Sunday, September 27, 2009

Portezuelo Coffee Finca

Holly, who works at our school as a community-service coordinator, also is experienced working in eco-tourism (which is a buzzword for sustainable tourism, for those of you who are un-hip like me). She organized a trip this weekend up to a coffee finca (farm) up in the mountains, about an hour drive away from the Guatemalan border, and happily I went along.

It was fantastic! We got there in the afternoon, and it was pretty rainy. Everyone was a good sport, so we all huddled indoors and drank hot chocolates and coffees to keep warm. Our hosts at the farm came out to greet us, and they talked about the history of the farm, as well as their motivation for running a part-time eco-tourism business to help supplement their income. They have horses, mountain bikes, hiking trails, and even a few neat ropes courses on the farm! Not to mention delicious food and amazing hospitality. (They had even arranged for us to roast marshmellows at night. Mmmm marshmellows for gringos...) :) There is also a charming remnant of a church where the young couple had gotten married 10 years ago; the actual church collapsed a few years after their wedding, in an earthquake, so now it's just a beautiful empty courtyard, with a wall where the chapel used to stand. Because they had wanted to explore the possibility of offering yoga (and other therapeutic activities) on site, they had asked a yoga teacher to come from San Salvador to stay for the night at the finca. Early the next day, at around 7am, five of us girls rose early to do yoga with Visel the yoga teacher in the chapel courtyard. I'm not really a yoga person, but doing yoga outdoors on a Sunday is such a beautiful feeling! She said that she is down at El Tunco on some weekends, so I might have to look her up so I can check out her morning yoga class on the beach!!

Anyway, after breakfast, since we didn't have a ton of time (it's Sunday, and we teachers had to get back to the city to do work before the day ends), we all got to choose just one activity out of the many things to do at the farm. I had originally planned on going horseback-riding (because I had only done it once in college, and it had been so much fun), but I last-minute changed my mind and decided to go on a hike to the geiser instead. Either way, I had figured I couldn't lose, and visiting the geiser seemed more like a once-in-a-lifetime sort of thing. It was a surprisingly leisurely hike down to the geiser, actually. The floor was muddy and slippery from the rain, but otherwise the trail was fairly well-maintained and the terrain was pretty easy to traverse. The actual geiser itself was amazing! When asked how hot the water is in temperature, the guide said, "Demaciado!" and then quickly explained that it's hotter than water that is boiling over fire. You could see the steam and smell the sulfur (sulfre) from even a short distance away. The Earth Science teacher in me swooned obligatorily. :)

This weekend was fantastic, but I missed Geoff a lot. We'll have to go back there together sometime, because I'm sure he would want to check it out, and also because I'd like to check out their horses! (The ladies who went horseback-riding said they went from one hill across to another hill before they finally turned around. Sounds incredible!!)

Yay eco-tourism!

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Mini updates!

This week has been somewhat distressing. Geoff and I had some noticeable water problems -- as in, our water got turned off by the water company! --Not fun. We learned the hard way that the ANDA water bills here are not cumulative; if you miss a payment (which we did in the beginning, since we didn't know whether we were supposed to be paying the bills ourselves, or how), the next bill that comes doesn't contain or refer to the overdue amount. Each bill stands alone, which doesn't make much sense to us, but that's just the way it works here. So, we had paid off the most recent bill online, thinking that would suffice, but that was apparently the wrong assumption. And, after a couple months of an unpaid old bill... tada! off goes the water. FOR THREE DAYS!!! Geoff and I couldn't get down to the office in person to take care of the issue during the work week, so we had our super-ish person look into it for us. She spoke to the company and they said it was coming back on, blah blah. Predictably, nothing happened following that promise. Eventually, because of a fluke, a maintenance guy from a different company turned the water back on for us today. So, in short, we don't know whether the water is here to stay, or if the water company is going to come back and turn it back off, or what. We can only hope for the best.

And, you know, it's amazing how difficult this was. The amazing thing is that we sort of did have water; we still had drinking water in tubs, and we took our empty tubs to the pool out in the back and filled them to flush the toilets. But still, we were frustrated as hell. We can only hope that this is a permanent fix, and that the water company just flakes out altogether and doesn't send anyone else down to toggle with our water supply. But, as the running joke goes, it's El Salvador, and anything is possible.


