Monday, December 29, 2008

Conversations

If I ever put my law degree to use, I will have gained valuable experience in questioning people here as conversations with the Afghans can be challenging. I used to assume the difficulties I was having getting my point across or my questions answered were due to my interpreter’s lack of command of the English language. After all, an interpreter that speaks English at a high level is not likely to be working out here with us in these living conditions (no running water, spotty electricity); he’d likely be working out of a large base or for an NGO. But I’m realizing the interpreter is not the problem because when the Afghans question me and I give them the sort of non-responsive answers they often give me, they call me on it every time, indicating they’re getting a good translation. When I'm evasive (I often am because I just don’t have answers, or I don’t want to help with a particular issue but don’t want to say so.) the Afghans will come back with a Pashtun proverb like, “I’m banging one drum and you’re banging another.” But on my end asking even the most simple, direct question like, “So what time after lunch do you want to leave on the patrol”, brought back the following response, “There are two things very important to the Afghan soldier, the dick and the stomach.” And then we all laughed and he walked out of the room. End of discussion – and I’m left with the certainty that we’ll leave when they’re ready. So they are quite the masters of the non sequitur.

But it’s not just me they mess with. We had the head honcho local tribal leader here the other day to tell us about yet more weddings (Evidently, this is the wedding season, women being “very important in the winter time to keep warm at night”) and other valley news. These types of old men typically will complain to me about an illness, ache, or pain of some kind. Usually, we give them multivitamins or some such placebo, but yesterday I just told him laughingly, “Sir, your bones hurt because you’re old and even America doesn’t have a pill to fix that.” After the translation an ANA soldier chimed in with a few words which were translated to me as: "When a Pashtun man reaches 60 years, shoot him.” Everyone laughed.

One of my favorites is when our leader will complain about the corruption of the leader of our higher headquarters. For instance, so-and-so is claiming more soldiers on the books than he has so he can keep their extra food money allocation or so-and-so is keeping too many soldiers and not sending us enough, so his men don’t have to stand post or patrol as often. I’ll reply with, “Ok, I’ll look into it, and by the way, I’m going to count the number of soldiers we have here.” His response will be a scandalous expression and words to the effect of, “What!? Count my soldiers? You don’t trust me to give you accurate numbers?” And I think to myself: so we can’t trust the other guy but we can trust you right? It’s a game, and as such I try to find the amusement in it.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Xmas

And so another Christmas away from home. I guess I've been doing this blog over a year now as I remember spending all day last Christmas writing blog entries since I was in a backward Argentine town and nothing was open other than the Petrobras gas station. I'm pretty sure I'll be home next year, but I guess you never know. Anyway, nothing much of note the past couple of days. My puppy following me on the mile-long patrol down to this base this morning; the local people had interesting expressions on their faces seeing a lone American walking around with Afghan soldiers and a puppy shadowing him.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Give?


Afghanistan is a poor country - much poorer than any place I’ve seen before. These people make the Cambodians look rich and the Iraqis, well, evolved. Most of the kids I see have a sort of empty look in their eyes. You can smile, wave, or say hello in their native language, but you don’t get much of any response/reaction. We’ve heard the kids have been told all sorts of lies about us and our intentions, but the lack of reaction to external stimulus is a little disconcerting.


This being such a poor country, the people don’t have much, especially out where we are in an isolated, difficult to reach corner of the country. So we give the locals all sorts of stuff, usually clothing and blankets these days. It’s a kind of payment for the right to search their house oftentimes. We don’t need permission to do it, but we try to give a little in the end. Given how poor the locals are, one always whether he’s doing the right thing by giving to them. This place is so far behind and so seemingly so unable to progress that a blanket doesn’t seem like much in the long run. Somehow teaching them to be industrious and value things like education would seem to be the solution, but how to change a culture? Is it their religion holding their culture, and thus, their lives back? Could be, but that’s beyond the scope of this article, and my abilities to intelligently expound. At any rate, I don’t believe people get much out of handouts. It may change their lives a bit for that small period of time while the object lasts, but it doesn’t change them. But I guess I’m missing the point. The point is to buy their allegiance somehow. And if we can somehow get their allegiance and thus win this war, then dragging them into the 21st century is a doable objective.


Our Afghan soldiers sometimes have a hard time understanding why we don’t give the handouts to them, the Afghan Army, who works with us and supports us, rather than the local people who don’t support us and oftentimes hate us. I can understand that point of view, but I still don’t go out of my way to give our soldiers much, since it’s the responsibility of their chain of command to supply their own soldiers, and as long as we’re doing it for them, they’ll never do it. In the end, my soldiers will get some things out of me that they should get from their own supply system, but I’ll make them wait to try to make a point.


A man came to visit our little base today to tell us about a wedding taking place in a couple days. Large groups of people invite our suspicion, so the locals try to advise when such a gathering is going to occur. As an aside, I asked my interpreter what the deal is with all the weddings and he mentioned that winter is the wedding season here since "women are very important in the winter for keeping warm". Anyway, the local man asked me to provide him with a bit of diesel so they could run their generator for the wedding festivities; a small decision to be made on my part, whether or not to give the man some fuel. On the one hand, though we’re at the end of our supply chain and fuel has to be flown up here in a helicopter, we’re in little danger of actually running out, so it’s not much skin off my back to give it. On the other hand, this man lives in a town that we know has some bad guys in it so odds are he doesn’t support our presence here, and furthermore I don’t need everyone in the valley coming to me for fuel.


In the end though, our goal is to get the local populace on our side. In these types of situations I often ask myself what the Russians would have done when they were here in the 1980’s, and I then do the opposite…not that I can ever really know what they would have done, but I suppose I can surmise based on things I’ve read. So even if the man is an incorrigible Taliban-supporter, I have to take the view that he can be brought over to our side, and a wedding gift of some diesel fuel seems an appropriate opportunity to contribute to the populace. I may change my tune about giving these people anything at all after a few more months here, but for now…he asked for 10 liters…I gave him 15. We’ll see.

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One has been a bad spectator of life if one has not also seen the hand that in a considerate fashion - kills. - Friedrich Nietzsche

Friday, December 12, 2008

Temblor

The Afghans can be a little trigger-happy. If rounds are flying anywhere in the valley they’ll start shooting at the place everyone else is shooting, regardless of whether they can see anyone or not. To celebrate a religious holiday the other day they shot off most of our inventory of tracers, creating our own little light show, and of course the other local Afghan units, hearing and seeing what our guys were up to, chimed in creating that cacophony of Russian-made machine guns I’m getting to know so well. Anyway, I awoke in the middle of the night last night to find the ground shaking a bit. This was not the first time I’ve felt the ground shake in a combat zone, but usually the shaking is accompanied by an explosion. I didn’t hear anything, so I was a bit confused for a few seconds. As I groggily contemplated the significance of this event, the local unit on the radio concluded it was an earthquake. Forgetting the marine standing post had his own radio, I went out to relay the news to him and he replied dryly, “Yeah, earthquake, I know; I had to convince the Afghans not to shoot back.”

Monday, December 8, 2008

Sandbags

Something as simple as filling sandbags can be done skillfully and easily or it can be more difficult, as I learned today. I spent the morning slinging an ax to chop up some earth to put in the bags later. I tended to hit the dirt hillside pretty hard, swinging the ax from the end of the grip with long, powerful strokes…I learned somewhere along the line that the trick to using an ax is to let the ax do the work, so I didn’t put a lot of effort into it, but I was certainly putting in enough effort to get a bit of a sweat up and get my muscles to tighten up a bit. I saw the ANA watching me with amused expressions…finally one of them came over to me and offered to help. He proceeded to use much shorter, faster strokes to chop up the dirt, and in half the time had twice as much dirt loosened up as I did.


Once we got a fair amount of loose dirt gathered we started to put it in the bags. Apparently, I did not learn anything from my experience with the ax because I started with the shovel and was striking it into the ground in order to get the dirt. Our interpreter (a former 1st Sergeant with the ANA and probably one of our best gunmen) saw me doing that and was like, “No, no, you’re putting too much effort into it and you’ll have blisters in 10 minutes…watch me, I was a farmer during the Taliban time.” So he took the shovel and then easily and smoothly dipped into the earth, pulled up a shovel-full of dirt and then slid it into the bag - no problem. Easy does it. Since the ANA don’t work on Fridays, none would help with holding the sandbags or moving them around afterwards, but they were willing to take turns on the shovel, and they were all very good at effortlessly scooping out a shovel-full of dirt and then getting it into the sandbag. The other marines and I here just didn’t get it - we’d either pick the wrong area from which to get the good, soft dirt, or we’d have a hard time getting it into the bag, or we’d just be too slow with the shovel. I also learned to fold over a couple inches of the top of the sandbag to make it easier to get the dirt in. In the end, we got sandbags into the places I wanted and have a bunch left over to use later. I wasn’t about to stop filling bags until we had a ton of them filled…once you get these guys working and contributing you’ve got to roll with it as far as it goes…

Saturday, November 29, 2008

First day fun

Coming here I was certainly aware of the reputation of this place as a volatile spot...and it didn't take long for me to learn how it is here in this part of the country. I had arrived at my new "home" here at this austere little outpost maybe one hour before the shooting started. It didn't last long, but there it was. And the guys we're here to replace didn't waste any time getting us involved as telling my fellow marine to "Put some Mark (Mk19 rounds) on that hill over there."

