Thursday, March 19, 2009

Black Jesus

...Continued from last post: Esquipulas

So after having so much great fun in Copán looking at old stuff, my comrades and I made our way to Esquipulas, Guatemala, on pilgrimage to the Cristo Negro. We left early Saturday morning, and arrived before noon. When we got there, there was already a very long line of pilgrims to see the unique sculpture.

Basilica at Esquipulas, monument blocking view, and line

Esquipulas certainly had a lot to offer. Of course there was the Black Christ, but there was also a zoo, a market, and a Pizza Burger cafe.

The zoo far exceeded my expectations, which were pretty low to begin with. It would certainly be shut down by PETA in most other places of the world, that doesn't mean it wasn't entertaining. There were monkeys, ostriches, water buffalo, crocodiles, and other animals that are often in zoos. What was different about this zoo? A strange cave filled with smoke and candles that led to nowhere, and ziplines going over "Monkey Island." My personal favorite was the ostrich cage that didn't have a door.

Monkey Island

I didn't see the Black Christ until later in the night, and it was certainly a good experience. After waiting in a much shorter line than the one we originally saw, we finally got to see the object of so much adoration, and what earned Esquipulas the title of "Spiritual Center of Central America" from Pope John Paul II in 1995. The original was in a glass case, and was certainly beautiful. Then, there was a more accessible copy, where people could pray for longer, light candles, touch the sculpture, etc. It was very interesting, and certainly beautiful.

The People's Champion

The zoo was great, and the Black Christ was certainly enlightening, but I think the highlights of the trip are shared between the excellent eatery, Pizza Burger, and selling sandals on the street.

My party ate at Pizza Burger twice: once for dinner, and once for breakfast. For dinner, we had pizza for Blair's birthday. For breakfast, we had omelettes and pancakes. Both meals were memorable. There were free warm-ups on coffee at breakfast! The American way. Turns out the owner (who was sitting behind us and stealthily killed a wall-crawling roach) worked at a diner in NYC, and brought the vision back to Guatemala. This man will never know how much he pleased three citizens of the U.S. and one Canadian on the weekend of February 28, 2009.

Yes, my friend Blair and I sold rope 'pilgrimage' sandals on the street, and we sold three pairs in one hour. People loved them.
It was fun. We were inducted into the unspoken fraternity of Esquipulas street-vendors. "¡Como los de Jesus!" : that was a good sales pitch.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Wanderlust and my Lack of Repentance Thereof

What do I, an arcwelder, and a self-proclaimed Central American celebrity named Saul have in common? We all shared the bed of a little white on-site KIA pick-up truck from La Entrada to Copán Ruinas, Honduras. How did we find ourselves in this rare occasion of comradery? We used our thumbs. Well, except for the arcwelder. It was already in the truck.

So, if you read my last post, I ended up taking what I thought to be the "safe route" charter bus into Honduras. Then I hitchhiked from there. I'm not sure I would have done it without the my confidence in Saul, which he quickly earned with his first forceful wave for me get off the telephone pole I was sitting on at the de facto pickup spot for Copán and to follow him and and the Miaman (Miamese? Miamian?) woman that accompanied him. When I asked him how we were getting to our destination (I thought he had a car or something, and was offering me a ride), he simply held out his thumb. The game was afoot!

Saul Molina Calderón: Entertainer

Copán was excellent. Little red tuk-tuks overran the cobblestone streets, and old archaeology tourists and young hippy backpackers--both local to C.A. and otherwise--could be found in many of the little street cafes.
Also, the burritos were huge. It was really my kind of place.

Copán at night
Big Burrito

While in Copán, I was pleased to take part in the pilot children's program that my friend Blair and his partner in petty crime Mr. Mateo were conducting, even if on the sidelines. They do an excellent job, and I am excited to see the fruit their work will bear when the program is put into permanence this summer. You can read about that here.

Also while in Copán, I got to see what most people are there for: the ruins. Yes, there are ruins. Old ruins. Ancient, even. Ruins from Mayan civilizations long passed. Ruins that foretell the coming apocalypse in 2012. I won't post pictures, because they basically look like what you saw in Apocalyptica, and in the History Channel special that plays every other night.

