Saturday, December 30, 2006

Report: The Voyage 2006

Last night, with the first calendar year of The Voyage drawing to a close, I spent some time reviewing my iPhoto library and reflecting on all that has happened in just five months so far. In particular, I was struck by seeing myself in so many places and with so many of the wonderful people who have shared in my experience along the way. I wanted to share theses images with you and -- while many of them are already in the Photos pages -- I hope you will find this presentation to be new and interesting nonetheless. My thanks to all of you who are pictured, and my apologies to those of you who are not. I have realized that I want to take more photos of myself with people along the way and I am making that my New Year’s resolution. As we all embark on a new year, I wish everyone a healthy and happy one, full of the joy, learning and growth that comes from the exploration of our outer world and our inner selves. I look forward to sharing more of my own exploration as The Voyage of Macgellan continues! (Thanks to Jonathan Coulton for just the right song -- Again!)

Musing: Rice-A-Rica

RicearicaI’ve been in Costa Rica for over six weeks now, and I have enjoyed my time and exploration here. The country is politically stable, reasonably safe, relatively inexpensive and has generally good infrastructure. The weather is warm, the environs are pleasant and the people are friendly. With all this going for it, I have had a hard time figuring out why I am not as enamored with Costa Rica as so many other folks seem to be. The answer came to me the other day as I was eating dinner, and I can use the food here as an analogy for my larger impression: It’s redundant, bland and boring.

Let’s take a closer look at the food for a minute: The most salient feature of every meal you will ever have in Costa Rica is that rice will be involved. Rice -- usually in the form of rice and beans -- is the foundation of every plate that comes out of every kitchen for every meal of every day. Really, I’m not kidding. One look at the rice section of any market -- with its stacks and stacks of big bags of rice -- will tell you how much rice goes on here. Now, don’t get me wrong. I like rice. Rice is a friend of mine. I know the noble and vital role that rice plays in feeding much of the world and I respect rice for it. What I don’t really like is rice as the staple of my diet every meal, every day, all the time.

As if the rice thing wasn’t bad enough, the rest of the meals are equally redundant: For breakfast, add scrambled eggs. For lunch, add a generic piece of meat, chicken or fish. For dinner, repeat the generic flesh and add generic steamed vegetables. Every day, every meal, repeat exactly. What makes this all the more astonishing is that on any street in any town you can find multiple little restaurants -- or “sodas” as they are called here -- that have exactly the same menu and serve exactly the same meals. In extreme cases like the bus station in San Jose, you can find four redundant “sodas” side by side in the terminal. While waiting for my bus the other day, I cruised up and down the line trying in vain to find something different -- forget about unique -- among them.

To finish the analogy, I will add that the food is bland. You may find the occasional “sauce” to top off your rice and meat, but at best it will be generic “brown with mushrooms.” You will not find any kind of herbs, seasoning or spices. Nothing that really intrigues your palate or helps you remember it as a “great” meal. Nothing. I guarantee it. To its credit, though, the food here is clean, safe and filling. You can’t go “wrong” with it. And there, I think, is the rub.

Costa Rica in general, like its food, is clean, safe and filling. You can get on a plane in the States and get off a few hours later in San Jose. You can join a tour, see a volcano, ride a zip line, see a few animals, cross bridges in the jungle canopy, spend some time on the beach and eat your rice. You can then fly home, tell folks what a good time you had and say that Costa Rica is great.

But if you reflect for a minute, you will realize that the zip line could have been constructed between trees in your local park for all you learned about the flora. Same for the canopy bridges. You will recall that the wild animals were few and far between and you could have gotten more out of a trip to your local zoo. The same is true for the volcanos -- better to watch the Discovery channel. As for the beaches, well, they are nice in places but not world class anywhere. So, while there is a lot to “see and do” in Costa Rica, you don’t really get a chance to “learn and grow” because of it.

It’s like the rice: There’s plenty of it, it fills you up and it won’t do you any harm, but you won’t get that much out of it.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Logbook: Brazil Visa Gambit

BrazilvisagambitMy boat ride up the canal to Tortuguero was rained out again on Tuesday so I chilled out for a while, reading the only English book I found in the hotel’s “library.” Thankfully, it was Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness & The Secret Sharer” which I have never read, and I am now a later-in-life -- but earnest -- fan of Conrad’s writing! When the rain slacked off, I walked around Limon and stumbled on a laundry to which I promptly returned with my bag-o-clothes. The rest of the day was happily spent doing other miscellany. On Wednesday morning I set in motion the “Brazil Visa Gambit.” Okay, so what’s that all about? Well, the story goes like this: In preparation for my upcoming series of ocean voyages, I had done some checking on “entry requirements” for the various countries which I will be visiting along the way. The only one which requires a visa is Brazil -- and this is only in reciprocity because the US requires Brazilians to have a visa to enter the States... Go figure.

Anyway, back at the beginning of the month I had gone to the Brazilian embassy in San Jose to apply for a visa, but was rejected because of a little timing problem. You see, entry into Brazil must occur within 90 days of the date on which the visa is granted. Since I am not going to arrive in Brazil until March 29th, that means I could not get my visa until today, December 29th. Since I was not willing to hang around San Jose for the entire month just to get my Brazilian visa, I went to the coast -- as you know -- and tried everything I could think of to avoid having to come back to San Jose to get the visa. After numerous Skype calls -- to the ship, its port agent in Brazil, etc. -- it became clear that I will need a visa and that I will not be able to get one along the way unless, for example, I would be willing to fly from Ushuaia to Buenos Aires during my layover in February. All things considered, it seemed to me that a trip back to San Jose this week would be the smallest sacrifice -- hence my use of the word “Gambit” -- to gain the advantage of having the Brazil Visa issue resolved.

So, I caught the bus from Limon on Wednesday and arrived in San Jose in the afternoon. I took the rest of the day to fill out the forms, get a photo taken and find an English book store -- or at least a book store that had some books in English -- where I picked up a couple more works by Conrad and a few others to read aboard ship. Early yesterday morning I went to the Brazilian Embassy and carefully explained my situation -- especially my critical timing issue -- to a woman who said, “Well, this all seems okay to me, but this is my first time doing this.” Great. With an ongoing sense of uncertainty, I left my passport and papers with her then spent the rest of the day wandering around San Jose generally killing time. This morning, I went back to the Embassy and was just tickled to receive my passport with a Brazil Visa dated today, just like I need it to be! Perfect!

In about an hour, I will catch a bus back to Limon having successfully executed the Brazil Visa Gambit. Now, for the part of this that strikes me as ironic: I have invested three days -- not to mention the $100 processing fee, additional travel expenses, etc. -- to get a Visa that I will use for less than three days of port calls in Brazil during which I may not even get off the boat! As I have mentioned before, this is one of those “circumstances” that often arise on The Voyage, and I continue to experience them with humor and good cheer -- a good sign of my ongoing positive state of mind. When I get back to Limon, I hope to finally be able to take the boat ride up the canal to Tortuguero. I also look forward to making final preparations to continue my “surface circumnavigation of the earth” on the high seas. The Voyage of Macgellan continues!

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Logbook: Limon

LimonLimon -- officially “Puerto Limon” -- is a remarkable little city with a surprisingly varied character. Arriving on Saturday afternoon, I was a little overwhelmed at first by the crowd, traffic, noise and chaos after my week of calm and quiet down the coast at Cahuita and points south. After a quick walk around town -- it really only takes about 15 minutes to see most of it -- I pretty easily got a sense of the place. On the surface, Limon is the commercial center for the coast and features both the usual collection of markets, restaurants, banks, etc. plus a fairly wide array of shops for electronics, stationery, hardware and the like. Limon’s most prominent commerce, however, is the multitude of clothing and fashion wear stores, especially shoes. For some reason, Limon has many shoe stores. I was happiest to find a nice, quiet, air conditioned internet center with a fast, stable wi-fi network, so I spent some quality time there.

A little more walking around showed me another side to Limon, the “dumpy” side. Ad hoc, cardboard box trash depots are to be found on many street corners and a noticeable number of vagrants appear in various places. While one first sees the nice, new commercial buildings and orderly stores lining the main streets, one later finds decrepit structures on many side streets. I was also treated to the sight of several rats scampering between buildings. Nevertheless, the people are friendly and the order exceeds the chaos, so by the time Saturday was over, I found myself enjoying Limon and looking forward to spending a few days here. As soon as I got up yesterday morning and went for coffee, however, I noticed yet another very different feel to Limon. Not half a block from my hotel, I started being approached by bums, kids, and various questionable characters asking for money or offering to sell me things I don’t want. This had not happened at all the day before, so I was a little confused.

As I walked the next block wondering what was up, I passed a group of about 20 gringos making loud, not very flattering comments about the town. Aha! This is a port town and a ship has docked! Sure enough, I soon saw gringos everywhere and saw yet another side of Limon. What just the day before was a pleasant little town became a tourist hell overnight. I spent most of the day in the internet center and, frankly, hiding out in my room, but when I went out for dinner at about seven, I found the town had switched back to its “other” self. The ship had sailed at six. I proceeded to enjoy my dinner in a “soda” -- a very typical, small, family restaurant -- trying hard not to stare and laugh as the locals talked animatedly amongst themselves while they counted the money they had pocketed during the day.

