April 10 – 25: Tropical Panama – Our Destino Final…!

We titled our blog “To Panama” and we actually made it to our final destination – having escaped robberies and muggings, car breakdowns, illness, or any schism in the partnership of the co-pilots of this 15-week adventure southward from Toronto…!

John and Elizabeth were in Panama in 1974 to launch their South Pacific sea adventure; Deborah has collaborated since the mid-1980s with Panamanian popular educators, in particular the late Raúl Leis and his partner Mariela Arce, our major host for the two weeks. Both of us discovered more diversity in Panama than we had previously known – from the rural mountains in the north to the cosmopolitan Panama City, from Taboga Island on the Pacific side to the Guna Yala islands and Indigenous people on the Atlantic side.

Wild West Welcome

 Mariela’s sister Carmen, along with Zurabi and David, hosted us in Boquete in the province of Chiriqui and joked that they had arranged a weekend of festivities to welcome us, as our arrival coincided with the 104th anniversary of the founding of the district.

Zurabi and Carmen 4 (1 of 1)

For two full days, we were entertained with queen contests, parades of school bands and dancers, and for the first time in ten years, the resurrected Cabalgata, a parade they called “Mil caballos” (a thousand horses); we watched hundreds of riders from around the province, fueled by free rum and beer, prance through the streets and back again.

John captured the Cabalgata on video (see vimeo: https://vimeo.com/126700198) and we offer a slide show review of other sites that passed by our house on Central Avenue.

Boquete festival

One morning we biked up into the surrounding hills exploring coffee fincas, strawberry fields, flowers, climbing rocks, and mountain springs.

John on bridge (1 of 1)  Deb the climber (1 of 1)John amidst the hibiscus (1 of 1)

The next day we went with Carmen and Zurabi to visit El Explorador, an enchanting eco-garden of thousands of flowers and miniature plants potted in recycled containers, with dichos, or wise sayings, dotting the landscape – all from the imagination of endlessly creative Deyanira Guerra de Miranda,

El Explorador (1 of 1)  Deyanira 2 (1 of 1)

view of garden (1 of 1)  Dicho 6 (1 of 1)

Provinces and playas

We took a detour on our way to Panama City, to visit the peninsula of Azuero, passing through small towns known for their artisan work – Panama hats, leather sandals, elaborate dancing dresses, etc – and spent one day at Playa Venao, a Pacific coast area long discovered by surfers and now by condo developers.

Deb at cottage (1 of 1)  John in pool (1 of 1)

Deb in pool (1 of 1)  woman surfer

The City and The Canal

 Our base for the next ten days was the home of Marliela Arce, and her two sons, Raúl and José Carlos. Mariela is in the midst of a complicated law suit, following Raúl’s tragic death four years ago, when his doctor mistakenly prescribed penicillin following a routine eye operation, triggering a fatal asthmatic reaction. As Raúl (seen below in Deborah’s Toronto garden in 2010) was a well-known educator, writer, theatre artist, and social movement leader, the law suit has generated national attention to the previously unacknowledged issue of medical malpractice.

En memoria  Mariela 1 (1 of 1)

Panama City, an international financial centre, is a sharp contrast to Boquete and Venao, with hundreds of tall skinny skyscrapers (many foreign-owned condos) rising up from the horizon. Its history has been shaped by its strategic location and the interoceanic canal which is now being expanded to allow larger boats to pass through daily. We watched a Norwegian cruise ship move through the locks, joining other observers in welcoming the 3,000 passengers on their balconies in the huge floating hotel.

Norwegian Pearl (1 of 1)

locks opening (1 of 1)  floating hotel (1 of 1)

We also explored the old city and the harbour with Mariela, celebrating at our favourite seaside strip of ceviche restaurants..! John ventured off on bike twice, once into the countryside from our suburban neighbourhood, and another time into the skyscraper centre.

Boats and highrises (1 of 1)  Flower shower (1 of 1)

Taboga Island: La Isla de las Flores

Mariela invited us for a three-day retreat at her other home on Taboga Island, an idyllic fishing village an hour ferry ride from the city and a place Deborah has visited often over the years. While another encounter with the nasty stings of the ‘agua mala’ (jellyfish) kept us from swimming, we enjoyed time on the beach with some cold Panama Lagers. We took two hikes to hilltops overlooking the bay, captured many flowers through our lenses, watched the birds and boats from our breezy balcony, and hung out in hammocks to read and snooze. Most importantly, we shared stories and music, food and lots of laughter with Mariela, as we plotted our next adventures.

Isla de Tabog


Guna Yala – An autonomous people

 In 1925, the Guna people launched the Tule Revolution, resisting attempts by the Panamanian state to integrate them and gaining them a certain autonomy in term of governance and control of the territory. Guna Yala consists of 365 islands (one for every day of the year!) with only about 50 inhabited. Deborah collaborated with Guna popular educators and artists on the VIVA project ten years ago. We were fortunate to have two fabulous guides during our visit to two islands – Jose Colman, a theatre artist and storyteller who has collaborated with Monique Mojica on productions in Toronto, and Achu de Leon, an internationally known visual artist, based in London, Ontario.

Jose storyteller (1 of 1)  Achu storyteller (1 of 1)

Our journey to the islands was an adventure in itself. John drove the van part-way, but when we reached the ‘border’ of Guna territory (where we had to show our passports, after passing through two police checks), we were told that only 4-wheel drive vehicles could continue on the 35 Km steep and curvy road to the coast. So we left the car and hitched a ride to the port where we got a boat to Carti Sudup, a major but small island, packed to the edge with thatched roof houses. Blas Lopez, another VIVA collaborator, accompanied us and his brother Elbio took us to a community garden, where John offered some composting advice. We reconnected with his family and bought molas, the multi-layered ‘painting with scissors’ art form worn by women as a strong symbol of their identity and way of knowing.  We toured the island, the school, health centre, a local museum, and the meeting house of the Congress, where the leaders are in hammocks in the centre, and where communal decisions are made.

Iguana island   Bienvenidos a la isla (1 of 1)

Achu then took us to a tiny island, Isla Iguana, a veritable Shangri-La tourist retreat run by his cousin, with palm trees, white sand beaches, a few cabins, and a restaurant. There we swam in crystalline water, cavorted with massive schools of sardines, collected shells, and spent a magical evening with Achu sharing his art work via his tablet and José regaling us with cuentos or stories of Guna legends; we translated from Spanish to English  for a young German couple who listened in, not believing their luck that they were being introduced to Guna Yala through internationally known artists and storytellers. Our slide show below shows José in action and offers some of Achu’s paintings, as we also attended an art show opening back in the city where he exhibited work.


