30 January 2012

Into the unknown

Ok so now halfway through our trip, Mike and I had done the city thing, the beach thing, the nice hotel thing, the first class flight thing, the puddle jumper plane thing....but the second half of the trip had a bunch of new things...the biggest one was that we were now traveling without reservations most places, so we could be more flexible. The giant unknown....exciting, yet unnerving.

Honduras

We landed in San Pedro Sula in the late evening. For this portion of the trip, I had booked us at a homestay, basically just spending the night at a Honduran family's house for one night before we headed out overland towards Guatemala.

Our host, Luis, picked us up at the airport...in his van.



Get in the van!
 Luis spoke good enough English, but like anyone else, he switched to Spanish once we showed we had a little and were interested to learn. Once again, we had someone rattling out info in Spanish while Mike and I scrambled to figure stuff out and coordinate with each other

Luis: (In Spanish) Blah blah blah blah blah blah blahdey blah
Mike: (whispering to me) ...something about a festival?
Chris: (whispering) Yes I think tomorrow? (looking up word in Spanish dictionary)
Luis: (In Spanish) Blah blah blah blah blah blah blahdey blah
Mike: I think he said he can take us to get some local food..
Chris: Oh, I thought he said they have good local food
Luis: (In Spanish) Blah blah blah blah blah blah blahdey blah
Mike: (whispering) Is he talking about his house?
Chris: (whispering) I thought he was talking about the Zoo?
Luis: Si?
Mike: Si!
Chris: You got it Amigo! (big thumbs up)


After a 20 minute ride in the back of the van through the dark deserted streets of San Pedro Sula, we got to Luis's home. Its the only Honduran home I have ever been in, so I have nothing to compare it too, but it was nice. They were very hospitable and pleasant.

Luis's son (cant remember his name) absolutely blew Mike's socks off with his knowledge of soccer. He knew EVERYTHING about Ireland's team, upcoming rankings, players, coaches etc...incredible.



We were starved, so Luis said we should walk down the street to find a place to eat. Turns out, he meant Mike and I...not all of us. So Mike and I go walking down a dark deserted street in the direction he pointed...mentally mapping our way home. Its about 9pm...its dark...we have no idea where we are....just then, we turn a  corner...and BAM!

A shopping mall. (insert dissappointed noise)

Ok we werent that disappointed....there was a full blown, two level shopping mall. Not what I came to Honduras for exactly...but I was famished.

Then we saw the place we had to go eat...man, we had a good laugh over this one.


Waiter: Buenos Noches, Bienvenido a Applebee's. Mi nombre es Juan. Algo de beber?
Chris: Hola Juan...I'll have an Applebee's Golden Margarita please
Juan: Rocks or Frozen Senor?
Chris: Rocks, Thanks
Mike: I'll have a beer, whats your soup of the day?
Juan: Baked Potato
Mike: Great Thanks.
Juan: I'll be right back with your drinks

Mike: Man, Honduras is so different
Chris: Yeah, the food here is weeeiiiirrrrddd.

It was surreal. Now, of course, I have been to American restaurants abroad, but this one caught me by surprise...Applebee's in Honduras? C'mon!

To top off the surreal experience, one of the people at the only other group in the place was having a birthday....so they all sang happy brithday...including the waiters...fantastic.

After dinner, we went back to Luis's house and crashed. Our plan was to take a series of buses throughout the next day to get from San Pedro Sula to the Caribbean coast, then across the border into Guatemala, then to the port city of Puerto Barrios...but earlier Luis had told us, he knew where to get a bus directly to Puerto Barrios! Planning a bus trip in Central America online is impossible, as there in no central resource for timetables, so we were happy to find a direct bus.....except that it leaves early in the morning.


At 5am, Luis took us to a crappy, rinky dink bus terminal, talked to some people, negotiated a price and put us on a bus. I love it when a plan comes together!

So like thieves in the night, we arrived and left Honduras, never having seen the daytime. Mike would later joke that if anyone asked what Honduras was like he would say "Dark...all the time...perpetual night"...i added "...and they only eat Applebee's"

Guatemala

Guatemala was the destination I was looking forward to most. We had tentatively mapped out a crazy itinerary, and planned to do some cool stuff...but it was all shooting from the hip from here on out.

