Death Race El Salvador

We saw these guys on some inland traveling in El Salvador.  We’ll probably have more to say about our travels in a later post, but I wanted to point out these crazy dudes.  They ride these giant homemade skateboards down the mountains of this country (El Salvador has more volcanoes per square mile than any other country – it is a jungly, mountainous place).  They usually carry a load of wood behind them and use a spare piece of it as a brake by jamming it under the “vehicle”.  They steer with their feet.  Note the tiny metal wheels and generally rickety construction and then imagine riding one of these things down a potholed third world road amongst traffic at about 40 mph.  There’s just a different approach to safety here.  Life is full of risks.

Fully loaded

Fully loaded

Passengers Too

Passengers Too

Don't get that scarf caught

Don’t get that scarf caught

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It’s Not Always What it Seems

Picture this:  You and friends are sipping drinks at a table by a hotel pool on the beach.  Several other tables are also filled with quietly chatting folks when a local guy walks up from the beach with a machete in one hand and a small sea turtle in the other.  He flips the turtle onto its back and raises the machete.

What the what???

What the what???

Mary cowers in terror, as several of us run over to tell the guy not to do this in front of everyone like this.  You hate that endangered animals are eaten, but you wish at least they would do the butchering out back somewhere.  But before you get to the guy he gently taps the machete against a growth on the underbelly of the turtle.  It’s a barnacle.  He knocks it off and then repeats it for a bunch of barnacles on this poor turtle.

Barnacle belly

Barnacle belly

By this time the turtle has stopped flapping for its life and is calm.  He has either given up or knows somehow he is not in danger.  The guy painstakingly knocks barnacles off the underside, shell, legs even the head of the turtle.  It’s amazing what these guys can do with a machete.  He even very gently pries one off its eyelid!  20140305_134945By this time we realize he is not some turtle butcher with no social graces.  He is a kind of Tortuga whisperer.  When he has all the barnacles off, we all, including Lucy, follow him back to the ocean to watch the turtle swim away newly unencumbered by the little parasites. 20140305_140055

Good luck buddy

Good luck buddy

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The hero

The turtle hero has zero English and his Spanish is different and incomprehensible to us.  So we are only able to communicate our wonder and appreciation for this bit of kindness in a world where people are often so indifferent to animal suffering with smiles and cheers.

Bienvenido a El Salvador

Beautiful El Salvador

Beautiful El Salvador

What a welcome we received upon our entrance to El Salvador.  We had buddy boated down from Mexico with Kia Ora, Mermaid and Talos IV.  We actually had great winds for part of the trip, so the 250nm journey went faster than anticipated, ending with us all anchored out in the ocean waiting for high tide to “cross the bar”.   The entry into the harbor has a shifting sandbar with waves breaking over it, making it dangerous to cross without a knowledgeable pilot to guide you through the narrow opening.

August Pearl, Neko (top row) Kia Ora, Mermaid and Talos IV(bottom row)

August Pearl, Neko (top row) Kia Ora, Mermaid and Talos IV(bottom row)

Even in the opening there is often a cresting wave that causes a boat to surf on in.  Surfing a 30,000 lb boat will make you a bit anxious.  At the appointed time, we lined up with the other boats and nervously anticipated the crossing.   When it was Neko’s turn we went full throttle towards the prescribed path and just as we braced ourselves for a wild ride down breaking waves, we heard the voice of our pilot over the radio welcoming us to El Salvador.  Wow, that was a relief and, frankly, a bit of a let down.  You don’t want to surf the boat, but you kind of want a little wave.  Alas, in the long run I think it was better to have had the uneventful crossing.

Lucy ready for a new country

Lucy ready for a new country

They don’t get a lot of tourists in El Salvador and even fewer boaters, so they were very welcoming and friendly.   When we arrived we were greeted on the docks with smiles and cheers by immigration officials, the port captain, locals and rally members.  (We have joined the very informal El Salvador Rally which begins in a few weeks.  In the meantime we plan on exploring on our own and with our other boat pals.)

Welcome cocktail, this is my kind of place

Welcome cocktail, this is my kind of place

They handed us welcome cocktails, snapped photos, helped with our lines and bombarded us with information.   As you’ve read in previous posts, we normally have to drive or walk miles to officially check in/out of a country, here we only took a few steps to an air conditioned (ahhhh) office with ALL necessary personnel ready to stamp, stamp, stamp our way into El Salvador.

Peter waits his turn for the all in one check in

Peter waits his turn for the all in one check in

Apart from their love of official government stamps, El Salvador is really quite different from Mexico.  Everything from the landscape (volcanoes and lush jungle), people (friendly, but a little more shy), food (not spicy) and even their Spanish is slightly different (tend to drop endings of words).  Mexico was great, but we are ready for a change.

