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.

More Drama at the Nicaragua Border

(photos will be posted later)

OK, this one will be short – if you´re going to listen to me complain about the Nicaragua borders, I owe you some information about the beauty that lives between the borders.  Will save that one for the next time.

We dreaded the thought but the only way to leave Nicaragua is to go through the border patrol.  OK, there is another option.  A couple of people tried it and you have never seen border patrol agents run as fast as these guys.  It´s hard to believe that someone would try.

When we left the beautiful beach town of San Juan del Sur via Chicken Bus, we transferred buses and then headed for the border.  When we got to about 5 miles from the border, we passed hundreds of semi trucks who were lined up nose to tail, waiting to go through the border into Costa Rica.  I´m not sure if it´s always so busy but we did hear that the reason is that it was the start of Semana Santa or Holy Week.  This means a week of vacation for Central Americans, not a week of going to church as I did when I was a kid.  Many Costa Ricans head north to the Nicaragua beaches and vice versa.

So after our first experience with a ¨guide¨ as we navigated his crazy border, we were committed to making it through on our own.  After all if we can navigate Chicken Buses, we can make it through Immigration and Customs. Little did we know that the guy who sat behind us on the bus was our personal guide!  As soon as we got off the bus he walked us to the back door of the Immigration office but the guard wouldn´t allow him to get in.  He then told us we needed to get in line with everyone else.  Now this was a line about as long as a football field and 2 or 3 people wide;  in the 100 degree mid-day sun.

Soon our self-appointed guide found us in line.  For $10.00 per person, he could get us to the head of the line and we wouldn´t need to wait.  We declined several times until he gave up.

We were in line behind 2 gringos who are teaching in Costa Rica.  While it was nice to meet several fine young people, this also made us look like an American family.  Soon, 4 men aggressively (like just about knocked us over) butted into the line, right next to the 4 of us.  Immediately Kevin´s instincts took over as he recalled the pushing and shoving of pickpockets in Greece last year.  We moved away from the guys as others in the line tried to stop their line jumping.  The 4 guys stood their ground as we must have seemed like good targets.   We held our bags tight and watched every move but were sure they still wanted to try something.  About 15 minutes later, as we entered the actual immigration office, Kevin saw one of the 4 guys trying to put his hand in the pocket of the young teacher.  His action was quickly averted.  Isn´t this the classic pickpocket story?

While this was occurring, a bunch of people ran through our line, chasing down someone else who had her wallet stolen buy someone.  I guess if you are going to wait in the crazy lines, it´s a great place for petty thieves to prey on unsuspecting travelers.

After the immigration office there were about 3 or 4 more stops before we were legally in Costa Rica.  Still complicated but at least we did it alone this time!

More on Chicken Buses

OK, so Chicken buses may not be all that interesting if you´re not in Central America, but I do need to tell you just a little more about this fascinating part of Central American culture. The economic model is worthy of being a Harvard Business Review case study.

One of the intriguing parts of the Chicken Bus is how fast they drive, even through towns,  how brief the stops are and how many people are packed into a single bus. When you understand the economic model, this all becomes understandable. (OK, so now you know I´m a little slow at Econ – you have probably figured out the reasons by now).

Fast Driving

These buses drive so fast that by USA standards, a speeding ticket for reckless driving would be in order.  In many cities in Guatemala, walking on the side of the street is a norm because the of the condition of or due to the narrow sidewalks.    If a Chicken Bus comes whizzing by, you better take care because they stop for nothing.

Doormen (or helpers?)

The driver hires a helper who not only solicits riders but he also helps riders to hustle onto the bus and he helps to assure that you get onto the right bus.   In Antigua, we often heard the doorman yelling ¨Guate, Guate, Guate, Guate¨ which means ¨Guatemala City, Guatemala …..¨.   As soon as the last rider is on, the bus is already flying down the street with the doorman running to jump on.  Or possibly he is still climbing up the ladder on the rear of the bus,  loading goods onto the roof as the bus takes off.  On one of our rides we were surprised that all of a sudden the doorman came in through the back door of the bus.  He quickly collected the fares before the next stop when he had to be outside the bus hustling more customers.

Packed Buses

No matter how many people have been packed into a city bus in any large city in the US or maybe even Japan, that´s nothing compared to how people are packed into a Chicken Bus.  There is absolutely no limit to the number of persons who are packed in.  I think the saying is ¨this is Guatemala – there´s always room for 5 or 10 more¨.  The bus we were on several days ago had an aisle that was honestly, no more than 8¨wide.  While each seat really only is wide enough for 2-1/2 persons, there could be 4 or 5 in a seat.  And butts from the right and the left seat touch in such a narrow aisle!  You get the picture.

Why?

I´m not sure if the economics of Chicken Buses is the key factor in all cases, but it´s a good guess.  In the case of Guatemala City and Antigua, we learned that the driver of the bus must pay the bus owner $800 Quetzales per day (that´s  a little more than $100) no matter how many passengers or even if the bus breaks down.  The rest is his to keep.  I´m thinking the driver has to pay for gas as well and of course he pays his helper.  From the bus company, there is great pressure to make more runs and to stay on schedule while making sure that they get every possible passenger on board.   Given the state of wages for an average worker in Guatemala, I´m thinking that the margin isn´t too great, so it´s possible that the driver could even lose money on a given day.

