Central America Panama

Panama Canal!

Panama CityAfter spending a few days working tirelessly to arrange our upcoming 10 day venture to the Caribbean, we finally had some time to see Panama itself.  Last night we walked around the area that we’re located in.  It was quite an adventure trying to pull together a greek salad, but we made it happen.  Two visits to the vegetable market (cucumber and rosemary), a trip to one supermarket (beans and beans), a trip to another supermarket (feta and lettuce) and viola! A respectable greek salad.  So many greens in one place!  It’s been awhile since we’ve seen such a wonderful cornucopia of vegetables.  Another night of pizza or pasta just didn’t seem to appeal to either of us.  Nothing like spending 4 hours tracking down the ingredients you could normally just pick up at the store.  The only reason we knew it was possible was that it’s Panama City!  The local beer, Atlas, costs $0.60.  And even better, the import beer, Hamm’s, costs $0.60.  Guess which one we went with.  We even convinced a Australia immigrant from Britain that it was wonderful.  It just speaks to the beauty of Hamm’s.  No other Milwaulkee beer had the hutzpah to decide that Panama would be it’s big export market, but Hamm’s pulled it together and made it happen.  Happy days for us to be drinking a great yard beer.

So this morning was a fabulous morning.  I may have tricked Erin a bit, saying, “Let’s go check out the fish market in the morning.” Panama City She acquised with a classic roll of the eye.  I woke her up at 5:30am.  Haha.  Luckily she wasn’t too mad.  But it was a beautiful morning.  We watched the sunrise over the new city center, enormous highrises giving perspective to dawn’s rosy red fingers.  (Side note: name the author of that phrase.)  There’s a long park bordering the pacific ocean, full of runners, bikers and roller bladers.  We grabbed a cup of coffee and just enjoyed the entire experience.

The fish market we went to was a bit disappointing, compared to some of the others we’ve seen, but it was fun nonetheless.  The process of transforming bass, barracuda, shrimp, squid, crab and other sorts of sea creatures, palatable on a plate but terrifying in their aquatic world,Panama City into edible delicacies is also something that’s fascinating.  Watching a man fillet his umpteenth fish in 3 seconds flat is actually a sight to see.  He executes it with such familiarity and precision that it makes you think it’s an easy operation.  He even does it with a dull knife.

A quick walk back to the hostel, some eggs sunnyside up and pancakes (breakfast of champs), a hop on a bus or two and we’re suddenly at the Panama Canal, Miraflores locks.  We had been told to get there early, so we arrived around 9:15 or so.  It was just in time to see a medium sized cargo ship passing through.  We stayed for an hour or two, but never saw another ship even on the horizon.  Locks closed, boats go up, locks open, boat goes out. Panama Canal It’s a remarkable simple process on an amazing scale.  The amount of water that moves is just incredible.  It makes the gigantic lake look like a swimming pool, which in reality is exactly what it is.  It’s just an enormous, man-made lake serving it sole purpose of sluicing water into the locks on each side of the continental divide.  They literally cut the continental divide in two at the Gaillard Cut, which caused insane amount of difficulty for both the french and the americans.  Well, to be technically correct, it was an administrative nightmare for the americans and a game of russian roulette for the workers who actually did the majority of the work.Panama Canal

But the scale, man, the scale!  Simply incredible to think of the work that went through to make it all happen.  There was a serious plan in the 70’s to build a sea-level canal using nuclear bombs, but that was shot down for some sort of environmental fallout reason.  Now, Panama has taken the initiative to expand the canal, which we were told about extensively.  “Just wait!  In 2015, there will be a whole new series of locks taking bigger and longer ships through the panama canal.”  Apparently it’s cheaper to send things from Japan to the US west coast, truck or rail them to the US east coast, and then ship them to Europe.  Who knew these types of global transportation issues were the driver of a $5.25 billion dollar expansion with dubious results?  The pandora’s box of globalism has clearly been opened.

Returning from the canal, we proceeded to head to a number of bureau de exchanges.  The issue is that we needed euros.  Good luck finding them.  A third day of logistical nightmares lead us through hours of walking around, but the end goal was achieved.  We are set to fly tomorrow and will be back in a bit.  You likely won’t hear from us in the next couple of weeks, but hold you breath because it should definitely be worth it.


