This is the End – Or is it Just the Beginning?

This is the End – Or is it Just the Beginning?

This is the end.

In the words of the somewhat famous and totally unpredictable Jim Morrison of The Doors, this is the end, my only friend, the end.

My family and I just completed a year-long overland adventure through Mexico and Central America. We left Virginia on August 1, 2015 and drove our 1985 Volkswagen Westfalia camper van – which we named Wesley – through Mexico and Central America. We’ve now landed softly at the family lake house in New York’s Catskill Mountains where we will take contemplative walks in the woods and frolic in the clear lake water before launching back at the end of the month into the hard work of being middle class Americans.

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Relaxing on the dock at the lake has proved to be a soft landing before re-entering the rat race of middle class America.

I want to thank Paige Conner Totaro, the founder of www.alloverthemap.net for hosting my blog this year and for providing R and me with lots of other advice and inspiration. If reading about our adventures has infected you with the travel flu, as we hope it has, you should continue to visit Paige’s site for great tips and ideas for individual and family travel. For example, Paige’s latest post describes an amazing Yucatan vacation rental for families, to host a family reunion, or for a girlfriend getaway. It may be too fancy a place to host a drunk frat brother weekend.

I also want to thank everyone who we met on our journey who helped us, hosted us, or just said “Hi.” I don’t want to start naming names for fear of leaving somebody out, but the amazing and adventurous people that we met are the main reason why this year will be unforgettable for us. Thank you.

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We only had these folks in the van for a few minutes, but I remember the conversation and we all had a few moments of fun with strangers, which seems easier to do when we are all foreigners to the place where we meet.

Finally, thanks to all of you who have taken the time to read my blog. I know that sometimes I can go on and on with no apparent point, but I hope it was as much fun for you to read my blather as it was for me to think it up and write it.

At the outset of our trip, I attempted to interest you in what we were doing by posing three questions. Now, finally, as my last blog post of this trip, I will attempt to answer them.

Q1. Is Mexico as lawless as the media portrays?

A1. I don’t think so. We survived without anyone shooting at us, robbing us, or even frowning at us. On the contrary, Mexico was perhaps the most pleasant surprise of the trip and we spent five months in various places there. It is one of the most beautiful countries – stunningly tall mountains, endless and mostly deserted beaches, outrageously delicious and affordable food – and has the most friendly people. I kid you not, even the machine gun patrols that drive around looking for trouble-makers waved at us. Don’t let the media fool you.

Q2. Does the Bright-rumped Attila still ply the skies above Central America?

A2. We didn’t see the bird in our travels through Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama, but we did see a mass nesting of sea turtles, hundreds of monkeys, stingrays and reef sharks, scorpions, tarantulas, dolphins, sloths, jaguars (at a zoo), and toucans.

R clowning around with a big monkey at the mall in Panama City.

R clowning around with a big monkey at the mall in Panama City.

Also, to soften the blow of missing out on the Bright-rumped Attila, we did spot its cousin the Bright-rumped Tanager one fine day while hanging out on the back porch of our workaway in Costa Rica.

Q3. Can a 1985 Volkswagen camper van handle the ups and downs of the Andes Mountains?

A3. Unfortunately, for reasons too depressing to get into again, we didn’t make it to South America so I am not able to answer this question based on an actual experience of driving through the Andes. However, based on our van Wesley’s performance through the numerous Sierra Madre ranges in Mexico, I have no doubt it could have conquered the Andes Mountains as well.

When we reached the top of one of the mountains we'd climbed, we just had to stop and pee

When we reached the top of one of the mountains we’d climbed, we just had to stop and pee

Okay – now that there are answers, I will pose a final question. This one was originally asked by the even more famous and less unpredictable Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin in the popular but not very rock and roll song “All of My Love.”

Q4. Is this the end or is it just the beginning?

A4. It’s the beginning. Even though the blog of our real-time overland adventure is at a convenient stopping point, the Vanamos family will not go away. We will be launching our own website – www.vanamos.net – very shortly.

On the website you will find updated articles about our experience posted weekly, the latest about our vantastic Volkswagen Westfalia – Wesley, information about preparations and budgeting for our year long adventure that you can use to plan your own trip, maps, what we know about border crossings, family travel guides for each country we visited so you know where to go and what to do, photos of me in a bathing suit to print and hang around your house for daily inspiration, and much, much more.