We’ve met great folks here and within our first week have been welcomed into their homes, experienced an early season lighting storm,

no not snow, heavy rain

no not snow, heavy rain

No flash, only the lightening making the dark sky look like day

No flash, only the lightening making the dark sky look like day

watched a turtle rescue (click here for turtle story), started volunteering at an English language school for children, run by a wonderful woman, Jan.

English language students

English language students

sampled several versions of pupusas, the quintessential El Salvadorian dish,

Pupusaria

Pupusaria

made of thick corn and sometimes rice tortillas and then filled with any combo of cheese, beans, pork, veggies.

Pupusas are made of thick corn and sometimes rice flour tortillas and then filled with any combo of cheese, beans, pork, veggies and served with a side of curtido (pickled cabbage)

taken long beach walks along their wide and empty beaches,

Giant beach all to ourselves

Giant beach all to ourselves

had the boat’s generator removed for repair

Guys carrying generator

Guys carrying generator

and took a dinghy ride down a pristine winding estuary to a remote restaurant which was merely a thatched platform over the river run by an adorable fisherman Memi and his family.  IMG_7130 IMG_7173 IMG_7180

Jan and Riza

Our new pals Jan and Riza

Memi cleaning our lunch

Memi cleaning our lunch

Peter enjoying our lunch

Peter cleaning his lunch

The restaurant grilled us a delicious fish lunch over a charcoal fire right in the thatch-roofed hut.  It was really only a platform on piles in the river with a few tables.  The restroom was a bench in the mangroves across a rickety catwalk.

Don't forget the toilet paper

Don’t forget the toilet paper

The next day we spent running errands in the crazy city of San Salvador, made even crazier by a hotly contested presidential election.  It was a close race, with both sides claiming victory and demanding recounts; all that was missing were hanging chads.   It’s interesting to note they do not serve or sell alcohol the day before, of and after the election to try to mitigate tempers.  (In the US, they’d be better off shutting down the internet).  Sadly, this goes for visitors as well, so only cocktails on our boat (oh, how we suffer).

El Salvador's new president Sanchez Ceren

As of now Sanchez Ceren is the declared winner, who was one of five top guerrilla commanders during the 1979-1992 civil war and marks the first time Salvadorans have voted an actual former rebel commander to be president.

San Salvador, like all of El Salvador is a place of haves and have nots.   You see everything from shacks on the outskirts of town to huge homes behind high walls and gates.

town

Private home outside the city

Private home in the city

Private home in the city

Apparently there is a lot of gang violence here, although we never felt any danger, you can’t go 50 feet without seeing guards with machine guns posted outside every store, bank, home, even zipping down the road on a motorcycle.

At least they wear helmets with their guns

At least they wear helmets with their guns

Please check your bags and guns

Please check your bags and guns

DSCN2077This is the capital and largest city in El Salvador, with almost 2.5 million people in the metro area.   And it is very much a big city, people are busy and going about their business and it is an interesting change of pace to be somewhere where tourism isn’t the name of the game.

DSCN2068 DSCN2066We love getting to know this vibrant country whether it is deep in the mangroves, in a small villages or in the big city.  We are looking forward to seeing more.

elsalhammock

Perfecting the siesta

Adios Mexico

After four fun filled months in Mexico, it’s time to go, but first…

Mexican Navy checks to see if we are legit

Mexican Navy checks to see if we are legit

We ride in trucks to immigrations.

Truck ride to immigrations

We get our passports stamped

We get our passports stamped

Back in the truck to the port captain

Back in the truck to the port captain

Port Captain's office to clear out of the country

Port Captain’s office to clear out of the country

Lots of stamping and paperwork

Lots of stamping and paperwork

Another visit from the Mexican Navy

Another visit from the Mexican Navy

Courtesy flag down

Courtesy flag down

Our pals on Kia Ora head out

Our pals on Kia Ora head out

Other buddy boat, Talos IV heads out

Other buddy boat, Talos IV heads out

Neko under sail

Neko under sail

There goes Guatemala

There goes Guatemala

Thanks Mexico, here we come El Salvador

Thanks Mexico, here we come El Salvador

Animal House

One of the greatest aspects of travel is the people you meet.  You become fast friends with fellow boaters because you are experiencing this strange new lifestyle together and can completely relate to one another.   You become friendly with locals at each stop and benefit from their knowledge and eagerness for you to experience their hometown.   You meet folks on their vacations who are perplexed by your strange way of boat life.  These interactions are the brightest part of our travels, but our stay at Casa Raab was somehow different. It didn’t seem like we were meeting new friends; it was more like coming home to old ones.

Casa Raab courtyard

Casa Raab courtyard

IMG_6914Casa Raab is a B&B 20 miles outside of Oaxaca in San Pablo Etlan and we went there for a few days simply to balance out our time in the city and see what the countryside had to offer.

