June 30, 2011 - 8:33 AM
Today I got to work all by myself! This is no small feat here in Tegucigalpa, where the streets resemble a pile of tangled yarn. Between the hills, the lack of street signs, and the law of "the bravest goes first," navigation here is quite the adventure. Today was my first time going bien solita (all by my lonesome), so allow me to celebrate my achievement today with a description of how I got to work.
I left my house at 7:30 and walked half a block to the corner where the buses stop. This is no Lane Transit District bus stop. I piled into a vehicle vaguely the size of a US 12 passenger van/ VW bus with fifteen other passengers, and we took off. Traffic tears through the streets here, and the streets are extremely steep and narrow. In addition to the driver, each "busito" (little bus) has a helper. His job is to open and close the doors, collect the money (about 53 cents per passenger), and hang halfway out of the bus, shouting our destination to drum up more passengers. Today, we are going to the city center, so the backdrop of our drive is: "CENTRO, CENTRO, AL CENTRO!"
I am beginning to recognize places. It's about a half an hour drive, and today I noticed several schools that looked familiar. Then we passed a gas station, so I knew the gigantic mall was coming up on our right. The soccer stadium wasn't long after that. When we passed the fruit stand with the bags of oranges and lines of pineapples, I knew we were getting close. Then we crossed the river, passed the old presidential mansion, and I thought "I think we're almost there" right as the shouts of "Centro centroooo" changed to "Calpules!" signaling the return trip.
I scrambled out, oriented myself to the National Bank building, and set out, clutching the lunch my host mom packed. While walking in Central America, I try to maintain a look of disengaged confidence. You don't really want to be an approachable type here-there are risks of theft, and a much more common instance of begging and heckling. So I try to balance a head-held-high striding with the necessity of watching my feet. The sidewalks aren't exactly well maintained.
So two blocks from the bank, I see the Espresso Americano store, and I turn left. The next block is a lovely pedestrian street, and my favorite part of the walk. Just when I think I might have turned the wrong way, I see the next landmark: the Pizza Hut. I turn right. Ahead of me is the church Iglesia de los Dolores. I'm supposed to take a hairpin turn and take a taxi the remaining five blocks, which are almost comically steep. But it's a beautiful morning and I haven't gotten much exercise recently. I slog the remaining blocks, arriving red-faced and triumphant at the door of the office.
Tonight I'll either do the same journey in reverse, or I'll spend time with Karen (my boss) somewhere around town (probably at the mall). Karen and my host family have been amazingly helpful so far, and really kind about shepherding me through the city. But I want to be able to do these things on my own. I take for granted the grid layout of most cities, and the legibility of street signs. But today I did it! And tomorrow I will do it again. And the day after and the day after...
Now to work! It feels like it's going to be a good day.
June 27, 2011 - 2:13 PM
I have always had such amazing luck while traveling. These past few days, staying with friends of friends, has been another testament to how beautifully open and welcoming people can be. I have experienced some incredible human kindness, and some of the best in meeting people, and the beauty that can arise in even short moments of friendship.
I also received a lesson in caution while on the road. On Saturday most of my stuff was stolen while I was in Managua, Nicaragua. The good news is that I am safe, still have my passport and other documents, and that the experience hasn't freaked me out too badly. But it was a really horrible experience, and one that will stick with me for a long time.
I don't really know how to write about it, to be honest. The four people who robbed me were shockingly courteous, but did a good job of cleaning out my valuables, the cash I had on me, and $300 from an ATM. I lost all my electronics, including my computer, and some practical items, like clothes and shoes. But they returned my credit card, made sure I had my passport, gave me taxi money, and even handed me my toothbrush before jumping into their car to leave. They were polite, and even apologized to me. I felt a sort of surreal calm the whole time, and even now feel a strong portion of confusion mixed in with my anger when I think about what happened.
I took a taxi to a hostel and spent a good part of the evening taking care of details, from banking to writing a long email to my parents about what happened. I left really early yesterday morning for a bus to Tegucigalpa, where I am now settled in nicely with my host family and internship position. Although I didn't sleep much Saturday night, and still feel distracted by what happened, mostly I feel like what happened is behind me already. Like I'm settled into a new place, and just have a few extra errands to run.
