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.