A Gringa’s Guide to Traveling by Chicken Bus

I’ve been living in Honduras for 9 months.  My experience on chicken busses has been pretty much the same here as in Peru, China, and the Philippines.  I’ve traveled all around Honduras on different types of busses, but I was inspired to write this blog after my recent trip through Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and back to Honduras.

1) Forget your ideas about schedules. If you leave from a terminal, the bus will leave when it is full. It will stop whenever necessary for people to get on and off.

2) Forget your ideas about “full”. There is no such thing as a full bus. There is always room for more people.

3) Personal space is not a thing.

4) Air conditioning is not a thing.

5) If somebody gets on that is really old and decrepit, someone should give up a seat. Remember that you are someone.

6) You usually don’t pay at the beginning or end of your trip, but at some random point in the middle.

7) If you pay with a large bill you will get “the look”.

8) Ask the driver or cobrero (the guy you pay) where you need to get off ahead of time. You don’t want to pass close by your destination only to take a taxi from a distant terminal.

9) Don’t take forever to get on or off the bus.

10) What might look like chaos is really a well-oiled machine. If you’re not sure which bus you need or what the connections are, just ask. Somebody will most likely come up to you and show you which bus.

11)  If somebody wants to chit chat with you, take out your earbuds and have a conversation.  Enjoy the fact that someone from another culture is opening up and is interested in you.

12) Be respectful. Everybody wants to get to their destination just as much as you do and for most, this is the only way they ever have to travel.

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Settling in

I just finished my first full week of work here in Comayagua.  We had 7 days of planning and meetings.  Staff meetings are exactly as much fun as they are in the US.  Planning was different than what I’m used to after teaching the same Spanish course for 9 years.  I always try to change up my materials and activities, but I teach exactly the same content.  This year, not only do I have completely new content, (math and science), I had to submit a complete assignment calendar for the first quarter.  No more flying by the seat of my pants.

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In front of EBH with the teacher editions of my textbooks.

There’s a van that comes around and picks up the teachers in the morning.  Ricardo, the driver, has been arriving promptly at 7:30, but from tomorrow on he’ll be coming at 6:10.  No, that wasn’t a typo.   Fortunately, our neighbors have an insane rooster so I’m awake before 5:00 a.m. every day anyway.  I actually like the earlier hours, because it gets dark here around 6:30.  This way I get more daylight hours.

There are 6 new teachers besides me – all from the United States.  They are all young and beautiful so I feel like the grandmother.  All of them have lived abroad.  Some of them have worked as teaching assistants, but I think I’m the only one who has been a regular classroom teacher. There are a few returning American teachers, and a few Honduran teachers who are part of the English program.

Lunch is always wonderful.  Yami cooks for all the teachers.  It’s usually traditional Honduran food including beans, rice, tortillas, but she does mix it up a bit.  I’m learning to drink bags of juice or lemonade without squirting it all over myself.  You just bite a small hole in the corner of the bag and squeeze.

 

At EBH (Escuela Bilingüe Honduras) all math and science is taught in English.  Unlike the bilingual program in Rock Hill where only math and science are taught in the target language, they also have direct instruction in the English language focusing on spelling, grammar, and reading.  In the secondary program they also offer history classes taught in English. French is also offered, but none of the content is taught in French.  I met most of my kids during the week as they came in to drop off their personal materials and supplies for the class such as copy paper, soap, toilet paper, and tissue.  I was blown out of the water by how well they speak English.  These are 5th graders who have never traveled outside of Honduras, many of them sounding like they grew up in the US.  It really highlights the inadequacies of the program I just left, where most kids don’t start a second language until 6th grade, and then only have classes for 45 minutes every other day.

My hosts’ granddaughter is a rising 4th grader at EBH.  Her English is better than my Spanish and she has been giving me the scoop on all the students and teachers:  “Everybody is SOOO nice!”  She was over here last week taping labels with her name on her zillions of markers, pens, and pencils.  She has a stack of school books that probably weigh as much as she does.  I was impressed to see that they actually have a text book for critical thinking.  Whoa!  She had told me that my class was crazy.  When I mentioned to her yesterday that everyone was nice, she gave me “that look” and said, “The parents were there.  They have another side.”

