Wednesday, April 27, 2011

A week in Northern Nicaragua

There was an amazingly neat and colourful veggie market
where we waited for the bus to Matagalpa

We hiked to the top of the jungle for this view of Matagalpa (white speckle, centre-left)

I remember vividly the first morning I wore my new glasses as a kid: the day the world transformed. Aged 10, I was sitting on the floor of our living room in South Africa, some Sunday morning, dunking my beskuit into a cup of coffee and obsessively sliding my glasses up and down my nose, comparing my old world with the new, and marveling to my family that the green blur hanging over the swimming pool had suddenly transformed into a jasmine plant with individual leaves!

I feel like that now, staring at the bowl of jungle towering up to the sky from across the lake at the restaurant porch at the Selva Negra Mountain Lodge. I can see the wind traveling across the towering trees and the individual leaves shimmering in response. The 180 degrees of green surrounding us isn’t just green – it’s green, olive, brown, grey and black with a smattering of rusty reds and splotches of lime green. The resident howler monkeys aren’t shy to publicize their right to this territory and can be heard barking through the day. Vinko and I are convinced that they speak a different “language” compared to the Howlers we’ve come across in Belize and Guatemala – the rhythm and pitch are completely different and we spend a few hours speculating at the chaos that might perhaps ensue if these same-same but different monkeys had a chance to meet.

If I weren't already married, this little church at Selva Negra Mountain Lodge would be it!

...although I'm not sure if the pastor would approve of this...

...or this.

Vinko had to deal with a sinus inflammation up in the mountains.
Not a happy camper.

Compared to the rest of the Pacific Coast in Central America - which is scorching hot, bone dry and pretty ugly-looking right now - the Selva Negra (Black Jungle) of Northern Nicaragua is surprisingly lush, delightfully cool and the perfect place to pass a few days hiking around the lodge’s property, which comprises of a working coffee-dairy-poultry farm focused on sustainable practices adjoined by the lodge’s private reserve and hotel/ conference facilities. After the 10 hour Tica bus journey to get to Matagalpa from San Salvador (no comment, except for “why are bus stations always in the dodgy, dirty, scary part of town?!?”), we indulge in some excellent German food and silent surroundings. Nothing too eventful, just some peace and quiet before heading further south. 

Work of art.

The colonial city of Granada on the other hand, was a little less than joyful. We speculate that the unimaginable must be happening and that we are finally getting tired of traveling, because nothing in Granada excites us. Yes, there are some nicely renovated colonial buildings and it was fun for the first hour to wander through the streets. Until it became apparent that the hostels are out to impoverish you, the taxi drivers are out to hit you, the men are out to harass you, the women and children are out to beg as much as they can from you, the horses are out to make piles of shit for you to step in and that the Semana Santa (Easter/ Holy Week) festivities are out to deafen you with music blasted from all corners. At least the beer was cheap but even that wasn’t enough to make us warm up to the city. 

Granada's cathedral and Lago Nicaragua in the background

A hidden gem we discovered on a walk

I will concede that Granada has a beautiful cathedral, if nothing else

All of this combined gave us the feeling that we were trapped in Granada for 3 days waiting for a ferry to Ometepe Island in Lake Nicaragua. Some greater force must have taken pity on us, because we managed to just buy the last 2 tickets for the ferry and weasel our way out of there, along with the 300+ other fortunate fugitives crammed onto the rambling old ferry.

I really wanted to like Granada, I did. But every time I slipped my beer goggles up and down my nose to look for a transformation, it was the same blur. 

The monsters ate my luggage!!!
I suspect these little gremlins were the cause of our troubled stay in Granada.

