Saturday, April 30, 2016

Ayiti cherie

Jacmel beach

Practically since we met in 2006, a good friend of ours has been urging us to come visit her country, Haiti. So since then, Haiti has been on our minds. In 2010, my husband was deployed to the country for the emergency response. That year, Haiti was in everyone's minds.

We finally made the trip last week. Reflecting on my recent 10 days there, I originally started to write about how the country seems after the earthquake, how it looks, how the people are. I was so concerned and interested to hear about it all after having only had second-hand stories. However, thinking twice about this post, I decided against this. I did not go to Haiti for work or for a journalist assignment. I went to Haiti to attend a wedding and to visit friends, happy occasions that led to a joyous trip and I don’t want to boil Haiti down to those terrible 30 seconds in January 2010. There is much more to the country than that.

Here are some highlights:

Yes, this cake is real.
Nothing is too fancy 

Haitians love to dress up and I knew even before landing in the country that despite my cocktail dress and new black heels, I would be one of the least fancy people at the wedding. I was correct. For any Haitian event, but particularly a wedding, you bring out the long dresses, big jewels, elegant purses, fancy hats, and of course sexy shoes. It was truly a feast for the eyes to see the men and women so elegant and stylish, many of the women, of any age, pulling off dresses that I could only dream of.

It helps when a friend has a waterproof go-pro
Hidden, but seriously hidden, gems 

As an outsider, it can be easy to lose sight of what Haiti has to offer when just looking around. Haiti is a very poor country. There is no escaping that fact and that kind of poverty is not subtle. There are slums covering the hillsides; there are dry river beds completely filled with trash. There are people everywhere looking for a way to survive, making a dollar or two for food. These parts of Haiti are obvious to any visitor. The parts that aren’t so obvious are some sites of exceptional natural beauty. Don’t get me wrong, some of Haiti’s natural beauty is obvious. It too has the idyllic Caribbean beaches that cruise ships have been exploiting for years now. However, some of the beauty is quite hidden indeed. One such place is Bassin Bleu. Bassin Bleu is a series of waterfalls that fill turquoise basins at different ground levels. And when I say this is not obvious it is because even with a guide and 4 other Haitians in the car asking locals in Creole for directions, we still just barely found it. This was the definition of a hidden gem. But the trek made it more of an adventure and it was worth it to finally jump into the stunningly beautiful, freezing cold water, which we had completely to ourselves. Another advantage of hidden treasures: exclusivity.

My husband dreams about this lobster
The food! 

Food for me is part of culture so I love it for that, but I am not a foodie when it comes to researching dishes, restaurants or specialties of a place. So maybe this fact is well known, but I was not expecting it: Haitian food is AMAZING! Everything is flavorful, savory, even spicy (especially when you add the standard pickliz, i.e. spicy cabbage accompaniment.) Fish, lobster, conch (lambi), shrimp, everything from the water is well made. Plantains adorn most meals or come in the form of a tasty snack: Papitas, i.e. plantain chips. The local peanut butter, Mamba, is extraordinary. At the supermarket, it comes in all different ways, some creamier, some darker, some spicier, but of course, the best is the homemade Mamba that makes other peanut butter, especially non-Haitian varieties, seem like processed goo. Fresh mangoes, coconuts, sour saps, all of these are standard fruits that you find at breakfast or as juices. They are usually even just hanging in the trees above your head.

Barrels of Booze

To get a little buzz on, you have at least two incredibly good alcoholic choices: Prestige beer that is the standard national beer, but it really tastes much more flavorful than your typical lager, and Barbancourt rum, that has won all sorts of awards and has its die-hard followers (one of whom was on the trip with us). We even went to see the Barbancourt distillery to learn as much as we could about its details, production, varieties and distribution. In this private tour, we had the full attention of our guide and seeing our enthusiasm for his rum, he indulged us with our requests, questions, comments and photo-taking. Our accommodating guide even let us peer into the resting room for the prestigious 15 year Barbancourt and let us have a taste of the "forgotten barrel of rum" laying among the others. It was a special tour that made the enthusiasts of our group even more enthusiastic.