This week was all about preparation.  We had to decorate our doors (thankfully we don’t have bulletin boards).  I learned that our school building was originally a mall.  That actually makes sense, as there is one large hallway that runs the length of the building, all of the classrooms have glass windows that face the interior hall, and the second floor walkway looks down onto the first floor.  Not that anybody is competitive or anything, but it’s easy to check out each other’s doors.

So, tomorrow is the big day when I finally get to start teaching!  I can’t wait!

Watch: Students practicing for the opening assembly.

 

T

 

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The Adventure

The whole point of dragging Harper down here was to travel around the country for a bit before I started working.  Honduras is about the size of Tennessee, and we wanted to see as much as possible, but we narrowed it down to two main destinations:  Lake Yojoa and the Copan Ruins.

Our first stop was a D & D Brewery, located near Lake Yojoa.  Memo and Esmerelda were worried about us, so their son, Guillermo, offered to drive us.  I hated to put him to the trouble, but we arrived safely in about an hour and a half.  I immediately fell in love with the place.  It’s not far from a small, touristy, town, but it’s nestled off the road in a dense patch of jungle.  Our private room with 2 beds and a private bath only cost $15 per night.  As the name implies, they brew their own beer – 5 varieties – on site.  I confess I was elated to find Blue Moon there and none of their brews swayed me.   Every meal we had there was a little piece of heaven.

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Our first adventure was climbing to the peak of Las Nalgas, a mountain overlooking Lake Yojoa.  Nalgas means butt cheeks in Spanish.  Along the way our guide, Freddy, showed us a lot of the local crops such as corn, coffee, cocoa, and a variety of fruit growing wild along the way.

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DSC01484In the evening we got to know some of our fellow travelers, Sophie and Daisy, from England, and Mike and Justin, from Michigan.  One of the best parts of backpacking trips is meeting and swapping stories with fellow travelers.  We had a lovely time sitting around the fire pit chatting, until they actually built a fire and I had to move away from the searing heat.

The next day, Mike and Justin (father and son) had hired car, driven by Luis, and guide, Walter, to take us to the Pulhapanzak Falls.  We were supposed to climb behind the falls, but because it rained so much the night before they said we needed to wait an hour to see if the water slowed down any.  From above, the falls were gorgeous and that would have been enough.  They finally let us go on the tour behind the falls.  Harper very accurately described it as terrifying.  The trail down to the river was no big deal.  Since the water was high, part of the trail was covered, but it wasn’t hard to pick our way along the rocky trail leading closer to the falls. ­­­ Then the guide, Luis (not our driver Luis), showed us where we needed to jump off a boulder into a pool and swim across 3 meters or so, taking care not to get swept into the main river.  After that, we had to climb out, climb around some more rocks, then back into the water to the base of the falls, where we used a slippery cable to help climb to a ledge behind the falls.  Simple, right?  Well not with the water coming down with so much force that even though we were only getting hit with the water that splashed off the rocks, the noise was deafening and you couldn’t see a thing.  I can’t remember the last time I was that frightened.  I loved it!

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We only planned to do the falls, but Walter decided we needed to go to the Taulabe Caves, so we did.  We arrived at closing time, but they were friends of Walter, so we got in and had the caves all to ourselves.  They were quite extensive and lovely, being lit up with different colored lights. These caves were discovered around 1969 during road construction.  Only about 400 yards are developed and lit, but they have been explored much further.  No end has been found.  They could go all the way to the lake.  We did the developed tour, but there is also an “extreme” tour that goes back much further through tighter openings.  We were debating whether or not to do that one, but since we arrived so late it wasn’t an option anyway.  Even though Luis grew up in the area, it was his first time visiting the caves and he was absolutely delighted.

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Next, Walter wanted to show us a view of the lake from a nearby hotel.  It was magnificent, even better than the view from Las Nalgas.  Then we went to a local seafood restaurant to enjoy talapia caught fresh from the lake.

