Saturday, April 25, 2015

Once in a lifetime

Sometimes, as we reach for the 25th plate to wash, stick our head into a roasting hot metal barrel in the jungle, or wait for army ants to clear out of our cabina.....our minds go to the Talking Heads' song "Once in a Lifetime".  

One stanza goes something like this:
"And you may ask yourself 
What is that beautiful house? 
And you may ask yourself 
Where does that highway go to? 
And you may ask yourself 
Am I right?...Am I wrong? 
And you may say to yourself
Self! My God!...What have I done?!"

We often ask ourselves "My God, what have we done?"  Perhaps the real question is how did we end up without a house, in a distant land, begging for rides from almost strangers or finding the coins to jump on a standing-room only bus to the next town or border.  Our lives have become increasingly unusual by most of our friends' and families' standards.  For the past five months we have been traveling Central America, mostly for our own education, but also to seek educational opportunities for a few dozen graduate students and to create connections for our university.  The results of this atypical life can be hilarious at times.  One recent morning that started before 6 am had us rushing from morning duties including smoking about 20 pounds of bacon in the tropical forest, (a task as fun and as hot as it sounds), to a conference call with our boss and colleagues back at Western.  The conference call via wifi was briefly interrupted by loud bird calls and our mentioning a snake we spotted a few feet away.  Ten minutes later, we were back into deep discussion, squatting on a wood plank bench low to the ground, when we both caught movement out of the corner of our eyes.  The snake was rapidly approaching us!

 For those of you familiar with snakes, you know they typically avoid people they clearly see.  This one raced to us, reared up, and struck toward our feet!  We scrambled up narrating the situation to our colleagues as we saw that the snake had successfully struck and killed a small rodent which had been hiding in the shade of our feet under the bench.  Triumphantly, it held its kill high in the air, weaving between us toward a quieter patch of forest to enjoy its breakfast.  We continued our conference call, eyeing our seat, and scanning our surroundings.

That day was far from over before we retired to our simple cabina of four screened walls with no water, electricity or bathroom to distract us from the cacophony of forest sounds and the rush of water in the river below.  We were still to have an afternoon full of meeting guests and serving drinks to an eclectic group of people including those from Ireland, France, Costa Rica, New York City, and a three time Olympian medalist from the USA.  After dinner, we both had emails and manuscripts to work on while the Internet was available.  

While our friends often express envy at the varied and adventurous Facebook postings we submit, we know that many, especially those who best understand the details of our days, think we are absolutely crazy.  Yet, for us, the Talking Heads' title best describes how we did get here.  We all have one life to live or give. Each strike of midnight brings us 86,400 seconds closer to the new day.  We get to use that time only once....once in a lifetime.  For us, we want to experience life in other cultures and places while helping to create a more sustainable planet and just world.  We want to celebrate that life and explore diversity on the planet, our species' own as well as its other inhabitants.  So we find ourselves in some pretty unusual places, seeing incredible things, facing physical discomfort and mental joy, while still trying to give time and effort to people and ideas that inspire us.  We really understand that each moment is occurring "once in a lifetime" however short or long that life might be.  We have come to believe that personal growth is made more challenging when we are static in our lives and daily activities, so we choose to live the unexpected life that saying "yes" more than "no" has brought us.  Ours might be a rather extreme way of feeling the vibrancy of change.  You do not have to leave your country and sell all of your possessions to have a more dynamic life.  But each of us may need to question whether what has become routine is also satisfying.  Did we spend each of today's 86,400 seconds in living fully, working toward our values, sharing our gifts and passions, doing a small kindness or selfless act?  There is comfort in routine, but also danger in comfort.  

Posted at Golfito, Costa Rica.  Images are of Sally and our jungle smoker, our snake bench, and our simple cabina.

Friday, March 27, 2015


If you read our Facebook posts, more often than not, our trips many times seem like exotic adventures with incredible wildlife, views, and food. However, extended travel, especially budget travel, has elements that are more reminiscent of running a gauntlet than floating down the river of life.  One example of a physical beating came earlier this month as we descended from a mountaintop toward our ferry in a jeep that would be more appropriately placed in the Disney "Raiders of the Lost Ark" ride.  The jeep bounced and careened through the jungle avoiding falling trees and giant rolling stones and narrowly missing both wildlife and locals.  To add fun to this particular day trip, there were three of us in the narrow backseat meant only for two.  One particularly vicious bump broke one of the two seats causing an even more torturous trip.  We pulled up, with palatable relief (checking to see if any herniated discs had actually ruptured or any bones had broken), to the realization that our ferry, due to unseasonably high winds, had crashed into the dock and demolished it.  The boat, itself, had run aground, was now firmly wedged against the shore, and would ultimately require a tugboat to extricate it.  The day was young though, and a series of three more vehicles and a detour around the peninsula in what felt like Sahara Desert heat eventually found us sipping margaritas and watching ladies of the evening troll for tourists in a southern Costa Rican town.

