Sam Nabi Kirby Thu, 11 Apr 2019 15:04:45 -0400 Sam Nabi's latest blog posts Is slow travel really better for the environment? Sat, 22 Jul 2017 00:00:00 -0400 Julia and I decided to take a bike trip through Colombia for many reasons: the country is a major cycling destination, with a culture of respect for cyclists and breathtaking, challenging terrain. It’s also a country that speaks Spanish, and we wanted to be able to communicate effectively during our trip.

Perhaps most importantly, Colombia is a place that we could get to without flying. Being environmentalists, we’re well aware that taking fewer flights is one of the most effective ways to reduce your carbon footprint.

To put things in context, one round-trip flight to Colombia would cancel out all the greenhouse gases I save in a year by eating a vegetarian diet. So, we devised an itinerary of trains, buses, and small passenger boats to bring us to Colombia’s Caribbean shore.

As we wound our way through the United States, Mexico, and Central America, I kept meticulous notes on distances travelled, mode of transportation, cost, and the number of passengers that happened to be with us at any given time. (A bus filled to capacity will have much lower emissions per person than one with only a handful of passengers.)

My meticulous notes.

So, how did we do? Did our slow travel philosophy live up to expectations? Are we saving the planet one vacation at a time?

Well, kind of. We cheated a little bit. The bus travel through Central America was so horribly nauseating that we opted to fly from Bogotá to Mexico City on the return trip. From Mexico City back into Canada, there is pretty comfortable train and bus infrastructure. So we skipped the hard parts on the way back, and pumped an extra 400 kilograms of emissions into the atmosphere as a result.

Let’s take a look at a few different scenarios. First, what we had planned to do:

Scenario 1: Original Plan

  • Kitchener – Panama: Trains and buses
  • Panama – Colombia: Small passenger boat with outboard motors to cross the Darién Gap
  • Cycling to Cali, Colombia: 1,347 km (with a few short rides on minibuses along the way)
  • See the rest of Colombia by bus
  • Take boats, trains, and buses to get back home
  • Total emissions per person: 695 kg

Scenario 2: Actual

Since we ended up taking the easy way back to Mexico, this is what our trip actually looked like:

  • Kitchener – Colombia: Same as above
  • Colombia – Mexico City: Airplane
  • Mexico City – Kitchener: Trains and buses
  • Total emissions per person: 1,071 kg

Scenario 3: Fly Mexico – Colombia

Now, if we were to do this trip all over again, our instinct would be to just skip over Central America completely.

  • Kitchener – Mexico City: Trains and buses
  • Mexico City – Medellin, Colombia: Airplane
  • Cycling Medellin – Bogota: 1,037 km (plus a few shuttle buses)
  • Bogota – Mexico City: Airplane
  • Mexico City – Kitchener: Trains and buses
  • Total emissions per person: 1,396 kg

Scenario 4: Direct flight

And lastly, what if we just flew directly from Toronto to Colombia?

  • Kitchener – Medellin, Colombia: Airplane
  • Cycling Medellin – Bogota: 1,037 km (plus a few shuttle buses)
  • Bogota – Kitchener: Airplane
  • Total emissions per person: 1,184 kg

Wait, it’s more environmentally friendly to just fly all the way to Colombia, instead of taking the train to Mexico City first?


Trains release fewer greenhouse gases than flying, per kilometre. But for long-distance travel, the zig-zagging of road and rail network eats into its advantage. Airplanes complete their journeys in a single, smooth arc. In the end, our “Actual” results only saved 100 kg of emissions compared to a direct flight from Toronto.

A direct flight compared with our original no-flying plan, would have cut the total trip distance in half. There are a lot of winding roads in Central America!
The emissions impact of flying is so great that even if you only fly for a small part of your trip, it will inflate your carbon footprint a lot.

The moral of this story, I suppose, is that any long-distance travel will pack a hefty carbon footprint. But the amount of time required for slow travel means you’re less likely to take as many trips, period. This is true in our case: we’re not planning on taking another big trip until 2019, and in the meantime, we have no interest in taking cheap flights every winter to Caribbean resorts.

Now, there’s also the matter of cost. If we compare the greenhouse gas emissions of this trip with the amount we had to pay, it’s fair to ask whether that money could have been put to better use in fighting climate change.

Comparing the four scenarios, it’s clear that slow travel costs a lot of money.


Most of the emissions factors I used came from the UK’s Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy (previously DEFRA). Their conversion factors reports are updated annually and used for reporting the greenhouse gas emissions of travel by government employees and regulated industries.

For Amtrak and VIA Rail travel, I used the emissions factors provided by the agencies themselves. (These numbers would be a lot better if our trains ran on electricity in North America.)

If you really want to dig into the numbers I crunched, feel free to download the Excel spreadsheet.

Touring Colombia by bike: places to stay Sun, 21 May 2017 00:00:00 -0400 Colombia is such a fantastic place to tour by bicycle. The ecosystems transform from jungle to farmland to barren mountain, all in the span of a few days. Nearer to the Caribbean coast, you’ll find mango trees dotting the roadside which offer a refreshing respite from the hot sun.

There are many rural villages in Colombia, and they are spaced pretty evenly every 30-50 kilometres along the main roads. This makes it ideal for touring by bicycle. At our leisurely pace, we covered about 40 kilometres per day on average. Each town, no matter how small, will have a restaurant and a hotel. Hotels attached to gas stations are quite common too, and these are often cleaner and more comfortable than hotels in town.

We found that hotel prices range from 12,000 – 100,000 Colombian Pesos per night, for a private room for two people. In a small town, you shouldn’t have to pay more than 50,000. These prices reflect our experience in Spring 2016.

Here’s a quick rundown of every place we stayed during our tour of Colombia. We started cycling in Necoclí (Day 2), and left our bikes in Cali (Day 32). After Cali, we rode buses for the remainder of our trip. So no, we didn’t cycle 700 kilometres from Cali to Bogotá in four days!

Day City Hotel Price per night for double occupancy (COP) Rating /5 Pros Cons
1 Capurganá Marlin Hostal 35000 2 Lots of mangoes for the taking Water only available 2hrs/day
2 Necoclí Costa del Mar 30000 3 Free coffee, public balcony Shabby rooms
3 Mulatos Green Hotel 12000 2 Excellent fruit juice No lock, pig slaughter
4 Arboletes Zona Camping 40000 3.5 Nice beachfront lounging area Run-down rooms
5 Montería Casa Linda V 70000 3.5 Clean, AC, good staff
6 Montería Miami Central 35000 2 Cheaper than Casa Linda Dingy, loud street, cockroach
7 Planeta Rica Casas Blancas 40000 4 Clean, courtyard window Unfriendly staff
8 La Apartada El Cairo 30000 2.5 AC AC is noisy, dated décor, also a liquor store
9 El Jardin El Lago (Gas Station) 25000 4 AC, window, horses in paddock, swimming pool available at extra cost
10 El Doce El 15 (Gas Station) 25000 3 AC Terrible location (isolated), frog in bathroom
11 Valdivia Diocelina 25000 4 Great jungle mountain view, cute room, good water
12 Yarumal Centro Residencial 40000 2 Hot water Unprofessional and confusing staff, noisy
13 Yarumal Real Plaza 40000 3 Clean, laundry service, public balcony
14 Carolina Los Balcones 30000 4 Charming, friendly, great service No window
15 Barbosa Central Park 55000 3 Hot water, windows Terrible staff
16 Medellín Arcadia Hostel 68000 3 Patio Dirty, loud, shared bathroom down hall
17-18 Caldas Manantial del Sur 35000 2 Mold, hot water, angry yelling
19 La Pintada Hotel Dimar 40000 3 Big room with windows No hot water, lazy staff
20 La Felisa Hotel Nancy 12000 3 River view, cheap No gate control, no hot water
21 Chinchiná Chinchiná Plaza 40000 4 Fancy lounges, good bed, hot water, good staff, window
22 Termales Santa Rosa El P…? 70000 2 Nice first-floor hangout, backyard river Tourist trap
23-26 Filandia Colina de Lluvia 50000 3 Nice kitchen, nice courtyard Overbearing host, annoying kitten
27 La Tebaida Hotel California Tropical 35000 3 Window Couldn’t exit easily, small room, flooding washroom
28 Tuluá Los Cristales 35000 4 Great service, clean big room, warm water Awkward window
29 Restrepo Los Balcones 50000 4 Charming, warm water, balcony, big bathroom
30 San Cipriano Hotel David 30000 2 Tourist meeting place Locked gate, no private bath, gross toilets
31 Dagua Beside railway tracks 18000 2.5 Excellent restaurant, friendly staff No private bath, dingy barebones room
32-39 Cali Diego’s house
40 Silvia La Parilla 40000 4 Cute, hot showers, private courtyard Cold rooms
41 Popayán Hotel Toledo 50000 3.5 Large rooms w/ windows, large bath No hot water
42 Neiva Hospedaje D’Cache 40000 1 Stained sheets, huge mirror, no bathroom door
43 Tatacoa Estadero Villa Marquez 30000 1 Swimming pool Hot small tent, scorpion
44-46 Bogotá B&B Chorro de Quevdo 100000 4.5 Stunning, charming, breakfast, hot water Had to wait for the door
Take me to the beach: the long ride from Mexico to El Salvador Sat, 06 May 2017 00:00:00 -0400 9 April 2016

La Libertad, El Salvador

We’re sitting with a couple bottles of cheap beer at “La Ola 10”, a restaurant in La Libertad, on El Salvador’s Pacific Coast. It’s been a trying three days, and we’ve decided to make for the beach, any beach, with waves and fish and sand and mariachi bands. Anything but the dry, dusty, mountainous trash heaps we’ve been traveling through for the past week.

As of now, we have everything but the sand. La Libertad’s shore is full of large black rocks, the kind you could easily turn your ankle on if you try to walk across them too quickly. There are children playing in water, keeping to the shallows, waiting with glee for the waves to bowl them over. A young family sits on a rocky outcropping, close enough to the water’s surface for the waves to give them a thorough soaking. But no one is properly swimming, whether because of the powerful sea current, or the rocky landscape, or all the detritus being thrown out from the fish market on the pier — I’m not sure.

The fish market is a thing of quaint beauty. It starts from the boardwalk, continuing along the pier that juts out over the rocky beach, over the shallows, out about 300 metres to where it’s deep enough to meet the fishing boats all coming in with their catch. The boats are hoisted, theatre-curtain style, laden with fish and shrimp and calamari. Some of the boats stay up on the pier, hawking their wares straight from the hull.

Yes, the oysters are fresh.

If you start from the tip of the pier and walk back to shore, the vessels are gradually replaced by market stalls. The open pier becomes covered. Raw whole seafood gives way to salted flanks of fish, fillets, de-tailed shrimp, and at the very end, abutting the boardwalk, a stall sells prepared mixed seafood, already cut up and ready to be used in the perfect salad. If you continue a few steps inland, you’ll be accosted by a man selling knockoff Ray-Ban sunglasses.

This is the first place where I’ve felt a truly different culture since Monterrey. Granted, we didn’t spend much time in the south of Mexico or Guatemala. Just enough time to have a healthy mixture of Pesos, Quetzales, and American Dollars (or rather, Salvadorean dolares) jingling around our pockets.

Also jingling around our heads for the past two or three days, like a handful of foreign currency, has been an incessant jarring headache. But let’s back up. Back to San Cristóbal de las Casas…

7 April 2016

San Cristóbal de las Casas, Mexico

Our original travel plan through Mexico had us spending a night in Tuxtla Gutierrez, but multiple recommendations had convinced us to continue the extra two hours east to San Cristóbal. A smaller town, more friendly, more touristy, home to lots of authentic crafts and textiles from the south of Mexico. It was on our route anyway, so we decided to book a hostel with a nice view of the city, nestled between forested hills.

The town takes about an hour to walk end-to-end. It’s big enough for a proper OCC intercity bus terminal, where we arrived after a twelve-hour ride from Mexico City. I spotted a yoga-aesthetic woman laden with a hiking backpack and two large duffel bags. Stepping out of the terminal and into the street, we brushed elbows with a straw-hat-wearing, guitar-toting hippie. Apparently, San Cristóbal has been a haven for backpackers and free spirits for at least 40 years. And they seem to be handling it well.

The downtown main street and labyrinthine artisan’s market is the town’s gringo trail, pulling in well-moneyed travelers like a vortex. People happily part with their cash to support the regional textile makers, coffee and chocolate producers, and all manner of handicrafts. This is the kind of shopping that doesn’t seem to stink of consumerism so much. On the main street, you can still get two beers for 35 pesos, which is about as cheap as anywhere else we saw in Mexico.

San Cristóbal’s central quarter has most anything us foreigners want — materially, culturally, and emotionally — and very few seem to venture further. This leaves the rest of the city open for laundromats, schools, dentist offices, vegetable stands, and restaurants for the locals.

As we walked around outside the downtown bubble, we came across almost exclusively local residents, apart from the group of European high school students touring the church, which has a magnificent view over the city.

The view from the church, obscured by yours truly.

We approached a group of women chatting along a tiny residential street, and discovered that it was a neighbourhood restaurant. They offered us breakfast, and made a delicious vegetarian meal for 30 pesos each — refried beans, cheese, eggs à la Mexicana, salad, tortillas, and coffee. These are not tourist prices. Not even semi-tourist prices. Excited, they asked to take our photo, and we posed awkwardly for four flashes of the smartphone camera.

San Cristóbal was the first city in Mexico we found with a culture of coffee-drinking. It was surprising how difficult it was to find a cup of coffee in Mexico City and Monterrey.

It was a beautiful little town, but we felt that one day of touring was enough and decided to leave the next morning. It would have been good to learn about the history of the Zapatistas – a revolutionary group that has roots in San Cristóbal, mounted a rebellion for indigenous rights, and has recently returned to speaking terms with the government. The local theatre regularly screens documentaries about the movement, but we didn’t luck out – only Japanese anime and The Hateful Eight (dubbed into Spanish) would be screened that night. Alas, it was time for us to move on.

Revolutionary street art. We would have liked to learn more about this.

After consulting with the hostel, we decided not to travel with the GCC coach line to the Guatemalan border, as was our original plan. Instead, we booked a couple seats on a tourist shuttle that could take us directly to Guatemala City. The idea of being chauffeured across the border seemed nice, and the price was right at 700 pesos each. We got an early start, bags packed and waiting at 6:30 AM. We were told it would take 10 hours to reach Guatemala City. By 7:15, we were still waiting. This was the first indication of things to come.

Cuahuatemoc, Guatemala – Guatemala City

The shuttle eventually came. After half an hour, they shuffled us into a minibus, which took us to the border. We were made to get out and carry our bags through the small border village of Cuahuatemoc to the Guatemalan immigration office. Border formalities were relatively quick and painless — two dollars for the entry visa to Guatemala — but it took another hour for the minibus to come round and pick us up again. The reason we were made to wait around in the hot sun, as the bus driver kindly informed us, was that Guatemala hadn’t switched over to daylight saving time yet. Clearly, we needed to wait for their clocks to catch up. Once an artificial hour (or rather, hour-and-a-half) had passed, we were ushered into yet another shuttle van.

It was becoming clear that we had been misled about the nature of this “tour company”. There was no guide, no sightseeing, just a series of jumpy drivers barking out instructions. “Switch buses here for Lake Atitlán!”, “Stay with me if you’re headed to Guatemala City!” It seemed more like a semi-formal network of guys with vans, all overlapping and swapping passengers. The hostels that refer them are definitely getting a cut, as are the overpriced restaurants and convenience stores where we stopped along the way.

The route is full of detours, traffic jams and nausea – I blame the drivers in part, but the queasy roller-coaster of a ride was also due to the hilly Guatemalan landscape and the tiny, potholed, twisting roads that snake up and down and around its undulating valleys. Our headaches started early and persisted throughout the day. Guatemala did not impress us, to say the least.

The only way to deal with an excruciatingly long bus ride is to sink into a catatonic state. Pick a spot on the horizon and tune out until the buzz between your ears fades to a dull prodding. Indulge in your fellow passenger’s word association game reluctantly, like a zombie. Meet the ripples of time as they come and let go quickly enough to prevent yourself from noticing how slowly the hours are crawling by. And by all means, don’t look at your watch.

