Log 4
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Log 4 - Central America 2
(May 8, 2003 - June 20, 2003)

HONDURAS
NICARAGUA
EL SALVADOR & USA
 

HONDURAS


May 8, 2003 - May 10, 2003 (Dana)

Our first stop in Honduras was Santa Rosa de Copán, the capital of the department of Copán.  There must have been something special about this place, but it just seemed like a crowded, dirty and unpleasant big city to me.  But the bus ride there was phenomenal.  Honduras is a very mountainous country, which someone once described to Chris as having topography like a crumpled up piece of paper that has been uncrumpled a bit.  The change in terrain is noticeable almost immediately upon crossing into Honduras, and my eyes were glued to the window watching the beautiful green and mountainous scenery pass by.  When we arrived in Santa Rosa, we probably could have enjoyed it more if we spent more than a day and got to know it better, but we were really looking forward to getting to our next stop, Belen Gualcho.

Belen Gualcho is the village where Chris lived and worked for two years while serving in the Peace Corps back in 1988-1990.  Despite forming some close friendships and leaving with fond memories, he had not returned to Belen since he left there 13 years ago.  Rumor had it, however, that he had been eaten by a jaguar in the mountains above Belen, and that’s why they never heard from him again.  Chris heard of this rumor from a Peace Corps volunteer living in Belen years later who wrote to try and debunk the story.  Chris was surprised since he had said his goodbyes and told everyone he was leaving. Maybe the rumor was just a myth.  He never responded to the volunteer and was sure they’d all be pretty surprised to see him, presuming they even remembered who he was. 

We took a bus from Santa Rosa de Copán to Corquin, a small town not far from Belen.  We got off the bus and asked a man how we could get to Belen from there.  He pointed to a pick-up truck that was about to head that way, then asked us how we knew of Belen because he was from there.  As soon as Chris said his name ("Cristobal" in Spanish), the man said “I remember you – you taught me English” (in Spanish).  And so it began.  He chatted with Chris for a while about some of his memories of when Chris was there, and then led us to the pick-up truck.  He introduced us to his friend who would be taking the truck to Belen as well.  This second person also remembered Chris, saying that his sister was in Chris’ English class.  As the three of us, among others, all stood in the back of the pick-up truck on the way to Belen, the guy stared and Chris for a while then said… “they're not going to believe it when they see you … they think you were killed by a jaguar”.  Apparently, the rumor was more than a myth.    

About a half hour later, we arrived in Belen Gualcho.  Belen Gualcho is a remote and charmingly beautiful town located in western Honduras.  It forms part of Honduras´ highest mountain range, which rises more than 9,000 feet. Belen Gualcho proper is a small town with cobblestone streets, a store, a school, a small hotel, a beautiful church, an empty jailhouse, and many modest homes full of friendly people.   The town is surrounded by several small and picturesque farming villages a little higher into the mountains.   Chris was pleased to find that Belen seemed to be thriving.  A brand new central park was under construction and almost completed, and they now have electricity.  In addition, they are said to have the best market day in Honduras. 

After arriving in the center of town, one of the first places we came to was Nelly’s store, which supplies the town with just about anything they could want from the outside world.  When Nelly saw Chris, she greeted him with hugs and happiness that I am sure helped alleviate Chris of any remaining concerns that he would not be remembered.  They caught up a bit, as some more people converged on the store to see Chris. 

Our next stop was a block or two away to the home where Chris used to live.  He had become very close to the owners of the home, Aquilino and his wife Olivia, who lived in a different house while renting out Chris’ house.  Aquilino, in particular, was Chris’ closest friend in Belen.  One of Chris’ fondest memories of Aquilino was from the night before Chris left Belen 13 years ago.  Aquilino never drank alcohol, so although they spent a lot of time together, they never had a drink together.  But before Chris left, Aquilino showed up with a six-pack and said “today, we will drink together”. 

When we arrived at Aquilino's house, Abimael, one of Aquilino’s sons, answered the door.  Though he was just a toddler when Chris lived in Belen, Abimael knew who Chris was and was excited to see him.  He invited us in and rushed to get his mom, Olivia, who was even more excited to see Chris.  Next, Chris was reunited with Guillermo, another son of theirs who was about 12 years old when Chris lived there and used to spend a lot of time hanging around Chris.  Now, he was grown and had a family of his own.  They all were very welcoming and thrilled to see Chris, and they showed us around Chris’ old home so I could see it for the first time and Chris could see the changes they’d made.  After spending some time together, we all decided that they would not tell Aquilino, who was away at work, that Chris was in town, so Chris could show up and surprise him that evening.  On that note, we left Olivia’s house and Guillermo took us down to his house to show us his rabbits, which, of course, I loved, despite the allergies it triggered.  After that, we left to continue our tour.