Guna Yala


Indigenous Women take over the van

A highlight of our visit was meeting with the women of CONAMUIP, the National Coordination of Indigenous Women of Panama; when John decided to donate the van to an NGO in Panama, Mariela suggested this group. We had an amazing day with them, hearing from the women (representing Guna, Wounaan, and Buglé peoples) about how the organization had helped them develop personal confidence and political power as a collective; they crammed into the van, thrilled at the possibilities it offers them. Our final day in Panama was a six-hour marathon with two of them, led by another friend of Mariela, who took us through the bureaucratic hoops of donating the car….not an easy task, as John couldn’t leave the country until he got his passport stamped by Panamanian customs liberating him from responsibility for the vehicle.

John, car and CONAMUIP (1 of 1)   Car and CONAMUIP 2 (1 of 1)


That took us down to the wire…so we headed off early April 25, for our 12 hour two-flight trip home to Toronto, only temporarily losing one bicycle on the way. Now we have happily landed, and are enjoying reunions with family and friends.

There may be one more entry to our blog – a kind of summary, with some special visual treats…so stay tuned..!

March 30 – April 10: Costa Rica…Pura Vida…!

Costa Rica has been called the Switzerland of the Americas because of its peacefulness (no army) and beauty (green mountains and rainforests), and it certainly stands out as a model for ecological consciousness and conservation. While we found some cracks in this image (from our more politically engaged friends – more later), we immersed ourselves in beautiful and peaceful sites for most of our time there. We were often literally living “in the clouds” whether it was in the cloudforest of Santa Elena and Monteverde in the north or in “Las Nubes” (The Clouds) in the south.

Bosque con neblina (1 of 1)

During our long hikes into the jungle, along rivers, or up steep Alpine hills, our camera lenses delighted in framing old growth cedars hanging with moss, tall tropical trees supporting verdant vegetation, climbing vines struggling for the light, air plants peacefully clinging to branches, and parasites stealing energy from their hosts. All that as well as brilliantly coloured flowers, butterflies and birds. We have tried to recreate our walks for you in a vimeo video, accompanied by the music of Manuel Obregon, the former Minister of Youth and Culture who visited York two years ago, offering his jazz piano improv in concert with the sounds of rainforest creatures.

Please see the video with 70 images and music on our vimeo site: https://vimeo.com/search?q=bosques+nublosos

Monteverde/Santa Elena

This mountain community was settled in the 1950s by Oklahoma Quaker conscientious objectors to the Korean war. Deborah visited Quaker friends there in the late 1970s, and noted how the town has mushroomed in the past 35 years to meet a growing tourist demand. We visited the original cheese factory (now bought out by a Mexican multinational), an artesan coop, and enjoyed meals in the treehouse café and the mural-clad restaurant of Morphos (the big blue butterflies).

Finca Terra Viva 1

We slept in a lodge on Finca Terra Viva run by a Costa Rican couple (experts in eco-tourism), who offered families visits with the 150 dairy cows, pigs, and geese, as well as horse rides around the wooded and hilly pastures.

Santa Elena and Terra Viva


A break in an empty city

Everything closes down during Semana Santa in Latin America, so we found ourselves in an empty but art-filled hotel in San Jose for Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, struggling to find a restaurant that was open. We did manage to visit the amazing National Museum of Costa Rica on the Wednesday before it closed, entering it through a live butterfly exhibition, marveling at the antiquities of pre-Colombian history and taking in a photo exhibit by Argentine photographer Lucas Iturriza reflecting the incredible ethnic and racial diversity in a country which often appears to be (and prides itself on being) mainly European white.

pre-colombian pottery  Pre-colombian metate

Deb photographing photograph (1 of 1)  Deb and photo of 100 year old

We were spared, however, from feeling lonely by having invitations on both days in San Jose to have lunch with old friends from Deborah’s work with the ALFORJA popular education network in the 1980s. On Thursday, we spent 7 hours for a delicious asado in the suburban home of Oscar Jara and his partner Ana Mireya, along with two daughters Maria Laura and Natalia. Oscar is currently president of the Latin American Council for Popular Education, and was about to head off for meetings in Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina. He screened for us “EL Codo del Diablo”, the very successful historical documentary produced by his two sons, Ernest and Antonio. It exposes state complicity in the assassinations of several communist trade union leaders in 1948, precisely before Costa Rica abolished its army.

Oscar cooking (1 of 1)  Sharing photos with Oscar (1 of 1)

The next day we were able to meet Ernesto at another asado at the mountainside cabin of their mother, Laura Vargas. Four of five of Oscar and Laura’s children arrived, two with delightful grandchildren. As feisty as ever, Laura led us on a hike through the thick bush down the side of the deep valley to the river below. John helped split logs to fuel the wood stove while Deborah caught up with Laura’s life (she is now working with women’s projects on the Caribbean coast) and pumped Ernesto for more information on his film and cinematic styles that could be applied to a documentary on tomato workers.

Laura y familia en la cabaña (1 of 1)

Laura climbing (1 of 1)  John chopping wood (1 of 1)

One day John did a bike tour of San Jose on his own and the next day we both cycled through the University of Costa Rica, admiring the architecture, the gardens, the sculptures and mosaic murals.

San Jose tour


Las Nubes – the York connection

The day before Easter, we headed south to the Alexander Skutch Biological Corridor which York’s Faculty of Environmental Studies is helping to develop with Costa Rican counterparts; it includes a tropical research centre and community projects aimed at biodiversity conservation, sustainable development of adjoining farmlands, and ecotourism.  We were warmly greeted by Las Nubes project coordinator Luis Angel Rojas Gonzalez and his partner Patri, who took us to the site where construction of a new research centre is about to begin, where a rainbow offered a hopeful sign. For more about the project see:  http://www.lasnubes.org/.

