Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Central America/Guatemala/Panajachel (Lago Atitlan)


I arrived yesterday to Panajachel. I struck up a conversation with my two seatmates on the shuttle and one of them was in the Peace Corps in Nicaragua (but traveling in Guatemala on vacation), and the other worked near Antigua volunteering in health care. I followed them to a great hostel (Villa Lupita), and then down to the dock where I saw some of the most beautiful natural scenery I have yet encountered on my travels.

It was cloudy and overcast, but on the distant shore, I could see the late afternoon sun breaking through and sunbeams hit the surface of the water. Nearby were verdant green hills--that looked like they belonged in Ireland--with colorful vertical rock faces showing. In the distant hills, I could see that the rain had created a waterfall, cascading down to the jungle below.

The lake vista is dominated by two towering volcanoes. They are currently dormant and are a beautiful green from all the rains during the wet season. The natural beauty of this place is stunning. The lake is a caldera and reminds me of Crater Lake in Oregon (which is also gorgeous).

On the shore of the lake I saw a family playing (the father took a little time out of playing with the kids to bathe--just a bar of soap & a lake), ladies wearing traditional garb washing their clothes on rocks in the shore´s shallow water, and the prior evening, those same ladies were fishing--with some monofilament and a food can used as a spool.

This city I´m in ´Panajachel´ is interesting--more native people, lots of merchants selling some interesting crafts, and also the funny addition of a bunch of hippies. And I don´t mean the new ones. I mean the ones who were wandering around San Francisco in the 70s. All the men are fuzzy and capped with beanies and the ladies have long hair and flowing dresses. And I can smell a lot of pot. A lot.

Remaining on my list of "must-dos" in Guatemala are Semuc Champey and Monterrico, a beach with nesting turtles. My only worry is running out of superlatives to describe the beauty here.

After that, I´m outta here. Guatemala has been fantastic, and a great spot for Country #2.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Flores-->Tikal-->Guatemala City

If there is a such thing as a cute city, Flores, Guatemala certainly is one. Flores is a city on a lake. It is Venice-meets-Mexico on a Guatemalan budget.

http://wikitravel.org/en/Flores_(Guatemala)

Jacob smiles and sleeps on a street in Flores:

We had a nice hotel in Tikal. Even so, it had some quirkiness: the power went out the first night around 9:45 while we were walking down the street. We did not bring flashlights and it was DARK. The second night the power went out around 3am and didn´t come back on until 6pm. Also quirky: the tinted-but-transparent panels in the bathroom door (bad photo--should have turned on the light in the BA before taking the photo)

Flores is known as being a nice place to stay near Tikal. Tikal is a remnant of the Mayan empire. Jacob and I went from Flores, Guatemala via bus to Tikal to take a peek into an ancient world.

http://wikitravel.org/en/Tikal

Jacob and I on top of Pyramid IV at Tikal. It was an amazing view.

We boarded a bus to depart Flores for Guatemala City. While leaving the bus station, we came VERY close to another (smaller) bus. It may be difficult to see, but just to the R of the Mercedes logo is a bullet hole.

Gas prices per gallon: Q27.95 => $3.62/gal.
The price doesn´t seem bad until you know the average Guatemalan makes about $2,400US a year.

There will be an election here in a few days. The two parties are actively engaged in marketing themselves. During our bus ride we saw lots of rocks (Rocks!) painted orange (PP--Patriotic Party) and green (UNE party)

At the end of our bus ride, we left the bus station for the Westin, in "Zona Viva" (neighborhoods are separated into ´zones´here, numerically labeled.

The Westin, Guatemala City, is an oasis of tranquility in the hustle and bustle of the extremely busy city. It reminded me of the "old days" when I stayed at the Ritz on Kev´s discount :) It had poofy and deluxe bedding, a lovely view, a lounge on the 9th floor where they serve you drinks and food and has a separate receptionist and free internet access.

Taxis caught in the Westin courtyard cost about 50% more than an equivalent taxi caught about 100´away, just outside the Westin driveway.

