Impressions of Honduras

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhen the Canadian Executive Service Organization (CESO) asked me to go to Honduras for three weeks to assist looking at trail development and for eco-tourism opportunities in the San Pedro de Sula valley I was very skeptical. Every government travel website I checked (Canadian, US, British, Dutch) warned against travel in Honduras. As a matter of fact one of the sites stated that the city of San Pedro de Sula was the murder capital of the world. Who would want to go there? After checking with people who had been on a CESO assignment in Honduras and had had no problems at all, I decided to take the chance and go.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAs soon as I landed in San Pedro Sula (SPS) after an 8-hour flight via Mexico City from Vancouver (only a 1 hr. time difference with PST) and was driven to my hotel I noticed how similar the city of one million looks like cities in SE Asia (Vientiane) and Africa (Lusaka). Lots of garbage everywhere, lots of old buildings, but also several brand new hotels and businesses.  After arriving at the hotel I was warned not to go outside after dark, too dangerous. During the day it was OK to be walking around in this neighbourhood, but beware. So on several occasions I walked to a large shopping center 15 minutes from the hotel. By the time you had walked those 15 minutes you were sweating pretty good. The temperature is well into the 30’s during the day and air conditioning is a must to be comfortable. Many days in the late afternoon or evening tremendous thunderstorms would occur with heavy thunder and lighting strikes. In no time the streets are inundated with water and cars drive through 2” to 6” of water. But soon after the rain stops the elaborate drainage system takes care of the water and within a few hours the streets are dry again.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAs part of the work I was asked to do here I have been driven to some 10 of the outlying communities around SPS in the valley, including one of the national parks. Several of the other outlying communities are too dangerous to go to, just like one particular road up to the National Park had to be avoided. I found the surrounding area quite beautiful, lots of green forests, banana plantations and coffee plantations. The roads are mostly in good shape, however some road sections to smaller villages are atrocious and it  takes hours to drive around potholes at 10 km per hour. There is a lot of poverty in the country, some websites identify it as one of the most impoverished countries in Central America. Unemployment is roughly at 27-28% and several of the outlying communities appeared to be half empty. When I asked about that I was told that many people try to move to North America and end up as illegals, much of the time being deported back again. When I had lunch in a restaurant (Pizza Hut, but there is also McDonald’s, Wendy’s and Subway among others)  one of the servers spoke reasonably good English. When I asked him where he had learned that he said ”New York”, he had spent 6 years there before he got deported. Unfortunately many Central American gangs are made up of deported LA gang members. Especially El Salvador is notorious for having drug gangs. The Honduras government has worked hard the last few years to change that and is making progress. The last few years the GDP also has gone up (7% growth) and a lot of new construction on roads and buildings is evident.

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The security is still a major problem. At night a security guard is stationed in front of the hotel. In the shopping Center dozens of armed guards walk around. Every bank has an armed guard at the door. I was warned against using public transportation since it is not safe for foreigners.

The people are very friendly and helpful, few people speak English. At times my work was quite challenging because I don’t speak much Spanish and as a result missed much of the discussion that took place around me (without me). One thing that I noticed was that very few people smoke. In the few weeks I have been here I have seen exactly 2 people smoke a cigarette. However I also noticed that many people are overweight. That may be not difficult to explain because going for a jog or even an extended walk is close to impossible in this humid / hot environment. And not many people can afford the membership of the few indoor fitness centers.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe primary purpose of my assignment was to look for opportunities for trail development. So after seeing some of the poor trails I developed a manual for trail planning and development. The secondary purpose of my trip was to look for eco-tourism opportunities. I found quite a few. I think it would be interesting for a north American tourist to be able to visit a banana plantation and packing facility, or a coffee plantation or have you ever seen a cacao plantation? I never knew how cacao grew, interesting to discover how it grows and is turned into chocolate bars.

In summary: I would not (yet) go to this country as a tourist because of the security situation. However as far as its natural beauty is concerned, I am impressed. If the government manages to get the drug trade and subsequent murder rate under control, improves the road system this country can become a major tourist attraction.

