Ecuador January 2012

Ecuador opened up a new chapter of our travels. After New Year’s in Colombia, and the burning of the effigy of 2011 (stuffed with personal notes and firecrackers, then doused with gasoline), we boarded an early-morning bus heading south, arriving in Quito after midnight 18 hours later. Our precariously-perched bus wound its way through the Andes over deep river gorges on a road punctuated by landslide damage. This has become the norm, though it hasn’t deterred the drivers from going for speed and passing records. To their credit, they are meticulously on time. We’ve only witnessed one scrape-up, when a car sideswiped the bus, then quickly took off. The bus chased him through town for a good 10 minutes with passengers screaming and cheering him on, before relenting.

Side hike on a jungle creek

We split up in Quito; Arden studied Spanish and lived with a family while Read headed east to join his kayaking kindred spirits. Arden banged her head against the wall of subjunctive, while Read boated warm-water jungle rivers. Arden did battle with direct and indirect object pronouns, while Read was attacked by river pirates.  We reunited in Popayactu, a hot-springs resort town at 10,000 feet, enjoying a “mini-moon” of soaking and good food. Arden headed back to Quito while Read shacked up in the amazonian-warm town of Tena at a kayakers hostel, boating with Quebecois, Germans, Thais, Ecuadorians, Americans, Aussies, Norwegians, Swedes, Brits, Poles, Russians, etc.

Take-out refreshments and taxi truck

Rains come and go, with levels surging then dropping off. Hitting the right stretch at just the right water level is a bit of a guess. The Rio Piatua was a warm friendly jungle toodle the first time, and high water freight train the next (too scared to take photos). After paddling the first 100 yards of the uppermost stretch, a side creek dumped in twice-again the volume, only muddier. The intrepid kayakers fled back to the taxi-truck, and drove down to lower put-ins, looking for a section that was more open and less steep. Deciding that the take-out for the typical run was the best spot to put-in (“this will be mellow”), they dropped into a busy section filled with holes, eddies, and fun. A kayaking maneuver called “boofing” was the key to skirting or hopping over the bad stuff. When one boater missed his boof, he went for a long rodeo ride in a hole until swimming to shore. His boat kept going, only a couple hundred yards down river, but out of sight. Thinking he had to hike to the road, he chose to head straight into the jungle where he disappeared from sight for some time. What he didn’t know was that his boat stopped at a footbridge and road just downstream. When he eventually emerged from the wet green depths, and realized his folly, he commented, “Jungle’s hard on a Utah boy!”

Swinging footbridges are the only access for remote farmers

Shin-deep mud on put-in hikes was scarier than the rapids

One of countless waterfalls coming into river

Arden met up with her mom in Quito for three weeks of travel. They froze their fannies off in a beautiful remote section of the central highlands called the Quilotoa Loop as well as at the cheese and chocolate-making community cooperative of Salinas that sits at a whopping 11,000 feet. Arden’s 73-year old mom was a great sport including braving snarling dogs, sleeping in her long underwear (“I left central heating for this”), arriving in rooms that made one’s eyes water (think 1970’s wallpaper and bedspreads), and travelling long distances on standing-room only buses. The two finally landed in Cuenca, a city of 450,000 in the southern mountains which was voted the number one gringo retirement haven for 2010 & 11. They spent the next twelve days trying not to doze through joint Spanish classes, visiting museums and nearby parks & pueblos, enjoying free classical music concerts and packing on a post-Christmas five pounds while eating their way through Cuenca’s renowned “fusion” cuisine.

Granadillas ~ good for the tummy

We will spend a couple more weeks in Ecuador before heading north through the eastern cordiella of Colombia and up the Caribbean coast, to enjoy beach and snorkeling time. Future plans include spending the summer in the Arkansas Valley before heading south for the fall. We were invited for a two-year Peace Corps assignment in Peru starting this September, Read in Water-Sanitation Projects and Arden in Community Health.

Pet two-toed sloth who lives in a popular italian restaurant in Tena

And for those of you who care to follow Read’s socio-political diatribe, click here.


