Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Long Road Home

A warning to other readers: I am mostly making this blog entry in the interest of preserving an account of what-all I did during my last couple weeks in central america, because I know I will be glad to have it later when I can no longer clearly remember the trip, but it will be long and boring to read.

After I finally left La Ceiba, I spent a day and a half in the town of Tela on my way back towards Tegucigalpa. I pulled into town in the morning, and while checking into the sketchiest dive hotel I have ever stayed at, I suddenly ran into a couple of European travelers (one woman from Germany and one from Austria) who were looking to do the same thing as myself that day - namely, see the Lancetilla Botanical Gardens on the outskirts of Tela, an area of approximately 2,000 acres that used to be an experimental station for the United Fruit Company. We quickly hired a cab to take us out there, and once at the reserve, hired a guide to show us around the farthest reaches of it. Your vacation expenses can actually stack up pretty quickly in Central America in this way, but sometimes it is worth it - most of the best things to see are private and require an entry fee, and paying a guide will get you a very interesting source of information that you otherwise would not have. I normally am not the kind of person to have much interest in guides, but I am always curious about the biology and physical/human geography of any place, so having a knowledgeable local around to pester with questions is a major plus, even if you have to pay for the service.

This was the case in Lancetilla, although I quickly tired of our guide Pedro's inane jokes and leery attitude towards the European women (at least they weren't phased by it). We got to try like 8 different fruits that I've never had before in the arboretum, saw some ridiculously huge trees, and got photos of a fantastic butterfly. We also saw a humongous freakin' snake slide across the path at one point and into a pile of dead branches. It was black and yellow, probably four inches in diameter and eight feet long. No anaconda, but the biggest snake I've ever seen in the wild. No pictures, unfortunately.

The next day I left Tela, attempting to reach my friend Josh's village (El Majastre) that afternoon. I had to get on the bus at like 5:00 am, and I still didn't make it to El Majastre - traffic in the city of Tegucigalpa, which I had to pass through, tied down my taxi cab and I missed the crucial 11 am bus out to the municipality of Guimaca, the main stepping-stone to El Majastre. I ended up spending the night in Guaimaca and randomly running into Josh there the next morning - he was on a standard trip to town with his wife and step-family. We ended up hanging around Guaimaca the entire day, finally leaving for the village at about 7:30 pm.
I had planned to briefly visit Josh and then hop over to another friend's site on the other side of his protected area (Montana El Chile) but the fact of losing essentially two days in Guaimaca forced a revision of plans. Instead I hung out in El Majastre for two days, helping fertilize about an acre of coffee the first, going hiking the second, and savoring my last taste of slow-paced country life. Josh's step-family are some of the friendliest, most hospitable Hondurans I met during my time there, and they cook some amazing country food. It was another difficult parting, but they are all people that I fully expect to see again in the future, one way or another.

The time had finally come to pick up my brother Sam from the airport and start our (shortened) trip around Central America. I spent my final night in Tegucigalpa and picked The Brah up from the airport at 9 am the next day - Tuesday, October 9th. Our plan was to first make a brief visit to Agua Fria before continuing on to Nicaragua and Costa Rica, but getting there the same day would have been unlikely so we tarried awhile in the capital, having some coffee and a brief visit with Claudia, my former Project Specialist and collaborator (ok, boss) in the new volunteers' training program. During the time we worked together with the trainees, we had become really good friends and never got much of a chance to socialize outside of a work setting. Just getting to have one last coffee was a little sad, but I was glad of at least that opportunity.

Sam and I left for Choluteca that afternoon, and rolled into town at around 5 pm, making sure to check into an air-conditioned room at my favorite budget hotel downtown, the Santa Rosa. We visited a little, rested a lot, and had a classic Choluteca dinner of fried chicken and beer.

The next day, misfortune struck our planned trip to Agua Fria in the form of relentless precipitation that stopped the public buses and all the private vehicles that could have taken us to my village. We analized the situation carefully and decided to cut our losses rather than lose a full day in a hot town with very little to do and no guarantee of good weather or transportation the following day (the opposite actually being more likely). Instead, we caught a bus to the pleasant town of San Marcos de Colon near the Nicaraguan border and spent the rest of the day wandering around the deserted streets and the surrounding area and planning out places to visit during the next seven days. In the evening we caught Annie at home (the current volunteer in San Marcos) and had a nice visit with her.

