Sunday, May 2, 2010

Catching a bus in Guatemala

Looking back on our discussion about taking chicken buses from Antigua to San Pedro I realize I had no idea what I was in for.

I should have known it would be an interesting journey when we did it like the locals and turned a tuk tuk into a clown car, somehow packing three grown adults, 4 backpacks and one massive bag of dive gear into the back seat. Quite impressive when a tuk tuk comfortably fits two people and maybe a small child.

We pulled into the bus yard and spilled out of our tuk tuk right as our chicken bus was about to leave. The bus assistant threw Jay's 25 kilo bag of dive gear on top of the bus as Jay, his buddy Max and I walked up the stairs into the chicken bus, which looked like a converted school bus on acid. We were confronted with a wall of people overflowing from the seats but somehow managed to find three open spots in the back of the bus. Max sat in the last row, propping himself on the edge of a two-seater bench seat where FOUR Guatemalans were already sitting. Apparently there's always room for one more!

As we made our way into the mountains people jumped on and off the bus, most often through the back exit door (what I've only ever used for practice emergency bus fire drills in elementary school). I watched as people ran behind the bus and grabbed for the ladder next to the exit door, and hoped that when it was our turn to get off the bus we didn't have to pull the same moves with all of our bags.

Somehow the bus driver knew we would need at least a couple seconds to get off the bus, because when it was our time to get off we actually came to a complete stop. Stupid gringos!

We waited for our next bus on the side of a busy road in a dusty little town. We followed Max's lead since he's lived in the next town over from San Pedro for the last year and a half and has made the journey back and forth to Antigua dozens of times. He flagged our next bus, which promptly blew by us, barely tapping the brakes. It was our cue to run!

We chased after the bus, uphill of course, Jay literally in bare feet, carrying his backpack on his back and hugging his huge duffel bag of dive gear to his chest (since one of the two wheels had broken off that morning on the cobblestone streets of Antigua, perfect timing). Typing this reminds me of a story my great grandfather would have told me about walking to a store in the snow with no shoes, uphill both ways, etc etc, except this bus story actually happened.

As we ran someone flung open the exit door and the guy hanging off the back ladder started yelling for us to hop on... If only we could catch the bus!

One by one we caught up with the bus and began throwing our bags through the exit door, between people's legs, into the aisle and under the seats. Max was first to hop in and reached for Jay's dive gear as we kept running, which made the rest of the process of boarding a bit easier. I was next to grab onto the ladder, and the bus began to pull me while my legs kept running on the ground... I felt like the RoadRunner from those old school cartoons we used to watch as a kid. In a couple more steps I pulled myself into the bus and made room for Jay to jump in as well.

It was like the scene from The Darjeeling Limited, except we didn't end up voluntarily ditching any of our bags. It wasn't until our third and final bus of the day where that almost happened.

As we got close to where we'd catch our third bus the sky opened up and began flooding the streets. Our bus let us off at its final stop, and we crossed what felt like a small river to get to our last bus that we would take to Lake Atitlan. We boarded through the back door again, and the bus pulled out of its spot in the flooded street right as we were trying to close the exit door behind us...

Apparently Jay's bag of dive gear was just slightly too big to fit in the space at the back of this bus, and as the bus pulled away the exit door popped open, causing Jay to lunge for his bag as it fell half way out of the bus and almost into the flooded street behind us. He grabbed for a random strap which promptly snapped off and ended up looking like a life line to his bag, and I grabbed his waist as I pictured him flying out the back of the bus trying to save his bag that weighs more than he does. Again, stupid gringos.

At the end of the day, once we made it to our cheap hostel in the small volcano town of San Pedro, all we could do was laugh at the ridiculousness that was our journey. I now know exactly what it means to "catch" a bus in Guatemala!

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

"Let's bring back hot dogs tomorrow!"

We had just begun descending Volcan Pacaya, an active volcano outside of Antigua, Guatemala, when Jay already started making plans for our return. The footing underneath us sounded hollow and delicate, and looked like rough pieces of charcoal, all deposited from hardened lava during past eruptions.

We started our hike in a small town at the base of the volcano, no doubt created as a result of people flocking to climb Pacaya. After an hour of moderate hiking, plagued by locals on horses asking the heavy breathers in the group if they wanted to take a "taxi natural" the rest of the way up the mountain, we made our way out of the forest, off of the black sandy trail, and onto a more open grassy area where we caught our first glimpse of the actual volcano we were seeking. This was also where we saw what I could only compare to a mud slide, yet it was hundreds of meters of hardened lava that had spilled out in molten waves from Pacaya years ago, and hardened there as a last reminder to trespassers of its incredible power.

