Montag, 29. Dezember 2008


Having worked on different farms this year, from Arizona to Costa Rica, I set out for Panama on an entirely different mission: to find a ride on a boat and sail to New Zealand... or something like that. After all, the Panama Canal is the eye of the needle every cruiser has to take to get from the Caribbean to the Pacific, at least those whose balls are not big enough to go round Cape Horn. But before I undergo that, I'd like to get my feet wet first. So I positioned myself at the locks, with my thumb out and a sign in my hand... all figuratively of course. Hitchhiking on a boat is a whole different caliber, and it takes way more time. And while I was waiting, I had a chance to get an impression of this somewhat different Central American country.
Where North meets South

Panama, as the name implies, is the link between North and South America, and is one of the youngest countries. Even geologically, it is not older than a few million years. Before it was created, the two American continents were not joined. Also as a nation, Panama is barely more than a hundred years old. Unlike all the other Central American countries, including Costa Rica, which used to be part of the Great Mexican Empire, Panama was part of Great Columbia, and then just Columbia, until the yanks instigated their independence to build the Panama Canal. Not surprisingly, the Canal is really what the entire country revolves around. Being the link between Atlantic and Pacific, it enjoys far greater importance than Panama itself, for being the land bridge between the Americas. In fact, the overland connection to Colombia can hardly be referred to as such. It's a mountainous region, followed by endless swamps, with no roads, but many fighting FARC and paramilitary groups, not to mention drug traffickers, and the constant threat of malaria, dengue, and yellow fever. Quite appropriately, it is hence referred to as the Darien Gap, where even the Panamerican Highway takes a break, only to continue a few hundred kms in Columbia, all the way to the southernmost tip of the continent.

So where do North and South America meet? According to my 7th grade geography teacher, the dividing line between the two Americas is the Panama Canal. Panama City, being located just across the famous bridge of the Americas, should be therefor in South America. I, however, would like to disagree. But to suggest that the geographic division was the artificially drawn border between the nation states Panama and Columbia would be equally wrong. Instead I'd say, not without irony, that North and South America do NOT meet. While trying to get closer in one sense, they also do anything to avoid each other as much as possible. The result of this avoidance-attraction is a country like Panama, with an ethnic and cultural mix of both sides. By having a canal of global proportions go right through it, you additionally invite the whole world, resulting in a city like Panama... located somewhere between the Americas.

The Singapore of Latin America

Panama City is unlike any other city or even capital in Central America. On one hand, it has a large number of flashy skyscrapers, shiney luxury cars, gigantic shopping-malls, and an affluence of Euroamerican standard, if not higher. It is ranked 65th on the list of the city with the most skyscrapers worldwide, which is pretty impressive for a city with about 1.2 million people. However, most of the office towers, luxury appartments and hotels are virtually empty. But who knows, they might not even have been constructed for occupation, as much as to make large sums of money disappear... money, that came without a doubt on the Canal. Still, all in all, there seems to be considerable wealth going around here. Most cars are nice, new, shiney, and luxurious. The malls are filled with merchandise, and especially now in the Christmas shopping season, with people eager to spend their dollars. I happened to come here just perfectly for the stressiest time of the year! Never mind, I can find a way to escape. Talking about money, the official currency of Panama is the Balboa, on a 1:1 exchange rate to the US dollar. In fact, the bills look just like the US dollar. They are even issued by the Federal Reserve Bank! Nevertheless, everyone calles them Balboas. Okay, whatever...
On the other side of the equation, Panama has slums, crime and misery, quite on the level of Nicaragua. Between its wealth and poverty, it is a typical world city, with folks from pretty much everywhere. It is way more international than Mexico City. On the pedestrian street Avenida Central, you can see Hindu women wearing saris next to native Kuuna women with their traditional bead work on their calves. There are turban wearing Sikhs, dreadlocked rastafarians, and black coated hassidic Jews, all of them with thick beards. Corner stores and cybercafes are owned by Arabs, and Chinese, kinda like in most places. Nevertheless, the culture is Latin, though there seem to be way more black and white latinos than in other places I've visited. Thus the culture is loud and the music turned up all the way. The music, by the way, also reflects the mixed culture. Salsa and kumbia, while being the most popular options, are usually mixed up with reggae and other Caribbean sounds, or also hip-hop, making Panama the (other) capital of reggaeton (along with Puerto Rico).

Pain in Panama

So this is the place I'd get to enjoy while hanging out in bars around the harbor, mingling with sailors, and trying to find a boat. Or so I thought... because first thing after my arrival, I was struck with a hellish pain in my shoulder, running down along my elbow all the way into my little finger. It got worse and worse up to a point where I could not even lie down without going out of my mind from pain, making it unable to sleep. So I spent all day sitting in one spot, finishing the 600 page book I had bought for my ocean voyage, before even getting on a boat. And at night I was dozing in the same sitting position. How miserable and disabling a pinched nerve, or an inflamed muscle can be? I took some ibuprofen which gradually got me back to normal, went to see a cairopractor who cracked my neck, and got a massage of the walk-by type in the mall. After a week it had gotten a bit better. By that time I was very much at home in the Casco Viejo, more specifically in the hostel Luna's Castle, supposedly the best one in town:

Hostel Life

During the first week at Luna's I was pretty much in constant pain, so I did relatively little. Once I felt better, I was more happy to participate in everyday life at the hostel. For example, I was offered to write about line-handling for The Book, a collection of info for visitors about Panama. From talking to sailors and people in the yacht clubs, I became sort of an expert on what most guide books refer to elusively as the best way to see the Canal, but rarely offer clear info on how to do it. And since people kept asking about it, and the receptions knew little to suggest, I wrote a nice info page about line-handling, adding to the services of the hostel. Anyway, it was worth a free night. Continuing along these lines, I also accepted to decorate one of the planters in the courtyard with a tile mosaic, also for free stay while I was here. Of course, just as the entire Casco Viejo, the hostel is under construction. So the yard will not be fully utilized until everything is completed. But then again, I had a chance to contribute and eternalize myself.Casco Viejo

