El Salvador. Despite being just a hop, skip and a jump from Honduras, the differences immediately bombard you once crossing the imaginary line which divides the two Latin American countries. Although in the same blood line, I guess you could say El Salvador is the better looking sister. But don’t get your feelings hurt Honduras, you’ve got a great personality.
On the surface, it is evident. The majority of the roads are paved, the cities cleaner, and the people differ a bit in appearance. But these are just the obvious ones. After meeting the many gregarious El Salvadorans along your journey, one can’t help but notice the inherent and genuine desire they possess to help guide the weary traveler. A few times I found myself lost, and before I could find someone to ask for help, someone had already found me. Most likely, this eagerness to help is also due to their curious disposition. Everyone I met was eager to know my story, and with their eyes wide open and smiles perma-glued to their faces, they nodded their heads eagerly while trying to understand my broken Spanish.
As for the ones that speak some English, they are extremely proud to start a conversation with you, and love the opportunity to practice. I actually met quite a few who could speak English due to spending time in the States working odd jobs. One guy even hawked fake (excuse me, real) Casio watches along the streets of L.A., and consequently, had brought the trade back with him to San Salvador.
After crossing the border, I boarded an old school bus, turned electric blue party bus. The driver was blasting Reggeaton music, and surprisingly, the sound system was pretty decent. I couldn’t help but notice the resemblance to the party buses back home that we pay hundreds of dollars to rent for the night. However, this journey only cost me $1.30, stunning view included. While we made our way through the countryside, bus rocking from the beats, and plantain chips in hand, bright and fanciful murals commenced to pop up everywhere. There were depictions of families, farmers, abstract shapes and electric colors. I even saw a mural that said “Somos Parte de la Solucion” (We are part of the solution), with scenes depicting Mother Earth. This was particularly refreshing, as in other Central American countries, recycling and conservation is not a topic widely discussed around the trashfire.
In La Palma, no wall space is left unmarked, transforming the streets into a playground for the eyes. As soon as I stepped off the bus into La Palma, I felt as if I had been teleported into a Pixar film. Thanks to the efforts of Fernando Llort, a Honduran artist who moved to La Palma from the capital of San Salvador, the town is covered in art from head to toe. After moving to La Palma, Llort founded the Center for Integral Development, a school for anyone wanting to learn art. With this new trade, the majority of the people in La Palma make a decent living selling their arts and crafts.
Another gem I happened to visit was the town of Juayua. (Pronounced Why-You-Ah) I highly recommend this town to anyone traveling in El Salvador. It truly is one of the most unique towns I have come across. Juayua is located along the Ruta de Los Flores, nestled in between hills of coffee plantations as far as the eye can see. The people are charming, the markets bustling, and the food phenomenal. Every weekend the town hosts a Feria Gastronomica (food festival) where people from all over El Salvador bring traditional dishes to sell, resulting in an eclectic menu to delight the taste buds. It is here you can find anything from grilled iguana, rabbit tacos, stewed frogs, to coffee flavored snow cones.
So, if you are looking for a relaxing and cultural place to visit, make a stop in Juayua, where the term “picturesque” must have been coined. In this living canvas, the people are charming, the town tranquillo, and the cobblestone streets are virtually motor free.
As for the rest of El Salvador, I am not delusional in thinking that every square inch is all peaches and cream. I am aware of the fact that there exists an immense deal of poverty and violence. This was quite evident while passing though the capital of San Salvador. Sadly, I witnessed the technicolored murals evolve into graffiti, accompanied by gang signs plastered over the numerous Coca-Cola and Pepsi advertisements. But a big city in Latin America is just that. A big city.
As for Honduras, I still love the place, and am content to be living here for now. But Honduras needs to step up its game, and what better way then to spread some paintbrush lovin all over the country?
San Salvador street art photo via flickr // joebackward
When you travel somewhere, you get to know the culture of the country you're visiting, and its language(s) is a big part of the culture. There are so many more languages and dialects on this world than there are countries, so one shouldn't substitute a country with a culture. A few steps down the road, you may encounter something utterly different.