So stay tuned and let our end (of sorts) be your beginning. If I’ve delivered any message at all this year, let it be that there is a lot more to life than living 9 to 5.

The Hardest Part of Overland Travel – Going Home

The Hardest Part of Overland Travel – Going Home

When we first conceived this year-long fairy tale of an overland adventure, we anticipated arriving in Patagonia in Argentina after eleven months and 29 days of driving, hopping in a plane to D.C., and shipping Wesley back to Baltimore.  The trip would have a clearly defined beginning – when we left Alexandria – and ending – when we got on a plane to go home.

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The Homestead, July 2015.

Before we left on the trip we realized we would not make it to Patagonia because it would not allow us to plant a flag anywhere for longer than a few days. We would have to be in the van, driving, a lot. Instead, we saw Bolivia as the horizon of our dreams. But we still expected to get on a plane and ship Wesley home.

At some point after we set forth we reevaluated that plan and decided that we would not be extending our year-long trip (more about how Coconut and J helped make that decision below) for longer than a year, and that Panama was as far as we could go.  To go further, i.e., to go to South America, 1) required us to put Wesley into a container at great expense to ship it to Columbia, and 2) it didn’t make financial sense to do this because we wouldn’t have much time to drive around before we had to pack Wesley into a container again at great expense to ship it home.

We reached Panama City on April 25 – too soon to call it quits and ship the van home and too late to pack it up and ship it to Columbia. That left us no alternative but to turn around and drive Wesley back to Alexandria in reverse order through all the countries we had driven in the last eight months.

While it didn’t seem a great option at first, in retrospect we are happy with it because a second opportunity to drive through each country has allowed us to chart different routes than we took the first time. This has given us a fuller experience with each country. For example, on the way to Panama City, our impression was that nothing existed in the country for hundreds of miles between destinations except houses built on stilts and mosquitoes. On the way out, along the Pan American highway, Panama started to look like a more modern country with towns and stores. Though, no matter where you go, it’s really hot (except, apparently, in Boquete, an expat mountain enclave in the northwest which we missed both times.)

Costa Rica was as expensive on our first pass down the Caribbean coast as on our second pass up the Pacific coast, but we got to spend our hard earned colones with different merchants and confirm our suspicion that Costa Rica is the US’s expensive callgirl. Our second time through Nicaragua, of course, was unforgettable. We met a beautiful, inspiring family in Paul, Marisa, and their two great kids Owen and Abby, we got to reconnect with our chocolate-making, idealist friend Maria and her son Angelo, and we purchased a piece of property that will ensure we go back at least once. More likely, we will go back many times.

Our first time through El Salvador we took the beach road, which felt very developed and familiar. On our second pass, we stuck to the northern mountain areas which have a more local, agricultural, and revolutionary flavor. And in Guatemala, we drove through the highlands instead of the lowlands so got to see the mountains and volcanoes for which the country is known.

By seeing different parts of each country, we were able to re-evaluate our first impressions. Mexico isn’t as dirty or poor as we first thought, mainly because countries to the south are dirtier and poorer. But it still has the best food, the friendliest people, and is the most affordable.

On the other hand, deciding to turn around and go back was the hardest choice we have made – harder than breaking our road rules, accepting our homeschool failures, or living our couch potato existence – because in the end we’ll be home and both R and I expect to hate being back in Alexandria (no offense to all of our very good friends who live there). Unlike Paul Simon, we do not wish we were homeward bound.

R and I are certain that if we didn’t have kids we would not have turned around. It’s hard to describe the freedom one feels being untethered from the responsibility of a job or a cell phone or any of the trivial things that seem to matter so much, and to be able to spend your days exactly how you choose to spend them. However you imagine that freedom of choice would feel, it is a baker’s dozen times better. And of course, there are all the awesome countries we’ve seen, experiences we’ve had, and people we’ve met along the way.

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Picking up people is always fun. This is on Ometepe Island in Nicaragua, where if you miss the bus for the ferry to the mainland, you’ll wait until tomorrow.

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Playa Maderas, Nicaragua. Three friends hitched a ride on the way to town.

As I have said many times to my family while playing my tiny violin, I have the most to lose by going back to Alexandria because I am the one who goes back to work. The thought of being behind a desk again is more than depressing. It’s like I’m flour and someone mixes me with water and salt, takes a tiny piece of me and rolls it into a ball, then flattens me in a tortilla press over and over until there’s nothing left of me but circular pieces of cooked dough that will get stale and fed to the street dogs.

