----------------------------------------------- Google Site Map ----------------------------------------------- Cindy in ...: 2008

Monday, December 29, 2008

Mexico: A Belated Merry Christmas from Merida!

So, Christmas in Merida! I went to Burger King, and treated myself to a half pint of Neopolitan ice cream.

Some of the people in the hostel were talking about what is different about Christmas here. A woman from Australia was really impressed with all the lights, especially the ones which hang over the streets in the center of town. She thought they were uniquely Mexican. I let her go on thinking that.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Mexio: Hanging in Isla

I've discovered that blog entries are much easier to do when you are doing nothing. My days in Isla Mujeres were filled. Filled with things like chatting to Moses the Texan, who owns the book exchange in the purple house, enjoying the '50 pesos for 2' margaritas at the beach (13 pesos to the dollar mind you), turning brown, eating hummus and pita bread at Manana (owned, as I was often told, by an Italian Jew - I don't think anyone knew there was such a thing). I also put in a considerable amount of time at hostel, talking to people, reading, eating, and taking advantage of the free wi-fi.

Another really important activity was getting lost. The tourist area in Isla is tiny, yet I managed to get confused nearly every day. I think I tend to orient myself to the water. So, if I am facing the water, that restaurant is on the left, and the hostel is behind me. On Isla Mujeres, I was staying at the top end, and there was water on three sides, which was disorienting.

Add the fact that most of the shops are souvenir shops and pretty much look alike, and I get to demonstrate repeatedly that I am truly directionally challenged.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Mexico: Isla Mujeres At Last

When I got to Isla Mujeres, all I wanted to do was sleep, and all I did was sleep. I didn't even want to eat. I'd had a bad getaway from the US, and had been awake for close to forty hours when I stumbled out of the shower and into my dorm bed.

Of course I didn't get packed when I thought I would, so it was well after dark when I stopped at the gas station just a few doors down from the place where I store my car. I went inside to ask if I could put a small bag of trash in their dumpster, and to look up the number of a taxi company. I mentioned where I was leaving my car, and that I thought I'd walk back and call a taxi from their place.

The husband and wife who staff the place were horrified. They pointed out the two cop cars sitting at one of their exits, noses pointed out to 34th street. I had assumed they were looking for speeders and people jumping red lights. Uh, uh. The couple had called the police because they had seen a man holding a gun, running down the street chasing another man.

I made an instant revision to my plan and called the taxi to pick me up from my car, right there in the lot.

Between that and my 3 am wake up call for my 3:45 am shuttle for my 6 am flight, I got no sleep at all. I didn't nap on the flight to Atlanta. I got about fifteen minutes on the flight to Cancun, which had been delayed an hour. Then there was the long shuttle bus ride, and the wait for the ferry.

I knew I wasn't going to be able to walk with my pack, so I hired a guy with a bicycle cart to haul the bag. I followed him for a while. He had to walk the bike, because I was so slow he couldn't get up enough momentum to keep going. Finally, I was so tired I climbed in the cart and rode with my bags.

Then at last, cleanliness and sleep. I arrived on Thursday. I didn't get to the beach until Saturday.

Monday, December 08, 2008

USA: Plantation Houses

I have a thing for old houses. I love to tour them, even though I must admit that they sometimes get repetitious. Most are either from the Revolutionary War period or Civil War era plantations, so styles tend to be similar.

I'm always struck by how small most of the places are. Many plantation houses bear no resemblance whatsoever to Tara or the other homes depicted in Gone With the Wind. They have more in common with farmhouses than grand estates.

Preserved plantation houses tend to occur in clusters, like the string that runs along the James River in Virginia. Shirley Plantation is one of those, surprisingly small, but unusual in that it is still occupied and is still operated as a working farm. The farm is the oldest continuously operating business in the United States. Maybe that is why it didn't seem particularly old, even though it predates some of the other mansions that seem like a true step into the past.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

USA: Other Stops Along the Way

Another sign along the interstate in Connecticutt pointed me to Nathan Hale's homestead. Nathan Hale acted as a spy for the Americans during the Revolutionary War, was caught by the British, and hanged. He said, we are taught, "I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country." At this stop I learned two things. He said 'lose'. And it wasn't original. It was a quote from the classics, Cicero, I think.

