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


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 GatĂșn. 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.