In memoriam

1 March 2011

Todd and I testing out the then new to me pick-up truck on Haeckel Hill near Whitehorse, Summer 1996.

Seven months ago, on July 28, my best friend Todd Hardy died at the age of 54 after a long battle with leukemia.

Last March, I described how my friend Rómulo, the musician I met in Panajachel, Guatemala, got me to donate money to build tables for a school for special-needs children. We eventually found a carpenter by the name of Ricardo who agreed to make the tables and chairs for the school for the amount I had agreed to donate. Well if you go back to that blog entry, you will find that Ricardo turned out to be a drunk. (A drunk is just someone who is too poor to be an alcoholic.)  Nevertheless, he was apparently a very good carpenter.  He was supposed to have the tables done within a couple of weeks. They were nice children sized tables and he said he would also make chairs. He started on the work but eventually gave up.

When I got back to Whitehorse in May, I wrote to Marvin, the president of the society – and also the husband of the teacher – asking for pictures of the tables which were supposed to have been done by then. He told me they were having considerable trouble with Ricardo, who had not finished the work and who wanted more money. He wrote that they were looking for somebody else to finish the work and that it had been a big mistake on Rómulo’s part to give him the work. In any case Ricardo eventually built the tables and here are the pictures.

I had asked Marvin, actually I gave him a piece of paper with a dedication stating that the tables should be built in honour of my friend Todd Hardy who at the time was dying of leukemia. The dedication should have read: “In honour of Todd Hardy carpenter, union activist, member of the legislative assembly of the Yukon, and founder Habitat for Humanity Yukon.” In Spanish “En honor de Todd Hardy, caprintero, sindacalista, diputado y fundador de «Habitat for Humanity» en Yukon, Canadá”. Marvin emailed me that he had lost the paper and asked me to write dedication again. In the meantime Todd died. So here are the pictures Marvin sent me of the tables and of the dedication which is now in memory of Todd rather than in his honour.

Praying for world revolution? or a new Lee Valley Toys handplane?

The tables are made out of pine and the top is covered by white Arborite (Formica or high pressure laminate to all you non-Canadians) so the kids can write on it. Part of the chairs is also visible. They are quite simple and also made out of pine. But I hope they will work well and I think they are a fitting memorial to my friend, who was first and foremost a carpenter. Our socialist politics might have brought us together, but the love of wood and of woodworking glued up our friendship.

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3Ms — Panama’s good side

28 February 2011

In my last post, I excoriated Panama for being a dishonest place and I could have mentioned a few other things, but I wish to protect the guilty. But Panama was not all bad. There are three things that are better than just good; they are great: Molas, Maito and Mitch.

Molas

Kuna woman selling Molas in Casco Viejo (the old colonial town), Panama City

Molas are a fabric art form made by the Kuna women of north-eastern Panama, in an area formerly known as the San Blas Province but now officially referred to as the Kuna Yala. The Kuna are a First Nation people still living a more or less traditional lifestyle in the home area. They had a revolution against Panama in 1925 and defeated the Panamanians, so managed to keep their autonomy, political structures and culture intact.

Molas are made by stitching several layers of different coloured cloth and cutting out designs and then sewing the cut-outs to the lower layer. They are traditionally part of Kuna women’s clothing, but are now also made and sewn for sale, including large one with various designs of birds and wildlife.

Marilyn with Kuna woman in traditional dress, in Casco Viejo, Panama City

Marilyn totally fell in love with them (She is a textile art freak after all, went crazy in Guatemala and also has a trunk-full of antique Canadian quilts from the Maritimes). When we were in Panama last May, Marilyn bought a large one which is hanging in our hallway and a whole bunch of small ones which she framed or turned into pillows. This time she again bought many of the smaller ones. I have to keep on telling her: “You like it, buy it!” whenever her Puritan instincts start taking over.

Luigi talking to two Kuna men selling Molas in Boquete in May 2010. Marilyn bought $400 worth of Molas from them. I think they liked us.

Maito
Maito is an absolutely great restaurant in Panama City, one our best dining experiences on this trip, probably second after Izote restaurant in Mexico City. If you go to Panama City, go eat there. We had a fabulous meal and I wrote a review of it on Trip Advisor.

Mitch

Mitch doing the pizza thing, a familiar sight to many Yukoners. But this was in Panama. No, Yukoners, the drum is not a weird barrel stove, it is a Panamanian pizza oven. They don't need heat in Central America.

Actually, it should be Doug and Mitch, but Mitch fits better with the M theme of this entry. Whitehorse residents will be familiar with Mitch née Cormier now Dupont who founded the best pizzeria North of 60, Bocelli’s Pizza in Whitehorse. She sold Bocelli and opened a boutique hotel B&B in Chame Panama. They are also opening another resort B&B on Tagish Lake in the Yukon. So winter months in Panama, summer in the Yukon.

Anyway, the Panayukana hotel in Chame was absolutely wonderful as were Mitch and Doug and their daughter. If you go to Panama, you have to stay there. While I worked, Mitch took Marilyn to the beach in Santa Clara, we had great meals by the pool, and just a great good time. Their slogan “Come as a guest, leave as a friend” certainly applied to us; we had known Mitch through her restaurant but we were never close in Whitehorse. This all changed and we look forward to seeing them in Whitehorse and Tagish this summer. We were also planning to go to the San Blas islands in Kuna Yala together, but my disgust with Panamanians after getting tossed out of the country sort of put a kibosh on that plan. I am not sure I want to go back there again.

I should add that, last May, Mitch did offer to let me leave my truck and camper at their place, but the camper is too high to fit through the entrance. She’s great! If you go to Panama, you have to stay there! Remeber Pananyukana: the http://www.panayukana.com/

Actually, there are other cool things in Panama, like Boquete in the North and the Casco Viejo old colonial town in Panama City, which is now being restored. And there is the Panama canal, which is extremly impressive, even for someone like me who was taken to see the Saint-Lambert and the Côte Sainte-Catherine locks in operation many times on lazy Sundays while I was growing up, or Marilyn growing up not far from the Welland canal. Plus, I have to hand it to the Panamanians who are running the canal more efficiently than the Americans ever did, putting more ships through and earning more money. Panama will also be adding a third wider “lane” to the canal, which I have no doubt they will manage to do well.