We passed by various signs warning us we were approaching a dangerous area, where we would be potentially inhaling harmful volcanic gases, and a friendly warning that we were taking our own lives into our hands and could not blame the volcano for any loss of life should we decide to continue our summit.

So we continued through the grassy area, and then made our first step onto volcanic rock. I was immediately surprised at the sound of the rock underfoot, it was unstable and cracked easily, and when I tapped it with my walking stick it sounded like it was hollow. It didn't necessarily give us a sense of security knowing we were about to climb a volcano that could potentially crumble beneath our feet at any moment, but that was part of the adventure.

We began passing by spots that felt like they were full of industrial strength hair dryers, blowing out incredibly hot air, but when you looked down into the holes all we saw was more rock. About half an hour later our guide jumped up off the "trail", marked only by white, spray painted arrows, sometimes pointing in disagreeing directions, to search for cracks in the volcano where lava spilled out in small rivers or pockets. When he came back to the trail he led us straight to a hot spot, and warned us not to get too close or the soles of our shoes could melt, or better yet we could burn the hair on our heads/arms/etc. So of course we got right up to the hot spot, grabbed another hiker's stick and a couple marshmallows, and started roasting up a storm.

Jay stuck the end of my walking stick into the hole and it promptly started sparking. About thirty seconds later I felt an unfamiliar feeling creeping up through the bottom of my sneakers. It was so hot it almost felt cold, and made me move quickly out of the way. When I stepped back I realized that during our marshmallow roasting I had been standing on a small patch of rock, rimmed with what looked like white powder. Apparently I had been standing on smaller, yet just as heated spots, and moved just in time before my shoes started melting.

Although the heat was impressive, we were still on the hunt for red, liquid lava. So we kept climbing a bit further, til we found a hole in the side of the volcano, about the size of a softball, that led straight down into a patch of actual lava. It was quite an awesome feeling to be able to be that close to something that has decimated villages all over the world, yet this was on such a small, and somewhat more manageable scale... As long as it didn't start spilling out of the hole we were peering down into for a few seconds at a time.

The sun began to set and we knew it was time to make our way down Pacaya with what little natural light we had left, so we could reserve our headlamps for the trek through the forest. We were the second and last group to leave, and a little dog that had been hanging out on the volcano followed us, waiting for Jay and I, the stragglers who kept falling behind to take more pictures, while we found our footing along more treacherous parts of the journey.

As we climbed down and hunger and thirst began to set in, reflecting on our experience Jay chimed in, "Let's bring back hot dogs tomorrow!"

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Lady Boys and Chloroquine

After an extremely long day of waiting and then a short amount of flying, I have finally arrived at Tranquilo Backpacker Hostel in San Jose, Costa Rica with a couple German girls I met at the airport. The taxi ride from the airport turned a bit scenic as we passed the all too familiar "lady boys," working the corners with their incredibly long legs and skirts so short they could fit a 6 year old. Our driver told us the part of town we were driving through wasn't very safe, then proceeded to pull over and let us out at our hostel, almost directly across the street from where he had just given us our warning. Looks like we're staying in for the night!

As I get ready to be stationary for a few more hours today, this time in a bed, I'm remembering one of the warnings of my malaria medication: "vivid dreams". Now some of you reading this may have been lucky enough to make a cameo appearance in one of my dreams, but even if you haven't had the priviledge you may still know how ridiculous and involved they are on a usual basis. I'm stoked to see what Chloroquine will bring!

Tomorrow I'll be catching a bus to a small surfer town on the Carribean coast, down by the Panamanian border, where I am thinking I may end up staying for a few weeks. Until then!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Transportation Debacle Day 1

The familiar buzz of the airport's flourescent lights mimic the feeling that is once again pulsing through my body. The feeling I get when I am about to embark on some adventure to an unexplored, new part of the owrld, the one that reminds me I'm alive. Today I am starting another 4 month journey, this time to Central America.

After arriving to the Newark airport 5 minutes too late to check my bag, I have already encountered my first travel hitch. Another familiar feeling. One thing I've been presented with over the last year is a neverending supply of transportation issues (everywhere from Panama to Bangladesh) so I've become a pro at taking things in stride, and trying to get everyone else to follow suit.

Today though it's just me. I've been at the airport for a little more than three hours so far, and I have another seven to go before I can hopefully fly standby on the next flight to San Jose. Seven might seem like a long while, but I honestly just felt a little jolt of excitement surge through my body thinking my new 5pm departure time is almost right around the corner... Almost.

