Archive for February, 2006

Yellow Square

Plaza de los coches

Most of what we read about Cartegena focused on the beautiful spanish colonial side of this city. That part certainly exists and is quite visually inspiring but there are other parts to the city that we heard little about. One book referred to it as a museum but in fact it is a living city with very distinct areas and of varying degrees of wealth and development. The main tourist area is comprised of the districts of el Centro and San Diego. These areas are almost completely filled with colonial houses and buildings. Many have been converted from dwellings to stores or hotels. The streets are narrow and in some parts the buildings are 3 or 4 stories high while in others they are just single story dwellings with typical courtyards. El Centro has great many stores and retaurants. We were there during slow season and while strolling in this area we would be constantly hounded to eat in on restaurant after another or just come in and look at the fine emeralds that the various sellers had. Everything was for sale on the street – maps, jewellery, cool straw hats and all types of food. People were shouting out what they had for sale and banging sticks on the side of boxes to attract your attention. On top of this, in spite of the wealth in the city there were many very poor people that approached us with the idea that we must have lots of money. I guess we do in relation to them. We quickly found out that the high end resturants really didn’t cater to us non carnivores. Luckily we had a small kitchenette in our room and were able to deal with our food problems effectively for the first time in the trip.


Courtyard with shops

Our hotel was in San Diego, an area with mostly single story dwellings and scattered cafes and resturants. We have a favorite place for coffee in Cartegena now, the Zebra Cafe. It has good ice cream also and a park across the street where you can watch life unfold. The shop owners here really didn’t seem to care if we came in or not but yet this area was only a 5 minute walk from el Centro. In this district the buildings and the colors were exceptional.

Our Street

The street where we stayed

The area referred to Getsemani appeared to be where the less affluent people lived and was really alive with sounds, smells and colors. Apparentely , this area was always the home for the working class for at least the last 400 years. It felt very real there – sometimes too real – but there does seem to be areas where gentrification is occurring.


Street scene in Getsemani

The tourist area and that of Getsemani was split by a wedge shaped section of the city called La Mantua. The area was bordered by two very busy and wide streets that were very modern in fell. The traffic was very dense and fast. When you entered this area from San Diego it felt quite different and not in a good way. Finally, we had need to visit the area of Bocagrande, the resort area of Cartegena. It is mostly tall buildings filled with condos and hotel rooms. Most of the people that spend time there are colombians but we did meet a woman from Vancouver Island that was spending the winter there. The beaches there were pretty good and would be better if there were a few less people there. I could have done very nicely without one in particular(see photo). As in other parts of the city there was a steady stream of vendors that again had a wide range of goods and services- hair braiding, massage, drinks, jewellery and beach chairs.


Memories of Colombia

Cartegena had a lot of things going on. Somehow the colonial architecture has remained strong and is more diverse than either of us had expected. It is filled with all types of people many trying to scratch out a living. Life was lived in the streets and in the plazas. Sometimes the pace and the attention as a tourist was just too much but overall it is a fascinating city .

Colonial Architecture

Life on the street


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Utila sunset

Beautiful sunset in Utila.Okay, so we were nearing the end of January and had to figure out how to get to Colombia. The problem is that it’s quite expensive to fly so we decided to bus some of it and get a glimpse at some other Central American countries.

First of all we’d been hearing that the Bay Islands in Honduras is one of the best and cheapest places to learn scuba diving. Lenny and I have always wanted to try this so that was our first stop. The bus ride was pretty boring but I’ll have to say that American commercialism was all over the place as soon as we entered Honduras, and it was also more noticeable in Nicaragua and even more so in developed Costa Rica. But I digress, I was saying about getting to the Bay Islands–islands right, meaning you have to get on to a boat or fly, we decided for the boat because it was cheaper. Bad idea! The sea seemed okay at first but as we left the protected area it got progressively rough. The boat was like a small ferry but with no car capacity, still it rocked like a rocking chair or a swing…I don’t know, but I had to hold on hard while I was bent over puking in a trash bin and Lenny was holding on to my jacket to make sure I wouldn’t fly out through the railing.

