Sunday, October 16, 2011

Rain rain, go away

It's been raining. Like, really raining. Coming back from the states, I had grand plans to kick it into gear and get ready for the Desafio de Lava, a half marathon going up Picaya in Guatemala, but those plans have been put on hold for the week due to the rains. It's been raining basically non-stop since early Tuesday morning.

On Tuesday, I don't think I'd quite grasped how much rain was in store for us. I bought tickets for the El Salvador vs. Cayman Islands soccer game even though it was raining during my trip to buy the tickets. The game was postponed for an hour and a half before they started playing on a completely drenched field. I don't think it stopped raining the entire time we were there, yet there were still a good number of fans in the uncovered area - crazy people! El Salvador won 4-0.

Since then, it's just been constant. I keep looking out my window, thinking "ooo, did it let up?" Nope. If it does let up, then it's only for 30 minutes and then another deluge comes. Nuts.

As you can imagine, all this rain has wrecked havoc on many communities in El Salvador that are in higher risk areas – areas prone to landslides or flooding. I've been extremely impressed by the level of involvement that local businesses have had with trying to help those displaced by the storm. My Facebook feed of stores in San Salvador is filled with pictures of small shops, like Bicimania (bike shop) and El Salvador Divers, delivering food to shelters. Super Selectos, the grocery store, has been collecting donations as well. The radio has been advertising where to go to help, etc. I guess all of this is to-be-expected, it's just not something I've experienced in El Salvador so far. We arrived last year during Tropical Storm Agatha, which also dumped a ton of rain, but at that time, we were so new here that we didn't really know what was going on.

If you're interested in learning more about Tropical Depression 12E and its impact, you should check out the recent posts from Tim's El Salvador Blog.

Escaping and Returning

(I wrote this post a week ago, but didn't post it... sorry)

As you can tell, my blog updates are pretty few and far between these days. Things feel normal, so I don't have the itch to tell anyone about my normal life. That being said, sometimes it's disturbing what feels normal.

Our good friend Beth came to visit for the 2nd time. We celebrated her arrival by watching people chuck flaming balls of fire at each other at the annual Bolas de Fuego in Nejapa. She was not disappointed, although she was the first to get hit in the leg with a flaming ball. The participants occasionally throw a flaming ball into the crowd which results in a game of hot potato with feet. The whole experience reminded me of when I was a teenager and participated in bottle rocket wars with my friends (shooting bottle rockets at each other). It's a shame we didn't bump it up a notch back then. Anyway, one of our friends got hit in the face by a flaming ball. Now, I know what you're thinking... "Oh my god, did she get burned?" But, that's the wrong question to ask. Your question should be "Oh my god, how does her face feel after being blindsided by the equivalent of a baseball?" The answer to that is... not so good. It did put a damper on her mood, but she was fine within a day or two.

Beth and I spent the next day at the beach before spending the rest of the weekend in San Salvador. On Friday, we got pupusa making lessons from our maid. I'm not very good at making them, but Beth and Sophie were pretty phenomenal. Beth was visiting as part of her 'last hurrah' before starting a new job in Chicago, so we decided to celebrate. You know it's going to get real when you start your night with double-shot jaiger bombs. We ended the night by seeing a cover band at Cirqo.

The next few weeks were pretty uneventful - working, biking, hiking, beach, etc. Then Sophie went to DC for a week of training, giving me an opportunity to create a whirlwind of a trip to the US.

First, I spent 2 nights in the Miami area, where I got to see my parents, my aunts and uncles, and my 95 year old grandmother. We got Cuban food on Calle Ocho and zipped over to Naples to have dinner at an old restaurant. We had a great time.

On Sunday, I flew into DC and was greeted by what felt like freezing temperatures and rain. It was probably 55 degrees, but my tropical body shuddered when I stepped off the plane. Yeesh. After that Sunday, the weather improved to a perfect week of fall in Virginia. I got to see a ton of people, got to work in a real office with people, and got to drink some great beer.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Back in the Saddle

I'm pretty on-again, off-again when it comes to fitness. I really didn't ride my bike much at all in July or the first part of August. It's especially easy to stay off the bike here in El Salvador, since the rides are always early in the morning. If there's no one expecting me, it's pretty easy to turn the 5am alarm off. But, where's the fun in that?

There are 4 main bike shops in San Salvador, and they are constantly competing to try to get your business. They compete by organizing rides or events. For your regular riding, two bike shops have weekly mountain bike rides on Saturday morning, another has rides every Tuesday and Thursday morning, and I'm sure there is another regular ride or two that I don't know about. Aside from the weekly rides, the shops also try to stake a claim for a certain slice of the cyclist pie. One caters to the more hardcore cyclists, another to laid back mountain bikers, and then the other two are somewhere in between. All this competition means that you have a lot of motivated people around to help motivate you to get out and see the country from a bike seat.

One of my friends is training for the insane Ruta de los Conquistadores, a race in Costa Rica that averages ~60 miles in mountain biking a day, climbing around 39,000' over the 4 days of the race. (The website says it's a "More than a race... A personal growth journey!!") Although I thought about doing this race, I decided that I'm not insane, and that I liked doing things other than training for a race... like sleeping. Anyway, he's motivated me to get back into biking here, so I've been doing more rides. I'm trying to do at least 1 mountain and 1 road ride a week now, and have done that for 2 weeks now.