It’s hard to stay Zen as the rough, hard-packed earth zips by you, front, back, and around. As the van swings about wildly, first swerving to pass a pick-up truck laden with labourers, now switching lanes to take the inside corner around a bend.

The constant jerking and jolting is all I really remember about our ride through Guatemala. When we finally reached Guatemala City, the van dropped us off inside the gated compound of a bus terminal, fronting onto a busy and unforgiving ring road.

Pedestrian crossovers would take us to the other side of the fast-moving expressway, where our options for dinner were gas-station packaged fare or Pizza Hut takeout. We got a large pineapple and cheese.

The gated compound is home to the bus terminal for TicaBus which would whisk us away in the morning, further south. We hadn’t heard great things about safety in Guatemala City, we had no real desire to stay, and our goal had been to put as much distance behind us as possible. We figured we’d get a cheap hostel downtown, then wake up early to catch the bus. But we made two fatal miscalculations. One, that the TicaBus terminal would be remotely close to downtown, and two, that our “tour bus” from San Cristóbal would be remotely on time.

The only option at that point, at that hour of the night, was to take a room in the hotel adjacent to the bus terminal. That is, the hotel owned by the bus terminal, in the same compound as the bus terminal. It happened to be the same price as a taxi ride to downtown and back, and a reasonably priced hostel room. So, there we stayed with our cheese and pineapple pizza.

It was at this point, after a fourteen-hour rumble across mountainous terrain, after a twelve-hour coach ride the day before, that that creeping venom, doubt, burst to the fore.

Julia, always one to confront conflict head-on, broached the subject of our travel experiment. She mentioned the elephant in the room: flying back home from Colombia, or at best to Mexico. This would leave our experiment half-fulfilled, our convictions half-baked, our ambitions half-deflated, our environmentalist credibility half of what it was worth before we set out.

Because that’s the whole point, right? To travel without the high greenhouse gas emissions of flying. To see far-off lands without killing the planet. And if we can’t do that — actually do it as if planes didn’t exist, then there’s no hope. No hope for planes ever disappearing from the roster of passenger travel options. No hope of convenience ever being sacrificed for the greater good. No hope of a reversal of our car-centric cities, no hope of us ever electing a second Green MP.

All my effort, all my moral fibre rests on this trip remaining whole, indivisible, pure. Or so I thought, as I slipped into a teary funk, the kind caused by stress and not enough sleep and that takes just a pinch of existential doubt to set off.

So we slept. Next morning, we ate the rest of our cold pizza for breakfast and got on the bus to San Salvador, determined to take a break for a day or two. Above all, we wanted a beach.

9 April 2016

La Libertad, El Salvador

La Libertad is a place where you need to have your wits about you. Half a dozen cajoling men try to attract our business, like fishermen, as we search for a hotel along the beachfront promenade. Lonely Planet recommends Rick’s, but Rick’s is terrible. No ocean view, no outside facing window, bare-bones from floor to ceiling. No private bathroom. $25 per night.

We did better, scoring a $15 room in a concrete block of a building, painted the colours of an 80s high school gymnasium. It has a convenience store on the ground floor, a private toilet and shower in the room, a second-storey balcony lounge, ocean views, and wifi. It’s only when we’ve already paid that we realize there’s no running water at all, the wifi doesn’t work, and we’ll have to check out by 8:15 the next morning. Swindled!

It looks less threatening from afar. Photo by Carlos Lowry

As we saw upon arrival, the beach was rocky. A little further east of the town centre, however, the rocks dissipate somewhat and we see people properly swimming, surfing even. Just a few locals. No foreign tourists to be seen, other than a woman wearing a Secours Populaire Français t-shirt that I spotted around the fish market.

The sea is rough. Really rough. But we are excited for the ocean. We strip to our swimsuits and run out to meet the salty waves, only to be forced under backwards by Poseidon’s chokehold. Barely able to stand before the next swell, we feel our feet pulled deeper as if by magnets, into the undertow.

The swirling water pulls along small and medium-sized rocks, which batter our toes and ankles. I lose my footing, falling forward as my knee makes contact with one of these rogue rocks strewn about the sand. The next waves come crashing in, toppling me head over heels. I somehow manage to protect my face.

Limbs full of scratches and bruises, mouths full of salt, we walk up to a beachside restaurant and order two Coca-Colas, Just like in the advertisements.

Beside us on the dark, rocky beach, two locals are fighting their dogs for fun. They snarl and snap, charge and growl. The two young men stand back and laugh.

Frida's ghost and the anarcho-feminist café: Exploring Mexico City Fri, 05 May 2017 00:00:00 -0400 6 April 2016

Mexico City

Deciding to spend an extra day in Mexico City was a good idea. Our hostel room is equipped with quite a nice bed and a large private bathroom, which we used to hand-wash all our clothes.

The hostel is fun, social, and full of people our age. We made a few new friends over drinks at the neighbourhood bar, trading stories of travel experiences. We met a man from Lund, of Colombian ancestry, who had recently travelled to Medellín and gave us a glowing review. Julia practiced her Spanish with a man from Argentina who was wrapping up a month-long tour of Mexico.

Mexico City’s historic district, and more to the point its pedestrian-only Avenida Madero, is the most corporate/American/bourgeois part of the city that we visited. Full of European watches, Starbucks, McDonald’s, and fast fashion chains. It’s a pleasant enough street otherwise, terminating at a plaza with a humongous Mexican flag.

Mexico City's Palacio National.
Mexico’s Palacio Nacional. Photo by Ivan Hernández

We ventured to the ritzy Condesa district with our fellow hostel-goer Elizabeth. Actually, Condesa has a reputation for being ritzy, but we found ourselves walking for quite a while along shuttered building faces before stumbling upon a wine bar here, a taco stand there, another bar over here, all at least a block apart. Condesa has nice venues, but it doesn’t feel quite like a cohesive bar district.

Of course, we had to visit Frida Kahlo’s house. By far the most touristy party of our stay, we traded stories with an older couple from Michigan to pass the time as we waited in the long entrance line. Frida’s house is tucked in a residential area of Cuayocàn, a beautiful neighbourhood bursting with flowering trees and birds. Each house is unique in its own way – it’s clearly a well-to-do area, but very much part of Mexico City’s urban fabric. A small convenience store on the corner sells us a bottle of water for 8 pesos. We hear children’s excitable voices float out of the windows of a school for children with disabilities. The garbage truck rolls down the street as we approach Frida’s house, bells clanging to alert the residents to bring out their waste.

The house itself is gorgeous. All thick cement walls and flat expanses, like a canvas. In some rooms, the walls themselves have been decorated with quotes and inscriptions. In Frida’s bedroom, foot-high red letters are painted around the top border of the wall, name-dropping Frida, Diego, their friends, and claiming Cuayocàn as their own. It was painted in 1956.

Frida kahlo house

There’s a gallery in the first few rooms of the house – Self Portrait with Stalin, Viva la Vida, Watermelons, Still Life (Round) (this one was my favourite), various portraits of other people, self-portraits depicting the agony of failed births…. Frida’s art is gripping and personal, but as we move from room to room, the gallery becomes less formal, more domestic, more raw and full and unfiltered. We see the wheelchair Frida sat in, the very mirror above the bed that her mother gave to her after her paralyzing accident. This mirror allowed her to paint those self-portraits.

The most fascinating room for me was the studio where, aside from the old art supplies on display, Julia and I stood observing the cracked spines of all the well-worn books in Frida and Diego’s library. A History of the American Man, Russian revolutionary literature, Volumes upon volumes of Marxist thought. Some in English, some in Spanish. On the wall hung a large scientific illustration of the fetal development cycle.

By this point we had left the public exhibition behind, and were entering the shadows of daily life, the beds in which Frida slept, the books she read, the courtyard where her animals frolicked. This was her world, and we felt honoured to be a part of it. Julia spent a few meditative minutes beside the urn containing Frida’s ashes, sitting, present with her ghost.

The Frida Kahlo house lets in a maximum of 135 people at a time. Large enough to keep the line moving, and small enough to prevent overcrowding. Moving among the paintings and household trinkets, we floated along with a swirling current of 133 other bodies. We admired Diego Rivera’s kitschy pre-hispanic conversation pieces (I like to imaging everything in that house is a conversation piece), taking in the calm beauty of the walled-in courtyard, and finally stepping into the gift shop for some mementos (I wonder what Frida and Diego used that room for?).

Julia strikes her best Frida Kahlo look
Julia strikes her best Frida Kahlo pose, with the iconic blue walls as a backdrop

And as it happens, as I was waiting outside the ladies’ room for Julia, I spotted a familiar face – a Torontonian, a Kitchener associate, even. It was Božena, Kosa Kolektiv extraordinaire! She spotted me, or just my shirt (the Kitchener crossword one) and stopped in her tracks. “Kitchener?”

A serendipitous encounter turned to lunch at a nearby seafood restaurant. We swapped stories throughout the afternoon, the distance between Mexico City and our respective hometowns bringing us closer than we ever were at home. She had been travelling in Oaxaca, participating in a textiles workshop and learning about natural dyes. Absorbing traditional knowledge to relay back home to her folk arts community.

It was a refreshing day, as if we were not weary travellers but a group of Mexico City natives, catching up with friends on the weekend. Our growing familiarity with the metro system gave us an outsized dose of confidence, and Julia and I flitted between interesting neighbourhoods, soaking it all in. We didn’t have any specific monuments or museums to see; we just wanted to experience the city. We indulged in delicious street food and gave money to panhandlers (2 pesos is expected, 5 pesos is considered generous).

That evening, we met up with Božena again at Punto Gozadera. It’s part cafe, part bar, part music/poetry venue, part bicycle repair shop, part workout gym. This gem just south of Bellas Artes, on plaza San Juan, is a radical, countercultural, anti-oppressive space for all things feminist. Block-printed posters hang on the wall – “Mi cuerpas es mio”, “Lesbo-feministas contra la sistema heterosexual”. It’s the kind of place that pulls people together, that fosters a critical mass of activists, that builds solidarity. We’ve only scratched the surface of Mexico City, and I’m impressed by how multifaceted, how rich, how current the culture is here.

Enjoying a drink with Božena at Punto Gozadera

At the same time, I’m glad to be leaving tonight. Like the centre of any large metropolis, we’ve had to dodge taxis, swim against the current of unmanageable crowds, contend with shouting vendors, hurry past austere police and military guards, and keep our guard up against the general hyper-disorienting hubbub that is giving me a headache. Add to this the constant blaring boomboxes, TVs, and loudspeaker announcements — I’m ecstatic to be en route to the idyllic town of San Cristóbal.

Julia and I ended our short stay in Mexico City with a wonderful little dinner at a cat café called La Gateria. Even after a long day of walking in the hot sun, we couldn’t help but break into smiles as we cuddled with the cats – all up for adoption – while eating our meal.

Now, exhausted, we’re waiting in Mexico City’s Tapo bus station. They’re playing Paranormal Activity on the TVs in the departure lounge. Paranormal Activity! This city is stressing me out. Estoy cansado.

America by train, New Orleans by night, and a rest in Mexico Tue, 15 Nov 2016 00:00:00 -0500 29 March 2016

Kitchener, Ontario, Canada

There are four and a half hours until our train leaves. Julia is rushing to complete some paperwork for her financial return to Elections Canada. She’s in the living room, papers strewn across the work table. It seems inevitable to be rushing around at the last minute, whether we’re about to take the bus uptown or head off on this adventure thousands of kilometres away. We won’t sleep in this bed for another two and a half months.

The preparation for this trip has been mentally exhausting. I’ve been forced to extract myself from freelance contracts. I’ve put my projects on ice and prepared for no communication until June. One invoice has been overdue for months, and a few days ago I put that client’s website in hibernation mode. As it happens, he sent me payment and requested the final deliverables today. As in, right now. Four and a half hours before our train departs. Part of me wants to pull out my laptop and code away for an hour just to get this project completed. But no — I’ve set my email auto-responder. I’ve put all my websites on standby. I’m on vacation.

Of course I’m too plugged in. Of course I’m always on. I reply to emails while sitting on the toilet, because shitting in peace is too unproductive. My mind is in overdrive, and it’s high time for some rehab.

Despite our best-laid plans, we’re starting out with a lot of uncertainty. Uncertainty about timing, uncertainty about cost, uncertainty about safety…

Julia’s paperwork takes longer and longer to finish, and my response is to passively-aggressively keep packing our stuff into the storage locker. I do not want to be caught an hour before the train leaves with a bedroom full of random things to pack. I do not want to spend the next three months flying by the seat of our pants. I’m restless and eager to get going.

Julia’s parents arrive at our place for one final cup of tea. We walk nine blocks together to the Kitchener train station, arriving a comfortable fifteen minutes early. Now all there is to do is wait, craning our necks to catch a glimpse of the Sarnia-bound train arriving. Julia’s parents send us off with an icon of Saint Panteleimon, the Russian Orthodox patron saint of good health. Julia’s father tells us, “Once you have your health, you have everything else.”

The train whisks us across Southwestern Ontario. These early hours of our adventure are fun and full of new energy, even though we’re cooped up in a tin car looking at the same landscape we’ve grown up with our entire life. The sun sets as we roll past Waterloo Region’s farm country, with its neat little patches of brown, scrubby field yet to be seeded. The coffee is good, the atmosphere is friendly, and the newly-renovated VIA Rail car makes us feel comfortable. Everything is working to affirm our slow-travel idealism.

30 March 2016

Port Huron, Michigan — Chicago, Illinois

We’re resigned to the fact that there is only one way to cross the border at Sarnia without a car — an expensive taxi ride. Aside from the cost (a cool $91), the trip across the border is as pleasant as we could have expected. In the wee hours of the morning, we fix ourselves a hearty home-cooked breakfast in Gordon and Judy’s kitchen. I’m glad we were able to catch a few hours of sleep here last night.

A flash of light through the living room window tells us it’s time to leave. The chatty driver is in his sixties, and he keeps up a rolling stream of commentary over the 5 AM stillness.

We’re miffed to hear that it used to be possible to cross the border by train — but now (since 9/11, he says), the Amtrak and VIA Rail cars stay parked in their respective country’s rail yard, achingly close, as freight continues to roll through the border tunnel. I wonder how much of North America’s lacklustre progress on intercity transportation can be traced to fears over terrorism.

A pre-dawn selfie in the parking lot of the Port Huron Amtrak station

By 6 AM, the tiny Port Huron station is filling up with sleepy-eyed passengers. It seems we’re somewhere on the edge of town, in an industrial park not far from the highway off-ramp. The station is all cinder block, Helvetica, and geometric forms. Behind the counter and in the sign out front, they still proudly display the old Amtrak logo, which was formally retired in the year 2000.

This is nostalgic pride — not the rosy memories of better days, but the forthright ambition of an earlier era, reaching forward to lift our chin and tell us to stand straight. It’s the pride of a generation that’s out of touch with the present. A generation that doesn’t realise we’ve failed to keep up with that ambitious spirit. The station smells like gasoline.

We lost one of our own.

A passenger stepped off the train in Battle Creek to have a smoke, and didn’t get back on in time. We left without her. She appears to have been travelling with a group of people, and thankfully they’ll make sure to take care of her stuff. They’re all very chill about the ordeal — phone calls have been made. Someone will pick her up and they’ll all reunite in Chicago. I would like to travel with these people.

The rural Michigan landscape is very much like home. It’s more swampy, with more ranch houses and trailer homes. More roadside pancake houses. But there’s the same late-winter/early-spring farm fields, the same sparse thickets of trees. The American landscape is a slow gradation.

We are greeted this morning with a fiery, shimmering sunrise like a ball of molten glass. It seems the most magical sunrises and sunsets happen while on vacation. Perhaps that’s because you’re generally more mindful of your environment. When travelling, your heightened senses of observation help you appreciate new surroundings, not to mention keeping an eye on your bags, counting change, mentally translating and converting foreign measurements. All these minutiae that make travel different and special.

