A no-longer-blonde adventure

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Guatemala City Central Park

Every now and then I have an urge to do something to my hair. Whether it’s going bald (almost for a cause) or an amateur asymmetrical cut, it never seems to surprise my friends. So I went ginger for a change, and with that, I went to Guatemala.

As a lonely, vulnerable woman, I pulled each and every single string I could to connect with friends, and friends of friends, and their friends, so my loneliness wouldn’t last longer than my flight.  And it worked! Upon my arrival to Guatemala City a smile (familiar only from facebook), greeted me from across the little gate. My enthusiasm confused several taxi drivers who almost got a client – or so they thought – and I rushed with two backpacks (one front, one back) to meet my temporary host.

The capital was only a short stop for me, however nice, because I ambitiously decided to do more studying just after finishing the semester at college. Spanish School, here I come! After all, that’s one of the things gringos believe Guatemala is famous for. So after two full days of relaxing, I got escorted to a bus stop at 5.30am and… left alone. Predicted, prepared for, and not so new to me. But it always strikes.

I had a lot of time to observe. And as much as I am used to vendors entering the bus at every stop and pitching their product in extremely fast Spanish, I never realized how invisible I could be. It’s always the foreigners who get the most (oftentimes unwanted) attention, but for these salesmen we’re good only to be overlooked. Soon enough, I realized that without me expressing active interest, they will assume I know no Spanish, have no idea about their ways, and am no potential customer. I might have been slightly hungry by then, but being ignored never felt as comfortable.

So I reached my destination, chit-chatted with a rather bored, customer-less taxi driver, decided I shall use no English from now on, and knocked heavily on the school’s door. Barely a formality.

Now, with my own room in a Guatemalan house, an actual local phone number, improved Spanish, and no-longer-blonde hair, I almost feel like a native. Maybe I can cross “sign up for couchsurfing!” off of my TO-DO list.

Volcanoes’ strong winds.

The deck was filled with deliciously swirling breeze, the boat rocked from one side to the other like a baby’s cradle, and the view of what was in front stunned each and every one of us. We were on our way to Isla de Ometepe, curious and beautiful destination with two spiky (and active!) volcanoes reaching up, and dense greenery strechng all the way to the island’s very shore. Since we managed to meet up with three friends from Brandeis (oh the powerful randomness and charm of social networks!), the dynamics of the newly formed group changed dramatically and all the new excitement and planning came into the picture. We all climbed on the second, not really passenger-friendly floor of the lancha and getting comfrotable amongst all the backpacks and unidentified metal pipes, we started to visualise ourselves climbing up one of those steep slopes. It wasn’t long before everything started rolling around, almost off the unguarded edges, and the peaceful atmosphere changed into ‘hold onto whatever you can!’ circus. It was an angry lake we had to pass through, but we had a lovely companionship along the way.

‘Ha! Didn’t exptect to see you guys again!’ I heard Matt say and saw that the next two tourists climbing up the ladder were the Québécois (?) couple that we had already met in Esteli, and twice in Leon. There’s nothing like making friends so we all joined our efforts and along with another two sisters from NYC, we all got ripped off by monopolized taxis in the darkness of the shore’s scary hour. 6pm to be precise. And the hostels we had in mind were all overbooked, so we had to stick with the drivers and let them take us SOMEWHERE where there’ll be 9 beds.  No worries though, the island is so small and business-oriented that they knew exactly who to contact and where to drop us off. Of course, before we even looked at the rooms, a mountain guide made us an offer and pointed to a nice dinner place. Ometepe all inclusive, I swear.

After all we decided to stay together and try this guy’s skills. It was a date, and voluntarily I was to be the one pain in the ass who wakes everyone up by 5.40am. By the dawn, we lost two potential hikers to sickness and nightmares, but if you wake up that early, nothing can stop you from whatever you’ve commited to. We met out guide, Miguel, bought some calorie rich snacks for the trip and tightened up the laces in our hiking shoes. I was determined not to slow anyone down, so I ended up following Miguel’s steps just behind his back, resembling a trek nerd. Honestly, we didn’t see as many animals as we had hoped (besides sleeping monkeys just at the bottom, and a funky ant trail that was streching for as far as we could see), and the route wasn’t as wild as we were warned. Yes, the hike was an effort, with steep trails and strong winds; and yes it took a loaf of bread, 2 litres of water and quite a few stops to reach 1200m, but we all did it, still arriving before midday.