In Central America, some of our gauntlets have been much more perilous and even a simple stroll from very comfortable lodging to a nearby restaurant can be an invitation for armed robbery.  We have been lucky and always ask about the "dos and don'ts" of any given place we stay, but the armed civil conflicts in Guatemala and Nicaragua have left a legacy of guns and people who will use them.  In one small area where we stayed in Nicaragua, the situation was deteriorating to the point that locals ran out to warn us not to walk on the road one night, the only road back to our hotel.  The road had seen three armed robberies in the past week in the dark, unlit spaces along the route.  We ran that gauntlet behind a kind waiter on his motorbike as he zipped us home, one at a time.  While there was often such a danger near us, we were saddened by how much more severe the dangers within Guatemala were for its own citizens where one of the least safe occupations has become driving a chicken bus.  Over 900 bus drivers have been killed by the gangs in and near Guatemala City and the gauntlets those men face each day are incomprehensible.  We avoided chicken buses, for the most part, in Guatemala.

Other types of gauntlets that are more typical in our travel life are those associated with border crossings.  The gauntlet of a border crossing can be a rite of passage rather than a simple step across the imaginary lines drawn and defended by countries all over the world.  Our crossing from Belize into Guatamala by boat was one such journey in which our poor herniated discs were tested again by each slam into the waves of the bow of the speedboat.  The four young backpackers who had planned to head south to Honduras clambered off the boat with us in Guatemala, unable to take another minute of pain.  As can be common at border crossings, a hoard of helpful and hopeful touts surrounded them, as the boat captain warned us of the perils in listening to their plans and pleas.  On that day, we had a long, hot climb up a hill, surrounded by men wanting to lead us to places we did not want to go, to a local immigration officer who let two of us in at a time to decide whether we were drug runners (particularly common there) or tourists.

While boarding crossings can be stressful or interesting to us, they can be tragic for others.  As with the complicated immigration issues between the United States and Mexico, Costa Rica affords many opportunities to the people of their poorest neighbor, Nicaragua.  The average annual wage in Costa Rica is ~$5,000.  While that may not sound like a lot in the USA, it is five times the wage of those in adjacent Nicaragua.  Over 500,000 Nicaraguans provide farm labor and menial service to the companies and households within Costa Rica and many cannot do so legally, instead often risking much in false papers and unsafe border crossings.  We met one such young women on a bus full of locals leaving the Costa Rican border.  Police stopped the bus twice near the border, questioning people closely and scrutinizing their documents.  For this girl, probably about 16, the second stop was a nightmare.  Her documents were insufficient and she broke down in tears, freezing in her seat, as they tried to lead her off the bus and back to the border.  She cried out that she had no money and no place to return to.  Local Costa Ricans, or Ticos as they call themselves, well known for their manners and patience, finally started to get frustrated in the metal oven that was baking us all.  Kindness prevailed and a collection was taken up for the young girl who gripped the bills in one hand and her basket in the other, led off by a heavily armed policeman who was frightening to us and must have been terrifying to her.  These gauntlets emerge everywhere where global disparity in wealth pulls people into dangerous and illegal corridors.  So many of my friends and family have strong, often polarizing opinions about these issues, but few of us have had to face this particular gauntlet ourselves.

As we travel, we experience so many amazing people, we see things such as festivals, and we experience food, culture and authentic friendships.  But sometimes, to get to these people and places, we run a gauntlet.  In the end, it is not so much our challenges that stay with us beyond funny stories to tell friends and family, it is the daily dangers to others that bother us, disturb us, and make us thankful for our own lives.  