I am thankful for this particular experience with antquity, because I jumped in with another tour group. To pay, I just bought our tour guide lunch. The tour group I was in was great, and I made a contact in Antigua. Thank the Mayans for ruins.

A tuk-tuk for good measure.

Next up, Esquipulas. To be continued...

Monday, February 23, 2009

Of Future Plans and My Lack Thereof

At this very moment, or at the moments just previous to my writing of these very words, I am, or was, really, planning my upcoming trip to Copan Ruinas, Honduras, where I am going to meet my friend Blair. Blair is in Copan working to set up an after-school program for the kids of the small town. I am very excited to make this trip out of the city, and even out of the country, as I have not travelled save for one trip to the beach since I have been living here.

I am leaving from San Salvador this Thursday morning, and will (hopefully) arrive in Copan that afternoon. Saturday morning, Blair, Blair's comrade, and I will be making the short pilgrimmage across the Guatemalan border to the small town of Esquipulas to see the famed Cristo Negro. Apparently, in 1995, Pope Leo II declared Esquipulas and the church that houses the Black Christ as the spiritual center of Central America. So, I guess that means something. I just hope I get some good Passport stamps.

The problem is, I don't really know how I'm going to get there. I have options, sure, but like with many other things down here that really do require a certain availability of necessary information, such necessary information is most often unavailable. So I am having to rely on internet travel forums to make my trip.

My first option is to take a "luxury" class bus. Now, this sounds good. It even has air conditioning. But I have no idea where it is going to drop me off. And I called.

My second option is to take one of the "regular people's" buses. These buses might also be known as chicken buses, non-dependable, and unpredictable as far as personal safety goes. The route I would take can be found here. Yeah. It's in there somewhere.

My third option is to stay here. So I'm going with 1 or 2. I'm leaning toward #2 because I expect it to be a bit more exciting, and it is about 400% cheaper.

Speaking of which, I did have my first bus experience in-city here on Saturday. It wasn't bad. I must admit, I've been very much of a chicken when I've thought about getting on one of these buses, but Saturday I took the plunge. Sure, it was about a 15-block drive in one of the safest areas of the city, but it was still a bit of a personal achievement. My destination? Galerias.

Now to try to decode my returning trip from Esquipulas.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Coolest Dream Ever? Maybe.

I had one of the most vivid dreams last night that I've had (and remembered) in a long time. The setting was futuristic and most likely post-apocalyptic. Old cars and discarded metals were strewn about in all directions, and the skies were dark at the peak of the day. In fact, it was very much like that of the post-apocalyptic world seen in the future scenes of Terminator: the Sarah Connor Chronicles, save for the threat of man-killing machines. What was the threat? You guessed it: zombie predators.

No, not predators. Predators like lions, tigers, and bears. The ones I dreamed about, though, were zombie panthers and wolves.

The dream started out with me and some of my friends playing hide-and-go-seek in the dark. I know: how juvenile. Well let me tell you, hide-and-go-seek has never been as good as it is in a post-apocalyptic world strewn about with shacks among piles of discarded Peugeots and VW Rabbits. So we were playing, and I strayed a little far from the invisible perimeter of the game.

Suddenly, I found myself walking in a now-defunct train yard and wondering how I got there. I came to the base of a hill scattered with clutter, and lights were coming from its peak. I walked upwards toward the light, and spotted a zombie panther in the distance, a purple aura glowing around it. I know: awesome, right? So I put a little kick in my step, and made it to the light source.

Like this, but a zombie and emitting purple light:

Turns out, some of my other friends were having a party. So, naturally, I joined in. There was much talking and carousing and dancing. After I had partied enough, I stepped out of the door, only to see that the house/shack/old bus had been surrounded by futuristic cop cars, which are a lot like the old, square ones from RoboCop.

So I think the party is about to get busted up, and I ask one of the future cops what's going on. They reply that there is a zombie wolf on the loose, and that they are trying to hunt it down, and along the way are telling everyone to seek shelter. Of course, the zombie wolf is the most vicious, stealthy, and blood-thirsty of all zombie predators.