Some fun wall graffiti at Oasis Hostel in Granada 

Friday, April 22, 2011

In the thriving heart of a Mayan village: San Pedro Columbia, Southern Belize

Rodolfo Ash - a Mopan/Kekchi Mayan, father of six, resident of San Pedro Columbia village in Southern Belize and our most generous host
Rodolfo and his family
Rodolfo Ash is a man in his 40’s, one of eight children, he lives in a small village named San Pedro Columbia in Southern Belize, and he is Mayan. Including him and his wife Merlina, they are a family of eight members which consists of three sons and three daughters, a perfect boy-girl-boy-girl-boy-girl pattern with two years separating each child in all cases except one. A self proclaimed rationalist when it comes to religion and advocate of gender equality, he is somewhat of an anomaly in his own village in this regard. You see, many of the village folk are religious and regularly attend one of the thirteen churches in their community. During one incident with the Nazarene Church, the church of choice for his wife and kids, he was asked by other church members why he doesn’t order his wife to wear the regulation white head-cloth when attending mass. To which he responded, that his wife makes decisions for her self and if they would like, they are welcome to ask her themselves. He no longer attends church as he believes that the rules imposed by them are not very rational, he wishes to live differently.

The Rodolfo and Merlina Ash family house - humble and beautiful

We found out about this little piece of paradise from Marfilio, a snorkeling tour-guide working for French Angel in Caye Caulker. Marf is from San Pedro Columbia in the Maya Mountains of Belize and Rodolfo is his older brother. He is a really terrific tour guide, and not just because he is super professional and able in carrying out his job, but also because he is one of those special guides that really, really care. He cares a lot about the environment, both around his village and Caye Caulker, and he cares a lot about the people he works with, both tourists and other guides. We got to talking to him one lovely sun down afternoon in Caye Caulker and he told us all about his village, we fell in love with the idea of a visit within the first few minutes, it just sounded perfect! While Marf wasn’t able to make the trip down to show us around personally, he was more than kind to organize for us to be looked after by his brother. And we are so glad he did! The three days we spent with Rodolfo and his family in Columbia were some of the most enriching and incredible three days we had anywhere on our travels. So much happened in those three days that, although it may appear on the surface as uneventful, the subtle moving simplicity of our experiences there managed to pack our days with so much fun, laughter and warmth that it felt time stood still for one special weekend in the heart of a thriving Mayan village.

Our entire Ash host family and us

Friday - our first afternoon
Rodolfo agreed to meet us at the bus stop in Punta Gorda, the capital of the Toledo District in Southern Belize. At first greeting he came across as a genuinely kind and polite man, his first concern was to ask us if we needed to use the internet for anything and sure enough we actually did. He was eager to show us photos in his email of the family farm taken by one of his previous visitors – Rodolfo had clearly been catapulted into our modern communication world. We were curious as to how he got to be even interested in computers and the internet in the first place, to which he told the story of a peace worker from the states who was keen on setting up a computer lab for the community in his village, she arrived back in 2003 and did just that. Surprised by this, he went on to tell us that the computer lab offered very economical courses for people who were interested in learning about computers and later the internet. It seems that this really worked out well for the people who were keen to learn about computers and today there are many young folk in the village quite adapt to using them, very similar to our own countries. The one problem now, he said, is that the computers are very old and there was no money in the village to upgrade them, but they still serve a good purpose and are useful for people to learn on. This got me particularly excited and gave me extra enthusiasm for our internet project for San Andres in Peten, Guatemala.

Western end of the house - kitchen and dining

We had more than a few hours in town because the only bus leaving for San Pedro Columbia would leave around four in the afternoon, we arrived in Punta Gorda around noon. This worked out quite well as it gave us time to spend with Rodolfo alone and get to know him before diving into the village and his family home. He walked us to the Cotton Tree chocolate factory and showroom that we had been looking forward to. Once inside, the lovely lady from Honduras gave us a free tour of the entire chocolate making process and in the end we got to sample all the different types. Now believe me folks when I tell you that this chocolate is probably the nicest tasting chocolate in the world! This experience was super cool for us as Cotton Tree Lodge was one of the eco-lodges we wanted to visit and it was fantastic to see their success of chocolate production in operation. Merlina’s favourite chocolate was milk chocolate so we decided to buy her a delicious little gift and brave the outside sweltering heat with this super fine chocolate knowing there was another two hours before the bus.