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Okinawa

For some reason I was surprised at how built-up Okinawa was, although I'd read in the past about Marines crashing helicopters into heavily populated areas. Everywhere I went on the island in the two days we were there was very developed. A fair number of motorcycles/scooters being ridden about, generally by young people with open-face helmets. A young girl on a motor scooter actually drove by a group of us several times doing wheelies as we walked around the "American Village". That will catch your attention. The Japanese certainly know how to do neon, many of the signs were printed in English even in the areas that weren't adjacent to one of the many military bases still on the island.


The sushi restaurant we went to had a sink in the small lobby for washing your hands on the way in. Seems like a good idea to me. The sushi comes by on a small conveyor belt and you just grab what you want as you're sitting at your table. The table also had a hot water spigot built into it for refilling your green tea. You know the price of the sushi based upon the color of the plate. Those plates must've also had some kind of microchip in them because when it was time to ring up the bill, the waitress just ran her little wand over the plates and a check was printed out the other side of the wand system. Handy system as the five of us had probably 70 plates stacked up all over the table by the time we finished (generally only two pieces of sushi per plate). No tax or tip so the meals really aren't too expensive. Many places also don't take credit cards or if they do they charge a large fee, which is suppose is a little surprising given the Japanese affinity for technology, but in any case I prefer that way...makes things simpler and cheaper for everyone on the whole without Visa taking their fat cut. All in all, an efficient and tasty experience.


Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Kyrgyzstan

Getting to Afghanistan from Okinawa is to involve a lengthy series flights. Or it may be better described as a series of lengthy flights. At any rate, leaving Okinawa we flew down to Utapao International Airport in Thailand. I'm not a hundred percent sure where it is, but I think I remember it being a few hours southeast of Bangkok. I considered flying there last year on a military space available flight when I was traveling SE Asia, but after some research realized you could only get there on military orders, not on vacation. At any rate, we only stayed there a couple hours while the plane refueled and weren't permitted outside the airport. Unfortunately, no massage parlor was on the premises.


After Thailand it was west to Dubai, a flight of some seven hours. Again we were only stopping to refuel...this time we were not even allowed off the plane as it sat there for two hours. Dubai is one of the few places in the Middle East I'd like to visit. Saw some wide highways, well kept looking neighborhoods, and a very impressive skyline from the plane. Next time....


From Dubai it was on to Kyrgyzstan, another seven-hour flight. I think a lot of these flights are longer than they need to be because a lot of countries won't let us fly over them with troops...including India. The flight must've taken us directly over Afghanistan, but we couldn't go there since we were on a civilian charter. We landed here at Manas Air Base, run by the US Air Force, which means the accommodations and facilities are relatively nice - good food, plenty of internet and phone facilities, and even personnel in the weight room enforcing stupid rules. Manas apparently is about 40 miles from a Russian military base, Kyrgyzstan being the only country with US and Russian bases on its soil. In fact, the Russians are probably intercepting this transmission as I write it, lol. The base here has massive and beautiful mountain range in the distance called the Tien Shan, one of the highest in the world with peaks over 24,000 feet.


We'll be here a few days, but I won't be permitted to get out into town and see the country at all. The locals here working on the base have a swarthy, oriental appearance...not surprising, China is not far. They seem friendly enough. This is my first time in a former Soviet-bloc country...almost had a feeling of being here before as we rolled past the stark buildings and Cyrillic lettering here on base. I guess all the movies, books, and video games dealing with the USSR that I've been exposed to over the years gave me that feeling. I don't know.K

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Deep Sea Fishing Oahu


On Sunday, I had the opportunity to go deep sea fishing with a friend of a friend. I had plenty of other things to do given that it was my second to last day of freedom in the great United States of America but couldn't pass up the chance given that I'd never done it.

And so the five of us took off at 0530 in the owner's 28 foot boat. I had gotten home from the festivities the previous night at about 0130 so I wasn't well rested to start with but I was pretty excited to get out on the water. The plan was to to trawl along at about 10 knots with five lines in the water until we reached a buoy about 30 miles north of our starting point. I'll mention now that I knew nothing at all about deep-sea fishing coming in and don't know much about normal fishing either. I usually catch nothing when I go fishing and one of the only good memories I have of fishing is of a friend of mine in Tucson taking a fish he had caught earlier out of the bucket, putting it back on the hook and casting it back out into the water so I could get the "sensation" of reeling one in before the owners of the private pond we had snuck into caught on to the fact that we weren't the nephews of "the gentleman in that house over there yonder".

Anyway, so it's five or six lines in the water at once and you keep moving along at from 5 to 10 knots depending on what type of fish you're looking to catch. We used outriggers to spread out the lines so they wouldn't get in each others' way. The outriggers are 20-foot poles that you put out at about a 45 degree angle from the water. The fishing line runs from the pole near the rear of the boat, up to the end of the outrigger, and then out into the water some 500 meters away.

So on the way out, we caught absolutely nothing, unless you count the two surfboards we found: one nine-foot longboard in great condition and another six-foot "tow-in board" as they're called. Tow-in boards are the boards the crazies use to try to catch the really big waves up on the north shore. Gigantic waves move too fast for someone to paddle and catch them, so the surfers hang onto a line and get "towed in" by a jetski so they can ride the wave in. You know it's a tow-in board when it's got little foot handles bolted into the board. At any rate, what we thought were large dead fish floating on top of the water both times turned out to be surfboards upon closer inspection. No sign of their owners.

Our strategy, as I suppose you would call it, was to look for groups of birds circling and then trawl right through that area. I sat up top in the little crow's nest and was the spotter for birds for quite a while, but we never had much luck with the flocks I found or that anyone else found for that matter. In fact, the first 15 of the 17 fish we caught were all caught as we trawled the area around a buoy that was placed in the water specifically to encourage fishing tourism. The buoy and connecting chain encourage an entire ecosystem to develop in the immediate area...and somewhere in that ecosystem are the ahi tuna we wanted and ended up catching. The buoy is located about 18 miles off the northeastern coast of Oahu. At that distance from shore the water is roughly 6000 feet in depth as these volcanic islands tend to drop off really quickly, which is part of what leads to the monstrous waves you'll find out here from time to time. Luckily, it was supposed to be a fairly "flat" day, or so they said. I don't know if what we actually got would be considered flat here or not, but flat for the Hawaiian islands, located in the middle of the Pacific with absolutely no other landmass nearby to break up those swells, is not, well, flat. Suffice to say, the waves got pretty big, and the boat was rocking and rolling all day, and yes, I puked...twice. I was the only one to do this, but the other guys were all very experienced. I felt a little queasy all day actually.

Seasickness, not a good feeling at all, but I'd say I deserved a taste of seasickness since it was only about two weeks ago that I was laughing and surreptitiously taking pictures of old ladies puking (just couldn't help it, they literally looked like they were on the verge of death) on an evening cruise to the NaPali Coast of Kauai I took with my girlfriend. After the voiding, however, I felt reasonably decent and was able to keep helping with the fishing, although the others certainly did most of the work. I think if it hadn't been such a long day, 12 hours on the water in total, I would've managed a little better since I didn't get sick till about the 7-hour mark. I did reel in a few fish, including a 35 lb ono we caught on the way back.

As for the catching of the fish, I know when I thought of deep-sea fishing before I always envisioned an epic struggle between man and fish. I wouldn't say I saw anything like this, although I'm sure with a very large fish like a marlin it would be a battle. We pretty much left the rod and reel in the little holder that you set it in and reeled it from there...just keep cranking till someone can gaff the fish with the mean looking gaff hooks we had onboard. All in all, we caught two ono and about 15 ahi tuna. The biggest ahi was probably about 40 lbs. Got to have a taste of the ahi tonight as it was prepared by my good friend here in town...seared to perfection.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Maui

Been out here on Oahu for about two months now. I stopped here last year for a week on my way to Japan, so I had seen many of the tourist sites. This time I've actually only left the base maybe a dozen times in two months. But with one of the best military golf courses in the country on base I really don't need to. That and the marina on base (one of my good friends has several Sunfish sailboats and has taught me how to sail), keep my free time occupied. I've been sailing around Kaneohe Bay a bit. Learned that sailing is much more fun when the wind is blowing...we normally have pretty consistent trade winds here, but the past week has seen them die off for the most part, making sailing and life generally a bit less pleasant, while at the same time improving my golf.

I did get to take a trip over to the Maui, the 17th largest island in the US. A few buddies and I took the Superferry over...it was scheduled to leave at 6:30 AM, but stepped off just after 6...most of us barely made it and one of our group didn't so he had to fly over and meet us. The ferry arrived about 15 minutes late...leave early, arrive late - Hawaii punctuality. If you're not taking a car with you, you're definitely better off flying as the prices are comparable. Maui is different from Oahu...bigger, less craggy mountains, with more wide-open views. Not much doing on Maui as far as nightlife is concerned. Mostly couples.

We drove up to the top of Haleakala, which was around 10,000 feet up. The Haleakala crater is 21miles in circumference...Haleakala is so massive it essentially is the island of Maui, though the western part of the island is made up of another volcano which overlaps and connects with Haleakala. Luckily the clouds cleared up while we were up top allowing us to see most of the crater. The view brought back memories of Ometepe in Nicaragua as the two islands are geologically similar in that they're made up of two overlapping volcanoes connected by an isthmus. I had to work much harder for that view of Ometepe though.

After spending a month or two in any one place I tend to be ready to move on to somewhere else...but I haven't felt compelled to leave Hawaii since arriving here. I could certainly live out here...only bad thing being the 6 hour time difference with the East Coast makes it tough to keep up with friends and family, especially during the week. That window of opportunity to call home after work is in the middle of my golf time.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Posting

These days I'm mostly just kicking it at home with my parents...awaiting what's next. Been keeping myself busy by studying for the GMAT, which I'm going to take next week. Whether I'm going to go to business school or not is still up in the air, but studying for the test has given me something to do. I actually considered starting a GMAT study blog (yes, there are lots of these floating around on the internet), but decided my time would be better spent studying for the test rather than writing about my experiences studying for the test.

