome as I thought, and three, that my coworkers and I are the Slurms McKenzie's of the hostel world.  I think it's a common backpacker's dream to one day own their own hostel in some little corner of the world.  And working here hasn't changed that for me.  It has, however, given me some perspective.  Because the truth of the matter is that when you own or work at a hostel you become the constant.  Backpackers come and go everyday, but you stay put.  And if you happen to own a party hostel in the Caribbean, well, say goodbye to your healthy liver and hello to night shifts that go until 3am.  Every single night. 

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Bragging Rights

Blogger's block has really gotten to me these past few weeks.  A combination of not having a computer, the motivation, nor the inspiration has caused me to avoid logging into blogspot more actively than I avoid logging into my online banking site.  A friend I told of my blogging woes told me that my dilemma makes sense; for two years I've had a specific job, purpose, and topic for my blog. And suddenly here I am, pura mochilera, without that same sense of do-gooder purpose.  I've gone from being the lone gringa in a rural village to a life in which I'm surrounded by like-minded backpackers.  A gringo amongst gringos. 

So perhaps it's natural that I've had trouble blogging.  Nothing I've been experiencing daily as a backpacker seems to warrant writing about it.  Not compared to the crazy ups and downs and cultural stupefaction of my PC service.  But now as I sit pondering this, I realize that I've done a lot of things in the past two months that were exciting, new, and certainly blog-worthy.  Maybe I just needed some time to readjust my perspective. 

So here they are, some highlights from my travels (more soon to come):

Utila, Bay Islands, Honduras
Utila, Bay Islands, Honduras
First stop on my backpacking adventure?  Las Islas de Bahia, or the Honduran Bay Islands, named one of the best places to scuba dive in the world.  Utila, one of the smaller, less-developed of the islands, is the budget diving training center in the world.  Backpackers from all over go to Utila to dive, and I couldn't miss it.  I decided to go for my Open Water certification with Utila Dive Center, a 5-day diving course that educates divers on the basics of diving and certifies them to dive the reefs of the world without immediate supervision.  I had never dived before, barely even snorkeled, so I had no idea what I was getting myself into.  As it turns out, diving is amazing.  Once I got over the initial fright of being underwater and breathing, and got used to the equipment and the emergency procedures (what to do if you run out of air, if your dive buddy runs out of air, how to clear your mask, equalize the pressure in your ears, etc.) I found diving to be an extremely magical experience.  Floating along coral reefs seemingly weightlessly, seeing sea life happen right in front of your eyes, surfacing after a 40-meter dive and realizing what you just did and saw was of another world, was something beyond what humans should be capable of doing--it's hard to describe the experience.  I passed my Open Water exams and am now officially Open Water certified by PADI (a big thank you, Grandma Mary--your Christmas present funded the cost of my course.)  No doubt in my mind that I'll be back to Utila someday soon to get my advanced diving certificate.  It's too good of a thing to leave behind for long.  

Volcano-boarding, Leon, Nicaragua
I had heard about volcano-boarding through the backpackers' grapevine while traveling through Antigua and Xela.  So when I arrived to Leon, Nicaragua, a quaint and lovely (and oppressively hot) little city in the Southern part of Nica, I decided I couldn't leave without giving volcano boarding a go.  I was traveling with a Kiwi I met diving in the Bay Islands, so together we jumped on the back of a pick-up and sped off towards the base of Volcan Cerro Negro, the newest and most active volcano in Nicaragua.  The next 45 minutes we spent hiking up the volcano, toting the awkwardly bulky wooden volcano boards, until we reached our launching point where we donned the famous orange jumpsuits and goggles and waited for our guide's instructions.  Volcano boarding was harder than it looks.  Even though you're sitting on the wooden board (not unlike a sled), you must balance and steer yourself using subtle shifts in your body weight.  Braking is done by digging your heels into the coarse volcanic ash.  What took 45 minutes to laboriously climb up took less than 30 seconds to board down.  Despite the goggles and jumpsuit I had black volcanic ash in my mouth, ears, and matted in my hair, road-rash covering my calves from trying to brake.  Nothing a good shower and some antibiotic ointment didn't soon remedy.  And now I can say that I boarded down a 500-meter volcano at roughly 50km/hour.

