Tall Matt's Travels

Recapitulation: 1

Recapitulation: 1
Matt - Sun Jan 28, 2007 @ 04:43PM
Comments: 5

So it's been a bit since my last entry. And the discrepancies in the dates of my posts and the current date are beginning to bother me.  I've been writing a lot in my journal, but haven't been doing such a good job at translating that into pixels.  As I've set up shop back in San Jose for a bit, I'll attempt to recap the last couple weeks...

Let me first start by closing out Guatemala.  After my excursion to Pacaya, I spent the next day simply enjoying Antigua.  It's really quite nice.  Narrow cobblestone streets surrounded by uniform one-story buildings ranging in color from vivid lemon to robin-egg blue to rusty crimson.  The entire "downtown" or city center is about 20 blocks by 15 blocks, making easily open to exploration.  Of course the entire scene is dominated by the three picturesque volcanoes - Volcán de Agua (Volcano of Water) nearest the city to the South, Volcán de Fuego (Fire) to the Southwest and Volcán Acatenango to the West.  Night and day, a small cloud of smoke can be seen bellowing out of Fuego, the only active peak of the trio.

Upon leaving it, and still today, I have mixed emotions about Guatemala.  On one side, you have the vivid descriptions of Peace Corps volunteers of attacks, murder, rape, corruption at all levels of local and federal government (some of which I witnessed first hand) - enough to dissuade the majority of visitors from spending extended amounts of time in country.  On the other, you have the serenity and beauty of Antigua, the adventure of hiking volcanoes and the charm of the local people willing to help me with any question.  It's strange.  Sitting in Antiqua's Parque Centrale, looking at the beautiful fountain in its center, it's easy to become comfortable - at least for a while.  Then the stories bounce around in the corners of my mind; the memory of downtown Guatemala City, and a sense of unease creeps in.  Beautiful and captivating, but tempered somehow by an awareness danger and unease, embodied by the three volcanoes looming on the borders of the quaint little town...

I then took a bus from Guatemala to San Salvador, El Salvador.  I'd heard much about San Salvador, and its sorted history and growing economy.  The ride was relatively uneventful - highlighted by a little woman named Theresa whom I sat next to.  She was in her late 30's married with a couple kids in the States, apparently going to school in Atlanta.  She spoke about as much English as I did Spanish.  We talked for a good bit, struggling to get our points across, but succeeding given enough time.  She even bought me a Coke from a vendor on the bus. (A quick aside - pretty much all tour buses will let any street vendor on to sell their wares up and down the isle.  Sodas, newspapers, baked goods, underwear, deodorant, knock-off watches, whatever.  It's damned annoying, yet somehow amusing.)  Anyway, as with most rides through Central America, the scenery was tremendous.  Rolling hills with nestled villages and terraced farmland giving way to cloud-shrouded volcanoes and jungle-covered mountains. 

I arrived in San Salvador without issue, but not with out observation.  On the highway outside town I saw a tiny old Nissan pickup dragging its back end and spewing sparks due to being overloaded with bananas.  I saw an old US school bus painted to the extreme in American pop culture images, accented by 3-foot by 3-foot Autobot, Decepticon and Thundercat logos in the three large tinted back windows. I saw a flatbed pickup doing 55 mph on curvy roads, fully loaded with God-knows what, a tarp over its contents held down by two kids sleeping on the top and their feet hanging over the back end.

But I digress...

I quickly found my way to a fairly nice hostel I'd seen in my guidebook - Ximena's Guesthouse.  The staff was very friendly, including a very pleasant little woman with her left arm missing below her elbow.  She was extremely nice, and ended up finding me a dorm room where I was the only inhabitant.  I stayed for two nights, spending the bulk of my time walking around the downtown area, admiring the large churches and navigating incredibly congested traffic ways.   Outside city center as you move toward a set of large mountains, the landscape changes into a suburban sprawl similar to that of the US.  Shopping malls, fast-food chains, Ford and Chevrolet dealerships, Office Depots, etc.  For whatever reason, it reminded me of Scottsdale, Arizona.  I spent a bit of time here, checking email at one of the many Internet cafés and (I hate to admit it) had dinner at Tony Roma's.  Yes, I know.  However, I justified it in two ways - One, it was the most complete meal I'd had for a while (I even ate vegetables), and two, I'd never eaten at a Tony Roma's in my life.  Plus I met a very cool guy named Dave, an ex-pat from the states running a large church-sponsored orphanage in San Salvador.  Hope all is well Dave.

It was interesting to note the change in the complexion of the inhabitants.  In Mexico and Guatemala, the Mayan influence is strong, and very apparent in the traditions, customs, language and even physical appearance of the local people.  In contrast, the majority of the people in El Salvador seemed more of Spanish/European descent. San Salvador felt a lot like Madrid. A subtle difference to be sure, but one supported by Dave as well.

I left San Salvador the morning of the 18th.  The day prior, I'd purchased a ticket to Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras.  As I waited, I talked briefly with an elderly nun sitting by herself awaiting the same bus.  She was dressed plainly, with brown shoes and dress with a gleaming white shawl, and a small wooden crucifix around her neck.  Though not as much in appearance but in spirit, she brought about thoughts of my Aunt Vivian, a former missionary in Sierra Leone, and perhaps the strongest Christian I've ever known. I thought of Aunt Vivian and her travels throughout Africa -  her unquestioned trust in her mission and duty and purpose - and saw that, ever so briefly, mirrored in this tiny woman sitting across from me.  Alas, I digress again...