In the meantime I have just started reading The Invisible Wall, which Nicholas Kristoff (NYTimes journalist) profiled the other day as a good read. One of the things I find amusing about this book already is the way the author dictates the language of the characters from this little British town. "What the bloody 'ell are you doing?" and "I could be living in Birmingham with an 'ouse of me own." All this English speak keeps reminding me of my move to London this fall for graduate school... I can't wait to live in such a cool city!

But that's still 6 or so months away. In the meantime, Central America here I come! I'm flying into San Jose today, March 23, and flying out of Belize City on July 27 (that's unless I run out of money before then- a definite possibility!). My main goal is to come out of this experience more "fluent" in Spanish than I am now, but all the people I'll meet along the way and all the new experiences and things to see will make this trip as epic as the rest.

I have a feeling the logistics of this trip will fall into place sort of organically, which is why I have only have my very first hostel booked so far. I can't wait to see where this next adventure will take me, that is of course if I can even get on the plane today!

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Waking up in Thailand: I think I’m gonna like it here!

Tonight I landed in Koh Samui, and while the sun has already been down for a few hours, I can already tell I am in paradise.

It started during my layover in Bangkok (simple luxuries like having soap in the bathrooms, etc.), and before long the song “I Think I’m Gonna Like It Here” from Annie kept creeping into my head as I realized where I was.

Thank the lord I was able to find a Lonely Planet Thailand book in the Bangkok airport; my LP Bangladesh wouldn’t have gotten me very far here! After that purchase I had all of a 45-minute flight from BKK to the island to figure out where I was going to go once I got here- nothing like last minute planning! I picked a place called Lucky Mother (ha!), which has a bunch of beach bungalows. I made my way to the hotel, checked in, and had some Thai soup for dinner (still fighting off a cold) in the thatched hut restaurant on the beach.

While I was eating dinner people were setting off fireworks all up and down the beach, and there were a half a dozen different songs playing at any given time from the various bars/restaurants stretching down the beach. But even with all of the commotion, it was absolutely silent compared to Dhaka, Bangladesh. I haven’t heard one person honk their horn yet!

Before I headed back to my room I walked on the beach to check out the local scene. I made my way down to the water and as I went for the usual toe test I had a familiar cringing feeling come over me that I have so often felt while convincing myself to get in the ocean at the Jersey shore (the water is always SO cold!). Once I actually touched the water though I was almost in shock at how warm it was. LP had said the water here is like “bath water” but I knew that had to be an exaggeration… But it wasn’t! The water here is LITERALLY warmer than the majority of showers I had in Bangladesh in the last 3 weeks… Absolute perfection!

Tomorrow I’m waking up and taking a ferry to Koh Tao, a little island north of here that certifies more scuba divers every year than anywhere else in the world. LP says it’s “THE place to lose your scuba virginity”, can’t argue with that! Hopefully the sun and fresh air (neither of which I’ve experienced in the last 3 weeks) will help clear up my sniffles so I can take full advantage of the diving…

I can’t wait to wake up tomorrow and actually see what’s around me!

Friday, July 31, 2009

Images of Bangladesh

Loved these kids!

Some more of the kids

Grameen Bank interns: Nick, Srije and I

Village meeting

One of the borrowers with her husband and kids

Outside our branch office

Pouring out of the school to see us...

Playing around with the kids

Harder than it looks.... Especially on a flooded soccer field

I wanted to take her home with me!


Daily monsoon

Tara Mosque

The Pink Palace in Old Dhaka

Boat ride in Old Dhaka

Nobel Peace Prize winner, Muhammad Yunus- the man!

"The Audacity of Hope" in Bangla... Everyone loves Obama!

Adele and me with some of our street kids outside our hotel

Adele's Bangla eye exam

Anddd Pedro giving Adele something to read during her eye exam

Bangla Taka

Viva Bdesh!

Monday, July 27, 2009

Village Trip: Good thing it wasn't a snake bite!

“The only thing I can’t treat with my first aid kit is a snake bite…” –Srijan

This was one of the first things we remembered after our first village casualty just a few minutes ago. Cathi was standing on our beds while we were preparing our mosquito net for the night. She reached up with the middle of the net right at the exact moment a blade from the fan came wizzing by, slicing into the side of her right wrist. Before we even realized what had happened she fell to the bed with a thump, grabbing her wrist. Our initial reaction was to laugh, as this now marked the third “incident” involving Cathi (the first was when I was trying to fix a clothes line on the roof of the Grameen building we are staying in, when the wooden pole slipped and smacked her in the head, the second was when we were taking pictures of a little boy who had climbed a tree outside our bedroom window to see us, and she hit her head on the bed). But then we saw a slow trickle of blood start to drip down her arm…

The first time she took her hand off her wrist we realized this was much more serious than first imagined. The swelling began almost immediately, making the chasm in her wrist even more apparent. For a few seconds I wondered if the fan blade had actually cut her all the way down to her bone, but I kept that to myself so as not to add to the list of emotions she was already feeling.