Colombia Part 2

Plaza in Zipaquira

We travelled to Bogota via Zipaquira which houses a famous underground Salt Cathedral. Although touristy, we were impressed with the huge underground rooms, complete with baby Jesus and other holy scenes. With our unimpressive religious backgrounds, we didn’t understand a lot of the abstract religious imagery, just as when we hear Spanish and don’t understand 50% + of what’s being said. So we make stuff up or fill in the blanks with what we think is going on. Sometimes it works and sometimes it backfires. Consequences at the restaurant, or grocery store are minimal (Read ordered a beer in a club and got 8 bottles delivered, all opened), but bus station mistakes can hurt (“Wait, how far back was our stop?”) . We keep our mouths shut on religion, and keep politics neutral until we are very sure of our audience.

Salt Cathedral underground church in salt mine

From Zipaquira, we took a bus to Bogota, home to eight million Colombians. After trying to catch a cab for two hours at the bus station, we risked public transport and ended up on one super-packed bus-ride with no idea where our stop was (Read was buried in the back with both packs, climbing over bodies to exit when the driver yelled for us).

Hostel room with a view of Bogota

The frazzled “country mice” arrived at the hostel, which offered a welcome respite from the big, gritty, bustling metrapolis with a windowed turret room overlooking the city. We embraced urban activities including visiting the Boltero and Gold Museums, climbing the famous Cerro de Monserrate hill on the eastern side of Bogota for a city-wide view, taking part in a free salsa class, and going to two of the better dance performances we’ve ever seen. This included a knockout salsa performance that took over an hour-and-a-half to get to on public transport, as well as Ballet Folklorico which highlighted the diversity of Colombian dance. We visited the gold museum twice; once to look and once to take a tour in Spanish. It helped that the tour guide was really into her subject, a knockout to look at and snappily put together. At first she seemed excited we were into the tour, then a bit annoyed by the overattentive but clueless gringos. Both of us have a tendency to invade people’s personal space so we can hear them; we also have the unfortunate habit of staring at people intently trying to understand them, sometimes with our mouths half-open, silently lip-syncing their words back to them.

Hike up hill overlooking Bogota with humid air hanging over city

From Bogota, we took a nine-hour bus ride to Salento, a beautiful little town of 3,500 in the Zona Cafetera. We hiked amid wax palms (Colombia’s national tree) in the Valle de Cocora and took a coffee tour on a small coffee finca with six other Americans from Hawaii. The scenery and town are simply stunning; we fantasized about living in Salento which was fun to day-dream about as we wandered among the palms.

Wax Palms in National Park near Salento

a trepidatious Arden hiking jungle paths

Hiker's delight - hot sugar cane soup with melted cheese

We next headed to Popayan, a university town of 350,000 located in the southwest. Again, we fell in love with the place including the climate which at 5,000 feet is “fresca” or cooler than towns at sweaty sea-level, as well as the dynamism that comes with a mid-size town full of students and professors, professionals, and working folks. Our idealistic daydreams were checked by reality including learning that corruption is an issue at all levels, i.e., NGO money runs through the mayor’s office and much of it disappears. We spent a day enjoying a Navidad dinner with other folks in our hostel as well as strolling around the town and a second day riding from the Coconuco hot springs 18 miles downhill, back to Popayan. If Arden had any illusions about being a mountain biker they were swiftly dashed by the excursion. Our backs (and bums) are still recovering as are Arden’s hands from gripping the breaks for 18 miles.

Arden mountain biking 18 miles downhill ("never again")

Coffee grower giving us a tour of his plants, tree to hot brewed cup

Steep wet mountains produce abundant rivers throughout the south

For our last foryay, we traveled to Cali, for their week-long Feria de Cali party. We met up with an American named Ammani who we met in Cartegena, and spent an evening together enjoying jugo de lulo and fried fish to the tunes of Pacific Coast African bands. Other nights included popular salsa bands with the crowd singing along to every word, banging on  cowbells and other hand instruments, with the unique Colombian style salsa step, knocking back shots of aguardiente. We were a couple of the rare white faces in the crowd. The last night, Arden finally acquiesced and hit the dance floor in a club (trying her best to take the lead) until 2am.

Pacific Coast Colombians Carl & Carla, and Amani (from NYC)

Cali street art in the San Antonio barrio

Colombia is a gorgeous country with interesting, kind people. Colombians went out of their way to ensure our travels were smooth from personally escorting us through parks and barrios in Bogota to giving us free juice, beer, and food. American tourism en masse hasn’t hit Colombia the way it has Costa Rica or Ecuador and Peru to the south. Economically the country is also beginning to boom and like its neighbor Brazil, is riding a wave of growth and prosperity. Whether this translates to social reforms for the populace as a whole remains to be seen, but Colombia is on the rise. No doubt, we will be back for a longer stay.