Coconut and J made it clear early on, however, that they would not be happy overlanding for longer than a year and rather than force them, R and I conceded. After all, part of this experience is to empower them to be able to make choices that impact their lives. And we understand their perspective. Overlanding is hard, and we now know it is particularly hard for our kids who like a modicum of stability, which packing up and driving on every few days does not provide. They both did better when we were settled in a place for a week or more, and R and I can accept that this is what our future abroad looks like, at least so long as we have Coconut and J in tow. For now, we need to help them to envision that future.

There is always a way out.

Coconut and J expect going home to be the best thing since Netflix added another season of whatever crap it is they watch to its catalogue. And R and I realize we did this to ourselves by being responsible persons and good providers. If we lived in Alexandria in a house with a leaky roof and no window screens, had to share a bathroom with our neighbors, and polished shoes at the Metro station to put food on the table, Coconut and J may not want to go back there.

They expect to go back to doing the same things that they did before we left that have made them want to return in the first place, and to love it. While that warm, fuzzy feeling of something familiar may exist for them initially, as responsible parents, R and I feel an obligation to do everything we can to make them hate it.

We know being home isn’t going to be as much fun as they think it is. Their freedom to wake up and fry their brains with 16 straight hours of YouTube, and our ability to cater to their needs, are going to be severely compromised by all the other demands of rejoining the race, and we won’t let them forget it either. We want them to remember that they have a choice.

The first time Coconut says she doesn’t want to go to school – whoa-ho-ho! Let’s get a plane ticket to somewhere. Every time J complains about doing homework or studying for a test – Hey-hey-hey. Remember when you didn’t have homework or tests? Whenever they want to eat out – we’ll eat PB&J at home.

Are you kidding me? You would choose elementary school over this?

Are you kidding me? You would choose elementary school over this?

R has said over and over that this year has been her lifelong dream come true (which implies that I am her Prince Charming?!) She has also recently lamented that when the end of a fairy tale gets writ, everyone lives happily ever after. But we don’t see this ending – returning to Alexandria – as our happily ever after.

We’ve stepped through the wardrobe, seen Narnia, and it’s unsettling for us to be stepping back into our former lives after such a transformative experience. In fact, it seems like a step backwards. And maybe, after the glow of excitement from renewing old habits has dimmed for Coconut and J, the memories of all they have seen and done will take hold and coalesce around this thought – that living in Candyland is pretty sweet.

One Week and One Thousand Miles

One Week and One Thousand Miles

Since we left El Salvador on June 9 we have driven Wesely over 1,000 miles across Guatemala and Mexico and I’ve got the driver’s tan to prove it – my left forearm is as red as tomato soup. It’s not our style to blow through places so quickly, but at this point in our year long trip we are focused on getting back to Alexandria for better or for worse. Despite our accelerated pace, we’ve managed to squeeze some fun in between our long driving days.

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For the most part, we’ve stuck to the mountains for the cooler temperatures and because we know that Wesley can handle the steep.  Our first night back in Guatemala we spent on a former chicken farm overlooking the capital, Guatemala City, a big sprawling metropolis. I couldn’t spot a single church steeple poking up through the haze that hung over the city, which was surprising given the devoutness of the people. As we were driving through the city I saw a woman cross herself before stepping into the street, I regularly see drivers cross themselves when passing a church, and I’ve seen people weeping in church – weeping! – at cartoonish sculptures of Jesus in the different stations of the Cross. And it wasn’t even on a Sunday,

A gaggle of geese cross the field at our camp in the hills overlooking Guatemala City.

A gaggle of geese cross the field at our camp in the hills overlooking Guatemala City.

In Chichicastenango, a big market town in the Western highlands of Guatemala, we took a guided tour to learn how the Mayan have merged some of their own voodoo-like beliefs into Catholicism. For example, a shamaan and his wife will smoke enormous cigars for you and somehow this will hex people who are more successful in business. They can also perform honest ceremonies for loved ones.

J, Coconut and I soak up the atmosphere in the Chichi market.

J, Coconut and I soak up the atmosphere in the Chichi market.

Ever get the feeling that someone is watching?

Ever get the feeling that someone is watching?

On market day, we made sure everyone was successful by treating Quetzales like popcorn, including buying 15 yards of fabric to have Wesley’s seats reupholstered in Mexico where we think the cost of services will be less.

So many colors to choose from!

So many colors to choose from!