After another session at the internet center I enjoyed the “Nochebuena” -- “Christmas Eve” -- parade (which I have shared in a Report) and called it a day. For this morning, I had arranged to take a boat ride up the canal to Tortuguero National Park but awoke to a downpour and was told that the trip would be rescheduled for tomorrow. So, I have happily spent the day doing iLife, avoiding the effects of the ship that is in port for the day, and making trips back and forth to the internet center. As soon as I finish this Logbook entry I will head over there once again and see if Limon has anything else to show me along the way! Stay tuned!

Friday, December 22, 2006

Logbook: Manzanillo

ManzanilloOn Wednesday morning, I made my daily trek into town, continued south across Kelley Creek and into Cahuita National Park. There I found a lovely five mile trail that follows a beautiful beach, crosses a number of streams, rounds a rocky point and ends back at the road a few miles out of town. I really enjoyed this walk and stopped at many places along the way just to enjoy the view. Including the walk to town, the Park walk, the walk back to town and then the walk back to my room, I estimate my total distance for the day at about ten miles. Although it was fairly level all the way, the heat and humidity pretty much wore me out and I was happy to take a dip in the pool, drink plenty of fluids and have a quiet early evening. Thursday morning I decided to explore the environs south of Cahuita, so I walked into town and caught the local bus -- not quite a “chicken bus” but close -- and rode about 10 miles to Puerto Viejo.

Here I found another really nice beach and a cheery assortment of restaurants, shops and accommodations. I walked around for a bit while I drank a bottle of water and came to the conclusion that Puerto Viejo is a fairly “high energy” place that is popular with more of a “younger” crowd -- surfers, college kids, etc. -- so I caught the next bus further south. After passing through a series of little beach towns, the road -- and my ride -- ended in the town of Manzanillo. Although there are the usual assortment of tourist establishments on hand, Manzanillo is more of a “local” kind of place. It has a long, broad white beach that was being enjoyed by a diverse group of people including a few surfers, some young families, a small number of gringos and what was obviously a local school class on an “outing” complete with sack races, egg tosses, tug-of-war and the like. I found myself liking Manzanillo right away and, after a brief walk-around, parked myself on the second floor of Maxi’s bar and settled down with a bottle of water, a chicken sandwich and my book.

I was quite content to stay there for a while, and that was a good thing because I soon learned that the next -- and last -- bus back to Cahuita would not leave until “sometime early evening.” So, between my meal, my book, some random chats, a walk on the beach and a nap under a palm tree I spent the rest of the day fully enjoying Manzanillo. At about five-thirty, a bus pulled in and people started to head for it, so I joined the queue and got on board. Probably because this was the last bus of the day, it made stops every few hundred meters and became packed with a collection of visitors who were heading back to their hotels and locals who were heading home from work. Finally, at about seven the bus pulled into Cahuita where I bailed out and made the trek back to my room. I have to admit that I was once again pretty worn out! So yesterday, after two pretty tiring days, I decided to just “hang out” and my day consisted of taking a walk on the beach, finishing my book and doing a little iLife.

Last night I ate at “La Casa Creole” where chef Antonio was kind enough to pepare my very favorite meal: A steak salad! Yum! If you ever visit Cahuita, you must dine with Antonio, his lovely wife Valerie, and their exotic hostess Soleil. It will be the best meal you have in Costa Rica, I guarantee it! With that, my time on the southern Caribbean coast comes to an end and I will be heading up to Limon this afternoon to begin the next leg of The Voyage. My time here has been fabulous and I strongly encourage any of you who are planning a trip to Costa Rica to include this lovely area in your itinerary. It is by far my favorite part of the country, and I would come back here -- and maybe only back here -- again!

Musing: eCenter Limon

Ecenterlimon1There’s a nice little internet joint in Limon called “eCenter.” It is run by a couple of bright, helpful young people who speak pretty good English and it has a stable, hi-speed wi-fi connection. It is also nicely air conditioned! About the only thing “wrong” with it is that it is populated by PCs... But my Mac and I are used to that, so we just smile and go about our business. During my time in Limon I have made frequent visits, generally once in the morning then -- after my daily exploration or what have you -- again in the evening. I made one such visit this morning, then packed up my gear and headed out to find some lunch and something to explore.

As I was walking around town, I saw an older American couple -- who were obviously off the ship-of-the-day -- standing on a corner, looking around and seeming to be quite lost. Having sympathy for the sense of overwhelm that Limon can induce, I asked if they were looking for something. The woman noticeably perked up at hearing my question in English and said, “Yes! We need the internet!” I was happy to say I could help them and gave them exact directions to the eCenter only a few blocks away. Then, as I continued on my walkabout, it occurred to me that many people on the ships would likely be “hungry” for the internet upon arrival in Limon and that it would make sense for someone to stand at the pier when the ships come in and hand out little cards with information and a map to the eCenter. That little thought brought me face to face with a dilemma that has vexed me many, many times over the past few months I have been in Central America.

On one hand, I am moved by my love of commerce and my desire to help others succeed to offer ideas when they occur to me. On the other hand, the language barrier -- combined with what I can only describe in brief as a lack of imagination and initiative that is prevalent in these little latitudes -- makes it very hard for me to convey my ideas and the contextual understanding they often require. Most of the time, I have simply made a “note to self” and gone about my business. This time, my affinity for the nice young couple running the eCenter -- combined with their excellent English -- held sway and I decided to stop by after lunch and offer them my idea. When I got there, I first told them what had happened with the people on the street. The young man quickly said, “Yes, we know. The man said one of the locals told him where to find us.” (You can imagine my delight at being viewed as “one of the locals”!) I then shared my idea about handing out cards at the pier and he instantly replied, “That’s a great idea! Thanks!” We then exchanged farewells and I left, feeling good about how I had resolved the dilemma this time and not putting any stock in whether or not anything would come of it.

Ecenterlimon2Later on, at about six o’clock when I was heading out to find some dinner, I decided to stop by and go on-line for a few minutes. Just after I sat down and fired up my Mac, the young man came over to me and said, “Excuse me. Would you please look at this.” I have to admit that I was amazed -- shocked, actually -- when he handed me a printed sample of the card he had designed. Not only had he taken what I told him and actually done something with it, he had added some thought to it and made a really good card. I told him I thought it was very good, then he asked something which I have not encountered in a long time: “Do you have any suggestions?” I was so surprised that I was almost speechless, but I gathered my wits enough to offer a couple of minor additions which he accepted with enthusiasm then went back to his desk to work on the card.

So, what’s my point? Well, it goes something like this: First, for many years I consulted to commerce and, frankly, I got pretty burned out. I got worn down by business people who paid me for advice then responded with “We can’t do that” - “We’ve never done it that way before” - “We’re too busy” - “You don’t really know how our industry works” then did nothing except continue to whine about their business problems. To have an opportunity to make a contribution -- even a small one like my idea about the cards -- and have it enthusiastically embraced and actually acted upon was very refreshing. Second, by putting aside my preconceptions about language, communication and culture, I was rewarded by making a connection with someone who obviously shares my enthusiasm for commerce -- irrespective of our vastly different backgrounds and experiences.

So, what’s the bottom line? Well, I am reminded to keep my eye out for individuals -- whoever and wherever they may be -- who exhibit enthusiasm and openness for things I value, then take the risk to engage them gently and not have expectations about what happens. I might get back more than I could have imagined.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Logbook: Cahuita

Cahuita1On Saturday morning, I packed up and checked out of the lovely La Condesa that had been my home for a week in the San Jose area. I said good-bye to my friends on the staff who had been so helpful and hospitable then got a ride to “Los Caribenos” -- the name commonly used for the San Jose bus station that handles all buses to the Caribbean Coast. Because of the time and cost that would have been involved in getting my ticket in advance, I had ignored Vanessa’s warnings that the weekend buses might be full and that I might have some difficulty getting a seat. Frankly, having a few months of Central American bus experience under my belt, I realized that I had been over-working the problem in the past and was ready to take an easier approach. I had checked the bus schedule and found that there were four direct buses to Cahuita -- with one leaving every two hours starting at ten in the morning -- so I was pretty confident of getting a ride at some point in the day.

Sure enough, I arrived at the terminal a little after nine, walked up to the ticket counter, said “Cahuita” and was rewarded with a seat on the ten o’clock bus. Big deal. Right on time, the bus loaded up to capacity, hit the road and about three hours later pulled into a scruffy little town with signs that indicated I had arrived in Cahuita. I got off the bus, got my gear and watched as the bus pulled away in a cloud of dust. In the immediate vicinity of the Chuita bus station -- which consists of a ticket window, an awning and a bench -- there is a bar, a tour operator, a bar, a little restaurant and a bar. There were no cabs waiting to take me the mile or so out of town to my hotel, but there were a few people milling around, and they were my first indication that this was a very different part of Costa Rica. Poor, black and speaking in a distinctive “Island English” dialect, it is clear that this area was settled from the East, not from the North or South. Anyway, I stood around for a few minutes taking in the sights and waiting to see what would happen, when a woman on bicycle stopped, said “Welcome to Cahuita, mon! I’ll get you a cab, mon!” and peddled off. A few minutes later I got into a car -- obviously not a cab -- with a young guy, his wife and two kids for a ride down the road. It’s funny how ingrained our paranoia is sometimes, because the thought that I might be on my way to a mugging actually crossed my mind. That thought gave way almost immediately to recognition that the guy’s wife and kids were in the car and that it was most likely he was the bicycle woman’s son just looking to make a couple of bucks.