The temple of rum
Haitian hospitality 

The people were amazing. This goes without saying for my friend’s family and all of her friends who went out of their way to drive us around and show us a good time in their country, but it also was true for others, like the head of HR who exceptionally gave us a tour of the Barbancourt distillery when his colleague was not available. And the wonderful staff at the hotel in Jacmel who helped us with anything we threw at them and then went even above and beyond that to turn their lobby into a movie theater for us (the only guests) moving chairs around, setting up speakers and even making popcorn. I had never seen such hospitality and such honest desire to be kind.

Of course, there is a flip side and you have to be understanding of the fact that our hotel room in Jacmel, for example, didn’t have water for a day: so no shower, toilet or sink to use; that when there are demonstrations it can take two hours to get across town; that people will ask to help you or sell you something for money, because they have to; that is the only way they have work.

View over Port-au-Prince
Haiti is an amazing country and I wish with all my heart that both its internal problems, like rampant corruption, and its external problems, like being in the path of natural disasters, let up and allow the country to take advantage of all its bounty and richness, both of land and of spirit. It would be great to know Haiti again as the Pearl of the Antilles, not as the poorest country in the western hemisphere or the country devastated in 2010.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Panama is like...

Panama City skyline
We all have a tendency to want to make the unfamiliar familiar and we usually do that through comparisons. The Copan ruins are like Paris. Dubai is like Las Vegas. That music teacher looks like Prince. Unfamiliar meat tastes like chicken...

We all have our own comparison points. Everyone told me that Panama City is like Miami, but because I have never been to Miami, that meant nothing to me and seeing the 20 some sky scrapers on the Panamanian sky line took me completely by surprise.

For me, driving on the seaside highway past Panama City’s elaborate downtown felt more like Chicago. Perhaps you have never been to Chicago and so that comparison means nothing to you. Suffice it to say though that super tall, architecturally interesting buildings right alongside the waterfront, Chicago’s or Panama City’s, is always an impressive sight.

Panama was interesting because it was so familiar in some ways, so different in others. It uses the American dollar as its currency (with the addition of their own coins). English is much more common. More than any other country I have been to in Central America, Panamanians did not hesitate to switch to English when faced with my fledgling Spanish. Malls take up both a large part of the real estate and social activities. And finally, Panama City has a Costco. Need I say more.

It was at once comforting and at once disappointing to see such a modern “USA”- style society. Like in the US, you drive everywhere which means there is usually a ton of traffic. The shopping, restaurants, cafes etc. are almost all indoor, usually in the aforementioned malls. The cost of food and other products was also comparable to the US; no 25 cent avocados like you have in Guatemala.

Of course, the USA has had a huge part in Panamanian history – for better or for worse. From its independence from Colombia to the building of the Canal, the US has always been highly “involved” let’s say… but that is a much larger topic. So I will leave it at that.

Casco Viejo
It is also very evident that Panama is gearing up to be an economic hot spot, the likes of Dubai or Bangkok. It has improved its highways (thanks to newly installed tolls), put in a metro system, is expanding its airport and is really promoting real estate investments particularly in the downtown, Casco Viejo area. Apparently, they painted over some of the more unseemly graffiti and a ton of brochures list the various benefits, such as automatic permanent residency, that you get if you invest 300,000 USD or more in the country. It is fascinating to see a city so driven in its mission.

Panama has also capitalized on the Canal as a tourist sight and has built a completely new visitor center at Miraflores to accommodate the increasing number of people flocking to the locks.

Miraflores Visitor Center
There is something about the Panama Canal that is completely fascinating while at the exact same time, utterly boring. You stand around watching water fill a surprisingly narrow space that will eventually lift up a massive ship in extreme slow motion. Then the ship sails, or more like inches, away. It is like watching golf; there is so little action.

However, somehow, it is captivating. And everyone stares at it like the finale of the World Cup, snapping pictures, commenting to other stander-byers, waiting in awe for the locks to close and the ship to rise. It must be that somehow, intrinsically you feel that this was a huge feat of engineering. Ships should not be able to essentially go over land to get from one ocean to another, and the Panama Canal’s engineers made it happen. Pretty cool even for someone who does not, in the slightest, understand the mechanics of it.

It is also apparently the only time and place on the seas where the captain ever gives up control of his/her ship. That is requirement for the Canal, but a massive No-No anywhere else. As a control freak, I get how big a deal this is. What? You want me to hand over control of MY ship. Uh-uh. Not gonna happen. But if you don’t want to go around the entire South American continent, then you might have to reconsider this stance. You give up power, let another capable person take over your responsibility, let him/her navigate the tricky, narrow parts and then you get control back later, after a lot of waiting (it takes 18 hours+ to get through the 3 sets of locks that make up this canal).