I recently finally found out exactly what I'm going to be doing next...an all expenses paid trip to Afghanistan. I volunteered and ended up getting exactly the job I wanted so I'm very happy. After having not worked for a year, you could say that I'm ready to do something productive again...not to mention my bank accounts are getting a little thin. I'll head over to Hawaii (not a bad deal, right?) for training in a month or so and then we'll head out to Central Asia sometime in November most likely.

I'm confident Afghanistan will provide ample material to continue this blog, though given the nature of what we'll be doing I may be relegated to producing funny stories and observations rather than actual day-to-day stuff. Ah, the funny stories are better anyway.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

In Sum

I spent about 8 months in total traveling and living in Latin America; traveled to 14 different countries - Ecuador, Peru, and Argentina were the only countries in which I spent more than 2 weeks. Uruguay was the country in which I spent the least am0unt of time...only 2 days. During the Central American part of the trip I visited all the Central American countries, save El Salvador, in only about 6 weeks. 6 weeks is not as much time as one would like, as the countries, though small, really do have distinct identities. This large distinction between the Central American countries is part of what made that part of my trip so great...the countries are small and easy to travel between, but different enough from each other to keep things interesting. Certainly the South American countries have distinct identities as well, but their sheer size makes it tougher and much more time consuming to travel between them, and as such takes some of the enjoyment out of it all.

As for my favorites...in Central America I really enjoyed Nicaragua - friendly people, beautiful scenery, safe, cheap, lots of things to do outdoors, relatively un-discovered by tourists. I would say many of the same things about Colombia, although it's not nearly as cheap nor as safe. Colombia is the one country I really want to go back to since I only spent a week there and only visited two places. I really kind of cheated myself by traveling Colombia the way I did - one week and I flew between the two sites. My one other big regret is that I never did a jungle tour to the Amazon. But, I suppose this gives me a couple of things to do in the future, and I most certainly will be traveling back to South America, hopefully sooner than later.

As well as traveling and familiarizing myself with these different countries, I had one other main objective: to learn Spanish. It has turned out to much tougher than I expected...and I know it wouldn't be easy...but I'm happy to say I did pretty well on that goal. I've learned that speaking Spanish effectively is going to be a lifelong endeavour that will require consistent effort through the years. Even after all that time I'm still far from fluent and even basic communication can be tough at times. At any rate, I was happy to have the goal of learning Spanish as that gave me something to do every day while traveling. Otherwise, I would have felt pretty bad about doing nothing but traveling for so much time.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Garbage

Certainly, they have a different attitude to garbage here in Latin America...the attitude apparently being that they don't mind having it around them, filling up their yards and streets, and littering the side of every highway. Honduras was the worst I saw regarding trash. On the bus to SPS from Tegucigalpa the couple in front of me threw 3 bottles and two wrappers out the window. I can remember being appalled by the trash I saw on my first couple trips to border towns in Mexico...and not just appalled but a bit depressed and scared to think that many of the people who created the mess were intent on coming into my country. I guess it really wasn't that long ago when people regularly used to litter the highways in the States, but I can't imagine there was ever a time when Americans lived amongst garbage in their yards the way many of the people in Central America do. It's as if the technology of disposable goods has arrived before the technology to deal with the result. But then that's the case for us as well as we really don't recycle very well...we just hide it better in the landfills.

Many people will attribute the filth to poverty, or culture...i.e. it's not easy so clean it up when you have no trash bags to put it in. But then if you can afford a bottle of Coke you ought to be able to afford a plastic bag. Or perhaps poor people have better things to worry about than garbage, like where their next meal is coming from. But then, poor people in these countries are poor because there are no jobs and they don't work, not because they're too busy to clean up after themselves. I would posit that living in a litter-filled environment is not only unsanitary but also discourages progress in that a person is apt to be effected mentally living in filth...becoming less likely exert himself to better his station in life. Many of the Iraqis I worked with left trash all over the place, which I thought was disgraceful for a military unit. We didn't have a lot of luck changing that habit of theirs, and really didn't try that hard to change them, considering it a 'cultural' thing, and, of course, we can't try to change someone's culture. To me, attributing these practices to 'culture' is not helpful for dealing with the problem...it's just making an excuse for bad behavior.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Yucatan


Getting over to Mexico involved a 30 minute flight on a light aircraft. The plane came in, we got on board, the pilot moved a few people around, and we took off about 5 minutes after the plan had landed. It was cool getting to ride right behind the pilot and watch the gauges. One sees the tiny runway in the distance and wonders how we're going to get on it...thankfully, the runway gets bigger as you get closer to it.

As for the 3 days we spent in Mexico on the Yucatan Caribbean coast...well, let's just say the area has a well-developed tourist infrastructure. Saw the famous Mayan ruins at Tulum, the only Mayan ruins on a coast; beautiful scene with the ruins on the cliffs overlooking the turquoise Caribbean waters and the narrow beach at the bottom of the cliff, which was taken full advantage of by the visitors. The whole scene seemed contrived though, with the walkways fully paved and roped off (other ruins I've been to you can climb all over), and the ruins themselves were so...clean, almost like a Vegas theme hotel or something. My cousin and I were joking that the whole complex was probably built 10 years ago to attract tourists to an otherwise unusable strip of beach.

Hit up Playa del Carmen for a couple days...'bout an hour south of Cancun. Amazingly, it was only a tiny village 25 years ago, but with the ferry to Cozumel leaving from the south side of town, it suppose it was inevitable it would grow, and grow it has. If not for all the different languages you hear being bandied about you might think you were in any number of beach towns back home in the States.

The six weeks in Central America ended with a cheap flight home from Cancun.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Belize


After the early morning trip to Tikal we caught a van over to the Belize border. It was a very easy border crossing, in that there was little harassment, honest money changers, and the immigration stations were reasonably close together. The first people we talked to were cab drivers looking to take us down the road to the nearest town...the taxi drivers didn't look much different from the people we'd been seeing in the rest of Central America, and for that reason it was a little strange at first to be speaking English - something we got used to very quickly.

Sadly, by the time we got to Belize City it was too late to get a boat or plane out to the Cayes. Our plan was to spend most of our time in Belize on the Cayes, which is where most tourists in Belize go...for good reason, as Belize City was not the kind of place you really wanted to walk around in the dark. At the recommended restaurant (recommended not only by our hotel desk clerk but also my tour book) I saw two different cockroaches scurrying around. At least we managed to get something to eat and get back to the hotel without getting mugged.

Took the hour-long water taxi out to Caye Caulker the next morning. The 'water taxi' is a large speedboat that makes pretty good time on the trip. As for Caye Caulker...after finding the first hotel we walked into suitable, we decided to take a look around the island and investigate another hotel that was recommended by my tourbook. After buying a beer at their bar we took a little walk out to the pool area and started hob-nobing with the small group of people hanging out and drinking around the pool. Didn't take long to find out that we wouldn't be getting a room at the hotel since the 16 rooms of the hotel were all rented out to the same wedding party.

Long story short, we ended up partying with the wedding party for the next three days, and even attended the wedding. The wedding had about 40 guests and I have to say I was proud to be one of them. The people you meet make the difference in the experiences you have...we spent 3 nights each on two different tourist-oriented islands, Roatan and Caulker. We really enjoyed one experience and not so much the other...precisely due to the great people we met on Caulker as opposed to the more locals' oriented circle on Roatan that we weren't welcome in.

As for Caye Caulker itself, it has a Caribbean atmosphere and is indeed very laid-back. The island has perhaps 1500 people, no paved roads, and no cars...although plenty of golf carts. The island is probably 45% African descendant (speaking Creole, or English when they need to, and providing any number of entrepreneurial services from tours to illegal drugs), 30% Central American immigrant (speaking Spanish and/or English and working in more traditional ventures like food and drink service, 20% tourist (speaking English more often than not and providing the currency lubrication keeping the island afloat), with the other 5% made up of Mayans (speaking broken English and/or Spanish - selling selling arts and crafts), and Chinese shopkeepers (speaking English...at least the numbers anyway, and selling everything else).

We took a fishing trip out to the famous reef, the second longest in the world, located about a mile offshore, and people were reeling in fish one right after another. I'm not much of a fisherman, but I enjoyed snorkeling and watching the weighted lines hit the water, sink to the bottom, get nibbled on by a school of fish, and then reeled in with a fish on the hook more often than not. We ate the fish on a deserted island, about as large as a basketball court, that's for sale for $60,000 apparently.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Leon to San Pedro Sula

So I'm here in San Pedro Sula today. Got here last night. SPS is the fastest growing city in Central America...and for that reason I want to get out of here as soon as possible...fast growing cities in Latin America usually mean disorganization, crime, and filth...no exception here. Only came through here to pick up my cousin at the airport, and then we'll head over to the beach at La Ceibu this evening.