After a 6 hour bus ride, including an hour long stop at the border, our bus dropped us off about 15 miles from Puerto Barrios at a crossroads. Luckily, there was a cab hanging around, who offered to take us the rest of the way for just a few bucks. By midday, we were in Puerto Barrios and well ahead of schedule.



We were not done though. Our destination was Livingston, a small town up the coast at the mouth of the Rio Dulce river...it can only be reached by boat, so we paid for seats on a local boat that was leaving shortly.


It was gray and windy...and the seas were choppy.

video


After taking a 40 minute beating in the bumpy boat ride, we arrived in Livingston ready for action. Unfortunately, sleepy little town doesnt really describe Livingston accurately enough. Its actually a depressed area, that relies on tourists...and this wasn't tourist season so it was deeeeeeeeaaaaaaaadddddd. It is mainly populated by Garifuna (also known as Black Caribs...descendants of Caribs, Arawaks and West Africans) so the whole place has a more Caribbean feeling then Guatemalan.


We had made tentative reservations 2 days earlier at a place about a mile outside of town on the beach. The directions were to walk up the hill from the dock and keep going until you hit the beach, then head north on the beach for about 1.5km. We double checked with someone at a local shop and they said to make a left at the street at the top of the hill and follow that until you see a sign.

We should have gone straight to the beach. It was the same distance, but we walked smack dab through the ghetto underbelly of Livingston. No touristy stuff, no shops, just run down Carib shanty town. We got a lot of looks, and at one point three dudes walked out and blocked the road we were walking on (on purpose). Mike pulled out his knife and stabbed them all to death, so noone screwed with us after that.

Ok, actually we just walked around them...but Mike COULD have stabbed them.....although he was only carrying a swiss army knife, so it might have been with a corkscrew or a can opener.

Finally...after buses, cabs, boats and walking, we reached our first destination in Guatemala.

Flowas Bungalows



...5 or 6 raised Bungalows right on the waters edge.



...and as it was not tourist season, we had the whole place to ourselves.




Maria, the owner, couldn't find the key to the bungalow (I dont think she was actually expecting us to show up), so Mike and I both climbed up like monkeys and let ourselves in.


One bed and one hammock....perfect.

Mike and I sat down at the common area bungalow/cafe'/bar and relaxed after a long trip. We asked about food and Maria said we could order from the menu OR if we could wait an hour or so, one of the girls who works there could make us the local specialty, Tapado. She said it takes a while because the cook has to crack coconuts and who knows what else, but that it was worth the wait...and then added that the cook is VERY talented in the kitchen.

Of course, we said YES! We drank some beers and just hung out...with our new dog Carlos.


An hour later, dinner was served....I can honestly say, with no uncertainty, that this was one of the top 5 meals of my lifetime. It was so delicious. The picture does not do it justice.




I know what you are thinking..."huh? looks yucky!". Normally I don't choose fish on the bone with the skin etc, but I am usually pleased with it, regardless of the work to get to the meat.


First, Mike adeptly lead the way and de-boned his fish in 4-5 seconds. I followed suit. The meat really just fell off the bone. No problem. The sauce....I dont even know what the hell was in it besides coconut milk, herbs...maybe some broth? It was unbelievable. The plantains were semi-ripe so they were firm and just a hint of sweet...and then there were a load of shrimps and some potatoes. Garnished with cilantro...and boom! Delicious.


Freakin' fantastic.....best meal of the trip, hands down. No question.


Mikes bowl after dinner.
After we ate, we walked along the beach back into town to see what was going on...nothing apparently, so we walked back before dark...it was after all sketchy, even on the beach.


We sat back down at our table and just hung out...all night. It was very relaxing.




It could have been the rum that relaxed us...I honestly don't remember. :)


That night, Mike took the bed and I bundled up and slept in the hammock. Cool breeze, gently swaying hammock, belly full of coconut fish stew...and rum....life is good.




That night was the only night on our whole trip that it rained....it was nice in the hammock...until the rain started blowing in sideways at about 4am....


