Saturday, June 30, 2007

Long Time No See

Reunion in Santa Monica! If you didn't know, I studied Mandarin in Taipei, Taiwan back in 2001 before heading off to art school. Met lots of interesting folks there from all over, including Gwen and Susanna who I've seen individually since then but not together until today. A shared anecdote here and there about the wild world of dating and suddenly we are off again in separate directions. I need to dig up and sort through all my video footage from Taiwan 2001 one of these days...

In the meantime, my brain is occupied with this little painting under a pedestrian walkway in Long Beach. There's a busy road directly behind my position so the noise pollution is unending, but other than that it's a nice secluded spot. Those beams are making this an tough exercise in greys, which I'm quite enjoying.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Back in the U.S.S.A.

Back to the concrete jungle also known as Southern California...I am having El Salvador withdrawl. There are way too many differences to point out so I'm not going to try, but I will point out that it would be unfair to say that life is indisputably better in one place over the other. After all, there are many ways to measure "quality" of life other than by amounts wealth and conveniences.

I'm jumping back onto the artmaking wagon by revisiting some of my favorite sites around Long Beach for some landscape drawing. It's not nearly as green here as Central America, but the water power plants that dominate the Long Beach skyline around here continue to interest me. I forsee a painting in my future...

Thursday, June 21, 2007

El Parque Imposible (Impossible Park)

Parque Imposible...our final outdoor adventure of the trip. It is the largest protected park in El Salvador, green like you wouldn't believe, and a botanist and birdwatcher's haven from what I hear. The road to get up there is basically one strip of winding, steep, rocky, mountain road flanked by some occupied mountain shacks and overrun with dogs and chickens. Some of the countryside kids run out and wave to you as you drive by. But again, it's bumpy as hell so be sure your car is equipped for the trek up. If you really, really want to be prepared, then maybe learn how to change a flat tire on a slope too...

Once there we were assigned a guide volunteer named Andres (pictured above) who gave us some hiking route choices. It was $6 for me (gringo) and $3 for Viki (salvadorian resident). We opted for the hike down into the valley to a river junction which was an overall 7km hike down and back uphill. It is said this park is the best example of a mesoamerican rainforest and the guia Andres was well educated about the ecosystem. No armed policia this time...he said in this park it wasn't necessary. I believe they assign guides here because 1) they want to make sure you don't pass out in the middle of nowhere unnoticed and 2) they want to make sure you're respecting nature. He was super nice though.

The terrain here is rugged; even the simple routes would be a little tricky for a noob hiker. The fun thing about hiking to a water source is hearing it as you're nearing it...motivating you to keep going. When we finally reached the river, we were shocked at how crisp it was. Andres said that the park tests it frequently for contaniments, which it is completely free of. The fish looked like they were flying, the water was so clear. Being in the water was therapeutic; I actually felt cleaner having swam in it, which is odd for a river these days. This was the way water was supposed to be, the way that nature intended it to be. Andres even filled his water bottle up in the river in preparation for our ascent.

Normally, the hike back up would have been challenging but after Cerro Verde and Izalco last week, this was muy facil. You constantly have to look down at your feet to watch your footing of course but don't forget to look up every once in a while. You'll see some crazy exotic trees, gigantic empire-like antills, and of course local wildlife. The rainforest canopy is beautiful.

On the drive back down, seeing a chicken on the side of the road indicated to me that we were back in civilization (and no, I'm not being sarcastic.) As we neared the capital San Salvador, I spotted this pickup which for me wins the award for being my personal favorite of the entire trip. I mean, I've seen some precarious pickups these last two weeks, but this one takes the pupusa. All the junk being hauled seems to be methodically secured using only a few ropes. Look closely too because you'll see a kitchen sink at the top. What I don't understand is how one goes about unloading this truck? Once you cut one rope the entire thing is going to come crumbling down, right? I'm sure there's some ancient Mayan secret I don't know about...

Last night in El Salvador. Tagged along with Viki's family for dinner at a friend's house/restaurant. Time to start packing...

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

El Boqueron and the San Salvador Volcano

Another volcano adventure today, no hike though, just a drive up to the crater. It's called El Boqueron which I believe means "giant mouth"...a pretty accurate description I'd say. Not sure I'd have found it on my own so fortunately Viki's dad is a good navigator. This girl was selling I think six or seven avocados on the side of the road for $1. Ah, things are so much cheaper when you cut out the middle man.

On the way up we did pass by a building marked with the letters "MS13" in spray paint which told me that it the structure was gang territory. There were lots of young adult males hanging about, one standing up on a wall almost like a lookout or something. Obviously I wasn't planning to hold up my camera and snap a picture. The gang is a LA gang, but they do now have recruitment locations throughout Central America. Google them.

On the way up, Viki suddenly noticed from the car a little hand grasping onto the rear windshield wiper. I reached back, knocked on the window, and saw a little boy jump off who was trying to hitch a ride to the top. We let him grab onto the side of the car instead which was much safer and before we knew it we found ourselves with a little tour guide named Gavin. Upon reaching the top we were swarmed by kids like Gavin excited to have new visitors to the area. I figure they get at least a couple a day, maybe more on the weekends.

