Thursday, July 4, 2013

Pit Stop in San Salvador: Return to Central America

I'm sitting in a coffee shop in the San Salvador airport. I didn't notice the name as I checked the menu and eagerly selected 3 different kinds of pupusas, corn-flour tortillas, filled with: cheese, beans and chicharron.
I am writing this post after an extended blogging dry spell, completely leaving out my experiences from living at the Iguana Research and Breeding Station (IRBS) on the Bay Island of Utila in Honduras, and my trip to Nicaragua with fellow FBC intern B and her sis. I have a hard time finding a healthy balance between enjoying being in the moment of my new and exciting surroundings and taking the time to write about these experiences. Maybe one day I will master that art, but in the meantime I am too excited to backtrack to those stories in the past so that I can share what's happening in the present.

I am in Central America. Again. Just when I thought living 6 months in Honduras would satisfy this constant urge to be immersed in Latino culture, I made the decision to return after barely one month of having come home to Ottawa. The reason I chose to do so is not because I don't love the city, my friends or family, because I truly do. I have loved being home, seeing old and new friends alike: from high school to FBC. I have gone to Caliente, the local Latin dance club, several times to practice my salsa, merengue, bachata and reggaeton moves. I was nostalgic every time. Going to the Latin block party on Sparks Street downtown was a great time, making it feel like summer for just a fleeting moment before the clouds rolled in. Permanently. The weather in Ottawa has seriously been sub-par this season. Just when I was hoping to have 2 summers this year, I will only be having one, which will be in the Caribbean. I honestly can't complain. I am so grateful I could finally redeem those 40,000 Aeroplan points I've been saving up for what feels like forever, to invest a whole $78 in taxes to make this flight possible.

So here I am, sitting in an airport cafe, having now eaten all 3 pupusas and feeling no remorse. I will proceed to finish the smoothie which is a serious explosion of flavour, and I will top it all off with a coffee. I'm not sure how Salvadoran coffee is since I don't recall ever having tried it, but with Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Costa Rica having a good track record, I don't think I will be disappointed. I don't think it's possible to be any more disappointed than I was when I had no other choice but to drink Mr. Sub coffee at the Ottawa Greyhound bus station. It was foul. Rank. Pumped with caffeine and drained of flavour. I know I'm a coffee snob after having tasted the real deal here in Central America. The table I am sitting at with my ghetto laptop has coffee beans under a glass pane which has to be a good sign, as if it were such a big commodity that it can be used purely for decoration. As a side note, we should be inspired to do the same with flax seed in Canada because we are apparently a big exporter, something I discovered by chance in a supermarket in Managua, Nicaragua.

Only 4 hours left before I board my next flight to the "most violent city on Earth" according to the Guardian, where I will be welcomed by the suave taxi driver I had the pleasure of meeting the last time I was there. I will stay at the Posada Bed & Breakfast, a sweet place with a pool where I stayed with my parents as they were heading home and with B and her sis as we finished our trip in Nicaragua...so many memories!
I wish I could experience them all over again but I'm excited to make new ones, particularly while doing my Dive Master course at Turtle Eco Bay Resort in Cayos Cochinos! If I see a turtle I think I'll cry happy tears. Scuba diving can be an emotional sport.

Friday, January 18, 2013

The other side of Honduras

I realize my previous posts have been a bit pessimistic, critical and not painting Honduras in the best light. Aside from the two assaults and difficulty in making local friends here, this really is a beautiful country.
Before starting the Christmas holidays I spent several of my weekends outside of La Ceiba to get away from the city.

There are many places to see nearby, including Cayos Cochinos, only 45 minutes away by boat from the Sambo Creek beach and with some of the most turquoise and clear waters I have ever seen. I stayed on the island of Chachahuete with a Garifuna community, in a simple cabin just a few feet from the shore. I loved hearing the waves so close by at night. The coral reef is impressive and I saw lots of types of coral (brain, fan...) and fish snorkeling right off the shore. We asked one of the fishermen Naun to take us to the larger island Cayo Mayor so we could go for a hike and look for the endemic Hog Island boa...we saw three!

The following weekend I went rafting with Laura and Brittany on the Cangrejal river. I had gone rafting once before just outside of Manuel Antonio in Costa Rica but the scenery here was much more impressive with the cloud forest in the background. At some point we stopped to walk through the jungle for 20 minutes before reaching a secluded waterfall, where the water was very cold.

These past two weeks during my holidays have allowed me to see the Copan Mayan ruins, the Pulhapanzak waterfall by the Yojoa lake and the Bay Island of Utila, with some fun experiences along the way...
When we were in Copan, we decided to go to hot springs about an hour away called Luna Jaguar which were gorgeous. It was right in the middle of the rainforest and had lots of little pools of hot, cold and sulfurous water. Just as we were about to leave, I thought I'd use the washroom but rather than making the whole effort to find my way in the dark I decided to squat discreetly behind a car in the parking lot. After my time at FBC where I was too lazy to make the trek at night time (it was 20m away from the cabin,) especially since it had been confirmed that a lynx lived nearby, I developed the bad habit of doing my business wherever I could. I'm not saying that it's right or good because I remember being disgusted by the men urinating on the walls in the streets in India, but that's what happened.