But every culture and every language has its particularities. There are some amazing facts in etymology and linguistics that allow us to draw connections to culture. Obviously, food and its collective consumption plays an important role in Filipino culture, as in most Asian cultures. This phrase is a good example and a punchline for a basic cultural attitude towards everyday social life. This is why I find it very astonishing, and I hope to find further examples of telling international language facts while travelling. A few more interesting language facts that I have gathered up to now:
Honduras. The country of good intentions and genuine smiles. However marred by a bad reputation of drug wars, crime, and corrupt politicians, my one on one experiences with the people here is what I base my opinion on. And it looks good, because the people here are some of the nicest I have ever met. Everyone says hello when passing, and a warm smile is usually always exchanged.
I smile because it is the universal language of love.
My Spanish is not the best, however it is not the worst, and I am practicing everyday. And, whenever I find myself at a loss for words I simply smile. Because everyone understands a smile. No matter what language you speak, a smile is a sign of good intention and kindness. With one motion, it melts barriers and taps into the innate bond that we as humans share. Because we are all here together, and are all striving and looking for the same things. Whether it be love, happiness, stability, or simply a hot meal. So next time your verbal communication skills fail you, simply tap into your nonverbal reserve. Smile.
Nestled in the mountains, shadowed by Mt. Celeque, surrounded by coffee plantations, and laced with streams that lead to the river...Gracias is truly a hidden gem. And a great off the beaten path destination. This town is one where the markets don’t sell fruits or veggies that are out of season, no ATM exists, and the futbol posts are fashioned from wooden branches. And even though Lonely Planet says it is a place that you can skip, I don’t think that one can get the full experience of Honduras without visiting this rustic, colonial town which resides in the poorest region of the country.
However, if all you want is a week beach vacation in a resort on Roatan, to be able to “tell” your neighbors that you experienced and roughed it in Honduras (I’m sure there was no television in your hotel room), then no, this place is not for you. But if your intention is to immerse yourself in the culture, and you have the genuine desire to get to know the people, then Gracias is indeed the perfect place for you.
I feel safe, at home, and at ease here. The air is fresh, the fruit plentiful, and the mountains are a perfect background for this new chapter. This time around, I will be teaching kindergarten at the Minerva Bilingual School for the next ten months, and in turn I am also looking forward to what this country and my students have in store to teach me.
Featured photo via flickr // nanpalmero
Learning a new language, whether for business or for pleasure, can be hard after adolescent years but don't let that discourage you! What makes it hard is not having anyone to speak the language with. But that can be solved. All is asked of you is to dedicate some time. Knowing three languages myself, you can quickly forget simple words when you do not use your languages often. Here are some tips to help enhance vocabulary and pronunciation:
I am the type of traveller who loves to get off the beaten track. I head to a destination keen to see the famous sights and the not to be missed attractions, but the highlights for me are always the ones you can’t plan. The experiences you cannot predict in advance but end up enjoying because you are open to having them. The highlights that occur because you take the road less travelled, you engage in conversation with the locals, you travel on local transport or you try food you have never eaten before.
My “memorable moments of insignificance” in Myanmar seemed endless, but here are a few of my favourites.
Whilst most of the highlights of the Inle Lake region are accessed via boat, there are a number of hiking trails starting from Nyaungshwe that provide the opportunity to explore the nearby hills and villages without other travellers. Breathing in the fresh air and enjoying the stunning scenery in relative solitude is an incredibly energising experience and the few interactions we had with locals who were returning with their cows from the morning market in town or who lived in the small and isolated villages we passed through, provided the icing on the cake of a magical day.
I joined a local guide on a hike that provided countless moments that were as unforgettable as they were insignificant. We hiked to a cave monastery to meet a 70 year old monk who had lived there on his own for twenty-five years. He spoke no English but greeted us with tea and a plate of snacks as the three of us sat in comfortable silence. We unintentionally interrupted a formal meeting between the elders of two nearby villages who were discussing the proposed marriage between their children, but immediately called a break to make us tea. And we met a local woman who sat cutting kernels from corn cobs, a task she performed every day, who wanted nothing more than her photo taken.
