JON'S ROAD BLOG
I have not had a chance to write in a while and much has happened. The tour finished a few days ago and right now I am sitting outside, beer in hand, at a cute bed and breakfast in Copan Honduras overlooking an awesome valley. The crickets are going full steam along with roosters, owls, birds, frogs and what ever else is out there making exotic jungle type sounds; perhaps a good moment to make a cell phone ring tone? My particular bed breakfast is costing me a whopping $35US per night and includes a custom breakfast, which usually I leave to the chef. Usually eggs, beans, exotic fruit and a few other Central American goodies. The room also comes with a valley view, refreshments, hammocks, and wireless Internet. I find it to be quite a deal although about double the price of most other accommodations in town. Well worth the price considering the security which has been approved by the US embassy for state department personal. I must admit this part of the trip is a highlight! The rest of the band went home Sunday but I took a 6-7 hour bus ride from Tegucigalpa (the capital). It was a first class bus including great seats air conditioning and free snacks and drinks; total of about $ US 20. Quite bit more expensive than the chicken buses, which are not air-conditioned and are often crowded. Also high security with passport and clothed body searches to avoid hijackings etc…upon arrival I grabbed a 3 wheeled motor cart to the hotel for a whopping $.50 yes fifty cents anywhere in town. To give some perspective, you can stay in a home for a week with everyday Spanish lessons for about US $100.
The streets are made of stone and are quite charming but bumpy and loaded with activity. 3-legged dogs, trucks full of bananas, chickens, turkeys, jewelry dealers, horses and of course loads of 3-wheeled motor taxis. The word is the town is completely safe, unlike the capital, which I was not allowed to leave the hotel without an escort. Basically a great place for a starving artist or people trying to find themselves or even a great place for the more rugged tourist.
The first thing I learned in Copan was that when you go to the bathroom you put all tissue in the garbage basket. Despite my thinking they meant just tissue used for blowing your nose etc…after some local bar research the first night, in Honduras it means all tissue goes in the trash including after you go the big number 2. Evidentially the plumbing is a bit shaky for toilet paper. I had just missed that point up until now. It is such a way of life that even when systems are made to handle toilet paper the local employees fire up no Tp in toilet signs in TP safe places as fast as foreign owners can take them down. which was the case in fellow Alaskan’s bird park Mc Caw mountain Bird Park and coffee. Yes a Bird park and espresso/coffee farm. What a dream for me…..
Yesterday I visited the Copan ruins, which I found difficult to leave as I had the entire park nearly to myself. New SLR camera in hand I snapped over 400 photos of the ancient Mayan ruins, birds, trees and other interesting things.
Suriname Feb 10, 2008
With the entire band acquiring some not so friendly intestinal bacteria combined with some interesting travel problems, It’s been a hell of a week! It all started with the trip to one of our more exotic destinations in South America, Suriname. The first flight was pretty strait forward; a short flight to Puerto Rico on a small propeller plane. Upon arrival we were informed that everyone, even people not staying, would have to clear customs (with Luggage) and immigration. For us this means dragging every single drum, keyboard and bag we have through the airport and re checking it again. Urg…….never the less we just made the gate in time to find out that our next flight to Trinidad was delayed by an hour sending us into a semi panic. The rumor was that the flight to Suriname was one time per day and if we had to go through customs again before the next flight we may not make it; on top of that it was Friday, a busy travel day. The problem was no one seemed to know weather or not Trinidad had a policy of customs clearance for everyone or just people staying there. Once we boarded the crew assured us there would be plenty of time for us to make the flight to Suriname and that they even called ahead to make sure things were in order.
The flight touched down in Trinidad only slightly late and the crew announced that the flight to Suriname was a bit late so we were safe! Not! Turns out we had to get our luggage clear customs and then actually schlep all of our shit to the opposite and of the airport and actually re check in at a different airline. I was first through so I grabbed a porter and went ahead of the others to get started on the check in. With a good 45 minutes before the flight they basically told me to get lost and that the flight was closed and that we would have to catch the next flight 2 days later. As the others arrived to the bad news we started to look for someone who could help us out. It was pretty clear that this would be an American airlines liability. Kelley and I went on a quest for an agent while john and Nathan looked after our 15 or so bags. Luck was on our side as we ran into an American airlines agent who happened to be walking by decided that she would help us since it was in fact their error and we made it very clear that we were their problem. After several hours we had negotiated ourselves a new flight (2 days later), hotel and meals. Not bad for an airline! The problem is we had a concert to make Sunday night. Meanwhile, back at the luggage, Nathan and John found a good beer joint that sold “take out” dark beers! This would mark our first “real” beers for the tour as central America and the Carribean are not big beer places and the best beer to be found was usually Heineken or perhaps worse.
