Monday, May 25, 2009

Defining Myself: ByCycle

Tattered bike gloves and tanned-through hands, thrown confidently out to signal my direction. I always wear my helmet. I have newer gloves, but can't bear to part with the ones that are falling apart. It's not just that they fit my hands; the other gloves do that as well. They fit me. They are the gloves I wore every day one summer until for the first time I saw the backs of my hands browned with an oval here, patchwork crochet patterns there, a hard line across the fingers. A badge of honor earned as a bicycle commuter. Who needs a car when you've got these hands, these gloves, these biker's thighs, this trusty, battered, but infinitely loved bicycle with the basket on the back to hold my "magic expanding backpack" - another characteristic possession, companion. My backpack, my helmet, my "I don't care if they're not stylish, they're functional" sunglasses, my pant legs rolled up on both sides. I leave them rolled up. I like them that way. It's another sign that I bike, I don't care what I look like (though secretly I do), this is serious business, I'm not just some leisure rider who rolls her pants back down as soon as she parks her bike, to hide all traces of how she got there. My favorite jeans practically roll themselves up into biking position, and I love it. So satisfying - even my clothes know when I'm going for a ride. Sometimes I even leave my gloves on if I'm stopping in somewhere on a quick errand. Feels cool, nonchalant, yet I'm self-conscious at the same time, wondering if anybody notices, admires, or even cares. No fancy, high-tech, new, clean gear for me. Give me my tattered gloves and rolled-up jeans and I'll be in heaven on the road.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Lessons from El Salvador, Part III and Final

Click here for Part I and Part II.

21. A fruit that smells like overripe (and not in a good way) stinky cheese can have a startlingly sweet, completely un-cheesy taste when made into a fresco. (Namely, noni -- it's wonderfully medicinal, too!)

22. Wandering around a Salvadoran shopping mall is somehow much more entertaining than the same activity in the States, though the food court is strangely familiar.

23. Never make positive generalizations about bus drivers. Lesson #14 is hereby amended to "Most El Salvadoran chicken bus drivers are far more civilized and courteous than Guatemalan chicken bus drivers..."

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Lessons from Honduras

1. Always change enough money at the border to pay for transportation, a meal, and a night's lodging, in case you can't find a working ATM until the next day.

2. Make a habit of making friends with the local sitting next to you on the bus. It's fun, and can come in really handy if you encounter unexpected "adventures" along the way.

3. Sometimes you just have to accept the fact that you're a (comparatively) rich white tourist and that people will treat you that way -- but that doesn't mean you have to act like one.

4. Tree piping termites are crunchy and taste like lemon.

5. Better safe than stuck: take the early bus and you can laugh at all your friends who miss the ferry because they wanted to sleep in an extra hour.

6. Underwater bouyancy control is an awesome skill, and fun to play with.

7. Hallowe'en on a Caribbean island: no pumpkins, but plenty of pirates and princesses.

8. Feeling like an outsider in a group of people you "should" fit in with isn't really one of those things that gets easier with experience.

9. Don't make an island the last stop on a trip with a deadline for getting back to the mainland during hurricane season.

10. Fresh, warm, buttered coconut bread is a positively mood-altering experience.

11. Preparation and contingency planning are fine, but worry will get you nowhere. Once you stop worrying about things, they generally work themselves out just fine.

12. It may seem like a cruel trick of the universe that the people you feel the strongest connection to are those with whom you are given the least time to spend. Don't hold back just because you know you'll have to say goodbye -- give yourself fully to the friendship and cherish every moment. You'll meet again someday.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Reflections on Solo Travel

Note: This was written over a period of about a week, from my last few days in El Salvador to my first few days in Honduras (hence the fact that it gets a bit off-track at the end), but I never got the chance to type it up and post it. I'm actually about to head back to El Salvador again, so the end of the post is a bit out of date. Pretend you're reading it a week and a half ago. :)

This was originally going to be another pithy, unexplained snippet of a Lesson from El Salvador: "Traveling solo in the low tourism season has its drawbacks and its perks." But as I thought about it a bit more I realized there was more to say -- this is a lesson I'm still learning, but it's an important one, and it deserves a fuller treatment.