The toilet - a hole in the ground, what more do you need?
Resting after a hard day's work and some filling food

As we walked around town I just couldn’t help but notice the condition of Rodolfo’s shoes. Indeed we knew that his family was not well off, but his black town boots had barely any upper left on them, all that remained were straps of black leather forming the top of the shoe. I wondered if there was a way to get him some newer shoes*, although we tend to throw away good working order items at home and ought to really use them more extensively, this was way beyond used up I thought. I was wearing pretty much brand new steel cap Jackeroo work boots at the time and felt a little awkward at the obvious difference. I would have loved to give them to Rodolfo but I knew that they were needed for much time to come, both while traveling through Central America and working in Guatemala. We ended our town tour, picked up a few groceries at the local bulk discount supermarket and jumped aboard the hottest bus known to man heading for San Pedro Columbia some 45 minutes drive away.

* If you would like to be generous, help out and donate some shoes -  read the details at the end of this blog.

Dearest Anthony - swimming day at the river source

We were greeted upon our arrival by Rodolfo’s second son Anthony who warmly came up and just hugged us out of pure excitement, for the whole time in Columbia he remained the sweetest soul we spent time with. We walked together hand in hand all the way to their family house, greeting people all along the way. When you arrive in San Pedro Columbia you get an instant sense of peace and togetherness, everyone seems to know each other and no one is in too much of a rush to say a heartfelt hello. When we reached the house the rest of the kids emerged, the small beaming face of Benjamin their youngest son, the quiet and mischievous looking smile of Jennifer their middle daughter, the shy and reserved mature warmth of Shirley their eldest daughter and second mother in charge, in her arms the tiny Kerilee with that eyes-open-world-wandering of little infants but cute as a button with dark eyes and dark hair, Brian their first child and eldest son showing more focus since being his father’s third and fourth hand, and finally Merlina their mother a soft gentle smile and welcoming eyes she immediately gave us a sense of belonging by silently inviting us into her home and her family. We knew immediately that we wanted to spend time with this most wonderful of families and looked forward to getting to know them all.

Merlina Ash, and ourselves at the dining table - if you wondering why I am staring at the camera like that it is because I was setting up a timer shot for the family portrait...

Saturday - the first adventurous day
After a hearty first night dinner plated up by Merlina who so lovingly prepared all meals and was always the last to eat, we woke early in the morning to the sounds of a busy family. Rodolfo and Merlina wake up each day around five in the morning and begin preparing for the day ahead. They were extremely kind to offer us a double bed tucked together in the one bedroom where most of the children and Merlina slept. Rodolfo and the older two boys slept in the main room of the house, some in hammocks and some on the floor. It gets quiet here at night, and really, really dark.

The new palm thatch roof arriving by truck - we loaded it, brought up back, tied it to a tree and then drove off to remove it from the truck

I proclaimed the night before that I was really keen to come along and maybe help truck the new palm leaves for the upcoming roof renovation. That morning, groggy eyed and having picked up a flu the day before I wondered whether I would be of any use at all. Nonetheless I pressed on and joined Rodolfo, his son Brian, an uncle and a couple of other hardworking friends from the other side of the village. It was incredible to see how as we drove by in the pick-up truck, male friends and relatives would yell out and offer their working hands, people here really help each other out. This whole work project was started by the fact that Rodolfo and Merlina needed to remake their palm leaf roof, it was getting old, fraying and had potential to start leaking. To get this done Rodolfo purchased palm leaves and labor to prepare them, he would go on to pay for the fuel used for the pick-up and later he was planning to employ a dozen men from the village to help rebuild the roof and he would obviously have to feed them that day too. All of this, as he reportedly told us, would set his family back around 400 Belize dollars (just $200 US). This is incredible when you consider how expensive it is to build anything back home and the fact that really this process usually does not bring the community together anything near like what happens here in Columbia village. After transporting the leaves on Saturday morning, they would need the rest of the upcoming week to dry sufficiently and the plan was to rebuild the roof on Friday. That morning Rodolfo and his eldest would wake up extremely early and before anyone arrives and the day began to heat up, would have stripped off the old leaves and prepared the roof structure and the new leaves for the reconstruction, all before breakfast!