 

Long Distance Hiking for Masochists – 101

We have hiked trails across the Netherlands, the Chilkoot Pass into Alaska, the Cape to Cape trail in Australia. We hiked the hills of Galilea and the Camino in Spain. However, I have decided that while I still enjoy walking, hiking Long Distance Trails were you have to carry a heavy pack is not for me:

Hiking long distance trails (LDT) is the ideal activity for masochists. As a sport it is rapidly gaining popularity worldwide as ever increasing networks of trails sprout up everywhere. However, even the most dedicated masochist needs to prepare before undertaking such an adventure. Here are some basic guidelines to help you on your way to a most painful experience you won’t want to miss.

Let’s start with a discussion on equipment. For maximum benefits you will need specialized clothing and other items as well as thorough preparations.

1. Equipment
Boots. The first thing you will need to buy is proper footwear. Boots. The heavier the better. Ensure that your boots are at least one, and preferably several, sizes too small. An effective style for long distance hiking is the prison style boot complete with ball and chain. This will add memorable moments to your hiking experience. Buying lightweight, waterproof boots is no fun. Socks will cost you about 20 dollars a pair. The label will tell you that these socks are ‘wicking’ – this means they circulate moisture. Buying wicked socks for 2.- per pair has the same desired result.
You will also need to select a jacket that allows moisture to be absorbed and retained both in and outside. Select shorts or capris that can be rolled up to expose as much flesh as possible. Blackflies, mosquitoes and brambles are all eagerly waiting for you. Don’t disappoint them by buying insect repelling clothing. People repelling clothing might be a better choice in some locations.
You will also need to select a suitable backpack. If you hike long distances you will need to decide on the size best suited for your particular trek. I recommended the largest size possible. You decide the proper size by filling the pack, with boulders, beyond capacity. If you cannot possibly lift it with both hands, it is just the right size to carry for the next several weeks.
Backpacks are measured in liters: 18, 30 or 40 liters are the most common sizes. This means you have a choice: you can either fill your backpack with stuff or with 40 liters of beer or wine. Based on experience I recommend the latter.
A backpack should have a waist strap. The purpose of the waist strap is to increase pressure on the bladder while hiking.
2. Food
If, however, you decide to take ‘stuff’, you might want to include food. You will likely not encounter a Starbucks or a bakery along the trail so keep this in mind as you select food and drink. Commonly recommended food is a freeze dried, lightweight, tasteless, processed blend of oats, barley and other indigestible dry flakes. These come in a variety of shapes and sizes. The most popular being bars or pellets. The advantage of pellets is that, if you have any leftovers at the end of your journey, you can use them as cattle feed or in your woodstove.
Select the most desirable type of freeze dried bars by offering one to your dog. If he refuses, you have found the kind you want to take along on your long distance hike.
3. Map
Be sure to look for a proper map or trail guide. Generally a map is at least ten years outdated. This poses no problem since any trail system worthy of its existence, has an accompanying website. The website will give you any changes and updates to add to your book. Print off all 86 pages to carry along. Any pages you don’t need anymore can be used during sanitary stops. (you didn’t really expect toilet buildings and 4 ply out there, did you?).
If, at any point during your hike, you get bored I recommend holding the map upside down for a few kilometers. This adds greatly to the excitement.
Many LDT have, in addition to maps, an easy to follow system of markers. These consist of faint, barely visible paint stripes on trees or posts. For maximum enjoyment select a trail that runs near, and is often intersected by another trail system with similar signs: white and red stripes mixed with faint yellow and red stripes works great. The more often these trails cross, the better your changes of following the wrong trail for a while. The other thing that adds to the fun is when trees with signs on them have been cut down, allowing you to wander aimlessly for hours before spotting another faint white stripe on the trunk of an birch tree.
 