This past weekend, I joined my friend for a road ride on Saturday morning, starting at 6:30am. I thought the ride was going to be like 20-30 miles, but instead it turned out to be a 63 mile ride that circled around Lago Ilopango, a gorgeous crater lake situated to the east of the city. The views between Cojutepeque and Santo Tomas were awesome - to the north, you have the crater lake, and to the south you have mountains. I'm glad I went, but I need to get into better shape!

On Sunday, Sophie and I went with a bike shop that's new to us, BikeCenter, for a ride through the mountains and pueblitos around Cojutepeque, ending near Lago Apastepeque. The ride was really pretty, but we spent a little too much time on pavement. The ride was actually really well organized - we piled into 2 big school buses and had our bikes in 2 big trucks. I don't think I've been in a school bus since like 6th grade, so that was a fun memory.

Sophie and a waterfall along the way

Yup, I ride with a view like this!

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Buy One, Get Something Random Free


Don't you ever get tired of the same, boring, Buy One, Get One deal? Haven't you ever looked at something in the super market and thought, "you know what, I would buy that pack of Hello Kitty toilet paper, but what I really need is some Raid insect killer - if they packaged them together, then I'd be set."

Well, maybe you need to leave the United States. Here in El Salvador, combo creativity is thriving. You never know what they're going to put together next. Here are a few things that I've seen in combo:
  • 12 pack of beer with 2 extra cans taped onto it (simple and effective - no special packaging needed)
  • 12 pack of beer with a branded pint glass taped onto it
  • A box of Ziplock bags with a box of birthday candles taped on
  • Yes, Hello Kitty toilet paper taped to a Raid can
  • Air freshener taped to a Raid can
  • Maxi pads taped to an air freshener (wow!)
  • The list goes on...
I have bought the beer combos many times, but I'm unsure if anyone would ever admit to buying an air freshener/pad combo. Anyone out there experienced any good combo deals?
Flying off the shelves!

Poison is smelly
Odd

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Una Soda Diferente!

I listen to the radio more here than I did in the States, mainly because I drive much more than I used to. Since I can't get my NPR on the radio, I am forced to listen to Salvadoran stations, which are as bad as any radio station in the states, but automatically more interesting to me because it's a 'cultural experience' for me. Where else could I catch up on the latest reggaeton?

Anyway, the particular radio station I've been listening to has been doing a full court press with their advertisements for a new soda. Here's my recollection of the commercial:
Girl: ¡Soy diferente!
Guy: ¡Soy diferente! 
Both: ¡Somos diferent porque tomamos Cascada Red! 
Announcer: ¡Casacada Red es una nueva soda diferente!....
(Translation: "I'm different", "I'm different", "We're different because we drink Cascada Red." "Cascada Red is a new, different soda...")

Pretty exciting, huh? I like to consider myself a different person, so for the past month I've been on the lookout for Cascada Red, and I still haven't found it. It's marketed towards "young people like you," so maybe I'm just too old to be able to find it.

On a related note, my Spanish teacher tells me that the really exciting news on the soft drink front here is the return of cream soda. She says that cream soda was easy to find a few decades ago, but had disappeared. Now it's become a cross-generational phenomenon, because the older generation has fond memories of it, and kids today love it because it's so sweet. Who knew?

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Guatemala

We've visited Guatemala twice in the past month, first for a backpacking trip to the top of Volcán de Agua and next for a three day trip to Antigua.

Guatemala is different. I'm not sure if I'm just unlucky or if traffic accidents are worse in Guatemala, but of the 3 times I've been to Guatemala from El Salvador, we've seen 4 potentially fatal wrecks (2 definitely fatal). I haven't seen any in El Salvador. However, statistics say that although Guatemala has a higher per capita traffic fatality rate, El Salvador has more traffic deaths, so perhaps I'm just driving on the nicer roads in El Salvador. Anyway, the number of heinous accidents makes you think twice about the wisdom of passing cars... ever. Guatemalan Spanish is also considerably easier to understand, at least for me. Although I'm inclined to say this is because Guatemala has more tourists, I don't think that's the only reason.

Volcán de Agua towers over Antigua. At 12,366', it's over 7,000' above Antigua. We started our hike from Santa Maria de Jesús at about 4:15 in the afternoon and reached the summit at around 10pm. Since most of it was in the dark, we were glad that we had remembered to bring our headlamps! Other, less prepared hiking friends were left hiking the volcano with only their cell phone light for light. Yeesh! The hike was really pretty - all along the way you get great views of the surrounding city lights, which include Antigua and Guatemala City. It was cold at the top, though - probably around 40 degrees with a strong wind. Most of our group was not prepared for this, so we spent the night at the summit in a storage room for a radio tower, which was strangely well prepared - it cost 10 quetzales ($1.25) to stay there and we had the option of buying ramen and coffee from the nightwatchman. Instead, we chose to eat our tuna, peppers, cheese, and hummus. What a meal!

We woke up to a cold, foggy view. Luckily, after descending to the lower part of the volcano's crater, we were able to get some stunning views of the world beneath. Simply amazing. The hike down was considerably faster and more comfortable than the hike up. Riding back to El Salvador was a harrowing experience, though - our minibus driver apparently had places to be on a Sunday night. Luckily we didn't end up a statistic.