Take that Brad and Angelina! Check out my new adopted family. The kids know how to be hospitable. They'll show you the paths to the vistas and share information about the area. The little girls would even grab pretty flowers off of bushes and give them to the girls in our group, in this case Viki and CK. We followed them up to the crater where I finally realized why they call this place "giant mouth." It was a breathtaking view of a GIGANTIC hole, steep as ever along the sides. It was like something straight out of Star Wars. It's supposed to be an official tourist attraction I think, but the government visitor center at the top was totally abandoned. They say you can hike to the bottom of the crater...a possible adventure for another day.

The kids are super photogenic too, sporting smiles as big as the crater they live on everytime you hold a camera up to them. Part of it I know is the excitement of having temporary vistitors on the mountain; the other part of course is knowing that city slickers like us carry quarters on us. It's fine though...give a quarter to a kid in the States and he'll/she'll be like "That's it??" The kids we met up here were happy, constantly laughing, and enjoying the simplicity of their little world in the mountains and away from the electronically corded jungles of the modern world that tangle up our lives. I envy them in a way.

When our little tour around a portion of the crater was done, we headed back to the car and the kids prepare for their uofficial payday. And obviously you can't give one kid something and another nothing unless you're okay with the saddened look of a chiquito salvadareno's face on your conscience. Some probably hitch back down to a local shop and blow it on candy. Others probably give it to their parents.

I'm finding that El Salvador is a country full of high views. It's probably the greenest and most mountainous country I've ever been to. We caught this view of San Salvador on the way back down from El Boqueron under some extraordinary light conditions feebly captured by this picture. I like to think that even members of the local MS13 gang stop between member initiations and enjoy the views offered by their beautiful country...

Monday, June 18, 2007

Dos Dias En Guatemala

Hold onto your pimped-out buses, we're going to Guatemala. One thing I love about Central America is the super colorful public buses, often covered in designs, decals, pictures of Jesus, roof racks...some even have slick grills up front. I don't believe it's an attempt at showboating though, because like I said, these are public buses. It's just an overall more colorful culture, literally and figuratively. We took a car, by the way.

Border patrol on the El Salvador side was two uniformed officials sitting under a tent. One friendly old lady was spouting a lot of spanish while checking our documents...I did pick up the word "peligroso" which I knew meant "dangerous." I had already heard the Guatamalan side near the border was a bit ghetto anyways so yeah, it was the first time I had actually felt a little nervous entering a new country. Scenes from the movie "Proof of Life" kept running through my mind. Border patrol on the Guatemalan side was an abandoned station, completely nonexistent. I guess they have an open policy concerning traffic from El Salvador.

The second morning in Guatemala was spent in Antigua, a little town situated in a valley. There were a lot of caras blancas abound - I hear lots of gringos and euros retire there. There were a lot of Angelina wannabes too, carrying around their newly adopted Guatemalan babies like they were accessories. I did notice all the local women, young to old, wore traditional colorful and patterned clothing which I thought was beautiful.

From what I've seen, all the little towns here in Central America are centered around a central plaza or park, where the main church is situated. Church and community it seems are the foundations of society here. The look of this town was very similar to Apaneca and Suchitoto in El Salvador except Antigua was a more restored place, likely due to the tourism. The borrachos you always see hanging around the central plaza are hilarous.

That night, I tagged along with Viki's family to their cousin's graduation party in Guatemala City. The grad parties here are very much like the gringo prom, the main difference being that the parents take part in the festivities too, at least for the normal portion of the night. Music, dancing, elaborate a glance it looks like an episode of MTV's "Sweet Sixteen" except not one person is the spoled center of attention. I actually quite like this tradition here compared to the gringo prom, which is basically an elaborate party held for no particularly special occasion.

And don't let the Antigua pictures fool you, Guatemala City is quite modern and bustling. This video (if you can see it) is however the countryside...

Friday, June 15, 2007

El Salvador: Part 2

It took my leg muscles about two days to completely return to normal after the Izalco hike...just as anticipated. The confused look on my face in this pic with my buddy CK is a sign of my overheating and exhaustion carrying on into the night, though they were quickly alleviated by drinking copius volumes of ice water. Thank the volcano gods, for that night we dined at their "cousins" house on steak. Something about being out in a jungle all day brings out the animal instincts in you I think because when I saw that red meat in front of me, it triggered an impulse and I devoured that slab as if I had never seen meat before.

The other day we visited a friend's reptile farm slightly outside of the city of San Salvador. The whole experience felt very Jurassic Park complete even with an electric perimeter fence, although this was one for keeping out theives as opposed to containing T-Rexes. This little fellow sitting on my shoulder I believe is called a bearded dragon. Por que? I don't know. I had never seen so many reptiles before in one place. Small ones, large ones, red ones, brown ones, green ones, shelled ones, spiny ones, slithery ones, cute ones, creepy ones, jumpy ones...well, you get the picture.