I still have the twitch. That reflexive urge to flip out my phone and check for notifications, reply to email, keep up with Twitter, and feel connected to the world. But we’re stepping back from all that. All there is to do here is daydream, look out the window, read, write, and of course eat. My need for distraction could entice me to drop $5 at hourly intervals in the food car, but our trip demands more patience than that. I can handle it. We’re sipping the rest of our water, judiciously portioning out our stock of rosehip candies, saving ourselves. Chicago is waiting for us in the morning, and it has deep-dish pizza.

The other thing to do, of course, is to eavesdrop. The group that lost one of their members in Battle Creek has been casually chatting this whole time. It’s coming to light that they are a group of chefs. I’m fascinated by their talk of ego in the industry, or the intricacies of hot sauce. They have strong and differing opinions about Sriracha.

31 March 2016

Chicago, Illinois — New Orleans, Louisiana

We’re somewhere south of Memphis, and the sun has just risen. Well, almost — let’s say the low, heavy cloud cover is brightening from inky black to a dull purple-grey. It’ll stay that way for the rest of the morning.

We trundle past endless swaths of newly-seeded fields, their green shoots bright and uniform in the flat earth. An odd one out flashes by, the brown soil just raked in perfect rows one foot apart. Perhaps the seeds have just been planted. Is this rice? The ground is awfully wet. Some stretches look like a vast, broad river. This landscape is deceiving.

Enjoying views and brews from the observation car

We’re on the second-storey observation deck of the City of New Orleans. That’s the name of our train. The curved glass roof and big picture windows make me feel like a real old-timey traveller. Julia and I snack on pistachios and contemplate our surroundings. “Is rice a grain? Is it like wheat? Or is it a grass?” There is no wifi here, so we remain blissfully ignorant.

The double-decker train bobs left and right like an inverted pendulum. It’s hard to find our footing as we walk down the aisle to get food or go to the bathroom. I feel like I’m getting accustomed to life on the train, even contorting myself in the tiny lavatory to wash my hair and shave. But the side-to-side lurching still throws me off guard.

The sun has finally broken through the clouds, and we are enjoying a wonderful golden light here in the observation car. We’re now approaching Greenwood, Mississippi, and the land is still very wet and flooded. Fields morph into swampy forests, which blend into a flowing river and it’s hard to tell if there’s any dry land at all. The earth is red, like Prince Edward Island. The small country roads running parallel to the train track look as if they’re made of pottery. Terra-cotta hues tinge everything.

Photo by Nick Normal

Greenwood, from the view of the train, seems ramshackle. All old wood siding and corrugated aluminum. Like other towns we’ve passed through, trailer homes abound. I can see why, in this context of middle America, the car is held up as an icon of personal freedom. It’s the freedom to move beyond these towns of rusted-out water towers and Main Streets that are but a shell of their former glory.

We pull out of the station, headed further south, and there’s an entire neighbourhood submerged in water. The flooding around here, the drenched fields, the red-tinged roads… this must not be normal. It must have been unexpected. Peoples’ cars, backyard furniture, all under water. Whole blocks are covered with several feet of water… but the houses look so normal, so lived-in… except for the fact that they have water lapping at their porches. I wonder if they build basements in Mississippi.

Hours pass. Are we somehow in the Mississippi Delta? Is this train, with its hundreds of passengers and crew and freight and luggage, carving a path through the final surge of North America’s longest river? The Mississippi, having collected all the volume of rivers and creeks and farm runoff as far north as the Canadian border, is now bursting forth in a final exhale to meet the sea. In much the same way that a sprinter lunges forward and splays her arms as she approaches the finish line, the river’s arms, tightly coiled until now, are spreading out, reaching, stretching, giving way to a frenzy of outward energy.

And are we, humble travellers, able to sit atop a berm or across a bridge, neatly cleaving two straight rails through the vast, wet muck of the delta?

1 April 2016

Bourbon Street, New Orleans

I’ve never seen a den of vice as unabashed and boisterous as Bourbon Street, New Orleans.

We arrived in New Orleans, and walked twenty blocks north of Loyola Street to our hostel. After sitting on the train for so long, we welcomed the opportunity to stretch our legs. We’re staying in Mid-City. A passer-by informs us that she recently moved to Mid-City and the thing she most dislikes isn’t the “crackheads” or “homeless people” (her words), but the giant caterpillars that leave welts the size of dinner plates.

But back to the den of vice. I can see why the French Quarter is such an attractive tourist destination — the legacy of Spanish and French colonisation has imbued this neighbourhood with a distinct European feel. All wrought-iron balconies, narrow streets, and intricately-carved stone.

But this is America. So all that history is, of course, overlaid with neon signs and a celebration of binge drinking. Nestled between the Hand Grenade (“Bourbon’s strongest drink!”), Hustler’s “barely legal” nightclub, and kitschy voodoo souvenir shops, there’s just enough New Orleans culture to lend legitimacy to this street, to differentiate it from a casino or a giant frat party.

Photo by Marc Flores

The neon signs compete in an arms race for attention and money — “64 oz fish bowl”, “huge ass beers”, “3 for 1”, et cetera. But there’s another dimension to the entertainment, one that needs a bit of cognitive dissonance — or a few more beers — to gloss over. There are lots of street performers, jazz musicians plying their trade for tips. This is normal. We peel off a couple dollar bills for a ten-piece brass band that is improvising and entertaining and generally having a good time. Half a block along Bourbon, we come across one of the many young black boys tap-dancing on the sidewalk, an empty liquor box placed in front for tips. He’s performing, working same as the brass band, but there’s a twist of history that makes me cringe. The scene of a negro boy dancing for entertainment is a little too close to the line between past and present. His box is much more empty than the brass band’s.

As the night goes on, I understand that homelessness and panhandling are also part of the entertainment. Two women sit on a street corner with a rainbow-coloured sign declaring, “LESBIANS need CASH 4 STRAP-ON!” There’s a crust punk couple slouched against a lamppost with their dog, furtively counting change. The cardboard-scrawled message at their feet says, “Give a fuck, spare a buck.”

In the face of this oversaturation of visible homelessness, my typical coping mechanism is to slowly ignore it, or to reflect upon the misfortune from a distance. But the carnival atmosphere of Bourbon Street makes it seem that the performers, pandhandlers, and drag queens on display outside sex clubs are all part of the same sordid show.

2 April 2016

Jefferson Davis Parkway, New Orleans

There are neighbourhoods in some American cities where you just don’t go. Where danger lurks around every corner. Where one wrong move, one misstep, could easily be the difference between life and death.

Everyone needs to watch their back in these neighbourhoods. The streets here are unfriendly at best, and at their worst, they actively try to kill you. But you won’t hear about these places in a travel guide warning or a list of crime hotspots. These pockets of death and hostility fly under the radar, under our noses, even.

If you pay attention, you can identify their characteristics: wide, fast-moving lanes of traffic. Overgrown, narrow, or non-existent sidewalks. Unmarked pedestrian crossings. Blind corners. Wide, sweeping curb radii. On-ramps. Industrial loading docks. Sky-high billboards advertising personal injury lawyers.

Avoid these areas at all costs — especially if you are new to town. Make one false move, and you could easily be a deer in the headlights.

This has been a reflection on our morning run around New Orleans’ Jefferson Davis Parkway and its adjoining industrial area.

Lower Ninth Ward, New Orleans

We visit the lower ninth ward in the afternoon. The internet told us there are good po-boys to be had here, and it was right. Creamy, crispy, fattening and fresh all at the same time, we scarf down shrimp (me) and fish (Julia) po-boy sandwiches under the awning of Cajun Joe’s. It’s a busy corner restaurant — takeout only — beside an overgrown, vacant, fenced-in lot. Across the street, a taco truck competes for business.

The lower ninth has hollowed out since Katrina, for sure, but it’s pleasant enough to walk around. No worse off than the tracts of foreclosed homes we saw in South Chicago or the outskirts of Detroit, or our view along the train route through Mississippi — which, granted, is pretty damn miserable. But we certainly don’t feel unsafe. We walk along carefree — even when caught in an unexpected downpour.

Around the corner from Cajun Joe’s is a museum that we had read about online. “Museum” is a generous label — in reality, it’s a converted garden suite in the back of the owner’s property. The House of Dance and Feathers is a celebration of Black, Native American, and Creole culture. It’s a treasure trove of artifacts, history embodied in real objects. There are precious few plaques or information panels.

Ronald Lewis, the owner and curator of the museum, sits near the entrance on a white plastic lawn chair. He invites us to simply inquire about anything we’re interested in. And we do. We have a great time in the cramped little room, re-discovering history from a new angle.

We had wanted to do some volunteering in New Orleans, and Ronald gives us the perfect task: helping prepare the newly-built shed that will become the museum’s second room. We spend a couple hours painting and chatting, and by the time we leave, Ronald has gifted us with a signed copy of his book — a definitive cultural education of the lower ninth ward. We also leave with a jester doll, a token of appreciation for our time.

Painting walls for the addition to the House of Dance and Feathers

We suffer another miserable torrential downpour on the way back to the hostel, but I have a feeling we’ll soon forget that part of the day. The House of Dance and Feathers, that little nugget of cultural preservation, will live on.

Frenchmen Street, New Orleans

At night, we venture to Frenchmen Street, home of the famous blues bars and jazz lounges. It’s no less touristy than Bourbon Street, but the inebriated masses here are less boisterous, less crazed. It’s a faithful replica of any good European party street, like Rue Mouffetard in Paris or Prague’s old city.

We soak in the atmosphere, and dance badly to a tired blues band at a quaint bar called the Apple Barrel. I’m glad to have experienced it. Two drinks and $11 later, we wander back through the shuttered French Quarter, being sure to avoid Bourbon.

Aware of our early train departure in the morning, we start packing as we prepare for bed. Many of our clothes are still wet and it doesn’t look like they will dry in time for morning. More distressing is the fact that my phone appears to have suffered from the water damage — the very phone that should be our alarm in the morning. The screen flickers, stubbornly showing a cryptic lightning bolt-and-cog symbol… this is bad news.

With all the enthusiasm of a teenager going to write an exam on a Saturday morning, we pull ourselves up from the bed where we had hoped to rest our heads. Six hours’ sleep has turned to five, and we take an emergency trip to Walgreens at 2 AM to buy an alarm clock.

The staff at Walgreens outnumber us two-to-one, and our frantic search for a timepiece provides some welcome entertainment during the graveyard shift. Some of them are adamant that they no longer sell alarm clocks: “Everything is on their phones nowadays,” (which, of course, is precisely the problem.)

The magic of global capitalism turns to our favour and the security guard finds a row of clocks for sale on the bottom shelf underneath the batteries. We pay $20 for the assurance of a couple hours’ sleep before we have to wake up for the San Antonio-bound train. Looking back, I think it was worth it.

4 April 2016

New Orleans, Louisiana — San Antonio, Texas

The last two days have been a sleep-deprived wonderful whirlwind of a time. New Orleans seems like a distant memory. The Walgreens alarm clock woke us faithfully on time. We made our way to the train station through New Orleans’ crazy streets as if stepping through passed-out bodies and bottles after a house party.

We’re happy to be moving on. The westbound Sunset Limited, true to its name, rewards us with a shimmering molten gold-orange sunset over Texas cattle farms. As it dips into the horizon, we settle into as good a sleep as you can get on a moving train. There are a few rowdy drunks on board, but by evening they’ve settled into playing cards or laying passed out in their seats. There’s quite a lot more drinking on this train than there was on the City of New Orleans.

In Houston, we stop to stretch our legs. The conductor informs us that we’ll be stationed here for a little over an hour, so Julia and I make a split-second decision to venture into town for a decent vegetarian dinner. Houston is not the most welcoming city — at least, not the part we covered in our 15-minute walk from the train station. Between a high-stress game of real-life frogger across inhospitable roads, a statue of George Bush (Senior, but still), and the ticking deadline of our train’s departure, it makes for a nerve-wracking hour.

Miraculously, we make it back to the train in time. Our arms are laden with tacos and salad and chips with guacamole, each dish packed in its own spacious styrofoam container. We feel a little guilty with our take-out picnic in the dining car. A little mutinous, even, against the charming Elwood, our dining car attendant with the Mr. Moviephone voice. But it was delicious.

Before long, San Antonio rolls up and we exit the last train of our southbound trip. It’s late evening and our plan is to pull an all-nighter before boarding a Greyhound to the Mexican border at 4 AM. We’re ready, if not rested. And San Antonio delivers — we spend 20 minutes and seven dollars in a lively boxing-themed bar where an excellent cover band plays funky eighties hits. The music is better than anything we had heard in New Orleans, and the bar is full of middle-aged married couples dancing together and having a good time. Even though we’re smelly and sleepy from travel, San Antonio gives us a warm embrace.

This welcome sets the tone for the next few hours, as we make our way slowly along the Riverwalk. Everyone we see seems to be fat, happy, and calm. Everyone is eager to have fun on this Saturday night, but there’s none of the frantic, hedonistic energy of a typical party district. We take in the scene with pleasure, and feel as if just walking through the city is a restful practice in itself.

Photo by redteam

At the San Antonio Greyhound station, we decide to modify our trip to avoid crossing the Mexican border on foot. We had originally planned on disembarking stateside in Laredo, then trekking with our luggage across the pedestrian bridge to Nuevo Laredo. We had Googled it, people do this all the time. No problem. But now, travel-weary and without our best wits about us, we take the prudent route. We’ll stay on the bus all the way to Monterrey, Mexico. This proves to be a wise decision: Laredo before sunrise looks like an mean, unforgiving border town straight out of a Clint Eastwood movie. Better to be whisked along to a more cosmopolitan city in the air-conditioned bus.

Monterrey, Mexico — Mexico City, Mexico

We emerge from our second straight night of stiff-backed, restless sleep at Greyhound’s North Monterrey terminal. We’re now in America Latina proper, meaning two things — it’s now time to start speaking Spanish in earnest, and everything is cheap as chips.

I start getting flashbacks to former trips abroad — El Salvador, Morocco, Karachi — litter-strewn streets, dusty footpaths, an abundance of taxis, cracked sidewalk tiles, corrugated steel shopfront coverings. It’s a delicious feeling of anticipation.

Our first stop at a refresquería features a freshly blended papaya smoothie for twenty pesos. At our second stop, we indulge in hot-as-hell cheese and pepper tacos (thirty pesos). Third stop: a self-serve scale outside of a church, plastered with the image of the saints. I’m curious to see if I’ve gained any weight during the trip so far. The scale wasn’t functional and ate our money. Two pesos.

Authentic Mexican tacos for lunch in Monterrey

The balls of my feet are starting to hurt from so much walking, although it is pleasant to be moving under our own steam for a change. Here in Monterrey, there’s a calm, approachable quality to the streets. Even the dozens of strip clubs and massage parlours seem like quaint family-run businesses. (And they very well might be.)

We finish our Monterrey day trip at a seafood restaurant next to the bus terminal. Julia orders an entire fish: bones, eyes, and all. I indulge in a tostada, empanada, and bottle of Coke. We watch American Top 40 music videos from the blaring CRT television in the corner. The friendly restaurant owner asks if we are married. Outside, street vendors sell candy, illicit DVDs, socks, handbags, sunglasses.

One more marathon bus ride. One more smelly, showerless, bedless night. One more day of wearing the same socks and T-shirt, the T-shirt which a bird had seen fit to shit on this afternoon in a Monterrey park. There’s no doubt about our bohemian credentials. All our clothes need a wash. The sun has risen once again over our dirty, sweaty heads. Our hostel room will be ready in two hours and we can’t wait to get clean. Julia is hangry.

Welcome to Mexico City.

Adventure at the Panama-Colombia border Fri, 23 Sep 2016 00:00:00 -0400 Our destination is Colombia, but we got a big dose of adventure before even setting foot there. We wanted to arrive without flying, which meant getting up close and personal with the Guna Yala, a proud and independent Indigenous group that controls access to the only safe passage through the notorious Darien Gap.

We rode in a tiny boat down the Panamanian coastline, hopping the waves with the wind in our face. In an area known for FARC rebels and a dangerous jungle, we came face-to-face with a different, more pressing problem: Panama’s underreported refugee crisis.