Anyway, we went to the island of Utila and signed up for a 3 day PADI course to learn how to scuba dive. These courses teach you ‘skills’, like how to deal with emergency situations, before you do some pleasure diving. So on the first day we had to do 5 skills, for example, with all our gear on we went down to 8 feet and stayed down at the bottom on our knees while we had to take our regulator off (your air source) our mouth and try to recover it; take our mask off and hold on to it for 1 minute and then replace it — sounds easy but with both of these skills you’ve got to make sure you don’t breath with your nose or you will take in water and the urge to use your nose is really quite strong; another skill was experiencing loss of oxygen, so one guy turned off my air supply and I had to continue breathing for as long as I could up until my last breath and then give the signal that I was completely out and then they turned on my air– oh, mommy!; etc, etc. This stuff was actually quite scary and really quite stressful. It didn’t make sense to learn scuba diving under such stress, so we called it quits and decided to try the course again in Vancouver under better conditions. The reefs might be spectacular in the Bay Islads but we never got to see them, oh well, I hear there’s great scuba diving up the Sunshine Coast.

Utila - Getting Coffee

Getting our morning coffee at a kiosk next to the hotel. The owner put the parrot on my shoulder without warning. It was one of those parrots that kinda talks.

Utila Airport

Utila airport!

So, more busing to get to Nicaragua. We went to a nice colonial town called Granada. Granada was by a lake and so had some nice breeze. The streets were wide and airy and it was fairly quite compared to Antigua in Guatemala. Ofcourse this changes as soon as you enter the market area. Interesting, exciting market. We saw humongous coakroaches among other things.


Wide streets of Granada

Wide streets of Granada.

Market in Granada

Walking in the market of Granada.


Bus to Isla Omotepe

On the a chicken bus from Granada to Isla Omotepe. Lenny sitting next to a borracho (drunk).

Being in cities can sometimes get tiring what with the pollution and noise, so we went to Isla de Omotepe for some peace and quite. We stayed in a in cabaña by the lake in Charco Verde. The highlight of this place was the howler monkeys. There were so many. One lazy afternoon I was lying on the hammock in front our cabin and not just 20 meters away there were four monkeys foraging on the trees above. There were quite a few baby monkeys. It was fun to just watch them plunge from tree to tree. There were also lots of lizards. They would be inside our cabin crawling the walls and roof. Some nice lizards with aquamarine blue tails.


Cabins at Isla Omotepe. Ours was down towards the end.


Lenny returning from a bike ride at Isla Omotepe.

We had plans to go for a few hours but it was so hot and road was hilly that we gave up after 30 minutes.

Monos - monkeys

Monos, monos (monkeys) everywhere.

San Jose, Costa Rica — The guide books say that San Jose is just a stop to make connections, but we don´t agree. We thought it was a pleasant city with some interesting neighbourhoods and architecture. Like I said before, there are many American companies here, e.g. Pay less shoes, and all the fast food joints. As in many cities and developped countries, there´s a lot of over consumption, hence a lot of chunky figures and overweight people. Also, as we left highly indigenous Guatemala we noticed that smoking increased drastically. In general, the indigenous people in Guatemala don´t smoke. Women´s clothing was interesting to say the least. They were super tight revealing tops and low rise jeans, hence you get the blobby stomach hanging out.


San Jose - nice neighbourhood

A nice neighbourhood in San Jose.


San Jose - market

Market in San Jose.

One thing common in all Central America and South America is that pedestrians have no right of way, therefore you really, really have to watch your step. Cars will honk to let you know that they´re coming and that means they´re not stopping for you even if they had plenty of time to stop for you. Some locals seem as apprehensive about crossing the road as we are. Although surprising, it is hard to get good coffee in Latin America. I had a really good cup of coffee at the airport in San Jose. We also had a wicked corn pancake by the bus terminal in San Predo Sula in Honduras (don´t go to San Pedro). That´s it for these places. Hasta luego. Laura.

