Saturday, January 28, 2012

Onward and Upward!

It's hard to believe that our time here is almost up. Since this is her first post, Sophie's tour in El Salvador is only for two years. Bidding time for Sophie came and went back in November, and this time we were bidding for a four year post. We had a few cool choices: Bangkok, Cairo, Tel Aviv, and Addis Ababa. Since Sophie is an engineering officer and there aren't many of them, we knew from talking to the others that it was likely that we would get whichever post that we put first. We spent a good bit of time mulling this over. Here are my opinions - I can't say that they're well formed, but this is what was going through my head back in November.

It's hard to pass up Bangkok. Neither of us have been to Thailand, and we've both heard great things about it - beautiful scenery, good & different culture, great food, etc. We've had a lot of friends that have traveled through Thailand, and all of them seemed to really like it. The reservations that we had were mostly based on my job prospects, as well as the type of work that Sophie would be doing. We had heard that it's hard to find a job as an family member in Bangkok - there's no work agreement in place for family members. Also, the time zone would make it such that I think I would find a hard time working remotely for anyone. While working at my current job, our team had 4 people from India on it and, although I liked working with them, the time zone difference made it extremely hard to move quickly - I was always cognizant of half the world that separated us. I figured, if I have a choice, I don't really want to subject someone to my remoteness-by-time-zone. Hah. That said, Sophie would have been traveling a lot for her job and the embassy doesn't have many older, more experienced engineers, so we kind of felt like it might not be the best position for her at this point in her career. So, we weren't really opposed to Bangkok, but we were hoping for something that was a better match.

I kind of submarined Cairo. While the people we talked to at the embassy in Cairo like it, I just couldn't get over one of the big complaints that kept coming up when talking about Cairo: the traffic. Almost every person we talked to mentioned the horrific traffic. Although the 'American' area of Cairo may not have horrific traffic, I just didn't like the idea of having to fight that every day. Also, I like it when it's easy to get out of town whenever you want. I was thinking that it would be much better to visit Cairo, rather than live there. On top of that, the political situation there could get interesting... which is not necessarily something I'm looking for. Of course, the projects that Sophie would be involved with in Cairo sounded really interesting. Oh well.

We didn't think that much about Addis. Maybe in a few years, but not now. We have a friend who was posted there and absolutely loved it. I would love to live there simply because you're in the mountains, but I just couldn't see myself working there. The internet service didn't sound good enough to allow for remote working, and I didn't really want to work for an NGO there. On top of that, another engineer was looking to go there, so we would have had to fight him for the position. At the end of the day, we were interested in the area and Sophie's work, now just didn't seem like the right time.

Somehow, we ended up putting Tel Aviv first. Initially, I was pretty opposed to living in Israel. I knew enough about the political realities of Israel that I didn't really want to live there. As an outsider, I just don't feel I understand anything about the area, and I've never really wanted to find out. However, as a place to live for 4 years, Tel Aviv has a lot of things going for it. It's modern, it has lots of tech companies, there's a good chance we'd live along the Mediterranean, it's close to Europe, etc, etc. Also, there are a good numbers of engineers in Sophie's office, which means she'll hopefully have a lot of people to learn from. So, we were excited when we found out in December that we'll be going to Tel Aviv in July!

What I've found funny (or interesting?) is what people's reaction is when I tell them that we're moving to Tel Aviv in July. I expected people to be awe-struck - wow, you're going to Israel!? I've always wanted to go there! The truth is - people have been way more reticent about us going to Israel than coming to El Salvador. Even though El Salvador has a very high crime rate and I'm probably much more likely to be robbed or worse here, people are terrified of... something... in Tel Aviv. Rocket attacks, suicide bombers, nuclear weapons... something. Maybe I should be worried, but I'll be blissfully ignorant for now.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Isla de Meanguera

Two months ago, way back in November, the US government had Veteran's Day off, so we took a long-weekend trip to Golfo de Fonseca.

El Golfo de Fonseca is a gulf that is between El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua. We hadn't been there yet, so I didn't really know what to expect. I guess I could have looked at pictures online, but that would have ruined the amazing surprise I got when we arrived. Basically, the place is breathtaking. It's dotted with lots of little volcanic islands that are covered with vegetation. The weather was like 85-90 with a decent wind. It took us around 6 hours to get to La Unión from San Salvador, due to a protest blocking the Southern route (people were protesting the government's response to the flooding in baja lempa). It should have take around 4 hours. Once we got to La Unión, we were picked up by the owner of Hotel La Joya del Golfo, Richard, and spent 45 minutes on the boat before arriving at the island.