But the highlight of the day came from the simplest moment of all. As I was walking along a narrow dirt path a small boy who looked to be around four years of age, ran out from the trees and stopped in front of me. He shyly handed me a small hand-picked flower as he watched my face intently. I smiled and replied with the Burmese word for thank-you (jez-u-beh) and felt my heart warm as his face completely lit up and he turned around and ran back into the trees as quickly as he had arrived.
I carried the flower with me for the rest of the day.
After a long but tiring day exploring the Bagan temples, I decided to spend the next day with no itinerary and started the day on a bicycle at an intersection where a right turn would take me to the popular Bagan Temple area. I turned left.
After half an hour of directionless cycling I came across a narrow dirt path and decided to follow it to what I later learned was the village of West Pwa Saw. As I cycled past a row of small wooden houses, sometimes sharing the path with dogs, cats, cows and goats, I looked up to see two small children running as fast as they could towards me. They stopped abruptly a metre in front of me, excitement turning to apprehension until I greeted them with the one Burmese word I knew, min-gala-ba. Their faces lit up, they giggled and they pointed to my camera.
Hence began a day of short, insignificant, but incredibly memorable local interactions with the villagers.
Whilst playing with the children, I noticed a woman in the distance holding a small boy who was waving me over with her palm facing down. The more traditional ‘come over’ wave that we use (palm facing up with fingers curling towards you) is a form of aggression in Myanmar so I was relieved to receive a friendly invitation and walked towards her. She didn’t speak any English but invited me into her home, offered me some nuts to chew on as she made some tea and asked if she could paint my face with Thanakha (the local sandalwood paste worn by woman and children in Myanmar). We sat together in comfortable silence exchanging nothing but smiles, as she shared a piece of her culture with me.
As I left her home I found an old lady standing outside with her little grandson, patiently waiting for me to walk past her. Word had spread – there was a foreigner in the village and all the locals wanted to come and play!
Again she spoke no English and again she offered me nuts to chew on as she made me some more tea. Through our game of charades I learned that she had five children, nine grandchildren, had a small shop at the front of her house, was 65 years of age, had lived in the same house her entire life and had never left the Bagan area.It wasn’t long before we were joined by her family and neighbours and suddenly I was surrounded by two of her daughters, four of her grandchildren and two of her 70 year old neighbours. It felt like a secret society meeting for women – and I was the guest of honour! I binged on tea as we explored different communication techniques, finding charades to be the most effective (and enjoyable) and exchanged details about our lives.
I am often reminded whilst travelling that not having a common language does not prevent communication. This memorable afternoon was proof of that. We didn’t need words to understand that we whilst we came from different countries and led different lives, we still had some things in common - we were all women and we were all human beings.
Local bus stations in developing countries are usually hectic, aggressive and stressful but often provide some great people-watching opportunities and local interactions. The bus station in Monywa, from which I was boarding a bus to Pakkoku was no exception.
After awkwardly stumbling from the trishaw I had arrived at the station in, that was basically a bicycle with a chair attached, I sought out a local vendor selling bottled water to prepare for the bus ride ahead. After handing over what I thought was the equivalent of the £0.15 due for the large bottle of water, I started walking away only to hear the sound of footsteps and call of ‘lady, lady’. I had given him a 200 Kyat note instead of 100 and he, an honest vendor, had change to give me!
Being the only foreigner in a local bus station has inevitable consequences and I was immediately targeted by beggars, vendors and even nuns asking for donations. One dishevelled looking woman was holding a small, thin and dirty child and kept tugging at my sleeve. The heart breaking conflict I feel in these situations never gets any easier, knowing giving money to beggars is not the long term answer, but feeling helpless and selfish at the same time. Feeling rather useless, I suddenly remembered I had a bottle of bubbles in my bag and I took it out and started blowing bubbles in the direction of the child. His sad little eyes opened wide in terror as a bubble floated towards him and I feared my attempt at a little fun may have been a tactical error! But as it popped on his nose and he screamed in delight, I breathed a sigh of relief. I handed the bottle to his mother and watched her blow bubbles at her giggling son whilst for a few minutes she simply enjoyed the moment and forgot her troubles. I left them to it and boarded my bus.
