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August’s To Done List

August’s To Done List

August’s To Done List

Backpacking is full of surprises and adventures. Below is a list of the top things we’ve seen, experienced and accomplished in the month of August. They’re not on our ‘To Do List’ anymore, this is the ‘To Done List’.

1. First music town.

We’ve met a lot of musicians over the past 5 months, in all sorts of spots – street performers, local teachers giving lessons to travellers, hostel common areas, open mic nights and scheduled performances at many, many bars. However, it wasn’t until Antigua, Guatemala that we felt we had found a true music town. Where bars promote their in-house talent days in advance and your night out location is determined by where your favourite band is playing. We LOVED Antigua (our livers and our wallets, however, did not have such a great time there). Listen to some of the music we recorded in Antigua here.

LaRaiz_slider

Left to right: Jhonatan Mendez Yela (drums), Juan Salvador Galich (lead singer), Luis de La Rosa (guitar), Klaberth Moreira (bass)

2. First castle.

To be truthful, when we arrived in Rio Dulce, Guatemala we didn’t even know a castle was there. Thankfully, we were directed to it by a local man. We fit 3 of us on a small, tippy, 2 man kayak and paddled across the river for some castle sight-seeing. The Castillo de San Felipe has been so many different things, from army barracks to a jail, and now a tourist attraction. Perched on a bend in the river, it looks like something right out of Game Of Thrones.

3. First hot water waterfall.

A phenomenon neither of us has experienced before, the Finca El Paradiso are hot waterfalls that plunge into a cold natural pool. You can even swim to a little nook behind the falls for a full on steam facial. Topping off this very spa-like day was a full body covering of white mud from the nearby river – this mud is supposed to be great for your skin (or so they say). We just had fun covering ourselves in it, then jumping in the hot water springs to clean off.

4. First (unintentional) white water rafting river. Without a raft.

Near Gutamala’s Rio Dulce is Boqoron, a huge canyon of white limestone walls, giant hanging stalactites and a quick moving riving. As we rode the boat into the canyon we were in awe with the giant scale of the place. Arriving to a blockade of boulders, the boat couldn’t go any further, but the best sights were still farther up ahead. Time to swim. Against the current. Through multiple rapids and large rocks. Though the swim was tough at points, the views were definitely worth it. The swim back, with the current, was a lot quicker. We body boarded, although without the aid of an actual board, over the rapids and back to our boat in no time, only swallowing a fraction of water and kicking just a few rocks along the way. Great day!

5. Country #4 (of this trip): Honduras!

We were able to pass over the border from Guatemala to Honduras quite simply, with only one bribe request that was dropped as soon as we asked for a receipt. The border patrol agent then said to me, in perfect English, “Sorry I don’t know what you’re saying when you ask for a receipt. I don’t speak any English.” Ha! Well ’tis the way of borders I suppose. We took a jam packed mini van to the tiny town of Copan and dug into a dinner of the Honduran signature dish: Baleadas.

6. Macaw madness.

After visiting the larger-than-expected Copan Mayan ruins, we headed into the hills of Macaw Mountain, a bird sanctuary for all the colourful birds of Honduras. Due to poaching and habitat destruction, the Macaws, Toucans and Parrots of Central America are becoming extinct, and quickly. This rehabilitation centre takes in injured birds or those donated by owners who realize they aren’t meant for domesticity. Birds are then bred and any well flying babies are released to the wild. These birds really need much more room to fly than can be provided in a home, and poaching results in many more dead birds than lives ones arriving to the black market. Please don’t buy large birds as pets.

Learning Spanglish

Learning Spanglish

Learning Spanglish

“Never make fun of people who speak broken English. It means they know another language”.

I carried the above quote, ripped out of a Reader’s Digest from 1996, all across South East Asia and would show it to anyone who was shy about speaking English. It made a lot of people feel more comfortable talking to me knowing that I understood that speaking broken English didn’t make them sound dumb. In fact, it made them way smarter than me, someone who ONLY spoke English.

As I now try and remedy that by learning Spanish, I’ve found it’s amazing how confusing languages get in your head. I barely know 25 words in French and none in Italian, yet I keep speaking both those languages randomly when my brain is searching for Spanish.

