Sunday, February 28, 2010

Cross Country Skiing

It snowed here (Flagstaff, AZ) a few days last week putting powder on top of the icy snow making it the perfect condition for skiing.  Usually I would go downhill skiing but because of our recent trip we decided to save money and try cross country skiing.  I am decent at downhill so I figured it wouldn't be that difficult to go flat.  Jeff and I went to the Flagstaff Nordic Center, rented some boots and skis, grabbed a map and set out on the trails.  It was a bit more difficult than I had anticipated at first.  I fell 3 times within the first 5 minutes.  The skis used for cross country are thinner in width and only attach at the toe, meaning your heal is able to lift off the ski.  These differences took some getting used to.  You have to glide the ski forward, lifting your heal while you glide the other foot.  Once I began to feel more comfortable we planned out a route to take and began.  It took me a bit to figure out that the two tracks just big enough for skis on the side of the trails was meant to help make it easier.  The snow plow goes around the main trails flattening the trail and putting tracks in and boy do they help.  I felt like a train on a train track, controlled and with direction.  The first trail we took, Reese trail, was mostly uphill so I got a good work out and really learned how to use the tracks and the detached heal to my advantage to get me up the inclines.  The trail we took back down, Wild Bill, was downhill and curvy.  I finally felt at home cruising down, but the tracks made it a bit difficult around the curves.  I was starting to get sore in strange muscles so we headed to a yurt to take a break.  The yurt was basically a warming hut with a bathroom, water, a wood burning stove, and two futons for people who want to rent it out for a night.  After a break we glided around the trails for awhile longer until my muscles couldn't take it anymore so we headed back to return our skis and head home.  The conclusion from this experience is I like downhill skiing more because it gives you a rush and you can't beat weaving in and out of trees and jumping moguls.  However, cross country skiing feels so different you almost can't compare the two.  It was an excellent workout and it was fun being able to be so mobile in the snow while spending time in the woods.  I think I'll go again before the snow melts.

My Recent Travels

Written February 2, 2010

Continued from previous post...

The horseback ride on those pleasantly plump horses was great! The boy I inappropriately accused of animal neglect was our guide and a very good one. We took the horses through town then around the base of a volcano to another view point of Lake Atitlan. It was beautiful! When we arrived in San Pedro we found it a lot more confined than we had expected, but after a little exploration we found this long, narrow alley way that led to what had been missing. It was like we had stumbled on a secret world of thermal baths, relaxed restaurants, and Internet places all tucked into these narrow paths. It was fun exploring. From San Pedro we went to San Marcos just across the lake a bit. This was a bad decision, but it turned out a bit humorous. This very small village set on a mountain side really caters to all the new age people out there. There was very little else to do besides sign up for a mediation class, which I did not do. They had these pipe pyramids set up at one place where, I guess, you sit in them and get your Chi or something. The next morning at breakfast a man across the way sat in a chair and it broke. Jeff, without a beat, said, I guess his Crystals aren't working or maybe he hasn't found his balance yet. I died laughing. We took the first boat out.


From here we had a bit of a wait getting a ride back to Antigua were I spent one horrible night at the black cat hostel with 5 noisy strangers. I hate, hate, hate hostels. They kept me up till 2 in the morning turning off and on lights, singing, talking... I had to get up at 4am to catch a bus so I made a point to show them what it's like to be awake when you shouldn't be. A little mean, I guess. A five hour ride in a minivan took us on to Copan Ruins in Honduras. We saw the ruins, stayed one night and left for La Ceiba, Honduras where we could catch a boat to the Bay Islands.