The actual old part of the city, Casco Viejo is not to be confused with Panama Viejo, which is simply a bunch of ruins on the other side of the city. What happened was, in 1671 the famous pirate Captain Henry Morgan looted and burned the old city. The final destruction, however, was completed by the people of Panama themselves, who took the remaining stones down to the peninsula, where the Casco Viejo is today, to rebuild their city. They made sure to fortify it with a big wall, on which much later the house was built that eventually became Luna's Castle. The story is old, but the wall can be still seen today. 
Throughout the years, the Casco Viejo went through many ups and downs. What used to be the cultural and economical center of the country soon gave way to the worst type of slums, while the newer and more modern glass palaces were built along the bay. About ten years ago nobody would have considered staying at a hotel here, unless they paid by the hour. Recently, however, many buildings have been renovated, all in a classic colonial style, raising the value of the properties considerably, and attracting rich people, tourists, and even the president, who decided to place his residence right on the waterfront. At the same time, there is still a great number of delipitated buildings, literally patched up with tin and driftwood, with reports of concrete slabs falling down and killing people. Eventually, the residents will be driven out by developers to look for another slum on the outskirts of the city, but until then Casco Viejo will retain its unique charm.Panama Police

From the Casco Viejo it's just an hour's walk down to the causeway, where the Balboa yacht club, the Flamingo marina and the Playita anchorage are located. The causeway is the place to be for anyone connected to sailing and the yachting community, or those who want to be. To get there, however, is not as easy as it sounds. First, you have to get through the most dangerous part of the city, which means getting past the cops. There is an incredibly large police force present in Panama, always friendly and polite, to us tourists at least, reminding us of the danger we are in if we happen to walk down the wrong street, and not letting us go until a unit in a pick-up picks us up and takes us to where we want to go. Then they give us a lecture about crime, rape, murder and robberies, make us promise never to be walking down that area again, and eventually dismiss us with a smile. It's a great alternative to taxis, as long as you don't run into the same cops twice. That's how I got down to the causeway, from where it was easy to find a bus back to the Casco Viejo.

Looking for Boats

While talking to pretty much anyone I ran into at the marinas and yacht clubs, I put together the bits and pieces of info, which pretty much verified everything I'd heard or read about passage making: Many yachts need at least one or two additional hands on board, depending on their size. Quite often, the most important job is keeping night-watch, to avoid close encounters with large cargo vessels that are too big to notice small sailing boats. Many boats, however, don't need anyone as they are sailed by couples who value their privacy. Others, on the other hand, have to have more than three people on board for insurance reasons. One good way to get connected into the network of cruisers is by offering your help as a line-handler through the Canal. By law, each vessel is required to have four line-hands on board, and cruisers are more likely to take an English speaking foreigner, especially if he does it "for the experience" that is without monetary compensation.

Finding a boat is not hard. The only thing you need is time and timing, patience and persistence, and of course a little luck. In the right season (from late December through April, when it's not too rainy) you will find many yachts heading through the Canal, usually East to West, as the trade winds blow. Once in the Pacific, these boats keep going in all directions: North to Costa Rica, Mexico and California, South to Equador and Peru, but most often to the islands of the South Pacific: Tahiti, Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, Tuvalu, etc. There, they will most likely hang out until the weather is nice enough to head down towards New Zealand.

What sounded just perfect at first glance, eventually turned out to be far from it. You need time, I've been told, and I thought I had enough... But as it turned out, I'm not very likely to reach New Zealand before late October, even if I leave now. Nobody wants to sail South of the 30's while the winter gales blow. Instead they cruise around the tropical islands until October. That would be springtime in the South, and just the right season to start a year of work and travel, which I'd still be eligible for. However, as my current plans are, I want to be in London at that time: just in the wrong season for everything! Still, the idea was to get to NZ by April, then work for half a year, and in September go to London. But I'm getting ahead of myself here...

So eventually I changed my entire plans. I took down my info signs from the marina message boards, I had beautifully created, with flashy letters, printed on colored paper, carefully laminated, and placed in the most visible location. I replaced them with even better ones, saying that I'm looking for a passage to Mexico. Originally I also included an offer to handle lines for free, but that just made the locals remove them almost as fast as I put them up. Nobody likes free competition. So I crossed out that part with a black marker and advertised myself through word-to-mouth. It worked like a charm. Even though nobody was going my way, or they weren't interested in my offer as deckhand, they were more than eager to take on my help as line-handler.

Handling Lines

Going through the Canal can take up to a whole day. Both times we left the yacht club in Colon, on the Caribbean side, at around 4pm, making it to the Gatun locks by dusk. Going up through the triple locks is the most difficult part of the crossing, where the turbulence would be worst not only from the water rushing in from below, but also from the big propeller of the cargo ship that is usually placed right in front of the yacht. That's also the only time the line-handlers have to be active. First we have to catch a messenger line the lock workers throw us from the side of the locks. There is a weight tied into the end of the rope called a Monkey Fist, which can cause bruises if you get hit by it. However, you have to make sure, by all means, not to let that line drop into the water. If you do, you'll get yelled at from all sides, probably the worst thing a sailor could tell you: "Boy, you farmed it!" So once you catch the messenger line, you tie it to your line and feed it up to the lock worker. He ties it to the side, and you have to make sure it stays tight. That way the yacht, or yachts rafted together, stay in the middle of the lock while it gets filled up with water. When you hear the whistle, the worker unties you and you pull the line in, making sure the messenger line stays on it. The boat gets moved on to the next lock, and you repeat the process.
Once you're through the three locks, the work can be considered done. You are on the massive Gatun lake, 26m above sea level, as high as you will be on your trip through the Panama Canal. By that time it was dark, and we tied up to a buoy and enjoyed beer and dinner, and whatever else the host captain would offer us. The next morning we were treated to an amazing sunrise over the lake, and once the official pilot arrived we continued our journey. Most of the day was spent driving over the lake. First we took the Monkey-Banana Cut made for small boats, then along the Charges River (which is supposed to replenish the more than 200,000 cubic meters of fresh water drained from the lake each time a ship passes through), and the town of Gamboa, where the crane TITAN stands, built by the Germans in WWII to lift submarines out of the water, and taken to Panama as spoils of war. Eventually we pass the Continental Divide through Gillard Cut, also known as Culebra (=snake) Cut. Our pilot liked to point out all the different features of the Canal along with its history, for example how many people were killed digging the cut, and how the most difficult part was named Gold Hill, raising a rumor that there might be gold, just to make the workers dig harder. After Gold Hill the journey was almost over. We passed under the Centennial Bridge and went through the single locks called Pedro Miguel into the comparatively small Miraflores Lake, followed by the double Miraflores Locks. That is also where you can wave to tourists on the observation deck while handling the lines. Going down is a piece of cake. There are no turbulences, and if we are lowered with a container ship, it is placed behind us. Once we were through, we congratulated each other for having reached the Pacific, passed under the Bridge of the Americas, and went up to the marina or anchorage where the captain has made reservation.All in all, being a line handler was the best thing I did in Panama. So far I've crossed twice through the Canal, and I want to do it a few more times. If nothing else, it provides a great way to see the Canal (much better than from the observation deck at Miraflores), a good suntan, and of course an opportunity for networking. Not to mention, it provided a great way to escape the Christmas stress. Now I just have to find a boat up to Mexico.