The trip up from Nicaragua was not too bad. I had thought about getting one of the express-direct buses that will carry you between the major cities without stops...all the tourists take these, but decided not to since the express buses that come through Leon (ah yes, I did spend 3 uneventful days in Leon, chilling out at the house/hotel of a guy I met during the climb of Concepcion) go to El Salvador and I wanted to go to Tegucigalpa. So rather than the bigger bus, I managed to take a series of vans that got me across the border and near Tegucigalpa. The vans are a good system...they leave whenever they're full and take you direct. They're more cramped and uncomfortable, but since the trips are never longer than 1.5 hours or so it's not too bad at all. And faster. Completed the trip to the Honduran capital in a larger, local bus that covered 90 miles in 4.5 hours. Ouch. Arriving in Tegucigalpa after dark. I hate arriving in these bigger cities after dark but managed to do the same thing last night here in SPS.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Entrepreneurship

A lot of people work for themselves in Latin America. The streets are full of vendors selling clothes, food and drink, pirated CDs and DVDs, and the like. Here in Nicaragua you see a lot of people selling nuts. Many taxis are unofficial with the drivers working for themselves. One gets accustomed to people entering the buses before they leave or during the trip in an attempt to sell candy or drinks or knickknacks. And the bus stations will be full of people selling different items.

It certainly isn´t very efficient to have 100 different people selling different random items in a bus station, rather than one large store with 3 employees. But then a larger store requires a certain amount of capital and investment. Studies have shown that small loans of money to small businesses in developing nations have boasted of impressive returns. In fact, this type of lending to small businesses in developing countries in a field in and of itself, microfinance.
I got to thinking about all of this after reading an article in an old The Economist magazine, er newspaper, that I picked up. The article was about the ´new´ middle class worldwide, whose development everyone thinks is important. The general view of the middle class worldwide is of a group of budding entrepreneurs, but in the opinion of the authors these people are not very entrepreneurial and would rather have a salary and work for someone else. Having your own little petty business seems to fit with the lifestyle down here...it´s pretty laid back, you don´t really have to work very hard; just kind of sit around and talk with your friends in your little stall and hang out until a customer comes around. Many of these businesses aren´t very business-like...you´ll be ignored when you walk in and have to call attention to yourself to get service. When you work for someone else you are usually going to have to work a little harder I would think.

I perceive Americans as they´d rather work hard for a set number of hours in a day and then enjoy their freetime, whereas down here work and play are more intertwined, and/or they don´t care as much about earning money. I don´t know though...with the advent of cell phones and Blackberrys, and people becoming more and more connected and accessible, perhaps our work and leisure hours are becoming just as mixed as the shop owner chatting with his friends at the sidewalk stall. But I´d say our work habits are probably more influenced by the fact that we´re a developed economy than some sort of cultural difference. Owning their own petty business is more of a situation they are forced into rather than what they really want...and for this reason they don´t often invest in the business to really grow it.

One of the more capital-intensive businesses that you see all over the place in Latin America is the pharmacy. They´re on nearly every corner it seems, which makes me want to draw a comparison between the people here and the Iraqis I worked with who thought pills were the answer to every problem... At any rate, a pharmacy kind of has to be located in a building to give it a bit of a sense of respectability...nobody wants to buy aspirin from a guy running a corner stall. And just as the locally-owned pharmacy has given way to the nationwide chains in the States, eventually these corner vendors will be replaced by larger enterprises. In Panama this seems to have happened...but not so much in the poorer countries like Nicaragua and Peru. Political and economic stability certainly provides a nice foundation for these types of investments.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Managua

Managua...the city that was...or could have been. The photo is of an overturned citymap. I think it pretty well sums up the state of tourism in Managua.

Got into Managua around mid-day. I didn´t want to spend a night in Managua as I had heard it was expensive (relatively), dangerous, and just generally not tourist-friendly. So instead I decided to walk and cab around the town for a little while. This is one big advantage of traveling light...my backpack is so small I can easily carry it around all day if I need to even in this heat (April being the hottest month here)...thus, no need to check into a hotel just to drop off my stuff.

So had the ´lunch for 2´ at Pizza Hut and then walked over to check out the New Cathedral. It´s built like a concrete bunker...for good reason...the Old Cathedral was partially destroyed by an earthquake in the ´50s and then further damaged in the big quake of ´72. But the Old Cathedral is still there in the ´city center´...looking rather lonely...waiting for restoration that will probably never happen...emblematic of downtown as a whole.

´Downtown´ Managua is like that...empty and forlorn; kids playing soccer in an empty square next to the National Museum building. The ´72 quake destroyed much of the city, most of which was never rebuilt. Not sure if this is due to lack of funds or fear, but the result is a city without a city center; the million or so inhabitants mostly live in the outskirts. For the few minutes that I walked around in the old downtown area I actually saw more ¨Student Driver¨cars than cabs. Bereft and forsaken. When I finally did find a cab, I paid him a few bucks to drive me to some of the sites in the area, of which there were very few. Managua sits on the lakefront with Lake Managua...but the lakefront itself has very little development.

The cab driver turned out to be the highlight of Managua as we shared a few observations about the lack of gas in the gas station (Nicaragua´s president being a good friend of Hugo Chavez), and enjoyed a ´nickel bag´ of water sold by the street vendors. Yes, the water comes in a little bag...tear and drink. Well worth it...it´s 95 degrees plus here every day.

Leon Viejo

...or "Old Leon" was the first capital of Nicaragua...back in the early 1500´s. Nicaragua´s capitals have quite the history of destruction - this one was destroyed by an earthquake in 1610 and then buried in ash in the many eruptions that followed over the centuries.

Archaeologists began to unearth it in the 1960´s and it´s now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I once heard a tour guide in Vietnam (his name was Mr. Tam, a Vietnamese national speaking fluent English with a south London accent) refer to UNESCO as ¨sugar daddy¨ when talking about its pecuniary contributions to Hue City. At any rate, due to this exalted status I figured it must be worth a look, so I took myself to the nearby town Puerto Momotombo, located on the lakefront with Lake Managua. The trip out involved several different bus rides on the ole school bus. Most of the buses in Nicaragua are former school buses from the States. Not sure if they shift the seats around to get more rows in there, but the seats are a little tighter than I remember from childhood...in fact, it seems the farther north I go in Latin America the less legroom I have on the bus. I also managed to crack my skull on the low opening when entering the bus from the backdoor. Some things never change.

Got to Puerto Momotombo around 6 in the evening to find that the town has no hotels of any kind. A bar owner on the beach offered me a hammock, but with the high winds I demurred and he was nice enough to find a woman that would rent me a room for a night, which she apparently does with some regularity. As I turned off the light in my cave-like room (I should mention the house had no running water, and was constructed more or less like a barn) I decided to test out my flashlight...and shined my light on two ´bats´circling around in the room. I use the quotes around bats because I was convinced at first that they were bats, and thus ran out of the room, opened the doors and turned on the lights to get rid of them. I then proceeded to get my first use of my mosquito net as I reckoned it was worth the 10 minutes to set up the net rather than a bat-bite and rabies treatment. Slept ok beneath my safety shield of a net. The next day when I told the landlady about the bats she laughed and said they had to be butterflies, not bats. And on second-thought, they probably were butterflies. But they were really big butterflies. Scared half to death by two butterflies.

As for Leon Viejo, I had hoped to see a working excavation site, but it was not to be...nothing to see but a few concrete and brick walls. The photo is a sculpture demonstrating a killing and torture technique the Spanish used on the natives...sic the dogs on them. The sculpture was done in 2001; it´s typical of the construction here in Nicaragua in that it´s falling apart already...or more likely they wanted it to look old...

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Granada

Granada is a well-known stop for tourists. I thought it would be a nice little colonial-style town...but it turned out to be a bit of a dump. The colonial-style buildings were still there despite the repeated lootings and burnings by English pirates and our good friend William Walker. It had a nice touristy section too, of course, but the rest was pretty rundown. Walked around for a bit after dark during the one night I spent there, and was greeted by chubby prostitutes soliciting, young kids begging, and older kids trying to strike up conversations for undisclosed motives. I just try to avoid them all.

The people do tend to treat you like a walking cash machine. But I just can´t see rewarding someone with money for bothering me. And the way I see it, their governments need to learn to deal with their own people. Not my responsibility. Of course, that doesn´t do much for the poor soul on the corner begging...but then I´m more into long-term solutions rather than temporary fixes.

As far as responding to the begging goes I still haven´t gotten my standard operating procedure figured out other than the not giving money part. I approach different situations in different ways depending on the beggar, time of day, neighborhood, etc. During the day I´m more likely to respond with words if kids are asking. They ask me for a dollar...I´ll put on a bemused expression and ask them for a dollar. This usually brings a pause, followed by words of surprise and then a lot of unintelligible chattering in Spanish. Entertaining, but this type of engagement has always brought more questions and attention. The better approach with kids is just a smile and a shake of the head...once they figure out you speak a little Spanish they will want to talk.

If someone asks me for money as I´m walking past their position or have already walked past I´ll almost always ignore them. Older people, women with kids...I´ll usually give them eye contact, put on a sympathetic expression and walk right on by. Middle-aged healthier looking men that beg or talk to me I´ll look in the eye just to let them know I´m aware of them and not afraid, but I´ll try not to challenge them with my eyes or expression...respectful acknowledgement. At night, I mostly just feign ignorance or deafness and keep moving.

I don´t mean to come off like I ignore everyone though, or treat them with contempt...most of the people, and especially the kids, I smile at and that almost always brings a smile in return.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

San Pedro del Sur

I headed down to the beach town of San Juan del Sur to relax and try to do some surfing. San Juan has a beautiful little harbor with a nice swimming beach. The surfing beaches are a car ride away but plenty of services exist to get you out there and back for cheap.

And Nicaragua is cheap. My bill at my hotel on Ometepe after 2 days and 3 nights was only $38 and that included the room (room only had a bed and fan but what else do you need?), most of my meals, a few beers, and lots of bottled water. My hotel here in San Juan is $6 a night. Meals in restaurants usually run $3 to $4 for a good meal. A beer is under a buck.