Our next foray into Guatemala was this past week with Sophie's sister. We spent our time in Antigua, which is a beautiful city with views of three huge volcanoes - Agua, Fuego, and Acatenango. While there, we hiked up Picaya, an active volcano in the area. Sophie had been up Picaya a year and a half ago and was able to roast marshmallows over the lava, but ever since an eruption last may, the lava has stopped flowing, so we had to settle for roasting our marshmallows in the equivalent of a hot oven. The views from Picaya were amazing - we were above the clouds with a clear view of Volcán de Agua and Volcán del Fuego. Our next day in Antigua was spent exploring the city and all the ruins in the city.

Our last day in Guatemala started with a tour of an indigenous music museum and a coffee plantation. I wasn't expecting much from the indigenous music museum, but it was actually pretty cool. The guy that gave us the tour had been involved with the museum for 25 years and was really into trying to preserve the dying cultures of the indigenous people of Guatemala, so his enthusiasm rubbed off. Unlike El Salvador, Guatemala has a large indigenous population that has their own, unique culture and customs.

We then left Antigua in search of the Auto Safari Chapín (yes, an auto safari in Guatemala). The safari is actually pretty decent - you get to drive through lots of different pens with different animals, culminating with the lion pen. They tell you to close your windows when you go into the lion pen, but I seriously doubt that would help much if the lions were interested in you. When we entered the pen, I reminded Sophie that if a lion attacked, the accelerator would be a good idea. She laughed, I cringed. Only later did we hear from a visiting consular officer working in Guatemala that a Mormon missionary had recently had his arm and legs ripped off while trying to get a better picture at a different zoo in Guatemala. Hope he's doing alright.

When we got back to San Salvador, we made ourselves a delicious and healthy meal to try to combat the not-so-healthy-nor-tasty food that we got at the auto safari. We then went to a Dave Matthews cover band concert at a local bar which was surprisingly awesome, although I probably won't want to hear Dave Matthews again for another few years. The bar made me a bit sad, though, since the last time I'd been there was a few months prior, and a significant number of people who had been there a few months ago are no longer in El Salvador. Just this past week we said goodbye to the first people we met in El Salvador. Such is life in the foreign service.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Rainy Season

Rainy season arrived, but unlike last year, it's not that bad. It rains most nights, but usually not until after 6:30. We've had a few days that had rain for most of the day, but not many. This is in stark contrast to last year, where we didn't see the sun for our first week in the country. El Salvador remains beautiful.

It's been a while since I last posted - maybe life is feeling normal enough that nothing seems interesting enough to post. Who knows. It's been a great two months though!

We've had some more visitors, notably my sister and brother-in-law (henceforth known as my cuñado). My sister is pregnant with her first baby (first in the family!), so they wanted to get their El Salvador fix in before having a child. I was a bit worried when they came that we would have to repeat a bunch of things that we've already done, but we were able to avoid that for the most part. We visited Perquín first, which is in the northeastern part of the country. Morazán department (which Perquín is in) was where much of the rebel resistance came from during the civil war, so there is a lot of civil war history in Perquín and the surrounding areas. We took a tour with a local guide, stopping first at Mozote, a small pueblito where the entire town was essentially murdered by government forces. Our guide was 11 at the time and was already training to fight in the resistance. I cannot imagine. If you're interested in the history of El Mozote, The Massacre at El Mozote is a fascinating book that focuses on the US involvement in the war and the US's turning of a blind eye to the massacre. After Mozote, we hiked around Rio Sapo and visited the civil war museum, which features a lot of relics from the war - captured arms, shot down helicopters, as well as bomb craters.

After Perquín, we visited the beach for the day before dropping my sister and cuñado off at Lago Coatepeque, a beautiful, tranquil, crater lake west of San Salvador. Good times.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

One year down

Time flies. I can't believe it's already June! A lot of things have happened since my last post - I'll try to keep it concise.

My employer paid for me to fly back to the States and spend a week in the office. Spending the week in the office made me realize how much I miss the human interaction of the office. I work with some great people. Overall, it was an awesome week. I got to catch up with most of my friends in DC and even got to go mountain biking after work one day. After spending the week in DC, I made a quick trip through Tennessee to see my parents before heading back to El Salvador. It's definitely nice to be posted to a country that is so close to home.

While I was away, a soccer tournament started at the embassy. I play pick-up at the embassy every week, and it's pretty low key and informal, so I expected the tournament to be similar. Boy, was I wrong. Every team but ours has jerseys with matching shorts. (We actually do have jerseys, but only because one of our teammates happens to have a full set of jerseys.) The tournament is 8v8, every player has a 'player card' that they must have on them to enter the game, and there is a ref. The word for referee in Spanish is another gem of a cognate - árbitro. Sometimes I wonder if I'm going to return to the States speaking a weird form of English where I talk about a tranquil arbiter molesting me with his gum mastication. Anyway, our team is not doing very well. We've lost 3 games and won 1.

Sophie and I went on another trip with the mountaineering federation, this time to El Cerro Brujo and El Cerro Limo. This was a beautiful hike in the Chalatenango department, not far from Montecristo National Park. We packed in for two hours on Saturday, camped out, and then did a long day hike on Sunday. It was a really beautiful hike and we got to meet some new people - mainly 4 Spanish women who were on the trip.