I loved Utila, the island we went to. It is decidedly the cheapest of the 3 bay islands and therefore attracts a younger backpacker crowd. Jeff and I have our open water scuba diving certification from the Galapagos so we decided to go ahead and get our advanced certifications. There are lots of dive shops all over town so picking one took some time. We finally chose Alton's Dive Shop (owned by the mayor, but we never saw him) because they had a Conch farm and 2 sea turtles they were raising to release. One of which was only the size of a sliver dollar. The 3 or 4 dogs that were always there helped the decision a bit too. The place was right on the ocean, so close that when I walked out of my room onto the porch, the water was under my feet. They had a huge 2 story deck with benches and hammocks and a bar that served some of the BEST lunches I've ever had. The place came with it's own trained chef. The staff was wonderful. (mostly made up of Americans,Europeans, and Canadians) We took a scuba tune up because we haven't dove in 2 years and then on to our advanced. We did a wreck dive which I loved, loved. It was a Halliburton ship sunk in the bay so people could dive it. Not as exciting as a Spanish treasure ship but I thought it was pretty neat. I saw my very first green moray eel in the ships hull. We also did a night dive. A bit disorientating but fun. There were those dinoflaggy things in the water so when we turned off our lights and swooshed the water around us it glowed. We did 6 other dives around the reefs and saw lots of beautiful fish and corral. I was a little worried about my ears, but it all worked out great so I have decided I want to keep going with my diving education. I felt so at home down there swimming about with all those creatures. We spent a week there diving and then Sunday morning I got up went to the tiniest branch I have ever been to in an even smaller house then flew to Belize City on a private plane with a guy (the pilot) from Memphis. It was fun getting to see the reef from the air.


Belize is expensive. At least more so than its neighbors. Just telling you. The taxi from the airport into town was $30. Luckily we were able to share with 2 other travelers. We all went straight to the water taxi and took a boat to Caye Caulker, one of the many cayes off the coast of Belize. It was a nice, small sandy street village where you could walk from one side to the other in about 2 minutes and up and down the other way in about 15. I had my mind set on diving the Blue Hole. If you haven't seen it, google it, its really neat looking. It was incredibly expensive, for me at least ( I am a bit frugal), but I decided this was the one big thing I would do in Belize. We left at 6am and went on a horrible 2 hour ride in a small boat over huge swells. I was so scared I was going to fling out but all the french Canadians on board thought it was hilarious so I tried to adapt a similar attitude but only managed to not complain and look down at my feet the whole time. We came into an atoll which calmed the seas and my attitude, but it just started right back up on the other side. Finally we arrived and I was so grateful to get out of that boat and into the water. The Blue Hole was once a cave that collapsed around 15 million years ago and is now a huge sink hole. We dropped about 140 feet down one side of it and swam through massive stalactites. It was dark and huge and wonderful down there. After this we did another dive were I saw Garden eels, which I have never seen before. They are so so cute. They are the eels that look like sea grass and sway with the current. I would swim right up to them and they would sink back into their holes. We played like this until I was told it was time to go. After this we went to Half Moon Island and ate a lovely lunch of cold chicken and rice. Here we took a walk to an observation deck where tons of red footed boobies and frigate birds were nesting. It was absolutley amazing! Lots of the Frigates had their big red pouches inflated trying to attract the girl birds. I guess some people don't get as into birds as Jeff and I do because I kept saying how big of a deal it was to get to see the frigate's red pouches puffed up and to see so many red footed boobies and everyone else just stared at me like I was weird. Oh well. We had a very funny guide who kept me in stitches. At one point a guy had to go to the bathroom, but I guess he was cold or something and was being slow about getting in the water and Cass, the guide, says, "You need some lotion or powder man" with this thick caribbean accent.  I guess to say quit being a girl and get in the water. I laughed for a good 10 minutes. On the way back we ran out of gas within site of Caye Caulker. A boat came out to rescue us but decided bringing gas wasn't a necessity so they had this even smaller boat pull us for 2 miles with the guy driving the boat sitting in front of the steering wheel with his hand behind him doing the steering. Did that make sense? After the rope broke 2 or 3 times and 2 hours later we finally made it back to the dock just in time to see our boat to the main land leaving. One more night on Caye caulker I guess.