16 April 2016

Panama City, Panama

Contrary to cultural expectation, our driver arrives at the hotel three minutes early. He eyes us up as we descend into the lobby, and tilts his head to motion us out the door. We throw our bags into the back of the Jeep and make a few more stops at hostels in the empty pre-dawn blackness. We’ve packed light — two bicycle panniers and a small day bag for the both of us. The ideal eco-adventure power couple; we sneer inwardly at the other tourists with their massive hiking backpacks and painstakingly curated iPhone playlists. Like them, we’re about to spend a vacation in Colombia. But we won’t be hitting up the gringo trail — we plan to buy some used bikes and cycle through the Andes for a month. But first, we need to cross the border.

Soon, the Jeep’s seven seats are filled to capacity. Like us, the other travellers are headed to the Caribbean coast to catch a boat en route to Colombia. It’s become a fashionable form of arrival as Colombia opens itself to international tourism: dozens of companies offer five-day sailboat cruises through the San Blas islands, an idyllic archipelago of white-sand beaches and palm trees.

Gardi Barkosun, Guna Yala, Panama

As the sun rises, the terrain becomes more mountainous and the road more rugged. We’re headed for Gardi (also known as Cartí), a collection of coastal settlements and islands in Panama’s Guna Yala province. Here, the local Indigenous people have tight control over their hard-fought territory, which spans most of Panama’s northern coastline and the picturesque San Blas islands. They control the only road that leads to the Caribbean coast, and we each pay $20 USD for the privilege of passing through. Our driver has a Guna flag dangling from his rearview mirror and seems to know everyone at the checkpoints. He speaks quickly and passes a handful of cash to the checkpoint guard, a young woman in full military dress and a gun slung across her back. Not everyone gets a receipt for the fare.

The steep terrain starts to drop, then levels out, and we arrive at Gardi Barsokun. It’s a sandy inlet fringed with mangroves. A half-dozen SUVs are parked in the dusty clearing, doors and trunks splayed open, as fellow travellers gather up their backpacks and water and sunscreen.

We walk past cardboard signs scrawled with the names of tour companies: LAM Tours, Iguana, Koala Adventures… but we’re not looking for a company name. We’re looking for a person called Negrito.

“Negrito” — this is our connection to onward travel. No reservation number, no pre-booked ticket, no clue of a schedule. Just a racial slur passed by word of mouth. Negrito. He’ll get us a ship to Puerto Obaldía, a tiny village on the border between Panama and Colombia.

You see, we don’t have the money or time to take one of these sailboat cruises, and we’re morally opposed to air travel. (I know, the self-righteousness is too much to handle.) Our digging around in the corners of the internet revealed the existence of lanchas, small passenger boats that zip from town to town along the coast. They don’t have websites.

Sure enough, someone perks up when they hear the name Negrito, and they usher us onto a water taxi. It’s a long, narrow aluminum hull with a shade canopy and an outboard motor. Julia and I are the only passengers. One man starts up the engine and begins steering, while the other hands us two lifejackets.

A water-taxi docked at Gardi Barkosun

We cruise slowly through the mangroves, weaving our way out to the open water. The sea’s surface is punctuated by branches and logs — driftwood has gotten stuck in the mud. These must be very shallow waters. Some hazards barely peek above the waterline — they’re marked by ragged strips of white fabric, tied to sticks like a flag of surrender. It’s only a five-minute ride to Gardi Sugdub, an island just off the coast. Locals in dugout canoes paddle past us in the opposite direction, heading toward the mainland. They’re laden with jerry-cans of gasoline.

Gardi Sugdub, Guna Yala, Panama

We dock at Gardi Sugdub. This is Negrito’s place — the elevated dock leads to an enclosed patio of sorts, where three people are already waiting with their luggage. I can’t tell if the room we’re in is on solid ground, or if it’s sitting on top of stilts built out into the water. This island’s shore is a tight cluster of tin roofs, and it’s hard to see where the land ends and the water begins.

The shore of Gardi Sugdub

We’re in some kind of bar-restaurant-dancehall that apparently also acts as a waiting room for the lancha. On one wall, the words “Bar Matusalen” arc over a mural of a sunset and palm tree. The opposite wall loudly proclaims “Refresquería” above a closed serving window. The window is fringed with hand-painted illustrations of dancers, beer and soda cans. Down the hall, a small kitchen bears the inscription “Pizzería Don Thomas”. The name “Negrito” is spray-painted in bright orange, graffiti-style, on a closed door. Three times. So at least we know we’re in the right place.

Our fellow young backpackers have been swapped out for new, more experienced travel companions: Fabian is in his fifties, hair buzzed short to hide his balding. He sits at a table reading the newspaper and intermittently checks his phone. Theresa is a forty-something woman from Bolivia with wild-patterned leggings and a zebra scrunchie. She exercises pleasant patience and stands on the dock, looking out over the water. The third person waiting is José from Mexico. He cuts a clownish figure with his curly hair brushed back, long face, and bulbous nose. We go through introductions and pleasantries.

Fabian is Colombian, and he’s curious to see where we plan to travel in his native land. We pull out our National Geographic map, and all five of us pore over it. It’s amazing how a map — a real map, with folds and a legend and two sides that you have to flip between — encourages a kind of social interaction that GPS on your phone can’t match. Huddling together. Competing finger-pointing. Writing notes and highlights in the spaces between roads.

We expect Negrito will send his boat within the hour. It’s important to depart before 11 o’clock if we want to get to Puerto Obaldia before dark. Still, we figure we’ve got some time to explore Gardi Sugdub, so Julia and I set off down the tiny passageway connecting Negrito’s restaurant-bar-dock to the rest of the island.

We wind our way between walls made of lashed-together reeds. A wrinkled old Guna woman washes some clothes in a tub by hand, and we nod politely as we walk past. She doesn’t care about us. Children run about and scream as they do in every culture. We exit onto a street made of compacted dirt. We pass restaurants, shops, homes, most with tin or thatched roofs. There are no cars or bikes. Here on Gardi Sugdub, everyone walks.

Guna identity is strong here, with flags hanging from every other window. Their fierce textile patterns, so sought-after in Panama City’s art markets, are woven into everyday life.

We come upon a small window, beside which hangs a handwritten sign advertising drinks and snacks. We are greeted by Albert, who rises from his seat in the corner of the dark room with an over-the-top greeting: “Of course, it would be my great pleasure to serve you this morning!” He’s the talkative type. Big ears. Camo baseball cap. Shirtless, his ribs are visible through his skinny torso. His dark nipples point outward as if they are standing guard.

We buy a couple bottles of water and I drop two dollars’ worth of small change into his hand. Albert miscounts the change, asks for another 25 cents, and I comply. At this point he’s already in the swing of conversation with Julia. They discuss where we’re from — “It’s very cold in Canada, yes?” — where he’s from — “There are two, three thousand people here on Gardi Sugdub.”

We learn that the revenues from the Panama Canal help fund a stipend for indigenous people, and Albert says he gets about 120 Balboas (equal to $120 USD) per month from the government. It helps, but it’s not enough to live on. He points to the handmade textile bags for sale, the two bottles of water we just bought, to assure us that he does brisk enough business to make up the difference.

Albert is fiercely proud of his Guna heritage. He laments that the culture is being lost, bit by bit, but with so little urgency it’s as if he realises this is just a thing older people of every generation say. He explains the meaning of the Guna flag that we see all around the island — a red stripe to represent blood, a green stripe at the bottom for the land — the long, mountainous coastal strip called Guna Yala. In the flag’s centre, a pair of crossed muscular arms hold a bow and arrow. This represents the struggle of the people. Stars surrounding the arms represent the cosmos. And perhaps the islands, I’m not sure. I can’t remember what the yellow background in the middle represents.

A little worried about missing Negrito’s boat, we gratefully say farewell to Albert. He points us to a house a few doors down there we could spend the night if our boat doesn’t come today. Negrito’s “hotel” does not have the best reputation around here. With more thanks, we turn back toward the dock.

The situation hasn’t changed much. The clock is ticking toward 10:30 am, and our lancha hasn’t arrived yet. The five of us bide our time a little further, each minute bringing increased uncertainty. Would the boat come? Would we leave the island today? Our new friends — Theresa, Fabien, and José — were promised a boat yesterday. It didn’t come, and they were obliged to spend the night at Negrito’s “hotel”, which costs $5 USD a night. From what we hear, the scare quotes are well-justified.

Julia and I hadn’t had any breakfast, and were quite hungry. On our trip to see Albert we had passed a large open restaurant, and we decide to get something to eat. Fabien says he’ll make sure the boat doesn’t leave without us. As we step back out toward the street, we are stopped by a man in a teal golf shirt headed the opposite way. He asks is if we are travelling with Negrito, and ushers us back to the bar. Something is amiss.

Theresa and José come in from the dock. Fabien looks up from his phone. Julia and I stand in the middle of the room, arms crossed (as is our North American duty — I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Latin American person stand with their arms crossed).

“Negrito says the motor is broken. He’s trying to fix it, but it should be ready by tomorrow.”

Immediately, the Spanish starts flying. Dismay, disappointment, soft shaking of heads. No anger or insults, as this is a civil group of folks. Finally, Fabien cuts to the heart of the matter: “Your boat isn’t broken, you’re just waiting for more passengers — isn’t that right?” Negrito’s messenger slips, nodding his assent with a pained face. He leaves the room, noncommittal, sticking weakly to the broken-engine story.

This throws our whole room into a heightened state of uncertainty. Maybe we should go back to the coast, find another boat to take us. Nobody wants to stay another night and pay five dollars for Negrito’s sorry excuse for a hotel. He’s just playing us. Maybe now that we’ve called his bluff, he’ll leave today after all. Maybe if we start looking for someone else to take us, we can force Negrito’s hand. A group of five willing travellers is a useful bargaining chip. We weigh our options. Consider, ponder. The day seems lost at any rate, we should have left by now, otherwise we risk getting caught out at sea after dark. It’s an 8-hour trip to Puerto Obaldía.

Amid the consternation, one of my favourite early-2000s hip-hop songs floats in from the dock. It’s Eve’s Let Me Blow Ya Mind. A fresh-faced young black man is blasting it from his phone. He’s sitting in a lancha. Two young Panamanians — couldn’t be older than eighteen — hop out of the boat.

“Let’s go, boat’s leaving.” Just like that.

We hand over the requisite $125 USD each. So does Fabien. Theresa hands over $100 — “Cien, es OK?” José has a hushed, animated conversation with the boys. “Did Negrito tell you about my situation? I’m not a tourist, you see…” He pays $60 and the boys carefully consider the sum of money. They’ve got commissions and fees to think of. A cut to Negrito, a cut to the port authority… After a quick phone call, they seem satisfied. We’re off, bags thrown in the front of the lancha, covered by a tarp. They hand us lifejackets and the twin outboard motors roar to life.

San Blas islands, Guna Yala, Panama

There are six of us, plus two crew members. We fit comfortably in the five rows of bench seating. It’s a fibreglass hull with a fabric canopy, identical to the water-taxi except for extra cushions on the previously-bare wooden benches, worn blue-painted slats for backrests, and swapping out the water taxi’s 15hp engine for two 75hp workhorses.

We pull out of the dock and start hitting the waves. By hitting, I mean a spectacular bellyflop that sends a jolt through each of my vertebrae every time we crest over a wave. Immediate headache. I hastily stow my glasses in their case to prevent them from being knocked into the Caribbean Sea. Maybe it was a good thing that we didn’t go eat lunch.

It’s a cloudy day, and the sea is steely grey crashing all around us. The coast of Guna Yala to our right, jungle mountains shrouded in mist. Every couple kilometres, smoke rises above the trees. Fabien says they’re burning away forest to make room for crops. I’m not sure I believe him. To our left, the San Blas islands. Tiny clumps of palm trees, ringed with white sand, the platonic ideal of a desert island. These islands are dotted along the vista, awkwardly breaking up the surface of the sea. They somehow seem like they don’t belong. On the smaller islands, the palm trees look sad. Wind-stripped, hunched over. Bamboo and thatched-roof Guna houses dot the shorelines of the larger islands. From afar, San Blas looks like a set of petri dishes all plunked on top of the churning, swirling, unforgiving sea. Jolt. Thunk. The lancha rides on. It feels like falling down an endless flight of stairs. The sea swells around us.

From up close, the islands appear much like Gardi Sugdub — our boat stops at some of them and they seem quite populated, ringed with docks. Gasoline cans in haphazard stacks. People in small fishing canoes a hundred metres off the coast, casting lines and diving. We dock at an island called Carganá to drop off a box of bananas and some motor oil. Fabien hops out and returns with chips and Coca-Cola for us all. Our little troupe of sea-faring travellers are starting to build a bit of camaraderie.

Juan Carlos is the hip-hop-loving young man who was first aboard the lancha. He owns two seafood restaurants in Colombia. He smiles a lot, talks rapidly and is eager to make conversation.

Fabien owns a Koala Tours, a tour company that arranges sailboat crossings from Panama to Colombia. Two of the people we met in the morning Jeep ride are on one of his boats by now. Fabien is on this rickety lancha ride because he wants to check up on a houseboat he owns in Sapzurro, a small coastal village just past the Colombian border.

Theresa, originally from Bolivia, built up a restaurant business and owned two houses in Medellín before leaving for Panama a year ago with her savings, trying to make a better life for herself. It proved more difficult than expected. She ended up selling bottled water in the street to make ends meet. Now she’s heading back to Colombia, trying to start anew once more.

José was an upholsterer in Mexico — at the peak of his career, he worked near the U.S. border making seats for airplanes. The work dried up, and now he’s sixty and exhausted, lugging along an enormous sewing machine which represents his greatest store of value and the means by which he can ply his trade. He too is looking for work in Colombia.

Our rag-tag posse on a lancha

Continuing along the coast, we don’t drop off any more packages, although we make two more stops. At a place nicknamed “the Island of Dogs”, we dock briefly to use the bathroom, as the sun nears its apex behind a cloudy sky. The cloud cover belies the sun’s heat — Julia, sitting on the right side of the boat, hasn’t noticed her whole right arm, face, and thigh turn red.

After a couple hours, we veer toward a small port on the mainland. There is a large black mass ahead of the boat just below the water’s surface — a coral reef. As we approach, the driver expertly manoeuvres in and out, zig-zagging through the shallows all while maintaining speed. The bay is full of coral. If our lancha were any larger, I doubt we could enter that bay at all. The captain docks, barely, one foot straddling the pier. He hands a wad of cash to another man who was waiting there. They exchange a jovial greeting, then we’re off again.

Wave-jumping is hard work. But sooner than I had expected, the motor slows to a comfortable cruising speed, matching the waves’ rhythm instead of overtaking them. We pull into another bay, where a large military banner is draped over the fence beside a small hut. This is Puerto Obaldía, our last stop in Panama before crossing the border to Colombia.

Puerto Obaldía, Panama

The internet warned us that Puerto Obaldía’s immigration office closes early, and that we’d be stuck in this “shabby little town of nothing” for a night, while we wait until morning to get our exit stamp. But Juan Carlos, full of restless energy and unwilling to take no for an answer, tries to turn the tables in our favour.

After getting through the military checkpoint, we find ourselves on the main street of Puerto Obaldía, our luggage in a pile around us. Juan Carlos spies a young kid hanging out on the street corner and whistles him over. “Go find me the man who runs the immigration office.” He slips the kid some money.

Juan Carlos bribes a government official and gets him to open up the office and stamp our passports for exiting Panama. We’re all moving in a herd now, loosely following Juan Carlos, united by a desire to cross into Colombia today rather than tomorrow. The lancha is supposed to be waiting for us — Juan Carlos talked with them. They’ll take us on to Capurganá tonight for another $10 USD per person.

Naturally, José and Theresa won’t have to pay. The four of us wealthier travellers — Juan Carlos, Fabien, Julia and myself — have created a de facto welfare state within our group of rag-tag travellers. Fabien, the mature, successful businessman, willingly takes on the lion’s share. He got to know José and Theresa before the rest of us, and spent a night with them in Negrito’s godforsaken accommodations. Noblesse oblige is alive and well here in Latin America.