We didn't really have any plans for Memorial Day, so we decided to go on a road trip with a friend to León in Nicaragua. It was an 8 hour car ride there. The ride was pretty smooth, considering that we crossed 2 borders. Once we got there, we spent some time in León and then went to the nearby beach, where we spent the night. We woke the next day hoping to go kayaking through the nearby mangrove forest, but we had to settle for a motor boat ride. The reserve is very pretty, and I think we'll return sometime to spend a night or two camped out in the reserve. The beach there is pristine - nobody on the beach, no trash, no big buildings - gorgeous. We had to cut our boat ride short so we could return to León for our volcano boarding trip in the afternoon. We hiked to the top of the Cerro Negro volcano and then road down on either a sled or a board. It was pretty awesome. The only downside is that the soles on my 11 year old Vasque Sundowners came off. Guess I'll have to find some new hiking boots :(
Sleds in tow
May 25th marked the one year mark in our first tour. It's hard to believe that we've already been here for a year! It's sad to think that now we have less than a year left in El Salvador. It's weird that many of our friends have moved on or are going to move on in the next year. Such is the life of the transient FSO.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Work and Play

Working from home isn't all it's cracked up to be. It's obviously great to be able to roll out of bed and get to work with no commute, but you never really leave your office. If you let yourself (which I do), you can spend way too much time sitting in a chair staring at a computer screen. You may even find yourself forgetting to eat meals in a timely fashion, or you may find, at the end of the day, that you haven't moved at all. Eventually, all this adds up into a low-boil of stress.

That's what happened to me last week. The first half was super stressful - not fun. In order to alleviate the stress, I made more of a point to exercise during the week (definitely helps) and then Sophie and I went looking for things to do over the weekend. For Saturday morning, we found a group of bikers that leave from a local bike shop every Saturday morning for a suavecito ride through some fincas. The group moved along pretty slowly since there were so many, but it was a nice, relaxing mountain bike ride through some pretty terrain.

On Saturday night, we did the Night Run 10k. I've never really heard of the idea of a night run before, but why not, right? I expected there to be like 50 people there, but there were probably more like 1,000 people there! It was dark, and many people had those glow in the dark bracelets on, which made for an fun starting area. The run itself was awesome. After the start, they shot off fireworks so we could see them in front of us, which was an unexpectedly awesome thing. We got the firework treatment again during a downhill section. They were being shot from a bridge that we eventually ran under. We all had numbers on us, but I have no idea if anyone was keeping track of people's times.

We rounded out our weekend by going on a hike into the Boquerón crater with the mountaineering club of El Salvador. The hike turned out to be harder than we had expected, since there are a few dicey/steep places, but it was really beautiful. When we got to the bottom of the crater, we picked up as much trash as we could and carried it out in big trash bags. This was our first trip with them, and it will not be our last! The people in the club were all really nice and they have climbing, hiking, or backpacking trips going out every weekend. It definitely got us excited about seeing some more of this beautiful region.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Semana Santa

After our trip to Panama, we had our next visitor, Kristen. She had been in Mexico with a friend, relaxing after taking her Professional Engineer's exam. It's an 8 hour exam that certifies you as a professional engineer. Once you're a professional engineer, you can sign off on official plans. Sophie will be taking her PE exam in October. The fretting has already begun!

Kristen got in on Thursday and left on Sunday, so it was a pretty quick visit. However, we got a lot packed in. Her and Sophie went ziplining and to the spa on Friday, and then we headed to the beach on Saturday. Of course, the big attraction in San Salvador that night was the Luis Miguel concert. For the 2nd time as a diplomat, I've been duped into attending a 'cultural event' that I probably could have done without (the first was Japanese Kabuki). Friends with Mexican heritage told us he was the "Michael Jackson of Mexico" as well as other, lofty comparisons. However, I think he's much closer to Frank Sinatra. I went in expecting someone like Ricky Martin, with stellar dance moves and an active crowd and instead got (in my opinion) good singing without much energy. Very few people in the entire stadium seating area were standing up, and I fell asleep a few times. Oh well. It was still fun going to a concert in El Salvador at an outdoor stadium, but not sure if it was worth the ticket price.

This past week was holy week in Central America. Many businesses, as well as the government, are shut down for the entire week. The US Embassy got Thursday and Friday off. My Spanish tutor was excited to be work-free for the week, and since she had lots of time and the roads were clear, we visited El Museo de la Palabra y la Imagen, a small museum near the center of San Salvador that has some interesting exhibits on El Salvador's history. They had writings of Roque Dalton and Salvador Salazar Arrué, photos and quotes from Romero, and an interesting exhibit on the FMLN during the civil war, complete with a mock broadcasting room for Radio Venceremos, the rebel radio station during the Civil War. Overall, it was worth the trip.