But I still don’t like being lied to and bullshitted repeatedly.

Pirates of the Caribbean … and of the Pacific.

26 February 2011

We are currently in Costa Rica, in Liberia to be precise where the party (the annual fiesta) is starting. I just finished a couple of work reports so can now resume the blog without guilt. We stayed in Panama about a month ago at the end of January and the beginning of February and have been in Costa Rica since February 3.

Panama city skyline. Where does the money for all these skyscrapers come from?


I have a serious problem with Panama. I rarely I find myself disliking people or a country. I like to assume the best of people and I am not often disappointed. However, in less than a week in Panama we had four experiences with dishonesty, which seem to be rife in the country.

We’re not talking about crime here, which is everywhere in the world. Or about petty corruption of officials, which is endemic in poor countries where civil servants have low pay. Or the high level corruption even our Canadian governments are guilty of, whether it’s the Tories under Mulroney and Harper or the Liberals under Chrétien and Charest. We are talking here about a more fundamental dishonesty, lying for the sake of lying, even in petty things. It reminds one of the old joke, this time applied to Panamanians: “How can you tell a Panamanian is lying?” “His lips are moving.”

Our first experience of dishonesty was at the car rental place at the airport. We had a reservation from Dollar rent a car for a car at $20 per day, unlimited mileage, etc, through Expedia.ca. But at the counter, we were told there would be a charge of $US18 per day for insurance. And that was only for third party liability as I declined the other insurance. This almost doubled the cost of the rental. This was particularly galling as the next day I got third party liability insurance from an Italian insurance company for my truck for $US116 for a whole year! I felt pretty ripped off, but I figured what the hell, bad apple and all that. But it turns out the barrel is rotten.

Doug & Mitch & Luigi in the kitchen at Panayukana in Chame.

Our next experience was a petty one in Chame. Doug Dupont and I had a few beers with a couple of Panamanians while my truck was getting washed. Mitch and Doug are wonderful people and run an absolutely first class boutique hotel in Chame (Panayukana, more on a later post when I talk about the good sides of Panama).

One of the guys asked us to give him a ride home which he said was in the next village over & — Bejuco. Well it turned out that he lived two villages away in Santa Cruz. Like who cares, why don’t you tell us you live six kilometres away instead of three? Like what’s the big deal? Why do you feel the need to lie?

Number three was one we witnessed. Someone has a firm price contract where they have to pay half the cost up front. No problem. Half of the contract price is counted out in front of one of the contractors and he signs a receipt. The next day, the guy claims that he was $1,000 short when he went to deposit the money at the bank. The problem, though, is that you can’t afford to piss them off because they can take revenge. We were told a story of some expats who pissed off their contractor, so they raped the wife and wounded the husband. Not even drug dealers operate that way: a deal is a deal.

The fourth was with Panamanian customs (motto: purportedly “Servicio y honestad” but in reality “Incompetencia y corrupción“). The day after I arrived, I went to the customs office in Panama City to find out what I should do about my truck as the temporary importation permit had expired. The customs officer I spoke to told me that there would be a $250 fine and I had to get the truck out of the country ASAP and then come back after 72 hours. When I asked her if I could make the arrangements right there in Panama City, she told me no and that I had to go to the Paso Canoas border post where I had entered the country. OK so far. So after spending a great weekend at Mitch and Doug’s place, we head out north to the Costa Rican border.

About a third of the way – at a small dorp1 not on the map call Divisa – we are stopped at a road block by the police and a customs officer who asks for the truck papers. Well, they keep us waiting for four hours, charge us $411 instead of the $250 as the customs administrator claims the law allows him to charge up to $500 dollars or even to seize the vehicle, so I should count myself lucky. All with strong hints that we can get out of it with a bribe. Well, he got his kicks by keeping us waiting and by insisting that a customs officer escort us to the border, like the nasty criminals were. I almost kissed the ground when I entered Costa Rica and had the usual helpful and pleasant interchanges with the Costa Rican customs officials. A tour guide I met in Costa Rica told me that he routinely gives the Panamanian customs guards $20 just so they won’t give him a hard time.

This is very different from the attempted shake downs by police in Honduras and Mexico State, where eventually they gave up after trying it on and we parted with smiles when it became clear that I was not going to give them a bribe.

My theory is that this dishonesty is rooted in the country’s history. It started with collaboration with English pirates – like “Sir” Francis Drake and William Morgan – in the 16th century. Panama was then used as a land route where the Spanish loot from Peru was brought from the Pacific to waiting ships in the Caribbean. Before that there was Balboa who supposedly “discovered” this part of the world, and ended up beheaded after a lot of chicanery among the Spanish conquistadores.

The Peruvian loot was used to fund the Spanish takeover of Italy, the Netherlands and the German Holy Roman Empire. The English buccaneers and French flibustiers stole some of the loot while their monarchs successfully resisted and eventually defeated Spanish hegemony in Europe. We would be speaking Spanish today instead of English and French if had not been for the success of these pirates. But, I digress.

The creation of Panama was another less than honest act. Panama was part of Colombia, but the US did not like the terms the Colombians were imposing on eventual canal builders. So Teddy Roosevelt and co. used gunboats and a few locals to orchestrate the independence of the isthmus and massively bribed the Panamanian ambassador (who wasn’t even Panamanian) to the US to give them the Canal Zone.

There are other contemporary political aspects to that dishonesty. Panama invented the idea of “flag of convenience” for ship owners who want to avoid all forms of regulations, whether it be safety, seaworthiness, or labour and environmental standards. Quoting the unimpeachable wikipedia:

Flag-of-convenience registries are often criticized. As of 2009, thirteen flag states have been found by international shipping organizations to have substandard regulations. A basis for many criticisms is that the flag-of-convenience system allows shipowners to be legally anonymous and difficult to prosecute in civil and criminal actions. Ships with flags of convenience have been found engaging in crime and terrorism, frequently offer substandard working conditions, and negatively impact the environment, primarily through illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.