We went back to the center of town where we met someone who did not know Chris – the town sheriff.  (No, we were not in trouble already, even though that would make for a much more interesting story.)  The sheriff was not living in Belen back when Chris was there, but he was happy to meet us and took us for a tour of his jail.  The jail contained only one cell, labeled “celda no. 1”, even though just “celda” would have sufficed.  In addition there were three young kids who were very friendly and interested in us, and decided to escort us up the hill to Belen’s cemetery, which would provide good views of the town.  It was good to have them along since Chris did not remember exactly how to get there. One of the three kids was young enough that we had to carry him, making the hike up a little more challenging.  When we reached the top we were indeed treated to a great view of the town, however we were not able to enjoy it for long as one of our escorts became spooked by the cemetery, and we head back down the hill.

By the time we got back to town, word had spread.  People came to their doorways as we walked by to catch a glimpse of us, and those that knew Chris would call out “Cristobal!” and invite us in.  Many of them were people that Chris didn’t even remember, but they were fun reunions to witness nonetheless.  I felt like a bit of a mute sitting there unable to say much since I don’t speak Spanish, and they must have thought that I was awfully quiet.  But if they thought anything bad of me, it didn’t show.  I was with Chris, so I was immediately loved and treated like a celebrity. 

In visiting with all the people that came out to greet Chris, it didn’t take long to piece together the story that had spread about Chris’ demise.  Apparently, shortly after Chris left Belen a boot was found in the cloud forest above Belen (Celaque forest).  In that boot was a foot – a Caucasian foot.  Not knowing many other gringos, many assumed that it must have been Chris’ foot, being all that was left of him after a jaguar attack.  The only truth the story had in relation to Chris was that Chris and a friend (Walt, a forestry volunteer) had once gotten lost in Celaque forest for two days.  However, they had returned to Belen after finding their way.  Maybe the people of Belen thought Chris got lost in Celaque again after leaving.  Who knows.  Either way, maybe it will be best if Chris drops a line once in a while from now own so such rumors don’t spread. 

That evening, we had dinner at Nelly’s where I got a chance to make tortillas for the first time.  It really was no big deal, but Chris urged me to give it a try and seemed highly amused by my less than circular creations.  Regardless of shape, they still tasted just as good as the others.  After dinner, we headed over to Olivia and Aquilino’s for the big surprise.  Aquilino stared at the figure standing in the darkness at his front door, then said… “Cristobal?”  Aquilino approached and they greeted each other with a sincere embrace that said “welcome home” without words.   I received nearly as warm a welcome and was touched to see these two reunite.  We all visited for a while, while Aquilino stared at Chris with pleased disbelief.  We made plans for the next day to hike through the mountains to a waterfall with Aquilino’s youngest son, Aquilino Jr., who is now the same age and appearance as Guillermo was back when Chris lived in Belen.  After that, we would attend a Mother’s Day celebration at the school with Olivia.  (Dia de la Madre is a big deal in Latin America.)

The hike to the waterfall took us through some beautiful scenery.  Following our young guide, Aquilino Jr. (who was a pleasure to get to know), we crossed rickety old bridges over rivers, and passed a few highland farming villages.  In one of them, aldea Paraiso, we saw a man making Spanish-style roof tiles in his yard.  Chris walked into the yard and introduced himself to the man, asking if we could watch him work.  The man was happy to demonstrate his craft to us, and called over his eldest son to help him show us how to make a tile from scratch.  It was really a treat to see how the tiles were made, but even more of a treat to see how happy this family was to share their time with us.  I particular enjoyed the younger sons, who got a kick out of my camera and allowed me to take some photos of them.  They got even a bigger kick out of it when I was backing up to fit them in the frame and stepped on a finished tile that was on the ground drying behind me.  I immediately tried to remold the damage I caused, as they giggled in delight.  After the tile-making demonstration, the father told us that he knew who Chris was –his wife was in a women’s group that Chris formed.  With that, he invited us into his home so that his wife could reunite with Chris.  While Chris chatted with them, I spent more time hanging out with the kids, who don’t require much from me in terms of Spanish-speaking.