A few minutes later I heard a knock on my window and looked out to see the mother (still blowing bubbles) waving at me and say jez-u-beh over and over. She eventually walked away and my heart warmed a little with the knowledge that a small bottle of bubbles had made them smile for a few minutes. I thought I’d seen the last of them until I heard knocking at the window again and saw her reach up to hand me half of the orange she had been eating, with tears in her eyes – her way of saying thank you.
One of the most entertaining conversations I had in Myanmar was by the side of the river in Monywa. I had just returned from exploring Hpo Win Daung Caves, paying ten times more than the locals for the ‘special’ tourist boat across the river which I was forced to take, which turned out to be the same type of boat the locals were piling into but with me as the solo passenger.
I was looking for a motor-trishaw to take me to a few sights in the afternoon and it didn’t take long for one to find me instead. The driver only spoke a few words of English but seemed to understand where I wanted to go. Our challenge began when we tried to agree a time to meet. He kept holding up three fingers, I kept holding up two whilst pointing to ‘2 o’clock’ on my watch. Before long we were surrounded by another ten men who were offering to help translate our conversation, despite none of them speaking any more English than my driver.
Every time I tried to say ‘can we meet at 2pm’ he would nod in agreement and then hold up three fingers. I tried a game of charades, I pointed to my watch, I imitated taking a nap and eating lunch first, but still he held up three fingers as he nodded in what he thought was agreement. Finally, a man joined us who spoke a little more English than the others and translated something to him in Burmese before explaining to me that he was nodding in agreement to the 2pm meeting time and was then telling me the trip would take 3 hours. When the penny dropped and we finally realised we understood each other, the crowd that had grown in size starting cheering, slapping each other on the back and high-fiving me!
Before I left for my lunch and nap, our newly appointed translator asked ‘how will you remember him, we all look the same to you don’t we?’ I started to feign offense at his question before I realised he was right and I pointed to the word ‘Dunlop’ that was written on the shirt of my driver. “Mr Dunlop” I said, “I will remember this is Mr Dunlop”. The crowd burst out laughing and kept repeating “Mr Dunlop” as I realised I had inadvertently given my driver a new nickname.
Sure enough, my driver was waiting for me at my hotel on time, shook my hand and re-introduced himself as Mr Dunlop whilst proudly pointing at his watch as he said “2pm”. It was the start of an incredibly enjoying afternoon with my driver and new friend.
Using charades to have conversations with non-English speaking locals can be useful and entertaining. When you are using charades to ask for a hair wash at a salon that also has scissors it can also be risky.
After arriving in Monywa and making my way into town from the station, I found a pleasant and relatively cheap room at one of the few hotels that are registered to accept foreign guests. I enjoyed a plate of chicken noodles for lunch and the first can of coke I had seen in the country and with the burst of energy supplied from my sugar fix I started to wander along the streets to explore this quaint little town.
When I came across a local hair salon, my girlie DNA came to the forefront and I realised how long it had been since my naturally curly hair had felt clean, straight and soft. How do you ask two young employees who don’t speak English for a wash and blow dry without ending up with short hair instead? Charades of course! Once we established scissors would not be necessary, they had a five minute conversation before deciding to charge me the equivalent of £4. I suspect the conversation went something like this:
“What do we normally charge foreigners?”
“I have no idea, we’ve never had a foreigner ask for a wash and blow dry before!”
“Well, what would we charge a local? 500 kyat? Yes? So let’s charge her ten times that amount!”
Ten times that amount was still only £4 so I happily accepted the price and sat back to enjoy what felt like an extravagant treat, sitting in silence for an hour, being pampered and having clean hair for the first time in weeks. It was only when I paid and opened the door to leave that I realised a foreigner having their hair washed at the salon was not a common sight and I had attracted a crowd who smiled at me as I left, touched my hair and said “beautiful, beautiful” over and over! I returned the smiles and stayed outside the hair salon for another half hour enjoying some banter and conversations with some of the friendliest people in the world.
It doesn’t take much to have a memorable moment of insignificance. Turning left instead of right led me to an unplanned afternoon of charades with the local women of West Pwa Saw. A small bottle of bubbles raised a smile on the face of someone who had previously been tugging at my sleeve in desperation. Negotiating a trishaw ride led to a round of applause and a new friend.