Walking the main street there was quite an experience. This first night there I had gone into the Toucan tourist shop, and on my way out I lightly touched a pair of earrings on a stand. As I am walking away the whole stand comes crashing down breaking several pairs. The lady working there came over rolling her eyes. I helped pick them up and kept trying to apologize, but she wouldn't look at me or talk to me. So from then on I always walked on the opposite side of the street and hid behind Jeff when we walked by. After the Toucan shop was the Sandbox man. He stood outside of the Sandbox restaurant and every time a white person passed him he would stop them acting like they were long lost friends and asking if they wanted to eat at the Sandbox. It worked on us the very first night. The food was great, but from then on we had to pass the Sand Box man he'd say "you guys hungry, we got fish chowder, you like fish chowder. When you get hungry come
eat fish chowder" Or whatever he was pushing that night. We started to really like the guy. It was pretty entertaining to watch him go into attack mode on other people. After the Sandbox was the self proclaimed coconut man who obviously sold coconuts, but that's not all. He would also spot you from a mile away calling you over saying, " Man, man, you, Come over here, over here" Then he would say some stuff I rarely understood, then offer to sell you a coconut. When you said no thank you is when things got weird. His whole face would change to very serious, his voice would get very hushed, he'd lean in and say "Ganja, Ganja". Jeff thought it was so funny and interesting to watch his tactics. I personally found the man kind of scary. After the coconut man there's not much else so you turn around and do it all over again. This concludes the tour of the street of Caye Caulker :)

Back to the mainland the next day we took a taxi to Altun Ha ruins about an hour and a half north of Belize City. On the way we stopped at the snake man's house, well a shack really. He claims he has been on the Andrew Zimmern show. I will check that out and see. Anyhow. This guy sits outside of his house waiting for tourist to go by with all his snakes. I held lots of beautiful local snakes. Orange, black, blue, green, yellow. He even has 2 fer de lances which have both bit him. He showed us the newspaper article about "The snake man surviving fer de lance attack". Then he went on bragging about how well he knows snakes and how to handle them (yet he got bit by one of the most poisonous snakes in the world). It was an entertaining stop but of course he wanted lots of money for it. I only gave him 5. After the ruins we headed straight for the bus station and headed west to San Ignacio were we did nothing. Yes, nothing. Oh, wait, we did watch some food network and animal planet. The tours there, although they seem very exciting, were outrageously priced. So the next day we took another bus to Belmopan, the capital, where we caught another one south to Dangriga, and then another to Placencia. Placencia is the only place with a proper beach we have been to. We spent lots of time here just walking along the beach and playing with a cat. It was very relaxing, which I kind of needed because I had a bit of a cold.

Written February 8, 2010

The rest of Guatemala...

We took the ferry from Belize over to Livingston, Guatemala, which is a small Garifuna town at the mouth of the Rio Dulce (a river). This town has a fun feel to it but we unfortunately got to see some of the dark side too. Many of the hotels, restaurants, and stores all have animal skins and petrified critters hanging from the walls or put on shelves. Most of which are endangered. We saw many ocelot skins, which probably made me the saddest. The surrounding jungles used to be full of really neat animals and now they are few and far between. A lot of the tourist shops had huge starfish. They went out and found the prettiest, biggest ones they could find and killed them just so someone could put it in their bathroom at home. While walking to dinner we passed a dripping wet kid carrying shark fins. I was taken aback by this. I stopped in the street and just watched him put the fins down and start to clean up. To confirm what I suspected they were I asked him. He said they were shark and he had just come in off the boat from getting them. He seemed so proud. I was so sad. While diving in Utila we saw absolutely no sharks because they have all been fished out, all of them. So seeing the pride in this kids face at taking the fins of an animal already struggling to hold on broke my heart. Mostly because he just doesn´t understand what that is doing to the ocean and because these people live in minimal circumstances, and that's putting it mildly, and this is a major source of income for them so I feel like I can´t judge them. But it still makes me sad.

But off to dinner we went to a restaurant called Buga Mama. Buga means mouth in the Garifuna language and is referring to the mouth of the river. This restaurant is special in that the waiters and waitresses are all there as part of their schooling in ecotourism. These kids go to several years of school and do internships at various establishments. Our waiter was a teenage boy of around 15 who seemed nervous the whole time. It was cute. I had delicious chicken in a grapefruit and garlic sauce and coconut milk to drink. It was a great meal...until I see our waiter swatting his napkin at a chair a table over. I looked to see what the fuss was about and I saw a little pink body fall into the seat. I immediately started yelling NO! NO! but the kid just kept swatting so I got louder and started running over there. He hadn´t realized I was talking to him and acted completely confused when I scooped up the little gecko and held him gingerly. I went over to a bush and gently laid him down while he went over to Jeff and asked if the gecko was my pet. Yes, my pet. He couldn´t fathom why I cared so much if I didn´t own him. It just kind of showed us how these people are being brought up to view animals in a much different way than we are. I am sad to report I checked on the little guy later and he wasn´t doing so well.