Posted at Finca Bellavista, Costa Rica.  Images are of a ride in the back of a local truck to a destination in Costa Rica, chicken busses in Guatemala headed back to the city, and one of the many wet exits from one of the many boat rides.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Ring of Fire

As we begin our trips, we seek to stay open to learning what the earth and its populations have to share with us.  We are never sure what will emerge to fascinate us in a given place.  So far, this trip, we have been drawn to "the Ring of Fire."  About 75% of the world's volcanoes and 90% of the world's earthquakes occur in this aptly nicknamed region where plates collide and the earth shudders and erupts under the pressure of unimaginable forces.  We have wandered this region through much of our past two years of travel.  We have felt the tremors in Alaska and been welcomed our first night in Costa Rica by our host yelling "come outside" as he ran outside past us as lamps swayed.  We were in Peru and Chile for shakes and shudders, but missed the severe earthquake in the Philippines that caught our good friends, the Vopnis, and the lovely people of Bohol Island in its destructive waves of undulating power.  In Indonesia we met a team of emergency response planners helping to rebuild areas that had been crushed by the Ring's power in the past and helping to better prepare its citizens for their inevitable future.  We gazed on a changed Christchurch, New Zealand, and a still heavily damaged and destroyed Conception, Chile, after their 2011 and 2010 earthquakes, and we pondered the differences in abilities of developed versus developing countries to respond to and rebuild after such incredible natural disasters.

We are not strangers to this incredible horseshoe-shaped zone which gives testament to the earth's forces and the fragility of our feeble structures and lives when the forces are unleashed.  Yet, the volcanoes of Central America have captured us, drawn us in, and fed our imaginations and fueled our curiosity.  They loom over much of the landscape, with towns frightfully close to their scarred flanks, many active, some devastatingly so.  We gaze upon their shapes, so different than most of our Rocky Mountains whose ages of volcanism are not easily understood in their current dormant slumber.  These volcanoes are young and they smolder, puffing out ominous ash clouds with steaming vents creating clouds covering their sides.   And, much to our surprise one afternoon while in Antigua, they erupt.  The ash that cascaded down on us was acrid and the air burned our eyes and noses.  Our hearts quickened to hear the news that some locals thought it was the steaming giant,  Pacaya, where we had light heartedly roasted marshmallows the day before in playful tourist activity, with little respect for the power we tempted as we unearthed its lava, young stone created just a year before, to dig deeper into the hot maul of the planet's crust.

  It was, instead, the restless Fuego (Fire) Volcano, less than a dozen miles away that with one "burp" shut down all international air traffic to Guatemala and dusted the gorgeous colonial city of Antigua with grey ash.  Antigua, like most Central America capitals we have visited in the Ring of Fire, has fallen multiple times as the earth's plates slipped and slid and cathedrals tumbled while adjacent homes crashed into ruble.

These experiences simply seemed to increase our hunger to gaze deeper into these conical forces of nature, and we hurried onward to Nicaragua where visitors can peer into a crater filled with poisonous gasses and rising steam to see the heartbeat of the planet in flowing magma as red lava bubbles to the surface.  Even the story from our local guide during the hike to the crater about his experience a year ago on Telica did not dissuade us.  The volcano erupted while he and four girls were peering over the same rim!  The story, in fact, made us more curious to experience it ourselves. People ask us about health and safety while we travel.  We get our vaccinations, take our pharmacy of western miracles with us, and are careful of where we go, who we trust, what places we wander during the day or night.  So what draws us to creep on our bellies along side tarantulas and scorpions to the edge of a volcanic crater knowing the power it is barely restraining in that one moment?  Why, as we write this, do the cones across the plains outside of our bus window beckon us with their majestic views commanding the landscape?

We can hear Johnny Cash's lyrics in our heads, knowing that there is truth to the seductive ring of fire.  His lyrics are about love, and our experiences are about landscapes; however, both lead to being drawn into something bigger and more powerful than our minds can fathom.

I fell into the burning ring of fire,
I went down, down, down,
And the flames went higher.
And it burns, burns, burns,
The ring of fire, the ring of fire.
Johnny Cash

Posted in Granada, Nicaragua.  Images are of our visit to Pacaya Volcano, the ring of fire map, the aftermath of Fuego's eruption, Sally's first view of Telica's crater and the rubble from Antigua's earthquake.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

All who wander are not lost

While you may think the title of this blog refers to our amazing journey, it does not.  Rather, it is the tale of two pairs of Chacos sandals which have traveled Central America without Sally.  Chacos are not just any sandals.  The strong hiking versions of the brand are almost indestructible stalwarts that are equally effective in the water or on the land.  We love ours so much that we get them resoled and restrapped, sending chocolate in our appreciation to the Chacos' repair team.  But we get ahead of ourselves in this tale as it really should start with Mary Poppins' bag.  Perhaps you remember it?  As the children watch, Mary pulls out a hatrack, shoes, plant, table lamp, and measuring tape among other items.  When we arrived in Mexico this trip, as our friends Stuart and Karen watched, an amazing assortment of things appeared from our packs.  Karen jokingly said she would not be surprised to see a table lamp.  With great glee, we showed her our newest gear, an inflatable Luci solar table lamp!