Of note, my references to ¨he¨were not  intended to be sexist – thus far we´ve not seen any women in any public transportation jobs; not any women taxi drivers, tuk-tuk drivers or bus drivers.

So that´s it for Chicken Buses. 

From School Bus to Chicken Bus

On the last post I wrote about our visit to Cuidad Viejo and the Nuestro Futuro school. Another fascinating though less humanistic part of the visit to the “old city” was a visit to one of the city’s many “Chicken Bus” garages – I’m not sure what you call a place that converts tired school buses from the US into brightly colored Guatemalan Chicken Buses.
This staple of the Central American economy is well know by anyone who has traveled here. The drivers regularly speed through the country-side and the city streets, stopping for seconds less than it takes to get the last rider on board. Music of the driver’s choice blares so you can’t hear anyone speak. The buses are packed with local people as well as the baskets, sacks of corn or packs of goods they have purchased; the roof is also packed, sometimes with crates of chickens or with baskets of food or household items purchased in town. On market days the buses and rooftops are particularly packed because a Chicken Bus maybe the only means of transporting items to be sold at the market.

 

Chicken buses in the making

In Cuidad Viejo there are a large number of garages or old warehouses where old yellow school buses are refurbished into the colorful and highly functional buses. The one we visited had 4 buses in varying degrees of conversion. The 4 skilled workers remove the bench seats and replace them with seats that seat 3 instead of two people. That means the aisle is about 18″ wide – not nearly wide enough for us fat Americans.

 

Painting the bus

In addition, roof supports are added for the heavy roof load, strong internal shelves are added, and doors are switched to fold inward, probably so the bus doesn’t clip some innocent person as it speeds through the streets. A major change is to shorten the bus by cutting off the rear; the drive-shaft is then shortened so the buses can turn on the narrow streets. Oh, and a ladder is added so the driver’s helper can quickly climb on top to stack or remove items.
After all of the functional changes have been made the bus is “pimped up” with a colorful paint job of the owner’s choice, chrome trim is added and the bus name is painted on the front and rear. If engine work was needed, the engine is replaced and the bus is ready for the only means of transportation available to thousands of people, whether they live in the cities or the rural areas.

Lenten Friday in Coban

Day 9

By now its likely not a surprise to you that one of our favorite travel experiences is to see local festivities or celebrations. Today as we returned to Coban following a day in Semuc Champay, the traffic was very congested and then we realized it was being re-routed.  For Lenten Friday, which we may think of as a minor event, there was a huge procession (or maybe several) and the traffic was at a standstill all over town.

I’m not sure of the exact purpose or origin of this procession however it appeared to be a version of the “Stations of the Cross”. There were two very ornate platforms or floats being carried by about 20 women or girls. The first had Jesus carrying and falling with the cross and the second held the Virgin Mary. Hundreds of men, women and children marched, some carring lit candles while thousands looked on. There was very somber music blasting from speakers.

The procession wove through the city streets and stopped at each church only Catholic, I think) where there was a prayer service, more somber music, clouds of incense but no singing. In addition, some homes placed an altar or pictures of Jesus on their front steps.

If you have more information about this custom, please leave a comment.

Coban

Day 8

This morning we awoke to the sound of a soft rain. Good day to chill and read a book and catch up on our diary. “Is this day 7 or 8”, I asked. For a minute I truly was lost in time- what a great feeling. Guess we really are on vacation.

Public market

Yesterday morning we left lovely Flores for the 6ish hour ride to Coban in hilly Central Guatemala. We traded tropical weather for a more temperate climate and a very traditional area of the country. In contrast to the more tourist-laden areas, we have seen some but not many cell phones. There are phone booths but local people who need phone service also go to street vendors to make calls. As a way of making a little money, these street vendors carry a standard landline phone with a small antenna. I’m not sure of how the technology works but it’s a great way to reuse all of our discarded phones.

Street market - Coban

 

The rain subsided so we walked the city streets for hours, passing through local markets and checking out the city. We ended the day with dinner at a highly recommended gourmet restaurant. Lesson learned; don’t expect to get great American food outside of the USA.

Selling vegetables or social time?

Shoes all stacked and ready to sell

Altars for offerings to the gods - on the Catholic Church steps

 

You can’t Judge a Town by it’s Bus Station

Day 3
To ease into our vacation (really because airfare was dirt cheap) we started by flying into Cancun and spent several nights in Playa del Carmen.  Here we are at the Philly airport.

Today we took a bus to Chetamul, which is a border town and a launching point for either Belize or Tikal, Guatemala. The travel books said the only thing to do here is to leave, so our expectations were low to begin with. When we rolled into the bus station in a drab part of town, we wanted to depart immediately. Upon learning there were no more buses to Tikal until tomorrow we had no choice but to stay overnight.

Imagine our surprise when we got to the city centre which has a huge market (we love markets), clean inexpensive hotels ($40) a Mayan museum and it’s a seaside town with a beautiful waterfront and promenade.

We settled in and walked to the waterfront, only to find that it’s “festival-time” in Chetumal. I’m talking about a pre-Lenten, MardiGras type event but more family oriented. Tonight the whole city came out for the parade, carnival, music and food festivity, like I’ve never seen before. Apparently there are 3 more days – each day the town hits the repeat key.

Oh, and we’re staying another day.