Needless to say, I survived the entirely uneventful five minute trip and arrived safely at La Diosa -- a quiet, tidy collection of “cabinas” that had been recommended to me by a friend. After a quick check-in and change of clothes, I spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around, checking the place out and then laying in a hammock by the ocean reading a book. A simple dinner in a place across the road capped off the day, and I slept to the sound of waves washing onto the lava rock shore. Tough life, I know, but somebody has to do it!

Cahuita2Sunday morning I walked into town and got under the awning of the market just as the rain started pouring down. I spent a few minutes looking around the goofy little place, bought some water and a few snacks then stood out under the awning again while the rain continued. For about twenty minutes it rained like crazy, and I passed the time joking with the girls in the store, helping a kid put the chain back on his bike and petting the dogs who were hanging around. When the rain stopped, the skies cleared and the sun shone while I walked back to my lodging. It was immediately sweltering, so I spent most of the afternoon walking along the beach and reading, then had dinner and hit the rack. Yesterday, I decided to catch a bus up to Limon to check out what I have ahead of me there prior to my sailing date on January 3rd. So, I walked into town, found the bus station and bought a ticket. Although it was already almost 9:30, I saw that my ticket was for the 9:15 bus. A quick query of the ticket clerk was answered with a shrug and I knew immediately that this was completely normal.

At about ten the bus arrived, already full, so I climbed on and hung on as the bus took off with a lurch. About 15 minutes later, after even more people packed in, the bus pulled over to the side of the road and people started getting off. At first I thought this was some kind of popular stop, but as the bus got more and more empty and it became obvious that everybody was going to get off, I realized that I was experiencing my first Costa Rican road block! We all stood in line, had our papers examined by a man in a hat and got back on the bus. It all took about fifteen minutes which, it turns out, is also enough time for people to buy drinks and snacks from a cart that I am pretty sure belongs to the brother of the man in the had... If you know what I mean. Anyway, the last fifteen minutes of the trip to Limon was uneventful and I got off the bus in the middle of town. I will save my observations of Limon until I’ve been there longer, but for now I will tell you that within two hours I had located the pier, arranged a place to stay only two blocks away, found a store where I will be able to get some rubber boots that I will need on my cruises, had a snack and a bottle of water, located a hi-speed internet connection and gotten back on a bus.

By the time I reached Cahuita, I was hot and tired so, you guessed it, I found my favorite hammock and read my book, then had fresh fish for dinner and an early bed time. This morning I spent some time with Marcello -- the owner of La Diosa -- introducing him to his first Mac which a relative had brought him last week. In the process, I was able to sort out some of his internet stuff and got my own trusty Mac to be able to connect more reliably with the great Mac server in the sky. So, I’ve spent much of the afternoon in iLife and will wrap up by posting this Logbook entry. In closing, I will say that I really like Cahuita. It is a scruffy, undeveloped, remote little town that offers nice beaches, plenty of quirky eateries and lodging -- with reasonable prices -- and nice people. If you want to “get away”, avoid the bus tourists and experience a completely different Costa Rica, this could be a place for you.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Logbook: Taking Care Of Stuff

Takingcareofstuff1Having gotten my extraordinary travel arrangements made -- as described in the last Logbook entry on Monday -- it was time starting on Tuesday for me to make some “ordinary” arrangements. First, I needed to do laundry which is usually pretty simple, but this time would be a little more complicated due to the fact that the place I am staying is pretty far from the middle of town. I figured that a cab ride to and from a laundry would make my washing a little pricey, so I explored the option of using the hotel’s laundry service. With rates like $3 per shirt and $5 for pants, however, it was clear that even my limited wardrobe was going to add up pretty fast. So, I talked this dilemma over with Vanessa -- a very helpful staff member -- and asked for a better deal on the house laundry service. She had me wait a moment while she talked to her boss, but returned to say, “Sorry, no deal.” I didn’t exactly whine, but I did press the issue with her and after a few minutes of light-hearted banter, she said “Hold on” then made a phone call. After the usual incomprehensible chatter in Spanish, she hung up and said, “Someone will meet you at your room in five minutes. She will take your laundry. You can pay her what you want.” Now we’re in business! So I went back to my room and sure enough there was soon a knock on my door. A nice young woman who is obviously part of the housekeeping staff took my laundry bag, beamed from ear to ear at the 5,000 Colones ($10) I handed her) and said, “Manana!” With that deal done, I started working on figuring out how to find a dentist so I could get my teeth checked and cleaned. Right in the middle of the hotel lobby is a rack of brochures, and I found one for a local dentist. I got Vanessa to make a call for me, and was rewarded with an appointment for the next morning. Okay!

Takingcareofstuff2The rest of Tuesday was spent on-line figuring out what I’m going to do for the next couple of weeks. Yesterday morning when I got back from breakfast, I found my laundry -- perfectly folded and maybe even ironed! -- sitting on my bed! (Your guess is as good as mine, but I suspect it was a little “side job” at home for the housekeeper.) Perfect! Feeling like I was on a roll, I got a ride into town and was dropped off at the location shown above. The sign clearly indicated it was the dentist’s office, but even after traveling for a while in this part of the world -- and getting accustomed to modifying my expectations -- I still had to take a moment to adjust to the surroundings. Pura Vida! I went in, met Dra. Suzanna Vallejo and sat in the chair. Her English skills are not quite as advertised in the brochure, so I used my best Spanish and said “No problemo! Necessito solo limpia!” (In other words, “There’s no problem. I just need a cleaning.”) That seemed to do the trick and everything went find. She did a routine check-up and confirmed “No problemo” then did a fine cleaning. When she was finished, we had a good laugh, took a group picture and I paid her the $40 she asked for. Done deal!

Back on the street, I walked around until I found a Pali store -- sort of in between a convenience store and a supermarket -- and got a few supplies. In the afternoon, I was back on-line, deciding to head to the Caribbean coast to explore until I embark from there on January 3rd and making bus/lodging arrangements. All day today has been an iLife day -- it takes a long time to put all this web stuff together, even for a Mac guru like me! -- and I’m ready for a drink before calling it a day. Tomorrow I will pack up my gear, make sure everything is in order and prepare to get moving again on Saturday morning. Stay tuned!

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Logbook: Check The Map

Checkthemap_2For those of you who haven’t checked the Voyage of Macgellan Map in a while, now is a good time to do so. After several days of pretty intensive “back-and-forth” with people all over the world -- have I mentioned how much I love and rely on Skype! -- logistical plans for the next four months of The Voyage are pretty well firmed up. Here’s an overview: On January 3rd, I will embark from Puerto Limon, Costa Rica on the MV Discovery for a 33 day cruise that will transit the Panama Canal, explore the Galapagos Islands, make brief stops at various ports in Equador, Peru and Chile, then cruise the western side of the Weddell Peninsula in Antarctica -- making landings as conditions permit -- and end up in Ushuaia, Argentina on Febrary 6th. I will then have almost 3 weeks in Ushuaia to explore Tierra del Fuego before boarding the MV Polar Star on February 26th for a 19 day cruise that will make a circuit of the eastern side of the Weddell Peninsula -- again, making landings as conditions permit -- then continue on to the South Orkney Islands, South Georgia Island and the Falkland Islands before returning to Ushuaia on March 16th. I will remain on board with the crew of the MV Polar Star while they “reposition” the ship to Salvador, Brazil to begin the next leg of our journey on March 29th. Our 18 day Atlantic crossing will include stopping at the volcanic islands of Fernando de Noronha, crossing the Equator and visiting St. Peter and St. Paul Rocks, exploring Cape Verde and continuing on to the Canary Islands for an April 15th arrival. Whew!

I am very excited about this itinerary and am already looking forward to it with great anticipation. After traversing the North American continent strictly by means of land travel for about four months, I will spend the next four months circumnavigating the South American continent by sea! To me, one of the advantages of this seagoing itinerary is that all of my “travel logistics” will be handled in advance. The time and effort I have thus far been putting into arranging transport -- trains, buses, etc. -- can be used for purely exploration purposes. Considering the fabulous environs through which I will be traveling, I expect to be able to share some amazing media with you. The only downside that I can imagine at this point is that internet connection may not be as ubiquitous or reliable as it has been so far. The ships may or may not have some kind of internet facilities, but at a minimum I will have various times ashore to make connection and update this site.

Fear not, fellow Voyagers, for I shall not fail you! You can look forward to plenty more great stuff from The Voyage of Macgellan! (PS - If you are curious about what I am going to do between now and January 3rd, I must inform you that I have no idea at the moment. I’ve been putting all my energy into the arrangements outlined above and haven’t given the next few weeks much thought. Among the possibilities I have thought of are: 1) actually taking some Spanish lessons to augment what I’ve “learned on the street”, 2) going back up to Nicaragua to do a river trip that Parole -- remember him from Managua? -- told me about, 3) exploring the Caribbean side of Costa Rica and 4) seeing if I can do some kind of work around San Jose. Anything is possible, of course, and I’ll let you know as soon as I figure it out! Stay tuned!)

