I am cycling to raise money for the fantastic UK based chaity Macmillan Cancer Support. Big thanks to everyone who has sponsored me so far! Justgiving is a quick, easy and secure way to donate online. See my other fundraising page, specific to the Macmillan organized part of the trip

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

4th border crossing... into El Salvador

Yay! Made it to San Miguel in El Salvador today, and already love the feel of the country... its colourful and full of music and very friendly...its excessively hot, obnoxiously hot... so thirsty my stomach is inflated ike a balloon the amount of liquids I´m drinking and still thirsty!

Whoop, fifth country, and here I feel like I´ve got more freedom to explore. My travel insurance didn´t cover me in Honduras because it is still listed as "travel only if necessary" on the HMRC advice pages, which was why I just zipped through. The Honduran political situation is still tense after the political coup against left wing president Manuel Zelaya who was ousted by the right wing and forced out of the country at gunpoint last July. A temporary right wing leader was temporarily put in place and then an election placed a new right wing leader, but the illegality of the original ousting and the crumbling of democracy which ity signfiies has not been addressed, so things are still unstable for the country. Personally the only signs I saw of anything political were the rocks painted in red and blue campaigning for the different parties: red is the Liberal Party of Honduras (PLH), Zelaya´s party, which has strong links with Hugo Chavez and the ALBA alliance and blue is the National Party of Honduras (PNH).

ALBA, the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America is an international cooperation organization based on the idea of social, political, and economic integration between the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean. It is associated with socialist and social democratic governments and is an attempt at regional economic integration based on a vision of social welfare, bartering and mutual economic aid, rather than trade liberalization as with free trade agreements. ALBA nations are in the process of introducing a new regional currency, the SUCRE.
(info from wikipedia) Member countries: Venezuela, Cuba, Boilivia, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Dominica, Saint Vincent, the Grenadines, Antigua and Barbuda. Honduras did join under Zelaya in 2008 but in 2009 Roberto Micheletti and the temporary Honduran congress withdrew from the agreement citing Venezuerla´s ´disrespect´as a reason, as Venezuela was supporting Zelaya.

Here in El Salvador things are politically more stable. The country suffered a viscious civil war in the 1980´s and serious gang violence in the 1990´s and today is still struggling to build it´s reputation as a safe tourist destination. The feel I´ve had all today is good, from the bustling music filled market streets of Santa Ana to the teeming traffic and delicious smells from the food markets here in San Miguel... and from the things I´ve heard from other travellers I´m sure it´ll stay that way.

Peace & big love from El Salvador!

Monday, 29 March 2010

3rd border crossing...into Honduras!

Woohoo... first solo border crossing down and smoothly too... am in Honduras, my fourth Central American country... and, bonus, got to swim a lot of that first afternnon in a really busy local pool - yay!

Met a group of lycra clad near the Somoto Canyon turnoff on the Nicaraguan side, which set the tone for a day of meeting other cyclists. Had a couple of mini ´races´with a lad called Miguel as him and his mate would overtake me (on the uphills) and then I them (on the downhills). The crossing itself was pretty quick and totally stress free, met a guy called Sebastian travelling back to Costa Rica with his friends after having been at a massive festival in Honduras and learning circus skills.. wicked!

