Friday, November 2, 2012

Bangkok photos

Here are the photos from my free day in Bangkok. Again, I remind you to click on the album to open it up in Picasa albums.  You can even zoom in on photos once you're in Picasa.  I discovered that with my last Pennsylvania album, and it allowed me to see those insects that much better! ;o)

Bangkok Fall 2012

A few more notes on Bangkok

Well, gone are the days when I didn't used to have jet lag.  I woke up after 2 hours of sleep and couldn't fall back to sleep after trying for an hour and a half, so I thought I'd get up for a while so I can start to feel tired again.

I don't have much more to say about Bangkok, but I do have to say a few more things before I add my photos.  My first impression of Bangkok was one of mild disgust.  I mean, the culture and the country seem pretty cool, but I had really disliked the number of old white guys walking around with young Asian women.  On this trip, I learned I wasn't alone.  Some of the other recruiters I met who have had more experience travelling in Thailand than I have had the same impression of Bangkok as I did.  So at least I'm not alone.

Regardless, I must say that I do find Thai people to be really sweet.  The hospitality is the same as other Asian countries, but there is something about the personalities of people there that I can only describe as sweet.  All the security guards in my hotel, for example, would not just say hello, like in other hotels, but they would actually salute me with a heel click of their boots as well!  I don't know, that's about all I can think of as an example, but otherwise it's just hard to put into words.

As for my day off in Bangkok, I went to Chinatown and then to the Grand Palace where the temple of the Jade Buddha is located.  I think I didn't see all of it.  It all started to look the same to me after a while, and even though I had a map, I felt like I got lost there.  It was a long day anyway.  I had planned to travel to places and back to the Sky Train station by boat, but I only got as far as Chinatown and then had to take taxis the rest of the way because the boats stopped running between 11am and 6pm, which I didn't find out about until I had wasted 45 minutes sitting at one of the piers waiting for the boat taxi to come by.  The palace closes at 4pm, and by the time I realised that the boats weren't running, it gave me only about one and a half hours to see it or maybe less by the time I got there.  By the time I got home, I was exhausted with a massive headache from dehydration, though I tried to drink enough liquids.

I'll post the photos later.  I think for now I'm ready to try to sleep again...

Monday, October 29, 2012

Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia photos are here!

I hope you enjoy these! Please don't forget to click on the album so you see larger photos and not just thumbnails.  If clicking on the album doesn't work, please go to the following URL.

M'sia, S'pore, I'sia Fall 2012

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Bangkok - A note on sex, cultural myths, and stereotypes

At the education fair I attended today, I had an unexpected, but refreshing, encounter with two young prospective grad students.  Somehow we ended up on the subject on some strange guys they met while they lived in other countries.  The one girl remarked how popular she was to German guys while living in Germany for a year, and her friend remarked how popular she was with Saudi international students she met while living in India for a year!  We were laughing about these incidents, and I shared a couple of my own crazy stories, and the girls both stated they  thought it was weird how in India, people there were more racist against skin colour differences (though they later admitted the same thing happens in Thailand).  I told them Indians want white babies, and they just laughed, and I commented that in Asia generally, white skin was more valued, which is why they had all that skin whitening cream here.  Then it suddenly dawned on them how true that was, but they didn't know why, and I told them I'd heard it had to do with class because a woman with fair skin meant she was wealthy enough to have servants to do everything, and she could keep her skin pristine, while a servant might have to work hard labour out in a field all day and become dark.  And we often do just want what we don't have.  We have our tanning lotions back home.  I've heard that in Sweden, they find darker skinned brunettes more attractive because that's exotic for them (remember that's just hearsay!), while in countries where skin is darker, it's the fairer people that are considered exotic. 

In any case, both girls stated they had experienced guys just wanting to have sex with them just because they're Thai, and these men had these stereotypes that just because these girls were Thai, they'd be loose because of Thailand's raging sex industry.  I told them girls from the West experience the same thing, that often guys from other parts of the world think we're easy because of what they see on TV because they see our movies or soaps, and that makes them think we're all having affairs and having sex with everyone we meet. 

We laughed about these things; I mean, here were two articulate, educated young women, who were anything but easy.  They were not prostitutes or girls who worked in a massage parlour.  I reflected on our conversation later and realised how it was a sad state of affairs when girls from such different regions as we come from experience the same types of assumptions no matter where they go.  When I was in Mexico, I was told that Canadian girls had a certain reputation there because the guys get exposed to the crazy drunks they meet in Cancun during spring break, and there are many of us that think the same of Mexican girls or Latin American women in general because we think they're so seductive.

This is a grim outlook, my friends.  All women everywhere seem to have some stereotype about them that makes people think they are loose.  When are people going to learn not to generalise?  It makes me sad that women have to experience this every day.  And I can't blame men alone for this.  There are many women who think this about women from other countries or cultures, too.  That's what's more curious, because we hate it when people stereotype us (about our sexuality and otherwise), and yet we would do it other women.

I may be a while pondering this...

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Fun times on an unexpected free day in Jakarta

Due to some miscommunication, I ended up having a free day in Jakarta that was originally supposed to be filled with school visits. Considering I was initially going to be working 15 days straight, including my travel days, until my one free day in Bangkok, I wasn’t overly upset to have another free day.  The only thing is that I didn’t then have a plan as to what to do.  So I asked at the concierge if they do any tours, and like the Shangri-La the first time I came to Indonesia, they work with a tour company that offers various tours.  They included the two tours I had already done, and the only other really appealing tour was a day tour that included a trip to the National Monument, a batik shop (where of course I couldn’t resist getting a couple of items!), a miniature park of Indonesia, and the Museum Indonesia.  This tour was a little more comfortable than the one I took in Bali where the two ladies that were with me didn’t speak English.  There were two ladies with me today, too, an aunt and niece combo, but they were from the Philippines and spoke excellent English, especially as one of them had lived in Chicago for a number of years.  It was so much less awkward this way!  (And hey, if you think I’m being linguicentric, it’s not that I expect everyone to speak English.  Those Czech ladies, I thought they might speak another European language, as many Europeans tend to be multilingual, so I offered Spanish and French to them with no luck!)