People have asked us what we bring along for our multi month international trips in our ultra light pack.  We each carry two packs, a larger REI ultralight and a daypack and they creep up to 25 pounds.  For clothing, we generally have three pairs of socks and underwear, a bandana and handkerchief, three light quick dry shirts, two pairs of zip-off river pants, long sleeve nylon shirt, light pair of shorts for sleeping, belt and money belt, R1 Patagonia jacket, a rain jacket, bathing suit, sunhat, and pair of capilene lightweight long underwear for warmth, snorkeling, or use as pajamas.  Our gear includes terrific Black Diamond carbon Z trekking poles, snorkel, mask, and watershoes (and a tiny container of dish soap for defogging), waterproof bag and pouch, headlamp, powerful lightweight flashlight for night safaris, tiny UV light for exploration and finding bed bug residue, Indonesian batik silk bedliners, our Luci tablelamp (you must see them to believe them), mosquito head netting, leatherman, small Swiss Army knives, tiny amount of duct tape, binoculars, assorted stuff sacks, sea bands, exercise bands, small lock and key for hostel lockers, headphones, short hiking gaiters, backpack raincover, ultralight travel umbrellas, neck pillow, key ring lights, maps, thank you cards, and pencil and small pad.  For electronics, we have an iPad, two iPhones, and two cameras and the necessary assorted cords.  As John Hausdoerffer would put it, we are a walking pharmacy, prepared with an assortment of over the counter and prescription medications and sunscreen (100SPF) and insect repellent.  We also have a small first aid kit with blood clotting powder, steri strips for sutures, skin glue, Benadryl, Epipen, and silver bandages.  Water and snacks, especially Sally's famous gorp with mint M&Ms are part of our load as well. Nail clippers, toiletries, glasses and contacts are included.  Ziplocks and plastic bags are invaluable.  When we travel in cold places, we have more winter gear.  And then, there are our irreplaceable orthotics, hiking shoes, and beloved Chaco sandals.

So back to the Chacos!  How did not one, but two pairs of Sally's Chacos come to wander Central America, traveling from place to place without her?  It started with her selflessly agreeing to carry our laundry during our border crossing from Palenque, Mexico to Flores, Guatemala.   We arranged the transport with a company which has different drivers on both sides of the border.  It was smooth, until we arrived at Flores and realized to make room for the laundry, Sally had accidentally left out her Chacos.  Over the next few days, including three extra ones, we stayed in great hope and yearning, while our hostel owner, two hotel clerks, the sons of two angry Latino ladies, a local guide and countless shuttle drivers blamed each other, called each other names, and all claimed the Chacos were delivered to the next person.  Sadly, after a week of perseverance and pleading, we gave up on seeing Sally's trusted companions, knowing they likely had new souls with different soles treading in her old friends.  There was a moment of renewed Chaco hope in Guatemala when Jess discovered that a small store improbably in the middle of nearby Santa Elena, sold Chacos.  In two years of travel, the only other place  we have seen them was in Darwin, Australia at an army surplus store.  We were amazed at our good fortune until we realized they had only men's size 11s and larger.  Even duct tape could not help Sally reconcile 5 sizes.

With resignation and a real sense of loss, we ordered new ones sent to Sally's sister.  We asked friends of friends in Belize City to receive two packages for us, a new bank card and our FedEx international express pair of Chacos.  The $176 shipping charge was a lot, but these are Chacos, after all.  There were a few delays, unexpected complications, and bank card issues, but finally, we heard that two packages arrived at Belize City..., a few hours after we left the city to sail down the Belizean coast.  Sally wandered the seas in bare feet and hiking shoes coveting Jess's Chacos as we strolled on coral sand beaches.  We arrived well south of Belize City to learn to our joy that for a few dollars, a local air service would courier our two packages to a local airstrip.  More logistics, the kindness of new friends and strangers and the package arrived.  Sally was dumbstuck when what was handed to her was a single, flat envelope, which we were to find out, held two bank cards (the bank sent 4 in the end, another long story and clusterama).  Jess found her sitting on the bed in quiet despair staring at the flat Chacoless envelope certain her sandals were cursed.  Her sister Sandy offered another explanation, suggesting that the sandals were not cursed, rather just being rebellious and wayward or possibly contrary and recalcitrant.