Colombia part one

We arrived in Colombia after a 24-hour bus ride through Costa Rica to Panama City, flying to Cartegena via Bogota early the next morning. Our few fuzzy memories of Costa Rica include being herded off the bus at 4:30 a.m. at the Costa Rica-Panama border. After 45 minutes of standing under florescent lights someone informed us, “the border authorities start work at 6:00”. Arden stumbled over to a ricktey road-side stand that produced two big cups of freshly brewed Costa Rican coffee with hot milk. Miracles appear in small ways.

Arden & Read thoroughly enjoying their brief foray into Costa Rica at "la frontera" (the border)

Our flight was delayed from Bogota to Cartegena due to “la lluvia” (rain) and floods. Flying over central Colombia we saw numerous river-lakes dotted with flooded homes. The floods and resulting mud slides wiped out major highways and caused nearly 200 deaths and millions of dollars of damage. For these two gringos, it makes travel a tad bit more interesting, i.e., inquiring if a road is intact and how many hours delay it will be from point A to B.
The sweaty tropical Cartegena heat flattened us. In Colorado, we came to the conclusion we didn’t sweat. Other people, but not us. Cartegena melted us to puddles by noon. We took refuge in the street carts selling ice chips and freshly squeezed mango/ moro (blackberry)/ orange juice or limeade. Cartegena comes alive at night and we joined in ~ napping at noon and staying up unil 12 or 2 a.m. (way past Arden’s bed-time) to boogie to live salsa bands and watch prostitues work street corners.

Old city Cartagena

From Cartagena, we headed north to Santa Marta and Parque Tayrona, a national beach park. We slipped and skidded our way down muddy trails to find paradise including 2 km of golden sand beach where we kicked it for a day. Plans to return to the same beach the following day were thwarted by a solid night of “la lluvia” which made the five creek crossings flood into chest-deep chocolate rivers. Standing at the edge of the first crossing we watched a man wade across towards us, attentively looking upstream. He emerged, then trotted over to us and pointed at what appeared to be a large log laying on a sand bar 150 feet away, “It’s okay to cross here, just keep an eye on that (pointing to a five-foot caymen). If it slips into the water, move quickly.” As we watched it amble into the water, we promptly terminated our efforts at crossing, and changed our agenda for the day.

Tayrona National Park

Post-beach, we took an all-night bus south to San Gil, a noisy working city of 45,000. The cooler temperatures, surrounding rivers and mountains, and endless ice cream stores encouraged us to linger for five days. We watched a night of festivities in the main square, including  the locals dancing a kind of polka to regional folk bands.  When we attempted to mimic the step on the sidelines, folks grabbed each of us and dragged us onto the street. Suddenly all eyes were on us (Read stood nearly a foot taller than most folks). Our utter clumsiness amused the crowd to no end as they pointed and laughed. Gringos can’t colombopolka. Even the 70+ year-old rancher lady danced Read into the ground. Next thing we knew people were buying Read beers, and encouraging more bad dancing. A little humility goes a long way. (no photos/video available thank goodness).

Waterfall near San Gil

First Communion for local San Gil kids

We also joined families visiting the annual holiday light decorations at the local park. From our impressions, Colombians take “la Navidad” very seriously ~ they give “norte americanos” a good run for our money in who decorates (and buys) the most.

We’re now in Villa de Leyva, a boutique Salida-like town of 7,000 in the mountains, four hours north of Bogota, at roughly 6,600 feet. We’ve dragged out sweatshirts and hats and have gone from sweating to shivering in the tropics. We hike muddy but beautiful trails, suck on coconut popsicles, and plan for forays to Bogota, Cali and the Valle de Cafe to the south.

Villa de Leyva main square

"Angel's Pass" with 300 foot drop off on left side, 100 drop on right

local tomato farmer kids

We’ve loved Colombia thus far. The country is beautiful and huge ~ you can swim with caymens at tropical beachs and bungie-jump off mountain passes (we passed on both). The spoken Spanish is by far the clearest we’ve heard on this trip and the people we met are patient and good humored. We had a group of young men offer to walk us through a public park in one town, because some American’s video camera got ripped off and they wanted to make sure we enjoyed ourselves without incident. It makes us hope to extend the same to folks visiting the states one day.