When Mike woke up at 7, I was sleeping next to him in the bed. He said "Hey!" I said "Good morning Warthog. I hope you don't mind, the Peacock was getting rained on in the hammock"


...stay tuned for day 2 in Guatemala.



P.S. I found someone else online who fell in love with Tapado in Livingston, and she posted a recipe!
http://scratch-cook.blogspot.com/2011/05/garifuna-tapado.html

25 January 2012

The Warthog and the Peacock

Good travel partners learn how not to get on each other's nerves, otherwise trips can go bad pretty quickly. Over the last 4 years, Mike and I have traveled together, and with others, around Ireland, Finland, Germany, Estonia, Austria, Slovakia, Cyprus, The Czech Republic and other places I'm sure I am forgetting.

This was our longest trip together alone and we learned alot. I learned that Mike doesn't wear socks. Mike learned that I don't like the fact that he doesn't wear socks.



As we were in close quarters and sharing a room, this exchange happened: (when reading exchanges between Mike and I, make sure you use an Irish accent for Mike's part...it makes it way better)

Mike: Oh boy, my dogs are barking (kicks off sneakers)
Chris: You know if you wear socks, and even change socks often, your feet wont stink like hot garbage.
Mike: Doesn't bother me
Chris: You are missing the point
Mike: Am I Chris?
Chris: This room is as big as a small closet...a small closet full of stinky Irish feet
Mike: Weren't you in the Army?
Chris: Yes, an Army that taught us to wear and change socks
Mike: I don't smell anything

Later in the trip, I learned that Mike can't walk in a straight line...drunk or sober. We had this exchange several times:

Mike: Hey look at that cool building (wanders into Chris)
Chris: Can you stop bumping into me, the road is 12 feet wide, how about you take that half
Mike: (ignores Chris) You hungry? Lets go into that shop and see if we can get some sandwiches (bumps into Chris)
Chris: Do you have some sort of inner ear / balance problem?

It was even worse when we had some drinks:

Mike: (bumps into Chris)
Chris: Jesus, will you get the hell off of me.
Mike: Stop bumping into me!
Chris: I'm gonna get you a fucking cane or something!
Mike: I'm gonna beat your face in with my new cane! (inadvertently bumps into Chris again)
Chris: You did it again, what the hell is wrong with you? Are those new shoes or something, keep your distance man! Watch your spacing!
Mike: Oh look, hot dogs!
Chris: Try not to knock over the hotdog cart
Mike: (pushes Chris into the hot dog cart)

Then there was the snoring. Now...I am a snorer. I make no excuses. Usually, its not that bad...unless I have had a few drinks. One night, Mike was sawing logs bigtime. Although I was able to sleep, the next day we had this exchange:

Chris: I'm gonna get you one of those sleep apnea masks for sleeping. I was concerned you were gonna die last night.
Mike: Let me get this straight..... you are complaining about MY snoring?
Chris: No...I am just concerned for your health
Mike: You must be joking
Chris: You know...between your smelly feet, your constant bumping into me and your snoring....I would liken traveling with you, to having a pet Warthog.
Mike: Is that right?
Chris: Yes...I was going to say water buffalo, but I now I think Warthog.
Mike: Well traveling with you is like traveling with a fucking Peacock...Look at me! I'm a fancy Peacock who always has to look good! The Peacock doesnt want to get dirty and looks down its beak at all the other animals.

Now I'm sure Mike has his own version of events, but he can write them on his blog. Either way, The Warthog and The Peacock were born. I can't tell you how many laughs we had over this. Whenever Mike was doing something I deemed warthogy, I would make piglike eating noises or act out my interpretation of a warthog trotting around a mudhole...and whenever he felt I was being peacocky, he would act out a peacock unfurling its feathers and make a really disturbing peacock noise.

Now back to the trip.....

We woke up New Years Day to find we were extremely hungover...go figure. We wandered out in the bright sunlight and across the street to a place we had eaten a few times over the last two days. Ivan, who runs the place had taken it upon himself to teach us Spanish by not letting us speak English and only speaking Spanish to us. Normally, this is exactly what we want and we encourage it. On New Years morning, I wasnt having it.