Even after all of the bleeding the wound was still dirty from the filthy fan blade. I convinced Cathi that she needed to wash her arm instead of just putting anestheptic on it, so we used my bar of trusty Irish Spring to clean her hands, and bottled water to rinse off her arm until it no longer looked as grimy.

We kept her arm raised, put some ice (yes ice! In this small village apparently there is a freezer) in one of my Ziploc bags that I dumped all of my toiletries out of, and hoped it would stop bleeding. This was about the time I had a chance to call the boys who are staying about 10 km away in the next village over, to ask about Srijan’s trusty first aid kit.

We were really just wondering if they had any Neosporin that we could put on before we bandaged it up. This could help prevent infection as much as possible in a country that sprays antibacterial air freshener into the vents on all of the buses, yet that doesn’t regularly use soap or wash their hands.

Nicholas proceeded to tell me all about his friend’s experience with his travel insurance company, and how we should call our own to ask them what we should do about Cathi’s cut. At that point we really didn’t think that was necessary (ok so I may have made it sound like Cathi’s hand was a tendon away from being severed off her arm) so we arranged to have our Branch Manager drive over to the other village to pick up the Neosporin from the boys.

After a couple rounds of rubbing alcohol and iodine, we bandaged her up and it was time for dinner. The power went out and candles were lit, a nice unintentional romantic first dinner in our village. Shortly after we finished dinner the Center Branch Manager and two of the other women from Grameen came to visit to see how Cathi was doing. Then there was another set of visitors, just to make sure she was ok. Russel, our translator, said everyone had already heard about the incident, even in the next village over because that’s where the boys (and the Neosporin) were!

Earlier this morning, before all of this excitement happened, we took a bus from Dhaka to this remote village about 70 km away. We checked out our new home for the next four days (upstairs from the Grameen center office), and then went back downstairs to observe the tail end of a disbursement meeting of women who were receiving loans that they had applied for the week previous. Then we were told to rest (after all, we had had an extremely tiring day of sitting on a bus for 4+ hours).

After our mandatory rest we walked down into the village center with one of the Center Managers, to visit a village called Pachdona. This was one of the nicest villages we have seen on this trip (i.e., many of the houses were made out of concrete instead of corrugated steel, there were various ponds placed throughout the village, some with ducks swimming in them, and everything generally seemed cleaner and less dusty than just a few steps away back at the village center.

We made our way through the village to meet with a “Struggling Member” success story (a woman who had previously been a beggar, but then after receiving loans from Grameen was able to work her way out of poverty and out of begging). We passed by a few boys who were studying their English lessons (ex. ‘Read: Samyr has the pencil.’) which was quite impressive.

When we ended up at the Struggling Member’s house, we drew another crowd who watched as we conducted our interview of a woman who looked well into her 80’s, yet she guessed she was somewhere between 50-55 years old. Years ago her husband had died, her only child (daughter) had married and had moved away, and she turned to begging to help her meet her basic needs. Other members of her community had taken Grameen loans, and had encouraged her to become involved as well. Six years ago she received her first loan with which she bought chickens, ducks, and biscuits/cookies. Grameen encouraged her to sell things to the people to whom she would have previously begged, so at least she was offering a valuable service. She paid back her loan, then took out a second loan with which she bought a thread spinning machine.

A few years later she became sick as well and could not continue selling the thread she spun, so her daughter moved back to the village to learn the art of spinning as well. She has repaid her second loan, and has now passed on the spinning business to her daughter and granddaughter.

We left this woman’s corrugated steel house, and walked back to the village center, with the town’s children always in our shadows. Our translator, Russel, brought us to the market to get the best cha (tea) in town. The tea man had a cauldron of simmering milk, two kettles of cha, and a canister of white sugar. We sat on a wooden bench in front of the tea man and watched as he put a scoop of sugar in each glass topped with a ladle full of milk. After the milk had melted the sugar, he poured the cha in each glass, and topped the glasses with a piece of film from the top of the milk cauldron. Voila! It felt like the entire population surrounded us and watched as we drank the most incredible tea I have ever had in my life. Two boys who were watching had picked flowers from a local tree and gave me a bouquet of them. After our second helping of cha, the sea of people parted and we made our way back to our village feeling like local celebrities.

This joyous feeling was soon replaced with the adrenaline surrounding Cathi’s fan incident. Only hours before we had all been saying “Do you really think you’re going to need all of those medical supplies for this trip, Srijan??” We soon discovered that yes, we really would need them all, and this was only Day 1!