Wednesday, December 29, 2004

We've been slacking a bit on writing but guess what? You have two new entries! Please read Jacob's after this to hear about what we've been up to the past month.

I feel like we are skipping over an issue we mention often on this blog but deserves more attention and reflection than we have given it. This issue being the extreme poverty we see everyday in Central America. I think one of the reasons we forget to give attention to it is because, sadly, we are used to seeing it and maybe a bit de-sensitized. But after traveling on the bus for the past four days through four countries we've done a lot of looking out the window. We've had a lot of time to reflect as we've gone through the slums of capital cities and past endless rural shacks. So we thought it about time we dedicated a few words to this sad and injust reality.

Nicaragua is the second poorest country in our hemisphere after Haiti and the rest of her neighbors don't fall too far behind. Everyday we pass houses made from cardboard and tin along the side of the road. The houses are tiny and barely provide shelter from the elements. And these are the houses along the main road, there are countless villages in the mountains or off main access points that I am sure look like the community we stayed near in the D. R. ... even more poor. Houses with dirt floors, no running water, no inside toilet, no security, no insulation and no guarantees.

There are many people who don't have enough to eat, or if they are eating lack nourshment. Many live entirely off the one crop they can grow in a small plot near their house. There are lots of children living in the street, many of them without shoes and begging for pocket change. They leave home for a number of complicated reasons, all of which are motivated by poverty. It is heartbreaking to see, something we don't have to see in the United States but exists for millions of kids across the world. Young children, some very young, living alone on the streets of these cities.

Infrastructure is lacking so roads are really bad and safety goes out the window. There are few state created dumps so there is trash everywhere. The nearest river becomes a dump, thus infecting the town water supply. These are just a few examples to set the scene. Any way you look it at it is just isn't right.

I think there are resources to go around, at least to make sure everyone in our world has proper shelter and nourishment. It just isn't right that northern Nicaragua coffee farmers starve because prices dropped drastically for raw product a few years ago but we continue to pay the same price if not more in the States for our latte and beans. Who is getting that extra profit? And what do they need it for? And not right when presidents of these people, their so called leaders embezzle international aid by the millions. Aleman used Hurrican Mitch funds, designated for people left homeless and starving to build a private air strip. What does he need that for? We see exploitation on so many levels. And just not right that some live with an over abundance of resources and others are barely surviving. What do we need it for?

We have been really saddened thinking about the recent Tsunami in Asia. Somehow this all relates to me. When life is so fragile that people are swept away without notice into the ocean by the thousands it leads me to feel strongly that we should help each other out. Help each other out so that our lives are better in the meantime. It is really daunting on an individual level. But I think it helps just to take a moment to think about it. Just to take a moment to think about how others in the world may be affected by what we choose to buy or how we spend our money. It is surprisingly hard to remember to do, and painful as well, but necessary. I think it is important to be aware of how our neighbors in other countries live. That is just a start, but I think just dedicating the time could lead to more change. We are all affected by choices made to harm the environment, or wage war, or use greed as a means of insuring poverty for some.

I am not writing this blog entry to try to inspire guilt. I don't think that is helpful, I think it paralizes. But I do think it is important to continue to be reminded and aware of the painful reality that many people in our world just don't have enough to get by. That is why we wanted to take more time to share with you what we see here everyday. Life IS fragile as we have seen this week. There IS enough to go around, we just need to find a better way of distributing it fairly. We need to be more creative. I feel like we should be able to do that. We should be able to say what is right and what is not.

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Happy Holidays! We’re back on the road and back on the blog after a hiatus. To those of you who check the site often: we’re terribly sorry for the delay. We’ll do our best to keep you updated in these last weeks of our trip. We’re going to be back, state-side by the middle of January and with so little time left we’re starting to reflect a great deal on our trip. We’ll be sharing some of those reflections in the coming weeks. No doubt they will be immensely profound. But for now I will bring you all up to date…

Raegan and I are in the cute colonial town of Ruinas de Copan, Honduras very near the Guatemalan border and also, you guessed it, the ruins of the Mayan city of Copan. We won’t be seeing the ruins this time around. We’ll be back through these parts in a few weeks. Today is a day of rest. We’ve spent the last three days on what is affectionately known as the chicken bus. Actually, we’ve ridden on several chicken buses and a good percentage of them earned their title. We’ve crossed nearly three countries in three days with these modified elementary school buses as our primary mode of transport. We could have made it three borders in four days if we had it in us to push the last 15 miles to the Guatemalan border today, but we just didn’t. We’re saddle sore from three days on these crowded and bumpy busses made to fit little children. My favorite ride was on the bus which was supposedly luxurious because they removed their old seats which can fit three across and replaced them with old airplane seats which fit two across. The only problem was that unlike the other buses, regardless of comfort, if you were taller than 5 foot 8 you simply couldn’t cram yourself in there. At least it was a problem for me.

But I must give the chicken buses credit where credit is due. They are remarkably efficient. In every city where we’ve caught them, when we were ready to go we walked to the market and there is one waiting. It doesn’t leave until it’s full, but that has never taken more than 10 or 15 minutes. Also, they’re incredibly cheap and very accommodating. They will pick you up and drop you off at any point along the route. Sometimes this can be absurd with one passenger getting picked up or dropped off 10 feet from another, but the driver and mate never bat an eye. This sometimes makes for a slower ride, but the drivers all think their Mario Andretti so they make up the time.