Apparently a lot of what has been passed down as wisdom from our founding fathers was really wisdom from the Greeks and Romans. Because the leaders of the revolution had all had good classical educations, they were accustomed to quoting freely, without attribution, because everyone they conversed or corresponded with would recognize the quotes. Of course, they were read and heard by a lot of people without the same education, and attibuted as original to them. And then education veered from the standard that everyone read the Greeks and Romans.

It was kind of disappointing.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

USA: Painted Horses

I saw the sign on my way to Raoul's in Massachusetts. Carousel Museum. Since I've decided I'm no longer going to do eight hours driving in one day, instead shooting for a maximum of six, I have some time to stop along the way, take my mind off the highway, and play tourist. Tha timing for the Carousel Museum was bad though. It showed up while I was looking for a motel for the night. It would just have to wait.

On my way back to Pennsylvania, though, I planned ahead and went in search of the museum. In keeping with what seems to be a general Connecticutt idea about 'tasteful' signs, the museum was a bit hard to spot. In Connecticutt, any sign that can be easily seen and recognized as such has been deemed to be in poor taste. Enter small signs, low-key and low-contrast colors, and old-fashioned script that can be really hard to read. All of these are wonderful attributes that endear the state to those of us who are getting older.

The museum, fortunately, was just the opposite, with rooms of bright colors,big horses,and bejeweled animals. The museum is also a workshop, where old carousel animals are brought for restoration and repair and new sculptures are created. Some of the items have been restored, while others are left in faded glory, paint rubbed off by hands and thighs and the excited kicks of children.

I thought I should mention that the Carousel Museum is in Bristol, Connecticutt.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

USA: A Long Stay

This visit to the US lasted forever. OK, it lasted five months. I just couldn't decide where I wanted to go, probably because I got so caught up in the presidential race. This race was the most fascinating of my life, and I remember Kennedy/Nixon. It was a drama, a soap opera, a drinking game (one shot for every 'my friend' or 'Joe the Plumber'),or maybe an episode of the Amazing Race. Who would have thought that presidential candidates would be talking about tire inflation and suspending campaigns? That CNN's Wolf Blitzer would interupt a substantive answer to one of his own questions to discuss Sarah Palin's wardrobe? That the Republican candidate would make a celebrity and, to some extent a joke, of someone who attended an Obama rally? And of the governor of Alaska? Who? Sarah Palin?

The media went wild with more than 24/7 coverage, and I was hooked. I knew the swing states and the latest polls and analyzed every ad and statement. I watched Saturday Night Live for the first time in ages, and had opinions about the opinions of all the opinionated pundits on TV.

I also visited friends, spent a lot of time with my brother watching and discussing that 24/7+ coverage, dealt (poorly) with my rapidly deteriorating car, visited doctors, and drove a lot. I loved watching TV, hitting my favorite fast food places (ah, Taco Bell, Popeye's, and Arby's, the ones I can't find overseas), and eating Cheerios. American stuff.

I gained weight, and probably lost all muscle tone. When you haven't watched more than ten hours of TV in five months, it really is a treat to visit a brother with a big flat screen TV and seemingly all the channels in the world. Maverick reruns, Penn State football, The Closer, and Primeval - it was great. Yes, Virginia, I was a couch potato.

My road trip took me up and down the coast, finally getting me to Florida just before the election. I picked up my absentee ballot and delivered it to the election board office, avoiding the early voting lines. Ten days later it was over, I was a traveler again. I was in Mexico.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Panama: Looking Back

Looking back, I think I developed a severe case of writer's block in Panama. I'd sit down in New York Bagel, and nothing at all would come to me. Nothing. So, eventually, I gave up.

Looking back, I actually have a lot to say about the time I spent there. I could write about having my bag stolen in Subway. The owner of the shop, who felt guilty because the security cameras were on the blitz, reimbursed me for what I lost. Maybe he thought one of his employees was responsible, or maybe he was just a nice, generous person. Either way, I was amazed, impressed, and grateful.