Panama also supports criminals and terrorists through its banking secrecy laws that rival those of the Cayman Islands, and are certainly more liberal than that European den of tax evasion and criminal refugees known as Switzerland. If you want to launder your ill-gotten gains, Panama seems to be the place to go.

view from our hotel room

What I found particularly strange is the large number of high rises under construction in Panama City. One wonders where the financing for all that real estate comes from. And much of it seems to be empty, including the wonderful hotel we stayed in called “Esplendor Panama”, where a high-end one-bedroom suite only cost us $100 a night.

1 Dorp is Marilyn’s term for a really small place, originally applied to places like Upper or Lower or Middle Hainesville, New Brunswick.

The dangers of Mexico

9 February 2011

We are now in north-eastern Costa Rica, in the Selva Verde Lodge in the Sarapiquí region. But I continue the story with more on Mexico City.

Mexico City proved extremely dangerous, especially for me. And not because of drug dealers, or pickpockets, or street crime. The real danger is the food. And not because of the “turista” or “Montezuma’s revenge”; food preparation is actually very hygienic. Mexicans seem to be constantly washing their hands, the supermarkets sell all kinds of disinfectants for the same Mexican vegetables and fruits we import and eat with impunity in Canada.

The real dangers in Mexico City are tacos and quesadillas and chiles rellenos and salsas and tortillas and tamales and churros and manteca and mantequilla and all manners of other local foods. Particularly dangerous are the high-end restaurants, the humble hole in the wall taquerías, the street food sellers, and all other establishments preparing and selling food. It should come as no surprise that Mexicans are even fatter than Americans. (Or should I be polite and say they have a higher rate of obesity?) Not that Canadians are much better; our fat behinds are not that far behind. North America is unquestionably the fattest continent on Earth.

Let’s not forget that the conquest of Mexico resulted in a dietary revolution in most of the world: corn, tomatoes, peppers, squash, beans, turkey, vanilla, and chocolate all originated in Mexico, as did chewing gum (chicle).

The Mexicans seem to be as fanatic about their food as Italians. They all think the best food in the world is their mother’s, then their city’s or region’s, then the food from other Mexican regions. They will only grudgingly admit that other countries might have some good dishes, especially Italy.

As an aside, Italian and Italy are sexy in Mexico. The city and the country are rife with misspelled Italian words: the favourite seems to double up consonants to make the works look more “Italian” as Spanish does not have double consonants: I have seen Italianno, Insalatta capresse, Toscanna, etc.

Mexico City seems to cater to all Mexican prejudices about food. The only mediocre meal we had in Mexico City was in we what later found out to be a tourist restaurant. But they still had excellent artisanal beers and great guacamole.

I had one of the best meals in my life at the Izote de Patricia Quintana restaurant. If you’re interested, I wrote a review of it on the Trip Advisor Web site. I did forget to mention that we started with tortilla chips and four kinds of salsa when we began the meal.

All is not perfect, however. The Mexicans still need to learn how to roast and make good coffee; despite the fact that they grow the beans. It is a sad state of affairs when one has to go to Starbucks to get a quarter-decent (not quite half-decent) cup of coffee.

¡Viva Mexico!

7 February 2011

On our way to retrieving our truck in Panama, we spent five days in Mexico City. This is after four days in Vancouver, where we needed to get new passports as ours were about to expire in March.

Mexico City was surprisingly not intimidating despite being one of the largest cities in the world – a title it disputes with New York, Tokyo and Shanghai depending on which suburbs are included in the metropolitan area. We are talking well over 20 million people in the same conurbation. That is a thousand times more people than Whitehorse, 10 times bigger than Vancouver, six times bigger than Montreal and four times the size of T.O.

Despite its size, people were all friendly (like all Mexicans, it seems) and drivers are relatively civil despite the permanent traffic jam, certainly more civilized than in Montreal or New York, not to speak of Paris or Rome. Fifteen years of social-democratic mayors who exercised the usual socialist genius for municipal administration transformed a crime-ridden massively polluted megalopolis into a quite liveable city. Restrictions on driving and improved affordable public transit eliminated most of the smog. A socialist police chief (Marcelo Ebrard, the current mayor) turned a corrupt and inefficient municipal police force into an honest and competent one. Criminals have seen their house bulldozed. The drug cartels are absent from the city. Mexico would probably be a better place if the two of the last few mayors, Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas and López Obrador had won the presidency instead of losing it fraudulently to the right-wing candidates.

View from the hotel room: Chapultepec park with the Museum of Anthropology in the background right

The city has some incredible museums. We stayed in a hotel room overlooking Chapultepec Park and visited the museum of Anthropology. We could have easily spent a few days there instead of a few hours; it is one of the world’s great museums. I even explained to some Mexican kids that we lived in what was Beringia and about caribou hunting by northern First Nations. One kid asked me if it was true that we did not lock our cars in Canada. I dissuaded him from that notion, but it’s nice to know that our country has that good a reputation.

We did have one mishap. I left my Swiss Army knife at the entrance, and it was nowhere to be found when we were leaving. The knife was one of the most complicated ones: I had paid about $40 for it. That is an enormous sum to a Mexican museum guard, so they offered us complimentary tickets to a folkloric ballet show happening that night. I wasn’t too keen on it as I am not much for dance performances. But it was absolutely spectacular, unquestionably worth more than the knife. We’re talking the national folkloric dance ensemble here. So things worked out happily for everyone.

View from the tour bus

We also took a tour bus on the Monday when all the museums were closed. This was double-decker, with the upper deck completely open. For ten dollars, you got a guided tour of the city and could get off and on as many times as you wanted. Occasionally I had to duck tree branches or the earphones which previous passengers liked to drape over the overhead wires that were within reach. Well worth doing to get a sense of the main attractions of the city including Chapultepec Park, the Paseo de la Reforma, the cathedral and Zocalo as well as a number of neat neighbourhoods. The tour highlighted much the architecture that went from the colonial Baroque to ultra modern, going through art nouveau of the turn of the last century and art deco. Not to speak of wonderful murals in most public buildings, not only by Diego Rivera (who was my size) but by a large number of other muralists.