Volcan Concepcion, Ometepe Island, Nicaragua
Nicaragua, much like Guatemala, has it all...volcanoes, beaches, cities, and local pueblos, all in one small country.  I easily spent a few days in the small cities of Leon and Granada, a few days "surfing" on the beautiful pacific shores of San Juan del Sur, and a few days relaxing on the lake, all without having to spend more than a few hours on a chicken bus.  I couldn't leave Ometepe without climbing Concepcion, a 1610-meter high active volcano.  I had heard warnings from other travelers who had already done the hike that the hike was quite arduous, but figured that I'd be alright.  After all, I'd already climbed the tallest peak in Central America, Tajumulco, so how hard could this one be?  Turns out, really really hard.  The 10-hour hike up the 1600-meter volcano began through encouraging jungle-covered banana plantations but quickly became an upward scramble up the sun-exposed and rocky peak where we scrambled, without grace, up the final 1000 meters of loose volcanic rock and ash.  About halfway up those last 1000 meters is when I started doubting my decision to join the hike.  I was exhausted, my body hurt, and my mind was whirling with the numbingly ongoing task of deciding where to place my next hesitant step, all while focusing on not being knocked over by the horribly violent gusts of wind.  I kept telling myself that this was Type II fun, the kind of thing that isn't in fact any fun at all while it's happening, but makes for a great story after the fact.  But then I started seeing the climbing anchors.  I remember thinking "People climb this using ropes and belays! Why the HELL am I up here doing this free-style? I'm no mountain-climber!!"  Despite my common-sense telling me otherwise, I pressed on, holding back tears as I continued the exhausting scramble up to the peak.  And then we were there, at the peak, and as I grabbed the rope that our local guide had thrown my direction (turns out that without this rope I surely would have blown right off the summit), squinting as my face and exposed arms where whipped by blowing volcanic ash particles, snot running down my face from the sulfur gases leaking out of the active volcano.  We could only stay at the peak for about 30 seconds before heading back down where the wind-force was slightly less fierce.  That's all we got.   Half a minute at the top and the exhausting upward scramble became an even more exhausting downward trudge, where every other foot hold proved unsteady, sending me to my soon-to-be very bruised backside.  But we made it down, and two days later, after the soreness in my legs had eased, I was glad I did it.  Would I do it again?  Hell no.

Refueling before starting up the last 1000 meters.

On the way down from the peak. Photo by Danny Page.

Volcan Concepcion

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Pura Mochilera

These are the days of change, the days of exploration.

Less than 24 hours after I rang the Peace Corps bell that marked the end of my time as a PCV and the beginning of my time as an RPCV, I boarded a night bus top Flores, Peten, where I'd begin my 2-month backpacking adventure. I've never backpacked alone before, and I vowed that this experience would positively frame my imminent return to the US of A.  I'm now two weeks in and having the time of my life.  Being a backpacker coincidentally requires many of the same "skills" that I picked up during my PC service--being okay with a total lack of privacy, for example, rolling with the punches, living without regular access to technology, expecting nothing to go according to schedule, and being open to having awkward conversations with strangers of all sorts.  Living oh-so-frugally and, of course, being a bit of a problem solver when the occasion presents itself.  So far, I am loving my vida mochilera (backpacker life).  I´ve met all sorts of incredibly interesting people (many of them solo travelers like myself), I've challenged myself to try new things.  And perhaps most importantly, I've learned that this life is not necessarily something I have to give up.  I've met so many people who have managed to build their lives around backpacking, traveling, diving, and volunteering while still having a career and a family and a place to call home.  The backpacking life is not glamorous, and it's not confined to the wealthy.  It's a life of penny-pinching resourcefulness, long and uncomfortable bus rides, and haggling for minutes over the equivalent of one US dollar.  But it's an incredibly exhilarating experience that I'm in no hurry to put behind me.

No es adios sino hasta luego

Goodbyes are the worst. These past few weeks I've flashed back to the more pivotal goodbye moments in my life--seeing my dad cry for the first time as he and my mom dropped me off at college; crying to my Catalan taxi driver as he drove me to the Barcelona airport after 10 amazing months studying abroad; standing at the head of the table at Aurelio's Pizza, tearfully expressing my gratitude to my family, friends, and loved ones for supporting my decision to leave for 27 long months.  All very different goodbyes, but the oh-so-familiar pit in my stomach has remained a constant. 