The scenery after the border was just stunning... phenomenal. Hadn´t realised how high I must have been until I spent a good hour or so (with no sense of time here it could have been a lot longer!) coming downhill... really exhilarating cycling. As I got towards the bottom though it was like cycling into an oven and a ferocious headwind made the flat into Choluteca a real struggle. Choluteca itself was big and dirty, the only saving grace the prettily crumbling colonial church I passed in the central square before going round and round in frustrating circles looking for the elusive Santa Ana hostel. Turned out it was unmarked... but I got there and was so glad to get in the shower....if I could get a hold of one of those synthetic-portable-rainclouds Piers told me about back home and strap it above Peggy it would be genius for this weather (any luck on that front yet Piers?!)
My general impression of Honduras so far is that it has more money, as the tarmas is the smoothest I´ve seeen in a good long while and there are a lot of two storey brick homes. There is little agriculture that I have seen so far, although I did pass another of the cattle herd groups using the red-flag singalling system to cross the road, and there is still firewood being lugged by livestock, though not kids here. The biggest difference to Nicaragua is the amount of plastic rubbish dumped all along the sides of the carreterra. I saw a really disrturbing scene of an old man, Ernesto, burning plastic rubbish at the side of the road before San Marcos de Colon, with a huddle of vultures just off to his left. I stopped to talk to him because it felt wrong to photograph that scene and his suffering otherwise, and I didn´t make it obvious. He said he and the other workers rotate days, it is an official dump for the town. He said the smell was terrible, and no wonder, inhaling plastic fumes all day... so wrong.

Interestingly, in the colourful market town of Nacome where I am today I heard an anti littering campaign: a truck was driving round and round with loudspeakers blaring out the message not to dump litter in the streets, rivers or beaches. I really hope it works, it is so sad to see so much plastic. This morning I saw a team of women raking the rubbish into piles at the sides of the carreterra. They would be set on fire as the women moved on, so it seemed less intensley bad than Ernesto´s lonely on the spot work.

I sat at the edge of the market this afternoon and drew another Coca-Cola syndrome postcard for André´s art project about the globalization of the product. The second I´ve done so far, the other was in Condega, though I cheated slightly by drawing from a photo. Much better drawing in life, as I was getting to the end of the picture I had a right little crowd around me, including Jose Floretin wh gave me directions to the post office which turns out ot be shut for the whole of Semana Santa week. That knocks the plan off a bit seeing as the idea was to send a Coca-Cola drawing from each of the countries I visit (from Nicaragua up) as a postcard postmarked from the respective countries. Had to leave the Nicaraguan one in Catharine´s trustworthy hands the night before crossing the border into Honduras, but now seeing as I´ll be in El Salvador tomorrow unless I can leave it with the hostel to post will have to go from there.

Peace & big love from Honduras x

Saturday, 27 March 2010

Swimwalking Somoto Canyon

Am continuing to be spoilt for water... had an incredible day at the famous Somoto Canyon with the very knowledgable Reymen. I decided against staying at the firestation, and checked into the Pan Americana Hotel in Somoto´s main square where I was able to organise the tour of the canyon. Some folk go on their own but I was really glad to have a guide, both for the information & because I doubt I´d have found the full route on my own, and because I don´t have an inflatable dingy...Reymen´s came in very handy for floating our dry stuff behind us as we swam the deep parts of the canyon...watching the water reflections dancing on the rock walls...incrediby beautiful.
The initial part of the day was incredibly peaceful and I was getting totally absorbed in the patterns and colours of the rocks. The other other human beings we came across were a mother and daughter collecting water in containers they were strapping to their donkeys. Reynel explained how traditionally the indiginous women work far harder than the me, being the first to wake and the last to go to bed, collecting firewood as well as the water, preparing and cooking the food and all whilst taking care of the children. The men traditionally work the land, but when there is little to do, like in the dry non-harvest season of the moment they will rest at home while the women continue working. Reynel knew this particular family and said that the 16 year old daughter was not allowed to study by her father, and predicted that she would marry and have kids at the first opportunity. Reynel seemed saddened by this, particulalry as his wife is a sociology teacher at a local university, he spoke proudly of the success rate of her university at getting campesino students into vocational courses like medicie, nursing and agricutlure.

We spotted a lot of guardabarancos - the Nicaraguan national bird. With Reymen´s binoculours I could really see the colours this time, the males have brilliant turquoise tails and eyebrows, with a black edging and green and orange chest. They are easy to recognise by their unusual split tail that looks from afar like it has a bit missing in the middle. The females were more dull... I´ve wondered before why that seems the norm for most species apart from us humans where female fashion is the more extravagant. Personally I like the joseph-and-his-technicolour-dreamcoat look on a bloke!