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Leaving D & D was hard, but we left the next morning and headed to the Copan Ruins.  Even though the roads are not bad, bus trips take forever, because they stop all along the way to pick up and let off passengers.  Still, we arrived in about 4 hours, and checked into the Hotel Berakah, a recommendation of Walter’s.  It was nice, right on the edge of the town, Ruinas Copan.  We ate dinner at the restaurant right across the street, and walked around the town.  They have a lively square surrounded by lots of restaurants.  They have a craft market along one of the side streets.

The next morning after breakfast we hiked to the Copan Ruins.  This is the most significant archaeological site in Honduras.  We arrived right as they were feeding the macaws, so we were greeted by dozens of the giant colorful birds.  The Mayan temples, altars and great pyramid were amazing.  If I’m not mistaken, these ruins are have the most extensive hieroglyphics in Central America.  After lunch we went on a horseback ride up into the mountains.  Our guide, Oscar, took us to some lesser known ruins called Las Ruinas del Sapo (the frog ruins).  This small area has not been excavated at all.  The ruins were exposed by rain.  However it is believed that this was a hospital.  You can see a frog, which represents human fertility.  You can also see a crocodile which represents agricultural fertility. Oscar showed us how the two carvings were arranged so that a woman giving birth would sit between the two.  There was also an altar where every 10th baby born was sacrificed to the gods.  Horrible, but fascinating.

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Today we made the long ride back to Comayagua. The bus system seems chaotic at a glance, but it actually runs like a well-oiled machine.  When we reached La Entrada, I was WAY more interested in los baños than the next leg of our journey.  One guy actually came up to the bathrooms (across the parking lot from the bus), and made sure we followed him back to the right bus.

I’ve heard so many negative things about Honduras that I was a little apprehensive about this trip.  Not once did we feel unsafe.  Yeah, there were some creepy people we avoided, but we have our share of those at home.  Overall, we felt welcomed and looked after everywhere we went.  It was a wonderful trip and I’m so happy that Harper was here to share the experience.

 

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The Journey

The night before the trip to Honduras I didn’t even bother to go to bed, so I knew I was setting myself up for a long day.  To meet aviation guidelines that we be at the airport guidelines 3 hours for departure……well to heck with that.  Two hours was close enough and gave me plenty of time to hit Starbuck’s.

Our flight from Charlotte took off a half hour late, so we landed in Miami at the same time that our flight was boarding.  Of course the gate was on the opposite end of the airport.  By the time we got to the gate, they were just beginning to page errant passengers, but we still had plenty of time before takeoff.  I’m just grateful that we didn’t have to recheck our bags.

Customs in Tegucigalpa went smoothly.  You have to get fingerprinted and have your photo taken.  I think the lady got aggravated because I was trying to put my hands on the finger print machine with nicely curved fingers like my piano teacher taught me, but you have to lay them down flat.  She also didn’t seem very impressed when I smiled for the camera like I was in Glamor Shots.  I was afraid to ask if I could check the picture.

I got a little nervous that our ride wasn’t there to greet us.  However, at the time I didn’t realize that we had landed 25 minutes early.  We sailed through customs and only waited a minute for our bags. Mauricio, the school’s general manager, showed up when I was trying to get new SIM card for my phone.  AT&T hadn’t sent me the unlock code yet so I couldn’t have used it anyway.

Mauricio was immediately a wonderful and gracious host.  By this point we were starving, and Harper is an absolute beast when he’s hungry.  I didn’t really know what to expect, but “upscale mall” was not the first thing I would have guessed.  Nor was I expecting an enormous food court with offerings including American chains, Chinese, and Honduran food.  We wound up with baleadas from the first place he showed us.  It was a lot like what you would get at Moe’s, and it was delicious.

The ride from Comayagua to Tegucigalpa was uneventful. The 4 lane highway is nice, except for a mile or so when we were on the old 2 lane road, then it became nice 4 lane highway again.  Throughout the trip we saw sparse forests with patches of brown trees.  Mauricio explained that there is a parasite that infects the trees and kills them.  He said the interior wood is still good, and the wood could be harvested and used for building or furniture, but instead they clear cut and sell the wood to burn for fuel.

