Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Volcanoes

There are a lot of volcanoes in El Salvador.  21 according to the Smithsonian.  So, it's natural that many of the things to do revolve around volcanoes.  Sophie and our friends hiked the Santa Ana volcano on Tuesday.  It's the third time for Sophie, but, it really is a beautiful hike.  I have a feeling it's going to become like Old Rag to us, which is not really a bad thing.  After their hike, they got pupusas at Cerro Verde and then got pupusas at Margoth in San Salvador before going to dinner.  ¡Qué rico!  On Wednesday, Alex left and Sophie and I were both working, so, Beth spent a good part of her day at the spa.  Tough life.  After the spa, Beth and I discovered that three pupusas was a little too much to have in one sitting.  So much for feeling great after the spa, right?

The view from Izalco
Dan arrived on Thursday and we whisked him away to Esperanto for dinner.  Another delicious meal.  On Friday, we bade farewell to Beth and then set out to hike Izalco, another volcano that is right next to Santa Ana.  Izalco was formed in the 1770s and erupted almost continuously for about 200 years until 1966.  In those 200 years, it grew to 2100'!  The contrast between the jungle of Cerro Verde and the moonscape of Izalco is pretty awesome.  However, the hike up there is not the most fun in the world.  Imagine hiking down and up a giant, 2100' V and then returning.  However, it was pretty cool.  At the top, we were accosted by flies and locust-like grasshoppers.  The grasshoppers flew around and had pretty red wings.  We tried to get pictures of them flying, but to no avail.  Also at the top, there are a lot of vents with steam coming out of them.  Unfortunately, there were a good bit of clouds up there, so, we didn't have fantastic views, but, it was a cool experience nonetheless.  When hiking back up to the parking lot, we hiked behind a British traveler who was on month 7 of her year long trek around the world.  She was determined to make it to the top without stopping, so, we didn't stop, which, was all the better.  Stopping while climbing the equivalent of a 200 story building just gives you time to feel the pain.  There was an ice cream guy at the top selling ice cream out of a homemade, insulated cardboard box.  Where there is a need, someone will fill it!

The Brit was going to catch a bus back to Santa Tecla, so, we decided to give her a lift.  On the way back, we stopped at Lago de Coatepeque for a little food and Jet Ski action.  Once again, we had great food followed by an awesome time on the jet skis.  I don't think I realized how much I missed the lakes in Tennessee until I got here and was reminded about how sweet lakes are.  The lakes in Virginia are just too far away from everything.  We dropped the Brit off in Santa Tecla, never to be seen again.  We got back and made some dinner before calling it an early night.

The next day, we awoke at 5am to get to the bike shop at 5:30 in order to go mountain biking.  The guy who was going to take us didn't show, so, another bike shop employee graciously agreed to take us.  From the bike shop, we rode about 1km on the road before getting onto a dirt road.  It became obvious that our guide didn't know the trails that well, but, he wasn't afraid to ask directions.  After a bit, we found a group of about 15 Salvadoreños and started riding with them.  Originally, we had thought that we were going to ride to La Libertad from San Salvador - as in, all downhill.  However, this trip turned out to be anything but.  We climbed for a solid hour or hour and a half up the side of the San Salvador volcano.  We went through Parque Espino before ending up on the road up to El Boquerón.  It was a gorgeous ride.  We then bombed it down the volcano.  Sophie and Dan were the only ones with V-Brakes - suckers!  We essentially ended up in Santa Tecla, so, we made our way back to where the other bikers were going (near the embassy) before heading back to Bicimania.  Riding on the roads was an experience.   If you want to see where we went, I made a guess on a google map.

After the bike ride, we all took a nap before rallying for a Brazilian steakhouse at the Intercontinental Hotel.  Another delicious meal of all you can eat meat for like $30 each.  Sweet.  We then went back to a friend's house where I proceeded to "test" the friendships I've made here over the past 3 months.  It's still unclear how that will play out, but, here's to hoping for the best :)

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Piernas Sexy

Sophie's sister left on Wednesday, so, we had ample time to recover before our next guest arrived on Friday.  It's been pretty quiet here due to Agostinas - a 4 day holiday for Salvadorans.  There are only a handful of friends around.  On one day, Sophie and I joined the Mile Swim Club at the embassy by swimming a mile.  We also had some neighbors over for an impromptu dinner which lasted for a while - even though they had already eaten.