When we finished visiting with the tile-making family, we went further into the mountains to find our waterfall.  It was a steep hike, and it felt good to get some exercise.  The lush forest scenery would have been enough to make the hike worthwhile, but eventually we were rewarded with a tall, majestic waterfall.  We headed for the pool at the base, and one toe in the water was all it took for me to know there was no way in hell I was going in there – it was freezing.  My fellow hikers, however, ages 12 and 37 alike, both had to show how manly they were and go in.  After overcoming the dread I could see in their eyes, they took the plunge.  It looked truly painful and I thought they were nuts, but I applauded their “manliness” nonetheless.  Their swims did not last for long, and after they got out, we ate lunch then hiked back down the mountain.

After returning to town, we cleaned up and went to Olivia’s house to meet up with her for the Mother’s Day event.  We waited a while but she was not ready yet, so we headed over to the school with just Aquilino Jr.  The room where the event was being held was already quite full, so no more kids were being admitted and Aquilino Jr. had to wait outside.  They let Chris and me in, and we sat down in the large school room jam-packed with mothers.  The celebrations consisted of dancing, gift-giving and speeches, and I used all the strength I had to keep from falling asleep, until the surprise at the end.  A teacher got up to the microphone and announced that they had two very special guests in the room – including someone who helped found the school – and that everyone should give them a very warm welcome.  Yes, they were talking about me and Chris.  Chris stood up and received a round of applause.  Did Chris really help form the school, you ask?  Well, the school was created while Chris was living there, and to meet certain requirements it had to offer an English class.  Despite his lack of teaching experience, Chris accepted the community’s demand that he should be the one to teach the class.  I don’t know how effective the English teaching was, since none of his former students seemed able to speak any English now, but they still look up to him today and remember him fondly, which perhaps is more important.   

That helped bring home a truth that become much clearer to me in Belen:  perhaps more important than what a person accomplishes is how they accomplish it.  Chris might have done a lot of work while he was in Belen – designing and building latrines and water systems, forming women’s groups, teaching English, etc. – but what was more important to the people of Belen was who Chris was.  He was an outsider at first, but one who made every effort to visit every home and village and really get to know people.  He was a fun and likable person to be around, with an undeniable love of and comfort around people, and a sincere desire to help in any way he could.  He is still this way today, and people love and remember him for it. 

Two days after arriving in Belen, the emotion and celebrity-status took enough of a toll that it was time to leave.  They tried to convince us to stay one more day to be at their market day, but we explained that we would have to leave early that morning.  Our last night in Belen, we stopped by Olivia and Aquilino’s to say our goodbyes.  We came inside and visited for a while, during which it became obvious that something was in the works.  Some family members were moving around hurriedly, whispering and giggling under their breath.  Soon, they brought a table and chairs to the room where we were sitting, and then a cake appeared on the table.  We now knew why Olivia didn’t make it to the mother’s day event – she was baking a cake for our surprise farewell party.  (Baking a cake isn’t the easiest thing to do in clay ovens with no temperature controls, but Olivia learned how to do it from another Peace Corps volunteer and now sells them for a profit.)  We all sat around the table, drank soda, ate cake and took a few photographs, before having to say the inevitable goodbyes.  It was a sad and tearful farewell, but there was happiness too for having had the chance to see each other.  We acknowledged that it might be another ten or fifteen years before we’d be back, but that we would make sure that Chris did a better job of keeping in touch in the meantime.



May 10, 2003 - May 15, 2003 (Chris)

We took the 5:30am bus out of Belen and said good-bye to this wonderful place.  As I did 13 years ago, I felt as if we were saying good-bye to my home.  We took 3 buses and traveled more than 8 hours that day stopping in Santa Rosa de Copan and San Pedro Sula.  Our ultimate destination however was Puerto Cortes located in the northeast corner of the country facing the Caribbean coastline.