Local 20-something good samaritans in San Gil park (check out tee-shirt on the left)


One of numerous Estili street murals, almost a block long

We loved Nicaragua, plain and simple. Loved the folks we met and the places we visited. One strong sentiment we heard about, especially among younger students, was a sense of egalitarianism and equality. The revolution seemed to impart the notion that nicas are all in it together, that none should benefit more than another. Older students we met were pursuing business administration, teaching, social work, and medical degrees. Older nicas who remember the revolution seem ready to move on, though their support for president Daniel Ortega is faithful, perhaps for lack of a better choice. As a taxi driver/student said, younger generations are waiting for the old guard to get out of the way. Organic farming, homeopathic medecine, and sustainability were often mentioned. Tourism also is a growing industry. Crime is almost non-existent outside of Managua and popular gringo spots. This alone is a bragging right given the current crime rates in the neighboring countries including the revered “eco-gringo” destination of choice (Read’s words) – Costa Rica (click here for statistics).

Carlos Fonseca - revolutionary leader

School wall mural denouncing violence against children

We arrived in Nicaragua to the northern highlands of Estili, a bustling city, home to half a dozen top brand cigars (which we didn’t try), and the most murals of any town its size.

street art - one snapshot of a block length mural

Nearby, in the rural cooperative of Miraflor, farmers produce highly prized shade-grown coffee (best we’ve ever had), and host curious gringos like ourselves in rustic accomodations ($20 a night buys you lodging in an “Avatar-like” tree-house plus three meals). Our stay in Miraflor with a multi-generational Sandanista, Dona Corina, was a treat as we learned about local natural medicines, how to identify a good coffee bean, and how the pervasive cloud-forest moisture can kill a computer keyboard.

our tree-house lodging for two

coffee tour with local expert teaching us about beans

Host family in Miraflors

Nicaraguan cloud-forest scorpion

Read swimming against the current as usual

Arden hiking in highlands with local herbal medicine shaman, note cloud sitting on peak in background where the sun hardly came out.

Tree sap that lathers up with friction, then applied to infected wounds

Off the grid: human powered well pump

We headed from Esteli to the hills above the coffee production capital of Matagalpa which houses the “uber-sustainable” coffee finca (plantation) of Salva Negra. The finca family spent decades developing operations to produce top-quality coffee using a holistic approach. This includes growing rainforest-alliance certified coffee, composting, producing methane gas from farm byproducts and using it as an energy source, growing organic produce and raising organic livestock for the restaurant. They have a line of incredible cheeses; Read stashed a stinky “camenbert” in his backpack for later on munching. Furthur, three generations of workers live and work at the finca which provides free housing, food, medical care, and primary school education. There is even sufficient water and vertical drop to produce electrical power meeting half of the needs of the entire operation. The family controls the entire coffee process from seed to table as they have family members in the states who roast and distribute coffee. They’ve won multiple “cupping contests” in Latin America which basically means they produce damn good coffee. We happily got wired on it every morning and plan to buy it via Whole Foods or “Java Vino” their bean distribution company. The preserved virgin rainforest that covers the peak above the finca is full of howler monkeys living free in the multi-layered canopy. Much to Read’s surprise, meter-long coral snakes also thrive in the wet understory, but only to scare the pants off middle-aged tourists dragging along to keep up with their hiking-hungry wives.

Matapalo - viney tree parts are a parasitic tree that kill its host (barked tree seen behind )

Salva Negra brand sustainable shade-grown coffee plants

Finally, we spent six days on Ometepe, a two-coned volcanic island in the middle of a giant lake that is a tropical playland. While Arden hiked the smaller of the two volcanos (and slid down the muddy trail on her tush), Read enjoyed sea kayaking to a wetlands in search of birds, caymen and turtles, in between hammock surfing sessions. A tandem kayak sunset tour to Monkey Islands was a daily ritual to view two large Spider Monkeys and eight White-faced Monkeys. The Spider Monkeys were formerly pets, chained up in someone’s yard before being sprung to semi-freedom on their tiny island. Unfortunately, while we were there, two tourists kayaked too close to the island; the Spider Monkeys swung down on them in search of food and attacked them. Back at the hotel, Read rendered first aid on some very serious claw and bite wounds before the two were whisked away via speedboat to the mainland hospital. While private clinics in Nicaragua provide first-world standard care, the public system according to one victim was “scarier than the monkey attack”.