Just as my loved ones back in Chicago supported my departure and sent me off with love and best wishes, my loved ones here in Campur have given me farewells with similar grace and humbling generosity. My last week in site I met an onslaught of farewell 'palabras' from neigbors, colleagues, and friends, expressing their gratitude for the work that I came to do, their sadness to see me go, and their happiness that I would soon reunite with my parents and family back home.  To say it's been overwhelming would be a gross understatement. 

I find comfort in the fact that life is full of cycles.  Things tend to come full circle; its just a matter of recognizing it when it happens.  I started life in Campur with a power outage, an empty kitchen, a sick stomach, cold showers and no internet.  My time in Campur ended with the same.  My last 10 days in-site were surreal in so many ways.  Packing up my house, drafting blog posts on paper, and eating dinner every night with local families.  It was feria in Campur, which meant no classes, so my schedule was as open as it was when I first arrived.  But unlike when I arrived, my last 10 days were booked solid with meetings, farewell parties, and feria activities.  All week I had students stopping by my house to deliver handwritten goodbye cards, teachers hugging me and telling me that they love me and hope that God guides my way, local families sitting me down and feeding me one last tamale, one last tayuyo, one last plate of beans and plantains.  March heat had set in, causing my house to bloom with tarantulas, brown recluse, and mammoth cockroaches.  Two nights before my departure, I crossed paths with my first poisonous snake, which my local friend stomped to death before explaining to me how he had nearly died as a child from a bite from this same breed.  One day before I left Dona Margarita, the woman from Tzibal with cancer (see this post), died after an 8-year battle, and I went to my first qeqchi wake.  That last week in site was as emotionally jolting as I'd feared, and when I finally left that Thursday at 6am with Olga, Dilan, and Profe Erick standing watch as I rode off I felt a slight bit of relief that the goodbyes were finally over.

And then there was my send-off party in Tzibal.  It's no secret that Tzibal was my favorite community.  Working with the school and the women's group were the highlights of my service.  I feel lucky to have found Tzibal because it was Tzibal that first gave me a sense of purpose in my service.  The community has never ceased to overcome me with the level of love and openess they've given me. My send-off party was no exception. I was in the village, in traje tipico, for the long-awaited Healthy School certification ceremony. The ceremony went exceptionally well, with the message clear--we worked together to better the lives of those who matter most--the children.

Me and Dona Estela

The ceremony ended with a delicious lunch of Kakik after which most of the invitees from the Ministry of Education and Peace Corps headed out.  Estela popped up then, dragging me in her motherly way to the front of the room and telling me that she and the women's group had a surprise for me. So there I stood as some 30-odd women from the women's group trickled into the classroom we were using for the day's events, and lined up before me.  And then they began, one by one, to approach me, lay a hand on my shoulder, and express their thanks to me, producing a wrapped gift from behind their back. I stood there in awe, trying to hold my composure as the stack of gifts behind me grew and grew. And then Dona Carmen reached the front of the line. Dona Carmen has always been one of my favorites in the group, always breaking out into sassy Q'eqchi' speeches in the middle of our meetings (as one of the elder women in the group she commands more attention and respect, mother-hen style). So when she, done speaking her kind words of gratitude for the pila project, took my hand and put into it a crumpled 10 quetzal bill I just lost it. I had this flash of a grandmother tucking a $5 bill into one of those flowery stationary cards addressed to their grandchild and realized that these women were sending me off as they would with one of their own. I hugged Dona Carmen while she stood there stiff and uncomfortable (qeqchi women, especially the older generation, don't hug), crying and telling her how much I'd miss them all. Dona Carmen's was not the only crumpled bill I received that day, either.  Back home opening my gifts I couldn't help but laugh in amazement at the random assortment  of my going-away plunder--glass plates and bowls, cheap market silverware, earrings, caites (the indigenous footwear of choice), embroidered napkins, woven baskets, socks--I questioned whether they really meant for me to take it all back to America with me. 
The women's group, waiting to send me off

Presenting my photo collage to the women's group
And it didn't stop there either.  My last day in site, Estela and two other women from the group showed up at my empty, packed-up house around 5pm with my last and best going-away present--a live rooster.  "We decided to bring you this rooster so you can take it to Antigua and have a party there with your other gringo friends."  They had even thought ahead enough to bring me a box for it (airholes punched in the sides and everything).  So there I was, standing in my empty house, holding a live rooster (a sizeable one at that), realizing just how hard it was going to be to leave these amazing people behind. These amazing women who unknowingly honored me in the biggest way they could, by treating me as one of their own.

Accepting my rooster gift