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Logbook: Quepos - Manuel Antonio Park

QueposAbout an hour’s drive south of Jaco -- on a decent road that is only occasionally punctuated by terrifying and bone jarring bridge crossings -- lies Quepos, a small town of about a half-dozen streets each way, that serves as the regional center for recreational activity (especially sport fishing) and as the gateway to the Manuel Antonio National Park. On Monday, our van drove right through Quepos and on down the road for about 5km to deposit us at our hotel. Upon arrival, I was received a message from my good friend Greg -- that’s right, “Pumito” from “Los Viaeros”! -- informing me that he and his wife were in the middle of their own Costa Rica tour and were at a hotel just down the road. We arranged to meet for dinner at a nearby restaurant that has a novel theme -- it is built around an old C-123 cargo plane -- and has an excellent view. You can imagine the fun we had, sharing notes about Costa Rica, catching up on what has happened on The Voyage since we were together in Mexico and generally cutting up like we always do. True to form, Greg brought along one of his magic tricks and amused the entire wait staff with his antics. What a character! After a good meal and a great time together, we parted ways, thankful for our serendipitous rendezvous and vowing to meet again very soon someplace else in the world.

Yesterday morning, Kay and I caught a ride down the hill to the entrance of the Manuel Antionio National Park. The mass of small hotels, bars and restaurants that are crammed into a very small space gave us some concern about what we might find ahead, but we were quickly reassured when we entered the Park and found it to be a clean, quiet, beautiful environment that was relatively free of tourists. We enjoyed a very nice walk along a well defined path, looking for wildlife. We were unable to see any squirrel monkeys -- which the Park is famous for -- but we did see a number of iguana, birds and the like. We walked back along the beaches and stopped for about an hour in a spot that was truly tropical with a broad sandy beach, lovely greenery and a spectacular view of geologic formations thrusting out of the clear Pacific Ocean. On our way out of the Park, we stopped for lunch at a little cafe on the beach and enjoyed a quiet meal. The prices were still “touristy” but the setting was much more relaxed and enjoyable than we experienced in Jaco. I can recommend Manuel Antonio as a place you ought to visit if you travel to Costa Rica.

Last night, we had dinner in the hotel’s restaurant and enjoyed the typical experience of power outages every hour or so. It really is quite humorous if you don’t let it bother you, and the sense of routine with which the wait staff deals with it can make it downright entertaining. This morning we caught a ride back into the town of Quepos, walked around and found a watch shop that promised to have the batteries in my watch replaced within a half-hour. While we waited, we had coffee at the counter in a local eatery and enjoyed watching the women preparing food for the day. I was able to communicate to some degree and was able to get a laugh or two out of them. After that, we picked up my watch and found another little place for lunch. We each had a plate of “typical” Costa Rican fare which consists of rice, beans, salad, potatoes, plantain and a small amount of chicken, meat or fish. Finally out of “tourist zone” we also paid a “typical” price of about $3 per meal. After another little walk around town, we caught a ride back to our hotel for some time at the pool and an afternoon of relaxation.

In the morning, we will ride back to San Jose and have one night there before Kay flies out on Friday. We have had a good week checking out two of the beach areas on the south shore of Costa Rica. Jaco is a mess, but Quepos and the Manuel Antonio Park a worthwhile. Stay tuned for whatever is next on The Voyage of Macgellan!

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Logbook: Jaco

Jaco1Saturday morning we took a cab from our little hotel at the south end of Jaco to a recommended restaurant “on the beach” at the north end of town. I quote “on the beach” because, frankly, nothing in Jaco is actually on the beach. Mostly there are walls that delineate the edge of “town” form the beach, and there are only a few places that don’t have walls. So, you can be “on the beach” in that you can see the beach and there is nothing between you and the beach, but it would be big stretch to say that you are really “on the beach.” After an adequate meal, we walked back the entire length of town, right down the main street. In a general sense, I can understand why tourists flock to Jaco. It is a tropical destination that offers everything from large resorts to tiny “surfer camping places.” It has a zillion bars with all manner of themes, and as many restaurants that range from obscenely priced faux haute cuisine to local joints serving typical Costa Rican rice and bean dishes. It is a hub for all kinds of tourist activity including sport fishing, surfing, kayaking, scuba diving, jungle canopy rides, hanging bridges and prostitution. What more could the “vacation week” or “spring break” tourist want? In my mind, I can picture Jaco ten years ago as a place where the adventurous, perhaps stoner vacationer would go to “get away from it all” and get lost in Jaco’s lush, tropical beach environs. Now, however, it is over developed, over hyped and just plain over done. I didn’t care for Jaco, I wouldn’t come back here and I cannot recommend it to others. Nevertheless, we had two full days in Jaco and tried to make the most of it.

On Saturday afternoon we arranged to do “the best canopy tour in Costa Rica” in the nearby national park. At the appointed time, a van picked us up and drove us a few kilometers to the park where we were nicely greeted and shown a very slick video that explained the history of the famous aerial tram and all the fabulous wildlife we would see on our ride. As we prepared to board the 8 passenger tram, we saw carload after carload of elderly, infirm and “mobility challenged” people unloading. Obviously, a very large group from a cruise ship had been transported from who knows where for a shore excursion. Somehow, this was not a good sign, and what I saw looking up mountainside at the route of the tram wasn’t much better. A path had been cleared through the jungle which the aerial tram traverses from tower to tower at a moderate pace. During the entire trip we saw only a few animals, none very interesting and all at a distance. Our “guide” did her best to make it interesting, but it was all pretty lame. I was an absolute tourist trap and, at $55 per person, it was a complete rip off. Anyway, Saturday night we went to a decent “bistro” for dinner and called it a day.

Yesterday morning we walked along the beach into town for breakfast and walked back the same way. We spent the rest of the afternoon taking advantage of the beautiful weather to relax in and around the pool at our hotel, then capped off the day with another nice stroll along the beach and one more trip into town for dinner. This morning, we are packed up and ready to catch the shuttle van down to Quepos and the Manuel Antonio Park which we hope to enjoy more than we have our time in Jaco.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Haircut Chronicle: #3 - San Jose, Costa Rica

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#3 - December 1, 2006, San Jose, Costa Rica. My last “Made in Mexico” haircut didn’t last very long... (Go figure!)...Roxana was not too sure about being in my photo, but she was ready and willing to give me a much needed haircut. Now that’s a “tropical trim”! Really short... and full of “goop”... I’m ready to head to the beach! Cost: 2,000 Colones ($4)

Logbook: Beach Bound

Beachbound1Tuesday morning back at the lovely La Condesa Resort in San Jose, I was up early enough to say good-bye to those in our travel group who were continuing on the trip extension. It was nice to be able to “close the loop” with them, yet familiar and comfortable to be back on my own. I spent the rest of Tuesday and all of Wednesday making use of an excellent wi-fi connection to update this website and do a ton of research and planning for the next legs of The Voyage. I was able to make some fabulous arrangements -- which I promise to share with you soon -- and I am very excited about what lies ahead. My friend Kay called yesterday morning to say that the weather in the US was terrible and that she would not be arriving in San Jose last night as planned but would arrive at noon today instead. Luckily, since all we had planned was to spend the night in San Jose and be beach bound mid-morning, picking her up at the airport and leaving two hours later wouldn’t be too bad in the scheme of things.

I had made arrangements for a van to drive us to the beach, and it showed up this morning right on time at ten o’clock. With some time to kill before Kay’s plane was due to arrive, the driver and I went to a shopping mall to get some provisions and have something to eat. On our way out of the supermarket, I saw a hair salon and told him I was going to get a haircut (My “Made in Mexico” haircut didn’t last very long and, yes, I’m chuckling just thinking about that). From there, we picked Kay up at the airport and made the two hour drive to the coast, stopping only once to see the famous crocodiles along the way. (See Photos!)

In Jaco, we found our hotel on the edge of “town”, checked in and went for a walk on the beach. The first thing I noticed, of course, was that the beach, terrain and ocean are really beautiful and it is no wonder this is such a popular vacation destination. The second thing I noticed was that it is hot -- really hot -- and unbelievably humid! I’m not complaining, but it is the kind of climate that leaves you drenched and exhausted. One highlight of our first beach walk was running into a pack of friendly dogs! They are former “street” dogs who have been adopted by a dog-loving woman who lives on the beach, and I had a nice time getting a long overdue “doggie fix” with them.

Beachbound2Another highlight was taking an “artsy” photo of a little fishing boat that was stranded on the beach after low tide, then finding myself helping its owner get it back into the water. The tide was way out and it was a bit of a slog, but we prevailed and he sped off into the surf with a simple wave of thanks. This evening, Kay and I went into “town” and had a decent dinner at a little Argentine restaurant. I tried to save a few left-overs for the dogs, but the waitress threw them out by mistake... Bummer! On first impression, Jaco is pretty much just a tourist beach town. High rise condos and rental properties are going up everywhere, and I think Americans may outnumber locals. Prices are really high and the tourist hype is almost oppressive. I’ll reserve final judgement until after I’ve been here a little longer and gotten a better sense of the place, but my initial impression is not so great. Stand by!