Delicious corn from San Pedro Columbia's farms
Rodolfo's delicious cabbage - oh yeah, come get some! (photo taken at the farm)

The food the Ash family eats is fantastic, in fact it is amazing. Rodolfo has a family farm where he grows most of all the produce they eat in the house. During our time in their home we tasted some of the best lettuce, onion, tomato, beans, cilantro and other herbs, and my lord did we eat a good cabbage. I honestly did not think you could get this excited about cabbage, but when it is organic by necessity or tradition, grown on the banks of a pristine spring fed river, on land looked after and maintained by a family for generations – cabbage is the star of the show! This day we got to visit the source of all this great food and indeed the source of live for the village, the spring that feeds the Rio Grande, the river that passes through and enables life in San Pedro Columbia.

Colette's stunning picture of a swimming hole along the way

Rodolfo and kids at the swimming hole near the river source
Shirley and her cousin play - throwing rocks into the river

The cute and fun loving little Benjamin - my new best friend
Filling my water bottle at the source of the Rio Grande - soooooo delicious and fresh

We took off on our hiking adventure, all hands on deck, all the kids except Brian (because he visits the farm every single week for work), Shirley the eldest daughter (because she had to help mum look after the baby Kerilee) and Merlina (because the house work just never stops). We walked through some of the richest forest, jungle and farm land for around two hours before reaching the water source. Once we got there we all took a swim around it and we could all get a refreshing drink right out of the water that cooled us now as we bathed in it. Later on we walked a while back to see the family farm and Rodolfo showed us his amazing produce and pointed out the other Ash family plots, his mums’, his dads’, his uncles’ and finally Marf, his younger brothers’, who was dedicated to a sustainable future for himself and his future family by beginning to work a small patch of land adjacent to the river. Rodolfo and the eldest of two cousins from Merlina’s family that joined us that day, picked a bunch of cabbages, cilantro, pumpkins, lettuces and kalalu (a local spinach-like green leaf favored by the villagers and sold well to Garifuna folk as well). With this load in hand, Rodolfo fashioned a quick traditional bag and head strap to carry it all, using nothing but a potato sack, a thick ribbon sewn by his wife and two hardened bits of dirt. Off we went, heading back to the village and bringing home fresh spring water in small drink bottles, each child carrying one, and the sack of produce for cooking and selling to others in the village.

Me and Benjamin - he was so tiny!
This is where the family farm is - lush and green
We walk back carrying the fresh produce bounty - Anthony insists on holding my hand despite the load

As day receded that afternoon and we all prepared for a tasty dinner, we learnt that there was a church rally taking place just a stones throw from the house. It turned out that this was a popular rally visited by residents of neighboring villages by the busload too, all in all there were a few hundred people attending and the rally included a variety of tasty foods and cakes to try out. Although we didn’t partake in the church singing event akin to most Evangelical communities (it just isn’t our style), we were glad to have witnessed it all and shared a bunch of delicious salbutes, meat pasties, tamales and chocolate cakes with Rodolfo and his kids back at the house while a whole whack of cousin children joined us in watching DVDs. Luckily the sound system was done and removed before 10pm and we went to sleep quietly and bellies full.

Jennifer and Benjamin watch their little sister Kerilee - asleep in her sack
Merlina preparing another delicious meal - young Anthony just clowning around

Sunday - Mayan history and family day
Sunday’s adventure was a little less physically demanding, we walked the hour it took to get to Lubaantun, the ancient Mayan site that once was the spiritual centre for the Columbia village ancestors. Village history tells of Mopan Mayans fleeing the area from Spanish and British occupation, and the war that was taking place between the two colonizing empires back in those days. So some 500 years back the Mopan people of the Maya mountains of Belize, including the inhabitants of Lubaantun and surrounds, fled for the mountains of North-Eastern Guatemala and joined their Kekchi brothers seeking survival. In the early eighteen-hundreds Britain won Belize for their empire and thus removing it from then-Guatemala, and therefore Spanish control permanently. This brought stability to Belize, and the Mopan people – this time mixed with generations of Kekchi – took up once again and headed for home country. The years obscured the location where Lubaantun and its villagers once stood; the area was now thickly overgrown with rainforest and thick tropical jungle. Amazingly the returning families discovered upon settling near a pristine river (the Rio Grande) that they had in fact returned to their original patch of land, the homeland of their ancestors. Fast forward to the year 2011 and what started as a new settlement of just a few Mopan-Kekchi families 150 years ago, has grown into a thriving village of over 1000 families.