Here´s Jacob in front of one of their boquets.
The Westin hotel is frequently used for adoptions. We saw lots of couples running around with their new bundles of joy. :)

While in GC, Jacob and I went to Mercado Central... A hyper-active shopping experience. The stalls are about 8´ wide for the most part, and are inhabited by anxious salespeople who REALLY want to make a sale. They call you into their store, tell you to take a look around, etc. It was VERY MUCH like the Silk Market in Beijing. It felt friendlier, however.

The stalls are filled with loads of blankets, purses, hand-carved instruments, shoes, sandals, blouses, tablecloth--anything you can think of! Here is a shot of one of the shop keepers in traditional dress with her merchandise behind her.

Next stop: Antigua!

Flight: Belize City, Belize to Flores, Guatemala

I had to hitchhike to the airport to get there in time to catch my plane. I got to the gate and asked if this was the gate to go to Flores, Guatemala. They said, "Oh, you must be Scott"... I handed them my paperwork and they opened the door to the tarmac.

And this is what I saw...


The photo is of my pilot getting into our plane that took us from Belize City to Flores, Guatemala.

Three knees: The pilot´s and mine:
Yes, that IS a yoke in my lap. And yes, believe it or not, he LET ME FLY THE PLANE. WOO HOO!!!!!!!!!

In-flight snack--much better than pretzels!


"Your exits are clearly marked"

It was by far the most exciting flight of my life. My checked-in luggage sat one seat back behind me (in the same compartment) about 2´away from my carry-on. I sat shoulder-to-shoulder with the pilot the whole time. When I went crazy with the camera and took a bunch of pictures, he´d bend out of my way so I´d get a better view.

We flew above one storm and below another. The landscape was dotted with jungle and farms, some of which have no roads leading to the farm houses. Some of these are people with no vehicles whatsoever. Whoa.

When we arrived in Flores, Guatemala, Customs/immigration was ready for me--I was the only passenger to arrive that hour.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Mucho decir!

(so much to say!)

Whoa. I intend to make a proper entry later... For now:
  1. I have confirmed that I LOVE to travel--however, packing and unpacking are among my least favorite activities.
  2. Spanish keyboards and Webpages that come up in Spanish are starting to make sense. I am starting to learn my beloved hotkey combinations en EspaƱol.
  3. Flew in the SMALLEST aircraft EVER. Sat shoulder-to-shoulder with the pilot. He moved out of my way when I took a couple of pix. He let me hold the yoke ALONE. The ride was mostly smooth, we flew above one storm and below another.
  4. Flores, Guatemala is an island town on a lake. It is quaint, quaint, quaint. Kind of a Venice-meets-mexico in Guatemala. We ate at a local restaurant and befriended a friendly waitress... She makes $76us a month.
  5. The power in Flores went out both nights we stayed there.
  6. Tikal was amazing. Climbed pyramid 4 and got some great photos.
  7. Heard howler monkeys and spider monkeys in the jungle at Tikal. Amazing.
  8. Took an 8-hour bus ride from Flores to Guatemala City. Beautiful country: hilly and green. A restaurant is nothing more than a lady that can cook and a roof (no walls).
  9. Stayed at the Westin Camino Real in Guatemala City. It is in an amazingly modern and beautiful neighborhood which would make most city dwellers comfortable if not enchanted.
  10. Went to the Mercado Central in Guatemala City. HUGE MARKET! Lots of hustle/bustle. Reminded me of the Silk Market in Beijing.
  11. Took a taxi to Antigua, Guatemala. It is absolutely, unbelievably beautiful.
  12. So much more to say, so many beautiful (I hope!) photos!--MORE LATER!

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Saved!

Today I set out to see Xunantunich and go to the Botanical Gardens. I hopped on the bus, paid my $1BZE ($0.50 US) and away I went.

To get to Xunantunich from San Ignacio, one must ride a bus for 7 km, then ride a ferry across the river and then hike a mile up the hill to the entrance to the ancient Mayan city. The ferry is free. Today, however, the river was flowing too rapidly (storms in Guatemala), and the ferry couldn't run. I was bummed out. A lady from the midwest got the news just as I did and she hopped back in her car along with her compatriots and headed off. I felt a little dejected that my planned itinerary had just gotten the boot--and alone.

Just then I heard, "Hey Scott!"
I turned toward the voice and there was Tim! What timing!