The ride out of Guatemala along the Pan American winds through the mountains at 2,100 meters and periodically, when the rain clouds broke up, we were treated to some expansive vistas. It was long and arduous driving as the road went not only up and down, but up and over dozens of topes – that speed bump in the road designed to take the place of traffic lights and slow everyone from flying through town – but the route chosen was worth it to see a part of the country we had not seen on our first pass through.

Mexico

We were all excited to get back to Mexico where we spent four months at the outset of the trip. We made a short stop of two nights in San Cristobal de las Casas – where we spent over a week in December. The city was as great as we remembered, but the campground we loved before was different in that it lost the people we enjoyed the first time through and was instead full of people who don’t clean the pots and dishes after using them. I don’t care if they are working on world peace in their room, those are the worst kind of people.

We did meet two interesting folks in San Cristobal this time around. Guido is a German adrenaline junkie with an Italian name who likes to ride his motorcycle on horse trails. He left his medical marijuana business in Canada and has been driving south for more than a year with no end in sight as long as his stock keeps returning dividends. He’s 46, the same age as R and me. “It’s a good time to retire,” he said.

Diana, the sauerkraut woman, used to live in Olympia, WA and learned to ferment cabbage with R’s Aunt Lilly. Now she works in a bookstore in San Cristobal and sells probiotic kraut on the side. Diana and R were like giggling schoolgirls talking about Lilly and trading recipes and I expect to eat a lot of cabbage once I get back to Alexandria.

We’ve driven only toll roads since we left San Cristobal and we hate it. It’s expensive – several tolls have cost more than dinner for four – and characterless – nothing to see except rolling green vistas stretching as far as you can see in any direction. There is no doubt that Mexico is naturally beautiful, but I miss waving at people as we drive through town.

One of the toll road exits took us to Cordoba, in Veracruz State, where we spent one night. Our guidebook raved about its Zocalo (central square) and it was here where the terms of the Mexican Independence from Spain were agreed upon in 1821. After wandering around the square with Coconut and J and taking some photos for Coconut’s project on the Revolution, and then marveling from the balcony of our hotel room at a downpour that flooded the streets, R and I left the kids with tacos and had a date night – strolling around the plaza while the mariachi bands serenaded diners. A government building looms over one side of the plaza, and we were delighted to watch the windows light up in a choreographed sequence to classical music that blared from speakers hidden in the building’s facade. There is no place like this in the States.

Old church at the zocalo in Cordoba, a surprisingly nice stop during our hurried trip through Mexico

Old church at the zocalo in Cordoba, a surprisingly nice stop during our hurried trip through Mexico

The next day, with nothing much better to do besides drive, we were persuaded by a billboard to detour to the town of Orizaba and ride the teleférico to the top of Cerro something or other to wander some trails and see the ruins of an old fort where the French massacred a division of the Mexican Army while it slept. In the park at the foot of the mountain a monkey had escaped from its enclosure and we watched a dozen authority figures – both zoo officials and police – try to lure it back into its cage while families played in the massive playground and vendors hawked flowers, food, balloons, and anything else you can imagine. We’ve been stopped at intersections by people walking around selling electrified tennis rackets as fly swatters.

Ever been driving down the road and have a hankering for a giant donut?

Ever been driving down the road and have a hankering for a giant donut?

After this detour we managed to still reach our destination of Puebla – which is positioned on the outstretched fingertips of Mexico City. We had a great room in an old colonial house a few steps from the zocalo for $40 and spent the weekend wandering around this modern, university city. It boasts a lively zocalo, a variety of food choices, hundreds of stalls selling artesania – including talavera – the painted tiles for which the area is known, and dozens of churches.

Our favorite church, Templo de Santo Domingo, housed a chapel with enough gold plating to make you wonder if the clergy couldn’t have purchased some grain instead and still won the prize for shiniest church. On the macabre end of the spectrum, Templo de San Francisco is home to the 400-year old mummified remains of Friar Sebastian de Aparicio – the builder of the first Mexican roads. He is now recognized as the protector of those who drive so we purchased a few stickers to put on Wesley.

Jonah poses with the mummified remains of Sebastian de Aparicio, the protector of conducirs.

Jonah poses with the mummified remains of Sebastian de Aparicio, the protector of conducirs.