Monday, November 27, 2006

Logbook: Costa Rica 3

Costarica3After six days of pretty fast-paced travel, it was nice to be in one place for a long weekend. My folks and I made use of the beautiful -- but not particularly well run -- Casa Conde Mar’s facilities on Friday for a day of relaxation, hanging out and enjoying uninterrupted time together. Saturday was a different story, beginning with a “jungle canopy tour” which Mom and I did via a dozen “zip lines.” I’m sure you have all seen pictures of people zipping between tree stands hanging from wires, but I doubt you’ve seen anything like the Report of my mother doing it! Seeing the way she took to the process -- smiling like a fool the entire time -- is nothing short of astonishing. (If her friends thought she was crazy to go to Alaska in winter for the Iditarod, they will probably want to have her committed for doing this!)

In the afternoon we took a really nice sunset sailing cruise. Most of the dozen or so folks in our group gathered on the fore deck, but I found myself sitting aft and reminiscing about my yacht delivery last spring. I had talked to the captain about it just briefly when he said, “Great! Take the wheel while I go get a beer!” I guess I did okay, because he proceeded to sit and drink his beer without offering to retake the helm. (Thanks for the good training, Roy!) Anyway, it was such a clear, calm evening and the sunset was so spectacular that it was a perfect finish to our Costa Rican co-exploration.

Sunday was another day of rest and relaxation during which my folks and I reflected on our fine time together, made sure we were all caught up and considered some ideas for where we might co-explore next. This morning we all packed up, checked out and got back on the bus. After a very brief stop for last-minute shopping we arrived at the airport in Liberia and said good-bye to everyone who was heading home -- including my folks. As they headed into the terminal for their flight, I got back on the bus for the ride back to San Jose with those in the group who are going on a brief “extension” in the morning. I will be staying here in San Jose for a few days until my friend Kay arrives on Thursday to join The Voyage for a week of exploration on the beaches of the southern Costa Rican coast!

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Logbook: Costa Rica 2

Costarica2Tuesday morning we had some time at the Eco-Resort on the Sarapiqui River to wander around and stretch our legs. I took the opportunity to cross a very, very long foot bridge over the river which -- in my vast experience of foot bridges world-wide -- I would give pretty strong marks. Our main activity of the day was a two-hour boat ride on the river to view wildlife. With the group of 36 aboard a bus-like water craft, we cruised around and were not disappointed. We saw a number of birds, iguana, sloth and howler monkeys, and you can see some of them on the Photos page. We got back to the Eco-Resort in time for lunch and a little break before riding the bus to our next hotel, arriving early enough for a proper cocktail hour and dinner.

Yesterday was “volcano day” and we really made the most of it. From early morning until will into the evening, we made stops at various vantage points to observe the famous Arenal volcano. We were fortunate to have a relatively clear day, and were able to see the classic conical shaped volcano exuding steam and hot gases by day and spewing red hot rocks by night. It was really interesting -- awesome, in fact -- and the Photos barely do it justice. In between volcano viewings, we had a pleasant 2 hour walk on the “hanging bridges” that weave throughout a typical Costa Rican jungle, a couple of hours of “free time” in the town of La Fortuna (which I would make my “home base” if I were traveling through here on my own) and a visit to a lovely hot springs facility. It was a long and tiring day, but it was very diverse and rewarding.

This morning we were up very early for a long travel day to the northwest pacific coastline. As we crossed the continental divide, we left the cloud cover and jungle to enter the coastal savannah. Along the way we had a mild two hour raft trip which offered more excellent viewing of wildlife. Just in time for cocktails and the sunset, we arrived here on the beach at the Casa Conde Resort which will be our home for four nights. We are looking forward to some rest and relaxation, but also have some adventure excursions coming up. Stay tuned for updates from The Voyage of Macgellan!

Monday, November 20, 2006

Logbook: Costa Rica 1

Costarica1I spent Friday pretty much just goofing around in San Jose. For one thing, there really isn’t much to it. People may fall in love with Costa Rica, but nobody falls in love with its capitol city. For another, I was looking forward to “exploring” Costa Rica with my folks and really didn’t want to do too much on my own and spoil the fun of “discovering it together.” Saturday morning, I packed up, checked out of my hotel and got a taxi to Heredia -- a “pseudo-suburb” of San Jose -- then checked into the La Condesa Hotel where I would begin the tour with my folks. After lunch, I spent a little time on-line and had a nice walk around the lovely grounds. In the evening I looked for the tour guide so I could bum a ride to the airport with him to meet my folks, but I found out he was already at the airport to meet the group which would be arriving en masse. So, I got a taxi to the airport and waited for my folks to emerge from the arrivals gate. Sure enough, more or less on time, my folks arrived and we met up with the rest of the group for our bus ride back to the hotel. It is a little odd for me to write that all I did in a day was basically “check out, taxi, check in, hang out, taxi, wait, bus...” but that is what some days are like on The Voyage! Anyway, it was pretty late by the time we all got settled in, so my folks and I had a night cap and called it a day.

Yesterday morning the group assembled for a day-long “city tour.” I’m not quite sure what the point of it was, but I do know that it gave everyone a chance deal with jet-lag -- something I am very glad not to have to do anymore! -- and allow a day for a few folks who missed their flights to catch up with us before we went too far afield. Nevertheless, our day included a series of stops at various points of interest: The National Theater, the gold museum, a botanical garden and a famous cathedral to name a few. By the time the day was done, everyone was ready to have dinner and sleep... Including me! I was not so much exhausted by the activities of the day as I was by suddenly being with so many people. Although the group is a really good mix of friendly, experienced travelers of all ages and backgrounds, it has been a long time since I have been with 36 people!

This morning we assembled early for a trip to the nearby Doka coffee plantation -- the oldest family owned “wet milling” establishment in Costa Rica. We had a very nice, informative tour which covered the entire process from growing the “cherries” through the picking, processing, drying and roasting which renders the world famous beans. The coffee in Costa Rica is very, very good and we all go out of our way to drink it! From there, we rode to the very active Poas volcano but were disappointed to find it completely clouded over and obscured. Our guide was quick to reassure us that we have more volcanos in our near future, so from there we rode to our hotel -- an Eco-Style Resort on the Sarpiqui River -- and have called it a day.

My first impression of Costa Rica is quite simple: It is a land of greatly varied terrain and vegetation. From high altitude peaks with chilly air and mature forests to hot and humid sea level jungles, it offers a very strong sense of the power and variety of nature. I am happy to be with my folks and enjoying our time together. It has been a very long time since we have all traveled together and I am delighted to share The Voyage of Macgellan with them!

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Logbook: The John Galt Line - Phase Three

JglphasethreePhase Three of “The John Galt Line” through Central America started a little bit like “deja vu all over agin!” As usual, I got up, packed up and checked out, but then I woke up Parole who was sleeping in his cab in front of the hotel to be sure he got my business! With plenty of time to spare -- especially considering my experience of showing up at the TICA office only to wait for it to open -- I informed Parole of my need for coffee and we went to a local gas station for a cup. With that necessity handled, we drove the short distance to the TICA office and parted ways with Parole strongly encouraging me to return to Managua soon so that he can drive me all over the country on a grand tour. Um... Maybe. Anyway, in due course we loaded up the bus and did the first three hours to the border. On the Nicaraguan exit side, the scene was downright calm. There were a few money changers and peddlers, but the energy level was so low that it was really quite pleasant.

After the briefest of stops, we loaded up again and drove through a “delousing” building where the bus was sprayed with what I imagine is an insecticide. Don’t quote me on this, but I think the exercise is probably more symbolic than effective. Just a few hundred meters down the road, we got out and stood in line to be admitted into Costa Rica. My sense is that because Costa Rica is the “jewel” of Central America many citizens from nearby countries want to enter for work or whatever. Accordingly, the Costa Rican officials are quite adamant that people who enter must have a return or forward ticket of some kind. Several people in the line ahead of me were pretty well hassled and had to buy TICA tickets from the awaiting representative. Steeling myself in anticipation of trying to explain that I have no such return/forward ticket -- and why not! -- I stepped up to the counter and handed over my documents.

With nary a word, my passport was stamped and I was waved on my way. It became clear to me in that moment that I don’t exactly fit the profile of someone who is going to be a problem for Costa Rica and that they really don’t “care” about me at all. This insight was very useful a few minutes later when -- after dragging all of our gear off the bus -- people lined up and opened their bags for customs inspection. Noticing that there was not enough “room at the trough” for all of us to present our luggage, I hung back a little bit with a few of my fellow riders. When a gap opened up, I walked up to the “trough” in front of “The Man” and smiled. With not a second’s pause, he waved me on my way without so much as a glance at my bags. Sometimes it’s good not to be “cared about.”

With the entry formalities behind us, it was five more hours to San Jose where I got off the TICA Bus one last time, grabbed my gear and got a taxi to the hotel. Check in was smooth, my room has air conditioning and an occasionally stable internet connection. Color me happy! I had a light supper and hit the rack, quite satisfied with the week I have spent on “The John Galt Line!” This morning I sorted my gear, gathered up my laundry and headed out for “chore day.” I found a tidy little laundromat where I actually got to wash my own clothes and then picked up a few supplies.