Even though I like living in Whitehorse with its proximity to nature and relaxed lifestyle, I don’t think I would mind living in Mexico City, especially since the year-round weather is like a Yukon summer: sunny dry warm days (20-25°C) and cool nights (5-15°C).

Back to the GWN

4 May 2010

Calgary, May 4, 2010

We are back in Canada after leaving the truck with Yukoners Katie & Ralph Grunow at the Hotel Canadian in Chame Panama. This is the weather that greeted us in Calgary. Back to Whitehorse tomorrow. More stuff to come.

Belize Part II: visiting the cousins

31 March 2010

We are continuing the saga as promised and are restarting in January, January 3rd to be precise, our second day in Belize. Today, March 31, we are in Tegucigalpa, capital of Honduras in an air conditioned hotel room (Hotel Humuya Inn. We earlier spent a week in Triumfo de la Cruz just east of Tela on the Honduras Caribbean coast at the Caribbean Coral Inn (excellent food). Before that, we were in Copan checking out the Mayan ruins, having arrived in Honduras. I just finished a report, it being March 31, the last day of Canadian governments’ fiscal years for those who don’t know.

Back to January in Belize. The cousins are of course, the howler monkeys. After another excellent breakfast at the Birds Eye View Lodge in the Crooked Tree Sanctuary, we decided to head for the “Baboon” Sanctuary and the Belize Zoo, baboons being the local name for howler monkeys. When we got to the village and turned into somebody’s driveway instead of the WWF facility, we heard this ungodly sound. Marilyn thought it was a big cat, while it sounded to me like some machinery that needed serious lubrication. Guess what?

Anyway, we went to the World Wildlife Fund Baboon Sanctuary building. While it had interesting exhibits and explanations of practically all the flora and fauna of the sanctuary, the exhibits obviously showed their age. While the WWF paid for building the project, they obviously do not contribute to its maintenance, and the small amount provided by the 40% of the guiding fees they get and the souvenir sales is clearly not enough to maintain the place, let alone improve or keep it up. It barely pays for a part-time person to work there.

Sensitive plant: the leaves curl up when touched.

This is typical of most government and NGO project: they love to get the credit for building something, but rarely contribute the funds needed to maintain it. There are no photo ops in maintenance money: no politician or NGO official gets credit for paying the janitor’s salary or buying paint, it’s just a budget item they have to defend every year. Building new things is sexy, keeping up old things is not.

Robert with monkey

Anyway, Robert the guide eventually shows up and takes us to see the howler monkeys near the river. He brings them down to feed them bananas and gets them to utter their ungodly howls. They are apparently the second loudest animal in the world after lions, but I can think of another that has managed to make even more noise, but not through its vocal cords. We also see other interesting flora such as sensitive plants, biting ants that are used instead of sutures to close wounds and quite large iguanas.

We then go across the road, where we see other monkeys, including a mother and belly-clinging infant (didn’t get a good picture) as well as monstera plants growing on trees as epiphytes. I know monstera as I hate the damn thing (or maybe have a love-hate relationship with one. Marilyn bought one at a grocery store in Whitehorse in 1990 (at the Food Fair in Horwoods Mall for all you sourdough wannabes and YOOP members out there). The damn thing just grew and grew under her ministrations. It is right next to my chair in the dining room and has been attacking me for years. Every couple of years, Marilyn hacks out four feet or so from it and usually gives it to friends or institutions that manage to kill it. But not ours!!!.

Checking things out

Monstera in its natural habitat

Marilyn and Louise Hardy protecting Luigi from attack Monstera. (Xmas 2008)

Robert also took us to a totally impressive mahogany tree, Belize’s national tree. Mahogany is widely considered to be the best furniture wood in the world, and the Honduras mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla) was widely exploited after the original supplies of the even better Cuban Mahogany (Swietenia mahogani) were logged out in the mid 19th century. Honduras Mahogany is still available, but most of it is probably illegally logged.

Robert has an amazing knowledge of the local flora and fauna, but he told us he had to take some pretty heavy government-sponsored courses and pass exams before he could be licensed as a guide. And he was honest with no bullshit if he didn’t know something: when I asked him some questions about the geology of the area, he did tell me he didn’t know much about it. But on birds and other fauna as well as the flora, he seemed to know pretty much everything.

Swietenia macrophylla (Honduras mahogany)

Belize seems to have taken the right direction in terms of eco-tourism and protected areas. Forty per cent of Belize’s territory is protected! The rest is almost all agricultural. And this was done by involving the local populations, and funding from international organizations. Even their coral reefs seem to be doing OK: one NASA scientist we met at Crooked Tree told us he was hopeful about Belize’s reefs as he was starting to see some minor signs of recovery unlike the rest of the world where they are in total decline. There is still illegal logging going on in Belize, but most is done by people from neighbouring countries. One sure sign of relative prosperity is that Belize is importing workers from its neighbours: Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. Some people say it’s because the Belizeans are lazy, but when people can afford to be lazy, it means they are making enough money to have some leisure. We also did not see any ugly shacks like in Mexico or Guatemala. Although modest by North American standards, the housing seemed to be in good shape.

Lunch was at the Black Orchid resort. A wonderful conch & prawn ceviche on the shores of a meandering river in a beautiful veranda in a magnificent garden, initially marred by a loud lawnmower. What was interesting about the Belizean ceviche was that they used carrots instead of tomatoes, but it was superb. Let’s not forget the Belikin used o wash it down. Marilyn spent a lot of money buying carvings and wooden bowl turnings. If I go back to Belize, I think I would definitely stay there for a day or two, not that there was anything wrong with the Birds Eye View Inn at Crooked Tree.

We then went to the Belize zoo: all native animals in mostly their native habitat. All animals were either born in the zoo or the object of rescue where it is impossible to return them to the wild. Very much like the Yukon Wildlife Preserve where I am on the board of directors. But unlike the Wildlife Preserve, it receives no assistance from the government. I tried to talk to the zoo’s director and founder, Sharon Matola, but she was not available. I did buy a membership. There were some cool things there I think the Yukon Preserve could learn from. The claim that it is the best little zoo in the world is clearly well founded.