We arrived in Puerto Cortes by late afternoon.  I don’t recall having been in Puerto Cortes during my service in Honduras.  Since it is the principle seaport for the country, I expected something a little more lively.  What we found instead was a sleepy little port town that looks like it had its hey day 100 years ago.  Near the turn of the century  Puerto Cortes, as a number of other cities on the north coast such as Tela, Ceiba and Trujillo literally became banana towns where the banana companies had de facto control over the business, services and politics.  Architecturally, many of the homes here are distinct.  Relics from the colonial period when railroad and fruit company executives lived here. Unlike most of Honduras, these homes are large, wood structures, elevated on stilts perhaps four feet above the ground.  Incorporated into the window are large wood slats to help control the amount of light and ventilation into the homes.  Most are decrepit and falling apart but speak to wealth and privilege of the fruit barons that once ruled here. 

Our reason for going to Puerto Cortes was actually to get to Tela.  We could have easily taken a bus from San Pedro Sula but the Cortes route would offer something a little more interesting.  Every Friday and Sunday at 7:30am passenger service is provided from Puerto Cortes to Tela on the National Railroad trains.  Honduras has 785 kilometers of railroad that were originally built by the banana companies and consist of two separate systems. The larger system, with almost 600 kilometers of track, was built by Standard Fruit Company in the early 1900s.  The government nationalized the Standard Fruit line in 1983, renaming it the Honduras National Railroad (Ferrocarril Nacional de Honduras--FNH). The other system, still owned by the Tela Railroad Company, a subsidiary of Chiquita Brands International, encompasses 190 kilometers of lines. Both systems are located in the north central and northwestern coastal areas of Honduras and provide freight and passenger service. In 1992 Honduras announced that it and El Salvador would build a new transisthmian route to compete with the Panama Canal, but it never came to fruition. All that exists are the railroads that were laid almost 100 years ago. This would be a rare opportunity to take a ride through history and we weren’t going to pass it up.

We stayed over night at a small, musty resort on the beach.  In the morning we caught a cab to the depot area.  The depot was near the seaport where dozens upon dozens of containers were waiting for loading with names like DOLE and CHIQUITA Brand.  The depot was an open elevated platform littered with trash – not particularly attractive or picturesque.  The train arrived with five or six box cars in tow.  Laying on the deck of the locomotive was a large bundle of green bananas as if to remind us what these cars are used for.  Fifty or so passengers got on board, many destined for Tela or small towns along the way in order to celebrate Mother’s Day with their families.  This was apparent from the numerous pink boxes sitting on the laps of passengers containing cakes or pastries. 

With the exception of the engine, the train looked like something right out of the turn of the century.  The passenger cars were riveted metal with wood bench seats.  I noticed a plaque indicating it was constructed in 1957.  On the side of the car it read  FERROCARRIL NACIONAL DE HONDURAS.  When it moved, each car would push, pull and pitch in different directions.  There was no modern suspension on this antique.  As the train sped up, these opposing forces became counterbalanced as they fell into rhythmic sync.  The trek weaved through a panorama of banana fields, pastures and small towns.  It made frequent stops to drop off or pick up passengers and each time the opposing movement to counterbalance process would start again.  At one point we had to stop to change trains.  While we waited, I went into a small store to get us breakfast.  What did I get?  Bananas of course.  While we were waiting we listened to tag-team evangelizing.  Two guys with a bible, a microphone and a very load speaker.  After 20 minutes or so, one would pass the microphone off to the other.  By the time we got on the train again our ears hurt and we didn’t feel blessed.  I don’t think their mission was accomplished. 

One of the great things about traveling in the developing world is the lack of public safety laws.  The real potential of losing a limb allows for a much more exhilarating and enjoyable experience while traveling.  This would hold true for the Ferrocarril Nacional de Honduras.  Each car had an external platform with steps on each side used when exiting or mounting the train.  This was also a fun place to hang out when the train was at maximum speed.  I spent most of the train ride out on the platform as it was easier to see the passing vistas.  While I pretty much stayed on the platform and first level of steps, some passengers would literally be hanging off the bottom step of the platform with only one hand on the guard rail as they tried to catch leaves from passing trees.  The whole time I was out there I felt a strange urge to climb onto the roof of one of the cars and duke it out with someone.  I refrained, however, remembering how easy it is to fall victim to a low overhead passing tunnel. 

We arrived in Tela that afternoon and unloaded at a French Canadian hotel called the Hotel Maya Vista.  It was a bit of a hike up the hill and to our room on the third floor, but it had a great overlook of the beach and town and the room was nice.