Central America Panama

Let the Music Play

I am sitting here in Panama City at Hostel Mamallena listening to a fabulous jam session.  An Israeli guy named Ben on Harmonica, Will, the hostel manager accompanying on guitar, and my man Todd playing lead.  Townes Van Zandt on the play list.  This afternoon I had a little life moment.  A lot of stress, some quick tears on the street, yet, this is what my days have become.  Why do I feel anxious sometimes when at the end of the day it is simple; life is grand.  The music soothes and grounds you back to reality.  Hopefully, before you fall too far into a self loathing melancholy of who knows what.

Different nations have combined here to make wonderful spontaneous music.  Beers and box o’wine clutter the table, chatter encompasses the backgrounds, and the smiles abound.   The music plays on, interrupted with laughter and conversation.  This is life today.  In this hostel.  In Panama City.Panama City

Central America Costa Rica

On the Road Again

Good bye Nicaragua.  We had a fabulous go in Nicaragua.  Between a visit from Ryan, Dale, the Nica people, working at Imagine and the land as a whole it was spectacular.  But now we are in Costa Rica.  Various modes of transport later we made it; one chicken bus ($1/10C), one collectivo taxi ($3.75/70C), and a free ride in the cab of a semi later, we made it.  

We spent our last two nights in Nicaragua in San Juan Del Sur.  I really wanted to hit the beach again.  Maybe have a go at surfing, but it was too damn hot and expensive.  So Todd and I enjoyed the local beach, splashed around in the waves, enjoyed using a kitchen again.  The place was pretty, but very touristy.  Luckily, the day we left was dingy and rainy. Always makes things easier.

So, we decided to hitch hike or catch a cheap local bus once we crossed the border into Costa Rica.  We had been warned by many travellers that Costa Rica was expensive.  But I took the information, filed it away, and was flabbergasted when the buses wanted 10dollars to take us to San Jose.  So Todd and I hoofed it over the border, still excited to be on the road again.  We ran into two girls with vast hitching experience and they managed to grab a semi truck who accepted all four of us, no questions and no money required.  What I thought was going to be a 2 to 3hr ride was  5plus.  Luckily, I pass out on uncomfortable and hot busses, so sleeping in the semi was no problem.  Even with the soft bed my tush was resting on.  I love the random when traveling.  And riding in the cab of a semi definitly falls into the random catagory.

We made it into San Jose last night.  It rained all day  (good thing we found a ride when we did).  We have been in Granada so long I forgot about congestion and smog.  San Jose has a lot of both.  Luckily, the horizon is draped in rolling green hills and mountains.  A visual escape.  We are staying at Hostel Pangea for an outrageous price of 12dollars for a dorm room each.  A very western style place; pool, bar, night club, food, cleanliness, people, and style.  Call us snobs or antisocial but I found the whole thing a bit contrived.  I do like the free internet and sheets though.  We were supposed to rent some motorcycles and get out of the city for a day or possible overnight.  On a side note, the ooncce, oonncce music is in full effect right now at the early hour of 3pm.  A little nervous to hear what is to come late night.  Anyway, I had contacted a rental place and pretty much set the whole thing up.  Yet, they did not get back to us until 12pm today.  Tour was scheduled for this morning.  So a couple choice words from Todd and I, and we decided to bag the deal.   Oh, well.

The funny thing about changing countries so often is the constant need to change money.  You would think that adjacent countries would set up convenient systems for such a purpose.  No!  Yes, there are the touts at every border eager and waiting to change your money, but one never knows if the rate you are getting is subpar or the best you will get.  So, we take the approach of a little money changed at the border and the rest in a city.  We may be changing this strategy.  We went to at least 6 banks and a Bureau de Change today.  Yes, they changed Cordobas(Nicaraguan currency) for Colons (Costa Rican) but only old bills.  Go figure.  In Granada, there were always guys on the street willing to change almost any currency.  But in a big city like San Jose, they dont seem to have it together.  They would exchange the cordobas but only if they were the old tattered bills.  Of course, we only had the new bills that came straight out of the ATM.  So, instead of riding a motorcycle through the beautiful mountains we hoofed it all over town trying to find the one reasonable bank in town. Luckily, it does exist.  Mission finally accomplished.