Crew standing idly, taking pictures, enjoying the Canal
This very much sounds like another important life lesson that I have been resisting lately. Sometimes giving up the navigation of your own ship is the quickest way to where you want to go. Even if the power gremlin in you doesn’t like this and resents the fact that you are just supposed to stand around idle and watch your crew take selfies. You have to suck it up and say: yes, right now my job, is not to have one. It is to listen to direction and step in when I am called. It is a weird thing to have understood from Panama, but I appreciated the reminder.

Seeing more than just its capital would have told me a lot more about Panama, but our week there was a nice chance to reconnect with friends, an interesting reminder about some facets of American society and a good example of how different countries in the same region can be. It was also a time to remember to quell the power gremlin and let someone else do their job.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

The Paris of the Mayan World

The national bird of Honduras
A couple of things stand out about our two day trip to Copan, Honduras

1- When it comes to driving in Guatemala, Google maps suck.
2- All immigration officers should be as nice as the Honduran officer allowing us into his country
3- Cowboy hats are THE number 1 fashion piece in Copan

Of course all of this is secondary to the Mayan ruins, which were the actual reason that we went to Copan. To quote our enthusiastic and elaborative tour guide: Tikal’s vastness might make it the New York of ruins, but Copan’s elaborate designs make it the Paris of them.

The northern part of Central America has your pick of Mayan Ruins. Being in Guatemala the obvious choice would have been Tikal. But it is a 12 hour bus or 1 hour flight away from Antigua, about twice the distance of Copan. Also, as the preeminent tourist destination in Guatemala, Tikal’s cost for a weekend was $300+ per person which was more than we wanted to pay. Copan by contrast was not as touristy and within driving distance: 6 hours by Google's estimate. Of course, if you refer to my points above, Google should never be trusted, particularly not in Guatemala or Latin America in general.

Even if you forget about Google’s deficiencies of not recognizing the major highway and not computing the standstill traffic that we were in, we also had the misfortune of leaving on the Saturday of the Caravan del Zorro, the weekend when 40,000 motorcycles make a pilgrimage to the Black Christ in Esquipulas. It was the exact same route just one hour closer than Copan. Of course, we only found this out after the fact.

Long story short, we arrived in Copan 10 hours later, not 6. Ten hours in the car makes Karen a grumpy camper. Arriving at dark, made it worse and we started fearing that the El Florida border crossing might close. (It doesn’t by the way. It is open 24 hours a day). However, because it is generally not considered safe to be on the roads after sunset, we were the only ones arriving at 6pm. So the border crossing was all ours. The Honduran Officer was more than happy to see us. He thanked us profusely for giving him our passports, for each finger that we put on the scanner, for letting him take our pictures, for the entrance fee to the country. He was smiley, polite, respectful and kind. A great welcome to a new country. We liked Honduras already.

The next day, at its 8am opening time, we tackled the ruins. When visiting any ruins you need to bring your imagination. Even though the ruins at Copan are in very good shape, half of it is still buried under years of soil or overruled by trees extending their roots. Another good portion was gone altogether with the passing time.

We rightly determined that we should get a guide because, like the Roman forum, walking around an archaeological site on your own with the 3-4 signs is essentially like wandering around a grave site. It is a very important site for many people, but unless you have family there, the gravestones' names and dates mean nothing to you. The same with ruins. If you don’t know the story, it is hard to feel moved by the significance of a place. Our guide was a very knowledgeable, go-lucky, playful man who, you could tell, liked his job and had pride in Copan. He was the one who compared Paris to Copan and I get the sense that were he ever to visit Paris (or perhaps he has), he would still rank Copan above it.

Monkey-looking thing
The hieroglyphs which are more numerous here than in any other Mayan site are still indecipherable to the average human. I would have loved to be that symbologist that shows up on a site and can read a statue, an altar or the façade of a temple just by understanding symbols, but sadly, I am not and even learning about them on our tour while I photographed them my only take-aways are the bug-eyed guy, the monkey-looking thing, the teeth of something or other and the generic Mayan king/god. I do remember the dancing jaguar though because that was particularly funny and stood out.