Just like the resilient Mayan culture - this Guanacaste tree finds its roots and merges with the rock blocks, growing on top of the Lubaantun Maya site

Today the village is quad-lingual, speaking their two Maya languages Mopan and Kekchi, and most residents can speak both Creole and English due to the multicultural landscape of the British Caribbean. The village is still growing, and with work having started on a new highway from Punta Gorda to the border of Guatemala (it will pass just by Columbia and it is due to be completed in three years), this is sure to increase the rate of growth in the coming years. This growth will no doubt create challenges for this and other Mayan communities, some of which might be land scarcity and environmental effects of overuse and contamination, both water bodies and land biodiversity. The good news, however, is that the Mayan communities of Toledo District in Southern Belize are some of the most progressive and holdfast of the traditional Maya. Some years back they organized themselves and formed a union of Mayan peoples in Toledo and managed to achieve what many native peoples of neighboring countries in Central America could not. They won land rights to their communities and the government of Belize recognizes their rights; this eliminates any threats of the community losing their land without village council permission.

This mango tree finds its home at the Lubaantun Maya site - the family's cousin John provides a touch of modern colour to the scene

The massive rounded edges on temple one at Lubaantun - this picture was not warped by me

The challenge of setting boundaries between one village council authority and another still exists today, but I believe that the strength of their culture and their community will provide innovative solutions to these problems, particularly as each community continues to grow. Spending time with Mayan people in their communities and learning about their culture makes one realize the wisdom of this ancient civilization. In almost all parts of the old Mayan world, Maya people and their traditional ways still survive. I have come to understand that this is only possible because their culture remains hospitable, flexible and innovative. In this way, rather then disappear or dissolve through the incorporation of other cultures, the Mayan way absorbs new ways of life and in its own way evolves to include parts of the new change without losing elements of their own traditions. This makes the culture richer and more established with each new element that is presented, the variety makes them stronger and not weaker. Mayan culture is not lost, it is just changed.

Brother, sister, cousin - these three kids are part of the future of  San Pedro Columbia and the Toledo District Mayans (Benjamin, Jennifer and John)

Among other things, Lubaantun is famous for being home to one of only four original crystal skulls of the ancients in the entire world. A Canadian archeologist, one of the first to begin excavations at the site was reported to have found the most perfect and biggest of the crystal skulls ever to have surfaced (the only one of a comparable size to the real human skull). His daughter allegedly still has it in her possession – she refuses to even consider a sale due to the fear of it ending up in the wrong hands, however a non-official value for the Crystal Skull of Belize is somewhere in the range of $250 US million dollars if you could in fact put a price on such a priceless item. Lubaantun is a lovely site, not very big but with some very interesting features. The information centre is probably one of the best and in-depth I have seen to date, much of the history I mentioned above as well as loads of information regarding found objects on the site, including the crystal skull, is clearly available to all visitors.

Colette admiring nature's intricate designs at Lubaantun - she loved this whole experience and the relaxed smile shows it
Rodolfo and Colette discuss village life under the town water tower - right next to Rodolfo's mums house

The trip was rounded off with yet another swim in the lovely Rio Grande, this time much further downstream and right near the village. Here is still very clear and clean, although many of the village women come down to do their laundry just a little down from where we swam. Later that day we took the kids to visit Rodolfo’s mother. She has a lovely concrete house, one of a few in the village, on top of the same hill where the water tower sits and overlooks the entire village in a nice 360 degree view. From here we could easily see the village school, and if you tried a little harder you could also make out the rubble of some of the highest structures at Lubaantun. Rodolfo’s mother was not there for a while as she was attending a village water board meeting, a new water board director was being appointed and this was the reason nobody had water in their taps that day. Apparently they shut the water off to ‘encourage’ village members to attend these meetings and will not turn the water back on until the meeting is concluded. How is that for incentive?!