I have some fond memories of Tela from visits years ago.  The day after completing my three month Peace Corps training a bomb exploded in the offices of Peace Corps in Tegucigalpa, Honduras.  It was planted by a group that claimed Peace Corps was an arm of the CIA conducting psychological warfare in the countryside.  Faced with the dilemma of whether or not to close down, Peace Corps ordered all volunteers out of the capital and major cities until it could figure out what to do.  A large group of us went up to Tela to spend the Christmas holiday not knowing whether we would get to serve after having trained so long for it.  All I remember was that we got drunk continually for about a week.  After 3 months of training and the insecurity of not knowing what would happen next, it was time to let off a little steam and that we did.  Peace Corps decided to stay and we all went to our sites - with a hangover. 

Dana and I spent a more sober two days in Tela.  Tela has a lot of history to it.  Until 1976, it was home to the Tela Railroad Company still owned by Chiquita Bananas.  As I briefly mentioned above, the banana companies had a big influence in the region.  Chiquita, once known as the United Fruit Company, had a strong hand in the governments of Honduras and Guatemala (even executing the overthrow of a Guatemalan president).   Bananas were the biggest industry in Honduras for years (in 1913, two thirds of all Honduran exports were bananas) making United Fruit Company and its competitors extremely powerful players in Honduran politics during the first half of the 20th century. The immense power wielded by these companies gave rise to the term "Banana Republic", which was originally used in reference to Honduras and not to a chic clothing line.

Dana and I caught up on some sleep and took a few strolls on the beach just outside Tela and all along the Garifuna villages.  The Garifuna, also known as Black Caribs, are believed to be descendents of black slaves who escaped from two Spanish ships that sunk in 1635.  The Garifuna culture has a look and feel distinct from the rest of Honduras, so we were interested in exploring it.  We had planned to stroll up the beach to one of the villages but were told by a young boy on the beach that there are a number of robberies that have occurred there, so we didn't go far before turning back.  There are other Garifuna villages that are safe and even have guided tours, but we did not have time. 

On Tuesday, we left Tela and headed south back to San Pedro Sula.  San Pedro Sula is considered the commercial capital of Honduras.  As such, it has all the accoutrements of a big city.  We took advantage and went to a movie and dinner the evening we arrived. 

The next morning we got on a bus and headed south toward the capital of the country, Tegucigalpa.  The trip traverses perhaps two-thirds of the length of the country.  In Honduras, 90% of the land is on a 60% grade or higher, something that is notable on the drive south to Tegucigalpa.  Its mountainous terrain and its abundance of pine and mahogany make it somewhat distinct from other countries in Central America.  Tegucigalpa is located in the central mountainous region of the country.  It sits 1000m above sea level nestled in a valley surrounded by mountains.  The name means “Silver Mountain”, a reference to the silver mines that gave the city its prominence.       

After my service in Belen Gualcho, I spent a year and a half living and working out of Tegucigalpa.  Dana and I stayed at the Hotel Honduras Maya.  It was once the most prestigious hotel in town, but has over the last decade received stiff competition from newer and bigger hotels.  For $45 a night, though (a special rate offered all this year), it was luxury at a bargain.  We took full advantage of the room, swimming pool and other services it offered.  The Honduras Maya is fairly central which allowed us to get most everywhere on foot.  During the two days we spent there we walked to the downtown area which, similar to all of the Central American capitals, boasts a catholic cathedral with the municipal building sitting to its right.  It has a peatonal, or pedestrian mall, that starts at the church and heads west for 4 or 5 blocks.  We also strolled Boulevard Francisco Morazán and the Colonia Palmira area near the hotel.  Both areas have an abundance of restaurants and small cafes of which we made good use.
 

NICARAGUA


May 16, 2003 - May 21, 2003 (Dana)

Although we had a short stay in Tegucigalpa, another of Chris’ former homelands, we learned that I too would have an opportunity to get to know it better.  Chris’ former employer, PCI, asked if he could fill in as head of their Honduras office for a while.  Since we were to have several months of down time in Central America anyway, Chris accepted, limiting the time period, however, to three months, so as not to lose sight of our sailing plans and personal projects.  Other than the fact that Chris would be working, the only real change was that we would be spending three months (July – September) in Tegucigalpa instead of Costa Rica, leaving us still with several months in Costa Rica.  The only real downside was that since we had planned on arriving in Costa Rica in June or July, my brother Loren and my friend Ischia were coming to visit us there in August.  However, we figured that we would still have time to get the boat down to Costa Rica in June, before Chris begins working.  Then, we could return to Tegus for Chris’ work and bus it back to the boat in Costa Rica when visitors come.  Chris would only be able to stay there for about a week, but I could stay for as long as visitors are there.  So for the next several weeks, we were still on track with our plans -- finish our month of land-based touring with a visit to Nicaragua, get back to the boat in El Salvador, and sail to Costa Rica.