4. Accommodations
Unless you chose to sleep in a tent the size of a ziploc bag, you will have to book hostels along the way. A hostel offers an inexpensive place to sleep to the weary hiker. The inexpensive bed entails a creaking bunkbed, sometimes with sheet, blanket and lumpy pillow. I recommend a bottom bunk since the top bunk has no ladder and no sides. Save these top bunks for entertainment. Hikers who arrive after you will have to hoist themselves up there. If you are lucky you can observe them tumbling down in the dead of night. A string of swear words will follow.
Most hostels have beds for up to 40 people per room. This increases your changes of no sleep at all since at least 30% of your fellow hikers will snore loudly, have nightmares – no doubt of hiking LDT – and will happily leave their very smelly, sweaty prison style boots next to the head end of your bunkbed. As a rule

, 80% of any female fellow hikers will have to get up at least twice during the night to use the bathroom. These were the ones with 40 liters packs.

5. Terrain
When selecting the terrain for your your hike, be sure to pay attention to the type of vegetation and weather conditions. 40% chance of showers will likely mean a nonstop drizzle. This also increases your chance of mosquito encounters.
Knee high thistles and brambles are recommended. What else are you going to complain about afterwards?
6. Fellow trail users
At night, in the hostel, it is recommended that you make contact with fellow hikers. The purpose of these social encounters is to compare the size of mosquito bites, the numbers of times you were lost and wandered aimlessly and the spots along the trail where you waded knee deep in cow paddies or mud puddles. Do not, under any circumstances, discuss the appealing scenery, the solitude of the trail or the thrill of being in nature.
Do, however, pay close attention to any other trail LDT systems recommended by these experienced hikers. Take notes. This will ensure you many more years of suffering. Unless you took my advise on backpacks and filled yours with 40 liters of wine.

Holland: Hiking, Biking and much more

  Tulips came originally from Turkey in the late1500’s to the Netherlands. So it seems only fitting that we, newly arrived from Turkey, immediately set off to visit Holland’s most famous garden: the Keukenhof. In fact, on our last day in Turkey we visited the palace of the very Sultan who gifted the first tulips ever to arrive in the Netherlands. What started with one bulb is now a major export industry. The Dutch brought tulips to countries around the world, including to Canada as a perpetual gift for hosting the Dutch Royal Family during the war. An enormous show garden, the Keukenhof has thousands of bulbs blooming at any given time in the spring. Beds are planted in such a way that there is a multitude of color, and fragrances, through the spring. We admired rows and rows of hyacinths, tulips, daffodils and other bulbs. 

There are even special buses running to this major attraction from Schiphol airport. We caught one and within a half hour we were dropped off at the entrance. Fast and easy. If you visit Holland in the spring, be sure to include a visit to this world famous garden. See: www.keukenhof.nl

Transportation in Holland is pretty impressive. If you ever plan to travel here, you might want to do the following: buy a OV chip card which you can use for all public transport.

You start by buying the card at the airport or at a train station, or at supermarkets or newspaper/book stores. Throughout the country are special posts where you can upload credit, swiping your creditcard and then your OV chip card to load credit onto it.

Each time you travel by tram, bus or train, you swipe your OV chip card when you board and when you disembark. Upon leaving the bus or train, the reader will show your cost and your remaining credit. Simply upload as needed.

This is a fantastic system since it makes public transportation seamless. Just don’t forget to check out. Trains have a large number 1 for first class on the outside, or a 2 for the regular, economy class. Trains also now have many ‘silence’ compartments, in which you cannot have loud conversations or be on your cell phone! A wonderful bonus. And while public transportation in the Netherlands is efficient, it is not cheap.

To plan any trip, across town or across the country, access this website: www.9292.nl  You can select any date, place and time here to see the most efficient way of getting somewhere. We bought a SIM card for our iPad so that we can access this great service anywhere in the country.

I like alliteration, which is why I used ‘hiking’ and ‘Holland’. But, technically, we are not in Holland right now. We are in the Netherlands. If you’d like to know the difference, besides the simple fact that Holland refers to the provinces of North and South Holland and that the Netherlands means the entire country – check out this funny video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eE_IUPInEuc&feature=youtu.be

Today we traveled by train and bus from Amsterdam to the province of Drenthe – a beautiful, rustic part of the country with sleepy villages, gorgeous old farm houses and heather fields with flock of sheep. Here we will spend some time hiking the Drenthe Pad, a beautiful long distance trail.