I learned while talking to a friend that once you employ a maid here, you are responsible for paying the maid weekly even if you aren't going to be around that week (ie. the maid gets the week off). This is because the $10 to $15 you pay your maid each week is, in fact, their main source of income, so if you go on vacation and decide not to pay them, then they are unemployed for that duration. Good to know, since Christmas break is coming up. I would NOT want to cause our maid to be unemployed and to be in financial difficulty when we are away.

It's one of those small things that showcase the income disparity in this country.


On a brilliantly good note, Geoff and I went to scope out a salsa dancing class yesterday, and it was fantastic! The dance teacher, Raul, had been dancing for 16 years. It was basically like a private session, because he thinks we're not good enough to be with the rest of the class. So, for the whole hour, Geoff and I practiced on the side, and he showed us several moves. I have taken a number of social dance classes and am usually pretty good with following the rapid-fire instructions, but this instructor was moving fast. I love it! He says that in two months, he thinks we'll be good enough to join the rest of the crew in learning fancier moves. It sounds lovely...

We want to go back there at least once a week. The only problem is that getting a cab ride to and from that place isn't totally easy, so we have to resume looking for a car to buy...


Geoff won't be around this weekend, because he is heading to Jersey for a wedding! I'm totally envious, because I want to be in NY and I wish I could be at this beautiful wedding of two really good people. But, it's good that the local crowd is organizing a weekend getaway, so I wouldn't just be hanging out at home feeling bored. Congrats, M&M!! Enjoy your big day!!

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Anniversary weekend

Geoff and I celebrated our third-year anniversary this weekend. :) It was kind of a big deal, since I think we had hit a few big milestones in this past year (ie. moving in together and moving to another country), and everything had been as smooth and fun as can be. We don't eat at expensive restaurants much (since we cook decently well during the week, and we also enjoy eating at mom-and-pop Salvadorean places that cost only a few bucks for the whole meal), but we decided that for this particular occasion, we would splurge a little...

Colleen and Eric had highly recommended an Italian restaurant in Zona Rosa called "Vittorio's", so G and I decided to start our night there. It was by far the most expensive meal we have yet had in this country! A bottle of wine, a fabulous calamari appetizer, two entrees (fish and pasta) muy ricos, and two cappuccinos all added up to be about $70, but we thought it was well worth the price. The food at the restaurant was fantastic, and the ambiance was also lovely. Even though it had rained on-and-off throughout the night, Geoff and I sat in a covered section of the garden outside, surrounded by decorative wine, wooden wine racks, and lush tropical plants.

After dinner, we went to a couple of different spots, eventually landing in the "Jungle", which is now officially Geoff's and my favorite dancing spot on the Zona Rosa strip! We were already pretty tipsy when we started dancing there, and after a short while, the DJ offered us a free bucket of beers! --WHAT?! We were really surprised and a little confused; we never quite figured out what the free beers were for, but we were told it had something to do with our dancing. Anyway, we had a pretty great time there; a few of the locals were talking to us and being very friendly, and by the time we finally got home, it was already past 2am! For partying by ourselves, we didn't do too badly. :)

The rest of the weekend was also deeply relaxing, complete with naps in our two hammocks and some old-school video game-playing. (Geoff and I have been downloading old Nintendo games and playing them on my laptop, with the $7 game controllers we bought. It feels pretty silly to be playing games from the 80s, but G gets really excited about them. The only caveat is that I have short attention span and can barely sit still through a game, if we last through multiple levels...) I think I am almost ready for a full week of work. Almost.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009


Geoff, Colleen, Eric, and I had a most unforgettable weekend in Guatemala! I won't go into all the details here, but some unpleasant things happened on our way back from Guate and we were delayed a day in getting back to work. We also experienced various car troubles throughout the trip, which were worrisome only because they meant that we had to get out in rural areas to fix the muffler or to crash in a random rural town for the night. At one point, our brakes overheated and started to fail while descending very steep mountainous roads. (None of us even knew that overheating was possible for brakes!) It was scary as shit, as Eric would say...