Before we could blink, Alex from college arrived.  He got in kinda late, so, we didn't do too much the night he got in.  The next day, Beth arrived, making for a muy bueno mini-reunion.  Our first stop from the airport was Sunzal, a beach past La Libertad on the coastal highway -- probably about 30 minutes from the airport.  We were having a great time in the car and then we happened across a town where tons of children accosted our car.  We immediately wondered why people were so excited to see us.  Was this road not very well travelled and they were just excited to see someone (unlikely)?  Were they just looking for a ride on the bumper of our car (it happened, but, unlikely to be the reason)?  Did they just really love our Rav4? The suspense was killing us.  It slowly became clear what was going on.  The main bridge across a river had been washed out and was being reconstructed, so, no cars could cross it.  Luckily, the kids were willing to show us another bridge we could use.  Sophie asked if this other mode of crossing was dangerous and was assured by the kids and a lone adult that it was perfectly safe.  We ambled up the dirt road before getting to the crossing.  If you've ever played Oregon Trail, it was kind of like you had the choice to ford the river, go around, or hire an Indian guide.  These kids were anxious for us to choose the Indian guide and pay them to literally help push our car across the river.  The water was about knee level, which, made me wonder what would happen if the car decided to start floating downriver - would we drown?  would the kids be crushed?  We decided to forgo these questions and turned around and just went back to San Salvador.  ¡Qué lástima!

Back in San Salvador, we made another trip to Las Brumas, the restaurant on the side of the volcano with a view of the city.  After another amazing meal there, we tried to go to El Boquerón, but turned around when we got there in thick fog and rain.  

We decided our next course of action was to make some margaritas and go to the karaoke bar.  However, the karaoke bar was closed, so, we decided to instead head to a Salvadoran dance club.  After about 5 minutes there, Beth struck up a conversation with some Salvadoreños, which was interesting to watch because she knows very little Spanish.  Her attempts at speaking were sufficient enough to act as a catalyst for Salvador/US harmony.  The dance floor was empty until we headed to the floor with our Salvadoran friends and within 5 minutes, the floor was packed.  Overall, it was a great night in San Salvador!

Sophie rockin' the rodilla
I took Monday off, so, we wanted to make use of me being free Sunday and Monday, so, we decided to go to the beach for the night.  We mulled over returning to Barra de Santiago but decided to go somewhere new.  That somewhere new turned out to be the Decameron Resort in El Salvador.  It was an all-inclusive hotel for $40 each that had the feel of what I imagine a cruise ship would feel like.  It was actually really fun and the weather was great, but, not really what I had expected.  The highlight of the stay there was probably when the water aerobics class started in the pool we were at.  Suddenly 10s of Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and Americans were gyrating with guidance from the incredibly fit male instructor.  After the aerobics, there was an impromptu "sexy legs" competition with 4 seemingly random women judged by 4 seemingly random men.  It was entertaining.

We ended our Monday night by going to Citrón once again.  This time we tried their ice cream for desert - avocado, basil, and banana sorbet for me.  Who knew avocado sorbet would be tasty?

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

International Travelers

It's been a good few weeks here in San Salvador.  Since we've had visitors in town, we've been traveling around with them some and been enjoying the area.  For their 2nd weekend here, we all went to Barra de Santiago.  It's about 2 hours from San Salvador in the western part of the country, on the coast.  It was beautiful.  We stayed in a hotel for about $50 a night and a couple from the embassy that joined us stayed at the semi-inclusive resort next door, so, we got to see how luxurious the hotels can get.  Our hotel was great - simple rooms and hammocks on the beach.  You can't ask for much more - unless you're asking for hot water, pool, bar, gorgeous rooms, and kayaks - in which case, the other hotel was made for you.

We started our trip by going to a beach restaurant that wasn't much to look at, but, had some great food.  They went out and "caught" our food after we ordered it - I say "caught" because they could have just taken a boat somewhere else to buy it, but, regardless, they showed off the (dead) lobsters and shrimp before cooking them.  I've eaten a lot of seafood since being here, all of it relatively cheap and all of it delivious.  After lunch, we went back and talked to a guide about surfing, seeing sea turtles laying eggs, and going into the mangroves.  Sophie and I surfed for a bit.  We're not very good, but, hey, we were able to get up on the board.  The guide didn't speak any English, so, it was fun learning the 4 words you need to surf - subirse, agarrar, levantarse, and nadar.  I knew all of these, so, I got to show off.  After surfing, we read for a while, ate, and then went on a 2 hour (!) walk on the beach with the guide in search of sea turtles.  We didn't see any.  There were a lot of other locals out searching for sea turtles because a hatchery in the area (I believe with funding from USAID) pays $2 for 12 eggs.  Our guide was onto something, though, because he discovered that he could take some gringos on a walk and charge much more than that, even if no eggs were found.