Ivan: Heyyyyy Amigos, Buenos Dias, Como Esta?
Chris: Coffee..........please (holding skull so it doesnt fall apart)
Ivan: En Espanol Amigo!
Chris: Ivan....get me some MotherF(Mike interrupts)
Mike: Dos Cafes por favor


After some coffee and huevos rancheros...we were felling somewhat better, but still pretty run down...and we had a long drive to Granada later in the day. Mike, in all of his infinite wisdom, came up with the perfect plan. We needed to get in the water.

New Years Day is a big family holiday in Nicaragua, the beach was packed with people. Everyone goes picnicing down at the beach. They are all enjoying themselves, kids are running around playing, families are chatting...and then the Warthog and the Peacock go trudging by, desperate to find hangover relief in the cold water of the Pacific. 

Mike is indeed a genius. As soon as we got in the water, we felt better. 

Then a wave knocked my sunglasses off and I was blind.

Granada, Nicaragua

We had hired a driver to take us to the historical, colonial city of Granada. It was a 2 hour ride and a good opportunity to catch a nap...unfortunately our driver had the same idea. So while Mike slept, I was on high alert and kept waking up our driver as he nodded off. Apparently we hadn't been the only ones up all night.

Just when you think that is bad enough, we get pulled over by the police at a road block. They get us out of the car, check our driver's papers. He looks visibly nervous. They ask for our passports...ask us if we speak Spanish, we say no. So they just keep looking at the passports and then looking at us. Then looking at the passports, talking among themselves, and then looking at us. Then they let us go, we were all happy.



Finally, we get to Granada.

Hello Volcano

Founded in 1524, it was the first European City in the mainland Americas. Its a popular tourist destination, but January is low season so it was pleasantly uncrowded. Mike had made arrangements to stay at a hotel run by an Irish guy. It was the nicest place we had stayed in so far on the trip. When Mike asked the owner Gerry how he liked living in Granada, he said "I have a pool in my kitchen, no complaints"

Gerry's "Hotel de Agua" in Granada
Mike and I wandered around town the rest of the day, and in the evening, met up with an old friend of Mike's for dinner.

Anna, Paola, Diogenes and Mike.
Nicaraguan Diogenes and Irish Mike had met while both doing a semester abroad in Vienna years and years ago, and haven't seen each other since. Through the magic of Facebook, we were all able to all meet up and spend a nice evening together. They talked about the old days, while I just marveled at little Paola who spent most of the time playing with her Mr. Potato Head...or as they call him, Senor Papas.

The next morning, Mike and I hired a horse and buggy guy to take us around town and see all the sights for a few hours.


The driver asked if we spoke Spanish, so we said yes, some. He rattled on for 3 hours at us in Spanish. Between Mike and I we were able to figure almost everything out. We were getting better at at-least understanding Spanish. Mike actually came prepared with quite a good amount of  Spanish, where I was digging into the ancient brain archives from Spanish I studied 25 years ago. We made it work though and had a lot of fun. This would come into play later in the trip when we went more rural.


Granada is indeed very charming and interesting. We covered a lot of ground and got some interesting history lessons.


...but alas, we had to keep moving, we had a flight later that day to El Salvador! The part of the trip I was responsible for planning was beginning...and a lot of it was still up in the air.

Nicaragua? I thought we were in Costa Rica...where am I!
 We got to the airport early and were pleasantly surprised to find out that because of my Silver Elite status with Continental, we had been upgraded to Business Class for our flight!

After being able to board first, the stewardess asked if we would like champagne or another beverage. Mike asked for OJ, I, of course, opted for Champagne.

Mike: OH! The Peacock will most certainly have champagne, so he can feel superior to the other animals boarding the plane! Dont forget to extend your pinky when drinking your fancy champagne Mr Peacock!


After a quick 50 minute flight, we were in El Salvador (country #4 on this trip). We had decided to skip through El Salvador in order to spend more time in Guatemala later on the trip, so this was just a 2 hour layover in the airport. We headed for the "VIP Lounge" available to first class passengers....it looked like a Denny's, but hey, free drinks.

Free beer in El Salvador
We boarded our flight to Honduras and got upgraded again!


The Warthog was very confused with all this luxury, but I assured him everything was ok.