On to happier things... Later that evening while hanging out reading and playing cards in hammocks Jeff heard some drums start up. We decided to go find the source. We found 2 guys in the lobby area of a hotel next door. The owner and his friend were just having some fun playing their native music so we asked if we could sit and listen. After a couple of songs one of the guys got up and asked Jeff if he would like to play with him. The sometimes shy Jeff refused, at first, but after all of us joined in on the coaxing he relented. He played several songs with them on the drums and on the shakers all while I sat drinking a fresh squeezed limeade having my very own Garifuna concert. But of course, and it never fails, one of the guys flipped over his drum and asked for money afterwords. He got about a dollar out of us, but we didn`t care, we had fun.

We left Livingston the next day on a boat headed up river. The river goes through a beautiful limestone canyon with huge towering walls. This canyon is the reason so many come to the area. We stopped only 20 minutes down the river at the Finca Tatin, which is not a farm at all, but a jungle lodge. The food was good, the workers kind of strange, but the real purpose of this was a cave. Tiger Cave to be exact. A guide from a nearby village came and picked us up and took us on an hour hike to the big, huge, wonderful mouth of the cave. As we hiked in our guide picked up a ladder along the trail and hiked it in with us. He set it on a big boulder we could easily have climbed down ourselves, but I just figured it was for people who maybe couldn´t do it as easily. Boy was I wrong... that ladder´s purpose was not that boulder. Inside the cave only 25 or 30 meters was a waterfall that dropped into a deep pool of water. He hung the ladder next to the rushing water and tied it with ropes onto rocks. We were meant to climb down this dangling ladder into water we couldn´t see into. It seemed really dangerous and strange, but of course I didn´t come all that way not to do it. So we went down the ladder and jumped into the cold, cold water. I was so glad I did. Jeff grabbed a candle for us and to my relief the water was crystal clear and beautiful. We explored a little ways further while the guide stayed at the top of the ladder (if he had come and the ladder had some how fallen we would have had no way out!). It was lovely and well worth the scary ladder climb.

We did some kayaking later in the day around the river and visited one of those ecotourism schools I talked about earlier and the next day we prepared to leave. We were walking up the path to the cabins to get our backpacks but could only get within 10 feet of the doors. They were covered in ants. COVERED! It was so weird. I tried to get to the door because all I could think about was millions of ants infiltrating my stuff but as I got closer they went into attack mode. They climbed on my feet and started biting. I could see their little bodies flailing around trying to really get me good. I danced and stomped and then ran. It hurt. I made the decision to get help but by the time help got there the millions of ants had moved away from the doors and on to the side of the building. These ants are called Driver Ants and they go through the jungle in huge armies and when they get to you apparently you just wait awhile and they eventually move on. I was ok with this and happy they had already started their move but I guess that wasn´t good enough for the people I had gotten for help because later when Jeff went back to get a water I had left on the path they were all dead. Poisoned. Not much of an ecolodge.