Anthony and his little brother Benjamin enjoy their fresh coconuts - Benjamin again looking tiny with this medium sized coconut

Jennifer and her cousin - posing so beautifully for Colette's camera

Rodolfo’s mother has a bunch of coconut trees on her property, so he and I took to harvesting one for everybody. Upon cutting them open, Rodolfo treated us to the best tasting, freshest and sweetest coconut juice we had ever tried. The kids loved them too and we all had a great time and a heap of laughs, it seems that days like this occur quite regularly here. It was a real pleasure to get to meet Grandmother Ash. She and her youngest daughter were no exception to the rule of politeness and kindness in San Pedro Columbia. Rodolfo’s mother is one of the elders in the village and regularly attends meetings for all kinds of village matters, she has served as the water board director on more than one occasion in the past. Her youngest daughter attends college and is planning on continuing her education in nursing at the University of Belize. Sunday was a great family day as we met many new family members, close and extended, and once again the evening was capped off with a nutritious meal made by Merlina and her daughter Shirley. This evening Colette and I learnt our hands at tortilla making and although dinner was thirty minutes late as a result, we didn’t do to badly and it sure got easier after a while.

This was truly the best tasting and sweetest coconut we ever tried

Monday - our last day and a sad farewell
Today is the day we sadly say goodbye to our new family, but it is also Monday so all the kids except Brian will be going to school. This gives us a chance to have a good chat with just Rodolfo and his wife, to pack and hand wash a few items of clothing before they come back for lunch. Our bus takes off in the early afternoon and we are planning on jumping off early at the entry road to Cotton Tree Lodge to check it out ourselves. Colette has been super nice during this whole time and every time I wonder where she is, I end up finding her helping to wash dishes with either Merlina, or Shirley, or Jennifer, and sometimes all three. We help to make tortillas again for lunch, this time a little more successfully, and shortly after we are all packed up and lunch is ready, those smiling faces return running toward the house. We all eat lunch together and reminisce on the last few days, recalling old in-jokes and teasing each other like brothers and sisters. After lunch we pile everybody up for a big family portrait and they are all too kind to oblige, even Shirley who normally would shy away completely from the camera lens gave in to family peer pressure and joined us for a group photo.

Merlina's kitchen - this is where all the magic happens, a very efficiently designed and utilized space, and very much like everything in their beautiful home

Earlier that day we copied a bunch of photos and transferred them to the family computer for their keeping, it seems they really cherish the visual memories they retain from their visitors. Colette sits down with Merlina, a few other kids and the baby Kerilee, and runs through the photo album we have created on their computer. Merlina is genuinely happy and pleased that we had taken the time to share these beautiful memories. As the clock ticks on, we near one o’clock in the afternoon which means its time, both for us to depart and for the kids to return to school (all except the youngest two who attend pre-school only for half a day).

To be completely honest, none of us had expected or foreseen such an emotional farewell after spending just three days together with the family. Within moments Merlina and Rodolfo were pronouncing how their kids really loved us and had grown close to our presence. We hugged each little lovely human and squeezed them with genuine care and happiness, indeed thankfulness. This was just too much, so Colette and I following right behind Merlina shed a bunch of bittersweet tears. We promised that we would surely visit again, and indeed we feel completely intertwined in their family story, even if just a little. Rodolfo walks us to the bus stop and we thank him profusely for this whole amazing experience, and of course the generosity of his family for taking us in so amazingly close. The dust picks up as the chicken bus speeds off, we spin to turn our heads and Rodolfo is already on his way home, only his hardworking back now visible, ready for the next laboring task at hand.

Rodolfo is dwarfed by the load of produce he carries from his farm to the house - a regular route that provides for his family, Mayan families depend on the strength of their fathers' backs for survival

Want to help?
If you have made it this far, congratulations, and you obviously are at least thinking of shoes you might be able to send. So if you are, and if you have either black leather shoes or work boots, gum boots and sandals (preferably crocs) that you are no longer using but are in good condition, you could pay the shipping costs and charitably send them to Rodolfo and his family where they will be much appreciated and very much used. Please think size US 8 (mens) and under, Mayan people are not as large as us white folk and so too their feet. Please email us on if you wish to act on this. Thank you very much.