I met Tim and Kim the prior day when I did the ATM cave. (Actun Tunich Muknal) On the cave trip, Tim & Kim and I
shared a backpack & bugspray and chatted almost the entire time. They are from Seattle--outdoorsey, relaxed, sporty but low-key--very cool.

As a light rain started to come down, they offered me a ride and we headed to the Botanic gardens. The road to the Botanic gardens was the first dirt road I had ever seen with speed bumps. And these weren't ornamental: they were very serious, scrape-your-undercarriage size speedbumps!

About 5 miles down the dirt road, the little Ford Escort had had enough climbing and we lost traction up a steep rocky grade. (Hello, Kevin? Could you send me one of your customized Jeeps right away please? :) We parked the Escort along the roadside and hiked the rest of the way into the botanic garden.

The gardens were completely unattended, so we headed to the nearby hotel office to pay our fee and then ventured onto the grounds. The temperature was hot and the humidity high... Sweat dripped when I stood stationary. Keep moving!

We explored the gardens, took some great photos (only some of which came out--My little Canon may be on its last legs--it has messed up my memory card twice now--sigh!). Saw a giant spider, a cinnamon plant, and a Red Bird of Paradise-which every Phoenician would recognize, but they grow differently here--lanky and tall and airy with hummingbirds all over.

We headed past the lagoon to the rainforest beyond and then ascended the fire lookout tower. The view was breathtaking. We saw verdant green hillsides and misty clouds raising up from the rain forest canopy. A wall of rain descended from the distant clouds and headed our way.

We decided to watch the storm from the fire tower and huddled under the small thatched roof. As the rain overtook us, we listened and talked about religion, philosophy, and Star Trek.

Since I started this trip, I've answered questions in general terms--never divulging much detail, never getting too personal--keep it simple, keep it quick--don't bore anyone. For the first time, the conversation was significant, detailed, and personal.

It was a perfect afternoon.

I spent the rest of the day reading & writing. I went to a local cafe and had coffee and sat and read and wrote in my journal. It was wonderful and relaxing. I'm almost done with my current book (Thanks Aunt Bird--I'm really enjoying it!)... Which means my backpack is just about to get a little bit lighter--which is always something to be happy about :)

My time in Belize is nearly done--and it went by so quickly. I need to get back to the hostel, pack up, change my money to Quetzales and get on my way.

Tomorrow I travel to Flores, Guatemala to meet Jacob! I'm excited!








MISC:
At the entrance of Actun Tunichil Muknal






















Easily grossed out? Don't read below!!


This is why DEET is my new best friend in the tropics:


Thursday, October 11, 2007

San Ignacio Rocks!

This is me in front of a lovely mangrove tree on beautiful Caye Calker. I have lots of great shots that I haven't uploaded because the internet connections were slow and pricey on Caye Calker. Hopefully this post will help make up for it! :)

I just arrived in San Ignacio! Left Caye Calker this morning and took the water taxi to Belize City. There I boarded an old schoolbus and rode it 90 minutes across the country to arrive at San Ignacio.

When I got here, I found out prices are about 50% what they are in Caye Calker (YAY!), and then came on down to an internet cafe to upload some of my photos.

Unfortunately, I JUST discovered that my trip (2 hours ago) to Cahal Pech (Mayan) ruin was NOT captured by my camera. In fact, it looks like all my photos since the 6th are all garbage. So I'm still a little sad about that.

BUT the ruin was really cool. On the top of a hill in the middle of town. Surreal. It was really amazing to know that 3,000 years ago there was a thriving population of Mayans RIGHT HERE on this same land. In fact, Belize today has just under 300,000 people. Back then, there were about 1 million Mayans. Amazing.

I am staying at the J&R Guest House. The room is clean & neat, the bathroom is VERY nice compared to the last place, and the rate is almost 50% what I paid on Caye Calker.

Tomorrow I do the "ATM" (Actun Tunichil Muknal) cave. The next day, I want to do Xunantunich. Lots of fun names in these parts! Those Mayans loved a good tongue twister!