Mark Twain came through here and said that San Juan consisted of "a few tumble-down frame shanties" and that the town was full of "horses, mules...and half-clad yellow natives". Twain certainly had a way of putting things. The town has changed and developed, but probably not all that much. Most of the nicer homes are foreign-owned. The locals' homes are still pretty ramshackle. The half-clad people these days are more likely to be foreigners.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Lake Nicaragua

Lake Nicaragua...the 10th biggest freshwater lake in the world...and home to the only freshwater sharks in the world. With the San Juan River flowing out of the lake all the way into the Caribbean, one can cross almost all of Nicaragua by boat. In fact, many Americans did just that during the Gold Rush of the mid-1800s. Nicaragua with its lake and river and the narrower Panamanian isthmus were the two main crossing routes in those days. In fact, there was a whole section of the Panama Canal Museum in Panama dedicated to the misbehavior of the ´49s in Panama. Mark Twain actually traveled through Nicaragua on his way from San Francisco to the east coast in 1866, and apparently really enjoyed the experience. This was all before the trans-continental railroad was completed of course.

The ferry from San Carlos on the east side of the lake over to Isla Ometepe took about 11 hours. With a 2:30 pm departure we arrived very late. I showed up around 1:45 for the alleged 2:00 departure...this would be important as all the good spots to hang your hammock were already taken. I didn´t have a hammock anyway, but could have bought one for $2. People would just string them up whereever. It helps to be in the know sometimes.

Ometepe


The big island in the lake...

It´s two big features are hard to miss...the two large volcanoes looming up from either side of the island. The island itself probably has 40,000 people or so; fairly sparsely populated. It has one ring road that is half'paved with premade small blocks of cement. You´re more likely to see bicycles than any other form of transportation, but there are about 300 cars on the island...and quite a few horses. Ometepe also boasts of a really nice beach on the east side where you can swim in what seems an ocean but drink the water if you so desire. I was quite enjoying myself over there on Santo Domingo Beach, and marveling how I had found such an idyllic location with almost no other human activity in the area, when the gnats showed up. At first I thought I was being pelted with sand but quickly realized it was gnats that were all about me. This fortunately did not happen in San Carlos as I was warned by the note on my door that it could...but they were enough to chase me back to Altagracia on the other end of the island. Nicaragua is, in general, kind of like that...in the sense that things are good...but not quite there where you would want them to be: beautiful beach...with gnat plagues...nice, cheap hotels...no A-C...bicycle rental...gears don´t work...friendly people...incomprehensible Spanish and shortchange you in nearly every monetary transaction.

But if you want those nicer things Costa Rica is just down the block. I prefer it here....

Volcan Concepcion


I decided to climb the bigger of the two volcanoes here on Ometepe...Volcan Concepcion. VC measures 1610 meters or so and is apparently one of the most symmetrical volcanoes in the world. It is also active, having erupted just last year.

It is advised to go with a guide since people have gotten lost and died on the volcano in recent years. The first one I talked to said unequivocably that we would leave at 5 am to begin the ascent since that is what his other hiker wanted to do...the discussion abruptly terminated. Found Ivan a short time later and he was agreeable to a 6 am start and a $30 payment. Considering the difficulty of the hike and the fact that it took nearly 11 hours, $30 is working hard for your dollar. And yes, dollars are quite acceptable down here for most, but not all, transactions. As for Ivan...I quickly realized he wasn´t going to be much of a guide because he kept attempting to give me excuses not to make it up to the top...i.e. the volcano is active, a third of climbers don´t make it...1000 meters is a good achievement, etc. I really missed my MacchuPicchu guide, Miguel. He, you wanted to impress. And he wouldn´t have allowed excuses to not make it, although I didn´t need any outside motivation. Ivan's idea of telling me about the flora and fauna was to point out a flower and say...¨Look, how pretty!¨

Anyway, back to the hike. The starting off point, Altagracia, is only 40 meters or so above sea level, so we would be climbing up nearly 1600 meters...and back down of course. This would be the most altitude I´ve covered in one day.

The day was hot and the hike was steep...a fight against gravity nearly every step of the way, both up and down. From about the 500m asl point upwards it was like climbing a staircase...only steeper by about 10 degrees. Blessedly, the volcano was covered in clouds from about 800 meters upward...making the hike much cooler and more pleasant with the ever-increasing wind. The clouds did, however, necessitate an hour-long wait and rest period 15 minutes from the top while we hoped for the clouds to clear. During that time an English fellow going with the first guide I talked to the night before went past us on the way down...good thing they left at 5 to get to the top early and have it be covered by clouds...as it often is until the mid-day suns burns the clouds away.

Left our rest stop around 11:30 and headed up for the last stretch...I immediately noted that the vegetation was starting to disappear and that my hands (the steepness by now had me crawling on all fours) were starting to feel some pretty hot earth...earth not warmed by the sun as we were in the middle of the clouds. Didn´t take long to figure out the earth was being warmed from below.The air also began to smell like sulfur. So as I lay there scratching and clawing to get up the last few steps, to my eternal ignominy a Norwegian woman using hiking poles blew right past me to the top. Nice lady though...lol.

We reached the summit around noon and had to wait 20 minutes for the good views. Just when you would think it was going to clear out a bit, the wind would blow more clouds up the mountainside to swamp you again. Clouds on one side blocking the view to the east and steam from the volcano blocking your view to the west. 20 uncomfortable minutes for me...keep in mind it´s a volcano...one step beyond the summit puts you tumbling into the gas and steam-spewing crater. I didn´t really like being near that edge, but once the clouds cleared out I felt much better and was rewarded with the beautiful view...I had hoped to see both the Atlantic and Pacific from the top but couldn´t really make out the Atlantic. Nevertheless, enjoyed the feeling of being on top of a volcano, on an island in the middle of a lake, on an isthmus connecting two great continents, dividing two mighty oceans.

Coming down was long. We couldn´t really do it much faster than the ascent due to the angle and the rocks. We did get to see a family of howler monkeys and one of the guides was able to converse with them quite well.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fpWM7sovbPY

Coffee

After my night out in San Carlos I was greeted with a cup of coffee with breakfast. I should mention that I don´t drink coffee...I´d finished I think two cups in my life before this event. Hard to say why I haven´t drank more...I guess I´ve never liked hot drinks and I never really had an interest in drinking too much caffeine because I always end up chemically addicted and hate suffering the headaches to get off it. I am, however, well aware of the uses people have for coffee as I´ve seen people drinking it around the different places I´ve worked. Yes, I have worked before...but not much and it seems like forever since.

Anyway, so went ahead and tried it...with a spoonful of sugar added...and...I enjoyed it. Thoroughly. The Nicaraguan coffee tastes incredible...nothing like what I had before. And now I see why people line up at Starbucks and pay so much. I will not be one of those people...but when I´m in a position to take advantage of a caffeine boost and have good coffee available I may have to choose a cup of Joe.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

San Carlos, Nicaragua


Can´t help but laugh when you see something like that on the inside of your hotel room door...thankfully, we were spared ¨la plaga de chayules¨.


Took a longboat up the Rio Frio to San Carlos, Nicaragua. The boat is pretty much the only way to cross the border into Nicaragua from Costa Rica except via plane, or the PanAmerican Highway further west. Ride actually cost about $10, which for an hour long ride is pretty steep around these parts. That driver has a good business going, crowding 50 or 60 people into a longboat and scooting down the river a ways. Learned that local monkeys swim the 30 meters across the river when they need to, although didn't see this.

As for San Carlos...well, nothing really there, but I wanted to take the ferry across Lake Nicaragua to Isla Ometepe so kind of had to transit through the place. They have an old fort (re)built in the 1700´s that was apparently used as recently as the last century to fight against invading US Marines...amazing how many times there have been American troops on the ground in Central America. At any rate, I didn´t go see the fort. My tourbook advised me if I needed to spend the night in San Carlos I should probably start drinking as soon as possible, advice that I took to heart with a nice couple from Barcelona. They made me feel better by mentioning that they don´t really understand the local Spanish very well either.

Out and about San Carlos

After my little coffee baptism I felt sufficiently stimulated to go for a run down the dirt road leading from San Carlos out to the airfield. I had hoped there wouldn´t be many people out and about as I always feel strange exercising in public, but I was to be disappointed...and got some pretty strange looks from people no doubt wondering why anyone would voluntarily exert themselves in the 11 AM heat. Nicaraguans take staying in the shade very seriously. Riding the local bus, people will just flag the bus down from the side of the road to get on...no bus stops really. This makes sense to me...where it´s sparsely populated. But when the get off, they´ll treat the bus like a taxi. One person will get off in front of their home...and then 15 meters further another person will get off...10 meters further another person. I´m not sure if this is to stay out of the sun or out of laziness, but if you can get away with it why not? I should also mention that 11 AM here is really midday or so because the sun comes up incredibly early in Central America. We´re east of much of the Eastern Time Zone in the US and yet here we´re on the same time as Denver right now.

Managed to get out to the airfield without passing out. Had read that the town had it´s own airstrip with two flights a day going out to Granada so wanted to check it out. And it was, not surprisingly, a dirt airstrip. I´ve never taken off from one of those before. San Carlos would, fortunately, not be the first dirt runway for me as I managed to get on the ferry later that day. Had I missed it for whatever reason I would have had to wait for the next one three days later or take my chances with the flight.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Zipline

Did the zip-line tour. It wasn´t that great but kind of something you feel like you should do...it was, after all, probably the only time in my life I´ll hang from a cable and zip 750 meters over a rain forest. The Tarzan swing was pretty good I have to admit...the guides kind of had to push me off as I wasn´t ready quite as fast as they wanted me to be. Just wanted to be sure you know. The wildlife/plantlife attractions are mostly lost on me.