Nicaragua 3 (Day off) Let the fun begin!
11:00am – Nathan Kelley and I are hiring my trusty driver to take us out to the city of Granada for a day on the zip lines. A fancy word for hanging on a clothesline type cable and sliding down it on a wheel from tree to tree way up in the jungle above shade grown coffee farms half way up an active volcano. Think James Bond.
Jorge (our driver) does not really speak English, one the reasons I like him as a driver. We can actually put our new Spanish words into action! That said we arrived an hour later not know what was going on. Suddenly we were whisked into a Land Rover 4x4 with 2 guides who explained that it would be a bit bumpy for the next 45 minutes. Boy was that an understatement. We were cruising through old dirt roads that were washed out with 1ft tall boulders, ditches, navigating past horses and carts, goats, cows, on this semi road. It was quite steep too. There was such excitement but there it was again the reality. People with no running water no real bathrooms, just little shacks, if that. Kids begging. You know the stuff you see on those sponsor a child advertisements. Some of the sections of road had so much garbage on them (mainly plastic bags etc) that it was like a garbage dump. Sometimes the garbage was even burning creating quite the vibe. Another interesting site was people carrying things on their heads with out their hands. Reminded me of those National Geographic channel programs.
After 45 grueling minutes of rough 4x4ing up the volcano through coffee farms, through jungles and villages we finally arrived at a small coffee farm for a rest. After taking pictures of the awesome landscape we suited up in helmets and harnesses for the zip line. After climbing some 60 feet into a tree with a big platform we hooked into the first of 9 lines for some high speed action. I think Kelley went first. Yelling and whooping in excitement is was the sound we heard as Kelly slid down the line full speed until she was barely visible at the next platform. All I can say is what a thrill being up in the canopy with the birds and monkeys over shade grown coffee plants with Banana trees strategically planted for extra shade and fertilization; and some of the trees were hundreds of years old. 5 people couldn’t possible put their arms around some of these trees!
One of the granddaddy’s of the zip line was actually about the length of a football field and let me tell you, we got some serious speed up on that one! After the final line we each had a free fall at the speed of our choice controlled by one of our trusty guides. Since I was last and every one else chose medium I went for high speed. I yelled ok and the next thing I knew my balls felt like they were in my mouth. It felt as if there was no rope holding me for a few seconds until I came to a screeching halt just in time to gently hit the ground. The trip on the lines was only about an hour but worth the $38US. In fact I would say the drive up was almost as fun as the actual zip lines. The trip back to the middle of Granada was even better than the trip up as people were just getting off work. The streets were overflowing with people, cows, Horses, Bicycles, Cars, Motorcycles and whatever other vehicles one could scrap together to transport their goods.
After a brief stop at our hotel we headed out to a club for some Nicaraguan music and some dinner we were thrilled to be sitting right in the front row but when the music kicked off we just had to move to the back of the crowded straw covered open air concert/dinner hall. After a little mishap with the check; Kelley being charged for 4 tequilas and 4 lemonades when she only had 2 of each we decided to split, as we had no Spanish translator to further argue the charges. They would not budge on the issue even with the empty glasses in front of Her.
We decided to do a nightcap near our bed and breakfast so that we could walk home and let poor Jorge go home.
One of the topics of the evening was Dennis Erwin, one of my favorite bass players, who has fallen very ill with cancer and has no health insurance. Just so you all know, Laura Johnson our great traveling companion down here and executive producer for Jazz at Lincoln Center, is working on a giant benefit for Dennis at Lincoln Center. Many of friends of Dennis will perform to help raise money to assist Dennis and his family with the high medical bills. If you get a chance try to make the event it is for a very good cause. We are thinking of you every day Dennis! JW
Nicaragua 2 (Jan 29th)
After arriving and settling in we headed out for our first concert in the small village called Masatepe just about 45 minutes outside of Managua which in our case took almost 2 hours because of some road problems. I read that the roads are bad in Nicaragua and can confirm that they are in fact really bad. The main roads are generally paved with random giant speed bumps. Maybe the speed bumps are created to allow horses to enter the road easier? Or perhaps just to keep the danger down near heavy traffic areas. I don’t remember seeing many stoplights except right on the main drags in the capital. I will post a video in a few days that should explain a few things.