Puzzled, we checked online, following the journey of Sally's Chacos across both North and Central America to find they were being held hostage at customs in Belize City.  Despite her sister paying maximum expedited international shipping charges, strange messages appeared on FedEx tracking such as "Customer has not paid for expedited customs clearance" and "Contact third party courier" with none listed.  Neither talking to nor visiting FedEx online elucidated the issue.  But our local friend in Belize City helpfully explained that when she receives packages from DHL or FedEx, they call her for more money to release them.

So the tale of two Chacos pairs ends with a reunion for one and a peregrination for the other.  We received another text, news that there was a package on a plane, and to our delight a new pair of Chacos will walk the Jaguar Reserve at Cockscomb Basin and enter Guatemala and Honduras with us, securely on Sally's feet.

Posted in Placencia, Belize.  Images are of one of our sets of travel gear, our Luci lamp, Sally's surprise at her package delivery, and one of the last pictures of Sally's lost soles.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

What goes around, comes around.

Ruins?  Is this an appropriate label for the broken and dilapidated structures dotting the landscape in almost every part of the world?   These "reminders" of past civilizations can be mysterious, majestic, unreal, and captivating.  In our travels, we have visited some of the most well known of these ancient civilizations: Machu Picchu, Chichen Itza, Angkor Wat, Mesa Verde, Chaco Canyon, Tikal, Bagan; and we have hiked, biked, and wandered the lonely trails of many other lesser known but fascinating sites.

Visiting these ancient cities has given us enormous joy, immense pleasure, and hours of worthwhile and provocative conversation during our
travels.  While we have occasionally been accompanied by those with a rich and local knowledge of sites, we have found we generally prefer to experience and peruse sites by ourselves without a guide.  We thrive on the thrill of discovery as we wander into and through the site, finding carvings, stelae, bas-reliefs, faces, murals, or any number of other things ----- characteristics of each individual site that we have usually researched ahead of time.  Yet it is not the intellectual research that sends us forward to explore new sites, it is the quiet reflective moments that we share in silent wonder of what came before us and what shall follow.  We have stared out over ancient geometric patterns on valley floors, temples rising by the thousands on desert plateaus, secret structures camouflaged in deep canyons, fortresses on mountain tops, and pyramids in raucous jungles. Often, only our imaginations are left uncovered and unexplored as we gaze at the carefully placed rocks and crumbling mortar.

After considering each site, we have determined that all or most possess some common attributes.  All connect us to ancient civilizations but it is the ways those connections are manifested in each of us that make our experiences in visiting them so individualistic.  All have been constructed using laborious methods that befuddle our imaginations and precise, exact sciences that we are certain should never have been known during those ancient times.  Worship, if our archaeological interpretations are correct, was of the highest importance to each civilization.  A class system of some sort was usually how society was structured.  War and armed conflict, both among neighboring settlements and other locales many miles removed, were common.  Empire building seemed to be a priority as the conflicts resulted in more and more land/villages being consolidated under the rule of one leader or tribe.

Probably the most perplexing common attribute is that many of these civilizations simply disappeared......or did they?  Our knowledge of ancient peoples grows with our knowledge of science.  Studies of ancient soils, plants, animals, and weather tell us that severe drought for years or even decades devastated more than one civilization.  Other studies surmise that some peoples were simply
engulfed by a "superior" civilization and their identity ceased.  Still other evidence points to the complete destruction/devastation of the local environment and over use of resources leading to subsequent collapse.  In these times, the educated and the elite may have been the first to perish and recorded history may have halted although some life went on with locals forgetting their history or heritage.

When one looks at these ancient societies, it is difficult to avoid looking at ourselves as we exist today.  "History repeats itself" is a common saying that should make us all a little reflective about  our future.  Are "ruins" on our horizon?  Are we, too, destined to become another civilization that just disappears?  Who will gaze at our relics a thousand years from now?  What will be whole and what will be "ruined"?

Posted in San Ignacio, Belize.  Images are of Machu Pichu, Peru; Palenque, Mexico; Angor Thom, Cambodia; and Tikal, Guatemala.