Rainbow at York U site (1 of 1)  York U site (1 of 1)

They then set us up in a camp on Luis Angel’s finca deep within the forest (1 km off the gravel road down a very bumpy dirt path), which we made our home for the next six days. We cooked in an open air kitchen, shared with small red ants and large but harmless buzzing beatles. We relished fresh fruit (mangoes, papayas, star fruit, bananas), gallo pinto (rice and beans), vegetables, and home-made corn tortillas which John mastered over days of practice. At sunrise and sunset, we dined on its upper deck, with a fabulous view of the rainforests, birds, and cloud-drenched Chirripo mountain range. When we got too hot, we could just take one of the paths to the river below, to cool off in the shallow pools and refreshing rapids.

Las Nubes home


Luis Angel gave us a wonderful overview of the corridor, taking us to mountain ridges where we could observe the reservas, participating fincas, and ecotourism projects, like the museum of Alexander Skutch (famous ornithologist) and Cosingos reserve that draws students, passionate bird watchers and tropical plant researchers from around the world. We visited a large CoopeAgri coffee processing plant where passionate composter John was impressed with their massive production of organic fertilizer (mixing coffee bean shells, ashes and molasses waste from the cane sugar refinery) and the process of washing and drying the beans. We also watched the delivery and crushing of massive loads of cane in the sugar refinery, and ate in the workers’ café. We also had long conversations with Luis Angel about the challenges of developing greater community commitment to the guiding principles behind the idea of the Biological Corridor: to become more aware and proud of their rich natural resources and to unite the diverse sectors into a more cooperative integrated community development strategy.




Artistic inspirations

 Deborah was very moved to hear how fondly people remembered Las Nubes founder the late Howard Daugherty, current York coordinator Felipe Montoya, and many of the FES students who have come for field courses and research since 1999. In particular, she followed the contacts of Vero Diaz, a graduate student she is currently supervising, who spent January and February facilitating art workshops with the women in three communities. Vero sent a draft booklet of poetry and paintings by the women to share with them. Deborah met one of them, Mariana Valverde, who is a coordinator of the Alexander Skutch Corridor Festival in May, showcasing art, agriculture, and other community products and cultural traditions. Vero had also suggested that we visit two amazing local artists who had inspired her.

Mariana and poster (1 of 1)

Guadalupe Urbina is a well-known Costa Rican singer and visual artist, who now lives and works with youth in Longo Mai, a small community of El Salvadorean refugees from the 1980s war. Deborah was delighted to learn of common friends, from the Nicaraguan and Alforja networks of the 1980s.

Guadalupe Urbina 2 (1 of 1)  Guadalupe Urbina's painting (1 of 1)

Guadalupe shared with us her latest CD featuring traditional music that she has gathered from communities over the decades, mixing the original recordings with her interpretations. We also saw her recent paintings, on ecological and spiritual themes, that she will be exhibiting in California in 2016; hopefully we can also bring her to Toronto for an exhibit and concert. See her facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/CantautoraGuadalupeUrbina

When we visited Raquel Bolaños, who works as a visual artist/activist with Rios Vivos, a movement to save the rivers (from contamination and harmful dam projects), she suggested we talk AT a river, instead of about the river in her house. So she led us to a perfect bathing spot, where swam, sang, and chatted while John built up a dam to raise the water level for swimming. Another day Deborah spent some time with Raquel in a ceremony and is now trying to recruit her to come to York to do her Masters in Environmental Studies, where she could combine her environmental concerns and artistic practice.

Raquel of the rios 3 (1 of 1)

We made a final artistic connection on our last day in Costa Rica as we visited Boruca, an Indigenous community known for its magnificent carved and painted wooden masks, which they use in a Festival de los Diablos (a name imposed by the Spaniards, who attributed the masks to work of the devil).

Santos and Deb (1 of 1)

Master carver Santos explained the misnomer pf a pre-colonial practice of using masks to hide their faces and scare their enemies. FES students have also connected with Boruca artisans and produced an exhibit of their masks at York last year. From a local museum, we also learned about efforts to reclaim the Boruca language, with only two speakers left in the community.



Leaving Boruca over a narrow ridge that looked down on immense valleys, we found ourselves marveling at the countryside as we headed toward the Panama border, passing by immense fields of pineapple and palm oil trees.

Pineapples 2 (1 of 1)

John amongst the pineapples (1 of 1)  pineapples (1 of 1)








March 21 – 28: Pacific Region of Nicaragua: Politics and Playas

This blog focuses on our time in the Pacific side of Nicaragua, colonized by the Spanish and the Catholic Church, dominant in national politics, and so very different in image, sound, and taste from the Caribbean coast of the previous blog.

Mural in Masaya of colonial history (1 of 1)

For Deborah, the return to Managua was very emotional – evoking memories of the hopes experienced in the early 1980s with the historic literacy crusade (she wrote about in To Change This House: Popular Education under the Sandinistas), as well as the heartbreaks from two Daniels – one the former husband she met here, and the other, Daniel Ortega, who had been a major Sandinista leader in that era but as the current president has betrayed so many of the ideals of that revolution.

Daniel and deception (1 of 1)

All the good friends she reconnected with here left the Sandinista party long ago and concur that the country is now ruled from above by both Ortega and his wife Rosario Murillo (whose daughter he was publically accused of molesting over years), and that, contrary to their mantra, their government is neither “socialist” nor “Christian” nor “solidary.” They appear everywhere on billboards and in Rosario’s efforts to beautify Managua with streets lined with lit-up stylized yellow ‘trees,’ trellaces of flowers, and colourful benches with positive mantras.

Malecon 1 (1 of 1)  Con Daniel (1 of 1)

John and Elizabeth visited Managua in 1974, just two years after the earthquake; when they asked for the centre, they were told there was no longer any centre. Deborah experienced the still-devastated city ten years later. It is now a more liveable but sprawling city, with a miniature model of its reconstruction plan suggesting it’s moved into the capitalist market. We spent an evening on the ‘malecon’, which memorializes socialist hero Sandino and Chilean martyr Allende with statues, while offering a new waterfront park on Lake Managua with restaurants and play spaces for children and adults alike, . Another evening, for nostalgia sake, we ate at the café of Luis Enrique and Carlos Mejia Godoy, the best known troubadours of the revolution (Luis Enrique toured Canada in 1982 and partied at Deborah’s house). We heard Carlos in concert, singing (for a gringo tourist audience and enthusiastic older Nicaraguans) the same songs of 40 years ago.


Managua malecon


We were very lucky to be hosted in Managua by Deborah’s friend from those days, Malena de Montis, an educator and women’s leader, and her partner, Eduardo Baumeister, a researcher of agrarian issues in Central America.