Traveling solo has been a new experience for me this year, as has traveling long-term: Guatemala was easy, in a way, because Cristie was with me for the most touristy time of my stay, and the rest of the time I was in Spanish school, so I had a more structured lifestyle and built-in social life. But El Salvador has been different. Here it has been very obvious that I am traveling alone through the least touristed country in Central America during the lowest tourist season of the year. Most of the time, apart from one night in Tacuba and two nights in Santa Ana, I have been either the only one or one of two tourists in the hostels I've stayed at -- and I've often felt I've been the only tourist in the entire town or city. This, as the brief version of this lesson mentions, has its benefits and drawbacks.

The main drawback is that it can be difficult to see/do some of the main tourist sites and activities as a solo traveler. Sure, for some things it doesn't matter if you are alone or in a group. But other times, such as when organized tours and/or guides are required, the choices (if you can't round up other tourists) are either: (a) pay the full price for the minimum number of people (usually 3-4) and get a private tour, or (b) not go. Since I'm not a fan of spending triple the cost of anything, and since most of these types of tours tend to be more fun with a group of people anyway, it's option (b) for me.

The flip side of this is that it forces me to be less of a tourist and more of a traveler. At the end of my stay in El Salvador I may not be able to check off on a list all of the things that tourists do in the country when they "do" Central America, but I think I will come away with a richer experience and a deeper understanding of Salvadoran people and culture. I tend to visit fewer places and to spend more time in each place than people who are rushing about trying to hit all the tourist spots, and in the absence of other travelers I have been spending more time around local people and/or participating in local activities.

My first full day in Santa Ana, I went to a concert in the Teatro de Santa Ana in the morning. It was only an hour long, and was played by the Banda Sinfónica de Occidente (a military band), for school groups "and the general public." I think I was the general public -- I was definitely the only non-latina in the theater, and I'm pretty sure I was also the only non-student, non-teacher audience member as well. The main floor and first balcony were willed with middle- to high-school-aged students and teachers, and I had the entire second balcony to myself, overlooking the scene. It was fun to shift my gaze between the musicians and the audience, being the fly on the wall. It was a good concert, too. The finale absolutely cracked me up -- it was a medley that progressed from (forgive me for not knowing exact titles, and I'm missing one or two songs in the middle) A Whiter Shade of Pale to We Will Rock You to Figaro to Another One Bites the Dust, and ended with We Are the Champions. Absolutely brilliant. True Salvadoran culture, and worth every penny of the $0.50 entry fee. (It was probably meant to be serious, though, so it was a good thing nobody could see me rolling in the aisle.)

After the concert I wandered around the city for a bit, eventually happening upon a picturesquely ruined building (why is it that ruins are so picturesque?) and stopped to take a couple of photos. The man who was working in the grounds (his name was Hector) invited me to go inside and walk around and take all the photos I wanted. He followed me shortly and began telling me about the building (it was built 100-110 years ago, was originally an art school, then a government school, and he never told me how it was ruined) and about the city. After a bit, a young Salvadoran man named Napoleon wandered in and joined the conversation, and we all chatted for about 20 minutes more (have I mentioned that I love being able to speak Spanish?). I ended up going to lunch at a super-cheap comedor (full plate of good food plus horchata for under $2) with Napoleon and hanging out with him for much of the afternoon. It was a delightful experience, and one I most likely would not have had if I had scheduled my time full of tourist activities.