Poffertjes!

 

Right now, we are circumnavigating the province of Drenthe, which is in the north eastern part of the country. The Drenthe Pad is a hiking trail of some 325 KM. And it might well be one of the best kept secrets in the world of hiking.

The trail is well marked, in most places. A yellow/red symbol is nailed to posts or painted on trees almost everywhere. But the comprehensive trail guide and map issued by NIVON: (http://www.nivon.nl/wandelen/detailpad.aspWandelpadID=28&GroepsID=180&GidsenID=10)

is a valuable addition. As far as I know this guide is only in Dutch but with the map and the signs anyone should be able to follow the trail. The terrain is relatively flat which makes it easy. And it is very varied: from ancient, sleepy villages you enter a quiet forest, cross a sandy path and walk along the moors (fields of heather which will bloom in August), then along a farm field, back into the woods. On the next heather field you might encounter a large flock of sheep, with or without a real live shepherd and his dogs.

Today, just when I said “We haven’t seen any kind of wildlife!” a large deer slowly crossed the path. We heard woodpeckers and met a large flock of curious sheep with their newborn lambs.

In a country of 33,889 square kilometers of land (13,084 square miles) and a population of nearly 17 million, the Netherlands is among the most densely populated countries of the world. However, on this trail we hiked for the last two days without seeing a soul until hours after we started. Yesterday, we saw two people all days. It is rare in this country not to see a church spire, or power lines or hear traffic noise. On this trail, there is complete silence except for the singing of many different types of birds. It is probably one of the few areas in the country where you can still get completely lost and wander.

For 19 E p.p. this was our home for the night

Usually most hiking trails here have an abundance of benches, picnic tables or little restaurants with a patio. In Drenthe you can walk 20 KM and not see one. But the wild swans on the lakes make up for not being able to order a coffee.

We have walked from town to town and stayed in either B&B’s or local hotels. If you are planning a hiking or bicycling trip in the Netherlands, and there’s no better place to do either, you should join this organization: Vrienden Op De Fiets (Friends On Bikes): http://www.vriendenopdefiets.nl/nl/ (or .en for the English version).

This fabulous network across the country offers accommodations in private homes, much like B&B’s, but at a cost of E19 p.p.p.n. including breakfast. Accommodations are typical Dutch hospitality. No need to reserve long in advance, depending on the time of year, you can often phone the day before. Rooms can vary from a simple spare room to your own whole cottage. We’ve always had clean rooms, comfortable beds and a great breakfast. But – you can only arrive on foot or by bike. If you rent a car, you can’t use this organization. Annual membership fee is 8 euros and that includes the complete catalogue of 5,000 addresses and contact information.

After having walked some 60 KMs this week, from village to village, we have arrived in Appelscha, Friesland. This is just across the provincial border.

Lucky for us because not only does each region here have its own dialect and culture, it also has its own speciality foods.

Now we enjoy Frisian sugarbread (gooey bread with lumps of sugar baked into it) AND Drents raisin bread (weighs as much as a brick).

Not only do the Dutch brew Heineken and Grolsch, they also produce many local beers ranging from dark to blond to fruity.

For this weekend we found a place to stay 2 nights, basically for the same price as the Friends On Bikes network plus dinner. The hotel had a special super deal that includes an elaborate breakfast and dinner. Since the forecast was for rain, we decided to stay in one place for two nights.

Instead of walking tomorrow’s section of the Drenthe Pad, we rented bicycles. The Dutch have state of the art bicycles, including tires that will not pop anymore. Cost for a full day bike rental is 7 to 8 euros. We cycled through the village, across farm fields, national nature reserves, forests, a wild bird sanctuary and historic fields of peat moss. No less than 60 KM! Now, in addition to sore backs and feet, we also have sore butts and knees….Halfway it started to rain. We donned our rain capes – thank goodness we did not carry them for 2 months without ever needing them! I never felt more Dutch than pushing the peddles across a windswept bike trail through the fields.