The problem with volcano Concepcion, is that it’s a… volcano. Its top is bare, treeless, and on the day we hiked, it had one of the strongest winds I have ever experienced. I couldn’t walk in a straight line without being forced more and more to the right until I dropped to my knees just in case I might roll down the edge. We lacked 400m to the crater, but no one seemed too excited about reaching the very top. Everyone did their best, sweat enough and saw the island from another perspective. I felt no need to struggle with my eyes half closed, tilting my body one way throughout the rest of the climb. Lazy or not, we all run down and decided to spend the rest of the day on the beach. Isn’t that always the best option anyway?

Fiona

Isla de Ometepe (Nicaragua), 7th Jan 2012

A little white house with a waterfront.

I didn´t think there are many beaches out there that are as tourist-friendly and enchanting as Las Peñitas on a weekday. To take a break from León, the rather small university town full of gringos, we hopped on a bus that took 4 times as much time but cost 20 times less than a taxi and ended up on an empty, rocky and beautiful waterfront. We haven´t had that much good luck recently, so escaping the hassle and getting lazy on the beach seemed like a good energizer. Our little B&B was a little paradise – everything needed to relax, tan, swim, eat fresh and get comfy after all that effort was in place. Upon the entrance you could see through the whole house into the cute porch with laid back chairs and waves splashing through the shiny sand, the walls had little shells here and there, and the place with amazing smoothies was a short walk along the shoreline away.

Thinking of staying only that one night, we both unpacked our luggage in a rush, straight onto the floor, just to reach for the almost-fotgoteen swim suites hidden at the bottom, under sweatshirts, long pats and hiking shoes. It took as long as turning the key, and we were both floating in salty water. Correction: I, as a woman, was floating just fine (or maybe even too much considering the force of the waves and currents), while Matt was supposedly struggling, using up way more muscle power than me. Honestly, I don´t mind such gender differences – being carried up and away by the water made me feel like a children TV show heroine that jumps up in the air in slow motion to transform her powers and land back gracefully, but fierceful. Beat that. Also, after all, if you´re too lazy to struggle through the beating waves back to the shore, you might just let them carry you with. You´ll end up with sand on your face, but it will definitely be a faster way. Whether it´s the body fat, boobs or butt, I still really don´t mind.

In such a remote place, where you can count all the tourist on one hand and feel like you own that patch of sand and water, the beauty of your surroundings enhances on its own. I couldn´t get tired of walking ankle-deep in the ocean, getting my hair all tangled up and swimming above thousands of pretty shells and smooth stones. Not only can you  see nothing but the shore for kilometers ahead, but also you get to admire all (and I mean ALL) the stars in the clear nightsky in the most cheesily romatic manner.

We stayed there another night, of course. We probably would have stayed longer if not for the fact that we wanted to spend New Years partying with other travellers in the city. And thank whatever powers out there that we left on Friday with this paradise-like image and feeling in our heads – apparently Las Peñitas turns into the most annoyingly toursity destination for locals on the weekends.

Fiona

León (Nicaragua), 1st Jan 2012

Christmas on the border.

Our bags arrived exactly 2 days later than we did, so we forcefully stayed in the capital of Honduras for almost 3 days, worrying about our belongings and avoiding numerous American fast-food chains. Luckily though, we got  out as soon as our squished backpacks appeared at the aiport. First bus and we are far from the city that imposed such anxious feelings, headed straight for El Paraìso. Far from a paradise, but this is still a better option, even with the stench of old sheets and not enough water  for both of us to shower. I`m just not a dusty city person.