Alas, we made it back safely! So, let's focus on how beautiful the rest of the weekend was. This weekend lasted 4 days long, in celebration of Central American independence from Spain*, so the crew had decided that we would take the opportunity to go across the border to check out Antigua and Lake Atitlan, both located in Guatemala. As it turns out, Antigua is a beautiful cobble-stoned city that has retained much of its colonial look and feel, but mixed in with an international crowd and awesome restaurants and bars. Geoff and I loved Cafe No Se, which is a bar with an eclectic crowd, great tequila (although they call it something else there), and very interesting internal decor. The town is also filled with colonial ruins, and just generally had a lot of character. It being independence weekend, there were performers and crowds galore, and we had a fun time just walking around this pedestrian-friendly tourist town. At night, Geoff and I closed down Cafe No Se (which wasn't hard to do -- bars closed in the town at 1am).

The next day, we set out for Chichitenango, which has a weekly Sunday market that sells everything from food to traditional goods. Geoff and I had been looking for a cheap and water-proof hammock, which we found there for 150 quetzales. (The exchange rate is about 8 quetzales to 1 dollar, so it was a pretty good deal. Similar hammocks we found in El Salvador for at least twice the cost!) Geoff also began shopping for his parents for Christmas, since we saw something very unique that they would like. I bought a traditional weaved Guatemalan skirt, along with a belt (also weaved/embroidered) to hold it up. Colleen and Eric bought a ton more stuff than us, so it was a good day trip for everyone. :) At night, our brakes failed while on the way to Lago de Atitlan, so we decided to crash in a small town called San Juan to wait for the daylight to come. In San Juan (a tiny town about 15 or 20 minutes from the lake), we found a hotel right across the street from the police station. There, all of us just relaxed and chatted, finishing the bottle of wine that we had brought on the trip...

As it turns out, the brakes often fail for cars going down those windy mountainous roads, because of how many tumulos (speed bumps) there are, the steep grade of the roads, and the many sharp turns that lead to the bottom of the mountains. The mechanic told us not to worry, so we headed on down to Lake Atitlan on Monday to enjoy the beautiful view. Lake Atitlan is amazing! It's huge and gorgeous, surrounded by volcanic mountains, and has really cool little bars and restaurants -- and hippies! I think I had the most amazing sandwich of my life there, at an organic bar called Freedom. (I don't even like sandwiches normally!) During the day, we also took the boats out to another town, hiked a little, and then jumped off a cliff! Everyone else (Geoff, Colleen, and Eric) had done something like it before, except for me, so I was scared as hell. The cliff was about 20 to 30 feet according to Geoff and Colleen, and there were rocks in the water. The lake itself was really, really deep, so we weren't really worried about hitting the bottom of the lake, as long as we could jump far enough to get away from the rocky shore. Anyway, I put my hand over my heart and felt my heart pumping like crazy, and when I jumped, Geoff was scared out of his mind because he saw me almost hitting the side of the cliff and going with my head first into the water. It was so fast, I really didn't know what was going on, but I felt a little dizzy upon entering the water, like someone had hit me over the head. Fortunately, I was OK and didn't pass out or anything. :) Colleen and Eric helped guide me to the shore, because I was feeling a little disoriented at that point. Honestly, I don't know if I will do it again. I really wanted to do it this time, just to know what it feels like. Not sure if I should tempt fate in the future, especially because I was so clumsy about it this time. :)

All in all, we had a brilliant time. (I'll post pictures very soon, I promise!) The only bummer is that I had to miss work today, because I had been looking forward to a really productive day at school with the kids, and returning late from Guate definitely is going to throw things off. But, I'm really glad to be home after a long weekend, and in the grand scheme, things could have certainly been a lot worse. :)

Ciao! Next weekend is Geoff's and my three-year anniversary! I almost can't believe it; time has really flown by!

*Guatemala, Costa Rica, Honduras, Nicaragua, and El Salvador all celebrate their independence from Spain on September 15.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Partido de FĂștbol!

Yesterday, I went to my first soccer game!! It was really great. We had gotten there late, because we were disorganized and running late, and by the time we got to the stadium, the game was only a few minutes from starting, and the box offices were long closed. Since we had been forewarned to not purchase tickets to the $5 "Vietnam" section, we tried to avoid all the scalpers along the street. (People reputedly piss into bags and throw them around in the $5 section.) We were directed to a nearby cell-phone booth to purchase tickets, and eventually purchased five $15 tickets for the Sombras Sur section. En route, we also bought $5 blue jerseys to show off our Salvadorean pride, and ate some yummy street food out in the parking lot. :)

--The game was fantastic! As soon as we had walked in, the vibe made me miss going to college football games. The crowd was so excited the entire game, chanting (in Spanish), "Yes! We can!" and "Salvador!" while the game stayed a deadlocked zero-zero. Eventually, during the last minute of the second half, El Salvador scored a goal and beat the number one-ranked Costa Rica!! Needless to say, the crowd went wild, and they threw (amongst other things) half-empty beer cups into the air. There was also immediate celebratory dancing.