Kayaking on Ometepe lake, volcano in clouds, Monkey Island on left

Waterfall on volcano

Local street gang members

Fisherman and their dug-out canoe

Street vendor's daughter studying while mom works fruit stand

Nicaragua on the ground is far from what our media-melded perceptions had us anticipating. Poverty is without a doubt the biggest issue. Yet economic development can’t happen with Nicaragua being held in isolation from much-needed foreign capital. The Sandanista Revolution did achieve its primary goal, the one that most Nicaraguans supported – ridding their country of the U.S. puppet strongman, emblematic of a long history of interference from the north.

We always felt safe in Nicaragua. We never felt animosity towards us, as Americans, despite our entagled histories. We look forward to future visits, and would gladly spend time in Nicaragua, using what few skills and work experiences we have to support Nicas in pursuing their future.

El Salvador

The most densley populated country in Central America, El Salvador has a turbulent history rife with contradiction, conflict, class warfare, and military/economic intervention from within and out. In our brief interaction with Salvadorans, we found them friendly and warm, hoping for peace, security, and some level of economic comfort. The land is lush, verdant, and tropical (for these two Coloradans), replete with volcanos, beaches and jungle, hosting fruits and foods of all kinds. The headlines in the U.S. of violence are overplayed, though it is very real for certain segments of the population, primarily the poor. We sampled a variety of spots, and were able to hear personal stories that exemplify the resilience of a people struggling with enormous problems while still maintaining optimism for the future.

Feel free to skip over the blah, blah, blog text, and enjoy the photos:

Outskirts of Guatemala City from double-decker luxury bus (w/ wi-fi)

Rich, Amy, & Cole Sinclair

San Salvador – Thanks to our hosts Amy Swaitek, Rich Sinclair and their son Cole, we based out of their home on the Escuela Amercana campus where Rich works as the High School Principal, and Amy provides facilitation. Five-year old Cole is already wicked-fluent in Spanish, schooling the adults on our poor vocabulary and bad grammar. We didn’t site-see much in the capital city, but were impressed by our hosts driving prowess on these “(s)he who honks and goes first, wins” streets. Our tour started with a family day trip to the highlands:

Suchitoto – This small northern colonial town sits near a lake, created by a dam decades ago. Suchitoto was also in the center of the war. The recently opened local museum has numerous video testimonies (which we couldn’t understand very well), photos, and a list of the nearby massacres committed by the army. The project was the result of an arts grant provided to the community where youth decided how the money would be spent. Teens chose to capture their local history through art and modern media in a compelling display.

Rural Salvadoran home

Tunco – Surfs up in El Salvador! A great beginner/intermediate break at Punto Sunzal was the perfect reminder that Gringo Colorado (aka Read) can’t surf. Eight hours in the water included 14 poundings, three flailing whitewater rides, and four surfing “experiences”. The swell increased over five days, to monstrous “double overhead” (10-12 foot faces). With the pucker-factor high, and talented locals getting agro, competition for rides made it easy to choose to be a spectator rather than participant. Fresh seafood (Mariscada soup) was abundant and cheap as were the numerous groovy eco-lodge hostels. Arden did daily yoga while Read surfed the internet (safer alternative to the sea). Click here to see a Salvadorean surfer we filmed at Punta Roca.

Mango liquado a la hamaca

Fish market on the Pier at La Libertad

Cemetery decorated for All Souls Day – Nov. 2nd

Sunset behind Bocanita Rock and Punto Sunzal

Parque Impossible – Out west, high above the beach, sits one of El Salvadors’ national parks. Named after an impassible canyon that coffee growers had to cross with mules carrying beans to market, it now encompasses the area headwaters, preserving the jungle. The park was planned so that it would to grow while employing locals, building infrastructure for the pueblo, and creating awareness of the need to preserve El Salvador’s scarce forests. Two days of hiking to peaks and creeks, jungle pools, and cool nights in the hostel cabins was a welcome relief from the coastal sweat.