Rebecca, the owner, lives on this 40-acre ranch that her husband’s family built in the 1960s.  Now she, her husband Tony and her mother Coralie run the inn/boutique mezcal farm/animal rescue center.

Crushed and roasted maguey awaiting distillation

Crushed and roasted maguey awaiting distillation

Mezcal bottles waiting to be filled

Mezcal bottles waiting to be filled

Rebecca with her rescues

Rebecca with her rescues

Yes, you heard me right, animal rescue.  When we pulled into the gravel driveway we had to slow down to avoid hitting any of the dozen or so dogs that were running to greet us.  Lucy was happy to see the other dogs and even happier when she learned that the humans carry treats in their pockets.    Rebecca is a true inspiration to me as she has rescued hundreds of local dogs over the years.   In fact, just the day before we arrived she had taken in 8 puppies.   And no, dad, I did not take one home.

New arrivals

New arrivals

Tom, his wife Judy and his other wife Jane (LOL, just kidding), long-stay guests at the inn but really honorary assistant managers, made the introductions to all the dogs and gave us a tour of the grounds.

Judy & Tom

Judy & Tom

Mud puppy

Mud puppy

Jane and her rescue Tallulah

Jane and her rescue Tallulah

The stunning scenery and charming home includes horses, cats, turtles, donkeys and of course the dogs, as well as acres of agave plants they grow and use to brew their own mezcal.

Lucy, don't make an ass of yourself

Lucy, don’t make an ass of yourself

We met with a varied cast of ex-pat characters staying in the main house and casitas on the property as well as neighbors, all of whom welcomed us into their little family and turned a sightseeing trip into a special treat.  We quickly learned that Casa Raab is a place where people come to stay for months at a time and come back year after year.  Yikes, I’m making it sound like a cult, but seriously it is a group of wonderfully interesting, funny and kind people who know how to enjoy themselves. We all sat around gabbing and drinking and within a few hours, as we sat down to a marvelous homemade Mexican dinner, we weren’t sure if we’d checked into an inn or arrived at the home of long time friends.

Melanie, Deb, Tom, Judy, Jane and Rebecca

Melanie, Deb, Tom, Judy, Jane and Rebecca

Tom and his wife Judy from Richmond have been coming here for years and stay for several months at a time.  You think we are crazy to travel with Lucy by boat – they drove to Mexico from Virginia, so their two dogs, whom they adopted from Rebecca’s rescue, could be with them.   Their friend Jane who also is from Richmond was there and we immediately bonded, as she became by fashion consultant.  And Rebecca’s friend Debbie was using the house as a home base for her buying trip for her store in Texas.   She really knows her Mexican folk art and crafts and taught us a lot and even was kind enough to let me have the pick of the litter from her collection of hand woven bags.   We met Melanie and Norman from Brooklyn, and they gave us a much-needed dose of NY.  And, of course, Coralie, Rebecca’s mom, was a delight. Casa Raab vista DCIM100GOPRO IMG_6910 Every morning at 7am, everyone is welcomed to join in on a hike with other visitors, neighbors and the dogs through the 40+ acres of Casa Raab grounds.  It is a beautiful setting, feeling much like the hills of Tuscany, only with agave fields instead of olive trees and in the distance Mayan ruins instead of old forts. Tom kindly offered for Lucy to stay under his watchful eye one day so we could more easily explore Monte Albán and head back into Oaxaca to explore museums and have dinner.   We love Lucy to death but this is a rare treat as visiting museums, nice restaurants and shopping can be difficult with Lucy in tow.  IMG_6751 IMG_6742 20140220_115216 Mary at Monte AlbanMonte Albán lives up to its reputation as a fascinating archaeological site.

The next day we were treated by Jane serving as our first tour guide of the day and she took us to a small organic market and helped me pick out an embroidered blouse made by man from Mixes (MEHAYS), an area so remote it isn’t even mapped yet.

Jane buying flowers

Jane buying flowers

man from Mixes

man from Mixes

She also took us to a local artist’s studio, which had a beautiful home and workshop where we saw the most impressive alebrije (colorful wooden folk art sculptures) we’d seen in Oaxaca. 20140221_115015 20140221_114657 DCIM100GOPRO DCIM100GOPRO It was fascinating to see the precision of their artistry and skills, far surpassing the brightly colored traditional figures we’d seen throughout the area.  This is one of those places we’d have never discovered on our own and were so grateful to Jane for the insider’s tour.  But, the fun didn’t stop here, in the afternoon Judy took the lead and drove us to an incredible artist space known as El Centro de las Artes San Agustín Etla, or simply CASA.