We grabbed a quick bite to eat at a local buffetesque place.  It was delicious.  I had a fried rice, green salad, and a beef torta.  It looked kind of like a burger but not.  Todd dined on white rice, his favorite, black beans, pasta salad, and a hunk of pork.  Surprisingly good and very filling.  As for tomorrow, no idea what we will do.  We have a bus scheduled for 11pm to take us on a long 18ish hour ride to Panama City.  Sounds like fun already.

Dont know that I am enjoying San Jose.  But it is nice to be on the road again.  Panama City here we come!

Central America Costa Rica Nicaragua

Finally, on the move

We’ve left. It’s true. We spent two beautiful days in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua before saying goodbye to the country until the next time. It was a great country that treated us amazingly well. Really, I don’t think we could have asked for more from it. Two visitors, a small job, becoming more familiar with Granada in a way that simply passing through would not afford us, simply fantastic. I would highly recommend the country to anyone.

We left San Juan del Sur for the border, which wasn’t a very difficult process. Quick bus ride to the Pan-American highway, then a collective taxi (6 people total) to the border. Easy border crossing, then we needed to find our way from the border to San Jose, which we thought was about 3 hours. Well, it’s about 300km, which translates to about 5 hours. We managed to meet a couple of women travellers who were also going that way, so we grouped together and flagged down a passing semi. Yes. A full on 18 wheeler going from San Pedro Sula to San Jose, Costa Rica. We all four of us piled in, the three girls in the back, me in shotgun, cruising down the Pan-American highway 12 feet higher than I’m used to. Truly awesome. Just watching the road getting sucked under us made me feel like I was in some crazy spanish version of Over the Top (with Sylvestor Stallone, yes, that one). It was a long 5 hours listening to insanely bad spanish love songs at full volume, but it was definitely a memorable 5 hours. The girls got dropped off on the side of the highway by the airport, we drove through the industrial section of San Jose and got dropped off where we could get a ride into town.

It turned out to be more difficult than it needed to be. We walked down to grab a taxi, waited maybe 5-10 minutes, when a guy came up and started talking, saying we could share a cab into the city. We’re thinking, okay, that’s fine, he then proceeds to run up the streets where we just came from. He doesn’t stop, just kind of keeps going, we’re thinking, what’s going on? Sure, maybe he’s going to try to make sure we get a taxi up the road, but why run so far, when 2 taxis have passed us by? Doesn’t really make sense. So we felt really bad as we hopped on a bus and left him wherever it was he was going. In case you’re reading into this and thinking that he was setting up a con, then you’re thinking the same way I was.

So we made it to San Jose, checked in to the Hostel Pangea, which is a truly impressive hostel.  We were planning on riding motorcycles tomorrow, but the company has been really lax about keeping in contact with us, so we’re pushing that experience to the Andes somewhere.  Maybe where we have a bit more forewarning for the tour company.  Tomorrow at 11pm we board an 18 hour bus ride to Panama City.  Oh yeah. We’re so excited.  But it is nice to be moving again.

Central America Nicaragua

Horses, restaurants, volcanos

So, it’s been 11 days since the last blog. Quite a bit has happenned since then, as you might imagine. The last blog was about the running of the bulls on Sunday. So let’s just start from there, as best I can remember. Things have a certain routine here now, so remembering specifics of what we did on what nights, unless there’s a big event to tie it to, become pretty difficult.

The Monday after the running of the bulls (August 10th), Tobie came into the restaurant where we were working for a quick hello. Being the last night she was going to have in Nicaragua, we made it a late night, full of loud, american-style arguing about politics, women’s rights, aid development and, of course, the role of government in our lives. Clearly, these are the types of topics that are best discussed late at night over a few beers, when everyone is thinking logically. It was great to have the opportunity to discuss them, and we enjoyed ourselves quite a bit, if it was later than we were planning on staying out.

The next few days were spent working at the restaurant. Working on the website, tshirts designs, hotel flyers, labels for spicy peanuts and wasabi infused oils, and other miscillaneous activities kept us pretty busy. We managed to spend our off time recouperating through a couple jogs and a couple of marathon movie watching sessions. Just what the doctor ordered.