Stay tuned for Part Three of our Central America adventure....next up, Honduras, Guatemala and Belize!

20 January 2012

Two Amigos Conquer Central America

The winter break from school provided me with an opportunity to take a trip. Irish travel buddy Mike Kennedy was already in NY for the holidays, so the opportunity went from "trip" to "ridiculous adventure" pretty quickly.

As many of you know, Mike and I are involved in a lifelong contest to visit every country on Earth. The idea of visiting just one country per trip is preposterous. Sometimes we go a little overboard....to prove the point, I present Exhibit A....a 13 day, 7 country race through Central America.



Panama

My flight got in before Mike's, so I was waiting for him when he came out of the airport. I had Van Halen "Panama" blasting from the speakers of my iPhone...and we started the adventure.

We had arranged for someone from the hostel to pick us up, so we eventually found a guy holding a sign with my name on it. The sign also had another name on it..... and thats how we met our first travel buddy of the trip, Etienne from Montreal. The 20 minute car ride gave us all a chance to introduce ourselves and make a plan for the evening.

Mike....beer...Panama

The "plan" wasn't very complicated.... "hey, the beers at the hostel are only a dollar!"...As it turns out, the hostel was great. Some hostels are quiet, some are not. This one was definitely geared towards hanging out. It had a huge backyard area with picnic tables and a giant fridge full of $1 beers. Our room was right off this area....kinda perfect.

Day one in Panama, complete. :)

The hostel provides free pancake batter and coffee in the morning for "all you can eat pancakes", but the pans they have are all crap so the pancake breakfast became more of a "pile of partially cooked pancake mess" breakfast.

Etienne and some other backpackers mauling their pancakes

On the advice of Matt Walsh (see Bangladesh, Singapore, Malaysia blog posts) Mike and I made our number one priority in Panama to see the Parque Nacional, the only rain forest inside the city limits of a capital city in the world. 


So off we went....but wait! On the way out of the hostel we run into another guy, start chatting, ask him what his plans are....he has none....join us! So off we go, now a group of 4...AND guess where James is from? Montreal! TWO French Canadians! Watch out rainforest here we come.

Ok this is where the previous night's Panamanian beer bonanza doesn't seem like such a good idea anymore. Hiking, Heat, Hills.....damn you Panamanian beer.

Playing "Panama" in Panama's Parque Nacional Rain Forest with Crazy Canadian Etienne

We hiked around for 3 hours or so and covered all the trails in the park. We got to see lots of cool jungle-y stuff, loads of bugs and lost about 10 lbs in sweat!

video

It was a great start to the trip.

Panama City
My two favorite things about traveling are meeting new people and eating amazing food...and this trip had it all. That night the four of us went all out at a local restaurant.

Shrimp Ceviche

James and some yummy fish dish

Mike's dinner. Two fish fillets with seafood stuffing in between...gigantic

My barbecue chicken. Scrumptious.
 We asked some people where to go for drinks and they said Rana Dorada....(thats Spanish for Golden Frog) and wouldnt ya know it, it was an Irish Pub! A perfect ending to a great stay in Panama.


The next day, we got up early and made our way to the airport. One country down, 6 to go.

Costa Rica

We arrived in San Jose around mid-day and as with Panama, had arranged for a lift from the airport. This hostel was a small family run place. Basically, they had converted the bedrooms in their house to dorms. Very well organized, they gave us loads of info, pointed us in the right direction and set us off on a day of exploring downtown San Jose. We had heard from many people, as well as read online, that San Jose is crap and you should only go there as necessary to connect to other places in Costa Rica.

To those people I say, you're missing out. It took Mike and I about 30 minutes to walk from our hostel to the central shopping area on Avenida Central. We cut through a park and got to see some different neighborhoods. The main pedestrian shopping street was very nice and modern and we got to pop into one of the must see sights of San Jose, The Mercado Central (Central Market) which has been around since 1880.



Its a maze like warren of passages that go from flea-markety to farmers market to small places to eat and back again.



Why eat fast food when traveling when you can sit in an old Costa Rican market and get some questionable quality local food!


We got two seats at the busiest food stall (always a good sign when its busy) and ordered what the locals were eating.