Samstag, 22. November 2008

Costa Rica

Continuing my journey southwards, I made it into Costa Rica, also known as the Switzerland of Central America. Being very suspicious of places that claim to be the Switzerland of anything, I was pleasantly surprised. This country looks nice indeed. No visible division into bitter poor and super rich, as it is the case in other Central American countries, but also in Mexico, the US... in fact, pretty much everywhere else. Here, it looks like the middle-middle-class is what most people fall into: small houses, but big windows with glass, curtains, and flowers, decently dressed people ( tight clothes for women, wide things for men, cargo shorts being a big favorite), recently built cars (except for the ancient Toyota Landcruisers that dominate the highways), and comparatively little hustle for visitors. Well, the latter being an extreme change from the craziness of Nicaragua. All in all, it seems like Costa Rica has got their act together. So what's the secret?

If you ask Nicaraguans, the answer will most likely be that their affluent neighbors are good at brownnosing gringos. Costa Ricans, however, will point to their hard working and non-violent traits. Both sides might have some truth to it, but I'm sure that's not the whole story. A look at the history of this untypical Latin American nation might reveal some answers. First of all, there hasn't been a coup d'etat in Costa Rica for (quite exactly) 60 years. The reason for this is that there hasn't been a military since 1948. That's when the generally beloved national hero Don Pepe Figueres abolished the military, more or less immediately after getting into power with its help. The entire military budget was redirected into education, turning barracks into boarding schools, drill sergants into gym teachers, and generals into pencil pushers at the board of education. Not much of a change, really, but on the surface it looked impressive. Following that, the clever Don Pepe held free elections, which of course he won by a landslide.

Indirectly, this might have made all the difference. Since then the country has been experiencing relative stabillty, and a steadily growing wealth due to the ever increasing flow of gringo visitors, especially for (eco-)tourism. So much for the brownnosing. At the same time it has led to a strong interest in preserving natural treasures, such as the abundant flora and fauna, which Costa Rica is famous for.

Other than that, the country has not too much to offer. The capital and biggest city, San Jose, has a very provincial feel to it. The center with the major shopping streets looks low-key and civilised. Too quiet for Latin America, and too simple for Western standards. The buildings are mostly modern, with the occasional colonial church, and there is generally very little going on. Needless to say, I only stayed a day before taking a bus to San Isidro and to my next host farm.San Isidro de El General is the "fastest growing big city in Costa Rica" but this statement hardly does justice to the sleepy, dusty, provincial town it is. Not wasting any more time there than necessary, I took the next (and only) bus down to La Rivera, and the farm where Memo and his family live. The Chinchilla-Corderos are a family of six: Guillermo and Luz, and their children Nicol (15), Maria-Fernanda (14), Guillermo (12), and little Daniela (7). Not on the wwoofing list, I was introduced to them by their American neighbor, on whose farm I was going to work until something came up and they couldn't host me. In retrospect, I feel very lucky. The family is really sweet and I got along perfectly with each one of them.
Not considered part of the family, but still far from livestock category are the pets: Tigre the boxer, and Cosa the chihuahua. This uneven pair is source of much laughter as they play together, guard the house of squirles and butterflies, and keep fighting a constant game of "who's top-dog". More a bird than a dog (though nobody seems to have told her) is Paloma, the family dove. She seems to feel uncomfortable as the only pidgeon in the area, so she likes to snuggle up with the dogs and bark (gru-gruuu-gru) together with them. Another weirdness she has, to the entertainment of all, is her fondness of music, especially reggeaton. When she hears the rythm, she starts dancing, stepping to it back and forth, swaying her head to the side along with the beat. Lastly, I should mention Ramon the young goat. He's mainly employed as lawnmower, and in spite of the vehement objections from the female side of the family, Memo still hopes to get a Christmas dinner out of him eventually.
The farm they live on is located next to the El General river, close to the hamlet of La Rivera, which has a church, a school, and about twenty homes. It is about as rural as you can get in Costa Rica. The only road is gravel, and there is no phone connection, no cell-phone signal, and hence no internet. If you want to communicate, you holler and hope someone hears you. Nevertheless, or maybe because of all this, the impression I got was close to paradise.The home of the Chinchillas was equipped with all sorts of 1st world amnities, and out in the garden the plants were generously providing papayas, coconuts, passion-fruit, pinapples, oranges, various types of bananas, noni, avocadoes (only in season) and cacao. There was also a garden, relatively small, compared to my previous experiences, with vegetables and kitchen herbs. The climate between the mountains (and the end of the rainy season) ensured the perfect weather: warm, yet mild, with a pleasant cloud cover, but never cold. In this climate you could also grow lettuce and cabages, mustard greens, and spinach, which we did. One other thing I got to know and love is the yucca root: a starchy tubber, which makes a great variety of dishes. On the hillside we harvested coffee, mostly for our own use. Memo didn't like the idea of selling it, since the quality was considered low. That didn't mean that the coffee we drank wasn't delicious, quite the contrary, in fact.
But all the plants, diverse and many as they might be, were not the pride of the farm. What the finca grew, as Memo explained, were animal products: meat, eggs, milk, etc. That's where most of the money, time, and energy was invested in, and that's what brought home the bacon, quite literarly. Consequently, that is what determined my daily work as well.