Looking back, I could have written about meeting a man who calls himself 'the only honest politician in Panama', as evidenced by his living in the same building as my hostel. A former ambassador to the US, he was rooting for Hilary to win the presidential nomination.

Looking back, I could have written about my favorite hangouts, the bagel shop with free wifi, and the coffee shop. I could have written about the people I met there, including the owner, a Canadian woman whose careers include pastry chef, bookstore owner, and private investigator.

Looking back, I should never have stopped writing. So here I go again.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Panama: The Canal and the Hat

When someone mentions Panama, you think of two things, hats and the canal. The two are related, one having created the name of the other.

Panama hats are from Ecuador, but got their name from their popularity during the construction of the canal. Once you've handled or worn one of the hats, it's easy to see why they were so popular in this hot, wet climate. The hats are amazinly light, and spring back into shape instantly. Pack one flat, roll it up and tuck it in your back pocket and sit on it, it doesn't seem to matter what you do it, it survives in its original shape and condition.

The canal itself, while a great engineering feat, is really a tribute to preventive medicine. Walter Reed eradicated yellow fever from the area by draining swamps and any other standing water he could find, distributing mosquito nets to everyone, and installing screens in houses.

As with malaria, the mostquito must bite an infected person to acquire the disease and transmit it. If fewer people are bitten, fewer infected people are available to be bitten, and the disease finally dies off. Malaria doesn't thrive in the US, although the anopholes mosquito is common, but we don't have many infected people.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Panama: What I'm Enjoying

I'm enjoying some familiar things in Panama City, Panama. In addition to the wide variety of American restaurant chains (MacDonald's, Burger King, Domino's, Mrs. Fields, Subway, Tony Roma's, Bennigan's, Quizno's, Pizza Hut, KFC) I've been entranced by other changes.

For instance, sidewalks are used here for walking. Not as a restaurant, extension of a store, street stall, living room, patio, or a place to sleep, but for walking. Odd changes in level, unexpected steps, and strange protuberances are marked with yellow paint. It's faded, but it's there.

A building down the street is being painted. Behind the scaffold, a sheet of netting prevents pails of paint from accidentally falling on passersby. The men on the scaffold are attached to it by a safety harnees. "Obviously," I think, "this is a place that has tort law."

The money is the same, which is nice. The driver's use turn signals, which is even nicer.

You can drink the water and flush the toilet paper.

And since I have been here, the electricity has only gone out twice. Although the rains started late, and they've been warning of rolling blackouts.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Panama: The Panama City Retirement Blues

Well, Panama City is out as a retirement option. Rents have skyrocketed since I was here last. That was before several magazines annointed the country as the best retirement destination in the world. On top of that, wealthy and well-to-do Venezuelans are buying expensive luxury condominiums as a bolt-hole, a place to go if Chavez goes on a nationalization spree. Because one way to guarantee residency is to invest $200,000 in the country and keep it there.

What followed was a luxury building boom, and the typical legislative decision to start taking away the things that make it a great destination. For retirees, one of them is the guarantee that a retirement visa will be renewed at least four times, as long as you don't turn into a criminal and still have the income you qualified with. Starting at the end of August, the guarantee is for only one renewal.

The Panamanian legislature obviously think that people will be willing to spend a half million on a condo with no guarantee that they will be able to live in it for more than two years. But then, in practice, renewals will probably happen fairly automatically. Or the law will change. A new law that only allowed a 30 day stay for tourists, and required renewals for stays beyond that, lasted only a few weeks.

The exception is those that meet their pensionado income requirement using a government pension. Then the pensionado is permanent. Since the requirement is currently $500 per month for a single person, and an additional $100 per month for each dependent, that isn't a difficult standard to meet.

For some, the rise in values has made for large profits. Over on the couch here in the New York Bagel Cafe, a man just told someone that his $86,000 condo is now worth $700,000.

Sound familiar? Everyone is waiting for the bubble to burst.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Panama: Casco Viejo

Casco Viejo is old Panama, a formerly bad area being restored to glory. Until the recent renaissance, Panama was probably the only country in the world where the presidential residence was in the middle of a slum. But that is changing rapidly.

