March 31, 2010

OAT Honduras: Horseback to Pintada Maya Chorti Community

Our destination was the la Pintada Maya Chorti community, so isolated that some children walk 2 hours each way to study.
The Pinata got to ride up in a truck while I rode a pregnant horse named Princessa.  I chatted amiably in Spanish with Wilson, the son of the stable owner and a student in College (private and not to be confused with escuela or school).  Wilson loves horses and math.
The Guatemala national anthem is arguably the longest in the world.  These children had to sing it in their native Mayan language before they were allowed to sell us dolls or beat the pinata.
The Japanese taught the women to make cornhusk dolls as a way to earn income for their families.  Our guide Ivania bought us each a doll from the co-op.  She explained that the proceeds from dolls sold in the co-op get evenly distributed among all women who participate.  However, money from sales made by an individual go directly to that family.  That is why the children were so eager to sell us their dolls rather than let us select from the co-op display shelves.
I may have had to ride a horse to get here, but at least I didn't get the stuffing beat out of me!

OAT Honduras: Copan

Copan was a capital Mayan city during the 5th to 9th centuries AD. Every 52 years, new temples were built over the old temples.  Las Sepulturas describes the residential area within Copan.  The Maya were the only people in the Americas to develop writing.  Most importantly, the Maya are not a "lost" civilization because Mayans and their communities still exist today.
Altar Q is a rectangular stone altar with carved portraits of all Copán's rulers from the founder, Yax Kuk Mo, to the last, Yax Pac. 
The "Hieroglyphic Stairway" has 63 steps with 2,500 glyphs, or symbols (Maya use symbols to represent phonetic syllables instead of letters), carved into the stone.  This and the Mayan translation / codices developed by Bishop Diego de Landa were crucial in deciphering 85% of the Mayan glyphs (Yuri Knorozov and David Stuart are important contributors to this effort). "18 Rabbit" (13th King) built the Hieroglyphic Stairway but his successors expanded it in an attempt to regain respect among their subjects after 18 Rabbit was captured and publicly beheaded by minor enemies. 

Other trivia I learned:
- Skulls probably refer to a place of burial
- Carvings that look like an elephant trunk really represent a macaw

March 30, 2010

OAT El Salvador: San Salvador

Our hotel in San Salvador was beautiful but we were not allowed to linger.  I barely had enough time to eat one pupusa (a speciality of El Salvador) at breakfast before we had to board our mini-bus. 
Our local guide was proud of the many who demonstrated great bravery during the Civil War in El Salvador as the poor tried to free themselves from the shackles of a few wealthy families.  He told us of the stories of Augustín Farabundo Martí Rodríguez (leader of the FMLN and executed by the government) and Archbishop Óscar Arnulfo Romero y Galdámez (assasinated).  We visited Romero's final resting place in the basement of the Metropolitan Cathedral.
After our tour of this essentially Spanish colonial city, we purchased a pinata for some children we would visit later.  He took up a lot of valuable space on our bus!

We had a fabulous view while lunching on Lake Coatepeque (300’ deep volcanic lake) 
A Mayan protest at the border delayed our entry into Honduras but the policemen were happy to pose with us.

OAT El Salvador: Joya de Ceren

Unlike Copan in Honduras or Tikal in Guatemala, UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) World Heritage Site Joya de Ceren ( is not an important Mayan religious or political center.  Instead, this is a small village buried under about 20 feet of volcanic ash ~600 AD.  All apparently escaped except a duck, some birds and a few mice.

The most exciting discovery here is the well-preserved domed temascal or "sweathouse".  These structures were used for bathing, childbirth and healing.
Much about the daily life of the ordinary Mayan has been learned at this site.  By taking casts of perishibles, the archeologists were able to identify crops grown here: Maize, Manioc, Squash, Beans, Chili, Malanga, Cotton, Agave, Achiote, Jocote, Cacao, Guava.

Oddly, no mention of the cashew that is growing well today.  We learned that although the cashew fruit is delicious, the cashew nut we know and love is poisonous until roasted.

March 27, 2010

OAT Panama: Panama Canal

We drove quite a ways to get to the starting point of our northern partial transit through the Panama Canal.   

We were regaled with facts during the entire transit:

The Panama canal will celebrate its 100th anniversary on August 15, 2014.  The canal is being deepened and straightened for post-Panamax ships at a cost of over $14 billion.  The canal is a fresh water canal, depending on an annual rainfall of 16 feet.  Lake Gatun is the 2nd largest man-made lake in the world (Hoover is the largest).
There are about 36 full transits per day.  All morning travel goes north and all afternoon traffic goes south. Transit tolls through the canal are based on vessel size, type and cargo.  The cruise ship Norwegian Star pays $487,000 to make the full transit but Richard Halliburton (registered as the S.S.Halliburton) only paid 36 cents to swim the entire canal in 1928.  