That's the momentary update. I'm here in San Ignacio for a couple of days, then on the 13th, I head back to Belize City where I catch a flight to meet Jacob in Flores, Guatemala. We will see Tikal, see Antigua, and visit his friend Teresa. Antigua is said to live up to its hype. I can't wait.

Cheers!

Some sights from Caye Calker, Belize:



















On approach to Caye Calker



















How much?

















Detail of a house in Caye Calker. This faded/washed blue color is all common.
















Don't know what these flowers are, but they're stunning
















Hibiscus
















Caye Calker
















Typical Caye Calker view

















This is what a construction site on Caye Calker looks like
















Uninvited guest in my room

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Leaving paradise

Today I take a ferry back to the mainland where I'll be taking a bus to San Ignacio. There are lots of things to do there, spelunking and exploring ruins (Xunantunich--fun to say!). Should be good. I just hope it's a little cooler than here on Caye Calker. :)

http://www.worldatlas.com/webimage/countrys/namerica/camerica/bz.htm

I have to go catch the ferry. Much more to write about my stay here on Caye Calker.

And I got my PADI certification! YAY! Now I'm an "open water diver"... I can go get tanks & go on dives to my little heart's content. Only minus here in Belize is that it's on the expensive side. I hear that Honduras has really inexpensive diving.

Cheers!

Friday, October 5, 2007

Made it to Belize!

After 3 international flights, I'm finally where I wanted to be! I nearly missed my plane in Guatemala because of a gate change.

The weather here in Belize is warm and muggy, but with the fan blowing, it feels prettydarned good!

I signed up for dive lessons, which I will start tomorrow, toward my PADI certification. It will take 4 days.

I'm checked into Tina's Backpacker's hostel <http://www.auxilloubeachsuites.com/tinashome.html>, which is about 20' from the Caribbean sea. Picturesque. There's a "vibe garden" in the entrance with hammocks and it's very relaxing here. All the locals are pretty laid back, and English is spoken everywhere.

On the plane ride from LAX to GUA, I met a guy who is volunteering in Nicaragua. I'm excited to have met an American who will be staying there. I hope it will work out to go. I hate to stay out of an area becaus of irrational* fear.

*irrational: Not rational--there is a rational amount of fear, but I think the amount of fear most frequently brought on is brought on by headlines rather than experiences.

Monday was my final night of rest until tonight. All day Tuesday and into the night I was taking care of last-minute business. Then my brother dropped me off at the airport. 10 minutes later, I realized i left my money belt in the car. THANK GOODNESS FOR MOBILE PHONES! I called Kevin and he saved the day (THANK YOU KEV!!). I made it onto my flight with about 5 minutes to spare.

Dad and Lil met me in LA, and then we picked up my cousin Julie. Togeher we went to Griffith Park Observatory and had a FANTASTIC time, despite me being unnaturally quiet and falling asleep NUMEROUS times. It brought back some wonderful memories from my youth. We saw a planetarium show which was great (Griffith pretty much sets the bar as far as the W coast on planetarium shows). Also saw the foucalt pendulum, which even though it was one of the original exhibits, STILL gathers a constant following. Each time we went by there were lots of folks leaning into the pit to watch. It is fascinating!

That night, I got on the plane at LAX with about 3 hours to spare, so it was MUCH more relaxed (THANKS DAD for your efforts to get me there early!!). I had some time to mess with my phone, get contacts into it, etc. before I left.

I have already met a few people, and may be going out to dinner with some I met from the hostel here. We'll see what happens. For lunch I had this wonderful red beans & rice + chicken and MAN Was it GOOD! Simple but tasty!

OKAY, this keyboard is killing me, so I'll sign off.

From Belize....

Cheers!

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

It's all uphill from here

I had quite a moment yesterday when I walked out of my job of over 10 years... Never to return. There was a sense of relief, there was a sense of finality. There was a sense that one chapter of my is life was closed while another beings. It was a very good feeling.

That lasted a few minutes before my brain started churning about the typhoon of things I must do before I leave town... It's been storming in my brain ever since.

I am officially freaking out. I think of something, I stand up to go do it, then realize something else, turn around, go back and sit down, record something, look up a number, then jump up to do something else that's urgent. It's ALL urgent at this point.

I leave tomorrow morning at 7:30. There's 24 hours in a day, right?....