Dad's VisitThursday was the day my dad arrived from Washington, D.C. We took a taxi out from Granada to the Managua airport to pick him up. It was the second happy time we made it there to pick up a visitor from the states: such a wonderful moment to watch someone walk through the doors.  It seems like everything is built up to that point where you actually feel and touch each other, verifying that the situation is real. It’s such a satisfying feeling. That night we returned to the hotel, went out for a quick bite to eat and quickly fell asleep under an airconditioned breeze while reclining on a true, honest mattress.

Friday was the Carnaval. We still haven’t figured out how carnaval can be so far away from Easter, but apparently it’s tradition here to have it in August, so why not enjoy it while it’s here? There was a parade that was supposed to start sometime between 2pm and 7pm. The specifics were pretty lacking. Asking different people simply gave you different answers. So we spent some time walking around to the various churches, the markets, other sightseeing venues. Dad's VisitWe walked up to the top of the belltower and looked over the vista of the city we still call home. Then we parked ourselves at the local wine bar, tried some Argentinian champagne and waited for the parade. And waited. And waited. 4 hours of waiting later, it came! Phew! We weren’t worried about it not happening, since there were thousands of people jammed into the central park, obviously waiting with great anticipation about what was coming, but we were ready for it about three hours before it started. But maybe if it had come three hours earlier, it wouldn’t have been so satisfying. A parade of 2 floats, sponsored by Nicaragua’s crappiest beer “Victoria Frost,” is after all, not really a parade, but two floats going down the streets of Granada.Granada Hipica The “Queen of Victoria Frost” is quite a sight, after all, especially followed by the “Victoria Frost Girls” dancing their hearts out (actually rather half-heartedly). We went out for a quick dinner after at a local place where dad tried the first of his lake fish that Nicaragua is known for. Alright, but really boney.

Saturday was our designated market day. We headed down to Masaya, as we did with Ryan, for some classic artisan shopping. Afterword we went up to Lago de Apoyo, which is a volcano crater lake. We ended up at the Monkey Hut, which is clearly a hangout for expats. Terrasas of lawn for picnic tables, a basketball court, kayaks, a floating raft in the lake and, yes, a pizza restaurant. We quickly ditched our clothes and jumped in the beautiful water. Absolutely great to be able to relax without an agenda or the noise of a city under a carnaval craze. We had a date with one of my dad’s friend, George, who is head of Peace Corps Nicaragua. Stories about Peace Corps problems, meetings with Ortega and other interesting tales were real highlights.  Dad's VisitTalking with George’s wife was also fantastic, some of her experiences with George, who has lived abroad for 30 years (don’t quote me on that). They left around 5:30 or so, which was perfect timing for us to head to Imagine, where we would finally be able to taste the food we’d been promoting. It was wonderful. The lamb was amazingly tender, with a perfect mint sauce. I got the flaming duck, which was juicy and tender, with a great orange reduction complementing it without being overpowering. Dad had the tuna, which has an incredible presentation of white and black sesame seeds.  To finish off the gluttany, we indulged in the famous mango bread dessert.  Full on with ice cream and passion fruit sauce.  It was a wonderful night of good food and great company.

Sunday was billed as THE big day. The Hipica. What is it? It’s a parade of rich horseman coming in from the country to take over the streets of Granada. We went out to the stadium where they were getting setup for everything. We hooved it out there (Yes, I laugh at my own jokes) and were a bit taken aback by the ordered chaos underway. Horses, trailers, cowboys, Granada Hipicacowgirls, families, Hummers, Dodge Ram 350s, floats: it had everything. We watched from the sidelines as people rode their horses over to the food stalls to buy beer or food. Little girls of 2 years old on the saddle holding on. Fantastic! We stayed for awhile, then headed back to the central park to make sure we found a good seat to watch the line of beautiful horses pass by. Once in place, I went on an expedition to grab some street food for everyone. I managed to find some enchiladas (not like the tex-mex ones we know), some fried chicken, fried plantains, coleslaw, chicken kabobs, and monkey blood sausage. Yep. Blood sausage made out of monkey blood. It was very much like the Irish blood sausage I had in Dublin with the full Irish breakfast. I never knew blood sausage could be so good. So that brings us to the main event. The horses started more or less on time, Granada Hipicawhich was pretty amazing, given that we were in Nicaragua. There was a huge variety of horses coming down the cental street. Most were exquisitely dressed, with full regalia on. Some had highly agitated show horses sidestepping down the streets, the horses eyes wide open and blood shot, scared of the people, the music, the shouting, the other horses, but being spurred at every step by their riders. Some riders were pretty drunk. Some riders had handlers that walked their horse through the entire parade. Some handlers were drunk. It was crazy, pretty much all the way around.Granada Hipica