From Puebla, we took another detour to Teotihuacan, which was once Mesoamerica’s greatest city (circa 200-600 A.D.). Its main attraction now is the Piramide del Sol, a 70 meter high structure that ranks as the third highest pyramid in the world (behind Cheops in Egypt and one in Cholula, Mexico). Of course we climbed it, as well as its smaller companion Piramide de la Luna. These pyramids are connected by the Calzada de los Muertos (Avenue of the Dead), which after centuries is still in better repair than many of the roads we’ve traveled.

R is flanked by Coconut and J atop the Pyramid of the Moon with the massive Pyramid of the Sun poised in the background

R is flanked by Coconut and J atop the Pyramid of the Moon with the massive Pyramid of the Sun poised in the background

Coconut and J were in great spirits despite this being a site of educational merit, but were particularly enthralled by the souvenir vendors. Coconut brought a decorated skull made out of alabaster and cow bone and J added knives made of bone and obsidian to his collection of sharp-edged weapons. These are exactly the kinds of things I would have wanted on my shelves when I was that age.

Coconut and Skull

After being stuck in a traffic jam reminiscent of our Beltway days, we got caught in a rainstorm and waning light so pulled into a Pemex to camp for the night. Pemex is the government run gas station and that is popular as an overnight resting spot and comes in various states of repair – though most are nice. We got an exceptionally nice one this night with a restaurant where we could warm up and eat before going to bed early – there isn’t much to do at a gas station in the rain.

From there it was a short drive to San Miguel de Allende and our friends Sean and Mittie. We spent a few days here in September when we were very green. Now we have stories to tell and a willing audience – Sean and Mittie are preparing to launch their own adventure to Patagonia early next spring.

So, as our adventure winds down, theirs is set to begin – reminding us that even though we’ve traveled 1,000 miles towards home in a week, we are getting closer to our own next big adventure.

Revolution in El Salvador

Revolution in El Salvador

We try to avoid cities because we hear they are more dangerous, we know there’s more traffic, and we want to go to sleep at night to the sounds of mountain streams and howling dogs not to the sound of honking horns and howling dogs.

Sometimes we make exceptions. After leaving Nicaragua and driving all day through Honduras into El Salvador, we spent the next day driving a few hours into the mountains of El Salvador to the town of Perquin. The next day, I had already driven five hours towards our planned destination, and we were still two hours away. I was done. When I saw a sign for Santa Ana, a place I remembered reading about as being worth a visit, I asked R to check out our guidebook to see about it.

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Vulcan Chaparrastique looms ominously over the city of San Miguel in El Salvador. Notice also the good highway – we haven’t seen many paved, four lane highways in the last year.

R reported that at some point I had scribbled a note in our book that Fanny and Joe recommended the city and specifically, a hostel where they stayed. Fanny and Joe are good people we met in Costa Rica while building the Buena Casa. We ran into them again briefly in Panama City and hiked up Cerro Ancon for grand views over the city and Panama Canal. They’ve spent the year couchsurfing through South and Central America and we trusted their judgment so decided to scrap our original plan and head for Santa Ana instead.

Santa Ana is the second largest city in El Salvador, behind the capital of San Salvador. It is quaint in that men play checkers in the park with colored bottle caps on checkerboards painted onto the cement tables and sketchy in that the streets are cracked and dirty and there is a red light district around the corner from the hostel (prostitution is legal in El Salvador, as it is in other Central American countries). Some other guests in the hostel were held up at machete-point when they hiked a nearby volcano. They paid $10 to be left alone.

The hostel itself, Casa Verde Hostal, is one of the nicest we have visited. It’s super clean. There is free water, a amazingly equipped kitchen, hundreds of DVDs, a book exchange, pool, laundry service, and free parking in a secure lot. They even left a pack of cigarettes on the roof deck table. “Look,” I said to R, “They even have free cigarettes for the guests!” It turned out the pack belonged to another guest – he had forgotten it there.

J juices some oranges in the kitchen at Casa Verde in Santa Ana, El Salvador

J juices some oranges in the kitchen at Casa Verde in Santa Ana, El Salvador

Santa Ana was also a good place to have some repairs done on Wesley. It needed a new muffler because the previous one (possibly the 31-year old original) lost its tailpipe and had a hole in it.

The mechanic who installed the new muffler spent most of an hour fabricating a new bracket to hold the muffler in place (the original rusted off) and then welding it to the undercarriage of the van. The ingenuity to manufacture this part was impressive. In the States the shop would likely have had to order the part with no thought given to making it. But I worry that whatever is in the muffler that does the actual muffling has been fried. Smoke was pouring out of the thing while the guy was soldering the pieces of the metal bracket together around the muffler.

