Saturday, September 18, 2010

Back in the States

After 3.5 months in El Salvador, I'm back in the States for a 2.5 week whirlwind tour - Chattanooga, DC, Denver, and Moab.  Right now, I'm in the Atlanta airport waiting to catch the 30 minutes flight to Chattanooga.  Immigration and customs was incredibly efficient today - who would have guessed?  It is a little weird being back.  I said hola and gracias to the waitress as she gave me my sweet tea and bacon hamburger.  I also found myself "translating" some signs into English, even though they were already in English.  It's all very confusing, but, I think I'll get by.  I have to say, though, that it is amazing how connected we are these days.  For $10 I can get airport and hotel wireless for the month.  With that internet, I can make phone calls to land lines for free using Google Voice - I can even call Sophie in El Salvador.  Incredible.  I think tomorrow my parents and I are going to go kayaking on the Hiwassee River.  What a wonderful world!

Fun & Family

My sister, Kit, arrived on Friday the 3rd.  She's done a lot of travelling, but never to Latin America - ¡Qué lástima!  So, we were determined to show her a good time.  Since it was the weekend of Labor Day, we had a 3 day weekend to wow her with El Salvador.  We decided to head to El Imposible National Park in the western part of the country.  We'd been there before, but, we had entered from Tacuba in the north.  This time we were going to enter from the south.  Sophie drove us the whole way and did a great job driving the last hour, which was on a dirt road going up into the mountains.  We stayed at the Imposible Eco-lodge, which is the only place you can stay there.  We got a cabin, read some, had dinner, and headed to bed.  The cabins were pretty nice - they had solar hot water and solar lighting.  It's also in the middle of the forest, which was nice.

The next day, we entered the park and hired a guide to show us around.  We decided to take a hike down to the confluence of two rivers, where we could take a swim.  The beginning of the hike was through a nature tour area, so, the guide told us all about the trees in the park.  The hike was gorgeous and the guide's Spanish was very easy to undersand.  We saw lots of birds, cool trees, leaf-cutter ants, butterflies, and an iguana on the hike.  The river was perfect - it reminded me of swimming in North Chickamauga creek in Chattanooga - clean, crisp water with great scenery.  The hike out wasn't too bad and the guide took us back through the campsites that are in the park - we'll definitely be returning to check those out - gotta use that tent for something!

After the hike, we hopped back in the car and drove the hour back down the dirt road and then another 30 minutes to Barra de Santiago, where'd we'd spend Sunday night.  We stayed in the same hotel we had before - Hotel Capricho - and were treated to another great time there.  Sophie was super excited about the prospects of seeing sea turtles laying their eggs, so, we called up Julio Cesar again to get him to take us on the beach to find a turtle.  No sooner had we left our hotel, it started raining, hard.  We walked for about 45 minutes in the downpour before arriving at the turtle hatchery sponsored by USAID.  They pay people $2-3 per dozen turtle eggs to try to encourage people to not eat the turtles.  There were lots of buried eggs there, but, nothing was really going on.  Feeling like we'd, yet again, walked in the rain for nothing, we trudged back.  Within about 5 minutes of getting back to the hotel, we finally found what we were looking for - a sea turtle.  She had just left the ocean, so, we had to take cover in a random ranchero while she found a suitable spot.  While we were waiting, we were treated to a spectacular and scary display of the awesomeness of lightning.  Huddled up in the ranchero, our eyes were blinded for a solid minute due to a close lightning strike.  Luckily, the lightning subsided by the time the turtle started laying her eggs.  We rushed over and watched as the turtle released the eggs into the waiting hands of someone who was collecting them.  It was pretty cool.  We were able to touch the turtle, touch the eggs, and then were treated to a show as she proceeded to cover up the hole and then use her body to bodyslam the sand in an attempt to tamp it down.  Very cool.  Eventually the show ended as she made her way back into the ocean.  Turtles are such weird animals!

The next day was pretty relaxing - we basically just laid on the beach and surfed.  Rough life!  My surfing abilities are not any better, but, it's still fun.  We then headed back to San Salvador to return to the real world - the world that requires you to work.  Kit went to Playa El Tunco - a beach that is about 45 minutes from El Salvador for the rest of the week while Sophie and I worked.

For the next weekend, we were determined to do something new.  So, on Saturday, we drove out to Suchitoto - a small town to the northeast of San Salvador that has an artistic flavor and is on the edge of the largest lake in the country.  The town was pretty nice - it definitely has a colonial feel to it and felt more like Guatemala than the El Salvador that I'm familiar with.  We shopped around, bought some gifts for people, and had lunch at a random restaurant.  The restaurant showed off what makes the tropics great - from the outside, it looked like a house, but, you walk in and then you enter a little courtyard area that is open to the elements and filled with large trees and plants.  The temperature was cool and the food was good.  After lunch, we wanted to check out the waterfall that is close to town, so, we started walking there before someone stopped us and told us to get the police to go with us.  We're unsure if the police were really necessary, but, at the very least it saved us from walking a pretty long way on a deserted road.  So, that's how we got to ride in a PNC tourist police SUV down to the waterfall.  The waterfall was really cool, mainly because the rocks behind the waterfall look like they were placed there by man since they're so blocky.  Very cool.  We headed back to San Salvador that night and went to bed on the early side of things to wake up for our adventure the next day.