You talkin' to me?
The next day, we went to the mangroves and walked around in the mud.  Crabs were everywhere and our guide was not afraid to dig them out of their holes and then try to make the crabs battle each other.  Different crabs had different ways to defend themselves.  One tried to dig himself into a hole and got everything in except for his huge claw.  Others would raise their claw up and make it look like if you stepped any closer, he would attack you.  Still others just ran.  It was all good fun on a beautiful morning.  After the trip, we lazed around the hotel before heading back to San Salvador.

Every three weeks at work, I have to lead my team in planning for the next three weeks.  When everyone was in the same office, this was a full day affair, complete with free lunches.  After half the team moved to India, we woke up really early (4am) in DC to maximize our time.  Then we started to get later in DC, like, 6am.  Now that I'm in El Salvador, that's 4am for me, so, it was pretty grueling.  This past week, we tried splitting the planning into 2 days starting at 8am in DC.  This helped my sanity as well as the sanity of my other coworkers.  It's nice to be able to tweak it so that it works out best for everyone.

Anyway, back to traveling.  Sophie's sister got into San Salvador on Thursday and we had been planning to go to Copán in Honduras from Friday-Sunday.  However, to get to Copán, we needed to drive.  Unfortunately, our license plates only allowed us to drive inside El Salvador, so, Sophie spent a lot of the week trying to figure out how to get there.  Rental cars that cross the border are extremely expensive.  The embassy vans (which are pretty cheap to rent with a driver) can't leave the country.  So, we resigned ourselves to paying a lot of money to have someone drive us in his 10 passenger van.  Bummer.  Since it was a per-day fee, we decided to just go for the weekend and spent Friday hiking the Santa Ana volcano again.  It was a gorgeous day with patchy clouds in the sky.  Last time we went up, we weren't able to see much once we got to the top, but, this time we were able to see into the volcano and see all the volcanoes and lakes around.  It was awesome.  While hiking back to the parking lot, Sophie received a phone call telling us that our plates had arrived - so, goodbye driver, hello Sophie & Case driving a full car for 10 hours!

The drive to Copán was nice - you drive across El Salvador, then through the mountains in Guatemala before crossing into Honduras.  At one point, we diverted to Esquipulas, where we walked around a nice basilica that contains the famed "Black Christ," who apparently performs miracles.  Unfortunately, everyone wanted to receive a miracle, so, we opted for the replica of it rather than wait in line.  We had diverted to Esquipulas due to a horrific accident with a tractor trailer and a large cargo truck.  Seeing the wreck really highlighted the dangers of passing while going around a curve - we were told that 3 people were killed in the wreck.

Once we got to Copán, we settled into our hotel, which was very nice.  We had a triple room with 2 doubles and single, so, all five of us fit in there for around $100.  It was a steal - the place had flowers in the courtyard, a pool, a hot tub, and a free breakfast.  Copán itself is quaint and touristy - cobblestone streets, three-wheeled mototaxis, and craft shops.  It was a shock (and mildly annoying) to go everywhere and have people speak English to you.  The next day, we went to the Copán ruins.  They were pretty extensive and pretty.  After having visited Tikal and Machu Picchu, though, it didn't feel as magnificent as I think it should have felt.  There were some cool stone carvings that were better than the other sites, but, it didn't have the allure of being in the middle of a jungle like Tikal and we weren't in the Andes like in Peru.  But, I'm not saying that it wasn't beautiful.  There were tons of absolutely huge trees that had roots that were probably 20-50 yards long, and the views of the surrounding hills and mountains were great.  The museum at Copán also had some cool things to show off.  We ended our time in Copán by eating pizza.  Yum.

Now we're back in San Salvador.  Our two guests left yesterday, so, Sophie, her sister, and I went to Costa del Sol, which is near the airport.  We were surprised by how sandy the beach was and will definitely be returning.  It was $0.90 to get access to the beach and a pool.  Pretty nice.  None of us got severely burned, either, which was a plus considering how freaking hot it was there.  Life in the tropics is rough.