Those bike trails are amazing. Our route for today looks like this: 60 – 65 – 72 – 73 – 79 – 91 – 84 – 65 – 60. Sounds like a secret code, doesn’t it?

But it’s all you need to find your way across the country. It’s a mind boggling system of (mostly) paved or concrete bicycle trails. At an intersection you will see a small sign with a number, either the number of the path you are already on, or pointing to the next number you need to follow. Simple. Just don’t miss one. At major crossroads there is a large regional map showing you all the routes so that you can easily change or adapt the route you are on. Ingenious.

And the best part is that most bicycle paths are away from roads or other traffic. Just you and nature. It’s a system of hiking and biking trails that the Netherlands can be proud of. And that more countries should adopt.

160 KM of hiking. Ten days. Fifteen kilo packs. Two blisters.

We did it.

And it was fun.

Mostly it was fun because we took it easy. We slept in, had a lazy breakfast and still headed out on the trail by about 9 AM each day. No rush, no race.

We stayed with the ‘Friends On Bikes’ accommodations which are just like B & B’s and allowed us to stay in different Dutch homes, meeting interesting people.

 We also stayed in a few small hotels and we enjoyed roaming the villages, visiting the bakery, sampling typical regional dishes.

Holland may be a small, densely populated country but in Drenthe it is still very green and very quiet. There were days when we barely met other people on the trail.

We visited the very cute village of Orvelte, which is more like an open-air-museum with its historic farms. There is a glassblower, an antique store, a cheese maker and much more. We toured a historic farms full of furniture and household items of at least a century ago. The tour included a very nice movie about the village and life as it has been here during the ages.

This village is high on our list of recommendations, but only during the shoulder seasons. In high season it’s supposed to be very, very crowded!

Several times while hiking across the moors and heather, we met large flock of sheep. No shepherd, just a very special local breed of sheep on skinny legs and with long tails. These sheep help keep down any invasive species and promote the growth and expansion of the heather.

We also found large Highlander steers and cows with enormous horns on our path. The drawback of hiking in April was the fact that farmers were spreading manure. The smell was often overwhelming. We only had 2 days of rain so can’t complain. It was a sunny, early spring in Holland.

Concentration Camp Westerbork

On one of our last days of hiking we entered the Westerbork concentration camp area: an area where Jews were interned and from there shipped to extermination camps by the Germans during the war. It is an impressive and, of course, very depressing area but important to be preserved as a reminder of the horrors of war. While we were there, hundreds of school children visited the Museum.  See: http://www.kampwesterbork.nl/museum/index.html#/index

One of our favorite events was being in a small village (Dwingeloo) while an age old tradition was going on: Palm Pasen or Palm Sunday, the week before Easter. The children of the town all showed up for a parade with wooden crosses, decorated with garlands of candy and flowers, crepe paper and topped with a rooster made of bread. When I was a child I made the same cross and joined a similar parade. It was fun to see this tradition continue. We completed about half of the Drenthe Trail and hope to hike the remainder soon. Next time I will carry much less weight and will make do with fewer clothes etc. The best piece of clothing I brought on this trip was a large scarf. It served as blanket in the plane, as shawl when it was cold and as head or shoulder cover in churches and mosques.

 Our last night in The Netherlands is spend in a very futuristic hotel at Schiphol Airport: http://www.citizenm.com

Decorated in black and red, the lobby feels as if you walk into the future. The staff and technology reminds me of a Mac Store, the compact rooms of IKEA. One remote controls the blinds, lights, temperature and TV. Our view from the kingsize bed is directly onto the runway! The hotel states that:

citizenM is a new breed of international hotel, welcoming the mobile citizens of the world- the suits, weekenders, explorers, affair-havers and fashion-grabbers.

Hhmm… wonder which catagory you would put yourself in?

For now, we are headed home after an amazing two months of exploring. We can’t wait to hug the grandbabies, play with them and show them what we brought back.

A real sign spotted in a Dutch forest!