My folks are due to arrive on Saturday for a week of co-exploration on an organized tour, so I am going to repack my gear such that I will be able to leave the “warehouse” behind and not lug it all over the country. In addition, I don’t know how good internet connections will be where we are going, so I am making sure everything is up to date. I had originally expected that “The John Galt Line” would render media suitable for a Report, but it just doesn’t look that way to me now. There is only so much you can do with photos of a bus and various checkpoints, and I think the Photos page and Logbook entries do a sufficient job of telling the story.

So, I will “sign off” for the moment and hope to provide updates over then next week or so as conditions permit. Today is “Day 100” on The Voyage and -- while I have thoroughly enjoyed and benefitted from everything that has happened so far -- I am looking forward to a bit of a “vacation” where somebody else handles all of the arrangements, logistics, etc. Nevertheless, stay tuned for more to come soon as The Voyage of Macgellan continues!

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Logbook: The John Galt Line - Phase Two

JglphasetwoPhase Two of “The John Galt Line” through Central America began a lot like Phase One. This time, my “get up, get packed, check out and go to the TICA Bus” routine started on Sunday in San Salvador at 3am! Ugh! As usual, though I had been told to arrive at the TICA office at 4am -- which I did -- I found the place was still closed and shuttered. No matter, I had a nice “chat” with the shotgun armed security guard who was thrilled that I wanted to take his picture. Sure enough, the office opened by about 4:30 and people started to arrive. Shortly after 5am we were all loaded up and on our four hour leg toward the San Salvador - Honduras border.

I have been asked if I mind all the bus time, and my answer is “No, not at all.” For one thing, I am really enjoying the sense of time and space I have been getting from it and there never really is a dull moment. Between the antics of the people involved, the endless, subtle scenery changes and the vast quantities of media on my iPods, I have plenty to hold my attention and pass the time. Given the rigorous schedule, there’s always sleep to catch up on as well.

Anyway, the first border crossing was a complete no-brainer. We had been instructed to fill out a typical immigration form and give it to the “conductor” with our papers. At the actual border, “The Man” came on board, checked each of us out and sent us on our way. We never got off the bus and, because we did not make any stops in Honduras, we did not get off the bus until the Honduras-Nicaragua border. The way I would describe that crossing -- especially in comparison to the first two -- is downright enjoyable. There were the usual people, kids, dogs, etc., but everybody just kind of milled around and hung out. I changed a little money, bought a sandwich and a Coke then took in the sights and sounds. I wondered if maybe it all seemed so much more relaxed because I had just become accustomed to the routine, but several of the other passengers made observations similar to mine.

So, after a pleasant little break, we loaded up again and drove 4 more hours to Managua. At the bus station here, I grabbed my gear, made my reservation for the final leg to Costa Rica and got a cab to the hotel. Check in was easy and a few minutes later I was online. A delicious buffet dinner later, I crashed and had a really good sleep. It all sounds so familiar, doesn’t it? Yesterday I spent a lot of time on-line talking to friends all over the world. It’s funny, but when you are in a generic hotel room, connecting with others, it really doesn’t make much difference where you are. At moments, I had to remind myself that I am in Nicaragua!

Anyway, I walked across the street to the little shopping plaza and found the usual collection of stores: clothing, shoes, pharmacy and phones. After dinner I played cards for an hour in the silly little hotel casino amongst a mainly Chinese crowd. It appears that the Chinese are the “big money” around here, but I was unable to discern exactly what that is all about. What I can tell you is that they were all lousy blackjack players and I couldn’t even count the amount of money that was handed across the table.

This morning I arranged to get a “tour” from a taxi driver who is associated with the hotel. His name is “Parole” -- pronounced “Parolay” -- and his highly acclaimed English turned out to be little better than my Spanish. On top of which, he compensated by repeating the same things over and over in increasingly loud volume. All in all, though, we had a successful exploration and I can offer you this simple report: Managua is a mess. Having been destroyed so many times by a series of earthquakes and fires, it is nothing more than a random sprawl of one story buildings scattered among what appear to be garbage dumps. There are numerous public buildings and military installation -- remnants of the Sandinista mess -- interspersed with factories and pseudo-industrial complexes. Parole informed me that there are a few wealthy families, some more that are well to do, some more that are “so-so” and the vast majority that are poor, without jobs and hungry. The picture matches the story.

I have not been able to get a straight answer from anyone about whether or not the recent re-election of Ortega will be good for the country, but it doesn’t really seem to matter. The only thing that will really help is a massive investment of foreign industry and decades of socio-political reform and stability. I can’t recommend the former and I doubt the latter. So, I’d expect this to remain an area with problems for a long, long time. Nevertheless, the people are warm and friendly, the infrastructure seems to work and I have enjoyed my brief visit. Tomorrow morning I will repeat the early routine and be back at the TICA Bus by 6am. One more day on The John Galt Line and I will be in Costa Rica!

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Logbook: The John Galt Line - Phase One

JglphaseonePhase One of “The John Galt Line” through Central America began at 5am on Thursday in Tapachula when I got up, got packed and checked out of the Loma Real that had been my home for a nice few days. Arriving at the local bus station at the appointed time of 6am -- for my 7am bus -- I was not terribly surprised to find the station empty except for an armed security guard. I have gotten accustomed to “things coming together in due course” so I just had a seat and waited. Sure enough, a few other people began to arrive and, promptly at ten minutes to seven, the TICA Bus pulled in and a company-uniformed young man waved us over and began to check our tickets and load us up. I was having some of the usual difficulty discussing the details of my itinerary with him when a white woman walked up and began complaining loudly at him in Spanish about having gotten the same lack of useful information and poor service that Paulina and I had gotten from the “bitch” ticket agent. After a few minutes of back and forth -- with her mostly yelling and him mostly nodding -- he asked her if she spoke English. With a stunned and combative look on her face, she replied in English, “My Spanish is perfectly good! Why do you want me to speak English?” I suppressed my laugh and said to her, “It’s not for him, Ma’am. It’s for me. I need help with Spanish.” It took a moment for her to switch gears, the she said to me, “Oh, what’s the problem?” Thus went my introduction to Claire, a Belgian woman who has been traveling in Central and South America for most of a year. After a few minutes of her helpful translation, all was in order and we began our bus ride.

After not quite an hour, the driver made an announcement that we were at the border with Guatemala and that we would have to get off the bus for immigration. I have read numerous blog accounts of the experience of border crossing in this region -- and I had readied myself to document it for you by holding my passport in one hand and my camera in the other before stepping off the bus -- but nothing could have prepared me for the chaotic melee into which I descended. Dozens -- perhaps a hundred -- locals were pressed up to the bus, yelling, waiving and pointing. Within seconds, several had grabbed for my passport, others had grabbed for my camera and one tried to pick my pocket. Those of you who know me know that I am generally pretty easy-going about things, but you also know I don’t take kindly to being hassled. I shoved my hands in my pockets, gave them all that “look” I have -- the one that seems to be pretty universally understood as “Back off or die!” -- and barged my way through. Sometimes, having grown up in New York, been in my share of hot-spots and being substantially larger in bulk that those around me has its advantages!

A few yards away I saw that Claire -- despite her own strong attitude and abilities -- was under fire and “stuck” in the mob. I pushed my way over to her, put my arm around her and moved us through to the immigration building. With just a look, she let me know that we were “even” in the “help your fellow traveler” category. Inside the immigration building, the situation was somewhat more orderly as we got our passports stamped out of Mexico. From there, it was a hundred yard walk across the actual border to the immigration building in Guatemala where we were stamped in and loaded back onto the awaiting TICA Bus. My immediate regret was that I had not taken any photos of the ordeal, but I gave myself a break due to conditions and settled in my seat.

After an uneventful three hour ride to Guatemala City, we arrived at the TICA Bus office and had about an hour before departure. I saw an ATM machine right outside of a Subway restaurant, so I did a one-stop-shop for a few Quetzales and a sandwich. The ride to the next border between Guatemala and El Salvador was another uneventful three hours and -- by comparison to the first one -- the crossing was mild bordering on pleasant. Our papers were checked by “The Man” who came on the bus, then we all got off to supervise the inspection of our luggage. Money changers were on hand and -- because El Salvador uses actual US dollars -- it was a good place to get rid of my few Quetzales and the Pesos I had left over from Mexico. So, using the ever-present calculator, I negotiated a pretty good rate and pocketed bucks. With the remaining time before our departure, I bought a bottle of water and some kind of cookies from a pleasant older woman then just enjoyed the scene: Officials doing their routine, people changing money, boys shining shoes, girls selling food, little children asking for coins and dogs begging for food. Perfect.

In due course, we loaded up and drove the remaining three hours to San Salvador, arriving at about 7pm. I reserved my seat for the next leg and got a cab to the Holiday Inn where I was greeted -- in English! -- and checked in. I had some dinner and felt pretty exhausted from the long and amazing day, so I crashed for solid eight hour sleep. Yesterday, I had a lengthy “other work” Skype call, did some website updates, treated myself to a massage and generally took it easy. Today I have been on-line talking with friends and family, sorting out my gear and preparing to move on in the morning. I realize that I haven’t done any “exploration” here, but I’m not bothered about it. My hotel is located pretty far from “downtown” and I’m not really motivated to make a “fly by.” I’m happy to have the chance to recharge my batteries -- figuratively and literally -- and get myself ready for Phase Two! Stay tuned!