Cabin bunks = matrimonial time-out

Jungle pool at hostel - Parque Impossible

Note yellow circle next to Read = spider inches over his shoulder

Spider as big as Read's hand

Click here to read about some people we’ve met along the way.

San Miguel – After a couple of standing-room-only steaming hot chicken-bus rides on bad roads, we arrived at El Salvador’s second city in the east. A short taxi-ride across town gave us the chance to learn about our driver; two kids living in the U.S. with their mother while he drives a yellow cab earning $15-$50/day, paying $25/day for the vehicle plus gas, and $40/month to organized crime (Mara Trucha) in protection money. Gangs are pervasive in El Salvador. Some attribute them to the fact that so many parents go to the U.S. for work (25% of the population lives in the states, sending back $3.5 billion in 2010). Kids seek out family subsitutes in gangs, or are simply forced to join in poor neighborhoods where they have no option (join or be killed). Even Coca-Cola is purported to have paid off the Mara to operate in El Salvador.

Bus station breakfast of champions = ice cream sundae

Perquin – In the mountains four hours north of San Miguel lies the coffee region where the FMLN geurillas fought the Salvadorian army after the massacres of El Mozote and other towns. In 1981, approximately 1,000 to 1,200 people were executed in the army’s effort to depopulate the area of geurillas or sympathizers. Ronald Reagan denied it happened, calling it propaganda. Today it stands as a memorial to the innocents killed in the 12 year civil war.

Our 23 year old local hiking guide Evrett lost his father to the war, but his grandmother managed to play both sides in a delicate balancing act that kept them from getting killed by one side or the other, depending on who controlled the town. Like many, Evrett was sick of the death and terror, not convinced that anything actually changed as a result of the war.

We spent our last morning visiting a remote village with a group of American doctors ( and volunteers doing work with kids. After the kids were given free brushes / toothpaste, and a tooth-brushing lesson, Arden played dentist and applied flouride tooth varnish on kids’ rotting teeth. Next they went into a classroom to see the real dentist who then yanked out the worst ones. It’s impressive to see folks like these docs taking vacation time to travel down on their own dime to deliver aid.

Dr. Trewartha at work

Our lasting impression of El Salvador is of a country with fresh memories of the trauma from a war over extreme social and economic inequities. Though much has changed, there is still a huge gap between the well-off and the rest of the country (sound familiar?).


View from hostel bed (note volcano)

Most of us dream of becoming proficient at something. For me (Arden) that includes dancing salsa and speaking Spanish. The first dream was dashed about five years ago when while learning to dance salsa in Buena Vista, with the instructor twirling me in front of the class, I tripped and fell. With Spanish, while I can congate verbs until the cows come home, putting these verbs into a comprehensive sentence pretty much eludes me. I’m reduced to playing charades ~ “sounds like, looks like“, drawing stick

Arden getting fleeced by 8-year old vendors

figures or gesturing wildly. I arrived in Antigua Guatemala two weeks ahead of Read to study one-on-one and live with a host family. At one point I jokingly told a teacher I spoke like a four-year-old. Choosing her words carefully, she responded, “Well, actually four-year-olds speak pretty well“, and changed the subject. Last Friday I took a cab home and tried to tell the cabbie he must drive a lot of drunks home on weekends. He spent the rest of the cab ride growing increasingly agitated and yelling, “No soy un borracho” (I am not a drunk). There is a great humbling life lesson in going from a job in management to stumbling through “See Spot Run” books. Antigua has great Spanish Schools including San Jose el Viejo where you learn Spanish one-on-one among beautiful gardens with an extremely patient (and, let’s face it, sometimes bored) “maestro”.

Dr. Seuss fruit for breakfast

Mid-October brought two “tropical depressions” to Guatemala meaning solid rain. I don’t know if it made the news back home but there were 92 deaths in Central America due to flooding, and multiple mud slides closing major highways and remote roads alike . For Antiguans, the rain simply meant sloshing through big puddles, wet shoes and clothes, and prayers for “el sol”. I was in awe coming from dry Colorado. I don’t think I’ve ever seen nine days of solid rain.