It was Thursday morning, then, when we really began our trip in earnest, getting up early to cross the border at El Espino and begin a whirlwind succession of buses and taxis through Nicaragua that got us to the colonial city of Granada by about 2 pm. We spent the rest of the day leisurely exploring the beautiful colonial part of town and trying to stay as cool as possible in the sweltering heat. After evaluating the different options, we decided to try and hike on the nearby Volcano Mombacho during our subsequent layover day.

The next morning, we got up early and caught a bus about fifteen kilometers out of town to the main turnoff up to Mombacho. There was transportation available from the base of the volcano up to the visitors' center on top in the form of a large army truck outfitted to carry groups of tourists, but we decided to walk up and save the money as well as see more of the countryside. I estimated that it was about 7 or 8 kilometers to the top from the main road, and the majority of the hike was through coffee plantations with maybe a 1.5 kilometer stretch of protected cloud forest near the top.

From the visitors' center, we could hike on a very short trail around one nearby section of the park by ourselves, but if we wanted to hike the longer and more remote trail we had to hire a guide, for "security" reasons. It would have been a disappointment to do the free hike and only see like a mile of the cloud forest after all that effort spent getting to it, so we grudgingly forked over about fifteen bucks and went with a guide to see the longer trail. It turned out to be quite a challenging hike, almost all on steep up or downhill slopes with lots of stair climbing. The conditions sucked (it was clouded in and drizzling/raining the whole time) so we got none of the promised amazing views and also didn't see any wildlife, but our guide was energetic and full of interesting information, and the cloud forest itself was a joy to behold (though permeated by mysterious sulfury smells most of the time - guess the volcano isn't entirely inactive). We ate lunch at the visitors' center afterwards, hiked back down the mountain, and were back in Granada by midafternoon to take showers and relax for the rest of the day.

The next stage of the trip was to travel south from Granada across the border of Costa Rica to the town of Liberia, a medium-sized provincial capital in the northern part of the country. It was another day of travelling that took less time than I had expected, even though we got stuck for almost two hours at the border crossing, mostly just waiting in line to get through. We had a couple of questionable ex-patriates to talk to while we waited, but that conversation got old pretty quick.

Anyways, Liberia was another stiflingly hot and humid town, and it rained even more there than it had in Granada, which just seemed unfair. During the three days in that town, I don't believe we saw the sun there once.

We stayed in a cheap, mosquito-ridden hostel (nevertheless, nicer than that place in Tela) and took another layover day to hike in the nearby Rincon de la Vieja national park, another volcano that had lots of interesting things to see around its flanks. There were some mud pots and bubbling pools, some really nice places to swim, and the hike to the top of the volcano was supposedly a great one, but we didn't get to do it because the trail was closed due to bad weather. So we hiked around in the tropical dry forest - so-named because it gets really dry during the dry season - and avoided swimming because of the danger of flooding (it rained even more than on our Mombacho hike). The highlights were probably the fantastic gnarly strangler figs that seemed to be the dominant species in that forest, and a couple good wildlife sightings of medium-small mammals. We also passed a pretty dramatic waterfall, which according to the sign posted near it, does not flow at all in the dry season.

Our final stop was to be the cloudforest reserve of Monteverde, a point that I might normally avoid because of its being a super tourist hotspot, but we had very little time at that point and couldn't get too far off the beaten path. Regardless, we almost didn't make it there because of - you'll never guess - bad weather. This was the exact reason I missed out on Monteverde the first time I was in Costa Rica, travelling with mom, and I wasn't going to be deterred again. Unfortunately, there are no paved roads that go all the way to Monteverde and all of the three or four dirt access roads were in critical shape. We left Liberia a little late and ended up having to backtrack at one point because of bad information that we had gotten, so at four p.m. we had to break down and spend a (relatively) large sum of money on a four-wheel drive taxi that got us up the hill to the town of Santa Elena, the main stopping-off point for people going to the reserve.

Santa Elena, surprisingly, turned out to be relatively cheaper to stay at than other places we had been previously, our hostel was really very nice, AND there was a much-needed laundromat there. We pulled into town pretty late, got ourselves installed, and prepared to take a trip to the cloudforest reserve the following day.

Hiking around in Monteverde was probably the best experience of the trip, in no small part because the rain actually let up for half a day, allowing us to finally get some views out over the surrounding countryside and hike comfortably dry instead of soaking wet. The cloudforest itself was a gem, and we saw more wildlife, most notably a butt-ugly central american porcupine, an orange-and-black tarantula, and a posse of howler monkeys. We concluded the day drinking and socializing in our hostel's kitchen with the other foreign travelers staying there.