Malena's living room from above  John and Eduardo talking (1 of 1)

Their lovely and breezy home on a hillside overlooking the city provided a comfortable base for our visit.

Malena's house


One evening John cooked a dinner for Padre Fernando Cardenal, the Jesuit priest who had been Minister of Education when Deborah worked there in the 1980s. He was expelled from the order when Pope Juan Pablo II made him choose between the government and the church; and after the Sandinista defeat in the 1990s, he had to repeat a year-long novitiate away in El Salvador to re-enter the order – the only Jesuit ever to leave and return! Deborah had hosted him at a Quebec cabin in 1991, and her son Joshua bears Fernando as a middle name. At 81, Fernando continues to work for a Jesuit youth organization, Fe y Alegria, and exhibits both great humility and drive.

Fernando and Deb (1 of 1)  John and Fernando (1 of 1)

Having been fully rested from our beach holiday, we decided to become tourists again on Friday. Navigating out of town (there are no street signs anywhere in Managua, and directions are up and down, toward the lake, etc) with the help of locals,  we headed south out of town to the spectacular Masaya Volcano National Park, driving right up to the edge of the smoking caldera.

volanoe spewing

They advise no more than three minutes at the edge due to the sulphurous fumes, and having admired the views for too long, our lungs  found the climb up the adjacent extinct cone a bit taxing. Deborah went part of the way up and John continued on, allowing each of us to photograph the other at great distance along the edge of the cone (see if you can spot John in the slide show below).

We then carried on further south to the beautiful colonial town of Granada. It was was founded in 1524 by Francisco Hernández de Córdoba, ostensibly the first European city in mainland America. It had all of the architectural charm we have been soaking up on the trip, unlike the rather pedestrian spread out Managua which was founded in 1852 as a compromise location for the capital as Granada and another city, Leon, had gone to war over who got to be the seat of government. (Sort of like the decision to make Ottawa Canada’s capital in 1855).

Granada cathedral  Granada square

We had lunch (probably the source of Deborah’s tourista problems that arose and lingered on later) overlooking the large central square filled with people, trees and flowering plants and surrounded by horse drawn carriages. Later we had a look at a very well done small ceramic museum located in an old historic house donated by the last owner. It combined wonderful examples of pre-columbian pottery, with a large collection of funerary pots, combined with excellent modern pottery art pieces by Nicaraguan artists. We then walked down the pedestrian street that led to sunset views over Lake Managua (the 19th largest lake in the world – it has a connection by river to the Atlantic and the only shark that lives in both fresh and salt waters!)


Masaya volcano and Granada


A special treat of our visit on the Pacific side of Nicaraguaa was a 5-day rest at the beach house of Malena and Eduardo in Playa El Coco.

boat on beach  eating on the beach

Deb on beach  JOhn in sunset

You can get the idea of that delicious holiday in the video we made for them: https://vimeo.com/123516814.

And consider the possibility of renting their house yourselves for a perfect holiday; see http://www.homeaway.com/vacation-rental/p1662373

March 15 – 21: Bilwi, Nicargua – Diversity and Autonomy on the Caribbean Coast

Our two weeks in Nicaragua were filled with emotions for Deborah, as memories were tapped of her experiences working on the Pacific side during the years of the Sandinista revolution of the 1980s and then on the Atlantic side in the first decade of 2000, teaching a course on popular education at URACCAN university and collaborating with its youth-run cable television station BilwiVision through the VIVA project.

We are offering different blog entries for both: our second week on the Pacific side (colonized by the Spanish, primarily mestizo, and dominant in national politics) and our first week on the Atlantic or Caribbean coast, colonized by the British and marginalized by the Pacific side, creating a unique “pluri-ethnic” mixture of Indigenous (Miskitu, Rama, Sumu-Mayagna), Creole, and mestizo populations. During the Sandinista years, this region was drawn into the contra side of the war and fought for a limited form of autonomy, resulting in two regional governments.

Autonomy poster (1 of 1)  coast at muelle (1 of 1)

It remains poor, exploited by mining, lumber, fishing, and agricultural interests from both foreign and mestizo intruders, as well as on the path of the drug trade running from Colombia up the coast to North America.

Puerto Cabezas or Bilwi, the town

John initially wanted to take the challenging 12-hour drive on a new dirt road, to the coast, but we chose the safer option: a small plane from Managua to Bilwi, the Miskitu name for Puerto Cabezas. It is the major port in the northern region of the Coast, where we were hosted by Margarita Antonio, VIVA partner and Miskitu woman leader.

Margarita 2 (1 of 1)

We were told to be careful walking during the day and only take taxis at night. We visited the market, where used clothing, fresh fish and meat (including deer and guardatinaja, a large rodent) are aplenty while most vegetables and manufactured goods are imported from the Pacific side.

Used clothing market (1 of 1)  Bilwi market 1 (1 of 1)

There are 13 churches, with the Moravian (pre-Luther German) being the dominant one, and many protestant sects. One afternoon, we found a good beach for swimming and eating, as well as for cows and cars..!

Bilwi market and town


Casa Museo and Canal 22

16 years ago, when Deborah first came to the coast with Joshua (13 at the time), they stayed in the B&B of Judith Kain, a beloved artist and mother of Mirna Cunningham, first governor of the autonomous region and rector of URACCAN, former chair of the UN Forum on Indigenous Issues, and currently special ambassador to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Now the house has been transformed into a hotel, a museum of coastal Indigenous groups and arts, and a cultural centre where the launch of Deborah’s VIVA book in Spanish was held five years ago.

Casa Museo mural (1 of 1)  Denis, Deb, y Margarita

It also houses an organization founded by Mirna, CADPI (Centre for the Autonomy and Development of Nicaraguan Indigneous Peoples) and Cable Channel 22. Denis Mairena, current director of CADPI and former student in Deborah’s course in 2000, organized a meeting with the 15 young staff persons of the television channel. They described the programs they develop in three languages (Spanish, Creole, and Miskitu) committed to highlighting the voices and positive developments in coastal communities, as well as to educate the public around environmental issues such as climate change. We were shown some of their programs on you tube (see their overview of autonomy: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iYZvA8FfIAI), and asked to comment. It was very inspiring to hear the young aspiring broadcast journalists talk about what they had learned from the process of gathering peoples’ stories and making them heard creatively on air, a counterpoint to the influence of global satellite TV programs.