All of that said, for the next week and a half or so, I am going to be a complete tourist. I am currently in Copán Ruinas -- the second most popular tourist destination in Honduras -- and tomorrow will be making my way to number one -- the Bay Islands, to go diving off of Utila. I have been and will continue to be surrounded by primarily English-speaking, backpack-toting tourists, facing the mental and emotional challenge of making new friends while at the same time trying to distinguish myself from them somewhat because I dislike being lumped in the "gringo tourist" category. When I'm on my own, locals speak to me in Spanish and I feel on a somewhat even footing with them; when I'm in touristy cities full of gringos, the locals (who can) speak to me first in English, and it bothers me. It creates a distance between us, the divide between affluent tourist and humble local, and it doesn't give me a chance to show that I respect their culture enough to speak in their language.

But I guess I'll have to put up with the struggle against being labeled "gringo tourist" for a bit longer, because I'm not going to forego a diving experience in the Bay Islands! :)

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Getting to Copán Ruinas

... Was an adventure, to say the least. But it seems that whenever I encounter these sorts of "adventures," there is always somebody there watching over me -- usually a local who is sitting next to me on the bus and adopts me and looks out for me. Yesterday there were two, and I was grateful for not only their help and reassurance, but their pleasant company as well.

The border crossing between El Salvador and Honduras at El Poy was remarkably laid-back and mellow (so mellow that I had to search for 5 minutes to find somebody to come into the immigration office to check my passport and take my $3). I walked across and got in a colectivo taxi (that leaves when it's full of people, which can take a while) to the nearest town of Nueva Ocotepeque. In the taxi I met Karla and an older woman she was traveling with (I guessed her to be Karla's monther-in-law, but never actually found out). We struck up a conversation and discovered that they were also headed to La Entrada (where I had to go to transfer to a bus for Copán), and that Karla's husband lives and works in San Jose and that she's going to visit him next month. What a small world. :)

When we got to Nueva Ocotepeque around 11 a.m. we were told that the next bus for La Entrada wouldn't be leaving until 1:45 -- due to flooding on the highways between the capital and where we were, the buses weren't getting through as regularly (it's been raining hard in Honduras for 2 weeks straight, and LOTS of places are flooded). Fortunately, a bus from another company rolled by around noon and we managed to get to La Entrada around 3:30. Karla helped me figure out which bus to catch for Copán and then took off to her destination (after exchanging email addresses so we can visit each other in California).

The bus for Copán was supposed to leave at 4:00, but didn't pull away until almost 5:00, dashing my hopes of arriving while it was still light out. A young Honduran man sat next to me, and for a long time we didn't speak, until we came to a section of the highway where the road was halfway washed out, and we started speaking about all the rain and the roads, and continued a friendly conversation from there. His name was Sammy, and he lives in Copán. He kept giving me updates on how close we were getting -- we've got halfway left, only 10km left, etc. Then, when we were about 5km from Copán, the bus driver pulled over and turned off the bus. Apparently there was a landslide ahead and he wasn't going to be able to cross it.

Sammy almost convinced me to start walking, but we (and a few other tourists headed for Copán) opted to wait for a pickup or other smaller vehicle which could either get us across the landslide or at least get us a little closer to it to minimize our walking distance (we were still about a 20 minute walk from the slide, and an hour's walk in total, which is not fun in the dark with a full backpack). Another bus came by in about 15 minutes -- he thought he could get over the slide, but all the drivers coming over from the other side shouted out their windows at him that he shouldn't try. So he dropped us by the side of the road and turned around and left. We ended up walking over the mudslide in the dark (fortunately, it wasn't raining, and it wasn't really all that dangerous), and catching a minibus to Copán on the other side. Sammy was looking out for me the whole way, making sure I had my bags and my footing, and stuck by his side the whole time. It was very sweet.