Bug-eyed guy
Dancing Jaguar, its real name, not like my invented ones above
With or without a guide though, Copan does have a magical sense to it. It engages all of your sense. At eight in the morning, you can smell the dampness of the surrounding forests in the air. You can hear all the birds chirping away, happy that the dawn dispelled another night. You can almost taste the papayas and coconuts ripening on the nearby trees. Your eyes can easily feast on the hieroglyphs and intricate statues. And as an outdoor museum, you can touch the steps and stones that made up this medieval, civilization.

The town has adopted the name of the ruins, Copan Ruinas town. However, it just barely qualifies as a town. Perhaps more a village than anything else, it has three main stretches of activity all with businesses generally feeding on tourism: 2-3 hotels, some restaurants, a couple bars – juice and regular ones - and strangely enough, pharmacies. Perhaps these also fed on tourists.

One other thing was clear from the town of Copan Ruinas: the cowboy hat ruled. It was ubiquitous. Even more than the cities I have been to in Texas, or the west of the US, the cowboy hat here was the rule not the exception for the men of the town. It was probably the one and only real fashion statement. Coupled with all the trucks, many of which had seemingly taken mud baths, this town was not afraid of hard work or getting dirty.

Like Guatemala, you do have to take safety into account when visiting Honduras and take some precautions. Copan, like Antigua though, is a bit of a haven. I am very happy though that its reputation for being unsafe is not the only thing I know about Honduras.

Aside from being safe, Copan was interesting, intriguing, and a historian’s mecca. I am glad we visited the Paris of the Mayan World. One day I will also make it to its New York.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

The way to see San Jose

Our introduction to Pura Vida didn’t get off to a great start: rental car mix-up/scam, 2 hours lost trying to sort it out, 3.5 hour drive from Liberia to San Jose turning into 6 hours because of standstill traffic, a hotel that didn’t live up to its expectations (and that is being diplomatic; I could just say it was a crap hole) and a Valentine’s day dinner at the Holiday Inn Sports pub with mediocre microwavable food. By the end of the night, I was happy our first day was over.

The advice I had heard about San Jose was to keep my expectations low, so I didn’t have high hopes for day two either. Upon stepping out of our hotel, I understood why. Many streets look quite rough (though apparently they are not): empty buildings, barbed wire, decrepit sidewalks or dilapidated edifices. The central part of town does have some elegance, the Teatro Nacional as one example, but it is scattered among the non-charming bits.

To me, the city of San Jose reminded me of a former soviet-block country with buildings similar to those I have seen in Eastern Europe. Square cut, arithmetically symmetrical, uniform, gray, decaying and uninspiring. It is true that San Jose is not a city to go to for its beauty, but it doesn’t mean that the city is completely devoid of it. You just have to look a little harder.

Here are some of the beautiful things I found in San Jose:

La Merced Church 

With its dark wood ceiling, thin columns each decorated with different patterns and colors and blue and white-tiled floors, we were not prepared to stumble upon something so stunning. The unkempt façade did not even hint at the vast beauty on the inside. But admiring all the little details, La Merced quickly became one of my favorite churches, even when considering the innumerous Roman ones I have frequented. I don’t even know if this church was in our guide book, but it should be.

Historic Houses

Some of San Jose’s most beautiful buildings are seemingly abandoned. Old wood colonial-style houses with gorgeous balconies, grand entrances and large porches. We saw them randomly sprinkled throughout San Jose, most of them looking like they hadn’t been in use for a while. Any of these would make amazing theaters, galleries, restaurants or cafes. They are jewels just waiting for a purpose.

Street art 

We didn’t visit any of the museums in our one day in San Jose which is a bit of a shame, especially because San Jose seems to be one of the cities that gives some prominence to local artists instead of just flouting the world known masters. It is nice to see a city proud of its own. Even outside of the museums, we could see bits of this creativity in the street art. What looked like commissioned murals under bridges and on walls were quite unique and clever. And one of them using tiles as a type of a mosaic collage featured cats, so of course I loved it.

The art of coffee: El Tostador 

I am not a morning person and waking up early almost every day of this vacation/sabbatical has tested the boundaries of my morning inhospitablity. Thankfully some of the world’s best coffee comes from Central America. Guatemala fed my habit quite well and Costa Rica has not disappointed either. The espresso macchiato from El Tostador was gorgeously prepared, thick and foamy. It was perfection.