On May 16, we left Tegucigalpa and headed to Managua, the capital of Nicaragua.  That bus ride was pretty miserable.  For starters, the air conditioning was not working and they weren’t permitting us to open the windows, since the air trapped inside the bus was about two degrees cooler than the outside air.  It got to the point, however, where it felt like there was no air left inside the bus.  And whatever air there was certainly was not cool.  Feeling like I would soon suffocate, I opened my window a bit to let some fresh (though hot) air blow against my face and fill my lungs.  Seconds later, the bus attendant was at my seat demanding that I close my window.  I argued that I needed some air or I was going to be sick, but she wasn’t buying it.  I closed the window, she walked away, then I opened it again.  A few minutes later, she was back, and the same debate ensued.  This cycle repeated a couple times.  An hour or so later, other bus passengers started supporting the cause, and we perpetrated a successfully mutiny.  Finally, the windows were allowed to be opened and I was feeling much better – my lungs anyway.  The rest of my body was being bounced and jarred about by the pothole-ridden road we found ourselves on after crossing the border into Nicaragua.  That particular road was in worse shape than any others we’d been on, and being in the very back of the bus only accentuated the bumpiness.  A couple hours later, the road smoothed out as we neared Managua.

Upon arriving in Managua, we met up with our friend Leonel, PCI’s country director for Nicaragua, at his office.  Leonel is Nicaraguan and has been very involved in Nicaraguan life and politics, and has amazing stories to tell.  (Lucky for me, he also speaks English, because Nicaraguans tend to speak Spanish so quickly that it’s hard for even Chris to follow.)  In earlier years, Leonel grew up amidst the turmoil of the Somoza regime in Nicaragua.  He developed somewhat of a celebrity status as a teenager when a photo of him with a gun held to his head execution-style by a member of Somoza’s national guard was snapped and published in the newspaper. During that time, Somoza was close to being overthrown, and his national guard was terrorizing many Nicaraguans including young Leonel who was trying to process papers when returning to Mexico to study medicine.  Luckily, he was not shot, since they found a credit card in his wallet and assumed that meant he may have come from a powerful family.  In later years, Leonel became active in politics and was even a candidate for vice-president (for Partido Renovado Sandinista).  Now, in addition to heading PCI’s Nicaragua office, he is a doctor and has a television show where viewers call in with medical questions.  Certainly, based on Leonel’s education, ingenuity, popularity and endless energy, he could have done anything he wanted with his career and made loads of money doing it.  It says a lot about him that he chose to focus on nonprofit work helping those who are less fortunate in his country.  In short, Leonel is an extremely interesting and likeable guy, and we were looking forward to our visit with him in Managua.  We were also particularly looking forward to seeing his new little sailboat about which we’ve heard so much.  He got the sailboat for nothing from his uncle in Panama, and that gift has turned into a saga of breakdowns, sinking, groundings, endless repairs and costs, and continuing troubles that we’ve been following.  Most people would have given up on the boat by now, but it has become his new baby and he’s determined to nurse it to its full glory.  (I have no idea how he finds time for this.)  Besides, there have been so many problems that it’s become undeniably amusing.

After visiting with people in Leonel’s office, we were ready to go to Leonel's home where we’d be staying for the next few days.  On the way home, however, Leonel gave us a mini-tour of Managua (more for my benefit, I guess, since Chris has been here before).  Leonel loves his country and his mind is packed with interesting information about it.  He pointed out many sites that we would have missed on our own, told us about types of trees we were passing, etc.  He also took us to a view point of Lake Managua, a lake almost as big as El Salvador, which is unfortunately too polluted to be of much recreational use.  He also showed us views of the pleasingly cone-shaped volcano, Momotombo, which can be seen from various angles while driving around.  He also pointed out Momotombo’s little brother, Momotombito, located within Lake Managua.  Lastly, we took a quick drive through Managua’s downtown, where only a couple tall buildings remain since the destruction of most of downtown by an earthquake in 1972 (and a previous disastrous earthquake in 1931). 