Casa Museo and Canal 22


Mujeres Creativas

One of the most moving experiences of our visit to the coast was to witness how Margarita, inspired by our VIVA project exchange, has created a collective, Mujeres Creativas, for Miskitu women to express themselves in multiple forms – through popular theatre, traditional dance, painting murals, biointensive gardening, and flower arranging.

Mujeres Creativas inside and outside (1 of 1)  Deb and Mujeres Creativas (1 of 1)


Deb and Mujeres Creativas 7 (1 of 1)

During a two-hour dialogue with a group of them outside their building, we heard testimonies of how this group creativity has helped them develop confidence and strength to speak out, to talk about issues, and to perform in public.

We had two chances to witness that creativity. One was a mural tour led by one member, Natividad, who showed us murals around the town that the women had worked on.

Bilwi murals

The other was an evening event during which they performed two dances (the dance of the mermaids and another of a woman liberating herself from a violent man) as well as two theatre pieces. The first portrayed a Miskitu family on the coast being visited and belittled by a daughter who had gone to the capital, Managua, and become more mestizo than the mestizos. The second revealed the complexity of situations arising as mestizos from the Pacific try to buy up land communally owned by the Miskitus; it showed a Miskitu community leader selling off some communal land and then being sanctioned by his community through a process of restorative justice. Video clips of these two pieces: https://vimeo.com/123522120


Krukira, a Miskitu village

Margarita took us one day to her hometown, over a dusty road and savannah, to Krukira, where we explored the small town (almost destroyed by Hurricane Felix) with its houses on stilts and fishing boats. We hung out at the home of her uncle Roger and enjoyed a great fish dinner with yucca, which along with a Toña beer, sent Deborah happily into a siesta on the porch hammock.

3 dugouts (1 of 1)  house on stilts

On our way back from Krukira, we stopped at a small riverside park for a swim, and returned two days later to the same spot for a longer swim. Margarita and Deborah went exploring in a dug-out canoe while John did his exploring while swimming off into the jungle in both directions.  Led by master chef Margarita, we cooked fish, lobster and yucca over a wood fire for a luxurious picnic dinner served on large tree leaf (biodegradable!) plates.

Krukira and river swim

We had several dinners with Margarita and her partner David, giving us a chance to learn more about the complex history of the coast, inter-ethnic and political relations, and a sober assessment of autonomy on the coast under the Ortega government (more on that in the next blog entry about the Pacific Side!). In any case, we felt especially lucky to have these two wonderful guides as our main partners for the week…!






March 12 – 13: El Cuco, El Salvador: The Beach Break

Another 12-hour ride, from Guatemala and almost through El Salvador on much flatter land and with surprisingly better roads, landed us on the Pacific Coast, in a small beach town, El Cuco.

beach expanse (1 of 1)  hotel from below (1 of 1)

We had one day to enjoy the wild waves of the ocean, which provided a surprising challenge when we tried to return to shore (John was having a good time, Deborah less so as the current pushed us toward the rocks..!)

When not swimming, we read and chilled out with the breeze on our cliff-side hotel, 275 steps down to the beach.

El Cuco Beach Break

Both evenings, we ventured into the small town for fish dinners, and on one occasion, the chance to sing Karaoke (to a cell phone app) and dance with the locals…!

Check out the couple singing Karaoke on our vimeo site:


March 14: Crossing Honduras: Borders, Bandidos, Banks, and Bad Roads

After one last swim, battling the wild waves in shallow water, and having a nice breakfast overlooking El Cuco beach in El Salvador, we headed off for what proved to be our most adventurous day yet. We knew that crossing two borders would present some difficulties, but little did we know what awaited us. When stopping at a gas station a few kilometres from the Salvadorean/Honduras border, we were approached by two half brothers – Orlando who spoke with a perfect Texas drawl, and José who flashed his official Honduras transit guide card, offering their bilingual services to help us negotiate what they said would be a very difficult crossing. We initially refused their help but later decided to hire them to leave a little money in local hands. They explained their strategy and warned us to not speak Spanish on the Honduran side, so as not to extract additional fees from Honduran authorities. “Follow us,” they said, as they jumped into a tuktuk (3-wheeled motorcycle taxi). At the border, they abandoned the tuktuk and went off in a fast trot, leading us around a long line of big trucks waiting to cross.

Guides running (1 of 1)  tuktuk (1 of 1)

We entrusted all of our documents to José who insisted that only he could get to the head of the line and move us through the procedures more quickly. Orlando kept us company, finding us some seats in the shade, ensuring us that José had all the connections needed to get us across border efficiently (he had been in the army and his uncle was the police chief in the capital!). As time dragged on, he regaled us with stories of the infamous gangs, and how young men, when invited to join a gang, couldn’t refuse (explaining why so many unaccompanied teenagers are showing up at the U.S. border to flee the gang threats and unavoidable violence).

As lunchtime approached (everything shuts down for this important mid-day meal), José appeared to announce that we could bypass three procedures (fumigation, inspection, and visas) for an additional $5 to the $15 required for each – for $60 total. It turns out we didn’t have enough cash. “No problem,” they said, “we’ll borrow the money and pay for you, and accompany you to the next ATM, 30 minutes down the road.” We threw our large bags on top of the bikes in the back and continued our adventure with our “guides” (bandidos?) in the back seat. Once at the ATM, they let us know that our proposed tip of $35 was not enough. On top of this, we either had to drive them back to the El Salvador border or pay for a taxi to take them back. So, three hours and $155 later, we were freed to begin the 2-3 hour crossing of Honduras.

We stopped in the largest town, Choluteca, where John waited patiently in line at several ATMs before finding one that would give us the needed cash for the next border. And then the roads – what amazing roads! The trucks ahead of us dodged and weaved into the oncoming lane to avoid the most impressive pot holes that we had ever seen…! Soon John (mistakenly) acquired the confidence of the local drivers, working his way through the obstacle course of potholes, passing large trucks and slower-moving cars. As it turns out, he seriously misjudged our Dodge Caravan’s ability to take on these treacherous roads. Our bags and bikes (and Deborah) bounced up and down as we hit some unavoidable and incredibly deep holes. Suddenly, an ominous loud flapping sound warned us that our rear right tire wasn’t up to the challenge; an enormous and sharp pothole had sliced the side of the tire.