I reckon standing near that waterfall in the picture is the safest way to experience the force of a minor hurricane...a waterfall that size can generate a lot of wind in an enclosed area. Tomorrow I´m going to try to make it to San Carlos, Nicaragua on the eastern shore of the world´s tenth largest freshwater lake, Lake Nicaragua. I´m ready to get on out of Costa Rica...all the locals keep talking to me in English and I hate that. I´d say give them another 15 years and this country will be more or less bi-lengual. Costa Rica is also fairly pricey, especially in these heavily touristed areas. In Nicaragua I´ll be more off the beaten path, which should be cheap and uncomfortable.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Arenal

Arenal is a famous volcano here in Costa Rica...huge tourist attraction as it has spouted lava continuously since it last erupted in ´68. Went out to see it on a nightwalk with a few other tourists. One lady kept complaining that ¨I just can´t believe there´s no insurance if something happens on the trails.¨ Everyone needs that little safety blanket of insurance I guess; heaven forbid we be responsible for ourselves.

Pretty cool seeing lava from a distance in the night...but the better thing was listening to the boulders come bounding down the mountain. The lava hits air, becomes rock, and down it comes - all day, every day. We were over 2km away but could hear them pretty easily. With that and the howler monkeys I felt...well, close to nature I guess you´d say.

Hiked up an adjacent mountain today to get a good look at Arenal...quite a pretty shape to it. A true volcano. Emblematic. The ´mountain´ today that I hiked up was a dormant volcano with a lagoon in the crater. The lagoon was shaped like a football field but probably 200 meters in width. I´ll swim out in the ocean or across a small bay, but I just don´t feel comfortable swimming in an enclosed body of water like that. Not sure why that is.

Friday, April 4, 2008

San Jose

Not a lot to do here in San Jose so I'm going to head out of here this afternoon. In the week I've been in Central America I've only stayed in one place more than one night. But I have to stay moving to cover all of it in only 6 weeks. Nobody really spends much time here anyway...it's more of a weigh station for people on their way out to the wilderness areas. I spent the day wandering about the town...so far I've seen very few street signs in Central America...maybe one in 10 intersections will have one sign somewhere if you look long enough. And occasionally, you'll see the random sign on a building telling you what street you're on, but mainly you have to navigate with landmarks and by counting blocks...or just keep asking directions.

As far as asking directions goes I take a different approach down here. At home I almost never ask for directions. I generally have a map with me, or a pretty good idea of where I am going so to have to ask directions seems a failure on my part...thus I do not do it. Also I like to figure things out and since the layout of the roads usually make sense one should be able to figure out where they are going without too much trouble. Here, on the other hand, I cannot count on the road grid making sense and more often than not have no map, so I ask directions. Furthermore, it is an excuse to talk to someone and practice my Spanish. However, the help I get is generally very limited in its value. Oftentimes, the locals will not seem to know what the name of the street we are standing on is or will reference points or buildings that I am unfamiliar with. And they generally give directions by saying -go up 3 blocks- or -at the corner go down a block- without telling you which corner or other point of reference from your initial location. But you normally can determine which way is -down- or -up- since a lot of these cities are near the ocean, other body of water, or mountain. I tend to have a hard time with the directions, in any case, and generally just head off for a ways in the direction they point and then ask someone else.

At any rate, the only thing of note I did here was visit the embassy to get more pages in my passport. Surprisingly I got that accomplished in a little over an hour despite the hordes of people inside. Turned out to be an entertaining hour as an older, retired gentlemen sat next to me in the 'US passport help' line and began by asking me with a smirk..."What did you lose your passport?" I informed I was there to get more pages and he mentioned that he had to do that 4 times with his last passport and that it was as thick as a dictionary when it expired. He also apparently fought off armed Mexican bandits with a wrench when they attacked his 'convoy' when he was moving down here, rode 36 hours non-stop from Reno to Omaha on a 600cc motorcycle, and was involved in the creation of a water-powered dune buggy. The head man on the dune buggy project was apparently poisoned by the government because the government is in the pockets of the Saudis. Entertaining if nothing else, although I think the information he had about retiring in Panama was at least half accurate. I also talked with two other guys that had had ALL their stuff stolen (which is definitely something you pray doesn't ever happen); one of them said he didn't have a police report because the incident happened right in front of police so he didn't see the point. CR seems fairly safe but if you don't watch your stuff someone will most definitely relieve you of it.

The photos are of cows...what passes for art down here... They are all over the city in different parks and tourist areas. The park with this particular cow is home to a large memorial to the defeat of William Walker. Mr. Walker and his private army tried to make several different Latin American coutries/regions into US states during the mid 1800´s. He was actually tried and acquitted of ¨conducting an illegal war¨ in Baja. In the end, he failed in all attemps obviously, and was executed by the Hondurans at the behest of the British in whose interests his ends were at odds . The Nicaraguans (whom he actually ruled over briefly) apparently celebrate his defeat every year, although I´m not sure why the celebration given Nicaragua´s status as the poorest country in the hemisphere save Haiti. But then a win is a win and national pride is a funny thing...¨it may not be that great...but it´s ours!¨

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Panama Canal

Didn´t really see the Canal till my 4th and final day in PC. Went to the Miraflores Locks where there´s an observation platform allowing you to see the ships as they get lifted up by the water. Some of the fun facts: the 3 different steps of locks on each side (Pacific, Caribbean) lift the ships a total of 27 meters, 70% of the canal traffic is US-related coming or going (mostly coming obviously), they recently started constructing a 3rd set of locks that will be wider so as to accommmodate the bigger and bigger vessels being constructed...to be finished in 2014. The US ran the canal from 1914 when it opened to the last day of 1999. Kind of hard to believe the US held on to a slice of Panama and kept it as US territory for so much time, although without US technical expertise, organizational skills, and logistical capability the Canal certainly would not have been completed as early as it was or maybe never. The canal is now run by a Chinese company (statistics indicate it´s being run more efficiently than before)...and the expansion of the canal will largely serve Chinese interests by allowing larger and larger ships through, thereby achieving economies of scale in transportation costs. The result of all this being we get to sell ourselves to our good Chinese friends even faster.

The largest ships pay up to $300,000 or so today to cross, depending on weight. During US administration it was mainly run on a non-profit basis. One thing I´d wondered is what keeps the Panamanians from price gouging on the tolls since no obvious competitor exists. I can´t answer that question exactly but will say that other alternatives do exist and would become more viable as canal tolls go up. Alternatives include the Suez Canal, railroad traffic across the States, new canals in Colombia, Mexico, or Nicaragua, and even a Northwest Passage ice route taking advantage of rising global temperatures and possibly a Pacific warm water current to melt ice in the Arctic to create an opening in the ice.

I actually stayed a night on old Fort Clayton, which was the US Army base down here that closed when we turned everything over to the Panamanians. Not hard to tell that the area once had military bases...the aligned rows of housing, sports fields, the airfield at Albrook, and the rest are all still there, serving different functions. It all created for me a bit of nostalgia for a bygone era. The Panamanians seem to be making good use of it all.

Colon



Drove across the isthmus to see the canal from the Caribbean side. Also wanted to the town of Colon, which is known for its shopping, having a tax-free zone. The propaganda I read talked up Colon pretty good...but it turned out to be a dump. Didn´t even feel comfortable enough to go walking about the town...not that I was afraid mind you but just didn´t see much reason to get out of my Chevy Spark rental car. The Spark was so small I could probably have flipped it on its side singlehandedly if I´d wanted...but it served to get me over and back and around Panama City for a day. Since Colon didn´t turn out to be much I took a little drive down the Caribbean coast to see Portabelo and the old Spanish fort. Not much there, but beautiful beaches...not hard to see why so many foreigners are retiring down here given the beaches and low cost of living (Big Mac value meal is $3.40 including tax). Also doesn´t hurt that they use dollars.

Panama is actually experiencing quite a real estate boom, thanks largely in part to foreign buyers. The skyline in PC is already quite impressive and there are quite a few skyscrapers going up...apparently one is being built from which you´ll be able to see both oceans on a clear day. For me, it´s hard not to think they are overbuilding though, given the global economic climate now.

Arrived San Jose

Spent much of the last three days on buses having traveled here to San Jose from Panama City. Stopped one night in Santa Catalina...left there so fast I didn´t even take any pictures. No real reason to go onward so fast other than the fact that I´m in a bit of a hurry to get to Nicaragua...Santa Catalina was a perfect place for me to surf but wanted to get on down the highway a bit so one day was enough. Last night I slept in David which turned out to be one of the cleanest cities I´ve seen in Latin America...whether this is due to the increased and increasing foreign/retiree presence is anyone´s guess. Crossing the border took an hour and a half...and the landscape does change significantly here in Costa Rica as opposed to Panama...where Panama was flat, somewhat brown, and deforested CR is greener, much more mountainous, and jungley.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Panama City

Made it here to Panama. Had to argue a bit with the ticket agent in the airport so as not to check my bag in...my backpack is borderline size to have to check...but I got away with carrying it on. Good thing because the ticket I bought would have sent my luggage to Colombia. What happened was I bought a ticket to Cartagena connecting through Panama City. The cheapest direct one-way was $700 or so, but I could buy tickets to Miami or Cartagena connecting in Panama City for $400 or so. At first it did not make much sense to me that it would cost twice as much to fly half the distance...but then I realized I was looking at it from the wrong angle. Airlines that dominate a niche market as COPA Airlines does in Panama City can charge what they want since other carriers are at a competitive disadvantage to fly there...but if COPA wants to compete in Colombia or Miami they have to have competitive prices...and you end up with seemingly senseless pricing schemes.