The final leg of the trip was to travel from Santa Elena to Alajuela, just outside of San Jose, and spend the night there so we could get to the airport early enough for my 6:30 a.m. flight the following day. The trip to Alajuela was pretty quick and we got there around noon, which left me time to do a side trip that afternoon and visit some organic producers that I had been wanting to see in the town of Alfaro Ruiz, near Zarcero. These were the guys that had come to Agua Fria on a couple different occasions representing the Costa Rican NGO CEDECO as part of an agricultural extension program to support producers starting up with organic agriculture in other Central American countries. After a bit of searching around, I found their fresh-foods packaging facility and had time to visit briefly with a guy named Henry, who had gone to Agua Fria the second time CEDECO sent extensionists out there. It was pretty cool to see how far they had come since starting, and helped me end my experience in Central America on a positive note, seeing that the challenges faced by COCAGUAL could actually be surmounted.

The next day I got up at 4:30 a.m., and just about 20 hours later, I was home. This, then, concludes my blog entires about my time in Central America (at least, THIS time). I plan to continue posting things here, but they will probably be much less frequent because now I have a cell phone (GASP) and my family can call me whenever they want. I would like to write a little about what coming back has been like, but maybe some other time.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

On the Road (Again)

After I posted that last blog entry, I spent a couple more days in Tegucigalpa fixing up things and finishing my service. I meant to leave the city Friday in the afternoon, but a miscalculation related to opening my bank account forced me to stay one more night. Apparently, when you deposit money in the bank (and sometimes when you open a new account) those funds are not available the same day. I put ALL of my cash into my account and then got an ATM card, expecting to take a small amount of funds out later that day to get me to Siguatepeque. I ended up broke and stuck in Tegucigalpa, and I had to bum off my site replacement, the newly-sworn-in volunteer Elizabeth to get a hotel room and survive the evening. Hilarious. I will be able to pay her back when I visit my site with Sam, at least.

That wasn't the last of my bank troubles. This morning I was getting money out of an ATM here in La Ceiba so I could head out to the city of Tela, and the damn machine ate my card. This time I got the cash at least, but I most likely will have to stay here another day while I wait for a technician to go fix the ATM in the afternoon. I've already been in La Ceiba for three days and would like to move on, but I don't feel inclined to get too upset about it, because I know very well worse things could happen.

Since I got to La Ceiba late on Monday, I mostly spent that evening settling in. I was tired out from nights staying up late and hanging out with friends in Tegus, so I went to bed early and got up late on Sunday. I meant to try and get out and see some of the national parky stuff around here, but absolutely everything was closed and I couldn't really get any information about where I might want to go. So I just hung around La Ceiba; walked out on the pier, learned the town, went to see an awful movie (Evan Almighty), and took it easy. Just after noon I wandered into a really beautiful park off the center of town in the property of the Standard Fruit Company which is still based here, albeit in the hands of Hondurans these days. There are large fields of pineapples, bananas, and african palm all around belonging to them. I talked to a guy hanging around one of the buildings and he told me that the brand we see in the states for this fruit is Dole. So when you eat a banana with the Dole sticker in the U.S., it may come from here.

Yesterday, I finally did manage to make it out of La Ceiba and went hiking on a trail in Parque Nacional Pico Bonito. I did a lot of asking around and it seems that for the most part, there really aren't hardly any hiking options for this park. Most tourists go out to the Río Cangrejal to raft, or just stay at a lodge up at the base of the park, but even these two focal points don't really have any trails. There is just the one I went on, which was apparently built by a USAID project. It was short but very sweet, passing two significant waterfalls, several nice places to swim, and going through some really nice elevated-canopy rainforest. I was there all by myself, probably because it was obvious all morning that the weather was going to be bad.... and it was. I got absolutely poured on, but somehow even that made the experience more fun. I stood on a rock at the edge of the river and watched it slowly rise during the storm. Unfortunately, I forgot the stupid camera. D'oh!

While the sights around La Ceiba, and Honduras in general are not too shabby at all, I think my favorite thing about travelling in this country is the openness and friendliness of the people. On Sunday, when I got out of the movie theatre I found that the streets were totally flooded from the heavy rainstorm that had fallen while I was inside. I had to cross a part of the road with over a foot of water in it, and to avoid getting my tennis shoes soaked, I started walking myself along the side of a chain link fence that ran next to the road. About halfway down it, a guy on a motorcycle pulled up alongside me and offered me a ride to the other side, which I accepted with delight. This kind of thing is not uncommon around here. I wish we could learn not to be so afraid of each other in the USA so people would be more open to such random acts of kindness.