So far, the most successful long conversation I’ve had in Spanish was with a 7-year-old in Semuc Champay, Guatemala and most of that was just us pointing at different things, saying the Spanish word for them, then giggling.

As we work towards (hopeful) Spanish-fluency, here are a few of the ‘Lost In Translation’ moments we’ve had along the way:

1. A family in Puebla, Mexico offered us a ride through their adult son, who spoke some English for his job at a call centre. We tried to speak to the entire family in our limited Spanish but often needed his help.It was about 20 minutes into our car ride that he corrected our use of the word papa – which is Spanish has two meanings, depending on where the stress is placed. As he kindly asked: “Can you change how you say Papa? My father is not a potato.

2. Before hopping on a bus leaving Oaxaca, Mexico I gave Bryan a kiss. Nothing too racy, but definitely not a kiss you’d give a family member. Upon seeing the slightly disgusted expression on our drivers face, I realized that I had incorrectly used the word ‘hermano’ (brother) when referring to Bryan, rather than ‘esposo’ (spouse). So this poor guy thinks Canadian brothers and sisters are a bit too handsy with each other.

3. In Todos Santos, Guatemala, we got into a rather confusing conversation. At this point, Bryan and I felt we had a basic grasp of the language and so were perplexed when our hostel receptionist asked if we wanted ‘jabón’ – a word when spoken sounds like the Spanish word for ham (jamon).

“No thanks” we replied in Spanish, “we’ve already eaten dinner”. She gave us a look and asked again.
“No, no thanks – we just ate and we’re stuffed” we said in rough Spanish.

This back and forth went on for some time – with her asking repeatedly and with increasing confusion and us always saying something along the lines of “Yes, we already ate down the street. Don’t need anything more now, thanks!”.

Turns out we had been telling her we didn’t want to eat the soap she was offering us. So she thinks Canadians are weird too.

4. While taking Spanish classes in Antigua, Guatemala, my teacher asked me in Spanish “Do you have any brothers and sisters? How old are they?” I replied I had one of both, and that they were in their mid-20’s. Her head snapped up and she intently examined by face. Turns out she had actually asked if I had a son or daughter and how old my children were. For a moment or two there, I was either the youngest person in the world to have given birth or the youngest looking 50 year old she had ever met.

After the past few months of speaking Spanish with varying degrees of success, I now have a renewed admiration for people who speak more than one language. This shit is HARD. People speak at break-neck speed, they use slang constantly, they fire questions at you so quickly all you can do is say “Si!” and hope you haven’t agreed to something horrible.

So please, the next time you’re speaking to someone who doesn’t share the same mother tongue as you, slow down, use simple words, gently correct them, then tell them how much you admire their determination to learn a second (or third, or fourth) language.

Home Away From Home

Home Away From Home

Home Away From Home

Along this trip we’ve stayed in some nice places, and some not so nice ones – as is the way of backpacking. When we found a beautiful lake-side cottage on AirBnB, we only hoped the reality of it would be comparable to the pictures. It was going to be Bryan’s birthday and we wanted to celebrate in style.

Getting to Lake Atitlan was a superbly crappy day for us all around. It started out well, with a birthday breakfast for Bryan and a plan to get to the cabin ASAP to start the celebrating. Road blockades left us stranded at the bus station, waiting for a bus that would take us from Xela to our waiting cottage. In desperation we agreed to pay a cab driver an exorbitant amount of money to get us around the detour. We then found ourselves in bumper to bumper traffic for hours when he couldn’t. Lesson learned there.

Arriving hours later than we had been expected, we again paid a ridiculous amount of money for a late-night boat ride to where we hoped our cabin was waiting. But it was too late, too dark and although we were standing on the correct dock (out of the 200 or so on the lake) we couldn’t find our cabin. We resigned ourselves to celebrating Bryan’s birthday at a hostel in the small nearby town of San Marcos instead. The groceries we had trekked from Xela to Lake Atitlan sat in the hostel fridge. We would make Bryan’s birthday dinner the following night instead, when hopefully we’d be able to find our home for the next week.