Despite our best efforts, all this running around turns out to be for naught. The lancha is gone. It’s past 5 o’clock, and getting dark — nobody in town is willing to take us across the border. The guards at the military checkpoint have fun taking their time re-checking our bags, bringing out the drug dogs, all so we can walk out to the pier and realise we don’t have a boat. One guard jokes, “Why would you want to leave this paradise town? We have five-star hotels. Stay the night!” So we do.

Far from a “shabby little town of nothing”, Puerto Obaldia is full of activity. As it turns out, this seaside village is the flashpoint for the latest immigration crisis in the Western hemisphere. Apparently, Panama recently loosened its entrance requirements which prompted a flood of Cubans, Haitians, Ghanians and Nigerians toward the Panamanian border. Once here, they can apply for refugee status or continue North to Mexico and, eventually, the USA. On the ground, this means hundreds of makeshift tents behind the soccer pitch in Puerto Obaldia. Apparently there are Cuban aid groups sending them food, which is a good thing because this town’s pantries seem to be bone dry.

Resigned to spending the night here, we search high and low for a restaurant. Club music booms from a billiards hall facing the soccer pitch. All we can find in the immediate downtown is beer and Coca-Cola. We follow a trail of recommendations to the end of the street — no, to the end of that street — no, around the corner — to a well-lit patio on the edge of town. A TV is on, showing a feature interview with Bernie Sanders’ Hispanic Press Secretary. It’s the only place in town where people are sitting down to eat.

We take a seat at a long table where two Ghanians are finishing up their meals of meat, rice, and soup. We strike up a conversation with Isaac, who ran an import-export business selling car tires; he says Ghana would be a good place to live if it weren’t for the corrupt government. He moved to Brazil two years ago and worked for a year as an airport security guard. However, his visa was revoked when the Brazilian government decided that airports should only be staffed by Brazilian nationals. Now he’s trying to make his way to the USA where he has some family. He’s aware of the immigration crisis. He’s aware that there are still 9 borders to cross. But he says, “God will find a way.”

Miracles. Everybody’s waiting on them, including our group of six. The restaurant owner has just informed us there is only enough meat and rice for two more portions. We ask her to just make whatever she has on one large platter; we’ll share. Not quite Jesus’ loaves and fishes, but we make do. Julia and I pay for the meal ($14 USD), a token of thanks to the group for getting us through this day.

Isaac puts down his fork, says his goodbyes and pushes away his chair. As he leaves, I realise he didn’t finish the rice on his plate.

17 April 2016

Capurganá, Colombia

We get up at the crack of dawn and pay a premium for the early-morning lancha to Capurganá. Juan Carlos is calling the shots again; he is very eager to make it to Turbo, Colombia (where one of his restaurants is located). In his mind, we’ve already lost a day. We all tag along, since I guess we’re a posse at this point. Ten minutes of motoring later, and here we are. The little port of Capurganá — not militarised like Puerto Obaldia. Beachfront restaurants. Diving tours advertised on the side of boats. It being a Sunday, the Colombian immigration office doesn’t open until 10 o’clock, so we can’t get our Colombian entrance stamps yet. Strike one against Juan Carlos’ breakneck pace.

We’re all famished from the day before, so breakfast is in order. We set our bags down, relieved at a spot of respite — we hadn’t slept well last night at the local pension, between the night-long thump of music and the hard straw-filled mattresses. We order watery café tintos all around, and gorgeous, piping hot arepas con huevos — an egg smothered in oily deep-fried cornmeal. Hot sauce brings it to the next level.

Finally, some rest in Capurganá

We’re only in Capurganá for a couple short hours before we hop on another boat to Sapzurro, the neighbouring town. It’s back the way we came — Capurganá is actually the second town south of the border. But Sapzurro doesn’t have an immigration office, hence the back-and-forth. Fabien has his houseboat moored in Sapzurro, and offers to host Julia and I for as long as we want. A day or two of rest in a houseboat sounds fantastic. Fabien is getting a little overbearing, but he’s so generous that it’s impossible to stay annoyed. Still, everything is a whirlwind with him. We make for the dock, saying hasty farewells to Theresa and José (Juan Carlos has already left for Turbo).

This boat is not a simple lancha. It’s longer, wider, and filled to over-capacity with fifty West Africans in lifejackets — migrants headed north to the Panamanian border. I wonder if Isaac is somewhere in the crowd. Sapzurro is the last town on the Colombian side, after which they will be on their own, trekking through the jungle for three days to reach Puerto Obaldia. Unlike us, they can’t take a boat across the border — the military checkpoint won’t let them through. So they have to go in through the back door.

I wasn’t expecting for us to be brought along in the swell of migration — even here, where we saw the tent city, where we knew the migrants had been coming for months, somehow I deluded myself into thinking this was still a problem happening elsewhere. That, as a tourist, I’d be exempt from witnessing the troubling human desperation of a refugee crisis.

Sapzurro, Colombia

It’s only a five-minute boat ride to Sapzurro — we all get off, each of the migrants clutching their possessions bundled in a black garbage bag. Julia and I collect our packs and head off down the beach to where Fabien’s houseboat is docked. A brief brush with the migration crisis, and now we are back to our vacation.

Sapzurro is tiny — less than half the size of Capurganá and nestled more tightly between the jungle-covered mountain and the sea. We’re to stay in Fabien’s houseboat (nicknamed Sofia) with Robbie and his mother, Maria, as our hosts. Robbie has been watching the boat while Fabien is gone. He used to be a sailor (still is, I suppose). He has an impressive arm tattoo and invites us to help empty his bottles of whisky and red wine as we sit on the upper deck that evening.

I’m quite nauseated being on the rocking boat all night, and don’t have as much fun as I thought I would — instead, I find myself tuning out the Spanish and zoning in to the top-40-from-ten-years-ago video playlist Robbie had put on. It seems Latin America just doesn’t do silence. Pop music must always be playing.

That night, I sleep in a rocking houseboat to the sound of crashing waves, as fifty West African migrants push on through the dark in a thick, tangled, foreign jungle that is not their friend, to the border of a country without the capacity to welcome them. I count myself very lucky.

Sapzurro is so isolated, but so hemmed in at the same time: by the ocean, by the mountains, by the jungle, by the border. This gives it a frantic energy, a dull anxiety that seeps through everything.

Like in Puerto Obaldia, it is hard to find food in Sapzurro. We seem to only have the option of one restaurant being open at a time, and fresh fruit is expensive. We buy a few apples for Robbie and his mother as a thank you gift for hosting us.

18 April 2016

Sapzurro, Colombia

In the morning, we discover a secret of the jungle — a wealth of tasty fresh fruit literally falling all around us. We’re taking a hike back to Capurganá, bags in tow, Robbie guiding us, his mother taking up the rear in her sun hat and floral Crocs. It’s a steep mountain trek, as Sapzurro and Capurganá are in neighbouring valleys. The whole thing takes about an hour and a half, and we are rewarded with a splendid vista — Sapzurro to our left, Capurganá to the right — when we reach the peak. We pick fresh ripe mangoes from the ground, and they are decadent. They have a certain acidity that the ones back home don’t have, and they are more stringy. We collect avocados too, a whole grocery bag full of them. We find a starfruit tree and Julia knocks one down, to save for later.

The trail between Sapzurro and Capurganá is a steep climb up and over a mountain. The upshot is this fantastic lookout point, and of course, wild mangoes.

Capurganá, Colombia

The morning mountain trek has stirred our appetite. Robbie shows us to a bakery in Capurganá, just off the soccer field, where we munch papas rellenas for breakfast — a hard-boiled egg wrapped in potato and deep-fried. Deep fried food seems to be a theme here in Colombia.

A bakery in Capurganá

Having parted ways with Robbie, we book a boat headed for Necoclí, where we will buy some used bikes and start our “real” Colombian adventure. We hadn’t counted on such a stimulating three days crossing the border.

The boat doesn’t leave until tomorrow, so we’ve booked a room in a cheap hostel, trying in vain to dry out our clothes in the damp seaside air. In the evening, we have a couple beers at the beachside Lonely Planet-recommended bar, Josefina’s.

It’s been an uncertain, sometimes stressful few days here on the doorstep of Colombia. But now I feel ready for anything. Tomorrow, we go inland.

The enemy of the good Sun, 17 Jul 2016 00:00:00 -0400 Julia and I returned from our Colombian cycling adventure over a month ago, and I haven’t shared any stories or photos of substance. The trip was an intentional break from our always-on culture. We took a film camera, and I didn’t check Twitter the whole time we were gone. I filled two notebooks of diary entries. Freed from the instant-gratification of social media, we gave ourselves permission to be more present in the moment.

Well, we still haven’t developed those two rolls of film and I haven’t gotten around to writing a blog post. I’m paralyzed by where to start. After happily writing for myself those two and half months, the idea of catering to an audience is daunting.

As much as I would like to publish a lovely little novella from my trip diary, and make a nice leather-bound photo album after we get our film developed, these lofty goals are keeping me from actually creating anything at all. And the longer I wait, the less significant our experiences seem.

So here goes. You’ve been wondering how our Colombia trip went? You want to see the pictures we never published in real-time on Facebook? Let’s call this an hors-d’oeuvre to whet both of our appetites. I’ve got a 5,000 word draft about crossing the Panama-Colombia border, but that will have to wait. And now that I’ve gone ahead and said that in public, maybe I’ll dedicate more time to actually finishing some of these longer reflections.

Here’s to not letting the perfect become the enemy of the good. Here’s to not having to explain every little thing. Here’s to starting small and writing often.

The requisite bags-are-packed pre-trip photo. We left home with two saddlebags and a small MEC backpack, ready to take on the world.
Panama City, a bastion of brutalism. We took trains, buses, and boats to reach Colombia.
Breakfast on the beach in Capurganá. This seaside town, hemmed in by the Caribbean sea on one side and mountains on the other, was our port of arrival in Colombia.
Juice vendor in Montería, purveyor of fine zapote, mora, and mango delights.
Figuring out our next move in Yarumal.
Winding our way through the Andean peaks and valleys.
At the lookout tower in Filandia, at the heart of Colombia’s coffee region.
A gritty welcome to Cali’s city limits.
I witnessed this mural as it was being painted in Cali. Such talented artists, in a city so full of expression.
Street art in Cali confronts and provokes.
Our 7-year-old tour guide takes us on a horseback ride around Silvia.
Bogota’s bus network is daunting to navigate for the first time. Juliana tells us, “Just use an app.”
Street art in Bogotá is eclectic, with more fantasy and whimsy than Cali.
Looking down on Bogotà from the top of Monseratte.
Banners at the Bogotà airport support workers’ labour action.
Finally back in Canada, peering across the Detroit River.
Biking through Colombia Sun, 12 Jun 2016 00:00:00 -0400 In Spring 2016, Julia and I decided to take a 1,200-km cycling trip across Colombia. I’m slowly publishing entries from my journal that document our experience with slow travel — our precarious journey there, our month-long cycling tour, and finally our return home.

SOS Children's Villages Wed, 04 Aug 2010 00:00:00 -0400 Intro

On 12 February 2010, we left Toronto and flew across the ocean to spend a week in Dubai and Pakistan. It was our first trip to this area. We met countless new relatives, saw breathtaking sights of natural and architectural beauty, and got jostled around in the frenzied traffic of Karachi. We got to experience for ourselves a culture that is too often skewed by the headlines in the newspapers. (In the week before we left, there was an attack between religious sects in Karachi.)

On the day we had planned to tour the Karachi SOS Children’s Village and Youth Home with our cousin Romina, there was a strike called by one of the Sindhi nationalist parties. The entire city may grind to a halt. It’s hit-and-miss when a strike is called. Sometimes life goes on, but sometimes all the shops close and people take to the streets. The strike didn’t shake our plans. They were both amazing facilities, and Romina showed us around everywhere.

SOS Children’s Villages of Sindh

We got to go to the Karachi SOS Children’s Village, a place for orphans and street kids to grow up in a safe and caring environment.

The first SOS Children’s Village in Pakistan was established in Lahore in 1975. Today, there are four provincial associations, including one for the province of Sindh.

For security purposes, each village is a self-enclosed community. This village in Karachi contains the association office for Sindh province. Each village usually contains houses, a mosque, a school, recreational facilities, and a medical clinic. (In the Village Guide below, the labels include houses designated by sponsor name, e.g., Rotary Club.)

The school is a two-storey building with four wings. It has an enclosed courtyard with recreation equipment for kids to play on.

The classrooms are bright and adorned with children’s schoolwork, much like in any Canadian school.

The computer lab is an example of the use of targeted donations.

Nothing is thrown out that can’t be fixed; chairs in need of repair sit waiting to be mended by the custodian.

The chemistry lab features a fully stocked cabinet of beakers, vials, liquids, and other substances. Marble and tile countertops provide a clean, spacious learning environment.

The houses are arranged in clusters of four, facing inwards to a common courtyard. There are three bedrooms in each house: one for four boys, another for four girls, and a third for the live-in mother. There is also a living room and a kitchen. In some cases, the girls that grow up in the Village in turn become mothers for a new generation of kids.

Canadian visitor David Nabi and his niece Romina, a committee member at the Sindh association, pose for a picture by the Rotary House. Many of the houses are sponsored by humanitarian organizations, government agencies, and businesses.

SOS Youth House

This SOS Youth House was incorporated on 2 February 2010, two weeks before we arrived. The Youth Home is a place where the kids from the Children’s Villages, now adolescent, have a bit more independence.

The youth home residences enclose a volleyball net that takes up most of the space in the central courtyard.

As with the Children’s Village, many of the youth homes feature plaques recognizing the sponsors of each house. In fact, CIDA was one of the donors that helped finance these projects – it was exciting for us to see in a tangible way what aid organizations are able to do on the ground.

Closing Thoughts

The unique thing about the SOS Children’s Villages is that they function as complete communities, not simply as a distribution point for humanitarian services. A child living on the streets who is brought in to a Children’s Village is not only given the healthcare and education she needs to rise out of her dire situation; she is also introduced to a neighbourhood full of people with which she can build relationships and feel a sense of belonging. This community fulfils an emotional emptiness that might otherwise be satisfied by returning to the streets or joining a gang, becoming tangled up again in the cycle of poverty.

The boys at the Youth Home are given the same kind of fulfilment. The vocational training that they undertake ensures that they will have a marketable skill to contribute to the broader community once they leave the care of the Youth Home.

SOS Children’s Villages and Youth Homes tackle the true causes of youth homelessness and poverty, rather than attempting a quick and easy solution. With care and compassion, they ensure that today’s orphans can grow up in a safe, fulfilling environment. They are changing lives for the better, and they are here to stay.

22 Feb Wed, 04 Aug 2010 00:00:00 -0400 8:35 AM

We’re at the departure lounge in Dubai International, and people have just started to board. This trip has been surreal for me. I’ve met dozens of family members that I didn’t even know existed. I’ve stood at the foot of the world’s tallest building. I’ve travelled in a two-stroke rickshaw around Karachi’s busiest streets. I’ve taken a camel ride on the beach. I’ve seen the tangible results of CIDA’s aid projects. I got to play cricket for the first time. I’ve had my t-shirts laundered and pressed by a servant. I’ve seen centuries-old islamic architecture that simply took my breath away. And I’ve eaten. A lot. Dal, chipatti, chickpeas, curry, you name it. Every meal, there were new dishes that I simply had to try, even if I was still stuffed from the last feast.

It’s mind-boggling.

I’m still going to be turning all these experiences over in my head a week, or a month, or a year from now, trying to make sense of it all. This was a pressure-cooked holiday, with so many new people and new things to meet and do in such a short time. It has certainly changed my view of the Middle East and South Asia for the better, and I’ll be back again someday.

That much I know.

21 Feb Wed, 04 Aug 2010 00:00:00 -0400 7:21 PM

We’re just hanging out at the hotel in Dubai, waiting to go and meet another relative - Anjum. We took today to see the city a little bit and explore Deira. We took the metro, which is the the world’s longest fully automated rail system. The whole metro network is brand new, and it shows. It was such a smooth ride - they must be using rubber wheels on the cars. The inside of the train was totally open concept - you can see all the way through right to the front car. And it smells like a dentist’s office. Like the powder off the latex gloves that they use to poke at your teeth.