We woke up early to start our mountain bike ride to the top of the San Salvador volcano - Picacho.  The ride started from Grand Via, went for 6.5 miles on the road as we went to the other side of the volcano, before starting up a dirt road for the next 7 miles of uphill.  The climb was good - it was a constant climb, but, not very steep, so, you got used to it.  After the dirt road, the final 2-3 miles were on a nice concrete road.  Once at the top, we realized a few things.  First, we didn't actually go to the top.  Second, there was a parade going on right next to the bike shop's tent.  Third, that the parade blocks the signs telling us to turn onto a trail for the downhill.  Instead of turning, we just followed other Salvadoran riders who we thought were in the know as we flew down the volcano on the road.  We'd been down this road the last time we had mountain biked, so, I knew that at some point, we probably wanted to turn off.  However, the Salvadorans didn't turn off, so, we followed them down, hoping that they knew where they were going.  By the time we realized that they knew as much as us, we were at the bottom of the volcano and completely missed all the downhill mountain biking.  Sucks.  We made our way back to Grand Via where we met up with all the other riders and got some post-'race' goodies - beer, pizza, and photos with the Thule women - 2 women who were dressed in Thule branded spandex.  Awesome.  We then went home, showered, and made our first visit to the Merliot market, where we picked up some new fruits and tried some local fare, like sopa de pata (foot soup).  Yummmmmy.

The week after the ride was uneventful, except for the independence day celebrations.  Kit and Sophie went down to watch the parades and celebrations and were treated to a parade by school children and a parade by the military.  Who knew that the Salvadorans have so many bazookas?  It sounds like they had a wonderful time and were able to purchase some awesome masks that are apparently worn by fans of the Salvadoran soccer team "Selección."  Kit's time in El Salvador ended with a night out in San Salvador, which started with happy hour at a Cuban restaurant and ended at a new dance club named RED.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Bolas de Fuego

"Yea, I got a ball of fire in my hand.  So what?"
On Wednesday, a few of us went to Bolas de Fuego, a celebration somehow related to an explosion of a volcano nearby that didn't destroy a religious statue, or something.  Anyway, somehow a tradition started of celebrating the explosion every year by trying to recreate it with kerosene soaked flaming balls of fire.  Sounds like a great idea, right?  We took the 30 minute trip to Nejapa to check it out.  I had watched a few videos online of what to expect, but, the videos don't really do it justice.  When you're there, not only are the flaming balls flying by, but you also hear the flames and smell the kerosene.  It was pretty awesome.  I made a (terribly edited) video from my camera that you can watch.  Surprisingly, we didn't see many fights break out, even though there were a lot of people and the high possibility of someone getting hit with a flaming ball of kerosene.  When I was in high school, we thought we were cool because we had bottle rocket wars every summer, but, this really takes it to a new level.  I'm going to chalk this up as an experience that you will never get in the US.

Back to normal life

The last 2 weeks has been back to 'normal' life, since we haven't had any visitors.  Normal life means that I work at home until 3:30 or 5 and then head over the embassy to pick Sophie up and do something.  We've been here for a little over 3 months now, so, I'm starting to really wish my Spanish was better.  I know it has improved, but, since I don't talk to many Spanish speakers every day, it could definitely be better.  My grand plan is to get into a biking group and speak Spanish with them.  So, I decided to try my hand at road biking here.  I woke up at 4:30am to get to the bike shop at 5:00am to start the ride and hopefully finish by 6:30. so I could have time to shower before work at 7.  I went with the same guy as last time, from Bicimania.  He's super nice and doesn't speak any English, so, it's perfect, really.  We got a late start, but still rode for an hour and a half through the south western part of the city.  There weren't many cars on the way out, but, on the way back, it was pretty busy.  Most of the ride was on really nice roads that weren't well traveled, so, we got to ride through some really pretty areas with only a few cars to bother us.  Very, very nice.  I made a map of where we went - man it's hilly here!  I'm looking forward to riding again, but, it takes a lot to get me motivated for that early of a ride!

The weekend after the ride, we went to a beach house owned by one of Sophie's coworkers who has been in the foreign service most of his life.  When I say it's a beach house, though, I really mean that it's like a beach complex.  They had like 4 or 5 villas with rooms for people, a ranchero (covered dining area) on the beach, and a pool with a submerged bar.  Awesome.  We had great weather.  A highlight for the trip was their dog, Oso, who wanted to play fetch with the frisbee from 7:30 in the morning to 10 at night.  Crazy dog.

Anyway, another week of work with poker night in the middle.  No winnings, but, I'm still up overall since  I've been here.  I'll continue to point out that I'm up until I actually lose money, at which point I just won't talk about poker.  That's the way it is.  Sophie was working in Honduras for work, so, I was home alone hanging out with friends or playing way too much Starcraft 2.  I'm not much of a gamer, but, Starcraft is an exception for me.

Finally, last weekend we had another 2 visitors, albeit for a short time period.  Dave and Michelle were on their way back from an awesome trip to Peru and had a 6 hour layover in San Salvador, so, we went and picked them up and brought them back to San Salvador for food and to catch up.  Good times.  If anyone else is flying through the area, let us know and we can do the same - visit the beach, visit San Salvador, or just get some pupusas.