We arrived about 15 minutes after we were to start but were saved by the fact that Nicaragua has nearly the same time stretch as Panama, perhaps not as pronounced so lets say 7pm is the new 6pm in this particular country. We set up on the back porch of Ramirez Music conservatory, which just happened to face the town square; similar to Union square in New York. Very convenient for a quick concert in the park! We were able to set up in 15 minutes to a fairly enthusiastic crowd although the look on their faces told me that they didn’t really know what the hell we were doing. It must have been very exotic music for them to listen to.
After the 1 hour concert we had some local snacks.
A frustrating reality of the music school was they did not have running water so the toilet was getting quite interesting and I found my self served up with a good handful of soap before I realized there was no running water at all.
We headed back to our hotel this time a different route which proved a great route for a new game we invented called cats versus dogs. There were so many animals on the road that it was quite fun counting how many cats and dogs we spotted. The game ended up being a win for the dogs at somewhere around 40 dogs and 10-12 cats , 3 or 4 in the un identified and I think one dead animal. This game is a bit too busy to play in Nicaragua in the day as animals are out in full force during the day and the numbers would be just overwhelming.
The following day we had only a concert in the evening at the embassy so I hired a driver named Jorge on my own to take me down to a fabulous espresso joint not far from the hotel. I am very pleasantly surprised at the quality and availability of Espresso in these countries! Most of them kick ass over Starbucks so far, which is more than I can say for the Espresso in many parts of Pennsylvania and middle USA. After Espresso I hit a Peruvian restaurant for my much needed fix of Anticuchos (beef heart) and Ceviche (raw fish soaked in lime juice and spices). The owners were hanging out so I managed to have lunch and a “Peru” chat with them. It reminded me how important my trips to Peru have been in my musical development. After all I bought and learned to play my first Cajon in Peru, the birthplace of Cajon, which would later become the “Electro Cajon” used in the secret society piece entitled “phobos”. After enjoying a few hourse out and about Jorge dropped me back at the hotel. The bill came to a whopping US $4. It’s hard to imagine that the cook at our hotel who just makes you whatever you want makes just a tad over US $100 per month and many people only earn 50 cents a day. Reality is lurking at all times and unlike my last State Dept. tour our local embassy is not afraid to show us around some of the less fortunate areas.
Later in the afternoon we were taken by our “official” embassy van to the Embassy itself. We are playing to celebrate the opening of the new Compound that was just finished. It is said to be the 2nd largest US embassy in the world next to the one in Iraq. This thing is massive with bullet proof/bomb proof windows huge walls all the way around it and state of the art screening and security equipment used on anyone entering. The inside has everything you may need. Doctors office, Post, Bank, Cafeteria and so on. After sound check we had a nice Chicken dinner and took some pictures with the ambassador who was quite a jolly fellow. There always seems to be a something about Ambassadors that compels you to chat with and hang around them. They usually have very magnetic personalities.
Our concert was quite a success as the people don’t get too much live music especially North American Jazz. After the 1 hour “presentation” there was a reception with finger food and booze. The people that I meet at these things are always so interesting. I remember meeting some guys in Russia that were involved in the space station. One of the things they did was organize music for the space station inhabitants to listen to. You also meet employees of the state dept as well as local community leaders and doctors. Basically people that can and want to help make a difference in the community. As JL one of our local embassy helpers was explaining. These people poor don’t give a sheet (shit) about Politics and sheet, for the most part, because they are working so hard to just feed their families. Forget about running water. Lets eat so we don’t die! Actually they probably do care it’s just not a reality to do much about it.