I don't know if I am able to explain myself well. I certainly feel freaked out, and was scared and angry at the time. For a few minutes during the robbery, I lost track of my Spanish and couldn't understand well what they were saying to me. But life on the road means living in the now. It means that I am here, in Tegucigalpa, and am already beginning to love this new place and these people. In the now, I am limited by the things they took, but don't have to be sidetracked by what happened.
I am particularly grateful for the help I was given by my family, the staff at the hostel, and my new acquaintances here. I feel very loved and cared for. I have received and overwhelming amount of support and advice (although believe me, the common response ‘you need to be careful, you can't trust everyone' are about as helpful as a kick in the teeth). I am enormously grateful that I speak the language well, and am able to explain myself and my story, and ask for help when I need it.
Even while I was pissed off yesterday on the bus, I was also looking around me. We drove through the most spectacular mountains in southern Honduras. We passed beautiful little villages, complete both with murals to the goodness of humanity, and with the signs of crushing poverty. From the road, I see a snapshot of life: the good, the bad, and the ugly of this place and the people in it.
I'm not sure what effect this robbery will have on me in the long run, but I know what I hope. I hope I will be smarter in the future, more aware of my surroundings and more cautious of the people I trust. I also hope that I will continue to trust and be rewarded for it. I hope my budding friendships here in Tegucigalpa will grow quickly, and that as I settle into life here I'll be able to turn the robbery into a funny story and a simple point of reference along my long journey.
I also desperately hope I'll be able to find shoes that fit me. I can't keep wearing my one remaining pair (hiking boots are not the height of fashion here), and I can't count on many Honduran women wearing size 10.
I considered not writing this blog. I thought that maybe I would just write about my new home, my new work, and the hopes I have for these next two months. But it didn't feel honest. As I thought about it, this incident is a part of my education and my life. Even a part of my studies, maybe. Could I have handled this as well without my Spanish studies? Without the conflict resolution skills? Without my previous study abroad opportunities? If not for the people I know through Inside-Out and my work with Sister Helen, would I be so consumed by anger that it would be impossible for me to move on?
Starting with my next blog, I'll have good news about the family and friends' "Conspiracy to Get Katie the Stuff She Needs," as well as information of the availability of large women's shoes and jeans that will fit my 5'10" frame.
So keep sending the good vibes, and keep up your faith in humanity. I have a good feeling that things will turn out all right.
June 24, 2011 - 8:10 AM
Greetings from Granada, Nicaragua! It has been an amazing couple of days and I have a ton to blog about. I've come a long, long way and am so happy to be on the road. I almost can't believe I'm actually here, actually traveling. Then I remember that everything here feels so strange and so foreign, and I know it's true--I'm on the road.
The travel details of my adventures so far aren't terribly interesting. I took my first red-eye flight from Portland to Huston, and will probably try to avoid that in the future. But the ride from Huston to Costa Rica was fine, and ended in the unbelievable beauty of breaking through the clouds and seeing the jungles and small, brightly-roofed villages below me. It was green as far as the eye could see, until the plane banked and then there was the coast beneath me, with surf breaking on the shore. So beautiful.
San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica, is not known for any particular beauty or culture. What struck me most as I took a taxi from the airport to the downtown area was how many American companies were being advertised on the billboards. Then, in downtown, I saw that I could easily choose a different American fast food restaurant each meal and still be going after days. McDonald's are everywhere now, but I also saw Subway, Wendy's, KFC... not to mention car rental companies, Mac advertisements, and on and on. I don't really know how to feel about this--as my taxi driver said, the investment is good for the country. But what my studies and my gut tell me is that this is a dangerous trend, leading to less local control of the economy and national prosperity.
In any event, I had a wonderful chat with my taxi driver, proving (I hope) that my Spanish is still servicable, and that I haven't lost the knack for making quick friends on the road. He told me about his family, his business, politics, and food. He also told me that the hostel I'd picked from a quick look in someone's Lonely Planet in the airport was a bad choice--that it was a long way from the bus station I would be going to the next day. So he took me to my first major surprise of my trip: Hostel Pangea.