Since Sophie had Thursday and Friday off, I took those days off as well, and we headed to Granada, Nicaragua for the long weekend. We woke up late on Thursday morning and booked a 4.5 hour kayak tour through Las Isletas, a peninsula with more than 300 tiny islands, most of them private. The islands are all really pretty and it was a relaxing tour. We told our guide to speak Spanish instead of English, which proved to be strangely hard for him, since he's so used to giving the tour in English.
Ridin' in style
On Friday, we took a trip to Mombacho Volcano, the large volcano that is easily seen from Granada. The volcano is surrounded by a cloud forest, so it was a beautiful 4.5 hour hike through the forest. The guide spoke Spanish to us the whole way, which was nice, although my head hurt the entire time. We saw tons of birds, salamanders, and howler monkeys. We also had some beautiful vistas of the surrounding countryside and got to see some vents on the dormant volcano.

We took another tour on Saturday, visiting Masaya volcano, the white city, Lago de Apoyo, and a pottery school. The Masaya volcano is huge and really active. A constant stream of gases was belching up from far below. They make you back into your parking spot in case the volcano blows, which seems like a good idea, except I'm pretty sure that if that extra thirty seconds makes a difference, you're probably already pretty much screwed. Around the volcano, there are lots of these good size hills that have apparently been growing, making scientists believe that the next big explosion will come from one of these new volcanoes. Pretty interesting stuff. We bought a bunch of crafts at a craft market in Masaya before checking out Lago de Apoyo, a big, beautiful, crater lake.

I should say that a big part of our vacation was taken up by reading. While Sophie read the first Twilight book in Spanish, I read the Grapes of Wrath. I had bought it on a lark and really had no idea what it was about, and found it to be probably the best book I've ever read. It has a great story and also has some fantastic, authentic dialogue. If you haven't read it, I highly recommend it.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Panama

It was looking to be a normal week for me - work for the week, then hang out in El Salvador. The US government had better plans, though. On Monday, Sophie found out that she would be attending a conference and other meetings in Panama City as part of the Energy and Climate Partnership of the Americas. So, she left for the conference on Wednesday, and I joined her on Thursday evening.

The beauty of truly working remotely is that I didn't have to take any vacation - I just worked from the hotel room on Friday using their internet. However, what sucks about working remotely (at least for me) is that you sometimes lose track of time. I knew I needed to leave my house at 1pm to catch the 3pm flight out of San Salvador, but suddenly it was 1:52, and I was still at home. The San Salvador airport is about 45 minutes from my house, so I stepped on it and was able to get on the plane by 2:40. It helped that I only had carry-on and that I didn't have to pay the exit tax, but it's not a great feeling to be sitting in security as you hear the your flight's last boarding call announced.

While in Panama City, we had dinner at a nice restaurant in Casco Viejo. The food was great and cheap for what we got. One difference I noticed was that, unlike San Salvador, the restaurants were packed. San Salvador has some great restaurants, but you're often alone with ten employees when you eat out. We also had dinner on one of the 3 islands that are close to Panama City. The islands used to be only reachable by boat, but there is now a road out to them - I can only assume that they decided to do something with all the rubble from digging the canal. Panama City is a pretty interesting place - tall buildings everywhere, clean water, nice restaurants - it's almost like Miami. It wasn't at all what I was expecting.

We then had Saturday and Sunday to ourselves to check out the canal and relax in the rain forest. We started out on Saturday by seeing the Miraflores locks on the canal. As you can imagine, the locks are pretty big. It was cool seeing massive boats shimmy into the locks and move on up the canal. They have a pretty cool museum there as well, so you can learn about the history of the canal.

Although the locks were cool and certainly an engineering feat, the coolest part of the canal for me was seeing these huge boats as they made their way through the Chagres River and into Lago Gatún. The river looks like the Tennessee River I grew up with, yet there are large container ships cruising through - very cool. We stayed at a hotel in Gamboa that was way nicer than we're used to, but we didn't have much time and felt like relaxing. And relax we did. Our vacations normally consist of us frantically trying to do as much as we can in short amount of time, but I think Sophie and I both were exhausted, so we just sat by the pool, read our books, and took in the gorgeous scenery of the rain forest.

We were wondering what to do on Sunday, but then Facebook came to the rescue. I have a high school friend who I knew had worked at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute back in 2007, so I sent him a message on Facebook asking what we should be doing. I doubt we have communicated since high school, so I wasn't expecting much, but, lo and behold, it turns out that he was actually in Panama, and staying on an island that was very close to where we were. He's doing his PhD in plant biology at Berkley  We were able to meet up at our hotel, and he took us to one of the research areas that was nearby, where he showed us all the cool research that the Smithsonian is doing. Very cool.
Sophie learning about all the experiments. The trees in the background are in a mostly closed system in order to measure how much water a tree needs to grow, and whether that amount differs by species.
Alas, our little mini-vacation had to end at some point, so we caught a cab back to Panama City and got back into San Salvador at around 10pm.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

El Desafio Custcatleco

Has anyone read Born to Run? It's a great book about running, and I can't help but lump it together with Michael Pollan books because they all share the same theme: we make our lives too complex. It even reminds me of an old George Carlin bit:
Life is not that complicated. You get up, you go to work, eat three meals, you take one good shit and you go back to bed. What’s the fucking mystery?
 I'll use that as a segue into what I have found to be an awesome part about El Salvador. There is a rather large group of people dedicated to some form of competitive fitness, but at the end of the day, they don't overcomplicate it. Two weeks ago, I the Desafio Cuscatleco. It's a mountain bike race that is spread over two days, totaling around 80 or 90 miles and 10,000' of climbing. It was epic.