Before entering the turtle section of the farm, we had disinfect the bottoms of our shoes. It was like a happy little turtle civilization with turtles as far as the eye could see. Off to the side they housed the giant turtles which to see up close in person is quite amusing. You stand there looking at this slow, shelled, almost comical-looking creature and wonder how the shell it has survived since dinosaur times...but indeed it has and so you can't help look at it with a bit of reverence. To sit on it was a treat too; it makes one feel a bit Super Mario Brothers-ish...

During my time here in El Salvador so far, I have been enlightened to the magical place that is simply known as "Pollo Campero." It's the tastiest fried chicken chain across Central America. So far I've only eaten there twice but both times were muy rico. I know you're thinking it looks like a pretty normal meal in the photo, so you'll just have to trust me on this one. Keep a lookout on the street for a sign with a big yellow and orange cartoon chicken!

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Volcano Izalco Movie Clip

Filmed and narrated by my hiking buddy, this clip is taken at the peak of the volcano El Izalco. It feels like standing on a giant crater island floating above the clouds. In the background you can see our other hiking partners, our guide, the two armed policia, and me eating an apple.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Cerro Verde y El Izalco: Take Two

We went back to Cerre Verde as planned in hopes of making it for the morning volcano hike. For 1$ a person a guide will take you to the volcano and back, a hike they estimate at 4 hours. Fortunatly three other adventurers arrived to put us over the two person minimum. Rain fell at 10:30 am, but the hike was on. They said we could tip the guide (this time, a 17-year-old kid named Danny) but it wasn't necessary to tip the security guards who were accompanying us on the trip.

Whaaat? Security guards? Armed police to be specific. Two of them.

We began with a brisk descent 2,030 meters down Cerro Verde in the rain, though under the canopy of the forest. We reached the base of the volcano (seen in first pic) where luckily the rain had stopped. Wide-eyed optimists, we began the trek straight up the side of the volcano on barely a trail. After 1,870 meters of maneuvering on a constant, rocky, steep, uphill grade, we finally reached the top of the volcano Izalco. Here in the second pic our two armed security enjoy the view that they apparently see twice a week. Apparently in the past hikers had been mugged and/or raped along the trail - hence, the reason for the government to install guards to protect tourism. Now you know.

Honestly these pictures do the experience no justice at all. To stand at the top of a black volcano above the clouds and look into it's fuming crater is exhilarating. To stand so high on such a steep and primitive slope for me was disorienting, but rewarding. All you could hear up there was the wind, the sound of your feet crunching along the rocks, and your breath. Walking around the huge crater, I saw some of the craziest, alien-like insects I had ever seen.

Also exhilarating? Standing practically up in the clouds and hearing a thunderstorm brewing literally beside you as opposed to above you. A bit scary in fact. A few booms were enough to set us 8 travellers out for the volcano descent quickly, this time down a different path of mostly red sand and rocks. Tricky footwork, controlled sliding, and clever weight distribution was required, but the impending storm was enough to hurry me down the volcano in fear of a mudslide or worse. By the time we finally reached the protective canopy of Cerro Verde, the rain was pouring down. In hiking, what goes down must come up; the brisk descent down Cerro Verde was not so brisk on the way back up. It was an interminable series of turns and dirt steps, each one leading to more and more forest each time. Sweat and rain were indistinguishable. If you could ignore the dizziness and vertigo, you could really take in the dazzling atmosphere of the misty forest.

In the end, we basically walked 2,030 meters down a mountain, then 1,870 meters up a volcano, then 1,870 meters down a volcano, and 2,030 meters back up a mountain. In my opinion, it is DEFINITELY NOT for the beginner hiker or the faint of heart. To my constant amazement, our two police guards and 17-year-old guide never looked tired, let alone phased, throughout the entire hike! They were super-friendly and helpful the entire time. It was by far the most grueling physical challenge I've put myself in front of, but no matter where I go in life, I'll ALWAYS know what it was like to stand on the fuming rim of a black Central American volcano...

Sunday, June 10, 2007

El Salvador: Part 1

Que chivisimo...loving everything about El Salvador so far. Scenery is complete with lush greenery and cows on the side of the road. Day 2 Viki and I drove up to Cerro Verde looking for volcanoes. It's amazing to see in the green landscape a huge black mound billowing with fumes...I guess it explains why the beaches here have black sand (which is really cool by the way). Tomorrow we return to hike up the actual volcano itself since we missed the required guided-hike up. And in case you find this interesting, a guided hike is 25 cents per person. Yes, a quarter.

Safety first, ninos! Just when you think you've seen the most packed-in pickup truck ever, another one will always drive by and amaze you. Usually the passengers stand in the back, especially when there's a big group. There's usually a roll cage type thing for them to hold onto, because as I said earlier, safety first ninos! Sometimes there's even a lawn chair in the pickup bed for elders to sit for the duration of the ride. It's efficient, that's for sure.

Day 3 we took a canopy zipline tour over the wooded mountains of Apaneca. Well worth the $30 to zip across 12 lines over totally primitive woods and farms with the wind whirring over your ears. I felt very much like Spider-man...or a or the other. The "bus" ride up was pretty cool too, a very rugged road through the jungle. And of course by "bus" I mean the back of a pickup truck, although this one had seats and a canopy roof.

Check back for more...