El Paraìso is a short stop anyway. We decided to see Nicaragua first (apparently one of the safest Latin American countries accoring to Lonely Planet), and crossed the border at Las Manos first thing in the morning. So we`re spending Christmas in Estelì, a small town just outside a Nature Reserve, with a proper backpacker vibe and numerous hostels. Too bad we get slightly freaked out by the first tourists we see since we landed (what are these white poeple doing here?), and all the hostels are closed for Christmas day. It`s the 24th, which for the Poles is the biggest night of the year, with huge Christmas Eve (wigilia) family feasts, and I`m in the middle of some town having trouble finding a place to sleep. Perfect.

By a word of mouth, we find this little family run hospedaje with two rooms open to travelers and settle down there for the holidays. At least the place has a warm atmoshpere, and we get all excited seeing kids getting presents from under the little Christmas tree while every radio station is playing Felìz Navidad. We don´t even have a big dinner that night, too weary of the bus journeys. We already  splurged for lunch, ordering an immense pancake dessert in this tiny restaurant that had the biggest, fattest, tackiest tree in the whole of Latin America (OK, maybe there are many other contestants, but… you know…). It looked like a chubby balerina with its thick ribbons and overtly shiny decorations. But I must admit, people around are quite creative. One of the cities we passed had a very nicely constructed `Christmas Tree`in the central square. Since you cannot spot a needle-bearing tree amongst all those banana ones, they put up a  tall, upside-down turned cone covered in dry leaves with a few pastel colored lights and an artsy feel to it. Now I know, Christmas feel doesn`t always have to be so forced. Actually, one can bring winter-imposed Christmas customs to a hot country like this in a pleasant, no-hitsch manner.

So late Merry Christmas to you all, wherever it is celebrated!

Fiona

 Leòn (Nicaragua), 28 Dec. 2011

First Day in the Banana Republic.

Another journey has just begun. Matt and I have happily boarded the plane to Tegucigalpa, Honudras  after an all-nighter at the airport. Few naps got us to the warmth, making me realize that I no longer have to wear long pants everyday. What a blessing!
 
Excited about the wardrobe change, it took me an hour of lost hope to find out that our backpacks did not arrive with us. It felt slightly disappointing, but how can I care about few shirts and books when I can think of all the beaches and mountains I am about to explore? Besides, the airline crew politely informed us that the luggage might arrive the next day, in one piece. As excited for the shopping as I could be, I`d rather just get what I`ve packed so cautiously and move on.
 
First night took us to the center of Tegus, where I anticipated my first share of rice and beans. But it turns out the city has different taste, for Latin America. Around the main plaza, we passed Wendy`s, Burger King, McDonalds, Pizza Hut, and Dunkin Donuts. I mean there really was not a single comedor with traditional dishes as far as our sight and legs could reach. So we ate some Western food and wandered under tens of piñatas in a supermarket to get fruit for the morning. I`m not a big fun of burgers, after all.
 
Today we were smarter. I`ve read all the eating-related recommendations in my wonderful guidebook and I set off, all hungry, to finally get my plàtanos. We reached the address and… there was nothing. You mus be kidding me, you Banana Republic, I thought. We asked some shop-owner how to find Don Pepe`s and he cheerfuly announced that the place does not exist. No worries, though. Since it seems like we are the only two tall, white people  around here, a nice lady decided to take us by hand and show us where the new restaurant was. Muchas gracias. The place was full of locals and served some delicious refried beans. It was all that I wanted.
 
Now, my main thing on a TO-DO list is to get rid of our shared theft-paranoia, leaving everything behind, and strategizing as to what can make us least visible, or least approachable as a target. I mean a dose of common sense and precaution is strongly advised, but I can`t wait to get comfortable around here and cherish the surrounding culture. For now, I`m doing it step-by-step – I try to focus on all fake christmas trees that shine beautifully reminding me of my ever-favourite holidays, and dance on the street to busting Spanish music coming from every single tool-shop on the way.
 
Fiona
Tegucigalpa, 22 Dec. 2011

Meeting Tarzan

We were still waking up, slowly munching on our cereal and yoghurt with small doses of upcoming stress. Canopy tour was booked, confirmed, and accelerating in our minds. At 10.30 sharp (or really…?) we crammed into an already crowded minivan and proceeded onto Extreme Adventure of the day. The weather was crisp, our faces (nervously) smiley and the ride ended up to be full of interesting talks.