Had to pay $5 at immigration for a Tourist Card. Cannot stand little nickel and dime garbage like that but I am sure it makes since in someone's world...although seems strange that a country with tax-free zones, legalized gambling and prostitution, and liberal banking laws would have such a petty fee like that. Anyway, the lady I sat next to on the plane ended up giving me a ride into town despite the fact that we had to ride 4 people in the back of a 5 series BMW...the 18 year-old daughter rode on the aunt's lap. Really nice family. As for my initial impressions of the city...it's clear there is much more American influence here than down in South America. Wider roads, highways, fast-food joints, bigger cars, more franchised establishments rather than mom and pop stores...almost like being back home. Being on the Caribbean, Panama has quite a lot of racial diversity. The people seem much louder as well. The area of town I am in is somewhat seedy but seems safe enough.

Took one of the local buses down to the ¨Casco Viejo¨ which is the old part of town. The local buses are school buses...makes me wonder where they came from...perhaps left by our military on their way out...? Incidentally, Panama City also has the biggest bus station I´ve seen...I´d say about 300 meters long...more like an airport terminal...but then with a country this size you really don´t need to fly much so the buses get a lot of use, just like everywhere else in Latin America. Oh, and I should mention that each bus has its own custom paint job. The Panamanians take their vehicles seriously.

Anyway, you can ride around quite a while for a quarter. The old section of town reminded me in many ways of Cartagena. Very poor...but some beautiful old architecture and an interesting memorial documenting the history of efforts to build the canal before its eventual success when the US took over the operation abandoned by the French.

Earthquake

Had a nice little earthquake this morning here in Lima. Felt like someone was shaking the bed. Lasted probably 10-15 seconds...most of that time I spent looking for my shorts so I could open the door and stand in the doorway. Not sure yet what the magnitude was but I´m guessing not much as I didn´t see much in the news about it, although did see that apparently there was one earlier during the night that I did not feel at all.

The photo is the Panama City skyline.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Bus reflections

The bus ride back to Lima took 18 hours but was reasonably comfortable, though I´ll never understand why the bus company feels compelled to put on a movie at high volume at 7 am.

Not much up there between Mancora and Lima. Peru basically has 3 climate-terrains...desert on the coast, jungle in the East, and Andes in between. The desert coast is definitely desert...makes southern California look like a rain forest. I had wondered before why the Incans settled in the craggy Andes rather than on the coast...now I know why.

Definitely been struggling a bit with the language since I got back to the Spanish-speaking world, and I was only gone a couple weeks. Being sick did not help; my mind felt very slow during that time. I come to realize consistency is key. It´s tough for me to turn the Spanish on and off like a switch, but once I get it going for a little while I tend to do pretty well.

Done quite a lot of traveling alone in the past year. It certainly has its advantages...the biggest one being that you meet more people along the way from all over the world and the local area. And having all that time to yourself does help you get to know yourself...recognize how you´re feeling inside at a particular time and deal with it. On the other hand, I think all that time alone has made me a little selfish unfortunately...now that I´m spending a lot of time with someone else I´m starting to realize that I´m very accustomed to doing things my way and don´t have much/enough patience for others´ needs/desires. I´ll have to make some adjustments.

Mancora

Got sick the second day in Mancora. Hard to pinpoint the cause...but generally I would say the cause was Peru. I was moderately sick with a stomachache and the attendant digestional/excretory issues last time I entered Peru, and this time was similar except I had it coming out of both ends instead of one. But after a couple of days I felt fairly decent and now nearly a week later I´m 100%. Of the 7 countries I´ve visited in South America Peru is the only one to give me problems.

Mancora is very much known for surfing and I can surf a little bit now after learning in Ecuador 6 months ago. But given that it was Holy Week (big vacation time for people down here) the water was pretty crowded with surfers. Since I don´t have much control I just kind of paddled around out there rather than get in others´ way trying to catch a wave. Good practice anyway though...helped me get the feel a bit, which is good because I´m planning on doing some surfing in Central America in the next few weeks. Sun feels hotter and my skin certainly seems to burn a bit easier this close to the equator.

As for the town itself...it´s pretty undeveloped. Apparently, it used to belong to the Ecuadorians not too long ago but was ceded to Peru after a conflict. That last such conflict only ended in ´95. The strong take from the weak and on down the chain....Chile - Peru-Ecuador. At any rate, I would have thought more modern-style hotels and infrastructure would exist for what seems to be such a well-known vacation spot. You find yourself looking at the sandy beach with the fairly warm water and nice waves and good weather and wondering why there is not more development. I went for a run on the beach toward the north and was stopped by a police officer warning me not to go any further because robberies occur up further. I did it anyway as it was the middle of the day and I simply could not conceive of being robbed on a beach in the middle of the day...but anyway, what surprised me was that it was completely devoid of development of any kind. But given the lack of infrastucture (the highway is the only paved road and it is not exactly high speed, electricity can be spotty and the water...) dodgy land titles (I´m betting you wouldn´t want to just buy a piece of land and let it sit without watching it or building on it, i.e. guarding it), difficulties in arriving from the north (see my entry on crossing the border) and distance from the major population center in the south (see next entry), as well as all the other macro issues involving the Peruvian economy in general, I suppose it´s not surprising that investment really hasn´t taken off yet.

Did not see many North Americans or Europeans about...mostly just Peruvians and Ecuadorians. I tend to want to, well I would not say that I want to avoid my own kind these days...but I enjoy not seeing other Westerners...not sure why....

Monday, March 17, 2008

In retrospect

First mistake - getting off the moto before we got to the bridge. I should have demanded that he drop me off at the bridge rather than in the middle of a chaotic situation.

Second mistake - talking to the money changers. I don´t know why I do things I know not to do...talking to them only invited other scam artists to approach me. Should have just moved purposefully toward the border.

Third mistake - letting my guard down after the first encounter. I let a seemingly friendly person beguile me after dealing with the stressful situation regarding the money changers.

Fourth mistake - not keeping my eye on the money during the exchange...failed to heed the advice that old cab driver gave me back in Cartagena.

Fifth mistake - not hearing (or having them go off) the warning bells when the guy agreed to accept a barter-type payment (sunglasses) rather than the cash that was owed.

Sixth mistake - not tearing up the fake bill and throwing it away. Should not have let someone else try to pass it along.

Oh well, he got me good...good on him.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Border Crossing

Although I don´t have a tourbook with me for Ecuador or Peru (my plans change too fast for my prepartion) I managed to do a bit of research on the border crossing down at Huaquillas. Some internet sites I read called it the most dangerous border crossing in South America...full of thieves. Dangerous...certainly could be I would say as it´s very disorganized and crowded. And walking through a crowd in the heat with your gear by yourself can get a little hairy.

Well, let me back up. Immigration on the Ecuador side of the border is a couple miles from the border itself, on the outskirts of the town of Huaquillas. I waited in a line of about 30 people for roughly 45 minutes before I got my stamp and was ready to move on. A kid had given me a bit of advice and waited for me so I allowed him to drive me on his motorbike into town. He was supposed to drop me off in front of the bridge that goes over the river marking the international boundary. Instead he dropped me off in front of some money changers. I´m well aware of the fact that a lot of these guys are scammers and that lots of fake money floats about...but I decided to check them out anyway. They offered me a reasonable rate for my $20 (not too high, not too low) so I had a look at the 50 sol note they wanted to give me. I have to say it looked pretty good from all angles. Now, I´ve seen videos in banks on how to recognize fake money so I had some idea on how to tell if it was fake or not. The holographs seemed to be there and the money did not tear easily as paper money is apt to do. The money down here is made of some kind of fabric much like ours. Anyway, the money seemed real to me, but I really didn´t like those guys so I didn´t change with them although I was receiving plenty of pressure to do so. I know that you don´t really have to have local money many times...you can use dollars...so I reckoned I´d just wait till I found a machine.

So I was feeling pretty good about myself after having avoided what I thought was a scam...as I walked away from those guys I was approached by another crook...we conversed about things and he told me I was probably right to not fool around with those guys. He offered to take me the rest of the way across the border and over to the Peruvian immigration located a mile or so from the boundary (much like the Ecuadorean side). Things went well with him, for $8 he took me across the bridge, through Peruvian Immigration and over to the nearest town called Tumbes, roughly 20 minutes away. $8 is not a great price for that service but I was tired and wanted to get going and not worry about saving a couple bucks.

So we got to the end of the road and he dropped me off in front of a van that was heading down to my destination of Mancora. As he stopped a bunch of guys start jabbering at me and trying to grab my bag to throw it in their van so I´d go with them. So as I´m fighting them off, I gave him a $20 for the $8 trip since I only had a $5 and a bunch of 20´s in my pocket. He returned my $20 saying he didn´t have change for a $20...so I argued a bit with him and eventually agreed to give him my $5 and my sunglasses (purchased in Lima 2 months ago for $3). This seemed fair to me so I went over to a different van service, offered to pay and was refused payment in dollars. Thus, I went off to the more ´official´ money changers who then informed me my $20 was fake. Upon examination...it was. The bill looked genuine...but what you have to go by is feel I´ve learned. The counterfeits are not going to be printed on fabric like the real ones...they´ll be made of paper and someone of experience can tell. The guy who called it out as fake took all of a millisecond to denounce it as fake. Anyway, what must have happened was my good friend the driver must have somehow switched it when I gave it so him during all the commotion. And so I was tricked and played for a fool. Taken for a $20. Honestly, I think I´d rather lose 1K in the stock market than lose $20 to a scam artist...but you can´t let these things get to you. I reckon I´m luckily this is the first time I´ve been scammed down here. With all the forewarning I got from my tourbook I should have known better, but then hindsight is always 20/20.