The mechanic, too cool in his shades, tires to set Wesley on fire

The mechanic, too cool in his shades, tries to set Wesley on fire

One section of the local market was dedicated to tinkerers and tailors and woven goods makers, so we were also able to have the zipper on one of our bags repaired for $1. R and I are always impressed that things are fixed here rather than discarded and replaced. There was even a guy in the market selling empty glass bottles. Nothing is disposable here (except the millions of plastic bags and plastic bottles that are everywhere). Even the rusted bracket for our muffler got thrown into a pile of other rusted metal at the mechanic shop. I bet if I come back in ten years, it will still be there.

Not only was it fascinating to see dozens of men sitting at sewing machines, but they were manual machines with foot pedals.

Not only was it fascinating to see dozens of men sitting at sewing machines, but they were manual machines with foot pedals.

The market is one of the best we have seen since Mexico for fruit and vegetable varieties – the radishes are as big as cannonballs – so we’ve eaten our greens.

The mangoes were big too. It was nice to see mangoes at market for a change, and not rotting under a tree somewhere.

The mangoes were big too. It was nice to see mangoes at market for a change, and not rotting under a tree along the side of the road.

R and I have spent a lot of time lately discussing whether Coconut and J have learned anything this year. They spend a lot of time looking at their screens, but they are not self-motivated students so are not looking at educational stuff that we would like them to watch like documentaries, recipes, and Neil Young song lyrics. In an effort to force feed them learning, we took them to the Museo de la Revolución Salvadoreña in Perquin.

J and Coconut spend a few too many hours like this.

J and Coconut spend a few too many hours like this.

But sometimes they do things that make our hearts swell. Here, Coconut braids J's hair while he reads on his Kindle.

But sometimes they do things that make our hearts swell. Here, Coconut braids J’s hair while he reads on his Kindle.

During the 12-year Salvadoran civil war, which ended in 1992, the town was a stronghold of the guerrillas who were fighting against the right-wing oligarchy, which, incidentally, was supported by the U.S. government. During the most brutal incident of the war, soldiers of the U.S.-trained elite Atlacatl Batallion entered the nearby village of El Mozote, rounded up its inhabitants and other campesinos taking refuge there, and tortured, raped and murdered everyone – over 1,000 people – many of whom were children. One woman survived.

Evidence of the revolution. In the 1980's revolutionaries roamed the hills around Somoto and their presence is still felt with murals like these.

Evidence of the revolution. In the 1980’s revolutionaries roamed the hills around Somoto and their presence is still felt with murals like these.

R and I think that coming to Perquin on the heels of visiting Somoto, where Nicaraguan guerrillas got bombed by their own oppressive and repressive government (which, incidentally, was supported by the U.S. government), has added to the lessons about Central American politics (and why the U.S. keeps sticking its nose in them) Coconut and J have been exposed to already this year. It may have also taught them that sometimes the countryside isn’t too safe either.

The Road Less Traveled – Leaving Nicaragua

The Road Less Traveled – Leaving Nicaragua

We finally left the comfort of Paul and Marisa’s front yard after spending 11 days going to the beach, riding bikes, going to a rodeo, eating home cooked meals, and making natural skin products. Coconut learned to make kombucha, a fermented non-alcoholic hippie drink, and got her own “scoby” to make more, and we even celebrated Paul’s birthday by taking him out to a restaurant in one of the first downpours of the rainy season.

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The whole gang smiles for the camera just before the Vanamos clan packs into Wesley to drive north.

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Abbey, Owen, and J pose for the iPhone.

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Marisa, Coconut, and Abbey at the market trying to sell chocolate, lip balms they had made, and knitted head scarves and drink coozies made by Marisa

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Rodeos in Nicaragua are a lot more entertaining than what they would be anywhere else. Several years ago, someone got gored and died. Fortunately, we didn’t see anything like that, but we did see a bunch of drunks running around inside the arena.

Everyone got along easily and we could have stayed even longer with this generous, fun, and like-minded family but we’ve learned a few things by always being the last to leave the party. One of the things we’ve learned is that eventually you’ve got to leave the party.

 

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Chef Paul dishes out breakfast.