Apart from shuttle boat trips (hailed from our small dock) every few days across the lake to get groceries, we stayed put, and extended our stay by another week. We planned meals around our no-fridge kitchen, and made some damn good ones. We stocked up on books in town and read them all day, every day. We played Euchre, Boggle, Chess and all the songs on our iTunes. We chilled out with relaxing yoga sessions and made our own kombucha. We received garden-fresh veggies and eggs from Andreas, one of Luzmi’s workers, who liked to visit us daily for some Spanish-to-English conversations. We watched the lake – from the living room, from the kitchen, from the bedroom. We enjoyed the nightly lightning storms that lit up all the mountains around us. We cuddled with Rosie, Luzmi’s cat who joined us every night. In the evenings we watched episodes of The Wire, which Bryan had thought to download before we arrived. We enjoyed the no-wifi quiet.We unpacked in awe of the space and light we had in this place. Big windows on every wall gave us fantastic views of the lake, the garden and the surrounding volcanos. We had room to move around! 2 floors! After living in rooms with beds as the only furniture, we were ecstatic to relax in a living area that was not a bedroom. The kitchen was larger than the one we had back in Toronto, and brighter too. We never wanted to leave, and we barely did.Well, thankfully, the place was well worth the wait and hassle. The next morning we were greeted on the dock by Luzmi, the tiny woman who owns the property, and the 3.5 cabins on it (one is under construction). She showed us up the weaving stone path from the water through the garden, which grows much of her food, past the chicken + 1 duck coop, and to the beautiful cabin we’d be calling home for the next little while. Turns out, we had seen it from the water the night before, but in the dark we just couldn’t find the path up to it. Luzmi invited us to a welcoming ceremony, where we burned sage, copal and candles and told each other what we were appreciative of. Mostly, we were appreciative we found her and made it in one piece.

 

As we prepared to leave, we knew that moving on to Antigua was going to give us a bit of a shock – people! cars! restaurants! Luzmi and her other guest Sharon joined us for a lovely send off lunch where we enjoyed a bean-avocado-quinoa dip, tahini almonds, a salad from the garden and homemade kombucha.

Our Lake Atitlan cabin has convinced us of a few things:

  1. Western toilets are the stupidest invention, possibly ever. Why do we, literally, shit on our clean water supply? The toilet here is waterless, smell-free and earth-friendly. If all I have to do to conserve water is pour a bit of dirt on my business, I’m in.
  2. Secondary to the water conservation concept, I’ve found how little water I really need to get clean. There is a lovely stone shower at the cabin, but I enjoyed heating water on the stove for a wash instead. No kidding, 2 litres of water is all I needed. I think 3 times as much runs right past me down the drain when I shower. The comparison makes me shake my head a little.
  3. Much of what we refrigerate at home doesn’t need it. Our milk, yogurt, juice, eggs and vegetables were just fine stored in drawers and on shelves. We ate leftovers that had been on the counter all night and survived to tell about it.
  4. When we do settle into a house, wherever that may be, it will absolutely need to have more windows than walls.

We can only hope to find another home-away-from-home along our travels, although to beat this one is going to be a tough challenge.

Weaving in Nebaj

Weaving in Nebaj

Weaving in NebajBefore arriving in the remote town of Nebaj, Guatemala, Bryan and I weren’t sure what to expect. Searches online turned up almost zero info on the area. In fact, we found very little about the civil war that terrorized the community only a generation prior. In the 1980’s genocide and ‘disappearances’ happened regularly in Nebaj, as the Guatemalen government gave free reign to the military to control the Ixil indigenous population by any means necessary. For more information on the long and devastating Guatemalan Civil War, read here.

As we rolled into town (standing in the back of a pick up truck no less) we were surprised at how large Nebaj was. Sitting in a bowl of mountains, Nebaj is home to the indigenous Ixil community, a group of people who wear very traditional clothes (for women, red woven skirts and multi-coloured woven shirts, for men, red coats and large white hats) and speak Ixil-Maya.