We got to the station run by a very slow and lost receptionist, and waited around for a very long time bonding with an American Czech and an Indian American (or is it the other way around?).

Anyway. After we got hooked onto the gear (or rather the other way around this time, the gear onto us), sudden power came in and we couldn’t wait any longer. Quick training and off we go zip-lining! Goodness, just look out and watch your legs so you don’t bump into any trees, simple huh?

First breath-taking line was a double, over half a km long. I was at the back, but it didn’t diminish the overwhelming-ness of the scenery. All we saw at the beginning was a line disappearing into the cloud, then we were the ones disappearing into a cloud with tips of the trees looking as if we were just about to touch them with our toes. I couldn’t help but to let a shiver go through my body and remind me how fragile life is, how much there is to appreciate.

Few tiny hikes, and shorter zip lines later, we reached individual long line. Setting off on a trembling piece of metal attached to two semi-Amazonian trees, I had no control over what was happening. I just gave in. This time not only from afar it looked like entering a cloud, but we all actually entered one. Stunned, I almost forgot to keep breathing. I swung a little while looking around: there was nothing behind me, nothing ahead of me, nothing below, just nothing. Barely blinking I gasped a gulp of air as soon as I saw trees growing larger as I moved on. Speechless, or rather full of amusement I gave my companions the most expressive look possible. My favorite? It was only the beginning though. Few more lines were equally amazing, until I heard a scream. Multiple, heartful screams. What/who the hell is it, what happened? Few steps later, I realized it was the Tarzan each of us has inside. THE SWING was coming up. Bungee-like, non-stretchable, head-up jump.

We repelled down only to climb back up and start wondering: is the increased heartbeat caused by the climb or the chicken legs that we all seemed to be getting?

Hes goes first: ‘whoooo-hooo’ gets around the forest and you can’t keep an eye following her without entering some forth-back-forth trans. I keep looking down, to see how (and if) she got caught safely, when someone pushes me slightly. Oh, my turn! Caught up in my thoughts, I haven’t noticed that the guides are calling me already. All pinned up, I crouch down and… what? Do I just go? No nothing, just step off?

‘Ummm… Okaaaaay…!!!’ – my lungs announced without much consciousness.

The moment adrenaline hit my veins and my eyes brightened with satisfaction, rain hit my face. Pure, green-smelling, dense rain. I give in. There’s no more laughing. Amused yet again, I give in.

Fiona

Monteverde (Costa Rica), May 22nd ‘11

The ‘two blondes’ visual

‘You’re gonna get fat’…

…exclaimed a toothless grandpa at a bus stop, as Heske later informed me. No wonder she brushed him off with an unpleasant smirk. Finally! We were to get out of Cóbano, and luckily enough we made the 1.30pm bus that existed as 2.15pm in the guidebook. The only one for the day – Travelers’ luck! 5 hours squished on a public bus, and a completely different climate awaited for us in the midst of the mountains.

After a day (and night) filled with exciting expectations, we woke up early, cold, and with no hot water in the shower. Slowly making breakfast and planning menu for the rest of the day, we had all the time in the world to prepare for the Monteverde hike. As we left (walking – cause there were no buses at the time), we got our thumbs ready. And who’s the first one to pass by and stop for us? The exact same guy who gave us walking directions 10min before.

Ha! We got a ride almost to the top and strolled up the last few hundred meters. After getting student tickets (since it’s enough to just look like one), we highlighted the longest trial on a small map we got and set off into the jungle. Few liana swings and bug bites later, we arrived at the first stop: the waterfalls. And what do we see there? A viewpoint with ‘no-entry’ sign, and people coming out of there. One-way road? Really? Ignoring that, we climbed tens of concrete (seemingly never ending) steps, and reached the long awaited suspension bridge. To our disappointment, it was red and metal, having nothing to do with Tarzan or at least Jungle Book-like imaginary pictures in our minds. At least it swung. And I did get scared with Heske’s  ‘O-oh!’ when she dropped her camera lens cap – fortunately not all the way down. Thank God.