We went with Shahram and his family to an electronics store to buy a voltage transformer. My camera battery’s dead, so I haven’t been taking pictures for the last two days-ish. But there wasn’t really anything of great interest that got missed - airport, flight, hotel. Yadda yadda.

We leave tomorrow morning bright and early to catch our 9:00 AM flight. It’s hard to believe the vacation is coming to an end already!

12:07 AM

Anjum showed us around to some other parts of Dubai that we hadn’t seen yet-the three or so days that we’ve been here certainly don’t do Dubai justice. We went out to the Palm to see the Atlantis Hotel, then went to Medina Jumeriah, a lovely covered market area that attempts to replicate the old souks. With the intricate woodwork on the ceilings, to the warm, sweet smell of shisha smoke wafting through the air, to the view of the Burj Al-Arab rising up out of the skyline, Dubai exudes opulence. This is a city with the business model of a theme park. It’s a surreal fantasy land, where any zany idea that the sheikh cooks up can become a reality.

19 Feb Wed, 04 Aug 2010 00:00:00 -0400 1:50 PM

Hasan has left to the mosque for Friday prayers, so we have some time to get our stuff in order today before leaving for Dubai tomorrow morning. There was a strike called today by one of the Sindhi nationalist parties, so Hasan said the entire city may grind to a halt. It’s hit-and-miss when a strike is called. Sometimes life goes on, but sometimes all the shops close and people take to the streets. We had planned to go to the SOS Village with Romina, but we may not be able to.

8:12 PM

Well, the strike didn’t shake our plans - we got to go to the SOS Village (a place for orphans and street kids to grow up in a safe and caring environment) and Youth Home (where the kids, now adolescent, have a bit more independence) to see the operations there. They were both amazing facilities, and Romina showed us around everywhere. In fact, CIDA was one of the donors that helped finance these projects - it was exciting for me to see in a tangible way what aid organizations are able to do on the ground.

Dinner with Riaz has been cancelled, which means a much quieter evening, though people will be stopping by to say goodbye and such. Nida just left, after having tea with us and brainstorming ideas about Volunteer Karachi. I think it’d be great to start up a similar organization in Waterloo.

18 Feb Wed, 04 Aug 2010 00:00:00 -0400 6:50 PM

I’m exhausted once again, but it’s a good kind of exhaustion. After a much-needed 8 hours of sleep last night, we packed ourselves into the Toyota Prado (me, Dad, Hasan, Shahnaz, Romina, Nida, and our driver Nasir) and went to Thatta for the day. On the way there, we careened all over the highway, playing chicken with oncoming traffic, navigating around trucks overburdened so much with animal feed that they take up two lanes, all the while whizzing by tiny villages and makeshift homes.

The first thing we saw there was another mosque. This one was 400 years old, and it was simply a masterpiece. Islamic architecture is so ornate and majestic - it just knocks me off my feet every time.

The man who was showing us around was the manager of the Thatta branch of Pakistan National Bank. Our relative Rashid is the area manager for PNB, so his name carries a lot of clout around here. He arranged for us to be shown around the town, and I later learned that he “wanted no complaints”. What a rude awakening for the branch manager, who didn’t know we were coming because it was his first day on the job. He sure snapped to attention when we dropped Rashid’s name! He took two of his employees off duty and tasked them with showing us around the city. While we were out seeing the sights, he arranged for a full meal to be prepared and set on his desk in the manager’s office. I think this sort of hospitality is the defining characteristic of Pakistani culture.

After the Thatta mosque, we went to a shop in the area and Nasir bought gifts for me and Dad, at the request of another of our relatives. We each received a beautiful, ornate Sindhi hat and scarf. This is traditional dress for the men of this area, and it defines them as Sindhi when they travel outside of the province.

On our way back home, we toured the necropolis on the outskirts of Thatta - tombs 400 years old with intricate carvings and awe-inspiring monuments. It was quite a full day, but we got to see lots of new things and soak in the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes. It’ll probably take me a whole other week to digest everything I’ve experienced (and eaten!) here.

12:45 AM

As if the day could not get any fuller! After we got home, I went with Nida to the 50th annual All-Pakistan Music Conference - part of a 3-day festival showcasing traditional classical Pakistani music. The atmosphere was simply breathtaking. As we entered the venue, we were given plastic bags in which to put our shoes. We continued, barefoot, onto a floor that was covered with white sheets. People of all ages (including a lot of students) were sitting on the pillows that were strewn about on the ground. An atmosphere of profound egalitarianism descended upon me for the second time this trip.

The music itself was stunning - the sounds of the harmonium, sitar, sarod, and tabla, among other instruments, filled the air with a sweet, mysterious sound. We had to leave at 12:30, but I’m sure the music continued well into the early morning. It was such a relaxing atmosphere and a great way to wind down. I just let the music surround me.

17 Feb Wed, 04 Aug 2010 00:00:00 -0400 12:55 PM

We’ve just returned from The Forum, an upscale mall just outside of the housing scheme. I bought some turquoise earrings for Melissa; we go the the “authentic” market this afternoon, where there are all sorts of clothes and fabrics. We are presently setting out for the Sind Club, where we are to meet Sheryar for lunch. It’s right next to the U.S. Embassy.

4:30 PM

We had lunch at the hoity-toity Sind Club, where Sheryar is a member. That was about as fun as a stuffy colonial business club can be. Then, we were driven to the clothing market. this is the place to get all sorts of t-shirts, jackets, pashmina shawls, trinkets, hookahs, you name it. There were boys on the street selling everything from orange juice to designer watched to sparrows. Shahnaz helped me negotiate for a few things. It was a pretty terse atmosphere when the bargaining was going on.

11:30 PM

Before dinner tonight at the Defence Authority Club, Nida took me to see a talk at The Second Floor, a nonprofit run hub of social activism and creativity, run by Peace Niche (kind of like The Working Centre meets The Artery). There was a discussion and Q&A about geoengineering - using huge technological advances to combat climate change. There was a lively discussion, and a fiery debate at one point. It was so cool to see how Pakistanis feel about these issues, and what topics were of primary concern. The anti-USA sentiment was alive and well here, as well as concern about the effects of globalization on local food production (among other things). These people speak my language.

16 Feb Wed, 04 Aug 2010 00:00:00 -0400 5:40 AM

The night is hot and sticky. Even in a t-shirt with the fan on, I can’t sleep well. This is the winter season, and it’s till too warm for cotton t-shirts. I’ll have to wear light dress shirts if I want to keep from sweating outside. Perhaps another thing keeping me awake is the anticipation of our tour of Karachi. Finally, we’re going to immerse ourselves in the local flavour.

There’s a mosque next door to Hasan and Shahnaz’s house - which means the first call to prayer of the day should be resonating through the neighbourhood soon. There are five calls to prayer throughout the day.

The flooring in this house is entirely stone tile and marble. The custom is to keep footwear on at all times, even inside, on account of the dust that builds up everywhere. At least that’s what Shahnaz says. This house is kept immaculately clean.

3:25 PM

I got some email access this morning, so it was good to have some fleeting contact with the world back home before going to explore Karachi. Our guide, Azmat Khan, showed us through the city streets where stray dogs lay next to piles of burning garbage, to the breathtaking art of the Mohatta Palace Museum, and to the Mausoleum where Pakistan’s founder is buried.

First, we went to a very unique mosque. Whereas most mosques have a dome on top, the entire structure of this one was a single dome. On the inside, the curved ceiling was covered with 70,000 tiny mirrors - the small amount of light given off by the lanterns near the doorways was reflected again and again to illuminate the entire building (which has a capacity of 5000 people). The acoustics we such that the tiniest whisper was echoed around the entire room. Aside from the barrier enclosing the women’s area, it was the most awe-inspiring, egalitarian place of worship I’ve ever seen.

Next, we went to the Mausoleum where Pakistan’s founder is buried. Our guide managed to get the guards to unlock the entrance to the underground chamber, where the body is actually buried. I was stunned at the extensive use of marble for everything from the casket to the pathways outside. This marble comes from Baluchistan, and is relatively cheap compared to Canadian prices. It’s the ultimate material for building public spaces with beauty, durability, and accessibility.

We were then treated to a ride around the neighbourhood on a rickshaw - the three-wheeled, 2-stroke vehicles that act as taxis all over the city. The joke is that they’re so bumpy, a pregnant woman shouldn’t use them lest her child fall out.

Then, we took a ride on a horse-drawn carriage around the block. It’s amazing to see all these different modes of transportation - cars, buses, rickshaws, bikes, motorcycles, donkey carts, horse-drawn carriages, pedestrians - all sharing the same street. Everyone is conscientious of everyone else. Rather than following rules of the road, they follow a sort of collective common sense.

Our next stop was a visit to the Mohatta Palace Museum, where there was a photography exhibit, as well as a showcase of ancient ceramics and tilework. After that it was off to Clifton Beach, where we had the pleasure of taking a camel ride. The beachfront is largely barren, but there is massive high-rise residential development about to happen here. At the moment though, all that exists is a block of luxury apartments and a golf course. There are also a variety of food outlets right along the beach.

11:45 PM

We spent the evening at BBQ Tonight, a four-storey barbecue restaurant in KArachi. Every time we eat, I’m introduced to so many new kinds of food! I had vegetable kabobs, with yogourt dip, dal, spinach with cottage cheese, fried bread, and vegetable curry. The carnivores had all sorts of meat that had been roasted on a spit over hot coals. It was quite the dining experience, especially since we got to sit on the top floor. Pakistanis typically eat their dinner very late - around 9:00 PM. When we left the restaurant at 11:00 PM, there were still families with children going in to eat.

Food is the ultimate form of hospitality here. Everywhere we go, our relatives lay out any number of exotic dishes for us to have. It doesn’t matter if we’re hungry or not, they will offer us everything under the sun. “Eat, young Sam!” Hasan will say, scooping yet another spoonful of dal onto my plate. There’s little I can do but smile politely as he watches me eat.

I met Nida, Romina’s daughter, tonight at dinner. She’s done a master’s in the USA for Special Education. We talked all night about all kinds of topics. She has invited us he The Second Floor tomorrow to see a talk by the author of Hacking the Planet.

15 Feb Wed, 04 Aug 2010 00:00:00 -0400 9:52 AM

We’re about to head out to play golf at Hasan’s club. For breakfast, we had toast with guava jelly and eggs, served by Ferhan and the other servant. There is a cleaning lady that comes in the mornings too.

3:15 PM

We played nine holes at the Karachi Golf Club, and went out to see the Pakistan Air Force Museum. On the golf course, there were so many labourers working on maintenance and landscaping. There must have been about fifty of them; we saw less than five other golfers. They used donkeys to move piles of sand as there was no heavy machinery. In Canada, the jobs of ten of these workers would have been replaced by one guy with a backhoe.

All the water features on the course made use of greywater. The smell of sewage in the breeze was a constant reminder of Karachi’s water scarcity. Even in this “oasis in the city”, the electricity is shut off for one hour, three times each day. It’s part of the rolling blackouts that are necessary because Karachi’s energy needs outpace its grid capacity by 15-20%.

Tonight, there is a big gathering at Hasan’s mother’s house. There will be 36 guests, or thereabouts.

7:38 PM

So. Much. Food. The call for evening prayers has been going on for a while… we’ve had warm chickpea salad, cold guava salad, German cake, and tea already, and we haven’t even left for dinner yet. Trying to wrap my head around this family tree is exhausting. With so many people, we’re certain to go late into the night. Hasan said Pakistanis regularly stay up till 1:30 AM.

12:40 AM

Well, it’s not quite 1:30, but it’s late nonetheless. Before heading out to dinner, Hasan produced a hand-drawn family tree to make it easier to identify who’s who. Pakistanis typically marry their cousins - like Hasan said, “it eliminates many of the unknowns” - so family trees can get complicated.

I had a great conversation with Romina and Saman about The Second Floor, or T2F. It’s a venue in Karachi for local art, poetry reading, book signings, public lectures, and the like. It seems like an amazing cultural hub for the highbrow activist student community - it has a cafe on the ground floor, and Saman said she loves to go there (she’s a graphic designer). Romina also mentioned a famous restaurant where they roast chickens and various other animals by the hundreds on a big spit - she assured me that there would be a veggie kabob too. We’ll probably hit both of those places before the end of the week - I’m excited to actually go into the city and get a taste of Karachi!

We met so many different people tonight, it’s difficult to remember them all. Hasina, who is over 90 years old, recounted stories from her childhood with Ashfaq (they were siblings). She remembers Ashfaq sneaking into their mango orchard as a child, picking the choisest ones and eating them all himself. Ashfaq’s sister-in-law one-upped that with a story about how, when young Ashfaq would come to visit, he would sneak into her bedroom and put on her clothes and lipstick and then sit gleefully on the bed.

The amount of new people - and new food - we experienced tonight was pretty overwhelming. It’s clear that Pakistanis value family over most anything else - how else to explain the warm hospitality shown to a couple of English-speaking North Americans that they didn’t even know existed a few months ago? Tomorrow, we set out on a guided tour of Karachi to see what this city’s all about.

14 Feb Sat, 05 Jun 2010 00:00:00 -0400 3:40 PM

We’re driving to the airport now in Shahram’s SUV - we’ve been around Dubai all day to the two malls, the Burj Khalifa, and the Palm Strip. It seems that the vehicle of choice over here is the SUV. The bigger and more rugged your vehicle is, the more you can assert yourself on the road. Not surprising, since gas is 40 cents a gallon. A gallon! And Shahram says that’s pretty expensive (in Saudi, it’s only 9 cents).

Another thing — the pictures of the Sheikhs are everywhere. on highway billboards, painted in tunnels, on screens in the mall between Dior and Mercedes… Once you get past the sweltering heat and palm trees, though, Dubai has an overwhelming sense of placelessness. It is a city of emulation, of cheap facades and hollow buildings. Sheikh Zayed Road is the osteoporoic backbone that resists breaking only because it is attached to Abu Dhabi’s oil money.

5:17 PM

Possible second cultural faux-pas: waiting in the lounge for our plane to start boarding, I crossed my leg over my knee, inadvertently showing the sole of my shoe to the lady sitting next to me. I’m not sure if she saw before I hastily put my foot back on the floor. We got through customs alright. One of the security checkpoints just waved us through without even looking at our passports. They’re certainly less hyper than North American security guards.

It’s surprises me every time I realize that this freewheeling, money-hungry metropolis is a Sheikhdom. There’s no democracy; but who said that democracy was necessarily the best form of governance? The education minister, appointed by Sheikh Mohammed, has held his position since the eighties. He’s been able to come up with long-term policies, and has enacted funding for women’s education unencumbered by the politics of a 4-year election cycle. It’s not necessarily bad; it’s just a different system of governance.

11:30 PM

Hasan and his wife picked us up from the Karachi Airport. Even the drive over to their house was an eye-opening experience. Traffic was crazy; an eclectic mix of cars, buses, and motorcycles weaving in and out of lanes and up onto the shoulder. We saw one bike with a family of four perched precariously on the seat (that link is from Afghanistan, but you get the picture).

On another, a man drove the motorcycle while his wife sat sidesaddle on the back, clutching a bag in one hand and an infant child in the other. No need for helmets, of course. The confusion of the traffic is compounded by the psychadelic, intricate decorations on the buses… not to mention the fact that they drive on the left.

There were other windows into the world of Karachi too. Along the side of the road, some billboards shouted, “END POLIO NOW”. As we stopped at intersections, preteen boys ran up to the driver’s window with bouquets of flowers, dodging traffic and barely getting out of the way before the light turned green again. A guard lifted the barrier to let us into Hasan’s gated community, called the Naval Housing Scheme. We met his two servants, and sat in the living room while the servants prepared tea. We munched on Kinnu and Guava (fresh and local!) as we talked about the week’s plans. Tomorrow, we go golfing.