We continued up the river to the town of Rio Dulce were we caught a very crowded 2 hour bus ride to Finca Ixobel, a real finca :) I loved this place and if anyone comes to Guatemala they should come here. We spent 3 days here and loved every minute. It is bigger than the previous ¨finca¨ and very different. They have sheep, chickens and a garden. They have compost as well and even make some of their own electricity. The cabins were comfortable and the food was plenty and good. They have a game room, tons of hammocks, and swimming hole. Do I sound like I am plugging the place? The best part was the 2 cave tours we took. You can choose from many different activities like horseback riding, hiking, floating down rivers in tubes, waterfalls, and caves. All the activities are pretty intimate and you don't feel like your on a tour at all.  The first cave we did was a long, muddy 2 hour hike away. Fighting with the mud and muck made me really tired by the time we got there, but the work had only begun. This cave has a river going through it and from the get go you are swimming. It made Tiger cave seem like a warm up. We eased into the cold water and swam under a rock deeper into the cave holding flash lights over our head. We went with one of the workers at the farm who lit candles along the way for us. We had to cling to walls through the rapids and finally reached the pinnacle of the whole experience. A waterfall dumps into a great big room with a huge rock you have to jump off of to get down. It was an 8 meter jump which required you to jump in a certain area to avoid the underwater hidden rocks. Jeff jumped right off with no problem. I ho hummed for awhile turning around in circles saying I couldn´t do it and I would just climb down, but in the end I jumped. A shot back out of the water screaming ¨I did it! Did you see that! I did it!¨ They just laughed at me. From here we went to another room where we swam around but couldn´t go farther because they next part was underwater. You would have to hold your breath for 30 seconds in the dark to get to the other side. We weren´t aloud to or I just might have. This was one of the most exciting things I´ve done. On the way back out the water had risen because of rain we had been having and the rock we had gone under was now only about a foot from the water. Our guide said it was likely it would fill up by the days end. Crazy!!

Our second cave, Echo Cave, was a nice 30 minute walk to an opening covered in stalagtites. It didn´t go as far back as our previous cave but there were lots of beautiful formations. It had some very narrow passages. You have to go through them like a worm scooting your body forward inch by inch. For some reason in the mist of acting like a worm I got the giggles and found it very hard to push myself through while laughing so I just laid there stuck waiting for the laughter to pass. Our guide, who had said little up to this point, just started laughing right along with me. Oh, and we saw lots of bats and a big huge spider in the cave.

I was sad to leave Finca Ixobel, but we had to move on to one of the big parts of the whole trip...Tikal. It was a 2 hour minibus ride to the town of Flores which is on a small island on a lake connected by a bridge. We got a 4:30a.m. ride to the ruins so we could see all the animals that are active at dawn. And we did! We saw spider monkeys, howler monkeys, toucans, the oscillated turkey (very pretty), and some other very pretty birds. The ruins themselves were wonderful. I thought I might get tired of seeing so many Mayan ruins, but I guess not because I had so much fun exploring all the nooks and crannies. I have a secret...don´t tell. We were walking in an area called the lost world when this guy, we´ll call him superman (he had on a superman shirt), asked if we wanted to see a tarantula. I love tarantulas so I said yes. She was big and really sweet, but as I was walking away the man stopped me and starting saying lots of things I didn´t understand so I called Jeff over. Jeff translated that this guy was offering to take us down a tunnel under excavation not open to the public to see Mayan paintings. I could tell Jeff was a bit weirded out but I could tell the guy wasn´t bad, he just wanted to up his already small salary. He worked there as part of the restoration crew and made 5,000 Quetzales a month, not a whole lot. We paid 100Q (about 12 dollars) and we went. We took a trail going into the jungle and popped out at what looking like a staging area for their equipment, but underneath some wood, tin, and netting was a tunnel and a ladder. My heart was beating so hard and I was so excited! I had heard from other archaeologist back home that sometimes you can get special tours, wink, wink, if you found the right people, but I didn't really think it would happen! We climbed down the ladder into a tunnel leading in both directions, we took the one to the right. We had to crouch down and walk bent over. We rounded a corner and there it was, within inches of our faces. Paintings made over a thousand years ago and buried for a long, long time and we were getting to see what not many people had since that time. The painting was of 2 men facing each other, one pointing at the other. Further down the tunnel were stairs painted red with geometric designs. It was so incredible. When we got out of the tunnel we paid superman and then he told us we had to walk out on our own. He said he could lose his job if he got caught. Just so you know I did not touch anything in the tunnel, just looked. We were very respectful. This really made the whole Tikal experience that much more wonderful.