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Logbook: The John Galt Line

JohngaltlineA few days ago, I had a delightful -- as always -- conversation with an old friend, client and Voyage sponsor. Among the many topics, we talked about how I was planning to get to San Jose, Costa Rica in time to meet my folks there on the 18th. I described for him an insight I have gained so far on the Voyage regarding the relationship between factors like speed, safety, stress and economy. It strikes me as a somewhat complicated algorithm, but it goes something like this: The faster and farther I move, the more I feel the need to make “arrangements” in advance. I’ll admit that I’m not yet completely comfortable riding all night on a bus, arriving in some strange city and just “looking around” for a place to stay. It would be stressful any time, but it is especially so when one reads about the potential dangers that lurk in one’s destination. In order to be “safe”, I find myself going to the website for the Holiday Inn and picking “good” hotels, any of which, of course, are not the most economical to stay in.

On my “run” to San Jose, the TICA Bus makes overnight stops at San Salvador and Managua -- even the bus doesn’t run at night in this territory. I have read blogs by folks who have done it in three consecutive days and simply “gotten a room” at one of the cheap, run down rooming houses in the neighborhood of the bus stations, but that seems to me to miss the opportunity to do any exploration at all in those cities. I don’t have to be in San Jose in three days, so why not take a couple of days in each city along the way. You probably see my dilemma by now. The longer I take in each city, the more chance I have to “check it out” -- and not totally wear myself out from three consecutive days on the bus! -- but staying in a Holiday Inn in each city for three nights is more expensive than I would normally want to finance on The Voyage. So, my friend and I talked at some length about the balance between going safe, stress-free and expensive or going cheap.

As is his nature, he ended the conversation by saying, “You’re smart. You’ll figure it out.” We said our good-byes and hung up. A few minutes later, while I was still pondering my options, I got an e-mail notification from PayPal that I had received funds. When I checked my account, I found that my friend had sent a rather large sponsorship with a note that simply read, “Go safe.” I was so touched -- and energized -- by his thoughtful support that I e-mailed him right away. I told him that in accord with the sponsorship guidelines of The Voyage his support deserved special recognition. I know him well enough to know that he always wants to remain “anonymous” so I asked if perhaps there was some way I could acknowledge his sponsorship without using his name. His reply: “You’re smart. You’ll figure it out.”

So, in honor of my good friend and excellent sponsor, I have named the run I will make at his expense through the “difficult” parts of Central America after one of our shared heroes: John Galt -- a central character in Ayn Rand’s fabulous book “Atlas Shrugged”. So there you have it. I’m off in the morning along the route you see in the map above. Twelve hours by bus from Tapachula through Guatemala to El Salvador with three nights and two days in the capitol city. Then twelve more hours to Managua, Nicaragua with three nights and two days there. Twelve more hours on the bus will put me in San Jose, Costa Rica on the 15th. I’ve got my ticket for the TICA Bus and I’ve got reservations at Holiday Inns for each stop. The trip will surely be physically demanding, but I will be safe and stress-free. Many, many thanks to my generous sponsor. I look forward to sharing my discoveries along “The John Galt Line” with all of you in the coming days.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Logbook: Tapachula

TapachulaTapachula was a very good choice as a place to spend a few days of “recovery” -- from my excellent but very difficult and exhausting time in Mexico City -- and “preparation” -- for my transit of Central America to Costa Rica. A city of about 300,000 people, it can best be described as a “cross-roads commercial city.” Depending on how you look at it, Tapachula is either the last substantial city as you head south out of Mexico or the first as you head north from Central American. Either way, it is a place where business people meet “in the middle” and tourists stop “along the way.” There is some opportunity for cultural exploration, but I honestly haven’t done much of it. For me, it has been a pleasant and serviceable little oasis.

Here is a brief recap of the past few days: After leaving Greg at the airport in Mexico City last Thursday, Miguel and I went to his favorite place for lunch then did a little more generic sightseeing. After that, he dropped me off at the bus station where I caught my ride south. The bus left promptly at 6pm and I spent the next 18 hours in relative comfort on the “executive” bus, watching video and listening to podcasts -- Have I told you how much I love my iPods! -- and getting a reasonable amount of sleep. After rolling into the Tapachula bus station at noon on Friday morning, I went to the ticket counter to reserve my place on the famous “TICA Bus” that will take me further south. After about 20 minutes of going back and forth with the woman at the counter -- including ample pointing to my map and calendar -- she handed me a clipboard with pages that vaguely resembled the seating chart for a bus and had me write my name in a box on a page marked with the date of my desired departure. She seemed rather unfriendly and disinclined to be helpful, so I figured that was as good as it was going to get. I grabbed a cab to the Hotel Loma Real -- a pleasant “resort” on a hill overlooking the city -- and checked in. A shower and lunch later, I took a little nap then went for a brief walk around the grounds. It was hot and muggy, but at least it wasn’t polluted! I went to bed early and slept like a log.

Saturday was a very leisurely day of on-line connection and general recovery. On Sunday I was a bit more productive, editing and posting a lot of website content. In two days, I never left the Loma Real compound. Yesterday was “chore day” and I went into town to drop off my laundry, get my hair cut and shop for supplies in a pretty good sized mall. Not feeling confident about my TICA Bus situation, I had arranged with Paulina -- a nice young woman who works at the Loma Real and has excellent English -- to meet me at the bus station and negotiate on my behalf. After about 10 minutes of rapid-fire Spanish and quite a bit of what seemed like heated debate, Paulina explained to me that I was “on the list” and could just show up the morning of my departure, pay my fare and get on the bus. As we walked out, I thanked her and told her that I had found the ticket woman to be rather difficult. Paulina’s response was classic: “She is -- how do you say it -- a bitch!” We both laughed then I treated her to dinner at a nice little restaurant before parting ways.

Today I have been doing some “other work” and generally preparing to head south. Tomorrow I will collect my laundry, pack up my gear and finish getting ready for the TICA bus run -- aka “The John Galt Line” -- through Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua to Costa Rica. I will also take time to tell you what that is all about! Stand by!

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Haircut Chronicle: #2 - Tapachula, Mexico

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#2 - November 6, 2006, Tapachula, Mexico. It’s hot down here and I’m heading further south. Time for a trim! I have no idea what her name is -- and we had practically no ability to communicate -- but she was game to give it a try! Don’t be fooled by the look on her face. We were both pretty happy with the results. Cost: 80 Pesos ($8)

Musing: Sigma Iotia Mexico

Sigmaiotiamexico1One of my favorite episodes from the original Star Trek series is entitled “A Piece of the Action” which has a plot that goes something like this: Kirk and the crew beam down to the planet Sigma Iotia II and find themselves in an Earth-like 1920s era gangster culture. The people dress, talk and act like gangsters, but the crew finds that the food tastes wrong, the smells are off and the feel of things is inaccurate. They come to discover that a hundred years earlier a Federation vessel had accidentally left a book about gangsters behind on the planet, and the imaginative and intelligent inhabitants had built their culture around what they read and saw in the book. They got the sound and look right from the words and pictures, but they did not -- could not -- get the right taste, smell and feel from the book. This episode of Star Trek came to mind recently because it is an allegory of how I have come to view Mexico. Don’t get me wrong, I mean no disrespect. I have grown quite fond of Mexico, especially the warm, friendly, hard working and good natured people. The way things are, though, has an aspect of “looks right, works wrong.”

Sigmaiotiamexico2A few examples: In most of the hotels I have stayed in, there is a little receptacle by the door into which you put your card key when you enter the room. This activates the electricity, air, etc. The idea, of course, is that one should not waste energy when the room is empty. The problem is that ALL the electricity goes off, including the outlet into which the fancy clock radio is plugged. As a result, you have to reset the clock every time you re-enter the room. In two places so far, the outlet for the clock radio has been on the same circuit as the light switch, rendering it useless either as a clock at night or as an alarm in the morning. Unless, of course, you sleep with the lights on. Another example is that the ATM machines dispense very large bills, generally as large as possible to require the fewest bills to meet the amount of your withdrawal. The problem is that nobody -- including your hotel -- is readily willing or able to change them into smaller bills. As a result, you have to wait on a long line at the bank to change the big bills you just got from their ATM machine. The technology is in place and works as far as it goes, but the system breaks down in the context of the larger reality. My favorite example is in the Mexico City subway system where the hi-tech turnstiles accept little paper tickets with a magnetic stripe on them to speed you through and on your way. The problem is that the turnstiles accept only these paper tickets. You cannot use coins. Where do you get the paper tickets? Perhaps at an automated dispenser that accepts coins? No, because there are none. You have to wait in a line and buy the paper tickets from a person who tears them off a roll that is designed to be used in an automated dispenser!