I had the fried chicken, rice, plantains, cole slaw, spicy noodles and spicy chutney stuff (above)

Mike had the spicy sausage, plantains and cole slaw (below)


It was all decent...and we didn't die...so a successful lunch experience.


After a quiet night, we got up super early to catch a flight.



For this leg of the journey, Mike had booked us on two puddle jumpers. One from San Jose to Liberia in northern Costa Rica, then another from Liberia to Managua, Nicaragua.


The planes were small, which is always fun. Our pilot got in with his flight book...and a sandwich. He started flipping switches and turning knobs, while the 20 year old co-pilot, gave us a somewhat awkward safety briefing. "Welcome aboard flight blah blah blah to Liberia. In the event of an emergency, we're all screwed because our plane is the size of a suburban...Good Luck!"


I was very tempted to say "Hey, can I land this puppy?"

The entire time I was thinking "So this plane is powered by one propeller in the nose? How does that work exactly"

video

Nicaragua

Country # 3 in 4 days, not bad. Nicaragua was going to be our longest stretch in one country, 3 nights. Mike had arranged for a shuttle bus to take us directly from the airport to San Juan del Sur, about 2 hours away on the Pacific coast. Its a small place but a popular destination for surfers.

It would turn out to be, possibly, my favorite stop on our trip.


San Juan del Sur is the perfect size place. It has restaurants, bars etc, but not too many...and they are small reasonable places, not over the top touristy megabars etc.

When booking our accommodations, Mike had inadvertently booked us at a Girls Surf School on the beach. As it turns out, there were no classes that week, and we were the only ones staying there. That could have been awkward!


It was right on the beach in town, which was very convenient to everything. The first day we walked around town, made friends with the guy who ran the bar/restaurant across the street and did lots of nothing.


It felt like we were more on vacation then blasting through 7 countries in 13 days. After already having covered so much ground in 4 days, it was nice to just relax.

Shrimp and Tomato yummyness

We ate LOADS of seafood...I mean, the sea IS right there!

The first of many lobsters we ate on this trip...$4!
As with everywhere else, we met other people traveling and had lots of laughs...and a few beers.


Day Two in San Juan del Sur also happened to be New Years Eve. Today's mission, frolicking in the surf like a couple of kids. It was really fun. We had a bunch of good laughs and then stuffed ourselves full of more seafood.

Clams, Clams and more Clams!



By 5pm we were stuffed and ready to ring in the New Year. We had heard from other travelers that there was a huge New Years rave being held on the beach about 30 mins north of town. Although that sounded like a once in a lifetime experience, maturity/reality chimed in with "how will we get there and back." and "ugh...sounds like a big to-do". We opted to stay in town and see if we could find a cool local place.

We still had 6 or 7 hours til midnight, so we decided to wander around and play it by ear. We headed away from the beach and were walking around when Mike spied an Irish flag and soccer jersey hanging in a very small bar, so we decided to head in and investigate.

...and so began New Years Eve.


We saddled up to the bar, ordered a couple of beers and met the owners of the bar, a couple of Americans from North Carolina, Cory and Mandy.


6 beers later, its like we were old friends and Mike and I had come to Nicaragua to visit them! A perfect place to celebrate New Years. Other Ex-Pats came and went throughout the night, Mike and I stayed parked at the bar allllllllll night. Cory had whipped up some fresh guacamole, we shot the shit all night long and had a really good time just hanging out.

Nice crunchy chips, guac and salsa...whats better? nothing!
A very good evening indeed.

Mike saying goodbye to 2011...i think the guy in the background was too?
 The evening was chocked full of fun. At one point, some of their friends came in with a birthday cake for another friend. Cheap beer, delicious guacamole  AND free birthday cake? This place is amazing!

They even had free champagne at midnight. New Years couldnt have worked out better (unless of course I had the Mrs. with me)


Republika Bar in San Juan del Sur...can't recommend it highly enough. Thanks Cory and Mandy!


...but wait, theres more!

Happy New Year!


Sitting at the same bar for 6 hours...we MIGHT have had too much to drink...but hey who cares, its New Years!


video

Stay tuned...more to come from Nicaragua and the rest of Central America.