Wheelchair manufacturing at Transitions

Team Transitions: Central-American Wheelchair Basketball Champs

Read arrived on Oct. 23rd, which meant Arden now has a security escort (as if that will help). As part of our mission on this journey, we toured a couple local nonprofits, including Wings, a women’s reproductive rights organization. You can imagine the challenges of empowering rural women in a machismo culuture with a very strong Catholic Church. Another local effort, Transtions, is a multi-faceted organization supporting Guatemalans with disabilities. Cobblestone streets with tall curbs and steep muddy rural roads are hard on wheelchairs, so Transitions manufactures their own heavy-duty chairs, employing clients and teaching skills in the process. Both of these organizations are inspirational in their ability to overcome intense challenges, all the while creating a powerful sense of empowerment and community.

Salsa superstars covertly training in Latin American hideout dance studio

The fun parts of our journey include learning Salsa, which will surely be the impossible endeavor. First, gringos just can’t dance. We’re missing a gene or something rhythmic and sensual. Our 4′-8” tall instructor kept trying to get Arden to stick her bum out and show off her legs (not a typical mid-western trait). Second, Teva’s are not dance shoes. Talcum powder sprinkled on the tile dance floor is a weak and slippery band-aid. Third, contrary to Arden’s intuition, the male must lead, and la chica must follow. Nothing more need be said there.

Daniel & Rosy with Arden

In a diversion from the comforts of Antigua, we hooked up with a young couple from Guatemala City (friends of Trish & Mike Bews), who drove us around to see the sights of the capital. Daniel is an attorney working as a homocide investigator/prosecutor (roles are combined here), Rosy is also an attorney practicing family law. Our tour included a visit to the Presidential Palace, built circa 1850, the Catholic Church, circa 1650, and a famous local bar El Portal where the seeds of the 1944 revolution were sewn by leftist writers and activists. Daniel pointed out the huge portrait of President Alberto Guzman hanging from the palace celebrating the anniversary of the revolution.

El Portal - denizon of the revolutionaries

He was forcefully removed in a 1954 coup with the help of the CIA, then flown to Mexico where he was promptly assasinated. If the upcoming election puts candidate Perez Molina in office, Daniel joked that the portrait would quickly end up in the garbage. Perez, the former general known as “Mano Duro” or firm hand, could bring a hard turn to the right with tough repercussions for criminals who are currently running rampant. But Perez has been connected to extrajudicial killings in the 1980’s, raising fears of renewed human rights abuses. Ironically, Rosy supports Perez, in opposition to her husband. She grew up in a very small rural village, one of nine children raised by a single mom. Like many Guatemalans, she is tired of the insecurity and violence.

If anything, we’re learning from first hand accounts the plight of the developing world. We’ve heard many stories of unimaginable injustices, senseless violence, and yet a profound ability to carry on. The t-shirt slogan “got hope?” that we’ve seen in the U.S. is seemingly profane when you look at it in context of Guatemala.

The first leg

We left Buena Vista 48 hours “late”, on September 23rd after Read accidentally deleted seven years of Arden’s computer files, and spent a day heroically retrieving (most of) them. We drove to Capitol Reef Utah where we hiked for two days then to Bryce, Zion and finally Mt. Whitney in California. For those like us who haven’t visited National Parks in awhile, it almost feels like visiting a (multi-national) country with people from all over the world. According to our unscientific poll, French was

Arden negotiating canyon terrain in Zion National Park

the dominant nationality followed by German while Americans were pretty far down the list. We did have one memorable night in Zion, pulling into the campground next to a monster white pickup truck complete with a custom-designed skull and crossbones license plate, two amorous liquored-up 50-something women dancing with their box-o-wine and boom box blaring the best of (worst of) the 80’s.  As Read said, it could have been worse; they could have been blasting “Metallica”. We spent the next two days humming the “Go-Go’s” and “Howard Jones” and reliving some pleasant and not-so-pleasant high school memories.

The hiking was fantastic and Read wins big points for being such a good sport about the whole venture. We want to return to all of the parks, especially Sequoia and Kings Canyon in summer. Now we’re in L.A. frantically running around trying to figure out last-minute details before Arden flies out to Guatemala on Saturday.

Bryce Canyon

Arden, way ahead of Read, on trail in Bryce Canyon

The "Subway" in Zion National Park

The Narrows of Zion

Read showing enthusiasm for hiking on east side of Sierra Nevada