There used to be a lot of police in the blocks surrounding the presidential palace. Now there are a lot of police in the southern part of the peninsula, from thirteenth street down. Fabulous remodels sit half a block from decrepit old buildings, some mere shells. And everywhere you see construction, as these shells are turned into modern buildings on the inside.

The hostel that I stayed in has three stories of old woodwork, a huge courtyard/atrium, a balcony with a view of the modern skyline across the bay, and immense rooms. It was a convent at one point, then nursing home. Now it is a hostel, renovated just enough to work. In a few years, the owners, three American men in their twenties, will be sitting on a fortune.

Meanwhile there are restaurants and a few souvenir shops, little mini-supers and hole-in-the wall beauty shops, and remarkably, sidewalks that are for walking, not blocked by displays of clothing and pirate DVDs.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Panama: Finally

Well, I finally bought the ticket and made the pilgrimage to Panama. I came all the way to Panama City, which took fourteen hours, including a layover for a few hours in San Jose, Costa Rica.

Generally it was a dull trip. I got a pleasant surprise when I looked at my tourist card, though. Panama had changed the law to grant only 30 days on entry with a possible two extensions, and there I was with 90. Later I found out the law had been changed back. That happens a lot here, apparently.

My theory had been that since it was Semana Santa (Holy Week, I'm way behind here), I wouldn't have the same difficulty finding a place to stay that those headed for the beach would have. I was so wrong.

The problem was compounded by the closing of one hostel and the relocation and reduction in size of another. Luckily I had a taxi driver who knew all the hostels, and he drove me from one place to another until I found a bed for the night. Just the night. Voyager was booked solid for the rest of the week.

The next morning I found a bed in a hostel in Casco Viejo, the old city. A couple I had met at Voyager had been promised two beds, so I tried, too. Success! And they would let me stay once I was there, since they don't take advance bookings.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Nicaragua: Wandering Around Granada

While wandering around Granada, I managed to take in many of the tourist sights. I went for pancakes one morning, and ended up in the convent museum across the street.


Rather than being filled with religious artifacts, it contained pre-Columbian sculptures and information about life before the arrival of the Spaniards.

I set off to find an ice cream shop someone had mentioned, overshot my mark, and found a park and several churches.

And of course there were the houses with historical plaques on them. Some of them I passed every day for weeks before noticing that some famous (to Nicaraguans) person had been born there or had lived there.

After weeks there, I would walk down a street and suddenly notice a grill or a decoration I hadn't seen before. Or someone would ask to have a picture taken, and I'd really look at the street for the first time.

One of the benefits of staying in one place for a while is the chance to accept as normal the things you saw as unusual when you arrived, and find another layer of new sights and experiences.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Nicaragua: A Dignified Way to Go

One day I stumbled upon a funeral in Granada. Whoever had died was being escorted to church to the accompaniment of a brass band, to the sound of tubas and trumpets and trombones. The procession, followed by mourners on foot, wound through town, up and down the street for what seemed like hours. I kept encountering the deceased and the entourage.

The coffin rested in the bed of a horse-drawn hearse. High up on his seat, the driver held the reins and maintained the slow, steady pace, dressed in tails and a top hat. It should have seemed odd, comical, but it didn't it seemed appropriate and right, a very dignified way to go.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Nicaragua: Someone Who Wants to Learn

In Nicaragua, families with many children sometimes send one of them to live with another family, not as a guest or foster child, but to work, and work hard. It's not a good beginning.

Nadine has an employee who was one of those children. Grown up now, and back with relatives, in one month of a part time job, he saved enough to rent a room of his own. He used his first full time pay, which was for half a month, to enroll in a Sunday high school program. With his next pay, he talked to Tomas, a Canadian who runs an inexpensive English school, about getting a scholarship. Tomas runs the school using donations to provide scholarships for people who wouldn't be able to afford it otherwise. Tomas told him he could sit in classes that weren't full for a while, until a scholarship became available.