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We left Nebaj with Romelia at 4:30 in the morning and had a death defying trip back to Antigua. We were told that 28,000 people died on the highway in Guatemala last year and I see why now. The chicken bus experience is now officially old for us. I’m still trying to figure out why they call them chicken buses because you can’t be no chicken! We rested for the day at Romelia’s and in the night I had a few drinks of rum – the weapon of choice. The next day we headed out for Rio Dulce but the final destination was Rio Lampara. On the way we met a couple from Gatineau, Quebec. Helene and Claude Millette were visiting Guatemala on a very special mission. Nine years earlier their daughter adopted an infant from a small village in Guatemala. They wanted to come to see where she was from and had told their granddaughter of their intention. They told me the name of the village but I forgot to write it down. Sorry about that but if you send that information I will add it to this account. I do remember that it was around 2 hours from Panajachel. I know that had to be an adventure in itself. Claude and Helene are very interesting and happy people and we had a chance to wander around Guatemala City for an hour between buses. I hope that you had a great trip and got back home safe and sound.

Claude and Helene

Claude and Helene Millette

We arrived a little late in Rio Dulce so stayed over night. In the morning we headed down the river to Finca Tatin. Last year we stayed there for three days and had a great time. Chris and Aska were managing this beautiful spot. For us they really were a big part of why we enjoyed our time there. Finca is an incredible setting with beautifully placed cabins and great are to relax, swim, eat and not watch TV or listen to phones ringing. After a year or so at the Finca Chris and Aska decided to start their own little paradise on the Rio Lampara which is very close to Finca Tatin. Aska is from Poland and worked in marketing in the Netherlands. Chris was a builder in his home country, the UK. They met in Mexico somehow. Now in less that a year they have put together a beautiful house in a setting that will be a pleasure for anyone to visit. They are well on their way to having their first cabin finished and soon will be opening their doors for business. Although we haven’t known these two for very long I am sure that will be a place to return to over and over again. When they have their website up and running we will provide the link for anyone interested but if you think that you want more info just ask.

Rio Lampara 1

Chris and Aska

House on Rio Lampara

House on Rio Lampara

The House on Rio Lampara

Cabin on Rio Lamapara

Chris and Aska’s First Cabin

Rio Lampara itself is quite long, I think about 8 km. One morning we set out in a cayuco(sp), a traditional wooden dugout to explore the river a bit. There is little development on the river and the families that do live there are almost all full time locals. The houses are very basic by our standards but the reality seems that you actually can survive and prosper with less. There are no roads so every one uses the river to get around. Mostly they use the wooden dugouts but there are a few fiberglass lanchas with motors. Throughout the day people would drop by to sell various things from bread to beer. Chris and Aska talked about having a drive in to show movies and although they may have been joking I think it would be the coolest.


On Rio Lampara in the cayuco

Local House on Rio Lampara

Local Family’s House on Rio Lampara

At the end of the river is a waterfall but we didn’t get that far. I tell myself that I am saving that for the next time but it was really hot and I think that I’m a little soft from sitting behind the computer for the past year. We did see a lot of birds and some weird lookng lizard that looked like it had a grown up head and a kids body. The sounds were amazing and new and although most times you didn’t see the source you knew there was a lot going on there. This is our favorite place to just kick back and relax. You need a hammock and some beer doesn’t hurt (but not too much there buddy boy) very loose thin clothing, a book and something for you feet until they toughen up. The day we left it rained really hard. Honestly, though I really liked the rain. It cooled everything down and just sounded great on the thatched roof. Chris and Aska took us to Livingston to catch a boat to catch a bus to the next place. We really can’t thank them enough for everything and hope to be back soon.

Boat ride back

Shine on you crazy diamonds. Lenny

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helping out the dentists

Bus to Nebaj

7 30 am in Nebaj. Here you can see the bus that was going to take all the volunteers up to Xix.