Herman the German is the largest floating crane in the world.  The US bought it for $1 after WWII but it cost $3MM to move it from Germany to Panama.
We passed through the only gap in the Continental divide.  Passing under the Avenue of the Americas bridge was spectacular. 
At the Panama Canal museum at the Miraflores Locks, we learned even more about the operation of the canal.  From the observation deck, we were able to see the locks open and ginormous ships being guided through by trains.

March 26, 2010

OAT Panama: Embera Village

We arrived by dugout canoe to the Embera Village in Chagres National Park and were greeted with a musical performance.  With grace and pride, they told us about their lives, music, dance, rosewood carving,  and basket weaving.  The children attend school in a nearby village and all can read and write in Spanish.  They must go to Panama City if they want to continue their education past 6th grade. This is financially and logistically difficult for the village. 
I was delighted by their weaving and bought a plate and a mask 

The women cooked lunch for us and then danced.
Some tourists brought kites for the children who immediately began trying to fly them.  It took some serious pantomiming to convey that they should be running against the breeze instead of with it.

March 25, 2010

OAT Panama: Panama City

First stop was to peer through the fence at the now decrepit former home of Manuel Noriega. 

Next it was to the ruins of Panama La Vieja (Old Panama) founded by Pedro Arias de Avila (aka Pedrarias) in 1519.  Much of the Peruvian gold passed through here on its way to Spain.  Privateer Henry Morgan seized the city in 1671, capturing 600 prisoners and enough treasure to require 175 mules to carry it. 

In 1673, the survivors decided to rebuild in what is now called San Felipe or Casco Antiguo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  We crossed a beautiful promenade with a view of the modern city.  San Felipe is a pretty colonial city with several churches, plazas and beautifully renovated hotels. 

I was very impressed with the willingness of Jack and Jacquie to try the shaved ice with a sugary syrup and condensed milk.  I was happy to stick with the gourmet ice cream at Gran Clement.

I had quite an experience at the Museo del Canal Interoceanico.  As we were enjoying this informative museum, a TV crew decided to interview our guide.  Jose then volunteered "Carrie knows Spanish."  They proceeded to ask me questions in Spanish about how I liked Panama, what was my favorite exhibit, etc.  I babbled on incoherently in Spanish and was sure this segment would be cut.  I've given much better interviews in English that didn't get aired, so I didn't bother to turn on the TV at 7 pm to Channel 11 when the segment was to be shown.  But our guide and some in our group watched and much to my surprise, claimed the segment opened with me and that I had the longest air time. 

March 24, 2010

OAT Travel Cautions for Central America

Air Travel Logistics - Inconvenient

I signed up for the trip with airfare until I learned that I would leave at 6 am, return at midnight and transit times were all day because I was being routed from Houston through Miami with long layovers. When I enquired about anything better, OAT proposed routing me through Atlanta. And I thought I was geographically challenged! They graciously agreed to let me find my own way without penalty for cancelling the flights (within 2 hours of finding out details). I ended up using frequent flier miles. I left at 9am, returned at 8pm, and my direct flights were only a few hours in either direction.

Panama Pre-Trip - Too Long

Although I enjoyed everything I saw, the 5-day Panama pre-trip should have been 3 days at most. We were dropped off at our hotel promptly at 3 pm each day and the optional night tours were casually cancelled. Our convention hotel was located in a neighborhood that could easily be explored thoroughly in two hours. I caught up on all of my e-mail and internet reading, finished The Teaching Company “Great Ideas of Philosophy” lectures, read “7 Days to Spanish” and finished all of the books I brought with me except one. I drank many (quite good) cappuccinos at the McDonalds McCafe thinking “I don’t need to be in Panama to do this.”

Accomodation Location - Too Far

OAT warns that you must be able to walk 3 miles in a day, implying that this is the distance you will need to walk during a day of sightseeing. It could also refer to the distance from some of our accommodation to the nearest town and / or restaurant. It was always a good idea to take the optional evening excursion with dinner or you would be navigating long distances on rough roads in the dark for dinner or savoring an energy bar in your room (or scarier still, trying to negotiate a taxi to and from town). Fortunately, the optional tours were fun and reasonably priced.