It was perfect. It was painted like a co-op in Eugene (which is to say, brightly and irrationally). It had a cobbled-together, tree house feel to it, complete with a restaurant on the second floor which required not only several sets of stairs, but also passing through a bathroom (no joke). But it was welcoming, comfortable, full of really nice guests and helpful staff, and made for a great afternoon and evening. I walked around San Jose briefly, and spent the rest of the evening fighting exhaustion from jet lag and chatting with other travelers. They gave me lots of tips for Nicaragua, for which I am extremely grateful. It's hard to stay lonely or ill-informed on the road.
And now, an eight-hour bus ride later, here I am in Nicaragua. I am staying with a friend of a friend, which came together at the last moment and means I am here, sheltered in a lovely home in the center of the beautiful colonial city of Granada. On Wednesday I walked around town, including residential neighborhoods (with small shops huddled next to brightly-colored houses) and down to Lake Nicaragua, the largest lake in Central America and home to a population of freshwater sharks. I ate a wonderful meal in the Central Park, and returned to my bright blue home, which already feels legitimately homey. The only real downside of the place so far was how hot it was that first night. Even with the fan, I woke up sweating bullets and couldn't do a darn thing about it. Then I got to participate in the morning mass from the church across the street, listening to the sermon through the windows.
Yesterday, two of my host's friends took me around the city. We visited museums, ate delicious meals, saw the old architecture, sheltered from the rain amidst beautiful stone carvings, and spent an evening out sipping mojitos in the street, and then listening to Ranchera music in a cool little neighborhood bar. I even got to dance a little, which was really, really fun. My salsa needs some work, but with enough joy you can make up the moves and people forgive you.
Either tomorrow or Sunday I'll head to Tegucigalpa where my real summer begins. For now, I'm looking ahead to another day of being a tourist, guided by locals and increasingly letting the Spanish flow without so much self-consciousness. Wish me luck! And I'll keep writing.
PS I think I'll keep a list of the "Things to check off my life list." So here we go:
1. See a scarlet macaw.
2. Go to a chocolate museum.
3. Marriage proposal from a stranger.
4. Each chicarron (Fried pig skin. Once was enough)
June 19, 2011 - 10:31 PM
The packing is nearly complete! Folks, we are moments away from achieving the final version of the traveling gear for my two months in Central America.
In the past week I have not only finished my work duties, said a temporary farewell to all my friends, and packed my backpack, I have also moved out of my house. In fact, this weekend has been all about moving. The Danger Zone has been my home for three years now, and has included some really wonderful times. Now all my worldly possessions are either in a storage unit (and you can accumulate a lot of worldly goods in three years!), or they are nearly packed into my travel gear.
Here's what goes into the perfect set of travel gear:
• A week of shirts, underwear, socks, pants/shorts/skirts, and a couple of dressy outfits
• Four pairs of shoes: Chacos, flip flops, dress shoes, and hiking boots
• Rain coat
• Light rain jacket
• Rain pants
• Appointment book
• Various power chords, etc.
• Travel pillow (great for long plane/bus rides)
• Sleeping sack
• Travel medications
• Bug spray
• "Just add water" foods like oatmeal and bullion cubes, for emergency situations
• Granola bars
• Extra day pack for weekend vacations
• Laundry bag (separating the "used" from the "new" is important on the road)
• Alarm clock
• Toilet paper (just to be sure)
• Six books
• New podcasts (five hours)
• Travel diary (blank)
• Contact info for folks on the road
• Emergency contacts
• Addresses for postcards
• Pictures of family and friends to bring with
• Gifts for my host family
• Slipper socks
Oof. No wonder I'm tired. It's been a few long, long days of pulling things together, shopping, re-arranging, and finding the perfect place for each detail. All of this is coming with me in three bags: a backpacking backpack, a day pack, and a purse. I want to be able to walk out of the airport and feel calm about choosing a taxi, rather than frantic to accommodate my bulky possessions. I want to be able to walk myself around town a little, rather than being tied inextricably to my bulky goods. I have a lot of stuff. It's the practical and the comforting: the details are what will make the trip comfortable. I've selected books in a nice mix of the never-before-read and the old favorites. Most I plan to leave behind in the hostels on the road, taking new books in exchange.