When we spotted a very determined line of sonpopos -leaf carrier ants Reymen related an anecdote from his childhood for me. In 1970 Reymen´s father noticed the local sonpos working away storing up enough food for a few years. Knowing they instinctively respond to weather conditions he predicted that the following years would be bad, with very little rain. So rather than selling even a sack of that year´s generous harvest of grain, corn and beans, Reymen´s father stored all of it away, enough for two or three years. Sure enough 71 was dry, 72 was dry and by 73 his neighbours who had sold their harvests in 1970 were suffering from hunger while Reymen´s father still had the last of his stores. So seeing how busy the sonpopos are this year Reymen predicts another year of bad, dry conditions ahead.

Reynel had seemed pretty chuffed with the idea that i wanted to draw in the canyon,
calling me a ´cultural tourist`! So after the stomach-churning-adrenaline-pumping jumps off the rock at Alcena (and I didn`t even do the highest point that I`d seen some German lads on) Reynel was happy to laze in the shade while I sat up in a perfectly formed rockseat and drew... this is the central point of the canyon that is both the highest and the deepest and we met a lot of other tourists here, including Wolf and Wendy a Canadian couple I recognised from the Tortuga in León adn who have journeyed the whole way by land, no planes involved... I really admire that. It´s all well and good trying to be ´green´but then flying in a plane and with a bike at that kind of wipes out all that effort... a bit like offsetting but in the wrong direction.

On the way back stopped off to see some petroglyphs carved into big rocks at the back of a local mango, noni and jocote farm. They´re figurative images, includig a monkey, yay! Possibly Mexican believed to date from the Mayan period, and are very unobtrusive... its obvious that not very many tourists come to see them as Reymen had to clear sand and brush off the rocks to show me them. To get back to Somoto had our second back-of-a-truck-hitch of the day... an eyelash-rearranging experience in the smack of the wind!
> I was really chuffed when we were coming out of the canyon to bump into the lovely Laura and Catherine from Lagartillo. Turns out they´re at the same hotel, so met up later for dinner with them and the three folk they´s hooked up with: brother and sister Erica and Marie and Eric´s partner in the funny-t-shirt trade Sam. Have a look at their online shop... well funny (Ollie and Phil especially, reckon you´d love it!)

Was suprised for some reason to see the town had a bull ring ... apparently if you eat beef in the town that´ll be where its from as they have fights every day...trying to remember the proper word for the fight from the A.L.Kennedy book I was reading about bull fighting at the start of this trip but it´s gone. After poking our heads into the local community centre... and being dizzy-ified by the spinning lights and mega loud semi-karakoe performance headed back for an early night!