Here we were in rural Honduras, in the middle of nowhere. Fortunately, a passing cyclist named Nelson, stopped and offered to help, ensuring us we could trust him. It took John and Nelson many attempts (jumping up and down, and banging with rocks) to loosen the overtight nuts holding our ruined tire. Deborah was sent off with a local campesina woman, Janice, to buy a coke as a potential lubricant to loosen the nuts. By this time, we had an audience of the family living by the roadside, cheering us on, and agreeing that Nelson was a Good Samaratin. We headed off for a nearby motorcycle repair shop to get more air in the new tire.

Nelson and John loosening tire (1 of 1)  Nelson and the coke solution (1 of 1)

Tire changing audience (1 of 1)  Nelson and John (1 of 1)

Overconfident still, and eager to get to the Nicaraguan border, John managed to find yet another dangerous pothole. The tire that was to save us was suddenly flat, with the rim dented in several places. This happened beside a roadside food vendor run by a lovely large family. They noticed the local mechanic zipping by on his bike, going home from work, and stopped him to come to our rescue. He picked up the flat spare tire, jumped on his bike, and pedaled off back to his shop. In the meantime, our new hosts, sat us down in the shade and offered us a cool drink made from the fruit whose seed is the cashew nut. We shared photos and family stories, learning about the 9 kids and grandkids, many of whom joined us as we waited. About 20 minutes later, our second Good Samaratin returned with a repaired rim and inflated tire. There were warm goodbyes from our new roadside friends, who wished safe journey to their entertaining gringo visitors.

cycling mechanic (1 of 1)   mechanic at work (1 of 1)

Hondina and family (1 of 1)

We headed off at a somewhat more conservative pace to what had been promised to be an easier and faster border crossing at the Nicaraguan border. Again we were greeted by less official looking guys offering to guide us through the process. Somewhat suspicious, John decided to walk along the line of 20 trucks waiting. Meanwhile, Deborah in the driver’s seat, was directed to pass those trucks to get to the front of the line. A young Nicaraguan of about 12 years old kept ushering us along, even though we hadn’t officially hired him, indicating what offices and windows to go to, and what documents were needed. Though slow, things seemed to be proceeding, until one official pointed out that our vehicle registration didn’t have an official police stamp on it, such as those in the U.S. We vigorously pointed out that Canada is a separate country, with its own rules and regulations, and that our registration was legitimate. He asked us to wait while he investigated. At that point, we found allies in a young couple from BC who were experiencing the same obstruction. While waiting, those functionaries processing other parts of our entry, took their hour-long dinner break. Dark descended upon us, and yet again John’s assurance that we wouldn’t be travelling at night proved not to be true.

With great relief, we finally entered Nicaragua around 8 PM, happy to be driving on a smooth highway. However, a few kilometres in, we were back to pot hole misery, even more tense on dark roads. By this point, Deborah was trying to helpfully point out upcoming dangers, but John suggested that she repress all audible sounds of reactions and assistance. Needless to say, it was not easy to be either a driver or a passenger under these conditions. And when arriving in Chinendega, 2 hours short of our destination of Managua, we decided to call it a day (after 12 hours!) and retreat to a local 4-star hotel (with a beautiful courtyard and large pool), to recover forces for the last lap in the morning. John had a partial meltdown when he managed to lose the hotel room key in the car, before we even got in the door. While he negotiated with reception for a second key, Deborah found the first key on the floor of the car. It was definitely time for a break…!

We were grateful at least that we had survived our worst day yet,  and that after driving for 12,000 km from Canada, we had our first car problems; and, in both cases, we were blessed with generous campesino families eager to help.


March 10-11: Antigua, Guatemala – Women Weavers Abound

After a 12-hour drive through the mountains of southern Mexico and into Guatemala, over breathtaking but narrow zigzagging mountain roads (the so-called “PanAmerican highway”), we arrived in the first colonial capital of Guatemala, Antigua, losing our original B&B reservation because both our Mexican cell phones expired as we tried to confirm it. We ended up in a lovely hotel with a courtyard and pool, and surrounded by two volcanoes; we decided to make these two days a “vacation within the vacation,” reading, blogging, and swimming.

Hotel Villa Colonial

Both of us had been here last in 1974, John with Elizabeth on their way to Panama and their South Pacific sailing adventure, and Deborah with Bob studying Spanish. So there were memories as well as changes, but the magical colonial architectural charm and historically earth-quake devastated churches persist.

inside church (1 of 1)  ruined church (1 of 1)

plaza columns (1 of 1)

We enjoyed meals in ancient structures, one where the maître d’ took us on a tour up to the rooftops, insisting on taking tons of romantic photos of us in the moonlight…!

Romantic rooftop

John ventured out toward one of the volcanoes, determined to hike up the mountain, but ran into some obstacles. First he took the wrong way for a long way up and down the steep hillsides overlooking the town. Then on the right road, he managed to turn the wrong way yet again. Finally directed by locals, up and down more hills, the pavement turned to dirt, rocks, dust and deep pot holes.

Volcano to climb  Bad road


Now far from town and high up the volcano, he noticed that he was almost out of gas. As the road improved further on, he assumed there must be a gas station ahead. Luckily it was mostly downhill, so he sort of coasted down the required 15 K + for a fill-up. No time for climbing, but an exciting adventure…!

Antigua is also known for its amazing artisan work, and we were drawn into immense shops with artifacts and piles of old huipiles (woven blouses worn by Indigenous women, even more now as a sign of resistance to western cultural intrusion/imperialism per Deborah). But our best introduction to the central art of weaving in Guatemala came from our visit out to the community of San Antonio Aguas Calientes where Deborah had taken hip-strap weaving lessons 41 years ago. There we found women weaving at their booths in the central market, as they softly tried to convince us that they could offer us a special deal. We came away with samples of this town’s style as well as stories from the two women who had woven them.

artifacts (1 of 1)

Antigua artisan



March 7 – 9: San Cristobal de Las Casas – International Women’s Day Zapatista Style

Delayed by our on-road adventures, we came short of our target of San Cristobal so spent the night in the somewhat modern capital of Chiapas, Tuxla Gutierrez, where we indulged in our first big meat meal in a Mexican steak house (and John was happy with the portions!).

The Importance of March 8

Arriving in San Cristobal on Sunday morning, we set out for El Centro where we found several pedestrian streets filled with a mixture of Indigenous people selling crafts, mestizo families out strolling, and domestic and international tourists.