Surviving Jakarta. It was afternoon when I arrived at the Soekarno-Hatta airport and first thing I did was get a cab. The most reliable taxis are the Silver Bird (the make is Mercedez-Benz, very comfortable), Blue Bird (the make is Toyota), and Express. Most locals will recommend this and only this for you. For the record, I took Silver Bird because my friend's uncle was the driver.
One thing you will notice as soon as you get on the road is the traffic. Superbly congested in a nice way. You can see people along the road promoting their 'merchandises' (from foods to drinks to toys) and daring driving skills. It's just unique and somehow I found it serenading. It took an hour to get to my friend's house and it costs me Rp.200,000 (quite an amount!) or less than $20 USD but it was worth it.
Now now, for a person traveling with a tight budget, worry not! There are many other affordable transportation available and they seem to be fun. For example, they have 'Angkot' (which is a van made into a small bus, where it's destination differs and they are decorated differently according to the districts). 'Angkot' means 'carry' or 'bring'. The fares are from Rp.10000 and up (less than $1 USD). But always exercise precautions as you might be victims of pickpockets and such. Also brace yourself as they give you a VERY LIMITED time to enter and exit before they started accelerating the van. Vrooooommmm!
If you opt for something you are more familiar to, there are buses. The most reliable one is TransJakarta, in which it runs in special lane. Chances are you wont be stuck in the heavy traffic. Bingo! :) This bus is so unique that they have an extraordinary bus stops called shelters. These shelters are elevated, and it's like a mini glass building in the middle of the road. The fare may range from Rp. 3500 per trip.
Last but not least, if you wanna channel the inner 'adventurer explorer' in you, you may opt for a ride with some random dudes with motorcycles. Yes! I'm serious, there are dudes with motorcycles who will take you to your destination with a fresh breeze blowing your hair and cheap fares. Just look for any spot with 'OJEK' sign. Sometimes they name it 'PANGKALAN OJEK' which may mean 'OJEK'S STATION/STOP'. 'Ojek' refers to services of sending you to your destination with a motorcycle. Up for the challenge? The fares can be any amount, it depends on them. Chances are they are cheap. :)
Talking with the locals. As I can speak Bahasa Malaysia (and also Indonesian) this was easy for me. However, if you want to address people, be aware that the respective names differ according to the districts. But these are the generally accepted (my Indonesian friend taught me this, pardon me if I am wrong) greetings:
First I went to the Monumen Nasional (National Monument) or called MONAS. You can actually get to the top of the monument and experience a bird-eye's view of Jakarta I was told. Unfortunately, I went there at night and the admission was already closed. If you haven't find something for everyone yet, MONAS can be the place. You can find people selling their merchandises all around, mainly souvenirs and food. Prices are superbly reasonable.
And speaking of ancient and history, make sure you stop by for 'Es Ragusa Es Italia' (Ragusa, Italia Ice cream). The local said that it is from the Dutch Era. Which is just opposite Masjid Istiqlal. It is very well known and you might have to queue before entering the premise! Don't be fooled by the small old unattractive looking shop, the ice cream is anything but ordinary. I suggest you try 'nougat' flavour.
Also, make sure you stop by the 'Kota Tua' (Old city square) and have a tour in Fatahillah Museum. It is a Dutch heritage, a prison in which many were tortured. And if you are lucky, you will get a free 'Wayang Kulit' (Puppet opera) session! I get it from Mr. Alex. And the tour costs only from Rp.190000 (approx. 20 USD).
Oh and yes, if you are going to Kota Tua, make the trip on weekend, because there will be an event every weekend where they serve good indie musics and they sell merchandises for reasonable price. You will enjoy but be aware of your belonging, especially your wallet and cameras
Also in Kota Tua you may find a very very elegant cafe, right opposite the Fatahillah museum building, named Batavia Cafe. Claimed to be since the Dutch era, this cafe serve various foods and drinks for quite an 'elegant' price, yet it is worth it. The scenery and atmosphere are just........mindblowing. A good spot to relax your mind when you had enough with the crowds.
Indonesia has many various cultures and is rich with foods from each ethnic group. I must say I enjoyed all of it. Happy traveling!