We left the park at 12:30 p.m. to meet our shuttle and found it had already left us! A half hour before it was supposed to. Apparently there is this scam where if they can get the bus to fill up they will leave and just pocket all the money they already made on people who paid for a ride home because most people let them get away with it. We got back to Flores and tried talking to the company but one guy claimed they were there at 12:30. Lied right to my face. And another guy just said sorry. After deciding not to let this ruin our experience we went out for a walk and ended up at the Internet. Jeff left me there to do some emailing. About a half hour later while emailing my good friend Misty about the whole scam Jeff comes in in a huff saying we had to go right then. He had gone back to the company and told them he is well aware they use this scam all the time, but they were not going to do it to him. I was so proud! They told him they had to wait for a manager so he came to get me so we could go camp out and wait for our money. We weren´t going to risk them closing up shop on us. And sure enough Jeff got the 80Q back! Usually if you get scammed that's just the way it is, so I was so so proud to have won this battle. All thanks to Jeff!

Before we left Flores we went to a wildlife rescue place across the lake, called ARCAS. They take volunteers to help care for the animals. You live there while you volunteer. They have monkeys, a blind ocelot, and a 3 legged ocelot, a jaguar, tons of birds and sheep and bunnies, what else... oh and some deer. I got to go into the bird pen. They were so funny. One bird got really jealous if we paid attention to any other bird and he would attack that bird until it went away. It was humorous but a little sad because the other birds usually backed down immediately looking like they had been bullied. The sheep and rabbits were food for the ocelots and jaguar :( It was a really neat place all in all. Maybe one day I can come back and volunteer.

From Flores we took a bus to the Mexican border, which is river so we had to take a boat across. It was sad leaving Guatemala, but we are excited about the new places we will get to see in Mexico!

Written February 19, 2010

We crossed the border from Guatemala into Mexico by taking a boat across a river. From there we headed to Palenque in the state of Chiapas where some very beautiful ruins are located. The town itself was nothing to write home about, so I won't. The ruins were very neat. They had a big palace with lots of tunnels, dark rooms and a very tall tower. Many of the paintings were still visible which is always a highlight for me. The best part however was the commoner's houses. They had built their homes between two very pretty waterfalls with beautiful blue pools of water at their bases. Seems to me a perfect place to live. Of all the ruins I went to on this trip these are my second favorite (Tikal is 1st).

From Palenque we headed to Tulum because Jeff wanted to be somewhere he could watch the Superbowl. The 1st class buses for the 11 hour trip were 60 dollars! So we opted for the second class bus. Way fewer frills but worth saving the money. We went to buy our ticket with our packs on making us a target for people with something to sell. Several men spotted us from across the street and yelled out to us to see if we were going to Tulum, we said yes and madness ensued. About 9 guys surrounded us wanting to sell us tickets. Mind you, they all were selling tickets for the exact same bus, it just mattered who got the sale. I could tell I wasn't at all being included in this discussion thanks to Mexican machismo, so I just stood back and watched. I was totally entertained watching Jeff laugh at his predicament of being totally surround with people vying for his attention. Eventually we went with a guy we had already talked to about the bus and we knew we got a good deal when he took us in to pay and the lady rolled her eyes at him when she heard the price he agreed to, $20. The eleven hour overnight bus ride put us into Tulum at 4a.m. and can you believe there were people awake dancing in a club at that hour? Well, there were. We spent the next couple of days not doing a whole lot but trying to manage our sick bellies from the Mexican food.

On the 3rd day we decided to go cenote diving. We dove one cenote called the pit, because its really deep, I think around 400 ft. We just went to around 140ft though, obviously. The water was crystal clear, but about half way down we hit what they call a halocline, where the salt and fresh water meet. A lot of times this just makes the water look like you are wearing big thick glasses, but here it was also very cloudy. I had to focus on Jeff's flashlight as we went through it because it was all I could see and I was afraid of getting separated from the other divers. But it only lasted a few seconds and we were in the clear again. Deeper down we saw a human skull, a mandible, and a few long bones. They told us that these are from people living during the last ice age, but I have read that Mayans would throw their sacrificed bodies into cenotes and to me this seems more plausible. I'm just saying. Our next dive was in a group of 3 cenotes that are all connected called bat cave and dos ojos (2 eyes). We had to really try and conserve our air to be able to do all 3 in one dive, which is hard for me because I like to suck air down. I always end up with way less than everyone else, something I need to work on. But this time I did it and we got to do everything. It was so so beautiful. I was diving in and around amazing stalactites. I am used to the open ocean where I have as much space as I want so it was a fun challenge to be surrounded by walls and not bump into things.