Pedestrian street (1 of 1)  Street vendor (1 of 1)

The main plaza was the site of International Women’s Day celebrations, where placards and speakers denounced state and domestic violence (and alcoholism) and proclaimed their commitment to fight for land, territory, food sovereignty, and women’s participation in decision-making. A march of women – Indigenous and non-Indigenous, from all over Chiapas as well as international – descended on the square from UniTierra (another University of the Land) located on the forested hillside outside of the town. This was the culmination of a three-day meeting of sharing stories and strategies, related to the Zapatista autonomy movement. It was moving to see the diversity of women connecting their local issues to global processes.

8 marzo sign (1 of 1)

International Women's Day in Chiapas


On March 8, we also remembered Elizabeth Harris, on the fourth anniversary of her death.

After the International Women’s Day rally, we visited churches and a museum of local history, featuring a beautifully curated collection of huipiles (woven blouses) of diverse Indigenous communities in Chiapas and Guatemala, each with its unique design. These huipiles have become symbols of resistance and cultural reclamation for many women in this region.

Another cathedral (1 of 1)  Textile museum (1 of 1)

Textile museum inside (1 of 1)

An Alternative University of the Land

Later we made our way out to the campus of UniTierra, where the women had been meeting, as it was also the site of a week-long workshop Deborah helped organize with Mexican muralist Checo Valdez ten years ago for the VIVA project, bringing together popular educators and community artists from five countries. With only a vague memory of its location, we wandered about in the nearby countryside for an hour, enjoying the adventure, but almost giving up before going just a little further down the road to find the well-hidden campus in the woods. We were given a tour by one of the Indigenous students, Miguel, and noted many new buildings, student-run farm and bakery, and art everywhere. We visited briefly with Raymundo Sánchez Barraza, the director, who reported that Checo continues training local Indigenous artists in mural production, and invited Deborah to two more women’s events in the next week (when we’d be in Guatemala).

UniTierra Chiapas (University of the Land)

Back in town, we visited “Tierra Adentro”, a restaurant/  gallery/bookstore where Deborah collected yet more books as background for the film on food sovereignty and Indigenous women’s struggles.

Zapatista coop (1 of 1)

Zapatista maiz movement (1 of 1)  mujer and maiz (1 of 1)

The ride the next morning through rural Chiapas was impressive for its well-organized milpas (cornfields) on the hillsides and scenes of children going to school.

fields outside Chiapas 2 (1 of 1)


March 1 – 7: Oaxaca – Fellow Tourists and Revolutionaries in the Land of Mezcal

Running into neighbours

Oaxaca is definitely a draw for Canadians, especially during one of the coldest months in decades. In the first two days, we literally bumped into two of our neighbours. The first day we were recognized in the central square by Marion, a Cabbagetown neighbour of John’s and former student (OISE in the 80s) of Deborah’s. The next day, while having a coffee on a balcony café, we spotted Jenny Callahan on the street below; she lives right behind Deborah in Parkdale and comes regularly to Oaxaca.

Aside from these chance encounters, we planned our visit to coincide with friends Barb Thomas and D’Arcy Martin, at the tail end of their two-month stay in Oaxaca. So we enjoyed Sunday snacks and a swim in their B&B pool, then met them again Monday evening for a special dinner with Gustavo Esteva, renowned author, radical educator and public intellectual. He provided historical context for current struggles of Indigenous peoples (Oaxaca has a majority Indigenous population), striking teachers, and a unique consultative process with over 400 municipalities to determine their own issues and direction (the municipalities have warned the government that they intend to implement their plans for autonomy unilaterally if the government doesn’t approve them by April 15).

cena with Gustavo (1 of 1)

Fellow collaborators on food sovereignty

In 2009, Deborah along with Lauren Baker (who did her PhD on corn/maize in Oaxaca) and Michael Sacco (who founded ChocoSol based on relationships with Oaxacan cacao coops) invited Gustavo to York for a two-week intensive summer course on “Food Sovereignty, Indigenous Knowledges, and Autonomous Movements.” As the organizer of a national campaign, “Sin Maíz, No Hay País,” Esteva is the perfect advisor for a potential film on food sovereignty that features Mexican Indigenous women. He invited us to participate in seminars of UniTierra (University of the Land), which engages Indigenous Oaxacans in “communities of learning” to counter schooling which has denied their history, culture, languages and ways of knowing. One seminar was a critique of (western) education; another was on identity and cultural regeneration. A third was part of a series on “autonomy” which began with a communiqué from the leadership of the closely related Zapatista movement

Unitierra seminar (1 of 1)  Mujer y maiz at UniTierra (1 of 1)John, Gustavo and rootop garden (1 of 1)

On a tour of UniTierra, Gustavo and John were able to compare UniTierra’s year-round rooftop garden with the short growing season on Toronto rooftops.

We met a Mayan couple from the Yucatán who are spending some months in Oaxaca as they prepare to start their own UniTierra in their coastal state. They invited us to their temporary home in the village of the San Augustín Etla, where we visited the well-known (though somewhat elitist) Centre for the Arts (established by artist Francisco Toledo), enjoyed a fish meal, learned about their traditional agricultural practices, and loaded up on fresh fruit from their backyard trees.

Angel and Valiana (1 of 1)  SAE visit 2 (1 of 1)

SAE visit 5 (1 of 1)  SAE visit 7 (1 of 1)

Deborah also reconnected with Amado Ramírez Leyva, an agronomist who left university teaching 13 years ago to start Itanoni, a tortillería, restaurant and cultural centre dedicated to the defense of biodiversity and cultural diversity. Over two comal-cooked tortilla meals, we had intense conversations with him about the potential film, the deeper messages of the interrelations of plants and humans, and the narrative approaches that might draw a North American public into that understanding (including a suggestion that Deborah not limit the story to women).

John at Itanoni (1 of 1)  Itanoni 3 (1 of 1)

All of the conversations Deborah was able to have with people deeply engaged in food sovereignty movements have stimulated her thinking, challenging once again many of her assumptions, and suggesting new directions for research and artistic production.