Friday, 26 March 2010

From Estelí to Condega ... reflections on water

Went back to the Licuados Anandos the yesterday morning for the yoga class and was surprised to be the only student in the class (we waited awhile for a second girl who didn´t turn up) and surprised that it was Roberto, my waiter of the night before, who was taking the class. The yoga was mantra yoga, a type I have never done before and pretty different to the couple of lessons I have done... a lot more vigorous, I was impressed by how a man of Roberto´s age could fling himself around like that, though that is the aim of yoga, health and vitality of the body and mind - there was a health or well-being reason that Roberto would explain before each exercise. Most interesting was hearing Roberto speak about the philosophy of the school and the spiritualism of the maestro who founded it. He was glowing as he described the all-embracing nature of their belief, in our joint humanity, we are all one and the same, all brothers, and have all experienced what everyone else has, so I am Nicaraguan and Roberto is Scottish, I have been here before and he has been to Scotland, we are all of no religion and all religions, all of no political party and all political parties, spirituality and the soul is a bigger part of our existance than the flesh body. It fascinated and inspired me to listen to Roberto´s words, as these are ideas I have been reflecting on whilst reading Tom Brown´s ´The Journey´, which discusses the idea of pure spiritualism embracing the common thread of all religion and philosophies, and our unity as all one and the same thing as part of nature, part of the ´spirit-that-moves-in-all-things´.
The Journey has been a really inspìring book for me, in its reflections on our relationships as humans with the natural world, and the possibilities of a spiritual connection with the world that most of us are estranged from through our separation from nature and our over developed logical minds. It then seemed really appropriate, perhaps serendipitous, that the chapter of the book I read today was about the gift of water, both because I had a really water-soaked day (interesting that it started at an empty swiming pool) and also after having experienced the effects of the drought in Lagartillo and then seeing the imagery of Julio and the CMDAS that celebrates the gift of water. I had the luxury of reading the chapter while floating round the brick piscina at Gloria´s restaraunt (really a concrete paddling pool, with a cool peeling smiley face painted on the bottom, looking out on a stunning view of lush green mountains, a lucky find about an hour away from Condega):
´"The masses no longer honor the water at all, for they just use it and infect it with their complacency. They take the water, this blood of our Mother, for granted. So we must take care to honour the gift so we do not take it for granted. We must realize the blood of the Earth is also our blood, and the blood of all our ancestors."´ (Tom Brown, The Journey, Tracker publishing 1992, 2007, p.208)

It is also particulaurly poignant as a traveller in a hot and unfamiliar country, where there is always the question, is this water safe to drink? I have been drinking tap water since Granada without problems, and the amount I get through in a day´s cycling in the heat is phenomenal. Even if I set out in the morning with iced water bags (on the odd ocasion I have had a freezer to store them in the night before) all my water is hot buy the afternoon, and it is really unquenching to drink, but I should really be appreciating the fact of being hydrated at all. There are predictions that the biggest wars in our lifetime will be over water suplies, and to have such a precious copmmodity available to me for free at this point in the trip is something I need to be consciously grateful for. I realise that especially after feeling thirsty quite a lot of the time in Lagatiollo when the house drinking water ran out by the afternoon a couple of days in a row - although there was always more when needed from neihgbours.

I had already been feeling very grateful in general to the world throughout the day, as I passed through some stunning mountainous scenery, and when a gorgeous blue dragonfly landed on the painted-flower on my toenail while I drifted round Gloria´s pool in my black rubber ring (that i´d have to capsize when the sun made it get burning hot) I felt very peaceful and lucky. So then to find another swimming pool at the Granja farm-hostel tonight... and this one big enough to swim lengths in and deep enough to practise my el-salto-found diving ability in... I was elated! Swimming under the moon and stars last night... delicious.. and this morning before leaving for Somoto managed eventually after a number of tries to swim out the whole length of the pool after a dive, completeted it with a crack to the head at the other end of the pool, but was so chuffed I laughed at the shock of the pain! Fitting in with the watery theme, when I left the beautiful and very helfpful Yadira gave me a tiny yellow-bath-duck along with her email, and I gave her the shell that you can hear the sea in from the little boy at las Peñitas.

Am in an internet cafe in Somoto at the moment, with Peggy resting at the fire station where I can stay the night if I like, as recommended by Noel the very friendly tourist police who got chatting to me today at a roadblock where I had to show my passport. Not sure if I´ll stay there though, as there is an overly friendly fireman Antonio who I´d rather avoid (although it was down to him I got a ride to this internet cafe in the cab of the fire engine as they were on the way to a job... pretty cool!), and also there is the possiblity of camping at the canyon itself, which is only 13km away, about to check out my options online now, we´ll see...

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Estelí art exhibition ..meeting the Colectivo de Muralistas

Back in Estelí for the third time today, sorting stuff out to head off on the road again early tomorrow morning. Peggy is all tightened and pumped up ready to go, not so sure about myself though... after so long out the saddle reckon my body might moan at me in the morning - heading for Condega tomorrow, then Somoto for a day or two so should be at the El Espino border crossing into Honduras Sunday or Monday... exciting!