At 6am, after a cup of coffe and a bowl of gallo pinto (black beans with rice) I set out on my first task to clean the pigs' quarters. It didn't smell as bad as I had imagined, and in fact, I was done quite quickly. That's because they are cleaned three times a day (ideally), so the mess didn't accumulate to a level of grossness. Why someone would want to clean their pigs three times a day? Not only to make the task easier in the long run, but also to use the excrement as quickly as possible. Most of the cooking was done on pig-methane (the rest on wood-fire). We washed it all down into a big container covered with a plastic tarp, from where a hose led directly into the kitchen. Compared to Arvo's well constructed hi-tech digester, this system seemed more than primitive. However, it worked like a charm.After the pigs came the cows. There were a few mothers with calves, and we would have two nursing cows in the corral each morning to be milked. Luz introduced me to this, and first it was a pretty tedious task. The milk would come in little spurts, rather than in long streams when Luz would milk them. After a few days, however, I got better at it, and by the end of my stay I would take care of them myself. The hardest part turned out to be not the milking itself, but the coordinating of the animals: making sure both had enough food in front of them so they would keep still, tieing up the cow with the youngest calf, as she tends to be most nervous (which could lead to spilled milk, or in the worst case a horned milker). And most of all, using the calves to tickle more milk out of the mothers. Let them suckle a bit, then milk the cow a bit, let them back, and so on.
Taking care of the cows, however, meant a lot more work than just milking them. First of all, we had to cut fresh grass for them, which they ate while being milked. This "grass" was a 2-3 meter tall jungle growth, with leaves sharp as razor blades. We chopped it down with machetes, then pushed it into the grinder. Yummie! The cows loved it. Then after successful milking, they were sent out to the back pasture with their calves to fend for themselves for the rest of the day. Meanwhile, we took care of the rest of the herd on the hills nearby. Most of the cattle grazed on the land surrounding the farm, on neighboring land, or on Finca Santa Fé, which is Memo's other farm on the other side of the mountain. This apparently is nothing unusual here, neighbors share resources depending on their need, organized by intricate agreements between each other. The objective is to keep the animals well fed, and the land from getting overgrazed. This seems to work out quite well, except for the frequent need of driving them to new pastures, which for us meant a lot of cowboy-work.I never thought the work of the classical Old West style cowboy was still alive, much less that I would get to experience it myself. However, it seems like ancient practices are still well in use, at least on the Chinchilla farm. Riding horses to round up cattle and driving them through gates and into corals, roping calves and giving them injections, fumigating them against tics and other parasites, selecting the animals intended for sale and driving them back down to the house... these type of activities became as much part of the farm routine as feeding pigs. And it was fun too! First I was not so sure what to think of riding the horse, but it all went very smoothly. Since the cattle is a pretty slow moving creature, we never had to run them too fast either. Also, the horse Memo selected for me was one of the calmest, best natured animals ever, an old man of 24 years. Swinging the lasso was another thing. To clarify many question I'd recieved about this: No, I never roped a calf from horseback. It was hard enough to get it around their necks standing on the ground. But, as it is with anything, all it takes is practice, and since there was no need for it, I got to do it all but a handful of times.

Coming back from an outing on horseback we were all pretty tired. Fortunately, being a good housewife, Luz made sure to heavily reinfoce this homecoming experience. So there was always delicious food and coffee waitig for us, just as we got done putting away the saddles. Depending on the type of work, we would be home at different hours, so lunch could be anywhere between 10am and 1pm. If work required us to be out later, we would take a lunchbox with us, but when we got back, there would be an afternoon meal called "café" consisting of coffee and some sweet delicacy such as corn pancaces called chorreadas with sour cream.

Needles to say, all of the milk products were home made, which included milk, sweet and sour cream, cheese, and a yoghurt-like drink called leche agria, which you get if you let the milk sit out for a day or so. Don't try this it at home, by the way, it won't work with pasteurized milk.

After 2pm we rarely went out to do hard work. The western sun, way hotter than the noontime one, was the main reason. Instead we sat aroud in the shade and did the kind of afternoon work that seems dull and boring, but after a morning's labor just perfect: polishing eggs, tearing off the husks of corn, separating the bad beans from the good ones, and things like that. In the meantime we would talk, joke, play games, and have fun. By this time the kids would be home from school and help out as well. With Nicol and Fernanda I would practice English, and with little Guiller and Dani play games relentlessly.

In the first week I brought up guessing animals by asking Yes/No questions. They soon became pretty good at it, and I gained a lot of knowledge about the types of critters that supposedly live on the farm (though I've never got to see them): ant-eaters, sloths, and monkeys being only a few. What I did see though, were giant iguanas, birds of every color, and weird singing froggs making sounds like that of car-alarms or police sirens. After the second week I introduced chess. Nicol had told me about wanting to learn it but never having the chance, and I wanted to get away from the animal game anyway, so I got a chess game in San Isidro. It was a raging success. For two weeks all of the kids wanted to play, again and again, and pretty soon they were pretty good at it too. By the last week someone remembrered a Monopoly game (edition Panama), so we played that too like there was no tomorrow.
Sometimes I would escape the games into various construction projects. I liked this kind of work, since it was more just hanging out with Memo and figguring things out. We had bought a truckload of lumber of the worst quality. Really, driftwood is too good of a term to describe what we got. Our task and challenge was to build tables for hydroponic lettuce production and a worm bin. Amazingly, we managed to construct a couple of tables, which turned out to be extremely sturdy. The worm-bin was easier, as we built in on the ground, covered with lime dust, so the worms wouldn't escape downwards. We filled it up with cattle manure and then moved in the worms. They are highly prized Californian Red Worms, which will turn the manure into high quality soil in no time. As much talk as I'd heard about these worms, this was the first time to actually see them in action.

Another interesting home-made product, I got to see the making of, is tapa dulce. I have known tapa in Nicaragua, where we used it for sweetening pretty much anything, whenever we had no sugar (that is most of the time). Luz used it quite liberarly herself, though she would never put it into coffee, like us igorant foreigners on Ometepe.

Tapa dulce is a dark colored sugar cane product, a type of unrefined sugar if you will. To make it, we had to cut lots of sugar cane first, press it between two rotating wheels, and fill the juice into huge pots. We would make fire underneath, with wood and the dried carcasses of last time's pressed cane. It would take a few hours for the juice to turn from a greenish color to light yellow, then to a darker orange, and eventually to thick brown. Meanwhile we would scoop off the foam from the top, a delicious treat for all sweet tooths. I preferred the green foam myself, but others were just crazy about the brown caramelly stuff. I found that to be horribly sweet. Yuck!

When the juice had boiled down to a thick mass, we would pour it into a long tray and keep moving it with long paddles. I'm not sure about the exact purpose of it, but after a while the mass would thicken, become more goey, and it could be poured into forms. After a few minutes it would cool down and solidify, and you could dump it out: ready, hard brown, crumbly tapa dulce.

Just like Whipstone Farm in Arizona, where I got my first feel of dirty fingers, the Chinchilla's farm is not officially organic. Nor do they want to be. What they are, is a traditionally run cattle farm, supplemented with fruit and vegetables for their own consumption, and many neat ideas from all around. Whatever works best. However, there is also use of chemicals, for example to fumigate the cattle against tics. In this Memo is far being a purist, going by the same credo: Whatever works best. Still, the finca was closer to an all organic permaculture garden than to any type of industrial food producing facility. And there was lots to learn, not only about cattle. If anyone is interested in working with the Chinchilla family for a few weeks, please contact me and I'll pass on the info. They are always happy to receive people.

Having said goodbye to the Chinchillas, I took a bus back to San Jose, where I met up with two friends from Project Bona Fide. Together we hitched down to the famous beach of Dominical (about half an hour from San Isidro) to chill out for a day, then continued on towards Panama.

Freitag, 31. Oktober 2008

Ometepe, Nicaragua

Getting to Central America:

There are roughly 1500 km between Mexico City and Lake Nicaragua, where I was going next, to farm for a month on its famous island of Ometepe. As excited as I was, the distance was way too long to do it all at once. And as it turned out, with the local chicken busses it took me even longer than expected to get there anyway. So, to fit in a few days of relaxation, education and a fantastic adventure experience, I decided to take a diving course on one of the Bay Islands in Honduras.

Taking a bus to Oaxaca, then to Tapachula, and eventually across the border to Guatemala was more routine than anything else. It had not changed a bit since the last time I was there. Even the rip-off amigos on the border managed to make me pay about four times of what I would consider reasonable as a border-crossing fee. Those bastards just have too many tricks up their sleeve. If it weren't for the officials, I would ignore everything around me and keep walking till the next bus.

The next day took me down to Choluteca, and following that I crossed into Honduras at Copan. Incomparably tranquilo border, not even a dog barked at me. And the two money changers gave each other just the right amount of competition. That night I made it into La Ceiba, the port-town from where the boats leave for the diving paradises Utila and Roatan.

Diving on Utila:

I don't know about Roatan (I've heard it's more expensive) but Utila looks like your typical Caribbean beach-town. Sort of shabby, eaten by salt, wind, and waves, but very very laid back! The only street is full of mud puddles and lined with dive-shops, restaurants and bodegas in different stages of disrepair. I wouldn't call it pretty by any means. Under the surface, however, under the water surface that is, it is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen! Corrals, tropical fish in many colors, all sorts of other sea creatures swimming and floating, and climbing over the reef. Admittedly, this has been my first diving experience, and from what I've gathered from others, there are many other sites way more amazing than this, but still I was speechless. (And not only because of the regulator in my mouth.)
Having completed my PADI Open Water license, I was offered to do my Advanced Open Water right after it for a discount price. I was excited, and I would have done it, if not for the fact that I happened to come down with a head-cold just on my last diving day. What can I say: the sniffles, usually not more than a mild annoyance on land, turn into a painful torture session once you try forcefully to equalize your ears and sinuses to the pressure. Eventually I managed to complete the course, but for the next week my left ear couldn't pop. So as much fun diving is, don't do it when you have a cold! (That's what they teach you, by the way.) I've learned my lesson, that's for sure.

After coming back to the mainland I set out on the long bus tour to Nicaragua. It took me a bit, especially as I chose to take the back roads leading through the Cordillera de Agalta. It was worth it, being the only foreigner on a bus winding its way through hundreds of kms of muddy roads, only to stop in the village of La Unión, where I was forced to spend the night. The next day I came within reach of the border, and the following evening I arrived in the lovely town of Granada, on the shores of Lake Nicaragua.
Featuring many old buildings, Granada seems to be the showcase colonial town of Nicaragua. Consequently it is overrun by gringos and other foreigners who follow the book, or like me, who have not been told of Masaya, supposedly THE place to visit. But all in all, Granada's not a bad place. Good for a haircut, a museum, a laundromat and internet, and a few beers at the Irish pub, talking with Australians and Scots about the places they've visited or are planing on going. Enough is enough, however, so the next day I took the first bus down to Rivas, and crossed over to Ometepe.

The famous island with the two volcanoes Maderas and Concepcion, has been compared to the bosom of a young godess by native Mexica people, who ventured all the way down here and named the island quite appropriately Ometepec, meaning two hills. Today Ometepe is famous for its natural beauty, the cloud forest up on the slope of the volcanoes, teeming with birds and animals. There are howler monkeys, white faced "Capuccino" monkeys, spider monkeys, parrots, and the beautiful but highly annoying huaracas. Many people come from far-away places to climb the volcano, swim in the lake, and take pictures of the natural wonders. Others end up staying weeks or months volunteering on one of the many farms and projects. Incidentally, both wwoofing farms in the listing for Nicaragua, and all but one of the organic farms I found on the net, are on the island. The place I decided to work at is not one of the wwoof options. It is rather a permaculture farm and training center, with a strong community involvement in the nearby town of Balgüe. It is called Project Bona Fide. Take a look at their website to get a better idea:

Working at Bona Fide:

What used to be 43 acres cattle pasture has been gradually converted to optimize its potential as food forest (with several types of avocados, bananas, mangoes, various kinds of nuts, citruses, guavas, coconuts, star fruit, passion fruit, guanabana, ginger, kurkuma, sweet potatoes, squashes, and a whole array of kitchen herbs, just to mention a few), timber forest for construction (with bamboo, thatch palms, and hardwoods such as neem and madronia), and many, many other plants, all arranged in an optimal way to fulfill several functions depending on what their neighbors need. This could be shade from the western sun, trellis against the wind, fix nitrogen in the ground, and to keep erosion in check. Chris Shanks, one of the two directors of the project, explained me the ideas behind how the plants are set up. It was exciting to listen to him. He is the perfect teacher: excelent humor, full of information and referrence in case you're interested in finding out more in depth detail, and an enthusiasm that makes you want to jump right into planting trees. Needles to say, he also teaches the Permaculture Design course, which takes place at Bona Fide in February.
I didn't meet Chris, however, until my last week at the farm. When I arrived on October first, he had just left for the States, so I was greeted by a lovely bunch of volunteers. There were Tom and Eira, a couple from the UK, who were volunteer coordinators and in charge of running the place. Then there was Heather from the US, who was involved in fund-raising projects she conducted from her laptop over the hardly reliable internet connection. And Cat from Canada who had arrived shortly before me, and was in charge of the kitchen fund. In no time I felt very welcome and comfortable with everyone, and enjoyed working and hanging out. Heather left about a week before me, but during my last week another British couple, Dan and Rachel came to volunteer.
The schedule was pretty much the same most working days: hard, dirty, physical labor in the morning, followed by clean, relaxed, mind work in the afternoon. The morning labor could be anything from chopping weed with a machete (something I became quite good at by the end), carrying rocks and soil to build raised beds, planting willi-willi (the ideal plant for a live-fence: just chop of a branch, stick it in the ground and it keeps growing), pruning bamboo, or cutting it for propagation, stone-mulching basil plants, and of course the usual farm work: weeding, planting, harvesting fruit, etc. No watering this time, as we received more than just a generous amount of rain this season. But more about that later.
One big project, that I spent a great deal of time on, was constructing the "love-shack" which is the Bona Fide euphemism for the staff accommodation. When I arrived there was a ring of stones surrounding a concrete base of about 3m diameter, with eight concrete pillars, about a meter tall, spread out evenly on the ring, and a metal pipe sticking out of each pillar. Somewhere else on the property there were eight logs of neem wood, which Tom and I turned into slick poles for each one of the pillars. First we had to cut the bottom end of each log, so it would stand upright, supported by its own weight. Then we chiseled out a groove where the pipe could fit in, so that the log stood right on top of the pillar. Then we drilled two holes into the pipe and into the wood, bolted them together, and fixed each one with three side poles to keep it from getting knocked over by a gust of wind (just to be safe, even though the logs were so massive that I thought that possibility was rather unlikely). This sounds quite simple writing it down like this, but believe me, each step was a challenge. Our tools were a handsaw and a pair of chisels with mallets, and of course a drill for which we had to drag out a generator. By the time all eight logs were fixed, we felt like heroes! One thing that should also not be ignored here, is our never ending battle against termites: I destroyed five big nests in the area, captured a queen (who eventually comitted suicide), but they still kept comming...
The clean work in the afternoon had more to do with organization, fund raising, and community work. Bona Fide has an active community outreach program covering such things as infant nutrition, seed exchange, education of local adults and children. The community center in Balgüe is being organized by Bona Fide. Though classes are already being taught, the center should be inaugurated sometime this year. I had a chance to accompany Cat, Eira and Heather to a couple of classes. They were teaching English to the local kids, though the future plan is to include such things as geography, local ecology, and concepts of sustainability. Besides being a teaching center, it also includes a library, with books donated from Spain, complete bookshelves, built by Heather's dad, and a playground which should be set up this week. The plans for the near future include a restaurant where the abundant harvests from the farm will find their way to visitors in form of delicious mango chutney, guava or pineapple jam, home-made Nutella, and of course various locally grown juices, including a noni-concoction, which has the potential of a health fad.The center is strategically placed, on the way up to Maggie's, which is THE hostel to stay at if you come to Ometepe, at least according to the Lonely Planet, inevitably causing many foreign visitors to pass that way. Smarter travelers will of course look into other options, and probably end up at Zopilote, which is at least a better alternative. At this point I could start going on about the various reason why Maggie's sucks and how delicious the Italian pizza of Zopilote is, but that criticism would ultimately be as biased as the kind of opinions Hungarians tend to have about their Romanian neighbors. I'm not even gonna go there. Suffice to stay, Finca Magdalena was a good point of reference for orientation, and they sold decent frozen water (ice) to cool our beer.

All in all, the work at the farm was very enjoyable. In spite of everything that made it seem like it was driving us nuts. Here I want to expand on the regular rainy season, as well as the tropical storms which blocked out the sun for days, causing over a meter of precipitation in just a week. As the rains came, the electricity went. Not for us though, as with wind and solar power we were pretty much off-grid. The only thing that became bothersome was the constantly vanishing Internet. Of course Jan, the island's computer brujo from Germany did whatever he could to keep it together, still, more often than not we were locked off from the world's intellectual connection.
Another annoying fact were the blood sucking beasts, who were also quite active, especially just before and right after the rain. Mosquitos and sand-flies, the infamous "no see 'em" cause you don't see 'em. Or just barely. Instead, you can feel them when they bite, and leave a red itchy mark. Now those you can see... So what could we do? We bundled up in long sleeves, pants tucked into socks, and bug spray over face and hands. In the end they provided something to bitch about. Finally, the last thing that depressed me about the rain is the constant mud, the never ending dampness, how nothing would really dry, causing rot and fungus growth... so nasty! Fortunately, the place where I could set up my tent was on a raised hardwood platform, covered by a tarp. So I was safe from the rivers that just would wash across the land when it rained.
But to end on a good note, I must really say that no matter the weather, my time at Bona Fide was immensely enjoyable. The work, the people, playing music in the kitchen, singing German pirate songs with Cat, teaching Eira a Hungarian tune on the violin, trading German lessons for French and Arabic, watching the sunset on the tree-platform on the few sunny days. Because we had those too, and boy did we appreciate them! Towards the end of my stay, when the rain started to get less frequent, we even dared to climb Maderas. Conception, the larger one of the volcanoes was said to be too dangerous, with all the trails washed away. But Maderas with its cloud forest, narrow trails covered on both sides with heavy vegetation, vines and roots, moss covered branches, the voices of monkeys from the trees, and the misty air all around, gave the climb a mystical feel, like straight out of a fairy tale. Once on the crest, we descended into the crater, still covered with dense growth, and took a swim in the crater lake. It was not big, probably 100 meters in diameter, as we got to see later when it started to rain, but it was covered in such a dense fog, that from the middle of it, I could hardly see anything. Judging from my momentary vision, I could have been out on the ocean somewhere, but in reality I was in the middle of a lake, on the top of a volcano, on an island, in the middle of another lake, in Central America, relatively close to the Pacific and the Caribbean. Amazing feeling!
Now, writing these lines from a hostel in San José, Costa Rica, it feels so far away again. Also, today being October 31st, it is the last day of the harvest according to old tradition (in temperate zones). Whatever harvest is not in by today, is for the spirits. For me, however, things are a little different: tomorrow I will arrive at the next farm, this time a real Tico family. I'm excited.

Dienstag, 30. September 2008

Mexican Vacation

It would be culturally not inappropriate to start out with long winded explanations for why I haven't kept up writing blog entries, or to come up with all sorts of excuses for why I managed to spend merely one out of my three months in Mexico on a farm. But what good would that do? Instead, let me entertain my readers with a light hearted travel-log, before going back to the serious business of working on farms and such.

So after returning from Karacadir to Grand Tenochtitlan (aka Mexico City) to another three weeks of domestic life, Elba and I finally got to go on a little vacation. After long debates we decided to head North, and visit the many interesting sites of the region called the Huasteca in the states of Hidalgo, Tamaulipas, and San Luis Potosí. Once we managed to get all our things together, pack it into Elba's faithful Ford Icon, say goodbye to the family, buy a bathing suit, and give the car a thorough check-up from oil change to windshield-fluid, we set out towards Pachuca. By this time we were in the middle of the Friday evening rush-hour, that goes beyond any reasonable comprehenisibility. It was around midnight when we arrived at our first destination in Ixmiquilpan.

The cute little town with the hardly pronouncible name is less an attraction than the famous Grutas de Tolantongo, located only about an hour from there. "Famous" is of course a relative word, as you have to talk to a Mexican to even hear about that place. Last time I checked, it was not mentioned in the Lonely (Loser) Planet, and hence we didn't see any foreign visitors. Nevertheless, the place features a stunning natural beauty. The little dirt road leading to it winds itself through a dry landscape, only to take a drop down a valley covered with lush green vegetation watered by a turquoise colored stream. At the head of the stream the visitor is treated with all sorts of natural wonders, including a cold waterfall, pleasantly warm hotsprings, and amazing caves, all in one place. Despite the lack of foreign tourists, the number of Mexican visitors have caused various facilities to spring up at the site, including a hotel, a thermal pool, restaurants, but these don't really interfere with the natural beauty of the place.
We climbed up the rocks to the waterfall, where we took an unavoidable cold shower before entering the cave. Inside, the water was much warmer, and about knee-deep. After sitting down in the nice hot water, observing the stalactites hanging down above us, we started going deeper into the cave. As the walls closed in to a narrow corridor, the water got deeper and the current stronger, so swimming was difficult. We had to pull ourselves along a rope attached to the wall, carefully taking each step on the rocks under the water. After about fifty meters the cave opened up again into a large gallery, with amazing rock formations, illuminated by the flashlights of other visitors and the life guards stationed there. From a hole in the high ceiling a hot shower beat down powerfully on those who dared to stand under it for a strong shoulder massage. Around it a large pool provided a pleasant soaking, where at the time a group of young Christians were singing songs about Jesus. They had to be of protestant denomination, guessing from their upbeat cheerfulness.Above the big cave there was another one behind the waterfall, this one much smaller, darker, with warmer water. It was exciting to explore it, part swimming part climbing from one pool to another. Pretty soon, however, we decided that the water was too warm for us, so we went to enjoy the cold waterfall outside.
Driving back from Tolantongo we got a bit of rain, the first taste of what was going to be accompanying us throughout the whole trip. The next day we set out early, and after a breakfast of barbacoa (lamb) at the market, we started our drive to Xilitla. What we thought would be a short drive of 2-3 hours turned out to be about twice as long, due to winding roads through the Sierra Madre, unexpected speed bumps, and an ever increasing rain. By the time we got to Las Pozas it was pouring.
Las Pozas, is an interesting site near Xilitla, in the State of San Luis Potosí. It was the house of an excentric English gentleman named Sir Edward James, who was artisicly inclined, inspired by nature, not too fond of walls, and loaded with cash. Hence, he came up with the strangest design for his house, which he built in the middle of the lush, dense greenery. Needless to say, it offered a stunning sight. We put on our rain-gear and went to climb around on his many staircases leading to nowhere, among the countless columns not holding anything, looking through windows only to see other windows, and wondering about the sheer lack of practical use of his structures. Yet, it was art as art can be.
Another amazing feature of this place is the river behind his house. Originally natural, it was also augmented by artificial pools, stairs, and waterfalls. Had it been earlier in the day, with sunny weather, we would have followed the local kids' examples and jumped into it. But since they were about to close, and there was no hope for any more sun, we got back into the car and headed onwards.Tired of the bad weather, we decided to drive down to the Gulf, and enjoy a day or two on the beach. It was not really late yet, and having left the Sierra behind us, we set out to drive to Tampico. Of course, once again we were delayed. This time it was the condition of the highway, coupled with torrential rainfall, which forced us to the side of the road on occasion, to wait for it to get lighter. Sometimes it did, for a few minutes at least. Once in Tampico, we checked into the first economic hotel, and waited for the next day and better weather.

In the morning, seeing that Tampico had little to offer, we went out for breakfast before heading up North to a little beach town with the promising name of El Brasil. At the café we saw the headlines in the newspaper: Hurricane on the coast of Cuba expected to hit Tamaulipas in the next days. Though it wasn't raining at that moment, the clouds formed a thick cover over us. What should we do? We hadn't bought a new bathing suit, not to mention come all this way to the coast, just to miss out on the beach. So we got into the car and headed for El Brasil.

Instead of El Brasil, what we found was a place called El Tordo, which had exactly what we were looking for: a virtually deserted beach, waves of considerable strength, and a little restaurant that served beer, fish, and sea-food. We went swimming and playing with the breakers, took a walk along the beach, and had a cold water shower. Then we ate at the restaurant, and talked to the owner of the place, the only person around, about the hurricane. After lunch we decided against staying for another day, or even another hour, and headed back inland as fast as we could.

Our destination for that night was El Cielo Biosphere Reserve, a place where not only foxes and rabbits say goodnight, but also pumas and bears. From reading different travel blogs on the net, I thought it would be a nice place to hike around and maybe take a tour. We arrived at night in the pouring rain, and found an exquisite place to stay. The price would have been somewat steep, but given the fact that we were the only guests in the hotel (yes in fact the only ones in the entire town) they gave us a 40% discount! Sweet!

The next day we found out that a tour would be possible, but waaaay too expensive, mostly for the same reason: Normally it's 1,800 pesos for ten people. So we went out to explore the region on our own. We were given good recommendations: Boca Toma is a wonderful place with turtles and all sorts of other water creatures, rides on the river, beautiful hikes, and delicious sea food. When we got there, we found that the heavy rains of the past days have turned the whole place into a swamp and made the it impossible to go out on the river.

Nevermind, we had fun walking around on our own and playing in the mud. The only animals we encountered were the tinny winged ones, who also like to suck blood, but other than that it was enjoyable. In the end we had dinner at the sea-food place, and finnished it off with a few beers on the hotel balcony.

The next day, after sleeping in late, we headed out for our last destination before turning back around: Real de Catorce in the mountains of San Luis Potosí. The drive there was long, but it offered great views of the changing landscape, from subtropical forests to the dry desert highlands. Just before Real, we stopped to take a look at Matehuala, a bigger town on the main highway, just 50 km from Real. It was very pleasant to walk around in the dry desert evening.

Stores seem to stay open later up North, until 8-9 ish. Eateries on the other hand don't even upen until that time. We had a pizza around the zocalo, then headed on towards Real. We were almost there, just 23 km to go, when the road to this out of place mining town took a turn, and turned from smooth pavement to rough cobble-stones. With our car it took us about an hour to make this last distance, while jeeps and rugged pick-ups kept passing us. The last obstacle
was the entrance into Real itself, which lead through a tunnel just wide enough for one car. Of course we had to encounter another one coming the other way, and had to back up till the curve where we could squeeze past each other.
The town itself is quite wild. Many houses are still abandoned, though the population is growing again. The streets are steep, some of them barely pasable by car. Walking through them at night was creepy, sort of like being in Pedro Paramo (famous Mexican literature about death, by Juan Rulfo). Just as we found a hotel we liked, managed to park the car in front of it, caried our things inside, and opened the balcony window to take a look, the clock of the church struck midnight with the bells playing probably the most beautiful song ever written: Ave Maria. Perfect timing for a most memorable moment.

The next morning we explored the town by daylight. Though many buildings are not occupied, the foundations and stone walls are still standing and strong. In fact, most of them are being incorporated into the new construction, so Real is keeping its hundred year old appearance. Downtown is very lively, obviously well frequented by tourists. We visited one of the two museums, the old mint building, where we saw an exhibition of contemporary and native huichoti art,along with old minting equipment. The other museum was closed, so we took a walk up to the "pueblo fantasma" a handful of abandond structures on the hill. Though everyone in Real refers to them as "ghost town", to me it looks like an old mansion of castelic proportions, maybe the house of some sort of lord, or owner of the mine. That is where I had hidden a geocache last timeI was there. It had been found maybe two times by other cachers, before it
vanished into the posession of mugglers.
On the way back we took a long cut around the town on the hills, and walked back to Real past the old cemetery. Just in time actually, as it started to rain softly, and once we were intown quite heavily. We escaped from the rain into a small eatery, had dinner, and went back to the hotel. Later that night we took another night stroll through the narrow streets.

The following day we were greeted with a beautiful morning, had breakfast in the fancy bakery on the zocalo, and visited the town museum. Finally before leaving we bought a book on Real de
Catorce, with many many interesting info, history, anecdotes, etc. which we kept reading to each other during our next drive. We learned so much, that we almost felt like going back. But the long cobblestone road just kept us from turning around.

What lay ahead of us now, was the long road leading back back to the Mexico City. To ease a little bit on the melancholia of our trip coming to an end, we decided to stop by the cities of San Luis Potosí, and Querétaro. About San Luis we knew very little, except that it was the capital of this gorgeously diverse state, which we had a chance to get a few glimpses of. Querétaro on the other hand was quite familiar to us. Elba's cousin Marta lives there, whom we had visited once two years ago, when I was living in D.F. Since it was on the way, we wanted to stop by there this time as well.

San Luis turned out to be a full on success. We arrived in the city just after a massive rain storm, and could enjoy the beauitifully decorated downtown with its many plazas and neat old buildings. We looked at the museum of Spanish viceroys, which augmented perfectly what we had read in the book about Real on the way there. Then we enjoyed the mild evening descending on the colorful lights of the decorations for Independence Day. For dinner we went to the Balcony, a bar-restaurant with exactly that name, from where we could enjoy good beer, delicious food, and a view over the plaza that couldn't be surpassed. What's more, we even got to see a live band, playingSpanish, American, and Mexican rock music. We stayed for the second half ofthe show, and a few more beers, and then a few more...
The next morning we woke up with a slight hangover that called for the ultimate cure: chilaquiles con huevo! We found them, pretty good ones too, on the balcony of another restaurant, just opposite the Balcony. As it turned out, last night's view could be surpasses after all. Also, the city itself was just as pleasant in the daytime, and we even found an interesting museum where we extended our knowledge of the Mexican revolution.Around 2pm, when it started to rain we got back to the car and drove to Querétaro in the what turned out to be the heaviest rainstorm of our trip. We actually had to pull over and wait for the water to ease up a little. In Querétaro it was not raining at the moment, and before we could meet Marta there were two important things we needed: a coffee and a place to pee. But as chance had it, we stumbled into another piece of Mexican history: La Casa de la Marquesa. Fancy-shmancy galore, take a look at it here: Though we were sure it was way above our standards, we had a coffee, used the bathroom, and ended up spending almost two hours there. One reason was the rain that was starting to fall again, but the luxurious atmosphere, the historical maps on the wall, and the chance to really feel like the pompous emperor Augustín de Iturbide and his hostess (mistress?) Marquesa de la Villa del Villar del Águila, proved to be strong factors as well.
Eventually Marta showed up and we drove to her place, only to go out again with her and her husband Gerardo. Continuing with the exclusivity, we went out to a Jazz bar, where we enjoyed music of the finest sort. The band was part Cuban, Brazilian, and American. During the break I got to talk to the bassist. It turned out to be the world famous Tyler Mitchell from Chicago, son of the even more famous visual artist Caton Mitchel. I bought one of his CDs from the other band he plays in, and had a blast at the second part of the show.
The next day nothing particularly interesting happened. We had lunch with Marta's mom, Elba underwent some dental treatment by her cousin (Marta's a dentist) and in the evening we walked around the hopelessly crowded downtown plazas of Querétaro. No wonder, it was Sunday the 14th, with the independence holiday just coming up. To enjoy that as properly as it is expectable for good Mexicans, we drove home to D.F. the same night, of course through the pouring rain.

Mexican independence is celebrated over two days. Indy Eve, if you will, people assemble for the biggest fiesta of the year, at home with their family, or out in the Zocalo. Of course there's lots of music, food and drinks. At 11pm they listen to the president's grito he gives from the balcony of the national palace, and then rings the bell. At this time the party is at its high point, and throughout the whole country tequila flows in rivers and people dance in the Zocalo.

For us it was rather a closed circle celebration, as we stayed with Elba's family. It didn't lack any of the wild exuberance Mexican fiestas are famous for. The greater part of the family came together, among them Elba's 80 year old uncle, who told us exciting stories of how things used to be different way back when. Following the president's little speech on TV, we exchanged views and opinions on history and politics, all in all in a typically Mexican way: free, without reservation, and with severe scrutiny especially of the contemporary polititians. This also goes to show that no matter how much corruption there might be, freedom of speech and expression is taken for granted. After all, who would disagree?

September 16th, the actual Independence Day, is a very quiet type of holiday: after all, everyone is too tired and hung over from the previous night's party. So we too stayed in bed late. In the evening we stopped by at Elba's mom's again, and I said my goodbyes. I was getting ready to embark on my next part of the yourney, to continue with what I'd set out to do in the first place: organic farming. Right. My next destination would be the island of Ometepe in Nicaragua.