Aside from being a symbol of the country’s independence, this monument has a history of the country hidden beneath the ground on which it was built.  Several diaramas depict the country from its origins of its people being Mongolian migrants to the end in which it gains independence from Japan and Holland after the Second World War.  I took a few photos of those that I thought were more interesting, noteworthy, or had significant historical value, such as when city names were changed or regimes changed.  It’s interesting to see the profession of the country, and it’s also interesting to read it from a local point of view.  For example, at one point in time, Jakarta was originally called Sunda Kelapa and was then changed to Joyakarta (you’ll see the photo of the description about it).  But there is no scene depicting the time when the Dutch changed the name to Batavia nor when the Japanese changed it to Jakarta because they couldn’t pronounce Joyakarta.  You see a history of uprisings against the Dutch, and you get the impression that Indonesians were fairly successful at keeping them at bay, yet the Netherlands colonised the region for about 350 years, so the uprisings couldn’t have been that successful, though I have no doubt that many were killed in those battles and that perhaps certain cities or regions were more successful at maintaining some level of independence than others.  That is why, readers, you must remember that history is never objective.  You can try as hard as possible to be objective when you write it, but it will always have some level of bias.

It was also interesting to learn about some of the populations on the smaller spice islands who were able to navigate by their sense of smell for the spices that became so much in demand in the West.  Imagine not needing a compass or having to navigate based on the skies; you could simply smell where you wanted to go.  I’m just amazed by such an adaptive ability; I hadn’t heard of anything like that before.

I did also learn where the name “Soekarno-Hatta” came from for Jakarta’s airport.  I knew that Soekarno was Indonesia’s first president, but I didn’t know who or what Hatta was.  Turns out he was their first vice-president. 

This is not a park of miniatures but a park that allows you to see all the main parts/islands of Indonesia in one shot.  There are more than 72,000 islands, so you couldn’t really represent all of them, but it was interesting to see the very subtle difference in styles of fabric and architecture of homes, as well as the ways these homes were decorated.  In the first photo of the homes, you’ll see 3 large horns decorating the roof, and apparently houses were built this way to indicate how many daughters you had.  So this family would have had 3 daughters.  On another island, we learned that if your husband died, they would place him in your bed, and you had to sleep with him for a month before he was buried.  I can’t think how morbid and frightening that would be—not to mention dangerous if the body starts getting eaten by insects and stuff.  It’s not like they had air conditioning in those days to keep the body cool!  After you were finally able to bury the body, it would be placed in a decorative casket and raised up to the top of a large rock that had holes in it, and the body would be moved into one of those holes for all eternity.  Large rocks, like you’ll see in my photo, were meant to be used for one family of multiple generations.  I also can’t imagine how difficult it would be to get those bodies up a ladder into those holes.  The tour guide showed a photo of one funeral, and it didn’t look like they were using any sort of pulley system.  I’m hoping I just didn’t notice it!

The tour allowed us time to shop for souvenirs.  I wasn’t about to buy anything since I’ve generally stopped doing so because I thought I had bought everything I’d ever want in all my travels—but then I saw instruments…danger zone alert!  There were these beautifully painted maracas, but the size and shape of an egg.  I couldn’t resist, and besides, I got them for $2.50 each, so how could I resist??

There isn’t much I need to say about this as you’ll see everything that really needs to be seen in the photos, and little description is necessary, so I think I can contain it in the photo captions.  One thing I should mention, though, is that while in many parts of Indonesia, batik is the main style of fabric art, in a few places like Bali, the art of weaving is more practised. In some cases, it even looks like their styles are influenced by Indian textiles.  Lots of what I saw also demonstrated differences in wedding attire across the country.  It’s pretty neat to see the different types of jewellery and head ornaments, aside from the fabrics and clothing styles.

Anyway, I love that I still get to learn new things the more I travel to Indonesia.  It’s an interesting country with wonderful people and tasty food, my two main attractions to any country!

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Lahore Museum photos

This was probably one of the highlights of my life! The museum was amazing and filled with really old artefacts.  It was an excellent museum that covered the history of the region, including Indus Valley civilisations, Gandhara society, and the advent of Islam being introduced to the region.  I haven't seen all the museum as we were distracted by so many other sections that I forgot there was a gallery of contemporary art.  I'd like to spend more time there than we had, so I hope to get there next time I visit.  I wasn't really sure what to expect at that museum; if you've been following my blog, you'll know that I was disappointed in the way that Pakistan keeps up its tourist attractions, but this museum is very well done, and I was really impressed.  I'm as excited about this place as I was at the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico.  I decided to create a separate album for it.  For the most part, I included descriptions of things after the artefact(s), but at some point, I switched for some reason, and you'll notice that there are two descriptions in a row, and it changes from that point where the description comes before.  I hope this gives you a little taste of the fascinating diversity of this region!

Lahore Museum 2012

The saddest part is that these societies historically were pluralistic and diverse; economic conditions were better, and trade and commerce were more prevalent.  In fact, many anthropologists consider the Indus Valley to be the birthplace of modern civilisation due to their sophisticated cites with features such as sewage systems.  What has happened since then to move the country to the condition it's in today?  Well, that's a topic for another day.

Pakistan 2012 photos

Here are some random photos from my trip to Pakistan.  I went to Ichira market briefly, mainly to just see it as well as to get a temporary nose stud to replace the one that got accidentally taken out of my nose that I wasn't able to get back in!  It was a strange experience getting the new one.  We went to a jeweller that my mom and Asif knew in the market, but as the call to prayer had just ended, he had already gone off to the mosque for afternoon prayers and had closed up shop.  So we were recommended to another shop, only when we arrived there, it wasn't a jewellery shop but what looked to be a drug store with shampoos and other beauty products.  But, the guy did have nose studs!  He used some sort of numbing spray on my nose, which was such a relief after all the trauma my nose had gone through trying to get my old stud back in and then wearing an earring in it instead to keep the hole open.  He used nail clippers to shorten the post until it fit inside my nose, but then he took a pair of needle-nose pliers and curled the end of the post into a double loop so it wouldn't fall out.  The only question I had was, how do I get it out?  The guy said you just remove it with nail clippers!  And if you're worried I took photos of this process, don't worry.  I wouldn't gross you out like that.  This story is all you get.

Meanwhile, if you want another description of Ichira market written in great Penglish, I highly recommend clicking on the hyperlink in this sentence.

Pakistan 2012

Bangladesh photos

Sadly, I didn't get many photos from here other than a few from in traffic and from my hotel room window.  I don't know why I didn't think to ask the hotel if they had a tour guide or something like I did the first time I went to Indonesia, but anyway, it's too late now.  Here are a few snaps!