Apart from sorting out money and food supplies was on a mini mission today to find somewhere to pierce holes in the seeds I´ve been collecting in Lagartillo and Miraflores so that I can make them into jewellry. Found a habedashery so I´ve got cord, but trying to pierce them with a needle even after soaking in water just isn´t working, they´re way too hard, so on Rudolfo´s suggestion I checked at the UCA Miraflores office, who sent me to the Casa de Cultura where I didn´t sort out the piercing question butcame across something far more interesting... art exhibition "Entre Murmullos de Color" (Between Murmurs of Colour) with some really interesteing imagery. I was wandering around it, photographing the paintings that caught my eye and writing down the names of the artists...

"El Carmen P Nuero" G. Acuña

"Entre tus Cabellos" Julio G Moreno

"Una Mirada" Sammuel Romero "Un día como hoy" Juan J Moran "Retardo (Ponchito)" Oscar Barreda Untitled, Monico Piat "Ruben Darío" Julio C. Moreno "Leonal Rugamp" Julio C. Moreno...when I saw another graphite image that looked really interesting in a room down a passageway. I could see one guy and heard him chatting so was feeling shy to intrude, but he saw me hanging around in the doorway photographing the "CMDAS" logo (a hand painting a hand holding paintbrushes) and invited me through. This was Julio Cesár Moreno, he was sitting in was a studio where some young lads were working on paintings that were small scale practise murals...I showed him my sketchbook and he and the other guys seemed pretty interested, especially as one of the lads was from the finca where I drew the Posa la Pila cascada in Miraflores.
Julio was one of the painters in the exhibition and also director of the "CMDAS" of the cool logo... and an even cooler organisation.... Standing for "Collectivo de Muralistas David Alfaro Siqueiros". This organisation of 16 artists was set up in February 2001 to provide a space for artistic expression and runs projects painting murals with youths and even school children both in Estelí where they´re based, and in other parts of Nicaragua. David Alfaro Siqueiros of their logo is one of the three famous Mexican Muralists (1896-1974), contemporary of Digo Riviera and José Clemente Orozco. Interesting my Spanish Claudio and I had been chatting about their work after looking at prints of theirs in the Mexican Print exhibition that was on at the British Museum back in London just before I left. Through a long-held interest in Frida Kahlo I´d become fascinated with her relationship with Riviera and come across his work... connections...
The CMDAS youth work is voluntary, but they are also given paid comission work by businesses. Julio gave me a presentation about the collective to take away on memory stick, and on that he showed me a huge mural done for a factory wall and another for a cafe, as well as some that I´d already seen and photographed on walls around Estelí. I was especially interested in the imagery celebrating the gift of water after witnessing the effect for the rural communities of the seriously dry conditions in El Lagartillo.

"Burbujas de Amor" Julio C. Moreno

The CMDAS style is that of the campesino Sandinista imagery, and in the presentation it explains how the collective aims to take up the elements and processes that have been developed in public art over the last 20 years, and to pass on that accumulated experience to new generations that show an interest, by taking into account the tools and artistic and technical methodology in their teaching process. The CMDAS aims to preserve popular public art and to consolidate collective identity on local, national and Latin American scales.
Feeling chuffed to have met him I left with Julio´s business card in my pocket, have a look at his blog if you get the time to see his process of working with kids to make murals:
I ended up eating dinner tonight in a really lovely vegetarian café that I´d recognised through the gates separating it from the Casa de Cultura because of the big empty swimming pool that the guide book mentioned as being ´oddly disused´... not so odd it turns out, Roberto the waiter who recommended me the well tasty veggie hamburger explained that they didn´t have the money to maintain it.... When he realised I was on my own he came and chatted with me until the food turned up and apart from grinning about Braveheart, kilts and bagpipes (same as the other waiter who brought the juice across and was also interested in Scotland´s independence) invited me to join their 6am yoga class tomorrow, apparently I can borrow a towel. I´ve been thinking I need to do stretches before heading off, and yoga sounds like a chilled way to start the day, so... why not?!