I've learned my lesson not to be too comfortable going in public, especially not in the rainforest, where red fire ants live and on whose home I stepped on. Within seconds I felt my legs tingle, then get warm, then feel like they were on fire. I had hundreds of these vicious little things all over my body. I frantically tried to shake them off but they had wasted no time in going underneath my layer of clothes and nesting their pincher into every crevice of my body.

And so it began, I started feeling faint, broke into a cold sweat, lost the colour in my face, eyes rolling back into their sockets and started losing consciousness (this is what my friends told me I looked like), not before violently vomiting the only meal I'd had all day. I am so grateful that I had my friends there to look after me, especially Luis and his cousin Alberto who took me to the hospital through the winding gravel roads.
I was able to get an injection for my allergic reaction and was put on an IV (my first was only a few months ago) for 4 hours. I didn't realize just how bad I looked until I saw myself in the mirror back at Luis' friend's place. My lips were swollen and I had a bright red rash on my chest, and this was after my friends had told me I was looking better. For the following 5 days my entire body was covered in this rash and it took everything I had in me not to scratch myself until I bled. At least I was "allowed" to pick at my split ends (which is another bad habit) as a distraction from itching.

After spending a day in Pena Blanca by the Yojoa lake to see the 43m tall Pulhapanzak waterfall which we crawled under, we made our way to Utila. I finally got my PADI Open Water certificate, it was amazing! The coral and fish were so colourful and it was an incredible feeling being able to breathe and glide smoothly under water. On our "fun dive" day we saw dolphins from our boat and the captain tried to get as close to them as possible so we could jump in and swim with them. I was able to see them underwater for about 3 seconds, but I still have a clear image of the sight. We weren't the only ones with that idea because several other boats were chasing after the dolphins, coming from all directions, trapping them unfairly within a daunting circle of ogling tourists on noisy petrol-guzzling boats. It didn't help that our captain was setting off firecrackers into the ocean just for kicks. I was happy that they were able to swim away.

People in Honduras have an unhealthy obsession with firecrackers. I hate the things. They're so short-lived, scare the crap out of you (fine, just me) and leave an unnecessary mess of burnt paper and plastic. On New Year's day in Utila the streets were covered with a thick layer of this garbage. If you're going to set something off, at least let it be something pretty that everyone can see, like a firework. That's the end of my anti-firecracker rant.

The next stop in our itinerary after Utila was in Livingston, Guatemala, to renew our tourist visa. It's a small port town that's over-priced and filled with tourists but it still had its charm. I particularly liked seeing the mix between the Mayan women in their traditional outfit including an embroidered shirt and ankle-length skirts and the Garifuna women selling pan de coco and offering to braid your hair. I saw a Mayan woman in her traditional wear also had braids with the those colourful plastic beads, it was cool.

One of my favourite parts was the fact that the lush jungle came right up to the water's edge, leaving little room for a beach, unlike in Honduras. Another neat thing were these public washing stands. Imagine a square ceramic pool, with basins along the edge where you can rub your clothes vigorously against a grate to clean them (the way most people do their laundry) and all you have to do is byos (bring your own soap). I think that's one of the best ideas ever, for the whole community and even for tourists who are on the go.

After our 3-day getaway we made our way back to Honduras with a fresh new stamp in our passports. Mira and I were feeling adventurous and decided we would do everything we could to make it back to La Ceiba the same day. The whole trip lasted a total of 10 hours getting on and off boats, shuttles and buses. It was a miracle we made it in the time we did and we couldn't have done it without the help of Ramon, the coffee plantation worker who accompanied us to San Pedro Sula by taking the shortcut. He mentioned collecting coins from all over the world and was so happy when Mira pulled out a loonie, quarter and cent, which he said he would keep de recuerdo, as a souvenir.

Meeting Ramon meminded me that people in Honduras can be friendly, kind and helpful, and not often out to get me as I'd convinced myself in a paranoid way. I realize that in order to change my experience from a negative to a positive one, I had to change my attitude. Nobody wants to be friendly with the girl who looks at you skeptically and critically (i.e. me), even though I do so unintentionally. My heart still skips a beat when I'm alone on the street and I see someone approaching me out of the corner of my eye.

The lesson I've learned, with the help of wise friends and family members, is that the less positive experiences are opportunities for learning and recognizing that what seems to be a negative situation can turn out to be the most meaningul in terms of personal growth. I can´t saw that my internship here has been a walk in the park up until this point but I know that the challenges I´ve faced have allowed me to learn more about myself by pushing outside of my comfort zone. When it comes down to it, that´s mainly what I came here to do...