Back to Crooked Tree for supper, another excellent one with chicken this time. We met a couple from California: he was a diving specialist working for NASA and in Belize to study the effects of climate change on the reefs. He was hesitant at first to tell us what he was doing, but we told him we were from the Yukon and were seeing at first hand some of the pretty clear effects of global warming.

The next day, we headed for Guatemala. We stopped for lunch in , a pretty rough border town. As we walked down the street, a guy interpellated us. He told us he was originally from the Yukon, but left Canada 20 years ago. He claimed to have bested Revenue Canada legally, but got tired of it all and moved to Belize and Guatemala. He was a citizen of both countries, and told us some pretty harrowing tales of the violence in Guatemala, including the fact that his young wife’s uncle had been assassinated while having a beer in a bar. Everybody “packed” in Guatemala, he claimed, and the roads were really bad. So we had lunch there and went on our way to the border and then to Flores, Peten in Guatemala on the Lago de Itza.

Panajachel to Cobán to the cloud forest

18 March 2010

We left Panajachel on Thursday, March 11th around 10:45 with Romuló in tow, who was up for an adventure and had some promotional business to do. Our intention was to take an old road that went from Santa Cruz del Quiché north to Sacapulas and then east to Cobán. According to the guidebook, it is the prettiest road in Guatemala.

Romuló initially intended to only go to Chichi, but he soon asked us if he could stay with us until Cobán as he had some business there promoting a concert, which we readily agreed.  We debated whether to eat lunch in Chichicastenango or in Quiché (further on aka Santa Cruz del Quiché). Romuló convinced us to eat in Chichi.

Picture taken by Marilyn from the restaurant of the Chichi market. Pretty soon after she was down there.

It was also market day, but Marilyn said she did not want to go to the market and swore she would not buy anything. Ha, ha! So we had lunch at a pretty good restaurant suggested by a guide with the waiters in traditional Quiché costumes. While Romuló and I chatted after lunch, Marilyn went down to the market “just to look”. When we went down we found her in deep negotiations and discussion with a neat market woman who was explaining how certain textiles were made.

In the meantime, Romuló had gotten a call about the possibility of a gig that night and the next day with a busload of French tourists. They were supposed to call him back to confirm by the time we got to Quiché. No call in Quiché so Romuló decided to continue with us. We stopped for gas and water in Sacapules, where Romuló got a call asking him to be in Pana that night and on the French bus the next morning at nine. As it was already 4:00 PM, he decided to head back on the bus. We said our good-byes and promised to get together again. He later told us he missed the last bus but he did meet a friend who was going to Chichi, where he met another friend who drove him to Pana. He got to Pana around 11 at night, so he was able to do the gig the next day. This kind of thing sounds really familiar to us Yukoners.

I had figured it would take about 5 hours to drive the 200 kilometres from Pana to Cobán, at an average of 40 km per hour. Ha! No way! We got to Uspantán around 5:30 after six hours of driving and decided to look for a hotel as I was quite tired from driving narrow twisty roads. We finally found the Hotel Don Gabriel. No hot water. Actually no water until 6:30 at night & it got shut off in the morning. But it was relatively clean other than the ants in a wall corner which we tempted with an empty beer can, comfortable, had a beautiful courtyard and a rooftop patio where there was a great view of the town. We had supper and then breakfast at a restaurant next to the hotel. It was run by a young Kaqchiquel from Pana, named Daniel.

Turkey in a basket

The central part of Uspantán seemed to be a permanent market. We walked around both on Thursday night and Friday morning and bought some hot chiles.

Goatskin pack saddles for sale, Uspantan

The next morning, we drove to Cobán. The road turned to dirt and a part of it was destroyed by a huge landslide. We had to go around through a very narrow farm road which switch-backed its way down and then up again around the slide. There were some uncomfortable turns where trucks had to go back and forth a few time.

We got to Cobán around lunch time where there was no one in the tourist information office. We had lunch at the Posada Hotel and decided to stay there. It turned out to be the best hotel in Cobán and we thoroughly enjoyed our stay there as well as the conversations with Patricia the owner.

Cathedral in Copan

I decided to get an oil change, get the brakes checked as the brake light had started blinking rather than being steadily on, and to get the camper chain attachments to the vehicle chassis adjusted. Well, I got the oil changed, but the garage said they did not have time to check the brakes or adjust the camper attachment as the next day was Saturday. It was a pretty big service place, but I had hoped for a smaller place with real mechanics. I missed Carlos in Morelia or Pedro in Mérida. It also turned out that the air filters I had bought in Whitehorse do not fit the vehicle, at least according to the oil change guy.

I must say that the oil change people who were attached to the Texaco gas bar were more than helpful, it was the service centre that was not. On Saturday morning, I went to retrieve the truck and we put it in the hotel parking, trying not to destroy Patricia’s flowers and plants in the process.

We ended up staying in Cobán for 4 days nursing full-blown colds. That cold was going around Guatemala: my friend Lars had it and Patricia, the hotel owner, was just getting over it when we got there. The cold also gave me really serious photophobia in the morning; I can’t stand the sunlight and it takes me a couple of hours before I can take daylight without sunglasses and shading my eyes.

Cobán is a nice small friendly town, people say hello to us on the street even though we are obvious Gringos. The market sellers don’t negotiate much: they give you a slightly lower price, especially if you buy more than one item, but it’s not like Pana, Antigua or the Mexican Mayan Riviera where they usually ask double what they really want. I liked Cobán; it was really authentic with few tourists.