Nicaragua: Flight to the hotel Jan 29, 2008
Even as we flew above the capital Managua before touching down I knew it would be a wild place. From the air I could see piles of trash that must have been bigger than city blocks with people digging around looking for valuables and food. Roof tops were frequently rust color giving away that they were just pieces of tin thrown over some kind of frame for shelter most of the roads were dirt and not all that smooth looking and I even spotted several horses and even humans towing carriages with people in them. At the airport, we were immediately and impressively, met by an expeditor from the US embassy to help us through the immigration and customs process. They let me through, drums and all with no problems but our keyboardist John Hansen was searched for no apparent reason. Or maybe it was because his keyboard stand, before assembled looked kind of like a makeshift rifle or pipe bomb?
Before even leaving the airport someone from the embassy gave us a quick briefing and explained that during an earthquake in the late 70s the main part of the city was ruined and they just abandon it and build all around the “old city”. That would explain the chaos looking down from the air. The second poorest nation in the region next to Haiti the poverty rate in Nicaragua is at 48% of the population with an infant mortality rate of 27 per 1,000 compared to about 6 per 1,000 in the United States.
As we drove through the capital city to our hotel my camera was clicking away from our van. It was like going back in time 50-100 years. The wild west! Old cars, dirt roads mixed with some paved roads, tin shacks, horses towing carts, the streets were packed with people selling stuff like fruit, cashews, bagged water. Yes people were actually selling little plastic sandwich baggies of water and it was not very clear looking water either. People were gathered around fires build on the sides of the streets, dogs were running wild and kids were begging. Extreme poverty like I have never seen. This even made Brazil, which 31% live under the poverty line, look like New York’s upper east side. Ok , not really but it was noticeable. A particularly sickening moment was driving by a garbage dump type of area with crowds of people, fellow human beings, digging through the garbage. This is all in a country that has made progress since the civil war that ended in the 1990s.
After about 45 minutes of chaos we finally took a turn from the main drag and headed up a hill. The houses went from tin shacks to a bit nicer homes and finally to gated type residences. Definitely not decadent by any stretch of the imagination but what we might call a “middle class” hood with just enough funk mixed in to remind you of where you are and also to give things a bit of spice. We pulled up to our bed and breakfast ran by a more fortunate family; the gates opened and we pulled in. A beautiful colonial type estate with tile floors, nice woodwork, a pool, garden and outdoor sitting area with plenty of wooden rocking chairs to go around and about 12 modest rooms with complimentary wifi in most of the rooms which is a contrast to the $15 USD per night wireless we had in Panama. Our chief bed and breakfast host is very helpful cat named Hose. He spent quite a few years in Jersey while the Revolution was happening so he speaks great English and has a great knowledge of Managua as well. The people in Nicaragua seem very hospitable and would probably give a left arm for a fellow human. Cheers Jon Wikan
The electricity has thus far been standard 110 volt we are used to.
Jan 24, 2008
Hello all. Things have gone quite smoothly in Panama City Panama. Having to pay $300 excess baggage for 3 drum bags on the way to Panama did not feel all that good on my soul. Even with JAL footing the bill, my frugal "jazz lifestyle" thinking tells me that it is simply wrong for an airline to charge a passenger more than the actual cost of a airline ticket for 75 pounds of drums. Upon arrival in Panama I made the big mistake of taking a giant swig of water from a water fountain. Lucky for me I was relieved to hear that the water is ok in Panama city because the US set up its water facilities for that particular city. Still not a good habit to get into as the Inca Shminkas can get you most anywhere down here if you drink tap water.
That said we arrived in Panama last Wednesday evening to participate in the Panama jazz festival headed up by the maestro or as I call him the mayor of Panama city,†Danilo Perez. You may know him for his work with Wayne Shorter or with his own bands; he is doing fantastic things down here. Danilo and his foundation have built this festival from the ground up with the intention of spreading jazz music and educating young under privileged youth from the Central America/South America regions. Some of these kids have only one chance at music education per year and it is here at the Panama festival. In many cases it is a life changing experience. This year is a historical year as the Panamanian government has just recently committed substantial funds to the festival as well scholarships for jazz musicians from Panama to study abroad! This festival has quickly become on of the great prides of Panama along with the famous Panama Canal.
The line up at the festival included jazz groups from the Monk institute, NEC Jazz conservatory, Tia Fuller’s Quartet, Stanley Jordan, The Caribbean Jazz project and Catherine Russell, daughter of the Jazz artist Luis Russell just to name a few, all which were fantastic and well received. There was a fantastic grand finale outdoor concert in the old historic part of Panama City, which featured all of the bands from the festival as well as a few others. My personal favorite was a Panamanian group of original Congolese descendants that performed the traditional music and dance from the Congo. Their concert was so killing! Just hand drums singers and dancers. The final concert was free to the public and was attended by approximately 10,000 people.