So there we were in Xix (read previous post). We didn´t know what to expect and how we could help. I said that I could help with translation as most of the dentists/volunteers did not speak Spanish. Of course many of the Mayans could not speak Spanish. Their language is Quiche, pronounced ´keeche´. And Lenny offered to help in any way possible. So I actually did get to do some translation as well as ´assist´a dental hygienist. Lenny got to hold a flash light and do suction. The dentists had set up in one large room in the school that Romelia built. The set up was quite efficient. There were tables set up at the different stations. The tables served as the patient´s chair. The stations were triage, cleaning, extractions, fillings, sterilization of equipment, etc. I don´t have the records in front of me, but in three or four days they did some 320-380 extractions. One poor 8 year old kid had as many as 8 extractions in one go. He was very brave. He was not screaming, but he would whimper quietly and tears were streaming down his face. At the end the dentist had to step away and shed some tears of her own. I was mainly helping holding a flashlight at one of the cleaning stations. I saw the largest build up of calcium in an older woman. I will describe it when I´m home.


One of the school buildings and the triage area — where patients problems are assessed and the waiting area.

Working room

The room where most of the stations were set up.

Boy getting extractions

Boy getting extractions

The little boy getting eigth extractions.

Me giving more light

Me giving more light.

Anyway, the whole scene was quite interesting. Sometimes there would be some negotiation going on. For example, a dentist would tell the patient that she needed an extraction, and the patient would ask for something else instead. By the way, these volunteers were all Canadians and they came through an organization called ´Kindness in Action´. Their website is http://www.kindnessinaction.ca/. You do not need to be a dentists only to volunteer as they also need help with things like Lenny and I were doing. Well that´s it for now. Be sure to check out the dentists website. Laura.

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nebaj and xix, guate


Nebaj up in the highlands.

Street in Nebaj

A street in Nebaj.

In Antigua we met a woman, Romelia Gonzales, that has been living in Guatemala for the past 18 years. She is the most interesting and driven person that we have met so far on this trip. There will be more about her a bit later. For now we will tell you that she has a foundation that helps with schooling of indigenous children. She built a school in Xix (pronouced shish) which is a small village north of Nebaj. She asked us to come see the school and help out with a dental team from Canada that were going to provide dental services to the people of the greater Xix area. More about this to come. Nebaj itself is fairly hard to get to so the trip to the school was an adventure. It involved several collectivos which are usually older Volkswagon vans that in Canada will seat 7 or 8 people but in Guatemala can accommodate as many as 23. That is our personal best so far. We took 2 of those to get Sacapulas. By then Laura was quite nauseous and we had a little break while waitng for the chicken bus that would take us on the next leg. The bus was packed and we had to stand, squished like sardines. The road to Nebaj was very steep and winding. To add to the discomfort the road was under construction and we had to stop and get off for about an hour at one point. ¿Did I say that it was blistering hot? Behind the bus was a pickup truck and Laura had the great idea to ask the driver if we could ride in the back. The driver was really nice and spoke quite a bit of english. He didn´t ask for any money. He also gave another person – Gaspar – a ride. It was really much better than the bus but a bit dusty. After about 1 hour we made it to Nebaj.

picop truck

 Gaspar and Laura in the back of the “picop” truck on the last leg of the trip to Nebaj. Very bumpy and dusty but lotsa fresh air and good views.

the nice guy with the picop

The nice guy who gave us the ride. He is a civil engineer. He wants to take the TOEFL test so he can go to a university in the states or Canada, but he said he would return to Guatemala as life is better there.

Nebaj was the hardest hit village during the civil war and there are many widows. It was in many ways kind of typical of Guatemalan towns – lots of pollution, dogs and chickens( in the roads-everywhere). Like Xela it was hot in the day and cool in the evening and morning. There were many textile workers and they were as agressive as we have seen in the country so far. It was very poor and there seemed to be only one class of people. They were very friendly as usual. This is an area where there are many opportunities for volunteeering. Our favorite place to eat was el Descanso which was a volunteer hangout. It was run by three young guys from the community.

Street in Nebaj

A street in Nebaj.

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