The boat ride was amazing. In almost every direction, you can some sort of volcanic activity - volcanic islands or volcanoes peaking up from the mainland. The hotel is tucked away in a little inlet in the island, and is super-chill. The rooms are very nice - very modern feeling, with a nice tub in the bathroom. But, really, the best parts of Hotel La Joya del Golfo are the hammocks, the kayaks, and the food.
Sophie practicing for her photo shoot
First, the hammocks. Not only are they some of the more comfortable hammocks I've been in, but they also make you feel like you're living in a Corona commercial - except you're not in a Corona commercial, because, well, you're not drinking Corona (thank god). Hopefully you brought some good beer along with you. The hammocks are just an amazing place to hang and read, while also taking time to pet the most ridiculous looking (yet cute) bulldog you've ever seen.
awww yea
Gordo is his name.. getting fatter is his game
Before it got dark, we decided to do a quick loop around a tiny island that is next to Isla Meanguera. This island is a bird sanctuary, which basically means that the trees look like they've seen better days, since they are covered in white, terrible smelling, guano. It's not as bad as other places I've been, but the smell was still quite pungent. The view and all the pretty birds more than made up for it, though. We were having a super-chivo time until we made it all the way around the island and started cutting back across the channel between the tiny island and Isla Meanguera.
paradise... before it all went wrong
Sophie and I were going along fine, but unbeknownst to us, the couple who was in the other kayak had been taking on water throughout the trip around the island. This was causing them to be more unstable and to move along slower, which didn't matter too much in the calm around the island, but proved to be a major problem when crossing the channel. Sophie and I went back to see what was going on and found that their boat was almost completely submerged, with them struggling to stay upright. I was an Eagle Scout with my canoeing merit badge, so I looked at the problem and thought to myself "well, duh - all we need to do is get the submerged kayak across our kayak, then drain the boat. Simple." That really didn't work, though, since, unlike a canoe, the water in this type of sit-on-top kayak doesn't come out until you have the drain plug open... and even then it comes out slowly. So, the operation wasn't so much like emptying a canoe - it was more like asking a 300 pound dude to hop in the boat with us - we also started sinking.

At this point, we basically looked around and started noticing that we were definitely getting farther away from any shore. We needed to start paddling, and fast. First, the man in the other boat tried to get in the submerged boat and paddle, but he kept falling out of the boat. Sophie and I decided that what we would do instead was tie the submerged kayak onto our kayak and pull it along behind us. We paddled hard for what seemed like about 10 minutes. We then took stock and figured we really hadn't moved anywhere. At this point, dusk was starting to set, and it was really looking like we were going to spend the night on a tiny kayak out in the middle of the gulf, floating towards Nicaragua or the open ocean.

It was at this point that I decided that I would jump in the submerged kayak and try to keep up with the other kayak, which would now have 3 people in it. When I jumped in that kayak, I thought I would just get it moving and then kinda coast along with the other kayak, but once I started moving, the adrenaline of the situation kicked in. I kayaked a lot when I was younger - it's hard to avoid when growing up in Chattanooga - and I was determined to get that boat into shore. I paddled as hard as I could for what I reckon was about 30 minutes. It basically felt like I was crossing a strong eddy line with every stroke, since the boat was submerged. Every few minutes, I'd look over my shoulder to see where the other boat was and, within about 5-10 minutes, I could no longer see the other boat. It was pretty terrifying, really - I was pretty confident that I could make it to the hotel and get a boat out to look for them before it got dark, but there were definitely some dark thoughts going through my mind as to what was going to happen to my wife and friends.

Anyway, I rounded the first inlet, one which only had local fishing boats in it, and didn't see anyone. I let out a few yells of '¡ayudame!, but it didn't get very far. A few minutes later, I rounded the corner into the inlet with the hotel. I could see the hotel lights, but I doubted that they could see me, so I just started yelling at the top of my lungs: "HELP!", "GET A BOAT!", "THEY'RE LOST AT SEA!" After the third yell, I was pretty confident that they had heard me and were getting the boat ready, but I continued to yell, since it's not every day that you get to feel like it's OK to sound like a complete lunatic.

As I got to the hotel, I jumped on the boat and we headed out to find them. It was just about dark at this point - probably 5-7 minutes away from complete darkness. We found the boat about 2-3 minutes later. They were nearing the island, and probably would have made it, but they would have gotten there well after dark and probably would have had to at least spend the night in the middle of nowhere - at least a 45 minute walk back to the hotel (if they had known where they were going). They were excited to see the boat. We returned to the island, showered, let our nerves settle, and then had one of the better dinner's I've had in El Salvador.

The food at the hotel was very good. They serve a varied menu of seafood that is very well spiced - fish, lobster, shrimp, and oysters. I don't eat oysters, but my friends loved the 10 dozen oysters that they threw back. Their breakfast is also really good, if not a bit too large. In hindsight, Sophie and I should have shared a single breakfast, but... when in Rome...
Now that's a happy friend.
The other beautiful part of Isla Meanguera is a secluded beach that is a 45 minute hike (or 5-10 minute boat ride) from the hotel. Two points jutting out from the island form a crescent-shaped beach that is maybe a half mile to mile long. There's only a single house there, and only a few local people were hanging out. The house sells coconuts for $0.50 each. Pretty awesome.
the beach is actually the next inlet, which you can only kind of see. This is the approach.
Overall, the trip to Isla Meanguera was fantastic. Perfect weather, great friends, and stunning scenery. I probably could have done without the crazy kayak fiasco, but - hey - then I would have missed out on a great story. Next time, though, we'll probably stop to drain the boat.