(...The low light of the night was the stadium bathroom. There was no toilet paper, nor sink to speak of. The faucet spits water out onto the floor, and it doesn't seem like there is a drain anywhere, so the water just collects on the floor. Not my favorite...)

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Climbing Volcano Izalco

A few weeks ago, when Geoff and I drove out to see Volcano Izalco for the first time, we had found out from the locals that there are guided tours to climb the volcano. The tours cost $1, and they start actually at a recreational campsite on top of a nearby volcano, Cerra Verde. We had decided that this sounded like a climb not to be missed, so yesterday, with a group of other teachers, we set out to climb the volcano.

To give a little bit of background about this volcano, Izalco had been continuously active between the 1700s and 1966, and was called the "Lighthouse of the Pacific", because ships would use its light to help guide their navigation at night. It is perfectly cone-shaped, and has a height of 650 meters, with a crater that measures 40 meters deep and 200 meters wide. At some point, some businessman decided to build a hotel on top of the nearby dormant volcano Cerra Verde, to try and make a profit off of the beautiful erupting Izalco. The hotel costed a lot of money to build, and you were supposed to be able to have a beautiful night view of the erupting volcano from the hotel. But, as the local lores have it, the day before the hotel was finished, the volcano erupted for the last time! Nature, in fact, had the last laugh... :)

Since its last eruption was relatively recent, Volcano Izalco still looks like a pile of rocks, only sparsely covered with vegetation. The so-called "path" to the top is also rough, at best. Most people in my group were in great shape, but I was pretty nervous ascending the volcano. I had to grab on to the rocks for the most part, and to lean into the mountain because I was nervous that I would slip down the side of the steep mountainside. At one point, I fell and was lying flat on the ground, because the rocks I was grabbing onto were loose and slippery themselves. When, finally, we got to the top, the view from top of the volcano was absolutely stunning! You are literally sitting on the edge of the crater, looking both into the crater of the volcano and looking out to the surrounding farmland! We walked almost all the way around the crater to the vent that was still emitting hot steam from underground. (Oddly, it didn't smell like sulfur, unlike the volcanoes I remember visiting in Hawaii.) Geoff and I had brought some bread, so we had a quick bite at the top before it came time to head back down. (By that time, the clouds had set in, and the view was obstructed. It was pretty clear that the guides wanted to get back before the rain would arrive, because I can imagine that hiking down that already-slippery mountainside in the rain would NOT be fun!)

Climbing down the volcano was much easier than going up, I thought, even though the gravel was definitely loose under our feet, and you slip downwards with every step. I fell once on the way down and was cut on a sharp rock, adding to my battle wound scratch marks for the day. The hardest part of the whole day was that after we had descended Izalco, we still needed to climb back up the other mountain -- to an even higher ground than the summit of Izalco -- to get back to our cars on top of Cerra Verde! Holy smack. That trail is well-paved and maintained, but the steepness of the incline makes it really exhausting. By the time we finally got back to the top, everyone was eager for some drinks and food.

We wrapped up the beautiful day by driving down the mountain to Lago de Coatepeque. The last time Geoff and I had gone there, we had found a nice little "restaubar" that is right on the water. This time, the gang went to the same place to grab some food and drinks, and Geoff and Greg both went for a quick dip in the lake. It was a perfect wind-down time after a day of hiking! I think everybody had a really great time. Even the weather remained beautiful the rest of the afternoon! :)

--Oh, and throughout the day, we had continued to encounter some amazing wildlife. Geoff took a picture of a giant grasshopper on top of the volcano; it was about 2/3 the length of my hand! And earlier, during our drive, Geoff and I had seen a vulture dragging a roadkill off to the side. We continued to see similar (big) black birds -- maybe vultures, maybe hawks -- as we were climbing the volcano...

I love El Salvador. I miss many things about New York City, but I really love it here. :)