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Our first stop in Comayagua was the school.  It looks very tiny from the outside, but you enter a large hallway with stories of classrooms lining the sides.  Think mall.  In fact, all of the classrooms have glass walls on the interior, so you will be able to walk by and see what is going on in any given class.  They are all equipped with sound systems and smart boards.

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Next he took us to the grocery store and got us a few staples to get started.  We just got drinks, bread, peanut butter and jelly.  At that point I had no idea what the housing was going to be like.  I did not see cheddar cheese.

It turns out that my apartment is located in the back yard of a house owned by Memo and Esmerelda.  I just have a large bedroom and bathroom.  Esmerelda said I could use the kitchen if I wanted to cook.  The garden is lovely, and there’s a large patio under the main house with tables, a TV, and a couple of hammocks.  And yes, there’s wifi!

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Memo and Esmeralda took me to the grocery store with them to show me around.  First we went to the mall, so they could show me the banks and theater.  They have Tarzan and Ghost Busters now!  The grocery store was much larger than the first one we went to.  They do have cheddar cheese, so I will stay.

Dinner was a simple dish of rice and vegetables, along with salad.  PERFECT.  We were joined by Memo and Esmerelda’s daughter, granddaughter, and another little girl.  Later their son came in to eat.  Everybody was very welcoming.

So my first day was very full, but nice.  Today we’re going to get out and explore, as well as plan what we’re going to do to make Harper’s time with me exciting (like just being here isn’t enough).

Sorry there aren’t a lot of pictures yet.  I’ll work on that as I go along!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Where are you going next?

It’s been a year since my experience in the Philippines.  Since then I’ve pretty much been a homebody.   My job is pretty demanding (12 classes, 250 students).  I play soccer, run trails at the ASC Greenway with my dear companion Dexter, and occasionally visit my aunt’s house on Tybee Island.  That’s it.

Well, no, that’s not it.  Almost every day someone asks me where I’m going next. That question, along with how to get there and sustain myself is always on my mind.  My travel experiences up to now have been amazing.  As I meet more and more people who travel independently – not just for vacation of business, but as a way of life – I know that it’s not just daydreaming, but something I can really do.  Not being wealthy certainly presents a challenge.  I worked in China, volunteered in Peru, and had a professional development grant for the Philippines.  If you’re willing to put in some effort, there are countless opportunities for affordable travel.

So where am I going next?  Honduras.  I’m going to teach 5th grade math and science at Escuela Bilingüe Honduras, in Comayagua.  It’s a pretty exciting opportunity.  One of the teachers from TGC who was with me in the Philippines, Diana, worked at this school for 3 years and introduced me to the directors via e-mail.  After teaching basic Spanish for 10 years, it will be fun to teach math and science again.  Since it’s a bilingual school, I will be teaching my classes in English.  So for now, everything is about preparation. Making sure my family is prepared to manage things while I’m gone, figuring out what to take and what to leave behind, brushing up on my Spanish (teaching basic Spanish is not like real world conversation), and basically just riding an emotional roller-coaster.

This week I quit my job and bought my plane ticket.  Very big, scary steps, but it’s done.  Let the adventure begin.

https://www.google.com/maps/embed?pb=!1m18!1m12!1m3!1d3863.4826409578022!2d-87.64656408602463!3d14.456952984458596!2m3!1f0!2f0!3f0!3m2!1i1024!2i768!4f13.1!3m3!1m2!1s0x8f6585896d89493d%3A0xe69e2f453507e726!2sEscuela+Biling%C3%BCe+Honduras!5e0!3m2!1sen!2sus!4v1462630568784“>map of Comayagua

 

 

 

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Flood Relief

A few weeks ago much of my state was flooded, and people are still dealing with the aftermath.  My friend an co-worker Karol told me about and organization called All Hands All_Hands_Volunteers_Logothat is doing disaster relief here.  The project is based in Georgetown.  I felt moved to do something so I signed up to work yesterday.

I had planned to join the group Friday night.  They are sleeping in the gym at a church and share responsibilities of cooking an cleaning, so there’s a very communal atmosphere.  However, when I called my friend, Bourne, who lives there, to ask about road conditions, he invited me to stay with him and his wife Linda.  They are a wonderful couple and it was nice to relax in their beautiful home, have a delicious meal and good conversation.  Bourne and I are at opposite ends of the political spectrum, but we pretty much managed to avoid politics, so peace prevailed.