In the Xcape Koban store

Just like Antigua and Pana, the residents of Cobán (Cobaneros) claimed to have the best coffee in Guatemala. And like the other places, the authentic local coffee was superb. We really liked a store/restaurant/coffee shop around the corner from the hotel that sold fair trade foods and artisanal goods: Xkape Koban – Café Cobán in the local Kik’che language. In addition to coffee, chocolate, cacao, they also had cardamom which is grown in the area. On Saturday night, we had Kaq-ik (variously spelled kak-ik, cak-ik, kac-iq, etc. depending on the mood of the writer), a specialty of the Verapaz region. This is a turkey soup with tomatoes, onions, various spices and served with a big hunk of turkey on the bone. It comes accompanied by small plain tamales and rice which one can put in the soup. Really good. On Sunday night, we went to another restaurant, El Peñascal, where I had another superb kak-ik and Marilyn had a totally mind- and taste-bud-blowing steak in cardamom sauce.

Calvario church

Cobán itself does not have many tourist attractions, just a neat little private museum with Mayan artefacts mainly from the Classic period (Museo El Príncipe Maya) and an orchid nursery, the Vivero Verapaz just outside of town. There is also a small informative departmental museum that deals with the history of the region. And there is a continuous market just north of the church. I bought five wooden planes at the market, including a smoother, a rabbet plane and three moulding planes.

Juan Flores

Tree ferns

The Vivero Verapaz was a highlight for me, with hundred of orchids either growing under tree-ferns or in shade structures. Nero Wolf would have been in seventh heaven. Apparently, very few orchids were in bloom, so the place was not as spectacular as it would have been say in October. Nevertheless, I did really not notice the lack of blooms.  Our guide was the appropriately named Juan Flores, who managed the place and the plants.

Orchids growing in wine corks

Some small orchid plants grew in wine corks, but most were in a coir-like material obtained from the roots of the tree ferns. There were also some bonsai trees grown by Juan’s wife that had mini orchids growing on them. I don’t know how they manage to keep the place going as it is forbidden to export orchids from Guatemala, along with birds and mammals. Juan completely agrees with preventing the export of wild orchids, but these were grown in the nursery. Maybe we need some orchid certification program where the money would go to conservation projects, something like the rainforest t alliances uses for certified wood.

Monja blanca - Guatemala's national flower (Lycaste virginalis var. alba)

Ram Tzul dining/bar area

Fern tree with giant fiddlehead that would feed the average New Brunswick village. Our room/cabin in the background

On Tuesday we left Cobán for the Biotopo del Quetzal, a national preserve, about an hour south. Our original intention was to camp but we decided to stay acouple of days in a wonderful bungalow with a great view of the cloud forest to nurse our colds in the cool humid weather. The bamboo “eco-lodge” we stayed at is called Ram Tzul. I originally wanted to do some hikes and try to see the elusive Quetzal, Guatemala’s long-tailed national bird, but my state of health did not permit it and we just lazed around the bamboo lodge for a day and  a half.

This was written in Chiquimula in southern Guatemala and tomorrow will be heading for the Mayan ruins of Copán just across the border in Honduras. We tried going into Zacapa, north of Chiquimula where the best rum in the world is made. We wanted to visit the rum distillery and “soleras”, but Theroux was proved right: “It seemed a terrible place, as hot as any of the miserable villages along the railway line, if a bit larger.”

En la playa de Pana

13 March 2010

Rómulo and his son Elder playing at the Bistro

The first night in Panajachel (Friday, March 5th), we went to eat at the “Bistro” after a recommendation from the hotel staff. I had asked for a typical Guatemalan restaurant and this one turned out to have an Italian menu. We looked around for something else more typical and then decide to go to the Bistro. There was an absolutely fabulous singer guitarist, Rómulo, playing and singing there. I left him a really good tip, telling him that artists are never paid enough. This entry’s title is from one of his songs.

On the way home we ran into a procession. A brightly lit statue of Jesus carrying the cross was being carried by a group of men towards the Panajachel church. The float was followed by a wire leading to a generator that provided the power to the lights.

The next day, we met Lars for lunch. He suggested going to the Bistro again where I had a great filet mignon and Marilyn had chicken. That night we ate at the Sunset Bar on the waterfront where the food was all “genuine” Mexican, supposedly just like in Mexico according to the menu but actually mostly Tex-Mex. The band played some rock classics including Marilyn’s favourite: Stand by Me. But they were nowhere as good as Rómulo. On the way back, we passed by the Bistro where Rómulo waved at us.

On Sunday, following Lars’ suggestion, we went to the famous market in Chichicastenango (a.k.a. Chichi), about an hour away by twisty road: half an hour uphill, 5 minutes on the highway and an hour down and then up twisty roads. Yes, that’s an hour away, but it took us an hour and a half to get there. I immediately bought a rather dandy straw hat for 50 Quetzales (about six or seven dollars) without bothering to bargain. I needed it as my head was starting to feel sunburned.

In Guatemala, the custom is to bargain, and not only for tourists. The sellers usually ask for about double what they want and one tries to beat them down. On the other hand, I still refuse to bargain with artists and artisans for their work, and if it’s double what they really want, well, good for them; they’re underpaid anyway. The market was overwhelming & I forgot what Marilyn bought. We had lunch at the fancy Hotel Maya Inn where the waiters wear a traditional costume that costs almost a thousand dollars.

Marimba players at the Hotel Maya Inn

That night we went to yet another place, called the Circus Bar. Italian food yet again: I had home made potato gnocchi with tomato sauce and Marilyn had tagliatelle with shrimp and cream sauce. There were some musicians playing there, but they were not that great and passed the hat after their set. The place was decorated with many circus posters from Latin America and Europe, some very old, as the founders of the place were former circus people.

On the Monday, we went on a boat (lancha) tour around the lake with Juan, the brother of Timoteo our hotel clerk. Marilyn & I were the only passengers on this tour. We went to Santiago Atitlán as well as San Antonio Palopó and Santa Catarina Palopó.

In Santiago, after visiting the church where the saints were all dressed in different colour cloths, we went to visit Maximon (pronounced Ma-shi-mon), the Maya deity protector of the people. The Maximon is portrayed as a man with a suit and a hat usually smoking a cigarette or a cigar. At the shrine we went to, there were four women kneeling and asking favours of the Maximon: one had a stomach ailment, the second was opening a new business and the other two needed help with passing their exams. A Mayan priest was reciting incantations to help them while everybody else was chattering, smoking & drinking. We had to pay for our entrance and for each photo we took. The money went into Maximon’s pocket. Marilyn did not want to enter the shrine or chapel as it was way too smoky.