Archeology and history

The Oaxaca region has a deep and rich history of diverse Indigenous civilizations. A powerful introduction to the Olmec, Zapotec, and Mixtec cultures was offered at the Casa de las Culturas inside the Dominican convent of Santo Domingo (which at various points had been occupied and ransacked by soldiers and more recently was slated for a major five-star tourist hotel)

Sto. domingo (1 of 1)  Dominicans at Sto. Domingo (1 of 1)

An intervention by renown activist artist Francisco Toledo saved the convent as a major museum and designed the adjacent former army camp as a botanical garden more defined by aesthetic criteria than either agroecology or scientific identification.

John took morning bike rides 350 metres up to the Monte Alban ruins twice before we visited them together.

John biking to Moute Alban

Another day we visited the amazing ruins of Mitla (see slide show below). This was Deborah’s first visit to these two sites, which John and Elizabeth had visited in 1974.

Archeology and history

On the way to Mitla, we also paid homage to a 2,000 year-old tree, El Tule (click link below for video) vimeo:

Artisanal practices

Oaxaca markets are ablaze with colour and endless creativity, in both handicrafts as well as culinary delicacies (there are countless cooking classes for tourists!).

John and hats  craft banner

Deb with  market chickens  Corner taco stand (1 of 1)

A day excursion to Teotílan, with family weaving businesses all along the highway into town, offered us a unique introduction to the preparation of the materials and the weaving of exquisite wool rugs. Graciela, the wife of master weaver Isaac Vasquez led us through the process, inviting us to try our hand at carding and spinning; we were especially taken by the magic of extracting the red dye from the cochineal insect, which is nurtured on cactus plants, dried, crushed, and mixed with lime and salt to create the brilliant red that was a major export to Europe for the robes of royalty and clerics in the colonial period. We were delighted to learn, after John made a major purchase of a rug, that it was in fact woven by Graciela, our guide..!

Weaving coop in Teotítlan

Oaxaca is the home of moles (chocolate chile sauce) and many other delicacies such as chapulines (grasshoppers) which we tested as the stuffing for chiles rellenos. Besides trying a couple of fine Oaxacan restaurants, we were able to try our own hand at cooking in a little apartment we rented for the week, called Casa de los Abuelos (House of the Grandparents). In fact, John, was able to connect with his granddaughter, Katherine, in the Gaspe, by Skype…!

John biking out of Casa de los Abuelos (1 of 1)  Our Oaxacan house (1 of 1)

Skyping with Anna (1 of 1)

Highway highlights and lowlights

 Soon after we left Oaxaca heading for Chiapas, we passed the 10,000 KM of our four-month journey..! We continued to have amazing highway vistas, grateful we were driving and not flying over the landscape; at one point, as our van was rocked by dangerously strong winds in an area called La Ventosa (Windy), we were astounded by the site of a veritable city of windmills (financed and constructed, in part, by Wallmart, to supply their superstores in Mexico!).

Windmills 1 (1 of 1)  Windmills2 (1 of 1)

Windmills 5 (1 of 1)

On the other hand, we also found ourselves on dirt roads that were called “highways” or winding our way up and down steep mountainsides, passing trucks on narrow twisty roads overlooking sharp precipices (dotted with shrines commemorating those who died on the treacherous roadways). On the way to Chiapas, after a particularly scary mountainside ride, we descended 400 metres to the flat land of Tehuantepec, where a statue of La Tehuana greeted us at the entrance. There, ironically while going 10 K an hour over a small bridge, entranced by the view of the beautiful river, John failed to notice that the car in front of us had stopped. He hit the bumper of a taxi in front, and thus precipitated a two-hour experience with a series of taxi owners and drivers, several traffic police, and two insurance agents. Luckily there was only a small dent in the taxi bumper and none whatsoever to our van, our Mexican insurance covered everything, and in the process we made friends with the protagonists…!

accident 2 (1 of 1)   accident 1 (1 of 1)

accident 3 (1 of 1)



Feb. 22 – 24: San Miguel de Allende – The CASA Connection


CASA (1 of 1)After two weeks in Guanajuato, we took the scenic two-hour drive to enchanting     San Miguel de Allende, which was an important place for John and Elizabeth and her mother Aileen over many years. In the 1990s they helped create Canadians for CASA ( now called Amistad Canada, an official Canadian registered charity) to support the Mexican NGO CASA which continues to provide much needed services to youth and families of San Miguel around many issues including reproductive health, nutrition, family violence and protection of the environment. It built a maternity hospital and family clinic and a midwifery school, the first in Mexico and has expanded its programs to include, among other services, school libraries in primary schools in many small towns in the surrounding countryside.

We were able to connect with current directors and members of Amistad, Charlie and Myra Novogrodsky, who offered us elegant digs in their rented hillside house.

Xichu house Charlie, John, and Myra (1 of 1)

There we became kids again playing on their water slide, listened to the CBC on (reporting record low temperatures), enjoyed some meals together and exchanged ideas of “must sees” in Mexico.

water slide 3 (1 of 1)  water slide deb (1 of 1)

The bikes came out for trips to the surrounding countryside. First we headed off to Jalapa (unknowingly having to first conquer a steep cobblestone street that almost sent Deborah back home).

John biking up cobblestone (1 of 1)  Deb on bike

En route, while riding into the bush for a publicity shot for his next big fundraising trip, John got a thorn in his tire, resulting in a flat and road side patch job. Bike calamities continued the next day when he set off on a solo trip, only to have the tire explode, forcing him back into town to buy (and then lose) another tire…!

John in bush

John repairing tire (1 of 1)

We walked downhill into town at sunset and celebrated his survival with a drink on a café balcony overlooking the imposing cathedral.

street scene SMA  magic cathedral

While our visit was limited to two full days, we took full advantage of the arts and cultural events the city offers. On arriving we found ourselves in the neighbourhood where a major mural festival took place recently. We also enjoyed the inspiring folk artists in the artisan market and had a fresh fruit juice break.

Murals in San Miguel


Bram in concert

The first night, we joined other expats at an Amistad fundraising concert featuring Canadian folksinger Bram Morrison, followed by a dinner with Amistad members, including Mel Kliman, our former president who did all the hard work to get our official status, and his wife Eva.

Bellas Artes 2 (1 of 1)  Visiting the Centro de Bellas Artes the last night, we took in three art openings (photography, sculpture), enjoyed free wine and music (vimeo link below), and later struggled to interpret (in Spanish) a Fringe theatre play on the mysterious life of Italian/American/Mexican photographer Tina Modotti.

nude photo exhibit (1 of 1)

To see the Bellas Artes openings and hear the featured musicians, click vimeo below: