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It seems we can only go so long without a trip. When I think ‘trip’, I think Latin America, South America — in other words a blast of rich culture somewhere else very different from here. Here is Vancouver, Canada.

There is something about staying here too long. You feel you loose perspective and that your reality is too limited or somewhat unreal. Monotomy settles in.

It wakes you up when you go somewhere really different. Seeing how other people live and their struggles brings a more complete reality in my mind. It forces you to look at what you want to focus on in life.

We’re planning a trip for January 2011. Maybe Peru, maybe Bolivia. Reading through a South America travel book but I’d really like to find some good blogs by travellers who’ve been to those places. We’d also like to volunteer, we can only do 2 weeks, with a low key organization — not the ones that charge $2000.

Can you suggest any links to travel blogs by individuals who have travelled to Peru or Bolivia? And organizations that you’ve volunteered with? Thanks!

Laura.

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riding along the Lochside Trail, Trans Canada Highway on the right

riding along the Lochside Trail, Trans Canada Highway on the right

Wow, the city gets to be too much sometimes. Ok, Vancouver isn’t that big but it does feel busy and it’s all work, work, work, work. We returned from our last trip at the end of January this year (Guatemala & Honduras) and felt the need to go somewhere again. But alas, it had to be somewhere local and only for 3 or 4 days.  So we stuck to our neck of the woods and decided to cycle the Lochside and Galloping Goose Trail on Vancouver Island.

We boarded the ferry with our bikes from Tsawwassen. We were loaded with camping equipment! Heavy? Yes! I felt like a mule! Anyway, we took the ferry to Swartz Bay and started our cycling trip there. Our goal was to cycle all the way down to Sooke, but we only made it as far as Goldstream Provincial Park where we camped on our first night. It’s a nice enough spot, but I find it puzzling why campsites aren’t further apart. The park facilities also included large sinks with hot water for people to wash their dishes, etc. Nice I guess, but takes away from camping simplicity — too many amenities, and people seem to bring their second home to the park.

Goldstream Provincial Park, at the end of a 65 K bicycle ride

Goldstream Provincial Park, at the end of a 65 K bicycle ride

Ok, no we were not happy with this trip and would not recommend it if  you’re looking to get a way from business and traffic. I have to say the brochures and official descriptions of these trails are misleading. We thought we were going to be on a quite trail away from traffic and noise but instead found that a good part of the trail runs along the Trans-Canada highway, so it was noisy and not as relaxing as we were hoping. Some parts of it were nice but overall, I wouldn’t take the ferry all the way there just for that. If I lived on Vancouver Island — in that area — I’d would say it would be a great commuter trail.

Parliament Buildings, Victoria

Parliament Buildings, Victoria

Well, here’s some craziness…the first day we rode about 65 km, from Schwartz Bay to Goldstream Park, we went a bit of course as we missed the turnoff to the park — sometimes, it is better to just follow a map then to check directions with the locals. Needless, to say we were pretty stiff once we got off our bikes.  Second day we cycled about 45 k and stayed at a B&B in Victoria. We enjoyed this part of the trip best. I had forgotten how many old buildings Victoria still has. It is also a very walkable city with some neat cafes, shops, and areas. The seaside walk is quite nice.

Nice walking in Victoria along the seawall below Beacon Hill Park

Nice walking in Victoria along the seawall below Beacon Hill Park

The Dutch Bakery on Fort Street, an old style bakery with lots of nice pastries

The Dutch Bakery on Fort Street, an old style bakery with lots of nice pastries

Street Level Espresso on Fort St next to the Dutch Bakery, cute and small, friendly owner "Dan" who seemed to rather help us with our cycle route than the line of customers waiting for fresh brews

Street Level Espresso on Fort St next to the Dutch Bakery, cute and small, friendly owner "Ken" who seemed to be rather helping us with our cycle route than the line of customers waiting for fresh brews, he was very nice

You can read about Ken and his Street Level Espresso shop at Momentum Magazine — espresso meets ethics…Ken tells how he picks up his supplies by bike. I also wrote a different type of post on my design blog, where I mention a neat indie shop.

A little about Panajachel, also often called Pana. Pana is 2.5 hours from Antigua. The town is a popular stop for tourists who come here to admire Lake Atitlan which is surrounded by Maya villages and several volcanoes. A lancha (speed boat) serves as transportation to the other villages. We have been to Pana before and this time came primarily to meet Maya Traditions, a non-profit organization that works with Maya weavers and crocheters and whom I found was looking for some help with product design. They are actually located in Jocanya which is on the other side of the river in Pana. Jocanya actually does mean on the other side of the river. This is a Maya and ladino community with unique narrow alleys ways for roads. It is much quieter than Pana and far from touristy.

Alley in Joconya

Alley in Joconya, on the other side of the river in Panajachel

Maya Traditions looks like a very good organization, they are a fair trade producer and wholesaler with a showroom in Jocanya and one in the states. We talked to three volunteers (two were probably employees), checked out the showroom, the volunteer’s accommodations, the herbal garden and other communal facilities.

Maria Clara, a Maya weaver with Maya Traditions

Maria Clara, a Maya weaver with Maya Traditions, she is back strap weaving which done by women, men do foot loom weaving. In Honduras women do foot loom weaving.

We actually spent only one night in Pana and had a brief meeting with Jennifer (a Canadian) who is involved in the business side of the crafts. The next day we headed over to Santiago Atitlan as we didn’t get much of a chance to see it last time because I had gotten severely sea sick. Unfortunately, this time I was totally fine but Lenny wasn’t feeling too hot from the moment he got up….food poisoning. Ah, so common here! We made it to Santiago, which is a good size Maya town and is well know for housing Maximon.

Since Lenny wasn’t feeling so well I decided we should stay in a peaceful place with nice views. So we stayed at Hotel Bambu which was pricy ($60 US) but situated in a beautiful setting.

View from Hotel Bambu, Santiago Atitlan

View from Hotel Bambu, Santiago Atitlan

The day was spent with Lenny in bed, getting up mostly to throw up copious amounts of food and accompanied with diarrhea. There wasn’t much for me to do but take little walks on the grounds, read and feel bored. Hotel Bambu had beautiful spacious rooms which is unusual here, but was very impersonal. The clientele was not inclined to say ‘hello’, so not our kind of place. The stuff was somewhat impersonal too. In the afternoon, some marimba music could be heard from across the lake. It turned out it was being played by an evangelist church which is a common thing for them to do. Anyway, the same music was playing over and over again until late at night. I had my ear plugs in but it still filtered through. At some point it felt like torture! They are so mean!

Lancha from the dock of Hotel Bambu

Lancha from the dock of Hotel Bambu, we waited an hour for the public lancha but because it wasn't full it wouldn't take off, so we finally took this private one that other guests had booked. Made us an hour late for our appointment with Maya Traditions.

Anyway, the next day, Lenny felt quite weak but substantially better having emptied out his stomach completely. Maya Traditions had invited us to join a tour group that was visiting them so we got to see their grounds and facilities. They are currently looking for assistance with product design with textiles. If anybody is interested read the position on idealist.org. (if the link doesn’t work, search for product designer + guatemala)

Lenny and Jennifer in Maya Tradition's showroom in Panajachel

Lenny and Jennifer in Maya Tradition's showroom in Panajachel

I took some fabric samples and will see what I can come up with at home and hope to return next year for a few months to work further with their weavers and crocheters.

Some bags produced by the weavers of Maya Traditions

Some bags produced by the weavers of Maya Traditions

Dolls, crochet hats, and ikat work by women of Maya Traditions

Dolls, crochet hats, and ikat work by women of Maya Traditions

The Maya women with Maya Traditions work on a herbal garden full of herbs useful for medicinal purposes. This project aims to keep their knowledge of herbs alive and creates income for the women. One of the herbs they grow is Pericon, mexican marigold. We bought some as its use is for stomach pain, cramps and diarrhea. It is a mild herb that you can take daily. (I think I need to take some right now – feeling a wave of cramps). Although I have only gotten diarrhea once during this whole trip, I have had many cramps that just come and go. Lenny seems to have caught a serious stomach virus, possibly a strain of the E. Coli (?) virus as he is still not 100 percent.

Pericon (Mexican Marigold) for diahrrea, cramps, and stomach pain

Pericon (Mexican Marigold) for diarrhea, cramps, and stomach pain, organically grown in Maya Traditions garden

The seller from Pana

Careful what you say! There we were glad to have gotten away from Antigua and to be in more laid back Panajachel. We were enjoying a walk down the main road and heading down to the lake (Lake Atitlan). Walking down Santander is a bit weird. The road is flanked and jam packed with artisan stalls, it’s a bit much really. On top of that, there are kids, Maya women, and men walking around with products they want YOU to buy. Lots and lots of products and quite cheap price wise!

An alley off Calle Santander, full of textiles, carvings, paintings

An alley off Calle Santander, full of textiles, carvings, paintings

I've included this shot because I liked the group of Maya women seated in the background.

I've included this shot because I liked the group of Maya women seated in the background.

You know how it is, you get to a new place and you just want to walk around, to absorb it, to admire it. So here comes this little Maya woman (at almost 5’3″ I’m kinda tall here!) with a gold capped tooth and she’s got a mound of fabric slung over her shoulder and one textile piece open for me to admire. “Very good price for you” she says, “look…what colour you like”. So I said “no, gracias, mas tarde, mas tarde” (later, later) which I think I kinda meant.

And sure enough, later that evening we’re walking around again and we see the same woman. She very clearly remembered me saying “mas tarde” and with a huge smile she reminded me that I said so. Unfortunately she didn’t have anything I liked, so I only bought a muñeca (a little doll that you put under the pillow and that will take care of your worries). I had to because I had practically promised her!

Anyway, next morning we’re walking around. Again! I mean what else do you do? And she spotted me once again and she goes “Me Juanita, yesterday you say “mas tarde, mas tarde, yes, me Juanita…” Wow, hang on there little woman, I didn’t know “mas tarde” carried on for ever and ever. So now I reminded her that yes I said that but that was yesterday and I bought a muneca. Remember? She had the same stuff as yesterday, so I really wasn’t interested but then she asked if I could buy her a coke, so yes I said, no problem. This seller from Pana was persistent but sweet!

Here I just bought a Pepsi for Juanita, weird shot but you can see how much stuff she's carrying

Here I just bought a Pepsi for Juanita, weird shot but you can see how much stuff she's carrying

Now as a sidebar, a local said that you should be careful when you buy them something because they won’t forget it and will keep on expecting you to buy them a pepsi for ever. That was a bit negative for me because I did appreciate Juanita’s efforts.

Here's the muneca I bought from Juanita, they're usually 6 Quetzales but I paid 10 Q. That's OK, not a big difference. Munecas are worry dolls, you put them under your pillow when you go to bed and they take your worries away. The are Maya women that carry babies and baskets or other parcels on their head. When you buy, they usually have magnets so tourists can put them on the fridge - a modern use as most people don't know what they stand for.

Here's the muñeca I bought from Juanita, they're usually 6 Quetzales but I paid 10 Q. That's OK, not a big difference. Muñecas are worry dolls, you put them under your pillow when you go to bed and they take your worries away. They are Maya women that carry babies and baskets or other parcels on their head. When you buy them, they usually have magnets so tourists can put them on the fridge - a modern use.

libro/libra/libre

We’re making fun of ourselves a lot here as we try to express ourselves. Take for example the three words above where the only difference is the end vowel:

libro – book
libra – pound
libre – free

The other day as I was buying some olives, I said: Media libre, por favor. I didn’t mean too, but I said “Half free, please.” I meant to say ” Half a pound, please” — Media libra, por favor. Thankfully, the sales clerk understood just the same but did not laugh at me, but I did laugh a second after I realized what I’d just said.

Just a small example of how we’re butchering the language.

Agua volcano, Antigua, Guatemala, January 9 2009

Agua volcano, Antigua, Guatemala, January 9 2009

The view today from the apartment. The ritual here is to get up around 7:30 or 8:00 and see the sun come up shortly after. The difference in temperature is remarkable, you go from feeling cool to feeling hot. It’s nice to warm up your bones in the morning as the place gets a little cool at night. There is no insulation here as it is not needed. A warm or hot shower is nice to have and definitely worth paying extra for.

What’s Antigua all about? Well, it’s a little gem of a place, a beautiful colonial town surrounded by three volcanoes. There’s a lot of expats here, there aren’t as many tourists as you’d find in popular spots in Mexico but Antigua is still a popular place  offering all the amenities and creature comforts (hey, you can buy Nutella here) that many of us have come to appreciate. Because of this, a lot of expats have settled here and lot of tourists (including Guatemalan tourists) feel quite comfortable. I am told it used to be a really quite town. In the past week, it has actually been quite busy because of the Christmas holidays. Some people say traffic has increased and therefore pollution. Nevertheless, it is a place that one could picture staying for a few months. It is a welcome change from Vancouver, that’s for sure.

Horse carriage in front of wash baths where Maya women wash their laundry

Horse carriage in front of wash baths where Maya women wash their laundry

Antigua is visually striking partly thanks to being a colonial town where people must adhere to certain rules as far as façades go. For example, there’s a MacDonald’s and a Subway here, but you couldn’t easily spot them as their signage is very discreet — a smallish hand painted sign on the exterior. And just about all the streets are quite pleasant to walk along.

La Merced church, our shuttle bus driver crossed himself when driving past it

La Merced church, our shuttle bus driver crossed himself when driving past it

Well to do Guatemalans, tourists and expats intermingle with Mayans in Antigua. So you see both extremes of social class and anything in between. I am told that Maya people do not live in Antigua as it is too expensive for them. So they come from the surrounding pueblos (villages, towns) to make a living by selling crafts, cooked food, vegetables,  fruits, and shoe shining amongst other things.

A Muebleria, a little awesome furniture store (Lenny on the right)

A Muebleria, a little awesome furniture store (Lenny on the right)

But what I really wanted to get to in this post is the ideas that some people have about the presence of tourists amongst ‘poor’ Mayas. We have met a few people here that have worked for NGOs. Some have been involved in NGO work for 20 years or so and the others had just finished a six month stint. Over some drinks in a beautiful courtyard setting we (Lenny and I) suddenly felt that our presence in Antigua was being criticized. We were told that Antigua is not Guatemala. Panajachel is not Guatemala and so on. I know these places are partly meant to attract tourism but they are still Guatemalan towns with real people living in them. They say go 2km outside of Antigua and you’ll see the real Guatemala. But if Antigua is not the real Guatemala, than what is it to the people who live in the town? Fiction?!

The bus terminal, you should see the threads or lack of on some of these beauties

The bus terminal, you should see the threads or lack of on some of these beauties

Tourism is a major industry here that helps to maintain the lively hood of many people — Mayans and ladinos alike. Some tourists only stick to the tourist trail, which is a pretty good one as far that goes  and is still an eye opener from my point of view. Tourists never see a Mayan-only village, or as our company that night also said, they don’t see to what extent poverty effects poor people.  But anywhere you go, whether it’s on the tourist trail or not, you see the poverty. We saw it. You may not be actively involved in relieving that poverty, but should every tourist be judged and criticized for being here and not be doing NGO work?? Come on people get real!

A wall in Nim Pot, a huge store with all things Mayan handmade, overwhelming, requires more than one visit

A wall in Nim Pot, a huge store with all things Mayan handmade, overwhelming, requires more than one visit

There is poverty back home too in Vancouver (the downtown east side being a good example). And there we found our own way to help people in the street. NGOs aren’t for everyone, abroad or at home. You don’t need poverty to be rubbed in your face to know that it’s here. You may not know the details of what it’s like to be poor here, but the absence of that knowledge does not make you naive and should not give NGO people the right to judge. Because as soon as you start judging, you make assumptions and assumptions are always based on preconceived notions and stereotypes, and basically the lack of knowledge. Sometimes assumptions are made from a position of privilege.

Owls, owls, there's lots of them, I'm not sure why, must find out

Owls, owls, there's lots of them, I'm not sure why, must find out

How good is an NGO volunteer or worker if they operate on assumptions and stereotypes? Because after all a six month volunteer is another type of tourist who is here for selfish reasons. You want to enrich your life with meaning and under developped countries can offer that. Are poor people back home less important? We all have our reasons for volunteering here and not there.

So when do you stop judging? For whom is it good to be here? And doesn’t the act of judging stem from a negative attitude?

Anyways, just some thoughts that surely enter many people travelling to under-developped countries. And yes, we have met some NGOers that were quite positive!