Bangladesh 2012

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Flying to Pakistan

For the first time in my life, I flew to Pakistan.  Previously, because I was in India, my main option was to cross the border by land because there are only limited numbers of flights that go between the two countries.  But this time, being that I was coming from Bangladesh, there were several flights going to Pakistan, so I was able to book a flight and not have to go through the time-consuming, though straightforward process, of passing through the border.

Line-up at my gate in Dhaka
Anyway, no matter what method of transportation you choose in this part of the world, it will always be an adventure.  I was not impressed when I got to my gate to see a huge long line-up of people.  Like Indonesia, you clear security right at the gate, so all these people were in line to clear security and then head into the seating area at the gate.  I didn't know about this process, so I had been shopping nonchalantly in one of the stores there before heading to the gate because I had arrived there quite early.  I was confused that there were no ladies in the line-up, just men.  However, I did spot one lady going through security, and I wondered if I had missed a special line for them or something.  So, I decided to wait in the line-up, unsure how all these people would get processed in time for departure, and hoping that someone would come along and tell me to go to the front of the line.

That very thing happened.  Turns out they prioritise ladies, children, and the elderly, and I was really happy about that process.  Finally, a time when it pays to be a female!  But the funny part is that at the gate in Dhaka, when they announced that women, children, and the elderly go through first, they told other people to sit down, and this airport guy was just screaming at people, yelling at the them to sit down if they decided to stand up.  It was the funniest thing!  I like that no-nonsense style of boarding since in India, people just line up willy nilly, and there's no order at all.  These people made sure there was order!

Luckily, I was seated in business class the entire way, though I'm sure I only paid for economy.  Regardless, on PIA, it seems to make no difference other than that you get some extra leg room and are perhaps seated with a more educated seat mate.  The food and service were no different.  I guess that makes sense considering the business class seats on PIA are only about $100 more than the economy seats, and you will always get what you pay for, right?  At least it gives me funny stories to blog about!

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Dhaka traffic

Well, I had already been warned that Dhaka traffic is extremely slow-going.  Too many people on the roads all at once.  I've actually felt like I would be hit here more so than any other country where traffic laws and signs are guidelines and road decorations.  There have been a number of close encounters!  Have I been afraid, though?  Definitely not.  I trust drivers here because they know what they're doing, and it seems that accidents are inevitable since practically everyone has scratches on their cars.  Besides, I think it's difficult to have a bad accident by going at high speed since the roads are so crowded, you really don't have many opportunities to go fast; you're just in a snail-paced commute to get wherever you're going.

One thing that I noticed here that's really smart, though, is that everyone has small chrome bumpers on the fronts and backs of their cars.  Of course, this is really the way cars should always have been made.  I remember when a shiny chrome bumper was a standard feature on cars back home, and now we have these flimsy pieces of crap on our cars that always seem to be just shy of a million dollars to fix when you get the slightest nick in them.  The chrome bumpers actually protected the car, and they didn't sustain too much damage to themselves in a regular fender bender.  Oh, the good old days!  Anyway, looking around, I realised that everyone had them, although many still had scrapes and small dents in their cars.  I don't know if the chrome bumpers had been retro-fit or when they are usually attached to the cars, but I wish we had these at home.  Maybe we do, and I've just never known where to get them since few, if any, people have them.

The other thing they have here are three-wheelers as buses.  In India, I've only ever seen them in the forms of small pickups, though perhaps there are bus versions, too.  I wish I could have got a good shot of one of them that we passed where the back had what looked to be police officers.  The funny part to me is that they were riding in a regular vehicle, not a police-issued one.

There are also lots more people riding on top of buses.  I couldn't get a photo of that either, but I thought this one would suffice.  I miss the old days of being able to ride in the back of a truck, though I have to say that I don't think I would want to sit in one in a city with millions and millions of people.  That's too much exhaust to be breathing in.  Tomorrow I'm off to Pakistan for some vacation time, so I'll have a few more photos to share before posting my larger albums after getting back from my trip.  I started trying to post at least a photo or two right in my blog entries not only to satisfy those of you that can't wait for photos, but also because it makes my entries look a little nicer and not so text-heavy.  I hope you're enjoying these teasers!

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Beyond India - Bangladesh!

I've been to India enough in the last couple of years that I'm not sure what more I can say on the subject.  It would be one thing if I were seeing new sites or going to new cities, but I did the same tour circuit for work as last year, coupled with the fact that I came down with laryngitis/a cold, so I haven't been that reflective.  Besides, the work schedule was too hectic to really think about anything else.  What free time I did have, I wanted to spend it with the great people I was travelling with, and the one free day I had to spend it with my family since I happened to be in a city where I have family.

But this time, I got the opportunity to travel to a new country, Bangladesh.  I was excited, although a little afraid in the sense that as I get older, I find myself feeling a little agoraphobic in large crowds where I don't know anyone.  This largely is how I felt all of my childhood and teenage years, and I don't know why I'm reverting.  In any case, the fact that Bangladesh is one of the most densely populated countries in the world made me think there would be wall-to-wall people unlike what I would see in India, but so far it has really been ok.

My first impression of the country was kind of funny though.  When you get to the airport, you'll see piles of blankets tied up with twine as in the photo to the right.  I couldn't figure out why people are travelling with so many blankets and furthermore, why they're not picking them up.  I thought perhaps they buy then from India or somewhere and are importing them, but otherwise I had no explanation.  I posted this photo on Facebook, and a friend told me it looked the same as when she landed in Dhaka but that the blankets are actually wrapping up fragile items inside like televisions.  That definitely made more sense than what I thought was happening!

I did a visa on arrival when I landed, a surprisingly easy process.  It isn't entirely clear where to go to start this process, but the people who work in that area speak enough English to guide you, so I was able to do it pretty quickly.  The funny part is that they asked me for a letter of invitation for my business, and the guy had a hard time believing that visiting high schools was work.  However, when he saw one of the emails I had printed out (specifically for the purpose of showing that some people had invited me here), he just ripped it out of my binder and added it to my application!  It was so weird, but at the end of the day, I didn't really need that piece of paper.  I was more taken aback by the fact that he just ripped it out rather than ask if he could have it and then open the rings to remove the paper.  He was really funny, though.  He didn't think I should claim being there on business and actually seemed excited about the fact that I was in Bangladesh at all so that he gave me no resistance in getting my visa settled.

Upon arriving at my hotel room, I was feeling pretty exhausted, having not really rested properly since getting my cold.  My nose was running a bit, so I went to the bathroom to get a tissue that turned out not only to be pink, but to be correspondingly rose-scented!  I'm not really a fan of scented tissue generally, and I was surprised that the hotel uses it, but it seems like that might be the only option here since when I was at my school visit today, that was the tissue at teachers' desks as well.