Eventually, we arrived at Leonel’s home in an upscale neighborhood (by Nicaraguan standards) with lots of trees and spacious homes, but no street names or numbers -- something not entirely uncommon in Central America, I’m beginning to find.  To identify a home when sending mail, you reference the closest landmark and then say, for example, two blocks east, one block north, second house on the left.  Wacky.  Over the next few days, I was introduced to Leonel’s family as they’d come and go:  his wife Graciela, his sons Leonel Jr. and Leopoldo, the ladies who work in his home, his driver, and three dogs.  I also met his sister Mariangeles and her son who live a few blocks away.  Our first night in Managua, Leonel took us to a great meal at a restaurant serving typical Nicaraguan food, where I was introduced to some of the unusual but tasty juices that Leonel enjoys.  Afterwards, we went to a bar ("Mariachis"?) where various mariachi groups hang out and perform, and enjoyed a few songs while drinking Cuba Libres.  We then went to one more bar with live modern music before calling it a night.

The following day, Leonel and his oldest son Leonel Jr. (around age 17) took us to Puerto Sandino to visit Leonel’s troublesome little boat.  We got to the town then drove along a dirt road hidden between the backs of some buildings and a waterway.  The road was flooded in areas due to high tide, but we plowed through and made it to a small beach surrounded by mangroves, where a rickety little dock in the corner of the harbor led only to Leonel’s little boat.  There was one other sailboat in the mainly commercial harbor at the time, but it’s since sunken, making Leonel’s the only sailboat in the harbor now.  We hung out on the boat for a while, watching workmen try to get the engine running while we taught Leonel and Leonel Jr. some knots.  Chris and I also performed a quick survey of the boat, and noticed that the mast sat at a bit of an angle instead of sticking straight up.  Leonel thinks it probably was sticking straight up when he first got the boat, so that’s one more thing he can add to the list of issues.  As the weather grew hotter, one by one we dove into the lagoon, swimming for a good hour or so.  Thankfully, we did not meet any crocodiles during our swim.  Then shortly before dusk, the workmen got the engine working so Leonel decided to take us for a sunset tour of the harbor. 

About twenty minutes into the harbor tour, the engine died, and we all floundered around trying to get the boat to sail under almost no wind.  Within minutes, we butted into an island, which was luckily surrounded by mangroves instead of a beach on which to ground.  After getting a much closer look at the mangroves than we wanted, Leonel Jr. swam the anchor out and dropped it so we could pull ourselves away from the island.  The first time, we drifted back to the island pretty quickly.  But the second time, we managed to maintain some direction under sail long enough for them to get the engine working again.  We motored back to the dock and got a good chuckle out of yet another misadventure of the currently nameless little boat.

After leaving the boat and grabbing some seafood dinner, we went to a beach house owned by Leonel’s parents in a private residential neighborhood called El Valero.  It was a two-story house with a large terrace overlooking the ocean, and we relaxingly sank into chairs and hammocks as we absorbed the view and quiet serenity.  We spent the night there, and drove back to Managua the next day.  On the way, we stopped in a town where "quesillos", a traditional Nicaraguan dish, originated.  A quesillo is a rolled tortilla with a mild white cheese and chopped onions inside, drenched in some kind of milky juice (you hold it in a plastic bag to keep the juice from spilling out).  We each had a couple, and Chris and I have not found any others as tasty as the originals since then.

A day or two after returning to Leonel’s house in Managua, we joined up with another PCI Nicaragua employee, Christina, her husband Rick, and their friends Brian and Ana, for dinner.  Christina used to work with Chris in PCI’s international office in San Diego, but she and Rick moved to Managua a couple years ago.   After somewhat of a difficult transition into life in Managua, they made friends and settled in, and even have a little website commemorating their time here, which will be ending shortly when they return to San Diego later this year.  Their friends, Brian and Ana, also used to work for PCI, but in Bolivia -- those PCI folks sure to get around.

Our last night before leaving Managua, we went out for Italian dinner with Leonel and Graciela.  During dinner, we ran outside to see a "Gigantona" -- a man dressed in costume as a giant woman who, together with his mini-person sidekick, entertains people with wittiness, flattery and dancing.  We didn't have any cash handy to give them, so we didn't get a whole lot of entertainment.  But I did snap a quick photo.  Then back at home, we packed, and I took some last photos of Leonel's funny little wiener dog with a dangling tongue. 