The cherry on top of the cream (in our cappuccinos) was the colibri café, though. It was for coffee lovers, and it was full of humming birds in different colors, sizes and with various friendliness levels. Absolutely amazing. We spend a fair amount of time photographing the hell out of them and observing in amusement the speed at which their wings flap. And the noise! They’re like the bugs you’d wish to have instead of flies and mosquitoes: pretty, lovely, don’t bite. And they’re still almost as small and as noisy.

Then it was only a walk down with a short visit to a cheese factory (free samples!), a longer one to a chocolateria, and another Tica polite to hitch-hikers.

Now we’re home: tired, full of coffee and pancakes after 3pm, and looking for a game to play.

We end up trying out all geography games we can remember, realize we need to revise Africa really badly, and end up in a circle of oh-how-we-love-to-play-drinking-games-with-people-we-just-met travelers. The night takes us to Mata E Caña, but we get back early.
There’s a lot to prepare ourselves for, tomorrow will be crazy.

Fiona

Santa Elena (Costa Rica), May 21th ‘11

The ‘two blondes’ visual

Vanilla monkeys and hitchhikers.

‘Vanilla!’

‘What?’

‘I smell vanilla!’ – I said and stopped abruptly, weirdly overexcited. After all, we were in an almost-jungle. Curious and with dessert plans on our minds, we started searching around.

‘Do you even know what vanilla trees look like?’

A stunned look was all I got as a response.

‘Yup, me neither…’

On the ground, however, we spotted flowers – just like the ones you’d see on a package of vanilla flavored biscuits, but for heaven’s sake, we could not locate where they came from. Risking ticks and unexpected encounters with other insects, we searched for vanilla… sticks(?), following the smell. We got nothing but out hopes smashed. Why don’t they teach that in school?!

We moved on, just to pass a huge jungle book looking tree, when a weird engine-like noise from above paralyzed me.

‘It’s howler monkeys.’ – Heske laughed

Ugh… Ok. I looked at the ground in search for some fruit peels to locate our ‘ancestors’, but there did not seem to be anything.

Oops! Thought that too early!

Some little branches feel down, and the leaves above us went into a noisy hustle.

‘Am I to be scared now?’ I asked, considering the encounter with Indian monkeys visiting our high school. They were, let’s say… unfriendly. So we stood there, watching, almost ready to run. The curious and suspicious little creatures started getting closer and closer. We were on their land.

‘Why are you coming down, huh?’

Curious or territorial (who knows) they jumped around the lower branches, leaving us in wonder. Well, that was cool – real ‘natural reserve’ experience.

After a breakfast for lunch (dilishous), we had ~45min to wait for the bus (which, as we learnt, never comes on time) and so not to waste so much time, we decided to walk and hope for someone to pick us up on their way to Montezuma.

1km, 15min and 4 cars heading the other direction later, we see two tourists on quads rushing through the sandy road.

‘Trying?’ said Hes putting her thumb up, and so we did. We joined two American surfers on their last 6kms. Reaching Monetzuma at 3.30 we kicked some unnamed fruit off the tree by the road and with deliciously sticky hands and very happy faces, we tried to catch the +/- 4pm bus.

Dios mio! It left exactly on time.

Fiona

Cabo Blanco (Costa Rica), May 19th ‘11

Countless Cracking Costa Rican Crabs.

I decided (after a slight push from my parents) to get vaccinated for yellow fever. Why not, I mean. It’s amazing how easy it was. You go to a pharmacy, explain what you need in broken Spanish/invented sign language,  and ignoring the government’s instructions (about picking up your certificate somewhere far), you just get it then and there. So now I’m vaccinated and ready to go into the ‘jungle’! Or at least some full-blown nature reserve.

Indeed, later on we hopped on a  bus, then another one, and admiring whatever there was to admire outside the window, we hopped off at the oldest reserve’s entrance.

‘Wait, did we just not pay?’