At the end of the concert Danilo set up a fantastic dance party for all the staff and performers with a burning local salsa band. I didn’t dance much but did manage to get a much needed dance lesson from one of the locals.
The 2 days following the festival we hung out in Panama for a few days off. On one of the days we went to the Panama Canal, which was just amazing. It is difficult to fathom the Panama Canal until you see a full sized rig go through one of the locks. Paying up to nearly a quarter of million dollars per boat to avoid the costly and time consuming trip around South America, these boats are just awesome in size and clear the canal by just a few feet on each side. These ships are guided by weighted trains with cables attached to the vessels on each side to prevent them from smashing into the sides of the locks. The ships travel through a series of canals that are linked to several lakes that at the highest point end about 85 feet above sea level for a journey of nearly 50 miles via 3 sets of locks. As you can imagine, thousands and thousands of people spent many years building this canal. It is estimated that 27,500 people lost their lives by the time the canal was started by the French in 1880 and finished by the United States in 1914, to give some scope of the project. The canal was for many years operated by the United States but since January 1st 2000 been run by the Panamanian government, thanks to the efforts of president Jimmy Carter and of course inspired by the protests of the Panamanian people.
After the canal tour we hit a cool wildlife preserve. I was amazed at the wildlife from cool looking Parrots, eagles and weird long nosed wild bore looking characters, to white headed monkeys; one of them even managed to slap a can of 7 up out of my hands and share it with its pals. I guess I need to work on my reflexes.
The next stop was an eco hotel in the jungle near the canal. We grabbed a quick espresso and decided to bail on the idea of an over priced tour. Our driver decided we should take matters into our own hands. We took one of the 50 dollar per person tours on our own and drove up to a place called pipeline road. I should have figured that when our driver parked blocking the gate to the entrance road we would be causing trouble but we started walking up the road into the jungle anyways. Sure enough after 10 minutes of walking a parks dept truck cruised by. When the truck came back the other way I humorously asked our driver “ did you block the gate?” He jumped in with the rangers and copped a lift back to the car and caught up with us later.
We walked for some time saw some really cool vegetation and what not but no real action. At some point Laura Johnson, who is the executive producer at Jazz at Lincoln Center and all around good person, mentioned that it was getting dark soon and we should return. I don’t think it was five minutes later that one of our band members noticed that she was getting eaten alive by mosquitoes. Of course we left our highly recommended deet spray in the van. On top of that Panama city is of the two places in Panama that has the highest risk of Dengue fever, which there is no vaccine or preventative medicine. I will keep you posted on the bands dengue fever status, as it takes a few days to take hold. Thank goodness we were not in Malaria country yet! At least for a few more days, that is. On the way back the driver, John Hansen and I discovered some of these Pig looking animals cruising the jungle so I broke out the big lens for my camera (the donkey). I eventually ended up off the road in the woods chasing some pretty big sounding creature only to be ambushed by a pack of monkeys up in the trees above. I have to say they are pretty humorous creatures. At one point they started launching some pretty big branches at me so I bailed on the off road safari idea. The driver managed to spot them from the road so I got a few pics of them. About 15 minutes had passed and the mosquitoes were even starting to bug me a bit when Laura came running towards us yelling “hey come one were locked out of the van and their eating us alive” ooops…..so we ran back with her to rescue Kelley, Nathan and John. We then headed back to our posh hotel on the beach, “The Miramar intercontinental”. It’s defiantly a nice hotel but to be quite frank, I like more of a bed and breakfast vibe that gives you a chance to mix with the locals. These big “safe” hotels are very wasteful and lack the character that I enjoy not to mention you can’t hardly walk through the lobby without spending money. Eating at these fancy hotels is about 2 to3 times more expensive and not usually as good as local restaurants.
Lessons learned in Panama:
If a concerts starts at 12pm it really means 2 pm
Wear your Deet in the jungle (I know it’s toxic but dengue fever doesn’t sound too pleasant either)
Panama city water is safe to drink
There is no Malaria risk in Panama City
Columbian Hookers are present in most bars
Our next stop is Nicaragua that promises to be quite a contrast.