The final thing I have packed is space. It's the hardest thing to remember, and the quickest thing you lose when you're on the road. It's so easy to keep on adding and adding until your last bit of flexible space has been overcome by the various needs of the road. I'm trying really hard to maintain that space this time. I want to feel confident that I can pick up new treasures and carry them comfortably with me. This space is generally a myth, an ideal we might chase but never achieve.
So, as I hoist my bag and stride off into my future, wish me luck! The summer is launching, and I've got the gear to prove it.
June 18, 2011 - 9:12 PM
Plans are shaping up! The academic year has wound down, and all my attention is focused on the adventures yet to come. With each moment, I am focusing more and more on the adventures which begin midnight on Monday, and will conclude the last weekend of August. I'm working constantly working to get everything packed and organized, and to line up all my plans so that liftoff means leaving all my cares behind.
I have a somewhat unorthodox travel style.
I love to feel useful, wherever I am. I am so excited for my internship and the work I will do in Honduras this summer. I will be grounded in the work I am undertaking, and hope to experience a sense of home within my host organization. The primary goal of my internship is to be useful and to make some kind of difference with my time. But the other goals are just as important: to learn, to meet people, to see a different side of life, to gain new skills, and to experience the reality of a city. I do not want to live as a tourist. I want to finish each day and feel like something useful has been done.
That being said, I also need a vacation. So I've scheduled a five-day commute before settling into my new home in Tegucigalpa. I will arrive in San Jose, Costa Rica, on Tuesday at noon. I'm due in Tegucigalpa, Honduras for work on the 27th. That leaves me some real time to see some new places, and to be on the road. I love to be on the road.
But, as I said, my travels are often a bit unconventional. So, although my stay in Honduras is completely arranged, and my work is completely lined up, I have no idea where I will stay on Tuesday night. I have not read the guidebooks (at least not for Costa Rica and Nicaragua. Honduras I've studied at length). I didn't even consider making plans until yesterday, when a middle-aged friend asked "where you stay on Tuesday?" and I said "in Costa Rica." When pressed, I finally understood the question. "I don't know where I'm staying in the city. I'll worry about that when I get to it."
I am not a naive traveler. I know there are many risks, and that preparation can make a huge difference in the experience. I am careful in many ways: I am aware of my surroundings, current on my immunizations, and maintain a list of contacts and emergency info. But preparation means different things to different people. I have experienced the enormous benefit to arriving in a bus station or airport without a plan, and watching an itinerary unfold beneath my feet. I have been directed some extraordinary sites and activities by locals. I have missed some classic tourist destinations to be escorted through off-brand museums with phenomenal art. I have talked with locals in coffee shops, met ex-pats for dinner, and have made the brief friendship of countless fellow travelers. I have experienced the community of the traveler, and the way a strange new place can bring people together.
I have also been preparing for this trip for years. Although I have not read the guidebook, I do know how to ask for directions. I know how to be polite and joyful and grateful. I know how to look confident when lost, and how to ask for help when the situation demands it. And I know that I can often rely on the kindness of strangers.
So, the itinerary. Tuesday night I'll be in Costa Rica. On Wednesday morning I'll get on a bus and head north, reaching Granada, Nicaragua sometime in the afternoon. Here I meet my first stranger: a friend of a friend who lives part-time in Nicaragua. He won't be home next week, so I will spend three or four days in his home, wandering the colonial streets and perhaps exploring Lago Nicaragua at my leisure. On Saturday or Sunday I will arrive in Tegucigalpa. On Monday I start to work. On August 1st, my mom meets me in Costa Rica for a week of adventure. At the end of August, I fly home by way of El Salvador.
Written out like that, it all looks very simple. I'm jaunting off the continent for a chance to meet new people and see new sites. Hopefully I'll hike, birdwatch, zip line, dance, eat, and learn something new. I'll be useful at work, and relaxed on the road. I'll meet new people, who will transform from strangers to friends.
Bring me that road!
Afoot and lighthearted, I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me, leading wherever I choose.
Henceforth I ask not good-fortune-I myself am good fortune;
Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing,
Strong and content, I travel the open road.
The earth-that is sufficient...
Walt Whitman "Song of the Open Road"
Leaves of Grass, 1900