We headed north after the dives to Playa del Carmen where we met up with our good friends Karen and Heath who are currently living in Puebla, Mexico. We had a blast with them. It was so wonderful to see  familiar faces. Our first night we all got 70 minute massages on the beach for $18! Can you believe it? We rented a car and went back to Tulum where we went to the ruins along the beach and then to Coba ruins where we climbed a big temple and road bikes from ruin to ruin. After we got ruined out we drove to a beautiful lake and rented a canoe for an hour while Jeff and Heath rowed us around. A huge storm blew in and the calm lake turned on us with really strong wind and waves threatening our little boat. We rowed back to the dock just in time for some rain. We also got to swim and snorkel in a couple of cenotes around Tulum. The Gran cenote was my personal favorite. It had lots of stalactites and swim throughs. You can swim through one and pop out in another opening. I love cenotes! After we returned the car we headed north to Cancun to catch a ferry to an island just off the coast called Isla Mujeres. It was the first night of Carnaval so we got to watch a parade with lots a colorful costumes and cute little kids dressed up doing dance routines. The morning of the day Karen and Heath had to fly home we spent some time lounging on the beach. It had been windy and cold up till then so it was nice to finally get to take advantage of the blue water and sandy beaches. We were sad to see them go but very happy to have had friends to share our adventures with for a little while. Later that afternoon Jeff and I got a couple of bikes and decided to go around the whole island. We stopped at a sea turtle rescue place and saw lots of turtles of all different species and sizes. We continued on to the southern tip of the island and then turned around and came back on the other side of the island facing seaward. The rocky cliffs and crashing waves were a beautiful contrast to the sandy side facing the mainland.

We left the island and headed back to Cancun to spend our last 2 days seeing what it had to offer. The only good thing I got out of that was a movie at the mall for $4.75. I just didn't much care for Cancun. Too many resorts and not enough character. Plus, it seemed like a lot of people wanted to take advantage of tourists. We had a few small incidences where we were being charged more than something cost or lied to about where a bus went just so they could get our fare. Dishonest people really get me fired up so I won't be quick to talk good about the place. I must admit though the places where the general public was allowed access to the beach were very pretty. I just love that Caribbean blue.

On a happier note: overall, I had a lovely time on this trip. However, I am happy to be home again. So, welcome home to me and Jeff :)

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

GUATEMALA: Written Jan. 13

Written January 13, 2010

As you know I am in Guatemala traveling and trying to learn some Spanish.   We, Jeff and I, arrived in Guatemala city with little incident and were able to find a hostel in a nicer, safer area of town fairly quickly, which apparently was a good idea. We have heard lots of stories of armed men robbing entire buses and mugging travelers...not to scare anyone but, I just want to take all extra precautions even if it costs a bit more. After only one night in Guate we headed to Antigua. We were dropped off in the cenral park by our very hospitable driver who offered to help us with any help or advice we needed for traveling in his country, all for free, a rarity.

We have spent the last week attending classes at a Spanish school, and I have to say, it was a wonderful experience. We were able to live with a host family along with 3 or 4 other students. They were wonderful! There was the mom who is an excellent cook, the dad who makes silver jewelry in his workshop, a 16 year old boy, and 19 year old girl. All were very talkative and very welcoming. We often spent meals lingering around the table talking and laughing. Although my Spanish is coming along I did have to have a lot translated for me. The school itself was a bit bare boned, but the teachers made up for it. We had one on one classes for 4 hours every morning. My teacher, Gloria was really sweet and a bit humorous. Every morning she would complain about how cold it was and how miserable she was being outside. (it wasn't very cold at all...70's)  And as soon as she heard the 12 o'clock church bells ring she was gone before i could say Adios. She made me laugh. We spent the afternoons on various excursions offered free by the school. We would meet up with some other students and one teacher and take what they call a chicken bus, which is just the cheap bus system they have here, and go visit a different pueblo, convent, church, or even a macadamian nut farm. I stayed busy all day long and loved it.