Luigi in Maximon shrine in Santiago

Maximones at the Nim Pot store in Antigua

In San Antonio, we saw some weavers at work and Marilyn was happy to see that the fabric she liked a lot and bought a lot of was actually made with a pedal loom rather than by machine.

We then had lunch in Santa Catarina, where I also took some pictures of the perfectly safe scaffolding. (NOT!!!) It is amazing with what workers will put up with when they are poor and powerless: people spraying paint with only a handkerchief over their face, no ear muffs in sight when using jackhammers, and speaking of sight, I have yet to see any safety glasses in Guatemala. But the hardware stores are full of Satanley (sic) tools.

That night (Monday) we went back to the Bistro but Rómulo was not playing. However, he was there and we did talk to him. We arranged to meet the next morning at the hotel. At breakfast he told us about a project he was heavily involved in: building a school for special needs children. I went to the school with him.

Martha and Rómulo in the school showing one of the displays. The curtains in the background are the "doors" to the toilets.

The school was fully operational with 32 kids and two teachers, despite still missing interior doors and windows and having little furniture. They are responsible for 52 kids, but the others are in the regular school system; for example they got fitted with a hearing aid and can attend regular school. The school was built within the precinct of a kindergarten in Panajachel.

Martha, the teacher, told me that it would be ideal to have another six small tables so the kids would have a place to work. (Hint, hint Luigi!) I asked how much a table would cost and she figured about 500 Quetzales each (about $65 dollars). I asked about chairs and she said it would be great to have some too, but right now the parents were asked to bring chairs for their kids to sit on. I got sucked in and agreed to get the tables made to a maximum of 3,000 Quetzales.

Canadian peas for Soupe aux pois.

I was happy to see that the school got assistance from a Canadian organization in Montreal and from Spain. They also had bags of pasta, gummy bears and dried split peas donated by a Canadian parish, but they did not know what the peas were. They thought they might be lentils, but I told them they were not and that they were used to make a traditional French-Canadian soup. I later looked it up in a Spanish dictionary and Rómulo now knows what they are called (guisante, alverja, or chícharo).

Planer and jointer in wood storage and planing area

Anyway, Rómulo and I head to the carpentry/cabinet making shop where they are already building some lockers for the school with money Rómulo raised. The owner is not there, so Rómulo and I agree that he is to look for the guy and call me after he talks to the owner.

Table saw

I go off shopping with Marilyn and I call Rómulo around 5 PM or so since he had not called me yet. He tells me the owner wants 675 Quetzales per table. I think, shit, he’s going to hit me for more money. Anyway, around supper time, Rómulo calls me to ask whether we would come to the Bistro for supper, I am ready to say no more money with Marilyn supporting me in my resolve. We sit down with Rómulo, and he tells me he found a cabinet maker in another village (San Pedro, IIRC) who is ready to make the six tables, and six chairs as well, for 3,000 Quetzales. I am truly relieved and maybe have been unjust with Rómulo who had every intention of respecting my boundaries. I owe him an apology for my misjudgement of his intentions. Anyway Rómulo does his gig which we truly enjoy, throws in a line about amigos de Canadá in his Playa de Pana song. He calls the president of their association, Marvin Quinoñez, who happens to be married to Martha the teacher and works as speech pathologist. I hand him half the money so he can pay the cabinet maker when the work is finished, and I am to pay the first half tomorrow directly to the cabinet maker so he can buy the materials. I also ask Marvin to look into the possibility of my getting a Canadian tax receipt for my donation. I tell Rómulo and Marvin that the tables are in honour of my good friend Todd Hardy, carpenter, unionists, former leader of the Yukon NDP and founder of Habitat for Humanity in the Yukon. Todd is dying of leukemia.

Ricardo at his workbench

We have every intention of leaving the next morning, but I want to go see the woodworking shop first. Rómulo shows up at the hotel and tells me he found someone in town to do the work. Ricardo shows up after a while and we go to his shop to discuss design. He already has some sketches done, and he intends to use round tenons for the chairs and regular mortise and tenon for the table. His shop is really simple; a small metal table saw, and a workbench and a bunch of hand tools in the yard.

Ricardo's table saw

Anyway, Rómulo says he can’t make a decision about the design, he has to ask Martha. We go to the bank and I hand Ricardo 1,500 Quetzales and go with him to the lumber dealer to buy the wood. The pine lumber to be used for the table is sold in 12-inch wide planks, 8 to 10 feet long at about 65 cents (5 Quetzales) a board-foot. Cypress is a little more expensive at 8 Quetzales per board-foot. Ricardo picks his planks and some 2X3 rough material for the table legs. He tells me to be at the entrance to the callejon (alley) near his house at 2:00 PM to help unload the lumber.

Ricardo slecting wood for the tables

I show up at around 2:10 and Ricardo has a box on his shoulder and is obviously weaving. The man is totally pissed. I think to myself, “Uh oh! We have a problem here.” He insists on carrying the box back to his place. Luckily the alleys are quite narrow and the walls help keep him staggering in the right direction. He is quite proud to tell me numerous times that he has bought the glue, contact cement, varnish and screws needed, which are in the box he is carrying. I get to his place and meet his wife who is rather shy and maybe a little ashamed. He hands her 400 Quetzales and to my relief she tells me he has already paid for the wood. I call Rómulo, who had been there before when no one was there and I tell him that Ricardo seems to have had quite a liquid lunch.

Rómulo shows up, tells him he expected more professionalism from him. Ricardo excuses himself. We decide to go get the wood. Ricardo and I walk there and Rómulo goes on his bicycle. Along the way, Ricardo alternates between being my best friend and ashamed of himself. He had to stop to relieve himself along a wall on the main drag of Panajachel. He meets another guy along the way who wants him to do some work. I introduce myself to him and he tells me his name is also Rómulo. I ask him about Ricardo. Rómulo No. 2 tells me he is a very good worker but has an alcohol problem. No shit!