EL SALVADOR & USA

On May 21, we left Managua on a bus headed back to San Salvador, to spend another day at John and Ana's before finally returning to our boat and getting ready to sail to Costa Rica.  Little did we know that we were about to be hit hard with something terrible that would change our plans drastically. 

When we arrived at John and Ana’s house, we chatted briefly then went upstairs to put our things in the bedroom.  John and Ana followed us up and then John said he had some bad news.  I’m shaking right now just thinking of it, but the words that followed were that Chris’ brother Mike had died.  PCI’s Nicaragua and El Salvador offices found out while we were en route between the two countries and family members were trying to track us down.  But having arrived in El Salvador, we now knew and it was a devastating shock, even though Mike’s physical condition over the last several years made it something just a little less than completely out of the blue.  We made plans to fly to Iowa as soon as possible to attend the funeral and be with Chris’ family.

Over the next few days, we tried to carry on with the necessary arrangements despite a depression that hit Chris hard and myself to a surprising extent as well.  Over the past year and a half, Chris had really formed a close friendship with his brother Mike, with whom relations had been rather distant before.  The distance was due partly to having taken different paths in life and partly to having always lived far away from one another as adults (Mike in Iowa, and Chris in other states or countries).  But in November 2001, Chris invited Mike out to San Diego, and they spent about a week together, went sailing, and bonded in a meaningful way.  During that same visit while Chris was getting re-acquainted with his brother, I was meeting him for the first time and began getting to know and love him as well.  After Mike returned to Iowa, he and Chris spoke on the phone weekly, and Mike would end each call with “I love you brother”.  He had really begun looking up to Chris and wanting to be a part of his life.  Eventually, Mike decided he would move to San Diego so he came out a second time in June of 2002, but matters in Iowa kept him from being able to stay.  We saw Mike again three months later in September, when we traveled to Iowa for a family reunion organized by Chris’ dad.  The reunion couldn’t have been timed better, as three family members who attended have since died, making the reunion the last time that everyone would be together. 

The first reunion attendee who died was Chris’ maternal grandmother, Virgie.  She passed away unexpectedly in December of 2002, right before Chris and I were to leave for Ensenada to begin our voyage.  Instead, we went to Iowa for Virgie’s funeral, not knowing it would be the last time we’d see Mike.  Mike lived with and was very close to his grandma Virgie, so he took her death particularly hard.  I stayed up late with him the night before her funeral, and convinced him that it might help to write something out to say at the funeral, as difficult as it would be.  After I went to bed, he wrote a poem about his grandma, and he stood up and read it the next day at her funeral.  I never would have guessed that the same poem was going to be repeated at a funeral for Mike five months later.  At least, however, Virgie’s funeral brought us all together with Mike one last time.  Likewise, Mike’s funeral gave us an opportunity to say goodbye to Chris’ paternal grandmother Martha, who passed away just a couple weeks later while we were still in Iowa.  This has proved to be a mournful year for Chris’ family. 

May 21, 2003 - June 20, 2003 (Chris)

This has been a particularly difficult time for Dana and me.  Upon our return to El Salvador, John gave me the news that my brother had died.  Within a few days we returned to the United States and were able to attend his funeral.  Mike had asked that he be cremated. I asked his daughter if I could take some of the remains to scatter at sea.  She gave me the entire contents and said “please take it, he loved his time on the boat so much and would appreciate it.”  My brother was a gentle soul who had many demons he could not overcome.  He visited us a couple of times in San Diego.  The first time he and I spent a week working on and sailing the boat.  He had never set foot on a sail boat before but he fell in love with it and continued to talk about over the following year.  The next time we are out at sea I will give him a sea burial.  He was a good person who is missed already. 

We decided to stay for a month to provide support to my mother.  During that time my paternal grandmother also died.  She was in her 80’s and suffered from adult leukemia among other ailments.  I was glad we could be there and visited with her days before she died. 

Dana has been a big support to me and my family and I couldn’t imagine doing this with out her.  Most of our time has been spent helping to figure out and set up my brother’s estate as well as helping with projects on the small farm where my mother and stepfather live.  For father’s day, Dana returned to California to surprise her dad.  She’ll return this Thursday and we’ll head up to Chicago where our plane will leave for our return to El Salvador.  Once we return we will visit the boat and then head to Honduras where I will be working for 2-3 months for Project Concern International – the organization I worked for prior to this trip.  This will help take care of some down time and also increase our kitty.

 

 

 

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