Monday we had decided to hike up the local volcano Mombacho (well, one of the many local volcanos). It was rumored to be an hour and a half hike. That is possibly true, or possibly not true. Apparently most people take a truck up to the top, then walk around one of the craters, which is actually only about a 45 minute hike, but with truck transport each way it works out to about an hour and a half, I suppose. But if you have a taxi take you to the entrance, then walk up from there, it is much longer. Granada is at 60m above sea level. The top of the trail is at 1150m above sea level. So that’s about 1000m (3280ft) of vertical rise, given that the taxi ride rose in altitude. The road is only about 3km long, so that’s a lot of going up. But we made it, “poli poli”. The reward was well worth it.  MombachoWho knew that there was a quality cloud forest hidden on the top of that volcano that’s always covered in clouds? It makes more sense when it’s worded like that. But it was a fantastic forest. There were a number of mirador lookouts that showed vast spaces of who knows what, since it’s a cloud forest and it’s always covered with clouds. It’s like looking for something in a steam bath, you just can’t see very far, let alone appreciate the vast beauty of Lake Nicaragua spanning the horizon. I’m sure it’s beautiful on the 6 clear days they have a year, though.Mombacho

We returned from the hike via a tuktuk driver and jumped straight into the pool, where we forced the hotel to open the bar early and serve us a drink in the swim up bar. We had just hiked a volcano, for goodness sake. There was a restaurant, Las Colinas, where the ex-president of Nicaragua used to eat that was well known for it’s seafood, so we decided to give it a shot. It was a huge restaurant, dirt floor, but certainly popular. We all order various items of the lake fish. I had had an unbelievably delicious dish earlier on Ometepe with Ryan, so I had hope we could find something similar.  MombachoWhen it came out, I was a bit worried, because dad, who had ordered the whole fish, received a head-on, tail-on beautiful looking fish, but maybe a little too black, I thought. I was also worried about the bones again, give the previous experience. Nope. They solved that entire problem by deboning the fish whole. Head, tail on, still attached, just no bones on the body. I never would have known if dad hadn’t pointed it out. It looked like a completely normal whole fish, except it was missing a major part of its skeleton. Conventient, eh? Huge success at Las Colinas. That night we had decided to do a tasting of the rum. Nicaragua has a line of rum called Flor de Cana, which has a number of different varieties. 4 yr, 5 yr, 7 yr, 12 yr, 18 yr, and then the grandadddy at 21 years. We sat at the restaurant and ordered three: a 12yr, 18yr, and 21yr. We shared in a circle, talking about what the rum tasted like, how it differed from the others, and basically just nerded out as only true wine nerds do.

Next morning we said goodbye to dad, shipped him off in a taxi to head back to Washington. If it’s any indication, my dad picked up a bottle of the 12 year rum on his way through duty free. I think it may be the first quality rum I’ve ever seen in his liquor cabinet, which speaks to how good the rum here actually is. So after he checked out, we went back to the hotel room, cranked the airconditioning as low as it would go, and didn’t leave the room until the maids kicked us out. We went to Imagine, touched base with Kevin and went back to Kevin’s mini-ranch to watch movies and setup the tent. The floor was particularly hard that night.

Wednesday and Thursday were pretty standard days at work, Erin had the joy of working fabric selection with Kevin for cushions and tablecloths. I spent 6 hours cleaning up his iTunes library from the mess that it was. Yes. That’s exactly why I spent 4 years in college studying computers. But it’s a job and I did it, no worries. Afterword on Thursday we met up with our friend Kami for another dinner. The initial plan was to cook, but the lure of ordering pizza delivered to the house was too strong, so that ended up being the theme for the night. The less movement the better. It was a fun night, we ended up crashing at her place in the comfort on a mattress. We’re getting spoiled, it’s true.