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Ethan, the glorious team leader, with Kyle peeping between the beams.

Saturday morning around 7:45 I arrived at Duncan Methodist Church to meet my work crew and, of course, get my t-shirt. Emma, my contact person up to that point introduced me to Ethan, our team leader for the day.  There are currently about 25 volunteers working at 3 different sites.  They mix up the crews each day so that everyone gets to know one another.  Some people, like me are just there for the day.  Others have been there for several weeks.  Some of the people on my crew, including a girl from England who likes to wear fairy wings, are actually employees, and don’t regularly go to the worksites.  They are site evaluators and set up the projects for the volunteers. We had 3 ladies that had worked together on a project in Dominica before coming to SC, and one from Austalia who had been working in Nepal and plans to return.  They are essentially professional volunteers. One gentleman, originally from Ecuador and living in New Orleans, came because of the assistance he and his family received during Hurricane Katrina.  He travels frequently for his job, and works in volunteer opportunities when he can as a way to give back.  One lady was an AmeriCorps volunteer who plans to pursue a career in environmental science.  All in all it was an interesting crew.

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The “small creek”.

Our worksite was about a half hour outside of Georgetown.  It was a small house situated about 100 yards from what is normally a small creek that was dry before the rains came. Even now it is a rapidly moving river that is clearly flowing beyond its banks.  The house belongs to an older couple who, unfortunately, I did not get to meet.  The first thing that caught my eye when we arrived was all of their belongings pile up along the street in front of the house.  Clothes, what had clearly been lovely antiques.  Even though the day was a very positive experience, I never lost sight of the fact that this was someone’s home and that we were having to tear down and throw out parts of their lives.

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My job for most of the day was taking down dry wall, then cleaning up all the debris. It was easier in some rooms than others.  When we left there was almost nothing left but the framing.  In one part of the house they had 4 layers of carpet.  The stench was really awful. I helped a little when I finished the walls but I was very glad not to have been there all day.  All Hands is just getting houses cleaned out.  Another group will come in afterward and do the reconstruction.

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All in all, working with All Hands was a great experience.  If you’re here in South Carolina and can get the time, it would really be worth your while to spend a day or so working with this group. I would definitely do it again.  They also have sites in other parts of the world.  It was so inspiring people who spend their lives traveling around the world and doing this type of relief work.  Yes it’s exhausting and sad but still so positive and meaningful.  It’s not bad for working out a little stress, either.

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What I learned on my summer vacation:

  • Avoid fixed travel dates.  Of course, arrival and departure dates from home may need to be set in advance, but allow yourself as much flexibility as possibility within those dates.
  • Travel can be affordable. If you’re more about the experience and less about the amenities, then it’s very doable.
  • Your comfort zone is home. If you need to be in it, you need to stay there.
  • Backpacking does not mean lugging a 70 pound pack up a mountain.
  • Don’t be afraid to start a conversation. Don’t be a creeper, but at least test the waters.  You can tell pretty quickly if someone is open to talking or not.  “Where are you from?” is the best conversation starter ever.
  • If you look different people are going to look at you. You do it, too.
  • If people laugh at you it may be because they’re nervous or self-conscious. It could also be because you’re funny to them.  Get over yourself.
  • Speak clearly. If you’re in a place that caters to American or European tourists, then it’s fair to expect English.  Otherwise, remember that it’s NOT everybody’s first language.  And not everybody had the opportunity to go to school.
  • Your social boundaries are based on your culture. Different culture = different boundaries.
  • Trip Advisor is your friend. The locals know best, but the locals may want to help out a cousin who is trying to operate a subpar business.
  • If you’re not sure what to do, wait and see what other people are doing. Or just ask.  (refer to #7 above)
  • If your intuition tells you “no”, listen. Don’t be afraid to walk away.
  • Things are not always going to go as planned. Adopt “it’s all part of the adventure” as your mantra.
  • Stay in touch. You know you’re ok, but people at home still worry.
  • If you go to Asia and don’t like rice, you are a weirdo.
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