Inside Pocket for Safe Travel

Over the years Kevin and I have had the good fortune of traveling to quite a few countries.  In terms of personal safety, I’d say we’ve experienced most segments of the continuum.  Or is safety a misconception?  Travel to any large city makes one a target for pick-pockets and other petty crime.  We’ve heard about it, witnessed it and more disturbingly, have been the victim of a skilled pick-pocket and have been robbed at gunpoint.

Our Central American trip earlier this year consisted primarily of countries that are wonderful to visit but on the low end of the personal safety continuum, so we had the opportunity to acquire vast knowledge on keeping valuables (passport, credit/debit cards, cash) safe during travel.  When gathering with seasoned travelers or staying in hostels, safety was consistently a topic of conversation as there was always someone who had a personal story or two.  While sparing you the details, I think we all agree that it’s important to keep one’s passport safe when traveling.

Money belts: Pro’s and Con’s

During our Central American trip both Kevin and I wore a lightweight money belt where we carried our passport, an extra credit card and most of the cash from the most recent ATM visit and a small amount in American dollars.  While  this is much safer than carrying these items in a small bag or purse (can be left behind) or in a wallet (eeks – easy target for a pick-pocket), we learned of another option.  The downside is that pick-pockets and thieves know that travelers wear money belts. On a few occasions we heard about travelers whose pockets and money belts were emptied.

Inside Travel Safety Pocket

The Alternative: Inside Safety Pocket

Joe T., whom we met in Guatemala and traveled with for a few days, fits into a category of his own.  For 40 years he’s traveled in Central and South America for 2-3 months each year, staying in hostels and lower end hotels.  When on the go, he keeps a low profile, carries few items of value and he doesn’t wear a money belt.  Instead for 40 years he’s had “an inner pocket” sewn into each of the pants he wears on the trip.  This is such a simple option.  After telling us about the pockets and learning that I sew, one evening he brought me a pair of his jeans so I could check it out.  

Pattern and Tutorial:

Materials:

  • 7″x21″ strip of cotton or mesh fabric.
  • 8″ strip of narrow elastic

1.  On one of the narrow ends, turn over 3/4″ of fabric to make a casing for the elastic.

2. Run one line of stitching to form the casing.  Note:  If using fabric which ravels, you may need to zig-zag or serge the edge. In these photos I use one fabric of each type to demonstrate the differences. 

3. Slip the elastic into the casing.

Making the elastic casing

4.  Stitch back and forth several times across the elastic to keep it in place.

5.  Pull on the unsecured end of the elastic to form a gather as in the next photo.  (Elastic should be 1″ shorter than the width of the pocket).

6.  Secure the second end of the elastic by stitching back and forth several times.

7.  Fold the fabric to form a pocket about 7-8″ long.

8.  Stitch the sides of the pocket, backstitching on both ends of the seam.  Note:  Very important to back-stitch to prevent the stitches from letting go on the first wearing!

9.  You are now ready to hand-sew the pocket into a pair of pants or a skirt.

Pocket Placement

The pocket should be on the inside of the existing front pocket of the pants (or skirt) and at least several inches from the waist of the pants.  When in public the pocket will not be accessible to either the wearer or a would-be thief. 

Hand-sewing the Pocket into Pants or Skirt

1.  Fold over 3/4″ on the top edge.

2.  Pin in place

3. Hand sew with a double-strand of thread using small stitches.

You are done!  Travel safe.

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The Traje in Guatemala

It’s now been months since we were in Guatemala, but as you can tell by my posts, I continue to be fascinated by the culture.  By no means am I an expert on the “traje”; that is the traditional clothing worn by Mayan women and girls in Guatemala however I’d like to share the little bit that I know. As a fabric lover, it is captivating to see the variety of beautiful fabrics and the proud manner in which women wear their traje.

With her Mother at a Craft Market (Antigua)
Coban: Traje Store

In a previous post I wrote that women of Guatemala literally wear their culture on their backs.  Unlike other countries where traditional clothing is a cultural marker and where the clothing is worn only for special occasions, in Guatemala there are large numbers of women or girls who wear traditional clothing for daily life.  Of course there are also women who also wear the traje only on special occasions.  From what I could see, the clothing for special occasions does not differ in style from what was worn for daily use.

Selling fruit at the Market
Typical dress in Coban

Even after seeing several photos of women in traditional clothing, you may notice the different skirt and top styles.  Each community has a style which is unique to that area.  For example, in the north (specifically Coban), women wear gathered skirts and lacy tops such as the preceding photo.  On the other hand, in a cooler area such as Santiago Atitlan, the blouses are made of fairly heavy cotton which is then embroidered with birds such as the following photo.