So I start rushing down the hill, trying to find my way back to the train tracks in an effort to get back to the friends that I was playing hide-and-seek with so I can warn them. I come to a clearing, and realize that, again, I have no idea where I am. All I know is that there are cars stacked in eerie columns all around, and that there is a full moon. Luckily, my friends start coming out of the shadows, and say they've been looking for me. Unluckily, the zombie wolf then comes out of its own shadow, and it truly is a brooding, blood-thirsty beast. Think the wolf from the opening sequence of 300, except this one is blue, has exposed ribs, yellow eyes, lots of drool, and is glowing with radiation of some sort.

The zombie wolf begins its rounds of skulking and stalking, and I can tell it's about to make its move. So I bring my double-barrel shotgun (I know, I didn't know I had one either) up to the ready position, after shakily loading it with two deadly shells. I know I have to wait until the beast is upon me before I shoot, or I don't have a chance of at least slowing it before it kills me and my friends, but I still squeeze the trigger with sweat, anticipation, and tremendous fright.

Finally, after slowly zig-zagging down a small slope towards me, the zombie wolf launches from its hind legs.

I want to pull the trigger, but I wait.

Seconds turn in to minutes. I know I only have one shot.

I wait till its jaws are open for the kill, so I can shove my double barrel into its mouth: sure to sever the brain stem.

One, clean shot.

Smoke snakes from barrels of the gun. The heaving monster is at my feet, still quivering with the last firings of neurons through its biologically altered synapses.

I wake up.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

I'm not there

Well, here I am.

I am in El Salvador. Again. I was here for nearly four months, going home for December for Christmas, the New Year, my father's wedding: you know, the usual. I returned to my home here down south just a week ago.

You may be thinking: What is young Nathan doing in El Salvador? You wouldn't be the first. I must admit, I've even often caught myself thinking the exact same thing.

You see, my father warned me. He said I was too much of an idealist, and not to get my hopes up. And I don't hold that against him. He just didn't want to see me disappointed, devastated, and down-trodden. The trouble is, though I can't say he was right, I can't necessarily say he was wrong, either.

Though devastated is a little much, and down-trodden is certainly an overstatement, I am a bit disappointed, if not depressed at times. Here's an excerpt from an article I sent in to a publication (it didn't get published):

For the past three and a half months I’ve been living in the maid’s quarters of a house in San Salvador, El Salvador. I left the States in August, looking for a perspective of the world apart from that of a 22-year-old recent college graduate with an English degree from the University of Arkansas and a life lived in the buckle of the Bible belt. Cynical at best concerning the current state of the most visible (or infamous?) parts of the North American church, especially in light of the recent political arena in the States, I felt that my trip south could be somewhat of a spiritual journey as well—one in which I could separate myself from some of the most haunting aspects of my own personal faith and spirituality. So with a job teaching history at a private Christian school and a furnished room the size of many closets in primo-suburban houses waiting for me, I got on a plane going to a place I had never been and had only read about a week before.

A few days after my arrival, I was disappointed to find that many things I was meaning to leave behind seemed to have followed me here. Shopping malls, huge disparities between the rich and poor, evangelical mega-churches: these are just a few things that I now find myself surrounded by. In fact, the very school I work at is an affiliate of a huge church with which it shares its same name and grounds, and both are affiliated with one of the most infamous evangelical universities in the States, the president of which is still facing allegations of misspending donors’ money on things like luxury vehicles (SUVs, at that) and house remodeling projects—as well as the illegal involvement in political campaigns. On top of that, the textbooks I was provided with bear names such as, America: Land I Love, and, The History of the World in Christian Perspective.

It was fine. I saw it as an opportunity. I thought taking refuge in my small cell of a room and using my time wisely to write, read, etc., would be a good attempt at finding a life of spiritual discipline, and a good milestone in my own “journey.” I felt it could be a kind of retreat, Bon Iver style. But it’s hard to retreat with a major thoroughfare in front of my house in a city known for its violence and a country with a homicide rate second only to Iraq. And I didn’t really want to retreat into myself anymore. I wanted to help people. I wanted to help ease the pain brought on by an economy that garners more than 20 percent of its liquidity from remittances sent from the U.S.