 

 

Our next stop was Granada, which was founded by someone named Cordoba in 1524 and which bills itself as the oldest city in North America. I’m not sure how to reconcile that claim with the facts that 1) it’s in Central America, not North America, and 2) the indigenous peoples all the way up to Mexico had been living in cities for centuries before the Spanish arrived. However, I think we can all agree that calling it the “first city the Spanish renamed and enslaved the occupants” is not a good  slogan to attract tourists.

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The view over Parque Colon in Granada from the bell tower of the Cathedral. The tower was open because a construction crew was using it as access to the roof – so why not let tourists up as well!

Nevertheless, Granada does have a long and interesting history. Because of its importance as a trade hub on the shores of Lake Nicaragua, it’s been sacked, looted, and burned to the ground multiple times by pirates – including by Sir Henry Morgan – one of the high-seas bandits the British Crown knighted to wreak havoc on the Spanish colonial empire.

Cannon and monument near the Parque Colon commemorating the heroes of Granada

Cannon and monument near the Parque Colon commemorating the heroes of Granada

William Walker, the American mercenary and self-proclaimed grey-eyed man of destiny, also took the opportunity to put the torch to the city in 1856 when the Nica Conservatives and Liberals united to depose him of the presidency that he had won in an election he had rigged. Walker was eventually captured and executed in Honduras.

Gun powder storage facility called La Fortaleza. It's the closest I've come to seeing a Spanish fort on this trip.

Gun powder storage facility called La Fortaleza. It’s the closest I’ve come to seeing a Spanish fort on this trip.

Each time it was turned to ashes, however, Granada has rebuilt, and it is now renowned for its colonial architecture, and wide, tree-lined avenues. We stayed at Hotel Antigua Estacion Granada, a beautifully restored colonial home with lush gardens in the interior courtyards. I was excited to walk the city in the relative coolness of the morning to see all the places that had been burned and rebuilt and then come back for a dip in the hotel pool before breakfast. I’m not kidding. I really was excited.

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Being out for a morning walk unleashed my artistic side – I took a photo of these four row houses because of the bright colors.

R poses in front of the small pool at our hotel in Granada. There were basil plants growing behind the lounge chairs and we cut a few leaves to have with tomatoes we got in the market.

R poses in front of the small pool at our hotel in Granada. There were basil plants growing behind the lounge chairs and we cut a few leaves to have with tomatoes we purchased in the market.

In the afternoon, we took a horse-drawn carriage ride through the streets and climbed the bell tower of Iglesia La Merced, the second oldest church in Granada, for a view over a sea of red-tiled roofs to the lake and with Vulcan Mombacho like a bearded giant on the southern horizon.

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Despite its grimy look, Iglesia La Merced is actually relatively new. It was burned by Walker in 1856 and subsequently rebuilt. Though, it could stand a new coat of paint.

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Our carriage driver put J at the reins while he took a phone call.

There was more to see and do in and around Granada, but time is running short so we traveled northwest into the hilly interior of Nicaragua, landing in Somoto. This medium-sized city (pop. 15,000) would be our last overnight stop in Nicaragua before we crossed the border to Honduras and pushed on to El Salvador.

Somoto, and the villages and mountains around, have long harbored supporters of the populist government movements in Nicaragua, so have been points of interest for U.S. Marines and the C.I.A. as the U.S political machine interferes again and again in Central American politics. There are apparently several hikes in the area to places of importance for the Sandinistas, including the remains of a plane they shot down during one of its strafing runs over the area, but we didn’t do any of that.

Evidence of the revolution. In the 1980's revolutionaries roamed the hills around Somoto and their presence is still felt with murals like these.

Evidence of the revolution. In the 1980’s revolutionaries roamed the hills around Somoto and their presence is still felt with murals like these. They eventually won the presidency, giving rise to the Iran-Contra affair in which the U.S. supported revolutionaries (from the old regime) in protest of the new, revolutionary government.

Wesley, the golden treasure, lies at the end of this rainbow in Somoto, Nicaragua.

Wesley, the golden treasure, lies at the end of this rainbow in Somoto, Nicaragua.

 

Instead, our plan was to visit the Grand Canyon of Somoto, so J could add to the list of things he has jumped from. Our first visit to Nicaragua in January took us past the canyon, which intrigued us, but we couldn’t stop because we were anxious to see R’s friend at Pochomil. We were happy to get another shot at it.

However, the day of the tour, J woke up feeling poorly and just as we were about to call our guide to cancel, he showed up at the hotel and told us the trip was canceled because the river was too high – it has been raining daily as the country heads into the rainy season.