As far as the scams and thievings go...I´ve been very preoccupied with guarding my gear and pockets from pick-pockets since I first came to this continent 7 months ago. I generally don´t allow people to get too close to me as a safety measure. But what I think is more common, based on things I´ve seen, heard about, and been a part of, is trickery. Distractions play a big part in somehow parting you from what is yours...sometimes willingly. They also like to get you when you´re vulnerable with all of your gear with you. Between watching your bag, trying to figure out the conversation in Spanish, and dealing with people speaking to you from every direction it can get easy to lose focus on the $$, and that´s how they got me.

Oh well, as far as my new fake $20 goes...I´d thought briefly about passing it on to some other poor bastard. I have no doubt I could get away with it in the States as people don´t really check and just aren´t as aware of it. As I recounted the story to a young woman while I waited for the van, I ended up just giving it to her, as by that point I just wanted to forget the whole thing, and furthermore wanted no part in being a thief like the rest by trying to pass it on. She sympathized with me quite a bit, calling those guys shameless thieves...but then she goes and puts the bill in her purse. When I asked her 5 minutes later what she was going to do with it she tried to tell me that she´d given it to a different lady that had just left, which I know did not happen...she planned on using it herself at some point. Talk about shameless!

At any rate, I finally got to Mancora where I will spend the week. Seems very nice....

Back to Peru

Got the late bus out of Quito toward Peru. I figured when I only paid $10 for a 14-hour ride I would probably be the only foreigner on the bus...which turned out to be true. Prices can be cheaper here though since gas is apparently subsidized given that it costs a mere $1.50 a gallon and only about a buck for diesel. I tend to not be a big fan of government interference in market conditions, but I suppose subsidizing gas in poorer countries like Ecuador could have beneficial affects for the economy...though for richer countries with alternatives at their disposal I don´t agree with it in this day and age.

Anyway, wasn´t too bad of a trip. The buses in Ecuador tend to lock the bathroom and make stops every few hours to allow people some relief. I like this system better as I for some reason tend to end up sitting in the back by the bathroom and the traffic and smells can take a bit of the enjoyment out of the ride. Apparently, the have some executive style luxury buses here in Ecuador but I´ve yet to see one. So I managed to get very little sleep...something that may have been a factor in what happened later.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Back in Quito

Started my Latin American journeys here in August so it´s a bit of a homecoming. It was pretty cool to get off the plane, be the first one out since I didn´t check a bag, and then walk with a sense of purpose right through all the people trying to sell you stuff...able to do this since I know the area obviously. I´m staying with the same mother and son that I stayed with before. They´re really cool and never tire of telling me how much they like having me here...I must just be a helluva guy...lol.

Anyway, I do have a bit more perspective now than I had before. Ecuador is definitely a poor country. Probably not as poor as Peru but poor. The other countries I´ve visited down here (Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Venezuela, and C0lombia) certainly had better infrastructure and less begging. But I have to say the people here and in Peru are very nice. Definitely my favorites would be the Colombians, Peruvians, and Ecuadorians. I´m still amazed at how nice Bogota was...definitely my favorite city I´ve seen down here so far. The kidnappings and security issues, or shall I say the perception of kidnappings and insecurity since these problems have largely been solved, must be costing Colombia billions in tourism because that is one beautiful country.

The other day I heard Chile described on NPR as a third-world country, which to me is absolutely ridiculous. Chile is a very clean, developed nation full of educated people. Anything but third-world. To me, when you can´t drink the water from the tap (Peru, Ecuador) and/or you have to throw your toilet paper in a receptacle rather than flush it (Peru, Ecuador oftentimes, and some places in Argentina) then you´re in a third-world country. Argentina is not 3rd-world either in my view...although the economy has had it´s problems.

Anyway, back to Quito...well, not doing much here other than tooling about. Went to the embassy to get more pages sown into my passport (a silly sense of achievement it is to completely fill a passport with stamps), but they inf0rmed me they only do that Monday-Thursday...I thought, ´damn, just because the embassy is in Latin America doesn´t mean we have to work (or not) like the locals....´ Wish I would´ve argued with them about it and not taken no for an answer but I tend to be less inclined to argue in Spanish. Oh well.

I´ll take the bus down to Peru Saturday night to meet up with a friend and do some surfing in Mancora.

http://www.latinamericanstudies.org/ecuador/ecuador-map.jpg

You´ll see Mancora not too far over the border...the map is zoomable if you click on the lower right corner.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

MIA

Got myself down to Miami no problem on my standby ticket. Miami is a nice stopoff place on your way to Latin America - kind of ease yourself back into the language and culture...kind of like stopping in Hawaii on your way to Asia. Anyway, flying to Lima from Miami would prove to be a bit more difficult. Both flights were pretty full on my first day due to weight restrictions. I asked the ticket agents what the deal was with that and they acted like a lot of these people flying down to Peru were taking all sorts of stuff with them (refrigerators, farm animals, lol) so they couldn´t hold as many passengers. I was actually next in line to get on when the jet pulled back from the gate...but then the plane came back a minute later and dumped off 8 people. Ouch, gotta be rough to get your name called, get on the flight, have the plane leave the gate, and then return and kick you off.

It was already after midnight when I found out I´d missed the last flight to Lima...I was hoping some of the other standby passengers with family in the area would offer me their place, but no such luck. That kind of hospitality is hard to find in the States, although not at all uncommon in other places I´ve been. So I decided to spend the night at the airport and save myself some money. Saving myself some money is going to a determining factor in many decisions I´m going to make over the next few months...10 months without a paycheck and I´m starting to feel a bit of a squeeze. Anyway, luckily I´ve spent some time at MIA before so I was familiar with a quiet place with some benches (3rd floor, Concourse J for anyone who is curious). that might serve my purpose...certainly didn´t want to try to sleep in the ´anti-sleep chairs´ they have at airports and I refuse to sleep on the floor even if it is carpeted.

I probably managed to scratch together an hour or two of sleep throughout the night as I turned over every 20 minutes or so when my arm and shoulder began to throb after falling asleep (the arm and shoulder that is...not me). Rough night, but it´s amazing how even one hour is so much better than no sleep at all. At one point, I was woken when a man mopping floor tapped my bench. I felt like a vagrant, but then when you´re sleeping in a public place with all of your possessions by your side I reckon you are a vagrant.

Ended up spending 25 hours at the airport before I finally got a flight so it was a full day at the airport. Ended up deciding to bail on Lima as the flights were looking pretty full...so now I´m here in Quito. Other than the many phone conversations I had with friends and family probably the best feeling of the day was when I shaved. I managed to drag the shaving out into a 15 minute affair, which gave me a real sense of achievement when I realized I was that much closer to leaving.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Snowboarding

Colorado is certainly a bit different from where I've been traveling recently. Came out here to do some skiing for a few days on my way back to down south. Luckily, the plane tickets I'm using afford me the opportunity throw some variation into the trip.

So, hadn't skiied in 8 years until last Thursday. Last time was in Utah, which turned out to be a very memorable and fun experience, much better than anything I ever skiied back east. Colorado turned out to be very similar. Started out skiing in Aspen. Aspen, incidentally, is a very nice little town but very expensive as you might expect. So Thursday I skiied at Buttermilk Ski Resort there in Aspen. Buttermilk is where the hold the Winter X-Games every year. Buttermilk has plenty of beginner terrain so that was great for me as I was pretty unsure of myself starting out, but I managed to get it going after awhile and finished the day without battering myself too badly.

Friday my friend Jill and I went up to Snowmass (a nearby resort). Snowmass is pretty huge with a ton of runs and something like 3000 acres in the ski area. Most of that terrain I of course never got to see since my skills are so rudimentary. Anyway, Jill is a snowboarder and she thankfully decided to teach me. I never really liked skiing all that much because me knees always felt so vulnerable to twisting, so I was happy to take on snowboarding, which seemed to me to be a little safer on the knees, albeit more dangerous for the wrists.

My first hour snowboarding (if you would call what I was doing snowboarding) was pretty rough. I couldn't really even stand up or walk with one foot latched-in, much less get down the mountain. The way you have to contort your body to drag the snowboard around on level-ground really took some getting used to. But after awhile and some help and advice I did ok. Even managed to get off the ski-lift every time without falling...at least not falling in the immediate vicinity of the unload area, although I´m pretty sure I caused an old man to fall by cutting in front of him. By the end of the first day I was linking my turns fairly well, meaning I could turn the board either direction continuously as I came down the hill. Had some rough spills, including one where I hit the back of my head and probably would've knocked myself out but for my helmet...I was still feeling that one a couple days later.

Second day snowboarding was a little better...I probably only fell 30 times as opposed to 100 the first day, and I was falling forward rather than backward normally. My final day on the slopes here I decided to move back to skis since I was going with my cousin Jim who had skis I could use. After one really uncomfortable trip down the mountain on skis I decided I had to go back to snowboarding. My body just could not get used to the skis after the snowboard. I doubt I'll ski again. After three days snowboarding I would say I'm competent, although still prone to accidents at any moment. A little more rest between sessions would've probably been a big help as my body was really hurting all over after the first day and the subsequent days didn't help ease the pain any....