Cypress & pine planks at Sebastiano's lumberyard

Anyway, we decide to get the lumber delivered the next day as the alleyway is currently blocked as workers have dug it up to install a water main. Ricardo later told Rómulo that he gets really happy because he got a job. I told Rómulo that allegro (alegre in Spanish) also means happily drunk in Italian. Anyway, Ricardo is obviously a drunk, as he is too poor to be an alcoholic.

We decide to stay in Pana one more night, go have a light supper of ceviche and salad at a waterfront restaurant. We then go to the Bistro to see if Rómulo is still there, but he has already left. I also happen to see a place where they make housecoats, but they don’t have any my size (Surprise, surprise!). I start walking away, but then I ask them if they could make one for the next morning. The tailor says he can have it for nine in the morning, so he takes my measurements and I put a deposit down.

The next morning, I call Rómulo to let him know we are leaving. He tells me he is going to Chichicastenango. Since it is on our way, I offer him a ride. I tell him to meet us at 10:15. We are late as we are doing some last minute shopping (I need to get my housecoat, Marilyn wants to buy me another shirt, I need to get a map of Honduras and we decided to buy some Huehue coffee which just came in from Mike at the Crossroads Café). Then off on another adventure with Rómulo.

Anyway, we’ll see if we can get Rómulo up to the Yukon to play in one of the music festivals.

Antigua to Panajachel: Part II

12 March 2010

We stayed in Antigua until Friday when we drove to Panajachel on Lake Atitlán. On Thursday, we went to Philip and Christina Wilson Finca el Pintado organic coffee farm to retrieve the truck and camper. In the morning, I had intended to go to the Santo Domingo Hotel/cloister/church/museum, but we stopped at too many shops along the way so it was too late to visit the museum by the time we got there if we were to meet Philip at 1:45 as we had agreed.

We met Philip at the Texaco station at the south end of town and he drove us to the Finca. The coffee harvest was near its end and they were picking everything, including the green berries. Philip told us that the harvest was about 35 per cent down from the previous year. Although there was a slight increase in prices it did not compensate for the reduction in harvest. We had an excellent lunch with Philip and his mother. Philip’s father had been in the oil industry and they had lived all over the world. His mother now lives in Washington DC.

The last of the beans

The talked ended up on the Canadian health care system: Mrs Wilson asked us how we liked it. We, of course, replied we loved it. She was sceptical of state-run health care after her experience in England when she would have had to wait for three weeks to see a doctor, but when she agreed to see the doctor privately, all of a sudden he was available the next day. She asked us what the waits were like in Canada. We had to correct yet again the many lies spread by the Republicans in the States. We told here that there was no wait for urgent procedures, but some elective surgery could wait as more urgent cases took precedence. Essentially, I pointed out, that one’s doctor acted as one’s advocate with the hospital system. She asked us whether there was no private system. I explained that until recently, at least, a doctor was either in the system or out of it. But if he was out, he had no access to the hospitals which are all non-profit institutions run by community boards (none are for-profit).

Coffee bean waste being partially composted

Philip gave us a tour of his worm farm: 24 million worms who turn the waste from the coffee processing into fertilizer. The finca is also planting legume trees so that they can fix nitrogen in the soil.

Worm farm bins (note bird netting)

Ecofiltro filters being painted with colloidal silver

We then visited the Ecofiltro factory run by Philip. The Ecofiltro is a low technology water filter that can be used to purify drinking water. It consists of a flower pot shaped ceramic and sawdust filter impregnated with colloidal silver which fits into a plastic or terra cotta container. I think it would have many applications in many places in Canada (mining camps, outfitters, First Nations communities, Walkerton and other places that depend on privatized water inspection services, etc.). Anyway, it is something worth exploring. We retrieved our truck & camper and drove it to the hotel parking lot.

Luigi cradling Malbec bottle

On Thursday night, we went to a rather fancy parillada (steak house grill) restaurant. Marilyn ordered the filet mignon and she got—get this—two tournedos at least one inch thick wrapped in bacon. And they came rare rather than medium as she had ordered. They do not stint on the meat in this country. She was not able to finish them & I had to help her. On the waiter’s recommendation we had an absolutely superb Norton Argentine Malbec. Actually we had two bottles, one in honour of Deb Pitt who asked me to have a glass of vino for her.

The next morning (Friday) we visited the Casa Santo Domingo museum, a former Dominican church and convent that included a number of crypts, a broken down earthquake-damaged church, a regular church under a tent, and a number of museums all within the precincts of a hotel, not to speak of a patio full of parrots. We found all quite interesting, especially a museum of ceramics and glass which compared modern art glass with Mayan ceramics. Each exhibit juxtaposed Mayan art with glass art work from all over the world (but mostly from Sweden, France and Canada). There were sections on different animal representations, human figures, plants, etc. Really cool and well done. There was a museum dedicated to contemporary Guatemalan art, one with painted religious statuary, and another on artisanal work. All very well done and we appreciated having a guide. It is quite impressive that the hotel manages to do this.

Fruit offerings with flower carpet above

We had a very bad lunch of tacos (the second worse after Mexicana Airlines) and then went to Jocotenango just outside of Antigua where they had made a flower carpet on the floor of the church. The flower alfombres are a typical Lent activity in the Antigua area. Quite attractive and there were a lot of food vendors outside. We bought some mangoes and sweets but could not find coffee. It was really stupid of us not to have waited to eat and being subjected to the barely edible tacos.

Jocotenango church

We then drove back to the Pan-American Highway on a narrow twisty road and turned towards Whitehorse – the Alaska Highway is theoretically part of the Pan-American. We turned off the highway and drove down another even narrower and twistier road to Sololá and then another 10 klicks to Panajachel. By that time I was pretty burned out and stopped at the first decent looking hotel we saw, the Rancho Grande Inn. It actually turned out pretty well, with a fairly cheap room with fireplace and bath, a gorgeous garden, and a great breakfast with one-inch-thick perfectly-cooked pancakes. We could not have the nicer room because it was already reserved for the Saturday night.