CASA

CASA

Interior of former weaver factory

Interior of former weaver factory

IMG_6833 CASA is located at an old weaving factory that now has been restored into Mexico’s first eco-arts center founded by famous Mexican artist Francisco Toledo.   The building itself seems like a work of art and amazed us that a factory would be placed in such a grand edifice.

Hand made paper kites

Hand made paper kites

Paper jewelry

Paper jewelry

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Artist working in felt and alpaca

Artist working in felt and alpaca

Artists making paper and print making

Artists making paper and print making

Love the bathroom signs

Love the bathroom signs

Love the bathroom signs

Love the bathroom signs

IMG_6863 Old water pipes from a former hydroelectric plant were utilized to bring water in for Arte Papel a handmade paper facility.  The grounds alone would have been worth the visit, but we were also treated to a Toledo exhibit and the opportunity to watch artists in residence working on intricate fabric creations, printmaking and papermaking.

Toldedo print

Francisco Toledo wild creature

We returned to a farewell dinner of the most interesting dish I’ve tasted since we came to Mexico.  Judy and Jane made Huitlacoche (weet-lah-KOH-chay) served over pasta.  What is Huitlacoche you ask. Don’t worry, I asked too.  Well, simply put it is corn smut or fungus.  Oh yes, nothing but the best for us, LOL.   Seriously, it was so delicious and is considered a delicacy to many, now including us.  You may see it in the states marketed as Mexican truffles, but really there is no need to spin it, it’s fungus and it’s fabulous.

Huitlacoche

Huitlacoche

Finally on the morning of our departure, we said our teary goodbyes as if we had known this group for decades.  Loaded down with gifts (beautiful bread from Tom and Judy, mezcal gourds from Rebecca, a belt from Jane and the bag from Debbie) we aimed the car back to Huatulco and those windy roads.

Morning hike

Morning hike

Our stay was way too short, but this was definitely a quality trip and truly called for a hasta luego and not an adios to our new amigos.  If you are reading this, guys, we want to thank you SO MUCH for a wonderful time!

Oaxaca This Way

When we first pulled into the outlying parts of Oaxaca City, we thought, this is what we drove 6.5 hours to see? But as soon as we turned into the colonial downtown we knew right away we made the right decision.

IMG_6638

Zócalo

We arrived late in the day, but after a spin around the Zócalo (the main square and center of town), a leisurely bite to eat and an evening of people watching, Oaxaca (wa-ha-ka) began to live up to its billing.   Oaxaca evokes an old European city with a special Mexican touch.  On this and most Sunday evenings the Zócalo is filled with live music, people dancing, families strolling and lovers embracing. IMG_6642

What we found so fascinating was that, even though this is an old city, full of churches, gorgeous old stone buildings, churches, cobble stoned streets, and did I mention churches, it not only preserves the historical but also celebrates the new.

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Church of San Francisco

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Bummed out Jesus

Templo de Santo Domingo de Guzman

Templo de Santo Domingo de Guzman

The churches range from the highly baroque to the modestly simple and everything in between.  Most of them are working churches and not museum pieces. But Santa Domingo’s former monastery now is home to the fascinating Museum of Oaxacan Cultures and Botanical Garden.

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Museum of Oaxacan Cultures

Blue Tile Skull at Museum of Oaxacan Cultures

Blue Tile Skull at
Museum of Oaxacan Cultures

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view from Museum of Oaxacan Cultures across to Santa Domingo

Pipe Organ in the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption

Pipe Organ in the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption

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hand embroidered shirts

DCIM100GOPROIndigenous peoples sell their crafts on the streets and in the markets and along other streets you’ll find young artists selling their creations.

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Art students selling their graphic tshirts

Young people freely show their passion towards each other as well as their political passions through physical protests and visual ones.  The political graffiti is fascinating.  DCIM100GOPRO DCIM100GOPRO

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oil protest

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Pedestrian only streets

It was just enjoyable walking through the city taking in the bright colors and finding delightful courtyards behind wooden doors.  Impressive stone homes from the 1600s still

stand and house both historical and contemporary museums, art galleries, libraries and host film festivals.  IMG_6778  Click here to check out the cool doors of Oaxaca.

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Museum of Contemporary Art

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Public Library

DCIM100GOPRO DCIM100GOPRO What also is special about Oaxaca is the number of indigenous people who live here.  We heard estimates that the many indigenous groups, the Zapotec and Mixtec people being the dominate ones, make up 1/3 of the population of Oaxaca, with many of them speaking their languages and not Spanish.   IMG_6782 20140219_104249                                                                                  The woman are tough cookies; strong and noble.   One lady let me have it when I was taking a street shot outside the market place and she did not want to be a part of my tableau.   You don’t have to speak Zapotecan to know she was pissed off.   From then on, I asked for permission to take photos, even if it was of a piece of fruit.   And they always said yes.   Speaking of fruit, click here to read about the food.