Last weekend Jeff and I were able to hike up an active volcano. And I do mean active, lava, spewing rock, the whole bit. It was a 2 hour hike up hill to the lava flow. We were allowed to get as close as we wanted but I was smart and stayed at least 2 meters away :)  At one point a large small car sized glowing red boulder started to come down the hill towards a large group of people standing below. Luckily another rock stopped it, but it sunk in how dangerous and powerful what I was witnessing was. It was truly a unique experience.

I left Antigua today to come to Lake Atitlan, which they claim is the most beautiful lake in the world. I have not seen them all so I can't judge, but it is very pretty. We took a boat to a pueblo across the lake called San Pedro, which is at the base of a huge volcano. The town has a very hippie feel, but I have looked past that to appreciate what it has to offer.

Tonight we were on a walk and found a dirt path leading towards the water. We followed it for awhile until I saw a horse tied up on a short rope standing in a heap of its own feces. He was so skinny it looked like he could barely walk. Three young boys came up a walk from an Eco Tour place offering horseback rides. They asked if I wanted to take a ride on their horses to visit the beach. I immediately told them no and that they should consider feeding the horse more before soliciting people to jump on the poor things back, or at least that's what I would of said if I could speak better spanish. What I really said was No, your horse needs more food. Close, right? It turns out that wasn't their horse and they showed me 6 or 7 horses who were all pleasantly plump and loads of food currently in front of them. So I think I may take a horseback ride tomorrow. It might be because I feel bad, but it should still be fun!

Saturday, February 20, 2010

U.S. Customs

Traveling abroad inevitably means you fly home and go through customs, unless you have a boat or something.  But for most of us we get home by coming through one of our many international airports.  I am sad to say but most of my experiences going through this process have been bad.  For example, this is the interaction I had with the customs agent when I recently returned from central america...I walk up to the guy and he looks at my paper and passport and comments on the fact that I have been gone for 6 weeks.  Then he asks if I am carrying any fruits or vegetables.  I say no, why would have fruits or vegetables?  His response, Why not?  I say, I just don't understand why you think I would bring an orange or banana back when I know I'm going through customs, who does that?.  He says, well I don't believe you traveled for 6 weeks and didn't bring back anything like cigarettes or alcohol.  I respond, well I don't smoke or drink so there's no reason for me to bring back either.  He continues, so your saying you didn't bring back anything?  Me, nothing I need to declare.  Again he asks, No cigarettes or alcohol?  I just look at him, then say no, again.  He stamps my paper and finally I am allowed to continue.  His tone of voice, which you can't hear, obviously, was very accusing which might have sparked my slight attitude.   

And to show you the alternatives, this is what I experience in other countries:  I walk up, they usually smile or act like I am one in a long line and do nothing.  But usually they take my passport and paper look at it, stamp it, and I go on with my life.  Sometimes you have to let them look through your luggage but it is rarely invasive, or at least compared to the U.S.

I just gave one example.  Just one of many I have experienced.  Here is another from a friend of mine so you know its not just me.  My friend walks up to the customs agent and hands him his documents.  The guy looks at them and then asked him what he was doing in Panama.  The friend answers, I just went there to check it out, just traveling.  The agent answers, so you're telling me you just went there, no other reason, you didn't do anything else?  Response was yes.  And you have no drugs, no weed?  The inquisition continued on in this manner.  You get the point, right?

I wonder what it is about the career of being a customs agent that attracts people who get on power highs and are so accusing.  I know it is an important and serious job, I am not trying to downplay that, but does that take away common sense and just plain friendliness.  Or is it the training they go through that makes them so paranoid to a point of rudeness and distrust?  I just feel like you can't just assume everyone coming through has some illegal plot behind their travels.  And its not right to treat people like they have already done something illegal and you are just trying to get it out of them.  I am sure not every single one is like this, but most of the ones I have come in contact with were.