Santiago Atitlan: Typical Blouse

 In Antigua and the Lake Atitlan area, skirts are made from a large panel of fabric tied at the waist with a wide hand embroidered belt.  The fabric is made by women in their homes – densely woven Guatemalan cotton in a variety of plaid designs, which also vary by region.   Like backstrap weaving, fabric weaving is one of the ways in which women stay connected to their culture.

San Juan: Schoolgirls in the Traje
Weaving Loom for Skirt Fabric
Fabric for Traje skirts
Lace only fabric store: San Pedro

In the following photo, I love the hair ribbons woven into the braid.  In Quetzaltenango the skirts are full and have an embroidered band at the knee.  You can also see the hand-woven shawl resting on the woman’s shoulder.

Waiting for the Bride: Quetzaltenango

Not surprisingly in this craft-based economy, many of the garments are hand-sewed and embroidered by family members.  I’m not sure about the cost of blouse fabric but we were told that a skirt-length panel of woven fabric costs $40-$80, incredibly expensive in a very poor country.

What about men?

Unlike Mayan women, it is uncommon to see men wearing their traditional garments.  I was able to capture one example in San Pedro – wool pants with embroidery.  Like with the garments worn by females, the designs vary by community.

Traditional pants: San Pedro

Guatemalan Handicrafts: Backstrap Weaving

Backstrap weaving while tending the store

There are a number of handcrafts which are familiar to anyone who has traveled to Guatemala; the  most common are weaving and embroidery.  Weaving takes a number of forms but for now I’ll just talk about my favorite.  Backstrap weaving is a craft and an art-form but more importantly for women of Mayan descent, it is an ancient tradition carried on from pre-Columbian times, a ritual and a means of maintaining cultural identity in a country where Mayan cultural traditions are devalued by the ruling minority.  

As a visitor to this country and a lover of “all things fiber”, it is enthralling to see so many people embrace their culture.  In fact, there is likely no other country in the world where people (mostly women) literally wear their culture on their back.  

Selling Guatemalan handicrafts: Chichicostonango Market Day

Backstrap Weaving

Sitting on the floor with a strap behind one’s back, the other end of the strap is tied to a post or tree, the weaver creates a design often from memory, by passing a shuttle from side to side.  The maximum width is 14-15″ and the length has no limits. With a 15″ width there is a huge amount of pressure on the back of the weaver.  One of my Spanish maestro’s told me that because of back pressure from the strap, it is common for backstrap weavers to have serious back problems in later life.  There is a Guatemalan cotton and dying market to keep weavers supplied with yarn – grown, processed and dyed in Guatemala.  On this visit we also saw some shiny yarn in markets, which I think is rayon.

Weaving yarn for sale in the local market

It is important to mention that backstrap weaving is not  unique to Guatemala.  What makes it important in this country is the cultural significance.  

In areas where tourism is well-developed, the markets are filled beautiful table runners, scarves, purses and other woven items.  For a 15×80″ table runner such as those in the following photo, weaving time is approximately one month.  In the markets or from street vendors where there isn’t a middleman, these weavings cost approximately $30 – I don’t want to know the hourly wage.

Close-up of 15x80" runner

Catarina

At the ICA Spanish School in Xela, Catarina visited several days each week to sell her crafts (and likely those made by other family members or friends) to the ~25 students at the school.  While this was a pretty small market, it was also an opportunity for Catarina to learn to speak English and to engage with English-speakers.  And engage she did.  She was incredibly proud of her work and she was one of the loveliest people we met during our one month in Guatemala.

Note:  Most people of Mayan descent speak their native Indian language and Spanish (national language).  English is usually limited to whatever is required to speak with or sell goods to tourists.

Of course, she was the person from whom I would purchase my weavings.  This deep blue table scarf is 14×24″ and is made with blue cotton and the white shiny yarn I mentioned above.  It’s really quite striking and it makes me think of lovely Catarina.

If you have the opportunity to see Guatemalan handicrafts, I’m hoping that this brief description will make you appreciate the incredible amount of work that goes into the finished product.

Eeks! Suicide Showers

One of the most fascinating parts of our recent trip to Central America was the daily shower.  We had been warned about cold showers which are OK in a tropical climate but certainly not in 60 or 70 degree weather.  Here’s a little information about our “shower” experience.  Before I complain too much, this was in large part an outcome of our decision to stay in hostels or small inexpensive hotels.

Cold Showers

As a person who loves a very warm shower, I never thought it was humanly possible to enjoy a cold shower.  When I say “cold”, I mean that the water is the temperature of the public water system or whatever type of storage or holding tank is the source for the water, but for me that’s still a “cold shower”.  In Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama and Cartagena, there were no tears shed at shower time because it was 95 degrees outside – even I will admit that a cooler shower felt good.  To sum it up, we traveled for a full month without a warm shower.  I am still in disbelief that I survived it.