All's well that ends well -- we eventually arrived in Copán around 7:30. The three other tourists I had encountered on the bus and I checked into a hostel and then went to dinner, where I ate the "burrito enorme," which more than lived up to its name. But oh, it was good -- it had been a long time since breakfast in El Salvador. :)

Tuesday, October 21, 2008


As some of you know, and others may guess, if you've been following me on Twitter or Facebook, I've been thinking about heading homeward. It started out as homesickness in Tacuba, but as I dove deeper into that feeling and explored the reasons for it, I realized that I don't want to go home because I'm tired of traveling, but because I'm excited about a multitude of opportunities and activities back home, and feel like I am ready to transition back into that world. I may not have a crystal-clear vision for the rest of my life (and I never expect to), but after taking some time out this year and getting to know myself better, I do have a much clearer vision now of my next steps. After feeling like I've been floating rather aimlessly for the last several years, this is more exciting for me than I can properly describe.

So, what is it that's got me itching to cut my travels and come back to the States, you ask? Well, it's a lot of things. Separating myself for a time from first the "normal" culture of working life (in February) and later from the rest of my customary life and language and culture in general (in July, when I started my travels) has taught me a great deal about myself and helped me to distill my values and ideals and goals. By discovering the things that I've missed the most in my travels I have begun to piece together a picture of how I want to live my life when I return, full of all those things that mean the most to me, without all the trappings that tend to accumulate over the years in an unquestioned life. I very purposely gave away most of my belongings when I left for Central America -- giving myself permission to start from scratch when(ever) I returned, to be picky about what I let back into my life rather than unthinkingly picking up where I left off.

For reasons that should be obvious after reading the list below, I will not be moving back to Portland (sorry, folks -- but I'll come visit!), but to California -- the Monterey Bay Area, to be more specific. I'm a little apprehensive about becoming a Californian again (you mean I have to buy a car?!), but I think I can handle it.

And, since I know you're dying to see the list, here it is -- some of the things I have missed the most and/or look forward to exploring as new adventures (the two most important factors first, everything else in no particular order, and by no means complete):

- Being close to family
- Work that challenges my limits, builds my abilities, and makes me feel I'm making a contribution to the world (after 8 long years, I'll be working at the marine lab again -- wheee!)
- Learning to play the guitar (and the fiddle?)
- Shape note singing
- Taking German classes
- Rock climbing
- Being close to the ocean
- Social dancing, ritual dancing, taking various kinds of dance lessons
- Gardening, growing things (& cooking them!)
- Really good, 55-60% cacao dark chocolate (okay, I know this isn't a reason to come home from Central America, but seriously -- the chocolate here could use some help)

I just bought a plane ticket to San Diego for November 7th. I'll be making my way north from there by train, visiting friends and family along the way, landing in Portland for Thanksgiving and then heading back to the Bay Area for Christmas and Harmony (hooray for Harmony!). See you soon! :)

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Lessons from El Salvador, Part II

Click here for Part I.

11. Always, always, always carry insect repellent and itch reliever.

12. Always carry a spare battery for your camera, even if the existing battery is fully charged. Carry two spares in hot, humid climates.

13. Don't be afraid to ask for what you want -- chances are, people will be delighted to help you out (give you guitar lessons, make phone calls on your behalf, hoist your bag, teach you silly ditties in Spanish...)

14. El Salvadoran chicken bus drivers are far more civilized and courteous than Guatemalan chicken bus drivers -- and bus fares are cheap!

15. Sometimes they're trying to sell you something. Sometimes they're trying to hit on you. Sometimes they're trying to do both at the same time. But sometimes they're just genuinely friendly and trying to makd conversation. Try to figure out which is the case before reacting too strongly.

16. When you hang around with somebody who knows everybody, lots of things are cheap(er) or free. But it's not always worth the price.

17. In a 48-piece orchestra, there may be 10 trumpets, 10 clarinets, and six tubas, but the single tiny piccolo still steals the show.

18. Weaving is not a practical travel hobby.

19. It is perfectly acceptable to do "nothing" some days.

20. You know you're doing alright with your Spanish when:
- You haven't bothered to use your dictionary in weeks
- You begin to resent other travelers who don't speak Spanish because they force the conversation into English
- After two and a half days, your new friend from Mexico (who speaks perfectly good English) comments on how strange it is to hear you speaking your native language