The race started in Salanitas (a.k.a Decameron), which is on the coast. We rode on the road for about 7 miles before reaching the start of the race. As I've mentioned before, mountain biking in El Salvador is mostly on dirt roads - there's not a ton of singletrack - so we took off down the trail and for the next four and half hours, I pedaled, mostly uphill.  The ride consisted of a vertical rise of 1500 meters with a few, albeit small, downhill sections. We finished at a hotel close to the small town of Apaneca. The hotel offered sports massages for $15 for 30 minutes, so I had my first massage. It was nice. After two high-carb meals, we turned in at 9 to wake up for the next day.
The start at Decameron
The 2nd day had the potential to be easier, simply because we were going from Apaneca down to the ruins at San Andres.  So, downhill, right? Eh, not really. The race started with an extended downhill that was complicated by the high amounts of dust that everyone was kicking up. I had to just focus on the rider in front of me and hope that he knew where the hell he was going. After going downhill for a fair bit, we hit bottom, around 1,000m above sea level. We then started the long, muscle-pounding climb to around 1800m. I have an older Garmin GPS that works alright, but sometimes the distances it gives aren't quite right, but the altitude measure seemed similar to what I would expect, so I focused on watching the elevation, knowing that I would be done when we hit 1800m. This turned out to be a bad idea, because the trail reached around 1700m 3 times before falling away to a dowhill followed by another climb. Yeesh! We finally reached the top and started the long downhill, essentially from the Santa Ana volcano to Lago Coatepeque. It was  beautiful downhill, and my brakes were smoking by the time I reached the bottom. The brakes weren't the only thing that were hot, though. As we dropped in elevation, the temperature climbed, reaching about 90 degrees. I then had to climb out of the crater before starting the long, hot bike to San Andres. It was pretty riding through the pueblitos and fincas along the way, but the last 15 miles was brutal -- flat, monotonous crushed gravel road.

It was a great experience. The organization of the race was just about perfect. There was enough organization where they were keeping track of everyone, so they could look for you if you got lost, but there wasn't so much that you were obsessing over whether your sensor was working, or that kind of stuff.
The view from the epic downhill

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Presidential Visit

Barack Obama visited El Salvador for a whole 24 hours last month.  If you haven't been through a presidential visit at an embassy before, you haven't experienced the ridiculous amount of work that goes into it. Basically, most of the embassy shuts down for about 2 weeks in preparation. People are given sites, and they coordinate everything that is going to happen at that site. These people include embassy personel, White House advance team members, Secret Service, local staff, local governmental staff, everything. It's, in a word, absurd.

I got to watch all of this from the sidelines, which meant that I was definitely a freeloader on the whole affair. While Sophie was shuttling the press corp to the airport, I was shaking the president's hand (sorry Sophie!). It was pretty cool. He gave a speech to the embassy talking about how Americans abroad serve as the best diplomats to other countries, describing expats as creating 'ripples of hope' in their communities abroad. (A phrase apparently used by Robert F. Kennedy)

A presidential visit to a developing country is a strange thing. Billboards with the photos of Barack or Barack and Michelle were everywhere. Just the shear production of it all. It was crazy.  If you've read much Paul Theroux, it's at this point that you wonder what it's all about.

I figure this point is as good as any to plug a great blog about El Salvador. Tim has a great wrap up of the whole affair, and always has diverse viewpoints on a variety of issues in El Salvador, from pupusas to politics.

One of many billboards around the entire country

My picture, but a friend's hand.  The picture I got of me shaking his hand is... not as good.  He was ready for me to let go.



Friday, March 25, 2011

Hotel

Our friends here joke that we're running a hotel out of our house. We gave them more fodder when we had another 2 guests, our friends Rhea and Stephanie from DC. Steph got in on Thursday, Rhea on Sunday. You're probably wondering what Steph and Sophie did on their first day of vacation, and you can probably guess it - they climbed Santa Ana volcano again! This is probably the 6th time for Sophie to climb it, but she hasn't tired of it yet - it is still a gorgeous view! On Saturday, we took a drive on La Ruta de Los Flores to Apaneca to do a zipline tour. This was our second ziplining excursion, and I have to say that the ziplining in Apaneca is better than the ziplining in El Boquerón. The cables are longer, the views are better, but it is farther away. We had a great time zooming over the canopy. After the ziplining, we walked around Apaneca and watched kids playing soccer on the road next to the town square. The game was complete with jerseys and a referee.

On Sunday, we went to Playa Sunzal to do some surfing. I wasn't feeling my best (Wine 1 - Case 0), so Sophie and Steph were the only surfers. They had a great time surfing, but we had to go to the airport to pick Rhea up, so we zoomed off to the airport to find out that her flight had been delayed by 2 hours. We decided to hang out at the airport and found that the San Salvador airport has an observation deck that you can go out on for $1. From there, you get a nice view of the tarmac. We waited there and watched Rhea's flight touch down.
Surfer chicks
I took Monday off to go hang out at the beach with Rhea, Steph, and Sophie, but worked the the rest of the days.  While I was at home, working, they went to the spa, checked out El Boquerón, visited Santa Ana (the city), checked out Mayan ruin sites, and went to some museums.