Now, these kinds of things do not really annoy me. To the contrary, I find them rather endearing and a source of constant amusement. I would, however, offer an opinion and spotlight an opportunity: Mexico has the potential to be a world class country. It has natural resources, hard working people and a wonderful location. What it doesn’t seem to have is “the rest of the picture.” Like Sigma Iotia II from Star Trek, it has “some of it right” but not “all of it right.” The intelligent and imaginative people of Mexico have built aspects of their culture around what they have seen elsewhere in pictures, books and movies, but they have not -- can not -- get the whole thing right without complete, actual experience of how can be. The opportunity is simple: An enterprising individual could, I believe, make a pretty good living out of providing the exchange of experience by spending time in Mexico and pointing out the “disconnects” to those who stand to profit -- especially in the lucrative tourist market -- from improving the “look and feel.” Even better, I think there is a strong market opportunity for a business that would allow Mexicans to experience a “fully functioning environment.” If a “Kidzania” can give the children of Mexico an experience of proper commerce, why couldn’t a “Ritzania” give their working parents -- especially in the lucrative tourist industry -- an experience of proper accommodation. If they actually experience “all of it right” I believe they would “make it all right.” The potential benefits to them and their economy are enormous.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Logbook: Cinco Dias En Mexico

Cincodiasenmexico1I have a lot of great media of the five days “Los Viajeros” have spent in Mexico City which I will soon edit into a Report. Meanwhile, here is a recap: After getting a much needed good night’s sleep on Friday night -- in our cool, quiet, mosquito-free room at the fabulous Gran Hotel -- we decided to make Saturday an “overview” day. So, after breakfast and a brief walk around Zocalo we got on the “Turibus” -- the typical red, double-decker, open air bus that most major cities have for tourists -- and had a four hour tour around the major highlights of the city. The many famous buildings and monuments were interesting, of course, but what was most amazing is the city’s sheer mass of humanity... and traffic! With over 20 million people -- and a comparable number of vehicles -- Mexico City is the world’s second most populous city. One is constantly surrounded by people and suffocated by exhaust, smog and pollution. At one point, when we got off the bus to take a break, Greg had no problem doing his usual routine of getting his picture taken with local girls. With his disarming smile and infectious positive energy, he always seems to bring out the “fun” in people. My role as “straight man” involves saying, “Lo siento, mi tio es muy loco!” which always clinches the deal. The Mexican people are very warm, friendly and happy, which is somehow in stark contrast to the very difficult living conditions of the city.

After a little “recovery” time in our room, we had dinner and hit the rack. On Sunday morning we met with Miguel -- a professional tour guide with a wonderful sense of humor and excellent English -- for a full day of sightseeing. We drove south through the city, stopped at a number of interesting places where we enjoyed Miguel’s insightful “esplanations” and good humor, then went to a local professional soccer game. What an experience! The cheering, chanting and singing never stopped during the entire game, and by the time it was over we were fast friends with many of the fans. After the game we drove to the floating gardens for an enjoyable “barge ride.” This experience is impossible to describe, so you will have to wait to see it in the Report. The day pretty much wore us out, so we did our routine of rest, eat and sleep.

On Monday, I had an “inside day” to make some arrangements for the Voyage going forward and to do some “other work” which included several excellent telecons on my beloved Skype -- Have I mentioned it’s free! Greg headed out for a day of exploration, returning completely exhausted in the afternoon -- it is impossible to express how the oppressive conditions in this city will wear you out -- ready for a nap, dinner and sleep. Yesterday, we headed out together for a day of exploration that centered around experiencing the city’s subway system. We were very impressed with the Metro, and would recommend it to any visitor as a way to get around. The trains run frequently, swiftly and all over the city, carrying more than five million people a day. Greg had heard that “old” people get to ride for free, so he made a comedy routine out of getting the turnstile guards to let him through without paying. The video of this is priceless! At one point, we got off at a station where we were told there was a “Museum of Torture” -- something we just had to see -- and spent an hour trying to get directions from local folks. We finally gave up and returned to Zocalo, only to find out that the museum was within walking distance of our hotel! After touring the exhibit -- which was positively ghastly -- we returned to our hotel for -- you guessed it -- rest, dinner and sleep!

Cincodiasenmexico2This morning, we met up with Miguel and drove out of the city to see the famous pyramids at Teotehuican. We again had the benefit of Miguel’s vast knowledge, informative “esplain you everything” and wonderfully dry wit. Because we had both been feeling so badly as a result of Mexico City’s altitude, pollution, etc., we were initially unsure about our ability to climb the Sun Pyramid. Taking our time, however, we successfully scaled the structure and were rewarded with a wonderful vista. If you ever visit Mexico City, the pyramids are a “must.” Not only is it a very interesting archeological site, it is also a great escape from the oppressive conditions of the city. Upon our return to the hotel, we had a rest then went out to have our last dinner together and our last immersion into the insanity of Zocalo -- which was on overdrive due to “Day of the Dead” festivities!

Tomorrow we will pack up, check out and head our separate ways. Greg has an afternoon flight back to Seattle, and I will catch an overnight bus south to Tapachula where I will spend a few days in the state of Chiapas before embarking on my “Central America Sprints” through Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua on my way to Costa Rica. In closing, I want to express my thanks to Greg for joining me on The Voyage this past week. I simply could not have had as good a time in Mexico City without him. The conditions here are so difficult that I might have left without experiencing all the good and interesting things that the city has to offer. We always have a good time together, but this time I was enriched and reinforced by his presence. Muchas gracias, Pumito!

(PS - Greg says to tell everyone what a great time he had as well. He also encourages everyone to join The Voyage of Macgellan somewhere. He says, “It’s great! Macgellan does all the scouting and logistics. All you have to do is catch a flight and be ready for spontaneous adventure! Don’t miss this once in a lifetime opportunity!”... Macgellan agrees! See you soon?)

Friday, October 27, 2006

Logbook: Plan B

Planb2It's been a trying 48 hours. Here's a recap: After posting the logbook entry Wednesday night, I edited the Kidzania Report, pushed the "publish" button at about 2 in the morning and went to bed. Since the Majestic Hotel has no air conditioning, the noise from Zocalo came through my open window unabated. I slept poorly -- for only about 4 hours -- and got up yesterday morning to face two problems: 1) the altitude, heat, noise, pollution and lack of sleep had conspired to beat me down a little and 2) the Kidzania Report I'd published the night before was "busted" and stuck on "The Big Blue Q." I decided to stay in and tackle the web problem which ended up taking almost the entire day to isolate and fix -- thanks to a nasty little bug in a recent update to third-party (Non-Mac!) video software program I use.

With that finally resolved, I went for a brief walk around Zocalo, had dinner and went to bed early with hopes of a good night's sleep. No such luck. Last night was the worst so far on The Voyage. I had to keep the windows open to keep from suffocating, and while my earplugs did a reasonably good job against the noise there was nothing to be done to combat the swarm of huge mosquitos that invaded my room! I was up most of the night, swearing that I would not stay another night in the Majestic, no matter how "authentic" it is. This morning I felt like I'd been whipped. The oppressive altitude and pollution of Mexico City combined with two nights of very little sleep had me pretty knocked down, but at least I was on a mission to find another abode. I walked yet another block south and found that the Grand Hotel -- a truly elegant old-style place that must have been featured in many movies -- had a room available for the duration of my stay in Mexico City and for only a few bucks more than the Majestic!

Especially with my friend Greg on his way -- I would not subject anyone to the Majestic -- I happily made the deal and set in motion my move to the Grand Hotel. I went back to the Majestic, went online for messages and the like, then packed my gear and checked out at one o'clock. I walked the block to the Grand, did the paperwork and was told that my room would be ready at 3 o'clock. Excellent! I left my gear with the bell man, had some lunch then headed to the airport. I arrived just before Greg's flight, positioned myself right in front of the arrival gate and got my camera ready to record his entrance. After a half hour, I started to wonder if I'd missed him and began looking around. After an hour, I wondered whether he had arrived at another gate and started searching the concourse. After two hours, I figured something had gone wrong and decided to go with "Plan B" which, of course, I had arranged with Greg as follows: "If all else fails, get a cab to the Majestic and I'll meet you there."

The Majestic! Too bad I wasn't there anymore. I could just see Greg walking into the place, asking for me and being told I had checked out! As you can imagine, I hurried to the Majestic in hopes of finding him waiting there, but, alas, no such luck. I ran over to the Grand, checked in, got to my room, went online and -- you guessed it --picked up a voicemail from Greg saying that his flights had gotten screwed up and would be arriving at -- you guessed it again -- just about the time I had given up and left the airport! To make it all more ironic, he had left the voicemail just ten minutes after I'd logged off and left the Majestic!

Anyway, I knew I wouldn't be able to get back to the airport before he too figured the connection was busted and got in a cab, so I went with "Plan B" as well. I walked back over to the Majestic and waited outside the front door. Sure enough, about 45 minutes later, a cab pulled up and I saw Greg's smiling face in the window. We hugged and high-fived then walked to the Grand, dumped his stuff in the room and went to dinner. We cracked ourselves up sharing the stories of our screwed up day, but decided that's just the way it goes some days in the expedition business and all's well that ends well. We both look forward to a good night's sleep in our cool, quiet room and to whatever tomorrow brings. Stay tuned! Ole!