12 Feb Sun, 25 Apr 2010 02:04:06 -0400 12:40 PM

Waiting for Dad to come pick me up - I’ve got most of my stuff packed and ready to go!

8:50 PM

So this plane is the Airbus A380 – it has two levels and 800 passengers! We’re settled in nicely. The guy that took the shuttle with us is sitting in the same row. I was reading the documentation on this plane, and it’s pretty fuel-efficient: 3.1L/100km per person (providing all seats are filled, which they are). Not bad!

10:30 PM (Dubai Time)

Well, I’ve made at least one cultural faux-pas so far. Our friend hired someone to guide us through customs and take our bags through the airport. I made the mistake of reaching for my suitcase as it came off the carousel. The hired man turned and said, sternly, “That’s my job.” Oops.

Dad’s University friend, Shahram, met us there and we went over to his house for tea. As we drove through Dubai, he pointed out the landmarks and neighbourhoods. There are so many skyscrapers and flashing lights, one could be fooled into thinking it is just the same as any number of American metropolises. But, there is one major difference, as Shahram explained. “This might look like a carbon copy of Vegas, but no one knows what’s happening inside these buildings, or even if they’re empty. There’s no transparency here. Every single one of these structures is owned by Sheikh Mohammed. Of course, Dubai doesn’t have Abu Dhabi’s oil wealth, so all this is built on borrowed money.”

We’re in the Sheraton Dubai Creek now, watching the olympics. We weren’t allowed to carry our own bags; the bellboy took them up the seven floors to our room. We tipped him 10 dirhams (about $3).

Pre-Trip Thu, 04 Mar 2010 00:00:00 -0500 21 December 2009

I’m home for Christmas and Dad and I have started planning in earnest for this trip to Pakistan. We found an online forum where people have uploaded lots of pictures and videos of everyday life in Pakistan. It was fascinating to look through the dozens of pages of pictures; I can’t wait to go!

I had to apply for a new passport for this trip; my current one expires soon. That was a struggle. I must have visited the passport office five times only to get my application denied each time for a different reason. First, my guarantor was too young (even though she’s 19?), then they couldn’t read my worn and tattered birth certificate so I had to get a new one of those as well. Anyway, it’s processing now so I should have a new passport by January 4th. Then I still have to get my Pakistani visa. It’s all quite exciting!

30 December 2009

Two days ago, a suicide bomber killed 43 people at a Shiite rally/religious procession in the heart of Karachi. We now know that the Taliban Movement of Pakistan has claimed responsibility for the attack, and plans to carry out more attacks in the next 10 days. The Shiites are commemorating Ashura.

So far, we have found security in the fact that none of the tribal fighting or terrorism has occurred in Karachi in the recent past. I guess we’ll have to be extra careful now.

1 January 2010

There was another bombing today. This time it killed 88 people in the NWFP, near the fighting going on in North and South Waziristan. Perhaps Obama’s increased attention towards terrorism in Pakistan has made the situation more tense.

5 February 2010

Took my second dose of Dukoral this morning. Protection against diarrhea and cholera in a fizzy, raspbeyy-flavoured drink… What’s not to love?

Also, our flight details are confirmed:

12 Feb 21:40 - depart YYZ
13 Feb 19:20 - arrive DXB
14 Feb 18:15 - depart DXB
14 Feb 21:10 - arrive KHI
20 Feb 12:10 - depart KHI
20 Feb 13:15 - arrive DXB
22 Feb 09:20 - depart DXB
22 Feb 14:50 - arrive YYZ

All flights are on Emirates. All times are local times.

(later) Another bombing in Karachi today. On another group of Shiite attendees to a religious festival. The Sunni extremists attacked a bus, then detonated a second bomb at the hospital where the victims from the first blast were being treated. I’m feeling a little nervous; it crossed my mind that maybe I should write a will before I leave. Hoo boy. Well, at least there aren’t any religious holidays that I know of going on during our stay.

Dubai and Pakistan Trip Journal Thu, 04 Mar 2010 00:00:00 -0500 On 12 February 2010, I left Toronto with my father and flew across the ocean to spend a week in Dubai and Pakistan. We met countless new relatives, saw breathtaking sights of natural and architectural beauty, and got jostled around in the frenzied traffic of Karachi. We got to experience for ourselves a culture that is too often skewed by the headlines in the newspapers. These are my thoughts and observations.

Day 9 Sun, 22 Feb 2009 00:00:00 -0500 8:05 AM

My bags are packed and I’m ready to go. I’m a bit sad to be leaving so soon, but at the same time I’m sure that I’ll come back to this part of the world again sometime. The last thing we have planned before heading to the airport is to buy hammocks in the market.

11:47 AM

Wow… the Usulutan market, what a place! People crowded in over every square inch of the place, selling all sorts of things: bootleg CDs, raw meat hanging from hooks, toothbrushes, tomatoes, cashews, clothing, you name it. Makeshift stalls with tarps covered the street strewn with garbage. A warm, sticky smell hung in the air as thousands of people – and a few trucks – passed by us in the 3-metre-wide street. There were a few beggars taking up the space on the street corners, looking up with amazement as we walked by. Surprisingly, I only heard one or two calls of “Hey baby!” or “Gringo!”. We all bought hammocks; probably the best souvenir yet. They’re so colourful… we managed to push the price down from $25 to $15 each, thanks to Dennis.

We’ve just sat down to our final meal here at Hotel Campo Real – pupusas with beans! Yum yum. In less than 12 hours, we’ll touch down at Pearson.

2:33 PM

Well, that was easy. Security is pretty lax here at the San Salvador airport. The plane boards in an hour and a half. Lindsay and I are at the gate, minding the bags (and the $1800 cash that are in the bags). The others are out shopping. I have one whole dollar left on me. I think I’ll spend it on candy.

(Eastern time) 8:00 PM

The plane ride has been pretty good so far, despite some turbulence and the fact that we didn’t get to sit together. Lindsay, Melissa, Susie, and I have single seats in economy class, while for some reason the rest of the group got bumped up to business class. They just finished showing City of Ember, which was a pretty good movie. I didn’t get to see the very beginning, But I think I understood most of it. The lady to my left speaks only spanish and is from Managua. she’s applying for a Canadian citizenship. The lady to my right is an American high school librarian who speaks only english and is returning from a vacation in Costa Rica.

The Nicaraguan lady asked what time it was – the American lady was the only one with a watch, so I had to translate for her: “Ocho de la noche.” In a funny way, I feel like that’s a fitting metaphor for the reason and purpose of my trip to El Salvador: to seek a middle ground between two vastly different cultures. Sure, I came to build a house… but the masons and hired help could easily have done it without us. Sure, I’ve bonded with my friends in residence, but we could have got to know each other on a trip anywhere. I think the biggest thing that I’ve taken away from spending a week in El Salvador is a greater knowledge and appreciation of a social atmosphere completely unlike my own. The trip has opened my eyes to a different way of living that is more family-centred, a tight-knit community that’s so intertwined with each other, it blows my mind. We played for an afternoon in a soccer field with a bunch of neighbourhood kids that we’d never met before. In Canada, their parents would tell them not to talk to strangers. I don’t know if I’m gonna have some culture shock or not when I get back, but I hope that everything I experienced in El Salvador will stay in the back of my mind when I look at my own life.

Day 8 Sat, 21 Feb 2009 00:00:00 -0500 8:43 AM

We went to bed really early last night. I woke up at 6:30, had a cold shower and sat by the hotel pool to watch the birds and see the sun rise. The bus’ll be here at 9, so we’re just waiting by the parking lot now.

1:54 PM

I’m so glad we came to the beach – it’s a great way to finish off the week. The water seems saltier than in San Francisco – it’s so terribly salty. I couldn’t go in the water for more than 20 minutes. But the waves here are nowhere near as powerful as in San Fran. What is powerful is the undertow. I’ve never felt anything like it in my life; it pulled me under once or twice. After swimming and sitting on the beach for a while, we went to the hotel room that we had rented for the day – 2 minutes from the beach – and got our money and changed into some dry clothes. Along the beach there are a few restaurants that all have pretty much the same food. We stopped at one of them for lunch. Most of us had a whole fish – eyes, tail and all – that had been fried, rice, tortillas, avocado, and a tomato-onion salad. I had all that, minus the fish. It was absolutely delicious – I’m definitely not getting tired of the ever-present corn flour tortillas. Surprisingly, we’ve only had beans once on the trip. That must be a Mexican thing rather than a Salvadoran one.

As we were finishing our meal, a lady came to our table with a basket on her head. Inside were all sorts of homemade candies. We all bought lots because they were so unique and interesting – sugared coconut, candied anise, caramelized jam mixed with milk, roasted cashews… she made our day because there isn’t really any shopping here aside from the restaurants. A man came by a little while later with wooden bracelets for sale. I bought a few for myself and for gifts to other people.

Now we’re back on the beach – there isn’t a cloud in the sky. The ocean is in front of me, with palm trees and mountains behind me. El Salvador is a beautiful country. To get here, eduardo drove us along a tiny, winding road through the mountains for about an hour. Maybe it’s just because I’m used to February in Waterloo, but there’s so much green here!

Vendors, like the ones that came to our table at lunch, are walking or riding bicycle-carts up and down the beach, selling snow cones, ice cream, bracelets, dried fish, candies, chicken, sandals, water, and I’m sure lots of other things as well. I’m having a great time; it’s so good that Dennis could be our team leader. He’s a great translator, and he’s lived here for many years during his volunteer career. This trip has worked out so well! It’s hard to believe that we’ll be in an airport 24 hours from now.

7:18 PM

Our time is almost done here in El Salvador. I think I’ll take this time to list off some of the unique things I’ve noticed about this wonderful country.

  • There really aren’t any speed limits.
  • There really aren’t any lines on the road either.
  • The number of passengers in a vehicle is limited only by the size of the pickup truck’s bed.
  • You don’t flush toilet paper. You put it in a wastebasket beside the toilet when you’re done with it.
  • They eat a lot of corn flour tortillas.
  • If you’re a foreigner walking down the street, every car that passes will whistle or shout at you.
  • Politics is everywhere: on the radio, on telephone poles, on painted rocks in the middle of nowhere…
  • Cellphones are a lot more common than landlines. In fact, the only landlines I saw were in the hotel, and they didn’t even work.
  • We’re wusses – the masons didn’t wear gloves or steel toes. Half the time, the hired helpers didn’t even wear shoes.
  • Garbage disposal is all over the street.
  • Razor wire, chain link, walls topped with broken glass, and barred windows are commonplace.
  • The bus stop is wherever you can jump on it.
  • Coke is the favourite soft drink – they pour it into plastic sandwich bags, tie a knot, and poke a straw through it to drink the pop.

7:43 PM

Just got an amazing massage from Julian. the list continues:

  • The national food of El Salvador should be chicken.
  • All popular music as the same beat.
  • There are no postal codes.
  • “Si”, “no”, “gracias”, and “bueno” can get you pretty far.
  • Bucket hats are a preferred alternative to sunscreen.
  • Refrigerators are rare.
  • You can cut open a coconut with a machete.
  • There’s not a culture of saving here – most people spend all they have.
  • If you don’t take in the bucket for your well at night, someone might steal it.
  • Shoes are optional.
  • Don’t expect hot water. You won’t need it.
  • Don’t expect running water all the time.
  • There are lots of volcanoes and thousands of mini-tremors every day.
  • Armed security guards, police, and the military are everywhere.
Day 7 Fri, 20 Feb 2009 00:00:00 -0500 6:47 AM

I had a pretty restless night. I don’t think my stomach agrees with what we had to eat for dinner. I’m feeling a little better, after popping 2 Pepto-Bismols at 2:30 this morning. Aside from that, I’m really excited to build today – it’s starting to look more and more like a real house!

12:48 PM

We’re on lunch break at the build site, listening to Brian’s CD. Most Salvadoran music has that horse-trot backbeat; it’s really interesting to hear. I’m amazed at how high the house is built. It’s probably 6.5 feet now. I’ve had fun with Gonzalez and the masons. He’s told me to listen to Daddy Yankee, a big artist here in Central America. I probably could have used the half day instead of straight to 4:00, but it’s cool to see everything coming together with the house.

4:41 PM

Back at the hotel. Today was such a good day; I’m glad we stayed till 4 PM. We ended up sitting and talking a lot, then at the en we had a long water fight with Brian and Jenny. It was loads of fun; we all got soaked to the skin. All in all everyone ad a great time at the build site today. We ad to use scaffolding to reach the top of the building; we got about 10 blocks high today. I’m gonna miss Brian, Nefri, Jenny, Alex, Julio, Elias, Gonzalez, and the rest of the gang. I had a life-changing week of building, for sure, and I’m not likely to forget the experience anytime soon. It amazed me how accepting the locals were of us foreigners. Especially the mason Julio, who could do everything far more efficiently ith his assistants than with us, kept us involved and working throughout the week. I will never forget my conversations in broken Spanish with Gonzalez; it reminded me of trying to communicate with Måns in Swedish. I couldn’t have asked for a better week.

We’re back at the hotel now, and I think this is a lie-in, relax night for everyone. The bus will be here at 9 AM tomorrow to take us to the beach.

7:20 PM

Julian and I are hanging out in our room. Melissa and Lindsay are over. It started to rain in bursts over the last few hours – rain in the dry season! I think we got a lot more than we bargained for this trip.

Day 6 Thu, 19 Feb 2009 00:00:00 -0500 6:36 AM

Beach today. I ache. All over.

4:03 PM

OK. No beach today. Also, no more building. Erica came to the build site today to tell us that Sheila had broken her tailbone in two places, and possibly one of her vertebrae. She’s being airlifted to Canada at the earliest opportunity, and we’re to follow. Lindsay was with her all day. So when me, Melissa, Christina and our fill-in translator Dennis heard the news we were pretty down. We said a jovial farewell to the masons, Gonzalez, and the family, and then left a few presents – a puzzle, a bag of marbles. Now we’re on the bus.

Melissa and I have been thinking; technically our contract with Habitat should be over on Friday; we’re of age, why not just stay on our own? We already have a flight booked for Sunday and a hotel reserved in San Salvador. We’d just need to find a way to get from here to the capital, and then to the airport. We could manage; Julian and Christina are on board too; but everything’s up in the air – the flights and hotels might already be cancelled.

7:51 PM

Everything’s still up in the air, but now we have a little more certainty as to where it’ll all land. We had an impromptu closing ceremony because we were pretty sure that we weren’t going to build tomorrow. The families and masons were here and everything. They were very grateful for our help and monetary contributions, and I think we gained an unforgettable experience in working with all these wonderful Salvadorans. We ate a huge dinner and took lots of pictures.

Then Sheila tells us we’re staying. It’s pretty certain that we’ll be here till Sunday, with Dennis as our impromptu trip leader. As far as I know, Sheila is being flown first class to Toronto tomorrow, and we’ll be ere in Usulutan for the rest of the trip with Dennis. That means no shopping in San Salvador, but it does mean we can check out the Usulutan market and go to the beach!

9:26 PM

These past two days have certainly been filled with drama. But at least, now we know what’s really going on. Sheila is going to Toronto tomorrow, and then to the hospital in Ottawa. Dennis is now our team leader. He’ll be on our build site tomorrow as the token bilingual person (and the token american gringo). It turns out we’re building for a whole day, not a half day tomorrow. I wonder how much Dennis I’ll be able to handle. Saturday we’re all going to the beach, and then we leave for the airport on Sunday morning. We’ll be staying here in Usulutan at the Campo Real for the whole time. I guess we can hang out in the town on Saturday night and Sunday morning.

In light of all the itinerary changes, Sheila’s been doing a great job at keeping everything organized and keeping the team together. I hope she understands how much we appreciate her and how sad we are to see her go.

Day 5 Wed, 18 Feb 2009 00:00:00 -0500 6:48 PM

Today’s build was more cement mixing and laying blocks. It seemed pretty quick; the sun was really hot today so we were more tired than usual – I was glad when the bus came for sure. Gonzalez (pronounced Gonchalez) was really friendly today; we were talking about sports and popular music. At lunchtime, about 6 kids from the neighbourhood came to play with us… we brought soap bubbles and balloons and played with Nefri and his siter and their friends – it was a lot of fun, and we stayed for about an hour on the soccer field, playing with them and making conversation with the mother and older siblings. It’s really humbling to see how happy the mother was to see her kids having fun with the balloons. It’s the simplest things – a wave, a smile, that brings people together here.