The Alternative Shower

We had so many experiences which are incredibly innovative – often out of need – I think there are quite a few lessons we N. Americans could learn if we could get over the thinking that environmentally conscious solutions would take us a step backward.  For example, when it comes to warm showers, there is an alternative to water heaters which run constantly and burn gas or electricity.  A “suicide shower” is a solution we could adopt.  In fact, here’s a photo of some of the options:

Intrigued and want to learn more?

 Often called “suicide showers” by travelers, these showers have a single cold water line coming into the device (in fact, most homes didnn’t have a hot water line, even in the kitchen).  As you can see, the “super ducha’s” are available in a variety of sizes and shapes – some have a wider shower head (but none of them have a Holiday Inn style smart spray!)  A small pea-can sized heater within the shower head warms the water immediately when the faucet is turned on.  There is one caveat – with a small stream of water, the temperature is nice and warm however a higher velocity resulted in cooler water.  On average, the water was warm.

So why the name?  The first time we encountered one of these strange-looking devices, I turned on the water and sparks flew.  It didn’t take an electrical engineer to figure out that I shouldn’t step in.  Instead, I notified the hotel staff and soon a workman came to rewire the shower, which looked something the one below but with more dangling wires.  As we met more travelers, we learned that my experience was quite common.

In one of our homestays, we showered under this modern beauty:

Last of all I want to mention that these showers are no reason to stay away from Central America as a travel destination, in fact it’s one of the dozens of experiences that make it a wonderful travel destination.

Panama City

A City of Contrast, Contradiction and Disparity

Many of us from the US have long-held a fascination with Panama, and especially the Panama Canal, which was managed by the US until 2000.  This engineering marvel has been operational for nearly 100 years.  When you see how expansive this 80 Km canal is – it stretches from the Atlantic to the Pacific, it is difficult to believe that it was constructed 100 years ago.  Today it continues to move 14,000 ships through this passageway every year.  The technology is modern and has an elaborate quality control system so it doesn´t fail.  In addition, the canal is currently being expanded so that in 2014, ships as wide as 55 meters (?160 feet) will be able to pass through the canal.  Currently the canal is run solely by the people of Panama.  As you can imagine, the impact on Panama City is enormous, it is a huge center for commerce and banking and there are mega shopping malls that rival those in any modern country. 

As we visited Panama City, an urban community of 3 or 4 million people and with an expansive skyline of modern buildings, the contrast with every day life for the majority of inhabitants of Panama City was at times disturbing.  As we stood near the well-known fish market on Balboa Avenue, a look to the right showed this, which is only a portion of the skyline for the commercial district.  Immediately behind several of these modern skyscrapers was a community of stilt houses right in the water.  With no electricity or other services, their cobbled together stilt houses and boardwalks were at times under water when the tide came in and they sat in mud when the tide went out.  For the very poor such as these people or those who live in tenement housing, there are no publicly supported services as in some countries.

Panama City skyline

 As we looked straight ahead of us and stepped around to look behind us there were dozens (probably really hundreds) of high-rise apartments that looked war-torn, sometimes with no doors or windows and non-functional plumbing.  In this intense 90 degree heat, one can only imagine the living conditions.  Some are occupied by squatters and some actually pay rent for these horrible dwellings.  I tried to photograph a few of these tenements but photos just don´t capture the desperate situation. 

Casco Viejo

Still standing from the same viewpoint, a look to the right shows the beautiful and historic old city or Casco Viejo which has been named a UNESCO world heritage site and which is now being restored to the beauty and regal of Colonial times. (This is also where we stayed while in Panama City).  This neighborhood was allowed to deteriorate to a state which one can´t imagine until you walk through the neighborhoods.  Now as foreign money is being infused in to the old quarter, it is being restored to its original beauty and will likely return to the state of glory of earlier times.

Casco Viejo

 

Only the shell remains from this boarded up 1700´s building in Casco Viejo

 

Restored building in Casco Viejo

Urban disparity is likely a ubiquitous problem, however in this city or possibly in the country (we only visited Panama City and Colon which is much worse than Panama City) the contrast between those who have and those who don´t is so obvious everywhere you go.  Simultaneously there is urban wealth.  For example, people with money take the air-conditioned new buses and poor people take Chicken Buses (they call them ¨Red Devils¨).  

It was very different in Panama, unlike the other Central American countries we visited, there is money in this country.

Where Central America Shops..

 …for Discarded American Clothing

Early on in our travel in Central America and other developing countries, one of my observations was the number of children and adults who wear clothing with American logos or slogans.  At first it wasn´t so striking however t-shirts from fun runs, athletic teams or corporate events are regularly seen on children and adults in Central America, especially Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua.   As I began to observe the shops and markets, it became clear to me that discarded US clothing is a major source of clothing for people in the Central American countries.  What follows is what I´ve learned to date.