Little to our knowledge at the same time, my sister Lisa, all the way up in Idaho, was on a wonderful canoe ride in a late summer day, getting proposed to by Derek! We’re so happy for her and Derek. Congratulations!

Yesterday…. ahh yesterday. We had a table of 17 coming in to the restaurant. Which meant that we had to place them in the back room, which was currently in the process of renovation. No worries, it’ll all work out. And in the end it did, but not without a lot of headache. There were problems from the beginning to the end. The carpenter had raised a table 6 inches. Ok, fine, no biggie. We were putting new tablecloths and a runner out. But Kevin’s crazy psychedelic color schemes called for superman cushions, purple tablecloths and a blacklight. We managed to talk him out of that. But we didn’t manage to talk him out of painting the benches the people were supposed to sit on just 2 hours before they arrived. 2 hours is plenty of time for paint to dry, right? No. That is not a true statement. They were soaking wet even at the end of the night. I know because I had the opportunity to move them into the restaurant while service was going on. Fantastic. We were, however, successful in talking him out of spray painting the legs of the table right before they came in. But back to the prep. This was a single table of 17. He had 12 wine glasses in total. He had 20 chairs in total, including the main room, which takes 16 chairs normally. But luckily, we took one of the tables from the main room and put it in the event room, thus leaving a gaping hole in the main floor which, as Kevin pointed out, could easily be filled by this other table. The midget table, but a midget table with regular sized chairs. Hopefully you’re at least chuckling to yourself with that image. Kevin called any and all restaurant friends and borrowed chairs, 3 from here, 4 from here, wherever he could find them. They were still coming in 10 minutes before they arrived. But the chairs made it in time.

So the group arrives, shuffles into the room. My job in this situation is 6th man. Kevin’s working the bar, Mohamar the chef, Jose the assistant, Erin working the group, Flor (Kevin’s ladyfriend) helping Erin with the room. I’m sitting at the bar, staring at the temperature gauge on the refrigerator, trying to guess how many degrees the temperature would go up with every opening of the door. Everyone else is pretty much doing stuff, but I’m just the 6th man, riding the pine, waiting for coach to put me in. A couple of tables came into the main room, and I finally got to wait some tables! I hadn’t waited a table since I was 16, and I’m not sure I’ve improved much since them. Erin was in the back, drowning in bread being pumped out by Mohamar, who probably should have focused a little more on the apps and less on the bread. At one moment in the night, one of my two tables had been waiting a long while for a duck entree to come out. Erin’s duck entree was served at the same time everyone else was served dessert. I kindly asked if that duck was for my table, and Erin comes flying around the corner like a flaming banshee screaming “The duck is mine!” with a glint in her eye that was scarily similar to dirty harry. I’m sure Jeff and most people at Grand Street have seen that look, but it was a first for me, as I backed down like a scared doe and calmly retook my pine-riding position at the bar. I had 4 people the entire night, who I looked over from a large distance. It was a lot of fun to watch Erin in the heart of the mix, working in spanish and english, keeping things straight and generally just rocking it.  The finale of the spectal was watching Erin tally up the bill for them all, hunched over in a regular sized chair at the midget table, complete with midget calculator and nine hundred scraps of paper as Kevin asks, “Did you add on the cafe con leche?  I believe Kevin got the same banshee look I got earlier.

Kevin was in a great mood and wanted to hang out for awhile, so he cooked up some food for us and then we sat around talking. Mostly it was Kevin and me talking about music gear, amps, mics, guitars, keys, pedals, you name it. Erin and Flor looked incredibly bored, but I rarely get to the have those types of gearhead talks anymore, so I definitely dug it. We drove back to Kevin’s, where we shared a last beer and talked, mostly in spanish, about Flor’s insights into Nicaraguan culture. It was fantastic, as Erin was now more comfortable speaking in spanish and actively getting into the conversation, both from a listening and a talking aspect. It was a first, a real breakthrough. Some days are better than other for languages, feeling comfortable, and it seemed like yesterday and last night was one of the best nights I’ve seen for Erin’s spanish. Fun to watch.

Today we’re relaxing, catching up on some internet, talking to family. Tomorrow we’re leaving for San Juan del Sur for some beachtime. It’s been a great time here in Granada, it’s treated us really well. Can’t complain, really, but it’s time to move on. We’ve got a lot of ground to cover still.