I know, right? A real sob-story. I've gotten pretty good at self-righteous-self-loathing. But the truth is, I really didn't feel like I could do anything for anyone, including myself. Outside of school, some Friday night dinners with a couple of good friends and colleages, and the occasional walk to the supermarket up the street, I was closed off in a kind of self-imposed house arrest. I still am. But I'm trying to change that. I want to change that, at least.

I walked farther than I ever have today. That's a start. The best part: the streets were alive. Peaceful political demonstrations everywhere. There was ARENA (Alliance of Republican Nationalists), with its scantily-clad models donning the red, white, and blue bars and the ARENA white cross. Then FMLN (something to do with liberation), the people's party (read: communist), with their modest cars, red flags, and a knack for seeming more genuine. Finally, the PCN (National Conciliation Party), partying in the Argentina Plaza, ska band and all.

I walked all the way to one of the malls, where there were some MONDO sales. I was self-concsious because I smelled bad, so I didn't try to buy anything except food, and even then I tried to distance myself enough from the other patrons so as not to cause offense.

I say all of this to actually say only this: I'm trying to change things, myself included. No longer will I be confined. I shall be released. Or should I say liberated? ¡Viva la revolución!

(Note: the flyer included in this article is old, and does not reflect my opinions)

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Soybean Fields, Pipe Smoke, and Roman Candles

When I was young, my family would drive to Griffithville, a very small rural town in east-central Arkansas and home to the now-demolished Blue Devil restaurant, to visit my grandparents-my mother's parents. They lived in the same house that my mother had grown up in after spending the initial part of her childhood in Chicago. It wasn't a long drive from where we lived-about thirty minutes-but to a young boy, the uneventful trip through miles and miles of flat farmland seemed like forever.

But then I started looking out the window. I mean really looking. I began to see things formed by the rows and rows of soybean plants, a kind of zoetrope, if you will. Beautiful things. Fantastic things. Ridiculous things. Dependent on the angle of the rows in relation to the road, different shapes would form and perform whatever trick they had for me. I can't remember all the shapes and forms I used to see, but I still see one whenever I drive by soybean fields, and he was my favorite. It was a cowboy, with a tall 10-gallon hat and big cowboy boots, just running as fast as he can. Sometimes I thought we were in a race, but most of all I was just happy he was there, running alongside us.

I found a dragon in my pipe smoke, but I was not scared. He flew for me until he became sky; then space; then stars.

My family shot Roman Candles off of the old Judsonia bridge on the Fourth of July. Though I think my brother and I were really the only ones that appreciated how magnificent it was, I think it reminded my father of how good life can still be. I know I need reminding sometimes. And I appreciate that something so simple can be so uplifting.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

To go...

To always be moving in the direction of a never-setting sun is a beautiful thing. To be driving with no ulterior motives; to reach a goal; to see the sun finally set over an ever-stretching horizon separating only sea and sky. To go: how wonderful.

I recently went on a week-long road trip with five of my favorite people. Our goal was to reach the West Coast. That was it. We had two rules. First, no chain restaurants. Second, if we saw something that drew our interest - anything that offered an opportunity for adventure - we would experience it. Examples: riding a rollercoaster in the middle of the desert, with no visible civilization for miles; veering off a highway to take a road less taken; and simply stopping to take in wherever, whomever, or whatever we were currently experiencing.

We saw antelope grazing the plains. We saw trains cutting their ways across the barren landscape of the desert. We drove through snow in the Continental Divide. We drove over one of man's greatest achievements. We realized how small one of man's greatest achievements really is when compared to the canyons, mesas, mountains, and seas of sand that we saw along the way. We were humbled and empowered. We were six boys taking as much we could from an opportunity that life had given us.

We need to take as much as we can out of life everyday - no just when we're going places.

We're always going places.

We're always seeing things we've never seen before.

We just have to look. And we just have to go.

I just have to go.