The ride to Honduras was uneventful - likely the most professional bus company I've ridden with to date.  I saw the movie "Cars" for the first time, though dubbed in Spanish I think I missed a few of the cameos and inside jokes that make Pixar films so enjoyable (and to be honest, the knowledge you're riding in a bus in El Salvador tempers the novelty of subtitled jokes about Route 66 and a Spanish voice trying to imitate the inflections of Larry the Cable Guy just doesn't work).  We arrived in Tegucigalpa around 2:00, and after reading the guide book for a while, decided to move on to Costa Rica as quickly as I could.  Honduras is supposed to be a pleasant enough place (or so I've been told) - provided you stay up around the Bay Islands - Roatan and the like.  I'd already missed an opportunity to visit there with some friends back during my first week of travel (Sorry it didn't work out Josh and Kristen, but thanks for the offer!), and didn't think I'd make it up that far North on this trip.  And after about 20 minutes of riding around with a cab driver who didn't know where anything was (I had to direct him using terrible Spanish and a guidebook map to the Parque Centrale), I was less than enchanted with Tegucigalpa.  It is an interesting city though.  A dried up, trickling river divides the city into two sides, the haves and the have nots.  Of course, the bus station is in the less desirable part of the metro, surrounded by an area desperately close to or at the poverty line. 

Exasperated after the taxi ride, I found a hostel recommended by my guide book called the "Tobacco Road Inn".  It was owned and operated by a very cool man named Tim.  He was an ex-pat from the states; gaunt with a slightly weathered face, long white hair pulled back in a pony tail and a very laid-back demeanor.  We talked for about 10 minutes when a friend of his, Dave, showed up.  He was just back from Washington, D.C. - extremely excited about a new job prospect.  His work kept him outside all day (something about working with water treatment and infrastructure), which he truly loved.  He went on and on about his interview in D.C. - about walking past rows and rows of cubicles and seeing stressed out people pounding away at keyboards - about how the environment was "toxic" and how he would never, ever take a job like that. I then told Tom and Dave about my little adventure, and about how I just quit my job, of doing exactly what he just described.  They both bought me a beer as congratulations.

I walked around the city for a bit, taking some pictures and eventually getting online at an internet café.  I will say I hadn't felt as much like an oddity as I did in Tegucigalpa.  Walking through the streets and plazas I noticed I was really the only foreigner in sight.  In other cities, Cancun, Belize City, Antigua, I saw other tourists with some regularity.  In both San Salvador and especially Tegucigalpa, I was studied, examined and stared at with extra obtuseness.  Now please understand I realize my situation: 1) I'm an obvious foreigner, unable to hide my ultra-white skin and brown/red hair. 2) I'm a foot taller than any of the locals. However, in other places I'd receive the occasional stare, the lingering look.  But here, there were no attempts to hide the fascination.  Men, women and children alike.  It really attacks your self confidence.  Even in the states some people stare -especially when I walk around with other tall friends.  However, most of the time there's at least an attempt to veil the gazes (at least amongst sober people).  Not here.  Anyway, when I got back to the hostel, I met three girls, two of which were Canadian and on from England.  Tasha, one of the Canadians, with bronzed skin and a rather striking middle-eastern profile, had traveled extensively and recommended some sights in Africa and around Israel. We all three chatted for a good bit, sharing stories, then found some local cuisine down the street a couple blocks.  Ambiance notwithstanding (the live music consisting of a young guy pounding a synthesizer relentlessly), we had a nice dinner and talked a good deal about Central and South America, and where we were all headed next.

The traveling community is a unique one.  All ages.  All colors.  All backgrounds.  Very trusting. Very aware.  Willing to share stories and advice, and equally willing to listen.  I recently had a friend email me from a three-month adventure in Africa.  She mentioned the beauty and majesty of the sights and sounds were for her actually eclipsed by the experiences of meeting, learning from, entertaining and being entertained by the people encountered along the way.  Couldn't agree more.

Comments: 5

Comments

1. Ted   |   Sun Jan 28, 2007 @ 11:39PM

Matt, I'm excited that you are having such a great time. All of your stories remind me so much of growing up. If you think that the kids (and other people) stare at you now, wait til April and Africa. Get out in the bush and people will really freak out. I can't tell you how many times people just came up and wanted to touch my straight blond hair. Anyway, I digress, I'm still waiting for some good local food stories. Don't be afraid to try the local stuff, some of it will be great and the rest you can tell your kids about. I plan on doing that.

Keep up the updates.

Ted.

2. Christy   |   Mon Jan 29, 2007 @ 01:29AM

Matt,
Your recapitulation is truly outstanding. You bring it all to life so well. And, though I know it's different, I do relate to the height gawks. When I was in Mexico this past fall, I was convinced the locals had never seen a 6 foot tall blond girl before. But, as much as it shakes the confidence, I'm pretty sure in your case, they're simply in awe. Your presence, of which your height is merely a fraction, packs quite a punch. Thanks for the great reads.

3. Jon Doolittle   |   Mon Jan 29, 2007 @ 10:44AM

I am amused by the fact that you apologize for your digressions. I thought the whole point of this was to digress...to take in the sights, make observations, connect the ones you can (even when connections aren't immediately obvious), and try to stitch together some truths. I think of your year as much more of a character-driven comedy/drama than one with a clear plot. Keep digressing, and let us learn and wonder with you. Those are the parts that I love the most. Be careful, and be good.

4. doug   |   Tue Jan 30, 2007 @ 01:09PM

You need to grow the beard out in order to intimidate more effectively. I see you have been using your thesarus, that is most splendid. Keep on keepin' on. I challenge you to pee in the Panama Canal.

5. Vince   |   Wed Jan 31, 2007 @ 08:50AM

Can we hear more about Tasha? ;)

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