PACA Stores or Tiendas

Clothing from donation programs such as Goowwill Industries, packs clothing into large bales or ¨Pacas¨.   The bales are shipped and a wholesaler in the Central American country who in turn sells the bales to local people.  For example in Coban, Guatemala, bales could be purchased for 100, 500, 800 or 1000 Quetzales (7.7 Quetzales/dollar).  The purchaser may have a small storefront or tienda which then is essentially an American style ¨second-hand store¨ where clothing is sold for several dollars per garment.  In Coban, where this photo was taken, there were probably 20 or 30 stores within an area of 6-7 square blocks. 

PACA store in Coban, Guatemala

Public Markets

Another option for selling used clothing is in the public markets, which is where the majority of people shop anyway, whether for fruits and vegetables, household goods or new clothing.  You can always see when a new pack of clothing comes in because women are elbowing for a good spot from which to look through the clothing, just like an US ¨after-Christmas¨ sale.  As you can imagine, this is quite a feat as the clothing isn´t sorted by size or type.  Nevertheless, for people who don´t have the resources to purchase new clothing, getting an early look at a new shipment is probably a pretty good shopping day.

Public Market in Granada, Nicaragua

In several cities, and again in public markets, we saw pick up trucks of shoes only or as in the following photo, a large tarp was laid out with a huge pile of clothing dumped on the ground.  Any piece of clothing could be purchased for $0.50.

Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala: Shopping in the Hot Sun

 In the US, I´ve heard and read about the controversy –  if you donate to places to Goodwill or other similar donations services, the goods might be ¨sold overseas¨ and won´t get to the people who need the goods.   I can´t say that I understood why this is controversial, possibly I don´t understand the whole story. However after seeing that the vast majority of people in Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua benefit directly from this phenomenon, it is apparent to me that the clothing that we discard is getting into the hands of people who appreciate and value what we eagerly discard as no longer useful.

If any of you have more information to help me understand this phenomenon from another viewpoint, I´d love to hear your thoughts.  Until then I stand firm – having discarded US clothing available for resale is working for the people.

Nicaragua: Leon, Granada and San Juan del Sur

 

In our short time in Nicaragua, we only had enough time to visit three cities; Leon, Granada and San Juan del Sur. Each one was very different, making it difficult to describe the country or to generalize about our experience but we got enough of a taste of the country to know we would like to return.

You’ve already heard about how difficult it was to get into the country but once through the border, we headed directly for Leon, which was an easy ride on relatively flat roads – a first for this trip.

Leon:

This city is one of the two remaining (and larger) of Nicaragua’s colonial jewels. This city of about 150k people is not only filled with colonial architecture and grand churches, but is also a market town.

 Every part of the city has a public market, big or small. These markets are accompanied by great street food often grilled in an old tire rim set on a stand of some type. In this area of the country, horse and cart is a major means of transportation; the city streets are willingly shared by cars, buses and horse and cart. The people of this region are friendly and kind; always willing to help a couple of confused N. American travelers.

While tourism is increasing in this area, aside from young backpackers, we really didn’t see a lot of English-speaking travelers. One of the notable characteristics of Leon is how well tourists are integrated with those who live there, how tourism hasn’t taken over daily life and the fact that there’s not a souvenir shop on every corner – or anywhere for that matter. My least favorite thing was the intense heat – daytime temps near 100 and it didn’t cool down at night.

Granada:

Named for it’s sister town in Spain, this colonial city is smaller and slightly more industrialized than Leon. It is suppose to be a haven for tourists. In reality it is a city where property and businesses are being purchased and run by expats from Europe and the US and thus driving up prices. Tourism is well developed – Parque Central and the surrounding restored colonial buildings are lovely however when you walk three or four blocks from the tourist areas, there is one of the poorest areas we have seen to date. Nearly all of businesses around Lake Nicaragua seem to have failed. It was difficult to see if this was an impact of declining tourism in the past several years or ??

Granada Restaurant: Nicaraguan owned?

 We were pleased to stay in a newly opened hotelaje and restaurant operated by two sisters and their two cousins. We’re hoping Saguan Joche, a family owned business, will be highly successful.

Street performers on La Calzada (kids)

La Calzada, the recently restored restaurant row (similar to Barcelona’s La Ramblas) is lively at night with street entertainers, music and of course great food and drink. My personal opinion is that Leon tops Granada although a visit to both is a necessity.

San Juan del Sur:

This lovely little beach town was a great place to hang out for a few days. Totally a tourist spot and beach town, we made this stop so we could hit the beaches before Semana Santa. The beach is long and wide, and a favorite swimming spot for locals and tourists. The town is filled with great seafood restaurants and other very inexpensive local eateries. We usually ate breakfast for $2.00 or $3.00 if we splurged on a smoothies made from fresh fruit. Overall a great place to veg out.

I heart Nicaragua and hope to return some day.