‘Uh-huh’ said Heske, not impressed.

Ok… I looked over my shoulder – the bus was already gone. Well, 1000 colones stays in my pocket, I’d guess it was a rip-off anyway. We started rushing ahead and had a lovely encounter with the ticket-selling-track-explaining Swiss our-friend-look-alike. We hiked up rather fast, soaking up the satisfying beauty. However, there is always a dilemma in such amazing places: do you want to watch the ground not to trip over, or your surroundings not to miss anything breathtaking?

Heske, with her artistic eye, kept pointing at lizards and crabs that I might miss. Oh goodness! And I DID have my lenses on! But also, she was in front. Once we switched, with each of my steps over a mix of dried and freshly fallen leaves, I would hear tens of other, much lighter feet on the ground. All the fauna at the bottom of the forest was protesting against us disrupting their daily Costa Rican whereabouts. Silly crabs would hide under leaves on the path for us not to see them, but obviously it did not protect them from being stepped on. And crashed (by the other tourists).

Getting caught in infinite lianas and tiny spider webs on the way, we reached the beach. How smart of us not to take any sort of swimming suits! Since there were only 3 other people at the entire beach, we stripped down to just underwear and run for a bath through unbearably hot sand.

Besides swimming suits, we did not bring enough food either – but it only made our carrots and leftover pasta taste better. We survived, easily distracted by the scenic landscapes.

Fiona

Cabo Blanco (Costa Rica), May 18th ‘11

The ‘two blondes’ visual

Traveler’s luck.

Cóbano turns out to be a cute, small, seemingly cliquey town with mangoes lying on the sides of the (very few) roads and birds singing constantly. I get really comfortable the minute I cool down from all the emotions and with a sunset already at 6.30pm, we take a ‘night’ walk.

Now, you see, I lived in India for two years, but it already seems so long ago. I almost forgot how it is to lock myself in a non-ventilated bathroom and have a wave of heat sweat up your whole body; step just next to a frog ; and have ants and mosquitoes everywhere. It feels homey, it feels like India all over again (only way cleaner). The night is uneasy, hot, sweaty, and very long. I wake up dizzy with a running nose. Allergies? I forget all about them once I smell fresh pancakes. This IS paradise.

Besides: afternoon=beach! Even though I arrive at the bus stop on time, I have to wait half an hour before the Montezuma directed van lazily rolls up on the street. ‘Oh, good to see you here. I was afraid you’d give up after 15mins.’ – says Heske, who was supposed to get on at another bus stop. You see now, THAT was traveler’s luck. If not for the bus being so late, she would not have walked to my bus stop, and I would probably end up in Montezuma alone. The bus turned out to take some unusual route and did not even pass the stop she was supposed to be waiting at.

We start off with a short hike towards the waterfalls – in flip-flops, skirts, and with handbags. What amateurs! The swim, though, is amazingly refreshing and unbelievably picturesque. ‘What a paradise’, I think to myself again. Montezuma, though touristy, has surprisingly few people. The beach still unveils few shirtless visitors, a ‘green’ smell and two blonde girls deciding to dive into the wild ocean. The water is not only extremely salty (oh yea, how unexpected), but the waves keep pushing us down, and the sand swirls angrily with foam. So there: we get our dip and realize it’s high time to leave. The only thing left is to make sure we’re going out of the water with the same amount of clothing pieces as we entered in – even though the sand grains and little shells desperately want to leave with us as they’re hiding under every string of the bikini that’s still tide on.

Since we are 10mins late for the 4 o’clock bus (why wasn’t this one late?!), a walk on the shore seems like a great idea. We pass a few surfers, postcard–like landscapes, and let the little fresh springs and waves wash over our feet from time to time. It is such a paradise.

Later, because Heske is practically a local, we get some handy money-maker to give us  a ride home under a cloudy sky, forgetting all about buses. ‘Un dolar a Cóbano’ and we hop in. Few minutes after we reach the house, it starts raining cats and dogs. Traveler’s luck, I say.

Fiona, May 16th ’11

The ‘two blondes’ visual