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