I had already received an email about my shipment of brochures from China being held up in customs, but then my other shipment coming from back at the office was also stopped up, and I received only an envelope of information from FedEx with some forms that I should apparently sign.  According to the information, Bangladesh only allows shipments of up to 5kg in weight, or else you have to pay extra fees.  Who knows why this is!  The papers looked overly complicated, and as I was so tired and still had some other catching up to do for work, I thought I would take care of it this morning before my school visit.  Well, it turned out I had to actually go to the airport's customs clearing house to pick it up.  The hotel said it would be easy, but when I got there, it was a madhouse of only men, and I got a lot of stares.  Eventually, an agent that the hotel had said would be there found me and looked at my papers.  He was trying to determine what to do when some guy came and snatched the papers right out of his hands.  He tried to protest, but the guy kept going and asked me to follow him.  I went with him into the hollows of one part of the warehouse, stopped only by a guard with his Kalashnikov that wanted to know where I was going, and I tried to signal that I was following a guy, but it was useless, and the guy was disappearing, so I just took off and hoped no one would take aim.  When the guy with my papers was about to make a right turn toward some area with a bunch of shelves, a very senior-looking guy came from out of nowhere and told me to follow him into his office.  The guy with my papers didn't appear to be very happy about that, but he brought in my papers at the man's request and then took off.  The man turned out to be the assistant commissioner of customs, and he told me that there are all kinds of people out there that will try to tell me to pay more money than I'm supposed to.  I mean, there's absolutely no way of knowing who anyone is here.  The only person who looked like he should work there was the agent that found me because he actually had a uniform and an ID tag around his neck.

I couldn't read the customs guy at all.  I couldn't understand him, for one thing.  His accent was thick, and I was only picking up about 60% of what he was saying.  Secondly, he wouldn't change expression.  But as soon as he saw my Canadian passport, he lit up and told me that his son had just graduated from U of T and was now working at HSBC.  Then he proceeded to lecture me on the fact that he's upset our government makes it so hard for Bangladeshis to get study permits and asked me why I hadn't yet written to my MP about it.  I assured him I would see what I could do now that he had made me aware of the situation.  He decided that he would then clear my package as long as I paid USD50 because my items were taxable.  According to the Bangladesh government, promotional materials that are not for resale are taxable because they are used to conduct your business.  This makes no sense to me, but I paid it anyway, especially since my other package was also at customs, so I wouldn't have had any brochures for students at all.  He had tea brought for us, and then I had no choice but to stay for a few moments and drink it, even though it was really uncomfortable in his office because there were lots of other men in there, and they were all talking to each other, including the customs guy, and I was just sitting there silently.  a FedEx guy actually brought my box to me, so I excused myself politely and left.

I wanted to get my DHL package while I was there, but when I asked him about it, he wanted to see my papers, and since I only had the tracking number, apparently that wasn't good enough.  When I returned to my room after my school visit, I had a letter from DHL just like the FedEx one, and I've decided to forgo it.  I really don't need them that badly, and it'll mean having to go out to the airport and deal with all that lunacy again--as well as another payment, and it's just not worth it.

Rickshaws lined up in a traffic jam
Meanwhile, the roads here are colourful with brightly decorated rickshaws.  I didn't know that they're so much more widely used here, but they're definitely plentiful!  The other interesting thing is that they have the three-wheeler taxi scooters like in India (tuk-tuks in other countries), but here, they have cage-doors, which in my opinion is smart because then you have better abilities not to fall out!  Buses are also badly beaten up and bruised here.  I don't think there is one bus that hasn't been in an accident!  You'll notice the bus behind the three-wheeler, and it looks pretty scary.  It's definitely a little different here even though it's also the same as India in many ways.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Back to Liberia, CR, May 19

Writing is about all I can do right now because it allows me to be horizontal while I do it. My nose is so stuffed.

I decided to come back by regular bus rather than Nica or Tica bus. Both have really early morning departures, so I decided to take the local bus, sacrificing comfort for sleep. I don't know if that was such a good idea. I wasn't thinking and took the wrong way to the bus stop, so I wasted time and energy walking around in the heat for about half an hour to 45 minutes. The problem is that streets aren't always labelled, so I didn't always know where I was or where to turn to fix myself. I finally made it, only to learn that the next bus didn't leave for more than an hour. At least it was already there, so I could sit somewhere. The bus was cramped again; many were other travellers but all were staying in Nicaragua after Rivas. So I crossed alone.

It never occurred to me there wouldn't already be buses that I needed to take to get from there to Liberia at the border. I waited, and finally a lady from TransNica approached me, seeming to have appeared out of nowhere, to find out if I was going to San José. Liberia is on the way, so I was able to get a ticket. I was really happy she showed up, though, because I otherwise had no idea how I was going to get back to Liberia! The lady said the bus left at 3:30pm, but it didn't arrive until 3:45pm. Then it took a while for the people already on the bus to get off and have their bags and passports checked. It was an eternity as I just wanted to sleep.

Finally, the bus left around 4:15. I was so happy. The TransNica is more expensive; it's a luxury A/C bus, but it was only $12, and for the comfort of the trip back to Liberia, it was worth it. I even had a seat to myself. Of course, the one part I didn't think about is that I had only cleared Nica departure customs but not CR entry customs. so just after I shut my eyes, we were instructed to get off again and take our luggage out from storage for inspection. It took so long just standing there, I almost wanted to cry. We finally left around 4:45, meaning I spent over 2 hours at the border area. I think I prefer the India/Pakistan border. It takes only about 45 minutes flat, though most of my wait here was for my bus I guess, and maybe I'd be waiting a while in India or Pakistan if I had to wait for a bus, too. The photo here is of the sunset just after I crossed back into CR.

Anyway, I'm glad to be going home just to take care of my cold. I was expecting the bus would go to the bus terminal, and I was going to have one last battle of negotiating a taxi as I was in no mood to walk, but the bus was on the Pan-American and let people (in this case, just me) off at the gas station on that highway just 2 blocks from my hotel. It was great! I felt so thankful and knew I'd be back in the comfort of what seems like a luxury hotel after all the hostels I was in. Having a hot shower was refreshing, and I hope I'll sleep well tonight.

One thing I should mention is the fact that, as much as I always make fun and say I'm on a local chicken run bus, I've never actually seen any chickens--until today. In fact, there were two. I wish I could have got a photo, but it was too packed when this guy came on the bus with 2 live chickens, their heads peeking out of the two holes in a sac. It was awesome!

Thus ends my trip to Central America. I know I'll need to return here, especially to Nicaragua because I really loved it there and want to see more of the country.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Granada, May 18

Sadly, I came down with a cold last night.  I thought it might have been just from all the dust and exhaust I breathed in yesterday.  Now I don't know.  There was a sick guy sitting in the seat in front of me almost all the way to Granada, so I think I caught his germs.  I'm kind of annoyed, but what can you do?  So I figure now is as good a time as any to write about a few things, observations and stuff.

Overall, I love Nicaragua.  It's cheaper and less touristy.  The people are super friendly.  Not that Costa Ricans are unfriendly, but I found more people engage me in conversation here.  Of course most of them have been men anyway!  I find that in Costa Rica, I'm very unremarkable as well.  There are many people with my colouring, skin and eyes both.  I find Nicas are much darker in general, so I'm more exotic here, it seems, especially when they learn I'm Canadian.

There are a number of cooperatives around in both countries.  Costa Rica has widespread recycling available, which is unique in developing countries.  You don't see that in Nicaragua, but it's great about all the co-ops.  I went to the Choco Museo yesterday that represents a local chocolate co-op.  Most of their products are exported to Ritter Sport in Germany, which I thought was really cool.  I went back today only to buy tasty souvenirs.  I wish I would have had a chance to do their day trip to their co-op.  I think I'll go back to the museum for lunch since they have a restaurant.  I tasted a sample of their cocoa husk tea, which tastes like hot chocolate.  So delicious!

It was a very good idea for lunch to head to Choco Museo.  I had gazpacho with iced chocolate tea (pictured) and sat by their courtyard.  I figure the combo of vitamin C and anti-oxidants should do me some good, though it's not an ideal flavour combo.  Their gazpacho was a little grainy and a bit too oily, but it wasn't bad.  They served it with fried, salted plantain chips rather than croutons, which I thought was a nice local spin.  Afterward, I found a pharmacy to get some antihistamines.  The great thing about getting sick here is that I know what the drugs are called.  I didn't have to know the name in Bahasa Indonesia or Cantonese.

The only downside is that, despite my room being comfortable enough, there is constant construction going on, so it's noisy.  The owners told me they're building 3 more rooms and expect to build a 4th room upstairs in the next couple of years.  Maybe next time, I'll have more money to stay somewhere nicer, though these owners are nice people.  Just that I'd like a nicer room with more amenities.  I'm so spoiled by my fancy hotels I stay at for work!

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Catarina & San Juan de Oriente, Nicaragua May 17

I think it's Nicaragua where I've seen the widest array of goods and foods for sale on the street or in the buses, even more than India.  Since the time I arrived, either I or Marty (the American that finally left today, yay!) have been offered various sorts of foods from meals to snacks to desserts, fresh beverages or pop, jewellery, hair accessories, among others.  But my favourites have been weed, cocaine, and power drills.  I think the latter is the most surprising to me because I could see being asked if I wanted to buy all the other stuff, but power drills?  Do people really buy those off the streets?  And why are they being offered to tourists?  Have any tourists actually bought one?  How do you transport that home?  I just thought it was hilarious.

Anyway, what a great day this was.  I was able to avoid Marty in the morning.  He did, unfortunately, go to my garden oasis for breakfast, but I saw where he was sitting, which was thankfully far from the front, so I sat at the front pretending not to see him.  I brought my journal with me so was in the midst of writing when he finally passed by to leave.  Thankfully, I looked busy enough; he asked me to update him about the rest of my trip just before walking out and then I felt so free the rest of the day.

I started out at the main market.  It was crowded and hot, and all that is for sale there is food, produce, and hordes of random stuff.  The good part about it is that the route I took allowed me to happen across the bus station I needed to get to for the bus to San Juan de Oriente and Catarina.  I was so hot by then, my skin was glistening with sweat.  I love that people come on the buses so much selling things, so I had a delicious fresco de cacao, which is essentially horchata with cocoa.  That was really refreshing as it was ice cold.  I was happy mine came with a straw, as I had only seen them without, and as they're served in baggies, people usually bite off a hole in the corner and squeeze the beverage out.  I just felt that was dangerous for me as I'd probably bite too big a hole or more than one and have a messy accident.  Things like this have happened to me in other travels!

The bus finally pulled away, another old yellow bus, providing much needed air circulation.  I saw some great signs along the way, one that was on a truck transporting cattle that read "Somos Toros" (We are bulls); another sign was "For Sale: Bryan McGlynn's Quinta." Such a typical Spanish name! haha My only concern on this journey was not knowing where to get off.  The stops are not marked at all.  As it is, I did miss the stop, so I walked about 2km back in the height of the day's sun to San Juan de Oriente, home of the best ceramics artisans in the country, to check out some pottery.  It's indeed beautifully detailed work.  And sadly difficult to transport pieces home.  Hence, my photos of them have to suffice.  I have another photo in my Nicaragua photo album that I posted, but I thought I would share just a couple of photos from my trip since I'm directly referring to these things.

From there, I asked one of the shop owners how to get to El Mirador at Catarina because the signage was really confusing, so I wasn't really sure where to go.  The place was yet another couple of kilometres away, so I took a 3-wheeled scooter taxi--which I didn't know were used outside Asia--to the lookout point.  I'd read that admission is $1, but somehow arriving in that taxi, they didn't charge me anything.  I don't know why.  In any case, the scene from there is stunning.  You look down into a lake-filled crater and can see across to Granada and el Lago de Nicaragua, with Mombacho volcano to the right.  On a pathway down the side of the steep hill you're looking down from, there was a group of guys playing some sort of game with a tennis ball.  I was thinking that was crazy since the path is lined with fence due to the steep drop on its side, and yet the guys would go down and get the ball if it went over the edge.  It was crazy!

I didn't linger long, which was just as well as my luck would have it again, buses of school children arrived, so that would have spoiled the serenity and stillness of the moment.  I hopped another 3-wheeled taxi, and he took me to the nearest bus stop.  As soon as I returned to Granada, I decided to get some food as I hadn't time to eat lunch.  I first found a lady on the sidewalk selling mangoes with vinegar and salt, so I bought some of that because a friend had recommended it, and it was actually not that bad!  Still I wanted some more substantial food so kept walking.

Thinking my adventures were over, I stepped into the Euro Cafe for a bite to eat as they have fresh food of sandwiches and salads.  They also have free wifi, so I was going to check my email and Facebook, but a guy in the store, who happens to run shuttles and tours, at first advertised them to me but then sat at my table and proceeded to flirt with me.  I wasn't attracted to him anyway, but even if I had been, his admission of women being his one weakness (like that's unique to him and not an issue with lots of men! haha), his having slept with umpteen women, and the fact that 2 of the foreigners he slept with bore his children, was really not appealing.  He asked me out tonight, and I graciously declined.  I don't need that kind of trouble or drama!  I decided instead to just chill the rest of the evening, and that's what I'm doing now :o)

Friday, June 15, 2012

Las Isletas, Nicaragua, May 16

What an excellent day so far.  I saw Catedral la Merced this morning and also booked a tour of Las Isletas for the afternoon.  The tour guide thought I was Tica, which is a great compliment!  Everyone is so impressed with my Spanish, too, which is also a big compliment.  This is a really cool place.  I'd love to bring all my family here.  We'd have a lot of fun.  I loved Las Isletas, formed by lava from Mombacho.  It is supposed to be best seen in the evening for the beautiful sunsets, but I booked early to avoid running into Marty later and having him want to join.  Anyway, the tour guide said that some biologists believe that the islands formed by simply emerging out of the water in Lago Nicaragua (Lake Nicaragua).  You can tell by the type of rock that the rocks were definitely formed out of lava, even if they might have been covered by water for a while.  There were so many kinds of birds; someone with a really good camera would have a field day.  I would have loved to see a shark, one of only 2 kinds in the world that can live in both fresh and saltwater, but there aren't many now, so I wasn't surprised.  According to the guide, the government allowed the Chinese to fish them in the 70s, and the "chinos locos" (crazy Chinese, in the guide's words) practically wiped them out.  anyway, it's a really pretty trip with lots of vegetation and water flora, a very relaxing way to spend the afternoon and learn a little about the history of the islands, the people who live there, a mixture of fisher families and wealthy elites with their getaway islands with natural moats.  One of the funniest things was seeing that some of the islands are for sale, so you see signs that actually say "Island for Sale".  You don't see that everyday!  With any luck, I'll have the rest of the day to myself, too. I ate some funky stuff yesterday, trying a raspado, which is supposed to be like a snow cone with condensed milk, though mine didn't come with one, and it was weird.  Too sweet and contained at least one bug.  My digestive system is complaining now. I hope to have maybe a smoothie for supper and perhaps a snack.  Marty's wanting to go to these tourist restaurants makes me eat when I'm not hungry.  I don't want food tonight, even if I run into him I'll just be firm.


Unfortunately, I could not escape Marty around supper time.  I was in my room watching TV, and he knocked on my door.  I told him I wasn't hungry and that I just wanted to find a smoothie or licuado somewhere.  I wasn't ready to go then either, so he waited even though I told him he didn't have to.  Great.  Unfortunately, the place I wanted to go to had closed for the evening already.  So we ended up at the Irish pub since we knew they do have good smoothies.  Somehow he wasn't hungry anymore either.  I tried to get him to stop somewhere he wanted to eat, and I'd just go on my way, but no luck.  I don't know why I felt so bored with him, just no connection.  It was a strain to converse.  I ended the night as soon as I could, and when we returned to the hostel, he gave me his email address.  I have no intention to stay in touch.  I think I might have even lost the card already.  At least he's leaving Granada tomorrow.

Nicaragua Photos

Ladies and gentlemen, the moment you've all been waiting for, my photos from Nicaragua! Again, click on the album to see the large photos and not just the thumbnails.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Granada, Nicaragua, May 15

The place where I ended up staying was not in the Lonely Planet, so I took a chance at Casa Blandon.  The rooms here are reasonable, $15 for a private room and bath.  It's cramped and dimly lit, but it has a decent shower with lukewarm water, and my room is sufficiently cool and clean.  That water felt refreshing after the long journey, and they had another private room available, so Marty took one, too.  It's kind of nice not eating alone, and Marty and I do have some things in common, but I don't really feel a connection with him--but I digress and will continue about him later.  In any case, we went out to eat after where I tried some local food, their style of carne asada (a style of smoked, BBQ meat I loved in Mexico), which was really tasty, and a drink containing ginger and a local fruit called coyolito.  I don't know what it is, but I loved it.

I ate breakfast at the Garden Cafe, where thankfully they have free wifi, so I checked email and let everyone know I was safe by posting on Facebook.  I took my time, writing every detail in my journal.    It was nice to spend time alone, too, in a comfortable environment where I could be alone with my thoughts.

This is the courtyard at the Garden Cafe, which I came to call my Oasis
The place I'm lodging is actually the home of a family, and they've outfitted some spare rooms as guest rooms.  Many of the hostels I've been in have been poorly lit, so I'm getting used to that, though I still don't like it.  But even with the fan, I was cool and comfortable during the night.  I make sure to shower right before going to bed, which was my practice in Mexico, so the fan would cool me down more with damp skin, and I slept okay.

I ended up running into Marty.  He has been really kind and helping me, even giving me the $1 bill I needed at the border so I wouldn't have to change my $5 bill, but he seems to want to do everything together, and I'd just like to roam on my own, or at least I had wanted to do for one day, today, if nothing else.  But he caught me when he was seated at one of the restaurants on our touristy street as I was going back to the hostel.  I joined him, thinking it was just for a quick smoothie, and that was it.  But he joined me at the museums I wanted to see, and I think he might have been bored because I stopped to read stuff that was all in Spanish.  At the second museum, Mi Museo, the collection was way better and had a free tour guide and brochure, whereas the first museum didn't even have a brochure to follow.  But again, the tour was all in Spanish, so I hung out with the guide, and Marty didn't stay for me to translate.  Interesting tidbits about Mi Museo is that it's a private collection, owned by a Danish guy that moved to Nicaragua, and also that much of the research on the artefacts he collected is being conducted by a prof and PhD students at the University of Calgary.  Go Alberta!  Then Marty wanted to eat together, but I wasn't hungry.  I had eaten a large breakfast so I could skip lunch or just get a snack and coffee somewhere.  I don't know what to do.  I can't even ditch him because we're next door at the hostel.  I'm hoping we'll end up booking separate tours tomorrow to just do something different.

Later I was successfully able to shake Marty for a bit but couldn't avoid seeing him eventually in the evening.  We ended up talking to a chap who had twice tried to offer cocaine to Marty, actually a nice fellow, so that made it sadder that he was dealing drugs.  He was really helpful, telling us not to go to the lake after dark because it's too dangerous, filled with guys with guns and knives.  I asked him where I could find fresco de cacao, a local beverage that a Nica friend suggested I try, so he told me where to find it in Granada's central park, and it was an informative conversation generally.  Finally some lady called him away to dispose of a live frog, so we went to find a tour for tomorrow, but the places were all closed.  So I'll spend tomorrow here I think, and book for Thursday.  Thankfully, Marty does want to do a different tour than I do, so I'll have some time away from him.  I'm so thankful for that.  We went to this little restaurant for supper he wanted to see for the music.  He was as outraged with the prices as I was, but I enjoyed the music more than he did because much of it was salsa, but he wanted to go in the middle of the second set.  It was just as well as our hostel owners were on their way to bed, so we caught them in time to be let in, but I really dislike the pressure of not doing what I want.  It will all disappear soon enough!

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Trip to Granada, Nicaragua, May 14

This entry will be long, so be prepared.  As per the Lonely Planet advice, I took a taxi from Arenal to El Tanque to wait for the Tica bus, which is supposed to pass by a random corner, as it was.  I mean, it's the same corner all the time, but nothing about it suggests it's a bus stop, so thankfully everyone around knows where it is, so the taxi dropped me off there.  I was afraid no taxi was coming at all.  I stood outside the hostel around 6:18am and waited for my pre-arranged taxi that was supposed to arrive at 6:20.  No one appeared.  Thankfully, just after 6:30, a taxi pulled up to drop off one of the hostel's staff, so I hopped in an was on my way.  I was nervous because there's no set time for the bus to arrive; it comes sometime between 6:45am and 7:15am, so you want to get there in time just in case it arrives on the earlier side.  The taxi got me there at 6:45 on the dot.  And then I sat there for half an hour.  Still, better to wait than miss a bus that only comes once a day.  Better yet, while I was waiting, a hummingbird came right up to me and hovered in front of my face for a few seconds before flying off again.  It was the best encounter with a hummingbird I've ever had in my life!

The fact that I blend in as a local is very helpful.  Ticos seem naturally friendly and will start a conversation with anyone, so in my case they just start speaking in Spanish, and I learn a lot.  Like the fact that the frightening-looking bus that came round the corner was my bus, though it did not have Peñas Blancas written as one of its destinations.  This was no Tica bus, which is a luxury bus.  I don't know if I would have wanted to get on if the locals hadn't informed me that was the right bus.  He even seemed to know the bus driver as, when he found out I was waiting for that bus, he called the driver (it seemed), he informed me the bus was almost there.  A least the price was about 1/3 what the Tica bus cost, though it wasn't nearly as comfortable not having much leg room.

According to Google maps, it's only about a 2.5 to 3 hour drive to the border. According to my hostel staff, catching that bus would get me to the border by noon.  This meant there would be lots of stops, or maybe long but less frequent ones.  This meant there would be lots of stops, or maybe long but less frequent ones.  I would have hoped for the latter, but I know better than that.  While the lengthy drive takes you through a lot of farms and rural areas and is pretty, it really is the milk run.  People get on a off in the middle of nowhere.  I realised sometime later you can even ring the ding to let the driver know you want to get off at the next stop, some of which actually have benches and a covered shelter, but some of which look like they're just a random spot by a tree!

The ride was bearable when I have my seat to myself; buses is parts of the world where people are short never seem to have good leg room for the vertically unchallenged, so I could at least sit on a diagonal.  Unfortunately, I could not sustain this position when the bus started filling up, and eventually I had to sit straight with purse and backpack on my lap.  Did I mention the bus had no A/C?  This was acceptable when it was cloudy, but the sun came out during a stretch of road that was unpaved and very rocky, and we probably oscillated between 20-30km/h, which was not fast enough to generate any wind through the open windows. It took about an hour to get through that part.  The one good thing about open windows is being able to smell the outdoors, from the farm fresh manure on cattle farms (I love how it's the same smell back home) to orange blossoms on young trees in the fields of groves we drove past.  You can't get that enclosed in an A/C bus.

We finally reached the border.  At that point, I connected with an American traveller who had got connected with an American traveller who had got on in El Tanque as well.  You never know if he's done this before, so thought it would help to touch base.  It was his first time, too, but since it seems easier to talk to people in Spanish, we stuck by each other, and I helped us both to navigate.  There are a million touts trying to steer you this way and that, so after getting through them, we got to the CR immigration departure desk.  Then we had our 1km walk to the Nicaraguan side.  It's not unlike crossing to Pakistan from India, only that there are so many semis parked around here, you can't really see much, and I found it difficult to figure out where I needed to go.

We finally made it through and then had to find the shuttles to Rivas, where thre is apparently a big bus terminal with buses to many places.  Trying to find that shuttle was challenging.  Turns out it is behind a fence, hidden by semis.  People kept giving us directions, but we couldn't figure it out and finally one guy tried to con us by saying the only way to get there was by taxi.  At that point, I was sweaty and tired and out of patience for touts and cons, so I asked him why everyone else knows about the shuttles and is giving us directions, yet he's the only guy that seems to know they're wrong.  I told him no, thank, but we'll figure it out, which we did.

On the other side of the fence, a guy directed us onto the shuttle, which was also somewhat full--and very noisy. These guys kept yelling out stuff to the driver, the fare collector.  They were acting like hooligans.  Much different from the CR buses.  In any case, eventually we arrived at Rivas.  The guy that had helped put my luggage in the luggage rack above took it down and let me off at a gas station, not at the bus terminal.  I barely had time to tell him I was with someone (the American and I were going to the same place), and suddenly I was standing on the sidewalk dumbfounded and probably looked bewildered.  Thankfully Marty (the American) made them let him off, and we tried to figure out what to do.  An elderly man just sitting there on a motorbike asked us what we needed, and he told us there were two places we could catch the bus.  here were bicycle rickshaws on the sidewalk, and as the stops were not far, but far enough we didn't want to walk, we paid the $3 to be driven there.

The first stop looked like one of those middle-of-nowhere stops I had passed on my journey from Costa Rica, though it was full of people waiting for buses, but t also meant nowhere to sit while we waiting for a bus that would be showing up at an undetermined time.  So we opted for the terminal, where an old yellow bus to Granada was already waiting to depart at 3:30.  While we waiting, all manner of things to be sold were offered to us: pop, fried chicken with tortillas and their form of pico de gallo--made with cabbage, more like a sour coleslaw--or various fried snacks, pastries, fresh chocolate milk, water, jewellery, candies, and gum.  I don't think I've seen even that variety on a bus in India!  And talk about your milk run buses, it was filled with luggage and boxes and bags and bins of avocado, plantains, and I don't know what all else was concealed within all the containers.  I bought a juice punch because I was parched, and it really hit the spot. We'd been herded so much by this point that we hadn't any chance to stop for food or drink.  What a welcome sight to see drinks being brought to me instead of waiting until I arrived in Granada--where I still hadn't secured any lodging.

Being on a bus meant for children was just as uncomfortable as the last bus, and again, I was fine while I could stretch out, but eventually someone wanted my extra seat.  At least it was a little girl, so she didn't take up too much space.  And though the bus did indeed stop here and there, it wasn't too bad, and the driver really flew down the highway, generating lots of air to keep us cool.

Nicaragua's landscape was surprisingly drier, it seemed, that Costa Rica's.   There were a lot more brown, grassy areas and not as many vines or lush greenery.  I was also surprised to see huge wind turbines on either side of the road.

At one point, the little girl next to me started talking to me.  She saw my juice bottle and asked how much I paid for it.  I told her 10 colones, though I had noticed as she was turning the empty bottle that the price listed said 7 colones, and that made her giggle.  Then she wanted to know where I was from, asking me about my key chain with a beetle in it that was a gift from a friend from Malaysia, and which she could see through the mesh pocket of my backpack.  I asked her if she lived in Granada, which she confirmed she did and said she liked Granada when I proved with that question.  She was very sweet and smiley, having greased up her hands on fried chicken and getting it all over the baggies from which she sucked out pico de gallow and the cacao drink.  I wondered why she wasn't in school, but I thought it imprudent to ask.  I also would have loved a photo of her to share with my readers, but I know in Central America this is often not allowed because human trafficking it so prevalent, and kidnappers will take photos of kids in advance.  So I didn't ask.  But let me say that she sported braids of black hair on each side of her head, and had bright, dark eyes with a countenance of delight on her face, that look that only children seem to have, and her wide smile revealed a mouth missing some baby teeth and some new adult teeth growing in.  she was probably about 7.  When we arrived in Granada, she let me know as I told her it my first time to Nicaragua.  The bus station was really just a large gas station.  Marty and I made our way through the crowded market with narrow streets and finally found a place to lodge.  But perhaps more on that later as this entry is already sufficiently long.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Arenal, May 13, 2012

The restaurant at the hospital is not cheap.  I think the least I could have spent on breakfast here was about $7-$8, so I went for a walk in the cool of the morning and found another bakery with the most scrumptious croissants filled with dulce de leche and cinnamon rolls made with some sort of flaky pastry.  I couldn't resist and had one of each, though part of my motivation is that I'm thinking to skip lunch and just have one of my fruit bars.  Anyway, those along with a cup of coffee were only $3, which is quite the saving!  It was a beautiful morning as the worship singing of a nearby church could be heard, and people were singing quite well.  In front of me was a school with huge, old trees, one of which attracted a hummingbird, likely for its read berries or flowers that were on it.  I've seen how 4 hummingbirds this week alone, more, I think, than in my entire life!  Eventually it started raining, so I'd walk for a bit, then take cover and then walk again when the rain died down.   The clouds her always move very fast here; it's weird.  I'm hoping the rain stays away during my horse riding venture this afternoon.

The afternoon turned out to be wonderful.  How can one describe it?  Lush greenery, so humid you can see condensation on the miss.  Here and there, a tropical flower bursts out in flaming red or orange amidst the greenery.  There were fascinating types of fungi, and on the way home, I saw black birds with exquisite, lipstick red back.  I could have ridden for quite a while longer.

Wow, even for a trail ride, the afternoon really was great.  The guide didn't speak much English, so we gabbed a lot, and I learned that he pretty much comes from a horse family, that he "was riding while still in his mother's womb."  There was another couple on the trip, Sheeal and Shelly, from Chicago, and they happened to be from Indian backgrounds, too.  I was thinking, what are the chances that the only other Indians in this town are on the same excursion as I am?  I thought it was a funny coincidence.

The only bad part is that when we got to the waterfall, we actually had to wade through a pool of water to see it.  I was afraid to go over the rocks with wet feet, so I took my chances with my camera in hand and ended up slipping on a rock under water and that was the end of my camera.  That little dip killed it.  I got it wet once before, and it was fine once it dried, so I was hoping that would work again, but regardless, I couldn't use it the rest of the ride.  There weren't many more pictures I could have taken after that since it started raining on our way back to the horses (we had to descend several steep stairs to get to the waterfall--and that cool water in the pool was at least refreshing!), such that by the time we got back to them, it was pouring, and our saddles were wet.  The staircase trip was about 15 minutes down and slightly longer back up as both Shelley and I struggled to do all the steps back up as it's just so hot and humid.  At least the rain dropped the temperature a lot, so that made it really comfortable for the rest of the trip, though the guide was cold!

Now I'm just relaxing in the beautiful cool of the evening.  The ride home, in any case, took us through a lot of bush, and though we had helmets, it wasn't the same as having a brim on a hat, and I really missed my cowboy hat since we went through a lot of bush, which can whip you in the face as much as bush country here at home, only that it's tropical bush.  Actually that kind of freaked me out because I kept thinking, what if there are poisonous insects on those that are going to bite me! In any case, it was a lot like riding through the country at home only with tropical vegetation.  We even went through a couple of streams.  The guide says there's usually wildlife like deer and toucans, but we didn't see much, including the mountain we were supposed to see, due to the rain.  Can't win `em all!  It was beautiful.

Tomorrow I'm off to Nicaragua.  I'm a little nervous about the border crossing and just getting there because I don't have anything booked and can't really book in advance anyway. So we'll see how that goes.

Oh, I should mention that after the ride, you stop in a little butterfly and frog sanctuary.  We weren't able to see too much, just 2 kinds of butterflies and one type of frog.  The one butterfly was really cool, brown on the underside and blue on the top side of the wings.  I couldn't get a photo of the blue part--just like birds, the butterflies seem to know you want pictures of them and would simply taunt you by flashing the blue too quickly to get a shot.  And birds usually just fly away.  The other butterflies were similar to monarchs but smaller.  I used to see them with the migrating monarchs in Monterrey during butterfly as they would fly south for the winter.  As for the frog, Sheeal and Shelley said a guide had told them they are all poisonous dart frogs.  Not sure if that's the actual name, but it's cool nonetheless.