For Bryan and I, this was the first place we’ve been where no one in town speaks English. To boot, very few speak Spanish either. Ixil-Maya is a fun language to hear – it’s throaty and jumpy, made up of low B and H sounds. As a person with a fairly high voice, I’m horrible at attempting it. Bryan is much better. We were also an oddity in Nebaj. Few backpackers make it to this remote region and that garnered us a lot of giggles and stares, and even one brave boy who ran up, touched my jacket, shrieked and ran back to his friends.

Kaili_weaving
Gettin’ my weave on.

One thing we did know we wanted to do while in Nebaj was learn about the weaving that dominates the Ixil traditional dress. We were lucky enough to meet Tina, an Ixil weaver who was selling her wears outside our hotel. In broken Spanish (for both of us, as Tina’s first language is Ixil-Maya) we arranged for a lesson on traditional weaving and looked forward to learning the colourful art.

Our lesson started with a visit to Nebaj’s bustling market, where Tina led us down a dark ally to a hidden area full of sewing and weaving supplies. Here we chose the cotton colours we wanted to weave with. Traditional scarves, belts, shirts and skirts are often woven using 9 or more colours, but we decided to go with a more basic 4-colour palate. This got a laugh from Tina and the yarn salesman, especially when we chose our colours: green, orange, purple and black. I think they were surprised we didn’t choose red – everyone here wears red, almost exclusively.

We were humbled to follow Tina to her house where our lesson would commence. She explained that it had been in her family for 3 generations, and she lived there with her 3 children (a grown daughter, and 2 sons, 12 and 15) and her parents. Tina was shocked to hear that in Canada we don’t often live with our parents as adults. The house was made of dirt-packed bricks and Bryan had to duck just to get in the door. We are much taller than anyone else in this town. Our hotel room looked jammed with ‘things’ in comparison to Tina’s sparse house, and we’re living out of backpacks, which begs the questions: why do we need all this stuff?? Tina and her family seemed to be getting along just fine without it.

Bryan weaving
Bryan weaving some yarn.

Tina and her daughter had many laughs as Bryan and I struggled with the most basic of tasks: unrolling and re-rolling the yarn in prep for weaving. To be honest, we were pretty shit at it. And super slow. We appreciate that they didn’t just roll their eyes, grab the yarn and roll it in a fraction of the time themselves – they were very patient with us.

Next up came the looping of the yarn around a large wooden device to make sections where the yarn crossed over each other. After watching this happen, and participating it in myself, I still have NO CLUE how this process works to result in a woven scarf, but it does. Magically.

Tina took over for the intricate parts of tying off sections of the looped yarn and applying it to her basic apparatus of spare plastic tubes and tree branches. Together these items make up a simple hand-held loom. Both of us took turns following Tina’s instruction to weave, while sitting on a sling to provide the tension needed to pass the dowel back and forth between the crossed yarn.

Once we (sort of) had the hang of this, Tina added in a twist – we’d also be knotting in an image to our scarf. This part really threw me for a loop. No matter how often I watched Tina and Bryan knot the proper sections of yarn, I barely got the hang of this. Our final scarf has a very distinct ‘Kaili section’ where everything is just a little askew. Tina was so fast at this process. Her hands passed across the yarn, tying 10 knots in the blink of an eye – and always in the exact right place. In comparison, I think the same process took me, for real, over five minutes per line.

Tina weaving
Our skilled teacher, Tina.

When it was time for us to leave 4 hours later, we had only finished 1/6th of the actual scarf. My back was aching and I was a little cross-eyed. Tina let us know she’d have the whole thing done by the next morning. She is one fast weaver! Over a lunch of tomato and leafy green soup and we sat and talked (as much as three people who only speak a limited about of a common language can).

woven scarf
Our final piece.

We learned that Tina’s husband left her many years ago, and since then she’s struggled to provide for her family. She told us that for 7 years she was very sad, but was feeling better now. She sings in her church choir multiple times a week and a few friends stopped by for a visit while we were there. She has never attended school and looked at us with wide-eyed amazement when Bryan told her he spent over 20 years in classrooms. The only job Tina ever had is weaving and selling her pieces in the market or hotel lobbies.

There are mixed feelings when doing something like this because we wish we could do more to help Tina and her family. This experience was more than we hoped for when we arrived. We parted ways with a hug and a smile, and our perfect souvenir from Nebaj.