Our trip encountered a second hiccup when we got back to the hotel. Upon entering the pool, Sheila slipped and hit her tailbone on the edge of the pool. I was coming down to head off to the market with Melissa, Susie, and Christina. I had my backpack, ready to go, and it was a good thing that I left the first aid kit in there from the build today. I took out the ice pack and gave it to Lindsay to crack open for Sheila. She couldn’t get it to break the seal, so she put it on the deck and told me to step on it. I did; nothing happened. Sheila told me: “Step on it harder, it won’t break!” So I gave it all my strength, and the bag of chemicals popped out of the ice pack and fell into the pool. We had a good laugh. But then I had to run upstairs to get Sheila’s kit. We got her out of the pool and put the new ice pack on her back. Well, that was fun. We decided to head off to the market before it got dark; the sun was low in the sky so we didn’t have much time. We ended up buying a bunch of bananas for $1 before having to go back.

We returned just before dinner; it turns out Sheila had really hurt her tailbone and is going to get an x-ray tonight. We’re not really sure what this means for our build, R&R, or going to the beach tomorrow, but we’ll find out whenever she gets back. José, the Habitat affiliate here, has arranged to pick her up soon. Lindsay is accompanying her; hopefully it won’t be anything major. We all really want to keep building these houses.

9:18 PM

Sheila and Lindsay are back. We just finished having a pow-wow in Sheila’s room, and everyone seems to be in pretty good spirits. She went to a doctor because the hospital was closed. (At least the x-ray part of it.) They gave her a shot and a pill, and the pain is starting to go away. Long story short, the worst case scenario is that we all have to go home ASAP on the next flight out. Sheila’s going for an x-ray in the morning. She’s still up for the beach, and we’ll be building as usual tomorrow (minus Sheila). The volcano climb is definitely out of the picture though, we’ll just be hanging out in San Salvador instead. But let’s cross our fingers for tomorrow and hope that Sheila’s alright!

Day 4 Tue, 17 Feb 2009 00:00:00 -0500 6:58 AM

Rise and shine! Day two of the build is here. My lower back is so sore today, I can feel it now. Alright, time to get going for breakfast and another day of hard labour.


What a workout! As we’re eating lunch, I can see a pile of mixed concrete waiting to be put into the foundation. There’s some concrete already in the foundation, and the masons have already made a frame for the walls out of rebar. Cement mixing is… an ordeal to say the least. It makes me so thankful for cement mixing trucks in Canada. We had to shovel piles of gravel, sand, and cement, mix them together by hand – with shovels. Then spread out the pile into a volcano shape, and fill up the bowl of the volcano with water. Then we mixed it all together, scooping cement mix into the centre to be soaked up by the water. The hardest part was continually mixing the concrete with the shovel so it wouldn’t dry out. We had to get it into the wheelbarrow and into the foundation while the rest of us kept mixing. A truck came by to drop off concrete blocks and steel bars/sheets, but I have a feeling we’ll be mixing concrete all day. Only 2 of the outside walls are filled in so far.

On a positive note, the kids have definitely warmed up. Earlier today we had the soccer ball out and I was playing pass-the-ball with Brian. Nefri and Jennifer were playing with balloons and rubber balls with the girls. They cranked up the radio, so we’ve been working to the beat of Salvadoran remakes of American hip-hop chart-toppers. Also, we had mangos for our snack, and hey are absolutely awesome! Right off the tree, they’re green and a little sour but so unlike any other fruit. We had them plain, but the locals eat them with chili sauce and lemon juice.

3:00 PM

Snacktime again! As predicted, we’ve been shoveling concrete all day. We’ve got a lot of progress, though. All of us, the masons, and the helpers have filled in a little more than half of the foundation. We’re having a lot of fun, nonetheless, singing songs and taking shifts for mixing the concrete. This day has been going very quickly – I can’t believe it’s almost the end of the day!

5:01 PM

Woke up from a well-deserved nap. Contrary to what you might think, we’re not home yet. We’re in the bus, near the other build site, waiting for people to come back from picking coconuts. We actually finished early today and played soccer on the street – then we found out there was a soccer pitch beside the build site. This was at about 20 to 4:00, then the bus came to get us. We were confused when the other team wasn’t at their build site, but the driver spoke to the neighbour, who told us where they were. Now we’re just waiting; we’ve been in the bus for over an hour.

7:22 PM

Well, the hour-long wait was worth it. The second half of our team came back with four huge coconuts, which we got to drink the milk out of. They also got some cashew fruits for us. I learned something new today: cashews are grown on trees! There’s the cashew tree, that had cashew fruits growing on it. These look sort of like red peppers from the outside, but they’re mushy like a peach, I guess. The skin is smooth like a red pepper, though. Anyway, the actual cashew nut grows out of the bottom of the fruit, in a hard shell that you need to crack open. That was exciting!

We ate the coconuts when we got back to the Hotel Campo Real. They were really good; I’ve never had fresh coconut flesh before. We were too tired to swim. I think it’ll be an early night for everyone. All my clothes are full of dirt, and my nose is too. I’ve never sneezed out concrete before. I took the liberty of shampooing my hair when we got back; I feel like a new man.

Day 3 Mon, 16 Feb 2009 00:00:00 -0500 5:34 PM

Well, this is my first journal entry of the day – goes to show that I didn’t have much time to sit down and write today! It was the first build day, and while I don’t ache as much as I thought I would, I’m pretty exhausted. Let’s see if I can recount everything that happened.

After a breakfast of cheese omelettes and fried potatoes, we got ready and set off to our build sites. I put sunscreen on, but not bug spray: I hadn’t seen mosquitos the entire time ere, and I still haven’t been bitten once. My team – me, Sheila, Melissa, Lindsay, and Christina – were dropped off first. The build site was much more urban than I thought it would be. It seems like the daughter bought part of the backyard of the mother’s house – enough to build a house on. It’s a very crowded space. They have a garden, chicken coop, toilet, shower, washing-up area, table, existing house, and future house packed into about 300 square metres. The existing house is painted pastel green and it has two brightly coloured hammocks in the living room, in front of a small colour TV. It’s difficult to tell who lives here and who is a neighbour; who’s hired to work and who is just helping out. Everyone’s at work on the foundation; it’s nearly done being dug out by the time we arrive.

We meet our mason, Julio, and his assistant. He reminds us that his name sounds like “July”. We start by moving the piles of dirt to the outside of the future house site that have been extracted to make the foundation. Te shovels they have are about 3 feet tall; this’ll be good for my back by the end of the week. For the first half of the day we alternate between this and cutting and tying the rebar together. The masons help us with the rebar, making marks in blue pencil where we need to tie the pieces of steel together. For our first break we had a big bowl of sliced pineapple and melon; the lady who served us was friendly, but only politely so. I think it’ll take a few days before we feel like “one of the gang”. At lunchtime, we’re all gross, dirty, and sweaty, but our spirits are high. Despite a slip-up by Habitat resulting in 6 chicken dishes (there are 5 of us, 3 of which are vegetarians), we’re optimistic about the build. We’ve started telling each other, “You’re attractive when you sweat.”

We continued with the same jobs after lunch, but I felt a stronger sense of camaraderie with the Salvadorans this time, despite the language barrier. We started to mix concrete for the foundation after we were finished moving the dirt around. We had to take the white dirt from the road, mix it with the cement, and pound it into the foundation with water. Overall, I’m getting more comfortable with this construction stuff, and the kids on the site seem to be getting more comfortable with us. Lindsay and Nefri certainly had fun with the soccer balls, and Melissa was friendly with the rooster, even though he was cock-a-doole-doodling all through the day.

We were relieved when the bus came to pick us up at 4. We swung by the other site to pick up the rest of the team – their site is a lot more rural… but they have no shade at all! I’m glad we have a lot of trees and buildings around to block out the sun.
To sum things up, it was a lot of work, but I was glad the kids started to open up near the end of the day. My hands hurt now, but that might be from the writing rather than all the digging.

Day 2 Sun, 15 Feb 2009 00:00:00 -0500 7:53 AM

Woke up. I fell asleep after one round of cards last night. it was a long day. There was a wedding reception going on in the plaza, but the music didn’t keep us up.

9:26 AM

On the way to an artisan market. I can’t believe how good the road conditions are here! We haven’t had a bumpy ride yet. We have passed so many houses that are just stacked bricks and tin roofs. The people are sitting outside, riding bikes, walking around, but they all stop to look at us as we pass by in our bus. Eduardo is driving crazy through all the little towns (barrios?). I don’t want to know what would happen if people didn’t heed his honking. Also, the painted telephone poles indicate we’re in republican territory. Eduardo has an FMLN sticker on his bus. I should find out more about the election.

9:36 AM

On the road winding up the mountain to Alegría. There are piles of garbage along the side of the road. Interesting insight from Sheila: the more garbage strewn about, the more disposable income the people have.

9:51 AM

New party territory: “C.D.”. Their colours are blue and yellow, painted on the rocks on the side of the road.

10:07 AM

Saw another painted rock. It’s the “Cambio Democratico”.

11:31 AM

Leaving the laguna: it was a lake fed by sulfur springs and we walked around for a while. There were mountains all around, and it felt like we were in a bowl. This was a stop on the way to Alegría. Now we’re heading down the mountain to find a restaurant in Alegría.

2:17 PM

The restaurant was so amazing! We were serenaded by two mariachi bands, who sang songs for us. I had tomatoes, lettuce, and cucumbers on my dish, but I don’t feel too bad yet. I don’t think I have hepatitis. Now we’re walking around in town, buying souvenirs in Alegría. There is quite a bit of advertising for both FMLN and ARENA (the republican party); I bought a ceramic FMLN cup, and might buy another for Mr. Edwards. I thought there would be more shops; we’ve only seen about 5. This’ll be our big spending day; tomorrow we start to build!

3:40 PM

We found a lot of other cool shops in Alegría. I’ve pretty much taken care of everyone on my list, except maybe a few friends from res. But the find of the day is definitely a FMLN cup and saucer for Mr. Edwards. I’m more comfortable in Spanish now; I was able to haggle for the price of a bamboo flute and ask the lady to wrap the ceramics I bought in newspaper so they wouldn’t break. We’re headed back to the hotel to eat dinner and get ready for the build tomorrow.

4:36 PM

Home sweet home. I’m back in my bed, fitting a new bracelet I bought in Alegría. I think we’re all just gonna chill until dinner and swimming.

Day 1 Sat, 14 Feb 2009 00:00:00 -0500 4:05 AM

Rise and shine! It’s time to get up, wash my face, have a bite to eat and head out for the airport. We’re in the kitchen, cutting up the poppy seed loaf for everyone to eat.

5:39 AM

We’re at the airport now! Just finished putting tags on our luggage. Waiting for Christina now…

6:20 AM

Well, that was fast. We cleared customs, checked our bags and are now in the lounge waiting for our flight to leave. We’ll be waiting a couple hours. I’m sure we can find things to occupy our time. I wonder what I’ll do with my sweater and sweatpants when we get there…

8:05 AM

Getting ready for takeoff… who’s excited? I am! I’m going to try and learn some spanish from Dad’s old conversation guide so that I can find out where the telegram office and discotheque are.

9:18 AM

Well, I have the window seat but the window is closed because the sun is shining right into it. I’ve got my stylin’ 90s sunglasses though, it’ll be alright. I’ve gotta find somewhere to stash my sweatpants, it’s a good thing I wore swim shorts under them. They’re coming down with the food now. Zumo de manzana, por favor. Sin carne.

(Salvadoran Time) 11:07 AM

I think we may have just flown past the southern edge of the USA. We were flying over land, then we hit a vast expanse of bright blue water. All I can see now is the ocean, with a smattering of clouds.

12:59 PM

Just packed onto the bus that will take us away from the airport. Let the fun begin!

1:18 PM

They paint their trees here. I suppose it’s for repelling insects, but Rob says they do it for aesthetic purposes too. Phone poles and the like are painted red, white, and blue: the colours of the republican party. There will be elections in March, so there’s a lot of propaganda going on. I saw a sign for the FMLN – a sister of the Nicaraguan FSLN?

7:37 PM

What a fabulous place! El Salvador is such a vibrant and colourful place. At least, Usulutan is. OK, first things first. We drove through Usulutan City on our way to the hotel. The hotel is called Campo Real. The city is so colourful, with buildings that are turquoise, red, yellow, pink, absolutely awesome.

We got settled in at the hotel and had a snack – tortillas filled with beans and cheese called pupusas, and cabbage… simply amazing! The first family came in and introduced themselves. They were a father, mother, and toddler daughter who are struggling to make rent. Manuel, the dad, was really excited to help build his future house. I won’t be working on that house though; we’re split into 2 teams, building 2 different houses. We meet the other family on Monday.

After that, we took a trip into the town. It was about a 20-min walk. Certainly an eye-opening experience. The streets are littered with garbage. Stray dogs are commonplace. Vendors line the crowded streets with their grungy makeshift stalls. Children run around barefoot in traffic. And you’d better get out of the way, or a bus will hit you. But there was an undeniable sense of community trust and camaraderie in this setting. We were obviously outsiders, but aside from one cry of “Gringos go home!”, everyone smiled as we walked by. We got lots of horn toots and whistles (there are only 3 guys out of the team of 11 people). It’s so carefree here. Many people are poor, or seem so on the face of it, but a part of me already wants to have grown up here, despite the pollution and low health standards.

Now, we’re all playing cards to wind down after a good swim in the hotel pool. That’ll feel good after a long day of building!

El Salvador Trip Journal Fri, 13 Feb 2009 00:00:00 -0500 On February 14, 2009, I set out on a trip to El Salvador with 10 friends. We went with Habitat for Humanity to help build two houses near Usulutan, a major city in the southwestern area of the country. This travel blog encompasses my thoughts and observations for the ten days we spent there.

Pre-trip preparation Fri, 13 Feb 2009 00:00:00 -0500 Saturday 7 February 2009 – 8:54 PM

Well, I’ve decided to start a travel journal for this trip. I don’t know why I’m starting so early; we don’t leave for almost a week. I guess I’m just really excited!

Mum came over last weekend to drop off my camping backpack and a first aid kit – I’m slowly getting everything packed for the trip! Dad comes tomorrow.

I still have to sort out how I’m going to take my medicines so that I don’t get Hep A or Malaria.

Sunday 8 February 2009 – 10:44 AM

I wonder if I should buy some more oil of oregano. The bottle I have is really small.

Monday 9 February 2009 – 11:13 AM

Oooohkay. So I’m taking my first round of pills and herbal extracts. Grapeseed, oil of oregano, those two were fine. I gagged when it came to wormwood, like, literally almost threw up. I’m going to see if I can get that in capsules instead of liquid extract.

9:12 PM

Well, that was better. Bought some capsules today. They taste much nicer than the extract. But I don’t know what to do with the bottle of extract now… I also got some talcum powder, milk thistle capsules, and insoles for the boots. Only 4 more days!

Thursday 12 February 2009 – 1:54 PM

Only one more day! I packed my bags last night (this morning) except for some clothes that are still drying on the clothesline. I did laundry last minute too. I’m getting really pumped! I still have to buy bug spray – I’ll make a trip uptown.

11:59 PM

Just got a Facebook message from Elisabeth – she says Mr. Edwards is jealous of me. :) Which prompted me to make a list of people to buy gifts for.

Friday 13 February 2009 – 10:40 AM

I’m so excited! Divyesh’s dad is coming to pick us up in an hour and a half; I’m trying to calm down by listening to Remy Shand. I only have a few more things to pack, namely my passport, money, and this journal. In less than 24 hours we’ll be on the plane!

9:17 PM

Everyone who’s supposed to be here is over at Melissa’s house now – Julian, Constance, Joan, me, and Melissa! The rest of the team is spending the night at Lindsay’s house. We just had a colossal dinner and now are in the basement trying to find a movie to watch.