A week later, I ordered a smoothie, numero quatro. "Four!" He doesn't usually wait on tables, but they were busy.

Anyway, I was very impressed. So impressed that I dug into my meager funds for a donation to sponsor him. Granada English College provides four weeks of two-hour classes M-Th for $30, and that is the premium program. Class materials for four months cost $11.

Anyway, I thought someone else might be interested in donating. If you do, and want your donation to go to this man in particular, I'll send you his name. Or you could just specify that it's for the guy from Mavericks. I've stuck a link over on the sidebar, and there are credit card and PayPal donation buttons on the site. I haven't used them yet, as I just gave my money to Nadine.

OK, that's it. I promise I won't do another post like this again. At least not for years.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Nicaragua: The Incongruity of It All

The bullock cart I sighted going down one of Altagracia's main streets seemed a little incongruous, since I was on my way to the internet cafe. In Charco Verde I made use of the free wifi at the Hotel Charco Verde, then walked past women doing laundry in the lake, using stones as scrubbing boards, and, of course, more bullock carts. Pigs and chickens in the streets, donkeys hauling bricks, and people piling their groceries into pony carts are not unusual here. It's all all a bit strange.

Think of the sci-fi movies and novels that portray intelligent aliens riding up to the spaceport on local domesticated animals. Think Star Wars. That doesn't seem quite as unrealistic as it once did. The other popular science fiction scenario, where everyone on a planet speaks the same language, has the same religious and/or cultural beliefs, and is at a similar state of development, now that seems unrealistic.

I first noticed this in Costa Rica. Monte Verde was settled by American Quakers in 1958. Most of them flew in, while their goods were hauled up on bullock carts that look like those in use on Omotepe today.

In Granada, Nicaragua, horse-drawn coaches line the central park, ready to take tourists for a ride. They are well-groomed and sleek, and have those canvas bags suspended between the horse and the carriage, so the streets won't be fouled with excrement. Not that it helps much, because once you leave the streets around the parque, you encounter the half-starved poorly-cared-for ponies that are used to bring goods in from the country and haul them around town. No diapers there.

In Catarina, the occaisional pig wanders the streets, along with the ubiquitous chickens. And still, there is internet.

An hour from Granada, Masaya still has what amounts to a horse-drawn bus, a cart with benches running on both sides. The carriages here are used for regular, not just tourist transport. Some still are in Granada, too.

And wherever you see them, you usually are only a block or two from an internet cafe where you can read your hometown paper back in Austria, use Skype to call your best friend in Hong Kong, and check on the latest rumblings in the Middle East. Then you can walk outside and hail a horse.

Oh, the incongruity of it all.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Nicaragua: Masaya Market

Masaya has two markets, one for handicrafts and the local market. The local market is at the bus station, so I thought I'd start there. I wandered around, checking out the various sections: eating, vegetables and fruits, meat, fish, household goods, shoe repair, furniture, pottery, and tourist items.

While outside for a short walk, I noticed that here, the horse-drawn carriages are just a common means of transportation, not a tourist attraction. I even found a horse-drawn bus.

Several hours later, with a stomach full of pollo asado, two pairs of sandals, a new wallet, a pocketbook, and a lot of pictures, I boarded a motorized bus to Granada, yet another converted school bus.

That's when I discovered that the dark red bag that I'd purchased was really a bright, bright red. Never buy colored things in covered markets without taking them into the sunlight. I knew that.

The bag is Guatemalan, as are most of the textiles sold in Central America. The majority of the remainder seem to come from India. You really have to look hard for anything local. Then, even if you get a local type weave, you are never sure they are made locally.

Nadine, my friend with the shop in Granada, only sells local goods, yet I was sure that some of her hammocks came from Ecuador. One day I heard her explain to someone that the Ecuadorian style became very popular in Nicaragua, so the weavers learned how to make them.

That reminds me of all the tours of ruins I've taken: We think they had their first contact with such-and-such group then, because that's about when such-and-such style elements were incorporated into their pottery. So in the future, will archaeologists date Nicaragua's first contact with Guatemala as early in the 21st century, based on fabric fragments from a few hammocks?