Because we didn’t have plans or obligations or anything else to do, we decided to leave the country. It’s one of the nice things about being accountable to no one – you can do what you feel like doing. We could have chosen to stay too.

Rather than rappel in the canyon, J and I did some work on Wesley. The 31-year old muffler bracket has rusted through so we had to rig a wire to hold the muffler in place until we can get to a repair shop.

Rather than rappel in the canyon, J and I did some work on Wesley. The 31-year old muffler bracket has rusted through so we had to rig a wire to hold the muffler in place until we can get to a repair shop.

In fact, we might have stuck around Nicaragua another day or two if circumstances were different. In total, we spent about two months of our year trip in Nicaragua, so we obviously liked it. Leaving just like that is not the send off we would have given it. But, we know we will be returning in a few months to sign the closing papers on the piece of property that we purchased at the beach. We might be back to Nicaragua a few times after that as well. Maybe one of those times we’ll get to do the damn Somoto Canyon.

Abi joins R and I as we stand outside our Nicaraguan lawyers office after having signing a purchase agreement for a lot in the Bosques del Mar development. purchase land

Abbey joins R and me as we stand outside our Nicaraguan lawyers office after having signed a purchase agreement for a lot in the Bosques del Mar development.

Our border crossing into Honduras was like all of our border crossings except the first: unplanned and without ceremony or fanfare. We are getting pretty good at borders – R stands in line for the vehicle permit, I stand in line to get our passports stamped, Coconut and J are available to step in if I need to go over there or if R needs to come over here, or if someone needs to go to Wesley to get money to buy grilled meat on a stick from one of the vendors – and it took us less than an hour to check out of Nicaragua and into Honduras.

Unlike our previous mad dash across Honduras in January made under a big, blue sky and through parched, dusty valleys, this trip was gray and rainy. Still, we made the border with El Salvador in less than four hours, including a half-hour for lunch under a shady tree at a gas station.

Our plan for El Salvador was to go to the Pacific coast to a turtle and pelican rescue place, but we scrapped it because it was going to be dark before we got there. Instead, we ended the day in a town a dozen kilometers from the border. We’re not sure yet what we’ll do tomorrow.

Iguana – It’s What’s for Dinner

Iguana – It’s What’s for Dinner

As we drove through Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua, we often saw people standing along the side of the road holding large, spine-backed reptiles bound to a stick. The people  would wave these things at us as we drove past as if they were performing some sort of ceremonial blessing. We realized that the people wanted us to buy one or more, but we were not sure what we were supposed to do with the thing once we got it home.

One afternoon while I lounged outside Wesley while R and the kids shopped for fruit in the market, I noticed two teen boys with slingshots in their hands gazing intently up into the tree tops. I had seen spine-backed reptiles munching on tree leaves during our travels and despite months without seeing a single episode of “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” (or perhaps, because of this) I am still sharp enough to put two and two together – these boys were aiming to shoot one of these reptiles out of the tree. It still wasn’t clear for what purpose – to be sold as food or as a pet – but knowing how the creatures are obtained before being bound and waved about like shishkabob was kind of like watching the movie Memento, where the scenes happen in reverse. Although, this actually made more sense to me.

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Iguana enjoying the morning sun. Would you eat such a peaceful and plump critter?

We eventually found out from our friend Maria that the bound beasts are destined to become the main course, and in fact, she had recently enjoyed a taste herself. Maria described the reptiles as a delicacy like turtle eggs, but I guess with a less effective political lobbying group because it is now universally illegal to sell turtle eggs or meat in Mexico and Central America while the poor reptiles are openly offered for sale.

In these countries where things seem so hard to come by – volcano guides wear dress shoes to go on vertical hikes and nothing is discarded except plastic bottles, plastic bags, and other useless, broken plastic things – it’s not surprising that iguanas are seen as a food source.  The things are as ubiquitous here in Costa Rica (I’ve nearly run over several as they dart across the pavement) as the common squirrel is in the Eastern U.S. so there is a ready supply.

I know a few people who would vote to add a slingshot patrol to the local police force to thin the ranks of our cute, rodent-like neighbors. I’m just not sure those people want squirrel meat in their stew.

What is more surprising is that I have yet to see iguana offered as a choice on any restaurant menu. Maybe the perception is that American tourists – who are also ubiquitous here in Costa Rica – don’t want it on their dinner plates. Or maybe it’s just not very good.