Charming restaurant: La Criolitta 

La Criolitta reminded me of a green house or old train station with its domed roof. This cute restaurant, marred only slightly by 4 TVs one for each wall, is a little hole in the wall place with good local food, which for me was a massive plate of buttery, spiced seabass (corvina) served by an attentive waitress. The secret is out though and everyone toting their guide books (I think it is in all of them) comes for the cheap-ish, typical “local” experience. Of the 5 tables there, only 1 was filled with locals, but at least they haven’t abandoned the place completely.

Beauty of Amusement: La Casona Tipica 

Not in guide books and seemingly a Latin American Chuck-E-Cheese, this restaurant had big masquerade costumes on the outside to lure or scare (I don’t know which) people away. The inside was all locals though (save for us and maybe one table). The menu was all casados (rice, beans and plantains mixtures) and arrozes of sorts served on banana leaves. This was the real stuff.

Don't get me wrong; I am a sucker for beauty. We all are to various degrees. So San Jose can turn you off if you aren’t careful, but it would be a mistake to judge it completely by its cover. I would love to see this city take advantage of the huge influx of tourists to make full use its potential: its empty spaces, its historic buildings, its already lovely parks, its walkable center, its skyline of mountains and volcanoes, its tendency towards promoting the arts and its gorgeous weather.

It is a chance for Costa Rica’s capital to show off its good side to the tourists who fly to San Jose only because it is the cheapest option. Tourists now either skip the city entirely or begrudgingly stay the night because of necessity. I think it could be a tourist destination in it of itself if it wanted to be.

As for the tourists who come looking for beauty, you don't always get it handed on a plate. But there is always beauty if you look hard enough.

Friday, February 5, 2016


Our intimate experience of one of Vulcan Fuego's eruptions, in addition to seeing three volcanoes on the way to pretty much any errand, has made me a little volcano crazy. A volcanophile… if I can use an invented word.

I have researched these Guatemalan volcanoes that I am living with now and, for fun, read about the Italian volcanoes that I lived with before. I have listened with awe to stories from locals and from others who have lived through the eruptions, like the Mount St. Helene's eruption.

For the Guatemalatecos it is just another fact of life, like disease-bearing mosquitoes or 5 months of rain; you give it some thought, but you move on with life. For me, active volcanoes are not just another hill on the horizon. I never get sick of seeing Antigua's three volcanoes. It was like walking by the Colosseum every day. I was still thrilled to see it. I think volcanoes fascinate me so much because you really never know what to expect.

From day to day, they look the same, but there is always something boiling underneath. In my latest research, I learned that an active volcano is one that has erupted at least once in the last 10,000 years. That is not a small amount of time. If it is actively spouting like Fuego or Pacaya its status is considered erupting; if it is quiet like Acatenango or Agua it is considered dormant, but still technically active. A volcano is only called extinct if it hasn’t erupted in 10,000 years. So most volcanoes we see or hear about are dormant, i.e. sleeping.

What a weird thought that any day some of these sleepy giants will wake up and change the world of people around them.

Fuego erupting
My husband mentioned to our Spanish teachers, in his teasing manner, that he doesn’t need to see any volcanoes because he lives with one. I thought about this particular insult/joke and in the end, I agree. I think I am like a volcano. In fact, I kind of relate to Vulcan Fuego. I am quiet for the most part of the year, unassuming, even unremarkable sometimes, but like Fuego, I can become a force to be reckoned with. When I am awakened by something that makes me upset/angry/excited, I erupt and the fireworks can be quite shocking. But just as quickly I can go quiet again.

Observing Fuego's latest largest eruption, Amazing.
My teachers always told me that of the volcanoes in their midst, the one they fear the most is Agua or Acatenango. They reasoned that when volcanoes are always erupting a little, then you know that it is not likely to have a completely devastating eruption. Whereas the ones that are completely quiet for many years, can be devastating when they awaken.

Volcano Agua, hiding
Isn’t this just like humans? The ones that let out their frustration, anger, sadness or emotion a little at a time, even if it is shocking or awe inspiring at the moment, are not as dangerous as the ones who keep quiet for long periods of time, because at some point and some time, there will be an explosion and people around may not be ready for it.

You can’t make water like fire, any more than you can make Volcan Agua like Feugo, but for those people in your life who are dormant, it might be good to give them a small nudge to see if you can awaken the beast before the unexpected eruption changes the landscape for good.


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