All in all, I think they had a great time in El Salvador, and it was great to see them. It was interesting talking to them about all the goings-on in DC - who's dating who, who's marrying whom (Marshall, I'm looking at you!), and just how much life has changed over the past 10 months.

Rockin' out at KGB

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Frontera a Frontera

Biking in El Salvador is surprisingly good.  I've been doing a lot more road biking than I did in the States, and probably less mountain biking.  Most of the mountain biking is double-track and I prefer single-track, so... The views from the road rides are spectacular, and there is a large group of people who ride regularly. I did a ride back in November with a group from the local bike shop and was able to hold my own on an 80km ride, so I figured - I can do anything, right?  That kind of arrogance can get you in trouble!  Haha.

I signed up to do the 'frontera a frontera' (border to border) ride with little training.  It was supposed to be a 300km ride from the border of Guatemala to La Unión along the litoral (coastal) highway.  I figured that since it was along the cost, it would be pretty flat and hence not be that bad.

First we had to get to the border.  I woke up at 4am and caught a ride with the bike shop to the border, leaving their shop at 4:45.  I was sitting shotgun in a large pickup truck with a heavy trailer as we barreled down the road to Sonsonate. We came across a bunch of busses which were parked on the side of the road. The driver of the truck turned on his high beams to make sure that we were more readily seen as he passed the busses at about 50mph.  One of the busses was apparently not paying attention and decided to pull out into our lane. Our driver slammed on the brakes and it was immediately obvious that we weren't going to be able to stop in time. As we screeched towards the bus, our driver made a split second decision to hit the concrete abutment on the left side of the road rather than hit the bus. Turned out he made a great decision - we hit the abutment with a loud pop, but, after pulling over, we found that we had only a few scratches to show for our near-bout-with-death.

Undeterred, we reached the border and started the ride.  The first 45 minutes were great - big group, easy ride in the peloton.  That is, until I got my first flat.  I was prepared for this, though, and quickly changed the tube and pumped it up with help from my riding buddy who also stopped.  After the flat was fixed, we darted off, hoping to catch the peloton while they rested at the first refueling stop.  However, I would never catch them again.  The next 4 hours were probably the hardest 4 hours of exercise I've done.  I'm not sure if any of you out there have ever ridden with real road bikers, but apparently they are crazy people.  They just ride flat out for hours.  I tried that, but eventually lost most of my steam and was relegated to climbing the hills along the rocky coast at the speed of what felt like a turtle.  Along the way, I got another 2 flats.  After the 3rd flat, I found a tiny piece of glass that was embedded in the outside of the tire, but couldn't be felt in the inside, so I'm going to assume that that piece of glass was my nemesis for the day.  Eventually, after hours of riding in the hot-ass sun with some gorgeous vistas of the El Salvador coastline, I reached the ending point for day 1, which I was happy to find out was not the airport, but was instead Kayu, in Playa Sunzal.  I was one of the last to finish for the day, although around 10 people gave up along the way, so I didn't feel too bad about my showing.  Tomorrow would be better.

After returning to San Salvador, I grabbed burgers at Rústico with two friends and started thinking about what the next day had in store for me.  Since I knew that Kayu was only ~115km or 125km, I started thinking about how long the next day would be, and knew that it would be around 1.5 times as long as the first day.  I also debated trying to buy new, kevlar-reinforced tires for my bike.  In the end, to prepare for the next day, I bought 3 snickers bars and went to bed at 8pm.

I was happy to discover that the next day began at the airport, thereby cutting out a good 30 miles of riding.  My main goal for the 2nd day was to stay with the peloton at all costs.  I was able to do this for the first 2 hours, although I knew that I couldn't keep it up.  I was basically pedaling as hard as I could in the hardest gear for the entire 2 hours.  Eventually, we reached a bridge where we all stopped to take a picture.  I reached down to feel my tire and discovered that I had another flat.  Not to fear though!  Since the group was stopped, I worked feverishly to get it changed and borrowed a floor pump from a chase car to get it changed in no time.  However, I still missed the peloton and even though I caught up to them at the next refueling station, the energy I expended to do so knocked me out for the rest of the day.  I was content to just ride my bike at a decent clip by myself.  This was going great until we reached a roundabout and another rider passed me and convinced me to follow him through the roundabout.  He then proceeded to take me on a bypass road that no one else was on.  It wouldn't have been that big of a deal except that the bypass road was considerably hillier than the normal road, I had no idea where I was going, and the guy was considerably faster than me.  So, as I watched him fade into the distance, I started thinking about what the hell I was going to do if I got lost out here.  He must have been thinking the same thing, because he slowed down and eventually decided that going back to the main road was a better course of action.  I'm pretty happy that we returned to the main road because I'm pretty sure that if we hadn't, we wouldn't have passed the refueling stop, which would have meant I would have been extremely low on water in the blistering sun.