So where have these buses taken us? From Leon we headed to the lakeside city of Granada. This city really surprised us. We arrived with thoughts of revolution and war and found a beautiful and somewhat cosmopolitan city. We didn’t do much there. Our theory is that this is symptom of traveling for a long time. Exhibit A was our British friend who had a few months on us who we never saw far away from his hammock in the hostal. We did a little better, but were no strangers to the hammock. We spent one day swimming at a mountain lake and spent the night drinking beers and talking to a Nicaraguan (Nico) and a Costa Rican (Tico) about political corruption. They are experts on the subject. The last Nicaraguan president, Aleman is now in jail (horray!) because he stole about a quarter of the $200 million in Hurricane Mitch aide donated to his country, one of the poorest countries in the world. What an asshole. Costa Rica has Nicaragua beat (mostly because they have had a justice branch with teeth for longer) with their last three former presidents in jail for having sex with an assistant and lying about it. Just kidding, it was for stealing lots and lots money from the taxpayers.

From Granada we headed to the largest lake island in the world, Ometepe in the middle of Lake Nicaragua. This is a magical place. The lake, the largest in Central America was created when North and South America joined. It has fish found nowhere else on earth: saltwater fish and sharks living in fresh water. And the island was created by two volcanoes with spilt lava filling in the space between them. Sound pretty? It is. The islanders live a slow agricultural life. They are poor and are remarkably nice. Supposedly this is because the civil war never came to the island. Whatever the reason, we spend our time on the island talking to the locals, chasing howler monkeys, watching pelicans fish, reading in hammocks and drinking beers during beautiful sunsets. It was tough, to leave that is.

Since, we spent Xmas week in lala land, otherwise known as Flamingo Beach, Costa Rica with our families. We were really happy to get the chance to spend time with our families. It was fun and was needed. It was also a nice and unexpected pre culture shock. We hope they enjoyed their time, too. When they left it was hard to say goodbye, and even harder to get back on the chicken bus.

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Sunday, December 05, 2004

We've been in Nicaragua for a week. For me, this is a trip back to the source, the source of most of my motivation and inspiration for travel: A two week trip to Leon, Nicaragua when I was fourteen. It was my first time out of the country (sorry, I don't count Canada here). It inspired me to learn another language, blew my mind, initiated motivation for thinking about the struggles of other people/nations/communities and led me back here a second time. We just spent four days in Leon looking up some of the people I knew when I was there the first time, and who later came to Minnesota when I was 17 to visit.

But to go back a bit. We spent four days in Panama City, that bizarre city which started to feel like home base our third time around. It is an interesting place with a fascinating mixture of old, new, ritzy, scuzzy, commercial hodge-podge and more. I think the symbol for Panama City has got to be the city bus. Privately owned and operated school buses that are painted with portraits of the owner's family, heroes and fantasies. Equipped with neon lights, strobes and a mega stereo system. Two more tid bits about Panama: people are incredibly friendly and it is a beautiful country -- well worth a visit.

We took a killer bus ride from Panama City to a town in the south of Nicaragua, crossing two borders. A 28 hour ordeal. True to form, Jacob got sick at an unlucky time (remember our first week traveling and the third day hiking the Inca Trail?) So when we got to the small beach town of San Juan del Sur he crashed and was miserable for about four more days. Poor guy.

After San Juan del Sur we headed north to Leon. Leon is a great city. It is filled with colonial churches, crumbling cavernous colonial houses with tall wooden ceilings, living rooms full of rocking chairs, revolutionary murals and thinking. The city was heavily involved in the Sandinista revolution and there is historical proof everywhere. It is quiet and safe and friendly. Time appears to stand still and the extreme heat means everything moves pretty slow. At night the sidewalk becomes living room and people pull their rocking chairs out to the street. Everyone is getting ready for Christmas in this country. Restaurants, houses and stores are covered in Christmas kitch.

We went to Leon hoping to honor the memory of my trip there thirteen years ago and hopefully find the family I stayed with and others I came to know from that trip and other later exchanges in high school. After almost giving up hope we met a stranger who knew where the office of the organization we were looking for was (Project Minnesota Leon) and kindly offered to drive us there. Another of those circumstances that force the traveler to believe in the good of the world. After a few more stops I finally found some of the people I was looking for. It is too complicated to explain here how I knew all of these people, so forgive me for a moment while I list their names for the others who know them as well. We saw Mardelis and her family, Rafael, Estrella and their children, Jairo and his family and Zoryada. They were fabulous and spent the next three days taking Jacob and I out to lunch, dinner, breakfast and to the beach.

A lot has changed, some of them were hard to recognize. They had photos of me when I was young that made us all laugh because I have changed more than I knew. It was also a totally new experience to be able to communicate in Spanish. What really hit home for me was how much that trip thirteen years ago impacted me. In some ways seeing these people again was confusing because a lot of time has passed and we don't have a lot in common. I felt such a strong connection with them at age 14 that doesn't exist anymore between us. But the inspiration to get out of my own backyard and learn from other life experiences besides my own as well as a belief in the power of human connection/understanding is what I was reminded of in Leon. The reasons why we travel, and I feel pretty lucky for it.

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