I didn't know how long the last bit would be.  I thought that we were going to La Unión, and I was pretty sure that I had another 50 miles or so to ride, and I also knew that somewhere in there, I had a 6 mile climb.  I was elated, to say the least.  When we finally reached the climb, I was pretty low on water and already dead tired, but I trudged on up the road by myself.  After what felt like (and may have been) an hour climbing up the road, I started thinking "why haven't I seen anyone" and started to think that maybe we weren't supposed to go up this climb at all.  Around that time, I turned around and saw my riding buddy materialize out of nowhere.  He asked me how I was doing and then turned around and headed back down the road to go back to the guy who was apparently behind me.  When I finally reached the top of the mountain, I had no water, was thirsty, was starving, and was tired.  I stopped for a minute to wait for my friend and the other rider to arrive, and thought about how I was going to get water.  Around that time, a car with a bike drove by and stopped, asking if I was alright.  I asked them for water and, in true Salvadoran fashion, they offered me Pepsi.  I pounded the Pepsi and then they offered me an empanada.  I took one bite of the delicious empanada and then watched as my friend flew by me on his bike.  I stuffed the empanada in my back pocket and took off after him.  I'm happy I did, because, apparently, the finish line of the ride was in El Cuco, which meant that we had to turn off the main road.  I am unsure what I would have done if I had instead ridden to La Unión.  Pretty sure it would have sucked.

Anyway, on the final, long, grueling climb before the finish line, I turned to another rider and said "¿Qué tal?"  His reply summed up my weekend:

Estoy sufriendo.

Yes, I'm the gringo fixing his flat on the left :)

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Back in Action

It's been a while since I've had a post, but fear not -- I'm still here.  As I mentioned in my previous post, I spent about 2 months in the States, returning to El Salvador on January 13th.  I am thankful that my job was understanding of my situation, and that I was able to take off a significant portion of that time to help care for my mom.  She's doing great!  If you're bored, you can read all about it on the blog.

The day after I returned to El Salvador, we had our next guests - Kate & Marshall.  Marshall and I went surfing, although surfing is a pretty loose term -- let's just say that we had surfboards.  It has been amazing the changes that we've seen in the beach as the seasons change.  When we arrived 10 months ago, the beach was completely rocky - hardly any sand.  Now it's nice and sandy, like a 'normal' beach.  The next day, we went to Juayua for their weekly food festival.  Good food, loud music, lots of people... and Reptilandia.  For $0.50, we weren't expecting much, but they had a good number of different snakes and other reptiles, including a few giant burmese pythons.  Sophie even held one, which she enjoyed until the snake looked at her, giving her a "you know I can eat you" look.  That night, we were expecting to eat at one of the delicious restaurants in San Salvador, but since it was a Sunday, we were forced to eat at a place in La Gran Via.  Marshall and I made the wise decision to order the girafa, which is Spanish for "giant, clear plastic tube with a spout and filled with beer."  ¡Qué chivo!  After hanging out with us for a few days, Kate and Marshall continued their vacation by spending a few days in Costa Rica.  Little did I know that this would be the last time I would see the two of them before their engagement.  How exciting!
That's right -- he's got a board
No caption needed, really
The next few weeks were more of the usual.  One weekend we went ziplining with some friends near El Boquerón.  Pretty sweet.  It felt good to get back into the swing of my 'normal' life here in El Salvador.  At work, we finally released work that my team had been working on since last June, so that was a relief to have done.

Then there was training.  USAID had two weeks of training, which brought people from around the region to El Salvador.  Our good friend Rod from Colombia was one of them.  Sophie, Zaks, and I were planning on doing an adventure race at the Bahia de Jiquilisco, and I somehow convinced Rod to get his flight changed to get into El Salvador on Saturday, so that he could do the race with us on Sunday.  It was a team race (the same race that I did in the fall), so Rod got put on a team with a bunch of random people.  The race went well, although Rod's team got 4 flats along the way.  ¡Qué pena!

Rod and I went for a road bike ride in the early morning the next week.  We were supposed to ride down to Puerto de la Libertad (the beach) and back, which would have been pretty painful.  However, when the guy who we were going to ride with didn't show up, and I called him and his first words were "Fijese que..." I knew that wasn't happening.  So, Rod and I instead decided to do a ride of our own from Santa Elena to Los Planes.  This was a great idea until I got two flats in the span of probably 3 miles.  After the two flats and the missed connection, we cut our losses and turned back.  After about half a mile, the derailleur on Rod's bike decided to skip into the spokes, forcing us to have to spend 20 minutes trying to bend the thing back so we could finish out the ride.  I was dreading how much it was going to cost to fix the bike, but I took it by the shop anyway.  First I found out that a piece in the derailleur needed to be replaced, then I found out that the drop on the bike (the part of the frame that the derailleur attaches to) was bent.  Being naïve, I immediately thought "new bike."  But, alas, that was not the case.  First the mechanic (the same guy I ride with regularly) pulled out a special tool to bend the drop back.  Then he spent 5-10 minutes searching for parts before coming back with a previously-cannibalized derailleur of the exact same model, and he pulled the necessary parts from there.  ¡Qué suerte!  However, the hub was catching, which meant that he needed to pull off the freewheel and grease it up (at least, I think).  So, when I returned the following day to pick up the bike, I was expecting a bill for probably $50 or so.  Instead, it was $5.  In the States, I would have expected at least $150 to have all of this work done, since I know that I would have also have had to buy a new derailleur.  Rod and I were then able to take the bike out the next week and ride out to the east along a ridge.  The views were stunning, and the climbs were steep.  What a beautiful country I've found myself in!